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GoneWithTheTwins

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0 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
The addition of pseudo-love-interest Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) and comedy relief background pandas generate a hint of fresh humor., 28 January 2016

When master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces his retirement from teaching kung fu, no one is more shocked than portly "Dragon Warrior" panda Po (Jack Black) – who also discovers that the responsibility of the instructor will be passed on to him. And after a disastrous first day at the dojo, Po realizes he must search within himself to find the courage to lead. When ferocious soldier General Kai (J.K. Simmons) returns from banishment in the spirit world to take revenge on Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and the guardians of the Jade Palace, it's up to Po, the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, and David Cross), and a long lost member of Po's family to band together to thwart this grave new threat.

The breakneck pacing is back - the screen is ablaze with flurries of neon colors and bursts of kung-fu action jumbled together in brilliant special effects extravagance. But the creativity has waned considerably, as if the filmmakers have run out of ideas for Po and crew. It's already the third outing, so it's understandable that many of the basic themes have been exhausted, particularly when it comes to courage, sacrifice, honor, and being comfortable with (or understanding) oneself. But much of the heart, and certainly the amusement of the unlikely warrior engaging in underdog battles, has nearly disappeared, content instead with onslaughts of verbal jokes and visual gags to gloss over the thinness in plot. Plus, magic is used more often than not to provide solutions for unsolvable (or deadly) predicaments.

There's very little time allotted for catching up with the characters; "Kung Fu Panda 3" definitely assumes that audiences are familiar with the former chapters. Beginning immediately with the spirit realm, a chi-collecting maniac, and the soul of dead master Oogway, it's evident that origins are of nominal use – and that gravity-defying wireworks choreography appears better suited to animation, even when the technique is intended to mimic live-action pictures. New roles are added every few minutes, stuffing the production with so many parts that supporting players like Liu's Viper and Chan's Monkey receive approximately 2-3 lines in the entire film. Fortunately, the addition of pseudo-love-interest Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) and comedy relief background pandas generate a hint of fresh humor.

Visually, everything continues to advance in sharpness and movement and flashiness. Props, environments, and costumes look more realistic than ever. And augmenting this are momentary shifts in animation style, which are quickly becoming the norm in animated features. Subplots or backstories take on a two-dimensional look or colors morph into flat silhouettes to break up the supposed monotony of cartoony characters inhabiting stunningly realistic settings. But it's just another unnecessary device used to mask the lack of newness in Po's latest adventure. Rather than learning profound lessons in inner peace or balancing the forces of chi, Po seems to do a lot of frolicking in his Chinese village - before engaging in merriment in the panda retreat and lightheartedly cavorting with unexplained magic to thwart the advances of the deathly serious Kai.

- The Massie Twins

11 out of 43 people found the following review useful:
"The Finest Hours" just might be the worst two hours ever committed to celluloid., 26 January 2016

"The Finest Hours" is based on the true story of the miraculous Pendleton rescue of 1952 – an event still considered the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard. Though bravery undoubtedly surfaced throughout the real experience, here, sheer luck appears to outweigh intrepidity, ignoring all opportunities to display undaunted heroism in its place. This is a major mistake for any picture, but especially so in a disaster movie.

Every character thrust into the middle of insurmountable danger radiates overwhelming timidity, uncertainty, and even, on occasion, idiocy. "They'll listen to you!" Graham McTavish's Frank Fauteux blazons to Casey Affleck's soft-spoken Ray Sybert. But why would they? Confidence and conviction never emerge from any of the seagoing protagonists, causing frustration and annoyance for the viewer. No matter how spectacular the setting of Mother Nature's wrath upon the miniscule entities invading her waters, no entertainment can be derived from witnessing jellyfish tossed about in a sea of skepticism.

In the winter of 1951, shy Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) meets Miriam (Holliday Grainger) on a blind date - and the two quickly fall in love. The following year, the assertive young girl asks Bernie to marry her, but his shaken courage from an earlier rescue mission that resulted in tragedy affords him marked hesitancy. When a violent storm splits two massive oil tankers in half, Webber is given a chance to regain his resolve. Intent on saving the survivors of the SS Pendleton, the determined coxswain and his crew of three sailors, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), must conquer monumental obstacles to reach the imperiled vessel.

