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Can this be love? (l-r) Delpy and Hawke in Before Sunset.

Celine & Jesse Go Boating
By Shawn Stone

Before Sunset
Directed by Richard Linklater

Screen romance has been more or less dead for 40 years. I wish this were an overstatement, but with a handful of exceptions, it’s true. When was the last time you saw a film in which the lovers aren’t uncomfortably wedged between bullets, disease and death, or packaged by some smarty-pants Brit as part of an elaborate, “clever” plot involving a dozen annoying characters?

If you were lucky, it was 1995 and the film was Before Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater’s refreshingly simple romance followed an American, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and a Frenchwoman, Celine (Julie Delpy), as they wandered the streets of Vienna for a day and night. They met by chance on a train, and spent their time talking—about art, philosophy, relationships and, most pertinently, who they were and who they wanted to become. Among other things, Before Sunrise was about love’s seemingly endless possibilities; after all, what’s more hopeful than two fresh-faced strangers on holiday who, with implausible plausibility, meet and fall in love over 24 hours?

Linklater’s follow-up, Before Sunset, finds Jesse and Celine nine-years older and a little bit wiser. They were supposed to meet again six months after that one magical day and night; guess what happened. They meet again in Paris, where Celine lives and where Jesse is hustling the bestseller he wrote based on their brief encounter. They have an hour together before Jesse has to catch his flight back to New York City.

The leisurely pace of the first film is gone, as Before Sunset is presented in more-or-less real time. The two lovers must say everything they need to say in an very short period of time; the speed with which they transition from bullshit small-talk about their lives to baring their souls is almost comic. (The film is a taut 80 minutes long, which is another blessing for which to be grateful.) With cinematic elegance, Linklater dramatizes their plight by having the two constantly in motion. They’re either walking and talking or riding a tourist boat down the Seine, as time ticks relentlessly away.

Delpy and Hawke collaborated with the director on the screenplay, and incorporated some of themselves into the characters. Like Delpy, Celine is a singer-songwriter (and a pretty good one, too); like Hawke, Jesse’s marriage is falling apart. It’s actually kind of frightening how on-the-edge Jesse’s character is. Hawke has always played anxious, eager-to-please characters (Training Day being the best example), but Jesse seems to be falling apart. It’s an emotionally raw performance. Delpy’s work is more nuanced; when the full fury of her frustration emerges, it’s with shocking force.

Still, the movie isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It’s a romance, even if the romance is shaded with the desperation of approaching middle age. Watching the lovers prolong every moment, every final goodbye before he has to catch that flight has a sweet poignancy.

And the ending? No spoilers here. Let’s just say it’s sexy, witty and enormously charming. Frankly, the movies could stand a little charm right now.

Revenge of the Nerds

Napoleon Dynamite
Directed by Jared Hess

Maybe it’s the sign-language interpretation of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” performed by dead-earnest girls in spangled costumes as part of one girl’s campaign for class president. Or seeing a wizened grandmother taking a header off her dirt bike. Or hearing a teen’s response to that typical question, how was your day? “Worst day of my life! Whaddya think?” Take your pick, the movie Napoleon Dynamite is chock full of priceless, deadpan moments that have you howling, even while you’re rooting for its unlikely title protagonist.

Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a geek: a gangly, frizzy-haired fellow whose routine hazing by school jocks merely serves to strengthen and enhance his weird individuality. This is a guy who, with a straight face, can tell people that he spent the summer hunting wild boar in Alaska, or that his girlfriend (one of those pictures that accompany a newly purchased frame) would have accompanied him to the school dance, had she not gotten an important modeling assignment. Napoleon lives with his much older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a Bermuda- shorted dweeb whose reason for living seems to be to search online chat rooms for his soulmate. When Granny (Sandy Martin) takes the aforementioned spill, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to baby-sit, much to Napoleon’s disgust. Whereas Rico, who lives in the glorious past of his high-school football career and only enters the present to sell Tupperware and herbal breast enhancers door-to-door, Napoleon looks to the future, specifically, the upcoming school dance and the election for class president. As for the former, he secretly favors Deb (Tina Majorino), a shutterbug who sells “glamour shots” and fluorescent key chains to pay for college. Regarding the latter, he personally manages the unlikely candidacy of Mexican immigrant Pedro (Efren Ramirez), whose idealism is represented by his impossibly luxe date hopefuls—e.g., golden girl Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff).

As written by director Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha, Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t so much have a straightforward plot as deliver a series of whimsical episodes highlighting the life of a complete nerd. Some work beautifully, as when Napoleon wreaks his revenge on Rico, or when Kip finds true love, amazingly, in the person of his online sweetie LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), a towering black goddess. Others are less successful, like Rico’s purchase of a time machine, or Napoleon’s one-day job at a chicken factory. Throughout, however, Hess underlines everything with an earnest deadpan approach that is heady in and of itself. The movie’s climax, in which Napoleon breakdances in front of the school, is glorious, at once terribly funny and incredibly life-affirming.

Dynamite is refreshingly iconoclastic. The difference between this and so many other movies depicting such a character is that the Hesses have an obvious soft spot for Napoleon, who is masterfully played by newcomer Heder. This is a guy who doesn’t ultimately become “cool,” but one who maintains his individuality and wins the day, sort of.

—Laura Leon

You can trust me: one of the title characters in I, Robot.

