A Promise Only Partly Kept

In my last blog post, I said that I would be going back to my usual articles about history. Well, it seems I’ve only partially kept my promise. I mean, I am reviewing a movie about history, and I have to talk about that history to explain the movie. That counts, right?

In a similar vein, The Promise was supposed to be Hollywood’s definitive take on the Armenian genocide, a horrible event in world history that few people know about, in large part because of a very successful century-long cover up by the Turkish government. It was supposed to go down as one of the great historical drama films, the 21st century’s answer to Schindler’s List. Instead, we got a movie that is definitely about the Armenian genocide, except when it’s not, and definitely a very good movie, but not a great one.

Odds are fairly strong that many of the people reading this blog had never heard of the Armenian Genocide, so I’m going to try to summarize the main points as well as I can.

The Ottoman Turkish Empire once dominated the eastern Mediterranean; in the 16th century, it wrapped around the coast from Algeria to Hungary, ruling over most of the Middle East, North Africa, and southeastern Europe. This empire was incredibly diverse, home to Arabs, Turks, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and many, many other groups. Islam was the official religion, and the Ottoman Sultan claimed the religious title of Caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammed and leader of all Muslims. However, there were also a great many Christians in the Empire, who only had limited freedom and were subject to discrimination.

In the 19th century, western powers such as Russia, France, and the UK began intervening in the weakening Ottoman Empire’s affairs, carving out valuable lands as colonies, helping minority groups such as the Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and Serbians achieve independence, and forcing the Ottomans to give Christian minorities greater rights. To save itself, the empire attempted to modernize, becoming a constitutional monarchy dominated by political reform movements such as the Young Turks. When World War I broke out, the Ottomans joined Germany and the other Central Powers, declaring war on the Russians, French and British. The Sultan, acting as Caliph, declared the war a jihad, hoping that this would encourage all Muslims from around the world to rally to the Ottomans’ aid. This didn’t happen, and the war went very poorly for the Ottoman military. Rather than face their failings, the Turkish leadership accused the Christians of the Empire of spying for the enemy, and began a series of mass arrests.

This was to be the start of a downhill slide into madness, as the Ottoman military rounded up millions of Armenians, Greeks, and other Christians. Many were forced to work as slaves, and most were simply massacred. Most scholars estimate 1.5 million Armenians, half a million Greeks, and 150,000 to 300,000 Assyrians were killed. Yet, more than a century later, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that this genocide ever happened. Generations of Turks have grown up being taught in schools that such talk is nothing but lies by anti-Turkish Westerners. Sure, Turkey claims, there were people killed on both sides, but nowhere near the numbers claimed. Investigative reporters and scholars who go to Turkey trying to dig up evidence of the genocide are penalized for doing so by Turkish authorities. As a NATO member, key U.S. ally, and one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the Middle East, Turkey has been able to bully many governments around the world from officially calling these events a “genocide”, including that of the United States.

Even Hollywood has been cowed by Turkey into remaining silent; prior to The Promise, two previous attempts by American filmmakers to make a movie about the genocide were shut down after Turkish pressure. Even The Promise almost wasn’t made. It was only through the intervention and funding provided by wealthy Armenian-American Kirk Kerkorian that it was able to be finished and released.

To its credit, the film does a remarkable job portraying these historical events. It is very intelligent and even-handed in its portrayal. We see these horrors through the eyes of ordinary people, caught up in events much larger than themselves that they can’t fully understand. We see both sides’ points of view, we see the life that Armenians had in the Empire before these horrible events, and we are shown that not all Turks supported the genocide, with some trying to do what they can to resist. We see how different people responded to being attacked by their neighbors and hunted by the military. We see tragedy and acts of heroism. It’s all very powerful, and I won’t deny crying during certain scenes.

Which is why it was so jarring and infuriating when all of it came to a screeching halt time and time again throughout the movie for the romance subplot. Look, I get that these horrors of history are very dark and very disturbing. Having something to break it up was important for the audience’s sake. But did they have to go with the love triangle? The most overused cliche in the past decade? It’s not even a well-executed or interesting love triangle subplot!

