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Yes only 6-8 months late we finally get the Hero review written by none other than Bonnie! Savor this review we had to file suit to get this review done.

Hero is a movie so rich in content that I almost can’t bear to watch it.  In my opinion, nobody should sit down and watch Hero from beginning to end in one sitting.  What you should do is get the DVD of Hero and watch a section at a time.  Better yet, watch each section several times.  This isn’t the kind of movie in which the plot slowly unfolds.  Though yes, it is one of those movies where the plot line is gradually revealed to be radically different than the way in which it was previously presented, even that isn’t the point of Hero.  What is the point?  Visual art painted in motion, the artful juxtaposition of cinematography with not only martial art but also the art of etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

Here is the story.

As the movie opens, we meet Nameless, a Prefect (the lowest rank in the kingdom of Qin).  He has come to let the Qin Emperor know that he has defeated, and killed, the emperor’s three legendary assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.  The Emperor, naturally, wants to know how Nameless managed to defeat such peerless warriors.  As Nameless tells the story, we see it unfold — first his telling, then the version told by the Emperor, who is shrewd enough to read between the lines, and then Nameless’ correction of the details overlooked by the Emperor.  The question is, did Nameless truly defeat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow — or did he conspire with them, convincing them to lay down their lives in order to give him the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to have a chance at slaying him?  Or was there a conspiracy, but one in which there was dissension in the ranks?

The answer to all these questions, the real crux of the matter, lies in the question of whether or not it was possible for Sky and Flying Snow to throw their matches with Nameless so skillfully that the Emperor’s own troops could be made eyewitnesses to testify on Nameless’ behalf.  Likewise, was Nameless skillful enough to defeat Sky and Flying Snow by apparently, but not actually, killing them — with a sword stroke so precise that it appears to kill, but allows one’s opponent, later, to be revived?

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the plot, because it is so convoluted that, frankly, you should just watch the movie and see it unfold for yourself.  Let’s move on to the actors, who are incredibly awesome.  This is a star-studded cast.  We have Jet Li (five time Wushu gold medalist) as Nameless.  Donnie Yen, who often stars in films with Jet Li, plays Sky – and these two incomparable martial artists deliver what I consider to be the best scene in the film, the duel between Nameless and Sky.  Broken Sword is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you should recognize if you have seen Red Cliff, in which he played Zhou.  (If you have not seen Red Cliff, you are excused from the rest of this review – please take four hours RIGHT NOW to go watch Red Cliff.)  Maggie Cheung, an actress who from the age of 18 has been handed role after role in Hong Kong films without even having to audition, plays Flying Snow.  Because Hero unfolds several different plots for your consideration (and the Qin Emperor’s), each of these actors essentially played at least three different roles.

I can’t speak in any kind of an educated way about the cinematography of this film – I’m not an artist – but I have to bring it up, because it literally makes the film.  Hero’s director, Yimou Zhang, should join the ranks of Kurosawa in film history.  Each scene is Hero is up to Kurosawa’s standards – and that is saying a lot.  These scenes also bring to mind the duel between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill (another Quentin Tarantino film, though I am puzzled about Tarantino’s role in Hero – the credits mention him somewhat ambiguously).

Each scene has a color theme, and the actors wear different colors depending on the plot variation that is being acted out.  The use of color in Hero can only be described as exquisite, and it is something that you almost never see in American films.  (Or rather, I have almost never seen it – but I don’t watch as many movies as the rest of you JPFMovies fans.)

And then there are the truly sweet parts of the film.  Nameless and Sky stopping their fight to give coins to the blind Biwa player, asking him to play on as they duel.  The calligraphy teacher telling his students to keep practicing even as arrows rain down through the school’s roof and walls.  Broken Sword’s decision not to block Snow’s fatal sword thrust, just because he needs to make a point.  The lesson being taught again and again here – let’s not miss it, please – is that it’s not about WHETHER you live or die.  It’s about HOW you live or die.  That’s the point of all the etiquette.  It’s not some cute cultural reference or cinematic device – not ultimately – what it’s about, is dignity.  

