This Week's Attractions

America's Heart and Soul

Opens Fri., July 2, at Metro and others

Even those who, like myself, aren't excessively patriotic and are somewhat put off by the title of this flag-draped documentary may be surprisingly moved by some of its images. We see before us the eclectic stories and the diverse passions of a handful of Americans: dairy farmers moonlighting as local theater stars; bike messengers tearing through dangerous New York City streets; paraplegics completing the Boston Marathon via wheelchair. Of course, an element of cheesiness can't be avoided (the closing scene with fireworks encircling the Statue of Liberty is like a Bush re-election campaign spot), but the underlying sentiments are nonpartisan and occasionally moving. To his credit (and perhaps Disney's), director Louis Schwartzberg speaks to struggling steelworkers and also addresses alcoholism, drug addiction, and our nation's endless struggle with poverty. Although nakedly designed to appeal to feel-good, Fourth of July jingoism, Heart at least shows there are more than three colors in our flag. (G) HEATHER LOGUE

Before Sunset

Opens Fri., July 2, at Uptown

Back when Lennon and Harrison were alive and every single person Paul McCartney met asked when the Beatles would reunite, he had a standard answer: "You can't reheat a soufflé." Richard Linklater disagrees. Nine years ago, he won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival with Before Sunrise, a little tour de force about an American student (Ethan Hawke) who makes a Eurail pass at a Renaissance beauty (Julie Delpy) and scores a whirl

wind romance in Vienna on his last night in Europe. Considering that the boy was played by Hawke—in real life a garbagedick who has said he often used to crumple up and toss girls' phone numbers as he walked out their door after a one-night stand—the film was a triumph of acting: You really bought the romantic spell woven by the guy's line of poetical- intellectual jive. (Alas, so did Uma Thurman.)

With the sequel, Before Sunset, Hawke's character, Jesse, is back in Europe. His face looks so much like an apple left to dry for nine years on a windowsill, you're amazed it was he who cheated on Uma and not vice versa. Jesse is on the last day of his book tour, reading from his novel at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. It's is a roman à clef about that one-night stand long ago. And you'll never believe who shows up!

His Euro fling, Celine, looks stunningly unchanged, a Renaissance beauty lit from within. Her sad, wise, affectionately mocking eyes catch Jesse's; he looks sheepish. In Vienna, they'd vowed to reunite in six months, to see if they were meant for each other. Thanks to quirks of fate, they never connected.

On another all-day walking talkathon, they catch up. Turns out they lived right near each other in New York, and may have nearly collided on Broadway. She's become an eco-activist with a string of dud-firecracker romances. He's got a lovely wife and child, but he lives in a sexless state of holy deadlock. I wanted Celine to snap, "So who's the stale mate?" but she's gentle with him. The two chat digressively, somewhat as they did in the more animated picture Waking Life.

Will the soufflé reheat? Will they stop their peripatetic tour of pretty Paris and take a load off in her apartment, already, before he has to catch his plane? Linklater's loping style could use more suspense, and one never feels the poignance of passed time and lost chances, as in Richard Lester's autumnal romance Robin and Marian. But Jesse and Celine are articulate, and Linklater generates a warm little glow by rubbing their minds together. It's not sizzling, but the soufflé's OK. (R) TIM APPELO

The Clearing

Opens Fri., July 2, at Egyptian

At the movies, crisis situations have a way of revealing a family's lurid inner workings. Would that The Clearing followed that model; instead, this slow-moving suspense film merely scrapes the surface of a tidy upper-middle-class clan.

The trouble begins when jobless misfit Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) kidnaps rental-car magnate Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford). Within the hour, Arnold is marching his startled captive into the woods; by nightfall, Wayne's wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren), has reported him missing. As the FBI pursues the case, and Arnold's murky motives emerge, the film sets Eileen's and Wayne's experiences of the ordeal on parallel tracks, intercutting between their respective trials. It's a common movie device that The Clearing makes only too common.

Recall how, in François Ozon's Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling's widow went through a real psychological transformation. The subtlety of her acting— a tightrope walk between sanity and delusion—made her inner world, laid bare, a rich and disturbing source of drama. Here, Mirren's Eileen takes a more active role. By boldly confronting Wayne's mistress, she shows her true character, buried beneath layers of polite suburban behavior.

Meanwhile, captor and captive bond blandly in the woods—the Stockholm Syndrome meets Iron John. Arnold reflects in pseudo-poetic terms on living in "a household of disappointed people," while Wayne, yes, regains a sense of love for his wife. It's therapy at gunpoint; the woodsy setting acts as nature's couch.

After coasting through recent pictures like Spy Game and The Horse Whisperer, Redford turns in a strikingly egoless portrayal of an aloof, complacent self-made man confronting his shallow life. He and Mirren both dig in and make the most of their meager roles, though viewers are left wishing for deeper depths for them to plumb. Soon after his capture, Wayne's daughter reflects mistily: "He really made you feel like you were the center of the world." Unfortunately, The Clearing is empty at its core. (R) NEAL SCHINDLER

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