Saturday, April 20, 2013

Warm Bodies

Over the weekend, I saw Warm Bodies in the theaters. Against my better judgment, I was actually somewhat excited for this movie. I should never get excited for things. Warm Bodies came from the same director as 50/50, which pleasantly surprised me. Warm Bodies did not.

This is a hard movie to categorize. In fact, leaving the theater, this was the first question I had to ask myself, because it's not readily apparent and it certainly isn't a zombie movie. It is, however, great at doing the thing that makes money, which is tricking 20-something guys into watching it with their girlfriends. Is that a genre of film yet?

But like I said, not a zombie. (I know, right? Zombie on the poster and everything.) If it were, it wouldn't make any damn sense. I'm not even sure where to begin in things that don't make sense in this movie.

So there's this zombie who lives in an airplane by himself, listening to music and collecting things. Maybe you already see the conflict here with traditional zombie movies. If not, hang tight. It gets worse. Said zombie's name is R because he can't remember the rest of it. You might think it's kinda dumb that he can't remember the rest of it. Let's see what you remember when you're dead.

While on a routine hunting raid, he sees a beautiful girl, falls in love with her, and eats her boyfriend. One of those things is ok for a zombie movie, and if you don't know which one, I can't help you. In this movie, eating someone's brains lets you experience their memories, which I actually thought was kinda cool, provided that I didn't think about it too hard. (Do different pieces of the brains have different memories? If you eat you a pilot's brain can you fly an airplane? If you a brain and throw it up later, do you get to experience the memories again?)

Anyway, I'm focusing on the wrong parts here. R the zombie can manage speaking simple sentences and uses this to get the beautiful girl to fall in love with him, and falling in love turns him human. There. Don't read anything else about this movie except for that one sentence. Does that sound stupid as fuck to you? It should.

Anyway, like I said earlier, this movie has a genre problem. A lot of our horror movies are about "becoming the other" - maintaining one's humanish traits while being not quite human. Zombies, werewolves, vampires are all scary because they have a lost key elements of their humanity. Warm Bodies was almost sitting on a brilliant idea with this movie, since it's a man losing his humanity as a zombie and then coming back with the power of athingcalledlove. That "coming back" aspect could have added an interesting element to the zombie mythos, especially since the absence of love is essentially what makes zombies monsters in the first place. R could have been shown dealing with his hunger, being love with a woman he wants to devour and forcing himself to control his urges...no, wait, I'm sorry. That's a terrible idea. That's a terrible idea because it is Twilight. I just accidentally made Twilight. Goddammit.

The movie makes an attempt to be a romance film, I guess, because it's not funny or scary, and actually not even romantic, but it's gonna go in some genre doesn't it? So what the fuck ever. Romance. The focus throughout the movie is on the relationship between the two characters, which sucks because they're boring and hipsters.

I can almost applaud this movie for being creative and trying out something new, but two things hold me back. One, I feel like this movie maybe have been pitched as "Twilight but with zombies" and while it's better than Twilight, you don't earn creativity points with an idea like that. Two, this movie was dumb. And no matter how creative a movie may be, being dumb will ruin it every time.

Stoker

This is another one I did a while back -- about one and a half months ago.

Stoker is a movie for literary critics. That is the best way to explain it. If someone were to ask me if I liked it, I would have to answer in a way similar to when someone asks me if I liked Avengers, which goes a little something like this: "I hated it. I fucking hated it. It was so terrible that to this day it keeps me up at night. But you might like it." To me, Stoker is this in reverse. I loved it, but you might not like it.

Like I said, it is a movie for literary critics, and the first way in which that applies is that literary critics don't usually like what most people like. Sometimes they like what everybody hates, but I think the former occurs more often than the latter. "Things that are popular are usually not good." I could be wrong though.

Anyway, there's just not enough in here to be well-liked amongst a mainstream audience. the story is nothing amazing, nor the characters, nor the actors playing them apart from Nicole Kidman, whom I finally understand as deserving every bit of praise she's ever received. There are also no particularly moving scenes of drama, the "thriller" scenes are only somewhat thrilling, and certainly not enough romance to pull fans of that genre. The most accurate way to describe the story is "coming-of-age" but again, there is not much market for that in the movie industry. The literary industr however...

The last word I'll say on the subject of this movie's subject is this: If you've ever found yourself reading a novel for nothing than its symbols and motifs, I have found you a movie.

Full disclosure: Stoker was directed by 박찬욱 of Oldboy fame and director of one of my favorite movies, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. I kinda knew going into this that I would at least like it, but after watching it, it's hard to recommend it, but I'll try.

