THE GREAT WALL (2017) – Colorful Adventure Fantasy Held Back by Fake Looking Monsters

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THE GREAT WALL (2017) is certainly a good-looking monster movie.

The costumes, the colors, the photography are all vibrant and stunning.  Yup, everything looks good in this new Matt Damon action/fantasy flick except for one thing:  the monsters.  And since this is a monster movie, that’s a problem.

In the distant past, a group of European mercenaries travelling in China in search of “magical” black powder that creates fire find themselves exhausted and weak.  One night, they are attacked by some unseen creatures.  One of the mercenaries, William (Matt Damon) manages to chop off one of the creature’s hands. The creatures flee, but only William and one other man Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive the attack.

William and Tovar continue onward but are soon captured by a massive army and brought into a fortress behind a great wall. The authorities there are most interested in the severed hand in William’s possession, and at first they do not believe the story that William killed one of the creatures on his own, but soon they discover he has a magnet, which they believe can be used to render the creature harmless.

The fortress is soon attacked by a horde of vicious reptilian creatures.  After a brutal battle, the creatures eventually retreat.  William and Tovar meet another European man, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who tells them he’s been a prisoner there for many years, as the Chinese refuse to let anyone leave.  Ballard tells them that he knows where they keep the black powder, and if they work together, they can steal the powder and escape.

However, during his time inside the Great Wall, William becomes friends with the leader of the army, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) and he finds himself growing more interested in helping her fight the creatures than stealing the black powder.  When the creatures assemble to attack one last time, William has to decide whether or not he’s going to try to escape or remain and fight.

Hmm.  Take the black powder which you’ve travelled half-way across the world to get, or stay and fight an army of vicious creatures and most likely die.  It seems like an easy choice to me, but in this movie, well, that’s one of the ways the film doesn’t succeed.  I didn’t believe for one second that William, this supposedly cold-hearted mercenary, would be moved to help Lin Mae so easily.

But visually, THE GREAT WALL is a real treat.  The costumes for all the different factions of the Chinese army are eye-poppingly colorful, and the photography is rich and resonant. The film looks terrific.

However, as I said at the outset, the monsters do not.  They’re not awful.  In fact, they are actually quite cool looking.  The problem is although they are cool looking, they also look fake. The CGI here looks cartoonish, and the result are creatures that are not scary at all.   The scenes where we see thousands of these creatures racing towards the wall and then ascending the wall look particularly bad.

The story is so-so.  The idea of monsters attacking the Great Wall of China is a good one, although it’s not handled here in a way that made it all that believable.  The reason the creatures are attacking, as explained in a legend, is adequate, but the actual story is little more than an excuse to feature one battle after another.  The whole mercenary storyline is somewhat interesting, made better by Matt Damon’s presence.

Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplay.  I’m guessing the lively contemporary dialogue comes from Gilroy, as he wrote the BOURNE movies, and he’s also one of the writers who worked on ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

The cast is decent.

I like Matt Damon a lot, and his presence here only helps the movie. He also shares decent chemistry with Tian Jing.  However, Damon did seem a bit old for the part.  A younger protagonist would have made things more believable, especially later on when William takes part in lots of ridiculous over-the-top action sequences.

Tian Ling is also very good as Commander Lin Mae.  And while she and Damon do work well together, again, had Damon been younger, their attraction to each other would have been more believable.

Pedro Pascal has the thankless job of playing the dutiful sidekick, and pretty much everything he says in this movie is a sidekick cliché.  Willem Dafoe is largely wasted here, without a whole lot to do, although his character does go out with a bang.

Director Yimou Zhang does a nice job with the visuals but struggles with the intensity later in the movie.  The film gets off to a rousing start, and there’s a lot of energy early on, but once the creatures attack, the film goes down several notches because the attacking monsters do not look real.  As such, the action sequences never rise above average.

