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By James Arnold

Fright Plus Insight





ONE HOUR PHOTO (A-4, R): Most thrillers and horror films operate on only one level—the fright or the thrill. Rarely do films operate on a moral or intellectual level, changing how we perceive the world around us.

Photo is one of those rare movies. Based on an insight by first-time writer-director Mark Romanek (a music-video veteran)—that family snapshots are always of happy subjects—it explores the disturbed psyche of Sy Parrish (a soft, low-key Robin Williams). A shy, lonely clerk in a suburban-mall photo shop, he lives vicariously through one of his customer families, the Yorkins—Nina, Will and their nine-year-old, Jake.

Sy is like a media fan who fixes on a celebrity or a fictional TV family and obsesses about them because his own life is barren. Sy idealizes the Yorkins, whose photos he’s been developing for years. He seems merely odd and pathetic, collecting their photos, passing them off to strangers as his own family, fantasizing how it would be to live with them.

Sy imagines his photo on the Yorkins’ fridge. He wants to be a friend. He roots for Jake at his soccer practice and reads a book Nina (the marvelous Connie Nielsen) carries so he can carry on a conversation with her. He’s a bit like a robot or alien who longs to be human.

Collapse of the charade is inevitable but takes a sinister turn when Sy also discovers the Yorkins are less than perfect. The thriller aspect takes over, with some frightening, adult-level moments. But among filmmaker Romanek’s surprises is a twist that raises compassion above the potential for horror.

As for the moral edge, it’s not just that Sy longs to love and be loved in an ordinary way, and that he is finally angry at cruelty and the destruction of innocence. It’s also that the film raises our consciousness about all those we pass on streets and in malls who do not have what we have.

The film also changes the way we look at photos. Sy’s voiceovers add up to a thoughtful appreciation of snapshots and their “little stand against the flow of time.” They suggest that someone cared enough about me to take my picture. Recommended for adults.


MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (A-2, PG): This small, modestly reviewed adaptation of Nia Vardalos’s one-woman stage comedy went on to make box-office kazillions. (Producers Rita Wilson and husband, Tom Hanks, truly have the golden touch.)

It’s about a bright but wallflower daughter, Toula (played by Second City comic Vardalos), and her wacky but lovable restaurant-owning Greek-American family in Chicago. Daring to go outside the family’s inflexible ethnic expectations, she makes herself over, studies computers and gets a job. Then she falls in love with hunky Ian (John Corbett), a non-Greek vegetarian from a family of stuffy WASPs.

Nothing much in Big Fat is new, except it’s Greek instead of another ethnic group. Toula’s dad is 200 percent Greek (all words have Greek roots, everything was invented by Greeks).

The humor comes from everywhere—language gags, the dad’s all-purpose use of Windex, the Greek custom of spitting to show approval—as well as Ian’s Orthodox baptism by immersion. Ian is obviously eager to please, and Toula is witty and sympathetic. Finally, the church wedding is dignified and moving.

So why is this film so popular? Beats me. That’s Life, a TV comedy series with many similarities, couldn’t find an audience. Maybe it’s like comfort food: Weddings are happy times, and there are reasons why we enjoy watching mismatched but celebrating nuptial families. Or maybe it’s because ethnic diversity, intermingling and getting along are relevant. Mildly charming sleeper comedy; minimal raunchiness; easy pleasure for most audiences.


THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC: Fans of Catholic movies found the restored version of Carl Dreyer’s intimate and powerful The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) recently on the Sundance Channel. It ranks among the top five religious films ever made. After 70 years of rare exposure (in art cinemas or via scratchy prints projected in dim classrooms) this masterpiece is accessible in nearly all its original glory.

Dreyer, the greatest creative talent in the history of Danish cinema, made the silent film in France with Renee Falconetti, 35, a leading Paris stage actress, who became immortal in her only film role. In frequent close-ups, Falconetti uses her incredible eyes and expressiveness to convey both Joan’s humanity and spirit.

Working from historical records, Dreyer covers in two hours only the 18-month trial and execution. It’s constructed like the passion of Jesus: false testimony, interrogation and shrewd, patient answers, mockery, torture. Then it moves to Joan’s extended, painful public death. Little needs to be translated in subtitles, since so much is revealed by faces and gestures.

