Written and directed by Guy Ritchie

Immodesty becomes Guy Ritchie, the British writer/director who makes a jovial debut on a Jovian scale in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. In this wayward gangster comedy set in London's East End, Ritchie cooks up a gleefully improbable tale out of mismatched ingredients -- a rigged card game, a hydroponics marijuana factory and a pair of antique rifles. Every device he uses to tell this whopper calls attention to itself. There's spritzing narration, rambunctious camera trickery, music tracks that rove from James Brown to Mikis Theodorakis, and a sardonic Tarantino curlicue that detonates an outrageous tableau (a guy leaving a bar with a flaming chest) and explains it a half-hour or so later.

Yet rather than work as a turnoff, Ritchie's showmanship -- half macho braggadocio, half emotion-tinged bravura -- slaps and tickles the viewer into submission. He takes a group of not-so-goodfellas, whose idea of fun is setting farts afire, and, against all odds, makes them lively and engaging.

Eddie the card sharp (Nick Moran), Soap the chef (Dexter Fletcher), Bacon the small-time scam artist (Jason Statham) and Tom the hustler of stolen goods (Jason Flemyng) are men in their late 20s who carry on like hapless, hopeful teenagers. Getting to know them is akin to sorting out bunkmates. What makes you warm to the bunch is their guttural bonhomie. They're never more vivid than when they're pooling their feelings -- their foolish elation at a job medium-well-done or their primal hatred of parking cops. Eddie is a handsome fellow hiding anxiety behind a poker face, Soap a scowler who keeps his hands clean, Bacon a self-styled hard guy, and Tom a fast talker with ideas too big for his muscles or his brain. Ritchie fixes them in our mind and sets them in motion without making us feel that we know everything about them. Suddenly, Tom will blurt out a confidence scheme to fleece the sexually kinky, or Soap will unveil fearsome cutlery and proclaim, "Guns for show, knives for a pro." The flourishes fill out instead of contradict their personalities. In its own frivolous way, the movie demonstrates just how confusing overgrown kids can get because they haven't settled on an understanding of themselves.

Not that this film shows anybody growing up. With childish optimism and teen-ish desperation, these young men are counting on Eddie to make them rich with a big win at a high-stakes card game. They've put nearly everything else on hold, including, apparently, any relationships with women. So I was relieved to discover, courtesy of reporter Matt Wolf in the Feb. 14 New York Times, that Eddie did have a girlfriend in an early cut, and, more important, that the guys' cheerful state of psychological arrest is the whole point of the movie.

In the film's home country (where it's been a giant hit), these four unassuming blokes have been taken up as the avatars of "laddism": according to Wolf, "rowdy, boys-will-be-boys behavior" rooted in the male proletariat yet now "fashionable and hip." It sounds like a dubious movement. Its products include the British and American versions of the sitcom Men Behaving Badly; I presume that it's helped fuel the retro-sexist trend to turn the cover of every Anglo or American men's mag into a Baywatch poster. Still, from the evidence of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, "laddism" has its charms as a revolt against hypocrisy and a cry for spontaneity. Women as well as men may find these anti-heroes refreshing, because they don't pretend to have any raised consciousness. They're blissfully unselfconscious -- often, simply, unconscious.

The movie works because Ritchie puts his razzle-dazzle technique at the service of his quartet's unpredictable impulses. He uses a jester's tricks to spin a labyrinthine yarn. Part of the yarn's joke is just how much of it there is -- and how many shady characters are entwined in it.

Any skilled auteur can involve an audience in media res; Ritchie gets us involved in multi-media res. At a card table, Eddie has the killer knack for reading his opponents' hands in their faces. He persuades Bacon, Tom and Soap to help him raise the 100,000 pounds he needs to play at the table of porn operator and all-around racketeer Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty), whose nickname comes not from his face but from his favorite weapon. Naive Eddie, not realizing that H.H. has the game wired, winds up 500,000 pounds in debt. He and his pals have a week to pay up before Harry's enforcers -- Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), who drowns debtors, and Big Chris (Vinnie Jones), who muscles them -- begin slicing off their digits.

