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The Games People Play


    IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (A-4, R) is a rare moral tale. In this first effort by writer-director Neil Labute, two corporate-type young guys seduce a vulnerable woman and then dump her, just for kicks. Shot reportedly in 11 days for an unbelievable $25,000, this film won the prestigious Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance.

    This black comedy is about the gender wars in the business and social world. We are shocked and repelled by these guys. The motive is a payback for bad things happening to Chad (Aaron Eckhart), a charming hunk with a gift for lying innocently. Howard (Matt Malloy) is an insecure nerd who is easily persuaded. These old college friends moan about being victimized, both in their relationships and in the nastily competitive corporate grind. They’re in Ft. Wayne (fresh locales brightly used) for six weeks on a project and grab the chance to “get” some woman who doesn’t know them and will never see them again.

    They select a pretty typist, Christine (Stacy Edwards), who is trusting, probably because she’s handicapped (deaf and speech-impaired) and inexperienced in the dating game. It's like predators picking off an injured deer from the herd.

    As the men independently “date” her—Chad even woos her into sex with his convincing declarations of love—Christine is perplexed and (poignantly) feels guilt about not telling Howard about Chad, whom she prefers. The audience likes her and perceives that the men may be having second thoughts about their cruel “game.” The scenario plays out, with dramatic truth-telling, some heartbreak and a few surprises.

    Filmmaker Labute passes the usual standard for evaluating fiction that basically describes an immoral action. The only risk is that Chad, who calmly humiliates blacks and white males as well as women and the disabled, may seem “cool” in his political incorrectness and adaptation to a vicious world. Surprisingly deft, cutting moral tale, downbeat but lifted by dark humor; problem language, adult situations; recommended for adults.


    FACE/OFF (O, R) is an identity-switch fantasy married to an ultraviolent but deliberately over-the-top action film. John Travolta is the F.B.I. terrorism fighter and Nicolas Cage the cruel, slightly crazy terrorist who exchange faces (and thus associates, families and life-styles) in a scheme that goes outrageously wrong. Hong Kong director John Woo, a brilliant fellow, is free to set up plenty of looking-in-the-mirror, who-am-I scenes; the actors imitate each other and F.B.I. wife Joan Allen is seriously confused. A gleefully inventive stew, ultimately poetic and humane, but way too much except for mature fans of the genre.


    THE GAME (A-3, R): San Francisco investment banker (Michael Douglas) is a loner, a tough businessman whose heart is stuck on the bottom line. Stir him into a paranoid urban thriller in which he struggles against a conspiracy.

    Does the threat come from family, like his shiftless brother (Sean Penn), or from others? For some puzzling reason, they’re out to destroy his sanity, to break or to kill him.

    Then to add intriguing depth, toss in the Scrooge myth: This thoroughly unlikable man is visited on his birthday by some terrifying magic and made to realize he must reform his life.

    Unfortunately, The Game is more thriller than Scrooge, full of mystery women, treacherous guys, shoot-outs and spooky places. The writer-director team of Seven conspire to make this film more portentous than it is. Fans of the genre will note that it also cheats with wild abandon. O.K. action thriller with a moral edge; problem language, violence; satisfactory for mature audiences.

    G.I. JANE

    Photo © 1997 Trap-Two-Zero Productions, Inc., and Hollywood Pictures Company By Phil BRay

    G.I. Jane, starring Demi Moore, focuses on a woman who perseveres against near impossible odds when she is selected to train in an all-male Navy SEALs unit.

    G.I. JANE (A-4, R) is ostensibly about gender equality in the military, but its real intention is to glorify the “pain principle” in physical and military training: If it doesn’t kill you, it’s good for you. Consider the general passion for hard-gut endurance and humiliation exercises as a cure for just about every weakness, from thin muscles to thin and unreliable character.

    Demi Moore is the heroine of a classic “basic training” movie in which an underdog persists and endures and wins the sincere respect of the stern drill instructor nemesis (Viggo Mortensen). It happens to be in the Navy SEAL boot camp, “the most intense training known to man.”

    The film succeeds largely because the shaven-headed Moore works so hard and convincingly that the gnawing doubts (in reality, there are no female SEALS) disappear and you have to be made of stone not to pull for her. She must overcome not only the physical demands—the film is basically two hours of equal opportunity masochism-for-your-own-good—but also sexual harassment and the humiliation of being exploited by an opportunistic female senator (Anne Bancroft).

    Also helpful is the relentless intensity provided by director Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise). Add the “reality” context of several major 1990’s military sex scandals and the ongoing efforts by pioneer female cadets to integrate The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute.

    Most of us think our daughters can do just about anything and we’d like to enjoy a movie like this. But achieving parity in military machismo is not necessarily noble and depression keeps getting in the way of inspiration. Stretches of G.I. language and give-and-take nastiness and brutality; problem sexual situation; for adults, but not especially recommended.


