Movie Reviews - 2016 postsSaturday March 19, 2016
Movie Review: The Witch (2016)
I thought it would be scarier.
It’s well-made, full of dread, fairly straightforward. We know early on that some demonic force is at work in the woods, and that’s how it plays out. Horrible things happen, people blame each other (for being in league with Satan) or themselves (for not being devout enough), but the fault lies elsewhere. God isn’t punishing them, He’s just not around. It’s like most modern horror stories: the Devil exists but God doesn’t. Or He doesn’t care. Or He isn’t as interested in getting up in our business.
What did you think of the decision to show the baby in the woods with the witch/woman/creature? It felt like a mistake to me. It was horrifying—the smooth baby belly against the sharp steel of the knife—but it actually relieved tension. We realized something was out there. We got answers. We weren’t second-guessing the family.
An American family
So how Puritan do you have to be to be excommunicated from a Puritan community for “excessive pride”? That’s what happens to William (Ralph Ineson) and his family. They wind up exiled to the land east of Eden, i.e., 17th century New England, next to a deep woods, where they praise God and raise kids. But one day, while eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing peekaboo with the newborn, it suddenly disappears, and the camera pans toward the woods. The mother (Kate Dickie, “Game of Thrones”) is distraught and prays constantly, while eldest boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is worried about the baby’s soul—mostly because he’s worried about his own. He’s noticing sis’ budding breasts in a not exactly Puritan or brotherly manner.
Caleb is the second to disappear, also in the company of Thomasin, so the family begins to blame her—particularly since the creepy twins, Mercy and Jonas, who communicate with a black goat, accuse her of being a witch. She accuses them back since who else communicates with a black goat? The father’s solution is to board both up in the barn for the night. Smart move, Daddyo. A witch appears out of the back end of the goat—a great, creepy special effect, by the way, the best in the movie—and in the morning, the goats are skinned, the barn razed, the twins poof. Thomasin, once again, is the last one standing. Even as she’s sprawled on the ground.
What writer-director Robert Eggers is particularly good at is visiting violence out of nowhere. William is berating/beating Thomasin when—pow!—he’s struck by ... wait for it ... the black goat. More than struck: gored. Then pummeled and buried beneath the wood he’s been chopping for the entire movie. We’ve been watching him digging his own grave. Thomasin, horrified, is then violently yanked by ... wait for it ... the mother, the last surviving member of the family, who of course blames the daughter. By this point, I would, too. It’s only logical.
Diaboli ex machina
Question: Is she to blame? That evening, after Thomasin kills her mother in self-defense, the Devil, or a demon, gets her to sign away her soul, strip, and join other naked women/witches in the woods. Chanting around a fire, they begin to dance and levitate. Thomasin does, too, laughing. She’s one of them now. She’s got a new family.
So was that the plan from the get-go? Thomasin? Was the rest of the family just in the way?
“The Witch,” supposedly culled from historical records/accusations, is a good primer into 17th century New England. It’s also another lesson in scapegoating. External forces act upon the family and they blame each other or themselves for falling out of favor with God. They pray more fervently to God but someone else answers. It’s interesting. For the longest time, drama relied upon the deus ex machina, but we’ve bid adieu to deus. Now it’s diaboli ex machina. The Devil solves all dramatic problems.
Movie Review: The Mermaid: Mei ren yu (2016)
It’s a mix of “Splash” and “Pretty Woman” with a strong environmental message; a Stephen Chow comedy (“Kung Fu Hustle”) whose jokes are either poorly translated, way too broad, or downright bloody; and a romance in which a billionaire becomes a better man through the love of a good woman. Er, mermaid.
Oh, and after only two weeks it’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese movie history, grossing $419 million.
So it’s not just the U.S. Other people can spend half a billion dollars on crap, too.
Like baby seals
I’ll tell you what I liked about this thing, but first the plot.
As the movie opens, asshole industrialist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) outbids other asshole industrialists, including his sometime lover Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi, showing cleavage and leg throughout), for a parcel of land on the Chinese coast. Everyone thinks he overpaid since the area is a protected habitat for dolphins. Nope. He planted sonar devices in the water, scattered the dolphins, and now it isn’t. Now apparently he can do whatever he wants.
Then at one of those pool parties for the rich and tasteless, an odd girl, apparently tipsy, wearing makeup as if applied by a six-year-old girl, tries to come onto him in the manner of a “vamping” six-year-old. He throws her out, but we follow her as she skateboards around town, eats barbecued chicken, and goes to a shack on the coast that, through a series of Rube Goldberg-like devices, winds up in an underground cavern, near an ancient shipwreck, where she, a mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun, or Jelly Lin, a 19-year-old newcomer/hottie), lives with the rest of the mermaid/man crew. They, too, were scattered by the sonar device. Some are dying (sores), and it’s Shan’s job to lure Liu Xuan to the cabin so they can kill him.
