stars Kyra Sedgwick (left) as the supportive girlfriend
of John Travolta, an auto mechanic whose life takes a mystifying turn
on his 37th birthday.
(A-3, R) is the sleeper of the summer. Writer-director John Sayles
(The Secret of Roan Inish) offers a fresh, complex, contemporary
western set on the Tex-Mex border. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper),
working under the shadow of his deceased, legendary sheriff-father,
Buddy, pursues a 40-year-old murder investigation.
The Sam/Buddy relationship and the
unraveling mystery are only part of an ingenious tapestry. Buddy
was imperfect, both as authority and father, but he's a step up
from the previous sheriff, the racist and corrupt Charley Wade.
(Buddy and Charley are played in flashback, with sizzling good
vs. evil charisma, by Matthew McConaughey and Kris Kristofferson.)
Sam also has a frustrated, long-standing
love for Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), with overtones of Romeo and
Juliet. The cultural entanglements and the parent-child tensions
are explored with subtlety.
is wickedly satisfying, offering melodrama, romance and violence.
A plot twist forces Sam and Pilar to make moral choices. Rare
quality adult movie; Oscar-level dialogue; recommended for mature
(A-3, PG-13): Aliens in a gigantic spacecraft set off the biggest
explosions of the summer, taking out American icons like the Capitol
and White House before the good guys rally. It's an awesome $70
million spectacle, provided by the makers of Stargate,
mostly emulating the 1970's disaster movies with doomed urban
crowds running in panic from computer-generated flying debris.
The heroes include (shock) the American
president (Bill Pullman, with his voice in a Clint Eastwood growl)
leading the big attack; Will Smith, as a hot-dog Marine flyer;
and Jeff Goldblum, as a cool computer-math genius who outsmarts
the invaders with Windows 95. Superficial and cornball but
energetic entertainment, contributes to U.F.O. fantasies and government
duplicity myths; satisfactory for older children and adults.
(A-3, PG): John
Travolta is a nice-guy garage mechanic in a small town who is
"visited" on his birthday by a bright light that knocks
him over and then seems to give him super powers. He speed-reads
books, picks up languages in minutes, solves technical problems.
He also develops ESP and senses earthquakes before they happen.
This is the ordinary-person-becomes-smart
movie. How do people react? Is the hero better off? And what caused
the miracle? God? Little green guys from space? Forrest Gump's
This effort by director Jon Turteltaub
(While You Were Sleeping) offers genial characters (played
by Robert Duvall, Kyra Sedgwick and Forest Whitaker) but slips
into clichés. The mystery is explained in a way meant
to be positive--the potential of the human mind and spirit. But
it's clumsily prepared and ends as a disappointment. Blurred
but modestly enjoyable feel-good whimsy; satisfactory for mature
youth and adults.
(A-2, PG): The oldest and one of the most beloved comic-book superheroes
emerges in movies for the first time in 40 years in this modest,
open-to-kids adventure. The script pays homage to all the traditions
of "the ghost who walks" strip and retains the flavor
of a 1930's movie serial without spoiling it with campy satire.
Wincer (Free Willy) keeps the action flowing without modernizing
the romance or the genre violence.
Billy Zane and Kristy Swanson play
with zest and 1930's earnestness. He's the man in the purple body
suit, the latest in a 400-year dynasty of jungle-ruling Phantoms,
and she's "spoiled, beautiful" socialite adventuress
Diana Palmer. Neither is an easy mark for villains, including
Treat Williams, splendid as a capitalist-fascist-mob guy who wants
to rule the world. Quaint but delightful; genre violence; O.K.
for most kids and adults.
(A-3, PG-13): Daniel Defoe's classic abused heroine, representing
all the exploited women of 18th-century Europe, gets a makeover
in this new Moll, produced and shot by Pen Densham in Ireland.
Robin Wright, spunky and luminous in the title role, falls in
love only once but profoundly, and has only one child but overcomes
huge odds to find and keep her.
Although her trials in wicked, male-dominated
London are grim and daunting, Moll refuses to be a victim. Despite
some gratuitously rotten characters who happen to be religious,
her story is a search for truth and love amid hardship. Stockard
Channing is great as a despicable madam, and Morgan Freeman and
John Lynch are fine as the best men in Moll's painful odyssey.
Uplifting saga from a time worse than our own; adult material;
satisfactory for mature viewers.
THE NEW SEASON:
Not even thinking about cable, there are now six broadcast networks
offering 64 comedies and 37 one-hour dramas every week, plus eight
TV news magazines, plus a few hours of movies and miscellaneous
Out of 42 new shows last year, only
10 survived, four of those by switching to new networks. Hardly
any could be dignified with the term "hit," at least
in any sense approaching ER or Friends of the year
before. The four majors (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) are wheeling out
30 more new ones this fall, plus 10 more by the still fledgling
networks, Paramount (UPN) and Warner (WB), which are expanding
to three nights.
