A weekly update of film releases

* THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO - Set in frontier territory and based on actual events, this rare feminist western centers on a 19th-century woman who poses as a man in order to live an independent life, despite the patriarchal rules and sexist folkways of her society. The movie is a bold attempt to revise the sexist patterns of the western genre and the American film industry, and as such it deserves high marks for originality and ambition. It would be more successful, though, if it were more convincing as a historical story. It's hard to believe that star Suzy Amis could be taken for a man by anyone; this might be less of a problem if we saw her in male garb at the outset, instead of meeting her first in female attire and then watching her begin her masquerade. Also distracting is the heroine's way of stumbling on dramatic situations just in time to participate in their climactic moments. If the filmmakers told their story in a stylized ballad form, in keeping with the movie's title, they might have gotten away with this. But the narrative is unfolded in straightforward western-movie fashion, and on this level it isn't quite credible enough to compel belief in the protagonist or her cause. Maggie Greenwald directed from her own screenplay. (Rated R)

* BETTY - A young woman with a mysterious past and an older woman who befriends her are the main characters of this offbeat French drama. The movie plays an ultimately tragic plot against varied backgrounds ranging from the tawdry to the glamorous. Though the story is not particularly involving, it is bolstered by assured performances from Marie Trintignant and Stephane Audran, and by the imaginative style of director Claude Chabrol, a founding member of the New Wave movement in the 1950s and still a vigorous artist when the right project comes along. (Not rated)

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