The Great Wall of Shame

negw9ufktc3ijn_2_aAs someone who has a passion – if not outright envy for Asian history and culture, I’m always absorbing any new books/movies/tv shows set there. When a movie like the Great Wall comes along, naturally it blips on my radar, but like many others, at first I thought – hey this looks pretty cool, and then warrior Matt Damon appears. Ugh.

There’s nothing I dislike more than a movie set somewhere in Asia – usually China or Japan, by a western director like Michael Bay, where every Asian stereotype suddenly appears on screen – usually your panda’s in Japan, ninja’s in China type deal. I am a stickler for authenticity – even in movies with a clearly fantastical theme, and very little tolerance for stereotypical shit – or worse, western world crap forced into an asian movie.

The Great Wall is such a movie – but the strange thing here is its directed by Zhang Yimou! A big fat wtf right there. If I squinted at the screen it could have been a standard Michael Bay affair, and to be honest, despite not outright hating the movie, it was no worse than the Transformers movies. It was very much the western popcorn blockbuster and this strikes me as odd coming from the guy who directed such masterpieces as Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and the Curse of the Golden Flower.

Zhang’s movies are often stunningly beautiful, particularly in regards to the way he uses colour. Now the Great Wall was at times very easy on the eye, but that was not enough to carry it. On practically every level it was a crap movie and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless you’re watching it drunk, love Michael Bay’s backlog or just plain enjoy bad movies.

Now in fairness, I had no interest in watching Great Wall as I expected it to be something along these lines. Having recently returned from Beijing – specifically visiting the Great Wall a second time (the first time 9 years ago), I was actually in the mood for something that perhaps showed the wall in all its former glory. As I climbed to the wall and walked along it, I often wondered how magnificent it would have looked when covered in ancient Chinese soldiers, standing vigilant against the Mongol hordes somewhere in the north. That and I loved Zhang Yimou’s movies. So I thought I would give it a crack regardless.

First and foremost, the real showstopper was Matt Damon being the hero. I had read that his presence on the wall was completely justified and I suppose when you think about it – it’s not a lot different from Marco Polo being in the court of Kublai Khan – European traders did go to China. But it was absolutely unnecessary. It easily could have been a Chinese hero – and hell, it should have been, it would have removed the completely pissweak English elements that ran through it.

But worse, Matt arrived with Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones fame. Now I really like Pascal – he was pretty good in Game of Thrones, but is bloody awesome in Narcos. But here? It’s almost laughable just how bad this character is implemented – the whole subplot involving him and even moreso, Willam Dafoe – a trader whose been kept prisoner in the wall to protect its secrets for 25 years, is beyond bad. There’s just absolutely no reason for this plot, and when Pascal and Dafoe make a great escape and one is promptly killed, the other promptly recaptured, only to be released again later on is just pointless.

Only adding salt to this gaping wound is the fact that Matt Damon speaks in some weird monotone voice that is completely what the fuck. I quite like Matt Damon as an actor, but his voice in this just boggles the mind. About the only explanation I can make is he’s trying to sound European – but he sure as hell doesn’t I’ll tell you that much.

From the Chinese side we have the awesome Andy Lau in the role of Strategist Wang and is completely wasted. The main Chinese presence is a female actor named Tian Jing playing the role of Commander Lin Mae. I am not familiar with her at all, but she struck me as those asian actor’s who keep showing up in western blockbusters, picked only because they can speak English. It sure as hell wasn’t for her acting ability at any rate as she had the emotional range of a muffin. The bigger problem here though was that the Commander was basically anything but. Even when elevated to General, this character was only there to empower Matt Damon – and in the last few scenes, I was actually relieved didn’t move in to kiss him, but still watched him with those big eyes from the wall as he rode away. Blargh!

The commander was the head of a group of women warriors whose name escapes me, who dressed all in blue, launch themselves down off the wall at the great horde of low-budget animated green beasts who are the movies core problem. I’m not actually sure if she attacked with her fellows, but the rest of the time she spent it either looking like someone with authority, or looking at Matt Damon with doe eyes – oh in between translating their English into Chinese for the rest of the cast. Had English just been outright dumped from the movie, it would have been an improvement.

