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By James Arnold

Crime: Future, Past and Imperfect

Q U I C K S C A N

MINORITY REPORT
ROAD TO PERDITION
THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS
CENTRAL STATION
THE COUNTRY
THE RECENT DEATH



MINORITY REPORT

MINORITY REPORT (A-3, PG-13): In Steven Spielberg’s one-man effort to save the movies from brain death, the maestro brings in this classy sci-fi thriller that raises many of the significant moral issues of the looming century. Based on a 1956 short story by the late Philip K. Dick, the source for Blade Runner, this film is rich with quirky characters and edgy extrapolations in a future USA (2054) that hopes to solve its crime problems with technology.

Experiments with human genes have gone haywire: Three unlucky survivors (kept alive in a literal “think tank”) can predict future murders. These sedated unfortunates “are in no pain, but it’s better if you don’t think of them as human.”

The visions of these pre-cognitives are displayed for police, who arrest the killer before he can do the deed. This ultimate, law-and-order system has kept Washington, D.C., murder-free for six years and needs only a vote to make it nationwide.

Tom Cruise’s hero is one of the elite Department of Pre-crime cops who manipulate the images like symphony conductors and find the almost-perps under great time stress. His personal life is in a downspin since his young son disappeared years ago. Worse, the “infallible” pre-cogs predict he’ll kill someone. So he’s a fugitive, trying to figure out why and to save himself from the horror of encapsulated living death in a high-tech prison.

Imaginative chases and shootouts abound. But best are the cleverly designed gimmicks, such as the look of future video gear, cars and freeways, tiny spider-like robots that race through buildings ferreting out fugitives, and universal eye identification that offers great security at great cost of liberty. It enables omnipresent photo lenses linked to computers to direct personalized advertising at you most of the waking day, for example.

Report is a sci-fi film with a real plot, and a villain. There are many satisfying conclusions, including respite for the pre-cogs, able to dream only of violence. Questions raised include: Is it right to preempt probable evil acts (uneasily relevant just now)? Are the pre-cogs just a symbol for the prophecies of DNA? Can we prevent moral evil the same way we prevent disease? Is there still a place for free will amid all the determinants of science, society and technology? A cinematic banquet, plus nuggets for contemplation; recommended for mature viewers.

ROAD TO PERDITION

ROAD TO PERDITION (A-3, R): Movie heaven occurs whenever they make a genre movie (cowboys, musicals, space adventures) and get it right. It happens (Shane, Singin’ in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey), but not often. Perdition is movie heaven for gangster flicks. That’s not saying it’s Shakespeare or Puccini. But it’s awesome if you can tolerate the required gunplay and moral code.

The elegant film set in 1931 is based on a clever but typically grotesque, bloody, graphic (comic book) novel. It is about an Irish-American mob in Rockford, Illinois, godfathered by crime boss and devout Catholic John Rooney (Paul Newman, in epic form). His almost-like-a-son enforcer, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), has his own cherished family.

Michael’s effort to separate business and family collapses when his curious 12-year-old son (newcomer Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses a killing involving Rooney’s slightly psycho son.

This sets loose a murder-and-revenge plot, moving around Chicago, with Michael on the run as the good/bad guy protecting his son and fighting back. The Capone mob gets involved, but Michael’s main nemesis is an eerie hit man-photographer (Jude Law) who specializes in death portraits.

Perdition has moving things to show about fathers and sons—Michael’s intent is to save his son’s soul—and the humanity of its characters. But its greatness lies in its subtlety and originality while doing all the scenes that gangster films do.

The superb taste belongs to director Sam Mendes, the beautiful and dark Rembrandt-style imagery to world-class cameraman Conrad Hall. The four male leads deserve Oscars, but the story wouldn’t work without Hanks’s aura of kindness and intelligence. Recommended for mature viewers.

THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS

THE DANGEROUS LIVES OF ALTAR BOYS (A-4, R): This coming-of-age comedy/drama is set somewhat unsteadily in a small Carolina town in the 1970s. It offers Jodie Foster as a stereotyped, relentlessly chilly classroom nun. Her determination to beat religion into her junior high-age pupils leads to retaliatory pranks and tragedy. But it also inspires a dozen or so artful fantasy, super-hero, comic-book animations deftly cut into the movie.

The cartoon segments are by Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn (1997), and imagined by the young protagonist Francis (promising Emile Hirsch), a budding artist, whose notebook is filled with shocking material. He and his friends are the monstrously muscled “Atomic Trinity,” and Sister is transformed into their foe.

