Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A model that doesn't live up to its make

Cars 2
My rating:

A good friend and fellow movie buff has described Cars 2 as "the boss' pet project." See, in 2006, Cars was the first film John Lasseter had directed since 1999's Toy Story 2, and this sequel is his only other film in the five years since then. In interviews, Lasseter has talked up his love for the sport of auto racing and the historic U.S. Route 66 highway that inspired the first film. And also, he's the Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, as well as of Walt Disney Animation Studios. So yes, this being the boss' pet project is as good a reason as any for why Pixar chose to make a sequel to one of their least-loved movies; the only other reason is that its least-loved movie is also its most money-making, with merchandise sales in excess of $5 billion. And then the movie came out in June and earned Pixar's worst critical drubbing ever, scoring only 37% on RottenTomatoes. It's enough to make a true-blue Pixar fanboy like myself despair.

Okay, Pixar is still Pixar. But yeah, this is the least Pixar-like Pixar movie since, well, ever.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now a world-famous racer who has returned to his home of Radiator Springs and his closest friends, especially Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Then they learn of a new race organized by billionaire Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) as a means to promote his new biofuel; provoked by taunts from Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), McQueen decides to take part, this time bringing Mater with him to the race's international locales such as Japan, Italy and England. But Mater's simple-mindedness and ignorance end up embarrassing him and drives a wedge in their friendship - and in turn, leads to Mater getting embroiled in a deadly spy plot. British intelligence agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for a secret agent, and recruit him into foiling a conspiracy to sabotage the race, conducted by the evil genius Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) who is working for a secret mastermind. A conspiracy that may have deadly consequences for the racers - including McQueen.

As you can probably tell, I have a weakness for animated family films. Two of my No. 1 best films of the year have been from Pixar, and I've been mostly quite generous in my opinions of even non-Pixar offerings (except for Despicable Me, and nothing's gonna convince me it was good). Cars 2 is about as good as the more recent DreamWorks Animation releases, which means it's still quite good; it's a bright, imaginative, clever, and perfectly enjoyable movie that will keep kids enthralled and adults entertained. But Pixar's usual, self-ordained standard is to keep both kids and adults enthralled - the former with dazzling visuals, the latter with either thought-provoking ideas or heartrending emotional weight and often both. And their latest film just doesn't match up, largely because it only has one of those to offer.

The first Cars was about humility, maturity, and finding something worth loving more than one's own self. Which, in execution, wasn't quite as engaging as Toy Story 3's ruminations on mortality or Up's meditation on grief and loss, but at least it was about something. Cars 2 is about how Mater should be comfortable being himself - which, okay, is something, but it's also terribly hackneyed and trite. It's a tired old cliché of kids' movies, and it's even been done better in films like How to Train Your Dragon and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. None of the supposedly poignant scenes between McQueen and Mater stir any emotions, and it doesn't help that the "himself" that Mater ought to be is an idiotic redneck stereotype. "Being yourself" is the wrong lesson to learn if you're a buffoon to begin with! Sure, he eventually redeems himself and saves the day with his unique Mater-ness, but that's just Screenwriting 101. Pixar is usually much better at storytelling than this.

Fact is, the friendship between these two wasn't even the most affecting relationship in the first film; that'd be the one between McQueen and Doc Hudson, voiced by the late Paul Newman. Both character and actor get a tribute in an early scene that feels clumsy and tacked-on, and serve only to remind us that Cars, despite being the weakest entry in Pixar's ouevre - till now - was still a characteristically Pixar story. More proof that Cars 2 isn't is the fact that its new characters are all one-note and underdeveloped. Neither Michael Caine nor Emily Mortimer are impressive as Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, mainly because all they do is follow the plot; there's a half-hearted attempt at a romantic subplot between Holley and Mater that's just half-hearted. And Finn's arsenal of gadgets is fun, but for the most part he just plays second fiddle to Mater. For the amount of screentime they have, neither of them possess the depth that Pixar is known for investing in their characters.

