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THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY

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C+

You have to wonder whether Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh didn’t have “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in the back of their minds–subconsciously, perhaps–when they were putting together this joint writing-directing effort. The titular party has a guest list far longer than the two couples that populated Albee’s play, and the locale has been shifted from a university campus to the Hollywood hills. But the situations are often quite similar, and the conversational rhythms frequently so too. Games of “get the guests” and “humiliate the hosts” are played, and there are periodic emotional outbursts meant to show the true characters lying beneath the surface. One female invitee is a mousy, hysterical Sandy Dennis type. There’s a major secret between the central couple–involving a non-existent child. And as the evening goes on, major revelations occur–in the case of the play under the influence of alcohol, and here under that of a designer drug.

If some sort of homage was intended, it must quickly be said that the copy pales beside the original. “The Anniversary Party” is nowhere near as clever, as taut, or as wrenching as “Virginia Woolf.” It doesn’t dig nearly as deep, and its themes are far less profound. Nonetheless, it has some telling moments and showcases some good performances. It’s a pity that its third act piles on so many melodramatic contrivances–a near-drowning, a couple of shouting matches, an out-of-the-blue tragedy–that the seams holding the piece together are simply shredded. The picture becomes self-important, but lacks the dramatic weight to sustain its pretensions. It would have been better for it to have been content to remain the shallow but amusing little drawing-room comedy it started out as.

The set-up is at once simple and complex. Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh) Therrian are celebrating their sixth anniversary. He’s a trendy novelist about to begin a directing career with a filmization of his latest book; she’s a well-known actress more adept at drama than comedy, and just a bit too old to play a character in the proposed picture, even though it seems based on her. Moreover, they’ve just gotten back together after a separation, and are supposedly trying to have a child, at least partially to strengthen their relationship. Among the close friends invited to share an evening with them are smug leading-man Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), who’s co-starring with Sally in a new film, and his wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates), who gave up her acting career for marriage and motherhood (they bring along their two kids to the festivities); Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly), the director of Cal and Sally’s movie, along with his wife, the overwrought Clair (Jane Adams), who’s constantly worried about the babysitter in whose charge they’ve left their young son; Judy and Jerry Adams (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey), the Therrian’s business managers; Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), a photographer who’s an old flame of Joe; and Levi Panes (Michael Panes), a violinist who resembles Peter Sellers. Also in attendance are Monica and Ryan Rose (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare), the Therrian’s neighbors, with whom the hosts have been conducting a running battle about a barking dog, and Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the ingenue whom Joe has cast in the role in his film that Sally thinks should be hers. As the evening progress, the interrelationships among the characters are explored with varying degrees of success. A few have some complexity, bit most are relatively superficial (all the stuff involving the Roses, for instance, is just a cheap joke, and the tension between the angry Sally and the blissfully oblivious–or is she?–Skye is equally thin). The big revelation is that antagonisms can lie beneath the surface of even the best friendships, that everybody has imperfections of one sort or another, that even the closest couples keep secrets from one another, and that even the most successful people have neuroses and insecurities. None of this is very surprising, and much of it is all too predictable. Even worse, especially as the narrative runs on, a lot of it becomes overly melodramatic.

Still, it’s performed with gusto by Cumming, Leigh, and a cast of their friends. It’s easy to understand why so many talented people were attracted to the project. It gives each of them a few choice scenes interspersed throughout the running-time. At times it’s like watching a series of acting exercises as the camera discreetly moves from star to star to afford each a chance momentarily to shine. Everybody does well enough, but with so many characters, none of them emerges as much more than an easy sketch. Joe and Sally are best realized, but even they never seem fully formed.

The picture was shot over only 19 days on digital video, and technically is more workmanlike than elegant. The construction is a bit ramshackle, the compositions rudimentary. And despite all the thespian talent on display, it remains relatively slight and obvious. “The Anniversary Party” isn’t awful by any means–at times it’s quite engaging–but it’s nothing to celebrate either.

AMORES PERROS

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C+

There’s no denying the cinematic verve and visceral excitement that pervade Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s debut feature, which was among the nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar this year (it lost, of course, to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Despite a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, it never ceases to hold a viewer’s attention, simply as a result of the pulsating energy it displays and the gritty tension it manages to sustain.

Unhappily, “Amores Perros” is almost entirely a surface phenomenon, fascinating to look at but pretty empty beneath a raucously mesmerizing exterior. The script, by Guillermo Arriaga, is heavily influenced by “Pulp Fiction,” and Inarritu’s handling of it is Tarantinoesque, too. The picture is structured as an interlacing trilogy of tales, tied together by a horrendous auto accident (which we see repeatedly from differing perspectives) and by a common canine motif. It begins with the story of Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s besotted with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche) and enters his dog in brutal fights in order to win the money that he believes will persuade her to run off with him. He’s quite successful, but things don’t turn out as he’d planned, and ultimately he’s involved in the terrible wreck that severely injures Valeria (Goya Toledo), a gorgeous model who’s just set up housekeeping with her married lover Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero). Her incapacitation puts a strain on their relationship, which is accentuated when her beloved pooch gets lost beneath the floorboards of their apartment, and it becomes increasingly unlikely that they can survive as a couple. Meanwhile El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria), an erstwhile guerilla and now a homeless ex-con, spends his time alternately trying to re-establish contact with his estranged daughter and hiring himself out as a hitman to a crooked policeman. He witnesses Octavio and Valeria’s accident and rescues Octavio’s injured dog, which he nurses back to health and adds to his pack of strays. In the film’s third act we watch El Chivo’s final score, involving two well-off half-brothers who, as it turns out, want to kill one another; the way in which the hitman treats them may well remind you of the gruesome storeroom sequence featuring Bruce Willis in “Fiction.” The ending of “Amores” is bleak: no one really comes out on top and everybody’s hopes are dashed. Love, as the title indicates, does not triumph.

The problem is that you can’t care very much about the grimness of the outcome, because all the characters are shallow, pulpish creatures to whom it’s difficult make any true emotional commitment. The actors, to be sure, try to invest them with feelings, but the attempt never rings true: they remain types rather than authentic personalities. Echevarria and Bernal probably come closest to earning audience empathy, but even the people they’re portraying–like all the other characters–ultimately come off as artificial writer’s concoctions rather than genuine human beings.

Adding to the difficulties a viewer has in sympathizing with the individuals who populate the three linked stories is the fact that the narrative is extraordinarily lurid, with image after image that will cause many eyes to turn reflexively away from the screen. (That’s especially true in the sequences which show dogs in distress, either being mauled or lying blood-soaked afterwards. It’s more than a little peculiar that audiences are more likely to be turned off by scenes of animals being brutalized than those of men and women suffering physical torment, but that’s the reality of the society we live in.) In fact the atmosphere of the picture as a whole is dour and unpleasant; even in the middle section, which focuses on the well-off Daniel and Valeria, the film looks distinctly gloomy, and things are much worse in the bookending stories. If the technique of “Amores Perros” is dazzlingly impressive, its overall tone of despondency and misery is equally depressing.

So Inarritu’s picture is a mixed bag. It’s certainly a vibrant exhibition of pure filmmaking pizzazz: many of the sequences the director pulls off have a kinetic energy that’s exhilarating. But the characters on whom it focuses are so disagreeable, and the activities in which they’re engaged so repellent, that you’ll doubtlessly come out of it feeling the need for a long, hot shower. And if you’re the squeamish type (especially about cruelty to animals), you’d best stay away entirely.