Archive for July 1995

The Net

July 28, 1995

the_net_apple_powerbook_duoThe true test of a movie star is how adroitly he or she can put across a far-fetched thriller. Cary Grant and James Stewart in their Hitchcock movies are the classic examples; recent examples might be Harrison Ford in The Fugitive and Jodie Foster in, yes, The Silence of the Lambs (a gripping story brilliantly told, but c’mon, think about it for a few minutes). And in The Net, Sandra Bullock, the most confident and exuberant new American star in ages, guides you past the many bumps in the plot. Playing a lonely computer whiz who yearns for contact yet fears it, Bullock takes you directly inside the movie’s paranoid heart. That’s what a star can do for a thriller: bring out its subtext, which touches on our common anxieties rather than just putting us through the dumb stress of watching bad guys stalk good guys.

Bullock has been called the new Julia Roberts, but the comparison insults both actresses, who each have their own style. Julia Roberts often exudes waiflike fragility; she can make us feel protective. Sandra Bullock, a relatively tiny woman compared with the leggy Roberts, is vulnerable but not easily breakable. She’s also an innately funny actress. In Demolition Man, Bullock played a 21st-century cop smitten with the tough pulp of the 20th century. Attempting to show off her command of old-time cop slang, she proudly suggested, “Let’s go in there and blow them.” (“Blow them away,” Sylvester Stallone corrected.) Bullock delivered the line so innocently, as if she sincerely thought that was the right expression, that a potentially lame joke was transformed into wit. And her career so far has been full of moments like that.

The Net, directed by Irwin Winkler (Night and the City), is a pressure-cooker trust-nobody thriller in the tradition of Marathon Man and The Parallax View. Bullock is Angela Bennett, a program analyst who sniffs out computer viruses and banishes them. Or something like that. The movie doesn’t bury you in cyberbabble; it’s friendly to computer newbies — maybe too much so. The Net has provoked grumbling from cybernerds: The plot turns on a medical file, which in fact is not accessible on the web. And when Angela stumbles onto this incriminating file and some bad guys start chasing her and systematically deleting every computerized trace of her identity, you’d do well to remember that computers aren’t that omniscient yet.

The key word is yet. The Net works terrifically well as a cautionary thriller about where technology is headed. All of us are already, to a large degree, reduced to numbers. And nobody really knows what exactly the Internet is, or will be, capable of. It’s a highly controversial medium in its infancy (nobody has agreed on proper web regulations, for instance), and that’s what makes it fertile soil for a thriller. The premise — an average person’s life is stripped away by a relentless group of crypto-fascists — is right out of Kafka, who would have known what to make of the web. Irwin Winkler isn’t Kafka, but in The Net‘s best moments he comes within shouting distance of Hitchcock. Winkler hasn’t made a movie for techies; he uses the web’s informational access as his MacGuffin — the thing that sets the plot in motion, the thing the heroine has and the villains will kill to get.

The Net is a good, sturdy nail-biter with neo-Luddite undercurrents of dread. Barcodes, disks, even televisions and phones become talismans of evil used against Angela. And as she gets deeper into trouble, Winkler frames her inside doorways, looking out of windows, shoehorned between people, peering through cracks; the compositions (by Jack N. Green, Clint Eastwood’s usual cinematographer) box Angela in, so that she always seems trapped inside a computer screen. It’s telling that the film’s tense climax finds her seated in a cubicle. And in the last shot, Angela tends flowers with her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother (Diane Baker). The camera pulls back, and Angela — now spending time with a human with imperfect memory, rather than with a computer with megabytes of memory — is restored to herself in a nice, comfortable long shot, surrounded by nature. The Net is more than a trendy cyberthriller; it yearns for simpler days, when we sat down and wrote letters instead of sending e-mail, chatted on the phone instead of in chat rooms, actually went out and made real live friends.

