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By James Arnold

Self-Sacrifice And Self-Indulgence

Q U I C K S C A N


The Pledge

THE PLEDGE (A-3, R): Jack Nicholson plays another obsessed hero for director Sean Penn (previously, The Crossing Guard). Nicholson’s Jerry Black is a Reno police detective determined to catch a serial killer of young girls. (He’s made a solemn promise to the latest victim’s mother, but religious motivation is really not emphasized.) Black is retiring, and he can’t get his younger colleagues to believe his theory that they’ve arrested and coaxed a confession from the wrong man.

Self-sacrificing Black goes to fish and live in the crime-scene area in the Sierra Nevada. He befriends an abused single mom (Robin Wright Penn) and Chrissy (Pauline Edwards), her unnervingly “victim appropriate” eight-year-old. Reticent, but protective and kind, Black easily slips into the role of surrogate spouse and father.

The setup, while strained, plays convincingly. Ultimately, the likely suspect comes sniffing around, and Jerry’s tasks (both loaded with suspense in a situation especially unsettling for parents) are to protect Chrissy and catch the villain. But it isn’t easy.

The tale is based on a story by Swiss novelist-playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. It falls more into the category of art film (real, disturbing) than satisfying pop entertainment.

You’ll want to argue after seeing The Pledge as to whether it’s all obnoxiously unfair or Jerry’s pride has something to do with the author’s decision to punish him and grant him only a partial (if important) victory.

Director Penn wrings the agonizing to the breaking point and gets splendid work from the well-controlled Nicholson and a deep cast (Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren). Gripping police drama, with more dread and substance than usual; satisfactory for mature viewers.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (A-2, PG-13): You either love or hate the self-indulgent Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (last film: The Big Lebowski). These offbeat moviemakers lean to the darkly comic and bizarre. It helps that O Brother is more accessible than most Coen movies and also suffused with the “old-time religion” of the backwoods South of 70 years ago.

It’s a typically zany but affectionate glance at Depression-era, Bible-belt Mississippi, with its odd mix of rural poverty, intense other-world Christian focus, corrupt politics, Jim Crow and fondness for the Ku Klux Klan.

The motley protagonist trio—George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson—are technically chain-gang escapees but really innocents. Fast-talking Clooney has conned the others into a search for buried loot. As they flee klutzy pursuers and bumble through a variety of episodic adventures (irreverently updated from Homer’s Odyssey), we get an impression of the time and place, ranging from the nostalgic to the grim and satirical.

Much of the absurdity is broad and stereotyped, but superbly executed by character actors like Holly Hunter, Charles Durning and John Goodman (as a crooked salesman of Bibles). Turturro and Nelson are hilariously deft clowns, especially in a sequence where one of them is convinced the other has been enchanted into a frog.

Everybody sings in this movie, from chain-gang rock-pounders to cemetery gravediggers to Christians in white robes walking through a lovely woods toward Baptism-by-immersion in a river. Even the heroes improvise on a gospel song (as the Soggy Bottom Boys) for the $25 offered by a local radio station, with unexpected results. Also funny and a bit edgy is the KKK in its night rally before the burning cross, with an overwrought, choreographed marching song before Clooney and friends interrupt. Strange as usual, but a grand mix of down-home songs, satire and nostalgia; satisfactory for mature youth and adults.

Chocolat

CHOCOLAT (O, PG-13): It’s arguable whether the world needs more chocolate or more self-sacrifice right now. But this dated comic fable about such a conflict, set in 1959 in a French village, floods us predictably in chocolate. It’s predictable because lately movies have not been hot on penitence and self-sacrifice.

Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, a spirit-of-the-times liberated and liberating woman, sort of an anti-gloom, unwed-mom Johnny Appleseed traveling with her young daughter from town to town. She opens a shop and lures the locals with candies laced with—if not an outright aphrodisiac—a cheerer-upper.

The formula relaxes this fictional town of Lansquenet, which is under the sway of a morose Catholic count-and-mayor (Alfred Molina) who must have studied religion under Torquemada. (The mayor is the one most desperately in need of chocolate.) He writes the key passages in the stern homilies given by the very green young curate and is about to launch the town on a joyless six weeks of Lenten renunciation.

