2008-2009 Winter & Spring Festivals Journal

All ratings are based on **** being best.
Films in BLACK type are Palm Springs International Film Festival films
Films in RED type are Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. films
Films in GREEN type are Los Angeles-Italia Festival films
Films in GRAY type are from Le Lycée Français Week of French Language Films
Films in ORANGE type are Methodfest Festival films
Films in PURPLE type are City of Lights/City of Angels Festival films

[UNTITLED]  (d. Jonathan Parker)
The title turns out to be remarkably apropos; but I'm not about to give a spoiler as to why.  In any case, this turns out to be a delicious satire of the current day art scene centering on a highly avant guard composer (the delightfully eccentric Adam Goldberg) and his equally mundane painter brother (the underrated Eion Bailey).   The film is notable for its clever script and high gloss cinematography (which belies its low budget indie cred.)   I got the feeling that there were more than a few in this Palm Springs audience who found the satire landing uncomfortably close to home.  ***

THE DRUMMER (d. Kenneth Bi)
The spoiled scion of a Hong Kong gangster tweaks the nose of his father's powerful gang rival and is forced to flee for his life to the mountains of Taiwan.  There he fulfills his true interest in drumming when he hooks up with a troupe of Zen drummers.  This may not sound like a promising set-up; but the film was thoroughly engrossing.  For me, this was a nifty switch on the usual Hong Kong gangster flick...short on extreme violence, long on heart; but retaining the essence of the genre.  *** 1/4

EUGENE (d.Jake Barsha)
Eugene is a 30-something schlub, desperately looking for a girl to connect with and watching his life become unmoored.  The girls that he dates are convinced that he's essentially gay, though Eugene is in denial.  When he hooks up with a straight male hustler who has a penchant for sadism...well something has to give, and it's all unpleasant and ultra violent.  There is a kernel of an original character study here; but I was turned off by the sexual politics.  * 3/4

MESRINE:  PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE (Part 1 & 2) (d. Jean-François Richet)
This is the based-on-a-true-story of French gangster and bank robber Jacques Mesrine told in two parts à la the recent Che.  Vincent Cassell is virtually flawless in this part, truly a titanic performance.  Mesrine was a fascinating baddie:  equal parts Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger, but also a man particularly adept at escaping from custody.  I think the first part is slightly better than the second, although Mathieu Amalric is quite extraordinary as a companion criminal in the second part.  Also notable was Ludivine Sagnier, sexier than ever, as Mesrine's girlfriend late in his career.  Part 1: *** 1/2    Part 2:  *** 1/4

SOUTH DESERT (d. Shawn Garry)
A young Spanish woman's mother dies and she discovers that her mother had had an affair years earlier.  This leads her to travel to the  remote regions of the Chilean desert searching for her mother's lost ex-lover.  On the way she encounters a couple of interesting characters:  a resourceful runaway girl and a handsome drug runner.  The latter is played by Alejandro Botto (nephew of Juan Diego, and I hope we see more of him).  But the star here is Marta Etura, a beautiful Spanish actress who is sure to go far.  Unfortunately, for all the film is visually interesting, it's not inventive enough in details to sustain its length.  ** 3/4

GIVING IT UP (d.  Frank Ruy)
I don't normally seek out documentaries when I'm at a festival...I watch enough of them doing the Academy nomination process this time of year.  But this documentary about a group of Los Angeles based paparazzi looked like it might be a winner.  Basically this film is focused on a team of pushy photographers from the JFX Agency, most of whom started as gangbangers in a Latino street gang but who now have families and have found a good living through aggressive celebrity chasing.  The film has a lot of the jazzy graphics which proliferate on the trash tv celebrity shows...but they're quite well done here.  I didn't feel much of a connection with the guys in the film; but the look into their professional process was nothing less than fascinating.  The weird thing is that I recognized most of the celebrity hang-outs and drive these same streets almost daily...but I hardly ever encounter these ratpacks of paparazzi who seem so ubiquitous in the film.  ***

MOSCOW, BELGIUM (Aanrijding in Moscou) (d. Christophe van Rompaey)
A frumpy, obviously unhappy fortyish woman with three children whose husband has left her for a younger woman, collides with a 29 year old truck driver in a parking lot car collision.  He is attracted to her, seeing beyond her appearance.  She is still holding out hope for her husband's mid-life crisis to end with his return.  The film has nothing to do with Moscow...the title refers to a local trolley line in Ghent, the Moscou line.  Anyway, the film is all about the blossoming of an older woman when she falls for a younger man.  It's nicely played by all the actors; and has a good script which has humor and very satisfying character development.  ***

