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Fantasies, Edgy and Otherwise

    THE TRUMAN SHOW

    THE TRUMAN SHOW (A-3, PG): Hereís a possible fantasy Twilight Zone episode: The hero discovers that heís the only "real" person in the world, and that the entire universe has been constructed to test his worthiness for eternal life. (That bit of paranoia is useful in moments of extreme temptation.)

    Thatís not quite Truman, but itís close. Jim Carrey is the cheery, lovable, optimistic fall guy/hero in Aussie director Peter Weirís funny-sad summer-hit satire of television and its potential for mischief. Poor Truman doesnít know heís the only real person in his life, which is being played out on a vast TV set with actors and extras (even for parents, wife and best friend) and a fake ocean and sky.

    As an unwanted fetus adopted by a corporation, Truman is a poignant example of a human being used for the profit and amusement of others. (Consider our "real" world: on the brink of cloning, fetal and embryo research, and the "creation" of disposable people.) Observed by 5,000 cameras, Truman is the unwitting star of a 30-year series popular around the outside-the-set world heís never seen.

    While his actions within these confines seem "free," all the events are really controlled by an egoistic creator-director, Christof (bespectacled and bereted Ed Harris). The scenario by New Zealander Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is about how the good-natured Truman discovers his situation and rebels.

    He tries to escape, while Christof pulls out all his special effects (the climax is a whopping storm at sea) to stop him, and TV watchers root for a happy ending. (When the episode is over, a restless viewer says to his friend, "Letís see what else is on.")

    Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) often mixes entertainment and significance. Truman is funny, not only because Carrey (under some restraint) is in it but because it plays its premise constantly for jokes. For example, itís important that Truman never wants to leave his idyllic little fake town of Seaview. Whenever he tries, comic barriers are put in his way.

    It also belongs in the company of imaginative films, some mocking TV and its creators and audience (Fahrenheit 451, Network), others challenging our ideas of the nature of reality itself (Groundhog Day, Purple Rose of Cairo). In Truman, the target is TVís obsession with both showing "real life" and simultaneously controlling it, which leads here to the total manipulation of a manís life and the ultimate violation of his privacy, dignity and freedom.

    There is also a theological twist, given the miracle-working, godlike characteristics of Christof in his distant control room. Heís cruel and dominating, even if his aim is benign: to protect Truman from a "sick" world. Christof is a megalomaniac who wants to be God. However you mine it, a brainy, fun movie; accessible to mature youth and a wide range of serious and casual adults.



    MULAN
    Mulan

    © 1998 By Walt Disney Pictures

    Mulan chronicles the adventures of a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man and becomes a heroic warrior.

    MULAN (A-1, G): This Disney venture into Chinese culture and legend is mostly repackaged formula: The big family-friendly, money-making machine still wonít trust kids to like something with a bit more bite and challenge. Mulan has a scrawny hipster dragon (voice by Eddie Murphy) who steals the show. But its title character is a teenage girl who shatters tradition by joining the army in male disguise and becomes a hero in the defeat of the invading Huns.

    Mulan herself is spunky and likable (a kid right out of 1990ís suburban America) but no G.I. Jane; she scoffs at macho posturing and clearly dislikes soldiering. Mulan is basically slapstick comedy with songs that spoof the gender-bending theme. ("Iíll Make a Man Out of You" is the anthem sung during training.) But sheís brave and smart, turns the tide against the horrendous Huns, saves her familyís honor and wins the admiration of a rich and powerful boyfriend.

    As in the Disney tradition, plenty of jokes and warm, fuzzy camaraderie are likely to cure the grumps. The politically correct feminist message is obvious but long overdue in Mickey Mouse land. The art includes some spectacular visuals linked to classic Asian style. Satisfactory for the not-too-demanding young at heart.


    A PERFECT MURDER

    A PERFECT MURDER (A-3, R): This is a remake of the minor Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder, a 1954 woman-in-danger tingler noted for a tense scene in which Grace Kelly, being strangled on her desktop by an intruder, desperately feels for and grabs a scissors, then plunges it into his back. Thus she spoils a plot by Ray Milland, as her jealous husband, who feigns innocence but is exposed by a clever police detective and a tricky mixup of keys.

    A Perfect Murder moves the tale from London to New York, and makes the posh Central Park apartment so huge that it dominates the eye. Michael Douglas is the plotter who phones his spouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) so she can be garroted and (again) turn the tables.

