A veteran photojournalist on the arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.

EDITION #123 - WEEK OF FEBRUARY 20-26, 2017

Slightly shaky foundations

The Great Wall (Universal)

Cast: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Yimou Zhang

Producers: John Jashni, Peter Loehr, Charles Roven and Thomas Tull

Screenplay: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy; story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz

Film Review

Trying to find a common ground with an East-West production with a international cast is never a easy task to implement and The Great Wall is amongst those that try their very best at it, yet it tries a bit too hard to please one audience over the other as this action-adventure/fantasy does in story, effects and pacing but remains somewhat entertaining when it does.

In a imaginary 18th-century China, a couple of European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are out in the Gobi Desert in search of the elusive and mysterious weapon the Chinese call the black powder and as fate would have it, they come across a garrison at the Great Wall of China manned by a numerous secret elite army unit known as The Nameless Order.

Becoming accidental recruits in a battle against a swarm of alien monsters they call the Tao Tei that arrived on a green comet two thousand years ago and come out once every sixty years like locusts, they unwittingly win the respect of Commander Lin Mae (Tian) and her General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) in order to help them defeat the beasts, despite having some misgivings of their true intentions of two’s presence in their hour of need.

Alliances and friendships are greatly tested as the Nameless Order look for a way to protect their capital Biangliang from the merciless horde that has plagued their country for centuries when greed and regal politics get in the way that might endanger the whole world, if either sides put away their differences in time.

Noted for his art-house features The House of Flying Daggers, Raise The Red Lantern and Hero, Yimou Zhang’s official foray into English and commercialist work is, on the surface, visually impressive with the set designs by Gordon Sim and Mayes C. Rubeo’s costuming brought out fully with the combined cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh and Xiaoding Zhao. However, here his pacing is unusually faster by the mid-way point that makes it sometimes hard to catch up with during the otherwise decent battle scenes which look good in its 3-D format. And oddly enough, this is the first time Yimou has toned down the usage of martial arts here unlike previous wuxia films.

What partly saves the half-muddled screenplay is co-writers Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy being able to inject some humour into the complex story by Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz that make it just bearable to sit through. And its cast involving Damon as the once-ignoble soldier of fortune slowly swayed by their hosts’ plight while Pascal and Willem Dafoe as a old mercenary looking for a way out with the black powder represent the darker side of human nature, along with Chinese cinema stars Tian as the brave and capable leader, Andy Lau as a wizen battle strategist and Lu Han as a timid guard out to prove himself do the best they can with what they have.

Contrary to the rumour that The Great Wall depicts Damon as the so-called “white saviour” here couldn’t be more further from the truth since his character is anything but a saviour, but adds to the storyline as a collaborative means to an end. Yet, even with all his box office pull, Damon can’t save the film completely. At times it works and other times not, The Great Wall falls short of being great but at least it’s got a lot of artistic eye candy (like the climatic stained-glass window tower, which is quite pretty) to see.

Our ideal man in Cuba

Escape to Havana

by Nick Wilkshire

288 pp., Dundurn Books

Softcover, $15.99

Fiction/Mystery

Book Review

Intrigue and exotic locales are the boilerplates needed for a political thriller and Nick Wilkshire makes a roughly good start with them for Escape to Havana , as part of his Foreign Affairs Mystery series that has his protagonist caught up in some unpredictable scenarios that keeps the mystery fans guessing and second-guessing.

Living a rather dull existence in the Foreign Affairs Department in Ottawa and looking to put behind the scandalous end to his fifteen-year marriage by his unfaithful wife, middle-aged Charlie Hillier takes a position as the Management Consular Officer out to the Canadian embassy in Havana and almost instantly the tropical assignment becomes the balm he needed in this next chapter of his life.

While it starts out with doing some exciting things like negotiating around the usual political red-tape for a new location for the embassy with the Cubans to menial task of dog-sitting the ambassador’s dog amidst the optimistic change of relations between the United States and Cuba (prior to the current U.S. administration), Charlie finds out that his posting slowly turns nightmarish when his palatial quarters is hoarding a stash of cocaine underneath his bedroom floor and uninvited hookers literally showing up on his front door.

And if that’s not bad enough, it’s somehow connected to a lot of things around here from a Canadian ex-pat hotelier incarcerated over a phoney bribery charge to muscle him out of his business for the hopeful prospect of American favours to the kidnapping and death of a fellow diplomat unfortunately the victim of a ruthless Colombian drug-runner known as La Muerte who’s out to get his merchandise back, which includes a possible romance with a beautiful legal aide settling the account for the new embassy plans.

Wilkshire puts a lot out from his concepts in here in the first book by getting the feel for the atmosphere without going into the typical schematics, like turning his hero as some cracker-jack amateur sleuth from an Agatha Christie novel or even a adventure-prone diplomat in the vein of a John Le Carre thriller. Instead, Hillier has none of those qualities, which makes him to be the ideal genial everyman-type to get caught in whatever situation and find a way out with as much discretion as he can, like any true Canadian would.

Escape to Cuba is a likeable page-turning cocktail of drugs, geopolitics, greed, (some) sex and murder in a diplomatic pouch full of all the ingredients of what is to become a popular series from Wilkshire involving shady and not-so shady characters around his new hero Charlie Hillier with a lot of promise to evolve into something great.