But Cars 2 does improve on its predecessor in one respect. In my Retro Review of Cars, I mentioned that it's slow and self-indulgent, but its sequel makes up for that with its action scenes. They're fun, frantic, filled with clever and witty touches, and not to mention frequent; parents needn't worry about the kids getting too bored with the talky bits before the cars start chasing and shooting at each other and blowing things up again. Another thing Pixar is an acknowledged master of is the genuinely thrilling action scene, and on that score this movie delivers. It is also typically great to look at, and moving the story out of Radiator Springs allows it to show us some gorgeous visual design; I thought the Porto Corsa locale of the second race was especially beautiful. We also get to see a lot more of this world of anthropomorphic automobiles - which, yes, doesn't make a lick of sense, but it is what it is: an excuse for lots and lots of car puns, both verbal and visual. Some of them may be groaners, but hey, I like puns.

So once again, it's a fun and enjoyable movie and perfectly serviceable as family entertainment. It just isn't more than perfectly serviceable, which is what we've come to expect from Pixar. And being a fanboy of theirs, I can't help but wonder why they made this, and why they made it like this. Maybe it really is the boss' pet project; maybe Pixar's true legacy is being carried on by folks like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, and maybe Lasseter is losing his touch - which is sad for the man who directed Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Or maybe the real reason is this. Which, if it is true, I'm more than willing to forgive them for. Let them get their moneymaker out of the way, let them silence their shareholders, let them earn the creative freedom they need to make masterpieces once again. Let this just be a minor misstep, or a necessary evil - and not, God forbid, the start of a decline.

NEXT REVIEW: Conan the Barbarian
Expectations: I love this stuff, it can't be that bad - can it?...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cowboys meet aliens and don't quite hit it off

Cowboys and Aliens
My rating:

Ah, the pleasures of the genre mash-up. I like westerns and I like sci-fi and I like action movies, so Cowboys and Aliens should be right up my alley. (Then again, I don't think there's really a genre I don't like.) It's been garnering some serious buzz, what with its starring Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig - Indiana Jones and James Bond themselves - and being helmed by Jon Favreau, fresh off the Iron Man series. A good trailer didn't hurt either. It's based um, inspired by a 2006 graphic novel, but the movie only takes the title and the concept and pretty much nothing else - so I can't rightly put a Comicbook Adaptation label on this review. I'm just wondering how an "adaptation" deal like that works in Hollywood.

In hindsight, the movie might've done better if it hewed more closely to it's, um, source material.

A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert, having lost his memory, and with a mysterious metal device strapped to his wrist. He wanders into the remote town of Absolution, where he runs afoul of the drunken, brutish Percy (Paul Dano), son of local cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). He also learns that his name is Jake Lonergan, that a woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) has a mysterious interest in him - and that he is wanted by the law. But when Dolarhyde arrives at the town jail to claim both his son and Lonergan, strange lights in the sky appear; aliens have arrived to attack Absolution and kidnap several townspeople, including Percy. To rescue their people, Lonergan must forge an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde and ride out in a posse that includes Ella, the town barkeep Doc (Sam Rockwell), Dolarhyde's right-hand man Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), country preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown), and Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff's grandson whose grandfather (Keith Carradine) is one of the abductees.

It has not escaped my attention that I've been damn generous with the 4-star ratings lately. I do think the summer of 2011 has been pretty awesome, and by year's end I'm betting we'll see some proper commentary on how this has been one of the better cinematic years in recent history. But five 4-starrers in a row is a big stretch - even if two of them aren't summer blockbusters, and one isn't even from a film industry in which "summer blockbuster" means anything - and this is the one that breaks that trend. Three stars doesn't mean I thought it was really bad, but it sure doesn't live up to the standards set by its summer brethren.

Its biggest problem is that it just isn't any fun. For a movie that calls itself Cowboys and Aliens, it sure takes none of the kind of geekish glee that such a premise engenders, instead going for an entirely self-serious approach to both genres. It's almost completely humourless, with not a single clever line or gag. And its action scenes are unimaginative and uninspired. Heck, just off the top of my head I can think of a bunch of scenes that mash up the western and sci-fi in fun ways. Cowboys riding flying horses! Cowboys shooting ray guns! A high noon duel with an alien! Precisely none of these appear in this movie. It's almost as if it thinks a summer blockbuster titled Cowboys and Aliens can be played completely straight.

