Review: The Great Wall

great-wall-headeradam review

The Great Wall is surrounded by controversy, most notably for casting Matt Damon as the hero in a movie taking place entirely in ancient China. The director Yimou Zhang came out in defense of this pick, saying that the entire premise is that Damon’s character is an outsider and this wasn’t taking away from a role intended for an Asian actor. This is also China’s most expensive film, clocking in at $150 million to make. This movie will undoubtedly make that much back in global cinemas, even if it doesn’t do well in the United States. We’ve seen that phenomenon before, such as flops like Warcraft that are likely going to get sequels because of overseas profits. This movie also features a primarily Chinese cast and crew, though the focus on Damon is indeed initially troubling.

But let’s zoom out and look beyond the controversy. Is this movie even good?

The gist.

Our lead William (Damon) and his buddy Tovar (Game of Thrones and Narcos star Pedro Pascal) are bad guys. They’re thieves and mercenaries, on a quest to find and steal “black powder” to sell to the highest bidder. They end up at the Great Wall, where the black powder resides, but their arrival happens to coincide with a giant attack on the wall from an evil reptile swarm called the taotie. These two foreigners prove themselves useful in combat, earning the trust of one of their commanders (Tian Jing). We also meet another European foreigner who has been held captive at the Wall for over 25 years (Willem Dafoe).

What worked?

This movie isn’t horrible. After the trailers, I thought it would be.

Let’s start with the action, which is a (pun intended) double-edged sword. On paper, these incredible action sequences are thought-out and creative. We see moments here that combine action from Chinese martial arts films with siege warfare like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, this entire movie feeling like the attack on Helm’s Deep. There are creative and interesting methods used in war here, making me nod my head in appreciation throughout. The downside is that these moments aren’t executed that well. There are cuts everywhere, meaning that any impact of these action moments is robbed from you. Great plan, horrible execution.

Visually the movie is fairly interesting as well. The Chinese army featured here is divided up into colorful ranks, where the blue armored warriors repel down the wall with spears, while the red armored warriors use bows to take out the reptiles from a distance. It’s colorful, though not necessarily functional. The creatures look decent, better than I anticipated, though nothing extraordinary. Maybe my expectations were so low that even passable visual effects impressed me.

The Great Wall

What didn’t work?

You shouldn’t see this movie, at least not in theaters. It’ll be streaming on Netflix in a few months, don’t worry.

It all starts with Matt Damon. I’m not sure why he decided to do this movie because he seems disinterested in the whole thing. He also has a strange accent that sounds almost like a midwest United States accent but he’s supposed to be from some unnamed European country. It’s stilted and awkward.

About Damon’s character, there is quite a bit of “white savior” issues here, reminding me mostly of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Even though there are literally thousands of incredibly well-trained warriors, he is somehow able to show them all up and even at one point gets a round of applause from the army’s top commanders. I groaned. He shares the spotlight with several other badasses but it still feels like this fine-tuned army should have had this whole thing under control.

This brings up some plotholes and inconsistencies. There are moments later in the film in which the Wall utilizes deadly weapons and techniques that are super effective, though they don’t use these methods during the deadliest siege attack, which is the first attack featured in the film. They are scared for their lives, yet don’t use their strongest weapons? I understand the movie wanting to save some surprises, but it absolutely took me out of the film.

The_Great_Wall

The biggest problem with the movie is that it misses opportunities and front loads the action. In the opening scene, we get literally thousands of these reptiles crawling the walls in an absolutely bonkers action scene. We don’t really get that again. Yes, there are a few more attacks, but they’re not like this. And, hopefully not to spoil anything, the climax is essentially a “Wait, what?” moment that takes place not at the Wall, after all of this preparation. After the opening scene, it’s all downhill.

Part of the reason it’s downhill is that the movie focuses on a weird romance subplot that is completely unneeded and unsatisfying. This movie’s strength is not its characters, it’s the beautiful blend of monster movie and martial arts film. The movie unfortunately forgets that.

Overall…

On paper, this movie had a chance. An entire army of well-trained soldiers, with a dose of martial arts cinematography, taking on a massive horde of reptile monsters. Unfortunately, the movie focuses on a stilted performance by Matt Damon and the action throughout the film is increasingly disappointing, shot in a “quick cut” style that removes any feeling of actual impact. While the movie isn’t terrible, I can’t recommend it.

Rating 2 star

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Review: The LEGO Batman Movie

lego-batman-headeradam review

The LEGO Batman Movie.

A few years ago, the original The LEGO Movie really surprised us. It didn’t seem like a 90-minute commercial but instead had a life and heart to it that was unexpected. In that movie, we were introduced to Batman, played by Will Arnett, who now gets his own film. Would this movie be able to capture the essence of the first film yet also have an identity unto itself?