The odd thing about this weak Commander is that many fictional Chinese period movies have very strong female characters – Zhang Zimou’s own movies featuring many of these. One of the things I love about the Wu Xia genre as a whole is that sex rarely matters, the women are more often than not as badass if not moreso than the men. To see this kind of ineffective, doe-eyed princess type character in a Chinese movie, there to be saved by a whitie – and Matt Damon no less, it literally doesn’t get any worse. The *only* saving grace is that it’s been done by a Chinese director – but one whose filmography really contradicts this piece of garbage.

The whole plot of the movie consists of two key elements – stopping the innumerable beasts known as the Tao Tie which attack every 60 years if you’re Chinese, or stealing Chinese black powder and escaping back to Europe if you’re roundeye. Given Matt Damon was the hero – and his selfish plight changed from stealing and escaping to helping the Chinese, I’m not actually sure why the black powder was relevant. It showed up at several key moments and was used to kill the queen Tao Tie, but that didn’t have to hinge upon a bunch of carefactor zero white characters being front and centre to literally thousands of Chinese.

In fact, given how much medieval technology the Chinese have installed into the wall, how many soldiers they have, the quality of their equipment, the precision orders delivered by drums and flags etc – cranes, harnessed warriors, massive fireballs, catapults, automatic arrow firing towers – you name it, somehow they cant cope with the enemy  – it’s the two whities who do. In fact, it’s not long before mighty Matt Damon, an archer better than Robin Hood, concocts a plan to put one of the beasties to sleep and test whether it can be subdued with a magnet stone – something the Chinese have never seen before – ignoring the fact that in the real world the Chinese had been making magnet based compasses for thousands of years prior (but hey this is fantasy) – and soon after teaching them to harpoon baddies whale-style, it’s none other than Matt Damon himself whose scampering down a chain to the foot of the wall to deal with these enemies himself – joined only by Pedro Pascal. In short – it’s fucking ridiculous.

Now none of this would be surprising if this was a Michael Bay movie set in China – other than hordes of authentic Chinese ninja that’d be pouring down from the walls – but this was a movie directed by Zhang Yimou!! I honestly cant understand it. Does not compute. My only guess here is he’s purposely set out to create a western blockbuster set in Asia, with all its badness intact. If that’s what’s happening here, then he’s over-achieved.

Let’s not beat around the bush here, the characters and plot are utter shit. About the only place the movie does achieve are the visuals, but even this is only 50% of the time. There are elements of the Great Wall that look great – when you’re in close and its full of warriors. In true Zhang Yimou style, the soldiers are divided into three types – archers, the wall dancing spear women, and…the black ones with the shields whose role I can just assume is melee infantry. These three distinct types have their own armour and specifically, colours. When you have the red, black and blue armoured soldier en masse it does appear impressive. There was also a solid Chinese aesthetic through all of this – from the drums used to deliver orders, the various and ingenius military defences installed into the wall, even the way the blue warrior women were launched from the wall via giant crane arms. It was visually impressive.

But then it panned back from the wall and it appeared the work of a student digital artist, or scenes from a video game in the 90’s. Just bad basically. The same problem affected the Tao Tie who just looked low budget and copy and paste jobs across the board. This same low budget appearance seemed to affect the desert, which just didn’t look right – ending up in the Chinese capital which wasn’t Beijing, or Nanjing, or Xi’an – but some fictional capital which appeared to have its own Forbidden City type setup regardless.

The Great Wall was just a bad movie. Not terrible, but it was bad. Yimou if you’re reading this, I’m disappointed. I’m going to watch the House of Flying Daggers to cleanse myself.


Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back – a long overdue review.

Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons was hands down one of the best takes on the classic Journey to the West story that I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect blend of Stephen Chow originality, infused with wonderful (and often piss funny) character moments that is Chow’s hallmark. I am particularly fond of the way Chow casts characters (often re-occurring through his various movies) who are just everyday folk. Key characters could literally have been plucked from a street food vendor and thrust onto the screen. When I saw that number two was not being directed by Chow and instead Tsui Hark (most notable for his action movies) I was concerned – but less so realizing Stephen Chow was on as producer. But this second movie while reasonable, fell way short of what made the first movie so good.

