`Sylvia': honest film portrait of a creative teacher. Engaging story needs less melodrama, more intellect

Movie biographies -- ``biopics,'' the trade calls them -- take different forms. Some glorify their heroes in the old Paul Muni tradition. Others debunk them, as the recent ``Amadeus'' did. And some try to capture their subjects in honest, human terms. One such is ``Sylvia,'' an engaging portrait of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the respected teacher and author.

It sketches her private life tactfully, suggesting some improprieties but never exploiting them; and it sets forth her key ideas without pedantry. It would be a model of the ``biopic'' form if not for its own modesty, which stops it from going deeply into any of the provocative issues it raises -- especially in regard to her pioneering work as an educator.

The movie takes place in New Zealand during the 1940s. Just recovered from a nervous breakdown, Sylvia takes a teaching job at a colonial school run by her husband. She instinctively rejects the military tone of the place, where discipline is rigid and instruction runs neck and neck with punishment. But she isn't sure how to replace this with a more humane and communicative atmosphere.

So she turns her attention away from accepted theory and practice, studying the pupils themselves. Children of the Maori tribe, they're rooted in an old and complex heritage which little resembles the British culture that's trying to imperialize their minds.

Realizing this, she throws away the textbooks full of neat phrases about white youngsters with English names. To replace them, she helps her students make their own learning materials, drawing on their feelings and fantasies as well as their daily experiences.

Truly involved with reading and writing for the first time, the children start learning like wildfire. But the authorities don't like Sylvia's new method. It's too free and easy for their taste -- and the kids' creative burblings reveal too much interest in rudimentary sex, and too much hostility toward the establishment, to fit prevailing notions of the ``proper'' young mind.

In treating this material, ``Sylvia'' deals with more ideas -- and puts them in more of a historical context -- than a year's worth of standard Hollywood films. Yet the movie isn't satisfying on intellectual grounds. Ashton-Warner's theories are telegraphed in brief dialogues, not explored in any detail. And the classroom scenes are stiff, focusing so much on Sylvia that her pupils (who should be the heart of the film) seem made of cardboard. The director, New Zealand filmmaker Michael Firth, is more interested in Sylvia's almost-love affair with a local school inspector, and in what looks like an almost-almost-love affair with a female nurse who shares her creative urges.

``Sylvia'' is most effective when it gives subtle evidence of Ashton-Warner's profound intelligence and shows this running against the grain of a male-dominated society that has almost -- but not quite -- stifled her impulse to rise above the ordinary. Sylvia sees her creativity as a ``monster'' that must be hidden and tamed. Her coming to terms with the monster is a wonderful thing to witness. ``Sylvia'' would be a better film, though, if it focused on this process more single-mindedly, leaving the muted melodrama for other, lesser pictures. Lifeforce

One reason science fiction has never become fully ``respectable'' is that different people expect different rewards from it. Thus even fans of the genre may scoff at works that don't offer the particular payoff they're looking for -- which can be anything from intellectual depth to space-opera excitement.

``Lifeforce,'' the new SF thriller by Tobe Hooper tries to please everyone by dragging all kinds of plot, character, and thematic twists into one grand spider web of action, suspense, and myth. It's an ambitious plan, but Hooper's hubris isn't matched by his talent. The movie is undermined by weak performances, idiotic dialogue, and a story that doesn't make sense.

The yarn begins with a strange discovery by a rocket crew: a sort of extraterrestrial bat cave holding three human bodies. Back on Earth these bodies spring alive, wreaking all manner of space-monster mayhem. They also breed more of their own kind, like vampires.

Subplots deal with Halley's comet, a bizarre bond between an earthling and one of the villains, and yes, the ``life force'' itself, which is colored an attractive blue.

In splashing this stuff across the screen, Hooper borrows from many sources. Admirers of ``Alien'' will recognize the bat-cave scenes. The plague sequences mimic ``Dawn of the Dead'' and other zombie pictures. Some characters (such as a roly-poly politician) and settings (a spooky ``asylum for the criminally insane'') could have been yanked from a '40s detective movie. It's fun spotting these echoes, but with few new elements to support them, they wear thin very soon. ``Lifeforce'' is an anthology of styles and images more original than Hooper's own.

It's also a badly written movie. Who can listen to a hokey phrase like ``suspended animation'' with a straight face after all these years? Some scenes are so foolish they must have been designed for comedy -- as when the prime minister of Great Britain, bitten by the vampire bug, excuses himself to bite his secretary on the neck. But the picture is played with such thudding earnestness that it's hard to tell whether you should laugh or howl.

Die-hard fans of the genre may applaud the special visual effects by John Dykstra, which are lavish and just about nonstop; and Henry Mancini's music deserves a nod for sheer gumption. These can't sustain the picture, though. Nor can the aimless drive of Hooper's cinematic approach, which falls back on gore, nudity, and empty spectacle when imagination fails, as it frequently does.

Hooper, director of ``Poltergeist'' and the respected ``cult'' film ``The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'' is bursting with energy, and maybe with talent. But he needs a more cleanly crafted outlet than the top-heavy ``Lifeforce'' can provide. 30{et

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