It is not, Ray suspects as he accompanies his father to the airport, going to be one of those vintage summers. No, he can't take up the chance of a lifetime, a prestigious summer internship at the Surgeon General's office; he must spend his entire vacation ministering to his chronically depressed and bedridden mother. No, he can't use the car either, except for emergencies (just to check, his father notes down the mileage before handing over the vehicle). The coup de grace comes when a toothbrush suddenly appears in his hand: the dog suffers from a gum condition and must be tended to weekly. Even the small consolations of hand relief (the activity delicately alluded to in the title of the movie) are denied him; whenever he retires to the bathroom, it's a racing certainty that the wretched mutt will come snuffling around the bathroom door.
Spanking the Monkey is a mightily impressive feature debut for its director, David O Russell (interviewed p8). Visually, it's a rough little film shot mainly on short ends (the bits left over at the end of a reel) scrounged from other productions; this may account partly for its highly-edited style, with lots of little insert shots, but it also gives it an unusual speed and energy. The comedy and mood-shifts are perfectly judged, as the mother (Alberta Watson, excellent) metamorphises from weepy frump into flirty vamp and Ray's nursing activities develop in unexpected and disturbing directions.
Before the Rain, another strong, if less successful first film from the Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski, is a triptych of stories exploring man's inhumanity to man. The focus, as one would expect, is on the agony in the Balkans (the central panel, set in London and drawing broad parallels with the IRA's former bombing campaign, is the sketchiest and least satisfying). The episodic format proves a mite frustrating in terms of allowing you to become involved with the characters and their stories, but it's a good- looking, confident, impassioned movie.
Mel Woods, the director of Intimate with a Stranger, has, the press kit blithely announces, never made a short film, commercial or pop video; she has never taken a film class, nor has she read an instruction manual. One wants vigorously to urge her to go back and serve her dues because this, yet another first film, is jaw-droppingly, eye-bogglingly awful. …