The Man Who Viewed Too Much
Special Edition: Fall 1999

The 37th annual New York Film Festival

Lincoln Center, New York City
24 September - 10 October, 1999

(Jump to the latest addition)

Is it just my imagination -- colored, perhaps, by the transition from summer to autumn; days perceptibly shortening, temperature gradually falling, etc. -- or do I sense a certain weary skepticism in the air? Can it be possible -- surely not! -- that some of you are idly wondering whether this column will be completed ere HAL 9000 is scheduled to get cyber-medieval on Dave's ass?

Okay, okay, so I still haven't finished last year's NYFF roundup, and may well never get around to properly reviewing the remaining titles. (Pretty much the only things I remember about Khroustaliov, My Car! at this point are that it was in black-and-white and featured synchronous sound.) Like Austin Powers, however, I seem to have recently recovered my mojo -- only a handful of films have slipped by me since I began afresh in April (and one of those, The 13th Warrior, wound up in the to-be-written queue mostly because I couldn't think of anything to say about it that was more trenchant and keenly perceptive than "Man, did that reek!") -- and I hereby pledge to make a concerted effort not to fall behind by, oh, more than a day or two. My resolve is firm, my refrigerator is well-stocked with caffeinated beverages, and my sweetheart, bless her, has resigned herself to being a film widow for the next couple of weeks. Like the lady in the Lyle Lovett song, I may not be good, but I've got good intentions.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that these reviews aren't necessarily being written in the order in which I'm seeing the films, as has been my custom in the past. Reason being: some of the movies with distributors -- Princess Mononoke and Being John Malkovich, for example -- are also being screened for the press in a non-festival-related context, and in many cases I'm opting for those screenings in lieu of the official festival ones, both because I'm impatient to see the movies in question and because the not-so-friendly folks at the NYFF sadistically schedule half of their screenings at the ungodly hour of 10AM -- a time when no civilized nocturnal quasi-vampiric human being should have to attempt to concentrate on flickering images in the dark. So I may hold off on writing certain reviews until the day of the film's NYFF press screening, in order to preserve my sanity, but rest assured that the text is a-comin' eventually. (Also, reviews of commercial releases may have to wait until the weekend.)

But hey -- enougha my yakkin'. Whaddaya say? Let's boogie...

Felicia's Journey
Director: Atom Egoyan
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan, from the novel by William Trevor
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Elaine Cassidy, Peter McDonald
NY Distribution Status: opens 12 November 1999 (Artisan)

Grade: B-

"Crikey," I thought when Egoyan pulled off his adaptation of Russell Banks' potentially problematic monologue-novel The Sweet Hereafter with only one minor hitch, "this guy can do anything!" Alas, no: this time, after a prolonged and mighty struggle, the book got the better of him. The filmmaker takes an early lead, decisively winning the first several rounds via an elegant, discursive introduction to his two main characters; nothing much happens for the first half-hour or so (especially if you don't know, as I miraculously did not, which genre the film is working to subvert), but each shot is so arresting, and Egoyan is so evidently and thrillingly in control of the material, that restlessness is quite simply not an option. Only once the plot belatedly kicks in does Trevor's source begin to throw a few tentative jabs -- the flashbacks, in particular, become less impressionistic, more expository. Performances, meanwhile, are effectively a draw: Hoskins, once you get accustomed to the deliberate Brummie accent, is exceptionally fine, and has at least two moments that belong in the Kickass Thespian Hall of Fame (one of them among the most discomfiting instances of a character unexpectedly breaking the fourth wall that I can remember); Cassidy, on the other hand, has an expressive face but doesn't seem to know how to make use of it, and winds up being little more than appealingly blank. No quitter, Egoyan rallies furiously, working so hard to make an essentially literary concept visually compelling and structurally complex that the effort, I'm sorry to report, begins to reek of desperation. (Opinion is likely to be sharply divided re: Mychael Danna's busy, deliberately discordant score; I found its obtrusiveness surprisingly compelling, while my companion Charles François felt that it almost singlehandedly ruined the picture.) By the time our hero -- and we are all agreed that Egoyan is hands down the best filmmaker of our time, right? -- anyway, by the time our hero finally settles down, along about the final reel, he's clearly exhausted, and it takes little effort for the novel to score a technical knock-out via (a) an overwrought emotional climax that could only be effective in a reader's imagination; (b) a painfully predictable denouement (three guesses where Bob is heading, two don't count); and -- sigh, (c) -- an epilogue tainted by helpful explanatory narration in which key phrases from previous scenes are repeated for the comprehension-impaired. Ain't gonna be no rematch? Don't want one. Due respect, Atom: leave the books alone.

