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Madmen, Monsters, Wild Events

    YOU'LL HAVE TO EXCUSE ME while I catch up on some of the wilder events that have been happening this season, accompanied by digital (ear-numbing) sound in the air-conditioned (frigid) comfort of the cinemas in your local mall:

    SPEED 2

    SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (A-3, PG-13): Spunky girl-next-door Sandra Bullock thinks she’s on a romantic cruise with new leading man Jason Patric in this Caribbean seascape sequel to Speed. The cruise ship, normally a happy venue, quickly becomes a place of extreme jeopardy. This is something like a warm-weather Titanic.

    The genius madman villain (Willem Dafoe) doesn’t figure on Sandra and Jason being compulsive heroes who steer the ship at full steam for the resort port of St. Martin. The victims of the resulting destruction are not morally significant, reflecting the sins and aberrations of a decadent society. Producer-director Jan DeBont (Twister) doesn’t care very much, frankly, my dear, because he gets paid to wreck stuff in fascinating ways. Not as fresh as the original, but Sandra under stress is still terrific; often tense but otherwise reasonably safe for older kids; satisfactory for action-genre fans.


    CON AIR (O, R) is a dumb reworking of The Dirty Dozen concept. The feds pile the worst criminals in America into a giant cargo plane, then lose control. Nicolas Cage as Cameron Poe plays a good guy, an ex-Army Ranger. He pretends to join the rebellion to help a sick friend and a female deputy in danger of rape. Actually, he’s an unjustly imprisoned con who’s earned parole and is en route to see his seven-year-old daughter for the first time.

    Cage doesn’t quite redeem this otherwise ludicrous special-effects fantasy of expertly staged crashes and explosions—but the effects do help make the movie marginally bearable. Also helpful are John Cusack, as the hard-working top U.S. marshal on the ground, and John Malkovich, Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi as slightly crazy bad guys.

    Director Simon West exploits the real-life demolition of the notorious Sands Casino in Las Vegas. The humor is often sophomoric and brutal, but then it’s aimed at sophomores. Expensive but relentlessly mindless macho action; human touches in the acting, but dominated by death and destruction; not recommended.


    THE LOST WORLD (A-2, PG-13): Steven Spielberg is back with his Jurassic dinosaurs. The original earned, counting all sources of income, close to a billion dollars. So Spielberg returns to his Jaws and Indiana Jones roots, with a Saturday-matinee movie loaded with $74 million in special effects: It could be called King Kong Meets Godzilla.

    Lost World is an incorrect title since these are the same or reconstituted dinos from the first Jurassic film, not creatures time passed by. The plot is essentially Picasso drawing an elegant version of who-gets-munched-next by the T-Rexes and raptors. The stupid bad guys take the monsters back to San Diego to put on display and cause disasters. Only scientist heroes Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore can lure the poor critters back to their home island.

    The approach is an elbow-in-the-ribs mix of horror and humor, with obvious homage to big-beast-on-the-loose movies. The details are often gory because that’s what the audience hopes for—this is no place for the sensitive.

    The dinosaurs are fascinating miracles of movie magic (robotics plus computer graphics) and Spielberg has lost little of his almost religious awe for alien creatures. But for me, it’s the world without God, the world before redemption. Jokey but visually splendid; much too vicious and ominous for the squeamish; O.K. for older kids and adults.


    © 1997 Miramax

    Kolya, which won the Oscar for best foreign film, focuses on a very charming child (Andrej Chalimon) who wins the heart of a womanizing bachelor (Zdenek Sverak).

    KOLYA (A-3, PG-13): Another story about a rascal transformed by the daddy role, this subtitled comedy from the Czech republic won the Oscar as best foreign film. The boy is Kolya, a charming Russian five-year-old who wins the heart of the womanizing bachelor hero. (Zdenek Sverak, who also wrote the script, is the real father of promising director Jan Sverak.) The child is left behind by his mom when a money-making marriage-of-convenience scheme goes awry.

    The setting is 1988-89 Prague, during the time of the generally bloodless “velvet revolution” that ended Czech Communism. The child’s nationality is ironic— the bonding across cultures is part of the story. Louka, the wry hero, is a cellist in political difficulty. He has to play at funerals to make a living.

    Louka has an active sex life, but his dalliances are only marginally detailed and necessary to appreciate his eventual conversion to domesticity. The heart of the film is the love that grows between the boy (lovable Andrej Chalimon) and his surrogate father. Adult audiences will be amused and charmed. Positive ode to the joy of fatherhood; satisfactory for mature audiences.


    ADDICTED TO LOVE (A-3, R) is a dark romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick as vindictive jilted lovers who join forces to spy on their ex-soulmates (Tcheky Karyo, Kelly Preston) in a Manhattan flat.

    Jealousy and the fury of being romantically ditched show up regularly in the newspaper as routine motives for abuse and homicide. But you seldom see it in movie comedies.