LEAVING BARSTOW (d. Peter Paige)
This is the story of Andrew, an 18 year old boy, smart but wasting away in his senior year of high school in arid Barstow, CA.  His mother (Queer as Folk's Michelle Clunie) is an alcoholic waitress who is having an affair with a 22 year old aspiring country singer.  His best friend is a nerdy, wisecracking Latino.  His physics teacher (played by the familiar tv actor Steven Culp) is encouraging the teenager to go to college and live up to his promise...but Andrew is bogged down by life's problems.  I liked the actor who played Andrew (Kevin Sheridan, a dead ringer for a young Josh Hartnett).  But the film is very predictable and pedestrian.   ** 1/2

THE BLUETOOTH VIRGIN (d. Russell Brown) *** 1/2

THE SEVEN DAYS (d. Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz)
A large, orthodox Israeli family (5 brothers, two sisters) has suddenly lost one of the brothers.  After the funeral, the family undergoes the ritual of shiva, the seven days when the family mourns, not allowed to leave the house, having to say daily prayers and cover all the mirrors.  It's not a practice followed by all that many modern Jewish families.  But this family, of French and German origin, follows the tradition.  They are a combative bunch...with business and personal problems which gradually come out during the seven days they're trapped together.  I had real difficulty with the large cast...it was hard to separate the family from the in-laws and I never did get a feeling for the issues which caused all the commotions.  This film played like an unpleasant reduction of one of those Arnaud Desplechin films about family gatherings.  One of the comments I heard from audience members leaving the theater was that whoever programmed this film should be shot.  I wouldn't go that far; but I sure felt that I wasted 2 hours of my life.  * 1/2

FRANK THE RAT (d. Jim Cozza)
This is an excellent American indie film about a brother and sister whose father deserted their family twenty years earlier and who set out in search of him after their alcoholic mother has died.  It's emotionally affecting and extremely well acted, particularly Derek Cecil who plays the brother as a broken down loner, crotchety, but somehow sympathetic.  The director has a way of getting fine naturalistic performances from his entire cast.  *** 1/4

Two schoolage sisters move to Cape Cod in the 1970s with their British father after their mother has died.  Turns out that the father has finally come out to himself and formed a closeted partnership with a younger man building American primitive furniture.  This is the story of how the girls come to knowledge about their father (an unconvincing Tate Donovan whose British accent comes and goes).  The film is diverting as a teen girl's story...but I hated the sexual politics and especially the depiction of their high school seemed quite unrealistic for the 1970s in Massachusetts.  The predominately gay male audience seemed to like the film, however, so I may be off base here.  ** 1/2

WHEN A MAN COMES HOME (d. Thomas Vinterberg)
I've enjoyed Vinterberg films in the past (Festen is one of my all-timers).   But I have to say this film wasn't up to that standard.  It's the story of a famous Danish tenor singer who returns to his home town where his grown son resides, unknown to the older man.  His son is in a farcial situation of having two girlfriends, and much complications ensue.  I think the film is supposed to be a farce, and occasionally it truly does live up to its potential.  But I never really got involved with the characters and the comic aspects just didn't work for me.  ** 3/4

MARCELLO MARCELLO (d. Denis Rabaglia)
This is a romantic comedy in the form of a fable, set in a small picturesque town on a fictitious island in Southern Italy.  The eponymous Marcello (Francesco Mistichelli, a young actor who is the spitting image of a young Alain Delon) is a poor fisherman's son who is in love with the mayor's daughter.  The town has a peculiar local pairing up custom that wrecks havoc with the young people of the town; and Marcello, clever kid that he is, sets out to subvert the custom.  This is a beautiful gem of a film which just may win the audience award (it's been a while since I've heard applause in the middle of a film at the culmination of a brilliantly played scene...in this film it occurred several times, and well deserved.) *** 3/4

BORN IN 68 (d. Olivier Duscastel, Jacques Martineau)
Ducastel and Martineau have made some of the best French gay themed films since bursting on the scene with The Adventures of Felix.  This current film is a huge broadening of their franchise.  It's an historic epic of the French left which starts with the Parisian student uprising in May, 1968, continues through the formation of a rural hippie commune (reminiscent of Moodysson's Tillsammens), and continuing through the second and third generations up to 2007.  The central story is of Catherine, a sexually liberated free spirit and her two male lovers, her children and her friends and their children.  The second half belongs to the second generation, and features an incredibly touching gay love story and a young actor with an assured future:  Théo Frilet.   Like The Best of Youth, it draws a huge canvas in its three hour running time.  But if it has any flaw, it is that trying to encompass so much in three hours, it skips over some plot developments too sketchily.  Its episodic structure is stretched too thin.  I heard some audience complaints that it was too long...but in my opinion it was too short.  It would have worked best as a mini-series, I think.  In any case, this is a major work by a couple of directors who are hitting their stride.   *** 1/2

