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THE END OF THE AFFAIR (A-4, R) is about a man in an intense love affair with a married woman who suddenly ends it. (The setting is London in the 1940’s.) He doesn’t know that she is having a deep religious conversion and suspects instead that she has found a new lover. He’s not entirely wrong, since this is one of those Graham Greene hound-of-heaven stories in which God is relentless pursuer and humans are the pursued.

Written in mid-century in a period of great Catholic novels, Affair seems out of sync in 2000, even in this sympathetic adaptation by Irish writer-director Neil Jordan. Catholicism then seemed more labyrinthine and mysterious. Today’s films have few God-obsessed heroes (except in straightforward saint movies, like Joan of Arc, which often tell us how normal the saint is).

Here, the beautiful and intelligent Sarah (Oscar-nominated Julianne Moore) is caught in a classic textbook dilemma. When their tryst is interrupted by a bomb during an air raid, she fears that Maurice (Ralph Fiennes) has been killed. She bargains with God that, if Maurice lives, she’ll give him up. Maurice survives and (unknown to him) Sarah keeps her promise.

Both book and movie resemble a detective story as the skeptical, jealous, nonbeliever hero pieces together the truth and the identity of his rival. God leaves some surprising and touching signs.

People who dislike sexy movies or sex as religious metaphor won’t care for this passionate Affair. Devotees of Greene may argue whether or how two key changes by Jordan affect the story’s impact. But most mature Catholics will take this movie gratefully as an exquisitely rare and serious meditation on the connection between human and divine love. Adult material, both sexual and theological.


THE STRAIGHT STORY (A-1, G) doesn’t seem to be about much. Alvin Straight is a barely-able-to-walk old guy in rural Iowa who rides his John Deere lawn mower down the highway to see his brother in Wisconsin. The brother is estranged and has suffered a stroke. Thus, the journey takes on the aura of a pilgrimage of duty, penance and reconciliation.

This film is touching and funny (director David Lynch has a feel for the peculiarities of small-town life). The basic theme is family and kindness to strangers. Richard Farnsworth, a longtime stunt man, has been nominated for an Oscar for his superbly paced performance. He makes Alvin Straight a patient, stubborn man who fulfills his purpose the only way he can.

Alvin encounters a woman driver who keeps colliding with deer on the prairie, has campfire dialogues with a pregnant runaway and with a friendly priest (to whom he figuratively confesses). He exchanges poignant war memories with another aged veteran in a quiet roadside tavern.

Angelo Badalamenti’s rural-flavored background score and the floating aerial shots of the fields and woods are lovely, far above average. O.K. for all ages, most rewarding for mature viewers.


TOPSY-TURVY (A-4, R): The operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore) may have slipped out of the popular consciousness. But they were at the top 100 years ago. In recent decades they’ve been kept alive, at least for elites, in revivals by light opera companies in major cities. Now Mike Leigh (creator of Secrets and Lies) brings on this richly detailed film, an homage to a creative seminal era in English-language musical theater.

It covers the 1880’s period when the legendary partnership of witty writer-lyricist Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Sullivan (Allan Corduner) seemed ready to collapse. Then Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese culture in London and is inspired to write The Mikado, which becomes their signature hit. The rest of the film follows putting the show together through its rehearsals and opening night.

Voted the best of 1999 by New York critics, the movie appeals to a range of tastes. Famous numbers are performed with historical authenticity. We also see their evolution in instructive and often hilarious rehearsals. The contrasting private lives of Gilbert and Sullivan are especially poignant, showing once again how elusive happiness is, even for the most gifted.

There is fun with the culture of the place and time, from its polite, often obtuse manners to horrific visits to the dentist and coping with the newly invented telephone. It was a marvelous age for the spoken language, and we have only to listen to it here to realize how much we have lost in our speaking skills in only a century. Lengthy but elegant, morally insightful tribute; adult sexual situations; O.K. for mature viewers.


HANGING UP (A-3, PG-13): Female camaraderie has been having its day in recent movies (after much neglect). Hanging Up (scripted by mother-daughter Nora and Delia Ephron, directed by Diane Keaton) celebrates the friendship of three proud, feisty sisters who constantly yell at each other over cell phones. One scene shows them screaming and giggling in a kitchen flour fight, renewing bonds that are both joyful and hostile. As the dad whose mind is slipping, Walter Matthau is alternately John Wayne admirer, wisecracker, skirt-chaser and vindictive old man.

