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The tale of an old cynic who’s reclaimed by caring for a young boy, Central Station has understandably been compared to Kolya. But whereas the latter linked its protagonist’s spiritual rebirth to Czechoslovakia’s deliverance from Soviet domination, Central Station offers no hope of social transformation. However heartwarming the film’s fundamental relationship becomes, few viewers will be able to shake the chill of scenes like the one where an adolescent thief is chased down along the tracks outside Rio de Janeiro’s train station and casually shot.

Director Walter Salles begins the film at the Rio rail terminus, where retired schoolteacher Dora (iconic 67-year-old Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro) makes her living writing letters for impoverished and illiterate Brazilians anxious to make the connections that will change their lives. Most of these people lack a reliable address for their would-be correspondents, but it doesn’t matter. Dora takes the missives home, ridicules them to her friend Irene (Marilia Pêra, who was in Pixote, an even harsher film about Brazil’s dispossessed children), and then stuffs them in a drawer. Dora’s letter-writing business is a profitable scam, but also a mirror of her own isolation.

One of Dora’s clients is a woman desperate to reconcile with her husband, a carpenter who’s moved to the dusty, rural northeast. Dora decides that the absent man is a drunk who beat his wife, so it’s for the best that this letter too end up in the drawer. Then the woman is hit by a bus, leaving her 9-year-old son Josué# (Vinicius de Oliveira) alone at the bustling station. Dora takes the boy home, but it’s not what you think: In exchange for the money to buy a new TV, she sells him to an “adoption” agency that—Irene warns—just might want Josué# only for his transplantable organs.

Grudgingly, Dora decides to retrieve the boy. Since Josué#’s temporary owners are in pursuit and his father is his only known relative, Dora and the boy head northeast, taking a series of buses, vans, and trucks toward the bleak frontier development where Josué’s father supposedly lives. Their voyage eventually overlaps with that of a group on a religious pilgrimage. (This sequence suggests Nights of Cabiria, although Salles’ heroine is much gruffer than Fellini’s.) Dora recognizes the pilgrims as the same sort of losers she defrauded back in Rio, but—with Josué#’s help—she comes to see their aspirations more charitably. Ultimately, the trip doesn’t give Dora a new life; it merely awakes the long-buried hope that transformation is possible.

There’s much potential for forced uplift in this tale, but Salles counters the thematic sweetness with acrid touches drawn from Brazilian underclass reality. Written by João Emanuel Carneiro and Marcos Bernstein from Salles’ original idea, the film never loses sight of the real-life circumstances that inspired it. De Oliveira was a 9-year-old shoeshine boy who met Salles when he asked the director to buy him a sandwich. A documentary veteran, Salles shot in actual locations; when the film crew set up Dora’s stand in Central Station, he reports, it was quickly surrounded by people who wanted letters written. Salles incorporated some of the resulting impromptu exchanges into the film.

Like other road parables, from Homer’s to Wim Wenders’, Central Station uses a trip as a narrative device, mirroring a physical quest with a psychological one. As Josué# seeks his father, the emotionally wizened Dora searches for a self. But the latter is not to be found in the crude outposts of Brazil’s high desert, however evocatively Salles films them, or the peasant religion that he contrasts with the callousness of everyday life in Rio. It has been there all along, in the communal ties Dora denied every time she neglected to mail one of her customers’ letters.

Film is (usually) a director’s medium, but what first-time feature maker Anand Tucker has in common with veteran auteurs Lars von Trier and Jim Sheridan has nothing to do with distinctive style or sensibility. Instead, what the three share is having made flawed but compelling films that owe much of their life force to the fierce, mercurial presence of Emily Watson.

In Tucker’s Hilary and Jackie, Watson plays Jacqueline du Pré#, the more famous of the two real-life sisters for whom the film is named. A ’60s cello sensation whose career is ended by multiple sclerosis, Jackie is just as willful as (if more worldly than) Bess, the indelible Breaking the Waves character of Watson’s film debut. Introduced in the first of three chapters, Jackie is the younger sister who just wants to be allowed to accompany Hilary, a flute prodigy. “If you want to be together, you’ve got to be as good,” enjoins the girl’s demanding mother (Celia Imrie)—which is all the spur Jackie needs. She grows up to be a star, while Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) loses her confidence. As the younger sister travels the world, the older marries solid, genial Kiffer (David Morrissey), moves with him to a farmhouse in Wales, and proceeds to have babies.

