Thursday, November 29, 2007

Movie Review: Ha'Buah (The Bubble)

Another "almost-but-not-quite" effort by Israeli filmmaker Eitan Fox, who - bless his little activist heart - keeps bringing up social issues in the most anvilicious and preachy ways imaginable.

Fox's movies are particularly frustrating, though, because he has a great knack for creating sympathetic and believable characters, and he always starts off so well, but his three most noteworthy movies - "The Bubble", "Walk on Water" and "Yossi and Jagger" - all implode during the final act, collapsing under the weight of the Issues (and I use that term in the Winickian Beat-You-With-A-Stick-Until-You-Get-It sense here) piled onto them.

The titular Bubble refers to Shenkin, a small area of Tel-Aviv where teenagers spend their time totally isolated from reality. This is something Fox actually depicts very well: Noam, Yali and Lulu see themselves as activists, lobbying to support the Palestinian cause and the desire for peace, but they don't actually do anything beyond staging raves which only they and their friends attend. This isn't to say that they're insincere, far from it - they just have no idea what they're talking about, because they're cut off from the real world.

The trouble starts when Ashraf, a Palestinian from Nablus, penetrates the Bubble by falling in love with Noam. It's a doomed relationship, of course - Ashraf finds acceptance and comfort in Tel-Aviv, but he doesn't belong there and he knows it, and Fox is basically using this as a vehicle to blame society for putting that wall up between them. There's no way Noam and Ashraf can have a happy ending, through no fault of their own.

Now, if that were the sum total of the plot, "The Bubble" would've actually turned out to be a much stronger movie. The problem is that, as with his previous films, the third act and the climax veer almost completely away from what had been going on up to that point. For most of the movie, we're concerned not just with Noam and Ashraf but with the colorful and interesting secondary characters (just what was Golan's deal anyway?), and suddenly we're moving into political tensions and suicide bombers and characters making decisions that don't really gel with what they'd been doing before.

I can sort of see Fox's point here - bursting our own "bubble" by interrupting the love story with some harsh reality - but while his social agendas are admirable, the resulting thud as you're beaned in the head with a bag full of Issue Bricks only leaves you with a migraine. Once the storyline turns to Ashraf's sister and her terrorist husband, I couldn't help feeling like I wanted to fast-forward through that part: again, Fox does such good work with the set-up, it makes the eventual derailing all the more annoying.

That said, I have to give the man props for finally overcoming a specific stumbling block: I'd always felt that "Walk on Water" and "Yossi and Jagger" lacked any kind of emotional impact at the end, because the Issues ended up pushing the characters to the wayside, so when they do reach some kind of psychological/dramatic climax, you don't much care anymore. But "The Bubble" ends with an especially poignant flashback narrated by Noam, and... I don't know, I thought it was genuinely touching. As though, for once, Fox managed to let the characters dig themselves out of the Issue Pit just long enough for one last glimpse.

And that'll do, I suppose. That'll do.

Movie Review: Enchanted

The name pretty much says it all: "Enchanted" is an adorable Disney film that may not breach any standards of cinematic excellence, but is nevertheless a solid, entertaining movie and a great way to spend a few hours.

I think what I liked most about "Enchanted" is the way it plays with the fairy tale formulas. Unlike the "Shrek" movies, which had fairy tale characters responding to their environment with realistic perspectives, "Enchanted" drops your stereotypical naive songbird, vapid prince and evil witch right into the heart of New York City (a transition that also moves the film from animation to live-action). The twist is that they arrive with their native qualities intact, so when Giselle, our Snow White-esque heroine, starts singing, animals respond as they do in her homeland... except, since she's in New York, she gets cockroaches, rats and pigeons rather than deer, bluebirds and chipmunks. And when Prince Edward valiantly slays a "steel beast" with his sword, he has to deal with a pissed-off bus driver.

I also appreciate the fact that the relationship between fantasy and reality is a two-way thing; the "Shrek" films were, in my opinion, wholly iconoclastic in that, by design, Shrek and his companions are always overturning and lampooning the age-old shlock Disney's been foisting on us for decades. But "Enchanted" takes a different approach: yes, we're certainly meant to find Edward's empty-headed preening amusing, and Giselle's blind faith in true love and innate goodness get her into plenty of trouble... but on the other hand, urban characters such as Robert, Morgan and Nancy don't really benefit from their realistic, sophisticated points of view. These are people who've taken practicality to its extreme, and find themselves stuck because of that choice.

It's rare to find a movie that doesn't ask you to choose sides in an ideological conflict: "Lord of the Rings" is pretty strongly biased against industry, and I can't see anyone agreeing with the Fairy Godmother that Shrek doesn't deserve a happy ending just because he's an ogre. "Enchanted" manages to pull off a nice balance between the two worlds it depicts, all the more impressive given that it's a Disney film.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: "The Children of Hurin" by JRR Tolkien

I may earn the wrath of my peers for saying this, but I'm not particularly fond of "The Lord of the Rings". By which I mean Tolkien's novels, because I do enjoy the Peter Jackson films despite their numerous flaws. But I read Tolkien's original trilogy once and never felt any compulsion to repeat the experience.