Kids

July 28, 1995

Like most movies that come wrapped in controversy, Kids doesn’t quite deliver. The first-time director, Larry Clark, is rather like his protagonist: He comes on to you, has his rough way with you, and leaves you feeling empty and violated. I’m not writing this in an offended mood of high outrage. I wish I were. Kids is too dramatically listless, too artfully artless, to be truly offensive. Its single-minded, unblinking devotion to New York squalor is admirable to a point, but past that point you don’t know why you’re watching these skateboarder teen wolves or the brainless girls who passively spread their legs for them. The moments of genuine power are few and very far between.

Clark, a noted photographer with a taste for youthful dissipation and degradation, has said he originally set out to make a video about skateboarders; while hanging out with them, he met the 19-year-old Harmony Korine, who put together a script with the most tenuous of narrative threads. The central character, 17-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), is a “virgin surgeon” whose hobby is deflowering girls barely out of puberty. We meet one of his past conquests, Jennie (Chloe Sevigny), who has just tested positive for HIV. She spends the movie trying to find Telly and brief him on her condition, because he’s the only boy she’s ever slept with. Meanwhile, Telly zeroes in on another virgin, the sweet-faced, relatively innocent Darcy (Yakira Peguero). Then there’s Telly’s stoned-out buddy Casper (Justin Pierce), himself a virgin, though of course obscenely boastful about all the “bitches” he’s bagged. He wakes up after the film’s climactic party and, in one desperate and repugnant act, brings the plot full circle. Harmony Korine’s raw-slice-of-life screenplay has a commercial eye: It has that cheap suspense mechanism at its core — will Jennie stop Telly in time to save Darcy? — and it has an ironic, literary symmetry beloved by young writers. Plus it has random spasms of sex and violence to keep our interest. Critics are calling this a daring movie.

I have nothing against depressing films. They can be cleansing, cathartic, and oddly comforting; the comfort derives from watching characters worse off than we are. But Kids, which purports to show the way things are, has nothing much to say about the way things are. Clark’s quasi-documentary viewpoint is as limited as the kids’ consciousness. And he’s definitely a photographer, not a director. During the party scene, the camera sits stranded in front of four prepubescent boys parked on a couch, passing a joint back and forth. They’re a pictorial study in decline, a free-floating Mount Rushmore image. The other kids serve the same iconic purpose, like Calvin Klein ads selling Clark’s muted, alarmist vision of oblivion.

Whom is Kids for? Probably not for the audience Clark hopes to reach — the kids who might supposedly be shown the error of their ways. (Clark has described Kids as “a cautionary tale.”) The MPAA originally gave the movie an NC-17 rating, which would have pushed it off-limits to those under 17 whether or not they were “accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.” But Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers behind Kids‘ distributor Miramax, knew that the Disney-owned Miramax couldn’t put out an adults-only film — not after the flap over Miramax’s Priest. So the Weinsteins bought the rights, created the one-shot company Shining Excalibur, and is releasing Kids under that label, and without a rating. This now means that kids can see it with their parents, but is that likely? The few parents who wouldn’t be mortified sitting next to their children at this movie would probably fail in their attempts to get their kids to accompany them to “a cautionary tale.” (And what kid would want to sit through the earnest parental discussion afterward?) Kids, then, is for adults, and, more specifically, for hip Gen-Xers who want to prove that nothing shocks them. But Kids isn’t shocking — not nearly as much as Hector Babenco’s Pixote, or Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (which is 45 years old!).

All right: Unlike the kids in those films, Clark’s kids aren’t murderers — at least not consciously. But hasn’t anyone noticed the dodgy contradictions in what Larry Clark says about his movie? Out of one side of his mouth, he comes on like a moralizer performing a public service (“Parents should see it with their kids”); out of the other side, he seems to back away from that, perhaps afraid to make Kids sound like an art-house Reefer Madness. Clark is both a 52-year-old concerned parent of two and an outlaw artiste clinging to his street cred. The movie itself reveals Clark’s prurient interest in the ways these kids kill themselves. The mechanical zombie sex, the arrogantly open drug use (the kids smoke huge blunts in the park, as if getting busted weren’t even a remote possibility) — it’s all part of Clark’s hip loser aesthetic. Nobody on the screen has any aspirations aside from getting high or getting laid. It’s a reductive vision and, at its core, a conservative one. Kids is like Porky’s directed by Richard Avedon: crude yet slick, a sexualized turn-off.

