The Man Who Viewed Too Much
15 June 1998

The Truman Show

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
Grade: B+

Mr. Jealousy

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Grade: C+

The Last Days of Disco

Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Grade: B+

Hasty Reviews of Movies I've Been Studiously Ignoring

"Once in a lifetime, there comes a motion picture which changes the whole history of motion pictures. A picture so stunning in its effect, so vast in its impact, that it profoundly affects the lives of all who see it."

Rabid Python fans will already have recognized the above as the opening of the original theatrical trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the solemn, stentorian voiceover abruptly switches from English to Japanese and proceeds (via subtitles) to deflate any and all expectations for the movie it's ostensibly advertising. ("It has some quite funny moments...a fairly exciting story...and some low-budget adventure...but compared to something like Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, it's all rather silly.") But such was the level of hype that preceded The Truman Show, the admittedly remarkable new movie starring Jim Carrey, that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the film's trailer, which I somehow never saw, actually resorted to the kind of antiquated, self-important hyperbole that the Pythons so effectively parodied back in 1975. "The year's best movie!" trumpeted Entertainment Weekly, sounding positively restrained in its enthusiasm compared to Esquire, whose editors had previously proclaimed it "the film of the decade!" At the San Francisco theater at which I saw the movie, hordes of sickly-looking people seated in wheelchairs or hobbling on crutches waved cancelled airplane tickets to Lourdes in the faces of weary employees who explained patiently and repeatedly that the next available showtime was 10:30 and that the line was already forming around the corner and that management would not repeat not be refunding patrons' money in the event that no miracle took place.

The most frustrating aspect of all of this hullabaloo is that The Truman Show could and should have been the masterpiece that it so clearly aspires to be, and that many otherwise levelheaded critics seem to believe, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that it is. So perfectly attuned is its central idea to the millenial zeitgeist that I can't help but think rather wistfully of it as a missed opportunity -- this even though it's unquestionably one of the most thoughtful and distinctive Hollywood movies in recent memory. Not since Curtis Hanson's 1987 thriller The Bedroom Window, which wasted a fabulous Hitchcockian plot on the anti-charismatic Steve Guttenberg, have I sensed all-time-classic potential so sadly wasted.

(Right about here I'm gonna start revealing plot details that you're better off not knowing in advance, so I respectfully suggest that you bail if you haven't seen it yet and intend to.)

The Truman Show's bizarre, rather disturbing conceit -- a variant of which fuelled an impressive mid-'60s Paul Bartel short called The Secret Cinema (which I've seen, and to which Truman bears only the vaguest and non-litigation-worthy of resemblances) -- is that a televisionary dude by the painfully symbolic name of Christof (Ed Harris) conceived, some thirty years before the film's action begins, of a revolutionary show in which the protagonist would be completely unaware that his daily existence was being scrutinized by millions of fascinated voyeurs around the world. An orphaned infant by the painfully symbolic name of Truman Burbank (played in adulthood by Carrey) was jointly adopted by the OmniCam corporation, and has subsequently lived his entire life on the world's largest soundstage, surrounded by paid actors and blissfully unaware that he is the most famous human being on the planet. More than five thousand microscopic cameras, hidden in the dashboard of his car and behind his bathroom mirror and on the lapels of every extra in "town," record his every move and transmit it, live, to the show's legion of fans. Humdrum how-was-your-day? conversations are punctuated by covert advertisements, as Truman's relentlessly chipper "wife" (played by Laura Linney, and given the painfully symbolic name of Meryl, as in Streep) delivers a breathless paean to some new kitchen appliance or refreshing beverage, the product's brand name expertly angled toward whichever camera is currently broadcasting.

This is all just unbelievably creepy and Orwellian and nightmarish -- the moreso because the tone is so Wonderful-World-of-Disney-cheerful and the fake town (played by the real-life Florida burg of Seaside, which I now never ever want to go anywhere near) so backlot-antiseptic -- and the first hour or so of the movie is pretty darn close to brilliant. The Truman Show was written by Andrew Niccol, who also wrote and directed last year's wan dystopian drama Gattaca; but where that film laboriously spelled everything out for the patience-impaired, this one deliberately withholds information, so that even those who walk in knowing the film's central premise are bound to be somewhat disoriented. (Disappointingly, the film hedges its bets, eventually detailing The Story So Far via an interview with Christof, for the benefit of those with poor deductive reasoning skills. But at least this time the movie was nearly over before the spoon-feeding began.) Director Peter Weir, whose best movie in quite some time this is, shoots much of the action from weird, cramped angles or through distorting lenses, and the experience is as uncomfortably voyeuristic as anything since Rear Window. Best of all, The Truman Show is sensationally entertaining: clever and gripping and astonishing and even occasionally poignant (I'll admit to getting choked up by the admittedly sappy revelation concering Truman's penchant for tearing pages out of women's fashion magazines).

