Highly anticipated ‘The Girl on the Train’ ultimately derails

By Mike Wilmington

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a chic romantic crime thriller in the “GONE GIRL” mode — but not as engrossing or gripping, nor as packed with interesting characters and wicked plot twists. Mainstream audiences should like it, but most of them probably won’t love it (as they did with the book) or become obsessed with it, the way they might with, say, Hitchcock‘s train-riding masterpiece, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Unlike the Gillian Flynn-penned bestseller TRAIN tends to resemble, or the David Fincher-directed suspenser based on Flynn’s book, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN tends to be more ordinary and less icily compelling.

Writer Paula Hawkins’ bestseller is about a woman whose life falls apart and who becomes a hard-drinking, train-riding voyeur, spying on what she imagines to be the perfect lives lived by the two couples she regularly watches from her commuter train windows. Rachel Watson (played by the eye-catchingly beautiful Britisher Emily Blunt), has lost her husband Tom (played by the disturbing Justin Theroux) to a pretty little blonde, Anna (played by Swedish stunner Rebecca Ferguson).

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Rachel, besides drinking herself silly, also spies on another couple, just a few houses down from Tom and Anna, two others she imagines are leading lives of golden joy: macho man Scott Hipwell (Welshman Luke Evans) and another pretty little blonde, Megan (Haley Bennett).

Also involved in this peeping Tom’s delight of a tale is Megan’s sexy shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Edgar Ramirez) – and Rachel’s friend Kathy (Laura Prepon), who’s putting her pal up and forgives all her rotten behavior. Soon Rachel has plunged into what might be a nightmare of infidelity and possible murder.

GONE GIRL was an incredibly clever thriller with an incredibly tricky plot. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is not too clever, not too tricky. Director Tate Taylor (who made the humanistic Southern family drama THE HELP) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY), have changed the background from London (in the book), to New York and the Westchester suburbs, and maybe they’ve lost something in the switch.

Emily Blunt is a real camera-stealer, but her character has been written (at first) as such a pain-in-the-ass, that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her. The surprise ending isn’t very surprising. Only Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmanneque score (justly praised by Hollywood reporter’s Todd McCarthy), achieves excellence in the style department. And only Allison Janney, in a fine sardonic “Law and Order-ish” turn (she’d be a good match for the late Jerry Orbach’s Lenny Brisco) has crafted much of an engaging character.

The screenplay is just about what you’d expect and Taylor’s direction doesn’t rise above the ordinary either. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN may have been a great read on the airplane (or on the train), but the movie made me want to watch something else, out the window.

Unfortunately, I was in a theater at the time.

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Three COLCOA films view World War Two through the eyes of women and children

The unthinkable horrors and everyday nightmares on the home front during World War II are movingly depicted in three excellent new French films, which premiered at this year’s COLCOA French Film Festival: “The Innocents,” “Come What May” and “Fanny’s Journey.”

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents,” from director Anne Fontaine, received both the Audience Award and a Critics’ Special Mention. (Unlike 1961’s “The Innocents” – an adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story – by director Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, this film is based on fact.) Lou de Laâge stars as a French Red Cross doctor who comes to the aid of a Polish convent in 1945, after learning that several nuns have been raped by Russian soldiers. Fontaine’s graceful sweeping storytelling balances the shocking subject matter. She elicits memorable performances from the cast as she shows the nuns questioning their faith in varying degrees. Luminous cinematography and a somber score enhance the chilling mood.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In 1940, about 8 million French people left their homes as the invading German Panzers made their way through the Ardennes forest. “Come What May” tells the intimate story of a handful of villagers (August Diehl, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Alice Isaaz and Matthew Rhys) as they abandon their town to head for the coast, where they hope to be safe from the invasion. Director and co-writer Christian Carion based the film on his mother’s real-life recollections of fleeing the Nazis at age 14. Beautifully made and acted, the film also boasts a score from Oscar winner Ennio Morricone. “Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud (center) plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami, who in 1939, when she was 13, fended for herself and her younger sisters, after their father was arrested in Paris. The girls stay briefly in a refectory for Jewish children but when that is no longer safe, Fanny faces a fearsome duty: leading a group of children left on their own through Nazi-occupied Europe to the Swiss border.

