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MAY 11, 1998: 

Junk Mail

Roy (Robert Skjaerstad) may be the world's most disgruntled postal worker. Tossing the letters he doesn't feel like delivering, keeping for himself the mail he finds intriguing, loathed by his co-workers and the patrons on his route, he's the poorest excuse for a postman since Kevin Costner. But when he finds a set of keys to the home of a lovely, hearing-impaired woman (Andrine Saether) on his route, he takes his prying to a new and dangerous level.

Norwegian director/co-writer Pal Sletaune has created a delicious black comedy that fits nicely into the current indie vogue for twisty, bleak satire. Like many such films, it can coast on sensibility for only so long before degenerating into standard thriller mechanics. Still, Junk Mail is a remarkably assured debut that should prepare us for a whole Nor-wave of odd, dark little films. Like his Finnish neighbor Aki Kaurismäki, Sletaune creates an inviting desolation. His is the Norway not of lovely fjords and Viking ships but of grim alleys and squalor that evokes Edvard Munch's silent scream. See Junk Mail and go postal.

-- Gary Susman

Deep Impact

The world doesn't end with a whimper in Deep Impact so much as it rambles on with tiresome speeches. After young Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) discovers a comet on a collision course with the earth, the impending "ELE" (Extinction Level Event) teaches everyone a lesson about life and death and putting things in perspective. Ambitious TV news reporter Jenny Lerner (a sedated Téa Leoni) stops scrambling for an anchor position long enough to seek a reconciliation between her mother (Vanessa Redgrave, wasted with everyone else in this star-studded cast) and her father (Maximilian Schell). Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall), a member of the team sent to intercept the comet and blast it with nukes, learns to get along with his cocky young colleagues. President Beck (Morgan Freeman) takes to the airwaves to reassure the nation that life goes on. Directed randomly by Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker), who still hasn't gotten the hang of effects-laden action movies, these human-interest stories develop like pompous sound bites, mere preliminaries to the big bang at the end. Contrary to its title, Deep Impact barely makes an impression; it's the biggest celestial dud since Kahoutek.

-- Peter Keough

Black Dog

Testosterone oozes from the screen as Jack Crews (Patrick Swayze) drives a truckload of toilets and guns cross-country, breaking his parole in an attempt to keep his wife and daughter from being killed by one of many bad guys. To top it off, the FBI and ATF are tracking his every move. Joining him are three trucker buddies, including Earl (Randy Travis), a wanna-be country singer whose best line includes the word "fart."

Character development is minimal, though Meat Loaf is perfect as Red, the evil cigar-smokin', Bible-quotin' truck owner. And there are a few plot twists to keep things interesting: Who's helping the bad guys hijack Crews's truck? Who's the FBI plant? How does Tiny, the black pitbull, survive in the back of the truck? Director Kevin Hooks (Passenger 57) draws on the rush of playing with life-size Tonka toys as he concentrates on making big trucks smash into each other, flip over, explode, and destroy shrubbery. Fun for the whole family.

-- Jumana Farouky

A Merry War

Adapted from a novel by George Orwell, this is a witty, acerbic fable of post-war angst, fashionable socialism, and pre-marital frustration. Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter are shyly engaged employees at an advertising agency; she's been brushing off his advances but is starting to weaken. Grant is an aspiring poet who, upon being promoted to "Head of Creativity" promptly quits, much to Bonham Carter's horror. A talented graphic artist, she tries to remain loyal but grows increasingly disillusioned with her fiancé's antics: after receiving a substantial royalty check from a magazine, he drinks the money away and is thrown in jail. Penniless and ostracized, he ends up slumming in a fleabag rooming house among the whores, drunkards, and fishwives of East London.

Bonham Carter's Rosemary is a gem: conservative, pensive, yet not indifferent to sensual abandon. Grant is the revelation, however -- he hasn't been this good since Withnail and I. His effortless charm and ludicrous arrogance make his descent into poverty and self-loathing unbelievably moving and wildly funny.

-- Peg Aloi

My Best Girl

The restoration of this 1927 Mary Pickford romance provides the centerpiece of the Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema. It's a beauty. Pickford, an actress with an extraordinary combination of spunk and delicacy whose work has been neglected for decades, plays a shopgirl who falls in love with her boss's son (Buddy Rogers), thinking he's a stock-room clerk. In one scene, director Sam Taylor juxtaposes the elegant midday meal ferried by servants to Rogers's debutante girl friend (Avonne Taylor) with the box lunch he and Pickford share as they huddle together cozily in a crate like a toy house. In another, Pickford, having discovered his identity, runs away from his parents' mansion through the rainy streets, then pauses before a domestic scene in the window of his father's store. These sequences could have been sentimental tripe, but Taylor, Pickford, and the photographer, Charles Rosher, bring so much feeling to them that they're transformed. (The scene where Pickford runs away from Rogers and his family suggests moments from Murnau's Sunrise, from the same year, a film Rosher also shot.) The last 20 minutes are conventional; the rest is perfectly lovely.

-- Steve Vineberg

Funny Games

From Austrian director Michael Haneke comes this viscera-numbing film of bourgeois impotence and subversion. A middle-class couple (Georg and Anna) arrive with their son and dog at their fancy vacation home and are immediately set upon by two young thugs dressed as caddies. Immaculately groomed, ingratiatingly polite, these rosy-cheeked scumbags make the Nazis look like a bunch of pussies. They bludgeon the dog, break Georg's kneecaps, force Anna to strip -- and they're just getting started.

Haneke directs this perfect piece of perversity with an almost clinical hand, devoid of sentiment, sympathy, or manipulation, and with little explicit violence. The acting is also superb, particularly Suzanne Lothar's Anna, who at her most distraught resembles a Cindy Sherman portrait. Haneke's meta-cinematic decision to have one character speak directly to the camera may strike some as a touch clever. No matter, this is still the most frightening film you will ever see: unforgettably sadistic, utterly plausible, and totally fucking terrifying.

-- Peg Aloi

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