Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review: "The Road"

The one thing I remember about Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road" is the color gray.

Gray is everywhere in the novel, which takes place in a world that has been decimated by an unspecified disaster. Grey ash covers the ground and the characters live under barren skies. The snow is a grey, sooty color and even the ocean has ceased to be blue. It's a desolate, barren world in which a young Man and his Boy traverse a largely-abandoned road, looking for the sea.

If there's one thing Director John Hillcoat gets absolutely right in his adaptation of the novel, it's the gray. Filming largely without the help of computer generated effects, Hillcoat found burned out, ravaged areas of Pennsylvania and surrounding states to recreate a ravaged, dying world where the trees are empty and dying, stalled vehicles litter the roads and starving, hopeless families have taken unspeakable measures to either survive or escape the horror.

The other thought I had upon reading McCarthy's novel is that it was unfilmable. The writer's sparse prose and ungilded dialogue gives the story much of its weight, demanding readers to create the world in their mind and providing a poetry to the narrative. Few writers pay as much attention to the actual craft as McCarthy and he's the rare wordsmith who is able to create such a compelling tale through so few words.

I walked away from "The Road" realizing I was right: in a certain sense, "The Road" is unfilmable. No movie will ever be able to perfectly realize McCarthy's writing because film provides us with images that McCarthy powerfully evokes...something is bound to be lost in translation.

But Hillcoat comes as close as one possibly could to bringing "The Road" to the screen. While it's not the perfect adaptation that Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" was, "The Road" retains the book's solemnity and quiet and delivers a difficult, brutal and yet surprisingly moving and beautiful meditation on humanity, grace and hope. Just two weeks after "2012" turned the end of the world into spectacle where millions of people died for our amusement, "The Road" captures the sadness and profundity of what it may be like to be among the last human beings on Earth and moves us over the plight over a father and his son.

Much of the film's success comes from Viggo Mortensen, perfectly cast as The Man. This decade has been one in which Mortensen has proven himself as one of the most versatile and dependable actors, able to lose himself in a role be it that of a noble man ("Lord of the Rings"), a father with a brutal past ("A History of Violence") or a vicious killer ("Eastern Promises.") Here, haggard and gaunt, caked in grime, the Man is a walking skeleton, exhausted and on the brink of collapse. But his eyes light with anger, grief, passion and intensity when it comes to the one thing he has left: his son, with whom he is walking the road and teaching to grow up right, to "carry the fire" of goodness, humanity and dignity in a world that has thrown those things aside in an effort to survive. The boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, at first doesn't do much more than register shock and worry as they trudge through the world. But as the father's words sink in and he begins to apply them, there's a fierce anger in the child's eyes as he questions his father's own stubbornness and refusal to treat others kindly in favor of survival.

Of course, one couldn't blame the Man for holding on so tightly and violently to his son. In flashbacks, we see glimpses of the life that existed before the world went gray--ironically, the first image Hillcoat shows us are blooming trees and verdant fields. The Man had a wife (Charlize Theron) who was pregnant with the Boy when the clocks stopped and the fires started. We see her begin to unravel and lose hope, desperately not wanting to give birth to a child in such a dismal world and then finally, when the Boy has grown, leaving and not coming back. The Boy is all he has, the only thing that makes the Man human and gives him hope ("If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke," the Man says in voice-over).

Hillcoat, whose previous film ("The Proposition") also dealt with the plight of desperate people in a hopeless landscape, does not flinch upon showing us the horror that exists in this post-apocalyptic world. Those who survive have largely thrown off humanity in favor of survival, robbing, raping, killing and eating those who still survive. For the most part, Hillcoat shies away from showing us the most brutal and disturbing aspects, alluding to them through a splash of blood or the carnage that remains. But a visit to a farmhouse--possibly the most horrifying sequence in the novel--remains intact, as terrifying and disturbing a moment as any I've seen on the screen this year.

But Hillcoat doesn't exploit the novel's darker moments and turn this into "I Am Legend" or "2012." Rather he's more interested in the same questions McCarthy poses: can The Man and The Boy survive and keep their humanity intact? And, when the time comes, will the Man be willing to kill his son in order to spare him a darker fate?

And while the film, like the novel, is grim, its peppered with moments of surprising hope and subtle beauty, as the Man and Boy experience unexpected graces. A can of Coke. A bunker stocked with food. A hot bath. The memories of mother. A quiet interlude with an old man (Robert Duvall) in which the existence and compassion of God are called into question.

Even more touching is the story of fatherhood that weaves through this story and the moral questions it provokes. For the Man is not simply living for his child to survive. He wants his child to "carry the fire," and grow into a man who does the right thing. When the child asks if they will not eat anyone no matter how starving they get, it's moving because the kid has a deeper problem than survival. The first moments with the old man and an encounter with a thief on the side of the road become occasions for the child to surpass his father in terms of morality, compassion and warmth. In the later sequence, I recalled Christ's words to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us and turn the other cheek and found tears welling in my eyes at the beauty of this child. If the world were to end, this is they type of boy I'd hope was left.

