NEW YORK — SEQUELS have become the moviegoer's bane, filling screens with dumb variations on thriller, comedy, and fantasy ideas that were usually just as dumb the first time around. The sight of a Roman numeral on a film title is enough to make a strong spectator cringe. In principle, however, there's nothing wrong with the notion of sequels; the problem lies in how foolishly most filmmakers have treated the possibilities they offer. Few moviegoers are dreading the Christmastime arrival of ``The Godfather Part III,'' for instance, because Francis Ford Coppola used his previous ``Godfather'' sequel - which appeared in 1974, kicking off sequelmania in its modern form - to deepen and enrich serious themes suggested by the original ``Godfather'' epic. If other filmmakers would follow Mr. Coppola's lead, sequels could become downright respectable.
Then there are sequels that don't look like sequels - because they don't flaunt numerals, and may not even feature the same characters and story line as the movie(s) that preceded them. ``Avalon,'' written and directed by Barry Levinson, is in this category, stretching the concept of sequels about as far as it will go.
Technically, it's a sort of ``prequel'' to Mr. Levinson's other films with a Baltimore setting: ``Diner,'' which dealt with growing up in the '50s, and ``Tin Men,'' about life and love in the aluminum-siding business. ``Avalon'' chronicles the adventures of an immigrant family that might have produced the sort of characters featured in those earlier movies. Although it's not entirely successful at what it sets out to accomplish, it's a carefully made and gorgeous-looking picture - vastly better than movies like ``The Natural'' and ``Good Morning, Vietnam,'' which Levinson also made. It gives new substance to his ambitious and partly autobiographical ``Baltimore Trilogy.''
``Avalon'' begins in 1914, when an immigrant named Sam Krichinsky arrives in Baltimore, takes one wide-eyed look, and decides it's the most astonishing place he's ever seen. He settles into a low-rent neighborhood called Avalon, and before long he's sending for aunts, uncles, cousins, and every Krichinsky he can persuade to join him. You might say the hero of ``Avalon'' is the whole Krichinsky family, as it adapts to American life - and to 20th-century changes that are new to all Americans, such as television, which plays a big part in the Krichinsky saga when two members of the younger generation take a gamble and open up a TV store.
The building of modern America by immigrants is a wonderful and important story for movies to tell. The best moments in ``Avalon'' are the most thoroughly visual ones, when the film captures through imagery the wonders and challenges faced by newcomers in their adopted country. The story of ``Avalon'' doesn't always take a linear path, and that's one of the best things about the film - it's not afraid to linger on a meaningful moment, or explore some byway of experience that a more ``correct'' movie would probably overlook.
In other areas, though, ``Avalon'' has problems. Levinson has assembled a strong cast, including Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Lou Jacobi; but often these good performers work too hard to seem folksy and Old Worldish, and their accents sound as if they're straining to get back to Europe instead of away from it. For all its surprises, the story also has predictable moments. And while I like the movie's wandering quality, it occasionally bogs down in its eagerness to be warm and charming.
``Avalon'' is magical to watch - cinematographer Allen Daviau has given it great beauty - and it has keen insight into certain problems of the immigrant experience, as when an older Krichinsky can't believe his young relatives have changed their names to Kirk and Kay, which he considers hopelessly nondescript, not to mention disloyal.
But the movie is more striking to watch than to hear, more interesting as a tone poem than as a drama. In the end, it's a half-successful film on a subject that could have been all fascinating.