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Marco Polo

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NBooth   

I've heard of this before, but now that there's a start date announced it might be a good idea to start a thread. Coming December 12 on Netflix: Marco Polo.

 

According to a press release, the drama will be rife with warfare, manipulation, and sexual intrigue, as well as a global cast featuring Italian newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy as the titular character, Chinese actress Zhu Zhu as Polo’s love interest, Joan Chen as Empress Chabi, and Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan.

 

 

Marco-Polo-02.jpg

 

Since East/West relations have been increasingly in the news [and increasingly interesting to me], I'm definitely going to be checking this out.

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NBooth   

The [NSFW] trailer:

 

Edited by NBooth

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BethR   

Hmmmmm.

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NBooth   

And a new trailer.

 

I'm very--disturbed?--by the glimpses we're getting of Kublai Khan. From my understanding, Polo seemed to position the Great Khan as a [kind of] ideal ruler, and China as a location that had solved many of the problems plaguing Venice. This version seems to be going for Khan-as-exotic-murderous-Other. Related: the whole "Worlds Will Collide" thing is catchy, but it is pretty much not what happened when Polo went to China (if he ever did). This idea of worlds colliding is predicated on the idea that violence must always and of necessity follow the contact of different cultures--which, while largely true, historically, isn't absolutely true. But I guess "Worlds Will Trade" or "Worlds Will Encounter and then Proceed to Forget Each Other for a Bit" are both less catchy.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

The Hollywood Reporter:

 

Created and written by John Fusco (Forbidden Kingdom, Young Guns, Hidalgo), executive produced by Harvey Weinstein and jointly directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Marco Polo is a plodding, woeful mess that seems content to mix a dizzying array of accents with a steady stream of Asian clichés and plenty of naked bodies. There’s carnage, yes, but nothing so epic to be inspiring (at least not in the four hours I watched) – maybe some amazing CGI stuff happens later.

 

[snip]

 

Let’s just say that Marco Polo is no Rome. On the other hand, it’s a lot less annoying than the eponymous game kids play in the pool. But that’s probably not what Netflix was buying with all its money.

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NBooth   

The AV Club:

 

If Marco Polo, Netflix’s profligate epic drama, premiered anywhere else, it would be judged strictly on its artistic merits. With Netflix as its home, Marco Polo is nearly impossible to extricate from the underlying corporate narrative. Polo is so replete with medieval warfare, lopped-off heads, gratuitous nudity, and persnickety period detail, it pleads to be compared with HBO’s Game Of Thrones, a far superior show by nearly every measure. And if the show is Netflix’s latest offensive against HBO, its biggest rival, it portends a war in which the streaming service is the House Stark to the cable network’s House Lannister.

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NBooth   

Currently sitting at a comfortable 0 on Rotten Tomatoes. 

 

More reviews:

 

Deadline calls it a "feast" and "a Silk Road well worth travelling on."

 

The Verge calls it a "rip-off of Game of Thrones":

 

Medieval warfare should be fun. It matters less that Marco Polo is lifting from Game of Thrones, and more that it has failed to elevate the form with its own unique performances and innovative storytelling. And since the elements that it can call its own never quite get out from under the shadow of what’s been borrowed, the final product feels like a cynical copy of what’s come before, this time with more Eastern flavor. You could easily argue that that’s how Hollywood works and has worked forever — if something succeeds, copy the formula until it stops succeeding. But Marco Polo was supposed to be a crucial part of Netflix’s effort to legitimize itself as the next HBO. It’s clear that it’s going to take more than $90 million to pull that off.

 

 

Variety argues that GoT isn't the show's real inspiration, and that viewers should expect something along the lines of Shogun or Vikings. They still don't love it, though:

 

So while “Marco Polo” possesses scope, scale and an inordinate amount of exposed skin, the series exhibits only a sporadic pulse. That leaves a property that can be fun taken strictly on its own terms, but deficient in the binge-worthy qualities upon which Netflix’s distribution system has relied.
Edited by NBooth

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I only lasted 10 or 15 minutes into the pilot before I turned it off. Normally I like to give pilot episodes the benefit of the doubt, but it fell flat in almost every way. Not worth watching at all (Although, given that I didn't finish the episode, I'd be happy to be proven mistaken). Mediocre acting, relying on historical background to grant depth of their characters and world, but without actually doing any work, etc. What was most frustrating though, was the lack of technique in the camerawork and editing: it looks like everything is second unit footage. There's one aggravating scene early on when the Polo family is escorted to the Khan, and it alternates between establishing shots of them walking from behind, and then a cut to from the front, switching at least four times. It simply feels amateurish. 

