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A song in its heart

Movies in limited release:

Songcatcher (PG-13) (109 min.) _ In 1907, a prim musicologist (Janet McTeer, above, with Aidan Quinn) ventures into the Appalachians, tending the roots of folk music in Maggie Greenwald's feminist drama. Songcatcher, like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, turns vintage American twang into a memorable cast member, fresh to our ears but somehow close to our hearts.

McTeer is fine playing Dr. Lily Penleric, an icy personality thawing in the glow of discovery. Lily isn't suited for mountain life, but her sister Elna (Jane Adams) lives there, making it an easy retreat from career disappointment. Elna owns a schoolhouse with her lover Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr) and their adopted daughter Deladis (Emmy Rossum) knows a bushel of old English and Scottish folk songs by heart.

Deladis isn't the only preserver of these ballads, delivered to the mountains by pioneers. Lily hauls her primitive Edison recording equipment to the shack of Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), where she catches more songs and the suspicions of Viney's grandson, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn). Tom has lived outside these hills _ "the other world," as Viney calls it _ and he's protecting a way of life he's ready to leave.

Greenwald invests Songcatcher with the same rustic reverance that made her last film, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) so engrossing. The timeless Appalachian locales help, but it's the music, full of frisky strings and slippery melodies, that places viewers into the period and characters' minds. One character even breaks into song after he's punched in the face, pouring out humiliation with better words than he could compose. Music is the only medium in these hills, so Lily's academic mission almost feels like pillaging.

Songcatcher regularly slips into subplots that might thrill Oprah's book club members. Nearly all men are prone to desertion, cruelty or, at least, pious ignorance. Adultery and childbirth makes cameo appearances, lesbians are nice people and tolerance is the key to all problems. Even Lily gets lucky. These hills are alive with the sound of sex, but it's music that makes Songcatcher worth seeing.

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa. B

"A cinematic ballad'

The Road Home (PG-13) (90 min.) _ Zhang Ziyi, the breakout star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, gets more subtitled U.S. exposure before completely going Hollywood later this summer in Rush Hour 2.

The Road Home is much more sedate than those martial arts adventures, told mostly in flashbacks as a son returns to his birthplace village in China to bury his father. According to tradition, the casket should be carried on foot for several miles from a hospital back to town. Along the way, the grieving son (Sun Honglei) recalls how his parents met during the Cultural Revolution.

Ziyi plays the mother, Zhao Di, who resists an arranged marriage in order to flirt with a new schoolmaster, Luo Changyu (Zheng Hao). Their romance is interrupted when Luo faces interrogation by Chairman Mao's culture police.

New York Times film critic Stephen Holden deemed The Road Home "a cinematic ballad of such seamless construction and exquisite tonal balance it transcends most of the pitfalls of movies that aspire to a classic, lyric simplicity. The one grating element is a redundantly schmaltzy soundtrack by San Bao that shamelessly imitates James Horner's quieter theme music for Titanic and nudges The Road Home toward an emotional grandiosity. But that pushiness, thankfully, does not extend to the rest of the movie."

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas in Tampa.

Sick and twisted

Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation (NR, probably NC-17) (70 min.) _ Tired of cartoons with cuddly ogres and catchy tunes? This new collection of 16 grossly perverse animated shorts is designed to destroy any notion that animation is a namby-pamby art form.

Spike and Mike _ no last names; there may be warrants _ relish their position as the high priests of down-and-dirty cartoons. Nothing is out of bounds, from physical deformities and child abuse to religious icons and unnatural sex. Graphic drawings of genitalia and body wastes and fluids are common threads among the selections, with schoolyard "wit" and tiresome shock quotients.

Titles include Wheelchair Rebecca, Beat the Brat, Radioactive Crotch Man and Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World, but don't expect an attitude that rosy. If you've seen one Sick & Twisted Animation Festival, you've seen them all. And probably felt nauseous.

Opens Friday at Tampa Theatre.

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

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