It's also -- and I certainly never expected to say this about a Jim Carrey movie -- fairly profound, posing questions that philosophers have been bickering about for centuries (my friend Matt, a former philosophy grad student, virtually dictated a thesis during the post-film discussion at Mel's): what is the nature of reality? to what extent are we products of our environment, passively accepting the paradigms offered to us? could the media maybe like calm down for say a second or two? (Okay, maybe Hume didn't get to that last one.) The trouble is, Weir and Niccol know this all too well, and ultimately they aren't content to simply present this hypothetical entertainment future and let us puzzle out the larger implications for ourselves. For a long time, the film strikes just the right balance between text and subtext, concentrating on the details of Truman's plight and his gradual awakening to the artificiality of his existence, encouraging speculation about the similarities between his circumstances and our own without ever being didactic or pushy about it. In the final reels, however, The Truman Show becomes overtly and rather tediously allegorical, with Christof-as-God ("cue the sun") literally controlling the elements in an attempt to prevent Truman from escaping the soundstage in a commandeered sailboat. (The truly ludicrous climax of Gattaca involves a oceanic swimming contest; Niccol seems to believe that you haven't really faced your demons until you've faced them at sea.) The final confrontation between the show's creator and its star, in particular, makes no sense whatsoever unless you're prepared to interpret it as Adam giving The Big Guy the finger and strolling apple core in hand out of Eden. It's all very intelligent and incisive; what it isn't, sadly, is dramatically satisfying. Intellectually, I applaud the bold decision to shift focus from Truman to Christof and his staff at a key moment late in the film; emotionally, that was exactly the moment at which I more or less checked out.

Longtime visitors to this site will recall that I bow to virtually nobody in my admiration of Jim Carrey, even though most of his movies to date haven't much impressed me. The Truman Show -- far and away the best film in which he's ever appeared -- is reportedly another step (following the somewhat underrated The Cable Guy) in his transformation from rubberfaced clown to serious thespian; at his current rate of progress, I expect to see him play a recognizable human being around the time that I cash my first Social Security check. As Truman Burbank, he's still largely a caricature -- and rightly so, since Truman has effectively spent his entire life trapped in a late-'50s sitcom -- but he's more restrained than usual, less antic...and, I'm sorry to report, less interesting. He gives the film's more somber moments the old college try, but his face seems somehow incapable of communicating complex emotions -- even his most subtle expressions appear larger than life. I suppose you could argue that this was deliberate, a means of suggesting that even Truman's private demeanor has been subtly distorted by his environment, but if so, it's another clever idea that simply doesn't work onscreen -- it just looks as if Carrey doesn't understand what the word "less" means. (Like his longtime paramour, Lauren Holly, he tends to equate acting seriously with opening one's eyes as widely as possible while staring into some remote distance.)

The truth is that The Truman Show, for all its ambition and conceptual chutzpah, is most effective when exploring the funniest, most potentially "commercial" (from the viewpoint of a Hollywood studio making a Jim Carrey movie) aspects of its frightening vision. One quick example: because it's crucial that Truman remain on the enormous set at all times, lest the illusion crumble, great pains are taken to discourage him from leaving town. Niccol introduces a maudlin subplot about the death of Truman's "father" and the psychological trauma that it inspired, leaving young Truman a hydrophobic on what is ostensibly an island community...but far more memorable and pointed is the sight gag that is the little town's travel agency, said agency being positively festooned with posters depicting horrific transportation disasters. Allegedly throwaway bits like these lend the movie all the thematic weight that it needs; the metaphysical huffing and puffing is not merely unnecessary but downright destructive. Don't get me wrong -- I rather enjoyed The Truman Show. It has some quite funny moments...a fairly exciting story...and some big-budget adventure. But when it tries to be Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, it's all rather silly. (So is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, in my opinion, but that's another column.)

