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Thread: PARIS MOVIE JOURNAL (Oct.-Nov. 2015)

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    PARIS MOVIE JOURNAL (Oct.-Nov. 2015)

    PAOLO SORRENTINO: YOUTH (2015)


    PAUL DANO, HARVEY KEITEL AND MICHAEL CAINE IN YOUTH

    Magnificent, yet a chore to watch

    A cloying cinephile's delight, Youth is glorious and static, ambitious and despairing, celebratory and ironic. It lacks the ebullient flow of Sorrentino's previous richly Italian film (starring his muse-collaborator Toni Servillo) The Great Beauty/La grande bellezza. But as it's less specific, it's arguably also more thoughtful, an occasionally arresting, if dry, meditation on life, death, and old age, And it's in English, which works very well, given the general artificiality of the film anyway. The cast featuring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Paul Dano is impeccable, and Sorrentino has become a director whose films must be seen even when they aren't successes. The ideas here may wind up seeming trite. But as Mike D'Angelo said in his Cannes dispatch for The Dissolve, Sorrentino's powerfully cinematic style is "rooted entirely in editing, in the musical flow of images as they cascade across the screen," and if you love film, you'll want to savor the grandeur of that flow, even when the content doesn't satisfy.

    The setting is a spa hotel at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel), are old friends, two kinds of director, orchestral and film, respectively. (Fellini's 8 1/2 may flicker unflatteringly across one's mind.) Fred has quit the game, "apathetic," he's told, due to the loss of his wife, Melanie, who used to sing his "Simple Songs," for which, like it or not, he is most known. Though Fred's to be knighted and a nervous emissary of the Queen (Alex Macqueen) comes to beg him, he refuses to conduct the "Simple Songs" for this occasion with another singer than Melanie. Fred is working on a movie that will be a summing up, but its lead and an old collaborator, the aging diva Brenda Morel (a bravely wrinkly Jane Fonda), is about to drop out, killing the project. Besides, Mick's quartet of young writers seem directionless. Meanwhile Fred's daughter Lena (Weisz) is dumped by her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard), who is Mick's son, for a pop singer (Paloma Faith, a real pop singer who according to Variety critic Jay Weissberg plays a caricature of herself) on the eve of a vacation trip and Lena resultantly stays on and (rather implausibly) sleeps in the same bed with Fred at the hotel, where they both have bad dreams. Some grande bellezza appropriate to aging oglers comes in the form of a Miss Universe who descends voluptuously endowed and totally nude into a pool where Fred and Mick are soaking.

    Like The Great Beauty in this respect but with less unity and energy in the flow, Youth is a series of tableaux. Sorrentino makes the most of the beautiful setting and posh hotel where the guests enjoy baths, swims, massages and daily medical tests. At the end Fred is told he has absolutely nothing wrong with him, even his prostate, though he and Mick exchange notes on how few drops they have peed that day. There is a jaded young actor (an unusually dashing Dano) with the picturesque name of Jimmy Tree, who's remembered only for playing a robot, just as Fred is known solely for his "Simple Songs." Occasionally there are songs by a pop singer. Occasionally we see an immensely obese former footballer with a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back hobble around and do this and that. Once Fred conducts a herd of cows tinkling their cowbells. Several times the Queen's emissary comes to beg for Fred to conduct and he refuses. Several times the screenwriters think of lines for Mick's new film. Several times a young masseuse (Luna Mijovic) massages Fred, or, by herself, adopts dance poses. There is a Tibetan monk meditating in the greenery who's said to levitate, which Fred debunks (but finally he does levitate, higher up than Michael Keaton at the outset of Birdman). Fred and Mick bet on whether an elegant couple who dine every night at the hotel will speak to each other or not. Fred and Mick, who've known each other for 60 years, have lacunae in their knowledge of each other due to talking only of the good things.

    All this seems arbitrary and desultory enough, and that quality is not helped by Fred's apathy, which threatens to invade the viewer. Weissberg ingeniously links this film's spotty mix of scenes to the German romantic thinker Novalis, to whom Mick refers, and his "philosophy of fragments" and the idea that "fragments can often convey ideas more powerfully and subtly than grand statements." Indeed, but too many of them can lead to general blur, as here. Still it is wondrous to observe Sorrentino's increasingly baroque style and his control of detail. It was amusing to see how much, under Sorrentino's baton, Michael Caine begins to look like Toni Servillo, which makes one realize the extent to which Servillo at some of his greatest moments may have been largely Sorrentino's creation. (See how strangely he transformed Sean Penn in his oddball and largely inexplicable 2011 film This Must Be the Place.) Or course Michael Caine has no need of remaking, but as a cool, crabwise kind of final statement, this role is a noble one, for him, even if this movie, for all its style, feels grandly irrelevant.

    Youth/La Giovinezza, 118 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015, and has been in other festivals big and small, including Karlovy, Toronto, Vancouver, London, Chicago, and Denver. It opened in France 9 Sept. 2015, and opens in the US (Fox Searchlight) 4 Dec., UK 29 Jan. 2016. AlloCiné press rating an excellent 4.9, but my touchstone French sources, Les Inrockuptibles and Cahiers du Cinéma, were extremely unimpressed. Screened for this review at Paris' historic La Pagode 23 Oct. 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:26 AM.

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    XAVIER GIANNOLI: MARGUERITE (2015)


    DENIS MPUNGA AND CATHERINE FROT IN MARGUERITE

    Too bad she's bad

    Eight years ago Giannoli made a sad, charming little film set in the present about a dance hall singer with Gérard Depardieu and Cécille de France, The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur (R-V 2007). That has nothing at all to do with his present relatively elaborate, more impressive but less involving extravaganza set in the 1920's and based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the rich American society lady who fancied herself an opera diva but couldn't sing in tune. French character actress Catherine Frot (The Page Turner, Me and My Sister) takes it on as the great role she's been waiting for all her life. For me, she is too sympathetic and not complex enough. We may expect more from Meryl Streep, soon to star in Stephen Frears's upcoming version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story.

