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by Jim Wunderle

"The Sweet Hereafter"

Directed by: Atom Egoyan

Starring: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley

Rated: R

Every year at Oscar time, Premiere, the movie magazine, publishes a chart ranking 100 films in order of critical acclaim. The rankings are based on the opinions of 16 major film critics, including Siskel and Ebert, Leonard Maltin, Peter Travers and other critics from major magazines and TV networks.

In the last poll, which ranked the films of 1997, "L.A. Confidential" took the top honors, followed very closely by Canadian director Atom Egoyan's strangely moving film "The Sweet Hereafter."

Almost a year after it won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival it's finally made it to Springfield, courtesy of Wehrenberg's Battlefield Mall Cinema. This theater has been bringing more and more (excuse the expression) "arty" films to town and, it is hoped, the market here will support the effort. You'd think a movie that garnered such universal critical acclaim would be readily available, but a lot of times this type of film is somewhat limited in distribution.

I'm reminded of the fact that Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" has yet to show up in Springfield.

It really wasn't that long ago that Lee won accolades for "The Wedding Banquet" and "Sense and Sensibility."

It's a fickle world.

"The Sweet Hereafter" revolves around a bus accident that killed a number of grade school kids in the town of Sam Dent, British Columbia, and the aftermath of the tragedy. When lawyer Mitchell Stevens shows up to engage the townspeople in a class-action lawsuit, the reactions of those involved are varied and intense.

Besides the obvious sadness, many secrets turn up, as well. By the end of the film, we know a great deal about the entire town of Sam Dent. I can't really describe the haunting quality that Egoyan gives to this very serious and complex story, based on Russell Banks' novel. I will say this, "The Sweet Hereafter" is one of the most original, and artistically focused, films in recent memory.

"He Got Game"

Directed by: Spike Lee

Starring: Denzel Washington

Rated: R

Whether or not you agree with Spike Lee's politics and philosophy, you can't get around the fact that he's one of the most important directors to come of age in the last decade.

While his personal vision and style has come through in every film he's made, "He Got Game" marks a return to the bigger scale formula Lee used in "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X."

The last few films he's directed ("Girl 6," "Get On the Bus" and the underrated "Crooklyn") have been lower-budget and very personal pieces of filmmaking, while "He Got Game" is broader in scope, and budget, and has the trademarks (both good and bad) of Lee at his most "preachy."

Denzel Washington is Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted felon who is offered a deal. If he can talk his son Jesus who happens to be the No. 1 high school basketball prospect in the United States into signing with the governor's alma mater, the gov can pull a few strings for an early release.

What we learn early on is that Jesus harbors a great deal of resentment toward his dad, and he's also stressed out by the fact that everybody around him is looking for a piece of the action.

To be quite honest, I'm not a basketball fan and couldn't care less about the final four, the NBA playoffs or any of the other roundball things that seem to carry on forever in the spring. I do, though, marvel at the physical agility of Michael Jordan and could watch him in action for hours.

I mention this to shed light on the fact that even though this film uses basketball as a backdrop, the real story here is about human relationships. Denzel Washington is one of the finest actors around, and Lee has given him a role worthy of his skills.

As a footnote I have to mention Lee's choice of music for "He Got Game." There are only two sources. Public Enemy, probably the best (and most influential) rap act around, supplies the original songs, while Aaron Copeland, the most American of modern classical composers, provides the background music.

His sweeping melodies and grandiose soundscapes make a strange (but effective) backdrop for Lee's vision of inner-city Black America.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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