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by James Arnold

Helfgott Shines, Argentina Cries

Watching People Party
The Crucible
Six O'Clock News

Evita stars Madonna as the charismatic and ambitious Eva Perón crying out to the people of Argentina, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice.

SHINE (A-3, PG-13): Compassion for disabled or afflicted people has become a major characteristic of important movies. Shine, an Australian film that swept almost every conceivable award in its homeland, is the latest to emulate such films as My Left Foot and Rain Man. It offers a lovable, disabled hero—plus some beautiful music, most significantly, Rachmaninoff's explosive Piano Concerto No. 3.

Based on the true story of pianist David Helfgott, this Scott Hicks-directed movie is about the havoc caused by an ambitious parent, a father who loves too much. (This classic character is especially familiar in today's competitive mass-media world of big-time sports and performing arts.)

The father (played with low-key intensity and insight by Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the ultimate stage parent. But it's not greed that motivates him. He's possessive. As an immigrant who is scarred by his own childhood and Holocaust trauma, he's afflicted by his wariness and distrust of the world.

When teenager David breaks away to accept a scholarship in London, his father disowns him. David suffers a breakdown (a terrific sequence) almost at the exact moment when all his hard work and training are about to pay off in musical competition.

David is movingly played by three different actors. The more memorable are Noah Taylor, who covers the early adult "crash" years, and Geoffrey Rush as the rapid-talking, childlike man.

It's a triumph of the human spirit because in a way David's breakdown frees him to enjoy and share his gift. Shine is another film that brings audiences closer to understanding humans who are in some way "different." But it's unique in substance and dazzling style. Powerful, highly cinematic drama that explores the joy and pain of art and also the ambiguous nature of love within families.

THE CRUCIBLE (A-3, PG-13): Arthur Miller's noted and frequently performed 1952 play seems to have evolved over the years into a unique tragic drama about the dangers of religious belief unchecked by practical wisdom, prudence and common sense. This story of the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem now seems almost an archetypal tale of nastiness resulting from a woman's revenge.

The theme: A scorned young woman causes big trouble. The distinction: This is a Puritan community and her revenge is to call down the terror of a religion operating with the force of law.

This is based on one of the "dark nights" in Christian religious history. Eventually, in God's name, 19 persons were hanged and another pressed to death. The specific here was a loose charge of Satanism at a time when very personal belief in the Evil One was common.

As the movie makes painfully clear, unleashing Satan is a particularly dangerous game. He can be perceived as using all disguises and serving on all sides. When the "hanging" Judge
Danforth (Paul Scofield) says, "The devil is loose in Salem," he means one thing but we're looking straight into his burning, fanatical eyes.

In Miller's updated version, the real villains are a group of hysterical adolescent girls who start things by trying to save themselves from punishment for a foolish midnight escapade in the woods. They're led by the vindictive Abigail (Winona Ryder), who is angry at the Proctors (Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen). They have expelled her from their house, seeing her wisely as a sexual threat to their marriage.

But this tale of revenge and fanaticism is also a story of religious heroism. All any of the accused must do to save themselves is to lie convincingly and confess. Ultimately, those who refused to lie and thus accepted death brought the nasty business to its shameful end.

The finale, in which a group led by Proctor recites the Our Father before being hanged in front of a stricken audience of townsfolk, is one of the more moving examples of martyrdom in film history. This cast is exceptional, and director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) brings this early colonial period to vivid life. Recommended for mature youth and adults.

EVITA (A-3, PG): As created by director Alan Parker, the movie Evita explodes visually, using the editing and looks-like-reality powers of cinema to overwhelm the senses as it never could on stage. It so thoroughly transcends mere acting or performance that it hardly matters that Madonna plays the title role, or that Antonio Banderas is Che and Jonathan Pryce is Juan Perón. All are adequate foreground presences in Parker's dazzling megashow.

This is, of course, nothing like a regular movie musical. It's entirely sung, and much of the singing is narrative rather than dialogue. Fans of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice realize it's much in the style of their Jesus Christ Superstar.

It's not so much an acted story as a pageant, an encyclopedia entry with music (and fabulous illustrations). Eva Perón, who rose to power in 1940's Argentina, is alternately considered harlot or saint. Che's best line from Rice sums up the heroine: "She had her moment, she had some style."

Evita is destined to be remembered as the show with one incredibly great song ("Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"). The movie feels like an epic because of all its cinematic glitz. A genuine extravaganza, with solid contributions by all; a melodic take on one of the century's major pop political stars; satisfactory for youth and adults.