"The Finest Hours" starts right in with the character development, forgetting almost immediately that it's supposed to be a disaster movie. And a January disaster movie at that. Too much attention is given to Webber's personal life and in all the wrong areas; instead of focusing on the tragic events that lead to his shattered confidence asea, a formulaic romance is initiated, where a cherub-faced redhead exhibits enough control and pluck to make Pine's lead just that much more inadequate.

This might not have been an unwanted contrast were it not for the addition of several other fainthearted, shy, ineffectual players. Affleck's Sybert and even Eric Bana's officer-in-charge Daniel Cluff are mousy, incompetent, and permanently unsure, incapable of producing a hint of leadership or purposefulness. There's not a respectable character in the entire picture, nor is there a genuinely salty tar (save for Graham McTavish) among them. The various roles exhibit stupidity more routinely than bravery, which is problematic for a film that should, at the very least, disguise stupidity as bravery. "The Finest Hours" is entirely devoid of heroism; luck, insubordination, and cinematic segues prove to be solutions to predicaments rather than the typical common sense or grit.

"The Finest Hours" wants to be more than just a disaster film, but it doesn't know how to achieve that. In fact, it doesn't really know how to pose as a disaster film, either. Every time a suspenseful scenario is orchestrated, the editing and dialogue and actions manage to stymie the anticipation. There's no tension or fearfulness or believable peril. Perhaps this is because it's a Disney production, in which blood and death must be at an absolute minimum. But likely it's because director Craig Gillespie just doesn't know what to do with the screenplay, which is crafted so generically and so ploddingly that the special effects of crashing waves and suffocating waters are unable to cope with the slow pacing and pitiful personas. Some of it is so bad it's almost hilarious – but unfortunately, it never goes far enough to be truly funny in its artistic dreadfulness. Instead, it's mostly just unwatchable.

- The Massie Twins

8 out of 32 people found the following review useful:
"The 5th Wave" saunters dangerously close to the silliness of the "Twilight" franchise., 21 January 2016

Zombies are invading modern cinema and television to extremes of late ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" arrives just two weeks from this film's release), so it's no surprise that "The 5th Wave" mirrors that horror subgenre's key elements. Despite its adaptation from Rick Yancey's young adult, science-fiction novel, many of the designs and inclusions, particularly when it comes to environments and motivations, are unmistakably derivative of "The Walking Dead" and other popular zombie properties. A few moments, including the opening scene, adhere so strictly to the zeitgeist's infatuation with common perceptions of the zombie apocalypse that "The 5th Wave" becomes nearly indistinguishable. That is, until some of the teen romance kicks in.

Although the film employs the tired device of starting straight into a tense sequence before circling back to a proper introduction, there is, thankfully, a decently detailed genesis for the end of the world. In Ohio, Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is just an average teen, playing soccer, attending parties, and trying not to embarrass herself in front of the boy she likes - Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). Like everyone around her, she has no idea that one random, conventional day in high school will suddenly become the last glimmer of normalcy.

A massive alien spaceship appears over the city, exactly like something out of "Independence Day." The "galactic party crashers" soon make their intentions clear: humankind is in their way. The initial attack, dubbed the "1st wave," is an electromagnetic pulse that stops all electrical items and, by extension, even utilities like running water. The 2nd wave comes in the form of geological disturbances, including skyscraper-high tsunamis that decimate islands and coastal towns. The 3rd wave is a modified avian flu that wipes out most of the remaining survivors (thanks to the statistic of approximately 75 birds for every one person on earth). The 4th wave is quickly revealed to be an actual invasion, where disguised alien soldiers attempt to pick off the holed-up human resistance. Before the 5th wave can be hypothesized, Cassie becomes separated from her little brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur), prompting her to undergo a hazardous, 80-mile trek to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where children have been corralled for safekeeping.

Presented from the point of view of a teen girl isn't original, but it allows for a strong female role in the hands of the charismatic Moretz. And fortunately, she isn't toting around her toddler sibling during traumatizing run-ins with paranoid humans and alien "others" alike, which could have become quite annoying. Most of the other players also approach their personas with seriousness, which is a rare and valuable quality in young adult pictures.

