Less a gourmet meal than a flaky pastry, Paris (IFC) is a slight but sweet love letter to the urban life of the city of lights celebrated through the lives of a dozen of its inhabitants (and as many peripheral characters) as they criss-cross, ricochet or simply graze one another over the course of a few weeks. The film opens on Elise (Juliette Binoche, as radiant as ever), a divorced single mother and social worker, and her brother Pierre (an intense Romain Duris), a nightclub dancer diagnosed with a fatal heart disease. While the lonely Elise, having given up on love, dodges the crude passes and rude comments of men on the street, Pierre casts his gaze over the city from his apartment window and muses over the lives he glimpses. The film casts its gaze out as well, to follow a disenchanted history professor (a hilariously morose Fabrice Luchini) suddenly enchanted by a beautiful young student (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), his anxiety-ridden brother (François Cluzet), and a conventionally gruff and earthy group of working class men who sell produce at an open-air market, notably Jean (Albert Dupontel), who works with his ex-wife and barely endures the crude manners of his friends and co-workers. “That’s Paris. Nobody’s ever happy. We grumble. We like it.”
Written and directed by Cedric Klapisch (L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls), the film is a lightweight mix of sprawling mosaic and intimate portrait that overcomes a few too many clichés and stereotypes with affection and appreciation. For all the mortality the stories touch on, it’s a sunny film of romantic optimism and hopeful endurance. It’s received mixed reviews and most of the critics I respect found it wanting—it certainly has none of the depth or resonance of the films of Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) or Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours)—but I found myself won over by Klapisch’s good will and the charm of the superb cast. And yes, Paris looks marvelous as we skip around from (the Eiffel Tower figures prominently in most cityscapes) to neighborhood streets to such off-the-radar locations as the bustling produce night market.
The 50-minute documentary “The Heart of Paris” comes from a European tradition of making-of docs where the familiar structure of interview clips and scenes from the movie are discarded in favor of long sequences that simple observe the director and cast working out scenes on the set. Without a single explanation given to the camera, we get a privileged look into the way this film was made. The accompanying deleted scenes are organized into a companion feature that completes the portrait. Klapisch introduces the cut scenes (some of them his favorite pieces from the film) in terms of the “musical logic” of the film and then introduces us to characters whose moments were whittled away from the finished film, including the homeless man of the opening scenes and the young models who wander through the final act. Also includes a 10-minute “Table Read” featurette with cast interviews intercut with scenes from the script read-through.
The Princess And The Frog (Disney) – Pixar auteur John Lasseter gave new life to animated cinema with his CGI revolution but he never forgot the old-school art of hand drawn animation that made Disney’s reputation and he courted John Musker and Ron Clements to make the studio’s first new “princess” film since their own The Little Mermaid and Aladdin (with Disney’s last Princess, Jasmine). The Princess and the Frog, set in New Orleans in the twenties, turns the fairy tale heroine into a driven waitress (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) saving to open her dream restaurant, the prince (Bruno Campos) into a jazz-loving but penniless playboy on the prowl for a rich marriage, and the witch into a voodoo villain (Keith David). It’s not exactly one of their masterpieces—it’s a familiar story with new duds but little sense of high stakes—but it’s lovingly designed, directed as a lively pace without tipping into excess, and filled with toe-tapping musical gumbo of jazz, zydeco, swing, blues and show-tune dynamism by Randy Newman, who has New Orleans music in his blood. And Disney’s first animated fairy tale with a distinctly American setting also features its first African American heroine, who saves the prince as much as he saves her. The reviews at the time of release remarked on how the film pretty overlooked the reality of race relations in twenties-era American south, and it’s true: this is an upbeat fantasy with a hard-working young black woman following her dreams in the face of impossible odds, not a realistic portrait of life in the era. I’m willing to go with the fantasy and the message that comes with it. The alternative just seems so… dispiriting.
Features informative and lively commentary by co-writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements with producer Peter Del Vecho and deleted scenes (which, since they were deleted before they were animated, are presented as sketches and storyboards set to scratch voice tracks) with helpful introductory comments explaining why they were cut. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the 22-minute “Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess,” and true to form it’s a fine portrait of how an animated Disney film comes together, and the featurette “Bringing Life to Animation,” which compares reference footage with live actors to the finished animated film, along with shorter featurettes, art galleries and interactive games and activities. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes a bonus standard definition DVD and a digital copy for portable media players.
Broken Embraces (Sony) – Pedro Almodovar’s tale of l’amour fou, obsessive desire, sex and art merges memory and storytelling into an engaging (if familiar) film of regret and forgiveness. Lluís Homar is former director turned screenwriter who revisits the events that made him blind and Penélope Cruz is the lost love of his past. It lacks the tension of Almodovar’s best work and is filled with references to his early work (notably “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which is quite literally remade within this film as “Girls and Suitcases”), but it’s also filled with affection for the characters as they learn to forgive themselves. I reviewed the film for The Stranger here in late 2009. The supplements are brief but choice: an original Almodovar short film created from the film-within-a-film, the split screen “Pedro Directs Penélope” showing the director talking the actress through a scene, and three deleted scenes (including a night out in a restaurant for the blind). Also features red carpet footage from the New York Film Festival and a brief Q&A with Penélope Cruz, conducted by Variety critic Todd McCarthy.
Ninja Assassin (Warner) – Wachowski Brothers protégé James McTeigue delivers a 21st century ninja film, with mysterious warriors in black pajamas literally dissolving into the shadows like smoke and action scenes punctuated with all the blood sprays and flying limbs and strobe visuals that CGI can provide. Our hero Raizo (Rain) is an orphan who was kidnapped by a secret society of assassins and nurtured in an environment that looks like a merging of ancient Sparta and a screwed-up Shaolin Temple martial arts movie from the seventies, but has gone rogue against his “family” (in Berlin, of all places). So why is it so freaking dull? The tired story of betrayal and revenge where no twist is too obvious? The charisma-free performance of Korean pop star Rain? An editing style so fast you can barely make out what’s actually happening on screen? Guilty on all counts: it’s like a music video of violence that has lost the beat and doesn’t care. The usually very good Naomie Harris is completely wasted here as a Europol (this film’s generic answer to Interpol) analyst targeted by the assassins, left to be a damsel in distress for the emotionally waxy Rain to rescue, but it’s cool that they cast nineties B-movie martial artist Sho Kosugi as the Ninja bad guy. The DVD features deleted scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a collection of three featurettes on Ninja lore and martial arts training.
There’s even less to say about Armored (Sony), the studio equivalent of a journeyman thriller that isn’t so much bad as simply not there. It’s got a good cast—Matt Dillon as the chummy armored car security guard who masterminds a heist of their own truck, Laurence Fishburne as an unpredictable partner with anger management issues, Skeet Ulrich as a jittery collaborator unnerved by the screw-ups and Fred Ward as the paternal boss—and a decent idea, but falls into by-the-numbers plotting. It’s free of gimmicky twists, to be sure, but it’s also lacking tension, ingenuity and fun. The whole heist concept isn’t even a plan, it’s just an idea that begins to unravel with the first curve thrown their way, but instead of making that the focus, the film just plays out the usual mechanics in the enclosed space of an abandoned steel mill, a potentially interesting location wasted in the execution. Just like the film. Nimrod Antol directs with anonymous efficiency and Columbus Short takes the lead, though he gets fifth billing. Jean Reno is in it too, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.
Also new this week are Bandslam (Summit) with High School Musical sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens, The Fourth Kind (Universal) with Milla Jovovich, Wonderful World (Magnolia) with Matthew Broderick and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (IFC) directed by John Krasinksi.