Monday, July 04, 2016

Immortality isn't Forever

Michael Huisman and Blake Lively in The Age of Adaline

Here are some more capsule reviews of what I've been watching this spring.

The Age of Adaline (2015, directed by Lee Toland Krieger), in which Blake Lively's title character becomes immortal after a freak accident. Born in 1908, we catch up with her in the present moment, after she's shed several identities as protection against those who would poke and prod her as a lab rat. Adaline currently works as a librarian in San Francisco, where she catches the eye of tech wonderkind Ellis, who falls hard for her. The romance will never work, Adaline knows, even though she falls hard for him back. She's on the verge of shedding yet another identity and starting over. Meanwhile, she's plagued by the regrets that go with her long life, and must come to grips with her aging daughter, Flemming. Flemming is now ready for a retirement community while her mother remains evergreen and beautiful.

I am a sucker for stories about immortality, particularly those that focus on the ephemeral nature of everyone else. Most of us experience something like Adaline's life when we take in pets, something of which this film is well aware. If you've ever had to put down a pet, this film will make you cry. It's probably a cheap shot, but it's effective. This is generally a handsome film. Who knew that Blake Lively actually has something like the "it" charisma of a movie star? She does, at least in this film. This also contains good performances by Ellen Burstyn as Adeline's daughter and by Harrison Ford as Ellis's father, William, who knew and loved Adeline himself a lifetime ago. Ford is a surprise, given that he rarely seems engaged by his roles in recent films. Here, he's kind and forlorn and conflicted. It's not a performance he's given before and it's entirely lovely. Michiel Huisman gets the unenviable task of playing Ellis, who has no flaws. He's an idea of a perfect boyfriend, not a real flesh and blood person; a romance-novel construct who isn't real.

Real cracks in the edifice can be found in the structure of the film itself. This is presented--unwisely--as some kind of documentary history of Adaline Bowman, complete with elided footnotes. Its narrator is symptomatic of filmmakers who don't trust their material or don't trust the audience (or both). It's an overcompensation. It doesn't match the lush visual style of the film's image at all. More troubling still are the gender politics in its subtext. Throughout the film, Adaline is shown to be a remarkable woman, who has taken advantage of her long life to become some next-generation of human. She speaks multiple languages, including Braille. She can do a full-on Sherlock Holmes-style deduction of who a person is just by looking at them. She has style, grace, and patience, all of them the product of her long, long life. Then the film suggests that she must give all of that up if she wants love with a thoroughly bourgeois man. When the film restarts Adaline's aging process at the end, I scowled at the screen.

Michael Shannon and Jaden Lieberher in Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016) is another of director Jeff Nichols's upscale genre pictures. Like Take Shelter before it, it's a film that crosses over into the fantastic hoping to find some kind of transcendence that would elude a more naturalistic film. It's not entirely successful.

The plot of the film follows a father who has kidnapped his son from what appears to be some sort of UFO cult who view the boy as a prophet. They're not without some justification. The boy has some kind of powers, and it's not just the cult that wants him back. The government are also hot on the trail. The boy himself is intensely sensitive to light, so Roy--the father--and his friend Lucas have to travel at night. Every so often, the boy, Alton, erupts with bursts of energy and predictive powers. These sometimes have spectacular real-world effects, like when he brings down a satellite that has been tracking them. Two-thirds of the way into the film, the boy has an epiphany: he knows what he is and where he must go. The trick is getting there.

Midnight Special reminds me of some of Stephen King's weirder stories, in which ordinary people must contend with extraordinary occurrences. It most reminds me of Firestarter, in which a father goes on the run with a child possessed of "wild talents" while a shadowy government agency pursues them. Unlike that book, Midnight Special has a disappointing payoff, as the barrier between Alton's world and our own world drops for a few minutes. The boy's significance is reduced in these scenes to the role of Maguffin.

The film stars Nichols's usual collaborator, Michael Shannon, who gives a more nuanced performance here than he has before. The supporting cast is unusually fine, including Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, and Adam Driver. Moreover, Nichols takes his extraordinary events seriously, filming some of them with the kind of wonder at the universe one sees in contemporary art films. The scene where Alton greets the rising sun strives for the same transcendental communion with nature as one sees in a Terrence Malick film, for instance.

The style of its filmmaking is at odds with the pulp fiction nature of its narrative. Nichols makes genre films--or at least he seems like he wants to make genre films. His last three films have been genre films of one sort or another. At the same time, he runs away from genre, as if he doesn't want to be painted with that brush, confined to that cinematic ghetto. It is totally possible to make genre films that "transcend" their origins (more accurately, use the language of genre in startling and original ways without materially changing it). There are genre films that are as artful as anything Nichols is striving for. But so long as he keeps genre filmmaking at arms length, as if it smells bad or something, Nichols is never going to get to that level. There are things to like in Midnight Special, but it's frustratingly inconsequential. Its big idea is pretty dumb, no matter how much art you pump into it.

Yun Lin in The Mermaid

The Mermaid (2015, directed by Stephen Chow) represents the first serious challenge to Hollywood's dominance of world cinema since Princess Mononoke. When the history of world cinema is updated in another forty years or so, this will be remembered as one of the moments when things shifted. The Mermaid is the highest-grossing film in the history of Chinese cinema. It will end its theatrical career with more money in the bank than all but a very small handful of this year's American films. It represents the muscle of the new Chinese marketplace, one that dwarfs the cinema infrastructure of the United States. And yet, almost no one in the United States has seen the film thanks to an indifferent distributor, and that's a shame. Like director Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle or Shaolin Soccer, The Mermaid is the goddamnedest crowd-pleaser you ever did see.

