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By James Arnold

Crime Pays But Not For Long



BLOW (A-4, R): Johnny Depp’s charisma lights up this sad but powerful film about the rise and fall of George Jung, a big-time drug dealer. Director Ted Demme (Life) makes clear that the real-life Jung (now in prison until 2015) contributed significantly to the cocaine epidemic in America in recent decades.

The accompanying misery is for movies like Traffic to describe. (The two would make a nice double bill.) In Blow (the title is one of the street words for cocaine), there are some coke-snorting scenes but no ugly drug moments. The first half is a dark Horatio Alger success story in which George, a smart, aggressive young guy from the Boston area, goes to sinful, sunny California in the 60s and rises as a marijuana smuggler.

As he tells his disapproving dad (Ray Liotta), somewhat guiltily, “I’m really great at what I do.” Inevitably busted, George goes to prison and comes out with a “doctorate in cocaine.” His cellmate, a Colombian named Diego (Jordi Molla), gets him involved with drug lord Pablo Escobar, who wants to open up the American drug market. George is soon Escobar’s main importer to the United States.

George falls for a Colombian beauty (Penelope Cruz) who likes the money and lifestyle. He seems to have everything but feels his father’s judgment. (Liotta, the film’s moral center, plays a decent man who loves his son but cannot approve of what he does.) Ultimately, George is betrayed by friends for whom he has risked his life.

For a crime movie, Blow speaks eloquently about the values that are important in life. Although Depp carries the film, he gets plenty of help from others in the cast. Drug action and amoral sexuality, minimal genre violence; redeemed by a climax of repentance, love and reconciliation; recommended for mature audiences.

Along Came a Spider

ALONG CAME A SPIDER (A-3, R): Morgan Freeman is Alex Cross, a Washington-based forensic psychologist and profiler. Spider, loosely adapted from James Patterson’s first best-selling Cross novel, is more digestible than the grim introductory Cross movie, Kiss the Girls (1997), which tried too hard for horror and serial-killer shocks.

As the nursery-rhyme title suggests, Spider’s endangered victim is a child, Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), a senator’s daughter snatched from a private school by a cerebral criminal who wants to become famous. Cross, who is grieving over a mistake that cost the life of a partner, is persuaded to team with guilt-ridden Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), the Secret Service agent responsible for guarding Megan.

Nobody’s psyche is explored deeply, and it’s easy for an actor as cool as Freeman. Spider is mostly a chase-and-track-down-the-kidnapper suspense yarn, happily avoiding some lurid temptations. Megan proves to be a formidable captive who refuses to be an easy victim.

Director Lee Tamahori (The Edge) provides several tingling episodes, especially a ransom-drop sequence that takes Cross and Jezzie through the D.C. streets and subways. Some plot twists will stir up the audience but are not exactly Alfred Hitchcock class either, not to mention Sherlock Holmes or Ellery Queen—genius doesn’t come along too often. Genre violence; satisfactory for mature viewers.

Bridget Jones's Diary

BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (A-4, R): Texas girl Renee Zellweger startles everyone by following Nurse Betty with a convincing impression of Britain’s favorite comically desperate “singleton.” She’s a vodka-swilling, 30ish bachelorette a bit klutzy at her job, unhappy with her weight and dim prospects for Mr. Right.

Women worldwide were amused enough at Bridget’s antics to buy four million copies of Helen Fielding’s book. The film sticks close, including famous moments when TV journalist Bridget has to climb up a fire pole or wears a Playboy-bunny costume to a party that is no longer a costume party. Fielding wrote the screenplay; many of her longtime friends were involved, including director Sharon Maguire.

Bridget is very much not a feminist or politically correct. She makes plenty of blunders but fares rather too well, ultimately having to choose between her promiscuous boss (Hugh Grant) and a staid but surprisingly passionate barrister (Colin Firth). His shy line is: “I like you very much, just as you are.” (Brit critic Anthony Lane says this is an Englishman’s code for uncontrollable lust.)

Book fans will certainly notice that the flavor of Bridget’s point-of-view can’t be duplicated by half-hearted voiceovers. Like most contemporary romantic comedies, Bridget also follows the mores of the times. In addition, the neurotic heroine and friends get into some sexual situations that in real life you’d want to avoid. Excellent performances fail to rescue this Bridget from mediocrity; not especially recommended.

