Cult appeal

Jun 6, 2007 at 12:00 am

First Run Features

Critics have compared Diego Lerman's Suddenly to the work of Jim Jarmusch, and, like Stranger Than Paradise, it's a road movie involving a distant relative. It's also shot in grainy black and white and is so funny you forget to laugh. The humor here is dry as a desert, and the spartan plot is a mostly uninvolving chain of nonevents that somehow peters out in a poignant conclusion. Insecure and obese lingerie saleswoman Marcia, a character seemingly plucked from Todd Solondz' cruel cerebrum, is suddenly (hence the title) propositioned on the street by a pair of knife-wielding lesbians who say they aren't lesbians and who go by the names Mao and Lenin. (Aside from a throwaway line about the exploitation of workers, the socialist undercurrent ends there.) The exciting girls kidnap Marcia from her banal life, drive a stolen cab until it runs out of gas, then hitch their way to an aunt's house for a day or two of sex, jokes and ice cream. The First Run transfer captures the grainy resolution of Lerman's minimalist cinematography, but the sloppy subtitles have a fair amount of spelling mistakes. —John Thomason


The Kovak Box
First Look Pictures

Timothy Hutton is a fine, unaffected actor who hasn't been in a hit movie since Turk 182, more than 20 years ago. But he caught a break last year with The Good Shepherd. Now in his 40s, he's the perfect older driver for this, what seems like your standard Harrison Ford vehicle — a tale about a best-selling author whose life and career get interrupted when his lover is snatched from his midst. And in what would, in baser terms, seem like trading up, he loses his average-looking fiancee and hooks up with the luscious Lucia Jimenez, who is, by the way, having the same problem, kinda sorta. Although not a great film, it's a pretty good one; Hutton holds your interest as the reluctant hero in a manner that would do Hitchcock proud and it's a nice modern update of The Manchurian Candidate to see mass suicides triggered by a ringtone. Too bad it wasn't James Blunt. —Serene Dominic


El Topo
Anchor Bay

This Holy Grail of underground cinema is, after a decades-long legal stalemate, available for home viewing, individually and as part of the Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set.

The well-documented backstory of El Topo (The Mole) is almost unbelievable: brought to America by John Lennon, inventing the midnight-movie phenomenon and playing for a solid year in that time slot, only to be withdrawn from circulation for 30 years, along with Jodorowsky's follow-up, The Holy Mountain, by producer Allen Klein due to Jodorowsky's reneging on Klein's porno project, The Story of O.

This extended period of silver-screen limbo led, naturally, to a hefty amount of unwarranted mythologizing about this "lost masterpiece," heretofore circulated only in crummy bootlegs. Fans will be delighted at this gorgeous Anchor Bay transfer, but no matter how vibrant that red paint looks as it gushes from any and all of its characters' orifices, it can't help elevate this overhyped jumble of biblical allusions and hippie ethos from what it really is: a curious and pretentious bit of nostalgia that strains for relevance or even basic entertainment. Jodorowsky, as the movie's nomadic hero, El Topo, appears to be crazy, high or both, and in the Vietnam era, who can really blame him? But unless the viewer is one or both of these things also, this two-hour gaze into his mystical and twisted brain may approach torture.

Still, he shows mastery here and there, like in an opening tableau in which El Topo rides a horse through a postapocalyptic fever dream. A horse trotting through puddles of blood, a man impaled on a giant stake, a battle-scarred landscape strewn with corpses, bodies hung like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. Jodorowsky's repulsive visuals have an indelible pull at times like these, and they're impossible to forget. Another classic scene occurs moments later, when El Topo distracts some bad guys by throwing down a red balloon. So transfixed are the villains by the balloon as it slowly loses its helium, they don't notice the quick-drawing El Topo shooting them down, filmed as an experimental montage.

There's barely a plot, certainly not one that matters, even for champions of the movie. El Topo, the black-clad anti-hero, frees a woman from a dictator, and to win her over he has to defeat four master gunslingers. He appears to do so episodically, engaging in philosophical and metaphysical (and, subtextually, theological) discourse each time. Then he supposedly dies, until he turns up later, in the film's turgid second half, as a monk.

Like his contemporaries Sam Peckinpah and Dusan Makavejev, Jodorowsky was at the height of hip formal innovation at the time of this breakthrough film, and by stripping the Western of its moral hero mythology, he laid the scorched template for many revisionist Westerns to come. I get that. But he also gave us a movie so of its time — filled with bare breasts and penises, scandalous scenes of guys kissing guys and gals kissing gals, rape, old-time religion, flagellation and self-immolation as a mirror to Vietnam — that the ostentatious importance he attaches to his spelled-out surrealism comes off today as a dated counterculture goulash long hyped as art by a blank generation desperate for something different. —John Thomason


Shirley Valentine
Paramount Pictures

Shirley Bradshaw (Pauline Collins) used to be Shirley Valentine — before she got married, had kids and monotony squelched her inner rebel. When she's not talking to the wall (literally), she's waxing philosophically on when she lost sight of her dreams. Her only friend Jane wins a magazine contest and takes Shirley on vacation in Greece, thus leaving her scowling husband behind. Jane ditches Shirley for some guy before they even reach the Hellenic Republic.

Shirley's extramarital solo adventures — including a fleeting romance with a Greek restaurant owner — lead to a journey of self-discovery that has her questioning her life in England.

Collins' golden performance lifts 1989's Shirley Valentine — she did the role onstage too — whether it's tossing off sparkly one-liners or conveying disappointment through countenance in many of the subtler moments.

Collins draws you in even if you can't relate to Shirley's predicament. It's also takes guts and candor to do two nude scenes, which are handled with grace and naturalism.

At first glance, Shirley Valentine seems like a simple but witty yarn about a daft middle-aged British hausfrau. What emerges is a worthy observational film about buying into the myths of marriage and the compromises of "happily ever after." Hardly a neo-feminist manifesto, Shirley Valentine whimsically skewers the trappings of marriage and family. Along with her laundry list of regrets and broken dreams, Shirley's a mirror image of all those exasperated yet smiley-faced wives we saw on '80s TV like Growing Pains and Family Ties. Now if only Maggie Seaver (Joanna Kerns) got a chance to bare it all we'd understand why Richard "Boner" Stabone earned his name. —Paul Knoll

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