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This bungled-crime drama marks the directorial debut of Negotiator screenwriter James DeMonaco, and though it received a microscopic theatrical release, it's better than the majority of 2009 films that opened on hundreds of screens. Surprisingly original characters, ambitious tracking shots and elegant compositions color this portrait of a city and the sad islanders on its unseemly fringes. The stories of three desperate characters — Vincent d'Onofrio's small-time mobster turned environmental activist, Ethan Hawke's dimwitted septic tank cleaner and Seymour Cassell's deaf-mute gambler and deli slicer — intersect in what increasingly plays out like an urban fairy tale. The devil is in the details, be it the way Hawke can never seem to remove the occupational dirt from his fingernails, the way d'Onofrio's nervous blinking suggests his lack of confidence in the Mafia biz, and the way we experience the world from Cassell's subjective viewpoint, as a series of ominous vibrations. Intense performances all around in a sleeper that, with any luck, will gain the audience it deserves on DVD. —John Thomason
Chantal Akerman in the Seventies
Belgian director Chantal Akerman is a master of filming inaction — and making that inaction not only watchable but compelling. It's telling that a 1996 book analyzing Akerman's work is titled Nothing Happens. For those accustomed to Hollywood pacing, hers can be frustrating for this very reason. Akerman's most notorious movie, Jeanne Dielman, is a scathing, 200-minute expose of a housewife's dehumanizing daily grind, followed by about one minute of action that is shocking in its violence, its urgency and its feminist provocation. A staggering achievement despite of — or, more likely because of — its plotlessness, Jeanne Dielman was, for years, one of those unattainable masterpieces circulating only on turbulent bootlegs until Criterion released an official DVD last year.
Jeanne Dielman is still the best Akerman starting place, but if you want to delve deeper, Chantal Akerman in the Seventies, released on Criterion's stripped-down Eclipse series, provides a fascinating look at a budding auteur in the years surrounding that mammoth three-and-a-half-hour achievement.
Three of the five films in this collection take place in New York, where Akerman lived for some time in the early '70s, ensnared in the underground/experimental cinema zeitgeist. The earliest two are both silent films shot in hotel interiors: The 12-minute La Chambre finds Akerman's camera panning across a room like a pendulum while the director munches on an apple. Its companion piece, Hotel Monterey is an hour-long study of the titular, dilapidated building. Without a musical score, an hour is, admittedly, a long time to stare at nearly vacant hallways, stairwells and bathrooms, which tend to lull the viewer into a soporific state — there isn't even a camera dolly until 42 minutes in. Still, Akerman's moving still life has its share of fascinating quirks, chiefly the way the hotel's elevators resemble submarine windows in one shot and science-fiction portals in another.
The film also plays with our perception of space — a frequent Akerman obsession — and how that perception changes when a room's furniture is reorganized. It's a theme she revisits in 1975's voyeuristic Je Tu Il Elle, a movie as much about geometry as storytelling. Its first half finds an unnamed character, played by Akerman herself, rearranging furniture in her austere ground-floor apartment, ritually devouring spoonfuls of sugar from a paper bag, spreading a series of esoteric letters across the floor, walking around nude and narrating contradictory nonsense. All of this leads to Akerman's character embarking on two sexual trysts, one with an onerous truck driver and the other with an ex-girlfriend, both sufficiently de-eroticized as to dispel pornographic pleasure.
If La Chambre, Hotel Monterey and Je Tu Il Elle are Akerman's demo tapes, then 1976's News From Home is her debut album. The last of the New York films, News From Home is Akerman at her most minimalist and experimental, but also her most interesting. The movie's simply a procession of exterior shots of New York City and the subway system, over which we hear a series of letters written by Akerman's mother while her daughter was away in the city. The personal letters are juxtaposed with the impersonal images, and because the only sense of a story we get is that of a one-way conversation, we feel Akerman's absence rather than her presence. As the once-strong desire her mother conveys in seeing Chantal again soon eventually leads to hopeless resignation, we get the impression her daughter is slipping away, disconnected by time, space, distance.
The final, and longest, feature here is 1978's Rendezvous-d'Anna. Many of Akerman's films are variations on the same themes of repetition and loneliness, and this one's a perfect crystallization of them. The title character is an Akerman surrogate played by Aurore Clement, a shiftless filmmaker drifting through Germany, Belgium and France and engaging a number of sad sacks with stories to share, from an old friend to a one-night-stand to her mother. Full of subtle insight into the crushing banality of the everyday, Rendezvous d'Anna is vintage Akerman, a sterling follow-up to Jeanne Dielman that deserves the same patience and dedication. Unlike some of the characters Akerman writes, her movies are not easy. —John Thomason
The Simpsons Season 20
Twentieth Century Fox
The Simpsons celebrates its 20th anniversary with its first batch of HD episodes on its inaugural Blu-ray set. All 21 episodes from the 2008-09 season are on these four discs, including a funny Da Vinci Code spoof. Plus, Homer and Ned become bounty hunters. —Michael Gallucci
No wonder director Duncan Jones nails his debut movie about a psychological space odyssey: His old man, David Bowie, sang about the same subject 40 years ago. Sam Rockwell plays an astronaut at the end of a three-year space mission, where his only companion is a talking computer. It's like a cool mash-up of 2001, Silent Running and Major Tom. —Michael Gallucci