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He needs a nap: Bale in The Machinist.

The Downward Spiral
By Ann Morrow

The Machinist
Directed by Brad Anderson

Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a sick man. Early in The Machinist, he stares into the mirror as if noticing for the first time how freakish he looks; his collarbones jut out from his emaciated chest, and his eye sockets, exposed to the bone by lack of flesh, resemble those of a rotting jack-o’-lantern. “Jesus,” he murmurs to himself in alarm. He tells Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a call girl and his only friend, that he hasn’t slept in a year, and it’s not much of an exaggeration. He doesn’t eat, either, and records his plummeting weight with Post-It notes. The latest is marked “123.” “If you were any thinner,” says Stevie, “you wouldn’t exist.”

Directed by Brad Anderson, whose debut, Next Stop, Wonderland, established him as a major new talent, The Machinist is a powerful, often painful psychological mystery in the mode of the novels of Dostoyevsky. Alone in his apartment, Trevor reads The Idiot, or tries to, since he is driven by a compulsive energy that has him scouring the bathroom floor with a toothbrush in the middle of the night. By day, he works in a machine shop, easily distracted and startled because of his run-down condition. His blithe refusal to acknowledge that anything is wrong is terrifying; he operates dangerous machinery while in a daze. He coworkers grow hostile to him; they’re unnerved by his appearance, and assume that he’s shooting drugs, putting them all at risk.

Bale lost more than 60 pounds for the role, a frightening amount that detracts from rather than adds to the film; Trevor’s disturbing appearance evokes the Holocaust more than the physical symptoms of repression taken to extremes. And viewers may find themselves preoccupied by whether the actor caused himself any permanent damage. But gradually, as Trevor distinguishes himself as a person, we realize that he’s suffering from trauma rather than a bizarre mental or physical illness, and he earns our sympathy. Trevor’s interactions with Stevie, and with Maria (Aitano Sánchez Gijón), a beautiful, compassionate waitress he visits almost every night, show him to be intelligent, sensitive, and possessed of a dry sense of humor. Bale’s harrowing, deeply invested performance is one of the best of the year (although it’s hoped that he won’t win an Oscar for it—self-destruction for one’s art shouldn’t be encouraged).

The superbly rendered atmosphere, set in a grim, industrial city of working-class haunts and bleak apartment buildings, mirrors Trevor’s disintegration. He is paranoid and delusional, and his day-to-day actions take on a nightmarish cast. When he takes Maria’s young son on an amusement-park ride called the Highway to Hell, its schlocky horrors seem to mock his own tormented imaginings. The film’s relentless chill is alleviated by the (beautifully rendered) tenderness between Trevor and Stevie, who take refuge in one another.

A terrible accident at work makes it harder for Trevor to keep his demons at bay, and a menacing stranger (John Sharian) named Ivan (as are many of Dostoyevsky’s protagonists) shows up to dog his steps. Ivan might be Stevie’s “psycho ex,” or he might be a hallucination. What is certain is that he is one of those characters whose cryptic taunts contain the truth that will unlock the past. The script, by Scott Kosar (who penned the recent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) is deceptively masterful, and its every frisson of horror relates seamlessly to Trevor’s inexorable descent. Unflinching to a nearly grotesque degree, The Machinist is redeemed by a profound psychological authenticity that’s not easily shaken off.

Love in Hell

Rosenstrasse
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta

The filmmakers felt it necessary to begin Rosenstrasse with a title card assuring the audience that the main event portrayed in the film, a protest on Berlin’s Rosenstrasse (Rosen Street) in 1943, actually happened. And why not? Who knew that half of the Jews left in Germany at this time were in Berlin? How many are aware that Nazi law had protected the lives—if not the property, professions and status—of Jewish spouses until 1943? The idea that, in the middle of World War II, a group of Aryan women would hold a long vigil to save their Jewish husbands from a trip to Auschwitz seems fantastic. Yet, it’s true.

