Movie Review: Dragon Blade (2015)

March 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I had prepared myself for a colossal turd, but I have to give credit where it’s due. Dragon Blade is not THAT bad.

One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made with a budget of US$65 million, Dragon Blade is a sprawling war epic has already made nearly double that at the box office in China alone. It has plenty of CGI, tons of battle sequences — be it one-on-one or massive armies — and the biggest Chinese action star there is, Jackie Chan. What made the headlines, however, was the casting of two Hollywood A-listers, John Cusack and Adrien Brody, as two Roman soldiers. Honestly, it had all the elements of a massive flop.

Despite its questionable motives and its fair share of annoying flaws, Dragon Blade is actually one of the more acceptable Chinese action films I’ve seen in recent years. The more I think about how bad it could have been, the better I think it actually is.

If you want action, the film definitely delivers, with much of its 127-minute running time dedicated to fighting, fighting and more fighting. It’s all nicely choreographed, albeit a little repetitive, going for the more traditional approach as opposed to the modern stylized version popularized by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster or even Hollywood flicks such as 300.

The special effects are generally well done, but not quite on par with Hollywood productions. There are many sweeping shots of the landscape and ancient architecture that look like paintings (probably because they are), and in my opinion they look fake. If the whole movie had that type of feel (a la 300), then it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, though here it’s jarring because it doesn’t match the rest of the film’s grounded presentation.

The film also falls prey to problems that plague other ambitious Chinese films hoping to crack the international market. The plot is simple but they had to make it unnecessary convoluted. You can tell Hong Kong director Daniel Lee was trying to make the narrative more stylish by making things jump around a little when telling the Roman back story, but I think he made it more confusing instead. They also had to find some other non-Chinese Asian actors to appeal to the wider market. In this case they chose Korean-American pop star Yoo Seung-jun, who has a small token role.

The worst mistake, however, had to be the moronic and unnecessary “modern” link they forced into the plot, starting and ending the film in the present with a couple of unconvincing Asian-American archaeologists (Taiwan’s Vanness Wu and Hong Kong’s Karena Lam) looking for something pointless. It’s the typical “let’s throw some popular Asian starlets in there for no reason” idea Chinese movies love so much. Wu and Lam are cringeworthy. Both the acting and the dialogue are laughably bad.

The central characters are relatively well-developed, I suppose, for this type of film. The big signings, Cusack and Brody, really had to earn their paychecks. Cusack plays the good Roman and has to endure a lot of crap, while Brody plays the bad Roman who has use all his Oscar-winning acting to give his stock-standard villain some much-needed depth. Both guys get opportunities to wield swords, and they actually look convincing. Neither guy has been tearing up the box office as of late — Cusack’s in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage with some of his choices of late, and most of Brody’s roles in big films these days are of the supporting kind — so I guess they needed the money.

I find it interesting that Cusack’s role was originally said to have been for Mel Gibson. It makes me smile thinking that he would have agreed to play a Roman — you know, the guys who crucified and killed Jesus Christ — and to star alongside the Jewish Brody.

Anyway, as headline-grabbing as the Americans are, Dragon Blade is of course still Jackie Chan’s film. Unfortunately, Huo An is like every other character Chan has ever played. He’s a big hero; he’s courageous, morally upstanding; he never backs down from doing what’s right. And even though he’s now 60 years old, Jackie’s still getting 20-something actresses to play his love interests as though that’s how it’s meant to be. That said, he’s still got the charm. You can tell he’s desperately trying to show off his acting skills — Jackie has said that he really wants to win an Oscar — which is why there’s nearly half a dozen crying scenes for him in this film. Of course, he also does some singing. Because he can.

Pardon my cynicism. Growing up, Jackie Chan was my guy. Everything he did was the shit: Project A, Police Story, Armour of God. I loved it all. I’ve grown up now, but Jackie’s still the same, except a lot slower and no longer capable of the innovative kung fu acrobatics he’s known for. Oh, and now I also think he’s a bit of a Communist Party stooge.

It doesn’t help that Dragon Blade looks and smells a lot like a piece of Communist Party propaganda. Chan plays Huo An, a commander during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tasked with keeping peace on the Silk Road when a bunch of rowdy Romans come knocking. And guess what? Last year, Beijing announced its new “belt and road” initiative, comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt connecting China to Russia to Europe via Central Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. China says the project promotes mutual interests and peace. A coincidence?

What makes it seem even more like propaganda is that the film is filled with unsubtle and unabashed corniness regularly found in Jackie’s movies. It’s a bona fide corn field out there, with an over-the-top musical score and a plethora of “f%*% yeah” moments. I like to call it “Team America-style cheering with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese people want peace! But we will fight to the death for what’s right! We are so righteous even the Romans are willing to follow us!

