Archive for March 2014

Noah

March 31, 2014

20140331-163415.jpgDavid 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.