Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Eastwood Way - Coogan's Bluff (1968)

Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb, Susan Clark, Don Stroud
Country: United States
Rating: R
Run Time: 94 min

It's been awhile since I've done one of these, so I figured that I would resurrect the by gone and forgotten 'Eastwood Way' series of mine as I continue to slowly but surely make my way through Clint Eastwood's entire catalogue. Today's installment is 1968's Coogan's Bluff, a mostly forgotten early effort of Clint's that stands as one of his lesser works on a sheer artistic level. However, the character driven cop thriller marks several important stepping stones within the squinty eyed star's lengthy career as it was both his first collaboration with director Don Siegel and arguably the predecessor to Clint and Siegel's own Dirty Harry as far as gritty cop thrillers come. Even though the film isn't all that great, it carries great historical importance because of this.

When most people think of Clint's early cinema, the Man With No Name films and Dirty Harry come up. After all, those films are hugely iconic pieces of entertainment and represent the best of Clint's work in the mid 60s and early 70s. Unfortunately, most of the other films from Clint's early years, such as Hang 'Em High, Coogan's Bluff, The Eiger Sanction, The Beguiled, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Paint the Wagon, Joe Kidd, and High Plains Drifter, tend to be forgotten. They're mostly middling to solid genre efforts that haven't stood the test of time for a reason, but there's lots to extract from them on both an entertainment and historical stand point, with both Two Mules for Sister Sara and High Plains Drifter being top to bottom fantastic westerns that anyone can enjoy. Just about all of those other films are for hardcore Clint fans though, such as myself. Therefore, let's dive into one of those often forgotten Clint joints and make it somewhat of a lesser forgotten one.

Dirty Harry Origins: Coogan's Bluff

The plot for Clint and Siegel's first collaboration is rather simple, although the entirety of the feature is more concerned with Coogan as a character than the escapee plot at hand. Walt Coogan (Clint Eastwood) is an Arizona lawman who plays by his own rules. When he is hailed to New York to extradite a criminal, Jimmy (Don Stroud), with whom he is familiar, Coogan quickly finds himself in hot water when he loses Jimmy while transferring him onto a plane. Although he is pulled off of the case and reminded that he no longer has jurisdiction in New York, he still insists on going after Jimmy and bringing him in one way or another in classic Clint fashion.

I have to be honest and say that although the plot I just described sounds like a home run for an action star driven crime thriller, Coogan's Bluff is not exactly an exciting and consistently paced action film, but more so a character driven thriller reminiscent of a crime novel. Coogan spends more time hanging around for his prisoner to be set free, renting a hotel room, flirting with girls, and butting heads with police superiors than he does physically chasing his perp or beating up bad guys. It takes an honest forty minutes for Jimmy the prisoner to break free from Coogan's custody. And even than, the film still doesn't pick up its pace from there, and instead chooses to meander over the same territory from the previous forty minutes as Clint casually flirts with more ladies.

This is where the film got me though, as if I were one of the women that Clint were wooing. Siegel tricks you into believing that Coogan likes these women, only to use them for information relating to his case. Therefore, what seems like a scene that has nothing to do with getting Jimmy back, all of a sudden reveals itself as one. Now that's what I call tricky filmmaking. Coogan proves himself to be quite the jerk by using women this way, but it makes him a well drawn and interesting character who wears his moralistic beliefs on his sleeve, willing to do anything to catch his perp, even jeopardizing a friendship. Imagine if Harry Callahan were more of a jerk, and you'd have Walt Coogan. j

I'll leave it at don't mess with Coogan.

Speaking of Dirty Harry, it comes as no surprise that this film establishes the kind of gritty cop character who would go on to become Harry Callahan as Coogan bends the rules in order to get the case done, even to the point where he gets kicked off a case and yelled at by superiors, a staple of the Dirty Harry franchise. What separates Coogan's Bluff from its latter, and superior, follow up, Dirty Harry, is that Siegel eventually found a way to develop a more gripping plot with searing tension and consistent action sequences spread out over the course of the entire run time. Coogan's Bluff has some tense moments and bad ass action sequences to boot, but they all comes towards the very end of the picture, making the entire experience beforehand quite taxing and non-engaging.

Another sharp contrast between Dirty Harry and Coogan's Bluff is that the latter looks and feels like a T.V. movie, or even an extended episode of some non-existent Clint police procedural. The cinematography is mostly static, although select shots are quite in your face and strong. Most obvious is the flat pacing, which doesn't necessarily draw in the viewer or make them care all that much about what happens. Even all of the action is saved for the end. I don't want to say that the film is cheap, but it definitely feels lesser from a production stand point in contrast to the heights that Siegel would reach with Dirty Harry. And on top of all of this, the plot and story are terribly low stakes, which isn't a bad thing, but it definitely backs up my claim that it all feels more like a small scaled television production than an undeniably engaging theatrical one. 

