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By James Arnold

Americans Under Pressure


Black Hawk Down
I Am Sam
Monster's Ball
Two for the Road
Some Serious Stuff
Beer Commercials
Beloved Animal Commercials


BLACK HAWK DOWN (A-4, R): Movies are showing more of the horrific detail of modern ground war (wounds, blood, body parts, the sensation of being under fire from high-speed missiles of fearsome destructive power). Straight infantry combat had never before been created for film with the realism of both violence and military choreography seen in Saving Private Ryan and HBO's Band of Brothers.

Now Ridley Scott, already a director of instant classics such as Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator, re-creates the 1993 skirmish in Mogadishu, Somalia. It was an American nightmare in which 18 U.S. soldiers died during this African mission that began out of humanitarian motives (feed starving Somalis) and ended when local warlords didn't like losing control and decided to resist.

The United States backed out eventually because it had no political permission to take casualties or clean up Somalia. Scott's movie centers on the pivotal event: a coordinated ground-helicopter incursion by elite forces into the unfriendly center of the city to capture key opposition leaders. Going in is harder than blowing them up, as in Afghanistan. A chopper is shot down, and most of the disaster results from risky, improvised efforts at rescue while hostile fighters converge and innocent civilians flee.

Overall, it's over two hours of a powerful but grim film. The expedition fights bravely with fragments of success but mostly it's Americans who are in pain and dying. Agonizing human moments include a chopper pilot taken prisoner, scrambling to save photos of his loved ones amid the chaos; GIs frantically trying to help a medic find and hold a slippery artery inside a screaming, badly wounded comrade.

The main political message is probably that you don't go into war, even in the Third World, lightly. Morally, that translates into humility. (Sadly, war also requires that you may need to leave some dead and wounded comrades behind.) It's a deadly serious business, but it may have been worse to attempt nothing. As one GI character puts it, noting that 300,000 Somalis were starving at the time, "We can do something or we can watch them die on CNN." A tough combat movie, for mature audiences.


I AM SAM (A-2, PG-13) is a fresh recycling of a classic movie genre, the heart-tugger about the love between a child and a man-child father figure deemed by society as "not good enough" to take care of her. Often the man is a clown or ne'er-do-well. Here, Sam (Sean Penn), the unwed but loving natural dad of Lucy, is mentally challenged. He supports them both by working at Starbucks. Up to now, no problem. But Lucy's going to be eight and is already sharper than Sam.

Penn's Sam is attractive and funny, as well as poignant, as he tries so hard to function in the smarter society that is about to include his daughter. He is compassionate and totally trusting. He belongs to the long tradition of holy innocents: Like Forrest Gump, he is uncorrupted by a normal IQ. Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is also a sweetheart, content to hear her dad read endlessly his favorite Dr. Seuss story (Green Eggs and Ham, naturally).

Their rapport is sharply contrasted with the difficulties of other supposedly normal parents and kids, including Sam's lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose son won't talk to her. The gorgeous Pfeiffer is cast a bit against type as a harrassed Yuppie who takes Sam's case pro bono. Tearfully, she tells Sam how imperfect she really is.

The court hearings take forever, and the government's lawyer (Richard Schiff of TV's The West Wing) seems relentless. Director Jessie Nelson provides big scenes for everyone, including Sam's delightful male pals, Dianne Wiest (as a reclusive neighbor) and Laura Dern (as a potential adopter). But it's the Oscar-nominated Penn who owns the show in an endearing, rousing performance, full of comic and tragic life.

Many critics have dismissed this film as Hollywood sentimentality. Well, it is, and occasionally just eye-rolling too much. But the movie, like Sam, is inventive and works very hard. For most of us, it's also often very moving. Recommended for most audiences.


MONSTER'S BALL (A-4, R) begins badly. A racist corrections officer (Billy Bob Thornton) at a rural southern prison explodes at his adult son who shows compassion for condemned inmates during an electric-chair execution. The son is traumatized by his father's reaction.

We soon learn that father and son are second- and third-generation prison staff. The root of cruelty and evil in the family is the grandfather (Peter Boyle), now ailing and housebound, but as mean as a cornered rattlesnake. The trick in this film by Swiss-born director Marc Forster is that we're not stuck with these miserable characters.

