Directed by Sam Raimi

Ultratough guy Jesse "The Body" Ventura says he means business as the new governor of Minnesota. But for now the nasty crime wave in that state continues unchecked -- in the movies, anyway. Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, a psychological thriller that shows us how dangerous life can get after three ordinary men from a remote Minnesota farm town stumble across $4.4 million, makes for a splendid companion piece to the Coen brothers' deliciously perverse Fargo (1996). Right down to the blood on the snow and the moral chill in the characters' hearts.

Director Raimi, the able stylist who gave us camp horror in cult hits such as The Evil Dead (1982) and Army of Darkness (1993), steers clear of the supernatural this time around. But there are still plenty of evil spirits at large in this tale of earthly greed, desperation and distrust. Adapted from Scott B. Smith's 1993 bestseller, the movie version was originally to be directed by Mike Nichols. Then it was John Boorman. Then Ben Stiller. That the task finally fell to Raimi should disappoint no one: He clearly has a gift for turning wickedness over in his hands and seeing what it feels like, even in a homely landscape of rusty pickup trucks and failing bank accounts.

The checkered antiheroes of the piece are Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), a buttoned-up college grad who has settled for an accounting job at the feed store in his dreary hometown; Hank's brother Jacob (Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton), a lonely hick who lives in a hovel with his old dog; and Jacob's boozy pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), a blustering redneck given to fights in barrooms and shouting matches with his nagging wife. They may not sound very interesting, but when the three men find the snow-shrouded wreck of a small airplane in a stand of woods, and a bag stuffed with cash inside, their lives start to get a lot more complicated than they could ever have imagined.

After much haggling, the plan: Hank, the middle-class guy, will stow the money until spring, when the plane is sure to be found. Once the heat is off, they'll divvy it up. But don't count on it. Like the timeless models of the genre, the glitter-blinded prospectors of 1948's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this trio sinks ever deeper into the coils of gold fever, paranoia and violence. Allegiances shift, old sibling resentments bubble up from the past, and people start to die.

"It's the American Dream in a goddamn gym bag," fat Lou exults over the mysterious millions.

"No. You work for the American Dream," Hank counters, and the battle is joined.

Throw in a chance meeting with a local cop, an encounter with a curious farmer on a snowmobile and the creeping geometry of desire, and pretty soon the moral universe of three everymen is in serious disarray. We needn't look very far for a new supply of Raimi's trademark omens: A stealthy fox literally gets into a henhouse; inside the wreck, black birds of prey peck at the face of the dead pilot and, in their lust, nick our man Hank over one eyebrow.

Beyond the relentless snow and chill desolation of their setting, neither Raimi nor Smith (who wrote the screenplay from his book) seems overly interested in local color or (like the Coens) regional accent. But that doesn't prevent Paxton (Apollo 13, Twister), Thornton and Briscoe (who appeared with Thornton in Sling Blade) from producing some of the most memorable ensemble acting of the year. Exalted and tormented by the countless bundles of 100s (drug money? a ransom? cash without consequence?), each man wrestles with his personal demons and with the other men. Hank wants comfort and security for his new baby and his wife (Bridget Fonda), whose simple contentment has soured into avarice and calculation. Lou needs to pay his debts and quiet his wife (Becky Ann Baker). Awkward, downtrodden Jake, the most touching and -- surprise -- the most complex of the trio, dreams of having a life -- any life -- after decades of rejection. "Hank?" he asks his brother at last. "Do you ever feel evil?"

That, of course, is the $4.4 million question. As the half-baked schemes of trapped men fly out of control and the body count steadily mounts, Raimi and his wonderfully balanced cast produce a resonant moral tale in the vacancy of a cold landscape. Little matter that it trades on the oldest saw in the book: Money can't buy you happiness. It hasn't been this vividly re-examined in decades, and we're the richer for it.

