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THE SIEGE (A-3, R) offers the Arab-terrorists-threaten-New York plot as our worst nightmare. Producer-director Edward Zwick tries for a mix between a bombs-guns-chases movie and a dark vision of a panic reaction in which Middle East ethnics are herded into camps like Japanese Americans in World War II.

Denzel Washington is the F.B.I. hero who saves us from the anti-American bad guys, and the testosterone-loaded American general (Bruce Willis) who will do whatever it takes to crush the enemy and return to normalcy "in time for the playoffs." Annette Bening has a memorable role as a hardened C.I.A. operative with mixed feelings about the Iraqis she once trained to fight Saddam. (Her character, based on a real female agent, inspired this project, and remains its freshest ingredient.)

Filmmaker Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) seems conscious of the complexity and shows strong sympathy for the victimized Arab Americans. At best, the nervous streets, the general with beret and shades, the bombs and the torture scenes recall Z and Battle of Algiers; the people being herded into stadiums are from Missing. But the panic that would cause Americans to abandon their principles so quickly is unconvincing.

While the tone is preachy at times, the question of how to save democracy without destroying it is always relevant. The Siege also forcefully reminds us that so much of 20th-century misery has been perpetrated by religious extremists in the name of truth. "Belief," as the doomed terrorist says, "is power." And zealotry is the sin of believers. Thinking person's action flick; O.K. for mature viewers.


LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (A-2, PG-13) is part wonderful slapstick comedy and part poignant ironic fairy tale about the great tragedy of this dying century, the Holocaust. The main character is a lovable goof, a Jewish Italian waiter (writer-director Roberto Benigni), who creates an elaborate cocoon of fantasy to protect his young son when they are deported to Auschwitz in World War II.

It's all a game, he tells the child, and those who endure the hardest trials get the most points and win the prize. This is possibly a truth about life. But in the camp, it's a triumph of will over reality. Part of the joy is watching this spirited man use his wits to save his son from the horror of knowing.

It's unreal, no doubt, and the use of comedy with this material has even incited some anger. But it's only a movie. In the imagination, the victim-hero defeats his tormentors. It represents the victory of humanity and comic art over evil.

Benigni, skinny and homely, is a skilled throwback to Keaton and Chaplin (or Jerry Lewis, if you prefer). His indomitable Guido is the little guy who is an incurable optimist. "If you want to do something," he says, "you can do it."

The art of this film is in its contrast between the normal and the unspeakable, between laughter and suffering. Benigni has always been a master of the boffo sight gag. This time he offers something to cherish and ponder: a fresh insight into a catastrophe whose wounds may never heal. Italian with English subtitles; recommended for mature viewers.



MEET JOE BLACK (A-3, PG-13): Brad Pitt is cast against type as Death (Joe Black) in this ambitious but disappointing remake of Death Takes a Holiday (1920's play, 1934 movie). The Grim Reaper, on his way to "collect" publishing tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) at his Newport mansion, decides to take on human form in the body of a young accident victim (Pitt). Curious about people and life, he wants to "look around." As long as Joe's not bored, Parrish stays alive.

Joe enjoys being human, especially because Bill is one of America's richest men with a posh palace. Include Joe Black among movies in which supernatural beings (City of Angels) discover that human life and love beat lonely immortality.

First, Joe's arrival inspires Bill, already a beloved national figure, to take a moral stand and kill a deal to sell his newspaper to a Murdoch-like conglomerate. He thus frustrates a treacherous would-be successor and son-in-law (played with noisome credibility by young Jake Weber). The ambitious heir-apparent perceives Joe as a sinister influence, a naive rival suspiciously arrived from nowhere.

Joe also falls in love with food. But mainly he's smitten with Susan (Claire Forlani), Bill's beautiful and idealistic doctor daughter, and she obviously with him.

The romance panics her father, and eventually creates some metaphysical problems—Who is Death really? Where are he and Susan going to "live"? Joe will have to be noble and give her up, and there will be sadness, heavily milked, both on the screen and in the audience.

Seriously, the ironic idea of personified Death falling in love with life is provocative movie material for top-level director Martin Brest and veteran writer Bo Goldman (collaborators on 1992's multi-Oscar winner Scent of a Woman). The entangled values are explored (for three hours) with some care and intelligence but with few surprises. The issue is not really Death's role in the divine plan or what happens after death, but the romantic comedy concept of Mr. Gloom awkwardly learning the pleasure and goodness of human life.

