Film Openings

Week of May 8, 2002

Beijing Bicycle. Wang Xiaoshuai. Wang Xiaoshuai, one of China's brash new crop of urban filmmakers, weaves a complex tapestry of contemporary Beijing life the likes of which we Westerners have never seen. Using Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist masterpiece The Bicycle Thief as inspiration and armature, this deceptively simple tale of two boys wrangling over a disputed bicycle becomes a richly metaphorical look at China's uneasy drift into free-market economics, the vast country's new urge toward wealth and the dangerous no-man's land between new personal freedoms and old communist repressions. Wang steps lightly (the censors are always watching), but there's no mistaking his purpose: In his teeming Beijing, a bicycle is never just a bicycle, and no desire is merely individual. Shot in the mean streets of a great and compelling city, here's a fascinating vision of societal upheaval that would likely awe De Sica himself. Opens May 10 at the Plaza Frontenac. (BG)

Chelsea Walls. Ethan Hawke. In the course of what may be one long day or several decades, we eavesdrop on the thoughts and actions of a group of denizens of New York's famed Chelsea Hotel -- home to countless writers and artists, from Dylan Thomas to Sid Vicious and beyond. Among those we meet are two musicians (Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn), a waitress/wannabe-poet (Uma Thurman) and, most centrally, a writer (Kris Kristofferson), who tries to finish his latest book while bedding down two beautiful women (Natasha Richardson and Tuesday Weld) and coming on to Thurman. Ethan Hawke, in his feature directorial debut, seems to be attempting to capture the spirit of bohemian New York, both in subject and in style. That is, he tosses out all such usual narrative elements like structure, forward motion, plot and single-character point of view, but fails to provide any other attractions to compensate. He alternates dialogue-heavy encounters between pairs of characters with drifting montages accompanied by overlapping "poetic" monologues that seem to be the characters' thoughts. But the characters are mostly ciphers, and the few that aren't are simply dull. Chelsea Walls -- with virtually no interesting elements for an audience to focus on -- is a triple-espresso endurance challenge. Opens May 10 at the Chase Park Plaza. (AK)

Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. Michael Haneke. Writer/director Haneke's haunting vignettes grab moments from the complex lives of five individuals who cross paths briefly one day in Paris. Aspiring actress Anne (Juliette Binoche) appears in several frightening scenes being shot for a film and disconcerting ones in her own life; her war-photographer boyfriend, Georges, returns from Kosovo; his younger brother Jean resents working on the family's dairy farm and flees. When Jean callously throws a wadded bag into the lap of Maria, an illegal Romanian immigrant who sits begging, a French-African teacher of the deaf, Amadou, confronts Jean. The bitter consequences for Marie and Amadou speak volumes about prejudice, and other fragmented scenes expose painful miscommunication and pervasive tension. Haneke's unusual style complements his themes: very long tracking shots, extended takes from a distance with no camera movement, characters walking into and out of a stationary frame, well-chosen music (especially the drumming in the concluding scenes), and few but powerful close-ups. Imaginative and fascinating, Code Unknown presents unforgettable, evocative episodes with the sum greater than the parts. In French with English subtitles. Plays at 8 p.m. May 10-12 at Webster University. (DC)

Enigma. Michael Apted. Opens May 10 at the Hi-Pointe. Reviewed this issue.

The New Guy. Ed Decter. A dodgy variation on a soporific theme: Put-upon geek (played by DJ Qualls, not funny) is constantly getting harassed at high school, winds up in prison, falls under the sway of a mentoring con (Eddie Griffin, never funny) and comes out of the joint a hipped-up dork still quivering beneath his faux-tough-guy exterior. He ditches his old pals -- including Almost Famous' Zooey Deschanel -- and winds up wowing the kids at his new school, including the head cheerleader (Eliza Dushku), who has her own dork secrets to keep buried. In all, Pygmalion with acne, as if, featuring cameos by Gene Simmons, Tony Hawk, Henry Rollins, Vanilla Ice and Lyle Lovett, who suffers the ignominy of sporting a mouthful of braces and taking a flaming marshmallow to the eye. But rather than labor over The New Guy's copious flaws, instead savor the venality and cynicism that allow a film like this to get greenlit in the first place. From the ironically named Revolution Studios, who brought you America's Sweethearts and Tomcats. Opens May 10 at multiple locations. (RW)

Scratch. Doug Pray. Opens May 10 at the Tivoli. Reviewed this issue.

Unfaithful. Adrian Lyne. To the woman who broke director Lyne's heart all those years ago: Stop what you're doing right this minute. Drop everything and call him. Apologize profusely for cheating on him. Tell him it's all your fault and you're a worse person for leaving him. Just help him get over it so he can quit lecturing us on film about how cheating on your spouse is bad. There's nothing interesting in Unfaithful whatsoever. Here's the gist: Constance (Diane Lane) cheats on hubby Edward (Richard Gere) with hunky French smoker Paul (Olivier Martinez), and Edward figures things out and gets upset. This takes two hours, which feels like four or more. Even those looking to catch a few Diane Lane tit shots will be so exhausted by the endless nothingness between each one that it won't be worth it. It's allegedly a remake of Claude Chabrol's 1968 La Femme Infidele, but in fact Unfaithful is yet another threadbare variation on the Adrian Lyne adultery template (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, etc). Opens May 10 at multiple locations. (LYT)

World Traveler. Bart Freundlich. Written and directed by Freundlich, this project deserves commendation for its psychological cogency and compassion, but it loses significant points for its lazy story and complacent delivery. Basically, we have a mannish boy named Cal (Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) who's a modestly successful New York architect but decides to beat the retreat in search of meaning. Apart from perks like some very pretty coast-to-coast scenery and a near-constant assault of Willie Nelson balladry with assists from Tom Waits and America, World Traveler sustains itself through its fragmented episodes, which feel pretty much like intriguing outtakes from Sam Shepard's early plays. The story is easy to relate to, but with its obvious conclusion it's a road movie in which the road itself is optional at best. (GW)

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