Director and co-writer Lola Doillon (daughter of filmmaker Jacques Doillon) has made an exquisite-looking period film – both a tense thriller and tender coming-of-age story. She has carried on the family tradition of delivering effortlessly fresh and spontaneous performances from child actors. “Fanny’s Journey” is based on Ben Ami’s autobiography.

FNB writer Mike Wilmington called the film “an instant classic.”

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‘Courted’ touts top acting, but its stories disappoint

In “Courted,” writer/director Christian Vincent transports us to the professional and private world of Michel Racine, a fussbudget French judge in the criminal courts. Racine is a memorable characterization, beautifully played by Fabrice Luchini, who received last year’s Best Actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival for this performance.

“Courted” (“L’Hermine” in French) had its West Coast premiere at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles Wednesday night, the same night as its North American premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York.

Courted posterThe movie, which almost instantly recalls Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic, “Twelve Angry Men,” shows Racine presiding over a brutal murder case, in which a 7-month-old child has died. The child’s surly father (Victor Pontecorvo) is the defendant. As the mechanics of the trial unfold, we meet the lawyers, the jury and a key witness, the child’s mother (Candy Ming). The jurors are a chatty bunch and one of them tells the group she has heard through the grapevine that Racine is known around the courthouse for his arrogance.

But he’s also a human being with very human problems. Indeed, it’s a bit jarring to see Racine, at the end of the day, sans his regal ermine robe, ordering soup in the tacky hotel where he lives, a result of his pending divorce.

By coincidence, another juror (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an empathetic Danish-born doctor, has crossed paths with Racine in the past, and this connection plays out as a budding romance.

A novel premise, “Courted” has much to offer – it’s well written and well acted all around. Luchini removes Racine’s pompous, curmudgeonly veneer to reveal his wistful vulnerability. Knudsen shines as the woman who attracts him, a lonely divorced mom who has devoted herself to her kids and career.

Crisply shot and nicely paced, the film’s tonal changes between drama and romcom are gracefully handled. But, at the same time, this mix of genres creates some problems. While it’s fascinating to see the French judicial system at work, shown with some of the same engrossing detail as Lumet’s great films and Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order,” the trial scenes lack the crackling tension that would have completely hooked us voyeurs.

Similarly, there’s a shortage of subtle chemistry between Luchini and Knudsen – both are sympathetic but there is an awkward flatness between them that never lifts. Even if this is intentional, it’s hard to care much about this fledgling couple. There’s a pivotal moment in the trial that would seem to clinch their relationship and oddly that moment is glossed over, a small but significant flaw.

Also strangely lost in the shuffle is any authentic reaction or concern about an unusually dire and depressing murder case. The characters’ jaded detachment is puzzling.

The fact that veteran writer/director Christian Vincent’s point of view remains rigidly superficial limits the film – the merged storylines should pulse with riveting intensity on two fronts, but instead “Courted” retreats disappointingly into bland disengagement.

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‘The Adderall Diaries’ story-within-a-story is an entry to skip

Father-son dynamics come to the fore of “The Adderall Diaries” along with true crime, drug abuse, S&M, and the blurred boundaries between art, real life and editorial license. Director Pamela Romanowsky’s ambitious drama is based on Stephen Elliott’s memoir of the same name. Romanowsky and Elliott co-wrote the sprawling script.

Adderall Diaries posterIn the film, Elliott (James Franco) is the author of a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father, now deceased. Hailed as a major literary talent, Elliott has a generous advance for his next book and the encouragement of his agent (Cynthia Nixon). But, behind the scenes, Elliott struggles – he can’t focus and is using the drug adderall in an attempt to relieve his writer’s block.

