Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

Noah

March 31, 2014

20140331-163415.jpg

David Lynch’s Dune. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ang Lee’s Hulk. David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Francis Coppola’s Dracula. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. These are all big-budget movies, based on popular material, directed by artists who made them a lot stranger and wilder and more idiosyncratic than they actually needed to be. These directors could have delivered bland, lowest-common-denominator adaptations — except that they couldn’t have, because the artist demon inside wouldn’t let them. To this short list we might now add Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a genuinely odd and sometimes off-putting work of art, folly, and often both at once.

Aronofsky takes the Biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe) absolutely seriously, though by all accounts he’s not a Christian. He may not believe in it literally, but he believes in it as a story, a parable. A few years back, the legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb published his word-for-word illustration of the Book of Genesis, and while it was an immaculate work of craft, it had very little of Crumb in it. He seemed to take it on entirely as an exercise. Aronofsky does the exact opposite with Noah, though the craft is still impeccable; he fleshes it out as a psychological war between man and his Creator, which is really a war between man and his own poor understanding of the Creator, who cannot be understood.

Noah receives dread-ridden visions of the catastrophe to come: the Creator is going to wipe the slate clean, leaving only two of each animal to survive and multiply, because they, unlike warlike and greedy man, “still live as they lived in the Garden.” The Creator is wrathful on the highest level: Man, created in His own image, has turned out to be His greatest and most destructive failure. Noah, charged with the preservation of the animals, becomes the conduit for the Creator’s loathing of humanity as Noah understands it. Noah comes from the blameless (and lesser-known) bloodline of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, but he still bears the weight of original sin. Rather than making all this into a bloodless psychological study of a deluded man, Aronofsky does something more difficult — he literalizes the miracles and madness, so that Noah, like Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, comes across as a flawed human tormented by what he thinks the Creator wants from him.

Aided by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky gives Noah’s world a harsh, savage beauty. The Watchers, fallen angels who help Noah build his ark and defend him against the army of the corrupt Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), are truly bizarre monstrous creations, covered in rock and mud as punishment for defying the Creator by helping Cain. Noah is a frequently dotty mash-up of fantasy, scripture, environmental activism, and dreamlike cinematic technique. As such, it’s the most fully alive and exciting film out there right now, and quite possibly the year’s first great American movie, or at least one with greatness in it. It feels utterly uncompromised, a pure shot from the source.

Crowe anchors the whole unwieldy thing with a calmness that comes to seem a bit frightening. He almost never even raises his voice; he doesn’t need to. By the time Noah is contemplating murdering his own newborn granddaughters to adhere to what he interprets as the Creator’s plan, he’s essentially lost us, but Crowe hasn’t. The movie is full of moral wrestling like this, as well as king-hell battle scenes and the genuinely horrifying disaster of the great flood itself, which sweeps away the innocent and sinful alike — though who’s innocent and who’s sinful? The society we see that’s judged worthy of extinction isn’t much different from ours — we’re actually worse. Noah might look at what’s become of creation and stab the hell out of those babies. The movie doesn’t quite reconcile Noah’s convictions with the future of mankind, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a work full of life, splendor, terror, awe, and foolishness — the kind of stubborn art-epic we get once in a blue moon, the sort that makes me feel protective of it, grateful for it.

Divergent

March 23, 2014

20140323-202716.jpgThere are five factions in the futuristic society of Divergent, and it just figures that the heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), would pick the Dauntless faction. The Dauntless are society’s warriors and protectors, and thus are subject to grueling training designed to test an initiate’s courage. When not training, the Dauntless while away the afternoons by running around, climbing things, and jumping off other things. What if Tris had chosen the Erudites, the smarties of society? Would her training consist of harrowing, highly cinematic algebra quizzes? Or what if she’d opted for Amity, the people who work the land and are noted for their kindness? Would we have an $80 million blockbuster about how Tris must face the horrific final test — being nice to cranky customers at a farmers’ market?

As it is, Divergent might as well be called Dauntless, because for most of the running time, Tris, who was born into the Abnegation faction (selfless people who help others), takes many beatings and worries incessantly about not making the cut in her Dauntless training. (Those who flunk out become “factionless,” denied the option to return home or to try their luck in another faction.) Tris, though, is a special snowflake: she’s a Divergent, meaning that she — gasp! — has more than one trait. She could fit in with Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite. So she’s really dangerous to this post-apocalyptic society that has arranged everyone according to dominant trait to “preserve the peace.”

