Movie Reviews - 2017 postsFriday March 03, 2017
Movie Review: The Great Wall (2017)
Damon, Jing. Whither Asbaek?
OK, if you're going to try to correct historic wrongs, such as white actors playing Asian parts in Hollywood films, which now goes by the hashtag-ready term #whitewashing, you need to pick your battles. I suppose that’s true of anything—picking your battles—but I think it’s particularly true if you’re relying on other people’s good will and sense of right to win the day. In those types of cases, you can’t afford a misstep. Humanity's good will isn't exactly inexhaustible.
Accusing Matt Damon in “The Great Wall” of white-washing is a misstep. He’s not white-washing anything. He’s green-washing. He’s money laundering.
“The Great Wall” is a joint American-Chinese production, filmed in China, and directed by legendary director Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” “To Live,” “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers”—need I go on?). Apparently that’s partly why Damon wanted to do the movie—to work with Zhang. It also allowed him and his family the opportunity to live in China for six months. I’m sure he also got paid a buttload.
As for why China wanted him? Money. Prestige. He’s a big international star. He’s Jason Bourne. International box office is currently owned by Hollywood and no one else is even close. There are 134 Hollywood films on the worldwide box office list before the top Chinese film, “Mei ren yu (The Mermaid),” makes an appearance. And most of its money was made in China. It didn’t travel. China wants its movies to travel; they figure having Jason Bourne on board could help.
Indeed, watching the film, I flashed back on all the hack Caucasian actors that used to appear in ’80s Hong Kong flicks and marveled at how far China had come. This far: Americans, such as Constance Wu, now get to call them “anti-Chinese.”
Beijing Olympics all over again
Damon plays William, an—I’m guessing—11th-century mercenary (“I fought for Harald against the Danes,” he says at one point), who travels to China with other mercenaries, including Tovar (“Game of Thrones”’ Pedro Pascal), to bring gunpowder back to Europe. Pursued by Chinese bandits, they come upon the Great Wall of China and surrender to the forces there. It’s better than the bandits.
Good thing. The Great Wall was built in the first place, it’s implied, to keep out the Tao Tie, a species of super-fierce, super-smart, dragon-y lizard-y things, who want to wreak havoc and eat people. They last attacked 65 years ago, and ever since the Chinese, led by Gen. Shao (Zhang Hanyu), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and Commander Lin (Jing Tian), have been preparing for their return. Now they’re here. This allows Damon and Pascal to be goggle-eyed witnesses to insane, drumbeat, synchronized archers and spear throwers. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” William asks Tovar. I have. We all have. At the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Which, by the way, was also directed by Zhang.
There are red soldiers (archers, male) and blue soldiers (spear-throwers and bungee-jumpers, female), and, with the help of William and Tovar, the Chinese beat back the Tao Tie once, then twice. All the while, subplots: Damon and Commander Lin make eyes at each other; Tovar wants to get out as soon as possible, and does so with the help of Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another westerner who’s been trapped there for 25 years; and William bucks up a young Chinese recruit, played by Chinese pop star Lu Han.
- Pascal is the best thing in the movie. The only time I laughed out loud were because of his line readings.
- William and Tovar are supposed to have a kind of Butch and Sundance vibe, and they almost manage to pull it off. Pascal works but Damon isn’t quite lighthearted enough.
- I’ve never seen Damon act this badly in a movie.
In a way, and not the Constance Wu way, Damon is all wrong for the role. In most of his movies, Damon exudes working-class America—blunt-faced and two-fisted and ham-handed; generally good-hearted but with a bit of a smirk—yet “The Great Wall” takes place before any of that existed. So where is William from? Britain, I guess. From time to time, Damon adopts a slight accent: now vaguely Irish, now vaguely ... Spanish? He has trouble getting his mouth around some of the pompous, classical lines he’s supposed to say. In quiet moments, inside the fortress, he’s not bad; Matt Damon again.
We get an international All-Star cast: Damon and Dafoe (U.S.), Pascal (Spain), and, briefly, Pilou Asbaek (Denmark) and Numan Acar (Turkey). Plus all of the Chinese stars. Really, if anyone should protest, it’s Denmark. Their biggest star this side of Mads Mikkelsen and he gets a walk-on. Tak.
But China ain’t fooling around. They want this. That was Zhang’s point when he defended the movie against the Constance Wus of the world:
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 tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.
