Film Reviews

Divine Intervention
Directed by Elia Suleiman; Featuring Manal Khader, Elia Suleiman
Boston’s Weekly Dig June 2003

No one’s ever cared much about Palestinians, so it’s not surprising that Elia Suleiman’s artful Palestinian film Divine Intervention was refused acceptance into this year’s Academy Awards.

But don’t blame the Oscar committee. From Colonial Britain to Imperial America, Palestinians have always been regarded as a nuisance and a bother.

In 1917 Britain’s Lord Balfour decreed that Palestine be re-designated as the Zionist homeland, “be it right or wrong, good or bad,” and regardless of the “desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs” who were already living there.

In 1937 Winston Churchill put it more plainly. After British soldiers crushed the first Palestinian uprising against Jewish settlers, Churchill [who fought so nobly for Britain in WW2] said of the Palestinians:

“I do not agree that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

In 1947 the UN gave 55 percent of Palestine to the Zionists to form the new Israeli state. The Palestinian Arabs rejected the UN’s mandate, and the UN has refused to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state ever since.

It was on this basis—UN-designated statehood—that the Oscar committee gave Divine Intervention the boot—even though it won the Grand Jury and Critic’s Prizes at Cannes.

As for the movie, it’s a masterful, measured, maddening look out from inside the occupied mind. We’re thrust into a world inhabited by belligerent Arab neighbors, abusive checkpoint guards and lovers who aren’t permitted to enter each other’s land.

With precise technique and deliberate timing, Suleiman exposes the slow-burning madness that infects ordinary citizens whose very existence is treated as a criminal act.

The film takes off into fantasy sequences at several points; an errant nectarine pit explodes an Israeli tank; a shooting range target of a Palestinian woman comes alive to exact Hong Kong-style martial arts revenge.

These scenes have raised concerns about anti-Israeli sentiment. I don’t think Divine Intervention is anti-Israeli or anti-Israel. It is, however, anti-occupation, as are a great many Israelis and Jews worldwide.

Divine Intervention is a note to the world from a people the world ignores. The note says, simply, “We’re here, too.”

Avatar Films, the film’s US distributor, is currently working to get Divine Intervention accepted as Palestine’s entry for the 2004 Academy Awards.

Recent Avatar releases include Benoit Jacquot’s acclaimed production of Puccini’s Tosca as well as the award-winning Afghani film Kandahar , on video this May. For more information, go to www.avatarfilms.com.

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The Good Thief
Written & Directed by Neil Jordan
Featuring: Nick Nolte, Tcheky Karyo and Nutsa Kukhianidze
Boston’s Weekly Dig 2003

This remake of Jean Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Thief) feels like an excuse for an actor’s holiday in the splendid South of France, but it’s a pretty sour trip.

Nick Nolte plays Bob, a Cote d’Azur gambler who’s in the death spiral of a heroin-fueled losing streak. Offered a chance at redemptive and profitable thievery, he cleans up and assembles his multi-national coterie to enact the heist.

There are a dozen retread sub-plots: a buddy cop who’s wise to Bob’s scheme; a teen-aged prostitute he’s trying to save; a side-kick who can’t keep himself out of trouble; etc, etc.

The film strings together two disparate genres, and they’re uncomfortable bedfellows. It’s half lightweight heist caper, and half redemption of the tortured soul (in its drug-addict variation). We end up with method actors doing farce, mumbling through jokes and flattening mannerisms.

Nolte is everybody’s first choice to play an unsuccessfully-rehabbing, badly-aging bohemian. When we’re shown a picture of Nolte in his youth, we realize just how beaten up he is.

His voice sounds like wind in dry rock bed, and cracks above a whisper. He looks like he’s been marooned in a desert.

Neil Jordan, the writer/director, chose to modernize the story by giving his Bob a heroin addiction. Why does “tortured” in movies always means “drug-addicted?” Why not give Bob a slight eating disorder, like most middle-aged men have, stuffing themselves at the refrigerator at night in quiet desperation?

The movie finds itself in its last twenty minutes, when Nolte’s dry-heat finally subsides and the wastrel teenager is allowed to be a girl.

Jordan bestows a patch of kindness on his characters that offers them, and us, some needed relief.

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The Sea
Written and Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Featuring: Gunnar Eyjolfsson, Hilmir Gudnason, Nína Filippusdóttir
Boston’s Weekly Dig 2003

The adult children of an Icelandic fishing magnate return to their glacial home to pay bitter homage to their demanding, ailing father.

But don’t let the King Lear premise put you off. This potboiler offers more lusty catharsis than anything in The Matrix or X2.

As soon as the cantankerous clan reassembles, all bets for good behavior are off.

The various members of the extended family are so badly behaved—beating, cheating, screaming at, screwing and stealing from each other—it’s like Absolutely Fabulous played with just a little more gravity and grit.

Like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven did with Douglas Sirk‘s melodramas, The Sea moves Tennessee Williams’ corrupt and broken family dramas out of subtext and onto the screen, full-blown. You don’t have to guess what anybody’s hiding in their closet—they just show it to you.

