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MAY 26, 1998: 

The Hanging Garden

Writer/director Thom Fitzgerald's harrowing, hilarious first feature stars Chris Leavins as Sweet William, a young gay man who returns to his Cape Breton childhood home for the wedding of his sister Rosemary (Shallow Grave's Kerry Fox) to his former paramour, Fletcher (gorgeous carrot-top Joel Keller). At first, William suffers all with calm detachment: his father's alcoholism, his mother's martyrdom, Rosemary's cynicism, Fletcher's flirtation, his grandmother's senility, even the obnoxious kid sister he has never seen before. But he's haunted by visions of the past, finally confronting dark family secrets that have waited a decade for his return. The film's centerpiece is the recurring specter of William's obese teenage self hanging from an apple tree in the garden -- and he is shocked to learn that others can see it too.

This tale of a dysfunctional family transcends mere tear-jerking with its odd alchemy of magic realism and complex, subtle performances. Fitzgerald's lush visual style, awash in color and floral imagery, evokes the palettes of Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, but without their esoteric chill. An eclectic soundtrack by Celtic artists like Ashley MacIsaac and the Rankin Family adds raw nostalgia. Already studded with awards in Canada, Fitzgerald's self-assured debut promises excitement ahead for a fledgling Nova Scotia cinema.

-- Peg Aloi


Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The banality of evil has never interested Werner Herzog as much as its perverse purity. Take the conquistador hero of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, for instance: treacherous, genocidal, incestuous, he's nonetheless apotheosized by his utter commitment to an image. Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog's astounding but uneven new documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, is not nearly as ruthless as Aguirre (how could he be, with a name like that?). But his monomania is nearly as terrifying. He too was enraptured by an image: the face of an American fighter pilot strafing his house during World War II. From that point on, the nine-year-old Dieter needed to fly. The obsession takes him (after a Dickensian upbringing in Germany) to the US, where he becomes a Navy pilot who's shot down in 1967 over Laos a couple of hours into his first mission. Captured by the enemy, he's tortured, escapes, and, skeletal and hallucinating, is rescued.

It's hard to go wrong with a story like this, and Herzog sticks to the basics, though with his typically near-hysterical spin. A motor-mouthed, oddly light-hearted Dengler relates the events in voiceover, which Herzog illustrates with historical footage and a queasy on-location re-enactment of Dengler's ordeal at the hands of his captors. Sometimes Herzog adds his own commentary, with occasional clunky effect ("His world was a dreamscape of the surreal . . . then he saw his first sausage in a display window"). From the opening quote from Revelation onward, though, you know Herzog sees in Dieter's tale more than just an anecdote: Dieter may need to fly, but Herzog needs to film.

-- Peter Keough


Genealogies of a Crime

Raoul Ruiz, one of the world's most prolific, roughhewn, bewildering filmmakers, has been smoothing over the edges in his last two efforts. The late Marcello Mastroianni put his name on Ruiz's previous film, Three Lives and Only One Death; now Catherine Deneuve graces his latest. Not that Ruiz has gone mainstream. Genealogies of a Crime is Ruiz's most conventional and polished work to date, but with his drolly surreal tropes, puckish obsessions, and the numinous presence of Deneuve, it may also be his most engaging and subversive.

Deneuve (evoking her performances in both Repulsion and Belle de Jour) plays Solange, a Parisian defense lawyer who takes on as a client a teenage murder suspect. René (Melvil Poupaud) is accused of killing his aunt Jeanne, an analyst who was treating him for the criminality that she'd determined, when he was five years old, would be his irreversible fate. That Solange's own 20-year-old son has just died underscores the Oedipal attraction, as does the fact that Deneuve also portrays Jeanne in flashback. Not only do genetic determination and Freudian repetition compulsion seem to drive the pair to re-enact the aunt's fate, so does the insidious seduction of storytelling itself.

Ruiz conveys that seduction with baroque elegance in a series of overlapping points of view. Lucid to the point of banality (the characters react with the histrionics or affectlessness of David Lynch creations), Genealogies remains perpetually skewed: the camera will stray from a patient's face on a couch as he relates a dream about cannibalism and wander over the wall and ceiling before coming to rest on the therapist's face, upside down, as he scratches his head. It's a pose many viewers will be mirroring.

-- Peter Keough


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Some of America's finest filmmakers have failed to bring Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the screen. The reason is simple: beneath the book's drug-fueled verbiage, pompous and hypocritical radical politics, and calmly hysterical paranoia nothing really happens -- just a couple of sodden assholes doing drugs, taking in the sights, and abusing passing strangers. In his exhausting, inevitably uneven adaptation, Terry Gilliam has solved the problem, sort of, moving beyond parody to touch on the pathos of Thompson's pose, and suggesting that the chief object of his fear and loathing is Thompson himself.

As Raoul Duke, Johnny Depp not only metamorphoses into Thompson, embodying his voice, gestures, and gait (his rubber-legged reel during an ether binge is physical comedy at its finest) but suggests the innocent bystander within witnessing the spectacle with aghast amusement. Equally, Benicio Del Toro inhabits the bulk (he put on 40 pounds for the role) of Duke's attorney and sidekick, Dr. Gonzo, with a melancholy restraint that makes his episodes of mania all the more assaultive. Mostly, though, it's Gilliam's sense of irony that makes this a hilarious trip to the hellish heart of one American dream. He knows his way around a drug scene, all right, from the bats and reptiles to the subtle expansion of dimensions, intensity of light, and gentle rocking of what should be stable. And he knows the squalor -- comic in the voiceover description taken from Thompson's prose, repellent in vomit-caked reality. Fear and Loathing opens with a quote from Dr. Johnson: "He who makes a beast of himself forgets the pain of being a man." Gilliam's film forces us to remember.

