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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Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape