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by James Arnold

Dragons and Impossible Missions


Dragonheart
Mission Impossible
TV Is Changing
Dilemmas
Tony Awards Fiasco
Lamerica
The Rock
And Now The Internet
Religion Replaces Theology
On Video


The Rock
stars Sean Connery (left) as a top-secret federal prisoner and Nicolas Cage as an F.B.I. chemical/biological weapons expert trying to break into Alcatraz.
DRAGONHEART (A-2, PG-13): The dragons were due after the movie wizards made them possible in Jurassic Park, and one turns up here as a nice guy, sounding a lot like Sean Connery. Not only does Draco the Dragon talk, but he flies, blows fire and generally makes a nuisance of himself.

Directed by Rob Cohen, this $57- million epic is a genuine Arthurian adventure, so far one of the more inspirational and child-friendly of the summer flicks. The switch is that, in the mythical England of a thousand years ago, Draco and the heroic knight-dragonslayer Sir Bowen (Dennis Quaid) join forces to defeat the wicked young King Einon (David Thewlis). Einon is the good knight's former pupil, but he never caught on to the virtues and idealism of chivalry.

Draco, who takes on some of the nobility Connery has acquired in his recent screen persona, is not the sort of bad dragon we're used to. He's of a more Eastern dragon tradition in which the mythic beasts had godlike powers and were protectors and counselors of humans. In this story, he's undoubtedly the star (consuming most of the budget!), an intensely moral creature who worries about saving his soul.

Dragonheart packs a large share of religious symbolism (baptism, self-sacrifice, redemption, immortality) in its plot. Dina Meyer has a key role as the beautiful peasant girl who persuades her people to take up their pitchforks, and Pete Postlethwaite is likable as a monk-poet who composes odes to Bowen's valor and ultimately stars significantly in the revolution. Good-natured spectacle adventure; genre violence; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

LAMERICA (A-2, no MPAA rating): The best real film circulating is Lamerica, the latest by Italian writer-director Gianni Amelio (The Stolen Children), the logical heir to the tradition of Fellini and DeSica. The focus is immigration, which may be the most pressing social problem of this fading, tormented century.

The story is set in Albania, Europe's poorest country, just across the Adriatic from Italy, and in chaos after being recently cut free from 45 years of Communist repression. There is no work and little of anything else, and the young men, lured by glitzy Italian TV, pile onto ships for Italy. The military finally has to stop them by force.

Gino (played by sad-eyed Enrico Lo Verso, the compassionate cop-hero of Stolen Children) is an Italian scam artist who comes to Albania to set up a phony shoe factory. Spiro, an Italian POW from World War II who is not entirely in touch with reality, is cleaned up to serve as a local "company chairman."

Gino, the privileged and envied foreigner, is slowly stripped of his possessions and arrogance, and reduced to his own simple humanity. (Italy to Albanians is like America for most of the Third World: an impossible dream). He and Spiro join the crush of refugees heading for their homeland.

When the mysterious, generous, almost Christlike Spiro begins to fantasize their ship is on the way to America, his character becomes a poignant symbol of all the displaced, brutalized, lied to--those who never stop hoping for freedom and a better life.

Shot on location, Lamerica exposes us to the wretched dog-eat-dog poverty and struggle to survive. The film's joy and wonder is 80-year-old Carmelo Di Mazzarelli, a nonactor and ex-fisherman, who makes Spiro an unforgettable figure of human endurance and hope. In Italian with English subtitles; highly recommended for mature audiences.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (A-3, PG-13) is more spectacular than the original 1960's TV series, but that's like saying a mountain is bigger than a molehill. This Tom Cruise action flick desperately substitutes special effects for character and human feeling, but the big wind, big fire, big noise get boring fast.

The movie pays homage to memorable ingredients from the TV series--Lalo Schifrin's energetic score, which rattles the theater floor in digital sound, and the self-destructing, taped mission assignment. The spectacle is aimed at junior-high tastes, with "impossible" capers like breaking into the C.I.A.'s most secret room in Langley, and a helicopter pursuing a high-speed train in the Chunnel between Britain and France.

The genre violence is largely indirect--what we actually see is before and after the actual crunch, plus a lot of things like slo-mo explosions. It's not Graham Greene or John le Carré, but audiences presumably know what they're getting. Not generally recommended.

THE ROCK (O, R): Consider Alcatraz. Consider also a platoon of Marines headed by a former war-hero general (Ed Harris) taking it (and 81 hostages) over and threatening to fire poison-gas rockets at San Francisco unless a $100-million ransom is paid. To stop all this nonsense, the F.B.I. sends Navy SEALS, an ex-Brit spy (ex-007 Sean Connery) and a soft-hearted chemistry nerd (Oscar winner Nicolas Cage) to break into the escape-proof prison in the bay.

