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NOVEMBER 17, 1997: 

A Midwife's Tale

Bostonians get an early taste of this impressive collaboration of local talent on the MFA's big screen (it's slated to air on PBS in early 1998). Director Richard Rogers, writer-producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, and author Laurel Ulrich (whose award-winning book about 18th-century midwife Martha Ballard inspired the screenplay) have produced a moving, intelligent film that defies categorization. Mixing filmed interviews with dramatic re-enactments, A Midwife's Tale presents Ulrich's process of discovery with as much impact as the story she's uncovering. Martha Ballard was the wife of a surveyor who moved to rural Maine, became for all practical purposes the local doctor, lost three of her children to an epidemic, and over two decades watched her career dissipate, as male physicians and "modern medicine" slowly usurped the domain of the midwife/healer. The film's physical detail is authentic and its photography pensive and luminous, as it blends genres, illuminating the world of an ordinary woman with warmth and simplicity. At the Museum of Fine Arts.

-- Peg Aloi

The Little Mermaid

The holidays are practically upon us, and if you're Disney and you have no new animated feature to release, you re-release an old one. Particularly if the competition (Twentieth Century Fox) is about to come out with its own brand new feature (Anastasia opens next week). Which is why The Little Mermaid is swimming back to the big screen.

You might expect the first of the " '90s" Disney efforts (it came out in 1989) to look a little dated in the wake of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, et al., but The Little Mermaid holds up pretty well. Aside from "Part of Your World," which is as poignant as ever, the score seems a little thin, and I'm not sure why the Disney folks wanted to give a Caribbean flavor to this Hans Christian Andersen story. The creature companions -- Sebastian the crab, Scuttle the seagull, Flounder the guppy -- are cute to a fault. And after watching chef Louis decapitate fish, you may lose your taste for seafood.

But sheepdog Max is one of Disney's better canines. And the animators deliver where it counts, in the expressions of Ariel and Prince Eric, whose love-at-first-sight is sweet but not saccharine. They're only the first step toward Beauty and the Beast (Ariel-as-a-human has no power to speak, which cuts down on the witty repartee), but Ariel in particular is sexy as well as sympathetic. Watch too for the forerunners of Zeus and Hades (from this summer's Hercules) in King Triton and octopussy sea witch Ursula). At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

-- Jeffrey Gantz

Mad City

Costa Gavras's urban thriller, a retread of Billy Wilder's 1951 film noir An Ace in the Hole, stars the ubiquitous John Travolta as Sam Baily, an ex-museum guard gone postal. As Sam locks the exits and takes his boss (Blythe Danner) and a group of school children hostage, he unwittingly traps freelance news anchor Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman) inside with them. Since Max still wears a live feed, he cleverly turns the situation into a news exclusive, aided by a nubile intern (a bland Mia Kirshner). As Max maneuvers his camera and mike to get his job back at the network, Sam benignly waves a sawed-off shotgun and tries to get his job back.

So what happens when an average joe with a gun is suddenly made a media sensation by a fast-talking media goon? The usual love-in follows, complete with T-shirts and pretzel vendors. Gunman and newsman bond, and the TV viewers practically fall in love with Sam. Even the sheriff (The Silence of the Lambs' Ted Levine) plays by Max's rules. But when a wily veteran anchor (a letter-perfect Alan Alda) decides to settle an old score with Max, Sam watches in horror as TV coverage of his plight turns nasty.

Although Travolta's dimpled earnestness can be irritating, he and Hoffman together create a complex sick symbiosis. The excellent cast is helped along by Gavras's well-paced direction and a screenplay that, though weakly echoing the plot of Dog Day Afternoon, goes a long way toward indicting our cultural addiction to a biased and corrupt medium. At the Copley Place, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

-- Peg Aloi

I Love You, I Love You Not

Claire Danes may be one of Hollywood's hottest young actresses, but she has yet to find the right vehicle for her talents. In Romeo and Juliet her effervescence was suffocated by Baz Luhrmann's over-wrought craftsmanship. Here too, Danes plays a delicate spirit struggling against a coarse backdrop. Her Daisy is an introverted Jewish girl who attends a snobby Manhattan prep school. She falls for the school stud (a Loki-like Jude Law), but just as things near adolescent bliss, Daisy's rosy world crumbles when her classmates discover that her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. Instead of respecting the fragility of her personal heritage, they maliciously label her a "Jew" and play hateful pranks on her.

The premise, based upon Wendy Kesselman's play, is a well-intentioned coming-of-age saga that nonetheless wallows in shameless symbolism (including some ill conceived re-enactments of the Holocaust), painting Daisy as a modern-day Anne Frank wandering through plot shards that seem borrowed from School Ties and Mad Love. Despite the stiff jumpiness of the script, Danes spans the emotional spectrum, but the film's saving grace comes from Jeanne Moreau as Daisy's grandmother. She breathes an air of dignity into scenes that might have otherwise been plain silly. At the Kendall Square.

-- Tom Meek

Bad Girls Go To Hell

Maverick sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman's 1965 cheapie Bad Girls Go to Hell is a sexual nightmare that unfolds with the insouciance and inspiration of a child's drawing. A comic-book variation on Sade's Justine, it's the tale of Meg Kelton (a darkly Monroe-like GiGi Darlene), a sexually neglected Boston housewife who must flee to New York after she accidentally kills the janitor who raped her. There her melancholy innocence is violated, again and again, as she is taken in by seeming Good Samaritans only to be exploited by leering, lecherous men and women.

Wishman's Freudian and feminist subtext strains against her erratic style -- the film is shot in a wobbly black-and-white vérité, the sound (including a tip-top jazz score) is entirely dubbed, and the narrative is punctuated by the requisite fishnet disrobings and panty-clad cavorting, but also by cuts to such extraneous objects as potted plants, Buddhas, city traffic, feet, and the inevitable lingerie. The effect is claustrophobic, hilarious, surreal, and surprisingly moving, and the ending, in which the nature of this particular hell is finally revealed, is chilling. Bad Girls is like a collaboration between John Cassavetes and Ed Wood, with an archly knowing Hitchcock looking on. There's a revelatory refinement in Wishman's crudeness, a canny sophistication in her puerile sensationalism -- if this film is indicative of the rest of her many features, she's indeed a '60s filmmaker worth reclaiming. At the Coolidge Corner.

-- Peter Keough

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