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THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC

THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC (A-4, R): They’ll never get Joan’s story quite right, so they’ll go on making semi-terrific movies about this most puzzling and courageous saint. But no Lancelot rides in to rescue 19-year-old Joan from the fire.

This 141-minute spectacle by popular French director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) is bizarre on the voices and visions. But it offers convincing Milla Jovovich (his then-wife) as a Joan with charisma. The war scenes (siege of Orleans) have cursing, gore and horror, humor, compassion, courage, glory. We feel the impact this God-intoxicated girl could have on cynical, bloodied soldiers on both sides.

Cauchon (Timothy West) is the most sympathetic of the prosecutors; John Malkovich is weird but gentle as the ungrateful king; Faye Dunaway is pragmatic as the scheming royal mother-in-law. Dustin Hoffman appears late (in a stroke of frivolity or genius) as Joan’s conscience, partly to speak for modern skeptics but, perhaps, also as a messenger of grace and consolation. Sometimes over the top but a stirring, real movie; not fully satisfying because Joan’s true glory is beyond its reach; O.K. for mature viewers.

THE INSIDER

THE INSIDER (A-3, R): A scientist/research exec is fired from a major tobacco company because of his reluctance to go along with evasions and deceit about the addictive nature of cigarettes. A veteran CBS producer tries to get him to tell his story on 60 Minutes. The result is a superb white-collar underdog docudrama as these two men battle hard-nosed corporate giants in the 1990’s arena of media and public relations.

This potent movie by writer-director Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans) is long (158 minutes). But it digs deeply into the problems of corporate whistle-blowers like Jeff Wigand (brilliantly played by Russell Crowe), who are cut economically adrift with their families, and subject to legal and psychological intimidation from corporations that are the modern equivalent of medieval dukedoms.

Truth-telling has serious human costs. Consider the thrill of being persuaded to sign a confidentiality agreement or lose your severance and family health insurance.

Brown & Williamson threatens to sue CBS and the broadcast titan blinks, possibly because of the threat to a multi-billion-dollar merger. Al Pacino is feisty as the newsguy who can’t believe his company’s lack of guts, and Christopher Plummer offers a convincing study of a human Mike Wallace, who isn’t always admirable under pressure.

But the film’s most affecting character is Crowe’s Wigand: He’s a matter-of-fact, everyday hero who shows moral courage. Recommended for adults and mature youth.

BRINGING OUT THE DEAD

BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (A-3, R) covers 56 chaotic hours in the life of paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), who dispenses mercy in a gritty section of New York where the “cardiac arrests” are caused mostly by suicides, homicides and overdoses. This fourth deep but gloomy collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) has its moments but veers toward surrealism.

Sensitive Frank is haunted by his failures as he struggles to save lives. He befriends the estranged daughter (Patricia Arquette) of a man who has a heart attack.

In the city’s corrupt streets, humanity struggles and God may appear in the guise of an Asian nun preaching repentance. Scorsese and Schrader are artists who show ugliness not for its own sake but in brutal moral outrage.

There is a bizarre mix of horror and humor. (The hospital, nicknamed Our Lady of Misery, is a vision of pathetic-yet-heroic medics and cops striving against hopelessness.) Frank wants to quit but can’t even get fired because the city needs him so desperately. His fellow drivers (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore) all have ways of coping, ranging from detachment to rage to Christian fatalism.

New York seems to signify the unredeemed world of chaos in which faith, hope and love are on life support, and people must find their own strength. Graphic adult realism and language; satisfactory for adults.

MUSIC OF THE HEART

MUSIC OF THE HEART (A-3, PG) is a more optimistic New York story, based on the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary about Roberta Guasperi’s efforts to teach violin (and love of music) to public school children in East Harlem. The theme of this uncharacteristically bright, endearing movie by horror director Wes Craven (Scream) is that music education is vital to the human spirit and not merely frill.

With the marvelous Meryl Streep as Guasperi, Music fits into the solid tradition of movies about good teachers in problem schools and about dedicated music mentors in particular (Mr. Holland’s Opus).

The gutsy heroine has a full plate of problems: Her husband has dumped her and two young sons, and her most logical male friend (Aidan Quinn) doesn’t believe in marriage. At school, the practical, overworked principal (Angela Bassett) must be won over; the cultural resistance by kids and working minority parents, not to mention poverty and violence, must be overcome.

