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EYES WIDE SHUT

EYES WIDE SHUT (O, R): Stanley Kubrick’s last film closely follows an early 20th-century Arthur Schnitzler novella and transfers it from Vienna to contemporary New York. A sympathetic young doctor and his wife (Bill and Alice, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) are well-off and devoted to their young child. They seem happily married until they have a disturbingly frank argument about “sexual temptation,” to use Catholic terminology.

We then follow the agitated husband through two days of encounters which suggest that society is both obsessed and sick about sex from top to bottom. Worse, the pursuit of erotic pleasure proves to be dangerous, both in the medical sense (AIDS) and in the murderous we’ll-kill-you-if-you-talk sense.

The peak (or depth) of his odyssey is a satanic, elaborately staged orgy for the decadent rich, costumed and masked, at a country mansion. Bill stumbles on a dirty secret that the powerful will never allow him to reveal.

When he returns to Alice, she tells him of a nightmare of her own imagined infidelities. Their fantasies and feelings of guilt change them. The story is probably more Freudian (Schnitzler was a pal of his) than a Christian cautionary tale, but it has the same effect. The dominant final images are consoling family symbols of Christmas.

Eyes Wide Shut can reasonably be described as pessimistic filmmaker Kubrick’s La Dolce Vita, and is vulnerable to the same criticism: In seeking to explore the perils of sexual obsession, it is obsessed. The nudity and sexual innuendo are theme-related and insistent. Kubrick is also likely to be attacked for being stuffy and taking it all so solemnly and seriously at a time when sexual-liberation propaganda is much more cool. An art film, possibly a great film, certainly not for the casual or faint-of-heart; with reservations for mature viewers.

THE WINSLOW BOY

THE WINSLOW BOY (A-1, G) is David Mamet’s improbably wonderful adaptation of a 50-year-old British play based on a pre-World War I trial that was politically hot in those simpler times. The film is partly about the differences between manners and morals (and trials), then and now, but mostly it’s a touching drama about principled people heroically risking everything for a “lost cause.”

When 14-year-old Ronnie Winslow is sacked from the Royal Naval College for a minor theft, his decent middle-class patriarchal family is stunned and disappointed. When the boy insists he’s innocent, his father accepts his word and fights stubbornly through Parliament and the courts. It’s a classic underdog story.

The strains on the family’s health, wealth and unity are huge. In the end, we learn that “it’s easy to do justice, very hard to do right.”

The emotions—like Arthur Winslow’s absolute trust in Ronnie, daughter Kate’s loyalty and love—are understated and quite moving. At first glance, this polite, talky play by the late Sir Terence Rattigan seems an odd choice for raucous writer-director Mamet (The Edge).

But Mamet’s work is often concerned with justice (The Verdict). Also, Winslow has a showcase part for his young English wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, as the cool (but sweet) suffragette Kate. She and the superb Nigel Hawthorne (as Arthur, the father) create memorable filial bonding, and her budding romance with the charismatic defense lawyer (Jeremy Northam) is amusingly modest and witty. Recommended for fans of substance, style and elegance.

ARLINGTON ROAD

ARLINGTON ROAD (A-3, R): Jeff Bridges is a widowed and wary academic terrorism expert in Reston, Virginia, whose son gets overly friendly with suspicious neighbors Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. Jeff and his girlfriend (Hope Davis) get too close to the truth.

This early section drags, but director Mark Pellington throttles the last third of the movie into white-knuckle action as Jeff tries to prevent the sinister conspirators from blowing up the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. Arlington belongs to the cinema of the sardonic and unsettling where gloomy honesty rules.

It’s interesting to know that this script by first-time writer Ehren Kruger won Hollywood’s prestigious Nicholl competition in 1996. It flows from the traumas of Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City, which may be too easily slipping from memory.

While this film portrays native terrorists as clever and formidable, it offers no easy heroes and no easy answers. Bridges is intense, and Robbins, playing one of his patented genial lunatics, is a suitable foe. Flawed but hair-raising torn-from-the-headlines thriller; for mature audiences.

