SADIE THOMPSON (Raoul Walsh, 1928).
This adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Rain gets off to a rough start, but steadily builds in interest. Gloria Swanson is impressive in the title role, a "loose" woman on a South Sea island who is really a fun-loving free spirit but suffers persecution from a religious fanatic, played with frightening versmilitude by Lionel Barrymore. The story was controversial at the time, and Walsh manages to convey the flavor quite nicely without having to tone it down too much. (He also plays the Marine sergeant who falls for Sadie.) The story is sad, but the real tragedy is that the last two reels, containing the film's climax, are lost. Kino Video valiantly attempts a reconstruction using stills, which successfully conveys the essence of the plot, but the story's crucial turn of events needs time to unfold, so the effect is of a truncated film, an only partially recovered treasure.

THE SALTMEN OF TIBET (Ulrike Koch, 1997).

A remarkable portrait of a nomadic Tibetan tribe and its annual excursion to a lake in the far north to collect salt which is used for trading. The director, Ulrike Koch, became fascinated with this obscure society after hearing scattered rumors and stories. The Chinese denied her permission to film, so she sneaked in anyway, found the tribe, and - with cinematographer Pio Corradi and a couple of Tibetan assistants - accompanied four of the saltmen on their trek. The film opens with a woman singing one of Tibet's folk epics. We meet the people of the village, and watch as they prepare for the salt journey. Each of the four men who are going to the lake has a ceremonial title. The Old Mother is the leader, the storyteller and the voice of wisdom. He also cooks the food and coordinates much of the work. The Old Father is in charge of the many ritual and sacrificial aspects. The Lord of the Animals takes care of the herd of yaks who are to be loaded with the sacks of salt. And the Novice is there to learn how it is all done, so as to someday assume one of the other roles. We follow these four as they herd their yaks into the cold and rugged wild. The journey to the lake takes over a month, and the film's unhurried pace and attention to detail gives us the sense of time passing.

Koch's choice of method is a great success - the presence of the film crew is unseen and unacknowledged, and we hear no questions. The saltmen tell us about themselves and their traditions directly. This film avoids the feeling of looking at an alien culture from the outside, the ethnographic approach. Instead the viewer is immersed in this world, in the images and words of its members. I felt that I really got to know these people as rounded human beings. Their way of life is difficult, and the film doesn't romanticize it. Sometimes it may seem bizarre, but always worthy of respect. The Saltmen of Tibet captures, as no other film I've seen, the way spiritual practices and beliefs are intertwined, in the ways of traditional, pre-industrial peoples, with every aspect of their lives and livelihood. There are special songs for the gathering of the salt and the sewing of the salt-bags, prayers for every stage of the journey. There is even a secret "salt language" known only to the saltmen - in a humorous moment, when the men are speaking this language, Koch puts Tibetan symbols on the screen as subtitles. At the lake, we also see motor trucks gathering salt. The traditional way of the saltmen is in danger of disappearing. The picture is perhaps the last record of a vanishing world. This is an extraordinary film - fascinating, but also suffused with grace and gentleness. After seeing it, I felt that I understood at a gut level, for the first time, something about the lives of people who live close to the earth.

LE SAMOURAI (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967).

There are no words spoken for the first fifteen minutes of the film, as a hit man (played by Alain Delon) methodically prepares for a job. He proceeds to set up an airtight alibi with his mistress, then guns down his victim at a nightclub. But the killing is witnessed by a singer (Cathy Rosier).

Melville's taut, minimalist style brought the "action" film to another level. The film's rhythm matches Delon's virtually emotionless screen persona. Le Samourai has been a major influence on the modern crime film - perhaps for the wrong reasons. The ultra-cool criminal protagonist is not meant to be admirable, but a figure of total alienation. In fact, Delon's character is so abstracted from all personal meaning that the ironic twist at the end doesn't quite come off as it should. Still, it's an impressive demonstration of style. There is a long, excellent sequence, in which the hit man evades a police tail on the Paris Metro, that alone makes the film worth seeing.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (Steven Spielberg, 1998).

Although it has problems that are typical for a Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan has unusual merits as well. In the two huge battle sequences that begin and end the film, the director has attempted an accurate reproduction of the extreme adrenalin-pumping terror of battle. Not having fought in a war, I can't say how realistic Saving Private Ryan's battles are. But I feel confident enough to say that they're among the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Spielberg is a very fine action director. There's a difference, however, between depicting rampaging dinosaurs and depicting human beings getting cut to pieces in a war. In the latter case, the emotional effect was so devastating that it lends urgency and depth to the entire picture.

Spielberg is a firm believer in heroes, as most of his films show. In this film, the behavior of most of the characters, especially the one played by Tom Hanks, is extremely heroic, as they advance and fight against all odds of survival. The fact that these men are afraid (only a madman wouldn't be) and don't exhibit the comic-book fantasy types of heroic attitudes, actually makes this impression stronger and more vivid. Hanks seems better here than I've ever seen him, making everybody around him look good because of the assured, nuanced way he inhabits his character. Among the others, Tom Sizemore is best as a tough sergeant. His scenes with Hanks are natural and convincing.

There are problems. The biggest one is the premise about looking for the private whose three brothers have died so they can take him home. It's completely unbelievable, in my opinion. And having General Marshall quote Lincoln doesn't sell it - it just makes Marshall look like a windbag. It's as if Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, felt they just had to have some nifty plot hook on which to hang their movie. But the grim reality of battle overshadows the hook and demonstrates that it was unnecessary - the film could have been much better if it was just about a normal D-Day mission. The other problems are mostly in the quieter scenes when the film tries to establish character relationships - you can feel it overstraining itself to move the audience, although there's only one moment which could be described as an embarrassing gaffe. I'm refering to a reminiscence narrated by Ryan (Matt Damon) which apparently is meant to be funny or touching or both, but is really just amazingly stupid. Finally, there is the John Williams score. His crass musical sentimentalism is a bad match with the subject. (I think he accentuates Spielberg's worst inclinations in general, with the exception of the uncharacteristic dignity of his score for Schindler's List.) Mercifully, the music lays low during the fighting.

A lot of emphasis in the reviews has been on the gore factor in the battle scenes. This really didn't seem that prominent a feature to me. What is much more striking about these sequences is the pace and the atmosphere of terror and frantic energy. There's no time to sit back and think "this is only a movie." The effect is immediate and gut-wrenching, and in addition the commitment to realism makes the film's atmosphere so intense that it obviates most of the weaknesses. This isn't a great film in the sense of a work that covers all aspects of a theme in an epic fashion - I don't think Spielberg has that in him. But its focus on one particular effect - the feeling of being in a war - is successful enough to make it a very good film.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, 1934).

Sternberg's series of films with Marlene Dietrich at Paramount were probably the most ornately stylized of the studio era. This supposed account of the early life and ascension to the Russian throne of Catherine the Great is ludicrous history, but very beautiful to look at. As usual, Sternberg is a master in the use of light - the interplay of darkness and gloom with glittering, surreal displays of luxury is marvelous. The huge sets in The Scarlet Empress, and the bizarre, primitive-looking statues by Peter Ballbusch, loom over the characters like symbols of barbarism and depravity. Dietrich's heroine, first innocent and then amoral, lights up the surroundings with her intensely erotic presence. I suppose an argument could be made that the increasing ridiculousness of the story is part and parcel of the Sternberg aesthetic - but in my view it hurts the picture. Particularly painful is Louise Dresser - terribly miscast as the Empress Elizabeth. Her American accent and flat line readings break the mood every time. In compensation we have two amazing set pieces - the candlelit cathedral wedding of Catherine to the idiot Prince Peter (Sam Jaffe) and, best of all, the bravura palace coup which ends the picture - a superb series of movements on horseback that is pure film poetry.

THE SCHOOL OF FLESH (Benoit Jacquot, 1998).

An elegant and self-assured film about the obsession of an affluent middle-aged woman with a younger man. Dominique (Isabelle Huppert) is a beautiful divorcee who is bored with her life. She is drawn to street gigolo Quentin (Vincent Martinez) against her better judgment. She moves him into her apartment and pays his debts, all the while nervously investigating his past by searching through his things, meeting with past lovers (including a transvestite played to perfection by Vincent Lindon) and other invasive behaviors. The main barrier is not age, but class - Quentin can't grow out of his hustling habits, and Dominique is too much the bourgeois not to know that the relationship is doomed to fail. Yet she still hangs on.

