Hot from the Oven
Moviegoing audiences repeatedly prove that critics have little or no effect on what they will or will not see. They go instead because of the promotion, because of the stars, and because of the subject matter. You'll be hard pressed to find a historical event more dramatic, tragic, and spectacular than the sudden, shocking, and deadly attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. And you'll be hard pressed to find a hotter star than Ben Affleck, or a more popular director than Michael Bay.
And you'll also be hard pressed to find a decent review of Pearl Harbor.
A few critics in the religious media seem to think the movie is worth seeing. Preview's anonymous critic calls it "An inspiring and patriotic production." Most critics, though, were offended by the way the film turns a very serious, tragic, and sickening event into an entertaining "good time." The Dove Foundation's Holly McClure disagrees: "The incredible script by Randall Wallace, gorgeous scenery, wonderful period costumes, stirring musical score by Hans Zimmer and incredible cast make this a spectacular ode to American history that simply shouldn't be missed by anyone. It is the first serious Oscar contender this year."
The war scenes certainly made an impression on the critic at Christian Spotlight on the Movies: "Amazing special effects and plenty of time spent on this really make it work. And oh, the tragedy that war brings. Up close and personal we see hundreds of charred and shattered bodies, some in the water and others on land. Once the attack is over and we survey the damage, the sadness is gripping. War really is hell."
But a discerning viewer will demand more than realistic warfare onscreen—Is all of this spectacle edifying in some way? Is there any redeeming value to this storytelling? Tom Neven of Focus on the Family poses the question this way: "Do the overall historical messages of courage, loyalty and sacrifice fully compensate? No. Swim carefully in this harbor. Entertainment Zeros are lurking." The Vancouver Courier's Peter T. Chattaway writes that Bay "is a fidgety, impatient director, who cut his teeth making music videos and commercials aimed at an audience of short attention spans, and he doesn't seem interested in letting a scene unfold at a slow or natural pace if there's a way to give the audience an extra jolt." He concludes: "It's no wonder the posters for this film are modeled after wartime propaganda. This is the sort of movie that makes going to war look cool."
You won't find any critics unimpressed with the special effects of the film's 40-minute attack sequence. But David Ansen at Newsweek feels the movie's dullsville story robs these scenes of their necessary gravity. "Ninety minutes into this massive movie the attack commences, and the spectacular images come hurtling like fireballs [and] go directly to your central nervous system," he writes. "But Bay isn't making a movie about war's horror. It's more like a roller-coaster ride. Superbly marketed, Pearl Harbor is the very model of a modern blockbuster. Will it matter that almost nothing about its human drama rings true?" Similarly, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune states, "Unfortunately, pasted around that stunning [action] sequence is a story so clogged with cliches of every description, so overblown, bombastic and agonizingly sentimental that it's hard to watch it with a straight face." Robert Wilonsky of New Times Los Angeles says bluntly, "Pearl Harbor's sound and fury signify nothing but a new kind of war porn." And Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times calls it "a love story of stunning banality. The film has been directed without grace, vision or originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialogue, it will not be because you admire them." My personal favorite response was also quite brief: "Two of the three longest movies we've ever sat through" (Chuck Schwartz of Cranky Critic). Jeffrey Wells at Reel.com, who also panned the film, admitted: "Let's be frank: A Mormon Tabernacle Choir chorus of lousy reviews wouldn't stop even the most cynical among us from wanting to see it."
"Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News(where every poster uses a cutesy pseudonym) had an interesting response to the film and its critics: "Is this really what we've come to? We are now reviewing films on a sequence by sequence basis, giving them passing grades as long as there's just a run of stuff we like, even if we have to sit through three hours of genuinely dull drama, poorly written and poorly acted for the most part, to get to it? This is Pearl Harbor, though. This happened. This is something that still matters to many people who are alive. And I think this reduces a tragic, horrible morning to something that's only degrees away from the Waterworld Stunt Spectacular at Universal Studios." Moriarty abruptly turned, in mid-review, to criticize his fellow critics, however, who went beyond intelligent criticism to engage in mean-spirited mockery: "This is film criticism? Who does a review like that serve? Is it just a point of pride (pun intended)? Is it just a chance to flex your sarcasm muscle for the amusement of yourself and a handful of other entertainment writers?" In the end, though, he did find one thing to applaud: "The new Fellowship of the Ring trailer helped a lot. It's a brilliant, magical piece of filmmaking, two minutes, forty-one seconds that convey more emotion and adventure than anything I've seen in a theater this year."
