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by James Arnold

Dead Man Walking
12 Monkeys
God Is in the Details
Mr. Holland's Opus
Bed of Roses
A Case for Life
Beer Commercials

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 love.

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 prevented.

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 roses.

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 for adults.

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 her."

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.

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