The movie released during Chinese New Year and came as a surprise for me as I hadn’t realized it was coming out so sudden. Once again I went along solo, and once again I was the only non-Asian in the cinema. It’s definitely a novelty I think to have that feeling of being in the minority race – but in your home town!

The movie itself was an entirely new cast, none of which I was familiar with. The only castings that really mattered to me were that of the Tang Monk and Sun Wukong – the nefarious monkey king. Sadly, both of these were inferior to the first movie. I read that Kris Wu who plays the Tang monk was a well known singer/performer and I get the feeling he’s been cast more for that reason than his ability to play the role. Whereas Wukong’s Kenny Lin I have only seen once before in the Young Detective Dee movie – and he’s not really someone known to me. Both Pigsy and Sandy were forgettable – Sandy in particular spending the majority of the movie in CGI fish form which was bizarre to say the least.

I will say now that the movie was not terrible – far from it. I enjoyed some of the character interplays – particularly between Tang and Wukong – but at the same time, there was this serious bromance going on between them which was just didn’t feel right. I felt like the Monkey King 2 did a much better job of exploring this often tenuous relationship.

The story itself like Pigsy and Sandy – was forgettable and not worth relating. If anything, the movie was similar to the book Monkey by Wu Ch’eng-En. This story followed the Monkey King from birth to his infamous havoc in heaven, right the way through to accompanying the monk to India to retrieve the scriptures. Along the way there were several side-adventures where the group would solve a problem by killing a local demon – and this movie felt like one of those side adventures. But unlike the book which was a complete tale – the movie felt like it had little purpose and effectively left off where it began, in the middle of a journey. This is all well and good for those familiar with the story, but to anyone else it would seem pointless.

And worse, these side adventures bordered on meh. They had several funny moments in which Stephen Chow’s comedy could be felt, but the effects were the quality of a 90’s video game, culminating in an epic battle with clone buddhas’s that just couldn’t match the epic conclusion of the first movie where the real Buddha intervened in a most awesome way.

Would I recommend the movie? Only to fans of the Journey to the West story but to all others – go watch the Monkey King 2 instead, a surprisingly good movie.

The real shame here is the cast from the first movie were awesome. As I said earlier, they were far from your ordinary choices, particularly Bo Huang whose Monkey King absolutely nailed it (although the animated monkey version was perhaps a tad too feral). But the path the monk took, supported by the awesome Qi Shu – well I’m disappointed. Regardless, I still have my fingers crossed there is a third and it’s once again helmed by Stephen Chow.

2.5 holy scriptures

Sanada Ten Braves movie review

One of the highlights of my movie-going year is the Japanese Film Festival that plays in Melbourne, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It always has a diverse mix of movies and while the quality can be pot-luck, there are always a few gems in there. This year I saw two movies, The Magnificent Nine and Sanada Ten Braves, the latter of which I’ll talk about today.

I’ll say straight up, this movie was quirky. It was like a cross between a typical samurai period movie and the anime series Naruto. It had this bizarre almost playful sense of humour throughout and right from the start I was expecting it to be crap – but I have to say overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Japanese love to propose ‘what if?’ scenarios to their period movies. I’ve seen many movies and drama series that have turned history on its head, exploring often ambiguous themes from slightly different angles. For example one tele-movie had the infamous Oda Nobunaga as a woman – and rather than being assassinated by Akechi MItsuhide – ran off in love with him!

This movie focuses on the famous general Sanada Yukimura – noted for his amazing defence of Osaka castle against the overwhelming forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Sanada clan – former Takeda retainers, were not powerful but were particularly crafty and known to have many ties with ninja. Through skilful negotiation and subterfuge, they managed to avoid getting crushed when literally trapped between the vastly more powerful Hojo, Uesugi, Tokugawa and even the Oda.

