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The Mummy (2017)

In my many years as a film critic, it’s always interesting to discover when I veer from the critical herd, whether liking a movie others do not or having issues with a movie that others lionize like La La Land. After seeing an avalanche of bad reviews, I was fully prepared to dismiss Tom Cruise’s The Mummy as another example of Hollywood hubris, but as the movie continued I found myself enjoying the proceedings. I left the theater completely dumbfounded why my critical brethren disliked it so vehemently. One critic even said this was Tom Cruise’s worst movie of his career. I can’t understand the hate for what is essentially a fun B-movie, so my review is going to be a little different. I’ve read through a bevy of bad reviews and lifted the major criticisms leveled at the film. I’ll be addressing them one-by-one and why I disagree or think the broadsides are overblown.

Here’s a quick plot synopsis for some general context. Thousands of years ago, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) was next in line for the Egyptian throne, and then her pharaoh father had a son. Rather than be sidelined, Ahmanet made a deal with the god Set to kill her family with a magic knife and become an all-powerful being. She was thwarted in the middle of the human-sacrifice ritual and she’s sentenced to being buried alive. She was buried thousands of miles away and the magic jewel, needed to complete the magic knife, was buried in England in a Crusader’s crypt. In present-day Iraq, Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), his sidekick (Jake Johnson), and his love interest (Annabelle Wallis) stumble upon the tomb of Ahmanet. They’re transporting her sarcophagus back to England when a cloud of crows attacks their Army plane. The plane crashes, with Nick on it, but he awakens unscathed on a morgue slab. Apparently Nick is marked by Ahmanet as her chosen vessel.

1) “Cinematic universe fatigue.”

This is the number one indictment in all the critiques but it feels more like critics just used The Mummy as a jumping off point to add to a thesis statement on the dearth of originality in a franchise-obsessed Hollywood. I get it. In the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s unparalleled run of success, it’s not just about franchises now but also about a series of inter-connected franchises forming a universe of stories. There is also DC’s failed efforts to try their own universe, a possible Hasbro Universe (Transformers, G.I. Joe), the ongoing and morphing X-Men universe, and now the emergence of the Dark Universe, a studio’s attempt to repackage the classic monster properties of old. When done poorly, the cinematic universes reek of nakedly obvious crass commercialism. However, just being opposed to these cinematic universes on principle alone feels misguided. It’s presumptuous. It all depends on whether or not the stories can exist on their own. Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad didn’t crash and burn merely because they were overextended by tie-ins to other movies. They failed because they were bad stories and were terribly executed, and yes being overextended was a component but not the only one by far. Movies still need to be good.

The Mummy only gives a sense of a larger universe through the appearances of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) the leader of Prodigium, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque agency tasked with monitoring the world of “gods and monsters.” That’s about it, a preview of a larger world of monsters with some visual Easter eggs scattered here and there. The character of Jekyll is a learned scientist that can unload a larger picture, and his institution also provides a setup for false security. He is organically placed into the narrative and Prodigium actually supplies a credible reason why they don’t just smash the key crystal that Ahmanet needs for her resurrection purposes. Crowe (The Nice Guys) is one of the best parts of the movie, and when he gets to slip into Hyde mode the movie allows him to have a malicious sense of fun. I don’t think the visual element of Hyde quite works but it doesn’t sabotage the scenes. Not all of Crowe’s exposition is necessary, especially the opening sequence finding the buried Crusaders, but he provides a stable presence, until he also presents Prodigium as a pragmatic threat. This is why I think that the most critics are condemning the idea of the Dark Universe and what it stands for in broader terms and not on the actual merits of how it set up its larger universe.

2) “Cruise is miscast as the lead.”

