There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A thunderclap of a movie, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration mercilessly dissects a bourgeois Danish family while dancing a stylistic pirouette. The certificate at the film’s opening announces its compliance with “Dogma 95,” a statement of indie-filmmaker values devised by flamboyant Danish director Lars von Trier, and, like the latter’s Breaking the Waves, Vinterberg’s film combines frenzied hand-held camera and brutal naturalism with elements of the supernatural. On more than one level, it’s a ghost story.
Dogma 95 films are supposed to eschew period, props, and flashbacks, adhering to an Aristotelian unity of time and place. Those constraints work fine for this nervy movie, which is set at the 60th birthday party of Helge (Henning Moritzen), the imperious owner of a luxurious country-estate hotel. Helge has apparently been just as demanding of his children as of the hotel’s staff, and as they prepare for the elaborate dinner in his honor, offspring Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), Helene (Paprika Steen), and Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) strive not to disappoint. The blustering Michael is the family’s black sheep; indeed, upon his arrival he is quietly informed by the desk clerk that he’s not on the guest list. When decorum begins to crumble, however, Michael proves closest to his father in spirit. It’s quiet, successful Christian who’s intent on ruining the party.
Helge has engaged a toastmaster to keep the evening’s speeches running smoothly, and he does a fine job. He even keeps the festivities under control after Christian rises to make his first speech, in which he informs the gathering that his father sexually abused Christian and his twin sister Linda, who has since committed suicide. This report prompts the first of the night’s awkward, evocative silences, but somehow the dinner stays on course. After Christian delivers his second round of remarks, however, many of the guests decide it’s time to leave. That’s when they discover that Christian’s allies on the hotel staff have hidden all their car keys.
While the staff (notably waitress Pia, who’s long had a crush on Christian) supports Helge’s accuser, the family members shift sides. Helene insists that Christian is lying, although she has reason to believe otherwise; her solidarity with her family begins to crumble, however, after her African-American boyfriend shows up (in a cab driven by Vinterberg) and is subjected to a raucous racist sing-along organized by the increasingly belligerent Michael. The latter’s impulse is to protect his father at all costs, and in the process he shows just how savage a family can be when threatened.
Although it was shot with a small digital video recorder and then blown up to 35mm, The Celebration is anything but austere. Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera swoops through the mansion and snakes into its darkest recesses, even making an appearance inside Helene’s pill bottle, while editor Valdis Oskarsdottir gives the story (written by Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov) a jumpy propulsion. Although it’s grainy and sometimes dimartificial light is also banned by Dogma 95the film never seems diminished by its aesthetic code. For a bravura filmmaker like Vinterberg, Dogma 95’s limitations are simply the occasion for feats of breathtaking ingenuity.
Among current films, The Celebration’s conceptual double bill is of course Happiness, Todd Solondz’s overrated account of sex-scourged New Jerseyites (including a kindly father with an overpowering lust for young boys). The two movies illustrate the vast gap between European and American cinematic sensibilities, and not just because Happiness is fundamentally a sitcom. Where Solondz’s film is profoundly puritanicalthe only character who finds sexual fulfillment is the one with whom we must not identifyVinterberg’s offers the possibility that the incest-scarred Christian may yet find, well, happiness. In the context of the movie’s revelations, this seems a little glib, but by suggesting that sexual satisfaction does not inherently equal damnation, The Celebration shows that European “sophistication” is simply common sense.
Living Out Loud, the directorial debut of contemporary “women’s picture” screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, is also a sitcom, albeit one with occasional feints at European-style offhandedness. (LaGravenese credits his initial inspiration to Chekhov.) Although it’s structured as a romantic comedy, the movie shuns the expected payoff in favor of a closing moment that celebrates the serendipity of everyday life. In general, though, the film is no more serendipitous than an episode of “Must-See” TV.
Judith (an unconvincingly blonde Holly Hunter) is a newly single nurse, still furious at her adulterous doctor ex-husband, Bob (art-film regular Martin Donovan). She has had no pals since the divorce but is trying to befriend torch singer Liz (Queen Latifah), who sings at a lounge Judith frequents. (The protagonist’s taste for jazz ballads is supposed to be a mark of sophistication, although when the movie really wants to get something going it turns to disco and funk.) Judith also strikes up an acquaintance with her Manhattan building’s doorman, Pat (Danny DeVito), an amiable dreamer with a heavy debt to a bookie. She helps him out, and he decides that the two would make a good couple. She protests that she’s not attracted to him.