The Tailor of Panama

THE TAILOR OF PANAMA (A-4, R) is a grim but elegant satire by spy storymaster John Le Carré (adapting his 1996 novel) and director John Boorman. Not far from the hyperbolic mood of Dr. Strangelove, it’s about Andy Osnard, an evil, womanizing British agent (the dark side of James Bond, aptly played by Pierce Brosnan). He’s messed up his career and gets a last-chance assignment in the backwater of Panama.

He exploits a vulnerable, money-desperate tailor (deftly played by Geoffrey Rush) into fabricating information that tells the hawks in London and Washington what they want to hear (that the locals are planning to sell the canal, probably to the Chinese). This brings on another American invasion of Panama, makes Andy money and destroys some patriotic innocents.

It’s witty and cynical, unexpected from a Brosnan spy flick. The images of Panama are unflattering (skyscrapers are referred to as “laundromats,” as in the banks that launder money). Andy’s sexual appetites are persistent. Jamie Lee Curtis is good as the tailor’s wife. High I.Q. but a strain; for adults; not especially recommended.

King and the Empty Mall

KING AND THE EMPTY MALL: The Alcatel commercial that shows the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech on the Mall in Washington, D.C.—with absolutely no one there to hear him—is pretty scary. It tries to make the point that content is nothing unless it connects to an audience. The idea registers, but you get another meaning from the image.

King’s audience seamlessly disappears, edited out by electronic magic. He is that tree falling in the forest and not making noise. How can you ever trust the truth of a visual image again?

Happily, Alcatel restores faith and gives M.L.K. his audience back for the final five seconds.

The Face: Jesus in Art

THE FACE: JESUS IN ART (PBS): This dazzling two-hour documentary on the history of the image of Jesus in art in all the world’s cultural traditions fills an enormous need. Financed in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign and produced and directed by Craig MacGowan, it premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall before its April showings on various PBS stations.

Perhaps the only legitimate complaint is that it isn’t long enough; doesn’t include everything. But it’s a banquet, beginning with less frequently seen images from the East (many from the treasured collection in Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum), the early emphasis on Christ’s sufferings and the intriguing tradition of Veronica’s Veil (carried on in the Stations of the Cross). Depiction of the divine has always been more controversial in Asia, and The Face recalls the bitter war in the Byzantine Empire over whether or how to image Jesus, which ended in 843.

The second hour brings on more familiar masterpieces of the West, influenced by classical realism and Greek standards of beauty: the extraordinary windows at Chartres, the Sistine Chapel and Da Vinci, of course.

We get a much closer look at The Pietà than is possible to visitors at St. Peter’s and are stunned by the strength of Michelangelo’s slightly less famous Risen Christ. From a later century, I especially liked the portrait by Rembrandt, emphasizing a compassionate Christ.

The modern era and pop also get some splendid footage: Rio’s great Christ the Redeemer in its awesome setting 2,300 feet above the harbor, Marc Chagall’s unique White Christ and various ethnic impressions. It even covers the universally familiar 1940 painting that accompanied so many American G.I.s into combat.

The project stays clear of movie images, which are kinetic; movement and personality would become factors.

The narrative helps provide context (narrators range from Mel Gibson and Bill Moyers to Ricardo Montalban and Patricia Neal). The accompanying music seems as carefully chosen as the images.

A delightful cinematic device morphs the faces of Jesus to illustrate both differences and similarities across time and geography, confirming the proposition that they are “as numerous as the peoples of the earth.” (The videotape is available through PBS by calling 800-336-1917: $24.95, plus $4.95 shipping and handling.)

South Pacific

SOUTH PACIFIC (ABC): It was strange and yet satisfying to see this 50-year-old Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein blockbuster air during March in the time slot that replaced Monday Night Football. I liked spirited Glenn Close as Nellie, but it’s tough to think of the “corny as Kansas in August” nurse as closer to 50 than 20.

As the heroic and doomed Joe Cable, Harry Connick, Jr., seems born to play the part. But you still have to wonder about the glorification of sexual fascination at the heart of the Cable-Liat-Bloody Mary story. It’s odd how time provides perspective: the military then, Cable and DeBecque gambling their lives to go into enemy territory, the celebrations of victory as the G.I.s headed home. All were idealistic and seem unreal today. But those were idealistic and hopeful times (at least in stage musicals).

It’s also impressive that of all the now-classic songs (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Hai,” etc.) the one that gets the most respect—that retains even more power now than then—is “You’ve Got to Be Taught.” Cable tries to explain American attitudes: “You’ve got to be taught/before it’s too late/before you are six or seven or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate/you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Thanks for that one, Oscar.

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