Written and directed by Paul Schrader

In the archetypal dead-end town of Lawford, N.H., cold-eyed men looking for trouble prowl the streets in four-by-fours with chrome spotlights and loaded gun racks. The gloomy barrooms are not gathering places so much as solitary-confinement cells, and the most popular local sport is macho posturing. In wintry Lawford, the future slides inexorably into the past, unlit by the present day.

This is Russell Banks country, and it is Paul Schrader country. It is hard to imagine a more fruitful moviemaking collaboration -- especially if you're in the mood for a bone-chilling jolt of emotion -- than one linking a serious novelist whose burning subject is violent disturbance in the male psyche and a screenwriter/director who, in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Hardcore (1979), has examined the torment of outsiders, people who can't seem to get a life. Together, these two minds are dynamite.

Affliction, adapted from Banks' 1989 novel and directed by Schrader, turns on a potential murder mystery: When a wealthy, politically connected weekender dies in the snowy New England woods, suspicion falls on the sour young guide who took him hunting and on the powerful real-estate developer who controls Lawford. But neither Banks nor Schrader is much interested in murder, at least not in the conventional sense. Their real focus is the beleaguered town cop, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), a miserably divorced father who stirs himself to action in the face of the supposed crime. If he solves it, he believes, he will gain public respect, reclaim his shattered self-esteem and, perhaps, begin to cast out the demons that have afflicted him all his life -- not least his drunken bully of a father.

"Ya know," Wade laments, "I get to feelin' like a whipped dog some days."
Always at his best as an unsettled Everyman, the stolid, square-jawed Nolte seems exactly the right actor to play Wade. An explosive bundle of unresolved childhood traumas, Wade can't find the key to a normal, middle-class life, and under pressure he can barely restrain his animal spirit with reason. His preteen daughter (Brigid Tierney) has come to distrust his clumsy efforts at control, and there's no way he's going to win a traumatic custody battle. His sometime girlfriend, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), is wary of his rages. The town big shot, Gordon LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), irritably sends Wade off, like a schoolboy, to plow streets and play crossing guard. Wade is also suffering from a toothache, which suggests all his other troubles.

Banks' longtime concern with the burden of pain -- or sin -- that's passed down through families, particularly small-town families harboring nasty secrets, will not go away anytime soon. Last year Canadian director Atom Egoyan mined that vein in his fluent adaptation of another Banks book, The Sweet Hereafter, which examined the effects of a fatal school-bus crash on the surviving citizens of a mountain village. In Affliction the crucial accident is one of birth: Even in adulthood, Wade and his younger brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), now a teacher in Boston, must defend themselves against their monstrous father and the legacy of violence he's pounded into them.

In the person of James Coburn, who gives the performance of a lifetime, the belligerent, alcoholic farmer Glen Whitehouse may be decrepit now, but the power he holds over his damaged sons remains awesome. We see his old cruelties in a series of harrowing flashbacks, but the present's even scarier. Wade and Rolfe are still captives of their father's spirit, like characters in a Greek tragedy, and it would take some transcendent act of will to break his grip. Is Wade capable of liberation? At first look he doesn't seem much of a soldier, Lawford is an unlikely site for a siege and, as Rolfe points out, Wade has "no perspective to retreat to, even in a crisis." Still ...

I'd wager plenty that in absorbing Banks' novel and writing the screenplay for Affliction, Schrader frequently found himself revisited by an earlier invention of his -- one Travis Bickle. Like the alienated, ascetic antihero of Taxi Driver, Wade searches in vain for some niche to join, some value to embrace, some escape from the bruising isolation to which he was born. Affliction may unfold on the desolate streets of a freezing town in New Hampshire, but Wade's anomie would just as well play out in the teeming hell of Manhattan, and the act that at last defines him bears a spooky resemblance to Travis Bickle's. Each, in his way, is a decent man transformed by his own terror.

If you've read this far, you know by now that Affliction is not exactly cheery fare. Beautifully acted but grim as a funeral, it's heavy on soul-searching and stingy on hope, as befits a meditation on stubborn machismo, inherited violence and the dark toll they take. This is anything but pleasant stuff, but it's a must-see for anyone interested in men and women, fathers and sons, and the kind of murder mystery in which the real casualty is the human soul.

