Spring 2007 L.A. Film Festivals

LOS ANGELES, ITALIA Film Fashion and Art Fest
AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE Annual Spanish Film Series

The L.A., Italia film festival is a strange one.  It takes place in one theater, a big one at the Hollywood-Highland complex Chinese 6 multiplex, one of the city's best venues.  However, the theater never seems to have very many people in attendance, even though the event is cost-free to the filmgoer.  In the spirit of "you get what you pay for", I've avoided this no-name festival in the past, figuring that these unknown films must be pretty poor.  But this year I was amazed by the quality of the films I did attend.  Maybe next year I'll make an effort to see more films!

SALVATORE: THIS IS LIFE (Salvatore Questa e' la Vita) (d. Gian Paolo Cugno)
An 11 year old Sicilian boy loses his father and has to support his younger sister and ailing grandmother.  This is a fine film in the ABC After-School Special mode (in fact, it is apparently a Disney/Italy film, which explains a lot).  It features two fine performances:  the boy, Alessandro Mallia, and Enrico Lo Verso, one of Italy's finest actors, who plays a dedicated teacher.  Simplistic, probably because of its intended audience; but ultimately satisfying.  ***

THREE ON THE ROAD (Baciami Piccina) (d. Roberto Cimpanelli)
 In 1943 as the Italians were losing the war and the Nazis taking over, a young carabinieri (policeman) is charged with taking a prisoner from his small town to Venice.  He sets out; and his fiancée runs away to join him.  The film starts out as sort of a comedy road picture; but soon darkens as the Nazification of the country puts all three travelers in danger.  Nice wide screen cinematography, and some good performances make the film worth watching.  ***

DEATH IN VENICE (d. Luchino Visconti) +
I had seen Death In Venice many years ago, and Visconti is one of my favorite directors.  But the film doesn't hold up as well as I hoped.  First of all it's too long and static; though Visconti's sense of bringing grandeur to the frame is quite intact.  Dirk Bogarde's performance remains a wonder of restraint.   ** 3/4

THE KREUTZER SONATA - WHAT IS LOVE? (Quale Amore) (d. Maurizio Sciarra)
The one review of this film in the IMDb is scathing.  But for me the film totally worked as a noir melodrama.  Georgio Pasotti is remarkable as Andrea, wealthy young Swiss financier who becomes obsessively involved with a beautiful pianist.  Told mostly in flashbacks after his release from prison for murdering his wife, the story lacks suspense.  But it makes up for it with a fascinating character study and marvelous acting and cinematography.  *** 1/2

FAMILY FRIEND (L'Amico di Famiglia) (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
This film was highly recommended; but after 30 minutes of unremitting ugliness I couldn't watch any more.   W/O

NEVER AGAIN AS BEFORE (Mai più come prima) (d. Giacomo Campiotti)
More proof that the Italian cinema is running on all cylinders.   Six quasi friends celebrate their graduation from high school with a trip to the rugged mountains of North Italy.  Beauty and tragedy in equal measures ensue and I was enthralled.  Remarkably well acted by its attractive ensemble (especially notable Nicola Cipolla as a convincing victim of cerebral palsey).   It's a youth oriented coming-of-age film; but one of the best of that genre I've ever watched.  *** 1/4

THE BILINGUAL LOVER (El Amante Bilingue) (d. Vicente Aranda; 1993)
I'm not sure why Aranda's films turn me off so much.  This film about disfiguration and obsessive love was too involved with Catalan politics for me to quite figure it out, even with Aranda's remarks prior to the film. **

CROSSING THE BORDER (Un Franco 14 Pesetas) (d. Carlos Iglesias)
Carlos Iglesias is an actor (unknown to me previously) who has written and directed a touching re-creation of his own story:  as a child whose father left a depressed, Francoized Spain to find work in Switzerland in the 1970s,  joined after a year by his wife and son.  Iglesias plays his father, a nifty turn.  The filmmaking is rather straightforward; but the story is intrinsically moving.  ***

PARIS, JE T'AIME (d. various)
Twenty or so world class directors make little vignettes about various districts of Paris.  Some of the stories are too eliptical, others do have structure.  But I found most of the film to be quite interesting and entertaining.  OK, I liked the Gus Van Sant portion a lot, with an interesting performance by Gaspard Ulliel.  There are several intriguing star turns here.   But journeyman character actress Margo Martindale steals the honors with a beautifully nuanced performance of a naive American tourist seduced by French culture.   And Steve Buscemi also shines with a totally non-verbal characterization, using only eye movement and body language to convey everything.  *** 1/4

TELL NO ONE (Ne le dit à personne) (d.Guillaume Canet)
This one is a wheels-within-wheels thriller loosly adapted from a Harlan Coben novel (I really should look up the novel, I'll bet it's pretty  good.)  It's actually a trifle over-long; and I swear that there's one serious lapse in the narrative which distracts a little.  I figured it out too early, never a good thing.  But the production is sumptuous, Canet's direction flawless (and his little Hitchcockian cameo quite brave).  All in all a nifty, involving film.  *** 1/4

