Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Priest; let the Koreans do their own adaptations

Post-apocalyptic vampires! What's not to love? I saw the trailer for this thing when I was waiting for True Grit to start, and it looked like an economy sized bag of dumb fun.

Instead it was a lesson in how culture works best on its own terms. Priest was adapted from a Korean comic book, and from what I can figure out, they got pretty simple minded about it. The original Korean strip was a fairly complex thing for a comic book, with an elaborate backstory and a plot which was at least in part a meditation on the somewhat tricky history of Catholicism in Korea. The movie was optioned in the US and as nearly as I can tell the adapter went from "Hey, aren't these kind of like vampires?" to "What the hell, people like vampires!", and jettisoned the whole plot of the source material in favor of a bunch of fight scenes and a vision of vampires which owes far too much to the Will Smith version of I Am Legend and not anything like enough to anything I can take seriously.

If, like me, you're something of a fan of the essential wrongness of Korean cinema, there's something particularly heart breaking about watching Americans getting a Korean source text completely wrong. One of the most interesting things about Korean cinema is that it's working from a completely different view of the world than American cinema. This can lead to some pretty wrenching moments, but that's part of the fascination. One of the best recent Korean movies in the horror genre is The Host. It's fascinating not just because it's full of doubt about the price South Korea has paid for US sponsorship, but because it dares to kill the children who in American movies would get a completely unrealistic free pass from the mortal risks of being in same town as Godzilla. The same cold-eyed acceptance of real impact is in play for The Chaser. But if you want to see Korean cinema amped to the max of sheer lunacy and living in its own peculiar dream world, I recommend The Good the Bad and the Weird, a partial reimagining of the Good the Bad and the Ugly set in a Wild West version of Japan's invasion of Manchuria and Korean in the 1930s. It is utterly insane while being tremendously entertaining as a pure action movie.

I was thinking of all of these things, but especially the Good the Bad and the Weird, when I watched Priest, because so much of the action in both movies involves laconic archetypal characters running around in a trackless desert chasing a train. Fair warning; GBW is not just far more fun, it's a better movie on the same lines. In fact, that's your take home from the whole post, really. Priest is being discounted and will be discounted more; but for the same price you can have a hell of a lot more fun watching an entirely Korean trains and maniacs in the wilderness movie, unpolluted by pesky western ideas of watchability. So, buy that instead.

Still spare a thought for the likes of Paul Bettaney and Karl Urban. When he's not working for raw cash from the knuckledragging morons who produce things like Priest, Bettaney's an actual actor, playing characters and stuff. In this kind of crap, he's like a poor man's Nic Cage. A very poor man's Nic Cage. All you can hope for is that the money was good; I'm sure that he has bills to pay, or at least lorryloads of booze to wipe out the memories of making movies like this one.  Similarly poor old Karl Urban, a perfectly good actor with a perfectly not quite perfect face who's been chunking out villain and a bit roles since Bourne Nonsense-ology II with some time off to ply (WTF?) Dr McCoy in the new Star Trek. Playing a vampire lord not all that terribly removed from the redneck idiot villain of last night's moron fest Drive Angry can't have made him feel good about himself no matter how much they paid him.

Usually something like this has me thinking that there might have been some brains somewhere in the mix, but honestly, watching its vision of a world where vampires are real and the Catholic Church (or a cheap copy) is the only thing which can beat them, either in the war or at being just plain evil, my principal response was; next time, let the Koreans have the money and run with their ideas. Because outsiders are just going to make a pile of mush.

Drive Angry: A William Fichtner movie

Incredibly, Drive Angry is not presented in Stupidvision, which I would have thought was a legal requirement. I have a horrible feeling that it was originally presented in theaters in 3 D, because every now and then the blocking suggested that stuff was supposed to fly out of the screen and onto my face. Experience teaches me that this would have made it all worse, not better, but this is why we have DVDs, and indeed why we have bottles of white wine and a general air of lofty detachment.

All movies are metaphor, and I suppose that for Nicolas Cage, Drive Angry must have seemed like a powerful metaphor. Once upon a time, Cage was someone with promise, even an Oscar; and then somehow he got trapped in a hell of his own making where he just made one million karat turkey after another. A movie where he plays a guy who escapes from hell so that he can do good once more; it must have seemed like a beacon of hope for the good times.

Nah, not really. Drive Angry is kind of a big mess with one good performance stuck in the middle of it. And that performance belongs to William Fichtner, who has been playing cops and sherrif's deputies and implacable nemeses of one kind another since Noah kicked the animals back off the ark and settled down to mucking out the mess they'd left. In one sense, he's not exactly stretching himself playing the Devil's designated bounty hunter, out to get Nic Cage and put him back where he belongs. In another sense, as the only guy trying to put in a restrained and nuanced performance in a movie full of people determined to show that there are acting styles beyond hamming it up … It's a noble piece of work he does. That still small performance in the middle of all that scenery chewing is about the only thing worth saving in the whole gaudy mess, and really I knew that going in. That's why I only paid a fiver for the thing.