Opens Feb. 19 at the Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

Directed by Joe Johnston

What's entertaining about October Sky is the unlikely-but-true spectacle of backwater West Virginia teens teaching themselves rocket science in the Eisenhower '50s. They progress from a glorified cherry bomb to sophisticated missiles through trial-and-error-and-error. Their inner rocket fuel is the desire to avoid getting stuck in the dying coal industry that supports their hometown. They are their fathers' sons, but they don't want to make their fathers' mistakes.

This combination of character, subject and setting is uniquely American and not something you've seen before. Unfortunately, the treatment it gets in October Sky grows increasingly predictable as the film goes on. The film depicts patriarchal bonds with bogus reverence and reduces the teenage boys' rebellious drive to the "go for it!" spirit usually portrayed on a Wheaties box. These two dubious achievements will likely make it a big hit.

Based on Homer H. Hickam Jr.'s 1998 memoir, Rocket Boys (a better title), the movie tells the story of how the launching of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, inspires young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) to form a rocket club with his best friends, bucking the wishes of his coal-mine-superintendent dad (Chris Cooper) and the athletics-or-bust ethos of Coalwood, W.Va.

The film is cheekier than its gloppy publicity. In the movie, the boys plant a flag at their launch site in the manner of the Marines on Iwo Jima -- and the irony of it gets a laugh. The trailer milks that same image for uplift. Still, right around the halfway mark, the picture succumbs to the emotional button-pushing heralded in the print ad: "From the producer of Field of Dreams: Sometimes one dream is enough to light up the whole sky." October Sky may be set around coal mines, but ultimately it's Field of Corn, Part II. The opening sequences skillfully counterpoint sooty pastorale and slapstick. You can tell that the director, Joe Johnston, who displayed good-natured craftsmanship in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and parts of The Rocketeer, welcomes the chance to work on a real subject, in gritty locales. With magnificent cinematographer Fred Murphy (The Dead), he brings texture and charge to views of men entering the mines in sylvan Appalachian dawns and emerging at night. Johnston, Murphy and the editor, Robert Dalva, convey the massive sweep of heavy industry while fixing details in an audience's mind. The miners' helmet-lights seem magical one moment, sepulchral the next.

In this hardscrabble setting, dreamy-eyed Homer is a comically incongruous hero: part sparkplug, part lug. For a while all he does is get knocked down, whether in his futile attempt to make the football team or in his initial effort to launch a rocket. "Just don't blow yourself up," advises his supportive mom (Natalie Canerday). Then his first blast ruins her rose-garden fence. Homer and his gang -- semislick Roy Lee (William Lee Scott), dogged O'Dell (Chad Lindberg) and doofus intellectual Quentin (Chris Owen) -- are a rowdy and engaging group. And their rockets are zany loose cannons. In the film's most satisfying scenes, these projectiles spurt, tumble and ricochet across the field, leaving even the onlookers who run for their lives oddly exhilarated. In moments like these (or when Homer and Quentin set off flames in the high-school science lab), you feel the delicious quixotic bravery of the teenage boys' quest -- their determination to skyrocket out of Coalwood, to hook up with Dr. Werner von Braun and outduel the Soviets, and perhaps to outstrip the football team in sex appeal. Under the guidance of their kindly chemistry teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), they realize their obsession could lead to science-fair prizes and college scholarships. It isn't long before their launches attract cheerleaders.

The movie follows the same trajectory as the book: Homer breaks away from his father's pragmatism and one-track devotion to the mine and eventually wins him over with his hard-fought success at rocketry. But even in Hickam's likable, drawling memoir, that relationship feels movie-influenced and pat -- especially at the climax, when Homer's dad triggers the club's farewell rocket and Homer says, "Nobody ever launched a better rocket than you." Having blazed a similar path in Field of Dreams, producer Charles Gordon makes sure that his team hits "the father/son thing" (his phrase) terribly hard. What draws you into Hickam's autobiography are gnarly anecdotes that bring traction and ambiance to the narrative. In my favorite pages, the Coalwood preacher tells a captive Sunday audience a parable about a father who drives nails into a door when his son does "bad things" and removes them when the boy repents. "Though the nails were gone, the holes were still there, representing the pain abiding in the father's heart," says the reverend, confirming the father's fatalism. But then the preacher does a turnaround and suggests, "Perhaps the holes in the door are a reflection of the father's petulance more than his love." After the sermon, Homer's dad takes him to an abandoned slack dump and agrees to contribute scrap materials from the mine for the building of "Cape Coalwood." The story needs refreshing reversals like this.

