American Splendor opens with a disheveled preteen boy trying to trick-or-treat. When asked by the candy-apple dame at the door who he's supposed to be, the boy tells her he's Harvey... Harvey Pekar (pronounced pee-car). The other kids laugh and call him a pecker. Young Harvey throws down his bag, stomps off and mutters to himself, "Why does everybody have to be so stupid?" This question sticks with Harvey throughout his melancholic life. It works as a sub-theme for this innovative, wry, smart, and sad film drawn from Pekar's long-running, autobiographical comic book series, American Splendor (where his personal stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb and others). American Splendor paints a brutal dramatization of the commonplace, with Harvey's likable yet poetically neurotic worldview at the core. Although the ending alludes to a sympathetic validation of a creative mind trapped in a mundane existence, I doubt seriously that audiences will cheer when it's over. (John Dooley)
Eight years ago, a film crew followed a boatload of Cuban refugees as they fled their home country for greener pastures. Last year, the crew caught up with the refugees to see how well their dreams have fared. Balseros kicks off the Film Center's Human Rights Festival. (Phil Busse)
* Buffalo Soldiers
Based on Robert O'Connor's novel, the film chronicles the rising fall of Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix), a Berlin-based Army file clerk who delights in selling everything from Mr. Clean to bathtub meth to his numbed compatriots, all directly under the radar of his dunderheaded commander (Ed Harris). Stakes are raised with the simultaneous arrival of some illicit heavy artillery and a granite-nosed new sergeant (Scott Glenn) determined to best Elwood by any means necessary. (Andrew Wright)
Cabin Fever See review this issue.
The California Trilogy
Director James Benning focuses on California's Central Valley, Los Angeles, and the California wilderness taking 35 two -and-a-half-minute shots that show the conflict between beauty and industry. Pretty damn arty.
* Dead or Alive
Takashi Miike produces a total assault on the senses. Within the first six minutes you've fallen victim to gay bathroom sex, gluttonous consumption of noodle bowls, murder, a 16-foot line of cocaine, and combed-up mullets on motorcycles. The bestiality scene is perhaps the most memorable, and those that follow offer such memorable lines as, "They love my cock. Sorry it's so small. It's genetics." The adventurous should look forward to 104 minutes of head-scratching, brow-furrowing violence. (Corianton Hale)
Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star
If Saturday Night Live has taught us anything, it's that there's a fine line between "comedy" and "beating a dead horse into the ground, picking its pulp-like carcass back up, and finely filleting the remains." Wait, did I say fine line? I meant GAPING CANYON. Deeply grating SNL alum David Spade explores this expanse with his latest--a fairly self-explanatory one note, sustained for an hour and a half.
* The Hairdresser's Husband
Kicking off their beret-tipping salute to director Patrice Leconte, the Film Center screens the steamy story of Antoine, a (dirty) old man who has had a fixation with buxom hairdressers since a boyhood brush with... well... his first trim. Nearing the end of his life, he finds his lifelong dream, only to have the fantasy turn inside out and smack him on the head. (Phil Busse)
When a middle-aged woman's husband disappears, she forms an unlikely alliance with a (hot Mexican!) young man and an old political radical. As a triumvirate, the three bop around fiddling with money filled suitcases and anonymous phone calls. The complications of the plot are sometimes tiresome, because the relationships between the characters are interesting enough without all the hubbub. This is definitely similar in style to other recent Mexican films like Y Tú Mama Tambien and Amores Perros, except not as tight. Still, the acting is quality and the characters are intriguing enough to make it overall worthwhile, just not staggeringly good. (Marjorie Skinner)
* Masked and Anonymous
Set in a mythic future America ravaged by revolutionary war, Masked concerns the planning and execution of a benefit concert headlined by the mysterious musical elder Jack Fate (Bob Dylan). Featuring a cast of characters--from carnival barkers and minstrel dandies to dark ladies and prodigal sons--who might've wandered off side two of Highway 61 Revisited, portrayed by a cast of actors--Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Angela Bassett, Jeff Bridges--who might've wandered out of an Altman film. It's as an inspired continuation of Dylan's cryptic myth that Masked and Anonymous scores its biggest points. As a movie, it's a mess (albeit one with a knockout cast and some admirably big ideas). But as a cinematic rendering of the Bob Dylan experience, it's a beguiling, frequently intoxicating artifact. (David Schmader)
Matchstick Men See review this issue.
