Category Archives: Archived Movies

L’AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE (EURO PUDDING)

“L’Auberge Espagnole” has been Englished as “Euro Pudding” (though the literal translation would be something like “The Spanish Hostel,” and in Gallic slang the phrase apparently means “free-for-all”), but the French “mélange” might be more descriptive both of the plot, about a French graduate student who shares a flat with a polyglot assortment of roommates in Barcelona, and of its style, which embraces a wide panoply of camera tricks–speeded-up sequences, split screens, careening pans, whiplash edits, abrupt inserts and so on–to spice up what’s essentially a fairly standard story of maturation and anti-provincialism. The end result is overly busy and too obviously pleased with its own cleverness. But while Cédric Klapisch’s previous feature, “When the Cat’s Away” (1996), was simpler, sweeter and more emotionally involving, in this case the stylistic excesses don’t prove fatal. “L’Auberge” is slight and overly eager to impress with its flourishes, but sufficiently brisk and colorful to prove satisfying nonetheless.

The central character is Xavier (Romain Duris), a rather stiff, self-absorbed fellow who’s assured of a position in a governmental ministry if he spends some time studying economics in Spain. After securing financial support from an exchange program named after Erasmus, he leaves his long-time girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) behind in Paris and goes off to Barcelona, where he’s befriended at the airport by Jean-Michel (Xavier De Guillebon), an expatriate French doctor, and his new bride Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche) before securing a room in an apartment inhabited by a group of students of various nationalities: Soledad, a proud native girl (Christina Brondo); Wendy, a tidy British one (Kelly Reilly); Alessandro (Federico D’Anna), a with-it Italian dude; Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat), a slouchy German; and Lars (Christian Pagh), an owlish Dane. To their number Xavier eventually adds another, a Belgian lass named Isabelle (Cécile De France). What follows is a chain of incidents rather than a straight-line narrative. Xavier’s relationship with Martine sours after she makes a visit to the flat. He shows an interest in Isabelle, but she’s lesbian. He’s drawn into an affair with Anne-Sophie, whose husband encourages him to show her around the city. Meanwhile the household is turned upside down by the arrival of Wendy’s brother William (Kevin Bishop), an obnoxious, xenophobic sort who blurts out decidedly insulting observations, and of Lars’s former squeeze, who brings along a child she says is his. There’s an especially prolonged and involved comic set-piece when Wendy uncharacteristically takes up with a American guy just as her fiancé arrives unexpectedly and her pals must chip in to prevent him from discovering her infidelity. At the end of the year Xavier goes home a changed person–liberated and unwilling to fit himself into the stifling role he’d been preparing himself for.

What’s good about “L’Auberge Espagnole” is its loose, uninhibited tone–the way it bounces from point to point without bothering to connect all the dots, and its cheerfully amoral attitude, which seems utterly truthful in the context of contemporary western youth. It also takes some nice shots at bureaucratic flim-flammery, both in the government and the scholarship apparatus. Duris’s sad-sack countenance and laid-back style, which initially seems too reticent, gradually win one over, persuading us that he is indeed an innocent growing while abroad; his withdrawn personality also makes his occasional outbursts all the more amusing. The rest of the cast is fine, with Godrèche ethereally beautiful (and more than a trifle dim), De France suitably hard-edged, and the Reilly-Bishop duo periodically hilarious while successfully avoiding caricature; the others have their moments, but one may well regret that Tautou, of “Amélie” fame, has so small (and frankly unflattering) a role. Klapisch’s technical excesses can be rather precious and sometimes positively irritating, as can the almost incessant narration he puts into Xavier’s mouth (one begins to wonder whether directors are losing the ability actually to dramatize things rather than tell us about them), but for the most part Dominique Colin’s cinematography is expert, catching the mood of the Spanish city nicely–a notable accomplishment given that the picture was shot with an HD digital camera.

So while “L’Auberge Espagnole” ends up seeming more of a calculated trifle than “When the Cat’s Away,” and some of its virtuoso camera tricks might grate a bit, it remains an agreeable enough confection.

THE MATRIX RELOADED

Amid all the intellectual blather, dime-store philosophy and ponderous exposition that encumbers this second installment in the “Matrix” saga, one oft-repeated dictum stands out. “You’re here because you’re supposed to be here,” it’s frequently said–a sentiment designed to emphasize the fatalistic, destiny-ridden underpinnings of the story. In this instance, however, the statement is more appropriate if one understands it as directed by the filmmakers to their audience; the first movie has become such a cult classic, they appear to be saying, that you’ll come to see the sequel no matter what. So while “The Matrix Reloaded” is certainly bigger and more extravagant than its predecessor, it has nowhere near the same sense of goofy mystery or dark exuberance; it’s entirely too solemn and serious, and despite periodic bursts of over-the-top action, it’s mostly talky and lumbering, with lapses of logic that are simply brutal and a failure, despite the endless verbiage, to elucidate the basic rules that govern the twists and transformations. The film is loaded with wow-inducing effects, but on the narrative level it shoots blanks.

