Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Feb. 17 2017 3:02 PM

The Great Wall Is One-Third Terrible, Two-Thirds Great

Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall is roughly two-thirds great movie, one-third terrible one. I call it “Zhang Yimou’s” less out of auteurist principles than because it has up to this point been associated almost entirely with its star, Matt Damon. From the moment it was announced that Damon would be playing the lead in a fantasy story centered on the Great Wall of China, the movie was accused, incorrectly, of whitewashing, and, more plausibly, of being a white-savior movie in which Damon’s character teaches Chinese troops how to repel the monsters the wall was built to keep out. Amid Damon’s tone-deaf public response to the issue and the controversy around his treatment of black producer Effie Brown on Project Greenlight, the fact that The Great Wall was also a film by one of the greatest of China’s Fifth Generation directors was reduced to a virtual footnote.

Let’s deal with the one-third first. I can’t claim to be a Matt Damon completist, but this is at the very least one of the worst performances of his career. Buried under a comically shaggy beard and wig for the first part of the movie, his character becomes no more distinct once the scruff is shorn away. An, I guess, Irish fortune-seeker (the accent, whatever it’s meant to be, comes and goes) who’s come to medieval China in search of “black powder” (i.e. gunpowder), he and comrade Pedro Pascal stumble upon the Great Wall by accident—you might think it’d be hard to miss, but, at least in this universe, you’d be wrong—and discover its true purpose: protecting China from the hordes of monsters known as the Tao Tei.

The pre-release criticism of The Great Wall, most forcefully raised by Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu, was that insertion of white characters—Willem Dafoe also plays a prominent role—into a fundamentally Chinese story was an unacceptable concession to the conventional wisdom that big-budget international productions cannot succeed without a Hollywood star, who is almost always a white man. You can make a movie about Native Americans or Japanese samurai, but you’d better find a way to center it on Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise. Given that The Great Wall is predicted to come in behind The Lego Batman Movie at the U.S. box office on its opening weekend, it’s not clear that’s even true in a pragmatic sense—it opened bigger in China, although it dwindled quickly thereafter—but that argument also ignores the political ramifications of casting a white European man as the salvation of not only the Chinese characters around him but, in this case, China itself.

As a filmmaker who has been making movies in the government-controlled Chinese film industry for decades, however, Zhang Yimou is adept at the art of subversion, or at least of simultaneously serving multiple masters. It’s true that we enter The Great Wall’s story through the eyes of Damon’s William, but he’s almost immediately sidelined once we meet the Nameless Order, the Chinese forces under the command of Tian Jang’s Commander Lin. Although they managed to talk their way out of being promptly executed, William and Pascal’s Tovar spend most of the Nameless Order’s first battle against the Tao Tei tied up on a parapet, looking on in silent awe as the order’s color-coded troops deploy a dazzling array of combat strategies against their mythological foe. There are undoubtedly more scenes devoted to William than any other single character, but it still feels like the material pertaining to him has been cut in half. (For an epic fantasy, The Great Wall is startlingly short, barely over 90 minutes without the closing credits.) There either needed to more scenes centering on William or, better yet, none. Even after six writers, including The Last Samurai’s Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, finished with the script, there’s no compelling reason for William to be at the center of this story, and Damon acts like he doesn’t know why he’s there, either.

Feb. 17 2017 1:45 PM

Drew Barrymore’s Santa Clarita Diet Is Really About a Husband’s Fear of His Wife

Sheila Hammond, freshly zombified, seems like a brand-new woman. A real-estate agent, wife, and mother, she’s long adhered to the whole suburban-mom thing: green smoothies for breakfast, a closet full of monochromatic business attire, SAT prep on weekends. But then she comes down with something. She vomits buckets of green goo and coughs up what looks like a small organ. She “dies,” then immediately wakes up. She’s renewed, rejuvenated, and hungry for the delicacies she’s long deprived herself of—not the human flesh she now needs to survive, but spontaneous sex, nights out, morning jogs, a Range Rover.

“I don’t feel dead or undead,” she tells her family and the neighbor boy who diagnoses her. “I feel the opposite: totally alive.”

Santa Clarita Diet wisely shrouds Sheila’s transformation in mystery. Something about a Serbian curse and earlier-reported cases lend a mythology to her condition, but don’t hamper its implications. This is the story of a family grappling with their matriarch’s newly discovered agency. And, more importantly, it’s about how her husband can’t really deal with the sudden shift in the status quo.