I’m a fan of Cruise as an actor and especially as the lead in action movies. The man is a natural movie star and he gives his all with every performance. As a paying moviegoer, I respect that work ethic. Having Cruise play a rakish surveyor of antiquities seems like a good fit for his abilities. He’s played charming, dangerous rogues before. Here’s the thing that critics don’t seem to be processing: Cruise’s character is meant to be a jerk. He’s self-centered and prone to making impulsive decisions, like shooting a rope keeping a sarcophagus suspended in liquid mercury. Plus if you don’t like Cruise as a person or an actor he’s routinely beaten up in the movie to fine comic results. His character arc is about him becoming the kind of person who’s willing to think about others and a greater good. It’s simple but it works. I do think The Mummy goes too far in trying to explain the signposts of his character arc. Occasionally they undercut the moment to great effect. There’s a scene where Wallis (Annabelle) tries to encourage Norton that she knows there’s a good man inside him. After all, he gave her the only parachute as the plane went down. He then sheepishly says, “I thought… there was another one.” I laughed out loud so hard. The movie does work a little too hard to announce Nick’s swaggering Lothario ways (“Me thinks the lady doth protest too much”), and there’s a 25-year age gap between Wallis and Cruise, but these aren’t faults invented by only this movie. Cruise was an enjoyable lead for me and his ease with comedy, action, and drama prevailed.

3) “Tone issues abound.”

Critics are lambasting the film for being too many things with too many tones, but much like cinematic universes, it all comes down to execution. The Mummy has elements of action, horror, especially its zombie-mummies, dark comedy, like Johnson showing back up as zombie comic relief a la An American Werewolf in London, and even some inspired slapstick. When Nick is fighting a batch of zombie-mummies, he thrusts his fist through one skull and hangs another sideways against a wall, and both keep on fighting. The different elements added to my entertainment rather than detracting from it. I enjoyed that the movie could be suspenseful or silly depending upon the scene. The action sequences are serviceable to good, the highlight being the zero gravity plummet within the body of the plane. Alex Kurtzman (a writer responsible for Star Trek, Transformers, and other big studio pictures) makes an adequate director without any distinguishing sense of style. I feel like the more memorable aspects of the action are from Kurtzman thinking as a writer. Take for instance a scene where Nick is swimming underwater and we watch subterranean tombs open. The zombie-mummy Crusaders then start swimming after Nick, providing a terrific visual. The action sequences vary and develop and make good use of their geography. I also appreciated that the third act does not fall into the superhero standard of CGI monster slugfest that loses perspective and scale (even Wonder Woman suffers from this). Also, apparently in the time since Stephen Sommers’ campy 1999 Mummy film, everyone championing that movie seems to have forgotten that it was a mess of tones as well. The Brendan Frasier mummy movies were a fun, spirited, winking big-budget B-movies with style and personality. I don’t think Cruise’s Mummy film reaches those same heights but there are enough positive similarities.

4) “Underwritten female characters.”

This is a legitimate criticism when discussing Wallis’ character. She offers very little to the overall story except to verbally explain exposition or character beats. The fact that she needs rescuing is a given. It’s an underwritten role and clearly just an excuse for a good-looking actress to be at Cruise’s side during moments of peril and derring-do. However, this accusation overlooks Boutella’s character, Princess Ahmanet. Her very back-story involves a woman striking back against a patriarchy that wouldn’t value her unless it had no alternative. She’s a killer but she has her reasons, but more importantly she’s an interesting antagonist even if her overall goal is basic world conquering. Boutella (Star Trek Beyond) has a magnetic presence on screen and seems to enjoy stretching herself with different physicalities from an alien to a mummy to a blade-legged henchwoman. She enjoys playing kickass women who lead by example, and Ahmanet is no exception. I was pleased that Ahmanet was not going to be reserved as a strictly Act Three villain. She’s prominent throughout the narrative and burrowed inside her marked man’s head, leading to dessert flashbacks and a general repetition of Boutella’s partial nude scene. The filmmakers are getting the most out of one shadow-draped PG-13 nude scene.

Suffice to say, in my view The Mummy does not deserve its savaging by the critical community. I think too many critics are assailing larger points (Tom Cruise as a person, cinematic universes) and losing sight of the actual movie itself. The Mummy is not a perfect film by any stretch but it’s a movie that has a strong sense of its identity and how to meet its goals. The Mummy is a modest B-movie with a sense of fun that offers enough surprises, suspense and action sequences, and clever visuals to entertain. If this is the start to the Dark Universe then I feel optimistic about where else the newest creature features will lead. I recommend giving this one a chance once the dust settles. You may be just as surprised.

