warrior: Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider.
Directed by Niki
that name,” says the old chieftain when his son announces
that his newborn daughter will be called Paikea. For a Maori
tribe in northern New Zealand, Paikea is the founding ancestor
who reached the island by riding on a whale. For a thousand
years, the leadership of the tribe has passed to his male
descendants. The chieftain, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), has been
doubly crushed: His artist son has relinquished his hereditary
duty, and now his grandson has died in childbirth. So has
the boy’s mother, a matter of little concern to Koro. Grief-stricken
and disgusted, his son (Cliff Curtis) departs and doesn’t
come back, leaving his infant daughter in the care of her
strong-willed grandmother (Vicky Haughton).
From this rocky beginning, “Pai” (Keisha Castle-Hughes) grows
into an intelligent, confident, and athletic 12-year-old.
And Whale Rider, written and directed by New Zealand
filmmaker Niki Caro, tells the unpredictable story of Pai’s
coming-of-age with insight, originality, and visual verve.
The film made a sweep of film-festival audience awards (including
Sundance and Toronto), and deservedly so: It’s the most deeply
felt film since Rabbit-Proof Fence, another tale of
a determined young girl from an indigenous and beleaguered
culture. Whale Rider, however, is set in the present
day, making its poetic use of Maori mythmaking all the more
transfixing. Loosely adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera
and superbly acted by an all-Maori cast, the film takes place
within an isolated community, and yet the tenacity of Pai’s
struggle to take her rightful place within the tribe transcends
the remoteness of her culture.
It appears that intactness of that culture (beautifully incorporated
into almost every scene) is what differentiates the Maori
villagers here from the impoverished and brutalized Maori
family in Lee Tamahori’s harrowing Once Were Warriors.
This is an important point, and for more reasons than the
incantatory power of the tribe’s atonal chanting and curvilinear
artistry. The same adherence to tradition that makes the grandfather
a misogynistic bastard, it seems, is also what keeps the village
from plunging headlong into societal pitfalls. Broken families
and substance abuse exist (as Caro tactfully reveals with
some of the minor characters), but the community is concretely
buoyed by a sense of pride in itself. That pride is mystically
embodied by the ever-present whales roaming the nearby sea
like ancestral spirits.
Koro tries to pass on the old ways by teaching a class to
the village’s firstborn sons. Barred from participating, Pai
watches and learns surreptitiously, taking to the traditional
martial art of stick fighting like a fish to water. Catching
her in the act, Koro is not only angered, he is thrown into
despair. The audacity of his granddaughter, he believes, is
bringing misfortune upon the dwindling village. The film’s
conflict, movingly rendered without sentiment, is that Pai
is not in rebellion against Koro; quite the opposite, she
admires him above all others, and it is by emulating him that
she develops the indomitable will of a leader. Newcomer Castle-Hughes
is radiantly unguarded and unmannered as Pai, whose pained
and diffident resistance to her grandfather’s chauvinism is
Caro is exceptionally good at capturing the nuances of the
people around Pai, including her uncle, once a champion stick
fighter and now a flabby layabout; and her uncle’s girlfriend,
who apparently is from the wrong side of the tribal tracks.
The director’s admiration for the early films of fellow New
Zealander Vincent Ward (The Navigator) proves useful
for the story’s mysticism, and a climactic occurrence with
the whales takes on an aura of magic realism. In another kind
of film, the literal invocation of the old ways would seem
like a contrivance, but for this fascinating and affecting
story, the magic comes naturally.
Absurdity and Madness
by Elia Suleiman
Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s new film is a grim comedy
on the insanity of daily life in the occupied territories.
A man (Nayef Fahoum) drives down his street in the morning,
smiling and waving to neighbors while simultaneously cursing
them to himself. Another man waits for a bus that no longer
runs (Shades of Ghost World—except this bus will never
show up). Another walks out of his house and throws a bag
of trash into his neighbor’s yard. A collaborator has a Molotov
cocktail thrown at his front gate.
This all sounds simple enough, but the pace of the film is
deliberately, almost agonizingly slow. The nature of these
daily events is revealed piecemeal, seemingly to emphasize
their obscurity, and the effect is deliciously abstract. For
the audience, the result is both slightly irritating and terribly
And all these actions are shown happening again and again,
day after day. Everything’s broken, Suleiman seems to be saying,
but especially the social contract among Palestinians. The
attitudes of the Palestinians toward Israel and Israelis are
barely touched on at first—they’re taken as a given.
