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By Richard von Busack

The Green Mile
Playing citywide.

The velvet glove over the iron-fisted clobber. Frank Darabont's direction in The Green Mile--based on Stephen King' serial novel--is smoothness itself, with a superior cast: James Cromwell, David Morse, Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Sinise. But this tale of a condemned man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) with healing powers is rigged for maximum tear extrusion. Coffey is too saintly to put up a fight to save his life, despite his blinding innocence, the coincidence that puts the real culprit nearby, and even the favor of a warden. Here--thanks to a hideous on-screen execution--is that real one-two punch of brutality and sentiment that gives a mainstream movie its power. It takes concentration to recognize the essential cheapness of the story, especially at moments like the sure-shot tearjerk of a treasured pet restored to life.

Sweet and Lowdown
Playing citywide.

Beautifully art-directed and photographed (by Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei), and yet pointless. Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist of the 1920s in thrall to Django Reinhardt. Ray, though a gifted musician, is a rotten human being whose idea of a good time is going to the dump to shoot rats. His ingratitude toward the women in his life is his biggest cardinal sin: Samantha Morton plays the most important woman, a mute laundress who accepts Ray, well, mutely. The diminutive Morton, untidy in shapeless clothes, is supposed to be childlike; her performance is modeled on Giulietta Masina in La Strada. Some good music here, arranged by Dick Hyman, though much of it recalls '50s Les Paul more than the rowdy jazz of the '20s. And the moral of the story is "Be kind to those who love you, or else." It's not director Woody Allen's past immorality I mind, it's his present moralizing.

Playing citywide.

Mary Jo (Janet McTeer) is a woman from the Carolinas who's been married four times. She escapes her bad luck with men by pulling up stakes and heading out on the road. Daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), named after Ava Gardner, is her partner on these hejiras from men. The premise of this mediocre indie is that Mary Jo and Ava ought to be supported by someone who can appreciate their flightiness, but that the man in question ought not to have any moods of his own. Tumbleweeds may look like a film about a free spirit, but it's really a film about a mooch. Brown's rapport with McTeer is the only worthwhile quality of the movie, per one scene where they cuddle each other for comfort after their car has been broken into. This brush with crime is the only sign of what a rough world it is for the rootless. In short, here's a movie not only just as empty but also as improbable and escapist as any big-budget fantasy.

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From the December 20, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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