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One of the worst films I have seen in theater in some time
It reminded me Battlefield Earth in some way, although this one was easier to sit through due to the good visual effects. The first 20 minutes were a total bore; I was like "where is this story going?' I understand they were trying to establish some sort of character relationships at the beginning, but it was so uninteresting the way they present it, and you still don't really care about any of them afterward. At least it got better when we finally got to the aliens attack. Still, there is no plot whatsoever, just a lot of running around, and the characters getting killed one by one in predictable fashions. They also tried a couple of slow-mo scenes when it's not necessary. You could see they borrowed heavily from other sci-fi movies, but the result is very mediocre in term of engaging the audience and delivering the total package. Like my boss said after the movie, it feels like an end-of-class project by some visual effect graduate students.
Not the second coming, but a very enjoyable blockbuster
Well, both the bads and goods stood out. The screenplay is certainly nothing special. It follows a familiar plot with a lot of one dimensional characters. The bad guys are bad who were shouting out bad one liners with no redeeming qualities throughout. Also the political messages (or sarcasm such as "we will fight terror with terror with preemptive strikes") and environmental messages are definitely not subtle, and there are several blatant tear-jerking attempts with slow-motions and background music. This is no LOTR or TDK in terms of screenplay, but at least Cameron avoided ill-attempted jokes or making protagonists keep rising from near death.
That being said, good story is not really the point we're seeing the film here, is it? We want visuals and actions, and on both fronts, it's near perfection. It's like Jurassic Park meets LOTR, in 3D. The world Cameron created was immense and gorgeous. I know it's CGI, but it's very much worthy of a Cinematography nomination. The actions are intense with fine editing. After feeling dragged somewhat in the first 100 minutes especially since the story didn't get me, the last hour went by in a blink of the eye.
Overall, still very much recommendable. B+.
This Is It (2009)
I had my fear going in, but it was all shattered. What a blast. This is a must-see for every MJ fan and even non-fans to understand why he was so popular and deserved every bit of the title King of the Pop. A consummate artist, a perfectionist, and a visionary. The film is overflowed with his energy, passion, and dedication. If the rehearsals could be this good and engaging, one could only imagine what the concerts would've been. His voice sometimes showed his age, but his dance moves were not, at all. Also the young female guitarist was not just good looking, but crazily good with the guitar as well. Smooth Criminal segment is probably my favorite, but they're all very excellent. I don't feel the film is exploiting his death in any way. It's simply paying the tribute and gives fans something they deserve to see.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A mind-boggling film
I'm not even sure how to start reviewing this one of the kind film. I had seen 5 Kubrick's films previously (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut), and the uniqueness of each endeavor is so palpable. His film is divisive because he is not afraid to push the envelop, and A Clockwork Orange is more vivid in that regard than any others. From its jaw-dropping opening shot (I was like, "oh my goodness, this is going to be weird"), the first act went on a mind-boggling journey of sex, violence, and unlawfulness. The extreme sadistic behavior is presented with Beethoven's classical music on the background; it truly has to be seen to be believed.
The story got progressively weaker in the second and third acts, but it showed the other extreme of trying to eliminate the "criminal impulse", the dark side of human mind, by developing a negative Pavlovian response to illegal activities through medical and psychological treatments. It demonstrated the danger of dehumanization and proposed the important question of, as a society, how much we are willing to trade our freedom for a "quieter", more secure life. Alex turned from a chilling villain to a somewhat sympathetic victim; a lot of his acts are despicable, but somehow we could identify with him throughout the movie, even if we don't want to admit.
The film touches some serious subjects, so it could easily feel heavy-handed with a lesser director, but Kubrick's style, full of memorable images, just completely absorbed me in until toward the end. It's both a satire and drama and deserves the status fans have given.
The Queen (2006)
I am surprised how much I like the film. The whole saga surround Diana's death, as any important historical event, interests me a great deal, but the story looks perfect for a made-for-TV documentary on History Channel instead of a full-blown movie. I was wrong, because what Stephen Frears created is a fascinating portrayal of the royal family after the tragedy that deserves the big screen treatment. The script is sharp and witty, with unexpected humors permeated throughout. The real-life footages are adeptly used. We will never know how accurate the story is given the secrecy of the institution, but what is shown on the screen grabbed me deeply.
Still, the film would not have the effect it generated without truly the best performance of the year. Like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Helen Mirren did not act as Elizabeth II; she became Elizabeth II. Yes, her manner is spot on; however, what she did is so much more than just a mimicry. She gave the character life without overplaying it. We sense her conflicting emotions through facial expressions and body language. It's such a refreshingly understated, multi-layered performance at a time where many actors try to wow the audience by yelling, breaking down hysterically, and overacting. Give her the Oscar now.
Among the supporting roles, Michael Sheen shined as Tony Blair. The story is quite favorable toward Blair, implying he is one who saved the monarchy, but Sheen also made us connect with him. Alex Jennings showed Prince Charles' emotional side in limited screen time. The only complaint I have is regarding James Cromwell. Maybe Prince Philip is equally stubborn in real life, but the one-noted character in the film certainly got on my nerve with his constant rants toward Diana.
Overall, the docudrama is definitely one of the best films I have seen this year. Highly recommended.
