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AFFLICTION (Paul Schrader, 1997).

It takes some courage to be somber in the face of relentless feel-goodism, and Paul Schrader's Affliction is somber indeed. It's a film that avoids the easy comfort of redemption, presenting a stark anatomy of violence as it is passed down through a family. If in the end the story is too clear-cut for its own good, it still boasts a strong, distinctive style of direction and a powerful lead performance from Nick Nolte.

Nolte plays Wade Whitehouse,a cop-for-hire in a small New Hampshire town, a broken hulk of a man who drinks too much and is full of resentments. He resents what he sees as his ex-wife's hold on his young daughter's affection, and he resents his low-paying job and the petty slights that go along with it. When a bigwig is shot in an apparent hunting accident, he suspects that something darker is going on, and he becomes obsessed with exposing the facts. At this point one would normally expect a conventional mystery plot - with the flawed hero gaining some dignity, or at least meeting a greater fate, through his pursuit of the truth. But in Affliction, this aspect of the plot is a trigger for the "hero's" psychic implosion, a process that reaches back to the roots of his childhood. Wade struggles against the influence of his abusive, alcoholic father (a good, scary performance from James Coburn), all the while becoming more and more like him.

Nolte gives the performance of his career. His voice and body movements are a perfect match for Wade's reckless, unaware, yet strangely sympathetic character. There is none of the stiff concentration that can often hamper an actor playing this sort of role - he lets us see all the different aspects - loving, selfish, furiously intense, lazy and resigned. The feel of the movie is also extraordinary. Schrader achieves a sort of cramped visual rhythm - the atmosphere is one of menace and isolation. I was carried away by the mood - it's rare for impending doom to be so convincing in a naturalistic way.

I wish I could call Affliction a masterpiece, but there are two main flaws. First, the story of Wade's family is such a classic example of abuse that it seems overdone. Although Coburn is great, every script detail about his character and its effect on his children is painfully obvious in signficance - I felt more ambiguity was needed in order to round the story out. Secondly - and this fault is similar in origin to the first - the narration by Wade's younger brother (played by Willem Dafoe) spells everything out for us in a gravely analytical way, as if Schrader was afraid that the audience wouldn't be able to draw its conclusions correctly. The narration also wraps the film up rather abruptly, which was a disappointment, because the story needed more time for a denoument, so that the effect could sink in. Perhaps some of this is due to an over-faithfulness to the Russell Banks novel (I haven't read it, so I'm just guessing here). It's certainly not the first time a screenplay has fallen short of the high level achieved by a film's direction and acting. Affliction is still a harrowing and finely crafted achievement.

AFTER HOURS (Martin Scorsese, 1985).

A bland New York yuppie (Griffin Dunne), looking for diversion, meets a beautiful neurotic woman in Soho (Rosanna Arquette) - but the evening becomes one frightening disaster after another, a paranoid's worst nightmare. There are some outlandishly funny sequences in the film - the progression of the "hero's" absurdly convoluted circumstances is amusing in itself, and Teri Garr is particularly good as a rescuer who turns into a tormentor. Much of the humor, and the tension, of After Hours, lies in the contrast between the conventional timidity of the main character, his total lack of distinction as a person, and the bizarre trap into which he has fallen - the bohemian world of New York nightlife as distorted through the sensibility of a dork. But this aspect is in some way the film's weakness as well. For one thing, Dunne is too limited a performer to sustain interest - even though he is supposed to be mediocre, his reactions should light more comedic sparks than they do here. Finally there is something over-determined in the whole story that gives it a boring quality. Towards the end, when Dunne is being chased by a vigilante mob, the film seemed like it was merely searching for a way to top itself - the joke is made, and everything becomes just another permutation of the one joke. (And this doesn't seem like the New York I know - it is curiously spacious and underpopulated.) After Hours is certainly not one of Scorsese's great works, but it's interesting enough to merit a look.

AMERICAN BEAUTY (Sam Mendes, 1999).

Satire is difficult to do right. One needs either a light touch, a sense of wit and irony, or the ability to go completely over the top with no holds barred. On the first point, director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. With the exception of the narrator, Lester Burnham, the characters are nothing but walking cartoons screaming "Look at me! I'm the emptiness of suburban middle class life!" We have the phony status-seeking wife (Annette Bening is all surface mannerism, although in fairness that's all the script gives her), the sensitive, neglected daughter, the sexually precocious nymphet who of course is actually an innocent, the crazed sex-hating ex-Marine, and so forth and so on - cliche piled upon cliche. Even Kevin Spacey, who turns in a sly, engaging performance, can't make many of his lines come off the paper. On the second point, the film wants to be profound and meaningful and even, in the completely unbelievable character of the boy next door played by Wes Bentley, kind of metaphysical-mystical. (I don't believe in these preternaturally wise children who have come to teach us about the infinite.)

One of the main thrusts of the story is that Lester's desire for his daughter's best friend is somehow a liberating force in his life. This is rubbish - Mendes dresses it up in fancy dream sequence rose petals, but it's still rubbish. Of course he wants to have it both ways - we can have our pedophilia without really having it - and mucks it all up with guns and murder just in case we forgot this was a Hollywood movie. Well, the film does possess a certain compulsive watchability - it's not exactly a bad film the way some heartwarming treacle starring Robin Williams is bad (now that's real horror). It's competent in its way, and Kevin Spacey is good enough to make it entertaining and even interesting at times. But from all the fuss, you'd think this was a modern Moliere. It's not.

ANNA KARENINA (Julien Duvivier, 1948).

This adaptation of the Tolstoy classic is admirable in some respects. It is beautifully shot (by Henry Alekan), the sets and costumes are fine, and with its attention to the intertwining of characters, it intermittently approaches the feeling of the novel. But when Duvivier and the other writers (Jean Anouilh and Guy Morgan) try for deeper symbolism and tragedy, they come up short - the picture seems flat-footed and unsure of itself. Vivien Leigh plays Anna - her effort is valiant, but her delicacy, her cute little smile, seem all wrong for the part, which calls for a stronger, more passionate presence. And it doesn't help that Anna's lover Vronsky is played by a cipher named Kieron Moore. Ralph Richardson, however, is a perfect Karenin, capturing the stuffy respectability of the character rather than playing him as merely malevolent. But he's the exception to the rule - namely, that English actors rarely do the Russian classics very well. British reserve generally makes a bad match with Russian volubility and emotionalism.

AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (Jay Roach, 1997).

There are some funny scenes and gags in this spoof of mod 60's Britain and the Bond-type secret agent flicks of that time. Unfortunately, each of them is surrounded by several unfunny ones. Many of the jokes that aren't funny are repeated again and again, perhaps in the hope that they will become funny. They don't. Much of the humor is of the kind that sounds really hilarious on paper but doesn't quite come off in the execution. I found myself chuckling later over certain ideas, such as Dr. Evil going to group therapy with his son, a slacker named Scott, that didn't make me crack a smile during the actual film. It seems to me that Mike Myers doesn't really have the comic range yet to sustain a feature film - we get the joke of the Austin Powers character in the first ten minutes we see him, and that's all there is. Dr. Evil is funnier, but there are plenty of flat spots there too. It's really a half-an-hour sketch dragged out to fill a movie, an excuse to show off Elizabeth Hurley and a lot of nifty 60's decor, costumes and hairdos. And that's not enough. Directed by Jay Roach and written by Myers, who at least is willing to go out on a limb for a silly idea instead of merely starring in tepid and moronic formula comedies like most SNL graduates.

BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (George Miller, 1998).