In the end, the film succeeds not because it recaptures the power of McCarthy's novel (it never could) but because it recaptures the humanity of the story. It presents us a grim, barren and hopeless world and then asks us if goodness and hope can still exist. In such a dark and harrowing tale, I was surprised to find a warmth in my chest as that question was answered.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: "Ninja Assassin"

Originally written for the Nov. 29 edition of "The Source":

Things heard upon leaving a recent screening of “Ninja Assassin.”

”That was more like a slasher movie than an action movie.”

Probably one of the most astute things I’ve heard from an audience member following a free screening. “Ninja Assassin,” the latest action flick from Warner Brothers, spills its blood by not by the gallons, but by the pool.

Of course, one would expect the tale of rogue ninja Raizo (Korean pop star “Rain) on the run from the clan that trained him to have its moments of carnage. Martial arts films are chock full of dismemberments, broken bones and gouged eyes. But from its opening sequence, in which a ninja dices and slices a group of punk teenagers in a tattoo parlor, “Ninja Assassin” wallows in the wet red stuff, eviscerating characters (the term is used loosely in this review) with such wanton gore and bloodlust that even Freddy Krueger would consider it over-the-top.

Of course, some will give it a pass because it’s stylized and computer-generated blood that pours from wounds like a leaky faucet, not the gritty and realistic violence we see in the “Saw” films. While director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) keeps things cartoonish enough that no one will ever buy it as real, seeing a man’s head spliced in half in the first three minutes of a movie is jarring no matter what the context.

The plot also resembles a slasher movie, if you consider the evil ninjas to be the story’s boogeymen. They pick off a random group of people one by one—not high school students but rather high-ranking Interpol officials who catch wind of the clan’s existence. And they set their sights not on a heroic cop but on a helpless young woman (Naomi Harris), whose only hope is the Raizo, who was once trained by the clan and, we learn through a series of flashbacks, turned against them after they murdered his girlfriend.

I bring up the gore first because that’s really all “Ninja Assassin” has on its mind. Even the title screen is nothing more than formed by a splash of crimson. One fight scene even takes place behind a screen where we can’t even see the shadows of the contenders but can see their blood being splashed on the wall. In this movie, throwing stars don’t simply cut someone but tear them apart with the force of an uzi. Forget style, grace or skill; McTeigue is only interested in how much computer-generated plasma he can douse the screen in.

I have no problem with the use of violence and blood in an action movie; after all, swords do cut and bullets pierce. But just as gore in a horror movie doesn’t make the film scary, blood in an action flick doesn’t make it exciting. Especially when that blood is obviously computer generated and watching hundreds of ninjas and police die excruciatingly looks like something out of a videogame.

Which leads to the next thing I heard while exiting the theater.

”That was just like ‘Kill Bill.’”

No, it really isn’t.

I can understand the comparison. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 1”—possibly the best action film of the decade—climaxes with a 20-minute battle in which Uma Thurman hacks apart ninjas with a samurai sword. The violence in the scene is just as bloody as anything McTeigue shows in “Ninja Assassin,” so why is one a classic and the other a dud?

It comes down to showmanship.

McTeigue is a stylish director. I admired “V for Vendetta” and he’s been a second-unit director on movies like “The Matrix” and “Speed Racer.” He knows action and style. What he doesn’t show is a love for this particular genre of film. “Kill Bill” was bursting at the seams with visual and aural cues that expressed passion for martial arts movies; the spurting blood geysers were not meant to excite audiences’ bloodlust but instead paid homage to the films of the Shaw Brothers and other genre masters. Every swing of the sword, gouge of the eye and kick of the foot was done as a love letter to a particular type of film; the joy of the scene came not from the carnage but the knowing re-creation of a beloved film style. In “Ninja Assassin,” McTeigue thinks audiences simply want to see dismemberments and decapitations for their own sake. He knows the lyrics to a good action movie but not the music that makes the scene dance.

Let’s not also forget that “Kill Bill’s” climactic showdown was done largely without the aid of computers. Tarantino used stunt men and women to capture the grace and beauty of martial arts. “Ninja Assassin” is staged like a typical kung fu flick, with a fight every five minutes or so, but McTeigue forgets that the exhilaration of watching Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan in action is in the long shots that show them performing tremendous physical feats. There is a skill in martial arts that is lost when you’re quick-cutting every five seconds or using computers to do work that Chan could do in grade school. Also, I understand the visual appeal of keeping ninjas in the shadows, but the film is so murky that it’s hard to get a grasp on anything going on; ironically, the blood splashing gives us our only frame of reference. Just as you can’t capture the beauty of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly without showing their feet when they dance, you can’t recapture the thrill and artistry of martial arts without showing the full body in motion; CGI and rapid cuts take all the danger and thrill out of the fight.

