Moore and More 

Michael Moore gunning it in Bowling for Columbine, Harry Potter grows more mysterious, plus the stunted 8 Women.

Bowling for Columbine is populist rabblerouser Michael Moore's third documentary feature and possibly his best. It is less focused and less sure of itself than Roger & Me, which tracked the damage done to one town by one company, and The Big One, a particularly self-aggrandizing "concert film" about a Moore book tour that doubled as an invective against corporate greed. Here Moore asks questions he may not quite have the answers to, and somehow this lack of confidence makes the film even more affecting.

As much essay as investigation, Bowling for Columbine is a meditation on societal pathology, a glimpse at what author Richard Plotkin labeled "Gunfighter Nation." Why do Americans have so many guns? And why do we use them so often?

Moore points out that America has far more gun deaths in an average year than any other industrialized nation, and the statistics are so eye-popping that they bear repeating: Germany --381, France -- 255, Canada -- 165, the United Kingdom -- 68, Australia -- 65, Japan -- 39. The United States? 11,127.

In search of an explanation, what begins as a focus on one day -- April 20, 1999, the day of the massacre at Columbine High School --spirals into a cross-country meditation on gun culture. Moore talks to James Nichols, the acquitted brother of Oklahoma bomber Terry Nichols, hangs out with the Michigan Militia (who calmly explain that anyone who isn't armed isn't being "responsible"), visits a bank (also a "licensed firearms dealer") that is giving away a gun to all new customers, and tracks down NRA president Charlton Heston for one of his trademark confrontations. He returns to his native Flint after a horrific school shooting in which one 6-year-old kills another.

The film's methodology mixes these on-site interviews and confrontations (Moore takes two Columbine survivors with 17-cent Kmart bullets still lodged in their bodies to corporate headquarters to "return the merchandise") with found footage (a Chris Rock routine about the need for "bullet control," an instructional video on school security, an early NRA television ad) and music montages (a series of American foreign-policy debacles -- leading to the attack on the World Trade Center by "CIA-trained" Osama bin Laden --scored, rather egregiously, to Louis Armstong's "What a Wonderful World").

But what are the answers? Moore takes on possible sources one at a time. Violent cultural images in the form of rock music (especially Columbine scapegoat Marilyn Manson, an interviewee who seems to be one of the sanest people in the film), video games, and movies? Joe Lieberman may think so, but Moore, perhaps predictably, has doubts: Kids in other countries listen to the same music, play the same video games, and see the same films, but don't lash out violently in the same ways.

Is it a history of state violence? No fan of the current cowboy-in-chief, Moore takes pains, often rather spurious, to link state militarism to the domestic murder rate (as when he continually points out that the Columbine shootings coincided with the heaviest bombing during the war in Kosovo), but he also acknowledges that other countries --particularly Germany and England --have just as much blood on their hands without the same problems with internal violence.

Is it a product of poverty and related social ills? The availability of firearms? Moore acknowledges that neighboring Canada has about as many guns per capita floating around and an even higher unemployment rate. But he also points out that -- with universal health care and better public housing -- Canada seems to be a country that takes care of its poor rather than attacking them. One Canadian citizen Moore interviews is confused when asked about the country's "indigent." Moore also, with great precision and barely contained outrage, shows how the popular welfare-to-work laws fostered a climate that contributed to the child-on-child shooting in Flint.

But, to the extent that Moore arrives at an answer, it is the availability of firearms in America in conjunction with a culture of fear that makes us more liable to use them. There's a "Schoolhouse Rock"-style history of the United States that shows a mingling of fear and violence that leads from the pilgrims to white flight. There's a consideration of the role of television news' "if it bleeds it leads" ethos (Moore contends that, as the crime rate has fallen 20 percent, coverage of violent crime has risen 600 percent) and the role of panic-inducing politicians in breeding a culture that perceives more threat than is actually out there, with warnings thus becoming self-fulfilling prophecy.

With the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings receding from the headlines and "Countdown Iraq" (as one cable news network has already branded the coming war) commencing, Bowling for Columbine would seem presciently timed. But, as Moore has said, this is a film that could have been made a decade ago using different examples.

"Are we homicidal in nature?" one father of a Columbine victim asks. Moore doesn't quite have all the answers, but his painfully funny yet sorrowful film is at least brave enough to ask the questions.

-- Chris Herrington

As I sat down for a matinee preview-screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there was great excitement in the air among both children and parents.

The house lights' dimming brought applause from the children, as did a trailer for a particularly crappy-looking movie about a talking, boxing, pickpocketing marsupial. Then the movie came along, with John Williams' teasingly familiar score and spooky/cool drift from the clouds of a night sky to young Harry Potter's room in his terrible "muggle" family's house.

As the movie progressed, though, the titters and whinnies gradually stopped. Through the rest of the film's 161 minutes, the audience hushed. Though there were plenty of babies in the audience, none cried, and where there are usually three or 12 annoyingly loud, uncontrollable children in any family-film experience I've ever had, all were quiet. It was stupefying. But explainable. A little of the magic is gone since the first Harry Potter film, maybe, but the mystery's begun.

