WE WERE SOLDIERS
WE WERE SOLDIERS (A-4, R) revisits
the Vietnam War with 21st-century combat-movie special effects and a slightly
revisionist attitude. The war is still hell, but the soldiers (on both sides)
are good guys who fight bravely, make few cynical wisecracks and, occasionally,
are even heroes.
This stunning, deeply probing fact-based drama follows Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) as he leads a helicopter-borne
infantry regiment on the first major American attack mission in 1965. With significant
U.S. air support, the fierce fighting is mostly hand-to-hand with light weapons
and artillery. The result is heavy casualties on both sides but no clear winnera
symbolic prologue to the decade of attrition yet to come.
The traditional war-movie narrative
focuses on the officers as the troops endure their tough, special stateside
training, with some attention to individuals, their spouses and families. After
the last dance with wives and sweethearts and a brooding departure sequence,
the action moves swiftly to combat, with cutbacks to what’s happening at home.
Gibson’s Hal Moore (on whose
memoirs the film is based) is a devout Catholic veteran and family man (five
kids) with a democratic leadership style (first to land, last to leave). He
knows men will die. When they do, he cries and prays for them.
A journalist (Barry Pepper) who
goes along to get the story close-up finds more horror than he bargained for.
Back at home base, the wives begin to get Defense Department telegrams, and
Moore’s wife (Madeleine Stowe) takes on the difficult but compassionate task
of delivering them herself.
Wallace, who scripted Braveheart for Gibson but got little oomph into
his screenplay for Pearl Harbor, offers plenty of emotional moments.
The bitterness of the great wave of Vietnam movies (The Deer Hunter,
Platoon, etc.) is missing, but there is no glory either.
The random horror and mayhem
reflect the in-your-face realism of Saving Private Ryan and Band
of Brothers. (The specialty here is napalm and what it does.) This time
there is no message except perhaps that soldiers have a grim job (not much improved
since the days of Braveheart) and deserve gratitude and respect. Sincere
but very sad; a cut above average; genre violence and realism, for mature audiences.
DRAGONFLY (A-3, PG-13): One impressive speculation in this movie is that the
face of the doctor is the last sight many people see on this earth. Thus, doctors
should try to be pleasant, if not beatific. Otherwise, Dragonfly is another
nonsectarian afterlife movie in which belief is greatly rewarded.
A hardened Chicago ER medic,
Joe Darrow (Kevin Costner) overcomes his skepticism to believe he’s being visited
by the spirit of Emily, his beloved late wife. Presumably, she has a message
for him. Emily (Susanna Thompson), also a doctor, was on a do-good medical mission
(despite her pregnancy) in the Colombian bush. In the opening sequence, we see
her and others on a bus being swept away in a rainstorm.
Many of the signals are coming from the young cancer patients Emily had treated
at the hospital. Several of these kids have had near-death
experiences and draw strange cross-like squiggles. Then
there is a Catholic nun (Linda Hunt) who researches such
cases. In a spooky chapel surrounded by banks of blue votive
candles, she urges Joe to believe and reassures him that
he’s not nuts.
Director Tom Shadyac has scored with broad comedies (The
Nutty Professor, Liar Liar) and wants to play
this story like an X-Files episode. Joe lives in
a creepy Victorian house alone with Emily’s parrot, who
won’t talk to him but goes berserk on cue. Various comatose
patients pass along information.
The shocker scenes are corny and misleading, spoiling a
potential supernatural love story. A well-conceived upbeat
ending confirms that ghost Emily is as benign as your sainted
grandmother. Kathy Bates is helpful as a refreshingly down-to-earth
lawyer neighbor. The likable Costner, cast again as a grieving
romantic (Message in a Bottle), needs a break. Clumsy
supernatural detective story loses its sense of direction.
SHOWTIME (A-3, PG-13) merits some attention as a rare big-budget comedy without
sex or bathroom jokes. The concept is very Beverly Hills: A hardnosed, TV-hating
police detective is forced to work on a reality-TV cop series.
The casting tells it all: Robert
De Niro is the dour, no-nonsense real cop. Eddie Murphy is the hyper foul-up
rookie who loves over-the-top acting and TV heroics. Murphy is hired as De Niro’s
partner, and Rene Russo is the slick producer who brings them together.
The movie fails to get the most
out of its cast and material. But there’s still plenty of fun, with TV as the
main target. William Shatner, plugging his experience on that great cop show
T.J. Hooker, has a too-brief cameo as a director trying to coach De Niro.
