SPACE COWBOYS (A-2,
PG-13): We now have another full-fledged movie genre. Let’s call it
“astronaut missions.” It would fall in the “realistic NASA” subtype,
with no little green men or far-out fantasies or doomsday asteroids
involved. The big problem is just getting into space somewhere and
back (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13).
is fiction, it still belongs in this category. It gives veteran action-hero
Clint Eastwood (unbelievably now 70) his first shot in a space suit.
Doubtless the movie is inspired by the geriatric heroics of John Glenn,
not to mention the poignance of early sound-barrier test pilots like
Chuck Yeager never getting a chance to go to the moon.
Four aged jet-era pioneers
(Clint plus Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner) attempt
to rescue an equally aged, dangerously failing Russian satellite.
(Unfortunately, rusty Soviet-era technology is becoming a frequent
motif in both fact and fiction.)
The first half of this
film is light, astronauts-in-training stuff, pushing the age jokes
as the older guys deal with their aching bodies and prove they don’t
need rocking chairs. When Jones makes an impossible simulator landing
without the help of a computer, we learn the value of experience.
Eastwood, who is also
director and producer, plays a character in constant feisty conflict.
There is plenty of action and excitement as the crew discovers the
real peril of the damaged satellite. Actor Jones (who is a mere 54)
has most of the good romantic lines and makes a noble sacrifice right
out of old World War II flicks. Aging stars bring wit and charisma
to an old-comrades story with no sex or language baggage; an action-movie
treat for youth and adults.
DISNEY’S THE KID (A-2,
PG): How would you do if by some magic you were confronted and evaluated
by your eight-year-old self? So you didn’t become a missionary or
an astronaut or win the gold in Olympics gymnastics? You make a six-figure
salary doing what? You don’t have a dog?
That’s what happens
to Bruce Willis in The Kid, a pleasant enough film. In this
variation on the archetypal Scrooge fantasy, Willis is Russ Duritz,
a successful but self-absorbed, mean-spirited Los Angeles image consultant.
He’s buzzed mysteriously by an old biplane and visited by a kid with
a Beatles hairdo named Rusty (Spencer Breslin).
Rusty, who has the birthmarks
to prove he’s Russ at age eight, wonders why he’s an adult “loser”
who’s “jetless, dogless and chick-less.” The boy says, “We have to
After some disbelief,
Russ gets the message. Moral reform is key to this script by promising
newcomer Audrey Wells (Guinevere). The hero begins to fix his
life on his 40th birthday.
Actor Willis has an
easy rapport with kids and chubby Breslin is cute-plus. This nerdy
kid Russ didn’t want to be is lovable and delightful.
A few flaws loom large.
We never learn why all this magic happens. Simply a benevolent providence?
The stickout moral issue of manipulative public relations is raised
but ignored, without even minimal scenes of repentance or truth-telling.
And when Rusty and Russ revisit their childhood together, the crucial
conflicts are pat and unconvincing.
Director Jon Turteltaub
may have lost the light touch he once had (Cool Runnings),
and English actor Emily Mortimer seems miscast as the love interest.
But pros Lily Tomlin and Jean Smart contribute fresh humor and charm.
Satisfactory family entertainment.
BLOOD SIMPLE (A-4, R),
the 1984 first film by the Coen brothers (Fargo, Barton
Fink), has been re-released, largely because it made little money.
It’s a big-screen break for movie fans, an adroit adult genre tale
that grips and satisfies.
Four sleazy rural Texas
characters get involved in a tragicomedy of blunders when a honky-tonk
roadhouse owner orders the murder of his wife (played by then unknown
Frances McDormand) and her bartender boyfriend. There are several
betrayals and reversals, and plenty of film noir dark shadows and
No noble issues or motives
are involved here, but a strict morality and justice seem to work
themselves out. The Coens’ (Joel and Ethan) handling of violence is
actually exemplary, since there is no easy pain, no facile multiplication
of corpses. The situations are a bit grisly but softened by artful
treatment and subdued comic undertone in the Hitchcock manner.
Despite its surface
realism, Simple is as much a puzzle as any Agatha Christie
story. In a classic performance, M. Emmett Walsh as a double-crossing
private detective makes the slimeball hall of fame. Satisfactory
for mature fans of the genre.
ALEC GUINNESS died August
5 at age 86. He was so gentle, so humane, so modest and self-effacing.
Yet he was a great actor in an era of great actors (Olivier, Gielgud),
a graceful speaker of the language and master of subtlety, with triumphs
in every medium over more than six decades. He was also a soft-spoken
Catholic convert (with his actress wife, Merula, of 62 years, and
their son, Matthew). He lent his buoyancy and humor to many notable
films with religious themes or connections.
My favorites include
Guinness as Chesterton’s Father Brown in The Detective (1954),
as the Cardinal Mindszenty figure in The Prisoner (1955), as
Pope Innocent III in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973). In addition,
he played lead characters in various films by Catholic writers like
Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana (1960), The Comedians
(1967) and Monsignor Quixote (1988).
His international reputation
rests forever on his classical stage work (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dickens);
more than 50 movies, from the Ealing comedies (The Lavender Hill
Mob) and David Lean masterpieces (Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence
of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) to two Star Wars
pictures; and in the acclaimed John Le Carré TV miniseries Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1980) and Smiley’s People (1982).
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1959.
Guinness lived comfortably
in his later years, thanks to his serendipitous Star Wars deal
(2.25 percent of the gross). He tells of his conversion to Catholicism
(which began with reading Julian of Norwich) with literate charm in
his 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise. He wrote of
the Church: “She has...consolations to offer, strength to give and
some marvelous people, from all ages, to hold up for...admiration;
not many in high places, perhaps, but thousands in the market square,
hospital ward, back pew, desert and jungle.” Sir Alec surely belongs
with them. And his films belong forever to us.
MYSTERIOUS WAYS (NBC,
PAX): George Clooney look-alike Adrian Pasdar is Declan, the stylishly
unshaven miracle-investigating scientist hero of this offbeat one-hour
series. It previewed during the summer on NBC (Mondays) before sliding
into its regular niche on PAX (Tuesdays). The show gets a professional
look and sound from creator-producer Peter O’Fallon. Among its assets
is longtime B-movie favorite Rae Dawn Chong as Peggy, Declan’s psychiatrist
This is not a religious
drama. The subtle and intelligent Declan investigates “the unexplained”
(mysteries, near-death experiences, events that could be miraculous
or weird). It’s similar to but not quite in the same league as Twilight
Zone or I Love a Mystery.
In an early episode,
Declan finds plausible natural explanations for occurrences which
people hoped would be supernatural. Later in the same story, he almost
drowns in a whitewater accident in the woods and is cared for at an
oddly cheery wilderness camp that nobody ever leaves (or wants to
leave). Ultimately, we surmise that it’s a kind of literal heaven
for campers (all are the age they were at the best time of their lives).
In another episode,
a child is saved from drowning under ice, apparently by a figure with
a dangling cross surrounded by white light. Not the Lord or a saint,
it turns out, but the benevolent spirit of a hero-father who died
earning the Navy Cross.
Ways can be silly
but does reinforce a sense (in this scientific age) of surprise and
wonder. This idea is not that distant from the exhilarating and amusing
early 20th-century theological detective stories by G. K. Chesterton.