Cool, calculating, impassioned, and razor-sharp in its shrewd storytelling, the period film Lady Macbeth is worthy of the title of Shakespeare’s manipulative anti-heroine. Katherine (newcomer Florence Pugh) is recently married and expected to fulfill her wifely duties. Except her husband demands she stay inside and he also wants nothing to do with her psychically. While away, she strikes up an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the servants hired to tend the estate. She finally feels desired but also free, able to do what she wants and without the stifling control of patriarchal forces. There are three impediments to Katherine continuing to enjoy her status and relationship, and each one requires another step into moral turpitude. Lady Macbeth does a very effective job of developing taut tension born out of its premise. Every plot point naturally leads to another, creating more frisson and conflict. It pushes an audience into an uncomfortable position of deciding how far their sympathies will align with our put-upon protagonist. The ending is fitting but will likely produce a lot of heavy sighs and foot shuffling out of the theater. Pugh delivers a star-making performance in a role we’ve seen often in nineteenth century literature, the oppressed woman yearning for autonomy of body and mind. However, this isn’t an unrequited romance of furtive glances and pearl clutching, this is a meaty psychological thriller seeped in murder. Pugh expertly portrays a fascinating figure, a woman capable of cruelty to stake her claim in a cruel world. She commands the screen. A great reoccurring image is Katherine sitting on a settee and going through breathing exercises, as if to get into character for what she must do. Lady Macbeth (based upon the Russian novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) is a tightly wound psychological thriller that brings a darker, absorbing carnality to the bonnet drama.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.
Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.
This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).
The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.
Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.
The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.
The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.
Atomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.
Nate’s Grade: B
Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.
Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.
The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.
The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.
Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.
From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.
War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I owe Gal Gadot an overdue apology. When the news first broke that the Israeli model-turned-actor had won the role of Wonder Woman, I was quite dismissive. My heart had been set on Gadot’s Fast and Furious 6 costar, Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter who displayed a natural screen presence. I apologize for not thinking the relatively slim Gadot had what it takes to fill out Diana Prince’s wonder boots. I just couldn’t see it, and that’s an error of imagination on my part. When Gadot made her debut in 2016’s otherwise abominable Batman vs. Superman, she was one of the few high points, granted she was only there for like fifteen minutes. My concerns were abated but could she hold her own film? After 140 minutes of consideration, I can declare that Gadot is a star and a terrific Wonder Woman. The rest of the film is pretty good though not up to her wonder level.
Diana (Gadot) is an Amazonian princess living on a mysterious hidden island ruled by ageless female warriors like Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Antiope (Robin Wright). One fateful day a downed airplane crashes close to their shore. Diana rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and is fascinated to learn he is a man. The Amazonians are distrustful of a man in their land. He warns them about the “war to end all wars” going on that threatens the greater world. The Germans are developing a powerful chemical weapon thanks to the treacherous Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and Luddendorff (Danny Huston). Diana decides she cannot stay idle. She leaves her home and travels with Steve to London and eventually the the European Front. Diana is certain the one responsible for the global conflict is none other than the god of war Ares, who will stop at nothing to annihilate mankind.
Wonder Woman is an entertaining, empowering, and engaging Golden Age superhero throwback that manages to be the best the DCU has had to offer. This is the movie many fans have been waiting for. Wonder Woman’s structure and tone feels like what would happen if you crammed together Marvel’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s got the ancient mythological society that is separate from mankind. It’s got the fish-out-of-water comedy of a god traveling to the world of man and trying to make sense of our clothing, customs, and backwards gender norms. It’s also set during a world war far in the past and resonates with handsome period-appropriate production values. The comedy aspects are surprisingly restrained; the fish-out-of-water jokes are mostly deployed during Diana’s first encounter with Steve’s secretary, Etta (Lucy Davis). The humor goes a long way to help coalesce the varied tones, tying the campier elements with the more serious war backdrop. It’s a movie that recognizes, at long last, that the DCU can actually be fun. The lighter tone works as well to establish the charming dynamic between Diana and Steve. There’s a screwball comedy feel that gracefully comes in and out, allowing Pine (Star Trek Beyond) to be simultaneously amazed and flat-footed at his ever-increasing crush’s agency. They make a winning pair and there are several moments that are funny, touching, and lovely between them that made me smile.
Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) is a wonderful lead and delivers a star-making turn. She draws you in immediately. Gadot succeeds as a cultural icon come to colorful life. She succeeds as a comic actress bemused and wary at the era’s gender politics. She succeeds as a dramatic actress able to convey the emotions of doubt and torment. But most significantly she succeeds as a person overcome with the sheer thrill of self-discovery. There’s a moment where Diana takes a flying leap to grab a stone tower’s ledge. She grabs it but the ledge breaks and she starts sliding down the face of the tower. She stops her downward plummet by punching her own handhold. She then punches another. Gadot’s face lights up, taking in the sheer scope of her personal possibility. She launches herself up the face of the tower, more determined and blissful than before. Gadot’s greatest strength is her capacity of expressing Diana’s growing sense of self. Her ongoing declaration of agency is given a welcomed and fitting action-movie cool treatment.
Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) acquits herself impressively in the world of big-budget action. The first action sequence involves ancient Greek femme warriors against German soldiers, and it’s awesome. Watching the galloping horses and gilded warriors confidently mow down the enemy soldiers is a primal joy. Jenkins pleasingly frames her action sequences and uses judicial cuts, keeping an audience oriented through the duration. It’s action you can comprehend and relish. Jenkins has a great command of her visual space and how to sell the bigger moments. We don’t see Diana in her full Wonder Woman regalia until an hour in but when it comes it feels like a big screen moment decades in the making. Diana gets her deserved heroic entrance. Jenkins color palate follows the gun mettle grays of Zach Snyder’s pre-established diluted color scheme, but the less oppressive tone makes it feel less dreary. Something of interest is also how little her camera sexualizes Gadot, who is by all accounts a stunning human being. Given Wonder Woman’s costume, her creator’s kinky origins, and the generally prevalent practice of the male gaze, I would have assumed there would be certain moments to highlight Gadot’s physical assets. The movie does so but it highlights her strength and fortitude rather than her curves. Her femininity isn’t tied into how her body looks to appeal to men. It’s about what her body can do and often to the immediate threat of men. She does get a couple killer evening gowns to wear but her sword is tucked away behind her shoulder blades, a powerful reminder that she’s no man’s sexual object.
With all that said, the praise is a bit over pronounced for Wonder Woman, because while it is clearly head and shoulders above the other DCU films, it’s still only an overall good film and not a great one. I understand that many will celebrate a big-budget action showcase for an idol of female empowerment, but I don’t want to ignore problems either. The biggest issue for Wonder Woman is just how simplistic its characters and themes are. Diana is an interesting character but she’s not that deep. She’s following a common hero’s journey and learning about the possibilities of man, good and bad. She’s trying to understand the inherent contradictions of life, civilization, and war. There isn’t any major test she has to overcome besides a broad accepting of one’s destiny. Steve falls into the love interest/damsel role primarily reserved for women in these sorts of things. His scenes with Diana are some of the best in the movie but he’s still underwritten too. The themes of responsibility and inaction are fairly broad and kept that way. There isn’t much room for nuance. Example: Steve brings Diana into the trenches on the Front and says their destination is on the other side of No Man’s Land, the stalemate between enemy trenches. He then says “no man” two more times, as if the audience doesn’t quite get it and needs it underlined (get it: Diana is “no man”). There’s also the idea that Ares is responsible for men warring with one another to make a point about man’s nature. Minor spoilers here but, shocker, Aries is eventually vanquished and the German soldiers all act like a magic spell has been broken. They’re much more chummy and not as interested in fighting. Doesn’t this then assume that the next war, the one with the Holocaust, was all mankind’s responsibility? Aren’t we proving Ares’ point about our very volatile nature?
