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By James Arnold

Almost Exploring the Past


A Knight's Tale

A KNIGHT’S TALE (A-2, PG-13) is a playful underdog yarn about a low-born squire who dreams of becoming a knight and a jousting champion. It is set in 14th-century Europe and spiced with anachronisms to keep the hoped-for youthful audience awake. Thus, the crowd at the opening joust is clapping and chanting Queen’s deathless “We will, we will rock you!” just like during the 2001 NBA finals.

The music throughout is equally non-medieval and more like Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Sly Stone and AC/DC. And the dialogue is peppered with current colloquialisms such as “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (as in something very positive has happened) and “Hello?” (as in you just said something very out-of-touch).

This film grows on you. Writer-director Brian Helgeland shows jousting (mounted warriors galloping at each other with blunted lances) as the pop sport of the times. Blue-collar hero Billy Thatcher (Heath Ledger) has both the talent and chutzpah to become a star in a game restricted to rich noblemen. He fakes his identity papers, practices with his inept buddies and scores on the tournament circuit in France (shot actually in Prague) like a heavyweight heading for the title bout.

En route he falls for an aristocratic lady and earns the enmity of a jealous count (brooding Rufus Sewell). Eventually, Billy’s status is exposed and he’s arrested. Will his rich girlfriend (and his fans) still love him? Will the sneaky count run him through with a spear?

KT benefits from the Robin Hood-like camaraderie of Billy and his slapdash pals, inventive staging (such as a key dialogue supposedly inside Notre Dame in Paris), and the wit to include as likable supporting characters both Geoffrey Chaucer and Edward the Black Prince of Wales. Paul Bettany’s Chaucer, who seems here to invent pre-game sports introductions, puts this film in his pocket with buoyant charisma. Overlong and lightweight, not for traditionalists but better than expected; O.K. for youth and adults.

Pearl Harbor

PEARL HARBOR (A-3, PG-13) hopes to be another Titanic, targeting the young with a lump-in-the-throat love story leading into the horror of a great historic disaster. But the tale of two boyhood pals who become hot pilots and are loved by the same woman seems strained.

Great acting can’t really help, although better writing and/or direction might have. Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale look like 1940s Life magazine covers but don’t have the words or souls to arouse the emotions, amid all the flying debris and death, as the brave, self-sacrificing-for-each-other Titanic people surely did. As for director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, they’re just action film guys (Armageddon, The Rock) with few clues.

They get the disaster part right: The restaging of the 1941 Japanese sneak attack that abruptly clobbered the United States into World War II superficially impresses but skimps on the historical context. There’s a lot of detached horror (the actual documentary footage is more powerful) and just minimal fresh imagery such as low-flying Zeros buzzing past kids playing baseball and a mom hanging sheets.

The retaliation by the Jimmy Doolittle raiders is presented as a kind of heroic symbolic response (which it was at the time) but the real (and unmentioned) payback was less innocent: the cruel A-bomb raids on Japanese cities in 1945.

The suffering, both general and personal, helps serve as penance for any fictional sinning by the participants. There are a few Catholic images, mainly glimpses of heroic chaplains giving the last rites to the dying amid the carnage. Two hours of shallow context, plus one of terror, outrage and glory; O.K. for mature viewers.

Moulin Rouge

MOULIN ROUGE (A-3, PG-13): Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s first success was Strictly Ballroom (1992), which both loved and spoofed the corny conventions and over-the-top pleasures of the old Hollywood dance musicals. The budget is bigger in this sentimental musical love story (from La Boheme to Rodgers and Hammerstein), which Luhrmann both mocks and reveres.

This film is set in Paris in 1900 in the noisy and outrageous cabaret immortalized in the art of Toulouse-Lautrec, a legendary showplace well suited to fantasy, myth and magical story-telling. The backstage plot is practically generic: Christian (Ewan McGregor), an aspiring writer and newcomer to the bohemian world, is recruited to script a show and falls for the star, the beautiful courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman).

He wants to rescue her but his rival is a wealthy, jealous duke who finances the theater and is not above blackmail or murder. Beyond the eternal conflict between love and money, Satine is dying of consumption.

The dialogue is skimpy and often composed of comically familiar truisms (“All you need is love,” “The show must go on”), and the outcome foreordained. But the aura of romantic love will move youthful audiences.

