Runs Fri., Jan. 28–Thurs., Feb. 3, at Grand Illusion
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2003 Future is sober and impassioned. Or so it seems—at the center of the film is a glowing, thoroughly poisonous pet jellyfish, the symbolic freight of which goes entrancingly uninterpreted. The invertebrate's owner, Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), is a discontented twentysomething temping in a hand-towel factory with Yuji (Joe Ogadiri), another inexpressive youth with social difficulties. Kurosawa clutters these layabouts' lives with indecision and stasis; maintaining the jellyfish tank's transition from salinity to freshwater occupies their thoughts. Only when their mildly aggressive boss takes an interest in them are they compelled into action—and murder. From the jailhouse, Mamoru charges Yuji with the jellyfish, but the glutinous creature slips beneath the floorboards, where the baffled punk sometimes glimpses a mysterious body of water under Tokyo. As the lost-yet-ever-present jellyfish takes on a proactive and entirely nonsensical role of its own, Yuji meets up with Mamoru's grieving father, and the two begin to establish a tentative family.
Kurosawa strolls through his narrative with relaxed confidence, suggesting apocalyptic significances without assuring us that he has anything particular on his mind. Still, Future can be off-putting— neither of the two protagonists attempts to engage the camera, and more woe is expended on mourning Mamoru than considering his victims, leaving the transcendental flights of the jellyfish metaphor something less than dazzling. But Kurosawa is certainly not thinking in terms of bourgeois values or character empathy—in the 11th hour, his film diverts its gaze to an odd youth gang outfitted in starched white Che T-shirts rousing themselves from disillusioned torpor and, in a stirring traveling shot, hunting for relevance and confrontation in the streets. As a waving flag of anarchic will, it evokes the codas of Diary of a Chambermaid and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; as an ending, it leaves you speechless. (NR) MICHAEL ATKINSON
Opens Fri., Jan. 28, at Harvard Exit
Les Choristes, a comfortable tooth-rotter of a film about the sweet power of song, is as eager to be loved as Lassie, and as full of tricks. For those forever mewling that they just go to the movies to have a good time, this is the Golden Ticket; it certainly was in its native France, where it not only cleaned up at the box office but "made choral singing fashionable," even "winning over young people." (And who would doubt the word of the Federation of Petits Chanteurs?)
Heaven knows it's been cannily crafted by writer-director-composer Christophe Barratier, who sets his adaptation back in 1949, when the French countryside was full of prisonlike schools created to house the recent war's orphans and incorrigibles, all of which lends his film's sepia tones a patina of nostalgia. However, before we're allowed into the body of the story, there's a high-toned contemporary prologue, in which a conductor is visited by a former schoolmate who brings with him the diary of their boyhood choir master and inspiration, Clément Mathieu (the excellent Gérard Jugnot, veteran of 70 films). As the men reminisce, poof!—we are back to the glorious Auvergne of their youth.
If you know, going in, that the choral singing is just dandy but that this world has only: legendary conductors, battered diaries, rough childhoods, humble teachers, tyrannical principals, troubled boy sopranos, beautiful single mothers, soaring voices, and floppy eared orphans, are you still game? OK, you're on your own.
P.S. Devilishly handsome Jean-Baptiste Maunier, 13, did his own singing. (PG-13) SHEILA BENSON
Cowards Bend the Knee
Runs Fri., Jan. 28–Wed., Feb. 2, at Northwest Film Forum
The cinematic world of Canadian director Guy Maddin, though generally set in the past and filmed with silent-era conventions, is feverish with modern neuroses. For a melodrama with "knee" in the title, his 2003 Cowards is more peculiarly obsessed with hands, though breasts and penises are also amply on display. The most offending pair of mitts belong to Winnipeg Maroons hockey star Guy Maddin (actually played by Darcy Fehr), who impregnates and abandons his girlfriend, Veronica (Amy Stewart), then falls under the sexual spell of a mother-daughter team of hair stylists/abortionists—leading to many murders with his selfsame 10 fingers of shame.
Have I lost you so far? There's a surprising amount of lurid plot in only 64 minutes, which were originally exhibited at an art gallery as a series of six-minute peephole shorts like a nickelodeon. Each of the 10 chapters is more or less self-contained but always essentially mysterious. You can easily follow Cowards from A to Z (unlike some of Maddin's past works), but linearity isn't important to its meaning. Rather, the hockey star's initial transgression leads him into a fever dream of broken taboos. It's not enough that Veronica should die on the abortionist's table; her ghost then haunts him, returns to him sexually, then finally takes up with his own father. More symbolic incest is enacted as his new lover, Meta (Melissa Dionisio), convinces him to strangle her mother and her mother's lover (a hockey teammate and cop) with hands—bear with me now—transplanted from Meta's murdered father. "No hand shall touch me until my father is avenged!" she tells Maddin, who's maddened with desire to handle her mammaries.
