Reviews for 2011

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The Green Hornet

Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson.
Directed by Michel Gondry.
Rating: 5/10

As it turns out, The Green Hornet is another entry in the ironic superhero subgenre; in other words, it has more in common with Kick-Ass than it does with, say, Iron Man. This is actually a send-up of superhero movies, particularly the kind that features a rich man arming himself with an array of high-tech crime-fighting gear. No, that's not even right -- The Green Hornet is really another wacky "bromantic" comedy, a genre made popular by figures such as Judd Apatow and this movie's own star and co-writer, Seth Rogen, where the story is really about two maturity-challenged dudes navigating the dynamics of their friendship, usually with some wacky plot going on the background. The Green Hornet is quite like, say, Pineapple Express, only instead of using the pot movie as a template, it uses the superhero movie.

This all speaks to its weaknesses in that the movie is derivative of several molds and unable to really take command of any of them. Here, Rogen plays Britt Reid, the shiftless son of a newspaper tycoon, living a life of partying until his father ends up unexpectedly dead. He inherits the business and all the wealth, but doesn't know what to do with it all until he meets his father's mechanic, the freakishly gifted Kato (Jay Chou), an engineering genius and martial arts expert. Realizing Kato's abilities and his own wealth puts them in a unique position to accomplish whatever they might want, Britt decides they should fight crime. But he also second-guesses the effectiveness of outright do-gooders, reasoning that they're easy to subdue by way of threatening the innocent, so he decides too that they should fight crime under the guise of being criminals.

This is just the start of a ludicrous plot (involving an amusing Christoph Waltz and a needless Cameron Diaz) that's really just an excuse to see how Britt and Kato relate to each other. They become fast friends, but the disparity between their respective abilities and potentials starts to create a rift between them, especially since Britt acts as the leader (he gives himself the name "The Green Hornet," while, humorously, Kato has no nickname other than "Green Hornet's sidekick"), yet, without Kato, he couldn't accomplish a thing. This plays out comically, naturally, with Rogen playing essentially the same kind of character he usually plays -- clueless, boisterous, insecure yet defensive, but a decent guy deep down -- and the shtick often works when his character's just some slacker bum in a bad situation. Here, though, as a rich guy with some really foolish, dangerous ideas, it's a bit grating, and we increasingly find less reason to root for Britt's success; rather, we'd side with Kato, who's the only guy getting anything done.

But we're supposed to laugh at this, and, to be honest, The Green Hornet has a good share of laughs, mostly coming from really dorky jokes or displays of destructive mayhem. The moments of visual inventiveness may actually be the only real evidence of director Michel Gondry's hand in the movie; otherwise, it feels nothing like a Gondry film. I usually love Gondry's work, and I've said that if the special effects aren't made of styrofoam or paper-mache and filmed with visual trickery like stop-motion, then it's not really Gondry. This movie doesn't feel like Gondry; it feels like Rogen. And it feels like an amalgamation of comedy and genre ideas mashed together in the hopes that it'll jell, but it's too many imprints removed from other former, better works from all the genres that have influenced it. It's funny enough to get by, but that's part of the problem -- getting by seems to be all it hopes to achieve. (added 6/3/2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters.
Directed by David Yates.
Rating: 7/10

I'm a bit at odds with director David Yates's handling of his share of the Harry Potter films. I thought he stepped into the job terrifically with the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but then made questionable focus decisions with number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But he was back in top form with number seven, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a dark and brooding build-up to what must be a spectacular finish.

But with the final installment, Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Yates makes it clear that he's not interested in the spectacular. The movie does have its share of rousing action sequences, but the particulars of the action don't receive much detail or dramatic weight; instead, all weight is given to tragedies and the consequences of violence. By now we can be certain that Yates has interpreted Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling's declaration -- that the series is about death and dealing with it -- in a different and personal way. While Rowling emphasized the acceptance of the very fact of death (and built the story's central antagonism entirely around it), Yates looks more closely at the tragedies of the circumstances which surround the destruction and oppression of life -- the fear and dread created by oppressive rule, and the sadness and scars of the aftermath.

