The Man Who Viewed Too Much
Special Edition: Fall 1998

The 36th annual New York Film Festival

Lincoln Center, New York City
25 September - 11 October, 1998

Yeah, I know, every column's a goddamn special edition this year. But hey, it's still free, right? No annoying ads to get in the way of my boldfaced bracketed proclamations of impending content, yes? Count your blessings.

Ordinarily, I'd use this space to wax lyrical and/or rhapsodic about the glory that is the annual New York Film Festival -- the charged atmosphere; the spectacular venue (especially considering the crummy shoeboxes that most of these films will grace in NY commercial release); the muscular, no-nonsense program in which virtually every picture is a must-see, said program carefully distilled from the numerous alumni of Cannes and Sundance and Venice and Toronto and Berlin (with a few premieres thrown in for good measure). This year, however, I gotta get a move on, so instead I'll simply direct you to last year's wax job and proceed directly to Mssrs. Nitty and Gritty. As I write these words, I've already seen seven of the twenty-four "new" features (not counting Bergman's video feature In the Presence of a Clown, which I intend to skip because I can't abide projected video; also, I won't be reviewing the festival's three retrospectives -- Pabst's The Joyless Street, Eisenstein's Strike, and Boorman's Point Blank -- though I plan to see all three), and so far there's been a conspicuous and disheartening paucity of brilliance. But as a spurned Southern belle once remarked, tomorrow is another day...and with auteurs like Rohmer and Haynes and Kusturica and Assayas still waiting in the wings, how downcast can a fellow really get? Leastways, that's what I keep telling myself...

(NOTE: One of my cats was ill on Friday, and the trip to the vet made it impossible for me to get to that day's press screenings, for Alexei Guerman's Khroustaliov, My Car! and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple. I'll try to get into the public screenings, but both films are completely sold out, so don't get your hopes up, I'd say.)

My Name Is Joe
Director: Ken Loach
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Cast: Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, Gary Lewis
U.S. Distribution Status: 9 January 1999 (Artisan)

Grade: B+

Back from his brief tour of the world's Spanish-speaking nations, which produced both the glorious Land and Freedom and the didactic, sluggish Carla's Song (review forthcoming), Loach returns to the more intimate pictures for which he's so justly celebrated, depicting in riveting detail the aggressively picayune lives of the U.K.'s downtrodden. The title, as you may have guessed, is the first half of the phrase that generally concludes with "and I'm an alcoholic," and for a few minutes I worried that Loach had made a movie about AA, a subject about which Infinite Jest, which I read earlier this year, has got to be pretty much the last word. Fortunately, it's the title character who's front and center; Peter Mullan won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year, and his energetic, intensely charismatic performance animates what is really a pretty familiar story: that of a decent guy who deliberately jeopardizes his security in order to bail out a weak-willed friend. (In fact, the basic scenario is very similar to that of this summer's I Went Down, now that I think about it, though the two films have little else in common.) Loach excels at low-key observation, and when nothing much is happening, dramatically -- when Joe's just rounding up the lads for a soccer match, or tentatively wooing a flustered social worker, or attempting to hang wallpaper -- My Name Is Joe is a triumph of naturalism, funny and affecting and totally absorbing in spite of its lack of forward motion. When Loach finally does try to crank up the tension, though, it's autopilot time, with the film's idiosyncratic virtues lost in wholly predictable plot mechanics (say, is that a bottle I see in our stressed-out recovering-alkie hero's hand?). Still, despite the rushed and rote conclusion, it's a welcome return to form overall, with the director's trademark socio-political hectoring kept to a minimum. American viewers are invited to see if they can understand even half of the dialogue -- all of it in English -- without consulting the subtitles.

