The octogenarian filmmaker Ridley Scott has been a prolific and influential director for decades, but rarely has his high-powered work ethic been as obvious as within a 30-day window. Scott directed two movies, both aimed at adults and potential awards consideration, and both co-starring Adam Driver in a supporting role, and both as subtle as the outlandish fashions of the 1980s. Scott is not a subtle filmmaker by trade. He favors rousing excess and bold characters making bold decisions. This is not the first time Scott has managed to release two movies in a single calendar year (2017: Alien Covenant and All the Money in the World; 2001: Black Hawk Down and Hannibal) but for both movies to be released within a month, and share thematic similarities, is worth noting. The films also share many of the same artists (editor, composer, director of photography) as House of Gucci was filmed a mere four months after wrapping The Last Duel, which was delayed because of the pandemic. Both movies are based on true stories but go in different directions for artistic impact. House of Gucci veers into tragi-comic camp to its entertainment benefit, and The Last Duel spares subtlety for blunt political points.
The Gucci family has enjoyed nearly a century as fashion royalty. They’re known for their classic look, the care that’s put into their leather, and the long-standing resistance to change. Enter Patrizia (Lady Gaga), an ambitious young woman who doesn’t want to work for her father’s truck-driving company forever. She sets her sights on Maurizio (Driver), the mild-mannered son of Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and nephew to Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-heads of the Gucci empire. Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage and Patrizia insisting that her beloved take more control of the family business and make his mark as a Gucci.
The real reason you should go to the theaters for all 150 minutes of gargantuan Gucci drama is because of the monumentally captivating performance by Gaga. I will suffer no fools on this subject: Gaga is flat-out wonderful. As the kids on the social media say, she clearly understood the assignment. Gaga is knowingly broad and hamming it up but she is having the time of her life. I was impressed with her acting in 2018’s A Star is Born and how natural she was onscreen. Now she’s playing a distinctly drawn character and she dissolves into the role, smirking it up and purring with every line. You won’t exactly trust this woman, who is proven to be conniving and ambitious but also effective at manipulating others and earning her position of prominence, but you’ll love watching her onscreen whether alone or dancing circles around her cohorts. Gaga understands completely that this sordid tale plays better intentionally dipping into camp, making bold and outrageous what otherwise could have been underplayed. It’s an outrageous story with outrageous wealth and privilege, and it deserves to be told in an outrageous manner. That doesn’t mean dismiss the drama as minimal, but it recognizes the tone that will best bring out the entertainment value of the soapy plot elements. No one needs this kind of story played miserably strait-laced and absent any light; nobody needs another astoundingly awful The Counselor (sorry, Ridley). Take the sex scene between Gaga and Driver. It is so loud, so obnoxious, so over-the-top, and it stays at that level for a thrust-heavy protracted period, that the movie, and Gaga especially, is inviting you to laugh along. Gaga is the one who fully understands the edict or more-more-more the most and demonstrates it with her charmingly over-the-top performance. She is fully deserving of Academy recognition and to be memorialized as a thousand memes and GIFs.
House of Gucci feels very much like a Ryan Murphy show condensed to a feature-length over-extended special. For those unfamiliar with Murphy’s genre-bending TV work on FX (American Horror Story, American Crime Story) and now Netflix (Ratchet, Hollywood), the provocateur never met a juicy twist or outlandish plot element he didn’t love to use, abuse, and inundate the viewer. He’s like a creative prankster freely celebrating the ridiculousness of the prime-time soaps of old while also providing ironic counterpoints to them. It can be a riveting experience when it all works together and an unmitigated yet often fascinating hot mess when it doesn’t. Subtlety also rarely factors into a Murphy show. He also loves opening up the fabulous lives of the fabulously wealthy, including the heralded Versace family, and the fabulous lives of Hollywood stars in tremendous acrimony, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for our envious guilty pleasure consumption. The House of Gucci feels comfortably pitched in that Ryan Murphy sweet spot, especially if you’re a fan of the populist high-gloss escapism of Murphy’s campy forays.
Because of this tragi-comic tone, House of Gucci keeps things rolling with eye-rolling excess and consistent laughter. It’s essentially watching Patrizia climb the ladder of power within the Gucci family, eliminating her enemies and neutralizing her opposition. She’s so strong-willed, ruthless, and successful, that it’s fun to watch this outsider, who was seen as a gold-digging harlot by some within the cloistered family, systematically tear apart the tut-tutting elites. It’s structured in many ways like a gangster movie with its rise-and-fall narrative and, in its final half hour, it becomes a full-fledged crime story, one whose outcome I had no idea about. If you’re unfamiliar with the Gucci family story and scheming, like me, the movie will play even better with its level of surprise and colorful characters. This is Scott’s most light-footed work since 2015’s The Martian.
Another shocking surprise is how enjoyable Jared Leto (The Little Things) is as clownish cousin, Paolo Gucci. The actor is buried under pounds of prosthetic makeup and is performing on the same tonal wavelength as Gaga; these two know best what kind of movie they’re starring in. Leto is so deliciously, amazingly over-the-top that all of his Method affectations are part of the appeal rather than being a distraction. This character is a riotous naïve hack, a Gucci with the worst ideas in fashion but the inability to recognize his creative shortcomings. He would be set up for tragedy in a different kind of movie, like a Falstaff if you want to go all Shakespearean, but in this version of this story, he’s a buffoon with no self-awareness. Every time he appears onscreen, it’s deserving of a live studio audience applauding like a TV sitcom character that has stumbled into a prestige drama by mistake. This performance is so hugely Italian is practically exhaling mozzarella cheese. He could be the missing Mario triplet. Watching Leto and Pacino go back and forth is like watching a competition over who can chew the most scenery with the most overblown Italian accent, and I gave in and loved every second of it.
The overall length of House of Gucci starts to grate and the indulgence of the lavish lifestyles of the famous family gets repetitive. We don’t need five montages of wealth and luxury when one will do. Once Patrizia and Maurizio rise to control Gucci, the movie seems to coast, so much so that the eventual divide between the two seems arbitrary and undeveloped. When the movie transitioned to this point, I was left wondering what had exactly been their relationship breaking point. Maybe that’s the point and the absence is meant to convey how Maurizio has changed, given into the fast cars and fancy suits of a lifestyle he previously seemed indifferent to. The movie feels long and overly extended for a feature. The content could have worked as one of those glossy Ryan Murphy miniseries, but as a movie it could have used some judicious accounting.
