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by James Arnold

Nosy Reporters, Intrusive Cameras

TRUE CRIME

TRUE CRIME (A-4, R): Actor-director Clint Eastwood's disreputable hero ("I don't care about right and wrong....I never have") plays a crack reporter hustling against a deadline to save an innocent man about to be executed. The heroics strain belief, but the film offers good performances and documentary detail bound to help in the struggle against capital punishment.

Clint's aging Steve Everett is a womanizing ex-drunk assigned to the story at the last minute when his Oakland Tribune colleague, a 20-ish beauty he's trying to seduce, is killed in a car crash. Everett has few redeeming virtues except persistence and an instinct for the truth. He believes that—despite six years of litigation and appeals—the born-again black convict (impressive newcomer Isaiah Washington) is innocent of a $96 convenience-store holdup and murder.

There are predictable events (frantic search for witnesses, cuts to clocks and preparations for the execution, wild car chase to the judge's mansion) and characters (skeptical editors, neglected child and angry wife, bigoted white-suburban witness, self-important death-row chaplain). But how things are done in this film makes a qualitative difference.

Eastwood's direction is subtle, the script is both tough and humane, and ensemble acting (by James Woods, Denis Leary, Diane Venora and others) is gutsy, tense, emotional. We're under no illusions about Everett, who is aware and regretful of the general misery wrought by his faults and infidelities.

The Eastwood formula, with the multi-flawed hero in a sinful world still capable of using his skills to perform a good deed, mixes modern cynicism with old-fashioned uplift. Beyond the suspense stuff, True Crime scores in exposing the cold-bloodedness of execution (even by "humane" lethal injection). For example, the farewell scenes between the condemned man, his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton of The Practice) and young daughter pack tremendous but understated heartbreak. Recommended, with reservations, for adults.

EDTV

EDTV(A-3, PG-13) is a comedy about making a TV show about the real life of Ed (Matthew McConaughey), a dim-bulb video-store clerk in San Francisco. The camera crews follow him whenever he's awake. Whatever happens, happens. The wit level is established early when the first joke is Ed scratching himself as he wakes up. Soon after, the world watches him clip his toenails.

Unlike The Truman Show's Truman, Ed and his family and friends are aware they're on camera. They exult in their instant fame and economic rewards. But they also expose their intimate moments, as well as their peccadillos and family scandals. For example, brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) is a crudely ambitious hedonist and goofball; mom (Sally Kirkland) and stepdad (Martin Landau) are guilty parties in an ugly separation and divorce.

Worse, the ratings- and poll-driven TV execs (Rob Reiner, Ellen DeGeneres) and audiences keep cheering them on to more entertaining outrages, like Ed abandoning boring girlfriend Shari (Jenna Elfman) for a sexy British model. TV parties in every bar, bedroom and prison rec room watch raucously as Ed and the lady have (well, almost) steamy sex. In the end, Ed and Shari escape via a brutal violation of privacy equal to any played on them.

Ed's creators are pop entertainers: director Ron Howard and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (the City Slickers movies, Multiplicity, A League of Their Own). Ultimately, they're against an obvious evil (intrusiveness equals destruction of privacy and dignity). It's a worthwhile point in a world on the verge of a new tech revolution: small digital video cameras. But their own pathetic search for laughs makes for a painful two hours.

The movie is about the TV world itself—from the suits who program it and the cretinous characters in its sitcoms to the parasitic comics and pundits who comment on events and the insensitive public that guzzles it all down like the whooping studio crowds on Jerry Springer. The contempt for the human race is palpable.

Is this the audience Hollywood perceives as its audience? The characters, raunchiness and scurrilous gag level of EdTV seem aimed at it. It's a movie without a moral center, without a decent place to hang your ethical hat. For adults, presumably, but not recommended.

FORCES OF NATURE

FORCES OF NATURE (A-3, PG-13) starts badly with a bachelor-party impression that ends when 80-year-old Grandpa has a heart attack watching the requisite sexy dancer and confesses he never loved Grandma. He says she "looked like Tolstoy," which is a very weird line.

This sets up doubts in about-to-be bridegroom Ben Affleck's mind about commitment (to fiancée Maura Tierney). He is thrown into a crazy New York-to-Savannah road movie with stranger Sandra Bullock.

