Wednesday March 1, 2017
Book 17: A Little Immortality — Part I
Next

The Great Wall

GreatWall On the just-eat-your-popcorn side of the cinematic fence The Great Wall is a pretty good fantasy movie. It’s beautiful, the monsters are despairingly powerful, and the action sequences left me wondering if Cirque du Soleil performers were on the stunt team. It doesn’t clear my Threshold of Awesome, but if you want to eat popcorn in a theater seat this weekend it’s not a bad choice.

Many of you may be happy to leave it at that, but I do have further thoughts. Nobody is going to make you read them, much less agree with them.

On the critically- and culturally-aware side of that fence the film is problematic. I feel just a little bit guilty for not feeling too bad about it. The Great Wall seems very much like a Chinese film expertly shoehorned into Western theaters, which I believe to be safely on the non-appropriative side of the fence¹.  This may seem like a double standard, but I think the Chinese studios should be able to use whatever Chinese cultural elements they want to without reproach. Western studios, on the other hand, earn all kinds of reproach. Hollywood continues to earn scorn from lots of people on this front.

I really am going to to talk more about the film itself, but before I do I need to drop a caveat: the arguments regarding cultural appropriation are far too involved for this post, and no matter which side you take in those matters I’m not going to be able to change your position here. So I’ll give that a wide miss, and tell you why I’m okay with Chinese monster-fighting heroes atop the Great Wall of China having their story told from the point of view of a white dude with a Skyrim accent.²

First, this film is dominated by Chinese actors who are speaking Chinese. It’s heavily subtitled, with only five English-speaking characters³. There are at least a dozen big roles, and only three of them belong to European-flavored hominids. As a white guy, I felt like a foreigner in this film, and Matt Damon was a pretty good proxy for my POV. I’ve never been left wanting for films that represent my particular phenotype, but if you’re after my movie dollar, this casting decision makes sense.

Our female lead, Tian Jing, is the one with all the power in this relationship, and kicks all kinds of monstrous hindquarters. She takes plenty of heroic action without impetus or assistance from the white dude (or ANY dude.)  I think that if I were an Asian female, I’d also feel pretty well represented. I think. I don’t actually speak for that group, obviously.

This demographic contrast is most clearly evidenced in the marketing for the film. The image above was created for Asian markets. Matt Damon’s picture dominates the marketing here in the West. Here’s a side-by-side, with a monster in the middle.

GreatWall3Posters

See how the monster stares into your soul? I think it’s asking you how you feel about the images to either side, and daring you to express a preference. And no matter what you pick, it will eat you.

If you want to do a cultural barometer check on yourself, page through the IMDB images for The Great Wall and ask yourself which ones speak to you. Like actual barometric readings there’s no wrong answer here. Just interesting data.

Okay, I said “problematic” way up above in the 3rd paragraph. The problem is that Matt Damon’s character fits quite cleanly into the Great White Savior trope, which has been pretty threadbare since Fern Gully. It’s somewhat mitigated by the “we can only do this together” shtick, and some solid protagging  from other characters, but only somewhat. If this particular trope is a show-stopper for you, I think that The Great Wall is a show that you’ll stop watching.

I’ve run on for long enough, and need to go make comics now. I’ll leave you with this: The Great Wall is a pretty cool movie that I think got a bit more shade cast on it than it should have. I had a lot of fun, and many of you will too.


 

¹ Or “wall,” if you will. I’m too good a person to make that joke in the body text above, but too flawed a human to leave it lying around completely un-joked.
² Matt Damon is my new favorite Nord. His accent was subtle enough that my ear didn’t have to reboot, but Nordic enough that I desperately want him to say “Ysgramor” and “draugr.” 
³ There are eight English-speakers if you count the three who die horribly in the opening scene. Spoiler alert, I guess?
⁴  I really enjoy seeing non-me-like people on the big screen. Studios should make more movies with non-me actors in lead roles.
⁵ Protagging is my word for when a protagonist takes initiative and does stuff to move the story forward. I’m proud of this word, in part because Brandon Sanderson uses it.

 

The Lego Batman Movie

LegoBatmanWhile it did not quite make it across my Threshold of Awesome, The Lego Batman Movie was plenty of fun, and had lots of awesome moments. It’s something I’ll probably want to pick up on Blu-Ray, because there are plenty of amusing, fannish, and/or Easter-eggy things going on in the background, and those are usually good for a couple of re-watches. At least for me.

The opening romp¹, in which our hero is awesome and makes it look easy, is possibly the most over-the-top action movie romp ever. Possibly. I hadn’t realized this was something for which I would want to be keeping score.

Unlike The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie does not have live-action stuff happening outside the fourth wall. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Those scenes made The Lego Movie work for me², but I know they threw a lot of other people out of the film. I share this not as a spoiler, but as a meta-unspoiler. Don’t sit there waiting for live action moments to explain in-Lego plot points. You might be able to headcanon³ a few such moments (I know I did) but that’s always a perilous path to walk, since you’re putting things into the movie that the director did not put in.


 

¹ By my definition, the Romp is the Act I scene in an action/adventure film in which we see our hero(es) being competent and successful. It is used to make promises about the kinds of action we’ll see later, and it sets the bar for what our hero is capable of. Some films do it really well (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and some do not (I won’t name names here.)

² The Lego Movie placed #4 on my 2014 list, and totally crossed my Threshold of Awesome.

³ “Headcanon” is usually a noun, but verbing it makes total sense to me.

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

JohnWick2If you enjoyed John Wick, which starred Keanu Reeves as a hitman whose retirement is interrupted, you’ll enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2, which stars Keanu Reeves as a hitman whose sabbatical from retirement is extended by more non-retirement.

Dog lovers might appreciate knowing that the death of a dog is not Wick’s impetus in this film¹. Car lovers² will appreciate John Leguizamo’s estimate about how soon Wick’s car can be fixed. People who love witty dialog in the style of superhero banter should probably just re-watch one of the Avengers films, or at least not show up for this film with high hopes for any of that.

I enjoyed John Wick 2, but it does not clear my Threshold of Awesome. The fight scenes are every bit as amazing as they were in the first movie, but the story is on rails. There are no plot twists, unless you count employer treachery as a twist, which is about as unexpected as a meet-cute³ in a romantic comedy.

So, you know… enjoy the fight scenes, and pretend that the world will be a better place without any of these nameless thugs, who probably eat babies with a garnish of puppy.


¹ I was asked very specifically about dogs by someone on Twitter.
² I was not asked about cars. 
³ If you re-watch THE MATRIX before seeing this film, pay attention to the meeting between Reeves’ character and Lawrence Fishburne’s character. I think they re-used some dialog on purpose, just to see if they could.