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Would-be warrior: Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider.

Myth and Magic
By Ann Morrow

Whale Rider
Directed by Niki Caro

‘Not 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 palpably heartrending.

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.

Between Absurdity and Madness

Divine Intervention
Directed 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 funny.

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 both sides.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Enter the terminatrix: (l-r) Loken and Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Robot Redux

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Directed 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 of Connor’s.

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.

—Ralph Hammann

Waves of Boredom

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
Directed 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 involvement.

Sinbad: 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 exports.

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.

—Laura Leon

Enter the terminatrix: (l-r) Loken and Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Stricken Pink

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
Directed 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 color pink.

The most annoying thing about watching Legally Blonde 2, however, is the nagging fear that there may be another sequel.

—Shawn Stone

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