Rich & Lovely People The Thomas Crown Affair is wealth porn?an advertisement for escapist moviegoing. Every frame is packed with lovely, expensive objects and beautiful people who are rich enough to afford those objects and confident enough to possess them without making a big deal of their acquisition. Pierce Brosnan, who plays billionaire investor and secret art thief Thomas Crown, and Rene Russo, who plays the gorgeous insurance investigator Catherine Banning, who's trying to bust Crown for stealing a Monet from the Met, are made up, clothed, framed and lit with exquisite care, so that their poise and beauty sinks in subliminally rather than trumpeting itself. On some level, these stars must know how beautiful they are, but they don't really let on, and that's the key to the movie's success. They don't appear to be presenting themselves for our viewing pleasure; they're just going about their business, as if they don't mind (or notice) our roving eyes. That's a subtle distinction, but it's the difference between old-school Hollywood glamour?a school represented by this film, and by last summer's vastly superior Out Of Sight?and the new school, which jams expensive objects and attractive (often very young) people down the audience's collective throats while the latest pop hits moan and throb on the soundtrack. Director Norman Jewison's original version of the movie, released in 1968, starred Steve McQueen as a bank robber and Faye Dunaway as an insurance investigator who fell for him. It was wealth porn, too, but it was badly done?arch and busy and mock-sophisticated, "glamorous" in that graceless, vulgar, impress-the-yobs manner that's typical of films by, say, Tony Scott or Adrian Lyne. (It's the first movie I bring up whenever embittered baby boomers wax nostalgic about how the late 60s and early 70s were the most creative and adult years in motion picture history. Earthquake and The Towering Inferno are backup choices.) This new version, written by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer and directed by John McTiernan, is so good that it reduces the original to the status of mere curiosity. Crisp and professional from the get-go, it rarely strains for effect, and it wears its coat of wealth lightly, which is how it should be. Unlike most big-budget blockbusters in this screw-storyboarding-and-just-follow-everyone-around-with-a-Steadicam era, The Thomas Crown Affair gives the impression of having been thought out, planned and crafted, like a yacht or a Rolls Royce. It's not art, but it's made with care. There are several cleverly staged action setpieces, and even minor bridging scenes are choreographed and edited in a way that delivers tiny, pleasurable surprises. Overall, the film is still completely ridiculous?perhaps even more ridiculous, plotwise, than its predecessor?but it's much, much better than it needed to be. It helps that Brosnan and Russo are great-looking people in their mid-40s who look like great-looking people in their mid-40s. Their bodies are attractive but not fake-looking. Brosnan with his shirt off looks like somebody's very handsome dad?he's pale and slender, with wide shoulders, compact arms, a splash of dark chest hair and the faintest hint of a spare tire. No obscene musculature or surgery-sculpted abs; he looks like a guy who plays tennis a lot, jogs a bit and (most importantly) has good metabolism, which counteracts his love of whisky and steak, rather than a guy who shoots steroids, eats nothing but rice and fish and works out four hours a day with a personal trainer. Ditto Russo; like Brosnan, she's naked in a couple of scenes, and it's nice to see a female body onscreen with real, womanly hips and breasts that have a human size and shape. Their teasing banter, usually delivered in four-star restaurants or art museums or on private tropical beaches, feels earned, because the actors look like they've lived a bit, maybe learned a lesson or two. They're living like Bruce Wayne and Brenda Starr, but they have secrets, and some of them are sad; they never reveal the exact nature of their secrets, and that's another good move. We don't need to know everything about movie characters, especially in movies like The Thomas Crown Affair; even fluff is helped by a touch of mystery, a hint that some things are being withheld from us because they are none of our business. I always liked Brosnan as James Bond and never understood why people thought he was a lightweight; he combines Roger Moore's smooth self-awareness with Sean Connery's I-don't-give-a-damn cruelty. He's more relaxed here, though, and more charming?a playboy who always knew he wanted to be a playboy but had to work to get there, and is a wiser person as a result. With her shaggy red bob, ever-moist lips and odd, clipped line readings, Russo is a tad kooky, and maybe too overtly sexy. (Was this in the script, or is it the director's fault?) But her tenor voice is sweet to hear, and she looks fabulous peeking over the lip of a turtleneck sweater, or pouring champagne on the exhausted Crown's face right after she's finished screwing him within an inch of his