The effect isn’t subdued melodrama—it’s wild schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others).

There are some lovely visuals in the film: The black, ice-covered, stone hills; A galloping reindeer herd; A swimmer, identified first by her robust naked body in the vibrant blue water of the hot spring, as her lover swims to greet her, rudder out.

The final 40 minutes of the film are a crescendo of climaxes, one out-doing another to the point of shocking hilarity.

I imagine some will want to describe The Sea as serious, important or scathing, but I just couldn’t help myself—it was a riot.

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Dark Blue
Dir. Ron Shelton
Starring Kurt Russell
Boston’s Weekly Dig 2003

Poet of the scruffy male Ron Shelton (Tin Cup, Bull Durham) directs screenwriter David Ayer’s (The Fast and the Furious, Training Day) testosterone tale about a third generation killer cop in the culture change that followed the Rodney King beating.

Kurt Russell plays a special forces officer as a perp-framing, race-baiting, thug-shooting good ol’boy, whose profound amorality is finally catching up with him. Russell’s new young partner can’t swallow the avenging angel tactics of the squad, and his protestations begin to rattle Russell’s conscience.

Ayer’s demon-cop script (based on a story by ultra-cynic James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential) is an odd match for Shelton’s bedraggled humanism. Russell bounces between lost puppy and mad dog without ever finding a center. His redemption is more scripted than felt.

Russell’s soulful shock-blue eyes and beaten So.Cal visage are a perfect match for Shelton’s loser-hero philosophizing, but not Ayer’s soul-dead maniac.

We’re with him most when he hits his low notes: defeated and riffing tragicomically about the limits of moral flexibility and the nature of being a cop.

The talented cast feels tight and under-rehearsed, but there’s plenty of plot and action to keep you interested. Short of grandeur, or even grandiloquence, it hits entertaining.

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Spider-Man
dir. Sam Raimi 2002
starring Tobey Macguire, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe

A lovely, good-looking and fine-spirited adventure of a boy and his commitments to self, as he passes into adult spider-hood. Spiderman is a modern myth, our hero is the anonymous Perseus, the successful Icarus, masked for humility, or vanity’s sake.

The familial threads are touching, and Cliff Robertson’s ‘Uncle Ben’ might get you welling at the eyes. The story is well-fleshed and animated, and sometimes, too plucky.

Sam Raimi is so versed in light-comic storytelling that he doesn’t miss an opportunity to goose the material good-naturedly. Perhaps a silent moment or two would have added a touch of grandeur.

But he gets so much right, and it’s joyous, and so much fun you forgive it it’s occasional silliness.

Superheroes in ancient and modern myth are often overgrown boys propelled by a loss of family.. they seek their father’s approval and to re-attach with their lost mothers..

Superman, orphaned in space, is nothing without earth, and his adopted earth-mother is Metropolis… Batman was orphaned in Gotham City, the place he returns to enact constant, remorseful vengeance, seeking catharsis for his anger.

And Peter Parker, parentless, but raised by loving relatives, takes flight in the only American city with a downtown long and tall enough to support his peculiar gifts; New York, which he protects, even as it torments him. It supplies both an endless series of potential casualties for him to save and quiet hiding places far above the noise of the world.

Whatever flaws you can find in costuming, line-reading, etc, you’ll be enchanted by the freedom and power of his impossible movement…the inspiring beauty of his muscular near-flight, held aloft on sticky organic threads spewed and strewn among the arches and shoulders of his mothering, antagonistic, tormenting, beloved and inextricable city.

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The Matrix
(1999)
dir. The Wachoski Brothers
starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne

Just about perfect, as long as you don’t think too much.

In a world of nuclear ruin, I imagine your average intelligent computer could probably find a better fuel cell than a slightly warm, always hungry, constantly defecating comatose human, for whom they have to invent an elaborate mind warp, so as to, what, keep all their blood-slaves happy?

But Besides That…perfect in all regards.

With technical and martial arts grace, thanks to a long line of predecessors.

See the “Once Upon a Time in China” series (especially the first, with dvd commentary) for a great introduction to wire-fighting.

Next, pick up a concise guide to Hindu philosophy, a compendium of Dark Horse comics, and a pair of anti-gravity boots, and you’ve got it.

And Keanu? I’m tempted to say that making ineffectual look superhuman is the single greatest special effect, but that would undermine the great artistry that is painted all over the digital cells.

In the ‘nuked-world’ scenes, the film looks like it was photographed in an Eastern European sewer system, and the actors let you feel the grit and mold.

A very good action movie, plus a high school treatise on comparative religion….who could ask for more?

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X-Men 2
directed by Bryan Singer
featuring Hugh Jackman, Brian Cox, Ian McKellen and Alan Cumming
Boston’s Weekly Dig 2003

Professor Xavier’s academy for the genetically gifted becomes the target of government assault under xenophobic militarist William Stryker (John Ashcroft, anyone?), who kidnaps The Professor for cruel purposes. Wolverine, Jean Grey and new recruit Nightcrawler give chase.

