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by James Arnold

Past Victories, Real and Imagined

FREQUENCY

FREQUENCY (A-3, PG-13): Simplicity went out of time-travel tales a few years ago when filmmakers incorporated the Itís a Wonderful Life concept: Small changes in past events produce big changes in the present; the more tinkering, the more change escalates. Consider the possibilities if the Catholic mom and dad of 10 baby-boom children had followed their original plan to become a nun and a priest. How many lives changed, how many never began?

The what-ifs multiply in Frequency: A detective-son (Jim Caviezel) in New York in 1999 makes ham-radio contact during an aurora-borealis event with his fireman-father (Dennis Quaid) in 1969. After disbelief and tech improbabilities are hastily disposed of, the son prevents his fatherís premature death in a warehouse fire. That change sets up his nurse-mother to become a victim of a serial killer of nurses. In a panic, father and son cooperate, across the 30-year time gulf, to stop and catch the murderer.

There are some touching father-son moments (the now-adult son talking to his beloved but hardly known dad who died young) and some ironic 1960ís versus 1990ís cultural contrasts. But the cause-and-effect complexities spin out of control. Memories, as well as newspaper headlines and family photos, change every few minutes. Thus, it becomes hard to tell who is saving or threatening whom and in what year.

Considering the mind-boggling controversial events of the last 30 years (Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade), the film opts for kitsch, choosing to exploit mainly the sonís knowledge of the details of the Metsí improbable 1969 World Series victory. Well, O.K., but underwhelming. Director Greg Hoblit (Fallen, Primal Fear) also obsesses on slow-motion cross-cutting among past, present and dream life: Itís like a TV commercial with the sound off. Creative but disappointing fantasy melodrama.

GLADIATOR

GLADIATOR (A-4, R) takes us back to the hand-to-hand and sometimes hand-to-claw struggles in Romeís Colosseum, once a fertile venue for Hollywood spectaculars, often with Christian-martyr themes (Ben-Hur, The Robe). This retro $108 million epic directed by the gifted Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise) is more secular and political, but still impressive and at least a little bit inspiring.

The hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe, in another, more physical incarnation after his scholarly The Insider), is an idealistic general in opposition to the degenerate Emperor Commodus, who succeeded his revered father, Marcus Aurelius, about 180 A.D. Maxís beloved wife and child are brutally killed, and he barely escapes execution to fall into captivity as a gladiator. His goal is partly to get revenge but mostly to achieve Aureliusís dream of democracyóreturning Rome to the people.

Since the martyrs and anti-imperialists in Rome never won, in their lifetimes anyway, most of these movies (including the secular Spartacus) have been tragic. Audiences have settled for moral victories or heavenly rewards. Scott and his notable writers, including David Franzoni (Amistad) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands), make a major contribution by fictionalizing a story for Max that makes him a winner.

He sacrifices himself in the arena but saves democracy. He is a religious man who transcends death by joining his cherished family in the afterlife in an eternal version of his beautiful country villa. (We see this happen, artfully intercut with his death.) You can argue that this vision of heaven is not exactly Christianity and Maximus is not exactly a Christian. But it is a symbolic heaven and immortality that are taken quite seriously. It will do for the purposes of art, beauty and justice.

The body count (in various murders, wars and gladiatorial combats) is high but not indulgent. Among the splendid cast, Joaquin Phoenix, despite his miserable list of vices as emperor, manages to squeeze a few drops of sympathy; Connie Nielsen is strong and tenacious as the tyrantís healthier sister. The late Oliver Reed, in his final role as the gladiator-promoter, teaches Max the subversive, cynical political secret: ďWin the crowd.Ē Genre violence and implicit vice, but powerful and uplifting pop entertainment; satisfactory for adults.

U-571

U-571 (A-2, PG-13) is a nonstop World War II submarine-action movie that earns its sweaty, claustrophobic place in the long tradition (Destination Tokyo, Run Silent, Run Deep). But it is several fathoms shallower than the current standard, Wolfgang Petersenís Das Boot (1981).

Marine-led Americans are trying to invade a crippled German U-boat in the North Atlantic and steal its Enigma secret-communication codes without Berlin finding out (a trick the film tells us was actually pulled off). But in this fictionalized version, at the moment of success, the Yanksí own ship is torpedoed out from under them. Survivors scramble back aboard the Nazi U-boat.