The movie is an itchy blanket of nihilism thrown over us. The audience, on the lookout for anything entertaining, laughs in disbelief at Telly’s come-ons and appalling blow-by-blow accounts of his sexual triumphs. Outside the theater, disgusted young women couldn’t stop talking about how they would never have fallen for such rancid come-ons; their male companions, knowing they wouldn’t be getting any that night, kept a respectful, shamefaced distance. (This is not, to put it mildly, a date movie.) Kids invites disdain for its characters, not understanding. Some of the come-on stuff is funny, in a low way. Another boy, squirming in helpless desire to get into some girl’s pants, tries to win her over by promising her the moon: “I’ll take you out to dinner …. I’ll give you some food, buy you a corn dog.” For variety, there are gross-out scenes: Casper dips a tampon into juice and sucks on it; a guy sitting passed-out next to a toilet gets pissed on.

Clark wants us to react. But what exactly does our reaction add up to? Impotent despair at the state of urban youth? The movie will probably attract neither the kids who most need whatever “lesson” it affords (they’re waiting for the next Batman movie or horror movie) nor the older people in a position to make institutional changes (The Bridges of Madison County is more their speed). Kids, I’m afraid, is the latest trendy grunge event, all candor and no insight, designed to make college-age, middle-class city audiences feel as though they’ve walked on the wild side. And the kids (as they also were in another teens-from-hell drama, River’s Edge) are so blank that you don’t care about them — with the possible exception of Darcy (played appealingly by Yakira Peguero), who is Harmony Korine’s update of the maiden whose purity is endangered. (Korine’s knight in shining armor is Jennie, I guess, but she’s a singularly ineffectual knight.)

You respond to these kids in a detached, abstract way — you’re supposed to be appalled at the idea of them. Kids is a horror movie for people who want to think the worst. But at the end, when the shaken Casper croaks “Jesus Christ, what happened?”, there’s no answer because we don’t really know what drove him to do what he does. Artists too often shame us into accepting sketchy motivation as ambiguity. For Kids to be as disturbing as it wants to be, we’d have to feel the boy’s goatish lust, the girls’ self-loathing sexual passivity (these harsh, meaningless bangs may be the only attention they get). Larry Clark doesn’t get inside his kids’ heads. He just films their bodies, records their leering voices, then stands back and calls it a portrait.

Waterworld

July 28, 1995

In the future of Waterworld, everyone looks both wet and dry — soaked by their constant exposure to the water that has covered the planet, their skin red and wrinkled by the sun reflecting off the ocean. The polar ice caps have melted, and dirt is a prized commodity, like petrol in the Mad Max trilogy. In fact, almost everything in Waterworld is like the Mad Max trilogy (the movie could be called Wet Max), except for its pace. The director, Kevin Reynolds, doesn’t give us the cartoon-kinetic jolts of George Miller; he gives us exhausting physical realism. The relentless forward journey, over water instead of scorching desert, progresses against harsh and unforgiving backdrops, like the cattle drives in Anthony Mann’s westerns. Yet, for all the motion, we get no real sense of progression: The damned vast expanse of ocean always looks the same as it did two scenes ago. Reynolds wants us to experience the endless sea as the characters do: both wide open and smothering — the way you felt as a kid, looking up at the stars in the night sky and feeling infinity come over you in a frightening rush. Some of the images have a suffocating grandeur. Water, water everywhere.

The anti-hero, Mariner (Kevin Costner), is the latest in a long line of callous loners that include not only Mad Max but Josey Wales, James Stewart’s hard-asses in the Mann westerns, and probably all the way back to Beowulf. The basic function of these personality-challenged slabs of beef is to be the steady rock at the center of the action — the rock that various weaker, more human, and generally more lively characters cling to. And gradually some of their humanity rubs off on the loner, while some of his self-reliance rubs off on them. The difference in Waterworld is that those subsidiary characters are in short supply. Everyone we see (mostly men) is grubby, stressing over survival. Only the villains seem to have any form of recreation, and even they’re a ragged, indistinct bunch. Mariner has been out on the water alone so long that he’s lost any pretense of compassion or patience. About all that sets him apart from everyone else on the screen is that we see more of him — that, and his webbed toes and gills.