The supporting characters are pretty stock even by stock standards. There’s the charming Arabic soldier (Said Taghnaoui) who dreamed of being an actor, the Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner) who is unable to shoot any more, and the expat Native American (Eugene Brave Rock) looking to make a profit from war. None of these characters are given a moment to shine nor do they impact the plot in any way. Each one is given a minor characterization note but they don’t come back to them. They are robbed of payoffs. Why give the sharpshooter a PTSD-like trauma if he doesn’t rise to the occasion or explore that trauma? You literally don’t see him shoot anyone from a distance, meaning that his specialty he brings to the group is null and void. The Arab wannabe actor doesn’t get a chance to use his skill set either. Why introduce these characters and provide an angle for them if they’re ultimately just going to be an interchangeable support squad? I know they’re meant to be supporting characters but it goes to the lack of development, and less developed characters that are kept more as background figures offer a less realized world with less payoffs and a somewhat lowered ceiling of potential entertainment.
The third act is also where Wonder Woman becomes another in the tiresome line of CGI overkill. Beforehand Jenkins had done well enough to play into the already established visual stylings of the Snyderverse but the movie is eventually swallowed whole, becoming indistinguishable from the noisy, calamitous, and altogether boring climax of Batman vs. Superman. It’s another CGI monster fight with lots of explosions, flying debris, and the Snyder staple of slow-motion-to-fast speed ramps. The final battle between Diana and Ares doesn’t really alter its dynamics. They take turns punching, throwing things, and taunting one another. There’s no real variation to the fighting. This is supposed to be the ultimate showdown, a battle of the gods, and it feels so detached. Part of this is also because the film keeps the identity of Ares cloaked, which keeps the ultimate bad guy as more a philosophical presence for too long. I think the film also errs by having the actual actor onscreen for the fighting. It would have been best for Ares to have just been a CGI monster rather than what we ultimately get. I’m also unclear exactly what Wonder Woman’s powers are because all of a sudden she just seems to do stuff. This all leads to a final standoff that goes on far too long and feels anticlimactic.
There is also a moment with a mustache that needs highlighting for its sheer hilarity (oblique spoilers). There is a flashback to a thousands-year-old story, and a certain character retains a large, bushy mustache, and it took all my power not to bust out laughing at the absurdity of the image. This could have been preventable. They could have hired any younger actor. The audience would still have known who the onscreen figure was since they were narrating their own tale. They could have also just shaved the stach. Is it possible that the villain’s powers are completely linked to this item of facial hair? Is this a modern-day Samson, a cruel joke practiced by Zeus, who never could have foreseen an age where anachronistic facial hair would be celebrated with undue irony (hipsters will be the death of us all)?
Wonder Woman is going to make a lot of people happy, especially those who have been yearning for a worthy showcase not just for the character but for a strong heroine who doesn’t need romantic entanglements or a man’s approval. Celebrate the big screen outing befitting the biggest female superhero in comics’ canon. Gadot is a genuine star and has a charming and capable sidekick with Pine. The action is enjoyable, the humor keeps things light enough to blend the different tones, and the stylistic choices from Jenkins keep the movie fun for all ages and genders. It’s a celebration of a woman’s might and not necessarily how she looks in her star-spangled mini-skirt. It’s a relative bright spot for the otherwise dreadful, dark, and dreadfully serious DCU, though I still cannot muster any hope for Wonder Woman’s next appearance, Snyder’s Justice League. With all of its virtues and entertainment, Wonder Woman still suffers from some poor development decisions and a lousy final act that hold it back from true greatness. It’s a good movie, but walking away, I couldn’t help feeling that even the best DCU movie (thus far) was about lower middle-of-the-pack compared to the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wonder Woman is a considerable step forward in the right direction but there’s still many more left to go.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sometimes a movie just gives the wrong impression from its conception, pre-production, and initial advertisement, and that’s exactly King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Optimistically planned as a six-part franchise, this new big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend looked like a total disaster. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) seemed like the wrong fit for the material, the tone seemed messy and unclear, and it screamed a transparent attempt by Hollywood execs to sex up something old. I was holding out a sliver of hope that it might be stylish, mindless fun, and this was coming off of Ritchie’s unexpectedly enjoyable Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake. If I do not see a more headache-inducing, self-indulgent, cumbersome, illogical, and generally exasperating movie this summer, I will consider myself most fortunate.
Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the dirty streets of Londinium. He’s a low-level criminal with his own loyal crew and his own moral code. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, loyalty in the making. Arthur is the son of the former King Uther (Eric Bana) who was murdered by his brother and mage, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur runs afoul of the law and is captured, and his identity is revealed when he successfully pulls Excalibur from the stone. Vortigern must kill the young upstart but a group of dissidents kidnaps Arthur and pleads with him to join their cause. Together they can topple Vortigern and free England of his tyranny.
If you can keep up with Ritchie’s willfully shifty film narrative then you’re of sounder mind than me because it felt like King Arthur was just being made up on the spot. Whenever one tells a story in a fantasy realm with fantasy figures, the rules are important to establish, otherwise everything can just feel airless and arbitrary and anticlimactic. If a movie can’t establish its own internal logic and system of rules it feels obtuse. There aren’t setups, and without setups there can’t be well-orchestrated payoffs. This is basic structure, plain and simple. This does not happen in King Arthur at all. Beyond the most flimsy good-guys-triumph-over-evil underpinning, there is nothing that makes sense. Characters will all of a sudden achieve some advanced knowledge without the audience seeing how this was gained. Characters will make use of powers that would have been very useful if they had been used earlier but we have no explanation why. The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) all of a sudden summons a giant snake, or turns into a giant snake, and I’m thinking, if you have giant snake-making powers, why did you wait so long on this? Conversely, Vortigern offers blood sacrifices to an evil squid-siren-sister-threesome, but what he gains in exchange is vague, their demands are vague, as is their overall fit into a larger scheme. I thought Arthur was trying to stage an insurgency and court a political revolution, but that fizzles out after a few scenes of rare coherency. I gave up trying to understand the movie within the first twenty minutes. It feels like Ritchie and company are just hurtling through expected fantasy elements as if they were merely expanded features from a trailer and a chore to overcome. Arthur has an incredibly expedited adventure on an island with oversized animals (literal R.O.U.S.!), and it feels like Ritchie is just laughing at the expense of the audience and whatever genre demands they might have had.
The characters are also extremely uninteresting and kept me at a distance for the entire film. Ritchie is trying to incorporate his cheeky gangster movies into the fantasy mythology of the King Arthur legend, and the two don’t exactly fit. An early sequence involves Arthur explaining his routine that day through repetitious, annoying narration and a non-linear time-skipping timeline. It’s the kind of narrative trick we’ve become accustomed to in Ritchie’s movie. This time it was shallow because it wasn’t funny, interesting, and its only justifiable purpose seemed to be beating an audience into submission to remember the names of Arthur’s pals through rote repetition. The characters have stupid, Dick Tracy-in-Midlevel times names like Goose Fat Bill, Wet Stick, Back Lack, Chinese George, Jack’s Eye, Blue and Mischief John. Silly names by themselves are not an issue, as Snatch had characters with monikers like Franky Four-Fingers and Bullet-Tooth Tony, but by God those characters were memorable. These characters lack striking personalities and general purpose other than filling the frame. If you challenged me to put names to faces I would probably fail (the main female character doesn’t even get a name; she’s simply The Mage). These boring people just drifted from scene to scene, bumping into an increasingly arbitrary, ungainly, and meaningless plot.
The subtitle is also an indication of the deeper problems inherent with the plot. It’s “Legend of the Sword” and not “Arthur,” and it doesn’t even name the sword. We’re told that the sword wields immense power, though like much it’s never explained in any sort of manner that would provide context or general understanding. The sword is powerful but it’s also more active than our hero, because Arthur is told that the sword controls him and not the other way around. His mission then is learning to simply allow the sword to do its thing. His mission is to become more passive when fighting? Does that strike anybody as a character arc that makes sense or would be satisfying to watch?