Feb. 17 2017 1:20 PM

Anne Hathaway Is Delightful as a Literal Monster in the New Trailer for Colossal

Colossal, the latest effort from Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), starts out not unlike a good chunk of broad American comedies: Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a washed-up party girl, loses her job and boyfriend and moves back home to pick up the pieces in her life. From there, however, the film proves to be anything but typical. Rather abruptly, Colossal unveils itself as a delightfully bizarre monster movie.

In what can reasonably be described as her most interesting role in some time, Hathaway plays a woman who comes to a realization that her own mental breakdown is, in some way, connected to and responsible for a giant kaiju rampaging through Seoul, Korea. Along those lines, the movie balances laid-back humor with its extraordinary premise, and according to the reaction out of its well-received Toronto International Film Festival debut last year, it’s also full of surprises. This first trailer doesn’t give too much away, but it does shine a light on Hathaway thoroughly enjoying her monster-related character, and should hopefully serve as a reminder that in addition to being a great dramatic actress, she can be pretty funny too.

Colossal hits theaters on April 7.

Feb. 17 2017 11:40 AM

Watch Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler Launch an Underground Casino in the Trailer for The House

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler have teamed up to run The House, a new studio comedy from first-time director Andrew J. Cohen (best known for co-writing the Neighbors franchise). The film centers on Will and Kate, parents of a college-bound high school graduate who start an underground casino in their basement to fund the tuition bill they secretly cannot afford. And, as these movies tend to go, things get a little wild.

The pairing of Ferrell and Poehler, who outside of Tina Fey projects Baby Mama and Sisters has yet to lead a studio film, appears inspired here, as does the supporting cast. Aboard The House as part of the impressive assembled ensemble are Jason Mantzoukas (Sleeping With Other People), Cedric Yarbrough (Speechless), Rob Huebel (Transparent), Allison Tolman (Fargo), Michaela Watkins (Casual), Lennon Parham (Playing House), Steve Zissis (Togetherness), and, perhaps most notably, Jeremy Renner. Even if Cohen’s transition to directing doesn’t exactly pan out, there might be enough talent here to make The House a worthwhile stopover anyway.

The House hits theaters on June 30.

Feb. 17 2017 9:56 AM

Late Night Comics Had No Idea What to Make of That Trump Press Conference

“Our show tapes at 6:30,” Seth Meyers explained as he began his “A Closer Look” segment on Thursday night. “Usually, we start writing ‘A Closer Look’ the night before; by 1:00 p.m. today, we had a draft about Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare that we felt good about. And then Donald Trump held what can only be described as a batshit crazy press conference.”

Here’s Stephen Colbert making sense of Thursday’s horrifying events on the fly, to begin The Late Show: “I am your host Stephen Colbert, and wow. I am glad you could be here on this historic evening, because Donald Trump held his first solo press conference as president …. It just happened, actually. We’re recording this in the early afternoon. It literally just finished. What I’m saying is this is fresh. It must be fresh because you can smell it.”

And here’s a very grim, troubled Trevor Noah, echoing Meyers’ claims of a rewrite: “We had a really nice show planned for you. Very civil, very calm. And then, in the middle of the day, Hurricane Trump happened—again.”

Donald Trump’s bizarre, winding, frighteningly erratic press conference on Thursday had late-night comics scrambling as to adequately make sense of it. The amount of remarkable details—Trump’s “All Black People Must Be Friends” comment, his repeated lie about the size and historical significance of his victory, his stunning attacks on the media, his contradictory comments regarding “real leaks” and “fake news” and whether his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did anything wrong, his demand that a Jewish reporter expressing concern about an uptick in anti-semitism “sit down” and “be quiet,” and on and on—rendered any cogent summation impossible. Noah and Meyers’ teams cut together highlight reels, making clear just how unsettling the whole charade was, while Colbert turned to news anchors’ bewildered, and in most cases disturbed, reactions. “Words fail me,” as Colbert admitted.

Noah probably came closest to capturing the essence of what we all bore witness to on Thursday, in channeling Trump’s performance: “I’m not drunk. You’re all drunk. You’re all drunk. This my motherfucking house. This my motherfucking house. Goony goo-goo. Goony goo-goo.”

