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Following Moral Decisions


    LIAR LIAR (A-3, PG-13): If the boomers making movies stand for anything these days, it’s that parents should not neglect their children. In this world’s largest guilt complex, the most severe rule is that you shouldn’t miss any important event (game, school play, birthday party), especially not for just working or making money.

    That’s the moral premise for this Jim Carrey hit, in which the lean rubber-faced comic is a busy lawyer who keeps making unkept promises to his beloved, almost-five son (Justin Cooper). In frustration, the child makes a blow-out-the-candles birthday wish that his dad must tell nothing but the truth for one day. This has disastrous effects on Dad, and, in hilarious fashion, it exposes how much lying really goes on in adult life.

    Carrey is probably funniest when he’s trying desperately not to tell the truth, especially in the courtroom. (His specialty is twisting the facts to make his client look good.) At worst, there’s a lot of insult humor. Director Tom Shadyac dreams up some wacky set pieces. Most of the others (Maura Tierney as his ex-wife, Swoozie Kurtz as a rival lawyer, Jennifer Tilly as a dubious client) play it reasonably calm and straight.

    Carrey has brought on a revival of physical comedy in movies almost singlehandedly. Kids love the silly humor. Except for some moments of burlesque sexuality, this is basic belly-laugh stuff done well. Generally deft family farce; satisfactory for most ages.



    Harrison Ford (left) and Brad Pitt star in The Devil’s Own, a suspense thriller about two men whose fates become fused together when they seek peace and justice.

    THE DEVIL’S OWN (A-3, R) is a humane thriller based on the idea that a law-abiding American-Catholic policeman offers room and board to a young Irish immigrant who is actually a fugitive I.R.A. revolutionary. Both actors (Harrison Ford as the cop, Brad Pitt as the stranger) are loaded with charisma.

    Pitt’s character has killed 24 men. As a child his father was shot down before his eyes. He’s in America buying weapons from a nasty arms dealer (played by Treat Williams). When British agents brutally break into Ford’s home—he has a wife (impressive Margaret Colin) and three daughters—looking for Brad and his money, the American must decide what he believes.

    The film’s ultraviolent episodes are overshadowed by the humanity and bonding. Director Alan Pakula (The Pelican Brief) is good at dark tales of men trapped in an aura of enclosing evil. Although Irish miseries are the subject, nothing is discussed in much depth. Finally, there is sympathy for both war and peace factions. “Don’t look for a happy ending,” says Pitt’s I.R.A. warrior. “It’s not an American story, it’s an Irish one.” Compassion registers, despite genre violence; problem language; satisfactory for mature audiences.


    SELENA (A-2, PG): The main difference between Selena Quintanilla Perez and other exceptionally talented pop-singing stars is that she was idolized by her fans almost literally, achieving nearly the aura of a saint. Her murder/martyrdom at age 23, on the cusp of national fame, completed the mystique of the young dead. (It recalls James Dean and others.)

    This $20-million movie tells her story, with beautiful Jennifer Lopez jump-starting her already burgeoning career in the title role. (She dances, but lip-synchs the songs.) It’s a conventional showbiz story, with a strong father (Edward James Olmos) starting a family band and the kids spending their childhoods on a bus. Then Selena’s talent matures, and the tejano music audience on both sides of the Tex-Mex border comes to adore her.

    Her legend has become a kind of sacred trust, and writer-director Gregory Nava (El Norte, My Family-Mi Familia) mostly lives up to the demands on him. The concert footage, all restaged, is frequently awe-inspiring. And the script gracefully explores the complexities of family life and Selena’s success in breaking down barriers against women as well as Latinos. Her icon status comes from her dual role as “one of us” and as a gifted artist who expressed “our” dreams as well as fulfilling her own. Well, almost: The tragedy adds to the legend. Satisfactory for youth and adults.


    GROSSE POINTE BLANK (O, R): This black comedy is a parable about America’s lost sense of morality. John Cusack (also co-writer) gives a cool, surgeon-like performance as Martin Blank, a professional killer attending his 10th class reunion in the famous posh Detroit suburb. His career choice is barely noticed among all the other sellouts.

    The point is not that killing is becoming a national pastime but rather that it’s not that different, on the ethical level, from other jobs. You do what you have to do. The moral comment is somewhat exaggerated, but the thick cynicism seems worse than the dense stupidity and nihilism it wants to attack.

    Pointe (the title is a double pun) quickly loses its way amid a half-baked love story (with ex-prom date Minnie Driver) and endless noisy shootouts with competing assassins (including a flabby Dan Aykroyd). Cusack’s sister, Joan, has a bit part as the office secretary who schedules the murders with efficiency. More smug and less hip than it thinks; violence, sex situations, problem language; not recommended.


    TV MINISTERS are definitely family guys. They’re wholesomely prolific, being fathers of five kids in Seventh Heaven (Warner) and four in Soul Man (ABC). This is obviously something Catholic priests can’t do within the rules, and families may finally give Protestants a pop-culture edge they lost to Catholic clergy during the Pat O’Brien years.

    Plenty of viewers enjoy this kind of programming, markedly absent in recent decades. It’s just a basic family sitcom with the same wisecracking kids and neighbors, but with the jokes built around parish life. (Heaven tends to be more earnest, Soul Man a bit more irreverent.) The possibilities have barely been scratched.

    Whether you want to call series like these religious is open to debate. Sometimes there is more religious depth on ER or NYPD Blue, but those are late-evening adult shows. Father Ellwood Kieser, the moviemaking Paulist (Romero), asked recently, “Is religion going to church and pious talk, God talk? Or is it reaching for the depths of the human situation and struggling to find meaning?”

    The new series, Soul Man, is a Disney-Touchstone product. It has the popularity of Dan Aykroyd going for it, as well as a boost from its popular lead-in, Home Improvement. Its high ratings still surprised ABC—it’s a cinch to be back next fall.

    Dan is cool, an icon for baby boomers. When he tries to find out which of his kids broke his snowball of Elvis’s birthplace, the humor resonates. The incident is about truth-telling and responsibility. But good TV parents, church-based or not, have been teaching this lesson for several generations. Perhaps the minister dad is more ready to forgive: Bespectacled Dan plays a kindly teddy bear. It’s not the best clerical image, but it’s warm and friendly.

    But TV series are nearly always centered on sex, even in this setting. In the first two shows, Dan’s widower character is interviewed by an attractive young woman who’s a reporter. She’s somewhat amazed by his nonexistent love life. That leads to a comic discussion of what parts of her body he would consider it “O.K.” to touch. Clearly, they’re going to be good friends on this series, which is aimed partly at the Bible Belt (subjects like church wine, prayer, choirs and hymns come up easily) and partly at the same old mass-audience sinners.


    RECOMMENDED: For those who like TV with a bit more to chew on, there’s the occasional Media Matters (PBS), an hour hosted by Alex Jones, due again in June. In April, this show did a thorough, conscientious job of analyzing media coverage of partial-birth abortions. It found that both sides stretched the truth, but that there was a definite media tendency to accept the pro-choice version.

    The analysis was incisive yet fair. Other segments examined The Wall Street Journal editorial page, its famously pitiless leadership of conservative opinion and the increasing tendency in print media to alter photographs for dramatic effect by digital technology. If there is one proverb that no longer means anything it’s “seeing is believing.” Matters is TV that matters.


    LEAVING L.A. and GUN (ABC, Saturdays) got off to a rough start following Lois and Clark, which is apparently ratings dead, at least against competition like CBS’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

    L.A. is gritty with a solid cast of experienced pros and lots of ironic dialogue. One episode focuses on the coroner’s cops who are very busy in this palmy metropolis with bodies of kids uncovered in the Hollywood hills and distraught moms of missing children trying to get information, while the docs and officers try coping with their home lives and personal problems. One killer is a young mom shooting her own kids. Maybe it’s all too grim for Saturday night. So, would it be better on Monday? Don’t think so.

    Gun is an anthology in the classic mold, with different casts each week involved in stories built around the people who come to possess a sleek semiautomatic pistol. Frequently, the tone is of the old-fashioned short story, in which unworthy protagonists overreach and are frustrated by some unforeseen bit of irony.

    In the opener, Daniel Stern is a failed TV actor who becomes a hero in a convenience-store holdup and tries to parlay his brief fame into a biographical movie-of-the-week. He gets too cocky and greedy, forgetting his loyal spouse (Kathy Baker), and loses everything.

    In the second show, Martin Sheen is a veteran cop with a hunch that his last case on a Pacific Palisades beach is something more than just a robbery-murder. The story follows the separate paths of missing gun and Sheen around the picturesque City of Angels locales until eventually they meet and an elaborate insurance scam is foiled.

    It may not be much but it’s good storytelling with plenty of twists. (Robert Altman is involved as a series producer.) The format allows playful experimenting by cast and writers. For example, Nancy Travis steals the Sheen tale as an avaricious widow scheming to win the lottery.


    JACKIE AND TIGER: The emergence of super golfer Tiger Woods and the 50th anniversary of the big-league debut of Jackie Robinson converged, almost miraculously. Both events and their connection came to our consciousness largely because of television. It reminds us again of TV’s ritual role of bringing us together to celebrate events that are significant but not always obvious, to remind us of history we may have forgotten or never known, progress we may have made or failed to make. It provides a sense of the past without which present and future are meaningless.

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