That’s why no one should be faulted for suspecting that Dragon Blade has a hidden political agenda. It’s a film that demonstrates China can make big blockbusters like Hollywood now, AND they can afford to get top Hollywood actors and even Academy Award winners to join them. China is depicted as a keeper of peace in a volatile world, while the film’s Chinese protagonist is depicted as incorruptible and just. Ethnic minorities are portrayed as uncivilized folk who need the Han Chinese to unify them. I doubt it was an unintentional decision to make Chan’s wife in the movie, played by Mika Wang, an ethnic Uyghur. For those who don’t know, Uyghurs — who say Beijing suppresses their cultural and religious freedoms — are a big problem for China and have been blamed for all the terrorist attacks across the country over the last few years.

The only thing in the film I can think of that really goes against China’s current political philosophies is that Huo infringes Beijing’s principle of non-interference when it comes to the internal matters of other countries — in this case, the Romans. Then again, the Romans were “making trouble” on China’s doorstep, something Chinese president Xi Jinping once said he would not tolerate (though that was in reference to North Korea).

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing. Maybe Dragon Blade is just an innocent action blockbuster after all. Whatever the case may be, it’s not a horrible effort. It is by no means great, or even very good, but at least it’s not boring and it’s not pretentious. The production value is relatively high; Cusack and Brody don’t embarrass themselves like I had anticipated, and the action is solid and occasionally spectacular. As I said, it could have been much much worse.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

March 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Seriously, I don’t understand why Exodus: Gods and Kings only has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. OK, so it’s not Gladiator, but is Ridley Scott’s Bible epic still entertaining? Yes. Is it still engaging? At least half of it is. And is it epic? Absolutely.

For starters, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible to enjoy the film, though some knowledge won’t preclude you from having a good time either. I’ve heard the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt heaps of times and vaguely remember that Disney moviethough most of what’s remaining in my memory is in bits and pieces. In short, Moses (Christian Bale) is an Egyptian prince from 1300 BCE who “discovers” that he is actually Hebrew and, after an encounter with the famous burning bush, decides to call upon his “brother” Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to “let my people go” (he doesn’t say this in the movie, but it’s the only line I remember from The Prince of Egypt).

Ridley Scott does a solid job of keeping the movie as grounded as possible given the subject matter, reminding audiences of the superstitions of the time. The problem, of course, is that it’s only possible to keep a Bible story grounded to a certain extent. While Scott leaves open the door for the theory that Moses is just imagining all his encounters with God (Bale actually said he believes Moses was schizophrenic), there are aspects of the story that cannot work without the presence of a supernatural power. He finds semi-rational reasons for the plagues and a certain Red Sea incident, but those familiar with Exodus will know that God’s fingerprints can’t be erased from the tale.

The other enviable thing Scott does is that he — along with Bale and Edgerton — makes both Moses and Ramesses very human characters. Both actors are terrific. Moses rails against God throughout the film for his barbarism and cruelty, and his faith is anything but unshakable. Ramesses, on the other hand, is not a typical villain — he grows into one almost out of necessity, but you can see that he has a softer side, and that his refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go stems from economic concerns as much as ego. The title Gods and Kings is an apt one.

The film does have its weaknesses. First of all, at 150 minutes, it is far too long and didn’t need to be. There is a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film that sags, so much so I’d probably go as far as to call it dull. People who know the story well might find it disappointing that there aren’t more surprises, as the film appears to be going through the motions at times and does little to halt the plodding. It’s not until the final hour that the pace begins to pick up with the arrival of the plagues and the actual exodus, both of which are executed very well with eye-popping special effects. The spectacle of the final hour alone makes the film worth watching.

If you ask me why the film has done so poorly with critics, my guess is that it doesn’t follow the Bible close enough for the uber-religious folk, and yet it’s also not rational enough for non-religious people looking for a “realistic” depiction of the story. As a result, the movie straddles both markets and finds itself stuck in a no-win situation. Bale’s comments about Moses being one of the “most barbaric” people he’s ever read about sure didn’t help, and neither did criticisms of the all-white casting of the main cast (which was, let’s face it, necessary for the film to be financed in the first place).

Personally, I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just glad this is a Bible film that delivers on the spectacular visuals and doesn’t ram its self-righteous message down throats without giving audiences an opportunity to think for themselves.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Being Again (2014)

March 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Every now and then we all need a movie that will put us in a good mood, something light that will make us smile without making us think too much. Begin Again is such a film.

