In a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in Bhutan, the head abbot (Lama Chonjor) is curious, though not the least bit ruffled, to discover that some of his monks are secretly sneaking off to a nearby town to watch World Cup matches on television. Not surprisingly, the abbot has never heard of the World Cup; in fact, he's never heard of soccer. But together with his chief aide (Orgyen Tobgyal), he decides to allow ace soccer buff Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), an adolescent hustler who seems better suited to being a pimp or a bookie than a monk, to rent and install a TV and satellite dish for the final match. This sweet little movie is a mild comedy, a much calmer cousin to Sister Act, with men in robes rather than women in habits. The story behind its production is also a tribute to the seductive power of cinema. The writer-director, Khyentse Norbu, is an important lama -- "one of the most important incarnate lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition today," we are informed. He was recognized at the age of seven as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) -- which would make him, in a sense, the oldest filmmaker in the world. When he was in his early 30s, he served as an advisor to Bernardo Bertolucci, who was making Little Buddha. And how are you gonna keep 'em down in the monastery after they've had a taste of Hollywood? The Cup is his first film, and it's clear that he has studied well: The story may be slight, but its execution is both technically and dramatically savvy -- despite the fact that the entire cast is made up of genuine monks with no acting experience. The Cup is also the first Bhutanese production ever, which made it a shoo-in as that country's entry for the Oscar's Best Foreign Film category; on its merits, it should also be a strong contender for one of the five final slots.
Scintillating, hypnotic, ingenious, triumphant. These are words one could use to describe the latest movie from Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), provided one has been lobotomized and flushed to the gills with industrial-strength hallucinogens. If anybody can exit a screening of Miss Julie (after it ends, unlike half the audience I saw it with) and speak those words with a straight face, they deserve a crisp new dollar bill, and possibly an agent. Yes, it really is that bad, a strong contender for Worst Picture of All Time. Anyway, here's the gist: Helen Cooper has updated August Strindberg's tragic play, giving Mike Figgis an "adult" playground for his inflated ego (and invasive score). Set almost entirely in the kitchen of a wealthy Count's estate, the story flatly details the bickering and tedium of the Count's assertive daughter, Julie (Saffron Burrows), as she engages in...um..."a dangerous and erotic game of passion, power, and betrayal" (credit: press notes) with the Count's angry and ambitious footservant, Jean (Peter Mullan). Jean alternately swoons over childhood memories of the Count's beautiful toilet and dully accosts Julie, and Julie channels incredible revelations ("It must be terrible to be poor!") and graciously receives insults such as "servant's slut" and "footman's whore." The Count's weary cook -- and Jean's secret lover -- Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy) pretty much rounds out the cast, tipping the philosophical scales in favor of the proles. All three actors are forced to fight tooth and nail for their dignity.