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Icons: Redford, Bernardin, Sinatra


    Horse Whisperer

    Photo © 1998 Touchstone by Elliott Marks

    The Horse Whisperer stars Kristen Scott Thomas and Robert Redford.

    THE HORSE WHISPERER (A-2, PG-13) is Robert Redford’s take on Nicholas Evans’s best-seller. It’s not about profound issues. It’s about how to live in harmony with, and close to, nature.

    An embattled mother and teenage daughter drive to Montana from New York to have rancher Tom Booker heal their traumatized horse. In the process they are healed. Booker (Redford, also producer-director) is well-known for his gift for dealing with horses without force or violence. He also embodies the independent soul of the unspoiled wilderness, which explains his power with animals.

    Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a perfectionist wife and hard-driving magazine editor, refuses to surrender control of her life to a dirty trick of fate—a riding accident that has cost her only child, Grace (newcomer Scarlett Johansson), both a leg and her will to live.

    Since Annie and Grace don’t get along, this is also a mom-daughter as well as a girl-and-her-horse movie. But mostly it’s an Annie-Tom love story, in which opposites attract. Annie finds herself drawn not only to this classic icon of a cowboy but also (surprisingly) to his way of life.

    When the sympathetic husband (Sam Neill) arrives, Annie and Tom must decide what to do.

    It’s all exquisitely shot and edited, even the opening, which describes the horror of the accident. By the time we’re in Montana, with the snowy peaks, rolling hills and canyons, the rural families and their work and play, we are aestheticized to suggest the purest setting for human life. It’s city vs. country, and country wins, as usual; an upbeat, lovely and very long movie; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.


    HE GOT GAME (A-4, R): Spike Lee’s sardonic exploration of basketball madness and father-son relationships centers on a high school prodigy from Coney Island whose name, both real and symbolic on several levels, is Jesus.

    Superstar Jesus Shuttlesworth is played deftly on- and off-court by first-time actor Ray Allen, a young NBA (Milwaukee Bucks) pro. Jesus is a potential "savior" for just about everybody, especially for college coaches trying to recruit him.

    Most of all, Jesus can save his father, Jake (Denzel Washington), whom he hates. Jake is in prison for the accidental death of his wife, who was also the mother of Jesus. The New York governor, a lunatic fan, vows to shorten Jake’s sentence if his son will enroll at the gov’s alma mater.

    So this Jesus is the focus of hope, allowing Lee to play for ironic religious connotations. The roundball wonder-worker doesn’t disgrace his name. He resists most temptations to blow his amateur status and college chances, and the better life he wants for his younger sister.

    The wryly comic episode when the agent takes Jesus to his unbelievably posh country estate and offers him all the masculine power toys of the modern world (if only he’ll sign!) recalls both the biblical temptations by Satan and a similar agent’s pitch (on the top floor of a skyscraper) in the memorable Jesus of Montreal.

    You could say Game is Hoop Dreams in a more fanciful and cynical mode. It exaggerates but often dazzles, from the tight human drama to the slo-mo playground action in Coney locales to typically funny Lee montages (coaches and media types extolling Jesus’ wizardry, Jesus and his teammates telling us why they love basketball). Some graphic sexual encounters, gritty language; satisfactory for adults.


    WILD MAN BLUES (PG): For years the otherwise reclusive Woody Allen has enjoyed playing the clarinet in weekly jazz jams at a New York club. This documentary by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream) follows him and an impromptu Dixieland band on a hectic 1996 European concert tour of 18 cities in 24 days. The people come obviously to see Woody the celebrity but enjoy some well-played, rarely heard music as well.

    Allen remains among a few moviemen in pursuit of great work and of truths worth knowing. Assuming Kopple’s honesty and integrity, what we learn here is that Woody (and entourage, including young wife Soon-Yi Previn and sister Letty Aronson) are normal, somewhat neurotic Americans on the road.

    Aside from the sights, including Rome, Venice and Milan, we’re struck by Woody’s love for the music (featuring New Orleans-style classics), his chemistry with crowds (use of zany Fellini background music for press and paparazzi scenes is amusing), his shyness and essential gloom. "It’s chronic dissatisfaction: No matter where I am, I’d always rather be somewhere else." Swinging concert footage, modest insight; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.


    BERNARDIN (PBS, check local listings), the new one-hour documentary on the life and legacy of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, begins with him speaking from the pulpit. He’s giving a wry, self-deprecating report of his elderly mother’s comment on his installation: "It was too preached too much." It ends with the procession of his funeral through the streets of Chicago, the respect and affection of ordinary people, and (on the audio) his gentle words of gratitude for "God’s great gift of life" we all share.

