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Saturday, Dec. 2, 2000

'FREQUENCY'

Familiar voices from beyond


It wasn't Christmas season when "Frequency" was released in the U.S., but it is now in Japan and that's something to be happy about. "Frequency" is definitely Christmas material: fantastical, sentimental, brimming with familial love. Wrap it up with a big red ribbon and tuck it beneath the tree. There. Doesn't that look nice?

"Frequency" is mindful of old Hollywood stories like "Miracle on 34th Street" where there's no sex, not a speck of irony and no hidden agendas. They're like freckles on noses and homemade pies -- you didn't think there were any of them left out there. Watch this and feel the holiday spirit kick in like the low rumble of a Harley engine.

John (Jim Caviezel) is an NYPD cop who has lived in the same house in Bayside Queens since childhood. His firefighter dad Frank (Dennis Quaid) died on duty when John was only 6. Now in his mid-30s, John has inherited the family home but has no family of his own. He's just too gloomy and withdrawn to sustain a relationship.

One night, John comes across an old box of his father's and finds a ham radio set inside. His father had liked all the things that boys usually like: baseball (die-hard Mets fan), fighting fires, motorcycles. And at night, when everyone else was asleep, his dad would communicate with distant people over the radio. John is tickled by the memory and decides to give it a try.

By sheer coincidence, this is 30 years and two nights before Frank died. Then, as it was now, the Northern Lights had appeared over New York city skies. And because of these celestial conditions, John succeeds in talking to Frank of 30 years ago. Father and son, sitting at the very same desk, talking to each other on identical radios, in the same house. Sweet, isn't it? To think that all this time, John never thought of renovating or at least buying a new desk.

At first, John has a hard time convincing his dad that it's his in-the-future son on the air. But when he rattles off a few scores and moves of the Mets to be played tomorrow (it's World Series time), Frank listens a little harder. Sure enough, the next day all John's prognostications prove correct and Frank is dumbfounded. He's even more surprised when John tells him over the radio: "Dad, you're going to die in a fire, tomorrow. You had a chance to escape, but you went the wrong way. You have to go the other way, OK?"

This strikes Frank as "way too weird" but the next morning, there's a call from a burning warehouse (just as John had said), and Frank finds himself alone on the top floor with a 12-year-old girl in his arms. There are two exits and in a long, elegant sequence of decision and escape, Frank takes the "other" one and survives the fire. What father and son did not bargain for was that by changing the past, they also put a spin on future events.

In my book, the fantasy of talking to one's father when he was young and full of beans is up there in the Top 10 Fantasies, second only to riding in a baby-blue Mercedes convertible with Rutger Hauer in the driver's seat. Because you never really know your parents as they were -- by the time you're old enough to understand and appreciate their personalities, they're middle-aged and working too hard. And you can't envision them on motorcycles or dancing to Mariah or being, you know, young.

Frank was a wonderful dad in so many ways, but John "hardly remembered" him apart from a few fragmented facts and faded photos. It was only through talking to Frank at the age of 36 that he discovered the kind of man he was. And by doing so, he adored his father all over again.

Director Gregory Hoblit has a penchant for slow-motion scenes and dark but warm lighting, enhancing the Old World feel that defines this work. To eyes used to a more digital diet, "Frequency" may strike them as a bit antiquated. Yet how endearing, how cozy!

The real credit, though, probably goes to Toby Emmerich, a top exec at New Line Cinema who kicked off his career by writing this screenplay. Emmerich certainly knows his way around the hills and valleys of storytelling -- no hitches, no lags and one blockbuster ending, guaranteed to play your tear ducts like Stevie Wonder at the piano.

"Frequency" opens Dec. 9 at the Hibiya Eiga Theater and others.


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