Thursday, February 16, 2017
Matt Damon leads the cast in Zhang Yimou's Chinese fantasy film, "The Great Wall," which is opening in theaters this week. And, if it seems like an odd choice to have Damon lead a cast in a movie about monsters attacking China that's because it is. Beyond the story, the cast and crew is largely Chinese and the movie is being billed as "the largest film ever shot entirely in China," but it is still Damon front and center.
Perhaps you've heard about this controversy before. I haven't written of it here, but it has certainly been covered extensively elsewhere. Why then do I bring it up? Because I don't see how to write a review of the movie where Damon's casting isn't the first thing discussed. I don't know that I have an answer on it either. I don't know if it's okay to cast the movie this way, but I do know no review is complete without raising the question.
One of the big problems with the movie itself is that Damon's role as William, a mercenary who travels to China looking for black powder (gunpowder), isn't even that good. It is strictly standard and utterly bland hero stuff. William is, we are told by his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal), not a good guy. William has done terrible things, he's a liar and killer. Except that in no moment in the film is he that guy, he's a hero the whole time. He sets off to trade for the black powder and when he sees the Chinese army on the Wall, battling for humanity, he immediately takes up their cause.
It is not very dramatic, but no non-action based scene in "The Great Wall" is terribly dramatic. It is all exceptionally mundane. Worse than that though is the fact that while individual action sequences do look good, they don't make terribly much sense as part of the overall story.
To explain that, let me take a step back and explain that the Chinese army is on the Wall to fight evil monsters called the Tao Tei. These monsters show up every 60 years with a desire to feed their queen. Once the queen is killed, the monsters freeze (she sends out telepathic signals to them, controlling them) and can be slaughtered without fear. The battle is won for another six decades.
In the very first fight in the cycle this time around, the queen reveals herself and the Chinese army fails to kill her. They also fail to use any of the explosives they have created with black powder. So, essentially, they know that they are fighting for the survival of the planet; they know this is a great opportunity; and although the monsters are attacking several days early, the army is prepared, but they don't use their best weapon. There is only one reason for this – if they use the black powder they could win the battle and the movie would be incredibly short. It just doesn't make sense.
Moving on, above I stated that each individual battle does look good, and that's certainly true, but they don't look as good as—nor carry the same impact as—the big battles in "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King." In size and scope they feel of a piece with those fights, but (perhaps due to the bland characters) don't resonate as well.
The movie certainly has a lot of people in it, but most of them are just background individuals in the army. The most standout member of the cast is Jing Tian, who plays Lin Mae, a high ranking member of the Chinese army on the Wall and an early supporter of William's. William Dafoe also appears in the movie, playing a one-time thief who has been forced to stay on the Wall for decades because… well, that's not entirely clear. It is explained, but not in a way that makes sense as the film moves forward.
So, the action is good but not great, the story is bland and makes little sense, and Matt Damon who may shouldn't have been cast in the first place doesn't have a very good role. All is not a disaster however. When "The Great Wall" isn't too busy swooping around and utilizing distracting 3D, one gets the opportunity to see that the costumes are amazing. There is a level of detail to them that is also echoed in the sets and props.
Visually then the movie is satisfying if not spectacular. It is at its best in it is depiction of this vast army on the Wall, their various roles, and they way they work together in order to fight the Tao Tei. During the first of these battles we also get a pretty fantastic drum beat from one of the groups on the Wall. This fight the high point of the movie and offers a sort of magic that the rest of the film cannot recapture.
In the end, too much of "The Great Wall" is perplexing. These issues start with the casting, move through the boring characters, on to the ill-considered plot, and end at the most exhilarating fight being the first major one. It all feels like a missed opportunity.
photo credit: Universal Pictures
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
I don't know everything (my wife will be very happy I've said this, the sad thing is she doesn't read this site and therefore won't know that I've said this... therefore, let's just keep this secret between us, okay?), but I'm willing to learn. For instance, I learned a bit of Ecclesiastes the other day. Wait, no, I'm wrong (boy, the wife would love that as well), I didn't learn the bit of the book, I learned that the bit was in the book. That is, I knew the phrase but didn't know its origins. Now, I do, and I can say that unless the internet has failed me, the phrase I use in the podcast is from Ecclesiastes.