Some have complained that it is obvious the couple can't succeed. This only exposes a far too common belief that plot surprises are the measurement of a film's success. The beauty here is in Jacquot's style - visually fluid and sensitive, with great attention to the rhythm of conversations and silences, and the poetry of the human face. Isabelle Huppert is wonderful. Her portrait of Dominique is sharply intelligent and self-possessed, with an inwardness and passion that centers the film around her point of view. Martinez, in his debut, is quite good - not a dumb hunk, but a troubled young man whose own confused longings are treated with justice by the script. I like the way The School of Flesh takes its time to capture the feeling of a sexual relationship without sensationalizing it. The style is integrated into the story without showing off, and it has a rare honesty that contrasts with the falseness of most "romantic" films.

THE SEA HAWK (Michael Curtiz, 1940).

One of the immensely enjoyable Errol Flynn swashbucklers produced by Warner Brothers, The Sea Hawk, like Captain Blood, is based (loosely) on a Rafael Sabatini book. Although it isn't quite as much fun as that earlier film, it is still a rousing adventure. The plot concerns a privateer who helps Queen Elizabeth fight the treachery of the Spanish empire. As usual, the history is completely fanciful - but no one should expect accuracy in this genre. All the elements are here - Claude Rains as Flynn's wily nemesis, Henry Daniell as the slimy Lord Wolfingham (nice name), Alan Hale as the sidekick, slave galleys, heroic escapes, a sword fight, and of course - romance. The lady is played by Brenda Marshall, who is serviceable but not great (Olivia de Havilland, Flynn's usual screen partner, had other commitments). Flora Robson practically steals the picture as a saucy, temperamental Queen Elizabeth. And then there's the great Erich Korngold score. Flynn's charm and energy override his limited range. He's such a good pirate that I'm surprised he didn't play more of them. No one could put together this kind of escapism with quite the skill and finesse of veteran director Michael Curtiz. Just sit back and enjoy.

SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 1966).

An aging banker (John Randolph) is given a chance at a "new" life by a secret organization. His death is faked and he is provided with a different face and identity (Rock Hudson!). This bizarre blend of science fiction and paranoid thriller has become a cult favorite, and it's easy to see why. Frankenheimer's use of moving camera point-of-view shots, and other disorienting techniques, is absolutely scary and mind-blowing, and the film features stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe. The script (Lewis John Carlino, based on a David Ely book) explores issues of identity, life purpose, and relationships to others, in novel and disturbing ways. The first half hour or so is like nothing you've ever seen before. The long middle section, when Rock Hudson comes on the scene, tends to sag a bit, however - there's not enough development of the ideas to give Hudson's sudden conflict about his new life needed weight and credibility. The film then picks up very well in its final, rather frightening, section. The fact that the premise is absurd doesn't matter much because the film's real purpose is to illuminate some very dark places in the psyche and in the social order. This movie is well worth a look.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (John Madden, 1998).

If you want to see something that will flatter you into feeling clever while remaining at the safe level of insipid Hollywood romance, I've got a film for you. It's called Shakespeare in Love. It will give just what you expect, it will provide an ersatz sense of culture, all the while carefully avoiding anything slightly challenging. The idea is that the Bard (Joseph Fiennes) has writer's block until he beds down with the pallid, paltry Gwyneth Paltrow. (That's how great writing happens, you know.) Endless scenes of the two making love, as the light lovingly plays on their gorgeous flesh and they fall in a perfect embrace, Fiennes unwrapping Paltrow from her bodice in soft focus, and on and on, all the while speaking lines from Romeo and Juliet. (I had to go read Measure for Measure afterwards just to feel clean again.) Plus two scenes where someone bursts into the rehearsal and starts a brawl, just in case you were getting, you know, bored. OK, there's some entertaining business with side characters, the costumes are fine, and the movie has that big colorful look that only money can provide. But it's not the best of anything - it's just a date movie for the PBS crowd. It ignores the facts again and again, getting everything wrong just so it can pander to the most witless ideas about art and love imaginable. The romance here is nothing different from any other romance movie turned out by the Hollywood assembly line, except that it contains some of the lines of our greatest poet, in the service of a story with no real meaning or passion. Naturally it will win lots of awards.

SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Lowell Sherman, 1933).

Mae West's first film, and although I tried to find some fault in it, I really couldn't. The plot, concerning some shady doings at a New York saloon in the 1890s, whizzes by effortlessly while West makes off-color wisecracks that are as hilarious today as they were shocking then. A very young Cary Grant is on hand as the one man West can't seem to snag. Pure delightful fun, and damn funny too. Based on a play by West herself.

SHOESHINE (Vittorio De Sica, 1946).

Two street urchins in Rome make their living by shining shoes. They scrape their money together to buy a beautiful horse, but their hapless complicity in an older brother's theft lands them in juvenile detention. This film was one of the milestones in the neorealist film movement. Many of the innovations that were hailed by critics - location shooting, use of nonprofessional actors, the grainy documentary style of the photography - were dictated as much by economic necessity as by artistic choice. In any case, the effect is still powerful, especially once the boys get to the reformatory and we witness the complex dynamics of domination and submission played out by the inmates, mirroring the world of their jailers. De Sica, a renowned actor himself, had a way of coaxing wonderfully natural performances from non-actors. Here the two boys (Rinaldo Smordoni and Franco Interlenghi) display a great range of feelings from the most vulnerable tenderness to callous cruelty, and they are very moving. The film has a formal perfection and integrity which is difficult to describe - it's as if we are peeking into a hidden world of suffering; and at the same time the plot elements, such as the horse, work on a wider symbolic level as well. The final sequence is devastating, a shattering cry of anguish and betrayal that you may never forget. It was the first foreign language film to win an Academy Award.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940).

In a gift shop in Budapest, the floor manager (James Stewart), can't get along with a sales clerk (Margaret Sullavan). Meanwhile, they have fallen in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. This romantic comedy is so well put together that it's almost impossible for me to find anything wrong with it. The writing (Samson Raphaelson, adapted from a play) is fresh and bright and funny. Stewart is at his best, with his endearing mix of shyness and wit. Sullavan always had a knack for playing characters who can be irritating and even petty,. yet still lovable - and her role in this movie is one of the best examples of that. She seems like a real person, not a star playing one. In addition, there is much pleasure to be had from the supporting characters and subplots - Frank Morgan as the shop owner with a troubled marriage, Joseph Schildkraut as a meek assistant, William Tracy as a wiseguy errand boy. Lubitsch's touch seems gentler and more relaxed than usual. (It's one of the few pictures he did that portrays ordinary folks instead of the upper crust.) The whole production has that fine MGM sheen - old hand William Daniels was the DP. Of course, it really takes place in Metroland, not Budapest. It's interesting how studios, and audiences, were more willing to go along with theatrical make-believe in a case like this. Jimmy Stewart as a Hungarian? He talks with the same good old Jimmy Stewart American accent, and it doesn't matter in the slightest.

A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988).

Originally a section of The Decalogue, Kieslowski's massive TV work on the Ten Commandments, this film was released separately in a longer theatrical version, and it stands perfectly well on its own. The first part of the picture concerns a day in which the paths of a drifter, a lawyer, and a cabdriver intersect. The drifter ends up committing a brutal, motiveless murder. The second half focuses on the day that the convicted murderer is scheduled to be executed. The conventional view is that Kieslowski is presenting an unsentimentalized argument against capital punishment. In a way he is, but the film is also much more. Kieslowski's visual style - darkening the edges of the frame to create a sense of claustrophobia, using startling camera angles and a drab color scheme - thrusts the viewer into an uncomfortable, almost nihilist point of view. Then the second half builds to a quiet climax which has shattering emotional force. The film is about the nature of crime itself - and the human face hidden behind the mask of the condemned. The punishment - the revenge, really - is just as horrible as the crime. A Short Film About Killing made me feel tremendously sad about the human dilemma. Beyond any political ramifications, it asks questions about the self and its relation to others that are no less moving for being unanswered. It is one of the masterpieces of modern film - honest, piercing and compassionate.

SISTERS OF THE GION (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936).

