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Jean Dejardin

Jean Dejardin

“THE CONNECTION” My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Most of us are familiar with “The French Connection,” William Friedkin’s 1971 film about the NYPD’s efforts to stamp out a drug smuggling empire flooding American streets with top-grade heroin.

The French “The Connection” approaches that same situation from the shared POV of the cops and criminals who throughout the ’70s played a long game of cat and mouse in Marseilles, where Neapolitan and Corsican mobsters had set up labs to process opium smuggled in from the Middle East.

Whereas Friedkin’s film was fictionalized (among other things, the names were changed), this offering from writer/director Cedric Jimenez purports to more or less tell the true story of how the police finally broke the back of at least one particular drug operation.

Jean Dujardin, an Oscar winner for his turn as a silent film star in “The Artist,” portrays Pierre Michel, a juvenile magistrate who finds himself bumped upstairs to the organized crime unit. Michel hasn’t a background in criminal law but he has plenty of motivation — while hearing the cases of teenage delinquents he learned much about drug addiction and saw its grim results.

“The Connection” follows Michel as he learns on the run, figuring out how the complicated drug smuggling operation works and winning the confidence of the cops who must implement the anti-crime campaign he will create.

Michel’s story is intercut with that of Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampas (Gilles Lellouche), a powerful drug lord who also runs a lucrative protection racket and operates popular nightclubs along the Riviera. Zampas is a attractive/scary blend of sophisticate and thug.

Over nearly 2 1/2 hours “The Connection” follows these two men who, though on different sides of the law, are in many ways very much alike.  Both are devoted family men, both nurse an explosive temper beneath a cool exterior, both are willing to act ruthlessly to achieve their aims.

Over time Michel will bend the legal rules and act less like an administrator than an overzealous cop. Zampas may actually regret having to have his enemies killed — though it doesn’t stop him from seeing the job through.

In fact, actors Dejardin and Lellouche physically resemble one another…that can’t be a coincidence.

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as Yves Saint Laurent

Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent

“SAINT LAURENT” My rating: C+

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even this  fashion backwards film reviewer recognizes the late Yves Saint Laurent, the French couturier who pioneered classy ready-to-wear clothing and founded a wildly successful company that bears his name.

But if you want to understand exactly who Yves Saint Laurent was — well, you’re not going to get much help from “Saint Laurent,” writer/director Bertrand Bonello’s fragmented, impressionistic epic (like, 2 1/2 hours).

The film is great looking and at moments offers a near-documentary feel for the ’60s and ’70s when Saint Laurent was at his creative peak.

But it tells us surprisingly little about the man, his design ethos, or even the fashions he created.

Like a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall, the film is scattered and splattered, frequently colorful but impossibly messy. Individual moments stick in the mind, but the overall impression is one of angst and hedonistic excess.

As the young Saint Laurent (who is portrayed in his dotage by Helmut Berger), Gaspard Ulliel is eerily believable — thin, high cheekbones, a shy smile, oversized glasses and a mop of Beatle-ish hair. But the film won’t let the actor explore the character’s inner life. This fellow may be a design genius (you’ll have to take that as a given, since the film makes no effort to actually make the case), but mostly he comes off as an idiot savant living a hermetically sealed life.

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** as ***

Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh

“ABOUT ELLY” My rating: B

119 minutes | No MPAA rating

Three families share a long weekend in a rented (and rundown) villa along Iran’s Caspian coast. There’s much good-natured joking, dancing, smoking, cooking out, eating.

These individuals — old law school acquaintances who’ve done well (at least if the BMWs they drive are any indication) — are joined on their mini-vacation by two visitors.  The first is their old friend Ahmad (the charismatic Shahab Hosseini), who lives in Germany and was recently divorced. The second is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who teaches the young daughter of Sepideh, one of the wives.

Without consulting anyone else Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has  invited the single Elly along for the weekend. Ostensibly Elly is there to watch the kids, but it doesn’t take the group long to figure out that Sepideh is playing matchmaker. Especially when she tells the manager of their rental property that Ahmad and Elly are honeymooners. (Iran’s morality police surely would frown on this arrangement, no matter how innocent it seems by Western standards.)

The first 40 or so minutes of “About Elly” — from writer/director Asghar Farhadi, who had a huge art house hit with “A Separation” — are devoted to the settling-in process. Gas and electricity must be turned on, bags unpacked, months of dust and cobwebs swept out. Ahmad and Elly take a brief drive — neither wants to talk about why they’re both there. Several times during the first afternoon, in fact, Elly tries to leave to catch a bus back to Teheran. She’s talked out of it by Sepideh.

And then one of the children nearly drowns. After the confusion and panic of his rescue and resuscitation die down, someone notices that Elly is missing.

Did she make good on her plan to return home? Was she snatched (apparently the beach has a high crime rate)? Did she try to rescue the drowning boy and herself succumb to the waves?

The police are called, a search and rescue boat dispatched.  Nothing. If Elly did indeed drown, her body will wash up within a day or two.

Talk about putting a damper on the weekend!
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Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini

Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini

“GEMMA BOVARY” My rating: C+  (Opening June 12 at the Tivoli)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Going in, the logical assumption is that Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovary” is a present-day updating of Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary (a straight cinematic adaptation opens today at the Cinetopia).

Actually, it’s more complicated and ambitious than that.  Perhaps too ambitious for its own good.

The story is told through the narration of Martin (Fabrice Luchini), the sixty-ish baker in a rural Normandy burg. He tells us that he used to be a literary editor in Paris, but gave it up for an uncomplicated life in the sticks.

