NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS:


Even with a mere 26 features (plus several sidebars) on the program this year, the New York Film Festival tries to offer something for everyone: sneak previews of new films by arthouse superstars Mike Leigh, Jane Campion and Pedro Almodovar; buzz-heavy American (quasi-)indies like BOYS DON'T CRY, DOGMA and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH; New Yorkers' sole chance to catch a few difficult, probably undistributable European films; a handful of documentaries, and even a nod to anime buffs. (Only 2 films from Asia, though, and none from Latin America.) Generally, it's not a festival that makes discoveries - they've never shown a film by Claire Denis, one of the most accomplished French directors to have emerged over the past 10 years, until now - but one that thinks of itself as a compilation of other festivals' highlights.

Anyone who follows film festival press coverage knows that the American media was none too pleased - to put it mildly - by the selection at Cannes last spring. The NYFF selection committee evidently agrees (to a certain extent), since they've passed on Cannes entries like Steven Soderbergh's THE LIMEY, Amos Gitai's KADOSH, David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY, Chen Kaige's THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, Jim Jarmusch's GHOST DOG, Takeshi Kitano's KIKUJIRO and Werner Herzog's MY BEST FIEND. However, all of them will be released commercially in the U.S. over the next 6 months, so they don't require festival support in order to simply get shown. On the other hand, New Yorkers may have to wait a year or more to see Philippe Garrel's LA VENT DE LA NUIT, Frederick Wiseman's BELFAST, MAINE, Bertrand Tavernier's IT ALL STARTS TODAY, Chantal Akerman's SUD, Alexander Sokurov's MOLOCH, Arturo Ripstein's NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL and the Iranian omnibus feature TALES OF KISH (which includes a new Mohsen Makhmalbaf short), since the festival also turned these as-yet-undistributed films down. Above all, there are two towering omissions from this year's NYFF: Bruno Dumont's L'HUMANITE and Abbas Kiarostami's THE WIND WILL CARRY US. While L'HUMANITE proved quite controversial at Cannes, it does have its vociferous defenders. I guess they just don't happen to serve on the selection committee. I suspect that the festival wasn't offered THE WIND WILL CARRY US, although I don't know it for a fact. I'd be amazed if they actually turned down a Kiarostami film, especially since it was fairly well-received at its Venice and Toronto premieres. Unfortunately, their token Iranian shot was taken instead by Kiarostami-lite hack Majid Majidi. Of course, I may eventually end up disliking most of the films listed above, but I depend on the festival for a chance to see work by Sokurov, Ripstein and other important directors who rarely set distributors racing for their checkbooks.

This year, I saw 20 programs in all, including 17 features from the main selection, Claude Lanzmann's video A VISITOR FROM THE LIVING and 2 programs of avant-garde shorts. I can't claim to have a 20/20 overview of the festival, but I also can't resist indulging in a few general observations. I saw more first-rate work than last year and was gratified to see it coming from both European and avant-garde margins and the Indiewood center. However, the festival was also noteworthy for the number of mediocre-to-bad films by major directors, many of them honorably failed experimentation. The day-to-day disappointment that began to set in after watching the likes of Mike Leigh, Youssef Chahine, Leos Carax, Claire Denis and Aki Kaurismaki fall flat on their faces is one reason why I've tried imagining an alternate, possibly more rewarding NYFF selection. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had to miss Pedro Almodovar's ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, which opens commercially next month, and the 5-hour cut of Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND, both of which I had been eagerly anticipating.

Despite my griping, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's year-round programming, including the NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS festival and an endless cycle of series offering new films from {pick a country}, will undoubtedly offer New York filmgoers a chance to fill in the NYFF's gaps. With that in mind, here are my reviews:


Before the festival began, I'd already seen and reviewed two of its entries: ROSETTA and FELICIA'S JOURNEY.

