Starring Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Luhan, Jing Tian
Directed by Yimou Zhang
The Great Wall is great – as in big – with star-power (Matt Damon and Jing Tian), firepower (it’s directed by Zhang Yimou, who brought us Hero, and House of Flying Daggers), and visual force (it’s in 3D/IMAX). It’s also the most expensive Chinese film ever made.
But is the movie great – as in good? I’ll get to that in a sec. First let’s see what it’s about and whether or not horror fans will like it. It’s rated PG-13 and the monsters are all fairly cartoony-looking in spite of having multiple eyes, razor-teeth and goopy green blood. They resemble Middle Earth Orcs and they move en masse, not unlike zombie hordes – there is no distinct personality to any of them.
This epic fantasy-adventure follows William (Damon), a European medieval mercenary who is in China during the Song Dynasty on a quest to find gunpowder, which he plans to bring back to western civilization. This supernatural substance “turns air into fire” and is sure to revolutionize warfare. As he searches, along with his wisecracking sidekick Tovar (“Game of Thrones’” Pedro Pascal), William is attacked out of nowhere by a colossal beast. He quickly kills it, which in due time leads him to an unexpected fate: fighting flocks of the legendary Tao Tie. These are ferocious animals who emerge once every 60 years to dine on the locals. William and Tovar are not locals, but they have no choice… it’s fight or die. But before they can whet their appetites, the Tao Tie they must breech the Great Wall of China.
William and Tovar arouse suspicion after news of their exploits reach the Nameless Order, the squad trained to the fight the Tao Tie. They do not believe that a foreigner could so quickly best their beast, and so they bring the men up to stand before the Council to explain how they killed the marauding monster with such ease. Their answer is not accepted – and they are taken prisoner. While in the dungeon, they meet another westerner. His name is Ballard (Willem Dafoe) and he seems to know an awful lot… can he be trusted, or not? Whatever the case, William and Tovar get a chance to prove their mettle and are eventually unshackled and allowed to join the fray.
After the western mercenaries hook up with the Chinese military and are isolated with the troops atop the gigantic stone fortress behind the Wall, we get to see some martial arts… sort of. Zhang’s trademark elegantly choreographed battles, real stunt work, and authentic locations are marred by the egregious overuse of CGI and over-eager editing. There are some death-defying acrobatics, impressive flying battle axes and other weaponry, plus the menacing monsters themselves. Though the Tao Tie are indeed vicious, bloodthirsty beasts, there is no actual blood (except for their own green-goo, as previously noted).
William strikes up an alliance and mild flirtation with the beautiful, no-nonsense Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). Their chemistry is tepid at best. When it comes to Ballard, Dafoe is also tepid at best… there’s not a whole lot fire here from anyone. What’s more, the logic seems a bit off. It turns out the reason William was able to subdue the random Tao Tie he killed early in the story, was because he was carrying a magnetic stone. Everyone marvels over the rarity of this rock and oohs and ahhs over how it will revolutionize travel by acting as a compass. In reality, Chinese civilization first made compasses from magnetic stones in the Han dynasty (AD100). By the timepoint of the movie (between AD960 and AD1127), the compass had been widely used in navigation and so it wouldn’t have been such a huge revelation.
The screenplay is credited to six writers including Max Brooks (World War Z), Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) and Edward Zwick (TV drama guy), which explains why there isn’t a strong voice – then again, it’s right in line with the Eastern philosophy that teamwork by a cohesive unit will always win the day. To me The Great Wall comes across more like an extravaganza cartoon than a bona fide feature film. (Actually, there are a few simply-animated sequences, which are there in order to tell the Tao Tie’s backstory.) Except for a few obligatory character beats, the flick focuses firmly on the Nameless Order. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just kind of “there.”
The Great Wall proudly presents a barrage of battles you might want to see for the 3D… but there is nothing scary or striking about the movie itself.
Prodigy Review – This Kid Is Killer
Written and directed by Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal
From the minds of Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal, Prodigy could have easily debuted as a stage play instead of an intimate sci-fi horror film delivered straight to your television. Told with a confident grasp, the story unfolds in only one location with two characters responsible for carrying the entire narrative. Good performances, sure-handed directing, and a solid script highlighting tense moments make the claustrophobic setting seem much bigger in scope. A little telekinesis thrown in to good effect and a creepy killer kid don’t hurt the momentum either.
Under constant surveillance at a remote black site, an aging psychologist named Fonda (Neil) is tasked with assessing a dangerous young girl called Ellie (Liles), who is highly intelligent and possesses supernatural powers. Fonda attempts to inject some humanity into Ellie, but she is cold and calculating and seems to be toying with him at times and the onlookers watching from behind the glass. The back-and-forth between both characters is competitive and often riveting, with Ellie slowly revealing her abilities to her wide-eyed new audience. Wrapped up in a familiar setup, the decision to study or dissect this meta kid is the central question of Prodigy; but the execution of a simple premise is what keeps the story afloat.
On a very small scale, Haughey and Vidal make the setting feel cinematic with crisp images and smart shot selections that help maintain the tension. There’s a strong backbone in place that allows both actors to bounce off of each other in a well-choreographed mental dance as the dangerous game they’re playing begins to unravel.
Several scenes where Elle demonstrates her powers are the standouts in Prodigy with chairs and tables flying and glass breaking to great effect. These sequences diffuse some of the tension for a moment, only to fully explode late in the film when Elle’s emotions unleash. It’s only then that there has been any kind of breakthrough that could possibly help to save her life.
