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By James Arnold

Young People, Challenging Choices




Moonlight Mile

MOONLIGHT MILE (A-3, PG-13): Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon are grieving parents of a daughter tragically murdered on the eve of her wedding. Set in a small New England town in 1973, the film recalls In the Bedroom as the killer goes on trial.

But writer-director Brad Silberling (who did the supernatural love story City of Angels) avoids melodrama (no vigilante revenge murder). He focuses on the ironic but credible dilemma of the would-be bridegroom, Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal).

As the story unfolds, we realize that the engaged couple had quietly decided to call off the wedding. Joe continues the charade, but truth-telling seems inevitable. When he retrieves the nuptial invitations, he meets and falls in love with a vivacious postal worker. The prosecutor’s (Holly Hunter) case depends emotionally on Joe’s testimony about his presumably shattered dreams.

The boy’s moral character is tested, and there is good dialogue about love and marriage. But the film’s virtue is the energy of Hoffman and Sarandon, who take opposite approaches to grief: He obsesses on whether his daughter loved him; she revolts against sentimentality and embraces life. Lots of period music (the title is based on a Rolling Stones hit of the era); satisfactory for mature viewers.


SPIRITED AWAY (A-2, PG): Disney hopes this will be the U.S. breakthrough for Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki. The biggest ever box-office hit in Japan, Spirited is now deftly dubbed in English.

It describes the bold adventures of Chihiro, a 10-year-old girl sulking en route to a new home and school when she and her parents take a wrong turn. They become lost in a deserted theme park that proves to be a vacation spot and bathhouse for spirits.

Expertise in theology is not required: One can simply be delighted and astonished by their variety of shape and form. Many spirits may seem menacing, but these weird-looking folks turn out to be kind, especially if Chihiro is kind to them. (The real world, of course, is full of monsters, but is that what we want to tell our children?)

Chihiro has to be unselfish and brave. In her efforts to rescue her enchanted parents, she learns courage and self-confidence. The beauty and cleverness of the artwork stimulate the imagination.

We’ll see much more of Miyazaki, whose earlier films (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service) are already on U.S. home video but largely undiscovered. Disney has bought worldwide distribution rights to his work. Maybe a bit long and complex at over two hours; otherwise, highly recommended for families.


TUCK EVERLASTING (A-2, PG): The ups and downs of immortality are lightly explored in this whimsical romance based on Natalie Babbitt’s juvenile novel. Winnie Foster (lovely Alexis Bledel of TV’s Gilmore Girls) is the teenage rebel heroine of this circa 1914 story.

In one of her petulant escapes from her stuffy parents, Winnie runs deep into the woods and encounters the Tucks, a mysterious family that refuses to let her leave. They fear she’s discovered their secret: Water they drank from a spring ensures they will never age or die—they’re already over 100 years old.

In this love story Winnie falls for Jesse (Jonathan Jackson), the younger of the two brothers. Eventually she must decide (à la Brigadoon) whether to share his form of eternity or return to mortal life. That may sound like a no-brainer, but second thoughts rise easily, especially when Jesse says stuff like, “I’m going to be 17 until the end of the world!”

The Disney production enlists some Oscar-winning talents to make it convincing: Sissy Spacek and William Hurt as the Tuck parents, Ben Kingsley as a mysterious stranger who hopes to seize the spring for himself. That is another downside to the situation: The magic spring could be bottled for big bucks by bad people.

A cleric teased by Kingsley thinks the whole idea is blasphemy. Indeed, living a natural life forever without God is shabby compared to the promise and hope of Christianity. On the film’s own unsophisticated level, Papa Tuck’s words to Winnie may put it best: “Don’t be afraid of death, be afraid of the unlived life.” Pretty and thoughtful; satisfactory for youth and adults.


AMERICAN DREAMS (NBC, Sundays): follows a four-child, traditional Catholic family in Philadelphia through cataclysmic events of the 1960s (John F. Kennedy’s assassination) and vast cultural changes (civil rights, the women’s movement) to baby-boomer milestones (TV’s American Bandstand).

Some still consider the ’60s the devil’s decade. This series (one of the producers is Bandstands Dick Clark) is unlikely to share those views.

