Sunday, January 24, 2016

Gimpy Protagonists and Hidden Monsters: Monster Hunt & The 5th Wave

News of movies like Pacific Rim or Terminator Genisys having the sort of success at the Chinese box office that might counter their underperformance in America - or of Chinese comedies like Lost in Hong Kong having the sort of opening weekends that generally only happened in the United States - would occasionally have me joking that if China ever figured out how to make this sort of big special-effects extravaganza on its own, Hollywood would be in some trouble. At the time, I was kind of missing that this was already happening, with Monster Hunt making something like $370M in China while the first time I heard of it was when China Lion announced that its Bai Baihe picture, Go Away Mr. Tumor!, had knocked that juggernaut out of first place back home. Then, sure, I got interested, both because I really liked Ms. Bai in the other movie and I wanted to see what a homegrown Chinese blockbuster looked like.

The timing on its release is interesting; the six-month gap between its Chinese release and its American one is almost unheard of for a mainstream movie these days, although understandable in this case; as nifty as Monster Hunt looks, sticking its preview next to one for a summer blockbuster would have it looking less polished. The January "dumping ground" period is a pretty good place for it to stand out. Still, this particular week is curious - many theaters probably only have room for one Chinese movie at a time, and Ip Man 3 might be an easier sell, while Kung Fu Panda 3 comes out next week. Then again, if distributor FilmRise plans to push it to more theaters next week, primarily with English-language digital files then, it might make a fun double feature with the DreamWorks film.

One other thing that amuses me: Apparently some of the marketing to Chinese-American audiences runs along the lines of "you've seen it on your phone, now see it in 3D on the big screen as it was meant to be seen!", which strikes me as awesomely pragmatic.

That the afternoon's other movie wound up having some vague parallels amused me a bit; I suppose I recalled the (terrible) trailer for The 5th Wave mentioning alien invaders in human hosts, but truth be told, I had been ready to skip it until someone mentioned on Twitter that director J Blakeman had made The Disappearance of Alice Creed, and, dang, I hadn't even realized that he'd been quiet since then. It kind of reminded me of a friend suddenly being interested in Last Chance Harvey after hearing that it was from the same filmmaker as Jump Tomorrow, Josh Hopkins, who had disappeared and been basically forgotten in the meantime (ironically, I just fond out he had another film a couple years ago, The Love Punch; some folks just can't get noticed). It's not necessarily the best reason to see a movie, but it certainly piques the curiosity.

Zhuo yao ji (Monster Hunt)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2016 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

I've read that the English-dubbed version of Monster Hunt (releasing at about the same time the original Mandarin version hits the United States) cuts a few scenes, including one where dog meat is seen offered for sale in a street market, and while I get cutting that from a movie in large part aimed at kids, it does seem like an arbitrary line to draw, considering who is casually eating what (or trying to) at various points of this movie. This is not a complaint - considering that much of the recent influx of Chinese movies into America theaters has been terribly generic romantic comedies and nostalgic dramas, a genuinely weird family fantasy is actually a nice change of pace, whether from Chinese or Hollywood fare.

Early on, restaurateur Lord Ge (Wallace Chung Hong-leung) telling us that while humans and other creatures used to live together, their lands were separated, and the Monster Hunting Bureau was so successful in driving them out of human lands that many people in its medieval Chinese setting don't believe there is any such thing as monsters. A civil war in the monster kingdom has driven the widowed, pregnant monster queen and her bodyguards (Eric Tsang Chi-wai & Sandra Ng Kwun-yu) into the human world, where they encounter Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) - the disrespected mayor of Yongning Village and the son of a supposedly-great monster hunter - and Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe), a young monster hunter looking to create a reputation. Circumstances lead to the pair winding up with the newborn prince of monsters (whom they eventually name "Wuba"), and while Xiaolan is initially all about collecting the bounty, they find themselves getting kind of attached to this cute little bloodsucking beastie that looks like a radish with tentacles.

Despite not necessarily looking state-of-the-art by Hollywood standards, Monster Hunt became the highest-grossing film of all time in China last summer partly on the strength of its CGI creature effects, which are fairly strong - the opening scene of a big monster battle may have the videogame feel that often comes from trying to absolutely fill a 3D space with creatures, but as the film goes on and the presence of monsters isn't quite so overwhelming, the style meshes pretty well with the live-action. The designs are simple but emotive, and even the meaner monsters are fun to look at. The effect is kind of what a live-action Pokemon movie might look like, which isn't a bad target. The rendering isn't quite up to Hollywood standards (the lighting is a little too even), but it works well enough.

Full review on EFC.

The 5th Wave

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2016 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, DCP)

I'm kind of curious what sort of effects budget gets you a city-destroying cataclysm these days, because The 5th Wave has a few of those at the beginning but nothing else that particularly impresses. It doesn't even give the audience a look at its alien invaders. That makes it a dreadfully boring young adult sci-fi thing, the type with franchise ambitions but little reason beyond the involvement of a few folks who have done better work for anybody to be interested in it continuing.

We initially meet narrator Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) as she's already on the run, scavenging what she can after the end of the world, so we flash back to when she was an ordinary teenage girl in Ohio, before the "Others" came and, after simply hanging in the air for a while, hit the earth with waves of attacks - an EMP, massive earthquakes, super-powerful avian flu. She gets separated from her father (Ron Livingston) and little brother Sam (Zackary Arthur) when the army shows up at a refugee camp warning of a fourth wave, alien parasites within human hosts. Setting out to find Sam, she is shot by a sniper, but nursed back to health by hunky survivor Evan Walker (Alex Roe). Meanwhile, Sam and other kids are recruited by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber) to fight the aliens and the upcoming fifth wave.

Looking at the themes that made it into the script, it's not hard to see why the original book might have been popular enough to spawn sequels and a movie adaptation; there's good stuff in there about kids being used and not being the shallow types adults see them as. There's a moment of potentially-interesting perspective when the aliens' motivation is laid out. And though some may roll their eyes at certain tropes, if teenagers like that served up with potential love triangles, why not? These may be familiar trappings, but there's something to them; you can see the ideas behind them.

Full review on EFC.

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