Movie Reviews - 2018 postsMonday March 12, 2018
Movie Review: Operation Red Sea (2018)
Who knew China’s humanitarian/military adventures would be so lucrative?
In March 2015, as fighting in the civil war in Yemen intensified, the Chinese Navy evacuated roughly 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese citizens from the southern port of Aden. It was a triumph: logistically, symbolically, internationally.
“Wolf Warrior II” (战 狼 II), released last summer, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and elite wolf warrior Leng Feng (Wu Jing) in a fictional southern African country. The film grossed US$854 million. It’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.
“Operation Red Sea” (红 海 行 动), released last month, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and its elite Jiaolong Assault Team in a fictional northern African country, Yewaire, along the Arabian peninsula. The film has grossed $520 million and counting. It’s about to become the second-biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.
The movies share more than real-life inspiration and big bucks. Both begin with the hero/heroes taking down Somali pirates. Both end with callouts to Chinese citizens abroad: that the Chinese motherland has their back (“Wolf Warrior”); and here’s the number to call or text if you run into trouble (“Red Sea”).
The differences are interesting.
他 们 是 谁？
“Wolf Warrior II” is more cartoonish, vaguely racist, anti-American. It needs not only China steaming to the rescue but America cutting and running. In “Red Sea,” America doesn’t factor in; it’s not even mentioned.
Leng Feng, despite the title of his film, is really a former Wolf Warrior; he goes where he wants. In this way, he’s a more traditional action hero: the lone wolf. The eight PLA heroes, meanwhile, still follow orders. They’re more professional and buttoned. And dull. Also tougher to follow. Who’s who again? None of the eight are recognizable stars (to me), they all wear the same clothes, none have backstories. What do we really know about them? One guy likes candy; the new sniper is cocky and chews gum. That’s about it. I wound up differentiating them so:
- The Captain
- Big Eyes
- Candy Man
- The Spotter
- The New Sniper
- The Girl
That leaves two; I don’t even remember which two.
The plot: As the Yewaire civil war heats up, the terrorist group Zaka tries to get its hands on Yellowcake and the secret to making a dirty bomb. The latter is stored in a locket hanging from the neck of an industrialist, whom we see kidnapped and brutalized. The terrorist leader, an imam, speaks soothingly to him as he examines a Christ-like wound in the man’s side; then he calmly opens up the wound with a knife; then, as the man screams, his sticks his hand in.
Most of the fighting involves machinery—sniper vs. sniper; tank vs. tank—so there’s little in the way of traditional cinematic martials arts battles. At one point, though, the Girl, head shaved, battles a terrorist in hand-to-hand aboard a grounded plane. It feels real. There are no clean movements, nothing balletic about it. It’s just a constant, close, sweaty struggle to get the upper hand, to get the right hold, in order to kill the other person. It’s kill or be killed. She kills.
Early on, the Chinese military seem so well-equipped and trained that I wondered how director Dante Lam was going to make a battle of it; how would he make them underdogs? Then the mortars start flying. Then the teenage Arab sniper with the scar (a great find, by the way; the kid has intensity) begins to pick off targets. After that, eight are left, and of course they’re ordered to attack the Zaka stronghold and free its one Chinese hostage. “Eight against 150,” the Captain says.
There you go. Movie odds.
糖 果 人
This is probably the biggest difference between the two Yemen-inspired movies: As violent as “Wolf Warrior II” is, I’ve never seen a level of violence like in “Red Sea.” It’s relentlessly, viscerally violent. It’s literally viscerally violent—as in here’s another shot of human innards splattered around what remains of a bus. “WWII”’s Leng Feng gets mussed, right? He winds up sweaty and dirty with dashing cuts on his face—like any Hollywood movie star. Here, one of the eight loses a finger, another an arm. Candy Man loses half his face. He spends his last five minutes on screen screaming in pain before finally succumbing to his wounds.