The solution is more complicated than the setup: It involves a rabid thief named Dog (Frank Harper) and his sidekick, Plank (Steve Sweeney); a profitable ganja garden; two antique rifles Hatchet Harry craves for his collection; a couple of slapstick thieves-for-hire from up North, who can't tell an antique from an aardvark; and an enigma in an Afro named Rory Breaker (Vas Blackwood), who seems spacey until you hear him tell an associate, "If you hold back anything, I'll kill ya. If you bend the truth, or I think you're bending the truth, I'll kill ya. If you forget anything, I'll kill ya. In fact, you're going to have to work very hard to stay alive."

The resulting herky-jerky motion gives off a humorous buzz. The four main lads are deadbeats, not Beatles, but Ritchie treats them as if they were the stars of A Hard Day's Night and Help! -- and his own style owes more to the fearlessly eclectic Richard Lester than it does to Tarantino or Scorsese. The use of reggae, ska and retro-rock helps him establish an elastic rhythm. When Ritchie slows down the action, it's usually not to make a visual point but to let his words sink in. He changes film speeds and angles so rapidly and promiscuously that when Eddie practices a one-handed shuffle, you feel certain that his hand has been sped up and the rest of the picture frozen.

Nothing Ritchie does is particularly original or profound, but he's got a back-alley flair that's both kinetic and literary. As a writer of dialogue, he knows how to build a rococo shtick into a relentless farcical eruption. Here's Tom trying to sell his competitor and sometime ally, Nick the Greek (Stephen Marcus), some hot electronics: "That is 900 nicker in any shop you're lucky enough to find one in, and you're complaining about 200. What School of Finance did you study? It's a deal, it's a steal, it's sale of the fucking century. In fact, fuck ya, Nick, I think I'll keep it." When Nick flashes an enormous wad, Tom explodes: "You could choke a dozen donkeys on that, and you're arguing about 100 pound? What do you do when you're not buying stereos, Nick -- financing revolutions?... You got Liberia's deficit in your skyrocket. Tighter than a duck's butt you are. Now come on, let me feel the fiber of your fabric."

But Ritchie also knows how cleansing and uproarious a simple irony can be. Big Chris summarizes the entire chronicle of crackpot carnage when he says, "One more thing. It's been emotional."

You may not get a clear sense of the East End amid the phantasmagoria of old-fashioned sleaze and souped-up weed, of sex toys used as clubs and rifles as bargaining chips. (Apart from Nick's Greekness, the only reference to ethnicity comes when Tom says a deal is "as kosher as Christmas," and Nick must explain, "Jews don't celebrate Christmas.") You may not always know how the various mugs wind up in the exact right or wrong spots. Yet you always take amusement in Ritchie's flesh-and-blood versions of cartoon characters. The green public-school kids who run the ganja garden are voluptuously silly, and Ritchie has the sense to give the zonked-out girl who lives with them a hilarious, unexpected climax.

This writer/director may or may not be a budding movie artist, but he's definitely a top-notch gamesman. In Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie tosses out inflammatory gags with blithe impunity. He plays pick-up-sticks with dynamite.

Opens March 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by James Moll

In Hungary, the Holocaust lasted only for a year. But the word "only" is deceptive in this context. The Nazis, who entered the country in March 1944, had been in the genocide business for a few years by then, and they'd gotten good at it. They were efficient, and they were determined. By the time Hungary was liberated early the following year, well over half-a-million Hungarian Jews had died at their hands, many after deportation to concentration camps. It was a long year.

During the same period, the Nazis were growing increasingly aware that they were losing the war. The resources that were devoted, with frantic obsessiveness, to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry were much needed elsewhere in the German war effort. That's the historical point of director James Moll's documentary The Last Days: that the real war, as far as the Nazis were concerned, was always against the Jews -- that when the Germans knew they were on the verge of defeat, it was against this enemy that they redoubled their efforts, as if in obedience to some horrid sense of obligation, a vision of a Jew-free world as their legacy.

