A very curious and eclectic piece of workfresh even when it’s awkwardthat’s built around an unsolved mystery, like Picnic at Hanging Rock. Adapted from a Jeffrey Eugenides novel by director Sofia Coppola, and set in small-town Michigan a quarter of a century ago, it focuses on five teenage sisters as perceived by some of their male classmates; James Woods and Kathleen Turner play the girls’ parents and Giovanni Ribisi narrates. With Kirsten Dunst, Hanna R. Hall, Chelsea Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Josh Hartnett, Danny DeVito, and Scott Glenn. 96 min. (JR)
If you assumed, as I did, that this feature by Tom Tykwer (1997, 122 min.) followed his monstrously successful and seemingly less personal Run Lola Run, you’d be wrong. An odd, ambitious melodrama about two couples who share an Alpine villa in scenic Berchtesgaden, this is very much a rural film, and though it’s every bit as striking visually and self-consciously contrived in terms of storytelling as Lola, it’s a lot likelier to leave you querulous. A translator (Floriane Daniel) becomes involved with a ski instructor (Heino Ferch) and her housemate, a nurse (Marie-Lou Sellem) who becomes involved with a film projectionist (Ulrich Matthes); there’s also a local farmer (Josef Bierbichler) whose daughter is critically injured in a car accident in the film’s opening moments. None of these characters is standard issue, and Tykwer works overtime with his ‘Scope framing, elaborate color coding, and metaphysical thematics to make their interactions seem significant, and at times erotic as well. I can’t yet decide whether the film works or not, but it certainly held me for its full two hours. (JR)
Alan Berliner’s essayistic documentary (1996) about his crotchety father, his relationship with him, and family memories in general is a wonderful piece of work that’s every bit as entertaining, thoughtful, and distinctive as Intimate Stranger (1992), Berliner’s earlier feature about his maternal grandfather. This long-overdue Chicago premiere is well worth checking out. St. Xavier Univ. McGuire Hall, 3700 W. 103rd St., Friday and Saturday, March 17 and 18, 7:00, 773-298-3193.
Try to imagine a noncomic remake of Dr. Strangelove in which the title hero becomes the voice of reason; hold that thought and imagine a remake of the gulf war in which Saddam Hussein’s son invades Kuwait and the acting U.S. president (Kevin Pollak) threatens to drop a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. You’ve still only got the beginnings of what makes this stagy thriller, set in a snowbound roadside diner, so repellent. According to Rod Lurie, the onetime film critic who wrote and directed this, nuking Baghdad may be questionable because the site was once the Garden of Eden, but not because people happen to live there; it even becomes a brilliant strategic macho move if the victims are incapable of retaliating. The fact that this movie functions reasonably well as a suspense thriller only makes it more vile, as do such ideological escape clauses as the black woman who acts as the president’s top adviser and the redneck who shows his true class colors by calling Iraqis sand niggers. Foreigners who argue that Americans are Neanderthal savages can point to this movie as persuasive evidence. With Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Sean Astin. (JR)
I’ve never been much of a Julia Roberts fan, but I have to admit that director Steven Soderbergh coaxes a very lively performance out of her in this docudrama, which intermittently reminds me of Silkwood (1983). Roberts plays a young divorced mother and former beauty queen who rounds up 600 plaintiffs to sue the power company that’s been contaminating the water. The script by Susannah Grant is standard-issue liberal feel-good fodder that in former decades might have been directed by Martin Ritt; Soderbergh deals with it respectfully and effectively without ever transcending its generic limitations. With Albert Finney as the heroine’s boss and Aaron Eckhart as her biker lover. 130 min. (JR)