Movie Openings

Movie Openings

Ponette***1/2

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(The Guild) This one will rip your heart out. "Ponette" is the mesmerizing story of a precocious 4-year-old girl who loses her mother in an auto accident. Left to her own emotional devices, Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) patiently waits for her mother to return from the dead with a determination well beyond her years. Ponette's strength of conviction is unfortunately encouraged by the good intentions of her aunt, cousins and classmates, who fill her head with conflicting stories of death and resurrection. The emotional support of her father is nonexistent, and he abruptly leaves town shortly after the accident.

Writer and director Jacques Doillon has accomplished the extraordinary with ordinary research. Striving for the point of view of "la petite enfance," the world of preschool children, Doillon sent video crews out to preschools all over France to interview 4- and 5-year-olds on such loaded topics as love, death and divorce. From these tapes Doillon selected the most imaginative children and set up games and workshops to fully understand their viewpoint. The result is a fascinating screenplay full of fresh preschool dialogue and perspective and an amazing cast of youngsters. Thivisol has astonishing control of her emotions and gives a gut-wrenching performance as a child starved for affection and wrestling with overwhelming grief.

Thumbs down to the French approach to child psychology. From the American self-esteem-is-best standpoint, the treatment of Ponette by her closest adult role models is appalling. Intimate talks about life and death? Hours of counseling? No, let's just send the kid off to summer camp for a week or two. The tragic undertones of the subject matter are well-suited to the heavy-handed use of close-ups and the docudrama style. These techniques will become a vague memory, but "Ponette" will haunt you long after the theater has gone dark. Rated: PG-13. In French with English subtitles. 1 hour, 35 minutes

--Jeanne Aufmuth

La Promesse***1/2

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(Aquarius) Set in the grim industrial suburbs of Liege, "La Promesse" is the compelling account of a teen-age boy who finds it necessary to pull back from his father, with whom he is extremely close. Few films this year have told a more fascinating story.

Roger, the father, runs a network of illegal aliens. He brings Africans and Eastern Europeans into Belgium, provides them with counterfeit documents, puts them to work as laborers and rents them rooms in a squalid tenement where the only source of heat is the propane he sells by the canister.

Assisting Roger in every phase of his operation is Igor, his street-smart 15-year-old son. Igor knows how to collect the rent, manipulate the tenants and lie to the labor inspectors who visit the work site.

Satisfied with his role in what amounts to the family business, and pleased with the close relationship with his father that it engenders (his mother is not around), Igor does not understand that he is missing out on his boyhood and does not reflect on the moral implications of his actions.

But then an accident occurs, and Igor finds he must choose between his father's worst instincts and his own, slowly emerging conscience.

To say "La Promesse" is about a boy's moral awakening is to make it sound like a self-consciously worthy art film of the type that guidance teachers like to force adolescents to discuss. While it is the story of conscience, it is also a viscerally engaging drama about sharply drawn characters whose lives we respond to with an unsettling mix of fascination, horror and compassion.

Shot and edited in a punchy, cinema verite style, "La Promesse" is, more than anything, a remarkable slice of life. While not quite in the same league with "The 400 Blows" and "The Bicycle Thief," it has moments of comparable emotional depth. Written and directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Not rated, but PG-13ish in the harshness of life it presents (no sex or violence). 1 hour, 40 minutes

--Leonard Schwarz

Men in Black**M

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(Century 16, Century 12) The scum of the universe are invading Earth. Who ya gonna call? Men in black. The Ghostbusters, after all, already took a turn getting slimed while ridding Manhattan of otherworldly pests. Now the odd couple of the government's secret intelligence force--a seasoned veteran played by Tommy Lee Jones and a rookie played by Will Smith--must save the planet in director Barry Sonnenfeld's ("Get Shorty") sci-fi comedy.

This much-anticipated movie is a close encounter of the slight-but-clever kind. After an opening scene that comments on illegal aliens, human and humanoid, "Men in Black" stops trying to say anything and concentrates instead on just being entertaining. Screenwriter Ed Solomon came up with some witty ideas. The supermarket tabloids, lurid headlines and all, provide the hottest tips on extraterrestrial activity. In the agency headquarters, a huge monitor keeps track of such resident aliens as Dennis Rodman ("Not much of a disguise") and TV weatherman Al Roker. These gags keep the movie moving.

What about action and suspense? They're as flat as the comic book pages that inspired the story. Fortunately, the cast's one-dimensional performances and deadpan delivery of funny dialogue actually enhance the humor. Jones, Smith and Linda Fiorentino play their roles straight as absurdity erupts around them. A bug-alien body snatcher (Vincent D'Onofrio) and visual effects created by Industrial Light & Magic star alongside the trio.

Given the recent findings about the tobacco industry, it's shameful that the filmmakers put cigarettes in the hands of the irresistible little worm guys, who congregate near the office coffee pot and later push big red cartons of Marlboros around. This product placement is the most insidious force in the movie. Rated: PG-13 for cartoon-like violence. 1 hour, 38 minutes

--Susan Tavernetti

Wild America*M

<\p><\p><\p><\p>(UA 6) This is a harmless kid's adventure movie/family drama that shamelessly wrestled from me a couple of tears, and might be scary for very young children (angry bears and snakes). It's really several "Lassie" episodes (without the collie) braided together to make one full-length picture. Even the mom (Frances Fisher) reminded me of June Lockhart as she dries her hands on her apron, watching her boys grow. A few of the episodes are described here:

1) Protagonist Marshall Stouffer (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the kid from "Home Improvement") nurses injured wild animals back to health with his unique touch, only to regret when they return to the wild. "It was strong enough; it had to go home, Marshall."

2) Marshall is forced to act as crash dummy and stunt double for his reckless older brothers' 8mm movies. He not only gets back at them in clever scatological ways, but two college girls scold the older brothers for being stupid--and coo over Marshall.

3) Older brother Marty falls in love with a 16mm camera, and with Mom's help, convinces Dad to loan him the money so he can follow his dream of being a wildlife filmmaker.

4) Marty ignores Dad's wishes that he take over his carburetor business; he leaves with brother Mark to film endangered species all over America and sell the film to a TV program. Marshall has stowed away in their station wagon.

5) The boys film alligators, grizzlies, moose, stampeding horses, and hippies, and with Mom's help, show their film at the local high school to universal acclaim. Even Dad is supportive.

6) Dad is injured in an accident and totals the truck. The family has to pull together to keep the bills paid. "This could break us, son. . . . I'm countin' on ya."

7) Dad has been tinkering on a plane in the barn with Marshall for years, telling him fabricated stories of his experience as a pilot. Marshall takes the plane out and flies it perfectly first time, circling the hospital to give Dad, who was never actually a pilot, some inspiration. He tells the truth to Marshall, who understands.

First-time screenwriter David Michael Wieger has a rich career in television ahead of him. Rated: PG. 1 hour, 42 minutes

--Jim Shelby