The Thomas Crown Affair
Produced by Irish Dream Time and United Artists
Directed by John McTiernan
Screenplay by Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer,
original story by Alan Trustman
Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Blair Witch Project
Produced by Haxan Films
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Screenplay by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Released by Artisan Entertainment

The Iron Giant
Produced by Warner Bros.
Directed by Brad Bird
Screenplay by Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies,
based on The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
Released by Warner Bros.

The original Thomas Crown Affair, a 1968 Faye Dunaway/Steve McQueen vehicle, wouldn’t seem a likely candidate for a remake. It was a slight, stylish entertainment that floated on the glamour of its stars and had all the impact of a soap bubble. Fortunately, the new version doesn’t rely on the earlier’s weightless cachet. Director John McTiernan, producer Pierce Brosnan, and their writers have re-thought the original, retaining its high-flying style but adding just a pinch of gravity for ballast.

This time the film begins with, of all tilings, a lesson in values. Minutes after the credits have run, we find ourselves in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art being introduced to a Claude Monet painting from his haystack period. A teacher is lecturing her fourth-grade class on its aesthetic merits. Finding her nine-year-olds unimpressed, she shrewdly cuts to the cash. This painting, she tells the kids, is worth $100 million. Instantly, their faces ignite with interest. And so the film raises its major concern: the confusion of price with value, appearance with reality.

Enter Pierce Brosnan as Thomas Crown, the bored billionaire who will lift tile Monet not for its price but for its inherent worth. His act is an implicit lesson in making value distinctions, a lesson he will pursue from the public space of commodified art to the private one of compromised relationships. And like any good teacher, he will not pretend to have the whole answer. He is wise enough to learn from his prize pupil, the insurance investigator (played by Rene Russo) commissioned to recover the painting so her clients don’t have to pay its preposterous price. She is a professional who has developed her cunning at the expense of her soul. This allows her to hunt Crown, ruthlessly using passion as her weapon of choice until it unexpectedly takes aim at herself.

McTiernan is working Hitchcock territory. As in many of the master’s films (most notably North by Northwest), crime, dishonesty, and betrayal are tropes for the endless plots and counterplots endemic to the battle of the sexes. McTiernan makes no bones about this. The precredit introduction shows Brosnan in the office of his psychiatrist, played (in a nod to the original) by Faye Dunaway. She wants to know if he trusts women. He makes an ironic moue and answers, “I enjoy women.” She then asks him if a woman could trust him. His reply is more measured, his smile more reflective: “A woman could trust me as long as her interests didn’t run too counter to my own.” Then the credits roll against a stylized landscape of sinuous curves in beige, yellow, and ochre, undulating femininely across the wide screen. The stage is set. It’s sexes en garde.

If Hitchcock is McTiernan’s cinematic influence, could Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock be his literary source? Here, instead of Belinda’s mischievous curl, it’s the misvalued Monet that gets clipped. But the effect is much the same. In both stories, a breach of propriety serves to unmask a man and woman to one another and to themselves. Shot in the precincts of Manhattan’s privileged, the film’s key scenes have a deluxe ambiance not unlike Pope’s stylized drawing-room world in which spoiled coquettes and eager beaux flirt and huff, tease and screech. Pope has Belinda lose her treasured curl, the paradoxical emblem of her desirability and her virginity, while leaning over the silver coffee pot to inhale its fumes, hi the film, Brosnan flirts with Russo in an elegant restaurant, begging her permission to ask “a very personal question.” “Would you,” he insinuates, “like another hit of my espresso?” She rises from the table, laughing at him. “You don’t really think I’m going to sleep with the man I am investigating,” she mocks and flounces off to the ladies room.

Both worlds are exquisitely mannered but emotionally cold, almost inhumanly so. Style counts more than substance, manners more than morals. Who better to play Pope’s updated romantic antagonists than Russo and Brosnan? Each is narcissistic glamour incarnate, all gloss and no texture, looking so finished as to be incapable of further development, hi their inevitable and ridiculous sex scene, they ignore Crown’s bed, rolling around on his statue-cluttered marble floor as though they were lapidary figures more comfortable with the immutable perfection of stone than with the ungainly give of a mattress. These people are more mannequin than human, and this works for the film. We are meant to see Russo and Brosnan as heartless, intensely self-regarding creatures who are properly at home in the museums and salons of the Manhattan art world. To adapt Pope just a bit, this is the “moving toyshop of the heart,” a perfectly artificial stage on which the trivial and the momentous have become indistinguishable because nothing counts—nothing beyond self-interest, that is.

