The Machinist

Also: Overnight, Sex is Comedy.

The Machinist

Opens Fri., Dec. 3, at Uptown

Mark Twain said that Wagner's music isn't as bad as it sounds. Brad Anderson's film The Machinist isn't as good as it looks. Man, does it look good, as distinctive as anything I've seen this year. Shot in an in-humanly decrepit Spanish industrial area, it looks as though cinematographers Xavi Gimenez and Charlie Jiminez have bled the world of all organic color. The very air seems to take on a metallic tinge—breathe it, and your blood turns to antifreeze. The soundtrack resembles the whine of a robot insect maneuvering to pierce your skin with its syringe proboscis and suck out your humanity. Men and machines alike look tinny, angular, chill to the touch.

And the most machinelike guy in sight is Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale, unrecognizable at two-thirds of his normal weight—he's like the mummy at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, after it discovered the Atkins diet). Reznik's co-workers used to like him, but ever since he quit sleeping about a year before, he's gotten strange, paranoid, and rather jittery. His eyes dart furtively from the dark shadows of his cavernous sockets. His co-workers are afraid, with excellent reason, that he'll mangle one of them in the scary machines they operate all day. He's more afraid of the mysterious stranger who's shadowing him—that, and the fact that he can't remember how he turned from flesh and blood into an existential specter with a wrench in his fist and a question mark burning like a brand in his brain.

At least he has the comfort of the hooker who loves him (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's really got to quit playing hookers with hearts of gold and try some Jane Austen heroines or something). He's also falling for the waitress at his nighthawk diner (Aitana Sánchez- Gijón) and bonding with her little boy. Scott Kosar's script is tight as an electrocuted grimace. He's drunk on Kafka and Stephen King, and he dreams up some truly disturbing moments worthy of Memento, The Sixth Sense, and A Beautiful Mind. Not just moments; Kosar keeps the mystery taut and urgent for over an hour, and Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland) proves he's a director with great work ahead of him.

Finely tooled as it is, The Machinist is not yet that work. The whole trick with a high-risk flick like this is the resolution. I won't spoil the modest pleasures of the last-minute revelation of Reznik's fate, but it manages to be both pat and implausible. It trivializes an astringent fable that had been dancing on the edge of vast depths.

The actors are first-rate without exception, with Bale standing shrunken head and skeletal shoulders above them all. If only Kosar had concocted a nightmare finale as otherworldly great as Bale's fever-dream performance, this could've been the movie that made his name, and Anderson's. (R) TIM APPELO

Overnight

Opens Fri., Dec. 3, at Varsity

If Kurt Cobain inspired thousands of kids to pick up a guitar in the '90s, Quentin Tarantino inspired just as many to try writing a screenplay. Troy Duffy, then just a hard-ass West Hollywood bartender, never claimed to have found his muse as a result of that craze, but along with QT wanna-bes John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley) and C.M. Talkington (Love and a .45), he was among its first beneficiaries. In 1997, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein took a special liking to the brash 25-year-old auteur's Boston vigilante script, The Boondock Saints, and an unprecedented deal was born. Miramax not only bought Saints for $450,000, but allowed Duffy's proto-grunge band, the Brood, to perform the original soundtrack. The cherry on top: Weinstein and Duffy would become co-owners of J. Sloan's, the very tavern where the kingmaker "discovered" the hot new talent.

Playing to type, Weinstein sabotaged or reneged on almost every aspect of the arrangement, yet he's not the villain of Overnight, a seven-years-in-the-making documentary of Duffy's dizzying Icarus trip—it's Duffy himself. This isn't surprising, given that the filmmakers—blessed by Duffy to document everything, warts and all, even before he signed with the William Morris Agency—were once co-managers of the Brood, and were screwed out of the band's meager profits. As ungainly as Duffy's warts are, co-directors Todd Montana and Mark Brian Smith temper their punches and, in simply letting the camera run, capture something far more intriguing—a bright, young creative mind going apeshit with power that he hasn't secured, and Hollywood's predictable, merciless about-face.

Duffy digs his own grave, all right, and quite entertainingly. He eviscerates Keanu Reeves and Ethan Hawke during casting calls, dubs himself "Hollywood's new hard-on," then continues to assure his aghast colleagues that he's holding all of the cards—even when Boondocks toils through extended turnaround, Cannes apathy, a whopping five-theater theatrical run in 1999, and a soundtrack that sells less than 700 copies. Overnight consequently evolves into cautionary tale, epitaph, and ultimate revenge for two ex-best friends. The epilogue doesn't mention that Duffy's currently working on a Boondocks sequel. Wonder who's handling the making-of doc for that straight-to-DVD miracle. . . . (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

Sex is Comedy

Opens Fri., Dec. 3, at Varsity

Catherine Breillat's 2002 would-be comedy is not a subtle film, but anyone who's seen the French director's other deliberately provocative explorations of gender, society, and relationships (Fat Girl and Romance among them) won't expect it to be. Sex Is Comedy is also not very funny. But again, fans of Breillat's purposeful work know that her comedy can be rather black and very serious.

Breillat, as usual, has an ax to grind. Sex Is Comedy is a movie about a movie, and the directors—the real one and Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita), who, as Jeanne, is essentially playing Breillat—are concerned with the difficulties of on-set intimacy and the challenges of directing. Breillat wants you to know how hard her job is, how passionately and selflessly she must give of herself; she and she alone is responsible for her grand victories on film.

In the movie within the movie (which re-enacts Fat Girl's central and very disturbing deflowering scene), sex is both a huge obsession and a giant embarrassment. Filming the crucial coitus scene is awkward for the actors and the entire crew, and clearly this is maddening for the frank, open Jeanne. Although the unnamed leading man (Grégoire Colin) is cripplingly inhibited when it comes to performing his sex scenes on set, he and Jeanne are entangled in an uneven (and predictable) after-work love affair. On set, she has to take charge and turn him on; when the cameras are gone, he must still look to her for direction. Jeanne seems to hate the actor for allowing her to dominate him this way, but it's clear she gets off on it as well.

In this way, Sex argues that sexual hier-archies are fixed, but a strong woman can just as easily top a man. Jeanne constantly explains to her assistant, Léo (Ashley Wanninger), that acting is inherently feminine and directing masculine. Léo, a pretty blonde with long hair, must always serve as Jeanne's psychosexual sounding board—and her sex-scene stand-in when she's showing her actors, literally, how to do it. As if to drive it home, Jeanne berates her actors and her crew, beating them into submission.

Full of earnest monologues and not a few obvious metaphors about vision, power, and art, Sex Is Comedy doesn't seem to be as much about sex or comedy as it is about Breillat. While self-reflexive movies like 1995's Living in Oblivion provide a backhanded tribute to the indie film scene, Sex seems mostly to be an homage to its own auteur. (R) LAURA CASSIDY

 
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