MICHAEL (A-3, PG): Whether you approve of Hollywood angels depends mostly on whether your point of view is high angle or low angle. From above, from a sober theological perspective, this film is pure pop fantasy, junk, full of misinformation and dopey disrespect. But from below, from the perspective that nobody really knows much about angels and seldom even thinks of them, then it's not bad that millions of moviegoers are required to deal with even a thoroughly absurd concept of the Archangel Michael.

This film, with the ubiquitous John Travolta in the title role, comes from Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle). She sends three marginal reporters (William Hurt, Andie MacDowell, Robert Pastorelli) from a tabloid into the wilds of Iowa to check on a report of a "real" angel.

Sure enough, Michael is there but different from expectations. He has wings (a major deal here) but he's an unkempt bachelor, a smoker, a womanizer (this aspect is fairly tasteless), an ugly eater. He lives according to the words of John and Paul (the Beatles): Love is all you need. His mission is confused but he likes people. And he apparently wants to bring together Hurt and MacDowell and make their lives a little better.

Both Michael and the movie run out of gas when the group finally gets back to Chicago and the angel vanishes (except for a forced sentimental finale). Flawed, fluffy, somewhat seedy angel comedy; not recommended.

WATCHING PEOPLE PARTY: Is having fun a spectator sport? Television has always thought so. From earlier days, we recall Dick Clark and Hugh Hefner making some classic series out of parties. The spontaneous, fun-loving types at games and parades have always drawn attention—self-denuded or painted, or bearing outrageous or witty sign. We've now reached the point where people routinely have to prepare in advance to achieve a level of zaniness worthy of the video director's notice.

We thought of this, strangely, while watching post-Inaugural parties on the normally quite dignified C-SPAN. People actually looked bored, standing around in tuxes and ball gowns looking for celebrities and perspiring under the lights. (The prez averaged eight minutes at each ball, we're told.) Usually, Democrats are livelier.

The boredom is somewhat different at Hollywood parties (post Golden Globes, Oscars, Grammies). E! network seems to specialize in these kinds of parties, where people always seem to be waiting in line to get in. There's also talk about clothes and who's going with whom.

The fun part of parties is tough to show via the camera. It's being with friends, relaxing, celebrating life. The camera always seems to suggest people are under a strain or foolish. (The camera is sober; the partygoers often are not.) Thus, the memorable movie-party scenes tend to be moral exposés (like La Dolce Vita).

Perhaps the best party-watching happens on home videos. But even these are not always fun, especially when you're watching videos of somebody else's party.

SIX O'CLOCK NEWS (PBS, Frontline): Ross McElwee is one of the two dozen or so American documentary film-makers who are genuine stars. A century from now, in textbooks about "reality" films made during our lifetime, McElwee's name will turn up and students will watch his movies in class. He does personal films (Sherman's March) in which he sets out on some mission and then improvises, going wherever the trail leads.

In this new documentary, McElwee explores the mystery of tragedy and the ancient questions about divine providence and the unpredictability of the universe. In short, why do most of us drive home safely every night, barring an occasional fender bender, while another poor guy has a freeway collapse on him and ends up on the evening news?

McElwee talks to a friend in Carolina, where a whole island was flattened by a hurricane; a Korean immigrant whose young wife was murdered; victims of a tornado near Phoenix. But the key guy is a Central American named Sal who was trapped in a parking garage and crushed in a Los Angeles earthquake. He was working two jobs, supporting six people back home. Why should he be singled out for disaster and months of agonizing recovery and rehab?

The point is local TV news is random horror. Is the world out of control? "Life is easier," says narrator McElwee, "if you believe God is in control."

McElwee's movie finally becomes an explicit search for God—I've never seen anything quite like it. When Sal was trapped, he tried to strangle himself. Now he believes the "grace of God" saved him. He believes more in God than before. We follow him to church, and McElwee looks around "trying to capture God on film."

The camera explores the nooks and crannies among the shadows, but God is not to be seen. Maybe elsewhere, say, in the smiles of the UCLA Medical Center nurses who greet Sal with warmth nine months after helping him through his ordeal. In any case, this documentary was a moving TV story about TV and theology. Its most memorable image: In the twilight after an abortion clinic bombing, TV reporters stand on the scene in the dark, silently and alone, like statues, waiting for their 60-second "live" slots on the evening news.

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