Honestly, I applaud Yates for sticking to his interpretive guns, and I find his point-of-view valid, but I must admit I was expecting something a little more shallow this time -- at least for this finale. The movie centers around an enormous battle at the Hogwarts school, where the evil Death Eaters, lead by Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), lay siege and the heroic staff and students of the school defend themselves. There are many chances for easy dramatic flourishes, and perhaps some spotlighting of certain characters and confrontations, but Yates never goes for them, instead choosing, not unwisely, to stay with Harry's (Daniel Radcliffe) main story. Overall, these are minor concerns to me, but they lead to a strangely anti-climactic conclusion which, for all my expectations from having read the book, should have been an absolutely rousing experience. But according to Yates, destruction, even of murderous forces, is nothing to celebrate.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a good, confident capper to the eight-film franchise, and isn't without some wonderful moments, the most affecting of which is the flashback of Snape's (Alan Rickman) story (and again, this shows how effective Yates is in addressing the weight in life's little tragedies). But, in the cheap part of my personality that actually enjoys, as my friend put it, fist-pumping, I feel like the great build-up deserved an ending that felt like a high -- and that never appeared. Either Yates doesn't know much about how to craft triumphant dramatic payoffs, or he's made a courageous and intelligent artistic decision not to follow the worn road of giant franchise big-bang enders, opting instead to show that when death is all around, there are simply no winners. I admire the movie, but do not feel as enthused as I had hoped; Yates, how dare you take the high road!

And on that note, I'd just like to congratulate all those who worked on the Harry Potter films for being able to see an eight-movie franchise all the way through to completion. It was a series that needed to appeal both the rabid fans of the books and the general mainstream moviegoer, and although many storytelling sacrifices had to be made on both sides to keep this balance, the job they did turned out to be just fine. The series also found a way to be both commercially and artistically viable. On the whole, the successful run of a franchise such as this is truly a rare feat in Hollywood. Take a bow, folks. (added 8/3/2011)

Ip Man 2 (2010; 2011, U.S. release)

Starring Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Huang Xiao-Ming, Lynn Hung.
Directed by Wilson Yip.
Rating: 7/10

Originality isn't Ip Man 2's strong suit. This film comes across more like fan fiction than historical biography, even more so than the first movie, which practically portrayed 20th century martial arts teacher Ip Man as a saint. Actually, the sequel ends up feeling quite a bit like Rocky IV, in which Russian and American champs boxed each other for national pride. As Ip Man 2 begins, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) has relocated to Hong Kong, hoping to recruit students to learn his Wing Chun discipline. His school soon runs afoul of the local martial arts masters, led by Hung Chun-nam (Sammo Hung, who doubles as the fight choreographer), who demand that he run his school according to local "rules." But all this drama eventually gets pushed aside when a Western boxing exhibition is set and the British champion takes the opportunity to insult the "weak" Chinese boxing style. You can pretty much guess what happens from that point on.

Still, a lot of pleasure comes from watching this character Yen portrays. The combination of ideals he represents -- a man of honor, integrity, and respect who can never be pushed around because he's both smart and physically capable of defending himself -- is one of great appeal, and watching the Ip Man movies is really all about receiving satisfaction from seeing this kind of person (one we would aspire to be) succeed. That may sound like the basis of a corny formula, but these movies are also about impressive execution. The martial arts displays in Ip Man 2 are every bit as impressive as in the first movie (the highlight is a battle between Yen and Hung atop a round restaurant table), and they're arguably better spaced, thus creating a livelier viewing. Once the Brits show up, the quality drops off a bit, not just because what happens is too predictable but also because the British actors (mainly Darren Shahlavi and Charles Mayer), to put it kindly, seem to fit pretty terribly in the exaggerated Asian style of acting.

In any case, those who would watch Ip Man 2 will focus their enjoyment on watching Yen command his role. The movie is simply an entertaining second chance to see more of this man of character in action. (added 4/24/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2011

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