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The Bourne Series – Review Part I

24 Jan

This is a review I’ve been wanting to do for a long time since these movies have a very special place in my film loving heart. The Bourne Identity was one of my most watched movies when I was growing up, and was actually one of the first “real” movies I ever sat down, watched, and appreciated. Instead of just reviewing that one, however, I want to take a look at the entire series. These are the kind of spy movies I really like because I feel like stuff like this could actually happen. I have a lot to say about this series so why not just get started?

The Bourne Identity kickstarted the series with its release in 2002.

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On a stormy night in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, a man (Matt Damon) is pulled out of the water by a group of fisherman. He has been shot three times, has a bank number lodged into his hip, and he can’t remember who he is and how he got there. Upon arriving in Zürich, the man discovers his name to be Jason Bourne, but he also finds that he being chased by all types of law enforcement. He enlists the help of a desperate woman, Marie (Franka Potente), who he offers to pay a grand sum of money in exchange for a ride. As they travel to Paris to find out more about Bourne’s identity, Treadstone, a CIA black operation led by Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper),  sends out all of their sleeper agents to track down Bourne and take him out before he does anymore damage to the CIA.

The Bourne Identity is one of the movies I watched a lot when I was younger, so it’s one of the movies that really got me into movies as much as I am today. I’ve seen and heard a lot of people say that this film breathed new life into the stale action genre of the early 2000s, and I can definitely see that, since a lot of action/thriller films that came after this one drew a lot of creative inspiration. This film is a perfect combination of espionage and action, with a villainous section of the CIA going against a one man war machine that is Jason Bourne. This makes for many great action sequences, car chases, and games of cat and mouse that happen throughout Europe. It’s a spy movie of the highest degree.

This movie was really fun to re-watch after not having seen it for quite a few years. It really hasn’t lost it’s luster and still remains as thrilling as it’s always been. While people knew who Matt Damon was before this, this is the movie that put him to the status of being a Hollywood superstar. This is also the film that successfully kickstarted a whole franchise. If you can’t tell already, I love this movie.

In 2004, The Bourne Supremacy was released. While definitely superior in some regards to the first film, there are some major drawbacks that sour the movie more than they should have.

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For two year, Jason Bourne and Marie have been laying low and keeping their distance from Treadstone and the CIA. All they have built soon shatters when Bourne is framed for the murder of CIA agents who were intercepting documents with proof of who stole $20 million of CIA money. This forces Bourne to come out of hiding, clear his name, and get his revenge on whoever tainted his name and ruined the quiet life he made for himself. This time around, Bourne is forced to go up against the CIA Deputy Directors Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Ward Abbot (Brian Cox), while also facing off against Russian Secret Service agent Kirill (Karl Urban) in a war that spreads over multiple countries and cities around the world.

The Bourne Supremacy is a much different specimen that The Bourne Identity. It’s almost as if two different people made these movies. Wait, that’s because they did. Doug Liman was responsible for the very cinematic first film, while Paul Greengrass took the series into a whole other direction with his almost faux documentary style film making. Greengrass would later go on to use this style in films like United 93 and Captain Philips, and they work really well in those movies. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the best choice for this film. The scenes of dialogue are great because it really brings a sense of realism to the story, especially with the handheld look. The fights suffer completely, however, and that’s a shame since the fights are such a big part in these movies. The action often becomes so incomprehensible, I had to just stop looking at it. Major points are deducted from The Bourne Supremacy because of that.

What The Bourne Supremacy does really well is tell a more intriguing story than its predecessor. The first film sort of just introduced the character and his situation, but this film goes deep into the rabbit hole that is Treadstone and shows just how corrupt it is. What’s fun about this is because it’s all very easy to believe something like this happening, and that makes all of the thrills completely worth it. It injects the series with something that can be a real life event. That being said, while I’m not a huge fan of how this movie is made, I can’e deny that it tells a great story, and that’s the most important thing to me.

The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy are a step above average spy thrillers and are part of the reason why I love movies as much as I do. I still have a few more movies to write about, so keep an eye out for the next part where I talk about The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy.