”That movie was really stupid.”

If I could get away with a five-word review, I would have just added that quote verbatim. Forget Rain’s wooden dialogue or Harris’s non-existent personality. Forget the imbecilic Interpol agent who seems to reverse his position every five minutes only to end up as a hero anyway. Forget that a key plot point is that the great ninja assassin gets caught on a home surveillance camera or that Interpol has a team of super agents dedicated to arresting ninjas. And forget that the film’s climax suddenly gives its villain superpowers but he can still be surprised by a “glorified librarian” with a gun. Forget all that, and you forget the entire movie. Which may be a good thing.

”Sir, you’re a walking hazard."

That was actually directed at me as I was attempting to cross the lobby while using my Blackberry. Maybe the lady who chided me was right. Maybe I should learn to walk safer. And the first step of that: walk away from any theater showing “Ninja Assassin.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Movie Review: "Precious"

I will admit to being surprised when Lee Daniels' new film "Precious" opened in third place at the box office this weekend, bringing in $5.8 million on less than 200 screens across the nation.

After all, "Precious" (which opens in Detroit area theaters this weekend) is not the feel-good type of crowd-pleaser that one would associate with a Saturday night at the movies; it's an often-devastating and emotionally wrenching drama that often hurts to watch. The movie is very good, but it doesn't provide the escapism of "2012" that often propels films to the top of the charts.

While some would argue that the support of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey - who signed on as executive producers after seeing the film at the Sundance Film Festival - has driven much of the movie's support, I am going to chose to be more hopeful: Audiences are flocking to "Precious" because it is the rare film experience that gives you a character worth rooting for and a story worth seeing, presented by actors who rocket past any previous expectations we have of them.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 350-pound 17-year-old living in Harlem. She attends middle school because she is illiterate. At home she endures a verbally and physically abusive mother (comedian Mo'Nique) who is less interested in Precious' well-being than in the welfare checks that keep food on the table. As the film begins, Precious is about to be expelled from school; she is pregnant with her second child from her father.

The opening scenes are as bleak as any I've endured in a movie theater: Precious' life makes the kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" look like a vacation in Bombay. We learn, through her mumbled and lifeless narration, that she is good at math but doesn't apply herself at school because of her home life. She retreats into a fantasy world where she's a model or movie star and then, when reality comes crashing in, she confides in the audience that she wishes she was dead. After witnessing one of her confrontations with her mother - as shrill, violent and hateful a character as I've ever seen - we begin to realize that death might actually be considered a blessing for Precious.

But hope is glimpsed when Precious, expelled from her classes, is sent to an alternative school where an idealistic inner city teacher (Paula Patton) sees her potential. Despite her mother's put-downs, Precious begins to apply herself for the first time, learning to read and write, and building friendships for the first time among the girls in her class. The rough, vulgar shell that protects her on the street begins to melt away and Sidibe shows us the smiling, funny and beautiful person that is finally given a chance to come out of hiding and dream of a better life for herself and her children.

The description is probably a bit too simple and, on paper, it sounds like "Precious" is another troubled-teen-makes-good story, ala "Good Will Hunting." Yet Daniels' (producer of "Monster's Ball") is wise enough not to make this the story of how Precious becomes a genius; her struggle is not to publish a book or graduate college. Her challenge is to read, write and learn how to navigate life on her own. The story is not so much about Precious' success, but about the very possibility of success appearing to this girl for the first time; as bleak and dark as the story gets, it's anchored by the goodness and hope of those who don't give up on Precious, such as her teacher or a kind-yet-tough social worker (a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey).

To see Sidibe in character as "Precious" and then watch her in an interview is as startling a thing as I've ever witnessed; what she accomplishes with this role is one of the strongest feats of acting I've seen in years. In the beginning of the film, Sidibe captures Precious as closed-up, angry and even violent, her voice a series of rough mumbles and expletives. Yet Sidibe lets enough of the character's humor and longing seep through to garner audiences sympathy; the Precious we see at the end of the film is a transformed, hopeful and wiser young woman, but the transformation is smooth because Sidibe lets those seeds exist in the beginning. The story is a triumph not because Precious becomes a different person but because those glimpses we see of her in the beginning are finally allowed to burst forth and shine.