It should be noted at the outset that the original Babe was a better movie than its sequel. That film had more of a charming storybook quality and pace, its humor was both gentler and deeper, and its lesson (about nonconformity) more meaningful. Babe: Pig in the City is more like a regular Hollywood movie - with lots of chase scenes and other fast, manic action sequences - and its message (altruism and freedom) is also more mainstream. Nevertheless, this Babe has a lot of fun things in it - and if you don't compare it to the original, but to other children's movies, its superiority is clear. This time Mrs. Hoggett (Magda Szubanski) gets to be in the spotlight, and she is great. We don't get to know all the animals as well, but a few of them, such as the orangutan and the pit bull, are choice. There is a scene near the end which takes place at a charity ball - well, let's just say it's a riot.

THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958).

A strange, compelling work, based on a popular novel, about an impoverished land where old people are expected to go to a mountain to die when they get to a certain age. One man (Teiji Takahashi) agonizes over his impending duty to carry his own mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) up the mountain. This story touched deep chords in a post-war Japanese society where ancient mores involving respect of one's elders were clashing with modern Western values and their emphases on youth. The film's style is heavily influenced by Kabuki theater, with sung narration and a striking way of ending scenes by having shadows fall over the characters. All the scenes are done against brilliantly painted backdrops, and Kinoshita uses a lot of long shot. This visual style may take some getting used to - it doesn't look like any other film you've seen. I found the story's sense of anguish and cruelty quite affecting.

BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (Walter Ruttmann, 1927).

A visual poem about a day in the life of Berlin, from dawn to midnight. Starting with empty streets, and continuing to cover just about every imaginable activity, from the routine of factory workers to the revelry of dancing partygoers, the montage has a hypnotically rhythmic effect. Ruttman was influenced by the Soviets, especially Vertov and the "kino-eye" group. His film lacks their spirit of daring experimentation (and pales beside Vertov's masterpiece The Man With A Movie Camera, made a year later), but the achievement is remarkable nonetheless. Most of the footage was shot with cameras hidden inside vehicles or suitcases, so there is an intense immediacy to the images. (The great Karl Freund supervised the team of cinematographers.) Ruttman's Berlin, like a person, undergoes a natural cycle, from quiescence into ever increasing activity, then winding down again to rest. The musical accompaniment is crucial to achieve this effect. The original score for the film, by Edmund Meisel, has been lost - it was supposedly upbeat and jazz-inflected. The Kino video includes a score that is classical in form, and somewhat melancholy in tone, but it matches the film's rhythms very well. Watching the movie today, one might not notice how innovative it really was, because Ruttmann's techniques have been imitated in countless documentaries since. It holds up as one of the most striking non-fiction films ever made.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Joel Coen, 1998).

I've always been one of the sceptics when it comes to the Coen brothers. So it was a surprise to be completely won over by The Big Lebowski, a film that has gotten mixed notices even from Coen-heads. I won't bother explaining the story beyond saying that the scruffy, unemployed former hippie activist Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who prefers to be called "Dude," becomes involved, through being mistaken for a rich man named Lebowski, in a hopelessly convoluted affair involving a kidnapping and other sordid deeds. The plot is only important in the sense that it provides an opportunity for Joel and Ethan Coen to do extended riffs on the cliches of film noir, highlight various insanely eccentric characters, and generally have a lot of fun showing the attitudes and reactions of the Dude and his pals in a bowling league (bowling is one of the affectionate themes of the picture) to situations that would normally call for a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. In the past I've found the Coens to be mechanistic - their films technical exercises, albeit virtuoso ones, without a center that could hold my attention. I don't know what happened, but they seem completely relaxed and playful in this film, with the humor coming quite naturally from the main characters, while the caricatures on the edges are just right as they are. Best of all is the film's zest in plunging into diversions. It's one of the delights of the picture that it mines its humor from the act of going off on tangents instead of anything inherent in the plot (which nevertheless, gets all its strands tied up in the end, as far as I could tell). At one point there is a sort of art-deco dream sequence featuring Bridges, Julianne Moore in a Valkyrie outfit, Busby Berkely-type dancing, and bowling, that had me grinning with sheer pleasure. Bridges is fine as ever, and an added bonus is John Goodman in an hilarious turn as the best friend who always makes things worse. The Big Lebowski is a joyride, made by filmmakers who are so confident that they can dare to be completely silly.

THE BIG ONE (Michael Moore, 1997).

The Big One is another satiric look by Michael Moore at corporate greed and "downsizing." I like how Moore is willing to be obnoxious to make a point, such as invading an office to present an "award" to a relocating corporation - a check for 80 cents to pay for the first hour of work of their Mexican employees. When he says that Steve Forbes never blinks, and then proves it using actual footage, he had me almost believing that Forbes is a space alien. On the other hand, The Big One is also a record of Moore's book tour to promote Downsize This! and as such it indulges in a lot of boring self-promotion and peripheral business, including a rather cruel practical joke played on a local publicist. This gives the film a sloppy, meandering feel that is disappointing. Methinks the lure of celebrity has gone to Moore's head. Still, I can't be too critical of a movie in which Nike CEO Phil Knight, saying that he's a Michael Moore fan, agrees to an interview and comes off as the callous bastard he really is.

BLACKMAIL (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929).

This first British sound film shows some of the mastery of suspense that would come to fruition in later Hitchcock films. It had to be turned into a talkie on the quick, as a matter of fact, and the first ten minutes or so are practically silent. This blend of silent visual style with the new sound technology works in the movie's favor - parts of it achieve a moody atmosphere that was rare in an early talkie. The story, about a woman (Anny Ondra) who kills a man that tries to rape her, and is then blackmailed by a witness, takes a while to get going, and there is a stagey quality to the expository scenes. (Ondra's Polish accent necessitated that her voice be dubbed by Joan Barry.) But the famous sequence in which she is unnerved by another woman's use of the word "knife" is fabulous, and there are some innovative editing touches, as well as flashes of Hitchcock's macabre sense of humor throughout. The film was a major success, firmly establishing the director's reputation in England.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez).

One of the funniest spectacles of recent years played itself out in the letters page of my local newspaper, where irate moviegoers have ranted against The Blair Witch Project. Folks who never bothered to write in about police brutality or corruption in city government have got some righteous indignation about plopping down $7.50 for a horror movie with no special effects, monsters, or anything except flashlights peering into the dark and some weird noises. "Don't waste your money on this rip-off!" yell Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public. "This has got to be the worst movie we've ever seen." Well, here's what really happened. A couple of indie filmmakers - Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez - made a super-low budget flick with the basic idea that real fright has to do with what you can't see. The film made a splash at Sundance, and if you saw it at a festival, or at your local art house, you'd probably appreciate it for what it is. But by some quirk of marketing genius, the film got pushed onto the nationwide multiplex circuit and made a huge bundle, the biggest profit-to-investment ratio in film history. At the same time, however, people who wouldn't be caught dead at a film festival, don't even know where the art house is, and think that "indie" has something to do with auto racing, get tricked into seeing this little movie, and they're absolutely indignant!

What The Blair Witch Project tries to do is create an atmosphere of fear through suggestion alone. On those terms it succeeded, at least for me. More than the sounds in the night or the weird stick figures hanging from trees, it's the faux documentary feel of the picture, and the build-up of anger into hysteria and panic in the actors, that achieves the effect. Heather Donahue in particular is very good at simulating panic. I definitely experienced a growing uneasiness and tension, and finally something akin to fright, although I felt it more in my gut than in my head or my heart. It's an interesting demonstration of method, a different method altogether from the traditional. At that level, I enjoyed it. It's not profound, or brilliant, and the improv drags on too long (the film itself is easily a half hour too long) - it's just an inventive no-budget scare flick. In the final analysis, I find the negative reactions to it - the way our expectations are often determined by commercial factors, and how they then influence our experience of a film - much more interesting than the movie itself.

BOMBSHELL (Victor Fleming, 1933).

