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By James Arnold

Most Christmas Tales Are Secular

Q U I C K S C A N

 

Favorite Christmas movies usually come down to something that strikes you and sticks with you from early experience, as either a child or young adult.

One of the few stories centering on the celebration of Christmas is Dickens's A Christmas Carol, often adapted directly into movie versions (and inspiring many more). But its themes of personal moral reform—greed and self versus generosity, family, sacrifice and charity for others—are secular and linked only implicitly to Christianity.

The holiday is also the main focus of Jean Shepherd's comic memoir, A Christmas Story (1983), which is good-naturedly anti-secular Christmas and perfect for the age of irony. In most beloved Christmas films, only a single famous celebration scene is holiday-related (It's a Wonderful Life). It is still almost always secular, though often pseudo-supernatural elements sneak in a heavenly aura (the angel Clarence in Life, the "real Santa" in Miracle on 34th Street).

Well-done religious connections are quite rare. My own favorites are also "holy" only by implication: the overwhelmingly happy family in Meet Me in St. Louis (with Judy Garland's definitive "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and German and American soldiers coming together to sing carols at the front in A Midnight Clear.

Serendipity

SERENDIPITY (A-3, PG-13) is a romantic comedy in what is becoming a revered genre: Lovers meet but separate for one reason or another. Then they desperately try to find each other, often years later. One problem with this scheme is that the boy and girl seldom spend the movie in the same city, much less the same shot (Sleepless in Seattle). This may be kind to everybody's shooting schedule, but is tough on romantic chemistry.

In this case, Jonathan and Sara (energetic John Cusack and charming Brit Kate Beckinsale) meet amusingly at Bloomingdale's while Christmas shopping. They hear all the magic music as they digest sundaes, skate in Central Park and gaze at the stars.

But Sara resists: She's a romantic who believes in fate and not dumb luck. Some years later, each is about to marry someone else and still pining for his/her lost soulmate. Sara goes back to New York for one last shot at finding Jonathan. You know she will, although the near-misses and coincidences are thick.

Those who believe in destiny and one true love will enjoy this dippy, happy movie—silly or not. Director Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song) has a knack for this stuff. Jeremy Piven plays Cusack's comic sidekick, a Times obituary writer, with an improbable patter as good as Jay Leno's. Not about real love but the pop, feel-good variety; time to lighten up and say O.K. for mature youth and adults.

Hearts in Atlantis

HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (A-3, PG-13): This Stephen King tale, deftly and moodily directed by Aussie Scott Hicks (Shine), explores the seemingly idyllic small-town, 1960s life of a normal boy suddenly put at risk. The threat comes not from King's patented supernatural horrors but from mundane sources of evil—lust, jealousy and dark political powers in the larger world.

The idealized childhood of Bobby Garfield (debut performance by luminous Anton Yelchin) and woods-romping best pals Sully and Carol seems flawed only by his grouchy single mom Liz (Hope Davis). She's a widow left scrimping and loveless by the early death of her apparently no-good gambler husband.

Then enters a new and mysterious upstairs roomer, Ted (Anthony Hopkins), soft-spoken but reclusive and a likely fugitive. He becomes Bobby's mentor and father figure.

Ted is a psychic, with deep insight into character and future events, who proves to be a handy ally (in sizing up Liz's abusive boss, in fending off menacing juvenile bullies, in helping Bobby discover the truth about his father).

Ultimately, to help his friends, Ted sacrifices himself to his own pursuing demons (Cold War bad guys who want to use his powers). Ted is a familiar King character, the reluctant paranormal who uses his powers for good, a gently spooky fellow Hopkins can play in overdrive.

Other familiar motifs include nostalgia for the innocence of boyhood, eternal friendships, first bicycles and first kisses. Some violence, sexual and otherwise; good triumphs; humane, poignant quality offers satisfaction for mature youth and adults.

Training Day

TRAINING DAY (O, R): Denzel Washington plays a motor-mouthed, crooked narc detective who is smart, charming and absolutely ruthless. This hair-raising, Los Angeles-based tour de force is three-parts action film, one-part social commentary. Ethan Hawke is a suitable opponent as a decent, hard-nosed guy.

