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by James Arnold

Worst-ever Bad-hair Day

The Truth About Cats and Dogs
Jane Eyre
Touched by an Angel
Executive Decision
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy
TV's Greatest Performances

Twister stars Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt as an estranged couple leading a crew of young tornado-hunting scientists who race across Oklahoma during a vicious storm.
TWISTER (A-3, PG-13) shows the increasing convergence between movies and more participatory forms of pop culture, like amusement parks and videogames, and away from movies about human life and character. The driving motive is profit. More people will pay to experience a tornado than will, say, follow a nun reconciling a condemned prisoner to death.

If people are going to come, the tornado experience has to be good. Director Jan De Bont and his special-effects wizards certainly achieve that here, with more "virtual" noise, wind and flying debris of all shapes and sizes than many will want to endure.

We get roughly five big wind scenes, with computer-generated cloud funnels churning up farms and towns. The sense of objects freed from gravity by 300-m.p.h. winds is uncanny and scary.

The movie's humanity, which must largely be credited to creative force Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, TV's ER), is less impressive. Plot and characters are out of Screenwriting 101, despite good efforts by Helen Hunt and Bill
Paxton as an estranged couple leading twister-hunting scientists down the back roads and cornfields of Oklahoma's "tornado alley."

Bill has retired to a softer life (he thinks) as a TV weatherman and brings along his new friend (Jami Gertz), who happens to be a sex therapist, to locate Helen so she can sign the divorce papers. All three wind up chasing storms during the Midwest's worst-ever bad-hair day.

Michael Kahn's scene editing is terrific, but the writing here is mostly unintentionally funny, as when Paxton keeps urging Hunt to "hang on!" when half of Kansas and Iowa are passing overhead.

While Cary Elwes, as an unscrupulous rival, serves as a human villain, the real bad guy is nature (like dinosaurs and the great white shark in other films). In today's technology-worshiping movies nature tends to be a lingering indicator of God's presence: the dark, frightening side of the divine, still a mystery, still beyond the power of human ingenuity to understand or control. Energetic and violent thrill ride, but superficial; uneasy for the timid; satisfactory for fans of the genre.

EXECUTIVE DECISION (A-3, R): Your stereotypical Arab terrorists take over a 747 with 400 passengers and defy even their own cooler, wiser leaders to try a nerve-gas bombing on Washington, D.C. A team of high-tech commandos, accompanied by tuxedoed C.I.A. guy Kurt Russell (fresh from a cocktail party), drop on board in midair, and try to save the Beltway and the peace.

It's not very credible, but each new big-budget action movie has to stretch all previous exaggerations. Not meant to be a treatise on international understanding, it works as a schlocky thriller, with lots of intended (and unintended) humor. Halle Berry is a noble flight attendant, and David Suchet takes a turn as the implacable fanatic bad guy. Above-average action flick; still, beware of heavy genre violence; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS (A-4, PG-13) is a mostly genial but low-calorie Cyrano rip-off set in California. Two women like the same guy, and the intelligent one (Janeane Garofalo) does the talking for the gorgeous-but-dumb one (Uma Thurman). This is gifted comedian Garofalo's first semi-serious lead, and she plays a veterinarian with a radio call-in show, which accounts for the title.

Writer Audrey Wells thinks telephone sex is a cute solution to the need to have Garofalo and boyfriend talk passionately without seeing each other. But the scene is appalling, not funny, and throws the rest of the comedy off kilter. Still, Garofalo's charm is formidable, so that only 20-somethings with dormant hormones would consider her an unfit date, making this doggy story phony at its heart. Problem sex situation; not generally recommended.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (A-3, unrated): This musical masterpiece, made in France in 1965 by Jacques Demy with notable melodies by Michel Legrand, is crossing the country in a restored print. It is possibly the most beautiful movie opportunity of the summer. The dialogue is all in song, but it's a gentle contemplation on love, awash in beautiful people and bright colors. Two teens (Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo) fall in intoxicating love, but are parted by war and economic circumstance. But life is compassionate, not tragic. This is a graceful little film that lights many an evening in the memory. Recommended for youth and adults.

JANE EYRE (A-2, PG): The Charlotte Bronte classic of romance and poetic justice returns, with young Charlotte Gainsbourg as the adult plain Jane, the governess who falls in love with her employer, the brooding Rochester (William Hurt). Anna Paquin makes a lively young Jane in the early scenes set in a religious school for poor girls, in which Scripture is quoted to justify sadistic treatment.