READY? OK! (d. James Vasquez)
A young kid, an "artistic" type, wants to join the cheerleading squad in his Catholic school.  The nuns forbid it; and by the way, the boy has a fairly dysfunctional family, too.   It's a rather predictable premise; but it all depends on the casting of the boy.  And here the film presents a winner in the form of bright 10 year old  Lurie Poston, who gives a wonderfully convincing performance.  This is audience pleasing, low-budget indie filmmaking which actually could make a difference, the way Trevor did when it was released 15 years ago.  ***

KABEI (d. Yôji Yamada)
I was incredibly impressed by Yamada's Twilight Samurai trilogy and was eager to see what the master could do with a more modern day tale.  Once again he impressed and moved me to tears with this story of a Japanese family caught in the political turmoil of pre-WWII times when the father is sent to prison for the "thought crime" of opposing the war in China and the mother must raise their two daughters in relative poverty.  Yamada is adept at gently and touchingly portraying Japanese manners and customs.  And in this film, which shows so clearly the Japanese mind set which led up to Pearl Harbor, has great resonance for an American audience today.  *** 3/4

CHEF'S SPECIAL  (d. Nacho Velilla)
A glossy Spanish farce about a gay chef who, when his ex-wife dies, is forced to cope with raising two children that he had deserted years before.   The farce revolves around the chef's love affair with a closeted soccer player and the zany doings of the staff of his gourmet restaurant in his quest for a Michelin star.  I thought the film was particularly unfunny and unlikely...but from the audience reaction, I am  probably in a minority.  ** 1/4

BE LIKE OTHERS (d. Tanaz Eshaghian)
Twenty years ago, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued an edict that transsexual surgery was legal according to Islamic principles.  However, homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran.  Eshaghian, an Irani-American filmmaker returned to Iran, got permission from the government to film, and came back with this moving, wrenching documentary which centers on three pre- and post-op men who, for varied reasons, have decided to turn themselves into women, a greatly inferior status in their culture.  It's a courageous project all around, especially for the men involved; and the filmmaker goes about as far as she can considering the restrictions in such a totalitarian state.  The film also subtly (and sometimes not so much) shows the strange doublethink that a theocracy must go through to cope with modern times.  It's all rather scary and depressing.  *** 1/4

A POLICE ROMANCE (Un roman policier) (d. Stéphanie Duvivier)
A squad of narcs patrolling a seedy suburb of Marseilles, gets a new temporary replacement:  a young Arab policeman.  What ensues is a taut policier where the female squad captain and the new Arab have a distracting romantic entanglement in the midst of trying to clean up a particularly messy drug gang who prey on youths in the projects.  The film has a gritty naturalism and a fine acting ensemble.  Especially notable were the two leads:  Marie-Laure Descoureaux and Abdelhafid Metalsi, who both give stoic and equally passionate performances.  *** 1/4

THE GIFT TO STALIN (d. Rustem Abdrashev)
A very young Jewish boy on a train to exile in Siberia in 1949, watches his grandfather die before his eyes.  The orphan is rescued by a war scarred Kazakhstaini railway worker, and survives by his wits and with the help of the small rural community he lands in.   This is an emotionally satisfying, heartfelt, lovely gem of a film, with a group of interesting characters in a fascinating milieu.   There must be a reason why there are so many wonderful films coming from Kazakhstan lately.  *** 1/2

Tom Schilling, so memorable from Napola, is a baby-face actor who could easily pass for a teenager.  Here he is playing an eccentric video game creator who falls for a much older woman (the luminous Maruschka Detmers).  The film is a weird, fun, comedy which actually worked for me (as a rule I'm not a big fan of cross-cultural comedies; but this film has some of the same quirky Germanic qualities which made Run Lola Run work.)  The director Haussmann has a deft touch for the strange image.  And he's created in Robert Zimmermann a truly unique character:  whip smart, immaculately dressed in the most outrageously mod collection of outfits, and totally nerdy.  The film skirts with being too silly at times; but stays just this side of sanity.  It isn't a great film, by any stretch; but I enjoyed it immensely.  ***