But the way screenwriter Lewis Colick (The Ghosts of Mississippi) draws the lines of conflict, they tighten around Homer like a noose. Colick doesn't just compress and simplify the material, he melodramatizes it. The most egregious example comes when Homer's dad is injured during a rescue mission at a cave-in and the widescreen, fictional Homer leaves school to become a miner and support the family. (He can't expect his jock-hero brother to give up a college-football scholarship.) This kind of invention dampens the euphoria and cheapens the material. The filmmakers seem to get down on their knees and beg on Homer's behalf for the audience's allegiance. This is not to say that Colick should merely have transcribed the book. Actually, he might have come up with a more authentic film if he'd fictionalized it more. In The Last American Hero (1973), Lamont Johnson filmed a real-life saga based on stock-car champion Junior Johnson that was just as valiant and full of beans as Rocket Boys. But he took pains to complicate the story and add shadows to the ethical landscape; he turned it into a morally booby-trapped, ultracontemporary fable -- less "good" but more "true." By contrast, the October Sky filmmakers reorganize and alter incidents to create cut-rate catharses and to keep the action PG-clean and free of controversy. Nobody in the film reminds an immigrant welder (Elya Baskin) who helps the boys that Werner von Braun worked for the Nazis. And if the movie has jukebox classics like "That'll Be the Day" on the soundtrack, at heart it's far more country than rock & roll. Homer's sexual and romantic yearnings amount to his realizing that he should pin his hopes on the girl who loves him, not his unreachable dream date; in the book, at least he lost his virginity.

Although there's plenty of coal dust onscreen, there's not enough of the book's homey funk. The film could use an incident like Homer's mom slipping when she goes out for heating coal in her night clothes and deciding to freeze rather than reveal her body to the dawn mine shift. Homer may still clash with his football-playing brother and divide his dad against his mother (who yearns to leave the coal land and move to Myrtle Beach), yet the film's sentimentality softens the conflicts. And the pseudo-tenderness undermines the actors. The script cedes the characters' interior lives to the group dynamics; all they seem to need is each other's sympathy. Whenever anyone does anything "out of character" -- like Dern's super-nice Miss Riley snubbing Homer in the hallway when he decides to drop out of school -- it's jarring rather than intriguing.

The movie ends with scraps of real home movies of the actual people. They leave you with the father not as a stubborn scowler who must melt for his son but as a gallant figure in his own right, dying a slow death because of the growing spot on his lung. Maybe it's the story's blend of outer space and fatherly sacrifice, but the shots of this elusive man in a fedora remind me of John Updike's dad in The Centaur, who in death finds an honored place in a constellation, though "few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars." The flickering black-and-white images are so suggestive and powerful that they momentarily wipe out your memory of Hickam's movie father.

Opens Feb. 19.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Lynn Rosemann

The first of three weekend programs at Webster University spotlighting St. Louis video artists and filmmakers, Tattoo is the feature-documentary debut of Lynn Rosemann, who runs the local production company Maven Films. (See the accompanying piece by Diane Carson for reviews of Van McElwee's and Pier Marton's work.) A fascinating, if annoyingly discursive, peek into the world of contemporary tattoo artists, Tattoo is more primer than encyclopedia, providing a sympathetic, even enthusiastic introduction to the subject but coming up far short of definitive.

