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Made for each other: (l-r) Kutcher and Peet in A Lot Like Love.

True Romance
By Laura Leon

A Lot Like Love

Directed by Nigel Cole

Psst! Somebody better let Hollywood in on the secret that it has, seemingly unwittingly, given the green light to a string of flicks that depict relationships and romance in a slightly more serious, somewhat nostalgic and not-infantile manner. To wit: Hitch, which had the nice distinction of showing sophisticated grown-ups at work and play; The Upside of Anger, which never let its incredibly complex protagonists get cute or unbelievable; and now, A Lot Like Love, which gives us a credible modern love story. The main couple share an innocence and awkwardness that speaks more to too many budding relationships than does, say, the boring mannerisms of dueling lovers in a Woody Allen film.

When Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) first meets Emily (Amanda Peet), he’s a gawky postgrad working on his “big plan,” which has him establishing a successful Internet business, buying a home and meeting the woman of his dreams within six years. On the other hand, she, with her spiky hair, tattoos and combat boots, appears more interested in keeping things arms’ length—albeit only after a tryst in an airplane lavatory. Time passes, and serendipity brings the two together again, only to be interrupted by distance and, well, Oliver’s plan. If anything, Oliver is perhaps a little too traditional in his quest to have all his “ducks in a line,” as he oft notes, before getting down to the business of living; Emily, who struggles unconvincingly as an actress before turning to photography, seems blissfully (we never get a sense of financial hardship) devoid of any corporate calling.

The movie, written by Colin Patrick Lynch, follows Oliver and Emily through seven years of on-again/off-again situations, most of which are funny yet peppered with a sense of longing. It helps that the audience feels enormous empathy for the two characters, in part because of the genial performances of the players, but also because the longings do seem so real. As Emily’s friends enter into happy marriages and motherhood, she ambles around the perimeters of their lives, photographing their showers and birthday parties. (Like Hitch, this is one of the few movies out there that depict characters with rich friendships, not just work or significant other, as an integral part of their lives.) Peet beautifully, subtly conveys the idea that this independent career woman and former party girl might, just might, be missing something deeper in life, something that is personified in Oliver. The movie also does a nice job of showing the emotional journeys that Oliver and Emily take to find their ways back to the other, especially as how each needs to become more like how the other was perceived at their first meeting. It seems so old- fashioned to say that you really end up rooting for this couple, but, there it is.

Spiritual clowning: Chow in Kung Fu Hustle.

Disco Fun Pow Movietime

Kung Fu Hustle

Directed by Stephen Chow

Critics and urban hipsters are falling all over themselves praising Kung Fu Hustle, a delirious blend of Hong Kong action clichés, classic-cartoon violence, silent-movie slapstick and a dreamy, ahistorical 1930s China. And well they should, as Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle is a terrific film.

The film opens with a violent tour de force, as one group of gangsters tear up a police station, and then another, better-dressed group of ax-wielding thugs tear up the streets—and then go into a long, elaborate disco routine.

This sets up the main action. Sing (Chow) wants to be a gangster in the worst way, and, in the attempt proves to be the worst gangster in China. He attempts to hassle the poor denizens of aptly named Pig Sty Alley, but they prove to be formidable. His bumbling leads to the involvement of the ax-loving gangsters, and all bloody hell breaks loose.

What follows is a beautifully constructed story, brought to life with verve, humor and extremely silly levels of cartoon violence. For 99 minutes—the perfect length for this kind of film, just like Kill Bill Vol. 1—you can barely catch your breath in between laughs.

Yuen Wo-ping (surprise) did the action choreography, and he deserves props for not being afraid to make fun of himself, or people he’s previously worked for—like the Wachowski brothers, for instance, whose Matrix trilogy gets a puckish skewering. There’s an epic fight scene between the mystical hero and a throng of black suit-clad gangsters that both mocks and improves on the playground battle between Neo and the army of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded. Also, the whole notion of “The One” is treated with a sly sense of humor that twists the Christlike Keanu Reeves character into something more, well, Eastern.

A colleague complained about the first 20 minutes of the film—the introduction to the Axe Gang—and I can see his point. From one point of view, it’s a long bit of narrative misdirection before the film settles into its main story. And yet, I think it’s something more than that. The Axe Gang stand in for every group of soulless, bloodthirsty killers glamorized in so many recent films. Like the Crazy 88s of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (another Yuen Wo-ping choreography), the Axe Gang live by their own code of bloody revenge. But nearly every other character that follows in Kung Fu Hustle isn’t like that; however skilled they may be, they know the consequences of violence. Stephen Chow, for all his love of cartoon violence and bloody silliness, wants to put the spirituality back into martial arts flicks. This is the biggest surprise of all.

—Shawn Stone

What’s That?

The Interpreter

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack’s memorably taut 1975 thriller, Three Days of the Condor, reflected the paranoia and mistrust of authority that marked the Nixon years. In his sociopolitical popcorn movie, The Firm, he mined the dark side of the greed decade. For The Interpreter, Pollack is again in sync, with a multinational intrigue set inside the United Nations and wet-blanketed by the dour rhetoric of many a failed peace process. Though the film is meant to be the height of conscientious hit filmmaking, tastefully evoking 9/11 with a climactic bombing, its angst-ridden central relationship just drags on what could’ve been a ripping good thriller.

Nicole Kidman is the interpreter, Silvia Broome, who works at the United Nations. A South African educated at the Sorbonne, Silvia speaks an obscure African dialect, Ku, and has perfect pitch. Alone after hours in the sound booth of the mic-filled General Assembly, she overhears a conversation regarding an assassination attempt on the murderous dictator of the (fictional) African nation of Matobo. It’s her job to translate when the dictator (Earl Cameron) arrives in New York to make a speech to allay his critics.

After a day’s wait, Silvia reports her concerns to the U.N., and comes under the scrutiny of FBI agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who is supervising the dictator’s security. Tobin is suspicious of Silvia and grills her relentlessly. She is expertly evasive, but after narrowly escaping from an attempt on her life (fortunately for this and many other thrillers, all New York City apartments seem to have bathrooms with windows), she warms up to him and reveals the top layer of her multilayered life. Silvia has survived great tragedy and believes that by working at the United Nations she is aiding the cause of world peace. The plot piles on the emotional pressure, reaching into Sylvia’s childhood, her first love and her post-Sorbonne activism. She will have not one but two pivotal encounters with men in power, whom she will confront with all the cold fury of a spurned lover (made even more ludicrous by Kidman’s annoying attempt at an Afrikaner accent).

Since Tobin has recently experienced a great tragedy himself (he leaves his wedding ring in a whiskey glass, but it’s not what you think), he warms up to Silvia and investigates her even more diligently. Slightly overacting, Penn plays Tobin as a tenacious hangdog who overuses his wan half-smile. They have many philosophical exchanges, with Silvia standing on the side of compassion and forgiveness, and Keller admitting to a preference for vengeance. If Silvia’s possible involvement in an obtuse conspiracy was meant to be suspenseful, the tension must’ve gotten buried under all the baggage of her past life in Matobo.

Fortunately, Silvia and Tobin both have to work, and the security details of “dignitary protection” are made to look like pretty snappy stuff, especially when Tobin’s tart-tongued partner (Catherine Keener) is around. Filmed on location in New York City and within the actual United Nations, the film has a realism that is hard to resist. But trying for a resonant, Condor-like conclusion, Pollack tries too hard to personalize the generational effects of ethnic violence, inflating a shallow intrigue to ludicrous proportions. And by making Silvia the repository for a whole country’s worth of anger and betrayal, The Interpreter overreaches in nearly offensive fashion.

—Ann Morrow

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