Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser

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Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay 
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Starring 
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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The Fate of the Furious (***): Don’t think. It’s Meat

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The Fate of the Furious – 2017

Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay Chris Morgan
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron

Don’t think that I don’t know that this series is as dumb as anything I have ever seen.

Don’t think I don’t want to see someone beaten like a Cherokee drum.

Don’t think that I don’t know that there is some serious man crushing going on between The Rock’s Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard.

Don’t think that it isn’t kind of cool to see all those cars fall from above in NYC.

Don’t think that it isn’t cool seeing Dom turn heel when they run out of story-lines.

Don’t think for a minute I can’t tell you’re trying to make Scott Eastwood a star eventually. And I hope it works well enough to give him a personality, too.

Don’t think I buy for a second that anyone who dies in this series is really dead. And the one guy who died outside the series will ever be shown as dead.

Don’t think I am any less tired of Tyrese Gibson’s Roman than I am of Dom “Meathead” Torretto.

Don’t think I don’t miss Sung Kang and Gal Gadot.

Don’t think I don’t know it’s not random choice that Theron’s Cipher makes when doling out punishment. It’s about as Random as Gadot dying just before her boyfriend Kang in part 6.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching The Rock kicking ass.We always need more Statham.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching Luda as a techno Wiz. I would buy anything he’s selling.

Don’t think that the snow chase isn’t as dumb as it is cool. More submarine, please.

Don’t think I can ever get enough of Helen Mirren.

Don’t think the laws of physics on this or any planet will apply.

Don’t think I don’t want to hear Roman stop yelling.

Don’t think any of this will ever make sense.

Don’t think that the grand master antagonist isn’t working for some other grand master antagonist in another movie down the line.

Don’t believe there won’t be a full immunity or full reinstatement at the end of every film.

Don’t think I don’t want to see Hobbs beat down Torretto.

Don’t think. It will all be better that way.

Fist Fight (*) is a forced confrontation

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Fist Fight – 2017

Director  Richie Keen
Screenplay Van Robichaux,Evan Susser
Starring Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani, Dean Norris

As far as I can tell, this movie exists to show everyone that Ice Cube still has an intimidating frown for people like Charlie Day. Nothing that happens at Roosevelt High School is remotely recognizable to someone who has been in an American high school. This does not matter though, because it’s only happening to finish the job of making Charlie Day’s English teacher seem balanced, relatable and normal.

The excuse that they use for an unrelenting amount of chaos and destruction is that it’s Senior Pranks day. This means porn in the hallway, horses on meth and penises drawn on the chalk board. Charlie is a nice guy, so he puts up with it. Ice Cube is, well…

“I don’t need to be liked. I need to educate.”

Educating means scowling, grimacing, grabbing cell phones and throwing them against the wall. And that is before he attacks the student’s desk with a fireman’s axe. The principal is busy firing whole departments, though, and there is no time for the teacher’s code. The resulting situation pits Cube against Day in the parking lot. After school. With fists.

So at this point, Day’s Cunningham is (finally) distracted. Everyone in the school knows that Cube’s Strickland is going to kick his butt. Then we hear the stories and see flashbacks of Cube beating people in various scenarios.

If I left out any details, it’s mainly because none of them matter. So many decent (and not so decent) actors doing nothing of consequence, it is mind numbing. Bell is there to say even more inappropriate things than she normally does. Tracy Morgan is there to make Day feel even more desperate about his circumstances while he is oblivious to kids making lewd patterns on the lawn. Hendricks is there to be a crazy violent prude. Talk about casting against type. Norris is at once cruel and helpless.

The kids are all living in a plane of existence far above the clueless teachers. They are free to do just about anything to anyone besides Cube. Everything comes up roses for them. Cunningham is desperate to keep his job because he has a wife who is expecting.

On the plus side, there is a nice advertisement for MacBook Pro in the middle of the film. We are made aware that only dumb families don’t have them.