On the plus side, Hopkins and Forlani, with help from (older sister) Marcia Gay Harden, portray with feeling the bonds between fathers and daughters. An interesting failure, mainly for patient mature audiences.



PLEASANTVILLE (A-4, PG-13): Two of today's world-wise teenagers are magically transported into a 1950's era TV sitcom. Shy David (Tobey Maguire) and MTV-loving Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) become the kids in the black-and-white, idealized family of parents (Joan Allen, William H. Macy) in classic innocent small-town America. Or is it American Gothic?

Pleasantville at first is just the old pop culture of first-decade TV. But it soon morphs into a stereotype of America at mid-century: rigid, shallow, anti-intellectual, sexist, against change and not so much puritanical as asexual. (Instead of saying sex is bad, someone is likely to ask, "Sex—what's that?")

David and Jennifer emerge as missionaries who rescue the past. This is achieved, with digital high-tech magic and great visual charm, by having the people and the town slowly turn into color—alive, three-dimensional, liberated.

Writer-director Gary Ross (Big) is firing a shot in the cultural wars against the Religious Right, which has blamed Hollywood and the arts for undermining traditional moral values. Pleasantville is Ross's metaphor for how things used to be, and it isn't "pleasant."

No surprise that sexual awakening is the first and most crucial change that the 1990's kids evoke. The kids also liberate the town's interest in art and literature. Predictably, the mostly male black-and-white power structure fights back. But you know color will win. "It's inside you," says David, "and you can't stop it."

Ross shows enough 1990's miseries so we know he doesn't idealize the present. He wants to say that freedom is good, and we have more of it now than we did in Pleasantville. But we've also traded old problems for some new ones. Imaginative but flawed parable of social conflict and change.



TRINITY (NBC) is another endangered species prime-time drama with a major priest character. John (ER) Wells's heftily budgeted series sputtered in the Friday night ratings into November and was replaced by a second night of Law and Order during the key ratings period.

It could get another chance later in the season, but you never know in TV land, where shows survive for bizarre reasons known only to ad executives. It's helpful to be good. Another option is to attract youngish urban viewers with incomes over $75,000.

(No wonder so many shows look alike. If the networks calibrate their targets perfectly, they will all be aimed at 35-year-old lawyers who live in Central Park condos and have children in day care. These folks are too smart to be watching anything but Bravo and HBO.)

In Trinity, the priest (Tate Donovan) in the Irish Catholic, Manhattan-based McCallister family has four busy adult siblings. One sister is an upwardly pushing stockbroker in a hopeless affair with a married man, another is an addict-alcoholic who's pregnant. One brother is an agent in a crooked union, the other is a rookie police detective whose marriage is rocky because of his attraction to his gorgeous female partner. And a sixth sib died years ago from a drug overdose.

Father Kevin has to deal with all of this in early episodes; somebody also confesses to him a murder he hasn't yet committed. Kev tries coaching a little basketball and immediately finds one of his players stealing from the lockers. An older mentor, a late-vocation ex-lawyer, just came aboard the parish staff as the series blipped out.

Whether it survives or not, Trinity made a permanent impression for its Sunday meals, in which the entire dysfunctional clan still gathers at Mom and Dad's (Jill Clayburgh, John Spencer) place for food, prayer, good cheer. It's inspiring, if not easy to bring off in the real world. With those great Sunday reunions, it's a mystery how everybody gets into so much trouble. O.K., but on hold for now.



PBS JEWELS: When all else fails, two PBS series help keep families together. One is Travels in Europe, in which Rick Steves spends half hours in fascinating European venues telling us how to travel cheap, eat local cuisine and still see all those marvelous castles and churches. Steves is relentlessly cheerful, and the sun always shines on his trips. We may never get there, but Rick is next best.

The other is Antiques Roadshow, and I'm the last guy you'd suspect of being glued to a series in which people bring their attic treasures to experts for evaluation. But the hour passes quickly, largely because of the short segments and variety of items ranging from jewelry and furniture worth five-digit numbers to pop-culture collectibles. You'll enjoy watching as people discover what their treasures are really worth. (A new commandment: Never remove the original paint or varnish!)

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