September 13, 2006

Wig-Wam Bam

I have just watched two movies which represent variations on a theme: The New World and The Road to El Dorado. They are both set in a context of European expansionism in the age of New World exploration, and I expected one to be pretty good, and the other to be pretty bad. I was right about that, but wrong about which one would be which.

First, the bad: The New World, which purports to be a sweeping historical epic romance (just to confuse a few different genres) about the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, the early tensions over the constitution of the nation, and the love affair between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. This movie is idiotic.

The movieâs one real merit is that QâOrianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is incredibly beautiful and very good at keeping her mouth closed and her eyes open while she looks around at stuff, which is basically the extent of her acting. Of course, she was only 15 when the film was released, and she's related to Jewel, so I feel gross for even mentioning her. In the male lead, Colin Farrellâs main acting strategy seems to be to play Captain John Smith as though heâs mildly mentally retarded, which could be an interesting historical stance to adopt if it were intentional and thematic. Itâs not just those two characters, though; this is the main aesthetic of the film, in which the white characters spend most of their time staring unpleasantly at each other and the native characters spend most of their time waving their hands and moving their heads around while barking.

Aside from the fact that the acting and directing prevents the movie from developing or sustaining a plot, my other main beef with this film is that even though it was apparently nominated for an Oscar for cinematography â its one nomination â it is edited to look as though it was randomly assembled from cutting room scraps. Iâm not normally the first person to notice that sort of thing in a movie, but it made me nuts here. For example, during one twelve-second segment that spans one piece of dialogue, shots of Colin Farrell in a conversation with another character halfway up an embankment in broad daylight in a stand of trees will be cut with seemingly unrelated shots of Indians doing Tai Chi in the river at sundown, Pocahontas running through a field, and Colin Farrell having the same conversation in a different stance on the riverâs edge on a grey day with no trees. This can only be a deliberate strategy, because the entire movie is assembled this way. It looks as though, between every take, they moved the cameras five yards and sixty degrees and then set up and shot again. The effort is clearly to be arty and daring and to challenge narrative continuity or set up suggestive temporal pairings or some shit. The net effect, however, is that it is hard to follow, boring as all hell, and the editing gets in the way of the filmâs ability to tell a story or take a stance.

After the first hour, more colonists came, so I was expecting the issue of expansionism to come back to the forefront, or at least for some history to enter this historical drama. Instead, all of the history was flattened out so it could be mapped onto a cloying love story in which Colin Farrell would, eventually, liken his fruitless search for the Indies to his mistake in abandoning Pocahontas. In a particularly heavy-handed move, the film took her from being a Rousseauian hottie in not much deerskin, to showing her stuffed into English dress, staring Colin Farrell in the nostrils (part of what makes it look like an affair between two developmentally disabled people is that theyâre incapable of focusing their gazes or looking each other in any part of the face that makes sense) and saying âYou have no evil. I belong to you.â Gag. The upshot is, I was so annoyed that I watched the last 75 minutes while doing other stuff, and by the time Christian Bale came in to save the movie, I didnât give a shit.

The good part is that compared to this trickle of treacle, the 2000 animated family feature The Road to El Dorado offered a surprising wealth of interest and subtlety. Granted, I set the bar for this one pretty low. Itâs Dreamworks, so itâs sub-Disney, which means that the animation just isnât as good, no matter how strenuously they attempt to argue that point in the production notes on the DVD. It also means that they had to assemble a soundtrack out of various songs that the Elton John/Tim Rice machine had been apparently unable to sell to Disney. The songs which are tailored to the movie are simply embarrassing, and the others are random remaindered love songs with no real connection to the movie except insofar as they serve to underscore the strikingly homoerotic relationship between the two main characters, the accidental conquistadores Miguel and Tulio.

For the most part, the plot is very predictable and easy to describe. Miguel and Tulio are an ambiguously gay duo of Spanish con artists who, in evading arrest, accidentally end up stowing away on Cortezâs ship right as it is leaving for the Americas. When he finds them on board, he promises them flogging and lifelong slavery in the Cuban sugar plantations, which would be interesting since theyâre both white. But they understandably donât like this plan, so they escape in a lifeboat with a horse, almost die, tearfully thank each other for the richness of their life together, wash up ashore in what should probably be Guyana or Colombia (but the aesthetic is distinctly Mayan), and stumble upon the golden city of El Dorado. They are naturally mistaken for gods by both the goodnatured, fat tribal chief (voiced by an uninspired Edward James Olmos) and the high priest (a cackly Armand Assante), whose position is far more interesting: heâs not the megalomaniacal grand vizier of the Disney film, but rather a limited religious authority whose cruelty stems entirely from his servile devotion to a pack of bloodthirsty gods. He becomes a crazed villain only when he discovers that these two white guys arenât gods, but fakes, partly as a result of their failure to usher in the predicted new age of El Doradian culture and to cleanse its corrupt streets with blood. Then he goes apeshit and tries to kill them with evil magic.