Dumb comedies exist only to set up the next punchline. Every single aspect of the film is a weak excuse to have us see Charlie Day sweat and scream obscenities on the roof. Once in a while we see him repeat himself in class with increasing degrees of frustration. Then we get to see weak joke set ups get muted payoffs further down the line.

If you are Ice Cube, what makes you want to be in a film like this?  It’s a soft touch film with too much swearing to attract the families. He’s asked to make a one liner out of one of his signature works to no effect, and then he’s supposed to make a Charlie Day ass whoopin’ seem believable. Tough sell for a film that is marketed to the 17-22 age range.

This is a lot of words to say a movie is bad.

(* out of *****)

Alien: Covenant (**) – IQ’s just dropped sharply

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Alien Covenant – 2017

“If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I’m not going to close it down again. No way.” – Ridley Scott, March 2017

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby

I think it’s well past time to stop throwing the word “genius” around when talking about Ridley Scott’s cinematic output. At the very least we should add the phrase “hampered by corporate requirements” to the end of the word. When diminishing sales compromised the vision that he put forth in Prometheus a few years ago, his talk of a prequel trilogy started shrinking to maybe just one more film. Then, as development to the followup of that flawed but brilliant film started ramping up, it was decided that the film’s title would include the word “Alien.” The cry from the large portion of the casual fan base had been to include more than just a courtesy “Deacon” Alien shot at the end of the film.

Those complaints were vetted and recognized as valid criticism to those who believe movies are in the business primarily to make money.

That there might be a long-term goal seems not to have been considered strongly. The fact that there is what looks to be an Alien Queen mural in Prometheus was more than enough for me to know that something good was coming down the line. Ridley said he wanted to know more about the Space Jockey. So did a lot of others. Prometheus is the bone tossed in our general direction that made us wonder, like Elizabeth Shaw, what else is there?

There is less a sense of wonder and more a sense of duty in Alien: Covenant. And it is not the same sense of duty that Walter (Fassbender, playing a second, more advanced and constricted android) feels for his crew mate Daniels (Waterston). It’s kind of obvious that Walter feels a kindness for humans that the creators of the Alien prequels don’t feel for their audience. The new direction has been abandoned, and in its place the same old checkpoints that Scott has hit in his previous films, with no sense of story flow past the first act.

That first act is, actually, pretty good. It’s 2104, ten years after Prometheus is reported missing. An accident on the colony ship Covenant creates the makings for a situation for their crew to investigate the source of a signal on an unknown planet, instead of their original destination. Preliminary research shows that the planet should actually be more habitable than their original destination, so despite the objections of 2nd in command Daniels, captain Oram (Crudup) decides to send most of his crew down to search for the source and scope the planet out. That they just decide to land is risky, but when they all depart the ship without any protective gear, it’s obvious that most of these folks are not mean to last the trip.

What they discover while there is a contaminant that starts to affect each of the crew one way or another. In addition, David (Fassbender) arrives in the midst of chaos breaking down. He knows everything there is to know about the planet that they are on. Let’s just say it’s not good news.

There is actually some good character build up as things are unfolding in the early part of the story. Primarily in the form of McBride, Waterston, Ejogo, Bichir, Seimetz and Hernandez, we get a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that was missing from the disparate crew of Prometheus, who somehow hadn’t met one another until they woke up from hyper-sleep. The situations they face are at least interesting until they set down on the planet, and even when the plot goes south, the characters still shine as genuine. This could be more because the loss of a spouse resonates more than would that of someone you just met prior to taking off, but it’s plain the actors have a better idea of who they are here.

It’s once they land on the planet that everything in the story lets the characters down. Crudup’s Captain Oram is most crippled by the mechanics of the point to point plotting. He goes from trying to prevent his crew from mourning the loss of a loved one to making decisions on a whim that endanger the lives of everyone. Why?  Because the plot requires it. Later he has some incredible red flags that he at first acts on, but then succumbs to stupidly.  Again we ask why? Well if you’ve seen the trailer, you know someone has to lean over an egg at some point.

This is the problem with much of the last 2/3 of the film. People are not anywhere for any meaningful reason, they just split up when the plot requires thinning of the herd. Then we get a series of clever lines followed by dumb reactions. It’s all just spacing for the next attack.

