THE POSTMAN - DECONSTRUCTING HARRY
AS GOOD AS IT GETS - JACKIE BROWN
THE SWEET HEREAFTER


THE POSTMAN

It's 2013 and a lone drifter (Kevin Costner) wanders the desolation of a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest with his mule Billy. He stops at small pockets of civilization to trade a bad performance of Shakespeare for a meal. He's captured by the Holnists, a fascist group led by General Bethlehem (Bill Patton), but manages to escape and finds shelter in an abandoned postal Jeep. He takes the uniform and mailbag and journeys on hoping to trade 15 year old mail for his next meal, but instead, the citizens of Pineview see him as a symbol of hope for the future and a restored United States. A young boy (Larenz Tate, "Dead Presidents") actually builds a postal service with a troop of eager beaver carriers and a reluctant Costner is faced with leading them in a war against Bethlehem.

Laura LAURA:
If you divide "The Postman's" into three segments, you'll find a surprisingly good first hour, a wildly uneven second hour and a jaw-droppingly ludricrous third one.

Kevin Costner is at his best when he's cynical and edgy ("Bull Durham"), but seems to prefer his new-agey quality which may have worked in the 80's but hasn't translated well into the 90's. He starts off OK, as the man who only needs a mule for companionship and other humans for goods to trade (the first part of the film resembles "The Road Warrior" crossed with "The Seven Samarai"). He's a scam artist pacifist who Bethlehem, a former copier salesman with Hitler-like tendencies, recognizes as an intellect to be reckoned with. He's even funny when he charms his way into Pineview ("all dogs must be kept on a leash while I'm in this town") and tells the populace that the new president's name is Richard Starkey (that's Ringo of the Beatles for those of you born after 1965). He's also believable as the man a young wife with a sterile husband would approach to ask to impregnate her. (She's Abby played by newcomer Olivia Williams, a British actress I'll be watching for in future films.)

The film starts to go downhill as soon as the Postman meets Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate in an embarrassingly earnest performance). Ford insists upon being inducted into the postal service. When the suspicious sherrif (James Russo) asks the Postman to move on, the stage is set for Bethlehem to sweep into town, demand that Abby's husband burn the American flag now flying over the Post Office, then kill Abby's husband (who didn't see that one coming?) and make off with her. They catch up with Costner playing his Postman routine in another town and a mini war ensues with the Postman escaping with Abby to a cabin in the woods. Here we find out he's a wimp (he's recovering from a gunshot wound) and she's made of steel (and also carrying his child).

When spring arrives, Abby burns down the cabin (she's really lighting a fire under his butt) and they move on, only to be met by a young girl on horseback who introduces herself as Postal Carrier #18 (she's played by Costner's daughter and from this point on he edits in a closeup of her at every available chance). They're led back to Pineview and are amazed to find Ford spreading the Postman's myth to a huge following.

>From this point on the film becomes unbearably silly, with Costner becoming noble and reaching for letters from a child's hand from the back of his horse in slo-mo. On the way to the inevitable showdown with Bethlemen we even run into Tom Petty as the mayor of Bridge City, but really playing himself in what only amounts to a lame joke. When Costner rides over a hill with his rag-tag band of followers I could only shake my head and wonder how he ever thought he could approach Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." Where Mel cried "Freedom!" Costner's troops pathetically mumble "Live and let live." Bleh.

C-


DECONSTRUCTING HARRY

"Deconstructing Harry" is Woody Allen's latest in his continuing self-analysis-on-celluloid with an all-star cast led by Allen and featuring the likes of Kirstie Alley, Judy Davis, Demi Moore, Billy Crystal, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams and many, many more.

Allen plays Harry Block, a New York writer whose latest novel is a poorly veiled fictionalization of his own life, using his real-life wives, lovers and friends as the template for his made up characters. Unfortunately, everyone can see through the thin veneer of his fiction and realize Harry has painted only himself in a positive light, with everyone else, especially his three ex-wives, shown as less than flattering.