Directors: Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenplay: Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Cast: Emilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Anne Yernaux
NY Distribution Status: opens 10 November 1999 (USA Films)

Grade: B-

Those of a more masochistic bent are encouraged to bump my grade up a notch or two: if it's a superlative story of stoic suffering you seek, no movie this year is as likely to beat your brow to a bloody pulp.* Those of us who tend to feel wearied, if not bullied, by films that are singleminded in their dedication to making their protagonists' lives sheer hell, on the other hand, may perhaps be forgiven for bemoaning the absence of the gripping moral dilemma and snatches of black humor and good cheer that made the Dardennes' 1997 triumph La Promesse something more than just an artful study in misery. We're talkin' bleak-o-rama here, kids, with a capital B as in Bresson (specifically, Mouchette); there's scarcely a moment that doesn't ring true, and the jittery handheld camerawork is frequently stunning, but the virtuosity is in service of a vision so relentlessly deterministic that it's ultimately numbing. It doesn't help that the title character, who almost never leaves the frame, is rather thinly conceived; Dequenne shared the Best Actress award at Cannes earlier this year (where the film itself won the Palme d'Or, so what the hell do I know?), but while her performance is suitably naturalistic and remarkably disciplined, she's only asked to evince two emotions: rage and determination. (Or both at once: Rosetta's involved in so many frantic scuffles that I began to wonder whether some footage from WWF Smackdown! had been spliced in by mistake.) Even the parts of the movie that work -- and there are some wonderful moments amid the dreariness, no question -- feel disappointingly familiar: in addition to Mouchette (to which it bears a resemblance so strong that it almost seems like an uncredited remake, albeit with a marginally happier ending), both Ken Loach's Ladybird Ladybird and Sandrine Veysset's Will It Snow for Christmas? spring to mind as obvious ancestors, and the powerful final shot might have been even more moving had it not echoed the closing seconds of Boaz Yakin's Fresh. But even if you've never before encountered the Cinema of Despondency, there's a good chance that you'll feel a certain queer lassitude -- maybe even an embarrassing impulse to snort or giggle in the face of very credible anguish. The picture plods along as defiantly as its heroine, giving no quarter; you either surrender to it or you don't. I didn't.

* (Now that's a pull quote!)

License to Live
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Koji Yakusho, Shun Sugata
NY Distribution Status: None

Grade: C+

Here's how it works, for future reference: I can handle disaffected, terminally morose characters if they're entangled in a complicated, engaging plot (viz. Vive L'Amour); and I'm down with narrative aimlessness if the people to whom not a whole lot is happening are vivid and loquacious (viz. Metropolitan); but when a film's storyline and personalities are equally inert, well, that's when I find myself becoming intermittently fascinated by irrelevant background details (viz. " looks like maybe that actor's shoelace might be untied. Wonder if that's a character decision or just a sartorial error? Which reminds me: must get new sneakers asap; it's raining every other day and I'm tired of peeling off soggy socks at the end of the -- shit, I just read three lines of dialogue and I have no idea what any of them were. Pay attention, now..."). I'm rambling, I know, but that's largely because I don't know what to make of this stylishly bland non-drama -- my first exposure to the work of Kiyoshi "no relation; please stop asking" Kurosawa, recently retro'd in Toronto. The film begins remarkably abruptly, as a 24-year-old man suddenly but rather inauspiciously awakens from a ten-year coma, and while Kurosawa carefully and commendably avoids every melodramatic trope associated with your standard Rip Van Winkle scenario, he doesn't really come up with anything truly compelling in their stead, choosing merely to create a general air of low-key displacement. And while I can kinda see where Skander Halim is coming from when he compares him to Hal Hartley, we're talking about a theoretical Hartley flick in which virtually every character is Simon Grim; there are bits throughout that are clearly intended to be funny but remain, at least for me, oddly mirthless. I'm prepared to reserve judgment until I see more of the man's oeuvre (I'm told most of the others are genre films, which might conceivably help matters), but for now I'd like to assure the late Akira K. that he needn't lose any eternal sleep.

The Color of Paradise
Director: Majid Majidi
Screenplay: Majid Majidi
Cast: Mohsen Ramezani, Hossein Mahjub, Salime Feizi
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: C

