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Asylum (R) (99 min.) - Movies about sexual obsession fail whenever it doesn't make sense for anyone to be obsessing. One moment of doubt about why characters do what they're doing can doom such a movie; David Mackenzie's Asylum has plenty of those moments.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published September 15, 2005

Natasha Richardson plays Stella Raphael, a housewife whose marriage has soured when the movie begins. She's being dragged by her psychiatrist husband Max (Hugh Bonneville) to his next position in an English countryside hospital. It's the late 1950s, so Stella doesn't feel she can protest, as wives generally couldn't then. But that hardly explains the dangerously rebellious path she takes.

Stella is interested in restoring a dilapidated greenhouse and fascinated by the workman doing it. His name is Edgar (Marton Csokas), a sullen sort who murdered his wife. The actor's close resemblance to Russell Crowe is another reason we think Stella should tread carefully. A few furtive looks later, and Stella and Edgar are all over each other in the greenhouse, separating seconds before a security guard arrives. Asylum has too many close calls like that; somebody would get wise, maybe even Stella.

She has nothing to lose, but even less to gain by this affair. Screenwriters Patrick Marber (Closer) and Chrysanthy Balis never provide solid reasons for her to continue it. It's only a matter of time before Stella and Edgar are caught, but then what? The movie can either end on a tragic note or, as it does, flounder until the most unlikely thing occurs.

The actors treat this material much more seriously than it deserves. Richardson has some nice moments of repression in Mackenzie's first act, before the story goes awry. Csokas broods like a champ, and Bonneville's stuffiness seems like it could develop into something more interesting, but doesn't. The scene stealer by default is the old pro Ian McKellen, playing another psychiatrist passed over for a position Max gets. That's all you need to know to read between McKellen's juicy line readings.

Asylum begins as a nicely detailed period drama, perhaps a companion to Far From Heaven. Then it devolves into softcore porn, and finally into an unintentional parody of feminism-tinged period pieces like Far From Heaven. Mackenzie keeps a straight face throughout, which makes Asylum even harder to swallow. C-

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

* * *

2046 (R) (123 min.) - Wong Kar Wei's 2001 release In the Mood for Love was a tough movie for me to like, a drama of romantic obsession chiefly set in adjacent hotel rooms where two people avoided each other's affection. If Wong thinks he's clarifying that film with this navel-gazing companion piece, he's dead wrong.

In the Mood for Love possessed an artistic simplicity to match its thin plot. 2046 gets wildly elaborate telling a similarly thin story, if callbacks to the previous film, Chinese history lessons and poetic sci-fi erotica qualify as a plot. It's gorgeously photographed nonsense, and probably less if you aren't among Wong's devoted admirers.

Tony Leung sort of reprises his In the Mood for Love role as Chow, a writer whose current project is a futuristic tome the movie occasionally shifts into. The novel focuses on a train taking passengers to 2046, where memories supposedly can be restored. Nobody knows if it works because nobody ever returned. This time, instead of a recluse, Chow is a rakish playboy whose seductions and consequences steal time away from the more interesting sci-fi angle.

Whatever viewers take away from 2046 likely depends upon their feelings about In the Mood for Love. Awareness of the previous film - despite not caring for it - made 2046 more interesting as I tried to find parallels that Wong may or may not intend. People who embraced the previous movie may have an advantage in appreciation and understanding here. And if you didn't see the first one, you'll probably give up on 2046 halfway through. C+

- S.P.

* * *

HellBent (NR, probably R) (85 min.) - Two lustful young people are indulging their desires in a dark, wooded area when a maniac suddenly appears and murders them. It sounds like a lot of scenes in any number of slasher flicks, but this opening sequence in Paul Etheredge-Ouzts' movie has one major difference:

The victims are gay men whose desires indirectly led to gruesome deaths.

Whether that should be considered a breakthrough is debatable. HellBent doesn't raise the level of quality in modern horror, just gives it a makeover. The movie is amateurishly acted, adequately filmed and suitably gross for gore's core audience. Take away the same-sex angle and HellBent would blend into the bloody background. So, it must be asked: Do gay viewers want to see this? Or could it thrill gay bashers to watch homosexuals meet such nasty ends?

The elementary plot allows plenty of time to ponder such questions. Those prologue murders are turned over for investigation to Eddie (Dylan Fergus), a rookie West Hollywood police officer. Eddie's stuck in a desk job but since he's gay, his superiors think he can easily find clues. He isn't dedicated enough to skip the annual Halloween bash, but the party and the investigation will, of course, collide.

Etheredge-Ouzts obviously believes in camp over quality, so HellBent does have a joshing feel that's occasionally fun. The killer remains unidentifiable except for his devil-horns costume. Without any genuine mystery, death takes center stage, and a few of the murders are good for sick laughs. But there's unavoidable conflict between slasher aesthetics and gay cinema that viewers must sort out, or walk out. C

- S.P.

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