The film's principal flaw is its unfocused viewpoint. The interviews with artists, commentators and aficionados seem collected at random and dictated by convenience. St. Louisans will likely delight in seeing local tattoo artists Mitch Mitchell, Craig Schuztius and Brad Fink prominently featured, but they're offered up without context: Are they intended merely as representative tattooers or are they being held up as artistic exemplars? Are they speaking as acknowledged authorities or as interested observers? These questions are key, because the answers determine how closely we should attend to the subjects, how much weight we should give their assertions. This problem repeats itself throughout Tattoo: We never have a clear fix on the half-dozen-or-so Midwestern tattoo artists we meet -- their relative status within the national tattooing community remains enigmatic -- and the academics and critics asked to comment on the subject make weak, gaseous pronouncements of scant insight (although sociologist Frederick A. Geib, who appears to have made at least an amateur study of tattooing -- the film, typically, never makes that explicit -- does offer some provocative observations).

Reflective of this haphazard interviewing approach, Tattoo lacks much of an organizing principle or unifying vision. The movie hopscotches around its subject, failing to follow up intriguing lines of inquiry, and provides only the faintest semblance of order by using title cards to introduce the often cursorily addressed topics. Nor is there a visual scheme to tie the disparate elements together: The interviewees are plopped in whatever setting is available, with background noise intruding, the cameraman annoyingly zooming and reframing, and folks occasionally wandering unawares through shots. More damaging still, Rosemann never finds a good means of displaying the tattoos -- we see them only fleetingly, and their beauty, which is often discussed and asserted, is far too seldom shown.

Despite these fundamental flaws, Tattoo remains surprisingly watchable by placing at its center two vital, wonderfully articulate spokesmen: artist Tony Fitzpatrick, who offers glib, funny views from a knowledgeable and admiring outsider's perspective, and tattoo guru Don Ed Hardy, the preeminent artist of the day. Hardy, dubbed "The Man" by the film and discussed in hushed, reverential tones by virtually every tattooer interviewed, should have been Tattoo's primary subject -- his trailblazing career provides a ready-made path into tattooing -- but even relegated to one-among-many status, he makes a powerful impression, discoursing with modesty and blunt honesty on tattooing's history and aesthetics.

Tattoo offers its share of informative entertainment, and it will hold the interest of even those with only nominal interest in its subject, but the overall impression the film makes is something less than indelible.

Plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 -- with Rosemann introducing and discussing the film -- at Webster University.

-- Cliff Froehlich

Directed by Van McElwee

Directed by Pier Marton

Regularly, people tell me they don't like experimental works and don't want to watch anything without strong, driving narratives with larger-than-life characters on whom they can project their fantasies. They'll usually question the aesthetics of the avant-garde, criticize the disorientation and admit they don't "get" film or video art.

Truth be told, if we're adventurous in our viewing choices (and I argue for that), we've all felt bewildered at times as we ventured into unfamiliar territory. Like traveling to a foreign land where we have to suspend conditioned assumptions and look with fresh eyes, the journey into new artistic domains throws our routine habits into fresh relief. We may suddenly recognize subtle but powerful revalidation of cultural values and individual agency, pervasive in and rarely challenged by Hollywood fare. At the very least, we may have to acknowledge mainstream's reassuring, familiar patterns -- clear plot trajectories, easily understood cause-effect motivations for behavior, satisfying resolutions (even on the rare occasions when it isn't a happy one.)

Those seeking a stimulating alternative will find an exciting new landscape in this weekend's programs at Webster University. Two multiple-award-winning St. Louis artists -- Van McElwee and Pier Marton -- will present and discuss their intriguing experimental pieces.

McElwee offers an enchanting, mesmerizing entree to video art. Believing his work "should be something, not just be about something," McElwee provides "a vehicle for awareness. It's not about specific meanings; it's about experience." McElwee says, "I'd rather cast a spell than make a point," and he overwhelms us with visual stimuli or transfixes us with minimalist images and sounds. Having followed McElwee's artistic excursions for several years, I'm delighted to see his four new works advancing his ingenious originality. With an instantly recognizable, unique style, McElwee maneuvers through and manipulates space and our own imagination.

"Luxor: A Moment in Hyperreality" (18 minutes) intertwines images of two Luxors, Egypt and Las Vegas. Surprising juxtapositions, slow-motion shots, superimpositions and multilayered images shimmer like a heat-wave mirage. McElwee describes this as a "meltdown of the real and the replica." I thought of our crassest exploitation, Las Vegas' shameless appropriation of myth and history. "Space Splice" (12 minutes) involves the viewer in a thrilling succession of forward and side sliding movements, of propulsion through diverse spaces -- hallways and gardens, brick and glass passageways, curved and linear space. Through overlapping and looped edits, this dizzying piece explores what McElwee describes as "interior volumes shot in the United States, Europe and India." Similarly, "Transfinite Loops" (16 minutes) uses nighttime images of carnival rides to orchestrate ethereal, abstract patterns of bright lights punctuating and playing with blackness. Last, "Radio Island: A Meditation on Japan" (12 minutes) marries Buddhist architecture, especially the pagoda, with modern structures, weaving a dense tapestry of the ancient and the contemporary in a sometimes dissonant combination. For each piece, the sound is equally effective in creating mood and movement, whether it is the wind whistling through power lines and past carnival rides or the cacophony of an Egyptian marketplace.

By contrast to McElwee's experiential focus, Pier Marton's inventive pieces are more content oriented. The older pieces, "Collected Works: 1979-1984" (27 minutes), show their age: His more confrontational, narcissistic performance vignettes (intimate psychodrama, angry direct address to the camera, formalistic/ theatrical effects) have been eclipsed by more restrained and more inviting but no less provocative images in Marton's accomplished subsequent works. They -- "(are we and/or do we) Like Men" (16 minutes) and "Say I'm a Jew" (28 minutes) -- penetrate deeply and profoundly into the psyche.

"Say I'm a Jew," a touring video installation, juxtaposes snippets from probing interviews with offspring of Holocaust survivors from countries such as Holland, Germany and France. Without exception, with an arresting honesty, these men and women, now living in the U.S., reveal their deepest feelings about the Holocaust and their at times conflicted Jewishness -- self-hate, regret, prejudice, empathy and pain. Similarly, "Like Men," produced in collaboration with Wendy Ultan and Glenn Biegon, reveals the rarely acknowledged, much less powerfully documented, revelations and rationalizations of violent men. Acknowledging overcompensation for fears of vulnerability, several men reflect as their images move from blurred and abstract to sharp and clear as their identities emerge in a stunning work intended to prompt discussion of the "excuses" for brutality.

McElwee's work beckons us to surrender to the experience. Marton's pieces provoke re-examination of vitally sensitive topics. Both programs invite an active viewer to risk, to engage and to explore. It's comfortable lounging in the Hollywood mode, but visiting the extraordinary is exhilarating.

McElwee's work plays at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 and Marton's work at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 -- with both artists introducing and discussing their programs -- at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

Written and directed by Darren Stein

Written and directed by Mike Judge

Plot is a central problem in both Jawbreaker and Office Space, two comedies opening this week: The first has too much, and the second (and far better of the two movies) has too little.

Jawbreaker's 26-year-old writer/director, Darren Stein, says he wanted to make an homage to the films he watched in his San Fernando Valley youth. More accurately, however, Jawbreaker seems like an homage to the film he watched -- that is, Heathers. Although there are a few moments invoking Carrie, Jawbreaker owes more to the 1989 Winona Ryder film directed by Michael Lehmann and written by Daniel Waters -- which itself owed at least as much to Renee Daalder's 1976 Massacre at Central High -- than to all his other influences put together.

The movie centers on the Flawless Four, a snotty clique of four girls who are the status queens of Reagan High School. Courtney (Rose McGowan) is the leader, with Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz) and Liz (Charlotte Roldan) her acolytes. When Liz is accidentally killed during a birthday prank -- she chokes on a jawbreaker, hence the title -- the others, with the nauseatingly cool, unaffected Courtney as their guide, contrive to cover up their involvement.

Unfortunately, school geek Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) stumbles on them in midscheme. To assure her silence, Courtney offers Fern a Faustian bargain: They'll give Fern a makeover and promote her into Miss Popularity. She'll even become Liz's replacement in their little circle.

