A dull start to the new year -- but there are exceptions!

To judge from the new movies, this is a gloomy new year.The comedies are sour , the dramas are morbid, the thrillers are -- well, peculiar. Not a cheerful situation, considering that all these pictures were unleashed at the height of the holiday season!

As usual, there are exceptions to the trend. Flash Gordon may be foolish, but it's colorful and quick -- a comic book come flamboyantly to life. On a slightly higher plane, The Competition also has an upbeat ending tacked onto a plot about young concert pianists who blur the boundaries about love, life, and art. Oh, it's an old story, told with more skill than imagination. Still, it gives the opportunity for some glorious music on the soundtrack.

Turning to other recent dramas, there's hardly a smile in sight. Of course, Tribute is peppered with gags, which offer some relief from the plot about an aging jokester whose doctors tell him he is terminally ill. But the one- liners are consistently cheap and facile -- cynical substitutes for real humor, which needs a compassion this movie never achieves despite Jack Lemmon's hard work in the main role.

I have more respect for Tell Me A Riddle, which unfolds a similar story in more elderly and more ethnic terms, based on a spare and moving novella by Tillie Olsen. Though it's hardly a holiday celebration, there is no mistaking the sincerity of the perfomances by Novyn Douglas and others, who have been sensitively directed by actress-turned filmmaker Lee Grant.

The latest thrillers are an odd lot, marked with a weird kind of seriousness. The Formula has the casting coupe of the season, pitting George C. Scott against Marlon Brando. They seem to enjoy themselves, but they pay little attention to each other: Both of them give set-piece performances that float around with little relation to the rest of the movie.

The screenplay was written by Steve Shagan, based on his sensationalistic novel, in which petroleum companies connive to cheat the world of priceless synthetic fuel. Mr. Shagan tries to solve the problem by throwing words at it -- but talk is cheaper than oil and boring movies aren't likely to save civilization, or even Hollywood. Vulgarity doesn't help either. The director is John G. Avildson, whose roller-coasterish career (up after "Rocky") has taken another dip.

Altered States has a lot of words, too, but director Ken Russell doesn't care. To keep things lively, he speeds up the dialogue. If boredom threatens, he lets the actors yell for awhile.And when all else fails, he lets everyone yell at the same time.

It doesn't make much sense, but that's just as well, since the story is a brainless and sometimes hysterically tasteless goulash about a scientist who takes a drug and turns into an apeman. It's queasy view of scientiic investigation: "Jekyll and Hyde Go to College" cratered with abrupt bursts of sex and violence. But its tastes and some of its images are downright explosive and the ending is wackily optimistic, which is more than you can say for most melodramas these days.

As for the current crop of comedies, the less said the better. Nine to Five is fine as long as it sticks to gentle satire of sexism at the office. But the plot soon veers into absurdities that would have embarrassed "I Love Lucy," with our three heroines imprisoning their boss (the gifted Dadney Coleman) and stealing a cadaver.

The idea was great -- Jane Fonda, Lili Tomlin, and Dolly Parton battling on behalf of secretaries everywhere. The movie is a mess. And that goes double for Stir Crazy, a hoplessly vulgar farce with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder as innocent men thrown into prison.

Surprisingly, "Stir Crazy" was directed by Sydney Poitier. He takes solicitous care of his own image, and would probably refuse to appearm in a pastiche as crude as this. It's too bad he relaxed his guard and contributed his talents behind the camera. In the past, Poitier has shown strong promise as a filmmaker, but "Stir Crazy" is a big step in the wrong direction -- and another big minus in this mostly sad Hollywood season.

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