Robin ROBIN:
I would like to say that Woody Allen has done it again, but he has not."Deconstructing Harry" is one of the most self-indulgent works of a notoriously self-indulgent filmmaker. It's a free flowing of Allen's various psychoses as Harry kvetches about Judaism, fidelity (anti), drug and alcohol addiction, women and sexual obsession, all in pretty equal parts. Woody also seems to have discovered the F-word and puts it to liberal use throughout the film.

Allen is not at his best here. His writing, rather than his usual amusing wit, is both whining and bigoted. He slams Judaism in such a fierce manner, it's like he forgot he made an entire career using the Jewish faith as a target. He attacks the religion like he has a vendetta. Not what you'd expect of one of America's great filmmakers. I sincerely believe the quality and entertainment value of the film are due to the considerable talents of the vast cast who put life into the director's delusions.

Besides the aforementioned cast members, providing mostly cameo performances are Richard Benjamin, Bob Balaban, Elisabeth Shue, Julie Kavner, Amy Irving, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mariel Hemingway, Tobey Maguire and Hazelle Goodman, an unknown who outshines nearly all the vets.

Goodman is Cookie, a hooker who Harry hires to tie him up, beat him, and perform oral sex, and ends up becoming his escort, confidant and friend. Goodman can be considered a contender for Oscar notice, if not a nomination, for her funny three-dimensional performance.

Technically and artistically, "Deconstructing Harry" is a convolution of techniques. The story uses flash forwards and backwards, segues into the fiction of Harry's novel, with, for instance, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore subbing for Harry and ex-wife Alley. Harry also has confrontations and discussions with his fictional characters. It is a mishmash.

Editing, by Susan E. Morse, is forced to fit the temperament of the film, starting off stylishly, but getting as confused as Allen's ramblings. The focus the film starts off with soon gets fuzzy as Allen meanders to the finale, where all his creations applaud their maker. Major ego alert.

Art direction, by Santo Loquasto, is standard fare for a Woody Allen, with the exception of an amusing, erotic and voyeuristic vision of Hell where Billy Crystal does a turn as the wisecracking Satan. With him, Hell could be fun.

Longtime Allen cinematographer, Carlo DiPalma, shoots the film with a sure hand but none of the energy exhibited in Woody's "Manhattan Murder Mysteries" or "Husbands and Wives."

"Deconstructing Harry" ranks in the bottom third of Woody Allen's body of work. I give it a C.

Laura LAURA:
In "Deconstructing Harry," Woody Allen is a writer by the name of Harry Block, who's experiencing his first bout of writer's block (get it?). He's also telling us he's a self-hating Jew who can't experience romantic love, yet constantly thinks about sex.

The film opens with Harry about to be shot by a distraught ex-lover (the wonderfully neurotic Judy Davis, Allen's shiksa soulmate), who also happens to be the sister of his ex-wife, who's been exposed to her family by his thinly veiled account of their affair in his most recent book. It appears that Harry has the same affliction that brought Truman Capote down - he writes what he knows without regarding what his characters might think of the book reading public knowing.

As Harry's story is told, in flashbacks and flashforwards expertly handled and never confusing, we're presented with a second cast which represent his fictional retelling of what really happened. There's also a present day story to drape the rest of the vignettes over. Harry's trying to either find a date or kidnap his young son to accompany him to accept an award from his alma mater - he ends up arriving with his son, a hooker and a dead body.

Allen's writing is in top form here - his dialogue snaps and crackles and he's come up with some unique situations (such Robin Williams as an actor who's literally out of focus and Tobey MacGuire trying to convince death he isn't who he said he was a moment ago). Unfortunately he saves most of the good stuff for himself and that's where the film just isn't up to his usual snuff. With the exception of the too briefly seen Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman as Cookie, the hooker, and (suprise) Kirstie Alley, Allen's top drawer cast, which includes Demi Moore, Elizabeth Shue, Tobey MacGuire ("The Ice Storm"), Bob Balaban, Julia Louise-Dreyfuss, Robin Williams and Richard Benjamin, is wasted. Even Billy Crystal in a potentially juicy bit as the pseudo Satan doesn't register strongly.

