by Philip Price
I was six years old in 1993 when the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” debuted and I could not have been more enthralled with the goofy series. It was as if someone had taken all the tropes and character archetypes I could have imagined in a superhero series and shot them at the screen with a paintball gun. The bright colors, the over-the-top antagonists and the general playbook each episode followed may have both satisfied and informed what I thought the general public expected superhero lore to fulfill, it was so early in my life I can hardly remember what I knew prior, but whether it was one or both the fact remains that ‘Power Rangers’ was a cornerstone of my childhood and one that I have always had a great amount of fondness for. I've even gone so far as to write a first draft of a novel based on an idea that spurned from the series and what it might have been like had it matured with its viewers a la ‘Harry Potter,’ but now that we have this re-boot I may want to start in on the sophomore effort. Anyway, the point is - for this reason and everything else I've mentioned thus far I was beyond excited to see what this modern day interpretation of the material had to offer. Directed by Dean Israelite, the guy who made “Project Almanac,” this new “Power Rangers” movie essentially combines the conviction of “The Breakfast Club” characters with the plight of those in Josh Trank's “Chronicle” from 2012. And in similar style. Granted, this is combined with all the hallmarks of what made the original series so fun, but you get the picture. And so, how does this latest nostalgia-fueled re-boot fare in terms of satisfying a lifelong fan? Pretty damn well. In fact, far better than expected in terms of the aspect that will guarantee it the most staying power as a franchise-it's core cast of charismatic and ultimately formidable teens. It's refreshing, weirdly, for despite the fact everything in “Power Rangers” is more or less recycled from the series and other sources the movie as a whole manages to revitalize in the way it was no doubt intended.
If you're not familiar with the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” or any of its many, many iterations over the past nearly 25 years than you may find this admittedly silly piece of fluff all the more endearing. In contrast to the original series that explained the origins of the story through its theme song this latest “Power Rangers” actually delves deeper into its villain's motivations by creating a mythology I hadn't heard prior. Sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, it seems Zordon (Bryan Cranston) was the original Red Ranger while Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) held the title of the Green Ranger. The Red Ranger was protecting the Earth's zeo crystal, an ancient, but powerful artifact that can apparently access what is called the "Morphing Grid" that allows Rangers access to their armor. Banks' Rita goes rogue and wants to possess the power of the zeo crystal in the interest of self-gain and world domination (naturally), but before she can get her hands on it, Zordon and his fellow Rangers sacrifice themselves to hide the crystal and banish Rita deep below the Earth's surface until five unsuspecting teenagers find the power coins one night in the mines of a small, unsuspecting fishing town called Angel Grove. This positions them as being worthy to be the next team of Power Rangers-the coins chose them-or so they are told after they dig a little deeper and find an entire spaceship buried under the Earth that has trapped Zordon in a sort of middle dimension where he's projected as a floating head and assisted by an alien robot who calls himself Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader).
After being told the power behind the respective coins they have recently become in possession of and understanding they must come together as a team in order to morph into their armor Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin), and Trini (Becky G) are more or less ready to run for the hills. It is not in the mythology or "Morphing Grid" that “Power Rangers” finds its greatest strengths though (which you'd expect), but rather in the simple drama that is born out of each of these individuals lives and the bonds that come to be formed between each of them. Jason is the town golden boy who blew out his knee playing high school football and has responded by acting out and getting himself put in detention. Following a similar path is Kimberly who was once a popular cheerleader, but has since become a social outcast thanks to an act of spite that has caused her much regret and placed her in the same detention class as Jason. The last of the detention gang is Billy. Billy and Jason quickly unite in their shared opposition to bullies while Zack has a sick mom who he's skipping school to take care of and Trini who has parents that want so bad for their family to be normal that they don't even realize they're only alienating their daughter the more they push her. These small, human elements lend “Power Rangers” what is not necessarily the now taboo "dark and gritty" tone, but rather ground it in a reality to which its target demographic might wholly relate. It should be noted that much of this has to do with the performances of the five leads as this seemingly could have turned out any number of ways, but each of the five individuals playing this new team of Power Rangers are really good. They are extremely likeable and most importantly, sincere in the emotional events each of them are asked to relay.
All of that said, this first movie is very much a test run and while the fact this is so obvious is a bit annoying what's worse is that it earns its big, flashy moments and then doesn't take the time to relish in them. What should have felt like the most exciting part of the movie was easily the least. Meaning that by far the most conventional aspect of the film is the final battle between two fully computer generated characters with zero personality. Rather than using these five individuals they've built up and fleshed out for an hour and half the film resorts to becoming an inferior “Transformers” in its only major action set piece. We don't even get a full-length sequence of the Rangers in their sleekly updated armor doing outrageous amounts of backflips and karate-which is what we want and deserve-but instead are only delivered a brief underwater and then enclosed terrain encounter with Rita's henchmen, the putties, that comes and goes before you can soak it all in. Just as quick as the Rangers have emerged from the command center wearing their armor and, for the first time in the flick, are fully capable of taking on the evil Repulsa they are resigned to sitting inside their dinozords and talking back and forth to one another with little else to do acting or action-wise other than maneuver their hands and squinch their faces. Like I said, this is very much a first chapter; an introduction designed to test the waters as inexpensively as possible before launching into full on franchise mode and while I hope this franchise indeed sees many, many more movies I'm also hopeful the creative team behind these things don't fully lean in that direction from now on and abandon the rich character aspects that are executed so seamlessly here, but rather find the balance of the two this one is sorely lacking.
