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THE LAST DAYS (James Moll, 1998).

This film won the Oscar for documentary in '98. It focuses on the fate of the Hungarian Jews in the final year of the war, when the Nazis quickly exterminated over a half million of them. The account is told primarily by a few survivors who are now American citizens. Their stories are articulate, moving, devastating. The film is most powerful when a couple of survivors return to Auschwitz - the painful, ambivalent reactions of one woman say more about the Holocaust than all the film's archival footage. The Last Days was produced by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, and it was directed by James Moll. It is a bit shapeless at times, but its focus on personal experience gives it an immediacy that makes it worth seeing.

LAURA (Otto Preminger, 1944).

A hard-boiled detective (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of a beautiful socialite (Gene Tierney) and finds himself strangely drawn to her. This slick, stylish mystery is considered a precursor to the "film noir" of the postwar period. It's entertaining, for sure (Preminger knows how to keep things moving along at a clip), although the dialogue and atmosphere are decidedly lightweight (the script strives too hard for elegant romance and wit). Much in its favor is the performance of Clifton Webb as Laura's mentor and frustrated lover, Waldo Lydecker. Webb is acidly funny and also pathetic and vulnerable in a scary sort of way - you just can't take your eyes off him; he's that good. Less here than meets the eye, but for a fun evening with a movie one could do a lot worse.

LIFE, AND NOTHING MORE (Abbas Kiarostami, 1991).

A man and his son journey through a part of Iran which has been devastated by an earthquake. The style is similar to documentary - we follow the two through the frustrations and delays of travel, listening to stories about the earthquake along the way. There really is no plot. The attention to detail creates the illusion that everything is happening in "real time." The film's matter-of-fact presentation is a deliberate strategy to undercut dramatic conventions - Kiarostami wants to show us the life of people experiencing crisis in all its mundane reality. The horrific accounts of the earthquake, told by actual survivors, are more impressive because the people's suffering and endurance are so ordinary in tone. Kiarostami's is a cinema of the "common people" - the improvised dialogue and the use of nonprofessional actors gives the picture a rawness and immediacy. Yet this is not documentary, but storytelling with a definite sense of craft, precise editing and shot selection. It is rare to see a film which is so conscious of the inherent difficulties in social life, and doesn't try to impose some sort of schematic structure or ideological lesson on us. Kiarostami's openness can take some getting used to, but once you settle in, it's a bracing experience.

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (Roberto Benigni, 1997).

To say that I question Life is Beautiful, and make objections to it, is not to say that I think Roberto Benigni had bad intentions. I have no doubt that his film springs from humanist convictions. And there are some good things in it - the comedy of the first half, although often too broad for my taste, has moments of magic. I especially like the way Guido (Benigni) combines wit and coincidence to make it appear to Dora as if the Virgin Mary is answering his prayers. The scene in the second half where he translates a German guard's tirade into the terms of a childish game comes off as perfectly absurd, and I mean that in the deepest, most complimentary sense. I it would be hard for anyone not to feel some heartbreak watching a father trying to save his child. But when all is said and done, I think this subject was too big for Benigni. Admirers have said that since the story is a fable (and we are told it is a fable at the beginning) that the softening of the way it was in a death camp, and the historical innacuracies, are not important. I can buy that, up to a point. But I think there comes a time when softening the facts does us a disservice because it minimizes the nature of the problem that is being presented.

The distorting effects of the film are exemplified in two plot premises which I question. First, that a child could be successfully hidden in a death camp, and secondly, that a five-year-old boy could be convinced that the events occurring in a death camp are nothing but a game. Are these premises also a fable? The entire outcome of the story depends on them - I would argue that one has to believe in them to some degree in order to accept the story at all. Both premises are absolutely false, and I object to them because they trivialize the reality of what really happened. In regards to the first premise, for instance, we have a scene where Guido and son use a camp loudspeaker to talk to Dora. If this had actually happened, the camp authorities would have stopped at nothing - making the entire camp stand at attention for days on end, for instance - to find out who had done it, and to find this child. My point is not so much concerning the plausibility of a plot detail - it has to do with an unduly gentle view of how life was like in a camp. The second premise is a more serious mistake, in my view. To imply that this child could ever believe that it was all a game is to ignore how the experience of a death camp would really be for a child. Every face he saw, every sensation, would confirm that something was terribly wrong. So would the extreme emaciation and filth he would experience. To build a plot around the denial of this fact is to falsify the truth. In a related point, I notice that Benigno plays a self-sacrificing hero who can walk to his death while doing a jaunty dance for his son. In real life, does Benigno think he, or any human being, could actually act this way under the circumstances? For anyone who thinks my objections are nit-picking, I suggest reading actual accounts of Holocaust experiences by survivors. Read, for instance, the part of Elie Wiesel's Night in which he tells how the camp was forced to watch a child slowly hang to death for an hour. (This is just one famous example - there are many others.)

I think that many people, quite naturally, would rather not look at what happened for what it was, but instead want to make something positive out of it. So we have Holocaust stories about the triumph of the human spirit, and survival, and how love overcomes all, and so forth. But here is the truth - the human spirit did not triumph, millions of people were systematically murdered, including millions of children - unspeakable, unthinkable evil reigned, and no one stopped it. That is the reality that is so hard to face, but as long as we try to avoid it we deny it. So I object to Life is Beautiful because, despite the best of motives, in effect it denies the truth. The fable has to break open into a greater form of expression in order for a film or a play or a book to even approach doing justice to this subject. This film is not big enough to do that. It ends with a freeze frame of a joyful mother and son, the boy saying, "We won! We won!" Did we really?

THE LIFE OF OHARU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952).

This film, by one of the giants of Japanese cinema, tells the story of a young woman in the 17th century who suffers a series of injustices that reduce her from a maiden of the royal court to a concubine, and finally a prostitute and a beggar. Oharu is betrayed over and over by men, even by her father, who use the rigid rules of social caste, honor and propriety to control, punish and discard her. Through it all, she retains her dignity and her sense of innocence.

Mizoguchi's style is one of poetic gracefulness. His fluid camera movement, use of the long take, and composition of figures within the frame all have a natural beauty which accentuate the tragedy of Oharu. Kinuyo Tanaka is perfect in the title role - she has the ability to communicate the fluctuations of hope and grief, joy and pain, even without words - it's a great, heart wrenching performance. The emotional devastation, the unflinching gaze into human suffering in The Life of Oharu is conveyed with such mastery that it almost takes courage to watch the film and fully absorb its meaning.

Mizoguchi returned to the theme of the oppressed woman again and again in his works. In this he was ahead of his time not only in Japan but in the world. The theme is more focused here than in any other of his works, and that's saying a lot. The script by Yoshitaka Yoda is relentless in showing the various ways powerful men (and women) project their failings onto Oharu, victimizing her in the name of morality. Mizoguchi has deep compassion for his heroine, yet he imparts this while keeping a respectful distance - there is a heightened intensity combined with a serenity or stateliness - the film is all of a piece. For unity of style and story, for the raising of film art to the level of tragedy, it stands as one of the greatest, most profoundly moving films ever made.

LIMBO (John Sayles, 1999).

I will watch anything that is directed by John Sayles. Why? Because he can write - and nobody else writes stories about communities, and the variety of characters that compose them, like him. The negative rap on him is that his films don't come off the page, and there's some justice in that - Sayles' dialogue is sometimes too self-conscious for its own good. But it seems to me that he hits more than he misses, and his people are more authentic, their problems more real, than all the stick figures in Hollywood put together. Anyway, Limbo is middle Sayles - better than Men with Guns, not as good as Lone Star. The place this time is a little fishing town in Alaska (some well-aimed jabs at the culture of tourism open the picture) where a down-on-her-luck singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her emotionally messed up daughter (Vanessa Martinez) hook up with a laconic ex-fisherman (David Strathairn) with a conscience troubled by an incident in his past. The narrative swirls deftly through various townsfolk (including Kris Kristofferson in a small role) until - in a plot development that is too complicated to explain - the three main characters end up stranded on an island together. The focus shifts unexpectedly onto issues of safety and intimacy between mother and daughter. Some of this works very nicely, some of it seems too labored by half - the daughter's reading from a pioneer girl's diary she finds on the island, for instance, becomes tiring as a dramatic device. The part that really hit the audience was the ending. Let's just say that Sayles completely confounds, on purpose, the usual narrative expectations. This sly bit of business is in keeping with the title and with Sayles' character-driven (as opposed to plot-driven) philosophy, and I thought it was great. The film as a whole isn't great, just thoughtful and interesting even in its flaws.

LITTLE VOICE (Mark Herman, 1998).

Little Voice is based on a play, and the story has that contrived quality where you can see the playwright's hand manipulating everything towards an effect. Loud, coarse, bad Mother (Brenda Blethyn) is abusive to traumatized neurotic daughter (Jane Horrocks) who worships her dear dead idealized Dad through listening to the records of song divas that he loved. Mother's boyfriend, a seedy promoter (Michael Caine) discovers that Daughter can sing, and decides to stake his career on her. Meanwhile sensitive young lad (Ewan McGregor) falls for Daughter. Etcetera, etcetera.

Blethyn's incredibly exaggerated, screeching caricature of a performance almost made me flee the theater. I like Brenda Blethyn, at least I liked her in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies so to be kind I'm going to blame this on the script and an inept director (Mark Herman). There is much else that is overwrought in the film - although Caine brings his skill to bear and adds extra dimensions to his role. But there is really just one reason to see the film - Jane Horrocks as "Little Voice" is nothing less than compelling for almost every moment she's onscreen. The role had to be very difficult - when Horrocks starts singing, she has to bring power to the music without losing her character's quality of extreme introversion. She pulls it off magnificently. The script fails her in the end, as it does all the actors, but overall it's a lesson in how a performance can sometimes lift a movie beyond itself.

LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND (Richard Kwietniowski, 1997).

It's hard to categorize this film. A comedy which becomes sadder as it goes along, a film that sets the sophistication of high culture alongside the most vulgar popular entertainments, while making fun of both - that some of it works wonderfully is due to a near flawless performance by John Hurt. Hurt plays a stuffy British writer named Giles De'Ath (the name itself mocks the deliberate allusiveness of fictional names), the kind of upper-crust intellectual who would give a lecture on "The Death of the Future." His ivory tower has kept him completely ignorant of the way things are in the late twentieth century. He does not own a TV, for example, and has no idea what a fax is. One day, having locked himself out of his house in the pouring rain, he ducks into a movie theater to see an E.M. Forster adaptation. Instead he is treated to a viewing of Hot Pants College II, a "Porky's" type of witless adolescent comedy. As he's getting up to leave the theater, he is struck by the image of one of the actors, a young man named Ronnie Bostock. As the weeks go by, Giles becomes more and more obsessed with Bostock. He's fallen in love with this teen heart-throb, but he disguises the fact from himself for some time by trying to fit this experience into his world view. He steals a fan magazine and furtively cuts Ronnie's pictures out of it. He gets a VCR and watches all of Ronnie tacky grade-Z movies. Finally he decides to go and meet Ronnie personally, flying to Long Island and eventually insinuating himself into the actor's confidence.