Allen fans will still enjoy his obsessing over his constant themes of sex, intellectualism, Jewishness, death and New York City in "Deconstructing Harry," but it won't win him a new audience.

B-


AS GOOD AS IT GETS

Jack Nicholson stars as Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive romance novelist loner whose only apparent pleasures in life come from his daily routine of eating an artery clogging breakfast and repelling everyone in his path with vicous vitriol in director James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News") "As Good As It Gets." Helen Hunt is Carol, Melvin's breakfast waitress, the only person who can tolerate his obnoxious behavior. Greg Kinnear is Simon, a gay artist who has the misfortune of being Melvin's neighbor.

These two people, along with Simon's Brussels Griffon, Verdell, and his art dealer Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr., "Jerry MacGuire"), are responsible for humanizing Melvin in a strange course of events.

Laura LAURA:
"As Good As It Gets" is a surprisingly unlikely romantic comedy featuring Jack Nicholson's oddest performance in years. Director/Writer/Producer James L. Brooks has rebounded from his disastrous musical "I'll Do Anything," to present one of the most refreshingly original, if a bit manipulative, comedies of the year.

Jack Nicholson is simply outrageous delivering his jaw-dropping insults. When a couple don't vacate his usual table in his cafe, he hovers over them and finally gets them to leave by loudly proclaiming that their appetites are as big as their noses. When an admiring receptionist at his publisher's office asks how he's able to write women so well, Udall retorts "I think of a man and take away reason and accountability." The film even opens with Melvin shoving his neighbor's beloved pooch down the laundry shoot!

When a homeless pretty boy (Skeet Ulrich) modelling for Simon plots with his gang to rob the artist and Simon catches them in the act, they deliver a vicous beating to the man that sends him to the hospital. Frank bullies Melvin in taking care of Verdell, Simon's dog, and Melvin begins to warm up to the animal especially when Verdell apes Melvin's compulsive aversion to stepping on sidewalk cracks.

Then Melvin is faced with another disrupting blow to his routine when Carol, the single mother of a very sick little boy, is finally driven over the edge when, after commenting on Melvin's unhealthy eating habits, he retorts "We're all gonna die. I'm gonna die, you're gonna die, and your son's gonna die." Carol throws him out of the restaurant and doesn't return to her job.

Melvin is now in a total tailspin and bribes a busboy for Carol's address and shows up at her door proclaiming that he's hungry! She doesn't know whether to be scared or amused and rejects him again. Then the well off Melvin sends a pricey doctor to her house to take care of her son and Carol's overwhelmed with gratitude.

Simon returns home, still convelescing, to discover he's broke and about to lose his apartment. Frank steps in once again and convinces Melvin to drive Simon to Baltimore to visit his parents, who he's been estranged from for years, to ask for financial assistance. Melvin cajoles Carole into joining them and the trip brings about even more amazing changes to the lives of all three.

Helen Hunt simply shines as Carol, the lonely good-hearted mother who decides to take a chance on the extremely dsynfunctional Udall. She's the best thing in the film. Greg Kinnear is touching as the trusting, sensitive gay artist who manages to befriend the man who previously had made his life hell. Shirley Knight provides nice support as Carol's mother. Cuba Gooding Jr. is effective in his small role as the only person who's able to back Melvin down even at his worst behavior. Harold Ramis manages to make a big impression with about five minutes of screen time as the kind, warm, doctor sent to Carol by Melvin.

Jill, the dog who plays Verdell, is a great new animal performer! The dog has a marvelously expressive face and her trainer has coaxed quite a few neat tricks out of her. Brooks may have overutilized the dog a bit, but Verdell's such a charmer it's easy to forgive.

