2 (A-3, PG-13): The old TV-espionage series plunges ever onward—lacking
both sense and heart—in its big-bucks Tom Cruise action-movie reincarnation.
This time the plan is for a different director, John Woo (the Orson
Welles of Hong Kong flicks), to add his own never-a-dull-moment, blow-up-anything-you-can
obsession to the mix. It doesn’t help.
Much of the spectacle
seems cliché: cliff-dangling in Utah, girl and boy chasing each other
in careening sports cars, busting into high-security skyscrapers and
island strongholds. In addition there’s the James Bondish plot about
preventing a “monster virus” from falling into the control of a heartless
super-villain. Woo and Cruise strain to save the show, pooling their
special-effects skills for a sizzling but violent and when-will-it-ever-end
While the improbable
combats are obviously unreal and ballet-like in super-slow motion,
the machines destruct imaginatively and the explosions gloriously
fireball. It’s like Balanchine staging a demolition derby—it adds
up to zero. Woo cheats. He’s fallen in love with the removable latex
face-mask gimmick, and the irony of interchanging identities of hero
and villain, which he first exploited in Face/Off (1996).
Thandie Newton (the
“beloved” in Beloved) steps down a few notches here as the
sexy thief who is used to bait the bad guy (Dougray Scott). A strong
love story was intended but is unconvincing. Like the violence, the
interracial sex (Tom and Thandie are in action early if not often)
and occasional sadism are part of this calculated package (shot mostly
in Australia). Newton provides the movie’s most impressive-but-implausible
moral act. Not generally recommended.
SMALL TIME CROOKS (A-3,
PG): Woody Allen is comically on the loose in a retro-in-spirit farce,
circa 1930’s, about some dumb-and-dumber crooks who hope to rob a
Manhattan bank by tunneling from the cellar of a cookie shop two doors
away. The diggers miscalculate and emerge in the wrong place. But
the cookies sell like hotcakes and make them fabulously wealthy.
The movie is full of
old Depression-era truths about the pretensions and miseries of being
rich, of having to (pretend to) love high culture when all you enjoy
is lowbrow, and how money is the root of all you-know-what. Anyway,
all you really need is true love (and, if possible, a couple hundred
Woody Allen and Tracey
Ullman are infectiously funny as Ray and Frenchy, the couple who unintentionally
become honestly wealthy. Frenchy enjoys going upscale (with suave
Hugh Grant as a tutor). But down-to-earth Ray misses cheeseburgers
for dinner and backroom poker. He mistakes Henry James (the writer)
for Harry James (the trumpeter who married Betty Grable). Grant’s
smarmy art dealer comes between the couple, who also encounter some
big-time crooks who are after their fortune.
The jokes, visual and
verbal, have broad appeal, since they range from broken water mains
to subtle bits by Woody (trying to crack a safe using a stethoscope)
and Elaine May (as a friend who talks too much in crucial situations).
The music, as always, is bouncy jazz. It may be that Allen continues
to slip ever more deeply into his romance with the past but it’s hard
to argue with him. Not especially brilliant or original but good
old stuff brightly executed; O.K. for general audiences.
COLOR OF PARADISE
THE COLOR OF PARADISE
(A-2, PG): This poetic Iranian film (subtitled in English) is about
a blind boy who wants to live a normal life and a poor, desperate
father who considers him a hopeless burden. The locale is a picturesque
countryside we rarely see (given our geographical and political distance
from Iran). It has a Bible-like conflict between good and evil in
which God, while unseen, plays a key role.
Mohammad, the bright
and sensitive eight-year-old, has been at a school for the blind in
Tehran. But he yearns for the summer at home where the country blossoms
with color and life: birds, fields of grain and wildflowers, misty
mountains, woods, whitewater rivers and seashore. He hears them and
feels them with his hands. He also cherishes his sisters and nurturing,
But his widowed, self-pitying
dad, scratching out a primitive living making charcoal, is focused
on arranging a profitable new marriage. He plans, somewhat guiltily,
to give the boy away to a blind carpenter in a distant village—the
loving, prayerful Granny is opposed to this.
The director, Majid
Majidi, previously made Children of Heaven, the first Iranian
film nominated for an Oscar. Color is an allegory about the
sacredness of life. It is Bergmanesque in its ominous use of nature
and weather, and its suggestion of the reality that is everywhere
and beyond the merely visible.
Majidi conveys the idea
that this little boy, through his ears and hands, as well as joy in
life, is close to touching what we cannot see. The dramatic final
sequence, implying (however understated) a divine response, as well
as the love that holds together the universe, recalls the ending of
Bergman’s great Virgin Spring. In only 80 minutes, beats
all the summer movie explosions and mayhem; recommended for attentive
viewers of all ages.
