BALSEROS

Runs Fri., Oct. 17-Sun., Oct. 19, at Little Theatre

This 2002 Spanish documentary was filmed over a period of eight years, beginning in Havana

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Brief Encounters

Balseros, Millenium Actress, and More.

BALSEROS

Runs Fri., Oct. 17-Sun., Oct. 19, at Little Theatre

This 2002 Spanish documentary was filmed over a period of eight years, beginning in Havana in the summer of 1994one of the most economically devastating periods in postrevolutionary Cuban history. Absent the support of the collapsed Soviet Union, suffering under the U.S. trade embargo, food and medical supplies become scarce and rolling blackouts a daily reality. Thousands of people leave by raft for Miami expecting a warm welcome from the U.S. The balseros (boat people) who don't die at sea are picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and held for up to one and a half years at Guantᮡmo until being granted U.S. visas. Over the next five years, the film documents their struggle to attain better lives in America. Two balseros are able to find a relatively happy working-class existence. There are grimmer outcomes, too: one immigrant is jailed after involvement in the New York City mafia; others resort to religious fanaticism and prostitution. All left Cuba with the intention of sending money home to their families. Some renege on their promiseor don't have money to share. In the end, depressingly, one wonders if the balseros wouldn't have been better off remaining in Cuba, where most were better equipped to cope with a different set of hardships. (NR) KATIE MILLBAUER

MILLENIUM ACTRESS

Opens Fri., Oct. 10, at Varsity

A documentary filmmaker and his cameraman head into the Japanese countryside to collect some footage for a profile of a once-famous film actress. Before much time passes, we learn that the director's interest in his subject is dangerously personal, and that the actress herself has been living in an emotional limbo since her abrupt retirement from the screen nearly 40 years before. About enough material for a Twilight Zone episode, you'd think; but Actress is the long-awaited follow-up to one of the last decade's most successful and highly praised anime features, 1997's Perfect Blue, and fans of that trippy thriller won't be disappointed with what writer-director Satoshi Kon and collaborator Sadayuki Murai have come up with this time. Simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek history of 20th-century Japanese cinema, a virtuosic hall-of-mirrors essay in reality-versus-film rivaling 81/2 in complexity, and a full-bore, flat-out, three-hanky romance, Actress is definitely not for action junkies. Clocking in at only 87 minutes, it manages to seem a tad over-leisurely, but anyone who delights in sheer visual wit and grace will not find the film a minute too long. And if you like movies that wear their craft on one sleeve and their heart on the other (like Far From Heaven and The Man Who Cried), you are going to love this one. (PG) ROGER DOWNEY

RETURNER

Opens Fri., Oct. 17, at Varsity

Jet planes descend into underground hangars, then suddenly morph into lethal, extraterrestrial-controlled robots? Have the acne-ridden, dorky children of the '80s finally been rewarded with a live- action Transformers? Well, if you count Returner's additional 120-odd minutes of laughably atrocious Terminator/ Matrix/The Professional/E.T. "homage," um, the answer is still a resounding no. Scruffy, feral brat Milly (Anne Suzuki) warps back from war-ravaged 2084 Tibet to enlist the help of trench-coat-clad freelance gunman Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in a last-ditch effort to prevent the future apocalypse. Even if director/ co-screenwriter Takashi Yamazaki has Rip Van Winkled through the last 20 years of influential action cinema, he's still crafted a histrionic disaster laden with cheesy, cheap Predator-look-alike aliens and as pathetically literal a script ("That's Mizoguchithe man I swore to kill!") as the most incompetent domestic hack jobs. The sheer dearth of originality here is exhausting. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

THE RUNAWAY JURY

Opens Fri., Oct. 17, at Metro and others

At one point in Jury, as the evil henchmen employed by evil lawyer Gene Hackman ransack the New Orleans apartment of hero John Cusack, they actually rip up the floorboards to find a precious MP3 device with damning data on it. Who hides digital-age gizmos in their floorboards these days? Edgar Allan Poe? This adaptation of John Grisham's jury-tampering thriller manages to come off as both au courant and bizarrely out of time. The villain, Hackman's client, has been changed from the tobacco industry to the gun industry, yet the inescapable subtext is that of Karl Rove and his Republican truth-manipulation machine. It doesn't matter that the 1996 Grisham book predates the Florida 2000 election debacle; the filmmakers are clearly playing on the parallels. As Hackman says, "Trials are too important to be left up to juries." Or elections to voters. You get the idea.

