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Dream a little dream: (l-r) Watling and Flores in Talk to Her.

 

Silence is Golden
By Laura Leon

Talk to Her
Directed by Pedro Almodovar

At first glance, Talk to Her iseems like a strangely straightforward drama—strange, that is, for writer-director Pedro Almodovar, who has in past films (think Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) delighted in skewering our sexual and emotional sensibilities. Journalist Marco (Dario Grandinetti) falls in love with his subject, bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores). When she is gored by a bull, Marco stands vigil over her comatose body, a silent disciple to his love. While at the hospital, he meets nurse Benigno (Javier Cámera), who cares exclusively for the lovely Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballerina who also has been rendered comatose. Unlike the taciturn Marco, Benigno is all talk: He talks to his patient as if she’s part of the conversation, and urges his new friend to do the same. In a weirdly funny moment, the two men sit with their silent partners on the veranda; the women’s heads loll toward each other, and they look as if they’re gossiping, poolside.

Of course, all is not what it seems. Just before her accident, Lydia was about to confess to Marco that she still loved her former mate. As for Alicia, well, she thought Benigno was some crazed stalker who was so enamored of her that he booked an appointment with her father, a psychiatrist, on the hope that he’d run into her.

Perhaps there is some misogyny at work here: Men may well prefer or even need women who are silent, unaccusing, undemanding, and Almodovar plays with this idea. But he adds many, many other elements that make Talk To Her a moving exploration of love, loneliness and communication. Benigno’s devotion to Alicia is equal parts lovely and obsessive, and culminates in an act that is, in and of itself, despicable. And yet, that act (I hate to give anything away) has miraculous results; there is a sort of mysticism at work here that I’ve never seen in Almodovar’s earlier films. With great delicacy, the director gets around Benigno’s heinous behavior through the use of a silent movie within the movie, The Shrinking Lover, which is both humorous and portentous, if in an appropriately oblique way, and solves the inherent problem of maintaining Benigno’s humanity while moving the story. Before spying Alicia from the window of his apartment, Benigno had taken care of his mother, an unseen but pervasive and authoritarian presence to whom he was devoted. One could argue that except for those times in which he cares for Alicia, this poor man has been in some sort of prison, and indeed, Almodovar wants us to imagine the infinite kinds of prisons in which his characters find themselves.

Loneliness, of course, plays a huge part in the lives of Marco and Benigno, whose circumstances lead them to form an unexpected bond. The idea of male friendship is somewhat new territory for Almodovar, who heretofore has devoted much more effort on analyzing the lives and relationships of women. And yet, this exploration seems a natural extension of the director’s obsession with the different forms that love takes. Similarly compelling is the idea that love, any love, is really the product of imagination. Marco believes himself to be in love with Lydia, and she with him, even when her tears at a wedding betray her true feelings and the true state of their union. More obviously, Benigno believes himself to be involved in a richly satisfying relationship with Alicia—even though she has no voice in the matter. As he argues, with some truth, “We get along much better than most married couples!”

Talk to Her is at once hilarious and touching, delicate and somber, and its ability to successfully blend those disparate elements is a testament to Almodovar’s growth as a filmmaker who can balance the many tones of life and love into one gorgeously compelling movie.

Chon and Roy’s Excellent Adventure
By Ann Morrow

Shanghai Knights
Directed by David Dobkin

In the 2000 martial-arts flick Shanghai Noon, Jackie Chan played Chon Wang—pronounced John Wayne—an imperial guard from China on a mission in the Wild West, where he teamed up with laid-back bank robber Roy O’Bannon, played by Owen Wilson as a new-agey surfer dude fresh from self-actualization therapy. The film’s multiculti sendups and breezy political incorrectness went a long way to making the action-comedy a smash hit.

With many more historical tableaux yet to be turned upside down, Chon and Roy are back: this time to wreck farcical mayhem on stuffy Victorian England, where the duo head after Chon receives a message from his baby sister, Lin (Singapore beauty Fann Wong), that their father, the Keeper of the Imperial Seal, has been assassinated. Roy is in New York City working as a hotel gigolo, and just as he’s about to be busted, Chon shakes off the police in a sequence that pays dexterous homage to the Keystone Kops. Roy agrees to run off to London with him to join Lin in her pursuit of the assassin.

Directed by David Dobkin with a savvy understanding of the original’s often sophisticated zaniness, Shanghai Knights opens with a terrific bit of exposition in the Forbidden City, where the lissome Lin uses kung fu to narrowly escape the scissoring swords of Lord Rathbone (dishy Aiden Gillen as an ill-tempered cross between Gary Oldman and Little Lord Fauntleroy). The film zigzags from East to West, with Adrian Biddle’s amazing art design recreating the Forbidden City and teeming London with the detailed enchantment of hand-painted postcards. And the ridiculously sumptuous costumes almost steal their scenes—except that nothing can steal the limelight from the immensely appealing Chan, who compensates for his slowing physical prowess (he’s nearly 49) with ever-more-wryly-inventive choreography. Even better than the battle in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, where paraffin Mongolian warriors get in on the action, is a duck-and-cover routine utilizing crates of plundered Ming vases. “I let him do the heavy lifting,” says Roy, who miraculously misses out on every fight. Meanwhile, Dobkin gets some enjoyable mileage out of Big Ben, a Whitechapel brothel (complete with a throwaway joke at the expense of Jack the Ripper), and Buckingham Palace, where Chan masquerades as a maharaja in a gentle poke at Imperialist racism.

