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A Battle of Wits – Review February 10, 2010

Posted by Cello in Movie Reviews.
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A Battle of Wits brings to the screen the story of a warrior during 370 BC known for his defensive skills who takes up the task of seeing to the protection of a city faced with superior enemy forces. This is a beautiful movie on a delicate and difficult subject. There are no bad guys and good guys. The philosiphies and principles behind what makes one decide to fight, kill and make war is discussed by the main protaganists in the movie.  The city-state of Liang is about to be overrun by the overwhelming forces of the kingdom of Zhao, who in turn are on their way to wage war on the kingdom of Yan in China’s Northeast. The city’s only hope lies in the arrival of a military contingent from the Mo-Tsu. However, when only man arrives morale begins to falter.

I can finally rejoice to the heavens for finally witnessing an Asian war picture that has a great plot as well. I’ve seen a few in my days but they are fairly few in between and I usually go months before seeing one executed properly. The typical pattern for historical dramas are gradually becoming CG spectaculars with heavier emphasis on showing off what technology can do, rather than making sure that the movie flows with a sturdy storyline. Battle of Wits is essentially a tale of two halves. The first half of the film depicts Ge Li’s arrival, rising influence, and initial clashes with Xiang Yanzhang’s army. The second half is where the film’s focus begins to waver. The movie takes it own time to develop the screenplay, and this may shun away some less patient viewers.

With a small population of only four thousand, City Liang was ruled by King Liang. Watching this I realized how much it has in common with Seven Samurai. The similarity that jumped out at me immediately was Ge Li is practically the same character as Kambei in Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Praise aside, there are of course, faults, that I can’t overlook. The dull browns and greys of the desert aren’t much to look at and the heavy use of the same colors for costuming and set design can make for a straining experience.

Those who bootleg off the internet shouldn’t worry about the proceeding but those looking to purchase, avoid the DVD like the plague and jump ship to blu-ray. The picture quality is a no brainer and looks gorgeous. All in all, this is a fine above average film and the attempt to inject some pathos into a largely mythological genre film is very welcome. Despite some mixed characterization and stylistic choices the film is worth picking up for its impressive battle sequences and assured treatment of the subject matter.

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Initial D – Review February 9, 2010

Posted by Cello in Movie Reviews.
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There’s a fond place in my heart for Initial D. My first car in high school actually resembled the car the main character had in the original anime series. Thus, kicked off my initial interest in the world of car racing. While the anime stayed fairly close to the manga, this live action movie makes plenty character and plot changes. The storyline is basic but enjoyable, with the main characters getting a decent amount of screen time. However, what sets the movie apart is the cars! I am a car nut, and I love the way the cars, ranging from the RX-7 to the Trueno, were cleanly built and well crafted to fit the mold from the anime. Was it faithful to the anime or manga? I think the directors did very well with the film, capturing the geekiness of Takumi’s friends and the racing was just fun to watch.

I was intrigued as to how they would be able to film and tell this story, mostly because it has a massive original story, to encompass that into 2 hours is most difficult. I believe the way it turned is excellent considering they had to change the storyline slightly from the original to have appeal as a standalone film. One thing, that shouldn’t be a fault to the film itself is the dvd. I’m not sure if I’ll ever bother trying to watch this again. There are about 11 minutes of previews that you can’t skip and it was very irritating. Oh, and as for the movie itself, another thing that annoyed me was the language select. When watching foreign films, I prefer listening to the original language. This also wasn’t accessible. Movie was pretty good, but I would have doubts about buying this DVD and supporting this sort of forced advertising on a DVD you bought with your hard-earned money.

Also gone is the distinctive euro-beat dance soundtrack that turned Initial D’s anime into a real treat. Despite the cool origins for Takumi, he’s not a very compelling character, and his taciturn ways are as frustrating as they are supposedly cool. However, the drifting and camera techniques were really great. I was going in thinking the worse with no expectations. This definitely beats out Fast and the Furious in terms of car racing and drifting.

Aside from racing, and considering I didn’t spend anytime explaining the plot, there is a sub story. In between races, the script focuses on Takumi’s strained relationship with girlfriend Natsuki, who secretly engages in compensated dating. It doesn’t add much and you should only view this film for the slick racing scenes. Initial D possesses neither charm nor surprise, though it does manage to be better constructed than 90% of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. For big-budget summer fare, Initial D fits the bill quite nicely. It doesn’t challenge or truly involve, but it’s 110 minutes of slick racing fun. Thumbs slighty up.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – Review February 8, 2010

Posted by Cello in Anime Reviews.
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If I had made an honorable mention section in my Top Ten List of anime films of the past decade, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence would have topped the list. I can think of no anime film I’ve seen since Ghost in the Shell that has anything like the impact of Innoncence. This is certainly one of the best of its kind. Unfortunately, lacking the sexiness and high energy of the original, it has gone largely unnoticed. Off the bat, you’ll notice the production values are excellent and the blu-ray treatment of this is superb. Even a simple, seemingly underthought image like the final two shots of the movie will stick with you long after the closing credits roll. People accuse the movie of not having a brain of its own, but I think any movie that engages the brain of its audience needn’t make apologies.

