Archive for the ‘adaptation’ category

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 2, 2014

maxresdefaultIf you take a piece of white bread and stick weird things into it, what you have isn’t anything bold or dazzling; it’s just white bread with weird things stuck into it. Guardians of the Galaxy is that white bread: ornamentally eye-catching but fundamentally bland. The movie is set in the same universe as Iron Man and The Avengers and the other interconnected Marvel-comics films, but it’s set somewhere in the cosmic margins, away from Earth, off to the side. It’s a milieu we sort of have to agree to accept as alien, though many of its inhabitants pretty much look human, only with fresh coats of blue or green paint. It’s not futuristic; it’s happening in 2014, except that its main Earth character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been off-planet since 1988, so his references to terran culture end then.

Peter has an Awesome Mix Tape filled with his dear dead mom’s favorite tunes, which tend towards classic rock from the ’70s. The presence of this music in what’s supposed to be a planet-hopping adventure occasionally lends it the aura of a midnight movie, albeit a midnight movie that cost $170 million. Guardians has been written (by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) with a good portion of snark, though none of the verbal barbs turn around and aim at the movie itself, or at Marvel (or Disney). It feels like a parody that isn’t parodying anything; a movie that costs that kind of money can’t be expected to have sharp teeth, and it doesn’t. It’s just smug, engaging in lightly inane badinage and lumbering into any number of cluttered action set-pieces. The jokiness commands you not to take the proceedings too seriously, as if you would anyway.

Peter, who calls himself Starlord, finds himself aligned with several other outlaws — assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista), sentient walking tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — against the usual dull villain who wants to destroy everything. This good-vs.-evil plot unfolds inside the usual meaninglessly convoluted web of allegiances, various people who don’t like the Guardians, as well as tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians (ah, yes, that old conflict). Guardians would like us to find it hip and quirky, but at heart it’s like every other obscenely expensive summer movie about heroes trying to stop bad guys from doing bad things. The bad guys want to do bad things for reasons we barely comprehend — they do bad things because they’re bad guys, I take it. And they have to be stopped. This requires extremely pricey, poorly edited chase scenes, things blowing up, people shooting at or punching other people, and other greatest hits.

Gunn is clever, and I’m not immune to his nudging; I chuckled a few times (mostly at bits of business involving Groot or Rocket). But anyone expecting the perversities of Gunn’s Troma-meets-Cronenberg horror-comedy Slither (2006) or his previous film, 2010’s Super, had better keep waiting. I much prefer Super, which had the sting of human frailty, and which, perhaps not coincidentally, cost 68 times less than Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has already made his superhero movie; this new one doesn’t really feel like his. It feels like a corporate jest, of the sort that Marvel used to indulge in briefly in the ’80s, when they would launch stunts like Assistant Editors’ Month — titles like Spider-Man or Daredevil would be turned over to less serious writers for tongue-in-cheek meta-stories that happened more or less out of continuity. Guardians is like an Assistant Editors’ Month issue writ large. But readers were expected to pay the full sixty cents for those issues back in 1984, and audiences are expected to pay full ticket prices for it now.

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

The Fault in Our Stars

June 8, 2014

fault-in-our-stars-movie-clipsEvery young generation deserves its own great love story. But does The Fault in Our Stars qualify? I can’t truly be the judge of its greatness; that call isn’t mine to make. (My generation has Say Anything and the Before trilogy, and I can imagine the generation before mine taking issue with that.) I am no longer a teenager, the ideal age at which to experience doomed, star-crossed love — in fiction, mind you, not in life — for the first time. Really, I can only convey to what extent the movie successfully got around my defenses and spoke directly to my inner romantic teenager. Like John Green’s mega-popular 2012 novel, on which it’s faithfully based, The Fault in Our Stars flatters its audience for its hipness to the usual tragic narrative. But when it comes time to push the time-honored emotional buttons, goddamn, the movie works those buttons, pounds them. Even my inner teenager was offended.

The Fault in Our Stars is two-thirds of a graceful romance. The self-deprecating, sardonic teenager Hazel (Shailene Woodley, charming as usual), who narrates, barely holds cancer at bay with experimental drugs and an oxygen tank. At a rather pitiful support group — the movie is rather cruel about the basement-dwelling, Jesus-loving goof with testicular cancer who runs the group —  Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an equally sardonic kid who lost his leg to cancer. They forge a bond out of shared gallows humor; Augustus instinctively senses that Hazel has no time for uplifting bromides, and the two fall with relief into easy chat. They’re smart, well-read teens — Augustus favors adventure paperbacks, though, while Hazel idolizes a cancer-kid novel written by a recluse (Willem Dafoe) who hasn’t published anything since.

The recluse’s novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel wants to know what happens after it ends, which is to say she wants to know what happens after she ends. Does the fictional cancer girl’s family go on and find some sort of happiness? Hazel worries about her mom (Laura Dern), worries that too much of her is tied up in being Hazel’s mother and that she’ll be left with nothing once Hazel goes. I felt my eyes sting a couple of times, and Laura Dern owned both of those moments; just the way she runs into Hazel’s room, expecting a disaster, when Hazel has merely exclaimed about a surprising email, is heartbreaking. Dern does a huge amount with very little here; it’s heroically open work from a great actress.