Technically, the film is top notch with vibrant photography, bright sets and costuming that helps flesh out the characters' personalities.

The film is a bit uneven in structure and in Nicholson's performance as both aspects go slightly aground when Melvin tries to be nice (he seems to turn more simple minded, less sharp).

Brooks, his cast and his crew have delivered one of the most entertaining, brash (while still quite commercial) films of the year. Even the ending avoids cloying sentimentality.

B

Robin ROBIN:
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a venom-tongued, socially dysfunctional romance writer who can't stand people. Unfortunately for Melvin, he lives in the heart of Manhattan, so avoiding 11 million people is a real challenge. Melvin even has problems relating to Verdell, the diminutive dog owned by gay next door neighbor, artist Simon Nye (Greg Kinnear). Melvin suffers an obsessive-compulsive disorder, making him wash his hands incessantly and bring his own (clean) plastic utensils to a local restaurant where Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) is the only waitress willing to put up with the idiosyncratic Udall.

James L. Brooks has put together a talented, if limited, cast of characters and a mildly amusing script in "As Good As It Gets." The problem with the adapted screenplay, by Brooks and Mark Andrus from Andrus's original story, is its artificiality. The characters depicted, with the exception of Helen Hunt, feel false, if well played.

Jack Nicholson departs, mostly, from his usual Jack a la "The Shining", giving a quirky performance as the dysfunctional Melvin. It is uneven, though, with some truly moving moments as Melvin tries to get control of his disorder, for Carol. Nicholson shows real depth in these moments. At other times, he slips into his usual mugging up to the camera. It's a good perf, with touches of Nicholson's true acting ability tinged with his trademark persona.

Helen Hunt is notable in her blue collar portrayal of Carol. Carol, a single mother, busts her hump all day so she can spend the rest of her life caring for her seriously asthmatic son. It is a frustratingly vicious circle of a life that Carol has accepted as her lot. Hunt is more than stoic in her protection of her son, fighting the healthcare system to get proper treatment for the boy. Her changing attitude and relationship with Melvin is well played. She is the only truly believable character in the film. Boy, what a difference from her empty performance in the 1996 film, "Twister."

Greg Kinnear is merely OK as gay Simon. He minces about to show how homosexual he is, but, like the screenplay, does not ring true. He does have some moments of expression that are sincerely delivered.

Subverting the human actors when on screen, little Verdell, a Brussels Griffon named Jill, steals all the scenes she's in. My only complaint is that Brooks tend to over-use the cute little pup, sometimes to the detriment of her co-stars.

Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr., as art dealer, Frank Sachs, and friend to Simon, is either wasted by too little use or his performance is left on the cutting room floor.

The script has the forced feel of a television show without the quick pacing. At 2.5 hours, "As Good As It Gets" is too long and too slow.

"As Good As It Gets" is about a dysfunctional man who, with the help of his mildly dysfunctional friends, copes with his obsessions and is able to be a noble, functional member of society. No one says anything about his being a successful romance novelist. They must assume that writers are dysfunctional anyway.

I mildly like the mildly likable "As Good As It Gets" and give it a B-.


JACKIE BROWN

Well, here it is. We've been waiting for over three years for Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to his incredibly influential sophomore effort, "Pulp Fiction," and he's finally gotten around to it. Adapting the 1995 best-seller, "Rum Punch" by Elmore Leonard, "Jackie Brown" stars 70's blaxploitation flick icon, Pam Grier, in the title role, with Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster.

Robin ROBIN:
Jackie is a stewardess in her 40's who, because of bad luck and bad choices, is in a nowhere job on a rinky dink Mexican airline. She supplements her meager income by smuggling illicit arms money into the US for gun merchant Ordell Robbie (Jackson), a wispy bearded, pony-tailed character who the Feds want to nail. ATF officer Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LA cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) pick up Jackie while she's carrying Ordell's cash and force her into a scam to bring down the arms dealer.

