Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall” – A grand effort

Still from "The Great Wall"

There’s something to be said for effort. It’s usually an attribute for which one gives a semi-sarcastic “A”, meaning that they liked the subject’s work ethic or moxie despite whatever objectively crappy result they managed to churn out. That’s not what I mean here. But when I hear that Zhang Yimou, the director of Hero, is about to make an American-Chinese co-production in which Matt Damon fights monsters on top of the Great Wall of China (from a concept by the writer of World War Z and the head of Legendary Pictures), my expectations plummet to roughly Dracula Untold levels. I expected a perfunctory genre exercise in which a bankable action star was handed a simplistic studio premise that appeals to both East and West in an effort to return a strong box office both globally and in a burgeoning marketplace. What I was not expecting was to be wearing a big, stupid grin for quite so much of it, and to experience a persistent sense that everyone in the film was really trying their darnedest to create something worth watching. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this film delivers a battle sequence in the first twenty minutes that is easily as well-made as the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Battle of Helm’s Deep, and after watching a trio of sub-par Hobbit films, I’m comfortable saying that that doesn’t occur by accident.

The film starts its focus on William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Pedro Pascal), on the run from some bandits in Mongolia, on a mercenary Marco Polo effort to reach China and steal some black powder. They’re in rags, have long scraggly beards, and are immediately baffled when their chase leads them to the base of an architectural marvel staffed by a professional army in incredibly elaborate costumes/armor and corresponding castes. There is infantry, with armor styled like black bears, archers, like red birds, and “Crane Corps”, a blue-uniformed, all-female, close-quarter combat troop that is even cooler than it sounds (pikemen on pulleys!). This is the Nameless Order, under the leadership of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian), General Shao (Zhang Hanyu), and strategist Wang (Andy Lau), sworn to defend China from the hell-mouth just north of the Wall, which spews forth monstrous creatures every 60 years to attack the wall and devour the north of China.

“Have you ever seen an army like this?” William sycophantically remarks to Tovar as they sit with their hands tied while the Chinese deftly fend off the several thousand monstrous creatures that choose that exact moment to attack. This critic’s answer is…not since Lord of the Rings, and it wasn’t nearly this colorful.

Jing Tian in "The Great Wall"

The inclusion of Andy Lau brought another film to mind as I was evaluating this setup: Iron Man 3. Lau – a major Hong Kong action star with a career spanning decades – was originally offered the part of a heart surgeon (eventually played by veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) who has a minuscule bit part that solves a huge problem for the title superhero. That subplot was some trite nonsense, and essentially contributed nothing except for a brief Mary Sue persona whose sole purpose is to provide a sounding board for the American actors to talk about how cool China is for a couple of minutes, in an effort to bypass China’s foreign film importation restrictions through sheer toadying. This is a phenomenon I’ve remarked upon before – and while I’m not concerned in the least by China’s rise as a film market (the more the merrier), I’ve almost invariably found these “China cameos” to be a bit superfluous and condescending – and by some reports, critics in China felt the same way. Damon’s inclusion in this film almost feels like an inverse of Iron Man 3‘s debacle – the inclusion of a popular American actor playing a skilled mercenary who is present throughout the film, but largely along for the ride as the Chinese characters (and organization, and technology) actually drive the plot. But overall, the balance feels much cleaner here. Yes, having a European trader randomly show up on the occasion of China’s once-every-sixty-years monster invasion is a bit convenient, and his motivation for being there is quite flattering to China itself. But it helps that both Damon and Jing’s characters (who essentially become the co-leads of the film) are every bit a combat and charisma match for each other, even if their accents are both a bit odd and inconsistent. The end-result feels like a true international film – a bit like Pacific Rim, with the slight improvement of having the confidence to showcase its CGI monstrosities during daylight hours.

