Friday, October 26, 2012

Double Feature: Tai Chi 0 and The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Another double feature review, and I have to say that the selections here could not be more different from one another, what with Tai Chi 0 and The Perks of Being a Wallflower possessing as completely different target audiences as humanly possible.

Okay, I admit it; they had me at "steampunk kung fu throwdown." Kung fu and martial arts I'm sure everybody gets (if not, your assignment is to see The Raid: Redemption right now). For those unfamiliar with steampunk, it's a sub-genre of science fiction that focuses on steam-powered technology. Often the tech is mixed with the worlds of the Victorian era and early Western civilizations, but in the case of Tai Chi 0 the setting is China during the early era of Western influence. It's a perfect setting, blending more advanced steampunk designs with the relatively simple ones actually being built, like the locomotive. With more than a few martial arts movies coming out lately, one that allowed for a fundamentally different environment I thought deserved a look. Directed by Hong Kong veteran Stephen Fung, this had the chance to be a solid ton of offbeat fun.

That's gonna hurt tomorrow.
Unfortunately, all that potential goes to waste with a story that never feels as focused as it should be. In his acting debut, martial arts champion Yuan Xiaochao plays "The Freak", an already-talented warrior born with a genetic deformity on his head that somehow turns him into an unstoppable fighting machine when struck. With such power comes cost, however, as the combat drains his life at the same time. Not wanting to die, he journeys to legendary Chen Village to learn their secret, powerful form of Tai Chi to heal himself. Unfortunately, it's a style forbidden to outsiders, and The Freak seems out of luck. But when Imperialist China arrives on their doorstep wanting to introduces their new steam engine, he and a few rebellious souls might be all that stands between the village's sacred traditions and the influence of Western society.

My, what big shovels you have.
I really wanted to like Tai Chi 0, but I kept feeling as though the movie was trying to be too clever for its own good. Whenever a new major character would be introduced, graphics would pop up on the screen to point out what an IMPORTANT performer it was, and a little blurb about why (though this would have little effect on American audiences). Fight scenes would often get cartoony in their meticulous displays of the martial arts stances and motions. These bits often feel as if they would be more at home in a video game than in a major film, although they at least fit in somewhat with the steampunk elements. The story is also a haphazard blend of The Freak's journey to redemption with a love triangle between the characters of Hong Kong performers Eddie Feng, Angelababy and Mandy Lieu. Unfortunately, none of the characters are as interesting as those if some of the older vets, especially icon Tony Leung Ka-Fai as the village elder. Some interesting side bits and a few impressive fight scenes pick up some of the slack, but it's not nearly enough for a title that relies far too much on its premise to get by.

Scarier than anything in The House at the End of the Street.
Still, Tai Chi 0 had a ton of promise, and I can certainly see this title reimagined as a television show or Saturday morning cartoon, more formally matching its anime-inspired content. Director Fung will get another chance to prove himself when built-in sequel Tai Chi Hero is released next year (it was previewed in the closing credits), and as the end of Tai Chi 0 was something of a convoluted mess, the next chapter will definitely have to improve in the storytelling if it wants to be taken seriously by the international community. There are a few things to really like about this film, just not a whole lot.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, on the other hand, easily carries a story worthy of praise. The novel has been a cultural mainstay for high-schoolers for about as long as I can remember, which of course is why I've never picked it up. That's the thing with me; I tend to rebel against extremely popular trends, so if everyone has read it, there's a very good chance that I ignored it. It's partly why I've read only the first four Harry Potter books and have successfully avoided the Twilight series (although am I crazy or does Breaking Dawn Part 2 look pretty bad-ass?). It's also why I ignored Pixar films for so long. But after seeing this film, I might have to revise my avoidance of the book by Stephen Chbosky (who also directed the adaptation), as his final product was nowhere near what I was expecting.

When the perpetually-nervous Charlie (Logan Lerman) enters high school, he's most concerned with having a normal experience, and meeting friends he can get along with. He soon meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and her gay half-brother Patrick (Ezra Miller), who take him under their wing and introduce them to a world of great music, parties and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. For the first time in a long time, he has friends with whom he can connect after the tragedies in his life. But the one thing he really wants - a relationship with Sam - seems out of reach, and with his friends graduating at the year's end, his earlier traumas threaten to re-emerge and take over his psyche for the worse.

For Lerman, playing a nervous high school student  is hardly a stretch.
Perks was a good time for a number of reasons, though I think it was partially thanks to the fact that I hadn't read the novel beforehand. While I was certainly expecting some of the emotional drama that is consistent with high school dramas, I was utterly unprepared for the levels that the film actually put forth. I've never seen a fictional film that simultaneously deals with the subjects of homophobia, bullying, suicide, bad relationships, abusive relationships, child abuse, child neglect... the list goes on. I think I now understand why this book has become such a hit with the current generation of young men and women; it's essentially the modern Catcher in the Rye, existing as a microcosm of the high school experience and, to a lesser degree, life itself. The movie does an amazing job of capturing that feeling of legitimacy without resorting to coming off like an after-school special, and every character serves a purpose in contributing to it.

He's much happier here than he was in We Need to Talk About Kevin...
A great cast was also a major reason the film is so enjoyable, as Perks not only gathers some of the year's best characters under one roof but filled them with some of the better faces dotting the Hollywood landscape. Emma Watson especially stands out, the former Harry Potter starlet showing that she can soar without a broomstick, easily dominating all of her scenes. She could have played a cliche, damaged young woman, but Watson's fire succeeds in bringing out the unique qualities that make Sam such a desirable companion. Lerman and Miller admirably make their presences felt as well, though to compare them to Watson would be a trifle unfair, and while neither of them has as much natural charm as Watson, they have more than a few chances to stretch outside their comfort zones. An excellent support cast includes Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman, Kate Walsh, Dylan McDermott, Johnny Simmons and a very short, extra-powerful performance by Melanie Lynskey. It says a lot that a woman with barely a half-dozen appearances leaves one of the film's most powerful impressions, but Lynskey did that last year with Win Win as well. Hey, the movie even has Paul Rudd as a caring English teacher named - wait for it - Mr. Anderson. I'm honestly touched. I didn't think Chbosky really cared.

Seriously, what school has white graduation gowns?
There were a few things I definitely noticed were pushed out of the film due to time constraints, but in the end they didn't matter all that much. I thought I knew what I was getting into with The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I honestly though it wasn't going to be that big a deal. Chbosky and his team surprised me by putting together a startlingly honest and heartfelt look at life, far outside the realm of anything I had been expecting. I won't make that mistake again, and while Perks doesn't quite make it into my Top 10, it was still a VERY good time spent at the theater. It's not a feel-good comedy like Pitch Perfect, but if you're willing to see a darker-than-average high school drama, or if you're just a fan of the book, then this is absolutely the movie you should see.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Because Pittsburgh is my home town I've usually gone out of my way to catch movies that take place/filmed in the city. Unfortunately, for the most part, nearly every movie that's centered in the 'burgh .... suck. ("Strikiing Distance", "Flashdance", "Sudden Death", etc....)

So it was nice to see a movie like "Perks" that not only is a good story with strong performances, but to finally utilize the city's unique look and surrounding areas landscapes.