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
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
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
Tracy, of course, is
not Hitlerjust 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.)
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 (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
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
The Wachowskis also
pile on the Christian mythologythe enslaved world awaits a savior,
the group of believers has its Judas figurebut 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 Matrixa
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 stuffviolence
seen somehow as trivial or funnyis generally missing.
The traditional valuescourage,
loyalty, love, humanitylinger 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
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 movieslike 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
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
Any mature person knows
it's unrealjust 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 natureand we've become so addicted to themthat 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 cultureas 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 artin 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.