-- Peter Keough


East Palace, West Palace

The title of this film is slang for the public bathrooms that flank the old imperial palace in the center of Beijing. Here's where gay Chinese men go cruising, a risk almost anywhere (ask George Michael), but especially so in a nation still without a public face to its gay community. Most of Zhang Yuan's stunning movie is set in a nearby police station, where over a long night a cop interrogates a young writer rousted during one of the periodic "palace" raids. The cop (Hu Jun) is a decent guy, intent on teaching A-Lan (Si Han) the error of his ways. But A-Lan will have no part of it. In a scenario worthy of Fassbinder or Genet, the captive turns captor, forcing the policeman to see thwarted desire as real, not deviant.

The film's roots as a stage play do show. But Zhang self-consciously uses the ornate, mirrored police station as a stage where the sultry A-Lan can spin his web. The camera surveys the pair from above, as they circle each other, circle the station itself, reach out in fury and desire. Xiang Min's dissonant music haunts the hothouse.

Zhang is already a thorn to Chinese cultural authorities, and like many of his films, East Palace, West Palace has been acclaimed internationally without being shown at home. Each time it reaches an audience, the movie's point is made twice. Passion -- artistic or sexual -- cannot be forced underground.

-- Scott Heller


Clockwatchers

One step beyond the world of Slackers is that of Jill Sprecher's brisk, witty, shrewdly observed Clockwatchers, where the characters indeed have to punch a time clock. Four women labor as temps in a soulless rat maze of an office where the abuse isn't so much sexual as existential. Iris (Toni Collette, whose very posture conveys a lifetime of low self-esteem) sees the job as a refuge from the permanence of a position her father wants her to take at a frozen-food company. Jane (Alanna Ubach) has a rich but elusive fiancé in the works; Paula (Lisa Kudrow) is killing time until one of her "auditions" pays off. Their anarchic ringleader, Margaret (Parker Posey, a bit too posed), inspires them with an élan of prankish indifference, though her secret desire is to get a recommendation from her crass boss Lasky (an understated and hilarious Bob Balaban).

Their illusion of solidarity disintegrates when another, even more damaged woman gets a plum position, items start disappearing in the office, and external and internal suspicions tear them apart. Sprecher tells her tale with unassuming subtlety and a wry eye for detail that is often outrageously funny. And tragic, as this quartet of underachievers watch their desperate attempt at identity, purpose, and loyalty succumb to the enforced ephemerality of the work place.

-- Peter Keough


Bulworth

Warren Beatty's brave, if ramshackle, political farce tackles the dirty business of racial inequality and corporate greed with the tenacity of a pit bull. As Senator Jay Bulworth (named loosely after Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party), Beatty, who also writes and directs, plays an extension of himself: a Kennedy liberal in the '60s, now disillusioned by the political environment of the '90s, where big money and favoritism suffocate activism and social advocacy.

Sick of all the hypocrisy and in the midst of a re-election campaign (it's 1996, as Dole and Clinton duke it out), a sleep-and-food-deprived Bulworth makes a back-room deal for a $10 million life-insurance policy to benefit his daughter, then takes out a contract on himself. His imminent demise gives him the freedom to speak his mind: he tells the parishioners of a black South Central church to "put down their chicken wings and malt liquor"; he calls a group of Beverly Hills entertainment executives "big Jews" and brands their product "crap." From there Bulworth angles his moral rebirth as a "White Negro," pursuing a sultry flygirl (the always alluring Halle Berry), hanging out at hip-hop clubs (where they mistake him for George Hamilton), and even taking on a pair of racist cops, but the funniest incarnation comes when the middle-aged white guy starts rapping his anti-big-business sentiments at a chi-chi fundraiser.

As a piece of social commentary, Bulworth has an edgy, in-your-face texture somewhere between Network and Do the Right Thing. And though the plot contrivances -- like the self-initiated hit -- are old-hat, the dead-on performances, Vittorio Storaro's kinetic cinematography, and Beatty's nervy social agenda make this film a provocative tour de force in political incorrectness.

-- Tom Meek


Autumn Sun

Older people don't get much respect when it comes to romance on the big screen; more often they're treated with condescension, ridicule, or sentimentality. Argentinian director Eduardo Mignogna's wistful, deft, beautifully acted Autumn Sun succumbs to those weaknesses only in its generic title. Clara Goldstein (a birdlike and elegant Norma Aleandro) is a fiftysomething single woman in Buenos Aires who needs to find a Jewish fiancé to placate her visiting-from-Boston brother. She places a personals ad asking for a nice Jewish fellow and gets a response from Raúl (Leslie Nielsen look-alike Federico Luppi), who despite his clumsy efforts at passing is clearly a gentile. Clara decides to go with him anyway, coaching him in being Jewish to deceive her brother. The outcome is predictable, but filled with such canny details and small surprises, not to mention the subtle evocation of evolving love between Clara and Raúl, that the occasional misjudgment -- a perfunctory subplot involving a delinquent; Clara's penchant for bewildering fantasies -- is lost in the glow of genuine emotion.

-- Peter Keough



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