IL DIVO  (d. Paolo Sorrentino)
Giulio Andreotti was a powerful, long lasting Italian politician.  This fascinating, if confusingly complex film is a uniquely stylized biopic of the man's later years comprising the height of his powers and his fall when he's on trial for conspiring with the Mafia.  The film has an incredibly amazing look to it.  The wide screen cinematography, the visual design, all are so incredibly vivid and unique as to almost carry the film.  The film also benefits from an astounding performance by Toni Servillo as Andreotti, who is portrayed as a modern Julius Caesar with a quiet, intense intellectuality and power belied by his small, hunchback stature.  Unfortunately, the film is also so steeped in unfamiliar (to this American) Italian politics as to be virtually unfollowable plotwise.  Still, the film's fascinating imagery is enough to carry its two hour length.  ** 3/4

BABY LOVE (Commes les autres) (d. Vincent Garenq)
One pair of a gay couple, a successful pediatrician played by French actor Lambert Wilson, wants a child.  His lawyer partner doesn't.  When Spanish illegal young woman (the radiant Pilar Lopez de Ayala) makes a deal to surrogate mother in return for marriage (and a resident visa), much bittersweet comedy ensues.  This is a pleasant enough, slickly produced French farce with a good emotional payoff (although it skirts for a while with some really terrible sexual politics, ultimately not going there, happily; and this was one film where the straight actors playing gay didn't totally convince.)   I didn't know that France prohibits gay couples from adopting...amazing how regressive this is.  ***

IN YOUR ABSENCE (En tu aucencia)  (d. Iván Noel)
A 13 year old fatherless boy in rural Andalucia (a remarkable performance by Francisco Alfonsin, a real find) seeks to bond with a stranger from the city whose car has broken down.  Turns out the stranger has an unexpected motivation to befriend the boy.  The countryside and village life are beautifully brought to life by this first time  director, who makes the best of an obvious low budget.  The sexual undercurrents are unmistakable; and about 15 minutes before the end the film takes a dark turn which caused a visible exodus of part of the audience.  But all is not what it seems.  Even after all is explained, it was still pretty ambiguous.   ***

CAPTIVE (Plennyy)  (d. Aleksei Uchitel)
Two Russian army soldiers, survivors of a convoy ambushed by Chechen revolutionaries, take a captive Chechen boy as an uncooperative guide through the difficult mountainous terrain.  This is a gritty war film with high production values; but not a whole lot of plot.  ** 3/4

IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR! (C'est pas moi, je le jure!) (d. Philippe Falardeau)
This black comedy takes place in suburban Quebec, probably in the late '50s, though the period was never specified.   Léon is a very troubled 10 year old boy (a remarkable performance by young Antoine L'Écuyer, this festival has seen some fine work by child actors) whose actions are too destructive to be amusing.  Think of Home Alone with a budding sociopathic kid.  A lot of the blame can be laid on the boy's mother who is having her own crisis.   The film has remarkable art decoration...it looks authentic and glossy.  It's also really disturbing, if probably psychologically sound.  ** 3/4

DANCERS (d. Pemille Fischer Christensen)
A middle age woman who runs a charming ballroom dancing school in modern Copenhagen falls for an electrician with a dark history.  Their struggle to find a successful relationship contrasts with the elegance of the dancing pupils.  Not a bad film, by any measure...just not one I could get too involved with.  ** 1/2

COUNTRY WEDDING (d. Vladis Öskarsdóttir)
In Iceland's second farce this year centered around a wedding, this one actually has structure and some laugh-out-loud comedy.  The wedding party sets out in two buses to hold the ceremony in a remote country church, gets lost and secrets get revealed.  Impressively well directed and acted.  ***

BAGHDAD, TEXAS  (d. David H. Hickey)
This is a black comedy which pokes fun at Texan culture as a group which runs a safari ranch captures a plane crash survivor that they think is Saddam Hussein.  Too silly for my taste, it's also rudimentary filmmaking not up to contemporary standards.  * 1/2

This film takes place in 1947 during the end of the British Mandate in Palestine.  It's the story of a young Sabra boy, steeped in the hatred for the British soldiers who cruelly enforce the nightly curfew, who becomes friends with a British sergeant (a nice performance by Alfred Molina) and gets branded as a "traitor" for his ecumenical conversion.  Ido Port gives a winning performance as the boy...he steals every scene he's in.  But the film also engendered an unexpected emotional resonance for me; rarely have I felt such a rush of feeling about the formation of the Israeli state.  *** 1/4

TERRIBLY HAPPY (d. Henrik Ruben Genz)
The title is ironic, as very little happiness occurs in the weird Jutland (apparently the underbelly of Denmark) village where our newly appointed local policeman has to deal with the town and its wayward inhabitants.  This is a subdued thriller quite reminiscent of a Coen Brothers film, drenched throughout with irony far more pressing than the mere title.  But I never fully accepted the reality of the film, even though the opening title claims that the film was based on an actual story.  ** 3/4

