By Neil Pedley
There’s a noticeably European flavor this week, combined with some good old-fashioned work-a-day miserablism just in time for the holidays. Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning doc shows a French school in minor crisis, Mickey Rourke battles his demons and Jim Carrey flails about — all in good festive fun!
Considering that the ongoing debate over the education system approaches a national pastime in France, it’s not difficult to see why Laurent Cantet’s pseudo-documentary chronicling a year in a Paris classroom took home the Palme d’Or on its home turf in Cannes. Based on a semi-autobiographical account from former lit teacher François Bégaudeau, playing a similar role here for the cameras, Cantet delivers a studied microcosm of French society via a multiethnic school with an administration run by committee. During the course of a turbulent school year, every aspect of the human social dynamic is played out with points made, points scored, ideologies formed and doctrines rejected, all within the stifling confines of that most formative of environments. In French with subtitles.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles for a weeklong Oscar qualifying run; opens in limited release on January 30th.
Lacking the star attractions of “In Bruges,” this quirky, kitchen sink romcom from television director Christophe van Rompaey nonetheless offers another sunny stroll around a country best known for its waffles and as the place people pass through on their way to Holland. Barbara Sarafian (“8 ½ Women”) stars as Matty, a mother of three who finds herself at the center of an unconventional love triangle after her husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) leaves her for a nympho schoolgirl. As Werner’s affair/midlife crisis persists, Matty decides she deserves one of her own and hooks up with the young and rugged Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), but when Werner returns with his tail between his legs, Matty is forced to make a decision. In Dutch with subtitles.
Opens in New York.
“Nothing But the Truth”
Hot on the heels of “Frost/Nixon” comes another story eager to paint the free press as the last bastion of moral courage and integral fortitude in a tainted world. Yet where Ron Howard might have embellished a few truths, former film critic-turned-writer/director Rod Lurie just out and out cheats, if the title of this thriller, loosely based on the Valerie Plame saga, is to be believed. Kate Beckinsale steps into the Judith Miller role (renamed here as Rachel Armstrong) as a journalist who goes to prison for refusing to reveal her source on a story that exposed high-level shenanigans, though whereas Miller was protecting her source to help the sitting administration, Beckinsale’s Rachel is intent on “bringing down the White House.” Still, it’s hard to blame Lurie — “Nothing Like the Truth” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Vera Farmiga, Matt Dillon and Alan Alda co-star.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles; expands on January 9th.
“Scott Walker: 30 Century Man”
Director Stephen Kijak turns his attention from the obsessed film buffs of “Cinemania” to the reclusive and enigmatic musician whose work has been endlessly obsessed over by music fans. Detailing Walker’s transformation from 1960s boy band pin-up to avant-garde experimentalist, Kijak assembles a who’s who of British hipster icons (Blur, Pulp, David Bowie) to regale us with their tales of Walker’s impact and influence, not to mention a rare and extremely candid interview with the man himself. Though Kijak seems almost uninterested in Walker’s darker side — his alcoholism and much publicized battles with the fame monster — he does shed light on the musician’s creative process as he records his most recent album, “The Drift.”
Opens in New York; opens in Los Angeles on February 27th.
Picking up where “The Pursuit of Happyness” left off, Will Smith reunites with director Gabriele Muccino for what might be the most depressing film of 2008, which is quite an achievement even after the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” was pushed into next year. As Ben Thomas, a tortured former aeronautical engineer consumed by guilt over a dark secret from his past, Smith dutifully seeks out seven unfortunate souls to bequeath them each a gift that will radically transform their lives, while secretly plotting to end his own. Rosario Dawson co-stars as a young artist on the transplant list who falls for Tim not knowing what his true intentions are. ‘Tis the season to be jolly?
“The Tale of Despereaux”
In a December crammed to the gills with Holocaust allegories and suicide dramas (see above), we look to the usually family-friendly genre of animation for a little respite, though given the title we could be forgiven for bracing ourselves for some digital depression. Still, that doesn’t appear to be what “Seabiscuit” scribe Gary Ross and “Flushed Away” director Sam Fell are up to with this adventure film, despite having a lead that looks like the result of some genetic experiment involving Dumbo and Fievel. Our plucky titular hero (voiced by Matthew Broderick) defies Mouseworld and joins forces with fellow outcast Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) to save his beloved Princess Pea (Emma Watson) from a plot by an army of vengeful sewer rats who plan to take over the kingdom.
Never one to shy away from big risks, Darren Aronofsky — the man who brought us a bald Hugh Jackman floating through space in a bubble — chose to wager his next project against his ability to resurrect the career of an actor that no major financier wanted to touch. Going to the mat for his director and garnering some well-deserved Oscar buzz in the process, Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a one-time superstar now battling aches, breaks and faltering will on the indie grappling circuit. Trying to patch things up with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), while clumsily courting aging stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), Ram prepares for one last shot at glory in a high-profile rematch against his former nemesis “The Ayatollah.”
Opens in limited release.
Searching for a little of his old box office mojo, Jim Carrey teams with “The Break-Up” director Peyton Reed to trot out the familiar rubber-limbed hysteria that made him a star with this retread of “Liar Liar” with a slight twist. Loosely inspired by an autobiographical yarn from British humorist Danny Wallace that was itself born out of a drunken bet in a pub, Carrey plays a conservative square with strong risk aversion who is suddenly inspired to say yes to any and all suggestions, no matter how potentially catastrophic they might be. If this were in any way true of some of Carrey’s career choices, it could go a long way towards explaining “The Number 23.”
[Photo: “The Class,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]