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The Four Trilogy – Review

10 Dec

Did you ever wonder what the X-Men would look like if they all knew kung fu? No? Me neither, but I think I found out something that very much resembles that fantasy. I’m talking about Gordon Chan’s The Four and it’s two sequels. Gordon Chan isn’t a film maker who just decided to dabble in the martial arts genre having already made the classic Fist of Legend starring Jet Li and its sequel Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen. The Four Trilogy may not have the same power as these two films, but they are surprisingly fun and never actually bored me, even though the storytelling can get a little hard to follow.

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During the reign of Emperor Huizong in China during the early 1100s, crime was kept under control by Department Six, but there was yet another much more powerful watchful eye being kept over the criminal underworld. The Divine Constabulary, made up of Emotionless (Liu Yifei), Iron Hands (Collin Chou), Life Stealer (Ronald Cheng), and newcomer Cold Blood (Deng Chao), was a department of four super powerful detectives led by Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong). Trouble soon begins to brew for the Four when counterfeit coins begin circulating throughout the banks and merchants, but that soon becomes the least of their problems. The people behind the counterfeit currency, Lord An (Yu Chengui) and his son An Shigeng (Wu Xiubo) are actually after the emperor’s throne, with only the Divine Constabulary powerful enough to stop them.

That’s the basic plot for all three of the movies. The Four deals mostly with An Shigeng and the counterfeit currency while The Four II and The Four III deal with Lord An attempting to usurp the throne. I still can’t shake the feeling that I missed some stuff in these movies though. The way the story is actually plotted and executed isn’t all that good. There’s so many different characters that just start backstabbing each other and the movies all move at such a fast speed, it’s hard to keep track of everyone. One character in particular seems to have a different motive in every scene, which makes it literally impossible to make up your mind about her. Still, one of the better parts of the movies are all of the characters.

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I’m actually seriously surprised that all of the characters in this movie were totally three dimensional and had their own personalities. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this, but I went into these movies expecting mediocre martial arts with a huge cast of characters that I wouldn’t care about. I was wrong on both accounts. Let’s take Life Snatcher and Iron Hands, two characters that very often share scenes. They work great together because Life Snatcher is a thief and provides great comedic relief while Iron Hands is a man of discipline. It’s an odd couple situation that I wasn’t expecting to work so well. Since the characters are all likable and well fleshed out, when something happened to them I actually cared. They’re actually some of the best characters in martial arts movies.

Finally, lets talk about the actual kung fu. Simply put, it’s awesome. It isn’t Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonHero, or House of Flying Daggers but it is really cool. One of the big things that makes The Four movies stand out is the super powerful characters. The powers are really just them channeling energy in themselves making them super strong or able to control things, but it’s still really fun. Whenever they throw their kicks or punches, splashes of color follow their limbs making it clear that they have the upper hand. Every contact is also heard quite clearly making it almost possible to feel their attacks. Really cool stuff and extremely entertaining.

The Four and its sequels provided me with a lot more than I was originally expecting. After just watching The Sorcerer and the White Snake, I was very hesitant to drive right back into martial arts, but I’m pleasantly surprised. These movies aren’t destined to be classics, but Gordon Chan has made three really fun movies that are great time wasters on a lazy afternoon. If you like kung fu, fantasy, and comic book super powers you should track down and find The Four Trilogy.