For an incorrigible cynic like myself, any movie that features a cute little blind boy as its protagonist is already swimming upstream against a very heavy current. Send the cute little blind boy groping along the forest floor in search of a baby bird that's fallen out of its nest, and I'm liable to conclude that I don't belong to your movie's target audience. Have the cute little blind boy laboriously climb a tree and start methodically investigating its branches, chick in pocket, seeking the nest, and don't be surprised if I start halfheartedly hoping for the adorable tyke to lose his balance and fall screaming to his death. (In my nightmares, he just lands on his neck funny and winds up a blind paraplegic, and the movie goes winsomely on and on and on.) If Majidi's Children of Heaven felt like Kiarostami-lite, this one is effectively Majidi-lite, which amounts to Kiarostami-lite-lite, which WARNING has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals and may be hazardous to your health. The proportions are roughly 90% sweet and 10% lowdown; a heart-stopping moment of indecision in the last few minutes qualifies as genuine drama, but it hardly even begins to compensate for all of the delicate, shy smiles and wide-eyed sniffling that precede it. Nor was I exactly thrilled by a final shot that's less ambiguous than it is just plain coy -- the choice of a timid, wishy-washy artist who wants to sorta kinda hint at a happy ending without opening himself up to accusations of being a sell-out. The NYFF program notes, predictably, refer to the "ever-astonishing Iranian cinema," but just how much longer are we expected to be flabbergasted by the country's seemingly endless fascination with the symbolic shenanigans of the sandbox set? Dariush Mehrjui's terrific, Ibsenesque drama Leila, inexplicably consigned to the NYFF farm team (New Directors/New Films), may not be particularly revolutionary, but at least it's not constantly tugging at your sleeve, begging for you to please please please buy it an ice cream cone.

Directors: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub
Screenplay: Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, from the novel Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini
Cast: Gianni Buscarino, Angela Nugara, Vittorio Vigneri
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: D

I won't belabor this one, given my general lack of patience for all things avant-garde and experimental; I'm not a member of the small, select group for whom films like this one are intended, and only a sense of semi-professional duty kept me from skipping it altogether in favor of Stir of Echoes or something equally populist. Like Straub/Huillet's soporific 1997 NYFF entry, From Today Until Tomorrow, Sicilia! isn't so much a movie as it is a stubborn, deluded attempt to drag material clearly designed for one medium into another that can't properly accommodate it. If a picture in which the characters stand around and recite lengthy monologues at each other in medium close-up sounds like your idea of a swell cinematic time, Steve Erickson can fill you in on the details. Me, if I want this particular brand of yakkity-yak, I'll head for the theater and revel in the experience of hearing actors speak the words live. Or, failing that, I'll just buy a copy of Vittorini's book.

All About My Mother
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penélope Cruz
NY Distribution Status: opens 19 November 1999 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Grade: B

It's time for a confession that will probably strike some as tantamount to critical blasphemy: though I've mildly enjoyed most of his films, and always tend to look eagerly forward to the next one (imagining that it'll surely convert me at last), I'm not, when push comes to shove, exactly a die-hard Almodóvar fan. To date, I've seen nine of his thirteen features -- I avoided Kika, which wasn't very well received at the time, and haven't yet caught up with his first three, but all of the "important" stuff has bounced off of my retinas -- and while few have disappointed me, none has quite wowed me, either; even Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, probably my favorite, often seemed to be coasting on a general spirit of good-natured transgression. All About My Mother, which deservedly won the Best Director prize at Cannes earlier this year (and ought to have nabbed the Actress trophy for Roth, who's effortlessly fabulous), is his coziest, warmest, most thoroughly lovable film yet, which perhaps accounts for the unusually personal encomiums it's inspiring. (Janet Maslin practically invited Pedro to dinner in her Times rave this morning.) Did I enjoy it? Yes indeed. But did all the warm-fuzziness prevent me from noticing, for instance, that Almodóvar baldly recycles the organ-donor-rehearsal bit that seemed so fresh just a few years ago in The Flower of My Secret? 'Fraid not. Nor did it escape my attention that the celebratory, groovy-woman-power ethos that permeates the film is somewhat inimical to drama, a problem exacerbated by explicit references to far meatier works like All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. The women of Mother are so unfailingly resilient and benevolent and -- there's really no other word but "fabulous" -- that the picture never achieves a real sense of urgency; it concludes (abruptly, I thought) with a dedication to practically the entire female gender, and that's ultimately what the movie itself feels like: a dedication, a tribute, pleasant but slight. Now that he's got it out of his system, though, watch out: the next one's gonna be a corker. Please?

The Carriers Are Waiting
Director: Benoît Mariage
Screenplay: Benoît Mariage
Cast: Benoît Poelvoorde, Morgane Simon, Bouli Lanners
NY Distribution Status: opens 15 March 2000 (Samuel Goldwyn)
Grade: C+

