Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) and The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, 2004) 

As critiques of current environmental policy go, Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow is hardly the most nuanced. Even so, it's still a little bit jolting to see this mainstream summer action flick taking obvious shots at the current administration: Emmerich includes a "President" character depicted as a slack-jawed gawker who constantly has to enter rooms and ask what everyone has been talking about, and his overbearing, power-hungry Vice President is played by an uncanny Dick Cheney lookalike. When this duo fails to listen to Roguishly Handsome Scientist (Dennis Quaid) and his warnings about global temperature changes, their comeuppance is rendered in a spectacular series of CGI disasters. The film's message is ultimately wrapped up as thus: science good, politics bad, and Whitey's gonna get it.

There's also a dopey plot about R.H. Scientist tracking down his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) after the disasters hit, and everyone trying to keep warm in the new ice age, and I'm pretty sure teenagers were chased by wolves at some point. With The Day After Tomorrow, you pays your money, and you gets what you paid for: aside from the political commentary, the rest of the film is exactly what it looks like. I can at least take solace in the feeling that even if Emmerich's points are rarely complex and frequently ham-handed, they don't feel remotely insincere (Quaid and Gyllenhaal do a good job keeping things grounded). I think the guy really believes he's saying something here, in between all the destruction, and I find it hard to hate something like that.

Meanwhile, as critiques of current policy go, The Corporation is awfully strong stuff. Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar pull off the most difficult of feats: a 2 1/2-hour documentary structured as a lecture on the history and insidious influence of the modern coroporation. Against all odds, it's completely fascinating -- and not, as you might expect, a complete demonization of corporations. Abbott and Achbar allow for possible solutions, prominently featuring a CEO looking to decrease his company's wastefulness, and end the film on a hopeful note: "We can still change this."

I'm sure conservative critics will readily jump on The Corporation for being a film with an agenda, or for being mere liberal agitprop. And I suppose it is -- but it's agitprop that everyone should see, and it says things that needed to be said. As far as I know, the film hasn't managed a wide release (thereby underlining the importance of a spotlight-grabber like Michael Moore -- he'd complain and keep complaning until he got one), but if it comes to your area, be sure not to miss it.

My grouping of The Corporation with The Day After Tomorrow seems an unlikely pairing, but I was recently struck by noticing that both films -- an underground guerrila documentary, and a Hollywood summer blockbuster -- push a similar critique. In The Day After Tomorrow, the V.P. offers up the following rebuttal to R.H. Scientist's environmental pleading: "Our economy is every bit as fragile as the environment." It's an obvious allusion to the corporate influence over governmental policy. And while The Corporation explores these issues in much greater detail, and the only thing impressive about The Day After Tomorrow's critique is the fact that it's made at all, this all has me wondering if there is, as Abbott and Achbar implore us to start, a revolution on the way. A brave new world? TDAT: C+; The Corporation: A-

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon, 2004) 

Hands up, all those who remain baffled at the immense success of the first Shrek film . . . okay, probably not that many hands up right now, but there must be at least a few who, like me, saw Dreamworks' Shrek as an entertaining-but-disposable film saddled with an inflated notion of its own greatness. There was a certain hypocritical smugness to the Dreamworks method -- lambasting fairy tales as kid's stuff while resorting to unironic fart jokes, for example -- and a strived-for hipness that simply didn't fly; sure you can parody pop-culture icons, but that can't be the whole joke, can it?

Shrek 2 is not free of these problems, but it does, thankfully, decide to place greater emphasis on what worked the first time, rather than on what didn't. Even the parodies, though not much better contextualized, are sharper and more detailed: the Matrix parody in the first film didn't actually look much like any scene in The Matrix, but the parody of Beauty and the Beast's dancing-dishes bit nails it pretty well, and the Cops homage is a scream ("It is, ah, not mine."). The new batch of characters -- Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots, John Cleese's King, and Jennifer Saunders' Fairy Godmother -- are also a great deal more interesting than the original film's quartet, and it's all much faster, smoother, and funnier the second time around, even if one can still question the narrative necessity of a sequel. I can still see myself becoming annoyed that everyone else likes Shrek 2 better than I do, but I suppose I can't fairly hold that against the movie. B

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