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At the Movies this week

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MEN OF HONOR

During World War II and after, Hollywood produced scores of heroic movies with such titles as ``Wake Island,'' ``Guadalcanal Diary,'' ``Anzio,'' ''30 Seconds Over Tokyo,'' ``Battle of the Bulge'' and ``Back to Bataan.''

``Men of Honor,'' which stars Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr., follows that tradition, but in this case, the enemies are not the Germans and the Japanese. It is the story of one enlisted sailor's battle against bigotry and the unforgiving sea.

``Men of Honor'' traces the extraordinary life of Carl Brashear, a Kentucky sharecropper's son who dreamed of a career as a naval diver. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and, as was customary then with blacks, was assigned to galley duty. President Truman had ordered desegregation of all the services, but the order couldn't halt the bigotry from both officers and sailors alike.

After two years of writing letters, Brashear was finally admitted to the dive school program. Everything was done to make him fail. Yet against all odds, he graduated as a Navy diver. He suffered a severe injury that under Navy rules would have ended his career, but Brashear fought the rules and won. He achieved the level of master diver and master chief, the highest rank for an enlisted man.

Bill Cosby and Stanley Robertson, who are listed as executive producers, had first seen the Brashear story as movie material in 1994. The project traveled a long road to completion, and just as well. Gooding, who emerged as a major star with his Oscar-winning supporting role in ``Jerry Maguire,'' is the ideal actor to portray Brashear. Not only does Gooding perform the physical demands of the role, he also meets all the emotional challenges. It is an unforgettable performance.

The role of Brashear's training officer, Billy Sunday (no relation to the famed evangelist), is a composite of superiors Brashear served under and is played by De Niro. Sunday is a bigoted bully, a boozing fighter, a man who delights in flunking out those who do not reach his standards and terrorizes those who do. De Niro infuses the role with all his dynamism. It is his best performance in years.

Surprisingly, the director and writer are virtual newcomers. George Tillman Jr. had directed only one studio feature, ``Soul Food'' (1997), a moving portrayal of a black Chicago family. With ``Men of Honor,'' Tillman demonstrates his skill at handling human relationships as well as the gripping underwater scenes. The film provides New York University graduate Scott Marshall Smith with his first produced screenplay. It was a four-year job, and the result is commendable.

One quibble: the courtroom scene of Brashear's final triumph reaches too far for a ``Rocky'' finish.

Unlike most service movies, this one provides strong roles for women. Charlize Theron fascinates as Sunday's wife, a rare beauty who remains with her brawling, foul-mouthed husband for reasons that are not quite clear. Aunjanue Ellis brings depth to her role as Brashear's wife.

Hal Holbrook does a terrifying turn as a wacko war commander who thunders racial epithets from his tower aerie.

The Twentieth Century Fox release was produced by Robert Teitel and Bill Badalato. Rated R, mostly for language. Running time: 128 minutes.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.


NON-STOP

Despite its title, ``Non-Stop'' never really gets started.

On the surface, it looks like a Japanese version of ``Run Lola Run,'' last year's 81-minute German adrenaline rush. Too bad it's not nearly as addictive or as clever. It's one minute longer, and just as much about nothing at all.

A clumsy restaurant cook named Yasuda (Tomoro Taguchi) loses his girlfriend to a much hipper dude and believes he can prove his manliness by robbing a bank. He forgets his mask, so he runs across the street to a convenience store to buy one. Once he gets there, he realizes he has no money, so he steals the mask.

Implausibly, this meager theft inspires the stoned, slacker convenience-store clerk, Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), to chase him through the streets of Tokyo. But midpursuit, Aizawa runs into Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the mobster to whom he owes drug money. So now Takeda is chasing Aizawa, who is chasing Yasuda. And that's pretty much the entire movie.

``Non-Stop'' is the first feature film for writer-director Hiroki Tanaka, who goes by the name of Sabu. He tries to add a gritty, sleazy aspect to the film with a subplot about two warring Japanese mob families and the bumbling cops trying to bring them down. However, all this does is make the film more unfocused, although it does provide one funny exchange during a stakeout:

Cop 1: Wanna arrest some dudes?

