The Great Wall

Director: Zhang Yimou (2016)
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing
Find it: IMDB

As film fans and frequent cinemagoers, we've all experienced it. You weren't exactly excited to see it, and were lukewarm on the idea at best. Perhaps you were coerced along by a friend or significant other. A film you didn't not want to see, but wouldn't go out of your way to sit through either. Sometimes it works out just fine, a pleasant surprise. Other times, you check your watch ten minutes into the film and pray for the fucking thing to be over already. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of The Great Wall.

As a rule, CGI monsters and I do not get on. If there are hordes of them, and they're computer animated, chances are, I do not give a shit about them. Whether they be zombies (World War Z), Sharknados (Sharknado), Transformers, Transformers 2s, Transformers 3s, Transformers 4s, Transformers dinosaurs, actual dinosaurs (Jurassic World), Orcs (The Hobbit) or generic ugly shits (everything else), if they're in it, there's a high possibility I couldn't care less about them or your movie.

Not unless you can back it up with good character work.  There's a reason the boring Chitauri and Ultron-bots of The Avengers and its sequel didn't make that list of whining - and that's mostly due to the characters, writing and performances elsewhere. In The Great Wall, almost everything is as muggy as the visuals. And the visuals are pretty damn muggy (save for the admittedly excellent costume design). Most muggy and indistinct of all though, is Matt Damon's grumbling, bored performance.

Here he plays a man who has a particular talent for killing monsters - something he does far better than the soldiers of The Great Wall, whose literal job and meaning in life is specifically and only killing monsters. The film throws its non-Matt Damon heroes the odd bone here and there, but it is precisely the Great White Saviour movie that it appears to be. It may not be quite as whitewashed as many had feared, but it is condescending and lazy. I can hardly begrudge Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe the work and screentime though, as they're the only fun to be had in it. Tian Jing shoulders co-lead (ish - very ish) next to Damon, but is as wooden and uninteresting as he is, making the majority of their scenes a bore.

Even (especially) the monsters are of the dull, grey, semi-dinosaur variety, and can only be killed by Matt Damon, Deus Ex Magneto, and Cliche. It's a combination of the three which win out in an astoundingly predictable CGI finale - leaving me begging for writers to start tearing certain pages out of the 'Alien Invasion' playbook, and look for a new way of defeating the monstrous horde for once. Ironically, the creatures' most effective sequence is one in which they're barely seen, shrouded in mist and attacking from the shadows.

By drowning the film in grey and brown CGI sludge, The Great Wall loses sight of what should be its greatest asset - you know, The Great Wall. I wasn't expecting full-on Crash Bandicoot: Warped, but Slightly More Colourful Game of Thrones does neither the Wall or the film any favours. Beijing looks slightly better, but never once does it feel like a real place - and certainly not an inhabited one, with stakes we should care about.

Well, at least Pedro Pascal is having fun. The only character without a predictable arc and, crucially, a smile, his charismatic mercenary almost makes The Great Wall worth suffering through, and his double-act with Willem Dafoe (typecast, but fine) gives the film a much-needed sense of comic relief. And, for all the CGI misfortune, at least the 3D is pretty good. It sounds awesome too (although I am a sucker for traditional Chinese folk music). And the scene with the paper lanterns is genuinely moving.

It's these glimpses of goodness make the film even more disappointing - that there's maybe a good movie buried somewhere beneath the rubble of The Great Wall. That movie has more imaginative monsters (like Attack the Block, but on The Great Wall) and doesn't have Matt Damon in it. This hypothetical movie lets the Great Wall actually look great, gives its Chinese actors something substantial to do, and doesn't flub its ending.

Hypothetical or no, it can keep Pedro Pascal though. All movies need more Pedro Pascal.

5. P2

Note: some elements of this review have been re-purposed from an older version written in 2011. Because nobody needs two reviews of P2. 

