and Marie Perennou

Although it’s the story of three losers who plot and then botch an armed robbery, Palookaville aspires to be something different. Well, a little different. In fact, director Alan Taylor’s film can be isolated from Reservoir Dogs, Bottle Rocket, and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Still, the distinguishing features will probably interest only connoisseurs.

Though not set in the actual past, this is a period film of a sort: Produced by Uberto Pasolini and based by scripter David Epstein on three ’40s neorealist short stories by Italo Calvino, Palookaville evokes difficult yet gentler times. The film is located in contemporary Jersey City, but it’s not as brutal as its Amerindie gangster peers. Just as surely as neo-noirs like Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral will end in a hail of bullets, Palookaville’s one ominous gun won’t go off.

Taylor introduces his three unlikely pals as they attempt to break into a jewelry store only to discover that they’re in the neighboring bakery instead. When childlike Jerry (Laws of Gravity’s Adam Trese) stops to sample the doughnuts, he should by all rights be caught, an arrest that would quickly lead to Russ (Vincent Gallo, who’s also in The Funeral) and Sid (William Forsythe). Fortunately for the failed jewel thieves, the local cops—who include Russ’ brother-in-law Ed (Gareth Williams)—are just as dumb as their prey. Though Ed spends the film snooping in Russ’ room and peppering the three pals with insinuations, he can never quite break the bakery break-in case.

The closest any of the trio can come to a job is Jerry, whose wife Betty (Lisa Gay Hamilton) works at the local supermarket. Sid lives for his two smelly dogs, and Russ imagines himself a tough guy while living with his mother, sister, and cop brother-in-law and slipping out his bedroom window for trysts with Laurie (Kim Dickens), the bubbly, barely grown-up girl next door. The guys have only small-time ideas, and even those are too big for them. When they decide to hijack the armored car that collects the supermarket’s receipts, they’re clearly out of their depth. Ultimately, though, their incompetence serves them well: They can’t even screw up a robbery right.

Though sweeter and kindlier, Palookaville overlaps The Funeral in more than its casting. Both films, for example, feature stronger women’s parts than is customary for the genre. Betty is clearly the only adult in Jerry’s household, which also contains their toddler son. Though her notions of the good life are simplistic and starry-eyed, Laurie proves to have more dedication to her dreams than Russ. Midway through the film, Sid also attracts an admirer, Enid (Bridgit Ryan), who’s just kooky enough to appreciate the aimless dog-lover. (All these parts are small, but Epstein’s script offers the tantalizing possibility that Betty, Laurie, and Enid are more interesting than their paramours.) The film’s truth-teller, meanwhile, is local hooker June (art-noir muse Frances McDormand).

Palookaville is also as indebted to other movies as anything Ferrara’s ever done. The film is named for Marlon Brando’s soliloquy about his “one-way ticket to Palookaville” in On the Waterfont (also set on the Jersey side of the Hudson). And where The Funeral includes a scene from The Petrified Forest, a 1936 gangster flick, Taylor substitutes a later noir, 1950’s Armored Car Robbery, which the three would-be thieves watch on TV as if it were a training film. (In a sense it is: It’s one of the first caper flicks in which the planned heist goes wrong.) The filmmaker even enlisted Rachel Portman to compose a score “in the mood of Nino Rota’s Fellini scores,” although it sounds more like Henry Mancini to me.

Despite all this, Palookaville doesn’t feel overloaded. Taylor sends a comic breeze though the loser genre, albeit not an exceptionally brisk one. Fundamentally, the film is a comedy of proximity: Whether filching doughnuts, slinking into a next-door bedroom, or trying to find a place on the bed with two sleeping dogs, Jerry, Russ, and Sid live a little too close for comfort. Unlike some bloodier-minded young directors, though, Taylor can imagine people getting in each other’s faces without feeling compelled to blow them off.

Following The Leopard Son, Microcosmos is the season’s second real-life anthropomorphic nature drama. Where the former concentrated on mammals and the occasional bird, the latter has a featured cast of insects, arachnids, mollusks, amphibians, and plants (and the occasional bird). The most significant difference between the two, however, is not one of scale. It’s that Microcosmos doesn’t offer the posh-toned narration of John Gielgud.

Shot over a period of three years by French biologists-turned-filmmakers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, Microcosmos opens and closes with a few comments by an off-screen Kristin Scott Thomas. (Though small, it’s a better role than her upcoming one in The English Patient.) The body of the film, however, is undisturbed by human chatter. Bee larvae pulsate, a spider envelops a grasshopper, and a beetle rolls a pill of sheep dung, all blessedly free of any voice-over speculation about what’s going through the critters’ minds as they pursue these tasks.

That doesn’t mean that the filmmakers avoid giving the audience any cues. It’s just that they do it with music rather than words. The score, partially written by Bruno Coulais and partially borrowed from the public-domain classics, elucidates which scenes are meant to be playful and which dramatic: Sequences depicting predation bristle with Twilight Zone-style arpeggios, while a shot of snail eroticism is set to an operatic love aria.

Such musical prompts are not the only element that’s not strictly natural. Some of the film was actually shot in a studio, and a few of the bug noises were artificially generated or (as the press kit discreetly puts it) “interwoven with other natural sounds.” There’s also significant use of time-lapse photography, which makes Microcosmos rather more quick-moving than watching the grass grow in your own back yard.

If the action was sometimes embellished, the filmmakers nonetheless captured much striking real-life conflict and industry: Beetles battle, ants tangle with a ladybug, a convoy of caterpillars snakes across the screen, and a rare Argyronet spider painstakingly constructs an underwater chamber from tiny air bubbles. Though there’s no narrative thread, the film presents such insect incidents as a series of one-act plays from a world—as Scott Thomas intones—”beyond anything we could imagine.”

That’s not quite true, of course. Nuridsany and Perennou did face some technical problems in achieving their bug’s-eye-view footage, but humans—and specifically filmmakers—have long contemplated insects and other minuscule beings. Horror and sci-fi images are full of creatures—bug-eyed monsters, they’re sometimes labeled—modeled on spiders, flies, snails, and their kin.

Yet unlike The Hellstrom Chronicle, the 1971 horror flick that played up the monstrous aspects of documentary insect footage, Microcosmos is basically lighthearted. Slapstick can be cruel, of course, and the shot of a beetle being knocked off a leaf by a raindrop is probably not so funny to beetles. Not to be anthropomorphic or anything, but there’s nothing in this film that would raise a chuckle from a bug.CP

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