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by Jim Wunderle

"Wag the Dog"

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche

Rated: R

"The Boxer"

Directed by: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson

Rated: R

One of the things I love most about film as a medium of expression is the seemingly infinite number of ways in which any given subject can be approached. The two films listed above could not be further apart in tone and attitude, yet they share a common thread political chaos.

Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" is a satirical examination of the modern American political system, while Jim Sheridan's "The Boxer" takes a decidedly more serious look at the madness that has been a part of daily life in Ireland for decades.

Levinson has directed a great number of films that have been successful both critically and at the box office. He won an Oscar for "Rainman," and "Good Morning, Vietnam." "Avalon" and "Tin Men" were highly regarded, as well.

Personally, I've always had a problem with Levinson's style as a director and still

consider his first film, "Diner," to be his best by far.

"Wag the Dog" is fairly representative of his directorial style it's slick and extremely "Hollywood" and the set-up is a lot more interesting than the eventual payoff.

It's 11 days before the presidential election, and the incumbent finds himself with a bit of a problem. A member of a Girl Scout-type outfit has accused the prez of sexual misconduct. The opposing candidate, refusing to take the high road, begins running campaign ads with the song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" as the soundtrack. What to do?

Enter Robert DeNiro as a James Carville-inspired spin doctor who hires a hotshot Hollywood producer to divert the American public by staging a completely fabricated war.

Dustin Hoffman as the producer, DeNiro and a surprisingly good Anne Heche as a presidential adviser, add up to a powerhouse ensemble, but as the film wears on, the joke gets a bit old, and the situations become somewhat obvious. On the whole, though, "Wag the Dog" is worth the price of a ticket.

Jim Sheridan's "The Boxer" is a much more effective and affecting film. While you might think you've seen it all before ("In the Name of the Father," "Michael Collins," "Some Mother's Son"), this story takes a somewhat different stance. Rather than come down pro (or anti) Irish Republican Army, "The Boxer's" sentiments lie with the human element, rather than the political.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Danny "Boy" Flynn, a boxer who has just been released from 14 years in jail. While his sentence arose from an IRA incident, Danny has refused to embrace the army and is more interested in the people of his neighborhood than in anyone's political agenda. He tries to open a "non-sectarian" gym, which raises eyebrows on both sides of the struggle.

Adding to the drama is Maggie, a "prisoner's wife." These women, married to jailed IRA members, are a symbol of the struggle, and as such are expected to behave in a very certain way.

Maggie's problem lies in the fact that her marriage was unhappy, even over, before her husband was jailed, and her feelings for Danny (who was her first love) are rekindled upon his release.

The love between Danny and Maggie is the heart of this story, and the political/social aspect is the all-encompassing backdrop.

Besides being a well-written (by Sheridan), compelling tale, the strength of "The Boxer" lies in the performances of its two stars. By now we're all used to Day-Lewis and have come to take for granted that he'll be great, but his co-star, newcomer Emily Watson, matches him scene for scene and exhibits an uncannily captivating screen presence.

This is only her second film; her first, 1996's "Breaking the Waves," earned her an Oscar nomination, and my guess is this one will, too.

In the wake of the many high-profile films out at this time, "The Boxer" may get lost in the shuffle. I'd advise every serious movie lover to make an effort to see it.

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

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