Still from "The Great Wall"

The plotline of this film, even for its simplicity, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film does make some visual and practical effort to suggest that the monsters are evolving greater intelligence, with the army and monsters alike forced to adjust their tactics as the film goes on. It’s a great deal of fun to watch, although why all of this escalation would occur along the most fortified and well-manned hundred-yard section of the 5,500-mile Wall is a mystery best left unpondered, as there’s no good answer for it, and it didn’t particularly bother me during the film. What did bug me were the film’s tepid ambitions beyond the Wall. The stakes of the film are world-ending – if the monsters are allowed to reach the Chinese capital (which has a population of two million, but looked virtually empty whenever we saw it), they will consume the entire population and reproduce in sufficient numbers to destroy the world. Did I buy these stakes? Largely yes, even if the final battle relies on the same “Take out the [central thing] and you’ll vanquish the entire army” nonsense as every sci-fi exhibition film from to Star Trek Beyond to The Avengers. At a certain point, I’ll probably have to stop regarding swarms of CGI whatevers as a credible threat if they’re as easy to destroy en masse as the Death Star, but it appears that I haven’t reached that point yet. The final action setpiece is outstanding, featuring Jing and Damon performing exhilarating fantasy acrobatics worthy of Cruise and Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, always feeling like they’re mere seconds from being devoured alive. Ramin Djawadi‘s score (which includes diegetic taiko drums used to direct the army’s tactics) is marvelous – and as a point of comparison, I just watched a Marvel Studios film yesterday, and was (once again) underwhelmed by its fade-into-the-background generic score. Marvel is good at many things, but scoring superhero antics with memorable themes is not one of them. Djawadi has done some truly breathtaking work on Game of Thrones and Westworld last year, and I’m quite pleased to see him pushing back against the tide of bland superhero music on the silver screen.

Astute readers may note that I haven’t remarked much on Matt Damon playing the white hero of a Chinese film from a standpoint of “whitewashing” or a lack of minority representation in film. That’s mainly because after seeing the film, I neither agree with that characterization, nor particularly have much to say on the subject. To me, The Great Wall only superficially resembles white savior films like The Last Samurai, and I honestly haven’t read many actual complaints on this subject outside of members of the American left who made up their minds about the film months before it came out. I don’t wish to be dismissive of an important and persistent issue, but politics is a target-rich environment at the moment, the US has just put a Captain Planet villain in charge of environmental protection, and for the moment, I’d rather focus my attention on issues where I can meaningfully contribute to the discourse. Including, for instance, goofy monster battles.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #98 – “Fifty Shades Darker” (dir. James Foley)

Poster for "Fifty Shades Darker"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel make what we’re pretty confident will be our last visit to the Twilight fanfic world of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, despite being clearly out of the critical mainstream in finding this to be a vast improvement on the first film (40:00).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” by the late, great Jeff Buckley, which appears in the film, but is oddly missing from the film’s soundtrack.
  • CORRECTION: In the intro to this podcast, we referred to E.L. James as a “great American novelist”. We regret the error.
  • CORRECTION: Daniel did not do the math. If Christian makes $24k every 15 minutes, he makes $840 million per year. Making roughly $1.1 million/year puts you in the top 0.1% income percentile in the United States. Christian is cartoonishly rich.
  • CORRECTION: Okay, Portland has a couple of 40+ story buildings. That was still totally Vancouver, B.C. though.

Listen above, or download: Fifty Shades Darker (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #97 – “Split” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Poster for "Split"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel (plus special out-of-town guest Tex) see if M. Night Shyamalan still has the ability to twist a film into something likable. The answer – especially after we disliked The Visit so much – may surprise you (39:24)!

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Frogbass” by Snails, from the film’s soundtrack. Incidentally, this appears during a scene where we were promised that McAvoy would dance to Kanye, but I’m betting he was too expensive for a Blumhouse picture.
  • Speaking of, this film’s budget was $10 million, which is on the high end for Blumhouse Productions, matching the likes of Insidious: Chapter 3, Sinister 2, and The Purge: Election Year.
  • Michael Gioulakis was also responsible for the outstanding widescreen cinematography on Glenn’s #1 film of 2015, It Follows.
  • Check out the great work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and if you’re able, think about donating!

Listen above, or download: Split (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #96 – “Silence” (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Poster for "Silence"

In this week’s podcast, two old friends make their second appearance ever on the podcast. A shout-out to 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and our resident Japan expert (and Glenn‘s former fiancée and now-wife), Megan! And don’t worry, Daniel‘s here too, being quite unkind to Adam Driver. Take a stroll through Tokugawa-era Japan as we discuss cultural clash and religious persecution in director Martin Scorsese‘s most Catholic film ever (58:17).

