New York City is a place where people, especially filmmakers, are devoted to it. Many, like Woody Allen, wear their hearts on their sleeve when they tell their stories about their beloved city. Eleven filmmakers from around the world gather to tell their tales as influenced by what some call the greatest city in the world in “New York, I Love You.”
I am not a fan of anthology films, with the exception of the terrifically moving “11’09”01 – September 11 (2002),” another but very different set of stories about NYC. “New York, I Love You,” like its predecessor and influence. “Paris, je t’aime,” is a hopeful, romantic compilation of stories set in the titular city. As is the usual case in an anthology collection by different filmmakers, some stories work, some do not and at least one is unintentionally funny - to me.
Let me start with my favorite piece in “NY,ILY.” Mira Nair directs Natalie Portman, as Hasidic Jewish diamond broker Rifka, and Irrfan Khan as her supplier, Mansuhkbai, a devout Jain from India. It is business as usual for the two diamond experts as they chitchat about their lives and religious faiths. Rifka is about to marry and decided to forgo the ritual wedding day tonsuring that her religion requires and does it beforehand. He tells her that his faith also requires women to shave their heads when they devote their lives to God. The interplay and understanding, even affection, that build between the two is lovely to watch, thanks to the excellent acting and direction.
Julie Christie and Shia LaBeouf, with John Hurt, play a former, aging opera diva coming to the city for what appears to be suicide and the severely handicapped bellboy at the hotel she is staying. It is an odd little story that could be fantasy or could be hallucination but it is hopeful in the end. Most of the other stories involve sexual trysts, erotic word play and obsession with beauty. The unintentionally funny sequence, by director Joshua Marston, has Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an aged NY Jewish couple going to Coney Island for their 63 anniversary. It is funny, to me, because it smacks of the same couple, in caricature, played by Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn in “High Anxiety.” It is meant to be touching, I’m sure, but the hilarious image of Brooks and Kahn doing the old Jewish shtick just kept running through my head.
An imaginative bridging technique is deftly used to tie these disparate stories together. Zoe, the video artist (Emilie Ohana), weaves her way through the bridging with her always-recording and roving camera and helps the overall film to flow smoothly from one story to the next. Techs vary from short film to short film and, like the stories, are better in some than in others. For those out there who like anthology films, give it a go. Not for me, though. I give it a C+.
From Coney Island to Tribeca to Central Park and the Upper East Side, millions cross paths each day and different kinds of loves bloom. Producer Emmanuel Benbihy continues his 'Cities of Love' series begun with "Paris Je T'Aime" with another group of directors exploring different neighborhoods in "New York, I Love You."
Although Benbihy does not consider his films to be omnibuses, like all films featuring multiple segments written and shot by different crews "New York, I Love You" is a hit and miss affair. Unlike "Paris Je T'Aime," which retained the distinct flavor of its eighteen different directors, the New York edition oddly seems more of a piece, with few of its directors showing a distinct visual outlook. The pieces are woven together in such a way that characters from some segments overlap into others and the story of a videographer (Emilie Ohana) ties all together in transitional pieces directed by Randy Balsmeyer, known for the title sequences he's produced for other directors.
The film begins, fittingly for New York, in a cab where Gus (Bradley Cooper, "All About Steve") makes an appearance with his "Hangover" costar, transitional actor Justin Bartha, well before his Allen Hughes ("From Hell") directed segment plays. Chinese film star Jiang Wen goes to Tribeca to follow a pickpocket, Ben (Hayden Christensen, "Jumper") battle a college professor (Andy Garcia) for the affections of his much younger girlfriend, Molly (Rachel Bilson, TV's "The O.C.") in a bar.
An inauspicious start segues into one of the film's best sequences. Mira Nair ("Monsoon Wedding," "The Namesake") contemplates an unrequited romance in the Diamond District as a Hasidic bride to be (Natalie Portman, who also directs a later segment) haggles over the an Indian gem cutter's (Irrfan Khan, "The Namesake") packet. As both relate rules of their respective religions, they form a flirtatious bond that lingers. "All About Lily Chou-Chou's" Shunji Iwai ponders a romance sprung from the distancing allure of today's technology as an unseen voice over the phone (Christina Ricci) comes to the aid of a film composer (Orlando Bloom, "Pirates of the Caribbean") instructed to come up with music by reading two dauntingly long Dostoyevsky novels. The technology angle is interesting, but the Dostoyevsky reference leads nowhere. Frances Yvan Attal ("My Wife is an Actress") was so inspired, his segment got split into two, equally intriguing hookups. In the first, an aspiring writer (Ethan Hawke, who also has a charming episode with the videographer) tries to seduce an attractive woman (Maggie Q) outside of a Soho bar only to get a comeuppance he never could have conceived. Later, after briefly meeting Alex (Chris Cooper, "Breach") in a Chinatown dry cleaner, we see him again, on a cell phone outside of a restaurant where a strange woman (Robin Wright Penn) strikes up a tantalizing conversation. Attal proves adept with punch lines as well as characterizations.
Brett Ratner ("X-Men: The Last Stand," "Rush Hour 3") has a punch line up his sleeve too, but his segment, about a high school kid (Anton Yelchin, "Star Trek") paired up on a blind date with a handicapped girl (Olivia Thirlby, "Juno," "The Wackness"), is downright offputting. Blake Lively ("The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants") cameos as Yelchin's ex at the Tavern on the Green set prom. Bradley Cooper reappears in a cab and Drea de Matteo (HBO's "The Sopranos") rides the subway in Hughes's crosscut segment as two lovers from a one night stand internally debate the wisdom of meeting up again at a Greenwich Village bar. It's a nice piece, well-written.
"New York, I Love You" is commemorated to Anthony Minghella, who wrote the Upper East Side hotel segment directed by Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") which, unfortunately, comes across as pretentious. An aging opera star (Julie Christie) contemplates suicide but is dissuaded by a handicapped bellboy (Shia LaBeouf, quite good, complete with Russian accent) who may be a figment of her imagination. Veteran character actor (and LaBeouf's "Indiana Jones" costar) John Hurt appears, although we're left wondering to what purpose. Natalie Portman reappears on the opposite side of the camera for a gently ironic take on immigrants in the city as a little girl (Taylor Geare) enjoys Central Park with her black 'manny' (Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta). The film wraps with one of the best and one of the worst segments. The great German-Turkish director Fatih Akin ("The Edge of Heaven") pinpoints the unusual and stunning face of Qi Shu, a young woman working in a Chinatown herb shop who is wooed as a subject by a Turkish painter (Ugur Yücel). In this melancholy tale, when she fails to make a potentially fortuitous connection, the videographer's lens finds her in a crowd. The last bit by "Maria Full of Grace's" Joshua Marston follows a couple of seniors (Eli Wallach and a misdirected Cloris Leachman) doing Borscht Belt schtick on their 60th anniversary as they make their way to Coney Island.
"New York, I Love You" is worth the effort for the four pieces called out - Nair's is deep and playful at the same time, Attal's very well written and acted. Hughes' is perhaps the best example of the theme - a New York romance - while Akin's is the most visually inventive and mysterious while also culling the immigrant nature of several other pieces (and his own work). The other stories are merely OK or worse, a ratio that favors the worthwhile. Benbihy is continuing his project in Rio, a city that certainly has a sexual vibe, but further trips to Shanghai, Jerusalem and Mumbai sound like his concept will soon be outstaying its welcome.
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