From the beginning, with its beautiful lateral tracking shot through the house of a bankrupt merchant whose possessions are being auctioned off, we are in the hands of a master. Mizoguchi's style is one of graceful balance - already he uses the long take and the off-center placement of figures in the frame to remarkable effect. The story concerns two sisters who are geisha (the Gion is the "pleasure quarter" of Kyoto). The older sister (Yoko Umemura) is satisfied with her traditional role - she takes in the merchant who has left his wife, even though it puts a strain on her finances. The younger (Isuzu Yamada) is more cynical - angry at men, she wants only to use them in order to further her position. At first one might think that this is a conventional good girl/bad girl dichotomy. Instead, as things progress, the film evolves into a startling social critique. The last scene pulls no punches, and it represents a triumph of honesty and courage for Mizoguchi, especially considering the time it was made. Credit also goes to the screenwriter, Yoshikata Yoda, who worked with the director on most of his great films. Mizoguchi is an artist who should be more widely seen. His films are deeply compassionate, especially on issues relevant to women, and that makes their social protest all the more incisive and affecting.

SLING BLADE (Billy Bob Thornton, 1996).

Sling Blade is about a man re-entering the insular world of a small Southern town after spending twenty years in a mental institution for killing two people, one of them his mother. I had heard a great deal of praise for it, and of course it was ballyhooed a lot since it received its Oscar nominations. So I admit that I was puzzled when I finally saw it - Sling Blade is a middling affair indeed, honorable in intent but for the most part uninteresting.

Billy Bob Thornton wrote and directed the picture. He also plays Karl Childers, the mentally underdeveloped protagonist. Thornton freezes his face into a tight-lipped, half-smiling expression while lowering his voice to a frog-like croak. Add a few mannerisms, such as saying "Uh-huh" a lot with his mouth closed, and you have Karl. Karl's simplicity is occasionally amusing. It's also supposed to be heartwarming, a kind of example to us. This might have worked except that the machinations of the plot stack the deck for him. We have the good- hearted young boy who becomes attached to Karl, his hardworking mother, and then we have her abusive boyfriend (boo, hiss) who embodies everything that we can safely despise. I knew what was going to happen a full hour and a half before it did. I don't find this sort of connect-the-dots scenario illuminating at all. It doesn't allow for the ambiguities of real people, their rough edges and many-sidedness.

On the plus side, the film's slow pace shows a certain respect for the oddity of the main character - the climax is staged in a refreshingly off-hand manner. Lucas Black, who plays Karl's young friend Frank, is a fine natural talent who turns his rather pat role into something worth watching. And Dwight Yoakam brings some shading to his part as the mean boyfriend Doyle. It all wasn't enough for me to escape the feeling of being led by the hand down a dull old road. There's also more than a bit of condescension - in the guise of affection, to be sure - towards the film's small town, working class characters. The picture offers easy laughs of superiority at the woman who is set up for a "date" with Karl, the ignorant members of Doyle's band, and so forth. Overall there is something "other" about the picture - I could never feel involved in characters who were so obviously devised as objects for my curiosity. In the end we have Karl as a saintlike, sacrificial figure, an idealization of idiocy. Granted, Thornton has allowed some disturbing elements to creep in around the edges, but doesn't Sling Blade really amount to just an art-film Forrest Gump?


This film from Merchant/Ivory is something of a departure for them, and it's not bad. The daughter of the title is Channe Willis (Leelee Sobieski), an American girl growing up in Paris, whose father (Kris Kristofferson) is a crusty veteran turned writer. The story centers on her coming of age, but the picture follows side-stories as well, concerning her adopted brother Billy (Jesse Bradford), a flamboyant schoolmate named Francis (Anthony Ruth Costanza) who has not quite come to terms with the fact that he's gay, and the Willis' servant Candida (Dominique Blane) who is a possessive surrogate mother to Channe. Barbara Hershey is also on hand as Marcella, Channe's mother - guilt-inducing as mothers often are, but also loving and passionately loyal.

I like the way the picture avoids the usual "dysfunctional family" cliches - the Willises are screwed up in some ways, but they are basically decent and they care for each other. The story, adapted from a Kaylie Jones novel by James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is rather diffuse, and the interest declines somewhat after the family leaves Paris for the U.S. halfway through the film. Ivory's style is as conservative as always, but he elicits good work from the actors. Sobieski is fine as a teenager trying to become separate but still fiercely attached to her father. Hershey's jaded mother is so natural as to seem effortless. But the real wonder is Kristofferson - I've never thought much of him as an actor, but he is excellent here as a man who is passionate about being a father, although distancing himself through his work. I found Bradford's character to be a mystery - his morose silences must be due to his uprooted origin (there is a dramatic angle concerning his birth mother) but his story isn't developed enough. Costanza almost steals the movie with his affecting and humorous portrait of conflicted gay adolescence. The 70s milieu - the clothes, hair, speech - is almost perfect. (One glaring omission - no one is smoking dope!) And the film displays a sensitivity towards the way adolescents actually feel. The story is all over the place - it feels as if a sprawling family novel was compressed into a tighter form without letting the elements cohere - so it ultimately feels tentative and incomplete. But the acting makes it worth a look.

SPIES (Fritz Lang, 1928).

A ruthless gang of spies has infiltrated the highest reaches of government. It is up to Agent Number 326 to defeat them and unmask their mysterious ringleader. This little known Fritz Lang film, made following the financial disaster of Metropolis, is like a blueprint for all the espionage thrillers, good and bad, that have since filled screen history. The sharp editing gives the picture a fast pace and a tense, chaotic feel (although the camera doesn't move much until a great chase scene towards the end). The story, containing multiple schemes and identities, is at times difficult to follow - there's a cartoonish quality to the action, like the carelessly concocted plots in pulp fiction. (Intertitles are kept to a minimum, which helps keep the action going, yet also contributes to the confusion.) The acting is overwrought by our standards, but is actually more restrained than in previous Lang films - Dr. Mabuse, for example, which it resembles. The villain is played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge, just as in Mabuse, and the intrepid agent by Willy Fritsch. Gerda Maurus is beautiful but a bit wooden as the woman hired to seduce the hero, who instead falls in love with him. There's an amoral feeling to this movie - the warring sides seem rather similar. Wild and frantic in tone, the picture is a hoot, yet interesting, well crafted, and in many ways a forerunner of future Lang productions.

STAGE DOOR (Gregory La Cava, 1937).

A group of aspiring actresses live together in a boarding house, and the wisecracks are fast and plentiful. Chief among the wisecrackers is Ginger Rogers, who is appealingly tough and funny in this picture. She's surrounded by a formidable ensemble which includes Eve Arden (who gets some of the funniest lines) and Lucille Ball. Into this maelstrom steps Katharine Hepburn as a rich society girl who is determined to succeed on the stage. Rogers and the others bristle at her, but she proves to be their match.

The script is a delight - extremely sharp and witty in the best screwball manner (Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veillers reworked the Ferber-Kaufman play). La Cava uses overlapping dialogue a lot, a technique that was extremely innovative for the time. This means you really have to pay close attention to hear the jokes, and you may still miss a few, which gives the film a feeling of richness and overabundance. Hepburn does pretty well, although I must admit that I found her affectations hard to take at times. Ginger Rogers is the real star of the show - whether she's one-upping Hepburn or the snooty Gail Patrick, or sparring with potential suitor Adolphe Menjou, she's got great comic timing and star presence here.

The one element that doesn't work is the weepy sub-plot involving Andrea Leeds as an actress who's just going to die if she doesn't get that big role. The last twenty minutes of Stage Door get stuck in the unconvincing bathos of this Leeds character - everyone in the film loves her as is she was a saint, and she's a self-pitying little twit. I didn't understand what made her plight any more unfortunate than the other underemployed actresses, such as the ones played by Arden or Ball. Anyway, the film is still quite enjoyable for most of its length, and it's great to see all those RKO women stars having fun together.

A STAR IS BORN (George Cukor, 1954).

