SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (A-3, R): Steven Spielbergís powerful World War II combat epic follows a squad of American rangers from an excruciatingly bloody and chaotic landing on Omaha Beach through a deadly, weeklong, needle-in-a-haystack search for a paratrooper who is the only survivor among four brothers. Is this a mission of decency or insanity? In the context of war-as-horror, we must decide.
While most of the actors are newcomers who form a gritty ensemble and provide valuable moments, Tom Hanks as the nice, smart, brave but vulnerable group leader gives another performance of the type thatís turning him into a movie legend. But director Spielberg is the star. The filmís major achievement is recreating the experience of combat (especially chance, pain and death) in all its terror and confusion, intense and close-up, yet on a human scale.
The characters and incidents are fresh (including a sharpshooter who prays as he works), although there are inevitable contrivances (waiting for the climactic battle in a ruined French village, the G.I.ís listen to songs by Edith Piaf). But many scenes will soon be in textbooks: a mad argument over whether to shoot a prisoner, rummaging through dogtags of the dead, women (almost in assembly line) typing letters of condolence to parents of the dead.
The theme is surely that there is no morality to war, only random cruelty. But the filmís positive message is to remember, two generations later, how terrible it was to win this war and what it cost those who fought it. Flawed but masterful; recommended, but for mature audiences.
ARMAGEDDON (A-3, PG-13) is your basic expensive special-effects/disaster/sci-fi flick produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, The Rock), the maestro of macho overachievement. A Texas-sized meteor will demolish Earth unless a group of misfits, clowns and rowdies can be sent up on two NASA shuttles to split and divert it with a nuclear weapon.
While the title comes from a reference in the Bible, it has no relevance here. The movieís aims and I.Q. level are established as astronauts and parts of Manhattan are zapped by unlucky hits from basketball-sized meteors. Then switch to low comedy on a Pacific oil rig as tough boss Bruce Willis (in a John Wayne role) finds his pretty daughter (Liv Tyler) in the bed of young rebel Ben Affleck and chases him with a shotgun.
The moviesí current obsession with apocalyptic disaster probably connects with end-of-millennium anxieties. Looking at this film from inside Catholic culture is frustrating, since we donít really expect a loving God to end the world this way. Such films, rooted in pseudo-science, never deal with important philosophical ideas but refer vaguely to "religious hysteria" as the end of the world looms.
Praying in crises is largely peremptory (like "God go with you"); it rarely emerges from a characterís personal relationship with the Creator or awareness of eternal context. Not recommended.
OUT OF SIGHT
OUT OF SIGHT (A-4, R): This offbeat crime flick is based on Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) material. Jennifer Lopez is a gorgeous, brainy, honest and tough U.S. marshal who falls for a dashing loser, bank robber George Clooney, while messing up his plan to steal diamonds from a Wall Street crook he met in prison. This is film noir, as structured and unreal as a western, juiced up by Leonardís talent for humor, witty dialogue and avoidance of stereotypes.
Every character is different from what you expect. Itís an obvious adult fantasy involving beautiful people, violence and the underworld, and a cop-crook love affair between people we like. The extent of the fantasy is clear early, when boy and girl meet after being stuffed in a car trunk during a jail break, and in close quarters genially discuss old movies (from Bonnie and Clyde to Network).
This genre can be seedy, funny, moving and redeeming. The creators here, writer Scott Frank and director Steven Soderbergh, worked on the Fallen Angels noir series on cable TV. The genre has been done better probably, but not often or lately. Lively, nasty, charming, but just a gangster film; the surface moral level is hardly edifying; for adults.
THE NEW SEASON
THE NEW SEASON: The prime-time schedules of the four big networks look like a battlefield the day after. Most TV fans I know have suffered wounds. Nothing Sacred is dead (invisible ratings in its brave half-season). After six seasons, Dr. Quinn is dead (loved mostly by women and nonaffluent viewers over 50). Other deceased rookies (to mention a few admired here): Cracker, Michael Hayes, Gregory Hines, Brooklyn South.
Itís easy to tell what "religion" makes it through TVís gauntlet with the correct demographics for Madison Avenue. Touched by an Angel (CBS) is a major hit. So is Seventh Heaven (Warner), which had a 65-percent ratings rise and will be on both Sundays (reruns) and Mondays (new episodes). Heaven, from the Aaron Spelling shop, may be the very senior pop-schlock producerís ticket to paradise.