Vianne doesn’t go to church, and the script (based on the Joanna Harris novel) clearly sets her up as the symbol of modern enlightenment battling tradition and “the way things have always been.” She rescues a battered wife (Lena Olin), reconnects a grumpy dowager (Judi Dench) with her estranged daughter and grandson, and defies custom by welcoming the low-status “river people,” led by romantic Irish gypsy Johnny Depp.

What destroys the film is its smug lack of doubt about its contemporary “enjoy yourself” wisdom, as well as the bad Catholicism it sets up in opposition. (This is a caricature of the pre-conciliar Church.) The effect-of- chocolate-on-the-hormones joke is pathetically overdone, but the actors (especially Binoche and Olin) carry on with reasonable dignity. Contrived, slow and overrated; not generally recommended.

You Can Count On Me

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (A-4, R) involves more churchy conflict but of less overall significance. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s engaging comedy-drama is more about people than issues. The sympathetic characters are an estranged 30ish sister and brother (Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo), once bonded by the tragic sudden deaths of their parents.

Ruffalo plays an apparent rebel, an irreverent drifter, always broke and on the edge of serious trouble. He returns to their stodgy upstate New York hometown to borrow money.

Linney, bright and conventionally religious, works in a bank and worries about him. She’s divorced with an eight-year-old son who needs a father. Her contrasting suitors are a passionate but married branch manager (Matthew Broderick) and a quiet but reliable bore (Jon Tenney).

We come to like Ruffalo, who says, “I’m not the kind of guy everybody says I am.” He befriends the boy.

The film is about the deep feelings between the sibs (a rare movie subject) and how they are tested. One of the stresses involves her desire for him to have a religious anchor in his life. As in life, the ending offers hope but no sure solutions. The conversations between brother and sister—witty, tense and probing—are beautifully wrought by all involved. Problem language, sexual situations; satisfactory for adults.

Diary of a City Priest

DIARY OF A CITY PRIEST (PBS, April, check local listings): St. Thérèse of Lisieux “promised to pray for and care for priests. She didn’t know what she was in for.” This wry early comment by Father John McNamee, introspective, beleaguered inner-city priest in Philadelphia, suggests the mix of dedication, frustration and humor in writer-director Eugene Martin’s heart-crunching movie. It’s adapted from McNamee’s 1993 book describing his daily life and meditations (shot on location) at St. Malachy’s, where he has now worked 32 years.

McNamee is gently, superbly underplayed by David Morse (St. Elsewhere, The Green Mile). We hear his thoughts in voiceover while we watch his human and priestly actions dealing with the gritty, sometimes poignant or funny everyday problems of a very poor, crime-hassled people and neighborhood. (It emulates the style of the great Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest, and the Robert Bresson film made from it.)

Father Mac, as he is known, chats with various saints in his imagination. (St. Malachy wants him to take a vacation in Ireland, and St. Francis tells him, “Get to work and quit your Irish moaning.”)

The priest has his moments of gloom. (Now 67, he says his attitude today is more upbeat than in the early 1990s.) He gives himself to his associates and flock—providing the sacraments, coping with bad plumbing, handing out food and shoes to the endless parade of needy each evening, helping broke students get into college, bailing troubled kids out of jail. This honest, humble man is inspiring and indispensable. “What will happen to this place when I go?” An hour of grace on secular television; highly recommended.

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. CHESTERTON (EWTN, various times): This series on the early 20th-century Catholic convert, journalist and wit tends to be livelier than many on Mother Angelica’s network because GKC is hard not to enjoy in any format.

The host is Dale Ahlquist, president of the society devoted to GKC. He is personable and lucid when he explains the structure and arguments of Chesterton’s trenchant masterpiece The Everlasting Man.

What goes wrong is the occasional, well-intended impersonation by an actor who looks and sounds like a stuffy, British turn-of-the-century author. Let’s face it: Chesterton is in heaven, and we’re not stuck with an off-putting figure from an alien time and place. We can have anybody-we-want deliver the great man’s words in any way we’re capable of inventing.


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