The Buzz: Jason Bores, Matt Damon Saves China and Stranger Things Remixes the 80's
Matt Damon has been having a bad year. This week on The Buzz we look at how Jason Bourne is just another entry into this atrocious summer movie season. Then we look at how the white savior narrative is still prominent with the controversial trailer of the new Matt Damon film The Great Wall. We explore how a film like The Great Wall could possibly get made in the first place. Finally, we see at Stranger Things a Netflix series that will warm the heart of anybody who loves films of the 80’s.
Film: Jason Bourne and the Summer Movie Season: I have a dilemma as a person who writes about and reviews movies. What do I do if I fall asleep? You see, to put it out there in the opening paragraph, Jason Bourne put me to sleep within the first half hour. Now, I did not sleep through the whole movie (really just for about ten minutes) but, am I still qualified to review the movie? Are the ten minutes that I missed the Citizen Kane of any ten minutes out there that it would make up for a trite, lazy action film. And the answer is no. Because what is a bigger condemnation for the newest Bourne movie than that it made me fall asleep at an afternoon screening.
There is no reason why this movie exists except to wrangle more money out of a franchise that ended in a satisfying way ten years ago. This is the same thing everyone said during the ill-fated Jeremy Renner Bourne spin-off Bourne Legacy. Now Jason Bourne, who has been out of the government’s radar is back to uncover more mysteries about his past while still stumbling on government conspiracies while also being the best MMA fighter in the world. While this is essentially the plot of the three other films, at least they felt refreshing with a narrative pulse to push the film forward. This one seems to put together by thread and needles with as little thought as possible.
Paul Greengrass returns as director for this one with his signature shaky cam (a blight to action movies everywhere) and he is surprisingly steadier than usual. Or maybe Greengrass was just going through the motions of making a movie with his good friend Matt Damon.
The lifelessness of Jason Bourne is indicative of the whole summer movie season. The cliché is to complain about Hollywood making too many sequels or spinoffs so me complaining about that will not add any new dimension. But, what seems strange is what Hollywood is making sequels to movies that nobody is clamoring for. The last Matt Damon-led Bourne movie was ten years ago. Alice Through the Looking Glass was released seven years after the last film grossed a billion dollars. Since then, Tim Burton has lost goodwill from fans (not that he directed this film) and Johnny Depp is in even greater hot water after accusations of domestic abuse. Yet, the film has a larger budget and completely flopped domestically. But it is okay because just a few weeks later was the release of Now You See Me 2, a sequel to a film that was received with a collective shrug from everyone who saw it on TNT.
These films seem to be made out of obligation and with no soul. Look at the tepid X-Men: Apocalypse, filled with talented actors and a studio desperate for a superhero franchise. But, besides a handful of scenes, the film buckles on its perceived self-importance which is reflected in the diminishing returns of the box office in the last few showings. Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, Tarzan and even the indestructible children’s movie Ice Age 4: Collison Course are having down years. I’ve seen all these movies this summer and I had to look up a calendar to even remember that I sat through these movies.
While the known brand helps drive people into the theater, quality always gives an extra boost. That is why Star Wars: Force Awakens was able to become one of the highest grossing movies of all time. People who saw it liked it, decided to go back and brought friends with them. It is the 21st century and a major motion picture studio thought making another adaptation of Tarzan sounded like a good idea after the bombs that were the two Hercules adaptation and John Carter. Jungle Book did well because it was good remix of a classic story with some of the most inventive use of CGI in the past few years. Quality got people to go see the movie.
So, back to Jason Bourne. It only made $59 Million in its opening weekend which is a respectable opening. But, critics and audience scores has been tepid at best. And the summer movie season continues to chug along with disappointing releases after disappointing releases. Hopefully, Matt Damon can rebound by making an action movie that does not offend a whole group of people (Spoiler Alert, he does not).
TV: Stranger Things: It’s strange to think that all the kids who grew up in the 1980’s are now the adults that are running the world. You can see that in our pop culture. Nostalgia 80’s property is springing up left and right, from Ghostbusters to anything that JJ Abrams make.
Stranger Things is a television series ode to the 1980’s, specifically an ode to the Spielberg Amblin films. From the opening credits with its haunting new wave electronic score, ala John Carpenter, to the series being about a group of adolescent friends getting into an adventure with government implications, The Duffer Brothers have created a series that feels close and personal to what they love.
The series follows intertwining characters as 12-year-old Will Byers disappears. Winona Ryder, a prominent component of 80’s films, plays his mother suffering through grief and hysteria by his disappearance. David Harbour plays a police chief task to find the Byers boy as he struggles through alcohol and drug addiction. Then there is a group of precocious adolescence, led by Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), friends with Will, who love science and Dungeons and Dragons. They encounter a mysterious girl of the same age with telekinetic powers. Natalie Dyer plays Nancy Wheeler, the sister of Mike who is trying to deal with being a 16-year-old girl balancing friendships and first loves. Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) is Will’s sister who is trying to keep his mom from going crazy while also harboring his crush from Nancy Wheeler at bay. All this while a monster escapes from a government agency.
