The Man Who Wasn't There
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (A-4, R): Taste for the movies
of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, Fargo)
may not be universal, but they deserve respect for a consistent
vision and compassion for quirky mid-America characters
seldom found elsewhere. The Man is Ed Crane (Billy
Bob Thornton), a Santa Rosa barber in 1949.
Ed is meek and doesn't talk much, but he talks endlessly
to the audience in flat voiceovers that reveal a Byzantine
inner life. Although Ed doesn't talk much to wife Doris
(Frances McDormand), he "just knows" she's having an affair
with her married boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When
a sleazy customer invites Ed to invest in a dubious enterprise,
he goes for the money. Blackmail and murder follow.
The ironies are thick and deadpan in the understated, smoky,
black-and-white, deeply shadowed style of film noir.
While resembling earlier Coen films (especially Blood
Simple), Man offers a hero who is more tragic than darkly
comic. Basically, characters in Coen melodramas tend to
be slightly dumber than the audience. These characters get
entangled in a thicket of unexpected turns and incredible
luck, good and bad.
Thanks to Thornton's quiet credibility, we tend to think
this is not silliness but life. Ed's faults include an obsession
with a young woman pianist who charms him endlessly with
her playing of "Moonlight Sonata." Ed, who knows zilch about
music, tries to arrange classical lessons for her. This
leads to more sadness.
The film's richness is in the depth and humanity of its
flawed characters, including Tony Shalhoub as a clever but
never-quite-right defense lawyer and Adam Alexi-Malle in
a splendid cameo as a piano artiste who delightfully explains
the nature of talent. Finely crafted morally and artistically;
likely to win some Oscars; recommended for mature viewers.
K-PAX (A-2, PG-13) is a mysterious-stranger moviethe
sort in which an outsider whose origins are unknown comes
into a bad situation and makes it better, then has to go
back to wherever it was he came from. It's the Christ story,
the redemption story and a plotline in countless westerns.
Here the self-described alien (Kevin Spacey, calling himself
Protrhymes with remote) shows up in contemporary Manhattan.
He claims to be an interstellar traveler from the planet
K-Pax in a distant galaxy where, despite having two suns,
the light is much dimmer. He's here out of curiosity, since
earth (he says primly) is in the early stages of evolution
and may not make it.
Discovered in Grand Central Station, unshaven and wearing
sunglasses, Prot is hustled off to the psychiatric institute,
where he's interviewed by the skeptical Dr. Powell (Jeff
Bridges). Armed mostly with the usual Spacey wit and arrogance,
a few weird mannerisms and impressive knowledge of astronomy,
Prot charms and shakes Powell: "He's the most convincing
delusional I've ever come across."
Prot also shapes up a few of the familiar unhealthy specimens
in the mental ward, basically by befriending and giving
them hope. (The inmates being fun and not so crazy goes
back to the 1970s sensibility best expressed in One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Prot also nags the doc to stop
neglecting his family, especially an estranged son in college.
This is a who-is-he rather than a who-done-it. But director
Iain Softley (Wings of the Dove) backs into frustrating
ambiguity, after a long sequence in which Powell's detective
work seems to nail down a solution. A gifted pair, Spacey
and Bridges enjoy themselves in clinical dialogues and hypnosis
scenes. Classy and nicely performed but finally unsatisfying;
O.K. for youth and adults.
Life as a House
LIFE AS A HOUSE (A-4, R): Using a house as a symbol for
the state of a soul has probably never been as upfront (at
least since Citizen Kane and Psycho) as in
this drama about a dying builder-designer (Kevin Kline),
an obstreperous ex-hippie who has badly messed up his life.
He uses his final months to tear down his rotting derelict
house for a clean-cut dream house on the eye-filling southern
California coast. He all but forcibly enlists the help of
his spoiled, defiant, drug-wise teenage son (Hayden Christensen),
hoping to fix their relationship and save the boy before
it's too late.
You can say the metaphor is obvious and the delinquent
father and Marilyn Manson-loving kid come around too quickly.
All the other relationshipswith an ex-wife (Kristin
Scott Thomas) and assorted neighbors, angry spouses, aggressive
pubescent girlsare too patly repaired as the new house
replaces the old. But too few movies are made on the lovely
subject of reconciliation, especially between parents and
Despite the theme of near-deathbed reform, matters of faith
are never a factor. Otherwise the good script by Mark Andrus
(As Good As It Gets) offers a ton of deft lines for
Kline and the solid cast. (Sample, as Thomas speaks of her
distant current husband: "He's not there....He's never there....Even
when he is, he isn't.") The images of sea, sun and cliffs
by the ageless Vilmos Szigmond (The Deer Hunter)
simply glow. Plenty of rough edges here, including absurd
sexual humor, but for adults, a touch of reality about troubled
family life, and the hard process of reform and moral change.