I found the first half of the picture to be extremely funny. The attempts of this effete mandarin of culture to deal with pop culture produce delicious moments of absurdity. John Hurt's weathered, distinguished face and beautiful English diction are hilariously incongruous as he watches a cheap exploitation flick called Skid Marks, or struggles to say the words "Hot Pants College II" to a video rental clerk. It's an intensely amusing performance, and I can't imagine anyone else pulling it off quite as well. In the second half, when Giles meets Ronnie, the film's energy and spirit flags somewhat. Feelings of melancholy and anguish enter the picture, but they don't feel as integral or as well thought out as the comedy of the first half.

Ronnie is played by TV star Jason Priestley, best known for that awful show "Beverly Hills 90210." He plays it perfectly straight and is quite good. I wonder at his willingness to appear in this sly little film with a homoerotic premise - but I can't help but applaud it. I suppose that Love and Death on Long Island is supposed to be a sort of parody update to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. It's not a great film by any means - it's more like an amusing riff. But it's the kind of movie where I think of some little bit of business a week after seeing it, it finally hits home, and I burst out laughing.

THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (Leos Carax, 1999).

The Lovers on the Bridge became a notorious example of a director shooting for the moon and going wildly over-budget - a kind of French Heaven's Gate, except that in this case I think it was worth it. It is a riotous, beautiful work whose virtues far outweigh its flaws. Writer-director Leos Carax has wedded two very different forms - the gritty, realistic urban story and the romantic melodrama. The lovers of the title, played by Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant, are the lowest of the low - homeless street people living on a Paris bridge that is closed for repairs. The depiction of street life is not pretty - these people are like the walking dead, filthy, numbing their pain with drugs, surviving by theft. Lavant's sullen, intense performance is remarkable. His Alex is a young tough who chooses this life and is afraid of anything better. He becomes obsessed with Michele (Binoche) and his desire for love is often completely selfish - he is even willing to sacrifice her chances for escape just so she'll stay. The rawness of Binoche is also striking - the obscuring of her good looks by her character's degraded condition has made her more expressive and more moving than I've seen her before.

The emotional high point of the film takes place during the 1989 French bicentennial, the drunk couple dancing wildly on the bridge as fireworks explode around them - an astounding, incredibly beautiful sequence. The subsequent theft of a police boat with Binoche waterskiing on the Seine at night does stretch one's credulity - but in the hyperkinetic context, it worked for me. Carax mixes in romantic elements that gather new force from being played out in such a different setting. As the film progresses, these aspects become more prevalent. Michele, for instance, is slowly going blind, and needs an eye operation - but that would mean separating from Alex. What might normally seem a stock situation of melodrama plays out well here, although towards the end I felt a slight imbalance, as if Carax couldn't quite maintain his touch with the material. If the conclusion tastes of wish-fulfillment rather than the demands of reality, the satisfaction is still earned. We've come a long way with these characters - to a place where, in a kind of soul-weariness, limitations have been finally left behind.

MA VIE EN ROSE (Alain Berliner, 1997).

Ma Vie en Rose opens with a party being put on by a couple who have just moved into a French suburban neighborhood. This is their way of meeting all their new neighbors, including the husband's new boss. Everything is going well until their youngest son, seven-year-old Ludovic, comes down the stairs to the party wearing makeup and a dress. Ludo believes that he is a girl. At first his family dismisses his behavior as harmless childish fantasy, but when he continues to dress up, and is caught acting out a wedding ceremony with the boss's little boy, the neighborhood begins to shun the family and the parents make desperate attempts to correct his attitude through persuasion, therapy, anger and threats.

Acquaintance with the story idea could easily give one a mistaken impression of the film's tone. It is neither a farce, nor a message picture pleading for tolerance, nor a melodrama. Director Alain Berliner mixes comedy and fantasy elements with realistic depictions of family dynamics, but the sense throughout is one of quiet observation and gentle sympathy. Although outrage is an admirable response to injustice, it can obscure the sense of a character's actual experience. In Ma Vie en Rose, gender roles are shown quite for what they are, without any need for preaching - the storytelling itself reveals their artificiality. The cutesy title, by the way ("My Life in Pink") doesn't match the tone or narrative form at all - it seems like a mere hook for the movie poster.

In fact, the story is as much, or more, about the struggle of the mother and father to come to terms with their child's difference than it is the story of the boy. It is easy to understand the confusion and frustration of Ludo's parents, played expertly by Jean-Philippe Ecoffey and Michele Laroque. The ostracization that they experience, and the shame and embarrassment of seeing their son accused of being "bent" (apparently French slang for homosexual), makes them lose sight of the child's innocence. Ludo (soulful Georges Du Fresne's performance never hits a false note) suffers throughout, but he still can't fit into his expected role as a boy. There are ingenious sequences involving a Barbie-like doll character named Pam living in a frilly pink cartoon world, that illustrate Ludo's identificaton with girl roles. In the beginning, the direction seems a trifle slick, and the film tries too hard to achieve resolution when open-endedness would do just as well. But I liked Ma Vie en Rose. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. It has honesty and freshness and a sense of the inescapable truth, good and bad, about people - an alert attentiveness and an ability to let us see things for ourselves without telling us what to think. The result is a rare combination - a movie with a light, easy tone that is nevertheless emotionally stirring.

MABOROSI (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1995).

A Japanese film about a young woman (Makiko Esumi) whose husband commits suicide for no apparent reason. She rebuilds her life by marrying another man who lives near the ocean, but she must still face the grief and mystery of her first husband's death. This summary makes the film sound conventionally plotted - but the director employs a hyper-naturalistic style, somewhat reminiscent of Ozu, which eschews narrative thrust for quiet observation of daily life. He is fond of long shots that are held for greater periods of time than a Western viewer might be used to, minimal camera movement, and an ever present sense of stillness. The pace definitely requires patience. Although I found the elliptical technique difficult, the film grew on me with each beautifully composed shot. Often there are shots of darkness, with an opening of light in center frame, a doorway or a tunnel for instance, that produce a mood of spiritual loneliness. Very delicate work.

MACARIO (Roberto Gavaldon, 1960).

This Mexican picture ranks as an unknown gem. Even though it was nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar, I have not seen it mentioned in any book. Based on a story by Treasure of Sierra Madre author B. Traven, it concerns a peasant (Ignacio Lopez Tarco in the title role) who struggles to feed his family by selling wood. Macario is sick of being hungry all the time, and after seeing some chickens roasting in a rich man's home, he tells his wife that he won't eat again unless he can have an entire chicken to himself. She steals one for him, and he brings it with him out into the forest where he works. At this point the story goes to an allegorical level - Macario is accosted by figures symbolizing the devil, and God, and he refuses to share his food with either. But when he finally shares it with Death, he is given the power to heal the sick - with only one catch - if he sees Death standing at the foot of the patient's bed, he may heal, but if Death is seen standing at the head, he must let Death have the patient. The fairy-tale elements are balanced nicely with the realistic settings and characters, and the production values are as high as the average Hollywood film of that period. Gavaldon is at ease telling this excellent story, which drew me in with its mixture of social commentary and eerie fatalism.

MADELINE (Daisy von Scherler Mayer, 1998).

If you want to watch a movie with your kid, you could do worse than Madeline, an adaptation of those old Ludwig Bemelmans picture books. Frances McDormand is just right as the nun who shepherds a school for young girls. She's compassionate, dignified, and funny. Nigel Hawthorne shows up as the bad (but not too bad) landlord. And the title role is played by a very bright and spunky English girl named Hattie Jones. The slapstick is broad, the villains aren't scary at all, and there is, thank god, no hip condescension or adult knowingness to spoil the fun. Not in the highest rank of children's films, but a noble effort compared to the competition. Only one bad moment for me - at the very end they pull out "What a Wonderful World" sung by Louis Armstrong for the happy ending. If I hear this song used once more in a film, I'll heave.

MAGNOLIA (P.T. Anderson, 1999).

Late in Magnolia, the passionate, ambitious new film by P.T. Anderson, there is a sequence in which a man on his deathbed , played by Jason Robards, finally opens up to his nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and begins to talk about his first marriage. It is a soliloquy of regret, slowly building in intensity, delivered with the powerful assurance of one of our greatest actors. While he speaks, we see the plight of other characters in the story as they suffer and struggle to break free from their situations. This artful countering of sound with cross-cutting images, the marriage of flamboyant style with a tender-hearted, mournful sensibility, typifies the film as a whole. It's a movie with a brashly modern, youthful, in-your-face style - but it also has a lot on its mind, and the combination makes Magnolia a potent experience.

There are nine major characters with interlocking stories; the connections are thematic rather than naturalistic. Cancer-ridden Earl Partridge (Robards) wants the nurse to contact his long-lost son, a chauvinist pig self-help guru played by Tom Cruise. Julianne Moore is driven to despair watching Earl's decline - Anderson doesn't reveal her exact relationship to him until late in the movie. Meanwhile, another father dying of cancer (Philip Baker Hall) tries to reconcile with his estranged, coke-addicted daughter (Melora Walters) while at the same time an idealistic cop (John C. Reilly) falls for her when he comes to her apartment after a noise complaint. Hall's character is the host of a quiz show called "What Do Kids Know?" in which children are pitted against adults. One of the kid contestants is a boy genius named Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) who is clearly being milked by his father for the sake of the money. And in another example of the story's technique of doubling, we meet a former quiz show prodigy named Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who never got over the way his parents used him, and now desperately yearns for someone to love.

The trailer for Magnolia inevitably failed to convey the flavor of this cat's cradle scenario. Bits of scenes taken out of context are missing the vital element - Anderson's style and sense of design. His pacing and use of music, his visual chops, the dynamism of his camera movement, remind me of early Scorsese. In addition to that, he has audacity. Anderson seems completely his own man both in his methods and the things he wants to say. The fact that he has something to say at all -: about tormented children in adult bodies and the way adults exploit and look down on kids, about the hidden stakes in the wars between men and women and particularly about the denied terror of males, about loneliness and loss and death and regret - is impressive enough. But that it's conveyed with such conviction, with such willingness to go to the end, to be sprawling or ironic or lyrical or unbearably sad by turns - this is what makes him special as a director and worth watching. I use the word conviction. It involves a great deal of conviction to create an engrossing fictional dream. Anderson's vision is not that of naturalism or realism. It takes some nerve to include a sequence in which most of the characters, in different places, sing a song - the same song - while making crucial life choices. To pull that off means that the dream has its own logic and its own rules, and the director expects the audience to accept them.