    Giannoli's film is touching and balanced -- kind to the character, showing her endearing dedication to music and the protectiveness of her husband Georges (an ultimately sympathetic André Marcon). But despite his avoiding crudity or cruelty, it's not clear Giannoli knows what to do with this material. Partly it's about embarrassment and loyalty, her husband's. He struggles but, touchingly, though he confesses his great unease to his mistress, he can't bear to tell his wife how bad she is. Partly it's about delusion and how people profit from it; and there is even a hint of delusions of grandeur toward the end. Partly it's about private versus public standards, because Frot's Marguerite Dumont can get by with her terrible singing as long as she does it in private chamber concerts with society guests who sneer behind their hands, or even when anarchists make use of he to mock the Marseillaise, she's happy, but when the big public concert comes, the public guffaws. But with all these threads there is no strong theme or emotional punch. The way Marguerite's fierce and overprotective black butler-accompanist-chauffeur Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) constantly photographs her is one more example of how the film fetishizes her and examines her but does not really let us get close to her as we got close to Depardieu's Alain Moreau in The Singer.

    Frot makes the singing really, really awful, worse than Florence Foster Jenkins actually was, so no one misses the point -- but that also misses the real point that a miss is as good as a mile.

    Everything is heavily produced from the start -- a contrast to the simplicity and authenticity that made The Singer feel right. Giannoli seems at times to want to produce something baroque and surreal. There is a louche failing tenor engaged to prepare Margaret, whose entourage includes a bearded lady card reader, dwarf, a deaf pianist, and an Italianate young boyfriend. A lot of the scenes are too dark. We keep going back to the aristocratic husband on a country road seen in horizon with one of his fancy new motorcars, bought with his wife's money, breaking down as he's on the way to one of her performances that he'd like to avoid. This over two-hour film, which does have some impressively rhythmic editing, could have worked much better cut down to ninety minutes with countless unnecessary scenes and repetitions removed.

    Marguerite, 127 mins., debuted at Venice; also showed at Telluride, Sept. 2015; French theatrical release 16 Sept. The French critics generally loved it; AlloCiné press rating 4.0. But they liked The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur better (4.1). Screened for this review at the historic Left Bank cinema La Pagode, Paris, 24 Oct. 2015. It won four César awards including Best Actress. US release 11 March 2016 (29 Mar. Bay Area). Metacritic rating 74%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-28-2016 at 08:15 AM.

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    SAMUEL BENECHTRIT: ASPHALTE (2015)


    TASADIT MANDI AND MICHAEL PITT IN ASPHALTE

    Three little Paris cité vignettes

    The whimsy makes one think of Roy Andersson, but Bencherit limits himself to three tales (two from a book he wrote) related to a dreary Paris cité with a faulty elevator -- a setting he knew himself growing up. Three odd couples. A loser in a wheelchair called Sternkowitz (Gustave Kervern) who flirts with a sad night nurse in a hospital (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi); a teenager Called Charly (Benchetrit's son Jules) who's fascinated by Jeanne Meyer, a washed-up, alcoholic actress (Isabelle Huppert) who's his new neighbor; and, believe it or not, a NASA astronaut called John McKenzie (Michael Pitt) whose space landing gets botched so his pod bangs down on the cité roof and he falls for several days into the care of a lonely Algerian lady, Madame Hamida (Tassadit Mandi). In a structure of such implausibility, how Benchetit engineers his connections and intercuts them may be more interesting than the slim content. And where nothing is real, the most far-fetched match between Madame Hamida and the astronaut turns out to be the warmest. Mandi and Pitt, speaking different languages (French, English) work out understandings based on soap opera plots and couscous. They may be playing stereotypes -- the gemütlich Arab mom, the homespun techno Yank -- but they both play warmly and without affectation.

    Sternkowitz may seem a lynchpin of the piece, a Jewish character in a tale the filmmaker thinks marked by Jewish humor. He is the sole resident at the outset who refuses to chip in for repair of the elevator, because he lives on the second floor and doesn't need it. He is allowed to opt out only on condition he will never use the elevator. Then he gets an exercise bike and OD's on it, riding the equivalent of 1,000 km. This lands him in the hospital with damaged legs, hence the wheelchair -- and his need to use the elevator surreptitiously. And hence his late night trips back to the hospital -- its junk food machines are his sole source of sustenance-- and his encounters with the night nurse, smoking on her break. Enamored of her, he cooks up a story that he's a National Geographic photographer searching for subject matter to impress her. Meanwhile PItt lands on the roof observed by two apathetic teens, and is taken in by Madame Hamida, while staccato interchanges come and go between Jeanne Meyer and the curious Charly (Jules Benchetrit).

    I knew Gustave Kervern from Pierre Salvadori's tediously downbeat In the Courtyard (RV-2015); he seems to be typecast lately as a loser. Her role doesn't give Bruni Tedeschi a chance to do much. Nor does Huppert's, though there is a tiny self-reflective shiver to be had from imagining her career all downhill from The Lacemaker, which she shows a video of to Charly, who encourages her to stop moping and try out for a role. Jules Benchtrit gets props for holding his own with the diminutive diva, and doubtless will be seen again. My best memory will be of Pitt leaving the cité in a spacesuit cradling a plastic box of homemade couscous. But to be honest this movie is too ephemeral to leave a strong impression.

    Asphalte, AKA "Macadam Stories," 100 mins., debuted at Cannes (Special Screenings) May 2015; a few minor fests. In French theaters from 7 Oct. Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille 25 Oct. 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:29 AM.

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    MAIWENN: MON ROI (2015)


    EMMANUELLE BERCOT AND VINCENT CASSEL IN MOI ROI

    Rewarding terribleness

    Maïwenn Le Besco, actress and now director, is remembered for helming the 2011 Polisse, about the Paris Juvenile Protection Squad, a film well publicized in France; it was strikingly advertised on Paris' beautiful Colonnes Morris at the time with images of children's faces superimposed on adult bodies (see my review. It garnered some good reviews despite some overacting by improvising non-actors. Maïwenn clearly likes unending successions of in-your-face scenes. Mon roi ("My King") is almost nothing but explosive, pointless sequences full of overacting, this time by professional actors, mainly Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Bercot, and the latter, who also directed the Cannes gala opening night movie Standing Tall, got the Cannes Best Actress prize this year for her work with Cassel, which consists of nothing but exaggerated, turned-on-for-the-scene emotions: laughter, tears, screaming. It's an example of how juries (and people) can confuse effusions of fake emotion with fine acting. (This mistake was offset fortunately by the much-deserved Best Actor prize to Vincent Lindon for his heartfelt, lived-in performance in Brizé's La loi du marché.)

