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ELIZABETH

ELIZABETH (A-4, R), with spectacular Aussie Oscar contender Cate Blanchett in the title role, is a flashy, nasty version of how Queen Elizabeth I became the mythic Virgin Queen of British history. The purpose is drama, not scrupulous academic detail, in doing this subject again. (The landmark was the 1972 TV miniseries with Glenda Jackson.)

Writer Michael Hirst and director Shekhar Kapur use creative reconstruction and telescoping of people and events to get the drift of the intrigues and horrors of mid-16th-century England in the throes of the Reformation. Religion and politics were hopelessly mixed, and life on earth was so miserable it was relatively easy to look forward to paradise.

Liz is cast as a plucky bright hero in her youthful prime—really the only likable character—who improbably overcomes a dark gallery of grotesques of varied faiths and nations to make impoverished, imperiled England a great power for four centuries. The queen is shown as a modern woman ("I have the heart of a man....I have no fear of anything.") who can't see why God cares what religion you are.

She finds the men around her either weak or treacherous, and so she ultimately "marries England." Joseph Fiennes strikes romantic sparks as the lover who proves duplicitous. But much more memorable are Geoffrey Rush as her ruthlessly cynical adviser Walsingham and Christopher Eccleston as Norfolk, her intense, brooding Catholic foe.

Any film with Elizabeth as charismatic hero is going to have Catholics as bad guys. And they're all figures of darkness, from the pitiful Queen Mary to gloomy Spaniards, decadent French and the pope (John Gielgud), who actively supports assassination plots against her. An unlikely best film nominee, Elizabeth suggests the moral complexity, especially in that age of Inquisition, heretic-burning, saints, cowards and villains. But mostly it opts for chills and thrills: horror plus romantic tragedy. Dazzling but with many reservations; for mature viewers.

CENTRAL STATION

CENTRAL STATION (A-3, R) is a film about a cynical adult saved by a chance relationship with an innocent child. This Oscar-nominated Brazilian (best foreign) film recalls humanist Italian classics (especially Fellini's La Strada). It mixes intriguing characters, religious allegory and imagery with gritty back-roads realism.

The 50-ish protagonist Dora (Brazil's top actress and Oscar-nominee Fernanda Montenegro) is an unmarried ex-teacher. She scrapes a living writing letters for illiterates at Rio's teeming city rail station. The letters are about problems, hopes and dreams, repetitive, often foolish—she's the intermediary for prayers or pleas for help. Dora takes the money but doesn't mail the letters—she reads them with her friend.

One of her customers is killed in a poignant accident, and Josue, the woman's 10-year-old son, won't go away. He's played by luminous-faced Vinicius de Oliveira, discovered by director Walter Salles as a shoeshine boy at the Rio airport.

At first Dora tries to sell him for what she thinks is adoption by rich Americans. Armed only with an address on a letter, Dora reluctantly takes Josue back into the bleak countryside to find his father, Jesus, a carpenter whom she fears is an abuser.

Love grows between the worldly-wise woman and the skeptical kid. Events and characters are full of religious symbolism. They keep searching for Jesus—it seems like a modern search for God.

Dora and Josue find the boy's brothers, and their father's promise—in a letter—that he'll return. The meaning may be that God still loves us. In any case, it's a celebration of hope. A sure cure for the mall-movie blues. In Portuguese with English titles. Recommended for adults.

RUSHMORE

RUSHMORE (A-3, R): Precocious, Texas-based writer-director Wes Anderson, 29, makes a positive impression with this fresh and funny saga of go-getter high school kid Max Fischer. The style is a nudge away from reality, and much in contrast with today's "cool," ironic cookie-cutter youth films. Tireless Max (Jason Schwartzman) shares more than horn-rimmed glasses with the tradition of Harold Lloyd.

Max, who always wears a blazer and tie, is a terrible student but loves Rushmore Academy. He sort of majors in minor extracurricular activities such as trap, skeet and calligraphy. But he's marvelous at writing and directing the school plays, whose scripts and special effects are a mix of Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone.

He gets to know alumnus-tycoon Herman Blume (Bill Murray in his best role). Blume, a disillusioned boomer, recognizes the spark in Max, who advises, "Find something you love and do it for the rest of your life....For me, it's going to Rushmore."

The story is mostly about their hilarious and moving friendship and Max's over-the-top jealousy, as both fall in love with a young widow schoolteacher (Olivia Williams). Anderson's film is hugely entertaining and understated; its greatest achievement is in letting the plucky, nerdish hero work his way into our affections. Schwartzman, 18, is relentlessly wonderful. Artful, different, feel-good movie; some rough talk; satisfactory for mature viewers

PLAYING BY HEART

(A-3, R) hopes to be a romantic comedy, offering a half-dozen couples (white, affluent, of mixed ages) struggling with love and sex in contemporary Los Angeles.

While writer-director Willard Carroll seems to be mining the eternal war between male and female chiefly for entertainment, there are also lots of words about life and relationships.

The educated banter is a splendid exercise for good, often word-starved actors (like Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands, Dennis Quaid, Gillian Anderson). But the territory has often been better explored by upscale competition like Neil Simon or Woody Allen.

Rowlands and Connery are in a 40-year marriage, and she's angry because she suspects he was unfaithful 25 years ago. Older viewers will immediately recognize this as a typically weird old-marrieds argument. Their spat leads to some of Carroll's better ideas about why true love lasts.

Angelina Jolie—Jon Voight's exceptionally talented daughter—makes a three-touchdown debut as a lively, wacky young actress who meets a brooding dreamboat (Ryan Phillippe). But it takes forever to learn why he keeps trying to get rid of her.

The wonderful Ellen Burstyn plays a mother keeping watch over her gay son (Jay Mohr) who is dying of AIDS. Their affection and truth-telling are touching, but after Philadelphia they seem strained. Not to remember forever, but passingly enjoyable for adults.

IF TV EXISTED IN HEAVEN:

  • You wouldn't need to plug it in.
  • All the shows would be great so TV critics would have to find a real job.
  • Nobody could complain that watching TV is bad for you.
  • The sound would never go up during commercials.
  • Hello? Commercials? What would they be for? They'd probably just rerun the best from earth, like the Volkswagen funeral cortege ("...and to my nephew...who always knew the value of a dollar..."), or the Coke open-air multicultural chorale, with all those Real Thing kids on a hilltop belting out, "I'd like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony..."
  • You and your relatives would never have programming conflicts.
  • Your favorite movies would be on anytime you wanted.
  • The Packers (or name your own team) would win every game—but you'd never know for sure until the fat lady sang. You could eat all the chips you want and still look great. Your best friends would always be there.
  • You could watch videos of your ancestors and descendants, all in focus with perfect sound.
  • You and the one you love could also bring up any memory on demand, but you'd probably want to click "delete" on some of them.
  • God wouldn't need to be on TV because God would be "live" always, right there.
  • Talk shows would not be about crimes, wars and scandals. The subjects would be joy, truth, the good, the beautiful, the exciting.
  • At the end of the heavenly day, just before going to sleep (if you needed to), you could watch Charlie Rose interview Aristotle, or watch St. Francis, or reruns of the Gettysburg Address or the Sermon on the Mount.
  • There would be no bad shows, and all the good shows would have high ratings.

CHECK IT OUT

CHECK IT OUT: Passing Glory, the Magic Johnson made-for-TV movie project, has been hard to find except in the wee hours on TNT cable (check local listings). But Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Street) has been getting rave reviews as an idealistic young priest in New Orleans in the early 1960's pre-civil-rights era. That's no surprise: The Emmy-winning Braugher is an electrifying talent.

Based on real events, the film describes how Braugher's determined character inherits the job of basketball coach at an all-black Catholic high school and inspires the team's pride and will to change the city's racial image. He fights to arrange a game against undefeated, all-white Jesuit High that proves to be a dramatic and transforming moment in the city's history.

Powerful priest images are rare these days, especially on the tube. Rip Torn, who tends to appear these days only in strong films, plays Braugher's priestly superior. Some creative basketball action ought to arouse the interest of a young male audience.

FORGOTTEN FIRES

(PBS, April 29): This documentary shows the face of racism in the 1990's, describing how the Ku Klux Klan lured poor whites in rural South Carolina to burn two black churches. The talent behind the camera has a superb track record, and the one-hour film has already won a bunch of festival prizes.

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