Capote
dir. Bennett Miller

Capote is a restrained film about a man whose life and work were anything but. It isn't a hokey, programmatic biopic along the lines of Frida or Sylvia or Kinsey. Despite its limited scope—it addresses only the years that Truman Capote was writing his groundbreaking In Cold Blood, about a Kansas robbery turned quadruple murder—you want to call the film, after the fashion of ambitious biographies, "A Life." Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote, and his is an enveloping performance, in which every flighty affectation seems an invention of the man rather than the impersonator. His pursed lips and bons mots and the ravishing twirls of his overcoat become more and more infrequent until all that's left is alcohol and a horrible will to power: He longs for the death of someone he's grown to love, so that his book can have an ending.

A cast of uniformly excellent actors defers to Hoffman. When Capote is regaling a cocktail party in New York or making the residents of Holcomb, Kansas, nervous, this approach works. But his close associates barely register. As Harper Lee, the usually wonderful Catherine Keener is hardly more than a prop—a figure posed beside Hoffman to give his performance a sense of scale. Her self-effacement may be accurate, but their interactions aren't dramatically interesting. New Yorker editor William Shawn (the always adorable Bob Balaban, cast here for his ears) looks cowed in Capote's presence. Even the camera seems to blink a little at the brilliant glare of Hoffman's portrayal. Here and there, a few actors (Amy Ryan as the wife of the lead investigator, and Clifton Collins, Jr., as one of the accused killers) push back, and they rescue the film from drowning in its awesome lead performance. ANNIE WAGNER

Stay
dir. Marc Forster

German director Marc Forster first made mainstream waves with Monster's Ball, most notably for the verging-on-hardcore sex scene between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry. As impressively raw as their boot knocking was, however, the director's staging of the scene—with glimpses through birdcages, cubbyholes, and the like—hinted at a worrying tendency toward preciousness. Stay, Forster's entry into M. Night Shyamalan territory, takes this pretentious rib-nudging to hysterical extremes. On purely visual terms, Forster's film stands as something of a triumph—expressionistic, consistently loopy, and art-designed within an inch of its life. Narratively speaking, however, it never escapes its own exquisitely rendered cul-de-sac. All that's missing is a heartbeat, really.

David (25th Hour) Benioff's script wastes no time setting the reality-warping stage: A hotshot psychiatrist (Ewan McGregor, whose wardrobe, which includes a multicolored array of high-water pants, counts as the most inexplicable and terrifying thing in the picture) bumps both elbows and ids with a college student (Ryan Gosling) tormented by visions of the future—including, apparently, his own demise. As patient and subject get closer, the persona swapping begins in earnest, with the shrink's girlfriend (Naomi Watts, slumming) soon thrown into the mix.

While the resolution won't surprise anyone with at least a passing familiarity with the genre, there's a lot to like along the way, including Gosling's ferocious Method acting, Benioff's gift for the zippy one-liner, and too-brief supporting appearances from the likes of Bob Hoskins, Janeane Garafolo, and Amy Sedaris. Ultimately, though, the director's over-emphatic presence takes its toll. Whether due to ego or distrust of cast and premise, Forster's overpowering use of symbolism (you've never seen so many doubles) goes from clever to exasperating to, finally, sort of klutzily endearing—the work of a gifted, potentially great art student who can't resist piling on the glitter. ANDREW WRIGHT

Pickpocket
dir. Robert Bresson

Everywhere you look, critics say the same things about Pickpocket. It is spiritual; it is severe; it examines an age that is dominated by technology, science, and metropolitan capital; it attains a state of grace (even I say that in this week's Stranger Suggests). But what critics fail to point out, and what saves this film from being plain boring, is its brilliant comedy. Filmed in the summer of 1959 in Paris, Pickpocket is about a young man (Martin LaSalle) who decides to become a professional thief. We see the beginnings of his sordid career, the period in which he perfects his craft and becomes a person of interest to the law, his downfall, and finally his rise to a state of holiness.

