THE CLAY BIRD (Unrated, 98 minutes)

Subtle to the point of inscrutability, the 1960s-set "The Clay Bird" is a nonetheless compelling look at both the personal and social dynamics of a Muslim family living uneasily among Hindus in East Pakistan in the days before the region gained independence and became Bangladesh. Switching back and forth between the family's rural village -- where the father's (Jayanto Chattopadhyay) reliance on homeopathic medicine jeopardizes the health of his sick daughter (Lameesa R. Reemjheem) -- and the distant Islamic school that the son (Nurul Islam Bablu) has reluctantly been sent to, the film swings between restrained melodrama and sweeping history. Relationships are both cemented (between the boy and an eccentric classmate, played by charmer Russell Farazi) and broken (between the autocratic father and his heartbroken wife, played by Rokeya Prachy), even as social upheaval roils in the background, creating a larger context but not necessarily adding much to the family dramas. Taking its title from a musical allusion to the soul as a bird, "The Clay Bird" strikes several beautiful and lingering chords about the human condition, but the notes of the music ultimately never come together to form a coherent song. Contains a bad word, a drug reference, rough treatment of children, discussion of military repression, off-camera violence and thematic material related to the death of a child. In Bengali with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

LOVE OBJECT (Unrated, 91 minutes)

What's love got to do with it? Nerdy technical writer Kenneth (Desmond Harrington) buys Nikki, a hyper-realistic $10,000 sex doll, purely out of lust. But Kenneth's impulsive -- and potentially bankrupting -- purchase arrives at the same time he's developing a crush on a flesh-and-blood co-worker, Lisa (Melissa Sagemiller). In fact, Kenneth's growing fondness for Lisa, who returns his interest, makes his purchase of Nikki seem ill-timed at best. But then plausibility is not among the strengths of writer-director Robert Parigi's low-budget movie, which is full of distractingly unpersuasive details. In fact, "Love Object" is the sort of clumsy undertaking that trips up everyone and everything in it. Even veteran actors Rip Torn (who plays Kenneth's self-serving boss) and Udo Kier (as Kenneth's creepy playboy neighbor) look like amateurs in this context. Sagemiller, whose assignment is merely to appear pretty and nice, emerges largely unscathed (unlike her character). But Harrington fails utterly to make Kenneth and his obsessions compelling. That's not really the actor's fault. For Kenneth to make the transitions that Parigi's thin, unconvincing script requires, Harrington would have to supply the bulk of the characterization himself. That's no small responsibility, especially considering that he plays many of his scenes either alone or in the company of a mute plastic doll. Only a master of atmosphere could overcome the silliness of the plot, an Internet-age update of the '50s sci-fi staple in which it turns out that simulations of people are just not human, darn it. When Kenneth starts taking calls from Nikki, viewers are more likely to think of Bob Newhart's telephone routines than such chilling Hitchcockian crack-ups as Anthony Perkins's in "Psycho." And the nasty final twist, which might have proved amusing in a better-made film, here proves about as satisfying as, well, an affair with a mannequin. Contains sex, violence, sexualized captivity and off-camera dismemberment. At Visions Bar Noir.

-- Mark Jenkins

A SLIPPING-DOWN LIFE (R, 111 minutes)

The belated release of "A Slipping-Down Life," which was finished in 1999, raises an interesting question. It's not "Why has it been languishing on the shelf for five years?," but "Why is it being dragged into the light of day now?" Despite the presence of the wonderful Lili Taylor as a Southern amusement-park worker who becomes obsessed with a pretentious, glasses-wearing art-rocker (Guy Pearce), the film is a huge disappointment. Never mind that there's never really any good reason for Evie (Taylor) to go so gaga over "Drumstrings" Casey's (Pearce) music. Sample lyric: "I'll keep your monkey / I'll treat him good / I'll talk to him like he talks to you." Certainly not so gaga that she carves his name into her forehead with broken glass. I guess that made more sense in the book, by Anne Tyler. Here, in obscure-actress-turned-writer-director Toni Kalem's adaptation, it just seems weird, along with much else about the film. For instance, what is there about Evie that attracts Drumstrings to the point that he marries her (as opposed to taking out a restraining order)? And when is the film set? Based on the mix of vintage and modern-looking clothing, period-jumping incidental music and props that seem scavenged from a junk yard, it could be anytime in the last 25 to 30 years. And the film's crucial scene, in which a now less than happily married Drumstrings and Evie host a disastrous dinner party for his mother and what appears to be his violently alcoholic father, comes out of left field. As a whole, the film is a perplexing, dark and brooding exercise, which only makes its inappropriately cheery ending feel all the more slight. Contains vulgar language and sexual references. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

TWENTYNINE PALMS (Unrated, 91 minutes)

Publicity material describes "Twentynine Palms," in which a young Los Angeleno (David Wissak) takes a film-location-scouting trip to the California desert with his girlfriend (Katia Golubeva) as "bouts of frantic sex, impassioned fights and hasty reconciliations." That's about right. By my accounting, the story goes something like this: fight, sex, fight, fight, attempted sex, attempted sex, fight, sex, fight, fight, sex, big fight, smaller fight, followed by horrific, explosive conclusion involving both sex and a fight. (I'm leaving out the "hasty reconciliations," since most of them involve sex anyway.) In between the characters, also named Katia and David, shop, eat, drive and watch television. Well, that's the substance of the film anyway. Stylistically, French director Bruno Dumont's film is a little like listening to Ben Stein read from the phone book, punctuated by letters to Penthouse and passages from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In other words, it's alternately monotonous, hot and dramatic, which makes for a peculiar, not entirely unsatisfying atmosphere of neo -- or is that post? -- noir. What it all means, of course, I have no idea, except as a cautionary tale about the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with a volatile, if sexually available, woman. "You're not well," David tells Katia at one point, after she has blown up at him for, among other things, glancing for a half-second at a woman in a Chinese restaurant. No kidding. As for the ending, which really earns this film its place in Visions Bar Noir's ongoing "Truly Shocking Showcase," it could be read as Dumont's warning to all psycho girlfriends: Lay off the histrionics or something bad -- and I mean baaad -- will happen to you. Contains fairly graphic sex, sex talk, nudity, vulgarity and violence. In English and French with subtitles. At Visions Bar Noir.

-- Michael O'Sullivan