Spellbound (2002) (E)

IMDb / Ebert / Lieberman
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz

The more movies I watch, the more I tend to think documentaries offer the best hit-rate in cinema. (Herzog would take issue with me here and say that documentaries should not be categorised apart from fiction – to him, they are all films, and while I agree with this I am separating them to make my rather simplistic point.) There’s plenty of pap, of course, but then there are films as sublime as Spellbound, films which find great stories in the everyday and present them in a way that captivates and extends far beyond their seemingly limited focus. I laughed, I thought deeply, and I was brought to the verge of tears twice – once in sympathy, once in elation.

The spelling bee is an American tradition that hasn’t really affected the rest of the world, kind of like baseball. It’s huge there, but we don’t give it a second thought. Each year, around 10 million kids up to the age of 14 take part in school spelling bees; of these, some go to the city and county competition. 249 winners will eventually take part in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, the holy grail of spelling. Jeff Blitz chose 8 kids from very different backgrounds and went to their homes to interview them and their family, then followed their progress in the national competition. His film shows that the simplest ideas and methods are often best, especially in film – tell the story straight, and if it’s good, people will listen.

Of the eight, three are the children of immigrants. Angela is the daughter of a Mexican couple who speak no English; Neil is the son of a wealthy, extremely driven Indian couple; Dupur the daughter of a relaxed Indian couple, almost a direct contrast to Neil’s parents. These three families epitomise the American Dream. They came to America with the express purpose of finding a better environment for their children to grow up in, and, in different ways, they all feel they succeeded. The American Dream is usually talked about in terms of opportunity for wealth and success for the individual, but Spellbound showed that it has much more to do with one’s legacy. Families move there simply because it has more to offer their kids than their home country.

One gets the feeling that Neil and his father would have succeeded in any environment because they are so ruthlessly driven – Rajesh (his father) and his brother built his second house themselves, brick by brick, and the way he walks around his neighbourhood, it’s like he owns the whole street. Still, he is at pains to point out the difference between their current position and where they were, how it is immeasurably better here. Most poignant is Angela’s dad, who earns barely more than the paltry pay he used to get in Mexico, but he is happy that he has done well because his children are happy and advantaged. The kids of each of these families are very much Americans, and their parents couldn’t be happier.

The American kids are equally diverse, from a hyperactive, incredibly annoying boy to a black girl from a poor Washington, D. C. neighbourhood who just loves words. While the kids themselves are quite fascinating, it’s the interviews with their families that are most illuminating. They offer insight into the incredible strength of the family bond, the importance of hard work, the sometimes anti-intellectual attitude of many Americans (including children), and a lot more which I’ve forgotten – indeed, it seemed like every time one of the parents said something, I immediately started thinking hard about the implications of what they had to say. It’s not earth-shattering stuff, but it is broad and affects pretty much all of us.

Quite apart from being an endlessly intriguing document of Americana, Spellbound is, in its final half hour, filled with tension. Even though you’ve only spent about ten minutes in the company of each of these children and their families, you really feel like you know them, so when you see them get up on that stage it becomes almost unbearable. Up to this point, Blitz’s editing work has been impressive, but it is during the rounds of the spelling bee that it achieves greatness. He cuts between the child on stage and more interview footage from before and after the event – kind of like a reality TV show, except good, and you actually care for the outcome. Many times I gritted my teeth and gripped my head in my hands, wishing aloud that they would spell the word correctly. My hat is off to you, Mr. Blitz, for making me care so much about a child getting a string of letters right.

It becomes clear by the end of the film that all the people in the film are very similar. They have had vastly different life experiences, but they share many similar philosophies. A lesser film would have placed the differences at the centre of our attention, because it’s easier to extract drama that way; instead, Blitz somehow finds common goodness in virtually everyone. He’s taken a simple idea and chosen a simple structure to present it in, and the result is a success on every level. There is no manipulation, no artificiality. He gets everything out of the material without ever making his presence felt. It’s all about the people, and despite whatever first impressions one might make, they are shown to be amazing, important people. This is how movies should be made.