A similar example would be Michael Mann's television film L.A. Takedown and his mid 90s blockbuster Heat. Both films represent an artist tackling the same material at two different points in their career and on two different mediums, but the differences are blindingly glaring, with one clearly the superior update of the other. Therefore, give Coogan's Bluff a handicap for not blowing your mind, and treat it as the batting practice equivalent of a gritty cop actioner in order to get to the home run that is Dirty Harry

Now that I think of it, Coogan's Bluff is also the more harmless version of Dirty Harry. Characters shoot at one another or have been convicted of murder, but no one ever kills anyone on screen. Even the fights, which are very brutal and result in blood, never result in deaths or terribly brutal injuries that guys can't recover from. In contrast, Dirty Harry features numerous kills from both the heroic and villainous sides of the picture, including deceased naked bodies and implied rape. It's a far harsher picture, no doubt about it. Still, Coogan's Bluff sports boobies, and that still gives it the old R rating. On a side note, I've noticed that a lot of Clint's early American films are adult in this manner and feature lots of casual and full frontal nudity that seems to come out of nowhere.

There's nothing quite like a pool hall brawl.

When you watch as many movies as I or any hard core film buff has, you eventually reach a point where you've seen just about all of the major films and infamous moments in all of cinema. Heck, even if you haven't seen Dirty Harry before, you've probably seen or heard of its iconic bank robbery scene. Therefore, whenever you watch a forgotten or lesser film, and discover a gold nugget of a scene amidst the rest of the average ones, it makes the journey all worth it. 

In Coogan's Bluff, that nugget is none other than a great pool hall brawl that comes a whopping hour and fourteen minutes into the film, a mere twenty minutes before it ends, and boy does it deliver. After convincing Jimmy's girlfriend to reveal his whereabouts, she takes him to a pool hall filled with ruffians and immediately throws Coogan to the wolves, resulting in a short but sweet pool hall brawl. Coogan defends himself as best as possible, throwing pool balls at guys, whacking them with broken pool sticks, and leaping from table to table until he's overwhelmed by the number of guys. 

It's all very Steven Seagal-esque, but unique in that Coogan gets his butt handed to him despite putting up a fight. In the annals of pool hall brawls, it's above Code of Silence, right up there with Mean Streets, but not as good as Rush Hour, nor the all mighty standard that is Out for Justice. There's also a solid motorcycle chase the concludes the film, with Coogan racing after Jimmy and across New York parks in a well shot and easy to follow chase that feels like a predecessor to the motorcycle chase from Michael Winner's The Mechanic. Overall, Coogan's Bluff makes you wait for the goods, but it gives them to you.

Coogan always gets his perp.

As if I haven't talked enough about the similarities and differences between both of Siegel's gritty cop films, it should be noted that Coogan's Bluff carries a hint of western imagery too it, especially in its opening moments in the desert. Coogan also wears a cowboy hat throughout the entire film, so there's that too. I'd like to believe the producers gave Coogan a bit of a western look because Clint had just come off of the Man With No Name trilogy and western iconography really stuck with him.

Coogan's Bluff is important in Clint's filmography because it began a five picture collaboration with director Don Siegel. Although their debut is a tad rough around the edges, it has its moments and lays the groundwork for superior pictures to come from the two. Walt Coogan himself makes for a nice fish out of water and westernized rendition on Harry Callahan who has less regard for hurting people's feelings. This slight difference from the almighty Callahan makes Coogan a tad more unique, and that much crueler. Siegel's two short but sweet action sequences are also big highlights, ranking high amidst Clint's entire career. Recommended.

Rating: 6/10 - A static and rough cop thriller that kicks ass in enough areas to make it worth viewing, especially for Clint heads.

