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PAY IT FORWARD (A-3, PG-13): Haley Joel Osment, the child actor who saw “dead people” in The Sixth Sense, guides us into serious business again as Trevor McKinney, a seventh-grader in Las Vegas who gets an idea for improving the world’s level of kindness and compassion. Alas, he finds that doing “hard things that really help people” is a dangerous business.

Trevor’s plan, responding to a class assignment from a very untypical social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey), is a sort of benign pyramid scheme. Each person does a major good deed for three people, who then each “pay it forward” to three other people, and so on. (Trevor tries to match up the psychologically and physically scarred teacher with his abused, abandoned, alcoholic mom, played by Helen Hunt.) It works fine in some cases, with disastrous results in others.

Although Trevor’s actions have a positive social impact, this is a secular film: There is zero religious/moral motivation or context. (This kid’s favorite TV show is wrestling! His parents are a mess, and his grandma lives on the street.) From where does Trevor’s idealism come?

Given the crass tone of so much entertainment, a film about an uplifting idea is cool, even if it stretches credibility. Most of the good deeds are either familiar movie ideas or of dubious depth.

The acting by all three principals helps blur these doubts, especially Hunt’s hard-edged cocktail waitress (a bit offbeat for her). The script takes time to watch her relationship with Spacey’s complex character develop and grow. Director Mimi Leder uses the Vegas backgrounds (normal, natural and glitzy) with an artful eye. Not an average feel-good movie; tense, tragic, adult material; satisfactory for mature audiences.


BILLY ELLIOT (A-3, R): Art films are often morally off the map, too precious, far-out, irrelevant or all-of-the-above. But that’s absolutely not true of this socko little British film about an exuberant 11-year-old (Jamie Bell) who can’t keep himself from dancing.

Problem is, he lives in a troubled north England mining town amid the 1984 Thatcher-era closings. And his widowed dad (Gary Lewis) is a desperate striking miner with a macho personality who prefers that his son learn boxing rather than ballet. After the shock wears off, though, Dad works hard (including a tormented bit as a despised strikebreaker) to get Billy the training he needs to qualify for his big audition at the Royal Ballet School.

This is basically a preadolescent Rocky story, in which this likably tough, masculine and truly gifted youngster overcomes poverty, class and gender stereotypes. Billy also impresses with a generous (but nonsexual) acceptance of and loyalty to his equally nonconformist (but nondancing) best pal, who is a quietly budding homosexual.

The most fun parts of Billy Elliot are surely the dance sequences. Bell cavorts (as if unleashed by the spirits of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire) through the winding, cobblestoned town streets, as well as the gym-practice hall, both solo and with his no-nonsense teacher (played subtly by the charming, now 50ish Julie Walters of Educating Rita fame). The audition scene (before the stuffy, emotionless judges) is superbly British-funny as well as suspenseful.

This debut film by Stephen Daldry, artistic director of the Royal Court Theater, is about liberating people from social barriers to achieve their dreams. But its true glory is in not forgetting the family and friends Billy must leave behind. A best-film contender, recommended for mature viewers.


THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE (A-2, PG-13) belongs to the tradition of movies about the beauty and mysticism of sports.Oddly, Robert Redford (here, as producer-director) has been involved in several: Downhill Racer (skiing), The Natural (baseball), A River Runs Through It (fly-fishing). In Bagger, golf becomes a metaphor for life.

Much modified from Steven Pressfield’s novel, the movie reflects the point of view of a hero-worshiping boy who narrates events as a very old man (Jack Lemmon). It follows Ran Junuh (Matt Damon), a fictional star-on-the-rise and the pride of Savannah who is psychologically damaged by combat in World War I. Without explanation, on his return he abandons the game and Adele (Charlize Theron), his socialite-fiancée, to brood in the backwoods.

Several miracles underlie a tale that is basically about overcoming adversity and achieving redemption. As the local favorite, Junuh is persuaded to enter a promotional match competition against the then-current legends of the game, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. As he practices, a genial young black man who calls himself Bagger Vance (Will Smith) emerges from the dark and volunteers to help and work as his caddie.

The contest, along with its charm and romance, is the story. Bagger’s help proves to be critical, but it’s not made of magic tricks. He talks about stuff like finding one’s “authentic swing,” “the one perfect shot” and “seeing the field.” He helps Junuh reach inside himself to find his talent.

