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by James Arnold

Mothers, Presidents,
Founding Fathers

Secrets and Lies
Absolute Power
Crass is the Word
Politically Incorrect
The People Vs. Larry Flynt
Thomas Jefferson
Speaking of

Debbie Reynolds (left) returns to the screen after a long absence, playing a widow in Mother, a comedy also starring Albert Brooks as her son who moves back home.

SECRETS AND LIES (A-3, R) is an art film by today’s standards, meaning definitely not a blockbuster. This is the kind of movie, normally, that only a few buffs see until video time.

Secrets, though, gets a break, via Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, which have also brought veteran British writer-director Mike Leigh from relative obscurity to public notice. Since 1973 he’s been making critically acclaimed realistic movies (Life Is Sweet, Naked) about ordinary, often confused and unattractive, but disarmingly familiar working people.

In this one, an educated, upwardly mobile young black woman in London (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) tracks down her birthmother, a decidedly mixed-up, still unmarried white factory worker. The mom, Cynthia (best-actress nominee Brenda Blethyn), is lonely and depressed. She’s living with another daughter, a rebellious 21-year-old with whom she constantly battles. Cynthia’s brother, Maurice, a successful portrait photographer, feels guilty for neglecting them. But he has problems of his own.

The racial difference produces some marvelous scenes of comic shock and stress. Secrets is not about racism, but about the need for family. Cynthia’s spirit blossoms as she grows into love and friendship with her "new" daughter. As the title suggests, the movie is also about how lack of communication and trust erodes a family’s inner core.

Maurice (played by Timothy Spall) is quiet and inhibited, but his job has given him insight and compassion. His photography sessions are pure delight. As Leigh helps us see it, it’s the human condition revealed in a portrait studio. In his work Maurice has discovered the means to save his soul. Highly recommended for mature audiences.

MOTHER (A-3, PG-13): Albert Brooks the actor is unbearable in this otherwise occasionally bright comedy by Albert Brooks the writer. It’s about a 40-ish sci-fi author (Brooks), twice divorced, who figures his problems with women may stem from his strained relationship with his now-widowed mother. So he moves back home to find out why.

The film’s major asset is Debbie Reynolds, whose cool portrayal of an aging woman under the stress of dealing with a fault-finding, Freud-ridden adult son is dignified and funny. The plot is mostly TV sitcom, but the intergenerational tensions (over groceries, modern gadgets, eccentricities in life-style) are amusing. Mom and the weird-isms of advancing age are kidded, but with a decent respect. If anyone is crazy here, it’s the son.

Aside from Brooks’s whining style and the fact that his character talks endlessly, the movie’s other fault is that it reflects the affluent secular culture of the 1990’s. As Mom says of a 60-ish male friend, "We’re not intimate. We just have sex occasionally." The line has more meaning than it intends. Fluffy entertainment for tolerant adults.

ABSOLUTE POWER (A-4, R): In this Clint Eastwood project (he’s star, producer, director and composer of some of the music), the chief executive (smarmy Gene Hackman) is involved in drunken illicit sex and murder, then tries to cover it up with more killing and the dominant (not absolute) power of the White House.

Eastwood plays an upscale jewel thief (and a Korean War hero) who witnesses the murder from a closet. Despite his dubious profession, he’s a devoted father (to lawyer-daughter Laura Linney) and morally superior to the government hacks and the prez’s ruthless female chief of staff (played with wry wickedness by Judy Davis).

Eastwood uses David Baldacci’s pulp best-seller mainly as an excuse for sly cinematic set pieces (an ambush that goes awry, a mock reception ball attended by Hackman and Davis) en route to a happy ending. The cast (Ed Harris, E. G. Marshall, Scott Glenn, Dennis Haysbert) could have contributed to something much finer. Cynical moral tone without much emotional or artistic payoff; not recommended.

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (O, R): Watching two hours of Larry Flynt misbehaving is no small penance. He’s the notorious publisher of Hustler
magazine, a guy who admits he’s "the worst," who has embraced atheism and gotten rich off everything from genital shots of women to pornographic treatments of semi-sacred subjects ranging from Jackie Onassis to Santa Claus and Jerry Falwell.

Director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) insists that we need to digest the important principle of free speech: If it really applies to detestable people, then it must apply to Flynt.

Does the movie glorify Flynt? Well, he is obviously not a role model. He really does suffer for his stupidity, and all the characters here (the long-suffering lawyer played by Edward Norton excepted) are fools. At best, Flynt is not a hypocrite.

Not everybody (no kidding) will want to see The People, which documents Flynt’s history with diligence if not enthusiasm. As Larry Flynt, actor Woody Harrelson gets the mix of wit and madness about right. Courtney Love, as Flynt’s late wife, Althea, is moving in a performance beyond logic. Sacred principle but too much Flynt; not recommended.

