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X-Men: First Class (2011)
23 July 2012
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS does a lot of things right in providing smart and exciting entertainment with strong lead performances and a solid origin story. James McAvoy charms as a young Professor X as he brings both the charisma and intelligence required to portray the revered character in a genuine, respected, and eventually sympathetic manner. Likewise, Michael Fassbender commands the screen with his powerful presence as Magneto; he displays an impressive control of emotions, balancing a coolness when calm is needed with the pain and intimidation and anger that conflicts and fuels his character for much of the narrative. This film hinges on the quality of these two leading roles given the enormity and relevance of the two characters in the Marvel comic book lore. And as the film's highest marks, both McAvoy and Fassbender deliver.

With that said, the film, as entertaining as it may be, has its flaws. Kevin Bacon plays Sebastian Shaw with your typical supervillain destroy-the-world (or something similar) mentality in which he smirks and smiles and scoffs his way through the film. His henchmen are even more one-dimensional - an especially stoney performance from January Jones. Additionally, Vaughn can't help but include campy elements like his depiction of Cold War threats and visions, corny thick-headed generals, cliché military leaders barking out cliché orders in cliché environments - elements that add an excruciating cartoon factor to an otherwise smart narrative; flaws that dumb the film down by resorting to lazy developments that reflect the typical run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster. These shortcomings are unfortunate since FIRST CLASS does offer a compelling story that delves deep into significant societal issues that include prejudice, race, and an us-vs-them mindset. These themes were always a strength of the X-Men universe and an asset that proves vital to this narrative arc, and Vaughn successfully nails it here.

In the end, FIRST CLASS is a very good movie that rises above its X-Men peers. It delivers a last act in which the acting, visual effects, and action come together to form a gripping and sufficient climax. Composer Henry Jackman's score also stands out and makes watching X and Magneto grow into their personas that much more riveting. Though the flaws are frustrating, Matthew Vaughn's film is still well-made and marks an auspicious new beginning for the franchise.
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Fong juk (2006)
Exiled (2006)
29 January 2012
Featuring some of the best cinematography and choreography in the past decade, EXILED is visual satisfaction at its finest. Johnnie To's gangster actioner includes a fun story that, with its hyperrealistic style, is brooding, tense, emotional, and entertaining. People withstand plethoras of wounds and live to laugh about it, policemen are useless, and protagonists are gangsters. The result? An ideal plot for sustaining gorgeously crafted scenes of bullet and bloodshed ballets - beautiful from the slow-motion photography to the hard and precise lighting to the variety of different and constantly-interesting color palettes.

The exquisite and warm production design brings 1998 Macau - a Portuguese colony in Southeast China about an hour long boat ride from Hong Kong - to life. It allows Cheng Siu- Keung - To's reliable and excellent DP - to design shadows and balance the dark atmosphere with evocative lighting setups in order to consistently emphasize danger and insurmountability for the protagonists. Anthony Wong leads a great cast with his subtle and imposing presence, complemented by Francis Ng's staccato outbursts and feisty demeanor, and offset by Simon Yam's fun and villainous role as a Triad boss. To top it off, Canadian composer Guy Zerafa provides a score filled with stringy and metallic guitar riffs that intricately builds the tension and results for an even more stylized experience.

With actors who are suave, fitting, and flat-out cool, combined with the experienced technical team at Milky Way Images helping to realize the eloquent vision of their prolific director, EXILED is a fantastic action film where To's signature touch is unmistakable.
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Shaolin (2011)
9 January 2012
In SHAOLIN, a fantastic first act with stunning action sequences and compelling drama is drastically offset by an uneven remainder of the film in which cliché plot elements and bad direction painfully take over. Director Benny Chan's story of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple is impressive to watch and easy to appreciate from every technical standpoint, but the narrative falters as it progresses, resulting in muddled and inconsistent pacing - a pity given the big budget and ambitious designs.