World Trade Center (2006)
Missing the spirit of 9/11
When I was watching the film, I was affected and touched by what is depicted on the screen. It's visually stunning, and the images felt real. However, once I had time to reflect on it, I realized the real substance is missing from the film, and my grade has dropped accordingly. What's the point the film tries to convey? We saw two people who were just walking, hadn't helped anybody to escape before getting stuck under the rubble, and they spent the next couple of hours talking to each other to keep themselves alive, and they got rescued. They are survivors, not heroes, and that shouldn't be the spirit of a 9/11 film. When I think of 9/11, I thought about heroism, chaos, and people who were killed on that day. United 93 touched on all, while World Trade Center showed very little. The story Oliver Stone told could very well be about two mine workers who got stuck and rescued after a random mining accident instead. The approach and end-result dilute the significance of the event.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
A worthy big screen experience
Going into the film, I had worries with all the slamming critics have given, even though I didn't read all of them in details. However, I'm happy to say it turns out to be one of more satisfying movie experiences of the year.
First I echo the sentiment that the film is simply technically perfect. The retro-mood it created had me immensed in the world of geisha from beginning to the end. It's very 1930 Shanghai like. The music score isn't as haunting as the one in CTHD, but it is still masterfully composed and fits in the background very well. It's worth seeing for the big screen experience alone. The story also never dragged, as each of the three parts flowed nicely. I normally don't like voice-over, but here it really held the movie together and helped to move the story along.
As for the accents, the problem has definitely been exaggerated. I was expecting a lot of unpleasant broken English to be spoken, but they all sounded fine to good, not just from the most fluent Michelle Yeoh, but Ken Watanabe, Youki Kudoh (who plays Pumpkin) and other supporting casts. Gong Li had a few awkward lines at the beginning, and Ziyi had more and is the one who had to try the hardest, but both pulled off admirably and didn't hurt their performances in the process.
Talking about performances, I think almost all of them did well. It's much more of an ensemble piece, and I was especially impressed by the young Sayuri and Ken Watanabe.
The main problem I have is with character development. It is a Cinderella story at heart, but the good and evil are too clear-cut and lack dimension. I also want to see more ups and downs for the competition between Ziyi and Gong Li. Gong did all she could, but the script didn't allow her to be a worthy opponent. Except for some verbal back-and-forth between the two and a few dirty tricks from Gong, there was no reason to believe why she was the most famous geisha in Japan before Ziyi arrived.
In addition, the Mother character is over-the-top and didn't fit the emotional aspect the film quite well, although she did provide some comical moments. The big dance scene had excellent buildup, but the execution of the dance felt flat. It lasted only about 30 seconds, while doubling that and making it more mesmerizing would have made the whole middle act more effective.
These flaws didn't overshadow the fact that what was put on screen worked for me. Will I be willing to watch it again with friends? In a heartbeat. Will I recommend it to others? Definitely. With that in mind, I give the film an A-.
Tian xia wu zei (2004)
Feng XiaoGang reaches for new height in his latest movie
Feng has traditionally produced a movie each year close to the new year, but the tone of his movie has grown darker and sadder. A World without Thieves is another example of this progression.
The story is simple, but the characters have layers, and the dialog remains classic Feng-style as ever. All performances are good to great. The villain role is set up perfectly for Ge You. The production value is the most polished I've seen from a Feng's film. The camera work, the editing, and the music score all feel artistic and are mixed together quite well. As for his previous movie "Cellphone", there are a number of sad moments in the movie where your heart will be heavy. Overall, highly recommended. 8 out of 10.
The Aviator (2004)
Amazing visuals and performances all around
Leo blew me away in this movie. He definitely gives the best performance of his career. He is so good as Howard Hughes: the courtroom scene, all the scenes with him on the airplane and being the director. His accent and expressions are all great, and he portrayed the disease very well. It's certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination and possibly even the win.
The supporting cast is also great. Cate Blanchett performed Kate Hepturn beautifully. It's a very showy supporting role, and her first interaction with Leo on the golf course cries Oscar, while her last scene with Leo through the door showed her range. I like Baldwin a lot in this movie, and Alda played the senator very efficiently.
The production value and visual effects are also grand. The only minor complaint I have is that it was a little long in the middle and seems to lose its focus for a while before getting it back at the congressional hearing. 9 out of 10.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
Visually spectacular and beautifully acted
This is the best martial arts film I've seen since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
First, the opening act is wonderfully staged. Zhang Ziyi really showed her dancing skill here. A very creative way to open the film.
Then, all the fights are great, especially the one in the bamboo forest and the one in the snow at the end, although I do have problem with the ending that I'll mention later on. The visual is as spectacular as Hero, and unlike Hero, I feel the story flows better in House of Flying Daggers. The multiple twists took me by surprise since I wasn't expecting them. The love triangle was set up quite well, and the personal sacrifice for love did resonate with me.
And the acting. I believe Ziyi gave the best performance of her career, playing a blind girl while doing all the martial arts effortlessly. Playing a blind girl convincingly is hard enough, and her expression was perfect throughout even when she was fighting. Never a moment that I could catch a flaw to indicate she wasn't blind. Takeshi Kaneshiro also did great in this movie, although I do find Andy Lau's performance somewhat bland.
As for the part that could be improved upon. First the dialog is still cheesy at times. Chinese people don't talk like that in real life. And the last 20 minutes became so melodramatic that I wanted to shake Yimou to get him out of it. To me, CTHD was elevated because it had a perfect ending, but with HOFD, I think Yimou really wanted to put the fight in the snow in that he dragged on more than he needed, and the emotional impact was reduced as a result.
Still overall, a great experience for me. One of the best films in 2004. 9/10.