Nate’s Grade: B

Colossal (2017)

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has a monster of a problem. She’s lost her job, her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), and is forced to move back home to her parents’ empty house. She gets a job at her childhood friend Oscar’s (Jason Sudeikis) bar. Then one night the news is filled with a 100-foot tall lizard monster magically appearing in Seoul, South Korea. This lizard only seems to appear at a certain hour, and Gloria realizes that she is somehow connected to this giant beast and responsible for its movements. What’s a working girl to do?

Colossal is a different kind of monster movie, that’s for certain. It’s got a dynamite premise that allows for plenty of different tones. There’s an inherent wackiness in a party girl discovering that her actions have a very extreme set of consequences. For a while it’s a slice-of-life picture about coming home and readjusting to the rigors of adult life, something Gloria has been putting on hold while soaking up the pleasures of New York City and the patience of her live-in boyfriend. She’s picking up the pieces of her life and sometimes an acquisition of furniture like a futon can feel like a small triumph. There’s a simple rhythm to these early scenes and writer/director Nacho Vigilondo (Time Crimes) slowly reveals more and more about character histories and relationships, remarkably free of ungainly exposition. There is a remarkably accomplished and sly sense of discovery with the movie, first with the implications and abilities of Gloria’s monster avatar and with the movie itself. There’s a cheeky sense of fun watching Gloria discover her connections to the monster and the special effects are pretty good for such an odd indie film. What are the monster’s intentions? Where does it come from? Why is this patch of land and Gloria so special? Fortunately Vigilondo doesn’t stop there. From a rules standpoint, there’s only so much to learn through trial and error, but it gets even more complicated when Gloria decides to tell her buddies the news. Now it’s about keeping her secret and making sure these often drunk, often-misbehaving guys don’t cause an international incident.

Hathaway (The Intern) is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking and she completely owns the movie, which she filmed while in her second trimester of pregnancy (explains the omnipresence of heavy coats). She has to play a woman who has self-absorbed and self-destructive qualities while not shutting out audience empathy. Hathaway brings out multiple dimensions in her flawed character. She can be cowed easily through guilt and intimidation, failing to meet up to her own standards she holds for herself, but she can also derive a quiet strength that pushes her to take a stand and make a change. Hathaway is apt at the blending of comedy and drama and she’s a star with genuine acting chops. Despite her struggles and setbacks, we want her to succeed and she feels all too human.

It’s midway through where Colossal makes a sharp turn into territory I didn’t see coming and reveals its true intentions, which are much darker and uncomfortable. Fair warning to readers, I’m going to try and avoid specific spoilers but even talking about the second half of the film serves as a spoiler in itself, so keep reading if you so choose. Beforehand, the movie has presented itself as a fun, slightly whimsical take on a down-on-her-luck party girl discovering a weird power. The monster serves as metaphor and I thought it was going to be a relatively obvious metaphor for alcoholism, something she had to work through and get her life back together, putting away childish things and integrating back to the world of responsible adults she’s been avoiding. Then the turn happens and you realize that the monster isn’t a metaphor for alcoholism but for abusive relationships. As you can imagine, this is more or less when the comedy slowly comes to a halt.

It backdoors you into reconsidering everything that’s come before and ingeniously plays the charms of its actors against your preconceived notions. It’s a movie about abuse and manipulation and the capitulation to that abuse. Whether the source of that abuse is derived from alcoholism is up for debate, but I insist it’s a complicated mixture of substance abuse, unchecked entitlement, and toxic masculinity. Oscar becomes our villain, and it may feel like a sudden shift to many viewers, especially those who were expecting him and Gloria to end up romantically linked by film’s end. Colossal can be seen following a more familiar rom-com formula of the girl who goes home, reconnects with old friends, and becomes romantically linked, and the movie uses your expectations against you. Because of that, you may excuse Oscar’s behavior, downplay it, and rationalize that he, like Gloria, is trying to gather his bearings and grow up. That’s not the case. That’s not the case at all, and the movie explores this notion by giving a serial abuser new unfettered power to endanger a multitude of human lives, people who are invisible to his angry outbursts and thus made even more expendable in his mind.

