For better or worse, films don’t exist in a vacuum. If literature derives from itself, and, according to Marshall McLuhan, the content in any new medium is always the same as in the old, then films don’t exactly have a wealth of opportunities to be original. You can always compare a film to one that came before it, but to do so isn’t always pragmatic or fair.
Each should be judged on its own merits, but then again, certain flaws within said film can foster a greater appreciation for those that did it right. To commandeer a concept from the forever-truculent Armond White, I’d like to list six films released last year that were done better by others, but unlike Mr. White, I’ve also included some I did like. This is, of course, a subjective list, and could’ve easily been expanded to fit more. Feel free to disagree with my choices.
*Warning: spoilers ahead
1. Anna Karenina
I remember reading Anna Karenina and liking it, both in regards to the story and the main character. However, in Joe Wright’s overproduced and needlessly Brechtian stab at adapting Leo Tolstoy’s literary classic, I felt nothing for neither. Instead of depicting Anna as a victim of cultural circumstance and 19th century patriarchy, the film makes her actions deplorable in any era. Keira Knightley’s inability to be agreeable, character-wise, doesn’t help, either.
If you want to see a better film about an eye-wandering damsel in marital distress, consider Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. It’s perceptive, illusory, far more sympathetic to its femme infidèle, and more considerate to its male cuckold (thanks, in large part, to great performances by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen). The film is like a Harlequin Romance novel, but one that acknowledges, and doesn’t shy away from, the ethical problems that tend to plague this kind of storytelling.
Additionally, if you want to see a film about how society takes parochial and unnecessary offence to female sexuality, try Turn Me On, Dammit!, a Norwegian coming-of-age dramedy that’s far more nuanced when compared to the facile finger-wagging of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky’s self-adaptation of the 1999 pop-lit phenomenon, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, can be seen in two parts, the first half and the second. For example, the movie’s two catchphrases (“We accept the love we think we deserve”, “We are infinite”) come off as cheesy when first said, but rather poignant the second time around.
The first half is cloying and mawkish; there’s talk of child abuse, of suicide, there’s queer bashing, bullying, and domestic violence. In the book, it also touches upon abortion and even more rape, but at least they’re contextualized and relevant to character building. However, this isn’t explained in the movie quite as well and feels manipulative. Like the new kid at school, Perks tries really, really hard to make you like it.
Despite that, the movie finally gets into gear by the second half, specifically when the protagonist mucks up his first serious relationship in a game of truth-or-dare. His problems snowball from there, culminating in a heart-breaking epiphany that’s rather well directed. The movie leaves a sweet aftertaste, even if the initial swig was hard to swallow.
Perks, like any high school film, will undoubtedly be compared to something by John Hughes, especially The Breakfast Club. Although criticized by some as superficial and anti-Goth, Ally Sheedy’s transformation from taciturn outsider to member of the Brat Pack is more honest and practical. Instead of being coaxed out of her shell by a manic-pixie-dream-girl and her gayer-than-Frankenfurter stepbrother, she establishes a bond by finding common ground with people from different levels of the high school hierarchy.
3. Rust and Bone
When casting a film about a crisis in both masculinity and femininity, you could do a lot worse than Rust and Bone. Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her role as the ever-aging Édith Piaf in La Vie en rose, and Matthias Schoenaerts was a physical tour de force as a steroids addict in Bullhead. With such a great cast, and a story about a woman who loses her leg in a freak accident, you’d expect Rust and Bone to have some of that trademark French sophisticatication.
Instead, it’s terribly melodramatic and simple-minded. Basically, to borrow a track title from Canadian recording artist Peaches, all the woman needed to do was “fuck the pain away”. That’s it. Forget the time she spent bonding with her man-friend, or the ameliorating ability to function with one leg. She realizes that her honey pot still attracts the birds and the bees, and thus, she still has worth. Bit offensive, no?
Also, her man-friend is a terrible father, on more than one occasion, but is redeemed as a man because of his brutish strength and ability to break stuff with his fists (i.e. ice or another man’s face). It’s also implied that the woman is deeply infatuated with his almost animal nature. Is the film supposed to be less offensive because it stereotypes both sexes?
It’s possible to show the therapeutic qualities of sex, but you won’t find it in Rust and Bone. You’d have to shift through too much melodrama for that. Instead of something like Salt-N-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex, you get something akin to a Katy Perry song; sex-filled but ultimately empty (although the actual use of her Firework is utilized to great effect).