Harry hears voices. Not a good thing for anyone, even wizards, as pointed out by pal Hermione. The voices urge him to "kill, kill," and not long after his colleagues turn up petrified (not dead, just ... petrified, temporarily). Harry happens to be in the wrong place at several wrong times and bears the suspicion of his classmates for the deeds, each accompanied by a cryptic message scrolled in blood threatening worse results next time. Complicating Harry's search for the truth is a nagging rumor that whoever is doing this is a "descendant of Slytherin" -- Salazar Slytherin, that is, who helped found Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry some 1,000 years ago. Both the late Slytherin and Harry have the ability to talk to snakes, a rare talent. Could Harry be a descendant of Slytherin? Does the weird, blank diary of long-vanished former student Tom Riddle hold the answers?

Most impressive about this sophomore entry into the Potter film franchise is the improved acting talents of its young stars -- Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, the stronger Emma Watson as Hermione, and funnier Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley. Radcliffe, more than just a Potter look-alike, is discovering nuances in both inflection and expression. All of the returning stars have wider dramatic range and better comic timing. Kenneth Branagh was added to the cast as Gilderoy Lockhart, professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. A stylistic cross between Laurence Olivier and William Shatner, Branagh is at his hammy best as the smilingly vacant celebrity wizard. The recently deceased Richard Harris is clearly ailing as the grand wizard Albus Dumbledore, but that somehow adds gravity to Harry's journey. I hope that Harris' friend Peter O'Toole picks up the wand for the next Potter. Obvious candidates Christopher Lee and Ian McKellan are busy wizards in another blockbuster franchise currently, and O'Toole has the right mix of heart and wisdom for a master like Dumbledore.

My sister Lucia explains that the Potter books mature as Harry ages, becoming more adult in their concerns with each passing installment. Everything about The Chamber of Secrets reflects this, from the impending puberty of its young stars to the darker, more sophisticated visual style to the weight of its content. Mortality is a theme here, introduced as a more grown-up concept than was explored in The Sorcerer's Stone. Slightly sugared by the narrative candy-coating of J.K. Rowling's sensitive text, this works well. Young children may not quite be prepared for the genuine frights of giant talking spiders or their quiet, violent attacks, the flirty new ghost Moaning Myrtle -- who has the best line: "If you die down there, you're welcome to share my toilet" -- or the haunting solemnity of Tom Riddle. But most responded wonderfully to the more mature material -- quiet awe throughout. And I defy any nonsensical Harry Potter-is-an-agent-of-Satan book-banning parents to find fault with the responsible themes of racial inequity (nasty Draco Malfoy and his Aryan family are proponents of Hogwarts as a pure-bloods-only school) and honest childhood wisdom like Hermione's "Fear of the name of something only increases the fear of the thing itself." There is nothing to fear with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. -- Bo List

François Ozon's 8 Women may be too postmodern for its own good. It's a film buff's stunt picture -- an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery done as a Vincent Minnelli/Jacques Demy-style musical filmed with the stylized zeal of Douglas Sirk's '50s Technicolor melodramas, all directly inspired by George Cukor's star-studded The Women. Got all that?

Of course, ever since the French New Wave inaugurated film as film criticism, there have been many, many great movies more influenced by other movies than by life. But 8 Women is too leaden and mannered to do justice to any of its influences. The musical sequences are static. The melodrama lacks real emotion. And the whodunit aspect is pretty mundane.

The film is a trifle --a stagey excuse for a multigenerational cast of notable French actresses to ham it up in eye-popping, color-coded costumes. And on that not-inconsiderable basis, 8 Women holds interest.

The film is set in a snowbound cottage in the French countryside, where the man of the house, Marcel, is discovered with a knife in his back. Eight women, all related to Marcel in some way, inhabit the house and its environs, and all become suspects. There's Marcel's wife Gaby (Catherine Deneuve), Gaby's wheelchair-bound mother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), and her unpleasant, spinster sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert, who also stars in the far more serious The Piano Teacher, playing this week at Muvico's Peabody Place theater), the latter two living at the cottage rent-free. And there are Marcel and Gaby's two daughters, tomboyish teenager Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier), a mystery-novel-reading, new-wave pixie, and girlish, home-from-college Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen). There are also the home's two servants -- sexpot chambermaid Louise (Emmanuelle Béart) and French-African housekeeper Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard). Finally, emerging from the shadows is Marcel's scandalous, ex-showgirl sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant).

The iconic nature of this cast, Deneuve aside, is likely to be lost on American audiences not particularly knowledgeable about French cinema. But for those for whom these actresses' stature is relevant, there are some memorably campy moments: Deneuve and Ardant rolling on the floor having a catfight; Deneuve saying of Huppert, "I'm beautiful and rich. She's ugly and poor"; Deneuve awkwardly dancing along with her young castmates during one musical number. This last, of course, unintentionally entertaining. -- CH

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