Living Out Loud is punctuated with fantasy sequences in which Judith takes control of her life, for better or worse, but the movie’s depiction of a feisty divorcee’s everyday existence has plenty of wish fulfillment in it. Judith tells off Bob and his new wife, comes out of her shell, and indulges in drink, drugs, and (apparently) casual sex. LaGravenese (whose previous credits include such earnest romances as The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer) tweaks mainstream Hollywood’s just-say-no ethos by having his heroine drink like a martini-loving fish, have sex (off camera) with a hunky masseur/male hooker, and take ecstasy before heading to an after-hours club that turns out to be an upscale lesbian disco. There Judith leads a big production number (channeling her inner drag queen with broad, campy gestures) and embraces another woman.
Provocative stuff, perhaps, but the movie is actually pretty dull. Judith’s reactions to the outrages of everyday life, whether it be cheating husbands or depressing TV news, are as predictable and uninteresting as her girl talk with Liz or her bonding moments with Pat. And despite its boldly noncommittal ending, the high-gloss Living Out Loud keeps its distance from such European midlife confessionals as director-star Brigitte Roü#an’s Post Coitum. LaGravenese may want his heroine to shatter Hollywood conventions, but you can’t help but notice that to prepare for baring her soul Hunter spent a lot more time with a personal trainer than Roüan did.
In the opening sequence of Belly, a posse of gangstas rush into a large, teeming dance club, blowing away the security guards as half-naked women gyrate under the strobe lights. This is a rather conspicuous (and risky) way to rob a club, but then the thugs aren’t really interested in the moneythey’re in it for the visuals. Belly is the feature debut of hiphop-video director Hype Williams, and the film is so hyperkinetically stylish that it almost doesn’t matter that its narrative is barely coherent.
Scripted by Williams from a story by him, Anthony Bodden, and rapper Nas (who also stars), Belly is mostly flash: It’s as drunk on quick cuts, chiaroscuro lighting, and vertiginous camera angles as it is on sex, drugs, and violence. Although the movie ultimately stumbles toward a stop-the-violence moral, its real values are those of hiphop videos: Noise and energy are good, macho swagger is essential, and women are mere decoration. (Belly features lots of butt and crotch closeups, and not one but two shootouts in strip clubs.) There’s even a little incongruous satanic imagery, as if Williams is indulging a long-frustrated desire to make a Marilyn Manson video. Remarkably, though, the director doesn’t just lard the film with hiphop shuffles: His use of music is remarkably subtle and evocative, often contrasting heavy violence with the delicacy of unaccompanied voices (including an a cappella version of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life”).
Tommy (Earl Simmons, who raps as DMX) and Sincere (Nasir Jones, who raps as Nas) are childhood pals from Queens. Tommy is rich, flamboyant, and promiscuous; he’s seen casually getting a blowjob in his car while he chats on a cell phone with girlfriend Kisha (Taral Hicks), who lives with him in a minimalist designer-showcase home on Long Island. Despite being the member of a murderous crew, Sincere is supposed to be spiritual; he’s committed to Tionne (Tionne Watkins, who sings with TLC as T-Boz) and their infant daughter Kenya, and is starting think seriously about returning to the “motherland,” Africa.
The duo and their cohorts get away with murder, but trouble starts when they turn to dealing drugs. After allying with Jamaican drug potentate Lennox (dancehall reggae star Louie Rankin), the New Yorkers muscle in on another gang’s turf in Omaha. The city’s aggrieved former drug boss rats on Tommy’s operation, and soon most of the gang is either behind bars or on the run. Then a shady government agent offers Tommy a way to avoid jail: All he has to do is kill an African-American leader known only as the Minister (Benjamin F. Muhammed, the former Benjamin Chavis) just before he delivers a sermon on Dec. 31, 1999. Tommy and Sincere’s last-act attraction to social responsibility, however, doesn’t change the fact that Belly exuberantly glorifies the antisocial.
Edgily apocalyptic, obsessively art-directed, and thoroughly preposterous, Belly comes on like the African-American Strange Days, although its taste for opulent Long Island mansionsexcuse me, “cribs”gives it a hilarious whiff of Merchant-Ivory interior-decoration fetishism. Like James Ivory, Williams has pictorial finesse but little storytelling sense. From its use of infrared film, extreme closeups, and split screens to its arch use of a clip from Gummo, Belly is the work of a cinematic sophisticate. It’s also really dumb.CP