LICENSE TO LIVE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan) **1/2

Although Kurosawa has been working prolifically for the past 16 years, his films have only recently started appearing in Western festivals, possibly because he's largely worked within the yakuza and horror genres. His 1997 thriller CURE, which made several appearances on the North American festival circuit (but none to date in New York), was often compared to SE7EN and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but LICENSE TO LIVE partakes of the quirkier sensibilities and dry wit of Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch. On paper, its Rip Van Winkle tale - about a young man (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who awakens from a 10-year coma and tries to put his life back in order despite having slept through adolescence and the disintegration of his family - should be full of emotional resonance, yet the end result feels rather dry and distanced. It doesn't help that Nishijima acts as though he's on a heavy dose of Xanax, or that the characters' alienation recalls the anomie depicted more eloquently in so many recent Taiwanese films. (Much of Kurosawa's framing, especially his use of interior space, also suggests the influence of Hou Hsaio-hsien.) The Toronto Film Festival has just completed its Kurosawa retrospective and CAHIERS DU CINEMA will be sponsoring one in Paris later this fall, so I'm still hopeful enough to suspect that this self-conscious "art film" may not represent his best work. If we're lucky, some New York venue will give his other films - including the other 3 made this year - a shot and let us judge for ourselves.

No distributor.


VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE 1: THE DEMON OF ANALOGY (THE SERPENT DANCE)

*MOEBIUS STRIP (Luis Recoder)

*CHIMP THE NORMAL SHORT (Leslie Thornton)

*ANOTHER WORLDY (Leslie Thornton)

QUARRY MOVIE (Greta Snider)

FILTER BEDS (Guy Sherwin, UK)

ZILLERTAL (Jurgen Reble, Germany)

ANGUS MUSTANG (Stephanie Barber)

REMOVED (Naomi Uman)

OUTER SPACE (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria)

Interestingly, the two best films on this program of shorts both adopt strategies from DJ culture and electronic music. OUTER SPACE "remixes" a scene from a woman-in-jeopardy horror movie, constructing dense cubist superimpositions and then building to a full-blown fit of convulsive flickering. It's a new kind of horror movie rather than a mere deconstruction: Tscherkassky has distilled the genre's raw emotions down to their terrifying essence, making the threat of violence extend into the film stock itself and our own ability to make sense out of our perceptions.

The program's other highlight, ANOTHER WORLDY, is one of the most entertaining and accessible avant-garde films I've ever seen. Thornton has edited together dance footage from ethnographic documentaries and Hollywood musicals and set it to contemporary techno and industrial music, simultaneously managing to critique racist Western fantasies about Africa, show how a filmmaker can manipulate the audience by using image and sound as counterpoint, and celebrate the power of music and dance to cross temporal and national boundaries. In a perfect world, MTV would place it in heavy rotation, but I'd settle for seeing it on a bill with Martin Arnold's ALONE: LIFE WASTES ANDY HARDY and Michel Gondry's music videos for Daft Punk's "Around The World" and the Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be."

Compared to these two dazzling films, the rest of the program, including Thornton's other short, feels relatively slight. In the same vein as OUTER SPACE, REMOVED "remixes" a 70s porno by altering it so that the women's bodies are reduced to a hollow, flickering white space, but her point about such films' sexism is too obvious for REMOVED to be more than an amusing cheap shot. QUARRY MOVIE and FILTER BEDS are pastorals that over-stay their welcome, while MOEBIUS STRIP documents Luis Recoder's dynamic double-projector performance of sports superimpositions.

*Although shot on film and meant to be shown in that format, MOEBIUS STRIP, ANOTHER WORLDY and CHIMP THE NORMAL SHORT were shown on video at this screening because the prints weren't ready on time. They will be shown on film at the public screening.