Director Bryan Singer moved from strength to strength in X-men1, and it was a lean and mean good time.

In X2, Singer’s given into the devils in marketing and satisfied the comic book devotees more than his own film-making instincts.

There are five writers credited to X2—and it shows.

We’re saddled with a distracting 40-minute second act that follows the X-teens, led by ultra-bland Iceman, into the suburbs for a reunion with his parents. The coming out scene that follows (“Mom, dad, I’m a…mutant”) lacks real comedic or dramatic impact, and weakens the story arc.

The feeling of real-life menace is gone from X2. Wolverine, whose anarchic rage powered the first film, doesn’t spill any blood when he slices and dices. Worse, he spends the movie babysitting the X-kids, and seems to like it.

We don’t get enough of Magneto or Mystique (such breasts!), and new additions Nightcrawler and Lady Deathstrike get short shrift compared to the X-brats.

Poor Cyclops is gone for an hour, and Charles Xavier (master PBS narrator Patrick Stewart), again proves awfully gullible for a mind-reader.

The plot points don’t spring organically from character or action, but are retread, for the sake of fans, from decade-old comics.

Not Star Wars terrible, but not what it could’ve been.

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The School of Rock
(2003)dir. Richard Linklater
starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack

A comedy built on a suspension bridge of disbelief.

A socially-impaired, self-aggrandizing fattish narcissist (Jack Black, as always) finds an outlet for his considerable creative impulses by posing as a teacher in an uptight private elementary school.

We’re meant to believe that Black’s anarchic mania is liberating to everyone involved, but he’s so unhinged, and everyone else is so profoundly unaware, it’s hard to buy. The fact that Black is left alone with the children for three weeks, without an iota of faculty concern or interference isn’t just improbable…It’s creepy.

Black’s considerable comic presence is rooted in his relentless baring of every awkward, antisocial, strange or perverse impulse that pulses through his twitching frame. He lives in the middle of a manic episode. It’s good for distraction, as in High Fidelity, but as the film’s center, it reaches saturation point pretty quickly.

The funniest lines in the film comes when the students begin to imitate Black’s anarchic insensitivity—“You’re fat and you have body odor,” a student tells him…It’s not just funny, it’s humanizing, and it brings this fantasy sharply into reality.

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Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
written/dir. George Lucas
starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid

George Lucas’s Pokemon movie. But no Star Wars in sight. Don’t be fooled by the superficial similarites. This is not the film made by the George Lucas who had the insight to let Lawrence Kasdan help him write “The Empire Strikes Back,” the greatest Jungian thrill ride evermade…

This is the son of “Howard the Duck.”

The dvd bonus disk documentaries let you see how hundreds of talented and otherwise intelligent writers, artists, actors, and movie industry guppies stood around, bowing before the twenty-five year old Vision, not knowing, or just not saying that the Vision was a substantial and saccharin as a bag of pixie stix and a box of fruity pebbles. Same color scheme, too.

Who’ll tell the emperor he’s got no clothes, and he’s woefully out of shape to boot?

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Pola X (1999)
dir. Leos Carax
starring Guillaume Depardieu, Yekaterina Golubeva, Catherine Deneuve

Notable for an inspired, and realistic two minute sex scene an hour and twenty minutes into the film, the rest of this picture is a dark morass, impossible to follow, drawn from the inner, illucid workings of the writer/ director’s mind.

A young man (Depardieu the younger), grown far too close to his mother (Deneuve), throws himself into grisley poverty to be far too close to his sister/girlfriend.

One gets a sense that the young and handsome actors are trying to exorcise their youth and beauty and replace it with something substantial, but they come up painfully, masochistically empty. And we’re along for the um, journey.

Similarly abusive to character as Larry Clark’s Kids, but less interesting. Give it a miss, or fast forward.

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Memento (2000)
dir. Christopher Nolan
starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss

A skillfully made, cold-blooded little exercise of a film. And an exercise is what it is.

A clever time-travel literary device is used to trace the steps of our hero as he discovers that people can be bad, and most importantly, people lie to themselves in order to justify their badness.

The considerable filmmaking and writing skill is used up in cleverness, the acting talent is used as a cog in the machine-like story. In the end, it’s just an icy-cold, sadistically clever, cruel little movie, that tells us people can be wicked.

I wonder if the central idea – that we are the cause of our most serious problems – will be lost to viewers, who are too busy enjoying being manipulated to see the parable behind the exercise.

The staging is certainly top-rate, but after the trick was sprung, it left me wanting. A better bet is Martin Amis’ excellent novella, Time’s Arrow, which employs the same inverted time structure to tell a better story.

(I liked Nolan’s follow-ups a good deal better – the better-than-it-was-reviewed remake of “Insomnia” (2002) and the very strong “Batman Begins” (2005).

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Liam

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