Gods and Monsters
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Bill Condon, from the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram
Cast: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave
U.S. Distribution Status: 4 November 1998 (Lions Gate)

Grade: C

So is this an annual thing, now? Will every future NYFF include a movie about an effete aging British gay man and his unrequited love for some dimwitted American hunk of beef? Last year's entry, Love and Death on Long Island, was a delight, droll and poignant; Gods and Monsters, based on a speculative account of the final days of Hollywood director James Whale, is essentially the same picture, albeit with two key exceptions: 1) this time it's the older man who's the celebrity; and 2) this one's something of a snooze. Condon adopts the wrong tone from the get-go, beginning with an irritatingly arch and utterly implausible scene in which Whale (McKellen) agrees to an interview only after the young man conducting it promises to remove an article of clothing for each question Whale deigns to answer. Things pick up briefly once Whale and his muscular new gardener, Clay Boone (Fraser), begin exchanging confidences and forging a tentative friendship; soon, however, the picture gets bogged down in clumsy Frankenstein metaphors (Whale directed the first two Universal adaptations of Shelley's novel), with Whale as the Doctor, Boone as his inelegant creation, and German housekeeper Hanna (Redgrave, way over the top) as twitchy Igor. Overheated and maudlin, and shot unimaginatively as a neverending series of alternating close-ups, it's notable only for the fine performances of its two stars; McKellen's acerbic virtuosity is no surprise, perhaps, but I was unprepared for the rugged finesse invested by Fraser in what might otherwise have been a walking, talking, hedge-trimming cliché. Both of them deserved better. (Best moment from the press conference: I asked why the title of the film had been changed from that of the novel, and Condon replied "Because Brendan insisted on it. He said Father of Frankenstein sounded too much like a B-movie. To which frankly I wanted to say, 'What, like as opposed to Airheads?'")

You're Laughing
Directors: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
Screenplay: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, from various works by Luigi Pirandello
Cast: Antonio Albanese, Sabrina Ferilli, Turi Ferro
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: C+

No, I'm shrugging my shoulders in mild puzzlement, actually, wondering exactly what this intriguing but exasperatingly opaque movie is supposed to be about. The Tavianis appear to be fond of the omnibus format: their Fiorile, which made my top ten list back in 1994 (just barely; today I'd replace it with either Assayas' Cold Water or Yang's A Confucian Confusion), consists of four tales culled from several centuries of a cursed family's troubled history, and You're Laughing is reportedly their second multi-part Pirandello adaptation. Of the two entirely separate stories here, one, about a former opera singer who laughs uncontrollably in his sleep, is compellingly mysterious and poignant; the other, involving two kidnappings that took place in the same general area about a century apart, is amorphous and kinda dull. This narrative imbalance is damaging enough; worse still is that there's but the vaguest, most tenuous thematic connection between the two. The press kit, to which your bewildered correspondent turned the moment the closing credits began a-rollin', claims that they're "linked together by the red thread of violence" which your now rather haughty correspondent replies, Yeah, well, so are Blue Velvet and Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil, but that doesn't exactly make those babies an ideal double-feature. The good news is that the keeper comes first, so you can easily bolt for the exit halfway through and call it a first-rate featurette. Antonio Albanese, who plays the first segment's gloomy-by-day, creepily-merry-by-night erstwhile baritone, gives a performance so richly melancholy that it's almost criminal that only festivalgoers will have an opportunity to enjoy it. Pity he wasn't in part two as well.

Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna
U.S. Distribution Status: 25 December 1998 (Miramax)

