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THE EEL (Shohei Imamura, 1997).

Veteran director Imamura's first film in quite some time opens with a sudden act of violence - a businessman (Koji Yakusho) discovers his wife having sex with another man, and stabs her to death. Cut to eight years later, when he is paroled from prison and goes to work as a barber in a remote seaside village. His only companion is a pet eel, to whom he tells his troubles as it swims in its little tank. From this lurid beginning the film evolves into a deeply felt, subtle portrait of a lonely soul who, gradually and with misgivings, begins to respond to others who reach out to him. His small-town neighbors include some amusing eccentrics. When he rescues a woman, who looks disturbingly like his dead wife, from suicide, he finds himself in conflict between the need to keep out of trouble and the desire for love.

Imamura is a remarkable stylist. His visual sense, discreet and meditative in the film's middle section, is masterful - with much help from beautiful photography (Shigeru Komatsubara) and music (Shinichiro Ikebe). I wish that the director had been content to stay with the theme of soft, gradual reawakening. Instead he relies on his old crime novel instincts, and grafts a ridiculous plot onto the picture's last fourth. It seems that the would-be suicide's ex-lover is a gangster who comes after her for money. This leads to one of the most ludicrous fist fight scenes in memory (the audience was laughing derisively) and a denouement which is woefully plot-driven rather than based on character. A shame, but not enough of one to dissuade me from recommending that you see The Eel if you can.

EL (Luis Bunuel, 1952).

A middle-aged man (Arturo de Cordova) woos a beautiful woman (Delia Garces) away from a friend and marries her. But then his increasingly scary fits of jealousy and suspicion turn the marriage into a living hell.

This is one of Bunuel's most powerful films. Even though he takes his main character's pathology to the extreme, with the usual satiric swipes at society and Church along the way, there is a seriousness and basic plausibility to the situation. The sympathy for the innocent bride is genuine, and the portrayal of the husband's pattern of abuse is actually way ahead of its time. As usual in films from Bunuel's Mexican period, the production values are rather cheap, but the acting is good - especially de Cordova's performance, jumping between paranoid rage and abjection with alarming skill.

When the wife tries to confide in her priest, he supports the husband - and even her own mother tells her to go back to him. The film is always making subtle connections between the husband's insane behavior and the social order that backs him up, and this culminates in one of the director's more delicious black comedy endings. For the most part, Bunuel restrains his prankster tendencies enough to give the film dramatic weight. It was booed at Cannes, but a hit in Mexico. This is certainly one of his major works, not quite up there with Los Olvidados or Nazarin, but very solid, thought-provoking and disturbing.

ELIZABETH (Shekhar Kapur, 1998).

This film about the accession to power of England's great queen has a dark, arresting style, and the bold treatment breathes life into what could have been just another bit of historical pageantry. Perhaps credit should go to director Shekhar Kapur's non-English eye. He emphasizes the strangeness of the English court - there's often a gloomy, medieval quality to the proceedings, with Cate Blanchett's lead performance breaking through like a flash of sunlight between storm clouds. She is a remarkable actress, born for the movies. I say this because her face subtly expresses so many different kinds of moods and feelings and thoughts - she can tell a story without saying a word. Here she has completely transformed herself into the young Elizabeth - fear and confusion vying with headstrong pride, shrewdness, and (in a novel approach by both actress and film) a sort of voluptuous surrender to joy.

The main innovation of Michael Hirst's script is that Elizabeth is shown to be the lover of Robert Dudley - not an implausible idea - and that the dangerous plots and machinations she must overcome to secure her throne require her to renounce this love and create the myth of the Virgin Queen. In the complicated political struggles that make up the film's plot, Elizabeth finds a much needed ally and adviser in Lord Walsingham, played here with aplomb by Geoffrey Rush. The intrigue gets so thick towards the end of the film that it creates an imbalance, obscuring the main theme of Elizabeth's motives and character. I regretted not seeing more of Blanchett. Still, it is an absorbing film, and I give Hirst and Kapur credit for not trying to simplify things too much for us.

The film has rich photography (Remi Adefarasin), wonderful costumes (Alexandra Byrne), and the production design (John Mhyre) placed me squarely into the 16th century without that feeling of "oh, this is a set" I usually get with even good historical films. It needs to be said, however, that Elizabeth is more of a poetic evocation of a great character than an accurate account. Hirst mixes a lot of things up - for instance, events that happened years later in the queen's reign are combined with earlier ones, the depiction of the actions and character of Dudley is highly questionable, and unless I am mistaken there is a confusion of plot elements, perhaps deliberate, between Mary of Guise and her daughter the Queen of Scots. None of this was serious enough to bother me. But if you want to know the complete details, visit the library. Elizabeth is a heady, and sometimes disturbing story about the demands of power versus the impulses of the heart, and it's one of the better films of the year.

THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG (Vsevelod Pudovkin, 1927).

This film, like Eisenstein's October was commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolution. The story follows the fortunes of a peasant (Ivan Chuvelov) who goes to the city to work in a factory, betrays the organizers of a strike, but then is himself radicalized and ends up participating in the storming of the Winter Palace. Pudovkin has a stark, elemental style, and there are some masterful set pieces - the intercutting of the brokers strutting at the stock exchange with shots of soldiers being butchered in the trenches is not less powerful for being such a simple idea. The picture lacks the tremendous ambition and inventiveness of October, yet precisely because The End of St. Petersburg is modest in its technique, it may be more suitable for film students who are learning about montage for the first time.

LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950).

An adolescent brother and sister (Edouard Dermithe and Nicole Stephane) isolate themselves in the bedroom they share, creating an unhealthy fantasy world where they bicker and torment one another. Then they draw another young man and women into their web, with disturbing consequences. This bizarre film is adapted from a Jean Cocteau novel. Cocteau and Melville colloborated on the script. It's a low-budget affair, shot for the most part on just a couple sets, and the editing is rough. I found myself rather bored and exasperated during the first half hour or so - Melville has trouble focusing on his characters, the constant arguing between the siblings is tiresome, and Cocteau's narration fails to add the intended significance. Surprisingly, the picture began to grow on me, as the hermetic world created by these "terrible children" becomes more and more claustrophobic. Melville's simple style fits the material, once the story settles in. And Stephane's performance is compelling. She delivers her lines with demonic energy - this woman seems truly mad, yet she's a force to be reckoned with, and her obsessiveness and agression make for a haunting spectacle. There is a queasiness, and sometimes a horrifying effect, in the mind games the four characters play with each other, amplified by the incestuous aura between the brother and sister. Although Cocteau's writing does not entirely avoid the pretentious note, he is on to something in his depiction of the "all or nothing" and "no tomorrow" ways of thinking that are acted out by the teenage protagonists. It's the pain of a certain time of life that seems unbearable while it's happening. However, the baroque music on the soundtrack is jarring - it's as if they couldn't afford a score, so they just played some Bach and Vivaldi records in the background - it doesn't fit. Les Enfants Terrible is very uneven, but strangely fascinating if you give it a chance.

EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick, 1999).

Kubrick's last film is not the disaster many critics have made it out to be. Neither, I'm sorry to say, is it a success. It is a very strange film - amusing in parts, frightening in others, with an intense visual style, fascinating and frustrating by turns - a film that ultimately falls apart, ending in an uncharacteristic whimper.

Some artist's mistakes are more conducive to discussion than others' successes. Kubrick's exploration of infidelity and the dangers of fantasy stayed with me for days after the film, and prompted more than one friendly argument. Judged simply by its impact on my thoughts and feelings, Eyes Wide Shut is one of the more memorable recent films. Judged as an artistic whole, as a unity of style and story, content and context, it doesn't hold up too well.

A wealthy doctor and his wife (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) flirt with other people at a Christmas party. In an argument the next day, the wife reveals that she once had a sexual obsession about a naval officer staying at a hotel during a trip the couple had made together. This unsettles the husband to the point of mania - when he's called out to the house of a patient who has died, he embarks on a long detour involving more and more risky sexual adventures. Although he never actually has sex with anyone else, his actions have unintended, dire consequences. Based on an Arthur Schnitzler story, the narrative doesn't really fit in the context of modern New York. Nevertheless, Kubrick finds the right pace early on - I admire the way he gradually builds a scene instead of rushing through it. The picture has a look that reminds me of The Shining - the use of a grainy, glowing light effect and a lot of dark red color schemes. The early scenes with Cruise stumbling from one weird encounter to another have a mordantly comic tone, the point of each scene cutting against narrative expectation, as if mocking the character's search for titillation. The image of Kidman and the naval officer having sex, played over and over in the Cruise character's imagination, is overdone, though. It doesn't really supply motivation, but instead begs the question of why this man would go off the deep end over his wife's admission of desire.

The climax of this nighttown sequence is an exclusive orgy that Cruise crashes looking for thrills. Actually, the shock of the sequence is that it is not really an orgy, but a kind of masked Satanic ritual. This is the film's centerpiece, and I was frightened by it. The bizarre chanting, the restless camera, the costumes, produce an atmosphere of dread that really spooked me. It is as if Kubrick is showing this soulless, anonymous game of domination as the ultimate reality of sex divorced from love, where women are just objects to be used, and eliminated if they become too troublesome. Looked at in the light of day, the whole idea can seem quite ridiculous, as it has to some reviewers - and I can see that too - but in the dark of the theater I found it extremely disturbing and compelling. The trouble is, that the sequence is so overwhelming that it takes over the movie, and the film turns into a kind of paranoia thriller. If it had ended with its best scene, immediately following the masked "party" - a dream related by Kidman (her best acting in the film) which chillingly parallels her husband's actual experience - the movie might have achieved a minor brilliance, like one of the fantasies of Hoffmann or Poe. Of course that would have meant abandoning the Schnitzler model - but Kubrick and screenwriter Frederic Raphael end up taking a different direction than Schnitzler anyway.

Instead we get the husband trying to investigate what really happened on that fateful night, and running into all kinds of bad news, which in some mysterious way seems to be caused by his own poor judgment. The movie's style slackens noticeably - characters repeat each other's questions, the dialogue actually seems improvised at times, the acting is poor. The worst is saved for last - a final scene between Cruise and Kidman in a department store that is utterly weak and misconceived. What the hell happened? I have read speculation that Kubrick wasn't really done yet. I suppose that's quite possible - although this idea seems based on the sheer difficulty of believing that the veteran director could do such a poor job.

