Landslide Victory

ELECTION
Co-written and directed by Alexander Payne

The latest release from Paramount Pictures' bouncing baby, MTV Films, is set in a high school and has been inoculated with the usual doses of teenage angst, teenage wit and teenage lust. Here's the surprise: It declines to get down on hands and knees to woo Generation Y to the multiplex. Instead, Alexander Payne's Election, which is adapted from Tom Perrotta's splendid comic novel of the same name, casts its net wider -- trying to snare the my-God-can-I really-be-35-already? set as well as students of intermediate algebra.

The result is a lot headier than Beavis and Butt-head Do America, Dead Man on Campus or 200 Cigarettes -- some previous titles in the teen-oriented MTV library. In fact, the fresh charge of satire and the surreal spin director Payne lays on Perrotta's gem of a book represent improvements: It's a comedy with smarts that might appeal equally to adolescents and their parents.

It seems like only yesterday that Matthew Broderick was cutting class in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He gets the grownup part here -- or what passes for the grownup part. He is one Jim McAllister, a history and current-events teacher at a suburban Omaha high school who takes his work, his moral authority and himself pretty seriously. He's an idealist who says he believes in the greater good, so he has no qualms about sabotaging a student-council election. The sole candidate for president, after all, is an insufferable teen striver named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who just happens to be the same ruthless vixen who ruined the career of McAllister's best friend, a horny geometry teacher named Dave Novotny. At McAllister's urging, a popular but none-too-bright football player, Paul Metzler (newcomer Chris Klein), suddenly enters the race, and the comic bloodletting begins.

If Perrotta's book and Payne's movie went only this far, they would have something to say about the traumas of high-school life and the uses of petty power. Onscreen, we would still have the twin pleasures of Broderick's dead-on performance as a self-righteous semidork wearing Kmart chinos and spouting off about the distinction between ethics and morality, and Witherspoon's brilliant turn as a snippy careerist whose ambition seems to be ambition itself. But Payne is happy to push the envelope, just as he did in Citizen Ruth, his satire about a low-rent slattern caught up in the abortion debate. With startling ease, Election graduates from the prom-night obsessions of most teen movies to a wry examination of hypocrisy and desire at any age.

Before you know it, you've visited the basement where Jim McAllister hides his collection of pornographic videos. You've learned that Paul Metzler's younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) yearns desperately for a classmate named Lisa Flanagan (Frankie Ingrassia). You see that single-minded Tracy Flick, every blond hair in place, is driven by a backstage mother. You find that long-married Jim McAllister, Professor Eat-Your-Peas in public, is not above putting the moves on his fallen best friend's toothy ex-wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll). You learn that the school principal (Phil Reeves) is a birdbrain.

Perrotta's novel, which was set in suburban New Jersey, travels easily to middle-American Omaha, Payne's hometown. Obviously comfortable in his surroundings (he also shot Citizen Ruth there), the director leavens his satire with sympathy. The beautifully drawn characters we encounter here are not mere objects of scorn but human beings with blood running through their veins; they don't represent poses, they illuminate ambiguity. For every belly-laugh we get as the foolish McAllister scurries to organize a tryst with Linda Novotny at a local motel, we get an equally powerful jolt of pathos from the sheer desperation of his act. We laugh out loud at the goofy campaign speeches of the kids running for office -- three of them now, including Paul's resentful sister Tammy -- but we also feel the sting of adolescence gone awry.

Said another way, there's more than meets the eye and ear in Election -- a full-grown microcosm, in fact. Perrotta, a Yale grad who teaches creative writing at Harvard, says he was spurred to write his satire by two events -- the 1992 presidential campaigns, in which Ross Perot became the surreal wild-card, and the case of a Southern high-school principal who secretly invalidated a prom-queen election because the winner was pregnant. As an epigraph for his novel, Perrotta quoted William Trevor: "The world is the school gone mad."

For McAllister and Paul, Tracy and Tammy, school must seem like the world gone mad. Happily, this irreverent, sharply observant comedy sweeps us into the maelstrom, too. Amid the glut of teen movies rolling out of the studios every week, Election deserves special attention.

Opens May 7 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

OPEN YOUR EYES
Co-written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar

We seem to be in the middle of one of those thematic blitzes that happen every now and then in the film world. Last year there was Dark City and The Truman Show; this year, so far, there have been EDtv, The Matrix and eXistenZ. Coming up in the next month or so is the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin film The Thirteenth Floor. And currently popping up among these studio projects is Open Your Eyes, a modest Spanish film that manages to provocatively address the same issues with a minimum of money and special effects.

Open Your Eyes begins with a woman's voice softly chanting the title over the sleeping figure of handsome young Cesar (Eduardo Noriega). He wakes up, gets dressed and goes out, but there is no one on the streets, and the lights are all stuck on green. He begins to panic when, suddenly he sits up in bed. It was all a dream.

With this sequence, director/co-writer Alejandro Amenabar gives us fair warning: How do we know the next scene -- or the rest of the film -- isn't another dream? By extension, how do we know we're not really dreaming that a film called Open Your Eyes exists and that we're watching it? We don't.

We hear the disembodied voice of a psychiatrist (Chete Lera) asking Cesar to tell him his story once again, and this story is not necessarily to be trusted, either. Cesar, we learn, has lived a charmed life: He's independently wealthy and irresistible to women. If he has a problem, it's that he's too irresistible. He has spent a night or two with Nuria (Najwa Nimri), who doesn't seem to be able to let go. While he's at a party trying to pick up Sofia (Penelope Cruz) -- Cesar is cad enough not to care that she's the date of his best friend, Pelayo (Fele Martinez) -- the obsessed Nuria stalks him. Cesar seems to be genuinely falling in love with Sofia, but his charmed life is about to become uncharmed: An auto accident soon kills Nuria and leaves Cesar horribly disfigured.