I can see the story's improbabilities and exaggerations, the way the film telescopes its scenes almost to the point of caricature - yet it works because there's an individual vision and commitment behind the movie that carries me along. Well, most of the time - at the end Anderson adds a flourish of pure surrealism, a cockeyed sort of Biblical gloss on the tale (the eighth chapter of Exodus, if you must know), that didn't exactly work for me. Yet I respect even this decision because it seems to me that he takes the saw by William Blake about the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom seriously enough so that even his overreaching seems admirable.

The actors really get to stretch in this movie. In fact, this is another one of the great things about Magnolia - it's a showcase for the actors. I never thought I would say this, but Tom Cruise is marvelous. The scenes involving a seminar put on by his character have a wicked, satiric edge - and he is downright funny in the part. Later he gets to show a more serious side, and he is every bit as convincing. I have never thought much of John C. Reilly until now. Here he takes a role that on paper looks hackneyed - a cop who truly wants to do good - and he makes that character live. Macy is nothing less than astounding - his character is neurotic and insecure to the extreme, but his portrayal is grounded in a pathos that stings sharply as we laugh. His extended scene at a bar with a supercilious Henry Gibson has some of the film's best dialogue.

Anderson is also in love with the use of a musical score as counterpoint to his images. The music here (by Jon Brion) persistently raises tension - not just tension about what will happen next, but the tension between story threads and scenes. Aimee Mann sings a few songs as well - they're a rare example of a songwriter perfectly fitting the mood of a film. To appreciate Anderson's style, one accepts that life has a musical soundtrack - that the dramatic sense is heightened by the score playing, so to speak, in people's heads.

I was moved most of all by the theme of children - in the persons of Stanley and Donnie, the child prodigies who carry the unfulfilled wishes of their elders and thereby suffer neglect. There is a way in which every character in Magnolia acts out of a buried childlike need. This seems to me the central, certainly the most poignant, idea of the film. Critics have complained that Anderson is self-indulgent, pretentious, sentimental, grandiose. Perhaps he is guilty of all charges. He comes from the Orson Welles school of film that calls attention to its own stylistic brilliance. When there's a choice, he chooses no restraints, no limits, up the ante. His risks don't always pay off. But is there anyone else of his generation in American film today that has his energy, or his sweep, or his sense of humanity, independent of ideas about entertainment or received ideas or box office? Magnolia makes even the more intelligent Hollywood movies of the year look anemic. It gives me hope that inventiveness and experiment are possible in the realm of the big-budget American film.

MARIUS (Alexander Korda, 1931).

The son of a café owner in Marseilles is in love with the daughter of a fishmonger, but delays marrying her because he longs to go to sea. Adapted by Marcel Pagnol from his own play, it's essentially filmed theater, with the timing and the talkiness of a play. Fortunately, much of the talk is witty and fun. Pagnol had a knack for creating lovable eccentric characters. The struggles of Marius (Pierre Fresnay) and Fanny (Orane Demazis) are portrayed with refreshing honesty and compassion (although Fresnay hams it up a bit too much). What makes this film a true delight is the incomparable Raimu in the role of Cesar, Marius' father. He scolds his son, quarrels with everyone, cheats at cards, and has a heart of gold. When he is on screen, you are in the hands of a master - he can make you laugh out loud in one moment and feel great tenderness the next. This is the first part of Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy. The Hungarian Korda directed during his brief stay in France before going on to England and fame as the preeminent producer/director of Great Britain. The direction here is nothing special (yet never inept), just a faithful filming of a wonderful play.

MARIUS AND JEANNETE (Robert Guediguian, 1997).

In Europe they acknowledge the existence of the classes, and therefore the phrase "working class" is still in use, unlike the ridiculous pretense we have in the U.S. that the only class worth mentioning is the middle one. Marius and Jeannette is what you might call a working class romance. It has some refreshing aspects. First of all, it is a pleasure to see characters who are middle-aged having a love life - and not glamorous people either. Jeannette (Ariane Ascaride) a widowed mother of two, looks like somebody you might see at the grocery store. Marius (Gerard Meylan), a security guard at a cement plant, is big and not bad looking, but the ravages of age are definitely showing. Secondly, this couple, and the neighbors who form a few subplots around them, talk about politics and labor and strikes, along with other things - the film's leftism is assumed as part of the atmosphere rather than as a message. Finally, the script (by director Robert Guediguian and Jean-Louis Miles) is full of pungent little touches that show an appreciation for human frailty. Jeannette is stubborn and opinionated. Marius tends to withdraw within himself. The progress of their romance is quite believable, except that towards the end the plot takes a turn which owes more to romantic fictional conventions than to the realities of life, and this dampens things somewhat. Nevertheless it's a good effort, amusing and heartfelt, and it's not hard to understand why it was a big hit in France.

MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968).

A wealthy, disaffected intellectual decides to stay in Cuba after the Castro revolution. This is a sophisticated, wifty and meditative film that explores the intersection of the personal and political in Cuba. There is full respect paid to ambiguity, and no axe to grind, so the film avoids the pitfall of leftist didacticism. Much of the picture consists of thoughts taking place in the head of the main character, Sergio, played by Sergio Corrieri with a sad diffidence and vulnerability, and it's a measure of Gutiérrez Alea's skill that the movie sustains interest through the poetry of its sounds and images when nothing much really is happening in terms of plot. Sergio's affair with a teenage girl is meant to stand for the relationship between Cuban intellectuals and their underdeveloped country, but the pathos and absurd humor of the relationship belies any easy equations. Occasionally the film switches to a semi-documentary mode, with footage of the Bay of Pigs trials, the missile crisis and so forth, Sergio commenting pointedly on the issues involved. In a way the film typifies a certain movement in the cinema of the 60s - films that infuse personal stories with political awareness, employing some of the techniques brought to the fore by the French "New Wave." But the editing is smoother, the writing more subtle and even-handed, the sensibility more gentle and humane, than most other films of that kind I've seen. Gutiérrez Alea died in 1996. Like the main character in this film, he elected to stay and continue working in his country, and now the world has lost one of its saner voices.

MEN IN BLACK (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997).

Men in Black is a science fiction comedy which manages to be fun without falling into either witless mockery or self-importance, the two usual pitfalls of Hollywood comedy. I like the concept of the INS/Border Patrol for space aliens, and the film even ventures close to satire here and there. Tommy Lee Jones does very well playing straight man to frenetic Will Smith - his impassiveness actually earns more laughs than Smith's more cartoonish style. The visuals and FX are top of the line. If anything, the picture is not silly enough. When it settles down into a chase of berserk alien Vincent D'Onofrio, with Earth's fate in the balance, we're back in familiar sci-fi blockbuster territory, which is too bad, since MIB could have really played with its ideas a lot more. But I left with a smile on my face - it's entertaining and mercifully short. Sonnenfeld wisely realized that to keep piling on the effects to the point of exhaustion, as most big films do these days, works against the audience's enjoyment.

THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971).

A fruit seller (Hans Hirschmuller) tries to find some purpose in his life, but finds only suffering and disappointment in his work, his marriage and his family. This is a kind of horror film about the emptiness of lower middle class life, with a deliberately unsophisticated visual style that I found off-putting until I got the drift of what Fassbinder was up to. In the movies, people tend to be more attractive than is common in real life - here the director uses plainness and ugliness as a wake-up call from that cinematic illusion. The regrets over lost opportunities, the frustrations that always spoil Hans' possible enjoyment of life, are all reflected in this sour, undramatic style which makes the film a peculiar experience, to say the least. I wasn't quite converted to Fassbinder's methods here - the acting seemed poor much of the time - but I was intrigued by the idea of the film, and it has a bleak poignancy that is all its own. The ending is an example of black humor at its most direct and unsparing.

MIDNIGHT (Mitchell Leisen, 1939).

What a pleasure to watch a comedy as smoothly confident as Midnight. It is genuinely romantic, sophisticated, yet silly - and although the plot concerns jealousy, avarice and deceit, the characters are likeable and sympathetic. How was this done? By combining witty, cynical screenwriters (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) with the warm, gentle directorial style of Mitchell Leisen.

Former showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert), having lost everything in Monte Carlo but the dress she's wearing, arrives in Paris in the midst of a downpour. A brash cabdriver named Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) comes to her aid, driving her around town in search of a nightclub job. He promptly falls for her, but Eve, on the hunt for a rich man, eludes him and sneaks into a stuffy society event, where she introduces herself to a group of wealthy types as the Baroness Czerny. Her ruse finds unexpected help in the person of a rich prankster (John Barrymore) who recruits her to lure a handsome womanizer (Francis Lederer) away from his (Barrymore's) wife, played by Mary Astor. But meanwhile, the ardent taxi driver is in pursuit.

The pace builds gradually, reaching its comic peak when Ameche shows up claiming to be the Baron. I don't recall Colbert ever being better than here. Leisen seems to have subdued her tendency to overplay a line - here her timing is wonderful, and she even makes us sympathize with motives that we might normally condemn. Ameche is attractive and funny and quite natural, which makes me wonder why his leading-man career never took off. And Barrymore, in his last good role, is marvelous. In the early scene where he spots Colbert the interloper at the society event, his mere glances made me laugh.

Leisen started in movies as a clothes designer, then an art director. His visual style is lavish without being ostentatious. You can see how much he achieves with very little - Paris is suggested : with just a few shots of the streets (and of course the moving backdrops in the car windows that the studios could get away with in those days). There is not a wasted shot - each scene has its purpose and its alotted time, and the camera glides within a scene with ease. Leisen is a most underrated director - lost in the transition from the Lubitsch era to the frenetic Sturges films of the 40s. But in a way he seems the epitome of the Paramount style - the creamy visual surface, the glamour and sophistication, the romance without the clunky moralizing that too often burdened : MGM.

1939 was a good year for Brackett and Wilder. They wrote Ninotchka (for Lubitsch) that year too. Here we can see indicators of Wilder films to come - especially the relentless teasing of wealthy pretensions - the wild-haired Chopin pianist introduced by the idiotic society matron (Hedda Hopper!) for instance. A very nice touch is the idea of having a couple go through a divorce when they're not even married. Very Wilder. Midnight doesn't have the no-holds-barred energy of the classic "screwball" comedies. Paramount's romantic comedies were always a little better behaved than that. But this gentler quality serves it well. There's a sense of real affection underneath the farce.

MIN AND BILL (George W. Hill, 1930).