The dramatic point of the film, however -- the human point -- is to defiantly demonstrate the failure of that insane vision. The Last Days focuses on five survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust, three women and two men who came to the U.S. after the war and led distinguished careers, raised families, flourished and thrived. As sad and horrifying a chronicle as the film is, it nonetheless leaves behind a sort of angry exhilaration and joy. You want to shout backward through time at the Nazis, "Well, here are five you bastards didn't destroy, and they're still with us."

The five survivors are Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana, Renee Firestone, Bill Basch and Irene Zisblatt. Lantos, now the representative from California's 12th Congressional District, was a Budapest native sent to a forced-labor camp as a teenager; he worked repairing a railroad trestle after it was bombed by British and American planes. He escaped, entered the underground back in Budapest and avoided the concentration camps by taking refuge in one of the safehouses maintained by Raoul Wallenberg. The other four were less fortunate. Cahana, now a respected artist, spent time in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Firestone, now an outreach teacher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was also deported to Auschwitz, where her sister died after being subjected to scientific experimentation. Zisblatt survived appalling experiments in the same camp. Basch, a small-town boy, was arrested while sneaking through the Budapest sewers to deliver Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews from Wallenberg, and ended up in Buchenwald.

We see the five revisit the scenes of their experiences, and they tell their stories, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with intense emotion, but always in great detail, as if the memory were very fresh. Those details are the strategies they used to survive hell on earth: the secreting of a bathing suit under one's clothes as a reminder of happy times; how to hang on to the diamonds your mother has given you by repeatedly swallowing them and then retrieving them from your bowel movements. The Last Days employs no voice-over narration, with the accounts of the five survivors supported by amazing testimony from three American liberators and, unnervingly, from Dr. Hans Munch, one of the Nazi "researchers" at Auschwitz.

That in-the-flesh testimony of survivors won't be available forever is, presumably, another aspect of the film's title's meaning -- every year fewer firsthand accounts of the Holocaust exist. This film was produced, in part, by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an organization devoted to stemming this loss to the historical record; Moll worked there for several years, compiling a video archive of interviews with Holocaust survivors from around the world. Although the foundation has produced two TV documentaries and a CD-ROM, The Last Days marks both its and Moll's feature debut.

Somehow such movie-business terminology as "feature debut" rings hollow here, but it probably shouldn't. Moll and cinematographer Harris Done have found potent images, Hans Zimmer's solemn score doesn't commit the grotesque insult -- so common now in TV news -- of pushing emotion on us, and the various stories flow to overwhelming parallel conclusions. If you're thinking about what you're watching, there isn't a minute of The Last Days that doesn't hold you like a vise, a tribute to Moll's nearly invisible technique.

There are always a few critics who express unease when movies such as Schindler's List (1993), among others, dramatize true stories from the Holocaust and use them to generate ordinary dramatic effects like suspense, terror, poignancy and occasionally even comic relief. That unease increases with a work like last year's Life Is Beautiful, which uses the Holocaust as the setting for a fable that defends its title's assertion.

A film like The Last Days has its status as nonfiction to help buffer it from the charge of show-biz frivolity; we aren't haunted by visions of costume assistants sewing on yellow stars or of makeup artists applying emaciated faces and numbered tattoos to extras. But the visions that do haunt us, including many unwatchable ones from the stock footage included in the film, take us out of the realm of aesthetic ethics. The unstaged history in The Last Days makes distaste regarding staged history seem like a meaningless worry.

"A triumph of the human spirit" is the phrase that's often affixed to stories such as the ones told in The Last Days, and although it's apt, it has also become a cliche with overuse. Indeed, many of the adjectives used to describe a meaningful movie experience -- "touching," "gripping," "powerful," "wrenching" -- seem both feeble and irrelevant here. "Necessary" might be the most appropriate word.

