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Batman Begins (2005)
Intelligent meditation on fear and justice
4 July 2005
Batman Begins surpasses the original Superman as my favorite superhero film. While I expected it to be good, seeing the pedigree of the director and acting, this one separates itself from the pack in that it directly takes on two fundamental human concerns, fear and justice. Entertainment should be enlightening as well as well as fun, and while its not Shakespeare, Batman Begins makes a good stab at bringing fear and justice out into the open so the audience can reflect on them.

The acting was really top notch in this one, from Morgan Freeman's sly gadgeteer to Michael Caine's pitch perfect Alfred. I thought Katie Holmes was excellent as the DA as well, and I cannot quite understand why others are dissatisfied with her. I have not seen her in anything else. Perhaps others are having trouble with past images? Gary Oldman is perfect as usual. Cillian Murphy is a chilling villain with absolutely ice cold blue eyes. Then there is Liam Neeson, who is just marvelous. Very few actors can portray mature strength and intelligence with the authority he can. Such a shame he could not play Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings films. He would have made an enormous difference to their stature.

Then there is Christian Bale, becoming Batman and Bruce Wayne so surely you are greatly troubled to even remember any acting is going on. Much credit must go to the excellent script as well, but overall the wonderful acting in this film is just a joy to watch.

As good as almost every element is, I have a few complaints that force me to knock off a star.

1) For some reason the abominable POV shaky action camera is used. Modern directors like to say this is more "realistic". I like to think it just saves them the trouble of choreography. Fortunately there are few melee's in this film so its not a huge detraction, but if a stable distant camera was used during the fight scenes, intelligible fighting would have been yet another notch in the belt of this great film. Instead, we have the usual modern action film foggy mush during battle.

2) Soundtrack quite mediocre and uninspired, though its not intrusive.

3)Overdone action mayhem just gets tedious in my eyes, but then this is a so called "summer blockbuster" so no doubt Chris Nolan is trying to dispel any ideas that he is some art-house outsider. Again, not too much of this, but the endless train crash comes to mind as something just in there for summer 150mill budget sake.

Overall however, a stellar effort. If you like intelligent films, your action with a hefty dose of realism, movies that explore philosophical principles, chilling noirish city scapes, great acting, tight direction, or just a good won't be disappointed in Batman Begins.
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Painted Fire (2002)
A unique, gorgeous work of art
18 May 2003
The fire gives all...

This is one of film's most masterful meditations on artistry. Set in 19th century Korea it tells the story of the famous painter Ohwon, but rather than stick to saucy anecdote, melodrama, or psychological egg hunting, it portrays a series of episodes throughout his life, all of which are beautiful works of art in themselves. It gives no interpretation of these episodes, but leaves them for the viewer to ponder along with the paintings of Ohwon himself. In this way, the viewer enters into the same sort of contemplation as Ohwon, and minus his talent can "feel" their way into the inspiration of his paintings.

Part of why this is so effective is the utterly masterful evocation of 19th century Korea and the musical/artistic world that Ohwon moved in. There are so many gorgeous shots of the world outside the paintings that we get a mirror effect where we see the beautiful world inspiring Ohwon, Ohwon living and looking in that world, and the works of art he creates, all mirroring off one another.

The story is told with extreme economy. A feeling evoked is hardly ever lingered with or explained, it just appears quickly then is gone for the next one to appear. As an analogy it is a sort of Mozartian work of art (endless and quick succession of great ideas) rather than Beethovinian (Obsessive lingering on one great idea). It has a classical restraint, much like Ohwon's paintings. There is really no music hinting how to feel except a few classical Korean pieces used with great effectiveness in several scenes (and mostly played by characters in the movie). One haunting image, if I remember correctly, is of a flock of birds soaring away over the blue mountains while a female singer croons

"This life is like a dream, and only death will awaken us"

One telling line of advice in the film, from one of Ohwon's teachers, is that "the painting lies between the strokes." The film follows that attitude as there is so much matter *between* what is spoken and described in the film. I have seen it twice and it was very rewarding on the second viewing. A very terse film, with little in the way of obvert explanation, one could see how it is Im's 96th film. It is an artistic masterwork. Like Ohwon's great friend and mentor tells him in describing one of his paintings, "Not a single stroke is wasted."

I compare it to Andrei Rubylev in quality, though in style it is very different. It is much easier and more directly entertaining to watch, but classical in form where Andrei is gothic.

All in all highly recommended to almost anyone except appetite junkies. Both times I left the film I felt a wonderful spiritual renewal.

One point of Ohwon's life that intruiged me was that his mad drinking and raving began suddenly after visiting the noble who told him that "Good art can come only from great knowledge and learning." The next brief scene Ohwon was very angry, and the next blasted drunk as he often remained for the remainder of the film. I am curious why the nobles words effected him so much and drove him to the drinking that dominated the rest of his life. Or was it just a coincidence?
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Holmes and Watson, Kyoto style...
16 May 2003
This film could have been fabulous, but rather weak direction and a mediocre budget drops it to the "Good" category in my book.

