John Sayles is to be commended for being one of the few American filmmakers who’s unafraid of politics, but his political films are usually less satisfying than his personal ones. With his new Men With Guns, the writer-director has found a viable compromise: Set in an unnamed Central American country, the film addresses the official brutality of Latin America’s U.S. client states, yet the film’s tone recalls the folkloric The Secret of Roan Inish more than the clunkily didactic City of Hope and Lone Star.

Perhaps the most political thing about Men With Guns is that it’s almost entirely in Spanish (and various Indian languages). At a time when foreign filmmakers are increasingly shooting in English to please the xenophobic American market, Sayles has created a central character, Dr. Fuentes (Cronos’ Federico Luppi), who speaks no English. When Fuentes meets the American tourists (real-life couple Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody) who in their cavalier way know more about his country than he does, he can converse with them only in the woman’s halting Spanish.

This is not a movie about ignorant Americans and savvy Latins, however. In a way, Fuentes is just as much of a gringo as the tourists. A resident of the capital, he knows little about what’s going on in the rest of the country. That makes him the audience’s surrogate, and his edification becomes ours. The doctor’s compulsion to learn about the people and places he has long ignored is the film’s narrative engine, and his spiritual journey is paralleled by a physical one, deeper into a jungle region where civil war rages. Fuentes is not a fully rounded person—Sayles’ characters never are—but as a narrative device he’s reasonably human.

The trip is inspired by the aging physician’s thoughts of his legacy. He trained a group of young doctors to work with the country’s Indian population, but he realizes he doesn’t know what has happened to them. Ignoring the advice of friends and relatives, he heads for the mountains to check on his former students. What he finds is that treating the area’s peasants is not considered a mission of mercy. Instead, being a doctor during a civil war is often regarded as a subversive act. And subversion—like just about any other infraction, real or imagined—is punished by death.

Fuentes learns little of this firsthand. Instead, he pieces together what has happened from the travelers who join his impromptu caravan: an orphaned boy (Dan Rivera Gonzá#lez), a deserter from the army (Damián Delgado), a former priest (Damián Alcá#zar), and a young woman who has been mute since she was raped by soldiers (Tania Cruz). All have their stories to tell, sometimes in flashbacks that, fortunately, aren’t as awkward as Lone Star’s. (As the tale moves from city to village to remote jungle, Mason Daring’s deftly eclectic score goes more “native.”) Following reports of a mountain haven where one of Fuentes’ students may yet survive, the doctor and his new acquaintances climb to Cerca de Cielo, which one person describes as “the place where rumors come to die.”

Rumors live in Men With Guns, which is part of the film’s power; the narrative is an intricate tapestry of observation and legend, official lies and unreliable recollections. Although the doctor’s journey is an illuminating one, the mists of ambiguity never entirely part. Sayles unearths some hidden horrors but not the tidy revelations that concluded Lone Star all too neatly. By comparison with most of his films, Men With Guns is almost cinematic.

It could be argued that the impressionistic approach has yielded a movie that’s altogether too vague. Contrary to Sayles’ claims, placing the story in a particular country—most of the story was inspired by events in Guatemala—wouldn’t have diminished its universal relevance. Still, mythic works better onscreen than Dickensian, which is usually Sayles’ fallback position. Like most of the director’s films, Men With Guns owes much of its appeal to good intentions, but its mix of outrage and fabulism is an auspicious development.

In casting such alumni as Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused) and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise) as two of The Newton Boys, director Richard Linklater emphasizes the continuity between this costume drama and his utterly contemporary previous work. This true-life tale of four bank-robbing brothers from Texas (where else?) is meant to be another of the Slacker director’s youth-culture chronicles, albeit one set in the 1920s. But, despite sly, exuberant performances from McConaughey, Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Willis, Jess, Joe, and Dock Newton, respectively), the film quickly bogs down in period-detail muck.

The Newton Boys were notable for two accomplishments: Robbing more than 80 banks in five years, they set a new record for ill-gotten gain; and they never killed anyone. According to Linklater, Claude Stanush, and Clark Lee Walker’s script, mastermind Willis described himself as a businessman and imagined that he’d convert his take into a successful career as an oilman, while Joe contemplated the booming stock market. The 1929 crash was not the brothers’ comeuppance, however. That came four years sooner, in the aftermath of a record $3-million Illinois mail-train heist.

After his first daylight robbery goes wrong, Willis accepts the wisdom of the one nonsibling gang member, safecracker Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam). The brothers switch to working at night, which minimizes confrontations. But then a new generation of strongboxes brings the brothers’ safecracking career to an end, Willis becomes more reckless, and only sibling loyalty keeps the four together for a brazen Toronto street robbery. After Willis loses his stake in an oil well, he reassembles the gang, with disastrous results. When finally apprehended, however, the brothers and Willis’ loyal paramour Louise (Julianna Margulies) refuse to sell each other out.

Thirty years after Bonnie and Clyde, this just isn’t very interesting. Although Linklater self-consciously sends a Newton to the picture show to see Erich Von Stroheim’s 1925 Greed, he spends most of his time paying tribute to musty Hollywood flicks of the ’30s and ’40s. The montage of the Newtons robbing banks, hunting, skinny-dipping, bicycling, playing baseball, blowing safes, and throwing money into the air looks so antique it almost seems ironic. And Edward D. Barnes’ banjo/orchestral score leaves no cliché unplucked.

Linklater planned The Newton Boys for several years; he did SubUrbia while waiting for the project to come together. Yet the film demonstrates only the director’s skill, not his sensibility. What he apparently found interesting about the Newtons—that they were brash kids from Texas—seems superficial, and the film fails to establish the brothers as anything more than a true-crime footnote. Indeed, Linklater’s drama can’t compete with the two short clips of the aged Willis and Joe that accompany the credits; the old guys effortlessly upstage the young hunks who play them.

Pulp Fiction and The Little Mermaid may not have much in common, but anyone who doubts that Disney and Miramax belong together need only see Wide Awake. This Miramax trifle, the tale of a precocious Catholic schoolboy who sets out to determine that his grandpa is happily installed in heaven, is so cute it might make a Mouseketeer gag.

Joshua (Joseph Cross) is the solemn 9-year-old who misses his maternal grandfather (Robert Loggia), a devout Catholic and former football player. His parents are both physicians, too busy and too practical-minded to be of much help on his spiritual quest. Besides, one of them is Denis Leary. (The other is Dana Delany.) The kid’s principal accomplice is Dave (Timothy Reifsnyder), who’s precocious in a different way; he shows the uninterested Josh the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and points out grade-school girls he deems “hot.” Josh’s spiritual adviser is Sister Terry (Rosie O’Donnell), an irritatingly zany nun who explains life in terms of her beloved Philadelphia Phillies; playing Beatrice to Josh’s Dante is a student from the adjacent girls’ school, shamelessly named Hope (Heather Casler). Josh also has other allies, but they’re ectoplasmic.

Haunted by doubts and flashbacks of Grandpa, Josh sets out to find God. The boy is disappointed by his encounter with a doddering Catholic bishop, so he investigates Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. Josh doesn’t find exactly what he seeks, but he does become a better person in the process; he befriends his class’s bully (who’s only mean because he has a bad home life) and fat kid. And there’s still a “miracle” and a heavenly visitation to come. By the time fledgling writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is done with him, Josh may well be a candidate for beatification. That’s more than can be said of soundtrack composer Edmund Choi; there’s got to be a place in hell for people who write music this treacly.CP