House of Gucci is going to be the most entertaining for people seeking a less realistic, brooding, and contemplative drama about power and corruption and more seeking a delightfully baffling and campy mess of a movie. Lady Gaga and Jared Leto are playing their respective roles to the hilt, and it’s a hoot to watch them have as much fun with such broadly comic characters. Perhaps the tragi-comic tone will feel in poor taste for some (designer Tom Ford, a player in the Gucci resurgence in the 1990s, has said so), but I found House of Gucci to be a ridiculous movie that knew where it should go big and where it should go small, and it favored big early and often.
In contrast, The Last Duel is based upon a true story of the last time France used judicial trial by combat. It’s the 1300s, and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a soldier for King Charles VI and looking to repay his mounting debts. He enters a marriage with Marguerite (Jodie Comer) for her dowry and promised land. However, Sir Jean finds his former squire and friend Jacques Le Gris (Driver) the recipient of the land, having been gifted it as thanks from the local lord, the carousing Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck). Sir Jean is outraged by the offense. Then the bombshell hits: Marguerite accuses Le Gris of raping her. Le Gris denies it to his core. Sir Jean challenges his former friend to a trial by combat whereupon only one man will walk away alive.
The Last Duel could have also just as easily been titled, Sucks to Be a Woman: The 14th Century Edition. It’s a blunt assessment of systemic misogyny and the cruelty that was so casual that Church officials were blaming women for tempting men into raping them. This is an upsetting movie by design, and it’s filled with head-shaking arguments like a “real rape” cannot cause a pregnancy (“That’s science,” the court prosecutor says, in a nod to a future Todd Akin), that pregnancy is facilitated if the woman experiences an orgasm, so ipso facto how could the accused rape be in fact a rape if the lady is pregnant because that means she must have enjoyed herself. It hurts me to even type this diseased thinking, and I don’t consider it a spoiler to list some of the absurd arguments that will be unleashed in the name of institutional sexism. You could just as likely come up with your own ridiculous arguments playing a game of sexist Mad Libs and it will likely be featured at some point throughout The Last Duel. This is not a condemnation of the movie but a realization that its main journey is going to be a bleak grind, one that consistently makes you sigh deeply and feel uncomfortable for all the countless millions of women.
I fully believe that there are important lessons to be had in empathy and shattering ignorance when it comes to uncovering history as it is and not history as it is written. For some, the events of The Last Duel will hardly be eye-opening, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot engender greater consideration and thought to not just the historical context of the Medieval period but on the classic tales of chivalry and masculinity that have been passed down verbatim through centuries. The division of character perspectives is almost like uncovering the historical perspective through layers of obfuscation and legend. We see the movie three times, each from the point of view of another. We start with Sir Jean who views his life as abused loyalty, a dutiful soldier who fights for God and country and is constantly attacked by scheming upstarts. This beginning perspective is the most basic one, lacking dimension and keeping to a rigid right/wrong dichotomy. This is the kind of boilerplate that goes into legends. The second perspective, and seemingly longest, presents the villain’s perspective but where he clearly views himself as a dutiful soldier whose loyalty is also abused. He becomes obsessed with Marguerite and dreams of her and is convinced that her evinced kindness is really flirtation. He completely views the rape as a consensual outing. This perspective is more reflective than the first and insightful insofar as it’s meant to convey how men of this society can fool themselves into thinking their abuse is requested and obliged. This perspective is meant to convey the, for lack of a better word, common thinking and confirmation bias of centuries of entrenched systemic misogyny.
Despite its grim subject matter, The Last Duel is assuredly a feminist film and does not condone or dismiss the actions of its sexual predators. In trying to showcase differing perspectives, the movie is not asking us to question whether the rape was real or not, it’s asking us to understand, not excuse, the perspective of the perpetrator to better understand, not excuse, the landscape that produced so many more perpetrators. It’s historical context that some will argue is exploitative. Do we need to have the brutality shoved in our faces to better understand the plight of women? The screenplay is written by Damon and Affleck, their first collaboration since 1997’s Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, and they made the decision to have Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to write the feminine perspective from their story.
The third and final perspective is the one more aligned with the truth, and it’s here that we can begin to compare the points of difference between the prior two male perspectives. Early on, Marguerite’s marriage is de-romanticized. She is expected to bear a son at all costs. As time passes without a child, her husband begins to have his doubts about her worth. He didn’t have this problem with his first wife, he adds, to let her know where the problem is coming from. Yet Marguerite is also a natural problem-solver and manager, and when left alone to tend to her husband’s estate, she enacts policies that are clear improvements. Again, it’s another symbolic example of how many capable and intelligent women were intimidated into being primarily child-bearing mares. When she tells her husband she has been raped, Sir Jean takes it as an offense against him first and foremost. He also undresses and insists that Le Gris will not be the last man to “know [his] wife.” When Sir Jean boldly challenges Le Gris to a trial by combat, he fails to mention to his wife that if he were to lose, and thus found unfavorable in God’s eyes, then she will be burned alive as punishment for a false accusation. She asked for the justice of the courts, but that wasn’t good enough for her husband’s pride (to be fair, the courts were also stacked with bias to the liege lord). If the first perspective is the one most likely to be recorded, and the second most likely to be held by the men of this time, then it’s the final perspective that is reality, and one that has been ignored.
This all leads up to a climactic duel that had me rooting for both men to kill each other, unless that forfeited the life of Marguerite somehow through its arcane rules. I felt genuine tension because I was dreading the bloody outcome. I was suspecting the worst, with Le Gris to persevere and the movie to basically say, “Well, that’s what it was like, folks.” It’s a brutal sequence. The extended confrontation is thrilling exactly because the movie has done its work to establish genuine emotional stakes. I feared for the life of Marguerite, trapped in this ridiculous system of narcissistic men hitting each other for God’s favor rather than trusting the voice of the victim. It’s absurd in the same vein as drowning a woman to prove whether she was a witch is absurd. I won’t spoil the ending results, but I think it pays off the grind of the preceding two hours while staying true to the characters and their perspectives until the bitter end.
