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The Machinist offers intelligent horror

By Lady Liberty
web posted August 1, 2005

The Machinist

*** out of ****

The MachinistWhen The Machinist was released in late 2004, I remember hearing only a little about it. The movie's very low box office take (a little less than $1 million) seems to be a direct reflection of that lack of publicity. What little I did hear, though, indicated that the film's star, Christian Bale, had given a superlative performance. The fact that he lost a great deal of weight to play the title character also made the entertainment news headlines at the time. In a get-together with a friend and fellow movie buff this weekend, we defaulted to seeing The Machinist largely because it was one of the few available movies that neither of us had seen. Whether borne of coincidence or not, that choice proved to be a good one.

Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a machinist at a factory. He's also a man with a serious problem: long term insomnia. In fact, Trevor claims he hasn't slept for a year. He may not be exaggerating much. He's lost copious amounts of weight (he's a skeletal 120 on his over six-foot frame), and he's easily confused. He's also rapidly becoming paranoid. But are his problems generated by the extremes of his insomnia, or is there something more concrete behind them? Trevor, as distracted as he may sometimes be, determines to find out.

Trevor's few friends include Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. Though Trevor pays for her company, he probably wouldn't have to as Stevie has taken an inexplicable liking to the troubled young man. At the same time, a pretty waitress named Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at an airport coffee shop also offers him a compassionate friendship that includes trying to get him to eat some pie to put a little more meat on his emaciated bones. Trevor's moments with Stevie and Maria are often too short, but they offer the only real light in his long days.

At work, Trevor seems well-liked by most of the men, though not necessarily close to any of them. A new welder on the floor by the name of Ivan (John Sharian) is friendly enough toward Trevor, but Trevor is noncommittal. Then a co-worker named Miller (Michael Ironside) asks for Trevor's assistance while he adjusts some heavy machinery which results in a terrible accident for which Trevor blames himself. Others in the factory seem to agree with Trevor's assessment of blame, and he becomes more of a loner than ever before.

Trevor cares, but not too much. He's obsessed with finding out why certain things are happening in his life, and who is behind those things. Yes, he's paranoid, but at the same time it's shown time and again that he has reason to be. Just when Trevor begins to think there might be someone who can help him unlock the secrets behind his troubles, he finds himself more alone than ever, and sinking even deeper into horror. But as the tag line for the movie says, "How can you wake up from a nightmare if you're not asleep?"

Those of you who know Christian Bale as the impressively buff Batman of Batman Begins will doubtless be shocked to see his appearance in The Machinist. Bale actually starved himself to 120 pounds — no special special effects were used to generate his horrifying weight loss. And it is horrifying. Even if there was nothing more to the movie than a series of scenes of the unclothed Bale, the film would be a horror movie, indeed. But Bale adds a good deal more to Trevor Reznik than his appearance as he provides a truly amazing dramatic performance to go along with it.

Jennifer Jason Leigh personifies a sweet and compassionate woman who gradually becomes confused and then fearful; Michael Ironside is his usual irascible self which serves extraordinarily well as the gruff Miller. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón is good, too, as is the toothy John Sharian. But whatever else is shown onscreen, Bale owns every scene on virtually every level. The horror of the plot is bad enough to be sure, but it's Bale that makes it as awful (and by that I mean well done) as it is.

The direction is lacking in places as is some very confusing editing. While reminiscent in some ways of the brilliant Memento, The Machinist isn't nearly so well handled in its early scenes. At the same time, the director's choice of dark and grey scenery with select splashes of color is perfect; what seems confusing at times will make perfect sense later on; and certainly a director who gets performances on film like the ones you'll see here is formidable indeed.

However it all begins, rest assured that, by the end of The Machinist, all of the best and the worst parts and pieces will come together into one understanding that's both terrible and redeeming in its resolution. The Machinist has its flaws, yes, but its star and its story are not among them. I'd recommend The Machinist to horror fans who appreciate some intelligence over graphic blood loss, as well as to moviegoers who appreciate high level acting and innovative scripts.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Machinist is rated R for "violence and disturbing images, [and] sexuality and language." It's no stretch to say that many of the images in The Machinist are more than a little disturbing! This is not a movie for kids in any way, shape, form, or manner. In fact, I'd keep younger teens away from it, too. It's rare that I consider an R rating entirely appropriate, but in this instance, we're talking about a film that really is for adults only. It's dark, but it's also deep, and only some maturity will give an audience the ability to really appreciate what's offered here. If you fit that description and aren't looking for a fluff piece to occupy your mind this weekend, you could do a whole lot worse than to rent The Machinist (available on DVD and VHS since June).

