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Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF) – Selected Viewing

Filed under: Film Reviews

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The Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF) is set to take place this weekend. The event, which I wrote about in greater detail in our cover story, is a unique fusion of food, wine, and film, and it’s all happening just across the border throughout the Niagara region. The latest project from Toronto International Film Festival founder Bill Marshall is a great opportunity for those involved in Buffalo’s film community and local movie lovers alike to share in a world-class film festival experience without having to travel far or spend a great deal of money. Amongst the many films being shown, here’s some brief words on a few that are worth checking out.

THE COCKSURE LADS, directed by Murray Foster – Great Big Sea bassist.

A Britpop band from England called The Cocksure Lads, land in Toronto to kickoff their first-ever North American tour. Ten minutes after arriving, they get into a fight over royalties and break up. The Lads scatter across the city, spending the day drinking, fighting, meeting girls and falling in love. Through it all they learn what it means to be a band – but can they patch things up before their big show that night?

My thoughts: Nothing too deep, however it’s a funny and entertaining musical comedy boasting a likable cast and a light-hearted, irreverent tone. Likely to be a big hit with audiences.


June 18 | 9:30 PM | Landmark Cinemas

FOR GRACE, directed by Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang (USA) – Niagara Premiere [Filmalicious]

Curtis Duffy, one of the country’s most renowned chefs, is building his dream restaurant at the worst time of his personal life. Already the recipient of two coveted stars from the Michelin Guide, Duffy has ambitions for his Chicago restaurant Grace to become the best in the country. But his laser focus on his cooking career cost Duffy his marriage and two young daughters. ‘For Grace’ follows the building of Grace from concrete box to its opening night. It’s a story about food, family, balance and sacrifice. It also revisits Duffy’s turbulent childhood — How a teacher recognized talent in a troubled teenager, how an unimaginable family tragedy made Duffy seek refuge in the kitchen, and how cooking ultimately exacted a price.

My thoughts: Those expecting a fun food doc about the pleasures of working as a chef should look elsewhere, as this one makes no attempts to shy away from the darker turns Duffy’s life story takes in his relentless and troubled pursuit for perfection. However, it’s through exploring the harsh truth that sometimes working to realize a dream must come at the cost of losing those closest to us that ultimately gives the documentary its emotional power and lasting impact.


June 19 |7 PM (With Dinner) | 9:30 PM (Screening only) |Peller Estates
June 20 | 3:30 PM | Landmark Cinemas

THE LOST AVIATOR, directed by Andrew Lancaster (Australia/UK/USA/France) – Canadian Premiere [Spotlight]

Set in the Golden Age of Aviation, Andrew Lancaster follows the life and times of his great uncle, Captain Bill Lancaster. Against his family’s wishes, he uncovers a fascinating tale of high adventures, obsession, a love triangle and a sensational murder trial.

My thoughts: Part biopic, historical drama, and murder mystery, this engaging, genre-blending documentary is sure to fascinate even those familiar with the life story of Captain Bill Lancaster. My only major complaint is that the present-day segments detailing the younger Lancaster’s perspective sometimes slow the film’s momentum and ultimately prove less interesting than his uncle’s story.


June 19 | 7 PM | Landmark Cinemas
June 20 | 12:30 PM | Landmark Cinemas

For more information about NIFF and a complete list of films playing check out the NIFF website: niagarafilmfest.com/2015-films/


Buffalo Niagara Film Festival: Selected Review – Learning to Ride

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Writer/Director Michael Hanley’s assured independent drama Learning to Ride tells the story of Abby (Camille Stopps) and Ryan (Aaron Chartand), two lovers who are reunited through a chance encounter almost a year after they decided to go their separate ways. As a series of disjointed memories of their first love reemerges, the film explores how the two reconnect as they wonder what went wrong between them and whether they’ll ever know that kind of happiness with anyone else again. Hanley’s direction proves very assured for a first time filmmaker. Aided by a strong team behind the camera, they bring a high level of production value to the independent feature. Learning to Ride also benefits from two standout performances from the leading actors, who prove remarkable at realizing Hanley’s well-observed and insightful screenplay, despite how familiar the material may seem on paper. The end result is an intimate, honest, and moving film about love and relationships.

