Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Two outstanding reviews

Two recent pieces set the standard for what movie reporting/reviewing should be. Philip Kennicott's article in the Washington Post about the IMAX film, "Hurricane on the Bayou" refuses to be dazzled or distracted by the pretty pictures, laissez les bon temps music, and cheerful optimism. He knows that what is missing is more important than what is there:

The narrative is built, one happy cliche at a time, into a vast arch of cliches, until the story of Katrina ceases to be about appalling environmental neglect, or the colossal failure of the federal government to manage a disaster, or the role that dysfunctional politics, racism and poverty have played in the decimation of one of this country's most vibrant cultural centers. (For that movie, see Spike Lee's epic, "When the Levees Broke.")

He doesn't stop at saying the movie fails to tell the story. He finds out why. And if you guessed the answer is money, then you won't be surprised at this:

To tease out all the rottenness at the core of this film, you might start pulling at the money threads. Why does a film that seems so insistent on decrying the loss of wetlands end with little more than an anodyne lament and some empty hope? Roll the credits: The film was made with money contributed by Chevron. And Dow Chemical. And Dominion Exploration and Production, a major power company. The film's executive producers, the Audubon Nature Institute, won't say how much money came from industry sources, but the filmmakers argue that less than 8.5 percent came directly from Chevron, Dow and Dominion. More industry money may have come indirectly through the Audubon Institute.

Better yet, like the oil companies themselves, he drills down further, and finds something very valuable:
Audubon, as in the National Audubon Society, is a respected national brand in the environmental world, of course, but not this Audubon. The Audubon Nature Institute that produced "Hurricane on the Bayou" is a nonprofit group that runs public museums in New Orleans. The group also is in the Imax business and operates what it says is the only public golf course to reopen since Katrina hit.

And when it comes to the impact of the form on the content, he gets it just right:
Imax is hyper-realism, images so voluptuous that they break down the distance between the spectator and the film. They overwhelm rational response, seduce the eyes and neuter the intellect, reducing the viewer to happy cooing at the sheer beauty of it all.

It is the perfect format for a little aesthetic "green washing," the substitution of a nexus of happy things -- beautiful images and a bland statement of environmental concern -- for a serious film about what went wrong, who did it and who should pay to fix it. According to the Audubon Nature Institute, the money from Dow Chemical came in because Dow had been forced by a lawsuit to contribute to environmental projects. The company picked the perfect film at which to throw its penitential dollars.

Mark Jenkins, always worth reading, has an especially fine review of "Shooter" in Washington's City Paper. This is one of the best at his best -- erudite but not snobby, funny but not snarky. His assessment of the paranoia pleasures of the movie and the point at which "it loses its brainless charm" is astute and fair and much more fun than the movie it covers. But what really makes it memorable is the way Jenkins explicitly pairs the review with another release of the same week, the documentary "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair." "The Shooter" is they're-out-to-get-me fiction. The documentary, about the arrest and imprisonment of a journalist on outlandish terrorism charges, is paranoia served up straight.
Fragmentary as it is, the tale of Abbas’ arrest and imprisonment is essential viewing. It may be decades before this country learns why its troops are really in Iraq, but right now The Prisoner shows what they’re doing there: running a Keystone Kops version of the very regime they overthrew.

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