More than once, the camera pulls back and back until Mariner’s huge boat is just a speck in the ocean. The people are specks, too. Kevin Reynolds actually can do people, as he showed in his amiable feature debut, Fandango (also starring Costner). In his haplessly misconceived Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Reynolds gave himself over to the mud and cold and physical discomfort of medieval times — apparently not caring that, for many of us, the magic of Robin Hood had been forever embodied by the athletic, boisterous Errol Flynn. That project wasn’t right for Reynolds; if he wanted to make a realistic movie about the Dark Ages, he should have done it some other way. Reynolds’ great talent (you heard me) lies in making us feel, actually feel, whatever atmosphere or climate he chooses to evoke. Waterworld is an anti-summer movie — it’s as tiring and headachy as a long day at the beach. Is it fun? Not really. Is that the point? Not really. The futuristic milieu is oppressively convincing; Reynolds’ obsession with the elements, at the risk of alienating an audience that wants only escapism, makes him perhaps the most radical big-movie director since Kubrick. All the effort pays off: Waterworld has my respect. I had no idea what the characters were thinking half the time, but I had an excellent idea what they were feeling, physically. This may be the only water-filled movie in history that makes you thirsty. You can almost smell the salt on Mariner’s sunburned skin.

Kevin Costner has taken some lumps for his one-note performance as Mariner, but I thought he was funny — more so, even, than Dennis Hopper, who turns up as the Deacon, the maniacal one-eyed leader of the villainous Smokers. Costner spends most of the movie acting like a grumpy bear with a migraine (which may not have been acting). Mariner takes two survivors onto his ship — a little girl, Enola (Tina Majorino), who has a map tattooed onto her back, and her companion-protector Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn). He sees them both entirely as obstructions. “Hi,” Enola says cheerfully to Mariner. “Move,” he replies. Helen offers Mariner her body; he looks her over and grunts, “You got nothin’ I need.” (Later, he tells her he didn’t seize the moment because “I knew you didn’t really want me.” Okay, so there’s something that sets him apart from most guys on Waterworld, and on our world too.) Mariner eventually thaws a little, but in the meantime his very humorlessness is amusing. When Enola gives a friendly, innocent wave to the Smokers, Mariner slaps her upside the head: “What are you thinkin‘ about?” Costner’s relentlessly antagonistic performance at the center of this big movie is another risk that pays off.

Costner is doing something daring; Dennis Hopper isn’t. He’s funny, but he’s funny in exactly the same way he was in Speed, which is a polite way of saying he’s in a rut. His Deacon has no menace. As entertaining as Hopper can be, he’s never grasped the great secret of playing a villain, which is to act as if the movie is really about the villain — an ambitious guy who keeps getting thwarted by some tiresome hero. (Contemporaneous example: Tim Roth in the otherwise pathetic Rob Roy.) Audiences laugh fondly at Hopper now, and he’s stunted by that fondness. Like Jack Nicholson, Hopper has learned precisely which bits of business will go over big — these once-dangerous actors have turned into sitcom crazies. Their timing has become immaculate and disheartening; their wildness arrives right on schedule, like Kramer bursting through the door on Seinfeld. Hopper may have another ferocious Blue Velvet performance (or touching Hoosiers performance) in him, but the evidence against it gets more depressing every summer. He seems to have handed his career over to goofing around in movies for teenagers.

