Lottery Winner

-- Bill Gallo

LISBON STORY
Written and directed by Wim Wenders

In Wim Wenders' 1982 film The State of Things, a dark meditation on cinema made largely in response to his frustrating experience working on his first American film Hammett, director Friedrich Munroe (Patrick Bauchau) tries hopelessly to save a movie project after the production money has dried up. He returns to Los Angeles to confront his producer, who has become a paranoid creature of the night, abandoning a conventional office in favor of a constantly mobile bus (a barbed reference to Francis Coppola, who left the Hammett production hanging while experimenting with making movies from inside a video-equipped van on One from the Heart). The state of cinema, Wenders noted with alarm, was critical: Film sets were a shambles, producers had gone mad, and filmmakers were left stranded among the rubble.

Filmed on the eve of the cinema's centennial year (an event celebrated with more enthusiasm in Europe than in the U.S.), Wenders' 1994 Lisbon Story finds the director still questioning the nature of film but with a renewed spirit. Munroe (whose name is an anagrammatic reference to F.W. Murnau, the first great German director to be seduced by Hollywood) has survived as well, and he sends a cryptic postcard to his sound engineer to meet him in Lisbon for a new project. When the sound man, Phillip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), arrives in Portugal, the director is nowhere to be seen, and his apartment has been temporarily borrowed by a local band, Madredeus, as a rehearsal space. Winter hangs around, befriends neighborhood children, falls in love with Madredeus vocalist Teresa Salgueiro and, finding a reel of silent film on Munroe's editing table, begins recording local sounds as he waits for the director to return.

After the ambitious multinational spectacles of Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World, Lisbon Story is a delightfully off-the-cuff exercise, filmed in a spirit that simultaneously suggests Minnelli's An American in Paris and Hitchcock's Vertigo, as well as Wenders' own road movies of the 1970s (it's especially good to see Vogler again serving as the director's footloose alter ego, having lost none of the deadpan comic charm he displayed in Wenders' early Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road). If The State of Things was a product of anger and panic by a filmmaker who saw his chosen medium in a state of exhaustion, Lisbon Story is the continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagework of someone who survived that emotional crisis with his passion for cinema grown even stronger. A lighthearted companion piece to Angelopoulos' centennial work Ulysses' Gaze, Wenders' film is his romantic ballad to a new Europe, to a new century and, most of all, to the art form that allows him new ways of seeing both.

Plays at 7 p.m. Jan. 8-10 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

A CIVIL ACTION
Written and directed by Steven Zaillian

The great attorneys of our time -- Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks -- must now make room in the firm for a new partner. John Travolta, who in past lives has been a disco king, a hip hitman, and a deep-fried presidential candidate, reinvents himself in A Civil Action as a greedy personal-injury lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann, who risks everything on one Byzantine monster of a case and emerges from the hell of it a better man. Unless you're a devoted lawyer-basher, it's a fascinating thing to watch. Travolta and director Steven Zaillian (who wrote the screenplay for 1993's Schindler's List) push all the right emotional buttons while revealing the grime and the majesty of the law.

If an ambulance chaser is to be redeemed by conscience, the movie's closing argument goes, he must first suffer. And we must suffer along with him. It is this bond of mutual agony that helps A Civil Action surpass the usual John Grisham-style pulp and thereby become something like a real moral tale. It will likely gain more weight in the public eye from the fact that it's all true, more or less -- based on a real lawyer and a real case about toxic waste and leukemia in a New England mill town, previously combined in a bestseller by Jonathan Harr. It doesn't hurt, either, that virtually every performance here, large or small, is picture-perfect.

Travolta's flawed hero is a cocksure go-getter who has put dozens of expensive suits in his closet and a black Porsche in the garage through the cold calculus of his specialty: "Divide dollars and cents neatly into human suffering" and then make a life both well furnished and more upright than your antagonists would like to believe. But Schlichtmann is an overreacher, it turns out: He pushes his tiny law firm into a hazardous lawsuit against two industrial giants, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co., on behalf of eight families in tiny Woburn, Mass., who believe the leukemia deaths of their children are the result of poisoned drinking water. Each of the two big companies has a stake in a local tannery that dumped carcinogenic solvents back in the '60s.

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