Max Payne (dir: John Moore)
I didn’t walk into Max Payne knowing that the film was based on a video game until the end credits rolled. At that time it didn’t come as any shock, given its combination of high concept premise, boilerplate revenge plot and heavy reliance on gunfire to solve the hero’s (and, for that matter, everybody’s) problems. But given the visual style, I thought it might have been a graphic novel. The images look like a Frank Miller comic brought to life more successfully than the graphically striking but cinematically static “Sin City.” Designed with strong lines and bold backgrounds, filled in with heavy swathes of muted color, and composed in stark contrasts of light and dark, this is a live action comic book. Only not as smart as most.
Detective Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is the kind of hard-boiled, impassive cop more prone to pulp fiction than any kind of reality. His wife was killed and his baby was either killed or kidnapped (the film isn’t clear on which) three years ago and now he’s the force pariah, wrapped up in grief and rage and revenge and blaming everyone else for not getting the one guy who got away (Max reacted with his gun blazing before he actually had any idea what was going on – luckily, he guessed right and plugged two of the three scumbags). Now he’s in self-imposed exile in the Cold Case room, going over dead files of dead-end cases while continuing his own personal investigation to find his wife’s killer. Everyone else in the force thinks he’s guilty of something (again, of what is unclear) so when he’s connected to two homicides in as many days, Payne’s own fellow officers act like they’ve been vindicated for their behavior.
Meanwhile there’s a whole subplot of a supernatural underworld connected to the criminal underworld, shadows of winged creatures hounding and haunting and running to ground a feral tribe of drug addicts who seem to be following the orders of a demonic high priest (Amaury Nolasco) who was once, we discover, an American soldier in the front lines in the war on terror. Now he’s the survivor of a failed super-soldier experiment he seems to be continuing on his own terms.
It wasn’t a heavily plotted film to begin with, but there are things that were either left on the cutting room floor (is Chris O’Donnell’s three-year-old daughter – a fact so awkwardly established that it must mean something – in fact Max’s possibly kidnapped child?) or simply forgotten about (Max is suddenly out of his handcuffs when he makes his escape on the docks). And in some cases, it simply discards logic or story coherence so the firepower can be unleashed in all its explosive glory. How else would Mila Kunis stroll into a high security high rise office building toting a friggin’ machine gun?
What makes all that so frustrating it the untapped potential of the premise and director John Moore’s hypnotic visualization. The imagery of the shadow wings and the flying creatures, a demonic perversion of the Valkyrie legend, swarming over the tattooed army of underworld addicts is not so much a false lead or a purposeful distraction as an unexplored dimension of the story – they may be nothing but hallucinations, but as they are the same hallucinations that every addict has, it becomes a part of their reality. They do have some kind of power, if only on those who see them. But you wouldn’t know it the way the film discards that whole dimension once it serves its dramatic purpose.
Max Payne is a dumb film with a great conceptual hook from a director who visualizes better than he dramatizes. Given all the missed opportunities and just plain dumb turns of the script, it should be simply awful, yet the resonance of the mythic imagery and potential of the premise creates a fascinating film in the margins of the pulp story in the foreground. And the very movement of the film, which flows not so much narratively as visually, carried forward on the wings of its demon visions, creates an existence that hovers above the literal turns the story eventually takes. Moore’s paintbrush, dipped into the colors of the night, creates a vivid fantasy noir world that moves with a pulp grace that can carry you through all the absurdities simply by its imagery and momentum.
Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.
The Secret Life of Bees (dir: Gina Prince-Blythwood)
Gina Prince-Blythwood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd novel has the hallmarks of an aggressively classy adaptation of a warmhearted tearjerker of a bestseller. A lonely, emotionally hungry little white girl (Dakota Fanning) flies off from her angry worker-bee father and finds a new hive with Queen Bee Latifah and her sisters (in blood and in spirit). It all takes place in 1964 in the deep south, as President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law and the southern state whites arm themselves with clubs to beat it into submission.
I’ll limit future apiological metaphors to just this one: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation plays like heartwarming popular fiction dipped in honey. It’s shot with an idealized glow of sentiment and warmed by the gentle affection and affirming smile of Latifah.
For all the jolts of social terror and emotional drama, the film ties up every conflict in an overly tidy third act. The scenes of affirmation, forgiveness and empowerment, while heart-tugging, play out like boxes on a checklist, less like hard-earned happiness than a gift handed down by a benevolent author. It’s the strength of the actresses and their nurturing community that makes this Eden so satisfying.
Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.