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The Flowers of War – Review

10 Feb

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding Zhang Yimou’s newest movie, The Great Wall. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m going to hold all judgement until I actually do, but I wanted to point out that Yimou is still responsible for some really fantastic and visually striking films that shouldn’t be ignored. The two that I’m most familiar with are Hero and House of Flying Daggers. In 2011, Yimou went in a sort of different direction with the historical war/drama film, The Flowers of War, a chronicling of the Rape of Nanking during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This film has a lot of power behind the story, and the performances are to be praised along with the visual flair behind it. There is something holding the movie back from being a classic, however, and some of the detractions of his newest film can also be noticed here.

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in 1937, Nanking is completely overrun by Japanese troops, which puts every person in the city in extreme danger of torture and murder. Amongst these people are John Miller (Christian Bale), and American mortician hired by a Catholic church for his grim services, and a group of schoolgirls looking for cover wherever they can. One of the schoolgirls, Shu (Zhang Xinyi), runs into John on his way to the church, and he escorts her to safety there. While they are in hiding, a group of prostitutes, led by the beautiful and strikingly wise Yu Mo (Ni Ni), also find refuge in the church. These different people all have major differences in beliefs and practices, but they are soon forced to overcome these biases to protect each other when a representative for the Japanese, Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe), makes his and his troops presence known and essentially barricades them inside the church until he can figure out what to do with them all. Thus begins a daring escape plan formulated by the reluctant John and Yu Mo to get as many people to safety as possible.

Right off the bat, The Flowers of War has a subject that is very difficult to tackle. This is a very dark time in human history, so it must really be handled with care. Luckily, under the direction of Zhang Yimou, I think that it’s handled very respectfully and without any kind of exploitation. That doesn’t mean that there is no controversy surrounding this movie. One interesting thing to point out is that this movie is banned in Japan for reasons that are pretty obvious. This film definitely shows the horrors that were inflicted by the Japanese unflinchingly realistic detail. There’s also been some critics who have pointed out that this is another example of a “white savior” story arc. I’m not one to usually point this out, but I do see where these critics are coming from. The entire cast is made up of Chinese and Japanese actors with Christian Bale being the only western actor for most of the movie. While it’s fine that he’s in the movie, a lot of the film revolves around him protecting the people inside the church. That being said, unlike some other movies that suffer from this cliché, the supporting characters do handle themselves very well and show smarts and grit in times of suspense and intensity.

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When I think of the movies by Yimou that I really like, the first things that come to my head are the colors that highlight every scene of his movies. The Flowers of War is toned down a little bit, but don’t be fooled. This is a beautiful movie to look at and, even when something isn’t jumping out at you in a shot, just look at the framing and lighting. Zhao Xiaoding, who has worked as Yimou’s cinematographer on House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, returns for this movie and works perfectly with Yimou to frame and light this movie just right. There’s not enough that can be said about the visuals. There’s also great usage of slow motion photography and one particular tracking shot that sent shivers down my spine. Say what you will about anything in this movie, you have to give a lot of credit to the technical proficiency and artistry behind the camera.

While also being great visually, Yimou has shown his strengths at telling a story, and it works here for the most part. He gets the best out of his actors, for sure. Christian Bale and Ni Ni are fantastic, and the child actors are also put to great use and feel very natural. There’s a lot of power in the telling of this story, but it doesn’t really keep the power going for some parts. The film starts off very strong and just keeps building in tension and drama, but it starts to fall apart during the overlong third act. This is when the planning of their escape starts, which is all fine, but there’s a romance that forms and a lot of other unnecessary scenes of dialogue that could have been cut out or trimmed down. It just felt awkward having this slow down happen so late in the movie after so much has just happened. This is the film’s biggest detractor. It has a nice flow for most of the movie, but the third act feels so unnatural and weird at times that I started to check how much time left a little bit too often.

The Flowers of War is a really good retelling of a very dark time in human history. Zhang Yimou continues to show his strengths as a director and storyteller, even though the narrative starts to slump heavily during the overlong third act. The characters in this movie are very well rounded and it’s a beautiful film to look at. I can see people getting upset over the certain elements of the movie, but I think they should try to get past it, if not just a little bit, to see the greater story being told. This isn’t a classic, but it’s a valiant effort from a very talented film maker.