SICILIA! (Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet, Italy) ***1/2

Like all Straub/Huillet films, SICILIA! is an adaptation - of Elio Vittorini's 1939 novel CONVERSATIONS IN SICILY, in this case - and the couple have deliberately avoided doing anything to make the material more "cinematic" - their film consists of nothing but conversations in Sicily, save a few shots of its countryside - apart from having William Lubtchansky shoot it in gorgeous black & white. In some ways, it's like a more successful version of the second half of Manoel de Oliveira's VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD, addressing the same kind of alienation from one's roots: it traces the journey of an unnamed man (Gianni Buscarino) returning to his Sicilian hometown after a 15-year absence and centers around a mesmerizing 30-minute near-monologue by his mother (Angela Nugara). Straub and Huillet have directed most of their actors to give the kind of awkwardly stylized line readings that accentuate the text's theatricality. The result often seems so strange that I was sometimes reminded of Manuel Puig's ETERNAL CURSE UPON THE READER ON THESE PAGES, a novel composed almost entirely of dialogue, but it suits the protagonist's frayed family ties and mixed feelings about Sicily. In the end, SICILIA! turns out to be a film about the mother as much as the son and about the absence of memory - which she tries valiantly to reconstruct - as much as its presence. I was quite moved by its evocation of this exile's dilemma, although Straub and Huillet's extreme minimalist style is likely to insure that mine remains a minority opinion.

No distributor.


A VISITOR FROM THE LIVING (Claude Lanzmann, France) ***1/2

Apart from introductory titles offering information about the Theresienstadt "model ghetto" and a few shots of its present-day surroundings, A VISITOR FROM THE LIVING consists entirely of Lanzmann's 1979 hour-long interview with Maurice Rossel, a Swiss Red Cross official who inspected the camp and gave it a glowing report in 1944. (He filmed it for SHOAH, opted not to use it and finally decided to fashion it into a feature in 1997.) Nevertheless, it passes faster and more absorbingly than the vast majority of "entertaining" films I've seen this year. Despite its seemingly artless nature, it's a careful examination of the casual anti-Semitism without which the Holocaust couldn't have occurred or continued. Lanzmann takes his time with the garrulous Rossel, eventually letting him reveal the extent to which he bought into the Nazis' illusory construction of Theresienstadt as a comfortable home for "privileged" Jews. In reality, the ghetto's bourgeois trappings were mere props: its residents were sent to the gas chambers immediately before and after Rossel's visit,, yet he still resents them enough to complain about their "passivity" as if they shared the blame for their deaths and resist recognizing the full extent of their suffering in the camp. Out of this bare material, Lanzmann has painted a deeply disturbing indictment of denial and moral rot at their most polite and insidious.

Distributed by New Yorker Films. No release date yet. The festival is showing this as a projected video, but I assume that New Yorker will be transferring it to film for theatrical distribution.


RIEN SUR ROBERT (Pascal Bonitzer, France) **1/2

The premise and opening half hour of RIEN SUR ROBERT, which depicts the unravelling of the life of writer Didier Temple (Fabrice Luchini) after he pans a controversial film from the Balkans as "pure fascist garbage" without having seen it, suggest a biting satire on French intellectual pretensions, but the film's hobbled by Bonitzer's so-so execution. While Luchini brings Didier's neuroses to life vividly, the character is a familiar variation on Woody Allen's persona, and even in a world defined by angst and embarrassment, the two women with whom he's involved come across as freakishly capricious male fantasies. Although full of small laughs, the film is far too bland to cut too deeply or offer much real insight into its milieu.

No distributor.


THE LETTER (Manoel de Oliveira, France/Portugal) ***

Compared to Harmony Korine, Kevin Smith or Todd Solondz, Manoel de Oliveira might not seem like much of a provocateur, but THE LETTER stirred such a negative reaction in one NYFF spectator that he jumped into a conversation I was having about it with a friend in the lobby to let me know just how much he hated it. Judging from the responses of many critics at Cannes and Toronto and the walk-outs it provoked here, he's far from alone. While I don't like it as much as Oliveira's VALLEY OF ABRAHAM and THE CONVENT, I'm a little taken aback by its detractors' vehemence, especially since many of them treat the Tradition of Quality claptrap dished out by Merchant-Ivory and Miramax far less critically. (For what it's worth, I found it much easier to sit through than SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.)

