13 posts categorized "biography"


Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)



'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' an intoxicating war drama

Lance Cpl. Andrew Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) and Kim Baker (Tina Fey) use their weapons of choice in a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" firefight. (Paramount Pictures)

Here’s my only real beef with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: It’s a witty, gritty war-correspondent drama posing, or more appropriately being marketed, as a comedy, which it is not.

Is it because Tina Fey, one of our most gifted comedians, is out front as a stateside cable news producer thrown into the explosive turmoil of the Afghanistan war zone in the early 2000s?

Could it be because the co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-wrote the hilarious darkly comic Bad Santa and aimed for something like the late Robert Altman’s comic-war drama MASH of 1970?

Well, “Atten-hut,” film-making soldiers. What you have marched to the screen here is a superbly nuanced drama (with occasional comic turns, granted) about a cable news desk jockey.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a producer so mired down in a life where she “writes news copy for dumb pretty people to read” that she’s willing to venture to a war-torn country where fecal matter actually permeates the air. She’s not quite as emotionally bottomed-out as Tom Hanks’ character was when he agreed to leap into a fiery volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), but she’s close.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on print journalist Kim Barker’s 400-page The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Screenwriter Robert Carlock, an Emmy winner for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, which also starred Fey, focuses on the author’s sometimes horrifying adventures in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Baker, asked point blank by fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie of Focus and The Wolf of Wall Street) if she can borrow Baker’s video crew for sex, is tossed first into the Fun House, a sex, booze and caustic comic dormitory of sorts for war reporters, then the war itself. Fitting in as a seasoned journalist is out of the question at first. She marches off to war with a bright orange backpack and fatigues that still have a store label on the pants leg.

But a funny thing happens once Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets past all the slightly irritating stabs at dark war comedy. A beautiful drama emerges. Fey, as so many comedians are, turns out to be a superb dramatic actor. She plants her feet solidly in this conflicted character who becomes a seasoned war reporter in a hurry and may just become a little too intoxicated by the rush of real explosive danger.

In fact, this is a film overflowing with funny folks who are also gifted dramatic actors. Billy Bob Thornton, who played (and will play again next Christmas) the title character in Bad Santa, is outstanding here as Marine Col. Walter Hollanek, a leader with a constant 2,000-yard stare and a devotion to his men and duty.

Even though this film was shot in New Mexico, it captures the filth, the poverty, the desperation and the conflict of the Middle East extremely well. One of the things it does best is reveal Baker’s view of what she witnessed there as a journalist embedded in the chaos.

Extremely gifted actor Alfred Molina (Love is Strange) is so immersed in his character of budding government official Ali Massoud Sadiq that he’s almost impossible to recognize. Up-and-comer Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) might just find that his performance as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s fixer (interview arranger) is a catapult to stardom.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit series), as flirty, quick-witted photographer Iain MacKelpie, and Fey create some real screen magic as two lost souls flailing about trying to find some direction in their lives amid the madness of war.

Despite the fact that the filmmakers even make a feeble inside joke with the first letters of the military lingo title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (You get it, right?), this film excels as what it is; an extremely well-acted drama about flawed humans fighting to keep even a loose grip on humanity.


MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
111 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 3½ (out of 4)


'The Butler' could learn from the butler

President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) and Cecil Gaines in the cinematic White House. (The Weinstein Company)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
does something its title character, poised, non-intrusive White House butler Cecil Gaines, would never consider.  It rushes and over-serves. 

Generally, though, The Butler, as the sprawling political drama was called until a title squabble necessitated the addition of director Daniels' name, is a noble project of keen interest to anyone willing to take a hard look at the grittier side of U.S. history.

It should come as no surprise that Forest Whitaker, the Academy Award-winning title character of The Last King of Scotland in 2006, is superb to the point of jumping into the Oscar contender’s race again as Gaines.

