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by James Arnold

Selling Out and Coping


    Photo © 1997 Miramax by George Kraychyk

    Good Will Hunting stars Robin Williams (left) as a professor who tries to help a young man, played by Matt Damon, improve his life.

    GOOD WILL HUNTING (A-4, R): Most people who win the jackpot are happy to take the money. Not Will Hunting, a kid from blue-collar Irish South Boston who is gifted with the equivalent, a world-class genius for mathematics. Thatís the hook in this screenplay by young actors Matt Damon, who plays Will, and Ben Affleck, his Southie pal. (The movie has turned into a jackpot for them.)

    Will, a janitor at M.I.T., refuses to use his talent to escape to a better life. Heís an orphan from an ugly childhood and dreads failure, as in his attraction to a bright English premed student (Minnie Driver).

    Heís guided by an understanding professor (Robin Williams in his grizzled, gently humane mode). Their struggle to connect is the movieís heart, along with the up-and-down, more conventional love story.

    Despite the Irish milieu, nothing much is done with religion. Director Gus Van Sant (To Die For) offers some insight into the relationship between the gifted and the friends and life-style they must inevitably leave behind. But the male camaraderie and bumming around, while amusing and touching, wonít make anyone forget Diner. Affecting at times but somewhat overrated; problem language, sexual situations; O.K. for adults.


    THE SWEET HEREAFTER (A-3, R): This independent, much-praised film focuses on the tragedy of children in a small Canadian town who are killed when a school bus crashes. A stranger who is a big-city lawyer arrives, going from home to home, trying to persuade reluctant parents to join in a lawsuit to make sure someone, preferably with deep pockets like the bus manufacturer, is held responsible.

    Toronto-based director Atom Egoyan avoids most of the emotions even your average TV news show would exploit. While this is a town that has suddenly lost its children (the Pied Piper story is a frequent symbolic reference), this is not a film about anger at God or fate or the "system." Itís not the film we expect.

    Egoyan instead directs our attention to whatís going on with the adult characters in this town besides their grief. We find out why the lawyer, beautifully played by veteran Ian Holm, cares so much.

    He wants sympathetic witnesses, but many of the parents have flaws to hide. The only child survivor, Nicole (Sarah Polley), now paralyzed, has had an incestuous relationship. In a stunningly staged empty courtroom climax, Nicole decides the outcome of the case, while her father watches and hopes for a financial windfall. Strikingly shot in snowy British Columbia. Fresh and humane but challenging; satisfactory for mature viewers.


    AS GOOD AS IT GETS (A-4, PG-13): Jack Nicholson plays an obnoxious New York writer who insults everyone and taunts a waitress about her sick child. He opens the film by dumping a nervous but very cute dog down a garbage chute. Soon the Don Rickles routine slows down and we realize weíre into a classic curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold story.

    In this typically quirky comedy by producer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News), Nicholsonís Melvin Udall is an obsessive-compulsive whose illness is used for both laughs and poignance. He brings his plastic picnicware every day to the same restaurant where the same waitress (Helen Hunt) brings him the same food. He loves it, and when she canít come to work because of her sonís asthma, he finances medical help that controls the problem (a slam at her HMO, which Mickey-Moused around proper help).

    A single mom, sheís hugely grateful but worries about his intentions. He realizes his feelings go deeper and, because of their friendship, he begins to get healthier.

    Melvin seems to be living proof that charity helps the giver: When he grumpily agrees to dog-sit for Simon, his gay artist-neighbor (Greg Kinnear) who was beaten up by robbers, he bonds with the dog.

    Soon Melvin will also find compassion for the previously detested Simon, who has been depressed by medical bills. Melvin drives Simon to Baltimore to seek needed money from his estranged parents. Weíre touchingly reminded of the traumas of families broken by unforgiving misconceptions about sexuality.

    This much too long, feel-good movie is about people-in-pain who help each other. It makes humor out of lifeís imperfections. Hunt, in movies and TV for 20 years, is no longer a surprise; Nicholson and Kinnear are in top form, with beaming support from Cuba Gooding, Jr., as Simonís cheerful but confused agent and friend. Despite sitcom feel, never far from grim reality; O.K. for mature youth and adults.


