Dead Man Walking, which stars Sean Penn as a Death Row inmate and Susan Sarandon as counselor Sister Helen Prejean, received four Oscar nominations.
DEAD MAN WALKING (A-3, R) approaches
the level of the best religious movies ever made. Based on the
book by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., it's a dramatized version
of her work with Death Row prisoners in Louisiana. While she is
opposed to the death penalty, the movie is really about reaching
a condemned criminal with a valid image of Christ and Christian
Everybody helps make this film work, including writer-director
Tim Robbins, actor Sean Penn (as the hard-shelled convict) and
superb cinematographer Roger Deakins (Shawshank Redemption).
But it's Susan Sarandon who makes it great--a moving (if understated)
expression of Sister Helen's humble humanity and an important
Catholic social ministry.
A delicate achievement (in the 1996 political climate) is the
film's willingness to listen with understanding to those who resist
the Church's teaching on the death penalty. (That includes just
about everybody in the movie--most poignantly, the parents of the
young victims who died cruelly for no reason.) Sister Helen reaches
out, listens, mourns with them.
The hero of Dead Man is a woman of compassion who has the
courage simply to "be there," motivated by unconditional
love. Sarandon suggests it all, in her eyes, her self-deprecating
manner. When the best possible ending occurs, it's not because
of science or an action hero who uses force to save or heal. It's
because of genuine--not sentimental--patience and kindness.
Among intriguing threads in the tapestry is the conflict between
the soft-spoken nun, who so clearly represents the image of Christ,
and the veteran prison chaplain (Scott Wilson), whose long experience
has hardened his heart. (Nearly 30 years ago Wilson played one
of the killers in the anti-death-penalty classic In Cold Blood.)
Director Robbins describes the murder, dimly but terrifyingly,
in repeated, distanced black-and-white flashbacks. In his strongest
moral statement, after the execution, he cuts from the bodies
of the victims to that of the dead killer, suggesting a genuinely
Catholic message: All killing is evil. Outstanding, artful
treatment of tragic but uplifting material; recommended for mature
youth and adults.
MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS (A-2, PG) is a heartwarming tale about
a dedicated high school music teacher (Oscar nominee Richard Dreyfuss)
who gives up his own musical ambitions to uplift several generations
of students. It's not quite Good-bye, Mr. Chips, because
Holland is always popular, but it's a welcome tribute to art and
music teachers in an era of myopic budget stinginess.
The script's major irony is that
Holland's son is born with a serious hearing disability, and the
busy teacher is challenged to understand and love him.
The hero reaches the kids by exploiting what they already like--the
Beatles and rock. There's some well-performed Gershwin, too. Glenne
Headly is far above par as Holland's caring wife, and Olympia
Dukakis and TV comic Jay Thomas fit very nicely as principal and
fellow teacher, respectively. Some power, some schmaltz, good
lessons; no sex or violence; satisfactory for youth and adults.
12 MONKEYS (A-4, R): It's 2035, the world has been ravaged
by a monster virus, and the survivors huddle in an underground
totalitarian society. A prisoner (Bruce Willis) is sent back in
time to locate the virus so the catastrophic epidemic can be retroactively
The circumstances of this sci-fi time-travel premise originated
in a 1964 French art film (La Jetee), with nuclear war
as the context, and were used again in the Terminator movies.
But the updated idea remains seductive. The erratic but often
delightful director Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King) puts
the emphasis on witty dark comedy, with enough action and love
story (Willis falls for Madeleine Stowe, the shrink assigned to
treat him) to keep audiences interested.
The trail leads to an animal-rights activist group, led by a more-than-slightly-crazy
Brad Pitt, and there are some amusing images of liberated animals
wandering around a big-city freeway. Gilliam's ultimate theme
is that humans should settle for nothing less than the simple
beauty of creation and human love. Flawed but imaginative;
some violence; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.
BED OF ROSES (A-3, PG) has a basic idea that could compete
in the Final Four of "nice." A gorgeous workaholic career
woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) is wooed by an unknown admirer who
sends her so many flowers her Manhattan apartment is awash in
The young man (Christian Slater), as nice as his flowers, proves
to be an ex-stockbroker who was inspired by tragedy to get out
of the rat race and (of course) "smell the roses." But
the heroine resists him, partly because she's too career-driven,
but mostly because she was raised in a dysfunctional home and
feels unworthy of this "perfect" fellow and his "perfect"
love-filled family. It's as if Cinderella rejects the Prince because
she has a rotten self-image.
As Slater wisely says, "Everybody now and then is entitled
to too much perfection. There are enough thorns out there as it
is." Anyhow, this problem isn't going to spoil the kind of
dumb warm love story we need to get through the winter. Bed
is another of Hollywood's recent gushy tributes to happy extended
families. Lovers pull happy finish from improbable difficulties;
problem sex situations; satisfactory for adults.
