Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is another very enjoyable installment from the Marvel franchise. The story revolves around Hydra's complete infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. which leads to the shutdown of the latter and the attempt of the former to take over the world.

For all of you not initiated to the Marvel universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. is the global organization created to defend the Earth against extraordinary threats. Hydra is the Nazi organization that survived WWII to become S.H.I.E.L.D.'s greatest enemy.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, is the super-soldier that was created during WWII to combat Hydra. However, he was literally put on ice at the end of the war and was thawed out in modern times. Now he's learning how to assimilate into the new world.

During the war, he had a relationship with a British agent named Peggy, played by Hayley Atwell. When Rogers is thawed out, Peggy is now in her 90s and confined to a hospital. He still loves her and visits her often.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

During the war, his best friend and comrade in arms, Bucky Barnes, was lost in action. Unbeknownst to Rogers, Barnes became another super-soldier, this time working for the enemy. Barnes, also known as the Winter Soldier, has been performing missions for over 60 years since the end of the war.

*** END SPOILER ALERT ***

With Hydra on the verge of finally achieving their goal of global domination, they try to kill everyone who is in their way, including Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and Captain America. Fury lets everyone think he's dead so that he can concentrate on fighting Hydra.

Hydra's infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. is so thorough that Fury can trust NO ONE. In fact, the man at the very top who oversees S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is also the head of Hydra!

Scarlett Johansson plays Natasha, aka the Black Widow, a kick-ass Russian agent now part of S.H.I.E.L.D. Along with a newcomer, the Falcon, Captain America has a very able team to foil Hydra's plan.

An interesting note here is that the story thread for The Winter Soldier is linked to the TV series, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays on CTV). In the series, Nick Fury is presumed dead and S.H.I.E.L.D. has been totally compromised. This is the first time in cinematic history, I believe, when a current film is directly linked to a current TV series.

On a personal note, one of the stars in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Chinese-American actress named Chloe Bennet, aka Chloe Wang (her father is Chinese). Chloe is smoking hot!!! If not for her, I might not bother watching the show.

Anyway, if you're a Marvel fan, and even if you're not, I recommend Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

8/10.

300: Rise of an Empire

Gee, I had to drive all the way to Rainbow Cinema at Yonge & Elgin Mills just to watch this movie without 3D! (It cost me 5 bucks admission, so it's cheap.)

I hate the current trend of putting out films only in 3D at all the major theatre chains. They're trying to gouge me for my precious dollars.

Besides, I don't like wearing those goofy glasses.

300: Rise of an Empire isn't as good as the original 300. The film is a bit too chatty, which throws off the pacing.

Visually, it's quite impressive. The actions scenes are very bloody, though I've seen as good on HBO's Spartacus.

Eva Green (pronounced "Grain") is the shining presence in the film. Her performance is magnificent as Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy. (You may have remembered her inCasino Royale and Kingdom of Heaven.)

I can say I had the great honour to see Eva Green's pubes and beaver lips, but not in these films. You will, however, see her hooters in 300 when Sullivan Stapleton, who plays the Greek commander Themistokles, bangs the hell out of her.

How did a Greek woman like Artemisia come to command Xerxes' navy? In flashbacks, we see the young Artemisia witnessing the slaughter of her family at the hands of Greek soldiers. She is subsequently raped and used as a sex slave for years thereafter. She hates the Greeks so much, she gives her allegiance to the Persians who took her in.

Under Darius, she grew up to become an extraordinary warrior. She gained his trust and was subsequently given control of his navy.

Sullivan Stapleton, whom I've only ever seen in Strike Back, the British series about anti-terrorism in South Africa, plays the leader of the Greek army fighting Xerxes. Since the film is a prequel to 300, King Leonidas is still alive, but we never see Gerard Butler. Lena Headey, who plays Queen Gorgo, takes centre stage here, and I found this rather distracting. She was a constant reminder that I wasn't seeing Leonidas.

Overall, I found the movie entertaining. If you liked 300, you'll probably like 300: Rise of an Empire. But unfortunately I can only give the film...

7/10.

47 Ronin

Well, I finally caught 47 Ronin. Took me long enough. I guess I was dithering because of all the mixed reviews.

