AUTUMN TALE (A-3, PG) is an amusing little gem from the
French Catholic writer-director Eric Rohmer. The plot centers on a
romantic mixup involving the personal ads (similar to Brad Anderson’s
equally charming Next Stop Wonderland). Rohmer’s heroine is
lonely Magali (Beatrice Romand), an attractive but shy 40-ish country
vintner and widow who’d never place such an ad on her own. Unwittingly,
she’s helped out by Isabelle (elegant Marie Riviere), her long-married,
sophisticated best friend.
Isabelle enjoys doing the screening and selects the improbably wonderful
Gerald (Alain Libolt), then lets him in on the plot. She tries to
match them up at her daughter’s wedding reception. But Isabelle is
unaware that another friend of Magali’s has arranged a match, same
time and place, with her own boyfriend—a suave bachelor professor
who’s too old for her.
All these people are not only real but also likable, and the comic
confusion provides easy entry into the actual anxieties of mid-life.
The harvest-time setting is fresh. And the talk is bright, adult and
moral—the characters often discuss the truths of life. The surprise
ending is gentle and insightful.
Rohmer, now 79, is one of the surviving geniuses of the New Wave
of the 1950’s, famous for his Catholic take on the films of Alfred
Hitchcock. He’s also made a long string of thoughtful and delightful,
suitably honored films (My Night at Maude’s, Claire’s Knee),
which often involve romantic dilemmas from the female viewpoint. This
is the fourth in his series of seasonal tales, although Summer
has not yet been released here. Chatty, low-key but wise romantic
comedy; in French with English subtitles; recommended for mature viewers.
THE MUSE (A-3, PG-13): Albert Brooks, who made short funny films
for Saturday Night Live, plays a desperate Hollywood character
in this dragged-out joke about a writer who tries to salvage his career
by getting involved with a muse. (That’s one of those ancient Greek
female deities who inspired achievement in the arts.)
Sarah (Sharon Stone) is recommended as the real thing by a successful
friend (Jeff Bridges). She also has other rich clients (Rob Reiner,
James Cameron, Martin Scorsese) and high-maintenance requirements.
(She demands gifts from Tiffany’s, a $1,700-a-day suite at the Four
Seasons and almost constant personal attention.) But she comes through
with ideas that help Brooks get back his edge.
So we’re back in what looks like trendy supernatural territory, although
this time in Greek mythology. Mostly, as Brooks writes, this is “the
muse who came to dinner.” Sarah spends the cheap hero’s money, takes
over his house and inspires his wife (Andie MacDowell). The question
is how to get rid of the muse without giving up her boost to his career.
(In American movies, you never want to give up the money.)
The charmless hero never quite sells his soul, just his dignity.
The Hollywood inside jokes are reasonably fresh. The film might work
except for Brooks, who is in nearly every frame with his selfish,
whining, smart-aleck persona. We just don’t care if he hangs onto
his Pacific Palisades life-style or not. O.K. movie-biz comedy,
especially for buffs.
BOWFINGER (A-3, PG-13): Steve Martin satirizes Hollywood in broad
strokes, starring in his own script as Bowfinger, a comically desperate,
never-made-it director who’s reaching 50 and figures his time has
come. He feels he has the makings of a great alien movie (the screenplay
is penned by his Iranian accountant) but needs a star to get backing.
He can’t persuade a noted egotistical action hero (Eddie Murphy)
even to consider it. Thus, he gathers an oddball crew of movie wannabes
who set up the paranoid Murphy in various situations around the city
and edit him into the movie without his knowledge.
The idea has mirthful potential, even without the inherent movie-land
spoofery: the predictable crass ambition and egomania, Bowfinger’s
outrageous use of status symbols from convertibles to ponytails. The
novice leading lady (Heather Graham) goes from apparent innocence
to seduction of everyone in the system while making the movie.
All the characters are a little crazy except Murphy, who is worse—an
easily alarmed basket case. (Murphy also plays a shy, endearing goof
in the film.) Most of what happens is silly or dropped in just for
the heck of it.
Tolerating that, there are a few payoffs: a scary-funny scene where
the bashful Murphy has to run across a busy freeway; a touching moment
when the cast and crew watch in awe as their dream of being on the
big screen actually comes true. (On some level the characters have
shown their humanity and vulnerability.) The true subject is the American
passion for movies and its descent into madness.
In Martin and Murphy, Bowfinger reunites two major Saturday
Night Live clowns and talents. Both of them know Hollywood pretensions
and silliness very well. The level of invention, realizing that, is
disappointing. Some sexual grappling and innuendo with satirical
intent; O.K. Tinseltown farce for adults.
