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By James Arnold

A Season For Quirky Heroes


The Man Who Wasn't There
Life as a House
The Harry Potter Phenomenon
Crossing Jordan
The Magic Never Ends (PBS)

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 movie—the 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 Prot—rhymes 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 relationships—with an ex-wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and assorted neighbors, angry spouses, aggressive pubescent girls—are 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 difficult sons.

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 fantasy novels.

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 seem.

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 enjoy.

Crossing Jordan

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 conventional potential.

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 or 888-717-9977.

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