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By James Arnold

Relentless Cops and Forgetful Assassins

Q U I C K S C A N

Insomnia
The Sum of All Fears
The Bourne Identity
Wild Strawberries
Married in America
The Hamptons



INSOMNIA

INSOMNIA (A-3, R): Police dramas that are both solid and humane are hard to find, but this one meets specifications. In this time of national stress and much moral corner-cutting, this film takes an old-fashioned view on how much power cops should have in collaring bad guys.

Two Los Angeles detectives come to the cold light of an Alaska summer to help the locals investigate the murder of a high school girl. Both men (only they know) are in trouble at home, being investigated for planting key evidence against a child killer. The senior, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), is upset because his buddy may testify against him, ending his career and reversing many earlier convictions of despicable criminals.

The plot, adapted from a 1997 Norwegian movie, is shrewdly developed. In the foggy confusion of a night pursuit of a suspect, Will shoots his partner dead. Wracked by conscience and uncertain if he intended it, he knows how it will look, and begins a cover-up.

But the incident was seen by a fugitive (Robin Williams), a mystery writer who blackmails Will and loves to philosophize on the phone. Completing the triangle is a bright, relentless local cop (Hilary Swank) who admires Will as a mentor and sleuths out the facts.

Director Christopher Nolan (Memento) makes superb use of the chilly, rugged scenery. (Sleepless, tormented Will can never shut the midnight sun out of his gloomy hotel room.)

Williams and Swank are worthy antagonists, but Pacino owns the picture. He’s tough, obsessive and sympathetic in this complex role. But the script and director Nolan make sure we know that the loose-cannon cop who doesn’t go by the rules must repent. Police thriller takes a stand that ends do not justify means; the moral angst comes to a credible and legit solution; problem language; otherwise satisfactory for mature audiences.

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (A-4, PG-13) is another doomsday-averted scenario adapted from one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels—Clancy is among the few fiction writers who can compete with the evening news.

In past films Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin portrayed Ryan. Now Ben Affleck plays the CIA man, who has lost 20 years and his wife and family. He’s seen wooing Dr. Cathy (Bridget Moynahan), a physician who will come in handy for post-disaster scenes. Their romance is constantly interrupted by Ryan’s boss (Morgan Freeman), who sends him on overseas missions to find out what’s happening with the new Russian president and the shocking use of chemical weapons in Chechnya.

The audience knows what the principals do not: A nuke lost decades ago by an Israeli jet has turned up on the black market and been sold to neo-Nazi terrorists who want to kick off a war that will destroy both Russia and America. Ryan and fellow agent and budding superspy John Clark (Liev Schreiber) strive to stop the carnage.

The Middle East is involved as just part of the context. Most of the feeling is still 20th-century Cold War: the slick computer technology, the leftover Hitler admirers who think the time is ripe for fascism, the Strangelovian generals afraid of not being tough enough as civilization rushes to the brink. The American president (a flawed fellow played with nuance by James Cromwell) is ready to push the mother of all buttons.

The physical impact of a nuclear blast is only suggested and radioactivity simply ignored—its horror post-9/11 is closer to the nerve than any Hannibal Lecter. As the humane Russian president (played by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds) asks softly, after being told missiles will be launched to take out U.S. command sites in the Rockies, “How many people are there in Colorado Springs?” The parts don’t quite mix, and the awesomeness of it all is trivialized in familiar spy-thriller clichés; not especially recommended.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY

THE BOURNE IDENTITY (A-4, PG-13): The amnesiac hero (Matt Damon) of this frantic thriller has selective memory loss: He doesn’t know who he is but he sure knows how to shoot, fight and hide. He also has the number of a bank box in Zurich where he gets a gun, a half-dozen passports and a ton of money. But when somebody asks him what kind of music he prefers, he says, “I don’t know.”

This young man slowly realizes he’s a top-secret CIA spy/assassin. Rogue agency elements (Chris Cooper, Brian Cox) have targeted him for assassination because when he remembers he’ll know too much. Damon pays a spirited woman (Franka Potente of Run, Lola, Run) to drive him, and shootouts and pursuits ensue all over Europe.