Now, level expectations are critical when walking into “Power Rangers” as this carries on those goofy traditions of the original series if not fully in tone, but in its approach to humor and to the bold color scheme and campy character traits that more or less defined those who generate the need for such heroes as the Power Rangers. As an entertaining romp through an analogy of teens figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world and the society they're surrounded by in the guise of a super hero movie it surprisingly works on more levels than that of a conveyor belt blockbuster. That may sound a tad outlandish considering these teens look to a floating head and alien robot for advice, but Israelite and his team of screenwriters pick a throughline theme and stick with it. Having this main idea motivate all aspects of the character decisions and eventual heroics allows the film to have a clear focus and elicit a genuine emotional response from the viewer. I like that the screenplay has added more depth to the history between Rita and Zordon, I really like the character designs and the motivation and forethought that went into such designs, but it is the downfall of not giving these elements time to breathe once it's established them that make the whole of “Power Rangers” less than the sum of its parts. By rushing through the third act, the act featuring everything fans of the franchise wanted to see the movie culminate with, it almost feels as if the movie itself is trying to hide the most glaring aspects that make it a “Power Rangers” movie. Worst of all this is for seemingly no other reason than to be conservative with its running time. The movie might have rectified the shortchanging of its finale by devoting just as much time to our heroes using their newly learned skills as it does on the middle "training" section where they earn their abilities. The redeeming factor is that both the introduction to our main characters (Jason, Billy and Kimberly slightly outweighing Zack and Trini) and the development of their friendship through to the point it legitimately determines their success as a team is so well done. It also doesn't hurt someone like Cranston is lending his credible talent to the project while Banks is camping it up and deliciously chewing scenery every chance she gets. I'm hopeful the inevitable sequel gives Banks more time to develop her baddie as well as giving the Rangers more time to stretch their muscles, but most of all-we need Bulk and Skull.
by Philip Price
When I was a little kid and would take in a Disney animated feature multiple times within a very short window I always wondered what it might be like to see such characters and such worlds come to life. Real life. I never thought it would happen after the live action versions of “101 Dalmatians” and its money-grubbing sequel underwhelmed (at least they did in my adolescent mind), but then again I also desperately hoped that one day movie studios might wise-up and begin building a shared universe where my favorite super heroes interacted on the big screen, as well. As I've grown up and become a parent myself it seems Disney has decided to make my dreams come true while also giving their most iconic of animated classics updates so that they might reach wider audiences and new generations-including my daughter's. Over the past seven years or so now we've seen an uptick in the number of live-action films based on classic Disney properties. Whether they be from the respective studio that originated the tale in popular culture or not it seems many have noticed this garner solid returns-despite the brand recognition formula not always working (I liked you, ‘Tarzan,’ but you cost too much). Though Disney began this recent trend by attempting to re-work properties such as “Alice in Wonderland” and the “Sleeping Beauty” story in the form of the Angelina Jolie vehicle that is “Maleficent,” it has been the last two live action adaptations in “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” that have yielded the best results in terms of quality (with all doing rather well financially). The point being, when it comes to these re-imaginings the best bet for both pleasing audiences and critics alike seems to be sticking with the source material and simply adding flourishes where might be necessary. This is one of the highlights of this latest incarnation of “Beauty and the Beast” as more logic and depth are applied to the characters and their plights despite the film as a whole being little more than a pound for pound remake of the Oscar nominated 1991 animated version. One would be hard-pressed to even call what director Bill Condon has made here an interpretation, but while there isn't anything in particular that separates the film apart as being great in its own regard, it pays honorable enough homage to this reviewer's childhood memories that it would be difficult to argue with the thrills and excitement it delivered in selling such a fantastical story come to life.
If, for some reason, you are not familiar with the story of “Beauty and the Beast” it deals in the lessons of learning to appreciate people for who they are on the inside and not how they look or how much money they have. It doles such teachings out by chronicling the events of a young, educated woman named Belle (Emma Watson) who feels trapped in the small, French village where she and her father have settled down. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline), is also creatively inclined as it is indicated he has a passion for drawing as well as crafting music boxes and the like that he takes to sell at the market. Belle has garnered the affection of town war hero Gaston (Luke Evans) who any other illiterate girl in the village would absolutely kill to be with, but the point is-Belle wants more. More than her provincial life can provide. What Belle doesn't bargain for is that something more coming in the form of a magical castle with talking silverware and decorative objects who are ruled over by an unforgiving beast. When Maurice gets lost on his journey though, and stumbles upon such a castle and is consequently taken prisoner this is exactly what that something more turns out to be as Belle comes not only to the rescue of her father, but to discover the mysteries and the magic that lie within this hidden kingdom as well as find out what role she might play in reversing such fortunes.
There is seemingly so much to discuss and yet ultimately so little when it comes to this latest incarnation of “Beauty and the Beast.” As this is a carbon copy of that 1991 animated feature one knows what to expect walking into the movie and despite the fact that Oscar-nominated feature sets a pretty high bar it's not hard to feel mostly satisfied by what Condon, his troupe of actors, and especially those behind the scenes in various art departments deliver in this (mostly) live action version. Of course, both the most curious and appealing aspect of these live action Disney re-makes is how the actors inhabiting these iconic roles measure up to the animated creations that have been ingrained in our brains for decades now. With “Beauty and the Beast” we're operating in territory that is half “Cinderella” and half “The Jungle Book” as pleasant presences such as Emma Watson, Luke Evans and Josh Gad infuse the human characters with plenty of their trademark qualities that will have fans of each of the respective players smiling and nodding in approval/recognition while the other half breathing life into the usually inanimate objects that populate the castle are curiously just giving extensions of what they might do in a fully animated film. I don't know for sure, but find it hard to believe the likes of Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellan were wearing spotted body suits and jumping around on set every day.
While McGregor, McKellan, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are more or less enlisted to do voice work (and they're fine, though it would honestly make little difference were they replaced by any other current contemporary) it is clear that Dan Stevens, who portrays the titular Beast, was indeed wearing a spotted body suit and jumping around on set every day (and likely on stilts as well, no less). Stevens, who if you saw “The Guest,” are watching “Legion,” or even happened to catch that third ‘Night at the Museum’ movie, you already know as a talented actor is unfortunately undercut by the digital effects we all thought would be the least of this films worries after last year’s insanely convincing “The Jungle Book.” Rather, the Beast here serves to undo much of the dramatic tension and what credibility there is to the already fantastical story by oftentimes looking so funny due to the fact it looks so fabricated. There are moments, naturally, when the digital rendering of the part bison, part wolf creature is convincing and intimidating, but this is mostly when he's relegated to the shadows. Otherwise, the only time the Beast is amusing is when his attitude contradicts his look-flashing a smile for his fellow castle-dwellers who were destined to be cursed with him. Somehow still, the romance between Watson's Bell and Stevens' Beast prevails to the degree we again become wrapped up in the history surrounding the curse and the plight of breaking it. Fortunately for Disney, this was all that would matter for as long as Condon was able to successfully garner the trust of those who already adored the characters, appreciated this certain adaptation of the story, and would be primed to sing along with the songs-he would please most that would flock to see this opening weekend. In this regard, “Beauty and the Beast” succeeds well enough by rendering a glossy and rather majestic version of this tale as old as time without daring to leave an impression that would last for even a fraction of such.
