Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Harvard Exit and others
Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind is no longer the only dystopian weirdo sci-fi fantasy set in Seattle. Now we have Michael Winterbottom's drama about a Seattle Pinkerton detective (Tim Robbins) investigating the theft of "papelles"— temporary visas in electronic form— in Shanghai. In this future, the world is divided into high-rise cities and blighted deserts full of homeless refugees who don't have papelles and can't travel. The Ashcroftian fascist world state is determined to keep refugees out of the cities.
The state's other big obsession is preventing people from copulating with near relatives, a violation of Code 46 of criminal law. Incest is a common problem because cloning is so rampant that the fair maid winking at you from the bar has a fair statistical chance of being genetically identical to your mother. The fact that she would then look just like your mother, giving you a clue, does not occur to the filmmakers, whose sci-fi ideas are all half-baked from less-than-fresh ingredients filched from previous SF stories.
Robbins is assigned to bust a worker at the papelle factory for smuggling one of the visas out, giving it to an amateur naturalist who yearned to study bats in a cave in Delhi. Somehow traveling with a fake papelle got the guy killed. (The plot exposition is clumsy and murky.) Robbins, equipped with an "empathy virus" that enables him to read people's minds, effortlessly identifies Samantha Morton as the guilty factory worker. But he falls in love with her at first sight—unaware of her striking resemblance to his mother—so he fingers somebody else for the crime, then promptly gets her pregnant. The Code 46 cops get on their case, triggering the world's slowest global chase scene.
Sci-fi films derived from film noir bring a distinctive coolness to the genre. A triple feature of Blade Runner, THX 1138, and 1984 could lower your body temperature by 10 degrees. Director Winterbottom's cold-ass sensibility turns the thermostat down still further—his is not a mind of winter but of Ice Nine, a freezing substance that makes the Earth inert. His characters attain a near-comatose frigidity comparable to that of David Cronenberg's Crash.
Winterbottom achieves what he's after: an internally consistent parallel universe. The acting styles are impressively frozen, and his location shooting in Shanghai, Dubai, and Jaipur yields a marvelously otherworldly sense of place, or rather spacey placelessness. But there's more to movies than place. He brings out the worst in Robbins, a parched and parsimonious pretentiousness, and squanders Morton's considerable gifts. Their romance is as dead as an art-porn flick—though one scene, in which her body frigidly tries to reject him, so he has to tie her down and satisfy her lustful mind, does briefly flicker with creepy S&M zest. The detective-story chase is utterly unthrilling. The SF critique of authoritarianism, genetic engineering, border paranoia, and high-tech mind control is as stale as salt-free Triscuits discovered in a bomb shelter countless tedious centuries after the last blast. Code 46 brings us the end of the world as we know it all too well. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Guild 45 and others
Since I loathe Scrubs and Zach Braff's pop-eyed TV acting, I had low hopes for his movie debut as a writer-director-star, shot in New Jersey during his brief series hiatus. Surprise! It's the antidote to the TV show's noisy shtick, an understated homage to The Graduate and Harold and Maude that floats on a Hal Ashby contact high.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman, back in his Garden State hometown nine years after making it as a very small Hollywood star. Everyone's on drugs in the old 'burb. His shrink dad (Ian Holm) has had Andrew on tranks since childhood, thanks to the trauma of his mom's paralysis in an accident the dad blames on Andrew. He's back home for her funeral—she drowned in the tub—so he's narcotized by grief and shock at re-entering his high-school world. Braff wanders through the movie with a dazed expression copped from Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock and Bud Cort's Harold.
He hangs with his THC-saturated schoolmate Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, in the film's one great performance), a grave digger who moonlights as a grave robber, and Mark's still stonier mom (talented Seattle escapee Jean Smart). Party headquarters is the mansion owned by a nerd classmate (Denis O'Hare), who bought it with the zillions he made inventing "noiseless Velcro." There's no furniture—the place is like Kurt and Courtney's playhouse, only with nicer drugs. Instead of OD'ing, Andrew wakes up with funny words scrawled on his forehead by puckish pals. There's no real satiric point to Braff's send-up of aging student stoner culture, just a gentle ribbing sensation with a hint of sorrow.
Nor is there any direction in the drift of Andrew's tiny adventures from graveyard to party to abandoned quarry. But then he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a willful will o' the wisp obviously meant to be a 60-years-younger version of Ruth Gordon's Maude. She's an epileptic, which gives her a chance to meet (cutely) with Andrew at the doc's office. Soon they're bonding over her own private pet graveyard and her loopy lust for life, and Andrew's revising his halfhearted nihilism.