The Last Duel is not exactly a subtle film, but when the political message is intended to be blunt and alarming, is it better to use the dross of artistic subterfuge or be blunt? The characters are more archetypes than multidimensional figures, and even the extra time with them produces more of the same but at least offers a reflection of their respective reality distortion fields. The symbols are rather obvious throughout, like Marguerite breeding horses (look, that mare is like you!) and the cultural lessons are not exactly revolutionary. But when people need to be shaken, to dramatically rethink their cozy relationship with historical assumptions, then I say you bring a rhetorical sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. One can almost hear a certain political figure of recent prominence flatly echoing, “But he strongly denies it,” as proof of innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise (“locker room talk” and the like). But this story of toxic masculinity and systemic victimization doesn’t deserve to be told subtle and with brave faces in the wake of quiet indignities. It’s trying to re-contextualize heroes and villains of chivalric legend without losing sight on the human viewpoint. Whether viewers think they need a 150-minute lesson in how awful it was to be a woman is going to be a personal decision, and the reason I think many adults stayed away (sorry Ridley, it’s not we Millennials that this movie was marketed toward). This could have been trimmed down, especially with all the overworked palace intrigue in the middle. It’s an uncomfortable movie by nature, but one with relevant power and empathy and grueling suspense. The Last Duel is an uncompromising movie that asks the audience to think most of the unseen perspective too often overlooked.
House of Gucci is meant for titillation and diversion. The Last Duel is meant for conversations and denied catharsis. Even when the movie ends, you’re left with the underlined impression that this one woman’s plight is the same as so many others who will never know the spotlight. Both movies take clear aim at distinctly different tones and achieve their aims through their devotion and execution. Scott is a brilliantly visual tactician who simultaneously makes the outdoors look their driest and wettest. I cannot say either movie is elevated to another level it would have been unable to achieve thanks to Scott’s able direction, but he feels more committed and invested in both stories, and in particular the performances, than in his most recent output. I’m happy that Hollywood is still making mature moves for grown-ups, even if The Last Duel looks like a costly box-office dud. Both of these Scott ventures are worth watching. It all depends on your desired mood. Do you want to lounge in luxury and laugh it up, or do you want to feel miserable but more educated? Either way, these movies will mostly deliver what they promise for your 150 minutes of attention.
House of Gucci: B
The Last Duel: B+
Kevin Smith returns back to his comedy roots. No more movies with a message (Chasing Amy and Dogma) it’s back to good ole’ snowballing and stink palming. His latest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is like a giant thank-you card to all his fans that have made the man who he is today. It ties up the entire View Askew universe so Kevin can drift off into uncharted ventures of film making and not have to keep referencing the same damn characters. Plus there’s plenty of good-natured vulgarity to go around.
The plot of Jay and Silent Bob is nothing too heavy but seems to keep the film on a continuous pace, unlike the sometimes stagnant feel Mallrats had (what, they’re in one location for 90 minutes). It seems that after getting a restraining order at the Quick Stop on them, Jay and Silent Bob learn that Miramax is making a movie from a comic book that is in fact based off of them. Learned of the riches they could make they seek out the comic’s author Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck’s first appearance in the film) and demand a piece of the pie. Holden tells them that he long ago sold his right to his partner Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, in his second appearance in the film) and that there’s nothing they can do to stop the film. Jay suddenly gets the idea that if they stop the movie from ever getting made then they don’t have to worry. So off go our stoner duo on a mission to sabotage and satirize Hollywood.
Along the way are a hitch-hiker (George Carlin) advising the best way to get a ride is to go down in your morals, a confused nun (Carrie Fisher), the cast of Scooby Doo offering a ride (which will be 100x funnier than the feature film coming out next summer), a beautiful band of international diamond thieves (Eliza Dusku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Swalbach-Smith, Shannon Elizabeth), a rescued chimpanzee, a dogged Wildlife agent (Will Ferrell), and a full barrage of hilarity once Hollywood is finally hit.
The best barbs are laid out by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bickering about the other’s film choices on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. This moment is truly inspired and full of great humor from Gus van Sant too busy counting his money to yell action to Damon turning into a vigilante hero. I almost fell on the floor laughing during this sequence.
When Jay and Silent Bob hit Hollywood is when the comedy starts hitting its stride as this Jersey Greek chorus interacts with the Hollywood life and encounters many a celebrity. The jokes are usually right on target except for Chris Rock’s performance of a racism obsessed film director. Rock’s portrayal becomes grating to the moviegoer far before it’s over, though he does get a few choice lines.
Smith as a director has finally elevated his visual art into something that can sustain itself instead of his earlier just-hold-the-camera-and-shoot movies. There are pans, zooms, quick cuts, cranes, action sequences, and even CGI. Smith is evolving as an artist but still staying his “dick and fart joke” self, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is evidence. And that’s fine by me.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was the one movie I was dreading more than any others on my 2001 re-watch. I’ve been a Kevin Smith fan since my teenage years and the man’s brilliantly vulgar movies had a formative effect on shaping my love of comedy, cinema, and even language itself. I don’t know if I can say I’ve been a fan of Smith as a filmmaker for some time. He took a more schlocky genre-based turn the last decade to diminished results; I enjoyed the change of pace from 2011’s Red State but found my interest deflating with 2014’s Tusk and 2016’s Yoga Hosiers. It wasn’t until 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot that my worry was unable to be suppressed. Had the filmmaker stopped growing or had I simply outgrown the filmmaker? The old jokes and self-serving references felt too labored, too stagnant, and like an old man repeating the hits for the same group of fans to laugh at the same recognizable and tired punchlines. By nature, comedy has the shortest shelf life of entertainment, and I was dreading that the original Jay and Silent Bob big screen adventure was going to feel so outdated and pitiful, especially since it’s the least substantial of all of Smith’s early films and was intended as a silly crowd-pleasing romp for his fandom. In 2001, I was a big participant of that group. In 2021, I don’t know if I still am.
This 2001 movie was always intended to be rather insular, pitched to the diehards who would understand references to chocolate-covered pretzels and the backseats of Volkswagens, but the star-studded affair was also intended to close the book on the View Askewniverse, the interconnected world comprising the first five films of Smith’s career. Smith had intended to move on and tell new stories unbound by the confines of his continuity and the demands fans would have that the new stuff tonally aligned with the old stuff. This never really happened. Smith tried something different with 2004’s father/daughter dramedy Jersey Girl and upon its theatrical demise retreated back to the safety of his View Askew universe. To be fair, he has branched out with bold experiments in horror, some of them rather successful, but it always feels like Smith is too afraid to move too far ahead of the fandom he credits so much for his success. Hey, people go to concerts and they want to hear the hits. I understand the appeal. I chuckled at points of familiarity in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, and also Strike Back upon re-watch, but when you’re talking storytelling and comedy, stagnation isn’t growth. It’s a self-imposed ceiling.
