Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"Death Note" and "What Happened to Monday?"

Netflix has upped its release of feature films this year, and I wanted to put down thoughts on a couple of the genre titles from earlier in the year.  Keep in mind that Netflix's insistence on premiering its films on its streaming service first, or at least simultaneously with theatrical releases has caused an uproar among theatrical exhibitors and at film festivals, so their efforts at becoming a major distributor haven't been as successful as Amazon, which uses a more traditional release model. And despite their best efforts, at this point Netflix feels like a distributor of last resort.  It's hard to shake the feeling that their original films are the ones that simply couldn't cut it anywhere else.

Let's take "What Happened to Monday?" a science-fiction action film starring Noomi Rapace as seven identical siblings living in hiding.  They inhabit an overpopulated dystopia where an overwhelming baby boom has necessitated a strict one-child policy.  The seven sisters are named after days of the week, and share the identity of Karen Settman, a banker.  Raised by their grandfather (Willem Dafoe) to adhere to strict routines and protocols, they've managed to survive to adulthood undetected by the Big Brother-like Child Allocation Bureau, headed by Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close).  Then one day, Monday disappears, leaving her sisters to puzzle out what happened to her.       

"Monday" has one of the most entertainingly ridiculous high-concept premises I've seen in ages.  Directed by Tommy Wirkola, who gave us the "Dead Snow" movies, it's engaging enough as a cheesy sci-fi action movie.  The effects and action are low-end for a feature, but decent enough.  It appears that most of the budget was spent on helping Rapace to play seven different characters who sometimes appear together in the same shot in various combinations.  Alas, not nearly as much effort was spent to make the sisters particularly distinct from each other.  You have the nerdy one, the party girl,  the troublemaker, and the responsible one, and the rest just kind of blur together.  Rapace gamely does her best, but Tatiana Maslany she's not.   

As a sci-fi nerd, it also irked me that this is a case where the premise exists pretty much only to give an excuse for Rapace to play out the seven sisters gimmick.  The interesting overpopulation hypothetical is only touched on enough to suggest some doubt about whether the actions of Glenn Close's character might be justifiable, and give the happy ending some sinister vibes.  The worldbuilding is pretty generic, and mostly involves inserting holographic screens everywhere.  I do appreciate that Wirkola isn't afraid of getting dark and violent, making "Monday" a good bet for those who prefer their action on the bloodier side.  However, I found it a little too dumb for good, dumb fun, especially when Netflix has "Black Mirror" just a few clicks over.  

Now, onwards to "Death Note," Adam Wingard's adaptation of the Japanese manga series.  I'm very familiar with the source material, having read the whole manga and watched the anime adaptation.  A western adaptation didn't strike me as a terrible idea, but I expected that significant changes would be necessary to make the story appeal to American viewers.  So I was very surprised that though the story is moved from Japan to Seattle, quite a bit is kept the same, from character names and idiosyncrasies to culture-specific elements like the existence of "death gods."  The basic premise is identical: a teenager, Light Turner (Nat Wolff), finds a book, the Death Note, that kills whoever's name is written inside.  Light takes on the persona of "Kira" to execute whoever he deems fit, attracting the attention of a detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield), who vows to stop him.

Taken on its own, Wingard's "Death Note" is a mostly watchable young adult supernatural thriller, with several underdeveloped elements that feel out of place.  L is a mess of eccentricities and odd behaviors that Stanfield never manages to make fully believable.  The death god Ryuk (Williem Dafoe) shows up to deliver some exposition and be creepy, but he doesn't actually figure into the story in any meaningful way.  I liked the new take on Light's girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), who is very active in this version and becomes Light's partner in crime.  However, the convolutions of the plot don't give us much time to actually get to know her beyond a very, very surface level.  The whole thing stinks of trying to cram way too much of the source material into a movie that doesn't have room for it all.  Why bother telling us there are dozens of rules for using the Death Note, when only about three of them ever come into play?

There are some things that the movie gets right.  Wingard's 80s-inspired visuals are impressive, and there's always something fun onscreen to look at, from neon lit chase scenes to a classroom full of scattered art supplies.  However, the story quickly becomes an over-complicated game of "Gotcha!" and the characters aren't charismatic enough to invest much sympathy in.  There are also constant tonal problems.  Should the movie be creepy and horrific?  Stylized and over-the top like a comic-book?  More realistic and grounded?  "Death Note" settles for a muddled middle ground, to pretty poor effect.  Likewise, Light is treated like an average teenaged schlub, except when the film needs him to be an ingenious megalomaniacal monster.   

Honestly, having seen a couple of these western anime adaptations, this could have been a lot worse.  The American "Death Note" did manage to successfully adapt several difficult parts of the manga, like Ryuk.  However, it also manages to royally screw up some of the basics, like Light's god complex.  Existing "Death Note" fans may get a kick out of some of the little references, but this one is probably best enjoyed by younger, less discerning viewers, who know absolutely nothing about "Death Note."    

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