Tuesday, August 28, 2007

2 Days in Paris

















Julie Delpy is the kind of star you feel as if you could be friends with if your paths ever crossed. She’s not too vain to let her classically beautiful face look tired, even a little doughy at times, and when she plays quick-witted, articulate, socially conscious women, like the one she reprised in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Waking Life, her own intelligence, humor, and moral outrage light them up from inside like the flame in a Halloween pumpkin.

The daughter of bohemian French actors who encouraged her creativity from an early age, Delpy has been writing screenplays since she was eight. She cowrote Linklater’s movies with the director and her costar, Ethan Hawke, and the three earned an Oscar nomination for their Sunset script. She’s also a musician (her music was featured in Before Sunset). So it’s hardly surprising that she wrote the screenplay and composed the soundtrack for 2 Days in Paris -- or that she directed and coproduced it.

But I wasn’t expecting it to be so funny.

2 Days sounds a lot like Before Sunset. Both are about an American man and a French woman, played by Delpy, who are in love and in Paris. The similarities are intentional – she thought she could raise more money for her movie if it sounded like a variation on her most recent hit – but they’re superficial.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are elegiac romances. In both, the couple exists in a social vacuum and the dialogue between them is virtually the only action. 2 Days in Paris is a fast-moving, fast-talking comedy about dysfunctional relationships. It’s also about reaching the age -- and the point in a relationship -- where you’re ready to move past the starry-eyed stage and make a serious commitment.

Marion (Delpy), a Parisian now living in New York, is stopping off at home for a couple of days on her way back from a Venice vacation with her American boyfriend, Jack (played by Delpy’s ex, Adam Goldberg). It sounds like something out of a movie, but this film’s only interest in romantic clich├ęs is to puncture them. Jack annoyed Marion in Venice by photographing absolutely everything. Now that they’re in Paris, it’s her turn to get on his nerves.

The two stay in the apartment Marion bought just above her parents’ place, spending most of the two days with her family and friends. Jack has never been here with her before, and he’s learning things that make him feel as if he doesn’t know her at all.

Marion and Jack are 35 and have been together for two years. That may seem a little late to be reaching this point in their relationship, but that’s part of what Delpy is getting at. “A lot of people say your 30s are like your 20s now, and I think that's actually true,” she told Salon. “We put work and career before family and relationships, and then you start thinking about the family stuff in your mid-30s. Which is really late.”

That may not be a totally original insight, but it’s a valid one. The same goes for the pronouncements made in the movie, which tend to run along the lines of “Taking pictures all the time turns you into an observer.” Unlike Linklater’s romances, which are about the thrill of connecting with a soulmate and which include a strong dose of philosophizing and talk about ethics and other big ideas, 2 Days in Paris is a comedy of manners that's studded with little gems of wry, observational wit, and permeated by the anarchic thrill of watching people indulge in wildly inappropriate behavior.

Marion, who Delpy says was inspired by Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, has what you might call an anger management problem. She’s constantly sparring with Jack, and she’s prone to picking serious fights with other people. In one wildly funny scene, she encounters an ex-boyfriend in a restaurant and attacks him like a rabid Rottweiler. The startling sight of this porcelain beauty lunging across a table to throttle her ex, toggling back and forth between apparent calm and homicidal rage, has the guffaw-inducing unpredictability of Harpo Marx’s sneak attacks.

The people Jack and Marion encounter in France – including her parents, who are played by Delpy’s real-life parents – talk about sex all the time. Yet Jack and Marion never quite manage to make love, partly because Marion just won’t stop talking, even when Jack tries to kiss her. “It’s like dating public television!” he complains.

To make matters worse, they keep running into Marion’s exes, who all come on to her as if Jack, who doesn’t speak French, simply weren’t there. Even more creepily persistent is a stalker on the subway. Jack tries to scare him off in a wonderfully funny little scene, glaring until he’s practically cross-eyed.

By the end of this compact 96-minute movie, we know the hypochondriac, somewhat paranoid Jack and the motor-mouth, rage-prone Marion well enough to like them in spite of their faults and root for their happy ending.

True, that ending feels a little tacked on. A couple other scenes don’t quite work either, like when Jack gets mistaken for a thief or Marion gets sick at a party. But that’s easy to forgive, since there’s always another laugh hard on the heels of a dud.

Besides, who could hold a grudge against a movie that leaves you feeling this full of life?