It was very early that my sinking feeling for Strike Back became my default setting. The characters of Jay and Silent Bob are not built to carry an entire movie, especially when one of them is mostly mute. It becomes the Jay (Jason Mewes) show and he overstays his welcome. There are definite limitations to these two stoners being the primary characters, and that’s why Jay seems to vary from scene-to-scene for the sake of comedy. In some scenes he’ll be clever, in others powerfully stupid, and in others so specific, like when he’s referencing Prince Valiant or rhapsodizing a Planet of the Apes apocalyptic fantasy that is too involved to come from the mind of this dumb stoner. This is the same guy who didn’t know you had to pay to ride a bus. The character unpredictability would be more acceptable if those leaps lead to worthwhile comedy bits that couldn’t otherwise be bridged by the operating persona of the long-haired foul-mouthed horndog. Therein lies the issue. The humor of Strike Back is too scattershot and too obvious to really land consistently. The fourth-wall breaks are painful and plentiful. The constant exclamation of “bong” is never funny. The random inclusion of the Mystery Machine, with a Velma openly lusting after women, is lazy. The fact that people are fighting with bong lightsabers and dildos is lazy. The joke that everyone on the Internet complaining about pop culture is just a teen dweeb is lazy and almost Aaron Sorkin-esque in its snide broad-brush painting of technology and youth. As I said in my review of Reboot: “Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies.” This movie is wall-to-wall wacky slapstick and road trip pieces that fail to transcend their cultural references.
And the comedy aspect that has aged the worse, by far, is the rampant gay jokes. At the time of its theatrical release, G.L.A.A.D. was openly decrying the film for its copious jokes at the expense of being mistaken as gay. I’m all but certain that 2001 me would have voiced the opinion that this was absurd, that of course Smith isn’t a homophobe, and he’s merely satirizing homophobia. The problem is that being gay is such a repeated joke of derision and hysteria. Wildlife Marshal Willenholly (Will Ferrell, one of the better reasons to still watch) admits he’s only a man on the outside, and I guess that’s a joke? Gay jokes are definitely one of the kinds of comedy that has aged the worst in the ensuing twenty years. Think back to 2005’s extended riff-fest between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where they try to top one another how they know the other is really gay. That would never happen in a studio comedy today. Times change and so do the mores of comedy. Things we thought were funny decades ago we might not feel the same way. That’s the nature of comedy. The overall comedy of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back feels tacky and dated, so the onslaught of gay panic and derision only makes the rest of the comedy feel just as sad and pitiful.
There are two hooks to this movie, the relationship that forms between Jay and Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), one of the members of a girl gang of jewel thieves, and the havoc and industry satire of the guys running through the Miramax studio lot. Heather Graham reportedly turned down the role of Justice because she could not understand what woman would fall in love with Jay, and she’s completely right. The girl gang seems included because it felt like the hot thing to do at the time after Charlie’s Angels, to include some sexy ladies in cat suits, give them slow-motion scenes where they wink at the camera about how sexy they must look in magazine cover poses, and seem to be in on the joke while just objectifying these one-note characters with air quotes. Just because Smith later has the girl gang underline their cliché nature doesn’t make them any less of a cliché, and their entire inclusion feels like fulfilling a personal demand for Smith rather than satirizing the shallow depiction of “strong action heroine” in Hollywood blockbusters. The other hook is the actual industry satire, strictly under the guidance of lampooning Miramax and their hits and indie darling culture, all of which has the pall of Harvey Weinstein cast over it. The industry jokes aren’t exactly very cutting. It’s difficult to even label this as satire. It’s more a madcap chase that resembles a crude version of Pee Wee Herman’s studio escapades. It too feels predicated on fulfilling personal demands for Smith, like literally fighting Luke Skywalker in a lightsaber duel. I’ll agree with my 2001 self that the comedy is on stronger footing during this final act, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the rest of the movie. Strike Back doesn’t strike hard enough.
There is one reason to watch this movie and it has always been the unique fascination of Jason Mewes as a performer. He was not even an actor when Smith put him in his indie breakout film, 1994’s Clerks. He has such an unpolished appeal and there were several line readings where he took a bizarre, immediately intriguing angle, something that made the line funny because of his delivery and conviction. Mewes is a genuinely underrated comic actor. He was also battling heroin withdrawal throughout the production and turned to getting drunk as a backup coping mechanism. As soon as filming was done, he began using drugs again and eventually Smith would drive his buddy to rehab and offer a place in his home if it meant he had someone to make sure he stayed sober. The friendship between Mewes and Smith, and the hell they’ve gone through together from his addiction, is truly heartwarming and would genuinely make an interesting movie all its own.
I come back to my review for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot because I wrestled with these same feelings back then, and re-watching Strike Back only provided disappointing confirmation. As I said in 2019, “The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade… As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path.” Going back to the crude comedies of Kevin Smith feels like meeting old friends and realizing how little you might have in common now, and that’s okay. They still were important, they won’t be forgotten, but some things just aren’t built to last, especially comedy. I guess don’t be sad because it’s over but smile because it happened, including the many, many dick and fart jokes.
Re-View Grade: C
A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.
Nate’s Grade: B
I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is strictly made for writer/director Kevin Smith’s fanbase, so does trying to play outside this cultivated audience even matter? Honestly, there’s no way this is going to be anyone’s first Smith movie, so it’s already running on an assumed sense of familiarity with the characters and stories of old, which is often a perquisite to enjoying many of the jokes (more on this later). It’s been 25 years since Clerks originally debuted and showcased Smith’s ribald and shrewd sense of dialogue-driven, pop-culture-drenched humor. He’s created his own little sphere with a fervent fanbase, so does he need to strive for a larger audience with any forthcoming movies or does he simply exclusively serve the existing crowd?
Jay (Jason Mewes) and his hetero life-mate Silent Bob (Smith) are out for vengeance once again. Hollywood is rebooting the old Bluntman and Chronic superhero movie from 2001, this time in a dark and edgy direction, and since Jay and Silent Bob are the inspirations for those characters, even their likenesses and names now belong to the studio. The stoner duo, older and not so much wiser, chart a cross-country trip to California to attend ChronicCon and thwart the filming of the new movie, directed by none other than Kevin Smith (himself). Along the way, Jay and Bob discover that Jay’s old flame, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), had a daughter, Millennium “Milly” Falcon (Harley Quinn Smith) and Jay is the father. Milly forces Jay and Bob to escort her and her group of friends to ChronicCon and Jay struggles with holding back his real connection to her.
