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Lottery Winner

WAKING NED DEVINE
Written and directed by Kirk Jones

The relentless charm of Kirk Jones' Waking Ned Devine lies in its embrace of two lovable Irish geezers who manage to work beautiful mischief on the world, in the raw beauty of their sun-splashed coastal village, and in the general notion that Ireland is the land of poetic conversations, enduring friendships and perfect pints of Guinness.

This is also the party line being advanced by the fledgling Irish movie industry -- Ireland as the Emerald Isle, as cradle of enchantment. Grimly political filmmakers continue to beat their drums here and there about "the Troubles," and earlier this year an exciting new director named Paddy Breathnach sent us the brilliant gangster farce I Went Down (which promptly went down at the U.S. box office). But for the most part, recent Irish movies -- at least those that make their way to this side of the Atlantic -- ignore contemporary life in favor of vintage romantic allure, like The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), or fairytale myth, like Into the West (1992). The Irish Tourist Board has to love it.

Waking Ned Devine, which shows us what happens when someone (but who?) among the 52 residents of picturesque little Tully More wins 7 million pounds in the national lottery, falls squarely in this realm. It's lovely to look at. It's a social fable. It features performances so warm and captivating that as soon as the credits roll you feel like calling Aer Lingus for plane reservations. It has gentle scheming, amusing gold-digging, twinkle and dash. And the whole damn thing may be just a wee bit too precious for words.

Let's not go hard on Ian Bannen, Fionnula Flanagan and David Kelly, the film's appealing stars, because to do so would be a fool's errand. As Jackie O'Shea, a rumpled villager who favors the occasional tot of Jameson's and a wind-whipped ride on his motorcycle, the gifted veteran Bannen -- who has appeared in more than 70 films in the past four decades -- grabs hold of your heartstrings in scene one and refuses to let go for the next 91 minutes. This is the fellow you hope to meet in a pub on your next trip to the Old Sod -- garrulous and life-loving, with a touch of the anarchist in him. As Jackie's wife, Annie, Flanagan is the perfect foil -- earthy and skeptical, a bit suspicious of her husband's little scams but still head over heels for him after all these years.

But it's Kelly, a bony septuagenarian with the craggy features of a Gaelic saint, who delivers the comedic coup de grace as the ancient Michael O'Sullivan, Jackie's best friend. O'Sullivan has spent his entire life in Tully More, among the thatched roofs, the squealing pigs and the hay bales strewn scenically on the rolling emerald hillsides. He's the innocent soul of the place, the rustic without guile, the heartbeat. So it is Michael whom Jackie chooses when it comes time to defraud the jolly lottery official from Dublin (Brendan F. Dempsey) out of the huge jackpot. As it happens, writer/director Jones, just up from TV commercials, provides them with the perfect ruse: A third man, their old friend Ned Devine, is the actual winner, but the shock of watching his numbers come up on the telly has struck poor Ned stone dead. Now Jackie and Michael mean to collect the millions anyway -- in honor of their friend, in the name of right, and because that's what he would have wished. Are there obstacles? Of course. Will the entire village get into the act? Perhaps.

In any case, Waking Ned Devine never runs short of charm or local color. On the edges of the movie, a lovely colleen named Maggie (Susan Lynch) finds herself weighing the merits of two suitors: odoriferous Pig Finn (James Nesbitt) and playboy Pat Mulligan (Fintan Mc-Keown). Her son (Robert Hickey) needs a father, the kindly visiting priest (Dermot Kerrigan) is about to be reassigned, and crazy old Lizzy Quinn (Eileen Dromey) continues to torment everybody. At Fitzgerald's, the tiny pub that serves as remote Tully More's town hall and communal living room, the assembled citizenry is abuzz about the lottery winner and what must be done and who's going to do it. You almost can't hear the gossip and feel the greed for all the fellow-feeling surging through the place.

