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

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Yes Man


Yes Man

Carl and Allison need to break out of their prison of negativity.

(Warner Brothers) Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp, Danny Masterson, Rhys Darby, Michael Higgins, Sasha Alexander, Molly Sims. Directed by Peyton Reed

We hairless apes can be a pretty negative bunch. We have a tendency to want to stick to our comfort zone, whether we are happy in that place or not. We rarely embrace the positive; we’d much rather say “no” to life than risk potentially making a fool of ourselves.

Carl (Carrey), a junior loan officer at a regional bank in Los Angeles, has taken this to extremes. Still emotionally stunted after a painful divorce three years earlier, he has blown off most of his friends, particularly Peter (Cooper), Carl’s best friend, who recently got engaged. Mostly he wants to avoid a chance meeting with Stephanie (Sims), his ex but in reality he’s stopped living.

When his boss Norman (Darby) asks him to a get-together, Carl says no. When someone hands him a flyer to see a band, Carl turns it down. Go out drinking with Peter and their other buddy Rooney (Masterson)? Forget about it. Carl would much rather cocoon himself in his apartment with a rented video before starting his dreary existence all over again the next morning.

That is, before Carl is dragged into a self-help group that worships the power of Yes. The guru of the group (Stamp) preaches the transformative powers of saying Yes to life instead of No. When Carrey appears hesitant (and endures a cult-like chanting of “NO MAN NO MAN NO MAN” from the seminar attendees), Carl is intimidating into accepting a covenant with the guru – that he must say yes to every opportunity that presents itself to him.

So when a homeless man demands a ride into a isolated hillside park? Carl must say yes. When the same man asks to use Carl’s cell phone? Of course, even though the homeless man drains the battery. Give the homeless guy all his cash? Si, amigo!

Strangely, this does prove transformative in Carl’s life, particularly when he meets Allison (Deschanel) who fronts a strange synthpop art band and runs a jogging photography class by day – how very quirky! However, one wonders how genuine the romance can be if one is required to say yes to everything the other suggests. Certainly Allison wonders when she finds out about Carl’s odd covenant.

This is a little bit too reminiscent of Liar, Liar for my liking – in that film, Carrey was a lawyer forced to say the truth no matter what by a magic spell. Here, it’s not so much magic as karma that goes after him; the first time he says no, he winds up falling down a flight of stairs and nearly mauled by the kind of dog that most apartment complexes won’t allow you to keep.

Carrey has never been my favorite comedian; he mugs a little bit too much and a little bit goes an awful long way. He really hasn’t varied his act much over the past 20 years going back to Ace Ventura Pet Detective and now approaching 50, it wears a bit thin. Still, when he reins in his more excessive tendencies (as he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I actually do like him.

However, Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses. She has that quirky quality that indie film directors adore and she is also innately sweet, not to mention totally gorgeous. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie works and not just because of her beauty or her quirkiness. She plays off of Carrey nicely and the chemistry between them is genuine enough that it makes you forget the age difference which might have made the movie romance a little bit creepy.

The movie has an outstanding support cast. In addition to a pre-The Hangover Cooper and veteran actor Stamp, it has small screen talents Masterson (“That 70s Show”), Sims (“Vegas”) and Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) who is particularly engaging as the trying-too-hard bank manager Norman who has a penchant for nerdiness and Harry Potter.

Reed, who also directed The Break Up, shows flashes of brilliance in the director’s chair but is hamstrung by a script that follows Romantic Comedy formula 101 to a “T” which pretty much drains the movie of all its suspense. Also, the concept could have been tweaked a bit; Carl says Yes not so much because he has to but because he feels compelled to. It removes a bit of the dramatic tension that might have brought this movie a better rating.

For the most part, it’s fairly harmless and some of the humor that comes from the situations Carl gets into by saying yes gets more than polite chuckles. Given that I’m not a particular Jim Carrey fan may give you pause to consider that I might have rated this a bit lower than it deserves to be; certainly the work of Darby and particularly Deschanel make it worth checking out as a rental. However, at the end of the day this isn’t something I would watch again if I had a choice. That makes Yes Man a solid maybe.

WHY RENT THIS: Deschanel is one of the most engaging actresses in the business. Her chemistry with Carrey gives the movie added sweetness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit formulaic, particularly when it comes to the romance. When Carrey goes over-the-top, the movie gets a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor can be crude and juvenile at times, with emphasis on the sexual. There’s also some brief nudity and a smattering of bad language. All in all, this is probably acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel share the same birthday, January 17th – exactly 18 years apart (Carrey was born in 1962, Deschanel in 1980).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Both the DVD and Blu-Ray editions have music videos (which are in reality just full uncut takes of song performances) by Allison’s Munchausen by Proxy band, as well as a “Behind the Music”-like faux documentary on the band’s rise to fame. Norman gives us a tour of his bachelor pad/love nest and we see Carrey chug a can of Red Bull and give his spiel on Red Bull love on the Blu-Ray disc.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: In the Loop