    This is one not to miss. It covers an extraordinary public career and the major milestones: the impact of Vatican II, his leadership of the Campaign for Human Development and on issues like abortion and nuclear arms, the "seamless garment" ethic of life and the Common Ground movement. This documentary also covers the dramatic Chicago hard times (parish closings, outrageous abuse charges gallantly endured) and the courage of his public death, in which (as Newsweek said) he taught us how to die.

    Producers Martin Doblmeier and Frank Frost get down Bernardin’s spirit and impact, using TV archives and stills, as well as a range of commentary from close friends and associates, clergy of several faiths, scholars and religious journalists. One of the most insightful sources is his longtime aide and "regular driver," Msgr. Ken Velo, whose funeral homily serves as a warm and unpretentious final tribute.

    Bernardin projected the image of Church as father, friend, one who reached out to strangers. He was a companion in the dark times who honestly confessed his own fears. Among the moving witnesses is Sun-Times photographer John White, who says simply, "I saw his light...never did his eyes change, never did that light [go away]." (Video $30, 888-532-3292).


    AND ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: I lost it finally, amid all the Frank Sinatra retrospectives, when they played I’ll Remember April. Somehow, back in the canyons of memory, this particular bit of poignant nostalgia made the lump-in-throat connection.

    Could anybody die with better tribute material in the vaults? Frank’s life’s work is on record, tape and film, and practically every inch is a highlight. Well, maybe not every inch—consider the Rat Pack days.

    Frank was big in TV’s Golden Age. He had two series (1950-52, 1957-58). (His theme, Put Your Dreams Away, ended the funeral.) Another gem was a 1955 musical version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. (Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint were the young lovers and Frank the stage manager, singing Love and Marriage.)

    Sinatra sang our songs for 60 years for parties, weddings, love affairs and breakups, lasting from jukeboxes to car radios, transistors, tapes and CD’s. Singers are always there, at the good times but especially at the bad times, when you need them.

    Sinatra got me into the job of reviewing for Catholic media. The Catholic movie guy in the 1940’s attacked him as some kind of sinner. I felt it was his talent we should respond to and (if necessary) judge. I’ve been trying to evaluate the art-not-the-artist ever since.

    The Hoboken kid was blessed in having a long old age in which to repair his fences with the Church. He sang a lot about loss and loneliness in America as if he knew about them, but also about hope and good times and picking yourself up again.

    Last year a cool tribute on National Public Radio’s This American Life worried about his death and predicted an overuse of My Way—not the one to remember him by. In its fine memoir, ABC’s Nightline noted this and opted to end instead with the haunting Angel Eyes and Cole Porter’s almost theological inquiry, "I ask the Lawd, in heaven above, what is this thing called love?" It’s likely that Frank knows now. May he rest in peace.


    SEINFELD (NBC, Thursdays) came out of a hip New York dark-comedy sensibility (mostly Larry David’s) that didn’t speak much to Catholics—except maybe as they shared the wacko city-life experiences (delis, parking, waiting-in-lines, competition for everything) that underlay its humor. Seinfeld obsessed on the dating and relationship games that, as a rule, if we’re lucky, we don’t play.

    It was also less accessible to families, compared to previous milestone sitcoms like M*A*S*H or All in the Family. But in classic comedy terms, it was moral, skewering characters consumed by their own quirks and egocentric flaws. We understood they were the worst of us—inexcusably hateful children, finicky, cheating, scheming, neurotic. (Kramer—loony, Harpo-like, a dreamer—is a more lovable child.)

    Seinfeld was trendy and 1990’s in its political incorrectness and anti-sentimentality. During its nine seasons, its characters exploited every conceivable minority group and taboo or tasteless subject. You went to Seinfeld not to feel warm or good but to feel superior. For example, we learned that George had said "I love you" only once in his life—to a dog. The final episode, in which the four are arrested because they loiter and wisecrack while a guy gets mugged, is unerringly right. ("Why would we help somebody?" Jerry asks in real puzzlement. "That’s what nuns and Red Cross workers do.")

    Religious ritual and clergy appeared rarely and only comically in a milieu that was understatedly but undeniably Jewish. Jerry once (awkwardly) went to a confessional to ask a priest a question. And George, as part of a tactic to get a girl, "converted" to Latvian Orthodoxy. Elaine debated abortion (briefly) with a beau.

    Personally, I won’t mourn this show. I hated its laugh track and its cynicism. But it was clever, and it had a firm grip on the rotten things we do to each other, and our doomed determination to get our own way and to avoid love. (This series will be in reruns forever.)

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