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By Ealasaid Haas

Aah, the art house cinema. Host to a wild variety of films, the art house caters to the eclectic filmmaker. You may know exactly what you'll get if you go to the nearby multiplex, but the art house can surprise you again and again.

The current batch of films showing at the art houses near me is a good example of this.

Center of the World

Center of the World, which I was assigned by my (now somewhat repentant) Film Criticism professor, is in many ways a stereotypical art house film. It follows the relationship between Richard (Peter Sarsgaard), a millionaire computer geek, and Florence (Molly Parker), a stripper.

Richard asks Florence to go with him to Las Vegas for three days, and when he promises to pay her $10,000 and to abide by her conditions she agrees. Unsurprisingly, Richard's difficulty with social interaction and Florence's use of her sexuality as a way to distance herself from her clients result in misunderstanding and emotional wreckage.

The problem with Center of the World is that its characters are nowhere near developed enough to make the pretentious and cliched script believable. We learn so little about Florence and Richard's pasts that we have no clue as to why they are acting the way they are. Why is Florence so afraid of intimacy? Why is Richard such a loser when it comes to girls? The only answers we get are that Florence is a stripper and Richard is a successful computer geek. Neither of them is anything more than a walking stereotype.

The film's title referrs is a reference to the different ways each of the main characters sees the world. Richard describes being online at a computer as being at the center of the world, while Florence says in another scene that a woman's reproductive system is the center of the world. Although the contrast has potential, and could have led to an interesting examination of the differences between the way Richard and Florence (and by extension, men and women) look at life, it does not. Center of the World raises potentially intriguing points and then abandons them. Ultimately, there is no point. And as graphic as the sex is, the careful filming prevents any full nudity, and robs the film of a potential success as a work of pornography.

One Night at McCool's

One Night at McCool's, on the other hand, succeeds in its aims. Showing at both multiplexes and art houses, it follows the intertwining stories of three men who met and fell in love with the same woman one night at a bar named McCool's.

Randy (Matt Dillon) was the bartender there, and saved Jewel (Liv Tyler) from an apparent rape. She rewards him with a very impressive roll in the hay and before long is moved in and redecorating. Randy's cousin Carl (Paul Reiser) was also at the bar that night, and witnessed the rescue, but was too drunk to do anything about it. He is, however, instantly infatuated with Jewel, and is soon finding excuses to see her.

Finally, there is Detective Dehling (John Goodman), who is assigned to investigate a murder that happens that night in the bar. He sees Jewel as a saintly woman involved with a scumbag, and instantly devotes himself to protecting and helping her.

Each man's story is told partially in flashback, Dehling's to his priest, Carl's to a shrink, and Randy's to a hitman he's hiring (Michael Douglas, in top form), and part of the humor comes from the differences in each man's account. Randy's and Dehling's in particular are practically poles apart, with Randy seeing Dehling as a bumbling but potentially menacing cop and Dehling seeing Randy as an abusive slimebag. Plus, of course, there are the reactions of each man's listener to the tale. Douglas in particular is brilliant, voicing the sarcastic comments most of the audience is thinking.

Although neither the acting nor the script are particularly ambitious or impressive, both come together very well to produce a film which is highly entertaining and a great deal of fun. Although the ending is in some ways very startling, its over-the-top nature is the perfect culmination of the increasingly unlikely events in the overlapping stories.


Then there is Memento, a film which is both extremely ambitious and very entertaining. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is hunting for the man who raped and murdered his wife. This fairly straightforward mission is almost impossible for him, though, because he has no short term memory. During the attack on his wife, Leonard was hit over the head, and his brain was damaged. He can remember everything up until that moment, but everything since fades, and he can only remember things for a few minutes at a time.

He works around his disability by carrying a polaroid camera and a pen everywhere, and making obsessive notes. When he meets someone, he takes their picture and writes their name and a note or two on the photo. When he has something particularly important to remember, he tattoos it on his body.

To put the audience in Leonard's frame of mind, the story is told backwards. Each scene ends where the previous scene began, with a slight overlap to allow the audience to match things up. As a result, when Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) appear, we know no more about them than Leonard does.

I expected the film to feel like an episode of "Columbo" where we know who dun it and just have to see how Leonard figures it out, but writer-director Christopher Nolan has managed to make this mystery amazingly suspenseful. As the story unfolds (or is that, as the story folds?), the suspense builds and a new mystery crops up: who can Leonard trust?

Although Memento is not perfect, it comes remarkably close. Pearce, who was such a convincing goody-two-shoes in LA Confidential and a perfect queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, gives an amazing performance, showing us Leonard's amazing internal strength and the blindness that comes with his obsession. Matrix alumni Moss and Pantoliano are very good as well, bringing across both the differences and the similarities in the how their characters react to Leonard's disability.

Memento is a wonderful movie to see with a group - you can spend hours afterward discussing what actually happened.

The Luzhin Defence

In closing, I'd like to look at The Luzhin Defence, which is getting surprisingly varied reviews. Based on The Defence by Vladimir Nabakov (probably best known for his oft-adapted book Lolita), it follows the doomed romance between Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) and Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson). Luzhin has returned to a remote hotel in Italy to once again compete for the title of World Champion in a chess tournament. The last time he was there, he was twelve, and came in third. Now he is older, and likely to win.

While there, he meets Natalia, a fellow Russian vacationing with her mother. Luzhin falls instantly in love, while Natalia is fascinated by his eccentricities and passion for the game. Unsurprisingly, her parents don't approve of Luzhin, whose wild looks and social incoherence don't quite meet up to the goals they had in mind for their only child's marriage. Natalia won't listen, of course, and soon she and Luzhin are engaged, and he is mixing the best of both his obsessions, spending long afternoons with Natalia and playing the best chess of his life.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Russian literature that there is a fly in the proverbial ointment: Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), Luzhin's former mentor, is now working with Luzhin's chief rival, and he will stop at nothing to see Luzhin defeated at the board.

The tale is beautifully told. Director Marleen Gorris draws marvellous performances out of the entire cast, Turturro and Watson in particular. Their wonderfully subtle chemistry and delicately shaded portrayals are a joy in and of themselves. The elegance and plotting that surround the story draw beautiful parallels between chess and society.

It is unfortunate that, like most Russian authors, Nabakov is unable to allow his characters to live happily ever after. The vulnerability of genius and the evil of which humanity is capable are two of the central themes of the film. Viewers who are looking for Romance, Passion and Tragedy (with Capital Letters!) will love The Luzhin Defence, as will moviegoers looking for a stunningly well-made film. Those looking for light entertainment would be much better off with One Night at McCool's.