It’s not what happens but how: Feeling and euphoria bloom in the magic (the lovers dance over the rooftops under a Paris moon), the splashy sets and costumes, the swooping camera. The dazzling editing and style include a strange but effective mix of musical tastes and fragments from songs ranging from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (Satine’s big number) to tunes identified with the Beatles, Elton John and Madonna.

The raucously wicked milieu and Satine’s profession provide more of an edgy R feeling than a PG-13 (though the movie is much tamer than the music videos based on it). Artfully stylish and definitely different, but short of substance; satisfactory for mature viewers.

La Strada

LA STRADA: The late Anthony Quinn, who died June 3, seemed to have had nothing but great parts. One of them was in director Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), which got little mention in obits but belongs on the short list of great Catholic movies. It’s a simple poor folks/hard times story, about a selfish clod of a man (Zampano, played by Quinn), a seedy carnival strongman who travels from town to town and lives only for his own appetites.

He acquires a helper, whom he uses, abuses and mostly ignores: a dim-witted, innocent farm girl (Gelsomina, played by Giuletta Massina), who finds too much wonder and joy in life, even in Zampano, to despair. She comes to love him. When his brutality drives her away, he’s haunted by memories of her, realizes his loneliness and searches for her.

A key role is played by a sad little tune identified with Gelsomina, one of composer Nino Rota’s loveliest themes. In a memorable last shot, alone on a beach, Zampano feels his humanity, his love and loss for the first time—he weeps. It’s how I remember the talent and power of Anthony Quinn, and La Strada remains a landmark film, a poetic testament to the emptiness of life without the spirit and to the beauty of pure love and sacrifice. Black and white, Italian with English subtitles.

CNN Offers

CNN OFFERS news junkies who have cable or satellite some refuge from the mindlessness and raunch afflicting the commercial networks. But it’s been losing audience share and tinkering with the schedule to offer straight news in smaller portions, opening up more half-hours for personalities and roundtable punditry.

The Spin Room (with Bill Press and Tucker Carlson) was a refreshing twist on the shouting matches that have passed for years as political discussion. Press, Carlson and guests disagreed but genially, with a humorous edge. Alas, they were canceled and dispatched back to the obnoxious Crossfire. Spin was better than most at inspiring live e-mail viewer response, a 21st-century interactive wrinkle that is here to stay.

The once-a-week (Saturday) Take Five specializes in bright, attractive 20-somethings including Jake Tapper and Michelle Cottle. It is more witty and civilized than loud. But no one seems to be listening to anyone else.

I love Greta Van Susteren, whose The Point offers less commentary, more tough interviewing, on the day’s big story. Waste-no-time Greta, a lawyer by trade, may be the best TV phenomenon to emerge from the O.J. Simpson debacle. Greta’s style also works more efficiently when a show is interrupted by commercials.

Also intriguing is Greenfield at Large (daily), in which host Jeff (a veteran who still looks about 25) assembles a panel that is not only different every night but also definitely fresh, with an emphasis on creative minds from the arts. The topic is not usually the daily top story. Instead, it’s usually deeper.

A case in point: The issue of whether Americans will ever again be significantly willing to “sacrifice for the common good” (an ideal traced back to the Bible and attributed now to the much-praised World War II generation). The context was the power shortage; the participants were Lowell Weicker (a governor who had raised taxes), novelist Ann Lamott and comedy film writer-director Andrew Bergman.

“We’ll do it if we have to,” said Bergman, who argued that people are underestimated. Greenfield wondered if “making life easier” isn’t part of the American dream and that, therefore, “sacrifice is un-American.” Lamott was impressive. “Maybe we’re hungry for what we’re not giving rather than not getting,” she said. She followed with a rare prime-time quote from Mother Teresa: “Most of us can’t do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

Major Truth

MAJOR TRUTH: The media may seem to be an unhealthy influence, if not really evil. But the actual culprit is advertising, which makes the media do what they do. On the other hand, ads are not only often fun and useful and made by good-hearted friends we’ve known forever, but also essential to the free-market system. So it’s a trade-off. The eternal struggle is to keep the marketers from ruining the common good (by putting all that trash on TV) while they keep workers, stocks and pension plans prospering.

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