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by James Arnold

Exploring Various Moral Issues

That Thing You Do!
Genesis: A Living Conversation
Big Night
Extreme Measures
The Ties That Bind
Dangerous Minds


Jason Patric (left) and Brad Pitt star in Sleepers, which focuses on the painful memories of some men who grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen during the 1960's.

SLEEPERS (A-4, R): Thorny issues are in this all-star production by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy). This is an atrocity-elicits-revenge story, based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's best-seller. (Claims to be factual have been widely challenged.) It's set in the 1960's in New York's Hell's Kitchen, where four boys are sent to the state reformatory when a petty-theft prank goes awry.

In prison, the kids are sadistically abused by the guards. (Levinson, to his credit, uses every conceivable film technique to imply, rather than show, the horror.) Years later, two of the boys, now adult hoodlums, come across the evil head guard (Kevin Bacon in his most corrupt mode) in a bar and calmly shoot him to death. Like A Time to Kill, Sleepers argues that sometimes murder is O.K., if there is no other way to achieve justice.

The tightly knit community of blue-collar white ethnics unites behind the killers and schemes to get them off. A godfather-type (Vittorio Gassman) intimidates witnesses and hires a star lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) for the defense by threatening him. One of the four friends (Brad Pitt), now a city prosecutor, takes the case and sabotages it. But as the narrator (Jason Patric) explains, an alibi witness is still needed. Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), a lifetime friend with a reputation for integrity, is asked to do it. He agonizes over his decision, but his perjury and all the corruption of the legal system really achieve no good. Obviously, Levinson and Carcaterra think he's a hero.

The four friends never really escape the scars of their terrifying ordeal. The scales are even but their bad dreams continue. Viewers can also judge Sleepers on their own. Movies used to support devotion to law under all kinds of pressure but now they're starting to make exceptions. The courts have probably earned some criticism, but making a case for something as anciently stupid as revenge is truly amoral and dangerous. Ultimate abuse-excuse drama, while artful, misses its best chances; heavy and grim stuff; for mature audiences.

BIG NIGHT (A-3, R) is also ethnic, but much more benign and relevant to common experience. Set in a New Jersey seacoast town in the 1950's, it's about two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci), struggling to make a success of their restaurant. A not-so-friendly competitor (Ian Holm) promises to bring a celebrity for a big meal on which the brothers blow everything.

The real story is the touching relationship between Primo, an Old Country culinary artist and perfectionist, and Secondo, an already Americanized businessman-pragmatist. The highlight is the banquet, which celebrates food and life, doing for Italian cuisine what Babette's Feast does for French.

The film is largely a labor of love by Tucci, also cowriter, coproducer, codirector. He's anxious to break Italian movie stereotypes. The restaurant is called the Paradise, reminding us that good food with good friends is at the center of all human community, and everything else is just background. Funny and warm; some adult sex situations; recommended for mature audiences.

THAT THING YOU DO! (A-2, PG) is a cheery but tongue-in-cheek take on the early 1960's era of rock and roll. It chronicles the brief success of a provincial band that rides one big hit song up the charts to Hollywood (in the "beach movie" era) and national fame. The cycle is classic in movie musicals: early euphoria, escalating money and conflict, old friendships now in danger, gold-digging temptresses, selling out to commercial pressures, disillusion and return to roots.

It all adds up to a morality tale: Be careful what you wish for--you may get it. The era, the music-biz equivalent of Leave It to Beaver time, is basically spoofed but with some nostalgic warmth. And the young performers (especially Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler and Johnathon Schaech) show considerable charm.

Thing is Tom Hanks's first effort as writer-director. It's slick, knowledgeable and slyly funny, in the Hanks manner. Hanks also writes some of the bouncy all-new music and plays a key supporting role as a cool, quietly cynical record-company rep. Overall, a graceful entertainment, reflecting more innocent times, with some satirical bite. Satisfactory for youth and adults.

EXTREME MEASURES (A-3, R) is a cut above the average thriller. Its "mad scientist" plot--a reputable researcher (Gene Hackman) collects homeless derelicts in Manhattan for spinal cord experiments--is only a cover for exploring very relevant issues in medical ethics.

Hugh Grant plays the idealistic E.R. doc who stumbles onto the conspiracy and pursues it to personal ruin. Even the bad guys are morally motivated (to save paralyzed loved ones). Just as a suspense potboiler, this Michael Apted-directed movie is often eerie and unnerving. In a memorable sequence, Grant follows a guide into the city's bowels to locate the homeless who inhabit the damp darkness. It's deja-Dante all over again. Usual genre violence but much to chew on; satisfactory for adults.

GENESIS: A LIVING CONVERSATION (PBS, Wednesdays): This is another freewheeling discussion series from Bill Moyers on God and morality, as seen from many religious and philosophical perspectives. Genesis focuses on the stories in the first book of the Old Testament with wit and vigor. Moyers thinks this is fun to do in real life, so why not on television? (The 10-week series continues through December.)

The opening episode, with novelists of varied gender, age and background analyzing the implications of the Cain and Abel narrative, was typically lively. Actor Mandy Patinkin read the story (in paraphrase) and the relaxed group (John Barth, Mary Gordon, Oscar Hijuelos and others) genially roared off in many interpretive directions.

It made you wonder if you'd ever really read this story, in which God prefers Abel's sacrifice to Cain's. Cain murders his brother out of jealousy and asks his famous question about being his brother's keeper. Then he is both banished by God and protected from human vengeance before going on ("east of Eden") to found a city famed for its art and creativity.

For some, the range of comment and expertise is more confusing and depressing than enlightening. (Throughout the series, fundamentalist sensitivities are gingerly handled.) But this is meant to be a discussion, an exploration--not the final word.

For the Abels of this world, Mary Gordon says the moral of the story is to witness. Only God has the right to punish, says Rabbi Burton Visotzky, who is certainly thinking of revenge and probably capital punishment. Cain is the most interesting character, the one most like us, says Charles Johnson.

"When God says 'stop' to the cycle of violence," says Gordon, "it's a great mystery...the moment I love most." Well, it's hard not to love any moment in which gifted people--even some without credentials, and some I don't especially admire--discuss the eternal puzzlements with passion. Moyers has perhaps done more to bring religious culture to television than anyone else, and his productions have also brought us back to the beautiful flexibility of the word (in the sense of language). His shows sometimes wander off into fog and mist but Genesis is not one of them. Highly recommended for viewers hungry for ideas.

THE TIES THAT BIND: This new one-hour Maryknoll documentary, which aired on the Odyssey (formerly Faith and Values) channel before Thanksgiving, provides some perspective on the current controversies over immigration.

Its primary impact is in images. It contrasts Mexican migrants and their dreams and values with the harsh treatment and "scapegoating" on this side of the border. (The recent beatings by deputies in California of illegals fleeing from a truck provide vivid footage.) But much information and persuasion are part of the package. Examples include the argument that Mexican workers already subsidize the cheap prices at U.S. department stores, the exposure of conditions at the border factories, the values (hard work, family, religion) shared in both countries.

The film reflects the thinking of the U.S. bishops and suggests that Americans need to do more hard thinking before closing their minds on this issue. The video ($23, English or Spanish, from Maryknoll, 800-227-8523) is ideal for a group-discussion starter.

RELATIVITY (ABC, Saturdays): As tourists in Rome, blue-collar Leo (David Conrad) and suburban Isabel (Kimberly Williams) meet and, hormones raging, fall in love. Then they come back to Los Angeles and discover how (and if) this flies with their friends and relatives, including her fiancé. Relativity is romance vs. reality, what happens after a couple decides, well, they're a couple. That's when most love stories end.

This idea is what attracted me to the show, along with the track record of honchos Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life). It does do some things right, mostly by suggesting how close-knit most families are (dysfunctional ones perhaps especially), and how every vibration affects the others and the whole. Only the highest-level fiction ever honestly gets into this.

Relativity is a rare TV genre, a continuing romantic comedy. There are laughs (the kids break their news to their own relatives, then face the terror of the other families) and tears (a touching one-year memorial service for Leo's much-loved mom). The point: We keep on relating to family even after they die.

A few avid love scenes and a live-in relationship so far are the closest to Armageddon. A more basic complaint is the empty heads of the characters, who seem unlikely to come up with any great thoughts or passions. These are 20-somethings, and they have a long way to go. Good writing and production values are not enough.

DANGEROUS MINDS (ABC, Mondays): A white female teacher works in a marginal school with troubled, mostly minority kids. She cares and it helps. She has ex-Marine toughness and discipline, but problems are not always solved. About the best audiences can hope for is entertainment, maybe a little insight and inspiration.

Annie Potts is capable of carrying this TV series, since she can make us want to believe almost anything. Even better: The school has other teachers of other races who also work hard and connect. This genre is a popular perennial; we need and want hope in our schools. In one episode a big lovable kid plants a tree, a bad guy knocks it down, a teacher convinces the discouraged kid to plant it again. Not enough of us put our trees back in the ground. For now at least, recommended.

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