Written for TimeOFF

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stardust














I was surprised not to see any kids at the crowded weekend afternoon screening where I saw Stardust. This neo-classic fantasy seems tailor-made for tweens – in fact, director Matthew Vaughn says he did it partly to make a movie that his kids could enjoy. But maybe a sweet, old-fashioned romantic fantasy is just too uncoolly sincere for the PG-13 crowd.

Vaughn started his career as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s briefly trendy hard-guy caper films, and he must have learned a lot behind the camera. The first feature he directed was Layer Cake, an elegantly assured double-cross story. With Stardust, his second film as director, he’s pulled off another pleasant surprise, adapting a novel by comic book artist Neil Gaiman into a sweet escapist fantasy.

We’re in familiar territory from the start in this meta-fairy tale, which Vaughn calls a combination of The Princess Bride and Midnight Run. The setting is a small town surrounded by a stone wall in an idealized version of Victorian England – and, in time-honored fairy tale fashion – the magic land that lies hidden on the other side of the wall.

The story more or less begins when a young man named Tristran (a blandly handsome Charlie Cox) enters that world, as his father did one night before he was born. Tristran is looking for the falling star he promised to bring back to Victoria, the flirty, flinty town beauty (Sienna Miller), but instead, of course, he finds things he was never looking for. As the plummy narration by Ian McKellen informs us, this will be a story about how Tristran became a man and won “the heart of his one true love.”

There’s barely a surprise or a moment of genuine wonder in what follows and yet, once it’s had a chance to tune up, it works, sounding that reassuring note of inevitability that resonates in all good fairy tales. But first we have to get past some rough spots, including the twee staginess of the magical market town that Tristran’s father visits and a stiff performance by Kate Magowan as Una, the captured princess he encounters there.

Even Tristran’s story takes a little while to get moving, mainly because Claire Danes as Yvaine, the fallen star come to ground as a cranky beauty, is a black hole of charmlessness at first and Cox doesn’t have enough charisma to carry those scenes on his own. Yvaine is supposed to be the soulful antidote to the narcissistic Victoria, and eventually you buy it, as the actress’ stubborn integrity grows on you. For her first few minutes of screen time, though, she leans so hard on Yvaine’s peevish discomfort that she threatens to become just another pill.

But no warm-up is needed for most of the excellent supporting cast. Peter O’Toole grins craftily from his deathbed, the self-satisfied king of the magic world. Rupert Everett and a flour-white lineup of less famous but equally adept actors make for a high-class peanut gallery as the king’s heirs, who keep killing one another to clear the way to the throne -- and then stick around like a ghostly Greek chorus. And Ricky Gervais of the original The Office is wonderfully slippery as a fast-talking fence.

Best of all are Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. Pfeiffer plays Lamia, an ancient witch bent on regaining her lost youth and beauty by eating Yvain’s heart. Whether she’s gazing in glee at her own gorgeous gams after temporarily regaining her looks, recoiling in disgust as her age spots begin to return, or erupting in murderous fury when she is defied, Pfeiffer’s Lamia is a juicy caricature of a woman used to using her looks to get what she wants -- and an only slightly more monstrous version of the tyrannical aging beauty queen Pfeiffer plays in this year’s Hairspray. Pfeiffer is awfully young and gorgeous to be playing late-Joan-Crawford-type aging harridans, but if that’s what Hollywood’s offering her, at least I’m glad she’s having fun with them.

The middle-aged male actor’s version of playing a shrew seems to be doing comic versions of one’s youthful persona. In movies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, De Niro has been spoofing all those tough guys he's played, and it looks like he’s enjoying himself too. This time around, he plays the captain of a flying pirate ship, a tough-talking showboat with a secret of his own.

If De Niro’s captain and ship remind you a bit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and his beloved Black Pearl, it doesn’t look as if Stardust is going to burn half as hot as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. I like it much more, though. Both are kitchen-sink fantasies, throwing in elements from all kinds of fantasy genres, but the Pirates movies feel too frantic to me, piling on the special effects and the gimmicks as if to distract you from the thinness of the plot. Stardust keeps things much more low-tech, and the pace is less frenetic; Even the inevitable chase scene is a low-key, CG-free affair, with everyone either on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage.

Stardust keeps its feet on the ground too, moving at a nice clip without ever spinning out of control. In the end, there’s nothing transcendent about this old-fashioned fairy tale, but it makes for a satisfying afternoon’s entertainment.