    BEWARE OF LIFE: Those inclined to get depressed easily need to avoid the NBC Nightly News, where the idea seems to be that Judgment Day is not far off. From a religious perspective, one of the dangers of late-20th-century affluence and scientific progress is that people may be tempted not to look for heaven hereafter since itís already been provided on earth. No danger of that on NBC (maybe on the other channels, too, but I can watch only one at a time).

    Each day we stagger home from work, hug the spouse and kids, turn on the TV and get thunked with disaster. If the stock market didnít crash today, it looks as if it will tomorrow, El Niño is flooding and freezing us, the danger of getting cancer just went up. Also, itís getting easier for terrorists to slip past our slipshod security, and thereís news of the chicken flu in Hong Kong. Schools are getting worse. And thereís global warming.

    Whatís NBCís almost constant feature? Of course, "The Fleecing of America," showing how somewhere, somehow, some fools are costing us big money. Saddam? You donít want to know. By the way, did we tell you youíre to blame for those sick, starving Iraqi kids?

    Not to sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and I realize life on earth is tough every day and big news is very often bad news, but how about just a little lightening up? We are redeemed, arenít we? And as for ordinary everyday stuff, when is NBC News going to realize that if we were kings and queens a millennium ago, we would consider this a Golden Age? Just for starters, we have air conditioning and microwaves. They didnít have all this bad news back then, or they put the messenger in a dungeon.

    Iím starting to see why Touched by an Angel is a hit. After the news, not to mention 60 Minutes, you need angels. On any level angels are a comforting contrast.


    CLOSE TO HOME (PBS, March 29-31): This new Bill Moyers series (his last was the stimulating Genesis) delves into all aspects of what is surely one of Americaís most intractable social and moral problems: addiction (to drugs, tobacco, alcohol). The series is spread out over 5-1/2 hours and three evenings, in segments describing the human impact of addiction and current research into its neurological causes, programs for changing behavior and saving future generations, and new approaches to a rational public-health policy.

    You can argue that addicts are not going to watch this. But Close to Home (the title stems from the fact that Moyersís oldest son has struggled with drugs and alcohol) hopes to enlighten the general public. It will aim through a strong pre-broadcast and follow-up campaign to reach health-care professionals, educators, students, businesses, community leaders, and friends and families of the afflicted.

    Iíve seen the opening hour, and itís terrific documentary TV. In close-up, nine articulate people representing a range of age, social class, occupation and gender talk about their personal experiences with their particular demons in ways that are gritty, funny, horrifying and often deeply moving.

    You get an understanding of how and why people get hooked ("My life is awful but I feel great"), why they are motivated to change (a female ex-cop describes finding herself crawling on the floor to locate a last lost rock of cocaine), how they turned the corner and their desperate continuing struggle in "recovery." For example, an upper-middle-class mom and grandmother describes going to Mass to pray that she could "stop at three drinks...I did but they just got [bigger]."

    The series is recommended for professionals in a position to help and for those who know little about addiction or want to know more. But it will especially move and inspire those who have been battling it all their lives and may feel as if theyíre alone. (The video set can be purchased at 800-256-5127.)


    THE OSCAR CEREMONIES are due this month (March 23). They are significant to movie fans and campy fun to watch. But other more serious awards are too often neglected. Consider the annual Dupont-Columbia awards for excellence in TV-radio journalism, broadcast in January. This is the still-beating heart of media idealism.

    Among the dozen awards announced were: ABCís PrimeTime Live for its report on Fordís high-interest loans targeted at the poor; NBC-Scripps-Howardís Why Canít We Live Together? about bias against high-income blacks in a Chicago suburb; a study of the human impact of the Unisys layoffs in Minnesota by public station KTCA-TV; a remarkable look at crowded classes in Brooklynís P.S. 114 (WABC, New York); and the poetic, humane The Great War (PBS), partly funded by tax dollars, which asked why the 20th has been historyís most violent century.

    The top winner was Frontline (PBS), for its continuing high-quality documentaries. These prizes suggest why itís important to have public broadcasting survive. But above all they underline the best work of idealistic journalists and why we need them. They try to make a difference, to help us "know the world as it is and as it might be." They put the Oscars in context.

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