Mission: Impossible III (2005) (W)

AKA ‘Action Movie’
IMDb / Ebert
Written by Screenwriters
Directed by a Director

Action Movie is the latest vehicle for Movie Star, and it’s definitive multiplex entertainment. You go down the cinema these days, and they’re not even trying to draw you in anymore. The screens are eight times bigger than before, and the sound is up past 11, and they just beat you into submission. And in the case of Action Movie, I didn’t even try to put up a fight. I sat back passively for a couple of hours and lapped it all right up.

I haven’t seen the two earlier installments in the Action Movie franchise, but that didn’t cause any confusion in terms of understanding the plot. My confusion stemmed solely from the gaping plot holes and jumps in logic. Hang on, that isn’t true – I wasn’t confused by them, I was totally passive. So, I must’ve just accepted them and moved on. This is a movie that has no truck with explaining the central object of everyone’s desire. You come out wondering ‘So was the rabbit’s foot actually the anti-God?’ without a shred of irony. I also wasn’t confused by where the action was set because of the titles that would appear on screen whenever the location changed. ‘Berlin, Germany’, for example, or ‘Shanghai, China’. Not America, then.

There’s a theory that the bigger and more outlandish the stunts, the better the quality of the production. If that theory is valid, then this is a very high quality production. They take a standard issue helicopter chase – normally no big deal – and put it through a wind farm! A bloody wind farm! Imagine: two helicopters, one with terse, fearful good guys, the other with nameless faceless evil ones (in this case, Germans), ducking and weaving through one wind turbine after another. I don’t need to tell you how the baddies get done in, nor do I need to point out further how audaciously ingenious this scene is. It was topped by the causeway chase/battle, though, a True Lies-inspired sequence of dangling, shooting, and shit blowing up. My absolute favourite sequence would have to have been Mask Sequence 1, though (there’s more than one). It was practically stunt-free, but it had two different versions of Character Actor, so I giggled joyously throughout.

Product placement gets a highly commendable pass as well. They had the Budweiser “wassup” exchange, a shiny new Nokia was practically glued to the hands of Movie Star, a Lamborghini had a featured blowing up, and whatever other new shit I subconsciously buy over the next couple of weeks. There are even elements of 80s Action – “Remember how I said I would kill you last? I lied” sort of stuff. No messing, the Screenwriters knew what they were doing. I’ll bet they really hit their stride around the 15th draft.

Movie Star is very well supported. Stunning Asian Woman, Wisecracking Black Man, Surly Black Man, Impossibly Cute Wife (who happens to be handy with a gun, too), Wacky British Nerd, Amusing (and in this case, Androgynously Attractive) Irish Man… all the stock players pulled out to say some words and generally look beautiful. When a movie has not one but two Agent Bilkins figures, you know you’ve got a hit. Not to mention Character Actor – why the hell shouldn’t you take that big payday? There’s no reason not to. Don’t listen to the naysayers. You deserve it, and your lack of scenery-chewing is to be commended.

It’s all about Movie Star, though. Right from the start of the opening credits, where they boldly display: ‘A Movie Star/Bigshot Producer Production’. It’s his show, and his massive, religiously misguided ego is nearly always front and centre. Do I mind? Hell no! This guy kicks eight kinds of ass. He does calculations on windows with available chalk, then swings from one building to another. He dies, or should die, maybe ten times in the film but always gets away clean. In fact, the best part of the whole movie is the end – him and everyone else have died around 3o collective deaths, but they’re all there in a Return of the King style slow-mo love-fest. It’s divine cinema.

Well done, Director, you’ve made the transition from Action TV Serials to Action Movies. Action Movie is the real deal, an edge-of-your-seat ride that offers infinite thrills and spills. It’s the consummate moviegoing experience. Even the pre-show program was louder and went for longer than usual. Get ye to the cinema and soak up the adrenaline pouring off the screen, then go forth and commit wondrous deeds, like getting up in the morning for runs, or learning how to shoot a weapon. It’s a life-changing experience.