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Year-end flicks focus on family struggles


Every year ends with a flood of new movies, rushed into theaters by studios catering to holiday audiences and mindful of Dec. 31 deadlines for upcoming award races, climaxed by the Oscars.

The oddest feature of the current lineup is how gloomy some of the entries are, especially where female characters are concerned.

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Hollywood rarely dips into outright tragedy, of course, preferring to give even the saddest story an upbeat twist before the final fadeout. But it's surprising how many filmmakers are ushering us into the new year with tales of illness and dysfunction.

Stepmom starts as a look at family rivalries, then changes its tone when Susan Sarandon's

character is diagnosed with a fatal condition. The Theory of Flight stars Helena Bonham Carter as a disabled woman who wants a sexual experience before she dies. Hilary and Jackie, the best of this bunch, traces the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pre before ending with her untimely death.

Other new arrivals manage to weave serious moods without focusing so intently on illness. Among the most thoughtful is A Civil Action, a fact-based drama about a self-centered attorney (John Travolta) who agrees to represent a group of people who feel their lives have been damaged by toxic-waste dumping near their homes.

While the material is related to health problems, the story's main emphasis is on the lawyer and his changing attitude toward his social responsibilities. At first he declines this small-town case because it wouldn't be profitable enough, changing his mind only when he realizes he'd be suing large companies with deep pockets. His values shift as he investigates the situation, however, until he finds himself making huge personal and professional sacrifices for his clients.

This is the first movie directed by Steven Zaillian, a successful screenwriter who counts the script for "Schindler's List" among his credits. "A Civil Action" doesn't take on nearly as daunting a subject as the Holocaust, but it raises enough questions about contemporary ethical dilemmas to become one of the season's most worthwhile films - at least until its last few scenes, when the outcome of the story isn't so much dramatized as telegraphed in a series of hurried vignettes.

Its disappointing finale aside, the movie gains solid entertainment value from Zaillian's taut script, Conrad L. Hall's vivid camera work, and top-flight acting by Travolta and a well-chosen supporting cast.

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You can tell from the title that Affliction isn't one of the season's merriest offerings, but this searing drama is the season's most deeply felt movie on a family-centered subject. Closely following the thoughtful Russell Banks novel that inspired it, the picture focuses on a New Hampshire policeman named Wade Whitehouse, who becomes obsessed with the notion that an apparent hunting accident was actually a murder committed by one of his closest friends. After this whodunit beginning, the film steers gradually toward its real subject: the long-term damage inflicted on Whitehouse and his family by a tyrannical and abusive father.

"Affliction" was written and directed by Paul Schrader, a filmmaker who hasn't hit his emotional target this squarely since the underrated "Light Sleeper" seven years ago. Nick Nolte's incandescent acting as Whitehouse is matched by James Coburn's as the father - easily the comeback performance of the year - ably supported by Sissy Spacek and Willem Dafoe.

A different sort of family works out its problems in Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, the acclaimed poet. Mary Alice plays an African-American grandmother who's alarmed over the urban dangers confronting her drug-abusing daughter (Alfre Woodard) and two young grandchildren. Pawning a beloved heirloom for ready cash, she hustles the whole bunch of them from the mean streets of Chicago to their ancestral home in Mississippi, trusting that renewed contact with their Southern roots will have a healing influence.

"Down in the Delta" is anything but a fancy movie, weaving its homespun yarn in a vernacular style that makes up in dramatic warmth what it lacks in technical skill. Its best assets are its clear concern with the urgent problems facing many parents in today's black community and the lively acting of its mainly African-American cast, which also spotlights Wesley Snipes, the late Esther Rolle, and Al Freeman Jr.

Look farther west and you'll find The Hi-Lo Country, set in a rural New Mexico town during the post-World War II era. Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson play a pair of young friends dragged into rivalry by their shared fascination with a married woman (Patricia Arquette).

The picture is energetically acted and gorgeously filmed by Oliver Stapleton under Stephen Frears's direction. Its stylish appearance can't outweigh its complete lack of originality, though. We've seen this sort of smoldering love triangle in countless movies over the years, and dressing it up with contemporary faces doesn't disguise the bedrock of cliches it's built on.

Ditto for the family film Mighty Joe Young, a run-of-the-mill remake of a half-forgotten monster movie that tried to revive the "King Kong" cult back in 1949. The new picture was apparently designed to capitalize on the "Godzilla" craze of 1998 - only there was no "Godzilla" craze of 1998, since that megamonster proved to have a very brief popularity span with viewers.

Youngsters may enjoy Mighty Joe's new antics, which are relatively mild despite moments of violence and suspense. But older folks may pine for the days when creature-feature effects were marvels of handcrafted trickery rather than rote examples of computerized button-pushing. The original Joe was far less realistic, and a lot more fun to watch.

r 'Hilary and Jackie' and 'The Theory of Flight,' rated R, contain sex, illness, and rough language. 'Stepmom,' rated PG-13, contains illness and vulgarity that are less graphic but may still be disturbing. 'A Civil Action,' rated PG-13, also contains illness and rough language. 'Affliction,' rated R, has much drinking as well as physical and emotional violence. 'Down in the Delta,' rated PG-13, contains drug use and scenes of domestic crisis. 'The Hi-Lo Country,' rated R, has strong sensuality, violence, and foul language. 'Might Joe Young,' rated PG, has scenes of action-movie violence.

David Sterritt's e-mail address is

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