But, in the film's efforts to include the obligatory teen romance (or love triangle), "The 5th Wave" saunters dangerously close to the silliness of the "Twilight" franchise. When the characters spy on each other bathing, it's enough to inspire belly laughs. The child-soldier-training routine also grows tiresome, especially as the maturer subject matter clashes with the ridiculously young age of the absurdly named Teacup (a timid girl of about 7), forced to tote a machinegun and engage in physically demanding, strategic combat against adults. At least the secret of the 5th wave is moderately clever, though subsequent twists reveal exponential simplemindedness in scripting. Plus, it's enough to drive one mad when the movie ends with absolutely no resolution – due to the basis on a planned trilogy, though most audiences are likely to be aware of this going in.

- The Massie Twins

10 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
It's too bad that artistry and mindboggling techniques are the only things Inarritu cared about., 24 December 2015

When a group of trappers is attacked by Ree Indians, in search of their kidnapped daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o), the fleeing frontiersmen rush onto a boat to drift down the river. Losing most of the valuable pelts and nearly all of his men (33 are killed while 10 make it to the raft), Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) decides to follow the advice of his chief explorer, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), in abandoning the vessel to find a new trail across the mountains on foot. As the disheveled gang makes their way through the harsh terrain, Glass wanders out to hunt alone in the forest, only to be viciously mauled by a protective mother bear.

"He'll be dead inside an hour." Though he sustains severe injuries beyond anything one might assume are survivable, Glass is stitched back together and hoisted along for a period of time – until rebellious soldier John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) determines that looking after the wounded man is detrimental to his own survival. Through deception and murder, Fitzgerald manages to abandon Glass – alone and in a shallow grave – to succumb to his wounds and the bitter cold. But Glass is no stranger to extreme perseverance, using staggering determination and a bit of luck to embark on a daring odyssey of unrelenting revenge.

The vivid wilderness setting is a character of its own; nearly every shot is a carefully staged, expertly choreographed, beautifully picturesque piece of scenery. And then there's a bit of drama in between. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is so exceedingly proud of every individual environmental image that he has painstakingly captured on film, but his efforts are to such a point of artistic distraction that he's forgotten to tell a story. As an overabundance of running time is spent gorging on the stunning elements of dense forests and icy plains and sparkling rivers all basking in natural light, there's no room left in the immense 156-minute production for any semblance of originality.

In favor of nonstop, mesmerizing technical achievements, "The Revenant" fails to be anything more than a series of striking images. There's no substance to hold it all together; the character development is generic or nonexistent, while the revenge plot is simple and uninvolving. Even side stories (such as Glass' half-Pawnee son, or barbarous French fur traders, or the Ree searchers themselves) have no impact on Glass' epic venture to merely track down his betrayer – one whose dependence on the invaluable guide is briefly spoken of but never shown to the audience. It's just a lot of surviving and trekking, surviving and trekking, in the most prolonged manner possible. The film is ultimately just a long, slow, bloody escalation to a long, slow, bloody climax.

With its intense focus on aesthetic camera-work (such as ceaseless circling around every character in a given scene), natural-lighting location shooting, and gruesome violence (in many ways, the film is trying to present the 1800s as a grotesque era full of lawless butchers), a painfully straightforward revenge yarn is bloated beyond reason. The story itself could be told in 30 minutes. But to its credit, "The Revenant" is a most unusual Western, mixing hints of Spaghetti styling and Sam Peckinpah's flair for bloodthirstiness (like "Dances with Wolves" adapted by David Cronenberg) with the chaos of "Apocalypse Now" or "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" to create a feast of visual wonderment. It's too bad that artistry and mindboggling techniques were the only things Inarritu cared about.

- The Massie Twins

Joy (2015/I)
4 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Hiccups in style and pacing can't bring down Jennifer Lawrence's strong performance., 23 December 2015

As told by her grandmother (Diane Ladd), young Joy's story begins at Rudy's Bus and Truck metal shop, where the naturally creative girl entertains herself through paper models of forests and castles. She envisions a world of wonderment and special powers that transcend the mundanity of life in a small town, further helped by her grandmother's regular words of encouragement. But as she grows up, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) realizes that she's fallen into maddening routines and hopeless mediocrity amidst a complicated circus of familial failures. Not only has she not achieved greatness, but she's also stuck in a dead end job in a dead end life.

