Monday, May 9, 2011

Double Movie with Abe: The Conspirator & Miral

The Conspirator
Directed by Robert Redford
Released April 15, 2011

Directed by Julian Schnabel
Released March 25, 2011

These two films have been in limited theaters for several weeks now, and they make a good pair to review together for several reasons. Both are directed by well-established filmmakers, one an Oscar winner for 1980’s “Ordinary People,” and the other an Oscar nominee for 2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Both spotlight lesser-known cases involving civil liberties that played out in the shadow of internationally-famous historical events. Both have been challenged with respect to their historical accuracy, and, unrelated to that, neither film serves as a particularly strong display of cinematic storytelling, performances, or drama.

“The Conspirator” tells the story of Mary Surratt, the lone female charged with being an accomplice to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, while “Miral” moves between the lives of several different Palestinian women striving for a better life around the time of the founding of the State of Israel. Both attempt to turn commonly-perceived notions of national pride and guilt on their head, and neither succeeds completely. “The Conspirator,” far removed from the time in which its surrounding events transpired, completely demonizes the narrow-minded government, while “Miral” represents a more current conflict that can’t yet be sealed up and moved past due to its ongoing nature, evidenced by its closing credits call for peace.

“The Conspirator” is an ordinary legal drama burdened by the predictability of such movies, prone to far too swift and sudden developments where the clock ticks at an appallingly fast pace compared to the rest of the trial’s happenings and considerable theatrics in the courtroom that seem too far-fetched to be believed. The acting isn’t necessarily wooden, but it’s hardly energetic or moving. James McAvoy delivers a fine American accent but not much of a performance as Surratt’s lawyer, and Robin Wright is uncreative and bland as Surratt. Colm Meaney, as the military judge of the trial, and Danny Huston, as lawyer for the prosecution, do their best to personify evil, but their efforts are far too transparent and lend the film a very haughty and overly-constructed feel. Illuminating as the story may be, there are considerable holes and much knowledge left to be desired once the film is over.

“Miral” purports not to be an ordinary film, yet the few liberties taken in that pursuit do not negate its status as a generally uninteresting, slow-moving and scattered picture. If “The Conspirator” is too focused, “Miral” is hardly focused enough. The film moves from woman to woman in its path to the protagonist of its title, glossing over their connections and appearing heavy-handed in its mission to expose an underrepresented sector of the population. The question of whether Miral’s involvement with the Intifada makes her a terrorist is never properly addressed, and the film presents unilateral challenges without considering them, such as aggrandizing an imprisoned terrorist who is shocked to have received three life sentences for planting a bomb in a movie theater, even though it didn’t actually detonate. Politics and facts aside, the film, in addition to its plot, is out of focus in a literal way. Blurry cinematography may have worked for Schnabel in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” but here it merely represents a lack of clarity and coherence. With the exception of Alexander Siddig, as Miral’s father, and Omar Metwally, as a freedom fighter, the cast is less than memorable, and the film serves little purpose other than to infuriate.

These two films, in their own ways, may serve to provoke and look at a historical event or situation in a new light, but neither has enough positive cinematic, storytelling, or production value to back it up. As a critic, I try not to judge films from the outset based on their alleged, or actual, content, and prefer to see for myself before condemning. I didn’t see “The Passion of the Christ” because I had no interest in seeing the horrible violence I had heard about it, and when I saw “Apocalypto,” I didn’t see much merit there, mostly due to the story. “The Conspirator” is obviously not as topical or hot-button as “Miral,” so that might be dismissed as a lackluster, underwhelming, forgettable film. “Miral,” on the other hand, in its blatant efforts to get a rise out of its audience, is even more lamentable since it could have been an intriguing and multi-faceted story had it been better and more fully told.

The Conspirator: C+
Miral: C-

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