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Close Encounters

Robin Williams stunning as stalker; plus Lovely and Amazing's sister act.

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Seymour "Sy" Parrish (Robin Williams) in One Hour Photo is the kind of guy you typically don't notice. If he weren't so friendly, you might easily consign him to the blur of fast-food workers, librarians, traffic cops, and grocery cashiers who make up the collage of daily routine and who never solicit attention unless something remarkable happens.

There is little remarkable about Sy: He works as a photo-lab technician at the local SavMart and, after a day of meticulous photo processing, goes home to a solitary apartment. If he has a life outside of the barren world of the SavMart, we don't see it. Enter the Yorkin family: Will (Michael Vartan, a less expensive Tom Cruise type), Nina (Connie Nielsen of Gladiator), and 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith). They are the picture-perfect family, cut right out of a catalog for stylish contemporary living. The parents are attractive and hip, and the soccer-playing son is honestly and noncloyingly adorable. "Yorkin" literally breaks down to "your kin," and Sy, who processes their weekly rolls of film, has grown inordinately fond of them, fantasizing that they are indeed his kin. He knows their address by heart, knows when birthdays are approaching, and by having constant access to the weekly record of their happinesses, knows just about everything they do.

Eventually, Sy grows more and more comfortable in his role as invisible stalker, finding tiny ways of being nearer to them: reading a book he notices Nina buying, hanging out at the soccer field during Jake's practice. "Sometimes, I feel like Uncle Sy," he says to Nina of watching the family grow over the years. To Nina, this is an offhand compliment to the attractiveness of the family. To Sy, this is a nervous plea for inclusion and a staking of his intended territory. One day, however, Sy notices something in a roll of someone else's film that poses a threat to the obliviously happy Yorkins. Sy works feverishly to devise a means by which to keep them together and punish those who would mar his image of the perfect family.

Robin Williams, with the right director and flattering material, is one of our very best actors. Usually, this involves a combination of resources that work to restrain him. Evidence: Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and Good Will Hunting. Occasionally, he has done great work with directors who can channel all of that energy into a beautiful marriage of outrageous humor and heartrending pathos: Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King. After taking some missteps these last few years with overly sentimental life-affirming tear-jerkers (witness Bicentennial Man, Jakob the Liar, Patch Adams), he is branching out lately with some unexplored dark territory, as in this summer's thriller, Insomnia.

Williams really is quite impressive here. There is a mesmerizing scene when Nina is tucking young Jake into bed and he remarks that he is sad for that friendly guy who works at the photo lab. Nina, touched by his empathy, holds him and encourages him to think good thoughts to send to Sy. The film cuts to Sy, alone in his coldly lit apartment, drinking a glass of water very slowly. The moment between Nina and Jake is so very magical that you expect those good thoughts to put a smile on Sy's face across town. Or to inspire Sy's stalking. Or something. What we see is Williams at his quiet best, just meticulously drinking the water. This is of enormous credit to writer/director Mark Romanek, who seems to know just what to do with Williams and his expansive range from stillness to mania. Romanek's work is confident and deliberate throughout -- rich with the cold, sterile imagery of Sy's lonely life juxtaposed against the romantic, colorful affluence of the Yorkins and their belongings. And with the minor exception of an obvious framing device that tries to explain too much, Romanek manages to set all the right creepy tones in a mere 90 minutes. As I exited the theater, all I could think to say was "That's a lot of heebie-jeebies to squeeze into an hour and a half." -- Bo List

Just a glance at the title of Nicole Holofcener's sophomore film Lovely and Amazing brings images of a sappy love story to mind. Skimming over the synopsis in the press kit reveals all the ingredients for a corny chick flick. But much to my surprise, Lovely and Amazing is actually a conglomeration of scenes from the lives of three women that delve into the complexities of human relationships.

Lovely and Amazing peeks into the lives of one family as they struggle through daily battles with love, weight, careers, and acceptance. The mother (Brenda Blethyn), a weight-obsessed divorcée, spends the majority of the film recovering from liposuction surgery. Meanwhile, her three daughters go on about their very different lives. The oldest, Michelle (Catherine Keener), a thirtysomething artist in a loveless marriage, desperately takes on a job at a one-hour photo lab and eventually finds herself sleeping with her manager, a high school senior played by Donnie Darko's Jake Gyllenhaal. Emily (Emily Mortimer), the middle child, is an actress with appearance issues and a strange habit of picking up stray dogs. And Annie (Raven Goodwin), the youngest, is an adopted 8-year-old African American who spends most of the film wishing she were white like the rest of her family.

It is the scenes that display fairly insignificant moments that paint the best picture of these relationships. For example, in one scene, Michelle says "fuck you" to Annie, and Annie returns the sentiment. Although she's only 8, it's okay to cuss her sister because they're just that: sisters. Scenes like this give an idea how weird it must be to have such a large gap in age yet still carry out a sister-to-sister relationship. Other scenes deal with much bigger issues but somehow come across as less important.

Lovely and Amazing addresses themes such as the female obsession with appearance: All of these women are intelligent and well aware that looks aren't everything, yet they continue to obsess over weight, as many women do. And the film manages to show the beauty in making the most of the family that you're stuck with.

Although the family is a little unrealistically dysfunctional, it makes for good cinema. And the slice-of-life scenes are put together in such a way that the film is, well, lovely and amazing. -- Bianca Phillips

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