Now he’s bored silly.

So he takes special interest when he discovers that his new neighbors, a young English couple, are named Charles and Gemma  Bovary (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton). Quelle coincidence…the newcomers have almost exactly the same names as Flaubert’s characters.

Fascinated and not a little turned on by his pretty new neighbor, Martin befriends the Bovarys (Charles restores antiques, Gemma is an interior decorator specializing in trompe l’oeil) and begins actively studying (or spying on) them.

When he realizes that Gemma — going a bit stir crazy with rural life — has turned to a young law student (Niels Schneider) for a torrid affair, Martin smells a looming disaster. He moves surreptitiously to nip the illicit romance in the bud.

But good deeds can have unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Continue Reading »

jur ydln1orxqd4neeasuboo“JURASSIC WORLD”  My rating: C+ 

 124 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Bigger. Faster. More teeth.

That’s the corporate mantra at Jurassic World, the island theme park built on the ruins of the original Jurassic Park. This business stays on top by every few years introducing a spectacular new genetically modified attraction to keep the crowds coming.

Because with the short attention span of the average tourist, plain old dinosaurs aren’t enough.

“Bigger, faster, more teeth” is also at the heart of the movie “Jurassic World,” the fourth entry in the groundbreaking special effects series.

Back in ’93, when Steven Spielberg unveiled the original “Jurassic Park,” just 10 minutes of CG-animated dinos was enough to guarantee a blockbuster. But in tech-savvy 2015, lifelike dinosaurs are a dime a dozen.

So we all know going in that the dinosaurs are going to be convincingly great. But can the series’ stewards surround the big brutes with a story and characters that matter?

Uh … no.

Director Colin Trevorrow (maker of the low-budget time-travel film “Safety Not Guaranteed”) works with three fellow screenwriters to distract us with a surplus of dinosaurs and action. But mostly “Jurassic World” is content to rehash ideas that were worn out when “Jurassic Park III” came out in 2001.

Not even uber-likable Chris Pratt can dispel the pall of been-there-done-that.

Pratt plays Owen, a Navy veteran working with a quartet of velociraptors (those man-sized mini-tyrannosaurs) he has raised like ducklings. Owen has trained these carnivores to treat him as their alpha male. They don’t take orders, exactly, but at least they don’t have him for breakfast.

What Owen doesn’t realize is that in the massive park geneticists have been mixing DNA to create the baddest dinosaur ever, the Indominus rex. Except that their new creation is way smarter than a lizard should be and has curious skills, like the ability to conceal itself by changing color and body temperature.
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Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary

Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary

“MADAME BOVARY” My rating: B 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It is wise to approach a new screen version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” with caution. (And today in KC we see the openings of two cinematic interpretations…see my review of “Emma Bovary.”)

In even the best of productions Flaubert’s tale of a foolish young wife — so convinced that she deserves a life of romance and luxury that she drives herself and her poor sap of a husband to ruin — is a downer.

The movies’ track record with Emma Bovary is spotty.  Americans are most familiar with the 1949 version starring Jennifer Jones, a spectacular beauty who oozed sexuality. It was easy enough to view her Emma as born to wickedness, and the character’s ultimate downfall must have proven particularly satisfying to misogynists who could argue that this is just the way these silly women are.

Now director Sophie Barthes emphasizes the tragedy in Flaubert’s tale by casting as Emma the wan Mia Wasikowska, who at age 25 could pass for a teenager. No voluptuary, Wasikowska — we first noticed her as the title character in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” — has the physical presence of  a gawky adolescent.

In fact, Barthes and Felipe Marino’s screenplay opens with young Emma being educated by nuns. She’s a free spirit, though, who won’t follow instructions, and the next thing you know she’s being married off to country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and planted in his drab house in a drab village filled with drab people.

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Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson

Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson

“LOVE & MERCY” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on June 5)

120 ninutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Several pages in The Book of Great American Lives should be reserved for the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, whose 72 years have been packed with genius, celebrity, madness and redemption.

There’s more to the Wilson saga than could ever be wedged into just one movie, but Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” spectacularly chronicles one man’s rise-fall-rise in riveting human (and musical) terms.

Pohlad, a first-time feature director with an impressive list of producing credits (“12 Years a Slave,” “Into the Wild,” “Brokeback Mountain”) and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner have come up with a brilliant way of presenting Wilson’s story.

They’ve made two movies: one set in the 1960s starring Paul Dano as the young Brian, the other in the mid-’80s with John Cusack taking on the role. They so cannily entwine the two that just as the first, earlier story is spiraling into tragedy, the second tale, of the middle-aged Brian, is struggling toward recovery.

Let’s acknowledge up front that neither Dano nor Cusack looks much like the real Brian Wilson. Nor do they really resemble each other.

Doesn’t matter. Through some sort of cinematic alchemy, each actor nails the essence of Wilson at different stages of life. And far from triggering a disconnect, the casting of two performers in the same role enhances the story’s richness.

“Love & Mercy” opens with a montage of newsreel-like re-creations of the early Beach Boys in action — on the concert stage, posing for publicity photos on the beach (most of them were not actually surfers), playing for a “Shindig”-like TV show (go-go girls as a backdrop).

These are the heady days of innocence, fame and hit singles. We sense almost immediately, though, that the songwriter and arranger, Brian, stands apart from the group. He’s an odd duck, unnerved by live performances, crippled by panic attacks and driven to create music that he can hear in his head but must struggle to capture on tape.

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