Even the answer behind the story's central mystery - how Lonergan ended up in the middle of the desert with an alien weapon strapped to his wrist - is uninteresting. And its biggest reveal was already spoiled in its trailer (hint: it has something to do with Ella), and wasn't exactly a huge surprise either way. There's a weird arbitrariness to its plot, and more than once I got the impression that all its big plot points - the posse runs into Lonergan's old outlaw gang, the aliens attack, Indians show up and capture everybody - occur only because the film had no idea how to end the previous scene. There are no less than six names credited on story and screenplay, which is perhaps a miracle that it turned out at least coherent - but, again, dull and uninspired.

It's also a crying shame that it wastes such a talented cast, including minor members like Clancy Brown, Sam Rockwell and Keith Carradine - all of whom ought to belong in a good old-fashioned western, and all of whom have practically nothing to do. Even headliners Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford aren't particularly impressive here; Lonergan simply isn't compelling, and Dolarhyde's characterization flat-out doesn't work. He starts out as a mean old bastard, and Ford seems to be having fun playing against type as a scenery-chewing villain. Then we're asked to believe he's not so bad after all, he's really just a softie deep down - and I'm just not buying it. There's zero chemistry amongst anyone here - not between Ford and Adam Beach, with whom he's supposed to have some kind of fatherly relationship; not between Ford and Noah Ringer, who does not redeem himself for The Last Airbender; and not between Craig and Olivia Wilde, who are supposed to have some half-assed low-key romance.

Let me say again that three stars doesn't mean it's an entirely bad movie. It's competently executed, and the plot more or less makes sense. Its failures are largely in intent rather than execution - because, again, it chooses to be a cowboys-vs-aliens movie that takes itself completely seriously. This does not bode well for Favreau, for whom this film should've been his redemption after an acrimonious split with Marvel Studios over the Iron Man franchise; fact is, the blame for making a slow-moving and dull sci-fi western mash-up can be laid squarely at his feet. And it's already a confirmed flop at the box-office, losing its opening weekend to The Smurfs of all things. Which unfortunately means it'll be a long, long while before we see another western, much less a mash-up western, on our screens again.

Expectations: Pixar, don't let me down too much

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Get your stinking paws on these damn awesome apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
My rating:

The Planet of the Apes film franchise is a curious one to revive. It originated from one classic movie and four less-than-classic sequels that stretched from 1968 to 1973, and was briefly revived in a 2001 Tim Burton-helmed remake that no one liked. (Including myself; it solidified my opinion of Mark Wahlberg as a painfully dull leading man, and the "twist" ending was insanely stupid.) The remake is now seen in hindsight as one of those big summer blockbusters that made decent money but no one thinks highly of, and is best remembered as the least Burton-like movie Burton ever made. So the news of a brand new prequel-cum-reboot of the series was largely greeted with a resounding "meh" - and in fact, even after having watched it, I'm still wondering who's that one Hollywood executive who loves Planet of the Apes so much that he's been trying to revive it for over a decade.

Whoever he is, he can now give himself a hearty pat on the back. Nice work, dude! This one is good.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer's, whose research suffers a major setback after a lab specimen chimpanzee goes berserk. His boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts him down and disposes of the rest of the chimps, but Will manages to bring home a newborn baby chimp to live with him and his Alzheimer's-ridden father (John Lithgow). The chimp - named Caesar (Andy Serkis) - soon develops heightened intelligence and awareness from his exposure to Will's experimental drug, and the years pass as he lives with his surrogate family that later includes Will's girlfriend, veterinarian Caroline (Frieda Pinto). But even as Will attempts to continue his drug research, Caesar grows moody and temperamental, and Will is forced to give him up to a primate facility. Bullied by the other apes, mistreated by a cruel keeper (Tom Felton), and feeling abandoned by his adopted father, Caesar decides to take his destiny - and that of his fellow apes - in his own hands.