Learning to Ride will be playing at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival this Sunday, April 12th, at 7pm at the Tonawanda Castle.

 


New Alice Cooper documentary plays at the Screening Room

SUPER DUPER ALICE COOPER

By Ed Grant

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The once and future king of shock rock gets his due in this flashy Canadian documentary. Filmmakers Sam Dunn, Reginald Harkema and Scot McFayden overuse the “animated photo” technique that has become de rigueur in show-biz docus and include little more than a chorus and verse of some of Cooper’s seminal hits, but despite its cringe-worthy title Super Duper Alice Cooper delivers a potent dose of Seventies nostalgia.

The talking heads narrating the film (among them Iggy Pop, Elton John, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, producer Bob Ezrin and former bandmates Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith) are kept off-camera; instead we see rare photos (many from Cooper’s collection) and familiar stock footage of the Fifties and Sixties: high school dances, hippies frolicking in the park and, yes, even Clichéd Clip No. 1, the dreaded shot of old-fashioned telephone operators putting wires into sockets. But don’t abandon hope: after 30 minutes of this archival overload, in which Alice’s “battle” with his onstage persona is illustrated with clips from silent (i.e., non-copyrighted) horror movies, we’re finally treated to actual performance footage from concerts and TV appearances—entertaining even if most of it is drowned out by more narration.

The cursory treatment of Cooper’s music—presumably stemming from the belief that it’s all available online for free anyway—makes the film less effective as a 101 for the uninitiated and more of a valentine for the already converted. How else to explain the single minute spent on “School’s Out,” the Cooper anthem most likely to be heard on oldies radio these days?

The most enjoyable segments cover the band Alice Cooper (before singer Vincent Furnier took the name to himself) cultivating their nightmarish onstage image and crafting a string of memorable hits in the early Seventies. Following the band’s demise, the docu moves on to chronicle solo Alice’s years “bottoming out” on booze and cocaine.

From the opening scene Cooper attributes his eventual “salvation” to his Christian upbringing and strong belief in God. A positive, upbeat message may seem a bit odd in a documentary celebrating a shock rock pioneer, but Alice has been quite vocal about his Christianity, and it certainly provides a more believable solution to his dead-end drug dilemma than his much-publicized “addiction” to golf.

Speaking of which: Alice’s celebrity commentators include John Lydon. The erstwhile Johnny Rotten testifies that the Sex Pistols (in his eyes) were meant as a “complement” to Alice, and speaks for fans everywhere when he says, “I think anything Alice has ever done is good enough for me… except golf. Alice, lay off the golf!”

Super Duper Alice Cooper will be shown at the Screening Room in Williamsville this Wednesday (April 30) and Monday (May 5) nights. The film will be accompanied by a Q&A Alice did with fans who saw an early screening.


Film Review: Closed Circuit

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Somebody’s Watching You

Closed Circuit

It’s all in the timing. The British thriller Closed Circuit arrives in theaters at the perfect moment, for reasons both planned and accidental.

The former: after the usual summer menu of super heroes, apocalyptic misbehavior and other digitally devised scenarios, audiences who like their stories grounded in reality are starved for product. (Assuming they haven’t all migrated permanently to binge viewing of “Orange is the New Black” and “The Newsroom” in their living rooms.)

The latter: like Fruitvale Station, which opened wide the week of the George Zimmerman verdict, Closed Circuit features a premise, the ubiquity of government surveillance, at a time when Edward Snowden has us all debating that very subject.

It’s hardly the first film to take that up: anyone remember Sidney Lumet’s slick The Anderson Tapes from 1971, with Sean Connery as a thief planning to rob an apartment building without realizing that his every move is being unintentionally recorded by security cameras and FBI wiretaps? But at the risk of giving away too much, despite Closed Circuit’s title the issue of Big Brother watching us isn’t really central to the story, serving mostly to add some free-floating paranoia to what is basically a legal drama.