Also, for a movie called THE GREAT WALL that has as its centerpiece the Great Wall of China, the wall itself hardly factors into the story at all.  Oh, battles occur on either side of it and on top of it, but I didn’t really get a sense of the actual structure.  There’s no sense of awe or vastness about it or even interesting historical tidbits.  It’s just part of the CGI landscape, a place where the army fights the monsters. The audience is never invited to go in for a closer look at the Great Wall.  It’s a missed opportunity to make this film something memorable.

THE GREAT WALL is not a bad adventure movie at all, and with an OK script and Matt Damon in the cast, it’s actually better than it should be, as Damon and his fellow actors rise above the lackluster monster effects.

At the end of the day, it’s a decent adventure fantasy.

It’s just not— great.

—END–

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

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JASON BOURNE (2016) – Fifth Film in “Bourne” Franchise Repetitive

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Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.  Jason Bourne.

Does that sound repetitive?  Welcome to my problem with today’s movie, JASON BOURNE (2016), the fifth film in the Jason Bourne series, the fourth starring Matt Damon.

I mean, how many movies will it take for Jason Bourne to stop looking into his past and move on to something new?  Apparently more than four, because this is Matt Damon’s fourth turn as the character and he’s still searching for answers.  Yawn.

Which is too bad because I’m a fan of the Bourne series.  I loved the first one, THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) and enjoyed the next two as well, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007).  I even enjoyed the one without Damon, which starred Jeremy Renner, THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012).  That being said, with each  successive film I grew wearier of their plots which were pretty much variations of the same premise- Jason Bourne coming out of hiding to learn the truth about his past and make life miserable for whichever nasty good-for-nothing CIA chief  was in power at the time.

I’m sorry to say that this newest film in the series, JASON BOURNE– hey, how about that title?  Score one for creativity! Let’s call this one– Jason Bourne!— offers nothing new and  is exactly what I just described.  It’s just hard to get excited about a movie in a series with the same exact plot of the films which came before it.

So here we go.  In JASON BOURNE, former CIA operative Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is once more looking for answers about his past, this time about his deceased father’s involvement in his CIA recruitment.  So once again Bourne comes out of hiding, and this time the CIA heavy who’s out to stop him in order to prevent Bourne from exposing their secret programs is CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

Dewey is assisted by his young protege, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), although as the story goes along, it becomes clear that the two don’t see eye to eye, as Dewey sees Heather as inexperienced, and Heather views Dewey as a dinosaur, and so both deal with Bourne on their own terms.

They also have at their disposal an assassin named Asset (Vincent Cassel) who has a history with Bourne and is only too happy to be the man asked to eliminate the former CIA operative.

The plot in this one revolves around Dewey’s shady dealings with a young social media mogul named Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed).  Dewey basically wants to use Kalloor’s technology to spy on eveyone, and this secret alliance is endangered when Bourne in his search for answers about himself uncovers information about this union.

JASON BOURNE gets off to a rather slow start as the first half of this film could have been directly lifted from any of the previous films and I wouldn’t have noticed.  Nothing in the opening of this movie drew me in or got me excited about what was to come.  I felt like I was watching the films I had already seen.

Things eventually do get better as finally the film begins to take on its own identity.  About the time Bourne gets to London things pick up with one of the film’s better sequences where Bourne outsmarts both Dewey and Heather’s forces.  It’s also about the time when it’s clear that Dewey and Heather are not working together, which is one of the more interesting dynamics of the film.  And that’s because Heather is one of the more compelling characters in the movie, although she certainly is far from original.  Most of this interest comes from Alicia Vikander’s performance.

The cast is decent.  I’ve always enjoyed Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, but his performance here is like the rest of the movie:  nothing I haven’t seen before.  This movie is just screaming for a different plot.  Put Jason Bourne in a different situation, for crying out loud!  Have him try to save the world or something!  Does he have to be stuck in the same God-forsaken plot in every Bourne movie?  Apparently so.  There’s nothing wrong with Damon’s performance, but the character does the same things he did in the previous films.  He doesn’t even have any memorable lines.