One of my major complaints with 2016’s Yoga Hosers (still the worst film of his career) was that it felt like it was made for his daughter, her friends, and there was no point of access for anyone else. It felt like a higher-budget home movie that just happened to get a theatrical release. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot feels somewhat similar, reaching back to the 2001 comedy that itself was reaching back on a half-decade of inter-connected Smithian characters. There is a certain degree of frantic self-cannibalism here but if the fans are happy then does Smith need to branch out? This is a question that every fan will have to answer personally. At this point, do they want new stories in the same style of the old or do they just want new moments with the aging characters of old to provide an ever-extending coda to their fictional lives?
I certainly enjoyed myself but I could not escape the fact at how eager and stale much of the comedy felt. Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies. Alas, the intended comedy set pieces in Reboot come across very flat. A lustful fantasy sequence never seems to take off into outrageousness. A drug trip sequence begins in a promising and specific angle and then stalls. The final act has a surprise villain that comes from nowhere, feels incredibly dated, and delivers few jokes beyond a badly over-the-top accent and its sheer bizarre randomness. There’s a scene where the characters stumble across a KKK rally. The escape is too juvenile and arbitrary. A courtroom scene has promise when Justin Long appears as a litigation attorney for both sides but the joke doesn’t go further, capping out merely at the revelation of the idea. This is indicative of much of Reboot where the jokes appear but are routinely easy to digest and surface-level, seldom deepening or expanding. There’s a character played by Fred Armison who makes a second appearance, leading you to believe he will become a running gag that will get even more desperate and unhinged with each new appearance as he seeks vengeance. He’s never seen again after that second time. There are other moments that feel like setups for larger comedic payoffs but they never arrive. The actual clip of the Bluntman and Chronic film, modeled after Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, is almost absent any jokes or satire. There are fourth-wall breaks that are too obvious to be funny as they rest on recognition alone. There’s a running joke where Silent Bob furiously taps away at a smart phone to then turn around and showcase a single emoji. It’s cute the first time, but then this happens like six more times. Strangely it feels like Smith’s sense of humor has been turned off for painfully long durations on this trip down memory lane. The structure is so heavily reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that there are moments that repeat step-for-step joke patterns but without new context, meaning the joke is practically the repetition itself.
The problem with comedy is that familiarity can breed boredom, and during the funny stretches, I found myself growing restless with Reboot as we transitioned from stop to stop among the familiar faces. I enjoyed seeing the different characters again but many of them had no reason to be involved except in a general “we’re bringing the band back together” camaraderie. It’s nice to see Jason Lee again but if he doesn’t have any strong jokes, why use him in this way? Let me dig further with Lee to illustrate the problem at heart with Reboot. Jay and Silent Bob visit Brodie (Lee) at his comic book shop, which happens to be at the mall now. He complains that nobody comes to the mall any longer and he has to worry about the “mallrats,” and then he clarifies, he’s talking about actual rodents invading the space, and he throws a shoe off screen. I challenge anyone to find that joke amusing beyond a so-bad-it’s-fun dad joke reclamation. I kept waiting for Smith to rip open some satirical jabs on pop culture since 2006’s Clerks II. In the ensuing years, Star Wars and Marvel have taken over and geek culture and comic books rule the roost. Surely a man who made his name on these topics would have something to say about this moment of over saturation, let alone Hollywood’s narrow insistence on cash-grab remakes. I kept waiting for the Smith of old to have some biting remarks or trenchant commentary. Milly’s diverse group of friends (including a Muslim woman named “Jihad”) is referred to like it’s a satirical swipe at reboots, but there isn’t a joke there unless the joke is, “Ha ha, everyone has to be woke these days,” which is clunky and doesn’t feel like Smith’s point of view. There are several moments where I felt like the humor was trying too hard or not hard enough. As a result, I chuckled with a sense of familiarity but the new material failed to gain much traction.
I do want to single out one new addition that I found to be hysterical, and that is Chris Hemsworth as a hologram version of himself at a convention. The Thor actor has opened up an exciting career path in comedy as highlighted by 2017’s Ragnarok, but just watching his natural self-effacing charm as he riffs about the dos and don’ts of acceptable behavior with his hologram is yet another reminder that this man is so skilled at hitting all the jokes given to him.
Where the movie succeeds best is as an unexpected and heartfelt father/daughter vehicle, with Jay getting a long-delayed chance to mature. It’s weird to say that a movie with Jay and Silent Bob in starring roles would succeed on its dramatic elements, but that’s because it feels like this is the territory that Smith genuinely has the most interest in exploring. The concept of Jay circling fatherhood and its responsibilities is a momentous turn for a character that has previously been regarded as a cartoon. His growing relationship with Milly is the source of the movie’s best scenes and the two actors have an enjoyable and combative chemistry, surely aided by the fact that Mewes has known Harley Quinn Smith her entire existence. This change agent leads to some unexpected bursts of paternal guidance from Jay, which presents an amusing contrast. There’s a clever through line of the difference between a reboot and a remake, and Smith takes this concept and brilliantly repackages it into a poignant metaphor about parenthood in a concluding monologue. Smith’s position as a father has softened him up a bit but it’s also informed his worldview and he’s become very unabashedly sentimental, and when he puts in the right amount of attention, it works. There’s an end credit clip with the late Stan Lee where Smith is playing a potential Reboot scene with Stan the Man, and it’s so sweet to watch the genuine affection both men have for one another. I’m raising the entire grade for this movie simply for a wonderful extended return of Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil character, the creator of Bluntman and Chronic. We get a new ending for 1997’s Chasing Amy that touches upon all the major characters and allows them to be wise and compassionate. It’s a well-written epilogue that allows the characters to open up on weightier topics beyond the standard “dick and fart” jokes that are expected from a Smith comedy vehicle. It’s during this sequence where the movie is allowed to settle and say something, and it hits big time.
The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a Kevin Smith movie that is intended for wide appeal again. Up next is Clerks 3, which the released plot synopsis reveals is essentially the characters of Clerks making Clerks in the convenience store, which just sounds overpoweringly meta-textual. He’s working within the confines of a narrow band and he seems content with that reality. I had the great fortune to attend the traveling road show for this film and saw Smith and Mewes in person where they introduced Reboot and answered several questions afterwards. Even though it was after midnight (on a school night!) I was happy I stayed because it was easy to once again get caught up in just how effortlessly Smith can be as a storyteller, as he spins his engaging personal yarns that you don’t want to end. As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is made strictly for the fans, and if you count yourself among that throng, you’ll likely find enough to justify a viewing, though it may also be one of diminished returns.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Alexander Payne is not exactly the first name you would think of when it comes to science fiction. The man has a history of road trip comedies, average Midwestern men, mid-life crises, and the colorful miscreants of society. The fact that the director of Sideways and The Descendants is tackling The Incredible Shrinking Man is a bold move. Payne is outside his comfort zone with Downsizing, and it shows at points. While never quite satisfying the possibilities of its premise, Downsizing is still worth watching for its memorable moments and for the sheer brilliance of one outstanding performance.