The gist.

Batman (Arnett) is saving the day as usual when he comes across the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). The Joker wants to be Batman’s archenemy but Batman is fairly lukewarm about it, triggering Joker to find a huge and elaborate way to destroy Gotham City and prove once and for all that he’s Batman’s greatest threat. During this, Batman accidentally adopts a child (Michael Cera) and a new Police Commissioner takes over (Rosario Dawson). With the help of his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Batman must find a way to navigate these threats, as well as dealing with his real greatest enemy: letting someone else into his life.

What works?

Like The LEGO Movie before it, this movie manages to have a heart to it. This movie might actually understand Batman and Bruce Wayne better than many of the live action adaptations have. While it’s humorous in its execution (such as “One is the loneliest number…” playing while he’s introspective), this movie actually explains some of Batman’s flaws and struggles perfectly. His relationship with Robin (Cera) is both hilarious and touching. This might be one of the best Batman films we’ve ever seen.

If you’re a fan of Batman, you’ll love this. This movie is full of references for you, inside jokes about past movies and comic book arcs (and even other superhero movies). This can be a problem though, as some of these jokes are really deep cuts that the average viewer won’t understand. So if you’re a casual fan, expect there to be barrage after barrage of jokes that don’t always hit for you.

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Visually this movie is very striking as well, genius in how some of these moments include the LEGO mythology. It’s beautiful for the most part, though sometimes there’s too much going on that it can make your brain hurt. Things are being simultaneously destroyed and made at the same time, all during an action chase scene. It can be a little cluttered onscreen.

In terms of voice talent, this movie has an incredible comedic cast, led by Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, and Zach Galifianakis. Cera and Galifianakis especially give surprising performances here, better than most of their stuff in recent years. Arnett is great as the lead but that’s to be expected. There are also tons of guest voices that you’d never recognize but the IMDb listing is spectacular.

What doesn’t work?

Only a few criticisms.

Firstly, it’s somewhat reliant on your knowledge of the Batman history and lore. Villains show up and they say a line that was a funny catchphrase from the 1989 Batman film, stuff like that. It’s sometimes very deep and a lot might go over your head.

Secondly, the movie surprisingly includes a lot of characters from outside the DC world, similar to how The LEGO Movie incorporated tons of characters. This is fun but I think I would have preferred to see more of Batman’s actual rogue gallery as opposed to bringing in villains from other movies.

Lastly, the visuals can be a little hectic at times and it doesn’t seem as clean as the first film. It seems muddy most of the time, if that makes sense.

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Overall…

If you’re a fan of Batman, you’ll likely love this movie. It’s chock full of references and jokes tailored specifically for you. You will probably give this a 5/5. But as a film for everyone, there are only a few criticisms that just slightly lessen the impact. Everyone will enjoy the humor, the heart, and the incredible voice talent that brings this all to life. Don’t hesitate, give this one a look ASAP.

Rating 4 star

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Review: Fifty Shades Darker

fifty-shades-darker-headeradam reviewFifty Shades Darker.

I guess somebody has to review this movie, right?

The gist.

In the first Fifty Shades of Grey, we meet Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who falls for billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He has a few unique needs and desires, so the entire first film was him teaching her the ways of dominance and submission, using punishment as a way to arouse. She didn’t like this and bounced. So this movie opens with Christian wanting to give up that lifestyle if it means keeping her. We then meet some new supporting characters that test their love for each other, including Anastasia’s predatory new boss (Eric Johnson), the woman responsible for Christian’s desires (Kim Basinger), and a mysterious ex-lover from his past (Bella Heathcote).

What works?

Let me start with this. I am clearly not the target demographic for movies like this. So take my opinion lightly.

This movie is really only good for one thing. Fantasy escapism. It’s like a movie equivalent of a bad soap opera, one that you just want to mindlessly take in and experience a few shock and awe twists and turns. It’s fantasy in the way that it portrays our two main characters. An average, somewhat boring, girl who manages to gain the attention of a handsome billionaire with a dark troubled past. She not only gets money but also fame and even a dream job, without trying for any of it. It’s absolute fantasy and in that regard, absolutely succeeds.

What doesn’t work?

Here are my critiques of this as a film.

First off, it’s relatively boring. Nothing substantial happens and whenever something starts to progress, there’s an extended sex sequence with horrible music. It reminded me of Suicide Squad in this regard, though not sex. It felt like disjointed music videos. At one point, they’re on a sailing boat for five minutes. Nothing happens. It’s slow and uneventful.