Did I mention the hockey? Cowards is both winkingly and authentically Canadian in this regard. It begins with a microscopic view of sperm—which turns out to contain little hockey players seen in overhead view, as if in a petri dish. Teamwork and self-discipline are embedded in the DNA of a healthy Canadian, but selfish misconduct is foul and foreign indeed. That Meta is conspicuously Asian isn't nativist in this regard; she's a figure of '20s exotica and xenophobia, a dragon lady, a trope of the times—like Cowards' use of intertitles for dialogue, its iris shots, its degraded-looking film stock (actually Super-8), and its many instances of repeated action (you see the same thing twice in different shots, which produces a stuttering, shuddering effect, a "mistake" in modern film grammar that Maddin is deliberately highlighting here).
That hockey player Maddin should be "Wracked with guilt!" (per the intertitles) goes without saying. Yet the disjunction between neurosis and celluloid quotation marks turns out to be as artificial as the director's retro technique. Though nobody talked of Oedipal struggle or Freud in silent movies, they were all concurrent. It's only now, looking back, that Maddin is so effectively able to squish together text and subtext. Naming a character for himself and claiming Cowards is "a lovingly self-loathing peek at myself" takes cinematic self-analysis to a different level (albeit one possibly still tongue-in-check). Fortunately, local filmgoers will have the chance to directly ask about such self-referentiality, since Maddin will be attending screenings here prior to filming his next feature, The Brand Upon the Brain!, in Seattle. Will there be more hockey? Ask him yourself. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Runs Fri., Jan. 28–Thurs. Feb. 3, at Northwest Film Forum
A long, slow, and thoroughly uneventful Turkish version of The Odd Couple, the 2002 Distant pairs two irascible, unlikable bachelors in an Istanbul apartment. Its tenant proper is Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a tidy yuppie photographer employed by a tile factory. He's got every symptom of midlife malaise: loveless affair with a married woman; his own ex-wife happily remarried and about to emigrate to Canada; long, listless hours spent surfing the Web and TV; eating solitary dinners at the local cafe. For excitement, he attempts to snare a pesky mouse with glue traps; it's the only living creature capable of disrupting his chain-smoking and porno-tape watching. So clearly the guy needs a change in his life—right?
Not if that means country cousin Yusef (Emin Toprak), a slovenly, stolid peasant just globalized out of his factory assembly line. Vaguely intent on a shipping job and oblivious to Istanbul's disregard for such surplus labor, he's the kind of prole who'd join a revolutionary mob in a different kind of movie. But Distant hasn't got politics on its mind. Instead, it's the kind of study of urban anomie that thankfully went out of fashion in the West in the '70s. Mahmut's a borderline intellectual who at least has books and Bach on his shelves; his is an upscale funk like Memories of Underdevelopment. Poor Yusef can't even articulate his discontent; he just stares glumly at girls, only becoming animated when he purchases a child's toy for his niece.
Far from exotic, Istanbul is here a city of wind-strewn trash bags and mounds of dirty snow. Ships pass by in the Bosporus as if to remind the two men that their lives aren't going anywhere. Yusef wanders aimlessly on foot, Mahmut drives aimlessly (in a very cool Smart car), and we're left to wonder what writer-director-cinematographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan is aiming at. Apparently it's his car and his apartment that Mahmut uses, and actor Toprak is evidently his real-life cousin as well. Is Distant then supposed to be a cry for help, an existential cri de coeur? Sorry, but Antonioni and Kiarostami got there first.
