Intensifying Slam's edgy tautness, experienced nonfiction director Levin shot on D.C.'s streets and in D.C.'s Central Detention facilities with real guards and prisoners who volunteered their time. Drawing on years of experience documenting the juvenile justice system, street gangs, prison life and the CIA, Levin captures spontaneous performances, often literally unrehearsed with nonprofessionals. For example, after Ray's initial processing, the jail rap exchange occurred, unscripted.

As Ray, Saul Williams brings the authenticity of an expert at "slamming," competing head-to-head in rap-poetry performances. Both Williams and Sonja Sohn, who plays Lauren, wrote their own great material. Ex-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Jr. adds an ironic touch in his appearance as a tough criminal-courts judge.

Slam has a dynamic soundtrack and an accomplished cinema verite style, especially impressive given the film's $1 million budget and its two-and-a-half-week shooting schedule. Through some melodramatic twists and turns, some wild mood swings and a few ragged scene shifts, the plot couples raw kinetic action with poised performances. As tribute to its electrifying energy, Slam won audience awards not only at the recent St. Louis International Film Festival but also at Sundance and Cannes, where it also won as the best first feature.

With a refreshing abandon, Levin has us rooting for Ray and knowing he's worth more than he at first believes. We come to care deeply about and to understand the anguish of Ray Joshua and to see his immense promise. It is exactly this belief in himself that Ray must embrace and that draws us into his battle. Slam evokes honest sentiment in a story of struggle moving toward triumph.

Opens Dec. 11 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

VERY BAD THINGS
Written and directed by Peter Berg

Let's face it: Dismemberment is funny. Not pulling the wings off flies or chopping off lizards' tails to see whether they'll grow back -- that stuff's pathological. But humans losing limbs left and right? Well, you don't have to be a hard-core Freudian to find that downright hilarious. (That's what made Saving Private Ryan such a hoot, no?) And of course it's even better when those being divided up are already dead; news stories about people who murder their lovers and then pack the body parts off to different states can be just side-splitting.

At least that seems to be the premise inspiring Peter Berg, writer and director of Very Bad Things. Billed (for some reason) as "a very savage comedy," Very Bad Things tells the sorry tale of five buddies from LA who travel to Las Vegas for a wild bachelor party on the eve of the wedding of Kyle (Jon Favreau) and Laura (Cameron Diaz). In Vegas, the prostitute (Carla Scott) they've hired to strip for them is accidentally killed, and the panicky crew then murder the security guard (Russell B. McKenzie) who discovers the crime. Under the direction of Boyd (Christian Slater, also the film's executive producer) they conspire to continued on page 65continued from page 63cut up the bodies, smuggle them out of the hotel, bury them in the desert and keep the grisly secret. But guilt and paranoia and bad luck lead to an increasingly outrageous series of killings designed to keep that secret, as the wedding day -- the perfection of which is Laura's constant obsession -- comes ever closer.

We're invited to laugh as things spiral increasingly out of control, but the impulse is rarely irresistible. Partly that's a problem of perspective: A comedy, even a putatively black comedy, needs some consistent point of view from which its absurd and extravagant antics can be viewed, but Very Bad Things can't decide until the final 20 minutes whether it means to be Heathers for Grownups or I Know What You Did Last Week in Las Vegas or an exploration of the varieties of male hysteria. Granted, Slater's manic, fully self-actualized Boyd is consistently rendered (and consistent with his screen persona), but the film isn't really ever on his side -- at least not for more than a few minutes at a time. The other problem is one of tone, or perhaps measure: Diaz's character (yeah, I know, we're supposed to praise her every gesture nowadays) is offered up for our amusement because she's so preoccupied with the trivial details of the impending wedding -- she's shallow, you see, because she hasn't killed and mutilated anyone. Yet.

Very Bad Things is Berg's directorial debut. Before he makes another film, I think he should be made to answer the following questions, preferably in writing: Why does the prostitute that the five white guys dismember have to be Asian? Why does the hotel security guard have to be black? And why, once Laura joins in the mayhem at the very end, does she have to be the one who bears the final burden for the tragic mishap with which the story begins? Unlike Very Bad Things, the answers should not take 111 minutes to provide.

-- Frank Grady

SHATTERED IMAGE
Directed by Raul Ruiz

A dark-haired, smartly dressed woman sits at a smoky, neon-lit bar, watching defiantly as a table of men send her a drink. She follows one of the men into the restroom and coolly fires three bullets into his chest. From the stark lighting to the syrupy saxophone playing on the soundtrack, the opening sequence of Shattered Image is indistinguishable from any of the hundreds of "erotic thrillers" and La Femme Nikita knockoffs (in fact, the woman behind the gun is Nikita herself, Anne Parillaud) that can be found most nights on cable TV.

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