Opens March 12 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- M.V. Moorhead

Directed by Ulu Grosbard

The Deep End of the Ocean starts out as a maternal horror movie and ends up as a family-therapy session. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the photographer wife of a restaurateur (Treat Williams) and mother of two sons and an infant daughter. While checking into a jammed hotel for her 15th high-school reunion, she briefly leaves her 3-year-old boy with his 7-year-old brother. That's when the younger child wanders off and vanishes. This hook is a primal fear for parents, and the film gives it a good twist or two. Like Jacquelyn Mitchard in her 447-page novel, the moviemakers are intent on showing what the child's disappearance and his surprise recovery mean to the mother and her household.

Especially when trimmed and organized to fit the confines of a 105-minute movie, the story becomes a dysfunctional-family fable. The cataclysm of the kidnapping and the shock of the boy's return nine years later are emotional flash floods opening psychic sinkholes. Although the movie doesn't go in for quick fixes, it's not particularly revelatory or insightful. It's a textbook paradigm of grief, loss and regrouping laid out in three acts.

Near the climax, the husband, Pat Cappadora (Williams), accuses his wife, Beth, of making a career out of unhappiness. (Beth has already stopped, then restarted her photography.) I hope that doesn't happen to Pfeiffer. She can be a phenomenal actress, but not when she insists on her own seriousness. As Beth, she performs with conviction and acumen, yet there's nothing instinctive or startling about her work here. She sets a clear arc and fills it. Pfeiffer is equally skilled at Beth's complaisance, confusion and panic; at her lobby-filling paroxysm of pain; and at the existential sleepwalk induced by her bereavement. Unfortunately, she doesn't make you know or feel more about Beth than you would from a slick magazine. That's the problem with the movie as a whole. Its actors play definable mental states, not fully fleshed characters. The result is sad in a thin, wan way.

Even as a cautionary tale or a grief aid, the film needs more richness and variety, more jolts of recognition. There's one choice moment midway through when Beth questions her daughter Kerry (played at age 9 by Alexa Vega) about a boy she chats with at the front door. Responding to her mom's weird intensity, Kerry immediately protests that she isn't courting "stranger danger" -- after all, she's at home. Her spunky retort roused the only laugh (a rueful one) I heard in the screening room. It's a sign of life in a house and a film that sink into a state of life-in-death.

Set in a bland, comfortable suburb of Chicago, the film is an ethnic offshoot of Ordinary People (1980) -- which also centered on a suburban Chicago mother named Beth who was having problems with her son. In Ordinary People, the older brother accidentally drowned, and the mother blamed the younger son. In the freakily similar The Deep End of the Ocean, the older boy feels guilty because he let the younger one annoy him and toddle off. Like Beth in Ordinary People, Beth in The Deep End of the Ocean neglects the survivor,continued on next pagecontinued from previous page Vincent (played at age 16 by General Hospital star Jonathan Jackson). But when it comes to the lost boy, this Beth blames herself -- and it cripples her. For years she doesn't realize how closely linked she and Vincent are in psychology and temperament.

Beth refuses to go along with what she views as the rest of the family's false hope. The first Christmas after the disappearance, her expansive Italian in-laws come to celebrate. They bring presents for the absent son, and Beth denounces this sentimental gesture as cruelty. If it's obvious that she is out of control -- she has ignored Vincent and also relied on him to, say, feed baby Kerry -- the ruthlessness of her grief cuts through the coziness of wishful thinking and gives her stature. Heroine worship in movies is usually overt; in this film it's hushed, even subtle. For a movie to favor a haughty, withdrawn character over its outgoing ones is intriguing and a bit bizarre. But this emphasis doesn't go anywhere -- at least, not anywhere interesting. In the few glints of real drama, Beth senses that her family might be doomed. But the narrative is too middle-of-the-road to make the clan come tumbling down. (Mitchard takes the Cappadoras further into limbo and leaves the marriage up in the air.) The film's Beth emerges from her numbness with a sharpened awareness and uses it to try to repair the family damage.