Opens Jan. 22.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Anand Tucker

Genius can be a terrible, destructive gift. Jacqueline du Pre, the brilliant British cellist who enraptured audiences in the '60s and '70s with her musical passion and intensity, lived a life of great renown and acclamation, but also one of harrowing loneliness and emotional turmoil. Her story is movingly told in Hilary and Jackie, a film that examines du Pre's love-hate relationship with her own musical genius and her similarly conflicted relationship with the most important person in her life, her sister Hilary.

The sisters' lives were marked by a deep rivalry -- and an even deeper love. As children growing up England, they were inseparable, with the sensitive, supportive Hilary (played as a girl by Keely Flanders), older by two years, always watching out for Jackie (played as a girl by Auriol Evans). Hilary was a talented flutist whose parents doted on her. Told she could not accompany Hilary to music recitals unless she played as well as her sister did, Jackie dove into the cello, practicing day and night. Her prodigious talent soon commanded the attention of both her family and the music world at large.

The rapid rise of Jackie (played as an adult by the exquisite British actress Emily Watson) to international fame took its toll on both sisters. The cellist lacked sufficient emotional preparation for the chaotic life of nonstop touring. Without the love and emotional support of her parents and her sister, Jackie experienced terrible loneliness and a feeling of abandonment. continued on page 64continued from page 63Hilary (Australian actress Rachel Griffiths), her own talent completely ignored in the wake of Jackie's stunning success, grew withdrawn and insecure.

Hilary's self-confidence was partially restored when a young conductor, Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), fell in love with her and married her. But instead of being happy for Hilary, Jackie became terribly jealous. Although Jackie married the celebrated young pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain), her life continued to be a whirlwind of concert dates and recordings. Increasingly unhappy -- even erratic in her behavior -- she longed for the simple, secure life she saw her sister living.

Buckling under the strain of her hectic life, Jackie eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and retreated to the farm where Hilary and Kiffer lived with their two young daughters. There, the delicate balance of love and rivalry that had characterized the sisters' relationship all their lives was put to the supreme test when Jackie announced that she wanted to sleep with Kiffer.

Based on the book A Genius in the Family, written by Hilary du Pre and her brother Piers (played in the film by Rupert Penry Jones), Hilary and Jackie explores the fragile but durable love that bound the two sisters. It also covers Jackie's battle with multiple sclerosis, which ended her musical career. Diagnosed in 1973 at the age of 28, Jackie succumbed to the illness 14 years later.

The film proves a haunting emotional experience, thanks in large measure to its outstanding cast. Watson, whose transcendent turn in Breaking the Waves is one of the truly great screen performances, brings her remarkable talents to the role of Jackie, capturing the character's naivete and deep emotionalism, as well as her increasingly willful, petulant and at times paranoid behavior. Despite Jackie's frequently atrocious insensitivity toward her loved ones, Watson never turns her into a monster. Our distaste for her cruel and self-centered actions is balanced by an underlying empathy and sorrow.

Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) brings a wistful benevolence to Hilary. Living in Jackie's shadow and frightened of losing her affection, her Hilary exhibits a sense of devotion that borders on masochism. But Hilary's generous spirit and genuinely forgiving nature allow her to succeed in life in ways that elude Jackie.

Also notable in the cast are Morrissey, who makes a strong impression as Kiffer, the only member of the family who refuses to put Jackie on a pedestal, and the young actresses Flanders and Evans. Credit also must go to director Anand Tucker, making his feature directorial debut here, for drawing such amazing performances from his cast.

The scenes of the children on a beach have a particularly dreamlike quality. Bathed in sunlight, they capture a moment of innocence and peace that cannot possibly be sustained. That brief moment foreshadows both the beauty and the pain that would characterize the lives of the du Pre sisters throughout their years.

Opens Jan. 22 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

Directed by Willard Carroll

Elevate The Jerry Springer Show a notch or two -- in other words, dispense with the one-legged serial killers who are having sex with their blind mothers, and other such nonsense -- and you've got Willard Carroll's Playing by Heart.

