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The Thomas Crown Affair John Mctiernan (15) N Cookie's Fortune Robert Altman (12) Late August, Early September Olivier Assayas (15) N Mickey Blue Eyes Kelly Makin (12)

The Man Who Knew Too Much Alfred Hitchcock (Pg)

IN THE title role of The Thomas Crown Affair Pierce Brosnan is almost preposterously debonair. His super-rich financier sashays around his corporate HQ wearing beautifully tailored suits and sporting a haircut whose neatness would seem to demand daily visits to the barber.

What Crown actually visits on a daily basis is the Impressionist room of a Manhattan museum, where he gazes at a very small and very expensive Monet. When the painting is stolen in broad daylight, the FBI is at a loss: it takes the fine discernment of insurance investigator Catherine Banning (Rene Russo) to single out Crown as the chief suspect.

The film remakes the 1968 romantic thriller of which the only thing anybody can ever remember (apart from "Windmills of Your Mind") is the silent, sexually charged and hilariously naff chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The director John McTiernan has wisely chosen not to reprise that particular scene, preferring to up the erotic temperature between the stars with a fierce nightclub mambo, in the course of which we are given conclusive evidence that Russo isn't wearing knickers. Heigh- ho. McTiernan has spruced up the story on all fronts, and polishes every surface till it glows with money: it's one of those movies (like Someone to Watch Over Me) that gift-wraps Manhattan high life and invites the audience to coo and covet.

And, I must say, it's pretty entertaining. In contrast to the dismal Entrapment, the set-pieces are cleanly executed, and towards the end even conjure a modicum of Magritte wit. The screenplay lends a crisp, bantering tone to the cat-and-mouse fun, which the actors seem to enjoy. Pierce Brosnan has that don't-touch-me-I'm-perfect sort of handsomeness which can become monotonous, but here he plays it absolutely right: you wouldn't want anybody to waste proper "acting" on a fantasy role like Crown. As for Rene Russo, well, it would be an honour just to be arrested by this strappingly beautiful woman; her sexy, humorous intelligence, wasted on Mel Gibson in the dreadful Lethal Weapon series, is here given room to play - and about time. That she's 45 (and Brosnan 48) is even more heartening, given the current craze for pairing old guys with babes young enough to be their granddaughters. If The Thomas Crown Affair represents Hollywood trying to grow up, then let's have more.

Robert Altman's latest ensemble, Cookie's Fortune, is a detective story played at an amiable, sleepwalking pace. Set in a somnolent Mississippi backwater, it concerns the mysterious death of Cookie (Patricia Neal), an old Southern dame with a gravelly drawl, a run-down mansion and a secret fortune coveted by her two estranged nieces, Camille (Glenn Close) and Cora (Julianne Moore). By some fiendish contrivance Camille rigs the death scene to look like a murder and thus implicate Cookie's best friend, the kindly, bibulous black retainer Willis (Charles S.Dutton). Of course, nobody in town really thinks Willis is guilty, especially the sheriff (Ned Beatty), who can read a man's innocence in this unimpeachable formula: "I fish with him". Throw in some gentle sexual hijinks between Cookie's beloved grand-niece Emma (Liv Tyler) and a dim-bulb deputy (Chris O'Donnell) and you have a fairly busy couple of hours.

Yet Altman, working from a screenplay by Anne Rapp, fits the whole thing together without apparently breaking into a sweat. He fluently contrasts the relaxed Southern attitude to protocol (the sheriff sits in the cell with Willis and his lawyer playing Scrabble) with the grasping, neurotic shenanigans of Camille, who already has her hands full directing a church production of Wilde's Salome.

Close is wonderful here, at once floaty and hawkish, and amid so much easy bonhomie her character is the one reminder of Altman's famously jaundiced view of humanity. It's typical of this perverse director that he can stir together family strife, madness, a murder investigation - and still produce perhaps the sunniest film of his career.

When you read a director explaining how his latest film doesn't bother with narrative, you try to stifle a groan. In Late August, Early September Olivier Assayas follows his quartet of young(ish) Parisians in a seemingly haphazard way, focusing with some intensity on the quotidian business of chain-smoking, chatting, kvetching and generally not sorting out their relationships - it's the kind of movie where there is always somebody packing up an apartment. Yet its fragmentary technique works, I think, simply because these characters seem interesting: restless publisher (Mathieu Amalric), his beautiful and unstable girlfriend (Virginie Ledoyen), his equally beautiful and plaintive ex (Jeanne Balibar), and an ailing novelist (Francois Cluzet) whose fate provides a vaguely centripetal force. While it doesn't amount to much, Assayas's film at least conducts itself with a certain picturesque charm. Like The Thomas Crown Affair, it underlines a basic human truth: looks aren't everything, but everybody likes to look.

In a week generally high on quality, Mickey Blue Eyes seems even more of a dog than it ordinarily would. Hugh Grant plays - surprise - an adorable Englishman whose career in a Manhattan auction house starts to go belly- up once he's introduced to the family of his fiancee (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

The joke is that her family is, you know, Family. Before he even ties the knot he's married to the mob. It's a decent comic premise let down by some ropey writing and some excruciating routines in which Grant tries to pass himself off as a wise-guy. Awful.

I thought Hitchcock's 1955 The Man Who Knew Too Much was poor until I saw the original 1934 version, a stodgy, stagy melodrama leavened only by the otherworldly presence of Peter Lorre.If you want to see a Hitchcock this week, then see Strangers on a Train.

AQ

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