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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

and the sleepers of summer

Since summer blockbusters draw all the attention, the good small films that will arrive in Japan over the next two months need all the help they can get.

Chelsea Walls

Downtown chic is the appeal of Ethan Hawke's directing debut, which is set in New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel. Every creative discipline is represented in the dozen subplots that Hawke interweaves with considerable skill, though, granted, one's appreciation of the stories depends on how sympathetic one is to people without day jobs lingering in filthy apartments and suffering over their art. The estimable cast includes Uma Thurman, Natasha Richardson and Tuesday Weld. Standout sufferers include Kris Kristofferson as an alcoholic novelist and Vincent D'Onofrio as a sad, incoherent action painter.

Plus: Jeff Tweedy's melancholic score
Minus: Robert Sean Leonard's version of Tweedy's "The Lonely 1"
Opens late July

Dogtown & Z-Boys

A more direct study of a different sort of demimonde, Stacy Peralta's documentary is about the early '70s Santa Monica skateboarding craze. Since Peralta himself was a "Z-boy," one of the dozen or so disaffected kids who hung around the Zephyr surf shop that formed the center of the scene, the movie sometimes comes off as self-congratulatory. But it's first-rate anthropology; cut like a Nike commercial, it's as fast and slick as the subject itself.

Plus: Old footage of Pacific Ocean Park
Minus: Middle-aged men speaking '70s surfer dialect
Opens July 20

Forever Mine

When the European company that bankrolled Paul Schrader's latest went under, the movie was immediately sold to cable TV, which means Japan may be the only place in the world where you can see it on the big screen. Joseph Fiennes plays a cabana boy who falls in ove with the young wife (Gretchen Mol) of a New York politico (Ray Liotta) when the couple are on vacation in Miami. He follows her back north, and the husband tries to have him killed, but he escapes. Fourteen years later he returns, still in love and bent on revenge. Old-fashioned in its adherence to a plot fueled completely by romantic fission, Schrader's ode to obsessive love is bracing pulp, as irresistibly sensual as it is dramatically contrived.

Plus: Joseph Fiennes finally gets a role worthy of his purplish acting style.
Minus: Occasional borderline Harlequin Romance dialogue
Opens Aug. 17

Dinner Rush

This indie hit, made by TV-commercial director Bob Giraldi, also boasts a transparently movie-ish plot, but the setting -- an Italian restaurant in the trendy Tribeca neighborhood of lower Manhattan -- gives it a loose, hip feel. The parade of expertly sketched downtown types lends the movie its Altmanesque atmosphere and smartens a conventional revenge tale involving the restaurant's world-weary owner (Danny Aiello, excellent), his nouvelle-cuisine-cooking son, a gambling-addicted sous-chef and a pair of small-time gangsters who want a piece of the business.

Plus: Mark Margolis as the rudest diner in the world
Minus: Sandra Bernhard's wig
Opens early August

Donnie Darko

When Richard Kelly's ambitious indie debut opened in the U.S. last autumn, some critics found it bold and original, while others thought it unnecessarily dark. The film's eponymous suburban adolescent (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been diagnosed with clinical schizophrenia, a judgment that the movie doesn't fully buy. Donnie's "fantasies," which include a 2-meter monster rabbit named Frank and the conviction that the world will end the day before Halloween 1988, are presented as fact, at least within the dual world circumscribed by the movie. It's a thoughtful exploration of youthful anomie, but it's also one of the most visually arresting movies of recent memory. A future cult fave, for sure.

Plus: A suburban white family that isn't dysfunctional and isn't treated as a bunch of freaks
Minus: Patrick Swayze's rather obvious self-help guru

Opens late August

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