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Alex Stroup, editor

A legend and a documentary

Disney's newest two offerings hit the screens

Wednesday, July 7, 2004
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

King Arthur

It won't be news to anybody reading this review at MousePlanet that Disney isn't having a very good year at the theaters. After a pretty good year in 2003, this year has seen an increasingly impressive string of flops and megaflops (Around the World in 80 Days won't make much more than $25 million, less than a quarter of its cost).

Worse, for the most part, the failure of these movies has been deserved. With the exception of The Alamo ($22 million made on a cost over $100 million), Disney has experienced an unusual (and surely distressing string) of movie audiences showing some sense and avoiding bad movies. Surely it must have Disney's marketers scratching their head wondering how Universal can get $120 million for Van Helsing. As a result, Disney is running out of hooks on which to hang hopes for a decent year at the box office. Later in the year we have M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and Pixar's The Incredibles. Those are the closest thing to a sure thing Disney will have this year.

And if you've been inundated with the marketing you may be able to sense the desperation to make something out of King Arthur. It is perhaps not coincidental that visually, the print ads for King Arthur bear some resemblance to the posters and billboards for Pirate's of the Caribbean, last year's surprise summer blockbuster. Perhaps the magic of that was a combination of Kiera Knightley and swords. The idea behind King Arthur is that it is telling the true story behind the legend. An introductory card at the beginning of the movie explains that historians have been unsure whether King Arthur really existed, but that recent archaeological discoveries have shed new light.

It turns out that King Arthur was really a Roman commander (Arturius, played by Clive Owen) stationed in England during the last days of Rome's occupation of the island. His Knights of the Round Table were a band of calvary men from the eastern side of the empire, forced into a 15-year tour of duty and stationed under Arthur's command.


© 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Fortunately, this band of young boys grows into a loyal group. Each with a different super power, a different brooding look, and a different cool weapon. The fact that the ragtag group was put together with the dynamics of the Justice League was the first sign the movie would go astray.

King Arthur is set in an interesting time, both religiously and politically. The Roman Empire is waning, while Christianity is flexing its newly developing muscle as a state religion. Meanwhile, the original occupants of the England are still fighting and the Saxons know that the land may be available for the taking. All of this is in the movie, but it isn't the subject of the movie. Instead, director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter David Franzoni focus on the personal. The first half of the movie is a riff on movies like The Dirty Dozen as the group is assembled, introduced, and then sent off to accomplish the impossible mission.

It is on this mission that we're finally introduced to Guinevere, a native girl captured and tortured to near death by a religiously fanatical Roman. Though the advertising posters make her appear to be one of the key players, Keira Knightley doesn't appear until an hour into the movie and gets maybe 15 minutes of screen time over the remaining hour. The scene where she and Arthur get to express their feelings for each other isn't drawn out any longer than necessary, but it was ruined by my inner prude shouting “she's 18 and he's 40!”

The Dirty Dozen portion of the movie ends with one of the films highlights as Arthur's band of seven faces off against 200 Saxons on a frozen lake. Here the script, otherwise too clever for its own good, combines well with hyperactive editing of Fuqua. Throughout the movie, cinematographer Slawomir Idziak is boxed in by the apparent direction that England should look dark, damp, and generally unhappy. On this frozen lake, however, Idziak gets to do some fine work with the snow-covered mountains of northern England.

Following this “impossible mission” portion, the story moves on to the meat of Arthurian legend: building a unified nation out of nothing. Unfortunately, the central theme that gives the story of Arthur its heft is reduced to a single battle against the Saxons at the Hadrian's Wall.

Led by a brutal Saxon named Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), an army has plundered his way through the area north of the wall and expects an easy fight as Rome retreats from Britain. Arthur unites with the Woads, Guinevere's tribe, and prepares to fight without his knights, who are free to leave after serving their 15 years.

The ensuing battle scene is slightly disjointed and suffers from the common cliche of the two leaders finding each other in battle and fighting one-on-one while thousands swarm around ignoring them. For the most part, though, it is energetically filmed and rewards. This success with the two key battles of the movie only servers to highlight, however, just how flat the rest of the movie is.

Clive Owen again refuses to settle the question of whether he'll break out as a leading actor capable of carrying a movie. He was good in last years absolutely awful Beyond Borders with Angelina Jolie and I continue to think of him as a great candidate for the next James Bond (consider his BMW online film shorts/commercials to be an audition tape). So far in his career, however, he seems best in supporting roles and small bits, having an intensity that seems to work on the fringes rather than right in the middle of the screen.

