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AMERICAN BEAUTY

AMERICAN BEAUTY (O, R) explores contemporary moral misbehavior in hopes of understanding it. Those outraged by Eyes Wide Shut (and its erotic frankness) will likely be outraged again. This time the errant husband (Kevin Spacey) is depressed and unloved at home and work. He buys pot from the kid next door, quits his career to flip hamburgers and gets in shape as he fantasizes starting a sexual affair with a very available teenage cheerleader.

Once more it’s suburban misery, with the middle class portrayed (with some wit and bite) as decadent and bereft of faith, hope, love or success.

Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Spacey and Annette Bening) converse only on a high-pitched, sarcastic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? level. They are out of touch with their hostile teen daughter (Thora Birch). Carolyn is having a pathetic affair with a business rival whose marriage is also on the rocks; the drug-dealing boy-next-door Ricky (Wes Bentley) is the unloved son in an uptight right-wing family (ex-Marine father Chris Cooper is a paranoid, gun-collecting homophobe).

Much of this angst is exaggerated—life is not this bad. The mixed-up families are hopefully not a random sample of real-life suburbans; the movie’s only happy couple are Jim and Jim, the Burnhams’ gay neighbors.

We know Lester Burnham will not find real happiness by his retreat into adolescence and irresponsibility. But the tale is made bearable by some visual poetry and eloquence, as well as beautiful acting. In the end, a kind of rough moral justice is achieved.

Writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes (both movie first-timers) reach for an additional redeeming note. Ricky is a camcorder fanatic who looks through his lens at everything and finds beauty behind the pain, a benevolence beyond everyday surfaces, suggesting “there is no reason to be afraid.”

The idea suggests grace and a purpose that transcend life’s cruelties. What’s odd is the logic of that sweet high note in this cynical film about sinners doing mostly bad things. Arty but too familiar exploration of suburban misery and sexual malaise; O.K. for mature audiences but not recommended.

THE STORY OF US

THE STORY OF US (A-3, R) is amiable and ultimately positive. An affluent, secular California couple (Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer) are on the cusp of divorce, after 15 years of marriage. They’ve become increasingly aware of the other’s faults (dreamer vs. control freak). The crisis mounts while their two kids are at summer camp.

Neither the creators nor the characters have a credible concept of what love is—the relationship is more pathetic than they know. But Willis and Pfeiffer are sympathetic and fun, even in their worst moments. Their main problem, besides short fuses and using the familiar ugly word to describe the act of love, is having a lot of presumably hip friends who blab about sex endlessly without a clue.

Director Rob Reiner seems to be reaching for the magic of his When Harry Met Sally (1989), about a friendship that turned into love over many years. But Us is not as clever. It also lacks both the joy and anguish of Two for the Road (1967), which still sets the standard for mature (if secular) comedies about marriages that hold up over time.

Many of the events inevitable in bickering-spouse films are inventively staged—the proud awkwardness of first attempts at reconciliation, the weird lineup of shrinks and counselors they consult, the horrors of a guilt-ridden parents’ weekend at camp. Pfeiffer is also terrific in a very funny-sad speech. Some pleasurable adult mainstream moments, but no epiphanies.

THREE KINGS

THREE KINGS (A-3, R) is a male-appeal Gulf War action flick with twists beyond the teeth-clenched heroes and sock ’em, shoot ’em, blow ’em up stuff. Shot in Arizona by quirky new director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster), it’s edgy, irreverent and stylish—a Niagara-like cascade of zooms, freeze-frames, MTV fast edits, slow motion and blurry, nervous camera movement.

It’s a critique, in the anti-Vietnam spirit, of ugly American behavior and refusal to get involved as Saddam’s thugs wiped up his enemies after he was presumably defeated. Crude, racist, trigger-happy Yanks stumble about. They are not so much evil as ignorant, messing up the good Iraqis. Then they are enlightened by the smarter, well-indoctrinated Saddam-ites. American women are unflatteringly represented by sexy, career-driven TV journalists.

A small patrol (including Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube) is led by George Clooney as a wily, cynical Special Forces major. They go on a rogue mission of greed to find and make off with a cache of gold bars stolen from Kuwait. They bump into Republican Guards but also anti-Saddam rebels and civilian hostages, who plead for help in getting to Iran. Clooney must decide between saving them or saving the gold.