The Eastwood Breakdown
Character Traits:
- Breaks rules established by superiors
- Uses people (specifically women) for information
- Will do anything to catch perp to a reasonable degree
- Has little patience for incompetence
Main Villain(s): Jimmy
Kill Count: 0 - Clint pulverizes several people but never kills a single one.
- Problem with authority/rules (as seen in Dirty Harry series, basically any cop role of Clint's)
- Gender politics (touched upon latter in The Enforcer)
- Drug use
- Counterculture (also somewhat touched upon latter in The Enforcer)
- Fish out of water
Cop or Cowboy?: Cop
Directed by Eastwood?: No
Champion Bad Ass One Liner: After Coogan finally catches Jimmy, the police pull up to him and Coogan proclaims, "I'm making a citizen's arrest!"
Champion Bad Ass Moment: It's no surprise that the champion moment goes to Coogan's throw down in the bar. He kicks ass and gets his ass handed to him. It's great stuff.
Poster: The artwork is fairly solid. It's just Clint's squinty face, made all the more menacing due to the dark orange and magenta colors that ornate it. It's very indicative of classic film posters where a simple design or image is made all the stronger due to the placement of the letters and the colors chosen. Not one of my favorites, but still solid stuff. Alternate foreign posters for the film honestly make it look like another Spaghetti Western.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Cage Chronicles: Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Director: The Pang Brothers
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Charlie Yeung, Shahkrit Yamnarm, Panward Hemmanee
Country: United States
Rating: R
Run Time: 100 min

Nicolas Cage is an anomaly, as there are no other actors like him. He is hugely talented and diverse in that he can play both low scale and high broad characters with the simplest of ease. He also finds time to star within huge Hollywood blockbusters and win industry awards on the side. And yet, this Academy Award winning, A-list actor, headlines the B-moviest of B-movies time and time again, which thereby makes him even more unique. Seriously, there is no other actor like Nicolas Cage. He is one of a kind and a true national treasure. Although I have seen many Cage films, ranging from his greatest hits (Face/Off, The Rock, Con-Air), to his middling efforts (National Treasure, Windtalkers), to even the worst of the worst (Rage, Next, Stolen), I don't think that I'll be satisfied until I see them all. And since he's even more productive than DTV legend Steven Seagal at this point, I highly doubt I'll ever be able to keep up with his filmography.

Today's latest Cage viewing is 2008's Bangkok Dangerous, a mid-budget action film set in Thailand and directed by the Pang Brothers, two Thai brothers whom scored the opportunity to convince Hollywood to let them remake their own debut film but with a Hollywood actor. Essentially a larger budgeted DTV film, due mostly to the Pang's decent directing abilities and the weak visuals on display, Bangkok Dangerous is a perfectly middling action venture that plays to action fans' taste buds. Although Cage doubles as an action icon on the side, he typically stars within action blockbusters where he partakes within a gimmick plot (Face/Off: he and John Travolta switch faces, Con-Air: his flight home turns into a convict take over, National Treasure: a map to treasure is on the back of the declaration of independence). 

Therefore, a film like Bangkok Dangerous is nice because it's a pure and stripped down vehicle with little gimmick too it. The main selling point here is to see Cage as an assassin and to see him rack up a body count, that's it. It's very representative of the kinds of action films popularized in latter decades due to its simple fist fights and shootouts, but that's what draws me in to it, as I am very nostalgic for films of said nature.

Just try and not laugh at Cage's hairline. 

Cage plays Joe, an assassin whom lives on his own and moves around from place to place taking out targets for money. He's as simple and basic as your average movie assassin comes. His next job is a string of four kills that will all take place within Bangkok, Thailand. Therefore, Cage moves there, buys a low level home, and sets out to assassinate four different targets assigned to him from a local Thai gang. However, Joe's life quickly becomes complicated as he befriends a street level kid, Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm), and a deaf woman, Fon (Charlie Yeung), whom becomes his romantic love interest. Joe's desire to live a normal life and to continue his assassin ways is tested as he realizes that he cannot have one without the other, thereby forcing him into a moralistic situation where he must risk those he loves or go up against an army of armed mobsters.

Bangkok Dangerous is a very surface level action film, wearing its stylized action, Asian aesthetics, and moralistic themes on its sleeve. It's a simple mid-level action picture, and not much more. While some will scoff at it as a silly and disengaging time waster, which it very much is, there's a lot of merit too it as well, such as a decent arc for its protagonist, some solid action here and there, and a surprisingly strong score by Brian Tyler.

The film falls into that rare category of remakes where it was in fact remade by the director(s) who made the original film it was based upon. Therefore, any accusations of bastardizing the source material were in fact okay'ed by the original creators themselves. While I have not seen the original film, reading up on its synopsis and watching footage from it reveals several differences between the two. The biggest change is that the lead assassin is deaf in the original film, yet Cage is not in the remake, although his girlfriend is deaf. There is a lot of added and unnecessary narration throughout the film in order to explain Cage's personality and motivation, it's easily the weakest spot of the entire remake. 

Second, the original is a very low budget and high energy action film that blends the styles of John Woo and Wong Kar Wai. The remake on the other hand is a mid budget, $40 million to be exact, action film produced by a Hollywood studio and with a major Hollywood actor in the lead role. All of the raw grittiness and arthouse sensibilities on display in the original are thrown completely out the window here, as 2008 Bangkok Dangerous is clearly a more streamlined and emotional rendition of the fast and artsy 1999 Bangkok Dangerous. It also has Nicolas Cage in it, so it's instantly a whole other beast unto itself. All in all, it too is an anomaly, as it is an Americanized attempt at an Asian production, which is ironic given that the film was directed by two Asian brothers.

