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Bringing Families Together Again

    THE PARENT TRAP

    THE PARENT TRAP (A-2, PG): This Disney remake focuses on twin girls, age 11, raised separately in California and England by long-divorced parents. The twins meet by accident and switch places to bring their folks together again.

    The original Trap (1961) was a huge hit that helped launch the career of Britain’s Hayley Mills (playing both sisters), who became the 1960’s teenage star of Disney charmers and art films (The Trouble With Angels, Whistle Down the Wind). The new film is well served by Lindsay Lohan in the dual role. But after almost four decades the story seems broader and less credible than ever—almost a Nick at Nite sitcom.

    The mischievous kids meet at a Maine summer camp and play creatively icky pranks on each other, then grow inseparable and discover the ugly truth. Dad and Mum (played by Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson) are rich and successful (a Napa winemaker, a designer). We also have a comic Brit butler who falls for the nanny in Napa. And there’s an over-the-top gold-digging "other woman," sexy Meredith (Elaine Hendrix).

    The settings are posh, and creators Nancy Meyer and Charles Shyer (who also did the remake of Father of the Bride) brightly exploit the time spent in London. The girls are sugar and spice, plus cool and impressively athletic, when they’re not perpetrating slapstick sabotage on the witless Meredith.

    In a world full of divorce and anger, abuse and failed relationships, it’s a fairy tale, a fantasy from another planet. But there are times when that’s the right menu. Glossy, light entertainment; not great but a break from the brain-dead horror films currently aimed at female adolescents.



    SMOKE SIGNALS

    SMOKE SIGNALS (A-2, PG-13) is an intriguing first movie written, produced and directed—and largely acted—by Native Americans. It’s also a double prizewinner at Sundance that writer Sherman Alexie and director Chris Eyre crafted to shatter stereotypes and appeal to the mainstream audience.

    Easy and fun, the movie also has an aura of reality. The theme is reconciliation with an alcoholic father. Wryly, he resents his fate, talks about "vanishing," and wishes he could make "whole peoples vanish to where they came from," including Catholics.

    He has indeed vanished, for a decade. Two 20-something friends, raised by him, leave the remote Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho to travel to a trailer camp outside Phoenix where (the family learns) he has died. They get a glimmer of understanding why he left, helped by Suzy Song (Irene Bedard), a young woman who loved him.

    Victor asks Suzy if his dad ever talked about him. She recalls a cherished anecdote about a two-on-one basketball game father and son once played against some young Jesuits. "For at least one day," the father said, "with the Indians against the Christians, the Indians won."

    There is tragedy and some violence in the family history, but much of the present is warm and humorous. The young men are each likable but opposites. Victor (Adam Beach) is athletic and handsome. The bespectacled Thomas (Evan Adams) is a dreamer and storyteller.

    Victor is frustrated by Thomas, his "uncoolness" and his strange conversations and visions. But he endures Thomas because he needs him and enjoys him. Hopefully, not the last film to bring moviegoers into contact with the humanity of contemporary Native Americans. Insightful and accessible; recommended for mature youth and adults.


    THE MASK OF ZORRO

    THE MASK OF ZORRO (A-2, PG-13): Zorro is American pop culture’s most important Hispanic hero. Mr. Z is also the father of all 20th-century wealthy masked crusaders who pretend to be wimps or softies, but after a change of costume rush out to save the peons from the greed of the upper class.

    The latest film, shot in Mexico with Antonio Banderas performing the caped whip-and-sword heroics, represents a return in class to the definitive 1940 romp with Ty Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone. Anthony Hopkins hugely enjoys himself as the aging original Zorro, who gets to do some improbable swashbuckling before finding and training a genial bandit (Banderas) to take over the "franchise."

    Stuart Wilson is the villainous Montero, who has kidnapped Zorro’s infant daughter, Elena, and raised her as his own. The two Zorros will foil Montero’s plan to steal the nation’s gold and bury the poor workers in the mine. The older man will try to get back his beautiful daughter (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the younger man will fall in love with her. And the direct line of Zorros (and sequels) will surely continue.

    There is always a Catholic appeal to Zorro, given the Spanish culture with friars and chapels as part of the decor. But it’s rarely serious. Here, the worst (we take it with humor) is when Banderas is hiding in the confessional and Elena comes to confess "impure thoughts" about the dashing bandit (Banderas) she’s just met.

