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THE MIGHTY

THE MIGHTY (A-2, PG-13): Christmas Eve is a time of wonderful events in movie stories, and it proves an apt setting for the climax here. In 1990's Cincinnati, two outsider kids follow the ideals of the King Arthur legend.

This inspiring tale is told with heart and imaginative flourish by Brit director Peter Chelsom, whose 1991 Irish-tenor movie Hear My Song has become a standard joy on video. The high school odd couple are Kevin (Kieran Culkin), the bright, dwarfish victim of a degenerative disease, and Max (Elden Henson), an introspective, gentle giant who fears he'll become a criminal like his father.

Instead of turning against the kids who torment them, they use their combination of brains and brawn "to fight for all those who ask for help." They achieve virtue, wisdom and a symbolic immortality. Sharon Stone is touching as Kevin's loving single mom, and Gillian Anderson shines as one of the boys' "damsels in distress." Recommended fantasy uplift, especially for younger audiences.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (A-3, PG-13): Tragedy befalls blissful, deeply-in-love soulmates Chris and Annie (Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra) when first their children and then Chris die in auto crashes. A despairing Annie commits suicide. In this Orpheus-like story, if Annie is sent to an eternal limbo-like hell, can Chris rescue her?

The afterlife is in the style of 19th-century painting and is less Christian (Dante, it's not) than a mix of Greek-Roman underworld legends and reincarnation theories. New Zealander director Vincent (The Map of the Human Heart) Ward's concept of paradise is sometimes dazzling but self-oriented, with God only a rumor.

Dreams suggests curious high school retreat questions: Can you be happy in heaven if a beloved one doesn't make it? It offers a pretty portrait of immortality. And if it represents the joy of heaven only by analogy to the best of human romantic love, for now it's probably the best we can do. Flawed, but poignant and provocative; satisfactory for mature viewers.

RONIN

RONIN (A-3, R) inspires a nostalgia for the way action movies used to be: exciting low-tech stunts in real locations performed by actors rather than computers, tough men and women who understate their feelings, with the squeamish scenes detailing courage rather than savagery.

Titled after a group of samurai warriors doomed to wander the country hiring out their skills after their feudal lord is killed, Ronin is post-Cold War in tone. Five former agents—disillusioned and needing the cash—are hired by Irish terrorists to steal a mysterious suitcase being transported by gangsters. The French locations (Paris, Nice, Arles) with their steep hills, narrow streets and landmark sights are alone worth the price.

Classy veteran director John Frankenheimer (Days of Wine and Roses), whose late career has fixed on thrillers, offers shootouts, car chases (the terrified actors are actually in the cars) and surgical operations without anesthetic.

No great literary or moral depth here, but there's lots of style. This film offers cool acting by Robert De Niro (as the American ex-C.I.A.), Jean Reno (as the unexcitable Frenchman), and Natascha McElhone and Jonathan Pryce (as ruthless IRA fanatics). Guns but no bedrooms; solid genre entertainment for adults.

TO HAVE & TO HOLD

TO HAVE & TO HOLD (CBS, Wednesdays): This comedy-drama, anchored to the floor by Boston-Irish cliches and some inept stories, will likely be dead by the time you read this. But it's worth a note because of its frankly Catholic context and the appeal of stars Moira Kelly
and Jason Beghe. They play Annie and Sean, an improbable feminist public defender-tough police detective couple who really like each other.

Kelly and Beghe are a delight, but Annie's court cases and the Irish neighbors and in-laws are hard to take, especially Sean's control-freak mom who keeps coming over and his younger brother, who's a cop. A historical cinematic note: While the leads hug in the bedroom in an early episode, their TV is tuned to a moment in the love subplot of Song of Bernadette.

The Catholic references are sometimes fun (family banter about the Immaculate Conception that becomes plot relevant) or useful to the story (a crooked charity scammer arouses Sean's suspicions when he claims to say the rosary daily at lunch) or deeply touching (Annie and Sean ponder the possibility of having a retarded child and conclude, "You fall in love with the child you have").

Mostly Annie and Sean are wise, extremely huggable and deft at conveying the pure joy of being young and in love. Unfortunately for the series, it depends on its law and police aspects, and falls short of very tough standards set by the better network dramas. Nice chemistry, unlikely future.