There's been a lot of sniping at Tom Cruise over this role. It's true that he has a limited range - but that actually serves him pretty well early on, when he is supposed to be playing a very limited, naive character. In the second half he struggles to achieve a breakthrough that doesn't come, but the script doesn't give him one, and in fact the other actors seem to be just as desperate. I am not a fan, but I have to say that at least he wants to stretch as an actor, try new things and work with a good director such as Kubrick. He and Nicole Kidman stuck with the project, and they were loyal throughout the long shoot and the ensuing controversies. Now, if Cruise were just to stay with middlebrow material, and always play the same kind of role, he would be attacked for being a shallow film star who doesn't take chances. If he does take chances, he gets ridiculed for trying to play beyond his range.

Eyes Wide Shut ultimately doesn't work - and the problem is not Cruise, it's the script, the muddled conception, and the weak second half. I think it would have been the same with another married couple (Kubrick is reported to have originally wanted Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger). This movie is a good example of how difficult it can be to struggle with recalcitrant material. The couple themselves need to be more grounded in time and place - pulling them out of Vienna and putting them in New York requires a change in the quality of their character. This doesn't happen. A minor example of narrative misstep - the couple is shown as having a young daughter, about seven years old. There is no clear reason for her being in the film - and in her scenes with Kidman and Cruise it is not believable for an instant that they are her parents. Perhaps she is there to make some point about this couple's alienation from true feelings, but the real effect is to break the spell of the story. I also found the film's constant use of female nudity disconcerting. At best you could say that the picture is attempting a caustic portrait of our age's enshrinement of pornographic male desire. But the picture's narrative thrust doesn't support a satiric interpretation too well. Is it about the illusions of marriage? The triumph of power over sexuality? The equation of transgressive fantasy with actual transgression? It seems to be about all these things, but not enough about any of them. The movie shocks and compels in visual terms, in atmosphere, but seems lost in its theme and direction. It's as bitter as anything Kubrick has ever done, but it's not his best work by a long shot. Too bad it's his swan song, but it's rare that someone actually plans a particular work to be his last - for Kubrick it was certainly just another stepping stone.

This is one of those movies where I felt shaken afterwards, and found it difficult to even discuss the picture with friends. As time goes on, the qualities that gripped me at the time fade and the flaws become bigger and bigger in my memory. I still would not call Eyes Wide Shut a bad film, because I save those words for films that pander to the lowest common denominator, crass and inept and pretending to high ideals when their only ideal is making money through sensationalism of some sort. (Films like The General's Daughter.) Kubrick's film I would call a noble failure - noble because of its dedication to a personal vision, failure because the elements just weren't there this time.

FANNY (Marc Allégret, 1932).

The second part of Marcel Pagnol's trilogy is funnier and more expansive than the first (Marius), once again showcasing the great Raimu in the role of Cesar. In this one, after Marius has gone to sea, Fanny (Orane Demazis) discovers she is pregnant and agrees to marry the wealthy older man Panisse. The risky subject is treated with a frankness and compassion that would have been unusual in an American film of the period. The pleasures of Pagnol's script are in the foibles and eccentricities of the older characters - Charpin is skillful as Panisse, and Raimu is once again wonderful, hiding his feelings behind his brusque exterior, trying to run everyone else's business while barely managing his own. To watch him is to catch a glimpse of the French theater of an era now long gone. The film is less successful when trying for high flown drama - Marius (Pierre Fresnay) returns and we are given an overdose of bathos. Pagnol doesn't know how to be subtle when he's being serious and Demazis (his wife at the time) overacts in the big scene that ends the film. Allegret's direction is adequate in what is essentially a filmed play. Audiences ate it up - it established Pagnol financially so that he could build his own studio.

FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Ingmar Bergman, 1982).

Bright and sumptuous, yet full of magic and terror and melancholy, Fanny and Alexander is something in the nature of a summing up for Ingmar Bergman. For perhaps the first time, his sense of spiritual bereftness is grounded in the memory of childhood joy. The Ekhdal family, in which the brother and sister of the title are raised, is neurotic and strife-ridden, yet they believe in the value of simple humanity - or as it is put in the film, the "little world." But then the pair's widowed mother enters into an unfortunate marriage with a bishop whose beliefs stand in stark contrast - denying the value of the physical body and world in favor of a petrified God of power, his world views is in the end nothing more than a strangled cry of rage. In this film, gentleness does not have to succumb to this view. It finds the strength to resist, and return home.

The "little world" is both the world of the erring, loving human family and the world of the theater. The picture opens with Alexander looking at the miniature stage. Later, at his Uncle Isak's house, a puppet theater allows him to see through the myth of God and its fear. Everyone is playing a part, even the Bishop - except that he cannot remove his mask and leave the stage. Bergman's love of the theater is here an expression of the basic health and survival of the impulse to love. There's a fairy-tale quality to the story. The orphaned children are banished to the realm of an evil step-parent. In order to return home, Alexander must travel in darkness and face not only ghosts, but the deepest doubts about the worthiness of this life. He is a most serious child, and his unwillingness to abandon his dark side helps him find the strength to resist. The scenes where he defies the Bishop are a marvel of symbolism and psychology. At some level he believes that his lying and stubbornness are bad, but they are also among the theatrical virtues that help him to survive, like the trickster in folktales.

The Christmas party which opens the film is full of beautiful touches - the struggles and conflicts of the adults playing off perfectly against the children's sense of wonder. I admire even more the starkness of the scenes in the Bishop's house, their primeval quality. The performance of Jan Malmsjo as that tortured, sadistic man is a tour de force. Also marvelous are Ewa Froling as the mother, Emilie (a scene with her screaming as she circles her husband's bier is shattering), and Jarl Kulle as the foolish, philandering Uncle Gustav. And what words could convey the beauty of Sven Nykvist's photography?

It is interesting that Bergman uses a Jewish influence (Grandmama Ekhdal's Jewish friend is accepted as an adopted "uncle" in the family) as a force of salvation, once again opposed to the sterile antilife of the Bishop and his family. There is a thematic link here to the world of the arts and intellectual life, so often denigrated by the church and associated with Jewish culture.

The film doesn't have the rigorous structure of other Bergman films. Sometimes it seems like a rambling Victorian novel. Despite all the richness and color, the picture never takes off into giddy delight like it might have if it was, say, a French film. The air of Swedish solemnity, and Bergman's own peculiar seriousness, still hangs over everything, and I suppose that's as it should be. The picture never fawns over children or indulges in any of the condescending ideas about innocence that afflict so many films. Neither is a nostalgia piece - the "little world" is still here if we only know how to see it.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS (Frank Borzage, 1932).

The Hemingway novel about an ambulance driver in World War I who falls in love with an English nurse, brought to the screen by Paramount, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in the lead roles. No film that I know of has ever succeeded in translating the Hemingway style to film. Hollywood has always overlaid its Hemingway with traditional romance and melodrama styles. This picture, though, actually comes close a few times - in the banter between Cooper and Adolphe Menjou (as his wily Italian comrade), occasionally in the clipped sentences exchanged between Cooper and Hayes, and in the flavor of the war scenes, marvelously shot by Charles Lang. Borzage always had a way with framing action artfully, and the sequence where Frederick (Cooper) enters the hospital in Milan by stretcher, and we see everything from his point of view - the moving ceiling with the occasional head popping into frame, is inspired. Cooper, however, it must be said, is the wrong man to play Frederick - too simple and unthinking - and Helen Hayes says her lines in a flowery, theatrical manner that has dated badly.

The picture sinks into a mire of humdrum sentimentality in the last third. The ending (done to Wagner's love-death theme from Tristan and Isolde, no less) couldn't be less like Hemingway. But I confess I love these old Paramount productions from the early 30s just on the strength of their visual style. The slightly smokey black-and-white images which lend a sort of mysterious glamour to the stars, the air of sophistication which somehow infuses even the less inspired Paramount screenplays - it gives their pictures a nostalgic feeling that I find hard to resist.

FAUST (F.W. Murnau, 1926).

The medieval legend of a doctor who sells his soul to the devil - brought to life by the brilliant film pioneer Murnau. The set design is extraordinary, and the way the camera is set up to match with the peculiar angles of the sets produces a strange and often menacing impression. Murnau also went all-out with special effects - the swirling smoke and fire of the demonic realms is a wonder to behold. His theme, as it seems to be in all his films, is the primacy of love over suffering and evil. This Faust (Gosta Ekman) first succumbs through a noble desire to help the people of his village, who are dying from the plague. Later, when he is given perpetual youth, he becomes corrupted through a desire to experience all pleasures. Emil Jannings leers and smirks grotesquely in his role of Mephistopheles - yet he manages to make the performance a powerful one through sheer energy. There is an unusual comic sequence in which he seduces an older woman. The story creaks a bit and seems too slow until the last third or so, when Gretchen (the luminous Camilla Horn, in a part originally offered to Lillian Gish) begins to suffer the terrible consequences of Faust's passion. Then the film really picks up and achieves an intensity which is hard to resist.

The camera movement which Murnau was famous for is barely in evidence here. I wonder if the intricate set-ups with the sets made moving the camera too problematic. The video I saw was a bootleg, with the usual problems of poor contrast, and a laughable choice of music. Apparently whoever put the video out thought they'd put medieval music with a medieval story - but the music they chose is happy and light-hearted, totally wrong for the film. I turned the sound off and put on Mozart's Requiem, which did the trick pretty well. Kino Video put out a restored print recently - if you want to see Faust, I would recommend trying to find the Kino version.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (Terry Gilliam, 1998).

It's been a very long time since I read Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Times have changed, and so have I, but I still looked forward to Terry Gilliam's film version. I like Gilliam, his wild visual style and the way he takes chances. The movie starts out well, with Duke and Dr. Gonzo on the road and then in their initial encounters with Las Vegas. It has an outrageous and on-the-edge feel, and Gilliam pulls off something I hadn't seen before - a great depiction of a very intense acid trip from the point of view of the guy who's tripping.