This tonal turn dominates the second half and I can imagine many people will be put off and disappointed by how heavy and uncomfortable a giant monster movie has become. An emotionally abusive person will stop at any manipulation to keep people within his or her orbit so they constantly have targets for abuse. We get several scenes that examine this dynamic as Oscar tears apart his friends one veiled menacing monologue after another, pushing their insecurities and influencing control over them. He’s the “nice guy” who thinks the world owes him more than he’s ever gotten, but a choice reoccurring flashback reveals he’s always been this way. Oscar didn’t turn into a jerk, he was this way from the start, and he’s just gotten better at hiding his darker intentions, and he’ll likely always be this way without redemption. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) digs into his character’s misanthropy without going overboard, which makes him a far more realistic depiction of an abuser taking advantage of other people’s good graces and chances.

Colossal transformed into one of the more unexpected and surprisingly emotionally involving stories I’ve seen recently. I was set to enjoy the silly monster movie shenanigans being turned on their head with oblivious Americans unknowingly wrecking havoc on the Eastern world. Instead of global consumer commentary I got something much more personal and unexpected. I never knew where the movie was going to go next and found myself more and more intrigued by every scene. If the filmmakers could upend my expectations and keep me on the edge of my seat, then they did their jobs. The finale is magnificently executed as it employs just about all the rules we’ve learned concerning the monsters, space-time, and the sour relationship between Oscar and Gloria. It feels like a true culmination of events that is dramatically and emotionally cathartic.

Much more than advertised, Colossal is an exciting movie for how different it ends up becoming, and yet it’s still everything as advertised. Hathaway is highly enjoyable during her character’s various highs and lows trying to make sense of her life. Vigilondo shapes an unpredictable narrative that subverts and overcomes formula expectations and audience sympathies. It’s an involving and personal tale given an expansive scope and feel. Monster as metaphor is not a new concept. It’s an externalization of our fears and labors and an expression of their cataclysmic destructive power. It also provides a focal point for a hero to overcome, and Colossal feels like somebody took a slice-of-life indie mumblecore observational character piece and gave it a dash of fantastical genre elements. I want to watch it again to see if I can catch nuances I missed, especially relating to characterization and performance. If you can hang on after the movie makes its midway shift, I think Colossal is a unique filmgoing experience that sees its vision to the end.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Some of Hollywood’s most famous characters are its monsters, and no I’m not referring to studio executives. Kong was one of cinema’s first international stars, a stop-motion marvel in 1933 that had a hankering for blonde women. His legend has endured many different incarnations and once again the gigantic gorilla is given his close-up, in Kong: Skull Island, the second phase in a would-be MonsterVerse after 2014’s Godzilla. This time the monster comes through. Skull Island is a pleasing two hours spent with just enough style, thrills, and comedy to enjoyably pass the time best accompanied by a big bag of popcorn.

In 1973, a geological surveying team has discovered a heretofore-unknown island ominously shaped like a skull. Everyone is heading there for different reasons. Bill Randa (John Goodman) wants to prove the existence of monsters, and that he’s right. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants one last mission before returning home from the Vietnam War and its anticlimactic ending. James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the world’s best big game trackers and wants a new challenge. Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is an award-winning war photographer who wants a new scoop. Their plans are put on hold when a 100-foot tall ape, Kong, violently knocks their helicopters out of the sky. The survivors scramble to regroup and escape the hostile locals on Skull Island along with the aid of Hank Marow (John C. Reilly), a WWII fighter pilot who crashed on the island thirty years ago and might have a few screws loose from the experiences.

Kong: Skull Island is a monster mash-up that knows how to entertain in grand smash-em-up style. It is not a remake of the original King Kong story, and being free of that “twas beauty killed the beast” narrative opens the movie to be its own thing, a high-concept action vehicle and clear Vietnam War parallel. It’s like someone watched Peter Jackson’s agreeable if bloated 2005 King Kong and said, “Hey, what if we shaved off the first hour and spent the whole time on Skull Island, the undisputed best part of the movie?” It’s the equivalent of an-all marshmallow box of Lucky Charms (Simpsons reference!). The unique environment boasts a retinue of fun surprises and a variety of action set pieces that keeps the movie from falling into a valley of repetition. It’s not just giant apes and dinosaurs, there’s also giant bulls, insects, and in one creepily terrifying moment a giant spider that uses its stalks of long legs to try and impale its prey down below. It’s a long lost world that allows for a constant sense of discovery that doesn’t get old. When the characters stumble upon a graveyard I wanted to soak up every detail of the spectacular collection of bones. I was grateful that Vogt-Roberts made fine use of his locations, real and computer enhanced, to build a sense of space and atmosphere.