At the end of most New York Film Festival screenings, press and public alike, the director (sometimes accompanied by the screenwriter and/or the producer(s) and/or one or more cast members) hops onstage to a round of applause and proceeds to answer questions for roughly twenty minutes or so. In my experience, roughly half of the Q's voiced at any given Q&A session qualify as "stupid" (while approximately half of the A's could be characterized as "evasive"), but none are quite so winceworthy as the ones that effectively reduce to "What exactly is your movie supposed to be about, if you don't mind my asking?"; the invariably pained expression on the director's face confirms that he does mind, matter of fact -- as well she should, since the "question" is actually an insult in fairly transparent disguise. I'll occasionally raise my hand if something interesting occurs to me (e.g., asking Chris Eigeman to compare working with Baumbach to working with Stillman), but I have a strict policy against any query that requires auteurial self-analysis...which means that I spent most of the half-hour following The Carriers Are Waiting biting my tongue, willing myself not to stand up and announce to all assembled, "Yo, I didn't get it." The feature debut of a Belgian director with a background in documentaries, Carriers has plenty going for it: crisp, evocative b&w photography; a dynamically nasty performance by Poelvoorde (previously seen as the serial killer in Man Bites Dog); some hilarious shtick involving a ludicrous attempt to best the world record for door-opening. The only thing missing, as far as I could tell, was, like, I dunno, the point. A couple of scenes find the tyrannical father arguing strenuously with somebody in the foreground while his beleaguered son laboriously, monotonously walks back and forth across a fake threshold in the background; it's a fine visual gag, but it also serves as an unfortunate metaphor for the film as a whole, which never quite manages to settle upon a tone and thus seems in retrospect like a great deal of vigorous but ultimately purpose-free activity. I should note for the record, however, that I was very tired when I saw this one, and experienced the occasional momentary head-nod; I don't think I missed much, but I include the disclaimer all the same, in fairness.

Rien sur Robert
Director: Pascal Bonitzer
Screenplay: Pascal Bonitzer
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Kiberlain, Valentina Cervi
NY Distribution Status: None

Grade: B-

Obscure titles are apparently all the rage in French-speaking countries this year, with Léos Carax's acronymic Pola X the moniker to beat for sheer pretentious inscrutability. The Carriers Are Waiting is clearly a reference to the film's symbolic flock of carrier pigeons, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what-all les oiseaux are supposed to be anticipating. The phrase Rien sur Robert, on the other hand, isn't so much cryptic as it is pointlessly accurate: it translates roughly as Nothing About Robert...and, sure enough, no character by that name ever appears in, or is alluded to during the course of, Bonitzer's directorial début; it's rather like calling a Civil War epic No Faxes, No Modems. (The title is spoken aloud near the end, when Kiberlain's bookstore clerk informs a customer that (s)he'll have to shop elsewhere for Robert So-and-So's biography, but the thematic significance of this overheard, utterly inconsequential line of dialogue escaped me.) More baffling still, however, are the actions of the film's two most prominent females, both of whom behave throughout like screenwriter's automatons, falling desperately in love with or abruptly abandoning the flummoxed protagonist as the need arises; Kiberlain, in particular, plays a character so hyperactively capricious that it's impossible to believe that any real-world human being would tolerate her bullshit for more than a week or two (though I'll concede that the character's near-psychotic emotional vicissitudes provide the movie with a truly sublime ending, perhaps my favorite final shot of the year). Bonitzer's agile mind has been responsible for some of the most intriguing French movies of the past decade -- Thieves (Les Voleurs), Three Lives and Only One Death, Up/Down/Fragile, Ma saison préférée -- and here he uses a notorious real-life incident, in which a film critic trashed Kusturica's Underground without having bothered to actually see it, as a springboard for a scathing, occasionally hilarious portrait of chronic intellectual and emotional inadequacy. With a more arresting presence in the lead, it might even have managed to overcome its various contrivances; unfortunately, Luchini, with his dead-eyed chartered-accountant demeanor (which serves him well in more antic roles) is -- paradoxically -- so ideally cast as a perpetual loser that he's ultimately miscast, fully embodying qualities that the actor playing the part ought merely to have suggested.* Still, anybody who can manage to keep a straight face as Kiberlain matter-of-factly describes her sexual preferences in graphic detail (I can only imagine how funny these scenes must be sans subtitles) is ahead of the game.

* (This idea, I'm finding, is exceedingly difficult to convey, and the best I can do by way of clarification, short of writing a really lengthy essay, is to offer an analogy: imagine that John Gielgud, rather than Anthony Hopkins, had played Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day.)

Princess Mononoke
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki (English-language adaptation: Neil Gaiman)
Voices: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver
NY Distribution Status: opens 29 October 1999 (Miramax)