I don’t really get what any of that has to do with peace. Maybe it’s explained in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of books, which I haven’t read and, judging by my boredom with the movie, will probably skip. It’s really just an elaborate metaphor for Being Your Own Beautiful Self, which apparently goes over well with readers of a certain tender age. Divergent has been compared to The Hunger Games, but at least Suzanne Collins’ fantasy had some sort of real-world relevance, even edging up to social satire. But Divergent‘s concerns seem largely solipsistic — there’s little or no larger meaning to it at all. Unlike Katniss Everdeen, who survived and became an inspiration due to a combination of luck, guts, brains and compassion, Tris just hits the genetic lottery, which is hazardous to her in the short term but will likely shake out with her as the heroine of a newly diverse and less regimented society by the third movie.

There’s little or no filmmaking excitement in Divergent, either. The director is Neil Burger, a journeyman hack who merely points and shoots, never pausing to take in beauty or terror. There’s a tiny bit of both in sequences in which Tris and, later, her Dauntless trainer and love interest Four (Theo James) submit to chemically-induced hallucinations of their deepest fears. Apparently Tris is scared of birds, fire, and drowning, while Four dislikes heights. The hallucinations at least pack a slight visual-surreal charge mostly absent from the rest of the movie, which unfolds in the gunmetal-blue Dauntless quarters or in sterile offices. I sensed no connection between Burger and this material, no urgency on his part to tell this story and open up its truths.

The gentle-featured Woodley is fine and humble as the heroine, and Kate Winslet brings cold efficiency to her performance as Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite leader who wants to overthrow the Abnegations’ control over society. I didn’t get that, either: the smart people want to go to war with the selfless people? Are this movie’s politics insane, or just nonexistent? I don’t see brainiacs like Neil deGrasse Tyson gunning for people like the Dalai Lama. Divergent also verges on saying the military is a mindless hive brainwashed by the Harvard-educated ruling class, which is more cynical than anything in The Hunger Games and an insult to ex-military men like Daniel Ellsberg. In short, the divvied-up society presented here makes no internal or subtextual sense. It doesn’t refer to anything other than a generic “fight the Man” theme — and, of course, the Man here is an intelligent woman. So, despite its kick-ass heroine, the movie doesn’t really diverge much from the standard path of Hollywood sexism at all.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014

20140316-203107.jpg

A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008′s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

Vampire Academy

February 9, 2014

20140209-172442.jpg

The team of brothers Mark and Daniel Waters on a teen vampire movie sounded more than fine to me. Mark directed 2004′s Mean Girls, still Lindsay Lohan’s brightest day in the sun, while Daniel dipped his quill pen in acid and wrote 1989′s cult favorite Heathers. So the idea of these two working on a project set in a vampire boarding school — with the attendant bitchery and snark among vampire girls — writes a big check Vampire Academy can’t cash. It’s amusing enough, and will pass the time for you painlessly on Netflix in a few months, but the damn thing — following Richelle Mead’s YA series of novels — is just too plot-heavy.

We’ve barely sat down before the film heaves a massive infodump into our laps — the relationships of royal vampires (the Moroi) to the human guardians (the Dhampir) who protect the Moroi from evil vampires (the Strigoi). With all this mythology and terminology, the Waterses scarcely have room to breathe their own sarcastic life into the proceedings. Vampire Academy comes across as a comedy some of the time, with the witty Dhampir Rose (Ellen Page lookalike Zoey Deutch) maintaining a running commentary and amusing her Moroi BFF Lissa (Lucy Fry). The short, dark-haired, sardonic girl tossing fond verbal darts at her tall blonde friend who comes from a richer bloodline — this is almost a supernatural 2 Broke Girls. (They even have a heavily-accented, heavily-lipsticked foil in the person of headmistress Olga Kurylenko, whose character will inspire a few drag queens, Halloween costumes, and fetishistic attention among viewers not in the movie’s target demographic.)

I really couldn’t succinctly outline the story for you if you held a silver stake to my heart. The gist of it is that someone is plotting against Lissa, and the vicious Strigoi are involved (never mind the politics of pitting shabby-looking, 99-percenter vampires against gilded vamp royalty and expecting us to root for the latter), and also the Moroi have magical powers over the elements and Lissa is able to bring mortally injured beings back from the brink of death. The only hitch in our presumed identification with Lissa and her ilk is that they must drink human blood. But don’t worry: they get it from human volunteers who’ve read the Twilight books too many times. (In the movie’s reality, Twilight exists and is goofed on.) There’s some satirical flavor in the idea of vamp-smitten fangirls/fanboys willingly submitting to periodic nibbling.