    The merciless pair eventually relent and fall in love with each other—a sign of hope. The revenge in real life would be cruel, but in movies is only symbolic and has some healthy value as catharsis.

    The film’s most inventive device is the manner of the spying, a use of telescope and sound technology that allows Ryan and Broderick to observe the others as if they were watching them in a movie. Addicted earns points for cleverness, if not for hilarity. Memorably different but a bit nasty; adult situations; not recommended.


    THE RECENT TV GUIDE piece selecting the top TV episodes in history had its flaws but got us thinking positively. It’s time to say some kind words about the medium so much like America itself—delightful, appalling and all stops in between.

    TV warms the spirit. It nourishes the mind. It satisfies the need for good popular art. It often makes modern life bearable. It also has a large capacity for boredom and corroding values, for messing up.

    It only warms the spirit every now and then. For a Catholic to have his spirit toasted, it’s not just feel-good: Something deep, true and lovely has been described with skill and power.

    For some, Touched by an Angel may do the trick, or Seventh Heaven. It’s not those shows for me. Mostly, there are only moments, sometimes in surprising places like Roseanne or Mad About You or Frasier. It’s probably more likely to happen on a life-in-the-balance drama, where episodes occur in hospitals or police stations, like ER, Chicago Hope or Homicide: Life on the Street.

    Overall, spirit warming is not a 1990’s TV thing—not since Northern Exposure. It was bigger in the 1970’s (Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H). You can always get your fill on tapes, reruns and nostalgia cable channels.

    When I say TV nourishes the mind, I mean that stuff on PBS—Nova, American Masters, Frontline, National Geographic, the American Visions series—or all those cable channels like Discovery, History, Learning. I also mean CNN, although I’m aware of its ownership and possible biases.

    When I say that TV satisfies the need for good popular art, I’m thinking of basic cable channels like American Movie Classics, and Arts and Entertainment. But I’m also thinking of those mostly “free TV” series in TV Guide’s top 100: Mary Tyler Moore, Lucy, Taxi, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and other great memories.

    My complaint is the selections seem designed to please everyone by grabbing at least one episode from all the popular series beloved by baby boomers. Could Green Acres really have a deserving episode? Or Car 54 or Ellen or Gilligan’s Island? Will Seinfeld survive the test of time?

    This is not even to talk about ranking (Fawlty Towers ahead of M*A*S*H? Mister Ed ahead of Law & Order and Miami Vice?). Give me a break. Oops! Excuse me if I stepped on one of your favorites! Consider some series that didn’t earn a mention: Paper Chase, Then Came Bronson, Cagney and Lacey, The Defenders, Molly Dodd, The Avengers, Family, The Rockford Files, East Side, West Side. The point remains: TV has been a rich source of joy and insight.

    When I say TV often makes life bearable, I’m thinking of what we have that our ancestors lacked, in terms of contact and companionship. I don’t mean ultimate loneliness, which can be filled up only by ultimate love. This is everyday, existential anxiety. Sure, often there is “nothing on,” and there are books. But some TV things have become indispensable to enduring modern life: live sports, Oprah, the Home and Garden channel. These are, for many, as helpful to life as breakfast toast and coffee.

    Does TV now and then corrode the spirit? Only evil “corrodes” the spirit. What most of us mean are the programs that reflect the crass aspects of American culture, like materialism and greed (game shows) or blatant appeals to sexuality (day-time soaps, soft core porn on cable) or vulgar humor (some sitcoms, talk and variety shows). It’s not so much evil as ugly—bad taste, stupid taste, make-a-buck taste. This junk fills up our plates so there’s no time—no appetite—left for the stuff that softens the emptiness or puts us in touch with both beauty and reality.


    BAPTISTS VS. DISNEY: This seems a bit like Alice in Wonderland. How does one express consternation with one aspect of the policies of a mega-corporation? Will the boycott, an ancient weapon suited to other times and other worlds, have any impact? Can’t anybody distinguish between the moral and social-justice aspects of homosexuality? Should families deny themselves the wholesome fun provided by many Disney enterprises? To prove what? To achieve what?

    The slipperiness of dealing with mega-corporations in the third millennium is revealed by Rupert Murdoch’s purchase (for $1.9 billion) of Pat Robertson’s IFE conglomerate that owns The Family Channel. If anybody represents capitalist evil in the modern media age, it’s Murdoch (tabloid billionaire, TV provider to Red China, progenitor of Married With Children and Melrose Place). But how can you boycott everything he owns (NFL football on Fox, the Yankees and now Father Dowling Mysteries)?

    The irony is that Murdoch edged out Disney as Robertson’s suitor. The Baptist boycott would have then covered The Family Channel and The 700 Club. In any case, Murdoch probably won’t change existing family programming. “I think Murdoch plans to use it,” says one industry observer, “as leverage to help him get into heaven.”

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