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Friday, May 26, 2006

The Expectations Game

Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is, as the ads say, the best-reviewed film of the year [99 on Metacritic!....this approaches scary unanimity]. Ron Howard's The DaVinci Code has been mercilessly pummeled by the press on two continents [46 on Metacritic, but who's counting]. I'm not about to claim that Army of Shadows is a terrible movie and The DaVinci Code is a wonderful movie. But the Melville was a big disappointment to me [and to the friend who accompanied me, so I assume we're not completely alone in this], and DaVinci was to my mind surprisingly entertaining and satisfying.

The expectations game can have a powerful effect. Even very fine films like Brokeback Mountain can fall prey to this...I heard more than one person saying, it's good but not that good. They ended up feeling the advance word was partly or largely hype. I don't agree in the case of Brokeback, but the first time I saw it I did feel let down, because I had imagined/hoped it would be something impossibly, supernaturally beautiful and powerful...instead of just an excellent movie.

Army of Shadows and The DaVinci Code are both nominally thrillers, set largely in France, and they're both too long, at 150 minutes or so. They have little else in common. I think the episodic structure of Army of Shadows works against its impact, and judged as a thriller, it fails for lack of thrills. As a moody evocation of heroism in an impossible, losing situation [the members of the French underground are largely captured or killed by the end], it has some merit....though I think it's been vastly overrated.

I was prepared for dullness and mediocrity in Howard's big best-seller adaptation. [The book is full of awful and clumsy writing, but it tosses out enthralling bits of art history, theology, and so-farfetched-they're-believable conspiracies, and keeps you turning pages.] It's true that with another director, the movie might be faster and more fun. But it moves right along and manages to include a good deal of the 'true' material that makes the novel click. It's a big-budget Hollywood Important Production, and doesn't escape ponderousness. But sometimes it's enjoyable just to watch a big movie unfold, if it's well photographed and edited, and has a good score. [Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind...although it was both much more beautiful and much duller as storytelling.]

If only we could see movies without preconceptions. But this is exceedingly rare. For me, at least, this results in a lot of disappointments and happy surprises.

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