Families with kids most likely skipped Pearl Harbor this weekend and went to see Shrek instead. The film is a somewhat subversive fairy tale about a reclusive swamp-dwelling ogre who strikes a bargain with an egotistical power-mad lord. In exchange for a little peace and quiet back home, he agrees to rescue an imprisoned princess from a fire-breathing dragon so the conniving king-wannabe can marry her and become king. The movie exuberantly and sarcastically skewers the fairy tale formulas that are Disney's bread and butter, even as it pulls off some heart-warming and surprisingly meaningful storytelling of its own. It's also the flashiest animated feature yet from DreamWorks, the studio led by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Most critics are head-over heels about the picture. The U.S. Catholic Conference declares Shrek a "captivating animated film" in which "the sweet but conventional story of self-acceptance reaches new levels of excellence in its animation and a fine cast of voices further bolsters the film's appeal." Movieguide calls it "thoroughly enjoyable … a sweet, heartwarming morality tale about learning to love and be loved and looking beyond outward appearances to the inner beauty inside." Movie Parables' Michael Elliott argues, "The secret of the film's success and audience appeal lies in the casting of its vocal talent, most notably … Eddie Murphy who has never sounded better or funnier.'" Christian Spotlight on the Movies' Matthew Rees observes, "While there's nothing really new or especially deep in the movie's moral platitudes, they're still refreshing in today's self-centered and image-conscious society. And for children who haven't heard them a hundred times before, they could very well make a lasting impression."
Some in the religious media are a bit chagrined by the film's allowance of rather base humor. Preview's uncredited reviewer has mixed feelings, claiming "Crude humor and questionable dialogue slightly tarnish the tale." Crosswalk's Phil Boatwright testifies that "much of the material is the opposite of what parents would like their little ones to be learning. First off, sexual innuendoes and double entendres abound. Then, in keeping with today's filmmakers' infatuation with flatulence humor, there is also a crudeness associated with the lead character and his pals, including belching in front of others, flatulence jokes, and other forms of toilet humor." J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth is troubled by the constant cross-referencing; it quotes The Matrix, Babe, countless Disney classics, and more. "The references are just meant to flatter the audience," he writes. "Ha ha, I recognize that character. Ho ho, I catch which movie that comes from. But irony and allusions are poor substitutes for beauty and emotion."
But most mainstream critics found it in a class with Toy Story, A Bug's Life and DreamWorks' own Antz. Newsweek's David Ansen asks, exasperated, "Why can't scripts this smart and economical be written for flesh-and-blood actors?" He calls recent CGI movies "throwbacks to the classical style of Hollywood filmmaking, where the story came first, the stars knew their place, and the movies were made to please the widest possible audience without stooping to the lowest common denominator." Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times agrees: "All the craft in the world would not have made Shrek work if the story hadn't been fun." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum disagrees: "The technological innovations aren't what make this feisty movie entertainment so refreshing. Nor is it the story specifics themselves. Shrek lives happily ever after because it's such a feisty but good natured embrace of the inner ogre in everyone, and such an irreverent smackdown of the Establishment in all its 'heigh ho' tyranny."
Two disgruntled critics—Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek and The New Yorker's Anthony Lane—expressed dismay at the film's state-of-the-art animation. Lane summed up their complaint: "I don't recall firing off indignant letters to Warner Bros. to complain about Wile E. Coyote and his insufficiently detailed snout. All I ever required of Road Runner was a drastic simplicity … and I still want the same thing." His complaint reaches further: "What the film lacks is the faintest glimmer of charm; the need for fairy tales may be childish, but that is why it is both primitive and permanent, and, however much we rail at Disney for taking our offspring hostage and milking their emotions dry, there is something cynical, perhaps saddening, in DreamWorks' insistence that children are now too hip to fall for that old game. If the team behind Shrek moves on to a film that questions the existence of Santa Claus, I may sue."
I think Lane is misjudging the movie. Shrek isn't laughing at the myths kids believe. It's lashing out specifically at Disney's tendency to drain rich, road-tested fairy tales of their integrity. To be fair, Disney's Toy Story films and last year's The Emperor's New Groove are strong exceptions. But other recent sterilized Disney films and straight-to-video sequels have performed the equivalent of plastic surgery on already established stories. Do we really need a sappy sequel to The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Sure, the result might be technically impressive at first glance, but it reeks of artificiality … and worse, of greed. Our kids end up with shiny happy predictable products instead of learning the richness of good storytelling. Shrek's plot marches forward, even when songs do occur. It has its own lessons to teach, and while I agree with J. Robert Parks that the film is a little too cocky and crass, I found the choices in the film's final act to be commendable and, contrary to Anthony Lane's experience, charming.
Early on in Shrek, when one of the characters prepares to break into a platitude-heavy pop song, the grouchy ogre furiously tells him to shut up, and the story marches on. Kids and grownups alike laughed and applauded appreciatively. For those of us weary of Disney formulas, DreamWorks' Antz and Shrek are evidence of animation's exciting future. Disney is like pop music for the masses, clean, cheesy and dreamy; DreamWorks is rock 'n' roll, rebellious, rowdy and real. Let's hope Disney is paying attention.
Angel Eyes will appeal to fans of tear-jerking love stories and police thrillers, but superstar Jennifer Lopez is the chief attraction. She plays a hot-tempered policewoman intrigued by a soft-spoken stranger named Catch (Jim Caviezel), and as romance ensues they help each other deal with ghosts from their past. Critics were divided on whether the movie is insipid emotionalism or insightful storytelling.
