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by James Arnold

Mr. Right, in Various Guises

NEXT STOP WONDERLAND

NEXT STOP WONDERLAND (A-4, R) is one of those starless little films you're lucky to wander into and find your faith in movies restored. Set in Boston (the title refers to a beach resort subway stop), it's a poignant comedy/satire about the singles scene, mostly from the female point of view, often cynical but never quite bitter. It's also a charming love story a touch less Hollywood than Sleepless in Seattle.

It begins when 30-ish nurse Erin (Hope Davis, attractive and a likely future star) is abandoned by her live-in boyfriend. Her mom puts an unwanted ad for her in the personals. This results in Erin, bemused and bewildered, sorting through tons of suitors.

Most of the guys are comic jerks obsessed with themselves. The film is a funny/sad compilation of the lines and subterfuges men use on women. But writer-director Brad Anderson offers hope by intercutting Erin's adventures with those of Mr. Right—Alan (Alan Gelfant), a plumber whose path keeps crossing hers. He wants to "change his destiny" and is working through school to become a marine biologist.

Since the question is never whether they'll meet and match but how, the movie ultimately takes its stand with romance. Somehow, it suggests, fate (or some higher power?) always gives us a chance to find our soulmates—classified ads are not required.

Wonderland, shot in 22 days, demonstrates you don't need a kazillion bucks to make screen magic. A few subplots are strained, but the main characters are delightful. Anderson, 33, offers his follow-your-dream optimism as his response to "the glib, cynical attitude of today's youth culture."

His many deft touches include Erin's compassion for the other lonely people around her, the light and lovely bossa-nova themes, and the fresh dialogue. Some talented minds at work here; tasteful handling of material; recommended for mature youth and adults.



EVER AFTER: A CINDERELLA STORY

    EVER AFTER: A CINDERELLA STORY (A-2, PG-13): The ultimate Mr. Right story, of course, is Cinderella, in which a dashing prince (and a fairy godmother) rescue a pathetic girl from a life of poverty and abuse. A lot is changed but the charm definitely remains in this 1990's feminist (and much more realistic) version. It is set in an artfully re-created Renaissance France, in which poor
    Cinderella battles to control her own destiny. The prince is cute but no brain surgeon, and the godmother role is undertaken by Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), who happens to be passing through.

    The main point of this lush production (including some eye-pleasing use of medieval chateaus and a monastery) is to take the legend to some credible historic roots for a skeptical modern audience. As played by impressive Drew Barrymore, the Cinderella character, Danielle, is admirable. She's a role model of a loving, dutiful daughter, deeply attached to her dead parents and her father's last gift to her (a copy of Thomas More's Utopia). She yearns for the love of stepmother Rodmilla (deliciously played by Anjelica Huston) who rejects her time after time.

    Danielle's pretense at the palace is not self-indulgence but part of a plan to save the life of a beloved family servant. The lost shoe becomes a symbol rather than a literal search for a dainty foot. Danielle is a clever and athletic country girl who gets herself out of tight jams and rescues the virile but dim-bulb prince (Dougray Scott).

    The romance is largely preserved, along with humor that decently avoids destroying the mystique. Thus, Rodmilla and pretty blonde daughter Marguerite (Megan Dodds) are transparently greedy and selfish, the royal parents are typically frustrated by their nonconformist son, the inventive da Vinci is always trying stuff.

    This is director and cowriter Andy Tennant's first big-budget effort (he and Barrymore collaborated on TV's Amy Fisher Story) and it's class all the way. Even the punishment devised for the gold-digging step-ladies seems fair and just. My guess is that young women will love this film, as well as just about everyone else.


    SIMON BIRCH

    SIMON BIRCH (A-2, PG) is a sentimental but charming religious fable, set in 1960's New Hampshire, about an endearing 12-year-old dwarf who believes he's been given a heroic destiny by God. A kind of miracle and a source of grace, Simon is rejected by his icy parents and mocked by the other kids. But he proves a savior to the community and brings profound changes to the life of his best friend, Joe, whose unmarried mom is the best Christian in town.

    Based loosely on John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, the film gently argues that God's mysterious ways always have a purpose. Much of the plot action, serious and comic, involves the local minister and Sunday school. Both the script and bright child actor Ian Michael Smith expand our awareness and compassion, and Ashley Judd is virtually luminescent as the generous young mother. Somewhat disappointing but an entertaining family film with theological elements to chew on; satisfactory for youth and adults.


