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Barnyard, Brothers of the Head, The Night Listener and more

Wednesday, Aug 2 2006
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 GO  GABRIELLE Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Return” is sure to divide audiences into admirers of Chéreau’s lyrically bleak vision (he made the beautiful 1998 movie Those Who Love Me Will Take the Train and the very silly Intimacy in 2001) and cranks irritated by a surfeit of style and talk. For those of us uneasily positioned somewhere in between, Gabrielle, a quietly insidious tale of domestic warfare that makes the protagonists of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage look like pussycats, will exasperate and satisfy in roughly equal measure. Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert are magnificent as the battling Belle Époque couple whose arid but convenient union falls apart when he comes home to find a note saying she’s left him for another man — and not just any other man, but an employee he despises. Don’t expect Madame Bovary, still less Anna Karenina: She’s back within hours, and then the gloves really come off with the quiet hostility perfected, at least in les French films, by the haute bourgeoisie. Chéreau doesn’t want us rooting for anyone in this deadly face-off; he wants us to take in the ebb and flow of disappointed love and hatred in a marriage fatally warped by the need to possess and the absence of sexual connection. I couldn’t stop watching, but came away spiritually drained. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Ella Taylor)

MARRIAGE, IRANIAN STYLE The title of Hassan Fathi’s Marriage, Iranian Style promises nothing more than the sort of broad, semifarcical romantic and family comedy that has increasingly been the only type of Iranian cinema available on Los Angeles screens. Part the veil, though, and Fathi’s film emerges as a frequently charming tale of the obstacle-ridden courtship — and marriage — of David (Daniel Holmes), an American computer techie, and Shirin (Shila Khodadad), the daughter of a wealthy, tradition-bound rug merchant. It isn’t every day that the process of an American assimilating into an Islamic family (complete with circumcision and religious conversion) is depicted in an Iranian movie, thus reversing the standard image of modern, hip youth in Iran’s cities indulging in all things Western. To be sure, Fathi’s and screenwriter Minoo Farshchi’s own Western interests are plentiful, from Shakespeare to Lubitsch and Wilder, but it’s the way in which the themes of love and family reconciliation, the absurd paranoia of conservative oldsters toward foreigners, and the petty dealings between warring rug merchants are melded that lends the movie a distinctly Persian sensibility. Holmes is a truly execrable actor, and the movie’s tone waffles from broad shtick one minute to gentle human comedy the next. The film’s kindly manner is inviting, though, and it’s worth noting that even a sweet-natured entertainment like this can now run afoul of Iran’s increasingly conservative cultural guardians: Marriage was held from commercial screens for over a year and only released domestically two months ago, with much of David’s role trimmed. (The version for the U.S. restores these cuts.) (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Robert Koehler)

THE NIGHT LISTENER As a performer, Robin Williams has a wonderfully volatile range; as an actor, he commutes uneasily between over-sincere and over-sinister. Both modes are on full monochromatic display in this stolid noir thriller directed by Patrick Stettner (who made the overheated The Business of Strangers), based on Armistead Maupin’s roman à clef about a late-night radio talk-show host who may or may not be the subject of an elaborate hoax. By turns unctuous and sulky, Williams’ Gabriel spends most of the movie stumbling around nighttime rural Wisconsin, chasing or being chased by a pathetically misused Toni Collette as the putatively blind putative guardian of a putative young victim (Rory Culkin) of child abuse. No doubt much pundit ink will be spent hitching The Night Listener to the hullabaloo around recent hoaxters like James Frey and J.T. Leroy, but Gabriel emerges more as a credulous sap than as the bighearted walking wound Maupin and Stettner would have us believe him to be. To me, the movie is of interest only for its embrace — barely explored in a languid subplot about Gabriel’s breakup with his boyfriend — of the eternal ambivalence with which writers tap the lives of people they know and/or love for their work. (Selected theaters) (Ella Taylor)

NIGHTMARE MANNightmare Man comes billed as “A Rolfe Kanefsky Flick” — a designation that has less cachet than, say, “A Spike Lee Joint,” unless you’re a connoisseur of straight-to-video softcore. The latest from the auteur of Sex Files: Alien Erotica and The Erotic Misadventures of the Invisible Man is a strenuously lurid little number about Ellen (Blythe Metz), a fetching pill-popper suffering from vivid dreams in which she’s stalked and raped by a Jeepers Creepers–looking assailant in an African tribal mask. En route to a mental hospital, her car breaks down and her dreamland antagonist — Nightmare Man — shows up again, brandishing a knife. So Ellen flees to a cabin in the woods, where four attractive folks (including Z-horror queen Tiffany Shepis) are enjoying a weekend of — wait for it — erotic discovery. (Among their findings: Guys like lesbians, and girls know how to fake orgasms.) Scantily clad and dubious of their new guest, they’re easy prey for our slow-moving ghoul. Nightmare Man wears its intentions proudly on its shabby, cut-rate sleeve: It’s a supercheap gore fest that finds every excuse for disrobing and penetrating (literally and extra­corporeally) its female characters. Kanefsky pays homage all over the place — to The Evil Dead, obviously, and to Dan Curtis’ 1977 horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror. But while his DVD collection may be impressive, Kanefsky’s a dreadful filmmaker — even for a pornmeister. Nightmare Man is all impenetrably dark nighttime shots, politely telegraphed shocks and limp, transparent misogyny masquerading as genre-savvy hijinks. (Sunset 5) (Adam Nayman)

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