Here's my take:  It's an excellent fantasy adventure film, and a creative, fanciful retelling of the 47 Ronin legend.

Despite all the stories about the troubled filmmaking, I found the movie to be reasonably coherent and well-directed. The visuals are absolutely stunning.

Performances are more than passable. I even found Keanu Reeves' acting to be fairly convincing.

Make no mistake. 47 Ronin will not garner any Oscar nominations. But as Hollywood films go, it's well above average and certainly not the disaster that most critics make it out to be.

I also think 47 Ronin is a damn sight better than The Hobbit, either Part 1 or 2. And we know that The Hobbit is pulling in HUGE box office revenue.

The 47 Ronin legend tells of how a group of loyal Samurai takes vengeance over the framing of their Lord Asano for a crime he did not commit. Asano is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and his Samurai, now masterless, are banished from these lands.

Keanu Reeves plays Kai, an orphan who was taken in by Lord Asano and raised to be a member of his court. Kai is called Half-breed by the Samurai because of his mixed parentage (his father was an English sailor). He had previously been raised by the Tengu who are masters of death and dark magic, so Kai possesses a great deal of this knowledge, as well.

Kai grew up with Lord Asano's daughter, Mika, and they love each other passionately. That Mika is forced to wed the murderer of her father, and of Kai's benefactor, is Kai's only motivation for joining the Ronin in their quest for justice.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays Oishi, Lord Asano's chief Samurai. He is every bit the protagonist in the film that Kai is. I admire Sanada a great deal because of his performance in The Twilight Samurai, the first of the Yoji Yamada Samurai trilogy. If you like Japanese cinema, and in particular, if you like movies about Samurai, you absolutely MUST watch the Yoji Yamada trilogy!

(Incidentally, Sanada has done well in the West, too, having appeared in The Wolverine, the Lost TV series, the Revenge TV series, Rush Hour 3, and the most interesting sci-fi film Sunshine.)

Oishi needs Kai's help in avenging Asano's murder because he knows the odds are against them and he knows that Kai is an exceptional warrior, even if he is not Samurai. They must go to the Tengu, from whom Kai had escaped, in order to obtain swords, for Samurai are useless without weapons.

Now, the murderer of Lord Asano, Lord Kira, is aided by a powerful witch (played by Rinko Kikuchi who starred in Pacific Rim). She can assume many animal forms. Near the end, Kai goes up against the witch who takes the form of a dragon. Let me tell you, this dragon is a heck of a lot more impressive than Smaug in The Hobbit. Visually beautiful and artistically fascinating.

Eventually, the 47 Ronin avenge Asano's murder, and because they disobeyed the Shogun's order NOT to pursue vengeance, the Ronin are allowed to commit seppuku instead of being executed as criminals. (The Shogun says that they followed the old bushido traditions and are therefore true Samurai.) The final scene is heart-wrenching as we see Kai and Oishi and all the other Samurai ritually kill themselves in front of the Shogun and Mika.

Mika weeps for Kai as she remembers his final words of love and devotion.


In the end, 47 Ronin is about duty and honour, loyalty and justice. It is about bushido and the way of the Samurai. It is quite authentic to historical and cultural details, fanciful embellishments notwithstanding. I unreservedly recommend this movie.

8/10.

Man of Steel

This is the review for the 3D movie. I enjoyed it immensely. It was well worth holding in my bladder for the full 2 hours and 15 minutes of the film (not including closing credits).

The movie is a retelling of the origin of Superman, done with extraordinary flair by Zack Snyder, the man who brought you 300 and Watchmen.

Russell Crowe plays Jor-El, and thankfully it's more than a cameo role. He's an excellent foil against Michael Shannon, who plays General Zod.

Kevin Costner is terrific as Clark Kent's father, and Diane Lane is absolutely wonderful as Clark's mother.

The story is equal measure of action and drama, and I like that. In particular, I like the fact that they don't make General Zod simply an evil villain. Zod was born to be a protector of Krypton. He defends his world and his people at all costs and with unshakable determination. This poses a powerful moral dilemma for Kal-El, who must defend the Earth against Zod's rampage.