But the positions laid out here are surprisingly interesting, because itâs not simply a story of two white men and a pack of natives; unlike The New World, this film brings in a third term to show that the good guy/bad guy positions are totally unstable in this context. Because throughout the film we jump to sequences that remind us that Cortezâs army is actively searching for the city, and that they have much larger and darker plans than taking a little bit of gold and trying to head back to Spain. Miguel and Tulioâs position as false gods isnât directly examined in a moral capacity â the anxiety here is more around whether theyâll be found out and killed â but the film nevertheless manages to build in an implicit moral critique via comparison with the colonial war machine of Cortez. Miguel and Tulio are understood to be up to no good â theyâre con men, after all â but theyâre doing it on a pretty small scale, and the primary danger is to themselves. The high priest isnât a nice guy, but his primary concern is protecting his community in the way that he understands that to be necessary. He wouldnât be a bad guy at all except for the fact that he poses the only direct threat to Miguel and Tulio (and because weâre squeamish about blood sacrifice). Cortez, on the other hand, is a hostile invader with a lot of muscle behind him; heâs ruthless, scornful, and has his sights set on all-out conquest rather than petty theft. In an interesting turn, the high priest ends up seeking out Cortez and trying to use him to rid the city of the false gods. Miguel and Tulio then redeem themselves by allying with the natives and precipitating a situation in which Cortez will fail to find the city and, in his anger, kill the high priest. The ruthlessness of Cortez, and the assumption that he will be equally glad to kill whoever is in his way regardless of context or moral standing, is then used by both sides against each other. Cortez ends up being more helpful to the residents of El Dorado, by ridding them of the crazy priest, but that is only because he is worse than the priest, and more powerful.

This was much more than I expected from this movie. Its only real failing was auditory. The filmmakers decided, in addition to packing the soundtrack with cringe-inducing garbage, to include a female character who would have surprisingly explicit (for a kidsâ film) dalliances with Tulio and thereby mask some of the homosexual undertones of the Miguel-Tulio relationship. Thatâs disappointing but not surprising; the major problem here is that this character is voiced by Rosie Perez, who makes her into a snappy, sassy, slightly shrewish Mayan ho with that Brooklyn accent that can make blood come out of your ears. The other vocal performances are pretty bleah â Kevin Kline has already played gay in In & Out, so he could have done better with Tulio, and I generally expect more oomph from Kenneth Branagh â but Rosie Perez in this context is simply fucking awful.

The verdict:
Due to the pacing and acting, The New World looks more like a zombie film than a historical romance. If you played the visuals from this film against the sound track to Dawn of the Dead, it would work perfectly and be much more entertaining.

Due to cut-rate Elton John and the scourge of Rosie Perez, The Road to El Dorado would work much better if you removed the sound track entirely and ran it silent. It wouldnât lose anything, and it would still be pretty interesting.

Posted by katie at September 13, 2006 06:04 PM

sadly, christian bale does not save 'the new world'. i was hopeful too after an hour without him. but yet when he came i was still forced to fast forward through more incredibly boring garbage. sigh.

Posted by: michele at September 13, 2006 08:15 PM

I think this was the first time Christian Bale has failed to save a movie for me. I'm still shocked.

Thank you! Yes! Incredibly boring garbage! Just yesterday two separate people told me, "I haven't seen that, but I heard the cinematography is really amazing." Garbage!

However, from your review, I now want to see The Covenant, because that looks like great garbage.

Posted by: katie at September 16, 2006 05:30 PM

ha ha ha! covenant! i'm still reeling from the badness of that movie. i mean, delightful badness, but still just awful, awful bad. the vast majority of the time i was viewing it and thinking about how i could write something better. and then outlining plots in my head for a series of YA novels about supernaturally empowered teens. man, i love that shit.

Posted by: michele at September 16, 2006 07:38 PM