Grade: B-

My pulse quickened for a moment at the opening shot: a beautiful expanse of dull-gray sky; the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th; a plane putting the final touches on the 'P' in the skywritten word 'HELP.' It reminded me of the gloriously symphonic prelude to Manhattan, still for my money Allen's masterpiece. Sadly, the excitement was fleeting; in retrospect, the skywriter ought to have added a colon and continued with the plea 'I WANT TO MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT THE ABSURDITY OF FAME, BUT I HAVE NO COHERENT IDEAS.' In lieu of same, Allen sends a wide variety of caricatures scuttling about Manhattan in search of their ticket to the big time, concentrating on the separate-but-unequal exploits of a recently divorced couple, obsequious journalist Lee (Branagh) and teacher-turned-vacuous-TV-"personality" Robin (Davis). Organized more around its rather muddled theme than around its characters, Celebrity is less a narrative than a series of comic set pieces, like an artsier version of the Early Funny Pictures; some, like the extended DiCaprio noblesse n'oblige pas bit, score, while others, notably those involving irresistible sex kittens inexplicably drawn to nebbishy Lee, fall utterly flat. Speaking of which, Branagh -- so fine earlier this year in Altman's The Gingerbread Man -- is almost unwatchable, his entire performance consisting of an uncanny but extremely irritating Woody Allen impression, complete with stammering and interpolated throat-clearing. (John Cusack in Bullets over Broadway was restrained in his Woodyisms by comparison, if you can believe that.) Davis, meanwhile, plays the same painfully self-conscious neurotic previously seen in Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, but I must admit that she excels at it, and she's refined the character to such an extent that I almost feel that she, the character, deserves a generic name, like Chaplin's "Little Tramp," or Pauly Shore's "Guy You Want To Disembowel With Your Dinky Dull Blunt Rusty Mailbox Key." A series of Allen movies in which she were the sole protagonist might be just the solution to the Woodster's creative doldrums. I mention it just in case that cry for 'HELP' was directed at me.

Dr. Akagi
Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Shohei Imamura & Daisuke Tengan, from the novel Doctor Liver by Ango Sakaguchi
Cast: Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara
U.S. Distribution Status: January 1999 (Kino International)

Grade: B-

My decision to forsake video a few years ago has left me with several significant gaps in my jr.-encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema, and Imamura happens to be one of 'em; I'm embarrassed to admit that I've only seen the most recent two of his twenty-odd features. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center ran a fairly extensive Imamura retrospective a few months ago, actually, but I happened to be out of town during most of it.) To my surprise, I much preferred this relatively unheralded, kinda goofy flick to his Palme d'Or winner The Eel (review forthcoming). Both suffer from similar drawbacks -- rampant random quirkiness, a schizophrenic tone, overlength -- but I found myself first amused and then gradually enthralled by the eponymous doctor's obsession in Akagi; the search for a cure for hepatitis sounds like the staid province of the TV-movie (as Charlie Meadows says in Barton Fink, "I can feel my butt gettin' sore already"), but it turns out that medicine is a lot more interesting when your general practitioner spends most of his time running around town like a maniac, complete with medical bag and wide-brimmed hat, accompanied all the while by a bouncy jazz score. As in The Eel, our protagonist is surrounded by a wacky group of misfits, but this ensemble seems more organic, less contrived -- they all have a common goal, and their enthusiasm is infectious. The picture gathers strength as it goes along, then falls apart in the final reel, as Imamura employs a couple of painfully dumb metaphors; given that the action is explicitly set immediately following Germany's surrender in 1945, I was wearily prepared for an atomic explosion, but little did I know that those apparently off-the-cuff remarks about whale-hunting were going to pay ludicrous narrative dividends later on. Then again, Charles François tells me that he had precisely the opposite reaction, that the film came together for him in the final moments, so what the hell do I know? That I need to see more Imamura, that's for damn sure.

I Stand Alone
Director: Gaspar Noé
Screenplay: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir, Frankye Pain
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: B

