Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

My new friend J.P. and I share a love for Hong Kong movies. We are celebrating it with a special double-post, Siskel/Ebert kind of review for one film. Make sure you head over to his site when you’re done here to read his thoughts on the film. Now back to your regularly scheduled reviews.


Once Upon a Time in China [黃飛鴻] (1991)
AKA Wong Fei-Hung, Kungfu Master

Starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Rosamund Kwan, Jacky Cheung, Kent Cheng, Yee Kwan Yan

Directed by Tsui Hark

Expectations: High. I love this movie.


Bravery soaring! Magnanimity overflowing!

It has been at least eight years since I’ve seen this. Back when I was watching nothing but Hong Kong movies with my friends, this was one of our top films. Going into watching this again, I had incredibly high expectations. There was no way it could live up to those kind of hopes, and in some ways it doesn’t, but overall I still really love this film. My tastes have changed over the years and it struck me how old the film felt. It didn’t feel like 1991, it felt more like 1971. That was when it hit me. This movie has more in common at a base level with a traditional Shaw Brothers kung fu flick than I had ever noticed before. The fight choreography and wire work are completely modern, but it has the feeling and the charm of a classic from the Run Run Shaw studio. In this way, Once Upon a Time in China is a look back, while taking a step forward.

The fights are spectacular. They’re what you are here for, and if not, they should be. The umbrella fight early on is quite good, but nothing can prepare you for the final battle in the warehouse involving multiple ladders. Even with the wire-work, the sheer level of acrobatic and physical ability on display is amazing. I remembered this fight a lot better than I remembered the rest of the film because my friends and I used to re-watch this fight over and over back in the day. It’s truly fantastic. I was a little disappointed that Yuen Biao didn’t get more to do in the way of fighting, but as his character was a guy that wanted to learn kung fu, I suppose I can forgive this.

Continue reading Once Upon a Time in China (1991) →

A Serious Man (2009)

Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, George Wyner, Amy Landecker

Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Expectations: Moderately high. I love the Coen Bros, but they’ve burned me before.


Wow. I don’t know what to say. I honestly don’t feel qualified enough to form a complete response to this movie. I loved it. Absolutely one of the best films of 2009, but this is so not a film for everyone. The Coen Brothers generally make polarizing movies, but this is even in its own league within their filmography. It is probably their darkest and most personal comedy, and it instantly ranks with their best work for me. This also makes it a tough nut to crack. Immediately after watching I felt that I needed to see it again, and I would say that most would need a couple of viewings to really get their heads around it. If the ending to No Country for Old Men left you scratching your head, then you will want to assume that position once again. If you enjoy that sort of ambiguity as much as me though, then you are in for a treat.

A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who just can’t seem to get anything going in his direction. His wife is leaving him for a widowed family friend. His kids have zero respect for him. He’s almost tenured in his teaching job, but now that is up in the air as well. Don’t worry, this is all towards the beginning, but viewing this film isn’t so much about the plot as it is about the atmosphere and connecting to the sad helplessness of Larry. The film takes place in the late 1960s and it feels like it. Period details and music abound and delight.

Continue reading A Serious Man (2009) →

Mini-Review: 21 Up (1977)

61xg7xe8kml-_ss500_Directed by Michael Apted


21 Up continues the series of documentary films started in 1964 that follows the lives of 14 British children. The idea for the first film, Seven Up, came about from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Every seven years the same children are interviewed about their lives and world views. It is an incredible concept and it’s interesting to see how the children grow up.

One flaw is that some of the participants are affected by seeing the films prior to being interviewed, specifically some of the upper class children, so their answers don’t seem as real as in earlier entries. There is something to be said about the fact that they are affected at all though. It suggests that taking a step back and being able to see themselves from another’s perspective, they find that they might be more biased than they thought themselves to be. I realize that this is an unavoidable flaw but it still nags at me.

My other problem with these films is that each one gets longer than the last. Most of the material is very dry and some of the interviews don’t really go anywhere. I love the series, but they are becoming a slog to get through.

Mini-Review: Battle for Terra (2007/2009)

Battle for Terra (2009)
Originally released as Terra in 2007 outside the US

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Brian Cox, James Garner, Chris Evans, Danny Glover, Amanda Peet, David Cross, Justin Long, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson

Directed by Aristomenis Tsirbas

Expectations: Low. I’m not too fond of 3D animation, but I love sci-fi.


