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JUNE 15, 1998: 

Under the Skin

Invoking fellow British kitchen-sink realists Mike Leigh and Ken Loach is Carine Adler's lacerating Under the Skin. Samantha Morton (who starred as Harriet Smith in the A&E Emma and as Jane in last year's A&E Jane Eyre) tries literally to get under her skin as working-class Iris, who's first seen naked in bed inscribing childish scrawls on her body with a felt-tipped pen. She's a piece of work, all right, with her short, spiky hair, kicky clothes, and flippant anarchy. Quite a contrast to her pregnant and married sister, Rose (Claire Rushbrook, from Leigh's Secrets & Lies -- and what's the deal with all these feminist films naming their characters after flowers?), with her puffy indolence and dry stick of a husband.

The pair respond with varying trauma to the death of their mother (a touching cameo by Rita Tushingham, a British cinema icon since Tony Richardson's 1961 A Taste of Honey). Rose grows distant and treacherous, but the madcap Iris sinks into an inferno of sexual excess and debasement. Donning her mother's wig and clothing, Iris rebounds from one boozy, unwise encounter to the next. Although her rake's journey seems at times a little programmed and resolves patly, Morton strips off, with excruciating honesty, layers of artifice and dissembling to uncover her character's bleeding and triumphant essence -- she calls to mind (complete with intrusions of the supernatural) Emily Watson's tour-de-force in Lars von Trier's more transcendent Breaking the Waves. Adler's film has the handheld look, dense accents, and explosive histrionics one has come to expect from such working-class British melodramas, but she brings to it the kind of urgency and inspires the sort of performances that ensure that this movie is anything but skin deep.

-- Peter Keough

Taylor's Campaign

Few social problems touch on the ugly side of the American spirit like homelessness. "I would like not to have to see it," says one complacent Santa Monica resident in Richard Cohen's stirring and uneven documentary Taylor's Campaign. "I think if people don't earn their own living, they should starve. It's survival of the fittest." One such survivor is Ron Taylor, a teddy bear of a guy who endured the loss of job, home, and family in his slow drift to the street before bouncing back. In 1994, with a $50 campaign chest, Taylor ran for the Santa Monica City Council on the platform that homeless people have civil rights too.

The campaign, though, is at the periphery of Cohen's film, which employs rough video-vérité to capture the lives of the disenfranchised. Focusing on a personable handful, he reveals their humor, determination, fragility, and anger as they're shunted from one public place to another by rubber-glove-clad cops, or as haughty, heartless politicos pass ordinances against feeding them. Cohen's evenhandedness may be suspect -- surely not all those dismayed by the homeless presence are Dickensian villains -- and the film's structure, underlined by Martin Sheen's haphazard narration, is a bit shiftless. But this movie is a needed corrective for those of us who would rather not have to see such suffering, and a reminder that Taylor's campaign should also be our own.

-- Peter Keough

Mr. Jealousy

Shakespeare, Proust, Joyce, and now Noah Baumbach have weighed in on the most perverse of passions. No surprise that Mr. Jealousy, the young director's follow-up to his twentysomething debut, Kicking & Screaming, is more like Seinfeld than Othello. Bright, glib, slickly acted, and engagingly superficial, it's an amusing Woody Allen knockoff for Generation X.

Lester Grimm (a wryly melancholy Eric Stoltz, eerily resembling Conan O'Brien), is a young New Yorker who wants to be a writer but works as a substitute teacher. His major trait is jealousy: as a 15-year-old (whom we see in the film's coy, too frequent flashbacks) he spotted his girlfriend kissing a club promoter, and as a college student he spent so much time following his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend that he neglected his girlfriend and she left him. Now he's with Ramona (Annabella Sciorra, bringing an Italian-American spin to Annie Hall), a graduate art student with cute neuroses. Or maybe he's drawn more to her former beau, Dashiell (a bearded Chris Eigeman who, in keeping with the talk-show-host motif, resembles Dennis Miller), a successful writer described as "the voice of his generation."

By chance Lester spies Dashiell entering a group-therapy session. He joins the group himself, taking the name and problems of his best friend, Vince (a buffoonish Carlos Jacot). This set-up offers Lester and Baumbach the opportunity to explore the ironies and enigmas of relationships and identity, but the director proves more of a Mr. Softie in following through. He's heavy-handed in making sure everyone -- except his characters -- gets the joke, with such devices as a voiceover narrative wordier than the dialogue. Mr. Jealousy offers the genial growl of the green-eyed monster, but none of the bite.

-- Peter Keough

Can't Hardly Wait

Can't Hardly Wait steals from smarter, edgier teen flicks (Risky Business, Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as shamelessly as a cheater in trigonometry class. And, thanks to the universality of high-school indignity, first-time directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont almost get away with it.

Party of Five's Bambi-eyed Jennifer Love Hewitt throws a wicked "Whatever!" look as a misunderstood prom queen who's dumped by the asshole jock (Tom Cruise look-alike Peter Facinelli) on the day of the big graduation bash. No sooner is the keg tapped than the film convenes the usual yearbook stereotypes: the vengeful nerd (Charlie Korsmo); the good kid (Ethan Embry); the cynical outsider (Lauren Ambrose); and the class clown, an ebonics-spewing Caucasian homeboy (Seth Green).

All get down for a familiar night of metamorphoses, memories, and making out, with the subplots -- especially Korsmo's tipsy transformation -- outshining the bland coupling of Hewitt and Embry. Still, despite flashes of bawdy humor, Can't Hardly Wait is just like its beer: it starts out frothy but soon goes flat.

-- Alicia Potter

Beyond Silence

In this German production, director Caroline Link portrays life with deaf parents as just another obstacle to growing up. Eight-year-old Lara (Tatjana Trieb doing her best Anna Paquin) serves as translator for her parents (Emmanuelle Laborit and Howie Seago), precociously censoring conversations to her advantage. When she's given a clarinet by her feisty Aunt Clarissa (Sybille Canonica), her deaf father dredges up bad family memories of music. Intrafamily tension mounts. Years later, a teenage Lara (an uneven Sylvie Testud) runs away to study clarinet with Clarissa in Berlin and the family dysfunction is complete. Lara and her father can reunite only if they can go . . . beyond silence.

Once you get past the deafness, Beyond Silence is little more than a self-consciously heartwarming story of childhood and teen rebellion. Despite a solid performance by Seago, who's vulnerable and sympathetic as Lara's father, the film indulges in overt sentimentality, blunt metaphor, and predictable plot twists. That it was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar speaks more to the Academy's fondness for disability movies than to the merits of Link's film.

-- Dan Tobin

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