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By James Arnold

Living Dreams, Enduring Nightmares

Q U I C K S C A N

The Rookie
Changing Lanes
Iris
Singin' in the Rain
Network TV
The Recent Deaths



THE ROOKIE

THE ROOKIE (A-1, PG) is a classy movie for the baseball crowd, combining several genres in one delightful sweep of the training table. Prototypes include: bad team underdogs become winners (Bad News Bears), older guy comes back to achieve his dreams (The Natural), fathers and sons reconcile under somewhat mystical conditions (Field of Dreams).

The Rookie is the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Jim Morris, a high school science teacher in the Texas boonies who at age 35 discovers he can pitch a baseball at 98 miles per hour. Jim’s dreams of making the big leagues had always been derailed by injuries. But now he’s healthy, and he never threw that fast before.

But Morris (Dennis Quaid) has a job and a family. “You can’t eat dreams,” says his wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths). He’s also coach of a ragtag school team that can’t seem to win.

Morris challenges his players not to quit and they challenge him right back. Thus, at the movie’s climax, he’s walking in from the bullpen to pitch for the American League Tampa Bay Devil Rays against the Rangers.

A story about nuns and St. Rita provides a bit of heavenly support. This beautifully constructed Disney movie is shot and acted (especially by Quaid) with carefully observed, convincing baseball action and detail. Director John Lee Hancock has dodged most of the schmaltz traps from this uplifting true story. Recommended for all but unreconstructed baseball skeptics.

CHANGING LANES

CHANGING LANES (A-3, R): Two tense guys in suits (Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson) rushing to unrelated court dates bump cars. After a frantic dispute, hotshot Wall Street lawyer Affleck runs off, dropping a file crucial to his case and stranding Jackson, who will miss a vital custody hearing.

Writer Chap Taylor’s ingenious (if thoroughly incredible) plot ties these men together in alternating panic and fury. Affleck needs the file to get rich and stay out of jail. He tries to ruin Jackson’s reputation to get it.

Soon Affleck discovers his affluent firm and father-in-law boss (Sydney Pollack, as evil as in Eyes Wide Shut) are as twisted as rotini pasta. He begins to have conscience qualms. It’s all happening on Good Friday, so he checks in at a nearby church to ask a priest why “the world is a sewer” and to blame God for his troubles.

Lanes earns credit for a constant moral focus, including scenes when stressed-out Jackson resists alcohol and Affleck interviews idealistic interns who hope to change the world. Directed by Brit Roger Michell, impressive action and character complexity are jammed into 98 minutes, and the rainy Manhattan locales are a felt presence. Some rough language, otherwise a thinking person’s entertainment; satisfactory for adults.

IRIS

IRIS (A-4, R) focuses on an elderly spouse nurturing his partner through a cruel two-year decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease. It’s moving because of his patience and their mutual devotion. Artful editing juxtaposes the passion and confidence of their youthful past with the poignancy of the present. It’s also sadly ironic because the victim is Iris Murdoch (1919-99), a major British writer and philosopher, for whom language and words were the center of her life.

Iris has drawn attention, rightfully, for its acting. Judi Dench, who suggests a rich inner life in the older Iris, was Oscar-nominated as best actress, and Jim Broadbent, the versatile veteran who plays her literary critic-husband John Bayley, won the award for best supporting actor.

     The movie, adapted from Bayley’s memoirs by top-rank stage director Richard Eyre and playwright Charles Wood, doesn’t try to do more than suggest the range of Murdoch’s accomplishments (26 novels, four plays, a decade of teaching at Oxford) or her voracious zest for life (many lovers) or truth (Communism, existentialism, Anglo-Catholicism, Buddhism).

Unfortunately, profound issues of faith and life’s meaning do not arise, making them seem irrelevant as the disease progresses and death approaches. Except for fragments of her lectures, the focus is on her up-and-down relationship with shy, stammering John, who is devoted but also jealous and possessive. (Nominee Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville are perfect as their youthful incarnations.)

