'Shepard': gruesome crime, uninspired movie

Stockard Channing ("West Wing") and Sam Waterston ("Law & Order"), stars from two of NBC's most popular dramas, appear in "The Matthew Shepard Story" (8 p.m., today, NBC). As many viewers remember, Matthew Shepard (Shane Meier), a 21-year-old gay college student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten by two men, tied to a fence and abandoned. He was discovered after 18 hours and died five days later. His murder, and the subsequent trial of his killers, became the focus of national media attention and provoked an outcry against hate crimes against homosexuals. It also inspired two rival TV projects, including this film and last week's HBO drama "The Laramie Project."

"Story" opens with Shepard's attack, shown in a blurry, sped-up fashion. The only sounds we hear are guttural growls, as if Shepard were an gazelle being torn apart by savage beasts. The effect is off-putting and confusing. "Story" then fast forwards to the sentencing portion of the killers' trial. Matthew's parents, Judy (Channing) and Dennis (Waterston), are asked to prepare a statement, asking the court to impose the death penalty. As they collect their thoughts, the film flashes back to his "Story."

While no one can deny the talent of these two Academy Award-nominated performers, their palpable lack of chemistry combined with stilted dialogue dooms "Story" from the start. Dennis and Judy interact with a stiff formality that renders their characters unbelievable. In one early scene, Judy enters the room and says, "Can I talk to you?" Dennis replies, "Sure, have a seat." Have a seat? Now that's a credible conversation between a married couple. Dennis sounds like "Law & Order's" McCoy preparing to depose a witness.

The young actor Shane Meier is clearly overmatched by the enormity of his role, which includes scenes of his murder, and an earlier gang rape during a school trip to Morocco. "Shepard" is a difficult movie undone by indifferent performances.

� "The Believer" (7 p.m., Showtime, Sunday), on the other hand, presents a very harrowing film experience featuring Ryan Gosling's riveting turn as a brilliant and confused young man. Not for every taste, "Believer" portrays a violent, Nazi-loving, anti-Semitic skinhead (Gosling) with one big secret. He happens to be a Jew.

� On a lighter note, Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown") stars in the pleasantly predictable comedy "Moms on Strike" (7 p.m., Sunday). Burdened by her career-obsessed husband (Tim Matheson) and three spoiled and demanding kids, soccer mom Pam Harris (Ford) decides to go on strike after everyone forgets her birthday. Her lonely picket turns into a local movement, and then gains national attention when noticed by a feminist First Lady and a radio talk-show host.

� Meryl Streep hosts "NY at the Movies" (7 p.m., Sunday, A&E;), an affectionate look at the Big Apple as portrayed in romantic comedies, gritty crime dramas and the 8 million other stories from the Naked City. Filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Spike Lee discuss their favorite New York movies, including "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "An Affair to Remember," "Annie Hall" and many others.

Viewers may be surprised to note that the film that elicits the warmest nostalgia is the acid 1957 drama "Sweet Smell of Success." Everyone seems happiest while recalling Clifford Odets's and Ernest Lehman's arch dialogue. Scorsese beams as he quotes, "You're a cookie full of arsenic." And Lee lights up with Sidney Falco's immortal refrain, "The cat's in the bag, and the bag's in the river." A must for movie lovers.

Today's highlights

� The NCAA Basketball Tournament (6 p.m., CBS) continues.

� Steven Spielberg is host to "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 20th Anniversary Special" (7 p.m., NBC). Phone home.

� Roger Moore is the debonair agent 007 in the 1974 James Bond adventure "The Man with the Golden Gun" (7 p.m., ABC).

� Laura Linney earned a 2000 Oscar nomination for her performance in "You Can Count on Me" (7 p.m., Showtime), about a single mother reconnecting with her troubled brother (Mark Ruffalo).

� Robin Dunne, Ned Beatty and Jill Eikenberry star in the new adaptation of Mark Twain's comic novel "Roughing It" (7 p.m., Hallmark). James Garner appears as Samuel Clemens.

� Jay Mohr and Rosie O'Donnell appear on "Primetime Glick" (9 p.m., Comedy Central).

Sunday's highlights

� Scheduled on "60 Minutes" (6 p.m., CBS): leaky nuclear-waste storage facilities; profiles of Judi Dench; and Professor John Nash.

� Miranda Richardson portrays the evil queen in "Snow White: The Fairest of the Them All" (6 p.m., Sunday, ABC).

� "True Hollywood Story" (7 p.m., E!) surveys the life and career of Suzanne Somers, from "Three's Company!" to her lucrative turn as a "Thigh Master" spokesperson.

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