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The interesting thing about life is that it does not come prepackaged in a three-act structure the way most movies do. It tends to lurch along like--oh, say, a disputed election in Florida. Take the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Since we are all still here to savor this accurate reconstruction of those anguished days, we know everything came out all right in the end. But seen through the eyes of presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell (Costner), it is still a suspenseful tale. Well acted too, especially by Costner, and Greenwood as John F. Kennedy. The players don't particularly look like their historical models, but they make us feel their life-threatening pain and puzzlement. --R.S.
STARRING: Sean Connery, Robert Brown DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant OPENS: Dec. 19 in N.Y. and L.A.; wide Dec. 25
Forrester (Connery) is a one-book novelist, fallen into an endless Salingeresque funk. From the window of his Bronx apartment, he watches black kids playing basketball in a vastly changed neighborhood. The best and brightest of them, Jamal (good newcomer Brown), penetrates his lair on a dare, and a mentoring relationship develops between the cranky old writer and the very bright teenager. The film's twists and turns are as predictable as the patronizing racism at the private school that grants the boy a scholarship. Something more surprising might have been made of this odd couple, but Van Sant, emptily employing the realist manner of his early films, is goodwill hunting in all the wrong places. --R.S.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
STARRING: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman DIRECTOR: Joel Coen OPENS: Dec. 22
Three cons (Clooney, Turturro and Nelson) are on the lam in '30s Mississippi. A blind prophet intones, "You shall see a cow on top of a cotton bale, and many other startlements." Startlements are indeed in store: a one-eyed, toad-squishing salesman (Goodman); three maidens washing their laundry in a stream. These, and the name of the bombastic schemer Clooney plays--Everett Ulysses McGill--should be sufficient clues to identify the film's source: "Based on The Odyssey by Homer."
While tout Hollywood purloins comic books for its scenarios, Joel and Ethan Coen raid noble antiquity: not just Homer's fabulous travelogue in verse but Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (for the movie's title) and MGM's The Wizard of Oz (for a delirious production number starring the Ku Klux Klan). Toss in enough gorgeous blue-grass music to make the movie's CD a must-have, and you get prime, picaresque entertainment. It celebrates the chicanery of the human spirit, the love of raillery and rodomontade.
But don't ask us for reasons; we just liked it. As Clooney, who never radiated more star quality, opines, "It's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart." --R.C.
THE HOUSE OF MIRTH
STARRING: Gillian Anderson, Anthony LaPaglia, Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney DIRECTOR: Terence Davies OPENS: Dec. 22
Lily Bart (Anderson) has a knack for audacity. "My genius," she says, "seems to consist in doing the wrong thing at the right time." Men want to leave their fortunes to her, or their wives for her. But in old, moneyed Manhattan, sensation was more narrowly defined, more severely censured. Lily's charm is punishable by exile.