Much has been made of Fassbender playing the dual roles of David and Walter. Of this I say he is only as good as the script allows. Where we win is when they counter one another in the meaning of existence. There is a good back and forth, some of the best writing of the film. In the midst of which, the subjects of the previous entry in the story are glossed over as a minor loose thread. Just like that, several of the questions from the previous film vanish. Is this forever?  Likely, though I  hope not.

This brings us to Waterston. It’s hard to have much enthusiasm for a character filling the heroine slot when the last one is missing in action. Waterston is good in the role but her character feels less like a person than a spot holder. She’s supposed to be the one who stays calm in the face of pending disaster, and she’s the one who needs to disagree with the captain. Her relationship with Walter is a nice diversion, but she’s got to do all of the muscle bearing while everyone else succumbs to the order of appearance on the credits.

This is less of a problem with Prometheus, because Shaw (Rapace) has an actual goal beyond survival of the moment. She is curious and wonders about things that many of those watching could be interested in, were it posed in a smart enough way. Instead of refining that difficult path into a synthesized theme, we go back to having people as glorified cows lined up for slaughter by the ever refined Alien compositions.

What is going on with the Aliens? We have a few different styles than we’ve seen before, but nothing resonates until we get back to one that looks close, but not exactly like the one seen in the original. We are given some strong hints that there is some Buffalo Bill style experimenting going on, but given the fact that there are no non-botanical organisms present at all makes one wonder how perfect this contagion really is in its altered state.

The beastly antagonists are rarely scary in any fashion. There is absolutely no tension based on the fact that it’s all been done before. It doesn’t matter where something is going to break out, if you know it’s going to happen before the victims set foot in the area of playthings. Those being hunted provide no clever or meaningful resistance, therefore being even closer to cows than humans.

While much has been made of the realism of Scott’s creature effects, every shot in the film rings closer to Transformers than it does the original creepy source. The details onscreen are crisp and he definitely knows how to hold attention in the action scenes. It’s just hard to imagine he’s putting as much thought into the likelihood of some of the scenes (like watching an Alien jump directly and willingly into a trap) as he is what kind of filter to put on the lens.

Is this film a complete loss?  No. The series has a future and one can hope that the film makes enough money to provide a buffer that might allow Scott more freedom to explore the seemingly obliterated Engineers. Right now it just seems like Scott spent the film checking boxes of requirements from the people in the business attire. This is the one designed to please the “fans” to be sure. Let’s hope that this becomes less an investigation of Weyland’s creation and more of an investigation of the question that Scott has twice now said he wants to investigate:

Where do we come from?

We already know that David has found his purpose and we definitely know what happens when people in these films die. Let’s try a little harder to engage everyone.

(** out of *****)

Here Alone (**): If time is a luxury…

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Here Alone – 2016

Director Rod Blackhurst
Screenplay David Ebelhoft
Starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti, Adam David Thompson, Shane West

Here Alone amounts to what feels like a Canadian version of a Zombie film. Everything is overcast, kind of dull and low budget. If time were a luxury, I suppose it might feel more nuanced than boring, but I am not getting any younger. I need more Dawn of the Dead remakes, not the end of the world is boring films.

It’s not that the acting is all that bad. Walters in particular seems up to the task of more challenging material than she gets here. The ideas are an amalgam of what you’ve seen before, only done by someone who can afford only the barest of inferences to larger action that occurs off screen. It’s a good movie for a college thesis, but not something I want to spend a Sunday afternoon watching in the place of The Walking Dead.

It would be something if there was any sort of originality to the script at all. We see a variation on the “hide your smell” routine. We learn that the dead are attracted to housing units, but not necessarily cars with screaming babies sitting alone in the woods. There are plenty of scenes with cans of food and saltine crackers. No scenes whatsoever with small game running around, or even a deer. One of those might have been believable, but it would have required someone on set knowing how to dress game.

