WONDERLAND (Not Rated,
R) describes four November days in the life of a troubled blue-collar
family in London, observed with compassion and the sharp detail of
a documentary by director Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Welcome
to Sarajevo). Mom and Dad are empty nesters, barely on civil terms.
But the focus is on
their adult daughters. Molly is in nervous late pregnancy with an
insecure partner who’s wandering the city on his motorcycle. Beautician
Debbie is unsettled. She and woman-chasing ex-husband, Dan, are neglecting
their 11-year-old son, Jack, who’s being raised by the TV. Nadia,
a waitress meeting men through a dating service, is discouraged by
a string of Mr. Wrongs, but she has a secret admirer.
All these sad stories
are intercut often so they comment on each other. Director Winterbottom
constantly provides the context of the city and its crowded high-rises,
streets, pubs, bingo parlors and soccer matches to suggest the epidemic
The adult material is
morally observed. In the end, the characters are resilient and there
is hope. (Molly’s childbirth and the search for Jack, who’s wandered
away during the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks, provide emotional bonding.)
Humane, clever, grown-up storytelling; the dialect can be troublesome
for Yanks; otherwise recommended for mature viewers.
NURSE BETTY (A-4, R)
is a much-appreciated fun-and-food-for-thought film from director
Neil Labute, 37, a Mormon whose earlier movies (In the Company
of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) have been brave but
testy indictments of middle-class values. Betty still has satirical
bite but is a delightful fairy tale about a nice-but-downtrodden waitress
from Kansas, who finally gets something good out of life.
As Betty, Renée Zellweger
is sweet. She’s so bereft of affection from her crooked and unfaithful
husband that she is totally absorbed in a TV soap opera and its hero-surgeon
When she witnesses hubby
being bumped off by some out-of-state hit men, she’s shocked into
semi-amnesia and the delusion that she’s a nurse in the TV soap. She
drives off to her beloved fictional doctor in Los Angeles, pursued
by the murderers (thoughtful Morgan Freeman, excitable loose cannon
The chase winds through
the Southwest, crosscutting between Betty and the killers. Freeman
begins to idealize Betty as his own media-created romantic fantasy,
a wholesome Doris Day. When Betty gets to L.A., she meets Kinnear.
In the movie’s best sequence, he thinks she’s a gifted actress wannabe
trying to impress him, falls for her and gives her a starring role.
Reality catches up in
some funny-sad scenes. We discover the trite but beautiful truth about
Betty as she endures improbable adventures. Despite her delusions,
she remains the moral center amid all the dumbness and cruelty around
her. She’s smart and warm and deserves a happy ending. Problem
language, moments of violence and sexuality; otherwise, a wacko fable
in the Forrest Gump vein; for mature audiences.
THE EXORCIST (A-4, R):
William Friedkin’s 1973 film of the William Peter Blatty best-seller
may not be the best demon movie ever made, but it’s the one everybody
remembers. It defined the satanic in movies and spawned decades of
No surprise that it
should be re-released (with 11 original minutes restored, plus remixed
sound) in this time of spooky popular tastes (from The Sixth Sense
to the morbid hero worship of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of
the Lambs). Devils are not especially cutting-edge topics in theological
circles but they thrive in the popular imagination. They always make
anti-photogenic villains and sell a lot of tickets to horror movies.
The fictional Blatty
story was inspired by a real case that occurred in a Washington, D.C.,
suburb. The film stars 12-year-old Linda Blair as the horribly brutalized
victim who cannot be cured by science. She is ultimately saved by
the heroics of several Jesuits including doubt- and guilt-ridden Father
Karras (Jason Miller). As critic Pauline Kael wrote grumpily at the
time, it was “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has
had since the sunnier days of Going My Way....”
The movie made my 10
Best list in 1973 primarily as a horror show, the over-the-top parts
made convincing by subtle and intelligent characters and atmosphere.
It had the religious impact of a well-told retreat tale.
