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<I>Traffic</I> Jams

Headlining the movies to debut this week is Steven Soderbergh's morph into a cross between Robert Altman and Hal AshbyTraffic, his panoramic exploration of the drug traffic industry.

Soderbergh has been a darling of the hand-held camera set ever since his frighteningly assured debut with 1989's independent film breakthrough sex, lies and videotape. Like Altman and Ashby, who scored his greatest hits with the seminal 1970s works Shampoo and The Last Detail, Soderbergh has a gift for eliciting complex yet relaxed performances from actors placed in kitchen-sink settings. His movie The Limey resurrected Terence Stamp and his Out Of Sight did wonders for the careers of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

As sex, lies and his Kafka showed, he's also unafraid of tackling mature themes.

With Traffic, Soderbergh treats the drug trade like a layer cake. From the wannabe federal drug czar (Michael Douglas) with a crack-addict daughter (Erika Christensen) down through the Mexican and U.S. cops (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Luis Guzman, who did The Limey) to the drug pushers and users themselves, Soderbergh dances a large cast through a spidery plot that takes drug dealing on at all levels.

And this is Soderbergh's first deep venture into the Altman-esque: until now, Soderbergh's movies have largely been star vehicles for actors like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) and Jeremy Irons (Kafka), but traffic has a huge cast of almost a dozen principle players.

As with Altman, the uber-director of M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, it will be fun to see how well he can manage all these different plots and characters. Advance word has it that the R-rated Traffic is one of the year's best films.

Of equal interest, though for different reasons, might be The Shadow of the Vampire. It sounds compelling in a number of ways, one being what Pauline Kael used to call "movie-movie" appeal. It's a fictional story that poses as a behind-the-scenes account of the making of the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, a landmark slice of German Expressionism that was one of the first and most frightening vampire flicks ever made.

But if you're not a movie buff and all that sounds like so much pretentious claptrap to you, then consider that Willem Dafoe'in the title role. He's an actor who can be goofy (David Lynch's Wild At Heart), prestigious (Last Temptation of Christ) and scary (To Live and Die in L.A.). Dafoe plays the actor Max Schreck as an actual vampire drawn into playing the film's lead character by the movie's ruthless director, F.W. Murnau (played by another heavyweight, John Malkovich), who will do anything for his film.

Many movies, such as Ed Wood, The Stunt Man and Moon Over Parador, have had fun playing with the relationship between directors and actors, but this may be the first to mate that approach with the horror genre for humor and genuine creepiness. It's rated R and has some scenes with violence and strong sexual overtones.

Another strange turn may be The Claim, director Michael Winterbottom's Western tale of a miner (Peter Mullan) who sells his wife and daughter to another miner and gets rich only to have the wife and children return to his life 20 years later. A British director, Winterbottom has directed some compelling (Welcome to Sarajevo) and just plain strange (Love Lies Bleeding) movies. Based on Thomas Hardy's novel, it also stars Nastassja Kinski, Sarah Polley, Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley and is rated R.

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