Some movies are all plot. Some are all about the character development – and/or the cast. Some movies focus purely on cinematography.  Some movies push a strong moral. This movie does it all.

Finally, I know JPFmovies has been waiting a long time (probably more than six months) for this review.  But now do you see why?  Any sort of proper consideration of this movie takes a person in a million different directions.  How can it even fit in a blog post?  In 800 words or so all I have done is to sketch the outlines of Hero for you.  Can you blame me for taking so long to write this?  (JPFmovies can!)

Go forth and watch this rose of a movie, but just a little at a time, as if you were eating a box of chocolates – I know it’s Christmas, but that’s no reason to stuff yourself.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on December 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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That is right the co-founder of JPFmovies DT comes in from out of the cold and looks at 13 Assassins (the 2010 version) Or Vigilante Justice—Samurai Style.

The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white Japanese film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku and is based on a true story.  The film opens up with a bang as a nobleman commits seppuku to make an appeal to the Shogun (it sure must have been an important appeal) because the younger brother of the current Shogun (the equivalent of a prince) is roaming the country committing atrocities against his own people.

The Shogun’s administration goes to any length to cover up the prince’s behavior to prevent embarrassing the Shogun and his lineage.  But the prince goes too far, he rapes a young lady while staying at an inn and when his deed is discovered by her newlywed husband, the prince kills him and out of shame she kills herself.  To make matters worse, to protect himself from any revenge and against direct orders from the Shogun, the prince murders all of the victims’ relatives—including women and children—save one, a women whose limbs were cut off and tongue taken out that the prince left alive as a “toy.” The senior advisor to the Shogun shows a friend of his (who was also victimized by the prince) what is left of the prince’s handiwork and gives his tacit behind the scenes directive to kill this maniac.

 

The samurai begins his mission by recruiting ten men from his own clan to volunteer for what looks like a suicide mission and even convinces his lay about nephew to join the cause (so we are at 11 assassins at this point).  After assembling these 11 warriors from within, he hires one ronin for 200 ryo (the currency at that time) and in a rather ballsy move goes to meet with his former classmate who is in charge of protecting the sadistic prince and in a roundabout way says they will soon meet on the road under combat conditions.

 

The band of assassins begins preparing themselves to carry out their mission.  They know that the prince is in transit to his home province and realize that their only chance to kill him is before the prince makes it to his castle.  While the prince’s procession is en route, they try to take a different road through the territory of another clan, but the procession is stopped at the border and told to turn around because the lord controlling the province will not have anything to do with the prince and his procession. 

 

So the procession is forced to take the conventional route which passes through a village the assassins had engineered to maximize their chances of killing the sadistic prince.  On the way to the village, the samurai get lost and come across a mountain man trapped in a tree.  They free the trapped man because they find out the man has been tied up simply for hitting on his lords wife.  To thank the samurai the mountain man offers to be their guide and get them back to the village.  Once they arrive at the village the mountain man expresses his distaste for samurais and their arrogance as well as their adherence to some abstract outdated code.  The procession begins to arrive shortly after the tongue lashing and the samurai tells the mountain man that this is not his fight and he is free to go.  The mountain man retorts that the samurai are not god’s gifts to warfare and that he is going to stay and fight to show them a thing or two by using his sling and rocks.  Because they have no time to argue, the mountain man becomes the thirteenth assassin.

 

As the battle begins the prince’s soldiers begin to die left and right, but the odds are still against the assassins as it is thirteen against 200 and they make a tactical mistake by not fully utilizing their own defenses and start to fight hand to hand before they need to.  Just watching these guys get through obstacle after obstacle to get to the prince is exciting but exhausting.  Eventually, two assassins corner the prince and kill him.  Then the mountain man (who has a short sword stuck shear through his throat) shows up and the remaining three of the 13 left leave the scene.

Back at the ranch, word of the prince’s death reaches the castle.  The administration needs to save face so they put out the official story explaining that the prince died of an illness rather than being killed by vigilantes.