Alcatraz still has its perverse charm as a movie set. This film is very violent but a cut above the rest because it has some characters (including Connery and especially Cage) who actually stand for some values we might admire. Macho action flick with piled-on violence, somewhat softened by humor and character; O.K. for adults.


TV IS CHANGING: The shocker last season, historically speaking, was the sharp prime-time decline of the three major networks. As a group, they had only 53 percent of the audience, a drop of eight points from 1994-95, with ABC and CBS each tumbling more than 10 percent to all-time murky depths.

In the 1970's, before cable, these conglomerates had 90 percent of the market every year. They were television. Even in the last decade, the Big Three had never fallen below a combined 61 percent.

Obviously, the key factor remains basic cable. (Its prime-time audience was up 15 percent.) Older viewers drifted away because of the majors' ad-driven passion for younger demographics. They gradually discovered terrific programs on AMC, the Discovery and History channels, and Arts & Entertainment. Families with kids found that in the earlier evening hours cable offers many more wholesome choices.

AND NOW THE INTERNET: Another cause of the overall drop in TV numbers is the surge in use of personal computers. The coming convergence of TV and Internet communication and entertainment may make distinctions between these media irrelevant. But for now, even if TV is morphing, it's still recognizable as the medium of Milton Berle, Ed Murrow, M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore. The computer world, momentarily, is something quite different.

For one thing, it's oriented more to "info" than "tainment." Consider its friendly impact on reading and writing. No doubt the phenomenon of electronic mail (by improving on the telephone--cheaper, more flexible) has pushed us into a time when writing skills are once again widely useful. People are writing more e-mail "letters" than a generation ago and finding it fun, even addictive.

They're making more human contacts in the spooky sphere of cyberspace. Interaction involves some risk--lawless cyberspace is like the Wild West, but it's a virtual Wild West (you only get virtually shot). It looks better than couch potato-dom, but the downsides have not been fully counted.

In the Internet world we also have to read more and faster. You're getting "downloaded" constantly. Books may be hard to read or expensive to print, but magazines have found a new lease on life--not only those already alive in print but others, new creations, that exist only online. It's sort of like an infinite mall where you browse around looking for stuff and clipping out only what you want to save, perhaps print, and read (now or later).

As Marshall McLuhan famously noted a generation ago, the way we communicate affects every aspect of our lives. Look for some intriguing changes. Meanwhile, old-medium TV shuffles along. About Books, on C-SPAN2, spends five hours every weekend talking and listening to authors and publishers, discussing book-related events, even touring famous libraries and bookstores.

DILEMMAS: If we have a little V-chip, a guy inside the machine who zaps everything with violence in it, then, theoretically, he could be instructed to chisel out sex scenes or certain words or certain subjects.

Does the magic wand now exist that can turn TV from a raging monster into a G-rated puppy dog where the good guys always win, and nobody ever sins or suffers? Most of us doubtless prefer something in between, the value and quality depending on something you can't select ahead of time, can't program with a chip. Chips may be great, but I'd rather do the editing myself.

RELIGION REPLACES THEOLOGY: That's the way Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People) describes it when people undergo hard times and know God, not just in the abstract, but through experience: "The only way I can handle all the pain and all the fear in this world...I feel that God is with me."

Kushner's quote is from the Searching for God in America series (PBS), in which religious leaders of varied faiths discuss their own beliefs. The Rev. Roberta Hestenes, past chairwoman of World Vision, speaks about Third World suffering she's seen: "Some say that faith exempts you from participation in suffering, that it's some easy trip you make, that if you just accept Jesus, you'll be wealthy or successful.... That's not what faith is about....Faith means union with God in reality. That includes the brokenness, the struggle, the evil that is out there....

"It also includes the beauty and the love....I've seen caring by people, where on the human level there was nothing in it for them. They gave themselves just because it was right and love was at the heart of the universe."

TONY AWARDS FIASCO: The CBS show honoring the best on Broadway last season squeezed everything into the scheduled two hours. The hosts and honorees babbled like chipmunks, and the excerpts looked like fragments of a hyperactive imagination. Not so good, folks.

It was Tony's 50th anniversary, to boot. So let's not complain about the length of the Oscars, which are indulged because they draw 75 million viewers, compared to seven million for the Tonys. That's show biz.

ON VIDEO (new or reissued) are films of Catholic interest: Smoke (grace comes to varied characters in a Brooklyn tobacco shop); The Boys of St. Vincent (deep study of abuse at a Catholic orphanage in Canada); Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini's unique masterpiece, which made the Vatican's list of best films of the century); Frankie Starlight (neglected 1995 Irish film about the effect of a mother's love on a boy's life).

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