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ELECTION

ELECTION (A-4, R) is a crafty little high-school satire that deals with the is-it-O.K.-to-kill-Hitler-when-he's-young question. The potential political menace here is female go-getter Tracy Flick (a delicious performance by Reese Witherspoon), an ambitious, sweetly ruthless good-at-everything girl. She is poised to run unopposed and take the student-body-president step on her ladder to CEO of the world.

In this witty, word-savoring adaptation of the 1998 Tom Perrotta novel by young Omaha-based writer-director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), the violence is only figurative. The flawed hero who gets involved to derail Tracy in their fictional Omaha high school is popular political-science teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick).

He recruits a nonacademic but good-hearted football star to run against her. This acidic spoof of widespread adult hypocrisy and cluelessness shows people as human, rather than cartoon characters. And everybody gets pretty much what they deserve.

Tracy, of course, is not Hitler—just a bright manipulative girl driven by a Machiavellian mother ("You can't let anything stand in your way"). Power is not the means but the end, something she deserves. Witherspoon makes Tracy formidable but also comically pathetic such as when she's hopping in boundless joy down an empty corridor when she thinks she's won. An expert at public relations, she's always too self-centered to understand why she's destined to be unloved.

Mac has a moral clarity about Tracy and many other things (class discussions about morals and ethics) but not about himself. His childless marriage is emotionally sterile as well, and he ludicrously misinterprets the momentary affections of a divorced faculty wife. (With hilarity and poignancy, Broderick captures the true dark comedy of a man in mistaken romantic passion.)

Like Rushmore, Election is high school from a decidedly sardonic adult perspective, and sexuality is part of its satirical domain. The occasional erotic involvements are clumsy and unseductive. The football star also has a younger sister who thinks she's gay. Out of spite, she also gets into the presidential race.

In the end, Election is smart, but probably a touch too much for its own good. Above-average ironic morality play, with some affection for the sinners if not the sins; satisfactory for mature viewers.

THE MATRIX

THE MATRIX (O, R): Is Neo (Keanu Reeves) The One? That's the big question in this pretentious cyber/sci-fi thriller from Australia's far-out writer-director Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry).

The setting is a dystopia set in the near future. Smart machines rule the world, but most people don't know it. What appears to be reality is an illusion created to hide the truth: Humans are enslaved. Paranoia? Yes. Sci-fi thrives on it.

But a handful of underground rebels know what's going on and look for The One who is coming, the prophesied liberator with super powers. Led by Morpheus (Larry Fishburne), a dignified fellow who talks too much, they recruit computer-software guy Neo and train him for his mission. But Neo himself isn't sure he's The One. Meanwhile, the sides square off, bring on the slow-motion kung fu, gun battles, explosions and horror. It's the same old, same old.

The Wachowskis also pile on the Christian mythology—the enslaved world awaits a savior, the group of believers has its Judas figure—but never get much beyond comic-book level. The plot nibbles bits and pieces that could just as easily come from pop-culture sources such as the Terminator movies and Men in Black. This time the indestructible guys in dark suits and ties are bad guys protecting the power of The Matrix—a concept explained many times but never with much clarity.

This movie has been a lightning rod for "too much media violence" rhetoric. It surely does exploit the late-1990's obsession with the special effects of destruction. Most of the people are impossible to hurt, even when run over by trucks and subway trains. So the mayhem is sterile and unreal, pumped to the level of the absurd. The worst stuff—violence seen somehow as trivial or funny—is generally missing.

The traditional values—courage, loyalty, love, humanity—linger under the surface, but little is done to nourish them. Viewers smart enough to perceive those qualities are unlikely to find much in The Matrix to attract them. Not generally recommended.

ENTRAPMENT

ENTRAPMENT (A-4, PG-13) is mainly an excuse to team venerable action-hero Sean Connery with lithe beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones (Zorro) in something that shows off their skills, charisma and photogenic surfaces. They play brainy, athletic thieves capable of pulling off capers possible only in the movies—like heisting a priceless Chinese ceremonial mask from its burglar-proof palace display case. They join forces, double-cross each other and fall in love.