Am I the only critic who sees the similarities between this movie and X-Men: First Class? They're pretty obvious; the first big one is that both are prequels to established stories. There are absolutely no surprises here; everything from its ending to the beats it goes through to get there can be predicted from the trailer. We know things will start idyllically, with Caesar growing up happily under Will's care, we know Will has the best of intentions in trying to cure his father of Alzheimer's, we know Caesar will suffer the cruel treatment of callous and dickish humans, and we know this will drive Caesar to lead an ape rebellion. Still, everything was well done enough to be reasonably engaging - and unlike X-Men: First Class, it did not feel like a retread of material less than a decade old.

Then that scene came up. If you've watched it, you'll know the one I'm talking about, but if you haven't I wouldn't dream of spoiling it; although some dude on had already spoiled it for me, it lost none of its power. It's an amazing and awesome moment, and I'm now considering writing a year-end Top 10 Greatest Scenes of 2011 post just to include it. That scene came right at the start of the third act, and totally kicked the rest of the movie into high gear for me. This would be where what started out as a fast-paced drama turns into an all-out action movie, where the apes wreak havoc on San Francisco in what seems like a chaotic rampage but is in fact a well-orchestrated revolt by Caesar. And it is plenty awesome, but it owes its awesomeness to that one moment that set the ape uprising into motion. It sure made me want to jump out of my seat and Fight the Power! (Disclaimer: I may be somewhat biased, due to my own recent experience at civil disobedience.)

The other biggest similarity to the Marvel mutant movie is the fact that in its depiction of an inter-species conflict, it quite clearly takes the side against good ol' homo sapiens. Will, his father and Caroline are the nice ones, but even they still treat Caesar like a beloved pet rather than an equal. And the bad ones - who comprise the money-grubbing Jacobs, the brutish primate facility keeper played by Tom Felton (who is just Draco Malfoy all over again), and even an asshole neighbour of Will's (David Hewlett) - are little more than caricatures. In fact, a case may be made - and AV Club has already made it - that this really isn't a story about humans, and that Will isn't actually the main character even if he seems like it in the beginning. The real protagonist, the real hero of the movie, is in fact Caesar.

Which may explain why James Franco's performance is curiously inert, and not at all indicative of his talent; even during the poignant scenes with his father, he keeps underplaying it. And there's also Brian Cox as the manager of the primate facility who literally doesn't do anything, not even to play another asshole who mistreats the apes. The unimpressive human performances would have sunk the movie, were it not for Andy Serkis' motion-captured performance as a super-intelligent chimpanzee revolutionary leader. Caesar is an amazing creation, able to convey innocence, fear, anguish, pride, defiance - the full gamut of emotion. I hesitate to call it human emotion, because one of the themes of the story is that Caesar is every bit as sentient and sapient as a human, but he is decidedly not human; he is an utterly unique (and frankly, alien) intelligent creature, which even the well-intentioned Will fails to recognize. That the film succeeds at conveying this, and in the process creating a hero that wins the audience's sympathies handily, is probably its greatest triumph.

It also succeeds at making the other apes recognizable characters - the orangutan who is the first ape Caesar befriends, the gorilla whose loyalty he wins, the alpha chimp whose position he usurps, and the much-abused and traumatised chimp who is subjected to the drug experiments. All of whom are a lot more sympathetic than the human characters. Yes, AV Club was right, this is a story about the gradual obsolescence of the human race and its replacement by a species more worthy of existing. It's also the sleeper blockbuster hit of the summer, which makes it a pretty damn subversively smart movie. (Barring a few plot holes here and there.) To me, all it needed to earn my 4-star rating is to pass the franchise-starter test, which is to make me want a sequel. And I do. I want to see what Caesar does next, and I hope we get to see it real soon.

NEXT REVIEW: Cowboys and Aliens
Expectations: considerably lowered

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's cold out there in the woods

Winter's Bone
My rating:

(Holy God, I am so behind on my reviews. I plead the Day Job Defense.)