This is basically a Meg Ryan movie but more resistible than most. She cries and panics a lot as the loving and responsible sister, while her siblings (Keaton as a high-powered magazine maven, Lisa Kudrow as a flaky TV soap star) largely tune out.

The subject (juggling career, family, aging-parent problems) is familiar and painful, but the treatment (realism plus broad slapstick, the unreal affluence and unrealized shallowness of most of the characters) is off-turning. On the fresh side, there is inventive use of the Nixon presidential library as a locale. Hanging Up shows that, while cell phones may increase contact, they don’t help in improving human communication. Problem language, adult sexual situations; not generally recommended.


THE MIRACLE MAKER (April 23): ABC’s Easter Sunday special is a new approach to the life of Christ on TV. Technically, this two-hour film mixes the clay-animation and cartoon formats (with voices by mostly British actors, including Ralph Fiennes as Jesus). In its narrative, it focuses on the three public years. It telescopes events and changes some established chronology, but none of this seems likely to give offense.

Clay figures aren’t as expressive as live actors, but for the illusion of reality they’re the next best thing. (The cartoon sequences are for memory flashbacks, parables and episodes that lend themselves to fantasy, like the temptation in the desert.)

The most creative tactic by English writer Murray Watts is to set up a special appeal to children by extending a character from the Gospels. The rich man’s daughter (awakened and restored to life by Jesus in a famous miracle) is presented as a preteen girl who enters the story early, admires Christ from a distance and witnesses a wide range of happenings.

For example, she is in the crowd at the curing of the paralytic. At the Last Supper, she is among guests at a few other tables. And she is with the group of disciples at the Ascension. The effect is to build in a child’s perspective of Jesus’ actions and personality, ending in her final shout of joy: “Now he is with us forever!”

Overall, The Miracle Maker condenses but is otherwise traditional. Still, giving New Testament figures concrete form is always risky. (A guess: Viewers will like Jesus but find the Magdalene a bit flaky.)

The film tends to avoid the grimmer details of the Passion but makes up for that somewhat with inventive depictions of miracles. There’s an upbeat catch on the Sea of Galilee, with Jesus also laughing as he grapples with armfuls of fish. And a happy, cured paralytic tosses his pallet back through the hole in the roof and dances away through the celebrating crowd.

Other outstanding elements include the concept of Pilate, who is pretty much fed up with all the people giving him advice; an imaginative handling of the treachery of Judas (voiced by David Thewlis) and Gethsemane (“Father!” Jesus pleads. “Be a father and listen!”). We see what Jesus sees as he looks down into the cup of red wine at the crucial moment of the Eucharist.

This film was jointly produced in Britain and Russia by Emmy winners Christopher Grace and Elizabeth Babakhina (Shakespeare: The Animated Tales). Satisfactory family viewing.


REQUIEM FOR CHARLIE BROWN: Everyone who writes about popular culture hopes to say something wonderful and wise in eulogy about that “good man” Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” who died February 12. But that’s what Schulz and his characters taught us over 50 years of comic strips and 35 years of TV specials: One never quite gets it right, never quite wins—except maybe (like Snoopy) in the imagination. Life is tough: “I only dread one day at a time.”

What made Schulz different and special was his sense that losing is the common fate of people in this life, but they are lovable anyway. Maybe it’s just because they “sigh!” and we laugh, and we all go on. “Peanuts” was and is about hope—about a little redheaded girl, a winning baseball game, the coming of a Great Pumpkin—a hope that refuses to die in the face of adversity.

What a joy to have shared a lifetime in this place (“aaugh!”) with this eloquent everyday poet of hope.


THE GOOD BOOK OF LOVE: Sex in the Bible (A&E): This title ought to lure viewers. It is actually a provocative (in the intellectual sense) survey, not only of significant lovers and sinners but also of currently relevant topics. For example, there are the women of the Bible (including Mary), the ideals of marriage and children and celibacy in Old and New Testaments, homosexuality, the importance of the conflict of the early Christians with the licentious culture of the times, the impact of repentant St. Augustine.

There is more depth and scholarship than titillation, using classical art, actual locales, expert commentators of various traditions, reenactments and music that are reminiscent of Cecil B. DeMille. Narrated by Kathleen Turner. Satisfactory for mature viewers.



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