In terms of the script, it’s lazy. At one moment, there’s a helicopter sequence that is so jarring and ultimately unnecessary, that you feel like no one gave this script a second read. This series began as fan-fiction for Twilight and it absolutely still feels that way. The dialogue is cheesy and not at all realistic and the events of the story only serve to shock and manipulate your emotions, though not at all subtly.

The movie is also boring to look at. Set in a dreary Seattle, it doesn’t take advantage of any color of the Pacific Northwest, instead entirely gray and black. “But the title!” you scream at me through your computer. That doesn’t mean the movie should be boring to look at. The only color in the movie was the red of his sex room and the green trees during that weird helicopter sequence. It’s boring to look at.

fifty-shades-darker-2Overall…

As a movie, this is horrible. Its only function is escapism but it doesn’t even do that well. I can appreciate sappy romances and tearjerkers for what they are but this movie doesn’t even try. It’s a fantasy and if that’s what you want, you’ll find it here. I suspect most of you already know if you’d like this movie or not, so I don’t even know why you’re here. Maybe just to hear me trash this movie? It’s not good but that doesn’t mean some of you won’t like it. You know yourself better than I do.

Rating 1 Star

 

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Review: John Wick, Chapter 2

john-wick-2-headeradam reviewJohn Wick, Chapter 2

The first John Wick came out a few years ago and surprised us all. Keanu came back to the spotlight to deliver one of the best action movies in the past decade probably, essentially creating a genre now aptly called “gun-fu.” That movie surprised us and became a cult classic. Can a sequel live up to that?

The gist.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired assassin, who in the first movie gets drawn out of retirement when the son of a mob boss accidentally breaks into his home and kills his dog, not knowing that John Wick is referred to as “the Boogeyman” by other assassins because he’s so damn good. Now that he’s out of retirement, this movie brings in someone that Keanu made a deal with once and now it’s time for Keanu to pay up, in the form of murder. We see a brother sister duo (Ricardo Scamarcio and Claudia Gerini) who are in control of a major portion of the crime underworld but can’t necessarily be trusted, with their main bodyguards played by Ruby Rose and Common. We also see the “Manager” of a neutral-zone called the Continental, played by Ian McShane. Lastly, we introduce Lawrence Fishburne in a glorified cameo.

What works?

This movie opens with one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time. They are absolutely dedicated to real stunt work and doing things that are unique and new, this doesn’t feel like a copy and paste action film. Throughout the movie, they continually find new ways to have action setpieces, with Keanu racking up a kill count in the triple digits. The action is fast and visceral, yet doesn’t rely on quick cuts. It’s violent, very violent, as John Wick never misses a headshot. So be ready for some bloodshed, if that’s what you’re looking for.

More generally, the movie is absolutely stunning, shot beautifully by director Chad Stahelski who did the first John Wick and was the stunt coordinator for the Matrix movies, 300, and The Expendables. This guy nails it here, allowing cinematographer Dan Laustsen to also shine with visuals that are bright and vivid and completely unique. This movie brings elements together that you wouldn’t expect, most notably a rave held in some Roman ruins that gives you a sequence that is visually unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

john-wick-2-2I also want to touch on the mythology of John Wick because the first movie teased us with little glimpses into this world and the rules that govern them. This movie goes even further, showing us just how much power these people have. Your sense of realism is going to go down the drain, because at one point it seems like every person out in the city is an assassin. If you can let that go, though, you’ll have a great time here.

Lastly, this movie ends with a cliffhanger that I usually don’t enjoy but this cliffhanger could be leading up to the most badass John Wick movie yet, so I don’t mind as long as we eventually get that movie.

What doesn’t work?

In terms of violence, some of you will not enjoy this. It’s not necessarily gore but there’s blood everywhere. There’s also one lingering death scene that had my stomach lurching that lasted way too long and might trigger some of you that have struggles or experiences with suicide. I did not enjoy that segment of the movie.

Also like I said earlier, your sense of realism needs to be turned off. There are gun fights in crowded rooms in which no bystanders are hurt. There is a shootout between Keanu and Common that involves silencers and somehow the entire room doesn’t notice them shooting at each other. And for some reason, not a single trained assassin can ever get a headshot on John Wick, it’s like he’s fighting Stormtroopers. Just let it go and you’ll be fine.