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BethR   

I can't comment on camerawork and editing, but would agree with the Variety review that suggests comparing Marco Polo with the History Channel's Vikings--at least in season 1, which spent maybe too much time on exposition and not enough on characters and dialogue. It got better. I watched two episodes, so far, and episode 2 is definitely better--at least in terms of plot and character development--than episode 1.

 

San Francisco Chronicle critic notes that critics were given six episodes to preview, and says:

 

By the fifth episode, fortunately, Fusco et al give in and “Marco Polo” rocks with lots of action, much of it in the “Tiger/Dragon” slo-mo style. At this point, “Marco Polo” breaks loose from its dingy lethargy.

 

So you could skip episode 1, taking as given that Marco Polo is left in China by his Italian trader father as a kind of hostage. He's very observant & a quick study with languages, but the Khan's empire is very strange to him. Some stuff happens. In episode two, the plot thickens and

the villain's sister, wearing nothing but a hairpin, kills four fully-armored soldiers

, so that alone was worth waiting for.

 

I'll probably persevere at least to episode five or six, now that I know there's something to look forward to. But it's definitely no Game of Thrones. And Richelmy (as Marco Polo), so far, hasn't much to do beyond look interested, baffled, or distressed. In a handsome way.

Edited by BethR

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Tyler   

I watched the first episode this morning. It's more fun if you imagine it as a very loose adaptation of Invisible Cities.

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NBooth   

I can't comment on camerawork and editing, but would agree with the Variety review that suggests comparing Marco Polo with the History Channel's Vikings--at least in season 1, which spent maybe too much time on exposition and not enough on characters and dialogue. It got better. I watched two episodes, so far, and episode 2 is definitely better--at least in terms of plot and character development--than episode 1.

 

San Francisco Chronicle critic notes that critics were given six episodes to preview, and says:

 

By the fifth episode, fortunately, Fusco et al give in and “Marco Polo” rocks with lots of action, much of it in the “Tiger/Dragon” slo-mo style. At this point, “Marco Polo” breaks loose from its dingy lethargy.

 

So you could skip episode 1, taking as given that Marco Polo is left in China by his Italian trader father as a kind of hostage. He's very observant & a quick study with languages, but the Khan's empire is very strange to him. Some stuff happens. In episode two, the plot thickens and

the villain's sister, wearing nothing but a hairpin, kills four fully-armored soldiers

, so that alone was worth waiting for.

 

I'll probably persevere at least to episode five or six, now that I know there's something to look forward to. But it's definitely no Game of Thrones. And Richelmy (as Marco Polo), so far, hasn't much to do beyond look interested, baffled, or distressed. In a handsome way.

 

Pretty much agree with all of this. The series gets reasonably watchable at about episode 5 and stays so until about episode 9. Which is to say, the period of time when Polo is more or less shoved offstage in favor of the machinations of the court of Kublai Khan and that of the Song. That bit is loads of fun, and Benedict Wong and Joan Chen really shine. And it's interesting to note that, for all the concerns I had about Orientalism etc etc etc, the genre of the series really militates against exoticism in a strange way: since it's an historical drama like Rome or Borgia, the court of the Khan is expected to be savage and so on, not because of its situation in the Far East, but because of the time difference. Which is to say that, read in conversation with other series of its ilk, Marco Polo actually makes a case for an essential similarity to those other locations and periods. (And, as a side note, it seems that the stuff I would have assumed was added for Western audiences--such as Marco introducing the trebuchet has pretty fair historical documentation. As Jonathan Spence points out, there's no way that Polo himself was involved in the actual situation, but multiple non-Polo sources do say that Kublai Khan had help in coming up with the design).

 

Polo himself isn't really the main draw here--and there's no place in the series more symbolic than in the climax to episode 10:

 

The armies of Kublai Khan having invaded the Song court, Polo seeks out Jia Sidao (a very good Chin Han--seriously, the scene where he breaks the little girl's feet is chilling) and engages him in combat--only to be promptly disabled. Then he winds up on the floor while Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) takes out the minister.

 

So Polo is essentially useless--or, rather, useful only insofar as he gives the series an excuse to exist in the West. As much as we talk about Game of Thrones and Rome, I thought I detected a bit of Chinese DNA in the series as well. I'm not at all familiar with Chinese television, but I've watched a good bit of the series Detective Di Renjie, and that series shares Marco Polo's penchant for juxtaposing court politics with kung-fu. In fact, all of the things that other reviews have pointed to as dipping into Exoticizing the Other, such as ninja assassins trained by The Old Man of the Mountain have a parallel in Di Renjie. So a case could be made that Marco Polo is an example of generic transference--that move by which a genre, with all its genre-specific tropes, is moved wholesale from one culture to another (the most obvious example, here, is the way in which Chinese popular authors adapted the Western detective story at the expense of their home-grown Court Case genre). If this is the case, Polo himself is a fig-leaf designed to smuggle in the real series. Which I'm fine with--but, as a result, any time the series starts to focus on him as opposed to Kublai Khan, the whole thing slows down and becomes incredibly dreary.

