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AUTUMN TALE (A-3, PG) is an amusing little gem from the French Catholic writer-director Eric Rohmer. The plot centers on a romantic mixup involving the personal ads (similar to Brad Anderson’s equally charming Next Stop Wonderland). Rohmer’s heroine is lonely Magali (Beatrice Romand), an attractive but shy 40-ish country vintner and widow who’d never place such an ad on her own. Unwittingly, she’s helped out by Isabelle (elegant Marie Riviere), her long-married, sophisticated best friend.

Isabelle enjoys doing the screening and selects the improbably wonderful Gerald (Alain Libolt), then lets him in on the plot. She tries to match them up at her daughter’s wedding reception. But Isabelle is unaware that another friend of Magali’s has arranged a match, same time and place, with her own boyfriend—a suave bachelor professor who’s too old for her.

All these people are not only real but also likable, and the comic confusion provides easy entry into the actual anxieties of mid-life. The harvest-time setting is fresh. And the talk is bright, adult and moral—the characters often discuss the truths of life. The surprise ending is gentle and insightful.

Rohmer, now 79, is one of the surviving geniuses of the New Wave of the 1950’s, famous for his Catholic take on the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He’s also made a long string of thoughtful and delightful, suitably honored films (My Night at Maude’s, Claire’s Knee), which often involve romantic dilemmas from the female viewpoint. This is the fourth in his series of seasonal tales, although Summer has not yet been released here. Chatty, low-key but wise romantic comedy; in French with English subtitles; recommended for mature viewers.


THE MUSE (A-3, PG-13): Albert Brooks, who made short funny films for Saturday Night Live, plays a desperate Hollywood character in this dragged-out joke about a writer who tries to salvage his career by getting involved with a muse. (That’s one of those ancient Greek female deities who inspired achievement in the arts.)

Sarah (Sharon Stone) is recommended as the real thing by a successful friend (Jeff Bridges). She also has other rich clients (Rob Reiner, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese) and high-maintenance requirements. (She demands gifts from Tiffany’s, a $1,700-a-day suite at the Four Seasons and almost constant personal attention.) But she comes through with ideas that help Brooks get back his edge.

So we’re back in what looks like trendy supernatural territory, although this time in Greek mythology. Mostly, as Brooks writes, this is “the muse who came to dinner.” Sarah spends the cheap hero’s money, takes over his house and inspires his wife (Andie MacDowell). The question is how to get rid of the muse without giving up her boost to his career. (In American movies, you never want to give up the money.)

The charmless hero never quite sells his soul, just his dignity. The Hollywood inside jokes are reasonably fresh. The film might work except for Brooks, who is in nearly every frame with his selfish, whining, smart-aleck persona. We just don’t care if he hangs onto his Pacific Palisades life-style or not. O.K. movie-biz comedy, especially for buffs.


BOWFINGER (A-3, PG-13): Steve Martin satirizes Hollywood in broad strokes, starring in his own script as Bowfinger, a comically desperate, never-made-it director who’s reaching 50 and figures his time has come. He feels he has the makings of a great alien movie (the screenplay is penned by his Iranian accountant) but needs a star to get backing.

He can’t persuade a noted egotistical action hero (Eddie Murphy) even to consider it. Thus, he gathers an oddball crew of movie wannabes who set up the paranoid Murphy in various situations around the city and edit him into the movie without his knowledge.

The idea has mirthful potential, even without the inherent movie-land spoofery: the predictable crass ambition and egomania, Bowfinger’s outrageous use of status symbols from convertibles to ponytails. The novice leading lady (Heather Graham) goes from apparent innocence to seduction of everyone in the system while making the movie.

All the characters are a little crazy except Murphy, who is worse—an easily alarmed basket case. (Murphy also plays a shy, endearing goof in the film.) Most of what happens is silly or dropped in just for the heck of it.

Tolerating that, there are a few payoffs: a scary-funny scene where the bashful Murphy has to run across a busy freeway; a touching moment when the cast and crew watch in awe as their dream of being on the big screen actually comes true. (On some level the characters have shown their humanity and vulnerability.) The true subject is the American passion for movies and its descent into madness.

In Martin and Murphy, Bowfinger reunites two major Saturday Night Live clowns and talents. Both of them know Hollywood pretensions and silliness very well. The level of invention, realizing that, is disappointing. Some sexual grappling and innuendo with satirical intent; O.K. Tinseltown farce for adults.