The movie, lyrically and with wit, describes a fabulous, endearingly photographed three days of Ran Junuh battling the golf equivalents of Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe. The father-son symbolism of Field of Dreams is intimated. Extra gifts include the Ran-Adele love story, the nostalgic detail, foolishness and innocence of the 1920s period and the intimations of transcendence.

Whether Bagger, with his gentleness and beatific smile, is wisdom incarnate, the guardian angel of the links or the Lord himself (“God is happiest,” he says, “when his children are at play”), he is surely a supernatural figure who represents the caring goodness of Reality. His advice is the key to a good life as well as a good game, and (as the final images suggest) to salvation as well. Grace lingers softly among the fairways and putting greens. An ultimate movie for golf lovers and something more; recommended for youth and adults.


ED (NBC, Wednesdays): This offbeat one-hour, no-laugh-track comedy series out of the David Letterman shop is wry and quirky. It often gets mentioned in the same sentence with Northern Exposure, an honor difficult to live up to.

So far, it hasn’t reached the level of Absolutely Wonderful. But it exudes quiet charm, dodges the innuendo, put-downs and wisecracks that clutter much of pop comedy.

The characters act (well, almost) like normal people. Moved from its Sunday slot, it is a family-friendly opener for NBC’s civilized midweek lineup (The West Wing, Law and Order).

The hero (30ish Tom Cavanagh) is fresh, a throwback to sweet, easy-smiling Jimmy Stewart types. But his return to his Ohio hometown has a poignant edge: He’s a lawyer who escaped New York after being crushed by his wife’s infidelity and losing his drudge job proofreading contracts when he missed a comma. (The Big Apple is glamorous but can bite back.) Now he’s bought a bowling alley and practices law as a bonus service for customers. It’s a strained but whimsical setup.

Basically, Ed is a romance, since the heart of each hour is his (so far) innocent pursuit of Carol (Julie Bowen). She’s his former high school crush, now high school teacher and no pushover. The weekly subplots usually include a homespun legal case (in one episode, defending the elderly 53-year town clown’s right to wear a mask) and the stuff cooked up by his friends and odd characters at the Stuckey Bowl.

The show, whose trademark is the gently humorous and unexpected, appeals mainly because of Ed, a nice guy who loses a lot but cheerfully perseveres. The Thanksgiving episode was typical. He tries to make a go of the first holiday apart from his wife. He calls her, gets an answering machine; the parents he hoped to visit are going to France; the bowling-alley party falls apart; he can’t shoot the traditional cannon to end the high school football game. (The practice has been stopped by a lawsuit.)

But he ends up playing skidball-football with his old pal Frank (as they did when they were kids) under the empty stadium lights, sliding and careening in joy on the wet grass. The point: People really do need people, history and tradition. Funny-sad and a three-point field goal for this episode.


MUDDLED MALCOLM: If Ed seems cool for early evening family viewing, the same can’t be said for Fox’s over-praised Malcolm in the Middle, with its unnerving formula of wiseacre kids, perplexed poppa and malicious momma. The last episode I watched had the brothers coping with a gorgeous high school babysitter in ways that tested the erotic imagination. Parents have to find better choices than the young-adult-oriented channels offer.


IN THE BEGINNING (NBC miniseries): They still have a long way to go to get the Old Testament together for television. This series was respectful but talky and very stiff in production values (Martin Landau’s Abraham praying to a night sky full of stars or getting the message to sacrifice Isaac in a windstorm), as if nothing in terms of power and subtlety had been learned since DeMille. Let’s face it: You have only to enter a religious-goods store to see the gulf between what the public has been educated to want in religious art and the cutting edge of artistic taste.


PLUG FOR VOCATIONS: Building on a Wall Street Journal piece, Nightline (ABC) devoted a show to the updated effort by several religious orders (Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana, Sisters of Mercy of New Jersey) to “market vocations” to young women. (Are nuns making a comeback?) Their approach includes witty appeals on their Web sites and in print ads (a Michelangelo parody in which God’s hand is passing on a cellular phone). The TV treatment, respectful and sympathetic, focused on recruiters and recruits, as well as a dynamic woman who has been a nun for 78 years. Anchor John Donvan wrapped up by paying tribute to the sisters who taught him in grade school.

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