A glamorous film star (Jean Harlow) tires of her racy image and attempts in various ways to become "respectable," while her publicist (Lee Tracy) plays every trick in the book to get her back. Harlow was never better than in this fast, often very funny take-off on Hollywood. It is surprising how much of the picture-making process is assumed to be well-known to the audience of its time - there's even a bit about the filming of Fleming's own Red Dust, made with Harlow the year before. Tracy, a movie actor who is now virtually unknown, is quite the hoot as a totally unscrupulous PR man, a role similar to other recognizable types in newspaper and screwball comedies of the time. His one failing is that he doesn't have the attractiveness of a William Powell or a Cary Grant to put him on an equal footing with Harlow. Some of the bits of business have dated, but overall Bombshell is one of the best examples of a wisecracking comedy from the studio era.

BREAKING THE WAVES (Lars von Trier, 1996).

I have noticed lately that the films I appreciate most are often troublesome - films that don't go down easy, but challenge me, disturb me, and provoke inward debate. Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves is such a film - a very intense, often grueling story of a woman of faith and goodness living in an utterly brutalized world. Bess (Emily Watson) is what we might call "simple minded" - childlike, innocent, completely naive in the ways of the world. She lives on an unnamed island off the English coast in a somber religious society that seems to be Puritan or perhaps Lutheran. Women are not allowed to talk in church, and in many other ways their roles are circumscribed. The movie opens with Bess's marriage to an outsider, Jan, a worker on the oil rigs. We don't know how they met or decided to marry. We do see Bess introduced to sex on her wedding night, with no shame, only delight - for to her sex is just as much a part of God's world as any other. And as we discover later, she talks to God in a personal way, and then God talks to her, or at least she believes he does - she answers herself playfully in a deeper voice.

Von Trier presents a chasm between Bess's spirituality and the patriarchal religion of her world. But she has also internalized the punishing god of her fathers, personified by the deeper voice, and this contributes to the ever-deepening tragedy. The vehicle, so to speak, by which the director dramatizes the conflict, is in itself the film's most disturbing aspect. Bess has not separated spirit from body, love for God from sexuality, - but the world, of course, has, drastically, to the point where sex has become prostitution, degradation, death. This, I believe, is the main thrust of the film. There are other aspects too, and there are many questions raised, including ones involving the true motivation of the director. But it's a very dark voyage indeed, and not for the faint of heart.

Von Trier's use of hand-held camera and extreme close-up create a sense of relentless immediacy, even claustrophobia. I often felt like everything was "too close," an effect I'm sure was intended. If he can move the camera back and forth between characters rather than using cuts, he'll do it. Or he'll use jump cuts, or a kind of editing where the seams are showing, jarring the viewer, not allowing the comfort zone, the cinematic distance that we've become so used to. It's an absolutely purposeful attempt to make us feel the wounds of existence in visual terms, to the point of offense - and it shows extraordinary daring. The coarse, grainy photography (by the great Robby Müller) has the same effect - raw immersion in the immediate texture of life.

Emily Watson is so amazing as Bess that it's hard to find superlatives adequate to the performance. It's just on a different level than anything I've seen - incredible that the portrayal of a character so strangely naive and vulnerable could be so unmannered. I'm convinced that even those who are turned off by the film can't help but be impressed with this performance - that she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar is proof of that, since normally a film this eccentric wouldn't even be considered. Overshadowed by Watson, but also very fine, is Katrin Cartlidge as Bess's sister-in-law. She is the voice of reason in the film, the voice of a woman with experience of the world, often exasperated at Bess's naivete, yet loving her deeply. The role of Jan seems less demanding, but Stellan Skarsgård fills it well.

As I began to see where the picture was going, I became more and more tense. I resist melodrama, and von Trier has that tendency. Here he pushes melodrama to the edge until it takes on a frightening reality. At the end I felt devastated. This one really cut to the bone. Having said all that, I find myself in opposition to von Trier in a way, wrestling with his film, finding things that I hate about it even as I admire his courage in bringing these things to the light. Jan, paralyzed in an accident, wishes that Bess could find happiness by being free of him. Since her church will not approve divorce, he asks her to find a lover. He does not understand how absolutely she loves him, how this suggestion would offend her. When Dodo, the sister-in-law, tells him that Bess will do anything for him, but doesn't care for herself, he tells her to be with other men and then tell him about it - in order to save his life. This much is clear. And thus begins Bess's descent into hell.

What is not so clear is how much von Trier's film is a critique of the male dichotomies of virgin/whore, of the usurpation of sexuality by violence that ends in Bess's death, and how much it is actually a symptom of these dichotomies. This is certainly not one of those awful "hooker with a heart of gold" stories. In fact, the appearance of Bess in a prostitute's outfit (a grotesque 1970s version) does not in itself seem a degradation, but more like an absurdly incongruous juxtaposition of iconic images, as if von Trier wanted to fuse the figure of the innocent child with that of the whore in order to explode both. For Bess, the trappings do not signify what they do to us. So it's only our own assumptions - about sex as degradation, about women as sexual artifacts - that are flung back in our face. Bess is motivated by the pure love for her husband, a love in which there is no duality of spiritual and carnal. But because the world she lives in has succumbed to the duality, because it is a world in which violence rules rather than love, her actions become a total self-sacrifice, an abandonment to affliction. This seems to me to be at least some of what von Triers is driving at.

Despite my misgivings, I feel that if von Trier errs here, it is not the callous error, the all too common assumption of misogyny as the way things are. Rather he fights to break free, and perhaps in some way becomes entangled by this very effort. I admire this film very much even as I stand before its vision with a certain dread. Breaking the Waves has the stature of a giant, and some of the ungainliness. Be brave and let the waves break over you.

BROADWAY MELODY (Harry Beaumont, 1929).

Sometimes the work that pioneers a form ends up being the most dated. This is certainly the case with this MGM film, the first complete musical (there had been partly silent examples before, i.e. with musical numbers but little or no talking) and the winner of that year's Best Picture Oscar. For its time, it was amazing - the microphone moving with the singers; a wide variety of sounds, including tap dancing; and a dance sequence in two-strip Technicolor. (Unfortunately this was not preserved, so the only surviving prints show the sequence in black and white.) Since dubbing hadn't been devised yet (that innovation would come in Rouben Mamoulian's Applause shortly after), all the numbers were recorded on the spot, which gives them a more spontaneous feel than what we've become used to in musicals. So it's no wonder that the movie was such a hit.

Much to my surprise, then, I found the picture to be almost a total drag - many of the early sound musicals are still entertaining today, but this one is mainly for the historically curious. The story concerns two sisters (Bessie Love and Anita Page) trying to make it on Broadway - the older sister (Love) is the girlfriend of a singer/songwriter played by Charles King, but he begins to turn his attentions to the younger sister. This meager plot is stretched almost beyond the point of endurance, and most of the acting is wretched - especially by Page and King (surely one of the least appealing leading men ever). The songs, by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, are nice, but there really aren't enough numbers - most of the time is taken up with the dumb story, so it's not even that satisfying as a musical. (The "Painted Doll" number, the one that was originally in color, has a strange, antiquated charm, though.) The one redeeming feature is Bessie Love - she tends to overact just like everyone else (part of the problem must have been unfamiliarity with the new sort of acting required for talkies) but she has great energy and charisma, and that makes her watchable.

THE BROWNING VERSION (Anthony Asquith, 1951).

A mean and bitter teacher of classics at a boys' school must come to terms with his life as he faces retirement. Terence Rattigan dutifully adapted his own play to the screen. The film presents its moral lessons far too obviously - the characters spell everything out for us in speeches, a technique that used to be standard for plays but has never worked well in movies. The overall effect is dry and uninvolving, but at least the picture has Michael Redgrave in the lead role - he is fine as the professor, hiding his torment under a demeanor of civilized arrogance.

BUFFALO '66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998).