The combat scenes, made more chaotic by the weird cinematics, range from grittily realistic to silly. And Saddam’s penchant for stealing anything movable is wryly worked into the plot.

The anguish of the civilians covers the macho heroics with a humane veneer. Their Muslim prayer, piety and family cohesion are also notably superior to the greed of the immature Americans. As pure adventure, this film adds some fresh images to the desert-war genre. Problem language, combat violence; cynicism somewhat redeemed; adequate for mature viewers.

THE LIMEY

THE LIMEY (R): Director Steven Soderbergh follows his neat George Clooney gangster film (Out of Sight) with this stylish 90-minute melodrama about an enigmatic British criminal (Terence Stamp, now 60), dressed in black like an avenging angel. He comes to L.A. when his beloved daughter dies mysteriously. He encounters bad guys (Peter Fonda, Barry Newman) who underestimate him.

There’s lots of gunplay, but this is a fantasy genre film adults are unlikely to take for reality. (The creative editing alone makes Limey worthwhile.) The characters are scuzzy but human, the locations are intriguing and the lines are surprisingly bright. For adults who appreciate good work, dazzling and concise.

THE MILLENNIAL POPE

This September profile by Frontline, television’s most prestigious documentary series, was a stunner. John Paul II: The Millennial Pope presented a complex portrait of “one of the towering figures of the century.” An obvious attempt to understand and measure the pope from outside, writer-producer Helen Whitney’s film packs an emotional wallop. It seems torn between seeing him as a courageous apostle of justice and faith or as a lonely prophet “obsessed with modern evil” who sometimes makes stubborn misjudgments.

The nature of the medium is crucial. Film depends on sight and sound—we go to print for depth and intellectual nuance. But film is inevitably an emotional assessment, with words, images and music carefully chosen and juxtaposed. The arrangement here is unexpectedly beautiful, much of it just a knockout experience.

The camera loves John Paul: He is riveting and charismatic. He’s also a bit frightening. And he has lived in the thick of some of the most searing and traumatic times in history, all recorded by the camera. The Millennial Pope is special and powerful, but only a partial way of studying and evaluating this unique personality.

There are potent images of the era and the pope himself, moving and speaking among vast crowds and in anguished solitude. Commentators range from historians and journalists to theologians and clerics, friends and non-friends. They are reasonable and fair (not always true of TV papal analyses), though more critical than admirers might like.

For American Catholics it reveals the life experiences that make this Polish pope crucially different from us: the early deaths of his mother and brother, his attachment to his country and its grim religious tradition. In addition, he lived inside (or distressingly beside) such horrors as the war and Nazi occupation, the Holocaust and Communist rule. He’s clearly seen as a major player in the fall of Communism and passionate (if constricted) in efforts at major reconciliation with the Jews.

The pope is judged much less generously in his understanding of the Church in Latin America. (The section on liberation theology and his implicit abandonment of the heroic Archbishop Romero is the most tragic.) There are also sections on women (an effort to explain, not resolve), on the culture of death (extremely moving, especially in the extended death-penalty sequence, and disturbingly critical of Western materialism), and on faith (John Paul’s fierce convictions opposed to the modern world’s disbelief, contradictory yearning and despair).

Bottom line: This is a film to be watched more than once; likely to rattle a bit, enlighten a bit and inspire a lot; also to get one talking, thinking and exploring the most serious issues on the planet. The video is available from PBS (telephone: 800-463-8727) for $19.98, plus $4.75 shipping and handling.

THE 12 APOSTLES

THE 12 APOSTLES, the new two-hour documentary produced by Father Ellwood Kieser (Romero, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story), debuts on the History Channel December 20. Martin Sheen narrates the film, which uses dramatic re-creations and images from art (including movies). It follows the lives of the apostles from their first meetings with Jesus until approximately the end of the first century.

THOUGHTS WHILE WATCHING

Efforts to do the usual media thing and retrospect the millennium (not much film before 1900) or name the most influential 100 people of the last 1,000 years were very funny. Scientists dominated the top group. But it won’t surprise anyone that Elvis, the Beatles and Princess Di made the list, too. The number-one guy was Johannes Gutenberg, for inventing impersonal communication and costing the elites everywhere control of knowledge, making democracy not only possible but also inevitable. As the Internet age dawns, this is a change the world has still not digested.

 

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