Ho, Ho (Well, No)

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THE THIN RED LINE STARRING: Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Travolta OPENS: New York City, Los Angeles Dec. 23 WIDE: Jan. 15

It's that war again. At the end of a film year dominated by Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (Europe, 1944: D-day and after) comes Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (the Pacific, 1942: Guadalcanal). The two films, each with a rightful claim to magnificence, are as different as the terrain of their settings and the strengths of their makers. The New York Film Critics' Circle probably got it right last week by naming Private Ryan best film and Malick best director.

In Private Ryan, the flinty, competent G.I.s have a clear mission. The Thin Red Line, from James Jones' 1962 novel, is about military and moral chaos. Its infantrymen are scared and unprepared for the hilltop assault that consumes most of the film. (The Japanese are scared too.)

Who are these guys? There's John Travolta, briefly. And Nick Nolte and a nicely unmannerist Sean Penn. And many young faces we must strain to identify. Malick, a poker player or a mystic, does not easily yield information. His story is a meadow with a minefield.

Some films deal in plot truth; this one expresses emotional truth, the heart's search for saving wisdom, in some of the most luscious imagery since Malick's last film, the 1978 Days of Heaven. The new movie takes up where Days--and his haunting Badlands of 1973--left off. Each film is a tragedy of small folks with too grand goals; each is narrated by a hick with a dreamy touch of the poetic; each sets its tiny humans against Nature in ferocious rhapsody. The Thin Red Line begins with an island idyll, and to Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) it feels like the ideal hallucination. It is really Nature's tease: here is Eden, the way the world was before the Fall. Now go to war and screw it all up.

Malick's palette holds a precise orgy of colors; his camera moves like the sun's rush down a hill (a thrilling shot) that throws a fatal light on the men's position. Most of the G.I.s are doomed to have a past--iridescent memories of the blue Pacific or the wife back home--but no future. And Malick, like a god who made the world so lovely and life so harsh, ornaments their ordeal splendidly. The film is a gorgeous garland on an unknown soldier's grave.

STEPMOM STARRING: Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Ed Harris OPENS WIDE: Dec. 25

The stepmom in question is Julia Roberts, a career-distracted fashion photographer. The baggage her boyfriend (Ed Harris) totes includes bratty kids and an ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) who resents her rival's youth and glamorous career. The ex-wife is a near saintly mother, though, requiring only a bravely endured onslaught of cancer to complete canonization. Her ailment also brings the warring women together in mutual admiration, shuts the kids up and gets everyone gathered, trembling chins up, around the tree for their first and last Christmas as an inspiringly functional extended family. Under Chris Columbus' direction, they make a pretty but utterly misleading picture in which cheap sentiment is used to supply easy, false resolutions to agonizing issues. It doesn't help to tell lies, even saving ones, about such matters. It may even be immoral. --R.S.

A CIVIL ACTION

STARRING: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan OPENS: New York City, Los Angeles Dec. 25 WIDE: Jan. 8

It's always nice, at the holiday season, to see a man get religion. It's especially rewarding to see him do so in a smart, tough, yet curiously moving film like A Civil Action, which is based on Jonathan Harr's true, best-selling account of how an insanely complicated Massachusetts case involving deadly environmental pollution was endlessly litigated.

The perps are subsidiaries of two giant corporations, carelessly dumping poisonous chemicals into a small town's water supply. The victims are kids, dying of leukemia as a result. The plaintiffs are their distraught, financially hard-pressed parents. Their unlikely champion is a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta), who risks all and finally loses all that he and his partners have gained through the hot, slick pursuit of ambulances, as this case turns into an obsession.

Not, thank heaven, a particularly magnificent one. Travolta and writer-director Steve Zaillian, compressing complex issues and characters with admirable craft, make it clear that greed and ego, more than compassion, drive Schlichtmann. Only when he reaches straits as dire as his clients' does he (non-melodramatically) achieve something like full humanity. Meantime, we've enjoyed a richly acted--see especially Robert Duvall's dreamy-fox opposition lawyer--subtly suspenseful, blessedly unmoralizing morality play. --R.S.

THE GENERAL STARRING: Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight OPENS: New York City, Los Angeles Dec. 30 WIDE: Feb. 5

Writer-director John Boorman says he thinks of Martin Cahill, protagonist of The General, as a throwback to those Celtic chieftains who haunt Ireland's misty past--cunning brutes whom legend often turns into romantic rogues.

Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) was, in fact, Dublin's master thug in the 1980s, leader of a gang that pulled off a string of gaudy robberies, and also a great local celebrity. Constantly tailed by the police, he went boldly about the city but always with his face hidden, if only by his own hands. Mocking authority in this way, he enhanced his mystery, hence his power.

Until he was finally hit by the I.R.A. (to him, just more authority to affront), he was equally capable of cheekily parking on a police-station bench all night to give himself an alibi, or of crucifying a suspected informer on a pool table. Happily married, he kept his wife's sister as a mistress and sired children with both women. In this admittedly fictionalized retelling, his other reliable relationship is with an implacably pursuing detective (superbly underplayed by Jon Voight) who hates himself for succumbing to a psychopath's irresistible charm.

That's what's great about Boorman's stunningly realized black-and-white film and about Gleeson's performance, which, like Irish weather, goes from sunny to stormy without warning. Neither film nor actor tries to resolve Cahill's contradictions or anyone's feelings for him. He just-- monstrously--is, a force of nature, beyond our rational reckoning, but not, perhaps, our irrational fascination. --R.S.