Lincoln – Review

23 Sep

2012 was quite a year for the 16th president of the United States. His first major outing of the year came in the form of the over the top action/horror film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While I actually thought that movie was quite a laugh, Honest Abe didn’t get quite the treatment he deserved until later on that year with Steven Spielberg’s epic historical drama Lincoln. Now, while this movie is definitely one that revolves around Abraham Lincoln, it is more so the story of his legacy, and finest achievement, passing the crucial 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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In the year 1865, the Civil War was reaching its conclusion, but to many people, it was far from over. While the battles were raging, a different kind of war was going on in Congress with Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) on the front lines. His goal to abolish slavery was met with much hostility, but he was far from giving up the fight. Unable to unofficially speak to many politicians himself, Lincoln required the help of people like Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to speak for him, while a team of lobbyists led by William Bilbo (James Spader) worked more covertly to secure the vote. This was a difficult time not only for Lincoln, but also his family as his wife Mary (Sally Field) was still grieving over the death of one of their sons and another of his sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decided to leave school and join the army.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Lincoln is boring, mainly because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decided to put the actual battles of the Civil War on the back burner. The war itself acts as a looming presence over the Congressional hearings, which is the film’s focus along with the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Knowing that going into the movie may make it feel a lot less heavy. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie can feel a little overloaded. Unless you’re an expert of the time period, the politics may be a little hard to keep up with at first, but I soon found myself following along with ease. The film also ends kind of strangely, with what felt like multiple endings, a few feeling a lot better than the actual ending. I’ve heard some people say that the real talent behind the movie isn’t Spielberg, but Kushner for creating such an incredibly written and thoughtful screenplay. I’d have to agree with that, although kudos go to both Spielberg and composer John Williams.

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But while Spielberg, Kushner, and Williams have all worked to create something special, I have to say that the man of the hour, or more so two hand a half hours, is Daniel Day-Lincoln… I mean Lewis. The amazing thing about Daniel Day-Lewis is that no matter what role he takes, he literally seems to transform himself into that character. Just look at his acting in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood amongst other things. Lincoln is his crowning achievement, though, and won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. His Abraham Lincoln is a quiet and nervous man who enjoys telling stories to pass the time and quoting intellectuals to help prove his points. Though he is nervous, he is also a force to be reckoned with which is made clear in scenes where he gets a bit heated. Watching Lincoln was literally like watching history play out before me.

It’s very easy to just get lost in Lincoln. While the story is very important and well told, I could easily go back a second time and turn off the sound and just watch it. Things are recreated so meticulously that it’s almost ridiculous. For example, the sound of Lincoln’s watch is actually recorded from his actual pocket watch. The rooms of the White House are crafted so well and the scenes of battle we do see are gut wrenching and intense. It’s an amazing looking film that wouldn’t have worked so well if it wasn’t so perfectly constructed.

Lincoln is a masterpiece from a master film maker that was scored by a master composer and written by who I now consider a master writer. This is a film that will go down in history as one of the most important American films ever made. While it does feel a bit too heavy at times and the politics move kind of quickly, it’s still a gripping and moving drama about a man who went beyond what was expected of him to change the course of American history for the better. It took me a while to finally get around to watching this film, but now that I have, I can’t quite get it out of my head.

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review

18 Jan

Martin Scorsese has a way of creating these epic stories of crime that may stretch on for a very long time, but somehow he can keep people’s undivided attention the whole time. That’s exactly how it was for me with The Wolf of Wall Street. I had no doubts that Scorsese’s latest crime epic was going to be anything less than entertaining, but what I saw was not only one of the best films of the past year, but may very well be one of my new favorite movies. It’s funny, dramatic, and not afraid to go places other films dare not tread.

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Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has dreams of making a name for himself, and also of making as much money as he possibly can. After the business he is working for as a stock broker, run by his mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), is shut down after the events of Black Monday, Belfort finds himself working for a boiler room that deals in penny stocks. Belfort sees potential in these penny stocks, and how the commission that he makes is far more than he can make with a legit business on Wall Street. Jordan starts up his own business, Stratton Oakmont, and along with his right hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), starts making millions in these illegal stocks. His life of debauchery, prostitutes, money, and drugs seems to be going fine, until FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins investigating the dealings at Stratton Oakmont and sees potential to crumble Belfort’s empire.