Enough said.

Feb. 17 2017 9:28 AM

Foreign Titles for The Last Jedi Finally Settle the “Singular or Plural” Debate

At last, Disney has put the galaxy’s largest “singular or plural?” question to rest. In January, the studio revealed that the title of Star Wars: Episode VIII would be The Last Jedi, sparking a debate (à la The Last Samurai) about whether the word Jedi is meant to be singular or plural in this instance.

On Friday we got our answer, thanks to the official French Star Wars Twitter account, which divulged the French title of the film:

Les Derniers Jedi uses the plural form of “Last,” making it indisputable: The Last Jedi definitely refers to multiple Jedi. Other offical foreign accounts soon also posted titles in their languages, all using plural pronouns, in case there was any remaining doubt.

Now the question we’re left with is: Who are the last Jedi? Luke, the only Jedi we know is left alive, and Rey, who we can assume will become his pupil? Does the title also refer to Finn, who showed some signs that he might be Force sensitive? Will Kylo Ren, who once trained as a Jedi, return to the Light side? Are there others?

We may have to wait until Dec. 15 to know for sure.

Feb. 17 2017 9:04 AM

The Good Fight, CBS’ Streaming-Only Good Wife Spinoff, Is Caught Between Two Worlds

The first voice you hear in The Good Fight belongs to Donald Trump. It wasn’t meant to be that way: Robert and Michelle King had conceived their CBS All Access spinoff of The Good Wife beginning with a victory lap for liberal law partner Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), whose office décor prominently featured a grip-and-grin photo of her and Hillary Clinton. But instead, thanks to some close-to-the-wire reshoots, we open on Diane’s face frozen in shock as she sits in a darkened room watching Trump take the oath of office.

The episode’s title, “Inauguration,” does double, and maybe triple, duty. It’s a new day in America, if an exceptionally gloomy one, and it’s a new era for Diane, who quits the firm she co-founded with plans to retire to the south of France, only to lose her life’s savings in a Madoff-like investment scheme. It’s also a new era for CBS, which is using the extension of its most acclaimed show—if far from its most popular—to break ground for original scripted programming on its subscription streaming service. (It was supposed to be joined by Star Trek Discovery, the franchise yang to The Good Wife’s yin, but that troubled production has already shed one showrunner and is now scheduled for later this year.) Although the original series was nominated for 42 Emmys and won five, including two for star Julianna Margulies and one for her (sometimes virtual) co-star Archie Panjabi, its frequent losses to shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones clearly stuck in the Kings’ craw. Towards the end of the show’s run, CBS took to running “For Your Consideration” ads highlighting the difference between The Good Wife’s 22-episode season and cable shows’ eight to 13, which is a little like an early primate complaining about the unfair advantage of opposable thumbs.

That being the case, you might expect The Good Fight to run with the advantages of its tidy 10-episode first season. But the two episodes available in advance of its February 19 premiere show the Kings and co-creator Phil Alden Robinson trying to balance the comforting familiarity of a broadcast show with the freedoms of nonlinear TV, and not immediately succeeding in either realm. Even the show’s distribution feels caught between two stools. The first episode will premiere simultaneously on CBS and CBS All Access, while subsequent streaming-only installments will arrive at a weekly clip. The staggered delivery of broadcast meets the additional cost of streaming: The worst of both worlds. Although The Good Fight’s images are letterboxed to give them an added veneer of class, it looks to be shot on a substantially smaller budget than its prestige predecessor. The pilot’s credit sequence, which features a succession of office furnishings exploding in slow motion to the Ren Faire strains of David Buckley’s theme song, reeks of a desperate attempt to seem “edgy,” like a recently divorced dad showing up with a fresh tattoo.

The Good Fight’s episodes are studded with f-bombs—FCC-safe alternate takes were shot for the pilot’s broadcast version—but the show thus far shows little inclination to run with the freedoms afforded by its medium. It’s not even as adventurous as The Good Wife, which regularly took advantage of its longer seasons to build episodes around innovative structural gimmicks. In its first two episodes, The Good Fight has its hands full moving Cush Jumbo’s Lucca Quinn to center stage and introducing Diane’s goddaughter Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), a novice lawyer whose fledgling career is almost immediately torpedoed by her involvement in the same financial scandal that wiped out Diane’s retirement savings. Diane and Maia’s attachment to that Ponzi scheme makes them both toxic, especially among Diane’s former allies; like Madoff’s fund, this one purported to do good as well as turn a profit, and Diane vouched for it with liberal friends and organizations, all of whom are similarly devastated by the loss. But they find a home at Lucca’s new firm, a largely black concern run by Delroy Lindo’s Robert Boseman.