Must Love Dogs

* out of ****

Must Love DogsIf you've seen the commercials for Must Love Dogs, you're doubtless well aware that it's one of those films often referred to as a "chick flick." I'm not so sure it's even suitable for the kind of woman that glories in such films...

Sarah Nolan (Diane Lane) is a recent divorcée who is showing no inclination whatsoever to getting back into the dating scene. This is a situation her close-knit family finds intolerable, and so they stage an "intervention" to push Sarah onward into the future and — hopefully — into a new relationship. Her father, Bill (Christopher Plummer) is never less than encouraging, but it's her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) who's really driving the bus. When the intervention (which includes advice and photos of the single friends each family member knows) doesn't spark action from Sarah, Carol places an Internet ad on Sarah's behalf. But once Sarah gets over the shock and dismay she feels at her sister's presumption, she starts listening to some of the responses her ad generates.

Meanwhile, just across town there's someone else who has suffered a recent divorce and who feels the same subsequent disillusionment that haunts Sarah. Jake Anderson (John Cusack) isn't inclined to start dating, either. He's happier being miserable. But his best friend takes it on himself to respond to an Internet ad on his behalf. As fate would have it, that ad is Sarah's. The two do meet, but the "date" doesn't go well, and both go their separate ways. Though Sarah is bemused by Jake, he's struck breathless by her and hopes he can get her to give him a second chance.

Even as Jake prepares to beg Sarah to see him just one more time, the pre-school teacher meets the father of one of her young charges and falls in lust at first sight. Bob Connor (Dermot Mulroney) is handsome, funny, and seems to really like Sarah. Though hesitant to get involved with a parent of one of her students, Sarah verges on going ahead anyway. To distract herself, she keeps going on dates with men who respond to her ad, and even agrees to give Jake the second chance he so craves.

Throughout the entire dating process, Sarah's widowed father is dating up a storm with women he meets off his own personals ad. He serves as both an inspiration and a source of horrified embarrassment as he brings woman after woman to family gatherings. His new friends include the eccentric Dolly (Stockard Channing) who gets off on the wrong foot with Sarah, but who offers both fun and friendship to the entire family. It's purely coincidence that the boisterous Dolly happens to live in the same neighborhood as the handsome Bob Connor...

Must Love Dogs is based on a book of the same name. The man responsible for both the screenplay and the direction of the movie version is Gary David Goldberg, who first came to fame as a television writer and creative influence (among his hits are Family Ties, Brooklyn Bridge, and Spin City). The biggest problem with Must Love Dogs is Goldberg's sitcom background. What works well in 23 minutes and with a laugh track is nowhere near so titillating over the course of some 90 minutes. The dialogue is stilted and melodramatic; pauses (probably for laughs that don't come) are distracting at best, and contribute more than little to the very awkward flow of the movie. Add that to the plot's utter predictability, and you don't have a recipe for a particularly enjoyable film.

Diane Lane and John Cusack are both brilliant actors, yet in this film they seem largely amateur (again, almost certainly the result of bad direction). It doesn't help matters that they have very little onscreen chemistry. All of the characters are largely one-dimensional, not least of them being the one played by Dermot Mulroney. He, too, is a capable actor though this storyline and character render him impotent rather than important. I liked the huge dog Sarah frequently found herself caretaking, but that was nowhere near enough to salvage this dog of a movie. (If you somehow do get roped into seeing this film, don't let it be a total waste of your time — stay for the credits which offer some extras that, while not worth the price of your ticket, will at least let you leave the theatre having experienced some small amount of pleasure.)

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Must Love Dogs is rated PG-13 for "sexual content." The very premise of the movie, too, isn't going to be one to which young children can relate. There's nothing too overt, so a young teen would likely be fine (unless you object to frank discussions involving condoms for your kids), and there are some fairly good lessons to be learned here (the dangers of falling for a cad chief among them). But as a whole, there's little to recommend where Must Love Dogs is concerned. I'd suggest you steer yourself, your date, and/or your kids elsewhere.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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