Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day

The road to bad films is often paved with good hype. None so much as those coming out of that promised land called Sundance (as in the film festival). Just as the fashion biz infuses the nebulous concept of "street" with strategic cachet, the entertainment world loves to use the swashbuckling image of the "independent" as a hedge against viewer cynicism toward the big studios and to rustle up some enthusiasm for the Next Big Thing charging out of oblivion. Which the studios, of course, have already co-opted with gifts of postproduction and distribution help.

It's sad to report that director Christopher Münch didn't make the cut. And how could he with material like this, hardly a Pulp Fiction. Münch has conjured up the misadventure of one John Lee, a young Chinese-American, mindful of his ancestors' legacy laboring to lay railroads, who decides to buy a small line running through Yosemite National Park. The year is 1946 and America is in the first blush of its postwar infatuation with the automobile. The iron horse is being sent out to pasture. Lee desperately wants to give it one more run around the track.

Lee (Peter Alexander) is doomed to his quixotic dream, and not just by a sense of obligation to his ancestors. He is also a man at the loose ends of circumstance. His family life is a joyless, slightly creepy routine of flirtations with his sister Wendy (Diana Larkin) and scoldings from his shutdown daddy (David Chung), disappointed that his son is fixated on trains rather than the family business. Münch is obviously projecting a bit of the '90's hipster fetish for self-absorption and calculated sexual ambiguity into his characters, leaving the cast, including precious geek Michael Stipe of R.E.M. fame, no choice but to deliver their lines with a laconic stiffness that fast becomes insufferable. No wonder the press kit tries to put out the spin that Münch has achieved a "dazed, displaced eroticism" reminiscent of that dominatrix of patience, Marguerite Duras.

Not quite. Worn down by Münch's pretenses, the viewer goes looking for subtext and finds it in the magnificent black-and-white images of cinematographer Rob Sweeney. In the city, he gives us fantastic period-era moods and ambiences -- America on the rise, prosperous in dollars if not in psychic health. And then we get out of town where the repression of the characters finds a bracing opposite in the landscape's wide-open beauty. Ansel Adams would be green with envy at some of Sweeney's silvery vistas of Yosemite.

Alas, these visual tone poems are too often drowned out by the stilted, overwritten blather of the script or the terminally "mystic" music of Satie. Beautiful to look at, boring to watch, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day comes off as Tucker for the coffeehouse set. Put that in your beret and smoke it.

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