That nearly happens after their first real date, but by then the super-innocent Shan is falling for the bastard and dismisses him to save him. Twenty-four hours later, he proposes. Then he finds out she’s a mermaid. For a reason I can’t fathom, he goes to the cops (who laugh at him), tells his board of directors (who disbelieve him), and confides in Ruolan, who not only believes him but has teamed up with a mermaid-obsessed westerner to find, capture and study the creatures. And that’s what they do. While Liu is stuck in traffic (really?), Ruolan’s entire team of mercenaries infiltrates the cavern. And guess what they do? They massacre the mermaids. They take out machine guns and turn the water red with blood. When the mermaids jump onto land to try to get to safety, they’re clubbed like baby seals.
Reminder: This is a romantic comedy.
I don’t know if Chow is making a statement about cruelty to animals, or if this is one of those Chinese things, like eating live monkey brain, that doesn’t quite translate; but it’s not even an anomaly within the movie. Earlier, at a sushi bar, the leader of the mermaid outcasts, Octopus (Luo Shun), has his still-attached limbs skewered, diced and ground up as part of running gag that was painful for him and painful for me to watch—particularly since Chow seems to play it for comedy. And it worked. The mostly Chinese crowd at Pacific Place on Friday night laughed along.
Wise and powerful
Anyway, I promised you something I liked about the movie and here it is. At this awful moment of turning the water red, the mermaid matriarch, who has been an occasional fount of wisdom throughout, uses her powers—thrashing her tail like a martial arts weapon—and creates a near-tidal wave that douses the bad guys.
Sure, so on the one hand this is really stupid. Why didn’t she do this before the mercenaries machine-gunned half her people? Why wait for the 11th hour? But of course we know the answer to that. Because the movies like nothing better than an 11th hour.
But here’s what I liked: In many Chinese movies the elderly are not only wise but powerful. They’re often the most powerful.Does this tradition come out of martial arts, where, even into old age, you can retain power? We don’t do that here. In the U.S., the elderly are generally portrayed as not only not powerful but not wise, either. It’s one of the things I’ve always hated about western culture: our denigration of the aged; how quickly we dispose of them.
Anyway, there’s a big chase—of Shan—and she’s about to be killed when (11th hour!) Liu arrives to save her. The epilogue is all married bliss and undersea tours. It’s not a bad message for a society that pollutes as much as China’s. Mostly, though, I liked the granny. And the girl was easy on the eyes.
Newcomer Lin Yun (Jelly Lin) treads water in “Mei ren yu” (“The Mermaid”),which is smashing box-office records in China.
Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)
Deadpool is a snarky, profane former mercenary named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) who develops cancer and takes a tortuous, sadistic cure that makes him a superhero: both 1) impossible to kill, and 2) butt ugly. When his friend, Weasel (T.J. Miller of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), sees him again, he tells him his mottled, hairless face looks like an avocado had sex with a much older avocado. He says he looks like Freddy Krueger face-f**ked a topographical map of Utah.
If that’s your idea of great humor, you’re in for a treat.
To me, “Deadpool” is like the superhero genre itself: It’s impossible to kill, and it’s gotten a little ugly.
Spidey + Wolverine + Punisher
There’s a through line in superherodom that generally points toward the darker and grimmer: from the All-American families of Superman and Batman in the 1950s, to the wise-cracking of Spider-Man and the grumpiness of Ben Grimm in the early 1960s, to the even grumpier Wolverine and deadly seriousness of the Punisher in the 1970s, to the vigilantism of Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Dark Knight in the 1980s.
Deadpool, who showed up in 1991, takes it up a notch: He wisecracks like Spidey, heals like Wolverine, and kills like the Punisher. But his most obvious superpower is meta. He’s self-referential. He comments upon the rules of the genre from within the genre. The only thing he breaks more than bad guys’ heads is the fourth wall.
When you get down to it, he’s us. He says about the movie what you and I would say about the movie if we were watching it in your mom’s basement.
Example: This is right before the final act. The bad guy has kidnapped the girl (Morena Baccarin, num), it’s Deadpool to the rescue, but first he stops off at the Xavier School for Gifted Students (X-Men HQ) to pick up some reinforcements. Earlier in the movie, he’d encountered two of the X-Men—Colossus (two dudes: motion capture/voice) and a bored teenage girl called Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)—during his opening set-piece attack on a highway overpass, and they’re the only two around when he rings the bell. Deadpool talks up the size of the mansion, the facilities, then points out the obvious: “Funny,” he says, “I always see the two of you. It’s almost like the studio could only afford two X-Men.”
That made me laugh out loud, since I’d been thinking it a second earlier. And there are a lot of laughs here, even for a curmudgeon like myself. But is this a losing strategy? They’re not fixing the problems of the genre, they’re just making snarky comments from within the genre. It’s like Deadpool is winning the battle (this moment) but losing the war. He’s badmouthing the entire enterprise on its way down.
It would probably be worth it to parse why I like Spidey’s wisecracks but not Deadpool’s so much. Maybe because Spidey seemed to believe in something? Or he had a wider cultural vision? Deadpool is another character—like “Ted”—choking on the miasma of a bankrupt popular culture, and enjoying it either ironically (Wham!) or as a cudgel. He describes cancer, for example, as “Yakov Smirnoff opening for the Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair.” Right? Cuz Wham! good and Spin Doctors bad. Plus Iowa State Fair bad because you know what Iowa and state fairs are like. Even if you haven’t been to either. Especially if.
