Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Director: Terrence Malick. Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken. 139 min. Rated PG-13. Drama.

Is it OK to call a movie "good" ... even if you're lost after watching it? Tree of Life leaves you with a sense of having watched something magnificent, without knowing why. This beautiful tapestry of images, almost devoid of a story, has a timeline spanning from the pre-historic era to the 50's Texas of a patriarchal Brad Pitt - all centered on the death of his 19-year old son. So the best comparison would be Kubrick's 2001, accompanied by Malick's own hypnotic style. As a definite discussion-maker, this should be watched with friends, and only in a theater.

PS #1: You may curse me for saying this, but I believe this movie deserved its Palm d'Or at the this year's Cannes Film Festival, just for being so audaciously different.

PS #2: Maybe you can start your discussion with this NPR review by Bob Mondello.

Mo says:

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (2010)

Director: Wilson Yip. Cast: Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Simon Yam. 108 min. Rated R. Hong Kong. Action.

Despite the better Tomatometer score compared to the original, this is a disappointment. The formulas of the original have been repeated verbatim, but the strong-willed wife is now a whiner, the old villains are now the hero's lame buddies, and the new villains are now British instead of Japanese, recently graduated from the Actors-That-Suck school of drama. They even repeat the Bruce Lee mentorship fact at the end! The only element that keeps this going, is Donnie Yen as Ip Man, repeating his wise and reassuring presence, making the climactic Western boxing vs. Chinese Kung-Fu match still an exhilarating experience.

Mo says:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Director: Mathew Vaughn. Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, January Jones. 132 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Adventure.

No doubt, the fifth X-Men episode (this time a prequel, describing the rise of Professor X and Magneto), is a highly-entertaining action-packed ride, with great chemistry between its two main characters. But I was expecting something more. More than waiting 2 hours plus to finally discover why Prof. X was paraplegic, where Magneto's helmet came from, or how Mystique ended up with the baddies. I wasn't curious about these elements in the first place. Still, nice to see Kevin Beacon in a good movie after awhile - and Hugh Jackman has one helluva 10-second screen time as the future Wolverine.

(Disclaimer, or huge bummer: Even though this was a Marvel superhero movie, there's no 2-minute sequence at the end of the end credits. Don't embarrass yourself by waiting.)

Mo says:

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara.137 min. Japan. Action/Adventure.

Obviously, the reason I watched this Kurosawa classic, was because George Lucas admits he based R2-D2 and C-3PO on a concept first established here: an entire story narrated through the eyes of its two lowest characters. But then, Hidden Fortress is far beyond that. Forget the attractive B&W cinematography. Forget the beautiful performances from the entire ensemble of actors. Stick to the simple but engaging story of a wise Samurai and two idiot peasants, who search for and relocate a large stock of gold, to ascend a princess back to her throne. You don't hear such great stories nowadays.

Mo says:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

Director: J.J. Abrams. Cast: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich. 112 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi.

A government alien conspiracy from Close Encounters, the American suburbia from E.T., a Goonies group of kids, and the small-town sheriff from Jaws, prove that Abrams nurtured and grew up in the Spielberg school of filmmaking. But again, which of us didn't love the Spielberg of the 70s and 80s? And why don't they make heartwarming blends of sci-fi and melodrama anymore? Somehow it seems you can't create such beautiful spectacles in a 21st century story setting. The question is: Were those long-gone years innately uplifting, or was it Spielberg's powerful filmmaking that defined the era for us as such?

PS: Elle's acting is much more believable than Dakota's.

Mo says:

Mo Magic!

Ip Man (2008)

Director: Wilson Yip. Cast: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam. 106 min. Rated R. Hong Kong. Action/Biography.

Not a martial arts fan, but this is a martial arts film with a heart. Ip Man is not some idiotic gang-busting superhero, but based on a real Kung-Fu master with a wife and child, in a real historical pretext, humbly fighting for national honor against an invading entity. In other words, it's the story of a true hero; and as soon as a critical moment evolves in the story, you wish for the hero to show up and perform another beautifully choreographed fight. Learning that Ip Man was Bruce Lee's mentor might entice you to watch this.

PS: This is available for Instant Viewing on Netflix. Planning to watch the sequel soon.

Mo says:

Next (2007)

Director: Lee Tamahori. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel. 96 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi/Action.

