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Stunning Adventures, Moral Malaise


    Seven Years in Tibet stars Brad Pitt as Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, who became friend and tutor of the Dalai Lama.

    SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (A-2, PG-13): This $70-million epic depicts the stunning adventures of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, who left his wife and unborn child to go to Kashmir in 1939 to scale a peak. He failed, was interned by the British during the war, escaped and was one of the first Westerners who made his way to Tibet. There he became friend and tutor to the then-adolescent and likable Dalai Lama, the country's political and Buddhist religious leader.

    Brad Pitt plays Harrer with conviction. And the film is an authentic spectacle, both of climbing and of life in Lhasa, the "forbidden city," although it had to be shot in the Canadian Rockies and the Andes because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The political message attacks the cruelty of the Communist takeover (now nearly 50 years ago); the moral message shows the redemption of a self-centered athlete. A broad-canvas epic, but without loss of detail and humanity; recommended for mature youth and adults.


    THE ICE STORM (A-4, R): It's the 1970's, and sex and drugs are messing up the lives of the affluent in suburban Connecticut. This is director Ang Lee's (Sense and Sensibility) soberly honest but dreary film, based on Rick Moody's novel, about two neighboring families with estranged spouses and deep chasms between generations.

    The couples who intermingle, searching but not finding much joy, are played by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen as the Hoods, and Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver as the Carvers. None are paying much attention to their kids, who explore adult temptations with each other. The parents try to be stern, but they've lost their moral authority as well as their sense of direction.

    One problem is we're not quite sure what went wrong here. (You can't blame the zeitgeist for everything; lots of people got through the 70's unwounded.) But it all ends in tragedy on the night of an ice storm, while the adults are at a "key exchange" party. Morally bleak cautionary tale, superbly crafted but likely to cast a pall on your evening; discreet sex situations; satisfactory for mature viewers.


    GATTACA (A-3, PG-13): In this future dystopia, the world is divided between the affluent and beautiful, who have genetically engineered DNA, and the riffraff, who have all the flaws. The hero (Ethan Hawke) is an inferior trying to "pass" so he can become an astronaut. He falls for an elite woman (Uma Thurman). And the F.B.I. is constantly testing DNA, looking for an outsider who has murdered the director of the aerospace corporation Gattaca.

    This ingenious first film by New Zealander Andrew Niccol succeeds in raising consciousness about some potentially bad consequences of gene research. But the pace is wretchedly slow, and the zombie-like vision of the future seems unlikely. If the elites are so smart, wouldn't they make their world a lot more fun? Thoughtful sci-fi with a moral bite; recommended for mature youth and adults.


    MAD CITY (A-3, PG-13) summarizes most of the anti-media propaganda of the last decade. Security guard John Travolta loses his job at a museum and comes in to protest. Unfortunately, he carries a weapon that keeps going off accidentally, and TV reporter Dustin Hoffman sees his chance to become famous.

    The result is a contrived, full-blown hostage situation. Despite a good cast and top thriller director Costa Gavras, it's all too obvious and calculated to stir much blood. Lots of spectacle and noise; O.K. for mature viewers.


    THE JACKAL (A-4, R): This is the mother of hitman movies, based on the 1973 classic The Day of the Jackal, directed by the late Fred Zinnemann. Bruce Willis is a suave but heartless assassin hired in Europe to kill a major U.S. political figure. As we watch him change disguises, gather his weapons and bump off people who get in his way, F.B.I. honcho Sidney Poitier brings aboard an I.R.A. shooter (Richard Gere) to stop it. The dazzling melodrama climax takes place in the Washington, D.C., Metro.

    The main distinction of this new film is a moral passion: Thanks to director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy), you really feel everything, especially for sympathetic female players Diane Venora, as a very cool Russian cop, and Mathilda May, as a former Basque terrorist trying to settle down as a mom. Heavy genre violence, partly redeemed by theme and character; O.K. for mature audiences.