As I keep repeating, it's a literary-type movie, but it utilizes the medium of film to write a novel. Imagine for a second you're reading a novel and the line is something like, "The mother was thinking of the father and daughter hunting together." It will be painfully straightforward and a little boring to read. However, in Stoker, while the mother's hair is being brushed, it slowly transforms into the long grass where the father and daughter can be seen hunting together. Visually, I can assure you, it was very satisfying to watch, but more importantly, it used film to the best of its ability. There are numerous example of this, of blending different imagery and sounds to blur the lines between what's happening to the character and what's on that character's mind, but the hair one was my favorite.

Sound, as well, was heavily played with in this movie. In one scene, the daughter is sipping a glass of wine, and the volume on it is turned up so loud you can hear her breath in the glass. I'm not entirely sure what it should signify, but I knew that she was drinking the most important glass of wine in the world.

In an opening scene, two characters are standing on stairs and one remarks to the other that she feels insecure/afraid/disadvantaged/I-don't-remember-the-exact-word-he-used because he was higher on the staircase than her. Now, I don't presume to be a literary critic or even a film critic, or even a functional member of society, but from there on out, I paid very close attention to how high people were in relation to one another. The uncle's room was on a floor higher than everyone else, and when they needed to see him, they had to climb stairs to do it. I loved that whenever people wanted the daughter to leave the room, they sent her to the basement, the lowest place in the house. There's a scene of sexual assault, and I'm sure you could already guess that the victim was underneath the assailant. Prior to that, when she felt more comfortable with him, she stood on playground equipment high above him. Before rape can occur someone comes to save the girl, and the protector is directly above the rapist as he kills him. All deliberate.

I'm sure this isn't the first movie to employ such tactics, but it purposefully drew the audience's attention to it and thus made literary critics of us all. The movie actually improved the audience's ability to watch it. I'll give you one final example that I hope everyone who saw it noticed. Remember when I was talking about the hair turning into the grass and the father and daughter hunting together? Well, these two had a very close relationship, and regardless of whether or not it really happened or if it was just in the mother's imagination of how it happened, I believe it's significant and underscores their close relationship that the only scene with the father and daughter together has them lying in the grass holding their rifles and aiming. In other words, they were at exactly the same height 100% of the time they were together.

This is all I have time for today, but I'll say this one final thing. The theme of this movie is "waiting" -- waiting to grow up, waiting for the perfect opportunity, waiting in the way that a spider catches a fly.

Inglourius Basterd

I wrote this piece almost two full months ago. At first I intended to write about Tarantino's treatment of women in Inglourious Basterds, but I got caught up in so many other things I wanted to talk about that I never got there. Two months later, the steam for finishing this piece as wound down, but I'll give you this work in progress all the same.

For a time in college I absolutely loved Quentin Tarantino. As far as I was concerned, the man could do no wrong. I watched and rewatched Pulp Fiction any chance I could. I'm not sure exactly what triggered it, whether it was Kill Bill Part Two or the car movie that I never actually saw getting bad reviews, but I got sick of Tarantino movies. Actually, maybe the watching and rewatching might have something to do with that.

Tarantino-ness is a hard thing to accurately define, especially since I just made that word up. It's easy to pick out pieces of it though: gratuitous barefoot women, excessive violence, weird oldies music, nonsensical film techniques and so on. I don't want to say "avaunt-garde", because it's not quite weird enough to be called that, but I think it's fair to say that for mainstream culture, he's just about as far left-field as one can be and still make money. And here's the thing, I don't think being weird for the sake of being weird is great art. Furthermore, it annoys me. So, one day while listening to Pulp Fiction's wacky yet lovable soundtrack for the 100th time, I just got sick of it. I didn't want anything to do with Tarantino-ness for a while.

Django Unchained just came out in theaters a short while ago, so you'd think I'd be reviewing that one, talking about Tarantino so much. I never saw Death Proof, and I heard it was bad, so I probably never will. Until a short while ago, I never Inglouious Basterds, but I heard it was great. With the new movie getting great reviews as well (including from my favorite film critics) I thought I should give Tarantino-ness another chance. I still hate weird for being weird, but that's where I'm coming from when I watch this.