I wish I could say the picture sustains its energy, but instead it becomes increasingly tiresome. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not nearly as good as I had hoped, and the explanation throws an interesting light on the relationship between a book and its film adaptation. The book was funny because the exploits of these two drug-crazed lunatics were narrated through the manic prose of Thompson. The author's words were the show - the events described did not seem real, in fact their exaggeration was part of the humor. Now, the film does have some voice-over narration by Johnny Depp, and some of the better parts of the movie owe their success at least partly to this. But the fact remains that the film shows directly what the book only describes through the messed up writer's mind. And when these events are actually shown - Duke and Gonzo driving insanely, being rude to everyone, getting sick, threatening each other, and so on - they're not funny any more. Instead they're, well, frightening and loathsome. Perhaps Gilliam intended that, but it seems a meaningless exercize. If your're trapped in the same room with two insane and abusive drug addicts, what fun there is wears off quickly, and yet you're still stuck with them.

The elements seem to be right. You couldn't ask for more from Johnny Depp - he's Raoul Duke to a T. I found Benicio Del Toro (as Gonzo) to be more menacing than amusing. But that's the way the role is written, and I wonder if any good film could be made from the material, or if perhaps the screenwriters (Gilliam and three others, including Alex Cox, who was originally slated to direct) just couldn't get a handle on it. Gilliam fills the picture with very inentive lighting tricks, camera acrobatics and special effects. At times the duplication of drug states in visual terms is amazing, and some sequences, such as the district attorney's conference, are quite funny.. But the main effect of the book - the comic contrast between the American culture epitomized by Las Vegas and the no-holds-barred style of the protagonists, is lost in the film because the focus is on the story of these two maniacs rather than on what Duke is seeing in and thinking about Las Vegas. (Some feints are made in this direction with a nostalgic section about San Francisco in the 60s, but it's not enough.) On the whole, the movie is just a long bad trip. I couldn't wait to come down.

THE FIREMEN'S BALL (Milos Forman, 1967).

The firemen in a small Czech town plan a ball at which they will honor their dying ex-chief. This dour comedy of errors is also a satire aimed at the Czech government, and at first it didn't pass the censors. The humor lies in the utter pettiness and stupidity of the ball's organizers - from the pathetic beauty contest to the raffle where all the prizes are stolen, Forman neatly encapsules the corruption and apathy of life under Party rule, and while he's at it, takes a swipe at the absurdity of the government's attempts to come to terms with the Stalinist crimes of the 50s. It all sounds rather heady, but in fact the comedy can be taken at face value as well, with the laughs coming fairly frequently as one thing after another goes wrong at the ball. There is perhaps a bit of cruelty and condescension in the film's portrayal of these two-bit provincial characters. The picture was very popular overseas, and was nominated for an Oscar. Shortly after its release, Forman fled to the U.S., fearing reprisal from the Soviets, who were soon to enter Prague in tanks to end the threat of free thinking.

FOR EVER MOZART ( Jean-Luc Godard, 1996).

Godard is one of the very few filmmakers interested in philosophy. His films are more about tendencies of thought than the presentation of drama or entertainment. And that's only one reason why he's difficult. He also likes to challenge every accepted notion of film - narrative continuity, the beauty of the image, the idea of the character, the supposed representation of life by fiction, the correspondence of emotion, dialogue, and action. For Ever Mozart is another Godard metafilm, willfully obscure yet penetrated from time to time with flashes of recognition and humor.

The story, if you can call it that, concerns two young students who are determined to travel to Bosnia in order to stage a play by Musset. They of course run right into genocidal soldiers on a rampage. But the old director who has accompanied them skips out early, and ends up directing a film called Fatal Bolero. Then people who seem to have been killed in Bosnia earlier on, show up in this film as actors. The boundaries between film and life are constantly shifting, being called into question. "Cinema," says one character, "shows life as it would be if it followed our desires."

The people in this movie have a way of talking in elliptical phrases, often abstract in nature, or quotes from various sources. Maybe this is a matter of prejudice, but I don't particularly like this style of writing - for one thing, its disconnected quality doesn't match the earnestness of the delivery. It is fitting that the young actress with the most screen time (Madeleine Assas) plays a philosophy student - she speaks in abrupt aphorisms about the difference between self and the self s sense of being in the world, along with other elusive thoughts, while people around her make similarly abstract comments that are just as disconnected from the actions we are seeing. Sometimes the words are interesting, even powerful. Often not. But I believe that much of the significance of words lies simply in the fact that they are spoken by particular human beings. And this sense is almost always lacking here.

Godard's iconoclastic methods do have their rewards. The picture is sometimes quite funny, and the humor effectively echoes the contrast between life and ideas which Godard is always emphasizing. At one point late in the film a group of boys at the opening of Fatal Bolero want to know if there are boobs in it. Informed that there aren't, they decide to go see Terminator IV instead. The whole sequence makes fun not only of the commerce of film entertainment, but also of the futility of "art house" films that don't break through to the popular imagination. The sequences of violence in Bosnia are also notable because of their cartoon quality - rather than try to scare us by simulating the bloody vividness of real war, Godard stages the killing with an artificial, sloppy quality. In a way, the gap between depiction and reality makes the sequences scarier.

Always present is the director's oppositional stance towards modern culture and politics. I found myself feeling ambivalent about thia while watching the film. One the one hand it is bracing to experience the work of a filmmaker who never makes it easy for you, always challenging you to participate in the thought process. On the other hand, the negative position seems almost like an affectation or an assertion of elite superiority. Godard acts more knowing than he really is, or at least it seems that way to me, and this annoys me. It's useless to say that I'm supposed to be annoyed - you could say that about anything. That doesn't constitute a real method. For Ever Mozart (the title refers to a late scene at a Mozart recital) works better than some Godard films I could name. I appreciate the richness of conception, but it was still bewildering enough to make me question its overall success. I don't think incoherence helps any film, even one whose subject is a world that won't cohere.

FORT APACHE (John Ford, 1948).

A rigid cavalry colonel (Henry Fonda), who does everything by the book, is assigned to the command of a western outpost. He clashes with a more practical-minded captain (John Wayne), while his daughter (Shirley Temple) falls for a young lieutenant (real life husband-at-the-time John Agar). This film yields the usual pleasures of a John Ford western - good set pieces such as the magnificent officer's dance and the final Indian battle, a sturdy performance from Wayne, and a very good one from Fonda, eerily convincing as a stubborn and humorless martinet. Most of all there is Ford's mastery of the shot - he consistently finds the most beautiful way to frame a scene. The black and white photography (Archie Stout) is stunning. On the minus side we have tiresome Irish drunk humor from the inevitable Victor McLaglen, and the Temple-Agar romance is almost too saccharine to endure. I can't say that the ending, with its typical "print the legend" moral, is very satisfying. It is interesting that, although the depiction of the Indian wars is well within the old, false stereotype, there is some acknowledgment of shameful double-dealing on the part of the whites, notably in a little speech that Wayne delivers to Fonda concerning Cochise.

FRENCH CAN-CAN (Jean Renoir 1955).

Renoir's first film in France after his return from exile is not one of his great pictures, but it bears the mark of his warmth, gentleness, and wit. The story, about an 1890s impresario of the Moulin Rouge (Jean Gabin) and his dancer protege and lover (Francoise Arnoul) is tired old stuff, and there isn't enough music. Even Gabin can't summon the spirit to make this film more than a minor effort, but nonetheless - and even with such a thin script - it's still Renoir, and that means it's always watchable and engaging. The ending sequence, the can-can itself, is one of the most joyful and exuberant showpieces on film.

GADJO DILO (Tony Gatlif, 1998).

Gadjo Dilo is another piece in what has become director Tony Gatlif's life work - the portrayal of Gypsy life. Latcho Drom was a great documentary, sans narration, about Gypsy music around the globe. Mondo used the story of a Gypsy boy as an affirmation of life amidst indifference and despair. Gadjo Dilo is more relaxed and naturalistic - it's about a young Frenchman (Romain Duris) who, haunted by the tape of a Gypsy singer, travels to Romania to search for her. He is taken in by a cranky old man (Izidor Serban) who introduces him to the inhabitants of his small village. There is little romanticizing here - the gypsies are quarrelsome, profane and deeply xenophobic. But as the film proceeds, great charm and warmth is revealed in their day-to-day life. Gatlif's style can be chaotic, and the story tends to meander, but Gadjo Dilo is graced by the presence of Rona Hartner as the young Gypsy dancer Sabina. She has an amazing energy and abandon, and is in total command whenever she is on screen. Whatever you may think of the film as a whole, you will remember Hartner.

THE GENERAL (John Boorman, 1998).

A portrait of Irish criminal Martin Cahill, the leader of a gang of thieves whose exploits were daring enough to catch the attention of the government and the IRA. As played by Brendan Gleeson, he's like a big naughty child - part of the fun was humiliating the police in one way or another. Cahill takes pleasure in life - his threesome with wife and sister is guilt-free, as is everything about him, but Boorman also shows his cruel, frightening side. The picture is shot in black and white, which gives it a gritty, streetlife atmosphere. Gleeson is wonderful - he's impish and wild and cuddly and menacing all at once. There are funny scenes and bits of business and a few stirring ones as well. Jon Voight is on hand as an old-fashioned cop, both father figure and nemesis to Cahill, and he is so dead-on you'd never dream he wasn't Irish. And yet - there's something missing in The General. The elements are there, but it's as if there's no glue to connect them together. Boorman doesn't establish much of a rhythm or narrative drive. It's just one thing after another. The script dances around Cahill but doesn't get inside him. This is a film with a lot going for it, but not one that really stays with me.

GENERAL DELLA ROVERE (Roberto Rossellini, 1959).

A con man (Vittorio De Sica) in World War II Italy pretends to help people seeking to free their loved ones from prison. The Nazis decide to use him for their own ends. This picture has much to recommend it - the gritty style and atmosphere really feel like the waning days of the war, and De Sica is magnificent. But strangely, Rossellini seems to lose interest in the second part. The story meanders, the style seems tentative and half-earted. Even though I could see where the plot was going, I wish it had been finished with more energy. It's not enough to have a good, or even a noble idea - one must use the right means to convey it. Consequently, this turns out to be one of Rossellini's lesser efforts, but with a strong first half and an intense performance by the other founding director of neorealism, who was also an actor of considerable talent.

GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (Elia Kazan, 1947).

Good intentions should count for something, and this attack on antisemitism has plenty of them. Gregory Peck plays a Gentile journalist pretending to be Jewish in order to do a story on prejudice. The picture is occasionally interesting when he runs up against some of the subtler forms of discrimination. But the script could have used a blue pencil - Peck and John Garfield and Anne Revere just go on and on with their speeches way after you get the point, and the entire story is nothing but a peg for the message. Even with a good message, that's no good. Certainly this was a subject that was little talked about at the time, which would explain the sense of overkill, but that doesn't make sitting through a civics lesson disguised as a movie any more enjoyable. I'm not sure whether it's Dorothy McGuire's performance, or just her character that made me want to slap her. Celeste Holm is charming, but it's not enough to save the movie. (It won the Best Picture Oscar that year.)

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947).

A widow (Gene Tierney) moves into a seaside cottage that is inhabited by the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison). This romantic film could have gone wrong in several ways - Hollywood is rarely more cloying than when dealing with the "afterlife" - but Philip Dunne's screenplay is first rate, with a sense of humor that is both vigorous and touching, and Mankiewicz brings a steady hand to the direction. More than anything, it is Harrison's fine performance as the irascible Capt. Gregg that makes the film work. Although the picture sags a little towards the end, when Tierney's character grows older, the film has a sweetness and sadness which is earned, and the mood is greatly enhanced by Bernard Herrmann's romantic (and haunting) music.

GILDA (Charles Vidor, 1946).

This melodrama is about a gambler (Glenn Ford) who works for a shady character (George Macready) in South America. Conflict is ignited when the boss marries a seductive woman (Rita Hayworth) who happens to be the gambler's former lover. Well, Gilda had me going for a little while - there is some pungent dialogue in the first reel - but the goings-on become so tawdry and unbelievable that I felt like taking a shower after seeing it. It's not only that the Ford character behaves so despicably that I lost all interest in him - it's that Gilda still loved him anyway. Such was the state of affairs in Hollywood's sexual politics of the day. Of the three leads, Hayworth is the least competent actor, yet so beautiful and charismatic that she's really the only reason to see the film. The famous (dubbed) number "Lay the Blame on Mame" does sizzle - but Gilda is mostly a fizzle.

GODS AND MONSTERS (Bill Condon, 1998).

Gods and Monsters is an imagined account of director James Whale's last days. The 67-year old gay man, famous mainly for his Frankenstein films, retired from filmmaking, develops an odd relationship with a straight young hunk who works on his yard. This coincides with an eruption of images and memories, particularly from his stint as an officer in World War I. The script (by director Bill Condon and Christopher Bram, adapted from a novel by Bram) is uneven - the flashback device, for instance, seems a most tired way of injecting drama into things, and the scenes without Whale don't play well within the supposed period of the late 50s. Condon's direction is tentative, although with some inspired touches - a dream sequence with the hunk playing Frankenstein to Whale's monster is well done. The film, however, has one very great advantage. Ian McKellen plays James Whale, and he is so masterful in the part that he sweeps any and all objections before him. The urbanity masking neediness, the alternations of tenderness and scorn, all these aspects and more are embodied in a performance that is practically a textbook example of how a great actor should inhabit a role. The picture really should be seen just for that, although in addition the themes and feelings explored in the film are intriguing and quite moving. Brendan Fraser plays the hunk, and he holds his own reasonably well - it's an achievement that he doesn't just get wiped off the screen by McKellen. I could barely recognize Lynn Redgrave in the part of Whale's devoted housekeeper. She's pretty good here. In a minor note, the script takes a spiteful tack towards fellow gay director George Cukor - I don't know how fair or accurate this is, but it doesn't matter much in the overall scheme. The image of the Frankenstein monster weaves in and out of the movie as a symbol of many things - ultimately a clip from Bride of Frankenstein serves as a touching coda to the story. All in all, a small film of grace and mournful feeling, elevated by a superb lead performance.

THE GOLEM (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, 1920).

The old tale of the rabbi who uses black magic to bring to life a huge statue, in order to protect the Jewish people from destruction. The gothic style and expressionistic sets are impressive in a film of this period. Some of the acting is painful to watch, but Wegener as the monster is strangely compelling - it is said that Karloff copied his gait when he played Frankenstein's monster. (In fact, the whole film seems to have inspired James Whale's 1931 film - there's even a stunning scene with a little girl and a flower.) The video producers' idea of a musical score was to tack symphonic movements from Tchaikovsky and Dvorak onto the action - unfortunate, but it could have been worse. (The music fits fairly well, actually.) The Golem is another example of the flourishing of film style in Weimar Germany. It prefigures some of Fritz Lang's later experiments. Creaking a bit, but still standing.

GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (Sam Wood, 1939).

The life of a shy and timid teacher in a British boys' school, given the sentimental treatment as only MGM could do it. Robert Donat won an Oscar for the title role - for most of the picture his charm is hidden by whiskers and makeup designed to make him look older than he is. His life is transformed by a young woman he meets in Europe who becomes his wife - it's Greer Garson in her film debut, and she's actually very charming in a starched sort of way. The film sugarcoats everything too much (surely its view of the English private school is an absurdly benign one) and there's not enough substance to the story to give the film any weight. Despite some sad turns in the plot, and an attempt to convey the horror of the first World War from the perspective of the home front, nothing very powerful breaks through the movie's shallow surface. I suppose it's typical of a certain kind of popular fare from that era - enough feeling to give it a sense of seriousness, but without too much in the way of ideas, an entertainment designed to please the self-satisfied rather than challenge them. But if you can accept the film for what it is, there are pleasant and humorous moments along the way, Donat is always quite capable, and there are no real missteps to spoil the feeling of gentle, smiling contentment and nostalgia.

GRAND HOTEL (Edmund Goulding, 1932).

MGM had more stars than the other studios, so production chief Irving Thalberg could afford to put a bunch of them in one big movie. The result typifies the era of Hollywood glamour. Grand Hotel was based on a play, that was in turn based on a Vicki Baum novel, about two days in the life of a Berlin luxury hotel. The script relies heavily on the William Drake stage version - Drake gets screenplay credit - but the film as we have it was hammered out by Goulding and Thalberg and was custom fit for its stars.

John Barrymore plays a kind, world-weary baron, in deep financial trouble, who has promised his creditors that he will steal the jewels of a famous ballerina (Greta Garbo) to pay his debt. Of course, he falls in love with her instead. Wallace Beery is a philistine industrialist trying to swing a business deal, who has lecherous designs on a young stenographer (Joan Crawford). Meanwhile, one of the industrialist's lowly employees (Lionel Barrymore) is living in style on his life savings, now that he knows he is terminally ill. Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt are also on hand.

The underappreciated Goulding simulates a cosmopolitan atmosphere nicely, and the stories interweave with a pleasant smoothness. John Barrymore takes his rather sketchy character and gives him a heart - there's a genuine sadness and delicacy in his portrayal. But it's Garbo who really adds that special element to the movie that makes it work. Her flighty, indolent and temperamental Grusinskaya is almost a parody of her own silent screen image, and yet there's something terribly poignant about her childlike romanticism. In other respects, Grand Hotel seems a bit shallow at times, especially whenever the other Barrymore is emoting all over the place as the lachrymose Kringelein. Beery is excellent as the brutish Preysing, and Crawford is, well, Crawford - still very young and charming, but not much more.

The years have left some tarnish on Grand Hotel. The picture is more style than substance - Metro style, that is - but it's hard to resist such captivating artifice. Watching it is like seeing an entire bygone era of movies wrapped up in one bittersweet confection.

GRIDLOCK'D (Vondie Curtis-Hall, 1997)

Gridlock'd is an odd mixture of grim junkie saga and crime/buddy comedy - a first effort by Vondie Curtis Hall, and in most respects better than I expected after seeing the trailer. Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth play heroin addicts who decide to enter rehab after a friend (Thandie Newton) ODs and lands in the hospital. They are met with endless delay from the government beauracracy, and when they decide to fix one more time, run afoul of murderous drug dealers, and cops who have mistaken them for killers. The picture sustains a good, frenetic pace, and the gritty look of the film turns Detroit into a sort of hell on earth. (A friend who has worked in social services tells me that the maze of red tape in the movie is quite accurately portrayed.) Most of the pleasure comes from the interaction between the two leads - Roth is entertaining as a lowlife scuzzball, and Shakur has a strong, steady screen presence that anchors the film. (He was murdered before his screen career could take off, which makes the promise shown here rather sad.)

The picture is less successful when it tries to portray the horrors of addiction through hyper-dramatic flashback. Heroin is bad for you, boys and girls. A subplot with Newton and two guys in a jazz band is too silly and pretentious for words. And for all the running around, there's a so-what quality to the story that gives the film an unfinished feel. But it's worth seeing just for the part when Shakur tries to get Roth to stab him with a pen-knife so he can be admitted to ER. Also give Gridlock'd a few points for trying to avoid cheap exploitation - it's not stupid, and that's some sort of achievement.

HAMLET (Kenneth Branagh, 1996).

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet is very like a whale. A beached whale. Its huge cast, magnificent sets and ambitious scope can't save it - the film just lies there like a dead behemoth. Branagh's biggest mistake was filming every line of the play without cuts. Yes, this is conventional wisdom, but for once the conventional wisdom is right. The requirements of film are different than those of the stage. I do not mean that plays should not be filmed. Nor do I believe that the strengths of great theater - strong dialogue and acting - do not carry weight in the cinema. But with a play of this length, especially with Shakespeare, whose power is preeminently verbal, you must cut when you adapt to film or you lose impact. With a play our primary sense is hearing - the text does not tire us because that is our focus. In a film we are oriented mainly towards sight - the gaze of the camera, with editing, close-ups and the language of the image, takes precedence over the words - so if there are too many words the camera, and our vision, becomes static and feels stuck. The scenes in Hamlet thus drag on and on, with a fatal diminishing of force. The telling flaw is the way the actors rush through the words in order to fit the play within an already lengthy screen time. Shakespeare rushed is poetry drained of meaning. Even if you are familiar with the play, it is difficult to understand much of what is being said. And that is a deadly flaw in any film.

