STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK

Directed by Jonathan Demme

With Robyn Hitchcock, Deni Bonant and Tim Keegan

Distributed by Orion Pictures

***

Over the past 20 years, Hitchcock's eccentric, literate songwriting and performances with the Soft Boys, a later backup group called the Egyptians and solo have amassed him a sizable cult following. Ten years ago, I was an enthusiastic part of that following, but my interest in him faded somewhat over a succession of uneven albums. (For me, he's at his best on the Soft Boys' 1980 UNDERWATER MOONLIGHT and the 1981 solo debut BLACK SNAKE DIAMOND ROLE.) The Soft Boys mixed the psychedelia of REVOLVER-era Beatles and Syd Barrett with a dash of punk aggression, but the now 45-year-old Hitchcock has mellowed quite a bit since then. Most of his STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK set (filmed in a 14th Street storefront in front of an unseen live audience) is performed solo on acoustic guitar, with occasional help from guitarist Keegan and violinist Bonant.

A lesser director might make a misguided attempt to imitate the spirit of Hitchcock's quirky lyrics by distorting the image, shooting from odd camera angles or using colorful filters. Thankfully, Demme knows better than to go this route. His restraint and use of relatively long takes make this a true concert film, rather than a bloated music video. Nevertheless, I can't help wishing that he'd filmed Hitchcock between SOMETHING WILD and MARRIED TO THE MOB rather than recently. While all of the set sounds pretty good, nothing leaves much of a lasting impression, and I wasn't tempted ro run out and buy the soundtrack.The peril of being a perpetual cult icon is that your 15 minutes of fame may arrive too late.


SUE

Directed and written by Amos Kollek

With Anna Thomson, Tracee Ross and Matthew Powers

Distributed by AmKo Releasing

***

Sue is a woman in her 30s struggling with a number of pressures: after being downsized from a 12-year legal position, she faces eviction unless she can come up with $1,200 by the end of the month. So she begins a string of one-to-one encounters with strangers in a bleak landscape of Manhattan parks, bars and diners. Despite her dazed, self-destructive passivity and penchant for sexual humiliation (demonstrated in the very first scene), two of these encounters do pan out. She befriends Linda (Tracee Ross), a generous college student moonlighting as a bartender, and begins a relationship with Ben (Matthew Powers), a handsome travel writer. But as surely as if Sue were living in a Fassbinder film, every silver lining comes with a cloud or two.

The Israeli-born Kollek was unknown to me before SUE - he teamed up with Thomson in the similar-sounding FIONA, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a few months ago - but his resume encompasses a documentary on his father (longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek), several novels and straight-to-video titles like WHORE 2 and FIVE LESBIAN GIRLS. A mixed bag, to be sure, but he shows a real flair for this kind of low-key character study. Refreshingly, he doesn't rely on jittery handheld camera to show us how gritty and authentic these Manhattan street scenes are. Unfortunately, Kollek's direction is better than his screenplay; his hand is always visible in the coincidence-driven narrative, especially once the events of the last half hour starts paralleling those of the first. (Weak performances in several of the smaller roles don't make things go down any smoother.) Additionally, his interest in telling such an unfashionable story comes with a predictable downside: the kind of miserabilist sensibility that always opts for gloom over catharsis. But SUE exists first and foremost as an anti-star vehicle for Thomson's edgy performance, and she and Kollek succeed in creating an affecting portrait of this lost soul.


STEAM

Directed by Ferzan Ozpetek

Written by Ozpetek and Stefano Tummolini

With Alessandro Gassman, Francesca DÕAloja, Halil Ergün and Serif Sezer

Distributed by Strand Releasing

**1/2

STEAM puts a gay twist on the old story of the uptight Westerner who loses his or her inhibitions in those liberating warm Eastern or Southern climes. It's a story that tends to be sentimental at best and racist at worst, and STEAM initially feels like a pretty tiresome exercise in exoticism. Every meal is a banquet, every other scene is scored with ferocious Sufi devotional music and the titular hamam (steam bath) itself is an erotic paradise, filled with nude or nearly nude men at every turn. In this case, that Westerner is Francesco (Alessandro Gassman), an Italian man drawn to Istanbul after inheriting a hamam from his aunt, who loved the way "steam loosened men's mores along with their bodies." Once his girlfriend Marta (Francesca D'Aloja) turns up, the film becomes a little bit more complex, as it begins to explore what a woman might make of such a homoerotic milieu. Nevertheless, character development and narrative take a back seat to vicarious tourism, and STEAM winds up maintaining one's interest throughout without ever really engaging it.