First of all, it stars the affable Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley as two depressed individuals who pick themselves back up with the power of music. Ruffalo is Dan, a music agency exec whose professional and personal life is in tatters when he comes across Gretta (Knightley), a British singer-songwriter coming to still coming to grips with the actions of her douchebag rising star boyfriend (played by real-life douchebag Adam Levine from Maroon Five).

Together, they try to produce an album full of catchy tunes, shunning the traditional studio route for cheaper outdoor recording with the help of friends and family, including Dan’s precocious daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and Gretta’s musician buddy (James Corden), and developing an unlikely friendship along the way.

Director John Carney, who gave us the Irish musical film Once, again rides the charm and chemistry of his actors in delivering a fun, enchanting experience filled with light humour, heartfelt drama and ample doses of sweetness. Think Music and Lyrics but much less deliberate, cliched, saccharine and sentimental.

The music, most of which is written by Gregg Alexander — best known as the front man of the New Radicals (you know, “You Only Get What You Give”) — is also perfectly accommodating to my laid-back, commercial-oriented taste. It’s listener-friendly stuff you’ll find yourself looking for after the movie on YouTube or Spotify. The hit single from the soundtrack, “Lost Stars”, was nominated for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars and performed live — brilliantly too — at the ceremony by Levine. The biggest surprise, however, is that the song is even better when sung by Knightley, whom I would have never guessed has such a beautiful voice. I’ve always liked Kiera, but this movie takes it to another level.

Begin Again might not make any critics lists for best movies of the year, but it’s difficult to actually find much wrong with this lovely and satisfying experience. I liked the characters, I liked the songs, the singing, the New York setting, and the way certain dynamics were left slightly ambiguous. There is a freshness to the film that is rarely seen in romantic comedies these days, though you can’t even really call it a rom-com because it so cleverly avoids the tropes of the genre. A feel-good movie of the best kind.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maps to the Stars (2014)

March 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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David Cronenberg is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

Of his last five films, the only one I’ve yet to see is A Dangerous Method (2011). A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) were fabulous, but I found Cosmopolis (2012) to be dull and pretentious. His latest effort, Maps to the Stars, is actually similar stylistically to Cosmopolis, though this time — perhaps due to the subject matter and the performances — I found the satire funny, biting and creepy, and the overall experience positively uncomfortable.

Maps to the Stars is a really strange film that defies categorisation. It’s a drama and black comedy, but also has elements of a psychological thriller and supernatural horror.  What it definitely is, however, is a scathing take on Hollywood, an acidic satire on all the excess, the pretentiousness, the opportunity-seeking, the backstabbing, the heartlessness, and above all the destructive lifestyles of America’s rich and famous. Far from the glamour we typically associate with stardom and wealth, Maps to the Stars not just brings celebrities down to our level — it pushes them below acceptable levels of decency and humanity. 

Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two women — Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a scarred young woman (literally, she has burn scars on her face and neck) who just made her way to Hollywood, and Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress hoping to land a major role as her legendary late mother. Key characters in their world include Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor making a living as a limo driver for the stars; rising teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), his manager mother (Olivia Williams) and his New Age guru father (John Cusack). They are all linked in one way or another, though part of the allure of the film comes from finding out what the connections are.

The script by Bruce Wagner explores the depravity and debauchery head on, tackling taboo themes, gross-out subjects and uncomfortable scenes that will either make you squirm or prompt nervous laughter.

Like Cosmopolis, there is a surreal feel to the film. The exposition is kept to a minimum so you have to really pay attention to the dialogue or you won’t know what’s going on. Even then I still had no idea where it was heading, though it didn’t matter because I couldn’t turn away. It was at times hilarious, sometimes frightening and occasionally sickening — but always fascinating.

The performances are another reason why the film is more enjoyable than it probably should have been. Julianne Moore may have just won an Oscar for Still Alice, but I actually think she is even better here. While Havana might not be a likeable character, she definitely is authentic and comes across as painfully real, and it accentuates what a remarkable actress Moore is when you contrast this role — which reminds of what Lindsay Lohan will probably be like in 20-30 years — with her character in Still Alice.

Mia Wasikowska is also brilliant as the quirky Agatha, and Robert Pattinson does a solid job of helping us forget that he was ever Edward Cullen. The other standout for me has to be Evan Bird, who despite his weird look and body (it’s hard to tell how old he is) manages a convincing portrayal of a bratty, disrespectful, almost Bieber-like teen star. He’s hilarious.

On the whole, Maps to the Stars is a wild ride full of gasp-worthy moments. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope people who appreciate this type of dark humour and satire will get a kick out of it like I did.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

March 1, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

Jamie Dornan

The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

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