Vincent Gallo plays a young man who is released from prison, then kidnaps a girl (Christina Ricci) so that she can come with him to his parents' house and pretend to be his wife. No, nothing in the film is meant to be realistic - Gallo uses extreme exaggeration to portray how it feels to be a total loser. The protagonist, Billy, is afraid of everything, especially closeness with a woman, while pretending not to be. His parents, played by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston, are a bizarre pair of scuzzball zombies - the long sequence in their home is funny in a very unsettling way. (The unusual alternation of point-of-view shots during a dinner table scene is startling and effective.) Gallo's verbal shtick is often quite amusing, sometimes annoying. There are also some funny scenes with a mentally slow friend named Goon (Kevin Corrigan). I like Gallo's willingness to try just about anything, and his willingness to expose his character's painful uncoolness. The main problem I had was with the relationship between Billy and Layla, Christina Ricci's character. Ricci, here in blonde hair and garish purple eye shadow, is always watchable. But her character seems like just another girlfriend-who-redeems-the-hero-with-love type. I might accept that she would feel love and compassion for a man who has kidnapped her - but since we know nothing about her, her actions and feelings don't mean much outside of her being an object in Billy's drama. But Buffalo '66 does have a deceptively rough-edge humor (the use of the Buffalo Bills as a symbol of the loser mentality is good) and the film's feeling level is intense. Its virtues are strong enough to transcend the sometimes amateurish script and uneven style.

BULWORTH (Warren Beatty, 1998).

Honesty demands that I admit enjoying Bulworth, although it is one of those movies that rapidly faded in my esteem as time went by. It's about a politician (Warren Beatty) wanting to end his life, who puts a hit on himself. His impending death frees him to say what's really on his mind, and the fun he starts to have makes him change his mind about suicide. I liked the screwball flavor and the frenetic pace. The parts that made me laugh the most were when Bulworth gets up and says things that outrage his constituents - I wanted one scene where he debates his opponent to last longer than it did. Bulworth is basically saying out loud what no politician ever says but what a lot of Americans believe - that the political parties are bought and paid for by the corporations, that they pretend to be helping people but are actually dividing us against each other so that the rich can get richer, and so on. I haven't seen Beatty this animated in years - usually he's a stick. And in this film he's actually funny.

The problematic elements of Bulworth lie mainly in its take on the issues of racism and its portrayal of African Americans. The black community depicted in Bulworth is a caricature of the world of gangsta rap, with a bit of the dumb comedies currently being marketed to black audiences thrown in - a cartoon view of things that teeters dangerously close to condescension. And then there's Warren Beatty making speeches in the form of rap-style rhymes. Some of the lyrics are funny, or have shock value, but Beatty is such a bad rapper that I wished the screenplay had taken a different route. In addition, the film gets more scattershot in its humor as it goes along, and the plot element of the relationship between Bulworth and the character played by Halle Berry strained my credulity. Bulworth is not deep, nor particularly sophisticated in its satire. But frankly, I was astonished that anyone dared to be so political in a mainstream film, in an era when few even try to bring such subjects up in the movies. Beatty had the nerve to stir things up, and even if some of it has the same out-of-touch quality that it makes fun of in the character of Bulworth, I welcome the effort.

THE BUTCHER BOY (Neil Jordan, 1997).

In most movies about children, the main character is a vulnerable and sensitive child. Often there is a minor character who torments the little hero - a mean, antisocial bully. The Butcher Boy is about the bully.

Francie Brady is a boy living in a small town in Ireland in the early 60s. His father is an abusive drunk, his mother a suicidal wreck. Francie's only comfort is his friend Joe. Together they wreak havoc in the town, especially tormenting the prissy Mrs. Nugent and her studious goody-goody son. But Francie's world begins to fall apart, and with each loss he becomes more and more manic, insanely aggressive, and consumed with murderous rage.

Director Neil Jordan does not take the safe route in adapting the novel by Patrick McCabe (who co-wrote the script with him). The style is wildly comic, fast-paced, with exaggerated, even hallucinatory, imagery. The bizarre technique throws the film's disturbing content into relief. Strangest of all is the character of Francie himself - at times he seems too brazen, too knowing, to be a real twelve-year-old, and this caused me to be a bit sceptical at the beginning of the film. Eventually the concept grew on me - Jordan has chosen a unique way to portray the single-mindedness of a boy who can't find any good outlet for his feelings. Although we see plenty of reasons why Francie is screwed up, the film's power lies more in Jordan's ability to put us inside this young lunatic's head and identify with his worst ideas and impulses. And that can be a scary experience.

The title role is played by a newcomer named Eamonn Owens. His intense energy, expressiveness and vitality are absolutely amazing. It's Owens' show all the way - the other actors, including Stephen Rea as the father and Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Nugent, are like satellites in his orbit. It is one of the most extraordinary performances by a child on film. The Butcher Boy is not always completely successful, but Jordan has enough sheer nerve, and Owens is so compelling, that it may just haunt you for days after seeing it. The old cliche of "not for the faint hearted" really applies in this case - the picture goes to some very dark places and leaves you there.

CABARET BALKAN (Goran Paskaljevic, 1998).

There is movie horror, and then there's just horror. This film is about the horror of living in a place - "the former Yugoslavia" - that is torn apart by hate and violence. A night in Belgrade is used as a microcosm for all the suffering and persecution of the wars - a series of casually linked episodes, each climaxing with horrific violence. One of the interesting things about the film is the way we are invited to identify a certain character as a victim of another character. But before we know it, the scene shifts and the person we've identified with has become a victimizer. Watching it is like having an abyss opening up beneath your feet - Paskaljevic's grief-stricken view of human nature gave me moral vertigo. During the film's first half, the technique builds in ever-increasing tension. Unfortunately, the director doesn't know where to take us in the second half, so he ends up just repeating himself. One critic compared it to Kusturica's Underground, but said that this was better. I disagree. The latter film's use of black comedy allows the themes to deepen - here they just go in circles. Cabaret Balkan does have the great Dragan Nikolic as a crazed, vicious boxer - his two sequences are fantastic. But after that, we have an episode with a madman terrorizing passengers on a bus, followed by a sequence involving a menacing duo holding a couple at gunpoint - and it all just seems like a catalog of sadism. It is not enough to witness cruelty - art must help us understand and go beyond.

CABEZA DE VACA (Nicolas Echevarria, 1990).

The 16th century Spanish explorer of the title was shiprecked on an island off Texas, wandered all over the Southwest, and - miraculously - made it to the Pacific coast of Mexico. These facts are a jumping-off point for a film about the wonder and the tragedy of the European encounter with the American Indian. The production values are sometimes lower than one might hope for from this kind of movie (the soundtrack sounds dubbed much of the time), the story is often incoherent, and a bit too long overall. The film captures an interesting feeling, though - the initial horror and confusion of de Vaca when confronted with cultures that are totally alien to him. The natives are not prettied up or Costner-ized. Sometimes they seem brutal and frightening, other times gentle and benign, always strange. De Vaca eventually becomes immersed in native ways, turning into something of a shaman, and the production builds in power as it goes along, becoming a bitter anti-colonial fable. An uneven but intriguing film.

CAPE FEAR (J. Lee Thompson, 1962).

An ex-con (Robert Mitchum) terrorizes a lawyer (Gregory Peck) whom he blames for his imprisonment, targeting his family for murder. This is a sturdy but uninspired thriller, with some sexual overtones that were rather new and frightening at the time. The script and direction are nothing more than average, but since the movie knows its limits, it's still better than the overwrought Scorsese remake. The one reason to see it - Mitchum's excellent villain, all the more disturbing because he's so believably ordinary in his evil.

CAREER GIRLS (Mike Leigh, 1997).

This is one of Leigh's lesser works, but it's still worth seeing. The mere wisp of a story, about two former London roommates who reunite for a weekend, serves only as a rare chance to see female characters bond in friendship. Scenes of the women together in the present are interspersed with flashbacks from their more tumultuous younger days. Leigh's script has a quick, rough-edged wit, and the usual assortment of odd misfits.