Director: Franck Khalfoun (2007)
Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley, Simon Reynolds
Find it: IMDB

Christmas really drives home the loneliness, doesn't it? Cheerful couples walking around, hand in hand, planning a Christmas full of presents and sex together. Love, Actually on TV. Kissing under the mistletoe. Cheerful bastards. Thomas (Bentley) is a security guard who works in a parking garage beneath the office block where the lovely Angela (Nichols) works. Come Christmas Eve, and Thomas snaps. He grabs Angela and holds her hostage in his security booth, determined to make her fall for him. 

2011 segment of review. A ghost from Christmas past, if you will: co-written by Gallic horror maestro Alexandre Aja (2016 edit: remember him?) P2 shows just how unbalanced Christmas can make people. Which singletons among us haven't considered kidnapping a crush just so's we have someone to spend Christmas with?

LOL kidnap jokes. Not really. I spend every Christmas stalking my ex on Facebook, screaming the lyrics to Last Christmas by Wham! at the computer screen, until it becomes blurred behind a film of my own furious drunken spittle.

LOL, I'm a psychopath. Not really. She's blocked me on Facebook. I actually spend every Christmas sitting in my underpants with no presents, crying and watching Silent Night, Deadly Night OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN. End 2011 segment of review. Christ, did I really use the word 'LOL' and make kidnap jokes? 

P2 is like a gender-reversed version of the Australian thriller The Loved Ones - which is to say, straightforward as it comes and unashamed of its exploitation cliche. With its parking lot setting, creepy obsessive kidnapper and vicious canine action, P2 is like The Loved Ones crossed with The Dark Knight crossed with The Human Centipede 2. Put that in your blurb and smoke it (2016 edit: they didn't). Wes Bentley impresses as the quietly sinister Thomas, and Angela a trooper for putting up with the crap director Franck Khalfoun puts her through.

It's not particularly memorable (I had to re-watch it for this feature, which is one more time than I ever figured I would watch P2 in my life) but it is taut, suspenseful, grisly, and has an Elvis Christmas song on the soundtrack. For sure, it'll make you think twice about wandering around parking garages late on Christmas Eve.

4. The Night Before

Director: Jonathan Levine (2015)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie
Find it: IMDB

Because we needed something to wash the taste of Filth out of our collective mouths. A Christmas addition to the ever-growing subgenre of high (ish) concept R-rated Bro Comedies that took off in 2009 with The Hangover, and still refuses to die off, nearly eight years later. Mister Seth Rogen has been responsible for more of these movies than most (his delightful Pineapple Express pre-dates The Hangover), usually with the help of a certain James Franco.

But Franco is foregone in The Night Before, replaced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is essentially a more likeable, less weird version of James Franco anyway) and B-list Avenger Anthony Mackie. Old schoolfriends, this mismatched trio of misfits have an annual tradition of going out every Christmas Eve and getting themselves utterly blitz(en)ed, thanks to an undiluted combination of booze, drugs and hotheadedness. But Rogen's Isaac is soon to be a father, and sportsman Chris (Mackie) has hit the big time, making this Christmas their last together. The lonely and heartbroken Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) is determined to make it the best yet...

It's a simple plot, and follows a predictable through-line: the friends take a bunch of drugs, get into some zany, risque scrapes, all fall out, feel sad and then (spoiler) reconnect in time for the feel-good ending. What makes The Night Before special, however, is everything which comes between. The film's strongest suit is the sheer chemistry and likability of its three leads. The men bicker, act weird and get up to some morally grey shit, but... well, it's Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Just you try being mad at those cheeky little faces. Although Seth Rogen is kind of annoying in this movie, and I say that as a massive fan of Seth Rogen. Here he's like that one friend you have who gets wasted far too quickly on a night out but refuses to go home, and becomes increasingly annoying as the party goes on.

Like everything else though, it's worth it for the payoffs - specifically, dick pics and a great hallucinatory sequence at the end. Almost every joke and setup has a fairly predictable punchline - Chris's weed gets stolen, Jewish Isaac goes to midnight mass, Ethan embarrasses himself in front of his ex, but The Night Before commits hard, and throws in enough strange, subversive or darker touches that it all feels far more original than maybe it is.