Master and apprentice. Why again?

Even though the remake is a mostly Americanized rendition of an Asian story, some strong Asian stylistic influences shine through, especially the comparisons to the work of John Woo, whom Cage himself worked with twice before in Face/Off and Windtalkers. At the end of the day, Bangkok Dangerous is a very similar story to Woo's 1989 masterpiece, The Killer. It's a story about an assassin whom is the best at what he does. When he takes a liking to a handicapped woman, he slowly but surely realizes that he cannot have one without the other, and must make a difficult decision. As in both stories, that which is business and that which is personal is blended with one another, resulting in an emotional and personal finale between both the anti-hero assassin and his villainous employers. Overall, both films culminate in an epic shootout where one goes against many, so you still get your satisfying denouement from both a character and action stand point.

Bangkok Dangerous also features some weak, but still noticeable, themes of brotherhood between Joe and his apprentice, which can be seen as a similarity to the friendship between Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee in The Killer. Although this apprentice story is fairly unnecessary to the film, it does offer up another opportunity for Joe to become human and befriend someone whilst trading off his skills to another. This apprentice story line could have been strengthened if Joe himself were dying, which would add a whole other layer to an already simplistic film, making it that much more complex and interesting. Although the 2008 Bangkok Dangerous could be declared a crappy rendition of The Killer, as its Woo flourishes are very obvious, I for one still admire its sentiments, even though it doesn't work nearly as well as its superiors.

Beside's Joe's arc, the other strong element of the film is his romance with Fon, a sweet and beautiful deaf woman. This romance adds some welcomed humanity, thereby reflecting the seasoned storytelling talents of Woo, to what could have simply been a basic and bland action film. Joe and Fon's romance pulled me into a film that I honestly did not see myself becoming invested in from the start. It also helps that composer Brian Tyler's compositions are so strong, as they strengthen whatever emotions are already on display [Note: I tweeted Tyler about his work on the film, and he was kind enough to like my tweet back. You can always count on Tyler to beef up a Lionsgate film].

The sweet Charlie Yeung adds a lot of humanity to the film.

Unfortunately, the Pang Brothers are not the strongest of directors, as their mediocre talents as filmmakers hampers Bangkok Dangerous' overall effectiveness, from both a story telling and action stand point. The first two thirds of the film are very amateurish in their execution are extremely predictable in all regards. It all felt like your average, mid-level action picture, that does nothing more than entertain you from a B-movie stand point. However, the Pangs kick things into gear for their surprisingly strong finale in which the film goes places you won't be able to fully predict, although you'll be very close in guessing where character's arcs go and whom is going to die, if not entirely correct. Still, the formulaic and 'been there, done that' nature of the first two acts lulled me to sleep enough that the overall film took a beating, even if the finale turned things around.

With those insults aside, Bangkok Dangerous has some reliable enough action, especially for a late 2000s mid-budget action picture. Any action film where Cage racks up a kill count and shoots up his enemies in an old fashioned style is entertaining to me. Highlights include a boat chase amidst the markets of Bangkok, a nighttime assassination hit on Joe and Fon, and especially the entire finale that is ripe with memorable action shots and a high body count that stands as one of Cage's highest. I especially love both the absurdity and awesomeness of the water bottle room shootout in which Cage and a random henchman shoot at one another through jugs of water in a hilarious manner. 

Cage's short throw down with the main villains' right hand man also left much to be desired, as I love nothing more than a satisfying throw down with a henchman that you grow to love to hate. His death is great, but it should have been drawn out more, and shot better too for maximum effectiveness. And while on the topic of the villains, I have to point out that they are especially frustrating because they bring about their own problem in wanting to discover whom Cage's true identity is. Why would a gang want to ruin a great thing simply by wanting to know whom is working for them? Honor your contract and get rid of the people that you want to get rid of. Don't screw it up! You'll have absolutely no sympathy for these gangsters, as did I, when you see how dumb they are.

The biggest surprise of Bangkok Dangerous remains in its final moments, which I do not want to spoil for those who have not seen it. I also recommend that those who have seen the film seek out its alternate ending, which is not only radically different, but entirely complete and extended too. It's rare that an alternate ending is scored and color corrected, yet the Pangs went the extra mile to shoot a completely different ending. Those with a sharp eye will notice that the very final shot of the theatrical cut comes from the alternate ending itself.

