Summer Raises Its IQ

Can films about hard subjects find an audience in the hot months? Depends on how good they are

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In any movie theater any summer, you can practically hear the atrophying of brain cells. Summer pictures don't insult the audience's intelligence so much as they ignore it, playing instead to the mass-market inner child. But with most big films serving as a form of pop-cultural potty training, there's a grand void to be filled for viewers who have not sent their brains to summer camp--who want the occasional film to speak to their inner grownup.

Miramax Films to the rescue. Counterprogramming with a vengeance, the distributor offers a trio of summer movies with nary a beach, a bimbo or a superhero in sight. All three films--Buffalo Soldiers, The Magdalene Sisters and Dirty Pretty Things--fit snugly into what we'll call the Miramax genre. Take a fact-based scandal that made headlines in a distant country. Cram in enough subplots to fill three other dramas. Assemble a tony cast of actors just below star level. Then market the product as a searing indictment of...well, something pretty bad.

Buffalo Soldiers could play as a cynic's version of the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, except that its tone echoes that of Sgt. Bilko and Catch-22. Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is a wheeler-dealer stationed in Germany just before the sundering of the Berlin Wall. While his stoned fellow soldiers take a lethal joyride in a tankand the camp's defenestration rate is way too highElwood makes a pretty profit running guns, drugs and 1,000 cans of Mop & Glo to the locals. Then the plot kicks in.

And there's plenty of it. The picture, directed and co-written by Gregor Jordan from Robert O'Connor's novel, plays like a mini-series compacted into 95 minutes. It develops a severe case of character sprawl: a clueless colonel (Ed Harris) and a hard-nosed top sergeant (Scott Glenn) and their respective women (Elizabeth McGovern, Anna Paquin)--both of whom cozy up to Elwood--plus lots of troublesome MPs and outsiders who stand in Elwood's way as he plans the big score. What's worth savoring is Phoenix's performance, cool and alert, confiding only in the camera. He elevates a crammed project into a sharp study of a character who doesn't have much character.

Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters, which won the top prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, is set in Dublin in the '60s, when girls who had committed no crime more serious than naive sauciness, or who had been raped or impregnated, were sent to convent Borstals run by some very nasty nuns. "Here," one sister tells a girl, "you will be saved from eternal damnation." In fact, the place is a hell on Eire. The nuns, using their charges as unpaid laborers in a sweatshop laundry, flog the girls, make ribald fun of their naked bodies, allow a visiting priest to force them into sex, and drive them to despair or madness or flailing rebellion.

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