Reynolds may have thought that if the Deacon were as grim and resourceful as Mariner, Waterworld would have been unwatchable. (Would it have been unwatchable if Mariner had been as loud and high-spirited as the Deacon?) This director isn’t interested in the eternal good-evil throwdown. His heart is in the scenes of Mariner leapfrogging around his boat like an organic cog in the machinery. The conflict in Reynolds’ movies is between man and nature — or, most often, between Kevin Costner and nature: Costner in the desert looking for Dom, Costner brooding in the fog of Sherwood Forest, Costner on the water. Watching Costner live it up in Fandango before going to see Waterworld is a vivid lesson in the difference ten years make. Assuming that these men want to work together again, what’s left for them to conquer? The frozen tundra? Outer space? A lost city under the earth? Kevin Reynolds could become a major director, working his own private side of the street, but he needs better scripts. (The one here, credited to Peter Rader and David Twohy, is sometimes witty but also sketchy and derivative.) Waterworld isn’t anything great, but it’s miles ahead of the usual summer fluff. It’s the work of a talented director-star team who, at this point, probably want their next collaboration to be a quiet romantic comedy with Costner sitting in a nice restaurant talking to a beautiful woman for two hours.

Clueless

July 19, 1995

movies-alicia-silverstone-clueless-stacey-dashAt the beginning of Clueless, our heroine, the 15-year-old 90210 princess Cher (Alicia Silverstone), selects her day’s outfit from the graphics on a computer screen, which not only shows her what matches but how each outfit will look on her. It’s as if this powerful technology existed only to help Cher look fabulous for school. (We never see her use the computer for anything else.) Clueless, the best light-as-air teen comedy in ages, is full of little spins like that, and when I wasn’t laughing I was at least smiling. The writer-director, Amy Heckerling, who’s 41 now, made her debut with the preternaturally charming Fast Times at Ridgemont High; she still hasn’t lost touch with what makes mall-rats tick, even if some of the jargon in Clueless is dated. (On Fast Times, Heckerling had help from Cameron Crowe.)

Amy Heckerling’s gift as a director — which can’t be faked, and which is in short supply in current American movies — is a deep affection for her subjects. She may aim satirical arrows at Cher and her bubbly friends, but the arrows have suction cups on their tips. Heckerling doesn’t skewer these kids for who they are; she sees the unconscious (almost preconscious) humor in their indomitable cluelessness. (The movie’s deadpan irony about its own giddy, pastel inconsequentiality is what The Brady Bunch Movie tried for and missed.) Without Heckerling’s gentle amusement, the movie would either be a straight glorification of airheads (like most of Fast Times‘ rip-offs) or a bitter spray of venom like Heathers, which, in its refusal to acknowledge the humanity in the Heathers or the jocks, wasn’t half as clever or original as it thought it was. Put it this way: I couldn’t stand kids like Cher in high school, but Heckerling (and Silverstone) won me over, whereas Heathers merely pandered to my adolescent anti-prom streak.

Alicia Silverstone didn’t much impress me in her debut, as the lethal Lolita in the inept The Crush (1993), where she tried to be diabolical but was just pouty and amateurish. I skipped her next feature (Hideaway) and somehow missed her famous Aerosmith videos, so I can’t say whether her fine comic touch in Clueless is part of a gradual advance, or a quantum leap, or (as I suspect) more a matter of her performing within her range. She has wonderful eyebrows that curl up in puzzlement or romantic anguish, and she gives Cher (who’s still a virgin) an appealing imperviousness. Cher is just as forthright with her gruff but harmless dad (Dan Hedaya) as she is with a bland hunk who makes a move on her. And she won’t be swayed by peer pressure; Cher, the most popular girl at school, is above peer pressure — she sets the standards.

Heckerling has assembled a terrific supporting cast. When Cher takes the podium in debate class and holds forth on how we should make room for Haitian refugees because “there’s no RSVP on the Statue of Liberty,” the scene is funny, but Wallace Shawn, as the teacher, turns it into a classic with his stupefied “Have we fallen this far?” expression. Stacey Dash has some fresh moments as Cher’s best friend Dionne, who yells at her goofy boyfriend but also has a warm rapport with him “when nobody’s looking.” As the new girl Tai, who becomes Cher’s makeover “project,” Brittany Murphy could be Marisa Tomei’s stoned baby sister; she has a natural rhythm, as if her lines had just popped into her head and surprised her.