This new version, directed by veteran Franco Zeffirelli (Jesus of Nazareth), is traditional in approach but non-frightening in dealing with the madwoman in Rochester's attic. The sets and visuals are good enough, but the acting (John Wood, Joan Plowright in key support) is what makes it special. Satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

RUBY RIDGE: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (CBS): The four-hour mini-series was distinctive for putting flesh and humanity to a story that the media never covered in much depth. Indeed, you get locked into its psychological world and begin to see from Vicki Weaver's perspective, as another shot in the war leading to Armageddon, and the final conflict between good and evil.

(The context is the controversial 1992 attack by federal agents on the Idaho retreat of white separatist Randy Weaver, his wife Vicki and their several young children that resulted in the death of Vicki, her son and one of the agents.)

Randy Quaid's portrait of Randy Weaver is nicely etched--this movie character is a familiar, blue-collar bigot type, even if soft and reasonable at times. At a young age he was flawed by a belief in the power of the gun.

Laura Dern's Vicki is unforgettable (whatever the real Vicki may have been like). Vicki is the rational, apocalyptic Christian who has used the Bible as the answer to every question. Her driving debate with her minister about the satanic dimensions of Halloween reveals a character you don't see much in movies. She takes religion wrongly, but seriously. Logic is seldom more chilling than in the hands of a deft true believer who starts with a doubtful premise.

The Weavers are people of faith under attack. If they're friendly with incipient fascists like the Aryans, the federal agents show that fascism is an easy temptation on both sides. The movie shows the
misconceptions and false readings in everybody's heads, the eternal uncertainty of battlefield situations, and the self-fulfilling prophecies of paranoia and end-of-the-world scenarios.

No doubt, Ruby Ridge itself can be seen as an artifact of Vicki Weaver's world of Antichrist (government, media, Jews, blacks, Catholics) simply doing its wicked task with more than usual skill. Director Roger Young's carefully nuanced film wins respect for exposing mind-sets, beliefs and passions seldom understood or explored.

DOCUDRAMAS use reality as a basis for theater--theater is art and excitement and perhaps truth, but a different kind of truth. Shakespeare wrote some beautiful, moving docudramas about English kings. Thus, the real Richard III is known for something more than ambition and murder, and will be remembered with some sympathy, as long as the English language survives.

The danger is mistaking docudramas for history. That really becomes mischievous if they deal with personalities whose impact is still felt (like JFK or Nixon) or still involved in public events (like Randy Weaver). In any case, you're amused by station promos that urge viewers to tune in later to watch the news and "the real story" of, say, Ruby Ridge. Presumably, that means that up to now you've been watching fantasy.

The promos bring up another unpleasant and commonplace TV strategy: the tie-in on local news with some entertainment show being carried by the network. Thus, a local story about stalkers may tie in nicely with the subject of the movie-of-the-week. The ethical principle of a wall between entertainment and news is violated so often--to boost ratings--it's no wonder viewers have trouble knowing which is which.

TV'S GREATEST PERFORMANCES (NBC): This is not the PBS series, which gets into stuff like opera and theater, but a pop-oriented show, offered occasionally to grab channel-surfers. It's a genre big networks do so well because of their vast tape archives.

In this second smorgasbord of "great moments," host Daniel Benzali (the somber Murder One star comes on as a quasi-grand guru of TV) shows us clips from the famous last episode of M*A*S*H, an excerpt from Robin Williams's performance at Carnegie Hall, the Judds' farewell concert, tributes to Gilda Radner by Saturday Night Live colleagues, Dan Jansen winning his Olympic gold medal, and Luke and Laura's 1981 wedding on General Hospital.

The orientation is obviously to boomers. But nearly all these segments promote values with which many viewers are happy to identify. It's also the best kind of self-promotion for TV.

TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL (CBS, Saturdays): The unusual thing about this prime-time series is how explicitly "religious" it is. The perceptive Catholic discovers a frankly spiritual approach to stories in the vast materialistic wasteland, with some reservations that the tone is more, say, Billy Graham than John Paul II. But there's a sense that it's too obvious and broad, and designed to appeal to the saved.

The show offers a team of three angels (veteran Della Reese supervising attractive young leads Roma Downey and John Dye) who intervene each week to repair lives. There's little of the usual show-biz ambiguity about "the boss" or "the man upstairs." They talk about God and what he wants, as in "God wants everyone to be a whole person....God sees you exactly as you are and loves you....You forgot him but he didn't forget you...."

As my straight-talking nun-teacher used to say, "It may be good religion, but it ain't art." Well, not much on the tube is, and Touched may offer a refuge for those seeking a little sweetness and light. It's a big hit by industry standards, and will be moving over to Sunday nights to replace the departed legend, Murder She Wrote, while also giving birth to a spinoff drama, Home of the Brave, starring Gerald McRaney.

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