Having previously been so handsome that he never needed to develop a personality or interests, he now finds himself utterly lost. He tries to start up with Sofia again, but his bitterness -- rather than his disfigurement -- drives her away. Then suddenly the doctors decide they can fix his face -- he is miraculously back to normal and back with Sofia. Or is he? His life starts to make no sense. His face switches between ugly and handsome; Sofia turns into Nuria. Nothing is certain. It's no plot spoiler to say that at least some of this is unreal. But what? And how much?

Like Dark City, The Matrix and most of the others of this metaphysical thriller subgenre, this clever and unsettling film owes a lot to the works of the brilliant and prolific science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Dick was hardly the first to mine this turf, but he did so with a thoroughness and ingenuity that make him the godfather of this entire generation of filmmakers.

If Dark City manifested its issues in sci-fi terms, and The Matrix added Hong Kong action-film style to that mix, Open Your Eyes takes a different approach. Its visual style -- whether by budget, choice, or both -- is far more muted. It makes its points the old-fashioned way -- through editing and lighting. This is not a bad thing. Two of the greatest films of this sort -- Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968) -- scrambled our notions of reality through the innovative manipulation of those basic elements of film language. (Through some tragic quirk of distribution, Je t'aime, je t'aime doesn't seem to have ever appeared in any video format or to have screened in the U.S. in at least two decades. All the sadder, because memory suggests it was not only ahead of its time but ahead of today's films; Resnais employed a quick, jagged repetition of footage in a manner analogous to the work of hip-hop DJs.)

Amenabar makes clear reference to at least one of his prime inspirations -- Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In addition to several smaller allusions, one central scene is a close restaging of one of Vertigo's most memorable moments. Amenabar may be no Hitchcock, but this is only his second feature, and not even Hitchcock was Hitchcock early in his career. Open Your Eyes is so intriguing and judiciously controlled that there's every reason to imagine that Amenabar could develop into a major figure.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an essay called "Kafka and His Precursors," in which he wryly suggested that a writer's greatest influences may well be subsequent writers -- because a contemporary reader's response to a classic is necessarily affected by his knowledge of those later writers. In that manner, Open Your Eyes suggests ways to read Vertigo that may not have been apparent to most people before the later film's release. Amenabar's take on Hitchcock could help us find new, richer ways of looking at the old master's films.

In Spanish with English subtitles.
Opens May 7 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

ANN ARBOR FILM FESTIVAL

Film festivals have proliferated so much over the past few years that cinematic celebrations occur somewhere every weekend. They range from the carnivalesque Cannes each May on the sunny Riviera to the indie-dominated Sundance every January in snowy Park City. They show off polished gems and clunky novelties, studio megabuck baubles and dimestore whatnots. With so many venues, each fest struggles for worthy billings, coherence and purpose. It is more than remarkable, then, to have an established festival maintain high standards and a commitment to experimental, animated, documentary and narrative films from around the world. The 37th Ann Arbor Film Festival manages this and more, as proved by its current tour.

The 18 films, grouped into four programs of roughly an hour each, encompass a remarkable diversity of styles, subject matter, countries (from Austria to Australia, Canada and the U.S.) and even running times, from one-and-a-half to 40 minutes. One film is silent; another is nearly silent and appropriately so. This latter work, titled "Egypt," invites us to imagine the world of deaf-mutes, carefully observing their expressive sign language and resensitizing us to the importance of nonverbal communication and the volumes it speaks. Topics also include a humorous interpretation of chemistry and of a 1926 "Mutt and Jeff" cartoon, a consideration of Tito and another of Cambodia, the installation art of Detroit's Tyree Guyton and an abstract homage to pioneer filmmakers, the Lumi`eres.

As with any such compilation, different pieces will capture our fancy. In general, of the films available for preview (about half the complete program), the animation and the experimental works surpass the narratives. "Mind's Eye," my personal favorite, won the award for "most technically innovative." In a quick five minutes, director Gregory Godhard alters our perception by propelling us rapidly through a succession of photographic spaces, a few frames of two-dimensional pictures yielding to a feeling of dizzying movement through three-dimensional space, forward and backward, whirling around a sculpture -- all leaving us breathless.

"Sid," a hilarious piece, occupies the opposite extreme, as technically simple as director Jeff Scher's picking up his 16mm Beaulieu camera and aiming it down as he spins in circles with Sid, a wild-eyed Boston terrier, hanging tenaciously onto his rubber bone, body flying recklessly through air. In another standout called "Hepa!" Laura Margulies intercuts fluid, oil-painted animation with live action, Afro-Brazilian musicians and dancers. With a pulsating rhythm, its six-and-a-half minutes bring music to life.

Perhaps because the short films make their points so quickly and well, the longer works seem repetitive, even when well done. At 15 minutes, "Women Are Not Little Men" plays with 1952 safety- and training-manual warnings and observations about women's fatigue, the need to fit tools to women's needs and women as accident hazards. Jean-Francois Monette's film diary "Where Lies the Homo?" juxtaposes scenes from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with clips from underground gay films and other media images. It loses momentum in its 34 minutes despite its appealing honesty. Still, for variety and imagination, the Ann Arbor Film Festival presents an exceptional collection of fine films.

Programs 1 and 2 screen at 8 p.m. May 7 and 9, and programs 3 and 4 screen at 8 p.m. May 8 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

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