Being an American freelance film critic in Paris doesn't necessarily mean waiting six excruciating months to see that movie everyone is raving about at home. Thankfully, all sorts of films come out in France before they hit US screens: foreign flicks from every corner of the world, many American "auteur" works (by directors like Woody Allen, Todd Solondz and Gregg Araki) and European film festival favorites. Three very different movies that were immediately snatched up on the European market are slated to cross the Atlantic in the next few months: Paradise Now, a risky Palestinian film about suicide bombers; Guy Ritchie's latest, Revolver, whose tardy arrival in American theaters will prove that it's not always good things that come to those who wait; and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a brash, offbeat action comedy starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer that was one of Cannes 2005's high-profile out-of-competition screenings. Here's an advance critical peek.
Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Putting a human face on suicide bombers without condoning their acts is a delicate feat, but it's precisely what Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad achieves in Paradise Now. A flawed but absorbing and impressively shot drama about two disillusioned young Palestinian mechanics sweating out the 48 hours before their planned attack in Tel Aviv, the movie dares to suggest that ***image1***these guys are not bloodthirsty religious freaks, but people struck low by a life of humiliation, bidding frantically for equal footing with seemingly invincible Israelis. Yet if the director is sympathetic toward his despondent protagonists, he's also critical of Palestinian terrorism and of the culture of death that enshrouds these so-called martyrs. In other words, Paradise Now is bound to piss off both hardcore Zionists who refuse any humanization of suicide bombers and pro-Palestinian radicals who deem the practice a justified form of resistance.
The film manages to avoid sensationalism, but benefits from the startling novelty of bringing us face to face with the psychological process of potential terrorists, as well as from the tense final-countdown structure of the plot. Following Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suniman) as they go through the preparatory rites (haircuts, prayers, last supper) and grapple with the moral thorns of their plan-the clock ticking all the while-indeed amounts, in many ways, to the ultimate thriller. Things are further stirred up by Suha, a French-educated Palestinian woman (played by the terrific Belgian-Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal) who awakens Saïd's romantic desire and possibly his conscience (she considers suicide bombings pointless acts of vengeance). It's the beautiful, thoroughly modern Suha who becomes the film's moral touchstone as well as its poignant figure of hope. Ironically Suha is also Paradise Now's most problematic element, as she's ultimately reduced to a mere mouthpiece for the director's views during debates with Saïd and Khaled. In these overly didactic scenes, the characters come off like earnest non-profit spokespeople rather than the wounded souls they're supposed to be.
Paradise Now is more incisive when Abu-Assad's political observations are embedded in what's actually happening on screen. One such scene shows comically nonchalant terrorist recruiters videotaping Saïd as he solemnly declares his purpose. Another has Saïd and Suha wandering into a video store that proudly features tapes of revved-up pre-mission suicide bombers as well as gory beheadings of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel. Moments like these convey an intimate, bitterly intelligent understanding of a society paralyzed not only by repressive Israeli policy but also by its own self-defeating contradictions. If the movie finally lacks the political and artistic complexity it needs to truly get under your skin, it's nevertheless a compelling entry in recent political cinema. At its best Paradise Now gives us a haunting-and all too rare-glimpse into a community with scars perhaps even deeper than it realizes.
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Even those who found the Attention Deficit Disorder narrative style of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch amusingly off-kilter are likely to be irritated by Revolver, Guy Ritchie's spectacularly incoherent mess of a new gangster flick. Ritchie pulls out all the cliché stops-frenetic jump cuts, operatic slow-mo, split screen, Shakespeare-quoting text pop-ups, and an oppressively hip soundtrack-to tell a totally muddled tale about a gambler (Jason Statham), fresh out of prison, stumbling through a revenge scheme against a violent mob boss (an oily Ray Liotta, parodying much of his earlier, better work). The crime-and-casinos underworld shtick feels utterly tired, as do the patches of rapid, non sequitur-heavy dialogue. The only thing new in ***image2***Revolver is also, unfortunately, what works even less: a pretentious philosophical current (has all of Madonna's Kabbalah finally gone to poor Ritchie's head?) that only obscures whatever sense we can wring out of the already incomprehensible plot.
Technically, there's nothing wrong with Ritchie's filmmaking. His new movie flaunts some snappily shot and sharply edited sequences here and there, but it's so infatuated with its own stylistic cleverness that it forgets to take care of the basics, such as telling a story we can care about and creating characters that feel fresh and specific. One leaves Revolver fairly convinced of two things: first, that filmmakers around the world should seriously consider putting the heist film genre to sleep; and second, that Guy Ritchie is a writer-director in desperate need of something to say.
KISS KISS, BANG BANG
Directed by Shane Black
Robert Downey, Jr. should stay out of rehab more often, because he's one of the most engaging screen actors we have. In Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black's fast, funny, blazingly superficial directorial debut, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, ***image3***the actor plays the same endearingly exasperating motor-mouth he's played throughout his career, yet he spits out his lines with such facetious glee that you hang on his every word. Downey is Harry Lockhart, a New York thief who somehow ends up posing as an LA detective, conning, schmoozing and bullying his way into and out of a series of sordid misadventures. It's a familiar character-the self-aware screw-up-but Downey, his restless eyes and slightly haggard face as expressive as ever, makes him particularly vivid. Carrying the audience along with his pushy, good-natured narration, he's like the class clown you never want to shut up.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is essentially a buddy film, and Harry's sidekick is Perry (Val Kilmer, giving a relaxed, witty performance), a slick gay private eye-and not-so-straight straight man to Downey's wisecracking impostor-with whom he investigates the case of a murdered party girl. We soon learn that the dead girl's older sister is Harmony, Harry's childhood crush (charmingly played by Michelle Monaghan), a struggling actress and scrappy sexpot who can outdrink and outtalk Harry. Unfortunately, we also learn that this dead girl might not be dead or might even be some other girl pretending to be the dead girl, who might or might not have been sleeping with a man she thought was her father. If you fear you'll be confused, rest assured you won't be the only one. The movie's whodunit plot is an unnecessarily tangled and decidedly uninteresting parody of a City of Angels noir. It's too bad, since Black captures the surreal, seedy-glamorous Hollywood underworld, rich in possibilities of sex and violence, with some wonderfully macabre touches. One marvelous scene has Downey hiding under a bed when a beautiful young woman who has just been shot falls and lands on the floor facing him. Crimson blood dripping from her lips, she stares at him and whispers, "Who are you?" Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang's action sequences may be expertly handled, but it's moments like this that pack a real punch.
Luckily Black also writes jazzy, irreverent dialogue that propels the film past the obligatory mechanics of its mystery storyline. The scene in which Harry and Harmony first come on to each other at a bar is a tour de force of hipster flirtation; the two crack each other up by pointing out the "Brazilian Billy Bob Thornton" and "Native American Joe Pesci" unsuspectingly sipping their drinks. If the director had come up with a Raymond Chandler send-up hook worthy of his three appealing main characters, he might have had a little classic on his hands. As it is, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is insubstantial and schizophrenic-a terrific comedy begging to be liberated from a lousy thriller-but it's entertaining all the same and a pungent reminder of what an irresistible performer Robert Downey, Jr. can be.