What happens when two unconnected stories about voyeurism are stuck in a head-on collision course? Like Rear Window, Monsieur Hire centers around an apartment complex. In one apartment, a quiet loner listens to Brahms and watches his beautiful neighbor during the night. Unknown to him, she is watching back and playing him for a fool. Meanwhile, a suspected killer has fled the crime scene going straight into the same apartment complex. The police begin watching the watchers and the whole movie bounces back on itself like a room full of mirrors. Directed by Patrice Leconte.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico See review this issue.
passionada See review this issue.
* The Secret Lives of Dentists
The laughing gas gets turned way up when a dentist (Scott) suspects his wife of having an affair and his maniacally misogynist patient (Leary) encourages him to drill down to the root of the problem. Based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief.
A biography of Karen Silkwood, a mom and union organizer who goes up against the chemical company Kerr-McGee to protect the health of workers and consumers. Directed by Mike Nichols, starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell.
* So Close
Directed by Corey Yuen, the martial arts coordinator for several of Jet Li's Hollywood films (Lethal Weapon 4, The One), So Close is Hong Kong's response to The Matrix. The Matrix appropriated Hong Kong's action choreography; So Close reappropriates The Matrix's look: its global aesthetic of corporate towers and slick information systems that are used or abused by men and women in black power suits. The film concerns a pair of assassins (Zhao Wei and Shu Qi) in the service of a ruthless software corporation. The assassins are also sisters, and their father was a brilliant scientist who developed a technology that, if it were real, would have been the dream device for Homeland Security: a total visual awareness system. For reasons not made clear, this technology was to make the world a better place; for reasons that are made clear, the scientist is murdered for his invention. The dead scientist's daughters become assassins in search of revenge. The kung fu scenes involving the slim and nimble women are very entertaining, and the slow motion bullet thing (first used in 1985's Trancer, and immortalized by The Matrix) is taken to a new level. Though its tricks and motion effects are now absorbed by Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema still produces the best action films. (Charles Mudede)
Space is the Place
Come to this Friday night Bicycle Drive-In Benefit for Caroline Buchalter, survivor of the SE Belmont bike accident. See review this issue.
* Step into Liquid
Step into Liquid is directed by Dana Brown, the son of Bruce Brown, who's best known for The Endless Summer. Liquid is a sequel of sorts, focusing on a myriad of obsessive wave-riders and what makes them tick. Brown features a charismatic cast of daredevils and oddballs; though big wave rider Laird Hamilton exhibits steely-eyed nerve while navigating monster-sized swells, Liquid isn't just about tanned surfer gods. There's also an older group of fun-seekers tackling the two-foot waves of Lake Michigan, and a Texas trio who surf the wakes of oil tankers. However, cinematography makes or breaks a surf flick, and Liquid certainly delivers. Shot from inside, overhead, and underneath the waves, viewers get a visceral sense of their thundering power. (Wm. Steven Humphrey)
Older people tend to address this film in an alarmist tone, while the younger set thinks it's crappy. (Except for the excellent tight jeans, slit shirts, and hoop earrings.) It tackles a lot of very real issues about maturity, but it takes on too much at once, to no effect. The lead protagonist is a smart, well-behaved child--until the hottest, brassiest, most popular girl in school criticizes her socks. Then it's like she slipped on a banana peel and became the embodiment of parental paranoia: Drugs! Tongue piercings! Boys! Shoplifting! (Marjorie Skinner)