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By James Arnold

Spectacle, Conscience, Achievement in 2002





LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (A-3, PG-13): Plenty of spectacle in part two of this lavish Peter Jackson production of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. Its strength is images, not language. But how moving can it be when the most profound line is probably Treebeard’s mournful, “Nobody cares about the woods anymore”?

Five coolest things about The Two Towers:

• The Peter Lorre-ish Gollum, the man/monkey/reptile with a split benign/malign personality.

• New Zealand’s mountains, gorges and lakes.

• Awesome tracking shots over Saruman’s enormous, dark man-beast army.

• Gandalf’s white horse: In our house, we’re suckers for white horses, especially symbolic ones.

• The spirit of World War II idealism, in which human forces unite to fight the powers of cruelty and darkness.

Four not-so-cool things about The Two Towers:

• Gollum’s raspy voice.

• The vast numbers, especially in the climactic siege of Helm’s Deep, in which computer-generated imagery overwhelms human scale.

• The endurance record for bloodless violence.

• Little context is provided and the cutting among three narrative lines is not quite fluid.

Something for the eyes and perhaps the heart, if not the brain; lots of antiseptic violence; otherwise O.K. for mature viewers.


SOLARIS (A-2, PG-13) is a posthumous love story in a space station hovering near a strange planet, in which a lonely widower (George Clooney) and his wife (Nastascha McElhone) are apparently reunited for a second chance. Getting to this conclusion, however, is murky business. Both interpretation and appreciation depend on what you bring in terms of patience and ultimate views of life’s meaning.

Clooney’s Chris Kelvin is a psychiatrist (a “nihilist shrink”) specializing in grief counseling. He’s called to salvage a crisis in which it seems each of the crew has had (and reacted differently to) a mysterious and catastrophic visitation. Kelvin’s turns out to be his dead wife, who is both beloved and estranged. (She aborted their child.) Is she real, clone, illusion, friend or menace? She’s a challenge to his rationalism. Does he escape, or stay with her and seize the opportunity to undo past mistakes?

Solaris is slow, subtle and indirect to a fault, but tightened to a merciful 99 minutes by Steven Soderbergh, writer-director, editor and cameraman (Traffic, Erin Brockovich).

Maybe it’s a well-disguised metaphor for scientists confronting the surprise of immortality and/or whether love has power over death. These ideas lingered in the Christian mysticism of the lengthy original, Soviet-defying 1972 movie by the gifted Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Both Solaris films are based on a more enigmatic sci-fi novel by the widely revered Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Somewhat cold and puzzling, confronting big questions with an ambiguous mix of gloom and optimism; adult content; satisfactory for mature viewers.


MOVIES IN 2002: Those reviewed here that deserve beyond-the-moment recommendation to Catholic viewers for overall quality and relevance, with ratings suggesting maturity level, listed in order seen: A Beautiful Mind (A-3, PG-13), The Lord of the Rings (both parts, each rated A-3, PG-13), Amélie (A-3, R), About a Boy (A-3, PG-13), Insomnia (A-3, R), Minority Report (A-3, PG-13), Road to Perdition (A-3, R), Simone (A-3, PG-13), One Hour Photo (A-4, R), Far From Heaven (A-3, PG-13). Also worth seeing for adults: Black Hawk Down (A-4, R), Iris (A-4, R).

Doting Grandpa Award (for best A-1 movie not previously praised): The Rookie, which seemed to me the best possible movie—how rare those words!—about the baseball adventures of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid).

The Pythagorean Theorem Prize for freshest idea for a marriage proposal: in the form of a mathematical proof (A Beautiful Mind).

Favorite Actors (unlikely to win Oscars): Barry Pepper’s compassionate war reporter (We Were Soldiers); Toni Colette as the suicidal single mom in About a Boy; Tim Blake Nelson as the organ-playing jailer in the prison of the future (Minority Report); Hillary Swank as the young, dedicated police officer who cracks the case (Insomnia); Jude Law as the spooky photographer-hit man (Road to Perdition).

Conscience Awards should go to several movies that dealt impressively with moral issues. Thus, Insomnia was mainly about a policeman’s agonized conscience, and finding the balance between truth and justice. Minority Report dealt extensively with such relevant questions as: May a society preempt probable evil acts? Does preventing crime as an end justify any action as a means?

