Monday, October 31, 2005

Two Halloween Tricks

Despite the bad luck associated with Halloween, I thought I'd be in for at least one treat in today's double feature. But, no. Both films have their merits, but in recompense, they expect you to put up with quite a lot—too much, I think.

North Country C
Niki Caro's Whale Rider was an involving tale with an affecting central performance, and it refreshingly abstained from cutesying up its young protagonist or overtly repackaging its regional idiom and cultural values for purposes of export. The big exception to that rule, however, was the over-insistence on sexism as a social axiom. As the immediate debate over Pai's eligibility for cultural leadership slides into a broad-based indictment of male chauvinism, you would never know that Maori culture is one of the most matrilineal and woman-positive in the world, and that most modern Maori women need not imagine that their best chances for self-expression lie in waiting for Grandpa to leave the kitchen so you can take the piss out of him in private.

North Country, Caro's follow-up film, at least admits its class-action interest in gender inequality as a categorical social ill, and in the wintry hinterlands of Minnesota, the charge sticks pretty persuasively—persuasively enough, in fact, that you wonder why Caro won't let social and narrative structures speak for themselves. Instead, she milks far, far too many scenes for a much more obvious and superficial quotient of sexual blamecasting. The film's allegiance to a cause trumps its allegiance to itself at countless turns, and while the human drama crackles in some compelling moments—a public accusation of adultery at a hockey game, a supervisor's meeting where union representative Frances McDormand finagles what she wants, a nightmarish incident involving a portable toilet—much of the rest feels sternly and unconfidently schematic. Richard Jenkins, a bonus in anything, gets a powerful scene at a microphone that can't help remind us how much Caro likes to make her characters cry in front of assemblies. Theron, McDormand, and cinematographer Chris Menges (The Mission) do the best work to keep North Country within reasonably textured parameters of human experience, but the movie is scored all wrong, and the thematic trajectory from sexual harassment to sexual assault is so awkwardly structured that it dulls both arguments instead of fortifying the linkage between them. Meanwhile, Caro shoots and edits her coverage shots of the mines like she did the whales in her first film, as a massive and inveterate fact, implying a strangely ambivalent worldview in which some things can (and must!) be fixed, while others simply Are.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit C+
I thought North Country might misstep, and so I purposely planned to see Wallace & Gromit afterward, sure as I was that Aardman Studios had delivered the goods. Unfortunately, this is one party at which I'm the appointed churl, since I got barely a moment's real enjoyment out of Wallace & Gromit, which seemed just as cluttered but also as listless as Aardman's earlier feature-length disappointment, Chicken Run. My respect for the movie is just that—respect—but I was amazed at how soon I was wishing it would end, and I actually had a better time at North Country. As in so many animated features, and perhaps this is becoming a prejudice of my own, the punctilious detail and overfilled images in Wallace & Gromit quickly seemed like ends in themselves, hung around a story with no urgency, even as short-form suspense. I love how expressive Gromit can be, and Lady Tottington gets some memorably daft lines like, "In my view, the killing of fluffy animals is never justified!" But I'm terminally bored by all of Wallace's hodgepodge gizmos and inventions, and—in total contrast to the entrancing shorts, especially The Wrong Trousers—I feel much the same about the two Aardman features: sure, this is what you made, and it must not have been easy, but then why did you bother? Corpse Bride's wittier character designs and stripped-down narrative brought a whimsical quality to that movie that the manic and plotty Were-Rabbit really needs in order to seem like more than the fetish of talented puppet-masters having a grand day in at the studio.

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Blogger tim r said...

Oh you big grump. Great work, though, on the only North Country piece I've read which convincingly navigates a middle(ish) road; it's being slammed far too vituperatively all over the place, and I think within its limits (and discounting that pandering ending, as far as we can) there's some potent stuff here. In a way I actually found it less schematic than Whale Rider, or at least, if you like, less successfully so: my main feeling with this movie was that the sheer volume of abuse in it tends to spill over, and the courtroom reckoning's so wobbly and weak as to make what's happened seem barely fixable, leaving us with a film that can't contain its own outrage. I left unsatisfied and bristling, anyway, which may be a more useful emotional response than the one Caro actually intended!

4:39 AM, November 01, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I agree about NC being less schematic than Whale Rider, both for better and for worse. Caro seems to direct from an intuitive place that doesn't really jell with the didactic, prescriptive place her head is in. I think that might be why the movie feels so schizophrenic at times, and why she's a mess at structure. (I'd heard from everyone that the ending was a big goof, but why has it been smeared into the beginning and the middle, too?)

But I'm also with you that the head and heart of the film still get lots of things right, even when working in isolation. That flashback shot through the glass of the schoolteacher's door (I'm sure you know which one I mean) has all of the appropriate power. I thought Jenkins and Spacek were both quite good, though I wish the movie had kept whatever scene they obviously must have had between the motel and the union meeting. Even the single line where Charlize talks to her kids about their first time together in a "nice restaurant" was, in the context of the restaurant we're seeing, heartbreaking--and very precise to their station, another overall strength of the movie.

I think I'm winding up feeling about this as I did about Constant Gardener: it's too inconsistent and marring of itself to rate any higher, but what's good is really worth relishing.

11:13 PM, November 01, 2005  

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