AFFLICTION STARRING: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Willem Dafoe OPENS: New York City, Los Angeles Dec. 30 WIDE: Jan. 15

Critics love films about simple folks dying in the snow (Fargo, The Sweet Hereafter, A Simple Plan). And they revere Nick Nolte, who has a lock on the role of the tough man--out of sorts, time and control--in a world with no use for his strengths. No surprise, then, that Affliction, Paul Schrader's film from a Russell Banks novel about family violence in New Hampshire, has placed strongly in the year-end critics' polls, and that Nolte won some Christmas laurels as best actor.

Wade Whitehouse (Nolte) is a part-time cop and a full-time burnout. His wife has left him; his daughter squirms as he tries charming her; his sadistic father (James Coburn) poisons Wade's prospects. His educated brother (Willem Dafoe) is too far away. His girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) can't soothe his dark side. His best pal may have killed a rich man for hire. And Wade has this awful toothache!

As screenwriter (Taxi Driver) and director (Patty Hearst), Schrader specializes in people spiraling into madness; for him it is their purest, most photogenic state. Affliction dawdles over small-town life: lots of boozy bonhomie and dazed snarling. The raging losers here often seem like sullen stereotypes. We could also have done without Nolte's self-crucifixion scene. But the actor finds truth in Wade's emotional clumsiness, in the despair of a man who hasn't the tools or the cool to survive. There are too many of these men in life, and not enough films that tell their sad tales. That gives Affliction a therapeutic worth. --R.C.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG STARRING: Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, David Paymer OPENS WIDE: Dec. 25

When Willis O'Brien, the pioneering special-effects genius, went back to his drawing board in the 1940s, he gave Mighty Joe Young two things King Kong, his first and greatest ape, lacked: a user-friendly name and a lady friend who didn't burst into screams every time she caught sight of him. The result didn't quite match King Kong, arguably the movies' most intense portrayal of unrequited love, but it remains a sweet memory, now happily recalled by director Ron Underwood's genial remake.

To put it simply, a big guy--even if he is just a gorilla with a pituitary problem--who has a playful sense of his own strength and deploys it only in good causes is an irresistible figure. Also, these days, an instructive one. Fifty years ago, there wasn't much you could do with Mighty Joe except display him exploitatively in a nightclub. Now he can be played as a lovable symbol for all our endangered species.

Underwood has a nice, humorous regard for the fact that Joe tends to make a scary first impression even on sympathetic souls, and the director is blessed with inviting performances by Charlize Theron as Jill Young, the light of Joe's life, and Bill Paxton as Joe's rival for her affection. Maybe the update on the old script strains a bit over the implacability and resources of Joe's enemies, but his daring, concluding rescue of an imperiled child--this time the setting is an exploding amusement park, not a flaming orphanage--effectively stirs both suspense and sentiment. This Christmas you could do worse than introduce the kids to the big Furby, one who carries a certain moral weight very lightly. --R.S.

PATCH ADAMS STARRING: Robin Williams, Monica Potter OPENS WIDE: Dec. 25

The latest installment in Robin Williams' campaign for screen sainthood casts him as Hunter ("Patch") Adams, a medical student whose belief that "we have to treat the patient as well as the disease" sends him into patients' rooms with balloon animals, an enema-bulb clown nose and a song in his heart (Blue Skies).

There's wisdom in the Reader's Digest bromide that laughter is the best medicine; we could name two recent invalids whose hearts were lifted by David Sedaris' impression of Billie Holiday singing the Oscar Mayer jingle on NPR. But waking old folks at midnight and making loud mischief seem like a manic camp counselor's idea of fun: indoctrination by comedy. The supporting characters, from the hospital dean (Harve Presnell) to Patch's girlfriend (Monica Potter), are similarly bludgeoned. They begin as skeptics and end, their wills crushed, as dewy believers.

What's even sadder is the talent wasted. Director Tom Shadyac's other films (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; The Nutty Professor; Liar Liar) are bright, off-kilter farces; scripter Steve Oedekerk wrote Professor. It is a crime against humority that they and Williams (who in a chair next to Letterman is still our most brilliant word surrealist) renounce the work they've practiced with such abandon and invention for Patch's bullying sentimentality. Comics who want to do Hamlet often end up, as here, serving big, sticky slices of ham. --R.C.

THE HI-LO COUNTRY STARRING: Billy Crudup, Woody Harrelson, Patricia Arquette OPENS: New York City, Los Angeles Dec. 30; WIDE: Jan. 15

Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. And while you're at it, don't let them grow up to make movies about cowboys either. Especially ones that place them in a pretty Southwestern light and solemnly invite us to contemplate their tragic inability to cope with the modern world.

In The Hi-Lo Country, a young man named Pete (Billy Crudup) goes home to New Mexico after World War II, determined to make a go of it as an independent small-scale rancher. Mostly, however, he watches, awed and complaisant, while his like-minded neighbor Big Boy (Woody Harrelson) proceeds along a mulishly macho course to self-destruction. This includes a feckless involvement with a trashy woman (Patricia Arquette), lots of sullen standing around in bars itching for a fight, and much hoo-hawing contempt for a competitor (Sam Elliott) who lets nothing distract him from building the kind of big operation that changing times require.

When all is finally lost, it's the failure to honor tradition, not the dopiness of clinging to it, that's blamed. Sam Peckinpah, who loved to celebrate bad-boyishness, apparently tried for years to adapt Max Evans' 1961 novel to the screen. It says something about the reach and persistence of decaying myth that British director Stephen Frears, creator of such eccentric delights as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, has succumbed to it. There's no need to follow his example. --R.S.