I never did catch the first city-centric anthology film "Paris, je t'aime," so I was fairly skeptical when I dove into its Yankee counterpart "New York, I Love you." But the appearance of Shu Qi, the stellar cast, and the good looking trailer convinced me there was something to like here after all.
Now, since this film in essence is a bunch of short films strung together, I believe it's more fair to judge them individually first, before we dive into the overall experience.
Jiang Wen directs this brief story about a pickpocket (Hayden Christensen) who meets a beautiful girl (Rachel Bilson), only to be outsmarted by her more experienced lover (Andy Garcia). It's an okay little piece that captures the New York street con, and there's a nice face-off between Christensen and Garcia. It also looks gorgeous, so we're off to a solid start.
Mira Nair ("Salaam Bombay!") directs the next story about two diamond traders (Irrfan Khan and Natalie Portman) who share a moment, when they realize how much they have in common, despite their different religions. The piece is too ham-fisted, if you ask me, and the moment they're supposed to share doesn't really work.
Shunji Iwai directs Orlando Bloom as a frustrated composer, and Christina Ricci as the assistant of the difficult director he's working for at the moment. It's a sweet little story, but it's too light for my taste.
Yvan Attail ("My Wife Is an Actress") directs this dual segment, which stars Ethan Hawk as a writer trying to hit on a girl (Maggie Q), and the brief encounter between a man (Chris Cooper) and a woman (Robin Wright Penn) outside a restaurant.
It's really funny how random people standing outside a restaurant smoking, has become sort of a thing these days. You can almost close your eyes and recall the sensation of standing on the sidewalk with a cigarette... Even if you're not a smoker! The actors are pitch-perfect, as is the tone. A great, moody little piece.
For some odd reason somebody thought it would be a good idea to involve Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour") in this. He helms a comedic tale of an unusual prom date between a boy (Anton Yelchin) and a girl (Olivia Thirlby), the daughter of a drugstore owner (James Caan), whom the boy knows.
This is by far the weakest segment, because it's a joke with a punch-line, rather than an real story, with some sort of emotional denouement. Also, the piece is tone-deaf to the overall mood of the rest of the film, which is no surprise if one is familiar with Ratner's previous work.
Allen Hughes (half of the Hughes brothers, "Menace II Society") directs Drea De Matteo and Bradley Cooper in this moody little story about a one night stand that turns serious. There's not a whole lot of meat on these bones, but I loved the mood and the style of this piece; The two characters drifting through the city, as they recall the passionate night they shared, oblivious to everything around them. Very cool, and the passion really permeated the screen.
Anthony Minghella wrote this segment, and I believe he was supposed to direct it as well, before he suddenly died in early 2008. Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") took over the reins. Julie Christie stars as a retired opera singer who checks into a hotel, Shia LaBeouf is the handicapped bellboy who takes care of her, and John Hurt is the hotel manager.
I didn't get this story at all. I can appreciate its qualities, but it's too ambiguous. Also, because it mostly takes place in a classy hotel, it felt detached from the rest of the film, which makes it almost as misplaced as the Brett Ranter segment. LaBeouf, though, is surprisingly good and very subtle.
Natalie Portman writes and directs this story of a divorced father (Carlos Acosta) and his daughter (Taylor Geare) who share a day in the park. This is a well-made little piece, but it has no emotional punch whatsoever. There's no plot, and it doesn't really have a point. It would be interesting to see what Portman could do with an actual story, but that remains to be seen.
SEGMENT 9 - THE SHU QI SEGMENT
Finally Shu Qi shows up! Awesome! Fatih Akin ("Gegen die Wand") directs the story of a tormented painter (Ugur Yucel) who wants to paint a girl (Shu Qi) who works in a local herbal store.
Unsurprisingly the camera LOVES Shu Qi. The story is sweet, but it almost feels like this is a trailer to something bigger. There's not enough room within the confines of the limited running time to build up the emotional landscape the piece is going for. It also seems to have borrowed that annoying plinky plunky music from "Three Times".
While Shu Qi's appearance in the film is brief, and probably not that memorable to the uninitiated, it was still a good choice on her behalf to take part in this project. It'll probably help her become even more of an art house darling, and perhaps it will help her get noticed by foreign directors. I do so wish she would make an independent film in English.
Joshua Marston ("Maria Full of Grace") writes and directs the final segment, which deals with nothing more than an elderly couple who goes for a walk. Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are nothing short of magical as the couple, it's a very simple story, but a great little piece that'll put a smile on your face.
THE TRANSITION STORY
Tying all the stories together is the story of a video artist (Emilie Ohana) who documents the city for a project, and often catches the characters from the other segments, as they are drifting through the city.
Randy Balsmeyer (who mostly works as a title designer) directed this, and apparently also a brief scene of a couple (Eva Amurri and Justin Bartha) arguing, which seems unnecessary. The video artist sequences work very well, though, they are both poetic and sweet, plus Shu Qi shows up again here! Best bit, though, is when Ethan Hawke's character has an encounter with the video artist.
Unsurprisingly "New York, I Love You" ends up as a bit of a patchwork, even though the visual style is fairly consistent. There's a new story every 7 minutes, as well a new set of actors, so the film inevitably feels a little bit disjointed, but I guess that's the nature of the beast. In spite of this there's a pretty nice flow in the actual transitions from one story to the next, thanks to the video artist scenes. Often I didn't realize I had moved on to a new story, until a few moments had passed. This is also because several segments have an orphaned scene that introduces the characters, or wraps up the story, placed later or earlier in the film. I still think there's an overall disjointed feeling, but I never felt like I was simply watching a marathon of short films. Does that make sense?
Also unsurprisingly the stories vary in quality, from the ludicrous, to the mundane, to the really solid. Some of the stories feel more like a scene from something bigger, others feel like they were edited drastically down to fit the film's dogma. Overall I guess about half of the stories would work as short films, if they were isolated.
Obviously it's very hard to present complicated issues or deal with deep feelings under these circumstances, so often the key to a good short film is to capture a certain mood, or perhaps focus on a single moment.
The stories that work best - segment 4 and 6 - try to capture that mood you'll know very well if you've ever walked through a big city by night. The contrasts of the night - the quiet beauty and the loneliness, the cold dark interrupted by the warm glow from the storefronts and the restaurants - create some interesting visual and emotion contradictions. I kind of wish that all the segments had been shot at night and incorporated this sensation. Several of the other segments do have a sort of jazzy, poetic quality that works really well.
I really like the idea of capturing a city on film, through a bunch of different directors, but why on earth wouldn't you pick directors who are synonymous with the city? In "Paris, je t'aime" several foreign directors show up, including Joel and Ethan Coen, Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer and Gus van Sant, not exactly folks you'd associate with that city. Similarly this film is also created by directors you wouldn't associate with New York, or even America for that matter. Doesn't that seem bit silly? Anyway, this is not a major problem per se, just something I find curious.
There are enough good moments in "New York, I Love You" to cancel out the bad ones, and those moments are spread out fairly evenly across the film, so it's an easy watch, despite the problems I've outlined.
Seen as a whole the film doesn't really say anything about anything, but then again maybe it's not supposed to. Maybe it's just meant to fire us up about going to New York, so we can have our own little adventure, or maybe it just wants to show us the parts of the city and the people we normally don't get to see on the big screen.
When cops and robbers chase through the city, when a monster or a natural disaster strikes once again, we only see the big picture of New York. Maybe this film just wants to show us all the little things we usually miss.
Bless its little heart for that.