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By James Arnold

Ordinary Guys Win Some Victories

Q U I C K S C A N

Spider-Man
Hollywood Ending
About a Boy
Cool Hand Luke
ER’s Death of Mark Greene
The Path to War



SPIDER-MAN

SPIDER-MAN (A-3, PG-13): Journalists and academics love to intellectualize comic-book superheroes. These heroes emerged in the Depression era to give power to the helpless. They battled seemingly invincible enemies in horrific hot and cold wars. And they fight on today for justice in a world swamped by malice, disorder and corruption.

But the reason for their persistence is probably more basic: Kids get caught up simply in the sure, clear, delightful triumph of pure good over pure evil.

Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the alter ego for Spider-Man, is an orphan and a nonathletic, brainy, picked-on high school outsider. He’s in impossibly shy love with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the girl next door. Peter is Everykid with a superhero fantasy that (thanks to an exotic spider bite) becomes real.

So he’s not just a symbolic representation of the Good in the universe. He’s also really us, emerging from teenage doubt and frustration into the fullness of manhood. In the process, he also retains his regular-guy, plain-and-simple niceness. This Marvel comic-book guy is a role model-and-a-half.

Otherwise, this movie, directed by Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game) from a script by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), is familiar superhero do-gooding cinematics, intended for thrills and laughs, but not likely to thrill grown-ups very much.

The best (and most original) part is Peter (the boyish, quirky Maguire is a magical bit of casting) discovering his unique powers, like walking up walls, swinging joyously over roofs and Manhattan skyscrapers, and moving with agile quickness that would bankrupt the NBA.

The enemy in this first of undoubtedly many Spidery films is a mad capitalist (Willem Dafoe) whose greed prompts him to take a risky drug that turns him into an evil supermonster, the Green Goblin. He is likely to scare little kids with his face and cackling. But he’s sophisticated enough to tempt Peter to the dark side by telling him a partial truth about people and heroes: “One thing they love better than heroes is to see them fail...eventually they will hate you despite everything you’ve done for them.” The other part of the truth is that life without heroes is unbearable. Just your friendly neighborhood superguy; intense genre action, violence and destruction; PG-13 rating seems right.

HOLLYWOOD ENDING

HOLLYWOOD ENDING (A-3, PG-13): Woody Allen recycles some of his familiar themes in this slapstick spoof of the movie biz.

The New York-based Allen plays Val Waxman, a fussy filmmaker much like himself. Val’s career is in the dumps but he specializes in New York films, which makes him ideal (his producer ex-wife says) to direct the studio’s new $60-million period drama, The City That Never Sleeps. The comic clashes are quickly set up between the perfectionist director and the crass California bottom-line types, as well as the battling but still fond ex-spouses who blame each other for their breakup.

But the key gimmick is a silly elephantine gag: As he starts the picture, stressed-out Val goes suddenly blind. Only he and his agent know. It’s psychosomatic and he’ll recover, but when is uncertain. Desperately needing the job, he plunges ahead trying to fake it. Thus, we have the farcical irony of a blind guy in charge of shooting a movie and nobody can tell the difference.

With a plethora of blind jokes and Hollywood satire (the Chinese cameraman who can’t speak English), there are plenty of laughs.

Writer-director Allen’s script is talky and his whining, hypochondriac character grates on the nerves. The maestro (at 67) is also not as adept as he once was at outlandish physical comedy (or as a magnet for 20ish beauties). The supporting cast boasts Tea Leoni as the smart ex-wife and Treat Williams as both his romantic rival and the obnoxious studio mogul Val is trying to satisfy. Medium-level Woody Allen farce for movie buffs with much lip but little bite; O.K. for over-13s and mature viewers.

ABOUT A BOY

ABOUT A BOY (A-3, PG-13): Hugh Grant is Will, a worthless but charming 30ish bachelor who lives comfortably in London off the royalties of his late dad’s single hit, an uninspired Santa Claus ditty that lays golden eggs every Christmas. He spends his days watching TV, listening to CDs, and loving and leaving women.