In the not-too-distant future, science has developed the technology to shrink human beings to five inches tall, approximately 1/100th of their size. A middle-income couple can live like the top one percent because their money goes further. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a schlubby, regular guy suffering from the ennui of a job he hates and a life that feels unfulfilled. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to undergo the downsizing procedure, which is irreversible. Paul’s wife backs out at the last minute but he doesn’t find out until after he’s gone small. Now with a McMansion all to himself, Paul has to readjust to what he thought his new life would be like. He moves into a condo and shirks the offers to join the parties of his hedonist neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Paul finally decides to live life and embraces new experiences, the biggest befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady who was downsized against her will for being an overseas political activist. Paul feels drawn to this woman and she opens his eyes to the larger world around him.
The strangest part of Payne’s movie is that the main thrust of the story could have been told without all of the science fiction dross. This is very much a romantic comedy/drama that follows the formula of a man jilted at the altar who has to get his life back together, finds someone new who changes his perspective on life, and then they get together by the end. You could have plucked this story and set it in an ordinary world and it still would have worked, which begs the question whether the world of Downsizing is properly applied. The consumer commentary seems muddled, with the rationale for downsizing being helping the planet, reducing the population so to speak, but really it’s an escape into a fantasy of wealth. People are downsizing so they can live in luxury and leisure. This should set up Payne for his incisive brand of satire as he skewers the selfish and self-righteous foibles of mankind, except that doesn’t really happen. Sure, eventually in the second half the movie opens up its tiny world a little wider, revealing the not-so-hidden subculture of immigrant labor toiling away to keep everything stable and pretty. It’s obvious social commentary and rarely does it go a step further than just recognition. And so the film becomes another in a long line of movies about a man who must be shaken from his malaise and enjoy the possibilities of life he never knew existed. Downsizing eventually ignores its sci-fi conceit to tell a relatively ordinary tale of self-actualization.
Payne’s premise would have best been explored through the more open parameters of a television series. Downsizing is an interesting concept that leads to other natural questions over how this tiny world operates and also how it interacts with the larger community. There’s a small scene where a drunk overhears Paul’s plan to shrink and argues that little people shouldn’t be granted the same voting rights as “normal-sized” citizens. The normies contribute more to society and should be given more credit, he argues, before being shooed away. This political division could have made for an interesting topic of reflection itself, but like many of Payne’s pit stops, it comes and goes after whetting your appetite for further examination. What about a story where downsizing is a punishment to do away with the “undesirables” of a nation? A TV series would have allowed more room to explore, with finer nuance, the details and possibilities of this fanciful world. Payne allows his movie to breathe, taking extended jaunts on different ideas but rarely enough to satisfy your sense of curiosity. The last act takes place at the original downsized colony in Norway, though at their diminutive size I wonder if it took them months to travel in Dusan’s yacht. It’s meant to think about what will come after humankind has passed the point of no return when it comes to climate change. Paul has to rethink what he wants his legacy to be and what meaning his life will have, which then pushes him into a rather simplistic choice of go with the girl or the cause. Given the rest of the movie’s focus, you shouldn’t be surprised what decision he ultimately makes.
However, the real reason you should legitimately see Downsizing is for the astounding, star-making, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies). I cannot recall another movie where a character comes in at the halfway mark and just takes over completely, single-handedly lifting the movie up. Every moment she is onscreen is made better. You’ve never seen a character in a mainstream movie quite like Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a political dissident, amputee, and lower-class cleaning woman who teaches Paul about the class divides. Tran is tragic, comic, caustic, lovable, and Chau is an acting revelation. I’ve read several reviews that found her to be a cringe-worthy, borderline racist depiction of an Asian woman meant to be laughed at, and I strongly disagree. At no point was I laughing at Tran because of her status, her ethnicity, or her broken English cadences. I was laughing because she was a force of nature that blew away the pretensions of others, that cut to the chase, and spoke her mind in a carefree and honest manner. Her matter-of-fact affectations are so perfectly delivered in accordance with the character’s personality. There are moments where her character is being set up for one thing and Tran goes entirely in another direction, and whereas you might have laughed at the start she surprisingly earns other emotions. Take for instance a scene where Dusan tries to ditch her by making an excuse about a sudden travel commitment. Tran takes this moment and turns it into a genuinely poignant monologue about the unexpected nature of fate. By the end she’s crying out of sheer elation, and those tears are not meant for ridicule. Downsizing realizes what an asset it has and makes her the deserved focal point of the second half. You’ll fall in love with her too. Chau doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination; she deserves to win everything.
Downsizing is an episodic high-concept comedy where the shrinking is irrelevant to the main storyline that evolves over two plus hours. This is an adult movie that explores some mature topics with surprising time and scrutiny, and then it can also be a simplistic rom-com that misses the mark on larger, Swiftian social satire. It’s another story in a long line of disaffected, middle-aged men finding their groove again, except then it becomes the story of a Vietnamese activist and her unique persona. Hong Chau is the reason you should see Downsizing above all. She doesn’t so much steal her scenes as just take full ownership over the back half of the movie. Her performance is so uniformly excellent that you wish the rest of Payne’s uneven movie could meet her commitment. There are a lot of ideas here that seem to get brushed aside for the conventional formula of a romantic union, even if the pairing is rather unconventional. Downsizing is an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite amount to more than the sum of its little parts.
Nate’s Grade: B
Suburbicon began as a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in the 1980s. They shelved it and went on to other stories and justifiable acclaim. George Clooney came across the old screenplay and rewrote it with his longtime partner Grant Heslov (Monuments Men). Clooney’s version of suburban strife is a wash and also easily the worst effort of Clooney’s Oscar-nominated directing career. I wish Suburbicon would make up its mind on which of the three different movies it wants to tell. This is possible proof that Coen brother stories should best be left chiefly to the Coens.
Set amidst the 1950s, an African-American family moves in to an all-white suburban neighborhood and instantly changes the climate. The Mayers have upset the other middle-class white neighbors who want them gone, and they don’t mind subjecting this black family to all forms of harassment to get the job done. Meanwhile, Gardener (Matt Damon) and his wife (Julianne Moore), her twin sister (also Moore), and his son, are threatened by loan shark goons. The family is never the same but there’s more than meets the eye to this domestic tragedy, and the costly cover-up ensnares everyone in danger.