    Welsh actress Zeta-Jones (she was the catwomanish bad girl in The Phantom) holds her own in a romantic flamenco dance with the charismatic Banderas and (later) in a cutesy male-female sword duel where he teasingly slices off pieces of her dress. (It’s risqué perhaps, but quaint for the 1990’s.) Old-style adventure with all the usual violent acrobatics of the genre; satisfactory for more mature kids and adults.


    THE NEGOTIATOR

    THE NEGOTIATOR (A-4, R): Can the tricky ploys of hostage negotiators provide the basis for a slick action movie set in Chicago? Not in this unglued, overlong melodrama—wasting the talents of heroes Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey—that moves from an outlandish premise to an unbelievable conclusion.

    Jackson is a good cop and super-smart negotiator. He’s framed by corrupt cops on his team who are stealing a couple million from their disability fund. In desperation he grabs a nasty, bad-guy inspector (the late J. T. Walsh in his last role) in his high-rise office and creates a hostage crisis to force the villains to reveal themselves.

    Another star negotiator (Spacey), whom he trusts, is brought in from another precinct to handle the case. Most details we’ve seen before in better thrillers (crowds looking up anxiously through searchlights, wives pleading, media people pushing and shoving; S.W.A.T. teams crawling in the air ducts, hanging from helicopters, goofily rushing in and blowing up everything; maddeningly tense exchanges between Jackson and Spacey and the terrified hostages).

    But we know Jackson is innocent and only threatening his captives. So the basic gimmick—the importance of dialogue, psychology, one shrewd talker vs. another with lives at stake and the clock ticking—never quite works. The only real issue is how many of the cops handling the siege (usual suspects like David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer) are really part of the conspiracy. An action and character-depth dud; problem language, violence; nothing much to recommend.


    SO WHAT’S "CATHOLIC"?

    SO WHAT’S "CATHOLIC"? When many of us were growing up, it was easy to get excited about the prospect of "Catholic" entry into the world of the arts and media. Somebody was going to write a great American "Catholic" novel. There would be a great "Catholic" filmmaker. And the project for "Catholic" journalists was to make a success—someday—of a "Catholic" daily newspaper.

    Little did we realize how quickly such hopes would be victimized by history and change. The scheduled arrival this month of the Catholic Radio Network, a $70-million 24-hour talk-radio project being established in 10 major cities by private investors, is a poignant illustration. It’s seen in many places as representative not of the Church but of specific viewpoints within the Church, and likely to be divisive, unhealthy and out-of-control.

    In the last half century we’ve learned how hard it is to be a good writer or reporter, even if one happens to be a Catholic—or how hard it is to declare oneself to be Catholic, and then to be universally accepted as speaking for the rest of us. Consider several examples of TV enterprises that seemed full of great promise: Mother Angelica’s cable network, a prime-time ABC drama series like Nothing Sacred. Nah.

    Whether "Catholic" novels have been written lately seems to be moot, since many would be unmoored and shocked by those accepted as "Catholic" in the past by writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, François Mauriac or Flannery O’Connor.

    As for movies, people want to check the writer-director’s church attendance and marital records (Federico Fellini? Francis Ford Coppola?). Maybe a New York Irishman like Edward Burns, but if they’re young their orthodoxy could be slippery.

    Often the most sacramental movies or TV series—meaning those most likely to bring us closer to God—come from unlikely sources, perhaps Forrest Gump or Schindler’s List in films, maybe Northern Exposure or Homicide: Life on the Street on TV. How about all those television angels?

    Catholics have become seriously divided in their approach to the intense change in the modern world: science, economics, politics, the arts. And Catholic artists tend to escape controls, to rebel, to find truth and beauty in places we don’t expect.

    Speaking of truth and beauty, they’re not discovered exclusively by us. In fact, when I watch a Steven Spielberg movie or a Jerome Robbins dance, it’s easy to be humble.

    In a Church where we can scarcely agree on hymns and liturgy and what constitutes a good homily, can we agree on "Catholic" movies and TV shows, much less talk radio? I’m not sure how St. Francis would have done on talk radio. But I am sure there are Catholics who wouldn’t have let him talk.

    We need more tolerance of what is "Catholic," in spirit as well as in law. Perhaps we don’t need Catholic Radio so much as Catholics in the radio that already exists. Meanwhile, the old dreams were beautiful and they die hard.




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