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True knockouts need an emotional punch

Beware any movie that wears its art on its sleeve. That advice, however, is rarely heeded by Oscar voters, who are all too easily impressed by vaulting ambition and precious, highfalutin technique.

It's understandable that they might be inclined to reward a lofty venture at a time when lowbrow fare engulfs the marketplace. But movies are not really at their best when they're aping the rarefied approach of the "higher" arts like poetry and painting. In her seminal 1968 essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Pauline Kael championed movies that have a subversive, bawdy energy and derided the works that take "movies back into the approved culture of the schoolroom -- into gentility."

Gentility seems to be just as overrated today as when Kael wrote her article, as you can see from two of last year's prime Oscar bait movies, Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition" and Stephen Daldry's "The Hours." Both are technically stunning artifacts missing a critical heartbeat. Here is the crucial distinction between truly memorable films and noble failures. Great movies have dramatic punch and searing emotional power; they seize us on a visceral rather than a purely cerebral level.

Even imperfect movies can have a strong impact if they play directly to our senses and emotions. Whatever their flaws, two of last year's less heralded films -- "Antwone Fisher" and "White Oleander" -- crackle with electricity because they are more concerned about moving an audience than flaunting their tony trappings. "Road to Perdition," on the other hand, is all too impressed with itself. Although it boasts magnificent cinematography by the late Conrad L. Hall, it comes off as a mummified prestige picture. Maybe because he's working from a graphic comic book novel Mendes works too strenuously to elevate the material.

There's a noticeable disparity between the movie's one-dimensional characters and its musty museum style. To make an inevitable comparison, "The Godfather" was also an elegantly designed gangster saga but far less ashamed of its trashy origins. Unlike "Road to Perdition," it remembered to supply a juicy plot and a primal emotional kick.

"The Hours" prides itself on being the antithesis of pulp. It comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the life of the ultimate 20th century aesthete (and feminist pioneer), Virginia Woolf. It's beautifully crafted, buttressed with an imposing Philip Glass score, and it deals with momentous themes -- the impact of literature, the transience of bliss, the struggle to surmount despair -- but it rarely translates these weighty ideas into gripping emotional drama.

The intricate intercutting of three separate stories -- the travails of Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she writes her breakthrough novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," the ennui of a 1950s suburban housewife (Julianne Moore) reading the book, and the angst of a contemporary Mrs. Dalloway (Meryl Streep) -- is highly accomplished, and one can appreciate the parallels and subtle connections among these tales of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, all the recurring motifs seem studied and analytical rather than wrenching.

The film tries to be true to Woolf's credo, which was to find the beauty and pathos in ordinary existence. But she had the gift of language to conjure up the poetry in the everyday, and without her soaring prose, the film sags. I'll admit to a male prejudice here, but how much drama can you build from scenes in which a woman struggles to bake a cake or wrangles with her servants about the lunch menu? An awful lot of this movie takes place in the kitchen, and (leaving aside the ferocious tabletop coupling of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice") that isn't the most promising locale for riveting cinematic drama.

As the movie piles on scenes of anxiety and alienation, it becomes increasingly ponderous. Suicidal depression is one of the trickiest subjects for a film to try to dramatize. In the history of movies, maybe only Ingmar Bergman has made that subject compelling -- in films such as "Through a Glass Darkly," "Cries and Whispers," and "Face to Face." Daldry tries for an austere, Bergman- esque approach and succeeds in draining most of the life out of the movie.

Perhaps Daldry was trying to answer the criticisms of his last movie, "Billy Elliott," which was accused of being too sentimental and manipulative. Yet I think "Billy Elliott" was a far more satisfying experience. It was a simpler tale, but it had humor and heart and even a bit of razzle-dazzle, instead of the lugubriousness that sinks "The Hours."

You gotta have heart

Daldry and Mendes seem to have fallen under the spell of their countryman Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient," one of the most overrated films of the last decade. Like "The Hours" and "Road to Perdition," Minghella's Oscar-winning epic was a technically striking, immensely intricate mosaic with a stone cold heart.

The central romance between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas never caught fire, and so all the elaborate intercutting and the desert vistas seemed like empty stylistic flourishes: They failed to contribute to a mesmerizing tale of doomed love.

Oscar may genuflect before these gorgeous art objects, but there's a lot more heart and soul in some movies that are dismissed as corny tear-jerkers. "Antwone Fisher" isn't at the top of anyone's Oscar list. Its straightforward technique is functional rather than dazzling, and it unashamedly highlights a troubled man's emotional triumph over the demons of an abusive childhood. But it's also a harsh, uncompromising movie when it needs to be. It doesn't gloss over the cruelty of Antwone Fisher's early life, and it doesn't serve up easy solutions. Antwone never is reconciled with his mother; in an understated but chilling scene, he meets her but fails to break through her stony silence.

Another potent drama of family trauma, "White Oleander," seems just as likely to be overlooked by Oscar. It surveys the painful journey of a teenage girl (Alison Lohman) through a series of foster homes after her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is imprisoned for murdering her lover. Like "Antwone Fisher," "White Oleander" contains many bitter, astute observations of parents' manipulations and children's misjudgments, although it's ultimately another story of survival rather than defeat. Because they don't evade painful truths, both movies reach uplifting conclusions that seem honestly achieved and absolutely heart-rending.

To my mind, these two deeply stirring movies are far more rewarding than the artier opuses. This may suggest that movies have the choice of being either bluntly emotional or airlessly cerebral. Of course, there's a third option that may be most satisfying of all. In his masterly new movie, "The Pianist," Roman Polanski rigorously avoids sentimentality. Telling a Holocaust story of unspeakable horror, Polanski avoids a facile heart-tugging approach that would have cheapened the gravity of the subject.

But Polanski also shuns any hint of artiness. His style is straightforward and unvarnished in documenting the brutality visited upon the protagonist (Adrien Brody) and his family in Nazi-occupied Poland. Because of its understatement and unpretentiousness, "The Pianist" may be more quietly shattering than any of these other movies. Polanski understands that the last thing a serious movie needs is a fancy artistic glaze. Many of his overreaching peers need to follow his lead and rediscover the beauty of simplicity.

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