The successful program must be saved from budget-cutters. Celebrity violinists, from Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman to country fiddler Mark O’Connor, help re-create the saving Fiddlefest at Carnegie Hall.

It may be sentimental, but the music (from “We Shall Overcome” to Bach) is lovely and the kids are heartwarming (as is the aged Stern as he talks about the music spirits in the Carnegie walls that will be rooting for them). You always want good teachers to succeed and be appreciated. An upbeat time unless your heart is made of rock; satisfactory for older children and adults.

MARY, MOTHER OF JESUS

MARY, MOTHER OF JESUS (NBC): It’s rare to see a film or TV drama about Mary, or even with Mary as a prominent character. This film, which aired in November, focused on her point of view in dramatizing New Testament events.

Such exposure is risky, since so little is known of Mary’s life and much speculation is involved. But this Mary was made in Europe by well-intentioned Catholics (producers Eunice Kennedy Shriver and son Bobby). The two principals are strong: The mature Mary is Pernilla August, a best actress at Cannes and wife of noted Swedish director Bille August; the adult Jesus is Christian Bale, a young Englishman (the child hero of Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun) with a superb voice.

Still, the results of this slight shift in focus are often unsettling. For example, it is Mary who has the dream and wakes Joseph to flee with the child into Egypt. And Jesus gets many of his ideas from Mary, both in general (the wisdom of nonviolence) and specific (relating the Good Samaritan parable to young Jesus as a bedtime story).

The two are so close that the “momma’s boy” syndrome comes to mind. (She watches him get beaten up and not fight back as a child, tells him to “be careful” as he goes into the desert.)

The familiar problems persist. Did Jesus know who he was? Was Mary at the Last Supper? Ancient Judea is not easily re-created. Director Kevin Connor has no better ideas for the slaughter of the innocents or the beheading of the Baptist than many others before him.

But some sequences are above average (the wine miracle at Cana, where both Jesus and Mary join in the dancing). As for others (Mary angrily berating the apostles for their cowardice after the Lord’s death), you’re prompted to say, “Of course!”

The crucifixion is especially brutal because we feel it through her. The Easter tomb scene belongs mostly to Mary Magdalene (Simone Bendix): It is simple (no angels) and moving. Unique and decent work, but won’t satisfy everyone; available on video (800-NBC-4144) for $24.95, plus $4.95 for shipping and handling.

NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM

NEW YORK: A DOCUMENTARY FILM (PBS, 10-hour miniseries): This classy social history by Ric Burns and Lisa Ades closes out the century for public TV on a high note. Especially moving was the segment on Al Smith, the four-term governor who invented social welfare and what became the New Deal. He was the Irish American with the city accent who took all the bigotry hits for Catholics in politics, and who showed that “anti-New York” was a code word for anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism.

There were richly developed passages (the tragic Irish draft riots, the Brooklyn Bridge, immigration, the Triangle fire) and the dominant insight that New York is the moral and cultural symbol—for so many religious and rural Americans—of the dreaded new age of materialism and corrupt media.

Superb moments included the poignant montage of Jacob Riis’s black-and-white photos of late 19th-century poor children (from How the Other Half Lives) played under a voice softly singing “The Sidewalks of New York.”

THE WEST WING

THE WEST WING (NBC, Wednesdays) is intelligent drama on the ER model. A dozen or so likable male and female characters (their early improbable all-whiteness was corrected) mingle each week to face a variety of crises that are personal, political or universe-threatening. There are lots of bright conversations and some great lines: “Two things you don’t want people to know how you make them—laws and sausages.”

The series is exec-produced and written by bluebloods like Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night) and John Wells (ER).

You have moments like the Prez (Martin Sheen) calling a carrier in the middle of a hurricane and reaching a kid sailor. Or cynical aide Josh (Brad Whitford) suddenly finding (to his distress) that he will be choppered to a refuge in case of nuclear attack, but most of his associates won’t be.

Sheen (now 59) is hypnotic with the charm and at making speeches, but not always sympathetic. He’s oddly comfy at being president after his years as a real-life anti-nuke activist, but then he’s had previous practice on TV as both JFK and RFK.

The show is many cuts above Spin City. We can actually pick up useful civics info on how a White House staff gets its job done under constant pressure. Just possibly, we can also perceive them a bit more easily as mere mortals, not gods or demons.

 


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