Being an 8-episode series, the Duffers are afforded the luxury of developing each character in a way that a movie would not have allowed them. With each storyline, they are able to indulge in their 80’s fandom. They get to make a story about a group of boys on an adventure like Stand By Me, a government conspiracy involving a special creature the children become friends with like E.T. or a simple John Hughes movie with the beginnings of the Nancy Wheeler story.
But, the series never feels self-indulgent in their references or homage. Rather, the Duffers are like hip-hop artists and remixes all the movies they clearly loved in the 80’s. They mix and combine these elements to create something recognizable but clearly original. Stranger Things pops in vibrancy of vision from its creators.
They are also helped by a likeable cast from top down especially from the children. Large portions of the show are devoted to the children who really evokes the mature coming of age narrative that seems to be missing from mainstream films nowadays.
Television continues to prove to be a medium for storytellers to exercise their ability to let a story patiently roll out. It is the mystery element that keeps the viewer pressing the next episode but the Duffers never let the mystery overtake character development. I cannot imagine what they would do with a season 2 as the arc of the first season feels completed but whatever they do decide to do, I’ll be watching.
Coming Soon: How Did Anyone Think The Great Wall is a Good Idea: As mentioned above, a new trailer was released called The Great Wall starring Matt Damon has been causing controversy for good reason. From what I gathered from the trailer, it is about the real reason why the Great Wall of China was erected (to keep out monsters of course). Now if you do not understand why people are angry, just picture Matt Damon in your mind. Now picture geographical location of the Great Wall and the indigenous people in the area. It seems unlikely that Matt Damon would be the hero of that narrative.
When it comes to Asians in films, we (I am an Asian-American for those who didn’t know) have had an especially hard time gaining prominent roles in mainstream Americans films. As a thought experiment, try to think of a prominent Asian actor starring in an American film in the past few years. It is hard to think of just one. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Scarlett Johansson caused controversy when an image of her appeared for the film Akira which is based on a Japanese anime. Last year, Emma Stone got her share of whitewashing when she “convincingly” played a half-Hawaiian and half-Chinese person in Aloha.
It is safe to say that Asians and Americans, for that matter, are no longer tolerating the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood films. The age of Mickey Rooney and Katherine Hepburn playing Asians will no longer be tolerated. But, that also goes for the white savior narrative.
So, onto The Great Wall starring Matt Damon. Last year, Damon got into his own race based controversy when he made the ultimate white privilege argument on Project Greenlight. In talking to African American producer, Effie Brown, he foregoes hiring a female and Asian directing duo for a straight white male director to direct a film with sexist overtones citing that they should consider the hiring based purely on merit. To explain why that is problematic requires a whole other essay that we do not have time for.
The Great Wall feels egregiously part of this white savior narrative with a script written by committee from Max Brooks, Ed Zwick, Tony Gilroy and a whole slew of other writers who are also white males. This includes Ed Zwick who created one of the most famous examples of white savior films in The Last Samurai also known as “Dances with Samurais.”
This film has been in pre-production since 2014 from Legendary, a studio known for producing male geek-based entertainment like Pacific Rim (that explains the monster). But, what makes this movie so interesting is that it is also co-produced by the China Film Group Corporation, which is like what the BFI is to films from Great Britain, and directed by Zhang Yimou. Yimou is one of the great directors of the resurgence of Chinese cinema from the 80’s and 90’s. His Raise the Red Lantern won the Palm D’Or in 1992 and he was also tasked in directing the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yimou has defended the film in saying that he was attracted to the project because of the Chinese elements in them. It even has one of the great Chinese actors and international star, Andy Lau in a prominent role.
For Chinese financiers, making a large scale, CGI—heavy film like this makes a lot of sense. China has seen significant growth in their film market in recent years. The highest grossing movies in the Chinese markets have been big CGI action films like Transformers and this year’s The Mermaid. American films have also begun to make films to appease the Chinese market as well. Iron Man 3 was notable for including a scene made for only the Chinese audience with a prominent Chinese actress that was not seen in American theaters. This collaboration makes sense.
What does not make sense is how Legendary can expect this film to succeed. Not only is there well deserved bad will with the prominent role that Matt Damon has but there is precedent for this. Look back to the atrocious bomb that was the Keanu Reeves starring 47 Ronin. This film is taking a great Japanese legend and adding mystical elements to it and in the English language. This is equivalent to making a Wyatt Earp movie involving an alien invasion (So, I guess Cowboy and Aliens. Well that did not do well either so I’m right). The same is being done here too. With the film being released in February, a notoriously dead month for film releases reserved for films that studios have no confidence in, it shows that Universal, the distributor has reservations as well.
Best case scenario is that the American trailer only highlighted the Matt Damon scenes when in reality the film is actually mainly about the Chinese characters of the films (which I highly doubt). I guess we will just have to see the debacle in self-awarness, that is The Great Wall, when it is released sometime in February.