CYCLES (Les murs porteurs) (d. Cyril Gelblat)
Charles Berling and Miou-Miou are excellent as brother and sister dealing with their lives and relationships while coping with their mother (Shulamit Adar) who is becoming increasingly affected by Alzheimer symptoms, unable to separate the past from the present.  It sounds like a familiar story...but I found it so true-to-life and relevant to my own experiences that I was enormously moved.  *** 1/2

JUST A FATHER (Solo un padre) (d. Luca Lucini)
A youngish skin doctor has lost his wife at the birth of his daughter who is 10 months old at the start of the film.  The doctor is played by Luca Argentero, who is one of Italy's most attractive young actors and who had a memorable role in Saturn in Opposition last year.  Argentero gives the role a charismatic gravitas in an otherwise standard tearjerker role (much the same that Kim Rossi Stuart did for the sympathetic father in Chiavi di casa).  This film straddles the area between romantic comedy and drama; but it does find a consistent tone, and I found the struggles of the young, single father to be quite movingly written.  *** 1/4

THE MAN WHO LOVES (L'uomo che ama) (d. Maria Sole Tognazzi)
Who would have guessed that one of the most touching gay romances in recent films is hidden away in this film about thwarted heterosexual passions.  Ostensibly the film belongs to maddeningly neurotic Roberto (stoically played by familiar Italian stud Pierfrancesco Favino) who is involved in two passionate relationships with desirable women, spurning one and stalking the other (let's face it, Monica Bellucci playing the spurned woman is miscasting on a grand scale) .   But what got to me was the emotionally loaded side story of Roberto's gay younger brother (Michele Alhaique) and his contrasting pure and truthful love for his boyfriend Yuri.   The film is interestingly constructed out of sequence, which leads to some initial confusion.   But ultimately it works as a romantic melodrama with a first class cast (the other woman was played by Kseniya Rappoport, so memorable in Tornatore's  Unknown.) ***

THE PERFECTIONIST (La perfezionista) (d. Cesare Lanza)
Sometimes a film comes along which is so ineptly directed and acted that it's unintentionally funny.  This isn't one of those films.  Actually, the plot setup isn't all that ridiculous:  Giselda is a legal secretary with OCD, a lecherous boss and a musician husband with a brain tumor.  But what transpires is cliché after cliché.   The film looks like a badly videoed tv soap opera.  The director doen't have a clue where to put the camera or how to edit a scene.  The acting, with the exception of Rinaldo Rocco who plays the ill husband and seems to be in an entirely different film, runs from amateurishly wooden to over-the-top.  I'm not sure why I stuck it out to the end.  1/2*

THE HOUSE ON THE CLOUDS (La casa sulle nuvole) (d. Claudio Giovannesi)
Two 30-something brothers search for their long absent father in Morocco after learning that their father had sold the family house in Rome.  North Africa seems to preoccupy European filmmakers lately...I've seen two other films so far this year which closely mimic the set-up of this film.  However, this film got the atmosphere right and my interest and involvement in the story never flagged.   ***

THE SEED OF DISCORD (Il seme della siscordia) (d. Pappi Corsicato)
A couple whose marriage is already on the rocks discover that she's pregnant at the same time that he finds out he's sterile.  The film is one of those cockeyed romantic comedies which, despite a good cast, just didn't work for me.  ** 1/4

COVERBOY (d. Carmine Amoroso)
A Romanian man, who as a boy watched his father killed during the revolution of '89, is goaded by a friend to travel to present day Italy to make his fortune.  His difficult journey is moderated somewhat when he befriends an itinerate Italian worker.  Part Horatio Alger story, part Slumdog Italian style, I found this film totally engrossing, and really cared for the characters.  ***

I IMAGINE A DREAM LIKE THAT (Pense che un sogno cosi) (d. Marco De Luca)
Two couples live out their relationship problems in a beach house.  The film was shot for 9,000 Euros and looks it, with a bad video look and inadequate coverage.  However, for all that, the acting is passable and the story holds together leading to an unforgettable climax which may be the boldest statement in any film this year.  ** 1/2

THE LAST PULCINELLA (L'ultimo Pulcinella) (d. Maurizio Scarparro)
A theatrical Italian family makes its way to the Parisian projects and finds a theater there, and local denizens to turn into a production of Pulcinella.  It's all a little more complicated than that.  But since the festival started the film 20 minutes early before I arrived, I never did get a good idea of why it was all happening.  Some hammy acting, though.  ** 1/2