Winter's Bone
was the last of 2010's Oscar-nominated films that I wanted to watch, and the most difficult to find; none of my regular DVD shops had it. So imagine my surprise when it showed up on the local cinema release schedule, over a year since it first started generating award-worthiness buzz. Of course I wanted to catch it, and I would've done it sooner so's I could recommend this obviously-not-gonna-be-a-big-blockbuster to y'all. Unfortunately, as thankful as I am to GSC International Screens for bringing it to our shores, I can't recommend watching it in cinemas. The projection area is smaller than the screen, the aspect ratio isn't even widescreen, the picture resolution is poor and there are no subtitles; it looks like GSC is just projecting from a DVD. Is this the best you can do, guys?

The movie itself, however, is pretty great.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is only 17, but she is already full-time caretaker to her younger brother Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and sister Ashley (Ashlee Thompson) and their catatonic mother. They live a hardscrabble life in the rural Ozarks, but get by on Ree's single-minded devotion to her family. But one day the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) informs her that her father Jessup, who has long been missing and is out on bail for cooking meth, has put their house and land up for bond; if he doesn't show up for his court date, they'll lose their home. Ree's dogged determination to find her father - dead or alive - leads her to seek help from her friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser) and information from anyone who knew him. But all of them, including her own uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) and the wife (Dale Dickey) of feared local crime boss Thump Milton, warn her to leave well enough alone. Ree can't and won't do that - and this will put her in terrible danger.

Director Debra Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini adapted this film from a (then-unpublished) novel by Daniel Woodrell, whose crime fiction novels have been described as "country noir". Winter's Bone is definitely noir, although when I think "country" I picture Stetson hats and cowboy boots and a good deal more economic prosperity than what's depicted here. Everyone in this unnamed Missouri town seem to lead bleak, dead-end lives in which the men are all drug addicts, the women are all abused wives and no one has a job. People chop firewood for heat, hunt squirrels for food, and leave abandoned cars on their front porches. Even the woods look dull and sickly (although that may have just been the poor picture quality). It's a depressing world, but it's also a fascinating one that the film is highly successful at immersing you in.

'Cos these folks aren't just poor rednecks, they're also cold. One of its great ironies is its depiction of how insular and close-knit these people are (they keep calling the police "the law"), and yet how cruel and callous they are towards each other. Even before Ree is forced to poke around where she's not welcome, there's a general air of suspicion and danger about; when a neighbour makes an offering of some meat, Ree accepts, but reacts to the neighbour's questions about her father with thinly-veiled hostility. What makes Ree's task a titanic one is the conspiracy of silence around everyone she meets - a conspiracy they're willing to maintain with both bald-faced lies and cold-blooded violence. Her father's reputation as a meth cooker means he got involved with some very dangerous people - people whom Ree is not at all prepared to deal with, but whom she unflinchingly insists on facing anyway.

It's a pleasure to watch such an expertly crafted film, one that knows all the tools of filmic storytelling - acting, editing, shot selection, minimal background music - and knows how to use them. Right from its opening minutes, we see how hard the Dollys' lives are, how steadfast Ree is in being their sole caretaker, how much she loves her family, and how much she's sacrificed for them; when she takes her siblings to school, it's clear that she desperately misses going to school herself. There are recurring scenes of Sonny and Ashley playing around the house, happy and carefree unlike anyone else in this world, and we know how lucky they are to have this family - and what it would mean if it were to be broken up. All this without a single line of on-the-nose dialogue, though not that the dialogue is ever on-the-nose. People talk exactly the way movie characters should talk - like real people, saying things real people would say, yet pregnant with meaning and characterisation.

The award nods it's gotten have mostly been for the acting, particularly Jennifer Lawrence's and John Hawkes' performances; they are well-deserved. Lawrence showcases her talent much better here than in X-Men: First Class, where her role was one that any PYT with a vague resemblance to Rebecca Romijn could've played. As Ree, she displays a steel-hard tenacity and unwavering self-pride that make her a terrifically rootable heroine. It's not a showy or attention-grabbing performance, but Lawrence owns it with utter conviction. Hawkes is also terrific as the closest thing to a badass in a movie that largely eschews movie conventions like "badasses". He doesn't even look particularly intimidating, which is what makes his performance as the quietly dangerous Teardrop so effective.

