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By James Arnold

Imagination: Funny and Frightening





SIMONE (A-3, PG-13) is a funny satire of Hollywood, with Al Pacino as a frustrated director whose career is plummeting because of pampered, neurotic, uncooperative actors. So, using a new technology bequeathed to him by a dying computer nerd, he creates Simone, a virtual beauty-and-charm composite of many great actresses, who meekly does everything he wants for free. She becomes an overnight superstar.

The scheme is partly Pygmalion, but mostly Frankenstein. Pacino’s Viktor Taransky doesn’t fall in love with Simone. (He’s in love with his ex-wife.) But Simone’s allure sends everything out of control. The public thinks she’s real and the movies are improbable hits.

Viktor hides her nonreality, fending off tabloids, TV, agents, studio bosses and even family. Some wacky bits are at the movie’s comic heart: fake phone calls, contrived press conferences and talk-show appearances. When Viktor has to, he can’t turn off Simone, who takes on a life of her own.

Amazingly, the idea is credibly and imaginatively realized. This film by Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol (who also scripted The Truman Show) redeems a dreadful year for movie comedy. Recommended for adults and mature youth, especially smart pop-culture fans.


SIGNS (A-2, PG-13): is another movie phenom by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). This ambitious, young (31), promising Philly-based writer-director bends toward the supernatural. Now he uses the crop-circle mystery in this thriller about a worldwide alien invasion as experienced by a besieged Bucks County (Pennsylvania) farm family.

Adding depth to the terror is the father, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). He has recently quit the Episcopal ministry and abandoned his faith because of the cruel death of his wife. He repeatedly reminds people not to call him “Father” anymore. “There’s no one watching out for us,” he says. “We’re all on our own.”

The flick doesn’t quite solve the difficulty of how to attach the faith-lost-and-regained plotline, rooted in the old and quite serious Problem of Evil question, to the how-do-we-repel-the-space-monsters problem, also old but serious only in movies.

In the alien arena, the suspense is high but the action is slim. Graham’s family includes his two young children and brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former baseball star. All they know about world events comes from TV and visits by a friendly cop (Cherry Jones). But there are plenty of signs that the unseen but sensed extraterrestrials are hostile and moving in on their farm.

Shyamalan is skilled at low-tech scare stuff, using little more than actors looking past the camera to something unseen, or wind blowing through a dark cornfield, growling dogs or the kids’ spooky stares and whispered fears. He disappoints when fact must finally replace imagination in the climactic confrontation. Still, much is achieved with almost zero onscreen horror or violence.

On the religious side, while the ending is positive, it’s not necessarily knock-your-socks-off theology that will work for everyone. What helps Graham’s hope is very good luck and his restored sense that good and bad luck both happen for a reason, that perhaps indeed we are not alone. In any case, Shyamalan remains a movie guy to keep an eye on. O.K. for adults and mature youth.


BLOOD WORK (A-3, R): As actor and director, Clint Eastwood (now 72) has evolved into one of the few American filmmakers whose name on a movie is a guarantee of good or at least solid work. Like Woody Allen, he keeps busy (seven films on varied subjects in the 10 years since Unforgiven), usually novel adaptations cast with strong actors.

His latest effort is in that mold, a Los Angeles police story based on Michael Connelly’s clever 1998 novel, with Clint cast age-appropriately as a retired F.B.I. profiler who’s just had a heart transplant. (He still chases and battles bad guys but holds his chest while he does it.)

The heart belonged to a young Latina mother killed in a robbery. Her sister makes a plea that’s hard to resist: to pay back the life-giving donor by finding the culprit, who turns out to be a wacko game-playing serial killer. The heart donation remains central to all that happens.

This clearly fresh twist on a familiar genre mostly involves just old- fashioned, brainy sleuthing, low-key humor and minimal hi-tech effects. (Clint doesn’t even use a cell phone.) The locales, especially the Long Beach harbor, are well used.

Jeff Daniels offers key support as a chummy marina neighbor, and newcomer Wanda De Jesùs impresses as the anxious client and eventual love interest. Such well-tooled genre movies used to be common, now are rare as low taxes; satisfactory for mature audiences.