One of the best aspects is that the producers have apparently learned from 2014’s Godzilla and elected not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. My biggest complaint is that I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie. I was not content to settle for a shadowy impression or a glimpse of a tail here and a foot there. It was an artistic decision that toyed with audience anticipation but it also felt like we were being lead on. Too much teasing and not enough of the good stuff. This is not a problem with Kong: Skull Island; the title beast makes his presence known in spectacular fashion around the half-hour mark, and there’s no tiresome visual obfuscation to blunt the impact. You see Kong smash and it’s glorious carnage. He’s established as ornery protector, a sheriff of Skull Island keeping order with the fragile ecosystem. It makes the world of monsters seem much larger and more balanced. I wish there was more for Kong to do as a character but without his familiar arc he’s less character and more a testy god. There is a moment or two that hint at the soul inside the giant ape, but he’s mostly the physical embodiment of implacable force and the good and bad that goes with such power.

The Vietnam parallels are plentiful and provide a dollop of subtext to the conflicts, but this is a movie that doesn’t forget to have fun. The imagery can often fall into Apocalypse Now flashbacks and other war movie iconography, from the burnt orange sunsets casting dusky silhouette to the slow motion explosions trailing after teams of helicopters. The ever-present 70s rock soundtrack almost reaches Suicide Squad levels of needle-drop proportions in the first half, constantly reminding you of its time period. Skull Island isn’t a very deep movie but it does subvert some genre expectations at turns. A character given significant attention is taken out rather unceremoniously. An appeal to a greater sense of humanity is curtly brushed off. A lone heroic sacrifice that proves to be fruitless. Our more photographic heroes are evidently the worst, most useless characters (more on that below). For a movie that doesn’t strive for more than two hours of entertainment, it finds interesting sub routes.

I’m shocked at what director Vogt-Roberts has proven capable of considering his only other film was the low-budget, rather unremarkable coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer. This is a Russo brothers-esque statement, a Colin Trevorrow-style jump from minor indie to full-blown big screen spectacle. Is Hollywood going to sign up Joe Swanberg or Shane Caruth to direct the next four-quadrant blockbuster based on a toy? He does an adept job of capturing the action with style, and his shot compositions are routinely visually pleasing, confidently guiding an audience’s eyeballs to key info within the frame. I loved Kong’s immediate introduction as the camera circled him in a 360-degree pan, stopping at points to slow down before ramping up once more. There are amusing angles that highlight the comedy or tension of a scene, and Vogt-Roberts’ sense of geography and scale enhances the destruction. The prologue even had me hooked, as we watch a pair of enemy WWII soldiers parachute on the beach and continue their fight on the new territory. It was such a slam-bang opener and Vogt-Roberts’ use of camera placement reminded me of Spielberg. The special effects are reliably terrific even if they don’t seem like leaps and bounds from Jackson’s Kong. The skull-faced lizard monsters are scary enough to be threatening while still cool. The monster mayhem is lovingly reproduced and in environments where an audience can see the spectacle.

Another improvement is that the human cast has just enough characterization to make me care. With the newest Godzilla, I didn’t care if the giant lizard stepped on any of them, short of maybe Bryan Cranston. However, in this film I wasn’t impatient for the monsters to return that much. The best characters are, ostensibly, the antagonists. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) who goes full on heart of darkness, obsessed with killing the mighty Kong, asserting man’s dominance, and winning a war that others tell him cannot be won. He’s still sore and frustrated from the Vietnam War’s conclusion. He’s convinced that brute force and intractable persistence will win out, and he’s trying to prove something to himself, to the brass in D.C., and perhaps to all the lives lost under his watch. It’s not subtle characterization by any means but neither is a movie with a giant ape fighting monsters. Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane) uses any opportunity to prove his life’s research about the existence of ancient monsters who he claims are the ones who rightfully have dominion. He’s using the looming possibility of a threat, and the paranoia of the U.S. government in the Cold War, to his sneaky advantage. Watching Goodman and Jackson glare at each other, neither side refusing to back down in their stolid beliefs and personal, self-destructive obsessions, is the non-monkey highlight of the film.

