Highly anticipated ‘Snowman’ turns out to be mostly slush

Looking at the billboard posters for “The Snowman” (2017, Tomas Alfredson), I had the feeling that if I paid close attention while watching the movie, I might see a red flag or perhaps spot a clue that the police miss in a complex and carefully constructed story of a serial killer on the loose.

And since it’s set in Norway (haunting snowscapes, frozen lakes and austere mountains abound), I figured this tipoff to patient viewers would likely be a visual one – the Scandinavians being a tight-lipped crowd for the most part.

But about 45 minutes into this film, in which Michael Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole, I realized that hanging in there was not going to pay off – that this was a complex and sloppily constructed story that was probably going to leave me feeling disappointed and frustrated.

Despite Alfredson’s success in 2011 with the multilayered “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he seems out of his depth and overwhelmed with “The Snowman.” The narrative is confusing, the flashbacks don’t connect well with the present, the characterizations are haphazard. A case in point: Early on, we see Harry lying on a park bench shivering. There’s no explanation and the rest of the time he seems calm, measured, decisive and compassionate. Eventually, we learn he is an alcoholic. Oh, OK.

Similarly, his colleague Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), despite showing ingenuity and fierce determination, in the end, must resort to time-worn feminine wiles to land her suspect. Good thing she’s gorgeous!

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character doesn’t have a last name but at least she’s elegantly dressed. Whatever.

Most vacant of all: Chloë Sevigny’s two characters (she plays twins) – one of whom is a dour-faced chicken slaughterer. ’Nuff said.

Considering, too, that the film was based on Jo Nesbø’s best-selling series of novels, there was reason to hope for a well made, intelligent, engrossing movie. Maybe there were too many screenwriters? (Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini lead the list.)

Or maybe this would have been better off as a TV series, where the serpentine storylines could play out and the characters could have more time to develop. Unfortunately, “The Snowman” we ended up with is mostly slush.

“The Snowman” opened Oct. 19 in Los Angeles and is now on general release.

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‘L.A. Confidential,’ a neo-noir classic, turns 20

Tonight at the Laemmle Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills: Oscar winner Kim Basinger and co-star Guy Pearce will participate in a Q&A after a screening of ‘L.A. Confidential’!

Upon the film’s release, critic Michael Wilmington, writing for the Chicago Tribune, described it as: “A movie bull’s-eye: noir with an attitude, a thriller packing punches. It gives up its evil secrets with a smile.”

In honor of the anniversary, we are rerunning our review from 2010.

L.A. Confidential/1997/Warner Bros./138 min.

Life is good (and glitzy) in 1953 Los Angeles, if you don’t mind smoke and mirrors, hidden crime, rampant racism and more than a few dodgy cops. Corruption in the police force, long an undercurrent in classic noir, takes center stage in “L.A. Confidential,” a wry, stylish and devastating police drama directed by Curtis Hanson.

Hanson sets the tone of glib optimism masking darker secrets by opening the movie with shots of bright and cheerful ’50s postcards, the song “Accentuate the Positive (Eliminate the Negative)” and a Danny DeVito voiceover filling us in on some of the trouble that lurks in paradise.

The sophisticated script, by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, is based on the 1990 novel by James Ellroy, which cleverly weaves in actual Hollywood history while telling the see-speak-and-hear-all-evil story of three cops:

From left: James Cromwell, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey

*The jaded and jazzy Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey with a nod to Dean Martin) who pads his bank account by consulting for a TV police show (“Badge of Honor”) and feeding juicy info to “Hush Hush” tabloid columnist Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito). Sid meets looming deadlines with set-ups, celebrity exposés and the odd blackmail scheme. (“Hush Hush” magazine is based on the ’50s scandal mag “Confidential” and “Badge of Honor” is based on TV’s “Dragnet.”)

*Det. Lt. Edmund Jennings ‘Ed’ Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious newbie with a gift for finessing police politics. Exley wants to make his Dad proud, follows a strict moral code and doesn’t care about being one of the guys. And he won’t be, given that he testifies against his fellow cops and their part in “Bloody Christmas,” a true incident of LA cops beating up Mexican prisoners.

*Officer Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe), a thuggish beefcake who likes to take justice into his own hands, especially when it comes to violence against women. “His blood’s always up,” Exley says of White.

Presiding over the entire force and clashing with Exley in particular is Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), arrogant but understated until his latent psychopath rears his head.

“Bloody Christmas” is a mere prelude to a detailed catalog of vice and sin, as the story deepens and stretches to accommodate layer after layer of lies, double-dealing, betrayal and cover-up. Funny what can happen when mob leader and “honest haberdasher” Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) — a real-life criminal — is getting a time-out in jail.