Falconetti’s saint stands virtually alone amid her arrogant tormentors. Her courage, suffering and desperation to receive the consolation of the sacraments break your heart. In the end, a young priest is drawn to her, allows her Confession and Communion, and holds aloft the crucifix to see in her final moments. Dreyer’s ending is spectacular: Vast crowds riot (“You have burned a saint!”) and storm the castle as troops drive them back across the moat.

The final image is a metaphor: The inscription above her head (“apostate”) burns slowly into smoke that rises to the sky. A beautiful print, aided by subtle and moving orchestral and choral music added in the restoration; highly recommended for mature audiences.


HACK (CBS, Fridays): Recently seen in the title role of the affecting PBS drama Diary of a City Priest, David Morse has returned this fall as the tough protagonist of Hack, a disgraced ex-cop turned a do-gooding taxi driver on Philadelphia’s mean streets.

Morse, who portrayed Dr. Morrison on St. Elsewhere, has a distinguished history playing priests: He made his Broadway debut as labor priest Father Barry in the stage version of On the Waterfront. In Hack, the priest role goes to burly veteran George Dzundza. (It’s always helpful to have a sympathetic padre as a key regular on a prime-time drama.)

Morse’s street-savvy Mike Olshansky is a perennial TV favorite: a Polish-Catholic urban knight who helps vulnerable people while being free of the rules restricting legitimate cops. In the pilot, he helped an out-of-town Lutheran pastor rescue his teen daughter from an Internet sex predator. In later episodes, he helped a teen accused of murder, a repentant teen junkie pursued by a murderous drug dealer, and a wife and daughter allegedly abused by their husband-father who is a cop.

There’s a fine cast of regulars: Andre Braugher as a detective friend; Dzundza as adviser, pal and conscience; Tony-winner Donna Murphy as Mike’s estranged wife and Matt Borish as his angry 11-year-old son. But the writing by creator David Koepp (Spider-Man, Panic Room) will have to match to keep the series afloat on low-viewership Friday nights.


EVERWOOD (WB, Mondays): The writing is good enough in this new series, set in photogenic small-town Colorado, where the teens and even the 10-year-olds have interesting things to say. It also has an exceptional veteran lead actor, Treat Williams, as Andy Brown, a grieving New York neurosurgeon who takes his family back to nature after the sudden death of his much-loved wife.

Andy, in sweaters and jeans, resolves to work for free as a general practitioner “after years of making money from other people’s misery.” He’s got a variety of poor, quirky backwoods patients (dare we think Northern Exposure?). But he’s in immediate conflict with the arrogant doctor already there, who happens to be the father of Amy, the instant high school friend of Ephram, Andy’s son.

Andy is smart, nice and feisty. He misses his wife so much he talks to her a lot (which can be embarrassing), but he also talks to his difficult son (likely future star Gregory Smith). In addition, Andy is close and supportive to his young daughter, Delia (Vivien Cardone). Everwood has the WB appeal to youth and also offers, besides the gorgeous setting, a solid model for fathers.


FRONTLINE: FAITH AND DOUBT AT GROUND ZERO (PBS): Producer and co-writer Helen Whitney’s anniversary documentary on the theological issues raised by the 9/11 attacks was elegant, provocative and probably the best religious TV journalism I’ve ever seen. Starting with questions of despair and outrage (“Why didn’t God defend us?”), people of varied faiths and non-faiths, expert and ordinary, all clearly shaken by the events, moved viewers toward deeper understanding.

It wasn’t just talking heads, but integrated with seamlessly edited images of the violence and its aftermath, including superb examples of the power of great voices and hymns to reconcile us to tragedy (Renee Fleming and “Amazing Grace” at Ground Zero, DeNyce Graves and the “Our Father” at the National Cathedral).

The conclusion to the problem of evil is that God cannot be blamed for what humans do. Helpful also were the final suggestions that God did move that day in the acts of goodness, sacrifice and love that occurred. (The video can be purchased for $24.98, plus $5.25 for shipping, at 1-877-PBS-SHOP or at

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