The Harry Potter Phenomenon
THE HARRY POTTER PHENOMENON: Precious little bad is being
said about the lengthy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone (A-2, PG), a true moneymaking bonanza. It seems
to be a jaw-dropping "wow" among both film crazies and Potter
fans. Thus, it is destined to be only the start of a complete
translation of all seven still-in-progress J.K. Rowling
You hear the usual book-to-movie complaints ("incomplete"
or "not-quite-as-I-imagined-it"). But most (including parents)
are somewhere between satisfied and enthusiastic.
Regarding age appropriateness, academics who know both
literature and kids warn that those under 10 (hero Harry
is 11) are vulnerable to scary stuff. Director Chris Columbus
(the Home Alone guy) doesn't have a track record
for taste or subtlety. But wise parents prepare their children
for all pop-culture encounters, of which Harry is
no way even on the same planet as the worst.
The most serious attacks on HP have always been
philosophical, based on the idea that magic is glorified
and arouses youthful interest in the occult. But witches
and magic are common in fairy tales, even the best (such
as Oz and the Arthurian legends). Magic is a metaphor for
the spiritual and the imaginative: Things are not what they
Little doubt, though, that while HP endorses many
noble and worthwhile virtues, technically, it's more Stoic
than Christian. For more profound children's stories, the
master is C.S. Lewis (see TV review). Meanwhile, as we await
the movie of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings,
we should sit back, dialogue with our youngsters and simply
CROSSING JORDAN (NBC, Mondays) has an Irish-Catholic heroine
but she's not in Philly's league. Predictable and
formulaic, CJ presents Jill Hennessy as a skinny slick beauty
who works improbably as a medical examiner solving crimes
in Boston. She and crew work from body to cause and killer.
Let's say CJ is inspired by the hit CSI:
Crime Scene Investigation on rival CBS, almost down
to the secondary characters (quirky young medical aides),
who usually labor on vaguely comic subplots, and replaying
the violent murders in slow motion as the docs theorize
how they were done. Here, it's Jordan and her retired police-detective
dad (Ken Howard) who role-play the re-enactments. (In early
episodes, brashly exploited, the victims included a hooker
and a stripper.)
Miguel Ferrer does as well as anyone could as her boss,
a divorced senior physician stuck with the world's most
obnoxious, trouble-bound 17-year-old daughter. (Dramas are
full of sullen teens these days.) Probably it's his own
fault that she hates him, but he broods as his sincere attempts
at reconciliation are pathetically rebuffed. Offers only
The Magic Never Ends (PBS)
THE MAGIC NEVER ENDS (PBS): Subtitled The Life and Work
of C.S. Lewis, this superb new documentary reminds us
that Lewis, the Irish-born Oxford and Cambridge professor,
scholar and author of 38 books, was both the leading Christian
apologist of much of the 20th century and its greatest writer
of children's literature.
Jack Lewis, an Anglican, was a close friend of Tolkien
and Chesterton and a famous convert from disbelief at 33
("the most significant event of his life").
He suffered his hardest tests of faith over the untimely
deaths of the women he cherished most. His mother died when
he was nine. ("God isn't there," he feared.) The death of
his young (45) wife, Joy, after a long struggle with cancer
ended an idyllic love story. ("She opened him up the way
true love always does.") This was described in the several
play-film versions of Shadowlands.
His best-known books (a million are routinely sold annually)
are the delightful Chronicles of Narnia and the satiric
Screwtape Letters. They are described and discussed
by experts and admirers including narrator Ben Kingsley
and actress Debra Winger (who played Joy opposite Anthony
Hopkins's Jack in the film Shadowlands). Lewis "cuts
through all the denominational rubbish," says one commentator,
"to the tradition we all have in common."
Classic stills and film cover large and small moments of
his life, and the beautiful English countryside and academe
he loved. Writer-director Chip Duncan provides a moving
passage on Lewis's own death, which happened on the same
day as the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963.
Jack Lewis's charm was his hearty wit and wisdom: He's
not an ideal cinematic man of action or adventure. But as
one who knew pain and moved in a life's journey from atheist
to a defender of the faith, Lewis still speaks to many who
struggle in a time of both materialism and indescribable
evil. ("He's helped so many wounded....You see more than
you've ever seen before.") This fine memoir can be purchased