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Indomitable Channel of Grace


    Photo © from CNS

    The Apostle stars Robert Duvall (left) as a Pentecostal preacher who is unfaithful to his spouse (Farah Fawcett).

    THE APOSTLE (A-3, PG-13): Robert Duvall’s electrifying portrait of a Jesus-obsessed Pentecostal preacher doesn’t belong with the skeptical versions of priests and ministers that dominate 20th-century movies and fiction. Duvall’s Sonny Dewey isn’t perfect, but he’s not a phony.

    Sonny sees everything that happens in his life as God’s reply to his constant nagging. The danger, of course, is that you can arrange it (perhaps unconsciously) so that God gives the answers you prefer.

    In The Apostle (a 13-year effort by Duvall as writer, producer, director and star) Sonny is a funny and charismatic preacher. He’s been unfaithful to his spouse (also an evangelist, played by Farrah Fawcett). That leads to a traumatic split in which he also loses his kids and his prosperous church.

    The heart of the film is in Sonny’s efforts to remake his life. He prays for forgiveness and guidance, takes on a new identity in a small Louisiana town and rebuilds a primarily black church from scratch.

    He battles his demons (his temper and sexual loneliness) with mixed success, but he makes a difference in the town.

    Duvall has given himself a showy acting vehicle and a uniquely complex character. The supporting cast is exactly right, especially Miranda Richardson, as a woman cautiously attracted to the revived Sonny, and Billy Bob Thornton, as a local bigot.

    The Apostle is about an imperfect man with an irrepressible passion for God. He is (in ways much different than most Catholics are used to) a kind of miracle—an enduring, indomitable channel of grace. Satisfactory for mature youth and adults.


    WAG THE DOG (A-3, R): Director Barry Levinson and writer David Mamet create a satirical spoof political scenario that comes uncannily close to recent events.

    Fictional White House advisers try to save the president from the disaster of a preelection sex scandal by creating a diversionary war with an unimportant country (Albania). The idea is that the war news will rally support and drive the scandal out of the public consciousness until after the election.

    They don’t stir up a real war—just a staged media illusion. Nobody could really do that—we hope—but the nonsense has just enough credibility to make you gulp as well as laugh. In a world of digital graphics and computer wizardry, seeing is no longer believing.

    The central figures are Robert De Niro as the brainy campaign mastermind, and (especially) Dustin Hoffman as Stanley, the flamboyant movie producer who provides the "talent" (actors, composers, special effects).

    Stanley gleefully directs the plan with stunning success, although there are hilarious setbacks. For example, Woody Harrelson plays a military rapist-convict mistakenly chosen to be the "war hero."

    Although Wag is almost painfully on-target (how easily images and music are created to spike the emotions), it’s also too cynical. The public is just not as dumb as its lowest common denominator. The film also obviously misjudges the scope of the media madness in such a crisis and (as we’ve seen) the public’s loyalty to an otherwise effective president with personal flaws. Close but not too close for comfort; satisfactory for adults.


    THE BOXER (A-3, R): Ireland’s current leading filmmaker Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) returns with another take on the troubles bedeviling the North. It is set in divided Belfast, with IRA activist Danny Flynn being released from prison after 14 years.

    The central conflict is quickly established: the reality of destroyed lives vs. the fake glory and myth of a misbegotten, endless and hopeless revolution.

    The defiant hero (Daniel Day-Lewis, in marvelous shape), dignified, older and wiser, returns to his old neighborhood. He seeks to rebuild peacefully the parish gym where he and so many friends (now dead or in jail) built a championship boxing program. His hope is to save the next generation.

    Among familiar types: the veteran trainer he rescues from alcoholism; Harry (admirably detestable Gerard McSorley), the diehard IRA honcho who thinks Danny’s a traitor; and the former girlfriend Maggie (Emily Watson), who is a mom and the wife of a prisoner but still loves Danny.

    The Boxer seems headed for tragedy but pulls out of it with a twist ending. The boxing scenes (three fights, nine screen minutes) are real and exciting, especially an unbelievably corrupt bout in London. And Watson’s Maggie is beautiful and strong enough to almost steal the movie. There’s lots of wisdom, good writing and conflict atmosphere (soldiers, choppers, tension, street barricades). Adult situations, problem language; recommended for mature audiences.


