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Byline: Glenn Whipp Daily News Film Writer

Producer Charles Roven says there's something a little eerie in the air, and he's the first to admit that he's spooked.

For the past 10 years, Roven has been working on a remake of ``Wings of Desire,'' a movie about an angel who gives up his immortality for the love of a good woman. The film, retitled ``City of Angels,'' will hit theaters in April, three months after the premiere of another Roven movie - ``Fallen,'' the story of a demon who has been killing people since the beginning of time.

Talk about a strange pair of cinematic bookends.

``That they should come out at the same time is weird, and I don't think the timing is a coincidence,'' says Roven, who co-produced both films with his late wife, the former Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steel.

``I think that with the end of the millennium there's this group consciousness going around that has people really thinking about spiritual issues. Maybe it's that we're getting older. Or maybe this whole cloning thing has prompted us to ask: What is God? Who is God? And do we want to mess around and try to be like God?''

No one in Hollywood pretends to have the answers to those questions, but studios sure have enjoyed posing them recently. Call it chicken soup for the filmmaker's soul. These days, movies are embracing the light - and the darkness - in a big way.

Beginning with Matthew McConaughey's Tony Robbins take on spirituality in last summer's ``Contact,'' Hollywood's conversations with God have included the hell-born creatures in ``Spawn,'' Satan - Mr. Hell himself - in ``The Devil's Advocate,'' Woody Allen's trip to hell in ``Deconstructing Harry,'' two valentines to the Dalai Lama in ``Seven Years in Tibet'' and ``Kundun,'' and Robert Duvall sermonizing himself into a spiritual tizzy in ``The Apostle.''

Of course, popular culture bears testimony that religion is finding its way into every aspect of our theme park lives these days, from television's ``Touched by an Angel'' to James Redfield's ``Celestine Prophecy'' phenomenon to the recent sightings of Jesus on a Wichita Pizza Hut billboard to the boom of interest in Eastern religions and their various offshoots. It seems that everywhere you turn, Zen is in.

``People are looking for answers wherever they can find them,'' says Michael Wilkins, dean of faculty at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada. ``When I was growing up, if you talked about religion in the popular culture, you'd be ridiculed. Today, you're embraced.''

Filmmakers seem to be realizing that, although not everyone sees spirituality as an afterlife-or-death issue. The campy ``Devil's Advocate'' was more satanic send-up than a lesson in theology. And yet, director Taylor Hackford admits there was a small moral to all of his over-the-top madness.

``We never blamed the devil for these terrible events,'' Hackford says. ``When people have the opportunity to exercise their free will, they choose to damn themselves nine times out of 10. We wanted to show that you make your own choices in life - the devil is merely the impulse inside of us to choose what we know is ethically wrong. It's not some guy with a forked tail. We ourselves are responsible.''

Roven's ``Fallen'' has a different take. Borrowing a page from everyone's favorite Bible doomsday book, Revelations, the film opens at the execution of a serial killer. As the cop who collared the fiend, Denzel Washington looks on with a mixture of satisfaction and pride as they strap him into the electric chair.

Those emotions soon turn to dread as Washington realizes that the executed psychopath was possessed by a demon, a malevolent spirit whose favorite song, appropriately enough, is the Rolling Stones' ``Time Is on My Side.'' So, though the killer is dead, the evil lives on.

Roven says he, director Gregory Hoblit and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan spent many a late night talking about life, death and the nature of evil - while eating Chinese food, of course. Kazan, who claims no religious beliefs, says his script mostly came from watching normal people do reprehensible things.

``Basically, the movie answers the question, `What the hell got into him?' '' Kazan says.

Washington, who played an angel a year ago in ``The Preacher's Wife,'' also downplays much of the film's supernatural significance.

``Religion is the basis of my life, and faith in God is the core,'' Washington says. ``I don't know, though, about this whole evil spirit stuff. For me, it's just a good, unique way to tell a story. To say otherwise, well, somebody might think you're going to be leaving in a spaceship soon.''

But Washington does believe that Hollywood should spend more time talking about God.

``You look around and things are a little out of balance,'' Washington says. ``You turn on the TV news and you see 12 minutes devoted to violence and murder. That's OK. But if you talk about God, then you're attacked. We need to change that.''

Duvall did his part on that count, not only starring in ``The Apostle,'' but writing, directing and bankrolling the project as well. He says he had to become a one-man band by necessity. No one wanted to make his movie about a Pentecostal minister who endures a crisis of faith.

``Usually films tend to caricature preachers,'' says Duvall, who has a Protestant background. ``They put everything in quotes and really look down on them by not portraying them accurately. The subject has always fascinated me because I've never really seen it done. But since I like the subject and am really attracted to these guys, I figured I might do it the right way.''

Roven, raised an Orthodox Jew, says he thinks others in the film and television industries soon may be following Duvall into church.

``A lot of people in the business are like me. I was raised in a religious home, then rebelled as a teen-ager, kind of drifted in later years and now it's coming back into my consciousness,'' Roven says. ``People tend to think about God more when the clock starts to wind down. I see a lot of that in people I know around town.''

Adds Duvall: ``The hereafter, I always wonder about. We all have our individual journeys from the cradle to the grave, and in that journey we try to do whatever we can in this life. Maybe this movie is something that I can put out that might help people deal with that.''

Talbot's Wilkins isn't surprised that actors and filmmakers are thinking more about divine matters.

``The baby-boomer generation has reached a spiritual crisis of sorts,'' Wilkins says. ``And it's natural that we're seeing some of that played out in movie theaters and on television.''

Of course, matters of religion are always open to interpretation. And others have different ideas about why filmmakers are turning to God in greater numbers.

``Hey, this is Hollywood,'' screenwriter Kazan says. ``Out here, you can find the devil around every corner - without even really looking. So, it's not shocking that people are looking to God a little more to balance out the equation.''


4 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) DEVIL or ANGEL?

`The Fallen,' starring Denzel Washington, is an `X-Files'-type thriller with a theological twist

(2) One of the vehicles with which Hollywood is attempting to capture the spirit - and flip side - of, well, the spirit, is ``Fallen,'' with Denzel Washington, right, the story of a demon who has been killing people since the beginning of time.

(3) Robert Duvall, starring in ``The Apostle,'' wrote, directed and bankrolled the project. ``The subject has always fascinated me because I've never really seen it done,'' Duvall says.

(4) The campy ``Devil's Advocate,'' with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, was more satanic send-up than a lesson in theology.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 16, 1998

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