Reviews of Two New Hollywood Epics
"Monster Trucks" and "Great Wall"
Two very recent films demonstrate Hollywood's knack for combining eye-filling spectacle with controversial stands on the burning issues of the day. The first example is "Monster Trucks," directed by the aptly named Chris Wedge, and written by the scriptwriters of "Kung Fu Panda." It is a hard-hitting exposé of the baneful effect of oil exploration and hydraulic fracking.

The main character in "Monster Trucks" - - - well, at least the main human character - - - is Tripp Coley, an all-American high-school boy who compensates for his silly name by building a monster truck in his Dad's backyard.

Imagine Tripp's surprise one day when he discovers that an actual monster has taken up residence in his truck! The alien being, who looks like a cross between Cookie Monster on Sesame Street and the giant squid that Kirk Douglas wrestled in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," belongs to a race of creatures that live deep in the earth, placidly feeding on underground oil. Their peaceful habitat has been disturbed by hydraulic fracking, and so they have been forced to the surface.

Up here, they have taken to living in trucks where they can eke out a living by eating the crank-case oil. Although the monster does not speak English (the film's minimal concession to reality), it and Tripp manage to communicate by means of Instagram, and they form a deep spiritual bond based on their shared love of trucks and crank-case oil.

In an hommage to the classic film "E.T.", the script has Tripp resolving to help the subterranean creatures to go home. But an evil businessman, played of course by Christoph Walz, schemes to prevent them from going home, so that they will nevermore interfere with his evil plan to frack their domain and extract all of its oil. Young Tripp and his high-school girl-friend, with the help of a disabled local garage owner, manage to fix up trucks for all the other loveable oil monsters, so that they can all go home together in a sort of monster truck cavalcade.

This permits the film to culminate in an extended car-and-truck chase that looks like an amalgam of "Gone In 60 Seconds," "Smokey and the Bandit," and any number of Loony Tunes cartoons from the 1940s. The plucky teenagers lead their plucky loveable monster friends through an obstacle course, evading troops of bad guys driving black, European limousines. Finally, with the help of Tripp's plucky small-town policeman father (played by Tom Skerrit), the whole cavalcade reaches the end of the movie, in some way the script doesn't make at all clear, except that one of the monsters waves a tentacle.

A new film, due to be released in mid-February, addresses even more up-to-the-minute controversies: it is "Great Wall," an epic historical spectacle starring Matt Damon and a cast of millions, filmed in China.

Matt Damon plays the medieval Chinese emperor Fu Ming Trump, who has ordered the construction of the Great Wall, designed to protect his kingdom from the foreign devils who live outside the Wall. The Emperor orders that all foreign devils must be subjected to extreme vetting, which is carried out by a veterinarian, played by George Clooney. Then both the vet and the emperor fall in love with a beautiful foreign devil, played by Marion Cotrillard.

Extreme vetting reveals that she is actually a "trans" individual, which is to say trans-species: she was born a member of the human species, but sensed in her inmost soul that she was really a Manchurian Mountain hare, inside.

An exciting plot emerges from this exotic triangle, as Matt Damon and George Clooney compete for Marion Cotrillard's favor by showering her with attention, gifts, flowers, carrot tops, and alfalfa sprouts. Then, the mandarin imperial bureaucrats attempt to marginalize Marion because of her trans-species status. They say that if she keeps insisting she is a bunny-wabbit, then she may not enter the imperial palace except through a pet-window.

Matt Damon responds with a tweet disrespecting the mandarin bureaucracy, and an executive order firing them all and appointing Ming family members to replace them. To top it all off, he appoints his son-in-law to the Chinese Laundry Commission, and nominates Tom Skerrit (who arrives fresh from "Monster Truck") to the Supreme Court.

As a result, civil war breaks out in the Middle Kingdom, leading to the invention of rockets, gunpowder, the compass, acupuncture, shrimp in oyster sauce, and the egg roll.

Amid the turmoil, Marion disappears, and Matt Damon demands to know where she has gone. To this, George Clooney cannot resist replying: "Hare today, gone tomorrow" . . . whereupon the Ming Dynasty collapses.

The Manchu Eight Banner army pushes past the Great Wall, preceded by great herds of Marion's adoptive relatives, who hop into all the Middle Kingdom's farmland and munch down all the crops. When the Manchu army reaches Beijing, the Qings replace the Mings in the Forbidden City, Emperor Matt is driven into exile in Yunnan, and his Twitter account is closed. He is still searching for Marion, and has been reduced to writing his daily tweets on little slips of paper placed inside little rice-flour cookies, which are served on top of the restaurant bill.

As the film ends, the camera zooms in on one of these slips of paper, which bears the inscrutable message: "Two days from now, tomorrow will be yesterday." A film sequel along these lines is in production, directed by Paul Greengrass. It will be called "The Ming Identity," and Matt Damon will play a former Chinese emperor who has lost his identity and cannot remember anything from the past.

If only those of us fool enough to sit through these movies could do the same . . .

--- Dr. Phage
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