Archive | December, 2014

The Sorcerer and the White Snake – Review

5 Dec

I’ve made it quite clear in the past that wuxia movies, or Chinese martial arts film, are my cup of tea. It’s a great escape to be able to watch martial arts masters fly above the tree tops and engage in over the top swordplay that defies all sound reasoning and physics. Like I said, it’s a great escape. While certain wuxia movies often feel like they can be part fantasy, Tony Ching’s 2001 film The Sorcerer and the White Snake clearly attempts to fully combine the two to make what should have been an epic martial arts film based off of an old Chinese folk tale. Unfortunately, this movie is a boring mush of CGI, uninspired fight choreography, and a love story that was just downright laughable.

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Fahai (Jet Li) and his apprentice Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are demon hunters who belong to a monastery with the mission of protecting the Earth from demons that come from other dimensions. Fahai is merciless to the demons that threaten the human world, but everything he understands about demons is about to no longer make sense. Susu (Huang Shengyi) is a white snake demon who falls in love with a herbalist named Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) after saving him from drowning. As the two begins a life together, Fahai discovers Susu’s secret and wages an all out war between her and the other monks at the monastery, leaving Xu Xian in the middle to decide if he could ever love someone like her.

So, that’s pretty cool right? I mean demons, martial arts, giant snakes, forbidden love, and Jet Li sounds like an awesome combination. But there is one more thing…what was it? Oh yeah. FAR TOO MUCH F***ING CGI!!! It was almost disgusting really, how much flashy and distracting special effects there were. And you know what’s really crazy? They’re not even that great. In fact some of the effects, especially the snakes in their true form, look downright goofy, almost as if it was the first layer of CGI before it was all cleaned up, and then they just ran out of time so they went with it anyway. The amount of cheesy CGI in this movie is enough to even make George Lucas blush.

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Speaking of cheese, let’s talk about the love story between Susu and Xu Xian. Have you ever been watching The Little Mermaid and thought, “Could this get any cornier?” Well, yeah it can, and it pretty much did in The Sorcerer and the White Snake. There’s one scene near the end especially where the music begins to take hold and the lighting gets all dramatic, and an overly obvious love song begins playing. I just wanted to throw up. That’s not even the only instance, either. The entire plot involving the two forbidden lovers is so generic, predictable and boring. It got to the point where I forgot I was even watching a martial arts movie.

There’s scenes in the movie where we get to stay with Jet Li’s character and see some of the monsters that he fights. Hell, the movie even starts with him fighting a demon, but then we only get to see that a few more times, so it better have been cool. Well, sorta yeah but not really. There was no action in this movie that makes it stand out from other wuxia movies, scenes that really stick with you and make a lasting impression. Instead it’s just a jumbled mess of Jet Li, monks, and poorly computer generated creatures just kind of hitting each other…sometimes. The amount of dumb in this movie outweighs the cool stuff in a huge way.

I’m really upset that I didn’t like The Sorcerer and the White Snake because everything about it sounded so cool, up until I actually watched it and saw what it was all about. Listen, I don’t mind a good love story, in fact I really enjoy a good love story, but this is not one of them. This is a love story that you’ve seen a thousand times combined with a martial arts movie that has no dazzling choreography and a fantasy movie with effects that a fourth grader must have done. Some people out there seen to really enjoy this movie, and I just don’t get that. This one was an absolute mess and altogether just a train wreck.

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Gangster Squad – Review

4 Dec

The early to mid-1900s was a very interesting time when discussing the topic of crime and criminals. At the same time, graphic novel style action and visuals are really entertaining to look at, but they get even more entertaining when they are infused with a layer of noir over top of it. Think the Sin City movies and graphic novels, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Instead I want to look at Ruben Fleischer’s film Gangster Squad, a movie that was never destined to win any Academy Awards, but holy hell, it couldn’t have been more fun.

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The year: 1949. The city: Los Angeles, the City of Angels. Jewish gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has made a name for himself through his unapologetic brutality and no nonsense way of business. Along with Cohen, corrupt officials and officers of the law run the streets so the criminals get their way and stay out of their hair. This angers Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to no end, so when he’s assigned to create an off the books task force to personally take care of these criminals he jumps at the opportunity. Along with his friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), O’Mara creates a team and begins wiping the violence off the streets of L.A. in the only way they can: more violence. Complications arise, however, when Cohen begins to learn the identities of these men, while Wooter strikes up a relationship with Cohen’s girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Gangster Squad that I really don’t understand. All this negativity about how inaccurate it is, how much violence is in it, and how seriously the movie takes itself. Well, first of, it’s pretty clear from the get go that this movie isn’t meant to be realistic. It’s meant to be an ultra-stylized look at a pretty crazy time in American history. Now listen, I do like movies to be accurate when it’s clear that I’m watching a pretty serious historical movie or biopic, but it’s so obvious that that’s not what Gangster Squad is supposed to be. This movie works so well as an action/noir movie, it makes me jealous that I didn’t make it.