Too harsh a judgment, some will say. After all, this well-meaning, relentlessly sincere ensemble drama shoots for no less a goal than understanding the varieties of love in postmodern urban life -- old love, new love, parental love, red-hot love and terminally blue love. Carroll, whose previous directorial credits include last year's children's movie Tom's Midnight Garden and the 1991 monster flick The Runestone, has assembled a large cast in which solid veterans such as Gena Rowlands, Ellen Burstyn and Sean Connery share face time with talented newcomers like Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe. His dialogue is spiced with clever witticisms. And his time-lapse views of Los Angeles, dusk-to-dark-to-dawn in a trice, are beautiful to look at.

But Playing by Heart comes from the same mindset, if you can call it that, that has turned the American airwaves into a raving public confessional while simultaneously transforming the book trade into the province of every brokenhearted Iowa farm wife and reformed Irish drunk who can haul his or her tear-stained memoirs up to an editor's office. It is self-absorbed. It is self-important. It pretends to be high-minded and authentically felt, but it's drenched in the shameless indulgence of the tell-all talk show. It means to reveal "how we live now" but is hamstrung by the greedy ethic of the self-help movement.

After 20 minutes, you might want it to shut up.
In the manner of TV soap opera, certain popular cop shows and several far superior films by Robert Altman, Carroll leapfrogs among half-a-dozen seemingly unrelated story lines, illustrating just how tough it is to connect in this big, bad world. Rowlands and Connery are a well-heeled couple on the verge of their 40th anniversary, but they are emotionally threatened by the memory of an old infidelity. Dennis Quaid shows up as a chameleonic loner who lays a new tale of personal woe on a new woman in a new bar every night. The X-Files' Gillian Anderson is a buttoned-up theater director who can't commit when the right man (Jon Stewart) comes along. Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards are hotel-room lovers who check their real lives at the front desk. Jolie is a glib but lonely dance-club babe who discovers a new kind of intimacy with a boy who never dates (Phillippe). Burstyn is a mother exchanging truths with her dying son.

Let's see. In this exploration of love and human condition, Carroll gives us, among other elements, three troubled marriages, two cases of AIDS, three pampered pet dogs (one of them the size of a racehorse), one drag queen and a TV chef who drops fish on the kitchen floor but never fluffs a line. Here's news: In the end, all the episodes turn out to be related!

Of course anyone who's gotten through the fourth grade will have figured that out by the second reel.

What's harder to figure out is the sheer volume of talk we must endure -- ceaseless, wall-to-wall palaver, some of it witty, a lot of it familiar, all of it highly conceptual -- about "relationships." This despite the very caution from which the movie sprang. To hear Carroll tell it, a friend once made the observation, which struck him deeply, that "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." In other words, impossible. Nonetheless, the director made an entire movie in defiance of his friend's profundity. Let us give thanks, at least, that it is no longer titled, as it was in its pre-release days, Dancing About Architecture.

Did I say Jerry Springer? Playing by Heart (not unlike Grand Canyon or The Big Chill or other gabathons perpetrated by Lawrence Kasdan) comes across as Springer for the art-house crowd, for people who have advanced degrees but who aren't much interested in anything beyond their own emotional concerns. Did I say sincere? You could ladle the righteous fellow-feeling and hand-wringing "candor" off this movie's surface like so much grenadine.

Some will find it profound.
OpensJan. 22 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Paul Greengrass

The cold-hearted among us have watched Camille die tragically on the late show and have seen Brian Piccolo run his last yard through the cancer ward often enough to understand the several hazards of Hollywood "disease movies" -- false sentiment, synthetic emotion and tears for tears' sake. It is with wariness, then, that skeptics will approach The Theory of Flight. It is, after all, a love story linking a failed painter and a young woman suffering from incurable Lou Gehrig's disease. Three minutes in, you know the heroine will check out. Then the hanky-wringing begins in earnest.