The U.S. Catholic Conference calls it a "tiresome drama", saying that director Luis Mandoki "unsuccessfully blends thriller and romance genres as perfunctory performances, artificial sentiments and a mechanical script culminate in a forced ending." Preview's review faults its "predictable plot and slow pace," but notes that themes of forgiveness and healing "provide a strong redemption message to the film." Movieguide's reviewer is pleased that the movie "builds to a redemptive, purifying emotional climax with positive family values."
Bob Smithouser, Focus on the Family's critic, calls the film "little more than a glorified movie-of-the-week" and a "two-hour therapy session" culminating in "a ho-hum revelation that comes as no surprise to the audience." (He adds, "On a positive note, the public actually sees less of [Lopez] in Angel Eyes than they do on most awards shows.") Michael Elliott posts that this film is "at best a hit and miss production … providing scenes which will trigger the tear ducts of the more sensitive members of the audience. But the set up of those scenes is often clumsily handled." He cites implausibilities as a flaw, such as the unlikelihood that Lopez's character would be drawn to such a freaky stranger. "Catch's unusual trance-like behavior and demeanor is simply too bizarre for us to believe that a policewoman would be comfortable letting him into her personal life, not to mention her home."
Mainstream critics were also divided. At Salon.com, Andrew O'Hehir testifies that "All that happens is that people cry a lot, or else they make that pensive, twisty face that lets you know that they're in denial right now but they're getting ready to cry real soon. Events in Gerald DiPego's screenplay just sort of unfold slowly and wilt, like the sodden vegetables you've forgotten in the bottom drawer of the fridge." He also faults "the total lack of chemistry between its central couple." But it sounds like Roger Ebert attended a different movie altogether: "Angel Eyes is a complex, evasive romance involving two people who both want to be inaccessible. [It's] a cop movie, but its real story doesn't involve the police, it involves damaged lives and the possibility that love can heal. This is a surprisingly effective film."
According to critics, it may well be that 2001's most rewarding cinematic experience: a) is already showing in theatres, b) might well slip past most moviegoers before they hear about it, and, c) will only be experienced by those willing to sacrifice nearly four hours.
Eureka is a Japanese import, showing in limited release. The film begins with a shocking, violent bus hijacking, then jumps forward in time to trace the effects of the violence on the lives of young people who experienced it. Reviews of the film sound like testimonies to religious experiences, loaded with words like "redemptive" and "healing".
J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth is thunderstruck by Shinji Aoyama's movie. "I urge you to see Eureka," he writes. "You'll need the whole afternoon or evening since the film is 220 minutes long, but it's well worth it." Parks avoids describing the plot: "Part of the movie's charm is how its story slowly develops. The film is simply gorgeous to watch."
Stephen Holden of The New York Times disparages the film's slow, contemplative pace: "Eureka never comes to life. In pursuing its aesthetic agenda so single-mindedly, the movie leaves the characters behind in the muck." And Stephen Cole of Canada's National Post complains about "long, barren sequences where characters stare off into space or wander aimlessly through the frame." But The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum responds specifically to them: "These critics seem to be judging the film by the character-centered, action-driven standards of commercial cinema. Those 'long, barren sequences' enrich Eureka as surprisingly powerful and precise articulations of the void within the characters. And as thoroughly Japanese excursions into an open space drained of traditional meanings, they take on a hypnotic, meditative quality of their own." Rosenbaum calls the film "immensely moving", describing it as "an action picture, a road movie, a whodunit, and a slasher film … about the immeasurable and lasting damage suffered by those who experience senseless violence."
"Eureka takes you into another world," writes Amy Taubin of The Village Voice, "one that at the end of three and a half hours I didn't want to leave. What's so extraordinary about Eureka is that it makes one believe that intimate human connections are possible, that empathy is worth struggling for, and that propriety and hipster cynicism alike must fall by the wayside en route to unconditional love." Writing like a man who has just had an epiphany, Film.com's Peter Brunette enthuses, "What Aoyama and his cinematographer, Masaki Tamra, do with light will shake you to the core. If you're looking for a transformative, redemptive [experience] … at the moment you can't do any better than go to see this film." Mr. Showbiz critic Michael Atkinson is similarly affected: "Synopses are useless in evoking films like Eureka—the movie is all about experiencing the time of it, and in the fourth hour, because it is the fourth hour, everything these characters do is weighted with importance and sadness. Every poetic detail pulses with heartbreak. Eureka is a nearly transcendental adventure."
What does the movie Left Behind have in common with the Oscar-winning epic Traffic? Check out this link for Terry Teachout's comparison of the two. He argues, "Merely because [Traffic's] particular set of clichés just happens to be politically correct doesn't make it any more artful than anything that takes place in Left Behind." I think you'll find it an interesting argument.
Next week: Will audiences dance to the tune of Moulin Rouge? Plus, some Film Forum readers share the movies that have most inspired them.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See earlier Film Forum postings for these other movies in the box-office top ten: The Mummy Returns, A Knight's Tale, Bridget Jones's Diary, Along Came a Spider, Memento, Spy Kids, and Blow.