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Volume 17, Issue 2: Ex Imagibus

Hollywood Buffet

Reviewed by Nathan Wilson

In Theaters (mostly):

Episode III
directed by Jorge Lucas

I'm an American and so I went to this movie. Turns out Anakin goes bad at the end. Not that he's ever really been anything other than a fussy butt. Anyway, he goes really bad and even kills some cute little blond kids in the Jedi temple. And he ends up wearing this dark mask thing, and there's this whole Frankenstein scene.

This movie's tension seemed to depend solely on all of us out in the audience simply wondering how they will get all our characters lined up and ready for the original Star Wars. Why will Darth Vader have to wear a suit? Why won't C3PO have a clue? We don't ever wonder if Anakin will die, or the emperor, or Yoda, and we're pretty sure that Samuel L. Jackson's character wasn't in the originals, and that Natalie Portman is going to suffer complications, as it were, in labor.
So we all sit, and we watch, and we wonder. How will they do it? And then they do it, and we leave the theater thinking more about how strange it is to sit in a dark room on a beautiful afternoon than about the story we just watched.
The movie is all about eyebrows, brooding, and angst, but especially lightsabers. The dialog is torturous; Lucas's cuts ignore narrative flow; and it's way better than the other two.
Oh, and "Only Sith Lords deal in absolutes." Or something like that.
The Episodes have a great deal of trouble coping with the lofty calling of being a classic on the first weekend.

Kingdom of Heaven
directed by Ridley Scott

World Magazine didn't like this movie at all, and headlined a review with something like "Pluralistic Crusaders." So, in all fairness, I must admit that I wish I could like this movie. I wish that I could take it as seriously as it seems to take itself. But I can't. Luckily, my beef isn't with the pluralism. My beef is with wildly superficial characters. Orlando Bloom spent the whole movie looking like something I could have whittled from a cedar chip.

The whole thing was episodic. And then his father shows up. And then he kills a priest. And then they run, and then his father gets hurt and the big German gets shot through the neck with an arrow that's about as thick as the leg of a swing set. Then our bastard hero tries to go to Jerusalem, but gets shipwrecked, or was it knighted first? Anyway, the king of Jerusalem is a leper and his character is the best thing about the movie. And the Saracen general drinks snow in a cup, and the Templars are stupid. And other things too.
Anyone who has spent the least bit of time studying the Crusades would only expect, upon being beamed back in time into the twelfth century, to find a great deal of religious cynicism. The world was in dire need of the Reformation and wouldn't get it for another couple hundred years. The wildly hypocritical bloodshed, fanatics and mystical crusaders, opportunists and villains, the gospel of purgation, of penance and works-driven salvation all would make me sneer my lip and ask what exactly made us better than the Muslims.
Scott labored mightily to show us men we could respect on both sides, and show us that they respected each other. That was very liberal of him. But then, that is also how the world and the world's wars go. In fact, I would vastly prefer hanging out in the tent of a Saracen who killed Christians than in the tent of a Christian who did.
Scott also labored to show us big things. Big dust clouds. Big walls. Big fights. But he didn't make us give a rip. He preached that Jerusalem didn't matter, and that individual lives did. But he doesn't seem convinced himself. And our hero doesn't either. And so we aren't. Ultimately, a person we have trouble caring about successfully negotiating a surrender doesn't provide the payoff that Scott needs. The narrative punch is nothing to Scott's lone gladiator slaying the Roman emperor in the ring and returning the city to the Senate. Using Russell Crowe would have helped the film in some ways, but he couldn't have saved it. The curse of self-seriousness weighed too heavily.

directed by Breck Eisner

It is true that Hollywood seems to be realizing that the old "family film" might make a buck or two. This film gives you exactly what it promises: a wildly unbelievable story that swirls around a Confederate iron-clad lost in the Sahara (don't expect too much of an explanation), third-world politics, and the enviromental impact of hyper-inflated red algae growth.