He decides he wants to write about a real-life murder trial, in which a computer programmer named Hans Reiser (Christian Slater) is accused of murdering his wife. Reiser was found guilty and sentenced in 2008. (The actual murder and trial took place in California, but is reset in New York.) During the trial, Elliott meets a New York Times reporter (Amber Heard) and the two start a relationship; she also has been abused. An extra wrench in the works comes when Elliott’s father (Ed Harris), rough around the edges but in fact alive and sort of well, confronts Elliott about the accusations in his book.

There’s a smorgasbord of titillating storylines here and for the first half of the film, Romanowsky’s direction feels capable and confident, eliciting solid performances from her cast and creating a tense mood, edged with darkness (despite the frequent flashbacks, which were overdone and heavy-handed). But then she seems to lose her way, letting narrative threads unravel and dangle clumsily. The story doesn’t end as much as sputter to a halt – as if the project just became overwhelming.

Perhaps it was increasingly difficult to deal with two major intertwined deficits. First, many details of the story (altered from the book) don’t feel authentic. Nixon’s character is referred to as an editor, instead of an agent. I never got a sense that Heard’s NYT reporter was actually filing stories. Her primary objective seems to be pleasing Elliott in bed, until his kinky requests get too weird for her.

Second, Heard and to a certain extent Franco are miscast in this piece. I didn’t buy Heard as an adrenaline-fueled, deadline-driven, fact-checking writer and Franco’s existential suffering was undercut by a cute, cuddly vibe that he can’t quite shake.

Elliott’s father and his alternate version of their past should have been meaty and moving but instead felt trite and by the numbers, even though Harris is a fine actor. And Elliott doesn’t offer any particular insight into the Reiser case (that might have been covered more thoroughly in the memoir, which I haven’t read.) By the time the film ended, or rather expired, it left me deflated, frustrated, a little confused and, worst of all, bored.

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AFI FEST delights film noir fans

Film noir aficionados were gratified to see Pablo Trapero’s “The Clan,” a grisly crime story about the infamous Puccio family, featured at AFI FEST presented by Audi. “The Clan” is Argentina’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Other AFI FEST highlights:

By the Sea,” directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt, who also stars in the film with husband Brad Pitt. Dark and moody and sexy, just the way we like ’em.

Concussion,” starring Will Smith as a doctor who takes on the NFL. Co-starring Alec Baldwin and directed by Peter Landesman.

Director Patricia Riggen’s “The 33,” a tense drama about the 2010 collapse of a Chilean mine and the rescue attempts that followed.

The Big Short,” a comedy/drama about a Wall Street wild man who cashed in on the housing market and defaulting subprime home loans. Directed by Adam McKay, based on real events. Starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell.

The full lineup included 17 docs and 10 Foreign Language Oscar entries among 127 total films from 45 countries.

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The Film Noir File: Robert Wise lays odds against tomorrow

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). All films without a new review have been covered previously in Film Noir Blonde and can be searched in the FNB archives (at right).

Earl (Robert Ryan) instantly feels threatened by smart and polished Johnny (Harry Belafonte).

Earl (Robert Ryan) instantly feels threatened by smart and polished Johnny (Harry Belafonte).

PICK OF THE WEEK Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise). Monday, Aug. 31. 6 p.m. (3 p.m.).

Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Directed by Robert Wise, with a Nelson Gidding-credited screenplay based on a novel by suspense and crime specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat”), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a bitingly contemporary social/political allegory plot.

Shelley Winters plays a frumpy romantic in “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

Shelley Winters plays a frumpy romantic in “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

In the movie, three mismatched New Yorkers – genial, corrupt ex-cop Dave (Ed Begley), brutal ex-con Earl (Robert Ryan) and reckless musician Johnny (Harry Belafonte), a nightclub entertainer with huge gambling debts – join forces for an upstate bank robbery, a well-planned heist that will supposedly solve all their money problems. But their problems are just beginning. Earl is a racist who hates Johnny on sight and Johnny has a short fuse as well. Dave has heart trouble. Things begin to unravel, then explode.

