It's not exactly Paris in the spring, but for Francophiles, April in Los Angeles means the City of Lights, City of Angels film festival. This year's edition showcases a formidable 20 recent Gallic features, with a strong emphasis on genre, and the inevitable fest-within-a-fest feeling when certain actors — Gerard Depardieu, Cecile De France, Audrey Tautou — pop up in multiple titles.
The nerviest delight of the thrillers is the Cesar Award-winning "Tell No One," actor/director/co-writer Guillaume Canet's adaptation of American mystery novelist Harlan Coben's 2001 airplane-read classic. Francois Cluzet plays a doctor whose eight-year mourning for his murdered wife becomes hopeful, wrenching panic when he's sent an anonymous e-mail indicating she might be alive. Swift violence, a frantic citywide foot chase, high-level corruption and reliable film faces (Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort, Kristin Scott Thomas) keep the flick emotionally suspenseful, and Cluzet's grief-stricken performance — even in the most Hitchcockian of moments — keeps things well-grounded. Despite the sort of labyrinthine plot swerves no modern thriller can seemingly do without, the film never feels slick or Hollywood-ized. And because it's French, there's always time for a cigarette.
In the military drama "Mon Colonel," co-written by Costa-Gavras, the present-day murder of an Algerian war figure spurs an investigation that, through the dramatized diaries of an impressionable young lieutenant (Robinson Stevenin), sheds light on the torture used by French troops during that conflict. The script can be shaky and the storytelling contrived, but the modern parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan are potent — as is the great Olivier Gourmet as the controversial colonel, whose disdain for rebellious Muslims and blithe French locals seems equal.
The documentary "General Store," meanwhile, zeroes in on the hopes and fears of a group of housing project Parisians as they wait to see if their local grocery store, run by a sensitive, community-beloved man named Ali, will stick around or be closed by the increasingly negligent owners. Director Chantal Briet offers small portraits of a melting pot of eccentrics, dreamers, mother figures and troublemakers, providing a crucial riposte of everyday dignity within the bleak and desperate suburban riots of 2005.
On a lighter note, the close-quarters romantic comedy "Change of Address" brings together a sheepish French horn player (Emmanuel Mouret, who wrote and directed) and an innocently flirtatious copy store owner (Frederique Bel) for a Rohmer-style round of heady gab, move-ins and move-outs, and mutual support as each pursues other romantic targets. The outcome may be predictable, but the casual intimacy and sexual misdirection make for buoyant and sweet eroticism.
The search for justice informs some of the entries in the 7th Annual International Beverly Hills Film Festival, which started Wednesday night and continues through Sunday. In the two-hander "Steel Toes," David Straithairn plays a Jewish lawyer appointed to defend a tattooed neo-Nazi (Andrew Walker) accused of kicking a Pakistani to death. Based on a play by David Gow (who co-directed with Mark Adam), the head-butting politics is obvious, and Walker's depiction of a change of heart is pockmarked with some regrettable emoting. Only Straithairn, an actor whose instincts usually elevate material, suggests the emotional price of a compassion-at-all-costs drive.
A real-life figure of psychological interest is Dominick Dunne, the Vanity Fair chronicler of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous, who traces his victim-fueled/celeb-centric trial coverage of crime in high society to the outrage he felt more than 20 years ago after his daughter's murderer received a light sentence. Interesting subject, but the French documentary "Dominick Dunne: In Search of Justice" never manages to rise above fast-paced infomercial for Dunne's self-proclaimed insider fabulousness (a jarring soundtrack of all-crescendo thriller music doesn't help). Not explored but should have been: Dunne's divisive stature as a journalist-gossip, or the tricky mixture of grief and fame obsession that turned an ostracized Hollywood ex-producer into a professional spreader of its secrets. (Phil Spector, get ready.)
In Mani Haghighi's wry comedy "Men at Work," based on a story by Abbas Kiarostami and showing as part of UCLA's Iranian Cinema series, four graying male friends on their way to a soccer game get sidetracked on a mountain road by the playful desire, then obsessive need, to dislodge a defiantly immobile rock jutting like a finger into the sky. As they are joined by women they know, and passersby they don't, the rock refuses to budge, and the story segues into a poignant exploration of aging, regret and companionship.
It's best not to get caught up in the boulder's allegorical meaning; just enjoy the winning performances and wintry locations. To paraphrase the old warning, a rock is just a rock.
The fifth annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles at the ArcLight begins Tuesday, and some of the films spotlight the theme of transition. Soumitra Ranade's video essay "Are You Alright, Afghanistan?" chronicles the filmmaker's return 26 years later to Kabul, where he grew up. While warmly narrating childhood memories, his camera exposes the now poverty-ridden country and its devastated people. He fights the urge to tell strangers that he knew the city too, "before it became a reluctant beast of a grand global design."
Liz Mermin's breezy cubicle doc, "Office Tigers," looks at a fast-growing professional services company in Chennai started by two New York bankers. Here, globalization means teaching friendly-faced locals the Westernized rules of dog-eat-dog competition (one scene humorously shows the chief operating officer teaching his troops the phrase "kick their butt"). Culture clashes are inevitable. "Everybody [there] works like this," says one mother of her rapidly rising account manager daughter, seated across from her with cellphone firmly glued to one ear.
The closing night film, "Vanaja," set in class-rigid southern India, tells the story of a 15-year-old lower-caste girl committed to becoming a great Kuchipudi dancer, despite her oppressive ties to a politically ambitious family. Writer-director Rajnesh Domalpalli captures Vanaja's struggle with verve and humor, wresting a portrayal of great charm from young actress Mamatha Bhukya.
City of Lights, City of Angels
"Tell No One": 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
'Tell No One' tops French film festival
An American thriller gets a French makeover.
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