The star of the show, and the main reason to see the picture, is Katrin Cartlidge as the hyperkinetic Hannah. With her oddly abrupt gestures and expressions, her wild sense of humor tinged with anger, Hannah is just the sort of roommate one would never forget, and Cartlidge brings all she's got to the role. She is simply wonderful, and it's a good thing too, because it helps to hide the film's weaknesses. Newcomer Lynda Steadman does pretty well as the painfully shy Annie, although I must say that I found her mannerisms in the flashback scenes to be too exaggerated even for a Mike Leigh film.

A major weakness in the script is the way the women keep running into people from their past by chance during the weekend. The coincidences stretch one's credulity, yet it might not have been such a problem except that Leigh himself seems uncomfortable with it, and so we see the women themselves commenting on the unbelievability of it all. The light jazz score, by Tony Remy and Secrets and Lies star Marianne Jean-Baptiste, seems out of place in this film, with its punk milieu. And I don't get the title - careers don't play a role in the picture at all; in fact we never see the girls at work. So all in all this seems like a diversion for Leigh between major films, but there are enough pleasures to be had from the funny dialogue, and especially from Katrin Cartlidge, to make Career Girls worth a look.

CARO DIARIO (Nanni Moretti, 1994).

A low-key, off-the-cuff film diary by the deadpan humorist Moretti. I liked the anti-dramatic premise, with Moretti standing in for the ordinary person as opposed to all the exaggeration and extremism in films. I liked his gentle comedy and his takes on the strangeness of the culture he runs into on his journeys. (The most original sequence involves the curious idea of an island where everyone has only one child, usually a spoiled one.) However, I also found some of his meanderings to be not much more than boring travelogue. Nonetheless it's refreshing to see a movie that is so purely the whim of one thoughtful artist, marketing itself to no one except the director's ideal viewer.

CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942).

Val Lewton was in charge of producing low-budget horror films for RKO in the 40s. They've since gained a reputation as classics, and this was the first. Simone Simon plays a mysterious Serbian woman who marries a carefree American (Kent Smith) but is unable to be happy with him because she believes she will turn into a panther and kill whomever she kisses. The picture takes a while to get going, the story doesn't develop enough, and the acting is generally at the B level, although Simon's air of bewildered vulnerability is affecting. Also, Tom Conway plays a psychiatrist who is supposedly trying to help the cat woman - his inappropriate methods are unintentinally funny. What makes the film worth seeing, however, are some of Tourneur's spooky techniques. In a scene at an indoor swimming pool, a mood of terror is created through the use of shadows and sound effects, without ever showing us a monster. There are other sequences that use suggestion to scare us, and at the time it was a rather novel approach to horror. Over half a century later, in this overly explicit age, Cat People's subtlety and restraint is all the more refreshing.

THE CELEBRATION (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998).

A provocative family drama from Denmark. A clan gathers at a family-owned hotel to celebrate the father's 60th birthday. The patriarch has three children - gentle, impassive Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), emotionally insecure Helene (Paprika Steen) and the youngest - an abusive, neurotic bully named Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen). Another daughter Linda (Christian's twin) has recently committed suicide. At the dinner party, it is, unexpectedly, the stable-seeming Christian who, when asked to give a toast, ignites a family melt-down with some very nasty revelations.

Vinterberg is part of the "Dogma 95" group, whose much ballyhooed creed (a sort of technical naturalism) doesn't impress me as anything very new at all. The hand-held camera, the location shooting and natural sound - in spirit it's neorealism all over again. Fortunately the method matches well with the subject matter - the jittery, claustrophobic style giving the crazy family dynamics a power and immediacy that might have been lost with more distance. I very much admire the film's unflinching attitude towards, not so much sexual abuse itself, but the perilous process of exposing it to the open air. The reactions of denial from the parents (Henning Moritzen and Birthe Neuman, both good) are convincing and therefore quite scary. The best performance is Larsen's, as little brother Michael. The twists and turns of his psyche are both alarming and hilarious. The structure of The Celebration, and the limitations of its approach, keep things a bit too much on the surface at times - most of the characters are less interesting in themselves than as symbols in a power struggle. Still, it's a work of daring and integrity.

CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (Jacques Rivette, 1974).

Rivette has been subverting narrative expectations for most of his career. This film is perhaps the climax of that trend. At first it's about a strange, silly cat-and-mouse game between the two women of the title (Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier) who meet by chance and play tricks on each other, assuming each other's roles and generally improvising little schemes and adventures. There's a playful, making-it-up-as-we-go-along feeling to all of this, and indeed, much of the business is improvised. Another element I detect is a breaking away from rigid conventions of storytelling into a free-flowing style that is based on inter-feminine talk, fantasy and play. The principals work very well together, as if they've been friends for years. There is no overt feminist message, but the insouciant, mocking attitude towards male privilege is unmistakable.

Then the duo stumble on a house haunted by the ghosts of a widower, two women who want him, and his young daughter. Celine and Julie go about reconstructing the mysterious drama of the house, "remembering" images through sucking on magic candy they have received in their sojourns there. In the process, we see scenes jumbled up in different orders, repeated, linked together like a puzzle. The bizarre, gothic murder story is set off by the irreverent commentary of the two goofballs.

Rivette pays tribute to the mystery and fantasy realms while making fun of it in a lighthearted way, using his two leads to tear the plot apart and reveal the sexual and familial roles that lie festering like a madness underneath. My description only hints at the film's weirdness. The sheer length of the picture (over three hours) seems ridiculous, but I can see how the wandering and the tangents are meant as an antidote to the usual tightly-plotted little drama. The silliness can sometimes be too much, edging towards whimsy, but all in all Celine and Julie Go Boating establishes a world of its own, with its own charms, subtle feelings and disorientations. And it has a different sense of space as well - enough room to laugh and make comments, or just munch loudly on your popcorn.

CENTRAL STATION (Walter Salles Jr., 1998).

Central Station treats an important theme for Brazil, and indeed for all Latin America - the thousands of homeless children living in the streets of the cities. It tells the story of Dora (veteran actress Fernanda Montenegro), an older woman making a living by writing letters for illiterate people at the train station. She is something of a hardened cynic - most of the letters go unsent. But she takes an interest in an orphaned boy (Vinicius de Oliveira), first trying to sell him to an "adoption" agency, then having a change of heart and rescuing him, whereupon they go in search of his father. Central Station then becomes a road movie, with the two alternating between fighting each other and gradually developing a mutual affection. The director, Walter Salles Jr., is good at depicting the feeling of being hemmed in by a crowd. He also doesn't flinch to show the desolation and squalor of poverty in Brazil. The style is rarely distinctive, except for a marvelous sequence taking place during a candlelit festival of the Virgin - beautifully shot, it's the highlight of the picture. Montenegro is very good here, with her tired face revealing Dora's history of bitterness and suffering, which makes the brief flashes of joy and compassion all the more convincing. This actress's recognition is long overdue and well-deserved. On the other hand, de Oliveira seems too much the beautiful poster child - he needed more rough edges to make him believable. There is a very curious theme involving Dora rediscovering femininity - as if Salles is trying to say that wearing lipstick and a nice dress is somehow an important aspect of her claiming a maternal instinct. I thought this detracted from the drama. It seems to me that the true theme is compassion, not femininity or motherhood. I also must admit that the film's tendency towards conventional resolution left me unmoved. In some respects, though, Central Station, with its portrayal of the poor and homeless, is a reaffirmation of the Brazilian activist tradition in cinema, and this is worthy of praise.