It is in Condon's direction that we find the biggest disappointment of this update in that as far as the creativity goes it begins and ends with the aesthetic look of the film rather than the visual sense we get from Condon's camera. There is nothing done here to inspire awe beyond the sets and costumes as Condon, a director who has mainly worked in serious dramas, but has a worthy enough musical on his resume to allow us to expect more than what he's delivered here, allows much of the film to feel static. The movie might be worth a re-watch just to observe this facet alone, but never did it feel as if the camera was as energetic as the actors and this is especially glaring during some of the musical numbers. To the point that some of these more iconic songs in the Disney repertoire come out as little more than blurs of color and overpowering music that drowns out a fair portion of the actor’s voices is disappointing to say the least. The biggest difference from the animated version to this is, "Be Our Guest," which is a completely forgettable, fully computer animated number that has Watson almost obviously reacting to nothing in insert shots that only serve to emphasize the dissonance between the practical and the digital. This is a shame as Lumiere the candlestick's big number was a stand out among the original soundtrack that was penned by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. While Menken returns to add a few new original songs most of these attempts fall flat with only the opening number of, "Belle," and the cheerful, "Gaston," proving to be productions worthy of challenging the versions produced in the original.
The combination of Evans and Gad is especially key to the "fun" factor of the film with Gad's LeFou being given more of an arc that flows from beginning to end (with the whole gay thing most definitely being overblown) and a slightly new perspective being taken on the Gaston character as he's not exactly adored by everyone in the small, provincial French village as he was in the original. Evans and Gad are most clearly the most gifted of the main cast in the vocal department as well which might have something to do with our ability to enjoy and revel in their musical number more than most. Given "Belle" largely consists of extras in the village who were undoubtedly picked for their singing chops rather than their acting ones and it's easy to understand why some numbers quickly and easily rise above others. Watson, while a charming and empathetic presence, isn't the best belter in the world and it's clear her range is limited from the word go. And I adore Emma Thompson, but that doesn't make her Angela Lansbury. Watson fills the iconic yellow ball gown well though, and as mentioned before, is able to conjure up genuine care for the core relationship the plot depends on for everything else to work. Couple this with the grand visual design and the pure glee of seeing one’s childhood brought to life and what we have is a serviceable if not significant piece of work.
by Philip Price
In the vein of Marc Webb going from “(500) Days of Summer” to “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Colin Trevorrow from the quaint “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World,” Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have plucked indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts from the safety of his summer getaway that he so lovingly crafted in his 2013 break-out, “The Kings of Summer,” and thrust him into the world of blockbusters with literally one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history: King Kong. In an effort to re-boot the property that hasn't been touched since Peter Jackson's epic attempt in 2005 and build a cinematic universe a la Marvel with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 iteration of Godzilla, WB and Legendary have given Vogt-Roberts the keys to ‘Skull Island’ AKA the home of the titular Kong and several other species of creatures, most of which are prehistoric in nature, but in other cases-are species that come straight from the pages of an old school horror/fantasy novel. A place where those who own the earth really reside, the place that God forgot to finish. The place where not only a human tribe somehow still resides, but so is there proof of dinosaurs, of more than one Kong, and of devils from the deep that the best character in the film affectionately refers to as "skullcrawlers." And so, the question is-what has the director done with such an environment to elevate the mythology it inherently carries? What has he done to give this mythical island a real sense of place and of substance and of tangibility? Well, the answer to that question is more positive than what the response might be to, "How good is the movie overall?" as the movie itself is pleasant and fun enough, but the real value in the piece comes from seeing that of Kong do what audiences want to see him do on a large scale and creating a full-on world in which these unbelievably thin characters and rote plot exist. It is because this world in which these things exist does indeed feel so lived in and palpable that much is forgiven. Even the special effect that is Kong himself holds more weight and authenticity than one might expect with the film eliciting a real soul from the beast which is more than it can say for the majority of its human cast. “Kong: Skull Island” certainly has its issues and could benefit from having at least one protagonist other than the movie's eponymous monster that we could sympathize with, but in a strange turn of events the spectacle holds more significance than the non-existent emotions and ideas it seems to have never had any ambition of carrying. In that regard, this is very much decent enough popcorn entertainment-fine if not completely forgettable.
Set in 1973 the film begins by introducing us to crackpot scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) who are desperate to have their expedition to a previously unknown island approved and funded. They want to map this mysterious location that has just recently shown up on satellite images and was never known to have existed before. They get a begrudging approval from Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins) before requesting they also be accompanied by a military escort. Cue the montage to ‘70s era southern rock of Randa and Brooks recruiting fellow team members that include former British Special Services Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his soldiers as played by Thomas Mann, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Toby Kebbell (who also did the motion capture for Kong), as well as photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and you have a well-oiled machine of men and women walking up to the front doors of the unknown and more or less kicking them in. The cast only seems to expand as we get further into the expedition with great character actor John Ortiz playing a Landsat, the surveying company, employee and Jing Tian showing up as a fellow biologist to Hawknins Brooks who we'd heard nothing of prior to the team landing on Skull Island. The screenplay from Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) wastes no time in introducing us to the main attraction as the moment Randa, Packard and their fleet of military helicopters break through the storm that constantly circles the island we are privy to the wrath of Kong. This seems a direct reaction to the complaints around Edwards' 2014 monster movie where we only glimpsed the titular creature in increments and sparse increments at that. There is clearly no fear either from the writing team or Vogt-Roberts himself to show the main attraction in full, but more it seems their intent to give this character a full and well-rounded personality while sacrificing as much in their human characters. This is understandable given the intent of ultimately creating a new cinematic universe with these monsters and they being the ones we come to feel and root for rather than the dispensable humans, but as our admirable ensemble of talent march through the levels of the ‘Skull Island’ jungles no matter the fact they are destined to get picked off one by one, it would still be more dramatically effective and affecting had we any attachment to any one of them at all.