This is not a film without its merits. This is not an insult to those trying to entertain. The acting and soundtrack, in particular is worthy of merit. In the end it becomes an effort to gain attention with not so much money and a carload of ambition. Add an original story and you might have something.

(** out of *****)

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (*****): More please

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – 2017

Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

I am so happy this film didn’t stink. It could be a little bit of an overreaction to the fact that it doesn’t that I feel that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is the best film of the year so far and right on par with the best that Marvel has released into their Cinematic Universe. It sure feels like I will be watching this film with the same zeal and exuberance I have felt watching most of the films.

First of all, the characters have developed. Sure they are antagonistic as ever to each other, but they also show the propensity for caring not many ensemble casts are talented enough to do. Most obvious here is Drax (Bautista) with his awkwardly expanding foray into the world outside of the literal. His moments are consistently fresh, for such a seemingly limited character and actor, and it is a delight to see.

Speaking of limited, Baby Groot (Diesel) is the most adorable tiny version of a character to be in a sequel since Mini-Me. Every scene he is in draws out sympathy and affection, then a punctuated laugh. My favorite moments in the movie is when Drax calls Baby Groot the “smaller, dumber version,” and when Baby Groot beats on Drax for destroying his groove.

Many of the jokes in the film (and some carrying over from the previous film) have a tremendous payoff. Rocket (Cooper) breaks new ground in his establishment of a relationship with Yondu (Rooker). It might have been nice if the Racoon had been granted one liners consistently throughout, but there were so many characters, it’s tough to choose who’d be left out.

Rooker’s Yondu gets an excellent fleshing out with way more to do this time around. Some of the moves are telegraphed, but no less enjoyable when played against the plot.

Even the burgeoning romance between Quill (Pratt) and Gamora (Saldana) is played with a self-awareness of what normally happens at this point with “TV” relationships. Turning into the skid allows a certain grace with the audience for a second film. They’d better move past it by then.

Gamora is given a more complete reprise of her relationship with her adopted sibling Nebula (Gillan). The turn they take is one more conducive to her staying within the franchise and both actresses give an emotional heft to the story that is a pleasant addition to the standard sibling stuff.

Of the new characters, Mantis (Klementieff) and Ego, the Living Planet (Russell) have the most going on. Ego claims to be Peter’s dad, and he’s charming enough to convince us of anything. The faux crisis about his worthiness as a parent is finished quickly enough to move on to more interesting things. Mantis has an interesting character that fits sublimely with the rest of the team.

If I haven’t discussed the plot, it’s because the GOTG movies don’t really need to worry about the plot as much as making sure we can appreciate the fact that the gang is back and still loveable, even if a little different from before. In developing characters, we can enjoy it more despite what it lacks.

To be fair, the plot is a wholesale improvement over what they had last time. It’s more expansive and there is a desperation that one feels for the characters if not for the situation they encounter. It also helps to know not everyone is safe. Yes, and it’s not a spoiler alert.

Pratt is more comfortable in doing less this time around. His job on the team is to play straight man to a bunch of clowns, and he accepts this job willingly. That we don’t have to negotiate his screen time or make all of his actions heroic is a huge plus. There is no other leading man in the Marvel Universe with his unforced appeal.

James Gunn took this series right where it needs to be as a placeholder while waiting for the next Avengers film. He’s taken the reigns of the stories and made the comic his own, all while staying in focus with Feige’s overall scope. He’s completely in his comfort zone, and still treating the property like it is an opportunity, rather than a burden. He is the series most effective creative force.

This film is great, even for those who will say it lacks the freshness of the original. Think to yourself, how many more times will you be seeing Bradley Cooper playing a sarcastic and violent raccoon? When will you ever see Baby Groot again?

Stop taking this marvelous thing for granted. Go watch it.

(***** out of *****)

Life (*1/2) is a short trip

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Life – 2017

Director Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have some genuine geek credentials, having two of the biggest nerdist success stories of the last decade in their writing repertoire. First Zombieland managed to stand out in a crowded field of the undead back in 2009, then they hit pay-dirt with the Deadpool last year. This is the point in the trajectory where one dusts off some old work that must have some value and see if someone will overspend.