There was a real shortage of family-friendliness
last year, as network geniuses went for the young audience. Friends
clones went quickly--too much raunch and playing down to the perceived
irreverent taste of the audience.
But advertisers have mellowed, and
this year they say again that they will offer a better range of
choices: fewer abrasive shows and more conservative, play-it-safe
Most Catholics don't expect stern moral
values in every show but want sensitivity used in handling issues
such as abortion, premarital sex, clergy, nuns or Catholic ethnic
groups. If we're displeased, it's usually at the comedies or soaps
for pushing the outrageous. Commercial TV isn't the right medium
for profundity, but it can offer at times joy or heartbreak.
So what's new? Many will be delighted
at another reincarnation of Bill Cosby in a new series (CBS, Mondays).
It's based on a British hit about a feisty 60-year-old adjusting
to unwanted retirement. Phylicia Rashad will be his wife, Doug
E. Doug a nephew and the gifted Madeline Kahn a doubtlessly eccentric
neighbor. Cos has always been funny without being raunchy. Can
the undoubted sitcom king of the 1980's find the right combination
again? The buzz is that Cosby, with 44 episodes guaranteed,
will beat the odds this time.
One potential time-slot hit--sandwiched
between existing favorites where distracted viewers are unlikely
to click the remote--is Suddenly Susan (Brooke Shields sitcom),
which is replacing
Caroline in the City (Lea Thompson sitcom) in the coveted
NBC hole between Seinfeld and ER. The other is Spin
City (ABC), with Michael J. Fox as a comic deputy mayor of
New York, hammocked on Tuesdays between Home Improvement
and NYPD Blue. (Ironically, NBC has moved Caroline
over to be Spin's competition.)
One trend is certainly the paranormal
(X-Files influence), covering the whole spectrum from angels
and ghosts to aliens, vampires and people with superhuman gifts.
(Consider this a nod to the human hunger for the sacred.) Another
is "teacher" shows, especially teachers confronting
hard-to-reach kids (such as Dangerous Minds, with Annie
Potts in the Michelle Pfeiffer role). It's an upbeat but often-recycled
Without considering cable or PBS, this
is how each evening shapes up in the coming months:
CBS moves Touched by an Angel into Angela Lansbury's old
spot after 60 Minutes. The competition is Superman
(ABC), Third Rock From the Sun (NBC) and the indefatigable
Simpsons (Fox). Fox also moves X-Files in from its
niche on Fridays to scuttle the Sunday movies on the other channels.
is trash night on Fox, with Melrose Place kicking off.
Aside from the perennial NFL football (ABC), the adult competition
will be Cosby and Ink (a newsroom comedy with Ted
Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen) on CBS. No more Fresh Prince.
Young audience long shots: Jeff Foxworthy and Mr. Rhodes
(longhaired comic Tom Rhodes doing the teacher bit) on NBC.
It will be intriguing to see how Angel spinoff Home
of the Brave (CBS) will work against the reworked Roseanne
(ABC) and newly moved Mad About You (NBC). Frasier
still carries on. For Disney-owned ABC, Michael J. Fox's Spin
City, produced by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties,
Brooklyn Bridge), will be a formidable lead-in for multi-Emmy
winner NYPD Blue.
The exceptions to sitcoms are Fox's solid Party of Five
and NBC's reliable Law & Order. Will Gen-X legend Molly
Ringwald in Townies (pals in small-town New England) fill
the gap for ABC between Ellen and Grace Under Fire?
On the male side, ABC's Drew Carey squares off against
two comedies that would like to be considered daring (don't count
on it): Steven Bochco's Public Morals (CBS) and NBC's Men
ABC's critically respected High Incident and Murder
One escape the axe but face NBC's ratings monsters Seinfeld
and ER. Bring out the VCR's again. A possible option here
is Moloney (CBS), with Peter Strauss as a police psychologist. But then I also liked JoBeth Williams in the now-deceased
There are lots of long-running personal favorites for everybody,
from Dave's World (CBS) and NBC's Unsolved Mysteries
to ABC's 20/20 and NBC's very classy Homicide. Fox's
paranormal Millennium (by X-Files creator Chris
Carter) will debut in the X slot opposite CBS's cheery
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Scott Bakula in a series about a
husband-wife detective team). ABC will pursue babysitters with
Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (based on the Archie Comics
character) and Clueless (based on the movie about Beverly
Dr. Quinn will remain queen of the slowest TV night, but
the later hours are stirring. ABC brings in Coach (in its
ninth year) to pave the way for a Latino-oriented law-firm comedy,
Common Law, featuring Greg Giraldo. (The network has been
picketed by Latinos in the recent past.) For adults, the heady
and talented creators of thirtysomething will offer Relativity
(ABC) with Kimberly Williams (the bride of Father of the Bride).
CBS replaces Angel with Early Edition, a fond fantasy
for journalists in which an editor (Kyle Chandler) has the power
to read tomorrow's headlines and tries to help those affected.
Let's face it, the headlines for most
of these shows will often involve the word "canceled."