Ryan’s performance is a scorcher; he‘s a perfect villain, bad to the bone. Belafonte’s is compelling and non-clichéd. (He was also one of the producers.) Begley’s is jovial but poignant, a Willy Loman-like salesman peddling his own destruction. The women in the case, a pair of bad blondes – Shelley Winters as Earl’s whining wife and Gloria Grahame as his slutty neighbor – are top-notch noir babes.

Gloria Grahame sizzles in “Odds.”

Gloria Grahame sizzles in “Odds.” What else is new?

French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville named “Odds Against Tomorrow” as one of his three all-time favorite movies; the other two were: “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Along with the 1949 boxing classic “The Set-Up” (which had Ryan starring in a sympathetic role, as the aging fighter) this is the best of Wise’s noirs and crime movies.

The screenplay was mostly written by the uncredited and blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (“Force of Evil”). The original jazz score is by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The atmospheric black and white cinematography is by Joseph C. Brun (“Edge of the City”). The film is a great one, noir to the max, with a powerful and unforgettable ending.

Saturday, Aug. 29: George C. Scott Day

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Anatomy of Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger). One of the best and most true-to-life of all courtroom dramas, “Anatomy of a Murder” is also the best film producer-director Otto Preminger ever made.

Paul Newman is the blue-eyed king of the pool hall in “The Hustler.”

Paul Newman is the blue-eyed king of the pool hall in “The Hustler.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Hustler” (1961, Robert Rossen). In this dark, agile, sinewy cinema tale of the world of pool halls, pool hustlers and the gamblers who exploit them, Paul Newman plays the brash, cocky young pool shark Fast Eddie Felson. Piper Laurie is his ill-fated girl (a tragic drinker). Myron McCormick is his rat-faced, loyal little manager, Jackie Gleason is Minnesota Fats, the plump, limber champ whom Fast Eddie wants to replace. And George C. Scott is Burt, the mean manipulator with the satanic smile who lays the bets, bankrolls the players and says of Fast Eddie to Fats: “Stick with this kid. He’s a loser.”

Newman wasn’t a loser here and neither was the movie. Based on Walter Tevis’s cool, hustling, sharply authentic novel, it’s one of the great late film noirs and the show that made Newman a mega-star – and made Gleason a movie star as well. No film has ever caught the seedy but graceful pool-hall underworld better: the angles, the pockets, the incredible shots, the immaculate tables, the cigarettes and booze culture, the click of the pool balls, and the bravura of the hustlers and sharks hard at their game. Once you see this picture, you won’t get them out of your head either.

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “The Last Run” (1971, Richard Fleischer). One last job for aging crook driver George C. Scott. Co-starring wives Trish Van Devere and Colleen Dewhurst; scripted by Alan Sharp; with a few scenes (uncredited) directed by John Huston.

Monday, Aug. 31: Shelley Winters Day

Harper poster6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, novelist Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted snappily by William Goldman.

2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m.): “He Ran All the Way” (1951, John Berry). John Garfield, as a sexy bad guy on the lam, terrorizes a family and tries to seduce Shelley Winters. (Tries?) Hard core noir and Garfield’s last movie. With Norman Lloyd and Wallace Ford.

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “I Died a Thousand Times” (1955, Stuart Heisler). A color and Cinemascope remake of the Raoul WalshHumphrey BogartIda Lupino gangster saga (from a W. R. Burnett novel) “High Sierra,” this time around starring Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. Inferior to its model, but not awful. With young supporting heavy Lee Marvin in his vicious snarl mode.

Lolita poster10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick). Kubrick’s superb film of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic comic-erotic novel – about the dangerous affair of college professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and nymphet Lolita (Sue Lyon), in which they are nightmarishly pursued by the writer, sybarite and man of many faces Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). An underrated dark comic masterpiece, this film has strong noir touches, themes and style. With Shelley Winters; script by Nabokov (and Kubrick).

