Small Assets Redeem Two Films That Some Other Critics Bashed

QUEBEC is officially a French-speaking province, and sensitivity to language runs so deep here that many French-language movies at the Montreal World Film Festival are screened without benefit of English subtitles. Quebec is also part of Canada, though, so English-language movies invariably play a major role in what has become one of North America's most important showcases for international cinema.

Prominent on this year's Montreal program, which ended yesterday, are premieres of several United States movies due in US theaters shortly after their debuts here. Two had their first screenings on the festival's first full day, and while audiences seemed to enjoy them, most critics I spoke with found them insufferable - making me a lonely defender, since I thought they were reasonably diverting efforts, if undeniably modest in their goals and accomplishments.

Star and screenwriter Steve Martin introduced his new picture, ``A Simple Twist of Fate,'' by describing it as a dramatic comedy. It turned out to be a straight-on drama, however, with occasional jokes to lighten the atmosphere - which needs plenty of lightening, since the story is based on George Eliot's novel ``Silas Marner,'' a book that's about as frolicsome as the miserly old man it's named after.

Departing liberally from its source, the movie transforms Marner into Michael McCann, a likable teacher who becomes an embittered recluse after learning that his wife is pregnant by another man. Living in the same rural community, meanwhile, is a wealthy politician who protects his public image by hiding the existence of his drug-addicted lover and their illegitimate little girl.

When the unfortunate lover abruptly dies, the child wanders into Michael's home. He adopts her, and regains the joy of living by seeing the world through her fresh eyes. Then the politician decides to acknowledge her and take her into his household, leading to a custody battle between the biological and adoptive fathers.

Directed by Gillies MacKinnon from Martin's screenplay, the movie is occasionally confusing, frequently contrived, and always as corny as can be. Surprisingly, though, a couple of things make it enjoyable despite all this. One is the quality of its acting, especially by Martin and Gabriel Byrne, who gives a nicely understated performance as the politician.

The other big asset is the almost magical beauty of Andrew Dunn's camera work, charged with a dreamlike delicacy from beginning to end. If you look at ``A Simple Twist of Fate,'' instead of just listening to the dialogue and following the plot, it takes on a haunting loveliness that almost compensates for its shortcomings in other areas.

`There Goes My Baby,'' written and directed by Floyd Mutrux, takes its title from a Drifters rock song that's among my favorite hits of the 1950s. This provides an excellent mood-setter for a film that's basically an ``American Graffiti'' clone, interweaving the stories of several high-school grads as they prepare to face the big wide world for the first time.

Although it's set in the tumultuous period after President Kennedy's assassination, ``There Goes My Baby'' fills its soundtrack with pop-music classics from throughout the '50s and '60s era. Listening to them and following the jumpy plot of the picture, I soon discovered gaps and gaffes in the screenplay, which has a distressingly scrambled sense of time. It also has an oddly chosen cast - full of actors in their 20s and even 30s playing callow kids just out of 12th grade - and a weakness for heavy-handed melodrama.

Again, though, the movie has a redeeming factor that allowed me to enjoy it much of the way through. A devoted connoisseur of rock-and-roll, Mutrux entered my personal pantheon of minor but memorable filmmakers in 1978 when he directed ``American Hot Wax,'' a smart and savvy picture about disc jockey Alan Freed and the wild early days of the modern pop-music scene. ``There Goes My Baby'' isn't nearly as good as that movie, but it has the same deep-rooted awareness of rock's importance in the lives of many young people - not only as entertainment, but as a companion and consolation that reflects the energy and passion of youthfulness itself.

Exuberant pop tunes accompany the most joyous and also the most horrifying moments in ``There Goes My Baby,'' at once echoing and transcending the circumstances that surround them. Mutrux's new movie is crazily uneven and sometimes hard to follow, but its understanding of certain pop-culture phenomena is rich, true, and touching.

* ``A Simple Twist of Fate'' is rated PG-13. It contains violence, drug use, and other adult subjects. ``There Goes My Baby'' is rated * for sex, violence, and some vulgar language.

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