Darke Reviews | The Great Wall (2017)

First, let me make this clear. Yes I was amongst those who was very upset over the Matt Damon factor of this otherwise Asian centric cast. Yes, I did initially plan to boycott it. Then I read about the director Yimou Zhang and what he represents for China as a filmmaker. I read his quote

In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.

Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree.

So…here I am, a white girl, enraged over the perceived white-washing. Then I get the director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Jet Li classic Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and so many more telling me give it a chance.

So I did.

The question is – how true was the statement or was it just PR?

Let’s get the big question out of the way. Is Matt Damon another White Savior trope?

First for those who don’t know, the trope is the idea of “white man saves all” – even Game of Thrones hits this with Dany and the slaves of Meereen. Some movies even lampshade it, “You can do anything. You’re white.” (Ghost and the Darkness). There’s waaaay too many factors that play into why this exists, why it still exists, and why people care or don’t care about it.

So does the movie do it? Yes….and no. It really rides a delicate balance between both sides of it, I think it does lean a lil to the wrong side, but just by a notch. His impact to the story is definitely there, he is our audience PoV character; but there are a few elements of the trope he doesn’t hit and the movie does avoid rather well. So in that respect – well done.

To the second point – could it or should it have been done with another ethnicity? Eh….I agree with the director on this one. He is but one component and his actions do not take away from the movie, nor would someone else particularly add to it. That’s the trick. He doesn’t take away, but casting someone else doesn’t add – when all but three members of the cast are Chinese.

That out of the way? Good.

So let’s talk the movie. It is a joint American and Chinese production and I have to say it shows. There are so many elements of great productions I have seen from China that are here, but there’s a heart and overarching symbolism and depth I found missing. Maybe not missing, but not as fulfilling as I think it could have been. I’ve talked about the director and his accolades and that alone I believe elevates the movie to the level it hit. There are some magnificent shots and yes even nuance in some of the performances I don’t expect from Stateside productions.

There are the brilliant colours of the armies, the long sweeping camera moves, and more extras than you would believe making a noted difference in the film.  The enemy is of an interesting design, origin, and weaknesses – but ….not wholly original. There will be those who go “oh this reminds me of this…and this aspect this.” They aren’t wrong, but it’s ok. Not everything has to be 100% original. Few things are.

The script. Hmm. It hits the three writer rule and beats it upside the head like an overfilled pinata. Six writers; starting with three story credits to Max Brooks (World War Z novel), Edward Zwick (Jack Reacher 2, director Last Samurai) , and Marshall Herskovitz  (Jack Reacher 2, screenplay Last Samurai). Three screen play credits follow – Tony Gilroy (who may be surgically attached to Matt Damon now after all the Bourne movies), Doug Miro (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and Carlo Bernard (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time).

How do I parse this out? 3 really good writers give us a story, of heroes on a wall. Make us care (Brooks is really good at that) and figure out how to have multiple heroes with their own arcs in the film, even if they are minor turns in the end.  The polish is added by Matt Damon’s friend (I would guess he was asked to help by Damon, but I could be wrong), and the writers of two fairly decent Disney bombs; granted I like Sorcerer’s Apprentice but PoP:TSoT….is just bad. Considering I think Gilroy may be at fault for some of my displeasure with Rogue One – I kind of want to blame some of the choices in script on the trio of screenplay. It’s a personal inclination based on all bodies of work known – then again Zwick did give me the rather bad Jack Reacher sequel so I am back to I don’t know what to do on this one.

The script is serviceable with all the turns you expect. All the lines of dialogue you expect. All of the surprises you expect (yeah I said it). All of the elements you expect. It works. It’s not great. It’s not bad. It just is.

