Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chinese Puzzle (2013) ****

“Chinese Puzzle” is one of those truly cosmopolitan films that features so many spoken languages that there is no place it can be shown without subtitles. Mostly in French and English, there's also some Spanish, and I think there might even be some Chinese in there somewhere. In some scenes, one character is speaking English and the other French. I found it exhilarating!

This film is also the third in the Spanish Apartment series. The first film, 2002's “The Spanish Apartment,” introduces Xavier (Romain Duris), a young Frenchman who shares the titular apartment in Spain with other young students during a very formative semester. --Spoiler Alert-- 2005's “Russian Dolls” catches up with Xavier, who has become a writer, as he reunites with some of his friends from the apartment for a wedding in Russia. He and Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the student from London, wind up falling in love.

“Chinese Puzzle” (2013) picks up the story 8 years later, as Xavier and Wendy's relationship is falling apart. Wendy takes their kids and moves to New York to be with another man, and Xavier, now a somewhat successful writer, follows them. He crashes there with his old Spanish apartment roommate Isabelle (Cecile de France), who is a lesbian, but with no legal way to stay or work in New York, he has to scramble to create a life there, where he can be near his kids. Meanwhile, his old girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) comes to visit.

I thought it would be awkward watching “Chinese Puzzle” without having seen the first two films, and I probably did miss out on some subtext related to these characters' long, dynamic history. Nonetheless, the story stands well on its on. It's a hilarious and genuine continuation of Xavier's story. Reading about the other films in this series, it strikes me that this is just a really long coming-of-age tale, the point of which is that you never truly come of age. Xavier's story doesn't end when he achieves this or that goal, or when he falls in love. Life continues to throw new challenges at him, and, with his huge heart, he keeps adapting to them, embracing the changes.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Tracks (2013) ***

One could be forgiven for confusing 2013's “Tracks” with 2014's “Wild,” that other recent movie about an emotionally damaged woman going on a trek. It's a mystery to me why Hollywood keeps coming out with twin projects like this, but it happens again and again. Years later, can anyone remember the tiny differences between 1998's “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” or even 2013's “Olympus has Fallen” and “White House Down”? The website has an article that offers a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon, as well as an exhaustive list of “twin” movies.

“Tracks” and”Wild” are definitely twins in the sense of Hollywood timing, and truth-be-told, the stories and the storytelling styles are remarkably similar. (See my review of “Wild” for the story on that one, which covers Cheryl Strayed's hike of the Pacific Coast Trail.) “Tracks” tells the story of Robyn Davidson's 9-month-long trek across the Australian outback. With her dog, four camels, and a rifle, she set out from Alice Springs and hiked west 1700 miles, all the way to the ocean. She crossed various flavors of desert and encountered a surprising number of remote villages and homesteads. I had imagined that she was totally alone for months, crossing uninhabited land, but it turns out there are dirt roads and people in the Outback, just not a lot of them.

For me, “Wild” is the better and more substantial of the two films. Reese Witherspoon portrayed her “Wild” character with a lot of angst and fire, and the movie has a strong narrative arc. Mia Wasikowska does a serviceable job in “Tracks,” but we never get much of a sense of the character beyond the fact that she wants to get out and away from people. I get that Davidson felt more comfortable with animals than with people, but the movie holds the audience at arm's length, too. (I do like the way she interacts with the Aborigines she meets, though. With them, her quiet and reticence seem perfectly natural.) Comparisons between “Wild” and “Tracks” may seem unfair, but given the timing of their releases and the many similarities, even down to their one-word titles, comparisons are inevitable. Regarded on its own merits, however, “Tracks” is still a worthwhile movie, beautifully filmed, and a reminder that all who wander are not lost.

3 stars out of 5