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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (A-3, R): In this fake documentary, which became a summer pop-culture obsession, three college-age kids wander into the Maryland wilderness. They aim to make a film about the legend of a witch-in-the-woods, who is presumably responsible for many odd deaths and disappearances over a century and a half. Since all that’s found of the kids is this film, we presume that they paid for their curiosity.

The good news is that novice writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez artfully create a growing sense of apprehension and dread entirely by indirection—the locale, the characters’ isolation and irritability, the creepy dark nights in the wild, the amateurish focus and waggling of their cameras—and by various simple but suggestive items they find. There is explicit panic but no explicit violence.

Sadly, there is much bad news. The fractured-documentary style is easily parodied. Worse, the thematic implication is that wickedness rules. And there is more convincing evidence of supernatural evil than good.

In any case, there is no intellectual engagement. The young actors, we’re told, knew almost nothing and improvised their dialogue. (Heather Donahue, as the determined crew leader, is strongest and most memorable.) This makes for realism but also for banal, juvenile response to the situation. The pathetic f-word, frequently uttered, substitutes for thought and emotion.

The film’s awesome box-office clout can perhaps be attributed to the widespread fascination with the occult, the power of imagination over special effects, plus the home-movie realism. (Enthusiasm is diminished by the news that the filmmakers were most influenced not by classic cinema verité documentaries but by those ludicrous 1970’s TV docs on Bigfoot and UFO’s.) Skimpy but fresh scary movie; O.K. for mature viewers.


THE SIXTH SENSE (A-3, PG-13) is a more intriguing ghostly adventure, set in Philadelphia. Bruce Willis is a sensitive, much-honored child psychologist trying to help Cole, a fearful little boy who is hiding a terrifying secret: The boy sees ghosts.

The question is why. The psychologist is obsessed with the case because he made a mistake years before with another patient with similar symptoms. Cole goes through some alarming experiences (not too graphic). The apparitions are designed effectively to raise the hairs on the normal neck.

The film is nicely contrived by young writer-director M. Night Shyamalan to keep the audience off balance. A surprise at the end ranks up there with the most stunning in the annals of ghost flicks. Sixth Sense is speculative but ultimately benign about the supernatural, much like Shyamalan’s little-seen debut movie, Wide Awake (1997), about a Catholic schoolboy searching for God so he can ask about his deceased grandfather.

Actor Willis is as good as he often is in serious films, but the film belongs to young Haley Joel Osment, who is credible and moving as the haunted Cole. Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding) is helpful as Cole’s confused mom. Audiences love this film, but it’s definitely not for impressionable children. Satisfactory for mature viewers.


RUNAWAY BRIDE (A-3, PG) has a classic feel to it, more than a touch of 1940’s romantic comedy à la Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant. Julia Roberts is a small-town feminist beauty who runs a hardware store, can fix anything and slugs a punching bag instead of knitting to calm her nerves. She becomes famous for her quirk of escaping husbands at the last minute. Richard Gere is a woman-razzing New York columnist who comes to make fun but loses his heart. The question is: Can he get her to the altar?

It’s the much-awaited reunion of the Pretty Woman stars and veteran funnyman director Garry Marshall (famous for TV’s Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley). Compared to the moral difficulties in Pretty Woman, Bride is an innocence trip. The most controversial ingredient is that one of Julia’s jilted almost-spouses is now a priest, and she goes to the confessional to tell him she hopes she hasn’t ruined his life.

The plot revolves around the preparations for the heroine’s next wedding—to a stereotypical high school coach (Christopher Meloni).

The happy cast delivering snappy lines includes Joan Cusack, Rita Wilson and Hector Elizondo. Eventually everyone pairs off in a final romantic montage buoyant enough to float the Titanic.

Roberts is luminescent, and Gere is upbeat and charming, warming his image with reading glasses and a taste for Miles Davis jazz. Director Marshall is a genius at physical sight gags. My favorite is a shot of the New York contingent at the church all wearing dark glasses. Wholesome and cheery; definitely manna for Julia’s female fans; O.K. for mature youth and adults.


