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

Warcraft


Some of the dazzling visuals we refer to.

Some of the dazzling visuals we refer to.

(2016) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Glenn Ennis, Terry Notary, Elena Wurlitzer, Michael Adamthwaite, Anna Van Hooft. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

As videogames go, Warcraft is a classic. It led to the massively popular MMORPG Worlds of Warcraft which is one of the most dynamic and rabid communities on the Internet. The filmed version of Warcraft was announced in 2006 when Blizzard Games signed a deal with Legendary Pictures, one of the top production companies in Hollywood. However, the road to the screen was a bumpy one as the project went through a plethora of directors and stars. Now, hot young director Duncan Jones (Moon) has at last shepherded the property to reality.

Durotan (Kebbell) is a chieftain of the Frost Wolves clan of Orcs. He is loved by his people but particularly by Draka (Galvin), his wife who is heavy with child. They, like all the other Orc clans, have gathered on a huge plain at the order of Orgrim (Kazinsky), a powerful wizard who is opening a portal to another world. The world of the Orcs is dying and they need a new place to live, and they have chosen a world called Azeroth.

There a young ambitious wizard named Khadgar (Schnetzer) discovers the presence of the Orcs and takes it to the knight Lothar (Fimmel), the brother-in-law to King Llane (Cooper) who rules a land that has been at peace for generations. They agree to call in the Guardian – the most powerful wizard on Azeroth – for his advice. Medivh (Foster) is one of Lothar’s closest friends and his wisdom and power is well-respected throughout the Kingdom. He agrees the situation is dire, particularly since the Orcs are using the Fel, a type of magic that steals life from everything it touches and warps the user into something evil.

In a skirmish, Lothar’s knights capture Garona (Patton), a half-orc, half-human who at first is fiercely pro-orc. However, convinced by the King (and the Queen (Negga) who happens to be Lothar’s sister) that she would be protected by the humans, she agrees to tell them what Orgrim’s plans are. In the meantime, Durotan has also figured out that Orgrim is up to no good and that all his posturing about glory for the Orcs is only going to end up in disaster for his people. He decides to reach out to the humans and propose a dangerous plan. However, what neither Lothar nor Durotan know is that there is a traitor in the ranks of the humans who might just mean an end to both races.

One of the litmus tests for any movie based on something from a different medium be it comic books, television shows or videogames is whether or not people unfamiliar with the source material can follow what’s going on in the movie. In other words, does the movie stand on its own merits or do you require intimate knowledge of the source material in order to enjoy the movie? The answer here is that the movie does not stand on its own. Being a fan of the game is certainly going to give viewers an advantage over those who are unfamiliar with it.

In fact, the story is so jam-packed with references to the game and background that there’s almost information overload going on. Couple that with some lavish visuals (and I admit that the CGI effects are absolutely stunning) and your senses might be stunned into submission. This is certainly a feast for the eyes and the CGI is detailed and inspiring.

Still, the plot is also dense with a lot of subplots going on. Jones was attempting to show the roots of the conflict that are at the heart of the game and he wanted to show that conflict from both sides so we are constantly switching back between the human and Orcish points of view. I think it was a noble idea that proved to be better in conception than in execution. Too many characters to follow, too many plots. Most moviegoers tend to like things simple.

To be fair, critics have been ripping this film a new one, to the point that they buried Jones’ career even before the movie was released. It is doing spectacular business in China and despite fairly anemic box office in the States it is still already turning a profit. There’s a good possibility that a sequel will eventually be greenlit. I’ll probably see it. Hopefully, they’ll learn from their mistakes and concentrate on telling a story rather than trying to be all things to all fans.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular visuals. Fans of the game likely to love this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and overindulgent. Terribly confusing to non-fans of the game.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of fantasy warfare and violence, including some orc gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga play husband and wife here; they are also playing a couple in the upcoming Preacher series on AMC.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Twisted Justice

Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey