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Blithe, bleak joker that he is, Cronenberg takes an adage that usually comes draped in positive platitudes -- "art changes you" -- and stands it on its head, letting all the loose change roll out. The results are some of the deftest pieces of caricature he has yet committed to film. Willem Dafoe is surprisingly robust and hilarious as a gas-station attendant known as "Gas" who feels that Allegra's game systems have transformed him, though after playing them he's still a grease monkey. (His favorite Allegra creation is "ArtGod: Very spiritual. God the artist, God the mechanic. They don't write them like that anymore.") And Ian Holm, after his overrated bout of emotional rigidity in The Sweet Hereafter (1997), regains his satiric twinkle as an enigmatic Eastern European game-pod surgeon who jokes that dealing with materials like amphibian eggs has turned him and his assistant into "glorified veterinarians."

There's no question that Cronenberg's heart is with the game-makers. The script refers to the plot to eliminate Allegra as a fatwa (`a la Salman Rushdie), and Cronenberg peppers the film with potshots at the commercial and competitive pressures put on popular artists, and at the obsessive perfectionism they inflict on themselves. (Allegra rates one of her characters as "not very well drawn" and sniffs "his dialogue was just so-so.") Yet he doesn't let himself, or Allegra, off the hook. Even in an amusement like eXistenZ, where game parts are sex toys, Cronenberg wants art to play with fire -- and artists to shoulder the risks. This time out, the result is a movie mind game with an erotic tingle.

Opens April 23.
-- Michael Sragow

BESHKEMPIR(THE ADOPTED SON)
Directed by Aktan Abdykalykov

The feature debut not only for its director but for an entire country, Aktan Abdykalykov's Beshkempir comes from the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, formerly partcontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pageof the Soviet Union. It is perhaps fitting that the film is steeped in tradition while cautiously casting an eye toward changes in culture. Equally appropriate are its cinematic roots, the long tradition of films that unblinkingly look at the world through the perspective of a young person taking the first steps away from childhood. Told in beautiful black-and-white images, punctuated from time to time with flashes of color, it's at once strikingly original yet hauntingly familiar.

The film begins with a ritual performed by five old women in which they symbolically adopt an infant. Following a local tradition, the child of a large family is given to an infertile couple. He grows up with no idea of his true origin -- even though his name, Beshkempir, means "five old women." Played with a fine balance of innocence and experience by the director's son, Mirlan Abdykalykov, Beshkempir engages in activities that wouldn't be out of place in a coming-of-age story from any other region, give or take a few cultural differences: He and his friends have mud fights, steal eggs, scare bees from a hive and go to the movies (a brief excerpt from a brightly colored Indian musical is one of the film's subtle, surprising reminders of the world outside of Beshkempir's village). They also, of course, begin to show curiosity about sex, spying on a village woman as she applies leeches on her body and constructing a crude female form out of sand. It is in the course of a rivalry over the attention of a local girl that Beshkempir first learns that he is adopted, and for a brief period his life is turned upside down.

And then it returns to normal. One of the remarkable things about Beshkempir is Abdykalykov's skillful avoidance of the melodramatic. Beshkempir's discovery of his parentage isn't a dramatic end in itself; it's just another step in his journey, another flash of insight on the road to maturity. Equally remarkable is the director's visual strategy of recording Beshkempir's rural life with unflinching realism while somehow managing to make it look sensually fresh, as if no one had ever really noticed a particular pathway or the signs of a breeze passing through the branches of a tree before. The familiar is made to startle, and the unusual is allowed its own reality. Abdykalykov's film is a vivid reminder of the subtle complexities in even the simplest lives.

In Kyrgyzstani with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. April 23-25 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

PUSHING TIN
Directed by Mike Newell

In Pushing Tin, the edgy new comedy from British director Mike Newell, the dominant image is a black screen pulsing with obscure fluorescent markings, like the characters on some early prototype of Pac-Man. In this case, though, nobody's playing any games. The markings represent very real jet airliners filled with very real passengers. And "pushing tin" is the term that air-traffic controllers use to describe their jobs at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Hundreds of times a shift, these adrenaline-junkies play chicken with death, packing their planes into the limited airspace above the world's busiest airports as tightly as sardines in a can.

As Newell presents them, the people who are attracted to this job are a very rare breed of cat. And none more so than Nick (John Cusack), who seems to get more of a charge than the others out of playing God. Perhaps because of the life-and-death aspect of the job, the controllers at TRACON are a tightly knit bunch. They ride to work together, eat breakfast together and, on weekends, party together. Unofficially, Nick is their leader. On the job, he rattles off instructions to his pilots so fast it sounds like machine-gun fire. When the others have more flights than they can handle, Nick is always the first to come to the rescue, even if he has to stack the planes so high they're practically riding piggyback on each other.

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