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Long before taking the role as the young lovely who discombobulates a Tuscan art colony in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, Liv Tyler played the young lovely who discombobulates a small-town bar and pizzeria in writer/director James Mangold’s Heavy. The latter film was put on the shelf after its screenings at Sundance in early 1995 (although it, like Tyler’s Empire Records, got European distribution). Now the Tyler vogue has brought it to American screens, where it proves to be a low-budget, blue-collar counterpart of Bertolucci’s Italian reverie.

In both films, the actress is an intruder, both welcomed and resented. College dropout Callie (Tyler) takes a waitressing job at Pete and Dolly’s, even though the joint doesn’t need a second waitress. Dolly (Shelley Winters) just likes Callie, and Dolly’s son Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Paul Newman’s sidekick in Nobody’s Fool) likes her even more. Only hardboiled longtime waitress Del (a defiantly unglamorous Deborah Harry) doesn’t welcome the young woman, who she correctly sees as competition for both tips and male attention. (As for cafe namesake Pete, he’s long gone.)

Victor is a tormented, overweight loner who already fantasizes of graduating from small-time pizza cook to major-league chef. After Callie arrives, he also begins to dream of love. Despite his mother’s insistence that he’s merely “husky,” Victor decides he’s fat and begins to skip the hearty breakfasts he’s always made every day for himself and his mother. Daring to imagine that Callie might break off her troubled relationship with auto mechanic and aspiring musician Jeff (pop-punk heartthrob Evan Dando), Victor swipes a snapshot of Callie, which replaces his old Farrah Fawcett poster as his erotic icon. Then Dolly becomes sick, and Victor’s life is transformed.

Victor doesn’t want his life to be transformed, though. Perhaps realizing that the current arrangement is the most profound relationship he can ever have with Callie, he endeavors to keep everything the same. Dolly’s absence from the bar inevitably leads to change, however, as Del becomes more outspoken and Callie more distant. When Callie insists on talking to Dolly about cutting back her hours, Victor tries to stall her.

Mangold’s vision of working-class life and its small cataclysms is typical Sundance fare, and connects to a venerable tradition in American drama. Where such precursors as Paddy Chayefsky created loud-talking blue-collar nobodies, however, Mangold goes easy on the talk. The taciturn Victor can’t express his hopes, although sometimes the film does it for him: In one daydream, he imagines rescuing Callie from drowning and reviving her with the kiss of life. In more earthbound moments, he enviously surveys the students at the local Culinary Institute. Though the drowning fantasy is a bit overripe, in general Heavy’s laconic rhythm (and a low-key indie-rock score that features Thurston Moore guitar doodles) matches Victor’s lumbering dissatisfaction.

The meandering Stealing Beauty doesn’t build to any overwhelming event, but it’s a hurtling freight train compared to Heavy. Mangold’s film is modest to a fault, and as sleepy as its Hudson River Valley location. That prevents any needless melodrama, but also leaves the proceedings a little thin. Ultimately, Heavy dodges a central question: Are Victor and Callie quiet because they’re deep? Or because they’re not?

Writer/director John Sayles is just about the only person today making serious, sprawling films that attempt to capture the scope and diversity of contemporary American life. After a movie like Lone Star, though, you almost wish he’d stop.

Like most of Sayles’ films, Lone Star is worthy and well-meaning, and commendable (if not recommendable) simply for what it attempts to do. It’s also stolid and graceless, however, and ultimately diminishes itself to a plot development that is sheer soap opera. As in such previous big-picture efforts as Matewan and City of Hope, Sayles combines a naturalistic context with a blatantly contrived plot. That used to work for 19th-century novelists, but it proves more awkward on the silver screen.

Sayles’ script works two Big Issues at once: Lone Star is about history and patrimony, as reflected in the uneasy truce among the Anglo, Mexican-American, and African-American populations of Frontera, a small Texas town near the Mexican border. But it’s also about individual fathers, especially former sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), a deceased local legend who’s venerated by almost everyone except his son, current Rio County Sheriff Sam Deeds (Matewan star Chris Cooper). Underscoring the theme is the strained relationship between local juke-joint owner Otis Payne (Ron Canada) and the son he abandoned, Col. Delmore Payne (Sayles regular Joe Morton in a virtual duplicate of his City of Hope role), who has just returned to the area to take command of a local Army base.