I also like the relationship between Clark and his adoptive parents. The film is very much about relationships.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Kal-El and Lois Lane is pretty much Hollywood formula, but Amy Adams is really terrific.

However, don't despair, because Man of Steel is also about action. Lots and lots of action. Lots and lots of fantastic visuals, the kind of stuff that Zack Snyder is famous for.

For me, the inevitable question is:  How does Man of Steel stack up against the *other* two superhero movies that have taken the world by storm, Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight (as well as The Dark Knight Rises)? Well, it does very well, thank you very much. In fact, I like Man of Steel slightly more than Marvel's The Avengers, and that is high praise, indeed!

In my estimation, Man of Steel is about as good as The Dark Knight. And if you know how I feel about The Dark Knight, then this statement is almost blasphemous. Sorry, Christopher Nolan, but Zack Snyder has really nailed this one and is now your equal.

The reviews at Rotten Tomatoes have been disappointing. I don't know why pro reviewers have it out for this movieMan of Steel is easily the Best Movie of the Year, and I can't urge you enough to go see it.

10/10.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness is the BEST Star Trek movie I've ever seen! It beats my previous favourite Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, by a country mile. Coincidentally, the movie was inspired by The Wrath of Khan (it's not actually a retread of the film). Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the character of Khan, but the story is rather different.

WARNING:  this review will be full of spoilers, so you may want to stop reading NOW.

When Federation agent John Harrison (aka Khan Noonian Singh) goes rogue and launches terrorist attacks in London, England, as well as San Francisco, Kirk is dispatched to hunt down and kill Harrison in Osama bin Laden style. However, since Harrison is hiding out on the Klingon home world, Kirk must tread very, very carefully, lest he embroils the Federation in a nasty war.

But when Kirk strays from his mission, it sets off a chain of events that will bring down the leadership of Starfleet and threaten to destroy the Enterprise.

Memorable Moments

I will not forget the moment when Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dies in Spock's arms. Spock connects to Pike with a Vulcan mind meld during which Pike passes. When Spock realizes that Pike has passed, he is startled. The expression on his face caused my heart to stop.

It is very poignant when Kirk dies in a radiation-filled chamber after he has saved the Enterprise from destruction. Bones calls up to Spock in the bridge and tells him he better come down to engineering. Spock's expression shows that he knows something serious is amiss. He rushes down to where Kirk is and shares a final moment with his friend; their open hands "touch" on the glass door in a sign of affection. Spock sheds a tear (for a Vulcan, this is most unusual).

It's also very touching that Kirk admits to fear of dying, of letting go. Is this something that William Shatner's character would've done??

If you don't think supermen can cry, you have to watch as Khan relates his sad tale of how he came to be where he is and why he had to wreak havoc on Starfleet–a tear rolls down his cheek. This humanizes Khan and blurs the line between villain and victim. Yes, Khan is very dangerous, but he also deserves respect.

Incredible Visuals

The sight of the Enterprise emerging from the bottom of the ocean is like nothing I have ever seen on the cinematic screen. It literally took my breath away (not too hard when you're watching it on a huge AVX screen).

Watching a Dreadnought class starship crash into San Francisco Bay and leveling the city is another breathtaking scene. (FYI, this starship completely dwarfs the Enterprise.)

I ***love*** the new look of the Klingons. This is the way Klingons should always have been!

Why 3D?

I saw the movie in AVX 3D and it was well worth the $18 admission. It makes very good use of 3D (most films don't). I tried for IMAX 3D (for $20), but all the good seats were taken. However, AVX 3D is plenty good and I am certain you will enjoy it just as much as IMAX.

10/10. (For the record, I enjoyed this film *more* than I did Marvel's The Avengers. And that is saying a LOT.)

Skyfall

Wow, the latest Bond film, which celebrates 50 years of Bond, raked in $87.8m this opening weekend!!! This is the biggest box office opening for a Bond movie, by far.

I think Skyfall is the best Bond film ever. There, I said it. It's much better than its predecessor, Quantum of Solace, which I found somewhat disappointing in the wake of the truly excellent Casino Royale. I had previously thought Casino Royale was the best Bond film ever. Let's face it, I love Daniel Craig. As Bond, he's even better than Sean Connery (although it's rather like comparing apples and oranges).

