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Suspended Animation

While Jay has to restore Kay's strategically obliterated memory, director Barry Sonnenfeld seems confident that viewers will remember all the arcane details of his hugely successful but hardly indelible 1997 original. The first Men in Black was largely a parody of The X Files' deadpan expression of outrageous paranoia. This good-naturedly cornball sequel revels in its own mythology, opening with an absurdly tacky TV re-enactment of the very galactic misadventure that will return to bite Jay and Kay's black-clad butts. More streamlined than the original, the new movie's basic joke is the notion (used to its greatest effect in the Pleistocene serials of Louis Feuillade) that our everyday world is but a facade. Extraterrestrials use Earth as their battlefield. Interstellar slime centipedes lurk beneath the New York City pavement. A locker in Grand Central Station holds an entire civilization of squealing fuzzballs and a post office is populated entirely by aliens.

Somewhat under 90 minutes, Men in Black II feels even shorter, thanks to the general absence of narrative ballast and a few hyperkinetic passages—the heroes flushed through the city sewers to emerge in Times Square or zipping through Manhattan at warp speed. For reasons best known to Sonnenfeld, this slight but extremely expensive movie is constantly returning to a Soho pizza parlor only a few blocks away from a key Spider-Man location—big excitement in Lower Manhattan.


Trafficking in mass humiliation: Lucio Vucino and Per Jörnelius in Songs
photo: Film Forum
Trafficking in mass humiliation: Lucio Vucino and Per Jörnelius in Songs

Details

Songs From the Second Floor
Written and directed by Roy Andersson
New Yorker
Film Forum
Through July 16

Men in Black II
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro
Columbia

Read My Lips
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
Magnolia
Paris Theater
Opens July 5

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Emmanuelle Devos, who won the 2001 César for her portrayal of a deaf office worker in Jacques Audiard's Read My Lips, is an actress with a world-class frown. Her fiercely telegraphed disapproval gives this character-driven thriller much of its kick. Plain and glowering, Devos's Carla struggles through the petty indignities of her morning phone calls, then switches off her hearing aid to spend lunch enviously watching the lovers at an adjacent table. Her colleagues mock her from a discreet distance, but Carla knows anyway, as the movie's title tells us.

Carla is a creature of impulse, jealousy, and considerable sublimated passion. When she faints from overwork, her boss advises her to find an assistant. In a burst of misplaced desire, she hires the newly paroled Paul, played by Vincent Cassel, as if dazed by sudden daylight. This hulking ex-con has no skills and no address, but Carla continually looks out for him. Though the blunt roughneck naturally thinks that she's asking for a fuck, Carla, who's plotting a course through the treacherous currents of office politics, has other ideas. She and Paul develop a growing complicity. The big question is how far into illegality they'll push this mutual use—particularly once Paul takes a second job as the bartender in an underworld club.

Read My Lips, which opened this year's "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" series, is structured as a series of sharp vignettes. The action is largely psychological, but it's accelerated by Audiard's nervous camera, chiaroscuro lighting, and jangling montage. The movie shifts from workplace melodrama to neo-noir to deadly romantic caper with a bracing absence of cuteness. The intricately orchestrated finale is even more tense than it is unbelievable, and the punchline is endearingly French.


Related Article:
"Roy Andersson's Panic Room" by Jessica Winter

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