With so many missteps at so many levels, the only way this movie could have been salvaged is from some sensational action sequences to quicken one’s pulse. Ritchie is a stylish director but I don’t think he’s ever been a great stager of action. His documentary-style zooms, speed ramps, and quick cuts are more about engendering an impression. An excellent example, and probably the high-point of the movie, is a montage establishing Arthur’s childhood growing up on the rough and tumble streets of Londinium. It’s wordless, set to a gasping, percussion-heavy score, and quickly establishes through concise visuals how Arthur came of age and gained his street smarts. The legitimate action sequences are underwhelming and poorly orchestrated. The setups are rushed, confusing, and the edits are a scrambled mixture of slow motion, fast motion, and extreme close-ups, a combination that doesn’t aid in coherency. The advanced fighting feels like the movie just accelerated into a video game cut scene. It’s generally as incomprehensible as the plot and as ultimately tiresome as the various characters.
Allow me to indulge an exemplary example as to why King Arthur is as stupid, irritating, and headache-inducing just from a plot standpoint, never mind Ritchie’s filmmaking tics. The villain has three chances to kill Arthur and he inexplicably whiffs every freaking time. The first is when Arthur is a young boy and his father manages to place him on a small dingy and pushes him out to sea like he’s Moses in a basket. Vortigern is his super video game bad guy ultra self, who we later see has the power to launch fiery projectiles, and he just watches as the slowest boat in the world slowly drifts away, forgetting he has projectile powers. Either that or the movie inserts an arbitrary limitation for no reason. Now established as king, Vortigern lives by the prophecy that Arthur will return and pull Excalibur from the stone and one day vanquish him; however, Arthur can still be killed because he is mortal. Arthur pulls the sword from its stony sheath and passes out. Does Vortigern kill his long-prophesied enemy while he’s unconscious? No. Does he kill him while he’s locked in a jail cell? No. Does he kill him before a big public ceremony where, surprise, a group of outlaws rescue Arthur? No. Even if you were being generous and account these foolish actions as the result of unchecked hubris, consider the very climactic battle between the adult Arthur and Vortigern. Once again, Vortigern has adopted his fiery, giant video game boss battle visage, the same that killed Arthur’s father that fateful night. It’s clearly a life and death showdown, and at one point Arthur gets thrown, hits his head on rock, and is knocked unconscious. He eventually wakes up and looks over to find… Vortigern just standing on the other side of the rock and admiring like a stone altar. It’s the battle between good and evil and evil decides to take a walk. Three obvious instances where the villain could have won, easily, and three illogical excuses that showcase the absence of even acceptable storytelling.
So what if the story of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is dumb and feels like it’s being randomly made up on the spot? So what if the characters are underwritten, lacking in distinguished personalities, and are rather pointless? So what if the main character has to learn to better give up his agency to a stupid magic sword? So what if the only significant female character doesn’t even merit a name? So what if the action often resorts to a slow-motion frenzy of a CGI dust cloud? So what if there are 300-foot sized elephants in this movie and then never appear again? So what if I don’t understand anybody’s personal relationships besides good and evil designations? So what if I was so bored and disengaged from the movie that I started contemplating strange subjects to pass the protracted time, like why does Hunnam’s natural British accent sound so fake, and why does Jude Law’s hair remind me of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? The ultimate question is whether or not something as ostensibly irreverent as a cockney crime King Arthur is fun, and the answer is unequivocally no. If you’re still wondering how poorly conceived and executed this movie is, I’ve saved the best doozy for last, which coincidentally is also one of the final moments in the two-hour film. I kid you not, the movie ends with the eventual Knights of the Round Table actively befuddled by the existence of a round table. They cannot apply their knowledge of tables to this new, rounder model. They gawk, shake their heads, and wonder what it is exactly. There you have it, a group of heroes mentally defeated due to the absence of corners.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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 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
The Founder aims to be The Social Network of hamburgers and milkshakes, a warts-and-all biopic of a huckster who glommed onto other’s success and transformed it into an empire, a pragmatically ruthless entrepreneur run rampant with ambition and leaving behind a trail of lawsuits and disgruntled little people. Michael Keaton, on a roll since Birdman, teams up with screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) and director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks) to bring to life the story of the man behind the ubiquitous golden arches. The details are routinely fascinating and the movie presents a larger thesis on shifting and conflicting concepts of the American Dream and whether a ruthless yet victorious huckster is to be celebrated, pitied, scorned, or all of the above.