Our main character is Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian pharmacist in a small village who is able to go to medical school in Constantinople because of a dowry he received when he promised to marry a local girl (Angela Sarafyan). Upon his arrival in the Empire’s capital, he meets Emre Ogan, a young, privileged Turkish medical student (Marwan Kenzari); Ana Khesarian, a beautiful teacher who has traveled the world and is looking to settle down (Charlotte Le Bon), and Chris Myers, an American reporter (Christian Bale).

Ana and Chris are clearly an item, and they are clearly living together, even though they are not married. In 1914. Okay, that doesn’t ring true.

Then, Mikael and Ana fall in love. Mikael refuses to marry Ana because of his promise to marry the local village girl back home. But he apparently has no problem sleeping with Ana? Wait, what? And Chris seems to be mostly okay with this and is totally best friends with Mikael? None of this makes sense!

By the way, I’m not kidding when I say the film stops to focus on the love triangle. It literally feels like the movie is interrupting itself to say, “Oh, yeah, sorry, I know you just saw lots of people dying, but we need to drop everything so we can see how these lovebirds resolve their drama.” It’s just so frustrating, because the movie does so well when it’s focused on the main plot and so poorly when it’s focused on the subplot.

Look, I want to like this movie more than I do. It has powerful scenes, intense drama, well-executed action, good special effects, and great cinematography. Even the acting is exceptional from everyone involved. It’s just that the one subplot throws everything off. It’s like a rock chained to a bird’s legs as it flies, keeping it from soaring as high as it could.

The Promise is a good movie, but it just feels like it could have been a great movie if it weren’t for the one crucial flaw. But I’m not here to review what the movie could have been.

7 out of 10.

This Movie Shouldn’t Be This Good

The Great Wall poster from Shaw Online

“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

-Roger Ebert

In 2011, a movie came out with the stupidest premise of all time. That premise was right there in the title: Cowboys & Aliens. I thought to myself, “Are Hollywood producers getting their ideas from their six-year-old kids now?” There was simply no way that movie was going to be anything other than b-movie dreck, and the only entertainment value it was going to have was in pointing and laughing at how terrible it was.

Then I watched it. And I loved it. Cowboys & Aliens was actually a really good movie, in spite of its premise. It had really good characters, a compelling story, good acting, good cinematography, and good directing. I was pleasantly surprised.

I was thinking of Cowboys & Aliens quite a lot when I watched The Great Wall, a fantasy action film starring Matt Damon.

The Great Wall is actually quite an interesting cultural artifact; in a way, it is a symbol of how globalized the world’s media has become. Filmed in Qingdao, China, The Great Wall is the result of a partnership between the American and Chinese film industries that is, in essence, China’s attempt to have a breakout global blockbuster hit. The film was produced by Legendary East, the Hong Kong-based subsidiary of American film company Legendary Entertainment, which was itself bought by a Chinese company called the Wanda Group in 2016. The film was directed by Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), and it was written by a team of Americans that included Tony Gilroy, who wrote the Jason Bourne movies. Apart from Damon, Pedro Pascal (Narcos, The Adjustment Bureau) and Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Grand Budapest Hotel), almost all of the cast is made up of Chinese actors and actresses. This movie is the most expensive to ever be filmed in China, costing $150 million to make.

So, considering how important this movie is to the Chinese film industry, how expensive the movie was to make, and what a massive gamble this film represents, what was the premise they chose to go with for this would-be breakout global blockbuster hit? Ancient Chinese soldiers on the Great Wall of China fighting hordes of hideous green alien monsters.

Yes, really.

The Great Wall image from CGMeetup

I laughed out loud when I saw the trailer for this film. I simply could not believe my eyes. I thought to myself, “They have to be joking, right?” Surely, this was going to be an epic flop. It was going to be one of the biggest disasters of movie history, I thought, and decided that I had to see what a horrible atrocity this film was with my own eyes.

Once again, I was dead wrong.