Grade: B-

I should confess at once that I approached Princess Mononoke with more than a soupçon of skepticism -- not because of my previous dissatisfaction with anime (to which I copped in my recent review of Perfect Blue), but because the NYFF has designated its sole screening of the film a "special event," yet mysteriously has not relegated it to the smaller Walter Reade Theater with all of the other "special events" (e.g., Claude Lanzmann's A Visitor from the Living; the five-hour cut of Underground) -- prompting one local cynic (who shall remain entirely anonyme, bien sûr) to wonder aloud whether Miramax might have, shall we say, made the Film Society an offer it couldn't refuse. Certainly, this laborious dazzler -- reportedly the second most successful film in Japanese history, after good ol' Titanic -- is the closest this year's doggedly small-scale fest comes to a big-budget studio effort; it's the animated equivalent of a typical Hollywood special-effects blockbuster, in which thrilling set pieces interrupt the general tedium every fifteen minutes or so. Weird, fantastical creatures abound, and whenever our intrepid hero is battling a wild boar covered from head to hoof in roiling wormlike things, or trekking through a forest occupied by what appear for all the world to be skeletal souvenir knickknacks with chattering, rotating heads, it's impossible to be otherwise than agog. The long stretches during which the characters stop and rest and commit exposition, on the other hand, are a bit of a bore, especially since it's here that Miyazaki chooses to indulge his regrettable tendency to wax didactic on matters ecological. (In a nutshell, the film proposes to explain how human beings can live in harmony with nature -- a fine sentiment, to be sure, but I prefer my movies without blatant "For Further Discussion" review sections.) The look of the film, too, with its stunning photorealistic backgrounds; its vaguely animatronic depiction of human motion; and its Caucasian-passing, saucer-eyed populace (can anybody explain to me why the characters in these films never really look Asian?), is disappointingly familiar -- my biggest beef with anime is that the genre, in my admittedly limited experience, is tediously homogeneous. (I except Studio Ghibli's latest film, My Neighbors the Yamadas, an adaptation of a popular Japanese comic strip, which is goofily anecdotal and is rendered in a pleasingly abstract style that looks nothing like any other anime I've seen.) Purist that I am, I'd rather have seen the film subtitled, but the American movie stars drafted for the forthcoming U.S. release do a serviceable job (apart from Billy Bob Thornton, who's miscast in the requisite wisecracking-toady part). It really wasn't necessary to hire somebody as creative as Neil Gaiman to Americanize the dopey dialogue, though; Lowell and Babaloo would've done much the same job, I'll wager.

(NOTE: Despite my pledge and best intentions, I can feel this column starting to slip away from me -- partly because EW called last week with a full-length video assignment, partly because I'm running around seeing stuff like Mr. Death and Liberty Heights of an evening instead of parking my butt at the keyboard. I've therefore reluctantly decided to be a bit more terse w/r/t certain festival films -- namely, those that a) didn't interest me much, and b) currently have no North American distribution plans. And reviews for non-festival films that won't be opening for months, like the two named supra, are gonna have to occupy the back burner for the nonce.)

The Letter
Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Screenplay: Manoel de Oliveira, from the novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette
Cast: Chiara Mastroianni, Pedro Abrunhosa, Antoine Chappey
NY Distribution Status: None

Grade: C-

Empty formalism at its most irritating, as Oliveira transplants a 17th-century novel into the present day without bothering to update its antiquated sensibility: characters who receive bad news, for example, instantly contract unspecified fatal diseases and die protracted, highly symbolic deaths. Not necessarily a terrible idea, that (and I did like the expository intertitles); but Oliveira merely presents it, then shuffles away, apparently convinced that the juxtaposition of courtly manners and electric guitars is fascinating per se, when in fact it's little more than cute. As in his previous films, the pace is glacial, the performances somnambulistic; when James Gleick subtitled his latest book The Acceleration of Just About Everything, it was probably this director's oeuvre that prompted him to write six words instead of four. Perhaps, as some have suggested, Oliveira's tongue is lodged firmly in his cheek; what little laughter I heard at the press screening sounded mighty derisive, though, and the picture is really far too somber and ponderous to work as (intentional) comedy. At best, it's wry...and as a wiser person than myself once noted, man cannot live on bread alone.

Beau Travail
Director: Claire Denis
Screenplay: Claire Denis and Jean Pol Fargeau, inspired by various works by Herman Melville (particularly Billy Budd)
Cast: Denis Lavant, Gregoire Colin, Michel Subor
NY Distribution Status: opens spring 2000 (New Yorker)

Grade: C

I've always found Denis' films too elliptical for their own good, but at least in I Can't Sleep and Chocolat and Nénette et Boni she was considerate enough to provide the skeleton of a narrative: a minimal text from which numerous elisions could subsequently be made, profitably or un-. Beau Travail, on the other hand, is nothing but ellipses; Denis has managed the remarkable feat of making a movie in which you're never really in doubt as to what's happening despite the fact that every shred of storytelling and characterization has been systematically eliminated, leaving ninety minutes of connective tissue with nothing to connect -- impressive, I guess, but only in the most stultifying, emotionally recessive way. Shot in East Africa, the movie is consistently beautiful to look at (probably even more so for those who admire the male body), but little more. It's almost worth sitting through all of the sun-baked languor and unmotivated tension, however, for the final scene, in which Lavant's brooding Legionnaire finally gets down and gets funky. ("Gets spastic" is more accurate, truth be told.)