Joy's mother (Virginia Madsen) acts like an invalid, spending all of her time in bed watching soap operas; her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) holds her in generally low regards, often making condescending remarks; and Joy's ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) lives in the basement - an uncomfortable arrangement, but one that allows him to help with their two children. And then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro) is dropped off by his current fling, to be similarly relegated to the basement as yet another overcrowding addition to Joy's chaotic household. At times, Joy's exasperation causes her outlook on real life to merge with the outrageous scenarios of the soap operas continuously playing on her mother's television set. But when Rudy's new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) provides the funds for Joy to manufacture and sell an invention – a self-wringing mop – Joy is enlivened once again with the hope of breaking free from the monotony and becoming the powerful matriarch her grandmother always knew she could be.

In this initially light, quirkily frantic, peppy, fast-paced comedy, it would seem that a little adversity can't stop Joy from realizing fame and fortune. But this slice-of-life picture soon becomes a whirlwind of uphill battles and stupefying skullduggery, where businessmen are inherently evil and family members are hopelessly incompetent allies. In its scrutiny of manufacturing and marketing and commerce among cutthroat professionals, "Joy" takes its fragile, human characters and shakes them to their cores. But it knows how to manifest feel-good, inspirational moments too, imparting a zing and a sleekness to the overbearing nature of Joy's discouraging collaborators (who should be part of her support system) and humiliating confrontations with lawyer-encircled fraudsters.

Joy's true-to-life story (based on the real Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop) is given director David O. Russell's trademark eccentricities, full of editing gimmicks (like messing with the timeline); speedy conversations full of naturalistic hysteria; and relatable melodrama in ordinary settings, surrounded by opinionated family members who exhibit plenty of aggravating personality flaws. And yet, with all the editing techniques that Russell surely feels will elevate "Joy" to be something more artistic than a mere heartening tale of unlikely success, it's those very additives that nearly detrimentally becloud the brilliance of the hugely likable protagonist. But hiccups in style and pacing can't bring down this strong female lead, brought to stimulating life by Lawrence's easygoing, levelheaded acting and joyous embodiment of unwavering determination in the face of crippling economic – and psychological – hardships.

- The Massie Twins

36 out of 82 people found the following review useful:
The cast of Tarantino regulars all seem terribly out of place – especially for a Western, 21 December 2015

After losing his horse, former cavalryman-turned-bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) petitions a ride in a passing stagecoach that happens to be carrying infamous mercenary John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his latest quarry, accused murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two gunmen form a partnership to protect their respective investments after another stranger, supposed Red Rock replacement sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), also requests passage aboard the transport. When the weather worsens and a blizzard forces the group to take refuge at Minnie's Haberdashery, Warren, Ruth, and Mannix are forced to intermingle with a host of unsavory characters similarly stranded at the five-and-dime – any of which could be in league with Domergue, just waiting for a chance to slay her captors to set her free.

With the three-hour roadshow presentation, complete with overture and intermission, Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" tries desperately to recapture the feel of a Western epic, like one of Sergio Leone's iconic entries, or Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys." He even steals Ennio Morricone for the score. But the result couldn't be further from a standard Western (or even a Spaghetti Western or Neo-Western); instead, Tarantino's efforts reveal that he's stuck on the idea of a group of killers having intricate, intimate conversations about all sorts of things – whether or not it's hit men or samurai or bounty hunters. If it weren't for the hats and the horses, "The Hateful Eight" wouldn't resemble a Western even in a visual sense.

And that's another problem: this cast of Tarantino regulars all seem terribly out of place – especially for a Western. Madsen, Bell, Roth, Bichir, Goggins, Jackson, and Tatum look like modern people stuffed into costumes; never once do they appear (or act) authentic to the post-Civil War time period. And with the wordy discourse, the character development paints personas of contemporary gangsters, speaking of current activities – most notably in the crude sexual details of Warren's torture tactics. The director isn't really trying to emulate a Western; rather, he's inserting his standard, long-winded, crime-laden motifs into a negligibly Western environment.

