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Ron Howard broadcasts dead air in the idiotic "EDtv"

By Donna Bowman and Noel Murray

MARCH 29, 1999:  There's nothing worse than a good idea gone to waste--unless it's a good idea turned into a shameless exploitation of the very issue it set out to explore. Ron Howard's new film EDtv is the second film in a year to examine the impact of round-the-clock television coverage on an ordinary person's life, and now that Howard has stomped around in that sandbox and made a mess of the play area, this interesting and relevant issue is probably off-limits to filmmakers for a few seasons.

The first entry into TV territory was, of course, The Truman Show, and in many ways EDtv is the inverse of Truman's premise. Instead of placing an unwitting star in an artificial environment, screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel take an ordinary guy out of a bar and follow him with cameras all day. Ed (Matthew McConaughey) works at a video store, has a burgeoning romance with Sherry (Jenna Elfman), and tolerates the money-making schemes his brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) periodically launches. When True TV, a struggling cable network, switches to an all-Ed, all-the-time format, ratings soar and the likable Ed becomes a celebrity. But the new star, along with his family and friends, finds out that fame carries a heavy price when USA Today starts running polls on his sex life and the network won't let him quit.

People in the public eye tend to lose their privacy? The media have a hard time telling the difference between reality and entertainment? What shocking revelations! In sharp contrast to Truman, which used its high concept to examine our society's craving for security, EDtv draws only the most obvious, clichd morals from its hero's two months in front of the lens. The movie's villains are the easiest targets imaginable: network suits obsessed with profits and overnights, embodied by a ridiculously caricatured Rob Reiner. Thankfully for Universal's TV syndication arm, however, there's a programming exec with a heart, played by Ellen Degeneres, who reforms the evil empire from within.

Matthew McConaughey flashes his million-dollar smile a lot during the first hour, and for the privilege of spending more time with his personable Ed, the trade-off of sitting through contrived crises doesn't seem too bad. But as Ganz and Mandel tick off their shopping list of moral dilemmas--the disillusioned girlfriend, the estranged brother, the tempting slut, the long-lost father--McConaughey becomes a confused observer of his own show, and all the life drains out of the film. Elfman's character is unusually colorless, except for some radically plucked eyebrows. And poor Martin Landau, as Ed's stepfather Al, is stuck in a motorized cart and wheeled out for geezer laughs.

Worst of all, a movie that purports to be all about the way media attention corrupts reality shoves Pepsi products and subsidiaries in the audience's face for two hours without a trace of irony. Real incisive stuff. Ganz and Mandel, who got rich in the '80s on good work like Parenthood and City Slickers, have now become a sure bet for shallow bathos (Father's Day, Greedy). Too bad they got to this premise before some writers with insight got to take a crack at it. We might have learned something about ourselves, or at least gotten a few laughs for our seven bucks.

--Donna Bowman

The little things

In Clint Eastwood's otherwise stifling 1997 "thriller" Absolute Power, there's one scene that comes off like a little miracle. Eastwood's master thief and Ed Harris' exhausted cop chat about old age at the snack bar of a museum, and both the characters and the story open up before our eyes, only to snap shut again immediately, weighed down by the heavy-handed moralizing and clumsy political conspiracies. Meanwhile, we pine for that moment of grace, thinking, "Why can't the entire movie be little scenes like this?"

True Crime, Eastwood's latest directorial effort, is almost exactly what we were pining for. Eastwood stars as a recovering alcoholic reporter on the crime beat of an Oakland, Calif., newspaper. Assigned to write a "human interest" piece about the last day in the life of condemned murderer Isaiah Washington, Eastwood instead decides to investigate whether Washington is actually guilty.

This is far from an original premise--it's been used in Call Northside 777 and the movie-within-a-movie of The Player, among others--and subplots about Eastwood's unreliability and unfaithfulness are hardly crisp. Fortunately, the film doesn't present these clichs as though they were revelations. Instead, Eastwood moves at a relaxed, confident pace, letting the potboiler heat up on its own while he leisurely settles into each scene.

For the first hour, he casually cuts from the mundane official details surrounding a convict's execution to the ways a reporter procrastinates by pecking around the edges of the story. Eastwood's character even pauses to take his daughter to the zoo, although his general impatience with domestic matters causes him to rush through the park on what he calls "speed zoo." And yes, there's a race against time in the final hour, as Eastwood tries to find a crucial witness before it's too late. But the big climax is no more important to the director than the heartbreakingly prosaic hours that Washington spends with his family (including a daughter who's distraught over the loss of a green crayon).

Eastwood deserves only partial credit for True Crime's emphasis on small, human-scaled scenes. A team of screenwriters including Paul Brickman (Risky Business) and Larry Gross (48 Hours) hammered out the script, and Eastwood is notorious for filming scripts as swiftly and precisely as possible. Of course, he also works with the writers to get a script he likes, and one can imagine lively conferences for True Crime, as one person argued for Dead Man Walking-style realism and another pushed for rapid-fire, Ben Hecht-inspired newsroom dialogue.

Eastwood allows room for a little bit of both, showing both the awkward nobility of the prison guards and wardens, as well as the vulgar repartee between himself and his editors (James Woods and Denis Leary). Somehow, this collision of styles never looks hideous, mainly because Eastwood doesn't put his bricks together to make some grand statement--rather, he simply likes how they feel in his hand. Ultimately, True Crime becomes what it's about: a celebration of little moments.

--Noel Murray

Finger-lickin' good

The advertising for Ravenous has tried to position the film in the comic-horror genre--the lucrative home of Scream and The Faculty. Director Antonia Bird interrupts the cannibalistic gore every so often with a speech about America's carnivorous, imperialist appetites, as if she's making a satiric allegory. But neither the comic label nor the social indictments really fit. Ravenous is a straight-up horror film at heart, and it counts as a success in that dying genre, thanks to a nimble plotline and two well-pitched performances by its leads.

Guy Pearce, the Aussie actor who was a potent force in L.A. Confidential, plays John Boyd, a soldier in the Spanish-American War who backed into heroism by playing dead. For his tainted victory, he's sent to a remote fort in the Sierra Nevada, where he finds Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) presiding over a handful of dirty misfits. One day a half-frozen man calling himself Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles out of the mountains with a tale of a lost wagon train and the extreme measures he and his starving companions took to survive. He's acquired a taste for human flesh that gives him superhuman powers of healing and survival, and as he disposes of the garrison, it's up to Boyd to resist his cult-like appeal.

Carlyle, who bolstered The Full Monty with an understated, humanistic comic performance, revels in the villainous possibilities of the movie's head chef. But he never goes overboard into screaming, eye-rolling, Gary Oldman territory, preferring to play the role as a charismatic but reasonable gourmand. Although Carlyle has the showy part and gets most of the good lines, it's Pearce who makes the film work. The protagonist of a horror film is mainly required for reaction shots, and most actors run out of interesting ways to look terrified pretty quickly. But Pearce finds divisions and subdivisions of fear, revulsion, weariness, and pain, and he expresses them all without histrionics.

While fine acting keeps the film watchable, a well-crafted story structure keeps it moving right along. Sure, there's the usual horror-movie flab: Efforts to make the eventual victims interesting are wasted, the big bloodbath climax can't be sustained, and the less said about David Arquette, the better. But it's surprising how effective a pure genre movie can be when some stellar elements get plugged into the formula. Ignore the superfluous messages, and feast on some old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes horror.

--Donna Bowman

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