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In 1991, Anthony Minghella wrote and directed his first feature, a terrific film called Truly Madly Deeply that wound up making my top ten list for that year. A couple of years later, he directed his second feature, which was -- how can I put this kindly? -- quite a bit less terrific. It was a romantic comedy entitled Mr. Wonderful, and it starred Ms. Annabella Sciorra, who, while maybe not among my favorite movie actors, had always struck me as thoroughly competent and dependable. The movie was an ordeal, yes, but I didn't blame her. Just one of those sophomore-slump-type misfires, surely.

In 1995, Noah Baumbach wrote and directed his first feature, a terrific film called Kicking and Screaming that wound up making my top ten list for that year. Now, three years later, he's directed his second feature, and it's something of a disappointment, I'm afraid. It's a romantic comedy entitled Mr. Jealousy, and it stars Ms. Annabella Sciorra...who, I now realize -- how can I put this kindly? -- is the Antichrist.

Okay, that's putting it a little harshly. Granted, Sciorra doesn't exactly set the screen ablaze in this movie; but then, neither does its nominal star, Eric Stoltz, who's so frustratingly passive that Gene Siskel remarked that the film should really be called Mr. Hesitant. (I'd plump for Mr. Mildly Flustered, myself.) Lester Grimm, Stoltz's character, is alleged by the film's omniscient narrator (Baumbach himself, who never shuts up; it's like he's reading a novel aloud to you and the movie itself is an afterthought, equivalent to a book's illustrations) to be pathologically jealous, but it's an assertion that's unsupported by anything we see him do onscreen; for Lester, jealousy is the green-eyed sloth that doth sit around in the noonday sun blinking its eyes lazily and wondering where it might find a little meat to mock. Yes, Lester is suspicious enough to impulsively join the therapy group to which his girlfriend Ramona's former lover Dashiell Frank belongs, in an attempt to dig up some dirt vis-a-vis her past, but his problem isn't so much jealousy as it is garden-variety insecurity; like Chasing Amy, Mr. Jealousy turns out to be a movie about a guy who can't deal with his girlfriend's sexual history. Which would be fine, really, if only he weren't not dealing with it so incredibly calmly.

I wish I had something more profound and analytical to report, but the basic problem is that Mr. Jealousy isn't nearly as funny as it ought to be, largely because Baumbach sets up a potentially brilliant farcical premise and then inexplicably forsakes it in order to concentrate on the mundane tensions that arise between Lester and Ramona (Sciorra, a.k.a The Beast), neither of whom is an especially memorable character. The heart of the movie is -- or damn well should have been -- the therapy sessions, in which Lester pretends to be his good friend Vince (Carlos Jacott), offering the group Vince's personal problems to dissect whenever he's not subtly pumping Dashiell Frank for info about Ramona, and occasionally referring to himself, i.e. Lester, in the third person. Initially peeved, Vince soon comes to rely on Lester's reports of the group's advice, and eventually joins the group himself, posing as Lester and adopting, for no apparent reason, a hilariously unconvincing English accent. So now what you've got is two people, with completely different agendas, pretending to be each other in volatile group therapy. Great comic idea, no? Unfortunately, by the time Baumbach gets to it, the movie is basically over; he's already frittered most of the running time away on banal confrontations between our mildly flustered protagonist and his bland paramour, not to mention reams and reams of anachronistically literary narration. (Truffaut was clearly Baumbach's muse for this one, and Baumbach admits as much by borrowing Georges Delerue's lovely, unbearably poignant theme from Jules and Jim.)

I know we critics are supposed to write about the movie that got made rather than speculate about the movie we think the director ought to have made, but in this case the two actually coexist, with the latter struggling in vain to extricate itself from the former. Arrogant as it may seem, I wish I'd been able to read an early draft of Baumbach's screenplay, well before production began, so that I could have told him "yo, here's your movie -- now go write that." Or at the very least warned him about the tiny "666" tattooed on Annabella Sciorra's right shoulderblade. Are you listening, Alexander Payne? Billy Bob?

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While I wouldn't recommend Mr. Jealousy to most people, it's probably worth seeing cheaply for fans of the gleefully irascible Chris Eigeman, who plays Lester's smarmy celebrity-author nemesis, Dashiell Frank. A matinee-idol-handsome actor with superb comic timing but of (so far) fairly limited range -- his forte is ridiculously articulate, self-absorbed jerks -- Eigeman has had quite the unusual career to date; he's appeared in seven films over the past eight years, but six of the seven are the work of only two directors: Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman. (His third film with Baumbach, the entirely improvised Highball, should turn up sometime later this year.) Coincidentally, Mr. J was released in New York just a week after the latest Stillman opus, The Last Days of Disco, and so suddenly it's Eigemania! here in Gotham -- a rare treat. Is there a reason nobody else is hiring this guy?