Central to the tangle is the Nite Owl case, involving kidnapping, rape, robbery and murder, which of course is not what it looks like. White’s ex-partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) was among the bodies found in a dumpy diner, and, in pretty short order, three African-American guys with records end up taking the fall.

Kim Basinger won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Additionally, the three cops find out about an upscale call-girl service, run by the suave, slick and urbane Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Patchett’s gimmick: All the girls resemble popular actresses — or they do after a few trips to a plastic surgeon. For instance, there’s a Veronica Lake look-alike named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Sure enough, such a business did apparently exist in ’50s Tinseltown, as recounted in Garson Kanin’s memoir “Hollywood.”

Bud White proves to be both smart and strong as he asks the tough questions and finds their well-guarded answers, one in the form of a rotten, rat-infested corpse who turns out to be a fellow cop. Shocker!

More storylines surface, such as the romance between Bud and good-hearted golden-girl Lynn, not to be confused with Veronica Lake. (Btw, the Lana Turner mixup scene is a hoot!) And as is the case in noir, it’s not long before Exley meets Lynn and creates a triangle of treachery. As the threads of the story unravel, and we see more darkness and deceit, deadly shoot-outs and bloody dust-ups, it’s clear that all strands lead back to a central source of evil. Hanson and Helgeland, courtesy of Ellroy, tell a tense, crisply paced, funny and chilling story nestled in a near-perfectly rendered world of sun-drenched, sleazy LA.

A hit at the Cannes Film Festival, “L.A. Confidential” also ranked on most major critics Top Ten lists for 1997. The film received Oscar noms for best movie, director, editing, art direction, cinematography, adapted screenplay, supporting actress, sound and music/original dramatic score. Composer Jerry Goldsmith also scored “Chinatown” from 1974 and 1992’s “Basic Instinct.” “L.A. Confidential” won two: Basinger for supporting actress; Hanson and Helgeland for the screenplay.

Hanson’s film stands up beautifully and certainly holds its own among the great neo-noir movies, in the tradition of “Chinatown” and “Body Heat.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times sums up the appeal this way: “Its intricate plot is so nihilistic and cold around the heart, its nominal heroes so amoral, so willing to sell out anyone and everyone, that the film is as initially unnerving as it is finally irresistible.”

That said, there are several snags on the accuracy front. We are introduced to Johnny Stompanato (Paolo Seganti) as Lana Turner’s boyfriend, but in reality, the pair didn’t meet until 1957. (The following year, Turner’s teenage daughter Cheryl Crane fatally stabbed Stompanato; it was found to be justifiable homicide.)

And while Mickey Cohen was certainly a major player in the LA underworld, the bigger, though less famous, boss was Jack Dragna, who took over mob business after the murder of Bugsy Siegel in 1947.

Veronica Lake shot by George Hurrell; copyright George Hurrell

Also, Veronica Lake was a 1940s star and, by 1953, her power had faded considerably; the clip that’s shown from “This Gun for Hire” would have been 11 years old. At least Hanson let a 43-year-old actress play the part.

My favorite aspect of “L.A. Confidential” is the stellar performances. (There are 80 speaking parts.) Australians Pearce and Crowe, largely unknown in the U.S. at the time, and Spacey are terrific to watch as their loyalties to each other ebb and flow. Crowe electrifies every scene he’s in and Pearce makes an ideal foil. Spacey coasts through his part with an equal measure of glitz and wit; his brief answer to why he became a cop is stunning. DeVito must have modeled Sid after a mangy dog.

As I mentioned earlier, Basinger won an Oscar for her role as the femme fatale. “She’s one of the few contemporary actresses that you imagine in a George Hurrell photograph—as glamorous as any star in the old studio system,” Hanson said in an AP story from 1997. In the same story, Basinger said of Veronica Lake: “I think she’s more interesting than every character she ever played.”

So do I.

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With ‘Prevenge,’ Alice Lowe pops out a classic

Prevenge/2016/88 min.

I don’t know filmmaker and mother Alice Lowe but I’d be willing to bet that if she was given a baby shower, she banned boring guessing games and gluten-free, sugarless cupcakes. Instead, she might have shown “The Shining” and served hefty slabs of juicy red meat.

A bit of a random speculation, perhaps, but not after you see her sly, subversive black comedy, “Prevenge,” which she wrote, directed and starred in, well into her first pregnancy.

Lowe (whose credits include “Hot Fuzz,” “Sightseers” and “Locke”) plays Ruth, a single, soon-to-be mother who’s also a serial murderer with a talent for disguises and a penchant for gore. Why does Ruth kill? Because the demanding little fetus that has taken over her body is telling her to, natch. And because she feels betrayed by the loss of the baby’s father.