This is a movie that feels badly stitched together with competing ideas and storylines. Two of these competing movies are so haphazard and lazily explored that it feels like Clooney and company tacked them on for some sort of extra failed social commentary about The Way We Live Now. The shame of it is that either of these vestigial storylines could have existed as their own compelling movie. The integration of the suburbs with a black family brings about an intense reaction. Fellow suburbanites harass the family at all hours of the day, destroy personal property, and do everything to let them know they are unwelcome in this “good-natured” community. The reactions are so virulent and disgusting, and all for a family just existing on the block, shopping at the same grocery store, thinking they too were eligible for the American Dream. There’s a movie there in its own right because, as evidenced in Suburbicon, it’s just background for a larger indictment on suburban values hypocrisy that never generally materializes. At no point does Clooney give the racist response any depth, nuance, or even a deserving spotlight. The only thing we learn is that it’s wrong, which should already be obvious. The entire storyline feels so unfairly attached to another unrelated movie. This family’s story is worth telling right rather than just having something else to cut back to.
Then there’s the larger satire on suburbia itself and its reported family values philosophy. Just because bad people exist and bad things happen in a “nice” community does not mean your satirical work is done. You’re just supplying air quotes to your location. This is the most facile form of irony, lazily slapping together something vulgar against an idyllic setting of morality. That’s why I had no interest in The Little Hours, a comedy that looked to be built around one sole joke, unexpectedly offensive nuns (“Oh ho, that pious person used profanity, and that will never not be funny”). Suburbicon is a story that could have existed in any setting, which further devalues any attempt at legitimate social satire. This isn’t about The Way We Live Now or Even Then.
If you look closely you can see the bones of a Coen brothers’ story here, the only movie of the three that could have worked for Suburbicon. An insurance fraud scam that involves murder and complications is a juicy start for a thriller with some dark comedy edges. This aspect of the movie is the most compelling because it’s obvious that the most attention has been paid to it. Also, there are reversals and unexpected turns that keep the story twisting and turning while accessible. However, the impact of the story is limited by the fact that none of the characters are generally likeable or that interesting. You won’t really feel anxiety over whether or not these people get away with their scheme, which deflates the film’s acceleration of tension despite the best efforts of Alexadre Desplat to replicate an ominous Carter Burwell, a.k.a. “Coen brother,” score. If you don’t care about the characters then they better get into some crazy escalating collateral damage. For a while, it feels like Clooney and Suburbicon understand this principle and begin to ratchet up a body count, though oddly it’s far too fast. Oscar Isaac (The Force Awakens) turns up as a nosy insurance investigation and is taken care of only in his second appearance. The film doesn’t take the time to force the characters to luxuriate in the unease. It just goes straight for the sudden violence, and after awhile it becomes pat and expected.
This is Clooney’s weakest directorial effort yet. He’s clearly working from the visual framework of the Coen brothers’ classics, using the cookie-cutter production design of colorful suburbia for intended kitschy menace. Even some of the camera angles feel like something lifted from the Coen brothers. Alas, Clooney is not the Coens. He is a director capable of great things depending upon the subject matter, but this movie is a misfire from the start. Clooney cannot decide what the tone is supposed to be, so different actors seem to be operating in their own separate, competing movies. Damon (The Martian) is at either turn hapless or malevolent. I never knew what his read on his character was supposed to be. Moore (Kingsmen: The Golden Circle) is so over-the-top as a distressed housewife that you think she might start bouncing off the walls. It’s only Isaac that feels like he finds the sweet spot of what Clooney must have been going for, and thus it’s even more disappointing about his character’s limited screen time.
Messy, tone deaf, and lacking greater commentary, Suburbicon is a fatally flawed, overbearing dark comedy that has things on its mind and no clear idea about how best to articulate them. It feels like dissonant movies badly stitched together. The overall execution is lazy and relies upon the simplest form of irony to substitute as subversive suburban satire. The tone veers too wildly and the actors are desperate for some better sense of grounding. The characters are pretty flat and poorly developed. It’s an altogether mess that has a few inspired moments and a whole lot more uninspired. The victimized black family deserves to have their own movie and not be the backdrop of somebody else’s broad comedy. The racism is far too real to mesh with the comic goofiness of the rest of the criminal shenanigans. Clooney needed to settle on the movie he wanted to tell. I doubt the final version of Suburbicon that I saw is close to the Coen’s original screenplay. There may have been a good reason that they originally shelved it. Clooney shows that replicating the Coen look and style can be a fool’s errand even by an otherwise talented director. This is the worst Coen brother movie and it’s not even theirs.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Great Wall is the most expensive film in Chinese history and the first major co-production between an American film studio and a Chinese-owned studio. While Matt Damon is the name above the title, it’s filled with recognizable Chinese stars, like Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and pop star Lu Han. China’s most renowned action filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, serves as the director. It has the look and feel of a Hollywood special effects epic but it’s very much a Chinese film in ownership and execution, perhaps marking a new synergy of East meets West blockbusters. With a whopping budget of $150 million, the same as the last Star Trek movie, it looks like a typical Hollywood big-budget epic with visual spectacle and sweeping vistas. It’s up to the viewer whether a majority-Chinese production successfully imitating Hollywood middlebrow action spectacle is a brave step forward or just another source for mediocrity.
In the 11th centruy, traveling European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal) are looking for black powder, an explosive substance that’s worth serious money back home. A mysterious feral creature attacks them and William cuts off the beast’s hand, taking it as a trophy. The Nameless Order, Chinese military officials stationed at the titular great wall, capture them and want to know exactly how these foreigners were able to defeat this beast. Legend states that long ago a meteor crashed to Earth, and with it came a horde of green monsters with big teeth lead by a queen that psychically controls her thousands of attack drones. Every 60 years the creatures emerge searching for food for their ravenous appetites. The Imperial City must be protected at all costs and that is why the wall was constructed. Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is thrown into command when her male superiors are killed, and she relies upon her unexpected Western allies to throw back the evolving horde of monsters.
