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by James Arnold


Classic Catholic Stories

FLY AWAY HOME
THE SPITFIRE GRILL
BOGUS
CLUELESS
THE PRETENDER
TIN CUP
JACK
PEARL
COSBY
THE WEST


PHOTO
1996 COLUMBIA PICTURES BY TAKASHI SEIDA

Fly Away Home stars Academy Award-winner Anna Paquin as Amy Alden, a young girl who discovers the responsibilities that go along with rescuing some goose eggs.


FLY AWAY HOME (A-2, PG): This is director Carroll Ballard's girl-and-her-geese film, to form a superb triptych with his boy-and-his-horse epic The Black Stallion and man-bonds-with-wolf adventure Never Cry Wolf. Sheer beauty makes up for any lack of credibility.

After her mother is killed in a car crash, 13-year-old Amy (Anna Paquin) goes to rural Ontario to live with her estranged father (Jeff Daniels). He's soaring around the countryside in a one-man homemade glider and battling the developers encroaching on a nearby wilderness area. The two are brought together when Amy rescues a clutch of wild goose eggs, and Dad helps her to teach the goslings how to be genuine Canada geese.

Part of being a goose, of course, involves flying south for the winter, and the characters are soon caught up in training the birds to follow two motorized, goose-shaped versions of Dad's planes to North Carolina. The climax is the trip itself-a mix of beauty, comedy and suspense-as the fragile little gaggle encounters everything from American fighter jets to Baltimore skyscrapers.

This is definitely a conservationist's movie: The bad guys have goose-wing clippers and bulldozers. There's a high cuteness factor: The goslings are adorable and young Paquin, coiffed in a variety of Mom's retro hats, isn't far behind. But Ballard and cameraman Caleb Deschanel wash us in irresistible images. Family values flourish; well-crafted entertainment for kids, moms and dads.

TIN CUP (A-3, R): Sports-movie specialist Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump) focuses here on golf, with this romantic comedy about a talented dropout who tries to win the U.S. Open.

Kevin Costner's Roy McAvoy is an instructor on west Texas's seediest driving range. He wastes his talent gambling and drinking with his buddies, and sharing a dusty motor home with his caddy and pal (Cheech Marin's best part ever). Then Molly (Rene Russo), a classy lady going with his obnoxious former teammate David (Don Johnson), comes in for lessons. Roy reforms, gets into serious practice and manages to qualify for the tournament.

The dialogue is fresh in this lightweight fantasy, an updated Tracy-Hepburn banter-fest played out on the rolling fairways of several elegant country clubs. About par for Shelton's nicely laid-out course; flawed by needless adult situations; O.K. for adults, but not recommended.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL (A-2, PG-13): A female ex-con comes to a small town in Maine to repair her life and ends up restoring the damaged soul of the town. An offbeat idea by writer-director Lee David Slotoff (who created the MacGyver TV series), it was produced by a Catholic charity (Mississippi's Sacred Heart League) because of its "Judeo-Christian values," which beats writing letters to the editor complaining about moral decline.

This is not an explicitly religious movie, although a church is an important venue in the story. It's a moral parable about damaged people and how compassion heals and brings them together.

The main focus is on the friendship that develops among three women: Percy (Allison Elliott), a young ex-con drawn to the town to escape her past; Hannah (Ellen Burstyn), a widow who runs the town's only restaurant and the nurturing center of its community life; and cook-waitress Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden),
a kind young mother belittled and dominated by her husband, Nahum (Will Patton).

When the grill must finally be sold, the women run a national essay contest. People send in a small donation and explain why they'd like to own the grill. Some essays are crazy or funny, but many reveal the longing for a place to start over and rebuild lives.

Beyond that, the suspense hangs mainly on Nahum's suspicions that Percy is still a criminal and plans to rob them, and on the shadowy hermit who lives in the woods and whom Percy befriends. All is resolved in a tragic event that ultimately brings the community together.

Spitfire is earnest and occasionally moving, but never totally convincing. Characters and plot devices seem overly forced and literary, and until the final moments, we never see enough of the Vermont hills used as locales. Satisfactory for youth and adults.

JACK (A-3, PG-13) takes advantage of Robin Williams's special childlike qualities to tell a fairy tale about a boy whose "inner clock runs fast" and whose body ages four times faster than normal. At age 10, Jack seems to be 40 and has to function in the incongruous world of children. In Big, Tom Hanks was a man-child in the incomprehensible world of adults.

The movie is an artful way of getting at the awful sadness of the life of a doomed child. Exuberant fun in its best moments, Jack unfortunately lacks the inventiveness that might make it soar. In the major sequences, Jack is initiated into a treehouse club (yuck!) and vamped by one of the mothers who thinks he's an assistant principal.

Jack exemplifies Hollywood optimism, in which the "monster" comes to be loved for his gentle goodness. Joyful but a bit earthbound; O.K. for kids, but parents should be there to help explain.