    Mon roi is about a couple, Tony (Bercot), who's supposed to be a French trial lawyer (though one can't imagine this ditsy, hysterical female she's playing in such a profession) and Giorgio (Cassel), who's supposed to be a rich successful chef and restaurant entrepreneur, though again, professional context is quite missing. The only time we see him using a kitchen is to have sex with Tony, noisily banging around pots and pans. And his success turns out to be hollow when we find out he is an alcoholic and drug addict with big debts. The hysterical rolls in the hay did not reveal such practical details to Tony.

    This film, a long recollection of a bad relationship framed by Tony's recuperation from a bad skiing accident, is based on the unhealthy notion that sexy guys are assholes, or, conversely, that only assholes are sexy. Nice guys just aren't, according to such thinking. True, Vincent Cassel, with his smooth, muscular body topped by a gnarly demonic face, oozes dangerous, narcissistic male sexuality, and he knows how to play an asshole. After their first sex she suggests he may be one, and he boldly replies that he's not, because he's the king of assholes. In his Guardian Cannes review Peter Bradshaw, who gave this a devastating one out of five stars, called Mon roi "an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake". His review convincingly backs up these claims. I couldn't put it any better. The words apply both to Vincent Cassel's character and the film as a whole.

    There is nothing wrong with a protagonist who's an asshole. It's a perfectly good idea. The trouble is that indeed, as Bradshaw implies, Giorgio's continual misbehavior is presented as if it is cool, or something you just need to put up with if you want to enjoy the excitement of being involved with a really sexy guy. Giorgio never gets his comeuppance. When he and Tony get divorced it's a lark; they immediately have hot sex. Having a kid seems like a game for him, and, cooperatively, for her. It's borderline disgusting how marriage, child rearing and other such important activities are all treated as as larks, or opportunities for thespian grandstanding.

    I don't share Bradshaw's (and others') opinion that Louis Garrel, who plays Tony's brother, is an "egregious smoulderer" (whatever that may mean), but I'd agree that it's not reassuring to realize he's the most sensible, normal character in this movie. It is also true that even Tony's odd place of recovery from the ski accident, an apparent spa for sporty, goodloooking young people with broken legs, provides the same kind of explosive, fake entourage sequences that are featured in all the flashbacks, where we see Giorgio's pals chuckle and cheer as he does stupid, annoying, narcissistic things. And so really does Tony -- cheer him on and do such things herself. They are two of a kind, so it makes sense that it takes her forever to get over him. But we're done with him after the first fifteen minutes. And alas we have seen such outpourings of mucous and tears and straining of the vocal cords celebrated as a fine performance before. The partial success of this bad movie is a cautionary tale. Avoid.

    Mon roi, 127 mins., debuted at Cannes in competition, and was released in France 21 Oct. 2015. French critical rating paltry (AlloCiné press 3.2).

    US theatrical release 12 Aug. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-20-2016 at 11:48 AM.

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    CAMILLE FONTAINE: PAR ACCIDENT (2015)


    EMILE DEQUENNE AND HAFSIA HERZI IN PAR ACCIDENT

    Amra is a dangerous driver

    Amra (Hafsia Herzi, who gained notice in Abdellatif Kechiche's La graine et le mulet), a young Algerian woman, gropes for her cell phone will driving and hits a pedestrian. She will be liable but Angélique (Emilie Dequenne, who got her start in the Dardennes'Rosetta) comes forth, saying she saw the accident and it was not Amra's fault. This leads to a complicated relationship between the two young women, the innocent Amra and the far from guiltless Angelique. With a Friend Like Harry comes to mind, but a milder version. Deeply involved in the story also is Amra's husband, Lyès (Mounir Margoum), a hard working and honest Algerian construction worker who has no papers, and their little girl, Blanche (Thelma Deroche Marc),whom Angélique takes a great liking to, often hanging out with the little family at their remote cottage in the woods when she's not taking Amra off to party in her little convertible.

    This is an idea that is played with successfully for a while, as Angélique's bad influence on Amra becomes evident, if superficial, and the moral complexity of their involvement grows; but the screenwriters (Fontaine and Marcia Romano) don't know quite where to go with it, and the ending leaves us unsatisfied, resolving things physically but not morally, and leaving us with the distinct impression that Amra might deserve punishment. She's really dangerous behind the wheel, it turns out. But surely that should not be the point. What saves this little film is the depth of the performances, particularly by Duquesne, and the authentic feel of Amra and Lyès' relationship. The action ultimately doesn't get much beyond TV-drama level, unfortunately.

    Camille Fontaine was a writer on Coco Before Chanel and is a graduate of La Fémis, the French national cinema school.

    Par accident ("By Accident"), 83 mins., debuted at Angoulême 26 August and opened in French theaters 14 Oct. and pretty well received by critics (AlloCiné press rating 3.6). Watched at MK2 Hautefeuille 27 Oct. 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:30 AM.

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    LOUIS GARREL: LES DEUX AMIS/TWO FRIENDS (2015)


    LOUIS GARREL, VICENT MACAIGNE, AND OLDSHIFTEH FARAHANI IN LES DEUX AMIS

    A trio of Paris friends and would be lovers looking scruffily gorgeous

    Louis Garrel's directorial debut is a very French spin on the subset of romantic comedy known as the bromance. The story, co-scripted by Christophe Honoré, for whom Louis has been a kind of muse, starts out with a sort of Cyrano situation. Clément (French indie cinema's resident lovable sad sack Vincent Macaigne), who tends to fall for girls out of his league, has now come to adore the radiant Mona (Iranian star Goldshifteh Farahani), and so Abel (Garrel) intercedes on his behalf. But obviously Mona is irresistibly beautiful, and the tall, tousle-haired Garrel is the unmistakable leading man here, the pudgy, balding Macaigne the natural sidekick.