French director Francois Truffaut once said—via Roger Ebert—that even anti-war films are pro-war because they can’t help but be thrilling. I’m wondering if Dante Lam has managed to do the opposite: make a film so gung-ho, so full of his chest-beating love of guns, missiles and gore, that it’s actually anti-war. I’d be curious to hear from people who normally like war movies. For me, the violence is so brutal I kept turning away; the gunfire is so relentless, I just wanted it to end.
“This mission is a message to all terrorists,“ a Chinese Naval Officer says halfway through, ”that you will never harm a Chinese citizen.” Right. I would say the movie has a mixed message then. Chinese citizens may not get harmed, but everyone else does. Just ask Candy Man.
Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)
Which character do you think writer-director Ryan Coogler identifies with more: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the hero, or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the villain? I’m guessing the latter. And not just because of the Oakland connection.
The best villains make you want to switch sides, and that’s Killmonger. His antecedent in the Marvel Comics movie world is Magneto—another Erik with a k (don’t mess)—whose “By any means necessary” stance vs. humans seems more pragmatic, or at least more dramatic, than Professor X’s bland accommdations. The historical antecedent, of course, is Malcolm and Martin. Hell, the only reason Killmonger is a quote-unquote villain is because he shows no mercy. He’s an asshole. If he weren’t, he might be preferable to T’Challa, who, like Prof. X, is a bit anodyne. He’s a comfortable king.
Indeed, as you hear the history of Wakanda—how they keep their riches and weaponry and tech hidden from the rest of the world—you go: Wait, what? Through the centuries? Through the slave trade? The fuck, Wakanda, how about helping a brother out? How about helping 100 million brothers out?
You know what that makes you? Killmonger before Killmonger even shows up.
The Biblical sins of Wakanda
So: Long ago, a meteor made of vibranium, the strongest substance in the universe (see: Captain America’s shield), crashed into Africa, and turned Wakanda into a superpower. And what did they do with this power? They helped their own. Instituted a kind of “Wakanda First” program. That’s the original sin.
The second sin takes place in Oakland in 1992. The king’s brother, N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), is there doing outreach but gets radicalized. He decides that maybe Wakanda shouldn’t just sit by; that it should arm the oppressed peoples of the world. For this, the king, T’Chaka (Atandwa Kani), kills his brother for treason. If the original sin has vague Biblical connotations (staying in Eden rather than being booted out), the second is exact: fratricide.
Cut to: present-day Wakanda. Remember how, in “Captain America: Civil War,” King T’Chaka had been assassinated? Yeah, me neither. Well, now his son, T’Challa, is set to take the throne. The five tribes of Wakanda gather by a shallow pool overlooking a majestic waterfall, where T’Challa stands stripped to the waist, ready take on anyone who wants to challenge him for the throne—to the death. That’s how they do. And guess what? Someone does: M’Baku (Winston Duke), of the all-but-forgotten mountain people. Of course, T’Challa wins, and of course he shows M’Baku mercy. And, of course, this act of mercy will help T’Challa in the third act—as acts of mercy in the real world tend not to.
Going in, I’d heard the first part of the movie has pacing issues, and it does. Several times I thought, “You know, you could lose this scene ... or this one.” But each time, that scene was revisited later in the film: the rite of succession; the Black Panther burial/dream. Too much of the story is then lost. But editing could’ve been tighter.
You know who I might’ve lost? Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Yes, romances between African-American characters in mainstream Hollywood movies are such a rarity as to be celebrated. But she doesn’t add much. She wants to do on her own, and keeps her distant from T’Challa, who is way too smitten around her. She’s not essential. Plus we‘re introduced to too many new characters as is. Thankfully, most of them are memorable:
- the supercute baby sister playing Q to T’Challa’s Bond (Letitia Wright as Shuri)
- the fierce bald warrior women/Secret Service (led by Danai Gurira as Okoye, a stand-out)
- Angela Basset as the mom
- Forest Whitaker as the sage counselor
- Andy Serkis as the leering Afrikaner villain
- the cute dude from “Get Out” as the only tribal leader who has to wear a sweatshirt
I did look askance that they made T’Challa’s sister the Q here. Is this family keeping it all for themselves? Don’t they have any outreach programs?
