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MAY 1, 2000: 

Winter Sleepers

Having varied the same kinetic thriller three times in 80 minutes in Run, Lola, Run, German director Tom Tykwer probably figured he had a little extra time to kill in his next feature. The result, Winter Sleepers, doesn't have Lola's showy efficiency, and it meanders in its dreamy two hours. The question you're left with is not how he did it but what it means.

Sleepers is the name of a bar in a snowy German village from which a drunken René (Ulrich Matthes) stumbles as he heads home. Along the way he passes a sports car whose door is ajar because its owner, Marco (Heino Perch), was in such haste to get inside and make love with his girlfriend, Rebecca (Floriane Daniel). René steals the car and drives Theo (Josef Bierbichler) off the road. The accident puts Theo's young daughter in hospital, where she's treated by Rebecca's roommate Laura (Marie-Lou Sellem), a nurse who has trouble remembering her lines as Blanche in an amateur production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Theo, meanwhile, cannot forget the radiant, snake-like scar he saw just before losing consciousness.

That's just the beginning; the rest follows like the house that Jack built by way of Kieslowski, though without the former's logic or the latter's elegance. Tykwer nonetheless knows how to show the interplay of memory, time, and destiny, even if his telling details sometimes get muddled by broad strokes. As in Lola, this film's strength is as much character as technique; these sleepers will keep you up. -- Peter Keough


16 Decisions & Dirt

Cambridge's Gayle Ferraro traveled to rural Bangladesh for her first video documentary, where she focused on a group of impoverished women who have been the beneficiaries of an enlightened loan program through Bangladesh's Grameen Bank. Each woman gets $60 to start up a business, and that meager money is apparently enough to spin her life around: financially, spiritually, and in terms of finding she actually has a voice. Ferraro also interviewed Dr. Muhammed Yunus, the former college professor who formed the Grameen Bank and is responsible for millions of dollars in loans to those whom regular banks (think Fleet!) would turn away. The Grameen also strives to steer its poor and uneducated customers toward a radically altered lifestyle, encouraging them to adopt a girl-scout-like "16 decisions" for a better existence, everything from vowing to boil water and build pit latrines to speaking out against dowries and child marriages.

In her voiceover, Ferraro notes that any kind of exercise besides sitting and standing is an unheard-of stretch for these women -- which helps explain why 16 Decisions is such a static watch. Still, it's hard to understand why the well-intentioned videomaker didn't shoot some of her women at their exciting new employments, with a Grameen Bank loan in hand. Also, she should have spent more time shooting her chief subject, a woman named Selina, on the most liberated day of Selina's pained, semi-slave life: going shopping with Ferraro at a town five miles down the road.

16 Decisions is paired with "DIRT: The Next Generation," a bouncy video short made locally, and collectively, by four teenagers who are part of the DIRT crew of 60, youth employees of the Lincoln-based Food Project. Each year, this group grow 80,000 pounds of organic vegetables and distribute the goods to homeless persons. This little video shows inner-city teenagers toiling in the fields, learning ecology and good citizenry as they work each Saturday for 42 weeks a year. Cool. -- Gerald Peary


Where the Heart Is

Like Blanche du Bois, Novalee Nation (Natalie Portman in her most complex role to date) depends on the kindness of strangers. After being ditched at a Wal-Mart by her trailer-trash boyfriend, the literally barefoot and pregnant 17-year-old lives in the superstore until she gives birth to a girl she names Americus. A small-town librarian takes her to the hospital, the nurse befriends her, and a woman who mistakes Novalee for someone else welcomes her and the baby into her home.

Based too strictly on the novel by Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is can't seem to find a rhythm. So many characters wander in and out of the story (the estranged mother, the repentant boyfriend, etc.) that none of them -- with the exception of Ashley Judd's devilishly funny mother of five (with another always on the way) -- has the chance to develop. I never understood why the well-read, college-educated librarian falls for the practically illiterate Novalee, or why her conscience-free boyfriend suddenly decides to hunt her down to apologize. Even baby Americus becomes just another prop. For a movie that claims to know where the heart is, Matt Williams's debut still needs to find the soul. -- Jumana Farouky


U-571

Submarines and movies were made for each other, or so I thought at the age of nine when I first saw The Enemy Below. In retrospect that still seems true, even though the most recent example is as generic as its title. The 1957 classic distilled conflict to its essence: sub and destroyer, microcosms of their societies, engage in a duel revealing the souls of the combatants. All that Jonathan Mostow's jury-rigged vehicle reveals is the creative poverty of modern studios.

The story deserved better. An American sub crew board a Nazi U-boat, seizing a machine that will break the Reich's secret military code -- the tantalizingly named Enigma. When their own vessel is destroyed, the Americans are forced to head for home in the enemy boat, unable to radio for help because to do so would reveal to the Germans that their code has been compromised.

