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Buffalo 66 (15)

Insanely narcissistic though it may be, Vincent Gallo's idiosyncratic, Cassavetes-inspired directorial debut was probably the most impressive American independent movie of last year. Gallo not only wrote and directed the film but starred in it, and composed and performed the score. Gallo's

anti-hero, Billy Brown, has just been released from a state penitentiary. In an effort to convince his parents that he is a happily married, high- ranking government official who's been away in Washington all these years, Billy kidnaps a nubile teen, Layla (Christina Ricci), from her tap-dancing class, and forces her to pretend she's his wife. Improbably, she repays his hostility by throwing herself into this preposterous charade, putting on a hilariously enthusiastic performance for the benefit of Billy's truly monstrous folks: a football freak and a volatile lech, portrayed respectively by Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara, both brilliant. And it gets more ridiculous - not only does Layla indulge Billy, she actually falls for him. It's all an ego trip for the star, to be sure, but that's only part of the story. The film is superbly acted across the board (Ricci is particularly wonderful) and visually distinguished (striking compositions, seductive textures). But the real miracle here is that when this self-absorbed fantasy's redemptive conclusion arrives, it doesn't only feel well-earned but is actually quite moving.

The Spanish Prisoner (15) The title refers to a classic con game, and David Mamet's film is itself one big swindle, a more dignified but no less empty version of gimmick movies such as The Usual Suspects. The self-consciously Hitchcockian plot involves a dupable young inventor (Campbell Scott), who has come up with an enormously valuable thingy known only as "The Process", and various other people who may or may not be double-crossing him: his hugely annoying secretary (Rebecca Pidgeon), his oily boss (Ben Gazzara), and a mysterious tycoon (Steve Martin). Mamet's clipped dialogue means to be enigmatic but is often merely infuriating and sometimes just stupid. The narrative is full of twists but constructed with so little grace as to be devoid of suspense.

DENNIS LIM

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