The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Also: Lila Says, Intimate Stories, November, and Stealth.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Opens Fri., July 29, at Harvard Exit

After watching the tribute to Harvey Keitel at the 1992 Telluride Film Festival, Oliver Stone and Keitel repaired to a restaurant where they and their disciples sat at opposite sides of a long table, like mirror-image replicas of The Last Supper with dueling Jesuses. We bystanders watched while Stone mercilessly razzed Keitel, mostly about his ridiculously over-the-top performance as a classical pianist/mobster in James Toback's 1978 cult film, Fingers. Evidently Stone only likes over-the-top when he's the one overdoing it.

This French remake of Fingers by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) is not over-the-top, and this makes it both superior and inferior to the original. The setting is artsy Paris, not the archetypal American noir town; the shades of night are more tasteful in their neon palette. Instead of sweaty Keitel still hung over from Taxi Driver violence, we get the imperially slim Romain Duris (L'Auberge Espagnole), attired kind of like a young Beatle. Duris' Tom is a bit jittery from one Galoise too many, but compared to the two-fisted Keitel, he's a fluttery lightweight, whether he's banging on the ivories or on his victims. This time, he's not a mobster but a sleazy real-estate entrepreneur who drives people out of apartments he wants to take over by loosing bags of rats, prying up floorboards, and roughing up squatters a little. Keitel's character would disdain him as effete.

The kid—and he's still teenagerish at 28—is torn between two legacies. His late mom was an ambitious musician, his dissipated but surviving dad a middling real-estate thug. Niels Arestrup is terrific as Tom's father, proudly sporting a rotting mane that he thinks proves he's still young and full of cum but only marks him as a ruin in progress, as does the much younger girlfriend he toys with. Tom's twitchy, soulful eyes betray his helpless love for the decaying reprobate—when asked to collect a debt for the old man by threatening a tenant, his emotional debt to dad ensures he'll do it.

But it goes against his grain. He's striving to escape the realty-scam game, even though its violence is more mildly Mamet-esque than gorily godfatherish. A chance encounter with one of his mom's colleagues reignites his neglected piano career, and suddenly he's obsessed with mastering Bach's Tocatta in E, tutored by an Asian immigrant (Linh-Dan Pham) who's more demanding than any mob boss. He also launches an affair with a friend's wife, but neither is particularly emotionally invested. He pours everything he's got into Bach.

Here's the problem with Beat: It's smarter and more plausible than the original, and lacks authentically pungent sleaze. Tom endlessly wriggles his fingers, no matter what else he's doing, attempting to get his body in sync with the music. Keitel's character was only ostensibly music-obsessed. His heart was in the sex and violence, a transparent projection of the narcissistic fantasies of writer-director Toback. The first movie wasn't about fingers at all—it should've been called Fists. Keitel wore a cheap, shitty dark mobster's jacket and a frilly white scarf to symbolize his double nature; Tom wears a really nice, sleek leather jacket that is one with his Hamletlike suit of solemn black. He's no damn hoodlum—he's not even Belmondo lovingly impersonating Bogart. His nature isn't really divided. He's on the side of Art. Keitel's character (and Toback) was on the side of Strange Butt and Kicking Ass.

Audiard's Beat is lovely and stylish. But it doesn't surpass Toback's Fingers because, being Parisian, it never even considers getting its hands dirty. (R) TIM APPELO

Lila Says

Runs Fri., July 29–Thurs., Aug. 4, at Varsity

Or, The Boy Who Cried "Slut!" This French import traffics in notions of sexual and ethnic difference, reaching across those divides in a poor Marseilles neighborhood gone predominately Arab, but it's awfully traditional at its core—and not very surprising in its wrapping. Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) and his late-teen cronies hang out all day with not very much to do in their dead-end lives. He's got a little talent as a writer, which explains his voice-overs, since Lila, based on a novel, is one of those "this is the story of how I wrote my novel" kind of movies. As with most of that body of literature, sex is the easiest and most obvious of motivating forces, and 16-year-old blond orphan Lila (Vahina Giocante) provides plenty of motivation with her arrival in the hardscrabble hood. She lives with some kind of horrid, lecherous aunt, who behaves more like a religious fanatic/pimp. Loose on the street, puttering around on her moped in very short skirts, Lila immediately begins cock-teasing Chimo with her very foul mouth. "This chick could start a fucking jihad," he grouses, but he's secretly interested (while his homies are more openly contemptuous).

Lila isn't exactly Romeo and Juliet in the slums; it's smaller than that, and the stakes feel lower. Director Ziad Doueira was on firmer ground, coming-of-age-wise, in his prior West Beirut, which had real '70s life experience to it. Here, the most interesting forces are those swirling around Lila and Chimo's familiar forbidden love—the satellite dishes in the narrow alleys, all turned east toward Al-Jazeera; endless Middle Eastern violence on TV; the Arab ghetto pride in underachievement; and the teens' ambivalence about 9/11 ("Since those fuckers blew up New York, they've messed it up here as well," one says).