THE LETTER is based around a single idea : transposing French author Madame de Lafayette's 17th-century novel LA PRINCESSE DE CLEVES, about a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) torn between her husband (Antoine Chappey) and a man she admires from afar (Portugese rock singer Pedro Abrunhosa, who plays himself), to a present-day setting without "modernizing" it. Although car accidents play a major role in the narrative, the story never quite seems to be taking place in the 20th century - even a homeless junkie who begs Mme. de Cleves for change talks as formally as she does - and the cuts between drawing room or convent and rock concert hall always come as a real shock. As in VALLEY OF ABRAHAM (which was adapted very loosely from MADAME BOVARY), Oliveira relegates most of the action offscreen and puts conversation, delivered by a rather stiff set of actors, center stage. THE LETTER is basically a formalist examination of Lafayette's self-pitying, ascetic view of romance - Oliveira's quite aware how badly this sensibility has dated - rather than a straightforward love story. As unconventional as its style is, THE LETTER does fit into a tradition of analytical French literature and films about passion: it could even be a distant cousin of Truffaut's THE STORY OF ADELE H. and THE GREEN ROOM. This jerky, hybrid contraption might seem ridiculous to some (and it certainly doesn't work all the time), but its finale manages to bridge the gap between distance and emotion with stunning power.

No distributor. I'm still waiting for someone in New York to show Oliveira's acclaimed 1998 film INQUIETUDE, rejected by the festival last year.


BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France) *1/2

My reviews from the festival so far might me look like a terminal obscurantist, but here's proof that I won't go for a film simply because of its adventurous nature. With this pretty but soporific mood piece about life in a French Foreign Legion outpost in Africa, the festival has hit its first full-fledged dud. In both I CAN'T SLEEP and NENETTE AND BONI, Denis' interest in narrative gameplay and lyrical abstraction was apparent; in BEAU TRAVAIL, it emerges full-blown, subsuming character and plot development to reveries about the beauty of the African desert and young men in uniform. However, she would have done better to integrate these avant-garde elements into a more conventional story, as in NENETTE AND BONI, since the moody atmosphere of BEAU TRAVAIL soon deteriorates into a morass of fashion-magazine vapidity. (Alexander Sokurov's video CONFESSION, which is also a semi-narrative about military life, builds a far more compelling structure out of its daily rituals and chores.) If not for her considerable pictorial skill and eye for male beauty, I would've headed home early.

Distributed by New Yorker Films. Opens next year.


TIME REGAINED (Raul Ruiz, France) **1/2

The more I think about TIME REGAINED, the less sure I am what to make of it. Ruiz's Proust adaptation is unquestionably well-crafted, elegant and imaginative - and practically incomprehensible on a single viewing to someone who hasn't read REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. (I have read part of it, but that was so long ago that I can no longer remember anything specific.) With this big-budget epic, he's certainly come a long way from the days when he would dash off 3 no-budget films in a year, but it's no more a conventional arthouse film than SHATTERED IMAGE was a routine Hollywood thriller. Apart from a lengthy section set during World War I, I found Ruiz's inter-weaving of Proust's life and work too difficult to follow to have anything of substance to say about it. This is the kind of film that must be seen twice or not at all, so we'll have to wait and see if some daring distributor takes the bait. So far, none has.


BOYS DON'T CRY (Kimberly Peirce) ***1/2

First-time filmmaker Peirce more than does justice to the real-life tragedy of Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank), a Nebraska girl who successfully reinvented herself as a man and fell in love with Lana (Chloe Sevigny), only to be raped and murdered by two jealous boys who discovered her secret. Peirce treats her story, which has already inspired one documentary, with a remarkably assured style, somewhere between social realism and Lynchian surreal Americana. (Her decision to shoot most of the film at night and use of Nathan Larsen's hushed, creepy electronic score contribute to a subtly off-kilter quality, and the opening credits and final scene could have come straight from LOST HIGHWAY.) The lead performances are every bit as accomplished as Peirce's mise-en-scéne. Swank is quite convincing as an androgynous tomboy, and Peter Sarsgaard and Brandon Sexton III, who play her killers, refuse to reduce their characters to cardboard thugs. Most touching of all is Sevigny as a woman who slowly embraces a love affair that evades the comfortable boundaries of gender and sexuality. I'm not sure if the festival screened this film's uncut, NC-17 version, but it will probably end up being edited for an R rating before release, thanks to the MPAA's homophobia, sexism and determination that the brutality of rape should be bowdlerized.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight. Opens in New York October 8th and nationwide October 22nd.


BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze) ****

One advantage of attending film festivals is that individual films' isolation falls away, revealing anxieties du jour and hidden connections. While these connections often lead to ridiculous snap judgments on the state of world cinema (if not the world itself), they can also produce insights that wouldn't emerge otherwise. Seeing BOYS DON'T CRY and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH back-to-back today made clear that both films describe some of the same fantasies, desires and worries about sexuality and identity, even if each speaks about them in a different language. MALKOVICH is probably best approached with as little foreknowledge of its bizarre, audacious plot as possible, yet it's not just a triumph of concept or style. Unlike many filmmakers who began working on TV programs and music videos, MTV vet Jonze proves capable of sustaining a complex narrative for 2 hours and digging deeper than surface weirdness. As much as I enjoyed THE MATRIX and eXistenZ, neither adds much new to the discourse about reality's growing virtualization, but MALKOVICH feels sui generis even in this crowded landscape. Without overtly referring to VR, Jonze treats its possible consequences with a perverse wit that never overlooks the pain underpinning his characters' transcendental yearnings. (He'd be the perfect director for an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick's psychedelic sci-fi novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH.) It's the best American film I've seen so far in 1999, which will be a fine year indeed if another one this good comes along.

Distributed by USA Films. Opens October 29th.


JUHA (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland) **1/2

As a counterpoint to the experiments of Oliveira, Ruiz and Straub/Huillet, Kaurismaki has gone a step further by adapting this folk tale about a doomed love triangle, whose sensibility seems almost as quaint as LA PRINCESSE DE CLEVES, as a silent film, complete with intertitles and a wall-to-wall score by Anssi Tikanmaki. Perhaps Guy Maddin could have pulled this idea off, but Kaurismaki's films have only approached melodrama successfully through an extremely modern veil of cynicism and deadpan comedy. He signals his intent here by adorning a car with the license plate "Sierck" (Douglas Sirk's original last name), but most of JUHA comes across as a smirky exercise. There's plenty of irony, little actual humor. Surprisingly, its grim final act produces some genuine pathos mostly due to Sakari Kuosmanen's fine work as the title character - but it's too little too late.

No distributor. Aki's 15 minutes of fame apparently expired in the early 90s.


TOPSY-TURVY (Mike Leigh, UK) **

With TOPSY-TURVY, Leigh joins Denis, Ruiz and Kaurismaki in the ranks of directors whose latest films have taken a (more or less) failed step forward or sideways. Had he been interested in bringing the psychological complexity and intensity of his best work to this big-budget Gilbert & Sullivan biopic, the result might have been excellent, but he's settled for the usual British period-piece academicism. Conversely, a director with a lighter touch could have made it into a first-rate musical comedy, but Leigh pads it out for 160 tedious minutes, although the performances do liven things up. Although the Academy and middlebrow critics might like TOPSY-TURVY even better than SECRETS & LIES, it made me want to run out and rent NAKED or LIFE IS SWEET for a taste of the real Mike Leigh.

Distributed by USA Films. Released December 17th. For some reason, the audience hissed the USA Films logo during BEING JOHN MALKOVICH yesterday but cheered the logo of October Films - who have now been absorbed into USA - today. Only in New York.