This movie has Yukimura as a coward whose entire life was a lie. All the great battles in which he was famed – he wasn’t responsible, it was his ten ninja retainers known as the Sanada Ten Braves. The reoccurring them is about lies – in that, if a lie is believable enough to everyone else then that lie becomes genuine. So essentially the question is – can General Sanada become a genuine hero?

The movie opens with an introduction to the first 9 of the braves and is done in a quite effective anime. The tone for the rest of the movie is established when a message pops up on screen, “This is not an anime, the actual movie will start shortly!”

The ten braves were over the top ninja’s and warriors – literally as if they were plucked from the ninja anime Naruto. As is often the case, translating these kinds of characters to reality often looks like bad cosplay – and in the case of Kirigakure Saizo (also a famous figure from Japanese history / mixed media) – he has that long sweeping forlock and slightly feminine cast which is so popular. Actually he reminded me of Miyamoto Musashi’s flamboyant rival Kojiro Sasuke.

But these characters were fun! There were some genuinely funny moments throughout but what sealed the deal for me was the combat, beyond the ninja combat high-wire type fighting, there was some seriously enjoyable and large scale feudal Japanese combat as Tokugawa Ieyasu launched his massive army against the defences of Osaka – primarily the fortress manned by the Sanada where Yukimura made his name, known as the Sanada Maru.

After the final conflict was resolved, there was a scene in a storehouse that caught me by surprise – it was just the perfect ending, followed by a slightly slapstick epilogue type scene and this bizarre hand drawn series of comics detailing how the surviving members went on to form a performing troupe.

It was bizarre as hell but highly enjoyable and in parts, surprisingly emotional. Highly recommended but don’t go into it with any expectations.


The Pre-Write Project

I’ve been spending a lot of time developing an idea for a novel that’s been percolating in my brain. It’s been at least a year now – maybe two, a process that’s taken far more time than I would have anticipated. It started out as a germ of a story which evolved into a setting and eventual world – well a continent on a world. I began building various systems, governments, cultures and a vague sense of the characters and themes I wanted populating this place.

Currently I have developed all of the above, 3 main characters, 2 antagonists, 2 clear cultures and a 3rd that’s still hazy, and the beginnings of an outline. But it’s getting out of control! Every day there’s something new that needs to be determined, some other painful question that needs answering and the worst part? It needs to be written! Other than the beginnings of a prologue and several partially written chapters, it’s a mountain I’m still down here looking up at the foothills.

So as usual, in my quest to do anything other than actually write – I started hitting up Google for some means of collating this information because it’s getting simply too much to manage. I have Word documents everywhere, notes in my phone, emails to myself, you name it! So much information in so many places it’s ridiculous.

And I came across THE PRE-WRITE PROJECT over at She’s Novel. For $7.00 USD this was exactly what I was after – a series of sheets designed to collate these thoughts into what the creator Kristen Kieffer calls a Story Bible. This bible effectively contains everything I have described above – but more. It drills right down into the details, from initial story intentions to character motivations. In a nutshell – it’s fantastic. For that price it was a bit of a no-brainer for me but I find myself having two problems with it:

  1. It’s sold as a digital workbook but other than being a PDF – it’s not actually a digital workbook. Annoyingly, you cannot enter text into the documents themselves. You’re either going to have to print them out and fill them in or transcribe them yourself. I’ve been trying to unlock the PDF’s and have done so, but it’s not ideal as it’s still not direct text entry. IF these were truly digital workbooks they would be amazing, but for now, they’re simply good.
  2. I need to find the motivation now to actually fill them out. You would think that based on everything I said above that I would be leaping at the opportunity. But nope – the writing muscle I possess is still about as flaccid as it comes. As I begin to fill it out I….Reddit. House of Cards. Stare at closest wall.

One great thing about these workbooks however is they come at you with a plan. Kristen has put down a timeframe and a rough amount of hours needed to fill it out which is really quite realistic. If I can whip my ass into gear, I’ll report back – just don’t hold your breath.

If you pick up these workbooks and find them of value let me know – it might just inspire me to fill them out! If you can find an easy way to unlock the text fields without the Acrobat typewriter thing, double let me know!

