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Spirited Women,
Hopeful Fathers


    PARADISE ROAD (A-3, R) is an uplifting, fact-based drama with an intriguing set of conflicts across barriers of gender, language, culture and politics. At the outbreak of World War II, Japanese soldiers herd a large group of mostly European and Australian women—missionaries, nuns, wives and relatives—into an internment camp in the Sumatran jungle. There, both captors and captives endure climate and hardship for the entire four years of the war.

    This story is littered with the predictable atrocities endured by the inmates (Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Margulies and others). The difference here is the role played by intangible values like religious faith, comradeship, love and (especially) music—a powerful symbol.

    The spirited women, led by Close and Collins, come together to form a “vocal orchestra,” bringing to life lovely music that restores their common humanity and, to a large extent, the humanity of their stern captors. (The music most often heard is the theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony.) You’d be stretched to find a sign of divine grace as clear (and elemental) as these voices rising in harmony from the jungle gloom.

    Writer-director Bruce Beresford is an Aussie with a stunning list of films with religious themes (Tender Mercies, Black Robe). Some necessary scenes of violence and cruelty require mature audiences, but they are redeemed by the affecting themes of courage, hope and universal humanity.

    Close does a moving reading of the 23rd Psalm. But Collins’s missionary, who calls the camp “paradise road” because it is “our road to God,” is the kind, indomitable character who sticks in the memory. Moving memoir of humanity under stressful conditions; recommended for mature viewers.


    Photo © 1997 Spelling Films, Inc. By Phillipe McClelland

    Andy Garcia stars as a young street cop turned district attorney who must investigate a police payoff scandal in Night Falls on Manhattan, directed by Sidney Lumet.

    NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN (A-3, R) is another high-class study of ethical dilemmas by incomparable director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict). Here Lumet is in his cops-and-lawyers mode (Serpico, Prince of the City): dark, gritty, full of complex collisions of law and conscience, conflicting loyalties.

    He works from Robert Daley’s novel Tainted Evidence. A moralistic Catholic district attorney (Andy Garcia) investigates a police scandal that leads toward his veteran detective father (Ian Holm) and his partner (James Gandolfini).

    Night Falls assumes adult intelligence as we watch prosecutors bend rules to catch and convict a ruthless drug dealer and cop killer. Is justice more important than the letter of the law? As the movie winds to a close, major characters, including Garcia’s girlfriend-lawyer (Lena Olin) and the judge who tries the case, must grapple with their consciences.

    Probably the movie’s worst problem is finding an audience that will share the characters’ scruples. People dump the “rules” these days rather casually.

    Few films in the 1990’s take seriously the issue of being a perfectionist in an imperfect world. Ron Leibman, playing Garcia’s stormy predecessor as D.A., warns him that he can’t be perfect: “You can be better than most....That’s what you have to settle for.”

    This film bristles with exciting acting and probing dialogue in the best Lumet tradition. There is compassion but also rage, as the characters square off, defending their values. Intense moral drama, some street talk and adult situations; recommended for thoughtful audiences.


    BREAKDOWN (A-3, R): What breaks down here is a car, not a person. Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are a nice married couple from Boston who get mired in the classic nightmare Hitchcock plot. In a strange place (here, the southwestern desert wilderness), Kurt loses Kathleen: Nobody remembers seeing her and nobody cares or wants to help.

    The sheriff investigates but finds nothing: Kurt and you wonder if the sheriff is in on the plot, and the intended paranoia has bitten you. The husband gets caught by the kidnappers and is forced to get ransom money (great sequence).

    Newcomer writer-director Jonathan Mostow has a few quality tricks to show, ranging from astonishing fights, shootouts, chases and crashes to casting J. T. Walsh as a credible crook who actually has a wife and son. He also has a huge semi-trailer truck that serves as the symbolic villain in this classic good-vs.-evil thriller. Belief-straining but intelligently executed; genre language, violence; average thriller for mature viewers.


    FATHER’S DAY (A-3, PG-13): Tacky on the surface, this first teaming of comics Robin Williams and Billy Crystal is a sentimental tribute to the joys and rewards of being a good father. It won’t make any all-time comedy lists, but its aspirations are modest, probably something like the old Hope-Crosby series.

    The story is uneasily adapted from Les Comperes, a 1983 Gerard Depardieu farce in which a woman cons two ex-lovers into tracking down her runaway son by telling each one privately that he is really the boy’s father. The guys are now of the age to take the news and the task solemnly. (The new locale is northern California and Reno.)

    In this version the 17-year-old fugitive and his girlfriend are traveling around in a haze in the wake of a punk band, and there is not enough hilarity to hide the grim realities under the surface. The stars, directed by Ivan Reitman (Dave, Junior), aren’t easily discouraged, with Robin playing a neurotic wimp and Billy a self-deprecating lawyer.