Viewers may be suffering through an overload of edgy sitcoms aimed at urban singles, but the pendulum is about to swing—if you can wait until next year. Industry sources suggest that the Big Four networks are actively hunting for family-appeal shows for 2000-2001. The reason is not conscience or public pressure so much as the fact that family for now is fresh—there isn’t much competition. “Anything that isn’t on the air right now,” says one executive, “is a good target for development.”

The majors currently are down to The Hughleys (ABC) and Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS). Youth-seeking advertisers are part of the reason for the falloff. Also, families have less time to watch TV as a group. From the creative side, writers and actors perceive sexy adult-oriented shows as better for their careers. But big hits (of Cosby or Home Improvement dimensions) plow through all these obstacles.

While networks are scouting around for the next family hit, they’re also looking for marketable non-talent and bad taste. Thus, the WB Network has hired the Weitz brothers, Chris and Paul, creators of the stupid movie hit American Pie, to develop a comedy for next fall. Is there a way to express supreme indifference to this news?


We always stay in a theater to watch the credits at the end of a movie. But TV credits are a farce. Does anyone recall when an actor would actually be identified over his visual image (common in the 1930’s)? What a great idea!

Clickers—we call them zappers in our family—are the reason for those hasty credits at the end. Those in charge don’t want you clicking to another channel. Clickers are the greatest of all TV auxiliary tools—have you ever been trapped in a strange motel room without one?

TV people blame remotes for the audience’s pathetic attention span. But it’s really the almost incredible boredom of most programming that makes the clicker priceless. (The inventor in 1956 was Eugene F. McDonald, the late founder of Zenith Electronics, who thought advertising was the scourge of TV. Say a prayer for him.)

The clicker allows you to zap away from or make mute the commercials or public-TV pledge segments—do you think they would have allowed that if they’d foreseen it? We’ve had to trade off credits and theme songs—no more Mary Tyler Moore tossing her beret in the air, no more helicopters coming in over the hills in M*A*S*H. They’re even trying to blame TV violence on the clicker—presumably mayhem stops us as we surf.

Don’t be fooled: The power to change channels and to mute is our last best weapon.


Those spots on CNN featuring notable excerpts and voices from the century remind us that speakers used to be eloquent. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Winston Churchill usually said things memorably. This was when conversationalists did not all talk at the same time and before most statements ended with “whatever.”

Poetry is saying things memorably. Many thanks to poet laureate Robert Pinsky, whose occasional brief end-of-the-News Hour readings bring a rare touch of eloquence to the Tube.

Religious viewers may have been puzzled by the Ogilvy Agency’s Lotus commercials, in which people of various cultures and situations hold up “I am” signs. The phrase has also been used in other nontheological promotions. Of course, the music is from REM’s ironic hit Superman. The musicians did not sell out to the corporate world; others owned the rights and sold them to Ogilvy.


We always knew network news stars were millionaires. (Anchors make in the $7-10 million annual range.) But until a recent issue of Brill’s Content revealed deeper TV salary structures, we tended to forget that reporters we see all the time also live in another financial and economic world.

Sam Donaldson makes $3 million, Katie Couric and Larry King $7 million each, Brian Williams $2 million, Bernard Shaw and Jeff Greenfield $1.1 million each. Lesser-paid journalists appear often to supplement their more modest salaries, like John Harris, The Washington Post White House correspondent, $100,000; Tom Shales, TV critic, $200,000; Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio legal affairs reporter, $85,000.

As reporters and pundits, most of these people are helpful. But such TV journalists are in no way ordinary working stiffs. Genius does not necessarily correlate with income: Among the highest paid are radio’s Howard Stern ($17 million) and Don Imus ($10 million).


ON C-SPAN’s BOOK TV, the widely traveled advocate-for-the-poor, educator and old-style socialist Jonathan Kozol, author of Amazing Grace, said, “We have seasons for charity—the biggest during Thanksgiving....[The poor] are just as hungry on January 25 or July 25 as they are on the day Christ was born....I love to be in churches....The strength of poor communities is their churches.”

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