The closest thing approaching human drama, and even tragedy, is Reilly’s distaff character, and I don’t know the last time that John C. Reilly was asked to be a movie’s human compass (Magnolia?). His out-of-time character has a definite degree of cabin fever wonkiness. Reilly excels at being the offbeat oddball and has some welcomed comic relief moments, but it’s the drama related to the character that stuck with me. With the appearance of new human faces, he can take stock just how much of his life he’s missed out on and the family he’s been absent for. His genuine melancholy provides a depth to a character that would ordinarily just be made fun of for being kooky. Still, he’s got some great gallows humor that keeps the movie alive comically while also reminding of the dangers at stake.

The rest of the characters are rather interchangeable or curiously have little impact on the plot, and that unfortunately includes the headlining stars. Hiddleston (Thor) is a big game tracker and he’s the most useless character. Think about that. He’s supposed to be a wildlife expert and a tracker and he provides no real purpose other than he fills out a tight shirt nicely. Hiddleston is eye candy and little else, which is strange considering his skill set should have factored into the plot somehow. He points them in the direction of water and that’s about it. Larson (Room) is a recent Oscar-winner and has tremendous skill burrowing into her characters and finding a raw vulnerability. With Kong, her anti-war photographer gets off a few ideological shots with Jackson, but there’s little to separate her from the other diverse supporting castmates who are just bodies meant to be sacrificed. They’re all waiting to be eliminated in fantastic, gruesome, or unexpected ways. You won’t exactly be shedding a tear for these people when they become monster chow. Fun fact: ⅔ of the core cast of Straight Outta Compton are here (Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell), which apparently shows that Ice Cube isn’t a fan of long travel.

Enjoyably dumb at points and smart enough to know it, Kong: Skull Island is an admirably efficient monster movie that delivers its share of fun. Vogt-Roberts makes a major statement as a visual stylist and director of big-time smash-em-ups. The action is varied, intense, and vividly realized from carefully positioned camera angles and a team of high-class special effects wizards. Kong: Skull Island knows what an audience wants and happily delivers. The actors, for the most part, are enjoyable or enjoyably expendable. If this is the next step in the growing MonsterVerse, then I saw bring on the cataclysms and world-destruction. Friendly tip, stay for a post-credits scene that sets up future installments and try not to pump your fist in excitement. Kong: Skull Island is a boisterous B-movie that can make you feel like a kid again watching the amazing film feats of classic monsters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Great Wall (2017)

thegreatwall-607875The 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.

nejpkz1u4osxmr_2_aAs 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.

image18Early 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

Shin Godzilla (2016)

ikzgxc5Shin Godzilla is unlike just about any monster movie you’ve ever seen, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. The newest rebirth of the famous giant monster takes a new approach to large-scale destruction: bureaucratic minutia. This feels like a state department underling’s doctoral thesis that was adapted into a feature film. We get a team of different intelligent operatives talking Aaron Sorkin-level fast and trying to work through the red tape of government to address the pressing needs of a giant fire-breathing lizard. It’s like 80% government bureaucratic milieu and 20% monster movie. We get treated to just about every meeting room in Japan as the majority of scenes last a whopping 10-15 seconds. The pacing is so clipped, the satire is so understated, and the characters so numerous, that I was easily lost in the weeds and that was before Godzilla made its less than auspicious debut on screen. It’s nothing short of what one of my friends described as a “turkey snake,” and the googly eyes aren’t helping. I’ll make the same demand that I made with the 2014 American Godzilla movie: I need more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, please. For fans of the series, they’ll likely connect more with the social conscience platform and political critiques, but I couldn’t engage at all. I was eagerly waiting for this movie to just be over so I could shake it from my head. It felt like being talked at in the corner of a party by someone who just read a book on a topic that you couldn’t care less about. I’ll grant the filmmakers credit for finding a different approach and one seeped in the realistic details of government disaster response coordination, but if you’re like me, by the fifteenth conference room your eyes will glaze over. I don’t think this was the best approach for a film narrative and it completely drains the fun from giant monsters.