Because there is no connection to any one of the human characters and because the drama of the movie is intended to come from the conflicting ideas our two camps of characters are broken into there is no real logic over emotion or vice versa struggle going on within the audience because it's clear who the movie wants us to believe in and who it wants us to side with and so we, as viewers, are easily persuaded as there is nothing compelling about anyone or any one of their arguments in particular. Hiddleston and Larson do little more than pose and stare off into the distance while hinting at some kind of romance that seems to be present for no other reason than they feel like it's supposed to happen. Samuel L. Jackson is playing Samuel L. Jackson, but this time in the form of a war-obsessed Lieutenant Colonel who can't let a fight go and who seems to slowly (or rather rapidly) be losing his mind as he plots traps and tricks for which he can kill the mighty Kong in order to rescue his men that were left behind...or at least that's what he tells those who need convincing he's not just in it for the thrills. Goodman and Hawkins, despite the talents they are and the presence each of them naturally bring to the table, are one note characters designed to spout bits of information and exposition. What may be one of the more valiant efforts in terms of character development and chemistry is that of what exists between Mitchell's Mills and Whigham's Cole as they at least parlay a real sense of camaraderie to the point the picture gives Whigham one of the few genuinely human moments in a film dominated by colossal creatures doing battle with one another. Of course, there is one key cast member I've failed to mention yet and that is John C. Reilly who more or less saves this thing single-handedly in terms of caring about any percentage of the human factor. Reilly plays Hank Marlow (a nod to that of the main character in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) who crash landed on the island in World War II and has been trapped there ever since, becoming a part of the indigenous people's tribe and seemingly having given up all attempts at trying to escape. While Marlow may mostly be present so as to offer a means of transportation to the new human inhabitants of Skull Island, Reilly turns the character into not only the comic relief, but the character with the arc we most want to see resolved come the third act. He's the one we're most rooting for to survive because of what he's been through and for what the future may or may not hold as opposed to Larson's Weaver who seems to only be kept alive because she's too pretty to let pass and/or because the film makes a half-hearted attempt at giving Weaver the same dynamic Ann Darrow held with the beast in the original film.
“Kong: Skull Island” was never going to be about strong characters though, and it would be foolish to expect as much going in. Rather, this latest Kong is more about the adventure to be had and in this respect the film has a fun time getting schlocky to the extent that it is fun without being overtly campy. Rather, “Kong: Skull Island” is schlock through the lens of a mostly interesting vision rather than schlock through the eyes of a corporate boardroom. This is evident in the first 45 minutes or so especially as Vogt-Roberts delivers a handful of rather striking visuals. His sun-drenched color palette not only reinforces the time period, but the balmy environment that becomes broiling the longer our characters remain deserted. There is a momentum and excitement to the first act and a good portion of the second where we can feel the enthusiasm the filmmakers and cast have about being a part of a new King Kong film. The sweeping bright greens of Skull Island stand to symbolize the vibrancy of the ideas this rather novice feature filmmaker brings to this previously untouched landscape. As the film goes on and begins to stumble in its pacing-the story struggling to find new ways in which to prolong our characters stay-it also seems the creativity begins to wane as well as the quality of some of the special effects. It is almost as if all were on board and excited about the project and its prospects in the early days (presuming they shot in chronological order, which they likely didn't, but the point remains) and then slowly began to lose interest only cobbling the muddled middle sections of the film together because of the required running time necessary to qualify as feature length and the expense allowance they had at their disposal (the film carries a price tag of $185 million). Fortunately, the film more than redeems itself in the final battle sequence where Kong takes on the biggest of all of these legless subterranean lizards. The action in this section is terrific, integrating the human characters in interesting ways while keeping the camera wide enough for the majority of the sequence so that we are able to take in the beautifully rendered spectacle at hand. Sure, there are a few shots after the sun has set where the green screen feels as obvious as the stop motion did in the original and for large portions of the film it's not hard to glean this isn't exactly a good movie-the dialogue is particularly glaring in the film’s list of shortcomings-and yet it's surprisingly easy to let all of that go and simply have a fun time exploring this dangerous world. There is more than enough here to justify seeing this icon of monster movies on the biggest screen possible and while the human character are thinner than the latest smart phone Vogt-Roberts is smart enough to let the big guy do his thing and do his thing he does.
by Philip Price
It was funny, when “The Great Wall” was to initially be released back in November or December of 2016 (which it still was in China) I imagined it to be Matt Damon's bid for the current Oscar season. Then, we finally caught our first glimpse of the film in late July just in time for Matt Damon's “Jason Bourne” to return to theaters. From that trailer alone it was clear this wasn't going to be the awards contender I imagined it to be based on the cast and other credentials, but rather that this was going to be something of an homage to the big budget action pictures of yesteryear. That it could potentially be one of those epics where ancient times were explored and mysteries explained via an entertaining interpretation was interesting and irrefutably intriguing. At the very least, the idea was this might be a good bit of fun and/or an inventive distraction that starred one of today's last-standing movie stars making the kind of movie only a true movie star could make. While all of that potential is still present on screen as the actual film unfolds what is not present is the sense of fun nor is the necessary entertainment factor that should seemingly come along with it. Rather, “The Great Wall” becomes something of a slog at only an hour and 45 minutes with the film dedicating a majority of its runtime to a subplot that should have been abandoned the moment these mysterious creatures, for which the wall was built to keep out, finally rear their ugly heads and wreak havoc. Instead, the three-man screenwriting team decide to give these creatures a convoluted backstory and point of motivation that is exactly the opposite of motivating - meaning it deters us not only from caring about these creatures, much less their victims, but does nothing to instill an investment in anything that is happening. If anything at all, it only motivates us to look at our watches more often. And thus, it is the script where “The Great Wall” fails most consistently as director Yimou Zhang certainly has the visual sense to accomplish what the screenplay requires and despite Damon's accent being in and out the cast largely made up of Chinese performers handle the drama and particularly the action well enough-it simply might have been more compelling had they better drama to work with.
