“Le Havre” is the latest piece of art-house bliss from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. His first film shot in France looks a lot like his great movies from Finland (among them "The Match Factory Girl" and "The Man Without a Past") in its focus on the proleterian crannies of city bustle. But it’s imbued here with a romantic, sunny buoyancy we haven’t seen in the entirety of his career – and which comes as a surprise given that his last feature, the neo-noir “Lights in the Dusk,” was one of his bleakest.
Andre Wilms exudes a world-weary kindness as Marcel Marx, a shoe-shiner, barely scraping by (most of Kaurismaki’s protagonists barely scrape by) in a small harbor town in Normandy. His life is upset by two occurrences: His devoted wife is hospitalized by what appears to be a terminal illness she’s been hiding from her husband; and he provides a temporary home – a haven, as the film’s title translates – for a young African refugee (Blondin Miguel) who has escaped from a round-up of immigrants.
These situations are ripe for maudlin melodrama and didactic speechifying, but Kaurismaki never succumbs to such treacle. He treads slow, deadpan, unconventional comic waters for charming and unexpected results not limited to the story’s integration of a lovesick, prehistoric rock ‘n’ roller (Roberto Piazza), a sympathetic police captain (Jean-Pierre Darrousin) and an informant played by legendary actor Jean-Pierre Leaud.
Throughout, Kaurismaki makes the average director’s work look ostentatious by comparison, exhibiting a pared-down, just-the-facts style that continues to make him a darling of international art cinema. Don’t miss this alternately modernist and elegiac movie.
"Le Havre" opens Friday at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Regal Delray Beach and Movies of Lake Worth.
Meanwhile, "The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch" is as derivative as "Le Havre" is distinctive. Based on a Belgian comic book series, this espionage actioner, which opens exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, aspires toward Bondian elegance but settles for Jean-Claude Van Damme clunkiness. The oddly named Largo Winch (Tomer Sisly) is the series’ protagonist, a scruffy, impervious superhero with a tribal tattoo of invincibility. The adopted, estranged son of a murdered billionaire mogul, Largo is forced to confront his past, track his father’s killer and save his newly inherited company from various and sundry elements.
Every moment of this clumsy compendium of cliches has the banal whiff of calculated inevitability; every “plot twist” is foreshadowed and accepted with the suspense of a traffic light changing from yellow to red. The film’s corporate halls of power are gleaming, unctuous edifices of ludicrous corruption and stilted dialogue – the film was shot in three languages, and the exclamation “Who do you think you are?!” is uttered unironically in two of them. Most of this plays like a parody of itself, shot with the unimaginative visual style of cable television (think “Burn Notice”), and without the winks and nods toward its endless stereotypes.
Finally, the documentary “Being Elmo” explores the life of Kevin Clash, an African-American puppeteer who rose from a penurious childhood on the outskirts of Baltimore to create Elmo, one of the most enduring children’s characters in television history. Whoopi Goldberg narrates this compulsively watchable profile of one unsung hero of the show-business dream factory, in effect making a movie for all dreamers everywhere. We don’t often think about the men and women pulling the strings behind the beloved cloth dolls, even though, as the film astutely conveys, the characters represent “the soul of the puppeteers.”
Amusing and touching without slipping into maudlin sentimentality, “Being Elmo” sidesteps hagiography by spending a considerable amount of screen time on the negative aspects of Clash’s embodiment of an iconic character, namely his neglect of his real-life daughter Shannon on account of his demanding career. Jim Henson acolytes will eat up every minute of this film with religious rectitude and careful observance; the rest of us will appreciate the Horatio Alger nature of Clash’s ascension. He epitomizes the American dream. You can gripe about the formulaic nature of this documentary, but it’s virtually impossible to leave it without smiling; it’s a cinematic ray of sunshine.