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 (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
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 (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: 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 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
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: 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.