FREQUENCY (A-3, PG-13):
Simplicity went out of time-travel tales a few years ago when filmmakers
incorporated the Itís a Wonderful Life concept: Small changes
in past events produce big changes in the present; the more tinkering,
the more change escalates. Consider the possibilities if the Catholic
mom and dad of 10 baby-boom children had followed their original plan
to become a nun and a priest. How many lives changed, how many never
The what-ifs multiply
in Frequency: A detective-son (Jim Caviezel) in New York in
1999 makes ham-radio contact during an aurora-borealis event with
his fireman-father (Dennis Quaid) in 1969. After disbelief and tech
improbabilities are hastily disposed of, the son prevents his fatherís
premature death in a warehouse fire. That change sets up his nurse-mother
to become a victim of a serial killer of nurses. In a panic, father
and son cooperate, across the 30-year time gulf, to stop and catch
There are some touching
father-son moments (the now-adult son talking to his beloved but hardly
known dad who died young) and some ironic 1960ís versus 1990ís cultural
contrasts. But the cause-and-effect complexities spin out of control.
Memories, as well as newspaper headlines and family photos, change
every few minutes. Thus, it becomes hard to tell who is saving or
threatening whom and in what year.
Considering the mind-boggling
controversial events of the last 30 years (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe
v. Wade), the film opts for kitsch, choosing to exploit mainly
the sonís knowledge of the details of the Metsí improbable 1969 World
Series victory. Well, O.K., but underwhelming. Director Greg Hoblit
(Fallen, Primal Fear) also obsesses on slow-motion cross-cutting
among past, present and dream life: Itís like a TV commercial with
the sound off. Creative but disappointing fantasy melodrama.
GLADIATOR (A-4, R) takes
us back to the hand-to-hand and sometimes hand-to-claw struggles in
Romeís Colosseum, once a fertile venue for Hollywood spectaculars,
often with Christian-martyr themes (Ben-Hur, The Robe).
This retro $108 million epic directed by the gifted Ridley Scott (Blade
Runner, Thelma and Louise) is more secular and political,
but still impressive and at least a little bit inspiring.
The hero, Maximus (Russell
Crowe, in another, more physical incarnation after his scholarly The
Insider), is an idealistic general in opposition to the degenerate
Emperor Commodus, who succeeded his revered father, Marcus Aurelius,
about 180 A.D. Maxís beloved wife and child are brutally killed, and
he barely escapes execution to fall into captivity as a gladiator.
His goal is partly to get revenge but mostly to achieve Aureliusís
dream of democracyóreturning Rome to the people.
Since the martyrs and
anti-imperialists in Rome never won, in their lifetimes anyway, most
of these movies (including the secular Spartacus) have been
tragic. Audiences have settled for moral victories or heavenly rewards.
Scott and his notable writers, including David Franzoni (Amistad)
and William Nicholson (Shadowlands), make a major contribution
by fictionalizing a story for Max that makes him a winner.
He sacrifices himself
in the arena but saves democracy. He is a religious man who transcends
death by joining his cherished family in the afterlife in an eternal
version of his beautiful country villa. (We see this happen, artfully
intercut with his death.) You can argue that this vision of heaven
is not exactly Christianity and Maximus is not exactly a Christian.
But it is a symbolic heaven and immortality that are taken quite seriously.
It will do for the purposes of art, beauty and justice.
The body count (in various
murders, wars and gladiatorial combats) is high but not indulgent.
Among the splendid cast, Joaquin Phoenix, despite his miserable list
of vices as emperor, manages to squeeze a few drops of sympathy; Connie
Nielsen is strong and tenacious as the tyrantís healthier sister.
The late Oliver Reed, in his final role as the gladiator-promoter,
teaches Max the subversive, cynical political secret: ďWin the crowd.Ē
Genre violence and implicit vice, but powerful and uplifting pop
entertainment; satisfactory for adults.
U-571 (A-2, PG-13) is
a nonstop World War II submarine-action movie that earns its sweaty,
claustrophobic place in the long tradition (Destination Tokyo,
Run Silent, Run Deep). But it is several fathoms shallower
than the current standard, Wolfgang Petersenís Das Boot (1981).
are trying to invade a crippled German U-boat in the North Atlantic
and steal its Enigma secret-communication codes without Berlin finding
out (a trick the film tells us was actually pulled off). But in this
fictionalized version, at the moment of success, the Yanksí own ship
is torpedoed out from under them. Survivors scramble back aboard the
The obvious situationóbeing
stuck as a probable target on an enemy subónever develops. But thereís
seldom a moment to breathe as the brave remnant, led by Matthew McConaughey
and Harvey Keitel, battle pesky Germans sent to blow them up, especially
a diabolical destroyer that wonít stop sending out depth charges.
