The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine

Advertisements

New Releases for the Week of February 17, 2017


The Great WallTHE GREAT WALL

(Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hamyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng. Directed by Zhang Yimou

A European mercenary travels to China as an emissary. There, he discovers an incredible battle taking place on the Great Wall of China with an elite fighting force defending all of humanity against an implacable, impossible foe. Realizing that here at last was a war he could believe in, the European warrior is eager to take part in this last stand but must overcome the suspicion of the Chinese as well as the creatures they fight. The English language debut of one of China’s most honored directors is bound to be a visual feast as most of his films are.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Fantasy/Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of fantasy action violence)

A Cure for Wellness

(20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Celia Imrie. From visionary director Gore Verbinski comes this chilling tale of a multinational corporation’s CEO who goes to a mysterious clinic in the Swiss Alps for treatment of a strange disease. As his communications become more erratic and puzzling, an ambitious young executive is sent to the clinic to fetch the CEO and bring him home. Instead, the young man discovers a chilling secret that all may not be as it seems at the clinic and that in some cases, the cure is very much worse than the disease.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and images, sexual content including an assault, graphic nudity and language)

Everybody Loves Somebody

(Pantelion) Karla Souza, Ben O’Toole, Stefanie Estes, José Maria Yazpik. Clara is a successful OB-GYN in Los Angeles who seems to have everything going for her but her love life has been a mess for years. Getting ready to attend a family wedding in Mexico, her family puts a ton of pressure on her to bring a boyfriend. A little desperate, she pleads with a colleague to pose as her boyfriend – only to find herself developing feelings for him as the festivities begin. Complicating matters is that her ex-boyfriend – the one who left her suddenly and made her gunshy about love to begin with – returns just as suddenly, igniting old buried feelings.

See the trailer and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal The Loop

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and language)

Fist Fight

(New Line) Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell. A mild-mannered teacher, beset by senior pranks, an administration that can best be described as dysfunctional and terrified by impending job losses due to budget cuts is having a really bad day. It’s about to get worse when he accidentally crosses the only teacher in school feared by the students who challenges the milquetoast to a fist fight after school. Word travels like a computer virus and soon the event is taking a life of it’s own – which might be just what everybody concerned needs.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material)

The Red Turtle

(Sony Classics) Michael Dudok de Wit. The survivor of a shipwreck washes ashore on an island populated only by crabs, birds and turtles. Surviving by himself, he is befriended by an enormous red turtle who may or may not be real – and begins to see his family (who may or may not be real) on the island, driving him further into madness. This acclaimed animated film is the first non-Japanese film to be made by Studio Ghibli ever

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements and peril)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty

The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong)


The Warlords

A blood oath is taken.

(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan

Blood brotherhood is not a bond to be taken lightly. It is a vow that infers a relationship that is as close – if not closer – than blood. It is a bond that lasts until death.

In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.

Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.

He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.

Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.

During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.

Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.

The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.

The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?

Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.

I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.

In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.

Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.

REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.

HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Max Payne