Two Halloween Tricks
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 persuasivelypersuasively 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 momentsa 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 toiletmuch 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 thatrespectbut 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, andin total contrast to the entrancing shorts, especially The Wrong TrousersI 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.