Despite delving into some serious religious themes, this episode actually contains even more NSFW language than usual.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [17:58] Spoilers: Silence
  • Music for this episode is the track “Supply Chain” by ConfidentialMX, as isolated by Trailer Music Life on YouTube (as there doesn’t seem to be an official track available).
  • Bill Wurtz‘ “History of Japan” is one of the most entertaining and educational history lessons on the internet. Silence takes place at roughly the 4-minute mark of the video, but you should really just watch the whole thing. Seriously, go watch it right now. I might watch it again myself after typing this. It’s that good.
  • Correction: This isn’t super-germane to the film (as it’s over 100 years earlier on the other end of Eurasia), but Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were published in 1517, not 1597.
  • Note: We briefly discuss the story of Cassie Bernall, one of the victims of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, as an oft-cited example of a modern-day Christian martyr. Reading further, I was reminded of something I first learned when reading Dave Cullen‘s exhaustive book on the shooting, which is that this story is – to put it mildly – most likely just a story, even if it has still served the religious and rhetorical purpose that we have put it to today. On a related note, the film that Daniel mentions at the end of the episode is actually a loose Christian dramatization of another Columbine victim, Rachel Joy Scott, and it looks more than a little bit fictionalized and exploitative.

Listen above, or download: Silence (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers” – A cascading failure

Fair warning. In this critic’s opinion, this film comes pre-spoiled by its own script. As such, I’m going to be rather flippant, including revealing the fate of one of the characters.

There comes a moment in the third act of Passengers when Jim (Chris Pratt) and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) are wandering alone through the malfunctioning bowels of their interstellar passenger liner, which is experiencing a “cascading failure” of the ship’s computers. Jim, a mechanic, opens a panel containing some identical pieces of futuristic computer-glass.

“Does it look broken?” Aurora asks dopily.

“Looks alright to me,” replies Jim, equally dopily, but we know he’s correct. They wander to a door. The door says “Danger!” and won’t open.

“This looks wrong,” says Jim, because he knows literally nothing else.

“We’re looking for wrong!” chimes Aurora.

Then they bust open the door and immediately get sucked into a basketball-sized hull breach, as the atmosphere of an open section of the ship the size of an airplane hangar gets evacuated past them. They wriggle and wobble and throw stuff and obviously stay alive. Note to any would-be space travelers: If the ship doesn’t want to open a door for you, maybe spend a few seconds trying to figure out why before you pry it open. But this scene does sum up the film rather well. Passengers‘ third mistake is its persistent inability to take its characters’ peril seriously. Second is its willful disdain for making intelligent use of its sci-fi scenario. And the film’s first, worst, and most persistent blunder is its unrelenting betrayal and misuse of Lawrence.

Let’s back up. Because there was some promise to the film’s setup. Bound from Earth to an offworld colony, the interstellar passenger liner Avalon is 30 years into its 120-year journey (just like Star Wars through US copyright law, amirite?), with its 5,000 passengers and 285 crew frozen in stasis pods for the duration (on-screen text helpfully informs us of all of this in the first 15 seconds). The ship autopilots itself into an asteroid field, which quickly overwhelms the shields and causes damage. One of the many ensuing malfunctions is the unexpected awakening of Jim Preston (Pratt), who pops out of his stasis pod, follows the holographic instructions to find his quarters and rest up, and quickly realizes he’s the only person awake. He has no ability to put himself back to sleep, so he’s all alone, condemned to never see his shiny new planet, and forced to live out his life alone in space. He wanders the ship, takes an unaccompanied spacewalk, grows a long beard, plays both of the video games, and develops a healthy functional alcoholism with the assistance of the friendly android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen). He also peruses some technical manuals and makes a few hamfisted attempts to fix his situation, including failing to break into the apparently impenetrable crew quarters. All of this passes in montage form, and we don’t get any real sense of what he’s trying to do or how difficult it is (except for pounding on the crew’s blast doors with a sledgehammer and welding torch), and it quickly ceases to matter. He’s alone, a year passes, and he gets a bit weird. Pratt does a passable job with these scenes, which is a very good thing, since Jim loses my sympathy the moment he stumbles upon Aurora’s pod, develops an instantaneous obsession with her, and ponders waking her up to join him in solo interstellar damnation, cursed to live out her life alone with her secret murderer.

I must emphasize, while I was never in any suspense about whether he would go through with this, the movie at least had the good sense to briefly treat this like the Bad, Bad Thing it is. The script was aware of it, and Jim himself was aware of it. His interactions with Arthur, the eternally non-judgmental bartender, take on a (presumably) deliberate Shining vibe, and the movie treats his decision like the unthinkable act that it is. And I was still with it, even at this point. Isolation is a proven means of psychological torture, and I could fully buy that Jim had become unhinged and was ready to do something unconscionable to relieve his situation. Comprehensible, if not condonable. And on a more trite level, man’s inhumanity toward a randomly selected beautiful woman is a tale as old as time, and if this woman were given a chance to learn the truth of her fate, react like a human being, then decide what to do next, this could have been a serviceable psychological thriller in which Pratt could have taken on the acting challenge of being the unadvertised villain.