Just as with Cowboys & Aliens, the movie took its patently ludicrous premise and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, Zhang Yimou and the rest of the team making this movie must have had a meeting and decided, “Look, this is a movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China. But, darn it, we will make the best movie about fighting alien monsters on the Great Wall of China that has ever been made!” Boy, did they deliver.

It seems to me like the trick when dealing with a crazy premise like this is to focus on developing a very good core story and use the bizarre stuff as window-dressing. Cowboys & Aliens was, at its core, a really good Western that just so happened to have aliens in it. Likewise, The Great Wall is, at its core, a film about an outsider caught in the middle of something way over his head. The movie works because it grounds the human drama and makes that part so believable, you are willing to suspend your disbelief for the green monster parts.

Indeed, the movie takes great pains to make everything that happens on the human side “make sense”. What are two white guys doing in China? They are on a mission to learn the secret of gunpowder and bring it back to Europe. Why do some of the Chinese characters know how to speak English? Another European had arrived several years ago to do the same thing, and taught those characters English. The Chinese armies use all manner of fantastical weapons and war machines, but the film shows us how each of these machines works using technology that would have been available at the time. These may be minor details, but so many movies would have just ignored or glossed over them, the fact that this movie takes time to explain them shows a commitment to world-building that really pays off.

It really is the acting, though, that pulls the whole thing together. The sincerity in their performances really drives the drama and makes me willing to buy that they really are in a fight for their lives against an enemy they don’t fully understand. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Tian Jing (Special ID, The Warring States). If The Great Wall performs as well as its makers hope, she might start showing up in more Hollywood movies, and if so, she deserves it.

Of course, in a movie this expensive, one would hope the special effects are excellent, and I can assure you that they do not disappoint. If you like epic movies such as The Lord of the Rings films, you will find plenty to enjoy here.

If there’s one lesson to take away from all of this, it’s that you shouldn’t dismiss a movie out of hand because of its premise. Sometimes, a good movie just might surprise you out of nowhere.

Who Did It Better? The Dirty Dozen vs. Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad image from Warner Bros Pictures

When the first trailer hit for Suicide Squad, I was super-hyped to see this movie. I thought it was a really cool and original premise: a secret government project recruits some of the worst comic book super villains in the world to take on an extremely dangerous mission. The bad guys are promised clemency if they cooperate, while the government gets to deny any involvement or knowledge if they fail or something goes wrong. In my excitement, I told my father about the movie, and he responded with, “So it’s just like The Dirty Dozen?”

The Dirty Dozen image from Amazon

It turns out that in 1967, MGM released a WWII film with the same basic premise. In this case, the bad guys were Army convicts who had been condemned by court-martial for various offenses, but were offered a chance at freedom if they agreed to a mission deep behind enemy lines in occupied France. The film was regarded at the time as exceedingly violent, but over the years it has become regarded as one of the classic, great WWII films. As for Suicide Squad, it was based on a comic book series of the same name, but the comic book was itself inspired by The Dirty Dozen, so it is fair to see the new movie as something of a very loose adaptation of the older one.

That led me to ask a very obvious question: Which movie was better?

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen image from Mubi

Directed by Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Flight of the Phoenix), The Dirty Dozen stars Lee Marvin (M Squad, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valiance) as Maj. Riesman, a rebellious, insubordinate jerk who is assigned to whip the convicts into shape and train them for their mission. He isn’t exactly thrilled with the assignment, and one is led to believe that his superiors gave him this job as a form of punishment. It doesn’t help that the convicts selected for the mission don’t get along with him or each other. The tension between the characters is well-delivered, as you can feel the constant threat of a fight, or worse, a mutiny.

However, after a few training montages that let us get to know these guys, we start to see them gain respect for each other and eventually back each other up when things get dicey. Each character’s motivations are clear and believable, and the whole ensemble has great chemistry together. The most complete story arc follows Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), who goes from being the most selfish of the bunch to a truly steadfast and selfless leader. There are a number of clever comedy bits as our anti-heroes show up the more prim and proper soldiers. Then, of course, the film reaches its climax with the mission itself, presenting us with an emotional roller-coaster mixed with edge-of-your-seat suspense and action.