First off, there's a few great things in this movie. For one, Tarantino didn't cast himself in any capacity, which is awesome. He unfortunately cast Eli Roth though, who sucks at acting just as much as he does at life. At one point, Eli Roth gets all excited over killing a guy and is running around yelling and congratulating himself like he just did the most bestest macaroni painting in the whole wide world. I imagine it was supposed to be written as his character being easily excitable or insane or bloodthirsty or something, but I get the feeling that everyone watching him during the shoot is thinking, "Jesus, shut the fuck up, Eli." Also, Tarantino loves being post-modern, doesn't he? Yes, you cast a torture-porn director as the most violent character in the movie. Congrats on being clever, but the guy can't act worth a shit and nobody realized who he was until they IMDBed it later.

Another thing that I like in this movie is most of the dialogue, and a few scenes are fantastic. Due to the episodic nature of Tarantino movies (and why do that exactly? I can't think of a reason except to be weird again. Maybe to show the title of the chapters, I guess?) I can actually remember most scenes. The very first scene, I think, is a preview to how the rest of the movie will go.

If you know anything about this movie, you'll know that it's a subversion of expectations, and this is established pretty early on. There is a diary farmer hiding a Jewish family in his floorboards, and is visited by a commanding officer in the SS. The convenient thing about having Nazis in your movie is they are a handy narrative shortcut for "evil at any cost". We know that if the dairy farmer tips his hand even slightly, the SS will liquidate him, his home, his family and the Jewish family he's sheltering. This particular officer gives off a very menacing atmosphere, but the dairy farmer seems collected, stoic and unintimidated. It comes as a large shock when he gives up the Jewish family rather easily and then watches as the SS shoot and kill the family through the floor. This turn of events pulls the rug out from under the audience and not for the last time. There are a few small examples throughout the film (the scene in the projecter's booth, the bar scene has no less than 3 subversions of expectations) and they all build up to the big twist that the plan to kill Hitler actually succeeds. (You would think with so many smaller twists throughout the movie, we would have figured it out long ago.)

For the entire second half of the movie, the audience is under the assumption that the plan will fail and all the characters will die, because of course Hitler didn't die in a theater. This theme is established early on and it teaches the audience that anything can happen in this movie. In most movies, if you see Brad Pitt, you'll safely assume he'll live to see the end. (He does, but that's besides the point.) This movie makes you remember that everybody is killable or corruptable.

However, there's two things in the first scene that don't make any sense. If I'm missing something, please tell me.

First, the character of Landa comes off as being rather ruthless, fancies himself a kind of detective, and seems to relish in his duties. He remarks that he enjoys the nickname he's given by his enemies ("The Jew Hunter") and compliments himself on his ability to out think the people he's "hunting". As I said, he's coldblooded, choosing to execute the Jewish family living under the floorboards, when they could have just as easily been arrested. (I don't want to bring too much historical accuracy in a movie about shooting Hitler in the face a million billion times, but I don't think this early in the war was "kill Jewish people on sight" time.) However, when Shosanna makes her escape, he pulls out his gun and watches her go. Had this been a different character, it would show an interesting moment of humanity, but with Landa, it seems contradictory to everything we know about him and everything we just saw him do. You think you're Sherlock Holmes, dude? The person whom you were very clearly interested in killing just a minute ago is right in front of you. Open and shut case.

Another point is why Shosanna is even here in the first place. Did you think about it at the end of the movie? Because she isn't characterized in this scene whatsoever. We have no idea about her relationship to her family or her personality or anything, and it would have been so easy to do, too. A 15-second shot with her under the floorboards. Her father holds her close to comfort her and she seems calm. Or maybe she shows a playful smile to her younger sister, showing her that everything will be ok. Perhaps we notice her clutching her most prized possession, a film camera. But nope, none of that. Instead we get the back of her head. Why was she included in this scene? Well, the answer is that we need to connect Landa with Shosanna and give her motive for revenge.

The problem is that that motive is completely unnecessary. Yes, she had motive for revenge, but by the end of the motive, she doesn't personally do anything to Landa. She doesn't even confront him. Also, I would be pretty pissed at the dairy farmer if I were her, but he's never seen again. There was really no purpose to connect these two characters except for the strudel scene. And revenge? Sure, I guess she'd want to kill any Nazi to avenge her family, but she doesn't bring up her family again for the rest of the movie. If she doesn't seem to remember, why should we? A character I would have loved to have seen would be one willing to sacrifice the theater she'd been working towards her entire life, her entire film collection, her beloved and her own life for the sake of the greater good. Instead we got this lame half-written, cliched revenge plot. Of course, the jokes on me for falling victim to Tarantino-ness. The femme-fatale, revenge-seeking character is the only thing he knows how to write.

Dammit, now I hate Tarantino again. And just when I was about to give him a chance.