Less Mel Brooks than Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mihaileanu's comic sensibility is antiquated and droll rather than side-splittingly funny. Train of Life (in French with English subtitles) doesn't boast the razor-sharp daring of this past year's Life Is Beautiful, another film that uses comedy to address the Holocaust. But anyone who harbors nostalgia for a more innocent era of Yiddish humor, or who recognizes the film's parody of shtetl life, with burgeoning communist cells duking it out with religious factions, will cherish the evocation of a certain time and place and culture that Mihaileanu re-creates aboard the train. And his affable cast portrays the village's endearing, ragtag characters with an in-your-face acting style.

Mihaileanu, who grew up in Romania but now lives in Paris, has said that he was inspired to make his movie after seeing Schindler's List and realizing that filmmakers needed to find fresh ways to chronicle the Holocaust. According to a published interview, he heard the story of the fake transport train at a dinner party. But after exhaustive research in numerous Holocaust archives, the director was unable to verify the tale's authenticity. Of course, whether it really happened or not is beside the point. By depicting a specific event that most probably never occurred, Mihaileanu makes us understand what did occur with new eyes.

Humor has always been a useful weapon of the persecuted -- all the more so if it takes the form of imagining that the townspeople of a tiny village could fashion a train out of salvage, disguise themselves as their enemies, and escape death at the hands one of the most evil forces in the world. (Sunday, February 21, 11:30 a.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Doug Liman's 1996 directorial debut Swingers was a modest look at the search for love among a flock of twenty-something L.A. hipsters. Although certainly not earthshaking, it had its share of laughs and intelligent banter, and its neo-Rat Pack characters struck a chord with audiences, helping to move cocktail culture and the swing music revival out of its cozy underground niche and into the mainstream. Swingers offered reassurance that the kids were alright -- as enamored of Frank Sinatra, cigar lounges, and old-fashioned romance as their parents.

Liman's new feature Go returns to the atomized sprawl of Los Angeles, and like its predecessor, chronicles the exploits of a group of close friends. This time out, however, the filmmaker turns his attention to a clique of freshly graduated high-schoolers who divide their time between minimum-wage supermarket jobs and the all-night warehouse rave scene. An altogether more ambitious affair than Swingers, its dance-and-drug milieu is intended to unsettle and rattle -- to make parents think twice before letting their kids out of the house again. It's also a muddled mess, crippled in part by John August's weak script.

Setting up a Generation X Rashomon, the film traces and then retraces a night in the life of a teenage drug deal. We start with Ronna (Sarah Polley), one of the supermarket cashiers. On the cusp of being evicted from her apartment, Ronna attempts to come up with some fast cash via an Ecstasy sale, and in the process discovers that her would-be customers are actually cops. Eventually we meet a requisitely surly drug dealer, get subjected to a mind's-eye view of an Ecstasy trip (for sheer goofiness it ranks with Easy Rider's acid sequence), and hear exchanges such as the following one between Ronna and her pal Claire (Katie Holmes, reprising her ingenue role from TV's Dawson's Creek), who objects to being used as human collateral for some pills:

Claire: "You're making me an accessory."
Ronna: "That bracelet you're wearing -- that's an accessory."
Those lines define the depth Liman and August ascribe to the pair's friendship, and, for that matter, to the inner lives of all the film's characters. We retread the evening's events through different sets of eyes (Claire's, those of a self-absorbed British co-worker of Ronna, and from the viewpoints of two soap opera actors forced into working as narcs), but we never discover anything truly meaningful about these people. They remain shallowly drawn outlines, never attaining full human status. And the jumps in perspective seem designed only to allow Liman to cram in several pointless exercises in Tarantino-esque violence. By the end of the night we've seen these characters pass out, throw up, get kicked in the stomach, shot in the arm, and go sailing over the windshields of speeding cars with a sickening crunch.

The filmmakers seem to be hawking a cautionary tale: Hurtling forward blindly -- go! -- courts dangerous consequences. Yet they have devised such cardboard cutouts for characters that it's impossible to empathize with Ronna, Claire, and the others, a fact driven home by several glaring holes in the story. After being held hostage for several hours, Claire ends up sharing a morning cup of coffee with her tormentor. Yet we're never given one reason why her feelings should have softened. In truth it's unclear why any of these characters are even friends with each other; and if they don't care what happens to their lives, why should we? In the end these people are just so much damaged flesh, with Go coming across as an empty depiction of the same dehumanized landscape it attempts to critique. (Saturday, February 20, 7:00 p.m.)

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