This comedy-drama was a surprise hit for MGM and won Marie Dressler a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Min. The title is misleading. Although the relationship between Min and the tugboat captain played by Wallace Beery provides some of the funnier moments of the picture, the story is really about Min's efforts to move her adopted daughter (Dorothy Jordan) out of her seedy environment and up in the world. To that end, Min uses some tactics that seem very questionable today, such as pretending not to care about the girl as she sends her away to another, more genteel home. The scenario of lower class mother sacrificing everything to get a child into a higher social position was common at the time - co-writer Frances Marion also adapted Stella Dallas, a model in this genre. The social assumptions are dated, but the film still moves surprisingly well. Most of the credit for that goes to Dressler, who is simply wonderful as the tough, no nonsense, but good hearted old lady. The interplay between her and Beery is quite amusing - and there's the famous scene where she tears his room apart in a rage, which is still outrageous enough to provoke laughter. The dialogue has a saltiness that typifies a certain kind of Depression era filmmaking.

MOTHER AND SON (Alexander Sokurov, 1997).

The term "art film" has been thrown about so much that it has ceased to have much meaning. These days it is often used pejoratively. When I say, then, that Alexander Sokurov's Mother and Son is an art film in the strictest sense, I know I might scare people away. But I don't know how else to characterize a picture that is dedicated so completely to the creation of a form, visually and spiritually beautiful, which seems present in a single moment rather than in a narrative. The film looks different than anything I've ever seen, and it also conveys meaning in a new way. I think it's a bona fide film masterpiece.

An old woman is dying and her son is taking care of her. They live in a rustic house in the middle of some vast wilderness of meadows and forests. It seems as if no one else lives in this country. The son (Alexei Amanishnov) is tenderly solicitous of every need his mother (Gudrun Geyer) may have. Their conversations are in low tones and whispers. He moves with slow determination and care, carrying her in his arms when she wants to go outside. Often they are silent, staring at the huge vistas and landscapes. When they do speak (the script is by Yuri Arabov), the words are significant, conveying their long and deep bond with each other.

The edges of the frame seem to fade off into a distant haze, while the shapes and colors in the foreground have a quality like soft brushstrokes. The scenes sometimes look like paintings. The human figures aren't always dimensional - in certain shots they seem to stretch out as if in an oblong mirror, or to blend in with the curve of a hill or the horizon. I'm not sure how Sokurov and his cameraman, Alexei Fyodorov, achieved these effects, although I've read that glass was sometimes put in front or to the side of the lens. In any case, the visual style produces a dreamlike, transcendent vision of the world. The interplay between the dark unity of the two people in their house, full of shadow, and the immense natural world outside, is very striking and tends to arrest the mind. The son cannot bring himself to accept the coming death of the mother. She seems far away, yet has moments of lucidity in which she touches him with her compassion for his own suffering. The image of the young man carrying the frail old woman in his arms is like a reverse Pieta - Sukorov portrays the togetherness and the aloneness of people within the awesome world which completely contains them. Thunder is heard faintly rumbling in the background throughout the picture. Mother and Son is only 73 minutes long. It is enough time to express a sense of eternity.

THE MUMMY (Karl Freund, 1932).

One of those rare instances where I have no problem sitting through a ridiculous story that has wooden acting from everyone except the lead. Because in this case the lead is Boris Karloff, and he is perfectly creepy. The great cinematographer Freund, in one of his few stints as a director, creates a weird, spooky look with his impeccable lighting, photography and camera placement. Too bad about the script and the overacting by everyone but Karloff. The Mummy is not up there with James Whale's Frankenstein movies, but Freund's skill at creating mood makes it a fun example of early horror from Universal.

MURDER! (Alfred Hitchcock, 1930).

A jury convicts a woman of murder, but one of the jurors (Herbert Marshall) is plagued with doubt, and starts his own investigation. This film, Hitch's fourth talkie, is a surprising disappointment. He seems to be searching for a style here - using lots of interesting camera movement and cutting, and some admirable experimentation - perhaps the first use of voice-over soliloquy, and a sequence during the jury deliberations that actually employs a strange sort of choral dialogue technique. The problem, however, is the pacing. The timing is badly off - long pauses and slow delivery in the speaking, a stagey feeling throughut. The whole picture just drags, which is unusual for Hitchcock. I was tempted to attribute this to the general static quality of the early sound film, but for the fact that his Blackmail from the year before is far more cinematic, with a sense of pace and suspense that foreshadows his later masterworks. Chalk it up to growing pains, I guess - Murder! is not much more than an historical curiosity, for die-hard Hitchcock buffs only.

MY MOTHER'S COURAGE (Michael Verhoeven, 1995).

The Hungarian writer George Tabori narrates the true story of his mother's deportation from Budapest in 1944. Verhoeven's technique is interesting and very unusual for its subject. He uses elements of humor, even farce, in his depiction of a most unhumorous situation - yet he completely avoids any impression of poor taste. The effect is rather to show the doings of the Nazis - particulary in the film's central sequence of the gathering of the deportees at a railway station - as contemptible, absurd and idiotic, with nevertheless horribly real consequences. Another directorial strategy that works is to emphasize the fact that we are only watching a movie - a lot of expressionistic, dreamlike images, as well as flashbacks and the narrator stepping in and out of the action. The film has very fine color photography, expert use of the moving camera which continues to plunge us deeper into the story, and a good performance by Pauline Collins as Elsa Tabori. It also has the sense to know how far it can go - its job is to illuminate one small story in a giant horror, and it succeeds in that. Although the film did not gain wide distribution, it doesn't have a cheap look at all. The production is as finely crafted as any you'll see, and there's not a dull moment. My Mother's Courage doesn't lose sight of the possibility of human goodness even while it stares evil in the face.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (Michael Curtiz, 1933).

A sculptor in wax (Lionel Atwill) whose collection was destroyed in a fire, shows up years later with a new museum, while a wise-cracking female reporter (Glenda Farrell) investigates some mysterious murders. This film is a real oddity, an attempt by Warner Brothers to make a horror movie which could rival the successes of Universal. But it seems they weren't confident enough, so they tried to combine the horror genre with the more familiar Warners genre of the newspaper crime reporter film. It's not a good fit. Farrell has some funny lines, but the plot is murky and hard to follow, and the biggest problem is that the film is simply not very scary. There is little buildup of tension, and just when it seems things might get creepy, there's Farrell again, talking a mile a minute like she's from another movie (which she is, in a way). The picture does have the advantage of very good two-strip Technicolor, which gives some of the scenes an eerie visual quality. There are a few nice touches, particularly the fire in the beginning. And Fay Wray is on hand to scream her head off again. (She had to be the greatest screamer in movie history.) But all in all, a real disappointment. Curtiz and the writers could have benefited from a closer study of Universal's horror pictures such as the Frankenstein movies, just to learn how to create an atmosphere of terror.

THE NAVIGATOR (Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp, 1924).

Buster Keaton plays a wealthy young fool who, through plot developments too complex to explain here, finds himself drifting at sea on a deserted ocean liner with the girl he loves (Kathryn McGuire). The first two-thirds of the picture roll along beautifully with a succession of ingenious routines and sight gags. A sequence with Keaton and McGuire looking for each other on the ship, and always just missing seeing one another by split seconds, is a masterpiece of comic timing and direction, culminating in a long shot of their hilarious search which tops everything off perfectly. Other scenes, such as the incompetent couple trying to make breakfast, or struggling with a deck chair, are equally inspired.

I must say that, for me, the last third of the picture, involving an encounter with an island of cannibals, was less enjoyable than I had hoped for, making for a bit of a letdown. Maybe I've come to expect such incredible stunts from a Keaton picture (such as the climaxes of Our Hospitality or Sherlock Jr.) that the less spectacular conclusion of The Navigator wasn't enough for me. The film was a big hit - the most commercially successful in Keaton's career - and it won him a lucrative new contract with Metro.

The Kino video of The Navigator also includes two of Keaton's shorts. The Boat (1921) is a little gem about a man and his family attempting to live on a houseboat. Of course, one disaster follows another, and it's very funny. The Love Nest (1923) was believed to be lost until a print was recently discovered and restored. In this one, Buster is the first mate on a pirate ship. Whenever anyone makes a mistake, the tyrannical captain throws him overboard. Keaton must avoid being caught for his inevitable mistakes. There is some wonderful dream logic employed in this one. Keaton's short films are often delightful, and there are rarely any dull stretches like you get occasionally in his features.

NIGHT MUST FALL (Richard Thorpe, 1937).

This MGM adaptation of a stage thriller pretends to some sort of insight, but fails to convince. A murder has occurred near the house of a rich, foolish old lady. She takes a great liking to a servant (Robert Montgomery) while her suspicious ward (Rosalind Russell) looks on. The picture has way too much talk and not enough tension - the problem isn't so much that it's obvious who the murderer is, but that the director dissipates any chance for the film to be scary with his languorous, uninspired style. The film's one saving grace is the performance of Montgomery, who brings an odd, elfin menace to the lead role. It was his intent to break out of typecasting, and he succeeds marvelously.

NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (Federico Fellini, 1957).

The tale of a prostitute in Rome (Guilietta Masina) and her attempts to escape her situation. Fellini's style is gentle and leisurely here, even as he depicts the struggles and sufferings of the city's poorest outcasts. There is still something of a neorealist atmosphere in this film, but with Fellini's keen awareness of the eccentricities of character. Some critics complained that Masina was miscast, an opinion I don't understand. I found her very compelling and moving, combining vulnerability with a tough resilience that was completely believable. There is a moment near the end, when Cabiria realizes that something horrible has happened, that is a great lesson in expressive acting. Fellini's patient accretion of narrative and scenic detail produces a sense of solidity, and the film is imbued with unsentimental compassion.

NIL BY MOUTH (Gary Oldman, 1997).

An intense and disturbing film about the harsh life of a working class family in London. Oldman both wrote and directed, and he shows remarkable assurance in his first feature. The picture doesn't waste time with exposition - we are thrust into the lives of the characters and it takes a little time to sort them out and their relationships to one another (plus the heavy accents made it difficult for me to understand the dialogue at times.) The style is raw and immediate, with lots of overlapping talk - it draws you into this world of pubs, poorly furnished flats and back alleys in a realistic way. This looks and feels like the way life is for these people. The film starts by focusing on men going out together on the weekend, drinking and telling stories, being raucous and out of control. Eventually we focus on Ray (Ray Winstone) a hulk of a man with a bad temper who abuses his wife Valery (Kathy Burke). Valery's brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) is a desperate junkie who keeps getting bailed out of trouble by their mother (Laila Morse).