    SPHERE (A-3, PG-13): You know you’re in for something weird when a psychoanalyst (Dustin Hoffman again) is the leader of a team of scientists sent to explore the mystery of a 300-year-old spacecraft wreckage 1,000 feet under the Pacific. This confusing tale was written by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park and ER), who reshuffles all the alien movie clichés.

    Shrink Hoffman is joined by biologist Sharon Stone, mathematician Samuel L. Jackson and astrophysicist Liev Schreiber. The monster is a shimmering, seamless gold sphere which holds the power to make real the imagining powers of those who enter it.

    This allows filmmaker Barry Levinson (again) to conjure all the monsters the cast can imagine. The ultimate point seems to be that humans aren’t yet evolved to the point where they can use their imaginative powers for good instead of horror. Sadly, the movie is proof of its own point. Not recommended.


    THE STAIRCASE (CBS, April 5): A strong silent stranger rides into town, performs his good deed against overwhelming odds, then rides off into the wilderness to become a legend. This ancient western plot works again with a novel twist in The Staircase, a new TV movie based on the origins of that famous wooden spiral staircase in the Sisters of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    Somehow, when the nuns had their school and mission chapel built in 1873-78, the carpenters neglected to provide stairs to the choir loft. The small but elegant gothic chapel, modeled on the Saint-Châpelle in Paris, was stunning, but no affordable architectural solution for the omission could be devised.

    According to the story, the nuns’ doughty superior Mother Magdelene decided to leave the matter to God. On the last day of a novena to St. Joseph, a gray-haired man on a donkey came to the convent with a tool box and volunteered to design and build the stairway. After the work was finished, he left as mysteriously as he had arrived.

    The staircase that nobody knew how to build remains solid and a work of beauty more than 120 years after its completion. It’s an object of admiration for generations of builders and architects. (The chapel today is incorporated into a Santa Fe hotel.)

    In this movie version of the story, produced by Peabody winner Craig Anderson (The Piano Lesson), Joad the carpenter (William Petersen) seems not to be an angel or St. Joseph. He’s the classic western loner, not shooting bad guys but doing random acts of kindness. He has gifts for nonviolence and for catching fish.

    He almost pays the price for his good deed. Some corrupt businessmen (David Clennon, Justin Louis), themselves responsible for the original faulty design, scheme to get him shot or jailed. He defeats them, in a rare television coup, with compassion and understanding.

    Not just any actor could bring off this Christian Shane. Petersen has long been admired for reliably saving roles in not-quite-famous movies (Manhunter, Amazing Grace and Chuck, Return to Lonesome Dove). But this tribute to the legendary staircase really belongs to film veteran Barbara Hershey. She brings beauty and complexity to the fictionalized role of dying Mother Madalyn, who hopes the completed chapel will give meaning to her life.

    The character is heroic, with an over-the-top death scene, but Hershey makes her real and accessible. Much of her recent work has excelled (Portrait of a Lady, Abraham).

    Diane Ladd is quite serviceable, cast against type as Mother Madalyn’s conservative but devoted second-in-command, and the other sisters offer a minimal but picturesque background. The script tries to do too much—even a tamer-than-likely Geronimo puts in a benign appearance.

    In the end, the show works for skeptics but also remains open to the supernatural and miraculous. We’ll never know the origins of this improbably sturdy and beautiful staircase. (We’re inspired to check it out the next time we’re in Santa Fe.) But the story reminds us in cynical times of the power of prayer and of the potential for good.


    THE FIELD AFAR (Odyssey miniseries): This 13-part series on the worldwide Maryknoll mission, "not bringing God to people but discovering God among them," begins on the Odyssey cable channel April 2. The half-hour episodes focus on locals and missioners in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The series is designed by Maryknoll’s skilled filmmakers to offer religious values, family entertainment and educational insights into other countries and cultures.


    SISTER WENDY admirers can now get her delightful one-hour PBS conversation with Bill Moyers on video. The subject is the history of art, but the chat covers a few other topics, ranging through sex, solitude, spirituality and television itself. (Wendy is the British contemplative nun-art critic who has become a kind of addiction for her fans around the world.) Costs (plus shipping and handling) are $19.95 for the video, $10 for the book, $29.95 for both. Call WGBH Boston, 800-255-9424.

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