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by James Arnold

More Blessings Than Chaos

MISSION TO MARS

MISSION TO MARS (A-2, PG) is a serious, $90-million space epic, purporting to represent a NASA recovery mission after a mysterious disaster envelops the first group of explorers on Mars in 2020. The four astronauts have a disaster of their own (the film’s most artful and moving sequence).

All space movies stand on the shoulders of their predecessors: This one builds on the detailed authenticity and camaraderie of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, as well as the awe, tech wizardry and philosophical speculations of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Mission follows 2001 in many ways, but chiefly in proposing we are watched by a benign alien race who seeded Earth with their DNA when Mars was impacted by an ancient asteroid.

The mission leader (Gary Sinise) is ultimately invited to travel to the world that is now home to these very old relatives.

You could argue the origin of life and evolution on earth is explained by higher beings instead of a Higher Being, and “home” for us is up there in the heavens but not in heaven. Yet it’s also possible to say that Mission, like so much other sci-fi, suggests only that some vast miracles occurred to get us here, and this is just another variation on the archetypal story. What persists is mystery, but something considerably more beautiful than chaos.

Veteran director Brian DePalma (Snake Eyes, Mission Impossible) works here from a script by brothers John and Jim Thomas, creators of the Predator films. Given this mix, the results are not immortal but livelier than we could expect.

The movie is weakest when it tries to visualize the aliens and their theatrics in giving their reasons for leaving us a message on Mars, strongest and most convincing when it sticks to the science and real risks of exploration. (Tim Robbins and Connie Nielsen, as loving husband and wife astronauts, are memorable in a romantic space-walk sequence.) Not the A-list, but much better than most; satisfactory for youth and adults.

WONDER BOYS

WONDER BOYS (A-3, R) got good secular reviews but not here. There’s some smartness and grown-up appeal, but these are characters basically going nowhere important. The world of college English majors and profs is not a whole lot morally better than the suburban confusion on display in American Beauty.

This set-in-Pittsburgh comedy is from writer Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys), who has refreshing sympathy for artists with low-octane talents. It begins in a writing workshop where prof Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a one-novel wonder boy with writer’s block, or maybe lack-of-block: His second book is up to 2,611 pages with no end in sight. He’s too fond of addictive substances.

Grady has other problems, too. His wife has just left him. He’s having an affair with the chancellor (Frances McDormand), who also happens to be his department head’s wife, and she has just become pregnant. One of Grady’s few achievements has been to inspire a fragile student, James (Tobey Maguire).

The film covers a boozy, druggie weekend of college parties, rushing about aimlessly, talking and enduring odd events. Eventually, Grady passes James on to his gay editor from New York (Robert Downey, Jr.), who urgently needs a new writing star to save his own career.

These folks are not great fun to be with, and their weaknesses are obviously the butt of the dark humor. Writing seems important to them but we don’t know why. We don’t hear what they write or learn anything new about what makes writing good. At least Kloves and director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) show compassion, and end up with a meandering satire of academic and book-business pretensions. Adult material; not especially recommended.

SWEET AND LOWDOWN

SWEET AND LOWDOWN (A-3, PG-13): In paying homage to Fellini’s masterpiece La Strada, Woody Allen makes clever choices and constructs one of his best films. Oddly, given his penchant for theological speculations, he gets almost everything in but Fellini’s major messages about grace and purpose in life.

Woody recreates the brutal low-life Zampano, Fellini’s traveling circus strongman, as a club-touring 1930’s American jazz guitarist who is self-centered but talented. The fictional Emmet Ray is played brilliantly by Oscar nominee Sean Penn. And the sweet-natured mute (Gelsomina, now Hattie), who is in love with him but whom he exploits and abandons, is now a poor Atlantic City laundress. (British actress Samantha Morton was Oscar-nominated.)

Both funny and ironic are Emmet’s boorish habits and lack of feeling, conveyed in the original by Zampano’s gruff ego and gross life-style. Emmet is a sometime pimp whose major enthusiasms are playing pool, shooting rats at the dump and watching trains in the freight yard. Only when he plays music is Emmet in touch with deeper, more beautiful realities.

To get the most joy from Lowdown, and to fully appreciate the funny-but-sad choice of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” as the song that most moves Hattie, you probably need to know the Fellini film. But it’s not necessary.