But it wasn’t, and, for whatever reason, the movie is dying in the U.S. It did better in China, but only about half of what “Mei ren yu” pulled in. It’s not a great film so it’s not a great loss. But I admire the attempt of it.
Movie Review: Get Out (2017)
Great premise: Using the tropes of the horror genre to tell the story of Chris Williams (Daniel Kaluuya), a black guy visiting the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), somewhere upstate. It’s racial awkwardness as the underlying horror of American society.
Good follow-through: Rose is the white girl who’s obtuse about race, thinking everyone’s cool with everything; the father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), keeps dropping racial references (“I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could have”) to show how cool and liberal he is. The brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is a little weird and challenging, while the mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), is steely and distant, perpetually stirring her tea. They live in a big house, with a circular driveway, surrounded by woods. They have black servants (that’s a little embarrassing) and weird white neighbors who say inappropriate things. Think of the neighbors in “Rosemary’s Baby”: Everyone seems off. They seem like a coven. Like they’re all in on a shared secret they’re not telling our protagonist. Which they are.
The resolution? A little disappointing.
You ready? Turns out Rose is the lure to bring black men and women (mostly men) to the family estate, where the mother hypnotizes them and the father transplants someone else’s brains/consciousness into their body. (Sudden thought: This isn’t far removed from “The Thing with Two Heads,” is it?) The black people are still in there, but they’re trapped, unable to move or speak for themselves. It’s white people who control the body; who, you could say, own the body.
OK, as I write that out, it resonates more than I thought while watching. Could be I was watching through splayed fingers. I’m not particularly good with horror movies, and horror movies in which someone is trapped in their own body are super creepy to me.
Except ... No, there’s still a problem with the metaphor. Controlling the black body, owning the black body, sure, that’s in our history. But being the black body? Most white people don’t want that. Rachel Dolezal notwithstanding.
The two black servants, for example, are actually the Armitage grandparents—the people who started it all. They were about to die and now they’re middle-aged and black and ... servants? Or is that just for show when Rose brings another black kid around? If not, what do they normally do—just hang out at the estate reading magazines?
There’s a scene near the end that indicates why white people wouldn’t want to be the black body. Just before the operation, Chris breaks free, kills the father, mother, brother, grandmother, and, on a country road, covered in blood, near an upturned vehicle, he’s trying to choke the life out of Rose with his bare hands, when we see the flashing red lights of a police car. Right. Try to explain that. Chris slowly raises his hands in the air, but recent history would indicate he wouldn’t make it that far. He only does here because it’s not the cops but his friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent, arriving just after the nick of time. Another horror movie trope.
The resolution also diminishes the exquisite earlier awkwardness. So Rose isn't obtuse? The father isn't desperate for Chris' approval? They're faking. Only the mother and brother are what they seem.
Another problem: Why do the Armitages string Chris along the way they do? I get that they can’t operate after the first bout of hypnosis. They have to auction him off to the highest bidder—in this case, Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a local blind art dealer who likes his “eye” and wants to see again—and the best way to get the highest price is to parade him before the shoppers. But after that, why doesn’t the mother simply do her thing with the teacup? Why leave the photos in the closet? Why show Chris the VHS tape explaining what will happen to him? To terrorize him further? C’mon. The VHS is less to explain the process to Chris than to explain it to us.
The acting is great, by the way, particularly Kaluuya as Chris, Keeler as the steely mom, and Gabriel as the maid/grandmother. That tear coming out of her eye; that sense of a soul being trapped in its own body.
The movie was written and directed by Jordan Peele (of “Key and...”), and one wonders if he’s onto a new type of film here: placing awkward racial matters onto Hollywood genre films. How might it work with rom-coms, westerns, gangster flicks, musicals? Would be interesting to see the attempts, Hollywood.
Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
It begins meta. We’re immersed in a dark screen—silent until we hear the guttural growl of Lego Batman (Will Arnett) commenting upon the thing we’re watching:
Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos. Warner Bros. Why not Warner Brothers? I dunno. DC: The house that Batman built. Yeah, what Superman? Come at me, bro. I’m your kryptonite.
I wanted a little more here—particularly with all the logos of all the production companies necessary to make movies now—but it’s doing a good job of satirizing the genre: superhero movies generally, Batman movies specifically. I’m laughing. The fact that they’re Legos helps. Batman acts as superimportant as he always does but he’s a Lego.
