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Living in Oblivion
By Shawn Stone

Time Out
Directed by Laurent Cantet

This impressive film, a compelling psychological portrait of a recently unemployed French businessman adrift, doesn’t waste any time fooling the audience. When we first meet Vincent (Aurelian Recoing), he is sitting in a public park, on a cell phone, lying to his wife Muriel (Karin Viard) about the strenuous day he has had meeting clients. We’ve seen his day: sleeping in the car, snacking on junk food, reading the newspaper, and driving. As he later admits, Vincent seems happiest when driving, smoking and singing along with songs on the radio.

We’re intrigued from the first. Is Vincent a schemer or a slacker, or is he mentally ill? It’s a question that haunts everything that happens to him.

Big complications ensue when Vincent suggests to his wife that he might take a job in Switzerland. She tells his parents, who promptly make the false information public. Vincent is then forced to go to Geneva, where he begins to construct a new false identity as a U.N. economic-development specialist. Lying leads to more lying, of course, as he needs to feed his family. He gets involved in numerous schemes of varying legality to raise cash, and finds it harder and harder to keep his multiple facades intact.

The filmmakers achieve a startling naturalism with an old technique, the use of nonprofessional performers. In fact, the two leads, Recoing and Viard, are the only card-carrying actors in the cast. When suave crook Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), one of the more sympathetic figures to cross Vincent’s path, pulls out his scrapbook of crimes, those are reformed criminal Livrozet’s own clippings. (Livrozet is a real scene stealer; when Jean-Michel poses as a U.N. employee, Vincent’s carefully researched charade pales in comparison to this charismatic, confident fake.)

Director Laurent Cantet’s subtlety and skill are amazing. The film is consistently creepy, as Vincent aimlessly (but cheerfully) travels through an anonymous landscape of superhighways, characterless apartment blocks, faceless office towers, and budget motels. His lone romantic idyll with his wife is even tinged with a feeling of isolation. The compositions take their cue from Vincent’s mental and emotional state, emphasizing division and separation.

As Vincent’s parallel worlds go off course and begin to collide, the pained desperation in his eyes grows more poignant. Every moment of peace is precious to him, as the avenues of escape are closed off one by one. The ending is shocking in its banality, and finality. Recoing makes Vincent’s pain and worn bravado both tragic and frightening, as the profoundly misunderstood cubicle refugee meets his fate.


Fit for a King: Lilo & Stitch.

Extended Family Values

Lilo & Stitch
Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

Don’t be surprised if the little ones in your life suddenly start singing “Hound Dog” and wearing their collars up and hair slicked forward after seeing Lilo & Stitch, which celebrates the King as a mentor figure. In a weird way, it works, and is just one of the many things that contribute to making this an ideal summer family movie.

In this movie, the exotic isn’t so much outer space (although there is some of that) as Hawaii, depicted in lush, Crayola colors that somehow soothe the senses without making one fall asleep. Lilo (Daveigh Chase) is a little native girl with big issues: Her parents are dead, she’s being raised less-than-successfully by her hardworking sister Nani (Tia Carrere), and she just doesn’t fit in with the other girls at hula class.

Writers-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois do a neat job of subtly conveying that it isn’t so much Lilo’s ethnicity that sets her apart as as it is the circumstances of her fractured family life. A refreshing surprise is that Lilo isn’t all sunshine and sweetness; she’s a little brat, too often when social worker Cobra Bubbles (Ving Rhames) is visiting. Bubbles gives Nani three days to straighten out the family act, or Lilo will be placed in foster care. Not the best time, then, for Lilo to adopt “puppy” Stitch (Chris Sanders), aka Experiment 626 and a fugitive from intergalactic justice. Along with the new pet, Lilo and Nani unwittingly adopt Stitch’s bounty hunters, Jumba (David Ogden Stiers), the Russian-accented mad scientist who created 626, and Pleakley (Kevin McDonald), an expert in interplanetary law and environmental science. An interesting aside: Jumba’s and Pleakley’s planet believes that Earth, what with all that water and humankind, is a nature preserve for mosquitoes, so no humans can be injured or killed in their plan to arrest 626/Stitch.