LA CEREMONIE (Claude Chabrol, 1995)

Claude Chabrol has been making movies now for forty years, and long after the New Wave has receded, he's still going strong. His specialty is, for lack of a better term, the psychological thriller. His latest, La Ceremonie, does not disappoint - as usual, he builds tension through the gradual development of relationships between strangely disparate characters.

Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), an extremely reserved young woman with a secret that she'll do anything to conceal, is hired as a maid by a wealthy family living in a chateau in Brittany. The married couple (Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel) are amiable and sophisticated. Their children by previous marriages are pampered but also friendly - the daughter chides her father for patronizing Sophie, calling him fascistic. Meanwhile, Jeanne, a postal clerk (Isabelle Huppert) with deep resentments against the monied classes in general and this family in particular, strikes up a friendship with Sophie, using this acquaintance to spy on the family, all the while pulling Sophie into a web of hatred and intrigue.

Bonnaire is very good at playing a woman who tightly controls all her responses in order to guard against discovery. We see the fear underlying the cool. It is Huppert, though, who is most compelling. Her portrayal of a sociopath is all the more terrifying because she seems like someone you might actually meet in real life. Jeanne is pure id fueled with inchoate anger, a rageful child gone amok. Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff have adapted the story from a novel by British mystery writer Ruth Rendell. It fits nicely with some traditional Chabrol themes - the domination of one person's psyche by another is a motif he's used more than once. More importantly, La Ceremonie is about the barrier between classes. The gulf between Sophie and the family she works for is not only economic and cultural, but spiritual, even existential. Chabrol emphasizes this distance through many subtle details - I am once again struck by the attention to the everyday that one rarely sees in American films - and he doesn't let us off the hook by making this rich family unlikable (our sympathies are, if anything, with them). The film seems to be saying that wealth and privilege by itself will produce a pathology from below that may rebound at any time. This lends the picture a latent edginess that becomes more pronounced, more tense, as the film nears its end.

La Ceremonie has weaknesses in plausibility that make it less effective than it could have been. The plot sets its traps too neatly. But it still scared the hell out of me, a pleasure I haven't experienced too often in theaters lately. The picture shocks and disturbs, and perhaps only later, when one has left the theater, does the point come home.

CHARADE (Stanley Donen, 1963).

I thought that Charade would provide some escapist fun, and that the combination of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn would compensate, at least in part, for other weaknesses. The one thing I didn't think was that Charade would be a dud. To be fair, I don't know how much of the fact that I could see every plot twist coming is due to the zillions of spy movies made since then. But I do know that the film bored and exasperated me by turns - I don't ask for believability, just intelligence, and the script was dumb enough for me to be disappointed in that regard. There is a funeral scene early on that is funny - with James Coburn showing casual disrespect for the dead. It's too bad that Stanley Donen didn't try for a similar looniness the whole way.

Hepburn plays a young woman whose deceased husband knew the secret location of a great deal of stolen money. Grant is a mysterious stranger with several false names, and there are assorted shady characters who keep turning up dead. It's all supposed to be chic and amusing and mysterious, but it comes off shallow and contrived. Grant was sixty, Hepburn twenty-six years younger, but I don't think chemistry was the problem. (I mean, this is Cary Grant we're talking about.) so much as the stupid things the script requires them to say to each other. Some of the old Grant charm does emerge from time to time - but poor Audrey has to play the most gullible twit in history, and by the ending (which I saw coming several miles away) I was truly embarrassed for her. Oh there are worse movies, of course. Much worse. I just expected more from Donen et. al. The production seems flat, tacky - once again, it may have been one of the first of a style that has since now outworn its welcome. (For some reason I kept thinking of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) I could barely even crack a smile at Grant taking a shower with his clothes on.

CHASING AMY (Kevin Smith, 1997).

I have to give Kevin Smith some credit for exploring unusual territory in this film about a comic book artist who falls for a lesbian. I like the unabashed romanticism. In the course of the film, some interesting points are made when he could have settled for mere jokiness. All in all, there's a sincere effort to stir things up and say something meaningful about the choices people make in love, and the barriers put up by homophobia. But after giving him all the credit I can, I must say the movie didn't work for me too well. I did not believe in the characters at all - they were just mouthpieces for whatever issue or plot development or joke that Smith had in mind for that moment. A lot of attention is paid to the character of Alyssa, for instance, but there isn't much to her besides cute mannerisms. I never felt we got inside her as a person. It might have helped if the acting was not so amateurish - there's nothing particularly noteworthy about Ben Affleck as Holden, or Jason Lee as his roommate, and Joey Lauren Adams was way too perky for me as Alyssa. Dwight Ewell, as a gay black man, at least gets to say some wise things in the film. I found myself getting very annoyed with the way the movie focuses obsessively on Alyssa's sexuality and character and past, while taking Holden for granted. I know that this was all part of Holden's warped view of things, but I think we're meant to identify with him to some degree as our protagonist. And his behavior is so rotten, and in the end so stupid, that I ended up not caring in the least what happened to him.

THE CIRCUS (Charles Chaplin, 1928).

From what I'd read about this movie, I had come to expect one of Chaplin's minor works, perhaps even one of his failures. I guess that goes to show that you can never be sure about a movie just from reading reviews. I laughed myself silly through the entire thing. There are wonderful gags involving a funhouse mirror, a mule that chases the Tramp around, and the funniest one of all - Chaplin trying to stay balanced on a tightrope while a bunch of monkeys crawl all over him. Perhaps the reason The Circus lacks critical favor is that it doesn't have the satiric elements or sentimental flavor that characterize films such as Modern Times or City Lights. But Chaplin's sustained comic inventiveness and his superb athleticism make The Circus an utter delight. In short, it is very funny - and what else can you ask of a comedy?

CIVILIZATION (Thomas H. Ince & Raymond B. West, 1916).

A real oddity - a pacifist superspectacle - which is fascinating for, among other things, revealing how very much our culture and our way of thinking about political issues has changed in eighty years. A mythical kingdom starts a war, but a religious vision causes a Count in charge of the naval effort to convert to pacifism. The crowd and war scenes are impressive for its time. Made in the shadow of a horrifying war in Europe, the film has an unrelentngly antiwar point of view. The U.S. entered the fray the next year, which changed everything, and it wasn't until the Vietnam era that it was even thinkable for a Hollywood picture to take this route.

The pace in Civilization is s-l-o-w, and the acting is mostly awful. The pacifist hero is played by someone named Howard Hickman - he looks like Dick Smothers, and he's certainly one of the least impressive leads in movie history. But what seems bizarre in modern eyes is the way the film presents its pacifism through a sort of melodramatically sentimental Christian typology. Jesus actually plays a big role in the picture. After the Count refuses to torpedo a passenger ship, he is visited by Christ in prison, who takes over the dying man's body and personally leads the peace movement. It's hard not to laugh (I certainly did) but it is interesting that opposition to war was seen by Ince, and apparently by many in his day, as an outcome of Christian teaching. This is so far from the way things are today, that Civilization seems like an artifact from a strange dead world. And as silly as the film's messianic idealism seems today, our modern cynicism in this regard may not be altogether to the good.

Ince was one of the great producer/directors of his time. This picture was intended to be an epic in the vein of Griffith's Intolerance. It has dated badly in almost every way - interesting for historical reasons but not much fun to watch. Yet in the midst of the portentous titles and overacting there are harsh moments of truth. Christ takes the King on a little tour of the destruction he's caused. One of the scenes involves a dead mother clutching her dead baby. I would bet that there aren't many filmmakers who would have the nerve to go that far even today.

CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962).

A minor recording star (Corinne Marchand) wanders Paris while anxiously awaiting the results of being tested for cancer. This picture is beautifully shot (b&w photography by Jean Rabier) and held my interest from beginning to end. Varda is good with little details, and the shifts of emotion experienced by Cleo are realized with vividness. The film manages to impart a sense of how life might look to someone who thinks she's about to die. Varda tells the story almost in "real time" (but not quite), with the stylistic device of having different blocks of time set off with titles (e.g. "Cleo from 5:32 to 5:41") which is funny but also oddly moving. I found the film smooth and engaging, with a distinct feminine sensibility.