Even so, the picture might have worked with a great performance in the lead role. Unfortunately, Branagh has failed to take the advice of Hamlet himself in the scene with the players. He saws the air with his hands, bellows constantly, and generally o'ersteps the modesty of nature. His "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I" soliloquy, for instance, is an embarrassment of empty declamation. Where is Hamlet the man? This prince seems but a showboat. His few good moments are the quietest ones - in the scene with Horatio just prior to the duel, or the one with Yorick's skull. He does inspire in the rousing speech that ends part one of the film, but for the most part Branagh is a Hamlet of much noise and little depth.

The "cameos by famous stars" approach to casting is only a distraction. How silly to have the English ambassador show up in the final scene - and it's old Richard Attenborough. (And the less said about Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston and Robin Williams, the better.) The one exception, surprisingly, is Billy Crystal - but it says something about what a disaster this is that the gravedigger scene stands out as one of the better ones. There are some bright spots: as Claudius, Derek Jacobi acts rings around everyone, and Richard Briers is a fine Polonius. The women, however, don't do so well - poor Kate Winslet is laughable in her mad scenes, and Julie Christie is way over her head as Gertrude, a low point being her reporting of Ophelia's death with an inappropriate smile on her face.

The real fault, though, lies wholly with the director. Branagh shows little inventiveness with the camera - his idea of style seems to be to circle the characters as they speak. The huge, brightly lit set, a hall-of-mirrors castle, is impressive but works against the material. Hamlet is a dark play and needs a darker setting. I was tempted to walk out after the intermission but duty kept me in my seat for the full four hours, searching for the few moments of illumination within the wreckage. I don't fault Branagh his ambition or question his integrity, but I think his artistic judgment has proven immature in the matter of Hamlet. I can even imagine someone whose first exposure to the play is this film wondering why it's considered so great. It's a film without a center, without a vision, a blockbuster version that comes off too small for its length. 'Tis a pity.

HAPPINESS (Todd Solondz, 1998).

The things I like about Todd Solondz seem to be just the things that piss a lot of people off. He makes links between shallowness and cruelty, for one - but because he takes the point of view of the victim, this produces real discomfort rather than the usual release of aggression people seem to want. The sister played by Jane Adams in Happiness, for instance, is constantly being hurt because she is more sensitive than other people. The everyday banalities exchanged in Solondz's world always have this result of the victim's pain - it's humor of a sort, the humor of self-revulsion. The other thing he does well is portray what you might call the scuzzball side of life. If you don't think Philip Seymour Hoffman's hyper-neurotic jackoff loser resembles somebody you've known, I congratulate you for living a sheltered life. As for the out-of-control pedophile played by Dylan Baker, I thought it took courage for Solondz to approach this theme without demonizing Baker's character - his queasy, intricate treatment of the sick man's mind has more integrity than the self-righteous bellowing which usually passes for thought on this subject. And Baker's is the one truly outstanding performance in the movie.

I think the "comedy" label has become a straitjacket these days. It's gotten to the point where if something provokes laughter once in a while, it's supposed to be a comedy. And then if it doesn't fit into some narrow definition of comedy it is considered suspect. Or it's called "dark" comedy, whatever that means. The laughter in Happiness is really a lot of pain and desperation with laughter as a mask. I like Solondz because he chooses to make movies about pain and desperation, because he recognizes that they're a big part of modern life. Having said that, I'll admit that Happiness is very uneven. A lot of the writing misses the mark completely - Lara Flynn Boyle's intellectual snob is weak, as is the plot thread with parents Ben Gazarra and Louise Lasser, and a subplot involving a woman cutting up a body and hiding it in her freezer. Then Solondz chooses to end the film with his worst scene - a family get-together that tries to give Happiness a hip punchline, but falls embarrassingly flat after the horror we've just witnessed.

Plot is not the point in Happiness. For the record it involves three sisters (Adams, Boyle and Cynthia Stevenson) and their various relationships. It's just a way for Solondz to riff on his themes. Anyway, if I admit that Happiness is only a middling success for Solondz, and that he only knows how to explore a certain range, I also choose to go to bat for him, partly because I can't stand some of the morally outraged responses I've read, such as the one from the reviewer on my local fishwrap, who stuck her nose in the air and wrote that such things were "just not funny." This is the same writer who praised Lethal Weapon 4 as "refreshingly high-spirited fun." Thanks, but I'll take the scuzzballs.

HAPPY TOGETHER (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997).

A pair of gay lovers from Hong Kong (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) go to Buenos Aires and get stranded. The title is ironic, because they are not happy together at all. Ho Po-wing (Cheung) is neurotic and fickle. Lai Yui-fai (Leung) is more stable, but gets stuck in a cycle of resentment and depression about his relationship with Po-wing. The film follows them through quarrels, reconciliations, low-paying jobs, more fighting, and incidents of unfaithfulness and betrayal.

My only experience of Wong's work prior to this was Chungking Express, a wild and colorful little concoction. I liked it, but I'd have to say that this film is much more impressive. The director's visual style is very personal - he uses jagged cuts, odd perspectives, experiments with different film stocks, and many other techniques which are off the beaten path - but none of this is style for its own sake. It's an expression of a soul. The earlier part of the movie, for instance, is mostly shot in a washed-out black and white, with occasional startling flashes of color. Later, when the young men settle into a hard life in a foreign country, the film switches to color, and it makes sense in a subliminal sort of way. Wong's technique establishes a sense of perilous closeness between the characters, with ever-shifting boundaries. Most of the picture takes place from the point of view of Leung's character, and his brooding presence is very attractive. Cheung is even better, his character's selfish, volatile instability alternating with a fearful woundedness. This is a film that explores how terribly hard it is to be successful in a relationship, especially when neither partner is completely comfortable with himself. Wong is great at urban atmosphere - here Buenos Aires is a landscape of loneliness in the midst of crowds.

I would rather watch Wong direct the mundane and repetitive rituals of a dying relationship than to see most other directors run their characters through the excitement of a plot. And this is simply because his style, sincerely and with an unselfconscious integrity, manifests his own vision of life. I have to say, though, that during the second half of the film, when Leung's character sinks into depression, the picture slows to a crawl. This may be intentional, considering the emotional state that's being conveyed, but I have the impression that Wong struggled to figure out what to do with his characters at this point. The struggle eventually leads to a lively coda, involving the title song, which is wholly satisfying.

HARD EIGHT (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996).

Hard Eight is a dark little movie about a gambler, an enigmatic old-timer named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), who helps a young loser (John C. Reilly) get back on his feet, for reasons that are not immediately apparent. The story takes place in Vegas and Reno, and it captures that lonely, desperate feeling of casinos, diners and motel rooms at three in the morning. It's the first feature by director Paul Thomas Anderson. He shows a confident, engrossing style here - nothing flashy, but good use of close-ups and steadicam to give a sense of immediacy to the action.

John, the character played by Reilly, gets involved with a cocktail waitress/hooker (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a fast-talking hood (Samuel L. Jackson) with dangerous complications for Sydney. There are a few surprises along the way. Hall carries the picture - he's an interesting tough guy with a reserved, civilized manner. Paltrow conveys screwed-up naiveté quite nicely, and Jackson gets his teeth into a good part. Reilly (or his character) is such a doofus that I had a hard time believing in him.

Hard Eight doesn't linger - there's no padding to the story, so it ends up feeling rather short. It's a subdued minor-key noir. The interest is on the edges, in the character's odd conversations, their attempts to muddle through things. It's worth a look, especially to see Philip Baker Hall's quietly forceful acting - his wary old man a refreshing alternative to the usual movie hero.

HE GOT GAME (Spike Lee, 1998).

Spike Lee at his best knows how to convey deep emotions and thoughtfulness through the power of his imagery. In the beautiful opening credit sequence of He Got Game he says a lot about the game of basketball and its place in America, and he says it without any words. He sustains his visual poetry through most of this picture, poetry about fathers and sons, grief and guilt, anger and pride and forgiveness. And basketball - not the basketball of the highlight film, but the everyday kind played on the courts of the city, or even in a prison.

The story's premise is rather contrived - a governor gives a convict (Denzel Washington) a temporary leave from Attica with the promise to shorten his sentence if he can get his son, the biggest high school prospect in the country, to sign with the local university. With this plot gimmick in place, the film can focus on the drama of the father-son relationship, the pressures and hangers-on that plague a potential superstar, and the conflict between true character and the temptations of greed. The son is played by Ray Allen, the Milwaukee Bucks guard, and his per formance is natural and believable. The scenes between Washington and Allen are among the film's best. The son hates the father for what he has done in the past. The father is still arrogant, but has reflective moments that reveal a man who has grown. Denzel Washington is very fine here. There's nothing exaggerated - we can see why this man has hurt his family, and we can also see a better man fighting to come out. It's a well-rounded portrayal of an interesting and flawed human being.

Lee had the bold idea of pairing his rich visual style with the music of Aaron Copland. It works marvelously. There are also songs by Public Enemy, and it shows how deft Lee's direction is that this doesn't clash with the Copland music at all, but compliments it. As is often the case, however, Spike the writer isn't always up to the standard of Spike the director. The dialogue is occasionally forced, the exposition obvious. Lee's pedantic tendencies pop up here and there. And his portrayal of women is too often crudely cartoonish - particularly in the film's only major misstep, a dumb sequence involving sex in a college setting. In a lesser film these things would bother me a lot more. But He Got Game has something most films don't - a real heart. There's a warmth here and an awareness of the things that matter in our lives that makes this film special.

HEART OF GLASS (Werner Herzog, 1976).

In a 19th century German village, a factory produces a famed "ruby glass." But the owner dies without telling anyone the secret formula for making the precious glass. The local nobleman goes to great lengths to find the formula, tearing the old man's house apart, looking for secret codes in the most mundane objects, and finally asks for help from a wandering shepherd with mystical powers. The shepherd cannot find the secret, but his prophecies foretell the coming of a new age of machines.