Obviously, being a 1967 film made with a 1967 budget and 1967 special effects, the movie doesn’t have all the CGI explosions and other bells-and-whistles modern moviegoers have come to expect. While there are one or two places where that really shows, I would argue that, for the most part, it actually works to the film’s advantage. By NOT having too many special effects to rely on, the filmmakers had to focus on delivering characters we want to root for and a story we are invested in. If anything, the older, pre-blockbuster aesthetic in the set design, costuming, and special effects gives the film a certain charm that many modern films lack.

While the movie was by no means perfect, with a few scenes going on a bit long and one character in particular making some very poor decisions to advance the plot, I say The Dirty Dozen is overall a very good film. It’s an excellent popcorn movie for a lazy afternoon, and it would be good to include in a WWII movie marathon. An 8 out of 10.

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster from Wikipedia

Hoo boy, where to begin.

Suicide Squad apparently caught the same bug that infected Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s as if somebody at Warner Bros. keeps looking at the movies they’ve been making about the DC Comics characters and going, “No, no, this is too good. We need to cut in some bad here to even it out.”

While Suicide Squad is far better than Dawn of Justice, in large part because it’s nowhere near as dour or dark and has plenty of levity to it, the film is plagued by baffling decisions. For example, Director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury) apparently decided that this modern-day Dirty Dozen clone with comic book characters should go for a hip-hop gangsta theme in its visuals and tone. Okay, that’s weird. What makes it infuriating, though, is that he fails miserably, resorting to over-the-top stereotypes like having several main characters covered in tattoos and speaking in phony street slang. The end result looks like hip-hop culture as understood by rich advertising executives.

On top of that, the film’s editor John Gilroy (Nightcrawler, The Bourne Legacy) must have been asleep at the wheel. Scenes are cut and spliced in very strange places, whole sequences feel like they are in the wrong place, and there are a few times where we see flashbacks to things we have already seen earlier in the film. It makes the movie hard to follow in places.

In spite of all that, you can still tell that there is a good movie in there fighting to get out. Will Smith turns in a great performance as the assassin Deadshot, and Margot Robbie practically steals the show as Harley Quinn. The role of authority-figure-trying-to-keep-these-bad-guys-in-line is split between two characters, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who shows how dangerous having an ends-justify-means mentality can be, and her subordinate Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), a no-nonsense soldier who is trying to hide the fact that deep inside, he’s facing a huge emotional crisis. The complex interplay between these two characters is both unique and very interesting.

Yet all of these good performances come to a screeching halt as soon as Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream, Dallas Buyers Club) appears on the screen. I’m calling it right now: Jared Leto is the worst Joker ever. He absolutely fails in this role, and ironically enough, it’s because he is trying too hard. The Joker works when he’s understated and menacing, but Leto is overacting loudly.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I do. It had great scenes, great action, and some really good performances. It’s clear that there is a good movie in here trying to claw its way out. As it stands, though, I’m giving it a 6 out of 10.

The winner: The Dirty Dozen

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Sometimes, just because something is new doesn’t make it better. The Dirty Dozen is a classic for a reason, and Suicide Squad just doesn’t compare. You don’t need special effects, a modern “cool” hip-hop look, or Will Smith to make a good movie. You do need a good story delivered well with good performances, good directing, and good editing and pacing. That’s something Hollywood knew in 1967, and could stand to learn again in 2016.

Once Again, Marvel Shows Us How It’s Done

Captain America Civil War image from Blastr

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was an absolute mess of a film, but what truly makes it an embarrassment is that Marvel Studios also decided to take on the “superheroes fight each other” storyline as well, and did a MUCH better job of it. I never set out to be a Marvel fan, having grown up with DC’s comics and TV shows, but Marvel’s made-in-house films have generally been consistently good, while it seems Warner Bros. just hasn’t figured out what exactly it wants its DC superhero movies to be.