Bail-bondsman Max Cherry, played by Forster, springs Jackie from jail for Ordell an sparks fly as Jackie and Max hit it off, forming an alliance to double-cross both Ordell and the cops who threaten her freedom.

The screenplay is a departure for Tarantino, who is known for his original writing, such as "Reservoir Dogs," "True Romance," and, of course, "Pulp Fiction." Adapting Leonard's novel, Tarantino changes the story's locale from south Florida to the filmmaker's own digs in South Bay, LA County, giving the film a natural feel that comes from working on your own turf.

The major departure from the book, besides change of location, is casting a black woman in what is, in the novel, a white female character named Jackie Burke. Pam Grier, back after a long sabbatical from major film roles, has the physical presence to make Jackie a real contender in her fight for survival. She has been away from lead roles for quite a while, though, and it shows. At times, she looks uncomfortable under the static gaze of the camera, particularly when Tarantino has the lens on Grier for extended close-ups. She tends to deliver her lines in a sneer that seemed due to nerves. Supporting cast overshadows Grier when on screen, especially Sam Jackson.

Jackson's Ordell Robbie is a crafty arms entrepreneur who keeps tight control of those around him. If one of his flunkies gets busted, Ordell bails him out lickety-split, then kills him to protect himself. Jackson plays Robbie with his usual style and vivacity making the character a true pleasure to watch.

Robert Forster, who's film career peeked in the fascinating docu-drama about the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the riots in Chicago, Haskell Wexler's political thriller, "Medium Cool," gives a break-through return performance as Max Cherry. Forster plays Max, a bail-bondsman both honest and noble, with a subtle strength that is the perfect foil for Jackie's desperateness. Forster and Grier have real chemistry in their limited time together on-screen. Forster has star-quality presence and is used well by Tarantino.

Bridget Fonda, as Ordell's live-in, Melanie, is wonderfully caustic as a stoned-out surfer chick, who, even at her tender, young age, is getting over-the-hill to Ordell. DeNiro, as three time loser and Ordell's buddy, Louis Gara, is along for the ride, only. Michael Keaton's ATF cop could have been done by a cigar store Indian.

Music, all important in Tarantino's previous films, is more subdued, in keeping with the whole mood of the film. Liberal use of The Delfonics ("Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time") and The Grassroots ("Midnight Confessions") is typical of the gentler 70's music that peppers the film's score.

Camera work, by Mexico's Guillermo Navarro ("Desperado") is minimalist, with little movement, using static two-shots for extended periods. One scene, the killing of Ordell's screw-up partner, Beaumont (Chris Tucker), is done in a way distant shot, with the action covering only a tiny portion of the screen. The overall photography lends nuance to the film and helps convey the feel of the 70's that Tarantino is going for. Quentin Tarantino was hard pressed, no matter what he did, to equal the raw power that hit the screen with "Pulp Fiction." He took the middle rode by adapting the Leonard novel, giving the audience comfortable ground to sit upon as the story unfolds. The film is a mature, careful effort by Tarantino created to get him by the Great Expectations and on to making movies. I think his output is going to take a marked turn for the better, now. "Jackie Brown" would have benefited if cut by about 20 minutes. Mostly, the extended, really extended, shots of Grier (and there are several) could easily be cut back to help speed up the film's almost languid pace. I give "Jackie Brown" a solid B.

Laura LAURA:
Quentin Tarantino must feel like he's under a microscope delivering his followup to the wildly successful "Pulp Fiction" that made him the boy wonder of Hollywood. Has he delivered? Well, yes, although not in the way anyone would have suspected and not with quite as much oomph.

"Jackie Brown" features a number of Tarantino trademarks - career reviving cast choices, a hip, slightly obscure soundtrack, tart dialogue and even a sexual reference to the female foot. What it lacks is violence (well, three people are shot, but practically off camera for Tarantino), a fast paced rhythm, and

"Jackie Brown," which Tarantino adapted from the Elmore Leonard book "Rum Punch" specifically as a vehicle for one of his idols, Blaxploitation star Pam Grier, is about a bunch of losers who will achieve rock bottom if presented with one more setback. Jackie is a fortysomething airline stewardess earning $16,000 a year at with a third rate airline who suppliments her income by illegally bringing cash in from Mexico for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, in a hugely entertaining performance). When ATF guy Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) nails her she joins forces with Ordell's regular bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster of TV's "Banyon" whose career as the smitten Max will probably enjoy a bigger boost than Grier's) to play both sides against each other.

Besides Jackson and Forster, Bridget Fonda is a hoot as Melanie, the stoner beach bunny who's one of Ordell's girlfriends. (A great little in-joke has Melanie watching her Dad, Peter, in one of his old films on TV.) Robert DeNiro is Louis, four days out of jail for bank robbery and the schnooky object of Melanie's affections. Pam Grier is striking as the title character (Tarantino overdoes it a bit with multiple long shots meant only to accentuate her still stunning figure), but comes off a bit wooden or awkward in a number of scenes.

The film has a gritty, imperfect quality to its cinematography that almost makes it seem like Tarantino wants it to scream low budget. His choice of tunes this time out is no where near as masterful as his first two outings, although Grier's motif of "Across 110th Street" and Max's new found appreciation for the Delfonics work well. While Tarantino is none too subtle blaring romantic lyrics over Cherry's love struck face, he can still be humorous, such as when he quickly edits the great and suspenseful bag-switch sequence, changing character-identifying music as rapidly as his camera angles.

"Jackie Brown," at 155 minutes is at least 30 minutes too long and Tarantino frequently comes across as a film geek who's doing something simply because he can (such as carrying dialogue from one scene into the next for so long that it calls attention to itself), but the film's got heart and too much is right with it to quibble too much with the flaws.

B


THE SWEET HEREAFTER

When the small town of Sam Dent in British Columbia loses almost all its children in a freak school bus accident, lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm, "Alien"), arrives to convince the town's adults to form a law suit - after all, someone must be to blame for this tragedy. Stephens offers compelling arguments and convinces most of the parents to channel their rage and helpless frustration while he himself suppresses the same feelings about the spiritual loss of his beloved daughter to drug addiction. Only two townspeople present difficulties - Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood), a widower who's just lost his twins and accident survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), a beautiful teenager whose mysterious actions cloak her own dark secret.

Laura LAURA:
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan ("Exotica") has adapted Russell Bank's novel "The Sweet Hereafter" and produced a film of haunting, melancholic beauty. It's one of the year's best.

The story is the most thought provoking of the year. A father grieves the loss of his daughter to drugs - her mounting lies used in an attempt to milk him for more money have sealed his heart to her, although he still always accepts her calls. In one beautifully rendered scene, Holm is seated in a first class airline cabin next to an old school chum of his daughter's. Her innocent questions eventually enable him to pour out his feelings as he relates the story of taking his daughter to a distant hospital after her allegeric reaction to a wasp sting. The flashback we're shown, of a beautiful young child's face held in her father's hand while he's holding a knife, ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary, is a powerful screen image.

Holm's performance is wonderfully drawn - the audience can sympathize with the man even as he's playing ambulance chaser with a shellshocked townsfolk. These include the bus driver, a childless woman who now bears a terrible burden, played by Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose. She's so good I'd have her on my short list for Best Supporting Actress for 1997. Parents Wendell and Ruisa are the first we meet as they operate the town's motel. Wendell hates everyone and Ruisa is having a secret affair with Billy. Wanda and Hartley are the town's offbeat artistic couple who've lost their adopted native American Indian son Bear. Teenager Nicole, who used to read "The Pied Piper" when babysitting Billy's twins, has a father who loves her too well, unbeknownst to her mother. When she overhears an altercation between her father, who supports the lawsuit, and Billy, who rejects the ill effects he believes it will bring, she takes matters into her own hands. The entire cast is note perfect.