    First off, Les deux amis/Two Friends has much pleasure to offer to the senses. Claire Mathon's cinematography was shot in luscious 35mm. color film; composing great Philippe Sarde did the score, and there is superb sound design by Jean Rabasse. There are lots of closeups of faces, in which each of the three principals is very flatteringly served. Garrel does not spare us generous helpings of his own striking mug; and Macaigne's angelic baby face and alabaster skin nicely set off Farahani's olive complexion, which in turn sets off her big, luminous eyes. Mona is feisty; Clément (as usual with Macaigne) is an innocent with heart on sleeve; and Abel is what Garrel often plays, a slightly pretentious but lighthearted bad boy,who here is seen initially running around with an underage girlfriend (Mahaut Adam) and partying with Asian hookers. He's an odd match for Clément. But this is about how hard young men work to be friends with each other.

    Beyond the sensuality, there's a Gallic talkiness, with constant onscreen discussions by the trio in various combinations about friendship, love, and how they may fit into them and with each other, or not. Each is a kind of slacker. Mona's in jail (we don't know exactly for what), but let out by day to work in a Gare du Nord pastry shop. Abel pumps gas at a parking garage, though he considers himself a writer. Clément is a movie extra, with obviously time to fall for girls Abel may steal. Honoré-Garrel may not achieve a Nouvelle Vague vivacity in the action (though there's lots of Hollywood rom-com-style running around), but they keep things bubbly, even when the scenes get frantic. Mona will turn into a pumpkin if she isn't back to the prison on the right train, and her willingness to party at a disco gets in the way of that. As a lark, all three of them wind up playing part of the crowd in a film recreation of the Paris 1968 riots -- a nod to Louis' indirect link to this moment via Bertolucci's The Dreamers and, more importantly, his father Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers, which bears an anthemic relationship to this legendary time -- whereas this film shoot is just silly mayhem, though it's broken by Clément's suicide attempt.

    There are other scenes in the prison; at the Gare du Nord; in a hospital; a disco; a church full of elderly worshipers; in the streets of Paris day and night -- and near the end, in a scruffy hotel. It's the Hotel des 3 Nations, 13 Rue du Château d'Eau, as we learn from Mona when she does the right thing and calls up the prison authorities to come and get her after she's gone AWOL. The friendship of Abel and Clément survives. And Louis Garrel keeps it light. Time will tell if this good-looking, lively trifle plays well Stateside.

    Les deux amis/The Two Friends, 100 mins., in 35 mm. debuted at Cannes Semaine de la Critique May 2015 and opened in French theaters 23 Sept. AlloCiné press rating 3.6.

    Review on Film-Forward.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-27-2016 at 04:33 PM.

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    JULIE DELPY: LOLO (2015)


    VINCENT LACOSTE, JULIE DELPY, AND BONNY DOON IN LOLO

    Oedipal meltdown

    In Julie Delpy's new comedy, Violette (Delpy herself) is a forty-year-old workaholic with a career in the fashion industry. Bored and divorced, and at a spa with her best friend Ariane (Karin Viard) she decides to have a fling with successful, but naive provincial computer entrepreneur Jean-René (Danny Boon). It turns into a serious love affair, and can continue since Jen-René has just transferred to Paris. Only her nineteen-year-old son Lolo (Vincent Lacoste), who's just broken up with his girlfriend and takes up residence at home again, has other ideas.

    I was reminded by this movie of Tanguy, a masterful, inventive, and relatively tasteful and subtle comedy about something similar, only in reverse. Tanguy is directed by the comic master Étienne Chatiliez (of Life is a Long, Quiet River), and features the legendary Alain Resnais regulars André Dussollier and Sabine Azéma as the parents of the titular Tanguy (Éric Berger). And while Lolo is ready to do anything to get rid of interference in his oedipal attachment to his mom, Tanguy's parents start carrying out a series of measures to force their nearly-thirty son, a Chinese scholar, to move out on his own.

    The physical business in Tanguy includes barring the son from using their car; disturbing his sleep; and shrinking his favorite clothes. Chatiliez, helped mightily by his trio of actors, keeps the action specific, droll, and within the realm of the possible. It's also true that as the son, Berger is an interesting character. Tanguy is very smart and quite nice, but we can thoroughly appreciate how his dependence on his parents and noisy lovemaking with a series of young ladies would drive them to distraction too.

    Not so with Lolo, a skinny, preening, self-satisfied young sod given to prancing around in colorful jockey shorts whom it's impossible to like for a moment. He fancies himself as a great artist, but the paintings he has done are daubs -- though he gets a gallery show. The measures he adopts to make life unbearable for Jean-René (whom he calls "JR") are such things as drugging him at a party and sprinkling itching powder all over his clothes. Later he enlists a geek pal to sabotage the most important interview of Jean-René's life, involving a major government contract; in fact the geek's trick involves shutting down a major French bank's digital system. These gestures are crude and don't even begin to be plausible.

    It seems that like Maïwenn, whose Mon roi I suffered through the other day, Delpy likes messy, over-the-top scenes, and so she resorts to crudeness and slapstick. But she errs in going deep down the borderline creepy oedipal route. Had she played more lightly and subtly with Lolo's feelings of jealousy toward the rustic interloper in his and his mother's sophisticated Parisian lives, an amusing comedy might have resulted. Lolo has some good scenes, and the principals could have been fine (though I'm a bit in doubt about Lacoste, who plays it too broad and is resultingly unable to make his character even slightly sympathetic), but this is not a success -- and owes too much to some of the cruder recent Hollywood comedies.

    Lolo, 99 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2015, also showing at Toronto. It opened in French theaters the day of this screening, Wed., 28 Oct. 2015. Watched at MK2 Odeon. Overall French critics were not too enthusiastic (AlloCiné press rating 3.1), international ones even less so (Metacritic rating 45%).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:31 AM.

