Compare Simon van de Passe’s 1616 portrait of Pocahontas, the only one made during the Algonquian Native American’s lifetime, with the beatific interpretations that followed and you quickly realize that historical accuracy is perfunctory in Pocahontas. Though much is known about Pocahontas’s life after John Smith left for England (how she was kidnapped, ransomed, and married by John Rolfe and later paraded around England before her untimely death in 1617), this 1995 Disney film focuses entirely on the myth before the facts: how Pocahontas falls for Smith and helps stave off a revolution between the British and her people. True to this idealized spirit, directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg similarly fend off history: As he sails into the horizon, Smith leaves Pocahontas with a broken heart, but the good news is that her people get their land back! (I suppose that means the American Revolution never happened, Keeple Disney II and Mary Richardson never came to Canada from Ireland, and Elias Disney and Flora Call never birthed Walt, who never created Mickey Mouse and fathered Roy, who never actually commissioned this film, which I never saw and reviewed.)
The directors have taken their liberties: Pocahontas is no longer prepubescent and her romance with Smith not only exists but seems to span over the course of just one blue-corn night rather then the widely accepted two years. These choices aren’t offensive per se (very little is known about Pocahontas’s early history and the nature of her romance with John Smith, and as such one could argue that historical authenticity is next to impossible to achieve here), at least not as unpleasant as the studio’s gross trivialization (or trifling glorification, take your pick) of Native American life and folklore. It’s the typical condescending horseshit resuscitated for Brother Bear several years back: Because of their ostensibly profound connection to Mother Nature, the natives in these two films needn’t talk—what with all the trippy fumes from their tribal fires doing all the work for them. There’s also a tree, Grandmother Willow, who croons like Marianne Faithfull and comes to represent the matriarchal presence missing from Pocahontas and her sister’s lives (in their first scene together, the sisters throw water at each other from beneath a capsized canoe, eerily anticipating Nomi and Molly’s potato chip fight from Showgirls).
The natives do talk, though, and in English no less, the rationale being that the film’s target audience can’t read. But there still needs to be some kind of lazy rationalization for why Pocahontas and Smith are able to communicate with each other so effortlessly. Here, it’s the colors of the wind—a hilarious combination of leaves, dust, and teeny-tiny Native American symbols—that whisper “listen with your heart” and wrap themselves around Pocahontas and Smith, helping the couple to bridge that misty culture gap between them and making the film’s ensuing harlequin romance possible, which is predicated on all sorts of politically correct banter and corny come-ons. After Pocahontas teaches Smith how to say hello and goodbye in her native language, he replies, “I like hello better.” Raaaaaar! Girlfriend talks as if she’s constantly burning her bras but she can’t tell when some scumbag is trying to shamelessly get into her panties. Thank God for the adorable Meeko, then, who is every bit as mortified by everything that happens in the film as I was.
Cast: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, Judy Kuhn, David Ogden Stiers, John Kassir, Russell Means, Christian Bale, Linda Hunt, Danny Mann, Billy Connolly, Joe Baker, Frank Welker, Michelle St. John Director: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg Screenwriter: Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik Distributor: Walt Dinsey Pictures Running Time: 81 min Rating: G Year: 1995 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: The Competition Patiently Looks Inside an Iconic Film School
Claire Simon knows that the best way to capture the anxiousness of a moment is to leave it unembellished.3
Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form.
The competition here progresses from an auditorium room with hundreds of young people writing an analytical essay on a film sequence for three hours into a complex tapestry of human interactions between cinema professionals who interview and run workshops with young candidates, and later deliberate. These professionals, who are both male and female and mostly white, seem profoundly invested in the process, as though they were hiring a crew to work on their personal projects. They are, in reality, helping shape French cinema for decades to come, and cinema history writ large. Alumi from La Fémis include Claire Denis, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, and François Ozon.
While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs.
This is curatorial practice of the highest order, too, on Simon’s part, and a meta one at that. Is this not what good cinema, the cinema that La Fémis’s most famous alumni have produced, is about? A cinema that refuses the imposition of meaning and facile interpretation? But Simon does pay a price for her commitment to little interference. In a sea of white professionals interviewing white would-be students, we keep waiting for the race question to emerge in The Competition. Not as the cynical aside by a panelist who says choosing one black, one Asian, and one Arabic student would make the administration happy, especially if the students are poor, but some kind of subtle editorial underscoring of the absence of anything that isn’t bourgeois—a formatting too naturalized for most in the film to see.