Cop 2: Who?

Cop 1: Anyone.

Cop 2: Sounds all right.

The chase itself features several small, funny moments: All three guys slow down to watch a pretty girl bend down to pick up something from the sidewalk. Later, they pass through a beer-tasting booth as if it were a water stop in the New York City Marathon, pouring the beer over their heads and onto their faces.

These guys probably do travel the distance of a marathon, running all day and well into the night. But somehow, no one breaks a sweat, and they all have amazing endurance, including Aizawa, who had just finished shooting up heroin before starting his pursuit of the shoplifting Yasuda.

Unlike ``Run Lola Run,'' with its thumping techno music driving the film's pulse, Sabu plays classical music in the background. This completely undermines the pacing, as does the director's shifting backward and forward in time.

All this running seems to be building toward nothing. Eventually they'll have to stop, and then what? Then the movie has to end, and it does so in an annoying, unsatisfactory way.

``Non-Stop,'' originally released in 1996 with the title ``Dangan Runner,'' is the last film in this year's Shooting Gallery Film Series. It is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated, but contains violence and sexual situations. Running time: 82 minutes.



YOU CAN COUNT ON ME

Its generic title aside, ``You Can Count On Me'' is an intelligent, nuanced and convincing portrait of the strained yet unshakable bonds between two siblings.

A small, quiet feature, it is also one of the best movies of the year — a deeply personal look at family relations, loss and reconnecting.

Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo star as Sammy and Terry, a sister and brother orphaned as children who undergo a love-you, hate-you reunion as adults.

After a rowdy girlhood, Sammy has grown into a cautious mom with an 8-year-old son (Rory Culkin) curious about his absentee father. She has a decent but dull suitor (Jon Tenney) and an uneasy association with her anal new boss (Matthew Broderick) at the local bank.

While Sammy lives in the small-town house she grew up in, Terry is a drifter who returns home after trouble with the law and trouble with a girlfriend. Sammy's thrilled at little brother's homecoming, until she discovers he's there to bum money.

``I had no idea you were just broke again,'' she complains. ``I wish you'd just send me an invoice.''

Circumstances prolong Terry's stay indefinitely, setting up a vibrant tale of familial conflict and commiseration. The film explores the unreasonableness and unequivocal forgiveness that come with the familiarity of kinship.

First-time director Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright and screenwriter whose film credits include ``Analyze This,'' has made a movie so authentic, warm, funny and sad that it's hard not to feel like an eavesdropper to this family's hopes and secrets and sorrows.

The film moves deftly from giddy humor to the heartache that fleetingly transports the most centered of adults back to childhood helplessness. When Sammy haltingly, not quite tearfully, laments, ``I just ... I really wish Mom was here,'' the moment is gut-wrenching.

Lonergan weaves extended scenes of bonding and bashing between Linney and Ruffalo with lightning-quick cuts — a single sentence, sometimes just a glance — that speak volumes about the characters' relationship.

Sammy's pretense of a normal, steady life gradually unravels, revealing her to be at least as messed-up as her brother. Meantime, Terry discovers — if not necessarily embraces — some figurative anchors to cling to. He confronts — if not necessarily answers — critical questions about the value of his life and the need to connect.

``You Can Count On Me'' has it all: terrific acting, crisp pacing, dialogue both sharp and subtle, a score by Lesley Barber that features gorgeous, melancholy cello solos and string arrangements.

The movie split the top honors at last winter's Sundance Film Festival, where it also earned the screenwriting prize for Lonergan. Last month's American Film Institute festival named it best independent feature and awarded Lonergan its best new writer prize.

Lonergan's screenplay, along with the performances by Linney and Ruffalo, should merit consideration come Oscar season.

Broderick, Tenney and Culkin inject rich idiosyncrasy into the supporting roles. Lonergan makes brief but delightful appearances as Father Ron, a hangdog priest who counsels Sammy and Terry.

``You Can Count On Me'' is the sort of magic that happens when a good writer's words, story and characters survive unsullied by box-office compromise, brought to the screen by performers who feel the roles in their marrow.

A Paramount Classics release, ``You Can Count On Me'' runs 111 minutes and is rated R for language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.












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