 

But, all that to the side, how cool is it that Netflix has produced an historical series set entirely in a non-West setting, in an historical period that is probably wholly unfamiliar to most of its viewers, and populated almost entirely by non-white actors? And all that, with the minimum of exoticizing (except for the amount that comes invariably with the genre itself?). That alone has me rooting for a second season (one that is, hopefully, better written-and-executed)

 

EDIT: Here's The AV Club picking up reviewing the series with "Feast":

 

“Feast” represents the first significant sign of promise for Netflix’s Marco Polo. Up to this point, it’s been a tedious, cliché show, one confused about how best to approach its historical drama: with an air of sincerity and seriousness, or with a sense of genre ridiculousness? It’s not so much that Marco Polo would benefit from committing to one approach over the other, but that the balance between the two has been off through the first two episodes. “Feast” presents a much more cohesive whole, and therefore a more immediately compelling hour of television.
Edited by NBooth

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NBooth   

The Atlantic:

 

To be fair, Orange Is the New Black did a phenomenal job of following through on creator Jenji Kohan's plan to use Piper as a Trojan horse into the stories of non-white characters who were far more complex and compelling than the onesMarco Polo conjured up. But it's a little disingenuous to write off the show for attempting something similar through the character of Marco Polo, who was meant as a bridge into a story set on another continent hundreds of years ago.

 

In the grander scheme, the not-so-well-reviewed Marco Polo does more for the overall goal of increasing the representation of Asian characters and breaking down some stereotypes (even as it perpetuates others) than other highly acclaimed Western shows that ignore such characters altogether. Recall thatMarco Polo's cast is more than 90 percent Asian; how many other big-budget Western shows can say that?

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NBooth   

The Creativity of Constraints

 

Harvey Weinstein, who produced the series, has happily compared Marco Polo to the acclaimed HBO period epic Game of Thrones, saying that Marco Polo is the first show on TV to match that series’ production scale. (Marco Polo was executive produced by Ben Silverman and Chris Grant of Electus.) But while the show often feels like Game of Thrones—what with its sweeping cinematography, ornate costumes, and huge cast—it was made for a fraction of the budget. Netflix has not disclosed numbers, but Fusco plainly says, "We did not cost what Game of Thrones cost."
 
Fusco went on to elaborate for Co.Create how he was able to achieve the epic scope of Marco Polo with limited resources; how working in TV has taught him to slow down the storytelling process; and how he put up a Polo-ian mantra on the wall of the writers' room.

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M. Leary   

The insistence that the show is Netflix's answer to GoT does it a great disservice. If they had made the better publicity decision of eschewing the comparison, then I think the show would have been received a bit better.

 

The production scale just doesn't even match, which can be felt in every scene. It is obviously heavily dependent on sets that require crafty camerawork to create a sense of grandeur and space. The few big battle scenes are pretty sparse. It lacks an overall sense of epicness, which has made GoT such a big deal. 

 

But none of these really are flaws on their own. They only become flaws in comparison to GoT

 

That said, the show does lack the complexity of the Thrones novels. Pretty much everything does. The title character is mostly irrelevant to the plotline other than as a Western observer of this historical timeline. I actually kind of like that aspect of his presence. And it all just kind of fizzles out in the end. The show was a pleasant, if at times overly gratuitous, diversion. Not a win, but not a loss. It was very nice to see a show populated with actors of its own geography.

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NBooth   

So why aren't they just calling this show Kublai Khan already?

 

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NBooth   

Watched the second season this weekend. I felt, anyway, that I liked this season better than the first--but that doesn't mean the problems with pacing, redundant scenes, and generally sloppy storytelling went away. This is a very thematically cohesive season, circling around problems of parentage, of parent-child relationships, and so on--with every character either rebelling against, fixating on, or seeking out a parental figure of some sort. And the good stuff I mentioned last year--Wong, Chen, etc--is still very good. So I'm pleased with the season, even if it's a fairly tepid pleasure.

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NBooth   

Canceled.

The drama, produced by The Weinstein Co., featured a global cast that included Lorenzo Richelmy in the title role with Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan. The second season launched quietly July 1, with options on the cast set to expire at year's end. Sources tell THR that the series, across both seasons, was responsible for a $200 million loss to the streaming giant. Sources say the decision to not move forward with a third season of Marco Polo was a joint one between Netflix and TWC.

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