But again, it’s too much info too fast. It’s too bad Vampire Academy bombed and won’t get a sequel, because the sequel — with all the world-building and glossary out of the way — would give the brothers Waters enough space to sit with Rose and Lissa and their classmates and get some comic rhythms going. (As it is, if you want the full spectrum of vamp pathos and snark, you’ll have to tune in to The Vampire Diaries, which has usually found the right balance between character moments and overarching narrative.) There’s a fine moment at an Equinox Dance when Rose, Lissa, and their dorky vamp friend Natalie (Sarah Hyland) stride into the hall in their fabulous new dresses, past a gaggle of teen-girl vamps who bare their fangs and hiss. There’s also a Heatherish vamp, the pixie-haircut Mia (Sami Gayle), who might be in on the plot against Lissa; but Mia sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s always fairly sad when a movie that hopes to kick-start a franchise, but whose pallid box-office receipts guarantee zero sequels, ends on a semi-cliffhanger note that screams “Come back for the next film to see how this develops!” I assume there are going to be — or would have been, anyway — more challenges to the royal privilege of Princess Lissa, and her scrappy human friend would have had to help. Truly, other than the regal presence of Joely Richardson as the queen of the vamps, I would’ve been happy enough to drop the whole royalty aspect. It’s too transparently a ploy to hook teenage girls by combining vampires, Hogwarts, and princesses, three things that teenage girls presumably adore. The actors are game for wittier, sharper stuff, as are the filmmakers, but they’re all hamstrung by the demands of YA fiction — or at least this YA fiction.

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

20140202-210652.jpg
Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.

The Wolf of Wall Street

January 5, 2014

wows-03The Wolf of Wall Street may be the most exuberant film about sin ever made. Therein, for many viewers, lies the rub: Is it sufficiently scolding about what it shows us? When we’re following stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from excess to excess, when the screen is full of cocaine and whores and many other signposts of profound debauchery, are we supposed to be having such a good time? The moralists, made uneasy, rumble scornfully. Let them rumble: Wolf is a shot of the hard stuff, gargantuan and electrifying, a psychotronic epic of the id unchecked. It lands with a reverberant thud in the midst of the bitter national mood: why do so few have so much at the expense of the many who have so little? The director, Martin Scorsese, is famously Catholic, and he has made a movie that, absent the skin and nose candy and rampant obscenity, the current Pope might agree with.

But leave such meditations on the film’s clean intentions to the literal-minded. Wolf of Wall Street is a caffeinated (or cocaine-driven) victory of sheer heedless, beautiful filmmaking for its own sake; there isn’t a dead shot anywhere in its three hours, which go by like a comet. Jordan Belfort starts out as a little fish in a big pond — baying for money at a large Wall Street firm — and, following the crash of ’87, finds work at a Long Island boiler room, selling pink-sheet crap for fifty-percent commissions. Soon enough, he filches some co-workers and some weed-dealer cronies and starts his own firm, with the hilariously patrician name of Stratton Oakmont. It’s hugely successful, and the men celebrate their own stench with marching bands and “blue-chip” prostitutes and dwarf-tossing.

The stench permeates the film: One problem with wild excess is that it vampirizes the body and soul. In a never-to-be-forgotten sequence, Jordan and his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, the movie’s nuttily inspired MVP) acquire some age-old Lemmon 714 quaaludes; impatient with the drug’s delayed-action effects, they pop more and more, until they’re both shambling, drooling, shorted-out robots. Party on, dude! The way the situation resolves itself — with Jordan catching a Popeye cartoon on TV, using cocaine as spinach, and saving Donnie’s life — is Scorsese’s sly nod to the “kids, don’t try this at home” moralism he knows some viewers will demand. The drug-taking looks exhausting, the sex is pointedly unsexy. Scorsese shows all this as hollow without standing aside and announcing its hollowness. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, you’d have to be a moral idiot to find the shenanigans emulable, but the film, like Scorsese’s GoodFellas, doesn’t pretend that excess in itself, or the fantasy idea of it, isn’t addictive and a great kick. If it weren’t, who would want it?

