Mystic River
dir. Clint Eastwood
Opens Fri Oct 10 at
various theaters.

The question, friends, is not whether Clint Eastwood is a great director. That debate should have been settled long ago, by anyone who paid attention to Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County. The question that persists is: How can a great director like Clint Eastwood turn in such shoddy, shallow garbage as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Rookie, and last year's indefensible Blood Work as often as he does? The answer may be contained in Eastwood's latest work, Mystic River, a film that has been garnering rave reviews for its sober treatment of Eastwood's favorite subject, male violence. The movie--thanks largely to the work of a very impressive cast, including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Laurence Fishburne--is a compelling experience. But all the passionate performances in Hollywood can't cover over the fact that Mystic River's source material, like almost all Eastwood pictures of the past 10 years, is a supermarket-caliber novel. Therein lies the Eastwood dilemma.

I've long been under the impression that while great books seem impossible to adapt to the screen, mediocre ones often make the best films--witness The Bridges of Madison County, a thin slice of divorce porn lit that Eastwood rendered into a profoundly emotional piece of cinema. Unfortunately, not all crappy books are thus redeemable. Mystic River (which, in fairness, I haven't read) appears to be one of those. The story involves a group of three friends whose Boston childhoods were interrupted when one of them was kidnapped and molested. All grown up now, and distant (though in the same neighborhood), they are reunited when one of their daughters is murdered. Through a none-too-elaborate series of circumstances, the father (Sean Penn, utterly credible as a man whose raging grief requires eight cops to restrain him) becomes convinced that the killer is his own friend (Tim Robbins), the one who was snatched as a boy. Fortunately, the cop in charge of the investigation is the third friend (Kevin Bacon).

You may be able to guess where this all leads, because there are only two possible outcomes for such a setup. It's to Eastwood's credit that he mines the clichés and conveniences for emotional resonance. Still, you can't help wondering who the hell forgot to tell him that for all the "inexorability" and "meditation" of its violence, Mystic River feels desperately contrived. Whether Eastwood the artist has some deep understanding of the nature of violence remains unclear. What is certain is that he knows how to make a movie, even a dumb one, well worth watching. I only wish someone would send him some better books. SEAN NELSON

dir. Mark Decena
Opens Fri Oct 10
at the Uptown.

Sundance will never shake its growing reputation as an incubator of mediocre work if it keeps throwing all its weight behind movies like Dopamine. Having gone through the Sundance Institute labs, the Sundance Film Festival, and now the Sundance theatrical-release series (before heading into a long life on the Sundance Channel), this movie has been polished down to your standard low-budget romantic comedy.

In Dopamine, a San Francisco computer programmer (John Livingston) works for a small company that's creating an artificially intelligent computer-based pet bird. When it's tested in a kindergarten classroom, he starts to fall for the teacher (Sabrina Lloyd), but he doubts his emotions and attributes them to chemicals in his brain (like the titular dopamine). The biggest mistake the movie makes is that it focuses on the wrong character. The theory of chemical emotions, the artificial life, and the programmer character in general are positively dull compared to this feisty teacher whose need for human contact leads her through a series of one-night stands in her quest for love and acceptance. A stunning performance from Ms. Lloyd overcomes some faulty writing and makes at least her sections of the film worthwhile. ANDY SPLETZER

The Holy Land
dir. Eitan Gorlin
Opens Fri Oct 10 at
the Harvard Exit.

Set against the violent political background of modern-day Israel, The Holy Land tells the story of Mendy, a yeshiva student who falls for a Russian prostitute named Sasha and becomes torn between his strict religious background and his overactive libido. The young monkey-spanker meets Sasha on the advice of a rabbi, who thinks one trip to a whorehouse will clear the lust from Mendy's system--only after he meets the foreign hooker, the visit is like adding gasoline to a grease fire. Further paving his road to hell is Mendy's new friend Mike, an American ex-war photographer who owns a dive bar in Jerusalem, adding a whole new cast of shady characters to Mendy's previously sheltered existence. Once Mendy is entrenched in his newly scandalous lifestyle, though, his world becomes more complicated--and depressing--the more he tries to figure it out, and his new friends only confuse things more by blurring the line between needing his friendship and making him feel used. JENNIFER MAERZ

Gloomy Sunday
dir. Rolf Schübel
Opens Fri Oct 10 at
the Big Picture.

The story: In prewar Budapest, a love triangle develops between a husband (Joachim Król) and wife (Erika Marozsán) and the moody pianist (Stefano Dionisi) they've hired to stroke the keys at their restaurant. As Hitler begins his madness, the pianist conjures a somber tune, in declaration of love for the wife, that he calls "Gloomy Sunday." It is a beautiful piece of work, but here's the thing: The song drives many people--well over a hundred--to commit suicide.

The only surprising thing about the solidly made Gloomy Sunday is that it has made its way to our shores at all. It is a minor and in no way remarkable work, with a twist at the end that is visible miles away--a twist that isn't really worth the 100 minutes of viewing one must commit to in order to witness it. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

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