julien donkey-boy
Director: Harmony Korine
Screenplay: Harmony Korine
Cast: Ewen Bremner, Chloë Sevigny, Werner Herzog
NY Distribution Status: opens 8 October 1999 (Fine Line)
Grade: C+

"He has the stuff, I think, to make a movie worth seeing," I wrote of Korine, after thoroughly trashing his gratuitously ugly début, Gummo. "All he has to do is grow up." Two years on, he hasn't quite succeeded in overcoming his instinctive desire to rub our faces in the muck that constitutes his callow conception of Truth...but he's making progress, and the degree to which I was able to roll with his obstinately anti-narrative flow caught me completely off guard. Its step-right-up title notwithstanding, julien donkey-boy is comparatively free of the freak-show elements that marred Gummo; apart from the schizophrenic title character (Bremner, flailing), it's populated largely by recognizable (albeit highly eccentric) human beings -- even the armless man who drums and performs card tricks with his feet comes across as a character rather than merely the next attraction. Better still, the time previously devoted to repulsing the bourgeoisie is now available for impressing the aesthetes: given the digital-video format and ultra-scuzzy milieu, the film is often surprisingly lovely -- never more so than in shots wherein it's not entirely clear what's being photographed. So far, Korine isn't very skilled at coaxing memorable improvised dialogue from his cast (the film threatens to grind to a halt whenever Herzog starts talking), but his gift for depicting private, solitary moments is considerable, and julien is full of compelling visual anecdotes: Pearl, viewed from an upstairs window, twirling about on the street with her umbrella; Chris climbing a staircase using only his upper body as part of a bizarre training regimen. Indeed, the less Korine strives to grab the audience's attention, the more fascinating his work becomes; his attempt to belatedly churn up some drama via a final-reel medical emergency is by far his biggest mistake. (For a while, I thought I was about to see something truly unique: a movie in which a character who's visibly pregnant in reel one doesn't go into labor or suffer a miscarriage before the credits roll.)* His smartest move, by contrast, is once again casting his obscenely talented paramour, Ms. Sevigny...about whom a full-blown panegyric is forthcoming two reviews hence. Stay tuned.

* (Reader Jesse Mason reminds me that one very notable recent film meets this criterion: Fargo. Yet another reason why the Coens rock.)

Time Regained
Director: Raoul Ruiz
Screenplay: Gilles Taurand and Raoul Ruiz, from the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Cast: Marcello Mazzarella, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: C+

I defy anybody who's not intimately familiar with Remembrance of Things Past -- as in, anybody who hasn't read it either a) at least twice or b) just last week -- to make heads or tails of what the hell is going on in this elegantly empty exercise in evocation. Ruiz, true to form, throws in a few deft surrealistic touches, and these do enliven things a bit (as does a typically fey performance by a badly-dubbed John Malkovich, who's coincidentally also due for extravagant praise two reviews hence), but mostly it's just gorgeously cryptic; the damn thing is over two-and-a-half hours long, yet I still felt as if I'd walked in near the end by mistake -- watching it is like watching only the final episode of a 12-part miniseries. "Looks great," you think, "I'll have to catch the whole thing from the beginning sometime." I wish.

Boys Don't Cry
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Screenplay: Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen
Cast: Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard
NY Distribution Status: opens 8 October 1999 (Fox Searchlight)
Grade: B

Thoroughly laudable, this one -- which is a polite way of saying that I recognize the skill involved in its creation but never found it more than moderately affecting. Working from a bizarre and inherently poignant real-life incident (previously documented in The Brandon Teena Story, which I haven't seen), Peirce, in common with many impassioned chroniclers of actual events, sticks too close to the facts to achieve genuine inspiration; the material needed the sort of brash and reckless (and inevitably distorting) sensibility that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh brought to the Parker/Hulme case in Heavenly Creatures, but Peirce opted instead to be respectfully accurate, and the result is too often plodding rather than transporting. Swank gives a stunt performance, her close-cropped haircut and bound breasts doing most of the work; she's (somewhat) convincing physically, but otherwise relies far too heavily on a wide-eyed, aw-shucks demeanor, never truly investing Brandon with a compelling personality of his own. (It's a complete mystery why anybody, male or female, would be attracted to him, since he barely even seems to exist beyond his sheepish grin.) And she would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for that meddling genius -- viz. Ms. Sevigny, opposite whom Swank plays her most important scenes, and who is apparently incapable of striking a false note while a camera is trained on her. That the film occasionally transcends mere proficiency is entirely thanks to her unguarded, unforced naturalism (plus a handful of fine moments from the underutilized Brendan Sexton III); I was just about to resign myself to an evening of well-intentioned bromides when she finally entered the frame, raising her eyebrows and spitting an accusatory "Who're you?" at the new boy in town without breaking stride, and the picture sprang belatedly to life. She's mesmerizing throughout, and the material's so strong that Peirce's pedestrian approach can't completely derail it; but I'd still rather read a good essay on the subject than watch the movie again, and that's just not how it oughta be.