Star Trek goes Beyond

mv5bmtu0odk1mtixm15bml5banbnxkftztgwntk3mtc5ode-_v1_sy1000_cr006401000_al_Growing up, I wouldn’t call myself a Star Trek fan. There was always this thing at school – this reoccurring discussion between young males who possessed a gene that automatically attracted them to anything science fiction. You either fell into the Star Wars or Star Trek camps – subscribing to both was out of the question. I fell into the Star Wars camp, but I was never one of those people who felt inclined to rock up a movie premiere in costume – I was content to merely enjoy the movies for what they were – and harbor a secret man-crush for Harrison Ford of course.

But Star Trek – if Star Wars was space opera, Star Trek was space adventure. Always light-hearted and fun with a cast of familiar characters solving space-problems with technological mcguffins. Need more boost in your phase pulsar? Just add neuro-lathed kryithium – duh.

Star Trek Beyond was very much a genuine Star Trek experience – and the best of the three new movies. I quite enjoyed the first Star Trek movie but found the second to be average (although I do think I also over-analysed it). Beyond was different. The plot was largely throw-away but I felt that the new cast of characters (established in 2009’s Star Trek) really hit their stride. In the two movies prior they came across like they were trying too hard to do justice to the original line-up, but in Beyond, they felt like they’d finally became those characters. My favourite I think was Bones, played by the awesome Karl Urban (please go make Dredd 2 now thx), whose banter with Zachary Quinto’s Spock was highly enjoyable. And kudos also to Chris Pine, whose Kirk constantly reminded me of oldschool William Shatner.

As mentioned, the plot was mostly forgettable but the look and feel of the movie was very much a Star Trek adventure flick. I particularly like the way they continue to use original sound effects (such as the distinctive blip of the sensors), and the classic Star Trek sliding doors. The Enterprise appears modern yet old-school – a definite achievement.

If there’s one thing that ties the three movies together it’s the Enterprise getting its ass kicked. Having enjoyed many of the original movies and watching the Next Generation late at night during my school years when doing homework –  I don’t ever recall the Enterprise copping such a pounding as in these recent movies. But hey – in the far flung future, building starships ain’t so difficult, right?

The movie was highly enjoyable and if you enjoy a good sci-fi romp, I recommend Star Trek Beyond.

Independence Day: Resurgence – bringing the lame.

independence0001Independence Day: Resurgence was crap. I know, I can feel your shock at that statement from here! Based on the incredible depth and believability of the first one, how could the second be such a failure? Alright, enough with the sarcasm, but the movie was lame. Even for a switch your brain off, popcorn-munching blockbuster, I went in with no expectations therefore I can’t complain about none of them having been met. But even still, I went in there cheerfully optimistic and it wasn’t until leaving the cinema when my friend commented, “That was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen,” that I couldn’t help but agree.

It wasn’t *terrible*. It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen and in fact was quite watchable. But it did suck, and once again it made me wonder how scripts of this quality even make it to the big screen.

The first Independence Day was actually quite a big thing. Released back in the dark ages (1996) where internet connectivity was nothing like it was today (hell, I don’t think we even really used it back then) – going to the cinema involved queuing for a ticket, then queuing to get into the cinema. None of this easy peasy buying tickets online first and having your phone scanned upon entry, you’d often line up outside the building and slowly snake your way in.

And with the first movie, there was excitement. Big blockbuster special FX movies were not as common as they are today. They were fewer and further between releases as those special FX took time and considerable costs to make, and when trailers for the first one started showing up, we had these massive alien ships hovering over Earth’s cities – and the iconic shot of the White House being blasted. The first movie was actually quite suspenseful before it became ridiculous. The alien ships hovered ominously – were they going to fire? Would they make contact?

Set two decades after the original, Resurgence had none of that. In fact, by the time the final solutions were being decided in the last ditched attempt to destroy the aliens, it felt like the movie was still only starting. The pacing was all over the shop and just like the original movie, it simply devolved into the ridiculous with practically every character from the original making an appearance, with half of them for WTF reasons. Even Will Smith made an appearance in framed picture form, evoking no emotion whatsoever.