Dealing with race was never The Good Wife’s strong suit, but the Kings seem intent on attacking the issue full-bore here. In “Inauguration,” Diane defends the city of Chicago in a police brutality suit involving four white officers and a black victim; when Robert’s partner, played by Justified’s Erica Tazel, balks at bringing Diane on board, he quips that she’s a “diversity hire.” Tazel’s Barbara Kolstad takes an immediate dislike to Diane: It’s clear she sees her as a typical white liberal, a pre-intersectional feminist whose solidarity is only skin deep. And though we’re naturally in Diane’s corner, the show gives us some reason to agree with that assessment. In the second episode, “The First Week,” Diane needs to hire a new assistant, and she bypasses the black candidates Barbara has lined up in favor of a familiar white face: Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold. Granted, Marissa’s also taken the initiative and provided critical assistance on a new case, but there’s still something slightly ugly about the way she uses her previous connections to jump the queue, and the show doesn’t shy away from it.

The Good Fight is timid in other ways, though. One of The Good Wife’s most distinctive features was its brutal realism about the amoral workings of the legal system: Sometimes our heroes were on the right side, sometimes the wrong, but in either case who won was solely the function of who played the better game. In The Good Fight, there’s a scene in the pilot where Diane explains to idealistic Maia that every client deserves vigorous representation, the kind of One-L civics lesson The Good Wife took for granted its viewers already understood. As the show’s most prominent new character, Maia ought to get the most real estate in its opening episodes, but there have been so many stories about naïve attorneys discovering what the law is really like, and Leslie’s wide-eyed anxiousness adds nothing new to the mxi.

If this were a broadcast show, one could forgive the sluggish start, but The Good Fight does little to generate the kind of excitement necessary to get audiences to sign up for yet another paid service, and it’s doubtful those who already subscribe to All Access for a la carte NCIS episodes will find much added value in it, either. By the end of its run, The Good Wife was pretty well out of gas, and The Good Fight is still struggling to fill up the tank.

Feb. 17 2017 5:33 AM

Is Fifty Shades Darker Actually Any Darker Than Fifty Shades of Grey? We Ran the Numbers.

This post contains spoilers for Fifty Shades Darker.

The title may say Fifty Shades Darker, but is the new BDSM-flavored romance from James Foley actually any darker than its prequel, Fifty Shades of Grey? Since nothing is hotter than a little statistical analysis, we ran the numbers to compare the amount of sex, kink, and overall darkness in both films. Below, you’ll find our results, in chart form.

Sex and Nudity

Since our main characters have already hooked up when Fifty Shades Darker begins (and because there's not nearly as much paperwork this time around), there’s also a lot less time to wait before the first sex scene.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-1

Even so, the number of such scenes in each movie is about the same. Note: We’ve stretched the definition of a sex scene here to include some erotic scenes that don’t technically include any intercourse, like Ana’s first spanking, or when Christian introduces her to the Ben Wa balls. Still, both movies are remarkably consistent when it comes to the amount of doin’ it.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-2

Amazingly, even the precentage of time Christian is seen shirtless is so reliable across both films that we can only conclude this is the result of a carefully calibrated formula designed to maximize the impact of Jamie Dornan’s naked torso.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-3b

BDSM

Okay, so we’ve established that there’s just about the same amount of sex in both movies. But how about the amount of BDSM? Surely to justify the sequel's title, there should at least be some darker tastes in play. And yet, when you run the numbers, there’s actually surprisingly less BDSM to be found throughout Fifty Shades Darker, which tends to favor some light exhibitionism over kinkier fare. For starters, there are fewer spankings—and only hand-administered blows in Darker, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey also makes use of the riding crop and a particuarly nasty belt.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-5

There’s also less equipment being shown off, in general ...