Andrew's character is much vaguer than Hoffman's or Cort's; their blank gazes packed a punch, while he's the kind of mild guy who recedes into the wallpaper. Likewise, Portman can't match Gordon's joie de vivre, largely because Braff can't dream up any particularly Maude-ish things for her to say or perpetrate. As a result, she doesn't come off as an outrageous outsider, just an elfin actress doing her waifly duty. Still, her charisma and Andrew's every-guy affability get them a fair distance into a hazily enchanted Jersey woods. I can't wait for Scrubs to get canceled so Braff can concentrate on making his shimmering film career snap into better focus. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Egyptian and others
There's a New Yorker cartoon wherein a woman in a car eyes a male prostitute, but she's out for something deeper than sex: The guy leans on her window and lasciviously vows, "Oh, yeah, baby! I'll listen to you! I'll listen to you all night long!"
Someone to listen is just what Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) is craving in Patrice Leconte's new dreamy psychodrama. She races to a psychiatrist, Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), to pour her heart out to expert ears. Only she gets the address wrong and walks into the office of tax attorney William (Fabrice Luchini).
It's understandable: William has a couch by his desk to take naps on, and his clients often require more than tax-code advice. They need to inundate him with the emotional side of their fiscal predicaments. So William sits back and listens to Anna, his large, dark, sensitive lemur eyes expressing a certain repressed excitement at the sight of her needy, irresistibly alluring discomfiture. She blurts it all out: Her husband is a shiftless goldbrick, they haven't had sex in half a year, she thinks she may be losing her mind. Eventually it dawns on William that she's never going to get to the tax-problem part, yet he can't bear to terminate her confessions. He's like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (Leconte's favorite Hitchcock film), guilty yet incapable of tearing himself away from what he has no right to witness. He's driven to confess what he's doing—to her psychiatrist!
Most French directors would have fashioned a farce from such material, and Intimate Strangers does have a muted farcical aspect. But Leconte told me on his Seattle visit that his movies strive for realism—which, once established, he veers from at an eccentric angle. His camera—the third member of the film's ménage à trois—studies the couple's crazy quasi-courtship as attentively as any documentarian's lens might, until they yield up their secrets, which seem both funny and rooted in actual emotions. Anna catches on to William's voyeurism but finds it therapeutic to hold him so rapt. Leconte thinks William's the crazier one: "It takes him an hour and 45 minutes of movie to take off his tie." We discover, to our amazement, that William has what Leconte calls "a secret garden"—an interior life in which he can out-dance Travolta.
Leconte treats even his minor characters to secret gardens: William's ex, who's bitterly suspicious of Anna's motives; his office manager, an indulgently clucking old hen who's known him since childhood; even the unflappable actual shrink, Dr. Monnier.
The story chugs on with a quiet relentlessness in a way that might remind you of the music of Philip Glass—which, it just so happens, Leconte used as the soundtrack for the working print. Like a Glass tune, the movie never really arrives much of anywhere. But it's worth a look, and a listen. (R) TIM APPELO
Ju-on: The Grudge
Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Varsity and others
OK, so this is the third chapter in Japanese horror impresario Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On series, albeit evidently only the first to warrant a theatrical release, not to be confused with the forthcoming domestic adaptation, starring sometimes scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar, due out this autumn. If you thought that back story was complicated, wait 'til you get a load of the actual story in this incomprehensible, sluggish, no-budget, would-be thriller.
Shimizu's first two, straight-to-video Ju-Ons are reportedly edgy, jarring mini-classics on a par with the Ringu series, which Hollywood has already famously co-opted as The Ring. God only knows how they'll make sense of this mess, but at least there's an intriguing premise to launch from: Meek social worker Rika (Megumi Okina) is suckered into taking on home care of an elderly, bed-shitting mute woman, only to discover a suspicious, blemished family photograph in their vacuum cleaner, accompanied by feral thumping from the taped-off upstairs closet.
Cue complete and inexplicable abandonment of reason. Rika wisely tears off the masking tape and unleashes an Evil Dead–patented, nebulous, vengeful force that occasionally manifests in the forms of black cats, a cute little boy in pancake makeup, and/or a soul-sucking female apparition that looks like Snuffleupagus caked in soot. We have a bona fide haunted house, and the evil spirits efficiently possess, terrorize, and murder not only the old hag's entire immediate family but the family of the tortured cop who worked on the in-house murder that spawned the madness. This is all unveiled in tedious out-of-sequence tangents, à la Pulp Fiction, which never suitably resolve any of the many plot strands. The only really frightening thing about Ju-On is its reliance on bad Foley artistry to generate Snuffleupagus Lady's laughable, bone-crunching lurching. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI
She Hate Me
Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Meridian and Metro
Spike Lee makes Michael Moore look like the most logical, even-tempered, and well-organized filmmaker around. The pity of She Hate Me isn't that Lee is working in the wrong form—fiction versus documentary—but that he's still working according to his tired old methods, which provide no form to his scattershot outrage.
