Movies reviewed this week: Venus, Le Petit Lieutenant, The Hitcher

It's a challenge to stay unspoiled after Children of Men and Letters from Iwo Jima on successive weeks. Many a week out of the year, Le Petit Lieutenant would doubtless be a sight for sore eyes. A taut, tough, gritty, realistic French policier (no background music to pump it up at any point), it picks up the title character at his graduation from the police academy and doggedly follows him to his first assignment as a plainclothesman in Paris, to the receipt of his first gun, to his first corpse, first autopsy, first case, an unglamorous mugging and murder likely committed by a couple of lowlife Russian immigrants. The straight-ahead, flat-footed narrative, however, conceals an odd, awkward, tricky structure. Every now and then the film veers off from our eager young rookie (Jalil Lespert) onto a private detour with the soi-disant "Madame Supercop" (the biggest name in the cast, Nathalie Baye, in an economically eloquent performance), a respected veteran, daughter of a "Monsieur Supercop," back on the streets after two years at a desk job while she battled alcoholism. Somewhere in the middle, right when the case takes on a new urgency, the focus switches entirely to her, with the Little Lieutenant removed to the sidelines, although keeping his claim on the film's title through his significance to his replacement protagonist, just the age her son would have been had he not died of meningitis in childhood. Not in any degree "super," Madame Cop shows herself to be all too human.

The balance, in the early stages, between these two characters could have been more deftly handled by the (over here) unknown director, Xavier Beauvois, who also plays a supporting part as a Right-leaning cop; but the case itself, continuing to plow straight ahead, is satisfyingly worked out with rising stakes, rising suspense, rising emotion. The only deflation in it is the thought at the back of your mind of how unimaginable this sort of thing would be in the Hollywood of today, as opposed to the Hollywood of half a century ago. It would now need to be injected with enough extra voltage to electrocute itself. The film, fortunately for me if not you, carries over on Friday, the 26th, into a second week at the Ken Cinema. Landmark, the parent company, a couple of weeks ago sent out notification that the scheduled opening date of January 19 was pushed back to January 26, and then, when I was ten minutes from last week's deadline, notified me that the opening date was moved forward again to the original date of January 19. Sure fooled me!

Venus, written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, is an abortive Pygmalion tale about a septuagenarian one-time matinee idol ("You're famous?" "A little bit") who takes an interest in the hopeless would-be model and, in the meantime, ill-natured caregiver for her gay great-uncle, an old thespian crony of our Pygmalion figure. Some of the senescent sexuality has some interest in it for us, too, as we might expect from the indelicate writer of My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, My Son the Fanatic, and (also directed by Michell) The Mother. And yet, for all the outward thorniness, the film is a ball of mush at heart. Peter O'Toole, as the dried-up ham, gives a wearily bluffing performance that nevertheless seems to have won over the critics. Always prone to a heavy stress and a lurching cadence in his delivery of lines, a kind of vocal galumpher, he is now more ponderous and harder-breathing by half, going for the Henry Fonda Oscar -- i.e., the sympathy vote -- and even, around the nipped-and-tucked hollowed-out eyes especially, looking a bit like late Fonda, a shadow of his former self (a "gorgeous" glamour shot from his salad days will remind us) or more accurately a cruel caricature of his former self. It is good to report that Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife continues to age beautifully, without taking extreme measures, and that she has still got a spark, a mere five years younger than O'Toole at the age of seventy this next Tuesday, the 30th. Young Jodie Whittaker, in her screen debut as the Galatea figure, makes a pebble-sized splash.

The Hitcher undertakes an extensive re-write of the 1986 road-movie thriller of the same name, altering but not eliminating the truck-pull pièce de résistance, the tearing of limb from limb. What emerges from the overhaul is a no-fun Spring Break for a collegiate Cute Couple harassed by a homicidal highway menace (supernatural or just supersilly?) against whom the New Mexico cops are as helpless as though they were up against the Terminator. What it tells us is nothing more than how rapidly time marches on. We seem to have come to the point where a young filmmaker today (Dave Meyers, a music-video guy) can reach back into his youth, no further than the mid-Eighties, and hold up as a screen classic such a complete pièce de crap. (The recent remakes of Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reached back at least to those golden olden days of the Seventies. But it's a new year.) That very word, as it happens, issues from the car radio when a distant deejay introduces "a classic from David Soul," albeit an artifact of the Seventies, "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby." Without any question this is meant as a joke, though it's hardly a bigger joke than an awestruck remake of The Hitcher.

My overriding reaction to the Golden Globes, insofar as they are considered a "forecast" of the Oscars, was that not only was 2006 not a very good year for movies, it was not even a very good year for the particular sorts of not very good movies that the Oscars traditionally palm off as bests. The winnowed-down nominations announced on Tuesday bore this out. Of course, one route to respectability remains open, provided the Academy give its top award to a film in Japanese. The handicap of foreign-language films up until now has been that they're always made by foreigners.

February, right around the corner, means one thing for certain (besides the Oscars, that is): the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, the 17th Annual, February 8 through 18, spread around among the AMC La Jolla 12 (principally), the UltraStar Mission Valley 7, the UltraStar Poway 10, and the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. For the full schedule of documentaries (always more of those), fiction films, featurettes, and shorts, go to www.lfjcc.org/sdjff or call 858-362-1348.

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