SUMMER OF SAM

SUMMER OF SAM (O, R) purports to be about life in the Bronx’s Little Italy neighborhood during the sizzling summer of 1977. Disco was the rage, Reggie Jackson and the Yankees chased the pennant, and the city baked under media-fanned hysteria over David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz’s random serial shootings of lovers in parked cars.

Director Spike Lee gets some of the pop-culture context and mood right, but the dreary characters and story quickly fade into crude stereotypes and pointless sexual obsession. The focus is on Vinnie (John Leguizamo), a macho hairdresser with Catholic guilt: He likes to experiment sexually but doesn’t want to ask his nice-girl wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). She’s desperate to please and worried she’s losing him. The result is a string of bizarre grope-and-grapple scenes.

While Vinnie fears that Sam has been sent by God as retribution for his sins, his friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is a musician wannabe who reinvents himself as a Brit-talking punk rocker. Ritchie, who earns needed money as a performer and hustler in a local gay club, becomes a Sam suspect.

The characters have some riveting scenes screaming at each other, but you’re given no reason to care about them. Little Italy appears as a soulless place where neither friends nor family offer much help in a crisis. Berkowitz’s sick, violent craziness—used often as continuing background—seems to fit right in.

Sam seldom gets past a kind of detached amusement at the ordeal of city life that summer, at the pathetic sexual fantasies and guilts, and at the weird twists of street machismo among poor white guys facing social and cultural changes beyond their understanding. Not Spike at his best; relentless street language and sex; for adults but not recommended.

MULTICULTURAL TV

MULTICULTURAL TV: Is prime time too white? That was the reaction of the NAACP and others to the fall schedule on the major networks, where none of the leading characters on any of two dozen new dramas or comedies is anything but white. It’s a rerun of the 1960’s, when the screens were black and white but the actors were just white.

The problem is economics, not racism. The Tube is no longer a mass medium, and each of the four majors is competing tenaciously to hold 10 to 15 percent of the audience. The slice that advertisers like best is young, prosperous and suburban. Black and Hispanic actors are risky in that first year of competition; so are actors over 40. It doesn’t help that many TV decisionmakers resemble, demographically, all those young whites on shows they like.

What happens is that minorities are ghetto-ized: They’re cast in the same shows which largely appear on the newer, smaller networks (WB, UPN) trying for niche audiences, or cable’s Black Entertainment Network. These series, naturally, are watched mostly by minorities. So we end up with segregated viewing: Racial overlap of audience for a show is becoming increasingly rare.

Why is this bad? We live in a multicultural society, and we need to know each other and thrive together. Of course, Hispanic Catholics are prominent victims of this segregation. There are already signs that protests and complaining may work where the marketplace has stumbled. But pressure must continue.

THE JFK JR. TRAGEDY

THE JFK JR. TRAGEDY (and on the happier side, the American women’s victory in World Cup soccer) showed again the role of media at the turn of the millennium is to provide widely shared “emotive moments.” It almost always seems like overkill because of the growth of 24-hour all-news cable channels, and the major networks’ reluctance to let them carry the load and get the audience.

This development can be both satisfying and irritating, but viewers still have alternative options. Complaining is shortsighted. Regular folks probably shouldn’t but do live vicariously off the famous and always have. In the new media society, these occasions are multiplied.

This is the way we live now, with common celebration and sorrow. We can deplore it or use it to help bear the inevitable victories and defeats of life here. The danger is that media emotion may replace real life and the emotions we can give to people we can actually touch.

VISIONS OF HELL

VISIONS OF HELL: Until something better comes along, those First Union financial commercials will do as a metaphor for evil and chaos before redemption. What we see (in one version) is rampant materialism, greed and false prophets on crowded streets before the sunrise (dominated by First Union’s gleaming skyscraper) scatters all the charlatans.

And how about that frog who escapes the sewers full of sharks and crocodiles before escaping to that serene country pond dominated by the backlit image of First Union? We don’t know how benign the bank may really be—its stock has had its ups and downs. But if you overlook the commerce, this is a vision of grace saving us poor frogs from the slime of temptation and damnation.

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