Sure, Woody has chutzpah even to attempt a remake. But some success is better than nothing. It’s a key to his character that the man cannot forsake his affection for a tragic, 50-year-old black-and-white Italian movie with subtitles.

So Woody does us a favor. The final scene, in which Emmet understands and mourns the loss of the love who miraculously came into his life, is heartbreaking. There are fine possibilities here for discussing why one movie is great and deeply Catholic, while another, reflecting just a nudge less of a religious sensibility, is only good.

As always in Woody’s flicks, he can’t forsake the jazz of his youth. The music is marvelous. (Howard Alden plays Emmet’s solos.) Allen is also much funnier than Fellini and just about anyone else. Uma Thurman also contributes nicely as a literate beauty. Clever, funny, lovely in its sadness; essential for Fellini buffs, recommended for mature viewers.

JESUS

JESUS (CBS miniseries, May 14 and 17): TV movies about the Lord, a mixed blessing, are in fashion. It’s hard to complain unless they do more harm than good. This one, by director Roger Young, who specializes in one-name TV biopics (Moses, Joseph, Geronimo) is fairly benign. It offers elements that range from passion-play level to terrific.

But like all its genre, it cannot solve the mystery of Jesus. It presents an attractive actor (Jeremy Sisto of The 60’s) doing and saying those awesome things, but in the end we know nothing more than before.

Among this movie’s distinctions are its bad guys. There’s a clever concept of the devil (Jeroen Krabbe), from the high-tech temptation-in-the-desert sequence to Gethsemane, where Satan shows Jesus graphically the miserable future of humanity, its cruelties and horrors committed in Jesus’s name, and tells him his sacrifice will be in vain. The invented cynic (G. W. Bailey) gives Herod and Pilate all the wrong advice, and after those unforgettable “Forgive them, Father” words at the crucifixion, he mutters, “We know exactly what we’re doing.”

Another plus is the masculinization of Jesus in contemporary terms. Whether this is the historical Jesus, we cannot know. But we seem to need this image now. After 40 days in the desert, he is unkempt and dirty.

This Jesus has an easy camaraderie with the apostles. He and his mother, Mary, also have a tender but sounder relationship than in most other films.

The rest is a mix: some ordinary (poor Magdalene is still a prostitute), some worse than ordinary (Salome, a fractionalized Sermon on the Mount, the walking on water scene); some a bit better (Young has the courage to use Andrew Lloyd Webber’s achingly lovely “Agnus Dei” for the burial preparations after Calvary). The post-Resurrection material is thin and hurried at best. Satisfactory for general viewing.

GOD, THE DEVIL AND BOB

GOD, THE DEVIL AND BOB (NBC, Tuesdays): God finally gets a prime-time series, but don’t count on it lasting all spring. Ironically, the premiere episode appeared right after Friends and a Victoria’s Secret commercial, so you know the neighborhood can use an upgrade. But it doesn’t really matter: This cartoon series, created by Matt Carlson (Men Behaving Badly), is the ultimate theological dumbing down.

Jim Garner gives some of his laconic personality to the voice of the God character, who is smart and laid-back (tee and jeans) but still the stereotypical Old Man in white hair and trimmed beard. The premise is that God is fed up and thinking about “chucking the whole thing and starting over...unless just one soul could show they’re worth saving.”

Bob (French Stewart) is the test case, a Detroit auto-worker suburban guy with a sitcom family of feisty wife and two obnoxious kids. His first question is, “What’s in it for me?” The devil (voiced by Alan Cumming, not too surprisingly as a cultured Englishman) tries to make things contentious but has as much luck as Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner.

The moral messages are not complex. Be nice. Pay some attention to your family. (Bob gives one episode a happy ending just by talking to his teenage daughter about menstruation.)

Here’s a test for this kind of TV spirituality: Is it better than no such program? Is it better than angel shows? Is it better than Nothing Sacred? Since we can’t get the real God on TV, we have to settle for approximations. But despite some nice sitcom zingers (the devil brags he founded the Harvard Business School), this series doesn’t have a pulse. But maybe it’s a time bomb, waiting to lure its audience and then zap them with transcendent thoughts. Not especially recommended.

 

 


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