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Sundance's Kids

By Richard von Busack

The independent film circuit is small enough that even if you stay put, you'll get everything worthwhile they get on the film festival, except for the eye strain, the hangovers and the inflated hotel bills. Opening this week are three independent movies: a crime story, a small family movie, and a comedy, and all were involved at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The Brothers McMullen won the grand prize this year; it opens on the same day with the not unTarantino-like The Usual Suspects, which itself was directed by Brian Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie, the 1993 Grand Jury Prize winners for Public Access, (also one of the highlights of that year's Cinequest) Lastly, a making-a-movie movie Living in Oblivion, another much talked about offering at the Utah festival this year.

Living in Oblivion has a wispy subject, but director Tom DiCillo, former cameraman for Jim Jarmusch, gives it some heft. (Previously, DiCillo was Jim Jamusch's camera man and the director of a forgettable exercise in style called Johnny Suede, which starred Brad Pitt; Pitt was presumably not the model for Chad Palomino, the gone-Hollywood actor pilloried in it.) As director Nick Reve, Steve Buscemi, with a beard, long hair and a suffering expression, looks like Don Knotts on the Cross as he deals with the numerous pitfalls of non-union filmmaking. Living in Oblivion is simply one of the funniest film of the year, but it's also an inside look at how low-budget movies are made.. It would be greatly useful movie for film students, particularly in the early scenes demonstrating most, but not everything, that could go wrong during a shoot. Dream sequence--the word "reve" is French for "dream"--are layered in to the plot, as are the scenes from the movie within a movie (alternating in black and white and color, to avoid confusion)' it all builds up to a classic punchline involving a nervous actress, an antique smoke machine.and an aggrieved dwarf, the last of whom is sick of having his person exploited as a metaphor. (I suppose this kind of sizeism does happen all too often. Richard Zanuck, ex-20th Century Fox head, was quoted in John Gregory Dunne's 1967 book The Studio as ordering up a little person for a movie he was making: "There's something insidious about a midget," Zanuck explained. )

Living in Oblivion shows of all of the tempers that have to be stroked, all of the bad coffee, the non-Teamster transportation, the tantrums and terrible morals of the actors (most of the women on the set are in heat over the star, a slumming Don Johnson-like hambone named Chad Palamino, played by James LeGros) Still, the film is mixed with a sense of admiration for movies, contrasting the difference between dream and reality just as it melds the affectionate and the abrasive

There's a running gag in Living in Oblivion about how the lead actress (Catharine Keener) was best known for a shower scene in a Richard Gere movie. After seeing --- play the youngest of The Brothers McMullen, I thought I knew who wrote that shower scene --- is supposed to be a screenwriter, though he never puts pen to paper, and doesn't go to the movies or read any books. The Brothers McMullen are three Irish-American Catholic New York suburban siblings, gathered back together under one roof temporarily. Jack, the eldest, is very married, has just turned 30, and is under pressure to produce a child ("I want a family, Jack," his wife urges him, which is the kind of statement that would induce impotence in even Senator Packwood.) During this crisis, he's lured--no, pulled--into an affair by Ann, one of his pupils. As the film's bad girl ---'s Anne is a ringer for one of the greenish vamps from an Expressionist painting. Middle brother Patrick is having his own troubles, since he himself is facing a possible marriage with his girlfriend, who is urging--no, pulling again, him into going to work for her dad. The youngest is untrustworthy of women, probably because of the above. There's no distance to the family; you're meant to laugh indulgently at them throughout like sitcom characters.

The Brothers McMullen is almost as slick as television; it handles a few thorny topics gingerly, before setting them back down again safely. Abortion, of fidelity, of faith, of heavy drinking, of family violence (the youngest toasting his father as "child-beating, wife-abusing alcoholic") are touched but then dropped. This may not be a character study, instead of an issues movie, but these characters have few inflections and the women's roles have even less. The Brothers McMullen is a fatal combination,. sincerity with timidity---this is wan, from the heart.

By contrast, but not only by contrast, the fairly heartless The Usual Suspects is an improvement. Brian Singer's Public Access was a highlight at the 1993 Cinequest, and his new movie is urgent and exciting, down in wide screen, tasty lurid photography a tricky plot, and metaphysical overtones. A high-priced gang embarks on a series of crimes that stepladder one into another: the theft of a parcel of emeralds, that leads into another jewel theft that goes wrong, and finally slides the crew into a an assault on a heavily guarded ship, the aftermath of which opens the movie. The Usual Suspects doubles back from the climax, to a story that which becomes more fantastic as it is revealed. It involves an unseen master criminal, a modern version of Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Moriarity. You'd have to believe the central conceit to enjoy it, which maybe an easy matter, millenium panic being inescapable now . And personally I loved the Bond films for Blofeld, the man with the white Persian cat. Who knows how many Napoleons of crime are skulking around? Is Robert Maxwell really dead? Maybe Orson Welles faked his death, also; when we get a glimpse of The Usual Suspect's Moriarity figure Keyser Susa in a long shot, he's wearing the raincoat and fedora of Harry Lime, Welles's diabolical villain from The Third Man.)

If you're sharp, you'll be ahead of the film on a few points, but I doubt if anyone could see how it comes out, thanks to not one but two untrustworthy narrators: the crippled, passive-aggressive confidence man "Verbal" (another superb job of acting by Kevin Spacey) and the glinting-eyed police detective Chazz Palminteri. The rest of the cast is also fine: they include Kevin Pollak, very good as a garden variety thug. Gabriel Byrne grim as the leader Keaton, William Baldwin, who sports the obscene little bangs of the psycho (as seen on Alan Arkin's forehead in Wait Until Dark), Giancarlo Esposito seems to be part of the same supernatural FBI bureau that employs agents Cooper, Mulder and Scully; perhaps best of Peter Postlethwaithe, as Koyabashi, Keyser Susa's polite familiar. I wish there was some way to work more women into these tough movies; Singer undercuts the taste he showed by hiring Suzy Amis (The Ballad of Little Jo) by not giving her anything to work with. Still, The Usual Suspects keeps its fascination until the very end.

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