at the Gates
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Harris is terrific as the veteran aristocratic officer and
marksman the Nazis send to kill Vassili.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.)
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
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.
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
it could be a wake-up call for kids under the delusion that
they are in charge of their own tastes and culture.
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.
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.
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
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, www.pbs.org.)
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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