STIR OF ECHOES (A-3, R) is a kind of middle-America ghost story, set in a white working-class neighborhood of Chicago—urban creepy rather than witch-in-the-woods stuff. It’s about a five-year-old who has one-way chats with a ghost. Unlike the boy in The Sixth Sense, he’s not terrified.

Things pick up when his dad (Kevin Bacon) plays around imprudently with hypnotism and is haunted with the same scary visitations from a spooky lady with an urgent message. Writer-director David Koepp gets a tense and riveting performance from Bacon as he endures infrared flashes, chases a babysitter to Union Station, has a prophetic dream about a neighborhood suicide and tries to get the hypnotist (Illeana Douglas) to turn off the unpleasant magic.

Ultimately, Stir is another tale that first frightens with ghosts, then finds them helpful and benign—the true villains are among the living. (The spirituality is strictly Hollywood.) The threatened nuclear family (father, son and unflappable mom, played by Kathryn Erbe) triumphs, but not until we’ve learned an unpleasant secret and endured a gripping climax. Credible, higher I.Q. spook tale, much too intense for the immature and suggestible.


POOR EMMY: In an interview after the self-congratulatory Emmy Awards, Steven Bochco (guru of NYPD Blue and others) opined that the medium was at its creative peak. You can take this as PR or simply being out of touch. Anybody who watches (instead of produces) knows that non-public TV is currently worse, more boring, more insipid, less inventive than ever. (It’s cutting edge only in terms of sex, violence and bleeped words.) Not even Bochco’s shows are as good as they once were (Hill Street Blues and Doogie Howser).


P.T. BARNUM: The four-hour biography of the legendary 19th-century showman starring Beau Bridges (on cable’s Arts & Entertainment network) reminded us that Barnum is the guy who invented show biz, at least in America. Phineas T. Barnum’s first venture was exhibiting an aged, blind and immobile black woman (Joice Heth) as being 161 years old and George Washington’s ex-nurse. Later, he sold Bibles, cologne and paste, before he bought the American Museum on Broadway, which became a great New York tourist attraction.

Among the curiosities he displayed were Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese” twins; the midget Tom Thumb (and later his wife and child); and an unbeatable chess-playing machine (with a smart French dwarf hidden inside). Barnum built a tour around the classical singer Jenny Lind. He is also remembered for his circus and the elephant Jumbo.

We can depend on the likelihood that the biopic may have exaggerated his style and niceness a bit. Pop-culture taste is better now, and the cons are smoother and pricier. But it’s good to remember old Phineas is in our genes.


AUTHOR OF REFORM: THE CARDINAL SUENENS STORY (PBS): This frank and rewarding documentary explores the dramatic issues that still confront the Church as the new millennium dawns. The late Belgian Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens was a close collaborator with Pope John XXIII and a major influence at the Second Vatican Council. The cardinal was involved in many reforms, from ecumenism and charismatic renewal to the role of women, collegiality and the “People of God.”

His life nearly spanned the century (1904-96). His call to Catholics was “to renew faith, to hope in the future and to love each other as you never did before.” He saw the Church’s role as “not to oppose the world but to transform it.”

Suenens is a product of Journey Films, which produced the beautiful Bernardin and is preparing Bonhoeffer for next year. This biography of Suenens uses archival film and insights from associates. He was a man of impressive humility, kindness and courage who was also a scholar and a leader who listened.

In addition, the documentary analyzes (via a range of experts and his own interviews) the cardinal’s many associations (the Legion of Mary, the American charismatics), reform achievements (the permanent diaconate, women invited as Council observers) and some others he lost. (He hoped for “full discussion” of the concept of married priests.)

Suenens, who delivered the eulogy for Pope John XXIII, was a major Vatican II influence in its documents, expressing the primacy of the people in the Church. Once considered a likely pope himself, he was close to Pope Paul VI. (He begged Paul not to sign Humanae Vitae, seeing it as a second “Galileo affair.” A later break between them is shown reconciled in an emotional celebration at St. Peter’s.)

Some religious programs are pious but not of great use; others may be educational but dispensable. Suenens is about a good man. It is also about the Church and its future in a turbulent time. No one will want to miss it. Showing on most PBS stations, at varied dates and times, starting November 14.


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