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Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Great Wall



His name is Matt Damon. After years fighting for multiple kings, flags, and nations as a 10th century mercenary, he has come to Ancient China in the time of the Song Dynasty with only one goal: to steal "black powder" (gunpowder) from the Chinese. Then he runs into a million zillion alien monsters attacking the Great Wall of China. So he must become someone else. He must become... something else. It's not entirely out of bounds to see some parallels between Matt Damon's character and Oliver Queen of TV's Arrow. In a way, The Great Wall, a visually spectacular, historical-based action epic by director Zhang Yimou, and the first English language film shot entirely in China, is the best Green Arrow fighting aliens in China movie that could ever be made.

In The Great Wall, Damon and his Spanish compatriot Pedro Pascal (best known as The Red Viper from Game of Thrones) find themselves on the run in mainland China after unsuccessful attempts to steal precious black powder. In their desperate flight, they literally hit a wall - the Great Wall of China, which is under the command of the Nameless Order. The Nameless Order are an elite army charged with guarding the wall and repelling a siege by the Tao Tei, a horde of millions of alien monsters that arrived by a meteorite centuries ago and attack China every 60 years. Taken prisoner and brought to the top of the Wall, Damon and Pascal have prime seats for the attack by the Tao Tei. They distinguish themselves by fighting their hearts out and killing several of the monsters, impressing the Nameless Order's leadership: General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), their top scientific mind who boasts one of the greatest character names ever, Strategist Wang (Andy Lau), and the fiercely fetching Commander Lin (Jing Tian). There's also another European knight in the Wall; Lin's English and Latin tutor Ballard (Willem Dafoe).

Pascal and Dafoe immediately come to an understanding: by working together, they can steal the black powder and vamoose back to Europe and be rich. Damon, however, undergoes a change of heart from his greedy ways, in part because he realizes his amazing skills as an archer are needed by the Nameless Order, but mainly because he has the hots for Commander Lin. Damon is also taken by the breathtaking splendor of the Nameless Order, with their beautifully ornate color coded armor, and their acrobatically ineffective and insane strategy of fighting the Tao Tei: the Order's elite Crane Corps (all women) launch themselves over the wall on bungee cords swinging blades at the beasts. Most are quickly and gruesomely eaten by the monsters. Damon suggests other ways to fight the Tao Tei that maybe aren't as splendidly suicidal and Lin is willing to listen; she's also attracted to this handsome and unexpectedly noble white man.

The futility of the Nameless Order's mission soon becomes evident as the Tao Tei, which are smarter than the average alien lizards, manage to breach the Wall and attack the Imperial City and their boy Emperor (Karry Wang), who's kind of like a Chinese King Joffrey. Damon and Lin lead a stunning and ludicrously dangerous hot air balloon charge to defend the Imperial City, and by this point in the third act, The Great Wall's tenuous balancing act of being an entertaining dumb action movie tumbles headlong into becoming a really, really dumb action movie. The Tao Tei are as derivative from the monsters in Alien, Pitch Black and countless other movie monsters of the sort as you can get, right down to having a Queen. "Kill the Queen!" and they stop the monsters; literally, the monsters just fall lifeless to the ground by the millions. The Tao Tei can also be fought with magnets - a magnet to a Tao Tei is the equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson reading "Go the Fuck to Sleep."

Despite reservations many might harbor, Damon's presence in the movie is not white-washing as he doesn't replace any character who was originally Asian. Nor is Damon a Great White Savior who bails the Chinese out of a terrible mess; Damon works together with the Nameless Order, merely lending his skills as a man who could be the ancestor to the Green Arrow - including trick arrows like screaming sonic arrows and exploding tipped arrows! - to help the Chinese fight these ridiculous and plentiful monsters. Jing Tian's Commander Lin calls the shots in The Great Wall, and Damon gladly serves at her side. Finally, The Great Wall's costumes are magnificent. The Nameless Order are all clad in colorful armor that's a joy to behold. As an operatic ballet of colorful violence against relentlessly attacking alien monsters, The Great Wall is a whole lot of absurd, eye-popping fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie



Batman learns the meaning of family in The LEGO Batman Movie, an absurdly funny, balls-to-the-wall celebration on pretty much everything cool, funny and weird about Batman. Let's face it, there's a lot weird about Batman. Gleefully referencing over 75 years of Batman history, especially all of the previous live action Batman movies and the classic 1960s Batman TV show - all done in the inimitable LEGO style - The LEGO Batman Movie is a loving takedown of the Dark Knight and tries to lighten him up a little. As Batman (who hardly ever removes his cowl and identifies mainly as Batman - Bruce Wayne is just a guy who lives in Batman's attic), Will Arnett pushes his irrepressible voice to its gravelly max as he portrays the most unapologetically idiosyncratic version of the Caped Crusader we've ever seen.

Arnett's LEGO Batman is a swoll alpha-bro narcissist with unlimited billions to spend on the coolest gadgets ("Iron Man sucks!") to protect Gotham City from the scores of super villains trying to destroy it. Batman is totally into himself, but his self-absorbed swagger masks a lifetime of pain and fear of abandonment after (stop me if you've heard this one) his parents were killed in front of him when he was a boy. The LEGO Batman Movie completely understands that Batman, with his cars, toys, and his endless assortment of Bat-branded paraphernalia, is essentially a 10 year old's response to a violent world around him. LEGO is the perfect way to depict Batman's ridiculous excesses to compensate.

The LEGO Batman Movie's heart is in Batman growing to accept that he needs relationships in his life, be it with his long-suffering arch foe The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who longs for the affirmation from Batman that he is Batman's greatest enemy, to Gotham's new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), whom Batman totally has the hots for, to his newly adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a lonely orphan who needs Batman just as much as Batman needs him. However, Batman is a huge dick, and it takes him the entire length of The LEGO Batman Movie to stop abusing everyone in his life and accept that being Batman alone isn't as fulfilling as being the head of the Batman Family.

A lot of the fun of The LEGO Batman Movie comes from the free-for-all of characters throughout. Batman's entire rogue's gallery is in the movie from Bane, to The Penguin, to Poison Ivy, to Harley Quinn down to the deepest cut C-grade baddies like King Tut and Condiment King. The Justice League are in the movie, throwing a party in Superman's Fortress of Solitude (Batman's email invite must have gotten lost). Most fun of all are the scores of villains from outside the DC Comics Universe who The Joker recruits to help him destroy Gotham, including Lord Voldemort, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Daleks from Doctor Who, and Medusa and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans. (Incredibly, Ralph Fiennes provides the voice of Alfred, but he does not voice Voldemort. Eddie Izzard does the honors.) In the end, Batman becomes an even greater hero (not just because of his killer 9-pack abs) and learns that having the biggest Batcave is meaningless without people in his life to fill it with. Lobster Thermidor for everyone!