Saturday, August 26, 2017

On Netflix: DEATH NOTE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Adam Wingard. Written by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater. Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Paul Nakauchi, Masi Oka, Jason Liles, Jack Ettlinger, Artin John. (Unrated, 100 mins)

After nearly a decade in development and with a budget reportedly between $40 and $50 million, the American adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's legendary Japanese manga series Death Note finally arrives as a Netflix Original movie with some controversial baggage in tow, facing accusations of "whitewashing" by having the story moved to the US with American characters. There's really no controversy here--there's already been several TV and movie adaptations of the series in Japan going back a decade, and moving the story to Seattle is no different than RINGU being remade as THE RING or SEVEN SAMURAI being remade as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. If one sets aside their hand-wringing outrage and bothers watching the movie, they'll find far more legitimate reasons to dislike it. DEATH NOTE is a total misfire from director Adam Wingard, who not very long ago was a genre golden boy with YOU'RE NEXT and THE GUEST but did some damage to his growing brand with last year's heavily-hyped and ill-advised reboot BLAIR WITCH. Any hopes that BLAIR WITCH was a minor bump in the road are dashed with DEATH NOTE, where Wingard demonstrates absolutely no feeling for or connection to the material. Screenwriters Charles & Vlas Parlapanides (IMMORTALS) and Jeremy Slater (the 2015 FANTASTIC FOUR reboot and the creator of the EXORCIST TV series) make the story's transition from Japan to Seattle cumbersome and clunky, and what worked on the page and in the previous adaptations simply doesn't translate (it's also worth noting the absence of Wingard's usual writer and creative partner Simon Barrett). This gives Wingard little to work with, as he instead opts to fall back on easy solutions that makes cult movie nerds giddy, like a synth-heavy throwback score by Atticus Ross, credits in the John Carpenter font, and pointless retro fetishism with '80s songs by INXS, Berlin, Chicago, and Air Supply. These things can be fun in and of themselves in the context of a compelling film, but when they're used as desperation moves as they are here, all they do is spotlight the deficiencies, as DEATH NOTE becomes less like an American interpretation of a revered manga and more like a decade-and-a-half too late ripoff of FINAL DESTINATION and DONNIE DARKO.

Brainy high school outcast Light Turner (Nat Wolff) has a lucrative business doing math homework for all the jocks, but soon finds himself with unlimited power when a tattered old book titled "Death Note" falls out of the sky and lands at his feet. Inside are pages of complicated instructions, but essentially, all the owner of the book needs to do is visualize an individual, write down their name and a cause or circumstance of death and it will be made so. Light's been given the book by a demonic figure called Ryuk, who looks like Groot's meth-addled cousin and is voiced and motion-captured by Willem Dafoe. Light's newfound power gets him the girl, cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley of THE LEFTOVERS) and together, they start using the Death Note to take out bad people, from high school bullies to the mob boss who got acquitted for killing Light's mother years earlier, to terrorists and drug cartel leaders. They create the persona "Lord Kira," which attracts the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield of GET OUT), an enigmatic agent who wears a hoodie and covers the bottom half of his face. L arrives in Seattle and quickly figures out that Light is Kira, though he gets no cooperation from Light's cop dad (Shea Whigham). Light loses control of the Death Note when people whose names he didn't write down--like FBI agents working with L--start turning up dead, prompting him to suspect Ryuk is planning to kill him before passing the book on to someone else.

DEATH NOTE is a jumbled mess. The longer it goes on, the more convoluted and less interesting it becomes, pulling arbitrary rules out of its ass when the story backs itself into a corner and needs to get to the next scene. The characters are completely unbelievable, even by fantasy genre standards, and Wingard's set-up is so rushed that the whole thing feels like a season of a TV show whittled down to 100 minutes. Light's initial reaction to the book's abilities is understandable dismay, but he accepts it pretty quickly, and Mia's blase response to his demonstration that he can kill people generates a look that shrugs "#whatever." No one seems to be on the same page with how to play this, and Wolff, while significantly less punchable here than he was in ASHBY, is still so devoid of charisma and screen presence that you'll long for the relative magnetism of someone like Dane DeHaan. Stanfield's performance as L has enough eccentricity that he at least gets your attention when he's onscreen, and he, along with Dafoe's taunting tone and inimitable cackle bringing Ryuk to life are the only positives about DEATH NOTE, and that's not nearly enough to salvage this from total oblivion.

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