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Bugsy is one of the year's best films; Hook sinks

BUGSY

Directed by Barry Levinson.

Starring Warren Beatty

and Annette Bening.

Now playing at the Loews Janus.

HOOK

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Starring Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman,

Bob Hoskins and Julia Roberts.

Now playing at Loews Cheri.

THE PRINCE OF TIDES

Directed by Barbra Streisand.

Starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte.

Now playing at Loews Fresh Pond.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Directed by Charles Shyer.

Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton

and Martin Short.

Now playing at Loews Cheri.

JFK

Directed by Oliver Stone.

Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Oldman.

Now playing at Loews Harvard Square.

THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA'S ANIMATION FESTIVAL

At the Coolidge Corner Theater

through Jan. 9.

By CHRIS ROBERGE

BARRY LEVINSON, DIRECTOR OF Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man and Avalon, has created another great film in Bugsy. The movie follows the character of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (Warren Beatty), one of the more psychotic yet charismatic gangsters of the 1940s, and his relationship with a Hollywood actress, Virginia Hill (Annette Bening).

Levinson depicts Siegel as a man fascinated with appearance and constantly attempting to improve his own by relaxing under tanning lamps, practicing his diction and even performing screen tests. His obsession with images, and film in particular, is what draws him at first to Hill, and Levinson has some fun with this idea, staging their first meeting on a movie sound stage and their first kiss as seen through a projection screen. But Siegel too often neglects the practicality behind the facades and enters into ventures of questionable prudency -- a plot to assassinate Mussolini, the building of the first major casino in Las Vegas and the decision to place trust in Hill.

Fortunately, Bugsy, the movie, looks deeper than "Bugsy," the character. Allen Daviau's beautiful cinematography manages to capture the ornate elegance of the settings that Siegel fashioned around himself, and the very talented cast, also featuring Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna and Elliot Gould in supporting roles, is uniformly excellent. But Bugsy's beauty is more than skin deep. James Toback's very sharp script and Levinson's skilled direction probe into Siegel's motivations, dreams and flaws, and make Bugsy one of the year's better movies.

HOOK HAS THE MAKINGS of another excellent film by director Steven Spielberg, but in reality, it is actually a disappointingly fair offering. The premise of the plot has Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a Wall Street executive, being whisked away to Neverland by Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), where he is told that he is in fact Peter Pan and must rescue his children, who have been kidnapped by the vengeful Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman). The opening sequence in London is extremely effective, as Peter speaks at a dedication ceremony in honor of an aged Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith) who is downcast at the sight of the new, stricter Peter. The children are abducted while the adults are away in scenes that may be borrowed from Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but still manage to generate suspense.

The biggest surprise of the movie, though, is that it quickly begins to go downhill when the action shifts to Neverland. Particularly troubling are the Lost Boys, a multiethnic group of boys who often come across as being more annoying than endearing. They live in Ewok-style tree houses in a Crayola-colored forest that is like a fun park without the fun. The kids try to teach Peter to engage his more youthful side through food fights and body paints so that he can battle Hook on his monstrous ship, which is merely another huge set that constantly dwarfs the story and characters.

Hook derives its name from the idea that Hook represents a dysfunctional form of development that towards which Peter is steadily heading. Hook is a man dreading his mortality. He destroys all clocks, makes empty threats about committing suicide, and wears a huge wig with long, black curls to hide his gray, receding hairline. Over the course of the film, Peter must learn to face the prospect of adulthood in a more mature and brave manner than his nemesis, while retaining a clear sense of fun. This is a great theme, but unfortunately, like all of the pleasures of Hook, it emerges sporadically only after breaking through the thick, glossy and, ultimately, dull exterior of the movie.

BARBARA STREISAND'S The Prince of Tides begins strongly, as Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) reminisces about his childhood years in South Carolina. James Newton Howard's sweeping score and Stephen Goldblatt's soaring, omniscient camerawork move to carry scenes of Tom playing with his sister and brother to emotional heights, while Tom's voice-over describes the pain of living with his violent father and cold mother attempts to drag the same images through the mud. The opening manages to create a delicate tone of happiness stifled by fear, but unfortunately, little of this delicacy carries through the film, as subtle irony is replaced by heavy-handed melodrama and hokey plot developments.

Back in the present, Tom has a rapidly disintegrating marriage that he leaves behind to travel to New York City, where he meets with Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), his suicidal sister's psychiatrist. While his sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), is hospitalized, Tom serves as her memory, recounting Savannah's life to Lowenstein. Some of the stories that Tom tells are powerful, and Nolte's confident performance adds credibility and passion to the film.

Eventually, Tom becomes involved with Lowenstein's family, beginning an affair with Susan and offering to coach her son, Bernard (Jason Gould), in football. The football scenes are hackneyed and boring, but are topped in terms of utter embarassment by a dinner party at Susan's home. Susan's violinist husband, Herbert (Jeroen Krabbe), taunts Tom by playing "Turkey in the Straw," Tom dangles Herbert's Stradivarius over a balcony, and everyone generally behaves with the intellect of a five-year-old. Missteps like this eventually become distractions from the movie's strengths, and the end result is a fairly mediocre film.

IHAVE NEVER SEEN THE 1950S Spencer Tracy / Elizabeth Taylor Father of Bride, directed by Vincente Minelli. With that disclaimer out of the way, I can now move ahead and praise the 1991 Steve Martin / Kimberly Williams Father of the Bride, directed by Charles Shyer, without offending fans of the original. The remake is simple-minded and sets low goals, but it almost always achieves them with ease, with equal doses of humor and sentimentality.

One of the keys to the movie's success is the good cast, led by the capable Steve Martin. As George Banks, the owner of a sneaker company and despiser of all change, Martin is very funny, especially in early scenes after learning of his daughter Annie's (Kimberly Williams) sudden decision to marry. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting the sulking expression on George's face to the glow of his wife Nina (Diane Keaton) upon hearing the news.

Unfortunately, Keaton's talents are squandered by the movie, as the one-note character of Nina does very little but remind George how ridiculous he is. Martin Short shows up in a handful of scenes as Franck Egglehoffer, a marriage counselor with lavish wedding plans, ludicrous fees and a thick accent that is a composite of a head cold and every known European accent. His character seems as out of place in this film as Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham did in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Short's performance is very funny. And finally, though Kimberly Williams and George Newbern were obviously chosen to play the bride and groom for their looks, they both play their parts convincingly.

The script, as updated by Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, is even more slight than it is humorous. This isn't exactly Chinatown, and no one will hold his or her breath when Annie suddenly calls off the wedding. For a good time at the movies, though, Father of the Bride rarely fails.

THE MOST IMPORTANT FILM of the holiday season, and of the entire past year, is unquestionably Oliver Stone's JFK. Few movies this season attempted something so bold, and few were as intense and gripping as this propaganda / suspense story. Yes, this movie is propaganda, and no, I wouldn't recommend that anyone take any of the movie's "facts" at face value, but the emotional content, strong message and sheer filmmaking skill present here are undeniable.

In its opening credits, JFK moves from Eisenhower's farewell address through Kennedy's presidency to his assassination in Dealy Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is shocked by the nation's loss, but is intrigued when the name of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a New Orleans resident, is mentioned in association with the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). He begins to investigate Ferrie, and over the course of the next three years, he uncovers a conspiracy to kill Kennedy that may have involved the CIA, FBI, armed forces and anti-Castro Cubans. The theories that Garrison discovers are told in dense detail, and the amount of information presented in just over three hours is astonishing.

In an extraordinary sequence, Garrison and some of his legal aides sit in a restaurant discussing the events of Oswald's life leading up to the assassination. As they talk, images appear on the screen -- some actual footage of Oswald, the remainder brilliantly staged "recreations" photographed in black and white. Scattered among the scenes involving Oswald are quick shots of a Life magazine cover being created by pasting together parts of different photographs showing Oswald and a rifle. The Life cover becomes a symbol of the manipulations and omissions that may or may not be present in the government's explanation of the assassination. Of course, it also serves as a reminder of the liberties that Stone himself has taken in his telling of a contrasting explanation, but the conspiracy side of the argument is so compellingly presented, and the message of truth before obedience is so strong, that, right or wrong, this exciting film should be praised more than criticized.

FINALLY, FOR SOMETHING QUITE different from all of the above, The National Film Board of Canada's Animation Festival comes highly recommended. This new festival is intended to celebrate 50 years of Canadian animation, although the program consists of 11 new shorts and only five looks back (the farthest look being only six years). Most of these new films are above average relative to most of the animation festivals that make their way to the Boston area.

Unlike the excellent Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation from early fall of 1991, this new selection is slanted more to the artistic than to the humorous. A great deal of effort seems to have been made in choosing films that not only excelled in terms of quality, but exhibited markedly different styles of animation. Brian Duchscherer's The Balgonie Birdman, the story of an eccentric 1905 aeronaut, tends to drag at a fairly lengthy eight minutes, but the three-dimensional model animation using latex puppets is fantastic. Wendy Tilby's Strings, dealing with the bonds between two strangers in adjacent apartments, was created by painting on glass -- a process that yielded remarkably fluid results.

The visual highlight of the festival is Two Sisters, by Caroline Leaf, which describes a disfigured young writer and her protective sister living on an isolated island. Leaf produced the short by etching directly onto large frames of 70 mm color film. The resulting sharp contrasts between light and dark are stunning.

By way of humor, the new selections often fall short, with the exception of Richard Condie's The Apprentice. The Apprentice is a fairly plotless excursion that follows an idiot's adventures after he leaves his master. The film is composed of a series of gags, some of them sick, most of them unconnected, but all of them funny. My personal favorite was a film that combined both a unique animation style and a great sense of humor. John Weldon's The Lump was constructed with "Recyclamation" by combining found materials and digitized faces in telling the story of a very short and unattractive man whose problems are solved when a lump on his head grows into the shape of a handsome bust. By simply buttoning his shirt over his less pleasant head, his entire life changes.