Reality Bytes

The Digital Revolution is here, movie lovers, so which side are you on?

And by Digital Revolution, we don't mean its most obvious manifestation — that unstoppable phenomenon by which increasingly sophisticated, expensive and complicated computer-generated special effects have steadily taken precedence over plot, characters and the last vestiges of emotion in the majority of Hollywood movies. That one's pretty much a no-brainer, or at least a foregone conclusion.

No, we're talking about that other Digital Revolution. The one that involves those legions of freshly minted guerrilla filmmakers out there at this very moment, armed with inexpensive, lightweight digital equipment, hard at work churning out the next generation of fast, cheap and (sometimes) out-of-control movies. Stripped-down, no-frills movies that are often, in fact, the exact opposite of their bloated and blatantly artificial, digitally dependent cousins.

So then, what exactly has that other Digital Revolution wrought?

Well, just for starters, there are the two new, shot-on-digital-video movies opening locally this very week, The Anniversary Party and The King is Alive. And for those amongst us inclined towards sniffing out conspiracies wherever they may (or may not) exist, both of these films, though technically unrelated, also feature Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Leigh not only stars in The Anniversary Party, she also wrote and directed it, along with her co-conspirator Alan Cumming. The Anniversary Party is another one of those behind-the-scenes life slices about movie folks at home and play, in which assorted real-life Hollywood actors portray what amounts to versions of themselves. That this film was also conceived and executed by two Hollywood actors, Leigh and Cumming, might naturally lead us to assume that we're in store for one mamajamma of a vanity project, as self-indulgent and probably as formless as it is full of itself.

Happily, Cumming and Leigh's film is nothing of the sort. One of the nicer surprises of the summer season, The Anniversary Party is a loose, lively and sometimes unexpectedly insightful ensemble piece that shows Leigh was really paying attention during Short Cuts and those other Robert Altman shoots in which she was a participant.

The Anniversary Party gathers a wonderful, sprawling cast and then allows them to play off one another in a variety of situations that, while almost certainly prestructured, tend to project the sort of freshness and energy usually associated with improvised scenarios. Leigh and Cumming understand and, truth be told, clearly adore their actors, giving them just enough freedom to really shine, while making sure that the material itself gets due respect. The result is raw and intense enough to get us interested, and clever enough to keep us paying attention.

The Anniversary Party takes place during the course of a single night during a gathering of friends at the home of Joe and Sally Therrian (Cumming and Leigh), an L.A. power couple who've recently reunited after a lengthy separation. He's a bad boy Brit writer, she's a respected but no longer red-hot actress, and their fellow partiers are a cross-section of Hollywood's best, brightest and most, uh, colorful: actors, artists, writers, directors, musicians and money men, as well as their various spouses, pets and offspring. Oh, and let's not forget Joe and Sally's belligerent, stick-in-the-mud and stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb neighbors, invited as a social nicety that quickly backfires.

A little bit of everything happens before dawn breaks and The Anniversary Party concludes, some of it played for laughs, some of it designed to touch and provoke. It's difficult to single out individual performances in an ensemble this tight-knit, but some of the most bizarrely unforgettable moments come from Jane Adams (Happiness) who steals every scene she's in as a heavily medicated, deeply neurotic actress. Real-life spouses Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates are equally fine as thinly veiled versions of themselves, a seemingly well-adjusted Hollywood couple juggling careers (well, his at least) and children. One of the film's most moving scenes simply and eloquently records a silly little dance performed by Kline and his young daughter in honor of Sally and Joe's reconciliation.

Leigh and Cumming have much more on their minds than just offering us a series of loosely connected skits featuring Hollywood's golden boys and girls letting their hair down. The Anniversary Party digs deep into Sally and Joe's complicated relationship, saying much in the process about how and why some relationships endure while others falter, and commenting on that curious fact of life that people who love each other very much are often completely incapable of living with one another.

There's a sly sociopolitical underpinning to the film, as well, which comes to the surface in a face-off between Sally (at thirtysomething, already an over-the-hill commodity in Hollywood) and an up-and-coming young blond goddess named Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who Joe has just cast as the lead in the film he's going to direct. To add insult to injury, Skye's part is clearly based on the real-life character of Sally, although the unspoken irony in all of this is that Sally is now considered too old to play herself. Even more ironically, Skye plainly worships Sally. "Oh my God, you're my icon!" she gushes to the slightly older actress at their first meeting, adding, "I've been watching all your movies since I was a little girl!"

Although certain sections are overly broad (the bothersome neighbors are painted in particularly crude strokes) and other sections seem a little too contrived (specifically the final act in which many of the revelers take ecstasy and bear their bodies and souls), The Anniversary Party works nicely for most of its running time and, by the end, actually manages to insinuate itself under our skins. The use of digital video (which enabled the filmmakers to work fast, get in close to their subjects and gather up an extraordinary amount of footage) results in a degree of immediacy and intimacy not often found in film. The look of The Anniversary Party isn't exactly the richly textured filmic splendor of The English Patient, but it's not nearly as gritty as you might imagine, with a reasonably polished visual approach halfway between film and video.

Leigh apparently got the bug to do a film on digital video while working on The King is Alive, the fourth or fifth (the count is in dispute) "official" Dogme 95 project. Dogme, to recap, is that wacky group of mostly Danish filmmakers led by Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark), whose manifesto (also know as the "Vow of Chastity") dictates no artificial lighting, no added music, no studio sets and everything having to be shot handheld on digital video (and only later blown up to 35mm film).

The intention behind this rigorously no-frills approach is to achieve a raw, heightened sense of realism — a goal that, curiously enough, no Dogme film has ever actually managed. And although it starts out promising, Kristian Levring's The King is Alive is no exception.

Levring's film follows a group of British, French and American tourists who have somehow become lost and stranded in the middle of the North African desert. The tourists set up camp in a ghost town and then, with virtually no hope of rescue (or, for that matter, survival), simply try to stay sane and focused by putting on an amateur production of Shakespeare's King Lear. The relationships in the play begin rather too-obviously mirroring those of the group, and all the characters begin unraveling, taunting and debasing each other in a series of pyscho-sexual power games.

The King is Alive soon comes to resemble a Last Tango in the African Badlands, intense enough and occasionally interesting, but only up to a point. All of the movie's characters are essentially just one-note types, and not particularly likeable ones: the males, almost to a man, are supreme assholes, the women are either sleek and shallow or frosty ball-busters. Everyone is prone to hysteria. It all ends, as we know it must, in humiliation, madness and death — and, for those of us in the audience, more than a little boredom.