The banter and creative cinematics alternately score and irritate, as the actors (he's somewhat inhibited, she's a bit nutty) cavort on train tops, in a hailstorm and other unusual places. The film's romantic-comedy roots go back to It Happened One Night. The Gable-Colbert ending is missing, but thoughtful viewers will find Forces truthful and satisfying. Satisfactory for mature audiences.

NEVER BEEN KISSED

NEVER BEEN KISSED (A-3, PG-13) is a broad comedy about intrusion--this time by an adult journalist (Drew Barrymore's Josie Geller) disguised as a 17-year-old to search for scandals at a suburban Chicago high school. Josie uses a miniature TV camera (apparently one of those not-quite-invented digital jobs), allowing the whole newspaper staff to watch her misadventures live.

Barrymore is both gifted and likable, but forced to carry a dumb script in which all the cliché characters (sexy stuck-up Barbie-doll beauties, arrogant jocks, outcast nerds, sensitive male Shakespeare teacher) and situations (torturous gym class, gross sex-education class) thrive. Josie finally exorcises her own dorky student days and gets more than the big story for her efforts.

Never reminds us that stereotyped movies about adolescent life make money for the taste-challenged adults who create them but contribute heavily to teenage angst and low self-esteem. It does have clever end titles with ancient yearbook photos of everyone in the cast and crew. They just don't arrive soon enough. Best for older-than-high-school audiences, but not recommended.

JOAN OF ARC

JOAN OF ARC (CBS) is one of those rare saints who made a huge political impact on the world of her time. Her remarkable story was filled with high drama: early 1400's peasant girl has religious visions, dons armor and sword to rally the French to victories over the occupying English. She persuades the king to rule and unify his country. Then she's betrayed to her enemies, who use the Catholic Church in an extraordinary trial to convict her and have her burned as a heretic.

Within a decade, her country is free. But it takes five centuries before the Church (in May 1920) declares her a saint—interestingly, not as a martyr but as a holy virgin.

This four-hour May miniseries (with 16-year-old Leelee Sobieski) is the first dramatization of St. Joan for U.S. television. There's been interest in her in this century by notable playwrights and moviemakers: Jean Anouilh's The Lark; George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (movie adapted by Graham Greene, directed by Otto Preminger, with Jean Seberg); Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Arc (with Ingrid Bergman in the film). Even DeMille got into the act: His first religious epic was Joan the Woman (1916), controversial for its "love interest" and villainous bishops.

These were failures. The movies considered the definitive classics were made in France: Carl Dreyer's intense Passion of Joan of Arc (silent, 1929) and Robert Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). Both are powerfully acted. They focus on the trial and execution, Bresson using the documentary record and a severe objective style. But both now are dated technically.

The new Joan, which CBS has contracted to show again, is a $21 million high-tech production, shot with hundreds of extras, medieval costumes and combat gear in the Czech Republic and some of its photogenic castles. Directed by Christian Duguay, a French-Canadian pro known mostly for competent thrillers, it's intended to hold an audience armed with remote controls. It begins and ends with a very realistic (if not horrific) stake-burning.

It doesn't try to improve on history, make the clerical villains worse than they were or invent some sex or romance. But it does try to be authentic in covering the whole story: a wide array of historical characters, battles, politics, social conditions. It shows the personal struggles of its hero—with her unforgiving father, with being an uneducated but admirably gutsy girl in a male-dominated world of brutal war and nasty intrigue. It demonstrates her response to grace through the "voices" of Sts. Catherine and Margaret that led her to her tragic destiny.

It's too much to accomplish on any profound level, but Duguay, cast and crew don't embarrass themselves. Sobieski moves with both strength and vulnerability, but never reveals her soul or breaks the heart. The script has enough complexity to challenge the fine actors in other key roles, especially Neil Patrick Harris (as the wily, movie-stealing young King Charles) and Peter O'Toole (as the dark Bishop Cauchon, victim of the sin of pride).

As for the "voices," Duguay allows us to see what Joan sees (clouds, light, abstractions). But we don't hear anything, so they essentially become "visions." Skepticism is possible: Duguay says he didn't try to make a pious film but one that explores the mysteries of destiny. (In contrast, Bresson said, "I see Joan with the eyes of a believer; I believe in the mysterious world upon which she opens and closes a door.")

Duguay's film offers open-minded access for millions to a woman likely to remain at the center of Christian wonder and human curiosity. Good popular art, moving and provocative.


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