I'm probably overrating this one somewhat, on the strength of a recurring and incredibly unnerving effect that I'd never encountered before: every so often, and without any warning whatsoever, Noé punctuates his nihilistic narrative with a loud non-diegetic gunshot (for those who didn't attend film school, non-diegetic = there's no gun evident onscreen, nor any other "rational" explanation for the sound), accompanied by a frantic and almost impossibly violent lurch on the part of the camera. The first time this happened, in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable and even placid scene, I very nearly wet my pants, and the device somehow never wore thin over the course of the remaining hour-plus; no matter how banal the circumstances at any given moment, this bang/zoom (to the moon, Alice!) served as a jarring reminder that our protagonist -- an enraged, misogynistic, racist, and generally vile ex-butcher, never named -- might snap at any moment. It's an arresting, memorable tension tool...far more arresting or memorable, really, than the movie itself, which is heavily indebted to Taxi Driver -- lots of angry voiceover about the sewer that is contemporary urban life; a twisted obsessive relationship with a young woman (in this case, the man's autistic daughter) -- and does an impressive job of illustrating the diseased mind of its main character without ever really bothering to explore said mind. For all of Noé's undeniable skill, the whole thing feels a bit opportunistic and shallow, an attention-getter designed merely to shock and provoke (viz. an on-screen countdown in which the audience is allotted thirty seconds to exit the theater before the carnage begins). On the other hand, shock and provoke it does, and expertly, and while I can think of nobler aspirations, I can't argue with aesthetic success. Plus, I'll take Noé's brutal nihilism over Todd Solondz's passive-aggressive sadism any day. But more on that subject anon.

Same Old Song
Director: Alain Resnais
Screenplay: Agnès Jaoui & Jean-Pierre Bacri
Cast: Sabine Azéma, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: B+

Few filmgoing experiences are as painful as those in which you can sense that you're witnessing greatness, but are aware that you just aren't fully appreciating it. Sometimes you sense that the dialogue is losing most of its bite in translation; sometimes you wish you had a better understanding of the political/historical/sociological events underlying the story; sometimes you're just plain nodding off in your seat, too physically exhausted to pay close attention. In this case, I have no doubt that I'd've adored the film even more than I did -- and I liked it quite a lot -- had I been intimately familiar with the numerous pop songs to which its characters lip-sync, Dennis Potter-style. (The film is dedicated to Potter's memory.) More than any other cultural artifact, pop songs conjure up very specific memories; almost everybody can instantly name the snatch of lyrics or guitar riff (or synth solo, for those of my generation -- must I be haunted by The Human League forever?!?) that will transport him/her back to junior prom night as reliably as a souped-up Delorean. It's this sense of intense nostalgia, I think, that Same Old Song -- the original French title of which translates roughly as Everybody Knows the Song -- is attempting to exploit, its guarded characters conveying their innermost feelings via sudden musical interludes, some of which occur in mid-sentence. (The timing is dazzling to behold.) It's a testament to the skill of writers Jaoui and Bacri, who also penned and appeared in a terrific film adaptation of their hit stage play Un air de famille, that the movie is highly entertaining even if you've never heard a note of the music before...but there's still something missing, I suspect, for those whose emotional buttons aren't being pushed. For once, I'd love to see a first-rate American remake. In fact, I'd just about kill to be the musical consultant on that project. I've got stacks of potent memories right across the room.

A Tale of Autumn
Director: Eric Rohmer
Screenplay: none credited
Cast: Marie Rivière, Béatrice Romand, Alain Libolt
U.S. Distribution Status: sometime in 1999 (October)

Grade: B+

And so Rohmer's four-film seasonal cycle comes to a close; I've managed to see only the first, A Tale of Springtime (useless trivia: the first foreign-language movie I saw in New York City, mere days after arriving) and this, the last. Both are primarily concerned with matchmaking, as it happens (perhaps all four are, though the Maltin synopsis for Winter suggests otherwise), and I'm not convinced that reversing the two titles and digitally altering the background foliage would prove disconcerting or inhibit understanding, but never mind. Rohmer's movies tend to feel like chapters in an immense, sprawling novel, rather than individual works -- this is true even of films from different cycles, or the occasional stand-alone picture like Rendezvous in Paris -- so in a sense it's a bit pointless to "criticize" a particular film: you either like the guy or you don't. I do, as it happens, and so consistent is my appreciation of his nuanced examination of the politics of romance that -- I'm going to be very honest here -- the rating or grade that I allot to a Rohmer film is largely dependent upon how attracted I am to the female characters/actors featured within. (Hence my love for his 1981 opus The Aviator's Wife, the female lead of which I yearn to marry.) There are, for me, no major babes in Autumn -- I found the ingénue rather insufferable, and Rivière and Romand are now too matronly for my taste -- and so I'm forced to address the movie itself, which is typically fine: beautifully acted, carefully composed (because his movies are so talky and his camera so unemphatic, Rohmer's visual sense is highly underrated), extremely perceptive, and just generally a low-key delight. As is often the case with Rohmer, however, the conclusion is a tad abrupt; I sometimes feel as if he got distracted during principal photography and forgot to