In Disco, set during the early '80s (and establishing, at long last, by implication, a mid-'70s setting for Stillman's Metropolitan, which was described only as taking place "not so long ago": a few of its characters, clearly older and professional now, turn up in cameos here, played by the same obscure actors), Eigeman plays a fellow named Des, the assistant manager of a popular but unidentified New York City disco. (It's invariably referred to simply as The Club, which distracted me for a while, as I kept picturing that metallic monstrosity that urban drivers attach to their steering wheels.) The club's regular patrons round out the ensemble cast: there's Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ad exec whose livelihood apparently depends on his ability to hustle his clients into this particular nightspot, from which he's unfortunately been banned; Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant D.A. about whom rumors of past mental illness swirl; Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a rather generic Harvard Man with a passion for Scrooge McDuck; and Alice and Charlotte (Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale), two publishing grunts with wildly disparate temperaments -- Alice sweet and almost impossibly naïve, Charlotte acid-tongued and brutally ambitious. If you've seen one or both of Stillman's previous films, you know what to expect from this lot: precise, hilariously mannered conversation and hesitant romantic overtures. This time, however, there are also wonderful, non-verbal interludes during which our self-conscious, analytical heroes proceed to boogie-oogie-oogie 'til they just can't boogie no more.

Some critics have objected to The Last Days of Disco on the grounds that Stillman has chosen to concentrate on the least interesting folks associated with the disco era: why make a movie about the yuppies who belatedly hopped aboard the sequined bandwagon, they ask, rather than celebrating (or at least detailing) the underground, largely gay subculture that was the heart and soul of the movement? I'm not saying that their preferred take on the subject wouldn't make a fine motion picture (and I'm not sure to what extent the upcoming 54 will placate them -- not much, is my trailer-based guess), but in fact it's the juxtaposition of uptight neurotics with an atmosphere of get-down decadence that makes Disco so much fun to watch -- it's as if characters from an Austen novel had somehow been plonked into Lambada: The Movie. And while the male characters (Des excepted) are disappointingly indistinguishable -- it took me a while to consistently identify which befuddled young man was Jimmy and which was Josh, and I'm sure I would have confused both of them with Tom had I not recognized R.S. Leonard from Dead Poets Society -- Alice and Charlotte, who function as the film's protagonists if anybody does (Alice in particular), make a terrific yin/yang duo, with Beckinsale spitting out insults in a flawless American accent and Sevigny confirming, yet again (cf. Trees Lounge), that she's the most remarkable young actress since the early heyday of Jennifer Jason Leigh. (Harmony Korine, I predict, will wind up a footnote in her biography.)

The main reason to see the movie, however, is Stillman's dialogue, which remains as sharp and satisfying as ever. For example, one of Disco's highlights is a hilarious dicussion of the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp; Josh maintains that the movie is designed to program women to love ne'er-do-wells, while Des passionately defends Tramp, suggesting that he's really a decent, misunderstood fellow who's fully capable of turning his life around given the right circumstances. What's funny about the scene is less the pop-culture deconstruction, which is ubiquitous nowadays, than the charged subtext: what the two men are really arguing about is which one of them deserves Alice's love and affection, and everybody listening to the argument knows it. So little happens in a Stillman picture that this exchange functions as high drama, one of the film's emotional climaxes; and The Last Days of Disco, for all its charms, ultimately felt a bit slight to me. But then, so did Metropolitan, to which I would probably originally have allotted the same "nice job" B+ grade, but which has gradually become, via repeated viewings, one of my favorite movies of the '90s. I don't imagine that several more screenings of Disco will have the same effect on me -- the novelty of Stillman's worldview has worn off by now -- but any movie starring Chris Eigeman is worth seeing at least twice. At least until the guy finds a third auteur to work with.

