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By James Arnold

Self-Sacrifice And Self-Indulgence


Enemy at the Gates

ENEMY AT THE GATES (A-4, R): The first scenes in this epic, set during the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, are horrifying in the grand and artful sense—a depiction of war and chaos that arouses compassion for those who endured or died.

These scenes resemble the storming-of-Normandy sequences at the start of Saving Private Ryan. They have death and mutilation in common and, above all, the aching panic that—bad as things are—they’re going to get worse.

But the assault in Ryan is planned and coordinated against an organized defense. Enemy shows waves of primitive, improvised attacks by soldiers who have no apparent plan.

Both are deadly and real. Ryan is beautiful in its own way, a Mercedes-Benz of battles. But there is no trace of glory in Stalingrad. The Enemy assault is ugly. Each in its own way is true and powerful, and gives an imaginative overview of battle possible only in movies.

In Enemy, director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose) tells the based-on-fact story of one of the survivors of the attack, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law).

A modest but gifted sharpshooting shepherd from the Urals, Vassili picks off five German officers. The Soviet propagandists (led by Joseph Fiennes) make him the hero they desperately need to inspire and rally their ragtag, out-weaponed army.

Ed Harris is terrific as the veteran aristocratic officer and marksman the Nazis send to kill Vassili.

Carefully developed and superbly shot, the film becomes a struggle between two star sniper-athletes, each patiently trying to outwit the other. The moral differences between them are intelligently explored. The ending offers satisfaction and uplift rarely touched in action films.

Enemy is also about the price of fame, the waste of war and how politics uses and uses up people. The cast is on the mark, especially Rachel Weisz as the Jewish military aide who loves Vassili and Bob Hoskins as the crude young Khrushchev who leads the city’s defense. Graphic genre violence, problem sexual situation, but neither is gratuitous; satisfactory for mature viewers.

The Mexican

THE MEXICAN (A-4, R) is a gangster film with a few killings interspersed with some screwball comedy. On a moral level, it tries to do three things: It makes fun in a fresh way of the culture conflict between Americans and Mexicans; it satirizes the worship of the Gun as a magic, macho instrument; and it spoofs the familiar stereotypes of cool hero and mean-tough villain. In doing so, it spoofs the heart of gangster-movie mythology.

It’s also money in the bank because it pairs Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt as Samantha and Jerry, the gorgeous romantic leads who bicker. Jerry, a low-level mob operative who wants to get out and get married, is sent to Mexico for the traditional “one last job.”

His boss wants him to retrieve an ancient and elusive pistol that is the comic equivalent of the Holy Grail, with contradictory legends in every telling of its history. Getting it proves more complicated than anyone thought.

Meanwhile, Leroy, a bearish hit man (James Gandolfini, the Mafia guy on The Sopranos) takes the volatile Sam hostage to guarantee that Jerry comes back with the gun. Leroy is a low-key homosexual full of sensitive advice about relationships. This is really the key twist that makes the movie, and its credibility hangs on the skills of Gandolfini.

Obviously, the imperfect humanity of both hero and hit man gives new meaning to their inevitable confrontation. The moral ambiguity deepens the film beyond its genre expectations. A bit overlong and overindulgent, also subject to all the usual crime movie caveats; satisfactory only for mature viewers.

15 Minutes

15 MINUTES (O, R) is an imaginative but over-the-top New York-based thriller with enthusiastic and elaborate anti-media messages. Two East European thugs land in Manhattan and scheme to take advantage of America’s media madness and (they think) soft treatment of criminals. It’s something Emil (Karel Roden) and Oleg (Oleg Taktarov) have picked up from watching TV and movies, which they mistake for literal truth.

Emil, a nutty sadist, figures he can murder and rob and get off on an insanity plea, then make a million on a book deal. “I love America!” he says. “No one’s responsible for anything!” Oleg, a fan of Frank Capra, makes a movie of their adventures with a camcorder he stole in Times Square.

It’s a good joke, but you figure these psychos will be squished by an NYPD media-star detective (Robert De Niro) and his fire-investigator colleague (Edward Burns).

The point by writer-director John Herzfeld (Two Days in the Valley) is that Emil, crazy as he is, is right (in the movie) and not so far from wrong in reality. Will Emil and Oleg be defeated by their own greed?