Good at what it does
The movie, directed by Tim Miller (his first feature), and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”), has the same ironic tone. During the cancer treatment/torture scenes, we get “Mr. Sandman” on the soundtrack. For the stop-action opening it’s Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning.” The closing credits begin with Wham! (“Careless Whisper”) then get serious—that is unironic—with Salt-N-Pepa (“Shoop”).
You know Wolverine’s line, “I’m the best at what I do but what I do isn’t very nice”? “Deadpool” is good at what it does but what it does isn’t really worth it. There’s a disconnect here, a cultural schizophrenia. We know we shouldn’t like the things we like, so we mock them even as we indulge in them. At some point, is there a reckoning? Or do we just keep fooling ourselves until game over, man?
Movie Review: The Monkey King 2 (2016)
Once again, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), a devout Buddhist monk, travels west to find scriptures to bring back to the hedonistic east, and once again he’s accompanied on this perilous journey by Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), the half-pig creature; Wujing (Him Law), the water/celestial creature; and most important and powerful of all, Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok), the Monkey King, who is given to mischievousness and bursts of anger and violence. Oh, and once again their main nemeses are sexy women/demons, led by Baigujing, the White Bone Spirit (international actress Gong Li), who wants to eat Xuanshang to attain immortality. Because that’s how you do it in the east. Fountains of youth, schmountains of youth. It’s all about the monks.
I keep saying “once again” because all of this is from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West,” which is invariably translated into English as “The Adventures of Monkey.” It’s as widely known in China as “Don Quixote” in Spain, or “The Wizard of Oz” here, and it shares qualities with each. I still have a copy of the book from my days in Taiwan. (Mouse over movie poster to see.) I never got around to reading it.
But I’ve seen versions before. Last spring, the Seattle International Film Festival showed two of them: the 1927 silent film “Cave of the Silken Web,” and its 1967 Shaw Brothers remake, in which the sexy women/demons are in reality giant spiders. Since this is “Monkey King 2,” I figured we would be past this part.
Freed to be trapped
Apparently the first movie, which set opening box office records in China in 2014, focused on chapters 1-7 of “Journey,” in which Wukong gains more and more power, and more and more hubris, until he challenges heaven itself. He’s only thwarted when the Buddha traps him under a mountain.
This one picks up 500 years later when Tang Sanzang begins his journey west. He’s quickly abandoned by his two human disciples after a giant tiger threatens them and Sanzang flees into a cave—the same cave, it turns out, where the Monkey King is trapped. Sanzang releases him, and the Monkey King is free again! Well, yes and no. He’s trapped, in a sense, by the Goddess—think Glynda, or a Deus Ex Machina—who ensures that a journey is taken, friends found, lessons learned; who ensures, in other words, that we get a story.
Meanwhile, further west, children are being kidnapped by the White Bone Spirit and never seen again. Except she’s not really doing the kidnapping; the king is, and he’s using the blood of the children, held in small cages, to stave off a crippling disease. Not that the White Bone Spirit is all good, mind you. She still kills humans to stay young. She also tries to trap Sanzang so she can eat him. Gong Li, by the way, is great in the role: all whispery, sexy insinuation. When she moves through the air, her long dark dress billows behind her as if they were steps she had taken. They’re like building blocks that then go poof. It’s a great effect—eclipsed only by Gong Li herself, who, at 50, looks 20 years younger. A steady diet of devout monks maybe?
The chief conflict throughout the journey is the Monkey King’s ability to see danger and kill it, and Sanzang’s inability to see the same danger and his constant admonition against killing.
So is Sanzang devout here or naïve? Or both? And will the way he punishes the Monkey King (constricting a gold band around his head via Buddhist chants) cause the Monkey King to rebel against him? Also, how do you end the story if not by killing the villain?
Actually, that’s my favorite thing about “The Monkey King 2.”
There’s the usual big final battle, in which the White Bone Spirit brings to life an army of skeletons surrounding her palace (think: “Jason and the Argonauts”), and when these are shattered and defeated by our heroes, the remnants are swirled into one giant skeleton (think: “The Mummy”), who tries to get at Sanzang. Nope. Monkey King wins. The White Bone Spirit is in the process of dying, and her spirit will never be reborn. Victory!
Except the movie actually lives up to the precepts of its protagonist. Instead of revenge and killing, we get forgiveness and sacrifice. Sanzang, knowing he will be reincarnated, sacrifices himself so that the White Bone Spirit, who was once human, can be reincarnated, too; so her spirit can live on. Sanzang’s physical body turns to stone, and in the end it’s carried on the back of the Monkey King, who, with Bajie and Wujing, continue the journey.
How cool is that?
The rest of the movie is just CGI swirls. For me, “The Monkey King 2” is most interesting for being what western movies are not.
Final thought: Getting eaten by Gong Li: Surely there are worse ways to go.