Wednesday, Sept. 2

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “A Woman’s Face” (1941, George Cukor). Based on a Gustaf Molander-directed Swedish romantic thriller about a horribly scarred lady outlaw, whose personality changes (for the better), when plastic surgery gives her a beautiful new face, this MGM remake has Joan Crawford in the star role originated by the young Ingrid Bergman. It’s about as posh as a noir can get.

Thursday, Sept. 3

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953, Ida Lupino). Fate isn’t smiling when two guys on vacation give a lift to a man who turns out to be serial killer. “The Hitch-Hiker,” starring Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman, is the only classic film noir directed by a woman, the great Ida Lupino. Best known as an actress, Lupino was also a director, writer and producer. She co-wrote “The Hitch-Hiker.”

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The Film Noir File: Terrence Malick’s stunning debut ‘Badlands’ is a timeless love-on-the-run classic

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). All films without a new review have been covered previously in Film Noir Blonde and can be searched in the FNB archives (at right).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Badlands posterBadlands” (1973, Terrence Malick). Monday, Aug. 24. 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were marked by violence and loneliness, war and craziness, and wild beauty. We see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick’s shattering 1973 classic, “Badlands.”

Set in the American West of the 1950s, it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, who works on a trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean, and Holly, a high-school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen. Read the full review here.

Friday, Aug. 21 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Freebie and the Bean” (1974, Richard Rush). Funny, violent and politically incorrect buddy-buddy cop thriller, co-starring Alan Arkin and James Caan as the buddies.

Saturday, Aug. 22: Marlene Dietrich Day

Putty in her hands: The magnificent Marlene Dietrich and the malleable Emil Jannings star in “The Blue Angel.”

Putty in her hands: The magnificent Marlene Dietrich and the malleable Emil Jannings star in “The Blue Angel.”

9:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m.): “The Blue Angel” (1930, Josef von Sternberg). (Repeat FNB mini-review.) (In German, with subtitles.) Marlene Dietrich plays a stunning and saucy singer who leads a fuddy-duddy teacher (Emil Jannings) to doom and destruction, natch.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “Stage Fright” (1950, Alfred Hitchcock). A backstage theater drama with Jane Wyman as an acting student, who tries to help a man on the run (Richard Todd). He’s accused of murdering the husband of a swooningly beautiful actress (Marlene Dietrich). “Stage Fright” is usually considered one of the lesser Hitchcocks, but second-tier Hitch is still better than most films.

The always-ravishing always-entertaining Marlene Dietrich.

The always-ravishing always-entertaining Marlene Dietrich.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957, Billy Wilder). A stylish and entertaining whodunit starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. And of course a very versatile Marlene Dietrich.

Monday, Aug. 23: Warren Oates Day

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” (1960, Budd Boetticher). In just five years, working with paltry budgets on miniscule shooting schedules, ex-matador and B-movie master Budd Boetticher made the five Western masterpieces or near-masterpieces (from “The Tall T” to “Comanche Station”) known as “The Ranown Cycle” — all with stoic-looking cowboy star Randolph Scott in the saddle, and most with producer Harry Joe Brown. As if that weren’t enough, Boetticher had time during the same span to make another two top Scott vehicles, one of them another masterpiece (the 1956 “Seven Men From Now”) as well as that hard-boiled classic of film noir and the gangster genre, “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.”

Wild Bunch posterShot in brilliant black and white by ace of aces cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Killing,” “The Wild Bunch“), and starring the ruthless-looking, poker-faced glamour guy Ray Danton as the real-life mobster Diamond, “Legs” is prime Boetticher: taut, hard, perfectly shaped. It’s a sharp-eyed tale of brutal men, their fast ladies and their hapless victims, with a supporting cast that includes Karen Steele, Simon Oakland and that later wild triggerman on “The Wild Bunch,” Warren Oates.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974, Sam Peckinpah). One of Peckinpah’s bloodiest neo-noirs, with Warren Oates as the morally weary American bounty hunter who brings a head to Mexico.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “The Wild Bunch” (1969, Sam Peckinpah). The greatest neo-noir Western. Peckinpah at his finest and most brutally exciting. With William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates.