Beginning by introducing us to a band of Europeans on the run in what is apparently country just a two-day ride short of the Great Wall, William Garin (Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) barely escape the clutches of those chasing them. It is quickly established they and their band of surviving mercenaries are searching for gunpowder, but not all of them are destined to see the end of their journey. In the middle of the night they are attacked by an unseen beast-one who bleeds green blood and has the appendages of a beast not seen before by the likes of these men. Garin single-handedly defeats the beast, taking its dismembered foot with him and Tovar as they are the only surviving members of their company. Seeking refuge from what they expect to be more of the same kind of beasts Garin and Tovar are captured by native soldiers who take them back to what is now one of the great modern wonders of the world. The two men are brought before Commander Lin Mei (Tian Jing) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) who decide to keep them alive as they might be an asset in their fight against these nomadic creatures as they discover the severed foot and green blood on Garin's sword. Commander Mei and General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) have apparently been preparing for an all-out monster invasion for some 60-plus years given they have somehow figured out a timeline these monsters follow. As these things go, the monsters naturally decide to show up a few days early once the Europeans make their entrance. This all works out for the sake of Garin and Pero's lives though, as this invasion allows them the freedom to learn what they value most in life. Meaning Damon's Garin comes to realize his nobility and heroism are more important than the physical possessions he seeks for the sake of money. Pero is not so much working in the same line of thought though, as he meets Ballard (Willem Dafoe), another European who has been held hostage for many years and taught Commander Mei how to speak English. Ballard is ready to escape and sees the upcoming distraction of this invasion as the perfect opportunity for him to do so; encouraging Garin and Pero to follow his lead. It is in the midst of this war that decisions are made and characters are defined and that we, as an audience, are supposed to take away more than giant battle sequences and CGI, but with characters this thin and a narrative this predictable it is hard to be impressed by anything other than the spectacle, however empty it may be.
With a movie like “The Great Wall” it is best to simply go through the pros and cons of what the product has to offer due to the fact that if you're more or less sold on a movie such as this based on the marketing alone the fact is you'll likely enjoy it. That said, it's easy for me to have a good time with an action movie that makes me think it's a mindless action flick, but eventually shows it has more on its brain and I didn't particularly care for much of this film. This is all to say that by listing the pros and cons of the film is to provide the best process of elimination there is for a member of the target demographic to determine if it actually has the aspects they might typically look for in a big budget actioner. I will say though, that with digital and OnDemand rental prices being as much as they are these days it might be worth your time and money to see something like “The Great Wall” at a matinee where at least the most appealing aspects of the film can be witnessed in the format they were meant to be consumed on. This brings us to the biggest pro Yimou's film has to offer which is naturally the visual scope and aesthetic. The film, from the opening chase sequence through a barren desert to the beautifully rendered title card that nearly transports us back to the days of large-scale practical epics implies that what is in store is a carefully crafted adventure tale that will have audiences just as enraptured in the plight of our protagonist as it will the set pieces that are guaranteed to blow our minds. Of course, with the passing of time comes conditioning and with conditioning comes desensitization. Modern audiences are accustomed to special effects-driven action sequences and an abundance of as much coming at them in droves and in three dimensions, so what is it that sets Yimou's vision apart from every other blockbuster? In “The Great Wall” you really feel as if you're working within the operation. Yimou goes through each of the divisions, each of the infantry's, and through each of the defense techniques that the Chinese army has developed and employed to put a stop to these beasts and the first time this army unfolds to display its full breadth of defenses and weapons there is a palpable sense to the bigness of it. It is massive and that is easily grasped as a viewer which isn't always an easy task. Also, the score from Ramin Djawadi is rather impressive and adds some sense of urgency to the proceedings despite the interest consistently waning on whether or not we as an audience care to be a part of such proceedings.
The cons: Damon's accent. From the outset it is unclear what the actor is trying to accomplish whether it be that of an Irish brand that seems to slip through from time to time or if it was simply a personal choice so as to distance the character from that of Damon's movie star persona and his familiar tone and dialect. Whatever he is doing it is one of those rare cases where it's hard to become accustomed to the voice change as the character doesn't speak enough for it to become normal, but still too much for it to not be distracting. Damon's Garin is intended to be the strong, silent type and he plays to those qualities well enough-there is no disputing the effectiveness of a Damon performance or the presence he brings with him-but rather that he is miscast here. He plays the role of strong-chinned American actor qualified to lead an ancient epic despite his heritage, but he doesn't fit the rogue explorer who learns life lessons from a set of unfortunate circumstances and an attraction to a Chinese Commander that will make him reconsider his priorities. It's not necessarily bad or even offensive, but rather it never gels with the rest of the film-Pascal seeming more natural in his role of a selfish mercenary than either of the more seasoned Damon and Dafoe. And while I can appreciate that the film attempts to develop Garin as more than just the white savior, but more as someone seeking absolution and redemption for his past sins the film never gestates on these character traits long enough for them to fully develop into anything other than stock arcs with outcomes we see coming from many miles away. Another major come down for the film is the many moments in which it is unintentionally funny whether this be through shot choice, extras looking confused, or a line reading. It's clear there was something of a language barrier at play here as some of these missteps seem to come more form a miscommunication or lack of comprehension rather than a flat out choice, but most interesting are the choices in what is shown and what isn't. Sometimes the film feels uber-extravagant in its taste for destruction and CGI creatures and other times it will choose to go with a reaction shot to what was supposedly a big explosion-as if explicitly stating the budget ran out at minute 96. This bringing us to the fact “The Great Wall” can at one point feel like an old school epic fantasy while the next looking and feeling like a SyFy channel original. The intentions were clearly ambitious and well-intentioned, but the final result delivers a piece of entertainment that, for all the promising factors in place, is rather anti-climactic.
by Julian Spivey
Longtime Turner Classic Movies host and film historian Robert Osborne died at age 84 on Monday (March 6).