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    HIRAKAZU KOREDA: OUR LITTLE SISTER (2015)


    KAHO, AYUSE HARUKA, HIROSE SUZU AND NAGASAWA MASAMI IN OUR LITTLE SISTER

    Sisterly tranquility

    Writing about this film for The Dissolve at Cannes, where it was in competition this year, Mike D'Angelo described it as combining "the abandoned children of Nobody Knows with the minor-key bickering of Still Walking." But the bickering is very minor key, and thinking of Nobody Knows is just a reminder of how vivid and devastating that was. Here we are in the subtle tones of gray of Ozu but without quite his sense of profundity. There is something a little bit saccharine at times about Our Little Sister, underlined by a too-sweet score that happily isn't omnipresent. The narrative begins when three twenty-something sisters living in their grandmother's spacious house decide to take in their thirteen-year-old half sister, and we go through the quiet soap opera developments they experience over the next couple of years lived together, marked by tranquility and frequently declared sibling love. It's taken from a graphic novel that was run serially.

    The adopted child, Suzu (Hirose Suzu), took care of their father in his last days; she apparently has gone through a lot though she doesn't speak about it. She's also very pretty and vivacious. The manager of a local restaurant, who will die of cancer, adores her and thanks her for just existing. Her reedy sort-of boyfriend after she's been in school a while feels the same way, and takes her on a memorably lovely bike ride through a "tunnel" of big cherry trees in bloom that's a moving, wordless celebration of life. There's much talk about plum liquor, which is a way for the sisters to recall memories and tell time. There's a nutty sister, Chika (Kaho), who works in a athletic shoe shop. The beautiful older sister Sachi (Ayase Haruka), responsible for the others, works in a hospital. She makes the nun-like decision to pass up marrying an older doctor and going with him to Boston and instead stay and make palliative care her life's work. Sweet Yoshino (Nagasawa Masami) works with a bank and goes around with her young boss to visit failing businesses -- occasion for more pondering about life and death.

    What happened to the sisters is that their father ran off with another woman, and their mother, unable to cope, disappeared too. Eventually they meet with her, but while there's a glow of guilt about this lady as there is inexplicably about Suzu, it's just a moment. The episodic, meandering structure keeps the film from acquiring any emotional force, despite the many beautiful "casually lyrical" moments D'Angelo noted, as well the welcomely thoroughgoing immersion he also points to in feminine experience. But the film goes on a half hour too long and needs the hand of a master to whip this bland material into something entrancing and magical.

    Our Little Sister/Umimachi Diary, 128 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015, a dozen other international festivals including London. Opened in Japan 13 June, Paris 28 Oct. (as Notre petite soeur). Screened for this review on opening day at MK2 Odeon.


    US theatrical release to begin 8 Jul;y 2016. (Northern California 15 and 22 July.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-27-2016 at 03:00 PM.

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    Many thanks for these exclusive reviews Chris.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Painting by Wilfredo Lam at the Centre Pompidou

    My pleasure. There are more new films not available in the US that are easier to get to than I even expected. I was going to just go to one a day but since my friends aren't in town yet and it was so easy to go to the second one yesterday and today I could not resist. I found the Louis Garrel film by chance. The cinema where it's showing is a bit hidden back behind the famous Café Deux Magots (or is it the Café Flore?) near Satin Germain des Pres, and that was where I first saw Jacque Audiard's THE PROPHET, so I said, let's see what's showing there now? And it was Garrel's LES DEUX AMIS. Paris is always a personal mini film festival for me. I also should go to the reopened Picasso Museum in Paris. It was closed for renovation for years and somebody told me it's really great now. I always go to the Centre Pompidou and the museum has some shows I might like (Karel Appel, Wilfredo Lam) and they have a splendid permanent collection of modern art.


    Interior of the Musée Picasso, Paris
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:34 AM.

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    JEAN-PAUL RAPPENEAU: FAMILIES/BELLES FAMILLES (2015)


    MARINE VACTH AND MATTIEU AMALRIC IN FAMILIES/BELLES FAMILLES

    Inheritance ronde

    This enjoyable whirlwind is Rappeneau's first directorial effort since his 2003 Bon Voyage (with Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu); he penned the script of Zazie dans le Métro. He directed the 1990 Cyrano, starring Depardieu, which he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière, with whom he has shared scripting duties before and since. This one has the participation of Matthieu Amalric and André Dusollier, and in his Variety review at its Toronto debut Peter Debruge, linking its plot line quite justifiably with Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours (though the mood and genre of the two films are totally different) says it's the director's most personal film to date. Imagine that. And yet it's nutty, slightly campy fun.

    Like one of the characters in Assayas' film, Jérôme Varenne (Amalric) is a banking cosmopolite with Asian connections who has renounced any inheritance of his family's chateau (a much more substantial manse than the one in Summer Hours). But when he stops over in Paris with Chinese girlfriend/collaborator Chen-Lin (Gemma Chan) en route to a big deal in London, he learns of some doings he can't approve of.

    Jérôme isn't any too friendly with his brother, Jean-Michel (Guillaume de Tonquedec), and they're literally at each other's throats at the end of a dinner chez maman Suzanne (Nicole Garcia). Poor Chin-Lin, who can't understand French, has no idea what's up, but Jérôme leaves her at the hotel in Paris, and lets her go on to London, while he rushes to the hometown. He has learned the chateau is about to be sold and torn up for for a real estate development in the thriving Loire Valley town of Ambray. Mayor Pierre Cotteret (Dusollier) is sitting on the deal, and there is a missing document.

    Rappeneau is referring to something that happened to his own family home, Debruge explains, but this plot is complicated by a tough, social climbing old buddy Grégoire (Gilles Lellouche), whose current girlfriend Louise (Young and Beautiful stunner Marine Vacth, now 24) turns out to be the daughter of Jérôme and Jean-Michel's dad by his mistress, Florence (Karin Viard). And Florence is around. It also turns out that the mayor's secretary Fabienne (Claude Perron) used to be madly in love with Jérôme, and Pierre Cotteret has always been nuts about Suzanne. The pouty, free-spirited (and ethereally lovely) Louise keeps hurting herself and laying about in attractive stages of undress, and she and Jérôme start getting drawn to each other, while later on, after the London deal has crumbled for poor Chin-Lin, Chin-Lin and a handsome Chinese Pianist are drawn to each other. Ooh la la!