A lavish musical version of the 1937 Selznick/Wellman film about an alcoholic film star who helps a young actress, whom he is later to marry, make it big in Hollywood. (And the '37 film was in turn based on the Cukor-directed What Price Hollywood?) This time Vicki Lester is played by Judy Garland, who gets to sing some wonderful Harold Arlen / Ira Gershwin tunes, including "The Man Who Got Away," the famous medley "Born in a Trunk," and my favorite, the quiet and beautiful "It's a New World." Her acting is good, too, at least most of the time. Her intense vulnerability transcends the material. I must say, though, that the picture is uneven. Sometimes it is genuinely moving, particularly in the more intimate scenes between Garland and James Mason, who plays Norman Maine. At other times it succumbs to the innate schmaltz of the story - I never have believed in the melodramatics of the Oscar ceremony scene, for instance, and the writing really slacks off in the move's latter third.

Surprisingly, it is Mason who manages to take the film to another level. He brings complexity and humanity to what is a rather stereotyped role. Norman's anguish doesn't have to be spelled out when we have Mason telling us everything with his eyes and the inflections of his voice. One can really understand why the character is supposed to be so lovable, and so frustrating. Cukor, not usually known for his visual flair, achieves some fine effects here, in his first color film. The scene with Mason and the ocean at the end is beautiful.

The movie was cut by about a half hour after its premiere, because Warners thought it was too long. The restored version on video uses stills to bridge some of the gaps early on where the footage has been lost. I find the use of stills in restorations distracting, although I suppose there is no better solution. A Star is Born remains one of the most solid musicals of the postwar era.

STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (Jonathan Frakes, 1998).

This third installment in the "Next Generation" movies is a lot more like the televison show, concentrating less on action scenes and more on the characters (although the minor figures are still not given enough to do). The story, something to do with a sort of paradise planet and a plot to relocate its inhabitants, is corny as hell - well, what did you expect, sophistication? I do wonder, however, why the franchise can find no one better to direct than TV-actor Frakes - who directed last time as well. His style is choppy and undistinguished, to put it kindly. Can't they afford to get someone with more experience, or do they just figure that the series will sell itself anyway, so who cares? Not bad for fans of the show, but the best film of this new Star Trek series has yet to be made.

THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (William Dieterle, 1936).

The Hollywood "biopic" - a filmed story of a famous public figure - was already a staple of the industry before Warners came out with this movie. But this was the first hugely popular one, and as a result many more were to follow. Paul Muni plays Pasteur (it won him an Oscar), and he is vigorous, although a bit too mannered. The story concerns Pasteur's efforts to find cures for various diseases, having to endure the scepticism and opposition of the medical establishment all the while. It clicks along nicely without many dull spots. There is, however, little complexity or depth to the drama - it's like a high school history book brought to the screen, with an obligatory love interest (Pasteur's daughter and young assistant) thrown in for good measure. This picture, then, so prestigious for the studio at the time, hasn't worn too well. One highlight: character actor Fritz Leiber with a spirited performance as Pasteur's main antagonist.

THE STRONG MAN (Frank Capra, 1926).

In contrast to most silent comedy, Harry Langdon achieved his effects by slowing things down. There are three classic sequences - Langdon trying to climb a staircase backwards with a woman in his arms, Langdon with a bad cold on a train and some very cranky passengers, and the final bit of mayhem involving a circus cannon and a saloon full of drunken rowdies. All three are brilliantly funny, especially the last, and it makes sitting through the icky-sweet plot involving a blind girl worthwhile. An interesting side-note: in this film the Bible-thumping Christians are the good guys. Well, that's different.

STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY (Harold Ramis, 1995).

This movie is built around Al Franken's recovery character from Saturday Night Live -a thin premise producing a thin film. The narrative could use more invention. Nevertheless, there are some very funny routines in the film. although people who are unfamiliar with 12-step recovery programs may not get a lot of the jokes. Stuart's family is triumphantly horrifying - a classic alcoholic bunch, highlighted by Vincent D'Onofrio as a belligerent older brother. Franken set out to make a movie that is affirming of recovering people while gently making fun of them. He succeeds for the most part, although there are stretches in which the laughs become too scarce. Ramis displays little style here - what energy there is comes from the performances, and Franken's Stuart Smalley is endearing.

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (John Schlesinger, 1971).

In London, Daniel (Peter Finch), a Jewish doctor, and Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced mother, are both in love with a bisexual artist named Bob (Murray Head). The story covers ten days in the trio's lives, in which their love and patience with one another is sorely tried. The film is an interesting character study, remarkably adult in its attitudes and insights. Penelope Gilliatt's screenplay deftly sidesteps the social drama genre, keeping her focus on private feelings and desires. Schlesinger pays careful attention to the little incidents that make up a day - the film has a refreshing, natural rhythm.

Everything that happens is colored by the longings of Daniel and Alex. Bob is their happiness, and sometimes they are indeed happy when he's with them, but he's also an elusive object, a source of anxiety: Will he leave? Will he run to the other one? It's written like a modern short story, where plot takes a back seat to permutations of feeling. There's something remarkably clear-eyed about the movie - the emotions of the characters are real and moving, yet there's a humorous bite and distance - nothing maudlin, very crisp and a bit cold.

When Finch and Head do a full mouth kiss in close-up early in the film, I believe that was some sort of a cinematic first. I don't doubt that it was intended to surprise - in plot terms alone, it's a way to suddenly let us know that Daniel and Bob are lovers. But what I find amazing and admirable is that gay sexuality is not stressed very much in the picture, certainly not sensationalized - it doesn't take over the movie as some overpowering theme. It is simply an important element of Daniel's character, and it is only in reference to our understanding of Daniel that it is lent any interest. In other words, it is taken for granted as a fact in itself, and then we proceed from that fact to focus on the character rather than his sexuality per se - which for 1971 was more than ahead of its time, it was beyond its time.

Peter Finch is marvelous, conveying quiet dignity combined with a childlike neediness and petulance - never pathetic, just a bit lost and sad. A sequence at a bar mitzvah is priceless, with all his pushy female relatives trying to fix him up. It says more about what Daniel's growing up must have been like than any number of flashbacks could have done. Glenda Jackson is also fine here, very natural and high-spirited. One might wish for someone more substantial than Murray Head as Bob - sometimes I thought, what do they see in him? Silent star Bessie Love is featured as an answering service lady. There are a few puzzling elements in the plot that I couldn't quite figure out. Still, it's a rather nice piece of early 70s creative experimentation.

A SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY (Bertrand Tavernier, 1984).

In 1912, an elderly widowed artist is visited by his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Although he is fond of them, he adores his lively, independent minded daughter, who almost never visits. This time she does show up, bringing laughter and high spirits to the gathering, but underneath there is sadness.

The pace of the film is so natural that it feels like we've really spent a Sunday with these people. The performances are also marvelously unaffected, especially by Louis Ducreix as the old man and Sabine Azéma as his daughter Irene. The photography is beautiful - autumn colors have never been more gorgeous. In fact, the film looks like an impressionist painting, which was intended, since the old man is a painter of that school. Most of all there is a gentle fluidity of camera movement. The film travels among the rooms of the house or in the garden with a grace and ease that is a pleasure to the eye and the mind. This is not a drama of great events, but a story of the little things that make up an ordinary day. The nuances of feeling between family members, the playfulness and hesitancies, the unspoken thoughts that play on the faces, these are all conveyed masterfully by Tavernier, who also does wonders with the child actors.

The only flaw is the occasional intrusion of a voice-over narrator telling us about some of the underlying issues in the family - the fact that the son is jealous of the father's love for the prodigal daughter, for instance. I wish the director could have found a way to show us these things instead of telling us. The style and sensibility are reminiscent of Renoir, except that Tavernier doesn't go as deep, seeming content with the enticing outwardness of things. It is nevertheless an enchanting film about the poetry of everyday life.

THE SWEET HEREAFTER (Atom Egoyan, 1997).

You can count on Atom Egoyan to do something out of the ordinary, even when, as in this film, he's adapting someone else's material. The story of a town that loses its children in a tragic school bus accident, and the lawyer (Ian Holm) who comes on the scene to create a lawsuit, could have become a dull bit of moralizing complete with signposts to tell us what conclusions to draw. But Egoyan is far more interested in the strangeness of interior worlds. In his hands the tale becomes a frightening journey into the souls of people disconnected from a real sense of self and other, people avoiding their grief and concealing from themselves a dreadful truth - the abandonment of children.