THE SINGER (Quand j'étais chanteur) (d. Xavier Giannoli)
Gerard Depardieu plays a dissipated lounge singer (he actually sings pretty well, though the songs are terrible).  He has an unlikely May/November  affair with French gamine of the day Cécile de France.  Not much of a plot, this is a character study and I just had no interest in the characters.  ** 1/4

TWICE UPON A TIME (Désaccord parfait) (d. Antoine De Caunes)
A rather ordinary French romantic comedy with one twist:  the attractive, embattled couple are somewhat elderly (Jean Rochefort and the always luminous Charlotte Rampling).  I liked the movie-star/worldclass film director milieu; the there's just something a little trivial about it all.  ** 1/2

COUNTER INVESTIGATION (Contre-enquête) (d. Franck Mancusco)
This one is a superior procedural with a very inventive script which doesn't develop as expected.   It takes a lot for a film to totally hoodwink me and still be totally internally consistent.  Fine acting, really good script.  What more can one ask of a movie?  *** 1/2

WELCOME HOME (Bienvenido A Casa) (d. David Trueba)
A rather successful Spanish romantic farce about a young couple who move to Madrid.  He (the incredibly attractive young Spanish actor Alejo Sauras) gets a job as a newspaper photographer.  His wife is the equally attractive Plar Lopez de Ayala.  This film has a lot of the same good time, young love feeling of such films as Kilometer 0.  I probably am over-praising it because the actors were so magnetic that I was spellbound.  *** 1/4

WHAT I KNOW ABOUT LOLA (Lo que se de Lola) (d. Javier Rebollo)

RIGHT OF THE WEAKEST, THE (La Raison du plus faible) (d. Lucas Belvaux)
Belvaux impressed me mightily with his trilogy of a few years ago.  This film is in the same noir mode as the best of that trilogy, On the Run.   Once again, Belvaux impresses as his cool anti-hero, the sympathetic probationer.  Here he's trying to go straight in the depressed industrial town of Liège (amazingly photographed as an industrialized wasteland).  But his encounter with a trio of unemployed, more or less desperate guys leads to the noirish developments.  Belvaux has a wonderful eye, some scenes are masterfully designed (look for the tracking shot in the rolled steel scrap yard, or the final amazing aerial shot).  As actor-director hyphenates go, he's just about at the top of my list.   *** 1/2

CHANGE OF ADDRESS (Changement d'adresse) (d. Emmanuel Mouret)
Mouret is an actor-director whose persona is one of a  gentle, clumsy but somehow appealing schlub.  His comedy is more situational than verbal - he is no Gallic Woody Allen, closer to Adam Sandler.  This is a romantic comedy about a young French horn player from the sticks, new to Paris, and his romantic misadventures.  It's amiable and occasionally funny and perceptive; but the film just fails to stand out in any category.  ** 1/2

FAIR PLAY (d. Lionel Bailliu)
Bailliu directed my favorite short film of 2004, the Oscar nominates Squash.  That film took place entirely in a squash court, a psychologically brilliant contest of wills between two office mates.   That sequence becomes one part of this film, which expands to feature length by creating a company where the principles of dog-eat-dog "fair play" are carried to extremes.  Instead of going into the office itself, the feature is made up of a series of set pieces outside the office, sporty competitions which have extreme consequences.  Bailliu is an absolutely brilliant director of action.  Each set piece is a gem of acting and tight construction.  The cast is impeccable.  Two of my favorite actors are really fine here.  Benoît Magimel is a revelation here:  he's transformed himself into a pale red-head, overweight, slimy, conniving. It's a brave performance, against type.  Jérémie Renier delivers a fine, physically adroit performance as Magimel's young competitor.  This is an almost great film.  It's just a little too episodic, the amazing set pieces not quite making up a fully satisfactory whole.  But Bailliu is certainly a director to watch.  I expect he'll make the transition to large-scale Hollywood action films, and I'm looking forward to see what he does with them.  *** 1/4

HUNTING AND GATHERING (Ensemble, c'est tout) (d. Claude Berri)
I'll review this in more depth later, hopefully.  But this audience pleaser, romantic modern fable hit my sweet spot.  Berri has always been able to make films which have depth of emotional resonance for me...and this one worked entirely.  Especially notable:  Guillaume Canet, whose character arc developed convincingly, macho pig gradually transformed by love.  *** 1/2

FAMILY HERO (Le héros de la famille) (d. Thierry Klifa)
A so-so ensemble drama about an unconventional extended family centered around a nightclub called The Blue Parrot in Nice.  It was written by Christopher Thompson, the co-writer of Avenue Montaigne, and has the same sort of complex interaction between interesting and disparate characters.  Unfortunately Thompson's mother didn't direct this one.  The result is a rather flat telling of a story which ought to have had more emotional resonance.  However the large excellent cast, which includes such luminaries as Catherine Deneuve (playing Belle du Jour again), Emmanuelle Béart, Valérie Lemercier and Claude Brasseur assured my involvement...especially the attractive gay couple played by Michaël Cohen and French Idol runner-up Pierrick Lilliu.  ** 3/4

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