The Next New Wave

Our critic ventures to the Great White North, looking for the Worthy and Undistributed

Everybody likes to run down Canadian movies, but Canadian film festivals--I speak of Montreal and Toronto--are something else again. How can a country turn out such mediocre movies and such terrific film festivals? In Hollywood, at least, we're consistent: Our movies and our film festivals are equally lousy.

I started out my annual summer hegira in the Great White North with a six-day scramble through the 11-day Montreal World Film Festival. The land of smoked meat and Quebecers was in a tizzy because Howard Stern's radio show was being broadcast for the first time there. He did not have heartwarming things to say about French Canadians. He called them, if memory serves, "assholes." Maybe he would have felt differently if the festival had screened Private Parts.

At festivals I like to separate the wheat from the chaff--the wheat in this case being the slew of small movies often without distribution deals, as opposed to the big-ticket chaff that soon enough ends up in the multiplexes. Critics on the festival circuit are not, as a rule, in a knife-sharpening mood. Why travel all that distance just to slice and dice? No, what gooses the cinema circuiteers is the chance to champion. All eyes are on the lookout for the next New Wave.

Which, of course, makes the whole enterprise suspicious, since inflation is the order of the day, and critics in search of greatness tend to find it where it ain't. This film-festival fandango--in which films are seized upon as great because slots must be filled and editors placated--I dub the Sundance Syndrome. But it goes on everywhere, even in Canada.

You will not find me spouting off here about masterpieces, for I saw none. (Of course, I saw only a small fraction of the hundreds of films on view.) Last year in Montreal, there actually was a bona fide masterpiece, Jan Troell's Hamsun, and--typically, criminally--it's taken more than a year to get L.A. distribution. This year I discovered a pair of flawed but fine small-scale pictures currently without distribution. Both seem in danger of surviving solely on the life-support system of the festival circuit, which would be a deprivation for the smart, hip audiences for whom I believe they were intended.

Jonathan Kaufer's Bad Manners, adapted by David Gilman from his play, is a chamber drama about a quartet of overbright, calculating, not-quite-happy academics who convene for a weekend and go at each other tooth-and-claw. It's as if Harold Pinter had mated with Edward Albee. Kaufer probably was trying for more than this--in a postscreening discussion, he invoked Tom Stoppard--but the film is a smarty-pants mix of genuine wit and ersatz wit. Still, Kaufer has talent to burn, and so does his cast: Saul Rubinek, Bonnie Bedelia, David Strathairn, Julie Harris and relative newcomer Caroleen Feeney--the thinking man's hot tomato.

Rubinek starred in Kaufer's 1975 feature debut (and only other film), Soup for One, which, until it skidded into high seriousness, was a remarkable little comedy about a lovelorn romantic. Here Rubinek plays a musicologist who thinks he's located a famous passage from a medieval religious composition in a modern computer-generated piece. His awe at this "discovery" is matched by his zeal for academic self-advancement--he's convinced this will make his name.

Rubinek and Bedelia, playing his ex-girlfriend, have such extraordinary rapport it's as if they had been acting together their whole lives. Their scenes together convey a bristling history of regret and longing. It's amazing to realize this is one of Bedelia's very few lead performances since Heart Like a Wheel almost 15 years ago. She's been wasted for years by producers who could think of no better use for her than cowering behind Bruce Willis in Die Hard. She deserves better--not just Bad Manners, but the kinds of roles routinely offered to Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange.

American Perfekt also features an extraordinary underused American actress--Amanda Plummer. She plays Sandra Thomas, a disenchanted L.A. professional who hooks up in the California desert with Jake Nyman, a criminal psychiatrist played by Robert Forster. Essentially a road-movie black comedy, American Perfekt is imperfekt--Jake's mania is too easily predicted--but it's a true original. Plummer's husband, the British writer-director Paul Chart, is making his American feature debut, and he has a great feeling for deadpan weirdness. So does Plummer; few actresses are able to be at once so ravishingly plain and ravishingly strange. You can never quite get your bearings in a Plummer performance, because her line readings come equipped with boomerangs. Everything she says flies in on itself. She's the right actress for American Perfekt. By the time it swerves from bumptious road movie to chiller-diller scare fest, Plummer has already prepared us for the change in scenery.

Oh, and I also caught up with the sequel to 91U2 Weeks--Another 91U2 Weeks. And--it's official. Mickey Rourke's lips have become permanently pursed.

The Toronto leg of my filmic foray set me once again on the Sasquatch trail of the Worthy and Undistributed. I found a few footprints.

Noah Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy is the uneven but occasionally terrific follow-up to his first feature, Kicking and Screaming, one of the best and most neglected of the twentysomething movies. Baumbach has a dry hipster's wit--a cross between Gen X, Beat and SitCom. In Mr. Jealousy, he's concocted a premise that Woody Allen probably, years ago, would have killed for: A would-be novelist and ex-CNN producer, Lester Grimm (Eric Stoltz), is obsessed with Dashiell (Chris Eigeman), the young best-selling novelist ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra). Spotting Dashiell going into a group-therapy session, Lester joins up, too, assuming the identity of his best friend as a cover. The complications are intricately and farcically worked out, yet you never get the feeling you're being poked and prodded.

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