Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Unfinished Business

Sayles movie deserves the viewing on video it didn't get in theaters

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

Limbo John Sayles' fractured Alaskan melodrama received little distribution or attention on its release last year, and those who did see it were bitterly divided over its quality and meaning. Sayles regular David Strathairn plays a handyman in a run-down coastal fishing village, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is the vagabond lounge singer who catches his eye. Halfway through the film, they go on a boating excursion, and an unexpected tragedy forces the handyman, the singer, and her teenage daughter to take refuge on a chilly, uninhabited Pacific island.

As always, Sayles works in a novelistic fashion, developing character and subplots so meticulously that when the main plot kicks in, we understand exactly what's at stake for everyone involved. Unlike the indie veteran's recent, more gripping productions (Lone Star and Men With Guns), Limbo might've played better as an actual novel--the slow unfolding of the story is slightly more frustrating than usual. That said, Sayles is to be commended for holding back the suspense until it has the most impact, and he spends so much time on the denouement that Limbo actually develops a second climax. As for the final shot of the film--which many have hated--let's just say that this is a movie about unfinished business, and in that light, the ending is perfect. --N.M.

Dr. Akagi Dressed in a crisp white suit with a barker's straw hat and bow-tie, the quixotic title hero of Japanese director Shohei Imamura's crackpot World War II comedy scampers through his rounds in full sprint, anxious to battle the same plague he diagnoses in all his patients: hepatitis. Mockingly referred to as "Dr. Liver," he's an outcast among outcasts--his crazy-quilt commune houses a prostitute, a morphine-addicted doctor, and a Dutch POW--yet Imamura suggests that his mad scientist may not be so mad after all. A natural companion to the director's 1989 masterpiece Black Rain, Dr. Akagi also sketches a seaside village around the time of the Hiroshima bombing, and the film benefits from the director's eccentric mix of gallows humor and radiant humanism. Having recently declared his retirement, the 71-year-old Imamura ends his career with one of his most beguiling and cryptic images, fusing a whale and an A-bomb into the same distended, terminally infectious liver. --S.T.

Metroland In this barbed but compassionate British comedy, Christian Bale plays a middle-class advertising designer who flashes back to the decadence of his youth when an old drinking buddy visits his suburban London home. Specifically, Bale remembers the passionate fling he had in Paris in the late '60s, when he was trying to make a name for himself as an artist. But while he's fantasizing about his youth, his wife (played by Emily Watson) is contemplating a very real fling with their houseguest.

Director Philip Saville, working from a script by Adrian Hodges based on a Julian Barnes novel, has a sharp eye for the distance between our rosy memories and the way things really were. The longer Bale plays out the recollection of his bohemian past, the more flaws appear, especially in his "carefree" French lover, who had as much need for commitment and conformity as the British girls he fled. The fact that Metroland is set in the punk-rock late '70s is telling too--that was Britain's great recent cultural epoch, and this story tarnishes some of that golden age as well. What the film is about, then, is the infinite pain of regret, and how the moments in our lives that we rue can be even smaller and paler than the lives we can't stand right now. --N.M.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle Though video slightly diminishes the widescreen splendor of this globe-hopping Spanish melodrama, the clever structure and intoxicating romantic spirit easily survive the transition. Beginning at the end and ending at the beginning, the film is meant to be read like a palindrome, spanning 17 years in the star-crossed lives of Otto (Fele Martinez) and Ana (Najwa Nimri), from their rapturous (and nearly silent) exchanges as schoolchildren to their unlikely meeting as adults on a remote lake in northern Finland. Director Julio Medem--whose last name, fittingly, is also a palindrome--further tricks up the story by nimbly alternating their perspectives under chapter headings like "Otto in Ana's Eyes."

A sweeping panorama on coincidence and fate, Lovers of the Arctic Circle may be nothing more profound than an elaborate gimmick. But what a gimmick! Medem's obvious passion for his characters, unaffected by irony, swells with a sense of visual poetry that's worth following to the top of the world. --S.T.

Off the wall
Alternatives to new releases

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension After watching the fitfully funny but ultimately disappointing superhero comedy Mystery Men, one might wonder if it's even possible to poke fun at the comic book aesthetic without destroying the mythological framework that such a story needs. Well, look no further than this 1984 cult classic, which tosses the viewer right in the middle of the breakneck world of rock 'n' roll brain surgeon Buckaroo Banzai (played with timeless aplomb by Peter Weller), while managing to riff on The Challengers of the Unknown, The War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The key is director W.D. Richter's insistence on deadpan earnestness from every actor (except for gleefully over-the-top John Lithgow, as alien renegade Dr. Lizardo) and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch's restless need to pack every scene with about a dozen new plot points--making the whole affair simultaneously exciting and ridiculous. The videotape is out of print and can't be bought, but just about every rental front in the country has a worn version on its shelves. Buckaroo Banzai is so effortlessly funny and action-packed that it can't be buried forever. Start the revival today! --N.M.

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