One of Broadbent’s most human scenes is when he rages at her as she snuggles close to him in her helplessness: “I’ve (finally) got you and I don’t want you!” The heart-cracking moment for Dench is when, near the end, Iris sits alone on a beach. She is flanked by blank pages from her notebook, which she scatters in frustration to the wind. A film that remarkably captures the sad mysteries of aging and decline, as well as the power of love; nudity, adult situations; satisfactory for mature viewers.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Possibly the most upbeat movie ever made, this musical spoofs the period when Hollywood movies switched, painfully, from silence to sound. Suddenly, voices mattered, acting styles changed, and careers soared or crashed.

The memorable cast (Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen), directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, all played characters caught in the crunch. Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green work endless gags over the clumsy transition to mikes and synch sound as the studio decides to remake a silent, costume melodrama as a musical. Hammy star Kelly makes the conversion, but Jean Hagen (as the classic dumb blonde) can’t because of her tin voice and insufferable ego.

Reynolds is the naïve young talent who comes to the rescue unselfishly supplying her voice. As Kelly’s comedy sidekick, O’Connor has a show-stopping number (“Make ’Em Laugh”), but the signature moments belong to Kelly (in the title routine) splashing his way to immortality.

An inventive, over-the-top dance musical, Rain holds up: Deliberately corny, it’s as delightful today as it was in those Korean War years. Oddly enough, only Hagen got any Oscar attention. Quality films abounded in 1952, including High Noon, Rashomon, The Quiet Man, Viva Zapata and Come Back, Little Sheba. But in the American Film Institute’s list of the best 100 movies ever, only Rain made the Top 10 (www.afi.com/tv/movies.asp). G-rated in all respects, this is a top-of-the-line VHS/DVD buy or rental.

NETWORK TV

An article in Variety says that kids 12-l7 are watching less network TV. All the nets (except NBC with Friends) had fewer teens watching in 2001, with the biggest drop-offs at Fox (down 15 percent) and ABC/Disney (down 29 percent). Fox still has the most teens in its audience: The most-to-least rank order is Fox, WB and NBC, UPN, ABC, CBS.

Or maybe they just got some sense. Theories abound: The kids are migrating to cable (MTV, among others); they’re spending more time on new tech (games, the Internet); TV usage is dropping because in this economy more teens are working to help out family income.

These data disturb the media, which are already engaged in a great quest for Youth—for the advertising, of course. The trend is everywhere: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio have all recently moved toward softer news and more pop-culture coverage. The recent changes in graphics and personalities on cable news channels have the same intention.

(Great cartoon in recent New Yorker: two mature gentlemen smiling with wings, halos and martinis in puffy-cloud cartoon heaven. The caption reads: “At least there’s one place that’s not youth-oriented.”)

Network programmers will try to win teens back with a lot of 15-year-old protagonists in new series. (A pilot for a new Fox series, Septuplets, maxes out the trend: “Teenage septuplets live in a hotel owned by their parents.”) Viewers over 30 will find a ton of channels with nothing on.

THE RECENT DEATHS

THE RECENT DEATHS of two television giants merit attention. Milton Berle was not just a star, he was a social phenomenon. His live variety show (Texaco Star Theater began in 1948) was the reason people bought sets. Neighbors came over; in college dorms, everyone came to the lobby to watch the only TV in the building.

The show was rowdy and corny, but by today’s standards, unbelievably innocent. Maybe you can hear in memory all those classes and ages of people laughing together. You won’t hear them together today, laughing like that, anywhere.

Sylvester (Pat) Weaver became NBC honcho in 1949, and his first act was to rescind the cancellation of Meet the Press, now TV’s longest-running program. For better or worse, he invented the forms of the medium, extending it to daytime and late night, originating the idea of “specials,” expanding election coverage, introducing quality magazine-type shows. Weaver’s vision was better than what others eventually did with it. In later years he criticized the medium for its commercialism and decline.


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