Repulsed both by Courtney's cold-bloodedness and by the horrible changes in Fern -- who, as part of this Pygmalion/Clueless transformation, takes the name "Vylette" -- Julie defects and, together with new boyfriend Zack (Chad Christ), tries to expose the truth.

Because Jawbreaker has thriller elements, the tightness of the plot is crucial. Unfortunately, the plot is full of repeated confusions and inconsistencies, most of them revolving around Fern's identity switch. Somehow she is supposed to have attended school as a new student named Vylette without anybody noticing; but, at moments when it suits Stein's purposes, he suddenly decides that people do know she's Fern. At times, this sloppy vacillation makes a full round trip within a minute or two.

This nonsense is distracting enough, but it's not the film's only problem. Like many a young filmmaker, Stein wants to show off a bunch of stylistic tricks: Jawbreaker is filled with surreal moments. A few work, but many fall flat. One, in which Julie walks through a hallway of frozen students, is confusing and amateurish -- precisely the sort of thing you're supposed to get out of your system in film school.

Be forewarned that several of the better-known players in the cast are barely onscreen, including William Katt, P.J. Soles, Jeff Conaway and Marilyn Manson, all of whose screen time totaled can't be more than two or three minutes. On the plus side, Jawbreaker makes nice, if brief, use of both Pam Grier (as a tough police detective) and Carol Kane (as a dorky teacher).

Office Space, despite its barely existent plot, fares much better. This is the first live-action feature from Mike Judge, the genius behind Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. Oddly enough, for his subject matter, Judge has reached back to his earliest work -- the half-dozen Milton cartoons he singlehandedly produced in the early '90s, before his concurrent Beavis and Butt-head shorts came to the attention of MTV.

The very first Milton cartoon was also called "Office Space," and its content -- a rambling monologue by a pathetically put-upon office worker about how his bosses keep shrinking his cubicle -- has been pretty much assimilated into the new Office Space. But Milton (Stephen Root) is only a minor character here, which is a good thing: He would be intolerable as a protagonist. Instead, Judge focuses on Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston), a more believable (and probably autobiographical) character.

Peter is a perfectly pleasant, average young man whose life is slipping away in a nowhere job as a programmer for some sort of tech firm called INITECH. (It's telling that neither we nor the characters ever quite seem to know just what INITECH does.) Imploding with frustration over the bureaucratic idiocy inflicted on him daily by his smarmy boss (Gary Cole), Peter decides to go to a hypnotherapist. The therapist puts Peter into a state of completely relaxed inhibitions and then promptly keels over, without having brought him back out of the trance. The new Peter, freed from anxiety, starts blowing off both his girlfriend and his boss. He casually asks out the waitress (Jennifer Aniston) he has long been too shy to speak to. With somewhat predictable irony, his totally honest attitude is so refreshing to the firm's new efficiency experts that Peter starts moving up the corporate ladder.

This may seem like a plot, but it's really only a setup. And Judge seems to have realized that, because, well past the midway mark, he effectively starts a second plot, with Peter and his two best friends (David Herman and Ajay Naidu) launching a clever embezzlement scheme. This nearly episodic structure prevents the movie from developing much narrative drive, but, unlike Jawbreaker, Office Space's pleasures don't really depend on plot. It's pretty much what a Dilbert feature should look like -- in fairness, Judge was mining this subject matter before Scott Adams started his popular comic strip -- and, as in Dilbert, it nails bureaucratic stupidity in the workplace and the sorts of personalities this stupidity attracts and fosters with absolute accuracy.

Although Office Space doesn't qualify as sophisticated comedy, it also avoids slapstick and stupidity jokes. For better or worse -- and I say for better -- Judge is not the Farrelly brothers. His movie, despite its satirical exaggerations, is still basically a character-based comedy. In Livingston's hands, Peter is a likable hero whose all-American blandness makes him an appropriate contrast to Milton and the other hideously vapid or frustrated workers. What will seem strange to fans of Judge's animated work is the way most of the actors appear to be doing imitations of characters performed by Judge himself in Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. It's decidedly weird to hear these familiar voices finally coming out of human mouths.

Open Feb. 19.
-- Andy Klein