Velvet Goldmine
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette
U.S. Distribution Status: 13 November 1998 (Miramax)

Grade: C

The year's most crushing disappointment, as Haynes tries for something Miramax-friendly and succeeds spectacularly, divesting himself of wit, intellectual acuity, dramatic rigor, psychological insight -- indeed, of everything except sheer spectacle. (Quick, sad aside: I can remember a time, just a few years ago, when I was excited to hear that such-and-such a film was being distributed by Miramax, when my annual top ten list regularly included as many as three or four pictures that had arrived at a theater near me courtesy of the Little Indie That Could. Now, post-Disney, word that the Weinsteins are interested in a title is an almost unfailing indication that the movie in question is shallow and superficial and not worth bothering with. Depressing, really.) Clearly, this is one of those unfortunate projects that began not with a story or a character or an indelible image but with a vague, subject-card-catalog idea, e.g. "Wouldn't it be cool to do a movie about the whole '70s glitter era?" Copious research ensued, and now we're assaulted with the sum of Haynes' scattered knowledge: a gaudy, hyperbolic tapestry of thinly disguised facts and anecdotes and impressions, signifying little more than "were folks transgressive back then or what?!" Bowie-clone Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers) and American icon Curt Wild (McGregor), ostensibly the story's focus, remain ostentatious ciphers ("I wanted a distance from the central character," Haynes remarks in the press notes -- congrats, Todd, what the hell distant galaxy did you retreat to, anyway?), and the structural allusion to Citizen Kane is more irritating than incisive: Welles exposes numerous facets of his protagonist, whereas Haynes can't even manage one. Not entirely without merit, as some of the boffo production numbers are kinda fun -- I especially enjoyed Rhys Meyers' wicked rendition of Brian Eno's classic "Baby's on Fire" -- but "safe" in entirely the wrong way.

Khroustaliov, My Car!
Director: Alexeï Guerman
Screenplay: Svetlana Karmalita and Alexeï Guerman
Cast: Yuri Tsourilo, Nina Rouslanova, Yuri Yarvet
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: D

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. More to come...

The General
Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: John Boorman, from the book The General by Paul Williams
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley
U.S. Distribution Status: 18 December 1998 (Sony Pictures Classics)

Grade: B+

More like a B+/A-, really; only the standard biopic shapelessness detracted. More to come...

Black Cat, White Cat
Director: Emir Kusturica
Screenplay: Gordan Mihic and Emir Kusturica
Cast: Bajram Severdzan, Florijan Ajdini, Adnan Bekir
U.S. Distribution Status: March or April 1999 (October)