If I Only Had a Brain

I, Robot
Directed by Alex Proyas

It’s set in the year 2035 but I, Robot has nothing to say that hasn’t been pondered in dozens of last-century sci-fi movies. “Inspired by” Isaac Asimov’s 1950 collection of robot stories, the film uses the author’s “three laws of robotics” (robots shall not harm humans, etc.) as the basis for an exploration of technological dependence that is superficially clever and ultimately meaningless, winding down with an ambivalent ending that dumps Asimov’s ongoing question in the audience’s lap: Robots as menace, or robots as helpful, coexisting species?

For Del Spooner (Will Smith), a Chicago detective and raging robophobe, there is no question. When Del is called to the scene of a suicide, that of the brilliant robotics pioneer Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), he immediately deduces that Lanning was murdered by a rogue bot. The idea of a robot being capable of homicide is viewed as crackpot paranoia by everyone from Del’s cynical superior (Chi McBride) to the CEO of the robotics firm USR (Bruce Greenwood), who is preparing the largest robot distribution in history. Undeterred, the wise-ass cop enlists the assistance of USR’s beautiful, brainy, and emotionally sterile Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan, even blander than she was in The Recruit). Together, they are put through the clichéd paces of a creaky police drama, punctuated by Del’s obnoxious chops-busting.

Far more intriguing than the plot is the look of I, Robot. Director Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City) has a tendency to throw in the philosophical kitchen sink, but he sure can art direct (he’s also a talented visual plagiarist). It’s what’s going on around the characters that informs and entertains, as when Del’s granny gets herself a robot domestic who slices and dices at many times the speed of a food processor. And this Chicago of the near future is completely convincing: The Sears tower is dwarfed by larger skyscrapers while Lake Michigan has been filled in with a massive robot factory. And that’s a problem. USR’s new NS5 robot is so advanced, it replicates without human supervision. Add to the possibility of a robot revolution the knowledge that the CEO, whose ubiquitous bots are plugged into a central USR mainframe, is in a position of potentially ultimate power. Meanwhile the rebelliously low-tech Del, who still “drives by hand” and wears 2004 Converse All Stars (in one of several prominent product placements), delves deeper into the notion of an independently evolving artificial intelligence. Since Smith, who is beefed up to astonishing proportions, plays Del as all attitude and no character, there isn’t a driving personality behind the film’s hodgepodge of sci-fi quandaries.

The solution, as it usually is in a summertime Will Smith blockbuster, is newer, better, faster action sequences, and the film does contain a few doozies, notably a prison-yard-style brawl between the new robots and their outdated predecessors. The neatest gimmick is “Sonny,” Lanning’s secret prototype. Sonny is programmed with emotions, learning abilities, even the capability to dream, and he is just as fond as A.I.’s little boy ’droid of proclaiming his uniqueness. He’s no more unique than the mechanical servants of times past, from Hal to Ash to Rachael to A.I.’s David, but he certainly looks a whole lot cooler. And looking cool, it seems, is the film’s overriding directive.

—Ann Morrow

I Love the ’70s

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Directed by Adam McKay

Too often in movies, comedians take a funny, one-note character, and let him or her run amok in a way that gets boring long before the first-hour’s eclipse. Former Saturday Night Live top guy Will Ferrell has been a bit luckier, in part because he seems more capable at drawing out the comic possibilities not just of a sight gag or character trait, but integrating them a bit more thoroughly into something bigger. Case in point, of course, is the sweetly goofy Elf, but so, too, the riotous, if sophomoric and oh-so-politically-incorrect, Old School. This ability puts Ferrell, and writer/director Adam McKay, in very good stead in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

Set in 1970s San Diego, at a time when a “lady news anchor” was more a punch line than a reality, Anchorman narrowly avoids the obvious comparisons to the Mary Tyler Moore Show and, in particular, the character Ted Baxter. Burgundy (Ferrell) is top dog at Channel 4, and with his news team compadres—slick Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), cowboy Champ Kind (David Koechner) and semi-retarded weatherman Brick (Steve Carell)—they ride their wave of incredible popularity, winning Emmys, ratings and countless babes at midnight pool parties where the scotch flows free. Everything changes, of course, when Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is hired to provide the diversity that the suits in New York say is what audiences are coming to expect. Burgundy’s gang is aghast, and seeks to embarrass, humiliate and, failing that, date Veronica, but Ron himself is attracted to her. Only after they’ve become an item does he tell her that he thought she was joking when she said she wanted to become the first female anchor. By then, however, their romance has hit the skids, as Veronica proves she’s more than somebody to cover the latest kitten fashion show. As her star ascends, Ron’s implodes.

Granted, about half way through the movie, the plot just sort of stops, to the extent that we know what’s going to happen: True love conquers all, happiness beats ratings, but happiness plus ratings is better! The jokes about Ron’s egomania get a little less funny and, at times, Ferrell seems to misplace Ron’s peculiar TV-land intonations. Still, there are many moments worth relishing, none better than the West Side Story-type rumble, featuring weaponry as diverse as switchblades, grenades and tridents, between the Channel 4 news team and their would-be competitors, including a Spanish language channel lead by Ben Stiller and a corduroy-wearing bunch from public television. Later, reviewing the carnage, Ron and the guys agree that things got a little out of hand pretty darn quick. In a movie chockfull of celebrity cameos, Vince Vaughn, as Ron’s number two rival, stands out; this is an actor who has perfected playing the little bastards of society, and here is no exception. Applegate ably goes toe to toe with Ferrell, even if much of the time she has to play the sophisticate to a bunch of hormonally charged yahoos. And Fred Willard (oh, where, oh, where is Fernwood tonight?), as the station manager, watches over it all with a bemused, been there, done that—and better—mien.

—Laura Leon

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