He has a couple of speeches in this movie and while there is nothing to complain about in the performance of either, neither do they carry any emotional weight. Owen should also refuse to answer director Fugua's calls after being made to look foolish in one scene; tasks with giving a Braveheart like speech to the troops, it feels like a simple rip-off until you realize he is giving this rousing back-and-forth shouting speech to six people, leaving you to wonder if sly spoof of the earlier film was the intent.


© 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

The rest of the cast (excepting Knightley) will be unknown to most American viewers; generally they are well known, but in other countries. Stellan Skarsgard has had some success in American film but is very well known in Norway. Ioan Gruffudd, playing Lancelot, is best known from British television. Tristan, another knight played by Mads Mikkelsen, is huge in Denmark.

There's really nothing objectionable about King Arthur but it is very much one of those movies you can enjoy while watching and then not remember a month later that you ever saw it. When it comes to making movies that try to show the real life behind the legend (not that King Arthur really does so), it is important to remember that real life generally isn't all that interesting. In that respect, King Arthur has delivered an accurate telling.


America's Heart and Soul

Movies come to us with all kinds of baggage that does not have anything to do with the movie itself. When I mentioned that I'd be seeing America's Heart and Soul, more often than not the response was, “Oh, you mean Disney's response to Fahrenheit 9/11?”

It doesn't matter much that production began on Heart and Soul in 1999, two years before the terrorist attack in 2001; or that the release date was set late last year, well before one was set for Michael Moore's film. What matters is that Disney decided not to distribute Fahrenheit and is now, just a couple weeks later, putting out a movie that based on title alone appears to be some patriotic “rah rah, America is the best of all possible things” boosterism.

Needless to say, up here in San Francisco, this isn't looked on as a good thing, although I'm sure in other parts of the country it is viewed as the way it should be. Regardless, it is a lot of baggage to place on the shoulders of what is, in essence, a little fluff piece.


© 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Except to the extent that saying there are a lot of good interesting people is a political act, America's Heart and Soul is not a political movie. Basically, it is the cinematic equivalent of the light-hearted profiles you might see at the end of your local news broadcast. Over the course of 85 minutes, almost two dozen people from all around the country, from various ethnicities and economic situations, are profiled. While none of them are particularly deep, they still vary quite a bit. One is 30 seconds with an Alaskan tribal chief, and another is six minutes with a Vermont dairy farmer who stages short movies in his barn.

What I was most reminded of, was National Public Radio's This American Life (link), which spends most of its time telling the interesting stories of otherwise regular people. I left the theater thinking it was like a demo tape for that show, and so was amused when this last weekend This American Life ran a special episode where they crammed as many stories as possible into a single show.

This is not a movie. First-time director Louis Schwartzberg has no central story or narrative. The movie doesn't even have a narrator; the only voices you ever hear are those of the people being profiled. It is clear that cinematography is Schwartzberg's primary interest and this movie just gave him an excuse to travel the country talking to people and setting up beautiful shots.

Even as short as it is, the disjointed nature provides plenty of opportunities to check your watch and wonder if it is almost over. But everybody is certain find at least a few vignettes that pique their interest. For me the most noteworthy were the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers, who make Cirque du Soleil look almost mundane (beautiful camera work), the Vazquez Brothers salsa dancers (amazing dancing), and a father/son marathon team (just an amazing story).

While everybody will find something in America's Heart and Soul, everybody will also find several stories in which they have too little interest. This creates too much down time to recommend that people spend 90 minutes and $8 in a theater, but you might want to check it out at some point. Personally, I think it would be a great addition to the Wonderful World of Disney show with maybe one or two profiles at the beginning or end of the time slot.

The movie has been rated PG “for mild thematic elements,” but for the life of me I can't tell what they are. To the best of my recollection there is no swearing, violence, or sexuality (unless salsa dancing counts, which it might). Every story in the movie should be safe for children of any age (whether they'd be interested is another matter).

Louis Schwartzberg says his goal was to “honor ordinary Americans who were extraordinary in their everyday lives.” Hopefully that is a political statement we can all agree with.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


KING ARTHUR

King Arthur is a Touchstone Pictures release.

Wide theatrical release July 7, 2004.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.

Screenplay by David Franzoni

Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd, Stellan Skarsgard

Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language.

Running time: 125 minutes

Alex's Rating: 5 out of 10

AMERICA'S HEART & SOUL

America's Heart and Soul is a Walt Disney Pictures release.

Limited theatrical release begins July 2, 2004.

Directed by Louis Schwartzberg.

Rated PG for mild thematic elements

Running time: 84 minutes

Alex's Rating: 6 out of 10

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.

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