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By James Arnold

Something Old, Something New


Movies Not to Miss

MOVIES NOT TO MISS: Despite all the hype about knockout summer movies, the pickings for Catholic movie buffs have not been great. The hope is that there is usually something around worth seeing, and with adults (young or old) in mind primarily, I try to sort out a few of the candidates.

How are they selected? Usually, it’s the mysterious element of the buzz: This movie will be a contender for awards, a lot of people will see it and talk about it, it represents a major effort by an important artist, or it deals with moral or religious issues that deserve a thoughtful Catholic response.

There’s also a discovery element, spotlighting a film other critics may miss or undervalue. I miss some good ones and see some turkeys. If a movie isn’t reviewed, it can mean the buzz is so negative that this flick is not worth the time and space (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles). No great movies are likely to be ignored here. In some cases other critics have already overdone the job (Hannibal or the new epic Pearl Harbor).

In a drought, we still have access to most of the movies of the past (buy, rent or borrow) in video or disc technology and on TV. Each month I’ll pick an oldie that deserves being designated a must-see classic.

The Dish

THE DISH (A-2, PG-13): In this bright comedy from Australia, The Dish is a real object, a humongous 1,000-ton radio telescope, one of the most powerful in the world, built somewhat incongruously on the edge of remote Parkes, New South Wales, in the middle of a sheep paddock. In 1969, the scientists who run it are involved in the Apollo 11 moon landing.

These are all the ingredients needed for one of the first movies built around that truly awesome event, which was among the 20th century’s most upbeat moments. The Dish belongs to the genre of films about quaint little towns that suddenly become important to strangers and big shots from the outside world. It’s culture clash in which the canny locals usually triumph.

It’s also about a memorable technical achievement. The space mission itself is peripheral. The Aussie team is backup for communication with the spacecraft when the earth’s axis spins to expose the southern hemisphere. But the understudies get the main role when the landing schedule is moved up and they’re responsible for transmitting live pictures of Neil Armstrong’s first “small step” on the moon.

The story is not the landing but getting the live images of the landing. Filmmaker Rob Sitch and crew make it suspenseful (we know Armstrong made it but we’re not sure about the Aussies) and on the edge of funny. (Among other glitches, they actually lose contact with the spacecraft just as the U.S. ambassador is arriving.) We realize how magical it was for the world to share this miracle of both science and the divine spark in the human spirit.

Familiar veteran Sam Neill is the cool leader of the team. Kevin Harrington and Tom Long are likable as his pressured young assistants. The Dish avoids some of the overkill of American films: There are no expensive action scenes, and the satire of the politicians and self-important is quietly good-natured; the film doesn’t overdo its fun with irony. Some excited vulgar language, but otherwise recommended for youth and adults.


MEMENTO (A-4, R) is a Los Angeles-based noir detective mystery significantly more fragmented than usual. The damaged hero is Leonard (Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidential) who has a broken short-term memory. In a chase situation, he can’t recall if he is the chaser or the one being chased.

The last thing Leonard actually remembers is that he’s trying to find who raped and murdered his wife. (If he gets revenge, he won’t remember it, so what good will it do?) As he meets people, he takes Polaroid photos of them with crucial info (“don’t believe his lies”). He has more important notes written in tattoos on his skin.

Director Christopher Nolan, 29, adds another mind-bending element by telling the story in episodes in reverse chronology. (Thus, we see what Leonard has just forgotten.) This changes the drift of nearly everything we’ve seen.

Take your choice: brilliant or sophomoric. I prefer not to work so hard and reach my limit with just flashbacks, as in The Limey. At least Nolan is honest with the clues, and the acting, editing and visuals are slick. (Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss are suitably ambiguous in supporting roles.) It also suggests many questions about memory and its importance in shaping identity and self-worth. A smarty exercise, with the crime genre’s language, violence and moral tone; satisfactory for adults.

The Conversation

THE CONVERSATION: Francis Coppola’s 1974 thriller has a Catholic protagonist. It was the year of Watergate and reflects the paranoia of the time. Fortyish, introspective Harry Kaul (Gene Hackman) is America’s best professional eavesdropper—he can tune in to any conversation, anytime, anywhere. But his conscience is clouded. He keeps a mistress, and a case in his past led to a murder.