Oscar winner Javier Bardem adds a great deal of panache to the film playing Silva, one of the best Bond villains I've seen. Silva is a former MI6 agent who is out for revenge against 'M' (Judi Dench) for perceived betrayal. (This isn't the first time a former MI6 agent became a Bond villain. The first time was in the Pierce Brosnan Bond flick, Goldeneye, where Sean Bean played 006.)

Skyfall is like no other Bond movie. There is no grand scheme to take over the world. There is no vast high tech lair where the villain plots his scheme. There are no spectacular special effects, no incredible gadgetry, no super-enhanced sports car (more on this in a moment). The film is almost down to earth, relying on good characterization and good storyline.

However, you won't be disappointed. You'll still find plenty of action, spectacular travelogue photography (the night shots of Shanghai's skyline will take your breath away), gorgeous women, a beautiful score by Adele, and a super-enhanced sports car. Wait, didn't I just say...?

In celebration of 50 years of the Bond franchise, the movie pays homage to earlier Bonds by resurrecting the iconic Aston Martin DB5, complete with ejector seat and machine guns. (There's a lot of resurrection in this film, as Bond apparently dies at the beginning but comes back to life later on.)

At 2 hours and 23 minutes, I think Skyfall is the longest Bond film ever. Not surprisingly, the pace is a little bit more sedate. But director Sam Mendes gives us the opportunity to soak in the story and characters.

The ending sets us up for the traditional Bond motif moving forward (eg, we finally meet Moneypenny). I can hardly wait to see the next few Bond movies. I. Love. Bond...

9/10.

Warrior

This is the story of two estranged brothers competing in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament. They're both dealing with a difficult childhood past, mostly related to an alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte). And one of them is running away from a tragic wrenching event in Iraq.

Tom Hardy plays Tommy Riordon, a US Marine war hero who is trying to help out the widow of a buddy lost in Iraq. He wants to raise as much money as he can for her.

Joel Edgerton plays Brendan Conlon, a high school physics teacher with a wife and two daughters whose house is financially underwater and is about to be foreclosed. He is desperate to raise money quickly.

Both sign up to compete in the first-ever "Super Bowl" MMA tournament called Sparta, with the winner-takes-all prize of $5 million.

Tommy enlists his father, Paddy Conlon, as his personal trainer, even though he wants nothing to do with his father outside the ring. Paddy has been in rehab and is nearly 1000 days sober.

Brendan also doesn't want anything to do with his father, who has never met his grandchildren. Brendan is training with an old friend from his past as a MMA fighter.

Both Tommy and Brendan manage to do very well in the tournament. Tommy is cheered on by the US Marine Corp, while Brendan is cheered on by his students and principal, and eventually his wife Tess (played by Jennifer Morrison) who objected to Brendan's participation.

The denouement comes when Tommy and Brendan face off in the final match for the championship. It's a beautiful moment amidst the din and violence of the outcome.

Warrior is an unusual film in that there is a deep rich personal story here mixed in with a conventional (but beautifully executed) story of sports fighting. It takes the full 2 hours and 19 minutes of the film to tell both stories well.

I normally dislike MMA because I am opposed to the inelegance of "human cockfighting". But I found myself rooting for the main characters in the ring. And when the brothers stepped out of the ring at the end, it nearly brought me to tears.

Tom Hardy gives a fantastic performance. Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte are great, too. I was more into their personal story than the MMA tournament, precisely because of this.

This is easily one of the best movies of the year. 9/10.

Sucker Punch

We couldn't be further apart...

Rotten Tomatoes give Sucker Punch a dismal 20% rating. However, I think it's one of the Best Movies of the Year.

Today was also my first introduction to Ultra AVX (Audio Video Experience), the rival to IMAX that has just arrived in Canada. Naturally, you pay more for Ultra AVX, $3 more. It's not quite as expensive as IMAX, but I can tell you that, as a Cheap Bastard, I won't be paying for Ultra AVX very often.