Thornton slowly befriends a down-on-her-luck black waitress (Halle Berry) at the local café who is about to be evicted from her house. (Her husband was the killer who was just executed.) These two inarticulate, equally pained people find a love that we hope can save them.

The story wants to be symbolic of inter-generational changes in racial attitudes. The coincidences are far too neat, but the direction and acting are credibly real. The story includes a strongly anti-death penalty execution sequence. (The beautiful Berry, in a gritty, Oscar-nominated role, is trying to expand her potential.) Some sexual frankness and nudity limit this to satisfactory for adults.


TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967): When spirits are low, it's time to rent this romantic comedy but pointed "history of a pretty good marriage" movie. The likeable but all-too-human couple (Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney) take five driving trips through the French countryside at different times in their relationship. On trip one, they're young and poor, meet and fall in love. By the last trip, they're wealthy, cynical, on the edge of infidelity and divorce.

The joy in this film has several sources: the French locales, the charm of these wonderful actors in their prime, the typical buoyant touch of director Stanley Donen (Funny Face, Charade), and a witty script by Freddie Raphael that intercuts all the trips for inventive insight and irony. There is also one of the all-time musical scores by Henry Mancini.

Road is the sort of movie perhaps more appropriate on "favorite" rather than "best" lists. While secular, it's a durable love story with recognizable moral truths about married life, and growing up and older (but not necessarily wiser) together.

Some Serious Stuff

SOME SERIOUS STUFF actually does make it to commercial television. Consider First Monday (CBS, Fridays), creator Don Bellisario's (JAG, Quantum Leap) effort to do for the Supreme Court what The West Wing does for the presidency. It's tougher because there are nine justices and their more youthful (sometimes idealistic, sometimes Machiavellian) aides to deal with.

No dodging hard choices here. In an early episode, the issue before the court was whether parental consent is necessary for a 16-year-old to have an abortion. The Catholic main character (Joe Mantegna) had to cast the deciding vote. He's portrayed believably, but the writers have him tell a priest to talk to some nuns who are putting public pressure on him. Lots of luck: It doesn't show a grasp of how the Catholic Church in America today works.

Another credibility problem concerns when the Court is the subject. Crises do not emerge as rapidly there as they do at the White House. On network TV, the liberal side is probably going to win more often at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But it's difficult to complain about a weekly drama that gives fair, even if constricted, attention to issues more important than who's attracted to whom or who is ruthless enough to survive.

Beer Commercials

BEER COMMERCIALS are not aimed at rocket scientists, and yet they have to work very hard. The actual difference between mass-market beers is so slight that the ads have to provide a difference that isn't there. You buy, the theory goes, because you like the image or style of the commercials.

Cutting-edge ads (aimed primarily at young men) seem designed to encourage the long war between the sexes. Thus, a major motif seems to be that getting a cold bottle of the hyped brew is superior to winning the affections of a beautiful woman—even one's wife. Consider the ad where the fellow, leaping for the beer, dives onto and slides off the bed and out the window into his backyard. (A softener is often that the lady is stuck-up or manipulative and thus earns the put-down.)

It's absurd that thirst could replace romance as human motivation. But it's refreshing to see the commercials drift occasionally to a different idea.

A favorite: the how-you-doin' series, which basically has fun with typical "guy talk" (or more exactly, non-talk). Among the best is the one featuring the numbskull at the bar who keeps responding intelligently to the routine how-you-doin' question by prattling on about the events of his day.

These ads are often much funnier than the shows they support, or brighten a sports event that has lost its suspense. Better than many sitcoms, they also make insightful comments on our manners and mores.

Beloved Animal Commercials

BELOVED ANIMAL COMMERCIALS: First, there's the AFLAC duck, the latest in the many offspring of Disney's fabulous Donald. Then there are the apes who live it up in the Capital One credit card commercial. The Winter Olympics favorite was the talking, ski-jumping cow who soars gorgeously through the air and disappears into the snow (Gateway Computers).


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