Black Beauty *** 1/2
(Century 16, Century 12) Lyrically told from the horse's point of view, this fifth big-screen version of Anna Sewell's timeless tale marks the directing debut of Caroline Thompson, who has already established herself as a formidable screenwriter ("The Secret Garden," "Edward Scissorhands," "The Nightmare Before Christmas"). Elements of her resplendent "Secret Garden" abound in this touching biography of a horse who experiences the best and worst of human nature over two decades in 19th-century England.
The verdant English countryside, and, later, the sooty drabness of London, are magnificently filmed as the ever-loyal Beauty is passed from owner to owner, always seeking a place where he will be loved and treated with kindness. Sadly (bring a good supply of tissues), a horse's life is only as good as the temperament of his owner.
How easy it is to forget that Black Beauty, as well as his two magnificent equine co-stars, Ginger and Merrylegs, are just "acting." Kudos to trainer Rex Peterson. In this episodic story, voice-over narration by a horse might take some getting used to, but there really is no other way to tell this classic story, which original writer Sewell once said she translated from the "equine." Rated G.
Ciao, Professore! **
(Aquarius) The place is Corzano, a seaside suburb of Naples, and the time is present-day. When an 8-year-old girl speaks of Madonna, the reference has less to do with liturgy than lingerie. The girl, along with a dozen other kids with attitude, has been without a third-grade teacher. Instead of studying, the kids wait on tables, peddle black-market cigarettes and build shelters of cardboard. Enter, with a face, girth and temperament seemingly made of puff pastry, the professore (Paolo Villaggio).
So it's "Sister Act II," or any teacher-meets-class story, all over again, in a film that is harmlessly raffish even as it exaggerates the tractability of impoverished kids and the pedagogical "magic" of teachers. Still, this old trick is brought off with a new twist: while it's not surprising, since the director is Lina Wertmuller ("Swept Away," "Seven Beauties"), that the film has its element of social protest, it's intriguing that a comedy can touch so often upon health care, school funding, crime, etc. And if you like local color, snappy editing and kids with soulful eyes and wide gaps in their teeth, this film is for you.
Why, you might ask, is a film that is without an iota of sex or violence, and that has completely to do with 8- and 9-year-olds, off limits to that very age group as an audience? Let's just say it was a good thing the subtitler knew how to spell four-letter words. Rated R.
Foreign Student ** 1/2
(Palo Alto Square) This romantic tale from director Eva Sereny is an unusual mix of schmaltzy Hollywood formula and the more matter-of-fact realism of European cinema. Take, for example, its two star-crossed stars: Marco Hofschneider ("Europa, Europa") as Philippe, an exchange student from Paris spending the fall semester at an elite college in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and Robin Givens ("Boomerang," "Head of the Class"), who plays April, a stunning black maid (who sounds and looks more L.A. than Shenandoah) with whom Philippe falls hopelessly in love.
Hopelessly, because this is the separate-and-unequal American South of 1956. The film gets off to an intriguing, gently funny start as the unassuming Philippe becomes immersed in the strange new world of precocious Southern belles, American football and beer-swilling, blond quarterbacks. The America that captures the 18-year-old Parisian's imagination, though, is on the other side of town: the smoky blues bar where Howlin' Wolf jams, the weather-beaten shacks, April's captivating charms.
As the film progresses, however, it becomes disappointingly formulaic and cliched, capping off with the requisite win-or-die football game during which "Frenchie" assists on the winning touchdown with seconds to spare. There's also the small matter of an odd, hashed-together subplot involving a mentally ill young woman. Still, "Foreign Student" provides a mostly interesting look at cultural differences--not so much the contrasts between Europe and the States, but the chasms of class and race in America. Rated R.
Eat Drink Man Woman ** 1/2
(Opens Wednesday, Aug. 3, at the Guild) First there was "Babette's Feast." Then there was "Tampopo." Then there was "Like Water for Chocolate." Now there is Ang Lee's "Eat Drink Man Woman," which does for Chinese food what those other movies did for French, Japanese and Mexican cuisine. "Eat Drink" follows "The Wedding Banquet" for Ang, who is making his mark probing the chasms between Chinese children and parents, men and women, and past and present. This time, Ang adds misconceptions about the elderly to the mix.
Set in Taipei, the story follows the lives and meals of widower Tao Chu (Sihung Lung), China's greatest chef, and his three daughters. China has changed, children have changed, even Chinese cooking has changed. As a result, Chu has lost his sense of taste, and seems to be on the verge of losing his taste for life as well. The film paints an intriguing portrait of how modern at least some Chinese youth have become, down to their cellular phones, Walkmans and computers.
Unlike the food, the movie's central drama takes a while to heat up, but offers lovely rewards at the end. Indeed, during the first half of the movie, the biggest excitement comes exclusively from the cooking sequences, among them breaking the neck of a fish and close-up shots of fileting.
The best advice is to take recipe cards or a note pad with you. Or better yet, make a reservation at the best Chinese restaurant you know. This film will make you very hungry. Not rated.