Some people also question John Wick’s motivation here, since the first movie had a such a strong revenge arc. This movie doesn’t but it also explains pretty clearly that he has no choice in what he’s doing, it’s out of necessity. But it’s not as strong a reason as the first movie.

john-wick-2-1Overall…

This movie is so close to being a 5/5 for me, being one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t know if it lives up to the first movie though, as Wick’s motivations are a little lacking and the absurdity of the story is ramped up a ton. The movie however deliver some absolutely jawdropping action sequences, with beautiful cinematography. The stunt work is top notch too, some moments actually making me jump and cringe because it looks like it hurt so bad. If you want some fun escapism, check out John Wick, Chapter 2. It’d be helpful if you’ve seen the first movie, so maybe rent that first.

Rating 4 star

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Review: The Space Between Us

space-between-headeradam reviewThe Space Between Us.

It’s now February. I avoided a lot of movies in January because 1.) they looked bad and 2.) I was broke from seeing so many movies in December. Well, we’re back. I headed down to check out The Space Between Us to see if we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Was this one any good?

The gist.

About 16 years ago, a shuttle was destined for Mars with the first crew of people who would live on the planet for a long stint of time. It turns out that the captain (Janet Montgomery) is pregnant. This news might cause a PR nightmare and the public might demand that the ship is turned around, so the mission’s chairperson (Gary Oldman) decides to keep the pregnancy a secret, especially considering the boy, growing up in a different gravity, might not be able to even survive on Earth. This boy grows up (Asa Butterfield) and is able to communicate with Earth via a high-tech webcam and meets a girl named “Tulsa” (Britt Robertson). He eventually ends up coming to Earth with a chaperone (Carla Gugino) and experiences everything for the first time.

What works?

The cast is generally pretty good, highlighted by Asa Butterfield. The “fish out of water” trope can be a fine line to walk but here, as we watch his character experience the world for the first time, Asa’s performance completely sells it. He’s aloof enough to be charming and manages to find humor in the smallest of moments. His chemistry with Britt Robertson is believable, though definitely moves faster than is really realistic.

The movie is really a love story, about a boy who travels planets to meet the girl he loves, or at least thinks he loves. It’s full of touching moments but can be overly saccharine for most of you, if you’re not expecting a romance to blossom.

So, yes, I cried. But to be fair, I cry during 75% of the movies I see, so that doesn’t really mean much.

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What doesn’t work?

While this movie isn’t bad, it makes a few missteps which will ultimately doom this movie to be completely forgotten.

On the page, the script feels neglected. Like, maybe they did one draft and went straight into shooting. There are huge plot holes and contradicting character motivations, some of which caused me to chuckle in the theater out of confusion. Some parts of this movie just don’t make sense, at all.

And what does make sense is completely predictable, aside from a few “twists” thrown in for good measure. The big reveal during the movie’s climax is not only unsatisfactory but also confusing, when you start thinking about the timeline of the film. This movie generally just didn’t get much polish or the attention to detail that it needed.

(Various) At the Kennedy Space Center, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) gives a speech and introduces the Magellan-61 astronauts

Overall…

The Space Between Us is fine. That’s about all you can ask for here, with a great cast that is weighted down by a faulty script. It’s not bad, so you won’t regret seeing it, but you will forget about this movie in a day or two.

Rating 3 star

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Review: Silence (2016)

silence-headeradam reviewSilence.

Every once in a while, you see a trailer that is impeccable. Silence had that, a jaw-dropping trailer full of vivid imagery and chilling moments. I wasn’t sure if the sprawling 3 hour drama could have that same effect. So did it?

The gist.

This is surprisingly a remake of a 1971 film, based on a novel by Shusako Endo. It tells the story of two Portuguese priests who journey to Japan in the 17th century (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They are looking for their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has supposedly renounced God publicly and they must find out why and hopefully save him. Japan during this time was incredibly dangerous, as Christians are killed and tortured. So our story follows the two priests as they travel throughout Japan and risk their lives to find their mentor. They are guided by an alcoholic ex-Christian named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) and hunted down by a dangerous inquisitor (Issei Ogata).

What works?

This movie is a bit of a conundrum for me.

Technically, this movie is brilliant. Director Martin Scorsese is no amateur here and this movie is shot beautifully. The imagery is vibrant, just as the trailers showed you. He also manages to get some astounding performances from everyone in the cast. Even minor characters that I don’t remember their names had incredible moments. While Liam Neeson only has a few scenes, they’re memorable and some of his best work in recent years.

The movie also is accessible to a wide range of spiritual beliefs, I don’t think you need to have any sort of history with religion to understand what’s going on here. Andrew Garfield is really our lead character and he manages to make you understand their plight and why they’re doing what they’re doing. His struggle with faith and this journey that he’s on is incredibly captivating and he’s proving that he has immense talent (with Hacksaw Ridge earlier in 2016, he’s having a great year).

I also want to give kudos to the sound and music of Silence, as long scenes are often punctuated by pounding drums and Japanese instruments. The score is great.