The filmmaker’s take on the Israelis is neatly summed up in
a shocking recurring joke. A French tourist asks an Israeli
cop sitting in his four-wheel-drive squad car for directions
to a church in Bethlehem. The cop doesn’t know, so he pulls
a Palestinian prisoner out of the back of his vehicle and
has him give the directions.
The almost hypnotic absurdity of the filmmaker’s technique
eventually makes room for a more concrete, personal tragedy.
The man we see driving and cursing is revealed to be a welder
with his own shop. Casually, he mentions to a customer that
there isn’t much business. (This explains his daily ritual
of sorting through a pile of bills at the kitchen table.)
He sells his equipment, looks at his bills again and has a
heart attack. His son, E.S. (Suleiman) arrives at his side.
There isn’t really much this sad-faced man can do for his
father—mirroring, without too much of a stretch, the fact
that there isn’t much the filmmaker can do about the state
of the Palestinians. Except, of course, bear witness and indulge
in his fantasies.
Each day, he meets his beautiful, unnamed lover (Manal Khader)
in a parking lot next to an Israeli checkpoint. They sit together
for hours, sensuously intertwining hands (just their hands),
while watching the absurdity of the checkpoint rituals. Guards
(played by actual former Israeli Defense Forces vets with
checkpoint experience) are alternately friendly or cruel,
and the capriciousness of the procedures is maddening for
Most of the aforementioned fantasies center around his paramour;
the most controversial presents her in a Muslim-Ninja outfit,
taking on a group of Israeli soldiers. She dodges bullets
Matrix-style, and extracts a bloody revenge for her
people. It’s as if Suleiman is shoving violent Western (read:
United States and Israel) wish-fulfillment revenge fantasies
down our throats. It’s hilarious and disturbing.
The film offers no answers, and few judgments. In fact, it
simply comes to a halt, as if waiting for real divine intervention.
the terminatrix: (l-r) Loken and Schwarzenegger in Terminator
3: Rise of the Machines.
3: Rise of the Machines
by Jonathan Mostow
After the broken promises of The Hulk, Matrix:
Reloaded, 28 Days Later, Russian Ark and
just about everything else that promised to transport me to
another time and world, I clung to some vain hope that the
Terminator franchise might still have some kick in
it. After all, it has a durable character (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
T-1 cyborg) who was successfully reinvented in a sequel that
outdid the original film. And it has a very talented director
in Jonathan Mostow, who drew taut suspense out of a much simpler
film, Breakdown, and who made worthy stuff out of Black
Thunder and U-571. Top that off with a new female
terminator clad as an upscale dominatrix in red leather (or
is it faux alligator skin?), and there was reason to hope.
Mostow doesn’t disappoint in his direction, which keeps things
moving at a rapid clip and which tries to steer clear of the
usual visual clichés in chase sequences. He knows how to orchestrate
his shots to maximize Arnold’s mythic stature, and he manages
to keep a decent balance between the action and the humans
and humanoids. Nor does Arnold fall from grace in a role that
is ideally tailored to his talents. Certainly, one is not
let down by the new villain, the T-X, played by Kristanna
Loken with as much icy charm as befits an android-fatale programmed
to kill human leaders of a resistance to a machine rebellion.
Among the humans, there is persuasive work contributed by
Claire Danes as Kate Brewster, a veterinarian reluctantly
conscripted into service by Arnold’s Terminator. Had she been
the central human protagonist, the film might have fared better.
Unfortunately, the main character, John Connor, previously
played by Edward Furlong, is now played by Nick Stahl, whose
acting ability trails several furlongs behind his predecessor.
It is difficult to believe that this Connor has the wits and
leadership skills to save the world from the uprising of the
machines that concerns all three Terminator films.
Humans and machines alike are challenged by a script that
is content chiefly to mechanically reprise highlights from
the previous films. It is also difficult to believe that Connor
and Brewster can so readily access advanced survival skills
and navigate their ways through complex machinery, computer
codes, military complexes and weaponry. The machine uprising,
which recalls an idea in Colossus: The Forbin Project,
doesn’t amount to much: The impressive army of murderous cyborgs
shown in the film’s previews is, alas, only a brief nightmare
Still, there is a decent duel between the two terminators
(with Loken providing most of the excitement) that leaves
one wanting more rather than yawning at excess, and despite
the script’s routine plotting, the ending offers a genuine
surprise for which the film honestly prepares us. It’s no
Planet of the Apes in the impact of its apocalyptic
vision, but at least it has a clear, albeit simple, vision
missing from much of its summer competition.
