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Besson breaks out the latex for comic-strip romp

Audiences at this month's Toronto International Film Festival may choose to see director Luc Besson's film The Lady, about Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi; A Happy Event, with Louise Bourgoin as a woman who has mixed feelings during and after pregnancy; and Chicken With Plums, starring Mathieu Amalric in a mainly live-action follow-up to the animated Persepolis.

Then again, they could just stay home and watch The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a delightful 2010 romp from France directed by Besson and starring Bourgoin as the title character and Amalric, much disguised, as the principal villain. After all, it's a safe bet those other films don't set a pterodactyl loose in a lovingly recreated Paris of 1911 or reanimate Egyptian mummies so they can muse that the Louvre's courtyard would look a lot better if only it had a pyramid in it.

Besson is no stranger to films of fantasy and action. He wrote and directed Léon: The Professional, (La Femme) Nikita and, set in a future world that Bruce Willis must save from Gary Oldman, The Fifth Element. He tried for a long time to secure the rights to French writer-illustrator Jacques Tardi's comic-strip collections about writer-adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec, the first of which appeared in 1976. It was years before Tardi, who had been approached by other filmmakers and been disappointed, would entrust Besson with the material.

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He needn't have worried. The characters look as if they had walked straight out of the books, thanks to a few hours in the makeup chair. Amalric isn't the only actor smothered in latex to reproduce the grotesque features (in his case) or comically bulbous faces (in the case of a bumbling police officer and a hapless pedestrian) that Tardi could achieve with a few pen strokes.

Even Bourgoin has a few whirlwind scenes in which, to infiltrate a prison, she must don a fat suit as a cafeteria lady, sport a mustache and dress as a nun (not all at once). Her endless day of makeup sessions is captured in one of the bonus features on this week's DVD, but those who don't speak French will miss her humorous asides. Unlike the film itself, the extras don't have subtitles.

Critics have compared this movie to Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones films, and there's an obvious spot of homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark when Blanc-Sec breaks into an Egyptian burial chamber. Reviewers have also noted that Spielberg will be releasing his own version of a popular comic series about a writer-adventurer: the Tintin tales by Belgium's Hergé. But all those heavily made-up faces bring a third highly stylized comic-strip film to mind: Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, in which Al Pacino was one of several name actors rendered all but unrecognizable in the service of comic art.

Oh, the story? A wizened scientist manages through long-distance concentration to hatch a museum's egg, from which emerges a pterodactyl that promptly causes the death of a government minister and sparks a police investigation that threatens to keep Blanc-Sec (yes, dry white, like the wine) from saving her sister, who – but that would be telling.

If you wonder at film's end whatever happened to that zookeeper and the big-game hunter, sit through the closing credits. You'll find out.


X-Men: First Class (2011)

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In David Cronenberg's TIFF entry A Dangerous Method, Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung, who famously fell out with Sigmund Freud. In Matthew Vaughn's intelligent prequel to the other X-Men films, Fassbender plays the man who becomes Magneto and famously falls out with the man (James McAvoy) who becomes Professor X. In the extras, producer Simon Kinberg says the initial instinct was to make the film more of a high-school movie, but it became apparent the script too closely resembled Twilight and John Hughes's teen movies. He's happy the film took a different direction. No kidding.

Hanna (2011)

Having trekked part of the way from the Soviet Union to India in The Way Back, Saoirse (pronounced SUR-sha) Ronan must now zip across Europe. Sixteen-year-old Hanna (Ronan) has been raised in the Finnish wilderness by her father (Eric Bana) and trained in the ways of assassination, which come in handy when she is chased hither and yon by, among others, Cate Blanchett. Blu-ray bonuses include a philosophical coda that was dropped to make the ending punchier. Joe Wright, who directed Ronan in Atonement, says this smart thriller is "a road movie as much as anything else." Could be, if someone is always trying to run you off the road.

Certified Copy (2010)

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami set his film in Tuscany, which means even viewers perplexed by the storyline will have something to look at. A French woman (Juliette Binoche) invites an English author (operatic baritone William Shimell) for a drive in the countryside. He has written a book arguing that a copy may be as satisfying as the original, and the plot plays with the notion of what's real. Two people who appear to have just met start acting like an old married couple. Some viewers will be intrigued, some exasperated.

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