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Failing Grade

In the course of this movie's spineless 91 minutes, Max gets expelled from Rushmore, rejiggers his act for public school and declares war on Herman for falling in love with his woman, the teacher. With the filmmaking equivalent of rubber bands and chewing gum, director Anderson patches everything up in time for a not-so-grand finale.

By the end, were it not for Murray, watching Rushmore would be like reading an article on "Why Adolescents Need Prozac." When an alarm goes off in this film, you wish you were waking up in Groundhog Day.

Opens Feb. 5.
-- Michael Sragow

THE SALTMEN OF TIBET
Directed by Ulrike Koch

The nomadic people of Northern Tibet caught by Ulrike Koch's film lead a life dominated by ritual and tradition. They sing songs, make sacrificial offerings and invoke ancient spirits. Their world is harsh, demanding and noticeably free of the trappings and technology of our contemporary culture, though the film subtly points out that the modern, industrial world may not be too far behind them. Koch's film shows one of their most obscure rites, following a quartet of men -- and a few dozen yaks -- on a trek to obtain "the tears of Tara," their yearly supply of salt gathered from sacred lakes.

Koch, a German-born Sinologist and ethnologist, observes the Tibetans with a detachment that goes beyond the usual anthropological film, eschewing even the usual omniscient narration so familiar from National Geographic documentaries. She records their stories and songs and follows silently as they move along their way. Some may find Koch's lack of editorial observation unsettling or even tedious, but in the context of the film it can also be rather moving. There's no condescension, never a patronizing tone or a hint that we advanced Westerners might find their ancient customs and beliefs absurd.

As the Tibetans describe their practices and appeal to their gods, Koch presents them not as "noble savages" or naive innocents but as ordinary people living in a world still governed by ancient spiritual forces. As far as Koch's film goes, they seem to be right.

Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 5-7 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

PAYBACK
Co-written and directed by Brian Helgeland

The new Mel Gibson vehicle, Payback, is arguably the first major-studio release this year to have even a modicum of aesthetic ambition. For his directorial debut, Brian Helgeland -- who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 1997's L.A. Confidential (co-written with director Curtis Hanson) -- has chosen to adapt The Hunter, the first of 20 or so novels written by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark) about a professional thief named Parker.

Let us pause for a minute to praise Donald E. Westlake. If prolificacy were in and of itself a virtue, Westlake would be, by that criterion alone, a paragon. Since the late '50s he has published more than 40 books under his own name, plus 20 or so as Stark and God knows how many more under at least a half-dozen other pseudonyms. But prolificacy isn't enough, of course, as the output of pulpmeisters such as Michael Avallone proves. Westlake, on the other hand, has the benefit of being startlingly good and remarkably versatile.

After he wrote his first few hard-boiled crime novels, Westlake undertook the Parker series in 1962. In The Hunter, Parker (no first name) was introduced as a powerful, smart brute, but as the series progressed he became more and more defined by his professionalism. Anger, vengeance and emotion gave way to a few simple questions: What move is most efficacious for pulling off the job? For getting away? For surviving? Parker avoids killing not out of any moral sense but because it always complicates matters.

Westlake achieved greater success with his comic crime novels, a number of which have been made into films, including The Hot Rock (1972), whose hero Dortmunder is the anti-Parker. Accordingly, the two most recent Parker books -- Westlake returned to the character not long ago after a hiatus of more than two decades -- contain comic moments rarely seen in the earlier novels. The series as a whole is the best extended elaboration of the hard-boiled pulp ethos since Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op novels and stories.

Payback is the sixth Parker film, and its predecessors are a motley bunch. The first was Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A. (1966), a very loose adaptation of The Jugger. Since then: The Split (1968), The Outfit (1974) and Slayground (1984), with Jim Brown, Robert Duvall and Peter Coyote, respectively, as Parker.

But hands-down the best Parker film is a previous adaptation of The Hunter. In director John Boorman's Point Blank (1967), one of the first attempts to develop a color version of film noir style, Lee Marvin embodied the spirit of the early Parker books. Westlake's story starts with Parker (named Walker in the film) seeking revenge after being shot and left for dead by his wife and his partner. It was Boorman's conceit that Walker may actually be dead: Point Blank is filled with fragmented flashbacks and surreal landscapes through which an impassive Marvin stalks like a zombie. Developing this notion required some major divergences from the original plot, but Point Blank, despite all its art-house pretensions, still comes closest to capturing the essence of Westlake's character. Working from the same material, Helgeland takes a wholly different approach. For more than half of the film he follows the book far more closely than did Boorman, at least in terms of story. After recovering from being shot, the Parker character, known as Porter (Mel Gibson), shows up in an unnamed city -- all signs suggest that it's Chicago, though Helgeland contends it's a cross between Chicago and New York -- in an effort to locate his faithless wife, Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger), murder his betrayer Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), and recover his share of the money he and Resnick stole.

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