In the case of Life, what we get is tantamount to the opening story for a movie they were contracted to write originally, but now stands in limbo. To share more than that might give a tiny bit of the plot away. Really, though, there isn’t much to give.

Mostly what Life has going for it is one, at most two, surprises. If these are enough to sate your desires in a film, then the fact that the rest of the story is bland as hell may not bother you as much.

The gist of the story is a team of astronauts and scientists bring in a load of samples brought back from Mars. Included within the samples is the tiniest remnant of a dormant living organism. They manage to nudge it along and – lo and behold – what starts out as adorable becomes a killer in a short period of time. Soon enough we’re down to a not quite handful and the goal of the team moves from quarantine, to elimination to Def Con 1 in matter of hours.

It’s not a very good film, to say the least. Minor characters are there not for their acting talent, but to add a touch of ethnicity. It’s a tough thing to watch good actors narrowed to their face value.

Gyllenhaal and Ferguson have a few moments, though, and the ending actually is the only part of the film that doesn’t seem like it was thoroughly vetted by a test audience. That doesn’t mean it’s all that good, though.

The being, for what it’s worth, has a reason to look as luminescent as a cartoon. It still is hard not to wonder what all of the screaming is about when it’s obvious that they are acting against a green screen.

The film is not so much bad as it offers nothing more than the depressing realization that even if this had been a prequel to another more lucrative franchise, it would only serve as relief that the other project died before touching down.

(*1/2 out of *****)

Rings (*): Once more into the rabbit hole

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Rings – 2017

Director F. Javier Gutiérrez
Screenplay David Loucka, Jacob Aaron Estes, Akiva Goldsman
Starring  Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden

For some reason, I have longed to see Johnny Galecki get what’s coming to him. I never liked him, not even back when he was Sara Gilbert’s boyfriend on Roseanne. And no, IU never have cared one way or another about that nerd show. With him on it, not a chance. It’s my trial, and I bear it bravely.

Upon finding out he was in the newest version of The Ring, I figured that it only means he will die some sort of gruesome death. I can support this notion, especially when he carries the pretense of an intellectual professor. No way, Johnny. You’re a dead man once you pop in that tape.

The images change medium with Rings. Now instead of video tape we have digital files on a computer screen. Of course, this changes for one character to a series of subliminal flashes that occur like some sort of scavenger hunt for clues. This is not very fun after the first few because it is headache inducing and it leaves no room for mystery.

Don’t know what is going on? Wait 5 minutes.  Or maybe 3.

There is no shortage of people waiting to tell you the story behind the girl, Samara. That we learned about her in the previous American sequel is of no real consequence. Whether it is another angle or a totally contradictory story, we get enough people telling us about her, it’d be a surprise if someone didn’t know about her.

The makers took a page and a story line out of the far superior (and mysterious) It Follows, and creates a group called “The Sevens” who spread the video to others, giving them some sort of gap, pushing death off until those “tails” expire.  It could work as some remarkable pyramid scheme if they just broadcast it. Oh, wait…

Unlike other series that just repeat the routine of a faceless mystery killer, the people behind this story can’t hold the bountiful mystery behind the images. Like a kid who wants to open their Christmas presents on Halloween, there is an endless procession of demystifying moments until there is nothing left to fear. And strangely, nothing to feel sorry about except for the fact that you came back for more.

I would like to say there are some interesting camera angles or something. There is one that literally happens with the opening image. The rest is so choppy its hard to give a second look.

You get a giant dose of self-reference as you hear a grizzled and blind D’Onofrio say “The event, just took it out of him.” It says something strange about his career that he is literally the only name actor to take this film. Every one else was paid to scale, no doubt. He needs more characters like Malkovich and less like Lance Henriksen. And I love poor Lance Henriksen.

This movie might not even be good enough for completists. It’s only for those who have gone so far as to watch every variation of the movie, foreign and domestic. It is lighter than air.  Kind of like moths behind visqueen.

