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Movie Spotlight

January 18, 1998|Kevin Thomas

In an extraordinary feat of the imagination director Gillian Armstrong and writer Ron Nyswaner captivate us with the compelling 1984 film Mrs. Soffel (Cinemax Sunday at 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.), a true story, set in a rigid, hypocritical 1901 Pittsburgh and involving the conscientious wife (Diane Keaton) of the warden of the forbidding Allegheny County Jail and two young convicts (Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine).

Charlotte Zwerin's Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Bravo Monday at 3:15 and 9 p.m.) is a superbly crafted 1988 mix of old and new footage of the great jazzman who died in 1982 at age 63. Though Monk seemed too esoteric to reach out to a mass audience, the manner in which he and his music are presented here, sandwiched between narrations by his manager, his saxophonist Charlie Rouse and others, could break through the barrier that limited him in his lifetime.

With My Little Chickadee (AMC Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and early Wednesday at 3:30 a.m.) W.C. Fields and Mae West were one of Hollywood's most bizarre teams, their styles so similar that neither could be the "straight man." It's a historic confluence anyway, as the stars recognize when they trade tag lines at the climax ("Come up and see me some time." "Yes, my little chickadee.").

Primal Fear (HBO Wednesday at 8 p.m.) makes fools of us and makes us like it. A tight courtroom melodrama that serves up twist after twist like so many baffling knuckleballs, this 1996 film handles its suspenseful material with skill and style. "Primal Fear" follows top Chicago defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) through the case of his life. Edward Norton received an Oscar nomination for his performance as an alter boy accused of murdering an archbishop.

A man who remarries his wife four times is a man worth making a movie about, but The Marrying Man (KTLA Thursday at 8 p.m.), a 1991 release, isn't it. Neil Simon's script is all promises and delivers nothing, and that goes double for Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who lack the chemistry to make their crazy lust believable.

Few early sound films have as much raw power as All Quiet on the Western Front (KCET Saturday at 9 p.m.), Lewis Milestone's hard, blazing adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist classic: a firsthand account of the disintegration of the youthful German forces in the waning days of World War I. The 1930 film, faithfully scripted by Maxwell Anderson, works up an overwhelming sense of war's futility.

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