EXWORTHY 1983: His favorite films were Flashdance and Risky Business.
The Chorus
dir. Christophe Barratier
Opens Fri Jan 28.

The thing to know about the grossly sentimental French film The Chorus is that you should not, under any circumstances, see it after watching Bad Education. Or after reading accounts of clergy sexual abuse. If you do, you'll see incipient pedophilia in every cold bathroom stall and deserted classroom in the movie--and according to The Chorus, there are plenty of vulnerable boys in short pants running around deserted classrooms in 1940s reform schools.

The Chorus tells the story of a balding composer named Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot) who goes to work at the boarding school Fond de l'Étang. (That would be "Rock Bottom" in English. Subtle, n'est-ce pas?) The administration is awful, the boys are very bad, and the worst of them all is a child named Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier)--or "face of an angel, spawn of the devil!" in the words of his beleaguered former teacher. Clément soon discovers Pierre's affinity for music, the boys form a choir, and Pierre grows up to become the "world's greatest conductor."

What's bizarre about this whole enterprise is that The Chorus smuggles in its own hints about predatory behavior. It's obvious we're supposed to despise the principal (whom the camera catches in the middle of such flattering activities as trimming his nose hairs) and his fondness for paddling the bottoms of recalcitrant boys. But how do we know that the schoolteacher-hero has Pierre's best interests at heart when he pulls the child aside for individual voice lessons? The filmmakers seem to trust that audiences will cling to the bleached, heartwarming formula that's given rise to so many identical movies (Mr. Holland's Opus is a recent examples, but the genre goes at least as far back as the 1945 film La Cage aux Rossignols, on which The Chorus is based). The method is more than a little disturbing. ANNIE WAGNER

A Love Song for Bobby Long
dir. Shainee Gabel
Opens Fri Jan 28.

A Love Song for Bobby Long is set in New Orleans, and like every film set in the Big Easy it revels in decay. Houses, cemeteries, characters--all are in various states of rot, so much so that the film itself stumbles over the line between atmospheric and oppressive. Such attention to squalor can be a bit of a trap for filmmakers, as disrepair may make for some stunning visuals (especially when a director abuses the color palette like Shainee Gabel does), but all that prettiness can easily turn worthless without a decent story. Most of us can find beauty in trash if we look hard enough--what's harder to find is a reason to be looking in the first place.

A Love Song offers very little reason to look. The story is Cajun-fried saccharine revolving around two drunks--one a former English professor named Bobby Long (John Travolta), the other his young squire Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht)--who reside in a crumbling house left to them by a woman they once both loved. Lawson is supposedly working on an opus about Bobby's life, but what he's really doing is allowing himself to become swallowed up by the supposed romanticism of self-destruction (an affliction that also plagues many a young filmmaker). Enter Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of their deceased friend, who has been left a third of the house. Weak of proper education, ample of bosom, Pursy at first despises her new roommates, but soon the steady rhythms of cohabitation begin to melt the glacier dividing the two camps--that is, at least, until the past rears its plot-twisting head.

Painfully transparent (the twist will probably strike you before you step foot in the theater), and thoroughly dragged down by a miscast Travolta's appalling lack of charisma, A Love Song is a showcase of the perils of indie cinema: It's completely unoriginal, and completely unremarkable. One of the jobs of indie cinema is to expose the flaws in big budget films. A Love Song merely apes them. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Cowards Bend the Knee
dir. Guy Maddin
Jan 28-Feb 2 at the Northwest Film Forum.

Guy Maddin's newest film, originally a silent installation meant to be viewed through a series of 10 peepholes, opens with a scientist peering through a microscope at a lump of ejaculate. The remaining nine "chapters," as the peepshow segments are called, seem to take place on a miniature scale within this gooey mass. The virile hockey player named "Guy Maddin" (Darcy Fehr), his pregnant girlfriend (Amy Stewart) dressed as a Harlequin clown, the controlling Asian vixen named Meta (Melissa Dionisio) who lures Guy away from his girlfriend--each of these dramatic players appears either to inhabit or to have been inspired by the semen soup.

Unsurprisingly, watching the pseudo-autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee is like watching an adolescent boy's id come unraveled on screen. Elements from the filmmaker's childhood are permitted into the film only if they take on a sordid, Freudian double. Thus the hockey rink becomes the site of several bloody, Oedipal deaths, and former announcer Maddin Sr. (Victor Cowie) obsessively fondles an object the inter- titles label THE ICE BREAST. The beauty parlor's mirrors, moreover, are actually one-way windows into a clandestine "night clinic," where one of the abortionist's cruel tools is a whisk.

It's all filmed, of course, in Maddin's deliberately archaic style, though to my eye it seemed as though some of his signature tweaks (such as the same strip of film being reiterated for effect) were even more greatly exaggerated than usual. When you saddle this rickety apparatus with some decidedly suspect subject matter (why was that hockey player wearing a Star of David, anyway?), you're left with a fetish object that's lost its power to bewitch. If you've secretly fantasized about being ordered to kill your girlfriend's mother and ending up fisting her instead, then you might love Cowards. But for everyone else, these 60 minutes go on forever. ANNIE WAGNER

Bright Future
dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Jan 28-Feb 3 at the Grand Illusion.

In a bleary Japan of the hazy near future, a pair of aimless slackers suffer an increasing level of off-shift harassment by their clueless, tragically hip boss, which leads one to random murder and the other to reluctantly seek out a father figure. Oh, and there's an army of poisonous, glowing, possibly intelligent jellyfish breeding in the water supply. Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is no stranger to the bizarro social metaphor, but he trumps himself here, spicing the narrative's relentless apocalyptic trajectory with resonant tangents about hapless teenage wastelanders that appear to have occurred to him on the fly.

The results occasionally verge on the nonsensical, but emit a gloomy, nervy overall vibe that's tough to shake. Most likely the most intentionally oddball, synapse-sparking movie about deadly critters to ever hit the screen, with a stunning final tracking shot that somehow paints the film's title as honestly optimistic, winkingly ironic, and completely doom-laden at the same time. For connoisseurs of the strange, an absolute must-see, even if you might not be exactly sure what the heck you just saw. ANDREW WRIGHT

Distant
dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Fri Jan 28-Feb 3 at the Northwest Film Forum.

Distant is a delicate, measured film about the times when differences don't clash, but instead slide roughly past each other, creating prickly and increasingly irritating friction along the way. The movie opens with an exquisite long take of a silent village, tucked in a snowy valley and marked by a single white minaret. A soft-eyed man named Yusuf (Emin Toprak) trudges up a slope and flags down a ride to Istanbul.

Yusuf moves in with his relative Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), who comes from the same town but has picked up very different customs during his time as a commercial photographer in the big city. Sharing space forces Mahmut to hide his embarrassing habits--porn, desperately sad telephone conversations with his ex-wife, photo shoots featuring elaborate arrangements of ceramic tile--and every time he has to change channels abruptly or hole up in the bathroom to talk on the phone, his resentment of his distant cousin intensifies. Meanwhile, the friendly, lazy Yusuf has to come to terms with the fact that the economic depression that caused him to lose his job in his hometown affects the employment market in the city as well.

Distant is primarily a character study elevated by gorgeous cinematography--barely perceptible grays nudging against ice blues and muddy browns. Still, the small bumps and knobs in the plot become much more dramatic because of the palpable tension between the two men. It's difficult to imagine Mahmut and Yusuf ever bridging the impasse, but when they finally trap the mouse that has been scurrying around the apartment, filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan finds an oblique but brutal way to explain Yusuf to his urban host. It's an aggressively cathartic end to a beautiful film. ANNIE WAGNER