The problem is, the film seems mostly unaware of the gravity of what it has done, and becomes a straight romance from that point on. WALL-E composer Thomas Newman‘s warm synth-infused score pours over the tragic tale of a pair of lone accidental voyagers, linked romantically by happenstance, A-List attractiveness, and some good, old-fashioned, thrust-free, PG-13 space-sex. Aurora is a writer whose sole unmotivated contribution to the plot (apart from making her fella some breakfast and patching up the robot bartender with her makeup skills – no, I’m not joking) is some schmaltzy “Dear Diary” voiceover from the terrible book she’s writing to be read by no one, talking about how they’re all just Passengers on the ship of fate and they didn’t plan to find each other but they did and I almost literally fell asleep while typing this. Like the put-upon ’50s housewife that she is, Aurora is helpless to advance the story, which constantly denies her agency and punts her from one life-altering decision to the next. But hey, at least we get to watch her jog and swim a bit, right? Make no mistake: This film’s concept and treatment of Aurora is obscene. And its script, characters, and Avalon itself conspire to force Aurora to fall in love and get betrayed, then tap their collective foot impatiently because they can’t wait on her precious timetable of forgiveness. Stuff’s exploding and we need to fall in love and fix it already!

Laurence Fishburne briefly (accidentally) awakens as a member of the ship’s crew, and honestly, I was a bit relieved. He quickly realizes what Jim has done to Aurora, and I expected some sort of human moment between the two non-murderers aboard the ship. One in which J-Law could look at him and say, “That was pretty f’d up, right? Does this ship have a brig?” And then he could nod, and they could learn to play chess for the next 90 years. But no – instead, he gives them just enough information about the ship to let them bumble around fixing it, hands his authorization wristband to Jim rather than Aurora, and tells her that a drowning man (he means Jim!) will always try to pull people down with him, and “that don’t make it right”, but… And then he coughs, which poorly written movie characters only do when they’re terminally ill, and is dead a few minutes later from unspecified ailments inflicted by his rapid unscheduled thaw. This would be an excellent time for Aurora to point out, “See what happened to that guy? You risked that exact thing happening to me. Dick.”

But she doesn’t, because the film is completely unaware of that. No matter. Did I mention that Passengers is a bad sci-fi film as well? I could’ve overlooked Avalon‘s nosedive into a dense asteroid field, a cliché as old as a broken moon in the sky. But it also can’t be bothered to make consistent use of its spin gravity (or is it magical artificial gravity?), or use even the slightest bit of technobabble to describe the ship’s peril or the difficulty of fixing it. This is a sci-fi drama written with deliberate simplicity by Mitchell and Webb, or maybe accidental stupidity by the dullard who co-wrote Prometheus, which might explain his affinity for robo-surgery tubes. And don’t get me started on J-Law nearly drowning in the floating pool.

I can already see people trying to ennoble the setup of this film. He’s lonely! He needs company. You don’t know what you’d do in this situation! Let me be clear here. I don’t mind a film depicting a character committing such an act. I don’t even mind a film in which his victim decides she’s going to accept the intractable situation and forgive him. Or in which she decides she wants revenge. Or in which she throws them both out an airlock. Or in which she reacts in any way whatsoever. Passengers isn’t bad because it depicts a character doing a bad thing – it’s bad because it never acknowledges the reality it’s creating. And the result is as dumb as it is morally reprehensible. It insults its characters and its audience, and should be avoided like the plague.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #95 – “Moana” (dir. Ron Clements/John Musker)

Poster for "Moana"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a visit to an island paradise for a quick musical war between gods brokered by an impressive new Disney princess. No big deal. (31:18).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is a pair of tracks from the film’s soundtrack, “We Know the Way” and the fabulous end-credits version of “You’re Welcome” featuring Jordan Fisher and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
  • Check out the full scene with Maui (Johnson)’s “You’re Welcome” introduction on YouTube here.
  • Cravalho’s name pronunciation guide (from an interview along with Johnson) can be found here, courtesy of USA Today.
  • Correction: Moana’s island is Motunui, not Matanui. And the coconut pirates are the Kakamora, not the Kokomota.
  • The language that composer Opetaia Foa’i contributed is Tokelauan, a Polynesian language which has about 4,000 speakers.