Oldman is relentless in his depiction of suffering, but also shows his character's contradictions, their love and endurance. The second half of the film shifts to the story of the women, particularly Valery - who must break free from her violent husband - and the conseuences of abuse are all too clear. The acting in Nil By Mouth is superb. It is amazing how Burke creates a strong character gradually before your eyes. Winstone's performance is scary and effective. Bastard though Ray is, we are given insight into him as a human being rather than a mere villain. This is not just some downbeat story - it's a powerful experience, one of those rarities, a film of unflinching truth, and I came away from it moved and with a deeper understanding.

THE OFFICIAL STORY (Luis Puenzo, 1985).

An Argentinian woman suspects that her adopted daughter is the child of one of the "disappeared." - people murdered by the military regime for suspected dissident beliefs. I expected a "message" picture and was pleasantly surprised by a well-acted drama that avoids stereotyping or easy answers. Norma Aleandro is solidly convincing as a history teacher who slowly awakens to reality, and to the film's credit, her conservative husband (Hector Alterio, also quite good) is a believable and even sympathetic human being. The film treats politics as a normal concern in people's lives, so the complex progression of political awareness functions as part of the story rather than some sort of lesson to teach the audience. A modest style, but moving and effective.

ONE TRUE THING (Carl Franklin, 1998).

This is what they used to call a "weepie." It's a full-fledged, four-hankie weepie. The strange thing is that, unlike most weepies, it's pretty good. Up-and-coming magazine writer (Renee Zellweger) is asked by her university prof/writer father (William Hurt) to come home and take care of her cancer-stricken mother (Meryly Streep). She breaks free of her father-worship (it seems he really wanted her to take care of him) and finds new respect for Mom. Karen Croner's screenplay is drenched with generational guilt - most of Zellweger's screen time is spent grimacing through the emotional tug of war between her love for her mother and her rebellion against her. But the writing is intelligent enough to touch some authentic chords. Streep is amazing in what is a somewhat underwritten part. She really makes you appreciate the fiber of this stay-at-home mother, and her performance gets even better as her character's cancer gets worse. Hurt is also very good playing the neglectful intellectual who conceals his tender side. You may question some of the lessons that are implied here, like the wife's tolerance of her husband's infidelity as a virtue - I certainly did - but it rarely felt like the deck was being stacked. Within its limits, One True Thing has a certain emotional honesty that puts it a notch above most Hollywood films of this type. And I dare you not to cry.

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Howard Hawks, 1939).

The reckless lives and loves of a group of cargo fliers in the Andes. It's a Columbia picture, so production values are low, and the movie feels too talky and set-bound. Yet it somehow manages to be memorable, even stirring. Cary Grant has never been better than as the tough, plain-speaking leader who doesn't let his feelings interfere with his sense of responsibility. This ultimate "man's world" (Jules Furthman's script is tailor-made for a Hawks film) is seen through the eyes of a formidable woman played by Jean Arthur. But the real chemistry isn't between Grant and Arthur (as good as they are together) or Grant and Rita Hayworth (in her first important role) but between Grant and best buddy Thomas Mitchell. Oh, and I do love that coin that gets flipped at the end.

OSCAR AND LUCINDA (Gillian Armstrong, 1997).

Once in a great while a film will defy expectations by delivering the richness and unique characters that we usually only find in novels. And sadly, more often than not, such films only puzzle audiences who are accustomed to stock situations and "heroes" with which we are supposed to "identify." Such is the case with Oscar and Lucinda, a drama with the look and feel of a period epic that at the same time focuses on the odd, private affections of a couple of misfits. You are advised to leave your expectations at the door.

The affectionate, humorous tone of the film is set firmly by the narrator (the voice of Geoffrey Rush) - a great-great grandson telling the story of his forbears from the 1840s. This device works very well because the distance of time allows us to observe the drama with more compassion than the characters may have for themselves or one another. Another interesting aspect is that the title characters don't even meet each other for quite some time - we follow their lives separately, Oscar in England and Lucinda in Australia, so that when they finally do meet there is an amusing fatefulness to the scene.

Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) is the son of a strict Puritan father. He defects to the Church of England early on and goes to school to become a priest. Several events confirm a tendency in him to regard chance as an instrument of God's will, and when a roommate introduces him to the racetrack, he gradually becomes a compulsive gambler. Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) a young woman who grows up on an Australian farm, "a proud square peg in a world of round holes," becomes a reluctant heiress, investing her money in a Sydney glass factory and, along the way, developing an addiction to betting on card games. Of course these two gamblers eventually meet and develop a curious relationship, and then the story takes some even more unusual turns.

The screenwriter, Laura Jones, has adapted a Peter Carey novel with finesse and faithfulness to detail. I was captivated by Gillian Armstrong's confident, fluid direction. The switching back and forth between the two main characters' stories is not done rigidly, but with a kind of jaunty, impish rhythm that held my attention and sympathy. From scenes of city life to an extended sequence in the Australian outback, the picture is beautifully shot and framed. Armstrong has a poetic visual sense. The images not only tell the story, but symbolize larger themes.

Judging from Ralph Fiennes' last couple of films, I had come to think of him as a dull actor, perhaps caught in one of the many traps of stardom. But he shows some real courage here - Oscar is a very odd character indeed, a hyper-sensitive and utterly introverted eccentric. Fiennes is willing to go out on a limb and invite us to follow him through the bizarre reasonings and states of mind of a man whose religious sense is founded on the idea of a wager, a man who takes absurd risks for the sake of a love he only half understands. He brings this difficult character to life in all his passion and loneliness and abjectness. I was enchanted by Cate Blanchett, who has such wonderful expressiveness in her eyes, and seems perfect in the role of a woman going against her society's grain because she is true to her own wild spirit. Blanchett brings an intense emotionality to her role that doesn't seem studied at all - her personal magnetism and intelligence give the picture an added spark.

The theme of gambling is treated without solemnity or ponderousness. There is much to laugh about as these two struggle with their own impulses and against the censure of society. I like the way the movie accepts their neuroses as part of their attractiveness, instead of making them pitiful or tragic. Armstrong stays focused on her subject, which is love, and the ways in which love can be a tremendous gamble, taking on the nature of a mistake or misfortune even in fulfilling itself. She is one of the more able directors we have, and Oscar and Lucinda is her most interesting and ambitious work to date.

OUT OF SIGHT (Steven Soderbergh, 1998).

If professionalism, visual style, and smart screenwriting counted for anything in Hollywood, then Out of Sight would have won a bunch of Oscars. That didn't happen, and in my more bitter moments I would blame the mass audience, which stayed away from the picture because apparently its intelligence level is stuck at the infantile stage. Out of Sight is made for adults.

The Elmore Leonard story of a bank robber (George Clooney) who falls for a U.S. Marshal (Jennifer Lopez) is in itself nothing special, although the clever dialogue and the way the time sequence loops in and out through flashbacks makes it all seem very inventive indeed. Beyond that, and beyond the good chemistry between Clooney and Lopez, and amusing support from Ving Rhames and Steve Zahn - the picture has a beautiful look all its own. Soderbergh has taken what is basically a genre film and given it a style and crispness that completely engages the eye. The camera placement, editing, and photography (Elliot Davis) are all first rate, and most of all, Soderbergh knows how to tell a story artfully without hitting us over the head. But I guess we're just not used to that....

PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (Henry Cornelius, 1949).

In the London suburb of Pimlico, a centuries-old document is discovered showing that Pimlico had been declared a property of the duchy of Burgundy. This fanciful pretext allows the film to make gentle fun of the political scene in post-war Britain by having Pimlico declare independence, and become isolated by the government's heavy-handed sanctions. A lot of the humor was certainly more pointed in the days when rationing coupons were a daily reality for the British people, but the film holds up pretty well because of the buoyantly clever script (T.E.B. Clarke) and delightful performances by the principals, especially Stanley Holloway as the mayor and Margaret Rutherford, way over the top as the dotty scholar who investigates the document. One of the earliest of the fine comedies from Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios.

PATHER PANCHALI (Satyajit Ray, 1955).

Pather Panchali is a miracle, in at least two ways. First, the fact that Satyajit Ray managed to make the film over a four-year period, overcoming tremendous obstacles. Even more miraculous, though, is the result - a film of such beauty, and so close to formal perfection, that it's hard to believe it was Ray's first effort. The editing rhythm and camera movement have a flowing, lyrical quality which is attuned to this story of a poor family living in a village in Bengal. Never too slow or too fast, one almost forgets that the camera is there, so natural is Ray's style.

The family consists of the parents - the father is often away trying to make a living, the mother frets and scolds and feels lonely - a daughter and son, and an old infirm aunt. Watching this film is like peeking into an actual place and time. Little details, like the dragonflies playing on the water, create a sense of place while evoking feelings about events that are happening in the lives of the family. The compositions within the shots are brilliant - the old auntie moving in the background while we see the mother in the foreground, for instance, is far more effective than conventional cuts would be. The picture gains in power as it goes - later scenes build on the pathos of our memory of earlier ones without having to use any emphasis. Ravi Shankar's music adds emotional depths to the story.

The real source of this film's beauty, however, is not the arrangement of the elements, as great as that is. Rather it lies in the basic honesty of the film's point of view. These are not idealized people. The mother nags, her desire for security getting the better of her compassion. The father is a dreamer whose irresponsibility puts the family at risk. The sister, Durga, steals things. Yet they are also decent, loving people. The mother in particular (an amazing performance by Karuna Bannerjee, an amateur, as was most of the cast) gains immeasurably in stature as the film progresses. The figure of the old auntie is very moving - childish and sometimes petulant, she also shows a gentleness and tolerance much needed by the daughter. Things happen in this world - a troupe of actors visit the village, a neighbor girl gets married, Apu and Durga run to catch the sight of a train. The cumulative effect is the sense of life as it's lived, its tragedies, and the courage it takes for people to keep going. The final sequence, with its sense of loss and the need to move on, is among the most perfectly realized in film. This is the kind of movie where I spend hours afterwards just feeling the glow of the experience.