Nate’s Grade: C

I, Frankenstein (2014)

11177837_800Why wouldn’t Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Adam) be the focal point in a war between heaven and hell? And why wouldn’t the angels really be gargoyles and live in cathedrals? And why wouldn’t the demons be trying to get their demony hands on Dr. F’s book on reviving the dead? And why wouldn’t we jump ahead 200 years to modern-day, where “Adam” should be a rotted corpse? Transparently an attempt to replicate the surprisingly enduring Underworld franchise, this secret supernatural war is a lame monster movie disguised as a lamer superhero film. It’s also absurdly idiotic in just about every capacity, as if no department had any communication with one another. Aaron Eckhart grumbles and trudges his way through this awful mess but you can feel his disdain for the entire enterprise. It’s not even deliciously campy, choosing to try and re-envision the classic monster in a modern and realistic setting. The action sequences are mundane when they’re not incoherent. I, Frankenstein feels like a movie version based upon the video game of some other source material. It’s loud and inept and campy but mostly outrageously dumb. I can’t wait to watch someone else in Hollywood recycle this cheap plot setup for a desperate supernatural franchise (“Okay, the Creature from the Black Lagoon finds itself in the center of a war between centaurs and…”). When people talk about the dregs of Hollywood, and the echo chamber of stripping away creativity, let I, Frankenstein be a prime example of the worst of us.

Nate’s Grade: D

Godzilla (2014)

another-godzilla-posterWhen it comes to the monsters of cinema, it’s hard to beat out Godzilla, and not just because, you know, he’s hundreds of feet high and can breath fire. The famous monster began as a cautionary tale about nuclear weapons, destroying man’s hubris and often the good people of Tokyo. The legendary beast has been hibernating as such since 1998’s not-so-spectacular big-budget return, a film that the Japanese loathed. But like all ancient being, Godzilla has been resurrected again and given a splashy new coating of CGI devastation. If only the filmmakers had decided to leave out the humans and make Godzilla the rightful star.

A scientist (Bryan Cranston) warns the Japanese government of a massive impending danger. The offspring of a giant creature, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO), has hatched and heading straight for the United States coastline. Attracted by nuclear power, the U.S. military tries to lure it away from populated centers. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is witness to the monstrous destruction and just wants to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in San Francisco, exactly where the creature is headed. There’s also the emergence of an older creature, one that has taken to combating the MUTOs to the death. This is the legendary Godzilla.

The big guy is back in a very different approach from 1998’s Godzilla (i.e. “better” approach). Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters), an avowed Godzilla fan, has made a reverent big-budget ode to the king of all monsters; however, the resulting film is more of a disaster epic than a monster brawl. The perspective is often framed at the human-level, which grounds the film from going too overboard into disaster porn territory like, say, Man of Steel. The effect is thrilling and adds a greater sense of verisimilitude to the mass chaos and destruction. It reminded me in some ways to 2008’s Cloverfield, where a group of characters is just trying to survive the periphery of all the collateral damage of a giant monster. There are sequences that directly relate to Fukushima as well as the tsunami from 2004. It’s almost like somebody watched the stirring movie The Impossible and said, “Yeah, give us some of that in our giant monster movie.” I don’t know if these sequences are entirely necessary. Watching Ford carry around a little Japanese tyke, wondering where his parents might be amidst the confusion post-monster attack, it relates to our modern response to tragedy and worldwide disaster, but do you really want to watch Ford have to find this kid’s parents? If there is a commentary to be found in the movie, it’s the uncontrollable and destructive power of nature pushed to the brink by mankind’s own energy crises. After all, the MUTOs are attracted to and strengthened by consuming nuclear energy. Godzilla is argued to be an “alpha predator” but also a figure to bring balance back to nature. I think it means that there can be only one giant monster and Godzilla is going to eliminate the competition.

godzilla-attacks-golden-gateBut the real question of any giant monster movie is the degree of satisfying, smash-em-up fun it provides, and the new Godzilla is a mostly agreeable venture. The action sequences, mostly saved for the climax, are cool and well thought out, but Edwards proves to be a brilliant visual stylist than a composer of action. This is a movie where the moments stand out better than the action. Edwards’ command of cinematic visual arrangements is at Spielberg levels of being a natural showman. I can easily think back on small moments, images that pop, visual reveals that are executed with aplomb, far more so than a central example of an action piece. I loved the horror-esque reveal of the elevated train being on track to head right for the MUTO. I loved the hide-and-seek nature of Ford waiting for the MUTO to pass. I loved when Ken Watanabe’s advice was literally just, “Let them fight” (I started chanting it in my seat). My favorite part of the movie is actually what was previously shown as a teaser trailer, namely Ford and several other paratroopers diving into the destructive city scene. The eerie hum of the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith plays over, each man has a red flare streaking from their leg, and we watch them quickly descend through the sky, nervously awaiting what is on the other side of those heavy clouds, only to discover a city on fire, glowing like a hearth, and through the goggles, a monster fight taking place. The entire sequence is a visual standout, a thrilling set piece, and a reminder that Edwards has more on his mind.