Grade: B-

"Who's going to complain about a movie with too much stuff in it?" asks Michael Atkinson rhetorically in his review of Kusturica's latest Balkan hellraiser. Um...that'd be me, actually. If nothing else, I wish the guy would turn the volume down a touch; I'm not anti-exuberance, by any means, but his films are so aggressively boisterous that I sometimes wind up feeling less entertained than assaulted. Underground compensated for its excesses with a strong political subtext and a killer high-concept plot; this time, Kusturica tones down the former and jettisons the latter, and hence there's nothing to distract you from the grimy hands shaking your lapels. The parade of wacky grotesques is ceaseless: there are toothless, cackling Gypsies; bitter, marriage-hungry dwarf Gypsies; hidden, decomposing Gypsy corpses; Gypsies who fall into gallons of shit and then clean themselves off with a live duck. The picture holds your attention -- you certainly won't think "just what we need: yet another movie in which a woman pulls a nail out of a board with her ass for the delectation of a live audience" -- but it never really goes much of anywhere, content instead merely to let its life-affirming (not to say life-throttling) characters indulge every hedonistic impulse imaginable...and if the palace of wisdom was the K-man's final destination, I have to say that it looked suspiciously like a booby-trapped outhouse. Perhaps it's simply impossible for a teetotaler like myself to fully appreciate the cinematic equivalent of a drunken brawl; if, like me, you head for the balcony and a breath of fresh air when your fellow revellers start donning lampshades and clambering atop tables, you may want to seek out something slightly less frantic. Or, failing that, at least bring earplugs.

The Apple
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf
Screenplay: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Cast: Massoumeh Naderi, Zahra Nederi, Ghorbanali Naderi
U.S. Distribution Status: January 1999 (New Yorker)

Grade: C+

Symbolic Iranian movies about adorable children are starting to get on my nerves. More to come...

Director: Marc Levin
Screenplay: Marc Levin and Richard Stratton and Bonz Malone and Sonja Sohn and Saul Williams
Cast: Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone
U.S. Distribution Status: 9 October 1998 (Trimark)

Grade: C-

Let's imagine, just for the heck of it, that you're one vicious, brutal, incarcerated muthafucka. (Knowing my readership as I do, I realize that this is a bit of a stretch, but stay with me here.) You're out in the yard one afternoon, just chillin', bench-pressin' and whatnot, and this new fish, a brother, makes the grave mistake of breathing some of your very own personal oxygen and brazenly converting it into some truly noxious carbon dioxide and exhaling said CO2 directly into your very own personal atmosphere, and you're just about to demonstrate for him in fairly graphic detail the difference between a regular old fracture (crunch) and your basic compound fracture (crunch + rip)...when, suddenly, without warning, the dude in question begins spouting really bad poetry. "Slamming," if you will. Just abruptly launches into this improvisatory rhythmic monologue, out of nowhere, mouthing a lotta pseudomystical non sequiturs about, like, life and so forth. Virtually recites a Homeric epic, this guy does, only minus the coherence and the beauty and (frankly) the point. What do you do, in this hypothetical scenario? If you (a) pummel the pretentious prick into a permanent pretzel-type-position: congratulations! you're a recognizable human being, if perhaps not a Nobel Peace candidate. If, on the other hand, you (b) retreat in awestruck wonder, cowed by the sheer magnitude of this fellow's creative passion: congratulations! you're the ideal audience for the opportunistic exercise in feel-good phoniness that is inexplicable Sundance prize-winner Slam. Incredibly, the scene I've just described is one of this ridiculous movie's highlights; I might not have minded had Levin fashioned the thing as an ostentatious wish-fulfillment fable, but the lurching vérité-style camera and breathless air of self-importance -- plus a cast that seems to believe that great acting = yelling stale homilies at the top of your lungs -- virtually beg you to take the movie seriously as a gritty tale of contemporary urban strife and redemption, even though it's clearly set in the magical land of YeahRightSure. Maybe it all works if the poems/raps/slams strike you as deeply profound; I felt like I was back in my 8th-grade creative writing course -- lily-white, granted, but featuring the same telltale combination of intense sincerity and utter craftlessness (my own juvenilia included). "Ugh" I said then, and "Ugh" I say now.

Late August, Early September
Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Virginie Ledoyen, François Cluzet
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: B

Sketchy and aimless but still frequently absorbing; a perfect final scene bumped it up from a B-. More to come...