Ray had always loved movies, and aspired to create a distinctly Indian style of cinema. The spark came when Jean Renoir was filming The River in India - Ray introduced himself and ended up helping the master scout locations. (Pather Panchali's self-assured camera movement reminds one of Renoir.) He decided to adapt Bibhuti Bannerjee's Apu novels for the screen. While visting London, he saw The Bicycle Thief, which inspired him to use a similarly realist style. Ray scraped up all of his savings, borrowed money from friends and relatives, took out a loan on his life insurance, and gathered a cast and crew who had as little experience as he. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer, had never shot a film before. Ray discovered Chunibala Devi, who played auntie, living in poverty - an opium addict - in Calcutta. She was a former stage actress who hadn't worked in years. Since they all had day jobs, all shooting was done on weekends and holidays. He showed footage around, but there were no takers. He sold off most of his possessions. His wife pawned her jewelry. When they couldn't afford any more film, they used the discarded film ends left around at the Calcutta studios. But finally, after a year and a half, Ray ran out of money and filming stopped. After a year of desperate searching for financial backing, a friend of his mother's got him in touch with the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The state government agreed to buy the film, taking any profit it might make, and imposing a deadline for completion. Ray got a leave of absence from his job and shooting commenced full-time. In another year the film was finally completed. Ravi Shankar's score, hurriedly commissioned, was completed in eleven days. On its inital release it was criticized for being pessimistic, but audiences soon discovered it. It was the Indian entry at Cannes in '56, and won the prize for Human Document. It also won an award at Berlin, as well as numerous other awards. It was the first Indian film to gain wide international release, and also the first one to avoid imitating Hollywood models.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the film are not quite as smooth as the remainder - you can sense Ray practically learning how to direct right on the spot. But it's astonishing how accomplished the film is as a whole. One would think this was an old master rather than a 32-year old novice. Ironically, the long delays in filming helped give the story more of a realistic look - we can really see the maturation of Durga and Apu, emotionally as well as physically. Uma Das Gupta is very moving as Durga - next to auntie, she is the most memorable character in the film - her desire for pleasure and freedom conflicting with the demands of obedience and duty. Ray went on to become the grand old man of Indian cinema. (Unfortunately, his commitment to realism did not find many adherents.) Pather Panchali is the first film in a trilogy. The other two films - Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959) are excellent as well. They follow Apu into adolescence and adulthood, and the trilogy constitutes something of a national epic with Apu as the soul of India.

It's easy to become jaded writing about movies. There is so much that is poor, or merely adequate. So little rises to the level of art, art that transforms. Seeing this film again gives me faith. I already loved it, but the previous times I'd seen it, the picture was not so good and the subtitles were hard to read. The latest video release, financed by Ismael Merchant, has a beautifully restored print and new subtitles.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (Milos Forman, 1996).

With all the controversy over the content of The People vs. Larry Flynt, I was surprised by what a lackluster piece of work it is in terms of style. The director, Milos Forman, seems at a loss, straining for comic verve one minute and stirring drama the next, failing to hit a genuine note throughout the picture. The editing and pace have the dull mechanical feel of your average TV movie. The discussions around the film, which turn out to be more interesting than the picture itself, did not prepare me for the short shrift given to free speech issues. The arguments that are presented are so elementary, so lacking in nuance, that they seem like a mere sop thrown to critics. (One sequence, with Flynt in front of a huge screen, manages to make some points about the hypocrisy of condemning depictions of sex while tolerating violence. It's also one of the few parts with any visual panache.)

Most of the film is about Larry Flynt's personal life and career. My impression is that we are meant to see Flynt as an iconoclastic, amusing, frustrating, but ultimately sympathetic person. There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, except that the script sanitizes and simplifies Flynt, and there's nothing in Woody Harrelson's performance to inspire anything but the most cursory interest in him as a person. From the opening sequence, with Flynt as child bootlegger, to the end, there is a lazy approach to character - any hint of subjectivity was avoided. Worst of all, the relationship between Flynt and his wife Althea (Courtney Love) is dead on the screen - every scene between Harrelson and Love seems artificial, strained, overacted. In fact, I found myself feeling annoyed every time Love appeared (which was often) - in my opinon, there was nothing to her performance but a series of very tired and obvious affectations. I guess we're supposed to feel sorry for Althea. The music tells me that there's supposed to be tragedy in her story. I didn't feel it. And that's mainly because there is no inside to this character.

Finally, the decision to soft-pedal the true nature of Hustler is a mistake that robs the film of any power it may have salvaged from the wreckage of its human drama. The movie makes it seem like Hustler is merely a raunchier version of Playboy. Hustler's opponents are cartoon villains (when we first see James Cromwell, Forman gives us a close-up of his name tag which says "Charles Keating," just in case we're too stupid to draw the intended conclusions), so there's little sense of anything real at stake here. We don't even get to hear the opposing lawyer in the Supreme Court hearing - the entire ending is amazingly perfunctory. Now, I am a strict First Amendment type. But I think a far stronger case is made for free speech if you really get an idea of how offensive (to many of us) Hustler's material is. The whole point is that the First Amendment especially protects speech that would be considered hateful by the majority of people. This point is muted, fatally so, because Forman wanted to have it both ways - defend Flynt's First Amendment rights while toning down the material of Flynt's magazine so as not to offend moviegoers. If you don't want to offend moviegoers, you shouldn't make a movie about Larry Flynt. I understand that he wanted to try for a mainstream hit, and avoid an NC-1 7 rating, etc. But as it turned out, people were offended anyway, and the movie did not do well at the box office, so I don't think the rating would have hurt it very much. It might even have helped it. In any case, the picture could have been challenging if it had dared to really offend people and show Flynt as he is, and thereby make a real case for free speech, instead of the lukewarm bio of a boring person that Forman offers us.

PI (Darren Aronofsky, 1998).

The name of the film is not really Pi. But since the symbol for the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter is not on my keyboard, it will have to do. The story - which has elements from the science fiction and thriller genres but is really neither - concerns an obsessive and extremely reclusive math genius named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who lives in a tiny and shabbily furnished NYC apartment with a big computer called Euclid. Max believes that everything can be explained and predicted by numbers, and he attempts to prove it by finding a numeric pattern in the stock market. He avoids most human contact, and his one friend and mentor, a former math professor played by Mark Margolis, is always admonishing him to take a break. Max pushes himself to the limit of physical and mental endurance, pumping himself up with drugs and suffering periodic seizures and hallucinations that become more and more severe. In addition, a mysterious corporation is trying to get him to find the magic number for them, while at the same time a group of Kabbalists want to get him to provide them with the same number, which they believe will provide them with the true and awesome name of God that was lost when the Temple was razed by the Romans. (One of the film's best scenes involves a lengthy plea by an older rabbi of this group, which meets with an interesting and provocative response from Max.)

Obviously, Pi's plot is not meant to be realistic. The thriller elements seem more like offhand parody than anything designed to get the pulse racing. In some sense the drama is inside Max's head. Will his search for ultimate knowledge destroy him or restore him to some sort of sanity? In fact, Pi is a real rarity - a film of ideas. Aronofsky (who co-wrote the film with Gullette and Eric Watson) creates intrigue and suspense around the radically abstract outreaches of number theory. He succeeds in making certain ideas - such as the Pythagorean idea of the universe as a series of numbers, or the question of discernible mathematical pattern in the web of chaos - the real protagonists of his film. Pi has a look all its own, thanks to brilliant high-contrast black and white photography by Matthew Libatique. The techno score (Clint Mansell) is a perfect, edgy fit. The script, though, can be on the simplistic side at times, and the focus on Max's increasingly violent fits get to be repetitive and overdone. Despite these few reservations, I recommend the picture as one of the more original of the year. The film's symbolism can be variously interpreted - it is my opinion that it offers a critique of our tendency to mistake mental abstractions for reality, to the detriment of human well-being. Our hero's physical, sensuous existence must take precedence over his thinking in order for him to survive his ordeal. But see it and decide for yourself.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Peter Weir, 1975).

Weir's second film, and the first to gain him international recognition, concerns a girl's boarding school in turn-of-the-century Australia, run by a grim disciplinarian played by Rachel Roberts. One day the girls are sent off on a picnic to the mountainous formation of the title. Four of them wander off to explore, later followed by one of the school-mistresses assigned to supervise them. Only one of the girls returns - the others mysteriously vanish. The rest of the film focuses on the reactions of the people in the school and other townspeople to this unaccountable event.

The film's style is as dreamy and elusive as its subject. Weir establishes an intoxicating sensual undercurrent that is always tugging at us behind the stiff Edwardian exterior of the setting and characters. The strange pull of Hanging Rock has something to do with the release of repressed sexuality, the most prominent symbol of this theme being one of the girls who disappears - the beautiful, ethereal Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). A young man who glimpsed her going up the Rock becomes obsessed with her image and almost kills himself trying to find her, while her roommate Sara (Margaret Nelson), who also loved her, gradually loses her hold on life. Much of the film's drama is about Sara, who is tormented by the Rachel Roberts character, and her fixation on Miranda seems more than a bit tinged with inchoate lesbian desire. The acting in the picture is fine overall.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a strange parable of the conflict between the conditioning of the young women to stifle their sexuality, and the real world of the senses which they actually inhabit, vividly represented by the rugged Australian landscape. Weir and the screenwriter, Cliff Green (the film is adapted from a Joan Lindsay novel, although titles deceivingly imply that it's based on an historical event) wisely emphasizes the mystery and ambiguity rather than presenting a solution. The film pulled me into its world and left me in a mood of sadness and wonder. The movie sports luscious visuals (Russell Boyd was the d.p.) and haunting pan-pipe music by Bruce Smeaton.

PIERROT LE FOU (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965).

A middle class Parisian (Jean-Paul Belmondo) abandons his marriage and runs off with a fickle young woman (Anna Karina) on a crime spree. Despite the melodramatic trappings, the film is virtually plotless. Once again Godard is attempting a sort of metafilm, but with less success, I think, than in Band of Outsiders or Alphaville. The picture veers suddenly from bitter social satire to oafish parody to political tract - Karina and Belmondo even perform a couple of musical numbers. As usual, there are touches of sheer brilliance - the duo's exit from Paris after a killing, accomplished in a rapid series of jump cuts with voice-overs and on-and-off music, for instance, is the kind of thing that revives one's excitement about the possibilities of cinema. But in my opinion the movie as a whole is a mess because Godard seems to have lacked the wit to pull off a self-reflexive project of this sort. His sense of humor is leaden, and a bad match with his didacticism. The love-hate relationship of the two principals is boring because Godard is merely playing with a form to spout off his ideas rather than giving ideas a meaningful form. (The story is so absurd that I stopped trying to follow it after a while.) He would probably argue with the very terms of my critique, and I certainly take him seriously as an artist. I just happen to think that his films are better when his experimentation expresses a vision, however radical, rather than contemptuous anti-visions, as in these "film is dead" movies (Weekend is another example) which only react against a prevailing norm, as if that was enough to justify them. If film is dead, why make films?

PINOCCHIO (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, 1940).

Walt Disney's second full-length animated feature seems to be mainly remembered for the Leigh Harline song "When You Wish Upon a Star." Although it is a great song, this may unfortunately obscure the greatness of the film as a whole. The rather complex story, based on the Carlo Collodi children's book, is captivating in mood and characterization. The superbly detailed animation is arguably the greatest of any cartoon movie - just stare in wonder at the variety and depth of the compositions, and get a feel for how it used to be done in the days before TV and computers. Despite the film's occasionally oppressive moralism, Pinocchio feels more human and more compassionate than most Disney fare. Perhaps, paradoxically, this is because the film has a decidedly dark quality - even a scariness at times - that lends a subtle dramatic emphasis to what on the surface seems just another fairy tale. This also might explain why it's never been as popular as it deserves.

