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.

Baumbach has a wonderful sense of comic pacing, and he's good with his cast, which also includes Peter Bogdanovich, Carlos Jacott and Secrets & Lies' Marianne Jean-Baptiste. I suspect Baumbach hasn't received the media hype of some of his snazzier contemporaries, such as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, because he's too patterned and literate a filmmaker to create a sensation. People speak complete sentences in his movies and never pull guns. He's working on "youth" themes, but his true generation includes Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Paul Mazursky and the whole '30s screwball-comedy brigade. He deserves bigger budgets and bigger movies. Dialogue as good as his shouldn't be restricted to the art houses and the festival rounds. Funny is funny.

The documentary Moon Over Broadway chronicles the history of the hit Broadway show Moon Over Buffalo from casting through opening night and a bit beyond. The show starred Philip Bosco and Carol Burnett, who, after 30 years of television and movies, wanted a Broadway hit. (She got it.) The husband-and-wife directing team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) gets inside the ego-rama that is Broadway. The funny thing about this movie is that all of the usual life-in-the-theater cliches are confirmed. They're not cliches after all!

There's the temperamental star, the money-grubbing producers, the martinet director (Tom Moore), the nervous-wreck playwright (Ken Ludwig, fresh from Lend Me a Tenor). It's as if we were watching the play within the play. Pennebaker and Hegedus were given behind-the-scenes access, and back-stabbing and badmouthing are the order of the day. Burnett comes across as tense and embattled--a comic diva who feels constrained by the play's clockwork mechanics. She's a great improvisatory comedienne straitjacketed into a suit of Broadway armor. The one time we see her swagger and let loose is when a mechanical failure temporarily shuts down a preview performance, and, just as in the old Carol Burnett Show days, she gets in front of the audience and lets it rip.

I was a big fan of Robert Bierman's 1989 black comedy Vampire's Kiss, featuring Nicolas Cage as a New York book publisher/bloodsucker who actually gets to eat a real-live cockroach before our very eyes. Vainly, I've been waiting ever since for another Bierman film. Now there's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a first-rate piece of work based on the 1936 George Orwell novel. The film stars Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock, a writer of whiz-bang ad copy for clients like Cyprolax Hair Lotion and Whiterose Pills for Female Disorders who chucks it all to become a starving poet. Helena Bonham Carter plays his girlfriend, Rosemary, an illustrator in the agency who abides and endures Gordon's sponging and ardor.

Bierman has such an entrancing comic touch that what might have been a clucky comedy about class instead comes across as moonstruck. The scenes between Grant and Carter are rapturously silly. (This may be the only movie ever made in which a writer takes his friends to a four-star restaurant on the earnings from a published poem.) The working-class films we've been seeing from England over the past few years are mostly bumptious and genial and hokey--such as The Full Monty and Brassed Off--or hyped-up, such as Trainspotting.

The sweet and rather old-fashioned Keep the Aspidistra Flying is closer to the eccentric spirit of the Alec Guinness comedies (The Man in the White Suit) that came out of Ealing Studios--but it has a bloom of its own. Bierman is no scold. When Gordon cans the life of the poet and returns in glory to advertising, we want to cheer. The privileges of the middle class have never seemed so lustrous. This film would make a great double bill with Albert Brooks' similarly themed Lost in America, but first, of course, it must attract an American distributor. Maybe these words will help.

The Montreal World Film Festival
Bad Manners, American Perfekt, Another 91/2 Weeks

The Toronto Film Festival
Mr. Jealousy, Moon Over Broadway, Keep the Aspidistra Flying

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