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HEART PROBLEMS IN THE BEST FILMS, THE CHARACTERS ARE THE ACTION

THERE AREN'T many car chases, bullets or sex scenes in the internal life of the human spirit. Connections of the heart rarely demolish buildings or crack jokes about bladder control. So to see fine movies and even fair movies made about the survival of hope offers hope itself to thoughtful movie fans.

Such movies can come from the unlikeliest of sources. OK, not the most unlikely -- Arnold, Sly and Jean-Claude didn't smash any molds in the carnage they scattered across the screens last year -- but there were some surprises. And now they are on videotape.

From a short story by misunderstood horrormeister Stephen King comes "The Shawshank Redemption," about the quiet resistance of a man wrongly imprisoned in the murder of his wife. No ghouls here -- the only monsters are running the prison.

Director Tony Richardson inspired some of Jessica Lange's and Tommy Lee Jones' most impressive work practically from his deathbed in "Blue Sky." Jones, "The Fugitive's" quintessential tough guy, practically melts as a cuckolded husband still hopelessly in love with his manic-depressive wife.

And in "Imaginary Crimes," that Reservoir Dog and Bad Lieutenant himself, Harvey Keitel, appears fully clothed as a loving father but wretched parent in the nearly unseen small film of growing up and away from illusions.

Is it any wonder these anachronistic stories all are set in the 1950s and '60s, decades before the $100 million budget-busting special-effects extravaganza was invented?

Of course, excellent movies about the human condition are made every year. They just need someone to see them. "Shaw-shank" and "Blue Sky" gained a second look by being nominated for Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Actor (Morgan Freeman) in "Shawshank" (both categories got Gumped) and Best Actress for "Blue Sky." Jessica Lange danced off with Oscar for her sensual over-the-top portrayal of a disturbed military wife in the movie, filmed in 1991 and shelved for three years after its director died.

Both those pictures and "Imaginary Crimes" share a theme of promises people make to one another and to themselves. Tim Robbins gives a performance of subdued anguish and strength as the innocent Andy Dufresne in "Shawshank." A banker on the outside, he is pegged to become a quick victim on the inside of the maximum-security prison. Andy suffers from a condition that can sap the strength and focus of any man sentenced to life in jail: unquenchable hope. His friend and confidant, Freeman as the "fixer" Red, tries to talk him out of this dangerous habit, but to no avail. And that's why they call it "redemption."

Director Frank Darabont, blessed with a strong script, some money and fine actors, makes the most of all of them. At nearly 2 1/2 hours long, the story settles for no easy explanations, and doesn't gloss over either the brutality of the prison or the closeness the longtime inmates find with one another. Andy leads the way, grasping for every chance to feel like a man again, to be redeemed.

All that and an ending that is as entertaining as it is moving, and it is one of the best pictures of 1994.

The quirky "Blue Sky" has less redemption than reconciliation, between the characters and between what the movie wants to be and what it really is. The story pits one man's integrity against a corrupt military that would rather protect its programs than the public. Jones stars as Maj. Marshall, a scientist involved in nuclear testing. The most explosive thing is his life, however, is his wife. Lange pulls out all the stops as Carly Marshall, mother of two adolescent girls who is a woman-child herself.

Carly indulges in fantasies of the movie career she could have had, had she never married Hank. Problems come when she lives out her dramatics and responds to men more than happy to fill her craving for flattery, attention and more. Why their father tolerates this is beyond the children's understanding.

The family can't keep slipping out from under the fallout of Carly's actions forever, but when the consequences catch up, the movie slips away. It is as though the moviemakers themselves didn't want to deal with what comes after the music stops.

Consequences also drive the fate of Harvey Keitel's family in "Imaginary Crimes." A widowed con man always on the edge of the big deal, he struggles to do right by his daughters, 17-year-old Sonya and her little sister Greta, but he can't even do right by himself. Greta has learned well the lines to use in putting off creditors, but Sonya no longer sees it as a game. As she matures, her father becomes diminished in her eyes.

Fairuza Balk glows as Sonya, a girl far too sensitive to live her father's way of life. She wants to be a writer, her family providing the greatest inspiration. If her father can't be a parent, he at least makes for wonderful short stories.

Its patient pace and subtle shadings make "Imaginary Crimes" not for everyone, and Keitel seems too piercing and calculated to instill the kind of trust a real confidence man works off of. It's really Balk's movie -- her range and depth are rarely seen in an actress so young, partly because they are rare and partly because few roles require them.

We will be seeing her again.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION 1994, R, 143 minutes, Columbia TriStar Home Video (to be released April 11)
BLUE SKY 1994, PG-13, 101 minutes, Orion Home Video (to be released April 25)
IMAGINARY CRIMES 1994, PG, 98 minutes, Warner Home Video (in release)

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