That really isn't germane though. What matter is knowing what the phrase is, how it relates to the great "The Edge of Seventeen," and why any of that matters.
For those answers, however, you're just going to have to hit the play button below. Fun, right?
photo credit: STX Productions
Thursday, February 09, 2017
There have been a lot of Batman movies and no one is more aware of this than the people behind "The LEGO Batman Movie." Over and over again throughout this "LEGO Movie" spinoff, we are reminded of the plethora of Batman movies (and TV series) that have come before.
The references not only come fast and furious, but are wide-ranging. Even better, they aren't just winks to the audience, the characters themselves know that this history exists. At one point, when the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) tells Batman (Will Arnett) that the villain's new plan is his greatest yet, Batman asks if it's better than the one with the two boats ("The Dark Knight") or the one with the parade and the Prince music (Tim Burton's "Batman").
One of the great successes of the Chris McKay directed film is that while this level of enjoyment exists for those who know the characters' long history, there are plenty of other things—things that don't require knowledge going in—to enjoy about the film as well. Front and center is, as expected, Arnett's vigilante, and while he may be broody, he is always over the top in it and consequently is regularly quite funny. At Batman's side here is the other half of the Dynamic Duo, Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera). Cera's take on the character is the absolute polar opposite of Arnett's on Bruce Wayne/Batman, which makes the difference that much more striking and the humor that much more palpable.
If "The LEGO Batman Movie" has an Achilles' heel it is its "kitchen sink" attitude towards the material. So, we don't just get Joker, we get Joker, Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Riddler, Bane, Two-Face, Catwoman, Clayface, and Posion Ivy (and while they are all there briefly, all are played by notable actors and actresses). Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) plays a large role in the movie as well, while the rest of the Justice League put in brief appearance. It doesn't stop there either. Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, Daleks, and more are all present as well. Plus, as is all the rage with superhero movies, there is a great hole in the sky from which evil emerges.
Is it funny seeing Daleks fight Batman (and having the movie ask you to ask your geeky friends to explain who the Daleks are)? Oh, it absolutely is, but the Daleks remain even after the joke has worn out its welcome. It is also a little inexplicable that while Voldemort appears, and Ralph Fiennes is in the movie voicing Alfred, he doesn't pull double duty and reprise his role as Harry Potter's nemesis as well (Eddie Izzard takes that on).
"The LEGO Batman Movie" is at its best not when focusing on villains and throwing out as many as it possibly can, but rather when it focuses on Batman's insecurities and loneliness. A lot of the action is enjoyable—if perhaps slightly too fast and choppy—but the heart and soul and humor of the movie is Arnett's character, which he voices with gusto. In fact, the entire voice cast does an admirable job situating themselves in this insane world that has been created for them.
In short, it's a good movie. It isn't as good or as clever as "The LEGO Movie" but it is going to find fans of all ages. Beyond that, it broadens this LEGO filmic universe in ways that are more interesting, more diverse, and more amusing than any franchise based on a toy ought to be.
Now, if it was just 90 minutes of watching Batman himself dance and sing and brood and eat Lobster Thermidor, it would have been spectacular.
photo credit: Warner Bros.
Wednesday, February 08, 2017
There is a certain greatness to films that know what they want to be and go out and execute that plan with panache. "John Wick: Chapter 2" is the sort of film that is going to turn off a lot of people at the very idea of a stylized Keanu Reeves-shoots-lots-of-people sequel. On the other hand, if you want an action movie where the blood flies, the fight sequences are enjoyable, and there's just enough story and world building to keep you interested in the less gun-based moments, "John Wick: Chapter 2" is excellent.
