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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Gere’

It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeable; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 6th 2003:

A few years ago I took me dear old dad to the pictures for his birthday present. We went to see Gladiator, watched it, enjoyed it, but in the end decided it was a good and efficient film rather than a really great one. The staggering success of the film both at the box office and with the critics was thus a bit of a surprise to us both. In the end I put it down to the fact that this was a film from a genre Hollywood hadn’t touched for nearly forty years, but a genre people still had a great fondness and nostalgia for – and it was a combination of novelty and nostalgia that made it such a hit.

Well, another year, another family celebration and off we went to see Rob Marshall’s Chicago – which also looks destined to do very well come Oscar night, and also rake in a tidy sum. I had my suspicions that this film was riding on a wave of affection for an older style of film-making in just the same way Gladiator did – but then again I’m really not a great fan of musicals.

Chicago is set in 1920s Chicago (do you see what they’ve done there? Clever, isn’t it?). Wannabe star Roxie Hart (the eternally hamster-cheeked Renee Zellweger) is outraged to learn that the man she’s using to sleep her way to the top is in fact only interested in her bottom and has no intention of helping her succeed. So she murders him. She ends up on the same prison wing as bona fide star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones), who’s in the slammer for murdering her sister and her husband. In order to secure her release Roxie retains the services of brilliant but unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who impresses upon her the importance of keeping the media on her side…

So, an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza set in a women’s prison. The omens were not good. But put all thoughts of Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical from your mind as Chicago is actually a fantastic night out. Obviously a film like this lives or dies on the strength of the musical numbers and one of the most interesting things about Chicago is its approach to this: rather than employing the standard, faintly ridiculous technique of having characters simply burst into song as they go about their daily lives, the film presents Roxie as a delusional fantasist who sees everything in terms of a musical number of some kind – so most of the songs happen in her head. It’s an interesting conceit and to begin with I thought it was a rather craven one, the film-makers wanting to have all the pizazz and spectacle of a proper musical but without risking employing all the much-derided conventions of one. But it works, and what’s more it allows the routines and choreography from the stage show to be employed pretty much unchanged in many places.

Now I don’t know about you but I didn’t have Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere pegged as singing and dancing types, but they all acquit themselves pretty well. And when he’s not razzle-dazzling Gere delivers a fantastic performance as the shyster who fights his cases more in the gossip columns than the courthouse. The supporting cast is excellent – Queen Latifah as the formidable warden delivers a showstopper, Lucy Liu has a tiny, non-singing cameo, and John C Reilly – currently making a bid for the title of hardest-working-man-in-cinema – does his good-hearted schmo turn again (but reveals he can sing a bit too).

I find it sickly amusing that the British ‘quality tabloids’ (yup, that’s an oxymoron) are unstinting in their criticism of certain films on moral grounds but have praised Chicago to the skies – odd, seeing that the happy ending consists of enormous success for a couple of amoral, unrepentant murderers. I suppose it’s another demonstration of the power of cheap music. Slight ethical queasiness aside, I did enjoy this film far more than I expected to, and much to my surprise it’s a film with things to say for itself. Its cynical commentary on media manipulation and the nature of celebrity are very much relevent to 2003. A terrific piece of smart, sharp, glitzy entertainment. My kinda town? Chicago is.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 7th 2002:

Are you a fan of The X Files, the infuriating, wilfully cryptic weekly joyride to the murky fringes of the zeitgeist? A lot of people still are [With typically brilliant timing, the show managed to get itself cancelled between my writing this review and it being published – A]. I myself must confess to a certain fondness for the series even now, although I grew weary long ago of all the episodes about the main character’s family (proof, perhaps, that Mulder’s kin tires). Richard Hatem and Mark Pellington also seem to be fans – at least, so it seems from the new movie The Mothman Prophecies (which they respectively wrote and directed).

The film is supposedly ‘based on true events’ but (without boring you with the details) the words ‘really’, ‘really’ and ‘loosely’ appear to have been omitted from this claim. It’s the tale of Washington DC reporter John Klein (Richard Gere, manfully trying to fend off the ravages of middle-age) whose blissful life with his implausibly young and bouffant wife Mary (Debra Messing) is shattered when she crashes their car one night after sighting a terrifying winged apparition (the titular Mothman). Medical tests reveal she has a serious illness. Two years later a still-haunted Klein finds himself drawn to the West Virginian town of Point Pleasant. He befriends local cop Connie (Laura Linney) and learns that this is a place where strange phenomena of all kinds are reported every day. Klein sets out to solve the mystery, to which he has a personal connection – but is the truth really out there? And, more importantly, will he get to do the dirty with his new ladyfriend?

Okay, so the plot is pure X Files but the movie’s taken to another level by Pellington’s brooding, dreamlike, almost expressionist direction. At times this is the cinematic equivalent of having a bad trip while listening to a trance-dance compilation. There’s only one real bona fide shock moment in the film but throughout the middle section, as Gere tries to uncover the truth regarding the Mothman, it’s incredibly creepy and unsettling. This remarkably eerie atmosphere is the film’s great triumph and the main reason for going to see it.

But having created a compelling mystery the movie unfortunately tries to explain and resolve it and here’s where things start to go wrong. Alan Bates pops up briefly to do the requisite info-dump but unfortunately this is such a mixture of the banal and the pretentiously metaphysical that I half wish he hadn’t bothered. It’s fairly coherent but it’s not as bold or as gripping an explanation as one would have hoped for.

Someone I wish had bothered a bit more is Richard Gere. He’s not quite phoning his performance in but he’s distinctly restrained and rather passive compared to the rest of the cast – most of whom are good in a low key way, particularly Linney and Will Patton (who plays a yokel who gets picked on by the Mothman). The best part of the film is the middle, investigative section, and here his passiveness isn’t a problem as he’s mostly reacting to what other characters are telling him. But near its end the film changes pace and becomes much more the story of Gere’s emotional journey and his response to the events he’s caught up in, and his – let’s be kind – rather static acting technique isn’t helpful in making you care about or believe in him. That’s one big problem. Another is that the climax proper, for all that it’s centred on a technically superb set piece, is fairly predictable. It also dispenses entirely with the earlier creeping weirdness in favour of sentimentality and at times seems to belong to entirely different film.

It’s obvious that The Mothman Prophecies is an attempt to emulate the style and success of M Night Shyamalan, writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (indeed, the inexplicably alarming trailer for his next film, Signs, ran before this one). Pellington’s movie isn’t in the same league as Shyamalan’s work, but even M Night Shyamalan-lite is a step up from your typical Hollywood thriller or horror film (the very fact that this film’s so difficult to categorise is telling). I enjoyed it a lot, even if the ultimate destination didn’t live up to the promise of the journey.

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