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Films I Neglected To Review: Mina Damer Och Herrar! Den Fantastiska Fläckar
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Chinese Puzzle," "Maleficent" and "We Are The Best"

In his latest film, "Chinese Puzzle," French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch returns to the characters that he previously featured in "L'Auberge Espagnole" and "Russian Dolls" and finds the once-youthful friends entering their forties a little bit older but no wiser than when we last saw them. This time around, struggling author Xavier (Romain Duris) has just been dumped by wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who has taken up with a new man in New York and brought their two kids along with her, and decides on a whim to follow them there. While struggling to establish himself in America--including a sham marriage to an agreeable Chinese woman to get a green card--and be with his kids, he reunites with old friend Isabelle (Cecile De France), a lesbian whose child he helped father (one of the flash points for his divorce) and discovers that despite seeming to have it all (a beautiful child, a loving partner and a ridiculously spacious apartment), she still wants more--specifically the super-hot babysitter that she is instantly smitten with at first sight. Further complications arrive in the form of ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), who not only seems to be strangely at peace with herself but also seems open to restarting things with her former flame.

While not great films by any means, the first two films in this loose-knit trilogy at least attempted to offer up an honest view of a group of friends coming to terms with the world and each other at crucial turning point in their lives that still managed to be light, breezy and relatively likable at the same time. "Chinese Puzzle," on the other hand, is a real mess that has nothing to offer but sitcom-level contrivances (including a finale involving people slipping in and out of an apartment in an attempt to fool INS investigators that feels straight out of "Three's Company") and characters who are now, for the most part, largely unlikable and relentlessly self-absorbed. Now if Klapisch was going to offer a critique on this behavior, that might have been interesting but he seems to want us to celebrate their continued immaturity. In the most egregious example, he sets up the affair between Isabelle and the babysitter only to abandon it so completely and with so little emotional blowback that you get the sense that he only included it to get a little more skin into the film. As the central character, Duris veers between being a bore and a boor and while his co-stars are invariably more interesting, each is stuck with a part that offers them little to do. (Tautou winds up coming off the best and that is only because her character, in a switch from the previous installments, is the least obnoxious of the bunch this time around.) Put it this way--if you see only one film this summer concluding a long-running trilogy featuring highly verbose characters trying to come to terms with their lives and relationships set against a foreign backdrop, make it a rental of "Before Midnight" and put "Chinese Puzzle" aside.

When I first heard that Angelina Jolie was going to be starring in a film that would offer up a revisionist telling of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," I just naturally assumed that it was going to be an adaptation of those kinky S&M-heavy books that Anne Rice wrote back in the day long before that "Fifty Shades of Grey" nonsense made such things commercially acceptable to the public at large. As it turns out, "Maleficent" is more or less the same old story, only this time seen from the perspective of Maleficent (Jolie), now presented in a somewhat more positive light than in the old Walt Disney animated version. In fact, when we first see her as a young fairy, she is the sweetest and most wonderful creature imaginable and it is only when she is betrayed by a one-time human friend (Sharlto Copely), who cuts off her wings in exchange for becoming king, that she turns bad and devises the horrible curse that will plunge his newborn daughter Aurora into an endless sleep on her 16th birthday. From there, the story unfolds in relatively familiar ways except for the development that Maleficent winds up unexpectedly befriending the now-grown Aurora (Elle Fanning) and struggles to help the girl overcome the curse even as her father does everything in his power to destroy his nemesis once and for all.

The idea of having Jolie playing a flesh-and-blood version of one of the most memorable villains in animated film history is undeniably appealing and the actress, aided by an ace makeup job by the peerless Rick Baker, tears into the role with a fierceness that she has not displayed onscreen in a long time. The trouble with the film is that while the screenplay goes to great lengths to explain how Maleficent became so mean in the first place, it never quite manages to create a story compelling enough to make us care about the particulars or much of anything else. There are a few moments here and there that create the same kind of eerie dread that caused younger viewers of such edgy children's fare as "The Dark Crystal," "Return to Oz" and "Labyrinth" to lose sleep back in the day (the stuff involving the loss of Maleficent's wings is especially dark) but for the most part, this is just another overproduced orgy of CGI effects that is furthered hampered by supporting performances running the gamut from the utterly bland (the usually radiant Fanning is pretty much rendered inert long before she even gets near that fateful spinning wheel) to the desperately hammy (Copely, whose debut in "District 9" was such a beautifully understated performance, is once again in full scenery-chewing mode) to the flat-out irritating (as Aurora's inept fairy protectors, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple are cartoonish in all the worst ways) and a story filled with so many dramatic and emotional gaps that it feels as is screenwriter Linda Woolverton did it deliberately to make it easier to insert songs for the all-but-inevitable Broadway musical adaptation a few years down the road.

Younger audiences might enjoy parts of it (though it may freak out the especially wee and sensitive ones) and parents may simply be relieved that they aren't sitting through "Frozen" again but for others, "Maleficent" will feel like a over-scaled bit of slash fiction that has the temerity to end just before the commencement of the Good Parts. The end credits, by the way, feature a rendition of the Disney standard "Once Upon a Dream" performed by Lana Del Ray--this makes sense when you consider that the film in question is all about a mysterious and alluring woman whose backstory is not quite what we have been led to believe.

Those brave moviegoers who saw "Show Me Love," the 1998 feature debut from Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, know that it was one of the most perceptive, engaging and entertaining coming-of-age films of its time and they will be overjoyed to know that with his latest effort, "We Are The Best," he has done it again. Set in Stockholm in 1982, the story centers on Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), two 13-year-old girls who are outcasts because of their unconventional looks and fondness for punk music, a genre that everyone they know insists is dead. Despite having no instruments or musical ability, they decide to form their own punk band (largely to show up an irritating metal group rehearsing at their local youth center and a nasty gym teacher) and after realizing that their energy and enthusiasm will only get them so far, they enlist the services of Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a classmate who has been ostracized for her Christian beliefs but who can actually play a mean classical guitar. Before long, they begin to sound pretty good but just as they are on the cusp of success (a gig at a Christmas concert in a nearby town, but still), tensions involving the guys from another band threaten to tear them apart.

Since Moodysson's post-"Show Me Love" oeuvre (including "Lilya-4-Ever" and "Mammoth") has consisted largely of pretentious and despairing dramas, it comes as a blessed relief to state just how much joyful fun "We Are The Best" really is. While the basic story may not be especially unusual (outside of its setting and the age and gender of its protagonists), Moodysson's presents it with enough energy, humor and high spirits to push those thoughts aside. He is also lucky to have cast three such charismatic young actresses as Barkhammar, Grosin and LaMoyne--they work together so beautifully and naturally that there are times when it almost feels as if we are watching a documentary and not a scripted fiction film. And while I don't claim to be an expert in the area of Swedish punk rock music, the soundtrack that Moodysson has compiled here is tops with the girls' "hit" ("No More Sport") demonstrating an ideal balance between being truly catchy and sounding like it might have been composed by a couple of kids. In the annals of great fiction films about the forming of rock bands (including the likes of "The Commitments" and "That Thing You Do"), "We Are The Best" is, well, one of the best and without giving anything away, I can assure you that its grand finale is as wonderfully satisfying as any ending that I have seen in a long time.

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originally posted: 05/30/14 14:54:42
last updated: 05/30/14 22:04:13
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