‘The Eclipse’ is a haunting romance

Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s agreeably melancholy, spooky and romantic “The Eclipse” -- his third film as writer-director -- gets the most out of assorted hauntings. There’s the case of widowed woodworker Michael (Ciarán Hinds), a glum sort with two kids who not only mourns for his wife but begins to see terrifying visions of his still-alive (but in failing health) father.

At his seaside town’s annual literary festival, he volunteers as a driver for a beautiful horror novelist named Lena (Iben Hjejle), who believes in the supernatural and senses a connection with the soft-spoken Michael. She’s fending off the advances of hotshot writer Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), who swears a previous assignation of theirs has “haunted” him. Nicholas is a ghost of a different sort, however, the pathetic married lothario for whom literary fests are a haunt for easy praise and trysts.

McPherson, co-adapting with Billy Roche a short story of Roche’s, has modest ambitions for this controlled exercise: get us to root for Michael (which Hinds’ grim sensitivity makes easy); woo us with heavy atmosphere, aided by Fionnuala Ni Chiosain’s ethereally unsettling score; and every so often rattle our nerves. But with a well-knit array of picturesque long shots, shadow-strewn medium takes and the occasional silhouetted close-up, “The Eclipse” finds plenty of heartfelt gravity in its tale of love lost and found on a gothic coast.

-- Robert Abele “The Eclipse.” MPAA rating: R for language and some disturbing images. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At selected theaters.

Complex, unique ‘Harimaya’

For his powerful “The Harimaya Bridge,” writer-director Aaron Woolfolk was inspired by such classic Japanese films as “Ikiru” and “Tokyo Story” to take his time in telling his tale. And, indeed, Woolfolk needs a full two hours for his hero to work through understandable bitterness to his first steps toward acceptance and reconciliation.

Ben Guillory’s Daniel Holder is a wealthy San Francisco widower determined to go to Japan to retrieve the paintings left behind by his son, who had been teaching English in a Japanese middle school when he was killed in a traffic accident. Daniel had worked so hard to make a better life for his son Mickey (Victor Grant) that he had little time for him. Having lost his own father to a hideous death as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II, Daniel vehemently opposed Mickey going to Japan. Wracked with guilt and anger, plus his hatred toward the Japanese, Daniel arrives in Kochi Prefecture demanding that Noriko, a board of education official (Saki Takaoka), round up for him all of Mickey’s paintings, even those his son had given to friends as gifts.

Not surprisingly, Daniel’s mission proves complicated and involves some surprises. Although exasperated and put upon by Daniel, Noriko is a compassionate woman moved by his plight and is willing to stick by him in his gradual, painful journey of self-discovery. “The Harimaya Bridge” has accomplished portrayals from Guillory, Takaoka and others and a remarkably authentic Japanese feel to it -- and an African American perspective. (Indeed, Woolfolk is believed to be the first African American to make a feature film in Japan.) It is a unique, complex, consciousness-raising accomplishment.

-- Kevin Thomas “The Harimaya Bridge.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

‘Harmony’ hits the right tone

“Harmony and Me,” written and directed by Austin-based Bob Byington, represents much of what is wonderful and fresh about the recent wave of ultra-low-budget American independent filmmaking.

Though at first seemingly offhanded to the point of haphazard, the film reveals itself to have a finely tuned construction and acute sense of rhythm and character, hitting its marks just so for beats of laugh-out-loud comedy and subtle, unexpected emotional clarity.

Harmony (Justin Rice) has recently broken up with his girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker), but as he will tell anyone of his broken heart, “she hasn’t finished the job, she’s still at it.” Byington coaxes a delicately spirited performance from Rice, and makes space for an array of supporting characters played by a crew of independent film personalities including Kevin Corrigan, Alex Karpovsky and Nick Offerman.

Any filmmaker who uses Jonathan Richman’s song “Government Center” as a running theme obviously knows a thing or two about the collision of joyous whimsy and bittersweet melancholy and Byington, working with editor Frank Ross, fashions the film into something of an accidental musical.

Throughout, Harmony is taking piano lessons and working on a song called “Finishing Touches,” scenes that are in their way every bit as affecting as the songwriting sequences in “Once.” As well, the film’s unlikely centerpiece is a wedding singer (Bob Schneider) inappropriately directing a love song to the bride. (The uproariously slow-burning groom is played by Byington himself.)

After a successful festival run, Byington is distributing “Harmony” himself. It is perhaps a bit of a stretch (but not by much) to think of the film as something of a metaphor for the contemporary state of independent film, as “Harmony and Me” winds up being not about triumph or winning but about perseverance, acceptance and finding contentment with where you’re at.

-- Mark Olsen “Harmony and Me.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. At the Laemmle Sunset Five, West Hollywood.

‘Pluto’ captures typical teen life

You may have seen everything that happens in “West of Pluto” in countless other movies, but never quite the way it’s presented here.

This snapshot of 24 hours in the life of a group of suburban Quebec teenagers deftly mixes documentary-like realism with an offbeat, indie film vibe resulting in an engaging and surprisingly involving dramedy. Co-writer-directors Henry Bernadet and Myriam Verreault’s unique approach takes a bit of time to gel, but satisfies once the movie’s narrative intentions become clear.

Through its array of giddy, angsty and pseudo-deep adolescents -- played here by an ensemble of non-professional actors -- the film succinctly captures the roller coaster emotions of average teens as they navigate friendship, romance, sex, drugs, partying, high school, parents, music and more.

These essentially bright, decent kids may be types (the outsider, the science geek, the virgin, the angry one) but never feel like stereotypes, thanks to the authentic performances, unforced dialogue and the filmmakers’ respectful, near-Hughesian take on their characters and subject.

The movie, much of which revolves around a house party gone awry, is effectively punctuated by amusing classroom show-and-tells, thematically linked factoids about the (former) planet Pluto and a series of visually creative transitions (love that tree-wrestling dog). Nice job.

-- Gary Goldstein “West of Pluto.” MPAA rating: Unrated. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.