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Contrasting Twins, Falling Angels

    THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK



    Photo © 1998 MGM Distribution Co. by Etienne George

    Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the latest film version of The Man in the Iron Mask, based on Alexandré Dumas's adventure novel.

    THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (A-3, PG-13): This Alexandré Dumas adventure set in 17th-century France first swashbuckled into theaters with Douglas Fairbanks (1929), before scoring memorably with Louis Hayward (1939) and on TV with Richard Chamberlain (1977).

    The swordplay and leaping about are not as wacky and exhilarating as in the past, but kids won't care. The tale combines the improbable but marvelously idealized ("all for one, one for all") musketeers' camaraderie with a major "evil twin" story.

    The bad guy is the cruel King Louis. His nice-guy twin brother Philippe is imprisoned deep in the Bastille, masked to hide his identity. The dual role of the twins offers 180-degree moral contrast, and the juicy challenge goes to phenom-of-the-year Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh from his tragic Titanic demise.

    He's surrounded by veterans Jeremy Irons as Aramis (a Jesuit priest), John Malkovich as the temperamental Athos (who loses his son to the king's treachery), and Gerard Depardieu as the earthy Porthos (whose faults and buffoonery balance the moral seriousness—he's also the only real Frenchman). Gabriel Byrne plays the valiant D'Artagnan ("the best of us all"), here conflicted by his oath to serve the king, his sense of justice and friendship and his ties to the royal twins.

    This extension of Dumas is created and directed by Randall Wallace, who showed his admiration for the honor and courage of times past in his script for Braveheart. It's refreshing to find the virtues of loyalty and responsibility underlined in a 1990's adventure movie. A few elements are ill-conceived but nothing really spoils this flamboyant, joyful exercise.

    The women are mostly decorative in their knockout gowns and coifs: Anne Parillaud is beautiful and moving as the mature queen torn among her feelings for country, sons and D'Artagnan. Judith Godreche amuses as the very young woman trying to sort out the surplus of DiCaprios.

    This remains a movie for males, though a stretch for most below the age of 13. But do the kids read Dumas anymore? Or still play at swords and honor?

    Of all the musketeer romps, the mask tale is the last and most poignant. The heroes are aching and aging, still bearing their ideals against greater odds now and with the end approaching. Like their fellow legend Cyrano, they persevere and emerge unscathed, at least in the soul. Overall, idealism supersedes moments of violence and sexual innuendo; satisfactory for adults and mature youth.



    CITY OF ANGELS

    CITY OF ANGELS (A-3, PG-13) is a romance about an angel named Seth (Nicolas Cage) who falls in love with a human, Maggie (Meg Ryan), a spunky and talented Los Angeles surgeon. She fights to save a dying man Seth has been assigned to escort into the afterlife.

    Like some godlike creature from ancient mythology, Seth gives up his immortality and powers (to read minds, to move freely and instantly through space and time) to become human and (he hopes) marry her. Seth thinks angelic life is drab and envies the sensual experiences of human life, the joy of love and feelings. City gets its basic ideas and imagery from German director Wim Wenders's memorable Wings of Desire (1988), and shares its basically sterile and untraditional take on angels.

    They're compassionate and protective toward humans, but function mainly as messengers for an abstract, unspecified higher power. They're about as secular as possible for creatures usually thought of as religious—they're almost like space aliens.

    Their joys are mostly negatives: no pain, no fear, no hunger. Their rewards seem pallid compared to romantic love (Wenders's angel fell for a lonely trapeze artist), which is the best we humans can agree on just now and for Christians is a hint of the wonder and joy of God's love for us.

    The American film (director Brad Silberling, writer Dana Stevens) is much more interested in the love story, less in the angels and their work. (Wenders had them listening patiently to human anguish, comforting an accident victim.)

    Finally, there are the usual dilemmas with supernatural movies. Are they good because they're kind of religious and stir benevolent thoughts? Or are they bad because they're misleading, sentimental and weirdly anti-theological?

    Wenders and his American emulators make us think about such issues and consider with deeper respect the human love we so often corrupt and waste. But on angel theory they're not very sophisticated, except that they're a cut above Michael and Angels in the Outfield. If it's true that angels are always with God, then they're unlikely to envy you and me. Stimulating for a while, and beautifully edited and photographed; adult situations; satisfactory for mature audiences.


    THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION

    THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (O, R) gets credit for some relevance in wrestling with a dilemma that is not common but also not rare: If a straight young woman and a gay man are really close best friends, should they consider a permanent relationship? I don't think a solid psychologist or priest would offer much hope, and (after two very long hours) that's the outcome of this comedy-drama adapted from Steven McCauley's 1989 novel by major playwright Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles).

    This is basically the same old question about whether a guy and a girl can be friends without sex getting in the way. The answer in the movies is always going to be no. Object is not When Harry Met Sally: There are no surprises and the details are not much fun.

    The couple in this New York-based film are Nina and George (Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd). They have sincerity and charm but no chemistry. They gab and dance brightly (ironically, to You Were Meant for Me), but their appeal is insufficient to overcome a moral environment in which impermanence is the rule.

    Folks of all orientations are anxious to be in love but can't commit because they're always spotting someone who may be better.

    The film, directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible), is alternately satirical and poignant about all this contemporary shabbiness. It's also honest about the sadly blank aspects of gay life: We know that kind, outgoing first-grade teacher George could be a wonderful dad but will never be, and (via an aging theater critic touchingly played by Nigel Hawthorne) we perceive the particular loneliness in this culture when one is left behind. But an all-ends-well Hollywood ending is more ludicrous than comforting. For adults, but not recommended.


    THE SEVENTH CHAMBER OF EDITH STEIN

    THE SEVENTH CHAMBER OF EDITH STEIN (made in Europe in 1995) is already one of the great religious films in cinema history. It's likely to become more famous when its subject, the Jewish philosophy professor who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz, is canonized. (She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.)

    Now on video ($40, Pauline Books & Media, 800-876-4463), this art film is in French with English subtitles.

    The film probes Stein's intellectual motives and her understanding of the spiritual discipline of St. Teresa of Avila. As a famous Jewish convert during the Holocaust period, Stein is also controversial and part of the sensitive history of recent Catholic-Jewish relations.

    The film, directed by Hungary's estimable veteran Marta Meszaros, one of the world cinema's most conscientious artists, with the magnetic Romanian Maia Morgenstern in the lead role, is also achingly beautiful. It's poetic, subtle and imaginative. Shot in a kind of a rich expressionist realism, it's backed by poignant chant (Jewish and Gregorian) that makes every frame haunting and alive. The content dodges no controversies. The tension between Edith and her beloved mother, who could not forgive her for seeming to abandon her people in their time of greatest danger, is a major emotional theme.

    Stein's convent years will seem challenging to today's audiences, and deserve comparison to sequences in films like The Nun's Story and Thérèse. There is a wonderful passage in which Edith describes St. Teresa's "seven chambers" of spiritual growth to a young novice about to return to the world. But the finest moments are in the Auschwitz scenes, which will lock this gentle, brilliant, remarkable woman in your memory forever. Highly recommended for mature viewers.


    THE CLOSER

    THE CLOSER (CBS, Mondays): Tom Selleck, who has something that catches on with almost everyone, is struggling back in this old-fashioned sitcom about a divorced ad-agency exec and his wisecracking staff, which includes a wisenheimer old-timer (Ed Asner), an Asian female secretary and an eager young white male who is the butt of jokes.

    It's not original, but it's a show you seldom have to turn off to protect the kids. A series that finds a way to use Bernadette Peters as a guest can't be all bad. (As an old flame who once broke his heart but keeps the embers from igniting again, she sings, including a dream-sequence number involving the whole cast.) Selleck doesn't so much act as alternately smile and grimace, but by now he's a national institution. Adequate diversion, no more, no less.


    DR. LAURA

    DR. LAURA (syndicated radio, daily) has become an improbable heroine. Many are delighted with the popularity of this acerbic but straight-talking radio call-in expert on relationships. She's the latest in an endless line of advice-to-the-lovelorn specialists whose 1990's gimmick is essentially the hard line.

    Laura, who is Jewish and makes frequent positive references to God and the faith she came to understand and accept as an adult, has a ready wit and an infectious cackle of a laugh. She has a tough grip on common sense and traditional moral values. She often cuts through the babble on contemporary radio like a laser through mozzarella.

    But human messing-up and misery have limited entertainment value. At times she's also uncomfortably adept at jumping to conclusions and being nasty and short. Laura loves to talk, but she isn't always that good at listening. A cut above most radio Squawk Talk.



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