The screen is almost as big as IMAX -- wider but not as tall. The Ultra AVX theatre has only reserved seating -- wide, rocker seating. Incredibly comfortable. I selected seat F17, which was just about ideal, although I did have to crane my neck a little bit. To avoid that, you'd have to sit further back, but then the screen wouldn't fill your vision as much.

(Note:  Because of reserved seating, I advise you to get to the theatre early. Today, it didn't matter because the theatre was 90% empty.)

As soon as the commercials started playing, I knew I was in for a remarkable cinematic experience. The picture was crisp and sharp and highly detailed. The sound was thunderous, but the bass was tight, not sloppy. The sound stage was excellent.

The story is about a young girl -- let's call her Baby Doll -- who is institutionalized in an insane asylum. She has a plan to escape, but she needs the help of her fellow inmates:  Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber. In order to get through her dark experience in the asylum, Baby Doll also has to escape from her mind into fantasy. It is in this fantasy world that director Zack Synder, who brought you 300 and Watchmen, treats us to spectacular and stunning visuals, the likes of which I have not seen before.

The film reminds me of Inception, with delusions within a delusion. And these delusions are truly wonderful. Great action and fight sequences. Very imaginative art direction. And the girl soldiers are sexy as hell. (You can bet I'll be going to bed with Baby Doll on my mind...)

Zack Snyder's next film is Superman: Man of Steel (2012), and based on his three successes (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) I can hardly wait!

In conclusion, Ultra AVX is terrific. I'd say it's as good as IMAX. But because of the cost, I'd reserve Ultra AVX for special movies, movies that promise spectacular visuals and sound.

Sucker Punch is a fabulous movie. I will definitely get the Blu-ray disk when it comes out.

I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil is a profile of evil incarnate. This statement doesn't do it justice. The film is a gruesome depiction of the worst excesses of the human mind...

Speaking of worst excesses, I Saw the Devil is the latest from Korea that pulls no punches when it comes to painting horrific images. It's the kind of movie that only Korean filmmakers excel at -- the visual vomit makes Hollywood's most demented creation look like a Saturday morning cartoon.

There was one scene that almost made me throw up, a first for me. And I've seen a LOT of disgusting horror films.

American = Derivative. Japanese = Anime. Korean = Cinematic Depravity.

The story revolves around a school bus driver named Kyung-chul. He's a sexual sadist and a serial killer and a cannibal. At the beginning of the film, he targets the daughter of a retired police chief and fiancée of an elite secret agent name Soo-hyun. In the scene that I referred to above, Kyung-chul takes a meat cleaver and chops her up into pieces like you would find in a butcher shop.

When Soo-hyun (who looks an awful lot like Daniel Dae Kim from Lost and Hawaii Five-O) identifies the killer, he takes his revenge to an epic scale. Who is the monster in the film?

At 2:24 long, this film contains a number of profound plot twists. It's very engaging.

By the way, Min-sik Choi, who plays Kyung-chul, also played the villain in Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, two films that I enjoyed. I'm just guessing, but I think he needs to expand his repertoire before he becomes stereotyped.

Major Thumbs Up. Highly recommended. But I strongly advise you to steel yourself before entering the movie theatre...


And just a minor point:  Why am I not having nightmares? What is wrong with me??

Machete

You gotta love Robert Rodriguez! He makes such over-the-top action gore fests (as does Quentin Tarantino).

Machete is another fine example of his craft. Hands and heads lopped off. Bullets in the face. Blood spatter everywhere. And Rodriguez does it with a certain tongue-in-cheek bravado and campy humour. For example, in one scene, Machete uses a hospital surgical tool (used for stripping flesh off bone) to gut a man and stretch his intestines out the full length to be used as a rope as Machete jumps out a window. Everybody in the audience laughed, including myself.

In another scene, a house is blown up and a man falls down on top of Jessica Alba's car hood, charred and smoking with a meat thermometer stuck in him. The mercury in the thermometer instantly rises to the top. Very amusing.

In fact, this is one of the funniest movies I've seen all year! Comic relief is necessary when you are immersed in so much blood and gore and violence. Speaking of which, one of the least funny scenes is when a priest (Cheech Marin) is literally crucified in a church. When those nails were driven into his wrists, I felt rather squeamish (quite unusual for me).