Acting? Yes. Acting. It happens here. Let’s begin with Damon. We all know he can act. We all know he can do physical. I just have absolutely no idea why he decided to try an accent. I can’t even place the accent and I am pretty good at those. If anything I would have to say Saxony? I think it’s supposed to be some kind of nordic/germanic based English – but I just am not sure and it is a touch distracting. Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martell) is enjoyable and I am glad to see him after Game of Thrones; while we get a surprise paying for a new car performance from Willem Dafoe.

Lu Han carves a niche for himself as Peng Yong and I could see good things ahead for him if he desires. It is impossible to look away from Andy Lau’s (Infernal Affairs, Shaolin – a must see) performance as Strategist Wang; but if he is impossible to look away from then one can only stare while Jing Tian (Special ID)  is on screen. It has nothing to do with her looks (she is beautiful), the vibrant blue of her amazingly crafted armor – but everything to do with the presence she brings to screen. I will tell you she plays Commander Lin Mae, but when she’s on screen I buy it.

Mostly.

This is where the last half of the movie fails. So much of the characters, the power of them, their unique styles and way of being seems to be left behind as the movie rises to the middle of Act II and then is gone the rest. It makes highlights but never quite recaptures the elements the beginning had me leaning forward in my seat to see and even feel for how a particular element was shot.

Which brings me back to a weakness of American productions by comparison to their Chinese counterparts in this genre. Let’s take Hero. It could only end the way it did, but you felt something every step of the way. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, you never lose what makes them unique.  Here it falls apart in spectacle that diminishes the movie.

TL;DR?

The movie got an emotional reaction from me. I was leaning forward more than a few times as it played out. That absolutely graduates it from “meh” to at least mediocre. My disappointments with it are enough to take it from a solid good down a notch.

In the end we have a generally well constructed, well shot, well acted fantasy piece with a mythology we are not familiar with and characters we want to be familiar with. If the biggest failing is that it doesn’t deliver on letting me really feel them all the way beginning to end – there are worse things out there.

I agree with Zhang Yimou – we should do more productions like this. I also am glad I gave it a chance.

Should you see it?

If you are a fan of Sentai style films, Chinese cinema, or just in the mood for a decent pop corn flick – sure. Matinee maybe – possibly full price if you are feeling froggy.

I know a lot of folks won’t and that’s a shame. It’s absolutely serviceable. It will not make its budget back Stateside unless a miracle happens.

Is it worth High Def? XD, etc?

Act I and part of Act II  indicate yes. Just make sure the theatre is on the newer end. The screen at my showing was a touch dusty and when the vibrant colours of the army walk by it was noticeable.

Will you buy it?

Pretty good odds.

Why didn’t you see A Cure for Wellness? I heard it was good.

Me too! But sometimes I need popcorn and fluff. This movie delivered that. When I am in the mood to think some more and wince some – so probably next week I will see A Cure for Wellness.

 

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Darke Reviews | John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

I still fondly remember seeing the first one on a lark. “Ah what the heck…I don’t mind Keanu.” What I then received, despite the theatre being empty was one of the best action movies of that year and arguably the next. Of course, everyone who did see it got others to see it and word of mouth of this diamond in the rough spread and a cult phenomenon formed around the little movie that could. It deserved the attention. It stands out amongst action movies with a very low end, for Hollywood, budget of $20 million – which it went and doubled domestic and quadrupled world wide. That isn’t counting after market sales once it left theatres. Again – it is right to have this praise. I ended the last review saying we need Hollywood to pay attention to it and learn from it.

Well they got it half right. They paid attention and gave us a sequel. Sadly I cannot think of a movie since 2014 that is such a magnificently choreographed ballet of bullets and blood. Sure we’ve had good action movies, I’ve seen most of them, but most of the time I am complaining about the camera work or editing.

The question is – Is the magic that made John Wick back or should it have stayed in retirement?