One could argue that Osborne was the most important person in the media when it came to educating the world – particularly young movie watchers – on the medium of classic film. He was essentially a classic film professor to all of us who enjoyed watching his entertaining and incredibly informative film introductions during TCM’s primetime programming.
Osborne played a vital role in my love of classic film. Growing up I naturally watched movies, but I didn’t have a love for them like I did for sports and music, the medium was just something that helped me pass the time. But, somehow during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school something clicked. I started paying attention to the “classics” – almost completely through TCM, truly the only good television network for films older than 25 years of age – and watched more than 50 great films that summer. Osborne’s introductions to the movies I watched that summer helped me realize and understand why these classics were so vital and helped me familiarize myself with the directors and actors who created these timeless films and performances. I was hooked fast and I think both Osborne’s nerd-like infectiousness for the genre of classic film and the knowledge he effused played as big of a role in getting hooked on classic film as the films and the performances did themselves.
The great thing about Osborne is he did this for many a classic film lover. There have been articles and social media posts since news of his death first appeared talking about how Osborne led to them developing a love for films that frankly could’ve been long forgotten had it not been for TCM and Osborne’s love of the medium. All of us classic film lovers owe a debt of gratitude to Osborne for that.
I know that TCM won’t ever be the same, because nobody could ever replace Osborne. However, I also know the network is still in capable hands with Ben Mankiewicz, longtime TCM weekend host and grandson of Herman J. Mankiewicz who co-write “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles, who learned well from Osborne and will likely take over as the network’s primetime programming host.
Mankiewicz wrote a beautiful piece about Osborne, who he called “the signature face of a network unlike any other,” for The Hollywood Reporter.
A few years ago, my wife, Aprille, bought me a Robert Osborne bobblehead doll for either my birthday or Christmas because she knew how much I admired him and loved his film introductions. He truly had one of my “dream jobs.” I’ve never taken the bobblehead out of the packaging, because I’m one of those people, but maybe I should now. Maybe I should prop that bobblehead up by my television so that every time I watch a classic movie Osborne will be right there watching it with me shaking his head up and down in approval.
by Philip Price
It's disappointing. Tragic, even. All those struggles and all that time invested in trying to make the world a better place and this is what they have to show for it. This is what it's all come to. There is a sweeping sorrow to Hugh Jackman's swan song as The Wolverine, but much like its brutal, bloody and exceptionally R-rated violence, this tone feels justified and necessary. Necessary not only in the aesthetic sense of what is befitting to Logan's world, but necessary in that tragedy always was the way of the world for Logan AKA James Howlett, so why might his conclusion be spared such tribulations? Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for our titular mutant “Logan” is another tale in which our protagonist is pulled into a conflict in which he bears no responsibility in creating, but that his storied past has somehow served as an influence and thus he is then unwillingly pulled into the scenario. This time things are different though, as before and in the many movies we've seen Jackman portray Wolverine the character has always been reluctant, but ultimately unable to deny his true and selfless heroism. He couldn't help but to care, couldn't help but to stand up for the little guy and what he felt to be right, but in “Logan” Wolverine is a much more broken man than we've ever seen him before. His extended past is beginning to catch up with him and we can see that he's tired of playing this role, he's tired of being the hero, of feeling the responsibility to save the day and that he's essentially forcing himself to not care any longer, but rather focus on the task at hand-a task that sees putting himself and an old friend first. In the midst of all this is the centerpiece that is Jackman's final turn as the adamantium clawed mutant making this grief and misery and pain all the more palpable. Jackman so embodies the character at this point though, it's hard to imagine he has a hard time slipping into even the worn and weathered skin of his alter ego at this stage in the game. And while it is Jackman's (presumably) final turn in his most iconic role that is rightly at the center of what makes “Logan” so emotionally rich and narratively compelling there is plenty going on around him that builds the film up in these ways and make it a genuinely thrilling end of an era.
Set in 2029, “Logan” picks up after the so many years it's been since we left Wolverine at the end of ‘Days of Future Past’ when he returned to a present day that saw the likes of Jean Grey and Cyclops still alive and Professor Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters up and running. What has happened since is a mystery as Logan is now driving a limo for cash while making backdoor dealings with hospital staff in order to get Xavier (Patrick Stewart) the medicine he needs to remain stable. Keeping the professor just across the Mexican border the whereabouts of his long and trusted advisor are clearly a secret for some reason, but what that reason is we aren't yet sure. Logan has hired Caliban (Stephen Merchant) an albino with abilities that allow him to detect the whereabouts of other mutants to help him tend to the ailing Professor X. Director James Mangold establishes very early that this isn't a world where Logan or any of his affiliates are working to improve the state of affairs around them, but more that they are simply trying to survive from day to day. Logan is getting older, his healing powers aren't as efficient, and sometimes his claws don't even come out all the way. Xavier is still wheelchair bound, but more times than not he can be found strapped to a hospital bed that stays propped up, hidden inside a collapsed water tower; the professor now having some type of degenerative brain disorder that has turned his mind into what has been labeled, "a weapon of mass destruction". It is as Logan is working to buy him and the professor a boat so that they might sail away from all they once knew once and for all that our titular hero is unwittingly pulled back into the fray. Approached by an apparent mother, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and her daughter, Laura (Dafne Kane), Gabriela implores the one known as The Wolverine to help them get safely to an Eden that exists in South Dakota for there are bad people after them and being one of the few mutants left alive in the world, it would seem Logan is their only hope. These bad people, a mysterious figure named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his scientist superior, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), have had a hand in creating the mysterious Laura as they desperately want her back under their control, but as their intentions are clearly rather corrupt if not completely despicable and given she may or may not share a certain connection to our titular hero there is good reason why Logan might give in to his natural tendencies one last time.