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Once upon a time, I'd planned to write an entire column about this year's New Directors/New Films program, which I saw in its entirety. Now, five months later, as the list of films that I've seen but not yet reviewed continues to grow like Audrey II, the very idea seems laughable -- but the truth is that I probably would've changed my mind even if I hadn't fallen behind, because most of the films in this year's lineup could most charitably be described as "interesting, kinda, I guess, in a way, maybe." Few of the pictures in question will ever turn up outside of the festival circuit, but a handful have since been commercially released; Carine Adler's monotonous Under the Skin, inexplicably, is among these, even though its banal theme -- repressed grief expressed as self-destructive lust -- would barely sustain a twelve-minute short. Samantha Morton, as the affection-starved protagonist, is utterly fearless, exposing her own body and her character's soul with equal candor; after a couple of reels, though, I found myself wishing that she'd held something in reserve, because every five minutes of the movie looked exactly like the previous five minutes, which themselves bore a mighty suspicious resemblance to the five minutes before that, which etc. As a debut, it isn't entirely without promise -- Adler's got casual seaminess down pat, if nothing else -- but I do hope that her next film will tackle more than one emotion. Grade: C

While I'm idly hoping, let me also express a fervent wish that Shane Meadows' second feature, whatever it may be, pulse with the raucous energy of his profanely hilarious short Where's the Money Ronnie! -- one of the very few truly first-rate short films I've ever seen. To my astonishment -- and you'd really have to see Ronnie to understand why I'm so nonplussed -- his first feature, TwentyFourSeven, amounts to the artiest, bleakest after-school special ever made. Shot in pristine black-and-white, it stars good old redoubtable Bob Hoskins as a lonely middle-aged bloke committed to reforming the local lads by organizing a boxing club; the lads in question are largely interchangeable, though (Meadows highlights each one during the closing credits -- one of those "Danny Nussbaum as Tim" deals -- and I was alarmed to find that I didn't even recognize most of them, couldn't think of a single thing they'd said or done during the entire preceding hour-and-a-half), and the film is saddled with a "message" so simplistic that it almost demands one of those soberly cheerful hosts who appears at the end of the show to make a speech beginning "And remember, kids..." Mildly entertaining and relentlessly gorgeous, but that's about it; Hoskins, as ever, is superb. Grade: B-

"Relentlessly gorgeous" is not a phrase that anybody would feel compelled to use in describing Junk Mail, a Norwegian film by a fellow named Pål Sletaune. Matter of fact, most of the critical huzzahs that I've seen have focused on Sletaune's depiction of the scuzzier side of his stereotypically sterile country, as if merely admitting that Oslo has an underbelly were an act of remarkable bravery. (Maybe that's what's stressed in the press kit.) Oddly, the same critics seem more than willing to overlook the film's disappointing plot, in which an irresponsible, spiteful, and generally disgusting postman finds a set of keys while on his rounds, lets himself into the apartment in question (that of a beautiful, mysterious woman, natch), and finds himself up to his no doubt bacteria-redolent armpits in what I guess according to my stupid metaphor would be much-needed hot water. What begins as an intriguing character study gradually evolves into a sketchy, unconvincing thriller; Sletaune rallies at the conclusion, with a beautiful, bizarrely moving final shot, but it's too little too late, I'm afraid. Nice muck, though. Grade: C+

The best film I saw at New Directors this year, apart from Vincent Gallo's stunning Buffalo '66 (which I'll review at length next time), was Dariush Mehrjui's Leila, from Iran. Iran, as any self-respecting film buff knows, is "hot" right now, as China was a decade ago and Germany was a decade before that; but virtually all of the plaudits emanating from the West have been bestowed on the work of just two directors: Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Both are unquestionably masters (even if I do think Kiarostami's latest, Taste of Cherry, is ludicrously overrated), but I must confess that I grow somewhat weary of their flat, affectless, no-frills-whatsoever aesthetic, which begins to seem to me as oppressive as Hollywood's overbearing razzle-dazzle. Imagine my delight, then, at seeing an Iranian film that actually explores some of the more expressive possibilities of the medium: dissolves, tracking shots, non-naturalistic lighting and sound, off-kilter compositions. More importantly, Mehrjui's technical virtuosity is in service of a compelling, heartbreaking tale of emotional strife and well-meaning duplicity, one that reminded me powerfully of Ibsen's best work. (Mehrjui's also directed an adaptation of A Doll's House, in fact, which I haven't yet seen.) Unfortunately, Leila has no American distributor, so odds are you'll never have a chance to see it; if it comes to a rep house or festival near you, though, sprint don't crawl. Grade: A-

