Sunday, December 24, 2006

A few capsule (and lengthier) film reviews

Reel Roundup

If you're considering going to a movie on New Year's, here's a few tips on what to see, what to avoid:

Spinning Charlotte’s Web
That gander sure is goosey-whipped. Also, Steve Buscemi can’t top Paul Lynde for oily self-involvement in this wonderful film’s weak predecessor. Hooray for big words! Too bad “Stuart Little” strayed from White’s original.

‘Destiny’: Tendentious D
More cowbell, less cornball antics! The musical duo-ism shown when KG and JB meet on the beach was awesome; they should have replicated that throughout. Devil take the hindmost.

Déjà Vu: Encore & Encore!
Great film; fortunately all the stars are very watchable, as it takes a while to get where it’s really going. But what, really, was Jim Caviezel’s beef? Not enough residuals from “The Passion of the Christ”? Oy, McVeigh! (Note: The ending is virtually the same as in the great romantic comedy, "Heaven Can Wait.")

Meyers, oh Meyers: It’s a girls’ world after all
Throughout “The Holiday,” I kept rooting for Jack Black to break character and dump one—literally, kind of like something out of his role in “Orange County”—on this film. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat all the way through a pure chick flick such as this, and I wouldn’t have—except … my chick was clearly enjoying it. I think the MPAA ought to come up with a cautionary rating for films like this. I have never seen so many women jump, both feet off the floor, in unalloyed, girly joy, as happens in this film. Do grown women actually do this? Do they have “jump-for-joy” muscles in their legs we don’t have, as they have “high-pitched-scream” vocal chords that we guys likewise lack? According to the Talmud, I think this is actually the way to deprive witches of their power: lift them off the ground. Speaking of witches, when hollow Cameron Diaz finally sheds a tear, I could only think of the scene from “The Third Witch” in Barbara Leonie Picard’s wonderful book of fairy tales, The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter: “And in that moment, she knew she loved him. So, because she was a witch, and could not love, the piece of flint that was her heart cracked in two, and she died.”

‘Pan's Labyrinth’: The moral (if any) is what’s really a-maze-ing
Purports to be a moralizing fairy tale, with awesome production and costume design, great casting and acting—but is just brutal, without the purported redemption. Key characters are killed off without that furthering any ultimate philosophical or moral clarity, so that those deaths are meaningless and an artistic affront. The graphic gloominess reminds one of the Spanish artistic esthetic evinced in Picasso’s “Guernica,” Goya’s “The 3rd of May,” and “Saturn Devouring His Son” (note the similarity to the eating of the fairy by the monster in the world beyond the wall). Interesting contrast: The baby here ends up being given over for political purposes, or in a politically charged gesture, while in "Children of Men" (a worthwhile though philosophically thin effort), that travesty is assiduously avoided. In the final analysis, though, "Pan's Labyrinth" can’t figure out whether it is mainly an homage to the rebels against Spanish fascism, or an exploration of childhood imagination and innocence (and their loss)—or whether, trying to be both, it fails at either. A gorgeous waste.

It’s the sustainability, stupid (Gibson does get it)
This film turned out to fulfill exactly what I expected of it, especially as set up by the native interlopers telling Jaguar Paw’s tribe they just want unfettered passage through his hunting grounds, as their own land has been ravaged. But by whom? Earlier in the year, a friend e-mailed me some comments by great debunker Michael Crichton, that you didn’t have to wait for the white man’s arrival in this hemisphere to find oppression and domination—New World peoples oppressed each other. Not exactly: Some oppressed others. It’s historically accurate to depict the great, advanced hierarchical civilizations of Mesoamerica as the same kind of monoculture-based, unsustainable societies as those found in the “march of progress” of Western Civilization, as characterized by Daniel Quinn in his fascinating book Ishmael—technically a novel, but actually a deconstruction of the difference between “Taker” cultures such as Pharaonic Egypt, Mayan Mexico and “Manifestly Destined” America, and the “Leaver” societies of nomads—pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. I took my son to see “Braveheart” when he was about 8, at the same time as I was also reading Little Big Man to him, so I noted the parallels between the hill-clans of Scotland and the tribes of Plains Indians, fighting the respective Taker imperialist cultures of England and the United States. —Even down to the use of war paint, as well as the technological disparities. (I also pointed out the Hanukkah story is the same kind of tale—just substitute the zealously anti-Hellenic Maccabees vs. the Hellenized Assyrians.) But as in one of the points “Braveheart” makes, it’s our wits that makes us men, and technologically backward or not, men have been men—and pretty smart, when they apply themselves—as smart if not as learned as any modern videogame player or high-tech military hardware operator—whether a modern aboriginal or a Cro-Magnon of 25,000 years ago. So from this film’s early moments, I was already primed to witness the magnificent, yet rotting Mayan city—whose denizens preyed upon the backward people of the forest—and to continually expect, eventually, the arrival of the Europeans. In the movie’s terms, that event was not the beginning of the end of the New World’s paradise-on-earth: that paradise has perhaps been found mostly among the “Leaver” peoples, spread around the globe—and threatened—in many places. Taker societies, whether the Romans’, the Mayans’ or ours, tend to end up rotting from within due to their abuse of everything from their people (and enslaved neighbors—the multitudes at the base of the system of production on whom the entire edifice depends, and in whom religion is inculcated as reinforcing the whole fragile scheme) to the environment. They thus eventually only need a nudge from outside to collapse—and this is clearly the point of the epigraph by historian Will Durant emblazoned on the screen as the film opens. This thrust—underlined by the inevitable appearance of the European conquerors at the end—is not only the clear intent of the film, it is the only thing that gives it more weight than what it otherwise appears to be—a bunch of aboriginals running around, fearfully, heroically, steadfastly seeking to keep their promises to their family, not to mention their way of life. Last year’s “The New World” makes an interesting counterpoint to this one, with the Europeans there indeed intruding on the earthly paradise of an Indian culture.

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