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-4

... and significantly less time spent in Christian’s carefully color-coordinated sex dungeon.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-6

General Darkness

Fine, so Darker isn’t all that much darker when it comes to sex. But what about outside of the bedroom (or in this case, the red room)? In Fifty Shades of Grey, the greatest threats Ana and Christian faced were broken hearts, sore bottoms, and, in one instance, a speeding cyclist. But in Fifty Shades Darker, they’re almost constantly in danger, whether Christian’s troubled ex is brandishing a weapon or Ana’s boss is being a world-class creep. There are not only more than triple the number of threats to the main characters' safety/well-being, those threats are also much more severe.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-7

Throw in the revelations about Christian’s terrible childhood, and Darker’s title turns out to be wholly justified. Then again, for those characters who aren’t named Christian or Ana, it really doesn’t matter which movie you’re in—it’s just not safe to go near an elevator when those two are in it.

170215_MOV_CHARTS_-sexscenes50-shades-8

Feb. 16 2017 4:14 PM

Why Was Rey’s New Hairstyle Such a Big Secret? Here Are Some Theories About What It Might Reveal.

If you don’t think that a photo of an empty toy box is enough to send Star Wars fans into a tizzy, then you really don’t know Star Wars fans. The community has been abuzz ahead of Force Friday II, a fan event celebrating the launch of products for the next Star Wars sequel, The Last Jedi, over a glimpse of the packaging for the new film’s merchandise.

The big reveal here is the new hairstyle being worn by Rey, who has traded in her triple-bun ’do for what looks like a half-up, half-down hairstyle. Why is this such a big deal? Because back in July, Rey actress Daisy Ridley posted a video of herself working out—and wearing a pillowcase on her head, “to protect my REY HAIRSTYLE from Instagram’s gaze,” she wrote at the time, following up with the hashtags #topemployee and #secrecyqueen, for good measure.

That suggested that Rey’s new look has some kind of spoiler-y significance, too important to the plot or the character’s development to let fans have a peek. So now that the style is out in the open, we took our best guesses at what it might mean.

Rey’s hair is hiding a Padawan braid.

The mystery of Episode XIII’s title is who, exactly, is (or are) The Last Jedi? The Force Awakens leaves off with Rey offering a lightsaber to Luke Skywalker. Was she once one of his pupils, before she was abandoned on Jakku as a child? Will Luke train her in the ways of the Force?

A lightsaber alone does not a Jedi make, so a good indicator of whether or not Rey is one of the last Jedi in question would be the presence of a Padawan braid, which indicates that the wearer is a Jedi-in-training. Rey’s new longer, flowing hairdo might be concealing one.

Her hair is hiding no Padawan braid.

Then again, not every Jedi-in-training has a Padawan braid—Luke, who trained while the Jedi were nearly extinct, never wore one. But the absence of a Padawan braid could also be a spoiler in and of itself. Will Luke refuse to train Rey, even though she is Force-sensitive?

Rey is a Skywalker, and her hair reflects her heritage.

You know who else had any number of prominent hairstyle changes? Princess Leia, who switched between her famous cinnamon roll buns, crown braids, loose waves, and more. And Leia’s mother, Padme Amidala, was the queen of the salon, changing hairstyles about as often as she changed outfits. Might Rey’s new look be a nod to her ancestry?

Ridley is just messing with us.

Controlled leak culture has run amok, with studios shrouding even the tiniest nuggets of information in secrecy and fans pouring over any insignificant detail. Ridley is making a statement by creating a mystery where none exists, sending culture bloggers into furious fits of analysis over a toy box. And hey, look, it worked!

Rey is somehow related to Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson).

quigon
Who wore it best?

Lucasfilm

Feb. 16 2017 2:00 PM

These Genius, Three-Ingredient Cookies Will Be Ready Before the Oven Beeps

This post originally appeared in Genius Recipes from Food52.

When you call Dorie Greenspan to say you’re coming over, this is what she bakes. “It takes longer to preheat the oven than to put these cookies together,” she wrote to me. “I love them for a million reasons, but chiefly because they're a simple pleasure that can be shared on the spur of the moment.”

Dorie learned the recipe from Martine Collet, one of her oldest friends in Paris, and couldn’t quite believe it. There are only three ingredients: egg, almond, and sugar, simply stirred together—and in very un-cookie-like fashion, no flour or butter.

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