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by James Arnold

Crouching Misfortune, Hidden Opportunity

CAST AWAY

CAST AWAY (A-2, PG-13) rethinks the Enoch Arden story, in which a shipwreck survivor returns after many years to his beloved and finds her happily married to another man. The story has been filmed many times. On its own it is both romantic and tragic (or hilariously comic, as in My Favorite Wife with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne). This poignant Y2K version glows in the detail and humanity provided by star Tom Hanks and his Forrest Gump director, Robert Zemeckis.

Hanks is Chuck Noland, an intense, Memphis-based FedEx executive obsessed with saving minutes on delivery schedules. He is robbed of four years in his life when a harrowing company plane crash deposits him on a deserted South Pacific island.

Most of the film is Chuck alone in the wild, acting out with wit and patience his survival in a virtual prehistoric setting. He’s ready to use whatever opportunity washes up on shore, make fire, kill fish and crabs, paint the walls of his cave and build a raft that will navigate the pounding surf.

Chuck doesn’t seem to be a religious man, but he’s compassionate and kind, which makes us root for him. Despite his courage, he considers suicide. He keeps hope alive with two objects: “Wilson,” a volleyball he humanizes into a silent companion, and a gold heirloom watch (time symbol), a gift from his fiancée, Kelly (Helen Hunt). When Chuck returns, he discovers that Kelly is happily married to somebody else.

Hanks and Hunt make the film hurtful and almost credible. But in some scenes Zemeckis and writer William Broyles work too hard to make the audience feel good. Classic tale, while ultimately a strain, is much fun along the way; solid entertainment for youth and adults.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (A-3, PG-13) is also a romance but with an immense “Wow!” factor. This return to his Taiwanese roots by director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm) is a martial-arts swashbuckler designed to seduce audiences of all ages with its miraculous mano a mano combats (bouncing on treetop branches, skittering over roof-tops like flying squirrels) and exotic Chinese locales. This mythic adventure has a Star Wars-in-Asia sort of feeling.

Lee won a Golden Globe Award for his direction of this action film in which three of the five major characters are women with in-your-face athletic fighting capability. There are also three or four major love stories, two with poetic, heart-cracking, transcendent endings, all set to subtle, classical Chinese music.

The generic plot line could apply as well to westerns or cop movies. Aging warrior-hero Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) is retiring his legendary 400-year-old sword Green Destiny (“too many have died”) to meditate and perhaps woo his longtime co-warrior Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh of James Bond memory). Their love is shy and understated but the stuff of legends.

Complicating their plans are Jade Fox, a stealthy female villain, and her pupil Jen, a diminutive beauty and spoiled politician’s daughter who is one heck of a fighter. This rebellious prodigy, who dreams of the life of a warrior instead of wife in an arranged marriage, steals Li’s sword. Complicating her plans is a Fairbanks-type desert bandit, the charismatic Lo, who kidnaps and fights Jen endlessly until they fall memorably in love.

The good vs. evil struggle focuses on who will tame Jen (played with zest by Zhang Ziyi) and her amazing talent. It’s displayed in prettily choreographed, light-footed, high-flying fantasy rumbles with practically everybody, marked by blurry-fast sword play, flipping, twirling and levitating. Stylized violence; subtitled dialogue; overall, an exhilarating movie experience.

WHAT WOMEN WANT

WHAT WOMEN WANT (A-3, PG-13): If only he/she knew what I was really thinking is a common enough thought in relationships, slight and profound, between the sexes. What Women Want is a contemporary fairy tale in which a cocky macho male (Mel Gibson) magically gets the ability to “hear” women’s thoughts. What an opportunity! At first he shamelessly exploits it, but slowly the gift mellows him into the ideal sensitive guy.

The parable is primarily feminist: Men need to listen—especially to the stresses and inequalities women suffer in the workplace—and to understand what they need and value, if they are to be better friends, husbands, fathers, colleagues. On a moral level, the issue is compassion. You can’t truly love unless you “feel with” the other person. But honestly, this movie never credibly gets that serious.

It’s an excuse for Gibson to star in a romantic comedy and he operates several gears above normal. If his Chicago ad-exec character were a car, he would be a Ferrari. His flat-out best moments, though, are in a warm comedy montage of him as a dad taking his estranged 15-year-old daughter shopping for a prom dress.