PONETTE (Jacques Doillon, 1996).

Every adult was once a child. How strange it is, then, that adults often think of children, and act towards them, as if they were fundamentally different beings, whose thoughts and concerns may be interesting, or funny, or sad, or cute - but are somehow separate, and less important, than those of grown up people. When the lights came on after a screening of Jacques Doillon's Ponette, I overheard several adults talking about how "precious" and "touching" the little girl in the film was. I could fully understand their reactions, but in their tone I sensed also a need to push the experience away from their own and make it just about childhood, and not about themselves. I was touched too, but also shaken, because Doillon has presented here our suffering and heroic human journey in the guise of a 4-year-old's grief.

Ponette's story distills our struggles with understanding and accepting death into the most elemental terms, the child's point of view lending a stark clarity to this age-old theme. Her mother has died in a car accident. Her father can barely express his sorrow and anger. Other adults - her aunt, a teacher - give her various explanations of the meaning of death. When the aunt tells her that her mother is with Jesus, she also tells her that Jesus came back from the dead, which confuses the girl and inspires hope that the same could happen with her mother. Ponette refuses to accept the finality of her mother's passing. She waits for her to return, tries to call her back with magical rituals, prays to God.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Ponette's interaction with other children - her cousins, and later the other children in a boarding school. She asks these other kids for information about death, and the mixture of overheard and garbled facts with fantasies and private little thought systems that she receives from her peers is like a microcosm of human attempts to explain and reconcile with death through myth and magical thinking, secular denial and spiritual ordeal. At times she is told that she is to blame for her mother's death. A classmate initiates her in an elaborate series of tests that will turn her, if she succeeds, into a "child of God" who can then talk to her mother. This cacophony of children's wisdom is often quite funny in the way it illuminates adult absurdities through distortion and simplification. What is not funny, but wholly moving and convincing, is how Ponette grabs on to each possible solution in a relentless search for a resolution of her problem. She is indomitable. No persuasion or consolation can change her resolve.

Doillon has inspired a performance from a little girl named Victoire Thivisol that is so natural as to be almost uncanny. She accomplishes the actor's miracle - we believe utterly in her character and her reality. The other children are just as unaffected. In fact, even though the story and the dialogue have such symbolic resonance, the film doesn't seem written. The words sound as if they were made up on the spot, overheard. The direction is very soft and low key, with a beautiful visual texture and rhythm. The adults seem much more distant than the kids, and I believe this is Doillon's way of showing us the children's point of view. There is, in a way, a whole world of children's thoughts and interactions that is going on outside of the awareness of the adults in the picture, and this is presented more vividly than I've ever seen in a film before. What is striking is not only how this world mirrors that of the grownups, but how the views and ways of other children have for Ponette a similar weight and influence to that of the adults in her life, a fact about our development which I think often goes unremarked. Over all is a sense of deep respect. Respect for the drama of Ponette, respect for the process that only she must go through and only she can know when it is fulfilled. The way the story is resolved can be taken literally or symbolically. The one thing it is not is sentimental. To me it made perfect sense in the context of Ponette's search for her own truth. This film invites you to look at a suffering child and see yourself, not as a victim, but as a brave soul moving ever onward.

PRIMARY COLORS (Mike Nichols, 1998).

I have always been immune to the appeal of Bill Clinton. One of my problems with this thinly disguised portrait of Clinton's 1992 campaign is that it makes Bill and Hillary out to be more interesting than they really are. Having said that, however, I will admit to being pleasantly surprised with the quality of some of the writing - Elaine May has adapted the book with vigor and a sharp ear for the talk that goes on in back rooms during campaigns. Adrian Lester (as our point-of-view character) and Billy Bob Thornton as a James Carvill type, are outstanding, but it is Kathy Bates' wild woman who ends up becoming the soul of the movie. Emma Thompson is as competent as ever - although I can hear her struggling with the American accent - but John Travolta's Clinton imitation, while impressive, does not suspend my disbelief. I can see the wheels turning behind the performance, which is distracting.

For the first hour or so, Primary Colors is a good political comedy with something to say. Then it starts to get wacky and over-the-top in ways that go against the satire rather than help it. In the end, it seems like the movie wants to express a total disillusionment with the political process while at the same time extolling the kind of pragmatism that the Lester character winds up adopting. Lost in this slick portrait of an election is a sense of the real temptations and consequences of power - but this could have been a lot worse. The film is smart enough to be watchable and provoke a little thought, and I suppose that's something to be grateful for these days.

PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS (Sergei Bodrov, 1996).

Prisoner of the Mountains is adapted from a Tolstoy short story, and updated to the present day conflict in Chechnya. Two Russian soldiers, a raw recruit and a brash young sergeant, are captured by Chechen rebels. An old man plans to trade them for his son, who is a prisoner of the Russians. As negotiations stall, prisoners and captors develop a complex relationship, with the threat of execution all the while hanging over them.

Bodrov knows how to use camera placement and editing to full effect - the story moves along crisply with good development of the characters. Sergei Bodrov, Jr. plays the recruit Vanya with an affecting mix of fear and good-heartedness. The cocky officer Sacha is played by Oleg Menshikov (who looks a little like Kevin Kline), and his flamboyant performance brings a great deal of energy to the film - despite the character's boyish arrogance, his humor and exuberance make us like him anyway. The old man who holds them captive (Jemal Sikharulidze) has a stern majesty that holds your attention, and there is a wonderful turn by Susanna Mekhralieva as the old man's little daugher who takes a liking to Vanya. The plot summary may make the film sound like some kind of tame morality play with wide-eyed idealism, but in fact the picture is very tough-minded and often extremely funny. War is definitely hell, and the soldiers talk like real soldiers would, and the life-and-death decisions that are made are moving and convincing.

This is a humanist film with a strong, realistic flavor, about people forced to recognize the humanity of their enemies. The location photography (Pavel Lebeshev) of the harshly beautiful mountain scenery is stunning - some of the shots, and the unusual color schemes, make the mountain village look otherworldly. I was continually surprised by the directions the story took, and pleased by Bodrev's patience in developing the characters' gradual changes. It is easier to make war, to follow the same old habits of hate and retribution, than it is to have compassion for another human being. Prisoner of the Mountains shows people choosing both the easy and hard ways.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (Michael Curtiz, 1939).

This should have been great - Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in the title roles, shot in gorgeous Technicolor. But the picture is too talky by far, with a simple-minded and outright fanciful view of history. And unfortunately, Davis and Flynn have zero chemistry together. Well, at least he appears comfortable. She seems out of sorts - which, considering the script (insulting the greatness of Queen Elizabeth by making her a fusspot who is constantly fretting about her age and her looks) is understandable. Davis was furious that the title was changed from "Elizabeth the Queen" in order to include Flynn's role. She was right, it's a terrible title. The film is not a total loss - there are flourishes here and there, such as a turn by Alan Hale as an Irish rebel leader, to sustain the interest. But overall, a rare disappointment from Curtiz's glory days at Warners.

LA PROMESSE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1996)

The subject is the birth of a conscience, the film was written and directed by two brothers from Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne. 15-year-old Igor (Jeremie Renier) is in some ways a normal kid - he loves riding his moped and working on a go-cart with his friends. But he also works for his father, helping to smuggle illegal aliens into Belgium. Roger, the dad (Olivier Gourmet) puts the aliens in substandard housing, forges their passports, makes them work for him on his construction unit, and generally squeezes all the money he can out of them. Igor helps in most of the dirty work - and he's exposed to an atmosphere of lying and corruption that is beginning to harden him. But one day an African, one of the immigrants, falls off a scaffold. Dying in Igor's arms, he asks him to take care of his wife and infant son. Igor promises, and it is the need for this young man to be faithful to his promise that sets the stage for conflict with his father.

Instead of reporting the death, Roger enlists his son's help in burying him on the site - covering him with cement. He then lies to the wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), saying that her husband fled because of gambling debts, and then uses an elaborate ruse to get her to go with him to Germany, where he plans to sell her as a prostitute. Igor, faithful to his promise, decides to help her, at great personal cost to himself.

La Promesse is quite vigorous and immediate in its editing and direction. The Dardennes have achieved a small miracle with their mostly non-professional cast. The young Renier has a special honesty and naturalness. We can see the painful growth of a moral sense in the boy. The drama of the immigrants, the social observation, the sense of corruption as an everyday reality, is seen from the inside, not preached at from the outside. The modesty and directness of the technique make the story all the more compelling. Although the film is sad, there is hopefulness - there is even a kind of faith in this film, the faith that promises do mean something and that the simple actions of this young man can make a difference.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (William Wellman, 1931).

The rise and fall of a two-bit gangster, played with ferocious abandon by James Cagney. His performance is so intense and kinetic that he blows everyone else off the screen. The picture includes the infamous scene where he smashes a grapefruit into Mae Marsh's kisser. But take a look at the expression on his face as, standing outside his enemy's lair in the rain, he prepares to enter shooting. It'll give you chills. The film is remarkably fresh and fast-moving. The sharp direction by Wellman makes the picture hum with tension. The only bad scene is one where Jean Harlow makes a little speech about why Cagney is the man for her - written and performed so poorly that I cringed with embarrassment. Otherwise, the movie is filled with little gems like the revenge taken by Cagney and his pal (Edward Woods) on a horse that threw their boss, Cagney stumbling on the street after being shot, saying "I'm not so tough," and the incredible ending, which has never been topped for originality and shock value. Great, gritty Warner Brothers entertainment.

A PURE FORMALITY (Guiseppe Tornatore, 1994).

A famous writer (Gerard Depardieu) is picked up by the police while wandering in a rainstorm. A body has been found, and the writer is detained for questioning by a relentless police inspector (Roman Polanski). This bizarre mystery is really a two-man show - its chief pleasure the cat-and-mouse game between the principals. Polanski is good, and there are some intriguing moments along the way, but on the whole I found Tornatore's direction overwrought and distracted. The story, by Pascal Quignard, is convoluted enough as it is, and would have benefited from a crisper, simpler style. The Twilight Zone ending doesn't have the impact it should. For one thing, Tornatore doesn't make the idea clear enough - I was saying "What!?" instead of "Wow!" Well, it is an ingenious idea for an ending.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (Zhang Yimou, 1991).

In early 20th century China, a young woman (Gong Li), becomes the fourth wife of a rich man. In his palace each wife has a house, and the lighting of the red lantern indicates which wife the man will sleep with that night. The women are constantly competing with one another for precedence, and the fourth wife finds herself more and more engulfed by this cutthroat world.

