Picks: Recommended with Reservations
Bend it Like Beckham, dir. Gurinder Chadha (UK, 2002). This film is a guilty pleasure, something to enjoy on a relaxing Friday night. When I scrutinize the film in any depth, I realize it is mediocre to the core. It grinds to a halt halfway through with unbelievable plot twists and turns. The film is a case study in how contemporary movies are made: there must be at least 6-8 montages to fit in the CD tracks; plot twists are more important than insights into character; everyone must end up happy or fulfilled or ready to move on; and the most important rule is “Never take risks with characters.” The corollary to this rule is, “Never make the audience feel uncomfortable.” In other words, formula is all, and the basis of the formula is to be safe rather than daring. At the same time, there are bright spots in this darkness of mediocrity. For instance, the young actor who plays Jess (Parminder Nagra) has wonderful moves and a perfect cinematic face. The interior scenes of her parents’ house were convincing; and the set decoration of her room (a shrine to the British soccer star Brian Beckham) gave a three-dimensionality to the characters’ interactions. The characters were real in those interiors. Unfortunately, the exterior scenes showing the girls on the soccer field were less believable, and the action in the soccer games was dreadfully filmed. I got the impression that some kind of digital trickery was used to show the moves on the field. I never believed I was watching a soccer game in any of those scenes. The other formula at work here? In our country we value having a young person hitch her wagon to the star of her passions and “go for it.” But in other cultural contexts, there are barriers to what might be considered self-centered dreams. The girl’s parents are Sikh immigrants from India, and the older daughter is getting married to a nice Indian man. So the younger daughter, Jess, should be the same. To her parents playing soccer is antithetical to her development as a lovely young woman—and future bride.
All of this would be fine if I could really have believed in the three-dimensionality of the characters and relationships. Other obligatory formulas follow. One of the two best friends has to betray the other; one of the stubborn parents has to overcome the narrow cultural beliefs in this case and advocate for the daughter; the young woman has to fall in love with the cute young coach. Despite the grinding use of formula after formula, the joie de vivre of the film prevails. After the mandatory climax with the expected components of success, future promise, and present fulfillment, the credits of the film begin and they were uproariously funny! I would have sat through them a second time if given the chance.
Bruce Almighty, dir. Tom Shadyac (USA). Jim Carrey is back! This is the type of role that works for him—no doubt about it. I loved the first half hour of the film. His comic energy, timing, and athleticism reminded me of the best of Steve Martin. The early scenes showing him failing as the fluff-stuff anchor for the television station were a riot. His rant at the Niagara Falls fiasco was touching because every professional can relate to his frustration—and to the unconscious desire to demolish the narrow-minded competition. His interaction with God (Morgan Freeman) was quiet, touching, and believable. I liked the idea of the empty office building and of God washing the floor—if the Devil is in the details, this scene does a nice take on God paying attention to the details. I laughed hard and long at these opening scenes, and everything clicked until he got the Godly powers (over Buffalo) and then kept on acting like a 13-year-old boy instead of an adult. The broad comedy continues too long, and the subtler, more realistic human tragic-comedy never kicks in. After a while I was bored by his childishness. Enough is enough—but then, who’s going to tell that to Jim Carrey?
Recently I happened to watch Groundhog Day again on television. That film succeeds where Bruce Almighty doesn’t because Bill Murray’s deadpan delivery complements the content and structure of the film and the overall idea—that a man trapped in an eternity of a single day becomes a kind of God—without the powers of God—leads to a dramatic conversion that leads to romance being fulfilled. But in Bruce Almighty the story derails as soon as his wife catches him kissing the beautiful anchorwoman and then walks out on him. So all of this God stuff is just a ploy to get us to the breakup of a marriage? The point of the film seems to be that once you surrender to God’s will, then all good things will come your way—and you will even be brought back to life because of the power of love coming from another person. So what happened here? The first half of the film was all about Bruce’s egocentricity; but that trait of his held on too long. I was waiting for a conversion that comes from within—that would show the character changing his values and goals in alignment with more spiritual discernment. What a faith journey this character could have had. After the broad comedy comes broad sentiment, or sentimentality. We get some preaching from God (now why would God ever preach!?) and we get a silly ending with the miraculous restorative power of love coming to the rescue. Perhaps if Bruce had NOT been married, then the conversion I mentioned above could have become the film’s focus.