Listen above, or download: Moana (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” – When competing dystopias fall in love

Poster for "The Lobster"

My recent coverage of the Seattle Shorts Film Festival reminded me of a favorite genre of the short-film medium – stories in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. These people talk and think and act in a way that is inscrutable to the audience, and yet their identical dysfunction makes their world feel genuine and lived-in, and we learn a great deal about them through the lens of what they deem acceptable or mundane. Normally, a feature-length film would collapse under its own weight when trying to replicate this style. Indeed, even the dystopian genre tends to trade in familiar tropes, thinly-veiled historical references, or variants of 1984 or Battle Royale – all alarming, to be sure – but all familiar. Enter Yorgos Lanthimos, whose 2009 feature Dogtooth offered a most disturbing (but well-rendered) exploration of the backwards shared reality of a family that has kept its children sealed in a compound until their teenage years, teaching them a plethora of false and incomprehensible beliefs about the outside world. The Lobster takes this scenario further by landing its characters in a full-fledged absurdist dystopia, wherein people (voluntarily?) enter a hotel in order to find a romantic partner, and anyone who fails to do so in 45 days will be transformed into the animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell), the only named character in the film, enters the hotel after his wife leaves him, and chooses a lobster, which the hotel pronounces “an excellent choice”. And as turns out, this society’s ability to magically transform humans into animals is actually one of the least bizarre things about it.

In essence, the film is about a pair of competing dystopias – the Attached (or soon-to-be-attached), who live in a gorgeous seaside resort/asylum, and the Loners, a ragtag band that live in the woods under an unnamed leader (Léa Seydoux). Each of these worlds is explored in great detail, and each comes with a litany of rules and practices that its participants struggle to obey. In the hotel, for instance, masturbation is forbidden, but every guest is seemingly required to have sex with the custodial staff. In the woods, you can dance – but it’d better be alone, to your own music – and no flirting allowed. There are many other rules, but I was more fascinated by the unspoken norms for how people in both worlds interacted with each other. Nearly every character in the film exhibits physical violence at some point, and whenever it occurs, the others seem alternately bloodthirsty or apathetic about it. They deceive each other, but badly – in fact, they seem so inclined to speak subtext aloud that they are best regarded as entirely guileless. Can liars be guileless? I may be trying to have it both ways here, but when David is approached by a police officer to inquire whether he is in a public shopping mall alone or with a companion, his response was awkward and unconvincing (like the majority of his dialogue), and yet I completely believed that the officer would buy it. This is a world that tells you exactly what’s expected of you, and doesn’t bother to question it as long as you’re playing along.

Still from "The Lobster"

One of The Lobster‘s most effective satirical devices is the impersonal nature of the characters, who are literally credited as a single named attribute – Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and Nearsighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), for instance – and their deliberately shallow courtships. In order to be a match, the characters seemingly just want to have some superficial trait in common. Ben Whishaw‘s Limping Man despairs that he can’t find a woman with a limp, so – rather than expand his criteria, he smacks himself good and hard in order to effectively court Nosebleed Woman (Jessica Barden). This is a lie that he is willing to live for the rest of his life, if necessary. David attempts a similar strategy, but it doesn’t go well for him – perhaps because his defining trait, rather than nearsightedness, is unrelenting honesty, even when it harms his interests. This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.

Stick with this film. Your patience for its deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you will be rewarded. After so effectively laying out this fractured fairy tale amid Thimios Bakatakis‘ breathtaking outdoor cinematography, which seems crafted deliberately to lose the characters in the mosaic scenery – the film surprised me once more by telling an uncompromising and beautiful love story. Farrell and Weisz’s performances are breathtaking, since these are characters that will always speak in subtext and reveal their exact motivations to each other. And yet, the small touches of intimacy between them – rubbing ointment on an injured back, butchering rabbits as gifts, etc. – seem even sweeter when they’re living in a society with zero tolerance for them, and when they’re quite possibly experiencing them for the first time. David keeps trying to ensure that he matches his new love’s shortsightedness, and this is perhaps the film’s final, cutting observation. These relationships seem shallow – defined by a single, superficial similarity – from both outside and in. Because even as these people are falling in love, with a thousand slender threads of commonality coalescing between them, they’re entirely too close to the situation to see it for what it truly is.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10