What can be the possible excuse for Entertainment Weekly’s random, ranting film reviews by Lisa Schwarzbaum? Sometimes I agree entirely with her assessments, other times I disagree fervently, and still others I have no clue whatsoever why or how she reaches a conclusion. One ornate plot is brilliant, another tedious. One action-adventure flick is a product of a heartless Hollywood system invested in special effects over character development, another is a joyous spectacle (especially if it stars Vin Diesel). I’ve reached the conclusion that, simply put, Lisa Schwarzbaum neither uses nor actually has any specific criteria for reviewing films. She offers me no logical means by to predict, even in small ways, how she’ll feel about any film whatsoever; not even a sense that I can look forward to some wit and wisdom, even if I disagree with her (which I do find, by contrast, in the work of her EW co-reviewer, Owen Glieberman). Ms. S likes what she likes, dislikes what she dislikes and the day of the week or the weather forecast or whether the coffee at Starbuck’s was strong enough may determine the contents of a review more than any facet of the actual movie.
In particular, I have long found myself in disagreement with her when it comes to animated films, where it seems she’ll praise anything CGI over anything handdrawn and glorify Pixar in the highest. Her panning of Lilo and Stitch focused on its drab drawings and trite plot, while I found its broad notion of family progressive and its attempt at a Hawaiian aesthetic charming if superficial. By contrast, she adored The Incredibles, finding both content and style original, glorious, magnificent. Never mind the glaring patriarchal, white, middle-class nuclear family-ness of it all.
Now I’m confronted with her reviews of two new Disney flicks, Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean II, and I’ll be damned if I can make the slightest bit of rational sense out of what drives her opinion, yet again. She labels Cars a “beguiling comedy adventure,” while Pirates II is merely “ostentatious extravagance,” an interminable theme-park ride, “a hellish contraption into which a ticket holder is strapped, overstimulated but unsatisfied, and unable to disengage until the operator releases the restraining harness.” Funny, my experience of the two films is pretty much the opposite, though I wouldn’t go to such extremes, and I could easily reverse her descriptions and find them apt. To me, Cars’ main characters were simply “whirling teacup figurines” rather than (or perhaps as well as) Will and Elizabeth of Pirates, and the focus on car racing (especially the races themselves) made me feel strapped in, “overstimulated but unsatisfied.” In fact, even my seven-year-old son was bored with Cars and more than ready to leave and forget his experiences (except the tractor-tipping, which he found troubling to his animal-rights loving spirit, though he has not quite been able to articulate why because they were tractors not cows, or were they?).
Honestly, I didn’t loathe Cars and I didn’t find Pirates II an unqualified piece of cinematic brilliance. Both were superficial flights of fancy, both were Disnified escapism. Cars did attempt to offer a message about how fast we speed past the “beauty” of little towns and out-of-the-way spaces because we’re always on interstates going 80 mph, but in the face of our guzzling imperialistic oil-dependence as a nation, I found the message nostalgic and trite. I much prefer the corporate critique of Monsters, Inc., if we’re championing Pixar.
And good heavens, Lisa Schwarzbaum does love her some Pixar. She gushes, “I [...] bet that any story the Pixarites came up with about dust and socks [...] is bound to be more rewarding than 90 percent of anything coming out of Hollywood Blockbusterville this summer.” While I’ll grant you that “Hollywood Blockbusterville” generally does suck (for artistic and political reasons Schwarzbaum is only occasionally willing and able to engage), glorifying Cars because it features a “bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphized vehicles who express emotion with eyes made from windshields and smiles from metallic front grills” then slamming Pirates because it features human-portrayed characters without greater depth is to fail entirely to understand that making a CGI car come to life is a hell of a lot easier than turning a human being into an effective cartoon, as Depp does so joyously and with such fabulous effect with his Captain Jack Sparrow.
Moreover, to champion Cars by giving it an A- and to bash Pirates II with a D+ on the basis of plot is beyond inane. Cars offers a time-worn tale, the upstart who has to learn his lesson the hard way (“The Tortoise and the Hare” meets “City Mouse and Country Mouse”). I have no problem with this emphasis nor the choice of cars/racing as a focus. But let’s call it like it is: a film for NASCAR fans and Southerners. If you don’t like racing and you don’t like Blue Collar TV, you may find yourself more than a tad bored with the film’s trajectory. Now I’m the first to admit that Larry the Cable Guy provided fabulous white trash humor in the film; and it may be the fact that I’ve been living in middle Tennessee for 15 years that let me laugh with his bubba truck character, Mater. But, really, even George Carlin, Click and Clack, and Cheech Marin couldn’t keep me from yawning as the predictable plot unfolded.
Pirates II ain’t Shakespeare, but if the plot truly was “barely intelligible” to Ms. Schwarzbaum, then I don’t know whether she was simply not paying attention or is looking for random excuses to hate the film. I was delighted with the twists and turns and never bored. Perhaps Lisa was not allowed to play pirates as a kid or they always made her swab the deck.
Finally, to blast Pirates II because its ending makes plain there’ll be a Pirates III but fail to note that Cars has spawned a billion-dollar merchandising extravaganza before the film was even released (and I’d guess there will more than likely be a TV show on the Disney channel by 2007) is to be blind, ignorant, or just incapable of a good film review. You be the judge.