    Despite the smooth surfaces crafted by director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), this gloomy film has a laundry list of problems and clichés. Crucially, there is no moral center, since all the characters are self-absorbed and unsympathetic.

    The murder scene is now predictably violent and bloody, yet much less stunning because the girl saves her life by finding a tool in the kitchen, a place full of weapons. Plot changes allow for much scheming and duplicity and more on-screen killings, as well as a sneaky use of an audiotape in what might be described as the Linda Tripp trap. Hitch must be thrilled heís not around to see this. For adults, but not recommended.


    BULWORTH

    BULWORTH (A-4, R) is Warren Beattyís furious satirical broadside at the sorry state of contemporary politics. The actor-writer-producer-director, now 61, is a notable artist, a longtime liberal Hollywood force creatively involved in significant movies (Bonnie & Clyde, Shampoo, Reds) for 35 years. Bulworth is sassy and gutsy but not smart.

    Beattyís Bulworth is a U.S. senator from California, an old liberal depressed by having to look conservative to get reelected, and weary of fatuous campaigns and TV commercials, of squeezing money out of fat-cat donors and flattering the correct interest groups. In despair, he sells out to an insurance lobbyist for a $10-million policy on his life and arranges to have himself assassinated.

    Wary of a bullet any minute, he starts to tell people that money is really all that counts in politics today. Infatuated by a beautiful black activist, Nina (Halle Berry), he has an epiphany about race. He takes on the culture, hip talk and point of view, rapping his speeches, repeating almost verbatim the arguments from Nina and others about why blacks are oppressed in our society.

    As Bulworth plunges deeper into South Central Los Angeles and the slum milieu of Ninaís family and associates, the stereotypes multiply.

    The basic plot is old: A guy wants to die but finds a reason to live, tries to call off the hit but canít. The added twist is that the pol who loses his mind and tells the truth (thinking it will ruin him) becomes a hero.

    Itís fiercely well-intentioned, scores points against the power of money and is suitably scornful of late 1990ís politics. But if this is revived Capra, itís short in warmth and humanity, and almost impossible to sit through. But credit Beatty with zapping movie humanoids to a few moments of brain life. Outrageous but ultimately off target; problem language, adult situations; not recommended.


    APPRECIATED

    APPRECIATED: Vanishing Heartland, Dean Reynoldsís deep and humane half-hour report (on ABCís Nightline), focused on rural America, specifically the aging and dying towns of the Great Plains. (Given technological advances, fewer people are needed on farms.) This deft, gorgeously photographed and edited piece on the moral and cultural value of the plains to the nation was TV journalism at its absolute best.

    AFIís 100 Years...100 Movies (CBS), the American Film Instituteís special on the best of the first century of American movies, was a joy (hard to complain about a Top 10 that includes Citizen Kane, Schindlerís List and Singiní in the Rain). But problems abounded (great films reduced to clips, no clear explanation of who voted, silent masterpieces shortchanged). There was no distinction between good films, favorite films, historic films.

    It was a commercial enterprise, designed to sell videos. Before the century is over, foreign films must be included, and a jury gathered that has seen them all.

    Fatherhood U.S.A. (PBS), a Fatherís Day report narrated by Bill Bradley and John Shea, nicely captured the dilemmas of modern families on varied economic and social levels with working parents struggling to love each other, raise kids and do what needs to be done. The cinema-verité reporting style (cameras omnipresent) was gripping and clearly showed 1990ís fathers learning from the mistakes of their own dads.


    MURPHY BROWN

    MURPHY BROWN (CBS, Mondays) bowed out with considerably less fuss than Seinfeld, and (in its way, by going for the traditional poignant, heart-in-throat farewell among its FYI newsroom regulars) showed how TV times are changing.

    Murphy lasted 10 years, a few past its controversial prime. It did some genuine good with its breast cancer themes. But at its best it was just funny, thanks to creator Dianne English, acerbic star Candice Bergen as Murph, and a strong, loyal ensemble cast.

    "God" showed up in the final episode (in a dream sequence): white-suited Alan King replacing the departed George Burns playing the Almighty as a wisecracking but loving Jewish comedian. All the troubles he gives, God tells Murph in a typically Brown adversary-style interview, are gifts to be usedóa touch of theological wisdom in the otherwise zany night. (The series moves on to TV paradise.)



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