Zhang's films are the most visually impressive of the "Fifth Generation" Chinese directors who have enriched the world of cinema since the 1980s. This is no more true than in this film, which has an amazingly controlled feeling of beauty combined with a chilling point of view concerning the power relations between the sexes. All the shots are constructed like paintings, with a lot of long shots of the palace at different times and seasons, the figures moving within the frame imparting the sense of an enclosed and oppressive world. Zhang's instincts are superb - the visual strategies reinforce the audience's sense of the fourth wife being a newcomer and outsider. The use of color is brilliant. This is as fine a production as you will see anywhere in the world.

The story is simple in essence, but the implications are worked out with great patience and care. The women fight and struggle with each other as enemies, but it is the man, and the social order which turns women into property, that is the real enemy. The perspective is feminist in that it shows how the subjection of the women degrades their humanity, and how the significance of their lot is obscured by the deliberate creation of competition (the red lanterns) between them. We only see the rich husband in long shot, and we never get a good view of his face. It is as if his power is one with the impersonal force of patriarchy. Raise the Red Lantern is extraordinary as a critique which avoids being didactic, as a film in which intense formal beauty does not distract from its drama, as a work of art which achieves the sublime effect of tragedy. It is unquestionably one of the greatest films of the last twenty years.

RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, 1950).

In feudal Japan, a man has been killed and his wife raped. How did it happen? Kurosawa presents four different versions of the catastrophe, told by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machicko Kyo), the ghost of the husband (Masayuki Mori) speaking through a medium, and a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) who happened upon the scene. The idea of depicting conflicting versions of the truth was novel in its day, and in fact the name of the film is still used as a synonym for films or stories that employ this technique. Rashomon caused an unexpected sensation at the Venice Film Festival, later winning the foreign film Oscar and opening the door for the distribution of Japanese films in the west. One can understand why. Besides the interesting plot structure, Kurosawa's bold, muscular style, with lots of contrasting cuts between long-shot and close-up or fixed and moving shots, grabs the attention and doesn't let go. It now doesn't seem quite as brilliant as some of his later works - too schematic, especially in the framing device which involves three men discussing the events in a temple during a rain storm. The archaic sexual politics depicted in the story can be jarring, although certainly justified by the feudal setting. Mifune is excellent as usual. Most of all I admire the freshness of Kurosawa's approach. The testimony of the participants, for example, is done without any of the trappings of a courtroom drama. We just see them sitting outdoors, talking while facing the camera, and it lends an elemental, almost otherworldly quality to the proceeedings. Kurosawa brought a breath of fresh air to film because he was able to visualize things with new eyes, and Rashomon still has a stirring power and vitality today.

THE RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN (Yasujiro Ozu, 1947).

An abandoned boy, overweight and taciturn, is left in the care of a woman who doesn't want him, especially after he wets the bed. This is an example of Ozu on a smaller scale, before he perfected the meditative style for which he is famous. Already in evidence is his disregard of story in favor of a gentle focus on character - the film has a flowing simplicity and naturalism. In the end, the personal issues are extended to a wider social range - Ozu is making a statement about the plight of children in postwar Japan and the need for adults to open their hearts and go beyond narrow feudal ideas about legitimacy. A nice little jewel hidden in the treasure box of a great director's oeuvre.

RED DESERT (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964).

As usual in an Antonioni film, the story, such as it is, seems to arise rather casually from the characters rather than have a structure of its own. In this case we follow a young married woman in Ravenna (Monica Vitti), traumatized after a car accident, as she tries to get her bearings in an increasingly alienated industrial environment. Many of the techniques used in the director's groundbreaking trilogy (L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse) - such as scenes taking place in real time, the eschewing of reaction shots, experiments with unusual point-of-view shots - are intensified here by an overt attempt at a symbolic relation between the characters and the urban landscape. Antonioni achieves some very chilling effects with his images of factories, smoke and pollution - sometimes he seems to be aiming at a pure aesthetic of industrial objects, as when the camera lingers over huge complexes of machinery, the characters walking through the scene like alien beings that have no real place there. This was his first color film, and it is without a doubt his most visually striking work. Different color schemes are used in different scenes to emphasize a mood, an idea, or a psychic struggle of the main character. The trouble with Red Desert, however, as compared to the trilogy, is that the people seem abstract, their actions don't seem like those of real individuals - perhaps because Antonioni is more interested in using them as metaphors for his ideas about modern life and the way we either adjust to it or break down under it. The ideas are interesting, but I think they needed to be made more concrete, more grounded in the particulars of character, in order for them to be communicated. I would not expect Antonioni to be a traditional storyteller, but even within his minimalist style one needs a window into a view of life, rather than a mere concept of such a view.

Monica Vitti is unable to succeed in portraying a deeply disturbed person - she paces about or backs into a corner with a frightened look, but it all seems like mimicry so it doesn't resonate. Richard Harris plays a friend of her husband who becomes interested in her. It's hard to comprehend why he was cast - surely not for his distinctive voice, which has been dubbed. Most of the time he seems to be wondering what he's doing in the film as well. There is one sequence where Vitti tells a story, a fantasy about a young girl who lives on an island, and as we see the little story visualized, the film opens up into a lyrical dimension. Perhaps it was Antonioni's intention to say that this vision is no longer viable, but it was one of the few sections of the film where I felt involved, because it had passion.

RED DUST (Victor Fleming, 1932).

In Southeast Asia, the overseer of a rubber plantation (Clark Gable) pursues a married woman (Mary Astor), while a wise-cracking prostitute (Jean Harlow) pursues him. This is an entertaining example of the kind of stories that were only possible before the Code. Some of the snappiest, raciest lines go to Harlow, who was just coming into her own as a performer. Her chemistry with Gable is fun to watch. Astor's part is as big as theirs, although her name goes below the title, and she does very well in the standard "white woman who doesn't belong in this savage wilderness" role. Of course, the picture displays all the racist assumptions of its day - but this element is luckily not prominent enough to spoil one's enjoyment of Metro star power at full tilt.

REMBRANDT (Alexander Korda, 1936).

This film about the great Dutch painter begins with the death of his beloved wife, chronicling the drastic decline in his fortunes that followed. The title role is played by Charles Laughton with great intelligence and vigor. It is perhaps his finest performance - he even looks uncannily like Rembrandt. Although the picture takes the form of a rather loosely connected series of episodes, it has a marvelous visual texture and design. Korda comes close to achieving the look of the paintings themselves in the composition of the scenes. Aimed at a popular audience, and thus a bit skimpy in historical detail, the film's literate script and graceful style place it a cut above most biopics. There is a decided emphasis on the artist's iconoclastic temperament and beliefs, his deliberate disregard for mercenary motives in his artistic creation, and his scorn for all varieties of conformity and intellectual timidity. One of the most rewarding British films of the 30s.

THE ROUND-UP (Miklos Jancso, 1965).

In 1868, a group of Hungarian prisoners are detained in a compound by the Austrian authorities. The jailers are seeking a rebel leader they believe is hiding among the prisoners, and to that end they terrorize the inmates, turning them against each other with informers, and utilizing torture and sudden executions. This was the film that made Jancso famous on the world film scene. He developed a daring and original narrative technique. It doesn't feel like there are discrete scenes or episodes in The Round-Up. Jancso uses very long takes, with a bare minimum of cuts, the camera constantly moving among the characters, following some, then switching to others - the effect is as if the whole film is one extended scene. The method is suited to the content. Jancso's theme is the domination of human beings by organized political terror. Although the story takes place in a specific historical context (the aftermath of the abortive 1848 Hungarian revolt), the time period feels universal, and the parallels with modern totalitarianism are inescapable. The effect is almost unbearably intense - we see the grinding down of the civilized personality until all that's left is savagery and dog-eat-dog survival. The method doesn't allow for detachment - you are there, and there's no escape from the harrowing sense of persecution. The ever-moving eye of the camera (Jancso took the tracking shot to a new level) doesn't settle on any one character as an identification point. We are in the position of an anguished yet strangely impersonal observer, powerless to change what we see, equally unable to look away. In the hell on earth of The Round-Up, the surrender of the will to the mindless force of the State is the essence of our modern predicament.

RUN LOLA RUN (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

German director Tykwer wowed 'em at Sundance with this fun, flashy display of technique. Lola (Franka Potente) must run to come up with one hundred thousand marks to save her boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu) from the consequences of losing the money from a big drug deal. The movie takes us through three different possible outcomes, depending on subtle differences in choice. Now, you are welcome to read a lot into this if you like - I found the whole idea of the plot rather shallow, actually. The point is in the style - Tykwer uses a lot of snazzy camera movement, fast cutting, weird perspectives, different film stock, even animation, to keep your eye entertained for an hour and a half. And in that it succeeds - Run Lola Run is fun to watch, especially in its first half hour which goes off like a firecracker (the inventiveness lags a bit after that). Of course there is a tendency to overrate such things. In our MTV age, people seem increasingly hooked by the fast, the hip, the stylish surface of a film at the expense of meaning. There's something empty-headed about Run Lola Run - it's like delicious junk food that doesn't nourish you at all. Nevertheless, Tykwer's style is a lot more playful and risky than any music video I've ever seen. It's a wonder it didn't become a huge hit, but I guess that shows how the brainless refusal to read subtitles even affects the success of foreign films that would even appeal to Hollywood's prime demographic.

RUSHMORE (Wes Anderson, 1998).

When a mainstream film does something out of the ordinary, it tends to get overpraised. Such is the case with Wes Anderson's Rushmore, but that's no reason to avoid seeing it. The picture at first seems to be about a pushy teenage schemer (Jason Schwartzman) at a prep school, who is wildly successful at extracurricular activities but can't pass his regular course work. One would expect said hero to triumph over adversity and show his mettle. Instead he falls in love with an older woman (Olivia Williams) and becomes unhinged when she falls for his mentor (Bill Murray) instead. What I found refreshing about all this was that the clever 15-year-old turns out be at the emotional level of, well, a 15-year-old. That this makes him look pathetic and embarrassing is perfectly in line with his age, but this seems to be what some people don't like about the movie. I think we're so used to precocious teens in films that it's a shock to have the tables turned on us this way. Bill Murray's part plays against his usual type - he's melancholy and a bit confused. His timing and facial expressions are so good, though, that he lights up the film whenever he's on screen. People were laughing at the smallest things he would do - I suppose that's partly a function of being well known as Bill Murray, but I credit a talent for comic undeplaying as well. I have to say that Schwartzman is not quite up to the task of portraying Max Fischer. The script sometimes scores with a willingness to go to the full limit of silliness. Other times it misses wide. Rushmore is no comic masterpiece, but I like Wes Anderson and his uncool approach to character.

 

 

Chris Dashiell