This minimalist, unglamourous, grittily realistic approach is also what makes Winter's Bone such an effective thriller. And it is most definitely a thriller, one that doesn't need flashy directing, explosive action scenes or a pulse-pounding soundtrack (although there is some pretty evocative use of music) to generate edge-of-your-seat suspense. The plot may not all hang together - it's never explained who exactly is in on the conspiracy, and why - and what really happened to Jessup is never fully revealed. But all this doesn't matter to Ree, and it doesn't really matter to the movie. It's a fascinating glimpse into a bleak, brutal world that's rarely seen in the movies, guided by the indomitable spirit of a girl who has a family to save and just isn't going to quit trying.

NEXT REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Expectations: that good meh?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another feather in Marvel's Cap

Captain America: The First Avenger
My rating:

Allow me to begin my review of the last superhero movie of 2011 by mentioning our local filmmakers' attempts at creating Malaysian superheroes, two of which I've seen (but not the two Cicakman movies, arguably the most noteworthy ones to date). My biggest gripe about both is that they have no idea what the word "hero" means. It means selflessness. It means moral courage, not just the fight-the-bad-guys kind of courage. A bad superhero story panders to the wish-fulfilment adolescent power fantasy of beating up those who have wronged you. A good superhero story transcends that by defining heroism, by creating a character with a moral code that is tested and emerges stronger as a result. This is exactly where Haq and Kapoww!! failed.

And this exactly where Captain America: The First Avenger succeeds.

It is 1942, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to enlist in the army to fight the Nazis - but he keeps getting rejected because of his weak physique and poor health. Despite admonishments from his best friend James "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) - who is himself shipping out to the war front - Steve persists in trying to enlist, which earns him the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine recruits him for a secret project, led by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and aided by Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and industrialist Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), to inject him with a "super-soldier" serum that enhances his physical abilities to the peak of human potential. But the formula for the serum is lost soon after, and the newly-transformed "Captain America" is sidelined as a touring entertainer promoting the sale of war bonds. But you can't keep a good soldier down, and soon Steve is on the front lines battling the forces of HYDRA, a splinter Nazi organization led by Johann Schmidt - alias the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) - and bent on world domination.

Just like with Thor, Marvel Studios prove they have the formula for making superhero movies down pat - or at least, superhero origin movies. Both have the same combination of action, humour, broad yet effective characterisation, and just enough gravitas to be taken seriously; I can't imagine anyone who liked Thor not liking this one. In fact, I can't imagine anyone who liked the first Iron Man not liking either Thor or this one, and I suspect the only reason why Tony Stark is more popular is that he's the most obvious male fantasy figure; everyone wants to be a snarky, sinfully wealthy playboy who drives an Audi R8 and sleeps with a different hot chick every night. But that also points to the unique identities each of the three films have forged independent of each other - namely, in each of their central characters.

Steve Rogers is not an unrepentant capitalist who has a change of heart, or an arrogant man-child who learns humility. From start to finish, he is a paragon of courage and decency. He wants to enlist because he sees it as his moral duty; when Erskine asks him, "You want to kill Nazis?", his answer is, "I don't want to kill anybody. I just don't like bullies." He fights like a lion even though his scrawniness means he keeps getting beaten up. He throws himself on what he thinks is a live grenade when the rest of his squadmates run for cover (in a scene that raised giggles from the audience, which I don't think is the appropriate reaction; it's a hero moment, not a funny one). And when the super-soldier procedure transforms him into every woman's wet dream, he is seen briefly enjoying his newfound adulation and celebrity - things he's never had in his life - but when he hears his best friend has been taken as a POW, he sallies forth on his own to rescue him.