Then he meets a single mom, which brings him into contact with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a quaintly dressed 12-year-old whose life is stunted at home and miserable at school. His mom (Toni Colette) is an ex-hippie, loving but often depressed and suicidal. His schoolmates are cool, tough and unforgiving, so wicked that they torment him because Mom walks him to school and says, “I love you.”

Marcus obviously needs a father and Will needs a life. The pleasure in this movie, adapted from Nick Hornby’s 1998 best-seller, is in how it works out. The two immature guys thrown together have a delightful understated chemistry. Much of Hornby’s wit is salvaged in Will’s voice-overs: “I was the star of The Will Show and it was not an ensemble program.”

Normally, selfish dudes like Will are unbearable before they respond to grace. But Will has no illusions about himself, and his sins (and their effects) are never actually displayed. All the grim reality just under the surface makes this clever, above-average comedy primarily for mature audiences.

COOL HAND LUKE

COOL HAND LUKE (1967) is one of the best movies in the Paul Newman repertoire. This tough drama about sullen, brutalized chain-gang prisoners in a Southern state is a parable about our relationship with heroes. Newman’s Luke is a free spirit (incarcerated for chopping the tops off parking meters) who comes into the dog-eat-dog camp and transforms it with his cheerful resistance to tyranny and his refusal to be degraded.

The inmates, at first as nasty to each other as the guards are to them, come to admire Luke’s courage, his ability to endure punishment and his improbable feats. In many ways, Luke is a Christ figure who brings hope to a tormented world, as well as the hero of a folk ballad, the sort of tall tale prisoners pass on to keep their hopes alive.

It was a first film for director Stuart Rosenberg. The great collection of villains includes Anthony Zerbe, Strother Martin as the warden, J. D. Cannon, Clifton James and Oscar-winner George Kennedy, as the converted former enemy who passes on Luke’s story: “He was a natural-born world-shaker.” Recommended for ages 12 and up; excellent VHS/DVD buy or rental.

ER’S DEATH OF MARK GREENE

ER’S DEATH OF MARK GREENE episode, watched by a stunning 29 million viewers, was, from a Catholic viewpoint, disappointing. In this eight-year-old drama series, starting as chief resident, Greene (played by Anthony Edwards) is a sympathetic central character who never stops giving.

He has faults. He can be testy with patients, underlings and family. He was especially grumpy and unforgiving (until the very end) with his own dying father (John Cullum), a less sensitive career Navy officer. But Mark pushes himself to care for his patients. A no-nonsense realist, he’s often an advocate of truth-telling to the seriously ill and against prolonging life in hopeless cases.

This attitude is reflected in his approach to his own disease (brain cancer). He’s decently cheerful at times but mostly faces his fate with grim determination and no illusions.

Writer-producer John Wells gets to decide how this creature of his—virtually a real human being to ER fans—will die. Joined by his wife and baby, Greene spends his final weeks amid natural beauty (in Hawaii, where he has a history). Almost exclusively, he tries to connect with a teenage daughter alienated by neglect. His key words to her about life: “Be generous.” At the very end, she lets go a party balloon that soars into the sky.

Is that all there is? Greene has not been a man of faith and it never comes up now.

Anyway, Greene’s death was empty and bleak, except that he was brave, earnest until the end, and (as a medic) contributed skill and compassion to healing the suffering. The rising balloon is touching and perhaps symbolic. Like the rest, it’s not quite enough.

THE PATH TO WAR

THE PATH TO WAR (HBO) pretty much trumped The Gathering Storm, in the political-historical, made-for-TV movie category in May. (Lyndon Baines Johnson beats Winston Churchill and would be happy about it.)

Path was a gripping account of how the legacy of involvement in Vietnam, and mistaken attempts to end it by escalating violence, sapped the careers and lives of Johnson (superbly played by Brit Michael Gambon) and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin, in one of his best performances). Donald Sutherland is also in top form as conscience-torn adviser Clark Clifford.

The dark experience of the war and domestic protest are reborn on the screen, thanks to the informed script and lucid control by the legendary film and Golden Age of TV director John Frankenheimer. This Emmy-worthy film is so good it changes opinions about many of the principals, and offers lessons to leaders of present and future inclined to arrogant overconfidence in military power.


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