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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 (A-3, PG-13): The old TV-espionage series plunges ever onward—lacking both sense and heart—in its big-bucks Tom Cruise action-movie reincarnation. This time the plan is for a different director, John Woo (the Orson Welles of Hong Kong flicks), to add his own never-a-dull-moment, blow-up-anything-you-can obsession to the mix. It doesn’t help.

Much of the spectacle seems cliché: cliff-dangling in Utah, girl and boy chasing each other in careening sports cars, busting into high-security skyscrapers and island strongholds. In addition there’s the James Bondish plot about preventing a “monster virus” from falling into the control of a heartless super-villain. Woo and Cruise strain to save the show, pooling their special-effects skills for a sizzling but violent and when-will-it-ever-end final act.

While the improbable combats are obviously unreal and ballet-like in super-slow motion, the machines destruct imaginatively and the explosions gloriously fireball. It’s like Balanchine staging a demolition derby—it adds up to zero. Woo cheats. He’s fallen in love with the removable latex face-mask gimmick, and the irony of interchanging identities of hero and villain, which he first exploited in Face/Off (1996).

Thandie Newton (the “beloved” in Beloved) steps down a few notches here as the sexy thief who is used to bait the bad guy (Dougray Scott). A strong love story was intended but is unconvincing. Like the violence, the interracial sex (Tom and Thandie are in action early if not often) and occasional sadism are part of this calculated package (shot mostly in Australia). Newton provides the movie’s most impressive-but-implausible moral act. Not generally recommended.


SMALL TIME CROOKS (A-3, PG): Woody Allen is comically on the loose in a retro-in-spirit farce, circa 1930’s, about some dumb-and-dumber crooks who hope to rob a Manhattan bank by tunneling from the cellar of a cookie shop two doors away. The diggers miscalculate and emerge in the wrong place. But the cookies sell like hotcakes and make them fabulously wealthy.

The movie is full of old Depression-era truths about the pretensions and miseries of being rich, of having to (pretend to) love high culture when all you enjoy is lowbrow, and how money is the root of all you-know-what. Anyway, all you really need is true love (and, if possible, a couple hundred grand).

Woody Allen and Tracey Ullman are infectiously funny as Ray and Frenchy, the couple who unintentionally become honestly wealthy. Frenchy enjoys going upscale (with suave Hugh Grant as a tutor). But down-to-earth Ray misses cheeseburgers for dinner and backroom poker. He mistakes Henry James (the writer) for Harry James (the trumpeter who married Betty Grable). Grant’s smarmy art dealer comes between the couple, who also encounter some big-time crooks who are after their fortune.

The jokes, visual and verbal, have broad appeal, since they range from broken water mains to subtle bits by Woody (trying to crack a safe using a stethoscope) and Elaine May (as a friend who talks too much in crucial situations). The music, as always, is bouncy jazz. It may be that Allen continues to slip ever more deeply into his romance with the past but it’s hard to argue with him. Not especially brilliant or original but good old stuff brightly executed; O.K. for general audiences.


THE COLOR OF PARADISE (A-2, PG): This poetic Iranian film (subtitled in English) is about a blind boy who wants to live a normal life and a poor, desperate father who considers him a hopeless burden. The locale is a picturesque countryside we rarely see (given our geographical and political distance from Iran). It has a Bible-like conflict between good and evil in which God, while unseen, plays a key role.

Mohammad, the bright and sensitive eight-year-old, has been at a school for the blind in Tehran. But he yearns for the summer at home where the country blossoms with color and life: birds, fields of grain and wildflowers, misty mountains, woods, whitewater rivers and seashore. He hears them and feels them with his hands. He also cherishes his sisters and nurturing, kindly grandma.

But his widowed, self-pitying dad, scratching out a primitive living making charcoal, is focused on arranging a profitable new marriage. He plans, somewhat guiltily, to give the boy away to a blind carpenter in a distant village—the loving, prayerful Granny is opposed to this.

The director, Majid Majidi, previously made Children of Heaven, the first Iranian film nominated for an Oscar. Color is an allegory about the sacredness of life. It is Bergmanesque in its ominous use of nature and weather, and its suggestion of the reality that is everywhere and beyond the merely visible.

Majidi conveys the idea that this little boy, through his ears and hands, as well as joy in life, is close to touching what we cannot see. The dramatic final sequence, implying (however understated) a divine response, as well as the love that holds together the universe, recalls the ending of Bergman’s great Virgin Spring. In only 80 minutes, beats all the summer movie explosions and mayhem; recommended for attentive viewers of all ages.


