- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Ordinarily, I would have been reviewing three or four new movies today. One of the trifling consequences of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was a flurry of postponements on the movie calendar. The date most affected was Sept. 21: "Big Trouble" and "Sidewalks of New York" were shelved indefinitely and "Training Day" retreated to Oct. 5. That leaves the Mariah Carey musical, "Glitter," as the weekend's only new release, and it enters the marketplace without press screenings.

The most satisfying and timely attraction in Washington at the moment would appear to be a revival: "Funny Girl," booked exclusively on the gigantic screen of the Cineplex Odeon Uptown in a nicely preserved print that restores the "roadshow" enhancements of the original big-city engagements of October 1968 an overture, an intermission and exit music. Nothing else comes close to resembling a serendipitous source of consolation and reflection for injured spirits.

Evidently, the movie industry will resume its typical volume in subsequent weekends: five titles are scheduled for Sept. 28 and seven for Oct. 5.

A conspicuous attraction has had to vacate the latter date, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vengeance thriller "Collateral Damage," in which he was cast as a Los Angeles firefighter who loses a wife and child to a terrorist bombing and vows to track down the mastermind. In this fictional case the quest leads to Colombia, but one assumes that the content will remain too inflammatory or cathartic to be prudently exploitable for some time to come.

"Big Trouble" and "Sidewalks of New York" were probably fortunate that they hadn't opened a weekend sooner. Both might have looked infamous in the aftermath of calamity, necessitating prompt withdrawals from public scrutiny. The former, based on a comic novel by Dave Barry, is a farce predicated on a nuclear bomb threat at a Miami airport. The latter aspires to be a sex comedy, doting on half a dozen amorously dysfunctional New Yorkers who prattle about their love affairs.

At the very least, title changes will be imperative if either film hopes to justify its existence as a first-run attraction in another season or year. The connotations of "Sidewalks of New York" have changed so gravely in the past 10 days that it's profoundly repugnant to associate the words with a frivolous context. Writer-director Edward Burns has plenty of incentive to regret his latest movie and turn his hand to a humbled and serious consideration of his fellow New Yorkers in a time of genuine trial. I have no doubt that he will in the fullness of time and wish him every success. If "Sidewalks of New York" becomes a "lost" movie, no one will suffer serious deprivation.

In a similar respect, you wonder what will become of the lewd prattle and exhibitionism that has sustained the HBO series "Sex and the City." In the aftermath of Sept. 11, can the producers carry on with the same one-track emphasis? Will the calamity make an impression on Tony Soprano and his family? When last seen, President Bartlet of "The West Wing" was acting extravagantly unstable, grinding a cigarette butt into the floor of the National Cathedral and teetering near an apparent mental breakdown, presumably as a preface to bouncing back and foiling the Republicans. What happens to this line of malarkey in the wake of a genuine crisis?

Of course, the larger question for the Hollywood establishment is how to adjust to a possibly enduring climate of national peril and urgency, not to mention a reawakened and possibly enduring patriotism. The nature of the commercial film business makes a timely response impossible, since movies tend to require years of gestation and months of production. Immediate information and solace belong to broadcasting and to social interactions that leave the movies looking like a very poor, irrelevant alternative.

A supreme, authentic emotional spectacle continues to be played out on television. The audiences at sporting events can derive some instant gratification from patriotic gestures and be reminded of the seriousness of things in general by heightened security measures. There's something to recommend moviegoing as a welcome or convenient source of distraction and relaxation, but even the escapist argument tends to underline the medium's marginal relationship to immediate experience and far-reaching considerations.

For quite some time, Hollywood has been soliciting only insatiable thrill seekers and chuckleheads in a systematic way. I certainly won't despair if thrillers as gleefully wanton as "Independence Day" and "Air Force One" and "Swordfish" become conceptually obsolete until, say, a foolproof defense against terrorism and invasion have been achieved in the United States.

If the sort of moronic and obscene young folks glorified in farces such as "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" or "American Pie" have to confront a less receptive public, the country certainly won't be poorer for the change in fashion.

Not that every thriller of the past decade now seems disgraceful. Although it's probably unbearable at the moment, Edward Zwick's "The Siege" deserves some credit for anticipating a terrorist assault in a plausible way and taking both slaughter and peril seriously. The best aspects of "Proof of Life" the nonromantic stuff call attention to kinds of perseverance and valor and expertise that could prove invaluable in real theaters of shadow warfare against terrorism.

De-emphasizing slovenly and oblivious comedy shouldn't discourage the range of superior possibilities that extend from the wackiness of "Happy Gilmore" to the erudition of "Shakespeare in Love." Some approaches and practitioners are just better than others.

• • •

While compiling the movie side of the fall preview over Labor Day weekend, I realized how few new attractions I was actually looking forward to. Only partly in jest, I mentioned that it would be easy to settle for a 10 Best or even a 15 Best as the summer ended. The drawback is that the vast majority of these titles belong to the art-house sphere; they're either foreign-language imports or small-scale American features released by independent distributors. As a result, many of them remain unknown or only vaguely known to a mass moviegoing public, often oblivious to any attraction that lacks a big Hollywood promotional campaign.

Indeed, a case could be made that an auspicious new wave of movie talent is emerging from almost every direction except mainstream Hollywood. It's a little like the early 1960s in that respect.

To reiterate, self-respecting moviegoers should endeavor to catch up with the following releases of 2001: "Faithless," "The House of Mirth," "Memento," "With a Friend Like Harry," "The Dish," "The Golden Bowl," "The Circle," "Startup.com," "The Road Home," "The Anniversary Party," "The Closet," "The Score," "The Deep End," "The Others," "Divided We Fall," "Everybody's Famous," "Under the Sand," "Ghost World" and "An American Rhapsody."

Not much Hollywood input in this encouraging company. It remains to be seen if a now decisively overwhelmed and altered movie season can restore a semblance of hope and dignity to Hollywood, which needs to repair its own reputation for glorifying the vain and superficial at the expense of the essential.

For quite some time, Hollywood has been soliciting only insatiable thrill seekers and chuckleheads in a systematic way.

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