He’s afraid it may happen again in his current job—a brilliant recording of a conversation in San Francisco’s Union Square between an apparently unfaithful wife and her lover. Harry’s client (the woman’s husband, a rich businessman) is sinister, and Kaul fears the man may have the lovers killed. Harry is not a guy who can collect his fee and forget about it.

He worries but can’t bring himself to act. Harry, an intensely private man who intrudes on others, loses his sense of security.

The film has some virtuoso sequences: Union Square, an eavesdroppers convention, Harry working the electronics to pull the truth from his tapes and the liveliest off-camera murder scene ever made. For mature teens and adults.


KRISTIN (NBC, Tuesdays) doesn’t sound promising: Heroine Kristin Yancey is described as “a spiritual and moral person [she’s a Baptist from Oklahoma] trying to hold onto her beliefs as she deals with the everyday immoralities encountered in New York’s fast-paced environment.” Embroiled in the culture wars, TV turns them into a sitcom.

This series is not exactly on the level of a Bill Bennett-Gore Vidal morality debate. Basically, it sticks a Christian into the lions’ den and has her devour the lions in an upbeat, down-home, Dolly Parton kind of way.

Kristin (played at high pitch by exuberant Tony award-winner Kristin Chenoweth) is blonde, tiny, cute and twangy. She’s in town to break into showbiz. Desperate for a job, she’s hand-picked as an aide to playboy developer Tommy Ballentine (Jon Tenney), who has seduced all his previous female assistants.

The conflicts with Tommy and the office sinners are obvious: Kristin refuses to make reservations at three restaurants (lying) and won’t let him smoke Cuban cigars (illegal). In truth, she is a fun person (with a big singing voice) and not a bad influence: At least in the vast sitcom wasteland, right and wrong is an issue.

The moral conflict, though, is marginal. The language is coarse, sex is still the topic much of the time, and Italian, Latin and black characters are aboard primarily for easy stereotype humor. But creator John Markus (who won an Emmy, a Peabody and two Humanitas prizes writing and running The Cosby Show) generates laughs and good chemistry. I’m sure he hopes the show survives the summer. Worth checking.

Anne Frank

ANNE FRANK (ABC miniseries): The story of Anne and her miraculous diary remains the best first step for the young into exploring the dreadful reality of what happened to European Jews during the last years of Nazi Germany. This drama, which aired in May, is based on Melissa Müller’s biography. It goes past the diary to present what is known of the final months in the camps for 15-year-old Anne (played with strength and poignance by British actress Hannah Taylor Gordon, 13) and the others who survived for years in the Amsterdam attic.

Their deaths were extended and unspeakably brutal. Still, this version of the young girl’s story (writer Kirk Ellis, director Robert Dornhelm) is poetic despite its grim subject. The subtle emphasis on the protective bond between Otto Frank (Ben Kingsley) and his young daughter produces powerful moments such as the anguished separation at Auschwitz. After the war he reads his daughter’s diary for the first time and drops the pages carrying Anne’s dreams, drifting and scattered on the floor like snow. Demanding but superb television.

Lots of Monkey Business

LOTS OF MONKEY BUSINESS as usual in the season-end episodes of the big dramas. Why is Sipowicz manhandling all those witnesses en route to finding Danny on NYPD Blue? The series is out of control for gratuitous sex, language and beating people up.

On ER, noble Mark Greene avenged himself on a helpless patient (also a nutsy mass killer). But then there was also the staff’s anguish over the lovable young retarded woman being taken to a group home after her caregiver brother is killed. If you’re human you want to help, to bring her home for comfort and warmth. But you don’t (and the characters don’t), unless you are a saint. Thus, she goes off into the dreaded public system.

And on The West Wing, what was President Bartlet doing stalking the center aisle alone in the National Cathedral, talking back in anger to God after the funeral of his longtime mentor Mrs. Landingham? That was quite a final scene: night in the Oval office, a tropical storm raging, and Mrs. Landingham’s common-sense spirit comes to remind him, “You know God doesn’t make cars crash.” Yeah, I think Bartlet is going to run again.

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