But let's not be too hasty. First of all, Flight was made not in the mushy Hollywood of Love Story but in the upright England of Mrs. Brown. Second, it features the acting services of two notable antisentimentalists, now very much in love off the screen: the splendid Helena Bonham Carter and the devoted Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh. Third, it can be a screamingly funny movie -- and a flagrantly bawdy one -- even as it's thrumming away on our heartstrings.

Said another way, writer Richard Hawkins, director Paul Greengrass (who started out as a documentarian) and this sublime pair of actors have fiddled with the conventions of the genre enough to reinvent it, at least in part. Who won't be delighted when Bonham Carter's doomed, wheelchair-bound heroine Jane shoplifts a box of tampons at the supermarket, and when she turns up the volume on her voice simulator and assaults a restaurant full of people with a blare of recorded expletives? Is Jane rebellious? Sure. Smart? You bet. Self-pitying? Not in this lifetime. In fact, the only thing she says she wants before dying is to lose her virginity.

Her reluctant partner in this quest is Richard (Branagh), whose bank account is empty, whose career in art is a wreck and whose domestic life is a failure. What to do? Why, stitch all your lousy paintings together in the shape of a parasail and leap off a building. For this act, more prank than crime, Richard is sentenced to 120 hours of community service -- specifically, to taking rebellious Jane on a series of weekly outings.

Her greeting to him: "You sorry, lonely fucker."
As it happens, though, they are natural soulmates. Both are damaged. Both are eccentric. Both are floundering in life. And together they learn that the word "flight" has several meanings: It can mean escape, and it can mean soaring. But unlike the relationships in most disease movies, this one is blessedly free of hearts and flowers. Jane and Richard bicker. They crack dark jokes about disability. They go to London to fulfill Jane's fond last wish -- a plan that might just involve bank robbery and the services of a high-priced gigolo.

They also take a common interest in Richard's newest harebrained scheme: From scraps of junk and old canvases he's now building a primitive biplane. Call out the symbol police if you must, but this lovely contraption will later provide the movie's loveliest moment.

What's liberating about The Theory of Flight is not so much its brashness or even its reckless disregard for totem and taboo. What really lifts it high is its delicate balance of outlandish charm and outright gravity. I couldn't help recalling a great maxim of George Bernard Shaw: "Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."

Words to live by, especially if you're making a movie in which the heroine has to die in the last reel. Bring a couple of hankies, to be sure, but don't forget your funny bone.

Opens Jan. 22.
-- Bill Gallo

Co-written and directed by Neil Jordan

Claire Cooper (Annette Bening), an editor and illustrator of a collection of Grimms' fairytales, finds herself trapped in a horrific fairytale of her own. Long plagued by psychic dreams of past events, she is slow to realize that her current dreams, of children being kidnapped and murdered, are in fact premonitions. Her husband (Aidan Quinn) barely believes her, and her psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) is even more skeptical. It quickly becomes clear that the change in her psychic abilities is the result of her dreams having been invaded by another psychic, a deranged killer (Robert Downey Jr.) who doesn't actually show up until more than two-thirds of the way through the film.

This is essentially an art-house Freddy Krueger movie, and not as good as several of the entries in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. For years director Neil Jordan has slipped back and forth between his projects (The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy) and Hollywood work-for-hire (Interview with the Vampire, We're No Angels and now In Dreams). He should stick to the smaller, more personal films. Although the subject matter here echoes Jordan's second film, The Company of Wolves (1984), the style is far less interesting, despite the work of the always great cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Seven) and a fine score by Elliott Goldenthal that seems to be deliberately patterned on Angelo Badalamenti's music for David Lynch. (The use of certain sound effects and of Roy Orbison's title song only points up the association.) An effective sense of creepiness runs throughout this picture -- and there's one moment of jump-out-of-your-seat violence -- but taken as a whole it seems a bit silly. The plot is neither wild enough to come close to Lynch's unreality nor logical enough to pass muster as a standard thriller.

Now playing.
-- Andy Klein

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