Brief Encounters

DOPAMINE

Opens Fri., Oct. 10, at Uptown

Love's not just a matter of neurochemistry, this rather anemic dot-com romance reminds us; there's also some trust and risk involved, too. It's an obvious point, and one that wouldn't seem quite so obvious if Dopamine itself had more chemistry as a movie. The cast and ingredients, slight but likable, never gel into a viable larger structure.

Repression-case programmer Rand (John Livingston) works at a three-man startup in what appears to be pre-crash San Francisco (already a sign of the movie's staleness). He meets a melancholy beauty (Sabrina Lloyd) in a bar, but despite their immediate chemical attraction (cue computer effects of molecules and pheromones percolating), she goes home with one of his lecherous partners (Bruno Campos) instead. Rand and the girl are like two ships sailing in the silicon night, only he gets a second chance when his team goes to beta test its animated virtual-reality character at the school where she happens to teach. (On its computer screen, yellow chirping Koy Koy is like a cross between a butterfly and a Smurf, the kind of thing real children would rightfully despise.) So now it's not just cells but coincidence working in Rand's favor, only it takes a long, slow time in a short, slow movie for him to get anywhere with Sarah. (Meanwhile, flashbacks and the cantankerous, cynical commentary of Rand's aged father hint at how fickle physiology can both bond and betray us.)

Late at night, Rand sulkily codes in his lonely office, while Sarah mournfully paints in her lonely apartment; even before they become a couple, they're a no-fun couple. When together, Rand spouts biodeterminism in lieu of the emotional attachment Sarah craves. There's a leaden poignancy to their scenes, as when she asks, "What makes me special?" "I dunno," he glumly repliesgreat comeback, pal. Dialogue that lame and inconclusive should've crashed the screenwriters' computer, but their C-drive somehow survived to harbor more melodramatic plot twists and unmotivated San Fran colorcute kids, stray dogs, sunsets, a Critical Mass bicycle rallythat plunge Dopamine into numb, mopey mediocrity. They should've called it Phenobarbital.

When asked if he and Sarah are dating, Rand wanly answers, "'Sort of' is a good description." In which sense, Dopamine is only sort of a movie. (R) BRIAN MILLER

GLOOMY SUNDAY

Opens Fri., Oct. 10, at Big Picture

Ilona (Erika Marozsán) is the kind of girl you can't refuse. Thanks to her dark-eyed allure (think Cameron Diaz gone gypsy), this love triangle hits a few unexpected notes in its late '30s setting. Serving double duty as waitress and girlfriend to Budapest restaurateur Lászlò (Joachim Król), Ilona risks her job and relationship when she falls for waif-hunk pianist András (Stefano Dionisi). But Lászlò is surprisingly . . . understanding about Ilona's divided attention; suddenly she's being passed back and forth like a favorite phonograph record. But just when you think Sunday's song is played out, there's a B-side to the story. The Nazis suddenly invade Hungary, and what initially seemed like a smartly adapted Harlequin romance becomes deadly seriouseven stirring at moments. A German film made in 1999, Sunday's take on the Holocaust is hardly new, but those who enjoy doomed historical romance in the Casablanca vein should savor its gloomy tune. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER

HELL'S HIGHWAY: THE TRUE STORY OF HIGHWAY SAFETY FILMS

Runs Fri., Oct. 10-Thurs., Oct. 16, at Little Theatre

Aficionados of kitsch cinema might appreciate this documentary by Bret Wood about the folks who made those gory highway safety films that were shown in schools and driver's ed classes in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, but instead of this rather choppy and sometimes tedious treatment, it might be better to simply view one of the classics of the genrelike Signal 30 or Mechanized Death. These were "slasher" documentaries before their time, movies crafted to deliver a hellfire public service message: Teens, don't kill yourself with your car! Graphic footage of accident victimsburned, smashed, dismembered, decapitatedwas designed to scare you straight by detailing the blood-and-guts consequences of dumb driving. It turns out that most of these films were made by the Traffic Safety Foundation in Mansfield, Ohio, a group of oddballs who chased ambulances on that state's highways for decades to record the slaughter on film and bring it to your school. Highway features interviews with some of the filmmakers, but the stars here are the clipssome of them real, not just staged kitschthat made the original films so terrifying and impossible to forget. (NR) KNUTE BERGER

THE HOLY LAND

Opens Fri., Oct. 10, at Harvard Exit

The first time we see Mendy (Oren Rehany), he's furtively jacking off in his parents' bathroom. It's not unusual behavior for a kid in his late teens, but Mendy's Israeli family is Orthodox, and he's a rabbinical student, so his brand of furtiveness is especially furtive. The first thing we hear from Sasha (Tchelet Semel), a radiant Russian prostitute in Tel Aviv, is that the Middle East sucks, and that she'd be happiest if the Israelis and Arabs would just kill one other off already. In writer-director Eitan Gorlin's debut film, Mendy and Sasha meet not-so-cute: He hires her on the advice of a misguided rabbi. The would-be lovebirds move to Jerusalem, where Mendy waits tables, bartends, and timidly traverses the bewildering terrain of love, lust, and privilege that their relationship entails. To most, Land might resemble Pretty Woman with rabbis and terrorists; for some Jews, however, Mendy's rebellious fall from gracespun here as a journey of self- discoverycould raise some serious hackles. Not unlike the superior 2001 Late Marriage, Land gamely exposes the pockets of desperation and ambivalence that hide within Israel's stubborn Orthodox enclaves. (NR) N.S.

SOMBRE

Runs Fri., Oct. 10-Thurs., Oct. 16, at Grand Illusion

How would you feel about watching a solemn, nearly mute, vaguely handsome drifter/puppeteer (!) pick up a hooker, drive her to an isolated location, spread her legs, molest her, then cram his thumb down her throat to suffocate her? How would you feel about watching this sequence unfold about 10 times in graphic, dialogue-free, natural sound, extreme close-up, snuff-film detail? How would you feel about watching our protagonist bat around, slobber on, and torment a virginal, innocuous, kindhearted heroine and her sister for another half-hour, get said virginal heroine drunk, then whore her out to two discotheque bisexuals? You'd probably feel the same as if said virginal heroine were to inexplicably develop not only an affection, but an erotic obsession for this ghoul. All of this sickeningly congeals to make writer-director Phillipe Grandrieux's 1998 Sombre an appalling, wildly pretentious "meditation" on lust, loneliness, and instability. It also begins the Grand Illusion's two-week, three-film "International Serial Killer Series." How do you feel about that? (NR) ANDREW BONAZELLI

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