The Art of War

So you have been warned. What Malick has fashioned here is less a conventional narrative than an impressionistic mosaic of our common, yet varied experience of life and death, as focused and clarified through the relentless lens of war. Yes, The Thin Red Line has thrilling battle scenes; just don't expect the usual pace of an action film. Yes, it has significant thematic content at its core; just don't expect the usual clean resolution of these ideas. And, yes, it allows us to identify with the characters' inner lives; just don't expect any reassuring neatness or catharsis as each (with us in tow) meets his apparently random fate.

Opens Jan. 15.
-- Andy Klein

Directed by Nicholas Barker

An acidly funny group portrait of four lonely, self-deluded New Yorkers looking for love through the personals, Unmade Beds exploits and empathizes, abuses and exalts, distorts and clarifies. Although technically a documentary, the film presents such a highly mediated view of its subjects -- images refracted through the sharp lens of director Nicholas Barker -- that they become fact-based fictional creations: characters carefully shaped as much as persons closely observed.

To find Unmade Beds' quartet of singles seeking same, Barker and his staff interviewed hundreds of potential subjects; after the choices were narrowed to the final four, he taped and observed his characters/actors/subjects, identifying key revelatory moments and rewriting them as a series of monologues and dialogues that the cast members then perform. In essence, the subjects play themselves -- largely speaking their own words and relating their real-life experiences -- but they sacrifice the crucial element of self-control: In making the four act under his direction rather than simply live their lives, Barker denies them volition and ruthlessly strips them of all the usual protective covering we typically use to hide from both others and ourselves. The irony of Unmade Beds is that in telling a kind of lie -- the director calls the film "an exercise in mendacity" -- Barker reveals far more truth than most conventional "honest" documentaries.

Barker's lacerating editorial wit and unsparing critical eye elicit discomfiting laughter throughout much of Unmade Beds, and there's an undeniable element of cruelty in the film's presentation. In choosing his subjects, Barker clearly sought outsized, quirky personalities -- performers with the requisite glibness and egotism -- but because he didn't want any of his singles to become couples during the year's shoot, he also looked for an off-putting air of desperation or abrasiveness: Unkindly put, these folks are losers, although of wildly varying types.

The film divides its time between two men -- Michael De Stephano, an intense, humorlessly self-deprecating 40-year-old who believes he owes his bachelorhood to his short stature, and middle-aged Mikey Russo, a gruff, laconic would-be screenwriter who dresses like a Scorsese wise guy -- and two women -- Aimee Copp, a young, savvy but overweight professional grimly determined to marry before she's 30, and Brenda Monte, a buxom, hilariously forthright divorcee who's on the hunt for a man with money ("dick" she can get, but cash is harder to come by). Unmade Beds, however, never allows us to dismiss its characters as merely pathetic or contemptible: Although Barker gleefully shares his subjects' uglier traits and views -- De Stephano's homophobia, Russo's misogyny ("I don't date mutts"), Copp's self-pity, Monte's highly compromised ethics -- he constantly undercuts our first (and second and third) impressions by providing a fresh perspective, by softening a hard edge, by opening emotional veins and letting these people messily bleed. Even Mikey, the least likable of the movie's characters -- a paunchy former Lothario with an appalling bachelor pad and unfairly high standards for women -- is eventually revealed as a vulnerable figure, his macho bravado masking a longing for a deeper, more substantive relationship that he understands is now likely beyond his reach.

Further ensuring that we acknowledge a sympathetic kinship with -- rather than a smug superiority to -- Unmade Beds' protagonists, Barker uses peeping-Tom views of 20 anonymous people as interstitial material. These voyeuristic peeks through windows give us the occasional titillating glimpse of skin, some moments of intimacy, but most of what we see is mundane -- people ironing, changing the bed sheets, watching television. It's the basic stuff of life, not of grand romantic dreams, and the implication is that such activities connect us all: We may have a more (or less) satisfying love life than the movie's forlorn foursome, but we all go through the same motions, experience the same essential isolation. Unmade Beds may provoke its share of laughter, but it's at all of our expense.

Opens Jan. 15 at the Tivoli.
-- Cliff Froehlich

Directed by Anthony Drazan

Because it revealed the coke-snorting, ego-fueled corruption of Hollywood in the early 1980s with such acid wit, David Rabe's play Hurlyburly became a huge audience hit when it burst onto Broadway in 1984. Here was the inside stuff from the Left Coast, gotten up in a frenetic new language combining movie-industry salesmanship, New Age gibberish and locker-room bravado. Not since Gloria Swanson imprisoned William Holden on Sunset Boulevard (1950) had we gotten such a dark vision of Hollywood's underside.

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