    Rappeneau shows a mixture of humor and mastery in the way he stages a wonderfully chaotic yet smoothly rhythmic sequence where everybody is running around at a festival concert with the Chinese pianist is playing a Beethoven concerto, and Chin-Lin, who has come to town to find out what kept Jérôme from negotiating a deal he'd worked on for two years and met the pianist at the train station, is the only member of the cast sitting still in the audience, entranced by the handsome pianist. It's at this point that the film justifies the French adverts touting it as a "choral" work. This is music, and everybody plays his or her operatic part, and it all comes right in the end when a certain missing letter is found, Suzanne realizes that her husband's mistress Florence had "class" and the old fashioned snobbish values and traditions of France and of aristocratic "belles familles" are vindicated. The chateau is saved, and daddy Doctor Varenne (Noël Hamann), who reappears from the dead to Jérôme more than once, turns out to be one of those men who loved his mistress more than his wife. Which, this being Rappeneau's dream France, is fine with everybody. Nostalgia, sadness, fantasy, and humor make a confection that is irresistibly silly and fun and well put together.

    Belles familles/Families, 113 mins., debuted internationally at Toronto Sept. 2015, opening in French theaters 14 Oct. Allocine press rating a mediocre 3.3. Screened for this review 29 Oct. at UGC Danton, Paris.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-07-2016 at 10:20 PM.

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    PATRICIO GUZMÁN: THE PEARL BUTTON/EL BOTÓN DE NÁCAR (2015)



    Haunting us and warning us

    The Pearl Button/El botón de nácar is another partly soothing, partly disquieting meditation on nature, Chilean history, and man's inhumanity to man from documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. His 2011 Nostalgia for the Light was on my Best Documentary list for that year. It begins with desert, the sky, and moves on to los deaparacidos, the disappeared ones from the Pinochet dictatorship. In his Variety review at Berlin, where it debuted, Jay Weissberg found that this new documentary, whose starting point is water and the sea, is "muddied" by a "Natural Science 101 voiceover" and an inability to meld "two rather disparate subjects." These are the disappeared ones, again, particularly those dropped into the sea by helicopter, and, leading up to them, the indigenous peoples of Chile and Patagonia who were almost completely wiped out by the colonizers. Here we are introduced to the basic information about the five separate seagoing native peoples of Chile and their nearly lost languages, with interviews with a few of the handful of survivors.

    However, we should note that while Weissberg has a point about the link between the disappeared ones and the aborigines being a bit vague, the earlier documentary made some broad leaps too. It is Guzmán's style to use broad, poetic musings laced with sonorous truisms about nature as the basis of further musings about human history. His soothing blend of poetic Spanish voiceover, lovely images of nature, and sound, creates a hypnotic mood that soothes us, and then he hits us with tales and images of man's innate cruelty. It works, each time. And despite Weissberg's justifiable reservations this time about two big topics that don't quite fit together in the same film, The Pearl Button won two prizes at Berlin, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Silver Bear for Best Script. Actually most critics have liked this new film.

    What I will take away from The Pearl Button, besides the hypnotic voice and films of sea and snow, are the photographs of the astral images painted on the bodies of indigenous peoples of Chile, who believed that when they died the turned into stars; and the story of Jimmy Button, the native bought from his people for a handful of pearl buttons and taken to England to be turned into a "gentleman." Later he was returned to his native land. He let his hair grow out again and began speaking a mix of English and his native tongue. He could never merge back into his identity. This story of ancient peoples robbed of their culture and land, a few of them surviving like beached whales on an alien coast where they are strangers like Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California memorably written about by Theodora Kroeber, is one that happens over and over as mankind looses touch with its roots.

    The Pearl Button/El botón de nácar, 82 mins., which debuted at Berlin as mentioned, has shown at at least 18 other international festivals, including Toronto and Vancouver. It opened in the US 23 Oct. and France 28 Oct. Despite Wiessberg's valid criticisms of the new film compared to the old one and the general weaknesses of the poetic musings, critics have been pretty pleased. The AlloCiné press rating is an enthusiastic 4.2, and the Metacritic raging is 80%. Screened for this review (as "Le button de nacre") at MK2 Hautefeuille 29 Oct. 2015.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:35 AM.

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    CURRO SÁNCHEZ: PACO DE LUCÍA: LA BÚSQUEDA/PACO DE LUCÍA; LA LÉGENDE (2014)


    PACO DE LUCÍA

    A son's film homage

    Paco de Lucia: Legende du flamenco is a documentary about the Spanish guitarist by his son Curro Sánchez (born Francisco Sánchez Varela). Its great virtue is that the music never stops, and some of Paco's more vibrant film performances are generously sampled or even allowed to play out to the end, the film telling the story of the guitarist's triumphant career in his own words and illustrating each stage with archival footage of performances or stills.

    Paco is one of Spans most famous musicians of recent times. But we must examine his legend more critically than his son does. He is a primary exponent of the fast and loud adaptation of flamenco that is impressive, and reaches a wide audience, but also to some extent detaches the music from its rich cultural context -- the kind of vibrant excitement you get in an improvised flamenco "juerga," or feel (even if the scenes are more staged) in Carlos Saura's flamenco films. Paco's greatest inspiration and singer collaborator, he explains in life narration filmed by his son, was Camerón de la Isla (Cadíz-born José Monje Cruz,) again a widely known figure in contemporary flamenco music, but one whose smooth stye, though more "musical" and vocally wide-rainging, by the same token lacks a lot of the art form's usual harsh, raucous, passionate, and distinctive Andalusian element. Camerón's 1992 drug-related death at the age of 41 is not mentioned here, though Paco says theirs was more an artistic than a personal union because they were both so shy, Camarón even more "inward" than Paco -- who says at one point he has spent 80% of his life alone, of necessity, as an artist and a composer.

