LUCKY YOU * *
Cert PG, 123 mins
After a straight flush of critical and commercial successes with LA Confidential, Wonder Boys, 8 Mile and In Her Shoes, Curtis Hanson plays a weak hand with this unengaging drama about a Vegas poker player with relationship issues.
The son of preening poker champ L.C. (Robert Duvall), professional gambler Huck Cheever (Eric Bana) has a silver tongue and a gift for reading the people against whom he's playing.
Unfortunately, he frequently doesn't know when to walk away with the winnings and has a tendency to let his emotions get the better of him, especially when dad's around.
Consequently, he's sinking deeper into debt trying to raise the stakes to enter the World Series.
Away from the table, it's a different matter. As his father tells him, "you lead your life like you should play cards, and you play cards like you should lead your life." A case of Hustle, 10; Commitment, 0.
Then he meets aspiring singer Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore) and, as romance blossoms, it seems she might be the one to crack his emotional defences. But no, he plays her just as coldly as he would an opponent, taking advantage when she's not looking.
Naturally, he'll come to realise the error of his ways and try to win her back while his relationship with dad comes to a climax as they face off against each other in the championship game.
Hanson's a bit of a poker nut himself, which means huge chunks of the film are given over to explaining the rules and scenes of people playing cards. Not entirely thrilling, but at least he squeezes a degree of tension out of someone turning a pair of threes.
Unfortunately, he seems to have lost sight of character development, backstory and narrative in the process, Huck's working through his issues reduced to a series of dull sketches with no dramatic pulse.
Fatally, given Bana's largely expressionless performance, Hanson also makes the mistake of keeping Barrymore off screen for long stretches, robbing the film of what little life it has.
The pre-credits sequence, as Huck seeks to hustle a pawnbroker by telling them how to work the odds is a flash of brilliance while Robert Downey Jr's brief cameo as a telephone scam artist shrink is as inspired as it is pointless. If only everything else was half as good.
LA VIE EN ROSE * * * *
Cert 15, 140 mins, subtitled
France’s iconic answer to Judy Garland, Edith Piaf’s story is equal parts one of triumph and tragedy.
Born Edith Gassion in 1915 in the Belleville district of Paris, her father (Jean-Paul Rouve, excellent) was a circus acrobat father and her self-centred mother (Clothilde Courau) an alcoholic street-singer come prostitute.
When her mother abandoned her, she was taken to Normandy to be raised in a brothel by her paternal grandmother.
Suffering blindness as a child, she was eventually reclaimed by her father when she was 14, touring with him as street entertainers before a bitter parting of the ways, after which she seemed set to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
However, she was spotted singing in the streets of Pigalle with best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud) by Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), a nightclub owner impresario who rechristened her Piaf (little sparrow) and set her on the road to fame.
That too seemed set to be short-lived when he was murdered by the mob, but eventually, under the tough love care of her singing teacher and manager, Piaf became the toast of both France and America.
However, afflicted throughout her life by rheumatism, she would become a morphine addict and alcoholic, prone to bouts of rage and depression and emotionally shattered by the death of her married Moroccan lover, Middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) in 1949.
She eventually died of cancer in 1963, aged just 47 but looking like a bent, frail 90 year old.
It’s a life custom-made for screen melodrama, and, focusing on the pain and torment, director Olivier Dahan certainly makes the most of it, the film driven by a toweringly magnificent Oscar-worthy performance by Marion Cotillard who wholly inhabits Piaf from the age of 16 on, brilliantly capturing her mannerisms, voice, egotism and physical appearance.
Unfortunately, Dahan has opted to tell the story as a series of almost incoherent non-chronological flashbacks, opening in 1959 and jumping between 1918 and 1963 apparently at random so that while there are several memorable scenes the film never establishes a sense of rhythm.
And while biopics inevitably tweak facts (Emmanuelle Seigner as the young Edith’s surrogate mother whore is a complete invention) and skip others, there are some striking omissions.
A couple of early marriages (you don’t even know Piaf had a child until the final moments) and her relationships with Yves Montand (completely absent), Charles Aznavour and Marlene Deitrich (a lifelong friendship reduced to one brief – though admittedly poignant – meeting) are all casualties, but the most glaring of all is WWII.