Other Tarantino routines are also just as unforgivable and incongruous. He has clearly run out of ideas when he once again plays events out of order, or adds in narration and chapter stops that interfere with the flow of scenes, or when he includes outrageously gratuitous violence. But the worst offense is the running time; believing that everything he writes is faultless, he refuses to cut anything out. This means that credits, scenery, dialogue, camera movements, and even the action sequences are sluggish. It's a long, slow build to a long, slow build, made painfully evident by the halfway mark, which makes one wonder if things will pick up in the second 90-minute piece. "Let's slow it down. Let's slow it way down," insists one character, before another comments, "The name of the game here is patience."

At the end of it all, the story is little more than "Ten Little Indians" or "The Thing," where paranoia causes acquaintances to doubt everything to the point of hysteria and ruin. But this mystery has few surprises, particularly as the tension is mitigated by prolonged conversations in a stagecoach, a stable, a way station, and around a dinner table. It's as if all the character development is accrued by trading stories around a campfire. Although some action does erupt toward the climax, Tarantino isn't interested in imitating the cathartic rampages of "The Wild Bunch" or "The Magnificent Seven," or "Unforgiven," opting instead to settle again on lines from his script - hoping for some great poeticism in the repetition but revealing only tedium.

- The Massie Twins

3 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
It's a stylish, sarcastic affirmation that the bad guys always win., 20 December 2015

Several years before the 2008 housing market crash, Scion Capital founder Michael Burry (Christian Bale) notices the subprime mortgage vulnerabilities and seizes the opportunity to invest. Purchasing large quantities of credit default swaps from numerous major banks, his unorthodox activities attract the attention of trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who in turn convinces FrontPoint Partners hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to buy into the scheme. Despite extreme criticism from colleagues and severe skepticism from clients, the obstinate few that forged ahead and bet against the economy wound up making billions while the rest of the world lost trillions.

Taking a cue from "The Wolf of Wall Street," in which reprehensible swindlers profit at the expense of clueless clients in a markedly flamboyant style, "The Big Short" hopes to lure audiences with its own brand of high spirits. But all of the editing gimmicks grow tiresome quickly, revealing the flimsiness of the story and the disagreeableness of the characters. Breaking the fourth wall, varyingly paced montages, slow-motion, on-screen graphics, unusual narration, and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath are but a few of the jazzy distractions aimed at spicing up an inherently boring subject: the 2008 U.S. financial crisis. If the facts of the situation weren't so fascinating (and there are several details presented here as facts that are actually complete lies), the theatrics would be almost entirely wasted.

Fortunately, the informative, infuriating elements that contributed to that significant economical collapse are captivating enough that most of the visual devices can be ignored. "The Big Short" opts to pander to unknowledgeable or uncaring audiences, intent on winning them over with hip modes of education (though the purpose isn't to teach as much as to merely entertain). Even the casting choices seem to suggest that Paramount Pictures and writer/director Adam McKay aren't confident in their storytelling techniques. Ironically enough, most viewers will still be generally confused by the abundance of Wall Street jargon – and may even lose interest in the actors, who don wigs and everyday garb to portray unexceptional businessmen.

By the end of it all, the lead characters don't appear heroic or revolutionary, or even particularly wise. Their successes in going against the grain have the aura of luck or gambling instead of intellectual brilliance. Even when they face corruption so widespread that it's become synonymous with normal commerce, there isn't a sense of winning or losing – merely weathering the periods of time when the villainy of banks and the government are at their most extreme. To its credit, "The Big Short" is able to use humor to bring levity to the horrors of financial ruin. But even the exposed truths of bureaucratic inefficiencies and unbelievable ignorance in oversight positions are largely diminished through quirky, mid-movie disclaimers about the poetic licenses taken to embellish a tale of staggering woe. It's a stylish, sarcastic affirmation that the bad guys always win in real life and that the common man is utterly helpless to bring about change.

- The Massie Twins

Anomalisa (2015)
18 out of 37 people found the following review useful:
Mostly experimentation with little amusement., 20 December 2015

Though devoid of any real people, "Anomalisa" challenges the audience with a conspicuous, powerful humanity echoing in every scene and lingering on each line of dialogue. Conversations flow naturally. Perceptions reflect reality. And the interactions between characters are distinctly human, provoking unease, sympathy, and humor – sometimes all at once. Whether it's the laboriousness of crafting uncomfortable exchanges with strangers, the precarious dance of courtship, or the struggle with self worth, everyone can relate to an emotion experienced or witnessed by "Anomalisa's" protagonists. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's film will undoubtedly make its viewers think, though the highly existential vagaries, surreal uncertainties, and graphic sexual nature may cloud its more fascinating insights into human behavior.

Caught in a seemingly inescapable cycle of monotony and perpetual flight from meaningful relationships, author and orator Michael Stone (David Thewlis) heads to Cincinnati to speak at a customer service conference. Desperate for companionship, he calls up Bella, an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in eleven years. After the expectedly awkward and dispiriting encounter, Michael happens upon Emily and Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), two young women who are staying at the same hotel and plan to attend his speech. Inviting them out for drinks, Michael becomes attracted to shy, timid Lisa, and attempts to cultivate their connection.

"Anomalisa" doesn't give away its imagery right away; instead, through the sounds of conversations and small talk, audiences are gently let into the world of its unsettling animation. There's a certain level of realism to the eyes and props and environments of these Gerry Anderson-like creations, but it's the voices that truly bring these marionettes to life – particularly with the outrageous gimmick of having Tom Noonan voice every character other than Michael and Lisa. With this concept, the film's meditative insight into mundanity allows little observations on humdrum routines to reveal the components of Michael's escalating dissatisfactions. From a taxi ride to checking in at a hotel to ordering room service, Michael is clearly caught in a series of excruciatingly ordinary events – ones that heavily weigh on his psyche.

It isn't until the explicit, real-time foreplay, cunnilingus, and intercourse sequences that "Anomalisa" unveils the failures of its ultimate experiment. Specifically human activities possess an eeriness that is difficult to shake, even though the voicework by Thewlis and Leigh is utterly mesmerizing. Such authentic notes of tenderness and sexuality permeate their discourse, even though it's filtered through the restricted movements of plastic puppet faces. It's also quite odd that "Anomalisa" is animated in the first place; it lacks all of the signature elements inherent to the art form, including out-of-this-world happenings and pure fantasy. As an artistic analysis of midlife crises or a delirious descent into unbearable mental discontent, the mix of peculiar character designs and utter ordinariness is completely effective. Plus, the humor is sensational. But as a slice-of-life drama (and just the tiniest sliver at that), the film is mostly experimentation with little amusement, interested not in conveying a story so much as commenting on a psychogenic affliction.

- The Massie Twins

1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Everything about "The Assassin" is approached with great caution, as if it's unable to commit to any particular course of action., 19 December 2015

During 8th century China, the Tang Dynasty loses its power. Over the following 100 years, the Weibo province manages to overtake the influence of the Emperor and his Imperial Court to become the strongest in the land – a land plagued by political corruption and turmoil. From this unrest rises an assassin, Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), who blindly obeys the orders of her master, a nun-princess – until Nie's sentimental thoughts about China and its leaders get in the way. When Nie fails to execute the governor, who has a young son in his arms at the time of the kill, she's instead assigned to dispatch her own cousin, Lord Tian Ji'an (Chen Chang).

As the various lords and provosts and commanders of Weibo reiterate, Yinniang is back. And she'll stop at nothing to fulfill her obligation. Or will she? Being independent and increasingly more conservative with her unmatched skills, she investigates Ji'an's activities and toys with him to ensure that he knows who has come for him. Along the way, subplots involving a secret pregnancy, ploys to disrupt faction dominance, and a black magic practitioner stretch out the running time but do little for the complexity (though it does effect the lucidity) of the premise. It frequently feels as if nothing much is happening.

Black and white photography at the start seems to denote an ancient time period, but the cinematography and style are generally too crisp and modern to feel authentic. Fortunately, the picture quickly turns to color, where majestic sets and vivid costumes can more adequately invigorate the setting and characters. The scenery is certainly at the forefront of the film's artistry, as if each shot is a painstakingly planned painting brought to life. But even the visuals can't enliven the blandness of the plot, which features such agonizing dormancy that viewers might as well be gazing upon still photography.