For a beginner, Jones sure knows how to raise the emotional ante. Almost before you can say The Full Monty, he puts bewildered old Michael, stark naked, at the controls of Jackie's motorcycle. He also cooks up a sweet conspiracy of heroic proportions, topped off by a heart-wrenching funeral and a eulogy full of fluent double meanings and lovely sentiments. You may need two hankies just to get through it. Here's a filmmaker already so skilled at turning an audience inside out that he can even transform a fatal road accident into the biggest laugh of the whole movie.

In other words, Waking Ned Devine works up enough feel-good momentum that in the end it's irresistible. Credit Jackie O'Shea and Michael O'Sullivan, lovable goats that they are, for most of the magic. Then give young Jones a well-deserved nod. And don't forget beguiling Ireland itself. Irish moviemakers may not be telling us everything that's going on in their country, but they sure know what works.

-- 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.

The case spins out of control. Financing the vast medical and geological research the case requires themselves, Schlichtmann and his beleaguered partners soon face ruin, and once all their houses are lost and the office furniture has been hauled away, one of them (played by Fargo's William H. Macy) teeters on the comic edge of madness. But Schlichtmann, who wants more than anything to be a big dog on the legal battleground, refuses to settle, refuses to compromise. But he is as much stirred by conscience as by hubris, and that is what gives A Civil Action its keen edge.

Luckily, we get more to ponder than just his lonely fight: Schlichtmann's witnesses, and his adversaries, are some of the most vivid movie characters of the year. As the downtrodden mother of one of the dead children, Kathleen Quinlan is the portrait of good and right: Her Anne Anderson isn't interested in money, she wants only an apology for negligence -- from someone. The superb character actor James Gandolfini (Get Shorty) does a beautiful job as a tannery worker haunted by his knowledge of what went wrong at the plant, and actor/director Sydney Pollack does a nice turn as W.R. Grace's ultraslick, ultramanipulative negotiator Al Eustis: The scene in which he gently puts the screws to our hero in New York's Harvard Club is a little masterpiece of comic acting. As the bellowing judge in the case, John Lithgow paints rather broad strokes, but he has his moments.

Best of all we behold the great Robert Duvall as the eccentric slyboots who heads the high-powered legal team representing Beatrice. Duvall's Jerome Facher is a rumpled Boston Red Sox fanatic who carries his lunch in his battered briefcase, a man not above pocketing a hard roll or two from the hotel breakfast table. But underestimating him is usually fatal: It is this disarming master strategist who trips up the cocky Schlichtmann -- and who, for my money, provides the film's most pleasurable moments. Once a brilliant consigliere, always a brilliant consigliere.

Director Zaillian, who made his debut behind the camera with the underrated Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), grasps both the absurdity and the gravity of Schlichtmann's quest. His courtroom, photographed by Academy Award winner Conrad L. Hall, is so darkly and ominously lit that you wonder if justice has any chance at all of seeping in. Zaillian virtually obsesses on shots of glistening water pitchers and water glasses, constantly reminding us of the origins of this huge moral tangle. And his screenplay, adapted from a rather unwieldy book, is Oscar-worthy -- every word carefully chosen, every joke and jibe and shock beautifully rendered. Witness the moment when Travolta, caught up in the moment, shoots the moon, extending his demands for multimillions in a breakfast meeting with the other side. His partners (Macy, Tony Shalhoub, Zeljko Ivanek) are dumbstruck, and their faces show just how far into madness they believe their colleague has sunk.

In summation, A Civil Action is not just another lawyer movie, but rather one of the most striking dramas of the year -- salted with dark wit and buoyed by an authentic moral issue. Some may complain that the film gives its wronged plaintiffs short shrift while focusing on their lawyer, but that's a difficult complaint to sustain in this case: As Jane Bryant Quinn once pointed out, after all, lawyers are operators of the toll bridge that anyone in search of justice must pass. So be it, Counselor Travolta.

-- Bill Gallo

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