Egoyan uses the wintery landscape to great effect - the aerial shots of the bus winding its way through the snaking mountains passes put me in mind of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." He presents the accident in the most amazing way - one second the busful of happy traveler's is gliding along and the next is been devoured from view off the side of the road before sinking into an ice covered lake. It happens in no time at all - just as in life.

The score is a terrific combination of ethereal female singers and instrumentals of Celtic and tribal origins which perfectly complements the visuals.

If there's any justice, we should at the very least see Egoyan capture a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. How odd that in a year that's given us two films about Tibet and produced two about fake fairy photos, that it's two best involve tragic sinkings.

A

Robin ROBIN:
Director Atom Egoyan has grown on me over the years. I did not like "The Adjuster," but admired the obvious talent behind the camera (besides, it co-starred Maury Chaykin, one of my perennial favorite actors). His "Exotica" turned me into a fan. "The Sweet Hereafter" establishes him as a prominent North American filmmaker.

Egoyan, adapting the novel by Russell Bank, tells a multi-layered, multi-threaded story around a tragic event when, one day, a day no different than any other day, the school bus carrying the children of the tiny Canadian town of Sam Dent swerves off the highway and crashes into a frozen lake. 14 of the town's 21 children on board are killed in the tragedy, representing almost an entire generation of the town's youth.

The story parallels the day's disaster with the fable of the Pied Piper Of Hamlin, where the piper, snubbed by the townsfolk after ridding Hamlin of its rat problem, leads all the children away, to unknown ends, by the mesmerizing music of the pipes. Told from the viewpoint of Nicole (Sarah Polley), a wheelchair-bound survivor of the crash, she compares herself to the crippled youngster in the Piper story, a child left behind while the rest go off to the sweet hereafter of the film's title. Sarah is also the catalyst that forces the town to forget the anger of what happened and to embrace the grief they all feel. The survivors don't need to sue, they need to heel and go on with life. This is the message Egoyan conveys.

Ian Holm gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Mitchell Stephens, a high-level ambulance chasing attorney who travels to Sam Dent, a town bowed in anger and unexpressed grief over the loss of its many children in the tragic accident. Stephens is there to work up a class action suite by the surviving parents to make the bus manufacturer, or someone, pay for the fatal crash. He doesn't care about the emotional loss to the families, he just cares about the cold cash he gets, one third the taking of any settlement. Stephens's own life is so screwed up, with a drug-addicted, HIV-positive daughter laying a guilt trip on her father, he can't see why the town doesn't need his litigation. Ian Holm gives a subtle, layered performance, proving himself a great character actor.

The supporting cast is made up of a bevy of talented, and unknown, predominantly Canadian actors who provide a sincere feel to the characters populating the tiny town. Most notable is Bruce Greenwood as Billy Ansell, the father of a pair of twins on board the bus that awful day. Billy was following the bus as it, inexplicably, veered off the highway, onto a partially frozen lake, crashing into the frigid cold and losing most of its precious cargo. Greenwood is singularly powerful in his depiction of a man both furious with fate and helpless to change it. He sees Stephens's game as nothing more than making lots of money. With one of the crash survivors, wheelchair-bound Nicole (in a decent, if amateur, performance by Polley), Billy helps to kick-start the town back to life, even if it's a far different life than before.

Gabrielle Rose, as busdriver Dolores Driscoll, is subtly realistic as the possible cause of the tragedy and the only one who, on the surface, survives unscathed.

The story takes on, as I said, several layers: the period leading to the accident, the period after, Stephens's arrival in town, his on-going conflict with his daughter who is constantly hitting dad up for money, and, finally, the start of the healing. It is a deft bit of story telling that maintains its edge from beginning to end.

It's the best l have seen from Egoyan and possibly one of the best films of the year. I give "The Sweet Hereafter" an A-.


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