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
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 (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
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: 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 (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
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
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