Washington's Alonzo Harris is presumably breaking in idealistic Jake Hoyt (Hawke), promoted from a safer job in the Valley. At first, Alonzo seems an ultra-tough, profane veteran giving the kid gritty, politically incorrect survival advice. A voyeuristic tour of his hellish combat zone ranges from slum drug dens to posh restaurant hangouts of decadent police bosses. Soon Alonzo escalates to weird behavior.

Alonzo is often persuasive: "You give me 18 months and I'll give you a career," or "It takes a wolf to catch a wolf." But finally, it becomes clear that he's lost his soul in the jungle war between good and evil. Alonzo even sets up Jake as the fall guy in an effort to save his own skin.

Hopefully, neither the world nor the cops are this bad. Washington and Hawke get the absolute max from the material. As directed by ex-video guy Antoine Fuqua, Day bristles with intense, scary fights, shootouts and suspense to the last drop. Endless low-life language and mean-streets detail seem intended to bolster far-fetched plot twists and marginal credibility.

A major plus is the admirably dogged virtue of Jake, who hungers for justice. Cynical, lurid, violent storytelling with some redeeming moral and artistic values; for adults.

Philly

PHILLY (ABC, Tuesdays): Steven Bochco's new legal series is his best project in many seasons. It also unleashes Kim Delaney, freeing her from her beautiful-but-bland, blue-collar, low-key cop role on NYPD Blue. Her Kathleen Maguire character, a smart-talking first-year defense lawyer in Philadelphia, contends for the most admirable and likable female quality drama-series lead ever on TV.

She has a heart of gold in a tough world, negotiating the mean streets of criminal law, working long hours for justice for her imperfect but often sympathetic low-life clients. Kathleen is tireless and kind, defined by her compassion. "I believe in rehabilitation," she says. A friend responds, "It's the Irish Catholic in you."

She also knows the bad clients from the good ones, and constantly bugs them all to fix up their lives. She's a single mom with a volatile-tempered ex (Kyle Secor) in the DA's office, a 10-year-old son, a mother who is un-friendly and a troubled father. Delaney is gritty and credible. She's also kind of an angel in the authentic, superbly detailed courthouse chaos of seedy defendants, unpredictable jurors, ambitious attorneys (especially Tom Hanks look-alike Tom Everett Scott) and oddball, self-absorbed judges.

Despite these assets, some will still be turned off by Bochco's fondness for the risqué (not involving Kathleen during the first month), especially early in the hour to grab audiences. One has no idea where he and coproducer Alison Cross may take their heroine in future episodes.

Episode endings tend toward terrific. In one, Kathleen holds her son, rocks him and gently calms his fears about her boyfriend: "But it won't always be like that....You'll know about it, and nobody can ever make me love you less."

In another, the main plotline is a long, frustrating effort to get a client, innocent but damaged, out of jail to attend his mother's funeral. Finally released, he can't cope with his grief. As he sobs in a darkened car, she joins him in praying the "Hail Mary" in a quiet moment of genuine grace.

Band of Brothers

BAND OF BROTHERS (HBO): This extended miniseries that started in October follows a World War II airborne company from basic training through the Normandy assault and the Battle of the Bulge into Germany. It is grim, real, relentless and as hypnotic as a great book you can't put down. Co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and based on the history written by Stephen Ambrose, it is among the greatest films about men in combat. It is the fall's premier television event.

(HBO tends to make up, now and then, like a rich man donating wealth to a good charity, for the outrageousness of series like The Sopranos and Sex in the City.)

To underline the reality, each episode is preceded by brief commentary from surviving soldiers, now aged but still obviously moved by their memories. Music by Michael Kamen provides emotion and grandeur. Extraordinary cinematography, close-up and mobile, plus creative use of slow motion, help re-create the terror, the exhaustion, the waste and the genuine comradery, love and heroism of the times.

The action is neither glorified nor mocked, but presented in all its moral complexity. Every episode has fine moments of all kinds. Those to remember include the suddenness of death, the maxed-out troopers in a French convent serenaded by a choir of nuns, and the sergeant's prayer as darkness fell on D-day in France: "I promised God if I ever got home, I would spend my life in a place of peace."

A Bit of Divinity

A BIT OF DIVINITY seems suggested in the Infiniti car ads that show a driver with uncanny power to stop the rain, halt interfering traffic, turn on his CD player and change the traffic signals from red to green. But then, when you think about it, most saints would be willing to get wet, let the other guy go ahead and wait patiently for the light to change. Come to think of it, they'd also probably be walking.


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