Who isn't Lee mad at in Hate? He's pissed at Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, Bush, and even Nixon. (At least Moore has the good sense to limit his enemies list to the present decade.) Also on the shit list are insider traders, Martha Stewart, big pharma, overpaid and hypocritical CEOs, the decline of the black family, the emasculation of the black male, and . . . lesbians? In an almost completely incoherent movie, it's this last category that's most confounding and confusing. Meaning to be sensitive and accepting of new-school blended families, Lee instead manages to suggest that—in lieu of in-vitro fertilization—every lesbian is secretly looking for a good fucking from a virile African-American stud.
John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is a smooth, self-assured VP at a big N.Y.C. pharmaceutical firm with a stock bubble fueled by the promise of an AIDS vaccine. Soon after a sympathetic German colleague tells Jack, "Careers aren't real," and exits his via an office window, Progeia's stock, and Jack's career, follows him into the pavement, helped along by Jack's whistle-blower call to the SEC about late-night shredding and other boardroom malfeasance. The fact that Jack gets sacked for his do-gooderism comes as no surprise, and Lee might've had a decent movie if he had limited his script to the theme of a buppie who discovers how "doin' the right thing just ruined my life."
Unfortunately Hate's tone shifts from that of, say, The Brother Insider to something along the lines of She's Gotta Have Dick. Would 19 lesbians eagerly line up to pay a $10K stud fee to a complete stranger just because his lesbian ex, Fatima (Lift's Kerry Washington), vouches for him? Would they all leave his Viagra-and-Red-Bull-fueled boudoir with smiles on their faces? Only in the same Spike Lee fantasy world where, because high-paid Jack gets fired by an evil corporation, an evil bank suddenly freezes his ATM card and accounts. In other words, it's Lee's world of tacked-up 3-by-5 note cards, assembled with no particular order or logic except that he wants a tantrum here, a sex scene there, a melodramatic outburst after that, and some bad Capra populism at the end just because he couldn't find any other place for it.
Hate radiates a sense of irreversible career decline. When Fatima tells Jack his services amount to "a sideline profession in an ever-changing economy," it makes you think of Lee, who had better start updating his own résumé to fit those changing times—and he'd better drop "fertile imagination," once his strong suit, from his list of skills. (R) BRIAN MILLER
Tom Dowd & the Language of Music
Opens Fri., Aug. 13, at Grand Illusion and others
Tom Dowd, who died last year at 77, began working for the government at age 16, when he was tapped to help study radiation at Columbia University—the youngest member of the team working on what became known as the Manhattan Project. After the A-bomb was tested, Dowd decided to defer college because they'd be teaching him the prewar science of 1939 instead of 1946—science he'd already helped outmode.
That part of Dowd's story is folded into the middle of Mark Moorman's crisp, professional, engrossing telling of the life Dowd chose after the war—that of the most widely respected engineer of the American recording industry and, later, one of its top producers. A rock documentary that makes tech-talk about subjects like recording tape, engineering boards, and multitrack recorders its focal point lives and dies on the charm of its subject, and Dowd was blessed with an abundance of the stuff. The many interview segments (shot over several years in a host of locales—his Miami home, walking around his native New York, in the studio with new artists he was producing) find his energy unflagging, and it's not an editing trick. Dowd was a born raconteur, and he had a front-row seat at some of the most important recording sessions in jazz, R&B, and rock history.
In fact, Dowd is such a huge personality —particularly for what was essentially a backroom role—that he outclasses nearly everyone who offers testimonials, though generally no small fry themselves. The list includes Ray Charles (whom Dowd walks in on in midinterview, spurring a reunion that gleams with genuine affection), Eric Clapton (Dowd produced both Cream's Disraeli Gears and Derek & the Dominos' Layla), Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, and Atlantic Records' founder and president, Ahmet Ertegun.
The film is light on period footage, though there is one absolutely hair- raising clip of Otis Redding, backed by Booker T. & the MG's, driving an English crowd into a frenzy. But Dowd is such a magnanimous presence, and gives such mouthwatering accounts of Aretha Franklin's "Respect" session and the date when Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz was cut, that you won't miss it. (NR) MICHAELANGELO MATOS