Made at the height of his art house popularity, Hal Hartley's Amateur (1994) is a typically droll affair for the filmmaker that did little to extend his fan base beyond those with an acquired taste for stiffly delivered dialogue and movement so unmotivated one can practically see the director's hands roughly guiding the actors to their marks. The story of an amnesiac, Thomas (Martin Donovan), who enlists the aid of a nymphomaniac, pornography-writing ex-nun Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) to help him rediscover his identity, it's essentially a story about redemption the twist being that the guy who's being saved has no idea why he's serving his penance. The details of Thomas's past are filled in by Sophia (Elina Lowensohn), a troubled porn star who caused his condition by defenestrating him through an apartment window. Happy to be free of the abusive lout who forced her into the seedy adult-film industry, Sophia inadvisably decides to blackmail one of Thomas's former investors, an unsavory arms dealer who sends hit-men to retrieve the floppy discs on which some kind of incriminating evidence is stored. Also drawn into the story is Edward, the arms dealer's accountant who is now on the lam after getting caught up in Thomas's scheme to rip off his employer. Edward is eventually caught by the hit-men, who torture him with electric shocks to ascertain Sophia's location. Somehow, this assault turns Edward into a feral animal, sending him on a rampage through New York City as he tries to reach Sophia before the assassins. Though terribly convoluted, Amateur is frequently amusing thanks to Hartley's gift for bizarre non sequiturs, exemplified by a scene in which a crazed Edward steals a police car, starts to drive off, and then inexplicably exits the vehicle to fire a shot in the air with his pistol before continuing on his way. Also, Hartley's dialogue, while terribly unnatural and intentionally tinny, is often very funny, serving to undercut the film's tendency towards pretension (most of the best bits center around the virgin Isabelle's declared nymphomania, and her many excuses to avoid making love with Thomas). Those who can't stand Hartley's exceedingly artificial style will find little to like here, but as an introduction to the director's aesthetic, Amateur, which offers more concessions to standard narrative structure than his other films, may very well be his most accessible work. That said, it's also a little undercooked; the mixing of Catholicism with the profane world of pornography seems mostly designed for shock value, and it never comes together in a thematically satisfying manner. There is also an annoying running gag about floppy discs' lack of pliancy that couldn't have been funny a decade ago, but is eminently groan-worthy today. Columbia TriStar presents Amateur in a decent, nearly full screen (1.55:1) transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include a brief behind-the-scenes doc entitled "Professional Amateurs: The Making of Amateur" (13 min.) and four theatrical trailers for other Sony product. Keep-case.
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