Independents' day

Small films have their big night in '96

Bottle Rocket still feels like an indie film: Since it's exactly the sort of thing I generally prefer to slick studio product, it would be churlish to criticize Sony/Columbia for making it. But the film's fate is a perfect example of what happens when you get what you pray for: The studio had no idea how to release it; if Miramax or Fine Line had put it out, it would have been seen by far more people.

Three Lives and Only One Death Chilean expatriate director Raul Ruiz has made upwards of 50 films: While his movies regularly appear at festivals, they rarely get a theatrical release in the United States. Ruiz's latest--which was apparently Marcello Mastroianni's last performance--is so thoroughly delightful that, with luck, it will lead to a Ruiz retrospective or at least to the reissue of some of his earlier work. Despite the director's avant-garde reputation, Three Lives is at least as accessible as Luis Bunuel's final art-house hits, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. The film--which has the structure of a four-part anthology--combines the virtues of Hollywood entertainment while stripping away the barnacles: Playing with our ossified expectations of film narrative, it gives us a fresh sense of the possibilities of the medium. Each story is filled with plot twists and sensational elements--murder, sexual mystery, the supernatural--but these only set the stage for the film's real strategy, about which Ruiz starts dropping hints a third of the way through. Small details that seem confusing or arbitrary at first stick in our minds and fall into place by the end.

Fargo It has taken me most of the year to come to terms with Joel and Ethan Coen's story about a dim used-car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two professional thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) for ransom. The film is hysterically funny, operating in a deadpan tone throughout, but I was extremely bothered by what I took to be the Coens' usual contempt for their own characters. The meanness of their approach here seemed relentless, finding endless sport in the people of Minnesota and North Dakota for having funny accents, funny taciturn ways, and funny subhuman stupidity. But I've come around: The key is the protagonist, small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is the most Minnesotan of all; the filmmakers--and the audience--unquestionably love her.

Cold Comfort Farm After a long series of aesthetic and commercial flops, director John Schlesinger made a terrific comeback with this hilarious adaptation of Stella Gibbons' 1932 spoof about a stylish 1930s bachelorette (Kate Beckinsale) who heads off to Cold Comfort Farm, a doom-enshrouded outpost right out of Thomas Hardy. All the locals labor under a sense of constant foreboding, haunted by dark secrets from their past; confronted with such gloom, our heroine, who hates a mess, implacably goes about cleaning up everyone's lives. The past has no chance against the efforts of a practical, modern young woman. The film's Wodehousian humor is very, very British, though on the broader end of the Brit spectrum. And the cast--which includes such usual suspects as Freddie Jones, Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, and Miriam Margolyes--is essentially flawless.

Flirting with Disaster An adopted yuppie (Ben Stiller) goes in search of his genetic parents, accompanied by his wife (Patricia Arquette), their new baby, and a flaky psychologist (Tea Leoni). Along the way, the not-very-compatible foursome become involved with a pair of "unusual" federal agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin) and two aging hippies (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda), not to mention Mel's adoptive parents (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore). As the many screwups bring forth the various couples' most suppressed tensions, everyone comes dangerously close to cheating on everyone else. Director David O. Russell made a startling debut with 1994's low-budget Spanking the Monkey. While his first foray into the big time doesn't have quite as subversive an edge, it is nonetheless hilarious--a terrific updating of ancient farce conventions for the '90s.

Big Night It's hard not to love Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's comedy-drama about two Italian immigrant brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) trying to save their New Jersey restaurant from bankruptcy. It's a small-scale, perfectly balanced ensemble piece in which each performer gets his or her moment without ever disrupting the flow of the story. As the film leads us through the preparations for the big night, Tucci and Scott manage almost offhandedly to paint a portrait of a community of immigrants in the process of becoming assimilated. The one real flaw is some unbelievable behavior that sets the plot in motion. Still, the final scene--a single, five-and-a-half-minute, nearly wordless shot--is so gently moving that it eradicates any nagging doubts about the story's plausibility. The sterling cast includes Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, and Allison Janney.

Welcome to the Dollhouse Gawky 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) lives a hellish existence in a northern New Jersey suburb. Not smart, pretty, or socially adept enough, she is ridiculed at school, overlooked at home, and going through puberty without a clue what it's about. What's even more interesting and horrifying is that she's just as bad as everyone else. Just as her schoolmates take out their petty hostilities on her, she turns around and dishes out the same to the few targets even more pathetic than she. A simple plot synopsis fails to convey the flavor of writer-director Todd Solondz's hilarious and brutal angstfest. As one friend said: "This sure puts Sixteen Candles in perspective." Indeed, Solondz is a leading candidate for the anti-John Hughes. There is no separating the pain from the humor in his direction. When the story threatens to turn serious, he keeps us off-balance, as unsure how to react to Dawn's world as Dawn herself is.

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