CLOCKWATCHERS (Jill Sprecher, 1997).

Clockwatchers is an example of a low-budget independent film that stays in its niche and does a fairly good job within its limits. The story concerns a temp worker (Toni Collette) with a low sense of self-worth, who is hired by a horrifyingly impersonal business, and makes friends with three other temps (Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow and Alanna Ubach) who all have their own problems, but are united in contempt for the firm. Two sisters, Karen and Jill Sprecher, wrote and directed the picture respectively. Its two major strengths are the exaggeration of the office atmosphere (the hideous decor and the twisted denizens of this company from hell are continually amusing) and the performance of Posey, as an in-your-face rebel, who brings the energy level up whenever she's on screen. The film is less successful when it tries to be serious and when it depicts the restless imaginings of Collette's character. The picture loses some of its steam as it goes along, but there are pleasures along the way, not least of which is a strong female point of view.

LA COLLECTIONNEUSE (Eric Rohmer, 1967).

Two young men (Patrick Bachau and Daniel Pommereulle) share a villa during the summer. Staying with them, by arrangement with the owner, is a promiscuous teenage girl (Haydee Politoff). The men first make fun of her sleeping around, then one of them has an affair with her, while the other, the film's narrator, Adrian (Bachau), is alternately attracted to her and resistant to becoming part of her "collection."

As usual in a Rohmer film there is a lot of talk, along with the theme of a man trying to resist temptation. The actors wrote some of their own dialogue, so the conversation has a convincing off-the-cuff quality. Nestor Alemendros' color photography is very fine. But I grew impatient with the film because the behavior of the men seemed so insensitive, and all the talk about what makes someone attracted to someone else failed to interest me. Politoff's character is the only one who knows how to act appropriately, even though the film takes the point of view of the men and she is mostly relegated to object status. I found the self-absorbed Adrian to be very annoying in the way he uses intellectual constructs to justify anything. It's very likely that Rohmer intended all of this as a gentle satire on male pretension and privilege, but I needed more of a window into the characters' feelings than he provided.

Apparently there were originally some problems getting the film distributed - it was released after My Night With Maud, even though it was made before. Rohmer's dryness is part and parcel of his style, but he found ways to temper this quality in some of his later films. La Collectionneuse has the tentative and unsatisfying quality of an early experiment.

COLOR OF A BRISK AND LEAPING DAY (Christopher Münch, 1996).

The story, which takes place during and after World War II, is about a Chinese American (Peter Alexander) with a passion for railroads, who attempts to save the short-line train through Yosemite Valley. The black-and-white photography (Rob Sweeney) is absolutely stunning. Münch has a quiet, gentle style, letting the characters and situations develop in a natural and off-hand way. The story could perhaps have used a little more shape in its latter third, but I was won over by the elegiac feeling and the gorgeous compositions. I'm not sure what the title means - a friend suggested that it was a Chinese ideogram. In any case, Münch is a very gifted director whose films deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968).

As if to disprove the idea that everything that could be done in film has already been done, Paradjanov created this brilliant visual poem about the Armenian poet Arutian Sayadian. Rather than film a narrative about the poet's objective life story, he chose to depict the evolution of his soul through a series of intense, dreamlike tableaux. The only spoken words are occasional voice-over excerpts from the poet's writings. Figures from his life pose against elaborate artificial backdrops, holding objects with symbolic meaning from Armenian art and mythology. In the background other figures move in measured and repetitive actions such as, in the earlier childhood sections, the tossing of a ball. We see the faces either in full as they look straight ahead, remarkably beautiful and expressive in their stillness, or in side profile, as in traditional Orthodox iconography. All the while, various types of Armenian music are heard, ceremonial and otherwise, the entire effect being almost indescribable, like an occult spiritual initiation on film.

The picture's color is radiant beyond belief, with the sections on Sayadian's apprenticeship to a carpet weaver full of shimmering blues, yellows and reds, and the later sections when he joins a monastery exploring more muted tones. I would recommend that you come to this film with a certain mental preparation. Paradjanov wanted to bring the viewer to a different state of consciousness, to evoke a sense of love for creation, grief for our suffering and mortality, and beyond that, a meditative awareness of essence, the particulars of life condensed into nonverbal symbol and imprinted on the mind. The Color of Pomegranates is truly one of a kind, not really a narrative film at all, more like a ballad or a rite. As strange as it might seem to say this, one should approach the film with seriousness and reverence, and watch it without interruption if possible. Let the experience soak into you gently, like dye into a fabric.

Paradjanov was one of the great innovators of world cinema. He suffered persecution for his art. He had already been imprisoned for "nationalist agitation" after making Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964). The Color of Pomegranates was banned by the Soviet government. This is hard to understand unless you realize that anything beautiful, anything that recognized a dimension other than the sterile class doctrines of the state, would have to be automatically deemed subversive. Paradjanov was arrested several times after this, on various trumped up charges, and did four years of hard labor before international protest led to his release in 1978. He managed to make two more films before his death in 1990.

CONTACT (Robert Zemeckis, 1997).

Contact is a big heap of pretentious claptrap. Zemeckis and the screenwriters have the temerity to claim that they have something to say about the conflict between religious belief and scientific inquiry. They don't. The film pretends to explore the question of whether or not God exists. It does not. To do these things, one would need to have an elementary understanding of the ideas and issues involved. What Contact does is take all the thoughtless, knee-jerk assumptions about these issues in the culture at large, stick them in the mouths of stick figure characters, and cover it with a veneer of shiny New Age profundity. I guess it's fitting that the image of Bill Clinton is inserted, Gump-style, into the story. The picture is as phony as Clinton's smile.

All the actors come off badly, without exception. Jodie Foster does her Sommersby thing again in a melodramatic court scene that had me covering my eyes in embarrasment. The worst by far is Matthew McConaughey as a hunk/priest/presidential adviser/love interest something or other. To be fair, the role is asinine, so it would be hard to imagine anyone doing it well, but McConaughey is so annoying, so utterly bad, with his smarmy, condescending smile and sing-song delivery, that he turns the role into one of the worst of the year, if not the decade.

If there were a trace of honesty in the picture I would consider giving it a break. But Zemeckis distorts and manipulates real ideas and concerns for no other purpose than to try to please everybody, and in so doing he stands for precisely nothing. Does he really know anything about Ockham's razor? No, obviously, but that doesn't stop him from using it in the film to create a pretense of knowledge. And let's throw in the perfect dead dad to bring a tear to the audience's eye while we're at it. This kind of pseudo-cosmic profundity is cynical because it imitates thought and passion yet possesses none.

THE COVERED WAGON (James Cruze, 1923).

The journey of a wagon train from Kansas City to Oregon. This was the first huge-scale western that Hollywood produced. The set pieces are impressive - the buffalo hunt, the battle with the Indians, and especially the crossing of the Platte. There's an authentic look that was often lacking in later westerns - the cowboys and pioneers look suitably grubby, real Conestoga wagons were used, and the Indians were played by Indians. Unfortunately the romantic triangle at the center of the tale is corny as hell - sweet pioneer lady (Lois Wilson), engaged to bad guy (Alan Hale), falls for daring cowboy (J. Warren Kerrigan), who must nevertheless disprove nasty rumors about his past in order to win her love. The comic relief from sidekick Ernest Torrence and wild man/drunk Tully Marshall is crude to say the least. (But I have to admit I laughed at the way Torrence deals with Hale at the end.) Quite an achievement for its day, a big brawling epic that is generally well-paced by the hard-working (and hard-drinking) Cruze.

CRASH (David Cronenberg, 1986).