A great group of performers along with excellent action choreography are complemented by vast production sets and camera-work to create a truly epic feel. An exciting carriage chase and sweeping coverage of Shaolin monks training highlight the superb visual spectacle. While Andy Lau delivers a fine all-around performance as a warlord-turned-monk (a character with a strong and emotional story arc), his costars suffer from what seems like hastily-written characters despite also providing bravura acting. For instance, Nicholas Tse's villainous General Tsao Man becomes much too cartoony with his emo-hairstyle, evil smirks, and stilted dialogue, while Jackie Chan's moments become as forced as Wu Jing is underused. The script sacrifices its focus on narrative strength at times for cliché segments of over-sentimentality, which appear merely to provide stirring nationalism that has become much to prevalent in contemporary Chinese cinema - a crippling and extremely unfortunate hindrance to not only this film but the entire industry itself.

Nevertheless, SHAOLIN delivers the goods in terms of action and scope; simply an entertaining film that sadly could have been so much more.
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A Separation (2011)
A Separation (2011)
9 January 2012
Gripping, tense, heartfelt, powerful, painful, and stirring, Asghar Farhadi's A SEPARATION is an intense drama that captivates like a thriller by boasting astounding performances and a truly compelling narrative arc. It is an Iranian film that centers on intimate domestic issues in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances - a purely humanistic narrative that gets better and better as it progresses, building upon layer after layer after layer of dense situations in which these poor characters are helplessly engulfed within. In creating a plethora of deep emotions that are carried out honestly and never over-the-top by the ensemble's pitch-perfect performances, Farhadi manages to weave together multiple angles that are both morally complex and excruciatingly truthful into each and every one of his primary characters (all of whom exist in the middle-to-lower class) . The plot is patiently set up with its pieces slowly establishing in place in the first few scenes before snaring the audience into a wonderfully played 123-minute thrill ride that places viewers right beside its characters - a feat that is executed through its seemingly naturally-crafted hand- held cinematography in conjunction with genuine acting that rarely calls attention to itself.

The film never resorts to flashy and glitzy elements to further its story - it absolutely has no need to - and proves that sincerity in all its forms whether it be in writing, acting, or directing, no matter the budget nor technical limitations, can result in work of the highest quality. To put it simply, A SEPARATION is (personally) not only the best film of 2011, but arguably one of the most impressive lower-budgeted dramas (under 1 million dollars) in the past decade.
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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
8 January 2012
As a film, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO succeeds. An an adaptation, it is frustrating. As a remake, it is pointless.

Fincher's film does many things very, very well. The characters are extremely well-cast - Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara both impressively fit the roles of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander in both attitude and physicality, much more so than their Swedish counterparts; the production design is stunning - the bigger budget pays off as the settings and atmosphere feel much colder and moodier in the snowy and eerie town of Hedestad; and the pacing, after things are rapidly established, flows smoothly with a careful balance of tension, patience, and story development. The film is a finely-crafted thriller that is carried by the performances of its two leads, both of whom showcase great chemistry with one another and admirably so in the depths of a dark, disturbing, and mysterious world.

As a remake a mere two years after the original, however, this film had to have been beyond great in order to warrant its existence, and quite frankly, it is not. Every character not only speaks English but does so each with varying accents, despite being set in Sweden, and although viewers are expected to suspend their disbelief, it's tough to do so given the inconsistencies in seeing English news channels with Swedish words, or fully Swedish newspaper articles found through an English-based Google search. How Fincher could have solved this problem is an enigma within itself, therefore confirming that this adaptation was never necessary. Add to that a horrific and awfully out-of-place opening sequence in addition to an obnoxious and unremarkable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and you have a really good film that is oddly enough a disappointment.

For the record, like its Swedish counterpart, TATTOO fails to fully encompass the scale of Stieg Larsson's novel, which is somewhat forgivable given its various restrictions, but likewise, the brutality was not brutal enough, the characterizations were not fully realized, and the impact of it all failed to achieve both a climax that should have been more powerful and a relief for the characters and the audience that should have likened a gigantic breath of fresh air.

With that said, TATTOO is still nevertheless a very solid film from a talented and experienced team. Pic is recommended, but depending on where the viewer is coming from, it will be a widely assorted experience.
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