Edwards does a lot of intentional teasing of Godzilla, so much so that it can get frustrating for an audience. I understand he’s building to a payoff reminiscent of Jaws; we’ve been teased for so long that we will go nuts when we finally see Godzilla in full glory, and it works. However, it also works as a detriment. There are several points in the film where it looks like we’re about to get some exciting Godzilla/MUTO action, or even just a MUTO wrecking havoc, and then the film cuts away, often to news footage. It’s a choice that begins as artistically clever but can become maddening in time. There is a lot of visual obfuscation throughout the film, far more so than the same compliant I had with last year’s Pacific Rim. Edwards will show Godzilla’s tail just swinging behind a building, or his colossal foot coming down with authority, or the wispy shadow of giants in billowing clouds of smoke. All those near misses can add up to cinematic blue balls. And so much of the action and destruction happens at nighttime, leading to a dour color palette heavy in grey and dark blacks, making the good stuff all the harder to see. I cannot even fathom why someone would want to see this film in 3D with those darkened glasses. It’s 90 minutes of foreplay that you may start to grow restless that we’re getting a Godzilla movie that will never show the goods (shouldn’t Godzilla be in a Godzilla film?)

godzilla1The problem with a disaster movie on a human-scale is when you don’t give a damn about any of the human characters. Now, Godzilla should be the star of any Godzilla movie but I understand execs fearing that their monster movie needs some relatable human drama. The problem is that the writing doesn’t do anything with these characters, forcing them into tidy and token roles that we’ve come to expect from large-scale disaster movies. Did anyone really feel anything about whether Ford would get back to his wife and child? Did anyone feel anything for anyone in this movie, beyond a slight reservation whether they would be squished, if even that? I’m not expecting three-dimensional characters here but even Roland Emmerich films do a decent job of establishing a milieu of people at various points of the globe we know will somehow coalesce together. There is so little effort to mask the character’s grand design: exposition mouthpieces, symbols of military threats, the noble family man, the beleaguered and crying wife. Seriously, there is a great cast of actors in this movie and they are given nothing to work with. Olsen (Oldboy) gets to look realistically scared and cry but she deserves so much better. Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad) gets all the best yell-worthy lines. But it’s really Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass 2) who suffers the most since he’s placed as our impassive stand-in for a human protagonist. He’s so blank throughout the film and there’s little charisma to pull you in. His character, and the performance, feels no better than an elevated extra, Grunt #13. When we have to spend 90 minutes with these lackluster characters rather than some awesome monster fights, that’s when the film flounders.

I’m conflicted about the end results of Godzilla, an entertaining, surprisingly artistic film that can nail small moments of cinematic grandeur but has trouble matching its vision. The human-scale approach grounds the action, but do we want a giant monster movie grounded from a limited vantage point? The constant teasing builds a payoff for finally seeing Godzilla, but don’t we want more actual Godzilla in a film bearing his name? The human-scale, as well as the slow dodging of showing Godzilla, mean the storytelling emphasis is on an array of human characters, but what happens when they are poorly written, poorly developed, and lacking in charisma? The movie does more right than wrong but I’m left with the unmistakable feeling that, while a step in the right direction, there is too much self-sabotage holding back the movie. It actually made me re-evaluate and appreciate Pacific Rim even more. I can’t say this movie is nearly half the fun as Rim was. The monster design of the MUTOs is rather lacking, resembling a cross between the monster from Cloverfield and more patently the arachnid aliens of Starship Troopers, down to the heads that look like staple removers. Edwards has proven himself a big screen talent with a terrific feel for grandiose visual spectacle. I just hope if there is a sequel that we can skip all the slow buildup and just get to the main event – Godzilla beating the crap out of some other lesser yet still giant monster.

Nate’s Grade: B

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