The time structure is beautifully constructed - past and future interwoven in a way that suffuses the film with a sense of fatefulness. There's really nothing confusing about the different snippets of time - if you pay attention you can always tell when something is happening. As usual with Egoyan, one has to figure out the characters' relationships with each other rather than being told, and this produces some disturbing surprises. At the center of everything, and the element that makes this picture one of the most tense I've seen in recent years, is the school bus driving towards its doom. We keep returning to it, to the awful anticipation of the moment of horror, and finally the moment itself arrives, accompanied with ruthless effectiveness by the film's haunting musical score (Egoyan regular Mychael Danna).

Another breathtaking effect is the way the camera will swoop upward to the sky at critical moments, expressing in visual terms an agony that can find no words. The tag line in the ads is "There is no such thing as the simple truth," which in itself is as facile as every tag line. But it's accurate when it comes to the delineation of character. For the oddness and aloneness of these people defy any easy lessons. To be sure, Holm's lawyer is an opportunistic ambulance chaser, but you can also see how his obsession with his drug addict daughter fuels a belief in the rightness of what he's doing, and this also serves the theme of how the adults' concern for their children actually expresses an alienation from them.

The story of Nicole, one of the crash's survivors (played by the luminous Sarah Polley) brings in the theme of incest, which slowly colors our perceptions of all the relationships in the film. The acting in Egoyan's film is never naturalistic, but intensely heightened so as to depict how people experience themselves and each other, even if that isn't exactly how it would happen in real life. Sometimes that results in a studied emphasis that comes off as awkward. I felt that way about Exotica (a movie that I nevertheless have grown to admire as well), but here much less so, which is one reason why I think The Sweet Hereafter is a better film. The acting seems more grounded in character here, more believable.

Besides Holm, who is very fine, and Polley, the standout is Bruce Greenwood as a parent who refuses to join the lawsuit. There are weaknesses, though - I haven't read the Russell Banks novel, so I don't know how the feeling of the small town was evoked. But here there is little sense at all of a town - the characters are so isolated in their worlds that it's hard to believe there's a feeling of community to be ruined in the first place. The use of Browning's poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin, read in voiceover by Polley, is inspired and spooky, but would have been more so if it was only done once. This is a factor in the somewhat muted quality of a scene in which Nicole makes an important decision, a scene which doesn't have the impact it should because the character's own feelings about incest are a bit too indefinite. These criticisms are minor, though. I very much admire the film's gravity and intelligence, the brilliant way it uses editing to recreate subjective associations, and also the willingness to look with fascination and compassion at the weirdness of people's ordinary concerns - without trying to pump them up with importance through dramatic effect. I guess this would also explain why Atom Egoyan is often criticized for being cold or depressing - but isn't it more humanistic to direct our gaze straight at the truth, whatever it may be, rather than try to dress it up with pretty lies?

SWING TIME (George Stevens, 1936).

Arguably the best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie, partly because the script (Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott) is the most consistently funny. It's the usual boy gets/loses/gets girl sort of thing, but the exuberance doesn't let up except for a little bit towards the end. The most important thing, of course, is the dancing - the duo are at their best here, especially with "Pick Yourself Up," "Waltz in Swing Time" and the achingly beautiful "Never Gonna Dance," which is perhaps the finest number in their career together. Of all the studio musicals, I think I like these RKO musicals the best for their relaxed air and simple elegance.

TASTE OF CHERRY (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997).

Taste of Cherry starts with a man driving through a town, studying certain people carefully, striking up conversations with some of them, and then asking if they would like to earn money doing a special kind of job. To tell any more is to be a spoiler, although if you've read any reviews you probably know more already. But one of the strengths of the film is the way it slowly intrigues you as to the intent and purpose of this strange, forlorn-looking man, played by Homayoun Ershadi, driving in endless circles around the hillsides surrounding the town. Even after we discover the nature of the special job, there is an elusiveness about the man - his face only partly concealing an intractable loneliness, his attempts to reach out to others always hinting at something inexpressible. Kiarostami has a style which can be described as austere. Through the entire film we follow a car as it winds its way around mountain roads. Instead of cutting for dramatic effect, he allows the story to take place slowly, with the silent spaces between conversations giving the impression of real time (although this is only an impression - an entire afternoon is squeezed into the film's 95 minutes). Except for some slow blues at the very end, there is no musical score. And, as usual, the director uses nonprofessional actors. All this combines to give the picture a decidedly naturalistic feel.

I was impressed with the way the spareness of the method meshed with the film's theme of loneliness. The forbidding desert setting is combined with the presence of industrial machines - one long scene involves earth being dumped at a construction site, while the man looks on - and it's as if Kiarostami wants to strip all the prettiness from life to get at the heart of the matter: is it worth living? To get into the film and to see what is being said requires a wilingness to slow down and accept silence and emptiness as part of experience. We are conditioned to always look for excitement and distraction, so this kind of film can be a stretch. I overheard some people saying they just didn't get it - no flashy techniques, not even a conventional resolution. But if you are patient, Taste of Cherry is very rewarding. At one point, the main character picks up an old man (Abdolhossein Bagheri) who talks with exuberance about the joys of life. Without the tension of waiting, the feeling of anxious suspension that has come before, this episode might not have an impact. But as it is, it comes as a revelation, more real and more important than any carefully written speech meant to provide a climax. Taste of Cherry doesn't teach or preach, it places us in the situation and leaves the question open so it'll seep into our bones.

THEODORA GOES WILD (Richard Boleslawski, 1936).

Irene Dunne plays a young woman in a puritanical small town who is secretly a writer of racy romance novels. She falls for a free spirit from the city (Melvyn Douglas), but as it turns out, he needs a little freeing himself. Up to this point, Dunne had only done melodramas and musicals. There were sceptics, but she showed that comedy was a breeze as well. She is quite funny and self-assured, and with her way of balancing a zany streak with a sort of contained sophistication, she was on her way to becoming one of the best screwball comediennes. The script is a bit too schematic, with not enough good jokes, but the picture winds up well, and like most Columbia screwballs, it's well worth a look.

THE THIEF (Pavel Chukhraj, 1997)

Russian filmmakers are to a great extent still occupied with surveying the wreckage of the Soviet past. And understandably so - seventy years can leave a lot of scars. The Thief, written and directed by Pavel Chukhraj, tells the story of a lost childhood, and through that story says something about the Stalinist mindset. Sanya, a 6-year-old boy (Misha Philipchuk) is wandering postwar Russia with his young widowed mother (Yekaterina Rednikova) when she falls in with a handsome soldier named Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov) who promises to take care of them. But as it turns out, Tolyan is not a soldier at all. He is a con man whose method is to enter a village, befriend the inhabitants, rob them blind, and then move on to another village. This charismatic predator teaches Sanya that the way to succeed in the world is to bully others and never show fear. The child is torn between this strong, abusive father figure and his mother, who soon recognizes her lover for what he is but can't seem to tear herself away from him. At one point Tolyan confides a "secret" to the child - that he is actually Stalin's son. It is one of the symbolic subtleties of the script that in a way, he actually is. The thief, with his credo of power, condenses the Soviet world view to its essence: crush or be crushed. The Thief is impeccably shot and edited, with fine acting by the principals. Little Philipchuk is a stand-out. Chukhraj's presentation of a child's point of view is vivid, compassionate, and unsparing. I found the film's step-by- step depiction of the robbing of innocence to be a chilling expeience.

THE THIN MAN (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934).

The mystery plot does not seem so fresh any more - but the William Powell / Myrna Loy combo still does. MGM advised against Van Dyke's casting - he went ahead and shot the film in 16 days and it ended up one of the biggest money-makers of the 30s. The drinking and other antics are amusing enough. What's really charming is the way Powell and Loy play a married couple who are comfortably, believably in love. Just one example - Loy walks in the kitchen and sees Powell embracing Maureen O'Sullivan. He is really just comforting her. Well, in any number of mediocre films this would occasion some sort of comic nonsense involving mistaken jealousy. But here, Powell just sticks his tongue out at Loy, she makes a wisecrack, and that's that. The film was, of course, followed with sequels - each one not quite as good as the one before.

THE THIN RED LINE (Terrence Malick, 1998).