The best peformance in the movie, hands down, belongs to Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee.  Vikander made a big splash in the science fiction film EX MACHINA (2015).  She also starred in THE DANISH GIRL (2015), and I liked her a lot in the underrated THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)  She’s excellent here once again.  Granted, there’s nothing all that special about her character, Heather Lee.  But Vikander gives her a nice combination of icy professionalism with chiseled sexuality.

Tommy Lee Jones is actually very good as CIA Director Robert Dewey.  He makes Dewey quite the despicable villain, and he does it effortlessly, as you would expect from someone with Jones’ talent and experience.  It’s just too bad the character is the same exact type of CIA villain that all the Bourne films have had.

And Vincent Cassel makes for a formidable foe for Jason Bourne as the assassin Asset, but since the title of the is film is JASON BOURNE, there’s little doubt as to which character will have the upper hand here.

JASON BOURNE was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third films in the series, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.  If he succeeds at anything it’s making the films look consistent.  The style for all these films is the same.

There are the expected action scenes, but I was actually disappointed with the film’s centerpiece action sequence, the high speed chase through the streets of Las Vegas, where they destroy about 50 million cars along the way!  Seriously, it’s insane how many cars they wipe out during this chase.  All without any bloodshed.  Imagine that!  I should have loved this scene, but it was edited with such quick edits that I often found the action happening too quickly, so much so that I almost had to turn away at times.  It was a case where I was noticing the camerawork which is not a good thing.  Had the camera moved in close to the action and remained there, rather than  cutting this way and that, the scene would have had a grittier more realistic feel.  As is, it plays like a swiftly edited television commercial.

The fight sequences were okay, but they certainly didn’t blow me out of the water.

The screenplay by director Greengrass and Christopher Rouse was meh.  The biggest knock against it is it’s just not original.  It’s a rehash of all Bourne films which came before it.  The dialogue is nothing special either.  Of course, their screenplay is based upon characters created by Robert Ludlum in his Bourne novels.   So, I suppose one could argue that they were simply being true to the spirit of the Ludlum novels by not shaking things up here in their latest Bourne movie.  I don’t know about that.

I do know, that this film would have been a better movie if, in the words of that other more famous spy from the other side of the ocean, its plot and its characters had been shaken, not stirred.

 —END—

THE MONUMENTS MEN Entertains in Spite of Muddled Message

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The-Monuments-Men- posterMovie Review:  THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

Was it worth risking the lives of men just for the sake of saving art?

 

That’s the question asked throughout THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014) the new World War II adventure written and directed by George Clooney, based on a true story, about a group of mostly middle-aged men enlisted by the army to reclaim the works of art stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, works of art that Hitler originally intended to place in a museum, until the waning days of the war when he ordered his men to destroy it all.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to save these works of art, but first, they have to find them.

 

Frank Stokes (George Clooney) seeks and receives permission from President Roosevelt to assemble a group of art experts to go into France and then Germany to recover the huge amounts of art stolen by the Nazis.  Since all the young art experts are already enlisted in the armed forces, Stokes is forced to assemble his team of art specialists, architects, and museum curators, from a pool of men beyond their fighting years.

 

The movie gets these introductions out of the way early, as we quickly meet James Granger (Matt Damon) who wasn’t able to enlist because of poor vision, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), as well as their young translator, Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas).

 

Once in Europe, Stokes pairs the men and gives each duo a specific task, the goal being to locate the various places in which the Nazis hid the stolen art.  Campbell pairs with Savitz, an interesting twosome since they hate each other, and Garfield pairs with Jean Claude, while Granger is assigned the difficult task of getting to know a French woman Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) who worked for the resistance and who they believe has valuable information as to where the Nazis hid all the stolen art.  The trouble is, Claire trusts no one, and she suspects the Americans only want the art for themselves, and she tells Granger as much.