life. I'm sitting here trying to remember the intricacies of the film's plot; it's not easy because the story is both complex and utterly meaningless?Crown steals a painting he loves from the Met, or maybe he didn't really steal it, or love it; then again, maybe he stole it and put it back or replaced it with a fake; at any rate, Banning is certain he's a thief, or perhaps an art forger, or a front for an art forger, and decides the best way to expose him is to get inside his life, which entails letting Crown get inside of her. It's all quite silly?even sillier than the first Thomas Crown?and entrancing. The real point is the frisson between Brosnan and Russo; they're not Bogart and Bacall, but they've never seemed more like movie stars than they do here. They're whisked through an amazing number of lavish settings, each involving a costume change or two; but they never let on that no human really lives this way, not even the Kennedys. (With its never-ending parade of lush apartments and mansions and vacation homes and private aircraft, the movie could be the public's collective fantasy of what it's like to be a Kennedy. The thought sours when you see the dark-haired, John-John-looking Brosnan taking rich-guy risks in boats and planes?but the jolt only lasts a second because the film is seductive and playful.) McTiernan is primarily known as an action director; he made the first and third Die Hard movies, both of which were very good macho spectaculars, and The Hunt For Red October. He's strongly influenced by John Frankenheimer and Alfred Hitchcock, both of whom are visually and logistically precise filmmakers with a strong sense of momentum and a certain elegance; these qualities are all present in the way McTiernan crosscuts, not just between actions in different locales, but minor bits of business occurring in the same location. The intent is always to subtly increase our anticipation of how things will turn out, and to show rather than tell?in other words, good filmmaking. For example, early in the film, Crown sits at a conference table in his lower Manhattan headquarters, pen in hand, looking over documents that make a merger official, while across the table, a wannabe business partner nervously unwraps a celebratory cigar, fiddles with it, then produces a box of matches and removes one; he can't summon the nerve to light the damned cigar because Crown hasn't signed yet. The scene's mini-narrative is articulated by the business suitor's anxious face and Crown's calculated, blank expression, and by the unclicked pen and the unlit cigar. Come to think of it, Billy Wilder also did this kind of thing well, investing ordinary objects with a significance that advanced the story and enhanced the characters; think of the naked light bulb that signals duplicity in the Stalag 17 barracks, or Audrey Hepburn's bulky cello case in Love in the Afternoon, an item that announces "model grind" while hiding her secret persona as a playgirl. I'm not saying Thomas Crown is a great movie or that McTiernan is the equal of any of the filmmakers he's learned from?just that he's learned from them, that he has a marvelous sensibility that's commercial and poetic, and that you can see this sensibility at work in Thomas Crown. It's there in the way Banning opens a switchblade without looking at it; in the way Banning's eyes twinkle when she tells Crown, "Men make women messy." It's there in the way a yacht bow slices through clear blue seawater in close-up, and in the scene where Crown is seated behind Banning in an ultralight glider and absentmindedly caresses her hair as they zip over fall-colored treetops. I won't call the film a guilty pleasure; there's no reason to feel guilty about liking a movie that knows exactly what it is and does its job so well. Framed Media boosters of The Blair Witch Project might have made a tactical error when they decided to tell everybody how incredibly scary the film is. ("The year's scariest movie," said the Village Voice; "I have seen the new face of movie horror and its name is 'The Blair Witch Project,'" declared Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, typing with one thumb while sitting on the other.) I thought it was very scary?so scary that it actually gave me my first movie-related nightmare in about five years. But I was aware that other people might not think so. The film's unusual, even challenging structure is bound to be off-putting to the teenage film audience, for whom horror means Seven, Scream or Jan De Bont's The Haunting?movies that lean on special effects, gore or some combination thereof and leave very little to the imagination. To say that the creepiness of Blair Witch comes from withheld information is exactly right. The jittery, borderline-first-person camerawork was a terrific touch, and the audio-only scenes inside the tent, which allow you to imagine what's making those spooky noises outside, are even better. The movie takes its own premise seriously, almost never cheats and ends on what I thought was precisely the right note. It needed to end ambiguously because anything explicit it showed us would not have equaled the product of our own tickled imaginations. I was also impressed with the characterizations?particularly the filmmaker played by Heather Donahue, a pint-sized female Ahab. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were right to cast a woman as the obsessive protagonist; if a man had played the role, the audience would likely have found him unlikably arrogant. Donahue's gender makes her single-mindedness peculiar and strangely touching. The camera is a phallic symbol, natch?what's that famous quote about the history of cinema being boys taking pictures of girls??and the director clings to hers as if it were a knife or a gun or a magic talisman protecting her against evil. She films in order to control what is happening, but she can't control it. In our video-happy age, that's a very useful message. As you've gathered, I liked the film a lot. But apparently a large number of moviegoers beg to differ. Recent reports on audience exit polling by the research firm CinemaScore indicate that the film might not become the most profitable film ever made?and that early predictions of a $100 million final take, made on the basis of the el cheapo film's over $40 million gross as of last week, were premature. The fact is, most regular Joes and Janes hate the movie. Cinemascore said viewers who were strongly interested in seeing the film tended to give it a "C," and people who came with them often gave it an "F." Some have chosen to interpret this as proof that the public has common sense and the media hype machine was trying to put something over on them and failed; I choose to interpret it more negatively, as proof that the explicitness of most horror films made after Halloween and Alien has deadened audiences to films that demand concentration and imagination from them, instead of serving up a smorgasbord of slime, blood, fancy editing and funhouse-style digital monstrosities. On a related note, I'm dismayed by yet another wave of "Hit Film Is Not Original After All!" stories keyed into Blair Witch. The stunning revelation here is that the movie's found-footage premise has been done before, in films as diverse as the 1979 Italian cult horror flick Cannibal Holocaust, the 1989 Vietnam War movie 84 Charlie Mopic and, most recently, the 1998 indie The Last Broadcast. A similar wave of stories appeared after the release of The Truman Show; indeed, there's usually a flurry of plot plagiarism charges surrounding at least one hit movie each calendar year, sometimes more. Will people never learn that form follows function? It's only logical that when some horror filmmaker decides to direct a movie that purports to be a found record of atrocities, the result is always going to look pretty much the same as every other such effort. What differentiates one movie from another are the intangibles?things like mood, rhythm, characterization and technique. There was a wonderful article about this asinine nonissue in The New Yorker last year. Citing The Truman Show, the author pointed out that if a writer comes up with a premise like, "Man finds out his life is a tv show," he is virtually guaranteed to come up with related elements, like the Godlike director, the girlfriend who's secretly in on it, the light falling from the sky and the impulsively hatched escape plan. Hint to aspiring screenwriters and playwrights: devote your time and energy to the intangibles, because those are the only things that are uniquely yours anyway. And if you come up with what you think is an original story, and somebody else comes out with a movie or play that has exactly the same story, that doesn't necessarily mean you were plagiarized; more likely, it means your story wasn't as special as you thought. I'd also advise anyone embroiled in this Blair Witch mini-controversy (or who might be writing about it) to resist declaring that one filmmaker got to the faux-documentary horror format first. Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, to name just two great horror writers, used similar structures, except their records of mysterious and horrific events took the form of journals, letters or oral stories told to witnesses rather than filmed footage. Smokin': The best movie poster on theater walls right now is the one for Michael Mann's The Insider, a drama about the 60 Minutes tobacco debacle starring Al Pacino as producer Lowell Bergman and Russell Crowe as industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. It's spare and haunting, and it manages to sell the movie and its star with a certain flair, even artistry. The bottom half is a widescreen-cropped picture of Pacino looking down pensively; the colors are blue-gray, a winterish scheme. The top of the poster contains a line drawing of a skinny horizontal rectangle that looks like a cigarette box lying on its side; it's even bisected by a short diagonal line where the flip-top box opening should be. The film's credits are squeezed into the long portion of the box. The short portion contains warning that reads, "Warning: Exposing the truth may be hazardous." Very nice.
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