Legend of the Seven Seas
by Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore
It’s not a good sign when your 5-year-old asks, during a supposedly
exciting scene in the middle of an animated film, “How much
longer is this movie?” But that’s exactly what mine did while
watching Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Then again,
this particular son would much rather be playing baseball,
so I checked for my older son’s reaction. His was numb, mindless
viewing—we had determined to see this movie, were at it, and
he was watching it with no real disdain, but also no real
Legend of the Seven Seas falls into that category of animated
film that focuses intently on lush visuals and inventive movement
(watching the pirates swing like talented monkeys through
the ship’s riggings is delightful) but not enough on script
and character development. Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator)
peppers the narrative with such bland, slack-jawed sayings
as “Pretty cool, huh?” and “Things to do, places to go, stuff
to steal,” most of which are said with unerring Valley Boy
intonations by Brad Pitt. The script never goes deeper than
trash talk at the local skate park. It had an achingly banal
yet all-too-familiar sound: It’s an attitude that’s taken
over the dialogue in most movies aimed at younger audiences,
and it’s reminiscent of the banter of older, not so wiser,
characters in hits like Friends. No wonder a good part
of the rest of the world wants to boycott our, er, cultural
That said, directors Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore deliver
some amazing sights, notably when Sinbad’s siren-struck crew
must navigate through the dangerous Devil’s Teeth, and later,
when a computer-generated skeletal army arises out of the
sands of hell to beckon eerily to Sinbad and his plucky paramour
Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones). In the former, in which Marina,
being deaf to the calls of the sirens, saves the day, the
deadly menaces are depicted in a stunning combination of computer
generation and animation, silky fluid creations that morph
back and forth from voluptuous vixens to death-masked wraiths.
Overall, however, the mix of both techniques continues to
leave me cold. As with the insipid Treasure Planet,
the juxtaposition of standard animated characters suddenly
confronted with behemoths that would look more at home in,
say, Finding Nemo, is visually choppy. Furthermore,
the basic animation of the movie, at least when it comes to
characters, is inconsequential. There is nothing memorable
about Sinbad or Marina, let alone any of their supposedly
colorful supporting players, including Joseph Fiennes as Sinbad’s
oldest friend, Proteus, and Dennis Haysbert as his next-in-command.
And the movie’s essential question, whether Sinbad is good
or evil, is a no-brainer—hey, the more I think of it, the
more I realize that my 5-year-old was right, and we should
have been out playing ball rather than wasting an hour and
a half on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.
the terminatrix: (l-r) Loken and Schwarzenegger in Terminator
3: Rise of the Machines.
Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
Alternately enjoyable and dismaying, the sequel to Legally
Blonde has its heart in the right place, but, like its
protagonist, its head is seriously messed up.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is back, having graduated from
Harvard and gone to work for a high-powered law firm. Usually
dressed in pink designer-label gear, Woods is a fashion-obsessed,
relentless consumer with a heart of gold and a fine-working
brain under that mop of blonde hair. Her main focus is her
upcoming wedding to good-hearted Emmett (Luke Wilson as the
most unconvincing Harvard Law prof in cinema history). Of
course, in preparing the invitations, she realizes that she
has to track down the parents of her beloved, yapping mini-mutt,
the ironically named Bruiser (Moondoggie); after all, Bruiser
is nearly as dear to her as her fiancée.
To her horror, she finds that Bruiser’s mom is being held
as a test subject by a cosmetics-research lab. So Woods moves
to Washington, D.C., and goes to work for Congresswoman Rudd
(Sally Field), spearheading a campaign to pass an animal-testing
ban. (Job-hunting is simple among sorority sisters.) Along
the way, she tangles with Rudd’s no-nonsense chief aid, Grace
(Regina King), and gets help from the doorman of her apartment
building (the “Wellington,” obviously standing in for the
Watergate), wily D.C.-vet Sid (Bob Newhart).
What’s good about the film? Primarily, Witherspoon. Having
proved herself in gnarly independent films like Election,
Witherspoon brings the skills (and has the movie-star presence)
to make the absurd Elle seem more-or-less sincere and believable.
There’s a gay-dog subplot that’s amusing, and the script also
has some great lines. When Woods enters her first congressional
committee meeting, she exclaims: “Wow, this is just like C-SPAN—except
I’m not bored.”
What sucks about Legally Blonde 2? The worshipful attitude
towards consumerism. The cheap idealism and the equally casual
dismissal of realpolitik; this attitude ends up making a tough,
long-serving 50-something congresswoman the villain and the
perky young blonde the innocent heroine. (I never much admired
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington either.) The idea that
a makeover is the greatest thing that can happen to a woman
aside from a trip to Versaci. The eye-straining use of the
The most annoying thing about watching Legally Blonde 2,
however, is the nagging fear that there may be another sequel.