July 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Wes Anderson was the first director to really Speak To Me, to make me think of the role the director played in the movie at all. Before that, I paid attention to the actors, maybe the screenwriter . . . but the director, let alone all those other peons like the set designer and the lighting designer? Who cares? Then I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in the theater as an impressionable 18-year-old, and was lost forever. Rushmore, which I saw on my college campus a few months later, became my favorite movie for years. Suddenly I realized that all these things like “shot composition” and “props” were arranged as carefully as every line I wrote in the poems for my creative writing class-well, in a good movie, at least. Wes Anderson was my awakening.
Anderson is the only director I can think of whose films I’ve seen all of, whose career I’ve actually followed. And while I don’t connect to his movies emotionally the way I did when I was 18 and identified with Max, wanted to be Margot . . . I still make it a point to see his movies in the theater rather than waiting until DVD like I do with almost everything else. I was so attached to the earlier ones that I’m never sure if my lack of connection to the later ones is because they’re actually not as good or just because I’m not 18 anymore. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t grab me at all. The Darjeeling Limited was uneven and felt overly recycled from his earlier work, and let’s not even get into the problematic Mystical India Saves the Westerners trope. Fantastic Mr. Fox was good–a step in the right direction–but I thought it could have been great (or maybe my expectations were a little too high, since Fantastic Mr. Fox was one of my favorite books as a kiddo). But Moonrise Kingdom? Now we’re back. Reviews have been referring to it as the Wes Andersoniest of all Wes Anderson’s movies–both as an insult and a compliment–and it’s completely true. All the standard Wes Anderson tropes are there–the color schemes, the symmetrical shots, the dollhouse-like cutaways of houses, the outdated props. But more important is the way he treats his characters.
The thing that always drew me to Rushmore (and to a lesser extent, The Royal Tenenbaums) was the way Anderson managed to blend this sense of emotional distance from his characters with a tenderness that redeemed them. You were supposed to laugh at Max, and you were supposed to shake your head in dismay at Royal Tenenbaum, but the films presented them so affectionately that regardless of your laughter or dismay, you still wanted to root for them–even when you knew that what they were doing was wrong. That sense of tenderness diminished in The Life Aquatic and disappeared almost completely in The Darjeeling Limited, but I’m so happy it’s back in Moonrise Kingdom.
January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
If you’re looking for a villain everybody can agree on, it’s hard to do better than Robert Mugabe. Who’s going to defend somebody who’s publicly claimed Hitler as a role model? Who tortures, rapes, and kills his political opponents? Who ignores unfathomable unemployment, inflation and AIDS rates in his country, Zimbabwe, while amassing a personal fortune rumored to be northward of a billion dollars? And who’s put into place a land appropriation program designed to wrest control, often by bloody, violent force, from white landowners and corporations, and place it into the hands of black Zimbabweans? Well . . .
That last policy is the focus of this documentary, which profiles one of the last remaining “white African”-occupied farms, owned by Michael Campbell and his family, as they attempt to hold their own–in the courts and on the “streets”–against Mugabe and his men. The Campbells are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth, god-fearing folks who came by their small, family-run farm honestly and are now unfairly having it stolen from them. Unfortunately, the film not only leaves out background information about the Campbells and Zimbabwe itself that is vital to understanding Mugabe’s policies, it actively tries to push us to align ourselves with the Campbells. By doing so, they not only managed to silence Mugabe–not a huge loss as far as I’m concerned, although the documentary does suffer for it–but also the native Zimbabweans who are caught in the middle of Mugabe and Campbell. We hear almost nothing from the black farm workers Campbell employs, or the guards who he hires to defend his family–and we hear literally nothing from the black Zimbabweans who have been on the receiving end of Mugabe’s land appropriation, or those starving in the streets as unemployment soars over 50 percent. Those perspectives would have been valuable to have, as would have the story of how colonialism played out in Zimbabwe, and how the Campbells benefited from that. But instead, what we get, over and over again, is the insistence that Mugabe’s policies are “racist” because they discriminate based on skin color–and who wants to risk being labeled a racist by questioning that maybe things are more complicated than that?