In the mid 1950s, Ray Kroc (Keaton) was a struggling milkshake mixer salesman striking out with just about every drive-in and dinner in the Midwest. His wife Ethel (Laura Dern) is exasperated by Kroc’s flights of fancy, shilling whatever new product might be his ticket to riches. His life changes thanks to one very efficient hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Mac (John Caroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), have ordered eight of Kroc’s milkshake mixers because they can barely keep up with demand. Kroc travels out West to see for himself and discovers a tasty and speedy hamburger assembly line that nobody else is doing. He pushes the McDonald brothers to franchise their model with him in the lead. They’re wary but agree with a strict contract that still gives full executive decision-making to the brothers. Kroc languishes at first but finds growing success, barely able to keep ahead with the mounting overhead costs. Kroc wants to keep going but the McDonald brothers are unyielding over their terms of business. Kroc schemes to push them out of their own business, establish himself as the founder, and take their very name for himself.
Firstly, the story of the formation of McDonald’s is probably far less known than the formation of Facebook, and this provides plenty of opportunities for illumination. It is an inherently interesting story. There’s the invention of the modern-day fast food assembly line and the difficulty in perfecting this process and getting customers acquainted with the new reality. Initially, after years of drive-in service, customers are befuddled that they have to physically walk up to a window and order and throw away their own trash. The early history, hiccups, and adjustments are interesting, but it all gets more engrossing once Kroc comes aboard. It’s here where the film becomes very business-like in its examination of Kroc’s ruthless business tactics that lead to his ascent. Without Kroc’s intervention, perhaps the world would never have known the name McDonalds. He’s not an instant success either. He’s already middle-aged when he comes across the McDonald brothers. He’s not a brilliant salesman by nature. He’s cunning and doggedly persistent, the key he tells us since the world is rife with talented, educated, and good people who go nowhere. Kroc is a constant motor that can never be satisfied. Ethel asks him if anything will ever be enough, and after a short pause he replies without pretense, “Probably not.” He cannot enjoy success because he always feels he should be entitled to more. It’s the kind of unmoored ambition that leads him to throw his litigious weight around, knowingly breaking legal contracts and handshake deals to get exactly what he wants. Kroc’s business triumphs will remind certain viewers of Donald Trump, a man who uses similar advantages of wealth to exploit others and force them into advantageous deals. Even when explicitly in the wrong he just rolls along undeterred.
It is Keaton’s (Spotlight) movie and he more than delivers under pressure. Keaton adopts a speaking affect that makes the character weirdly magnetic without being wholly charming, an interesting combination that reflects the conflicted nature of Kroc. He’s a fast-talking salesman who enjoys the sound of his own voice but he doesn’t fool himself. He’s a man who knows what he wants and it just happens to be everything. He knows his limitations but he strides forward. He is bursting at the seams to get out from under the thumb of the McDonald brothers, who he sees as limiting the growth of a company that is more his than theirs. Kroc delights in being treated to the upper echelons of power. He loves having people proverbially kiss his ring and lavish his greatness. It’s the story of a man who scraped by his entire life until stumbling upon someone else’s genius idea. Keaton plays the man with a wily canniness that is always entertaining, channeling the actor’s natural oddball energy and style into a Midwestern McBeth. He says if he saw his competitor drowning he’d “shove a hose down his throat.” He’s generally cold but Keaton and Siegel don’t present him with a standard redemption arc. He’s kind of a hapless jerk at the start and becomes a powerful, egotistical jerk by the end. Keaton’s layered performance gives the film a solid anchor to keep viewers invested in the film.