What makes this movie all the more appealing to me is that it is all based off of a true story of a man who actually did this. Jordan Belfort’s memoirs is the source material for The Wolf of Wall Street, and the unapologetic amount of excess that Belfort engaged in could never be boring to witness. Martin Scorsese obviously does not approve of Belfort’s actions and means of income, but the way he is presented in this movie might be deceptive at first. Rise and fall stories are very interesting to me, like Scarface and the entire arc of all three Godfather movies, and this one is no different. At first, we almost seem to want to be a part of Belfort’s life, but towards the end we can’t even stand looking at him. He’s amoral, but so much fun.

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This movie is so full of energy, it actually made me all hyped up after it was over. Leonardo DiCaprio is at the top of his game here, and I’d go so far to say that he deserves the Academy Award for his performance. It carries the entire movie and he seemed willing to really make a goof out of himself. Of course he has Jonah Hill by his side to keep the energy alive, and it’s really interesting to watch Hill’s career grow as an actor. He’s no longer just a funny guy. He’s quite a serious actor. Not to mention McConaughey’s brief screen time is some of the best the movie has to offer.

The stars behind the camera are just as effective. Everyone and their mothers know that Martin Scorsese is one of the best film makers of all time. There’s just no disputing that. His sweeping camera work has just as much fluidity and energy as the rest of the cast, and the different choices of lenses for certain scenes as another fun layer of creativity to the entire experience. Terrance Winter, the creative mind behind HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire (one of my favorite shows), brings his A-game to the table for The Wolf of Wall Street. His dialogue is sharp as a tack and extremely quick. An exceptional instance of his writing is the first time Belfort and Agent Denham first meet on Belfort’s yacht. It’s an amazing word duel that I will never forget. Finally, I need to mention Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. The intercuts and crazy editing keeps the film feeling kinetic. It’s perfect.

The Wolf of Wall Street was an excellent film that was one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. It’s kinetic film making at its finest, and Martin Scorsese once again proves why he is cinematic titan. DiCaprio’s and Hill’s performances solidify their Hollywood talent, and I really want to see this get some recognition at the Oscars in terms of acting, writing, and editing.

Battle Royale & Battle Royale II: Requiem Review

7 Jul

Before The Hunger Games was even a thought, Koushun Takami wrote a novel released in 1999 called Battle Royale. The following year, Kenji Fukasaku adapted the story for the big screen and was met with worldwide controversy over the subject material. This controversy, of course, garnered the film much respect along with just how well it was made. It’s almost cinematic law now that a successful movie like Battle Royale needs a sequel, and in 2003, Battle Royale II: Requiem was released.

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The first Battle Royale film takes place in a not too distant dystopian future where the Japanese youth has gotten entirely out of hand. As a response to their overly rebellious behavior, the BR Act is passed by the government. A group of students are witness to the effects of the this act firsthand when they are kidnapped on the way home from a school trip where their old school teacher, Kitano (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano), tells them that they are being released on an island where they must fight to the death until one of them is left standing. To make matters worse, unless they are all still alive within 72 hours or they are in a danger zone at a certain time, robotic necklaces that they are all strapped to will detonate. Let the games begin.

Battle Royale is truly an outstanding movie. How The Hunger Games got away with such a blatant rip off is way beyond me, but that’s not what I want to talk about. This movie had a good opportunity to be silly and violent, and in some parts there is great dark humor, but for the most part it takes itself seriously. Not only that, but it succeeds with its serious demeanor. There is lots of violence, but it never gets out of hand or ridiculous. In fact, it is hard to watch at times because you find yourself thinking about what you would do if you were in that situation. This makes Battle Royale a horrifying movie, due to its circumstances.

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Unfortunately, the movie does get a little heavy handed with the dialogue sometimes and it unintentionally funny, but as soon as you find yourself laughing, the next scene will only make you more nervous or upset. Takeshi Kitano is great in this movie and I had so much fun watching him whenever he was onscreen. Talk about taking a character and really making it your own. Battle Royale is a devastating look at teenage rebellion and the effects that it has on everyone around them. If you feel like you can handle the material presented in this movie, it isn’t really one you should let yourself miss.

Now, there really does not have to be a sequel. Can we just forget that it even exists? No? Fine. I guess it is my job to watch it and let you all know how it is. Three years after the original film, Battle Royale II: Requiem was released. Oh boy.

