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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brother, Where Art Thou?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
come to like Ruffalo, who says, “I’m not the kind of guy
everybody says I am.” He befriends the boy.
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
of a City Priest
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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