The parallels between Captain America: Civil War and Dawn of Justice are actually quite interesting. In both films, the catalyst for the conflict between the heroes is the collateral damage that happens when our heroes throw down, and all the people who are hurt or killed in all those cool-looking explosions. In both films, the villain manipulates the heroes, provoking them to fight each other. Both films also pull double-duty, serving to introduce us to new characters that will be important in later installments of the series. It makes one wonder if Hollywood filmmakers are sending spies into each others’ studios.

Having said that, the biggest difference between these two movies is that Marvel clearly understood something that Dawn of Justice‘s filmmakers didn’t – to make us care about the conflict between our heroes, it has to be a personal conflict. Emotions have to be high, and we have to be invested in those emotions. We need to feel their struggle.

Civil War‘s story begins as we watch the Avengers doing what they do best – stopping the bad guys. However, in the process, new team member Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) accidentally kills and injures a number of innocent bystanders. She is consumed with guilt over this, while the rest of the team now has to deal with the fallout. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) wants the team to sign an agreement with the United Nations placing the Avengers under the supervision and oversight of an international panel, but Captain America (Chris Evans) feels very strongly that this would be the wrong answer. This issue divides the team, but what really gets them to turn on each other is the arrival of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has a very complex and very personal relationship to Captain America. Cap wants to handle the situation his way, while Iron Man argues that this is neither the time or place for rash action. Sure enough, things take an even bigger turn for the worst, and Iron Man is sent in to try to arrest Captain America.

It’s a very human drama that pulled me in and got me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails to see who would win this fight, which is far more than Dawn of Justice did. Heck, even if the other film didn’t exist, this would still be an excellent entry in Marvel’s filmography. It captures that The Avengers magic and then twists it in ways that I didn’t expect. The story was enjoyable, the characters were believable, the drama was intense, and the script was pretty tight.

Also, Chadwick Boseman completely steals the show as Black Panther.

Having said all of that, there are a few gripes I have with this movie, and almost all of them had to do with the visuals. Here we have some of the most colorful costumed characters on the big screen gathered for this movie, and almost every scene is bland, washed-out, and boring-looking. They could hardly get any more generic in their visual style if they tried. This was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who had previously worked on the much more visually interesting Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so what gives?

Not only that, but the film used tons of shaky-cam effects. You know, the effect where they try to make action scenes more gritty and realistic by shaking the camera around like it was filmed by some bystander with a smartphone? As one tool of many in a cinematographer’s toolbox, it can effectively add tension to a scene. Yet cinematographer Trent Opaloch used it constantly, like a ten-year-old drowning his french fries in ketchup. Though, I guess he did cut his teeth filming District 9, so maybe too-much-shaky-cam is just what he’s used to.

Still, the editing of the action scenes was atrocious. Half the time, I couldn’t tell during the action scenes who was where doing what. I was lost, and that’s not a feeling you want from your audience. It is a testament to the film’s story, acting, and pacing that I was able to stay engaged in spite of these shortcomings. For all of Dawn of Justice‘s flaws, looking terrible was not one of them.

All in all, though, I highly recommend this movie. It is a great action movie with a gripping story and a conflict you feel invested in. It doesn’t overcrowd with too many characters, which is quite the achievement for a film with no less than 12 super-powered figures in it. By focusing on the internal struggles of just a few of the characters, it avoids trying to juggle too much. It may have shortcomings in the visuals department, but it more than makes up for it in practically anything else.

BvS: The Worst Kind of Bad… Almost Good

Batman V Superman image from Tech Insider

How do you mess this up?

Comic book fans have been waiting for more than a decade to see Batman and Superman together on the big screen, to the point where it became a Hollywood inside joke. These are characters that have appeared side-by-side on TV since the 1970s and in comic books since 1952. We know these characters. We know their relationship to each other. We have seen many, many different writers and creative teams examine these guys from every different angle possible.

How do you mess this up?

