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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Upon further review ...

Musings on recent movies and other developments:

* "12 Monkeys"

I was at a dinner party in Hollywood recently with some industry veterans, including the head of a studio, and the subject of "12 Monkey's" surprising box office success came up. Why, I wondered, had "12 Monkeys" grossed so strongly right out of the gate--when the previous films by its director, Terry Gilliam, had performed unevenly, and his "Brazil," which it resembles quite a lot, had flopped?

"Brad Pitt," the studio head said. "He's the hottest young star in town right now. Maybe the hottest star, period."

But...I thought...the movie stars Bruce Willis. And Pitt's role is not only fairly brief, but somewhat unintelligible, since he plays a mental patient who spends much of his time waving his arms and barking out unconnected bursts of dialog.

Pitt was also in another of the last year's big hits, "Seven." In that one, he had a much bigger role, but the lead was nevertheless played by Morgan Freeman. (USA Today ignored that in its Monday morning box office roundup, referring to "Brad Pitt's 'Seven'.")

Brad Pitt is one of the best actors in the movies right now. He may also have had a lot to do with the box offices success of "Legends of the Fall." But is his presence alone enough to account for the ticket sales? Or are the movies selling themselves, through word-of-mouth, with Pitt as a lucky bystander?

Think again of Morgan Freeman, of whom Pauline Kael once asked, "Is there a better actor in the movies today?" Here is an actor who has an uncanny ability to be on the scene when a hit picture is made. He was the co-star of "Jessica Tandy's 'Driving Miss Daisy'" and "Tim Robbin's 'The Shawshank Redemption'," not to mention "Brad Pitt's 'Seven'." Is he as big a star? No studio chief would say so. But quite possibly those movies wouldn't have been nearly as good without him. I hope Tandy, Robbins, and Pitt sent him flowers or something--chocolates, a box of cigars, whatever.

* "Sense and Sensibility"

This movie's win as best picture in the dramatic category of the Golden Globes may be a foreshadowing of a bigger prize on March 25. Nothing would make the Hollywood establishment happier. In a year when the industry has been under fire from political figures for its sex and violence, the movie that has won the most year-end awards--"Leaving Las Vegas"--is hardly the one some Academy members would choose to represent Hollywood's best. It's the story of a hopeless alcoholic who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death, and meets a hooker who gently accompanies him through his final weeks.

I didn't give "Sense and Sensibility" a favorable review when it was first released. I preferred one of the year's other Jane Austen adaptations, "Persuasion," a tougher and more thought-provoking film. But as "S & S" began to emerge as the Oscar front-runner, I went back to see it again. I enjoyed it, yes, and if I had it to do all over again I might be tempted to give it three stars instead of two and a half. (I wouldn't change a word of my newspaper review, however, which expresses both what I liked and didn't like about the film.)

What "Sense and Sensibility" has, above all, is the image of a high-minded, literate, respectable Oscar winner. It is from Britain (the Academy loves British films and actors). It is attached to Jane Austen, one of the most beloved trade names in literature. It has no negatives like sex, violence, or naughty words. Hollywood can honor it and feel good about itself: See here, it can say, what wholesome films we make!

Nothing that happens on March 25 will change the fact, however, that several 1995 American movies were, quite simply, miles better than "S & S." My list would include "Leaving Las Vegas," "Dead Man Walking," "Nixon" and "Casino." Of those four, the only one certain to be nominated is "Leaving Las Vegas." And the Academy will honor it obliquely, by giving its star, Nicholas Cage, a (deserved) best actor Oscar.

* "Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood"

This movie, which placed second at the box office two weeks ago, is a satire by two members of the Wayans family. Its target is all of those movies about young black men in the inner city, like "Boyz N the Hood," "South Central," "Juice," "Poetic Justice," "Menace 2 Society" and "Fresh." I went to see it with a full house at a downtown theater, and I laughed at some of it. But I left feeling down-hearted. The movie takes the pastiche approach of "Airplane!" "Hot Shots" and the other spoof movies. Anything goes--for a laugh. But those films attacked bad movies; "Menace" attacks good ones. More to the point, it ridicules such goals as education, employment, responsible parenthood, staying off drugs, and staying away from gangs. My thought was, do we need this movie at this time, when violent death by drugs or guns is the leading killer of young black men under 25?

I have always taken an open-minded approach to subject matter. I abhor Political Correctness, I do not demand that a joke be in good taste, and (like everyone, I suspect) I have laughed at ethnic humor. But in recent years I have found myself laughing less, or not at all, at humor based on other's misfortunes. "Don't be a Menace" includes among its laugh material all of the most popular negative stereotypes about inner city gang-bangers, unwed teenage parents, drug dealers, unemployment, winos, welfare cheats, and so on. I can easily imagine this film getting lots of laughs, the wrong kind, from racists; it would confirm their prejudices, and, because it had been made by blacks, would let them off the hook.

Another factor: All of the humor stems, in one way or another, from the race of the characters. True, most of the characters in the "Airplane!" retreads are white, but those movies are not about whites. "Don't Be a Menace" is the first modern comedy to depend upon stereotypes of a racial or ethnic group for its existence. Would other minority groups laugh easily if they were depicted in such a negative way?

* "Eye for an Eye" and "The Juror"

Leaving aside what I think of the second title--it hasn't opened yet, and I haven't reviewed it--let's look at a curious coincidence. The buried subject of both movies is exactly the same. A mother finds her son's life threatened by a psychopath who has killed and will kill again. She gets no reassurance from the law. So she takes the law into her own hands.

I disliked "An Eye for an Eye" intensely. I felt it was a manipulative argument for vigilante action. Do I feel the same way about "The Juror?" No. "Eye" is constructed as an argument for taking the law into one's own hands. "The Juror" is a thriller in which things simply work out that way--as they have in countless other thrillers.

What it comes down to is, content in the movies is neutral. What matters is what's done with it. "The Juror" makes no argument for any particular course of action. And its heroine doesn't initiate the action out of a cold-blooded need for revenge--she responds to a situation. A fine distinction, perhaps. But it works.

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