dir. Peyton ReedThe most gratifying part of any modern-day romantic comedy is also the most ruinous: the inevitable crowd-pleasing partnership of the protagonist and his or her ill-matched antagonist. Audiences weep with joy over the union of the polished sophisticate and the diamond-in-the-rough bumpkin, or the idealistic tree-hugger and the corporate lawyer--never mind the fact that beyond the screen, none of these relationships would last a week. Why? Because the movie itself is little more than a fast fuck: One minute you're looking to be entertained, the next you're heated with conflict and rushing toward a blissful crest. After that, the end.
A few decades ago it was the "sex comedy" that brought these two mismatched lovers together--usually a charmingly caddish playboy and his quietly pining stenographer. The best thing about these sex comedies, however, is that there was never any sex on screen. It was all about innuendo, frisky strategies, and dancing--a playful match of wills, and often a revitalizing change of direction before the story ends. There was no clunky realization--just sleek, exquisitely drawn out and choreographed foreplay, with great scenery on the side.
With its retro setting and references, Down with Love not only manages to pay direct tribute to the kind of sex comedy Doris Day and Rock Hudson made memorable with Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (as well as the friendly-skies "layover" romps like Boeing Boeing, starring Tony Curtis), but proves to be the most satisfying romantic comedy I've seen in--well, decades. Ewan McGregor is Catcher Block, an unapologetic playboy with a swinging bachelor pad (in Down with Love, every apartment is stunning and everyone dresses in the height of fashion) and a reputation as a hard-hitting journalist. Renee Zellweger is Barbara Novak, a beautiful author whose new book instructs women to forget about love and enjoy sexual pleasure as any man would. When her book becomes a revolution the world over (and he finally sees that she's not the hunchbacked old crone he assumed her to be), Catcher begins to pursue Barbara romantically--but only to poke a gaping hole in her resolve. Because Catcher begs off their breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates (the better to indulge three stewardesses), Barbara vows never to give him an interview.
Already, the stage is set for cat-and-mouse on multiple levels, and the plot has yet to thicken. Sure, it's all ridiculous, and you know how it will end, because romantic comedies exist for no other outcome. But the foreplay (sigh!) is so, so satisfying. KATHLEEN WILSON
dir. Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann
Fri-Thurs May 16-22
at the Varsity.Learning your history from documentaries is a sucker's game. It seems there will never be a shortage of movies made on low budgets by concerned filmmakers bent on exposing the littler-known corners of even the most-storied stories. I'm not saying this isn't important work, or part of the eternal glory of the documentary form. I'm just saying that if you see enough movies like Shanghai Ghetto, which tells the story of German Jews in exile in one of the world's unlikeliest cities for Jews to have been exiled, you start to feel like an illiterate clod who learns all his or her history from goddamn documentaries.
The Jews in the film moved to Shanghai because they could move there without visas, which Nazis had stopped allowing them to have. The city was an embattled front in the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the emigrants were shunted into ghettos every bit as squalid as their famous Polish counterparts. They suffered every indignity imaginable, and only at the end did they learn about the unimaginable horror that had transpired back in Europe. As one interviewee reports, "We thought we were in hell; turns out we were in paradise." Many of the subjects were small children during the war and speak of their trials in the matter-of-fact manner typical of survivors. They speak as though discussing everyday nuisances, like a shoe with a worn-through heel. It's only when their emotion surges, and we see them actively stifle it, that the full weight of their private history becomes clear to the cameras. SEAN NELSON
The Man on the Train
dir. Patrice LeconteStarring Jean Rochefort (The Hairdresser's Husband) and "the French Elvis," Johnny Hallyday, this film is an utter waste of your time and mine. The French are a great people, with a great cinema; but when they stink, they really stink. Such is the case with this film about a robber (Hallyday) who arrives by train at a small French town and accidentally meets and befriends an aristocratic poetry teacher (Rochefort). The two come from opposed universes--one is low, the other is high; one is violent, the other peaceful; one is defined as a "man of action," the other "a man of contemplation." By the end of the film, these opposites not only attract, but swap lives during their simultaneous deaths (the poet dies of heart failure during surgery; the robber is shot in the heart during a failed heist). The film is not pretty, the town it's set in is boring, both stars are hardly handsome (at least, in the American sense of handsome), and there isn't even a French beauty to fill in the narrative gaps. Really, why in the world should one watch a French film that doesn't have a French beauty? CHARLES MUDEDE