The pen of Derek Kolstad returns to the script, not really having worked on anything since the last film. He had a task I have seen many fail at before. Write a script for a sequel to a movie a lot of people liked, but closed its ending quite nicely. How do you bring your principle character out of retirement – twice. How do you get people to care about the story? How do you avoid rehashing the literal same story or other story again? Time and time again people fail at this when going to sequels. Usually they are rushed, but he had at least a year to write and they had a year to film before this release.  The time helped. Kolstad told the story that we came out of the last one wanting more of. He brought us more into the world of Hitmen, Coins, and The Continental. I do admit I want more of that world, and it delivered. For those familiar with the World of Darkness, take notes – you have good source material here. Is the plot complex? No. Is it more than avenging the death of his dog. Yes. What you should take away from it  is that he bothered with a plot rather than a thinly veiled way to string together gunfights. Thank you Derek. We mean it.

At the helm is previous director Chad Staheleski, minus previous director David Leitch; though Leitch does have an executive producer credit. He does as well as he did in the first one and it is very clear that he paid a lot of attention over the years on the films he worked as a Stuntman and coordinator on. The beats, the blocking, the  shots were gorgeous. There is one in Rome, near a large bathtub that is one of the most gorgeous shots I have ever seen on screen. He and cinematographer Dan Lausten (Crimson Peak, Brotherhood of the Wolf), do some really amazing shots and made some otherwise risky shooting choices all of which paid off. Shooting in a mirror maze is difficult enough. Shooting with a moving camera in a mirror maze with moving panels must have been a nightmare. They did it.

My only complaint on the technical facet of the film is that there’s a bit of shaky cam on a handful of sequences; and overall most of the gunfights could have been shaved by a few seconds or beats. One in particular could have lost two minutes and we would have been ok. There’s a touch more CG enhancement to shots that really didn’t need it when a composite shot could have done better. That said, on the flip side – the practical in camera effects are just damn good. They are as visceral and brutal as you would think. Also – that bathtub sequence. I don’t want to know what it took to get that – but it was perfect. They really, as a pair, grasped when to use the different lenses and how to do different depths, angles, and movement with the cameras.  There’s no shot I found off putting and they flow well to the credit of editor Evan Schiff (Pans Labrynth…huh thats two who worked with Del Toro).

So yes, the technicals are really solid here – a little more flawed but nothing game breaking or even really detrimental to the movie. I think I am more trying to show it can still be critiqued; because otherwise the stunts are FANTASTIC. This is a love letter to so many stunt performers over the year (including an intro shot with Buster Keaton on a wall). The stunts are not over the top. They are very human very real and require high degrees of skill.So much is done in the frame you can see the actors doing their work and the movie always benefits from it. They also give you time to breath, they let the plot breathe. They let you see the injuries without being gratuitous. They let fatigue set in.

From an acting perspective Keanu does a excellent job of showing John’s state both mentally and physically as the movie progresses.  This man is 50+ years old and his own stunt work is just incredible.  Ricardo Scamarcio (Burnt) does well as our antagonist. Ian McShane is still  Ian McShane and we all love the movie a bit more for him end to end. Ruby Rose, as Ares, in her third performance this year does well with little. She does have weight and does well with it. I am unsure why they made one of the choices about her character – it didn’t hurt that it was made, but still wondering why.  Common (Smokin’ Aces, Selma) continues to impress me with both his delivery of what he must and his action capabilities. Claudia Gerini (nothing stateside) is a stand out performance in the movie and for what time she had made an impact.

TL:DR?

This is a very good sequel. Again I want the movers and shakers in L.A. to pay attention to the movie and learn the right lessons. You will be hard pressed in this genre (sorry Godfather fans) to find a sequel that is as good a follow up to it’s close ended predecessor.  While it isn’t quite as good as the first, it is still bloody awesome.

Should you see it?

Do you like action? Gunplay? Keanu? The First movie? If the answer to any of these is Yes. Stop reading my review and go. Seriously…

Go.

Are you still reading? This movie is that good. Just go.

Will you buy it?

Without a doubt.

Anything else?

Yes, the music. The music was fantastic. I am trying to hunt down the soundtrack.