This sometimes-brutal action flick, based on the 1979 best-seller by the late Robert Ludlum, gets to some moral points—the agency’s ruthless power is exposed and Damon’s character draws back from the prospect of cold-blooded murder—as well as an unlikely happy ending. Show-off director Doug Liman at times seems to be shooting from inside a washing machine, and Damon is so athletic he seems to be auditioning for Spider-Man. Problem language; spy-movie violence (but not sex) a bit over-the-top; nice scenery; O.K. for mature viewers.

WILD STRAWBERRIES

WILD STRAWBERRIES, one of Ingmar Bergman’s best and most accessible movies (1957), is a variation of A Christmas Carol. It’s about elderly Isak, a famous physician, who is driving from Oslo to a university town to receive an honorary degree. En route he picks up passengers and passes through areas that incite memories and force him to reevaluate his life.

The film weaves from present conversations and incidents to flashbacks and dreams. We learn that Isak was disappointed by an early lost love. He has been stern and uncaring to his deceased wife and to his physician son, who may be repeating Isak’s cold and loveless marriage. But the old man, given this late chance at redemption, faces the truth and acts to change his ways.

As played by the great actor-director Victor Sjostrom (a Swedish film pioneer), Isak is a sympathetic figure who responds to grace. (Ultimately, his degree ceremony is worth cheering.) Masterful scenes—some warm and nostalgic, others really frightening—include a few of the most effective nightmare sequences ever conceived.

Bergman’s movies are not the worldwide rage they were a generation ago among film buffs, philosophers and theologians. Movies have dumbed-down considerably since then. But the Swedish genius, who’s in his 80s, still writes for the stage and screen and will retain his status among the great creators of the cinema’s first century. Black and white, subtitled in English; for mature viewers.

MARRIED IN AMERICA

MARRIED IN AMERICA (A&E): Michael Apted’s unusual documentary project—revisiting nine newly married couples every two years for a decade to see how their lives go—got off to a solid start in June. But then that’s a bit like saying on a coast-to-coast drive you had a nice first day through New Jersey. Apted is a versatile Brit, accomplished in directing theatrical movies (Enough, Gorillas in the Mist). But his most original work has been his made-for-British TV Seven-Up reality series, tracking a mix of children every seven years (so far) to age 42.

The marriage episodes obviously can’t represent anything like all American families in the new century’s first decade. But given Apted’s skills at gentle interviews, observation and selection, this unique (and expensive) study-through-time could provide some sociological clues, as well as occasional humor and drama. The Seven-Up series was especially adept at showing how the child shaped the adult, focusing on differences in class and education.

As the couples talk to Apted’s camera, we learn something about their past, their relationship and their dreams. We see slices of their lives and jobs, their parents and friends, their weddings (eight of the nine are religious). The sample avoids showbiz wannabes and is deliberately diverse, including Betty and Reggie, mixed-race Catholics who grew up as friends in the same neighborhood.

Others include Cheryl, a Filipina Catholic who marries Neil, a New York Jew, in a Jewish ceremony; Amber and Scott, Southerners from different cities who’ve known each other only three months; and Donna and Todd, upscale New Yorkers who “haven’t been attending church” and are wed in a restaurant.

More offbeat (and moving) are Carol and Chuck, who would normally not be expected to make this kind of show. Sincere and clearly in love, she’s a big-boned woman who had a bad marriage and he’s an ex-con biker. Then there are the lesbians, Toni and Kelly—one has a family that is accepting, the other is not because of religious beliefs.

It’s tough to live your married life in public. But rare appearances on A&E don’t make you a household celebrity. The main drawback for us is that we have to wait two years for the second episode.

THE HAMPTONS

THE HAMPTONS (ABC): You can’t not like a documentary because you don’t like the people whose lives it depicts. Here that would be the foolish rich and those who hope to be in these posh areas of Long Island, so nicely skewered as shallow and self-indulgent in this June miniseries by veteran filmmaker Barbara Kopple. It’s all about our bottomless fascination “for the girl you can never date, the car you’ll never drive, the house you’ll never live in....”

It may have been too easy, and four hours may be too much vapidity. There is the poor guy who loses his beloved aged dog and buys himself a BMW convertible to forget his grief. (The series also paid some attention, with more sympathy but not much, to the blue-collar folks who keep the villages running.) Most TV glorifies this rich-and- famous lifestyle, and Kopple comes at it with a skeptical eye that’s as close as we’re going to get to Old Testament prophecy.


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