The movie focuses mostly on the tenuous friendship that develops between lonely Lilo and anarchic Stitch, and this is portrayed with a minimum of cuteness and aw-shucksness. Remember, both of these creatures can be big trouble, so combined, watch out! But, of course, Lilo “tenderizes” Stitch, who had been programmed by Jumba for mass destruction, and the plot pivots around the idea of family, specifically, fashioning one out of next to nothing. As her part in convincing Bubbles that she should stay with Nani, Lilo attempts to teach Stitch the finer points of humankind, using Elvis Presley as an example. This leads to comical scenes of Stitch hip thrusting and singing, not to mention wearing a white jumpsuit, but the humor is laced with warmth. Looking at Lilo’s late-’50s-era poster of a tanned and lei-adorned Elvis, who wouldn’t think he exemplified the kind of healthy, successful aura that Lilo and Nani are so desperately missing? Of course this little orphaned girl would look to somebody like Elvis as a sort of guardian angel/father figure. Lilo & Stitch plays with this idea without making it maudlin or psychotic.

With characters like Lilo and Stitch, there are, of course, crashes and chases, but these are integrated as part of the story, not cinematic candy for kids of all ages with IQs in the double digits. Technically, when compared to movies like the underappreciated Jimmy Neutron and the overrated Monsters, Inc., Lilo and Stitch is decidedly old- fashioned, what with its hand-drawn animation. But its attention to detail and character make it far more compelling to audiences. My kids almost always enjoy the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen, but I can tell when that’s all there is to it, when the movie was momentarily exciting but not something they will mull over and want to see again. Lilo & Stitch, like Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life, delivered that extra something, reaching into their hearts and captivated their minds. If that’s not something special, I don’t know what is.

—Laura Leon

Dark Crystal

The Salton Sea
Directed by D.J. Caruso

Danny Parker (Val Kilmer) isn’t quite sure who he is anymore, and he isn’t about to find out—seeing how his boarding room is in flames, and he’s slumped against the wall bleeding, playing his trumpet for solace while large-denomination bills fly about in the updraft. Not all that long ago, he was a jazz musician named Tom Van Allen.

The opening sequence to the noirish thriller The Salton Sea, with its dying protagonist conceding defeat with gallows humor and belated self-examination, is a familiar one from decades of boozy, pulpy detective novels and the movies made from them. The audience is instantly ensnared by the protagonist’s bizarre situation, as well as the dank poetry of his voice-over narration (Danny wonders allusively if he’s the Prince of Denmark).

Replace boozy with druggy, and you’ve got some idea of the strung-out tension of director D.J. Caruso’s big-screen debut, sharply written by Tony Gayton. The Salton Sea uses the standard device of a murdered wife to send Danny nosediving (literally) into the depths of L.A.’s speed-freak subculture, but the film quickly diverges from noir conventions with a satirical, documentary-style primer on methamphetamine—or crystal meth—that brings us up to the minute. Speed freaks, apparently, are now called tweakers. We meet Danny’s tweaker friends holed up in bungalow at the end of a three-day (or is it four?) binge that is conjured with a razor’s edge of comic exaggeration. When Danny and Jimmy the Finn (Peter Sarsgaard) open the door to leave, raw sunlight pours in accompanied by what sounds like the roar of a conflagration. Both men scramble for their sunglasses with the urgency of a heart-attack victim grabbing at a bottle of nitroglycerin.

The film’s harrowingly entertaining tone and episodic narrative often recall a superior drug-addict movie, Jesus’ Son, based on the novel by Denis Johnson, and it’s a sure bet that Gayton has at least a passing acquaintance with Johnson, and William Burroughs, too. When Danny plays the trumpet in his squalid room and dreams of his wife, we’re not sure if he’s hallucinating or flashing back. But despite the punk-junkie tattoos and leather clothes, Danny is older and wiser, and therefore more accessible, than the naive nihilists who usually inhabit these hellish downward spirals. Kilmer, who career-wise has been on downward trajectory of his own, scrapes the bottom of his talent and surfaces with a sympathetic, almost poignant performance.