In the first film, a team of futuristic detectives found themselves unraveling a high-tech conspiracy until one of them, Major Motoko, gives up her or body while her or soul disappears into the electronic realm. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is set years later, in 2032. Working with Togusa who is a mostly human officer recruited to the team by the former Major – Batou is put on the case of several murders, committed by prototype female sex droids that afterward commit suicide. Their investigation leads them from violent yakuza thugs to mind-altering criminal hackers and corporate masterminds. I think that Oshii did a great job in showcasing that sense of sadness with Batou not having his partner but then knowing that no matter what, she will still be there for him in some sort of way.

Clearly, Oshii has envisioned a future and treated it as a reality. The problem for me however was that the dialogue that is present is much was too abstract for a cyber-crime film. This is a complex film, and rewards the viewer with multiple showings, if you have the patience. The story is great and the philosophical/moral questions arising from the premise of machines becoming too human always makes for an interesting topic.

If you are a self proclaimed intellectual, this movie may be right up your alley. The plot is sadly lost in incessant spewing of western and biblical quotes. Whole conversations consist of characters rambling off quotes to each other. Then you are assaulted by scenes of character’s e-brains getting hacked that are meant to make you question “what is real?” So in conclusion, this is not a hands-down great film. It has great execution, but the ideas ultimately come off half-baked and unresolved. The end twist is actually a knockout and makes it worth seeing. But I must stress that although I am giving this a fairly high grade, I want to note that animation is about storytelling with moving pictures. Story pacing and timing is very important. While I don’t mind movies that run at a slower pace, it also shouldn’t lag. Ultimately, this film finds a good enough balance to work.

Confucius – Review February 5, 2010

Posted by Cello in Movie Reviews.
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A history lesson about the life of Confucius starring the great Chow Yun Fat made its way finally into my hands, and I must admit, I expected to be bored to tears by this film but it ended up being above average. I’m sure he wasn’t the most eventful man on the planet so I am sure that the research department searched many historical records for the slightest trace of drama in Confucius’ life. The movie started with Confucius visiting the ruler of the Kingdom of Lu where he is the mayor of one of the cities. However he also annoys the various rulers of the surrounding kingdoms by winning back lost territory without any violence. Eventually, his benefactor sends him into exile and is forced to wander for many years before he is allowed to return home where he assembles his book of wisdom.

The action plots in the movie are few and far in between. The film serves as an introduction to Confucius for Westerners who may know little or nothing about him, while reminding Chinese and other Asian audiences about traditional values. The second attempt at shaping Confucius into a box office success was to add in ruthless and magnificent battle scenes.

The film does get dull and dry real quick. It doesn’t help that the film is filled with subtitles to explain the where, the when and the who of events. Chow Yun Fat is always a capable actor and a joy to watch but he looked semi-bored throughout the whole film. Which in turn, makes me scratch my ehad why they bumped Avatar out of theaters for this film overseas. I guess a homeland film has more push than a domestic money maker. Just another example of how heavy-handed CCP control can create precisely the opposite of its desired effect. To tell the truth, I never felt there was much need to make movies on historical topics.

The final part tells how exiled from his homeland by the warlord he well served, Confucius embarks upon the part of his life with which most people identify him, a teacher followed by a group of loyal students. All in all, though, considering how pointless many mainstream films are, I think Confucius does a good job in balancing substance and entertainment. Action fiends should look elsewhere but fans of history and drama should feel right at home. If you’re expecting a lot of Zhou Xun, you’ll be disappointed. Alas, it is great to see Chow Yun Fat back to taking roles that suite him more. He brought to life a man whose only condition is not to be involved in politics any longer but to educate the people only.

Kung Fu Cyborg – Review February 4, 2010

Posted by Cello in Movie Reviews.
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If this was a totally worthless film I would easily call it a Chinese rip off of Transformers but it bring more to the table than meets the eye. Under normal circumstances, I try to know as little as possible about a film before I watch it. I feel it allows me a better experience the film. Kung Fu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction is a film I should of done a bit of research on to avoid expectations. The year is 2046 and state-built robot K-1 is entrusted to the care of Xu Dachun, a super-righteous and supposedly incorruptible cop stationed in the Chinese countryside.

Unfortunately, Dachun is only righteous when it comes to crime, and totally hates K-1 because the robot catches the eye of Dachun’s longtime crush, neighbor and fellow cop Zhou Su-Mei. First thing I thougth about when I saw this is robot are incapable of falling in love, but it really doesn’t stop him from reacting. This film is a pretty accurate reflection of its wacky title. However, any effort to avoid disappoint with the film may be wasted. Granted, the target audience in China may be forgiving because the actors are at least semi-popular if not actual stars. This is arguably in its favour, as it delivers something unpredictable and pleasingly different to the norm.

He uses various means to sabotage K-1 and warn off the startstruck Su Mei, but finds himself reliant on the cyborg’s talents when a defective model, K-88, begins to attack its creators. Not really the best turn of events. Thinking back even the Robots in Michael Bays big budget blockbuster couldn’t even fight. Take away the big budget and you have this film. The film mixes its genres poorly, and delivers everything at an interminable pace. This is a long movie, approaching Korean standard of length. One could easily trim 30 minutes and it would do nothing but help the film along.

The ending, without giving too much away, the epilogue says that Dachun turns over his body to the cyborg company so he also dies and there is no real movement in robot rights. Just a god awful ending if you ask me. So why watch this film? Sure, the ideas are not new ones, but keep in mind the restrictions with which Chinese films are made, it seems quietly subversive and even daring to write the film this way. Certainly not a movie I will remember for years to come but I was still slightly entertained which is good enough to garner a low, but passing, grade from me.