Numbed into his routine, Mahmut and the entire movie would be easier to take if the film had some style or music. Idleness and languor can be compelling in the Hong Kong aethetic of Wong Kar-wai; here, they're just tedious. Out of prospects and patience, Yusef finally berates Mahmut, "This town has changed you!" Not enough. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
Runs Fri., Jan. 28–Thurs., Feb. 3, at Varsity
Taking exactly the wrongest, dullest approach to one of the great tabloid-celebrity stories of the '70s, this plodding documentary adds a few new interviews—none among figures who matter—to the 30-year-old tale of the heiress who went so spectacularly awry. Can you imagine if Paris Hilton joined Al Qaeda? That's about the impact the Hearst kidnapping would have today, yet there were only three networks in 1974 to cover the event. Best suited to the History Channel, Guerrilla chronologically traces the two-year rise and fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army, alternating between talking heads and period news clips. Apart from nostalgia for bell-bottoms, sideburns, and reel-to-reel tape decks, there's little to recommend here that Paul Schraeder's 1988 dramatization, Patty Hearst, didn't do much better. What's really missing (and it's unforgivable when commentary comes so cheap) are the reminders by writers, intellectuals, and observers of the day of exactly what the psychodrama—rebellious Catholic 19-year-old daughter, rich and uptight parents, Heart's slain SLA lover—meant for baby boomers of the era. Deliberately made an enigma by her contemporary silence in this account, the real Patty Hearst can better be understood as a historical symbol, not a figure of history. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
A Love Song for Bobby Long
Opens Fri., Jan. 28, at Metro
Was there ever a greater, more enjoyable Hollywood comeback than John Travolta's Pulp Fiction triumph? Sad to say, it now seems about as distant as Welcome Back, Kotter. These days you look forward to his new films more as an occasion for couch patter with Jay Leno—tell us more about your fabulous lifestyle, John, your airplanes, your beautiful wife . . . um, do we have to talk about the movie?
If you insist: Travolta plays a literature professor gone to seed in New Orleans, living in a derelict house with his protégé (a bland Gabriel Macht), a would-be novelist. Their landlord dies, which brings her 18-year-old daughter (Scarlett Johansson) up from Florida. Before she can evict the alcoholic deadbeats, they claim to have inherited two-thirds of the home, so naturally they all set up house together. What follows is a Southern Gothic spin on TV's My Two Dads, with considerably more smoking, drinking, and literary references. (Robert Frost, Jack London, and Carson McCullers are the touchstones here; the canon seems to have closed just after the advent of indoor plumbing and electricity.)
Time stands still in Love Song—very still. The story is essentially about procrastination, with molasses pacing to suit. Storywise, there's a lot of Spanish moss hanging on very little house. Macht plays the kind of novelist who tosses his typewritten manuscript pages in the fire rather than simply hitting the delete key on a computer. He drinks gin in pickle juice, while his mentor prefers mixing tomato juice and beer. Hair whitened, chain-smoking, and wearing a bathrobe for most of the picture, Travolta vainly tries to make Bobby an entertainingly full-blown eccentric, but he comes off more like that very annoying, very slovenly college roommate you could never trust with your car. Shambling around the house or cooing folk songs at a hobo encampment down by the levee, he says things like, "I am a professor, a troubadour, a poet!" without a hint of genuine madness or despair. Compared to Mickey Rourke in Barfly, he's a rank amateur—at the bar and behind the lectern. Johansson mainly preserves her dignity by keeping her mouth shut.
The net effect isn't a ridiculous Battlefield South, but then, maybe an attack from planet Psychlo would help the movie. What time is Leno on, anyway? (R) BRIAN MILLER
Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation
Runs Fri., Jan. 28–Thurs., Feb. 3, at Varsity
Who took the sick and twisted out of the Sick & Twisted? Apart from a few mildly naughty bits and some violence that wouldn't alarm Itchy and Scratchy, there's precious little to offend or amuse in this compilation of 25 animated shorts. By my count, only six are actually funny, and the rest tend to be the sort of Flash animation stuff you can easily dig up on the Internet. Maybe it's the long shadow of Pixar and The Incredibles, or the consistently witty offerings on the Cartoon Network, but one feels the bar of mainstream animation has been raised so high that alternative animation hasn't yet figured out how to respond. It's not enough to be the bratty kid at the back of the classroom, flinging boogers at the bright pupils up front—you've got to be smarter than them in different terms.
There are hints of that in the black-and-white line art of Crab Revolution or the pencil work of The Two Minute Itch, both refreshingly CG-free but containing absolutely nothing calculated to offend. Krazy Kock, an excerpt from Bill Plympton's planned feature Hair High, has a chicken mascot run amok at a football halftime show; humping the frightened marching band members and the scoreboard is funny enough, but it hardly stretches the boundaries or requires the medium of animation. (Billy Bob Thornton was funnier doing essentially the same thing in a Santa suit.) One effort, also hand-drawn, is Frog, which effectively reprises the old Road Runner-versus-Coyote dynamic of Warner Bros. 'toons as a poor amphibian is terrorized at a backyard suburban barbecue. You could safely show it to a 6-year-old without fear of sickness, twisting, or tears. But the kid would at least laugh, which ought to be the most important part of the S&T formula. (NR) BRIAN MILLER