In the final action sequence, Machete brings with him the mother of all machetes -- it is HUGE. Really quite funny.

Machete is made as an homage to the "B-movies" of yesteryear. There is no pretense at a good story; indeed, the story is ludicrous. Acting is laughable -- Robert de Niro is a campy caricature of a corrupt Texas senator, Don Johnson is silly as the commander of a vigilante army, Steven Seagal is less than convincing as a Mexican drug kingpin.

Rodriguez includes some of his favourite actors in the cast:  Danny Trejo in the lead role of Machete, and Cheech Marin as a priest and Machete's brother.

One of the unexpected side benefits of watching this movie is seeing Lindsay Lohan's tits. Hey, how often do you get the opportunity to gawk at a PR disaster's hooters?

I also liked Michelle Rodriguez (no relation to the director). In the final action sequence, she was extremely sexy dressed up in leather and wearing an eye patch (earlier, Don Johnson had shot her in the eye).

This Labour Day Weekend, I really wanted to catch The American and Machete. I was simply in the mood for blood -- call it blood lust. And I was suitably sated. Thumbs Up.

The American

The American is an exquisite gem of a film. There, I said it. A great number of reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes will disagree with me.

These reviewers say that the movie is too slow, too ponderous. I normally don't like films that are too slow either, but in this movie it works, thanks to the beautiful photography and elegant direction. The slow pacing allows the audience to soak in the atmosphere of the charming Italian countryside and to dwell in the mind of the main character, Jack (George Clooney), an assassin in hiding. I actually shared his feelings as he walked down the cobblestone streets, sat in the café sipping coffee, and driving on the winding roads in the mountains.

When Jack discovers that he is targetted for termination by the Swedes, he hides out in a small Italian village. While he's there, he does one last job for his employer: provide a customized rifle for a beautiful assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The normally reserved and very private Jack strikes up a friendship with a local priest, and a torrid affair with a young prostitute.

However, trouble follows him to this town in the mountains of Abruzzo...

George Clooney gives another great performance. I re-watched Up in the Air a few nights ago on television and it reminded me of what a fabulous actor Clooney is. The American cements my opinion that George Clooney is absolutely one of the finest American actors of our time.

The feel of the film also reminded me of In Bruges, a story about two hitmen hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, after a job goes very awry. It was also rather atmospheric, giving the audience a good taste of the historic city of Bruges. Coincidentally, Thekla Reuten (the beautiful assassin) also starred in In Bruges.

I also have to put in a good word for Violante Placido, the prostitute Clara. She is very convincing and enticing. If I were Jack, I'd want to run away with her, too! (Please? Pretty please?)

Highly recommended. Definitely on my Top Ten list of the year.

The Karate Kid

This is a remake of the 1984 classic film starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. This time, the Karate Kid is played by Jaden Smith (Will Smith's son) and his teacher is played by Jackie Chan.

As a remake, it has to replicate the key story elements:
  • young kid is bullied by other kids who happen to be trained in martial art
  • the kid is rescued by a handyman/caretaker who exhibits great martial arts skill
  • the bullies are trained by a teacher who has no honour or sense of sportsmanship
  • the handyman challenges the bad teacher in a martial arts tournament: his protégé against the bullies
  • the handyman is himself a broken man, damaged by personal tragedy
  • the kid undergoes very unorthodox training -- in the original film, it was the iconic "wax on, wax off" methodology
  • in the tournament finals, the kid is seriously injured but makes a phenomenal comeback -- in the original film, it was with the iconic one-legged crane stance
There are other differences besides the "wax on, wax off" and crane stance elements. The story takes place in Beijing and the martial art is not karate but kung fu. (In fact, internationally the movie is titled "The Kung Fu Kid.")

The movie is part travelogue, as we get to see some fabulous parts of China. Some parts are not even normally accessible by tourists. Having been to China myself, I can attest to the authenticity of the film, the landscape, the culture, the sights. It felt "right" to me.

Jackie Chan gives the finest dramatic performance of his career. I liked him a lot more than Pat Morita.

Jaden Smith is the real find here. He is head and shoulders better than Ralph Macchio ever was. Between Smith and Chan, they made the film what it is.