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French neo-noir takes the cake at this year’s COLCOA

The next time I visit Paris, I might not wander on the Left Bank. I might skip the visits to the Musée Rodin and the Petit Palais, and say no to making a little journey to Giverny. I could easily be talked into holing up at the Plaza Athénée (I am overdue for a visit), ordering room service and binge-watching superb French neo-noir and police-procedural gems. I found out at this year’s tremendous COLCOA film festival that French filmmakers can now claim the title of the hottest, most cutting-edge noiristas in the world.

“SK1” won the fest’s First Feature Award.

“SK1” won the fest’s First Feature Award.

How so? Well, “L’Affaire SK1,” a riveting depiction of an eight-year hunt for a serial killer nicknamed the Beast of the Bastille (based on real events), snared the fest’s First Feature Award. “SK1” was directed by Frédéric Tellier (who co-wrote the film with David Oelhoffen), and features Nathalie Baye as a public defender. “SPIRAL” Season 5 (think “The Wire”) received the TV Series Award.

Joining “SK1” in the Film Noir Series, now in its 10th year, was Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin’s new film (from director Cédric Jimenez) “The Connection,” which picks up where William Friedkin’s landmark thriller “The French Connection” left off. The final film in the noir series was “Next Time, I’ll Aim For the Heart,” a tense and haunting story, based on the real-life Oise Killer, a cold-blooded psycho on the loose in 1978 Paris, flawlessly portrayed by Guillaume Canet. The film was written and directed by Cédric Anger.

Anger was one of several writers on yet another gritty and twisted tale taken from real life, “In the Name of My Daughter,” which stars the one and only Catherine Deneuve, and was directed by the great André Téchiné. “Daughter” was somewhat disappointing, however, seeming to lose its way about midway through.

The COLCOA festival opened with “A Perfect Man.”

The COLCOA festival opened with “A Perfect Man.”

Perhaps my favorite part of the fest (other than hearing French accents and enjoying lovely receptions) were the revival screenings of “La Chienne” (1931, Jean Renoir) and “Two Men in Town” (1973, José Giovanni). Seriously, does it get much better than watching Alain Delon as a divinely handsome ex-con struggling to go straight and Jean Gabin as a world-weary but somehow regal cop, not to mention a brief appearance by Gérard Depardieu? No. It does not, especially when you know there is a chilly St-Germain cocktail waiting for you after the show.

The COLCOA festival opened with the North American premiere of “A Perfect Man,” a thoroughly enjoyable Hitchcockian thriller co-written and directed by Yann Gozlant. I heard some post-screening crabbing about the flick’s plausibility but I think the naysayers missed the point.

American neo-noir storytellers would do well to study these sleek, sharp, psychologically complex cinematic offerings.

Now, to make that reservation at Plaza Athénée …

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‘A Perfect Man’ is an ideal start to COLCOA film festival

Last night, the COLCOA French Film Festival kicked off with a lovely reception and a screening of “A Perfect Man,” directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan.

A Perfect Man posterIn the movie, Pierre Niney plays Mathieu Vasseur, a sensitive smart loner and struggling fiction writer. When he happens to find an unpublished manuscript written by a French soldier in the Algerian War (who is now deceased), Mathieu takes a gamble and sends it to a publisher. It’s an instant success and Mathieu’s once-dismal existence is transformed, bringing him money, acclaim and the love of Alice Fursac (Ana Girardot), a beautiful and brainy literature professor who hails from a prominent family.

But three years later, Mathieu’s lies catch up with him: he’s spent all his money and he’s made zero progress on a second book. Also bothering him: a blackmailer and a nosy friend of the Fursac family. As Mathieu gets more desperate to cover his tracks (à la Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley), he turns to increasingly dire methods to hang onto his pretty illusion.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

As always, the COLCOA opening-night reception was delightful.

Granted, there are several times where “A Perfect Man” might inspire head-shaking incredulity. But I found that easy to forgive because there is so much that’s highly entertaining about the film – Niney and Girardot are just right for their parts, not to mention the luscious cinematography, shocking twists, taut pacing and gorgeous locations.