This flies in the face of conventional screenwriting wisdom regarding character arcs, which can sometimes be stupidly reduced to "he must be a hero by the end, so he needs to start off as a jerk" (see Green Lantern). Cap does not have a character arc, but he has strong characterization that is both tested and demonstrated in numerous different ways, and this makes him as compelling as any movie character. Who he really is never changes, only his physical body does - and that points to another great thing the movie does in actually redefining Cap from its source material. The fact that Steve Rogers was too scrawny to enlist in the army has always been part of Captain America's backstory, but it had never been explored to the depths that this film does - how his physical weakness is integral to who he is today, as much the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents is integral to Batman. Even for long-time fans of the comics, this is new, and it actually makes its hero even more heroic than he's ever been.

So it disappoints me when folks don't appreciate a superhero movie with a genuinely, inspiringly heroic protagonist, but it doesn't really surprise me. I suspect they were expecting actual superpowers a la X-Men, because there aren't really any here; Cap isn't super-strong like Superman, he's just, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, at the highest limits of natural human potential. This means the action scenes are pretty prosaic ones of Cap beating up HYDRA goons and occasionally operating a vehicle or two - but Johnston puts them together competently, which really deserves more credit than it's given. I might quibble about how he didn't use his shield often enough, since it's his one attribute that might qualify him for the "super" aspect of "superhero" - but as compensation, I got some pretty cool dieselpunk-futuristic designs in HYDRA's uniforms, bases, war machines and laser guns. (Oh, did I mention? This movie gets its laser guns in your World War II!)

Chris Evans is terrific. This makes no less than the third comicbook character role he's nailed; his Johnny Storm was one of the few bright spots of the otherwise sucky Fantastic Four movies, and don't forget Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's pretty amazing how an actor so good at playing cocky and egomaniacal jerks can turn right around and play a character for whom the slightest hint of self-centeredness could sink the whole movie. Hugo Weaving could play a comicbook villain in his sleep, and it's a small pity he wasn't given more opportunity to ham it up. Tommy Lee Jones gets most of the funniest lines and laughs from his droll delivery. Stanley Tucci establishes a warm mentorly chemistry with Evans in just a few short scenes. Sebastian Stan gets little screentime, but enough to raise anticipation for a possible future storyline. And Hayley Atwell is just a little wooden, but damn she looks great in a uniform.

And one more great thing about Captain America: The First Avenger - absolutely no jingoistic, flag-waving "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" propaganda. Marvel Studios actually offered foreign markets the option to drop the Captain America from the title (which few countries did), and that points to how considerate they've been in promoting the movie. Yanks may whine about them being "ashamed to be American", but the real kicker is a film that needs absolutely no overt patriotism to portray a hero any American - anyone in the world, really - could admire. Hot damn, with the two Iron Mans and Thor and now this, the Marvel cinematic universe is becoming an inexorably awesome great-movie-making machine. I'm expecting equally great things now from next year's The Avengers, but frankly, I'd be just as happy to see more of Cap.

NEXT MOVIE: Winter's Bone
Expectations: ooh, I've been looking forward to this one

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A History of Violence: China, 1917

Wu Xia
My rating:

TMBF is now taking suggestions for good online sources for reviews of Chinese and other Asian films in English. As you may have noticed, I rely a lot on LoveHKFilm, but their updates can be spotty; they sometimes don't post up a review of a major Hong Kong release till long after its initial release. Thing is, I don't know any other good Hong Kong movie review site (in English, please), so if you do, please share. I know a few that aren't very good, whose reviews are nowhere as witty and sharp as Kozo's (LoveHKFilm's webmaster) and his crew. Their stuff is always fun to read, which to me is reason enough to check out a film they recommend. Although I don't always concur with their opinions - Kozo liked Detective Dee a lot more than I did, for one.

But this one - this one is good.

Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a humble paper maker in the remote village of Liu, living with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and two sons. His idyllic life is interrupted when two bandits attempt to rob the village's general store while he's in it, and he fights them off and kills them through sheer dumb luck - or so it seems. Detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) believes there's more to Liu than meets the eye, and believes him to be a master martial artist of immensely deadly skill - although he has trouble proving it. But soon, members of the evil 72 Demons clan - including a vicious female warrior (Kara Hui) as well as the clan's own Master (Jimmy Wang Yu) - descend upon the helpless village in search of a lost scion.