Directed by Chad Stahelski, the sequel follows closely on the heels of the 2014 original, telling the tale of John Wick (Reeves), a man who was at one time the best assassin out there but left the world when he met the love of his life. In the first film, after losing his wife, Wick is pulled back into the assassin's life (what was he going to do, they killed his dog). Now, in the second film, he's finding more than a little trouble getting back out of the life as a debt he owes to one man, Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), needs to be paid.
As one might expect from a sequel, "John Wick: Chapter 2" does indeed attempt to flesh out the world we saw in the original, and it is relatively successful in this goal. There is a shadowy organization that overseas all this assassin stuff which plays into the plot, and we are taken to a European hotel which follows the same rules as the one in New York, and we meet more members of whatever union this is that organizes all the killings. It doesn't really all make sense on screen, but there is definitely an indication that someone, somewhere, has a ream of paper detailing just how the underworld in the film is organized. Presumably if/when we get "John Wick: Chapter 3," more of the mechanics will be divulged.
Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both reprise their roles from the original film while added to the mix this time are the likes of Laurence Fishburne (in a "Matrix" reunion sure to please fans of both franchises), Common, and Ruby Rose. Wick goes up against the characters portrayed by these last two in some pretty energetic battles, and both Common and Rose are more than charismatic in their parts. One of the things this movie really does quite well is offer up the notion that everyone has a backstory, everyone has a history, and those in the audience will certainly want to know more about all these folks.
Is it silly? Oh, absolutely – "John Wick: Chapter 2" is downright silly, but it is a movie that is well aware of its own over the top nature. That is, the movie is in on the joke, and because of that it all works better than it otherwise might.
The only thing Keanu and company take seriously here is the action – and that is tremendous. It is loud, it is brutal, and very exciting to watch unfold. You will read about it being called "gun fu," but if you're unfamiliar with the term or its origins, perhaps the best way to think about it is as almost ballet, but with guns. The action sequences are fast and moves are precise. It is all highly orchestrated in ways that would feel improbable in reality, but which succeed in the context of the film.
Working hand-in-hand with the action sequences is the look of the film (Dan Laustsen serves as DP). While many of the fights take place at night or in darkened areas, things are never so dark that blood can't be seen flying from bodies when a bullet strikes them. While grotesque, it is also remarkably beautiful.
Whether intentional or not, there are definitely moments in the look of the movie which harken back to James Bond. This is particularly true of the film's climax which feels a lot like moments from the Scaramanga-Bond fight in "Man with the Golden Gun" but through the lens of Roger Deakins' work on "Skyfall."
In short, if you like action movies, you're going to love "John Wick: Chapter 2." It is a movie that knows what its audience wants and delivers exactly that in spades. If, on the other hand, action films are not your thing, you're not going to change your mind simply by watching this one. But, man, are you going to be missing out on something special.
photo credit: Summit Entertainment
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
"Arrival" is one of my top 10 movies of 2016. No, I haven't made a list, but if I had made, "Arrival" would be on it.
It is one of those rare movies that, as soon as I finished watching it, I wanted to sit down and watch it again. Some of that is the movie's twist and some of that is... well, who knows. In this week's podcast we try to, quite imperfectly, get at that question of why some movies work and others don't. Plus, we don't avoid politics entirely.
photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment
Friday, February 03, 2017
There are many out there who will tell you that people don't change, that we are who we are and that's it. Such seems to be the philosophy behind the new Robert De Niro comedy, "The Comedian."
Directed by Taylor Hackford and featuring a truly great cast, the movie finds De Niro front and center as Jackie Burke. A rather blue comedian, Burke at one time starred in a family-centered sitcom and despite it having been off the air for years, Burke is still best known for the comedy series and his work on it, even if that work doesn't match his stand-up routine (Bob Saget springs to mind even if De Niro is certainly older). Sadly for him, Burke is no longer playing large gigs as he once was; no longer on TV; and, worse for everyone, he's a pretty terrible person.
This is a guy who knows when he is pushing others too far and simply doesn't care. Friends, family, strangers, Burke will verbally cut anyone to shreds and do it with a smile on his face. He pursues this course even if it means getting kicked out of his family's life, Burke simply can't help himself – he is a horrible person.