Original screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar make no bones about playing to the balcony (and Roy’s taunting of a Beefeater is beneath the rest of the film’s good-natured humanism), but they’ve also honed the spaghetti humor and fine-tuned the absurdist chemistry between sensible, honorable Chon and raunchy, self-involved Roy. At one point, the two drive off into the English countryside for a slow-mo parody of the homoeroticism of buddy-cop flicks. “I love you,” Roy tells Chon, in a platonic gush that perhaps only Wilson could pull off. In fact, the film’s sublimely silly riffs achieve hilarity almost solely through Wilson’s stoner sincerity. This space cowboy is out of it to the verge of genius.

—Ann Morrow

Sex and the Stupid Girl

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
Directed by Donald Petrie

This romantic comedy is based on a clever, one-note cartoon book by Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long also titled How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. It’s a sarcastic, day-by-day plan for women detailing the most effective ways to drive guys away. Typical advice: Cry during sex, begin the relationship conversation as soon as possible, continually ask him, “Am I fat?” The film poaches some of the book’s smarter conceits, but never achieves the complexity of its black-and-white pencil line drawings.

Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson), “how-to” columnist for a Cosmopolitan-style magazine, is assigned to write a story about how to lose a guy in 10 days. Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey) is an advertising executive who needs to prove he can make a relationship last for more than 10 days. (It’s a bet—the details aren’t interesting.) Through the magic of the movies, they are brought together in a bizarro relationship that she continually tries to wreck and he desperately tries to save.

The first meeting between Andie and Ben—two sharks eyeing each other in a chic Manhattan watering hole—is delightfully slick. These smug, shamelessly egotistical careerists are a perfect match. They banter about their soulless, high-paying jobs and shallow interests in a sexually charged atmosphere. When the two end up in the clinches, they take turns as sexual aggressor; we’re never sure where the scam ends and desire begins.

Unfortunately, the film is all downhill from there. (Since there’s an hour or so of movie left, it’s a long, slow descent.) Andie and Ben don’t have sex. They immediately go into relationship mode, however—which, frankly, is beyond belief. Neither wonders why the other is willing to put up with myriad interpersonal miseries after just one sexless date. If it were a smarter film, this might qualify as subversive. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is about love. Boring, conventional Hollywood love. Even worse, 10 Days takes the peculiar position that using someone emotionally is not only less damaging, but much more admirable than using someone sexually—a puritanical notion offensive on its face.

If anything, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days harkens back to the cynical sex comedies of the early ’60s—the Rock Hudson-Doris Day cycle, and any number of films with Jack Lemmon. The problem is that it isn’t cynical enough. Those movies tempered their ultimate capitulation to a dreary concept of “love” with an unhealthy, but effective dose of misogyny—not very edifying or likable, but infinitely more believable. In those days, a womanizing s.o.b. may have been tamed, but he wasn’t unconvincingly enlightened.

—Shawn Stone

The Sister-in-Law Blues

Deliver Us From Eva
Directed by Gary Hardwick

Eva (Gabrielle Union) is mother, confessor, and shining example of successful womanhood to her three younger sisters. Naturally, this makes her anathema to her sisters’ significant others. The guys don’t like Eva’s overwhelming influence, and would like to see her, if not exactly dead, at least out of the picture. To accomplish this, they hire the smoothest ladies man they know, Ray (LL Cool J), to seduce Eva as a means to get her out of their lives.

The setup, which involves establishing Eva as a controlling shrew who comes between her sisters and their husbands, is more or less successfully accomplished. Deliver Us From Eva works on the theory that if you throw enough jokes at the audience they’ll laugh at a few of them, the result is fast-paced, if uneven. The cast is talented, however, and Union is fearsome (and funny) enough to carry the picture through this shaky start.

Two reasons most contemporary romantic comedies fall flat are bad screenwriting and a total absence of chemistry between the leads. The dialogue here isn’t exactly Lubitsch or Sturges, but the chemistry between Union and Cool J is combustible. Thus, things come together when Ray and Eva meet. Ray is cocky and smooth, yet respectful; Eva’s temperature obviously rises the closer Ray gets, and she manages to be civil when he proposes a date. Union’s fine work isn’t a surprise, but LL Cool J’s is—he proves to have a gift for light comedy.

As their attraction develops, so does the story. In addition to the central romance, we get into the nuances of the relationships between Eva and her sisters. The film gives us just enough of a family dynamic to make Eva a flesh-and-blood character instead of a shrewish caricature.

Surprisingly, when the central deception is revealed, the farcical aspects are downplayed in favor of Eva’s hurt and Ray’s guilt. Even more surprisingly, this doesn’t come off as sappy. And when the ultimate (and unavoidable) happy ending arrives, it’s sweet rather than silly.

—S.S.


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