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posted: 7/7/2011 12:01 AM

Dann in Reel Life: Star is born in political rom-com

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  • Baya (French best actress Sara Forestier) buys imprisoned sea creatures so she can free them in the political romantic comedy "The Names of Love."

      Baya (French best actress Sara Forestier) buys imprisoned sea creatures so she can free them in the political romantic comedy "The Names of Love."

 
 

Reel Life mini-review: 'The Names of Love'

Michel Leclerc's political romantic comedy "The Names of Love" won its star Sara Forestier the Cesar (the French Academy Award) for Best Actress, and it's easy to understand why. She radiates a breezy, unpretentious energy on the screen. She's cute, winsome and totally at ease being naked in front of a camera, which she is. A lot.

Forestier plays Baya Benmahmoud, daughter of a rebellious middle-class mother and an Algerian refugee. Baya calls herself a political prostitute, because her life calling is to bed down Fascists and convert them to her liberal beliefs. She's darned good at it, too.

One day, she meets a stuffy bird disease expert, Arthur Martin (popular French star Jacques Gambin), old enough to be her dad, and beds him, despite the fact that he's already a socialist supporter. They fall in love, although their relationship seems more like a case of odd friends with benefits.

Leclerc employs a variety of visual gimmicks to keep our attention: direct addresses to the camera by the characters, black-and-white flashbacks, numerous shots of the fetching Sara as she continues her campaign to convert right-wingers while remaining emotionally faithful to her dull, appreciative bird expert.

The script lapses into sitcom zone when wild child Sara has her own "meet the parents" scene with Arthur's conservative mom and dad.

The story covers a laundry list of controversial French topics -- anti-Semitism, immigration policies, the wearing of headscarves.

But it's what the movie doesn't cover, mainly, Sara Forestier, that gives it its major reason for being seen. "Names of Love" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Not rated, for mature audiences. 102 minutes. ★ ★ ★

In a word, 'Grease'!

Chicago's Music Box Theatre will present "Sing-Along Grease" July 29-31. Go to musicboxtheatre.com for details on how you can sing along with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in "Summer Nights," a song not in "The Original Grease," now playing at the American Theater Company in Chicago.

I finally saw "The Original Grease" last Sunday and it hit me like a greased lightning bolt. This is the (mostly) original Jim Jacobs and the late Warren Casey production that played Chicago in 1971, before Broadway and Hollywood removed the numerous Windy City references, added more pop-flavored songs and rendered the production more generic and mainstream.

The original dialogue is much punchier and raunchier, and it actually makes more sense than the patchy movie script. The original songs are more organic to the characters and situations, so the tunes don't seem merely plopped into a scene, as some in the movie do.

The original Patty Simcox (a buoyantly chirpy Alaina Mills) and Kenicki (a charismatically angry Tony Klarno) are virtual leads with solos, not minor supporting characters as they are in the film.

The movie "Grease" is a terrific example of how Hollywood takes a once-personal work, removes its personality and bubble-gums it up for a mass audience. (Hey, did you know Sandy hails from Joliet, not Australia?)

It reminds me of how Universal Pictures took a quirky 1991 indie black comedy called "Meet the Parents" (partially shot in the Northwest suburbs), removed the black comedy, dumbed it down with zany sight gags and turned the ordinary dad into a paranoid CIA retiree for its big-budget 2000 release.

"The Original Grease" runs through Aug. 21 at the American Theater Company. Go to atcweb.org for tickets and information.

Reel Life mini-review: 'A Better Life'

I know I'm supposed to really like "A Better Life" and feel compassion and sorrow for the illegal Mexican immigrant father as he tries to help his seemingly unappreciative son succeed in the United States.

But "A Better Life" feels too much by the book, an issue-oriented made-for-TV movie where the issue becomes the star instead of the characters affected by the issue, in this case, immigration.

An unexpected act of betrayal becomes the drama's singular moment packing an emotional wallop. Nothing else in "A Better Life" comes close to capturing the immediacy and rawness of that moment, despite an understated, quietly moving performance by Demian Bichir as Carlos, the dad.

Bichir brings an aching sense of world weariness to Carlos, working for a Mexican groundskeeping service in Los Angeles so that his high school son Luis (Jose Julian) can have a prosperous future ... if the gangs don't get him first.

Carlos clearly adores his son, and we're never sure if the feeling will be reciprocated.

The plot kicks in when Carlos gets the chance to buy the groundskeeping business, plus the owner's truck, but must borrow about $13,000 from his sister (Delores Heredia) to do it. Carlos believes in himself and in America, so he takes the risk. A big risk.

After directing special effects-stuffed fantasy films "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" and "The Golden Compass," Chris Weitz gets back to his more modest "About a Boy" roots with this ripe domestic drama, reminiscent of Gregory Nava's much better "El Norte."

Despite Bichir breathing humanity into Carlos, the character's perpetual goodness and optimism run the risk of making him superficially dull.

Bichir and Julian share a cool chemistry, so cool, that when it comes time for them to create a moment as memorable and real as the betrayal, it doesn't happen.

"A Better Life" opens at area theaters. Rated PG-13 for drug use, language, violence. 98 minutes. ★ ★

After Hours 'Incendies'

The After Hours Film Society presents the Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film "Incendies" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Tivoli Theater, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. General admission costs $9. Go to afterhoursfilmsociety.com for tickets.

Bad news for Captain?

Paramount Pictures apparently has less than major faith in "Captain America," a July 22 release. The studio is press-screening the adventure on Wednesday, July 20, after many print deadlines. Screen Gems is doing the same thing with its July 22 release "Friends With Benefits," suggesting it, too, isn't anxious to have its movie screened way in advance by major press.

In the past three weeks, last-minute screenings have been given to Columbia Pictures' "Bad Teacher," Fox's "Monte Carlo" and Columbia's "Zookeeper."

Just so you know.

Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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