(* out of *****)

The Great Wall (*) can’t keep out the smell

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The Great Wall – 2017

Director Zhang Yimou
Screenplay Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy
Starring  Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han

What the hell just happened? It’s not like there isn’t enough talent in front of and behind the camera. Yimou has created several crossover Chinese classics (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower) is barely a shadow of the intricate power he’s shown before. Tony Gilroy, to whom this writer would like to give credit for all good cinematic things in the last 4 years, can’t bring the awful dialogue or premise into something worth representing. Matt Damon looks to be caught like a poacher’s target. He knows he’s going to take a hit, but he just has to take it.

The story takes the premise that the real reason for building the Great wall is to keep out an army of man-sized lizards that climb walls like the zombies in World War Z. Damon and his mercenary partner, played by Pascal, stumble across the wall on their quest for gun powder, which is all the rage in the 11th Century when this film takes place. While there, they come across a prisoner / teacher (Defoe) with similar aspirations. First, though, they must resist the siege of these Taotie beasts that threaten the entire Chinese civilization.

For all of the snowflake sensitivity of whitewashing that this film was accused of, they forgot to wait to see if the movie is any good. There is no real crime that was perpetrated against the Chinese culture beyond typical Hollywood get the big name in the shot business. This is why they shoot different trailers and even different versions of films in other countries. China’s trailers undoubtedly get to see enough Chinese faces to sell their wares.

This film is not any good. It has the type of acting one would expect from an episode of an action TV show in the early ’80’s. The characters just say their lines and walk through the screen. It feels like a rehearsal more than a movie. Pascal has been excellent in Game of Thrones and Narcos. Dafoe is a two-time Oscar nominee. This movie gives the impression that none of the American actors had any idea when the director told them the camera was on.

The Asian actors fair only marginally better. There are no characters of any real depth here. There are several cliched check boxes that are checked. When contemplating the fate of these cardboard characters, it is hard to figure out why we should be rooting against the monsters. At least they show the ability to adapt.

Not that these monsters are all that great either. Almost 25 years since Jurassic Park and we still get animated characters that look like the “bad dogs” from Ghostbusters. Showing us a whole herd of them doesn’t forgive that individually none of them look lifelike. It’s not like mass movement is tricking anyone.

It has been a long time since I have seen Damon this bad in a movie. Green Zone and the last Bourne film were pretty bad, but not necessarily for his efforts. This film is like one of those decisions you can tell is bad from the first moment, but you ride it through hoping for a Mulligan. More cynically, one could think of it as a money grab from a ravenous Asian market.

This is a movie that should be forgotten, for the benefit of everyone involved.

(*)

Beauty and the Beast: Old and new it stands out of time…

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Beauty and the Beast – 2017, 1991

Directors: Bill Condon (2017) and Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise (1991)
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos (2017) and Linda Woolverton (1991) based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Starring:  Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (2017) and Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti (1991)

Disney has been remaking their animated classics for so long now, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t. I think it may have started with 101 Dalmatians but in all honesty most of them are not good enough for me to go back and research. Over the last few years, the most notable have been their attempts to put women on the screen as real life princesses or (in Angelina Jolie’s case) should have beens. The one that everyone will talk about and remember has just arrived.

Everyone’s real hero of the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger (no one wants to imagine she really married the doof who shall not be named) is now as likely and deservedly remembered as Belle. Although not being considered a singer before being cast in this musical, Emma Watson creates her own version of the role that Paige O’Hara mastered a generation ago.

The question of whether the movie update is necessary is immaterial at this point. A more pointed question would involve a contemplation on whether or not live action should include as much if not more animation than the original animated film. I am not going to discuss that either, though. I am really just here to celebrate both films, since, miracle of miracles, they both turned out to be pretty great.

To do this, I am just going to discuss the elements of each film that stand out more for me than the other. At this point, can we really review a film that everyone will see and love…except for those who insist on pointing out flaws. Well, I will try, but it will all feel like quibbling when I throw criticism to the side and just say it is a classic despite them.

First thing is first. What parts of the new film are not as good?