The film opens with London shaken by a bombing at a popular market, killing 120 people. MI5, the British security agency, quickly arrests a Muslim immigrant who was recorded near the market by security cameras. Because of what it claims are connections to other ongoing investigations, MI5 requests that certain parts of the evidence be presented secretly, unavailable to either the suspect or the public. (Bradley Manning, anyone?)

To represent the accused’s interests during presentation of that evidence, a special advocate is appointed, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). She is sworn to keep what she hears secret from everyone, even the suspect’s defense attorney Martin Rose (Eric Bana).

Wouldn’t you think someone tasked with making that appointment would have learned that Claudia and Martin had an affair a few years ago, one that broke up his marriage? If you do, you’re in the right frame of mind. This is the kind of film where what initially seem to be plot implausibilities can turn out to be clues. On the other hand, sometimes a clumsy story element is just that.

In short order, Martin and Claudia intuit that there is much more to this case than they’re being told. We of course realized that as soon as we heard that Martin’s predecessor unexpectedly killed himself: in movies like this, suicide is never simply suicide.

(Perspicacious viewers that we are, we also know that famous actors do not take small roles. If you see one in what appears to be a minor part, you can bet that he or she will be part of a third-act surprise.)

Written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and directed by John Crowley (Intermission), Closed Circuit proceeds like clockwork, with more efficiency than originality. It does what it does well enough, aided by a supporting cast of British actors who can make anything watchable—Jim Broadbent, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Riz Ahmed (for once not playing the terrorist). Julia Stiles also shows up, presumably for the benefit of those American viewers who wouldn’t normally watch a British drama but will come to this because they think it’s anti-government. It’s not on a par with the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, like The Parallax View. Still, even a modest entry in this genre is an unexpected treat in moviehouses these days.

 

Watch the trailer for Closed Circuit:


