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JANUARY 20, 1998: 

The Knowledge of Healing

Amid recent florid attempts by Hollywood to document the decline of Tibetan culture, this sobering, enchanting documentary echoes with the quiet clarity of prayer bells. The Knowledge of Healing is also the title of an 11th-century book of medicine, as we're told by the film's primary narrator, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, personal physician to the Dalai Lama.

The film documents the painstaking preparation of medicines, from forest herbs to the alchemical "jewel pills," that have helped treat countless Chernobyl victims. Case studies show how these ancient cures work where modern ones have failed, even against paralysis and kidney failure. Testimonials from European biochemists underline the Dalai Lama's assertion that the subtle, holistic methods of Tibetan healing counterpoint the invasive but dramatic methods of Western medicine.

The film is not overtly political, yet even the gentle tenets of Buddhist spirituality cannot hide the specter of Chinese tyranny. At one point, a Buddhist nun calmly describes her brutal rape and torture by prison guards. Dr. Choedrak, who himself spent 20 years in a Chinese labor camp, wipes away tears, explaining that she suffered not just personally but for all of Tibet, and that "the truth will come out in the end." At the Coolidge Corner.

-- Peg Aloi


The Empty Mirror

Picture Hitler like any other human being. Drinking tea. Painting his self-portrait. Dictating his memoirs. Making love to Eva Braun. Picture Hitler, had he lived, forced into hiding. Endlessly watching newsreels, critiquing his media coverage. Getting psychoanalyzed by Freud. Being tortured by visions of immaculate blonde women, a legion of Stepford hausfrauen.

Director Barry Hershey's award-winning debut asks what if Hitler had been forced to face the evidence of his own evil? The cinematography by Fred Elmes (Wild at Heart) meshes surreal imagery and archival footage, creating a dreamscape "dungeon" wherein Hitler lives and reminisces, reinventing himself. But his passion for architecture, literature, and Wagnerian opera cannot distract him from confronting his own demons.

At its most verbose, this film idealizes Hitler (British stage and screen veteran Norman Rodway, in a profoundly affecting portrayal) as a failed genius. But in its silent moments of visual horror, many of them enduringly haunting, The Empty Mirror transcends its ambitious erudition, becoming a film of beauty and emotional depth. At the Harvard Film Archive.

-- Peg Aloi


Hard Rain

After the drugs, the guns, and the arrest, Christian Slater was bound to run into a little luck. Thanks to Firestorm, Hard Rain (originally titled The Flood) is not the most ridiculous natural-disaster flick of the week.

When armored-truck drivers Tom (Slater) and his Uncle Charlie (Ed Asner) break down in a flooded small town, they radio for help. But when a group of thugs led by Jim (Morgan Freeman) show up demanding the loot, Tom and Charlie realize their transmission has been intercepted. Only problem: we see Jim discussing the robbery with his cronies before Uncle Charlie called for assistance. Once we and Tom figure that out, Hard Rain becomes a decent chase movie, with the bad guys after Tom and the money, the town's lame duck sheriff (Randy Quaid) after the bad guys, and Minnie Driver and Betty White caught in between so it's not an all-male affair. Everything is made more exciting (though hard to see) by the fact that it all happens at night in the middle of a terrible flood. Too bad screenwriter Graham Yost (Speed) throws in a second twist that's so absurdly stupid, you're surprised when Howie Long doesn't appear. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

-- Mark Bazer


Firestorm

And this year's nominees for the silliest scene of the year are . . . all from the same movie! Howie Long, yes, the former Oakland Raider and current co-host of Fox NFL Sunday, fumbles about as Jesse, the chief of an elite smokejumping team that parachutes into the deadliest of forest fires. When he comes to the rescue of pretty ornithologist Jennifer (Suzy Amis) and two bird's eggs she's protecting in a case, he casually notes their genus and species name, revealing himself to be an avid birdwatcher in his spare time. But Jennifer is even more impressed when Jesse, speeding away in a motorboat, hucks an ax into the back of an arsonist villain. Too bad she didn't see when Jesse escapes from a locked, inflamed shed by conveniently finding a motorcycle in the corner. Fashioning a ramp out a piece of wood, he propels himself through the roof only milliseconds before the shed explodes. An eternity later, when all the fires are put out, and all the bad guys are dead, Jesse and Jennifer open up the case to check on the bird's eggs. Heavens to Betsy, they're not there! In their place are two cute little baby birds. Aaah, life goes on. And so does the crap -- after his turn as a bad guy in Broken Arrow, Howie inked a three-picture deal with -- you guessed it -- Fox. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

-- Mark Bazer


Black & White & Red All Over

Although it was a deserving choice for Sundance 1997, there's little that's commercial about this somber, unsentimental, Cambridge-set tale of 20ish African-American friends -- five guys and one woman, who come completely apart in several days of mostly off-screen black-on-black violence -- jointly written and directed by three bursting-with-talent local filmmakers, Harry McCoy, Khari Streeter, and Demane Davis. The cast -- Thomas Braxton Jr., Lord Harrison, Naomi Ramsey, MyQuan, Damian, Rob Fiorestal, every one of them screen naturals -- hang out, watch too much TV, get perpetually high smoking "blunts," and bicker a bunch. As they settle on an apartment couch in Cambridge channel-surfing, they discover that a family has been shot dead in Roxbury by gang members. Two of the group look as if they might be involved: they deal dope, they secretly pack guns. Gradually even the most peaceful, job-ambitious of the group gets sucked into the off-camera cycle of violence.

The screenplay's too much on the talk-talk side, but it's smartly written and the actors have great ease playing it with conviction. Plaudits too to Jonathan Bekemeier's fine black-and-white cinematography and to David Steele for a vigorous original jazz score. At the Institute of Contemporary Art.

-- Gerald Peary


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