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by James Arnold


THE PATRIOT (A-4, R) stars Mel Gibson in his Braveheart mode as a rebel superhero leading guerrillas against the supercilious British in South Carolina during the American Revolution. Originally the story of the historical “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion, this fictionalized $100-million epic features Gibson as Ben Martin, a widowed father of seven. He’s an Indian-wars veteran who has committed savage atrocities, agonizes over them and wants to fight no more.

This resolve lasts only the first half-hour. Ben Martin confronts a Brit colonel (Jason Isaacs) who terrorizes civilians. He begins by shooting one of the Martin children.

The rest of this 158-minute movie sets up the decisive battle in which the colonials defeat Cornwallis and Martin goes after the colonel. Directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), this action movie justifiably waves the flag about the heroism and sacrifice of the citizen-warriors. They earned American freedom by standing up to a professional, murderously efficient European army. It’s also about the horror of war and the doubtful morality of violence, revenge and terror on prisoners, civilians and combatants.

The vast arrays of armies in combat are spectacular, but the details are brutal—we are forced to see them in close-ups and super-slow-motion. Martin is in a rage much of the time. And there is a mixed message about the satisfactions of revenge, which remains among the deepest moral temptations.

The film reflects the concerns of Gibson (the real-life dad of seven) and of our own times with loving relationships between parents and children and family-based communities. These don’t get equal time with the violence but carry significant emotional power.

Other strong cast members include upcoming heartthrob Heath Ledger as Martin’s impetuous oldest son, Chris Cooper as an admirable Yankee colonel and Lisa Brenner as Ledger’s brave young spouse. Visually powerful combat film, with stress on emotion and macho heroics; very violent; O.K. for adults.


THE PERFECT STORM (A-3, PG-13) will be remembered as a landmark sea movie. High-tech special effects, a plucky cast and determined director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) combine to re-create the demise of a fishing boat and its crew during the monstrous storm of a lifetime in the North Atlantic in October 1991. This $100-million summer disaster movie is both awesome and improbable, but different: It’s based on fact.

Adapted from Sebastian Junger’s best-seller, Storm is a respectful docudrama re-creation. It involves solid, physically capable actors like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg playing the real people who endured the catastrophe. It slowly builds suspense as it focuses on the Gloucester fishing culture and the Andrea Gail, the six-man swordfishing craft that ventures too far and, inadequately warned, starts home too late.

Nobody knows what actually happened to the Gail—that is invented by scenarist Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove) in a way that gives the characters heroism and dignity. The storm sequences are convincing and powerful. Although shot in a huge soundstage tank, the preposterous size and ferocity of the 100-m.p.h. gale machines and the 10-story waves did everything to the actors except drown them.

The film also vividly describes the courage of the Air National Guard helicopter search-and-rescue teams that pulled off several miracles. While the movie may lack a strong religious dimension, it is consistently uplifting. The people on the boat are there in the storm under pressure to make money for an unhappy boat owner. The real culprit is an economic system that encourages foolhardy risk-taking.

If there is a clear sacred element, however, it’s the valor of the ancient human relationship to the sea, the source of life and joy, as well as the incomprehensible. As Clooney’s doomed skipper, Billy Tyne, says of his work, “Is there anything better in the world?” Authentic, rare action movie recommended for mature viewers.


CROUPIER (A-4, not rated): A dense but stylish and intriguing melodrama about a slick, very professional dealer at a London casino who isn’t as in control as he thinks. Jack (darkly handsome, proud, ice-cool Clive Owen) pities the losers he services at roulette and blackjack, follows the rules and builds material for the novel he’s writing.

His girlfriend (Gina McKee), an ex-cop working as a store detective, loves him. She’s his conscience and a symbol of moral strength. But he is distracted by other women (including ER’s Alex Kingston). He brings on tragedy when some clever schemers pull off a scam at the casino on Christmas night.