If the conflict between Chimo and his buddies appears inevitable, it is. And if Lila seems less like a teen whore than a girl aping a Madonna video, you won't be surprised by the film's outcome. Its best qualities are the Mediterranean light, Doueira's swooping, looping camera, and the very cool Arab-techno score—all of which makes it seem a lot fresher than it is. Though relegated to subtext, Lila's strongest suggestion is that the Arab- European experience will one day produce artistic expression like the African- American experience. From Doueira and his peers, I am confident, better movies are to come. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Intimate Stories

Runs Fri., July 29–Thurs., Aug. 4, at Northwest Film Forum

Something more than these three lovely, braided stories of this 2002 anthology film sticks in the mind long after viewing them: the vast, flat pinky-orange vistas of southern Patagonia, real but miragelike. The three stories—poignant, hopeful, hilarious—are of an 80-year-old man on a trek to find his lost dog; a poor young rural mother given the chance to compete for a TV-show prize; and an amorous salesman who lives by self-help slogans. Amazingly, only two in this supple, natural cast are professional actors—most notably Javier Lombardo as the richly comic salesman who pursues a young widow via a birthday cake for her child. Among the amateurs, Antonio Benedictis—the dog seeker who sadly fails his driver's-license eye test at the film's opening—had never previously been before a camera (though he's apparently always been able to wiggle his ears). His unsentimental performance puts Argentine director Carlos Sorin right up there with Robert M. Young, Ken Loach, and Vittorio de Sica—the great, natural directors of "nonpros." (R) SHEILA BENSON

November

Opens Fri., July 29, at Uptown

A shoestring DV production filmed in 15 days with one big star (Courteney Cox), November would not be unwelcome as a chapter in an anthology film, or as an old episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That way, if you guess where it's going within 10 minutes, it wouldn't feel like as much of a chore to wait through the next half-hour or so. November tells the same story three times, each time asking us to put together the correct order of events that led to the slaying of lawyer Hugh (James LeGros), boyfriend of photographer Sophie (Cox), in a random convenience-store robbery gone wrong. Each version is preceded by a chapter heading (Denial, Despair, Acceptance), as Sophie later works through her feelings with her mother (Anne Archer), a cop, a shrink (Nora Dunn), and her photography students, whose work mysteriously contains glimpses from the crime scene.

Are her pupils messing with her head? Was there a witness to the crime? Do all the pills she's popping indicate she's out of her mind? And what's with this man on the side—is he a lover from before or after the tragedy? November employs all kinds of shock cuts, sound distortions, and dirty-lens cinematography (like a lo-fi version of Seven) to suggest all of these possibilities, and a few paranormal avenues in addition. Sophie's photos at home, flashbacks to the fateful November evening, and her students' slides all begin to converge into one disturbing picture.

That doesn't mean, however, it's one you haven't seen before. Blow-Up is just one of several obvious forebears to this movie. Sophie tells her students, "You decide what stays in the frame," which raises issues about her own subjectivity and memory of the trauma. By the time November starts borrowing additionally from David Lynch, you no longer really care about what happens to Sophie (since you're at least an hour past guessing the truth), but you may have a whole new appreciation for how good Rod Serling was as a writer. Those old DVDs are looking better and better. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Stealth

Opens Fri., July 29, at Metro and others

Stealth is not just a retread of Top Gun so pathetically written it makes Top Gun look like Aeschylus. Its top star is not one of its human stealth-bomber pilots (Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx) but a robot plane known as "EDI" (which stands for Extreme Deep Invader and is pronounced "Eddie"). EDI is a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) whose voice and personal quirks are modeled on 2001's HAL (or at least on Knight Rider's KIT).

For at least the first hour, Stealth is a SAEBCPSOS (Shockingly and Excruciatingly Boring Columbia Pictures Sack of Shit). You're a fool even to consider sitting through one second of it. But the thing is, in its own silly action-flick way, bereft as it is of any shred of achievement in acting, dialogue, mise en scène, narrative rhythm, or plot, it really is kind of pleasant in the last hour or so. At that point, you've endured the incredibly sluggish exposition of the hackneyed setup. Lucas is a bad-boy pilot inclined to disobey orders and get away with it because he's so damn good and lucky. Dishy Biel, who looks spiffy in an utterly gratuitous bikini scene and whose lips appear plumped up with some substance that might make kissing her risky, loves Lucas. But as Foxx cautions him, reciprocating her love might ruin her career, so Lucas must continue to pretend to be a womanizer like Foxx and sacrifice his passion for her. (Besides, her lips could explode.) Foxx is the pilot who ought to be named "Dead Meat." One look at him and you know he ain't making it to the final scene. But he's not as dead a character as EDI's Seattle party-boy tech-whiz inventor, Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh). Orbit gets this big buildup, the local audience cheers to see his Seattle location, and then he turns out to be bland as a carob brownie. Every tech guy or gal I ever worked with at Amazon.com was infinitely cooler and more eccentric.

The three-human, one-robot squad's missions are less interesting than a video game. They try to blow up missile-equipped terrorist cells with smart bombs that spare nearby villagers. But after a lightning strike makes EDI behave strangely (it's got a mind of its own!), their wicked, ambitious commander (Sam Shepard) insists on letting demented EDI keep flying. Naturally, human pilots and human loyalties save the day. It's predictable and yet fun to watch Lucas rescue Biel from behind North Korean lines.

The special-effects stuff is only just OK, because most of it takes place in the sky, where it's hard for the eye to put it in context—it all looks animated. Since Stealth would look far less impressive on a home screen, it should be seen in a theater. To make it as good as it can be, simply bring a book, put your coat on your seat to claim it, leave the theater to read for one hour, and then re-enter the theater for the finale. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

 
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