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SPACE COWBOYS

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).

Although Cowboys 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

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 change.”

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

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 irony.

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

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

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 associate.

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.

SHORT TAKES

  • The best summer series every year is P.O.V. (PBS), which shows cutting-edge documentaries. This year’s episodes ranged from “Julia Butterfly,” on the environmental activist who lived for a year in a tree, to pieces on an immigrant farmworker’s wedding, the agonizing human side of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s work and gambling addiction in Las Vegas. (Now this is a “reality” show!) Also great is Talking Back, a feature that allows viewers to share their points of view about previous shows.
  • One of the less-noticed negative trends is the widespread use of valuable news time on local stations to promote interest in shows on their networks. CBS’s Survivor was such a major offender it was probably pushed hard by the network.
  • Nothing against Dennis Miller on ABC’s Monday Night Football (although his style is hard to take for three and a half hours), but comedy-club wiseguy attitude has come to dominate pop culture.
  • Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle (four edgy boys, wacko raging mom—finally a career break for Jane Kaczmarek) is different (a sitcom from kids’ viewpoint) but overrated.
  • Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS) and The West Wing (NBC) won best comedy and drama respectively in the annual Quality Awards given by Viewers for Quality Television. Wing’s Aaron Sorkin, probably the top writer now working on TV, recently got a new, four-year, $16 million deal.

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