Lowe tells a smart, taut and funny yarn, with shades of Stanley Kubrick and Monty Python, raising provocative questions about women, motherhood and the way society tends to pigeonhole women who choose to have kids. She’s joined by a strong cast: Gemma Whelan and Kate Dickie (from “Game of Thrones”), Tom Davis and Kayvan Novak.

Admirably, Lowe takes a few risks with the script. For example, she doesn’t beg the audience to sympathize with the demented Ruth. “Though you might come to like her towards the end, I didn’t want it to be too easy at the start,” said Lowe at a recent screening and reception at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

Easy, no. But entertaining? Very much so.

“Prevenge” opens on Shudder on Friday, March 24.

The film also screened at AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi.

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Noir City: Hollywood, TCM Classic Film Festival and COLCOA French Film Festival are around the corner

Calling all cinephiles: Three great festivals are about to kick off…

Noir City: Hollywood will run Friday, March 24, to Sunday, April 2, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The famed fest is presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation.

Organizers say the fest will feature favorite rarities as well as many never-before-screened obscurities. This 19th edition of the event aims to replicate the movie-going experience of that time: 10 double bills, each featuring a major studio A picture paired with a shorter B movie.

The series opens with “This Gun for Hire” and “Quiet Please, Murder.” Other highlights include: “Ministry of Fear,” “The Dark Corner,” “The Accused,” “Chicago Deadline,” “I Was a Shoplifter,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”  and “The Big Heat.”

Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation will introduce the movies.

Next up: Find your best vintage pencil skirt and your favorite fedora. The TCM Classic Film Festival comes to Hollywood Thursday, April 6, to Sunday, April 9. Gear up for a dose of hilarity because this year’s theme is Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies. “From lowbrow to high, slapstick to sophisticated comedies of manners—we will showcase the greatest cinematic achievements of lone clowns, comedic duos and madcap ensembles.”

We’re very stoked about “Born Yesterday,” “The Graduate,” “High Anxiety,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Singin in the Rain” and “Whats Up, Doc?

Holliday and Holden in “Born Yesterday.” Turns out, Judy ain’t as dumb as she looks.

And might there be a third title to feature redheads?! So far, we have “Those Redheads from Seattle” and  “Red-Headed Woman.” Let’s hope more are announced.

We are also eager for the slate of panels, special guests and parties that have come to define this fest. Organizers do a truly stellar job of planning and programming and keeping their cool amid the craziness.

Wry chuckles, silly humor, belly laughs, boundless fun. We’re in!

Last on the lineup but first on the list of any self-respecting Francophile (bien sur!) is the 21st annual City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival. COLCOA runs Monday, April 24, to Tuesday, May 2, at the Directors Guild Theater in Hollywood.

So far, we know that director Damien Chazelle, who just won the Oscar for “La La Land,” (at 32, he is the youngest director to win the coveted prize) will present Leos Carax’s “The Lovers on the Bridge,” starring Academy Award® winner Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant.

COLCOA will honor writer-director Stéphane Brizé with a special presentation of “Not Here To Be Loved” (2005) and the festival will host the West Coast premiere of Brizé’s new film “A Womans Life,” (Une Vie), based on the Guy de Maupassant novel and starring Judith Chemla.

Of special interest to noiristas: COLCOA will present the world premiere of the newly digitally restored “One Day in a Clowns Life,” the first film written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The screening honors the 100th anniversary of the iconic filmmaker’s birth.

We are looking forward to our date with Delon.

Also part of the Melville birthday celebration is a special presentation of “Le Cercle Rouge,” starring Alain Delon, Bourvil and Yves Montand.

Additionally, COLCOA will show an international premiere of “Farewell Bonaparte” (1985), the beautifully restored historical fresco from filmmaker Youssef Chahine.

Playtime,” Jacques Tati’s inventive and ambitious 1967 film, will have a special presentation at the festival to celebrate its 50th (gasp!) anniversary.

The full schedule will be announced April 5.

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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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Start summer with a chilling classic …

Chinatown/1974/Paramount/130 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Noah Cross (John Huston) tells J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) what’s what.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those are the last words, chilling, evocative, cynical, of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown – that great dark tale of politics, murder and family secrets in ’30s Los Angeles. No matter what you think of Polanski and his arrest and extradition problems, the director’s 1974 private-eye classic “Chinatown” is still a masterpiece of neo-noir. The movie, one of the big commercial-critical hits of its era, was a career peak for director Polanski, the matchless screenwriter Towne and the superb star team of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.

