For much of my life, I’ve made a concerted effort to see wide release movies together in their opening weekends. Though rival studios only really focus on one element when choosing release dates – $$$$$ – unintentional connections can still be forced made between the flicks because most contemporaneous art tends to comment on shared factors intrinsic to the time and environment in which they’re produced. As such, I shall attempt to explore these ideas – BRIEFLY, I swear – every Monday through the lens of the weekend’s slate after having the opportunity to see them all (within reason). Though they’re almost always far superior offerings, because of their ever-changing release dates from city to city, independent films will be excluded from this series, which I’m dubbing “Weekends in the Cinema” (SONDHEIM!!!). Without further ado…
The three movies released wide this past weekend – A Cure for Wellness, The Great Wall, and Fist Fight – are all throwbacks in their own way:
But before going down that nostalgic road, time for a Bill Simmons-inspired game of “are we sure he’s good,” Dane DeHaan edition: he’s proven that he’s an expert at a specific type of externally tortured, internally sensitive character – his role in A Cure for Wellness fits squarely inside that wheelhouse – but will he ever become the sort of chameleon considered to be a trademark of performer greatness?
Someone who IS unequivocally not only good, not only great, but one of the most under-appreciated directors working today: Gore Verbinski. Though all of the narrative’s dots probably require multiple viewings to connect (if they even do at all), a totally original – yes, that’s right, as in not based on a pre-existing property, praised be such a miracle – cinematic story THIS imaginative, of THIS scale, told THIS stylistically (with this deep of a title) is a novelty SO rare nowadays that many of the flick’s readily-apparent flaws are easily forgiven. Such creative work deserves to be supported in the current, excessively derivative Hollywood landscape.
Whereas Gore convincing any studio to finance such a pricey, unknown commodity is almost impossible to believe, it’s very obvious how The Great Wall was greenlit, and the answer also represents what contributes the throwback vibe of the proceedings: Matt Damon. Like Westerns of lore, the story chronicles a stoic white man visiting an exotic locale to protect the native people of color, in the process finding purpose in his previously purposeless life (thus the stoicism) through integrating into their society. Many have appropriately lambasted this white-washing; despite the clear respect for the local culture, do we really need another story about diverse communities unable to help themselves without the aid of a genius Caucasian? Though blind criticism before experiencing in full what’s being criticized should always be kept in check, Matt Damon’s work here – potentially the most wooden turn of his career – ends up justifying that previous naysaying.
A part of me wanted to chalk up his rigidity as an intentional homage to the unrealistic performance style of many Westerns, but the unnatural beats in the story’s development – not to mention the clunky dialogue – conform to my suspicion that much was lost in translation between the Chinese director and the American performers/writing (another possible reason the narrative unfolds inorganically: the screenplay is credited to six – 6! – writers; any more than two usually = too many cooks in the kitchen).
BUT, the visually arresting, large-budget-dependent vision of that Chinese director – the ineffable Yimou Zhang – would never have had a chance to be seen without the participation of such moneymakers as Matt Damon. Ideally, Yimou Zhang could raise 150 million dollars – the cost of The Great Wall – without needing to compromise by westernizing, but until that day comes, I will happily slog through the worst of Will Hunting to experience such cinematic marvels on the big screen. Can we at least take comfort in him being able to direct a tale from his own country, as opposed to being forced to tell yet another Hollywood yarn?
Whereas The Great Wall refused to abide by the tenets of today’s politically correct/outrage culture, Fist Fight took the opposite approach, as superficially evidenced by the title NOT being Teacher Fight, a far more descriptive phrase that characters say countless times throughout its duration (producers must have wanted to avoid the outcry that could’ve been stirred up by such a potentially offensive idea, even though people probably would’ve been way more interested in seeing a movie about a teacher fight). The chosen name may adhere to present dictates, but the actual content sticks to a more old-fashioned comedic style where realism completely falls by the wayside in the name of yucks. Yet the humor of the era the filmmakers harken back to benefited from being politically incorrect, ala last year’s exceedingly unheralded Dirty Grandpa. As such, Fist Fight seems unfortunately caught in the middle of two polarities; its unrealistic approach comes across as placid without being accompanied by balls-to-the-wall comedy (Fist Fight would surely note the misogyny of that phrase, preferring ovaries-to-the-wall). The point and shoot cinematography encapsulates this tone…in fact, point and shoot accurately describes the entirety of the direction. The promising premise, intermittent funny moments, and uniformly game cast (more Ice Cube! Why couldn’t this have been a buddy comedy like HBO’s recent Vice Principals?) make the viewing experience more than tolerable, but Fist Fight getting stuck between the then and the now prevents it from being at all memorable.