Its chief attraction is the wonderful world of Buddhist sorcery that it conjures up, sorcerers chanting macabre spells in contest with each other in chants of increasing tension and beauty. Central to the plot is the relationship of the enigmatic magician Abe no Seimei (Holmes) and his young "ii otoko" apprentice Minamoto no Hiromaki, strolling around Heian Kyoto solving mysterious magical crimes.

Abe no Seimei and all his graceful rituals is a joy to watch and hear. Mansai Nomura really get top acting chops here for creating a wonderfully wierd and brilliant magician with an unforgettable grin like a sly fox. His contests with the equally well acted Doson (Hiroyuki Sanada) are the heights of the film in my opinion.

There is so much wonderful magic in this film, it is hard to say why it is not totally satisfying. The costumes are brilliant, but many of the sets look a bit shoddy. The story starts out complex and mysterious but then sort of falls into one dimensional "end of the world" boredom. Nomura and Sanada are brilliant, but many of the other actors can be amateurish. Overall it was hard to put my finger on, but I blamed the direction and cinematography most. There just was so much here that could have made a masterpiece, but one left with mixed feelings.

Highly recommended though despite its flaws. If the idea of seeing 11th century Kyoto YinYang master magicians duel it out in all their occult glory fascinates you, don't miss this.
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Like an endless string of Miller light commercials..
23 April 2003
Which you may or may not like. I hated it. I found it embarrasingly unfunny, trying to make up for its lack of wit with strained sexual outrageousness. If you can't charm em, brutalize em. An extremely nasty film, its target audience I suppose is adults who never matured beyond 14. Anyway, if your life is in your loins, you'll probably enjoy this piece of ignoble garbage.
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Solaris (1972)
Ahhh, philosophical filmmaking at last...
9 December 2002
I love this film because it takes science fiction to its most fundamental questions without any gratuitous thrills. The enjoyment is in the seeing and thinking. It is, therefore, quite austere, so the impatient should avoid. It is akin to three hours of passive meditation, choicelessly watching how mind works.

What will the human race find at the furthest reaches of space? It will find...itself. Or perhaps the Russian will find Dostoevsky!!

Tarkovsky certainly has a passion for humanity. Sometimes you can almost feel the camera shouting

"What are we!?!"

Great stuff. I hope you watch it with your upmost patience and attention.
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A film desperately looking for a soul...
24 November 2002
A strange experience this film. There are so many imaginative elements and such obvious hard work, yet the whole thing is so lacking in proportion it cannot touch the heart. Its an inhuman film. O do not get me wrong, it is full of humane feelings, but they are artificial because its core is cut off from humaneness.

Just as humans need a certain space in which to live and work, art demands a proper space to be seen and heard, a space proportionate to the human spirit. The great artists always have this instinctively.

This film has no such space. Its crammed with all kinds of lovingly attended detail, but the detail is just "there". It has no center, and does not enhance the narrative as good detail does.

And this film wants to be wonderful so badly! But wonder needs proportion and naturalness. For whatever reason, George Lucas seems to lose that sense more and more each film he makes.
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Dizzying architecture of the sky...
16 November 2002
(Review of DVD in Japanese with English Subtitles)

This is probably the most over-the-top Ghibli film in terms of heavy handed symbolism and hard-to-believe (but thrilling) action sequences.

Still, it is an easy 10, since like all of Ghibli's films, if you listen and watch carefully, it stamps an imprint of beauty on your soul which haunts you for days after.

In this case the gorgeous and dizzying architecture of the sky, the clouds, and humans teetering on the brink of the abyss is unforgettable. There also is an enchanting faux-European world of pirates, dirigables, explorers, and miners set against the backdrop of the ancient Atlantis-like Laputa. Except Laputa is in the sky, not the ocean.

Like most of Ghibli films its hard to imagine anyone who would not like it except the terminally unimaginative. Ghibli's art is for the ages, not just our narrow little frame of time. So if you miss Laputa in this lifetime, don't worry, you can catch it in the next.
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Porco Rosso (1992)
A shockingly perfect work of art
29 April 2002
Miyazaki is an inspiration for artists everywhere. His total mastery of all aspects of storytelling craft makes the amazing seem easy.

Kurenai no Buta manages to be over-the-top fun and exceedingly subtle at the same moment. The dialogue is at once straightforward yet with layer upon layer of dramatic meaning. The animated wizardry is stunning as usual, yet never over the top. It always comes across as so natural.

This film is a homage to so many different genres, places, people and attitudes one could go on ages pulling them all out. Amazing amount of detail packed into every scene.