Seeing red again.

You know how I just said that the biggest surprise of Bangkok Dangerous is in its final moments? Well, truth be told, the most surprising thing about this movie is that it opened to number one at the box office, no joke. Now, it only made about a mere $8 million, which marked it as one of the lowest number one openers of all time, but it still opened to number one, which kind of blows my mind that a mid-budget action movie starring Nic Cage could draw in such numbers, if any numbers. Nowadays, all of Cage's action films settle for the DTV/VOD market, so it's fun to think of a time when his films were somewhat successful like these.

Bangkok Dangerous is right up there with 1999's The Replacement Killers, another Americanized attempt at Asian action that reflects the themes and styles of its influencers and genre to an affective point, but doesn't exactly deliver the strongest characters or compelling stories to go with said action and style. Than again, there is a special place in my heart for forgotten and decent films like these, and Bangkok Dangerous is better than it should be. Cage, who sports quite possibly the worst hairline in cinematic history, is quite good in the role when you get past his silly looks. And the Pangs, who have a lot to learn, showcase some solid action and deliver some emotionally resonant moments here and there despite an all around amateurish feel to their direction and production. As far as Cage action films come, this is one of his middling efforts. If you aren't into Cage or Asian themed action, skip it. But if you're like me and love this kind of stuff, check it out. You'll walk away with more than you'd expect from a film of its nature.

Rating: 6.5/10 - Cage and the Pangs deliver some solid heroic bloodshed styled action and drama, but can't do more than produce an admirable time waster.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Thoughts On: Taken T.V. Series (2017) - Pilot

Television producers are currently experiencing a dry spell like no other in that they are turning to recognizable cinematic properties for their television series. While this is not strange, as television series have been based around film properties before, lately there have been a string of dry adaptations and blatant rip-offs to superior cinematic properties, most notably the failed Rush Hour series, the currently on air Lethal Weapon, and the brand new Training Day series. What's sad is that none of these series add to their franchises or successfully duplicate what made the originals so great. Instead, they blatantly rip-off what was done so much better before, but now done far worse. Television producers think they can simply replace said stars with other actors and duplicate the formula again and call it a day, but that doesn't equal quality.

The latest entry in this series of unnecessary television adaptations of superior action films is Taken, a prequel series that no one asked for. I'm embarrassed to even be writing about this new series, but I have been morbidly curious to check it out due to my love for the original film and because this show seems so unnecessary. There's no denying that the Taken series has been one of dwindling creative returns. Each successive film in the series has been drastically worse than the previous (click here, here, and here, for my detailed reviews of each film). However, each sequel has been more successful than the previous, which means that the Taken brand is a viable and marketable one that people will seemingly turn out for no matter what. The abuse of that brand name is now put to the test with the Taken television series, the second series to be adapted from a string of EuropaCorp action films, the first being the Transporter series, which sucked the big one.

Although completely unnecessary, the Taken series acts as a prequel to the first film, finding a young Bryan Mills (now played by Clive Standen) aboard a train with his sister. When Mills notices some suspicious characters on the train, he alerts his sister to cause a distraction so that he can take out the armed gunmen. After dispatching the men in quick Mills fashion, including one of Mills trademark punches from the first film, his poor sister dies in the ensuing confusion. Later, Mills is recruited to join the CIA and help them due to this exemplary skills that day, which will lead him on the path to discover those trusty skills of his that he puts to use over the course of the films.

I have to be honest, I did not watch the entire episode, simply because it got so bad at one point that I had to start fast forwarding to what looked like the most exciting or interesting parts. Besides a promising start, and I say that with the utmost kindness, the show quickly devolves into your typical network action thriller with copious amounts of boring exposition and dull dialog. The most obvious issue is that the series features no real similarities to the Taken films, besides the fact that it is a show about a CIA agent who kicks ass. 

Will the real Bryan Mills please stand up?

The plot is obviously different, but instantly less gripping, as a story about a protective father on a time crunch is far more exciting than an origin story about that father before he became a father. Also, when you take away Bryan's status as a father, which includes his protective nature towards his daughter, he immediately becomes a far less interesting character, as he is simply your average action hero. Although the show's writers and producers think they are paying tribute to the first film, it's honestly more in line with Taken 2 and Taken 3, as it's nothing more than your average action film with the Taken brand name. 