Final Grade: B+

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The Big Short – Review

5 Jan

If I had some choices about who would be responsible for making a movie about the financial crisis of 2007, my first thoughts would go to Martin Scorsese since he tackled Wall Street in his film The Wolf of Wall Street or Aaron Sorkin because of his countless works on politics, journalism, and business. One of the last people I’d think of is Adam McKay, who is known for some very funny movies like The Other Guys and the Anchorman films. Here we are, however, in the weird alternate universe where McKay is apparently just the right man for the job and the end result is The Big Short. This is one of those rare movies that takes very serious subject matter and makes something of a joke out of it, but this is also a very intelligent and upsetting film that has become one of the highlights of film in the past year.

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Over the course of a few years in the mid-2000s, there was a group of people who saw the inevitable collapse of the housing market, and decided to use that to their own advantages. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedge fund manager who first notices this and creates a credit default swap market to bet against the housing market. Because of this audacious movie, Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling), a big shot trader, and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge fund manager, also start betting against the housing market. Baum, however, has a much more personal vendetta against the banks and makes it quite clear in his ventures. Finally, two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are hoping to get rich quick off this and enlists the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help with the major financial decisions, much to his chagrin. This is the group that got rich off of this, but also fought to show the real problems with the system.

A movie about this recent financial crisis has all the potential to be way over my head and not entertaining in the least, but McKay handles this material in such a way that everyone should be able to feel involved in the story. The characters, while all based on real people, are very vivid to the point of sometimes being a little over the top, but that sort of works in really illustrating who these people were. Another problem I thought I was going to have with The Big Short is that everything just wasn’t going to make sense to me. I know next to nothing about how all this stuff works, but the makers of this movie realized a lot people don’t. In a way that’s completely in character and funny, the characters of this movie often break the fourth wall to explain things in the most basic of ways. It’s an interesting stylistic choice and one that really helped the movie a lot.

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My only complaint with The Big Short is that sometimes it felt a little bit too over-stylized. The condescending voice overs were funny and the kinetic time lapses worked well, but there were a lot of unexpected jump cuts that I wasn’t really feeling. It was just weird to have a really good, dramatic scene happening and then it’s all of a sudden cut short for the sake of style. The emotions were working just fine in the scene, and a jump cut wasn’t needed as some strange exclamation point. Still, the editing was one of the stand out aspects of the movie. It helped to convey the confusing, nonstop, and almost ADHD kind of living that these people did before the big crash.

Finally, this movie is getting a lot of buzz for the acting. This Sunday coming up is the Golden Globes, and this movie has two nominations for acting. These are for Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Really, the acting in this movie is what makes it really great. The writing and humor is all spot on and the message really hits home, but seeing all of these actors transform themselves into different people yet again is really a treat. Steve Carell gives the most dramatic performance in the movie and really walks a fine line between being hilarious and tragic. Christian Bale does exceptional work as Michael Burry by using a lot of nervous energy to really make the character whole. Ryan Gosling also steals practically every scene he’s in with all of his character’s sickening machismo. The only person that is underutilized is Brad Pitt, which is upsetting since he could’ve done a lot more.

The Big Short succeeds in everything it set out to do. It’s both funny and upsetting, chaotic and quiet, large and personal.  The performances are all top notch and deserve major recognition while the writing really breaks the story down in ways that everyone can understand it. I’m really very impressed by Adam McKay and expect to see a lot more work like this from him in the future. While there are some minor flaws that can be nitpicked, The Big Short is a big success.

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.

American Hustle – Review

8 Jan

From the first time I saw the trailer for American Hustle, I was more than ready to see it. Now that it has been nominated for 7 Golden Globes, I really had to kick myself in the ass to get to the theater and see it. Combine that with the fact that it’s directed by David O. Russell, whose films The Fighter and Three Kings I really enjoyed. This is a very grand movie where a lot of things happen that’s being performed by a group of very talented people. That being said, American Hustle is a great movie with only Russell’s pretentious vision and bloated run time bringing it down.

