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In the Beginning ...

The Phantom Menace is a great entertainment, but does it represent the future of movies, as Lucas might have us believe? In the late 1960s, after the success of his student film "THX 1138:4EB" (which he later made into a feature) Lucas was one of four filmmakers who received grants to visit the set of a Western, Mackenna's Gold, and make a short film. While the other three worked on the usual behind-the-scenes documentaries, Lucas, disgusted by the excess on a typical movie set, spent his time shooting sunsets in the desert, following his dream of a "pure" cinema (apparently one where the filmmaker doesn't have to deal with other people). Thirty years later, he's become the kind of producer he once hated, putting hundreds of employees to work and spending millions of dollars to bring his juvenile fantasies to life. The Phantom Menace is a film that combines the flaws of both high-priced and "pure" filmmaking, embracing the scale of the most overblown studio production with the insularity of an independent producer who no longer has to question his own vision. The Star Wars films borrow and re-create a cultural trove of familiar myths and legends by way of Joseph Campbell, but when he gets carried away on his promises of a digital future, Lucas himself seems to evoke another familiar cinematic myth, The Wizard of Oz, the story of a simple entertainer/entrepreneur who inadvertently creates an empire. Enjoy the spectacle of The Phantom Menace, but pay no attention to that man behind the keyboard.

Opens May 19.
-- Robert Hunt

THREE SEASONS
Written and directed by Tony Bui

Three Seasons is an exquisite film -- elegantly beautiful, profoundly insightful, deeply moving and perfectly paced. This impressive feature debut by 26-year-old writer/director Tony Bui broke new ground as the first American film shot entirely in Vietnam; it uses many native actors and was shot in Vietnamese. Bui, whose parents left Vietnam when he was 2, maximizes his location, making it a palpable presence. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler captures a unique, unforgettable quality of light, juxtaposing shadowy, dilapidated shabbiness with startling, bright splendor, mostly glowing hotels frequented by the newly wealthy. Visually, the contrast between past and present, a major theme, comes alive. Cyclo (bicycle cab) drivers lounge with a huge Coca-Cola sign as a backdrop. Dark, rainy streets give way to warm yellows and golds of hotel lobbies. But nature's beauty, especially the delicate flowers circulating through the characters' lives, radiantly outshines capitalist endeavors.

Three Seasons interweaves four stories, each of them distinct, lyrical and understated, though emotional. Two characters attempt to reclaim their past; two struggle to survive in the present, ambitiously looking toward the future. We meet Kien An first, a young woman hired to harvest white lotuses and to sell them in Saigon (characters call what is now Ho Chi Minh City by its former name). Unwittingly offending the women with whom she picks blossoms in the lotus lake, Kien sings a song from her childhood. Her reclusive employer, Teacher Dao, a once-famous poet, responds to Kien and agrees for her to serve as the hands he's lost to leprosy. Though physically ravaged, Dao's spirit and imagination soar as he composes poetry again.

Chronologically, we next meet cyclo driver Hai. Hai becomes enamored of Lan, a prostitute he helps escape from two men. Despite this familiar plotline, Hai and Lan realize a unique specificity and potent three-dimensionality. Hai, who follows and waits for Lan, even considers entering a cyclo race to win $200, enough to buy a very different kind of night for Lan.

In the third thread, young Woody sells gum, cigarettes and lighters in Saigon alleys and bars. One night, his case disappears. After slapping him, his angry father tells Woody not to return without it, and Woody goes hunting. Intersecting with Woody is the fourth major character, James Hager, an American ex-GI searching for the daughter he left 30 years ago. Hager is played by the film's executive producer, Harvey Keitel, in a quiet, sad, heartbreaking role. Appropriately, Hager is the most out of place, the most awkward in this environment.

Shot for a minuscule $2 million, with Vietnamese censors always in attendance, Three Seasons uses deliberate symbolism and an ineffable, evocative spirituality to depict resilient postwar Vietnam. Cyclo drivers compete with taxis, continued on next pagecontinued from previous pageplastic lotus flowers with real ones, and dilapidated buildings with new construction. Three Seasons earned the best-picture, audience-favorite and best-cinematography awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Described accurately as breathtakingly beautiful, Three Seasons offers a memorable visual experience, contemplative concern over modernity, and optimism triumphing over painful experience. It's one of the best films of the year.

In Vietnamese (and some English) with English subtitles.
Opens May 21 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

YOUNG & RESTLESS

The last two decades have witnessed unimaginable leaps and bounds in the fields of video technology, digital imaging and audio editing. Recent Hollywood movies have, of course, exploited these advances, in the process permanently changing how movies are both made and viewed. It would seem natural that video artists would also have kept rigid pace with recent developments in technology.

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