AGENT OF GRACE
BONHOEFFER: AGENT OF
GRACE (PBS): Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran leader and theologian
who resisted the Nazis, was imprisoned and finally executed in the
last days of the war for involvement in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler.
His story is a natural
for TV docudrama, but definitely better for PBS, because Bonhoeffer’s
resistance was of the mind and intellect. He was not an action hero,
but an icon for intellectuals. He was an influential teacher and ethical
thinker who would not bend to accommodate one of history’s most villainous
For certain, he was
an influence on postwar currents in Christian theology, especially
on the subject of resisting cooperation with evil. Few students slipped
through school in the 1960’s without reading his Letters From Prison,
and some of its famous lines are movingly quoted in Agent of Grace.
This 90-minute film,
which aired in June, dramatized the final years of his conflict with
the Nazis. It was muted and elegant, a rare quiet oasis in the television
din. The writer-director is veteran British-Canadian Eric Till (If
You Could See What I Hear). Pastor Bonhoeffer is played by Ulrich
Tukur (a German William Hurt type), who acts with dignity, power and
humanity. He is a model for unassuming courage and faith amid 20th-century
talky but bristles with ideas. The locations, inside and out, are
stunning. Till has structured the drama on the familiar religious-prisoner
model—a relentless interrogator who tries to match wits and entrap,
and will never let him go free. The somewhat surreal staging of the
execution—Bonhoeffer alone with his tormentor and gallows in a bleak
castle courtyard—will linger in the memory. (To order the video call
PBS, 800-440-2651. Cost is $29.95, plus $4.95 shipping and handling.)
A dignified tribute.
SURVIVOR (CBS summer
series, Wednesdays): Roots of this who-will-be-the-last comedy-melodrama
go back in pop culture to 1930’s movie serials (which Texas Ranger
is the Lone Ranger?) and Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians
(who is next to be murdered?), all of it mixed a bit with The Admirable
Crichton (on desert islands, surprising people become leaders).
The difference is all
those were scripted and acted by pros. Here 16 amateurs wing it, enduring
stupid summer-camp challenges cooked up by TV moguls in hopes that
something suspenseful might emerge. In the end, it’s a game show,
with 13 weeks to decide who wins a million bucks.
These reality series
(including Big Brother and all the others that will emulate
Survivor) assume selected groups of actual people are more
interesting than fiction. But their talk is banal, and their actions
by definition can’t be big or serious. You may get voyeurist thrills
or random insights into human behavior (like at the company picnic).
Some critics have gone
ditsy, suggesting Survivor is a metaphor for life and the dynamics
of social adaptation/success/Darwinian triumph of the fittest. Maybe
that’s why it’s boring. This is the jungle model of human life. It’s
not the Christian model, in which everyone wins. As Survivor
ends each week, there is only Jeff Probst, snuffing out your torch.
The show’s real negative
is the gimmick of voting people out, the democratic principle in reverse.
Exclusion is a national pastime. All the fun of eating bugs and rats
aside, the winner will be the most competent while being the least
obnoxious. It’s the senior-class election all over again, except with
sand and bamboo. O.K., but not a deep mental or moral exercise.
FUNNIEST FILMS: The
American Film Institute’s 100 funniest American movies (telecast on
CBS in June), like its earlier choices of best films and stars, were
arbitrary. The list was designed more to rekindle buzz and interest
in the classics than to be definitive. (Voters were 1,800 film-biz
The top two films were
about cross-dressing (Some Like It Hot, Tootsie), and
the people involved in the most funny movies were Cary Grant (8),
the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen (5 each), and Charlie Chaplin (4).
No doubt more recent
stuff was overrated (to keep TV watchers tuned), as well as the current
taste for parodies (Blazing Saddles and Airplane! in
the top 10?). You probably wouldn’t expect religious films (even broadly
defined) in the funny category, but Chaplin’s Modern Times
(with its little man versus industrial machine theme) also made the
Vatican’s list of 15 best 20th-century art films. Two other comedies
made the Vatican’s top 15: Disney’s Fantasia (a new version
is currently in theaters) and Lavender Hill Mob, the British
Alec Guinness bank-heist spoof.
Comedies with religious
connections good enough (but overlooked) include Bedazzled
(1968), Going My Way (1944), Heaven Can Wait (1943),
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Lilies of the Field (1963),
Oh, God! (1977) and The Trouble With Angels (1966).