Memorable Sequences: The retreat from Mogadishu, organized but tortured and semi-chaotic, played over the music of “The Minstrel Boy” (Black Hawk Down). When Amélie realizes a love song in the Paris subway comes from a blind beggar with a portable record player, she takes him up and describes for him all the visual details of the street and neighborhood (Amélie). Nuns spreading rose petals on a desolate Texas field and praying to St. Rita for a miracle, for oil, eventually receiving talented baseball players (The Rookie). The moment on the beach when Alzheimer’s-stricken Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) tosses the pages of her writing into the wind, poignantly symbolizing the disease’s tragic ravages (Iris). The whites slowly evacuate a hotel resort pool in which a small black child has dipped himself briefly before being led away (Far From Heaven).

God’s Footprint Award (to the film with the most memorable moment of grace) goes to Amélie, which may have more such moments than any film ever, since it’s about the joy of making other people happy. As for redemption, you can’t do much better than Monster’s Ball, in which a racist executioner becomes human through the love of the widow of a man he helped execute.

The H.A.L. Memorial Trophy (for compassion for dying robots): Simone, in which the virtual actress slowly “dies” as the director, played by Al Pacino, tearfully shuts down her operating systems.

The Rocky Prize, for much success with not very much, goes to My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Lines to Remember: “What’s the difference between a girlfriend and a girl who’s your friend?” (About a Boy)

“Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” (Road to Perdition)

“You are virtually in every scene.” (Simone)

“A real father is what he does, not what he promises.” (In the Bedroom)

“I was here...I existed...I was young...Somebody cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.” (About the power of snapshots, One Hour Photo)

Among Especially Gifted Film Talents Who Died in 2002: animators Chuck Jones (Road Runner and other Warner characters) and Bill Peet (Disney); directors Billy Wilder (six Oscars, including Sunset Boulevard), George Sidney (musicals, including Show Boat), Andre de Toth (westerns, including The Gunfighter), John Frankenheimer and Karel Reisz; actors Dudley Moore, Richard Harris, Rod Steiger, Kim Hunter, Eddie Bracken and James Coburn.


MYSTERY! (PBS) usually deals with devilish stuff happening in Britain, inhabiting the dark territory of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and friends very nicely. “Skinwalkers” was the first American episode in 22 years. Based on a 1986 novel by mystery writer Tony Hillerman about serial murders of Indian medicine men in the Southwest wilderness, it was suitably gripping and photogenic. Kudos to exec producer Robert Redford and son James, who adapted the book, and the mostly Native American cast and director.


CSI: MIAMI (CBS, Mondays): In this spin-off from the Las Vegas-based mega-hit series (now prime time’s most-watched show), gorgeous people again probe corpses and crime-scene leftovers to nab criminals, only in more humidity. Lots of scientific detection, test tubes, hair and fiber microscope testing, with graphic flashbacks to killings and entry wounds. Star David Caruso adds much authority and a kind of barely repressed anger at the bad guys.

The series specializes in frankness about details that TV crime shows used to avoid, and the characters’ scientific attitudes are extremely detached. It would be nice if producer Jerry Bruckheimer declared a moratorium on child victims.


TUESDAY NIGHTS on ABC are devoted mostly to family-oriented shows, until the evening tops off with NYPD Blue. It’s been a struggle to lure fans from competing series they’ve counted on (WB’s Gilmore Girls and UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

In 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, John Ritter is a dad dealing with testy teens (two girls, one boy). He deserves it after all those years doing double entendres on Three’s Company. This trite show with a deafening laugh track is probably harmless, but hardly a must-see.

According to Jim stars Jim Belushi as the universal male buffoon doing what guys do on beer commercials, dodging guilt and responsibility. Simple, guffaw-type stuff. He is gruff, insensitive but good at heart.

Less Than Perfect offers sweet, likable Sara Rue as a working girl in the familiar sitcom arena of a network newsroom. The set is strewn with zany characters we know, including the vain anchor, the goofy wannabe, the wisecracking minority girlfriend, the glamorous comic gold digger. The lines have a reasonable ratio of laughs.

The best of the ABC shows, Life With Bonnie, hits on a fresh concept. Bonnie Hunt, the writer and star, plays a TV talk-show host in Chicago who has a family. Each episode is divided into a scripted sitcom about her home life and a spontaneous segment involving her talk show. Guests on her talk show included David Duchovny as a comically conceited actor and comedy legend Jonathan Winters as an author with multiple personalities. Very bright but low-key, wholesome, unpredictable series.

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