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So while the action is almost too fun to even process, I have to give some major recognition to screenwriter Will Beall, especially since this is his first feature film screenplay. He knocks it out of the park with all of the tough talking, gangster and noir dialogue. Some of the one liners in this movie really made me crack up, but also respect the cleverness behind them. The actors all play their parts to perfection, with Ryan Gosling sort of stealing the show. He provides much of the comic relief, and when I say comic I mean really funny lines of dialogue. It made me wonder what the reaction would have been if they made a movie like this in the golden age of Hollywood. All hell would have broken loose.

It can be argued that Gangster Squad is mostly style and little substance, but I don’t really agree with that. The story and characters aren’t boring, and each character has their own distinct personalities. I think what people are saying is, “Why isn’t this movie like The Untouchables?” I really can’t stress this point enough that this movie is solely meant for entertainment, and honestly I don’t see how someone couldn’t be even a little entertained by it. Watching Gangster Squad is like watching a comic book of seedy 1940s crime playing out right before your eyes.

Much like Van Helsing and The Matrix Reloaded, I will defend Gangster Squad until the day I die. Not every movie has to have some deep message or generate debate for it to be a really good movie. As pulpy, popcorn entertainment, Gangster Squad is top tier fun. The stylized actions scenes, complete with plenty of slow motion and Tommy guns, kept my eyes glued to the screen and left me with a huge smile on my face. What Fleischer, Beall, and the rest of the cast and crew has created is an explosive, graphic novel of a movie that looks at the 1940s, noir, and criminals in an over the top, and most of all fun way.

Rescue Dawn – Review

2 Dec

When war movies follow a very specific formula, there’s a good chance that the whole movie watching experience will by tainted by over dramatic dialogue and an ending that can be seen a mile away. This can be said about any genre of film, but it bothers me the most in war movies, for some reason or another. In 1997, uber-director Werner Herzog made a documentary about the harrowing experience of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in a Vietnamese POW camp. He then returned to the subject in 2006 with Rescue Dawn. While Rescue Dawn is a memorable war movie with some amazing performances, it does sort of get bogged down in war movie cliches, but somehow it seems to pull through.

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Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is a Navy pilot about to go on his first mission. Since he was a boy, Dengler has always wanted to fly so this is his chance to show what he’s made of. Unfortunately for him, he gets shot down almost right as the mission begins. He is soon captured by Laotian soldiers, tortured, and thrown into a miserably sadistic POW camp. There he meets fellow pilots Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), along with some Vietnamese citizens. Instead of giving up and trying to survive in the camp, Dengler plans an escape to only face another dangerous foe: the dense jungles of Vietnam that stand between him and his freedom in Thailand.

I’ve seen this movie compared to the classic war/escape film, The Great Escape, but I would compare it more to the much less acclaimed film Hart’s War. Both are about an American soldier forced to brave a violent prison camp. Still, while they sort of have the same vibe, Rescue Dawn is a far superior movie to Hart’s War. Anyone who knows about film history and the many characters that inhabit it will know of Werner Herzog and his legendary filmography. If this movie was in anyone else’s hands, the result would be something very bland and predictable, but Herzog isn’t afraid to take chances with his film making and take us places where we see things that we really don’t want to see. That is where the success of this movie lies.

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Herzog and his actors literally put their lives at risk making Rescue Dawn by braving the dangers in the jungle. Everything you see the actors do, no matter how gross, is being actually done in real life. Bale, Zahn, and Davies all lost a lot of weight to get into their roles, and it really helped bring me into the world of the movie, which is not a very comfortable place to be. Zahn and Davies give incredible performance, but Bale can sometimes feel a little awkward. Still, one of the main draws of this movie is the incredible story of Dengler’s escape as it happened, which is actually pretty damn accurate. This is not a comfortable movie to sit through, but Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger shoot the film so well that it’s hard to become disinterested.

I said before that Bale’s acting feels a little awkward at times, but I can’t put all of the blame just on Bale. While Herzog is really a wonder behind the camera and coming up with innovative ways of shooting a movie, his writing is really bland at times, and it shows in Rescue Dawn. Some of the lines that Dengler says is almost laughably cliched and can be found in most war movies. Scenes like that really shaked me out of the entire experience and made me look at it as a conventional war movie and not one that separates itself from the others. Luckily, Herzog’s storytelling works very well, and the acts all seem to blend into each other very well. Not to mention the suspense and terror in this movie is written and executed very well. Breath was held, ladies and gentlemen. Breath was held.

Rescue Dawn has a lot of potential to be a derivative, cliched, and boring war/drama film, but luckily it saved from the deep, dark depths of mediocrity. Zahn’s, Davie’s, and even Bale’s performances are all way above average. It would have been more enjoyable if Herzog’s dialogue didn’t shake up the flow of the movie. Still, it’s filmed so beautifully and horrifically that it’s both hard to watch but impossible to look away. More than anything, it tells a near accurate true story about a daring escape in the early years of Vietnam. This film will not attract everyone, and it will repel many, but for war and history buffs, it’s a movie that should be seen.