I was shocked by the work done by Mo'Nique here. In films like "Soul Plane," she's always been a loud, brassy stereotype, grating on the eardrums and the patience. Here, the comedienne creates as evil and despicable a character as I've ever seen, not just in her physical abuse, but in the vitriol Precious' mother spews at her own flesh and blood. A confrontation when Precious brings her newborn child home to meet his grandmother quickly escalates into one of the most wrenching, horrific and heart-breaking moments I've ever witnessed onscreen. Yet Mo'Nique refuses to turn the character into a caricature and there is a scene near the end where she moved this reviewer to tears, revealing that Precious' mother isn't so much contemptible as pitiable.

Much has been made of Daniels' use of musicians like Carey and Lenny Kravitz (as a male nurse) in the film. I was surprised at how low-key their performances were; this is not a case of grand-standing but of clever casting. Kravitz is subtle in his minor role, and Carey's small but crucial role is strong and brave, considering that the notorious diva allows herself to be filmed without makeup or a flattering hairstyle.

Daniels himself could learn to dial back on the theatrics a bit; he's a fan of swooping camera tricks and artistic touches when they aren't called for (a glow coming from the classroom is awkward and ham-handed); this is an otherwise gritty film and the auteur tendencies only call attention to themselves. Likewise, the film's final scene feels a bit abrupt and the impact of a third act's revelation is never fully dealt with.Still, with performances as strong as anything I've seen all year and an undeniably gripping story, "Precious" holds the attention. Sidibe creates a character nothing like we're used to and it's a credit to her that we stick with Precious until the end. And it's the rare film where hope feels genuine, happy endings feel earned and the tears are justified.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Review: "The Box"

Richard Kelly's "The Box" is a fantastic short film padded out unnecessarily to feature length and weighed down by some of the most preposterous science-fiction plotting this side of "The Matrix" sequels.

It's a shame, because the film, based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button" presents a morality tale so intriguing and simple that it's easy to see why Kelly wanted to take a stab at adapting it (the story was also the basis for a "Twilight Zone" episode): A young couple is visited by a strange man who presents them with a box and an offer - if they press the button inside the box within the next 24 hours, they will receive $1 million. The catch - when they press the button, someone they don't know will die. The question is, can they live with the death of a stranger if it allows them to live comfortably?

Why Kelly, who directed the overrated and similarly ridiculous "Donnie Darko," decided to add subplots involving NASA, Mars, watery wormholes and the afterlife to the equation is beyond me, although those who have seen "Darko" or his largely unseen follow-up "Southland Tales" know the director loves to confuse audiences and mistake impenetrability with profundity.

The film's strong first act should have been the film itself - and it makes me bemoan the absence of anthology filmmaking. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden portray the couple who receives the titular box; living in the 1970s, he has dashed hopes of being an astronaut and she's a teacher with a deformity that she tries to hide from others. When the charming, yet hideously scarred Mr. Steward (Frank Langella) shows up at their door with the box, the film hits its highest notes. Who hasn't wondered what they would be capable of in return for comfort and assurance?But only 30 minutes into the film, Diaz presses the button, Langella presents the cash and reprograms the box (with the wonderfully creepy promise that it will be 'presented to someone you don't know'), and the film loses its slow-burn, character-based moral drama for a sci-fi, paranoia-laced thriller so twisty and confounding that even if everything is explained, it still feels inexplicable.

Not that it's a boring ride. Kelly has an eye for style, and he creates a wonderfully eerie and atmospheric thriller that, in tone, is reminiscent of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or any number of conspiracy flicks. A slow speed chase through a library builds tension wonderfully and a creepy student who shows up in a few too many places manages to be fittingly unsettling. The score brilliantly taps into the spine-tingling nature of Hitchcock's films, and Kelly goes to great pains to faithfully recreate the NASA facilities and equipment of the time.

Likewise, Marsden and Langella are fantastic in their roles. Marsden brings a subtlety to his protagonist, portraying a good man who finds himself punished for his selfish deeds. Langella, with a hideously burned face, still manages to project charm and empathy, even when it's wrapped up in a quietly threatening demeanor. Diaz, however, is miscast and seems to focus more on getting a Virginian accent right than bringing any emotion or personality to her character.

At its heart, "The Box" is a morality tale centered on two normal characters faced with an extraordinary choice. By trying to explain the box and the button, Kelly robs the parable of its power and focus. The story is no longer about ordinary people facing their own inner evil, but is now about the fate of the world and powers higher than us. When the film refocuses on the characters for a strong third act, the hook of the premise is enough to make us care about the final moral decision awaiting the couple - but we've taken so many rabbit trails to get to that point that we don't really know why they're in this position or what the denouement means.

Kelly keeps "The Box's" plot moving, but fails to bring his characters along for the ride.

Still, there's enough to make the film worthy of a look, if only for the handsome cinematography, the strong performances by Langella and Marsden, or the strong moral questions posed in the first and third act. Kelly still has enough style to make a watchable film; he just overloads them with absurd twists and turns that negate audience investment. Maybe he should stop trying to think outside the box.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.