Whitaker waved his fist in the air and screamed orders as dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  As Gaines, though, one of his generation’s most gifted actors gets under the skin and into the soul of a humble man whose granite backbone was forged as a young boy when he witnessed ruthless mistreatment of both parents on a cotton farm in the Deep South in 1926.

 Slavery may have officially been a thing of the past by about a half century by then, but this film’s early  scenes may inspire some in the audience to dig out a history book and check to make sure.

First as an act of survival, then as a vocation, Gaines learns to serve.  Once he makes his way to Washington, D.C., the observant servant lands a job first at a fine hotel and finally at the White House, where he stands out as a loyal African-American serving wealthy white folks.

The Butler begins to flounder when it becomes apparent that Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of Precious:  Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), and screenwriter Danny Strong (Game Change on HBO) haven’t set out to tell a personal story, but a personal story that will touch on every significant moment in black history from cotton field violence to Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House.

Not since Little Big Man (1970), which featured Dustin Hoffman and spanned about a century of Old West history, has a film bitten off so much.  Even with a running time of 12 minutes past the two-hour mark, The Butler rushes along; alternating scenes of Gaines serving seven presidents from studious Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to gregarious Ronald Reagan, who is very well-acted by Great Brit Alan Rickman, with Louis, Gaines’ eldest son who migrates south for college and chronicles the civil rights movement.

Some characters come and go swiftly in this father-and-son tale of reverent service by the elder that contrasts sharply with rebellious freedom fighting by the son.  That son, by the way, is performed without flaw by David Oyelowo (Lincoln), who appeared last year in Daniels’ The Paperboy and could be in the running for a supporting actor Oscar himself.

Oprah Winfrey also brings strong support as Gaines’ longsuffering, often boozed-up wife Gloria.  Perhaps a bit advanced in age to pull off scenes as a young adult, the near-legendary TV chat host and media mogul performs her difficult character with nuance and skill the rest of the way.

I also enjoyed Jane Fonda’s brief scenes as Nancy Reagan.  Not just for Fonda’s acting chops, which she has long displayed, but just for the irony of Fonda, the über liberal, portraying the wife of a famously conservative U.S. president.

It would be a mistake to think of The Butler as the accurately portrayed story of a humble man who had a backstage pass, as it were, to history and polished the White House silverware as his ostracized son fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement, however.

This is a case of a story “inspired by” the extraordinary life of Eugene Allen, who actually served eight presidential administrations.  Strong’s screenplay merely uses the real story (which can be found in Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post piece titled A Butler Well Served by This Election as a dramatic launching pad.

Characters and historic conflicts are inserted to stir the dramatic pot wildly when, from this aisle seat, the man and his humility would have served the dramatic purpose just fine.


MPAA rating:  PG-13 (some violence and disturbing images, profanity, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking)

Running time:  132 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3 (out of 4)


Get to 'The Last Station' on time

Even though "The Last Station" chronicles the final tumultuous year in the life of great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, it wouldn't have surprised me to see Woody Allen pop out from behind a tree for a comic philosophical discussion about "Love and Death."

Adapted for the screen and directed by Michael Hoffman, who took on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1999, "The Last Station" combines history with the slightest hint of cinematic comic frolic.  And he has two very good actors in key roles.

Christopher Plummer, recently on screen as the immortal and forever miserable title character in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," takes on Tolstoy in his final year of creativity and life in 1910.

Arguably the biggest celebrity in the world at the time, Tolstoy is caught in a personal battle of war and peace.  The Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), his wife of 48 years, is devastated by the news that her husband is thinking of changing his will.

Tolstoy' s devious disciple Vladimir Chertkov (a leering Paul Giamatti) is urging the great writer to commit to what might be referred to in a few decades as the Jonas Salk.  In other words, Chertkov strongly lobbies Tolstoy to sign over the rights to his life of writing to the Russian people.

When the Countess finds out, the first cold war erupts in Tolstoy's inner circle.

Hoffman sets the stage exquisetly when it comes to capturing a family bond so powerful that the mere notion of breaking it can send an aged revered writer fleeing his own home in the middle of the night.

This may be personal preference, but I'm bothered when movies taking place in a foreign land are played out by actors speaking English.  This case is extra puzzling because some banners on display during an outdoor celebration bear Russian words, yet the principals speak English.

On the other hand, Plummer and Mirren are joys to behold in this historical drama (shot in the German countryside, not Russia) that erupts with situational comedy.  In fact, they are both up for Academy Awards for their efforts.

For a reason I can't quite fathom, Plummer's Tolstoy draws a supporting actor nod.

Mirren, an Academy Award winner for her title role in "The Queen" (2006) and a best actress nominee for this performance, chews the scenery at times  like a TV soap opera star in a lingering death-bed scene.  Somehow, she still makes it appear cutting-edge marvelous.

Giamatti and James McAvoy have less to do, but are fine as well.  McAvoy ("Wanted," "Atonement") plays Tolstoy's secretary in way over his head in matters of family loyalty and love.

Beautifully staged, "The Last Station" diligently seeks peace in a warring household of wills, both on paper and of the mind.


'Young Vic' intriguing, but not memorable

The really special, memorable historical dramas covering ascension to the British throne offer more than just elaborate costumes, pomp and circumstance and powdered wigs.

"The Young Victoria," for instance, ups the ante with sly, intriguing political maneuvers, royal family infighting and budding love.

While it falls a little shy of the truly greats like Helen Mirren's Academy Award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II ("The Queen") in 2006 or Cate Blanchett's two Oscar nominations for portraying the first Elizabeth ("Elizabeth" and the sequel), "The Young Victoria" isn't exactly a cinematic First Lady in Waiting.

Emily Blunt was nominated for a Golden Globe Award earlier this week for this title performance.  On the verge of her 18th birthday and imminent domain of the British throne once her bombastic, heavy drinking uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), passes, young Victoria has grown up in torment.

Her father died when she was young.  Victoria's overbearing mother, The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), under the harsh influence of her desperately ambitious adviser Conroy (Mark Strong), tries to give her daughter the royal flush.

Why the rush to become queen?  Why not let Mommy not-so-dearest rule for a while until Victoria's ready?

Blunt, also nominated for a Golden Globe award for her agitated work opposite Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" in 2006, goes regal and generally calm in this outing.  

It works.  But watching "Young Victoria" unfold on screen, I couldn't help wonder why ascension-to-the-U.S. throne dramas never captivate like our British counterparts.  True, Josh Brolin's George Bush didn't get to put on a fancy red robe or a crown in Oliver Stone's "W." last year.  He did get to sit in the  big chair, so to speak, though.

I think it's something else.  Americans, and this includes our filmmakers, are too "cool" to show the human side of our leaders.  Oh, we're quick to lampoon as Stone does with "W."  But that's different.  With an intriguing script by Academy Award winner Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park"), "Queen Victoria" lets the royal foibles show.

Scheming prime minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) may not be as good for the teen queen as he seems, while scheming cousin Albert (Rupert Friend) of Belgium might just have more to offer than shows upon first meeting.

From this aisle seat, French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, known for the mystical coming-of-age tale "C.R.A.Z.Y." ( 2006), seems like an odd fit for this historical royal romance at first. Vallée's ability to keep the story moving forward with the needed blend of intrigue and romance makes this an enjoyable look back at British history, however.

Just not a truly memorable one.


'Invictus': It's got game, needs more Mandela

Noble and well acted, "Invictus" is the captain of its creative soul.

Perhaps a co-captain was in order.

Surprisingly, to me at least, director Clint Eastwood devotes long periods of valuable screen time focusing on the grunts and dropkicks of rugby while  Morgan Freeman, as revered South African leader Nelson Mandela, wagers a case of wine with his New Zealand counterpart up in the stands.

"Invictus" is a good film.  In fact, it excels at times.  It barely scratches the surface when it comes to fertile Mandela history, however.  After all, this is the man who spent 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid.