BOGUS (A-2, PG) is a charming little movie about the need for magic and imagination in life. Seven-year-old Albert (Haley Joel Osment) is orphaned when his single mom, a Vegas dancer, is killed in a crash. The boy goes to Newark to live with his mother's childhood friend Harriet (Whoopi Goldberg), who is kind but absorbed in her business. Albert invents an imaginary playmate named Bogus, a delightful Frenchman (Gerard Depardieu) who gets him through the hard times.

Harriet just needs to recover her spirit of play and her way of seeing as a child-she needs to "see" Bogus. A gift of fun from Albert's dancer mother, Bogus is also a sign of some benign power in life-a guardian angel, if you will. But chiefly, he's the playmate many of us create as kids when we need someone. The film, directed by veteran Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), is a tribute to such a playmate. Imperfect but creative, well-mounted fantasy; satisfactory for kids and adults.


PEARL (CBS, Wednesdays): Rhea Perlman has a raspy charm that served her well on Cheers. In this show she's Pearl, a rough-edged grandma-widow who goes back to college. While apparently inspired by the bright play-movie Educating Rita, it seems stuck on the sour sarcasm of an arrogant humanities professor (Malcolm McDowell).

This detestable fellow, who never seems to leave his classroom desk even when class is over, keeps sabotaging his students with factual questions (rarely asked in good college classes) and slicing up the kids, who have a deer-in-the-headlights look. If Pearl digs him back occasionally, it's never enough. Carol Kane, who would be funny reading a grocery list, helps out as Pearl's ditsy sister-in-law. Typical 1990's putdown comedy with no place to go.

CLUELESS (ABC, Fridays): High school was never like this: Beverly Hills, fashion-plate girls, bright colors, endless cell phones. The opening episode plot-no kidding-is about getting dates for the big dance, with heroine Cher (Rachel Blanchard) having a temp job as school gossip columnist. Awesome! Fantasy is the point. This is funny/satirical/not-so-noisy as most shows.

Will most 10-year-olds take this straight? Stacey Dash (best friend) and Wallace Shawn (nice but nerdy teacher) add quality from the cast of the hit movie. Mucho fun, but how long can you spoof the insipid?

COSBY (CBS, Mondays): Cos may have found the character he's been looking for: older, flintier, downsized after 30 years, a little bitter but always big-hearted, into more physical, blue-collar fun. Each episode offers vintage Cos, like the routine where he's trying to talk his own brand of Spanish-English to a Hispanic mechanic, or (a bit more slapstick) teaching magic to zany Madeline Kahn and getting Kool-Aid dumped down his pants before he explains the trick. He can also go for the heart, as when he gets the plastic wallet at retirement instead of the $400 leather version. At his best, Bill is us. Verdict: Cos rides again.

THE PRETENDER (NBC, Saturdays): One third of NBC's bizarre drama night, this is about Jarod (Michael T. Weiss) who was stolen as a child from his parents by a C.I.A.-type organization and given powers to take on any conceivable occupational role. He does odd jobs doing good while trying to find out about his past. Agents from the sinister "Centre," including beauteous Andrea Parker, pursue him to bring him back.

The series has slick production values, moves fast, but is obtuse and pointless. Actor and good-guy hero Weiss has a light-up smile, but only one other expression. Not much hope, all ye who enter here.

THE WEST (PBS miniseries): Ken Burns, with director Stephen Ives, provided another monumental slice of U.S. history, from the conquistadores to the struggles for water rights in the Los Angeles basin. Burns specializes in the details and personal stories that at best get a line in the textbooks-the supply of drama (and humanity) overwhelms.

There is so much hardship, violence, treachery, cruelty-especially to "others" (blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians). Christians should have known better. The gorgeous tracking images of landscapes at the start of each episode are backed by haunting chant. (The beauty of the land is also inexhaustible.) The Native Americans hold the high moral ground in our mythology, gaining a strange sort of final victory.

Other images that linger include the cowboys, the poignant buffalo, Uriah and Mattie raising kids on the prairie, the building of the railroad, the gold lust that swamped the Spaniards in California and the Lakota in the Black Hills, the hardy homesteaders standing proudly in front of their baked-sod cabins. The final night featured the uplifting "love" story of Wyoming ranchers John and Ethel Love, who took everything the West had to give with cheer and spunk for 37 years. "What has happened in the past," a Lakota man says, "will never leave us....We have to deal with it."

Historian N. Scott Momaday gave a heart-cracking final anecdote about the noblest Westerner of all, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The idea is that, despite everything, the heritage of the West is its promise of hope. There's the irony of Buffalo Bill and the staged Indian attacks of the Wild West shows, with Sitting Bull signing autographs, planting forever in popular culture the myth that the immigrants were the victims and not the conquerors. The West was magnificent, hard to forget. History, unlike art, seldom has happy endings, which is why we cherish them.

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