Here’s the more complicated truth: The Campbells’ farm is not a small, family-run farm, but a veritable 3000-acre plantation employing over 500 workers. Campbell even owned an adjoining hunting safari. Campbell believed that blacks couldn’t run farms on their own, that they needed whites to show them how to do it, and to be in charge. Campbell bought the farm during Ian Smith’s rule in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia–likely on the cheap, since Smith was an unrepentent racist who sought to keep whites in power and land in their hands. In fact, during Smith’s regime, land was still being taken from black owners and “redistributed” to whites like Campbell. Smith’s policies clearly worked, since on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, whites–who make up less than one percent of the population in Zimbabwe–owned about half the arable land in the country. It’s extremely frustrating to watch Campbell and his family bemoan the land appropriation and Mugabe’s “racist policies” over and over, when land appropriation and Ian Smith’s racist policies are exactly why they own that farm in the first place.
In fact, Campbell’s historical ignorance is a recurring theme. At one point, he laments the fact that you can be white and American, or white and Australian, but not white and African–why not? Wait–really? The reason you can be white and American, or white and Australian, is because the white settlers in those countries managed to so thoroughly exterminate the native populations that they no longer possessed the numbers to put up a fight over who has the right to call themselves “American” or “Australian.” Surely that’s not what Campbell’s suggesting should have happened in Zimbabwe?
Okay, so Campbell’s a historically naive bigot. Whatever, he’s one character in the film, right? The problem is that he–and his family, who hold similar views–are the only voices we hear. At one point, he questions his workers on their views, in a joking, we’re-all-in-this-together tone, but they simply laugh and nervously eye the camera. Other black Zimbabweans are likewise silent. And the filmmakers only provide the audience with information that confirms Campbell’s views, purposely withholding information about Zimbabwe’s colonial past that might muddy the issue. We’re obviously meant to ignore all that. We’re obviously meant to side with the historically naive bigots, because the only other alternative the filmmakers present is to side with the man who styles himself after Hitler.
And the most frustrating part about all of this is that including that information wouldn’t have done all that much damage to the cause they’re pushing. You’re still up against the guy who wants to be Hitler! All you have to do is take one look at the Campbells after they’ve suffered a brutal attack at the hands of Mugabe’s men–beaten until their brains swell, a hot poker stuffed down the throat of Campbell’s wife–to understand that the way Mugabe is conducting his land appropriation campaign is not okay. Nobody is going to say that this is simple two-wrongs-make-a-right business here. But the filmmakers don’t trust their audience to make that call themselves, God forbid, so they do it for them. The result is a documentary that verges on pushing a pro-colonialist agenda–not exactly what I think they were intending.
January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
Soul Surfer is a unique entry in the quickly expanding catalogue of Christian films. Unlike most films of its genre, it’s clear that this film intended to tap the secular teen/tween market first, and the Christian market only afterwards. But unlike most mass audience films with bonus Christian pandering, the faith-based plot in Soul Surfer isn’t an afterthought. It’s fully, blatantly integrated into the plot in a way that most mainstream directors wouldn’t have dared allow. And while it was a choice that was basically irrelevant to nonbelievers like me, I have a feeling that in ten years or so, Soul Surfer will be seen as revolutionary in the growing Christian market, for being one of the first Christian films to truly bridge the evangelical-versus-secular divide.
Soul Surfer is essentially a textbook sports comeback story: an up-and-coming athlete suffers a setback that causes her to lose faith and quit the sport–but of course she ultimately returns to it a few inspirational, sweaty training montages later, culminating in some sort of Big Competition that she either wins or gracefully loses (complete with life lessons learned, “I’m a better person for having been here,” and so on, future success implied). In this case, the up-and-coming athlete is Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer growing up in Hawaii with a loving family and an aspiring surfer of a best friend. The setback is the loss of her arm in a shark attack, but she doesn’t let that stop her. After becoming inspired by the simple joy she sees in Thai children playing in the water on a mission trip, she returns to surfing, just in time for the big girls’ surfing competition on the island.
The Hawaii scenery was, of course, beautiful, and the story was adequately entertaining, albeit conventional. But the film suffered from a number of the same problems more blatantly Christian films usually struggle with. The most blatant to me, and one that I haven’t seen a single Christian movie manage to sidestep, is its outdated attitudes to race. Not to say that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t have issues with this–it does–but Christian filmmakers usually seem to be a decade or two behind them, cheerfully employing tropes like the Magical Negro or setting up white man’s burden-style plots with an enthusiasm that would make savvier secular filmmakers (or at least their backers) cringe. Its the latter that’s in play here, when in the wake of Bethany’s quitting surfing, she goes to Thailand on a mission trip after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The Thai people are shown only to further Bethany’s journey; seeing them devastated convinces her that her own problems are small. There’s even a scene where she’s depicted as singlehandedly convincing a village of terrified Thai folks to go back into the ocean for the first time after the tsunami. Good thing she was there to save them! Otherwise they might never have made it back into the water, and then what?