The film begins in contemporary Manhattan, with Ruth (Jutta Lampe) insisting on Orthodox mourning for her late husband, much to the surprise and dismay of her 30-something, Jewish-in-name-only children. As often happens when an extended family gets together, long-buried secrets are revealed—including a photograph of Ruth as a child (Svea Lohde) with a beautiful, unidentified blonde woman. Ruth’s daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) is intrigued, and when mom won’t explain the picture, daughter is off to Berlin looking for answers.

With a tip from a cousin and help from a Holocaust information bureau, Hannah finds the woman in the picture, Lena (Doris Schade). Now 90 years old, Lena tells the story of Rosenstrasse: how the women came home one night to find their husbands gone; how they went from one vicious Nazi functionary to another searching, until finding them locked up at a former synagogue on Rosenstrasse, awaiting deportation; and the long, tense confrontation between the increasingly angry women and the not-entirely-unsympathetic guards.

It’s a powerful story told with an admirable emotional straightforwardness. Director Margarethe von Trotta shifts the action back and forth through time seamlessly, deftly using the full widescreen image to tell the stories of a host of characters without ever letting things get confusing.

The main focus, of course, is on the younger Lena (Katja Riemann), her husband Fabian (Martin Feifel) and young Ruth. Riemann and Feifel are riveting as a couple who preserve, touchingly, their humanity under extreme duress. Their relationship is used as a window on a diseased society; they represent sanity in a world gone, well, mad.

It can be argued that the framing device—the Jewish family in modern New York—is a distraction from the heart of the action. Removing this part of the story, however, would also simplify some of the thorny, not-easily-answered questions raised by the filmmakers. And when it comes to dealing with the Holocaust on film, simpler is never better.

—Shawn Stone

Diminishing Returns

Ocean’s Twelve
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

When Steven Soderbergh re-
made the Rat Pack flick Ocean’s Eleven, one might have easily wondered why. It seemed as pointless as making a movie out of something equally stupid, like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch. But then Soderbergh’s movie, starring the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, was, well, really a lot better than the original, so it seemed as if the point had, in fact, been to prove that one could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That movie was sparkling and fun, rife with the spirit of camaraderie characteristic of the best caper movies.

Now the question would seem, why in the world—other than the obvious dollar signs—did Soderbergh et al get involved with Ocean’s Twelve? It is one of the worst sequels I’ve ever had to sit through. This time around, the gang, lead by Danny Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), have to come up with the gazillions they stole from Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Seems that even though Benedict didn’t really lose anything (what with having had a foolproof insurance plan to cover what Danny’s gang stole), he’s a stickler for principle—and so gives his robbers two weeks or else. Out of this comes much global crisscrossing, a race against a competing thief, and, for Rusty, a reunion with Isabel (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a detective who once came dangerously close to putting the kibosh on his life of crime.

Zeta-Jones is the only breath of fresh air in this stale contraption. Combining a cunning intelligence with outrageous sex appeal, she’s clearly having a grand time; and when she’s on screen, the audience at least pays attention to what suffices as a plot. The double-crosses mount up, and some of the gang are arrested. It looks as if Terry will win out, but not before Linus (Matt Damon), the crook with the baby face and the fierce desire to be, well, Danny or Rusty, concocts a plan to have Danny’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts) help out by pretending to be
. . . Julia Roberts. The actress, who was pregnant with twins while filming, doesn’t have nearly enough to do. She looks haggard and wan, as if Roberts, too, is wondering why she got involved in this mess.

Screenwriter George Nolfi somehow manages two or three good moments, which utilize the immense charm and charisma of the too-little-seen Clooney and his costars. One such scene takes place at a train station, where Danny frets that Turk (Scott Caan) and Virgil (Casey Affleck) think he looks 50. Meanwhile, Linus tries to penetrate the facade of the delightfully impenetrable Rusty. For the most part, however, Ocean’s Twelve is like a Vanity Fair special issue, designed to have us mere mortals fawning over the sheer beauty, wit and coolness of its godlike stars. And like a Vanity Fair special issue, it leaves us hungry for something much more substantial.

—Laura Leon


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