by Bill Hawk



Studio Canal, 2007, Color, 101 mins.- ThinkFilm DVD



Cecile De France: "There's two kinds of people. Those who say, when the phone rings, 'Who the hell's that?' And those, like me, who say 'Hey, who can that be?'"


Ah, to be young, optimistic, and dirt poor in one of the most celebrated artistic districts of Paris, where the rich and celebrated are even more unhappy with their lot in life than you are. De France manages to land a job in a popular café as a triple-threat looms- a concert, a stage play and an art auction are all scheduled for the same day. And before long, De France has crossed paths with the major players in all three events. There's concert pianist Albert Dupontel, who feels straightjacketed by his demanding schedule and the stuffy world of the concert hall- not to mention his wife Laura Morante's desire for fame and fortune. There's "Difficult" actress Valerie Lemercier, who sees her new stage role as a step towards breaking away from the tiring soap opera which has made her rich and famous. And there's oldster Claude Brasseur, selling off his art collection to facilitate a new life with his much younger girlfriend, Annelise Hesme- who just happens to have a connection to Brasseur's unhappy son, Christopher Thompson. All of them will engage in assorted acts of human folly as the big day approaches, and all of them will experience some changes. Such is life in the City Of Lights.

Co-writer (with her actor son Christopher) and director Daniele Thompson's story takes a relatively restrained approach, with a slow rhythm that isn’t afraid of taking the time to set a mood or to let an actor play something out. Amongst those actors, De France creates a likeable enough waif, but the real attraction of the female cast is Lemercier, whose bipolar antics culminate in an ad-libbed showstopper of a performance on her opening night. Old pro Brasseur has some nice moments explaining his outlook on the golden years, and Dupontel has the soulful suffering thing down pat. The idea of wishing for something different in your life, whether it's ultimately about constructive or destructive change, is a very human one, and you can't fault the characters for their desires- especially since they're in a land that celebrates such things. If you're interested in a mildly charming diversion, and you don't mind working your way through subtitles to get the jokes, you'll probably enjoy this. The only notable extra is a making-of documentary that focuses on Thompson's filmmaking process.

Warner Bros., 2006, Color, 125 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD



Toby Jones: "When they telegraphed me that you were coming out, I was astonished. I imagined you might be a grim-visaged old nurse with thick legs and a moustache."

Well, Jones old man, sometimes you're stuck with the scary old gal, and sometimes you're lucky enough to have Naomi Watts show up. British lass Watts, fleeing from a family that was only too happy to see her married off to government-employed bacteriologist Edward Norton, finds herself somewhat at sea in Norton's workaday world of 1925 Shanghai. Bored, and dissatisfied with the husband she hardly knows, Watts is easily led astray by overly friendly British consular attaché Leiv Schreiber, and the resultant marital strain leads to an unpleasant change of circumstances for her. Accompanying Norton to a village plagued by cholera, Watts meets local Brit consul Jones and Catholic orphanage/infirmary Mother Superior Diana Rigg. Laboratory man Norton and social flower Watts both get a hard dose of reality in the remote, primitive epidemic zone, but their struggles bring out the best in them and they start to put their past aside and really connect for the first time. But between the disease and the anti-British feelings coming from angry mobs, there's a good chance that their happiness will be short-lived….

This adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham tale is old-fashioned in a good way, providing a handsomely-mounted entry in the troubled romance category. Director John Curran and his team take full advantage of some lovely unspoiled locations, but they also don't shy away from the nastiness of the Cholera outbreak and, more importantly, the unpleasant ways in which flawed and wounded people can treat each other. As always, the majority of the story's heavy lifting has to be done by the people on the screen, and there's a pretty talented bunch at work here. As an actress, Watts is nothing if not game, and whether she's moping around or cheering up a bunch of orphans or dodging a would-be lynch mob, her quietly-suffering wife holds the viewer's interest and sympathy. Norton's peeved hubby character traverses a bit of the darker territory that the actor is known for, but he balances it out with a generous measure of altruism seen in the anti-cholera battle. The odd-looking but compelling Jones is a classic "Gone native" type with a keen eye and an unusual romantic situation of his own. Schreiber doesn't have as large or as flashy a role, but it's interesting to see him with his real-life mate Watts. Rigg has some nice moments where she shows us the person inside the nun's habit. And for Hong Kong film fans, veteran star Anthony Wong does a turn as a military man who aids Norton. Toss the actors and the settings together, add some crunchy script croutons, dribble a nice musical score onto it, and you've got an enjoyable melodramatic salad. Just don't wash it down with any of the local water- could be cholera bacteria in it, you know. There are no extras of note on the disc.

Four Act Films, 2006, 93 mins.- Echo Bridge DVD



Jeff Branson: "If I didn't have to work, or take that dog for a walk, I, ah….I don't even know ifI'd get outta bed."

Former high diver Branson has been in an extended funk after an accident that derailed his life plans, and now he's getting itchy as he nears the big three-oh. He decides to get a dog, ditch his antidepressants, and quit his adult swim class teaching gig- which may not be such a good idea, seeing as how it provides pretty much the only human interaction that he gets. Of course, some of the folks in his class have their share of problems too, in addition to their embarrassing lack of drowning-avoidance skills. High school teacher Paget Brewster has a hubby who's stepping out on her with another teacher at the same school, causing friction with the administration and leading her into thinking her own extramarital thoughts when she meets younger guy Michael Mosley. Brewster bonds with the younger Jess Weixler, who's got a dual career track going- casino card dealing and stripping. Weixler's brother Avi Selton and his pal Ricky Ullman are budding filmmakers who try to fulfill a class assignment by interviewing people about Weixler, which annoys her to no end. As the aquatic training continues, lives will intertwine, decisions will be made, somebody will get trigger-happy with a can of mace, and a dog will resist becoming housebroken- but everyone will make it to a climactic "Big bad summer pool party."

This film from freshman feature director Ishai Setton is your typical indie item- a simple character-driven narrative with some engaging performances, done quickly and inexpensively by a close-knit crew, which went on to win some film festival awards and get a video release. The filmmakers do a good job of utilizing the resources available to them, and the movie avoids the aura of cheapness that sometimes plagues low-budget efforts. More importantly, the script by writer Daniel Schechter, while treading a familiar path, has enough good character moments and humorous twists to hold your attention. The performances fit right into the quirky goings-on, with Brewster's spacey sarcasm, Mosley's oddball cockiness, Weixler's slightly beaten-down decency and Ullman's socially maladroit antics being standouts. Overall, it's not strikingly fresh material, but if you're looking for some indie action as an antidote to the usual overblown Hollywood stuff it's worth a try. Disc extras include audio commentary and featurettes which display some more of the filmmakers' sense of humor.




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© Melt Magazine 2007