Everything about "The Assassin" is approached with great caution, as if it's unable to commit to any particular course of action. It doesn't appear concerned with getting to the point or even telling a story. After every exchange of dialogue or philosophical comment to no one in particular, a lengthy moment of silence occurs, allowing the camera to linger on faces, expressions, backgrounds, or general inactivity. And this is usually preceded by chirping birds or crickets and followed by a slow fade.

There are eventually a few scenes of combat (employing the conventional wirework and swordplay), but they're brief and unfocused; clearly, "The Assassin" is not intent on filling the shoes of a typical kung fu/wuxia movie. The music also regularly anticipates some great ambush or flicker of bloodshed, but surprises are nonexistent. The camera guarantees that attacks are heralded by what feels like minutes of characters idling in a dark corner, waiting patiently to pounce – and then typically retreating without a fight. Just when a few sequences hint at something engaging, the scene cuts away, as if director Hsiao-Hsien Hou is intentionally keeping awe-inspiring imagery concealed from audiences. Crawling along at a snail's pace, it doesn't even matter that the ending is unnaturally cryptic and inexplicably comforting; "The Assassin" will have lost most of its viewers somewhere in the first act.

- The Massie Twins

Carol (2015)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Like "Spotlight" earlier this year, "Carol" possesses a striking sense of reserve, of understatement., 19 December 2015

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young clerk at the doll counter in the toy section of the Frankenberg's department store in New York. During Christmastime, she spies a refined, older woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), shopping for a gift for her daughter. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, it creates the perfect opportunity for Therese to start up an interaction; but before the shy shopgirl can make a significant first move, Carol invites her to lunch, ostensibly to thank her for recommending a train set purchase.

When the two meet, it's revealed that Carol is divorced from Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese deals with the routines of an amorous suitor named Richard (Jake Lacy). But neither one has much interest in their male companions – or the customary social situations they find themselves mired in. Instead, as they continue to arrange daytime rendezvouses to dine or drive or chat, they must thwart the interferences and advances of the men in their lives to focus on bolstering a romantic relationship – the kind that won't be readily accepted in mid-century America, and the kind that can be used against Carol in a custody battle for her daughter.

Like "Spotlight" earlier this year, "Carol" possesses a striking sense of reserve, of understatement. It's not immediately apparent what the story will hold for the various characters that are introduced, but their subtle actions betray a concealment of motives, intentions, and realizations. The film goes first for the establishment of a realistic environment (1950s New York) before building characters through observation over dialogue, imagery over spoken confirmations. This is also aided by Carter Burwell's gentle piano melodies and violin motifs.

Analyzing the struggle between love for a child and love for a partner – in a not-so-distant past when the morality of lesbianism was also an issue of legality – makes for a dramatic experience when the choice isn't an issue of right or wrong. While other mainstream films have examined same-sex relationships during equally unaccommodating time periods, "Carol" is careful to paint a portrait of love in general, without highlighting specific differences in sexuality (though it does indulge in a sex scene for those audiences who can't imagine a romance without accompanying visuals). There also exists a certain irony in the prejudices the duo encounter just for being two women in the close proximities of dinner tables and hotel check-in desks, despite their refusal to display obvious affection in public settings.

In the end, with a touch of clever editing (the typical gimmick of showing scenes out-of-order, but here repeated with new information for an unusually powerful effect), smart storytelling, and strict adherence to an artistic restraint, "Carol" becomes both an entertaining endeavor and a poignant message about love's ability to overcome adversity. And, in its build to an in-the-moment climax that resolves only immediate happiness to remain ambiguous about the future (really, the entirety of their slice-of-life experiences inhabit only the length of their love affair – there is no concern with the before or after), it's highly satisfying. Undoubtedly, Blanchett, Mara, and director Todd Haynes ("Poison," "Safe," and "Far from Heaven"), working from Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt" (possessing an oft-debated title far more complex than "Carol"), will receive plenty of attention during awards season.

- The Massie Twins


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