Its cameos are too good to be spoiled, but with a supporting cast which takes in Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling and Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer, the film is more than just men behaving badly. Bell's role is relatively small, but a great alternative to the usual shrewish, nagging wife we'd usually get in this sort of movie. Glazer is similarly fantastic as Rebecca Grinch, who pays wonderfully against Mackie, and even giving him his own action sequence to liven things up.

None of them, however, can hold a candle to The Night Before's real star - Michael Shannon, as the guys' drug dealer, Mister Green. The Christmas present I didn't know I wanted until I saw it, Mister Green is... well, beautifully Michael Shannon, charismatic and terrifying at the same time.

'Transcendent' is a big word and is thrown around far too liberally for my liking. It's a word which almost certainly doesn't apply to a film like The Night Before, and yet here I am, using it. It takes a not-particularly-inspiring template and uses that to apply some of the biggest laughs I've had this year. It's not quite a Christmas miracle, but its stars are certainly bona fide angels in my book. Especially you, Michael Shannon.

3. Filth

Director: Jon S. Baird (2013)
Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan
Find it: IMDB

What's Christmassy, you say, about a film in which the life of a corrupt, drug-addled, alcoholic Scottish copper finally falls to pieces, leaving him broken, alone and suicidal? Filth is a film about chronic, self-destructive misery and loneliness during the festive period. Which, in my books, makes it every bit as Christmassy as Santa Claus, eggnog and the Queen's speech. And, if you still need convincing, it has a Christmas soundtrack.

Look, nobody wants to admit it, but being unhappy at Christmas is all a part of the grand tradition. Just look at your seasonal classics: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, and Moe Szyslak's annual suicide attempt ... from the very earliest days of popular TV, literature and movies, writers and filmmakers have been depicting Christmas sadness in its many forms, with varying degrees of darkness. Filth is as black as it comes, making Bad Santa look like Elf by comparison.

For the first time since 2014, I watched Filth again this year. That doesn't sound like much - I don't watch films all the time, and many (most) I'll never watch again. But this is one I watched at least three times in the year following its release, coming to appreciate and connect with it more upon each viewing. Not only is Filth my favourite movie of 2013, but there's something about it which makes it one of my favourite films of this century, period. Filth is a film which deeply, deeply resonated with the Joel of 2013-14, to the extent where I had to stop watching it for a couple of years.

Spoilers, yes, because of the ending and Bruce's suicide. During a period of five years when I was at my lowest ebb in life and culminating with the 'time to get help' August of 2014, something in Filth - the self-loathing, the guilt, the loneliness and repressed grief of Bruce Robertson- reached out and spoke to me; specifically what I perceived at the time to be his 'taking back control' in his final act. Like I said, pitch black as it comes, almost matching the dark heart of the novel upon which it is based, and almost as good too. Never let them tell you that art isn't dangerous. I wouldn't change it for the world, though.

Now, the technical stuff: Filth is packed with an excellent cast from all avenues of British cinema. James McAvoy is perfectly cast as Robbo, his greasy hair and crap beard (you can still see the chin beneath, which is a problem I also suffer from when trying to grow facial hair) practically emanating stink through the screen. The always underrated Eddie Marsan puts in a funny, sympathetic performance as Bruce's punching bag best mate, and there's Jim Broadbent too, as Bruce's doctor. Shauna MacDonald (adored since The Descent), Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, John Sessions, Shirley Henderson, Iain De Caestecker and Martin Compston fill out the strong supporting cast, while genre fans should also get a kick out of seeing the fantastic Pollyanna McIntosh show her face too. Its excellent soundtrack (a mix of Christmas songs and retro pop anthems), haunting score and Scottish burr make it one of the best sounding movies out there too.

Blackly hilarious, upsetting, troubling and curiously uplifting at the same time, Filth is the very Scottish answer to Bad Lieutenant and Bad Santa, and a great addition to the always 'fun' irredeemable-people-seeking-vague-redemption subgenre.

As time passes, however, so does one's perspective on art, and life. I watched Filth again in preparation for this piece and, this time, something about it didn't quite click. It remains one of my favourite films of this decade, but a part of me has moved on from Filth. And that's probably for the best.

Related: this piece I wrote for men's health charity The CALM Zone.