As you might imagine from the plot summary, Herzog's film is a very strange allegorical fable. Odder still is Herzog's technique, reminiscent of Kafka and Beckett, but most of all of Strindberg's dream plays. Beautiful exterior landscapes alternate with oppressive interiors. The dialogue is elliptical, as if the characters are talking in riddles. Herzog had all of his actors perform under hypnosis - the intensity, abruptness and fixation of the gestures attest to this. The nobleman's obsession with the formula, which leads to horrifying, drastic measures, the ravings of the prophet/shepherd, the cryptic comments of the villagers, the sudden chilling laugh of an enfeebled old man, all produce a bizarre mixture of almost religious solemnity with a grotesque sense of humor. To follow it is to make jumps of intuition rather than being led by narrative logic.

The ruby glass is a symbol of the ancient ways, the ways that will be lost forever with the dawn of the industrial era. The disintegration of the community is a bitter comment on that loss, but also a figure for the dark side of religious faith. The people of the village cling to signs, portents and superstitions as a bulwark against their misery and despair. The figure of the shepherd portrays the kinship of prophecy and madness.

While at times incredibly powerful and beautiful, Heart of Glass is nevertheless not a complete success. The use of hypnotized actors takes the film dangerously close to self-parody and pretentiousness. In the tavern scenes, for instance, we see people sifting absolutely still, staring blankly ahead, while others move about like automatons. The potent atmosphere of mystery, dread, and fear of the unknown, is dissipated at times by an excessively slow pace. This is a chaotic work, which lends it some of its rawness but also blunts its impact. Aguirre, the Wrath of God and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser were more effective because they had one central character to embody significance. Heart of Glass is Herzog striking out into even more experimental territory than usual. I think the results are amazing, even though not wholly satisfying, and definitely worth seeing at least once.

HIGH ART (Lisa Cholodenko, 1998).

Syd, an aspiring assistant editor at an art magazine (Radha Mitchell), stumbles upon a brilliant photographer named Lucy (Allie Sheedy) who has left the art world behind. In the process of trying to get a cover feature for her, the editor ends up in a love relationship. Trouble looms from several fronts - the photographer is a junkie, her old lover (Patricia Clarkson as a drugged-out German film actress) is hostile, and the demands of Syd's magazine career is at odds with Lucy's real needs. The lesbian relationships are handled in a matter-of-fact way. I liked that. Cholodenko's screenplay, however, falls short of depicting the world of art photography in a convincing manner. Besides the fact that Lucy's photos of Syd which are supposed to be so artistic are laughable cheesecake, the film doesn't bother to explore Lucy's artistic vision from the inside - we are left with a weakly satirical view of the art and publishing world, and a fly-on-the-wall view of the habits of junkies, which is nothing we haven't seen before.

Cholodenko's visual style is sometimes interesting, often not. She also tends to use ominous music to do the work that the story isn't doing, which I find a cheat. (I do give her credit for trying something different, and the direction is competent, never abrasive or embarrassing.) However, and this is a big however, Ally Sheedy turns Lucy into a presence that almost remedies the weaknesses of the script. Her performance has a sort of beleaguered serenity, as if she's made it to the other side of pain and can now gaze calmly at it - yet with a hard-edged quality, a bluntness that manages to be both sensitive and forceful. Sheedy, you may know, was a perky teen star in such vehicles as Short Circuit. That person is practically unrecognizable here - this is proof that she's a bona fide actress. The film eventually shifts into a mood of regret and unresolvable guilt - it is almost entirely due to Sheedy's skill that this works.

HIGH SIERRA (Raoul Walsh, 1941).

Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart), a gangster just out of prison, decides to pull one more job before going straight. He falls for a crippled girl and helps finance an operation for her, but it is the battered moll played by Ida Lupino who really loves him. This was the breakthrough film for Bogie, who before this was second banana to Jimmy Cagney at Warners, usually getting shot in the last reel. Actually Lupino gets top billing, with Bogart second, but it's his story, he's in almost every frame of it, and it is a compelling performance indeed. Bogart's portrayal of toughness mixed with an almost childlike desire for love and a normal life is very touching - he even makes the insipid subplot about the crippled girl seem not so bad. Raoul Walsh, one of the grand old pioneers of American movies, proved he still had what it takes - the direction is taut and self-assured. John Huston helped write the script - it was the beginning of a long association with Bogart, who was to do The Maltese Falcon next under Huston's direction, the film that firmly established Bogie's star persona. High Sierra is interesting also because its criminal hero is a man we sympathize with rather than despise. Roy Earle is the individualist, the rebel who is doomed by implacable outside forces, a precursor of many a film noir character to come.

HIGHWAY PATROLMAN (Alex Cox, 1992).

An idealistic young man (Roberto Sosa) becomes an officer in the Mexican highway patrol. While struggling to support a family, his naivete is broken by the apathy and widespread political corruption he encounters. British director Cox, fed up with trying to get his projects financed in Hollywood, went to Mexico to make this off-beat drama, which turns a bitter gaze on the way politics ruins ordinary people's lives. Predictably, because the film is in Spanish it wasn't widely seen, although the production values are as high as any U.S. film - great photography from Miguel Garson, smooth editing - and the actors do strong work. Sosa is especially good - you can see the scared little boy inside the cop's uniform. Lorenzo O'Brien's screenplay is quite funny at times, as the patrolman's efforts at heroism meet with the most mundane defeats. Even when the story looks like it's venturing into standard revenge drama, there are unexpected turns that give the picture an ironic kick. I liked Highway Patrolman for the down-to-earth yet compassionate way it looks at a man's limitations. Not a trace of grandstanding. That could be me on the screen, just trying to get through life in one piece.

HILARY AND JACKIE (Anand Tucker, 1998).

Hilary and Jackie tells the story of two musical sisters - Hilary and Jacqueline Du Pre - the latter was of course the renowned cellist, and the film is based on the memoir of Hilary and her brother. It opens with scenes from the girls' childhood. The sense of a deep, passionate bond between the sisters is established right away. At first, it is Hilary (a flautist) who seems on her way to success. Jackie wants to be her equal, and soon surpasses her completely. When the girls have grown into young women, Jackie is on the verge of international fame, and Hilary is struggling. At first, the film focuses on Hilary, and it seems to be taking a familiar route - the more ordinary and stable older sister being put upon by the brilliant but deeply disturbed younger one. Then the director, Anand Tucker (and Frank Boyce's adapted screenplay) does something clever. We go back in time to a certain point, and then follow the same period from the point of view of Jackie, and events take on a more complex and moving quality.

Hilary and Jackie has a romantic, yet sharply alert style that bestows a supra-personal significance on the experiences of its two main characters. It is beautifully shot (David Johnson) with a gorgeous sense of color that fits the emotional expressiveness. Most importantly, it features a powerhouse performance from Emily Watson as Jackie, who so wholly creates her character that I can't imagine anyone else in the part. The many sides of this contradictory person - needy, tender, cruel, enraptured, empty - are all believable in Watson's hands. Rachel Griffiths is Hilary, and you couldn't ask for a more capable performance of a woman in perfect contrast with Jackie yet at the same time in a sort of symbiosis with her. I loved this film's passion and intelligence. The music is stirring and fits well with the drama - this is one of the better films I've seen about the lives of musicians. It's all put together by Tucker, in only his second film, in amazingly self-assured style.

HOLLOW REED (Angela Pope, 1996).

An unusual film dealing with the sensitive subject of child abuse in an engrossing and suspenseful way. Martyn (Martin Donovan) is a gay man living with his lover (Ian Hart) in an English suburb. When his young son Oliver (Sam Bould) suffers a series of suspicious injuries, Martyn begins to suspect that the boy is being abused by his ex-wife's boyfriend. He decides to sue for custody, but he must face intense scrutiny of his private life by the courts. Director Pope and writer Paula Milne have allowed the complexities of this situation to develop realistically. The boy makes up stories about his injuries because he is afraid of further harm, and of not being believed. Bould is marvelous as young Oliver, who uses various strategies of escape and dissociation in order to survive his ordeal - no cuteness here, just an ordinary boy suffering abuse. The mother is played by Joely Richardson - finely nuanced in the role of a well-intentioned but confused and misguided woman who won't accept the truth about her boyfriend. Jason Flemyng plays Frank, the abuser, and even though his character is an awful person, he's not a cartoon villain - we can understand people like him and the way they fool themselves.

The passages in the film that explore homophobia and how it prejudices the case against Martyn add a special interest to the story. This could have been movie-of-the-week stuff, but good writing, acting and direction kept me believing. Martin Donovan is solid in the main role - his gradually increasing anger carries the story along, building the tension. My one disappointment was in the big scene that provides the film's climax - it seemed as if Milne felt she needed to come up with something that would wrap the story up quickly, but it feels artificial, and to top it off, Pope's use of a revolving camera technique at that moment makes it even more so. I wanted to see a resolution that evolved naturally from what had come before. Despite this glitch, I was impressed with the heart and conviction of Hollow Reed.

HORSE THIEF (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986).

A horse thief and his family are expelled from a nomadic tribe in Tibet. He seeks redemption through Buddhist ritual, but has trouble escaping a harsh fate. The style of the film is very unusual. Instead of the horse thief's story being in the foreground, the film focuses on the environment and the people - the characters are like tiny gleams of awareness in the immensity of nature. Tian and his cinematographers (Hou Yong and Zhao Fei) have created a film of bold visual texture - there is a strong sense of landscape here, and the depiction of religious ritual is hypnotizing. The picture has a meditative quality rather than the narrative drive we are more used to. It's as if Tian takes the point of view of nature itself, beautiful and terrible in its impartiality, instead of that of the characters - immersing us in the rhythms of the seasons and the strangeness of religious customs (none of the rituals we see are explained, we merely witness as if we were there).

There is great use of sound - especially the unearthly chanting of the monks - to create a feeling of awe before the mysteries of existence. Emerging from this atmosphere is the struggle of the three outcasts (man, woman and child) against the elements, and in the case of the man, against himself. The implacable presence of death broods over every frame - the film begins with images of vultures, and there are symbols of human mortality throughout. With barely any dialogue, it's a film that balances serenity with a tragic view of life. Tian is one of a trio of Chinese directors (the others are Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) who have brought us so many great films in the last fifteen years, and in many ways his style is the most rigorous and the least Western of the three. Horse Thief is one of the most purely cinematic works I've even seen, displaying a mastery of rechnique combined with an unflinching vision.

I WENT DOWN (Paddy Breathnach, 1997).

You could say that I Went Down is an Irish gangster movie, but there's actually a lot more talk than gunfire, which is one of the things I like about it. It's about a sad-eyed young tough named Git (Peter McDonald) who is employed against his will by a crime boss in a job that eventually involves the kidnapping of another gangster, amid sundry other complications. His partner in the job is a burly, cynical lowlife who turns out to be a lot less formidable than he tries to appear. The two don't get along at first, while everything in their situation goes terribly awry. As they get deeper in trouble, they find that they have more in common.

The picture's off-beat sense of humor is often pleasing. And McDonald's performance, combining bashfulness and intensity, holds the interest. The director, Paddy Breathnach, shows an occasional flair for the arresting image, but the work overall seems just what it is - an early film by a director who hasn't found his style yet. Conor McPhereson wrote the script. I confess that the thick Irish accents prevented me from understanding perhaps a fifth of what was said, which makes me a not completely reliable critic of the screenplay. What I did understand was sometimes funny and refreshingly different, sometimes sophomoric or just by-the-numbers. An episode with a girl in a hotel seems to be there merely for the sake of a sex scene. I Went Down is reportedly one of the biggest money-makers in Irish film history. After seeing it, I'm not sure why. It's not a bad film at all - I enjoyed it intermittently - but it didn't exactly set me on fire. Perhaps its popularity in Ireland is due to the fact that there's nothing stereotypically "Irish" about it, nothing about the troubles, or Catholicism, and no Irish folk whimsy. A film with a hip attitude and a 90s feel. The younger audiences may be hungry for that.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Oliver Parker, 1999).

An adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play which is amusing and fun. Rupert Everett is the star of the show as Lord Goring, the bored, foppish aristocrat who finds himself in the unlikely position of rescuing his friends from scandal. The Wildean one-liners flow from his lips like honey. The movie is a delight when he is on screen. Cate Blanchett continues to demonstrate her versatility, here as the oh-so-proper wife of the title character. She turns in a beautifully modulated performance - when the defenses start to crack it is wonderful. Jeremy Northam is fine in the somewhat colorless title role. Parker has unfortunately added a scene in Parliament, not in the play, in which Northam's speech is intended to be stirring. I can't imagine why he thought he could improve on the original. Julianne Moore plays a villainess with relish. But here Parker has once again tampered with the play - eliminating a subplot which helps to explain the motivation of Moore's character. Without it, she seems bafflingly capricious. The one weak acting link is Minnie Driver, who is simply over her head in the role of the young woman who has got her eyes on Goring. She lacks the naturalness and ease required by the role, so she blinks her eyes a lot and tries to seem witty. Wilde only wrote one great comedy - The Importance of Being Earnest. But this one is funny enough, and (with its gentle skewering of political and social hypocrisy) wise enough to be worth a look.

IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa, 1952).

The story of an aging beauracrat named Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who discovers that he is dying of cancer, and seeks to find some meaning in his life. It is an important work in the Kurosawa canon. Immediately preceding Seven Samurai, it sums up the humanistic concerns of his films from the late 40s, while charting new territory. Its modern setting and mood is much darker than anything he'd done before. Watanabe's awakening is against the background of a sad, corrupt world. An early sequence that shows what life is like in his office has a biting, satirical feel - each little scene in this part, divided by wipes, displays with utter directness how the bureaucratic structure is devoid of any human feeling. The first two-thirds of the film, in fact, with Watanabe's various desperate attempts to deal with his impending death, are a tour de force both in terms of directorial style and acting. Takashi Shimura was one of the most expressive actors to ever be filmed, and here he is almost unbearingly vulnerable and anguished - also very childlike, especially in the scenes with the girl from the office that he tries to befriend. If there was ever a performance that perfectly captured the fear of a man who knows he must die, this was it.

Unfortunately, the funeral scene which takes up just about the entire last third of the picture constitutes a serious flaw in Ikiru, at least for Western audiences. The story is abruptly interrupted, and we discover that Watanabe has died. The remaining narrative, concerning Watanabe's transformation from a man of despair to a bringer of hope, is then told in flashback at his funeral (or as it more closely resembles, his wake) by the astonished and increasingly drunk mourners. In itself, the shift in tone is interesting, and some of the hypocritical permutations of the funeral guests are strikingly grotesque and amusing, but I feel that the device takes over the picture and leaves Watanabe behind. It is much too long; the guests go on and on, continually and emphatically disbelieving that such a change in a man is possible, and not understanding what it could possibly mean. A discerning viewer will get the point long before the actors do. Watanabe discovered selfless service, and these businessmen don't have a clue about that. But I want to see more of his story.

I'm guessing that this is a cultural thing - Kurosawa fearing that the point would be difficult for Japanese audiences to grasp. (Indeed, there had been much confusion in Japan two years earlier concerning the meaning of Rashomon). So he drives home the point again and again to make sure. He must have succeeded, because Ikiru was very successful in Japan. I think it would be a perfect movie, a masterpiece, if the funeral scene had been much shorter, and the flashbacks longer. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful and important work of great vision and humanity.

THE INHERITORS (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 1998).

In 19th century Austria, a dissolute farmer is murdered. His will is a surprise to the wealthy neighbors - everything is left to the peasants who worked for him. The picture starts out as an engaging comedy, with the peasant farmers, led by a proud but none-too-bright fellow named Lukas (Simon Schwarz), learning to adjust to being the bosses. As the neighboring farmers, who hate the idea of being on an equal footing with these lower-class newcomers, attempt to undermine the inheritors, the story takes an increasingly grim turn. Writer/director Ruzowitzky has a deft comic touch, and the film is unflinching in its depiction of class division and hatred. Schwarz is an appealing hero - noble in spite of his ignorance. The plot, however, is a bit too tidy, and the solution to a certain "mystery" is obvious early one. Still, I admire the film's mixture of hard-knocks humor, anger and sadness.

JACKIE BROWN (Quentin Tarantino, 1997).

Any director would find it difficult to follow up the phenomenal success, and controversy, of a picture like Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown has garnered its share of disappointment. One scribe complained that it has the flat look of a 70s TV-movie, as if that wasn't exactly what Tarantino intended. Well, the film is better than its notices might lead one to believe, but it still doesn't quite work.

The tale, a kind of double-cross caper story that's been done more than once before, is enlivened by the stable of supporting actors, evidently having a great time - foremost among them being Samuel L. Jackson as a funny but extremely vicious hoodlum. My attention did not wander when he was on screen. Also on hand is Robert De Niro as Jackson's ex-con sidekick, somehow muddling through life although he's dumber than gravel. This is a good example of how fine a performer De Niro can be - he is memorable in a part that really doesn't have much to it, through the sheer force of his technique. Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda are also good, showing more energy than usual. In fact, the film moved so well through its first forty minutes or so, with the dialogue crackling and QT seemingly in full control (there's a sequence with a killing done in longshot that has a chilling, offhand quality), that I thought this might just be a great movie. But then the story shifts to - the title character, Jackie Brown. She turns out to be the picture's main weakness.

In the first place, Tarantino hasn't written enough of a part for his heroine. We're not given a decent glimpse into her character, or a reason to be interested in her fate. Secondly, Pam Grier, in her big "comeback" role, just isn't very good. I found her performance dull and artificial, as if she were walking through the picture in her sleep. The much-ballyhooed chemistry between her and Robert Forster's bail bondsman was not in evidence. Tarantino's style is awkward in their scenes together. In one scene where they're having coffee it seems like he's desperately looking for something fancy to do with his camera, maybe because the dialogue is so banal. So my verdict is mixed. Jackie Brown is worth seeing for the supporting actors, and there are some nice touches. But there's also a kind of emptiness at the center.

JUDITH OF BETHULIA (D.W. Griffith, 1914).

Judith of Bethulia was the first American four-reeler. The shooting was extended in secret because the studio didn't believe in features. It went way over budget - spending $37 thousand to make a film was unheard of in those days - and the short-sighted executives were so furious that it ended Griffith's relationship with the studio. They were wrong, of course. The film made its money back and more, and then Griffith went on to break all records with his world-shaking independent feature The Birth of a Nation.

This film tells the story of Judith and Holofernes, from the Apocrypha, and it presages the later films in its massive spectacle (the battle before the walls), contrapuntal editing, and the expansion of other techniques which he had pioneered in the Biograph shorts. However, Judith of Bethulia seems turgid and uninvolving today. The acting (Blanche Sweet and Henry Walthall are the leads) is unusually melodramatic even for Griffith, and the action lacks the dynamic propulsion needed to sustain interest. (There are no moving shots - another reminder of how rare camera movement was before the 20s.) The film now seems like a transition point between the great director's mastery of the short form and his later experiments in extended range. It is certainly important historically, but not very much fun on its own terms.

KASPAR HAUSER (Peter Sehr, 1993).

The mystery of the young man known as Kaspar Hauser, who had been locked in a cellar most of his life and became an object of intense curiosity in the 1820s and 30s, has long captivated German audiences. There have been several films made about the case, the most celebrated by Werner Herzog in 1974 - Every Man For Himself and God Against All. That film focused on the drama of Kaspar the man, his innocence and the cruelty of those who sought to educate and exploit him. This picture advances the theory that Kaspar was the Crown Prince of Baden, a pawn in a ruthless intrigue for power between Baden and Bavaria. The director seems to be mainly interested in the complications of this theory, and therefore the film suffers in comparison to Herzog's, which was a work of great passion and subtlety. On its own terms, however, it has good production values, an intense performance by Andre Eisermann in the title role, and makes some cogent points about class brutality along the way. The historical theory is persuasive, but I wish Sehr had spent more time getting inside Kaspar himself instead of just observing him from the outside.

THE KILLERS (Robert Siodmak, 1946).

The first fifteen minutes or so come straight from the Hemingway short story, and it gets that just right. From this kernel is spun a film noir which does not feel like Hemingway at all, but good hard-boiled drama all the same. Edmond O'Brien plays what is surely the most dedicated insurance investigator who ever lived, going way beyond the call of duty to find out the story behind a mob hit. The film's main interest, though, is in the relationship between the victim of the hit (Burt Lancaster) and a femme fatale played by Ava Gardner. It was Lancaster's first film appearance, and the camera just loves him. The complexities of the plot are sometimes less than engrossing, but the dark atmosphere is well done, and the director puts in some nice touches, such as a robbery shown entirely in long shot.