PROMETHEUS: Not so great Scott

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Director Ridley Scott has coasted an awfully long way on the strength of two classic films he made 30 years ago. Blade Runner was a triumph of set design (take a bow art director and Buffalo native David Snyder) that suggested that the future was not going to be all sparkly sterile but, more likely, overcrowded with the kind of crap we were even then choking our cities with. And the original Alien was a claustrophobic little horror thriller with a great cast of character actors (Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Bannen, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skettit, a star in the making (Sigourney Weaver) and one unforgettable scene that made many men really wonder for the first time what childbirth must feel like.
Through a career that has included some commercial highlights (Gladiator, Thelma and Louise) and a lot of duds (Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven, White Squall—must I go on?), Scott has occasionally paused to complain that the Alien sequels should have gone in a different direction, following not the voracious and rapacious monsters but the circumstances that brought them in contact with humankind.
Certainly something better could have been done than the series that started with James Cameron’s Aliens, a war movie disguised as sci-fi, and went steadily downhill until it hit rock bottom with the Alien Versus Predator movies, Hollywood’s big-budget answer to mixing Godzilla with Mothra, Megalon, Ghidorah, or whatever other Toho monster wasn’t doing anything better that week.
But if you’re looking for Scott’s much ballyhooed Prometheus to be a worthy reboot, let me advise you to lower your expectations.
And if you’re expecting it to be a smart speculative fiction epic, lower them even further.
What we have here is Scott, who trained in commercials and has worked more regularly as a producer than a director, working from a script by Damon Lindelof, who wrote most of Lost after J.J. Abrams got bored with it. (And yes, that includes the finale.) Reportedly Scott initially only wanted to produce the movie and planned to hire Carl Rinsch, a director of commercials with no feature experience, to direct it. Scott himself settled into the director’s chair himself only because the studio refused to find it otherwise.
In other words, something less than an auteurist vision, if that was what you were expecting.
Which is fine: most great films are collaborative efforts. Then again, so are most of the bad ones, where no one has an eye on the big picture. Prometheus is a big, slick special-effects heavy summer movie that offers lots of candy for the eye and just about nothing for the brain.
It isn’t really a prequel to Alien at all, other than that it depicts events that in this fictional universe branch off into that story. No, what Prometheus wants to be is a reboot of 2001 A Space Odyssey, only faster and with more action. Which is to say, a complete misunderstanding of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film. If you never appreciated it, Prometheus is likely to make you look at it in a whole new light, which is about the best thing that can be said for Scott’s movie.
It opens with all possible bombast in what is presumably an antediluvian version of Niagara Falls, where a ridiculously buff humanoid sacrifices himself so that his DNA will nourish our planet. Or infect it, depending on your perspective, which is something the film generally lacks. (In the hands of people who know what they’re doing, it’s called “ambiguity.”)
The bulk of the film is set in 2092, as a spaceship lands on a distant planet to search for the “engineers” who apparently put mankind on our planet. As fiction based on scientific knowledge and speculation thereof, Prometheus is already toast by this point: doesn’t such a notion ridicule 200 years of evolutionary science as much as any creationist insistence that the world is only 7000 years old?
Without belaboring the story, suffice to say that mankind meets an alien intelligence, and all it wants to do is kill us. Strife and gore ensue, including a high-tech auto-abortion that is probably the first of its kind (and hopefully the last) before the film ends with many points unanswered and an open path to a sequel.
Prometheus fails to create a plausible vision of the future as an extension of the present. Granted, most sci-fi films do that, but one might expect better from the director of Blade Runner. Instead, we have a crew comprised of disparate types that satisfy a writer’s checklist (one black guy, one Asian, one Brit with a punk haircut, etc.) but contains not a single Latino, despite the fact that Latinos will be in the majority in the US by the year 2050. Is that a petty criticism? Let’s say it’s a point that a serious writer might have considered, along with the fact that an intelligent, capable black man in the year 2092 probably would not talk in the urban drawl of a black man from 1992.
But plausibility of any kind is clearly not a consideration. Prometheus is chock full of all the dumbest clichés of sci-fi action movies, from the people outrunning a massive storm to the monster that grows in size by a factor of 30 in the space of less than a day.
If Prometheus only wanted to be an entertaining futuristic thriller I wouldn’t mind all that. But its pretensions, its attitude that it’s something smarter than it is, just rankle and make those silly clichés stand out more than they usually would. (I could go on all day with a list of niggling questions about the movie. Why are the alien “engineers” ridiculously buffed up with the kind of muscles you get only from working out in a gym for hours a day? Why would they bring flamethrowers to a planet where they don’t expect the atmosphere to contain oxygen? Why are their space suits not flame retardant? Why hire 44-year-old Guy Pearce to play an 80-something tycoon in really bad makeup when there are plenty of capable 80-year-old actors who would have taken the job? (There’s a potential good answer to that question—because the character will become younger. Not the case here.) Why do actresses in these movies always have appear in their underwear when the male ones never do?)
In an interview with Discover magazine, writer Lindelof says, “The jumping off point for Prometheus for me is this: If somebody believed in God and you presented scientific evidence that directly contradicted that belief, what would he do? I find that question tremendously compelling.” That might well have been an interesting topic. Wish he’d worked it into the movie somehow.