Alfred Hitchcock had a name for viewers who quibbled with the likelihood of a suspense movie’s plot points occurring in real life: The Plausibles. In his view, these nitpickers were missing the point, which was to enjoy the story’s thrills, both narratively and visually.

Of course, there needs to be some semblance of reality as well as sophistication in terms of storytelling in order to gloss over pesky points of fact. And it’s a difficult balance to maintain – some films are so compelling that it’s easy to forgive even major errors, others we dismiss completely because we just can’t buy into the film’s reality.

In the case of “A Perfect Man,” ditch your Plausibles checklist and just have a good time.

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In noirish ‘Clouds,’ Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart shine

At a recent press screening, several of my fellow critics and I were lamenting the lack of good movies released so far this year. It’s about time for some titles worth touting.

Clouds of Sils Maria poster with JB KSThe one standout, most of us agreed, is French writer/director Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a drama with neo-noir elements (set in Sils Maria, Switzerland) that revolves around a high-profile actress, exuding poise and sophistication, named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche).

Maria’s enviable career comes full circle when she is talked into making the ultimate encore: She will return to the play that spurred her success 20 years before, though this time she will star as the older women whose life is falling apart. Cast as the luscious ingénue in this rendition is a Hollywood bad girl struggling to steer clear of the tabloids and be taken seriously as an actress (Chloë Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart co-stars as Maria’s smart, cynical and chicly bespectacled assistant, Valentine.

We are introduced to Maria and Valentine on a train as it solemnly chugs though gorgeous mountain country and the story of these two women, a generation apart, unfolds like a long journey — freeing and claustrophobic, intimate and impersonal, predestined yet random and mysterious. We see the boundaries of their intense relationship stretch, fray and then suddenly, frighteningly vanish.

“Clouds of Sils Maria,” beautifully shot, impeccably cast and confidently directed, has deservedly garnered much praise, especially for the superb performances from leads Binoche and Stewart. (Never having seen “Twilight,” I am now a big Stewart fan).

Suspenseful and sly, wistful and resonant, “Clouds” should not be missed.

Ex Machina posterMeanwhile, many reviewers have been impressed with first-time director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (Garland also wrote the script). This sleek sci-fi thriller is crisply smart, coolly shot with a chilly color palette and well acted. In fact, I failed to recognize Oscar Isaac as the mad but muted scientist. Domhnall Gleeson plays a young techie who wins the chance to assess the emotional intelligence of a sexy female robot — a truly heartless femme fatale (Alicia Vikander). It sounds good and looks great but somehow the film overall felt slightly shallow and short on ideas.

Similarly, “True Story,” fails to live up to its potential, despite grisly real-life details. James Franco plays Christian Longo, an Oregon man who received the death sentence in 2003 for murdering his family. While on the run in Mexico, Longo impersonated a journalist named Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill). In need of a career boost after being fired by the New York Times for making up one of the interviewees in a magazine story, Finkel agreed to write about Longo and later published a memoir about his experience.

True Story posterFranco and Hill are compelling as is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend. But director and co-writer Rupert Goold loses his way and the storytelling soon becomes murky.

Also, it’s a bit hard to take “True Story” seriously when it depicts the New York Times newsroom as a place where reporters raucously drink beer and play poker after submitting their stories. (Or maybe it’s just hard to take James Franco seriously after the fiasco that was “Child of God”). But it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen it and nothing much of the movie has stuck with me. Still, there are worse ways to kill two hours.

Also drawing mixed but mostly good reviews is Levan Gabriadze’s debut feature “Unfriended,” a horror flick that takes place entirely on the small screen, ie Skype and Facebook. Shelley Hennig leads a cast of high-school friends who are harassed by a mysterious cyber-stalker. It’s a clever gimmick and the acting’s good, but other than that, “Unfriended” tells a same-old same-old story about the secrets and betrayals of teen friendships and romance.

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