    COP LAND (A-3, R): Some white New York policemen and their families, with help from the Mob, set up a cozy community that’s crime-free, except for their own illegal wheeling and dealing. A crisis develops when they try to cover up a killing.

    Sylvester Stallone has a fresh role as the nice sheriff who is partially deaf and supposed not to hear or see what’s going on. The strong cast of entangled characters includes Robert De Niro, as a frustrated Internal Affairs investigator; Harvey Keitel, as the ruthless leader of the crooked cops; and Ray Liotta, as a disillusioned undercover man. Cathy Moriarty and Annabella Sciorra are gritty as involved spouses.

    Writer-director James Mangold apparently wants to remake High Noon with Stallone (in his honest but not-smart Rocky persona) as the sheriff who decides to take on the villains, even if he has to do it alone.

    Unfortunately, the kids who might appreciate the upbeat moral message most won’t be in the audience. All these cops talk and carouse like mobsters. Definitely a film for wary adult audiences.


    NOTHING SACRED (ABC, Thursdays) had a moving first episode, especially for most of us hungry for some religious depth in prime-time drama. Yes, it had glitches and imperfections. And since when have Catholics agreed on any fictional portrayal of the Church, from films with Bing Crosby to novels by Graham Greene, Andrew Greeley, J. F. Powers and Evelyn Waugh? To explore, to raise issues, to create imperfect characters, to tell a story—all involve taking risks.

    This one-hour series stars 40-ish Kevin Anderson as Father Ray, who heads an urban parish in an unidentified city. Can it survive? Can it hang onto its quality and idealism, and its appeal to the un- and semi-churched, without blundering into dumb mistakes that will cut it off from its Catholic base? Or will it drift off into sweet TV-land irrelevance?

    The opener suggested that Ray, beleaguered by the usual parish problems, may not be orthodox on some sexual issues. Traditional in other ways (he’s amused he can’t get baptismal parents to pick saints’ names for their kids), he’s also searching for God, like many of us in a materialistic world enthralled by science. Ray is a hero for the unsure, not the certain and saved.

    But he knows where to look for God, quoting the 34th Psalm: “God is close to the broken-hearted.” There’s an impressive “moment of grace” that brings reconciliation to an alienated father and his 13-year-old son. Ray finds God in that gesture. He says with feeling, “I believe I will see him again today and tomorrow, in whose face I don’t know....That’s the adventure.”

    Thus, Ray, for all his faults, is presented as a good priest—he wants to be a good priest—a kind and humorous leader and pastor, accessible, a “regular” guy, but with passion for his causes (such as the parish soup kitchen), scorn for hypocrites, compassion for the poor.

    Sacred takes religion with some seriousness, treating its professionals with some of the same respect given to medics in ER. Ray works with a canny older associate, Father Leo (Brad Sullivan), and a young idealist, Father Eric (Scott Campbell), who’d rather be in a monastery. Others on the team are Sister Maureen (Ann Dowd), challenging and bright (she saves the disastrous “wedding feast” in episode two), and business manager Sidney (Bruce Altman), who claims to be an atheist but isn’t too sure about it.

    Sacred comes down hard on the fault lines that separate many in the Church in the 1990’s: sexual issues and feminism, concern for immigrants and the poor, the nature of the priesthood, beliefs about God and heaven and hell, the need for strict rules and discipline vs. compassion, conflicting personal styles of piety vs. irreverence. Those searching for well-defined absolutes and hellfire and confrontation may prefer to look elsewhere.

    One of the big problems is modern anxiety about choices in life. It comes up when the priests (a Powers-style scene) “dialogue” around a poker table. When Ray meets Gemma, his old girlfriend, who is married and a mother now, neither is quite sure they made the right decision. “He’s got everything and you,” Ray says, speaking with a guy’s envy of her husband. “You,” she replies, “have everything and God.” Well, yeah, as long at the TV gods allow.


    ALLY MCBEAL (Fox, Mondays) has started out pretty much like “Barbie Goes to Work in Her Lawyer Outfit.” There are some legal plot lines but the major emphasis is on clothes, hormones and guys, watching Ally while she fantasizes about an ex-beau attorney, now married. (“Why does he have to be so cute?”) This should get better for creator David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope). In one promising episode, wisdom dawns on the chic femme lawyers who defend a TV anchorwoman-victim of ageism (Kate Jackson, of all people) when they honestly realize they may be in the same leaky boat (both as attorneys and, in fact, as actresses).


    MICHAEL HAYES (CBS, Mondays): David Caruso is back on the small screen doing what he does best. Here, it’s being impassioned for justice as an intense ex-cop turned U.S. attorney who nails a smarmy Mob guy who hopes to get away with the murder of a nice-girl waitress. With Caruso, you always feel it.

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