Saturday, January 29, 2011
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SHAOLIN | 新少林寺
I read reviews criticising the film for being too preachy and melodramatic, plus I glanced through some reviews in Mandarin, which (as I've seen before) slices and dices petty aspects of the movie in order to criticise it to death, mistaking priggish nitpicking for film criticism.
Turns out they were wrong. It's an excellent film, with good acting from Andy Lau as usual but also, dare I say it, from Nicholas Tse, whom I haven't really cared much for previously. In fact he's just slightly over the top here, but it's what he does in the end that I was impressed with – and a crucial scene too, as it informs the film's main theme of redemption.
Which is a rather yucky theme to go for, when you think about it for even a second. Films about redemption (you almost have to say it reverently) tend to be melodramatic; which Shaolin definitely is, and definitely went eye-rollingly overboard on a few occasions (a dead kid has to have a small daisy on his chubby little hand ... puh-leeeze). And this being a very Buddhist sort of movie, there's lots of idiomatic expressions doled out by the chief monk, and sometimes by the other monks, which no one in the audience can understand unless they read the subtitles (both the English and the Chinese) and sounds so hopelessly pretentious that it doesn't quite befit the tone of the scenes. But it's unavoidable. It's Shaolin, it has to be a movie about Buddhism and martial arts. No choice.
The monks are played by, among others, Shi Xing Yu, who seemed awfully familiar to me, and then I checked and realised he was the Shaolin-trained actor Stephen Chow discovered for Kung Fu Hustle and recently appeared in such films as Bodyguards And Assassins and Ip Man; and Wu Jing, who exudes noble charisma in his scenes here, was previously in Sha Po Lang and City Under Siege.
The fight scenes were alright, the explosion scenes were spectacular, Jackie Chan's appearance in the film isn't just a cameo, there is genuine suspense to some of the scenes due to deft arrangement of plot and circumstance that increases the stakes and makes the audience feel it, a few heroic deaths were had. I was wrong to prejudge it – worth watching for its entertainment value.
THE GREEN HORNET
Jay. Chou. Is. Awesome.
Sure, you may not understand every word he said. Sure, you may be prejudiced with him either because of his mumbling singing or his lesser acting performances in previous movies. Sure, you might think he just looks too 'chuen'. But he's a good actor. I contend that we've seen glimpses of it under Zhang Yimou with Curse Of The Golden Flower (he was almost the best thing in it). And this is a very different type of movie of course, but he's definitely the best thing in it. The fellow kicks-ass (aided by stylish visuals that accentuate the action scenes from director Michel Gondry), and thanks to the cool production design he gets to play with cool guns and cool cars and squint his squinty eyes while at it.
Maybe Gong Li knows what she's saying after all when she said in an interview that Jay Chou is so talented that she's jealous.
The film was written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, which is probably why it is so Seth Rogen, to the point that when people mentioned that they found the main character obnoxious and annoying ... Yeah, he is. I can only hope that what Rogen was going for was for the character to be truly annoying, muddling about in complete obliviousness to his rich-ass but incompetent arrogance, and then later realising his error and repenting ... well, the 'later ...' part barely happens, unfortunately. The thing is Rogen and Goldberg tipped the scales too far – I mean, come on, with Kato kicking ass like that, how can Britt Reid still think he was actually the hero of any of the action scenes they involved themselves in? (Unless he is a ...)
Still, the writing is good for one thing at least: dialogue. The scene introducing Christoph Waltz as the villain in his encounter with [surprise cameo that made me laugh simply because he appeared] was lol-funny ... and surprisingly, the writers still manage to make it relate to the plot. Other scenes with Britt verbally bullying Kato (and in the rarely effective vice versa) contain some chuckling zingers as well. (Bit mean-spirited, though.)
There are subtle jokes about homoeroticism sprinkled throughout the movie, probably the most subtle thing about the movie (certainly I doubt the mostly unsophisticated Malaysian viewers around me detected it). It's not funny because it is suggesting that Britt and Kato are gay, it's funny because their interactions can, in a different movie, be interpreted as budding romantic scenes. Come to think of it, most of that stuff comes from what Britt says ... must be a Seth Rogen thing.
Cameron Diaz didn't appear all that much but was charming whenever she's in it, Christoph Waltz hams it up but didn't go so OTT as to screw it up the way Jason Patric did in The Losers; the character actor David Harbour appears in yet another major Hollywood movie undetected; and you couldn't have guessed which character Edward Furlong played. (You dunno who ...? John Connor, dude.)
And the action-heavy score by James Newton Howard is awesome, man! I was half-thinking it might be a John Powell score at first ... except that it wasn't Powell enough, but it sounded intense and awesome and JNH's the only other composer I can think of who does cool action music in this manner. I want the soundtrack! (Oh, stay for the end credits. The song, heh.)
The movie's without its flaws – primary one being that its titular hero is an ass for at least half the movie; and also that sometimes the plot doesn't make sense – but its entertainment factor is so high that at some point you just don't care.
And who would've thought the director of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind could direct a major Hollywood action movie? Gondry does these visually interesting stuff which produces an effect to the viewer reminiscent to optical illusions; what I mean is that you see it but sometimes you're not quite sure you saw it. He did it to poignant effect in Eternal Sunshine, and then there's the whimsical La Science Des Rêves. Here he does a few of those stylish, playing with time and space kind of things, zooming into the action without going to a close-up ... och, I'm not describing it well, just go see it.
One effect that is deceptively simple is a kind of montage sequence where a mobster spreads a message and we see that message travel as it passes to two, then four, then more people via split screens. I say 'deceptively' because the screen splits and suddenly there's two separate cameras following two people ... then those cameras split ... Well, how do you shoot that? Think about it. I'm not suggesting it's impossible, but I don't think I've seen it before and it's definitely one of those Gondry tricks that works under your skin.
One more thing I should say – I regret watching this on 3D. Definitely a 2D movie. Also, you know what else doesn't work on 3D? They screened the trailer to the James Cameron-stamped Sanctum, and immediately it was obvious the film won't work. As it is the dialogue is on-the-nose and the predictability of the plot seeps right off the screen, so its only saving grace would've been the stereoscopy; but the fatal mistake is that most of the movie is in dark spaces, which is bound to be made darker in most 3D halls that will screen the movie, so there is now no reason to go watch the film. So there.
PS - I just found out that The Green Hornet is actually critically panned, and Ebert gave it only one star ... oops. Still, there's Maryann Johansson, whose reviews I agree with more often than not, particularly with the more unconventional ones (like when we both decided that Toy Story 3 is inferior to Despicable Me). Well, I agree with her review on The Green Hornet completely, and she says it better than I do.