The Celebration
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenplay: Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov
Cast: Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen
U.S. Distribution Status: 9 October 1998 (October)

Grade: A-

Given the appalling, anything-goes direction in which the movies seem to be heading, with Hollywood relying on shallow spectacle and foreign/indie auteurs on callow shock tactics, it's both telling and ironic that the best film in NYFF '98 -- the only truly first-rate flick in the lineup, for my money -- is the one most hampered by self-imposed restrictions. Dogma 95 may well be a pretentious crock, but the first picture out of its ultra-naturalistic gate (I still haven't seen The Idiots, almost a year later) makes a mighty convincing case to the contrary; what might otherwise have been a standard-issue, perhaps even staid, family-skeleton melodrama comes arrestingly alive via Vinterberg's vigorous visual virtuosity. (Sorry.) Granted, he employs the same deliberately jarring moves that Lars Von Trier pioneered for his pre-Dogma arthouse hit Breaking the Waves -- the lurching handheld camera; the often murky use of natural light; the blatant disregard for Robert's Rules of Continuity Editing -- but he also sensibly omits that picture's hefty helping of grandiose religious claptrap, choosing instead to use the vertiginous mise-en-scène as counterpoint to the characters' dogged unflappability, and injecting a welcome streak of black humor (Christian's accusatory toasts, which in other hands might have been maudlin or uncomfortably self-righteous, are delivered so nonchalantly that it's virtually impossible not to laugh, no matter how appalled you may be). And if all this attention paid to technique has misled you into imagining that the story's a snooze, my profound apologies: the film's neo-classical screenplay is as carefully structured as its images are herky-jerk, even if many of my favorite moments involve stubborn narrative elisions: the game of "getting warmer" is already in progress when the film abruptly cuts back to Helene, leaving us momentarily flummoxed as to what they're searching for; a private party in the dead of night is seen largely in sidelong glances; Christian's strange flashback-rendezvous with his beloved, deceased sister is as ambiguous as it is breathtakingly lovely. Speaking of aesthetics, I'm not convinced that The Celebration wouldn't have been an even better movie had it been shot on film, even lowly 16mm...but if the digital revolution makes movies as vivid as this one economically feasible, I can't rightfully complain about a little excess blurriness.

The Flowers of Shanghai
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Screenplay: Chu Tien-wen, from the novel The Flowers of Shanghai by Han Ziyun
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michiko Hada, Lee Yu-ming
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: C-

My favorite Hou to date, of the three I've seen, but that ain't sayin' much. More to come...

River of Gold
Director: Paulo Rocha
Screenplay: Paulo Rocha and Claudia Tomaz
Cast: Isabel Ruth, Lima Duarte, Joana Bárcia
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: D

First tedious, then laughable, then tedious and laughable. More to come...

Director: Todd Solondz
Screenplay: Todd Solondz
Cast: Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman
U.S. Distribution Status: 11 October 1998 (Good Machine)

Grade: C+

Better than his sadistic debut, but Solondz continues to mistake a simple catalogue of misery for art. More to come...

Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams
U.S. Distribution Status: February 1999 (Touchstone)

Grade: B

Anderson has maybe the most peculiar comic sensibility in Hollywood. More to come...

Life on Earth
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Screenplay: Abderrahmane Sissako
Cast: Abderrahmane Sissako, Nana Baby, Mohamed Sissako
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: C

No narrative = no interest on my part; others may be fascinated. More to come...

The Book of Life
Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Cast: Martin Donovan, P.J. Harvey, Thomas Jay Ryan
U.S. Distribution Status: None

Grade: B+

Quite possibly my favorite Hartley film to date. More to come...

The Dreamlife of Angels
Director: Erick Zonca
Screenplay: Erick Zonca and Roger Bohbot
Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Natacha Régnier, Grégoire Colin
U.S. Distribution Status: 5 March 1999 (Sony Pictures Classics)

Grade: B-

Surprisingly ordinary, given all the hoopla -- pretty much the quintessential French character drama. More to come...

The Inheritors
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Screenplay: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Cast: Simon Schwarz, Sophie Rois, Lars Rudolph
U.S. Distribution Status: 9 October 1998 (Stratosphere)

Grade: C

I was busy forgetting this one even as I was watching it. More to come...