Blatty’s demon is out
of the deep past, a perverted villain of physical debaucheries, four-letter
words and bad personal hygiene. He is socially unacceptable. A
thriller with minimal religious substance; for the emotionally hardy.
Thomas Allen, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, recounted the details of
a 1949 exorcism in a 1993 book called Possessed: The True Story
of an Exorcism. It explored many alternative explanations for
the events and intended to offer “comprehensive documentation” from
many of those involved. In the end, it reflects the Church’s official
ambivalence on the subject.
Now a dramatic TV movie
based on Allen’s book, Possessed is making the rounds on Showtime,
with Timothy Dalton as the lead exorcist. It starts airing on Halloween.
Early reports suggest director Steven de Sousa (scriptwriter of Die
Hard and other action flicks) leans toward skepticism.
This film offers explanations
that range from psychology and fakery to the cultural climate of the
period: Cold War, fear of the Bomb, racism, McCarthyism and general
paranoia. But it also indulges in a lively final exorcism. Not
yet reviewed, but it seems less in pursuit of truth than in the tradition
of diabolical entertainment.
AMERICAN BYZANTINE (PBS,
November) is a one-hour film documenting the design, creation and
installation of the massive Universal Call to Holiness marble sculptural
relief in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
in Washington, D.C. The 38-ton artwork was designed by American sculptor
George Carr and carved by a team of 22 artisans in Tuscany. The sculpture
now covers the rear wall of the largest Catholic church in the Americas,
which is itself still a work in progress after 80 years.
The carving reflects
a major theme of the Second Vatican Council in depicting clusters
of figures representing a variety of ethnic backgrounds being drawn
to the Holy Spirit, which appears in the form of a dove above their
heads. The film is produced and narrated by Martin Doblmeier of Journey
Films (The Cardinal Suenens Story, Bernardin).
MOYERS ON DYING (PBS):
This four-part series that aired in September sounds a bit like the
ultimate in non-escapist TV. The always somber Bill Moyers on death
is not an entirely charming prospect. In many ways, that was the point:
Get tough and pay attention to what all the rest of showbiz works
so hard to make you forget.
The series (gently and
often poetically produced by Elena Mannes) made us aware of the movement
afoot to make death less awful, less isolating and impersonal, more
the last act of a normal life. It also tried to alert viewers to the
benefits of hospice care as well as to encourage thinking about increasingly
complex end-of-life ethical problems.
For certain, death as
a subject is enormously powerful. The opening program described the
last months of several patients in enough detail so we got to know
them and be touched by them. (Most affecting was a thoughtful and
articulate Kansas pediatrician, whose last hours with his loving wife-caregiver
were as moving as any love story in a film or novel.)
This episode also described
the work of volunteers at a Buddhist hospice in San Francisco. The
interview with eloquent undertaker Thomas Lynch included his image-rich
poem about a funeral procession winding through the heart of an ordinary
town full of life, reminiscent of the theme of Thornton Wilder’s Our
Town. Lynch also mocked the “send no flowers” trend, contrasting
it with the more human, spontaneous outpouring of bouquets at the
death of Princess Diana. Send lots of flowers, he urges.
In the disturbing third
episode, the issues were physician-assisted suicide and other “death
choice” strategies. The focus was again on specific people, starting
with two doomed younger patients. One in Louisiana, where he can’t
be legally helped to die, wants to live a little longer but dreads
missing the “last moment he can swallow” the drugs that will end his
life. A woman in Oregon can legally end her own life but is uncertain
when to do it—she delays and misses the opportunity.
Plenty of discussion
occurs (between doctors and medical students, doctors and patients,
patients and relatives). It’s often on the abstract level of bioethics
but sometimes nitty-gritty such as when fathers and children ponder
if and when suicide is sinful. That discussion is a positive value
and more of it should occur, especially well ahead of the time of
TV endeavors like this
are useful but fail because we know we should prepare for death, especially
our own, but we don’t want to. Baptist Moyers mostly avoids the specifics
of various faiths, but religion lurks everywhere in the series. Like
birth, death is holy and forces us to consider eternal questions.