The beleaguered, old-guard dad (Tom Verica) thinks he’s in charge. Most of his dreams are fulfilled: running an electronics store, nice family, nice house. But his brood is restless. His usually loyal, docile wife (Gail O’Grady) doesn’t want more children (their last baby died), and she joins a cutting-edge book study group. (Out with Shoes of the Fisherman, in with The Group; Bob Dylan grates away on the soundtrack.)

Teenage Meg (Brittany Snow) defies dad’s stern thou-shalt-not and becomes a dancer on the morally suspect Bandstand. She almost loses her best friend in one of those they-want-me-but-not-you situations. The teen son, a star football player, ponders quitting the team (the unforgiving priest-coach seems a Lombardi wannabe), jeopardizing his chances for a scholarship at Notre Dame.

The Kennedy assassination, and the first long national mourning played out on TV, bowls them over. The younger son keeps asking, “Why did they shoot him?” Nobody knows the answer, as the country takes a first step into the age of insecurity.

Dreams isn’t Shakespeare, and we may not like all the places creator (ex-actor) Jonathan Prince wants to take this conflicted Catholic family. (If the show was really Catholic, you’d hear something about Vatican II.) In its early Sunday-evening time slot, a lot of families will be watching. Glossy production values; worth keeping an eye on; already renewed for next season.


BOOMTOWN (NBC, Sundays): This cop show tries to shake up the chronology (flipping back and forth in time). Instead of the usual third-person point of view, we cut around to the various law-and-order-side characters—street cops, detectives, paramedics, prosecutors, reporters—for varying perspectives.

All that helps for freshness, but it will come down (as always) to characters and writing. It’s not a really good idea to have the assistant D.A. (Neal McDonough) cheating on his wife with the journalist (Nina Garbiras). On the other hand, Detective “Fearless” Bobby Smith (Mykelti Williamson) has potential, a bit like Andre Braugher’s memorable Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Street.

Boomtown is creative in form, but the substance is still full of weird sex, brutality and car chases. The show is a critical hit, and probably the best hope for it is growth by producer-creator Graham Yost (a key talent behind Band of Brothers). Not especially recommended; already renewed for next season.


IN-LAWS (NBC, Tuesdays): Newlyweds live with the bride’s parents (Dennis Farina, Jean Smart). The dad is intimidating, the son-in-law is clumsy and nervous. You’ll laugh reflexively now and then, even though you’ll hear lots of old sitcom jokes. In the pilot, the young man crashed the scary dad’s Cadillac. Not recommended.


HIDDEN HILLS (NBC, Tuesdays): The pilot was enough for this cliché-ridden suburban spoof in which the narrator hero frets over infrequent intimacy with his spouse compared to his soccer-dad pals. The guys also salivate over the new single mom, a bombshell Baywatch type, who is undoubtedly misunderstood but has her own X-rated Web site. The prognosis seems grim. Not recommended.


TRIBUTE TO NUNS: Keeping in mind that the national collection for retired religious is December 7-8, excerpts from a 1996 tribute Richard Rodriguez gave on PBS’s NewsHour are worth repeating. At a California motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy, Rodriguez said, “As America has grown more secular, nuns have become stock figures of mockery, sadists or walking jokes on the stage, or they need to be shaken up by Whoopi Goldberg....

“Today only a handful of women are entering the order, but the decline may also be an indication of the nuns’ success.

“These retired nuns, these old women with their wonderful faces and bright eyes, when they were younger, they taught generations of high school girls to go to college, to work in the city, unafraid. Is this a dying institution? The average age of the order is over 60 now. Yet, ask the nuns whether their order is dying and many of them shrug. It is their cheerful willingness to imagine their demise that makes them seem so alive, so open to the future. If the worst happens, if this place closes, it will remain in memory, a symbol of a remarkable time in the Church, a time when unmarried women promised God their lives, when women were true feminists before anyone heard of that word, when women crossed oceans and jungles to teach generations of American children and to sit with the dying.

“Their faith filled this chapel. They sang here and they prayed, and then they went off each morning and changed America, even though America so poorly comprehended their lives.”

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