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Dark Deeds, Disturbing News

    L.A. CONFIDENTIAL



    Photo © 1997 Monarchy Enterprises by Merrick Morton

    L.A. Confidential focuses on cops out of control on the seedy streets of 1950's Los Angeles, where lots of sinning is going on in politics, business and show biz.

    L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (A-4, R): The scene is classic film-noir melodrama: the seedy streets of 1950’s Los Angeles. Cops are out of control and lots of sinning is going on in politics, media, business and show biz.

    In this slick adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, all the cages are rattled when six people are gunned down in a modest coffee shop. It looks like a random street crime. But, in reality, it’s a sinister cover-up.

    The entangled conspiracy is unraveled by three unconventional detectives: Bud White (Russell Crowe), hard as a cement wall and inclined to cut corners; Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), an ambitious loner who is ethical and despised; and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), an egotist and a key tipster for a sleazy, celebrity-devouring tabloid.

    In the mix are an intense police captain (James Cromwell) whose passion for justice proves ambiguous; an unflappable vice kingpin (David Strathairn) who recruits movie-star look-alikes as hustlers; the “Veronica Lake” hooker (Kim Basinger), a small-town girl who falls for Bud.

    Probably the best work yet by director Curtis Hanson (Never Cry Wolf, The River Wild), the film exudes a knowing sense of sin. Unlike, say, Seven, there is gut-satisfying justice. Much genre violence redeemed by intelligence and style; soft and witty period music. Recommended, strictly for adults.


    IN AND OUT

    IN AND OUT (A-4, PG-13) is a comedy about homosexuality, a subject that is not very funny for Catholics right now. A few generations ago, it was unspeakable evil. Now, we struggle to make sense of developing rules (“being” is O.K. but not “doing”) and to relate with compassion to gay friends and relatives.

    In and Out is about an English teacher in rural Indiana (think “square”) who is “outed” by a former student on national television. The guy, Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), is shocked, since he figures he’s “normal” and is about to be married. The news also disturbs bride-to-be (funny Joan Cusack), homophobic students and parents, and nervous principal (Bob Newhart).

    Paul Rudnick’s script rolls along nicely when kidding gay stereotypes. (Straights get zapped here as well.) After an outrageous kiss from a visiting Hollywood TV journalist (Tom Selleck), Howard realizes and accepts that he “is.”

    Will Howard be allowed to keep his job? The assumption by Rudnick and genial director Frank Oz (of Miss Piggy fame) is the public liberal consensus—which the Church officially resists—that gay is O.K. and that anxiety about it is comic and archaic.

    In and Out solves little but celebrates diversity anyway. But credit some happily wacko moments and support for tolerance. O.K. for mature viewers but not especially recommended.

    SOUL FOOD

    SOUL FOOD (A-3, R): When grandma gets fatally ill, and the adult daughters and husbands squabble among themselves, a young boy rescues the 40-year family tradition of celebrating life with scrumptious Sunday-afternoon dinners. Writer-director George Tillman’s funny, touching memoir of his Milwaukee middle-class childhood adds African-American cuisine to the competition for memorable “food movies” (Babette’s Feast, Big Night). Like the others, the meal gives moral as well as physical sustenance. Problem language, sex situations; satisfactory for mature viewers.

    THE EDGE

    THE EDGE (A-3, R): An aging billionaire and the younger man who covets the older man’s beautiful wife are lost in the Alaskan wilderness. In this preternatural situation they must battle not only the elements and each other, but also a humongous kodiak bear who wants to eat them both. The talent converges nicely: writer David Mamet concerned with the triumph of the fittest; intense actors Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin; New Zealand director Lee Tamahori; and (above all) Bart, the relentless bear, and the rugged mountain locales. Savage man-vs.-nature violence; satisfactory for mature viewers.

    SISTER WENDY BECKETT

    SISTER WENDY BECKETT is, well, one of the loves of my life. She’s the habited English nun who does the five-hour BBC series on art and history on PBS (also available on video for a measly $100). She takes us from the cave drawings to contemporary art. She not only reminds me of the splendid teachers of my youth but also represents the loving relationship between Catholicism and art that we seem somehow to have lost.

    Few pleasures match Sister Wendy standing in a French field and waxing eloquent about Van Gogh, or explaining Degas’s attitudes toward his ballerinas, or explicating Monet and the water lilies. She’s also eloquent in dialogue on a probing Conversation With Bill Moyers, understanding and defending Serrano and arguing that “all art is prayer,” reflecting people’s “deep desire for more than life is giving them.” Vive Sister Wendy! Come back soon!

    CHRISTMAS ON TAPE

    CHRISTMAS ON TAPE: This is the month of jingle bells and holly, when the Christmas spirit overwhelms the materialistic media. Everybody wants to feel good or ponder the deeper spiritual meanings of the season.