    This hopeful but naive movie assumes that once the boy knows that these “fathers” really care for him, he’ll melt, come home and (presumably) become student-body president. The heroes will reform their lives and work at having families of their own. Well, let’s try hope for a change. Occasionally funny but not up to the quality of the talent; not recommended.


    THE ODYSSEY (NBC miniseries): All of us who studied the Greek myths in school probably enjoyed this version of the 2,500-year-old epic. (Armand Assante was a good choice as Odysseus.) It was disturbing but also refreshing to note that Homer’s great adventure and love story of heroic fidelity was not “politically cleansed.” (The violence was left in.) How do you give faint praise? It was a “semi-treat” for the imagination.


    SPRINGER AND REALITY: The short-lived flap in Chicago over the hiring of Jerry Springer—infamous host of a trashy, marginal daytime talk show—as a news commentator on the NBC-owned WMAQ-TV was an omen of much larger things. (Springer quit after a few days, largely because of the hostility of the station’s news staff.)

    Whatever his talents, Springer’s hiring symbolized the “dumbing-down” of TV news: lots of fires, cops, accidents, heart-tugging personal drama; more time for sports, weather, joking around. Even the networks, in their 27-minute daily roundups, are increasingly obsessed with the dramatic (scandal, crime, disaster, ripoff) at the expense of the significant.

    Probably the immediate cause is the O.J. aftermath and the mind-boggling glut of tabloid-magazine shows that fed on it. Nothing has really replaced O.J., despite new “mysteries” like the JonBenet Ramsey case. If the TV magazines are declining, it’s because local and network news are imitating their style.

    The serious long-term problem is the widespread “influence creep” of advertising and market forces— “ratings.” How many are watching and precisely who? Is it young families poised to buy what they need and want? That replaces public-service journalistic professionalism in deciding the nature of news, what gets reported, what gets ignored. While the WMAQ news pros may have won the Springer skirmish, the outlook for winning the war is dim.

    Similar dumbing is happening in all media, which as the millennium spins to a close are dominated by mega-corporations and a global, rapidly expanding market culture. The media world is about to belong to Time Warner, Disney and Rupert Murdoch. It is becoming Fox-ized. TV stands on the edge of a digital revolution and the opening of awesome new markets (China, India, Russia) that the giants are already dividing up.

    The patterns are the same in book publishing, pop music, sports, the movies. The films that make the most money cost the most to make. If one costs a cheap $10 million and hopes to say something important or beautiful, but has little appeal to the masses in Hong Kong or Rome as well as Chicago, it’s an “art-house” movie. In 1997, that’s not an honor but a putdown. As far as “real movies” are concerned, it’s a speck on the window.

    The ultimate value that mostly decides what succeeds or what’s “good” or even what gets on or in the media is profit for millions of stockholders. It’s hard to get mad at NBC (General Electric) when it makes money because you may have a tiny but important piece of it. What determines profit at NBC (and other networks) is how many potential buyers can be gathered to watch the advertising.

    There is in our time a fundamental conflict between a consumerist market-driven vision of the world and a benign religious concept of what life and reality are about. One expects to find or build heaven on earth; the other looks elsewhere. They’re compatible in some ways—to some point, consumer products make life better—but ultimately in conflict.

    That’s mostly why you don’t always like what you see on TV, especially on the heavy-traffic commercial channels. When you find something good, cherish it, support it, preserve it. The news, especially, can’t be turned into part of the consumer/glitz mix. The future vision of a world in which the nightly news looks like a mix of Hard Copy and Entertainment Tonight is scary. In a way, that’s what the Springer fiasco was about.


    CHICAGO HOPE (CBS, Mondays) made a stab at living up to its title in its season-ending episode. Among the usual mix of plot threads was one about a temporary shrine patients and staff erected in the lobby after several persons claimed to “see” the Virgin Mary and reported extraordinary cures. The event prompts a rare discussion about faith among major medic characters played by Adam Arkin, Mark Harmon and Mandy Patinkin.

    Arkin and Harmon are impressed when a patient with a spinal injury apparently walks away but feel sure he’ll be back. They discuss their religious childhoods and their adult distrust of “institutional religion,” but with a kind of respectful wonder and a nostalgia for belief. But Patinkin joins them and has the final word: “If the human heart, the stars in the sky and my little [daughter’s] laugh are all supposed to come from some kind of ‘big bang,’ I don’t believe it.”

    The discussion, and the conclusion, represent something like a step toward faith (or perhaps a step back from un-faith) on a sophisticated show. That is worth welcoming.

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