The plot takes the two kids to Amsterdam, where Dafoe’s bitter alcoholic writer hides in a clutter of ignored fan mail and refuses to give Hazel an answer. In my mind, this is the most sensible thing he can do, because there isn’t an answer, but his harshness drives the couple out of his flat and into the Anne Frank house, where they have their first kiss while other tourists applaud. This sort of self-absorption is easily forgiven among (a) the dying and (b) the young, and Hazel and Augustus are both. It’s also an indication that Hazel may not be the most reliable narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars becomes aggressively, almost brutally manipulative in its final stretch. It’s an old-school weepie, all right, and the usual weepers will weep loudly, as they did at my screening. I stayed dry, ticking off all the bullet points. The purest love, the movie says, is not long for this life; true love can only spark between two people who won’t live long enough to get sick of each other (or to have a kid with cancer and to watch their married lives become about medical bills and wolf-hour hospital runs). As long as it stays with the two kids who have suffered far too much to be anything but honest around each other, the movie is fine. But then there’s middle-of-the-night melodrama and a fake funeral and a real funeral — so many attempts to raise a lump in the throat that even the most forgiving viewer may feel a bit throttled. The movie, like the book, may gather a patina of greatness for those who look back on it fondly once safely out of their teens. But both the movie and the book should have had the courage to end mid-sentence.

Maleficent

June 1, 2014

maleficent-angelina-jolie-31It has to be uncannily accidental synchronicity, but Disney’s Maleficent — emerging as it does after a week of national conversation about misogyny — is an unintentional #YesAllWomen fable. Men — or pretty much the only men we see — are weaklings, given to warmongering to impose their power. Women stand with nature, peace, paganism. The movie is a retelling of Disney’s earlier Sleeping Beauty, wherein the evil fairy Maleficent, offended at not having been invited to the christening of the king’s daughter, put a curse on her. In the new take, the offense runs much deeper and darker.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a powerful and benevolent faerie in the verdant, misty Moors, fending off occasional attacks from the bordering human kingdom with little trouble. Then one of the king’s subjects, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who’d been friends with Maleficent when they were both younger, drugs her, cuts her wings off, and brings them to the dying monarch as proof that he is worthy of assuming the throne. In essence, Stefan roofies and rapes her. The feminist screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), understands fable and myth and symbol. Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, so he mutilates her, denies her the release of flight. There’s nothing sexual in the assault, but then rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power; and Stefan’s act violently asserts the primacy of maleness (monarchy) over femaleness (the faerie realm).

Your kids may or may not pick up on most of that, but the subtext enriches the journey. Maleficent goes mad with rage, cursing Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, but then an interesting thing happens. Keeping watch over the girl (played as a teen by Elle Fanning), to make sure Aurora lives to see her sixteenth birthday when the curse will take effect, Maleficent grows fond of her. Some will call this needless softening of a great villain, but between this film and Frozen, Disney seems tired of “great villains” who reinforce old stereotypes. Elsa and now Maleficent have layers; they use their powers unwisely and are capable of regretting it. Stefan, too, has shadings of guilt and dread; he does despicable things, but behind it all is an orphaned boy who grew up in a barn. Stefan was driven to power because he came from utter powerlessness, and his betrayal of Maleficent brings him only misery and terror.

Director Robert Stromberg has won two Oscars for art direction, and predictably Maleficent, with cinematographer Dean Semler joining Stromberg behind the camera, has an eye for the beauty in darkness. Frequently, Angelina Jolie’s bone-white, angular face is the only thing visible in the shadows, looking on with malice or amusement or affection, glamorous as all hell. The sequences in which Maleficent slowly takes Aurora into her trust and her home have the delicate poignance of The Curse of the Cat People, in which former bad girl Simone Simon embraced little Ann Carter in the world of daydreams and butterflies. Maleficent has more in common, in fact, with that undervalued Val Lewton production than with the 1956 Sleeping Beauty, a bland reaffirmation of the status quo. Here, Maleficent is described as someone who is both hero and villain, and the only one, straddling those two moral worlds, who can set things right.

Angelina Jolie could’ve played an arch, cackling, two-dimensional gorgon, and it would’ve been delirious camp to launch a thousand drag queens, but what she does here cuts sharper, and when Maleficent pulls herself up to full majestic power during the climax it’s a real fist-pumping moment. Jolie purrs, snarls, sneers, comforts, sheds a single chic tear; it’s the kind of big performance actresses used to get to sink their teeth into, paradoxically, in Hollywood’s more sexist days. Camille Paglia will tell you that women in movies back then were goddesses, iconic, rococo and formidable. Jolie’s Maleficent is larger than life: larger than the movie she’s in, which is fastidiously crafted but can’t seem to contain what Maleficent represents — not merely woman scorned but nature affronted. Violence against women transgresses the psychic soil, makes a bloody mudbath out of the earth we commonly stand on. “There is evil in the world,” Maleficent tells Aurora, guiltily meaning herself, but also referencing a place in which a faerie can have her wings torn off and her assailant can seat himself on the throne. #YesAllWomen, indeed.

Joe

May 4, 2014

20140504-211138.jpgDavid Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.

Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.

Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.

Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.

Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.

Noah

March 31, 2014

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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

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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

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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.


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