Having been introduced to free love (and contraception) in her journeys, Jackie counsels Hilary that she needn’t marry Kiffer just to sleep with him. But Jackie soon marries acclaimed Argentine-Jewish pianist Daniel Barenboim, in a high-profile pairing deemed triumphant by everyone except the bride’s quietly anti-Semitic parents. Jackie’s new love for Daniel is contrasted with her growing hatred for her cello, a temperature-sensitive instrument that she leaves on hotel balconies and “forgets” in cabs. Eventually Jackie arrives at Hilary and Kiffer’s rustic home, seeking refuge. In the midst of what appears to be a mental breakdown, Jackie makes the demand that gives the film its tag line, “two sisters who shared a passion, a madness, and a man”: She wants to sleep with Kiffer.

This is all true, according to the memoir written by Hilary and her brother Piers (a negligible figure in the film) following Jackie’s death in 1987, 14 years after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The cellist’s defenders protest that the book’s version is not entirely reliable, and that Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is more lurid than compassionate. Boyce’s screenplay is indeed problematic, especially in its reduction of Jackie’s musical achievement to sibling rivalry gone amok. Yet the script is considerably less smarmy than Butterfly Kiss and Welcome to Sarajevo, which Boyce wrote for director Michael Winterbottom.

The film’s second and third chapters (or movements) are titled “Hilary” and “Jackie,” and purport to tell the same story from the two sisters’ viewpoints. A few crucial moments do play very differently, but the effect is hardly startling. Still, the unbridgeable gap between these two closest of siblings distinguishes Hilary and Jackie from such glib tales of overburdened genius as Shine. The sisters embody love and rivalry, pride and resentment; each envies the other, one for having genius, the other for having a life. It sounds cruel when Hilary informs Jackie that her musical talent is the only thing that defines her, but it’s really the same thing that Daniel says more diplomatically when Jackie asks if he’d still love her if she couldn’t play. “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” he replies, hiding behind T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Like Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie unfolds in the near yet distant past. The latter film’s ’60s are a time when the English middle class is forced to confront such unexpected, unwelcome assaults as French movies and Jewish pianists. (Playing the sisters’ easily alarmed father, Charles Dance is the movie’s perpetually flustered comic relief.) The two movies also have similar dynamics between Watson and her female co-star; the dark, angular Griffiths even looks a bit like Katrin Cartlidge, who played the stable sister-in-law who tried to save Watson’s Bess. In addition, both films end with epiphanies, but in Hilary and Jackie, the power that transcends death is not quite so metaphysical. It’s just the telepathic love of two sisters who achieve so much in the vain hope that they will never be separated.

Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Max Evans’ The Hi-Lo Country immediately makes it clear why Sam Peckinpah labored for two decades to bring the 1961 novel to the screen: It’s another parable of the loss of the American frontier. Less evident is why Stephen Frears took up the project 15 years after Peckinpah’s death. Frears made his name with such views of outsider Britain as My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears, but has subsequently squandered his early reputation working in Hollywood. The Hi-Lo Country is just another chance for him to demonstrate how easily he gets lost in America.

The movie was scripted by Walon Green, who wrote The Wild Bunch, but cowboy protagonists Pete (Billy Crudup) and Big Boy (Woody Harrelson) never seem to be riding the same range as Peckinpah’s desperadoes. They curse, fight, shoot, and screw other men’s wives, but in the process just demonstrate that bad behavior is not inherently interesting.

When the action begins, Pete and Big Boy have just returned from World War II to northeastern New Mexico. In their absence, local mogul Jim Ed Love (Sam Elliott) has taken control of the cattle trade. It’s a “whole new game,” he tells Pete, who nonetheless joins Big Boy in refusing to go to work for Jim Ed. The two friends have decided—if that’s the right word for the thought processes of these two impulsive dimwits—that they’ll continue raising cattle the old way. They’re also both determined to share the bed of local vixen Mona (Patricia Arquette), who happens to be married to one of Jim Ed’s lieutenants.

Considering that Pete already has the devotion of the lovely, level-headed Josepha (Penelope Cruz)—and that Arquette plays Mona as if sultriness is akin to sleepiness—Pete’s “terrible desire” for the married woman is inexplicable. It’s also hard to identify with Big Boy, who’s every bit as smug as Jim Ed and a good deal more destructive. When Pete visits a witch to learn the future, she doesn’t prophesy anything that any nondozing viewer isn’t already expecting. Even Carter Burwell’s music seems to run out of patience with these characters; as it repeats over and over, the score’s principal melody turns from a grand motif into an irritating reminder that these two tiresome cowpokes are still on the screen.CP