The Thin Red Line is a visionary epic. But it's a most unusual epic in that its world-view is located in the subjective, the interior voice, the elusive self lying behind the experience, beautiful and terrible, of a living hell. This essential subjectivity gives the film both its style and meaning, and sets it at odds against the common, external view of life as residing in action. Although the story takes place at a certain historical time, the film has its sight set on the timeless. Although it depicts a bloody, grueling military action, it is not a war movie, but a meditative film about the soul's questioning - the meaning of life and death, love and hatred, connectedness and isolation, man and nature, self and other, beauty and desolation. Director Terrence Malick has created a visual intensity and sharpness which heightens the viewer's perception to an almost hallucinatory level. Piercingly beautiful images of nature envelop and interpenetrate the world of human carnage. A transcendent world, in the form of a question or just an inchoate longing, hangs over the actions of the fearful, crazed soldiers in their death struggle - the film always conveying the sense of a watcher and a knower rather than just the people or objects being watched and known.

Malick knows how to be patient - he will hold the camera and use a long take instead of constant and quick cutting back and forth as is the unfortunate style nowadays. The style pays attention with quiet steadiness instead of busyness and mental clutter - this combining of stillness, of concentration and metaphysical revery, with the presentation of the most extreme crisis in action, gives the film its unusual power. The picture starts with a vision of human bliss - a community on a Melanesian island in which the AWOL private Witt (Jim Caviezel) experiences a different world, a world of love in which he senses a "spark" of immortality. Slowly, we are drawn from this paradise into the heart of darkness, the inferno, as an infantry company takes part in the assault on Guadalcanal. Other voice-overs join Witt's - Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) whose idealized memories of his love for his wife create a countervision to the spectacle of hate, the tough sergeant (Sean Penn) who protects himself with a belief in the aloneness and meaninglessness of experience, and even the maniacally ambitious Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) - voices blending together just as they wonder if all selves are really one self, different features of the same face. And the picture also indicates that the different world-views of its characters blend into one human eye - the captain (Elias Koteas) has fundamentally different values than Colonel Tall, whom he disobeys at a crucial moment, but they both represent aspects of the human in extremis that we may recognize.

The Thin Red Line is a film of tremendous integrity because it claims the ultimate importance of the human soul over change and calamity and death. Its style matches its belief - the dominant mood is revery, contemplation rather than the visceral involvement which lesser works employ in order to pull an audience by the nose with pleasure or disgust. Most remarable of all in a film which is so utterly antiwar is its almost complete absence of anger. This is a work about the soul's vision on the edge of death. You may not agree with this vision of Malick's, but at least he has one. And his film will endure.


The latest film from the incredibly prolific director Raoul Ruiz presents several interlocking tales, each featuring Marcello Mastroianni. The first one, inspired by a Hawthorne story, is about a man who walks away from his marriage, rents an apartment which is haunted by mysterious beings, and wakes up the next morning to discover that twenty years have passed. The second one is about a professor who decides to become a street beggar and ends up marrying a prostitute. The third is about a young couple who inherit a mansion on the condition that they retain its mute butler. In the fourth story a man is informed that an imaginary family that he invented for business purposes has arrived at the airport and is waiting for him. Although the tales have magical, surreal and absurdist elements, at first they cohere and are engaging. Then Ruiz starts introducing characters from previous stories into the later stories and things become increasingly bizarre.

The film reminded me of the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges - the sly intellectual quality and fascination with paradox, and the playfulness with the form of narrative itself over and above an interest in content. Besides presenting a world in which identity is fluid and ever-changing (it's not giving anything away to say that the story is in a sense "about" a man with multiple personalities) Ruiz is critiquing the very forms of dramatic narrative - protagonists experiencing conflict who then overcome their conflicts in some way - that we have come to take for granted as the only way to think about storytelling. The trouble is that, as Ruiz shuffles the deck more and more, it all becomes rather heavy-handed. Since just about anything can happen, there ceases to be much interest in what does happen. What's lacking is some rigor, a sense of balance between the experimentation with form and the presentation of themes.

Three Lives and Only One Death becomes so absurd, the story so enmeshed in its own mechanism, that it seems like a private little joke in Ruiz's head. This is the kind of movie that seems to end a dozen times before it actually does end - annoying, but that might just be part of the little joke too. Mastroianni, in one of his last performances, is fine, especially in the earlier sections when he gets to flesh out some eccentric characters. Marisa Paredes, Anna Galiena and Victoria Abril are on hand as his various wives. His daughter Chiara Mastroianni is affecting in the role of the young woman who inherits the mansion.

Despite my criticism of the picture's self-indulgence, I recommend seeing it for one reason. Ruiz has a splendid eye. His images, the way he frames them, his camera placement, are startlingly original. I've become so accustomed to the same old stuff, film by the numbers, the crap we see every day - when I saw this movie it was like waking up again, remembering that my vision can be stimulated instead of bombarded, and that editing can flow beautifully and express an artist's sense of rhythm. Ruiz even finds a dynamic use of split screen, in which the camera is moving in opposite directions on either side of the frame. A pleasure to look at, even though the narrative (or anti-narrative, if you will) doesn't live up to the style.

TILAI (Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1990).

A film from Burkina Faso, in west Africa, telling the story of a man who returns to his village after a long absence to discover that the woman he was betrothed to has been forced to marry his aged father instead. He proceeds to have an affair with her anyway, even though she is now his stepmother, with complicated results for his family and community. The film has a stark, naturalistic quality. Ouedraogo's understanding of the contradictions within the family and village is so serious and thoughtful that the events take on an inexorable feeling akin to tragedy. His style is quite emphatic and direct, with a good grasp of character and an ending that is striking in its power and abruptness.


This film is based on a novel by a mysterious writer named B. Traven. Huston stuck pretty close to the book in his screenplay. The whole thing was shot on location in northern Mexico - at that time this was still somewhat unusual for a Hollywood film. The story concerns three prospectors, drifters, looking for gold in the mountains, and how things go wrong once they find it. Huston achieved a very stark, elemental feeling here. There is no fat on this movie - everything serves to either drive the story or set the mood. If you study the famous scene between Humphrey Bogart and the bandits - one of those scenes that has been almost spoiled through overfamiliarity - you will be impressed by the way the tension is slowly and carefully built to the point of sudden, inexplicable violence.

I love the way Bogart's character, Fred C. Dobbs, gradually regresses from a hardy loner type, not a bad fellow, to a vindictive paranoid lunatic. Some have said that he was miscast. I have never understood this opinion. It seems to me a very brave, honest performance. Bogie was willing to try something different here. By this time he was a star and was playing tough good guys. Dobbs is an unsavory, pathetic, self-pitying character, which was a real risk for a big star, and Bogie gives him life and even a little sympathy.

Walter Huston, the director's father, was one of the great American actors of the twentieth century. The grizzled old man, Howard, who has gained a certain worldly wisdom with his years, was a great role for him - it nabbed him his only Oscar. Tim Holt, who had a rather undistinguished career outside of this film and Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, is solid as the young man, Bob, a sort of counterweight to Bogie's character. If I had to find fault, it would be with the Max Steiner score, which insists on underlining everything in the old style instead of knowing when to be quiet.

There's a moral seriousness to the film, a kind of grim dramatic logic that is remarkable for a major studio production. It's not surprising that Jack Warner didn't like it, since it eschews all the old formulas. But contrary to expectations, it succeeded not only critically but with audiences. I think it's because Huston doesn't weigh the film down with portentious messages. We're allowed to make up our own minds. The ending strikes a note of universal truth that anyone can relate to. This is not a bitter ending, but a very life-affirming one. It just depends on where your values lie. The quest, its futility, and the way men are defeated by it or find a deeper inner resource because of it - these are the themes that help keep The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the pantheon of American classics.

THE TRUMAN SHOW (Peter Weir, 1998).