CRASS IS THE WORD for a lot of TV. You hate to have your kids watching it without you there to give it the razz and put it in context. Consider the gloomy winter week when Sports Illustrated came out with its famous annual moneymaker, the swimsuit issue. You can say that TV (words carefully chosen here) covered the subject with some enthusiasm. It was everywhere. It made more news and magazine shows than the demise of China’s Deng Xiao Ping. We happened to see it on Entertainment Tonight, which is reliably crass on a high level.

More disturbing stuff was on, but this was exploitative and on in early evening. How could a family not be embarrassed by it? The solution is you don’t ever watch ET with kids except warily.

When TNT was running its one-hour special on the swimsuit issue (three times in one five-hour stretch!), the range of choices on other stations was truly awesome. If outraged, cut to something else.

THOMAS JEFFERSON (PBS mini-series): Documentarian Ken Burns was in top form, exploring the great man in three splendid, unhurried hours. It was narrated by Ossie Davis, with incisive commentary by a variety of experts. Garry Wills said about Jefferson: "He taught us that ideas matter, that words shape lives."

Jefferson is the hero of the free mind and the exchange of ideas, too often forgotten by overzealous religionists. Burns explores but ultimately leaves open the slave issue. (Historians have not reached consensus.) He reminds us how much personal misfortune Jefferson suffered, and yet how crucial he is to our familiarity with the "pursuit of happiness" concept.

Truth is, Burns is part of TV, along with swimsuit issues and trash journalism shows. He obviously raises the level. My favorite part of this series was Jefferson’s amazing relationship with John Adams, an odd couple, for certain. Sam Waterson, as the voice of Jefferson, was memorable. (This was a classic series for now and for future generations.)

POLITICALLY INCORRECT (ABC, weekdays) is, generically speaking, a celebrity-guest talk show that airs weekdays after Nightline. It’s loud and raucous as the announcer whips up the studio audience and introduces host Bill Maher. Maher then introduces four guests, who walk into the seating area one by one, like contenders in a boxing ring. For me the midday format is a definite turnoff at this hour. This is especially true since the guests often presume a claim to intellectual status--wits, authors, artists--as well as the usual suspects, comics and entertainers.

The apparent idea is to re-create the sometimes serendipitous situation at intimate parties, where hosts and guests gather after the meal and exchange comments on issues of the day, often with good humor, sometimes with insight. Maher, a 40-ish comedian with a fast wit and a good staff to prep him, seems well-suited to run things. The title suggests no-holds-barred, which is liberating and appropriate at this adult time of night. Unfortunately, it rarely works.

One reason is the frequent commercial interruption, a tougher problem with four guests than in one-on-one situations (as on the competing Tom Snyder show). Another is the studio audience, which encourages the cheap shot that plays to the crowd. People try to top each other with quips and one-liners. There is no real flow of conversation, and the final aim is to amuse rather than enlighten or seek out truth. "Serious" exchange is unlikely (and surely unwanted).

There is a rough effort at balance--by race, gender, profession, general worldview--but it’s hard to represent the world with four people. Extremists of all kinds get on more often than centrists because they tend to be more contentious and outrageous. Maher encourages that tack with his setups.

For example, before the Schindler’s List broadcast, Maher started one segment by noting the irony of Ford’s sponsorship, because of the infamous anti-Semitism of the original Henry Ford. He then went on to quote some of the long-deceased old man’s more scurrilous diatribes. This was a cruel stretch for controversy. You may like or hate the Ford Motor Company today, but it shouldn’t have to carry Henry’s sins on its back.

The week of the Jefferson documentary, Maher also encouraged an attack on Jefferson for his slaveholding. The way it was done seemed misleading and superficial, especially after seeing the Burns series and having been so painstakingly educated on the complexity of the issue for Jefferson.

In another gambit of dubious taste, Christians in general were worked over for their alleged lack of humor. The discussants included novelists John Irving and Jackie Collins. This is like Math 1 students criticizing Einstein for not keeping his hair neat.

Some Maher tidbits we’ll all love. But as it’s now set up, this series is undistinguished and unlikely to improve.

SPEAKING OF the TV showing of Schindler’s List, a columnist who works for Gannett newspapers thought he was doing readers a favor by going through the film and warning them of violent or shocking parts to shield from children. Now this is parental guidance gone nuts.

Kids are either mature enough to see and file Schindler in the memory or not, but no bowdlerized versions, please. The Spielberg film is great cinematic art and it has its terrors in context. Taking them out is the worst thing a parent could do. Children lived the holocaust. Ours can bear sharing that experience (vicariously) through a great film.

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