The other problem with Soul Surfer–and one that pops up again and again in Christian films–is that it’s just not willing to go rough on its characters. Granted, this is based on a true story, and the real Bethany Hamilton claims that the movie already depicts her as more down-and-out than she actually was. In real life, she claims, she didn’t spend her time in the hospital worrying about whether she’d ever surf again or if boys would date a girl with one arm, she was visiting with church friends and playing practical jokes on the nurses. Unfortunately, church friends and practical jokes don’t make for a good movie. The film’s conflict was repeatedly underplayed–at one point I turned to my movie-watching companion and wondered if we were going to get any at all, since even the stuff that would sideline a normal person didn’t phase Movie Bethany for more than a minute or two. It was like the writers were scared to let any of their characters experience any real suffering–unfortunate, since it’s much easier to empathize with a character who suffers than one who reacts to misery with a Christ-like patience and understanding.
Daniel Radosh touched on this in his review of Fireproof: “Committed to promoting an unambiguous message that God solves all problems, Fireproof never portrays Christians doing anything untoward, or even experiencing any sorrow. . . In the perfect world of Fireproof, good Christians do not have bad marriages, any more than they drink, gamble or swear.” And in the perfect world of Soul Surfer, good Christians don’t have unhappy families or romantic problems. Everyone is beautiful, the skies are always blue and the water’s always fine. As Bethany claims as the film draws to a close, losing an arm didn’t just not change her life–it made it better. Had this not been based on a true story, the scriptwriters probably would have had Jesus come down from heaven to regrow Bethany’s arm personally. Who wants to watch that? In Christian films, the suspense is eliminated. A happy–nay, perfect–ending is guaranteed. The Garden of Eden restored, at last.
December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment
When people talk about “the magic of the movies,” they always talk about film’s ability to take you away from your life and transport you somewhere else for a few hours. To live in another world, to see it through someone else’s eyes. This is always the go-to argument for why movies’ popularity peaked during World War II–people just needed to be distracted from their problems, preferably with a cheesy Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. And although I love the movies, that’s something I’ve rarely ever experienced. Even with movies I like, I almost never feel swept away, transported somewhere else, not wanting the experience to end. Even with movies I like, I still check my watch.
But Hugo did it for me. I bookmarked the movie this summer, when I saw a preview for it and was immediately enchanted. You know how I feel about Cute Kids in movies? The way I feel about Anguished Kids is just about the exact opposite. So take one Anguished Child, put him in a romantic historical setting, have him create a new family from scratch (one of my favorite plotlines, especially when it involves previously Anguished children) . . . throw in some beautiful clocks, shots of a snow-encrusted Paris, and a puppy or two, and I’m yours. And when you take into account that Hugo revolves around the art of storytelling–mostly in the form of movies, but also with a book or two–of course I was going to fall in love. I had to.
Hugo, based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan who’s in charge of winding the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station. The one reminder he has of his father is a broken-down automaton rescued from a museum. Hugo makes friends with a girl named Isabelle, the two of them sneaking into the movies and tricking the train’s boorish inspector. But when they realize that she holds the key that unlocks his automaton, the two of them are entangled in a curious mystery that involves a toymaker, Hugo’s father, and the early history of cinema . . .
Unfortunately, the film’s marketing is pretty much killing it. While its previews depicted a high-energy children’s film, this isn’t really a film that caters to children’s tastes. It takes a while to get going, and even once it does, it’s still never particularly zippy. The slow pacing, combined with a historical focus and a lack of one-liners, means that some children will have trouble sitting through this one. Hell, so will some adults. The fact that a film has a child protagonist and no swear words does not necessarily mean it’s a children’s film, and that’s true of Hugo.
As of now, Hugo has only made $33 million at the box office, about a fifth of its very generous budget. Of course, the critics are loving it. They have a tendency to adore anything that celebrates the magic of film, as Hugo does in spades. And if it can pick up some steam through awards season, enough buzz may build to keep it going into January. The chances of it recouping its costs, though, look slim, and that’s unfortunate, because this is a wonderful movie–one during which I didn’t check my watch even once.