If only the other parts of The Founder had as much nuance and care as Keaton’s role. The supporting characters have flashes of interest but are too relegated to be much more than symbols or less developed foils to Kroc. The McDonald brothers have a poignant level of tenderness to them but they’re set up to be symbols of American values that will inevitably be trampled upon by Kroc’s corporatist version of the American Dream. Mac is the hopeful and trusting brother, Dick is the no-nonsense devote to quality and ethics, and together they could use additional ambiguity or depth. They’re meant to represent an older way of doing business, the familiar edict that hard work, dedication to customers, and quality will pay off. The brothers are successful and content at their level of success; they lack the naked ambition of Kroc and his disregard for the rules. They’re set up to be defeated and swindled and victims of Kroc’s tactics, which limits them as characters. There’s a sliver of detail with Dick’s concern for his brother’s diabetes threatening him, but the brothers are more martyrs than anything else. You anticipate their defeat with slight dread but more a sense of impending inevitability. Their good-natured values are no match for the winner-takes-all mentality of a man on a mendacious mission.
Similarly, Kroc’s wife is another figure set up from the start to be trampled upon. She’s supportive but not supportive enough Kroc feels. Like the McDonald brothers, she’s too content within her station and what she deems a good existence, a life of dinners at the club with a retinue of upper middle class friends. Ethel is a plain looking woman of simple pleasures. You already know that there’s a ticking clock before Kroc will trade up. With these expectations, more could have been done to establish her character. Too often Kroc’s selfish, indifferent, or casually hurtful broadsides are treated with silent suffering from Ethel. She’s set up as a walking pained reaction shot. It almost gets to comical levels as the pattern repeats itself and you anticipate a slightly elongated, wounded reaction shot. Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), is a sweetly smiling prize but proves herself more than a pretty face. She shares Kroc’s ambitions and proposes swapping real milk for instant milk mix to save refrigeration costs. There’s obviously more to this woman, who we meet already married to a business associate of Kroc’s, but the movie keeps her as a mostly symbolic, almost Fitzgerald-esque trophy. The other side characters that come into Kroc’s orbit, B.J. Novak’s scheming real estate fixer, Kate Neeland’s esteemed secretary, Justin Randell Brooke’s loyal lieutenant, are clipped so that they only appear in the film when they offer some service or advice useful to Kroc. Perhaps there’s a meta level here exploring how Kroc views those seemingly closest to him in strict transactional terms, or perhaps I’m just reaching for more.
The other liability from an otherwise still entertaining script is the director. Hancock is better known for softer, feel-good films about American values. The Founder is a story that subverts all of those notions and Hancock doesn’t seem to master the skills in order for the satirical and darker implications to land. The onscreen visuals seem to clash with the movie’s overall disquieting tone. The colors are bright and the musical score by Carter Burwell seems curiously jolly at points, confusing the tone of darker scenes. It just doesn’t feel like Hancock had a good feel for the material and how best to execute it. It feels like he’s missing the layers of potential with Siegel’s screenplay. I’ll readily credit Hancock for part of Keaton’s terrific performance but Hancock’s touches are best realized in the art direction details recreating a bygone era. I feel that somebody like a Steven Soderbergh would have tapped more into this story’s satirical potential.
The Founder is an entertaining biopic of a scoundrel who ran roughshod over others dreams and turned their success into his own. It’s anchored by a complex performance from Keaton. It’s a rags-to-riches story that doesn’t tell the audience how to think about its centerpiece character. He’s underhanded, sure, but he’s also got everything he wanted and his tactics proved successful. Is this an ends justify the means story to rationalize the power of avarice, or is this an exploration of the darker undercurrents of the passing American Dream usurping others’ dreams and accomplishments (closing text informs us that McDonald’s feeds one percent of the world’s population every day)? The movie doesn’t seem to take a stand, neither fully condemning nor excusing Kroc’s actions. The tale behind the worldwide fast food giant is full of supersized drama and interesting procedural details about the rise of the most recognizable name in burgers. It’s unfortunate then that the movie struggles to reach the same heights as Keaton. The supporting characters are tragically underdeveloped and kept as figures for comparison to chart Kroc’s ascendance. Director John Lee Hancock also feels like an poor fit for the material, his instincts seemingly at odds with the film’s tone and intentions. The Founder is an interesting movie with a strong central performance but it can’t help but feel like its destiny was far greater, that it’s not meeting the full potential of the material.
Nate’s Grade: B