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Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are two con artists who have made a killing over the course of a few years in many different sorts of cons. It all seems to come crashing down when they are busted by the over enthusiastic FBI Agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). Richie decides to let them off the hook if they can help him bust a group of senators and congressmen, including the mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). As the scams begin to pile up to a degree where Irving can’t even keep track of them all, relationships in the group begin to flare, and Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) decides to stick her nose into the whole thing which could mean causing the whole plan to come crashing down.

This movie is a lot of things, and that’s what I think part of the draw is. I went into it expecting mostly a comedy, but much like Three Kings, there are some very poignant dramatic moments amongst the sea of hilarity. It’s pretty refreshing to see a movie balance comedy and drama so well without one overshadowing the other. It’s a bold storyline to take on, and while it is mostly successful, there are some problems. The biggest one is the movie’s length. The first act and the second act move along just fine, but the beginning of the third act not only slows down, but adds in a bunch of scenes that could have been cut or trimmed. Up until that point, the movie moves so fast that it feels like I ran into a brick wall.

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I can’t talk about American Hustle without praising the acting. Christian Bale, once again, went through a major physical change for his role by gaining forty pounds. He’s also just super into character and plays a role that is different than the brooding parts he usually plays. Jennifer Lawrence is hilarious as Rosalyn, although some of the scenes that could have been cut involve her character which is not her fault. Jeremy Renner gives the best performance of his career. The only person who I felt was the weak link was Amy Adams, who didn’t really have the energy of her costars. I saved the best for last. Bradley Cooper gives an absolutely hysterical, pitch perfect performance in what I would say is worthy of an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor. He steals the show.

This is a really great movie to look at to. The costume design is especially great at capturing some of the good parts and not so good parts of style in the late 70s. Going right along with the costumes is the set design that looks like it was pulled right out of the time period, and if you were to watch American Hustle alongside something from the 1970s, I don’t think you would find much a difference. While I’m saying what I like about the look of the movie, I should mention the camera work. It looks really great and moves very fluidly with the energy that the characters have, but I feel like David O. Russell just really thinks he is the greatest thing on planet earth and that translates to the film. He does things with the camera that are just too much, and someone should let him know that moderation is better.

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American Hustle definitely deserves all the award recognition and critical praise that it is receiving. It is an excellent movie that is mildly bogged down by it’s director’s pretentious vision. All of the performers and set/costume designers went above and beyond in making this movies one of the highlights of the 2013 year in movies. If 20 minutes were trimmed off this movie, it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s a little bit too bloated, but that didn’t stop me from loving this movie and wanting to see it again right when it was over.

Equilibrium – Review

20 Jun

If you were to put George Orwell’s 1984The Matrix, and Minority Report sprinkled with a hint of Gattaca, your end product would look something like Equilibrium. Kurt Wimmer’s dystopian science fiction movie is definitely a mash up of other science fiction and that leaves a question to be answered: Is Equilibrium an homage to classic science fiction, or is blatantly ripping others off. Either way you look at it, there is a lot of fun to be had with this movie, even though I can’t see it being put on anyone’s list of best science fiction films of all time.

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John Preston (Christian Bale) is a Grammaton Cleric, whose main job is to find and exterminate “sense offenders.” What is a sense offender? Well, after World War III, a new drug called Prozium was created which blocks any sort of emotion, and soon became mandatory. Sense offenders are the few that decide it is not the right way to live. One day, Preston accidentally breaks the vial holding his Prozium and begins to feel emotion. An even bigger problem is that he really enjoys it. An even worse problem is that he is the most revered Grammaton Cleric. He immediately begins questioning his government and his own role in rounding up people who desire a life full of emotion, which sturs up suspicion with his partner Brandt (Taye Diggs).

The first thing that I need to talk about is the outstanding style that Wimmer has packed Equilibrium with. The cinematography by Academy Award winner Dion Bebee is out of this world. The future is dark and ominous with splashes of hard light that makes for awesome looking action scenes. And speaking of action, Wimmer created a style of gunfighting/martial arts called Gun Kata, which is reminiscent to the style of fighting seen in The Matrix, but with its own original twist to it. The scenes featuring Gun Kata are absolutely awesome and memorably shot.