Pumping himself full of toxic salesman air, DiCaprio stands astride the orgies with the aura of an unquestioned emperor; Wolf, along with Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby, completes his trilogy of men blighted by filthy money. The movie isn’t misogynistic, but its narrator is, so the women are generally seen as bodies and mouths that either add to or subtract from the fun; but Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie take sizable bites out of their scenes as Jordan’s first and second wives, Joanna Lumley does an elegant turn as an aunt who helps Jordan launder money, and Stephanie Kurtzuba has a great brief bit as one of Stratton Oakmont’s success stories, a single mom who went to work for Jordan and pulled herself out of poverty. Besides, no movie that hates women would linger as it does on the anecdote in which a female staffer is offered $10,000 to have her head shaved, does so, and then sits there with the ruins of her hair, a stack of green, and a visible hole where her dignity used to be.

If Wolf of Wall Street has a hero, it’s FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), a 99-percenter taking on the one-percenters who bathe in the blood of other one-percenters (which, in turn, affects the 99-percenters that the one-percenters employ). Denham shlumps around the city in subway cars instead of inside his own helicopter or yacht or Porsche, but he sleeps with a clear conscience. By the end, Jordan, having done soft time at a minimum-security Nevada white-collar prison, is pumping up the next generation of swindlers, headlining motivational talks for would-be wolves in New Zealand. “Sell me this pen!” he demands, narrowing the wolf-eats-sheep ethos of finance down to four syllables. GoodFellas sealed Henry Hill’s moral blankness by having him gripe, “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Here, Jordan gets to live the rest of his life teaching schnooks to sell other schnooks their own pens.

12 Years a Slave

November 17, 2013

12_Years_a_Slave_Fassbender_Ejiofor.jpg.CROP.article568-large12 Years a Slave is a serious movie. It manipulates, but not cheaply. It tells a story of survival and horrendous endurance, and does not find anything remotely ennobling or inspirational in it. A man spends a dozen years in hell for no sane reason. That he began life and spent much of his adulthood as a free man only heightens his anguish. The movie is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and scripter John Ridley offer the audience no comforting way to get our heads around the situation, its outcome (the men who kidnapped Northup ultimately got away with it), or the fact that millions of other human beings in slavery had never known freedom and never would.

McQueen, until now best known for his art-house studies Hunger (about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands) and Shame (about a sex addict), lends 12 Years a Slave some dabs of dreamlike imagery — red sunlight peeking through the gnarled tree branches of New Orleans; a steamboat’s paddle wheel gnashing away at the river. But for the most part he approaches the narrative straight on and sober, with long, long takes bearing the weight of cruelty. At one point, Northup hangs from a tree by his neck, his feet just barely touching the muddy ground, while the other slaves go about their business elsewhere in the frame. We stare at Northup hanging there for what feels like hours, but is probably just a couple of minutes of screen time.

The film’s only real concession to conventional heart-tugging is Hans Zimmer’s score, at times a bit too insistent or ominous. 12 Years a Slave has its share of brutality, but I never felt a sadistic impulse behind it on the filmmakers’ part, the way I sometimes feel it from Schindler’s List. The violence here is just sad and repulsive, and even when Northup loses his even keel and lashes out at a contemptible overseer (Paul Dano), the sequence isn’t rhythmed to achieve a “yeah, go get him!” effect — we are, again, saddened, this time because the intelligent and gentle Northup has been provoked to act against his nature.

I’m not sure acting will get any finer this season than the scenes between rancid plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s suffering avatar in his previous films) and despairing slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps is sexually obsessed with Patsey, who picks more cotton than anyone on the plantation; her reward is rape, and assorted abuse not only from Epps but from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Fassbender, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, goes beyond boilerplate evil into a deeply twisted humanity, while Nyong’o — in her feature-film debut — offers a devastating portrait of exhausted horror and misery. Patsey’s story violently refutes any easy sustenance we could derive from Northup’s. He was born in freedom and will eventually return to it; she wasn’t, and won’t.

As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is the major leading role he has deserved for some time, and he more than earns it, shivering in silent, profound disgust at Northup’s situation and surroundings, a man reduced to machinery. What impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave is its unstressed subtext dealing with the financial apparatus of slavery. Paul Giamatti (“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin”) shows up as a slave trader who displays his human wares as nonchalantly as a car salesman taking a buyer on a tour of his dealership floor. Both slaveowners we meet in the movie — the first is the largely less sadistic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — have their money problems, suggesting that the god that the slaves desperately pray and sing to is having his little joke on mortals who set themselves up as God. Caterpillars munching on cotton in Epps’ field are described as a “plague,” which, coming from a man like Epps who professes to know his Bible, is an ironic metaphor. Near the end, Brad Pitt turns up as an itinerant carpenter who implies that slavery runs against the very order of the universe, echoing the earlier words of a favored house mistress (Alfre Woodard). Eventually the apparatus will — must — come crashing down. Or will it? According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide today. The United States accounts for nearly 60,000 of those.

