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By James Arnold

Blondes, Princesses, Sweethearts


Legally Blonde

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 adults.

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 audiences.

America's Sweethearts

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 jokes.

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 Walken).

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

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 love.

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 pop songs.

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 of subtlety.

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 stop there.

Mister Rogers

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

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 of Eden.

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.

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