Documentaries often start out as one thing but, through recalibration or serendipity, move in directions their filmmakers never planned. This can net staggering results or, as in the case of "In a Dream," Jeremiah Zagar's moody portrait of his eccentric, at times delusional muralist father, Isaiah, can detract focus from the bigger picture.
So, though Isaiah's halftime revelation -- that he's been cheating on his wife of 43 years with his assistant -- swings the film into more emotionally charged territory, the effects of this curveball are never quite as interesting as the artist's glorious mosaics spread across South Philadelphia.
True, the elder Zagar's capricious, narcissistic bent has informed both his work and his infidelity, and his mosaics prove a clear metaphor for the breaking apart and reassembling he and his wife must do, but the eclectic beauty of Isaiah's complex, labor-intensive art form deserves more process-oriented dissection.
In addition, director Jeremiah is occasionally heard but barely seen. Aside from acquiring his father's artistic eye (the film is vividly shot and composed), it would have been helpful to learn what else Jeremiah inherited from such a tortured and unstable soul.
-- Gary Goldstein "In a Dream." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.
It's tough to care about 'Informers'
Co-adapted by Bret Easton Ellis from his interconnected stories of sinful excess in early '80s Los Angeles, "The Informers" conjures up plenty of debauched tableaux with its photogenic, jaded showbiz denizens and hangers-on, but nary a reason for existing.
It's a movie with Altmanesque pretensions, but under Gregor Jordan's flat-line direction amounts to flipping through an out-of-date fashion magazine, one that barely spurs the energy to point and laugh.
Caring whether a philandering studio head ( Billy Bob Thornton) chooses his aging newscaster squeeze ( Winona Ryder) over his pill-popping wife ( Kim Basinger) or whether a golden boy (Jon Foster) will get his heart broken by the party girl (Amber Heard) he shares with his sleazy chum (Austin Nichols) requires a Herculean stamina for empty-headedness.
At the baser end of this immoral spectrum, Mickey Rourke's All-American psycho character, driving a van and terrorizing a young hotel doorman with a kidnap scheme, gives off cesspool sparks. But little prepares you for a nervy, pudgy Brad Renfro as the doorman, an ex-child actor desperate for the spotlight. Knowing this was the troubled actor's last screen portrayal elicits a sad, otherworldly charge that this slickly dim movie hardly deserves.
-- Robert Abele "The Informers." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, drug use, pervasive language and some disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.
Suburban angst, other stereotypes
Rob Margolies' "Lifelines" is an insufferably over-familiar take on angst in affluent suburbia.
The film is about the Bernsteins, a family that could scarcely be more generic in their behavior. Its super-intense wife and mother ( Jane Adams) wonders why she can control a room full of schoolchildren but can't handle her own three kids: a stuttering son and foul-mouthed daughter in their teens, and a younger runaway son. Meanwhile, the husband and father (Josh Pais) is relatively calm and low-key.
The Bernsteins finally turn to help from a gifted psychotherapist (Joe Morton). Always an actor of quiet power, Morton is the film's only engaging presence, and his character's story, as it turns out, would have made for a more rewarding movie.
Indeed, there's so much ranting and raving, all of it boring and trite, that the father's admission of a secret scarcely causes a ripple. The pain the Bernsteins feel and inflict upon one another is credible, but they are too stereotypical to make it feel real.
-- Kevin Thomas "Lifelines." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.