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Style aside, the story of Equilibrium really isn’t anything spectacular. Like I said before, it is very reminiscent of an Orwellian future that has been seen countless times. The inability to feel and lack of human emotion is a favorite for dystopian science fiction authors and film makers, although it isn’t quite as overt as it is in Equilibrium. Looking at this movie as an homage to older science fiction, it certainly does its job well. If you were to look at it as a lazy piece of writing, than it’s pretty glaring. This forces the viewer to take it as they will, and this will highly affect your opinion on the movie. Personally, I feel like there’s too much creativity in other parts of the movie to make it lazy enough to be a rip off.

Unfortunately, this movie does suffer from style over substance. Many people heavily compare this movie to The Matrix, which is rightfully so. From the clothes to the Gun Kata, there are certain similarities, but The Matrix doesn’t suffer from style over substance. Part of what makes The Matrix such a classic is the Wachowski’s abilities to make it heavily stylized but deep in every other possible way. Equilibrium looks nice, but it doesn;t really make the viewer think too hard, which is important for science fiction.

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Taking two hours out of your day to watch Equilibrium is something that I would recommend. It isn’t going to be a classic science fiction film, nor is it a thought provoking trip into a possible future, but it does promise a lot of fun. The action is top notch and the movie itself is gorgeous to look at. Give it a watch before you judge it. It’s pretty fun.

The Dark Knight Rises – Review

26 Jul

First off, I apologize for this being late. I should’ve wrote this a couple of days ago, but better late than never I guess. I think it’s fair to say that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are not only above average comic book films, but also two of the best films ever made, especially The Dark Knight. Therefore, The Dark Knight Rises had big shoes to fill, being not only the successor of The Dark Knight, but also the closing of a trilogy.

 

Eight years after the Joker brought Gotham City to its knees, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) spends his days locked in Wayne Manor, ignoring the people he once protected. When Bane (Tom Hardy), a behemoth of a man, both in intellect and stature, invades Gotham with ideas of terrorism and revolution, Wayne must don the cape once again. His help comes from his oldest friend and butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner  Gordon (Gary Oldman), detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and jewel thief Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway).

Even with all the hype and promising trailers and clips that I saw, I was worried that this film wouldn’t be able to stand tall next to the masterpiece that was The Dark Knight. I feel confident in saying that this doesn’t surpass that film, but is on the same level. The Dark Knight Rises is a long, intense, and dramatic film filled with complex characters, tough decisions, and surprises that will have the audience wowed.

 

As with its predecessor, the villain is the scene stealer for me. Tom Hardy’s portrayal of Bane is spot on. His fluctuating and confident voice is both a perfect match and contrast to his physical appearance. The only problem is that I sometimes had a hard time hearing and understanding what he was saying. Christian Bale gives his best performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman yet. He is more tortured than he ever was before. Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are also fantastic. I do wish that Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman were in this movie more, just because I love their characters.

The intensity of the situation is earth shattering. Imagine if the city that you live in or is closest to you is taken over by a maniacal genius and there is nothing your police, army, or government can do about it. America has seen its fair share of revolution and rioting, and this movie also goes to show that if the economy or politics get shaky enough, any person with strong ideals can be put into power. Just look at Adolf Hitler.

 

I don’t really want to talk about the ending because I don’t want any spoilers in this review. All I can really say about it is that it is one of the most effective and emotional ending that I have seen. There’s victory, loss, celebration, and sadness. Christopher Nolan has proved before that he is a master story teller and film maker, but the last 10 minutes of this movie alone only drive that point home more.

This is it everyone. It’s tough to say it, but The Dark Knight Trilogy is over. The Dark Knight Rises is what I like to call a perfect movie. For an almost three hour long movie, I feel like it went by really fast because I was so lost in Gotham. If you haven’t seen this film yet, go out and see it immediately. It isn’t just a great super hero movie, it is a great story that is expertly constructed and concluded.