Friday , September 29 2023

‘Death Note’ gets lost in translation – Animated ‘LEAP’ sets a low barre

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When “Death Note” begins, we learn that Seattle teenager Light Turner has a crush on a cheerleader at his high school. So when these two would-be lovebirds finally talk for the first time and really open up to each other, Turner has to be honest: “It’s going to sound a little crazy”, he tells her, “but I have a death …”

Well, not to be too judgy, but, yeah, that actually does sound a little crazy. Even so, our hero manages to get his companion intrigued and not make a swift exit to calculus. If you don’t have your own death …, you might also want to check out “Death Note” — until you tap out about three-quarters in and run off to calculus.

The film, a live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese manga-turned-anime, is about a supernatural notebook that gives the owner the power to kill anyone they like. All they have to do is write the name of someone while picturing his or her face. (There are dozens more rules, of course, but who bothers to really read instruction booklets anyway?)

The book, which appears literally out of the sky, comes with its own demon and that turns out to be a 9-foot-tall dude with glowing red eyes, spiky hair and a penchant for eating apples. He has the chilling, unhinged voice of Willem Dafoe, which makes him extra creepy. (Forget apples, Dafoe’s gnawing on the scenery).

The original manga — conceived and written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata — has already been turned into a 12-volume book series, a TV series and even a stage musical, among other properties. This time, it’s directed by Adam Wingard and the story has been moved to Seattle. The hero (Light Yagami) is now a super-bright, loner (Light Turner), played by Nat Wolff, trying to keep some sort of acting realism in a film that gets gradually unmoored from reality (as films with apple-eating demons tend to do.)

Turner teams up with the cheerleader (Margaret Qualley, who is pretty terrific as she unwinds her inner crazy) to mete out final punishments, first to high school bullies, then going wider to terrorists, drug dealers, serial molesters and gang members. “We can change the world”, they claim, giddy after 400 deaths.

Not everyone is happy with the sudden slayings of the world’s worst people, especially Turner’s cop dad and a mysterious and quirky freelance detective (Lakeith Stanfield, whose unsubtle performance has unfortunately been inspired a little too much by comics). They go hunting for whoever is putting them out of business.


The reason “Death Note” is so popular is that it raises tough philosophical questions — Who deserves death? How do you determine guilt? What crime calls out for instant karma? Put aside the demon, and those questions are timely in an era of drone strikes and debates over collateral damage.

But this thriller-inclined version of “Death Note” doesn’t dwell enough on such questions and instead becomes increasingly strained by its own insanity and clogged by clunky dialogue. Taking its time to establish characters, it then rushes headlong into a montage of bodies piling up, a cat-and-mouse chase, stunts worthy of 007 and ends as a twisted love affair with shades of “Macbeth”. It’s tried to cram in too much and be too many things.

Aside from great visual effects, basic stuff gets weird, like a swarm of FBI agents who are tracking a crucial suspect not bothering to listen in or trace his cellphone. These same top-notch feds also get confused by who exactly is wearing a top hat. The film’s use of cheesy songs by Air Supply and Berlin doesn’t help, either.

An animated “Flashdance” meets “Cinderella”, “LEAP !” isn’t so much bad as it is bewildering. The feature about an orphan girl who dreams of dancing professionally is set very vaguely in the 1880s, in Brittany and Paris, and contains nods to that general time — like an under-construction Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower. (Never mind that when work started on the Eiffel Tower in 1887, the Statue of Liberty was already perched in the New York Harbor). But the characters talk like it’s present day (or in some cases, like it’s 25 years ago, throwing out zingers like “it’s Hammer time!”) and dress like they’re in a Barbie-steampunk production of “Fame”. One aspiring ballerina wears a pink sweatband and leg warmers. Others dress like Dickensian street urchins. And then there’s all the anachronistic pop music.

This would all be more tolerable were the dialogue better or the story a little smoother, but, alas, that seems to have been the last thing on anyone’s mind after executing the pretty computer animation that very beautifully approximates both the light-as-a-feather dancing and a Paris fit for a storybook. Thus we’re left with a villain who throws barbs like, “Tired is for losers!” and a heroine who we’re led to believe has such raw talent that she can in a matter of days go from not knowing what first position is to being in serious contention for a leading role in a Paris Opera Ballet production. And then there are the morally questionable choices the lead makes to get ahead.

The heroine is a very Emma Stone-like wide-eyed, red-headed 11-year-old named Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) who escapes her orphanage with the help of a doting friend, Victor (Nat Wolff) and heads off to Paris to find a dance school. After nearly getting arrested for trespassing in the Palais Garnier, Felicie ends up assisting a disabled maid, Odette (played by pop star Carly Rae Jepsen), who cleans both the opera house and the large home of a very wealthy family (the wicked mother Regine is voiced by Kate McKinnon and the bratty daughter Camille is played by Maddie Ziegler) and there decides to partake in some light identity theft.

Yes, Felicie steals Camille’s letter of acceptance to the ballet school and pretends to be her to get in to the classes. All’s fair for dreamers, I guess? The real rub, however, is that Camille is actually a devoted student of ballet, whereas while Felicie can’t stop talking about her dream to dance, she doesn’t know the slightest thing about ballet. But one training montage with Odette solves that and suddenly Felicie is one of the top students in the class and very well could score the part of Clara in the ballet (which ballet? That’s unclear, since “The Nutcracker” was first performed in 1982 and the only other ballet referenced, “Swan Lake”, has no young character named Clara). (AP)

There’s also an odd subplot involving a love triangle which has both Victor and a blonde Russian dancer vying for Felicie’s affections. “His cheekbones!” squeals Felicie at one point. She’s 11. It’s a bit much.

“LEAP!” is a fine-enough background movie and one young kids might very well take to, but it’s just mystifying how lazily the story components seem to have been put together and how shamelessly it panders to some imprecise notion of what modern children want (Pop music! Slang! Love triangles?). (AP)

By Mark Kennedy