To be honest I expected all of the above, as I said I had no expectations, but I was surprised by two things. Firstly, the FX were actually quite lame. The air battles between the fleet of modern Earth defence aircraft and the alien fighters was bargain basement at best. It was also amusing how little effort went into making the alien…alien. Here’s this giant ship, populated by these semi-squid like beings, and yet they still park their aircraft within their mothership like we do – complete with landing lights. They also open and close their main ships doors like a conventional hangar, whilst the squid-things inside are operating the ship from what is simply an airport control tower but with alien texturing. No originality here!

And finally the thing that really amused me was the inclusion of Hong Kong actress Angela Baby – also known as Angel Baby. I was reading an article about her recently, how her natural beauty was claimed to be of the unnatural variety, and she went through a whole myriad of tests to prove she was in fact natural! Anyhow – there was no reason whatsoever for her to be in this movie, let alone part of the ‘main group’ of pilots. From very early into the movie she appeared alongside one of the heroes, this lovely young girl with long, luxurious hair and eyes you could drown in and….WTF.

She had no reason whatsoever to be in this movie. We didn’t go into her backstory other than her being the daughter of the Moon base commander. She was only there for that long luxurious hair which she revealed from her flight helmet the moment she first saw her out of her fighter. Her English was bad, she offered basically nothing to the movie other than a vague love interest for one of the lesser characters and that was it. Why am I making mention of this? Because she was included for one reason – to make this movie sell tickets in China. And the sad thing is, it will. It will probably rake it in, like the recent and almost equally lame Warcraft. This is the first time I can recall seeing something so blatantly including a Chinese element for no other reason than to sell tickets in China, and god that is lame.

Another nod to China was the communication system between the moon and earth – powered by none other than QQ (which many people will be unfamiliar with – think Chinese MSN type software).

So anyway, the final verdict on Independence Day: Resurgence? Avoid, but thank GOD for President Pullman.

The really quite average guys.


Remember Lethal Weapon? Or moreso – Lethal Weapon 2? What an awesome movie that was back in the day. Riggs and Murtaugh was your perfectly mis-matched team, back when Jean-Claude Van Damme was hip and Mel Gibson was pre-lunatic.I was therefore really quite excited to see The Nice Guys. From the trailers (the ever-reliable trailers!), Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling; both of whom I really like (my wife particularly liking the latter), seemed to tap into this long-forgotten mis-matched male chemistry – but alas, twas not to be.

Old Rusty plays Mr Healy, a pay me to punch your problems type whose…well I don’t know. I was going to say a bit down on his luck but that really wasn’t the case. And Ryan plays a character whose name I only learned just this moment from looking it up on IMDB – Holland March – and if that tells you anything it’s that something quite substantial is lacking from this movie. Despite not knowing the guys name, I can tell you he’s your typical hard-drinking, ever-smoking private investigator, but to round off his character has a 12ish year old daughter tacked on named Holly. Holly not only drives her old man around (as i assume he’s always too far over the limit to take the wheel himself), but also involves herself in many of her old man’s cases.

And the case? Well that wasn’t immediately clear until much further into the movie. Both men are out to find someone named Amelia, a particularly annoying character who once found we thankfully spent very little time with her. It all began with the death of a porno star, whose car careened down a hill, through a random little boys house (who had just snuck under his parents bed to steal his father’s stick book – that coincidentally showed us the breasts of this soon to be dead porn star-  oh the masterful foreshadowing!) – and well that was that.

The rest was basically a lame plot littered with some quite enjoyable character moments but that’s about it. There were some funny moments, I did quite like both characters despite Ryan Gosling’s character alternating between masked intelligence and outright retardation, but the movie as a whole? A resounding meh. It became obvious to me as I counted down the painful minutes waiting for this to end, that the guys rolling behind cover shooting at each other thing is no longer for me, and when I think on that, I suspect if I re-watched Lethal Weapon 2 tomorrow, I’d have similar feelings.