FLIGHT TO FREEDOM (Fuga per la libetà) (d. Carlo Carlei)
In 1943 the Nazis took over Northern Italy from the indiginous fascists and proceded to do their thing to the local Jews, rounding them up and shipping them to the East.   Sergio Castellitto plays a Jewish aviator, war hero, who has influence...but not enough to save many of his co-religionists.  Instead he goes underground, and he, along with Catholic priests, become partisans.  This is a high gloss Holocaust film which has its heart in the right place; but for all its high production values and feel good message, its script failed to engage.  ** 1/2

ANYTOWN (d. Dave Rodriguez)
Four redneck, beer drinking high-school seniors get in trouble in this drama which takes place in some 2004 American anytown and reflects the corrosive effects of 9/11 on the young American psyche.  The film is memorable for having three of the best young actors around:  Matt O'Leary, Marshall Allman and Sam Murphy.  I've been watching their careers; and all deserve stardom for their acting chops and good looks.  The story is a little hard to take...mostly because I'm not convinced that all the actions of the characters are psychologically sound (especially that of the relatively smarter college bound kid played by Allman.)  Still, the film is undeniably powerful which is a tribute to the direction, and especially the acting by this fine ensemble.  ** 3/4

THE PARTS LEFT OVER (d. Roy Wageman)
A 30-something brother and sister, estranged as adults, get together after the death of their father, and take a road trip through the back story of their father's life to strew his ashes and discover what their distant father was all about.  The film is slow to get started, awkwardly directed and shot.  But as the story develops and the interaction of the two actors (relative unknowns Bilal Mir and Beth Huggings) starts to gel, I got into it.   Obviously made on a shoestring budget, the film nevertheless derived its cumulative power from is understanding and compassion for the characters.  ** 3/4

SECRETS OF STATE (Secret défence) (d. Philippe Haïm)
No, this isn't the turgid Jacques Rivette film with the same title.  Haïm has made a slick, stylish, yet overly complex  thriller about the French secret service and its attempts to foil an expected terrorist attack in Paris.  The plot develops on several fronts:  a disaffected petty criminal turned terrorist wannabe (played by handsome Nicolas Duvauchelle, who is making an impact at this festival), a prostitute recruited by a spymaster to infiltrate the Islamic terrorist group, and the cat-and-mouse game that the terrorists and their leader is playing with their persuers.  It all sort of works, at least better than the similar Hollywood attempt, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, until it falls apart under the weight of the plot's reliance on too unlikely happenstance.  ***

HELLO GOODBYE (d. Graham Guit)
Gerard Dépardieu (more corpulent than ever) and radiant Fanny Ardent play a middle age couple...he's an unobservent Jew gynocologist, she's not Jewish.  But on a vacation in Isreal they decide to buy a condo, and in the ultimate example of empty nest syndrome move from Paris to Tel Aviv.  Their fish-out-of-water misadventures comprise the comedy.  It seemed to be well observed; but there was no chemistry between the characters and I just couldn't relate.  ** 1/2

GROWN UPS (Les grandes personnes) (d. Anna Novion)
A stuffy French librarian takes his teen-age daughter on vacation to a resort area in Sweden; and due to a mix-up in dates they end up sharing a house with two women.  There's not much to the plot; this is a character driven romantic comedy.  The characters were quirky enough; but the film never took flight and overcame its simple formula.  ** 1/4

LUNATICS, LOVERS & POETS (d. John Scoular)
A wannabe Scottish-Catholic novelist living in a cool L.A. loft struggles with demons:  he is blocked writing a thinly disguised roman à clef about his life; he's plagued by his Shakespearian spouting father living on skid row; his girl friend is leaving him for another woman etc. etc. etc.  The script runs to pretentious dialog which the fairly accomplished actors can't manage to make real.  The digital cinematography looks terrible.  And I was especially annoyed by some obvious cheats in the Los Angeles geography (the main character leaves his Hollywood loft running and ends up in Lake Piru...please!)  The lead actor, Leif Gantvoort does look good in a kilt, however.   * 3/4

THE UNIDENTIFIED (d. Kevin Tucker)
Jay Sullivan is quite convincing as a post-college '80s intellectual, trying to make a difference as a journalist for a Brooklyn alternate paper.  After his platonic girlfriend from school bails and returns to Ohio, he falls for Sophie, a wild artist girl who has a dark streak.   The film is talky and all the characters are overly analytical.  But I found myself really identifying, probably because the acting and the direction were  at a high level.  The film was slow to get started...the opening scenes and exposition were clunky and overwritten.  But after a while, especially when Sophie arrives on the scene with her off-center personality,  it clicked and I was enthralled.  *** 1/4

