Saturday, October 27, 2007

Recent Movie Roundup 5

  1. Stardust (2007) - First, a word about the ubiquitous Princess Bride comparisons: these are only excusable coming from a) public relations wonks or b) people who have forgotten just how funny and smart The Princess Bride actually was (people who have never seen The Princess Bride have no excuse whatsoever). Everyone else--what were you thinking? The Princess Bride is a film that people can and do watch again and again, and though Stardust is an enjoyable way to spend an evening, and one that I wouldn't object to repeating one of these years, it simply is not in the same league as Reiner and Goldman's masterpiece. To be honest, I'm baffled at the amount and the vehemence of the buzz, both good and bad, generated by this inoffensive, pleasant film, and can only account for it by the general lack of fantasy films for adults. In itself, the film is a rather ordinary fantasy adventure story, just funny and romantic enough to get by, and with several winning, though hardly remarkable, performances to keep it afloat.

    As an adaptation, Stardust is both good and bad. Good because Gaiman's novel is essentially plotless--Tristan basically stands around while minor characters (some of whom he never even meets) orchestrate his good fortune as part of a larger political plot of which we are never made fully aware--and the film does a decent job of imposing the standard quest/adventure narrative on the novel's events. Bad, because almost all of the irreverent deviations from fairy tale tropes that made the novel so much fun in spite of its limp plotting (and which might, just barely, have justified the Princess Bride comparison)--stuff like Victoria being a decent person who was willing to fulfill her bargain with Tristan, or Tristan and Yvaine deciding to run off and have adventures instead of becoming monarchs--have been lopped off, resulting in a narrative that is almost by-the-numbers even as it pats itself on the back for breaking the mold. Which is probably why this is a cute, enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable film rather than a meaningful entry in the extremely short annals of cinematic adult fantasy.

  2. Die Hard 4 (2007) - Between the plot--an evil hacker genius tries to bring America to its knees by crippling its computerized infrastructure--and the two one-on-one fight scenes--one in a martial arts style, against a sexy Asian villain; the other an acrobatic display against a svelte European type--it's clear that the fourth Die Hard film is a response to the changes in the action genre over the last few decades. The numerous echoes and callbacks to the original Die Hard seem to be a message that this film is taking us back to basics, to good old-fashioned blood, sweat, and thrown punches (whether the juxtaposition of this so-called meat-and-potatoes action style with the rah-rah America undertone of the film--it even takes place on July 4th--is significant is an exercise left for the reader).

    The problem is that all the references to the original film also serve as a reminder of how good, how smart, and how unusual the original Die Hard was (including, but not limited to, the fact that Bonnie Bedelia neither looked nor dressed like a runway model, something that can't be said of her character's daughter in this film). It was anything but meat and potatoes, and its sequels have lost that quality, becoming hackneyed and conventional, and buying into the tropes of a genre that Die Hard 4 is supposedly lambasting. The confrontation between John McClane and the villain du jour is a textbook example. It's an echo of the corresponding scene in the first film, in which a bloodied, exhausted McClane confronts the man who has his female loved one at gunpoint. In the original film, this scene jarred us--we saw McClane through his wife's eyes and realized how feral and animalistic he had become. Die Hard 4 doesn't try to elicit this shock. Despite paying lip service to the notion, it doesn't believe that McClane is a human being, which means that violence can't dehumanize him--he's already there. From a story about an ordinary man becoming a hero we've come to a story about a man who is, every second of every day, a hero and nothing more, and the result is boring for all the exploding helicopters.

  3. Joshua (2007) - There's a time-honored tradition of films about creepy, preternaturally polite and clearly sociopathic children, and in its first half it seems that Joshua is an interesting play on this trope. Monstrous though the title character--who never laughs or even smiles, who is always quiet and well-coiffed, and who at the beginning of the film assures his parents that they don't have to love him--plainly is, he is not significantly less normal than his family. Mom is a neurotic fast sinking under postpartum depression. Dad is a man-child intent on ignoring his family's problems, but who is nevertheless shocked when his fellow stock brokers advise him to forget his family as soon as he leaves their palatial Manhattan apartment. Grandma is an evangelical Christian, and the most normal family member is the uncle, a stereotypical New York queen. Even as they desperately assure each other that they are not like 'these people'--the Manhattan yuppies they meet at work or at their son's school--Joshua's parents are clearly sinking into that soulless, shallow life, and are only shocked out of it when they bring their baby daughter home and their son's covert creepiness begins to rise above the surface.