I’m a huge science fiction fan. This is a blessing and a curse. In the case of Battle for Terra, it’s a bit of both. There’s nothing wrong with the film, it’s pretty good. As a long-time sci-fi fan though, there isn’t anything in this film that’s particularly new or unexplored within the genre. It is very similar to Avatar in that way. What makes this more enjoyable than Avatar is Terra‘s 84-minute runtime. It doesn’t over stay its welcome.

The film opens by introducing an alien culture living in a tree-like structure floating above the clouds. The inhabitants of the city look like ants, but they don’t have legs and they float around as well. It’s sci-fi, just go with it. One day, a mysterious ship covers the sun and some villagers get abducted. A rebellious child named Mala (Evan Rachel Wood) investigates the situation and we’re off.

Continue reading Mini-Review: Battle for Terra (2007/2009) →

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Chloë Moretz, Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Rachel Boston, Minka Kelly, Maile Flanagan, Patricia Belcher, Richard McGonagle

Directed by Marc Webb

Expectations: Extremely low.


This movie was better than I expected. It wasn’t great, but it had its moments. It’s one of those movies that people like to call “a cute little movie.” It tells the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a greeting card writer, who believes that one day he will meet his soul mate. Enter Summer (Zooey Deschanel). But as the opening narration states, this isn’t a love story. It’s also not really a comedy. It’s more of a drama than the ad campaigns would have you believe.

The films unravels in a non-linear way, which I almost always feel is a clever device used to make a boring story more palatable. In this case it mostly works, but at only 97 minutes, it still feels really long. That is not to say that it’s uninteresting, just that some of the scenes could have been more engaging. The film is also an incredibly mainstream looking movie for an independent film. Tons of over-the-shoulder dialogue shots and close-ups. It’s not without innovation though. There are a few great ideas in the movie that are executed with perfection. Spoiling them would be just rotten of me, so I’ll just say that one of them involves the main character looking into a mirrored surface and seeing a very clever reflection. There’s also a fantastic split-screen scene involving expectations. I’ll leave it at that.

Continue reading (500) Days of Summer (2009) →

Mini-Review: The Seafarers (1953)

Starring the Seafarers International Union

Directed by Stanley Kubrick


The Seafarers is a documentary directed by Stanley Kubrick two years before his feature debut, Killer’s Kiss. It was thought lost for many years, but in 2008 it was released on DVD for hardcore Kubrick fans to watch and analyze. It is an industrial short made for the Seafarers International Union to show to potential members. It is notable as Kubrick’s first use of color film.

Surprisingly, there are a few moments of the budding Kubrick touch. The most enjoyable were the sideways moving dolly shots through the cafeteria. I always found the similar shot through the apartment in The Killing to be one of my favorites, so it’s fun to see what that shot evolved from. A fun 30 minutes for any Kubrick fan, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking.

Red Cliff: Part II (2009)

Red Cliff Part II [赤壁] (2009)
AKA The Battle of Red Cliff

Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Shidō Nakamura, Lin Chi-ling, Tong Dawei, Hou Yong, You Yong

Directed by John Woo

Expectations: Moderate to high. I enjoyed the first one a lot and I hoped that Part II was as good.


So the question is this: Does Part II live up to the expectations built up after watching Part I? Yes, yes it does. I liked this 140 minutes of Red Cliff more than the first 140 minutes, not necessarily because it’s better, but because of familiarity. Part II opens with a brief rundown of what happened in Part I over the credits. The first new shot is of troops opening the gate into Cao Cao’s camp. The music swelled and I broke a smile. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both films (Rings & Cliff) were made as one movie and then chopped into parts for release. So instead of the feeling of watching a sequel, with a slightly different production style, you are watching more scenes from the same movie. It’s a good, nostalgic feeling of revisiting something you love and finding treasures you had never seen before.

From there, Part II just consistently entertains. I especially enjoyed the part when Sun Shangxiang (Zhao Wei) is infiltrating and mapping Cao Cao’s camp and when the Southerners use a very inventive way to get the 100,000 arrows they need. The end battle of Part II is nothing short of spectacular. It’s a part naval battle, part castle siege, part kung fu action extravaganza. Like Part I, this end battle fills up the final hour of the film. The review would not be complete without mentioning how awesome Zhang Fengyi is as Cao Cao. Absolutely perfect in the role. All the actors are great, but Zhang Fengyi’s performance really caught me by surprise.

Continue reading Red Cliff: Part II (2009) →

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