POLA X (Leos Carax, France) **1/2

Widely savaged at Cannes, auteur maudit Carax's first feature in 8 years, drawn from Herman Melville's 1852 novel PIERRE OR THE AMBIGUITIES, isn't a disaster, but it's not much more than an interesting failure. As in LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF, he endeavors to mix grit and romanticism - here, chronicling an affair between Pierre (Guillame Depardieu), a successful young writer, and Isabelle (Katerina Golubeva), a Bosnian refugee who purports to be his half-sister - without achieving the same measure of success. Even his stylish direction - aided by cinematographer Eric Gautier's ability to capture the feel of Paris' grottier industrial environs - lacks the mad energy and poetry of LES AMANTS, MAUVAIS SANG and BOY MEETS GIRL. However, the biggest flaw of POLA X lies in its notions about self-destructive, tormented artists, which probably looked a little silly and dated around the time Puccini's LA VIE DE BOHEME premiered: apparently, leaving bourgeois comfort (and a computer) behind to scribble in a freezing squat is a sure cure for writers' block, and all true love must end badly. Judging from Carax's manner and responses at the Q&A session afterwards, I suspect that this may be the film's most personal aspect. (When asked what he'd been doing in between films, the visibly uncomfortable director said "I went to hell" in all apparent seriousness.) These self-pitying overtones would be forgivable if Carax had retained his ability to describe passion from the inside, but nothing in POLA X matches the exhilaration of the Bastille Day sequence in LES AMANTS or the skydiving scenes in MAUVAIS SANG. Hopefully he won't have to return to the hell of spending years trying to finance his next project; judging from this one, a less maudit Carax might have made a better film.

No distributor.


PRIPYAT (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria) ***

PRIPYAT makes one thing clear: the Chernobyl disaster turned Tarkovsky's STALKER, partially set in a post-apocalyptic Russian wasteland called "the zone," from science fiction into reality. (Judging from his choice of outdoor locales, Geyrhalter obviously gets the connection.) Its heart lies in interviews with a varied range of people who still and live in work in Chernobyl's 30-kilometer radioactive "zone." From the farmers who blithely eat (possibly contaminated) local meat and mushrooms to a plant worker who speaks frankly about getting free food in lieu of regular pay and a woman who complains bitterly that the government hasn't let her move, they're a fairly interesting and articulate group. By shooting the zone in monochrome black & white, Geyrhalter aims for a look more nuanced and cinematic than the usual PBS fodder; although he doesn't quite succeed, I'm grateful that PRIPYAT looks like a real film, not a video blow-up. I'm surprised that the festival may have turned down new documentaries from Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog in favor of this - although it may not have been offered those films - but they could have made a much worse choice.

No distributor.


VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE 2

...IN RESIDUE

PERSONAL GIFTS (Jerome Hiler & Nathaniel Dorsky, 1966-7)

PAINTING THE TOWN (Jim Jennings)

MUKTIKARA (Jeanne Liotta)

MOXON'S MECHANICK EXERCISES (David Gatten)

SILVER RUSH (Cecile Fontaine, France)

HOSPITAL FRAGMENT (Guy Maddin, Canada)

HOME (Luther Price)

TWILIGHT PSALM II: WALKING DISTANCE (Phil Solomon)

This 8-short program didn't offer any gems on the order of ANOTHER WORLDY and OUTER SPACE, but it did include some memorable items. The 21-minute MOXON'S MECHANICK EXERCISES starts out as an intriguing examination of the boundaries between text and image but fails to makes its ideas function as a film. Graphic designers would undoubtedly get much more out of it than I did. PERSONAL GIFTS, PAINTING THE TOWN, MUKTIKARA and HOSPITAL FRAGMENT didn't leave much of an impression, but SILVER RUSH's high-speed collage of iconography derived from the Western would've looked pretty good in the context of VIEWS FROM THE AVANT-GARDE 1. (Fontaine gets bonus points for using clips from a Western with Arabic subtitles.) The program's 2 best shorts were the final ones: the Super-8 HOME juxtaposes family snapshots with a soundtrack of looped speech to create a melancholy, nostalgic effect, and TWILIGHT PSALM II: WALKING DISTANCE, shown in a slightly different form and title at MOMA earlier this year, is an amazingly dynamic 15 minutes of pulsating color.