Film review: JOHN CARTER

The first mistake is the title. Fans of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories about the interplanetary adventures of a Civil War era hero may find John Carter sufficient to get them to theaters. But when you’ve spent, by most estimates, $250 million to make a movie, you need to get more than the fanboys into the seats, and the title John Carter of Mars is much more likely to do that.
Amazingly, that quarter of a billion dollar budget didn’t even include 3D: the film was converted after production, which boggles the imagination. I saw it in the 2D version, so I can’t speak to the quality of the 3D for which you will be asked to pay a few extra dollars when buying your ticket. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a film converted to 3D in which the results were remotely as good as one that was designed in the process.
Leave it to the Disney corporation to cut corners in all the wrong places.
I should admit right off the bat that I’ve never read any of Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or for that matter anything else he ever wrote. Nor am I much of a fan of fantasy and sci-fi in general. Yet even at that, there were few minutes in the two and one-quarter hours of John Carter that didn’t feel recycled, primarily from Star Wars and Avatar.
(A little research tells me that the John Carter stories were an inspiration for James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy. Fans may see it as an act of circular homage; everyone else is just going to think, been here, done this.)
The plot, crammed full of stuff that Disney presumably plans to flesh out in sequels, involves warring groups on Mars, watched over and egged on by bald immortals in grey robes. How John Carter (I can only hope the initials are coincidental) arrives here is too vague to recount, but he proves a powerful warrior because the lesser gravity of Mars gives him extra strength and the ability to leap long distances, an effect that looks rather silly by the 14th or 15th time he does it.
Are the special effects spectacular? I suppose, but when are they ever not these days? All that takes is money. But giant spaceships, enormous crowds of ornery aliens, bridges that seem to rise a mile in the air, have pretty much lost their power to awe us. The audience that first saw a train coming at the camera more than a hundred years ago may have ducked the first time they saw it, but by the following year they probably yawned.
That the effects are minutely detailed is more impressive, and probably the main contribution of director Andrew Stanton, making his life-action debut after helming the Pixar productions Finding Nemo and Wall-E. He is unfortunately less successful at getting persuasive performances from flesh and blood performers, few of them as there are. As Carter, Taylor Kitsch (I will not comment on the last name) vaguely resembles a buff Johnny Depp but has the emotive power of Keanu Reeves. As the Martian princess who fires his spirit and (surely I’m not giving away anything here) wins his heart, Lynn Collins is a bit older than your standard sci-fi heroine and manages to maintain her dignity in a series of outfits that will erase all fanboy memories of Carrie Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back. Ciaran Hinds as the besieged king and Bryan Cranston as an army officer in Custer drag (in a frame story that takes a half hour preventing the story from digging in its heels) are on hand to collect paychecks; fans of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church should note that only their voices are used.

—M. Faust


Movie review: THE WHISTLEBLOWER

The title of this new drama isn’t entirely inappropriate: as the story goes on, the heroine of the story does indeed attempt to make public the misdeeds of her employer, in this case a military contractor working for the United Nations in Bosnia. But the impact of that pales next to the bulk of this fact-based film about human trafficking, a bland term for the lucrative practice of forcing women into sexual slavery.

Rachel Weisz stars as Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska policewoman who in 1999 accepted a job with Democra Services, a private contractor providing peacekeeping services in Bosnia. (We can presumably credit lawyers, or the fear of them, for the mix of fact and fiction here; Bolkovac is a real person, but the company that employed her was DynCorp International, which has objected to her version of the story.) She discovers that a local bar is holding as prisoners girls used as prostitutes. When she finds that the raid she observed only led to the girls being returned to their keepers, she is compelled to investigate further. She learns that not only are workers for the diplomatic and peacekeeping forces patrons of these brothels, but that some of them are helping to protect the men running them. And the further up the line she gets, he more she finds that everyone would just prefer to turn a blind eye to the whole ugly mess.

You’re not likely to come out of The Whistleblower feeling good about the world, unless you can take solace from the knowledge that at least some people are trying to expose evil in the world. That’s scant comfort after this demonstration of how responsibility for an unthinkable and unbearable situation gets diffused the further those with the power to do something about it are removed from it. (A typical reaction: “This is Bosnia—these people specialize in fucked up.”) Weisz is excellent despite being saddled with an uncomfortable American accent. First time director Larysa Kondracki tries to keep the film from being too horrible to watch (she claims she toned things down from some of what the real Kathryn Bolkovac reported in her book), and if the film occasionally falls into melodramatics, it’s hard to see how a story like this could have been told otherwise.

—M. Faust

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Opening Friday: Inside Job

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You can read my full review of it in the next issue, but I would like to advise everyone to make plans this weekend to see Inside Job, opening  Friday at the Amherst and Eastern Hills Mall Theaters. This documentary does an excellent job of clearly laying out the causes and effects of the 2008 financial meltdown in a non-political manner. In fact, it’s most interesting for showing how Wall Street supersedes politics (which is to say it pretty much has both parties in its back pocket). If you’ve ever written the whole mess off as being too complicated to understand, you owe it to yourself to see it. (And if you see it at the Eastern Hills Mall, you can also catch Howl, the new movie starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg.)


