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Piaf comes alive: (l-r) Testud and Cotillard in La Vie en Rose.

She Lived to Sing

 By Shawn Stone

La Vie en Rose

Directed by Olivier Dahan

More often than not, glossy bio pics of famous entertainers are extravagantly pretty musicals or dramatic train wrecks. Think De-Lovely, which ill-served both its subject (Cole Porter) and lead actor (Kevin Kline) with horrendous musical performances, or Beyond the Sea, which got it improbably right in the singing and acting by director Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin, and predictably wrong with a hackneyed narrative structure.

La Vie en Rose is, then, a wonderful rarity. This biography of Edith Piaf is engrossing and dazzling. There’s already Oscar talk about Marion Cotillard’s performance as Piaf, and there should be. She presents the legendary French singer with ferocity and grace, aging from a naïve teenager to a middle-age woman so crippled by arthritis and the effects of drug abuse that she looked 77, not 47. And, while it’s Piaf on the soundtrack, Cotillard physically inhabits each song’s performance. Piaf lived to sing, and Cotillard captures this intensely; there’s a frightening scene when Piaf/Cotillard, looking worse than a corpse, slowly comes alive to a new song written expressly for her. (It’s the money scene that will snag her that Oscar nod.)

Piaf’s early life was an epic of misery: Born during World War I to a soldier father and neglectful mother, she was happy only briefly, after the war, when her father, a circus contortionist, deposited her with his mother. The fact that grandma ran a whorehouse, and it was the whores who cared for little Edith, is immaterial; it was the most loving home the poor girl would ever know. Snatched back by her father, she spent her childhood singing in the streets for small change.

While Piaf did earn fame and (some) fortune, her miserable, deprived childhood left its mark. Wisely, then, writer-director Olivier Dahan presents her life in cinematic shards. The director shifts the action back-and-forth in time, almost from scene-to-scene; the disruptions parallel Piaf’s drastic ups-and-downs, as well as spare us from having to endure her long, miserable decline in one long sequence.

There are other actors in the film. Sylvie Testud is first jaunty, then disconsolate as Piaf’s friend Momone; Emmanuelle Seigner is damaged-but-devoted as Titine, one of the prostitutes; and Gérard Depardieu is suave in a cameo as Louis Leplée, the club owner who discovered Piaf.

Still, La Vie en Rose is best appreciated and enjoyed as a tour-de-force for Marion Cotillard, and, as such, is one of the best films of the year.

Love Story

A Mighty Heart

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

The story of the abduction and hor rific execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has been told many times; in the headlines of early 2002, and in the numerous interviews with his widow, Mariane, and in her best-selling memoir, A Mighty Heart. So the need for a movie adaptation is debatable. Even after seeing this acutely well-made dramatization, directed by the talented and versatile Michael Winterbottom, I’m still not sure what value it has. What value, that is, aside from bringing the story of a remarkable couple into the wider pop-culture awareness.

And that is where its star, Angelina Jolie, comes in. To her credit, she succeeds in channeling her own notorious glamour into the far more earthbound glamour of Mariane Pearl. Jolie doesn’t look like Mariane, but with her crimped hair, she has the look of her, and under Winterbottom’s pitch-perfect handling, she creates a compelling portrait that captures both the fiery determination and inner reserve that must’ve been needed to sustain Mariane during the four weeks between her husband’s kidnapping and the irrefutable evidence of his beheading. But Jolie is not the only centrifugal force in the movie: the other one is Irrifan Khan as “the Captain,” the feared chief of Pakistan’s counter- terrorism department.

A Mighty Heart tells two stories, and they converge movingly at its end. The first is a suspenseful (yes, even though the outcome is known) police procedural on the efforts to find Pearl (Dan Futterman) before his captors execute him. The terrorists’ assertion that he’s a CIA spy is dismissed by the international press fairly quickly; the fact that he’s Jewish surfaces later. The film intersperses scenes of Daniel’s last known whereabouts—he is abducted en route to interviewing a militant cleric—with the confusion and chaos amidst the various agencies and personnel who are trying to rescue him. The captain is the wild card. Does he sympathize with anti-American elements in Pakistan’s government? And since the Pearls’ close friend and housemate, Asra (Archie Punjabi), is an Indian journalist, will the local investigation be hampered by anti-Indian sentiments?

Navigating the maze of terrorist activity is given a documentary-style immediacy that deftly avoids polemics and politics while acknowledging humanistic issues such as the poverty of Karachi and the Captain’s use of torture to obtain information. Painful junctures are handled with admirable sensitivity, such as the intimation that Pearl had sensed something was wrong during his rendezvous to meet with a militant cleric (he mispronounces one of his contact’s names), yet didn’t heed his instincts, and the expression on the faces of the personnel who first view the video of Pearl’s beheading.

Mariane is buoyed by her pregnancy, and as hope dims, the film moves backward in time and forward in optimism with scenes of the Pearls’ idyllic marriage and expressions of their shared commitment to truth, peace, and journalism. And though Mariane’s refusal to give in to fear, hate, and despair is well documented, it’s an outcome that deserves a wider audience.

—Ann Morrow

Simply Scary

1408

Directed by Mikael Hafström

Mikael Hafström’s unassuming little horror film, straightforwardly adapted from a story by Stephen King, is a triumph of old-school horror. After a transparently knowing prologue, 1408 takes the familiar night-in-a-haunted-house narrative and concentrates it in one stuffy, creakingly genteel, and irredeemably evil New York City hotel room.

No one, smooth and dapper hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) says, gets out of room 1408 alive. As he explains in a cleverly drawn-out scene, the Dolphin Hotel’s “evil room” has killed or maimed dozens of unhappy guests and staff in the 90-plus years it has been open. And, of course, “the room” has accomplished this in the most comically grisly ways imaginable—like the tailor who slit his throat and then tried to sew it up with needle and thread, or the man who drowned in a bowl of chicken soup.

Since it’s King, the jokes are both obvious (1 + 4 + 0 + 8 = 13) and satisfying (corporate policy keeps the room from being walled off). Even better, we can be reasonably sure that the main character will have a troubled back-story that will feed into whatever horror the filmmakers throw at him.

In this case, the “hero” is hacktastic writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a once-promising novelist turned cynical chronicler of “haunted” motels, hotels and bed-and-breakfast joints. Enslin, against the best arguments and bribes of manager Olin, checks into room 1408. And the fun begins.

The terror builds slowly, as the room and Enslin test each other’s weaknesses, but quickly escalates into a bloody battle of wits as a clock radio counts down 24 hours (and occasionally blasts the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”—another groaningly funny King joke).

Not to give too much away, but Enslin’s problem is a familiar theme—loss of faith—and this involves his estranged wife (Mary McCormack) and daughter. The way this family unhappiness plays out, however, involves a classic bit of misdirection. And a haunted ending.

—Shawn Stone


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