Croupier is decidedly not a pro-gambling film but gives the casino atmosphere rich backstage detail. Director Mike Hodges (A Prayer for the Dying) also offers a psychological study of his cerebral hero. This film will appeal to viewers who like to ponder what is real and what Jack is only making up for his novel. Overall, the tone is gloomy. “The world quickly destroys the good and the brave,” Jack says. “It will kill you, too. But it will be in no special hurry.” Love and betrayal among the high rollers; O.K. for adults.


THE CITY (LA CIUDAD) (PBS, September 22, subtitles): Documentary filmmaker David Riker’s superb, gritty, heart-cracking first fiction film is a highlight of the new TV season for those who continue to hope the medium will rise above its more stupid and pandering influences. Based on the hardships facing Central and South American immigrants in New York, this prizewinner at many film fests shows reality as we used to know it, before stuff like Survivor and Big Brother turned the word into a joke.

Stark black-and-white images recall great but simply stated movies about the lives of ordinary people. The City (in Spanish with English subtitles) tells four poignant stories likely to move us deeply and help us recognize our common humanity with these mostly Catholic newcomers.

One is a gently ironic love story in which boy (newly arrived from Mexico) meets girl but loses her when he gets lost among the city’s bewildering array of apartment complexes. Another is sad, poetic and Felliniesque, about a homeless man and his daughter, age six, scratching out a living giving puppet shows in vacant lots. When it’s time for the bright child to go to school, the father can’t enroll her because they have no address—he can’t prove they live in the city.

The other two stories are about the difficult lives of workers, often exploited because they are illegals. “Bricks” follows men recruited off a Brooklyn corner at 5 a.m. to salvage bricks from an abandoned factory. After a truck ride to the site, the wage goes down to 15 cents a brick. Then a tragic accident ensues. All is set (like music) to the voiceover of a wife’s letter from home.

In “Seamstress,” women sew garments for tough Korean bosses in a Manhattan sweatshop. A crisis develops when one desperately needs her long-overdue paycheck to help her suddenly sick child back home. There’s a Norma Rae moment when the bullied women realize their strength is in sticking together.

Writer-director Riker spent five years developing the 90-minute film and relies on nonactors whose life situations reflect events in the movie. Issues of social justice and humanity are the focus; conscience and aesthetic sensibility are powerfully touched. Highly recommended for mature viewers.


NUREMBERG (TNT): Producer-star Alec Baldwin and company took on the biggest moral horror of the horrific 20th century in this July miniseries. This four-hour dramatization of the 1945 Nazi war-crimes trial gets down the spectacle and import, as well as human conflicts. It also pulls few punches in providing rarely seen footage of death-camp atrocities.

Yet for all the power of documentary evidence and historical record, the strongest passage relies on acting at its most basic: Christopher Plummer, as the British prosecutor, standing in court and simply reading an eyewitness account of the murder of 5,000 Jewish men, women and children in a single village.

Another major distinction is the success of David Rintels (one of the medium’s most prolific and gifted writers for 35 years) in individualizing the defendants, and in contrasting the remorse of Speer with the pride and cunning of Goering (memorably played by British actor Brian Cox). Baldwin is a dramatic match for Cox as chief prosecutor Robert Jackson, but Nuremberg earns respect mainly for its willingness to explore the nature of evil for an audience that would probably prefer to be doing something else.


SHORT TAKES: One of the upbeat new fall series is Courage (Fox Family Channel, Mondays), hosted by Danny Glover. It offers one-hour profiles of real-life heroes from around the world (people who have taken risks for others) and puts the constant media hyping of heroes in some perspective.

What’s happened to comedy in pop culture must make the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges gag. Raunchy, sick, sophomoric—you pick the word—is the rage in movies and only slightly less in TV sitcoms. Variety reports that this summer’s Scary Movie is so over-the-top vulgar and leans so heavily on sex/toilet humor that it can’t be used on TV even in edited form. NBC plans to give it a try, anyway.

Here’s a nice fantasy: that all those folks celebrating in the magazine lottery commercials because they’ve presumably won millions have just learned instead that the God who created the universe loves them and will never abandon them.

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