During the French Occupation, Piaf controversially entertained the Germans but also worked with the Resistance, saving many lives. A small mention wouldn’t have gone amiss.
But whatever its flaws, there’s no denying the cumulative power the film exercises in its performances and the sheer thrill of hearing that remarkable voice, climaxing, inevitably, with her life-defining signature tune, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Whatever the film’s flaws, its audiences probably won’t either.
LIKE MINDS * * *
Cert 15, 109 mins
When introverted taxidermy-obsessed British public schoolboy Nigel Colby (Tom Sturridge) is found shot dead, touch cop Insp. McKenzie (Richard Roxburgh) hauls in his resentful roommate, Alex Forbes (Eddie Redmayne), the son of the snotty headmaster (Patrick Malahide), as a suspect.
With Alex proving a cool customer, forensic psychologist Sally Rowe (Toni Collette) is enlisted to try and get inside his head.
Switching between interrogation room and flashbacks, what emerges is a dark portrait of two troubled teenagers who share a chilling psychological connection as well as family backgrounds that (cue Da Vinci Code echoes) hark back to the Knights Templars, a secret order that also links both McKenzie and Forbes' father.
In a tangled plot that involves the apparently accidental death of another schoolboy and the re-enactment of a ritual murder, Rowe has to determine to what extent Alex was under the psychopathic Nigel's influence and what happened on the night of the shooting.
Already two years old but feeling eve more dated, as psychological thrillers go this is pretty unexceptional stuff, not much helped by a surfeit of psychobabble about Gestalt Theory and mental manipulation, several glaring plot holes and a fatally blank performance from Sturridge.
However, it looks suitably atmospheric, newcomer Redmayne proves a chillingly magnetic screen presence, Collette pulls out several solid moments and, just for kicks, there’s a Usual Suspects sting in the tail too.
NOT HERE TO BE LOVED * * *
Cert 15, 95 mins, subtitled
Resolutely French, this is another contribution to the ballroom dancing as emotional therapy school of romcoms previously assayed by the likes of Shall We Dance.
Over in the buttoned up corner we have Patrick Chesnais as fifty-something divorcee Jean-Claude, a man beaten down by constant rejection by his elderly unloving grouchy father (Georges Wilson) everytime he visits the nursing home and by the depressing grind of running the family firm of bailiffs, serving eviction orders on other sad sacks.
His eye’s caught by the tango class in the building opposite his, so he wanders over and meets up with Francoise (Anne Consigny), a fortyish school counsellor whom Jean-Claude’s mother used to babysit.
She's taking lessons in preparation for her forthcoming marriage to a blocked novelist, but is clearly having second thoughts; not least because of her bossy future mother-in-law.
And so it is that a few twirls around the floor lead to an unlikely tentative romance, putting a spring back in Jean-Claude’s step. At least until he learns she’s due to get wed.
Both narratively and emotionally low key in its exploration of how happiness passes down through the generations, it’s the central performances and subtle shifts of tone that make this worth the effort, a final scene at the retirement home delivering the film’s heartaching punchline.
DANS PARIS * *
Cert 15, 95 mins, subtitled
Depressed after being dumped and thrown out by his girlfriend, photographer Paul (Gallic heartthrob Romain Duris) is spending Christmas at his divorced father's Paris apartment.
Dad (Guy Marchand) does his best to help, but he's still messed up over the fact his wife left him when their daughter committed suicide some years earlier.
Younger sibling Jonathan (Louis Garrel) tries to cheer his brother up and get him out and about, but is constantly distracted by a succession of old flames and new possibilities.
Directed in long, steady takes by Christophe Honoré and narrated to camera by Garrel, it's an emotionally wide-ranging sober study of bipolar depression, a dysfunctional family black comedy, love letter to Paris and playful homage to the New Wave into the bargain.
With Kim Wilde’s Cambodia proving the backdrop to one memorable scene, it’s well acted and, at times spryly amusing, but it’s also riddled with the sort of annoyingly smug, self-aware and pretentious dialogue that gives French cinema a bad name.