If, on the other hand, you want to see any of the things in it done properly, or at least not cheaply and nastily; well Fichtner is in a bunch of other stuff, all of it better, and he's a very steady actor; he's pretty consistent in his output. If you want to see car chases; try Ronin. Hell, if you insist on seeing car chases with Nic Cage being white trash, Gone in 60 Seconds is actually better than Drive Angry (and Gone in 60 Seconds is an authentically terrible movie with authentically terrible performances from TWO different oscar winners). If you want to see hammy lunatics summoning Satan; anything from Hammer will not only be better, but will actually look more expensive. Assuming that you have really, really specialized tastes and you want to see a movie where the "hero" shoots a whole bunch of people while having sex with someone; even for that I have a better move to recommend; watch Shoot Em Up, which manages to pull it off with more class and more excitement. The one thing which Drive Angry DOES do that nothing else I've seen in ages does is throw a whole bunch of naked women at the screen in a way which makes me think that they knew everything else was falling apart and they were hoping that the audience would be distracted by the wobbly bits. Just made it worse. Somehow.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Haywire; a new look at my old city

On Wednesday, I braved the howling winds and freezing conditions of the Hidden City to see if Haywire was as good as everyone said it was. By one measure, it was three times better than Mission Impossible 4; there were a whole two other people in the fleapit with me this time.

Haywire's a very professional movie, and I find myself admiring what Soderberg did without being able to say I had a great time at it. Even though he's been at pains to hire really good actors, and create situations which will feel immediate and real, there's no moment of connection in the movie which packs the same punch as the completely nonsensical climb up the side of Dubai's tallest building. Soderberg's always struck me as a chilly and reserved director, and his characters in this movie aren't appealing; those two things combine to make a movie which I can appreciate at a purely technical level without true enjoyment.

It IS always fascinating to watch a movie play out in a locale that you know. In almost every action movie I've ever seen, there's a quick sweep through some city which doesn't make a button of sense in terms of the local geography; the locus classicus for me is Defence of the Realm, where Gabriel Byrne is swept from his house to the British Mukhabarat, past a range of iconic landmarks, which lie on no conceivable route between any two imaginable locations in this world or the next. I've never even lived in London, and even I knew this was style triumphing over sense. Soderberg takes great care NOT to do this. When Mallory Kane runs out of the Shelbourne Hotel after capping  Michael Fassbinder's character, her route across the city makes perfect sense; down Stephens Green, onto Dawson Street, through alleys to Grafton Street, onto Chatham Street and then into a taxi coming down that little alley by Pizza Stop which almost always has a taxi on it coming from the Westbury Hotel's entrance after a drop off. Anyone who's lived in Dublin could watch that and think Yup, that's how you'd do it. I was sitting there as Mallory got her breath leaning against a lamp post thinking "Hey, I've locked my bike to that post. Regularly." Often after going to the movies, in fact.

The educated eye can read in the shooting choices the way that Soderberg was working to keep his movie within budget. There's a car chase, but it's so leisurely that he probably didn't even need to get extra insurance for it. Most of the action round Stephens Green and Grafton Street has the unmistakable look of footage shot at dawn, when it's easier to control the sight lines and the background from shot to shot. The last thing I saw which was this efficient was Bret Ratner's silly but pragmatic Tower Heist. Mind you, with Soderberg, it's as much about him knowing at the beginning exactly how he wanted the thing to come out and then just doing what he needed to get that.

It's the mark of a good movie - or an amazingly bad one - that you think about it afterwards, coming back at it from different angles for days and weeks. I've been mulling over Haywire for several days now, trying to figure out why I didn't quite like it, and along the way I realized that it doesn't actually make any narrative sense. In one way the narrative couldn't be simpler; Mallory Kane (played by a non-actress Mixed Martial Arts champion who Soderberg had to treat almost as scenery whenever she wasn't beating the hell out of people) has been betrayed by shadowy spook figures from her shadowy spook world and she has to kill them all to bits to clear her name or get revenge or at the very least show us how good she is at beating seven bells out of everyone else. So far so good, but the shadowy spook figures don't seem to have a plot which makes any sense as, you know, a conspiracy. What we're finally told - and I think it's easiest to assume we're still being lied to as the credits roll - is that they chose to get rid of Kane by setting her up as the patsy for the killing of a politically inconvenient journalist. Actually, when I write it down like that, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the explanation as it's delivered on screen. The thing is that so many people get killed in the course of creating this set up and following it through (including at least four cops) that you have to wonder why people who cared so little about killing random folks wouldn't just have straight up killed Kane without all the complications. Shorter movie, I know, but it would make more sense in business terms, and I think I've already made it clear that I think Soderberg is all about chilly efficiency.

Maybe my confusion comes from the problem that the shadowy spooks are played by Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and … Michael Douglas. I can remember thinking Michael Douglas was cool; he's just charming beyond belief in Romancing the Stone; then came Wall Street, and since Gordon Gecko  I don't think he's ever played a character who deserved to live through the end of the movie. So for much of the movie I was left rooting for Ewan McGregor, except he turns out to be NOT AT ALL what I expected him to be. Problem is, what he turns out to be means that his first scene with Michael Douglas makes no real sense. Well, it all makes my head hurt. So much for the simple reinvention of  old fashioned 1980s spy movies.

Apparently this was shot under the name Knockout, which must have seemed like a clever title for a movie about a beautiful woman who can beat people unconscious. Haywire DOES better catch my feeling about the plot line.