And there’s the crux. Do these pampered, empty people have what it takes to become human? Will they both learn the lesson fully? Will she be able to distinguish value from its advertisement? Will he know intimacy and enjoy it? It’s not for me to say.

While this clever entertainment is not in the same league with Hitchcock (much less Pope), McTiernan and Brosnan have aimed high. If they haven’t hit their target, they’ve come close enough to make a very enjoyable, even memorable film.

For another lesson in the difference between value and its advertisement, we have The Blair Witch Project. This videoshot home movie was pre-sold through a skillfully constructed internet site, featuring an account of witchcraft and murder in the woods surrounding Burkittsville, Maryland. The film is supposed to be a documentary investigation conducted by three young people in their 20’s who backpacked into these woods and never returned. All that’s left is the unedited film they made over the course of several days and nights.

I went to this movie with moderately high expectations. I was looking forward to a horror film that employed suggestion and wit, rather than slime and explosions, to engage its audience. Well, there’s wit behind The Blair Witch Project, but I suspect it’s being exercised at our expense.

This thought occurred to me during the second in a series of blank screen sequences lasting two or three minutes apiece and feeling more like ten. There was absolutely nothing to watch and little more to hear beyond some supposedly frightened breathing and the rustle of forest undergrowth. We were to understand that the principals—Heather, Mike, and Josh—had been awakened in their tent by something going bump in the night and were doing their frightened best to tape it without the help of camera lights. I confess I was shaken . . . with laughter. What a hoot, I thought. These kids are as bold as the tailors who made the emperor’s new clothes.

My friend Barbara, saw the film with her 19-year-old daughter and reports that the young lady, along with every other young person in the theater, was rigid with fear. “I don’t get it,” Barbara said. “They’re used to watching people garroted, impaled, blown up, and otherwise inconvenienced in other movies. They just sit there laughing their socks off. Now this picture comes along and shows three kids wandering around some roadside woods within hailing distance of a Taco Bell, and my daughter goes catatonic. You’re the film reviewer. What gives?”

Blessed if I know, but let me improvise. I prefer to believe ifs a good sign. Maybe young audiences have overdosed on high-tech extravaganzas in which most of the budget is spent on the special effects that Hollywood views as box-office insurance, leaving precious little for literate scripts, convincing acting, and coherent editing. Maybe they long for stories that will make them care whether the characters retain all their body parts at the fade-out. And maybe this hunger is so strong, they’ve projected their hopes onto The Blair Witch Project‘s cinema rasa.

Who knows? But there’s no doubt they’re talking in Hollywood’s boardrooms. “Look it’s simple. We’re running a business, see? Return on investment. You keep your overhead down, your profits up. So why are we dumping millions on Industrial Light and Magic when these film school nerds are pulling in gadzillions with a penny-ante video shoot?”

Blair Witch II is already in the works. Of course, its budget will no doubt zoom from the original’s $30,000 to the neighborhood of, say, $70 million. Hey, whaddaya going to do? Special effects. Gotta have ’em. Insurance, see? If you’ve not done so already, have your children take you to see The Iron Giant.

If there are no little ones around, take yourself. This un-Disney cartoon feature, based on poet Ted Hughes’ children’s book, is a delight.

Director Brad Bird opens his story in 1957. A mysterious missile whizzes through the orbit of the recently launched Sputnik and crashes in rural Maine. A 50-foot robot emerges from the wreckage, having lost his memory but not his appetite for metal, which he gratifies by chomping up every car, tractor, and girder in sight of his headlight eyes. When he makes the mistake of trying to eat an electrical power station, a boy named Hogarth cuts the juice, saving him from electrocution and winning his rust-proof gratitude.

The story has a predictable arc, but everything is done so lovingly that you won’t mind. A nasty federal agent wants to destroy the giant, no questions asked. Hogarth defends his alien friend at grave risk to himself and his mother. The army’s called in for a showdown and . . . but enough said. There’s some sappy anti- Cold War reasoning here, as you might expect. In the background. Bird has black-and-white televisions playing films reminiscent of 50’s favorites such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space, sci-fi allegories which warned America that its Cold War paranoia was more dangerous than any perceived external threat. But the story has too much charm to hold its fuzzy polities against it. Besides, its denouement makes a spectacular ease for the Strategic Defense Initiative. And what was good enough for the Gipper is good enough for me.