That gets to the heart of the real question posed in Prodigy: Is an extraordinary life still worth saving if it threatens ordinary lives in the process? Also, does the fact that this potential weapon is housed inside the body and mind of a young, lonely girl make a difference to whether it should survive? These questions and how they’re answered make Prodigy a micro-budget standout in the indie horror genre well worth taking the time to rent this weekend if you’re not planning on attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade somewhere.
Prodigy is now available to on iTunes, Amazon, and other On Demand platforms.
The questions raised and how they’re answered make Prodigy a micro-budget standout in the indie horror genre well worth taking the time to rent this weekend if you’re not planning on attending a St. Patrick’s Day parade somewhere.
Cold Hell (Die Hölle) Review – Giallo Terror Invades Vienna
Starring Violetta Schurawlow, Tobias Moretti, Sammy Sheik
Written by Martin Ambrosch
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
I have a serious soft spot in my horror-loving heart for serial killer films. Movies like Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, The Crimson Rivers, and the like draw me in with their cat-and-mouse mentality. Couple those kinds of movies with non-US settings and I’m 100% hooked. So when I was introduced to Die Hölle (aka Cold Hell), which just started streaming on Shudder, I didn’t hesitate to enter this giallo-inspired thriller.
Cold Hell follows Özge Dugruol (Schurawlow), a Turkish taxi driver in Vienna who clearly lives a strained, almost broken life. The fares she picks up verbally abuse her, the Thai boxing gym where she lets go of her anger has banned her after a violent sparring incident, and her family has its own fair share of problems, including infidelity, lack of responsibility, and painful memories of early years.
One night, after coming home from a long shift, Özge opens the window in her bathroom only to see across the way into the home of another woman who is lying on the ground, flayed and burnt, her dead eyes staring at Özge. Stunned into shock, she can only look on before realizing that the man responsible for this woman’s death is standing in the shadows, looking at her. So begins Özge’s journey of terror as this killer makes it his mission to find and end her life.
Cold Hell has an interesting juxtaposition running throughout the film where cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels’ gorgeous visuals are used to highlight the near-squalor and seedy underbelly of Viennese life that Özge lives in. Each scene is bathed in vibrant colors, streetlight reds and neon greens painting the frames. Marius Ruhland, who composed Ruzowitzky’s Academy Award-winning film The Counterfeiters, lends beautiful and thrilling music that knows when to coil up and provide tension before exploding to mirror the chaotic frenzy of the on-screen events.
A direct commentary on religion’s antiquated view of the place and purpose of women, Cold Hell doesn’t shy away from making nearly everyone in this movie a flawed character. People who were unlikable become understandable once the breadth of their circumstances becomes more clear, as is the case with detective Christian Steiner (Moretti), who originally treats Özge with an almost xenophobic attitude only for us to later see that he cares for his dementia-ridden father. While not excusing his previous behaviors, such a revelation gives his irritation and frustration a more justifiable foundation.
When the action strikes, we are treated to breathtaking car chases, blood splashing across the screen, and believable reactions. The characters in this film get hurt and they show it, limping painfully with their cuts and bruises open for the world to see.
The film is certainly not flawless. Some characters feel shoe-horned in and there are rather lengthly segments where the film comes to a crawl. However, the engaging and nuanced performance from Schurawlow easily kept me glued to the screen.
With beautiful music and gorgeous visuals, Cold Hell is an engaging, albeit slow burn, serial killer thriller. This is one film that should not be missed.
Butcher The Bakers Review – Even The Grim Reaper’s Got His Slow Days
Starring Sean Walsh, Ryan Matthew Ziggler, Mike Behrens
Directed by Tyler Amm
When someone passes away, all anyone ever thinks of is the one that’s been lost – no one, and I mean NO ONE gives any consideration to the one responsible for reeling in those wayward souls…I’m talking about The Grim Reaper, and what happens when he hits a bit of a dry spell. Let’s cross on over to the other side and give a look at Tyler Amm’s Butcher The Bakers.
This horror/comedy centers around a couple of slackers (Walsh and Ziggler) who are both whiling away the hours working at a bakery, and their motivation is about as stagnant as frozen tree sap. One day the hapless duo are chosen to perform quite a Herculean task – they’ve got to prevent a recently “discharged” reaper named Dragomir (Behrens) from mass-collecting souls so he can open a portal to another world…yeah, I’m not shitting you. Seems ol’ Drago liked to snag some undocumented souls which didn’t put him in the best graces with the Human Resources department…or whomever the hell these guys report to in the afterlife. His actions have cause him to be ostracized, basically, and this is his way of getting back at the powers-that-be, if you will. Bottom line is this: the reaper’s coming-a-callin’ and he’s not planning on making this trip back and forth solo, if you know what I’m sayin.
The film, acting as part horror-fest and buddy-comedy, hits the mark on more than a few occasions, but falls flat on others – it’s all in the eye of the interpreter. There are some moments of beautifully-shot brutality, and the laughs are both subtle and pronounced, but if you’re not one of those people who dig a meshing of the two styles, you could potentially want to hit the kill-switch on this one in the early stages. Crisp editing and some seriously nifty camera-work are definite pluses, and while the acting could be a bit more stable, it’s adequate enough to support the presentation that it’s sandwiched into. Overall, I could see some horror aficionados giving this a singular peek just to break up the monotony of all that’s out there in the scope right now, but there’s not a whole lot more to go on with this one – if you’re in the mood to dissolve 94 minutes of your time, press play on this one.
Horror comedies are far too hit or miss in this day and age, and while this movie tries to resuscitate the dead, it eventually gets dragged off kicking and screaming.
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Prodigy Review – This Kid Is Killer
Cold Hell (Die Hölle) Review – Giallo Terror Invades Vienna
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