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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Movie Review: Paris, Je T'Aime

"Paris, Je T'Aime," assigns the age-old subject "Paris + Love," as well as a specific neighborhood, to 18 renowned filmmakers, then collects the results in a charming anthology. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but it never had me checking my watch or counting how many films I had left to endure. As with Paris itself, there may be dull spots, but there's usually something impressive just around the corner.

Two of the most memorable films are the comedies "Tuileries" by the Coen brothers and "Tour Eiffel" by Sylvain Chomet. In the hilarious "Tuileries," Steve Buscemi is a tourist confronted with hostile Parisians and a guidebook that can only be described as Coen-esquire. "Tour Eiffel" is a witty take-off on the French cliché of mimes.

Other highlights: Some of the movie's best acting is found in "Quartier Latin," where longtime friends Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara play a divorcing couple. Alfonso Cuaron's one-take "Parc Monceau" has good actors (Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier) and an even better twist.

Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg St-Denis" has the exciting visuals, music and editing that you'd expect from the director of "Run Lola Run." It also has one of the largest scopes, retracing a love affair at high speed. A blind man picks up the phone, and hears from his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) that she breaks up with him. He reflects on their relationship."Bastille," too, takes place over a long period of time. A man meets with his wife at a restaurant, to break up with her, so that he can run off with his mistress. But the wife has some devastating news. Pretty basic, but truly sad and beautiful.

"Pere Lachaise" isn't a horror film, though you might expect that from its setting (cemetery) and director (Wes Craven). It has good acting from Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer, and a friendly, charming ghost.For horror fans, there is the vampire-themed "Quartier de la Madeleine," but it's over- heated, over-stylized, and looks like a bad perfume commercial.

Meanwhile, "Porte de Choisy" is like a bad hair-products commercial crossed with God knows what else—set in an Asian beauty parlor, it's the anthology's most head-scratching film.

Other misses: The opener, "Montmartre," is a very generic romance. I also felt like there should have been more to Gus Van Sant's "Le Marais" than there was between the two boys. Maggie Gyllenhaal does well as a drug-addicted actress in "Quartier des Enfants Rouges," but the shaky camera-work distracts from the story. "Place des Victoires," starring Juliette Binoche in a very Binoche-ish role as a grieving mother, is sentimental and has nothing to do with Paris. And I don't think I got the life-and-art joke in "Pigalle."

Three of the movies confront social issues of race and class. "Quais de Seine," about a beautiful Muslim girl and a leering white boy, is too obvious in the points it makes, but uses the location well. Catalina Sandino Moreno is very good in "Loin du 16eme," about a poor young woman who works as a nanny in Paris's richest neighborhood. "Place des Fetes" shows an Afro-French medic tending to a wounded Nigerian immigrant who used to work in her parking garage. It examines the tensions between first- and second-generation immigrants and is also quite moving.

Alexander Payne ties everything together with "14eme Arrondissement," where a stereotypical middle-aged, middle-American tourist (Margo Martindale) describes her Parisian vacation in very bad French. At first a shallow satire, it becomes sincere and quietly epiphanic. "14eme Arrondissement," and a good half of the other movies in "Paris, je t'aime," shows how a short film can dazzle and surprise you—just like Paris itself.

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