Rovesorry, I mean Hackman!is the jury-selection consultant for the gunlords who are paying millions to illegally sway the humble jurors, crafty Cusack hidden among them. Hackman's methods go far beyond whispering instructions into the earphone of the courtroom attorney during voir dire. From a NASA-style control room staffed with computer nerds and Gucci Gulch lobbyists, he directs a campaign of blackmail, threats, extortion, violence, and arson. Yet the one wild card in his stacked deck is "this confidence man," Cusack, who's abetted by his grifter girlfriend Rachel Weisz in what seems a simple shakedown scheme. Their note to both sides in the case reads, "Jury for sale."

Dustin Hoffman is on hand as the opposing Democratoops, I mean plaintiff's lawyer!who dresses and behaves like a 5-foot-5-inch Atticus Finch, right down to the Southern lilt. Possessing a conscience, you see, he can only toe the dark ethical waters in which Hackman swims like an Armani shark. When it comes time for his Capra-esque closing argument, Hoffman even invokes, gulp, "the people."

But what's most depressing about this handsome piece of hackwork is how we the people are treated. Just as Rove and Bush mislead voters, just as the Republicans stole Florida (if you believe that and choose to ignore how Nader supporters gave it away), this movie is just as cynical. It's just as single-mindedly intent on victory (or big opening-weekend grosses) as Karl Rove. Even as Hollywood liberals bash guns and tobacco, then prepare to open their wallets to Dean and Clark, they treat us like the same stupid jurors whom Cusack and Hackman so easily lead by the nose. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

THE STATION AGENT

Opens Fri., Oct. 17, at Egyptian

When his boss at the Golden Spike model train store drops dead of a heart attack, Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) discovers he's in the will and moves into his bequest: a dilapidated one-room shack at what must be the obscurest train station in New Jersey. It's deserted, except for the lonesome, customer-free hot dog-stand man, Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a chatterbox pothead who insists on winning Fin as his new best friend. The two take walks on the railroad tracks and drag-race passing trains in Joe's car. Apparently there isn't much else to do in remote New Jerseyexcept drink, but Fin tends to get all depressed when he drinks, because he's a lonesome dwarf.

Fin turns inward when folks approach, like a sensitive plant. Yet Joe mostly wins him over. So does Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a maladroit artist who nearly hits Fin with her car, then apologizes and invites him into her riverfront mansion. She's also lonesome, grieving for a dead child, separated from a rich husband. The movie also features a lonesome, overweight child (Raven Goodwin of Lovely & Amazing fame) who's fascinated with Fin, and a lonesome, nubile librarian (Michelle Williams of Dawson's Creek) who bonds with him almost to the point of incipient romance. But first-time writer-director Thomas McCarthy has no clue what to do with Goodwin, and Williams barely registers.

No, this is a movie about a love triangle: the dwarf, the stoner, and the accident-prone artist. Remarkably little happens to them, and it does so slowly. Agent is so lollygagging that it makes Lost in Translation look like Natural Born Killers. Even so, you're rooting all the way for the oddly well-suited misfit trio. Dinklage is an actor whose quiet skill, mystery, and dignity are a match for Clarkson's; Cannavale is like a big, slobbering Labrador puppy you don't have the heart to shove off your lap. The flick won three prizes at Sundance, and you need a film-festival pilgrim's pure heart to bask fully in its warmth. It's not amazing, but it's lovely. (R) TIM APPELO

VERONICA GUERIN

Opens Fri., Oct. 17, at Guild 45 and others

It's a terrible time to be a journalist these days, what with Jason Blair's mendacious shadow receding from The New York Times and The New Republic confabulist Stephen Glass soon to stain the screen in Shattered Glass (Nov. 14). So the natural tendency for media folk would be to laud this biopic about the Irish tabloid martyr (1958-1996). Instead, Joel Schumacher's plodding, heavy-handed biographical account makes one yearn for the days of newspapermen-turned-screenwriters like Ben Hecht (The Front Page) or Billy Wilder (Ace in the Hole), who understood when it was permissible to bend the facts in favor of a good story. The key word here is story. The historical record suggests that the ambitious, driven Guerin had a keen sense of that term, and that she used her wiles and wits to embellish the dismal narrative of Dublin pot dealershere transformed to more insidious smack peddlersinto front-page fodder. It's doubly a tragedy that she was murdered by the pushers she profiled because, I suspect, she'd be the first to call Schumacher's gloss job pure bunk.