Otherwise, the joy comes mostly from slapstick, like Mel trying to squirm into pantyhose (don’t ask why). The ubiquitous Helen Hunt is convincing but overqualified as the vulnerable hotshot creative director who is Mel’s competition and love interest. But most of what the women in this movie think is (sadly) just as dull as what men think. Some sexual situations fly past in the general airiness; otherwise O.K. for mature teens and adults.

TRAFFIC

TRAFFIC (A-4, R) takes on the drug war and some of its complexities. This packed, intense two-and-a-half-hour film directed by Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich) follows three sets of characters, peripherally and unknowingly connected: a prominent judge (Michael Douglas) about to be appointed head of U.S. anti-drug forces and his troubled suburban family in Cincinnati, Ohio; a socialite matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in La Jolla, California, whose affluent husband faces trial as a drug cartel kingpin; and two Tijuana cops working amid the risky corruption of Mexican law enforcement.

The Cincinnati judge and his wife (Amy Irving) discover their teenage daughter and her preppy friends are moving deeply into hard drugs. The daughter battles exposure and resists treatment. Eventually she has to be rescued in the dregs of an urban slum.

In La Jolla, the innocent wife-mother realizes that she’s about to lose her wealth and social position. She moves quickly to survive. She manipulates her lawyer and the feds assigned to watch her, and coolly takes over her husband’s business.

The stronger Mexican officer (riveting Puerto Rico-born character actor Benicio Del Toro), constantly on the edge of betrayal and sudden death, also has survival skills. After his less cautious partner is killed, he perseveres and focuses on exposing the villainous general, the brutal military boss directing his government’s anti-drug war.

Soderbergh explores all this with gripping art and understatement. The situation is a mess but not hopeless; there are small victories, but no quick fixes. As the recovering teenager tentatively assesses her own prospects: “I’m pretty sure I’ll make it through today.” Wake-up call material; gritty, often graphic depiction of narcotics trade and its effects; violence, problem language; recommended for mature viewers.

JAZZ

JAZZ (PBS miniseries): Critics tend to pick at Ken Burns’s stuff (The Civil War, Baseball) for various reasons (pretentious, too long, etc.) but it never quite sticks. Burns is a long-form guy in a short-form world. You have to be patient, you have to see and hear it all, like his description of the death of Charlie Parker, which is no footnote but an extended elegy. It’s history in audiovisual form. Never before have the images and details been organized and put in one place with such passion.

Jazz (10 parts, almost 19 hours total), which aired in January, was a gift. Maybe it isn’t all there: There has to be some limit. But Burns includes all the good footage and stills he couldn’t bear to leave out, describing the universe of sounds, the geniuses and heroes, the tough truths, the light and heavy sides of this remarkable indigenous art form. Of course, like his earlier documentaries, it is also a disturbing, sometimes nearly unbearable (to the conscience) history of race in America.

Above all, you hear the music. The various commentators express their own enthusiasms and now and then exaggerate. Was Louis Armstrong really “a messenger sent by God to make people happy”? Maybe not, but he could play. Burns is also a poet: as in that wonderful footage of a lighted riverboat gliding down the dark Mississippi, with the distant sound of Armstrong’s band and horn floating to shore (a re-creation, actually of musician Jack Teagarden’s memory).

CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION

CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION (CBS, Thursdays) is a sleeper new police drama that has enough freshness and skill to merit attention. It doesn’t offer the range of characters or seem capable of the writing depth that now and then pushed a cop series like Homicide into moving and unforgettable dimensions. But it has a new twist or two, most notably its focus on science and forensic evidence, allowing it to avoid the familiar car-chase-and-shootout, knocking-on-doors and precinct-house-interrogation grind.

The setting is a little different (Las Vegas), but the key asset is producer-star William Petersen, 47, who has carried enough “small but cool” crime movies (To Live and Die in L.A., Manhunter) to give authenticity to his role as totally dedicated senior forensic expert Gil Grissom. To him, it’s not a job but a vocation—seeking truth in blood, hair, fingerprints, the detritus of the unknown, unseen act of violence.

His younger team members, including costar Marg Helgenberger, may be less obsessed, but they’re bright by definition. You can say it’s a buggy occupation with a high “ick” quotient and more skeletons and rotting body parts than usual in prime time. But at least the worst violence has already happened. (Gil’s reconstructions are shown in artsy out-of-focus flashbacks.) It’s all very 21st century, but the cerebral style has traces of Sherlock Holmes.


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