As the first major big-budget collaboration between studios in China and the United States, The Great Wall feels like something that would have escaped from the 1990s era of tentpole filmmaking, and it’s clearly a paycheck film for all involved. Now that doesn’t condemn in either regard. There’s a certain charm to the relatively dumb sci-fi action movies that started being prepped with steady regularity in the 1990s when advancing special effects made it possible for hordes of CGI monsters to thwart. There’s an obvious point of engagement that crosses all translations: man versus monsters. The film even somewhat admirably knows its own ridiculousness and embraces it. I was reminded of the go-for-broke silliness of Jerry Bruckheimer’s movies like National Treasure’s positing that maybe, just maybe, there’s a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This feels like the biggest budget Asylum movie you can imagine, and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. However, because of the mechanical nature of so much of its storytelling and the safe territory it resolutely occupies, The Great Wall is a mediocre monster movie that aims right down the middle for cross-continental mass appeal and nothing more. I’m almost certain that Damon had to have been paid $20 million dollars to justify his participation. The actors and the director go about their business in a professional manner but you feel the lack of passion. It’s a film looking to appeal to the most people and losing any sense of distinction.
Credit director Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) for keeping the film on life support, providing just enough action variety and pleasing visuals to stir an audience awake. The monsters are introduced very early into the film, around the twenty-minute mark, and their CGI horde definitely presents a worthy challenge. In fact they feel too overwhelming in their numbers. Early on we see that the ferocious creatures, which closely resemble the Ghostbusters demon dog painted green, are hard to kill outside of a straight shot to their shoulder-eyes (they have eyes on their shoulders… because…). The first creature that successfully scales the wall takes out a slew of Chinese warriors. If one of these things is that hard to kill, how in the world can a limited number of people, even with high ground, defend against a sea of a hundred thousand? The mismatched numbers deflate the stakes and lessen the tension, which isn’t helped from subpar characterization. The world building is certainly hazy (Why do they come out once every 60 years? Why do magnets affect them? Why all the effort for small food supplies?) and some of the elements feel inserted just for their “cool” factor. A group of female warriors bungee jump off platforms to spear the monsters, but why is this necessary when we’ve already seen that China has fiery projectiles that are far more effective? It is cool though.
Thankfully a movie with little going for it other than spectacle at least knows to vary up its action sequences. Each encounter with one of the monsters is structured differently. The best sequence may be William and Tovar navigating through a blinding fog and relying upon the sounds of whizzing arrows to alert them to approaching hungry monsters. It provides some fun tension and pop-out moments. There’s a beautiful sequence commemorating a fallen friend with the launching of hundreds of floating lanterns. The concluding sequence involves our remaining characters climbing to the top of a pagoda lined with stained glass. As the characters rush up flights of stairs, the screen is lovingly diluted with colored shafts of light, which also add extra visual flourishes when the monsters begin to leap through the glass level by level. Yimou’s use of color has always been a hallmark of his career and it translates even into the color-coded amour of the different divisions of the Nameless Order. They look like ancient Power Rangers. While lacking a great deal of overall tension due to its predictable nature and dull characters, there are fleeting moments of suspense drawn out in individual action set-pieces. The overall movie is generally unremarkable CGI carnage reminiscent of a too-late Lord of the Rings rip-off, and yet there’s at least a general professionalism to its unremarkable CGI carnage.
Early on the movie was hit with accusations of whitewashing, and given Hollywood’s recent track record with the likes of Exodus, Aloha, and Gods of Egypt, it would be entirely conceivable that producers felt Damon needed to be a white savior role. That’s not the case at all and in fact the Chinese forces are shown to be flawless specimens. Damon’s character is the out-of-place European (complete with hard to place accent) who represents selfish and arrogant Western attitudes. He’s routinely awed by the ability and precision of the Chinese warriors, who dutifully sacrifice for the greater good and safety of others they will never know. They are symbols of power, teamwork, courage, strength, and dignity. The lessons can be rather blunt (a woman… in charge?!). The portrayal of the Chinese forces is so honorable and so empowered that they come across as boring moral paragons without an ounce of traceably human nuance. They don’t come across like characters so much as interchangeable warriors, and so when they start dying one-by-one their sacrifices ultimately leave little impact. It turns out that the non-Chinese actors, Damon and Pascal, supply the most interesting characters because their roles are allowed personality, basic moral ambiguity, and inner conflict beyond a sense of duty and the requirements of achieving that duty. The Great Wall drafts off Damon’s worldwide star power to teach him a lesson about Eastern values. It certainly presents China and Chinese characters in a very positive perspective, but being so broad sanitizes their humanity and transforms people into boring paragons.
Given the pedigree of those involved, it’s completely expected to be underwhelmed by the end results of such an expensive East meets West collaboration. The Great Wall is ultimately too safe and stately to satisfy beyond generic genre thrills; lowering one’s expectations is highly advised in order to properly appreciate the goofy action spectacle. The Great Wall of China being constructed to protect from a horde of ravenous, possibly extraterrestrial monsters is certainly a silly premise, but the movie doesn’t pretend it’s anything than what it is, a large-scale monster movie with a sense of fun. It’s not soaked in deconstructive irony or meta commentary. Instead, The Great Wall is a straight-laced action spectacle that treats its absurdity with conviction. It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?
Nate’s Grade: C
After the indifferent reception of its 2012 spin-off, original super spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) are back and it feels like everyone is falling into familiar paces. The titular fourth film in the franchise (excluding Bourne Legacy) is easily the weakest (excluding Bourne Legacy) and the seams of the formula are starting to show. Once again an ally has intel to expose some sort of secret and illegal government conspiracy that ties into a revelation about Bourne’s past, and once again this ally is killed as the Act One break to spurn Bourne onward, and once again there’s a secondary assassin working for the morally murky government agency head, and once again there’s a signature car chase sequence, and once again there’s a final choice Bourne needs to make about what kind of person he wants to be given his new perspective on his old killin’ ways. The frantic Greengrass staple camerawork and editing can make just about anything bristle with some energy and suspense, but rarely was I fully feeling what was happening onscreen (except for the caveat of admiring how attractive Alicia Vikander’s face looks on the big screen). Short of the final car chase through Vegas with a SWAT truck barreling through traffic, the action sequences are pretty routine and unmemorable. The foot chases and fisticuffs, a hallmark of the franchise, feel slightly blasé in their development. The action isn’t bad but it feels more than a bit staid. The stakes aren’t as high and maybe that’s because it feels like there is little more to reveal about our hero’s hidden past. Is the next movie going to divulge the long lost secret that he never paid a parking ticket? Tommy Lee Jones makes an enjoyably crusty adversary. Vikander has just enough of an angle to provide more substance as a character than the typical agency analyst reciting exposition. The film ends with some promise of looking forward rather than back, and I hope that further adventures with Jason Bourne (excluding Bourne Legacy) stray a little more from the well-worn formula and provide better reasons for this spy to come out of his hiding.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-