**a kinda spoilery discussion of the film's issues exists below, not about what happens as much as about where things end up**
One of the problems with the film is not that Burke is awful, nor that Burke knows that he's awful and doesn't care, it's that the entire two hours is simply devoted to him being awful, not caring, and not changing. He just lumbers through the entire thing, unchanged and unmoved from start to finish. The message, if there is one, seems to be, "be an a**hole your whole life, treat people horrifically, do whatever makes you happy, and screw anyone else. Don't worry, it'll all work out fine." Now that I write that, "The Comedian" feels like Donald Trump's sort of film.
Another major issue is that "The Comedian" can't seem to figure out how the audience should take Burke's comedy routines. The movie wants to make us laugh at his jokes and then be appalled that he would dare tell the very same jokes. Moreover, it wants us to do both without any sort of introspection about what that might mean about us. Whatever may happen with Burke, whatever the moral of the film may or may not be, it is an immensely difficult task to play these moments of cruel humor to make the audience laugh and to castigate the man telling the jokes. It is not a task at which the movie succeeds.
As noted above, "The Comedian" features a great cast including Leslie Mann, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, and Patti LuPone. Mann, strangely, plays Burke's love interest, a girl with troubles all her own, including an overbearing father (Keitel), who may or may not have mob ties. DeVito is Burke's brother and LuPone Burke's sister-in-law. Those relationships are strained ones, as is every relationship in the comedian's life, but that's where the movie succeeds. De Niro is buoyed by those around him and better when forced to interact in small groups instead of large ones. Falco and Mann are particularly wonderful.
The shame of this is that just about every character in the movie is more interesting, more worthy of a film, than Jackie Burke. He's just a funny guy who worked hard, made it big, and never learned to be a decent human.
Then, the movie also features comedians in cameo roles playing themselves, this group includes folks like Billy Crystal, Brett Butler, Hannibal Buress, and Jimmie Walker. While some of these cameos are great, the film is uneasy mixing them in with actors playing something other than a version of themselves. At one point, Cloris Leachman appears as an elderly comedienne being roasted by the Friars Club, but why she isn't just playing herself is anyone's guess. Running the roast is a character played by Charles Grodin and on the dais as themselves are Richard Belzer and Gilbert Gottfried (this last seemingly without lines). At these moments, rather than seeming realistic, the movie simply becomes confusing.
"The Comedian" feels like a bunch of varied, good, ideas stuck together to form a single movie. The problem is that they aren't a single movie, they are a half-dozen different ones. Everything feels rushed as the story continually hops from one thing to another. I would actually really like to see any of the individual films – the one where Burke becomes a viral sensation accidentally, the one where he learns to be a good person through community service, the one where he deals with his family issues, the one where he finds love, the one where we learn about Mann's character and her father, the one where… you get the idea.
I just want one of them – together they don't work, but I'm still curious about each individual piece.
photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Thursday, February 02, 2017
One of the things that always strikes me about documentaries is just how powerful a tool the form can be. Wielded correctly, with laser focus, it burns away all the extraneous nonsense and gets to the core of an issue; the heart of a problem. Wielded incorrectly, it's a blunt instrument, one that causes you to feel by bashing you over the head until you do.
"Blackfish" is a great example of the latter. It pounds at you over and over and over again until you submit even if you can see that there are far better ways to make the argument. "I Am Not Your Negro" is the opposite, it is a laser and it sets its sights on showing just how far this country still has to go with race relations.
Coming from the work of James Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck, and with narration from Samuel L. Jackson, "I Am Not Your Negro" deftly moves between multiple moments in the 20th and 21st Centuries to show what has changed, what hasn't, and just what's wrong with our nation. Every moment in the film is a powerful one, every phrase uttered is important. The whole film is centered around a book Baldwin contemplated writing about the lives and work of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and we hear not just Jackson's reading, but Baldwin himself speak at multiple different moments. He is allowed to build his own case through archival footage.
