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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

Friends, farce and super-cool gangsters


The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is lighthearted but insightful, aimed at teenage girls and their mothers, though boys and men can also enjoy and profit from it. It tells the story of four 16-year-old friends about to go their separate ways for the summer. Shopping in a used-clothing store, they find a pair of old jeans that seems (magically?) to fit them all. By deciding to stay connected by each wearing the jeans for a week before mailing them on, they set up a series of four stories. Like the young adult book of the same name by Ann Brashares, “Sisterhood” celebrates friendship. Though fundamentally upbeat, it helps audiences look realistically at some painful realities of adolescence.

Lena (Alexis Bledel), a shy artist, goes to an idyllic Greek island to stay with grandparents. She meets Kostos, a student from Athens, whose family has feuded with hers, but the special jeans somehow help her through an early stage of romance and she develops greater independence and confidence.

Bridget (Blake Lively), an athletic blonde whose mother has just died, goes to soccer camp in Mexico. Her aggressiveness in pursuing the coach seems exaggerated, increasing her growing-up problems and making hers the least credible of the “Sisterhood” stories.

Carmen (America Ferrera), who is Puerto Rican, goes to visit her divorced father in South Carolina and finds he is about to marry a suburban widow with two teenage children. The traveling pants don’t work; when her father refuses to pay attention to her, she throws a rock through the living room window and goes home to her mother. Her pain is partly eased at the end, however, and the experience helps her rediscover her Puerto Rican identity.

“Sisterhood” digs even deeper with the story of Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), perhaps because she is its main narrative voice. She stays home to work at the local superstore but her real interest is making a documentary about losers. Followed around by 12-year-old Bailey (Jenna Boyd), Tibby at first tells the younger girl she doesn’t need any more friends. Tibby changes her mind, however, when she discovers Bailey is seriously ill. The film’s most powerful moment is Bailey’s speech on video, upbeat in the face of death while reminding us we are all to some degree losers.

Though the symbolism of the jeans shouldn’t be exaggerated, they add an attractive pattern to the film. Director Ken Kwapis has worked some kind of magic by introducing serious issues, limiting the risk of sentimentality and never treating his fine young cast with condescension.

Après Vous reminds us of the pleasures of genuine farce and why the French are such masters of it. The great Daniel Auteuil is Antoine, manager of an upscale Parisian restaurant whose life changes when he rushes into a park and saves Louis (José Garcia), a morose neurotic who is trying incompetently to hang himself. Antoine insists on dragging the self-pitying Louis home to the apartment he shares with Christine (Marilyne Canto) and becomes the world’s most ridiculous Good Samaritan.

Because Louis has written a farewell letter to his grandparents, Antoine takes a long drive into the country, changing the letter to an upbeat message for the almost-blind grandmother (Andrée Tainsy). The latter then confesses it was she who advised Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain) to dump Louis, the act that had precipitated his suicide attempt.

After a wonderfully ridiculous audition for the job, Louis is hired as the restaurant’s new sommelier. His progress from a craven ignoramus to a successful salesman of the most expensive vintages is a classic sequence. Less successful is the complex plotting that develops from Antoine’s attempts to resolve Louis’ love difficulties. He locates Blanche, who is running a nearby flower shop, and advises her to dump her current boyfriend. In the ensuing confusion, his own Christine walks out after seeing him with the florist.

Though “Après Vous” searches vainly for a satisfying romantic conclusion, it’s well worth seeing to observe the hundred ways in which Mr. Auteuil’s face can register exasperation.

The Layer Cake wants to be a super-cool gangster movie, proving that an English director can observe crime with as much humorous detachment as Quentin Tarantino. All it succeeds in doing is showing that Daniel Craig’s character is the smoothest drug dealer in Amsterdam. But a more veteran thief, played by Michael Gambon, warns the hero that success depends on learning to be a good middleman.

Director Matthew Vaughn is ingenious in fast-cutting from present to past; the shocks are so relentless that it’s hard to follow the action. To its credit, “Layer Cake” doesn’t make its crime world appealing; Amsterdam’s canals are attractive, but everything else is so sordid one wants to get out of town.

Mr. Vaughn seems to think that extravagant plot twists and sudden violence will make his movie trendy. Instead, it sometimes becomes ludicrous. Mr. Craig is good at remaining imperturbable under stress, but Mr. Gambon steals the film as his adversary.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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