BONHOEFFER: AGENT OF GRACE (PBS): Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran leader and theologian who resisted the Nazis, was imprisoned and finally executed in the last days of the war for involvement in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

His story is a natural for TV docudrama, but definitely better for PBS, because Bonhoeffer’s resistance was of the mind and intellect. He was not an action hero, but an icon for intellectuals. He was an influential teacher and ethical thinker who would not bend to accommodate one of history’s most villainous regimes.

For certain, he was an influence on postwar currents in Christian theology, especially on the subject of resisting cooperation with evil. Few students slipped through school in the 1960’s without reading his Letters From Prison, and some of its famous lines are movingly quoted in Agent of Grace.

This 90-minute film, which aired in June, dramatized the final years of his conflict with the Nazis. It was muted and elegant, a rare quiet oasis in the television din. The writer-director is veteran British-Canadian Eric Till (If You Could See What I Hear). Pastor Bonhoeffer is played by Ulrich Tukur (a German William Hurt type), who acts with dignity, power and humanity. He is a model for unassuming courage and faith amid 20th-century terror.

Bonhoeffer is talky but bristles with ideas. The locations, inside and out, are stunning. Till has structured the drama on the familiar religious-prisoner model—a relentless interrogator who tries to match wits and entrap, and will never let him go free. The somewhat surreal staging of the execution—Bonhoeffer alone with his tormentor and gallows in a bleak castle courtyard—will linger in the memory. (To order the video call PBS, 800-440-2651. Cost is $29.95, plus $4.95 shipping and handling.) A dignified tribute.


SURVIVOR (CBS summer series, Wednesdays): Roots of this who-will-be-the-last comedy-melodrama go back in pop culture to 1930’s movie serials (which Texas Ranger is the Lone Ranger?) and Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians (who is next to be murdered?), all of it mixed a bit with The Admirable Crichton (on desert islands, surprising people become leaders).

The difference is all those were scripted and acted by pros. Here 16 amateurs wing it, enduring stupid summer-camp challenges cooked up by TV moguls in hopes that something suspenseful might emerge. In the end, it’s a game show, with 13 weeks to decide who wins a million bucks.

These reality series (including Big Brother and all the others that will emulate Survivor) assume selected groups of actual people are more interesting than fiction. But their talk is banal, and their actions by definition can’t be big or serious. You may get voyeurist thrills or random insights into human behavior (like at the company picnic).

Some critics have gone ditsy, suggesting Survivor is a metaphor for life and the dynamics of social adaptation/success/Darwinian triumph of the fittest. Maybe that’s why it’s boring. This is the jungle model of human life. It’s not the Christian model, in which everyone wins. As Survivor ends each week, there is only Jeff Probst, snuffing out your torch.

The show’s real negative is the gimmick of voting people out, the democratic principle in reverse. Exclusion is a national pastime. All the fun of eating bugs and rats aside, the winner will be the most competent while being the least obnoxious. It’s the senior-class election all over again, except with sand and bamboo. O.K., but not a deep mental or moral exercise.


FUNNIEST FILMS: The American Film Institute’s 100 funniest American movies (telecast on CBS in June), like its earlier choices of best films and stars, were arbitrary. The list was designed more to rekindle buzz and interest in the classics than to be definitive. (Voters were 1,800 film-biz professionals.)

The top two films were about cross-dressing (Some Like It Hot, Tootsie), and the people involved in the most funny movies were Cary Grant (8), the Marx Brothers and Woody Allen (5 each), and Charlie Chaplin (4).

No doubt more recent stuff was overrated (to keep TV watchers tuned), as well as the current taste for parodies (Blazing Saddles and Airplane! in the top 10?). You probably wouldn’t expect religious films (even broadly defined) in the funny category, but Chaplin’s Modern Times (with its little man versus industrial machine theme) also made the Vatican’s list of 15 best 20th-century art films. Two other comedies made the Vatican’s top 15: Disney’s Fantasia (a new version is currently in theaters) and Lavender Hill Mob, the British Alec Guinness bank-heist spoof.

Comedies with religious connections good enough (but overlooked) include Bedazzled (1968), Going My Way (1944), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Lilies of the Field (1963), Oh, God! (1977) and The Trouble With Angels (1966).

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