Danny may be the lowest life-form in L.A.’s druggie food chain—he snitches on his connections to a couple of badass narcs (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison)—but he does have a shred of common sense, and more than a little compassion, especially for his alluring and abused neighbor, Colette (Deborah Kara Unger). Like most onscreen addicts, he desperately seeks redemption even while trawling for oblivion. Which is where the film-noir plot comes in: Danny—or Tom—believes that he became an addict in order to track down his wife’s killer. The Salton Sea shifts gears when Danny and Jimmy drive across the sun-baked desert to arrange a big score with a dealer called Pooh Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio). Pooh’s nickname refers to his prosthetic nose; his real one was burned away by meth. D’Onofrio, who after The Cell can be considered the Olivier of psychopaths, creates one of his most skin-crawling sickos yet: a roly-poly good ol’ boy who can scare the piss out of a prospective client just by eating a breakfast of scrambled mystery meat.

There’s also the matter of the Mexicali drug cartel, who don’t like snitches; a reappearing car with a license plate that says “Forgiv”; and Danny’s speed-induced paranoia, all of which the film ties together with the purposefulness of a noose. Danny’s odyssey may be a downer, but the audience will leave on a high.

—Ann Morrow

Clear and Future Danger

Minority Report
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Imagine a world in which murder can be prevented before it occurs. No, this isn’t the plot of the latest anti- terrorist movie (or FBI memorandum), but the premise of Minority Report, the eagerly anticipated collaboration between the two aging golden boys of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise.

Cruise is John Anderton, head of an experimental “Precrime” police unit in Washington, D.C. Briefly, there are three human mutants, or “precogs” (as in precognition), who have visions of murders that have not yet been committed. They convey this information to the police, who then arrest the perpetrators-to-be. Neat and tidy, until the day when the precogs, who exist in a dark tank wired up to a network of computers, name Anderton as a future killer. Then Anderton must run, and sort through Byzantine plots and counterplots involving a smarmy federal prosecutor (Colin Farrell), the aging founder of Precrime (Max von Sydow), and the most gifted of the precogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton).

The action is fast, and the film has three chase sequences that put anything in recent Hollywood films (including the latest Star Wars installment) to shame. The film looks terrific too, cool and dark with nary a warm color in sight. The design is seamless and impressive. It’s a bloodless future, from the pasty precogs in their amniotic soup to the aqua and metallic neon glow of the city at night. Cold and off-putting, this design works wonderfully for the story’s purposes. The soulnessness can even be inspiring, as with the big, clear screen on which the cops view the precog’s visions. Cruise’s Anderton radiates machismo and artistry as he arranges and rearranges the images with fingertip sensors, like a symphony conductor.

Spielberg notably consulted a panel of futurists on our lives 50 years from now. Futurists are wonderful folks to consult for fiction, which is where most of their grandiose pipe dreams will remain, but at least they’re adept at dreaming up believable gadgets. From electronic newspapers with constantly updating text, to robot “spiders” employed by the cops to identify dozens of people within a few minutes, the film is packed with them. The important aspect of this, however, is the wit and imagination with which Spielberg integrates them into the film, without letting the gimmicks get in the way of the dystopian vision.

It truly is a terrible world in which to live, and everyone seems to have adapted easily, even happily to it. Eye recognition technology at every corner, allowing each person to be tracked at all times? Fine. Arrest people before they’ve done anything wrong? No problem. Anything in the name of security is all right.

Minority Report is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, but the cinematic sci-fi precedents are numerous. The ruthlessly efficient law-enforcement system based on a questionable faith suggests Logan’s Run; the dystopian vision of a society saturated with advertising echoes Blade Runner (itself based on a novel by Dick). The vast subterranean space serving as a jail looks like the interrogation chamber in Brazil. As for the color scheme, there have been few films this drained of earth tones since Tron or the original Star Wars. This isn’t really a criticism, just an observation on one of the side effects of the ubiquity and popularity of science fiction. The future seems like a theme park we’ve visited over and over again.

—S.S.


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