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Friday, June 2, 2006

Personality crises inevitably involve dolls

The Russian Dolls

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Cedric Klapisch
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

New York Doll

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Greg Whiteley
Running time: 79 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 3
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Director Cedric Klapisch adopts the Richard Linklater approach with "The Russian Dolls (Les Poupees Russes)." Just as Linklater took the accidental lovers of his 1994 film, "Before Sunrise," and revisited them a decade later in "Before Sunset," Klapisch takes his college year-abroad flatmates from 2003's "The Spanish Apartment (L'Auberge Espagnole)" and fast-forwards them to the brink of The Big Three-Oh. And surprise, surprise -- love can be just as confounding and conflicting when you're an "adult" as when you were back in school.

News photo
Romain Duris in "The Russian Dolls"

That may not seem like much to wrap a movie around, but Klapisch has a sure-touch with this kind of light, meandering romantic comedy. Interestingly, it's Linklater who seems more "French," with his Eric Rohmer-styled focus on talk and casual philosophizing, while Klapisch comes off as more "American," all slick jokes, stylish appearances and picture-postcard use of Euro-scenery. Still, Klapisch evokes enough real experience to keep this from just being the French "Love, Actually."

Romain Duris is back as Xavier, the uptight French finance student who we saw loosen up during his year in Barcelona in the last film. Now a writer based in Paris, he's put aside his novel due to the need to make a living and instead is ghost writing celebrity memoirs and facile TV sitcom material. Romantically, he's no less confused than he was in Barcelona. As if to top the double affair he wrestled with in the earlier film, "The Russian Dolls" sees Xavier juggling no less than four girlfriends. (It's the logic of all sequels: more is better).

There's Martine (Audrey Tautou), his difficult, self-absorbed ex-girlfriend who's now a single mom, but still with one eye on Xavier; Kassia (Aissa Maiga), a striking Senegalese clerk who Xavier picks up on a whim while shopping; striking but superficial supermodel Celia (Lucy Gordon) whose biography Xavier is penning; and good old British flatmate Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who's chucked the -- quelle horreur! -- American boyfriend she had in the last film, and is thus also open to Xavier's affections.

The obvious choice among these women is apparent from the outset, so many viewers will be wondering just how long it will take Xavier to make it. Well, guys are stupid, what can you do? Those not blessed with the bounty of choice bestowed upon Xavier may find two hours of such romantic agonizing a bit galling, so to speak.

Rest assured, however, that Klapisch remains -- next to Jean-Marc Jeunet of "Amelie" fame -- one of the best abusers of the editing room, using sharp cutting, split screens, silly fantasy sequences and contrasting images to underline the absurdity in any situation. In reviewing "The Spanish Apartment," I summed it up by saying it "wavers between mundane insight and exceptional ordinariness, with a half-decent film in-between." That remains the case here.

* * * * *

Moving right along from "The Russian Dolls," we have The New York Dolls, or rather, one of them, bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who merits his very own documentary. "New York Doll" is a most bittersweet portrait of what happens to an almost-famous rock star when the party's over.

News photo
The New York Dolls with Arthur "Killer" Kane second from right

The New York Dolls, a band that took glam to its logical extreme -- by verging on transvestitism -- in the mid-'70s, were one of those groups -- the Velvet Underground and Gang of Four also spring to mind -- whose fate was to just miss their moment. The stripped-down guitar slash and fashion extremism of the Dolls would soon be appropriated by Malcolm McLaren -- the band's last manager -- and applied more famously with The Sex Pistols and punk rock. Their androgynous makeup, lycra and big-hair look would later be taken up by the MTV metal bands of the '80s, fops like Motley Crue, Cinderella, Ratt and Poison.

All this was pretty painful for bassist Kane, who -- after a mere three-year brush with the bliss of rock-stardom between 1972-1975 -- had to deal with the come-down, the reality of being a mediocre bassist ("He couldn't breathe and play bass at the same time," recalls one former associate), and a substance abuser who couldn't hold down bands or relationships. Kane was full of delusions of grandeur and resentment at his ex-bandmates, who were more successful. The nadir came when he saw Dolls singer David Johansen on a TV special; Kane freaked out, drank a quart of peppermint schnapps, beat his girlfriend -- who left him on the spot -- then jumped out of the window.

When the doc picks up on him, Kane is working at a Mormon library, an honest-to-goodness born-again boy (albeit one who describes the Book of Mormon as "like an LSD trip from the Lord").

Director Greg Whiteley draws great, but gentle, irony by contrasting the giggling little nuns Kane works with now and tales of his past excess. Kane may be chagrined to be riding the bus to work, but you can tell he's glad to be alive. Three of his bandmates -- Billy Murcia, Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders -- died from overdoses.

"New York Doll" is a valuable piece of rock history, and people like Morrissey, Chrissie Hynde and Mick Jones (of The Clash) are here to testify how important the Dolls were. But beyond that, the doc is a great picture of something so few of us get in life: a last-minute chance at redemption. Morrissey pushes for a Dolls reunion at the Meltdown festival in 2004 that he was curating, and with the Mormons pitching in to get his bass out of hock, Kane gets one last chance to feel the love and respect he'd always missed.

The film's ending, which Kane's biographers could never have anticipated, is extremely haunting, and will leave you eerily convinced that, yes, there is such a thing as destiny. At least for rock stars who say their prayers.

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