Crash is about an alienated, self-absorbed couple (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) who fall in with a group of cultists that get off sexually from car accidents - their own and other people's. David Cronenberg knows his craft. The camerawork and editing are impeccable - the sequences with moving cars, the way he's able to give the perspective of being inside the car while showing us the outside - these are amazingly fluid effects. All in the service of perhaps the bleakest vision around. A lot depends on how you feel about this vision. In some ways this seems like a horror movie about sex. What I think Cronenberg is doing here is taking us inside a world of compulsive sex-and-death fetishism, making us feel what that world is like to an inhabitant. This is sex not only without joy but without humor - the participants (led by a very creepy Elias Koteas as Vaughn, re-enactor of celebrity crashes) are obsessed in a very serious way, not as campy fun but like devotees in religious rites. Most of the time Cronenberg communicates this absurd solemnity well enough to create a strong mood of vacant longing and melancholy. There were, however, a few moments (particularly in some of the earlier scenes with Holly Hunter, who tries hard but is wrong for her part) where the premise seemed silly instead of scary and I cracked a smile. Actually there is a scene with an ostensibly humorous intent - featuring Rosanna Arquette and a car dealer - but it comes off as snide rather than funny.

The feeling of oppressive fixation is abetted by Howard Shore's doom-laden music. There are lots and lots of sex scenes, each more extreme than the one before. Those expecting some sort of high-concept porn will probably be disappointed - Crash depicts a world in which the erotic has been wholly subsumed by self-destructive urges. (I have to laugh at critics who condemn the picture for soullessness - this is just what Cronenberg is aiming at, and in any case, they are confusing the characters' point of view with the director's.) My main criticism would have to be that since we never step beyond the hermetic mind-sets of these characters, the connections Cronenberg is trying to make often don't seep into the story, and this gives it a thin quality. But I value the uncompromising method that went into the film, even though it's not the kind of experience I'd want to have more than once. To use an admittedly rough literary analogy, there's no reason why everyone should be a Chekhov or James - there's room at the table, I hope, for a Poe or Celine as well.

LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (Robert Bresson, 1945).

A jilted woman (Maria Cesares) plans an elaborate revenge on her ex-lover (Paul Bernard) by orchestrating his gradual fascination with a young woman (Elina Labourdette) who, unknown to him, has a hidden past as a prostitute. This was Bresson's second film. The screenplay was by Jean Cocteau (from a Diderot story), and it's too plot-driven to be truly satisfying as a film. In addition, it is hampered by confinement to sets (a consequence of wartime conditions) and some dull acting. But the austere formalism (a clipped, alarmingly direct style that eschews establishing shots), the emphasis on little things such as the movement of hands, and the theme of innocence hemmed in by the suffocating mechanisms of the social order - all are portents of things to come in the remarkable Bresson oeuvre.

DEAD RINGERS (David Cronenberg, 1988).

Twin gynecologists (played by Jeremy Irons) are so enmeshed with each other that the intrusion of an actress (Genevieve Bujold) into their world causes them to gradually self-destruct. This film, extremely disturbing both in mood and content, is probably Cronenberg's best work. Irons is spellbinding in the dual role - he makes the coldly charming Elliott vividly distinct from his reclusive, insecure brother Beverly (!), yet they are alike in their intensely neurotic isolation. Their profession introduces elements of misogyny and the "body horror" so characteristic of Cronenberg's work. The whole thing is really a clever (and creepy) dissection of the idea of masculinity. The style, pacing, photography, and music are impeccable, and the film follows its strange premise, without flinching, to the very end.

DINNER AT EIGHT (George Cukor, 1933).

A couple (Billie Burke and Lionel Barrymore) are throwing a dinner party, and we follow the stories of the various guests - including a washed-up alcoholic actor (John Barrymore), an eccentric society lady (Marie Dressler), an unscrupulous businessman (Wallace Beery) and his bored nouveau riche wife (Jean Harlow). This all-star MGM ensemble film barely shows its age at all - two of the best writers in Hollywood, Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, adapted the Kaufman-Ferber play smoothly to the screen, and for the most part it seems as amusing and adult as ever. Best is the Beery-Harlow match-up, a perfect little take-off on social climbers. By this time Harlow had blossomed into a great comic talent. John Barrymore's role is curious - his part takes place in one hotel room, almost in isolation from the rest of the cast. His sad, arrogant character - unable to stop drinking or face the end of his career - has been thought to parallel his own life, but Barrymore in reality was far more gracious and self-aware, and he had quite a few good roles left in him. Anyway, a few of the subplots in Dinner at Eight are mawkish when they're meant to be moving, but overall the film is a pleasure - as entertaining and diverting as one would expect a George Cukor film to be.

DODSWORTH (William Wyler, 1936).

This adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel is a cut above the usual drama of the period because it's so adult. Sidney Howard adapted his own stage version of the book, and it has the solid, intelligent quality of a good play. Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is a hard working man who has put all his life into his business, He says he wants to travel to get to know himself - he gets more than he bargained for. Essentially he is comfortable with himself and his American provincial background. This is in contrast to his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who is ashamed of being an unsophisticated American tourist, and wants to attain to a sort of high society gentility in Europe. She's beautiful, a little younger than Sam, and manages to attract various men on her trip (David Niven, Paul Lukas and Gregory Caye) whose attentions encourage her in full flight from her middle age. This puts her in conflict with her husband, who eventually seeks solace with a sympathetic "other" woman (Mary Astor).

Huston is just about flawless in the title role - he played the part on Broadway, but there's nothing rote about this performance. Sam is such a well-rounded, lovable creation - tender and gruff, childlike and knowing, independent and loyal. Huston inhabits the character with perfect assurance, and makes everyone else shine with him. Chatterton is really fine in a portrayal which manages to be sympathetic despite the way the script tends to make Fran a merely superficial and vain person. Watch her in the scene where she tells her husband that he must let her have her fling - you can really see the years of pent-up energies yearning to break free. Astor's part is really quite small, but she makes the most of it. There's a great scene where the phone keeps ringing at her villa, and she doesn't pick it up, knowing that it's probably Fran. When her character suffers a sudden reversal, Astor portrays the devastation beautifully, with a light touch.

Wyler has a smooth, seamless style here. Nothing very flashy, but the rhythm and camera placement are impeccable. This was an unusual story for Hollywood - a portrait of a rocky marriage in middle age. Yes, even then pictures tended to focus on the young. Dodsworth was a risk, and in fact it barely broke even at first, only making money after it was revived in theaters following its Oscar nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director. It remains one of the most sophisticated dramas of the 1930s.

DON'T LOOK BACK (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967).

One of the earliest American examples of the "cinema-verité" documentary, the film follows Bob Dylan's 1965 English tour, showing some of the behind-the-scenes material that was rather new at the time, such as how Dylan, Joan Baez, and others hang out in hotel rooms or in rehearsals, or the maneuvers of Dylan's manager to get the most money for his client's performing dates. The picture never tops its bravura opening sequence - "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with Dylan throwing down successive cue cards with key words from the song. It meanders into dullness at times, with long, pointless (and probably stoned) conversations in back rooms, although I suppose this is meant to convey some of the boredom of life on tour. Strangely, Pennebaker never shows a complete song in the concert sections, which I think is a mistake.

Dylan comes off as a brilliant, very self-possessed young man - but also as arrogant and contemptuous, especially to the press. There's also some rather mean-spirited ribbing of Donovan, who was Dylan's rival on the English pop charts at the time. But the film is well worth a look just to see Dylan in his early 20s, in probably the most creative period of his career. It brought back a lot of feelings from that wild time. What struck me personally was how I had always thought of Dylan (and Baez) as older and wiser artistic figures to look up to and idolize. Now, over thirty years later, I am amazed at how young and inexperienced they were - just kids, really, but carving out a new world.

 

Chris Dashiell