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Review: Mr. and Mrs. Smith

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Forget Jennifer Aniston — the woman who really ought to be pissed off by Mr. & Mrs. Smith is Kathleen Turner, who starred in both of this action-comedy’s primary inspirations but wasn’t offered so much as a quick, memory-jogging cameo. Like Prizzi’s Honor, Smith concerns a romance between two professional assassins who are assigned to kill each other; like The War of the Roses, it takes a broadly satirical view of matrimony, culminating in an ultraviolent cage match in which the superficial symbols of suburban harmony — immaculate home, snazzy cars, state-of-the-art-gadgets — are methodically and gleefully pulverized. Neither as slyly corrosive as the former nor as boldly uncompromising as the latter, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (no relation to the Hitchcock film) suffers both from a lack of nerve and from Angelina Jolie’s imperious Teflon regard. Nonetheless, it manages to put a reasonably fresh spin on the notion of “till death do us part.”
   As you just might possibly know, Monsieur is played by Brad Pitt, awkwardly trapped here between the slick, supercool badass demanded by the screenplay and the amiable, frazzled goofball that he actually excels at playing. He and Madame are first seen in couples counseling, fielding embarrassing questions about their lackluster sex life. The rest of the film, as in classic screwball comedies, posits full-scale warfare as the ultimate aphrodisiac, this time with knives as well as gibes.
    Simon Kinberg’s script, written as his thesis project at Columbia, traffics in glib, obvious metaphors — jealousy erupts during a confessional involving not how many people each has slept with but how many each has killed — yet still scores a fair number of laughs and the occasional rueful nod of recognition. Too bad it isn’t better structured, with a bit less of the pre-revelatory doldrums and a whole lot less of the post-reconciliatory hijinks. So long as the Smiths are plotting each other’s demise, they’re fine, flinty company; once they fuck and make up, we’re ready to return to the tabloids. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: 5×2
In thrall to the backwards-running rhythms popularized in Memento and pulverized in Irréversible, François Ozon’s 5×2 traces the trajectory of a failed marriage, starting with its crack-up. This cinematic autopsy opens in a lawyer’s office. Marion (the stunningly good Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who has the face of a French Gillian Anderson) and Gilles (craggily handsome Stéphane Freiss) hear out their divorce agreement, then inexplicably adjourn to a hotel room and engage in sex that seems to veer from rough to rape. As Marion stumbles out the door, Gilles calls out to her, “Do you want to try again?”
    That episode — the first of the five pivotal scenes that make up the film — contains all the shifts and ambiguities that make 5×2 such an intriguing, puzzling movie. At once overture and finale, the hotel scene draws on the language of different encounters. Marion and Gilles seem like shy first-time lovers one second, cheating spouses the next. In subsequent scenes, the reading of the couple’s marriage contract recalls that of their divorce; sex in one episode echoes the heartbreak of another.
    Ozon owes a lot to the film’s structure — his Scenes from a Marriage acquires an insta-wistfulness for being stacked backward. But he also improves on the gimmick by leaving odd, unsettling gaps inside and between his scenes, which have the weighty, epiphanic feel of well-crafted short stories. The momentary loss of control over the couples’ wedding, which is marred by too-obvious musical editorializing and a big ol’ narrative bomb, is the exception rather than the rule. By acting with a degree of restraint, Ozon pays his respects to the death of this marriage by marking its fleeting beauty, its pain and the mysteries at its core. — Noy Thrupkaew
Review: Howl’s Moving Castle
  Free of the constraints imposed by the laws of physics, animated movies usually involve a great deal of swooping, zipping, whizzing and va-va-vooming, simply because they can. Howl’s Moving Castle, the latest whimsical adventure by acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (who won an Oscar a few years ago for Spirited Away), isn’t exactly earthbound, but it’s the rare cartoon that demonstrates a healthy respect for the leaden tyranny of gravity. Transformed into an elderly woman by a witch’s curse, our formerly young and spirited heroine, Sophie, finds work as a housekeeper in the titular castle, a ramshackle conglomeration of domes and turrets that wanders the verdant landscape on tiny chicken legs, belching smoke. Its movements are anything but fluid and graceful, and the same is true of the film’s eccentric gallery of characters — Miyazaki’s perverse notion of an action sequence finds the newly wizened Sophie and her corpulent nemesis, the Witch of the Waste, struggling to haul their wheezing carcasses up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, like The Battleship Potemkin‘s most celebrated sequence in reverse.
    So who is Howl, you ask? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure. A wizard, I believe, with the power to transform himself into a winged warrior (there is some swooping here), but I never did manage to work out what deliberately anachronistic war he was sometimes off fighting, or where (the castle’s front door opens onto various universes), or why. Because Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted from a novel by English author Diana Wynne Jones, I’d hoped it might be the first Miyazaki film to make some rudimentary kind of sense. No such luck. It’s not so much that his films have no internal logic — frequently, they don’t even boast the sort of internal illogic that one finds in, say, Lewis Carroll. Subplots are introduced, then quickly abandoned; seemingly momentous events have no consequences to speak of; fully half the details, while charming and memorable, feel utterly arbitrary. All the same, no fan of first-rate animation will want to miss this cavalcade of stunning images.
    (NOTE: In at least some markets, Disney is releasing a subtitled print in addition to the English-dubbed version designed for the masses. Bless them. I’ve only seen the former, but I must say the mere thought of Billy Crystal as the voice of Calcifer, the cute, ornery fire demon, makes me break out in hives.) — Mike D’Angelo
Date DVD #36: The Agronomist
All dating begins with a kind of hero worship — the point when pheremones trump logic and flaws can seem endearing, or even sexy. Film can accomplish the same thing: a larger-than-life star’s charisma can make you care about some stupid plot, often against your will. Jean Dominique, the rabble-rousing star of Jonathan Demme’s documentary The Agronomist, is the latest example.
    Few film stars are as seductive as the electrically charming Dominique, and few hero-making documentaries hold up as well as this one. Demme interviews the Haitian activist Dominique around twenty times over the years, mixing fiery, funny interviews with dramatic historic footage. The film tracks his rise from agriculture school to film clubs and an on-air position at Radio Haiti, where he became a firebrand icon and remained so for decades. Demme tracks Dominique’s exile, his return, his battles with one regime and another — and finally, the unsolved mystery of his assassination.
    All the while, Dominique’s extraordinary charm leads the film, even in its darkest moments. Unembarrassed to adore Dominique, Demme scores his doc with a surprisingly good Wyclef Jean soundtrack, and films it with shameless bravado, spinning found footage and sit-downs into a tribute that makes this slight, cunning man look as heroic as a blue-screen action star. Democrats should consider calling Demme before the next presidential ad cycle. — Logan Hill

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