Alpha Zeta

Alpha Zeta

Alpha Zeta

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May 2 1999 3:30 AM

Alpha Zeta

Entrapment's Catherine Zeta-Jones is a visual gem encased in B-movie tiredness; Mamet gets genteel in The Winslow Boy.

Entrapment
Directed by Jon Amiel
20th Century Fox

The Winslow Boy

Directed by David Mamet
Sony Classics

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Caper movies can often get by with only one great visual idea; in the case of Entrapment, it's Catherine Zeta-Jones in a black vinyl cat suit doing ballet amid a field of laser beams. She's supposed to be an undercover insurance operative who's out to catch legendary burglar Sean Connery in the act of stealing a priceless Chinese mask--or is she actually a thief herself planning to bag the scrumptious Scotsman along with the motherlode? A mystery, that. In the meantime, Connery whisks her to his castle on an Inverness loch, where he rigs a cat's cradle of red string to represent the lasers that she won't, at the site, be able to discern. As she practices her moves, blindfolded, the firelight casts a golden aureole around her sculpted bottom. But she's even more alluring when she does the deed for real. She begins in the lotus position, then unfolds and sends a long leg sideways in a neatly executed fouetté. "On point ..." says Connery, peering into his laptop screen at the beams that only he can see. "Now, lift!" The whole sequence has an archetypal enchantment, made even more savory by its naughty underpinnings: The aging master directs his prima ballerina in a sacred dance to larceny.

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Entrapment doesn't hit the rest of its marks with comparable élan, but it's bearable. With its featherweight premise, casually amoral heroes, and exotic locales, it conjures up an era (the '60s and '70s) when twisty, romantic heist pictures were routinely ground out as tax shelters--and sometimes cast with the producers' model girlfriends, so that expensive vacations could be written off, too. Entrapment is an A-list production, but despite Ving Rhames as Connery's enigmatically surly cohort and a bevy of state-of-the-art sensors, cybergizmos, and digital readouts, it can't manage to brush off its B-movie cobwebs or to freshen banter that Rhett would have been too progressive to lay on Scarlett. "Has there ever been anyone you couldn't manipulate, beguile, or seduce?" asks Connery, after Zeta-Jones has stretched herself languidly out on a plush four-poster. In the climax, the pair must walk a fraying tightrope between the twin towers of the world's tallest building (in Kuala Lumpur) while millennium fireworks explode around them. But the bad guy's dialogue remains laughably mired in the last millennium: "They're rats in a trap!"

Entrapment is built around the object that is Zeta-Jones, who, as the headstrong heroine of last year's The Mask of Zorro, did a dazzling job of staring down Antonio Banderas. She has almond eyes, a luxuriant black mane made for high-toned hair commercials, and an upper lip that can flare or pout with silken ease. Supple physically, she is nevertheless somewhat stolid--probably the upshot of a monotonous, untrained voice of the sort that brings most goddessy supermodels crashing to earth. It doesn't help that she's opposite an actor who can do a fouetté on every syllable.

Connery is also the embodiment of everything unfair in nature--to men, but especially to women, being one of the few male actors who actually makes a plausible heartthrob for a female nearly half a century his junior. "You're the most beautiful crook I've ever seen," he tells Zeta-Jones, toasting her with that voice while eating her up with those bandit-chieftain eyes--and you can picture sundry Golden Age Bond girls clucking, "I remember when he said that to me, sonny." Connery mocks Father Time by disguising himself as an old guy with glasses and a paunch: "This," he seems say, "is how men of my age are supposed to look." Of course, one way that performers assist the aging process is by playing roles that give their features and emotions a workout. Connery--superb actor though he is--hasn't broken a sweat since The Untouchables (1987).

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D avid Mamet--who, coincidentally, wrote Connery's marvelous dialogue in that movie--gave the American theater a brusque shove out of the romantic realm of disillusioned lefties such as Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller into a brutal capitalist realism, wherein every encounter was reduced to an attempt by one party to hoodwink, psych out, or otherwise overpower another. Who'd have thought that Mamet was secretly in love with the well-carpentered, '40s and '50s drawing-room plays of the terribly English Terence Rattigan, whom the Angry Young Men of the late '50s loutishly blew off the boards--thus paving the way for Mamet's expletive-laced theater games? In choosing to adapt and direct The Winslow Boy, based on one of Rattigan's most tidily crafted problem pieces, Mamet points up an aspect of his own work that has increasingly dwarfed all others: the drama as a procession of archly formal negotiations. Beat by beat, Mamet turns out an immaculately staged, crisply paced, and elegantly acted movie. It's also a tad bloodless, but you can't have everything.

Set in England before World War I, the play (based on an actual incident) tells the story of an adolescent boy expelled from a military academy for the theft of a five-shilling postal money order, and the financially ruinous attempt of his proper patriarch (played in the film by Nigel Hawthorne) to clear his son's name. Relativist that he is, Mamet clearly loves the fact that young Winslow's guilt or innocence is never satisfactorily resolved. What matters is that the Winslow cause--at least when viewed from the perspective of the boy's increasingly frail but determined father--has its own sterling truth. More to the point, Mamet can have himself a whale of a time directing a series of civilized confrontations that escalate in importance--from the young man who asks Winslow senior for his daughter's hand in marriage (and the precise amount of her dowry) to a cunning barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), who uses every rhetorical trick he can think of to wear down a Parliament weary of a twopenny schoolboy scandal.

Hawthorne gives Winslow an air of gorgeously ineffable sadness; he seems to carry on his ever shakier shoulders the knowledge that this gray way of life, this England, is doomed. If only Rattigan had given him a stronger second act! This the playwright ceded to Morton, the coldhearted Establishment lawyer who unexpectedly throws himself into an anti-establishment cause--and who Northam plays (brilliantly) as an alert snake increasingly unsure of where to strike. For Mamet, however, the core of the piece is Winslow's daughter, a snootily progressive ingénue and a suitable romantic foil for the conservative Morton. She is played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, whom he means us to find weirdly irresistible--I find her weird and resistible but not unattractive, having spent much of my early manhood pursuing similarly small, dark-eyed girls who looked as if they had some lewd secret that would only be divulged after a protracted psychodrama. (The secret, of course, was that there was no secret.) Along these lines, the saucy Pidgeon's chief talent is for looking as if she knows something that you don't and--even after ravishing her--never will. Clearly, this is what gets Mamet through the night.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.