When we finally see a black candidate from the Ivory Coast, the daughter of political refugees, recounting her precarious background to two committee members, she’s unable to name the title of a single film that she likes. She thinks and thinks, and the camera lingers, very much consistent with its behavior up to that point—a dynamic that seems to work against the candidate, whose prolonged silence turns her into a humiliated object. In an act of either courage or cluelessness, she says that she can’t even remember the last time she went to the movies. Were she one of the many comely bourgeois French boys that seem to win over the interviewers for no logical reason, her unvarnished spontaneity may have been forgiven as a cute moment of panic. Instead, the women interviewing the girl are horrified that that she can’t come up with the title of a film (not even Titanic), and as they move on to the next task at hand, it’s as if the girl’s history of violence, and fearlessness, counts for nothing.
Director: Claire Simon Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2016
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Makes the Most of Growing Up
The film is noteworthy for its rumination on the subtle costs of its characters’ newfound prosperity.2.5
Time plays a key role in the How to Train Your Dragon films, with each successive entry following up on the characters after several years in order to trace the impact of actions they took. The third film in the series, The Hidden World, sees these characters and their island in the sky greatly transformed from their humble beginnings. Berk, once a barren village inundated with brutal dragon hunters, is now practically impregnable, a haven for the endangered dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is also now its chief, and his companion, Toothless, is the reigning alpha male of all dragons. As a result, The Hidden World doesn’t lend itself as easily to the showstopping spectacle of its predecessors, which saw Hiccup and Toothless doing battle against stronger and often bigger enemies, but it remains noteworthy for its rumination on the subtler costs of these characters’ newfound prosperity.
Early in Dean DeBlois’s film, much is made of the way that Hiccup and his friends have come to take their dragons for granted; raids to free captured dragons only succeed as a result of the enormity of the freed dragons compensating for sloppy human error. Complacency has made the film’s heroes prone to negligence, and the holes left in their security are quickly exploited by Grimmel the Grisley (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who, having almost single-handedly brought the Night Fury species to extinction, is now targeting Toothless. Not unlike that of other villains in the series, Grimmel’s motivation is simple, but he differentiates himself from, say, Drago Bludvist in his calm, eerily playful demeanor. He easily slips through Hiccup’s lax defenses, and while he could easily kill Toothless within the film’s first act, he spares the creature for the purposes of playing mind games on humans and dragons alike.
Grimmel’s psychological torment results in short bursts of guerrilla warfare, and much of the film’s action scenes tend to revolve around the heroes contending with Grimmel’s own dragons, garish creatures with retractable tusks, scorpion-like tails, and an equal ability to breathe acid and flame. Their attacks feel truly frightening, in no small part for the way the camera tumbles along with these creatures’ skittering and rapacious lunges. Seeing such vicious, disorienting fights play out amid the vividly colorful world of The Hidden World is jarring, exacerbating the sense that Grimmel has completely upended the characters’ usual understanding of conflict and badly exposed their inability to adapt to new situations.
That struggle to evolve also marks the film’s secondary conflict: the internal debate that Hiccup comes to have over his and other humans’ relationships to dragons. The film’s title refers to a mythical realm of dragons that Hiccup seeks in order to build a new, more secure Berk in perfect harmony with dragons. Gradually, however, his notion of utopia is challenged by the increasing realization that even the well-meaning, dragon-loving citizens of Berk still treat their beasts as subordinates rather than as equals. This comes to a head when Toothless, thought to be the last of his kind, comes into contact with a radiant, white-colored female Light Fury and his erstwhile devotion to Hiccup takes a back seat to his biological drive to hook up. Much of the film concerns Toothless attempting to perform courtship rituals to impress his potential mate and increasingly pulling away from his human master in order to spend time with his love interest. Scenes of Toothless clumsily performing dances and other mating rituals are humorous, but underneath his stumbles is a mildly tragic reminder of how alone he’s felt despite living among so many other kinds of dragons.
The difficulty that Hiccup has in accepting his companion’s independence exposes that, for all that the character has evolved as a leader across this series, he’s yet to fully mature. The Hidden World, not unlike Toy Story 3, is fundamentally about the act of growing up and letting go, of coming to terms with the impermanence of relationships. If the film sometimes feels too small in comparison to its predecessors, it manages to make the most of its quietest moments, acknowledging that some aspects of getting older are scary, and that accepting the sacrifices of growing up is as much an achievement as overcoming any living, breathing villain.
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, David Tennant Director: Dean DeBlois Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 2019