Many viewers have fled to cable, which shows old favorites in infinite re-runs and has a wider choice of channels that are more brain-challenging and/or family-friendly, and often more fun. The cable audience has grown 40 percent in the last five years, and nearly all the growth is due to new channels (Travel, History, Home & Garden).
On the networks the ratings success formula in the late 1990ís has become obvious: sex and youth, typified recently by the dubious Ally McBeal and Dawsonís Creek. Beyond that, net execs donít seem to have a clue, avoiding risk, riding the popularity of proliferating magazine shows and their incessant harping on scandals and heart-tuggers. (The pressure has shown itself in such fiascoes as the CNN-Time messed-up exposé of nerve gas in Vietnam.)
Dateline NBC is expanding to five nights. It pulls in an annual profit of $100 million for NBC. (Today, with Katie Couric, takes in $175 million). Fiction series donít even start to eke out a profit for networks until theyíre in reruns.
So whatís good? No series is wonderful or even passably moral in every episode. But chances are optimal with some. The quality established series (not counting magazines) that have survived one or more year-end massacres are relatively few but leap out at you:
CBS: Cosby, Everybody Loves Raymond, Chicago Hope, Candid Camera.
Fox: The X-Files (the Murdoch channelís version of "supernatural"), Party of Five, The Simpsons.
ABC: NYPD Blue (sixth season, with Rick Schroder, now 28, soon replacing Jimmy Smits), The Practice. Monday night will now be entirely devoted to football.
NBC: ER (now costing $13 million per episode, and Kellie Martin joins cast), Homicide (seventh season), Law and Order (had its best ratings ever, won its first best-drama Emmy in eighth season), Mad About You.
Among the new series, these are a few that inspire commentary:
L.A. Docs (CBS): idealistic 30-ish medics in private practice, with Ken Olin and Sheryl Lee.
To Have and to Hold (CBS): likable leads Moira Kelly (Dorothy Day in Entertaining Angels) and Jason Beghe (Chicago Hope electrician) in a comedy as a defense attorney and cop who like each other.
Brimstone (Fox): Peter Horton as a cop assigned by the devil (John Glover) to hunt down escapees from hell (premise of the year!).
Fantasy Island (ABC): eerie and campy wish-fulfillment drama retooled with Malcolm McDowell and absolutely no Tattoo.
Mr. Chapel (ABC): tough guy Michael Madsen concocts offbeat punishments for crooks whoíve gotten away with their crimes.
Encore! Encore! (NBC): gifted comedian Nathan Lane as an opera star who goes home to the California wine country. Great cast.
Trinity (NBC): Five young-adult working-class Irish siblings (including a priest) in Manhattan, from John Wells (ER, Entertaining Angels).
This Far by Faith (PBS): six-part documentary series on the African-American religious experience, by Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize).
REFLECTIONS ON VATICAN II
REFLECTIONS ON VATICAN II (PBS, September 18): "If it werenít for Vatican II," says a Jesuit theologian at the end of this provocative two-hour, must-see documentary, "God help us." Called by George Weigel the "most important religious institutional event of the 20th century," it finally gets full treatment in the media of this century (film and TV) in Sherry Revordís intelligent mix of archival and interview footage.
The Second Vatican Council, which drew 2,200 delegates to Rome 1962-65 under the auspices of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, may already be starting to dim for many older Catholics, and those under 40 have memories and attitudes shaped by others. Itís an event whose aims, reforms and achievements are always in danger and must not be forgotten.
Reflections is the result of three years of development and 168 interviews gleaned from an international spectrum of Catholic clergy, Protestant and Jewish theologians, lay observers and journalists (including many "stars," from Weigel to Hans Küng). Most speak with a passion. Surprisingly, the interpretive split between liberals and conservatives is reflected frankly, but the emphasis is on dialogue and hope rather than frustration.
Covered with remarkable conciseness are most of the Councilís 16 documents, the problems they were meant to deal with and their significant impact on people, the Church and the world. Issues explored include liturgy, ecumenism, world peace, poverty, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the civil-rights and womenís movements, the challenge to Communism in Eastern Europe, religious freedom and Church-state relations.
Perhaps the most moving images are those of John XXIII and reactions to his illness and death, colorful excerpts from music and liturgies in America and Africa, as well as the splendor of the Council itself. The program, which is an edited version of a five-hour film, will likely inspire viewers to both discussion and research. Recommended viewing.