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What doesn’t work?

The problem here is that this movie is nearly three hours long. Maybe I have a short attention span but I found myself constantly trimming the film as it happened. “That could have been cut” and “that could have been shortened” was constantly running through my head. When you get to Scorsese’s level, I don’t think anyone is telling you how to put a film together so I don’t think anyone pressed upon him the need for tighter pacing.

Some of this movie crawls. Sometimes this movie comes to a complete halt. For the amount of content, the actual things that need to be shown, this movie should have been trimmed by 30 minutes at least. Remember how I said the trailer was exceptional? It is and those images are great but the movie they’re in is incredibly slow, aside for a few moments of urgency.

It’s (pun intended) the silence that reminds you how slow this movie is. When you clear your throat and you realize how long this movie has been absolutely silent, you realize that most of this movie consists of just waiting. Our characters are waiting to go somewhere, they’re waiting for something to happen. The actual sense of urgency in this life or die story is fairly minimal.

This movie is still great, shot beautifully and full of great performances, but there was no restraint shown here and that means it’ll turn quite a few people off. This movie is for the patient, those that are absolutely fans of Scorsese or film in general. The average movie-goer likely won’t find the three hours worth it, which is why I’m in a hard place here.

silence-2Overall…

Silence is created perfectly, with beautiful cinematography and excellent performances, mostly from Garfield as our lead. There was very little restraint shown though and its 3 hour runtime slows the movie down to a snail’s crawl, meaning that only the most patient of you will really have the endurance that this movie requires. If you have the will to endure it, you’ll find a lot to love here though.

Rating 4 star

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Review: Sleepless (2017)

sleepless-headeradam review

Sleepless.

It’s January, where we’re getting awesome movies going into wide release but we’re also getting not-so-great movies being released that are just kind of … thrown out there. Sleepless received very little fanfare, as if the studio just wanted this done with. Is that attitude justified?

The gist.

In our very first scene, we meet Vincent (Jamie Foxx) who is a dirty cop, involved with a shootout and the theft of some cocaine. It turns out this cocaine belonged to someone very powerful. Foxx isn’t alone, his partner is involved as well (played by musician T.I.). Now, folks want their cocaine back, so they kidnap Vin’s son (Octavius J. Johnson) and hold him in a casino until their drugs are returned. We have two Internal Affairs officers trying to track down Vin (Michelle Monaghan and David Harbour) and plenty of bad guys looking to stop him as well (headlined by Scoot McNairy and Dermot Mulroney). Vincent also has an ex-wife (Gabrielle Union) who shows up periodically.

What works?

This movie isn’t offensively bad. It’s got some decent action sequences, though they’re surprisingly rare. The action we do get is pretty gritty and shot fine, better than some other movies in this genre. The problem is just the quantity, there isn’t enough action to really make this movie stand out.

The performances are over-the-top but it works with this genre. Foxx is fine, doing his best stoic Jason Statham impression here. The highlight is probably Scoot McNairy as an unhinged villain who just wants his drugs back.

Again, this is all fine. The movie isn’t bad.

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What doesn’t work?

The movie isn’t good either.

The problem is that we’ve literally seen all of this before. It’s got a dose of Taken mixed with something like S.W.A.T., that genre of police drama where you’re always questioning who is dirty. Those movies succeeded because they had excellent action and chase scenes and it was rewarding. This movie is almost boring, with only a few action scenes I can even remember. It’s all set in one casino for 90% of the movie, which really hinders our ability to see anything new. The movie is just slow and when we do get a fight scene, it’s short and Foxx clearly isn’t in his wheelhouse here, with quick edits everywhere.

So the Taken part of this fails. Liam was like taking out tons of folks easily, whereas Foxx goes 1 on 1 most of the time and tends to get beaten in those encounters.

The police drama side of this story doesn’t really succeed either. The actual plot of the story is overcomplicated by constant reveals and twists that you start to get numb to it. So it’s not like we sacrificed action for an enthralling story. We don’t really get either.

In terms of writing, a lot fails here as well. Our characters make decisions that will have you laugh out loud. Our villain doesn’t want to get caught yet constantly shoots up crowded places and raises red flags. Our hero is trying to be stealthy but always reveals himself to the villains in order to trigger a chase sequence. The action takes precedent over the plot making sense, but the action isn’t worth that sacrifice.

Overall…

This movie is a clone of many other movies and it doesn’t pull it off. The biggest crime is a nonsensical story and absolute lack of captivating action sequences. Its lack of scope causes the movie to feel stagnant and the characters choices become laughable. Again, it’s not bad, but there are far better movies to see right now.

Rating 2 star

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