Well I am running out of superlatives. Like all master works of art, this leaves you with something special. In this case I find it hard to describe perhaps since the Pig himself is such a mysterious character.

See it.
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Spirited Away (2001)
Yet another timeless Masterpiece
2 September 2001
Yet another timeless masterpiece from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Though it shares certain similarities with his other work, it is still a very much unique and new vision. The substance, as usual, is quite profound, having to do with finding one's freedom through pure-heartedness. Of course there is no preaching, things just happen like they do in life.

Except the world is fantastical with all manner of strange creatures. But the world never feels artificial or silly. It has a marvelous technological consistency like the Castle Cagliostro in Miyazaki's Lupan film. The creatures, though oftimes crazy or hilarious also have an uncanny realism to them. Alltogether this creates a sort of spellbinding effect, as one is witnessing something very new and bizzare, yet so real at the same time.

Unlike the epic/tragic tone of Mononoke Hime, this movie's tone is basically comic, though I might add it is comic in the Shakespearean sense e.g. intensely serious at the same time. But it is not full of war and death like Mononoke Hime.

I won't spoil anything by talking about the plot and I cannot think of anything else to compare it to. It is unique. Someone above mentioned Alice in Wonderland, and I suppose there are a few similarities, though overall I find it a superior work of art to Lewis Carroll's story.

My only dissapointment was with the music. I thought Joe Hisaishi's music for Mononoke Hime was really tremendous. It haunted you long after the film ended. Indeed, I thought it one of the greatest film scores of all time. The music for Sen To Chiro is not bad at all and does not detract from the film in any way, but except for a few inspired moments (like the closing credit folk tune--wonderfully simple yet effective) it might as well not been there. I noticed one of the main themes was a variation on the main Mononoke Hime theme. I wonder if there is a central musical motif he variates for all the Miyazaki films?

The audience at my showing had little children aged 4 to 5 years all the way to grandparents of the 80+ variety. One and all they sat rapt and spellbound the entire 2hours and 20 minutes. Rarely have I seen such focused wonder from a movie audience. I think it is a testament to Miyazaki's master artistic status. He delivers word, story and image so powerfully and directly that one just gapes in wonder. To my mind, that exemplifies what cinema should be. How lucky Japan is to have such a great master and to so embrace him! Sen to Chiro will likely break all the attendance records in Japanese Cinema, currently held by Mononoke Hime and Titanic.

I really hope this film gets a good release in the US in Japanese with accurate English subtitles. His films do not work well in English!! Especially the dumbed down and cliched translation Mononoke Hime got. But even translation aside, Miyazaki's films have a Japanese soul that is all out of kilter with English. Crouching Tiger was a huge hit in Mandarin. Let Sen To Chiro be heard in Japanese!
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Swordsman II (1992)
A Wuxia Classic
12 May 2001
Warning: Spoilers
I won't throw out any spoilers, just assure you that this is a great classic of fantasy martial arts films. If you find yourself unable to follow the story or action, just rewatch it a few times. It only gets better and better.

I would highly recommend watching swordsman one first though. There are many links in the story and it is nearly as good as part two. The only regrettable thing is that different actors play the same characters (Only Blue Phoenix is played by the same actor in both films).

If you enjoy complex plots, scheming factions, dreamlike landscapes and outrageous martial arts all tied together in a whimsical Daoist song about the transient comedy of life, the Swordsman series is for you.
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A classic, nearly as good as Swordsman 2
12 May 2001
Since Swordsman 2 is one of my favorites, I was delighted to find part one finally released on DVD. It is nearly as good, even better in some ways.

If you have not seen either, start with this one and get ready to enjoy 4 hours of primo wuxia.

Too bad that the cast completely changed between the 2 films (except for the excellent Fennie Yuen as Blue Phoenix) Most of the players in part one are as good, and I even preferred Cheung Man as Chief Ying to Rosamund Kwan who takes over in part two. I do think Jet Li in 2 is far better than Sam Hui in this one. Jet copies Sam Hui's style and character well, but is far more athletic and intense which really helps the action scenes in part 2. Sam sings well at least, which is important considering how much singing of "Hero of heroes" there is in part one!

A note about the cast list above: Michelle Reis and Rosamund Kwan are NOT in this film. Kiddo is played by Cecilia Yip and Ying by Cheung Man.

A classic pair of films then. Too bad part 3, "The East is Red" was such a letdown. The first two films stand on their own though, so no real loss.

One warning, if you are new to wuxia or Hong Kong films in general you may find the action in these films often too fast and incomprehensible. Repeated viewing will accustom you to the pacing, as well as allowing you to savor all the rich density of the storyline and its numerous characters.
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Jackie Chan: My Stunts (1999 Video)
Fascinating and fun
11 May 2001
Extremely involved and informative behind the scenes look at Jackie Chan's filmmaking and stuntmaking. He is indeed a perfectionist, very reminiscent of Gene Kelley.