    The film is perhaps best in its early part where Paco talks about how he picked up a guitar at seven and outplayed his older brother, about his early touring abroad, and about the inspiration of his impoverished father, who played flamenco guitar in taverns at night for pennies. It would be a distortion to say that Paco de Lucía was the greatest flamenco guitarists of all time, as some glibly do of late. How would we know that? Though he sought at once to transform flamenco and dig into its roots, purists have long disapproved of of his style, which Andrés Segovia said was notable only for its speed. This aspect of Paco de Lucía is only a prominent example of a popularization and dilution of flamenco, which flourished in the mid-19th century and has been fading for a long time, can hardly be blamed on Paco. But it would be nice if this film placed Paco and his brilliant career more firmly in the context of the history of flamenco music and other flamenco guitarists. One place where this does come is in the discussion of Paco's meeting with (and later support by) the earlier flamenco guitar master Sabicas (Agustín Castellón Campos), whom we see play in a film, and who is clearly an even more adept and smooth player than Paco if, perhaps, as noted, without as much passion. We only see one dancer, and hear two singers, and only a couple of flamenco guitarists are highlighted, so this is not a context in which we can evaluate Paco in relation to other players or the art of flamenco as a whole.

    Paco's public image was burnished in Spain and abroad by his own band that lasted for 17 years and, notably included the cajón, a box-like percussion instrument traced back to slaves. But the most unique feature of Paco's career is his role in jazz-flamenco crossover through being the central member of the popular, long-lived and much-recorded "Guitar Trio" consisting of Paco, John McLaughlin (of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew") and Al Coreal, Coreal later replaced by Al Di Meola. Jazz keyboardist Chick Corea was another collaborator. The Trio's" performances, marketed in popular live albums, are marked by resonant, metallic sound, rapid flow, and dazzling improvised riffs in which the three guitarists echo and play off each other. The performances are unified not only by Paco's percussive energy but by his rhythmic precision, noted earlier in the film as one of his most unique features as a musician and something that helped discipline dancers, one of whom he counseled to practice with a metronome. We hear and see an extended playoff of the "Guitar Trio."

    These "Guitar Trio" performances may have made flamenco-style guitar virtuosity more well known, but they are more displays of showmanship than profound expressions of either jazz or Spanish music. They made Paco de Lucía world famous, at the cost of homogenizing his music. Nonetheless the film shows his profound dedication as a performer and his rigorous self-criticism, and his connection with flamenco was life-long.

    Curro Sánchez's loving documentary, a rich amalgam of the subject's live narration and copious archival footage, was abruptly halted when Paco died of a heart attack at the age of 66. Understandably shocked by this sudden event, the filmmaker-son does not quite know how to end the film, and so the final moments drag on a bit, with yet another fiery live performance interspersed by short mere blips of home movies and stills from various moments of the life.

    Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda ("Paco de Lucía: the Search"), 95 mins., debuted 20 Sept. 2014 at the Donostia-San Sebastián International Film Festival, followed by a limited release in Spain. It won the Goya Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for Best New Director and Best Editing. Other fests in 2015 including Miami, Seattle, and Vancouver. French release asPaco de Lucía: légende du flamenco ("Paco de Lucía: Flemenco Legend") was 28 Oct. 2015, French reviews generally favorable (AlloCiné press rating 3.4), though the extended musical scenes met with more favor than the conventional documentary format. Screened for this review 2 Nov. 2015 at Luminor Hotel de Ville, Paris.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-10-2015 at 10:36 AM.

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    PASCALE POUZADOUX: THE FINAL LESSON/LA DERNIÈRE LEÇON (2015)


    ANTOINE DULERY, MARTHE VILLALONGA, SANDRINE BONNAIRE IN THE FINAL LESSON

    Choosing when to die poses problems for others in this French film based on a memoir

    In The Final Lessom/La dernière leçon, Pascale Pouzadoux, adapting a book by co-scriptor Laurent de Bartillat, broaches a solemn topic indeed: an elderly woman's decision to end her own life, despite the emotional pain this causes her son, grandson, daughter and others. The subject is the issue of the right to die. This film, based on the true account of a similar experience of Noëlle Châtelet, sister of Lionel Jospin, takes up a profound and troubling theme.

    But as dealt with here, it seems, alas, more material for TV drama than serious cinema. In its succession of funny, touching, angry, desperate, and solemn moments, inter-cut with one too many flashbacks and montages, The Final Lesson not only risks banality, but founders, running out of energy and drive before it's halfway through. This despite a brave and splendid turn as the tired-of-life Marguerite by 83-year-old Jewish mother specialist and TV-series vet Marthe Villalonga as well as the always authentic Sandrine Bonnaire as her friend, soulmate, and daughter Diane; Gilles Cohen as Clovis, Diane's supportive and neutral hubby; and Antoine Duléry as Marguerite's son Pierre. Grégoire Montana is touchingly affectionate as Marguerite's loving grandson and surfing enthusiast, Max. But Max as presented is too much the conventional movie mop-head teenager, and Cohen's scenes as a chef are irrelevant, though not as much so as a disposable interlude in which Diane is suddenly carried off on a motorcycle ride and a jog with a handsome male nurse from Marguerite's time in hospital.

    The momentum problem is one issue. Another is representing multiple points of view. Too little information is given about Marguerite's life, which it's hinted has been a seriously productive one as a midwife. Flashbacks of her playing in the back yard as a young woman with Diane as a child don't help. The authority and credibility of Villalonga as an actress help a lot, but cannot make up for the fact that we don't know who Marguerite is, other than a stubborn old lady who is overweight, has some trouble walking, and is not very able to cope by herself when she goes back to live in her old apartment. At a celebration of her birthday, Marguerite braves many interruptions to give a speech in which she announces her decision, giving the exact date when she has decided to die. She has concluded that her life is over, and she will only be a burden on herself and others if she goes on longer. She has chosen a time to die, and it is only weeks away. By herself, Marguerite is attended in the daytime by the unbearably lovable earth-mother type Victoria (Sabine Pakora). Victoria is a big lady herself, and a charmer, full of worldly wisdom laid on thick. Victoria makes no judgments, content to sing the occasional lullaby and offer the occasional cuddle.