And here's the thing – I'm not going to focus on the movie itself for the rest of this piece. I am going to tell you that you need to go out and see it and while you're at it, you need to go out and see Ava DuVernay's "13th." Then you need to stop and turn on the news. You need to watch as protests take place all across this country, and take place for one reason – the desire of the current presidential administration to water the seeds of separation and hatred and resentment and bigotry (those seeds were sewn a long time ago).
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed that Americans are divided about the travel ban Mr. Trump put into place. Reuters writes about the results that the "poll found that 49 percent of Americans agreed with the order and 41 percent disagreed." The way I read that, it means that 49% of the respondents aren't paying attention. They refuse to acknowledge that their ancestors once arrived on this shore from another country. They refuse to see that we need to help others when we can. They don't accept that this country doesn't have a national religion. They cannot see that there is more than one way to enter the country. They are unaware that zero people in this country have been killed in terrorist attacks on our soil from anyone in those seven nations…
I could go on here. I could continue and offer more examples of the blindness and the ignorance and the insanity of it. But, I won't.
We seem to live in a day and age where facts don't matter. Where people watch niche news outlets that serve their narrow interest and don't care if the outlet spews lies. Where our President calls honest, upright, forthright institutions that point out his lies "fake news," and refuses to take their questions. Where one major political party is willing to throw away everything they ever stood for in order to follow a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex.
And people on the other side of the argument would say to me… what? That I just don't get how someone who looks differently than me being in this country is a danger? That it was different when their ancestors came here because they were Christian? That this religion that grows out of Judaism and Christianity is somehow that substantially different than its antecedents? Those statements are ludicrous.
Freedom of religion is one of the cornerstones of our nation and while documentaries like "I Am Not Your Negro" make it quite clear that we have not had in the past, and certainly do not yet have, true equality here, it is something to which we all must strive.
To quote Dr. King, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I believe that, but I also believe that we need to fight for that justice. We need to strive for it. We need to help bring it to others, and by doing so help give it to ourselves.
We are not made less because others are made more. This is not a zero sum game and treating it as such is a great way to take several steps backwards in that fight for justice.
So—taking a deep breath—those are the lofty ideals and things to which we should all aspire, but if you feel like you're caught in the nitty-gritty reality and simply can't see a way out, try this thought: we are not made more safe by taking things away from other people. Stripping away rights, treating people miserably, and being a generally rotten human being to those around you does not make you more safe. In fact, it makes you less safe. It makes those you have treated badly desperate and desperate people can (aren't always, but can) be dangerous.
The logic by which such actions are taken is not logic that holds up. It is the same as the logic which states that we must stop scientists from publicly stating facts because those facts—those indisputable facts—disagree with our political opinions. If your opinions don't stand up to the facts, your opinions need to change, not vice versa.
It is our responsibility on this planet to treat others humanely, no matter where they come from, no matter what they look like, and no matter what god(s) they believe in (if indeed they believe at all). A look at our history, the look afforded in "I Am Not Your Negro," makes it quite clear that this nation has repeatedly failed at this effort, but that doesn't mean we should stop striving.
We can and must do better.
photo credit: Magnolia Pictures/© Dan Budnik, all rights reserved.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
This week's "Lass is More" offers up an interview with former Jamal Joseph. Joseph has chronicled his life in the memoir, "Panther Baby," and is here on the podcast to talk about his new movie, "Chapter & Verse."
The film, which stars Joseph's co-writer, Daniel Beaty, is about a man recently released from prison who is trying to find his way in Harlem and lead a better life than the one which landed him in jail originally. It is not an easy journey, but perhaps for the audience it is an uplifting, enlightening, one.
"Chapter & Verse" opens this Friday, February 3rd, in New York.
photo credit: Harlem Film Company
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Listen, if there's one thing this podcast doesn't do, it's sugarcoat things. If we have a problem with a movie, we say so. If we have a problem with the world we say so. Good, bad, or ugly, "Lass is More" is committed calling it like it is.
More than that though, we try to put movies into context, to show how they function alongside a larger picture of the world. Sometimes, that is a depressing endeavor but, then again, sometimes the world is a depressing place.
