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Indie Flix

By STEVE PERSALL and PHILIP BOOTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


Movies in limited release:

'The Claim' could have been a contender

The Claim (R) (120 min.) -- Each year, a few films released late for awards consideration are swamped by movies with higher profiles and publicity budgets. They are just as deserving of attention as those winding up on top-10 lists, but they are without immediate raves or box office success. Studios simply give up, planning a few engagements to boost home video awareness.

Such a hard-luck movie is The Claim, finally getting a Tampa Bay run after making its debut in selected markets for Oscar consideration last December.

The Claim is simply a solid story, finely acted and photographed, transporting viewers to the California gold rush. Director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) and screenwriter Frank Cotrell Boyce adapted Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge into an Old West melodrama of lust, mistaken motives and one stunning miscalculation in a powerful man's life.

Peter Mullan (Miss Julie, My Name is Joe) impresses as Daniel Dillon, a gold mogul controlling a bustling mining town called Kingdom Come. How he gained that fortune is a shocker: Daniel exchanged his wife and small daughter for a mining claim that eventually paid off. The decision cost him more emotionally. Wealth distracts Peter's attention from his guilt but doesn't save him from it.

Plans for a railroad passing through town are a mixed blessing. Transportation would be a boon but could bring rivals to Peter's power, so he doesn't welcome the railroad surveyor Dalglish (Wes Bentley) with open arms. Meanwhile, Peter's former wife, Elena (Nastassja Kinski), and grown daughter Hope (Sarah Polley) arrive in Kingdom Come.

Nobody except Peter and Elena know his connection to the women, so his interest appears more sexual than neighborly. Dalglish flirts with Hope, a development that makes Peter jealous in a fatherly way, another reason to run the surveyor out of town.

Winterbottom and his actors keep these soapy subplots bearable while cinematographer Alwin Kuchler makes each frame memorable. Natural lighting effects lend authenticity inside, while natural beauty makes exterior shots breathtaking. The Claim looks a lot like Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller with its frostbitten setting and sense of elegaic doom. It's almost as good a movie.

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Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. A-

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

'Luzhin Defense' put in check

The Luzhin Defence (PG-13) (106 min.) -- There's something undeniably compelling, initially, about the attraction the high-born Natalia (Emily Watson), a White Russian emigre, feels for brilliant chess master Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) in director Marleen Gorris' adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel.

The wealthy aristocrat, staying with her parents at a ritzy hotel on Lake Como in Italy, circa the 1920s, is on a mission for a suitable mate. She discovers, instead, a tortured genius, a shambling guy in a well-worn suit, distinguished by his utter lack of social graces, whose conversation is mostly limited to "hey" and "yes." He likes her and, more than that, needs her, as a sort of motherly protector for his fragile state of mind.

Natalia gravitates to the eccentric Luzhin, admirably played by Turturro as far as it goes, perhaps because he represents a kind of future -- a long, strange trip -- that might be markedly different than the one for which she was born and bred.

Gorris (Antonia's Line) and screenwriter Peter Berry unfortunately don't offer much of an explanation about Luzhin's appeal to the woman beyond his vague exoticism and the disdain for the coupling expressed by Natalia's parents (Peter Blythe and Caroline James). Perhaps the chess genius is indeed mysterious and complex, but he comes off as simply detached, emotionally and mentally imbalanced.

The story, centered on a world-championship tournament, is broken up with flashbacks to Luzhin's childhood, melodramatic passages meant to explain how the troubled man was traumatized as a youth. And the beautifully photographed tale is spiced with the addition of a villain, in the form of a former chess teacher (Stuart Wilson) absolutely eaten up with envy. The Luzhin Defence, ultimately unsatisfying, feels like a missed opportunity.

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Opens Friday at Beach Theater in St. Pete Beach and Tampa Theatre. B-

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent

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