    There are probably 5,000 videos and TV specials. If you’re tired of the Grinch, Rudolph, Santa and It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s time to put on blinders and earmuffs or turn off the electricity.

    American pop culture has transformed the religious feast into a peculiarly American holiday. It’s become a season for “our” traditions and family and community bonding.

    Christmas is commonly used in our films and TV shows. As scholar Greg Metcalf has observed, in a notable essay, Dickens’s 19th-century A Christmas Carol is the basis for nearly all American Christmas stories and scenes. There are plenty because Christmas has built-in power.

    The Scrooge story is about fear-regret-penitence. It expresses nostalgia for Christmases past, the importance of family and of “going home,” reintegrating the outsider or “lost soul” into the community. It encourages the generous spirit of peace and goodwill to all. It scorns greed and business values, and exposes our fear of loneliness, of being unloved. Capra’s Wonderful Life hits them all.

    Is there any more glowing 19th-century, Christmas card portrait of a cozy love-filled family Christmas at home than in Little Women? Or the general spirit of do-gooding that overtakes ordinary Americans at Christmas than in the underrated 1996 Penny Marshall comedy Dear God (postal workers answering the mail sent to God)?

    Some memorable but less often cited examples typify Christmas themes. For example, there is the “truth” implied in Christmas values when stories portray department-store Santas as “real,” thus flabbergasting the sophisticated cynics who attack commercialism (Miracle on 34th Street). Often angels (Clarence in Wonderful Life) do as well or better, but the religion is fuzzy, even if you take Santa and angels as symbols for God or for hope, which is entirely possible.

    Undoubtedly, a reason for the popularity of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story is its comical reverse twist on these conventions, as the narrator recalls stressful boyhood holidays in which the department-store Santa was scary and the dinner was eaten at a Chinese restaurant.

    Yet sometimes movies remind us that Christmas can be celebrated without the trappings in very unusual places: Metcalf recalls Christmas in the Congo (The Nun’s Story) and on a submarine in the Pacific (Destination Tokyo).

    The villain in most Christmas stories is an unrepentant Scrooge, some fellow with a bottom line for a heart, like John Lithgow’s comically ruthless toy magnate in Santa Claus—The Movie. These bad guys reflect some 20th-century cynicism, not so much about the concepts of family and goodwill, but of how they’re eternally violated. Even in most holiday horror films, the anger is not at the Christmas spirit, but at exploitation and hypocrisy.

    “California Christmases” are non-traditional, phony and empty—at least to Easterners, thus frequently scorned (such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). Another common theme involves the outsider being stunned and drawn in by the warmth when invited to a family Christmas: Mel Gibson’s suicidal cop in Lethal Weapon, Sandra Bullock’s lonely subway cashier in While You Were Sleeping, Mary Stuart Masterson’s workaholic career woman in Bed of Roses. The good family is the foundation of human joy.

    All this reflects hope and perhaps an unexpressed leap of faith in...something. God is sort of there, but off-stage, making the magic happen, but unseen. People of faith enjoy it because we understand the religious miracle at the heart of it. We know the world is, in a sense, coasting on Christian momentum, that it was a different place 2,000 years ago. So bring on the videos, and merry Christmas to all.

    THINKING OF RENTING

    THINKING OF RENTING or buying some Christmas videos? Here are a few admittedly offbeat ideas you may not have heard as often as some others. (All are on tape and available from prolific suppliers like Facets in Chicago: 800-5-FACETS.)

    Three Godfathers (1948): sentimental John Ford western about three semi-outlaws (John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harry Carey, Jr.) who find an infant in the desert.

    Nativity (1978, made for TV): not terrific, but a rare film about the romance of Mary and Joseph and the first Christmas, starring John Shea and (in her first film) 20-year-old Madeleine Stowe.

    A Christmas Without Snow (1980, made for TV): John Korty’s San Francisco-based drama about a lonely divorcée (Michael Learned) who finds comfort in a church choir led by the typically irascible John Houseman.

    A Dream for Christmas, Homecoming, The Christmas Carol (1973, 1971, 1980, all made for TV): all touching and humane, Christmasy dramas written by Earl Hamner, Jr., the last two involving the family from The Waltons.

    The Railway Children (1970): fine British film, starring Jenny Agutter, based on the Edith Nesbitt children’s novel about a family bereft when the father is unjustly imprisoned at Christmas.

    Remember the Night (1940, b&w): a neat Preston Sturges comedy-romance in which prosecutor Fred MacMurray invites lonely shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck home for a family Christmas.

    Come to the Stable (1949, b&w): This Clare Booth Luce tale, with Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as French nuns trying to build a children’s hospital in New England, won six Oscar nominations.

    A Midnight Clear (1992): This artful World War II drama includes the anecdote about German and American soldiers celebrating Christmas together; early career roles for Peter Berg, Gary Sinise, Ethan Hawke, others.



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