    Some recent sightings of tracking God on the tube include:


    THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER (weekdays, PBS) has its faults, but one of them is not the essays that usually brighten the final 5-10 minutes. Richard Rodriguez (the well-known California writer) has sensitive elegiac style and compassionate insight. (He comes from a Catholic background in Sacramento.) His recent comments on our hunger for "contact"—with aliens, angels, animals—suggest this as evidence for the deep human loneliness of our times.


    ER (NBC, Thursdays): Trying to stretch and air out a bit (all those medical emergencies are giving us migraines), this top series sent the doctor characters played by George Clooney and Tony Edwards to the California desert for a provocative episode with terrific contrast in pace and setting. It allowed writer John Wells to expound on the "wild absent father" (George's, who had died in a truck-car crash, taking a Hispanic father of five along with him) and the "non-communicative present father" (Tony visits his dad and mom in San Diego, where the dad smokes a lot and stays typically distant).

    George and Tony attend the Hispanic funeral, sitting clumsily in the back, at a tiny Catholic chapel in the desert. They just wanted to be there. "Shows you loved your father," the priest tells George, with some insight. There's much to be moved by in the love and pain that is routine in families.


    A WHALE OF A BUSINESS (Frontline, PBS): How could you miss this if you have kids? Basically, it was another slam-bang Frontline documentary, this one telling the poignant, so complex story of Keiko, the almost human, killer-whale hero of the Free Willy movies. The shocker wasn't so much about Keiko, who is now in Oregon being loved by kids and being trained (perhaps) to return and survive in the wild. The shocker was about the cruel "dry fisheries" in Japan and how these personable mammals are caught to perform at Sea World and many other entertainment centers. Our stewardship over these beautiful creatures can easily be questioned after seeing these images.

    We're searching for answers, and finding God in both strange and familiar places. (This kind of opening-of-the-eyes is among the wonderful events that sometimes occur watching television.)


    ADVERTISING IS OUT OF CONTROL: If the Church were run like sports and TV, inner-city parishes wouldn't have to merge or close. They'd get some sponsors. How about the St. Angelica's Pizza Hut Auditorium? Or the Nike Guardian Angels Parish Hall? Race drivers, who literally wear their commercial affiliations (mostly oil, car and cigarette companies), have set a style. (The closest we've come is donors' names discreetly placed on stained-glass windows.)

    Contemporary U.S. culture is crazy in this area. We just need the money too much. As others have noted, when thousands labored to build those great medieval cathedrals, nobody so much as put their initials on the stones.


    BROOKLYN SOUTH (CBS, Mondays): Another Steven Bochco cop series—what is there to say? This one started with a black madman in the streets who shot several people, including a policeman, and got brutally kicked as he lay fatally bleeding on the station-house floor. "Die, you scumbag!" say the assembled cops, and of course he does. Some care, some don't.

    This is basically still about the angst of being a police officer in the 1990's but the demographics are different. These are uniformed beat cops, mostly Catholic ethnic whites, working a polyglot (black, Jewish, Italian, Irish) district. You see more real blue-collar grittiness than in probably the whole history of television put together.

    Mostly, South has all the familiar cop show ingredients: the crime, the interviews with involved parties, the door-pounding entry and chase to collar the suspects, the "in house" grilling, the counseling of victims and families, the cops' problems with lovers and wives and kids, the final scene—often the respite—which is the safe haven of sex and romance.

    The keys to judgment: how well it does these things and what more does it do. This series seems especially true to the special qualities of Brooklyn neighborhoods. (I grew up there.) But two characters stick out. One is officer Jimmy Doyle (Dylan Walsh), whose diligence defines what he does as a vocation, not a job. (In an early episode, he has one of the better confession experiences in recent TV drama when he talks to a priest about a black teenager, now dead, he feels he pressured into risking his life.)

    The second is the senior sergeant (Gary Basaraba), a big, bluff guy who is the heart and soul of the station, the source of wisdom and comfort and grace, the mother and father of the assortment of human beings in this workplace. If cop series are judged by what they do that's new, the sarge is new—a character who puts South way upscale.

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