Make sure and watch the Cantonese version unless you absolutely cannot stand subtitles. Jackie is much more fluent and entertaining in his native language (As well as his explanations are much better)
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Great fun
11 May 2001
Typical Corey Yuen. Lighter on the action than some other directors, but very entertaining and involved plot/comedy. And when the action does kick in its spectacular.

Its a little dated now (low quality film and sound) but its charm and fun comes through fully intact. This was Michelle's Yeoh's first big role and she is great (as is her partner Cyndy Rothrock).

Tsui Hark also proves himself a fine actor as one of the three brothers (with a very goofy Sammo Hung as father).

Note: Lovers of bad guys with over-the-top "Hahahaha" evil laughs MUST see this film. The head baddy here is a nonstop stream of raucous mocking laughter.
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Brutal action and sappy melodrama
11 May 2001
Fine follow up to Yes Madam. Not nearly as witty, but heavier on action (most of the scenes are very exciting with extremely tough baddies).

The last baddy is particularly good, with a silly mocking smile and grin. I loved the scene where he shoots the TV set.

The plot is by turns clever and cliched, and the "music" makes the whole thing feel much more cheesy than it otherwise would. Really, in some of these 80's Hong Kong films the DVD's should have an option of removable soundtracks. Alot of the films such as this would come across much stronger now without a synthesizer in the background banging away. Of course this would remove the campy bad guy forte chord which I know many viewers are endeared to.

Those who enjoy hard-edged action over wit might even prefer this to Yes Madam as the best of Michelle Yeoh's early action films.
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Time and Tide (2000)
Unusually witty and superbly crafted actioner
9 May 2001
Having read some reviews that called this film "out of control" and "messily plotted", I was expecting some John Woo style craziness with giant plot holes and inconsistencies, which was nonetheless fun-to-watch.

Well it was fun-to-watch, but for different reasons. Time and Tide actually has a very well crafted story full of great characters and sharp dialogue. It is not at all mindless action. The mood of much of the film is quite droll, very noirish. And the action scenes thrill with creativity and intelligence rather than mayhem and body count.

It is filmed in a wild avant-garde style. Indeed the story is TOLD in a very novel visual style that requires great attention to detail to pick up. Its as if Tsui Hark considered how every scene would be typically and familiarily shot, then conveys what happens in a totally unexpected way. Hong Kong filmakers are great experimenters with perspective. Often, for example, you will only get a hint of what happened and the film moves off in an unexpected direction, only to return and more fully tell you what happened earlier. No block building here, one must jump in and and go with the flow.

The film makes no pretentions to day to day realities, and there are some ludicrous scenes paying homage to imagination run riot, but I think these add to the fun, especially since they are delivered with typical Tsui Hark absurd charm.

I originally gave this film a 9/10, and the more I consider it, the more I like it. In fact I'm going for a second viewing tonight. It's shaping up to be one of my favorite Hong Kong actioners.
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Packed with wry substance and vastly entertaining.
28 April 2001
A very successful mix of social insight and deep comedy, this film has some of the best dialogue exchanges since Casablanca. Pierce Brosnan gets the role of his career as a wickedly hilarious lecher, and Geoffrey Rush is his usual superb self as the Tailor who has "travelled down the path to Armani" and cares enough to try and keep others away from it.

Bringing Lecarre to the screen obviously is not easy, but they did quite a job here. If you love densely plotted mystery, this is your ticket. Just be aware that the density is not in the mechanics, but in the fathomlessness of human character and the wit of John Lecarre.
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Comic and sad at the same time, a gem of a film
28 April 2001
I find it hard to describe why I liked this film so much. Suffice to say, it takes you to a unique and very real territory about the difficulty in being truthful. I did not realize the journey it had taken me on until its perfect ending, but my sister and I left the cinema in the firm glow of mutual joyous insight. See it, and throw all expectations where they belong: on the rubbish pile.
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A mature masterpiece
12 April 2001
Miyazaki-san has taken the soul of the Japanese landscape and its attendant Shinto mythos and spun a mighty tale. It still has the wonder of his other features, but this one is different, mixed with a kind of Shakespearean grandeur and tragic intensity. It's almost ruthless in its lack of sentiment, but because of this it achieves, at least to this viewer, a visionary breakthrough into unfamiliar territory. This one will stay through the years and if you attend well enough, haunt your dreams.

Kudos to Miramax for taking it so seriously and doing a good job with the dubbing. Still, the American English just does not really match. It is too laid back, softened and rounded. It really dulls the impact of this film. The Japanese in Mononoke hime is quick and powerful, full of meaningful silences that the painting harmonizes with. In English this basic rhythm of the film is all out of kilt.

Anyway, you can tell I liked it!
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