The Commuter is Quite a Ride!

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on this blog before, but I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, a world-renowned British mystery writer who wrote many novels and short stories from the 1920s to the 1970s. She had a very distinct style of writing that emphasized brain-bending, seemingly unsolvable puzzles. Now, if she were alive today, and she were tasked with being a scriptwriter for a Liam Neeson action thriller, it might look something like The Commuter, the latest film from StudioCanal, the French film studio that clearly wishes it was American. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, Non-Stop), the film is based on a very simple premise – on a seemingly ordinary commuter train running between New York City and the suburbs along the Hudson, there is someone who doesn’t belong there. Could you figure out who that person is before the train reaches its destination?

Neeson stars as a seemingly ordinary insurance salesman who is on his way home, feeling dejected after just being laid off, riding the same commuter train he always rides from Manhattan to his suburban home, when a woman who claims to be a psychologist offers him $100,000 to find a specific passenger on the train who she says “doesn’t belong”. At first, he thinks this must be some sort of prank, but as the train rides along on its journey north out of the city, he begins to realize that there is much more to this mystery than what appears on the surface, and he may have just gotten himself in over his head.

Writers Byron Willinger and Philip de Blasi have concocted a very tight script that does an excellent job keeping the tension high as more and more layers of the mystery are peeled away to reveal even more questions. The movie is full of very effective set-ups and payoffs; even the smallest details start to become important to the story as both the train and the movie approach their destination. Meanwhile, Collet-Serra clearly has begun to master how to use stylism and artistic flair in a way that actually serves the movie, and isn’t just there to be artsy for artiness’s sake. The film is very effective at delivering edge-of-your-seat excitement throughout.

However, the film’s biggest weakness – ironically enough, given it’s a Liam Neeson film – is the action sequences. After spending so much energy on creating a realistic, and very tense, mystery, the action scenes seem a bit over the top and cartoonish, particularly near the end. It’s as if someone at the studio decided early on that “This is a movie starring the Taken guy, he NEEDS to do at least some crazy stunts!” Still, at least the action scenes are competently shot and it’s easy to follow the action, and they aren’t too distracting.

Still, this is a great movie to start 2018. An exciting thriller that is just the adrenaline rush I needed to get ready for what is gearing up to be a very big year in film. A 9 out of 10.

DC Finally Made a Good Movie!

At long last! Finally! Time to party! Wonder Woman is actually a great movie! There is hope for DC yet!

It’s been a long time coming. Marvel’s chief rival in the comic book industry has long had many advantages when it came to being able to adapt its characters for the big screen, especially since DC has long been owned by Hollywood giant Warner Bros. However, when it came to the actual movies themselves, there have been many, many duds and only a handful of solidly good films. For a long time, this wasn’t a big deal, as the exceptional DC movies were good enough to keep audiences interested and carry the brand along. But when Marvel started making their own movies, and knocking it out of the park again and again with great films that audiences clamored for, that calculation completely changed.

Now DC was under pressure to create a “cinematic universe” of its own to compete with Marvel. It only made sense, as DC’s characters have long been far more well-known than Marvel’s and have an equally rich catalog of great comic storylines to draw from for inspiration. However, last year’s two attempts to get such a cinematic universe underway were… disappointing to say the least. As somebody who grew up reading DC comics, I was really quite unhappy.

Imagine my relief, then, when DC finally managed to put together not just a good movie, but a great one. Not only that, but it was an excellent movie featuring a female superhero as the lead, something that no Hollywood studio has managed until now.

What even was this thing?

It was only appropriate, then, that the first truly great female superhero movie starred THE female superhero – the icon of feminism and the empowerment of women and girls across America and around the world.

Gal Gadot knocks it out of the park in this role, and I fully expect many people will consider her the definitive Wonder Woman for many years to come, in the same way many people today consider Jeremy Brett the definitive Sherlock Holmes or Charlton Heston the definitive Ben-Hur. She brings a charisma to her performance that is truly inspiring and keeps you rooting for her from start to finish. She also works well together with Chris Pine (Star Trek, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), who may have been a surprising choice for love interest Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot and spy, but who manages to pull out a very good performance of his own.

For the first third or so of the movie, we see the comic book origin story of the famed superheroine almost beat-for-beat: Diana is a princess growing up on Themyscira, a hidden island where the Amazons of ancient Greek legend have been hiding after escaping slavery. Though her mother, Queen Hippolyta, tries to forbid Diana from learning how to fight and training to be a warrior, she manages to do so anyway. Then, out of the blue, Trevor, a pilot from “man’s world” suddenly arrives as his plane crashes on the island. Trevor informs the Amazons of the war going on in the outside world, and Diana defies her mother to go off into man’s world and fight for peace and justice. The only real change is that the comics were set during World War II, while this movie is set during World War I, a decision that makes much more sense when the main characters leave the island and the plot proper begins.

To go into more detail would be to give away spoilers, so I’ll leave it at this: the movie’s main thrust pits Diana’s idealism against the harsh reality of a not-at-all-ideal world, and it handles the topic with maturity and grace.

Director Patty Jenkins has done an outstanding job with this film, using every tool in her toolbox to make compelling action scenes and keep the movie from having a dull moment. I was worried from the trailers that the movie would overuse slow-motion effects, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film only uses it sparingly to help the audience see the action and keep track of what is going on. The cinematography never feels cluttered, and the color scheme isn’t quite as grey-washed as other DC entries have been so far. I mean, seriously, it took DC this long to figure out that color might actually be a good thing? Sheesh!

Hopefully this is a sign that DC’s movies are going to start improving, but even if they don’t, this is an excellent stand-alone film well worth viewing again and again. 10/10.

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.