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Groundhog Day.

"Groundhog Day" (Columbia) is my movie recommendation for Lent. No, it's no dull sermon, something you have to endure with a sour face, but a first-rate vehicle for Bill Murray to change from a smug, self-centered misanthrope to a lover of humanity in general and Andie MacDowell and Punxsutawney, Pa., in particular. No substitute for prayer and fasting, but a reminder that every day you get a new chance.

Murray plays Phil Connors, an obnoxious TV weatherman who thinks that he belongs on a major network and that having to go to Panxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day Festival is a terrible trial. His witty cameraman (Chris Elliott) and Rita, his patient new producer (Andie MacDowell), try to coax him to abandon his cynicism and come to dinner with them, but he prefers to continue his stream of insults and preserve his isolation.

Fortunately for us, Phil doesn't get back to Pittsburgh after the festival: A blizzard he didn't predict forces him to return to the local bed-and-breakfast, and when the clock radio wakes him at six next morning, it's Feb. 2 again. His bed-and-breakfast proprietress repeats the well-intentioned greeting we'd heard before. A former classmate, now an insurance salesman, insists again on delaying Phil on his way to the festival, and in his rush to get away, Phil again steps into a huge puddle - and we laugh even more than we did the first time.

Many of the gags that grow out of "Groundhog Day's" time-trickery may be adolescent - when Phil realizes that his actions will have no consequences, he pigs out on high-cholesterol food and drives a car on the railroad tracks into the path of an oncoming train. But director Harold Ramis keeps everything moving, and "Groundhog Day" gets better as it goes.

Murray is genuinely funny when he's being outrageously antisocial, but a remains believable when he begins to realize he's being given a chance to change and is tired enough of the eternal return to want to change.

As things get more serious, the fun builds, too. Drawing on what he's learned about Rita from his many earlier (canceled out) Groundhog Days - e.g., she majored in 19th-century French poetry - Phil almost convinces her that he's a perfect soul mate until his residual self-centeredness makes her realize he's just feeding her a new line. Suddenly, he's getting slapped - as the antisocial person must be in comedy - and will continue to be generally humiliated until he gets it right.

Having enjoyed the way Murray earlier delivered insults, I was impressed at how convincingly he became a good guy, though Andie MacDowell might motivate any heel's reformation.

Groundhog Day keeps Phil in Punxsutawney so long that he becomes the one best able to anticipate and help out in a whole series of local crises. His rehabilitation even includes learning to play the piano to impress the romantic Rita. In so doing, he also impresses his piano teacher, who compliments him on reaching an extraordinary level of competence after only one lesson. By that time, of course, Phil has learned humility and explains his quick mastery in genetic terms: "My father was a piano mover."

I start with a prejudice in favor of John Sayles ("the Return of the Secaucus Seven." "Matewan") not only because he writes his own scripts but because he works on limited budgets and chooses subjects that transcend box-office formulas. The good news is that his new movie, "Passion Fish" (Miramax), is making it to the suburban malls where it can find a larger audience.

This may be because its central situation bears some analogy with "Driving Miss Daisy," though Sayles' two main characters are both intelligent and independent women, the African-American woman having a life of her own and more free to talk back to her employer.

In other hand "Passion Fish" could have ended up as a four-hanky soap beginning with a New York traffic accident that leaves May-Alice (Mary MacDonnell) a paraplegic who needs help just to get to the bathroom. Sayles, however, avoids sentimentality by making the victim a cynical soap opera star who returns to her abandoned family home in Louisiana's bayou country to spend her days in heavy drinking and endless TV-watching.

McDonnell shows real comic brio as she delivers nonstop insult to her incompetent nurses, one a compulsive cleaner, the other endlessly chattering about a boyfriend.

The movie really, gets going with the arrival of Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), a young black nurse from Chicago with a stabbornness equal to May-Alice's Sayles wisely refrains from turning Chantelle into some kind of liberal ideal. Nor is he the kind to produce medical miracles or tie up his plot in a neat romantic bow.

I might not have stayed with Lucian Pontille's "The Oak" if I hadn't already discovered this long-exiled Romanian director's adaptation of Chekhov's Ward Six. He now returns to his native country to bear testimony, setting its action at the end of the Ceausescu regime, though he offers no time/place context that will be readily identifiable by most U.S. viewers.

Squalor and despair set the tone as Nela watches over her dying father, a former colonel in the security police. Shortages and bureaucratic stupidity make it impossible for her even to donate his body for medical research, and she is reduced to carrying his ashes around in a Nescafe can. She makes a difficult journey to take a school-related job in a provincial town, where hoodlums almost gang-rape her on arrival. She passes out but is saved by the local doctor, a man who works heroically to save lives while openly showing contempt for the corrupt system.

Nela and the doctor team up in a wonderfully idealistic partnership, taking the remains of a young man who talked about starting a new religion back to his native village for an Orthodox burial.

The episodic developments take place in the midst of confusing military maneuvers, presumably a response to efforts to overthrow the government. But despite the director's understandable contempt for the recent communist regime in Romania, the movie is not narrowly political. Beyond its bitterly absurdist humor there emerges a deeply humanist celebration of individual courage and honor.

Nela and the doctor accomplish her father's wish by burying his ashes next to a giant oak on a note of forgiveness: "Good papa, tyrant papa, coward papa, rest in peace."

I won't pretend to make complete sense of "The Oak," but suspect that those who seek it out - or catch up with it in six months in a video catalog - will be surprisingly moved. Its apocalyptic scenes are hard to bear, especially as they are often presented as offhand humor, but the strange journeys to the countryside, the casual intensity of the couple's bravery, and the spreading branches of the oak tree come together finally as the director's painful cry of affection for his long-ravaged country.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Mar 12, 1993
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