It’s a picture that seems close to perfect of its kind and one of the ’70s films I love best. Gorgeous and terrifying and sometimes funny as hell, “Chinatown” tells a romantic/tragic/murder mystery tale of official crimes and personal depravity raging around the real-life Los Angeles water scandal, with private sin and public swindles steadily stripped bare by J. J. Gittes (one of Nicholson’s signature roles), a cynical, natty, smart-ass shamus, with a nose for corruption and a hot-trigger temper.

Gittes is an anti-Philip Marlowe detective. He’s proud of taking divorce cases (Marlowe disdained them), and he’s not too queasy about selling out. He’s also much less sexually reticent than Raymond Chandler’s knight of the mean streets, though he cracks just as wise. Fundamentally, Gittes is a survivor.

He likes his nose, he likes breathing through it. But he finds it increasingly hard to keep it unbloodied and out of rich L. A. people’s business as he keeps digging deeper into what starts as a simple infidelity investigation and then broadens to include a vast conspiracy, intertwined with the deadly history of immaculately evil nabob Noah Cross (played by the devilishly genial Huston) and his desperate, wounded daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway). It’s a nasty web that includes Polanski himself as the cocky little fedora-topped thug (with a Polish accent) who calls Gittes “Kitty-Kat” and slices up his proboscis for a memento mori.

“Chinatown”– with splendid Richard Sylbert production design, gleaming John Alonso cinematography and a haunting Jerry Goldsmith score – wafts us back to LA’s downtown and Silverlake in the ’30s: the era of the Depression. It was also the heyday, of course, of the hard-boiled, high-style thrillers of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, fiction that Towne, at his absolute best, pastiches to a fine turn and that Polanski, at his best makes shatteringly alive.

Gittes puts in some extra time with client Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

The movie has great dialogue, great acting, great direction and an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism. The bleak ending (Polanski’s idea) cuts you to the heart. Temper-tantrum virtuoso Nicholson has some of his best blowups.

And the supporting cast members – Polanski, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, Dick Bakalyan, Roy Jenson, James Hong, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell and John Hillerman (at his smarmiest) – are wonderful too.

In fact, this is a movie that – not counting Gittes’ slit nose – has no perceptible flaws: a classic you can’t and won’t forget. “Chinatown” reminds you of how Nicholson almost single-handedly, shifted the ground of the movies, and changed our conception of what a movie star was. It reminds you of how vulnerable Dunaway could be, of what a sly old movie fox Huston was.

It reminds you how great films can be when they have really wonderful, beautifully crafted, verbally agile scripts (like Towne’s here). And it reminds you that Polanski is a filmmaker who’s maybe faced such terror, darkness and despair in his own life – from the Holocaust to personal tragedy – that he can, brilliantly and memorably, turn fear into art.

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TCM Classic Film Fest provides ample opps to feast on film

By the end of the TCM Classic Film Festival on Sunday night, we were bleary-eyed and decidedly not bushy-tailed. But we were blissed out on terrific movies!

In “Brief Encounter,” Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are a proper pair who unexpectedly find true passion.

After starting off with “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945, Elia Kazan), we would not have passed up the chance to see David Lean’s brilliant 1945 love story “Brief Encounter,” starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, on the big screen.

Friday began with 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” directed by Charles Vidor and starring Doris Day as real-life torch singer Ruth Etting, married to a gangster, played by James Cagney.

The Conversation” (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) captivated the audience and made us realize anew the subtle talent of Gene Hackman and Cindy Williams. The rarely seen film noir “Private Property” (1960, Leslie Stevens) was sordid, but in an entertaining way …

Angela Lansbury

And the highly anticipated screening of “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer) was enthralling and chilling, especially in this election year. Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury and she was a delight.

On Saturday, writer-director Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951) starring Kirk Douglas was the ideal preface to 1982’s noir spoof “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin. Carl Reiner, who wrote and directed “Dead Men,” was interviewed after the movie. Hilarious! And smutty, just as you’d expect.

Gina Lollobrigida

A rare treat was the interview with film legend Gina Lollobrigida at the showing of “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (1968, Melvin Frank).

And rivaling Reiner’s entertainment value was Elliott Gould, who appeared at “The Long Goodbye” (1973, Robert Altman). Gould nicely met the challenges of playing Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective Philip Marlowe. The French New Wave classic “Band of Outsiders” (1964, Jean-Luc Godard) ended a full day of fest-going.

All too soon, it seemed, it was Sunday and there was still more to see: “All That Heaven Allows” (1955, Douglas Sirk), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949, John Ford) and “The Band Wagon” (1953, Vincente Minnelli). In attendance at the latter was director-choreographer Susan Stroman.

This year’s theme was Moving Pictures and the organizers were right. Kleenex was as essential as Coke and popcorn.

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

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

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

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

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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