Finding Nemo, dir. Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich. I appreciate the quality of Pixar’s animation, evident in this film. But there are problems with the writing that undermine the compelling animation sequences. Albert Brooks is the voice of Nemo’s father—and I think he did a wonderful job. He has just the right level of anxiety and low self-esteem and vulnerability and desperation in that throaty voice of his. But I got tired of Ellen DeGeneres’ whiny voice of Nemo’s friend Dory. DeGeneres does have a great comic voice, and she knows coming timing when she sees it. Perhaps my frustration with the voice was derived from my frustration with the character. She is so silly, so navigationally-challenged, so over-the-top on every emotion, that I got tired of her. One other criticism is that the world of the aquarium in the dentist’s office was not made sufficiently vivid and compelling. I never felt a strong sense of the community of those characters—something was lacking in the depiction of their individuality. The climactic moments of the film were okay—but nothing special. I enjoyed some parts of the film, and I laughed several times. But parts of the film seemed to drag—and I can only blame that on the poor writing and the ineffective realization of the animated characters.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson (USA, New Zealand). I dutifully sat through this long film and concluded that—however much it means to the many fans who watched all three films in the series—it means little to me. The film was filled with lots of pasteboard-cut-out characters, lots of pompous speeches, and an acting performance by Elijah Wood that consisted for the most part of flaring his eyes from wide open to wider-open. I loved the wisecracking Smeagol, but the CGI aspects of that character, seen especially when he hops about, betrayed the realism of the close-ups. Too many battle scenes for my taste. The film’s structure is based upon parallel editing—scenes of Frodo and Sam are intercut with scenes of the King and/or other principals. One of the elements of that structure was to follow busy and active and fast-paced scenes with quiet, meditative scenes (or sometimes, boring talky scenes). I was reminded of how straightforward filmmaking can be—just cut from scene A to scene B over and over, and the audience will be drawn in. One of the most compelling early scenes was the lighting of the various warning fires that eventually conveys the message from one end of the country to another. As in other scenes, these shots of the mountainous New Zealand landscape were beautiful. One over-the-top scene at the end shows Legolas (Orlando Bloom) dispatching one of the battle elephant-type creatures in a true tour-de-force of CGI effects. If there had been an Olympic category for that sport, I would have given him a 10! And then there is Viggo Mortensen—a solid actor—a great cinematic face. He steadies the film at every turn and seems to be the most substantial of all of the fantasy figures.
I saw the film as one part fantasy and two parts soap opera. Plot twists abounded, and stereotypical characters dominated. Only the hobbits seemed real. There is the evil king, the magic sword, the awful evil of Sarin (like Satan?), the army of the Dead, the spider’s lair, and more. Each one struts and frets upon the stage and then is replaced by another. Obvious and overblown and hyped digital effects strut and fret upon the stage as well—and make the case for not using digital effects in any movie. Where is Harry Potter when we need him? Give me one Harry Potter for three Lord of the Rings! Give me fantasy I can believe in! Then comes the great climax of the film—the dispensation of the ring. I was underwhelmed by the extent of the forced suspense—as if any minute the words “To be Continued” would appear on the screen. Miraculously Frodo and Sam survive the lava flow perched on a huge rock. No thought here to the idea that the noxious vapors and the overwhelming heat would sear their lungs and kill them in a few moments. Then the rescue by Gandalf, riding by on a giant eagle. I wonder if this film were animated—then would I have less trouble accepting its premise, its characters, and its plot? Finally, back at the shire, all are bathed in golden glows, and then the new King Aragorn and his lovely bride—ah, the bonds of true friendship and true love! Who does not care for those themes? Then one ending after the other pours out of the film, and it ends with a close shot of the tiny round hobbit door.
But by the time the film ended I realized something about my response—perhaps if I had read The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, or perhaps if I were a teenager now—then I may have viewed the film with more enthusiasm. I despaired of the drawn-out battle scenes everywhere in the film. I could not grasp the meaning of the violence. I missed somehow the code that seems to undergird the film—something about the way individuals must fulfill their destinies, I suppose. I saw only the love of war, the virility of young men, and the sexism of this fantasy world. The more battle scenes I viewed, the more I thought, “Not exactly Henry V, is it?” (Of course, Aragorn does give a version of the great Henry V speech late in the film—to rouse his troops!) I would have been interested in an expansion of the story of Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol. But even that story seemed to be tied to formula here: Frodo has to be captivated by the power of the ring sooner or later, and yet Frodo has to be the hero in the hand-to-hand combat with Smeagol. Sam was a great sidekick to Frodo, and I began to watch him more than I watched Frodo. Elijah Wood is awful young to be a millionaire actor, but the problem now is, “What do I do next?” He will forever be known as Frodo; so he has paid a price, too, for his fame. Meanwhile, Sean Astin can grow out of his Sam role and perhaps have a life as an adult actor. I await the next role for Viggo Mortensen—an appealing actor who is capable of a wide range of roles. Farewell to the Lord of the Rings!