Being John Malkovich
Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener
NY Distribution Status: opens 29 October 1999 (USA Films)
Grade: A-

Had to spend a couple of minutes on my hands and knees after the lights came up the first time I saw this demented comic fantasia; it didn't take me long to locate the case in which I store my eyeglasses, but my jaw had apparently been kicked into the next row by an exiting journalistic peer. Translation: Oh. My. God. Even now, having seen it a second time, I find it difficult to accept that a movie this bugfuck actually exists; it's so arrestingly surreal that lines and moments that would be show-stoppers in virtually any other picture (e.g., Diaz warning Cusack not to interfere with her "actualization as a man") are mere throwaways here, barely registering amid the general lunacy. I mean, forget the main premise, in which a frustrated puppeteer discovers a portal into Malkovich's brain behind a filing cabinet at work -- everything Kaufman's dreamed up (and somehow persuaded presumably sane businessmen to finance -- HOW?!?!?!) is sublimely ridiculous, from the TV footage of Cusack's hated rival, otherwise unglimpsed, performing The Belle of Amherst with a 60-foot-tall replica of Emily Dickinson; to the blithe ease with which JM's agent (a cameo by Noah Baumbach fave Carlos Jacott) accepts the actor's sudden decision to change vocations; to the hilariously self-effacing presence of the eponymous two-time Oscar nominee, chatting with a mail-order salesperson about the relative merits of various kinds of bath towels. To be honest, the movie does occasionally drag a bit -- at times the comedy is more theoretical than actual -- but it's so consistently, outrageously inventive that it's easy to forgive the stretches that don't quite work. (Pity that Kaufman felt compelled to provide "rational" explanations, however paradoxically absurd, for his flights of fancy; they wind up undermining the giddy atmosphere he's worked so hard to establish.) What the film is finally meant to be about is open to considerable debate; I've read reviews asserting that it's a sly commentary on the notion of virtual reality or a satirical jab at the culture of celebrity idolatry (and there are certainly elements of both) -- but I, ever the romantic, choose to interpret it as a potent metaphor for our willingness to reinvent ourselves in any image that might appeal to the objects of our desire. I was laughing too hard the first time around to perceive more than faintly the sorrow that resides at the film's core, but on second viewing the underwater imagery that accompanies the closing credits had me on the verge of unexpected tears. I still get weepy at the end of The Game, though, so don't mind me.

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall
NY Distribution Status: opens 17 December 1999 (USA Films)
Grade: A-

Was there a movie buff anywhere on Earth who didn't involuntarily wince upon first hearing that the next Untitled Mike Leigh Project would be -- ulp -- a Gilbert & Sullivan biopic? Oh, we of little faith. Eschewing the usual rags-to-riches structure to focus narrowly on the duo's tempestuous struggle to create The Mikado , Leigh has created a superlative backstage comedy (albeit one characteristically tinged with regret); it's not as caustic and probing as his usual fare, to be sure, but then A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't exactly King Lear, either, and I don't hear anybody complaining. For some reason, I'd assumed that depicting the lives of famous historical figures would require Leigh to abandon his customary improvisational method of devising his screenplays. Happily, I was wrong: he worked as he always does, and while I have no doubt that the actors thoroughly researched their roles, and that the film is in many ways accurate (though I look forward to searching for angry reviews posted on G&S Society websites), at no time does it feel like a standard biographical treatment -- and boy oh boy do I mean that as a compliment. Few films have examined so minutely every aspect of the creative process, devoting equal time both to the work itself (brainstorming, rehearsal, etc.) and to the frustrating but necessary "down time" between projects, as batteries are recharged and egos are fortified. (Those who carp that Leigh takes too long to get to The Mikado are encouraged to see the film again with their expectations adjusted appropriately; I was fortunate enough to walk into the screening room ignorant of which period of G&S' career was to be featured, and I found the first hour riveting.) Topsy-Turvy is the valentine to the theatre that Shakespeare in Love so obviously and futilely aspired to be, and it's no coincidence that the company's collective attempt to persuade Gilbert to reinstate a number he'd opted to cut at the last minute is the final act's emotional fulcrum. As ever (excepting Career Girls, that is), the performances are uniformly outstanding; Corduner makes a wonderful Arthur Sullivan, alternately self-important and puckish, and it's a shame that he's destined to be overshadowed by Broadbent's utterly hilarious portrait of Gilbert as a deadpan martinet. (Broadbent deserves an Oscar just for the moment in which he comes up with the idea for The Mikado, which features the most comically prolonged Eureka expression ever captured on celluloid -- not only does a metaphorical lightbulb appear over his noggin, but you can actually see the filament ever-so-gradually warming up.) Like the best work of its subjects, this is glorious light entertainment, witty and warm; I dethroned Leigh as my favorite contemporary filmmaker a couple of years ago, naming Egoyan as his successor, but after this year's fest, Atom had better watch his back.