Almost a decade later the younger son pops up, not as the Ben Cappadora they knew but as a stranger named Sam (Ryan Merriman), with a loving widowed father who didn't know the boy was kidnapped. Beth is the one who grasps the situation. She recognizes the vast inertial pull of the life the boy enjoyed between the ages of 3 and 12, and she doesn't want him to be as scarred as she is. The bitter parent must face up to the selfishness of her mourning; Pat, the sunny one, must face the blindness of his dreams. They both must work to heal the wounds they've inflicted on the now-delinquent Vincent -- who turns out to be the linchpin of a reunited family. The film plays out like a routine practice for a relay race. With sober inevitability, the baton gets passed from one character to another as Team Cappadora nears the brink of psychological health.

Ulu Grosbard's direction was all over the place in his 1995 indie Georgia. But he did incisive work 21 years ago in the blistering crime film Straight Time (featuring what is still Dustin Hoffman's best dramatic performance). Fifteen years ago he put an elegant gloss on a middle-class sob story called Falling in Love -- which is all I think he finally does with the film version of The Deep End of the Ocean. He and his screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, haven't figured out how to shoehorn in the avalanche of perceptions about otherwise unrecorded middle-class life that make the book optimum reading for planes, trains, buses or an herbal bath. They do an assiduous job of cutting and weaving, but what they come up with is threadbare. Pat no longer has a heart condition; Beth no longer has a lover. Hints of a financial squeeze fly by (Beth arguing she can write off a meal, Pat urging her to take pictures again to keep Vincent in sneakers). Whoopi Goldberg's Chicago cop Candy doesn't have a chance to win us over as Beth's unexpected friend. She's simply that obligatory contemporary-film figure -- the warm and wise homosexual.

Even on its own terms, the movie lacks follow-through. Candy tells Beth that Vincent does love his mother: the cop knows by the way he looks at her. I doubt the audience would agree. As Vincent, Jackson sets off a James Dean glare that could mean he wants to wring her neck.

There's a not-so-hidden attraction to melodramatic soap operas: They demonstrate a universe of risks and impulses making hash of lives committed to security and order. In the book, Mitchard brings that out into the open -- she describes Beth falling for Pat precisely because he made her feel safe. But the movie neither creates a homey world that lives and breathes nor makes it wrenching when that world is breached. The superficial darkness of the movie would not survive the glare of a nightlight.

Opens March 12.
-- Michael Sragow

Written and directed by Bruno Dumont

The title of Bruno Dumont's debut feature is as provocative as it is misleading. There are no messiahs or biblical figures in this story of small-town youths who skip from boredom to violence without a second's thought; there isn't even anyone named Jesus. Christianity is invoked not as a subject but as an external structure, a set of ideas that the film challenges rather than illustrates. This isn't a religious movie in any traditional sense, but like the austere existential/moral dramas of Robert Bresson (who would appear to be a major influence), it has a powerful, unconventional sense of spirituality that resists simple interpretation. It's stark and simple, as strikingly beautiful as it is frank and brutal.

Dumont's film is about disaffected youth, a subject that I thought recent French films had thoroughly exhausted, but its concerns are universal, not merely contemporary. His hero, Freddy (David Douche), is a quiet young man living in rural Flanders, in a town where the primary sources of entertainment are the local marching band and games of "chicken." Unemployed and suffering from occasional fits of epilepsy, Freddy lives with his doting mother and spends his time hanging out with his pals, driving his motorcycle or having sex (shown with surprising explicitness) with his girlfriend Marie (Marjorie Cottreel). As day after monotonous day goes by, the future grows darker for these young men. A friend dies of AIDS. The television, their only link to the modern world, sends nothing but images of war. Fueled by boredom and an underlying racism, they fall into acts of violence and cruelty so offhandedly that they barely even allow them to register, as if their morality had been dulled by the repetitiveness of their days.

