The story opens with Junior (Simon Baker-Denny, from L.A. Confidential) and Coco (Carla Gugino, from Snake Eyes), a sultry pair of con artists expressing weariness with their routine of extorting cash from philandering husbands after setting them up with compromising photos. "I'm tired of faking orgasms for pocket change!" exclaims Coco. Then the ticket to an early retirement presents itself: the kidnapping for ransom of a young Bill Gates-like computer wunderkind. From there several subplots ensue, including one with a trigger-happy hired gun, another that concerns two craggy but endearing veteran F.B.I. agents (Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in roles far beneath their talents), and a third that involves an intrigue with a vengeful U.S. senator (Hal Holbrook) that strains credulity. It all amounts to nothing you haven't seen already on any TV cop show, complete with earnestly delivered pearls of wisdom such as "Everything happens for a reason, mostly because life is fucked."

Most puzzling of all is the decision to set the film in New Orleans, a milieu whose sole purpose seems to be to force the cast members to speak in ridiculous faux-Cajun accents. Meanwhile the screenplay (by Gutierrez and Deanna Fuller) conjures none of the city's fabled sinfulness. Judas Kiss does, however, recall The Big Easy, which told a similar tale of cops, robbers, and corruption with considerably more panache. (Saturday, February 27, midnight)

-- Brett Sokol

The French New Wave of the Sixties stands revered by cineastes not just for the extraordinary body of work produced by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, but also for its liberating influence on a succeeding generation of American directors -- men and women who took to heart its message of movies as an articulation of personal vision. A new French New Wave is cresting, with directors such as Olivier Assayas (1994's Cold Water), Claire Denis (1997's Nenette and Boni), and Arnaud Desplechin (1997's My Sex Life ... Or How I Got into an Argument) making distinctive pictures, sharing a common pool of actors, pushing their visual styles to the limit, and putting fresh spins on existential questions about life and love.

To their ranks add Erick Zonca, whose 1998 feature The Dreamlife of Angels (in French with English subtitles) is an astonishing portrait of youth, friendship, and the unyielding barriers of the French class system.

When twenty-year-old Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez, who dazzled in both The Wild Reeds and Full Speed) is first introduced, she is shown selling homemade greeting cards for spare change on the gray streets of Lille. With her entire life strapped to her back, she's a gangly waif, wide-eyed and drowning inside an oversize sweater. She moves from town to town, reveling in her freedom to drift. In Lille she slides into an assembly-line seamstress's job, where she works with a bleak collection of hard-bitten women, aged beyond their years, resigned to a fate that Isabelle considers only temporary. There she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier), also twenty years old, the only co-worker who seems similarly at odds with her surroundings -- a young woman who smokes a cigarette as if it were a middle finger outstretched at the world.

These two are drawn to each other, and a warm reverie ensues. We watch them move in together, hit the local bars, and goof off, drawing strength from one another whether they're picking a fight or simply relaxing. They aren't children any more, yet they refuse to make peace with adulthood. Agnes Godard's cinematography perfectly captures these caught-on-the-cusp moments, letting the camera linger lovingly as Marie rages at a nightclub bouncer three times her size, or stepping back to allow Isabelle to break into a toothy, innocent smile that lights up the entire screen.

Into this dreamy spell steps Chris (Gregoire Colin), a haughty, self-assured club owner and the junior member of what passes for the local landed gentry. He isn't a complex figure: "He's an asshole," Marie notes. Still, she's drawn to him, or rather to the wealthy Prince Charming path he represents. It turns out to be a destructive fling, though, one that drives a bitter wedge between the two women, particularly when it becomes apparent that for Chris, his relationship with Marie amounts to just another sexual conquest. "I hope you find the life you dream of," Isabelle tells her friend, providing parting words that become Dreamlife's coda. That line serves as both a fervent wish for the future and a note of protest sounded by this exquisite film. (Thursday, February 25, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Brett Sokol

Despite the vast range of stories that have been mined from the Sixties, a crucial one that's been neglected is that of women who came of age before the Pill. A Walk on the Moon (1999) is the rare movie to take on the subject. The directorial debut of actor Tony Goldwyn (The Pelican Brief, Nixon), Moon is set in the summer of 1969, coinciding with the first moonwalk and Woodstock, two watershed events that have been so often employed as metaphors that their power has been horribly diluted. That's too bad, because as sentimental as it is, this picture contains the right ingredients to distill a compelling drama about the complexities and contradictions of women's lives.

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