THE KING OF COMEDY (Martin Scorsese, 1983).

An obsessed fan (Robert De Niro) of a Johnny Carson-type talk show host (Jerry Lewis) stalks his idol in order to get a chance to premiere a comedy act on the show. This dark satire of the pathology of celebrity culture boasts a clever script and a brilliant performance by De Niro, extremely funny yet disturbing as a lunatic who won't take no for an answer. Some of the best sequences involve his attempts to get through the obstacles of receptionists and assistants in Jerry's office in order to see the star. The dogged persistence of Rupert Pupkin (writer Paul Zimmerman deserves some kind of award just for coming up with this character's name), his inability to recognize accepted channels of behavior, continues to build in hilarity throughout the picture. Lewis is completely believable here in a serious role. Also on hand is Sandra Bernhard as a wacked-out Jerry fan who cooks up a kidnap plan with Rupert. The film has a point to make about the cult of celebrity and the pursuit of fame for its own sake - a sobering one which is even more relevant today. Scorsese's direction has a subtle sense of comic timing. My only quibble is with the very end, which I found not only implausible but too pointed in its implications. Despite this reservation, I consider this one of Scorsese's best films, an underappreciated gem.

KINGS ROW (Sam Wood, 1942).

One of the best-looking bad movies ever made. It's about a small town in which a young man (Robert Cummings) who aspires to be a doctor, is in love with a mysterious girl (Betty Field) whose father (Claude Rains) hides her away in his house. Meanwhile we also follow the trials and tribulations of the young man's easy-going friend (Ronald Reagan) and his romance with a woman (Ann Sheridan) from the wrong side of the tracks.

The plot summary doesn't do justice to the weirdness of the picture. It's a combination of wholesome turn-of-the-century Americana with lurid pseudo-Freudian sensationalism. The characters talk very earnestly and intensely, and it all sounds false. Cummings is a weak presence to build a movie around - I've never understood why he was cast in lead parts. Field desperately tries to simulate the behavior of a mentally ill person, and she is godawful. Reagan, on the other hand, is the best thing about the movie. His character is empty, but he puts so much heart into his acting, in that dead earnest way of his, that you actually care about him. And there are some good romantic sparks with Sheridan.

The film features absolutely gorgeous black-and-white photography by James Wong Howe (with impressive use of deep focus), a luscious musical score by the great Erich W. Korngold, and even the normally pedestrian Wood shows some verve in his camera placement and pacing. But the story is so overwrought, so hyper-melodramatic, right up to the schmaltzy kicker of an ending, that I was giggling instead of being deeply moved as I was meant to be. It's one of those films gone wrong that are fascinating to watch - at the time it was considered very daring and adult (and audiences stayed away because of its downbeat elements). Worth seeing just for Reagan's "Where's the rest of me?" scene.

KOLYA (Jan Sverák, 1996).

This Oscar winner for foreign language film is from the Czech Republic. The story concerns a middle-aged cellist, a confirmed bachelor, who agrees to a phony marriage to a Russian woman in order to make some quick cash, then ends up stuck with Kolya, the woman's 5-year-old son, when she suddenly emigrates. It takes place during the closing months of the Communist regime, and the film conveys the feeling of that moldering social order and the habitual resentment of ordinary citizens against it. The relationship between Kolya and the stepfather, then, reflects tensions between Czechs and their Russian occupiers, as well as the possibilities of reconciliation and new birth.

The main character, played by Zdenek Sverák, who also wrote the film, is on the whole sympathetic, if a bit sketchy. I felt that the picture wants the audience to see his womanizing as humorous and endearing - but I found it a superficial substitute for real character development. In addition, the main thrust of the story is predictable, and because of this the film feels lightweight. Despite this, I recommend Kolya as a film with sensitivity and style. For one thing, its sentiment is never saccharine. The director (son of the screenwriter/star) gives an object lesson in how to do this kind of story without becoming cloying. The tenderness of the relationship between man and boy is understated - we are allowed to observe it without being clubbed over the head with musical cues or didactic moral points about the characters - and it is counterbalanced with the subtle melancholy of the music and the boy's quiet seriousness. Andrej Chaliman plays Kolya - supposedly he was selected from a kindergarten class - and he is utterly natural and affecting. The director has a strong visual sense as well - in a sequence where Kolya has a high fever, Sverák's illustration of his disoriented state with imagery and camerawork is extraordinary. This is a film of genuine charm and earned emotion.

KUNDUN (Martin Scorsese, 1997).

There is a level of mastery in film, or in any art, in which the artist's imagination and ideas achieve such a unity with the artist's style, that the work transcends itself, points beyond itself to a greater meaning. I find it difficult to explain how powerfully I was affected by Martin Scorsese's Kundun within the normal context of a movie review. There are good movies and there are great movies, but it is a rare movie that imparts such a strong vision of life, in this case a spiritual vision, that the fact that it is a movie seems beside the point.

Kundun tells the story of the present Dalai Lama, spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, from the time of his being discovered at the age of two as the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, to his flight from Tibet after the invasion by the Chinese. (The title refers to the personal name given to all Dalai Lamas.) The first half of the film immerses us in Tibetan life, customs and traditions through the eyes of this boy. The second half presents the crisis in which the young man must respond to the invasion which threatens the existence of his country. The wordly drama is played out against a background of Buddhist traditions and spiritual values, so that what's at stake is not just the fate of the Dalai Lama or his country, but also a way of life and a world view that places the sense of the sacred at the center of all human effort. The miracle is that Scorsese communicates this sense of the sacred with complete authority and assurance - it is integrated in the story rather than just told to us through words, and in fact is designed to induce a spiritual experience in the viewer, a translation of the Buddhist teachings about compassion into cinematic terms. The film's visual rhythm is vibrant, dynamic. The photography (Roger Deakins) is beautiful. The acting, by a cast of non-professional Tibetans, is remarkably sensitive and subtle, with Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong as the adult Dalai Lama particularly moving - not a figure of unapproachable sanctity, but a very human young man dealing as best he can with a terribly complex situation. One of the most important elements of the film's power is the great score by Philip Glass, which incorporates Tibetan themes and instruments. The music is integral and vital to the picture, and it gives the impression of having been composed along with the film rather than tacked on afterwards.

Movies that deal with religious themes have generally faltered either by sentimentalizing their protagonists or distancing them from us through hazy ideas of rectitude and holiness. The tendency to overbearing preachiness and message-mongering has also wrecked many pictures that aspire to a spiritual tone. Scorsese's film does not fall into any of these traps. His involvement in the story seems intensely personal - the Tibetan world, with its costumes and rituals and ceremonies, is presented with such vividness and immediacy that it loses any patina of strangeness or exoticism and becomes our world. Scorsese also succeeds in conveying the drama in spiritual terms - the action that is truly gripping happens in the eyes of the Dalai Lama and his advisers, in the inner decisions that must be made according to principles of peace and non-violence. The conflict between the aggression of the Chinese and the pacifism of the Tibetans is shown in its objectivity, and at the same time the significance is fully felt and conveyed on the religious level. I've actually felt a shift in the way I view my life after seeing this film - it has an absolutely solid conviction and power combined with a formal beauty and integrity that penetrated deep within me.

There are many images that stay in the memory. The four-year old Kundun on his throne receiving homage. Kundun standing within a sea of dead bodies in a dream. A rat drinking from one of the temple offering cups during meditation. The gorgeous sand mandala that is blown to the wind, symbolic of the invasion's devastating impact. Scorsese sometimes uses sudden dissolves within the same scene, and the effect is to accentuate the interlocking of the visible world with the mind's perception. The bold interplay of huge close-ups with moving shots, the odd camera perspectives (such as point of view shots looking down at the shoes) which somehow make perfect sense both visually and symbolically, the sense of love conveyed for the human face and the ideals and emotions which radiate through it - everything works marvelously, and with such exquisite alternation of vigor and serenity, that it seems Scorsese has reached a zone where he can do no wrong. He shows here that his passion is to make pictures which obey only their own laws, which alone determine their form, and which are faithful to an artistic vision, and at the same time communicate their vision effectively to an audience. But more than that, here Scorsese transcends himself, creating something which breaks down the distance between viewer and film, a picture that embodies spiritual principles of wisdom and compassion in a living, experiential way. Compassion is the only true way of life. Nothing else is real. Kundun transforms this truth out of the realm of words and into a work of art that allows us to feel it and even live it.

KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964).

Four ghost stories of feudal Japan, based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn. This film deserves to be better known in the West. Meticulously designed, in gorgeous widescreen color - it was the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time, and it's absolutely stunning to look at. Kobayashi has composed each shot with geometric precision. He and his cinematographer, Yoshia Miyajima, achieve wonders with deep focus, long perspectives, and, most of all, the use of color. Different colors are used for the various moods and themes of the stories, and back projections are employed of such brilliance and intensity that they practically took my breath away.

The first story ("The Black Hair") is about a man who divorces his wife in order to marry someone with wealth and position. He later regrets his choice and decides to return to his old home. This story uses a lot of dark hues, black and midnight blue. The second story ("The Woman of the Snow") is about a woodcutter who has an encounter with a ghost as he is freezing to death in a blizzard. The snow sequences are dazzling, with the swirling shapes of the foliage in the snow amazingly vivid. The picture's centerpiece and tour de force is its third and longest story ("Hoichi the Earless"), about a temple musician who is summoned by the ghosts of a defeated samurai clan to sing for them every night. The tale begins with an extended sequence depicting a sea battle, in a style that uses elements of Japanese painting and the "Noh" play. The colors are brilliant red, orange, and yellow. It's like being transported into a mythical world. The remainder of this story is an elegant lament for the heroic era, with visual effects that reproduce the world of fairy tales. The last story ("In a Cup of Tea") is a wry coda to the film, about a man who sees a face in a cup of tea and makes the mistake of swallowing this "soul."

Kwaidan is almost three hours long, and it held my attention every minute. In themselves, the plots are fairly simple - just as in folktales, you can usually tell where the story is headed. But the clarity of vision is extraordinary. This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, with images that imprint themselves on the memory like great paintings.

 

Chris Dashiell