This movie takes up shortly after the first one left off. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is now a gloomy, sunglass-wearing dude in a spiffy black topcoat, a master of the most advanced martial arts moves who can also fly, Superman-style–a power that’s never explained. (Which leads to a simple question: when he’s attacked by hordes of apparently indestructible enemies, why does Neo always battle them hand-to-hand for a good five minutes, gymnastic-style, before speeding away into the sky, as he invariably does anyway? If it’s just to please the fanboys in the front row of the auditorium, that’s insufficient motivation.) Neo is now a crew member aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, the ship of the pontificating guru Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), on which his squeeze Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) also serves, along with navigator Link (Harold Perrineau)–a rather small assemblage compared to the group that manned it the first time around (but, of course, most of them perished in the initial flick). Here we discover, however, that the ship, which previously seemed a solitary vessel, is actually part of a fleet connected with the defense of an underground, free-human city called Zion (an unfortunate name which–like Trinity–pointlessly calls up religious connotations–although it appears that when the Zionists want to enjoy themselves, they do so by writhing about to African-style drums in what amounts to a Cecil B. DeMille-style orgy). The enclave, which looks rather like a giant metallic dump, is under assault by a machine army which, as we’re told at one point, is “boring” beneath the earth’s surface to reach it (and a boring lot these machines prove to be, too). Though the chief security man Commander Lock (Harry Lennix) wants to keep all his vessels at Zion to form a defensive wall, Morpheus persuades the governing council, headed by wise Councillor Hamann (Anthony Zerbe), to allow his ship to return to the “real world” of the Matrix so that Neo, whom he believes to be The Chosen One, can reach The Source of the dream-world program, destroy it, and thereby liberate the rest of humanity . The effort takes them back to The Oracle (the late Gloria Foster) and introduces them to an ultra-sophisticated, debauched couple (we know they’re debauched, because they’re French) called The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and Persephone (Monica Bellucci). They have charge of an aged fellow called The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), whose expertise Neo requires to gain him entrance to The Architect (Helmut Bataitis), creator and guardian of the Matrix (and thereby to the controlling program); and freeing him from the couple’s control takes much punching and kicking–especially against albino-looking twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment) who somehow turn into wraiths whenever it’s convenient. As if all this weren’t enough, a second ship is involved, helmed by Captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who’s apparently part of a romantic triangle with Morpheus and Lock; and Neo’s old nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) reappears–indeed, he’s multiplying faster than rabbits, thanks to some very phony-looking CGI doubles, triples, quadruples and so on.

Viewers who took the silly but amusing pseudo-philosophical prattle behind the original “Matrix” seriously will undoubtedly read a great deal of profundity into this muddled storyline that talks a great deal, but without much coherence, about free will and compulsion, and there’s nothing wrong with that–after all, there were those (perhaps still are) who once considered George Lucas’s simple-minded notion of The Force to have deep significance, too. The problem with “The Matrix Reloaded” is that the Wachowskis seem to have bought into the notion of its significance, too. As a result they’ve filled their script with lots of high-minded, pompous speeches, portentously delivered by garrulous gasbags like Morpheus and Hamann, and largely unintelligible expository gibberish like the hopelessly extended explanation of the Matrix’s origin and past history from The Architect. Even the simpler dialogue is more often than not spoken so slowly and emphatically that, given its vacuous content, it takes on an absurd edge. Of course, the filmmakers clearly spent most of their time not writing lines but preparing the big action scenes–a few elaborate “Crouching Tiger”-style battles with leaps and crashes through glass windows, as well as an extended freeway chase (with some fights thrown in there, too)–that periodically interrupt all the jabber. These are certainly impressive from a technical standpoint; one can well understand why a small army of CGI experts and stunt men were enlisted to effect them. But despite their polish and precision, the sequences–particularly the fight that Neo engages in with scads of Smiths–don’t look remotely real, and they never have the sense of abandon and exhilaration that causes an audience to cheer. Like the picture as a whole, they have a manufactured, bloodless quality to them–something that’s accentuated by the fact that since people (humans and machines both) seem to return to life arbitrarily at the scripters’ convenience (this “Matrix” ends, as the first did, with a virtual resurrection–like much else here completely unexplained), not much is really at stake in them.

As for the cast, they’re limited by the poverty of the material and the lethargy of the approach. Reeves, Fishburne and Moss all demonstrate impressive physicality in their numerous fight scenes, but elsewhere their performances are basically stolid and pedestrian. Weaving, on the other hand, mugs ferociously in a futile effort to engender a sense of fun. Perrineau brings some life to the proceedings, with his inevitable shours of “Yess!” from the control room when something goes right–he, at least, appears not to take this stuff too seriously–and Foster once more brings a sweetly human quality to The Oracle. Wilson, Bellucci, Kim and Zerbe don’t bring much to the party, though, and Smith has little more than a walk-on.

In line with its take on how things happen, “The Matrix Reloaded” is clearly destined to make a ton of money–the first film has become a virtual cult with an ever-growing body of followers, and they’ll troop devotedly to this installment to pay homage at the Wachowski shrine. (Adherents should take care to remain seated through the long final credits, by the way–a brief trailer for the third part of the trilogy is tacked on at the close, which indicates that it will include a wild-west style showdown between Neo and Smith.) But if one views this picture dispassionately, it proves a surprisingly turgid piece that lacks the magic and invention of its predecessor.