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.

 

Darke Reviews | Jason Bourne (2016)

Jess, where’s the review of The Killing Joke? Yeah….I was on a work trip which takes priority. It helps that I love my job and it always takes precedence over this very passionate hobby of mine. Due to some of what my job entails however, as well as a few dozen (re: Hundreds) news stories over the past few years this segways nicely into the movie you are getting a review of today.  I have watched all of the films with varying degrees of satisfaction since the first one fourteen years ago. Identity was good and new, but sadly introduced Shaky cam as a thing. Supremacy was a romp I enjoyed and Ultimatum tied it up nicely. Legacy was a disappointment within the realm of the franchise, but ok as it’s own film. I was rather put out with how they integrated it and I have a sneaking suspicion that Hollywood had a script around and did rewrites to make it work within the Bourne franchise. They do that all the time; at least two Hellraiser films are victims of this as well as Die Hard 4.

So is Bourne back or do we have an imposter film?

The movie is written by Christopher Rouse, who is normally an editor on such films as Paycheck, The Italian Job and Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, alongside Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy, Ultimatum, Captain Phillips). It appears the two work well together as Rouse is an editor for the majority of Greengrass films and earned himself a writing credit this time. This is the first time Greengrass took up the pen on a Bourne film as the previous movies were scripted by Tony Gilroy. I might surmise that Gilroy was not trusted by the studio after the less than stellar performance of Bourne Legacy which he wrote and directed, especially up against the Greengrass directed Ultimatum which brought in $227 million domestic back in 2007. Just a guess mind you, I also believe that after the success of Captain Phillips that Paul Greengrass wanted to return to this franchise and do something with it and was given the reigns as a passion project.

Now passion projects can be disastrous, see Dungeons and Dragons (review will be part of the October set this year!), or box office gold (Avatar – the Cameron one). This time I think it will be the later of the two as this is a return to form in creating a highly intense spy thriller with just enough twists turns and plays that you aren’t sure which way is up or how it might end. This may be one of the best executed spy thrillers in recent years and is absolutely a better executed thriller than last years Spectre. It is also incredibly relevant to our cyber-technology and privacy age and uses those issues as a lynch pin (or grenade pin) to the plot. While as with most, if not all, thrillers like this liberties are taken with technology and little things like international privacy laws and capabilities; which in and of itself is an incredibly relevant story. Is it Hollywood as hell? Oh yeah. Is it entirely inaccurate in the questions it raises which could spur interesting discussions among the more millennial and tech minded audience members? No..not entirely, but there are discussions that can come from it – really good ones.

From an acting perspective, I am pretty sure Matt Damon could do Bourne in his sleep and truth be told, he may have for some of his scenes. Many times he appears along for the ride and not quite the Bourne we know and love. Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Dewey is the heavy Jones does best. The breakout performances that steal their respective shows are Alicia Vikander as a CIA cyber security specialist and Vincent Cassel as a CIA asset. Vikander  (Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina) is an absolute delight in the movie. It’s yet another female character who is in charge, technically capable in her own right and does pass a few of the “Tests” including Sexy Lamp and Mako Mori. I repeatedly found myself cheering for the character and not being disappointed in her decisions through the film. Cassel (Le Pacte des Loups/Brotherhood of the Wolf – another review coming in October) just is a force of nature and has more menace to him than the last few villains I’ve seen in Marvel, DC, Bond, and many many other movies. In what would be a one note performance from someone else, Cassel is a perfect antithesis to Bourne.

That isn’t to say this movie isn’t flawless. There are pacing issues throughout the film that drag the story in an unneeded manner. The camera work and shaky cam are as bad as you’d expect, but also viable for this genre. I found there were too many edits in places that could have used more tracking shots, or longer shots on other components of the action. It was a victim of too much at once from time to time. There are a handful of spoiler-ish plot holes that had me and my friend roll our eyes that are clearly there for the convenience of the story rather than logic. At least one major annoyance occurred in the film that I really can’t forgive.

TL;DR?

Bourne is back. I think this may be one of the best of the franchise, if not the best. It’s relevancy, plot continuation of a character that logically follows that character, and sticking to the rules of it’s world and even it’s predecessors beats make it a really solid film. Matt Damon was born for this role, pun intended, and while the movie doesn’t set up a sequel as well as Supremacy…I wouldn’t be upset to hear of one coming. Choose from the most used tags

Should you see it?

Despite the handful of flaws, and the unforgivable one, it is a good movie that I can recommend for anyone this weekend. If you enjoy the spy genre, Bourne films, and general action movies – see this.

Will you buy it?

Yep. BluRay day 1. Goes nicely into the collection

Anything else?

This adds to the total dollars and lives to bring Matt Damon home.

What else is coming to review?

The Killing Joke (Tuesday if I am lucky) and Suicide Squad next week. I will be on radio silence from social media after the review Tuesday as it’s hard already to avoid spoileristic impressions of those who have seen it via screenings.

