Films about reporters: a renewed theme. Latest entry, `The Mean Season,' treats journalistic ethics

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Movies about reporters, a staple of the 1930s, are having a comeback. Newshounds aren't the nonstop screen presence they once were, but journalism is at the heart of several recent pictures, from ``Absence of Malice'' and ``The Year of Living Dangerously'' to ``The Killing Fields,'' and more recently ``The Mean Season.'' In keeping with current skepticism about the press, most of these films deal with subjects more far-reaching than journalism alone and try to keep a critical distance between the camera and the characters. Movies like ``All the President's Men'' and ``The Killing Fields,'' with their heroic portraits of newsmen, are exceptions.

The latest entry in the field, ``The Mean Season,'' raises basic questions about journalistic ethics. In some ways, it's a domestic version of ``Under Fire,'' which asked whether a reporter should stay objective all the time or take direct action when serious issues are at stake. The hero of ``The Mean Season'' must decide whether his crime stories are encouraging crime, and whether his contacts with a killer serve his society or merely his own career.

This is a big subject, and for a while ``The Mean Season'' explores it with skill and daring. But the filmmakers lose faith in their material, diluting it with strained plot twists and garish action scenes. What promises to be a provocative study crumbles into standard melodrama -- a tabloid-style parody of its own best intentions.

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``The Mean Season'' begins well by giving the hero a self-questioning attitude. A talented young reporter who pounds the crime beat for a Miami paper, he has just enough experience to be fed up with a working diet of fresh corpses and grieving relatives. He is all set for a new job at a sleepy Colorado weekly when his phone rings. The caller is a psychopath whose killing career has evidently just begun, and who craves a ``conduit'' to bring his exploits before the public.

After some doubts and rationalizations, the reporter and his editors agree to accommodate the ``numbers killer,'' as he comes to be called, partly because his phoned-in boasts may provide clues for the police. Publicly linked with this attention-hungry madman, our hero grabs many scoops and headlines, weasels bits of information for the cops, and faces guilty fears in his own mind about his real motives and morality.

So far this is stimulating stuff, filmed by director Phillip Borsos in crisp, vigorous images. For an hour or so, the only false notes are some shameless red herrings, such as a stalker in the dark who turns out to be a good guy playing a joke. These are harmless in themselves, but signal the downturn the movie is about to take.

And sure enough, instead of continuing to probe ambiguous relations between good and evil, the film abruptly puts the hero and villain into stark confrontation with each other. From here on the picture is slick at best and trite at worst, full of macho missions with the newsman whisking through the Everglades and jumping off a treacherous drawbridge. Everyman turns into Superman, and the film's serious edge is swamped.

The performances in ``The Mean Season'' are as uneven as the story. Kurt Russell is solid and sometimes moving as the hero, and Richard Jordan is chilling as the crazed killer, even in a hard-to-believe scene when he shows up disguised. Mariel Hemingway is all wrong as the newsman's lover, though, veering from wooden to hysterical and making none of it convincing.

The supporting work ranges from nicely underplayed (Andy Garcia and Richard Masur) to badly overwritten (Richard Bradford), and nobody is helped by the shoddy voice recording, which makes everyone sound like being hunched over a microphone in a Hollywood dubbing room. The movie's rating is R, reflecting some vulgar language and glimpses of murder victims.

``This will be a film about machismo,'' says the main character. And he's right on two counts. ``Up to a Certain Point,'' by Cuban filmmaker Tom'as Guti'errez Alea, tackles the subject of male chauvinism in both life and cinema -- through the funny-sad story of a movie director who reveals his own macho attitude while researching an expos'e of that very weakness in others.

His name is Oscar, and his filmmaking method is proudly intellectual: He doesn't just invent a plot, he interviews and studies people first. It's during one of these sessions that he meets Lina, a self-sufficient dockworker whose resourcefulness is unlike anything he's run into before. In fact, it's sort of intimidating. His masculinity feels threatened. And before long, a very broad macho streak -- in relations with his wife as well as his new friend -- is hanging out for all to see.

``Up to a Certain Point'' reflects the controlled yet inventive visual style that has earned Alea his reputation as a leading light of Cuban cinema. Also noteworthy are the wry performances and ironic background details that punctuate the quietly told story. The picture would be a more exciting experience, though, if it broke more decisively free of common movie conventions. For a film about liberation, it isn't very liberated.

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