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (La fille du RER) (d. André Téchiné)
Téchiné is one of my favorite directors; but this isn't necessarily one of my favorite of his films.  It's a fictional story suggested by a real event about a girl who fakes a neo-Nazi hate crime with huge media involved consequences.  Téchiné is wonderful with actors, and Émelie Dequenne, a decade removed from Rosetta, is quite remarkable as are Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc and Nicolas Duvauchelle.  But the moral center of the film is with a young actor who plays a bar mitzva boy quite movingly.   I wish that the IMDb had managed to identify him.  *** 1/4

A DAY AT THE MUSEUM (Musée haut, musée bas) (d. Jean-Michel Ribes)
It seems like every living French actor has a cameo in this monstrosity of a film.  It's the story of a day in the life of a huge art museum, cleverly constructed as both a tour of the building and a tour-de-force tableau vivante which culminates the film.  It is all much too clever by half, a stunt rather than a cohesive narrative.  I admired the ambition; but found it all completely overblown.  ** 1/4

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF (Aide-toi, et le Ciel t'aidera) (François Dupeyron)
This is a strange, but ingratiating film about a poor black family living on the dole in the Paris suburban ghetto.  It's a social commentary film (the mother, who works as a caretaker for the elderly,  is determined to better her family's lot despite her abusive husband and troubled children) and also a black comedy involving dead bodies buried in the basement.  The characters are all convincingly real...the neighbor, a randy, slightly creepy old man, is an especially interesting invention.  It all works a lot better than I would have expected.  *** 1/4

LA BELLE PERSONNE (d. Christophe Honoré)
A high school teacher becomes too involved with a female student with unintended consequences.  This romantic melodrama follows Honoré's wonderful Love Songs, and has two of that film's most interesting actors playing different roles (Louis Garrel and my fave, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet.)  Except for one important song, this isn't a pomo musical like its predecessor...but it exists in the same very French, very smart universe of that romantic fantasy.  And once again, Honoré makes a couple of gay youngsters the moral center of his film.  Nice.  *** 1/4

ME TWO (La personne aux deux personnes) (d. Bruno Lavaine, Nicolas Charlet)
Daniel Auteuil is fine here playing a man whose brain suddenly becomes shared with a seemingly dead person after being jarred in an auto accident.  But this is a one-joke comedy which stretches its premise far beyond what it deserves.  It reminded me of that '80s film All of Me with Auteuil playing the Steve Martin role...only the comedy here seemed to curdle while the physical comedy in the former film made it memorable.  At least the short, Tony Zear (Tony Zoreil)  was worth watching:  a black comedy about a boy struggling to find love having been born with the congenital disfigurement of huge ears.  It sounds unlikely; but it worked.  **

BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES (Se sourvenir des belles choses) (d. Zabou Breitman)
This is one of those films (made in 2002) which I had seen and obviously admired...but didn't recall having seen.   Back in 2003 it was called Try to Remember (an interesting compromise for a title, and perhaps a better one than the current translation); and here's what I said then:  "Moving & pathos filled love story set in rehab hospital.  Young woman with Alzheimer's.  *** 1/4".   Having forgotten the film, I scheduled watching it as part of City of a Lights/City of Angels festival retrospective, mainly because I've grown to respect the filmmaker/actress,  Zabou Breitman, after being bowled over by her masterwork, The Man of my Life.   Over the course of the subsequent years I've had to contend with this issue in my own life (with my 90 year old mother) and I've become more sensitive to the issues of this film.  It was obvious to me after 5 minutes that I had already seen the film; but I'm glad that I watched it again on the big screen.  The central love story, the acting by the principals, Bernard Campan and Isabelle Carré, the intelligent, insightful script and the deft directorial touches which I've grown to expect from Mme Breitman...these all had even more impact for me today.  *** 1/2

THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (Le premier jour du reste de ta vie) (d. Rémi Bezançon)
A couple of years ago I was blown away by a Canadian film, C.R.A.Z.Y. , which is the story of a quirky Canadian family told over several years from the point of view of the gay son (played by super charismatic actor Marc-André Grondin).   Rémi Bezançon has written/directed a film with an eerily similar plot:  the development of a quirky French family focusing on one day every few years to show how the family progresses through thick and thin.  And Bezançon just happened to cast Canadian actor Grondin as the middle son.  Not that there's a question of plagerism here...the events and characters in this film are original creations and Bezançon is an incredibly insightful writer and one of the most talented young directors currently making films.   Bottom line:  this film blew me away the same way that C.R.A.Z.Y. did:  brilliant, inventive and emotionally resonant.  And finally I have a clear picture of the talented actress (and great director, imho) Zabou Breitman who played the mother here.  *** 3/4

FINAL ARRANGEMENTS (Bouquet final) (d Michel Delgado)
A young man defies his "starving artist" father and gives up the dream of being a musician in favor of taking a job at an American owned mortuary conglomerate and spending a month as an apprentice mortician.   Hmmmm.  Sounds a little like the Japanese film which just won the Oscar, Departures.   But this is a very different film:  a sitcom based on playing out an elaborate deception as the young man is ashamed of his new profession and tries to hide it from his family and girlfriend.  The film actually is fairly entertaining despite its French farce clichés.  A lot of that has to do with the actors...Marc-André Grondin (just mentioned above in The First Day...) winningly plays the young man;  and Gérard Depardieu is in good form playing his father.  But the film really belongs to Didier Bourdon, who plays an embittered funeral home director who reluctantly takes the young man as apprentice to teach him the ropes.  ** 3/4
EDEN IS WEST (Eden  à l'ouest) (d. Costa-Gavras)
This is a huge departure for Costa-Gavras:  a gentle road flick comedy about a naive Albanian (or Bosnian, or...it really wasn't clear where he came from) young man trying to smuggle himself into France illegally by ship.  The gorgeous Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio plays the illegal immigrant, so attractive to both sexes that he manages to travel Candide like throughout the countryside armed only with charm and luck.  The film is enjoyable enough, although its slender premise grows thin before achieving its curiously unsatisfying conclusion.  ** 3/4

TCHAO PANTIN (d. Claude Berri)
A classic French noir from 1983, the film is a character study of an alcoholic ex-policeman now working in a drudge job as a gas station attendant who befriends a petty drug dealer and gets involved in an elaborate revenge cycle with the drug mafia.  The acting is first rate here, especially comedian Coluche, playing against type, as the emotional wreck ex-policeman and the sympathetic Richard Anconina as the half-Arab/half Jew young criminal.  But what makes Berri's film special is the great cinematography, all rain soaked streets and low life milieux.  *** 1/4

LOUISE-MICHEL (d. Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern)
Ugh.  A surreal film which mixes Marxism and anarchism and would like to be Delicatessen but misses by a mile.  I can't even describe how much I disliked this film, although I'm certain that it will have its fervent supporters.  *

SOMEONE I LOVED (Je l'aimais) (d. Zabou Breitman)
Breitman's third film, frankly, isn't up to the brilliance (imo) of her first two...but I think the fault was in the source material, a melodramatic romantic novel about two sets of lost loves and regret all told too novelistically in flashbacks.   As usual in her films, the acting is top notch.  Daniel Auteuil is much better here in a nuanced romantic role than he was in the ridiculous comedy also seen here, Me Two.   And I was impressed by Marie-Josée Croze as the "other woman" that he trysted with on business trips and adored, even while staying in a loveless relationship with his wife.   Mme Breitman brought her usual deft directorial touch with little bits of business (for instance close-ups of hands symbolizing wordlessly what needed to be said).  But for all the effort, I was left wondering if this is a story that needed to be told since it seems that we've seen it all before.  ***

A FRENCH GIGOLO (Cliente) (d. Josiane Balasko)
This is a pleasant and diverting romantic comedy.  Nathalie Baye is wonderful here, playing a woman of a certain age, a home shopping television personality and confirmed relationship-phobe who prefers to pay for her male companionship without complications.  She hooks up with a married, part time gigolo (Eric Caravaca, better than I've ever seen him), who is plying the trade clandestinely to keeping his wife (Isabelle Carré in another fragile blonde role) in the dark, but needing money to support his beloved's struggling hairdressing business.   The director has a secondary role as Baye's sister who has entirely different romantic intentions.   Good fun, well written, and surprisingly involving.  *** 1/4

WELCOME (d. Philippe Lioret)
A superb issue oriented, emotionally devastating drama about a young Kurdish man determined to smuggle himself into Britain from the immigrant ghetto on the French shore near Calais.  Vincent London is about as good as he's ever been as the Frenchman swimming instructor who becomes involved in the boy's quest despite the French government's Draconian measures to isolate these illegals and prosecute the French people who are sympathetic to their cause.  Watch for actor Firat Ayverdi as the young Kurd, whose innocence, believability and simpatico are off the charts.   *** 3/4

ACCOMPLICES (Complices) (d. Frédéric Mermoud)
A body turns up Lyon's river and two personally flawed detectives (Gilbert Melki and Emmanuelle Devos) strive to untangle the case.  It turns out the body is that of Vincent, a young male hustler (played, often unclothed, by the enormously attractive actor Cyril Descours), and Vincent's story is gradually disclosed in flashbacks as the police unravel his complex history.  Vincent is bisexual and amoral...but an intriguing post modern antihero:  equally comfortable with his male clients as he is romantically attached to his young girlfriend.  This is a fine policier which develops in unpredictable ways.  *** 1/2

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