 

Darke Reviews | The Martian (2015)

This is not part of my October reviews, fortunately or unfortunately, my regular reviews do not get trumped by October. I had every intention of seeing this Thursday night but exhaustion kicked in and a desire for a record 6 hours of sleep ended up winning. Having seen it today and after some rest I can provide you the review you deserve.  I will say this, do not let Matt Damon or Jessica Chastain near the space program. Something goes wrong every time; how is it he is the one always stranded?

Anyway; does the movie hold up to the hype machine?

The film is based on a book by Andy Weir and adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard. I understand from some friends it is an excellent book and will be curious to hear the comparison between the two. Goddard on the other hand was the producer of the much loved (and very awesome) Netflix series Daredevil, The Cabin in the Woods, and Cloverfield. He also wrote one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Conversations with Dead People.” So the source material is very strong, the writer has some solid understanding of characters and tension but do they have a director who can do something with that?

Well lets talk the story for a moment. This is a what you see is what you get. The movie literally is: Matt Damon gets left behind on Mars. NASA tries to figure out how to save him, while he tries to save himself.

Simple story. You need good actors and a good director to make it work. I give you Ridley Scott. I give you the man behind the camera and actors of Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down, and the list goes on. He doesn’t have a flawless list (Robin Hood, Hannibal, Exodus) but a solid one. He, despite his stumbles, is a brilliant film maker who can do more to create tension with a shot and space than a dozen of the modern horror directors combined. That is what this movie needed. Tension. You don’t know if they will bring him home, you don’t know if they will all survive doing so. Goddard, Weir, and Scott have masterfully crafted a story where you just aren’t sure.

Of course some of the work must go to the actors. Matt Damon by necessity carries the film and he has the chops to do it. I was watching the movie and thought is there another actor who could do this? Short answer I came up with is no. End to end of this movie, there’s not another bankable actor who could do this with such charm and such range.  Then you combine it with the following cast members

  • Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, Mama, Zero Dark Thirty)
  • Michael Peña (Shooter, Fury)
  • Jeff Daniels (Newsroom, Speed)
  • Kristen Wiig (Despicable Me 2, Brides Maids)
  • Sean Bean (duh)
  • Kate Mara (House of Cards)
  • Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier, Once Upon a Time)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, 12 Years a Slave)
  • Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire)
  • Donald Glover  (Community)

This is the literal definition of a powerhouse cast. Each person despite how much or little screen time they are given manages to translate that into a memorable or otherwise engaging character. That’s art folks. This movie would die in the vacuum of space if you didn’t want to root for the characters. If you didn’t want to sit at the edge of your seat or bite your lip. Everyone is understandable in every decision made. Every action. Every consequence.  The movie lives and dies because of the performances these people gave in conjunction with solid directing, and source material.

In other words, this is everything Fantastic Four was not.

It is also not as pretentious as Interstellar, which I wanted to like, but really couldn’t.

As a technical point, the CG enhancement of the landscapes, the background, the skies made me really believe that they could have been on Mars. This is the George Miller lesson folks. Use CG to enhance not dominate. There’s only one slightly jarring, but appropriate effect in the movie. Everything else to me is beautiful. I was commenting the other day how claustrophobic modern movies tend to be. Tight locations, tight camera’s, fear of long range shots or appropriate long range shots. This movie is anything but. It uses distance as a tool as much as it uses sound and lack there of when needed. It really lives by show don’t tell on a lot of points and again is a better movie for it. If there are any other flaws, there’s some pacing issues (a Ridley Scott natural flaw) but otherwise that’s it.

TL;DR?

This is a good movie. This is a damn go0d movie. This isn’t a good sci fi movie. This isn’t a good dramatic movie. This IS a good movie. I watched the movie on the edge of my seat more than a few times.

I came out of the movie inspired.

I came out of the movie wanting to Science!

I came out of the movie satisfied with my experience in a way few movies this year have.

I highly recommend The Martian to anyone.

Darke Reviews | The Monuments Men (2014)

Been a few weeks since something came out I got to see, so thats the real reason for the delay here. This week is one of two movies for review, the other has more bite to it I hope. The Monuments Men tells a story I’ve not seen in film and certainly wasn’t told about in history class. It has quite a few things going for it in that regard. Telling a story from World War II that hasn’t before is actually quite hard these days. Let’s get into it shall we?

The story is adapted from a book by Robert Edsel titled “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”. It tells the story of the MFAA, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, a sadly little known unit established in 1943 to protect the cultural property in war areas during World War II. The screen play was adapted by Clooney himself with character actor and sometimes collaborator Grant Heslov (True Lies, Good Night and Good Luck, Ides of March). The movie focuses on one small group of the department and their attempt to rescue some priceless and personal artifacts from the Nazi’s as the war comes to an end. They face resistance from Nazi’s, Russians, and even their own people as they try to protect something the military itself cared little about during the war. Is a piece of art worth a mans life?

Clooney also directs this film, which combined with the script leaves most of the blame on him where the film goes wrong. Which, sadly, is quite a few places. One of the key functions of story is a narrative arc, with a a rise and fall in events that drives the characters forward through some form of conflict. The movie fails in that basic element of story. Yes, events happen. Yes, there are beats of cliche with moments of sadness or levity, but there is really no dramatic tension.