The relationship between Philip K. Dick's stories and cinema are similar to Stephen King's: some works become masterpieces (BladeRunner, Minority Report), some become disasters (Paycheck) - all depending on the director. Next is a disaster. Cage plays a psychic who can see two minutes into the future, and the FBI is persuading him to prevent a nuke from going off in LA (Why limit him to that? Why not find every local 7-Eleven thief?). But the main crime committed at the end, is that in Atonement-style, we realize half the movie was a hoax. Yes, I just spoiled the ending.

PS: Please don't blame me for watching this. I was on a 6-hour flight back home, trying to be in time for the birth of my first child, and had no other movie choice on the plane.

Mo says:

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Director: Mark Romanek. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins. 103 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Drama/Romance.

This story, written by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), is actually a sci-fi, but the writer and director solely keep the melodramatic/romantic aftermath of the sci-fi in the forefront for a very wise reason: the science of the story has so many logical holes, if the three-way love story was not used as a strong distraction, the movie would fall apart. I'd rather not give away the sci-fi elements (other than it involves organ transplant), but in general, despite the seamless directing, at the end I felt somewhat betrayed. For a better movie on the same themes, watch Moon.

Mo says:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle) (1974)

Director: Werner Herzog. Cast: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira. 110 min. West Germany. History/Drama.

My Herzog obssession continues. Young Kaspar Hauser suddenly appeared in the Nuremberg town square in 1828, with a letter in hand and barely able to speak. Wikipedia's account of the mystery is incongruous with that of Herzog's, as Hauser was described as a "pathological swindler". But Herzog doesn't care. He uses the mystery to show when a virginal mind is confronted with the hardcore beliefs of a society, it can offer completely different theories for the same observations, and not be too far off. Makes you think: is there any concept ingrained in our brains not derived from the environment?

PS: The movie's original title translates Every Man for Himself and God Against All.

Mo says:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (3D) (2010)

Director (and narrator): Werner Herzog. 90 min. Canada/USA/France/Germany/UK. Documentary.

Uh-oh. Herzog doing 3D? No, this isn't another case of Hollywood corrupting great directors. Watch this documentary, and realize why to entirely savor the recently-discovered Chauvet caves of France, filming could only be done in 3D. After all, we're talking about humans of 32,000 years ago who ingeniously benefitted from the cave wall curves to make their sketches look three-dimensional. Herzog uses his stationary camera, sometimes for 10-minute sequences, just to engulf you in the experience of literally being in the cave. Give great artists (cavemen, Herzog, you name it) the proper tools, and they never disappoint.

Mo says:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Man from Nowhere (Ajeossi) (2010)

Director: Jeong-beom Lee. Cast: Bin Won, Sae-ron Kim, Hyo-seo Kim. 119 min. Rated R. South Korea. Action/Crime.

Koreans have an incredible ability to portray the darkest corners of the human soul. This well-directed film magnificently accomplishes what innumerable foreign movies have failed: transcending the language/culture barrier, and creating an explosive action movie with intense drama and an emotional touch, as attractive and enigmatic as the best Hollywood can offer. An ex-CIA special agent goes after a child-trafficking/organ-harvesting circle, just to save the next-door neighbor little girl. Imagine a climactic action sequence as bloody as Kill Bill (without Tarantino's humorous take), but then a final scene that may leave you in tears. Watch and see how that's possible.

PS#1: If you like this, don't miss Oldboy. Or vice-versa.

PS#2: This movie again proves when it comes to violence, there is no concept that can prompt an NC-17 rating.

PS#3: Surprisingly, the Blu-ray version is available on Netflix.

PS#4: Thank you, JZ, for the movie recommendation.

Mo says:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

Director: David Yates. Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bill Nighy, Julie Walters, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Warwick Davis. 146 min. Rated PG-13. UK/USA. Fantasy.

Long, dark, and boring. A huge setback from the attractive peak Harry Potter had reached in The Half-Blood Prince. No wonder there's so much room for fast-forwarding: the studio is milking as much revenue possible from a well-established franchise, by expanding the last episode into Part 1 and Part 2. Too many weird-named characters, and recruitment of too many magical tricks from prior movies at the spur of the moment for narrative convenience, makes following a coherent story nearly impossible. Other than beautiful cinemtography (and an enchanting short animated segment), there's no motivation here to wait for the final half-chapter.

Mo says: