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Saintly People



    Marvin’s Room

    Marvin’s Room (A-2, PG-13) is the sort of quiet, uplifting movie that needed an Oscar nomination (Diane Keaton as best actress) to get attention. They make few movies about saints anymore, but this one, though entirely secular, comes close.

    Keaton (now 51, and determined to avoid the cosmetic enhancements routine for most actresses her age) is Bessie, who is single and living in Florida caring for her elderly, bedridden and incoherent father and a dotty, dependent aunt. She does so with generous and cheerful spirit, but is now facing another challenge: leukemia. She desperately needs bone marrow from a matching donor, most likely a relative.

    Enter her younger sister from Ohio, Lee (Meryl Streep), who hasn’t communicated with Bessie for decades. Lee’s husband is gone and she’s having trouble raising two sons: Hank, a difficult, rebellious teen, and Charlie, a shy, nerdy preadolescent.

    Unexpectedly, Bessie reaches Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), mainly by treating him as a human being. (Parents will enjoy seeing how it’s done.)

    Keaton’s Bessie, a rare movie heroine and a selfless person who does the corporal works of mercy with genuine joy, is the real subject of Scott McPherson’s play and movie. Resentment? “I’m so lucky,” she says, “to have had such love in my life.” The film is lucky to have this plucky screen veteran’s credibility and luminous performance. Realistic but more joyful than grim, with family values that are not just a flippant promotional reference; recommended for mature viewers.


    Rosewood



    Jon Voight (left) and Ving Rhames star in Rosewood, based on an actual incident of racism that occurred in the 1920’s when a black town in Florida was destroyed.

    Rosewood (A-3, R) is also set in Florida but grim history this time. It’s January 1923, and the small rural town of Rosewood, founded and populated almost entirely by blacks, is destroyed by armed, angry whites. Many are killed, mostly blacks. The event was consigned to oblivion until recent years, when public notice has been taken in Florida and some compensation given to survivors.

    Director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning) and writer Gregory Poirier use the event as the basis for a harrowing story describing themes persistent in American race relations. There are separate towns, churches and cultures, with fear, ignorance and sexual tensions. A white woman tries to cover up being abused by charging a black man with rape.

    The movie follows several characters of both races during the horror that follows, especially Esther Rolle and Don Cheadle as sympathetic Rosewood citizens, Jon Voight as a white merchant grappling with multiple moral dilemmas, Michael Rooker as a sheriff agonizing (mostly in vain) with his conscience and Bruce McGill as a witty but despicable racist teaching his young son how “God made the world.”

    Singleton offers a champion of mythic dimensions, played by Ving Rhames, who falls in love with Rosewood’s sweet schoolteacher (Elise Neal).

    Rosewood is technically a class act. There is plenty of violence, but with restraint. Intended for adults, a chunk of history not much covered in textbooks; satisfactory for mature viewers.


    Sling Blade

    Sling Blade (A-3, R): This Billy Bob Thornton project (he’s writer, director and star) came out of nowhere and shows that movies are far from safely predictable, once you escape the box-office obsession of the major studios. Thornton (previous scripts: One False Move, A Family Thing) takes a cliché figure—the demented small-town bogeyman murderer—and turns him into a hero.

    Thornton plays Karl Childers, a semiretarded recluse in the Arkansas Bible Belt. Normally mild-mannered, despite being abused and neglected as a child, Karl has acted once in a moral fury to destroy his mother and her lover with a sling blade, a farm cutting tool. (He describes the event in a brilliant early monologue that wins audience understanding and sympathy.) After a quarter century of treatment, he’s considered cured and released.

    Karl is, of course, “different”: odd in speech and behavior, slow. He’s a little scary. We’re worried he’s not quite safe, but the first half of the film builds our confidence and fondness for him. He gets along well in his job as a gifted mechanic, and befriends a young boy (Lucas Black) and his widowed mom. The bad guy on the scene is Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), her boyfriend. He’s a drunken bigot who beats her and the boy.

    The outcome is predictable—Karl is motivated by his biblical concepts of justice and good and evil. As a story, Sling Blade leaves its audience satisfied. (None of the killings are actually seen on screen.)

    The movie is much better as a study of people and a place than as moral philosophy. Karl is a notably bizarre creation likely to stick in our memories for a while, and the town is full of decent, three-dimensional characters who seem crafted from real life. Among them is John Ritter, in a novel portrayal of a sympathetic but far-from-perfect family friend who is homosexual. Well-crafted tale of back-country justice; problem language, family conflict situations; recommended for adults.


    Donnie Brasco

    Donnie Brasco (A-3, R): The hero in this film is really a cop who pretends to join the Mob to get otherwise unavailable evidence. “Brasco” happens to be the assumed name of real-life F.B.I. agent Joseph Pistone, whose book provided the basis for this superb screenplay by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show).

    The serious Mob movie has become notoriously violent, especially in recent Martin Scorsese efforts (Casino, Goodfellas), and this one also pushes the envelope via special effects (close-ups of gunshots to the head, butchering of corpses). But Attanasio and British director Mike Newell go beyond that to themes like friendship, ambition, family tensions, loyalty and betrayal.

    Newell (Into the West, Enchanted April) claims the movie is not about gangsters but about a faithful worker who is terminally downsized. That would be Al Pacino, who gets into the heart and soul of Lefty, a veteran hoodlum who mentors Pistone (Johnny Depp).

    Lefty’s own son is a drug addict, and Pistone as Brasco clearly bonds with the older man as a symbolic substitute. Pacino and Depp go beyond poignance to give their anguish the heft of tragedy.

    Another major stress for Pistone is his own family. He has a wife and three daughters he rarely sees. Newcomer Anne Heche is the loving wife who helplessly watches her husband dissolving into his criminal role. “I’m not becoming like them,” he admits. “I am them.”

    Donnie B encourages us to ponder the miserable ambiguity of the life of the cover agent, who achieves great social good at deep personal cost. But its real drama is about the vagaries of human love and whom we discover to be our brother. Pacino and Depp are, frankly, a terrific pair. Tough, graphic but high-class gangster film, with many and deep dimensions; problem language, violence; recommended for mature audiences.


    The Practice

    The Practice (ABC, Tuesdays): Dylan McDermott is a handsome, Irish-looking actor who hasn’t quite gotten the breakthrough part after 10 years in movies. He’s usually been cast in minor films or as the second or third guy in bigger ones (In the Line of Fire, Home for the Holidays). He played the hero-lawyer in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street, which didn’t add much to either his resumé or that of Santa Claus. Oddly, this new TV series may finally get McDermott, a young Harrison Ford type, into public consciousness.

    Lawyer series come and go, and this is the latest version of the idealistic-kids-scraping-to-get-started scenario. McDermott’s Bobby Donnell is the leader of a small, edge-of-bankruptcy Boston firm made up mostly of a youthful rainbow coalition of not-necessarily photogenic women and minorities.

    These lawyers cut corners, specializing in lawsuits and defense of grubby cases, and beating the more experienced opposition. Bobby’s firm is sort of anti-Murder One, in which all the attorneys wore Guccis and drove Porsches.

    Few post-O.J. series are without memory flashes of that immortal case and this (noisily anguished parents of victim) is no exception. (One oddity: a priest testifies about the contents of a confession with the permission of the penitent, whom he’s now counseling.) One case continuing for many episodes includes a timely anti-tobacco lawsuit, in which Edward Herrmann is the insufferably smooth attorney for the cigarette company, condescending to his young foes, one of whom is his former star student.

    Overall, the strong writing in The Practice, another entry from producer David Kelley (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope), tends to focus on moral dilemmas: Should Bobby and friends use marginal tactics as long as they’re legal? (He gets a biased and obnoxious judge off the cigarette case by threatening to reveal a past sexual escapade.) While no TV series offers pleasure equivalent to getting a tax refund, this one is much better than a time-killer.


    Crisis Center

    Crisis Center (NBC, Fridays), regrettably, is more in the time-killer league. Set in San Francisco, it deals with a multiplicity of crises. The model, of course, is ER, which sometimes gets frantic but manages to hold its credibility. Crisis tries to do too much too soon, before we know and care about the characters.

    In a recent episode, a therapist has a psychotic patient who falls in love with her and begins to plan a wedding. In short, he becomes a stalker—a scary concept but just a yawn here, because writing and performance were under par.

    In other subplots, a Cuban boxer was trying to defect, a female intern was dealing with a dysfunctional family crisis at home and a racist video-store manager at work, and a black staffer was having second thoughts about nursing-home treatment for her mentally disabled son.

    In the comic or “light” story line, a counselor with a fixation on singer Tom Jones tried to advise a husband having the same kind of problem with his wife. Too much happening at once.

    Well, at least they got the title of this series right. Frankly, my dear, we were relieved to switch to Martha Stewart or the Home and Garden network, where the worst problem was redecorating the kitchen or finding the right painting to go over the fireplace.


    TV As Demon

    TV As Demon: The tube has been blamed for everything from the bad grades of our kids to the disappearance of the family meal. The latest (heard on Nightline) was to blame it for the decline in politics over the last four decades. In general, it’s said politicians now play more to the audience of voters “out there” than to each other. Hence, “being tough” is a virtue, and the result is enmity, bad will, lack of collegiality. How much social and moral woe can be attributed to better communication?


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