Review: AMELIA

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There was a time when, for whatever reason, some filmmakers liked to see how far into a movie they could put the credits. Watching Amelia, you may find yourself wondering if this was the case here: surely any biography of the famed aerialist would spend a reel or so on her early life?

I assure you that you did not walk into the movie 20 minutes late. Aside from a brief shot of a pre-teen Amelia Earhart in Kansas, looking at a passing plane from a cornfield vantage point and vowing that she would someday fly, this handsome but largely uninvolving movie shows us none of the early struggles of the woman who, for most of the 1930s, was one of America’s biggest celebrities. I mean, I hate to second-guess the film’s capable screenwriters (Ronald Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Girl Interrupted, Gorillas in the Mist), working from the Earhart biographies East to the Dawn and The Sound of Wings). Maybe they researched it and Earhart’s early life wasn’t very interesting.

But given that women in our era form only a small proportion of licensed pilots, I can’t help but suspect that a woman trying to learn to fly in the 1910s and 20s must have had a hell of a time of it. As it is, when we first see Amelia (played by Hilary Swank, who bears a strong similarity to the real Earhart) she is being disappointed to learn that the flying stunt she has been hired for is a fraud in which she is expected merely to be a passenger on a plane flown by a man.

The bulk of Amelia, which is framed around scenes depicting the attempted round-the-world flight during which she and her navigator vanished in 1937, is concerned more with her romantic life than her professional career. These are to some extent intertwined, given that her husband (Richard Gere) was the publisher who promoted her career and her lover (Ewan McGregor) was an aviation pioneer and director of the federal government’s Bureau of Air Commerce. But despite her open avowal of non-conformity to her husband, none of it is so compelling as to make up for the stuff about Earhart for which she is remembered today—her passion for flying.

Prettily but blandly directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding), Amelia is at its best in its final reel, which goes into the details of her final hours in the air, based on records of radio transmissions with her plane. It may a bit on the technical side (it seems to come down to a dead battery), but it’s genuinely suspenseful. As for the rest of the movie, it is briskly passed and edited, but overall less dramatic than the musical score, which seems to be working overtime to make up for the lack of a strong script.

Watch the trailer for Amelia:

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Review: CHERI

by George Sax

Gigi it’s not. The piquantly wry take on high-end Belle Époque French life that animated Colette’s novel, and the Vincente Minnelli movie musical it inspired, is moderately evident at the beginning of Stephen Frears’ adaptation of another, earlier Colette work about the same period. But they soon give way to a more astringent, vulgar and skeptical view of the voluptuously self-indulgent protaganists. The joke is on these two in Chéri, but it’s not by any means a funny one.

The title character (Rupert Guest) is a very young, intensely self-indulgent son of a retired courtesan (Kathy Bates, trying hard but rather out of her element) who asks the youth’s godmother, Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer), to intervene for his own good. Léa’s reluctant attempt to oblige quickly precipitates a six-year-long affair between them, at which juncture Chéri thoughtlessly accedes to his calculating mother’s wish that he marry the eighteen-year-old daughter of a rich former colleague.

Neither he nor Léa admits to the other any sense of great loss, but her stricken response when she’s alone and his grim bearing during the wedding give the game away with little fuss or surprise. What follows is a descent into quiet personal torments and sentimental tragedy. Both of these practical amatory cynics learn about love tragically late.

Chéri reunites Pfeiffer, Frears and writer Christopher Hampton more than two decades after they worked together on Dangerous Liaisons, but the feel and insights of Colette’s little novel seem to have eluded them. Their movie is an efficiently streamlined version of a work that proceeds methodically and with a pointed Gallic irony. Early on, the filmmakers lean a little too heavily on a tone of dry romantic comedy, and in the second half they don’t really convey the emotional trauma adequately.

Pfeiffer’s Léa is a bit too unknowing and vulnerable, and although Guest is petulantly and impetuously persuasive, Frears hasn’t given us much room to develop sympathy for his plight.  The portrayal of emergent emotions that surprise the ill-starred couple is too cursory and flat. When the movie relies on a narrator at the very end to summarize Colette’s sequel (The Last of Chéri) and the significance of what we’ve just sat through, the absent qualities are only underlined.

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