I can enjoy a good hot dog, especially when the person who gives it to me calls it a hot dog. This movie made me laugh. There are no pretensions, no delusions of grandeur. It's made from processed chicken, beef, and pork parts, and it tastes much better than what you'll get from Kingdom of Heaven or Episode III. You see, those movies are also serving up hot dogs, but they call them Tuscan tube steaksand take them very seriously.
Sahara is a popcorn movie and so the premise behind the film is dubious at best, but at the same time, the writing is better and the flow superior to either Kingdom of Heaven or Episode III. And it will give you ketchup, a bun, and a beer to go with your dog, not just parsley, a twist of lemon, and some seltzer water.
Come watch yet another celebration of the American hero. How many times have we saved the world?

On Video:

The Phantom of the Opera
directed by Joel Schumacher

My wife was surprised that I sat through this one. So was my three-year-old son. So am I. I won't let it happen again.

This is a very important movie. Take it seriously. It is artistic. It was once even a play on an actual stage.
I hate it when people seem so painfully aware that what they are doing just now (Did you see that? That yearning thing I did with my eyes, and how I let my arms dangle?) is terribly moving. Because there's this secret voice that taught me to sing, and now I'm quite good. And when I find out that he's a deformed peeping tom, then I struggle with my feelings for him. And I let him take me into the basement and sort of burrow in my neck and touch my girlish, and yet very vocal, torso. Life is so complicated.
What exactly went wrong with Andrew Lloyd Weber? Was it abuse? Bed-wetting? What has gone wrong with us? Why would we be such fans of this stuff?
I'll grant that people sing pretty in a couple bits, and that at least one dance sequence was fun to watch. But sheesh to the rest and raise your glasses to pop art that thinks it's high art and promotes itself as timeless.

National Treasure
directed by John Turteltaub

On the other side of the coin, we have National Treasure. A film similar to Sahara in many ways. Not the least of which is the fact that it strictly adheres to the boundaries of its genre, which limits its central cast to a guy, a sidekick, and a hot chick. Usually the hot chick is an expert in something that requires expertness. That justifies dragging her around on the adventure, beyond the obvious sexuality of the thing.

In this case, our leading lady is an archivist? A manuscript expert? A parchment connoisseur? Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicholas Cage) is the last generation of a family that has been hunting for an ancient treasure buried in New England by the Masons. Standing on the shoulders of Indiana Jones and other greats, he finds it.
Just how far can you stretch your suspension of disbelief? With notable effort I was able to go the distance with old Ben Gates, though a couple bumps nearly threw me off. The largest treasure in the history of the world is buried under Wall Street. That I can handle. There were some astronomical details and the history of Valley Forge that caused hiccups, but I recovered well.
Hot dog movie number two. A movie like this does not insult my intelligence because it isn't pretending to be important, and it isn't trying to get me to take it seriously. It's corny, but it's fun, and that's how it billed itself. For historical revisionism with beret and cigarette, we'll have to wait for the film release of the The Da Vinci Code.

The Aviator
directed by Martin Scorsese

Back in the golden age of Hollywood, the celebrities lived as darkly and as nastily as our very own contemporary celebs, but back then they always played in movies that showed us the happy shiny side of life. Today, they want to show us how it really is, how it really was. Real is the grime in the toilet bowl. Neurosis is more real than normality. A quest for the real always seems to be a quest for the abnormal. Find the tumor, the hidden birthmark, the quirks and troubles.

I can enjoy a biopic. There have been a great many interesting characters throughout our history, and narrative studies of them can have a real hook. Howard Hughes led a life of the abnormal. The Aviator tries to take a close look. But it primarily wants to see the "real." The film is about Howard Hughes, but it is more directly about his fevered and paranoid brain. We have one scene of his childhood (with his mother working to instill a neurotic fear of disease during a cholera outbreak), and that scene provides us with our motif. Hughes was brilliant. He was stubborn. He was hypocritical and immoral. But above all, Scorsese tells us, he was nuts. The narrative thread highlights this, with characters entering stage left for one or two scenes of neurotic revelation, and then exiting stage right. Scorsese only focused on those interactions and events in Hughes' life that revealed his demons or set up struggles with them.
It is not a wretched film, or as filthy as many would expect given a great deal of Hughes' behavior (though there is crassness, vulgarity, and Leonardo naked). But I prefer more human narrative, stories less warped by the false doctrines of realism. A character is not the sum of his faults. Build me a character. Show me his faults if you must, but then use them in a story. They are very rarely a story in themselves, and can have trouble carrying a film that's nearly three hours long.

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