The obvious situationóbeing stuck as a probable target on an enemy subónever develops. But thereís seldom a moment to breathe as the brave remnant, led by Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel, battle pesky Germans sent to blow them up, especially a diabolical destroyer that wonít stop sending out depth charges.

In the climactic sequence, the leaky sub dives deeper than itís built to go, and the crew endures during a brilliantly edited mix of terrified silent faces, dripping pipes, apocalyptic explosions and rocking cameras. Writer-director Jonathan Mostow provides expert suspense entertainment, much like his Breakdown (1996), in which a vacationing couple are hijacked in the Arizona desert. No women here (except in the usual early dance-party scene) and no Y2K-era language, just combat and an awful lot of water.

Some early hints at deeper themes and character drama fail to materialize, and there are no breaks for contemplation, poetry and heavy thoughts. The movie is weak in that respect, but otherwise a heart-pounding ride. Gutsy sea action in the 1940ís manner; O.K. for youth and adults.

THE MESSIAH

THE MESSIAH (video, color, subtitles, 145 minutes): If you were left untouched by any of the three TV movies about Jesus this past season, this 1975 masterpiece by the late Italian director Roberto Rossellini may provide some comfort. Only recently available on video and only rarely shown in American theaters, The Messiah is reverent, moving and unpretentious.

Above all, it is realistic (without being skeptical). Itís what one might expect from Rossellini, the father of Italian neorealism of the 1940ís and 1950ís and one of the 20th centuryís giants of the cinema. Rossellini survived personal controversy and scandalóthe row over The Miracle, his romance and marriage to Ingrid Bergmanóto get two of his movies on the Vaticanís top-45-of-the-century list (Open City, The Flowers of St. Francis).

The Messiah, which he made at age 69, was to be his last film. (He died in 1977.) To make it, he received very mainstream Catholic help, from Family Theater founder Father Patrick Peyton and top Jesuit and Salesian biblical scholars. The aim (and achievement) was to offer a human portrait of Jesus and his teaching, and show how ordinary and powerful people of his time reacted to him.

The miracles are part of the story but happen offscreen. Thus, we see the cured young man (blind from birth) and his parents argue with a skeptical and overbearing priest, and members of the Sanhedrin talk about the raising of Lazarus.

But the emphasis is on the words of Jesus and why they had such exciting impact. We see him as a carpenter with his disciples as they mend their fishing boats. He walks or sits with them in the country or scattered village streets.

True to Rosselliniís documentary inclinations, he gives us a sense of how people actually lived, worked, played with and cared for their children, and the primitive conditions even of the very rich.

The Christ, who portrays a full range of emotions, is Pier Maria Rossi, dark-eyed and fine-featured. The spoken Italian, translated in easily read subtitles, is rapid, flowing and gently rhythmic.

Most distinctive in Rosselliniís version are a more understated, distant, mid- and long-shot point-of-view; a refreshing lack of music and its tendency to hype already strong emotions; a reordering of texts to emphasize themes and meaning. For example, Jesus gives his new commandment to ďlove one anotherĒ at the climax of a non-Leonardo conception of the Last Supper.

There are also fresh interpretations of classic scenes. These include Salome as a teenager shocked as John the Baptist is killed before her eyes, John arguing in many dialogues with a more rational Herod, Jesus conversing alone with a political Pilate who is frustrated and sympathetic. At the Crucifixion, the mood is sorrow and loneliness, with the horror and cruelty all but omitted: We see the stoic grief of the still-youthful Mary and hear the heartbroken sobbing of Magdalene. And there is a beautiful pietŗ scene, the finest ever in movies, as Mary bathes the body of her son for his burial.

Thereís little doubt that The Messiah belongs in the top echelon of Christ films, in the company of Pasoliniís more poetic Gospel and Zeffirelliís big-budget Jesus of Nazareth miniseries. Available for sale at $59.95 from Santa Fe Communications in Milwaukee, 800-430-0930, or Facets in Chicago, 800-331-6197.

TV NOTES

Cable shows can get raunchy. Unlike most similar perils in the environment, this one can come right into the family room. Advice to parents: Use the V-chip (which blocks shows with unwanted ratings). Better yet, call the cable company to terminate bothersome channels. Also, make a rule: No personal TVís in bedrooms.

This year we have the presidential election and summer Olympics. Itís useful to remember that both have live-versus-edited factors. Know the candidates best when they are live and unedited and not in commercials. Remember that the games (trials have already started but the real events begin September 15 in Australia) will be totally on tape delay.

So donít make bets, especially with your Internet-connected friends and relatives.


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