The biggest film of the year opens this week, though you may be forgiven if you haven't heard about it, as it has committed the unpardonable sin of being in Chinese. John Woo's historical epic Red Cliff is the most expensive and highest-grossing film ever made in China, and that nation's most emphatic statement to date that it intends to compete with Hollywood and Bollywood for a share of the global cinema market. The film tells the story of the Battle of Red Cliffs, which was waged on the banks of the Yangtze River in the third century AD and is, in Chinese culture, as legendary as the Trojan War and as historically significant as Gettysburg.
The film, which ran to five hours in its original form, has been cut to half that for American release (a full-length DVD is promised at some point), and the seams occasionally show, particularly in the earlier, expository scenes. But then, John Woo has never been someone you go to for exposition, in either his initial incarnation as a Hong Kong police-thriller stylist (Hardboiled, The Killer) or the subsequent one as a Hollywood action auteur (Face/Off, Mission: Impossible 2). While Red Cliff may lack the emotional depth and texture of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the chromatic genius of Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it is an undertaking of Jacksonian scale (Peter, not Andrew).
More than a dozen period dreadnoughts were built for the naval scenes, with thousands more painted in digitally, and 1,500 soldiers on loan from the Chinese army appear as extras. In the midst of it all are Asian stars Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro as military advisers to rival warlords who unite to repel an assault by an imperial prime minister played by Zhang Fengyi. As with much Asian cinema (and Woo's earlier oeuvre), there are moments of hokey sentimentality. But for sheer cinematic spectacle--soldiers massed beneath shields like an immense armored tortoise, flotillas aflame such that the very river seems on fire, tens of thousands of arrows piercing the sky at once--Red Cliff is hard to beat.
For spectacle of a more intimate, though still more delightful, nature, Wes Anderson offers The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Recognizing--and thank goodness--that his twee tableaux of arrested adolescence had been becoming ever more stagnant since Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson has upset his own cinematic applecart by adapting, in glorious stop-motion animation, Roald Dahl's 1970 children's novel about an inveterate poultry thief.
The same eye for immaculate compositions that had seemed increasingly to hem in his human actors here serves as the basis for some of the most inventive animated set pieces this side of Nick Park. The script, which Anderson co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, marries childish whimsy and hipster irony without allowing either to spoil the relationship, and the vocal cast--which features George Clooney as the canny canid, along with Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and a delectably villainous Michael Gambon--is uniformly excellent. Though it lacks the narrative ambition and emotional depth of Spike Jonze's stunning Where the Wild Things Are, The Fantatic Mr. Fox is, in its own way, a modest miracle.
The Road, too, is about a father's quest to feed his family, though any comparison to Anderson's giddy ride must end there. John Hilcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bitter tale of post-apocalyptic survival is a study in bleakness, a film from which joy, and color itself, seem to have been bleached away. Given the palette on display, one might reasonably presume that Hilcoat's vocabulary contains more words for "gray" than an Eskimo's does for snow.
There is a beauty, and an integrity, to Hilcoat's retelling of the story of a nameless man (Viggo Mortensen), his nameless son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and their quest for safety and sustenance in the wake of a nameless global catastrophe. Mortensen offers a powerful, humane performance and 13-year-old Smit-McPhee keeps stride. But the arc of the tale is too flat, and the danger--from their own hunger and that of fellow survivors descended into cannibalism--too unremitting. And though Hilcoat strives mightily to remain true to McCarthy's novel, he cannot match its unsparing prose and inevitably softens its pitiless vision.
So is the film too grim? Or not grim enough? In a perverse way, I fear it's both. The Road is an impressive, even noble, stab at cinematic adaptation. But it's one that perhaps should never have been undertaken.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.
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