It's easy to say “Logan” is a dark and gritty ‘Wolverine’ movie, but at the very least it strives to be more than that-it strives to be about something more, about the immortality this man has experienced and has grown more than weary of. About how these powers, these abilities that once made these individuals Gods among men are now eating away at them from the inside. About how our own immortality should be appreciated for the daunting devastation we would inevitably face without it. More than this, it strives to exemplify what has made Wolverine such a compelling anti-hero while making the case it's his turn to be saved rather than the other way around. Even if, by the final frame, “Logan” doesn't reach the emotional level it yearns to achieve it still makes its case and does so in an impressive manner. As the aforementioned centerpiece, Jackman is really going for broke here-he makes the viewer understand how much the character's priorities and aura have changed; that his once solemn edge is now pure rage. This rage is easily dispersed anytime someone dares to challenge or cross him in any way. It's doled out due to his low tolerance for, well...pretty much everything, but it's also let loose due to a certain amount of fear. Jackman carries this kind of angst we've never truly seen in the character before-where his inherent sense is to save, but his logic and self-awareness tell him otherwise. It is a trait that serves to explain the inner-conflict and pure strain that we see conveyed on Jackman's face. This is what has become of The Wolverine. One gets a sense he can hardly believe it's come to this as well. That for all the efforts to find himself and help others that he has still somehow wound up this lost. It is this performance and embodied mentality that provides the majority of the emotional throughline in “Logan,” but this is not only Jackman's last stand as Wolverine, but Stewart's final turn as the now legendary Professor X. For as long as Jackman has portrayed Wolverine, Stewart has done the same for a total of seven films (just shy of Jackman's nine) providing the foundation for what the X-Men would become. Here, Stewart is terrific even in the tragic arc that sees Professor X go from frail and thoroughly defeated while battling a dementia-like state to grasping that last surge of life we receive and milking it for all it's worth. Between Stewart's newly-embraced indifference to how he is perceived and Laura's general lack of experience in the real world there is just the right amount of humor in “Logan” as well.
What is handled exceptionally well is the introduction of X-23 AKA Laura who might have easily become the star of the film if Fox had persuaded Mangold he needed to make this more of a "passing of the torch" film rather than the pure, unadulterated Wolverine movie that it is. Don't get me wrong, the character of Laura is still very much a key part of the narrative and Kane, the young actress portraying her, is phenomenal in a role that is almost a non-speaking part, but this is one hundred percent Logan's movie. The appearance of X-23 should not go without being discussed though as Kane is able to convey the abandonment and confusion the character is thrust into through her facial expressions even when her small face is largely covered by sunglasses. She is able to hold her own in combat scenes that would make grown men quiver and, despite her stature, measures up fully to those who oppose her-dispensing of the particularly vile Pierce and his goons without hesitation. It is arguably one of the most subtle star-making performances ever given and would be a shame if we never get to see Kane inhabit this role again. Furthermore, Mangold never allows the presence of a child going on murderous rampages to be taken as anything other than what they are-lending them an all the more chilling quality. He doesn't amp up the soundtrack (though Marco Beltrami's score is effective especially in its ode to the Western genre) and he doesn't hyper-stylize the technique, but rather, like that of Wolverine-the fight scenes are scrappy with both Wolverine and X-23 taking literal stabs wherever there is an opening with little order to the chaos. The big difference with “Logan” being that they received approval for an R-rating and thus allowed to show to the full extent the damage those adamantium weapons can do.
Mangold seems to have approached “Logan” as a Western with its protagonist gunslinger replaced by our titular mutant. There are heavy references made to “Shane,” the 1953 western starring Alan Ladd, but Mangold even goes so far as to mirror the principles of the narrative-chronicling a man who has resigned to settling down, attempting to make a life with some sort of structure in his waning years before an unavoidable conflict draws him back into action. Mangold, who also served as a co-screenwriter and gets sole story credit, sets the film in a not too distant future where the aesthetic would fall in line with the gritty futurism of something like Alien. This isn't the glossy future where neon bulbs have replaced all that is fluorescent, but rather where the cars appear futuristic to our modern eye yet worn due to the wear and tear they've undergone. Touches such as this give “Logan” the feel that not only is our hero slowly dying, but that the world-in its present state-is also passing away. With open, red desert landscapes and a second act that takes us on a road trip from the South to the Midwest United States where Logan, Laura, and Professor X are allowed glimpses of a normal, average existence there is a real sense of breaking things down to their simplest form so that these characters are able to understand the true, genuine worth of the impact they've made on this planet. Which, ultimately, is what Logan deserves-especially since all inevitably goes wrong one last time.
by Philip Price
Written by Just Haythe, who previously only adapted “Revolutionary Road” for the screen and served as one third of the team that composed ‘Lone Ranger’ among a few other jobs, “A Cure for Wellness” is a movie unlike those we typically get a chance to see in cinemas these days. This meaning Haythe has crafted a horror film of epic proportions that was somehow granted a budget of $40 million and placed in the hands of ‘Lone Ranger’ director Gore Verbinski who, despite the reputation the likes of “The Lone Ranger” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean” films may garner him, is one of the best and most underappreciated auteur's working today. That the film also got a major theatrical release without having the added bonus of a rather recognizable star is just another surprising facet in the fact this thing was able to be made as it has been. That said, Verbinski, for one reason or another seems to carry a lot of clout in Hollywood and if he can use it to continue getting high-concept original material made at budgets not normally given to properties without source material or brand recognition-more power to him. Outside of his blockbuster endeavors, Verbinski has made inspiring films such as “Rango” and “The Weather Man,” but what is most critical to understanding why he was the perfect fit for something like “A Cure for Wellness” is the mention of his 2002 hit, “The Ring.” It could very well be that my experience with seeing “The Ring” for the first time in theaters at a nine o'clock show at the age of 15 was one of the most terrifying if not the defining theatrical experience of my life when it comes to horror movies, but Verbinski (even his name sounds like he was made to make scary movies) will always hold a special place in my petrified heart. And so, when it was announced the filmmaker would be directing his first horror flick in 15 years you can bet it shot straight to the top of my most anticipated list. As with all movie-going experiences, expectations play a certain role and mine couldn't have been higher for “A Cure for Wellness,” which may or may not be why the finished film simultaneously floored and confounded me. To be clear, this is a staggering piece of work-a masterful examination of purpose and other existential qualms that drive us to achieve material success that translates to a superiority over our fellow man that is never fully qualified as such in this life. Yet, while the film begins with such ideas and ambitions ripe for the taking it eventually succumbs to the mystery the film layers in early on that will seemingly intertwine with its thesis, but rather the two never mesh leaving Haythe's final draft one we wished he'd revised just a few more times given he might have then had his hands on a masterpiece in several genres and not just a satisfactory psychological thriller.
