Foreign films briefly steal the spotlight

A s usual, January is proving a dull month for Hollywood, with little to offer beyond the Christmas releases.

Blame the Oscars and Golden Globes for this. Movies must open by New Year's Eve to be eligible. So if a studio film hits theaters after Jan. 1, its distributors clearly felt it had no possible chance for any conceivable award - an unpromising sign, to say the least.

For the same reason, January and February can be generous months for overseas productions that use the shortage of American pictures as an entrée to US screens. Two fine specimens arrive this week.

What Time Is It There? was written and directed by Tsai Ming-Liang, a Taiwanese filmmaker who's earned a deservedly high reputation with movies like "L'Amour," a sardonic love story, and "The Hole," an end-of-the-world comedy with out-of-the-blue musical numbers.

His new movie focuses on a Taiwan wristwatch salesman who falls in love with a woman who briefly crosses his path. Romance might blossom - but no, she's off to Paris for an extended stay, and he might never see her again.

He turns to helping his mother cope with his father's recent death. But the woman's face haunts him, so he starts on a project of resetting every clock he can find to French time, for no particular reason, except it makes her seem closer. Meanwhile, she rambles through Paris on a series of random adventures, including an encounter with a real-life movie actor that's too unexpected and hilarious to give away here.

Tsai's cinematic style is unique: He unfolds his stories in long, static shots that let you discover their surprises and mysteries on your own. And that's great fun. "What Time Is It There?" is perky, entertaining, and one of a kind.

It's been a half-dozen years since a group of Danish directors formed the Dogma 95 movement, devoted to no-frills filmmaking with no fancy effects.

The latest example is Lone Scherfig's dramatic comedy Italian for Beginners, about a widowed minister who moves to a new town and joins a weekly language class where students put more energy into figuring out their problem-plagued lives than practicing their verbs and prepositions. Its low-key charm shows that Dogma filmmakers have yet to run out of ideas.

• 'What Time Is It There?' is not rated and contains sexual material. 'Italian for Beginners,' rated R, contains sex and vulgarity.

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