  1. The first time we see Belle’s village: For a second, I got a sickening feeling. Everything seems so close and claustrophobic, it felt like I was watching the recent redo of The Smurfs. There is no feeling of span in the town and it feels like Belle is walking in a really tight circle. The empty bookstore feels bigger than the whole confines of the village.
  2. Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury as Lumiere and Mrs. Potts can’t be beat: It is a personal preference, as McGregor and Thompson do well in the same roles. To McGregor’s credit, he just moved forward with his much less distinctive voice and personality. While it isn’t as memorable, it works. Orbach completely mastered the role, though, making Lumiere seem older and more virile at once. Thompson is a blander version of a character one would normally consider to be quite bland. No one ever made us sit down, make ourselves comfortable and have some tea like Lansbury.
  3. The ballroom scene. Especially true after the remastered version of the original pumped it up about 200%, there is just no beating the myriad colors and sweeping grandeur of the original. It’s one of the great animated scenes in cinematic history.
  4. I just wish they would not have cast Stanley Tucci. It’s so tiring to see him in every movie, even when they give him bad teeth to inhabit.

So what was made better in the new film? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

  1. LeFou: Gad is an inspired casting choice. His nuanced performance works in every way possible. The original was barely a placeholder for Gaston, to the point where I wondered why he was even included in such a large musical number. This time around, the character is fully fleshed out, an improvement in every way. The only time it doesn’t fit is when the residual lines from the original make it necessary to have him be somewhat illiterate and ill-informed. It is quite likely the LeFou has read most of the same books as Belle.
  2. Maurice: Good Lord I hated Belle’s dad in the original. I would have thrown him in the loony bin or old folks home right off the bat if I had to listen to his babbling. Totally moronic and typical Disney Dad, with his head in the clouds while missing every possible thing on the ground. He even thinks she should hook up with Gaston. Kline presents a slightly preoccupied, but deeply saddened man. He is completely aware of his daughter and he wants to protect her from the horrors he’s experienced, while showing her the beauty he sees in life. It’s completely understandable how they could be related in this version of the tale. She enjoys the same things he does, with her own spin. Incredible that Disney finally gets a Dad right, for once.
  3. The night-time trip to Paris: This adds a completely new dimension to Belle, her father and heretofore absent mother. This scene has a great song (How Does a Moment Last Forever) and in its inclusion, we allow a moment of true bonding between Belle and the Beast. This is the kind of scene upon which romances are built and it makes what follows all the more meaningful.
  4. Letting Belle get plastered by the snowball: It was always a little weak to have Beast hoisted by his own petard in the original.

To delve any deeper, you really have to just accept the differences between these two as just trades for each medium. Human Again (from the restored version) is traded for Evermore. The wardrobe is now an opera singer instead of a maid. My eldest noticed that Philippe was a different sort of horse. The library is remarkable either way. Gaston is as delightfully deplorable now as he was in animated form. Alan Menken is a treasure. I don’t know how he keeps drawing classics from this well.

It would be unfair to not recognize Watson’s achievement. Paige O’Hara has created, in all truth, the best Disney Princess. Instantly memorable for her pluck and her voice, all other Princesses have yet to reach the bar she set. Watson wisely avoids the pitfall of trying to match O’Hara’s voice and instead applies her own spin on the character. The songs and her performance are equally good and entirely different. I found myself hearing her voice in my head for songs that I have heard for a quarter century with O’Hara’s. She’s elevated the live action princess role that Amy Adams created so effortlessly and placed her own stamp on cinematic history, between this and Potter.

Dan Stevens is a little old, even for a 27-year-old Watson, but the role works, especially if one considers the time passing under a spell. It’s close enough and not yet creepy. His voice in Evermore is remarkable and nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Celebrate these films. They are gifts to humanity. There have always been beauties who were drawn to beasts that they had to learn to understand. There have always been beasts who are society’s winners that smart girls know to avoid, too. This film has brought hope to many a bookworm girl and boy that they will someday meet and learn to accept one another. And grow. Everyone wants to feel like they can do that.

Both films (***** out of *****)