Shan is the mermaid of the title. She lives on an island that has been targeted for development by an "engulf and devour" corporation. She has been tasked by her people with infiltrating the corporation and assassinating the CEO, one Lin Xuan. She fails spectacularly, but in the process, finds herself falling for Xuan, who is a repressed kid at heart. Unfortunately for Shan, Xuan has a ruthless femme fatale for a business partner who will stop at nothing to see their project through, and who will have no part of Xuan getting together with anyone but her. She dispatches her corporate mercenaries to annihilate the mermaids. It's up to Shan and Xuan to stop her...

Describing the plot of The Mermaid doesn't do it justice. It's like describing the plot of one of the great silent comedies. You just have to see it to believe it. Shan's assassination attempt is one of the best pieces of pure slapstick I've seen in ages, a scene where everything that can go wrong goes spectacularly wrong. Likewise, the scene where Shan's octopoid tribal chief impersonates a chef is one of those situations where the pain involved provokes laughs just from its sheer horribleness. This is comedy that travels. Chow and his collaborators have minimized any verbal comedy in favor of outrageous visual gags that have an immediacy that would elude a more cerebral film. This is a lowbrow comedy. Most of the characters are broad stereotypes and the plot is simplistic to a fault. If you want to take a theme from the film, there's an environmental message, sure, and a critique of corporate greed that should play as well in the USA as it does in China, but all of that is secondary to the outre set-pieces Chow puts on screen. This is bright and colorful and weird and dizzyingly hyperkinetic. It's also unexpectedly sweet, which makes the whole thing go down smooth. It's one of the best times I've had at the movies this year.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

As the movies play through the evolution of the superhero archetype, they've amassed enough of the tropes from the comics to make self-parody possible and comprehensible to a large audience. They've also arrived at the same kind of pandering to an (arrested) adolescent male audience with sex(ism) and violence and crude humor. This arrives on screen in a perfect storm in Deadpool (2016, directed by Tim Miller), in which Ryan Reynolds plays the comics' "merc with a mouth." This is the second time he's played the part, the first being in the ill-regarded X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Thanks to the various time travel shenanigans in the regular X-Men series, his origin has been remounted for the new film. The concept of the retcon is truly Marvel's greatest gift to cinema...

Wade Wilson is a mercenary with a heart of gold who finds love with Vanessa, another mercenary/stripper (Morena Baccarin), discovers that he's dying of cancer, and is approached by a sinister organization who want to conduct an experiment on him to give him super powers. The head of this organization, Ajax, just scream's "supervillain". Wade reluctantly agrees, though. Anything is better than dying of cancer. The process does indeed give him superpowers--he mainly gets Wolverine's mutant healing and regeneration powers--but it also leaves him completely disfigured. Feeling like he can't go back to Vanessa looking like something that used to be a potato, he embarks on a campaign of revenge. Meanwhile, the bad guys--including a badass female villain named "Angel Dust"--lay a trap for Wilson, using Vanessa as bait. With the help of X-Men Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (a surly teenage girl who would rather text than fight), Deadpool chooses to spring the trap. Mayhem ensues...

I'll be blunt: I hated this movie. I think it's visually ugly in spite of its creative uses of The Matrix's "bullet time," I think it's vicious, I think it's mean, I think it's crude, I think it's misogynist, I think it puts characters on screen who aren't recognizable as convincing human beings. I think it's been scraped from the bathroom floor of the grottiest hole in the wall dude-bro comics shop you can find, one where the staff uses old Witchblade comics as wanking material. And, perhaps its worst sin: I don't think it's funny. As a suggestion to would-be post-modernist screenwriters: a reference is not necessarily a joke and breaking the fourth wall is not inherently funny in and of itself. This is a film that was made on the cheap and looks it. This is a film in which we're asked to groove on the antics of a man whose sole reason for existing is to massacre his enemies and take a beating from which he cannot die. Does anyone in the world actually talk like Wade Wilson? Sure, his tirades are pornographic, but realistic? Maybe I'm asking too much for naturalistic dialogue in a movie where a dude can turn into steel and where the hero grows a new hand after his old one has been chopped off (causing him to rejoice that his new hand--small as it regrows--makes his genitals look huge as he beats off). This makes no comprehensible statements about the world beyond the idea that one must massacre one's enemies to be a man worthy of the love of a hot chick who wears leather dresses and stockings with visible garters. Whatever.

Regardless. I walked out of Deadpool feeling like I had been diminished somehow, which is not a feeling I want to have coming out of a film that is ostensibly a comedy.

As a personal caveat to the unwary: I love comics. I even love superhero comics, depending on the tone. Deadpool and his creator, Rob Liefeld, and characters and creators like them spoiled that for me back in the 1990. The initial explosion of the Image Comics founders drove me away from a medium and an idiom that I grew up loving. So, if you think I'm holding a grudge--and, truthfully, I might be--and that that grudge is coloring my perception of Deadpool the movie, can draw your own conclusions, I guess. But I root for movies to be good, especially when I've paid to see them. Even this film. Lots of people I like loved it. I don't have any idea of what they saw to love in this, though. Call it a particular blindness on my part, I guess.

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