    Unfortunately, once the menacing suggestiveness portion of the film draws to a close, it relies on the most blatant kind of idiot plotting to keep going. Joshua's father becomes convinced that his son is a monster because he finds a video tape of Joshua menacing his sister, but later, when he is accused of abusing his son, he doesn't show the tape to anyone (the tape's existence also begs the question of why Joshua made it and left it for anyone to find, and why, in the name of all that is good and holy, do his parents have a night-vision feature on their video camera). At the film's end, there's no escape but to interpret it as a bizarre sort of allegory--that Joshua's derangement is a metaphor for his being one of 'those people', who does away with his parents because he sees their ambivalence towards the lifestyle they raised him in as an obstacle. Which is, to say the least, weird, and as social criticism goes, a little on the broad side. Still, the performances are all good and the film is effectively creepy--so much so that it still hasn't entirely settled in my mind.

  4. 1408 (2007) - Sad to say, but this is probably one of the most successful Stephen King adaptations out there. Based on a short story of the same title (from the collection Everything's Eventual, which I very much enjoyed), about a writer of travel books for ghost enthusiasts who spends (or rather, tries to spend) a night in the titular room, the film is nicely atmospheric and, though they're both clearly slumming, John Cusack (as the writer) and Samuel L. Jackson (as the hotel's manager, who tries to talk Cusack's character out of staying in what he calls 'an evil fucking room') are both game and give the story their all. The first half, which introduces us to the characters (including the tacked-on self-destructiveness of Cusack's character and hints of the tragedy driving it) and elaborates on the room's gruesome history, is tight and well-paced.

    Unfortunately, the original "1408" is a Lovecraft-ian mood piece about evil forces men shouldn't mess with and a guy who does. In other words, it's plotless. As the film draws on, its attempts to impose a plot on the story become increasingly strained and pathetic. Towards the end, we're just alternating between ever-more inventive horrors being inflicted on the writer and ever-more maudlin exploration of his emotional issues, over and over again. There's probably a good one-hour piece in here--maybe a substitute for one of the less successful entries (which were, sadly, the majority) in the anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which adapted ten of King's short stories--but as a feature-length film it drags and can only end unsatisfyingly.

  5. Eastern Promises (2007) - This film is clearly a companion piece to Cronenberg's previous entry, A History of Violence. Like History, it focuses on the meeting point between the world of civilized, law-abiding people and the brutal underworld of organized crime, with a character played by Viggo Mortensen stuck in the middle and a blond woman acting as his love interest and moral compass. This time around the woman is Naomi Watts, who plays a London midwife left with more questions than answers when a young woman dies in her care and leaves a baby and a diary written in Russian behind. She follows the girl's trail to a Russian mobster, his hotheaded son, and the son's friend, driver, and clean-up guy, Nikolai (Mortensen), and becomes caught in the middle of a power struggle between the three. I liked A History of Violence, with some reservations because I felt it didn't do enough to explore the questions of identity and morality it raised, instead preferring to focus on acrobatic violence. Eastern Promises goes even further in that direction. It's as though Cronenberg took William Hurt's campy, over-the-top ten-minute appearance from History and made an entire film out of it.

    Mortensen very nearly saves the entire exercise. He's the heart of the film, not Watts's character (who is too naive to be believable, and whose quest for justice on behalf of her dead patient and the baby comes off as whiny rather than principled or brave), and Eastern Promises is worth watching both for his performance and for the puzzle his character poses--whose side is he on? What, if any, are his moral convictions? What does he want?--as well as for the film's procedural segments, which his actions drive. Unfortunately, his dominance of the film isn't complete. Too much time is spent with the broad and obvious godfather and his aggravating son, and though, when Nikolai is in the room, there's some fun to be wrung out of his obvious efforts not to roll his eyes at their limited intelligence and inelegant bloodlust, far too often he isn't in the room, and we're left with atrocious dialogue and hammy overacting. The entire film, as a result, feels overwrought, which is a shame for Mortensen's sake--he's fast moving into the George Clooney category of handsome, charismatic actors circling 50, and I wish there were better vehicles out there for him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen either "1408" or "Eastern Promises" yet, but since the post disucsses both adaptations to King's books and Cronenberg, it's worth mentioning the director's 1983 adaptation of King's "The Dead Zone" starring Christopher Walken. It was Cronenber's first foray into (more or less) mainstream cinema, and while there are script problems, from a cinematic point of view this remains one of the better King adaptations. "The Dead Zone", which I believe King himself described as his most "plot-driven" novel got lucky a second time: the TV show based on it, in its first three seasons at least, was one of the more intelligent supernatural-mystery shows to grace the small screen.

-Raz Greenberg

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