I'll give the man credit where it's due: yes, in many ways "The Lord of the Rings" is the seminal fantasy text. It's also extremely long-winded, remarkably obsessed with minutiae (is there any particular reason I need to know the entire genealogy of a tertiary character?), it's horrendously gender-imbalanced even for a pre-feminist work, it features massive tangents completely unrelated to the main thrust of the narrative (to this day, I have yet to be convinced that the Tom Bombadil section is of any relevance at all), and it commits dramatic self-sabotage at practically every turn. This was something Peter Jackson actually improved on: it's much more climactic to see Boromir's last stand against the Uruk-Hai, rather than be told about it after the fact.

So, all in all, I prefer Peter Jackson's interpretation of the text to the text itself. Granted, said interpretation has its own flaws:

And I'm not even going to talk about the subtext:

But in terms of plot, dialogue, pacing, characterization and so on, Jackson's contributions only elevate the source material.

And yet, paradoxically, I find that I'm quite partial to "The Silmarillion", a pseudo-Biblical novel pieced together by Christopher Tolkien after his father's death. "The Silmarillion" details the creation of Middle-Earth and the formative events which take place in the pre-history of "Lord of the Rings". Oddly enough, the fact that "The Silmarillion" is a patchwork text sewn together from the fragments of Tolkien's notes seems to make it more readable than Tolkien's would-be masterpiece itself. Whereas "The Lord of the Rings" is frighteningly overextended as a quest narrative, the structural scope of "The Silmarillion" allows for simultaneous exploring of the macro (cosmic wars between good and evil) and micro (the tragic tale of Turin Turambar) levels. That may in fact be what makes "The Silmarillion" so much more engaging to me than its predecessor - the fact that it's able to tell all these different stories without feeling like it's straying from the one it's supposed to be telling (well, that and the fact that unlike Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings", Morgoth is an active antagonist who actually participates in the story, and that goes a long way).

This is all a very long pre-amble to what I'm actually reviewing, "The Children of Hurin". It's basically the complete version of a fragment originally presented in "The Silmarillion", expanding one of the sub-stories - the tale of Turin Turambar, a tragic hero in the ancient Greek tradition. Tolkien the younger has done an excellent job of combining the text originally featured in "The Silmarillion" with expanded material both drawn from Tolkien's unfinished notes and from his own imagination as well: the result is a narrative that reads well and presents a consistent, enjoyable fantasy tale that stands on its own, something accessible to people who enjoyed the movies but find the heavy, laborous reading of the original novel too daunting - "The Children of Hurin" offers an alternative glimpse at Middle-Earth's pre-narrative history. Not just for Tolkienites!

Book Review: "Empress" by Shan Sa

I really should've liked this one a bit more than I did.

"Empress" is a quasi-fictional autobiography in which the author, Shan Sa, attempts to reconstruct the life story of Wu Zetian, the only woman ever to rule China as emperor. Now, Wu is a controversial figure: on the one hand, she was - by most accounts - a scheming, manipulative bitch who could be quite brutal when she needed to be, and for a very long time she was held up as an example of how women can't handle power (because, as America has proven so nicely over the last eight years, men always do a bang-up job in the driver's seat). But on the other hand, the fact that she managed to achieve the impossible, especially in a culture so strongly oriented around tradition, is noteworthy, and there's a case to be made that her more extreme actions were a product of (and response to) her environment.

We'll never know if that's true of the real Wu or not, but I imagine that'd be a good starting point for a sympathetic depiction. Unfortunately, Shan Sa's version of Wu isn't very sympathetic. In fact, it's a bit difficult to know where Sa stands with regards to Wu at all because, having adopted Wu's identity (the novel is written in first-person), what Sa actually gives us is a thoroughly detached narrative, obsessed with lists and names and ice-cold, almost robotic categorization. She never really gets into Wu's head, her thoughts and feelings; Wu herself is almost a bystander in her own story.

Now, I'll grant that it's a very tricky thing to fictionalize a real person's biography to the extent that you presume to speak with their voice. But if you take that plunge, you might as well give your readers some sort of internal access, rather than spout a string of encyclopedic entries one could find on Wikipedia with much less effort. Who was Wu Zetian? What motivated her to do the things she did? How did she feel at those key moments in her life that defined her in the history books? Sa offers us no answers... in fact, Sa doesn't even ask the questions. The whole novel's written a step removed from the actual action (towards the end, Sa hints that Wu is telling us this story from beyond the grave, which drains what little dramatic impact might yet have survived the endless litany of specific details). As a story, "Empress" failed to engage me, because it's not actually about Wu Zetian at all. It's about the world Wu lived in, and while I'm sure that's of interest to a great many readers, it's not the story I could reasonably expect to find from a novel titled "Empress" that claims to tell Wu's tale.