    Left on her own, Marguerite has several disasters. Notably, she falls and can't get up, and the food she had cooking on the stove burns and fills the apartment with smoke. Max and Diane intervene in time, and Marguerite has to spend time in the hospital. There, Pierre insists that she be put on antidepressants, which he thinks will solve the problem. Diane insists her mom isn't at all depressed, just determined. In the next bed is a man incapacitated by a stroke who says that if he could get hold of "the little pill" he'd do away with himself without a thought.

    Marguerite herself however must have many a thought, because her family members are so troubled by her decision that she seriously wavers. Her son Pierre, who remains furiously, unrepentantly angry at her, traumatizes her with a nasty visit. Poor Marguerite. But is her decision justified? The filmmakers don't have the severity or bravery to convince us of that, and in this their treatment is too superficial. Someone with the courage and gravitas of Michael Haneke in Amour would need to take on the subject. Here there are many Hallmark moments and a good number of jokey ones, but the overall impression remains at once grim and unsatisfying.

    The Final Lessom/La dernière leçon, 105 mins., debuted as the Festival du Film Francophone d'Angoulême in August, also showing at Busan in October. It opened theatrically in France 4 November 2015. Screened for this review on that day at UGC Danton, Paris. Local reviews were mediocre, though not terrible (AlloCiné press rating 3.2 based on 10 reviews).
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-07-2016 at 10:12 PM.

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    KHEIRON: NOUS TROIS OU RIEN/ALL THREE OF US OR NOTHING (2015)


    KHEIRON, LEÏLA BEKHTI IN NOUS TROIS OU RIEN

    A serio-comic homage to Iranian parents

    In Nous trois ou rien French Iranian descent standup comic Kheiron, known from Jamel Comedy Club and the Canal+ TV mini-series "Bref," directs and stars in his first film, a recreation of his parents' lives as a popular family epic interspersed with running comic elements. Hibat (Kheiron himself playing is father) and Fereshteh (Leïla Bekhti), who eventually wind up in a Paris banlieue winning honors for community work, are an Iranian lawyer (but without degree--because he's been held in jail for anti-Shah activity) and a nurse he meets after he gets out of prison and quickly and joyously marries. The couple's decision to leave the country and take their shared revolutionary ideas to a new land comes after the Shah's dictatorship has been followed by the Ayatollah Khomeini's worse one. The film is in two halves, Iran and France, the second half being more specific and colorful and the first more idealized and conventional.

    Nous trois ou rien has won enthusiastic praise for its revolutionary sentiment and its liberal populism. But though it's a lively tale of liberal democratic ideals transposed to a new country, the film did not work well for me, for several reasons. First of all, though the seventies Iranian settings look authentic enough, everybody in the Iran scenes speaks French. Second, despite what are surely the best of intentions, Kheiron's mixture of comedy with the grim experiences of two brutal Iranian regimes and a heroic and terrifying escape from the country necessarily leads to further wrong notes.

    The second half finds Kheiron at least in familiar territory, since he grew up with his parents in France. (They also later bring over her parents (played by Gerard Darmon and Zabou Breitman; his family's many members are not followed up on as closely.) The Iranian part he has to imagine, and tends to feel more generic. Some of it, such as the prison experience and Hibat's brutal beatings and solitary confinement for refusing to eat cake in prison to "celebrate" the Shah's birthday, and later the young couple's escape from Iran to Istanbul across an awesomely limitless mountainous landscape, isn't remotely funny or meant to be. Yet the film begins with a jocular presentation of Hibat's family of twelve siblings, and includes absurd scenes of the Shah himself broadly played by comic actor Alexandre Astier reprising his turn as King Arthur in the French TV series "Kaamelott."

    As things become challenging rather than life-threatening once the couple are in France, things move faster and the tone becomes easier to keep consistently light; but it's, obviously, impossible to show the couple struggling with French, as Audiard so convincingly does in his Dheepan, given that Kheiron has his parents and everybody else speaking fluent French from the first frame of the movie. On the other hand, Kheiron's depiction of the couple's energetic social work within their adopted cité of Stains is a welcomely positive focus on finding solutions and building multicultural integration in the banlieue rather than using that setting, as is more frequent, as a location for crime or action movies.

    It may seem unsporting of me to point out this movie's obvious shortcomings. After all, Nous trois ou rien is a homage to the filmmaker's parents that's as warm-hearted as it is evidently well-deserved. But you have to cut this movie a heck of a lot of slack to see it as a success in artistic terms. Comparisons to Marjane Satrapi 's graphic novels and her filming of them with Vincent Paronnaud are likely, but even her successes have varied. Her film realization of the dry, politically accurate early one Persepolis, works much better than the second more fanciful and saccharine Chicken with Plums. Arguably Kheiron is trying to do something harder than Satrapi is in representing Iranian realities and trying to keep it (sometimes) light in a regular feature film. But Satrapi is also luckier and wiser in Persepolis in keeping the grimmer experiences of her family in the background.

    Hibat, as embodied by Kheiron, is a tidy little guy with an attache case at the cité, now winning the confidence of banlieue tough guys and turning their lives in a positive direction when they learn he's done far more jail time than they have and was beaten for refusing to eat cake. He is almost a different person from the heroic struggler in Iran, and this second part seems like a different movie, probably one more truly suited to the actor/filmmaker/writer's talents.

    Nous trois ou rien ("All Three of Us or Noting"), 105 mins., debuted at Tokyo in competition in September 2015, wining the Best Director prize there. It opened in French theaters 4 Nov. to generally positive reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.6; but Les Inrockuptibles, Cahiers, Libération and L'Humanité did not review it and Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur were unfavorable). Screened for this review at Gaumont Opéra côté Capucines Paris 5 Nov.


    KHEIRON, GÉRARD DARMON, LEÏLA BEKHTI, ZABOU BREITMAN IN NOUS TROIS OU RIEN
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-11-2015 at 05:36 PM.

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