LEGALLY BLONDE (A-2, PG-13) unleashes high-energy comedy
talent Reese Witherspoon (memorably funny as the unflappable
high school politician in Election). As Elle Woods,
she is a sorority beauty queen who goes to Harvard Law School
in pursuit of the insufferable boyfriend who dumped her.
She is clueless at first and sticks out in her ultra-serious
class of workaholic geniuses like a butterfly in a hornets’
nest. Elle is really wasting her brainpower under all the
frills and froth. She shifts the whole direction of her
life, hits the books and finds a nicer and brainier boyfriend.
Blonde is a fun and silly yarn, with mostly female
characters and a feminist edge, aimed straight at young
women. (A sequel is already in the works.) It has fun with
the glamour-girl-on-campus as well as a bunch of other college,
gender and occupational stereotypes. The details are fresh
and funny—Elle’s “video essay” for admission to Harvard
begins with her in a swimsuit in front of a pool; her class
notebook is pink and heart-shaped.
Elle is spunky, kind, decent and ethical. The PG-13
rating is refreshingly right; satisfactory for youth and
The Princess Diaries
THE PRINCESS DIARIES (A-1, G): If Legally Blonde
is about a frivolous pretty woman who becomes brainy and
serious, Princess comes from the more traditional
opposite direction: awkward, nerdy high school girl is transformed
into a beautiful, socially skilled (and rich) royal.
The much-hyped newcomer Anne Hathaway is fine as Mia Thermopolis,
the likable private-school sophomore with horn-rims and
bad hair, living in San Francisco with her eccentric artist,
single mom. Julie Andrews arrives as the queen of a Monaco-like
postage-stamp kingdom in Europe to tell Mia she is heir
to the throne. First the ugly duckling is made over into
a swan; then she must decide whether she really wants to
live out the rest of the fairy tale.
Princess seems like a hundred films you’ve seen
before. But funny, warmhearted director Garry Marshall (who
made Pretty Woman) works to get consistent laughs
and heart tugs (even from high school flick clichés) and
superbly exploits the Bay Area locales. Smooth old pros
Andrews and Hector Elizondo (as Mia’s mentors and protectors)
also help. You try not to look too closely at a rare live-action
G-rated movie, advertised as “the perfect family film.”
No doubt the movie owes a debt to the late Princess Diana
who helped to upgrade the image of royals and make the vocation
of life-as-a-princess more respectable. The appeal is less
to family than to the fantasies of adolescent girls. The
chuckles are at least sometimes up-to-date: After a comic
traffic accident, passing nuns (in habits, of course) pull
out a cell phone and call 911. Satisfactory for general
AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (A-3, PG-13): Odd things are happening
since movie exhibitors earlier this year gave in to pressure
to enforce the ban on under-17s at R-rated movies. Since
most producers really want and need younger teens in the
audience, a lot of R-rated flicks have been tamed down just
enough to qualify as PG-13. Net effect: Many PG-13’s are
edgy (America’s Sweethearts and The Animal).
The R-rated films that remain (American Pie 2) are
even raunchier than usual.
What happens in marginal PG-13 films too often is that
the moral spirit is still shaggy but the offense is less
direct: lots of sex talk and taunting, anatomy and toilet
It’s pathetic in Sweethearts, which offers a nice
cast including Julia Roberts, John Cusack, Billy Crystal
and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They desperately search for laughs
in a hopeful spoof of contemporary Hollywood shallowness
and ego. A bad sign is director Joe Roth, the former Disney
chief who for two decades has had a mostly anti-Midas touch
(everything turns to trash).
Crystal has to bear some hubris as coauthor with Peter
Tolan (a writer for TV’s Larry Sanders Show). Crystal,
the most likable male character, is a duplicitous PR flack
assigned to run a press junket for a new movie at a posh
desert hotel near Las Vegas. He must stall reporters until
the film is delivered by its eccentric director (Christopher
Cusack and Zeta-Jones are the battling stars whose marriage
has collapsed. Roberts is the spoiled superstar’s mousy
but lovable subservient sister who loses 60 pounds to become
a (shock) smashing beauty. The whole tasteless farce waits
for Walken’s film, which (alas) is worse than all that went
before. Falls with a thud of disappointment.
THE MISSION (1986) brings to stunning life the tragic and
little-known story of the 18th-century Jesuit Reducciónes
(or mission enclaves) in South America. Made by the same
producer-director-camera team that had done The Killing
Fields two years earlier, the spectacular costume drama,
shot in Brazilian rainforest locales, may well be the best
movie ever with priests as heroes.
The conflict is between the Jesuit missioners, who have
helped their Guaraní Indian converts develop utopian religious
and economic communities and come to identify with them,
and 18th-century Vatican authority that (for complex political
reasons) demands the projects be abandoned.
The script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)
focuses on a remote jungle mission, where the leaders are
the gentle Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and Rodrigo (Robert
De Niro), a volatile ex-soldier who has become a Jesuit
to save his soul. Each in his own way fails to prevent the
brutal decimation of the Indians and tragic destruction
of the missions, which were an achievement of faith and
The sadness of the defeat is redeemed in part by the judgment
of history reflected in the film, which puts Catholics in
touch with a forgotten and inspiring moment in their heritage.
The splendor of Chris Menges’s cinematography is matched
by Ennio Morricone’s mostly choral musical score, which
alone raises the spirits through the roof. Highly recommended
for all but very young children.
MTV at 20
MTV AT 20: The Viacom-owned music network, which advertisers
know virtually owns the 12-24 age group, continues on its
20th birthday to be a creepy influence. It keeps growing,
like The Blob or some other sci-fi creature that
is eating our children, both in numbers (2.1 million subscribers
in 1981, 73.5 million now), and in its influence (on other
media and the moral tone of society).
You can always argue that music is a positive influence—even
bad music. At first MTV relied on promotional music videos,
which (when not simply recordings of performances) were
an interesting leap forward from the Hit Parade TV
shows of the 1950s, making up little stories to illustrate
The videos quickly bloomed into an art form. It even had
a brief mid-1980s “golden age” (just like TV itself in the
’50s) before being strangled by commercial influences. The
channel helped integrate black artists into the mainstream.
Among its better moral moments: the 17-hour Live Aid
concert for famine relief in 1985 and the 17-hour scrolling
of names of victims of hate crimes in 2001.
But MTV has gone far beyond music in becoming a leading
force in defining what is “cool” in ways often conflicting
with how parents would like to define it. In attempting
with great success to draw a youthful audience for advertisers,
MTV often sold out in glorifying bad-behavior icons, reflecting
shallow pop values and reinforcing them, and helping socialize
adolescents into fans and consumers.
Some want to blame MTV, which has expanded into books and
films, for everything that’s disturbing. The list of thanks-a-lot
items is long (barf-out humor, so-called “reality” TV shows,
using its ad power to plug raunchy movies like American
Pie, stupid prank series like Jackass, outrageous
fashions). You might say the common denominator is lack
But it’s not all-powerful. Most young people survive the
MTV years with minimal scarring. The pop-music channel did
not invent turn-of-the millennium morality but merely plugged
into it. The appetite for good music, once whetted, won’t
MISTER ROGERS, on the other hand and in ludicrous contrast
to the noisy controversy of MTV, leaves no doubts. John
Donvan’s tribute on Nightline (ABC) reminded us of
Fred Rogers’s 34-year career in children’s programming.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the anti-pop culture,
gentle and reassuring program—primarily to kids but also
to harassed parents.
Most of the contact Fred Rogers had with the public in
recent years involved people of varied ages approaching
and thanking him. The talented Mister Rogers wrote
all his scripts and songs, and handled the puppets. But
he also gave a positive connotation again to the much-abused
word nice. Fred, we like you just the way you are.
Man, you are very, very cool.
JAMES DEAN (TNT) proved to be a stunner in what is becoming
a TNT specialty—biopics based with some accuracy on the
lives of Hollywood icons who came to unfortunate ends. As
in an earlier film about Judy Garland (played with almost
spooky accuracy by Judy Davis), actor James Franco does
Dean virtually as an impersonation. Although he doesn’t
have to sing and dance, Franco nails the sheepish slouch
and uncannily reenacts several great Dean movie moments,
including the father-son money-rejection scene in East
Showbiz seems to have done in Garland, with demands that
led to drug problems. The thesis in the Dean tragedy is
a severe cutting-off of love from his father (Michael Moriarty),
which is finally explained in a powerful concluding reconciliation.
But not, sadly, soon enough to modify the self-destructive
impulse that finally killed Dean (much too soon) in the
famously tragic 1955 sports car crash.
Moriarty is believable as the inarticulate dad who takes
out his humiliation and anger on his son. Another Emmy is
likely to go to director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond),
who also plays eccentric mogul Jack Warner. Rydell lifts
this melancholy but riveting story, with its strange but
gifted hero, far above the usual mark for TV movies.