STIR OF ECHOES (A-3, R) is a kind of middle-America ghost story,
set in a white working-class neighborhood of Chicago—urban creepy
rather than witch-in-the-woods stuff. It’s about a five-year-old who
has one-way chats with a ghost. Unlike the boy in The Sixth Sense,
he’s not terrified.
Things pick up when his dad (Kevin Bacon) plays around imprudently
with hypnotism and is haunted with the same scary visitations from
a spooky lady with an urgent message. Writer-director David Koepp
gets a tense and riveting performance from Bacon as he endures infrared
flashes, chases a babysitter to Union Station, has a prophetic dream
about a neighborhood suicide and tries to get the hypnotist (Illeana
Douglas) to turn off the unpleasant magic.
Ultimately, Stir is another tale that first frightens with
ghosts, then finds them helpful and benign—the true villains are among
the living. (The spirituality is strictly Hollywood.) The threatened
nuclear family (father, son and unflappable mom, played by Kathryn
Erbe) triumphs, but not until we’ve learned an unpleasant secret and
endured a gripping climax. Credible, higher I.Q. spook tale, much
too intense for the immature and suggestible.
POOR EMMY: In an interview after the self-congratulatory Emmy Awards,
Steven Bochco (guru of NYPD Blue and others) opined that the
medium was at its creative peak. You can take this as PR or simply
being out of touch. Anybody who watches (instead of produces) knows
that non-public TV is currently worse, more boring, more insipid,
less inventive than ever. (It’s cutting edge only in terms of sex,
violence and bleeped words.) Not even Bochco’s shows are as good as
they once were (Hill Street Blues and Doogie Howser).
P.T. BARNUM: The four-hour biography of the legendary 19th-century
showman starring Beau Bridges (on cable’s Arts & Entertainment network)
reminded us that Barnum is the guy who invented show biz, at least
in America. Phineas T. Barnum’s first venture was exhibiting an aged,
blind and immobile black woman (Joice Heth) as being 161 years old
and George Washington’s ex-nurse. Later, he sold Bibles, cologne and
paste, before he bought the American Museum on Broadway, which became
a great New York tourist attraction.
Among the curiosities he displayed were Chang and Eng, the original
“Siamese” twins; the midget Tom Thumb (and later his wife and child);
and an unbeatable chess-playing machine (with a smart French dwarf
hidden inside). Barnum built a tour around the classical singer Jenny
Lind. He is also remembered for his circus and the elephant Jumbo.
We can depend on the likelihood that the biopic may have exaggerated
his style and niceness a bit. Pop-culture taste is better now, and
the cons are smoother and pricier. But it’s good to remember old Phineas
is in our genes.
OF REFORM: THE CARDINAL SUENENS STORY
AUTHOR OF REFORM: THE CARDINAL SUENENS STORY (PBS): This frank and
rewarding documentary explores the dramatic issues that still confront
the Church as the new millennium dawns. The late Belgian Cardinal
Leon Joseph Suenens was a close collaborator with Pope John XXIII
and a major influence at the Second Vatican Council. The cardinal
was involved in many reforms, from ecumenism and charismatic renewal
to the role of women, collegiality and the “People of God.”
His life nearly spanned the century (1904-96). His call to Catholics
was “to renew faith, to hope in the future and to love each other
as you never did before.” He saw the Church’s role as “not to oppose
the world but to transform it.”
Suenens is a product of Journey Films, which produced the
beautiful Bernardin and is preparing Bonhoeffer for
next year. This biography of Suenens uses archival film and insights
from associates. He was a man of impressive humility, kindness and
courage who was also a scholar and a leader who listened.
In addition, the documentary analyzes (via a range of experts and
his own interviews) the cardinal’s many associations (the Legion of
Mary, the American charismatics), reform achievements (the permanent
diaconate, women invited as Council observers) and some others he
lost. (He hoped for “full discussion” of the concept of married priests.)
Suenens, who delivered the eulogy for Pope John XXIII, was a major
Vatican II influence in its documents, expressing the primacy of the
people in the Church. Once considered a likely pope himself, he was
close to Pope Paul VI. (He begged Paul not to sign Humanae Vitae,
seeing it as a second “Galileo affair.” A later break between them
is shown reconciled in an emotional celebration at St. Peter’s.)
Some religious programs are pious but not of great use; others may
be educational but dispensable. Suenens is about a good man.
It is also about the Church and its future in a turbulent time. No
one will want to miss it. Showing on most PBS stations, at varied
dates and times, starting November 14.