    PAX TV

    PAX TV sounds Catholic and Latin, but it gets its name from wealthy backer Lloyd "Bud" Paxson, Florida-based cofounder of the Home Shopping Network and devout born-again Christian. Its September debut as the seventh network—this one operating daily around-the-clock—adds a new twist to the continuing development of religiously-inspired options to the traditional, secular big-TV menu.

    Pax apparently intends to be religious in the Touched By an Angel sense—feel-good, general, very secure. The central product so far is Angel itself, slickly produced 1940's type of fantasy sassed up with 1990's conservative Protestant family values and get-your-act together moralizing. Pax has exclusive rerun rights to this series and strips it in prime time every weekday. Other reruns include: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Diagnosis Murder, Father Dowling, Life Goes On.

    Watching Pax exclusively might be cocoon-like, but it could be a reliable place to escape to if you can find it: Pax has over-the-air outlets in 20 top markets but almost all are low-powered UHF operations. It claims it can reach 75 percent of all TV homes with some help from cable and dish feeds.

    On Sundays, Pax's best reincarnated show, I'll Fly Away, leads into its hourlong original series, It's a Miracle, hosted by popular country singer Billy Dean. Miracle offers stories of "miraculous events that show the power of faith."

    On weekdays, Pax promises a couple of upbeat talk shows, Woman's Day and Great Day America, trying to wring inspirational anecdotes from celebrities while anchoring a lineup of infomercials and classic family sitcoms.

    Pax is costing Paxson big bucks ($244 million pledged just for programming). With minimal original production, it needs only small ratings to survive. Off-hour infomercials will help get rid of the red ink.

    The religion is intermittent and soft-sell, compared to its more committedly religious (and deeper and more incisive) cable network competition (Odyssey, EWTN). Also on cable, Fox Family offers The 700 Club plus the oldies-as-safe-haven programming philosophy. Pax's real rival (for viewers with cable) is Nickelodeon, with kids' shows daytime and classic series nighttime, and no fundamentalist spin.

    Networks like Pax are based on the idea that "feel-goodness" is good business. But they're also escapist, retreating from realities that are often ugly and from the controversies of now to a then that was not so scary. It amounts to psychological time travel. (Pax doesn't have a news division, which insulates it even more.) There was nothing especially holy about TV when we were watching it in the 1970's and 1980's. Still, these "safe haven" options are occasionally nice to have. They can work for us at the times we really need them.


    OTHER APPROACHES

    OTHER APPROACHES to bringing "values" to television are well represented by John Wells, whose creative connection to ER has made him very wealthy, and William Baker, president and CEO of New York's WNET, a top producer of public-minded social and cultural programming. Both of these men have made television better, not just safer and more comforting.

    This season Wells, the son of an Episcopal priest, is creator of Trinity (NBC, Fridays), about five adult children (the eldest a priest) in a New York Irish-Catholic family. Baker recently received the 1998 Gabriel Personal Achievement award, the top honor of Unda-USA, the National Catholic Association of Communicators, for his lifetime contributions to quality television.

    NO CRYING IN BASEBALL

    NO CRYING IN BASEBALL: Tom Hanks's famous rule (A League of Their Own) was broken. What did it was Mark McGwire's remarkable home-run record—plus the chemistry of McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the fans in every city, the hugs of (and by) the late former record-holder Roger Maris's adult children, even the TV saturation coverage. All contributed to one of the year's splendid TV moments. Generosity, joy, sportsmanship were all back, until the next big negative story. Yeah, thank heaven for baseball.

    Mostly it hasn't been a good year for news staffs or news junkies, doomed to watch and analyze endless reruns of tape snippets of Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp.

    TV news has been O.J.-ed and Murdoch-ed. It's changed forever. Information and analysis are repeated for 24-hour cycles. Sometimes it's the same stuff from a new angle. Mostly it's the same stuff. The old word milking seems quaint and inadequate—grinding is better. Wearing out is the result.

    No story goes away unless it's replaced by something more newsworthy. Situations always escalate. Inevitably, something is discovered/released/leaked. Talking heads will discuss it. Anchors won't get off the story until the other channels do.


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