One of the films I'd expected to see in New Directors this year was Lisa Cholodenko's Sundance fave High Art, featuring mid-'80s icon Ally Sheedy as a burned-out, substance-abusing, polymorphously perverse photographer of the Nan Goldin ilk. And, okay, yeah, it's admittedly somewhat fascinating to see Sheedy again at age thirtysomething -- her face drawn and haggard, her manner weary and no-nonsense, her body writhing sensuously against that of baby-faced Australian ingenue Radha Mitchell (Love and Other Catastrophes). Nostalgia-derived novelty only goes so far, though; getting my attention is one thing, but holding it is something else again, and ultimately High Art is merely the latest in a dispiritingly long line of movies in which the mere existence of a same-gender relationship is mistakenly assumed to automatically yield world-shaking drama. If you've seen the film, try this mental exercise: imagine that Ally Sheedy's part had been played by, say, Andrew McCarthy (not as ridiculous a notion as it initially sounds, really), and ask yourself whether you'd have cared for a moment about what followed. See? It's a snooze, isn't it? Well, guess what? Grade: C

Snoozing is something the tortured, guilty protagonist of the too-darn-cerebral thriller Insomnia, set in Norway during those summer months when the sun never sinks below the horizon, finds virtually impossible to accomplish. (For night owls like myself, the film is effectively set in Hell.) Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting, the forthcoming Ronin), who seems poised to become the first Scandinavian actor to make an impression on the average American moviegoer since Bergman stalwart Max von Sydow began camping it up in the likes of The Exorcist and Flash Gordon and (egad) Strange Brew, makes his usual forceful impression, playing a cop who accidentally kills another officer during a botched raid on a murder suspect's hideout and becomes more concerned with covering up his culpability than with pursuing the perp. First-time director Erik Skjoldbjærg, ambitiously attempting a sunlit noir, expertly creates a mood of psychological tension and creeping instability, but seems at a loss as to where to go from there; what excitement there is is entirely anticipatory, and this is one of those frustrating pictures that doesn't so much conclude as simply halt, like a traveler who's just belatedly realized that he's utterly lost and that the roadmap's back in the glove compartment at home. Too late to turn back now.... Grade: B-

Norway, to my retroactive surprise, chose to submit Junk Mail rather than Insomnia to AMPAS for consideration for last year's Foreign-Language Film category. Neither one, of course, is the kind of picture that the F-L committee tends to favor; much more to their speed is Germany's enjoyably schmaltzy Beyond Silence, about a musical prodigy and her relationship with her deaf parents. "Hey, now wait a minute!" I hear you exclaim with what sounds to me like a touch of practiced cynicism. "Like, yo, if her parents are deaf, then they can't exactly appreciate her talent, now can they?" But it's neither as hackneyed nor as schematic as it sounds...partially because director Caroline Link never condescends to her characters or their TV-movie dilemmas; but mostly -- for this viewer, anyway -- because halfway through the film the daughter abruptly ages from about eight to about eighteen, and the role is taken over by one Ms. Sylvie Testud, with whom your humble servant immediately fell rather violently in love. As you might imagine, this visceral response somewhat colored my reaction to the reels that remained -- though not, I hasten to add, so much that I failed to groan aloud at the unspeakably corny denouement, in which estranged parent and child reconcile in the midst of an important audition. (In real life, she'd be frantically signing "Piss off, Dad, I'm kinda busy here.") Bonus points for the most remarkable opening shot of any film I've seen this year: an eerie, disquieting view of skaters as seen (how?) from beneath the surface of the ice. Grade: B-

Beyond Silence did, in fact, wind up as one of the five foreign-language nominees earlier this year, eventually losing to the overrated Dickensian drama Character. A Friend of the Deceased, the Ukraine's 1997 AMPAS submission, on the other hand, didn't make the cut, even though it's superior to all five of the pictures that did. Don't get too excited, though -- last year was the most dismal for this category since I began paying attention back in '86 or so, and hence it's possible to outclass the competition while falling well short of masterpiece status. Directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich, who's also responsible for the Adam's Rib that doesn't star Tracy and Hepburn, Deceased, like so many of the movies being made in Eastern Europe nowadays, is an allegory about the transition from Communism to whatever the hell it is that's taken its place over the past several years; the plot involves an out-of-work translator who, in a fit of existential depression, takes out a contract on his own life, then is forced to scramble when his encounter with a life-affirming hooker (please let this be an endangered species) finds him rethinking his desire for continued corporeal existence. I hate to whine about something as jejune as the believability of the central narrative hook, but I must in all candor confess that what prevented me from more thoroughly enjoying this intelligent and incisive black comedy was a single nitpicky fact: I simply did not buy the notion that our hero, upon realizing his error, was too darn proud to pick up the phone and dial the would-be assassin and say "hey, about that job I hired you for, funny story, it's kinda like this..." In fact, I scoffed at it. The notion, I mean. And kept scoffing for the rest of the picture. I'm still scoffing now, in fact. Mind if I scoff? Grade: B