L.A. DOCTORS

L.A. DOCTORS (CBS, Mondays): Compassion seems the main distinguishing ingredient in this new medical drama. But in its first month, this show about four affluent docs who open an idealistic, patient-centered private practice didn't hit a championship stride.

A typical episode subplot mixes farce, personal angst and social relevance. An irate doc (Matt Craven) comically tracks down an HMO supervisor in the office before being tricked by his phony pleas for mercy. Another (Ken Olin) doesn't communicate well with his father. The youngest (Rick Roberts) realizes he knows nothing about a young Latino selling oranges he passes each day in his fancy convertible.

Maybe this isn't that bad. Even average dramas in recent years always look good compared to sitcoms. The medical area is obviously fertile for nitty-gritty human stories, and L.A. Docs has that potential. For now, it needs creative energy in writing and production. Survival would make it the third-best medic show on prime time. Satisfactory, but needs a reason to exist.

SPORTS NIGHT

SPORTS NIGHT (ABC, Tuesdays) has a little class from creative movie people (Ron Howard, Aaron Sorkin), and all its compromises with commerce and formula were conceded in a superb New Yorker piece describing how it made it to air. The series emerges as a reasonably fresh broadcast-workplace sitcom (like ESPN's SportsCenter) with a familiar bunch of characters, including a really tough female producer (Felicity Huffman) and a hero anchor, Casey (Peter Krause).

One show involved bright dialogue about nothing (Seinfeld effect), for example, whether a fly did or did not buzz Casey during a broadcast. The morality is at a Friends level. The freshest joke was that it cost $2,500 in royalties for co-anchor Dan (Josh Charles) to sing a spontaneous "Happy Birthday" to Casey on camera, and if you're gonna do that, you better use tunes in the public domain, like "O, Dem Golden Slippers."

So far, the best things about SN are that it spoofs sports and uses a very quiet laugh track. Above the usual standards of TV literacy, this could be a late bloomer and may get enough time to prove it.

WILL AND GRACE

WILL AND GRACE (NBC, Mondays) aims to repeat the vibes from the film My Best Friend's Wedding of a friendship between a gay man and an attractive straight woman, which is not all that unusual in ordinary life. They have the pleasure of difference, but not the tension of sex and how it will all end. They often share feelings, interests and senses of humor unlikely in more conventional pairs.

W&G gets some of this in the rapid-fire banter and stresses between pals, New York lawyer Will (Eric McCormack), gay but nonstereotypical, and decorator Grace (Debra Messing), a smart, funny redhead hopeful of being a bride. But the real comic hit is Jack (Sean Hayes), Will's theatrical gay friend who is not effeminate but otherwise predictably over-the-top. In the La Cage Aux Folles tradition, he's more laughed at than with.

Perhaps the most valuable part of this series is that it shows gays and straights mixing and accepting each other with ease and civility. (It's not part of the faith to dislike gay characters.) W&G is likely to have problems because it centers on a relationship that is non-climactic by definition. For now, it widens TV access to more realistic gay humor and is clearly another nudge in the moral-cultural wars.

AFRICANS IN AMERICA

AFRICANS IN AMERICA (PBS documentary): This hypnotic four-part series that aired in October is by the creators of Eyes on the Prize. It reworks American history from the perspective of slavery, the experience we seem desperate to forget. The style owes a lot to Ken Burns: insight by historians, readings from personal letters, portraits, natural locales, evocative symbols like torches and ropes, and haunting music.

It's a part of the American story that explains who we are and why freedom is a holy word for blacks. The facts surprise many of us: 500,000 slaves in the colonies in 1776; two million in the decades before the Civil War. We learn about the destruction of the African family structure (in slave marriages, "Let no man put asunder" was omitted). Sold away from his wife and children, one man is told, "You can always get another wife in Georgia."

We ponder the legacy of the cotton gin, which enriched the South but expanded slavery, and the huge impact of the 19th-century evangelical Christian missionaries who preached the equality of all people in the eyes of God.

The theme is the contrast between slavery and our ideals, with Thomas Jefferson, as the conflicted author of "All men are created equal," as an example. In school, we revered Yorktown as a great climactic victory, never realizing that afterward thousands of black refugees were driven from the British camp and guards lined the beaches to prevent their escape to the boats.

The series, exec produced by Orlando Bagwell, is classic educational TV. Only Angela Bassett's overly gentle narration and the quiet pace seemed less than required. But this story carries its own rage, sorrow and tragedy.

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