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by James Arnold

The Postman
Up Close & Personal
High Incident
Prediction II
City Hall
Prediction I
Favorite Things

Up Close & Personal stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a talented and ambitious broadcast reporter and Robert Redford as the brilliant newsman who becomes her mentor.
THE POSTMAN (A-2, PG) was a happy surprise. The movie came out of Italy with little fanfare, made by people few had ever heard of and, at least on the surface, about a subject not exactly of mass interest: the improbable friendship that grows between a famous poet and an uneducated man in a remote fishing village.

It's surely not the stuff that makes hit movies in the 1990's. It has Italian dialogue with English subtitles. There are no bimbos, bozos or explosions. Set in the economically deprived Italy of the 1950's, it recalls the neorealist films of that era and their stories about working-class heroes who make fleeting contact with a totally different aspect of life. Yet The Postman was nominated for five Oscars Hollywood denizens would kill for: best film, actor, director, writer, composer.

The key reason is a career performance (ironically, his last) by the late Massimo Troisi, 41, who gives his disadvantaged hero, Mario, a universal (the only word) lovableness. As the skinny mailman who winds his bicycle up the dirt road to bring the famous, politically exiled poet his letters, Troisi is funny, simple, direct, moved by beauty, comic in his determination to win when he's expected to lose.

The poet is a real poet, the Chilean Pablo Neruda (played gently and wisely by Philippe Noiret), noted writer of love poems, 1930's-era Communist idealist and eventual Nobel prizewinner. A lonely bachelor, Mario is mostly interested in the love poems as a magic way of attracting a wife. Neruda is both amused and touched by Mario, and becomes his mentor, teaching him about the mystery of metaphors and how to express what's in his heart.

Mario never becomes a real poet, but he does well enough to win the hand of a lovely barmaid, despite the fears of her elderly aunt who is suspicious of men and their romantic metaphors. (She runs to her priest who, being suspicious of Communists, is not much help.) After Neruda and his wife return to their homeland, he forgets about Mario until years later when he learns how much he has changed the mailman's life. This time, the teacher learns from his pupil.

In the end, The Postman, co-written by British director Michael Radford (White Mischief), is a rare treat. It's a comedy about poetry, love and friendship, and the dignity and potential of all humanity. Recommended for youth and adults.

FARGO (A-4, R): During a depressing North Country winter, a car dealer who is used to scamming a few extra bucks out of his customers plans a bigger outrage, an absurd swindle. The mark is his wealthy boss, who is also his father-in-law. Jerry (William H. Macy), our homespun antihero, hires some goons to stage a kidnapping of his own dedicated but dimbulb wife. Ransom will be extorted, the crooks will split the loot with Jerry, let his wife go, then disappear. Nobody will be wiser.

Everybody in this Joel and Ethan Coen movie (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy), which is based on real events, is a shade dumber than normal. The worst are the ex-con kidnappers: small, funny-looking Carl and big, impulsive Gaear. The unexpected always happens to them, followed by reckless improvisation. Also, Jerry has his own problems, especially with Wade, his crusty father-in-law.

If regular folks are committing the crime, they're also solving it. The local sheriff, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), is seven months pregnant. She's close to her husband, Norm, a wildlife artist who brings her all her meals. She's uncomplicated but smart enough, between bouts of morning sickness, to get quickly on the trail of all the culprits.

The Coens, who grew up in Minneapolis, enjoy teasing the simple ways and speech patterns of the locals. Despite its misanthropic strain, essentially Fargo is deadpan Hitchcockian black comedy about how hard it really is to get away with a crime. This film will be too bloody for some, but the Fargo world is clearly ruled by relentless moral forces. Marge and Norm, being warm and loving, help to restore one's shaky faith in human nature. Steve Buscemi (the Peter Lorre of the 1990's) works hardest and steals the picture as the inept, unfortunate Carl. Violence, problem language and sex situations; satisfactory, with reservations, for adults.

UP CLOSE & PERSONAL (A-3, PG-13): The ambitious female TV journalist is a special case of the difficulties facing women trying to make it big in the corporate rat race. She has to be smart, aggressive and professionally dedicated, just like the guys. But she also is expected to be charming, beautiful and forever young. The sexy, photogenic part makes her a natural subject for movies--most recently, The Jessica Savitch Story (on TV) and To Die For, both of which focused on self-destructive ambition.

Michelle Pfeiffer's Tally Atwater, the heroine of Up Close, appears less driven and more "normal." Her worst outrage is faking her resumé, which gets her a job in Miami and a chance to be tutored by Warren Justice (Robert Redford), a former network star reporter and the TV equivalent of the wily veteran city editor. She's virtually a role model in paying her dues and working hard; he's the one who's self-destructive, largely from an excess of idealism. A no-compromise guy, he insists on hard news, not fluff; on truth, not fantasy.