Director: Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Genre: Documentary
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: C

I admit it: I tend to trudge rather wearily to the NYFF documentaries, thinking of them as the leafy green vegetables that I have to eat in order to maintain a balanced cinematic diet -- good for me, yes, but not exactly flavorful. Furthermore, it's asking a lot of a guy like me -- a guy who, given his druthers, will crawl into bed with the sunrise peeking through the blinds and sleep until mid-afternoon -- to schedule a film about the lingering aftereffects of the Chernobyl disaster at ten in the freakin' mornin'. In short, Pripyat, for all its artistry and good intentions, didn't stand much of a chance; the b&w photography of desolate Russian landscapes was impressive, and a few of the interview subjects held my attention...but after a while I felt like I ought to be taking notes and worrying about the big test next week, and I started to rebel. Mobutu, King of Zaire, the fest's other doc, also occupies an a.m. slot; don't be too surprised if I wind up simply referring you back to this paragraph when the time comes.

Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Cast: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
NY Distribution Status: opens 12 November 1999 (Lions Gate)
Grade: C-

After four ungainly attempts at bat, even Smith's staunchest advocates have to concede that the guy wouldn't know a graceful or arresting composition if it somehow muscled its way in front of his viewfinder like freakin' Birnam forest en route to Dunsinane; all that matters, it seems, is whether or not you're in sync with his lowbrow-intellectual comic sensibility. I'm not. Chasing Amy struck me as a step in the right direction, its thematic daring and (comparative) maturity suggesting that Smith might possibly amount to more than the indie generation's John Landis, but Dogma finds him indulging the worst aspects of both sides of his split personality, alternating between puerile toilet humor (quite literal in one scene) and sententious theological debate. Most of the actors look stranded (Fiorentino in particular -- a bit unfortunate, that, since she's the lead), and there's way, way too much of Jay and Silent Bob, whose cult-inspiring appeal I continue to find utterly baffling. (And, having heard Smith speak at some length at the NYFF press conference, I find it both incredible and lamentable that he's chosen to confine himself to playing a quasi-mute; what you see onscreen is one of the world's most aggressively verbal human beings attempting to demonstrate the fine art of mugging, which makes about as much sense as Clint Eastwood playing a role originally intended for Robin Williams.) Still, the movie didn't lose me entirely until the apocalyptic climax, at which point Smith's visual ineptitude became so pronounced as to cause physical pain. Glad to see that he's continuing to wrestle with ideas, however clumsily; now if he'd just cry uncle and turn the camera over to an actual director, we might actually get somewhere.

Pola X
Director: Léos Carax
Screenplay: Léos Carax and Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Pol Fargeau, from the novel Pierre, or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville
Cast: Guillaume Depardieu, Katerina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: C

What is with all of the tedious French lit adaptations this year? More to come...

Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki, from the novel by Juhani Aho
Cast: Sakari Kuosmanen, Kati Outinen, André Wilms
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: B-

Fun for a while, but it never quite manages to transcend its initial status as an anachronistic stunt. More to come...

The Woman Chaser
Director: Robinson Devor
Screenplay: Robinson Devor, from the novel by Charles Willeford
Cast: Patrick Warburton, Paul Malevich, Emily Newman
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: B

A skillful noir pastiche, notable for luscious b&w photography and a brilliantly stylized lead performance by Warburton. I eventually wound up reviewing it forTime Out New York, so consult that piece for further details.

Set Me Free
Director: Léa Pool
Screenplay: Léa Pool
Cast: Karine Vanasse, Pascale Bussières, Miki Manojlovic
NY Distribution Status: opens spring 2000 (Artistic License)
Grade: C+

If you're gonna make a generic coming-of-age movie, at least have the decency to refrain from including copious clips from something far more interesting (viz. Vivre Sa Vie). More to come...

The Other
Director: Youssef Chahine
Screenplay: Youssef Chahine and Khaled Youssef
Cast: Hani Salama, Hanane Tork, Nabila Ebeid
NY Distribution Status: None
Grade: C+

Three episodes of a trashy-fun soap opera masquerading as a movie; the tragic finale seemed like an afterthought. More to come...

Holy Smoke
Director: Jane Campion
Screenplay: Anna Campion & Jane Campion
Cast: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton
NY Distribution Status: opens 3 December 1999 (Miramax)
Grade: C

Just a godawful mess -- a fine premise utterly squandered. More to come...