Jim Carrey plays a man who has lived his entire life, unbeknownst to himself, as the subject of a staged television show. The film's premise is unusual enough to sustain some interest even with moderate effort on the part of the filmmakers. What I like best is the creepy sense of paranoia (one of the better recent examples of a "there's a huge plot against me" kind of story), and the way the actors try to allay Truman's suspicions with feel-good platitudes and the sort of sentimentality that is the stock and trade of TV. Screenwriter Andrew Niccol is onto something here, something with satiric bite. My main criticism of the film is that it doesn't bite hard enough. There is something in the picture's gentle tone and the whole human-spirit-overcoming-all-obstacles theme, that gets in the way of its satire. I think Niccol, and director Peter Weir, needed to put some anger and savagery in the mix to make the experience both scarier and funnier. The sequences involving the show's devoted audience are weak because they exhibit the same condescension that the film is ostensibly satirizing. Jim Carrey does bring energy to the role of Truman, making some underwritten scenes work wonderfully just by the force of his personality. But underneath the personality we don't get to see much of an actual person. Overall I'd have to say that with a premise this great, it's a shame that it was played so safe. On the other hand, I count my blessings - and one of them is that a studio film, a summer film no less, tried something different, and succeeded in being provocative to some degree.

TUNES OF GLORY (Ronald Neame, 1960).

There isn't much to Tunes of Glory if you think very long about it. A boisterous, hard-drinking officer clashes with a Scottish regiment's new commander, a neurotic disciplinarian. However, the the former character, Jock Sinclair, is played by Alec Guinness, who becomes his role so completely that he elevates the movie almost to the realm of great art. Guinness keeps revealing new dimensions to Jock, who at first seems nothing but an obstinate, vulgar egoist. As the story unfolds, we meet his pathetic needy side, and later we begin to see the courage and humor and indomitable energy of the man. And in the surprising finale he reveals a noble and even tragic dimension. It's an amazing piece of work, the kind of performance that puts a great deal of film acting to shame. Just take a look at the scene where he returns to the mess the day after he's learned that he'll be brought up on charges - the defiant humor, the way he taunts Major Scott (Dennis Price) - Guinness is in complete command of the audience's sympathies despite the fact that he hasn't been a very sympathetic character up until then. Even the part with Kay Walsh where she lifts his spirits, a scene where the rhetorical hand of the writer is all too evident, is moving because of Guinness's conviction as an actor - the way he hugs her and the things he says seem like he's really making it all up on the spot. Old hand Ronald Neame directs ably and with taste, if not with any great flair. John Mills is the sad Colonel Barrow, a difficult part done quite well, but then everyone is inevitably overshadowed by Guinness. The ending, although it dips ever so slightly into melodrama, works for me overall, with its eerie evocation of martial glory and ceremonies honoring the dead, and with Sinclair unexpectedly transfigured by a sense of guilt. When all is said and done, there's something small and confined about the film, but I love watching this great actor at work. We won't see his like again.

TWENTIETH CENTURY (Howard Hawks, 1934).

This wild farce about an egotistical Broadway director (John Barrymore) battling with his headstrong actress protege (Carole Lombard) has a sharp, funny script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Barrymore seems to be having the time of his life hamming it up, and Lombard is every bit his match. Most of the action takes place on the eponymous train, with plenty of time for Barrymore to hatch more than one scheme to trick the stubborn Lombard into signing with him for another show. Some of the best bits involve Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns as the director's ever-faithful, always abused assistants. The picture never relinquishes its wise-guy cynicism about show business, and this seems smarter than ever today, when even the vulgarest comedies are routinely sweetened with sentimentality. Hawks was ever the tough-minded director, whether he was making comedies, dramas or westerns. This is one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as screwball comedy. It has wit to spare, but it's a little slow on its feet compared to later items in this genre. If I had one major complaint to make, it would be that the decibel level, with the two leads screaming at each other, jumps to high rather too early and then stays there, which becomes tiresome.

UNDER THE SKIN (Carine Adler, 1997).

It is difficult to talk about grief, especially when we have expectations of what it should look and sound like. It is also difficult to make a film about grief that avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness, false comfort, or gloom for its own sake. British director Carine Adler has made such a film - her promising debut, Under the Skin.

Two daughters are orphaned when their mother (Rita Tushingham) dies of cancer. The older, pregnant daughter (Claire Rushbrook) is able to express her pain out loud, while the younger Iris (Samantha Morton) tries to escape it in any way she can - mostly through sex. The film focuses on Iris's gradual coming apart, through obsession with certain men, to a series of one-night-stands, to dangerous behavior with abusive strangers. In the process she alienates just about everyone in her life while she struggles with putting the ghost of her mother to rest. Morton is outstanding, making Iris's mixture of adolescent confusion and an older-than-her-years, fiercely driven despair wholly real. The connection Adler makes between compulsive sexual behavior (and fantasy) and the hidden need to break through grief's numbness is superbly realized without any didactic speeches to point it out. The way out of hell is not mapped so clearly, but it does have emotional impact. I like the style of Under the Skin - artful without being flashy. More than that I like its truthfulness.

UNDERGROUND (Emir Kusturica, 1995).

An epic farce covering the history of Yugoslavia from its invasion by the Nazis, through the years of Tito, and ending with its fragmentation in the Balkan wars of the 90s. I must emphasize that this is indeed a farce - Underground does not attempt to tell a realistic, believable story, but instead uses outrageous exaggeration and black humor to portray the idiocy and absurdity of wars, while retaining a certain back-handed affection for the fools who fight them.

The plot centers around a triangle - two best friends in the Communist anti-Nazi resistance both love the same woman. Blackie (Lazar Ristovski) is a brawling, charismatic fighter, while Marko (Miki Manojlovic) is an intellectual and mover in Party politics. Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) seems more interested in a German officer than in either of them. Blackie abducts her and plans a quick wedding, while Marko's attraction to her leads him to contemplate betraying his friend. It would be giving away too much to go further - let's just say that Marko's schemes become increasingly bizarre, with consequences that satirize the entire social and political structure of the post-war Communist state. This may sound heavy, but in fact Underground is extremely funny, and the humor is often broad and accessible. Manojlovic is especially good at contorting his face and body in ways that match the endless maneuvering of his mind. Ristovski's unthinking (and hard drinking) vitality is also a hoot. Yet the laughter has a dark edge. Beneath Kusturica's ridicule is a bitterness and sadness about the way people torment and destroy each other, never seeming to learn anything from it. This is what saves the film from being merely silly. Even when the weirdest things are happening, such as a chimpanzee climbing into a tank and firing on a wedding party (believe me, it would take too long to explain) - the movie has a solidity about it, a sense of people's ties to one another and the incredible difficulty of their struggles. Admittedly, the fact that the picture is a farce means that there is not much character development - we never really get a sense of people from the inside. But so much is gained by the approach that this doesn't really matter.

The courage of Underground is that even though it has an epic scope, it doesn't preach a moral at us or try to get us to shrink before the horrors of the 20th century. Instead, Kusturica brushes it away as contemptible, laughable nonsense - terrible and costly and tragic, but still nonsense. As if to take it seriously was to give it power. Those who accused him of being an apologist for Serbian atrocities couldn't be more wrong - he has no regard for factions, nations, or wars - even righteous ones. The only thing that matters is the connection people have with each other, their families and friends. This side of life is represented in the wonderful scenes of drinking and carousing, and in the delirious, headlong rush of the music - the horn players accompanying the foolish heroes at every phase of their story.

Underground won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in '95, but distribution difficulties followed. Apparently these were at least partly self-induced - the backers wanting more money than they could reasonably expect. It's a shame, because I think this is one foreign language film that might have been a cult hit in the States if it had been promoted and distributed well. The pace of the film is one of its signal achievements - Kusturica keeps things whipping along, and the energy never flags. It is so full of amusing details and incidents that no review can really give the story justice. Its satiric attitude towards politics is vital and refreshing. Underground is a boisterous masterpiece whose relevance will only increase as our world becomes more embroiled in conflict.

VAGABOND (Agnes Varda, 1985)

What the mystery boils down to is - who, or what, are we? In Agnes Varda's Vagabond "we" are a homeless drifter, making half-hearted attempts to meet the world, but essentially lost, separate, alone. The ending comes first - a young woman, her name was Mona, found frozen to death in a ditch. Then we see the last few weeks in her life, through the eyes of those who crossed her path, and with the eyes of the camera, which moves restlessly from place to place with her. Sometimes the camera will move ahead of her, and then stop, as if waiting, focusing on some empty place or scene. Varda's method is to wander like the tramp, seemingly distant and detached like her, recording without judging or asking why. The score's austere violin music is the film's one tangible connection to grief.