As the film begins, history is making its claim on forensic, emotional, and theoretical planes. A skull and a badge are found in a shallow grave, and the assumption is that they’re the remains of Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson as pure, smirking evil), the corrupt local despot who preceded Buddy Deeds as sheriff. Meanwhile, Delmore’s son Cliff is canvassing the juke joint in search of his grandfather, and teacher Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) is trying to calm local Anglos outraged by the new prominence given the town’s Latino heritage in the high school’s history classes.

Since he doesn’t remember Buddy as warmly as do his neighbors, Sam is entirely willing to believe that his father shot Wade, with or without justification. To further complicate his emotional state, Sam rekindles his high-school romance with Pilar, a relationship that was emphatically discouraged by his father and Pilar’s mother, Mercedes (Miriam Colon), now the wealthy owner of a downtown Frontera restaurant. (Sam instead married and then divorced Bunny, a football-obsessed ninny who gives Frances McDormand an opportunity to prove she can play a middle American grotesque even more broadly than she did in Fargo.) Sam and Pilar’s affair leads to the unraveling of one of the plot’s big secrets, one that’s not too hard to guess if you’re not distracted by all the other parent-child issues being resolved.

Unlike Matewan and City of Hope, Lone Star eventually reduces all its political issues to personal ones. Despite its attempt to portray an entire small-town society, the film is overly tidy and excessively literary: A minor character appears to provide Sam a cautionary moral about startling a rattlesnake (“You have to be careful where you go poking”), and revisionist historian Pilar finally decides to “forget the Alamo.” Even a confused young soldier, called before Delmore for disciplining, has a handy aphorism.

Perhaps Sayles’ dialogue wouldn’t clunk so loudly if his direction were more fluid. Long disparaged as a man who doesn’t know how to move a camera, Sayles tracks and zooms in Lone Star, but the result is no smoother. The film is full of flashbacks, fastidiously announced with a slow zoom in at a character who’s reminiscing or a pan away from a character and then back to his younger equivalent. The effect is stiff and earnest, which is perhaps appropriate. For all his admirable interest in history, Sayles is just not the sort of guy who travels effortlessly through time.

In Fairwater, a small American town that looks suspiciously like a small New Zealand town, people are being haunted by apparitions and frightened to death. The former is not really a problem—it’s just a scam being perpetrated by “psychic investigator” Frank Bannister (still-boyish Michael J. Fox) and a few ghosts he happens to know. The latter, however, turns out to be a homicide epidemic that the bumbling Bannister must get serious to stop.

The Frighteners is the latest film from Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles), New Zealand’s connoisseur of murder and revulsion. The more significant credit, however, is that of executive producer Robert Zemeckis. This murder/horror/comedy/romance was supervised by the auteur of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, and it shows. Though shot Down Under, the film is utterly Hollywood.

As it travels from comedy to gorefest, The Frighteners visits a lot of genres. Unlike Jackson’s previous films, however, it never works an unexpected variation on any of them. The script, by Fran Walsh and the director, borrows elements from Twin Peaks (a seriously neurotic FBI agent), Flatliners (Frank must temporarily “die” so he can enter the spirit world), and every serial-killer flick of the last few years (an absurdly methodical psychopath who carves the numbers of his victims on their foreheads). The result, however, is merely busy, never surprising.

Frank used to be an architect, but abandoned that trade after causing a car accident that killed his wife and rendered him capable of communicating with ghosts. He allies with new love interest Lucy Lynskey (still-girlish Trini Alvarado), a doctor whose dislikable husband is one of the film’s first victims. Somehow, they suspect, the murders are connected to a shotgun massacre that took place years before at a local hospital. The man responsible for that killing spree was executed, but his lovestruck accomplice still lives in the town, secluded with her mother in a suitably spooky house. Of course, there are so many phantasms in Fairwater that the culprit may not be among the town’s flesh-and-blood inhabitants. And there’s always the possibility that Frank himself is the killer; some of the locals believe it, and Frank, in his guilt over his wife’s death, is not entirely sure they’re wrong.

After presenting such possibilities, however, The Frighteners retreats to the emotionally and narratively familiar. Humor and ambiguity are displaced as the film becomes a special-effects thriller with the requisite happy ending. Without Hollywood’s participation, of course, Jackson could never have gotten the state-of-the-art effects that define the movie. Deprived of them, though, he might have been compelled to supply more interesting ideas. This may look like Jackson’s most expensive film, but imaginatively it’s his most impoverished.CP