The Joker (Zach Galifanakas) has concocted a needlessly elaborate plan to blow up Gotham City but nobody is particularly scared. The pilot whose plane full of explosives is hijacked kind of shrugs and says Batman will save the day, as he has in the past. He references “the two boats” (“The Dark Knight,” 2008) and “the parade with the Prince music” (“Batman,” 1989) as examples. The Joker’s incensed, or maybe petulant—the way a first grader might be—but with his team of criminals he takes over an event in Gotham headed by Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), and this brings out the Batman, who is unstoppable and full of himself. And a Lego. He’s about to capture the escaping Joker (rope ladder, helicopter) when the Joker reminds him of the bomb ready to blow up his city. He crows: “It’s got to be one or the other, Batman! Save the city or catch your greatest enemy. You can’t do both!”
It’s that classic hero dilemma—but with a twist. Batman looks confused for a moment, and we get the following dialogue:
Batman: You think you’re my greatest enemy?
Joker: Yes, you’re obsessed with me.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, your are.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, you are! Who else drives you crazy the way I do?
Joker: No he doesn’t.
Joker: Superman’s not a bad guy!
Again, I’m laughing. The absurdity of it all, the first-grader dialogue, the idiocy of a Batman who considers Superman his enemy. We get a close-up of Lego Joker’s face turning sad, his painted mouth beginning to quiver, as he realizes he means so little to the enemy who means so much to him.
“This is good,” I thought.
About a half hour later I realized I wasn’t laughing anymore. What happened? The plot kicked in, of course. The movie stopped being a satire and became the thing it was satirizing. It tried to give us meaning.
The meaning is in the above dialogue. Batman has never gotten over his parent’s murder—the incident that made him Batman—so he keeps everybody, including the Joker, at a distance, while he watches sappy romances such as “Jerry Maguire” and “Serendipity” on his big-screen HDTV in his voluminous mansion. (I liked him on the couch, searching for the right HDMI input. Us, finally.)
But keeping yourself at a remove isn’t healthy personally. Here, it’s also not healthy professionally. Batman winds up needing others. Not the Justice League of America, who make a cameo appearance partying in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Instead, it’s the usual Batman crew: Robin (Michael Cera), Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). Initially he pushes them away, because Batman doesn’t do “ships,” as in “relationships,” but finally he realizes he can’t save the day without them. So he has to change from a solo Batman to one surrounded by bat-friends. Basically, he’s changing from Christopher Nolan’s growling, solo Dark Knight to the Adam West version. By the end, everything is bats: Batgirl, Night-wing, Alfred dressed as 1960s-era Batman. We get shark repellent and Pow! and Sock!
Normally I would’ve liked all of this, since I’m a fan of the 1966 “Batman”: I think it’s the best superhero satire ever made. This is probably second now, but a distant second, because it has to give us not just a happy ending but a cozy ending: Batman rejoining the family of men/women. The ’66 version gave us a happy ending (Batman saves the day) but Batman himself never changes: he remains as pompous in the end as he was at the beginning. U.N. leaders are reduced to dust by the Penguin, and when Batman rehydrates them they continue arguing without skipping a beat—except now they’re arguing in someone else’s language. Robin is worried but Batman gets that far-off “Father Knows Best” look of wisdom in his eyes, and says, “Who knows, Robin: This strange mixing of the minds may be ... the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” It’s a perfect take on post-World War II American pomposity. We save the day and can’t stop patting ourselves on the back for it.
So what would be the perfect satire for post-Reagan American pomposity? I don’t know. Not this. If you have your hero change, you need to mock the change. It can’t be the right move, just another move fraught with inadequacies and human doubt. Batman could, for example, go from pompous and stoic to pompous and empathetic. He couldn’t stop hugging people and asking about their feelings: “Believe me, I’m the least stoic person out there. Just ask anyone.”
Worse, “The LEGO Batman Movie” goes beyond the bounds of the Batman/superhero universe to include other Warner Bros. properties: Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong. You can almost feel business executives (LEGO, Warner Bros., DC Comics) rubbing their hands together at the synergy.
Maybe that’s what you mock. You go meta on that. Those guys. Sadly, they’re the ones still in control. More than ever now.