The show is also in line with the sequels in that its action is rather disappointing, with there being hardly any in the entire pilot. The only action scene that I would deem memorable is the opening train assault, specifically because it felt creative in its construction. It also reminded me of one of my favorite action films from the 90s, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, which you should watch instead of this garbage television show. A shootout later on has some solid action shots, including a part where Bryan rolls around whilst firing two pistols, but beyond that, none of the action is well shot, falling very much in line with Olivier Megaton's nauseating queasy cam post-action. Also, firing two guns at once doesn't seem very Bryan Mills if you ask me. After all, Bryan is supposed to be a well trained and skilled CIA agent who always uses one hand gun at a time and aims all of his shots. I know that this is supposed to be an origin story to Bryan's bad ass skills, but I highly doubt that the writers thought about Bryan's shooting tactics, which proves how much they respect the character.

There's not much to say about this one folks. The Taken television series is so bad, that it actually makes Taken 3 (alternately titled Tak3n for those who didn't know what film I was referring too) look good, darn near competent even. A bad action film can always be redeemed by some half decent action and the star power of its notable actors, such as with Neeson in Taken 3 or even Jason Statham in another Megaton directed action film, Transporter 3. But the Taken television series not only has the dull as hell plotting and weak character work of those films, but barely any action to write home about, let alone a star to remember. Therefore, and I say this with all honesty, there is nothing to recommend in this show. Now that we live in a day and age of incredible television that usurps the work on the big screen, we don't have time for this kind of I.P. driven crap. Unless you are willing to create the next Jack Bauer or Bryan Mills for television, don't fall back onto a previously developed character and think that you are doing anything fresh or exciting. I fully expect Taken to be cancelled by the end of its first season, as absolutely nobody is talking about it, let alone watching it. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Great Wall (2017) - Theatrical Review

Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal
Country: China / United States
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 120 min

The Great Wall is the latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose acclaimed dramas and martial arts epics include HeroHouse of Flying Daggers, and The Curse of the Golden Flower. However, what separates his latest historical epic from his previous efforts is that it is a Chinese/American co-production starring Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum), mostly in the English language, and with lots of computer generated monster effects. Therefore, it straddles the line between Chinese costume epic and American effects blockbuster for an awesome blend of genres and cultures primed to please multiple audiences alike.

Let's get this out of the way, The Great Wall is not a 'great' movie. It moves at a rushed pace, features lots of underdeveloped characters, and hardly invests the viewer in its story. However, it's also a gung-ho and no nonsense epic that wears its crazy monster mayhem and colorful battle armor on its sleeve. It's a visual feast for the eyes that taps into that same purely cinematic splendor that made Mad Max: Fury Road so memorable. Unfortunately, it's lack of a compelling narrative holds it back from the greatness of Fury Road and places it more so into the camp of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim, another flawed but hugely creative and passionate affair.

Jason Bourne goes into battle.

Yimou's feature carries a simple plot and message with it that makes it out to be very much like a classical Chinese legend. William (Matt Damon) and his friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are in search of black powder in China during the Song dynasty (which according to Wikipedia occurred during the years 960 to 1279). After an encounter with an unidentifiable monster, the duo are captured by The Nameless Order, a specific division of the Imperial Army meant to dispatch China of the Tao Tei, ravenous monsters bent on death and devastation. While the two locate the black powder that they have been in search of, William finds himself struggling with his own greed for escape and the powder and the moralistic inclination to stay and fight against the Tao Tei lest they breach the Great Wall and make their way to the rest of the world.

The first thing that I have to address is the controversy surrounding this film, which is completely uninformed and ignorant. Before The Great Wall's release in America, audiences immediately began declaring it a "white savior" tale where a white male helps out a group of uninformed and disadvantaged Chinese soldiers. They also didn't like that a white male actor was placed front and center to a Chinese historical epic. However, all of those decriers are likely to never see the film, and therefore likely to never realize their rushed judgements, because the film is not white washing history or promoting white males as the saviors of these people.

First off, Damon's inclusion in the film is a business move, plain and simple. Foreign countries co-produce films with America in order to fuel their film with the stars and budget necessary to please both countries and to maximize box office receipts. Therefore, by making The Great Wall with Universal and Legendary Pictures, The Great Wall is as much an American film as it is a Chinese film. Second, Damon's character is not a white savior to the Nameless Order. He is not the hero that they have been waiting for, as he is also a flawed man who learns about greed and self-betterment from the Chinese. His skills come in handy and make him a great ally for the Nameless Order, but their sense of team work and resources are also essential in the fight against the Tao Tei. If anything, Damon's character was a lesser man before he met the Chinese, and through his time with them, makes him a better one in the end.

World War Z, much?

Yimou promotes a very positive and universal message through the meeting of a white mercenary and a Chinese army. And yet, the ignorant critics who decry the film as racist and backwards who desire a more equal and racially diverse world, can't quite see the racial equality and progressiveness within the film. The main Commander of the army is even played by a Chinese woman for goodness sakes, and yet people can only latch onto the fact that a white male is the lead of the picture. It seems that The Great Wall's critics need to learn the same lesson that Damon's character does, as they are just as ignorant as he was.