In the real story, Francis, pal Tim (Kieran Culkin) and girlfriend Margie (Jena Malone) are unhappy kids from troubled Irish families. They antagonize Sister with passive resistance and edgy escapades. Francis and Margie also explore first love, but even that is shadowed by her guilt over incest.

Altar Boys, based on the late Chris Fuhrman’s novel, obviously tries for a serious niche as a funny/sad teenage memoir. (It seems to want to be a sort of anti-Wonder Years, in which parents are mostly bad or absent, conventional authority figures are flawed enemies and the kids are naturally good, free spirits.) Sister and a somewhat distant but fair, hard-smoking priest (Vincent D’Onofrio) seem to be the school’s only staff. The kids are appealing but dated story is unconvincing; problem language, adult content; not especially recommended.

CENTRAL STATION

CENTRAL STATION (A-3, R) is a four-year-old Brazilian film that helps us recall that movies can be surprising and wonderful while still being simple and real. It focuses on single, 50-ish Dora (Brazil’s leading actress, Fernanda Montenegro), an ex-teacher who is paid for writing letters for illiterates who bare their souls to her in Rio’s main rail terminal. She seldom mails them, but amuses herself reading them to her friend.

Dora is bitter and disconnected, but reluctantly responds to a persistent grace which all but forces her to take the nine-year-old son of a client (killed in an accident) deep into the impoverished rural north to find his father. Both begin as hard cases, made cynical by experience, but are drawn into a friendship that changes and redeems their lives. Finally, as Dora leaves the child with his brothers, she ironically pours out her love in a poignant letter.

The movie is set in Brazilian reality, from the urban Rio to the small farming villages and desolate north countryside. (The boy is played by charming street kid Vinícius de Oliveira, discovered by director Walter Salles at an airport.) The social realities are visible; the themes are eternal: the search for father, for home, for love and connection. Deepening the story and its meaning are religious episodes, with a kind itinerant evangelist, with pilgrims celebrating a Marian feast. It’s also a parable of the modern search for God. In Portuguese with English titles; for adults, an excellent buy or rental.

THE COUNTRY

THE COUNTRY is definitely ugly right now. Consider the baseball all-star game on TV, where the fans protested and booed when the game was called after 11 innings because the teams had run out of pitchers. The public mood is feisty and whining. Other signs include those radio loudmouths and the TV reality shows with people drowning in rats or bugs or arguing (very loudly) with each other, or trying to outcon the other contestants to get the money.

We have greedy CEOs, basketball stars beating up their girlfriends, lawyers and lawsuits packing the courts, accountants cooking the books and NBC News telling us nightly about some new “fleecing of America.” You don’t even want to look at the new TV schedule starting this month. Nearly half of the 15 new one-hour shows are (no surprise) about cops and robbers: perversion, cruelty, death, screaming at suspects, getting even.

Even the comedy has an ugly edge. Robin Williams is the best around, and his new HBO live special bristles with witty malice and disrespect. Eventually, this hard season will pass. But meanwhile, we’ll check out Lucy, Gene Kelly and Gary Cooper on the nostalgia channels. Crosswords, anyone?

THE RECENT DEATH of John Frankenheimer

THE RECENT DEATH of John Frankenheimer, who died July 6, typified the work of a gifted director: not really famous, but an artist whose behind-the-camera excellence you could count on. (His father was Jewish, his mother Irish Catholic; he was educated at LaSalle Military Academy.) He directed feature films for 40 years, including many memorable ones (like Seconds, Grand Prix and Birdman of Alcatraz). But he began in TV and is best remembered as the finest director (152 live dramas, many in the fabled Playhouse 90 series) of television’s golden age (1955-60).

Since 1994, Frankenheimer was also superb at directing docudramas for cable, winning four consecutive Emmys for HBO: Against the Wall (the Attica riots), The Burning Season (Raul Julia as Brazilian union hero Chico Mendes), Andersonville, George Wallace. (All are on VHS.) His brilliant 2002 work, Path to War (LBJ and Vietnam), has been nominated for another. We’ll miss this man who so enriched this small but essential part of our lives.

Tribute also to Rod Steiger, that definitive method actor, who died July 9. He appeared in more than 250 TV productions, most notably as the original lead in Marty. Fans of Franco Zeffirelli’s miniseries Jesus of Nazareth will recall Steiger’s typically intense Pontius Pilate. He also starred as commentator and stand-in for Pope John XXIII in Ermanno Olmi’s hard-to-find And Then Came a Man (1965).


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