The male-written Fast Times took a dimmer view of guys than Clueless does, perhaps because Cameron Crowe was privy to guys’ crude talk about girls. Heckerling gives guys their due. As the smooth Christian, whom Cher has a crush on, Justin Walker has a great bit when he politely escorts Cher to a dance, only to forget about her when he spots a cute guy to dance with. (Cher takes this revelation in stride — Christian becomes a cool guy to shop with.) The real find may be Paul Rudd as Cher’s stepbrother Josh, who listens to “complaint rock” (his theme song is Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”), pores over Nietzsche, and spars good-naturedly with Cher. Rudd is the spokesperson for those in the audience who find Cher appealing but mildly ridiculous, and he’s very winning. Heckerling handles her young cast with a light, easy touch; watching them, you remember what a great ensemble Fast Times had. (Clueless has its own Jeff Spicoli, a stoner skateboarder who serves as a relaxed and inadvertent counterpoint to the stoner skateboarders in Kids. This being the ’90s, the stoner becomes a twelve-stepper.)

Back in 1982, the sexual frankness of Fast Times upset a lot of (adult) critics — in some surface ways, it was the Kids of its day. The scene in which Phoebe Cates instructed Jennifer Jason Leigh in matters of fellatio (“Don’t bite”) said more than a thousand sociological studies: Those kids, with precious little guidance at home, had to steer each other (and themselves) past the pitfalls of budding sexuality. Neither Fast Times nor Clueless turn adults into cartoon ogres (a key point of departure between Heckerling and the perpetually snotty John Hughes), but they do recognize that the financial realities of the last quarter-century have left kids almost entirely to their own devices. Larry Clark paints this adultless world as an apocalypse of immorality and irresponsibility; Heckerling is more sanguine. She knows most kids stumble and fall, but also help each other up and generally turn out okay.

Clueless is softer than Fast Times. There’s no hellish-devirginizing scene, no abortion, not much in the way of drugs (Cher takes a few hits of weed but believes in moderation); it’s essentially asexual. What Heckerling achieves in Clueless is a self-contained fantasyland full of colorful, smartly observed people, who, for all their pastel poppiness, are more real to us than the human wreckage in Kids. Heckerling is a real director, and her best movies are comedies of companionship and kindness. Clueless is a happy bubble, and Alicia Silverstone comes into her own as a confident young comedienne. She never pushes you to like her; you just do. The same is true of the movie.

Meet the Feebles

July 9, 1995

In Meet the Feebles, a 1989 adults-only puppet movie now making its way to art houses, a long-snouted animal of indeterminate species engages in “nasal porn” with a cow, and a jilted hippo consoles herself by emptying the shelves of a pastry shop, then emptying a machine gun into most of the characters. You can’t say you’ve seen this before. Meet the Feebles is like an unholy fusion of Jim Henson and Ralph Bakshi, and sometimes the nonstop nastiness gets monotonous (the squeamish should stay home). But Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director who went on to make the ecstatically gory Dead Alive and the fevered, Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures, works with a punk-rock glee that pushes this far beyond a dirty Muppet parody. There’s a beautifully realized swipe at the Russian-roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, of all things, and Jackson finds lyricism in the unlikeliest places — a giant spider wrapping its legs around a car; the glow of a stage light shimmering off a pool of puppet blood. Meet the Feebles could have used a little more visual variety: Most of it unfolds inside the squalid theater where the Feebles (like the Muppets) are rehearsing for a live TV show, and the picture quality of the exterior scenes is very spotty. But you have to love — I have to love, anyway — a director who gives one of his characters a show-stopping song extolling the virtues of sodomy. The movie deserves its probable status as the cult favorite of the decade.

First Knight

July 7, 1995

361_3Women who chuckled at the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County, in which the 64-year-old Clint Eastwood paired up with the 45-year-old Meryl Streep, will want to know about First Knight. In this umpteenth retelling of the King Arthur saga — the first movie directed by Jerry Zucker since his big hit Ghost — the 29-year-old Julia Ormond (as Guinevere) must choose between the 45-year-old Richard Gere (as Lancelot) and the 64-year-old Sean Connery (as Arthur). Poor Ormond has to gaze longingly into the eyes of men who, theoretically, could be her father and grandfather. Would American audiences accept a movie in which the 30-year-old Keanu Reeves must choose between the 45-year-old Streep and the 64-year-old Anne Bancroft? Talk amongst yourselves.