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Three years after the events of Battle Royale, one of the survivors of the games, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara), has created a guerrilla terrorist faction to seek revenge on adults everywhere for the torture that they put him through. As a result, the government has upgraded their BR Program, and another group of high schoolers are put to the test. This time they are sent to and island where it is believed Nanahara is hiding and given the task to find him and kill him within 72 hours, or the necklaces will explode, not only killing the one wearing the necklace, but also their partner. Once on the island they are quickly launched in a battle with the terrorists who want to survive the onslaught and have their ultimate revenge.

Forget everything that was cool or exciting about the original Battle Royale, you won’t find any of that here. Instead we are forced to see battle scenes a la Saving Private Ryan. Was there anything like that in the original? No! Not only is it completely devoid of suspense, but it gets worse than the most repetitive game you may have ever played. Someone is shot, their partners neck explodes, and their friends all yell their names. Over and over and over again. To me, it almost becomes a comedy of sorts. Once the actual “game” is over and it becomes some sort of quasi-war movie, I completely lost interest.

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Unfortunately, the director of the previous film, Kenji Fukasaku, was set to direct this but dies of pancreatic cancer after only shooting one scene. His son, Kenta Fukasaku, who wrote both films, ended up directing the rest. I gotta say, I’m not a fan of his style. When you need to throw in CGI blood (which it is already known that I despise) and CGI debris in every other scene, the movie just starts to looks silly. That’s what Battle Royale II ultimately is: a silly mess of a movie. An overly long movie at that.

In conclusion, Battle Royale is not a movie that should be missed. It is exciting, suspenseful, and surprisingly thought provoking. As for its sequel, it is the ultimate proof that there are some movies that do not need to be made under any circumstances. Still, I’m glad I got to experience the first entry, and I’ll be sure to watch it again.

The French Connection – Review

1 Dec

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie until now. I feel almost ashamed of myself, missing out on a classic like The French Connection. Better late than never I suppose, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. This is a fast paced, intelligent thriller with foreign intrigue and tough but likable characters topped off with an ending that will leave you speechless. “Did you ever pick your toes in Poughkeepsie?”

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After a mysterious murder in Marseilles, New York detectives “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) start up on a case connected to the murder which involves an obscenely large shipment of heroine and a French criminal, Alain (Fernando Rey). This isn’t a typical investigation, but more so a psychological and physical test that will push the detectives out of their comfort zones and into an elaborate maze of cat and mouse.

I love watching a movie where it’s literally one excellent scene after another. A couple scenes stand out in particular. One involves a comedic bust in a bar, but there’s also an adrenaline fueled car chase, powerful shootouts, and suspenseful tailings through the underbellies and upper echelons of New York City. There’s never a dull moment in The French Connection and many times you’re left sitting in your seats dying to know what’s going to unfold in the next five minutes.

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Hackman gives the best performance of his career as the tough talking, mean spirited, yet strangely likable cop, Doyle. His whip smart attitude and outstanding physical acting shows just how deep he is in character. Roy Scheider also gives a great performance, and is the perfect yin to Hackman’s yang. They’re so much more than good cop/bad cop because neither of them are especially “good.” One’s just a bit more heated than the other, which makes for some funny and often dramatic character scenes.

The drama in this film is heightened by its incredible shock value. This doesn’t mean its over the top, but it certainly pushes the limits of what is normally seen in some movies, like innocent people getting killed without any remorseful reactions. The car chase featuring an elevated train is also thrilling even after all these years and hundreds of car chases later. The ending scene alone left my mouth wide open in this weird shock/smile combo. Definitely one of the top 5, if not the top 3 endings off all time, but that’s a list for another day and another time.

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I loved The French Connection and I can’t believe it took me this long to finally see it. The wait paid off because I was totally engaged by the thrills that were taking place before me. It’s a gem from the past that earned 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was the movie to see in 1971, and I’d say it’s still the movie to see in 2012.