The movie speeds up when T’Challa, Okoye and Nakia (with Shuri phoning it in) travel to Korea, to track Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who’s trying to sell African artifacts to a CIA agent, Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, this movie’s Felix Leiter). It’s a good set piece/chase scene. They wind up with the artifact but lose Klaue. In the process, Ross is shot and brought to Wakanda so Shuri/Q can save his life.
In the meantime, Klaue’s partner, Killmonger, betrays and kills him, and delivers the body to Wakanda. He also reveals he’s Wakandan—the American son of the slain N’Jobu—and immediately demands a shot at the throne. So back to the shallow pool above the waterfall we go, but you already know where it’s heading. Killmonger wins, shows no mercy, throws T’Challa over the waterfall to the lamentations of the women. Now he’s king.
Nice rite of succession, Wakanda. Well, we elected Trump, so I can’t nitpick.
T’Challa as Zushio
I would’ve liked a more studied Killmonger at this point—someone ready to take power. I mean, wouldn’t you need Shuri/Q? Or does she have assistants? There’s a bit of wonderment as he takes over the throne, but it’s not enough. Mostly he just keeps glowering and bullying. He’s tearing down from inside before he can export out.
Meanwhile, mom, sis and GF (Ramonda, Shuri and Nakia) travel to the mountaintop to convince M’Baku, the would-be usurper, to take on the successful usurper. Instead, he gives them what they really want: T’Challa: in a coma, but alive. Vibranium cures the rest.
I also wanted a greater fire in the eyes from T’Challa here. Throughout, he reminded me a bit of Zushio, the young boy in the great Japanese film “Sansho the Bailiff,” who takes his father’s lessons on mercy to heart (“Without mercy, man is like a beast”), only to find himself bereft—a literal slave in a merciless world—because mercy wasn’t his to give. T’Challa was merciful, he lost everything to the merciless, but he comes back virtually the same. Dude: Get angry.
“Black Panther” is a cultural phenomenon (box office soaring through the roof) but merely a good superhero movie. It wouldn't make my top five. There’s no line as good as “There are always men like you” from “The Avengers,” nor anything as fun as rag-doll Loki from same. There’s no counselor as wise as Yinsen in “Iron Man,” nor a death as tragic. The lead isn’t as interesting as Tony Stark or Peter Parker. Or Hank Pym or Steve Rogers. Or Logan.
The standouts, besides Jordan’s Killmonger, are the women—particularly the super-enthusiastic Shuri and the super-badass Okoye, who stops a rhino charge like it’s a replay of Tianamen Square. And the ending works. T’Challa adopts a less radical version of Killmonger’s program and reveals Wakanda as a superpower before the world. That, in itself, is a victory for Killmonger. He lost the battle but half-won the war. Can you imagine something similar in other superhero movies? Reed Richards saying, “Hey, this planet-eating idea of Galactus’ isn’t bad.”
T’Challa’s outreach begins where we began the movie, in Oakland, which is where writer-director Coogan grew up, and where he first began reading “Black Panther” comic books. How cool is that? The kid brought his superhero home.
Movie Review: Monkey King 3 (2018)
Well, that took forever to end.
Were all the waterworks—and I mean the river kind—the result of the popularity of “The Mermaid” two years ago? Combine water and unrequited love and get bang-o box office? Did anyone suggest that it might not be the best use of our time? That it’s all part of a minor subplot between our lead character’s love interest’s fierce adviser, Chang’E (Gigi Leung), and a river god (or goddess), and has nothing to do with anything anyone cares about?
I’m not saying it’s easy to adapt a classic, much-beloved, 16th-century picaresque for the 21st century, but surely more fun can be had.