 

When the Nazis realize there is little hope of winning the war, Hitler orders his troops to destroy all the artwork as they pull out in retreat, which adds more pressure on the Monuments Men to locate the art as soon as possible.  It also places them in harm’s way as they need to be close to the action in order to get to the art before the Nazis soldiers destroy it.

 

Further complicating matters is that the Russians are also confiscating the art as they move in, only they’re taking it back to Russia, not returning it to its original owners.  It’s up to the Monuments Men to find these stolen treasures first so that they’re not lost to the western world.

 

THE MONUMENTS MEN is a very enjoyable movie filled with colorful characters and plenty of entertaining and humorous moments intertwined with some poignant ones, and even some suspense, but the trouble is its message that recovering the stolen art was worth risking the lives of these men doesn’t always ring true.

 

Clearly, writer/director George Clooney believes the sacrifice was worth it, but the movie doesn’t succeed in making this point.  For one thing, it tries too hard.  It asks the question “is it worth it?” so much it hammers you over the head with it. 

 

We see the Monuments Men engaged in various little adventures, which for the most part are all very entertaining, but compared to other soldiers— the soldiers at Normandy, for example— their sacrifice doesn’t feel the same.  The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov probably needed more time in the shop to get the message right. 

 

Don’t get me wrong.  The amount of art the Nazis stole was incredible, and had this been lost or destroyed, it would have been heartbreaking.  What the Monuments Men did was remarkable, but hitting the audience over the head with the notion that their mission was an amazing sacrifice somehow sounds hollow compared to what the rest of the soldiers were fighting for.

 

Another problem is Clooney’s Frank Stokes is a rather cold fish.  He’s not the best point man for selling an argument to an audience.  I almost wish the story had been told from the perspective of Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone character, who was a much more interesting and intriguing character than Clooney’s Frank Stokes.  Seen through her eyes, the Monuments Men would have been perceived as what they were, men doing the world a service, recovering people’s history and culture, but hearing Blanchett’s Simone say this, a woman whose brother was murdered by the Nazis, and who didn’t trust the Americans, it would have held more relevance than hearing it from Clooney’s stoic Stokes.

 

By far, the best part of THE MONUMENTS MEN is its talented cast, who really bring these guys to life.

 

George Clooney is just okay as Frank Stokes, but this is fine since he’s the level-headed one leading the team.  Matt Damon fares about the same as James Granger and is rather low-key throughout.  It’s the rest of the team that really shines.

 

It was great to see Bill Murray in this role as Richard Campbell, and he and Bob Balaban enjoy some fine moments together, some of the best in the film.  The scene where they’re surprised by a young Nazi soldier in the woods, and they end up sharing a cigarette is one of the best in the movie.  As is the scene when Murray hears a record sent to him by his family.  It’s a nice reminder that Bill Murray is much more than just a comic actor.

 

I also really enjoyed John Goodman and Jean Dujardin.  The scene where they’re fending off a sniper is a keeper.

 

But even better than all the Monuments Men is Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone.  She delivers the best performance in the film.  She also has one of the more emotional scenes in the film, when she’s told by her Nazi employer that her brother has been shot dead.  It’s a disturbing moment in a film that is strangely devoid of disturbing moments, a curious thing in a movie about Nazis.

 

The film would have benefitted from a visible Nazi villain.  Other than Simone’s boss who’s really not in the film all that much, there’s no one who makes your blood boil.  The villains are random soldiers with rifles.

 

In terms of entertainment, THE MONUMENTS MEN scores high.  I really enjoyed watching these guys and their efforts to recover the multitude of stolen art items.  Where it struggles is in its message that these men were putting their lives on the line for a cause equally as noble as the soldiers fighting to defeat genocide and world domination. 

 

That’s a difficult point to make.  Perhaps the movie didn’t need to try.

 

—END—