In short, I liked the remake considerably more than the original, which I also liked. Needless to say, I give it a hearty Thumbs Up.

Harry Brown

Harry Brown is Michael Caine's Gran Torino. This excellent British indie film has virtually no box office, and the general public is missing out on a great piece of cinema.

The story is about a pensioner vigilante. This may explain why half the audience at the theatre were senior citizens!

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a former (highly decorated) British Marine -- as Harry says, that was a lifetime ago. In his retirement, Harry holes up in his apartment in a thug-infested part of London, careful to avoid any confrontation with the roving youth gangs. His courage is lacking.

When he visits his wife (who's in the final stages of Alzheimer's) in the hospital, he's careful to avoid a subway tunnel where the gangs often hang out. His only recreation is to go to the local pub to play chess with his one and only friend, Leonard. Leonard is fed up with these street gangs. They're always hassling him.

When Leonard decides to carry an old army bayonet with him for self-protection, Harry admonishes him. Harry fears that Lenny will get himself killed.

Alas, his fear comes true. When Lenny is killed, Harry is left all alone in the world (his wife died a week earlier). Harry reaches his breaking point and decides to wreak justice...

(A side note:  at Lenny's funeral, there was only the priest and Harry. It was a very sad image. For some reason that I cannot quite fathom, I worry about no one showing up at *my* funeral. This is totally illogical -- when I'm dead, why the frak should I care who shows up???)

Harry makes for a sad vigilante. He has emphysema, so it's sadly comical that he wheezes and stumbles while pursuing his prey.

Emily Mortimer plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who's on the trail of the vigilante. She was the one who informed Harry of Lenny's death, and eventually she connects Harry with the string of killings in the neighbourhood. The police brass doesn't believe her -- they find the notion of a pensioner vigilante absurd.

Michael Caine gives one of his very finest performances. I highly recommend this movie.

Wonder Woman

I just saw "Wonder Woman" on OMNI2 (Rogers Cable 14). It's a very interesting film.

The story follows the life of a powerful Hong Kong businesswoman (played by a very attractive Gigi Leung) in the years immediately following the Hong Kong Handover back to China. She experiences a number of tragedies and tribulations. First, her husband dies in a car accident after he goes bankrupt. (In those years following the handover, the Hong Kong economy was in great turmoil.)

Then her uncle commits suicide because he goes bankrupt, and because she expressed her anger at him ("You deserve to die") for having cheated her in a real estate deal years earlier. He had the unmitigated gall to turn to her for financial help.

Then her young son dies of SARS. Consequently, the son of her dead uncle also dies of SARS -- he was the doctor taking care of her son, and when he realized he was dying, he confessed to her that he had loved her since childhood. He had also blamed her for his father's suicide.

Then in the turmoil of the Hong Kong economy, she loses her job, screwed over by her boss with whom she had a nascent romantic relationship.

So, with a dead husband, a dead uncle, a dead son, a dead first cousin, a lost job and ruined career, she becomes extremely despondent and turns to suicide. But at the last possible moment, a serendipitous event turns her life around...

And to a large extent, it was her ex-boss who (anonymously) helped her to rebuild her financial success.

But at the end of the film, I wondered whether financial success would be enough to help smooth over her pain, guilt, and grief in losing so many family members and to let her regain the joy of life. Perhaps this is what makes her a "Wonder Woman"...

I give the movie a hearty Thumbs Up.

Doomsday

Neil Marshall (who wrote and directed The Descent, one of my Top Ten films from 2005) has come out with Doomsday, a post-apocalyptic tale about a virus that wipes out humanity. There seems to be a spate of such films lately (28 Days Later28 Weeks LaterI Am Legend). What's with all the virus pandemic stuff that seems to be pervading Hollywood???

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Doomsday. It's easily on my Top Ten list for this year.

The film seems to be inspired by John Carpenter's Escape from New York, with a good measure of The Road Warrior thrown in. Even the main character, Maj. Eden Sinclair (played by the sexy Rhona Mitra) sports an eye patch, just like Kurt Russell's "Snake" Plissken in Escape. I believe this was Neil Marshall paying homage to John Carpenter.