Thus trapped in U-571, might not the American crew learn what connects them to and separates them from the enemy? Perhaps, had they any identity of their own. Instead, Matthew MacConaghey puts in a performance that is as rote as his commands, leading a nondescript bunch named Chief, Rabbit and Trigger through overproduced clichés. Even Harvey Keitel is boring. The only enigma about U-571 is what ever happened to decent genre movies. -- Peter Keough


The Last September

Filmmakers looking for a novelist with whom to replace the depleted stores of Jane Austen, Henry James, and E.M. Forster could do worse than Elizabeth Bowen: her handful of novels are brilliantly bedimmed and whimsically subversive jewels of 20th-century romantic disillusionment. Neither would it be hard to improve on this adaptation of Bowen's 1929 novel The Last September. Directed by first-timer Deborah Warner from a screenplay by the novelist John Banville, the film compresses the witty tragedy of vanity crushed by the forces of history and social mediocrity into a picturesque, pat, and pointless episode of Masterpiece Theatre.

Those enjoying the fine weather at the estate of Sir Richard (Michael Gambon) and Myra (Maggie Smith) Naylor in County Cork in 1920 take little notice of the ongoing Irish Rebellion. Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the Naylors note the inconvenience but appreciate the presence of the British military, whose officers provide suitable dancing partners for their 19-year-old, fancy-free niece, Lois Farquar (Keeley Hawes). One of those, Captain Colthurst (David Tennant), has the misfortune to fall in love with her. And Lois herself has the bad taste to renew acquaintances with childhood pal Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), a feral Fenian hiding out at the old local mill.

The literally bodice-ripping details of the meetings between Lois and Peter are among the filmmakers' more regrettable inventions. Sometimes September approaches the magic of the original: the eerie image of a man carrying a gramophone across a tennis lawn at dusk, or the play of headlights over distant trees as army lorries patrol for terrorists. And Fiona Shaw as Marda Norton, a late visiting guest, adds a note of arch elegance. But it's too little too late -- for the most part, the mercurial precision of Bowen's prose translates into a green and gold murk, as if shot through the rust and algae of a stagnant fountain. -- Peter Keough


Gossip

From director Davis Guggenheim (ER, Party of Five, NYPD Blue) comes a thriller that begs the question: if a rumor about date rape is started on a nameless campus in a generic Northeast metropolis by shiftless students bucking for an A in Journalism 101, does anyone care? Well, I didn't either, until I read it as a titillating alternate history for one Alex Kelly, the real-life fugitive who spent eight years skiing in Switzerland while dodging rape charges in Darien, Connecticut. What if Kelly never left but instead attended the same college as one of his victims? What if he were, uh, reinvented as a sociopathic trust-fund brat from, oh, Danbury named Derrick (Disturbing Behavior's James Marsden) who lives with two arty roommates (Lena Heady and 8mm's Norman Reedus) in an enormous loft stocked with top-shelf booze? Derrick sees a prissy deb getting pawed by her drunken jock boyfriend one night at a rave in the meat-packing district (implausible, but it looks really cool) and the gossip mongering begins. Hey, all in the name of academic underachievement.

This glossy morsel of Nouveau Brat Pack treacle boasts dreamy art direction and a tingly score by Graeme Revell (The Craft, The Crow) to go with its predictable, heavy-handed screenplay. Marsden is impressive as Derrick: slippery, charming and way too rich for his own good. He even resembles Kelly in an eerie, doppelgänger-kinda way . . . but don't take my word for it. -- Peg Aloi


Frequency

Some films should be chopped up into guitar picks. A more appropriate fate for Frequency would be to get re-edited into a series of commercials. It wouldn't take much. Both pretentious and barbarically dopy, the film is a worshipful display of a few things that mean America: a Mets T-shirt, a Coke bottle, a pack of Doublemint gum, a series of nurse killings. The premise is that in 1969, NYC fireman Dennis Quaid contacts his son (Jim Caviezel) 30 years in the future by ham radio. The son tips off his father on how to avoid his death in a burning warehouse, but their meddling with fate accidentally prolongs a serial killer's reign of terror. Now dad and son must keep rewriting history in order to keep mom (Elizabeth Mitchell) from falling victim to the killer.

So solemn is director Gregory Hoblit in pursuing to its limit the fantasy of restoring the nuclear family that he misses every opportunity to make a real movie. Quaid and Caviezel take the incredible in stride; the film gets in none of the sense of discovery and adventure that might have made the time-tunnel concept fun. Calling the infantile Americana of Frequency sub-Capra would be an insult to Penny Marshall. -- Chris Fujiwara


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