THE NUN’S STORY (1959) sits in limbo as an almost-forgotten film when it comes to making lists (of best movies, of best Catholic movies, even of best Audrey Hepburn movies). That may have something to do with its detached realism in describing the struggles of an educated Belgian girl, daughter of a prominent surgeon, to hang on to her vocation as a novice and nursing sister in Europe and Africa in the decade leading into World War II.

Directed by the great Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, High Noon) and adapted by playwright Robert Anderson from Kathryn Hulme’s novel, the film offers no easy shots for admirers or critics of the preconciliar Church. The life of a nun, at least in this order at that place and time, offers an affecting closeness to God but demands perfect obedience and a purging of the worldly spirit, “in a way...a life against nature.”

Yes, the order and its self-negating rules, from petty matters like mirrors and daydreaming to being encouraged to deliberately fail an exam (out of humility) or to refuse help to the anti-Nazi resistance (nuns must be nonpartisan), often seem absurd and cruel. But it’s also clear that Hepburn’s luminous Sister Luke, despite her self-sacrifice, courage and intense love for God and suffering humanity, is never able to surrender her will and intellectual pride.

This supernatural love story is convincing and visual, whether inside the convent in Ghent, in the Congo clinic or at a grim hospital for the insane. Peter Finch is fine as a dedicated but unbelieving doctor who befriends her in Africa, but this Story belongs to women, with Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock and others all providing memorable convent portraits. Nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture; far from typical Hollywood nun flicks, often acclaimed as the best U.S. film ever about Catholic religious life.


ONE TROUBLE with living in a cynical pop-culture age is that we need to experience goodness. If we touch it in our daily lives—at home, at work, even in our parish—we’re very lucky. Sometimes it’s found in the larger world of news—in stories of love, courage or self-sacrifice.

We used to have it more often in our imaginative lives (books, plays, TV, movies). Audrey Hepburn’s Sister Luke (see above) is a prime example. Consider also Forrest Gump and the gentle, good-hearted characters in classic TV series like M*A*S*H or Northern Exposure. There’s a thin line, of course, where one person’s goodness becomes another’s sentimentality. It has to be artful, convincing, moving goodness.

The quality seems to have been banned from the Tube currently. (It’s something to watch for in the new season.) Dog Eat Dog (NBC) may be the model for our times. Mostly we get wisecracks, irony, arrogance, greed. No doubt ER’s Nurse Carol Hathaway character had some of it (the series lost it when she left). Kim Delaney’s compassionate lawyer on the canceled Philly also shone much too briefly.

The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin has wisely given some of it to his fictional president, although Bartlet is not consistently saintly, and the show’s resident consciences have been Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and the late, lamented Mrs. Landingham (Katherine Joosten).

Our standards may have shrunk so far that goodness is an endangered species, too strange to be recognized by our writers, too unlikely to be credible in our fiction. But we’ll be waiting, and know it when it comes.


WHAT’S HAPPENING lately on NBC’s money-minting franchise Law & Order? For one thing Vincent D’Onofrio has run off with the Law & Order: Criminal Intent series by creating as fresh and oddball a detective character as anyone on TV since Columbo. He plays dumb to entrap upscale, over-confident perps. He bores in on them, quietly, reasonably, head cocked. But mostly he’s just curious—something more than just the facts, ma’am.

Producer Dick Wolf’s fourth and latest L&O spinoff, Crime and Punishment, is edited from actual recent trials in San Diego. The “drama-mentary” is something like going to the courthouse and sitting in on a trial. But it’s better than Court TV as entertainment because all the dull parts have been cut out, possibly along with other stuff relevant to the truth.

The audience follows prosecutors as they confer, talk to victims and witnesses, prep their strategy. All L&O series prefer cops and prosecutors. We hear the defense, but (a fault) only in court. We wait outside while the jury deliberates, so we know little of the reasoning behind the verdict. That limits, but doesn’t destroy, social and educational values, which are high.

Most C&P cases, being real trials, are depressing. The crimes are ugly, the defendants guilty and poor, the families scared, angry, vindictive. The judges tend to throw their weight around.

The lawyers, with strong or weak cases, work hard. They almost always achieve a point right around doubt.

So this is a flawed human system, but better than most. A prosecutor puts it uneasily and too well, after a guilty verdict: “Justice is probably done...this guy had plenty of chances.”

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