I remember Rhona Mitra from Boston Legal and, to be honest, this was one of the main reasons I wanted to see this movieI'm in love with her! In Doomsday, she reminds me of Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. There is an eery resemblance.

The story takes place in 2033, twenty five years after the Reaper virus has killed millions of people in Scotland. The British government raises a 30-foot-high, steel-clad wall around quarantined Scotland. Its airspace is a No-Fly zone...any aircraft entering Scottish airspace will be shot down. No verification required. No questions asked.

When the Reaper virus turns up in London, the British government goes into panic. They quarantine central London, condemning 12 million people to death. However, satellite IR photos show that there are survivors in the middle of Scotland. This portends a possible cure. The government sends a crack team of commandos, led by Maj. Sinclair, to go into Scotland to retrieve the cure.

The parallels between Escape from New York and Doomsday are pretty obvious. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this slightly different take on John Carpenter's story. Doomsday is certainly much more violent, with a lot more gore. (I was amused by a little bunny rabbit being blown to bits by machine gun fire from automated sentries along the Scottish wall.)

The Road Warrior aspect comes in near the end of the film when Maj. Sinclair finds a brand new Bentley in an underground storage facility. She leads a chase through long Scottish roads as a bunch of maniacal punks with weird haircuts and body piercings try to prevent the cure from leaving this no-man's land. (Of course, this raises the principal continuity error in the film:  After 25 years, how can they possibly still have gas to operate motor vehicles???)

Malcolm McDowell puts in a good performance as the leader of the survivors in Scotland. Bob Hoskins is also good as the police commissioner in London. Alexander Siddig (Syriana; Dr. Bashir in ST:DS9) has a small role as the British Prime Minister.

While the story sounds unoriginal (and it is, rather), the film is still worth seeing. I highly recommend it. The movie is more about Neil Marshall's keen sense of style and artistry, which makes it all the more visceral.

Up in the Air

I saw a profoundly good film this afternoon. It's called Up in the Air, starring George Clooney. He plays a business specialist who fires company staff on behalf of a company's management. And in the current climate, with U.S. unemployment over 10%, business is very good. In fact, it's a *huge* windfall for him and his company.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is on the road a lot. In fact, he really doesn't have a home -- airports are his home. And he has a personal goal:  to be one of the rare American Airlines customers to collect 10,000,000 travel miles.

When he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow traveler who is also constantly on the road, Ryan seems to have found something of a soulmate. Except, of course, that he's not interested in having a committed relationship. Neither is Alex. They're both satisfied to have a "casual," sex-only relationship, getting together in a hotel room only when their busy schedules allow. (As Alex quips, she's essentially Ryan Bingham with a vagina.)

Ryan is anti-marriage, anti-committed relationship. He enjoys his lifestyle on the road, racking up huge air miles. But it exacts a serious toll. His relationship with his family (two sisters) is virtually non-existent. When his youngest sister, Julie, is getting married, he is invited to the wedding. But he seems rather out of place.

When Julie's fiance, Jim, has cold feet, Ryan is asked to talk to Jim. Ludicrous, of course, since Ryan is the last person on earth to give marriage advice. But the A-ha! moment for Jim comes when Ryan says, "Life is better with company." I'm not sure if Ryan believes it, but it struck a chord with me. Not that the advice has any value to me, since I am destined (doomed?) to be alone for the rest of my life.

Ryan and I have more in common than you might think. Earlier in the film, a colleague of Ryan's, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), accused Ryan of living in a "cocoon of self-banishment," afraid to make human connections. That just blew me away. Indeed, that phrase describes my world exactly.

When Ryan and Natalie were debating the value of marriage, the conversation was absolutely fascinating. Natalie raised the point about dying alone and Ryan retorted by saying that since the age of 12, he has seen all of his elderly relatives go into nursing homes. "Trust me," Ryan says, "in the end, we all die alone." Bingo!!!

The movie is a great commentary on life. Jason Reitman's direction is flawless. And Clooney gives yet another memorable performance (so many, I'm losing count!).

Up in the Air is one of the best films of the year, right up there with District 9. I'll be very surprised if it doesn't get several Oscar nominations. It's definitely a must-see movie.