It takes a certain hubris to name your film after its genre; as if you intend your movie to be a definitive statement on the entire genre. We've already seen one such Hong Kong movie early this year, and I didn't much like it. This one is clearly much better, but its title is a puzzler; it's not at all a classic wuxia film, it's a fresh and somewhat postmodern take on it. Now, it's not impossible for a film to be both a fresh look at a genre and a definitive entry; in wuxia alone, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes to mind, and there's also Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. But director Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Wu Xia is more like the Unforgiven of wuxia movies.

First, the CSI element. Yes, Xu's investigation into Liu involves a CSI-ish recreation of how he really killed the two bandits, based on forensic evidence gathered from the crime scene. It's quite cool, and involves a creatively realized scene in which Xu imagines the fight taking place while he observes nonchalantly. And his version of forensic science is the traditional Chinese medicine version, involving kooky ideas of chi and pressure points and acupuncture. (Yes, I'm calling them kooky. Apologies to TCM believers, but Western science is my God.) I certainly haven't seen anything like it in a wuxia film, and it's both unconventional and enjoyable.

But what's even more unconventional is how the film depicts the wuxia world. There are precisely zero heroic knight-errants here; every skilled martial arts practitioner in this story is a vicious criminal bordering on psychotic serial killer - or in the case of Liu, a former one. Yes, the premise is exactly that of A History of Violence, and Liu's former compatriots are portrayed as the same kind of inhuman monsters as the Irish mob in David Cronenberg's 2005 film. And since every other character in this story is either a simple peasant or a civil servant with no kungfu skills to speak of, this is a rather damning portrayal of the "jiang hu" that's so frequently romanticised in the genre. (It's also what raises the comparison with Unforgiven.)

All this is cool and interesting, but what makes it genuinely good is some solid storytelling craft and filmmaking flair. I'm reminded once again how utterly gorgeous Chinese period movies can be; the village of Liu is a flawlessly recreated location, and beautifully filmed in an opening scene that shows us the idyllic lifestyle of Liu and his fellow villagers. Chan's camera can be flashy, but always knows what it's doing; he shifts between quiet drama, understated suspense, and high-flying action thrills with remarkable self-assurance. There's a bravura scene set at dusk in a deserted forest trail, in which the tension is as heart-stoppingly thick as any horror movie, and makes you believe for a brief second that Liu could actually be a criminally insane murderer.

Which brings us to the acting, because Donnie Yen's performance in that scene is half of what makes it so terrific. This is probably the best entry in his resume to date, just for all the different sides to Liu that he plays; loving husband and father, simple village doofus, cold-blooded killer, reluctant badass, and Zen-calm philosopher. All this from Donnie Yen, folks, who of course delivers on the kungfu-fighting front as well. In fact, Chan and his screenwriters Aubrey Lam and Joyce Chan take care to develop all the characters; Xu values the letter of the law above basic human empathy, and even Ayu has a scene that explores what she's going through ('cos if you have Tang Wei in your cast, it'd be a shame not to use her talents). Even the villains get welcome shades of dimension, and the cast are all up to the task of portraying them.

Curiously, this is my second 4-star film in a row with a somewhat disappointing ending. Wu Xia's is something of a deus ex machina, which I'm willing to forgive more than an abrupt ending that leaves loose ends hanging. But like Hanna, the greatness of what came before still makes this one great. I hasten to add that it's not really a full-on kungfu action movie; the action scenes are satisfying but few and far between, and it spends most of its running time switching between character drama and suspense thriller. But it is very good at all of these things. Thank you LoveHKFilm, your recommendation (this time!) is spot on! Let's hope there'll be more good ones from Hong Kong, and let's hope you guys let me know in time to catch them.

NEXT REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (sorry, looks like I couldn't make it for Senario the Movie: Ops Pocot)
Expectations: sounds like it's quite different from Thor