Eventually, Showtime softens
its bite with a Hollywood-style chase and a climax involving Russo as a damsel-in-distress. Some cop-show language and violence, otherwise O.K. for laughs
at the Tube’s expense.
BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON
BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON lingers as a favorite among
many who first saw it in theaters in 1973. It was, and still is, quite different
from conventional saint movies. This vibrant, idealistic, luxuriantly photographed
tribute to the young Saints Francis and Clare by masterful Italian stage and
film director Franco Zeffirelli was aimed at the heads and hearts of the 1970s film generation.
Zeffirelli used the modern tools
of film art to make accessible not only religious history (Jesus of Nazareth)
but also Shakespeare (the dazzling 1968 Romeo and Juliet). In Brother
Sun, he visually elevates the subject with sun-filled images of the Umbrian
countryside that the saints loved and replaces the usual heavenly-choir music
with poignant songs by Donovan, the then-popular Scottish balladeer.
The movie remains true to essential
history but also makes Francis, Clare and their companions into beautiful, exhilarating,
self-effacing movie heroescharismatic icons for a world that loves movies.
One of Zeffirelli’s great moments is his staging of the arrival of the impoverished
Francis and his ragtag band in the richly adorned Lateran palace to talk with
the pope (Alec Guinness) about the need for reform and simplicity in the Church.
The contrast between the world and the spirit has never been captured so well
on the screen.
9/11 (CBS): This remarkable two-hour documentary describing firefighters
caught up in the tragedy of the World Trade Center disaster was watched in March
by 39 million (one third of all) U.S. households. It is a kind of miracle that
the film was made and that it survived.
It has its share of ironies.
Originally, it was to be about the life and trials of a rookie firefighter,
who saw no fires for three months. In early September, the rookie attends the
funeral of a colleague with hundreds of fellow firefighters and says, “I hope
it’s my last one.” On September 11, he was the only member of his station (Engine
7, Ladder 1, lower Manhattan) who couldn’t be located for a while.
This documentary was made by
Jules and Gedeon Naudet, independent French filmmakers. The courageous and skilled
Naudet brothers became separated on September 11, filming what happened both
outside and inside the towers. They worried about each other while getting the
images of the rapidly developing horror around them.
Some memorable examples include images of Father Mychal
Judge, O.F.M., in the tower lobby, minutes before his death.
The sounds of falling bodies striking the façade “was so
loud,” explains Jules. Viewers also realize that the men
inside the dark, dusty structures never really knew what
This was true reality television,
but the filmmakers refused to show some realities. (The material was cut down
from 180 hours.) It ended with soft Irish sounds of “Danny Boy” heard behind
the superimposed flag over the sea of snapshots of the 343 lost firefighters.
For certain, 9/11 reminds us of the fragility of life and the difficulty
of responding to the unforeseen. Carefully handled and powerful; kudo to
sponsor Nextel’s minimal intrusions.
THE AMERICAN EMBASSY
THE AMERICAN EMBASSY (Fox, Mondays): Pretty Emma
Brody, 28, goes to London “to make a difference” working as a vice-consul. Much
fun and play take place with co-workers and attractive 20-something menboth
Yank and Britincluding a C.I.A. guy who keeps getting her out of messes, a
friendly low-key transvestite and a dashing scion who lives in a castle. Then
the embassy is car-bombed.
Newcomer Arija Bareikis has talent
and charisma. Her Emma is a resourceful, determined do-gooder helping citizens
in trouble. The scripts are not as deep as the good cast (this is not The
West Wing). But the camera work and London scenery are first-class. The
first few episodes were rated TV-PG, with no debauchery. Not very real, but
above average, especially for Fox.
WATCHING ELLIE (NBC, Tuesdays): This new sitcom offers
Seinfeld funny girl Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a jazz-club singer who lives
in a Los Angeles apartment house with funny neighbors and slapstick, hard-not-to-laugh
situations. The first was the classic overflowing toilet nobody can fix. In
another show, the dog runs off with the roast for a dinner party.
Interesting trivia: The writer-producer, Brad Hall (The Single Guy), is Julia’s longtime husband and
the youngest of six children of an Episcopal priest.
The style of the series is very
low-key for a 2002 comedy and has a gimmick of playing in “real time” (a clock
ticks in the corner of the screen). It seems a throwback to classic comedy series
with Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore. (Let’s hope it works.)
No laugh track; for refugees fleeing from shows like Friends.