Part of the problem is Hartley's distinct style, which, if you're a fan, you already know well. Characters often speak slowly, pausing pensively for dramatic or comedic effect. Conversations -- and camera angles -- are unexpectedly funny and skewed, dabbling in established genres. When this approach has purpose or emotion (as in Henry Fool), it works. When it runs in circles, as in the second-half of Fay Grim, it exists only for the "art" and can be annoying as hell.
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Described in the credits as "science fiction" (a pretty loose use of the term), The Girl From Monday represents another genre leap for Hartley, following his 2001 Beauty and the Beast fantasy, No Such Thing. Well, if you're a typical sci-fi fan, be forewarned: There are no special effects -- minus thugs in funny helmets -- and there's really nothing terribly innovative in the storyline department.
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Harvey Pekar is the ultimate little guy -- not just in the comics world, where his American Splendor has been an underground phenomenon for decades, but in real life, as he has held down a steady gig as a file clerk in a Cleveland VA hospital since the beginning of the known universe.
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Dipping back into the world of the micro-indie film - which she seemed to have mostly abandoned after the passing of her cinematic mentor, Derek Jarman - Tilda Swinton plays four roles here, but Dr. Strangelove it ain't. Her primary role is as Rosetta Stone (get it?), a bio-geneticist who, in a strangely-reasoned attempt to help the world by creating robots equipped with artificial intelligence, has discovered how to download her own DNA into a computer and thus create three SRAs (Self Replicating Automatons) in her image. The SRAs are named Ruby, Marine and Olive and dresses them each according to color (red, blue, and green). This doesn't serve much purpose besides being pretty look at, and also giving us an easy way of telling the Swintons apart (aside from the fashion-victim wigs Ruby and Olive wear). Rosetta herself is easy enough to ID: as the nerdy scientist, they put her in the most frightful and unattractive of the wigs and make her goggle out at the world from behind a pair of giant glasses.
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The story turns mainly on the relationship between Queens garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a pretentious aesthete who drifts into Grim's life. Fool is thoroughly unlikeable - Ryan plays him as greasy, chain-smoking poseur, acting smarter than he actually is - but Simon clearly need somebody in his life. He's friendless, antisocial, and living with his mother and sister, who routinely berate him as retarded. Fool blathers on out his memoirs and opines about the difficult life of a genius ("An honest man is always in trouble," he opines), but he also encourages Simon to start writing himself. For Simon, that counts as friendship enough.
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Miles away from what we critics enjoy referring to as "visually austere" (i.e., static shots with careful compositions), The Book of Life throws caution to the wind. Working with new cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don't Cry) instead of old standby Michael Spiller (Trust), Hartley spins and fusses in colorful blurred abstractions, creating a dreamy, impressionistic look with none of his trademark hard edges. Look, ma -- no hands!
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A silly cybersexual fantasy hinged on the fetishistic sci-fi gimmick of replicant women who need sperm to survive, "Teknolust" isn't much better than what it sounds like -- a porn spoof. The fact that writer-director Lynn Hershman Leeson genuinely considers this concept a high-minded metaphor makes the eccentric comedy laughable in ways that were certainly never intended.
A low-budget, one-dimensional concoction with art-house pretensions, the film employs such "futuristic" trappings as two-year-old candy-colored iBooks and a brushed-steel microwave that doubles as a computer terminal. But while its shoestring style may have come of necessity, the movie's absurdly ineffectual intellectualism and that-take-will-have-to-do performances are what really makes it hard to sit through.
Odd-bird indie icon Tilda Swinton ("The Deep End," "Orlando") stars a nerdy-virgin microbiologist with the ridiculous name of Dr. Rosetta Stone. Swinton also plays Stone's home-made clones, the clumsily sultry Ruby (who always wears red), petulant, child-like Marine (blue) and shy, cerebral Olive (green) -- the first of whom has been trained, through watching old movies, to go out and seduce men with bad pick-up lines so she can bring life-giving sperm home to her sisters. (That the injections are given intravenously is all that keeps "Teknolust" from being even more ill conceived than it already is.)
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Breaking the fourth wall in an extraordinarily innovative way, "American Splendor" stars perennial second-banana Paul Giamatti ("Man On the Moon," "Big Fat Liar") as cantankerous file clerk Harvey Pekar -- the anti-hero of his own autobiographical underground comic book for the last 20 years -- and also features the real Harvey Pekar as meta-narrator and commentator ("OK, here's me, or the guy playing me, even though he doesn't look anything like me") in sardonic interview segments that compliment the action.
Peeling cartoon thought bubbles -- and sometimes entire panels and pages -- straight from the pages of "American Splendor" and incorporating them into the film, co-writers/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (documentary makers up to now) capture brilliantly both the inner grumblings of charismatically prickly Pekar and his dark and uniquely unironic sense of self-parody.
Inventive and blessed with uncommonly human-yet-cartoony performances (Hope Davis plays Pekar's loving but ever-aggravated wife Joyce), this film is one of a kind.
He's certainly not wasting his newfound talents.
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