Coincidentally, the idea of an unexpectedly rejuvenated loser dodging the contract killer that he'd hired to off himself -- a sort of suicide by proxy -- is also a central element in Warren Beatty's ambitious but fatally uneven Bulworth -- though at least this time the target in question makes a token attempt to call the whole thing off after he savors the taste of cherries and whatnot. The most politically audacious and subversive Hollywood movie in what must be a decade or more (how Beatty managed to secure studio financing for this lunatic project is beyond me), it's also, unfortunately, a complete mess, lurching from one outrageous set piece to another without ever achieving the giddy narrative inevitability of such carefully structured, kickass satires as The President's Analyst or Network. Gags fly, one-liners ricochet, Bulworth careers zanily from luncheon to network TV debate to South Central, but nothing ever builds or escalates or implodes -- the frantic, frenzied surface belies a creative stasis at the film's core. Worse, the terrific, gutsy material, like Senator Bulworth's many decorum-busting public appearances and his hilariously arrhythmic "rapping," is undercut by facile crap, like for example get Halle Berry's fawning-sycophant-or-is-she? out of this movie without delay, please. And am I the only one who finds the picture's unceasing depiction of black people as somehow more "genuine" than white folks a tad condescending? Great idea; good intentions; mediocre script. A real shame. Grade: C+

A more satisying amalgam of old-fashioned entertainment and left-wing politics can be found in The Big One, in which Michael Moore once again stages a hilarious frontal assault on corporate greed and heartlessness, provoking tiny beads of sweat and dead-eyed smiles on the faces of receptionists and security guards and p.r. liaisons everywhere. Moore's trademark gambit -- feeding out deadpan satirical rope to flacks and flunkies until they fashion their own nooses and place their pseudo-obsequious necks inside -- occasionally seems a bit unsporting, like stealing candy from quadriplegic babies; but it's hard to feel much sympathy, ultimately, for folks who cavalierly destroy hundreds or thousands of lives in an effort to keep the stockholders' skis regularly waxed. Moore is in fine form, as ever, but I wish he were less aware of that fact -- there's an unattractive air of self-congratulation here that wasn't evident in Roger & Me or on any of the "TV Nation" segments I've seen, with numerous shots of audiences leaping to their collective feet to applaud some trenchant remark Moore's just made. Also, I hear tell that the movie is somewhat redundant if you've already read Downsize This!, the book in support of which Moore was touring the country as the video cameras were rolling. Nonetheless, the final reel, which features not one but two amazing tête-à-têtes between Moore and Nike CEO Phil Knight (no flunky he), is worth the price of admission all by its lonesome (especially since Moore talked Miramax into giving half of their profits to charity). AESTHETIC WARNING: shot on video and oh does it look it. Grade: B+

One of the most alarming factoids vis-à-vis the American workforce circa millenium's end is that a temp agency, Manpower, now employs more U.S. citizens than any other single corporate entity. No doubt there's an incisive, witty, memorable movie to be made about the millions of poor souls trapped in cramped cubicles without benefits or job security; there's also Clockwatchers, the title of which refers to ill-treated temps, eager for the end of their working day, but might just as well denote the poor souls who choose to endure this thoroughly soporific indie, furtively and repeatedly glancing at whatever timepiece is handiest. Parker Posey (The House of Yes), Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), Lisa Kudrow (duh), and Alanna Ubach (Denise Calls Up) play four young women stupefied by clerical tedium and exasperated by office politics; as a former temp, I can confirm that the drudgery is borderline unendurable, but the trick is to convey that onscreen without putting the viewer to sleep, and first-time co-writer/director Jill Sprecher makes Morpheus look like a jackhammer operator suffering from Tourette's syndrome. (When a subplot about which office worker is stealing trinkets from desk drawers is your film's emotional and dramatic fulcrum, you're in like big-ass trouble.) The performers, for what it's worth, escape unscathed. Timewaster. Grade: C