From a blockbuster entertainment stand point, The Great Wall hugely delivers. Yimou crafts some jaw dropping battle sequences thanks to some impeccable cinematography and first rate special effects that thankfully avoid ever looking artificial. The battle sequences also operate on more than just an entertainment level, but also on a storytelling level, as he showcases a sense of honor, dedication, and team work within the Chinese army that speaks volumes about their race and battle sensibilities. The incredible array of colorful battle armors and gorgeous sets gives the film that distinct Yimou flavor that separates it from other indistinguishable historical epics. One look at a shot of several soldiers standing next to one another might remind the viewer of the Power Rangers thanks to their rainbow like colors.

The varied selection of battle tactics also makes the action sequences that much more enjoyable, as the Nameless Order uses not only arrows and flaming balls of fire, but even whistling arrows, paint drenched hooks, and scissor blades that protrude from the wall. If I had to decry the action sequences for anything, it would be that there is not only not enough of them, but also a bizarre reversal on the typical expectation of a historical epic in that the fights play in reverse order, with the largest upfront and the smallest last. Nevertheless, I was in pure cinematic bliss when a giant monster battle landed a mere fifteen minutes into the movie.

"Power Rangers, unite!"

Unfortunately, the biggest flaw of the picture is its pacing, which results in a non-engaging story and some poorly developed characters. Yimou presents a canvas of characters who are all especially one-noted, which thereby robs the film of any rewarding character arcs beyond Damon's lead. He also spends no time introducing said characters, as Damon's mercenaries are introduced mid-chase scene and the Nameless Order essentially introduced through the film's first battle. I was at least happy to see Andy Lau (God of Gamblers, Infernal Affairs) appear within the film and to have such as significant part as well, as he is one of my favorite Chinese actors. If anyone comes out the worst, it's none other than Damon, as his line delivery is especially bad, whether it be his inabilities as an actor or Yimou's direction of him, which results in an odd accent choice that sounds somewhat Irish.

Overall, I wouldn't say that I didn't feel somewhat invested with the characters by the film's end, but the rushed pace of the picture definitely hindered me from being as invested as I could have been. It's worth noting that both Edward Zwick (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy) worked on the script in some capacity, with Zwick's name being especially notable, since he previously directed the "East meets West" historical epic, The Last Samurai in 2003, which also featured a white male lead. All in all, do not come expecting a cavalcade of memorable and diverse characters along the lines of the Lord of the Rings pictures, as every one comes as simple as can be.

As I stated before, I would rank The Great Wall right alongside Pacific Rim, as both pictures carry the exact same pros and cons. Each has a fairly simplistic story that doesn't engage the viewer very much. They both have a large selection of characters too, who are all very one noted and simplistic as well. However, both films feature fully realized worlds and incredible action sequences thanks to their incredible art design and creature effects. At the end of the day, one could describe both international blockbusters as live action animes thanks to their non-existent subtlety but visually lush worlds.

This image is my attack on the film's ignorant decriers.

Whenever big budget fantasy epics like The Great Wall are released in America to IMAX screens, they rarely do business, as American audiences are less likely to turn out for films of said nature because they are too wild and creative for their tastes. American audiences simply don't turn out for Chinese co-productions or Chinese productions in general anymore. Therefore, whenever ambitious effects blockbusters like these come out, I make it an effort to see them in the theater, or at least upon an IMAX screen as I did this past week. I can definitely confirm that the IMAX 3D experience amplifies one's enjoyment of a film of this nature, as the colorful visuals and lush environments pop off of the screen in a way that home entertainment can't replicate. I'm not vouching for 3D here, but The Great Wall translated to 3D quite well, as I never felt like I was getting a headache.

It's an unfortunate truth that The Great Wall will probably be forgotten by the end of the year, let alone by next month, but I for one recommend it. Visually ambitious feasts like these don't come along very often, and I think that films of said nature fuel the mind more so than your dime a dozen American blockbuster. If you ask me, a flawed one of these is infinitely more entertaining and creative than a bland by the numbers production. The feature's character work and story telling leaves much to be desired, but the lush world building and unforgettable visuals make it a memorable experience in the end. If anything, this international co-production deserves Oscar nominations come next year, as its costuming, production design, and visual effects can't be ignored.