When he was elected president a few years later in 1994, Mandela worked tirelessly to unite a bitterly divided country. He didn't just fight to soothe the ravaged souls of the overwhelming black majority, either.   Mandela forgave the whites, who locked him away for the best years of his life.

From this aisle seat, I just didn't expect Eastwood to use the weary Big Game crutch to tell this story.  While heartfelt, it  lacks character depth.  Expect to learn as much about the president's body guards as the leader himself, for instance.

Freeman, who has teamed with Eastwood the director twice before ("Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven"), has been working to portray Mandela for years.  According to written reports, Freeman favored "A Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela's autobiography.

Eastwood and South African screenwriter Anthony Peckham take the shorter stroll, using a screenplay based on John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy."  That turns the focus to rugby, a sport arguably less known in this country than soccer.  It also calls for a co-leading man.

Although his South African accent wobbles as much as the ball sailing through the goal posts, Matt Damon ("The Informant!") is believable enough as Francois Pienaar, captain of South Africa's underdog Springboks.  

Mandela's goal is to unite his nation through sport.  So over tea in the presidential office, the South African leader urges Pienaar to win one not for the Gipper, but for a nation that might just come together if things work out right in the World Cup winner's bracket of 1995.

In the most touching moments of "Invictus," Mandela recites lines from William Ernest Henley's poem that inspired the future leader to survive almost three decades of confinement.

"I am the master of my fate:

"I am the captain of my soul."

I can find no fault in Freeman's performance.  The Academy Award winner under Eastwood's tutelage in "Million Dollar Baby" captivates as usual.  That's one of the reasons "Invictus" as it stands is still a worthy effort despite its narrow story focus.

Eastwood, known for working fast -- a take or two will usually do -- and moving on, is to be credited for accurately capturing a key moment in South African sports.  "Invictus" was shot entirely on location in and around the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa and it shows.

As Eastwood's camera took a bus ride with the rugby team on a day trip to inspire the impoverished local kids, though, I couldn't help wondering what Mandela was up to that day.

Dazed and confused with a backstage pass

When I first saw Richard Linklater's blustery, entertaining "Me and Orson Welles" at the Toronto Film Festival in Sept. 2008, I emerged with two thoughts.

A:  I wonder how many people realize just how daring and inventive Linklater, a Houston native based in Austin, really is as a filmmaker?

And B:  If there's a God in cinematic heaven, this little gem of a show biz period piece will find a distributor.

It took a while, but Linklater's "Let's put on a show!" recreation of the founding days of New York City's fledgling, but innovative Mercury Theater in 1937 finally springs to life for anyone willing to pay the price of admission.

I generally don't like to encourage money spending in this tight economy.  But if you're curious about what was going on in the mind of 22-year-old Orson Welles, or you're a Linklater ("The School of Rock," "Dazed and Confused") fan, or you love backstage comic-dramas, "Me and Orson Welles" is a must-see.

And here's another revelation.  It turns out that Zac Efron, that singing/dancing phenom of "High School Musical" fame and "17 Again" shame (not his fault) can really act.

Efron plays inquisitive 17-year-old Richard Samuels, a kid who can strum a ukulele a little.  Richard gawks his way down Broadway and stops at 41st to see what all the commotion is about.

Welles, portrayed magnificently as a youthful genius-in-the-making by British theater actor Christian McKay, is blustering about; shouting orders, firing people (then hiring them back) and working with his partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), to shake up the New York theater.

Welles' vision of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" is billed as "Caesar:  Death of a Dictator" and will feature Roman senators in Fascist military uniforms.

The best thing about "Me and Orson Welles" is how completely Linklater's production sweeps the audience into the fast-paced backstage and out-front theatrical melodrama.  You'll feel like you can almost smell late 1930s New York, even though this ensemble piece was shot on the Isle of Man and in and around London, including Pinewood Studios.

If there's a drawback, it's that Linklater tries to do too much with the story.  Subplots abound in this blaze of ensemble action with a coming-of-age focus.  Richard, wide-eyed and innocent, falls hard for Welles' assistant, Sonja Jones, played convincingly by Claire Danes.  