Dario Argento’s Dracula

November 3, 2013

3.-ASIA-ARGENTO-AS-THE-UNDEAD-LUCY-IN-ARGENTOS-DRACULA-3DMost of the people shaking their heads sadly over Dario Argento’s Dracula don’t seem to know what he’s up to. Anyone who’s seen Euro-horror of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly by Jean Rollin or Jesús Franco, or Blood for Dracula or Flesh for Frankenstein or even some of the classic Hammer films, will go into this affectionate homage with a receptive state of mind. Argento’s Dracula does reflect some of the foibles of the above movies — it has its cheesy parts, its dull stretches, its incomprehensible moments. But then that’s Argento, too. The world-renowned maestro of such works as Suspiria and Profondo Rosso pretty much always left logic bleeding in the dust. He cares more about mood, music, the crescendo of violence, the rich sanguinary history of art. He’s going to make Dracula and amuse himself doing it and he doesn’t give a damn whether you think it’s the 2013 definition of cool.

Shot whenever possible in and around crumbling Italian castles and villages, Dracula has a distinct European whiff that can’t be faked or built, especially not on the $7 million budget Argento had. The relatively tiny piggy bank also shows in the never-convincing computer effects — Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann) turns into a wolf, an owl, a swarm of flies, and, in the movie’s height of nuttiness, a man-sized praying mantis. But no gritty verisimilitude is established here in the first place — it’s not as though any sane viewer is going to say “Man, I was totally convinced by this movie’s stark realism until the praying mantis showed up” — and if sketchy special effects send you packing, you’re going to miss out on half a thousand fun films from every era of horror cinema. The effects here (partially handled by longtime Argento collaborator Sergio Stivaletti, joining an old-school crew including cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and composer Claudio Simonetti) are pretty obviously consciously, winkingly artificial.

Argento and his three co-screenwriters more or less glance at Bram Stoker’s novel, toss it aside and make shit up. Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) is now a librarian, summoned to catalog the tomes lining the walls of Castle Dracula. Lucy Westenra is now Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento), the mayor’s daughter and best friend of Harker’s beloved, Mina (Marta Gastini). There’s also Tania (Miriam Giovanelli), a fair-haired local maiden who becomes a bride of Dracula and gets her kit off whenever feasible; Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni) is now in blood thrall to Tania. Since this Renfield is too weird to do Dracula’s bidding effectively, Dracula also has a bald, beefy bruiser named Zoran (Giuseppe Lo Console), who resembles Pawn Stars’ Rick Harrison and lumbers around ax-murdering those who threaten to expose the Master.

And then Dr. Van Helsing shows up; this character has traditionally been an occasion for juicy overacting from the likes of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins, so perverse Argento has Rutger Hauer play Van Helsing as if awakened from a deep nap before each take. Hauer’s compelling anyway, though, making bullets out of garlic and silver, or dispatching an enemy with laughable abruptness (the victim’s eye pops out in gnarly 3D, for those lucky enough to see Dracula in the format). I can’t really judge most of the acting, which has that charming dubbed quality familiar from many afternoons wasted in front of tax-shelter horror. I can say that Thomas Kretschmann (currently playing Van Helsing, ironically, on NBC’s Dracula) brings a certain old-world delicacy to his seduction scenes and a persuasive brutality to his violent scenes, and that Asia Argento seems finally fulfilled as a hissing vampire with her head on fire.

I’d say you need to have seen enough clunky horror movies to enjoy Argento’s goofing around here. It’s Dracula; he’s going to take it deadly seriously? (That’s the pitfall of the NBC series so far, methinks.) It’s colorful and tacky and eccentric, with elements smuggled in from Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest.” And there’s the damn praying mantis, which I think is the firm dividing line here. If you can’t cackle and appreciate that, this Dracula does not have your name written all over it. I just sat back and said “Why the hell not.” And that’s not only a useful approach to Argento’s party, it’s possibly also the film’s artistic credo. A seemingly pointless shot of Dracula pacing around his castle and growling, looking like an outtake of the actor trying to get into character? Why the hell not. A long-distance shot of a tiny Dracula scaling the wall of his castle and hissing at the camera? Why the hell not. Argento hasn’t been this playful in years, and neither has Dracula.

Carrie (2013)

October 20, 2013

Chloe-Moretz-in-Carrie-2013-Movie-Image4As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.

Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.

Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers