MADELINE (1998)

Charm in movies or books is an elusive thing Hard to define, but you know it when you see it. By any standard, Ludwig Bemelman's best-selling novels about a Catholic girls’ school in Paris is charming. Madeline, based on the books, skillfully recreates their comic magic with a witty, graceful touch.

Madeline (Hatty Jones) is the only orphan at the school. The head-mistress, Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), is a strict but loving disciplinarian. (The original books have Miss Clavel as a novitiate. The filmmakers make her a fully professed nun.) When Madeline becomes ill with appendicitis, she's treated at a Catholic hospital. There she meets Lady Covington (Stephane Audran), a former pupil at the school who has become its main benefactor. The elderly lady dies, and Madeline learns that her husband has decided to sell the place. When the little girl informs the other students, they panic, and she sets in motion a series of events intended to scare off prospective buyers.

The movie is a treat for adults and kids alike. Beneath the youthful hijinks is a carefully crafted moral sense. The girls’ Catholic education is always subtly present. They know right from wrong even when misbehaving.

HOWARDS END (1992)

In boom times like these, real estate is a good investment, and many middle-class people, and above, see their home as a stepping stone to greater wealth.

“Howards End” is the name of a small English country house where the family of Mrs. Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) has lived for almost a century. The time is 1910, and the well-bred Englishwoman sees her home as more than an elegant showplace. It's a house which radiates a kind of spiritual peace in the midst of materialistic pursuits — a place where friendship based on compassion and emotional honesty can flourish.

When Mrs. Wilcox dies, she leaves her home to a younger, less affluent woman (Emma Thompson) who shares these values more than her own flesh and blood do. The Wilcox family is outraged and burns the will, believing the property to be their rightful inheritance. But a dark secret emerges from the past of Mr. Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins) and changes the situation.

Howards End, based on E.M. Forster's acclaimed novel, celebrates human connections over status and possessions, dramatizing with great passion both the goodness and the hypocrisy which the house in question calls forth from those who love it.

Register movie critic John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.