Each year, the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) floats down on us with the grace and delicacy of Glinda the Good Witch's soapy pink bubble. Contained inside that soapy bubble is a month-long festival including well-lathered films from 35 countries--shined, towel-dried, and oiled like entertaining racehorses. Oh, lo! The joy it brings, to all the shining, ruddy-cheeked faces on the little children of Portland--their legs peeking chubbily from their knickers and twitching with glee!

Yes, the children love films like Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang (China), about a prostitute who cares for an unwanted baby for $25 a month! The darlings giggle with excitement at the sexually repressed piano teacher in The Piano Teacher (Austria/France). That's a lot like your own teacher, isn't it, hmm, dearies? And the children love it most of all when the audience upchucks from the jerky cameras of Dogme 95 films, of which there are several! Yes, PIFF IS FUN FOR EVERYONE!

Be sure to check the Mercury starting next week for up-to-the-minute PIFF reviews and coverage.

* 13 Conversations About One Thing
(dir. Jill Sprecher, USA)

This is one of those movies that shows the lives of its characters intersecting in the most brief and coincidental ways, à la Short Cuts. We have Matthew McConaughey as a hotshot lawyer, Clea DuVall as a mousy housecleaner, John Turturro as a physics teacher, etc., and all of them employ different philosophies on life and fate. (Most of them are existentialists, however, because their lives suck shit.) At first, the moral overtones give one the impression 13 Conversations was written by a first-year graduate student. (In actuality, it was co-written by director Jill Sprecher and her sister, Karen, who gave us the quietly brilliant Clockwatchers starring Parker Posey, the greatest actor of all time.) For the first half of the film, everyone runs around contemplating the hands they've been dealt, and the script verges on sophomoric, but very endearing. Then, Alan Arkin shows up in the middle of the movie and kicks ass all over it. He plays a divorced middle manager for an insurance company, whose son is a junkie, and his view on the logistics of fate is accordingly grim. But Alan Arkin is a great actor; he saves the film from its fate as yet another "arty," low-budge, postmodern interpretation of existentialism. Instead, 13 Conversations is charming and even sweet in its cynicism. JULIANNE SHEPHERD

(dir. Gus Van Sant, USA)

Gerry, the latest feature from hometown director Gus Van Sant, is the story of two friends (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) who go hiking out in the desert and get lost And that's it. 110 minutes of barely any dialogue and long non-edited shots of the boys hoofing it through a barren wasteland. But let me make something perfectly clear: When I say "long non-edited shots," I mean shots that can last up to EIGHT minutes. And when that eight minutes are up, the angle is then switched to another walking shot lasting SIX minutes. In fact, I noticed someone from the audience getting up to go to the bathroom, doing their business and returning to their seat--AND IT WAS STILL THE SAME FREAKING SHOT!! Now, while some film snobby-snobs may try and convince you this is Van Sant's "cinematic homage to the work of Bela Tarr," just smile, nod, and know they're full of crap. In Gerry you cannot wait for these people to die. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

Greed: A Reconstruction
(dir. Erich von Stroheim, Germany)

There's nothing like a good, six-hour-long silent movie about the fundamental hatefulness and corruptibility of the human race, I always say. This 1925 masterwork by heroic misanthrope Erich von Stroheim is one of the most rewarding endurance tests ever put before an audience. Based on an operatic melodrama called McTeague, the film tells the story of an unlicensed dentist who marries a lass away from an incestuous relationship with her cousin (also the groom's best friend). Everything would be swell, except that the wife has a winning lottery ticket, which sets off a chain of events that bring misery, penury, and ruin to everyone involved. The baseness of the characters can be traced to the jackbooted director, who had the audacity to turn in an eight-hour cut. The studio trimmed it to an equally unforgivable two hours. The version on view in the festival meets somewhere in between, and must be seen. SEAN NELSON

* Italian for Beginners
(dir. Lone Scherfig, Denmark)

The characters of Italian for Beginners begin in a state of despair: a clumsy bakery clerk wriggling under the thumb of her bitter father, a foul-tempered restaurant manager, a hairdresser whose mother is dying slowly and painfully. This being a romantic comedy, their lives begin to intersect through a series of coincidences--coincidences that could feel contrived, but due to the rough integrity of the script, performances, and direction (shaped in part by the monastic rigors of the Dogma 95 ethic), they feel like the organic waywardness of life. Bit by bit, Italian for Beginners becomes both jarringly funny and sweetly affecting. Though some resolutions are a bit pat, the movie doesn't suggest that life has suddenly become easy for these people; all it does is offer them a shred of hope. BRET FETZER

* Me Without You
(dir. Sandra Goldbacher, Britain)

Ever have that diabolical friend that loves you to your face, but is always trying to steal your man behind your back? I hate that shit. In Me Without You, two girls grow up in London as best friends--Marina is always being told she's the pretty one, and Holly is always surrendering to her command, even though Marina's a total backstabber. As they get older, it becomes obvious that Holly is more intelligent, motivated, together, and even better-looking, but they cling to their set patterns. The film expertly shows the twisting of their relationship over time, as Holly slowly becomes aware that she can't be herself with Marina--that, like a condescending parent, Marina always tries to keep her in an inferior role. But why does Marina do this? Of course! Because that's what insecure people do. This film will remind you why you divorced that annoying friend who always made you feel like crap. These girls, in their journey to become women, struggle against each other to a point of no return. KATIE SHIMER

* The Son's Room
(dir. Nanni Moretti, Italy)

Family dramas tend to strip actors bare of any pretense. Since there are usually no big explosions, no chase scenes, and no glam, then all you have left is acting ability. That's why most family dramas are such cheese-fests, especially when they include Michelle Pfeiffer as a widowed mother or some crap like that. Anyway, The Son's Room is excellent, because the acting is great. It's about a normal Italian family--a father, a mother, two well-adjusted kids--with normal problems until one of the kids up and dies. This film is a study of how a given family deals with problems, in particular, enormous tragedies. And, due to the great acting in this movie, you become really attached to the son before he dies and feel the pain of the family, rather than simply enduring the emotional cop-outs of other family dramas. Plus, since you actually care about the actors, it's enthralling. Be forewarned, however: it's sad. Very, very, very sad. KATIA DUNN