These movies arrive on video store shelves this week.
(R, 1998, 106 minutes, Columbia TriStar)
In Brazilian director Walter Salles's quiet tale of longing and belonging, cynical Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), who makes her living writing letters for the illiterate, becomes emotionally involved with a street gamin (Vinicius de Oliveira) when his mother is killed. After an abortive attempt to sell him to an adoption agency, the jaded crone takes the distrustful punk on the highway in search of daddy. Salles's film is a touching and unusual buddy/road movie. Montenegro and de Oliveira bowl over with honesty instead of hammy emoting. Theirs is not the Rio of the samba, the bossa nova or the thong bathing suit, but a gritty city whose sadness -- and potential for redemption -- is universal. Contains profanity and the suggestion of violent, off-screen death. In Portuguese with subtitles. -- Michael O'Sullivan
A CIVIL ACTION
(PG-13, 1998, 115 minutes, Touchstone)
The only "action" you will encounter in "A Civil Action" is in the title. Based on the 1982 lawsuit accusing corporate giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods of contaminating the waters of Woburn, Mass., filmmaker Steve Zaillian remains faithful to the historical facts of the case. His cynicism about truth, justice and the American way is richly deserved by a legal system that habitually translates right and wrong into dollars and cents. But such a jaundiced view of litigation, however authentic, is not necessarily the stuff of great drama. Based on Jonathan Harr's painstakingly researched book about the Woburn case, the movie introduces us to Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) as a slick Boston attorney whose lawyerly maneuvering for a cash settlement ultimately becomes a quixotic quest for the more elusive goal of moral accountability. It helps that he has Robert Duvall to play off of as Beatrice corporate counsel Jerome Facher. The film's sardonic tone and its lack of a manufactured ending are refreshingly un-Hollywood, but unfortunately it is ultimately unsatisfying. Contains a little profanity.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
*LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
(PG-13, 1997, 122 minutes, Miramax)
Italian clown Roberto Benigni starts off with his usual manic inanity, playing inept waiter Guido Orefice as he tries to woo pretty schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) in 1939 Tuscany. Just as you might begin to tire of the rich lunacy that flavored such comedies as "The Monster" and "Johnny Stecchino," "Life is Beautiful" becomes a very different and more serious film, as the Jewish Guido, his now-wife Dora and their young son (Giorgio Cantarini) are shipped off to a Nazi death camp. The difficult tonal transition is deftly handled by Benigni, who also directed and co-wrote the brilliant, sad and funny film. Contains disturbing, but not particularly graphic, death camp scenes. In Italian with subtitles. -- Michael O'Sullivan
*SHE'S ALL THAT
(PG-13, 1999, 95 minutes, Miramax)
Honor student Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), his social-climbing girlfriend Taylor (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe) and an arty ingenue called Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) are the three points of this predictable high school triangle. But this romantic comedy is more fun than you could reasonably expect. Cook, a bespectacled, socially aware painter who worries about Bosnia and dabbles in dark, angry paintings, makes a funny, charming ugly duckling; and Matthew Lillard has some goofy moments as a self-impressed moron called Brock, who's a star on the TV show "The Real World." Contains profanity and sexual implications and situations. -- Desson Howe