Womenland of Western Liang
For those who arrived late: “Journey to the West” is an episodic adventure tale about a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (Feng Shaofeng), traveling west to get scriptures to save the hedonistic east. He’s aided by three companions/disciples:
- Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang), a half-pig creature
- Sha Wujing (Him Law), a blue-skinned water creature
- Sun Wukong, the all-powerful Monkey King (Aaron Kwok), who was born of divine crystals used to repair Heaven after a battle between the Bull Demon King and the Jade Emperor
They all call Sanzang “Master” (Shifu) but they’re the ones forever getting him out of trouble. The chapters on which “Monkey King 3” is based, #s 53-55, follow this trajectory: get into trouble, get out of it, move on.
In the original, via this translation, the four pass through Womenland of Western Liang, populated, yes, only by women. Most have never seen a man before. So how do they procreate? By drinking from the Motherhood River. That’s what two of our protagonists (Sanzang, Bajie) do by mistake. And Monkey King is sent to Miscarriage Spring in Childfree Cave to battle the immortals there and return with a cure to end their pregnancy.
In the next chapter, they go to the “Male-Welcoming Post Station” in order to pass through Womenland. But word gets out that Sanzang is the brother of the Emperor Tang, and the Queen wants to marry him for the power and because she’s, well, man-crazy—like all the women in Womenland. But before all of that can happen, Sanzang is stolen by a woman who turns out to be a demon-scorpion. It takes the disciples all of Chapter 55, and the deus-ex-machina help of the Bodhisattva, to rescue him.
That’s the original. What do you keep, what do you toss, how do you make a modern movie out of it?
They toss the scorpion woman. They make the potential nuptials between Sanzang and the Queen (Zhao Liying) less the result of power, expedience and/or lust than moon-eyed love. Believe it or not, they keep the Motherhood River. As with the nuptials, though, they soften it. Sanzang decides he can’t abort the baby, so Monkey King freezes everyone and makes the pregnant men drink the miscarriage water. Our hero remains moral and gets to continue the journey.
You know that line about the moral arc of the universe being long but bending toward justice? If we see the truth in it, and I do, it means earlier times were less moral, less just. You certainly get a sense of that in the original (or translated) text of “Journey to the West.” Everyone’s threatening to kill everyone; everyone laughs at the pain of others. When the men first alight into Womenland, they happen upon a house with older women, who tell our heroes the following:
“All of us in this family are getting on,” the old woman replied, “and desire doesn't bother us any more, which is why we didn't harm you. If you'd gone to another household with women of different ages, the younger ones would never have let you go. They'd have forced you to sleep with them, and if you'd refused they'd have murdered you and cut all the flesh off your bodies to put in perfume bags.”
And yes, the perfume bags were left out of “Monkey King 3,” too.
What they left in? Not worth much. The women in Womenland alternate between fierce Amazonian warriors and Chinese shopping-mall girls using sa jiao. We get two unrequited loves. We also get an entire scene of our heroes chasing after a mischievous missing parchment whose words hold the key to everything.
Meanwhile, you know who gets short shrift in “Monkey King 3”? Monkey King.
Seriously, I don’t know what director Cheang Pou-soi was thinking.
Down down down
So after the warriors capture our heroes a second time, Chang’E, worried about the Queen’s growing infatuation, sends Sanzang in a dinghy into the middle of the Sea of Sorrow—but not before the Queen rides past them and joins him. Was that her plan? Or was she not thinking? Because they wind up nearly dying out there. No one can find them, not even the Monkey King. But somehow—and I’ve already forgotten how—the four of them, and the Queen, wind up at the gateway on the other side of the Sea of Sorrow, where they can finally leave. Except the Queen can’t. There’s a forcefield around Womenland and it gets her, sickens her, and much of Womenland dies.
So they have to return. And she has to be revived. And then the river god arises and blah blah blah.
There’s 45 chapters to go, but I can’t imagine this series will continue much longer. The first movie got negative reviews but was still the No. 3 movie of 2014, grossing US$167 million. The second movie got better reviews and was the No. 4 movie of 2016, grossing $185. This one? Mostly negative reviews and it was the No. 4 movie. Of the weekend.
Not a good sign. Monkey King himself might not be able to save this franchise now.