We all knew the plot of this movie from the moment it was announced: Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was going to come up with some evil plan to trick Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fight each other. It may be a predictable plot, but it’s a compelling one, and one that could be great if they get the details right.

How do you mess this up? By getting the details wrong.

When Warner Bros. announced this film at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, a passage from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was read aloud to the audience, in order to give fans an idea of where they were going in terms of tone and themes. On paper, that’s not a bad idea. Other adaptations of Miler’s work, such as 300 and Sin City, have been very successful. However, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. Quite frankly, I almost wish it was. 

When watching this film, it became quite clear to me that the filmmakers took all of the superficial elements of Miller’s style – the film noir feel, the emphasis on masculinity and machismo, the violence, and the willingness to explore the dark sides of the heroes – without actually understanding why these elements worked. Namely, that there was something far deeper going on beyond those superficial characteristics. The Dark Knight Returns was a deconstruction. It pitted Superman’s optimism, hope, and belief in the inherent goodness of humanity against Batman’s pessimism, nihilism, and belief that people are inherently selfish and order is something that has to be imposed by force. It was also a subversive parody of the happy, goofy, smiling Adam West-style Batman that most people of the time were familiar with.

Miller's Batman would never ride in a hot air balloon.

Miller’s Batman would never ride in a hot air balloon.

Dawn of Justice doesn’t seem to have any deeper message, other than “If Superman were real, he’d, like, be totally controversial, yo.” It doesn’t come across like it’s dark for a reason, it comes across like it’s dark because “Dark stuff is cool!”

This movie is just so frustrating, since all the pieces are there for a great movie: A great cast, a director (Zack Snyder) who still knows how to make movies look great, and excellent action scenes. Not only that, but even though she doesn’t appear in the title, Wonder Woman makes an appearance in this film, and Gal Gadot absolutely knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of the world’s most iconic heroine. She really is the highlight of this movie for me, and if Warner Bros. tries to use this as the jumping-off point for their own Marvel-style superhero universe, I hope they keep this Wonder Woman.

Yet, as the saying goes, the devil’s in the details. This movie may have all the pieces of a great film, but it puts them together all wrong. It has absolutely bizarre pacing, moving far too slowly for about two-thirds of the runtime, then far too quickly when the climax hits. It has weird continuity errors; for example, some scenes and dialogue imply Batman has just appeared in Gotham and started his crime-fighting campaign, while others explicitly state that he has been at this job for 20 years. Huh?

By the way, is Snyder hanging out with Alejandro Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) lately? I ask because the film includes multiple long, strange dream and/or hallucination sequences that add nothing and seem to only be there to be artsy. I mean, yeah, Avengers: Age of Ultron also included several such sequences, but in that film it actually made sense because they were rather important to the plot.

Then there’s the small matter of Lex Luthor. Eisenberg’s performance as the infamous comic book maniac is actually pretty solid, but the script he’s reading from makes no sense. As I said in the beginning, we all are going into this movie already knowing what his plan is – make Batman and Superman fight – but he seemingly has no motivation behind this desire. The most important part of a good villain is a good “why”. We have to understand the villain, but there is no understanding this version of Luthor.

The ironic part is that in practically everything else, this movie goes too far in the opposite direction. Does Warner Bros. think we’re stupid? They must, since time and time again the film doesn’t trust the audience to piece together what is going on through context, dialogue, body language, mood, and tone as most movies do, and instead spells everything out through clunky exposition, forced dialogue, and graffiti that couldn’t be more blunt. It’s like the filmmakers are shouting to the audience “You are supposed to be feeling sorry for character X now! Feel sorry for him! Do it!”

Heck, the movie even opens with the million-and-twelfth depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Really, guys? We had to see that again? We’ve seen it so many times, we could practically recite the scene in our sleep. Get to the story, already!

Ugh. That this movie had so much going for it only to fail to put it together correctly is frustrating. That we have now had years of Marvel films showing us how these sorts of movies are done makes Dawn of Justice inexcusable. If all you want is to see who would win if Batman fought Superman, this movie will answer that question just fine, but beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend it. A 5 out of 10.