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Films I Neglected To Review: Coco Puff Piece
by Peter Sobczynski

Fashion, fuel and freakiness are on display in this latest round-up of capsule reviews that I was simply too lazy to expound upon at length.

Seeing as how there have been numerous biopics over the years (including one that will be opening in a few months) about the life and work of Coco Chanel, I suppose it makes sense that the makers of “Coco Before Chanel” have chosen to set themselves apart from the pack by telling the story of what happened to her before she became the internationally renowned fashion icon. The only trouble with this approach is the inescapable fact that, based on what is shown here, that her pre-fame days simply weren’t very interesting. Determined to escape the poverty that she has known from an early age since the death of her mother and the departure of her father, the film follows Coco (Audrey Tautou) as she goes from being a lowly seamstress/cabaret performer to the mistress of the rich and powerful Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelyoorde), who ensconces her in his lavish mansion where she attracts the attentions of a rich British industrial tycoon (Alessandro Nivola) and uses her lover’s clothing to experiment with the fashion designs that would eventually allow her to be more than just another kept woman. The scenes involving Chanel’s initial stabs at designing outfits have a certain kick to them and the first appearance of the legendary little black dress will surely have fashionistas swooning in the aisles but the rest of the stuff involving the romantic triangle that develops between the three key players is as drab, lifeless and stultifying as the fashions that Chanel was trying to liberate women from in the first place. As Chanel, Audrey Tautou is really quite good as she gets to show the kind of steely determination that hasn’t really cropped up in most of her better-known performances. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Anne Fontaine’s direction--while technically fine, it lacks any juice as it goes about its slow and respectable way as if afraid to ruffle any feathers, which is hardly the best approach to take when making a film about a person who became famous for doing just that.

Over the years, the rise of low-cost filmmaking equipment has given rise to a host of first-person rabble-rousing documentaries made by people who are wholly convinced that they are the next Michael Moore. Most of these films have been pretty bad but few that I can recall have been as absolutely aggravating as “Fuel,” environmental activist Joel Tickell’s staggeringly self-indulgent attempt to demonstrate that biofuels are the only thing that can possibly save mankind from the inevitable fiscal and ecological apocalypses that will result of our dependence on fossil fuels, that anyone who doesn’t instantly agree with him on every single point is a monster worse than Hitler and that even if you do agree with him 100%, he is still a better and more noble person than you are because. . .well, because he says so. As cinema, the movie stinks--an overlong and poorly constructed jumble that veers between straight reportage, autobiography, shocking exposes on how the Man is scheming to keep us down and dependent of fossil fuels and celebrity endorsements (from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Neil Young) without any reason. Of course, some might argue that slick craftsmanship is hardly the point with this particular film but even if you happen to feel the same way that he does about the use of biofuels--and those are the only people who would presumably even contemplate going to see this film in the first place--Tickell is so annoying and off-putting during his frequent on-screen appearances (there are so many close-ups of him caring into the camera that he makes Moore seem like Terrence Malick by comparison in terms of self-promotion) that you are likely to be embarrassed to have him as your self-appointed spokesman. (At one point, he actually more or less says that the single worst thing about Hurricane Katrina was the way that it halted the biofuel revolution that was allegedly sweeping the country at the time.) This could well go down as the weakest biofuel-driven piece of entertainment released in 2009 and bear in mind, I did listen to that last Neil Young albumn

In “Paranormal Activity,” a low-budget horror item that has been touted by some as the next “Blair Witch Project,” a young couple moves into a house in suburban San Diego and begin to suspect that a mysterious spirit is there with them and making strange noises in the night while they sleep. To prove their claims, they set up a video camera in their bedroom and over the next few weeks, they capture increasingly violent and bizarre incidents that seem to prove that they are indeed not alone. Because of the absurd level of hype that has developed around this film in recent weeks, it will no doubt become a decent-sized box-office hit but those going into it expecting to see the most terrifying movie ever made are likely to come away from it feeling mighty disappointed. The notion of a horror film intentionally blurring the line between fact and fiction in its stylistic approach is old hat, the two central characters are too annoying for anyone to develop any interest in their situation and while some of the scary moment are effectively staged, most of them simply aren’t that frightening unless you are a really easy scare. Although the film has a few clever moments here and there (including a decent explanation as to why the couple doesn’t just leave the house at the first sign of unrest) and debuting director Oren Pell demonstrates some flashes of filmmaking talent here and there, this is, for the most part, just another middling horror film in which the hard-sell publicity campaign turns out to be far more fascinating and compelling than the movie that it was designed to promote. In other words, the late, great William Castle would have loved this thing, provided that he didn’t actually have to sit through it, of course.

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror masterpiece “Suspiria” blows into the Gene Siskel Film Center for a one-week run in an archival print utilizing the original (and now-defunct) Technicolor process and for Chicago-based fans of the supernatural, this is one of the must-see events of the season. Oh sure, most of you with a taste for the genre have probably seen this first installment of Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (later followed by 1980’s “Inferno” and 2008’s “The Third Mother”) on DVD and realize that the film--a grim fairy tale of an American ballet student (cult figure and column crush object Jessica Harper) who arrives to study at a prestigious Austrian dance conservatory and begins to uncover terrifying secrets that someone is willing to keep quiet at all costs and in the messiest ways imaginable--is one of the strangest and most unnerving horror movies ever made and features some of the most harrowingly intense and beautifully bloody set-piece ever staged for a movie camera. However, watching it on your home video system, no matter how impressive it may be, is nowhere comparable to the experience of seeing it on the big screen and letting Luciano Tovoli’s gloriously gaudy cinematography and the pounding score by Goblin overwhelm you to the point of sensory overload. Whether you are a confirmed Argentophile (despite his critical devaluation in recent years, such people do still exist) or just a genre fan looking for something to see this weekend other than that overhyped “Paranormal Activity” nonsense, this revival is one that is not to be missed.

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originally posted: 10/09/09 15:09:07
last updated: 10/10/09 22:28:24
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