Sonja's an "older woman" in this scenario.  The kid doesn't just learn how explosive the mind of a creative genius can be.  He's also blindsided with the  fact that a woman -- especially one with stars in her eyes -- doesn't always follow her heart in matters of love.

It's a shame we don't see more of McKay as Welles, though.  The concert pianist-turned-actor resisted cashing in on his resemblance (uncanny, I think) to a young Welles early in his acting career.  Thank goodness he came to his senses.

McKay, the axle everything turns on here, was in New York performing "Rosebud:  The Lives of Orson Welles" when Linklater was made aware of his dead-on reincarnation of one of the most powerful spirits in film and theater history.


Flying first class with 'Amelia'

"Who wants a life imprisoned in safety," cavalier aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart says in the soaring historical adventure "Amelia."

Luckily for director Mira Nair ("Vanity Fair," "Salaam Bombay!"), Academy Award winner Hilary Swank is in the pilot seat as the fearless, free-thinking aviatrix.

Filmmakers forging screen biographies that end in tragedy, whether they profile ill-fated singers Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline or politicians John or Robert Kennedy, know the appeal must be in the journey, not the conclusion.

For the most part, "Amelia" navigates that tricky plot territory well.  Drawing on a couple of Earhart biographies (Susan Butler's "East to the Dawn" and Mary Lovell's "The Sound of Wings"), able screenwriters Ron Bass (an Oscar-winner for "Rain Man") and Anna Hamilton Phelan ("Gorillas in the Mist") hone in on 10 key years in the unbridled adventurer's life.

Many who take their seats for "Amelia" will already know, of course, that Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (as a disgruntled passenger) in 1928.  Who doesn't know that the daring aviatrix perished in the summer of 1937 trying to become the first woman to fly around the world.  

What you might not know, however, is the freedom-at-all-costs woman who had three great loves in her life.  If "Amelia" unveils the true Earhart, husband George Putnam (Richard Gere) and lover Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) both had to line up behind Earhart's sense of freedom and adventure.

This is the Amelia Earhart that Swank reveals so well  in layers.  That's nothing new for the actress known for diving far enough into her characters to reveal the intimacies of a stranger's soul.

Twice Swank has walked away from the Academy Awards ceremony with a Best Actress golden statuette in hand for doing just that; as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Dry" (1999) and as a determined boxer in Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" (2005).

She could very well put herself in the Oscar race again as this woman of tremendous spunk and courage, but also one who's a little goofy at times and foolishly in love with humanity.

Gere, toned down a little by Nair, is a good choice to portray Earhart's dream weaver.  Putnam, a pioneer himself, can be thanked -- if you're so inclined -- for navigating uncharted promotional and public relation waters.

Amelia was the daring one flying the plane.  But it was Putnam who came up with clever product endorsements and speaking tours to finance his wife's itch to explore above the clouds.

McGregor seemed oddly cast as "the other man" to me at first.  Thankfully, the Scottish actor of the "Star Wars" prequels and "Trainspotting" fame dispelled any concern by diving into his character as well.

If there's any disappointment in this lavish production, it's the unavoidable letdown when fate and history step in to spoil the party.


Tautou goes Chanel surfing

Like a generous splash of Chanel Nº 5 perfume, "Coco Before Chanel" makes its presence known distinctively and in a hurry.

Audrey Tautou, the French actress who propelled "Amélie" to a foreign film Academy Award nomination in 2001, takes on the title role of legendary French couturier Coco Chanel.

Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine, responsible for the recent flighty comic-drama "The Girl from Monaco," gives her audience a poignant whiff of what's to come.  A fetching 20th century period piece, it reveals how a young French girl dropped off at a convent by her own father grew to become the "Coco" Chanel the fashion world knew until her death in 1971.

"Coco Before Chanel," in French with subtitles, is playful at times.  How could it not be with Fontaine in the director's chair?

Mostly, however, it tells the emotional story of a determined young waif.  Chanel sings a bouncy song about a little lost doggie named Coco (thus her nickname) to drunken soldiers early in the 20th century.  Of course she goes on to make a name for herself in clothes, hats and being a woman on her own terms.

The screenplay, co-written by  Camille Fontaine (no relation to the director), is "freely adapted" from the book "L'irrégulière by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

The version that lights up a movie screen is a starring vehicle for Tautou.  But it also ferrets out the tough times (desperate financial conditions, succumbing to the notion of being a "kept woman," if you will) that forged Chanel's independent, fearless nature.

Tautou doesn't quite manage to fully disappear under the skin of a French legend like Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard did as Edith Piaf in "La vie en rose" (2007).  She comes close enough, however, in a totally different life journey than that of Piaf.

Those unfamiliar with Chanel's story are likely to be a little surprised how much influence two wealthy men had on the formation of Chanel's persona over the years.

Étienne Balsan (Belgium's Benoȋt Poelvoorde), a rich race horse owner, emerges as the mentor who takes Chanel in.  It is "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy coal baron, who wins the talented young hat-maker's heart, though.

Exquisitely captured on film by director of photography Christophe Beaucarne (also behind the camera for the recent "Paris"), "Coco Before Chanel" takes us from Chanel's youthful Sundays waiting for her father to return to the convent for her all the way to Coco we know.

Coco (and Tautou) glow as the successful designer takes her place on her famous stairway while Chanel's models parade her fashion line.

It is a rewarding, if emotionally draining, journey.


Blowing the whistle on a distracting soundtrack

"The Informant!" opens with the chatterbox biochemist played by Matt Damon preaching the virtues of corn.

It's too subtle a warning, however, that director Steven Soderbergh will wait until at least halfway through to reveal his corn pone approach to a dramatic story.

While the idea of a corporate whistle blower eager to help the FBI fascinates throughout, "The Informant!" veers off the tonal path in the name of finding a unique niche. 
Soderbergh, an Oscar winner for directing "Traffic" in 2000, appears to want to avoid the dramatic tone of "A Beautiful Mind," the bio-drama starring Russell Crowe, or even anything remotely of like confused mind.

So Damon, who put on 30 pounds and a mustache to portray real-life whistle blower Mark Whitacre, mutters under his breath about everything from neckties to polar bears.

It's not until Soderbergh allows his lead actor to ease an itch under his character's toupee that he truly reveals a playful nature to match the bouncy soundtrack.  Up until that moment, it's as if Woody Allen's "Bananas" soundtrack is being used as temp music for a dramatic story that will change some lives.

Based on Kurt Eichenwald's book "The Informant (A True Story)," Scott Z. Burns' screenplay peels away layers of Whitacre's mental facade as the vice president of agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland turns government informant.  There's price fixing going on, by golly, and Whitacre would rather wear a wire for the FBI than see his company (not to mention global partners) bilk the good citizens out of millions of dollars.

If you want to enjoy "The Informant!" as a corporate mystery that'll slowly reveal the bad apples as it bounces along merrily and musically, please skip the next paragraph.

From this aisle seat, I think it's more fun to know that Whitacre is a major manipulator from the get-go.

That said, just know that Damon, who finally gets to do some real acting outside the confinement of those "Bourne" action-thrillers, makes a competent corporate chameleon.

I also like Scott Bakula ("Quantum Leap") as constantly baffled FBI Agent Brian Shepard.  And Melanie Lynskey (Stalker Rose on TV's "Two and a Half Men") adds mystery spice as Ginger, Whitacre's supportive (and compliant?) wife.

We can always count on Soderbergh ("Che," the "Ocean's" franchise driving force along with buddy George Clooney) to bring something offbeat and often daring to the movie screen.

"The Informant!" has its plot, dialogue and acting in the right place.  For the first half, at least, the unnecessarily goofy music just took me completely out of the story.