They fall in love, even get married, despite the problems basic to the business: If she's going to be a star, she'll have to move to bigger markets, and he's been there, done that. He tries for a while, but he's too abrasive to work in that commercial world. Eventually, he goes off to pursue a major political story in Panama. For actor Redford, it just adds to the legend. A truth-teller, he makes honest reporting noble and sexy again.

There's no irony when Tally succeeds; she's learned both skills and integrity from her mentor. It's not all dead serious: There's a funny sequence where she ends up singing "The Impossible Dream" (very badly) at the 50 yard line in the empty Orange Bowl.

Also (despite some clichés) there's a fairly deep inside look at TV news, plus solid support from a good cast, including Stockard Channing as an icy female rival and Joe Mantegna as a bottom-line-fixated agent. Premarital sex, but generally uplifting take on TV journalism; for mature youth and adults.

CITY HALL (A-3, R) is mainly a moral attack on big-city political corruption, a target that may not be quite outdated but seems somehow less relevant than other forms of public decadence in the 1990's.

Al Pacino plays John Pappas, a charismatic New York mayor with higher ambitions. His hopes are endangered by a scandal connecting a veteran judge (Martin Landau) known for his honesty and Mob figures friendly to the Brooklyn political boss (Danny Aiello). In this story by Ken Lipper, deputy mayor under Ed Koch, the key investigator is the deputy mayor: Pappas's own young protégé from Louisiana, Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), who idolizes the mayor but uncovers the truth.

City Hall thus plays a variation on an archetypal story: The son discovers the sins of the father, judges him and makes him quit (a superbly acted Pacino-Cusack confrontation scene). The mayor's fall is tragic because he's obviously gifted and caring. But the movie is not as humane or moving as John Ford's classic in this end-of-an-era political genre, The Last Hurrah (1958).

Cusack's character is supposedly based on James Carville, but that thought would never occur to you except for all the Cajun jokes in the script. Bridget Fonda is credible as Calhoun's lawyer friend and coinvestigator, but Aiello (as usual) is especially memorable. A Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, he has a terrific Hudson River scene set to the music of "You'll Never Walk Alone." Lots of urban angst and good lines; satisfactory for mature audiences.

is another cop drama, but this first serious effort from DreamWorks (Steven Spielberg and zillionaire colleagues) impresses. Why? You have a script about a cop's emotional attachment to his legless, homeless, somewhat crazy brother. You have them singing together the theme song lyrics from A Walk in the Sun, a great old but forgotten war movie from 1945.

In another anecdote, the California suburban officers are called to check a complaint against a jazz buff who plays his music too loud and wonders how anyone can complain about Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday performing at too high a volume. This suggests that someone is writing and feeling this show, not just filling in the space between commercials.

What is there about cop shows (and hospital shows, too) that makes them such riveting TV more often than not? No question about it, the police stations (and emergency rooms) are microcosms of modern life, excluding no age or gender or socioeconomic bracket, no dilemmas too large or small. They are the locales of undisguised moral, social and personal conflicts, the centers where life begins and ends and God's presence is felt, where the issues congregate and crystallize, where we are most likely to find heroes and cowards, people who understand and people who don't and never will. Viva this much-maligned genre!

PREDICTION I: We are in for about six months of the most negative and quarrelsome political TV commercials we have ever seen.

PREDICTION II: The V-chip won't work. Unlike movies, TV, with 168 hours of programs per channel per week, is simply too vast to rate in simple categories. What geniuses will do the work and for what compensation? Few issues are more misunderstood than the moral effects of art. In the end, parents will have to do this job (selecting what may be seen and what not), which is just as tough as bathing shivering sick babies in cool water to bring their temperatures down.

FAVORITE THINGS: Newspaper Q&A columns about movies and TV. People are always asking about stuff like the Robert Mitchum movie where he's a Marine marooned on a Japanese island with a nun: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, of course. (And no, it's not on video.) A bigger question is why anybody cares. Why don't people want to know about, say, A Man for All Seasons? Or Dominick and Eugene?

Another recently spotted inquiry came from someone who never saw or heard of The Gong Show (1976-80) and wanted to know what it was all about. Now why ask about this rather than, say, a lost episode of Playhouse 90 or Mary Tyler Moore? Ah, we complain about time passing and forgetting things, but they can also be a blessing. If we all try hard enough, we can forget The Gong Show all over again.

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