Enter "Queen of Katwe," a classic underdog sports movie about a young woman playing chess in Uganda. A touching movie, "Queen of Katwe" is the perfect sort of balm for the events of last Friday.
photo credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Friday, January 20, 2017
The 1990s offered up a "Knight Rider" spinoff television series called "Team Knight Rider." The opening of the show, essentially, explained that while in the past one man and one car could accomplish the job of saving the world (or at least Michael Knight's corner of it), now a team was required.
"Team Knight Rider" immediately springs to mind with "xXx: The Return of Xander Cage." The movie could just as easily be titled "Team xXx." Yes, Vin Diesel is returning to the franchise he fronted in 2002's "xXx," a franchise that continued without him—and Ice Cube in his stead—in 2005's "xXx: State of the Union," but this time it's still a team affair.
The thing of it is though, it is unclear exactly why Xander (Diesel) needs a team… especially team member Nicks (Kris Wu), who is just a DJ. There is an argument to be made for team member Adele (Ruby Rose), who is a gun expert, and maybe even Tennyson (Rory McCann), who crashes into anything he can, but why Xander feels like he needs a DJ to stop a terrorist from dropping satellites on people/things is rather murky.
To be fair, there is much in this D.J. Caruso directed film that is murky. Chief amongst these items probably isn't the team aspect—which very much feels like someone took a look at how Diesel's "Fast and Furious" franchise has been able to continue for so long and decided it is the team bit that makes it work—as much as it is the camera shots and editing. It isn't just that the cuts are too quick to determine what is happening in many of the action sequences, it's that they are too quick and the camera is in too close or too shaky or too otherwise dynamic or some combination thereof. The result is that Donnie Yen is there on screen (he's a bad guy) and while the audience can tell that Yen is utilizing his martial arts skills to pull off some fancy moves, they can't quite see what the moves are. The audience just knows the moves are taking place and that they are excellent.
The advantage of the editing and camera shots used in the film is that it most definitely ups the pace of the movie as well as adding to its sense of style. It just does this at the expense of substance.
That said, there really isn't that much substance there in the first place. The plot, essentially, runs like this – bad guys have stolen a device which allows them to crash any satellite anywhere they want on the planet with pinpoint accuracy. Team xXx has to go out and stop the baddies.
If that sounds a little bit like a slightly rejiggered version of Pierce Brosnan's first James Bond outing, "GoldenEye," that's because it is. But that's okay because another moment in the movie harkens back to "Licence to Kill," while a third is closer to "Moonraker." I don't want to get into the "South Park" thing from years ago about how "The Simpsons" have already taken every plot a cartoon TV series might, but for a spy franchise that very much feels as though it wants to position itself as cooler than Bond, hewing too closely to Bond plots/action sequences is a problem.
"xXx: The Return of Xander Cage" does, however, succeed in one massively big way – the charisma it puts on screen. It isn't just Diesel and the others mentioned above either. There is also Samuel L. Jackson, reprising his role as Augustus Gibbons, Toni Collette as another government operative running the xXx operation, Deepika Padukone and Tony Jaa as baddies working with Yen's Xiang, and Nina Dobrev as the xXx team's Q. Each and every one of them has the charisma to carry the whole thing off, and together they're rather unstoppable.
Combined with the relentless pacing, the cast makes the movie oh-so-very watchable. It is just that they aren't given enough to do that is new/different from what we have seen before, the action sequences are undercut by how they're filmed, and a couple of the surprises along the way aren't very surprising.
Caruso has created a very slick, very high gloss, pulse-pounding movie. At the same time, it is full of missteps and unfulfilled promises. "xXx: The Return of Xander Cage" feels very much like it is setting us up for the next movie in the franchise and even the one after that rather than concentrating on being the best movie it can be. This is definitely a team I want to see again—especially if they can find an actual role for the DJ—I just want it to be in a better movie, one which doesn't rely so heavily on obvious surprises and which allows the stunts/fights to play out rather than allowing them to be undercut by the way in which they're filmed and edited.
photo credit: Paramount