“A Cure for Wellness” is the type of film that opens by showing us a man who is clearly something of a workaholic as he punches away at a computer long into the late hours of the night still dressed in business attire, who suffers a heart attack and dies right there at his desk. The point is that there is no point to the long hours and what accolades it may have brought. That ultimately, this man died alone and with nothing to show for his extended hours of work that genuinely mattered. In short, there was seemingly no one that cared about him-no one who cared to see him go or cared about what mark he might have left on the world he'd now left behind. This is all in an effort to highlight that our protagonist, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), is very much headed down the same path as he works incessantly and is irritated by everything the world throws at him that doesn't have to do with work. It isn't until later that we learn the man in the opening scene was a close acquaintance and trusted advisor to his and Lockhart's company CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has all of a sudden disappeared from civilization and apparently quarantined himself at a "wellness center" at the base of the Swiss Alps. Given Lockhart is a young and ambitious executive at this large financial services firm it is he who is tasked with going to Switzerland to retrieve the CEO after the board receives a troubling letter from their once fearless leader. Pembroke's presence is of the utmost importance due to the firm wanting to pin some unethical practices on their now deranged boss, but it seems Pembroke is determined to leave the stresses of the modern world behind and cleanse his mind of the toxicity of his professional dealings for good. And so, while Lockhart may be the least qualified to request an audience with Pembroke it is he who makes the trip under the strict limitation of a looming deadline to retrieve the man; this naturally proving more easily said than done. Upon arriving at the treatment center and spa it is immediately clear the place isn't ready to divulge the secrets it is so very clearly hiding, but this is no bother to Lockhart as he eventually, but not without a few hiccups and deliberate obstacles, is able to track down Pembroke and convince him to return to New York City with him. Upon leaving the site though, Lockhart sees both a mysterious figure he comes to know as Hannah (Mia Goth) who has a strangely close relationship with the center's director Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) before being involved in a rather horrendous car wreck that places the now crippled Lockhart at the mercy of Volmer and his staff.
What “A Cure for Wellness” lacks is focus. It is an over-long 146 minutes and thus it is able to explore many different ideas that only cross over to a certain degree, but never truly mesh in a way where each of the strands come together to culminate in a main idea or statement for which the full impact is felt. Rather, the film goes from feeling like a commentary on how we are to find meaning in this life while living in a world based solely around consumerism to a truly demented horror show in the films climax that elicits thoughts of a man who has been forced, over time, to confront his darkest secrets-the darkest of which may be the fact that he's been worshiping at the empty alter of his ambition when fooling himself to think such ambitions have a more selfless purpose than they ultimately do. It is easy to see how such ideas as the cost of success and blind ambition might cross over and deliver a bigger conclusion on what truly matters in life and/or the pointlessness of the entire endeavor, but for all the ideas and thoughts floating around in the movie’s head it doesn't seem to necessarily draw any conclusions or have anything to say about any certain one. The film starts by telling us that we're all sick-that we're all consumed and the first step to cleansing ourselves of this societal filth is to admit there's an issue. "Only when we know what ails us can we hope to find a cure." This allows the film its gateway into the world of the "wellness center" as it is pitched this is where people, particularly people with a lot of money, go in order to receive absolution for the wasted life they've lead and find peace in the serenity of trying to make up for past mistakes in the time they have left. This point of focus quickly shifts upon Lockhart's arrival to a story concerning the history of the castle in which the hospital now resides. More than continuing to dissect and analyze why we seemingly wish this disease upon ourselves only to then begin searching for a remedy or objective that might seemingly offer a cure Haythe's script begins to distract itself with this story of a Baron who was so obsessed with his family’s bloodline remaining pure that he married his sister who, in turn, was thought unable to have children until the townspeople rallied against the noble family and burned they and their house to the ground. This layering in of such a backstory gives the film a tone more in line with a mystery to be unraveled than that of a mentality as a condition to be explored and explained.
While the mystery can be intriguing it is also familiar. Like a collage of “Shutter Island” and an even more gothic take on “The Phantom of the Opera,” “A Cure for Wellness” becomes this tale of the past repeating itself through the tired structure of an outsider coming into a world they can tell isn't what it appears to be who become determined to uncover a corrupt system that purports to be working for nothing but the good of the people it claims to care for. The film very much becomes a film about, "the evil doctor trying to kill his patients," despite the film outright denouncing such simplicities. And maybe it is about more than that, maybe there is something to the overlap that occurs in the empty strides DeHaan's character takes to get ahead in his professional life by sacrificing a personal one and the story of the Baron who becomes so consumed by that aforementioned ambition he loses sight of the purpose behind that ambition, but it didn't come through upon first viewing. It didn't resonate in the way it seemingly should have-especially as it is accompanied by a haunting score from Benjamin Wallfisch, gorgeous cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, and stunning production design from Eve Stewart. With allegories in the shape of animals, MacGuffin's in the shape of water, and one thing or another having to do with the rotting of teeth out of each of the patients heads “A Cure for Wellness” might certainly do for the dentist what “Jaws” did for the beach and more over may in general do for spas what “The Shining” did for hotels, but the film has its hands in so many different pots to reach what is fundamentally a single point that none of it ever coalesces in ways that make clear sense, that feel like a huge reveal, or surprise with the impact it seems we should be left with. That said, seeing this world unfold and anticipating what might come next is what drives the intrigue that is consistent throughout the picture. The movie may go on for longer than necessary, but it always feels measured and assured-never does it feel scattered in those many avenues it is taking to get to the same destination, but rather Verbinski is always precise in his visions intent even if the ideas behind the narrative are messy. Couple this scale and the impressive visual treat the film undoubtedly is with a game performance from DeHaan, a deceptively innocent turn from Goth as Hannah, and a rather deliberate and restrained turn from Isaacs that peaks at a point I think all would agree we didn't see coming and “A Cure for Wellness” is as ambitious as its main characters that it wishes to denounce. It's only too bad the film didn't recognize its own schizophrenic tendencies and seek a cure before revealing itself to the world.