In the climactic sequence,
the leaky sub dives deeper than itís built to go, and the crew endures
during a brilliantly edited mix of terrified silent faces, dripping
pipes, apocalyptic explosions and rocking cameras. Writer-director
Jonathan Mostow provides expert suspense entertainment, much like
his Breakdown (1996), in which a vacationing couple are hijacked
in the Arizona desert. No women here (except in the usual early dance-party
scene) and no Y2K-era language, just combat and an awful lot of water.
Some early hints at
deeper themes and character drama fail to materialize, and there are
no breaks for contemplation, poetry and heavy thoughts. The movie
is weak in that respect, but otherwise a heart-pounding ride. Gutsy
sea action in the 1940ís manner; O.K. for youth and adults.
THE MESSIAH (video,
color, subtitles, 145 minutes): If you were left untouched by any
of the three TV movies about Jesus this past season, this 1975 masterpiece
by the late Italian director Roberto Rossellini may provide some comfort.
Only recently available on video and only rarely shown in American
theaters, The Messiah is reverent, moving and unpretentious.
Above all, it is realistic
(without being skeptical). Itís what one might expect from Rossellini,
the father of Italian neorealism of the 1940ís and 1950ís and one
of the 20th centuryís giants of the cinema. Rossellini survived personal
controversy and scandalóthe row over The Miracle, his romance
and marriage to Ingrid Bergmanóto get two of his movies on the Vaticanís
top-45-of-the-century list (Open City, The Flowers of St.
which he made at age 69, was to be his last film. (He died in 1977.)
To make it, he received very mainstream Catholic help, from Family
Theater founder Father Patrick Peyton and top Jesuit and Salesian
biblical scholars. The aim (and achievement) was to offer a human
portrait of Jesus and his teaching, and show how ordinary and powerful
people of his time reacted to him.
The miracles are part
of the story but happen offscreen. Thus, we see the cured young man
(blind from birth) and his parents argue with a skeptical and overbearing
priest, and members of the Sanhedrin talk about the raising of Lazarus.
But the emphasis is
on the words of Jesus and why they had such exciting impact. We see
him as a carpenter with his disciples as they mend their fishing boats.
He walks or sits with them in the country or scattered village streets.
True to Rosselliniís
documentary inclinations, he gives us a sense of how people actually
lived, worked, played with and cared for their children, and the primitive
conditions even of the very rich.
The Christ, who portrays
a full range of emotions, is Pier Maria Rossi, dark-eyed and fine-featured.
The spoken Italian, translated in easily read subtitles, is rapid,
flowing and gently rhythmic.
Most distinctive in
Rosselliniís version are a more understated, distant, mid- and long-shot
point-of-view; a refreshing lack of music and its tendency to hype
already strong emotions; a reordering of texts to emphasize themes
and meaning. For example, Jesus gives his new commandment to ďlove
one anotherĒ at the climax of a non-Leonardo conception of the Last
There are also fresh
interpretations of classic scenes. These include Salome as a teenager
shocked as John the Baptist is killed before her eyes, John arguing
in many dialogues with a more rational Herod, Jesus conversing alone
with a political Pilate who is frustrated and sympathetic. At the
Crucifixion, the mood is sorrow and loneliness, with the horror and
cruelty all but omitted: We see the stoic grief of the still-youthful
Mary and hear the heartbroken sobbing of Magdalene. And there is a
beautiful pietŗ scene, the finest ever in movies, as Mary bathes the
body of her son for his burial.
Thereís little doubt
that The Messiah belongs in the top echelon of Christ films,
in the company of Pasoliniís more poetic Gospel and Zeffirelliís
big-budget Jesus of Nazareth miniseries. Available for sale
at $59.95 from Santa Fe Communications in Milwaukee, 800-430-0930,
or Facets in Chicago, 800-331-6197.
Cable shows can get
raunchy. Unlike most similar perils in the environment, this one can
come right into the family room. Advice to parents: Use the V-chip
(which blocks shows with unwanted ratings). Better yet, call the cable
company to terminate bothersome channels. Also, make a rule: No personal
TVís in bedrooms.
This year we have the
presidential election and summer Olympics. Itís useful to remember
that both have live-versus-edited factors. Know the candidates best
when they are live and unedited and not in commercials. Remember that
the games (trials have already started but the real events begin September
15 in Australia) will be totally on tape delay.
So donít make bets,
especially with your Internet-connected friends and relatives.