SET ME FREE (Léa Pool, Canada) **1/2

SET ME FREE may be the only coming-of-age film set in the 60s about a half-Jewish Montreal lesbian teen whose life is changed by the French New Wave (the image of Anna Karina in Godard's VIVRE SA VIE, to be specific) I've seen, but it's not hard to pick out a film that deals better with practically everything it touches on. However, Pool did pull off a coup by getting Miki Manojlovic to play her heroine Hanna's father David, a terminally irresponsible Polish Holocaust survivor who considers himself a poet but has little to show for it except artistic temperament. Another actor could easily have portrayed David as a simple, abusive villain, but Manojlovic suggests that much of his bad behavior is rooted in alienation from his Canadian surroundings. However, practically all the other characters, including Hanna's self-sacrificing mother and rebellious brother, are severely underdeveloped. At Pool's press conference, she admitted that the film is largely autobiographical, and its narrative, particularly the pat conclusion, feels lopsided in a way that might stem from the inclusion of real-life details that don't contribute to good storytelling.

Distributed by Merchant-Ivory Films/Artistic License Films. Opens early next year.


THE OTHER (Youssef Chahine, Egypt) **

THE OTHER has energy to burn and a welcome willingness to go far out on a limb to make a point, but it struck me as an embarrassing mess, with dialogue and performances worthy of grade-Z soap opera. (Nabila Ebeid, who plays the heroine's villainous American mother-in-law, is particularly bad.) I loved the scene in which Chahine suddenly throws in a clip from a Julien Duvivier film to illustrate a speech by Ebeid, as well as his decision to stage a virtual reality fantasy scene in the actual Eiffel Tower. However, the rest of THE OTHER is over-the-top in a way that looks pretty silly, especially since it reduces almost every supporting character to a ludicrous caricature. (I was particularly amused by the blonde American college girl who says "fucking" in every sentence.) As laudable as Chahine's desire to denounce the twin ills of fundamentalist terrorism and globalization is, he doesn't quite practice what he preaches: this film's set of stereotypes is a far cry from the expansive humanism of ALEXANDRIA WHY?, his 1978 masterpiece. His last film, DESTINY, shared similar faults, but I found it far more entertaining, while this didn't even work for me as camp.

No distributor, and its many digs at American capital will probably scare any off.


HOLY SMOKE (Jane Campion, Australia) ***

While HOLY SMOKE isn't a complete return to form for Campion, this flawed but highly powerful film is a major improvement over PORTRAIT OF A LADY. Its premise - a 3-day deprogramming session between Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian woman whose parents think that she has been brainwashed into following an Indian guru, and P.J. (Harvey Keitel), her cynical, macho "exit counselor" - is merely the starting point to put two characters into an intense situation and let them begin an extended session of sexual gamesmanship and mind-fucking, with an oneiric queasiness reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's psychedelic classic PERFORMANCE. (Even the deep reds and rich blues of their outback surroundings, captured beautifully by Campion and cinematographer Dion Beebe, seem to partake in the tension between Ruth and P.J.) However, the film loses focus when it retreats from their struggle, especially since it employs a large cast of supporting characters who have such little screen time or importance to the story that they might as well have been left on the cutting room floor (In a glorified cameo as Harvey Keitel's girlfriend, Pam Grier is largely wasted.) Additionally, it concludes with a tacked-on "one year later" epilogue that dilutes this disturbing relationship's impact by reassuring us about the characters' futures. By ending with the shot just before the epilogue, Campion could have preserved her film's considerable air of mystery, although this ending's ambivalence would likely draw criticism from some feminists.

Distributed by Miramax, whose logo drew neither hisses nor cheers. Opens in New York and L.A. for a week-long Academy run in December, then goes wide on January 14th, 2000.


MY TOP 5:

1. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (Spike Jonze)

2. BOYS DON'T CRY (Kimberly Peirce)

3. OUTER SPACE (Peter Tcherkassky)

4. SICILIA! (Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet)

5. A VISITOR FROM THE LIVING (Claude Lanzmann)