Such films are designed mostly for their miraculous physical derring-do as the heroes outfox more wicked criminals as well as morally ambiguous police. In the mask robbery, Zeta-Jones uses her talents as a dancer to elude laser beams protecting the treasure. In the spectacular finale, she and Connery cavort about skyscraper towers in Kuala Lumpur on the eve of Y2K to computer-hack some $8 billion from the world bank. (Jesse James was born too soon.)

The difference from classic Hollywood dishonor-among-thieves movies (Asphalt Jungle or Topkapi) is that today's crooks get away with it (with no noticeable twinges of conscience). What would Tolstoy think? Heck, what would Raymond Chandler think? Also, the thefts today rely more on gadgets and electronics than suspense based on character and real human possibility.

On the upside, director Jon Amiel (Copycat), brought in early to save the project, conjures much noise and excitement with almost no pain. The action is primarily chase, escape and high-tech magic. Yet at 69, even the incomparable Connery seems embarrassed by this kind of stuff.

The aging Scot is still fun to watch, and Zeta-Jones is a match, though a generation-and-a-half behind. Some eye-pleasing people, locales and special effects, but not high in credibility; not generally recommended.

GUNS ON TV?

GUNS ON TV? There used to be more, back in the heyday of the westerns and The Untouchables. Contemporary cop shows tend to be more in the station house than on the streets, more about questioning suspects and talking about crimes and getting evidence rather than showing murders, holdups and shootouts. Movies and video games are quite another matter. On the other hand, TV is sexier, especially in talking about sex, than it has ever been.

Movie and TV portrayals of violence are essentially unreal: They are just edited pictures on a flat screen with the context framed-out and often with musical background. There's no editing or musical background in my life; how about yours?

Any mature person knows it's unreal—just another (admittedly, more graphic) way to tell a story. But immature persons see violent footage as real. They're also watching art forms which, since their invention, have tried every possible trick to make you forget this is fake, and to make you scared or moved or even fall in love.

No wonder some kids have problems sorting all this out. Watching thousands of TV "deaths" desensitizes them to real death. Yet when an artist gets it right, we are moved when even a fictitious person suffers or dies.

Ever since Aristotle, the domain of art has been to imitate the real world. It's just possible that modern art forms have become so powerful in their ability to imitate nature—and we've become so addicted to them—that the whole relationship between art and morality must be replotted.

CULTURE OF DISBELIEF

CULTURE OF DISBELIEF: A magazine writer complained recently that Americans blamed too much on the vague word culture—as in gun culture, Internet culture, culture of violence, culture of disbelief, etc. Couldn't we just say that he likes violent movies without saying he's part of the culture of violence? Or that she is a religious skeptic if she doesn't believe in the story of Noah and the ark or St. Joan of Arc's "voices" (recent TV items), instead of saying she's part of the culture of disbelief?

In both examples, it seems as if personal responsibility is avoided and blame passed on to the rest of society. Yet it is harder to be against violence in a society where there is widespread use of violence and approval of it in our imagination and art—in the stories we tell. It's also harder to be a believer in a society that, say, unlike 15th-century Europe, tends not to believe, both in reality and in its stories.

The concept of culture is not just a dodge. It's the context of our lives. It's the spirit of the times. It's a helpful critical tool for understanding what is courageous, what is truly countercultural and what just goes along with what almost everybody thinks.

THE AWFUL TRUTH

THE AWFUL TRUTH (Bravo): Fans are happy to find Michael Moore, the blue-collar guy's prankster and a lonely TV voice against globalization, back regularly. But he's probably off the common man's regular track on this artsy cable channel.

Moore selects some outrage and stages a confrontation at the Offending corporation's headquarters. Trouble is, since Roger and Me, most CEO's have successfully dodged Moore (dressed in trademark jeans, windbreaker and baseball cap) and foisted him off on humorless PR staff and security people desperate to keep their jobs.

This tactic often forces Moore to be creative. Thus, one show segment was devoted to mocking the attempts of Manpower, Inc. (the temp company booming in this part-time economy), to memo its worldwide offices on how to deal with Moore.

You can argue that the likable, low-key Moore achieves little but embarrassing these mega-corporations. Even that can be cathartic, however. And real progress can be achieved: A major HMO apparently reversed its policy and decided to cover all pancreas transplants after Moore's persistent nudging. The studio audience gave him a standing ovation.

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