The philosophical and dramatic parts of the film have very little value. For example, the protagonist's speech about the privileges of the Nietzschean "übermensch" (a man who has the right to operate outside the law) defines the expression "half-baked." (This section of the movie is actually based on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: The thief's conversation with un inspecteur in the Paris bar corresponds to the conversation Raskolnikov has with the detective Petrovitch in the St. Petersburg police station.)

And as for the protagonist's initial rejection of the beautiful young woman (Marika Green) who cares for his dying mother, and his inability to deal with his mother's death—the meaning of that Greek drama is oppressively obvious. Robert Bresson treated these themes (alienation, modernization) more thoroughly in movies like Diary of a Country Priest and Au Hasard Balthazar. In Pickpocket, it is the moments when the European master is making fun of his subject's line of work—professional pickpocketing—that the film comes to life and breathes. CHARLES MUDEDE

North Country
dir. Niki Caro

The new film from populist Whale Rider director Niki Caro, North Country trades on the previous movie's mild exoticism, substituting snowbound Minnesota miners for indigenous New Zealanders. It prides itself on the same brand of irrefutable anti-sexist arguments. (In the former, girls can be leaders, too; this time around, women deserve to be free from sexual harassment.) But where the older film was sufficiently subtle, treating the retrograde village elders with a modicum of respect, North Country features irredeemable male chauvinist pigs at every possible turn.

When Josie (a dirt-smeared Charlize Theron) flees her home after a severe beating from her abusive husband, she moves in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek, who give nuanced performances despite their constrained roles). Soon she discovers she'd like a job of her own, and in her small town in the 1980s, there's but one source of income. Thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, Josie and a cohort of female peers are permitted to work the coal mines. Their first day is torture, and things only get worse—there are lewd comments and near-rapes aplenty, but the most popular harassment strategies involve excrement and bodily fluids.

Theron rarely makes it through a scene without her eyes filling with bravely suppressed tears, and the film keeps flashing forward to the courtroom drama that will bring her vindication. Unfortunately, the film blows its trial-by-jury conceit early, with a truly climactic showdown in the miners' union hall. The actual court dramatization (involving wanton witness-badgering, spectators rising in unison, etc.) is melodramatic and contrived. The physical landscape in North Country is inhuman, inhospitable, and desolate; in such a context, it's strange that the plot should proceed so confidently toward humanism, harmony, and justice. ANNIE WAGNER

Dreamer
dir. John Gatins

It all starts when an evil man with beady little rat eyes makes Dreamer-the-racehorse run even though Kurt Russell (the smartest man alive!) says Horsey Horse shouldn't race because of a weak leg. And can you guess what happens? Of course DISASTER HAPPENS! Horsey Horse's leg breaks mid-race and she tumbles to the ground while everyone in the theater cries "Oh no!"

Support The Stranger

As he surveys the injured horse shaking on the track, the heartless and beady-eyed bastard (who also happens to be a RACIST!) demands that they kill Horsey Horse: "She's broken! Kill it!" But creepy Dakota Fanning (Russell's daughter) doesn't want to see Horsey Horse die, so in a desperate attempt to avoid teaching a kid a painful lesson about life (which is: Everything dies, bitch), they let Seabiscuit... uh, I mean Horsey Horse, live. And after a couple of months of rest and a lot of strawberry popsicles, Horsey Horse can not only walk again, but she can run again, too! Hooray for Horsey Horse!

But the shit ain't hit the fan yet, kiddos. It just so happens that Kurt Russell's family is completely broke—he lost his job 'cause the beady-eyed bastard fired him and his wife (Elisabeth Shue! Yeeeow!) is just a pie waitress. And it doesn't help that they now have this horse to take care of. What ever will they do? Oh man! They can race Horsey Horse! You think? I mean, it's kinda risky, as she did break her leg and all. But she's better now, so I mean, they should give it a shot, right?! As Eminem teaches us: "If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted... one moment... would you capture it, or just let it slip? You betta lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go..." Uh... MEGAN SELING