RESTORATION (A-3, R): This is a quick tour of 17th-century
England, and it's not a place you'd want to stay very long. It's
the reign of Charles II, with corruption and hedonism rampant,
bloody religious wars just finished or ready to resume, and the
plague about to hit London before it burns down, killing 70,000
citizens in 1666.
Restoration is an old-fashioned story of personal redemption.
The fictional hero, Robert Merivel (Robert Downey, Jr.), is a
young physician who gleefully gives up his practice amid the hopeless
diseases of the time to come to the palace to treat the king's
dogs and enjoy the sexy life-style. He falls out of favor for
pursuing the royal mistress, and finally is inspired by a Quaker
colleague to reform his life just in time to be a hero during
the catastrophes of plague and fire.
The tale is classic both in its "prodigal son" and "sin
sows its own rewards" morality and in its ability to tie
up loose ends. Downey is riveting and funny as always. Meg Ryan
copes well in a decidedly offbeat role as an Irish woman rescued
from insanity, and Polly Walker is the doomed royal favorite that
Merivel loves and loses. Sam Neill does the king with amiable
authority. The eye-filling sets and costumes, however, are what
you'll be unable to forget soon. Uneven but richly decorative
historical morality tale; problem sex situations; satisfactory
A CASE FOR LIFE (ABC Sunday Movie): This Valerie Bertinelli
movie tried to break new ground with a delicately balanced drama
on the subject of abortion. She plays Kelly, a newly pregnant
suburban mother of four--a dedicated pro-life activist--who is caught
in the classic mother-or-the-child dilemma.
She needs open-heart surgery or her life is in extreme risk. But
doing that requires a therapeutic abortion, a solution she won't
even consider. The choice to have the baby is long and difficult,
involving bed rest and hospital stays. Her husband and parents
support her at first, until the possibility that she may die becomes
more real. As the father says, "She's trying to do the right
thing because of what we taught her....That could end up killing
The main opposition comes from Liz (Mel Harris), her pro-choice
lawyer-sister, who wants to protect her because, in her view, no one
else will. When the husband, Bob (Bruce McNamara), has second
thoughts, he joins Liz in a lawsuit to require the abortion. There's
little chance to win--ironically, because of legal precedent not
to interfere with a mother's choice--but the trial allows writer
Vickie Patik to explore the complex issues, including the rights
and well-being of Kelly's "already born" children.
This is a close loving family and it's easy to feel all the agony.
(They're obviously Catholics, although that's downplayed.) If
the major dramatic question is how the medical crisis will turn
out, it's equally important to see if the family can reconcile
and become whole again.
Since in the movie the child dies, you could argue that it has
all been for nothing. But everyone has been tested. Without doubt,
Kelly is the hero, although we're going to debate the moral requirements
of her situation for a few more centuries. Bertinelli, of course,
is the queen of made-for-TV movies. Harris, in contrast, is sympathetic
but chilly as the married-but-childless career woman who is "there"
for her courageous sister. In the end, she says she's "thinking"
about having a child.
For dads, the most poignant moment comes when Bob holds the body
of his lifeless son and mourns. It's an eternal human sound. A
tentative but important first step in working through this subject
via the medium of the popular arts.
GOD IS IN THE DETAILS: We all know that TV news is just
a headline service, and should never be embraced as a total source
of information about the world. That point was underscored again
recently on Scott Simon's marvelous Weekend Edition (Saturday
mornings, National Public Radio). It carried an extended live-on-tape
description of the funeral of many of the young people who died
in the tragic crash in suburban Washington, D.C., of a local train
and an Amtrak express headed for Chicago.
Most of these young men and women were returning from special
classes to help them qualify for better jobs and escape from poverty.
The details in the eulogies made each of them come alive as unique
persons, each with dreams, humor and, above all, hope. You understood
once more what "tragedy" means, if not why it happens.
That feeling of grief was something that had been lost in the
headlines and 30-second reports. In school a long time ago we
learned that's what good journalism does.
BEER COMMERCIALS saturate TV with messages targeted largely
at young males. The most successful this season has surely been
the Bud Light series, featuring the guy who says, "I love
you, man," with great depths of emotion, as he tries to con
various folks out of a can of beer.
The ads are obviously trying to spoof guys who express their emotions.
In general, hugs do a lot to keep out the bad chills and scary
feelings. If it's now become harder for a guy to say, "I
love you"--hey, you're really after my beer!--then that's too
bad. Arnold's rule: Never make fun of love in any of its forms;
it's harder to find than gold.