Dumont has stated that he based Life of Jesus on a real incident of racial violence, using the film as an attempt to understand how horrible hate crimes can erupt in even the most banal environment. Much of the film's power comes from its sheer ordinariness, as Dumont hints at the forces raging within his characters so obliquely that he almost seems to be excusing them. He draws the viewer in slowly, conferring dignity to Freddy's half-innocent, half-loutish demeanor and forcing sympathy for his empty existence. Shooting in widescreen with impressive confidence (imagine a collaboration between Bresson and Nicholas Ray in his Cinemascope glory), Dumont fills the frame with haunting images that reflect the beauty of the area while still giving the impression that every road is a dead end. By the time Freddy and his friends erupt -- first in a casual rape, then in the violent assault of a young North African man who makes the mistake of showing an interest in Marie -- Dumont has allowed us to recognize them not as abstract villains but as painfully ordinary people who give in to terrible, yet terribly commonplace, inner forces. Dumont's gospel is about a kind of evil, but one that resists an easy definition. The ambiguous conclusion neither condemns nor forgives Freddy, leaving issues of morality and complicity to be determined by each viewer.

Plays at 7 p.m. March 12-14 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

Directed by Zhou Xiaowen

In a breathtaking opening ritual, Ying Zheng, China's first emperor, sacrifices racks of bells to a raging river. He grieves over Gao Jianli, his childhood "brother" and superbly talented court composer. In the first of many ironies, Ying implores his advisors, "Music is a base thing. After my death, execute anyone who supports musicians." But Ying adamantly refused for years to follow his counselors' advice to kill Gao, determined instead to force him to write an imperial anthem that would win over the hearts and minds of all Ying's subjects.

In an extended flashback, The Emperor's Shadow details Ying's allegiance to Gao, the shadow of the title. As infants of the same age, both were nursed by Gao's mother, one on each breast. As a child, Gao played his zither-type instrument while soldiers beheaded prisoners. Inexplicably spared execution, the boys buried a drunken guard alive and then listened to his death rattle. Cut to 26 years later: King Zheng is now a merciless monster alternating between ruthless brutality and manipulative appeals in his quest to conquer and rule all the Chinese kingdoms. Listed in history books as Qin Xi Huang-ti (known for burying Confucian scholars alive), Qin inherited the turmoil of China's Warring States period and did unite China into an empire. It lasted a mere 15 years, 221-207 B.C.

In The Emperor's Shadow, Ying prophetically states, "Death is my addiction," vowing to triumph even if he must slaughter a million people. He's well on his way when, after yet another assassination attempt, Ying orders everyone within one mile murdered. Then he thinks better of it -- make it within three miles. Later, when no one will confess to writing a particularly ominous prophecy, he orders guards to behead one group of workers after another. The river literally runs red with blood. Prisoners of war allowed to live are branded on their foreheads and tortured. Even Gao is tortured and blinded.

This startling, sweeping epic interweaves Ying's heinous military activities with devotion to his eldest, beloved daughter, unable to walk after a fall from a horse. Her passionate love for Gao complicates her betrothal to one of Ying's best generals. Most perplexing, Gao refuses to cooperate with Ying, goes on a hunger strike and tries repeatedly to kill Ying. Made just before the reunification of Hong Kong with the People's Republic of China, The Emperor's Shadow suggests a ripe commentary on current politics. Carefully and cleverly written by Lu Wei (known for Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yimou's To Live), the dialogue resonates with contemporary correlations, including insistence on art as a propagandizing tool in service to the state, Mao's inhuman practices, and feeble but necessary noncompliance.

Cinematographer Lu Gengxin delivers gorgeous widescreen compositions reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Kagemusha. Soldiers on horseback and on foot mass for battle while the wind whips flags and dust. Advisors line up in neat rows as the king sits arrogantly nearby. This is a film about movement and momentum, stillness and resistance. Like a chess game, pawns are sacrificed as the king maneuvers to destroy opposition. Though most of the grotesque events take place mercifully offscreen, The Emperor's Shadow is not for the squeamish. Brilliantly acted with evocative music, it is for everyone interested in smart films that don't sugarcoat the brutality of the past or, by clear extension, of the present.

In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Opens March 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Diane Carson

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