The ghost of Guerin couldn't ask for a better reincarnation than the fierce, formidable Cate Blanchett, but she can only do so much with the script she's given. She charms, she flirts, she wheedles and cajoles. She kicks soccer balls maniacally, dances with her husband passionately, and dotes on her child maternallybut all the while you sense Schumacher off camera saying, "Cate, can we make your character more sympathetic, more lively, more righteous? Disastrously, she took his advice. Apart from one good scene where, leg shot by a thug, she weakly, tearfully begs her husband, "Don't tell anyone I was like this," Blanchett's performance is Kevlar-plated in virtue.

Around her swirl colorful goons like "The Monk" (Alan Devine) and "The Coach" (Ciaran Hinds), but ultimate evil can't even be allowed a nickname or a trace of humanity. The excellent stage actor Gerard McSorley plays Gilligan, the horse-raising godfather atop the perfidious criminal pyramid, and his performance alone rises above Schumacher's pile of lacquered turds. On screen, at least, his stolid depravity means more than Blanchett's indefatigable decency; you remember his character, while hers just takes notes on the sidelines. It's a lesson Hecht or Wilder could've taught Schumacher the Hollywood hagiographermoviegoers can be trusted to understand the difference beyond good and evil, and only dull stories refuse to complicate the two. (R) B.R.M.

THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Runs Fri., Oct. 17-Thurs., Oct. 23, at Varsity

In the aftermath of Nixon's November 1968 election, the Students for a Democratic Society split and fissured, and a splinter called the Weathermen launched itself at what was thought to be the soft underbelly of the American beast. The sect peaked early with the mind-boggling explosion of a Greenwich Village town house "bomb factory." Then the survivors went underground and backed off from the use of pure terror. They did, however, manage to bomb an amazing succession of government installations without anyone ever getting seriously injured. (The disastrous Brinks robbery of 1981 is a different story.) Yet what's frustrating in this often gripping documentary is the filmmakers' unwillingness to ask their subjects any really tough questions. The movie passes lightly over the lunatic December '69 conclave wherein Bernadine Dohrn declared her solidarity with the Manson Familybut where did that neat Weather orgy footage come from? (NR) J. HOBERMAN

WONDERLAND

Opens Fri., Oct. 17, at Metro and Meridian

His porn co-stars report that John Holmes' 131/2-inch penis was "like a loofah"there just wasn't enough blood to inflate the pink torpedo. And the $1,500 worth of cocaine (plus 100 5-milligram Valiums) a day did nothing to stiffen his resolve. James Cox's Holmes biopic is like John's johnson: impressive at first view, but functionally squishy and ultimately impotent.

Wonderland skips the porn career to concentrate on the subsequent 1981 murder of Holmes' L.A. drug dealers. In a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks told to cops by Holmes and other scuzzbag witnesses, we see several versions of how Holmes (Val Kilmer) cravenly cadged coke from nightclub-and-strip-joint czar Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) and the lesser coke dealer Ron Launius (Josh Lucas); then helped Launius rob Nash; then led Nash's thugs back to Launius' place to crush their skulls like watermelons.

Cox does a stylin' job of staging the action: not just quick cuts, fades, and camera jitters, but complex, Peter Greenaway-like split-screen montages as the narrative nimbly ping-pongs in time and point of view. The opening scene, in which Holmes "rescues" his virginal girlfriend, Dawn (Kate Bosworth), from the home of a fine Christian woman (Carrie Fisher), has infectious orgiastic glee. Far better than Thirteen, it conveys what it must feel like to be a teenager whisked off your feet by sex, drugs, and a cool new outlaw in your life. And Cox's excessively vast cast is as talented as Holmes and company were not, including a startlingly deglamorized Lisa Kudrow as Holmes' goody-two-shoes wife; smart/ dumb snaggletooth hick Tim Blake Nelson as a coke-world associate; grouse Janeane Garofalo as a hanger-on; and nice-boy- acting-tough Dylan McDermott as Launius' lowlife cadre.

But damningly for a crime movie (and Wonderland is about crime, not sex, so expect no prosthetic members), Cox doesn't present a coherent theory of the crime. Not that this should be a documentarycheck out the overlong yet interesting hard-core doc Wadd at Scarecrow if you want one. Nor should it make the characters misleadingly sweet and sympathetic, as the delightful, tenderhearted Holmes-inspired Boogie Nights did. It's just that, in sticking close to meaningless, shapeless real events, the story doesn't even reach the empty, mechanical fulfillment of a Law & Order denouement. Having topnotch actors portray harebrained thugs is like putting random stones into a rock-polishing machine: No matter how polished the results, what you wind up with is still just a pile of rocks. (R) T.A.

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