In contrast, Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is more mature and sensitive than Rust and Bone could ever hope to be. Based on the real-life story of an iron-lung-confined 38-year-old looking to lose his virginity, the film boasts an equally stellar cast (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy) and is a more multi-faceted exploration on the importance of sex. Hell, even The 40-Year-Old Virgin serves as better sex-ed.
4. Cloud Atlas
There’s no arguing the film’s ambition, and taken as a whole, Cloud Atlas is actually quite impressive; technically, that is. But having ambition in cinema is like having heart in sport. If it’s your only widely known quality, it’s a sign that you don’t have much of any other.
Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas is a modestly successful film that, like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, doesn’t really deserve all the stick it gets. But with so many disparate characters, and storylines that only barely coalesce, it’s not nearly as moving or revelatory as the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer think it is.
For a more personal story in the same stylistic vein as Cloud Atlas, maybe it’s time to reconsider Darren Aronofsky’s most elaborate (and critically panned) film to date, 2006’s The Fountain. The time-sprawling idea of interconnectedness is far more romantic when focused squarely on the relationship of a couple (played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz), making the film’s existential sensibilities more profound. Whereas The Fountain is deeply philosophical, Cloud Atlas, by contrast, is more like a book of collected quotations.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Chronicle. It’s a good film, overall. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that the found-footage camerawork is not necessary, but, like a lot of films in this genre, it accurately captures real-life attitudes and personalities (see: End of Watch).
There’s a lot of teenage angst, and enough domestic problems to supply Dr. Phil with reams of material, but the film is never too maudlin or sentimental. As a story about a bullied kid finding his purpose and place in the world, both in high school and with respect to his newfound superpowers, Chronicle is, again, a good film.
But with so much pent-up emotion, you’d expect the catharsis and the eventual poop-hitting-the-fan to be overwhelmingly chaotic. Sadly, it isn’t. The first-person shaky cam somewhat limits the scope of the last act, and the conclusion of the ‘epic’ final battle is a bit of a letdown. The film’s relatively small budget of $15 million US may be the reason for this, but it’s a tad unsatisfying, nonetheless.
On the other hand, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira shares many thematic elements with Chronicle, but by virtue of being an animated film made on an $11 million budget, is only limited by imagination. Which is to say, it isn’t.
The film follows a boy named Akira, who, like the main character in Chronicle, is bullied and develops sudden psychic powers. At the risk of spoilers, the film’s climax has Akira rampaging through a Blade Runner-looking version of futuristic Tokyo. The destruction on show is breathtaking, sublime, perfectly evocative of Akira’s anger, and despite speculation, could never be re-created in live-action.
6. The Hunger Games
I’ve read the entire Hunger Games trilogy and can comfortably say, with no fan bias, that the film adaptation is fairly poor. The main reason is that the book’s central theme of “isn’t it horrible that kids are forced to kill each other for entertainment” is greatly undermined by the film’s PG-13 approach to violence.
Case and point (and spoilers), Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is spared by a District 12 Tribute on the grounds that he overhead another Tribute talking about how Katniss helped Rue (the other District 12 Tribute). That’s it. Chinese whispers. He doesn’t even bother to question her, he just accepts the hearsay. In a vicious, no-holds-barred free-for-all, where we’re supposed to get a sense of the story’s hopeless and despondent tone, a Tribute doesn’t kill a competitor based on unproven tittle-tattle! Where’s the brutality, the supposed cruelty? The book at least used some logic (plus bread and song) to explain the scene.
Overall, The Hunger Games is tame, gutless, bloodless, and severely underwhelming (i.e. the Cornucopia is supposed to be a majestic structure, but looks like a Soviet designed garage). We’re supposed to be horrified by what’s being shown to us, but because what’s being shown to us is so meticulously tempered to comply with the MPAA (and by extension, to attract a larger audience), it betrays the concept entirely. It’s like watching the anti-drugs PSA by the Church of Scientology all over again. For juxtaposition, see the Darren Aronofsky PSA. Now ask yourself, “which one puts me off drugs more?”
Ever since the novels were written, and the adaptations announced, people have been comparing The Hunger Games to Battle Royale, ad nauseam. And they have every right to. Again, just ask yourself this: which film embodies the theme of “isn’t it horrible that kids are forced to kill each other for entertainment” better? The film where we never actually see the bloody expertise of an archery virtuoso, or the film that starts off with a kid being shot through the neck by a crossbow? Answer this honestly, then go and watch it.
– Justin Li