In John Boorman’s Excalibur, Arthur had a few years on Lancelot, but the members of that romantic triangle were at least within jousting distance of each other’s age. The triangle was also only part of the story. A born image-maker, Boorman caught us up in the dark enchantment of Camelot. Jerry Zucker goes for the lite enchantment of Harlequin paperbacks. Watching First Knight, I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t particularly enthralled, either. Zucker started out as one-third of the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker team (or ZAZ), who collaborated on Airplane! and Police Squad. As Ghost and now First Knight prove, Zucker is as single-minded about making women cry as he once was about making guys laugh. This isn’t versatility, exactly; it’s closer to ambidexterous manipulation.

Richard Gere is laughably miscast as Lancelot, but he manages to be appealing anyway, unlike Kevin Costner’s wet-puppy Robin Hood (and Gere, learning from Costner’s mistake, doesn’t attempt an English accent). Maybe what saves him is that Lancelot is a noncommittal hero — he keeps saying he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies — and Gere gives a noncommittal performance, so we’re not embarrassed for him. He seems to be doing First Knight as a lark, and we note how chipper he’s looking these days despite the trouble with Cindy. But when Lancelot is supposed to drop his wanderer’s cool and lose his heart to Guinevere, Gere still doesn’t commit himself. Staring blankly at the lovely queen, he could be mentally composing his next Oscar-night speech about Tibet. And sometimes he’s annoyingly smug. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo got away with lines comparable to Lancelot’s “I can tell when women want me,” because Ford put a parodic spin on Han’s cockiness. But when Gere says it, it just seems like narcissism. He doesn’t need Guinevere, he needs a mirror.

The other two leads fare better, though they have their own problems. Julia Ormond, a British Snow White under glass, badly needs a contemporary role with some spark. She has delicate, expressive features, but in her two movies so far (Legends of the Fall was the other) she hasn’t gotten to express much besides “I’m happy” and “I’m sad.” (In both movies, she gets passed back and forth between guys, like a coveted baseball card.) I’d rather she didn’t turn into another overhyped one-note Julia, because Ormond has some witty moments here when she’s rebuffing the suave Lancelot. It’s always good to see Sean Connery, who by now seems unimaginable without his imposing white beard (he’s the only major movie star who’s consistently bearded), and he gets his voice up near the end, when Arthur confronts his betrayers. But Connery seems to be in a rut; he’s played too many lions, and most of his performance is perfectly fine and perfectly unsurprising. He was great as the mild bookworm dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — he needs more comic roles that tinker with his virile persona.

Jerry Zucker figures that what worked once will work again, and in First Knight he brings back his Ghost team of composer Jerry Goldsmith, cinematographer Adam Greenberg, and editor Walter Murch (who’s terrific with the lightning-fast sword duels). He also brings back his Ghost sensibility. At the beginning, Guinevere is strong; there’s real authority in the way she addresses the people of her land. But as the movie goes on she becomes passive and weepy. Zucker plays it every which way: Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot but doesn’t consummate her passion; then Arthur, having caught them in a kiss and renounced them, forgives him just before his heroic death and instructs Lancelot to “take care of her.” There’s something sick about a Camelot movie in which the point of the great Arthur’s death is to bring the lovers together in a guilt-free union. And if a film like this doesn’t have Merlin or Monty Python, what’s the point any more?

There’s an unsettling trend towards chivalry in recent movies, both in period pieces like Rob Roy, Braveheart, and First Knight and in more contemporary films like Forrest Gump and Bridges of Madison County. In these movies, women exist to be rescued — from death, from boredom, from themselves. Calgon, take me away! But the flip side of the fantasy of being whisked away and worshipped is paternal objectification. When Arthur first meets Lancelot, after Lancelot has just run the lethal Gauntlet, the king offers Guinevere for Lancelot to kiss: “Your prize.” That’s what she is in First Knight, and all she is.


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