This isn’t the first morally angry semi-fantasy about the symbiosis between media and violence. But there haven’t been many good ones since Network. (Consider Natural Born Killers, Mad City.)

Herzfeld beats it to death and makes the crucial mistake of creating an often tastelessly violent movie to attack violence in movies. But there are several good sequences (fires, chases, shoot-outs) and artsy touches (many key scenes are shot via Oleg’s hand-held video). De Niro and Burns, along with Kelsey Grammer as a creepy TV news exec, contribute solid, lively performances. Excessive violence, even for this genre; brief nudity; for adults, but not generally recommended.

The Merchants of Cool

THE MERCHANTS OF COOL (PBS) so thoroughly exposes the moral bankruptcy of the youth-oriented TV networks (MTV and WB, in particular) that it makes Hannibal Lecter seem like Little Mary Sunshine. This devastating one-hour Frontline documentary started off exploring how “cool hunters” for mega-bucks track and reinforce (and often exaggerate) teen tastes so that shows and commercials will get strong ratings and sell products.

Since their tactics and gimmicks exploit three major teen vulnerabilities—hormones, rebellion and being cool with peers—the program is terrifying for anyone over 21. (We all remember how it was.) For parents it’s the nightmare of having the difficult teen years of their kids exacerbated for the sake of some corporation’s bottom line.

And it could be a wake-up call for kids under the delusion that they are in charge of their own tastes and culture.

Via interviews with young people themselves and execs in the entertainment universe, Merchants clearly establishes the unhealthy relationship between teens and the corporations that study and manipulate them. Even self-defined rebels (like rage rock bands) are easily co-opted by money.

At worst, kids are brain-numbed into being MTV or Dawson’s Creek wanna-bes. They are encouraged to model themselves on the prefabricated teen characters—the documentary identifies them as the gross “Mook” (guys) and the saucy “Midriff” (girls)—created for them by the media research mavens. You ache for these kids, reflecting the hottest media fantasy of themselves on the party and reality shows.

Critics like myself are frustrated trying to deal with this artistic refuse. You can fill space with contemptuous reviews, but the bad guys can always say, “This is not your parents’ music, movie, TV show, whatever....” You can hope that a documentary like Merchants will reach the right audience eventually and help teens know who their true friends (and enemies) are.

Luckily, most of us survive the teen years with only a few bumps and bruises. But never have young people had to deal with salespeople so clever and omnipresent. (The videotape is $19.98 through PBS’s Web site,

That's Life

THAT’S LIFE (CBS, Saturdays) gets pre-empted a lot. But this series about a blue-collar, Italian family (not Mafia) is entertaining and reasonably real. The male characters are stereotyped as demanding, a bit spoiled and old-fashioned. But as long as they break the mold now and then and do something unpredictable, it’s bearable.

The show is largely female-oriented: The lead character is a 30-ish daughter (Heather Paige Kent) who works in a bar. She has decided not to marry but to take hold of her life and work through college. (She talks about her life and family to a bar customer who reacts but never says a word.) The young woman and her beautician best friend are smart and delightful big-city wisecrackers.

The parents help give the series class and credibility: The dad (Paul Sorvino) is a tollbooth ticket guy, and the mom (Ellen Burstyn) is the heart of the household. The appeal is that these are TV people to whom we can relate.

In a recent episode, the family had a cancer scare and the dad was not above a low-key prayer to an alleged vision of Mary that was getting some attention in the neighborhood. His faith was rewarded. One of the season’s best new, hour-long comedy dramas.

The Fighting Fitzgeralds

THE FIGHTING FITZGERALDS (NBC, Tuesdays): This offering of Irish-American characters will have to labor to get beyond the clichés. It helps that the star is Brian Dennehy, both a movie and TV icon for years and a recent Tony winner for a revival of Death of a Salesman.

But on this show he’s an Irish Archie Bunker. Reminiscing about parochial school, he defends the usual attack on nuns: “The nuns never hit...the priests hit...the nuns grab and shake.” Regarding one of his sons seeing a therapist, he says, “So you’re paying somebody to be your friend, huh?” This was typical opening-night stuff. The series has lots of room to get better, so let’s hope it does. Basic laughs, well delivered.

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