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TV REVIEWS : Showtime’s ‘Roswell’ an Engaging UFO Encounter

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Flying saucer stories may have fallen out of fashion, but Showtime’s “Roswell” is not a mere sci-fi hardware yarn.

It dramatically re-examines the social and human side of a controversial 1947 UFO incident in the New Mexico desert that many observers on the scene insist was covered up by government authorities.

Everybody, it seems, was spotting flying discs in the summer of ’47. But the most controversial sighting, later dubbed “a cosmic Watergate,” occurred outside of Roswell, N.M., the then-home of the 509th (Atomic) Bombardment Group that had leveled Nagasaki and Hiroshima two years earlier.

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One morning, a New Mexico sheep rancher named Marc Brazel (played by country singer Dwight Yoakam) discovers shiny, lightweight, foil-like fragments scattered over a wide surface of his scrubby outback.

Soon a Roswell Army Air Force intelligence officer, Maj. Jesse Marcel (Kyle MacLachlan), surveys the crash site and proceeds to set in motion the country’s most notorious UFO case: the only instance in which the Air Force announced that it had recovered a flying saucer only to frantically retract the statement two days later.

Based on the nonfiction book “UFO Crash at Roswell” by Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt, the production succeeds because it’s not so much a space odyssey but the story of a man’s lost soul: in effect, the wages of a man’s discovery and search for truth by MacLachlan’s dogged and humiliated Maj. Marcel.

Combing those sheep fields and taking some of the bizarre crash particles home to his wife and son, Marcel in no time becomes the classic fall guy for higher-ups who insist the crushed vehicle was not a UFO but a mangled weather balloon.

UFO fanatics and conspirators of all stripes will have a field day.

The movie paints the picture of a Washington security cover-up despite 350 military and civilian witnesses who observed and later talked about the wild and murky events.

The late ‘40s period production values are exceptionally sharp and the writers (Arthur Kopit, executive producer Paul Davids and director Jeremy Kagan) wisely integrate “Hiroshima"-like multiple viewpoints, including that of a mysterious ex-airman played by Martin Sheen.

Blending past and near-present, the script unfolds within the framework of a 30th-anniversary reunion of the 509th Bomb squadron that was caught up in the top-secret Rosewell story three decades earlier.

“Is it all true?” Sheen’s character is asked at the reunion party by the now embittered intelligence officer who first touched pieces of the UFO. “None of it is true,” Sheen replies, then pauses and teasingly adds: “Or maybe some of it.”

* “Roswell” airs on Showtime, Sunday, 8 p.m.

‘The Whipping Boy’ a Disney Delight

A bountiful children’s movie premieres on the Disney Channel with all the ingredients of a big, warm coloring book--a young pauper and a spoiled prince, rapscallions, highwaymen, a beautiful Gypsy and her huge black bear, dark, wet German forests, medieval towns, a careworn king and a royal castle.

Light and tasty as a chocolate eclair, “The Whipping Boy” may rework familiar territory but the production is ample evidence that on rare occasions tone, flavor and crisp locations can fully compensate for derivative material.

For one thing, the story (adapted by Max Brindle from Sid Fleischman’s 1986 novella) conveys traces of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” overlaid with Dickensian touches that include a rapacious George C. Scott as Blind George, the owner of a low-grade gaming club who sports an eye patch and buys sewer rats from orphan kids for dubious entertainment.

Adults should respond to this 18th-Century adventure, shot with rich colors in Burgundy and the Rhine, as much as kids.

The young co-stars are 13-year old actors Truan Munro (the pauper Jemmy) and Nic Knight (snotty Prince Horace). Naturally, they switch roles once they run away from the castle where the king has been too preoccupied to play games with his neglected son.

As for the title, it refers to the substitute whippings the scruffy orphan kid has literally been absorbing for the royal pranks committed by the callow prince.

Director Syd Macartney, a one-time music video and TV blurb director, nicely catches the whimsical imagery in the material. That includes rogue Kevin Conway’s stench-ridden Hold-Your-Nose-Billy and the luscious-looking French actress Mathilda May as a Gypsy bear-keeper who helps the young boys on their journey.

This earthy fairy tale of a movie can also stop you with its bucolic charm, as when the pauper teaches the prince how to catch trout in a beautiful stream.

* “The Whipping Boy” airs Sunday, 7 p.m., on the Disney Channel.


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