I wish I could say that there was, but the film just delivers a series of moments losely connected to each other by the plot of trying to find pieces of lot art. Few of the moments have any real weight to them and the moments that do are glossed over in such a hollow way that it loses the intensity it should have. Some are told out a strong dramatic order so that when you should be going “Oh damn…” you are simply shaking your head sadly. Even the few deaths that occur among the members of the cast come across as cliche and something you’ve seen a dozen times before and because of that become little more than a beat that has no meaning.

It’s unfortunate that as the movie pulls together an amazing cast of comedic talent that could have delivered some of the most dramatic performances of their careers. John Goodman, Bill Murray are wasted. Clooney’s own sense of timing seems off as he was focused three ways on script, acting and directing. The only high point is the interactions between Blanchett and Damon. Blanchetts character actually has the most depth of any of them, with the only arc worth a damn.

All of that said, the movie has some very pretty moments and some beautiful art. Art that would have been lost if not for the real men and women of the MFAA. The statues, the paintings, the lives displayed and lost. For all its flaws, of which there are many, the movie does remind us of a dark time in history that is quickly losing its weight in our modern world.

TL;DR?

The Monuments Men is an ok film that tells a story that needed to be told; but as a film it nearly fails. It wants to tell a story bigger than its capable and in that the weaknesses become apparent.

If you were interested in seeing it, its worth a matinee pass at best. The art alone and the history is worth it.

Otherwise, give this one a pass this weekend and save your money for Valentines day, or some other day where you might need money.

This should be a busy week for reviews, so sit tight folks!!

Darke Reviews | Elysium (2013)

I apologize for the delay on this, I watched this film Thursday night and it took me this long to settle on what I needed to say about it. If you are worried about the girl who won’t shut up about movies having to figure out what to say about this one; you should be.

This is Writer and Director Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore effort in the US. Most people remember the Peter Jackson produced (that means he was the money) District 9. A not so subtle story about the effects of racism in his native country of South Africa using aliens and humans as the opposing races. While many Americans that I know of derided the movie for it’s obvious themes and what appeared to be a “why now?” mindset. What those individuals forget is that while the laws against segregation were enacted within the US in 1964 it wasn’t for another 30 years until they were put into place in his country until 1994. Thats right, everyone reading this review was alive then. It was only 19 years ago (15 when District 9 came out); so it was fresh in his memory and his countries memory not something told in history books and hundreds of movies since.

This may seem like a long diatribe on history and this director without point, but I swear I have one. It’s that he has gone back to what the best of Science Fiction used to do; which is focus on social or current issues framing it in an alternate world that provokes thought and with a bit of luck awareness. So while films like District 9 and comics like X- men (originally) focused on racism, Elysium and other films in the sci fi and horror genre are beginning to focus on a new *ism*, class-ism.

But do they do it well?

That’s the question that kept me silent and wondering on this one. The answer I am afraid is *No*. While Elysium sets up a dystopian future with clear lines between the haves and the have nots, it doesn’t really do anything with it in a meaningful way. No one learns anything, no one evolves. While the plot lines introduced in the movie are resolved in a nice tidy bow, the only lessons the film teaches us:

If you are amoral – you will die If you are a have not – you will suffer first, then die. The only way the Have Nots can achieve what the Haves have (sounds weird), is through violence, treachery and few Haves wanting more and making a well timed mistake.

From a storytelling perspective, the movie does nothing new. If you saw the recent Total Recall remake (it is not as bad as people say), you have watched Elysium. Don’t believe me? While I normally remain spoiler free I feel that I must provide some synopsis that may contain spoilers.

Try this: A blue collar man who works on the robotic line that makes the robot police that keep him and the rest of the low class oppressed rises up and through violence and criminal amoral acts with the inspirational help a woman who loves him and reaches the other side of the world, while being hunted by a terminator esque force, where the Rich live and brings down the threat of oppression allowing his people, the poor working class to be free and live happily.

Another one? Johnny Mnemonic. Don’t boo, it has nostalgia value and is highly entertaining in the cyberpunk genre.

A man with a dubious and somewhat criminal history has data that can save the world implanted in his head. Rather than wanting to save the world, he wants nothing but to save himself. The people who like the world just the way it is dispatch a terminator esque creature to stop him from reaching a resistance that he is being guided to by a woman who cares for him. In the end to save his own life and those of the people around him he goes for broke and manages to use whats in his head to save the underclass citizens of the world.

Both of these synopsis just describe Elysium. WHile there are different effects, different characters, filming styles, etc Elysium adds nothing truly new other than a medical McGuffin that everyone wants. The acting is fine, the actors themselves are fine even if they are playing two dimensional stereotypes we have seen before.

STOP. WITH. THE. SHAKY. CAM.

I wanted to watch the fights and I couldn’t because the camera man was clearly involved in a 7.0 earthquake at the time of filming. I want to hunt the inventor of shaky cam to the ends of the earth for it.

TL;DR

WHile Elysium isn’t bad, I wasn’t really entertained except for a few moments of the film. Matt Damon and Sharlto COpley are all that save this from being a bad movie.

Matinée it if you must, skip it entirely if you mustn’t.

This movie doesn’t have a chance of overriding the system.