Rating: 6.5/10 - 'The Good Wall' would be a more apt title. Not one of Yimou's most valiant efforts, but a commendable one at best.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fences (2016) - Short Theatrical Review

Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby
Country: United States
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 139 min

Note: This review for originally written for an internship at a website that I was to partake in. However, I never ended up truly starting the internship in the first place. Therefore, it never got posted, but I didn't want it to go to waste, so I figured that I'd post it here.

After several years of action vehicles, actor Denzel Washington finally returns to fully dramatic affair with Fences, his third directorial effort after 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. However, Fences differentiates itself from the rest of Washington’s oveure in that he previously performed the material on Broadway in 2010 and in a different medium nonetheless. Therefore, Fences finds Washington revisiting material that he tackled once before, but now upon the big screen and in control both in front of and behind the camera. While it’s nice to see Washington return in full dramatic force, his latest is nothing more than a literal cinematic translation of a dialog centric play, failing to take advantage of the possibilities or perks offered up by the medium.

Since Fences is based upon a play, the name of the game is character and dialog. Therefore, a discussion of plot would be meaningless, as Washington and the play itself have no interest in the matter. Washington plays Troy Maxson, a trash collector in 1950s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whom lives a simple life day in and day out. The film chronicles the interactions Troy has with his friends and family members, ranging from his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), to his wife Rose (Viola Davis), typically on the front porch of his house or in the back yard. Over the course of the cinematic play, Maxon’s temperance and loyalty to his family is tested as dramatic revelations unravel and themes of death, fatherhood, coming of age, and regret are tackled.

It’s clear that Fences’ strongest points is its excellent character work and truly stunning performances. Washington’s performance as a vulnerable and flawed father as well as Davis’ turn as his dependable wife make for two of the year’s finest displays of screen acting. Both actors are positively on fire, conveying charisma, warmth, humor, and dramatic tension all through their juicy roles. There’s no doubt about it that each will score an Academy Award nomination come Oscar season, let alone give all other frontrunners a run for their money and potentially sweep up the award depending on how voters swing.

Washington’s Troy Maxson makes for one of the most complex cinematic characters of 2016, as he’s not your typical father figure. He’s a flawed care taker whose made mistakes in his life and continues to each and every day. He’s a respectable man, and one of the hardest workers whom was probably ever born, but all the more relatable due to his glaring and possibly familiar flaws to some. To Kill a Mockingbird this is not, as Troy Maxson is a far cry from the perfect and stalwart Atticus Finch. But not every father can be Atticus Finch, and sometimes Troy Maxson is about as much as a man can achieve, flaws and all. Washington imbues real respect and admiration within such a flawed man, and is to be commended for giving such a complex man a harsh but truthful examination.

Unfortunately, dynamite performances and ripe dialog aren’t enough to carry a play over to the big screen, as Washington stagnantly translates Fences without taking advantage of the potential of the cinematic medium. Cinematic elements and opportunities such as musical score, engaging cinematography, and strong editing are not in Washington’s interest here, as the film is presented particularly straightforward, almost exactly as one would see in a stage play. However, when an onslaught of nearly two and a half hours of dialog is all you get, and with no second act break as one would find in a stage play, it becomes quite exhausting to endure when it’s simply presented as is.

Compare last year’s Steve Jobs and The Hateful Eight for example, two very dialog and performance focused features that are also cinematic plays. Each placed a strong focus on character interaction, but also benefited greatly from their dynamic musical compositions, daring camera placement, and affective editing. They were so much more than just their words or performances. They were technically on fire and the exact definition of cinema. It’s one thing to watch people stand in one location or walk around and talk to one another, but it’s a whole other experience when those actions are peppered with distinct visual cues and moody music to fit them, i.e. the advantages of cinema. While Fences only has its dialog and performances going for it, those kind of things can also be experienced through a stage play, the exact medium that Washington chose to adapt over to the big screen so simply.

Fences is only a few notches from being one of the best films of the year. Its performances, dialog, and themes are fully realized, thanks primarily to a bevy of great performers and an actor/director who has lived the material time and time again. Washington and Davis fully cement themselves as two of the greatest actors of their generation with Fences, which will probably stand as a classic within the two’s breadth of work. And yet, Fences feels like it could have been so much more were it adapted differently. Maybe a television mini-series, say on H.B.O., would have offered up a stronger platform in order to fully break apart the material for maximum effect. It’s also possible that a different director, other than Washington, with a stronger cinematic eye should have handled the material and worked alongside Washington to greater affect. All in all, Fences is a flawed film, but only from a technical or presentation stand point. It’s as active a watch as any other film this year, thanks to its non-stop dialog and essential performances. At the end of the day, it’s one of the year’s best dramas, and potentially the purest Denzel vehicle ever made. You’d be fooling yourself if you skipped over it, but don’t rush out or expect the very best.