The other people, Mona's chance encounters, project their desires and fears onto her. Their brief accounts to an unnamed interviewer try vainly to grasp her, revealing only their own preoccupations. A housekeeper sees her asleep with a man in a mansion where they crash for a few days, and envies what she thinks is romance. Madame Lanier, a conservationist who gives her a ride, pities her and wants to help - Mona is impervious to her sympathy. The Tunisian vineyard worker, who lets her live and work with him for a time, is attracted but lacks the courage to defy his friends who want her to leave. (He stares silently in his interview.) The ragged pimp in the bus station misses her because "she was a good fuck." We begin to notice connections between these people. Madame Lanier's student, who goes to look for Mona when his teacher expresses concern about her, is also the nephew of the old woman who employs the housekeeper. The drifter who shacks up with Mona in the mansion appears later and sets fire to the tenement where she is sleeping. It's a cramped little world, after all, and Mona is only passing through - to the others she is only a reflection of their emptiness. But who is she?

Varda doesn't want to explain her, or tell us how she came to give up her office job and take to the road. We are meant to be just as unable to reach her as anyone else. The film is about the very suffering of being a traveler in this world, and the vagabond - her links to the social roles which hold things together practically severed - is a sort of universal figure of the loneliness at our core. In one scene there is a hint of joy - the old woman, left alone with the vagabond, drinks with her and they laugh together. In different ways they are both on society's rubbish heap - a shared secret laughter unites them. Otherwise, Varda's vision is bleak, stripped bare. It is frightening to encounter this stranger, more frightening when we imagine ourselves as her.

Sandrine Bonnaire is remarkable as Mona - a very tough, unsettling performance. She lets us see the glimmers of life underneath the alienation, and that gives the overall effect a lot of power. The film's French title means, literally, "Without roof or law." Varda does not care to satirize laws (or roofs), but she does reveal their flimsiness. She also does not care to move us, to somehow redeem us (and thereby perhaps absolve us). The movement is within, from ourselves to ourselves. We are the vagabond.

WALKABOUT (Nicholas Roeg, 1971).

An adolescent girl (Jenny Agutter) and her young brother (Lucien John) are abandoned by their murderous, suicidal father in the Australian outback, and must find their way home - with the unexpected help of a young aborigine (David Gulpilil). One of the film's main themes is the contrast between the elemental rawness of nature, and the comfort (but also delusion) of civilization. Roeg's photography is beautiful in a stark, forbidding way. The remarkable thing is how the film's quality of eerie detachment helps facilitate a sense of tragedy and loss. The disjunctive editing and the acting style are experimental in the best sense of the word.

WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS? (Pedro Almodovar, 1984).

Gloria (Carmen Maura) lives in a Madrid tenement with her abusive taxi-driver husband, her mother-in-law and two sons. Her neighbor is an enthusiastic prostitute, and there are various other strange characters in the vicinity. The plot, too complicated to fully describe, leads to a forgery scheme and the death of one character by being hit on the head with a hambone. Almodovar's comedies seem entirely unique - he specializes in the deadpan acceptance of the outrageous. Some people can take him or leave him at best - I found myself laughing despite the occasional lapses in tone and taste. The director's attitude is to celebrate the weirdness of people in this world - and especially the ridiculous things people do because of sex - his only villains being those who try to enforce some idea of normality on others. This picture isn't as inspired as some of his later ones - the emotional detachment sometimes seems forced and inappropriate - but I like the improvised feel and the absurd, laconic sense of humor. Most of all, there is the wonderful Maura, who holds everything together with an air of eternal weariness and endurance.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (Leon Gast, 1996).

It took Leon Gast twenty-three years to get someone to back his documentary about the match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Zaire - the "Rumble in the Jungle." It's a great story - not just the build-up to the fight, in which Foreman was heavily favored, but the portrait of Zaire and the way Ali was idolized as a figure of empowerment by Africans. Watching the film brings back a lot of memories. It's wonderful to see Ali again in his prime, and the film is great at giving you a sense of that time, the excitement and hopefulness. I could have used a little less Norman Mailer, but in general he and George Plimpton do a good job connecting the narrative. I have to admit I'm not much of a boxing fan - yet I still found myself moved by the climax of the bout itself. There was something touching about the way the ex-champ found a way to come back and win the title when everyone, even his own people, counted him out. This is a fun movie, and probably the most intelligent non-fiction boxing film ever made.

WILD REEDS (Andre Techine, 1994).

Andre Techine's calm, detached style and gentle pace meshes in an interesting way with this story of four adolescents struggling with their identities, sexual and otherwise, in the shadow of the Algerian war. They all go through intense agonies in different ways, but the style is serenely distanced, the camera observing like an adult looking back on things rather than from the point of view of the young characters. The way the narrative follows one character, then another, never making one person the exclusive protagonist, is part of this style too. This makes the picture less conventional in mood than the usual coming-of-age story. It reminded me vividly of how I felt at that age - muddling along, extremely confused, while most of the time needing to act as if I wasn't. These kids are self-aware, intellectually active, and very much affected by the events of their times. But at a deeper level they are quite lost and unable to understand themselves and their feelings. I liked this, partly because it contrasts so much with the portrayals of teens we're used to seeing, which generally pander to their illusions. The Algerian war element, with its mood of grief and despair, is well done, and it shows how this kind of national tragedy can weigh most heavily on the minds of sensitive young people. One has to know something about the war to catch all the political references.

The character of Francois (Gael Morel) is most engaging. His attempts to come to terms with his homosexuality are depicted with a frankness and realism that is quite fresh. The slightly older Henri (Frederic Gorny). withdrawn and bitter over his experiences in Algeria, is also compelling. Gorny has a remarkable way of alternating contemptuous cynicism with an underlying innocence. It seems to me, though, that Maite, the one female member of the quartet (played by Elodie Bouchez) gets shortchanged with the least character development and screen time.

Techine doesn't go for big dramatic impact. Wild Reeds is a film of quiet epiphanies, and as such it works just fine.

WINCHESTER '73 (Anthony Mann, 1950).

When James Stewart went to Universal, he took on a tougher image, especially in the series of hard-edged westerns he did with Mann, of which this is the first. The real hero is the eponymous rifle, which we follow as it passes through the hands of various scoundrels, with Stewart in pursuit. The direction is very crisp, the mood is dark, and the black-and-white photography by veteran William Daniels is fine. Shelley Winters is on hand as the bar girl/love interest, and Dan Duryea plays his usual sneering cad role. Among the nonsense Indian stereotypes (a given in almost any western), there's some unintentional laughs provided by Rock Hudson (!) as "Chief Young Bull." All in all, though, if you go for this sort of thing, it's a solid piece of work that moves along nicely.

THE WINSLOW BOY (David Mamet, 1999).

There's something very narrow about the play by Terence Rattigan - in thought, feeling, and dramatic scope. And there's something touchingly old-fashioned (which is to say, dated) in such a big fuss being made over the injustice of a boy being wrongly accused of stealing a five pound postal order. Still, David Mamet has brought a refined sense of craft to the material - there is nothing wasted here, the moving camera and the close-ups are well done. Nigel Hawthorne, as the father, is especially good for being so understated. Jeremy Northam is on hand in the flamboyant role of an arrogant yet charming lawyer, and when he is on screen he makes us forget that we're watching a filmed play. At other times it's impossible to forget - especially since the results of the trial happen offscreen. (The part where the servant announces the verdict to the father and daughter, with that awful English sentimentality about the relationship of servants to their employers, is the worst thing in the film.) It must be said, also, that there's something too dry and contained about Rebecca Pidgeon's performance as the young woman who spars with Northam's character. Nothing profound here at all, just a sturdy little film which demonstrates that Mamet can do something else besides his usual con-man stories.

YOJIMBO (Akira Kurosawa, 1961).

A samurai (Toshiro Mifune) enters a town that is being terrorized by rival clans, and he fights them by playing one against the other. There are elements of "dark" comedy in this influential film, as well as inventive action sequences and great use of widescreen. Very kinetic in style, fun to watch and a hero who is truly noble. The part where Mifune is crawling away under the floor is one of the most suspenseful sequences I've seen. I confess, though, that I like Kurosawa in his classic mode better than his pulp mode. When I suspend my disbelief this often, I suspend my interest sometimes too. Still, it beats any of its imitators, and they are legion.

Chris Dashiell