Over all I think the movie kicks ass and is an all-around excellent film.  The movie not only has great martial arts action, but the story engages you to the point of making you wanting to revolt with the 13 assassins as well.  On a different level, the film relays problems of the samurai way of life, showing the huge self-imposed burdens samurais carry on their shoulders and does a very good job of depicting the amoral aspects of the samurai code.  For instance, the prince’s protector always justifies and rationalizes his conduct by saying it is not his place to question but only to obey.  The movie shows how the samurai fall because there is no room for that way of life in the modern age—because the samurai used words like honor and duty to defend the indefensible, their way of life needed to come to a close.  The irony really hits home at the end when the slacker nephew is told by his dying uncle to drop the way of the sword and seek a new way of life.  The mountain man asks the nephew what he is going to do and the nephew replies that he will become a bandit and take a boat to America. 

 

This movie also distinguishes its self because in today’s typical Hollywood film all of the loose ends would have been tied nice and neatly with the good guys winning over the evil prince and everyone goes home happy.  13 Assassins, however, does not leave you with the typical good triumphed over evil feeling.  Instead, it is more of a tragedy because all of the truly righteous samurai have died during the mission while the amoral (even corrupt) samurai depicted by the nephew survives drops the way of the sword and wants to become a bandit outside of homeland Japan.  I think the final line of the movie was brief but powerful with lots of layers that comment on the state of Japanese society.  What may look like on its face as a simple samurai ninja movie is actually a complex commentary on the inevitable changes in Japanese whether they be for better or worse.   

 
4 Comments

Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Punishment Park—A “Mock-Documentary” that Easily Passes for a Real Documentary.

Peter Watkins made this movie in 1971, when I was born, but it is startling to see Watkins’ prophecy of deprivations of freedom in today’s context — as our country’s civil liberties are flushed away under the Homeland Security and “Patriot” Acts.

The film starts with a reading from the The Internal Security Act (a.k.a the Subversive Activities Control Act, McCarran Act – after Pat McCarran – or ISA) of 1950, a United States federal law that required the registration of Communist organizations with the United States Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate persons suspected of engaging in “subversive activities” or “otherwise promoting the establishment of a ‘totalitarian dictatorship, fascist or communist.’” Members of these groups could not become citizens, and in some cases, were prevented from entering or leaving the country. Citizen-members could be denaturalized in five years.  This abomination was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, which actually overrode President Harry S. Truman’s veto to pass this bill.  Truman called the bill “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.”

Specifically the film narrator begins:

“Under the provision under Title II of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the president of the United States of America is still authorized without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The resident is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe they probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage.”

The Act was activated by Nixon during the civil unrest as the controversy in Vietnam escalated.  Luckily over the next 20 years, many of the Act’s provisions were declared unconstitutional and almost totally repealed by 1990, only to be replaced by the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts recently enacted into law.  These facts make Punishment Park, in my opinion, just as relevant and powerful today as they were almost 40 years ago.

The film had a total budget of $66,000, with an additional $25,000 when the film was converted to 35 mm and is shot as a typical documentary.  It was so believable that Dr. H and I had to assure a third party that this was in fact a mock-documentary and not historical footage.

The film is made from the perspective of a British news crew — the U.S. has created a network of detention centers called Punishment Parks to deal with prison overcrowding and help train law enforcement.  At this particular Punishment Park in the California desert, arrested dissidents are tried by a truly kangaroo court and when they are all found guilty, they have a choice between lengthy imprisonment in the federal prison system or three days in the park.  Once released into the park, the recently convicted are released in bunches as numbered ‘Corrective Groups’ – and given three days to make it 50 miles through a deadly desert to an American flag.  But they must  evade police capture; they have a two-hour head start. It’s left somewhat up in the air as to what will happen if they reach the flag.  They are assured that they will not be killed if they surrender when caught.

As the dissidents (ranging from black power extremists to pacifists and draft dodgers) are brought into the kangaroo court, nothing more than an army tent set up in the desert, they are grilled by the multifarious group of conservative civilians. The defendants are rarely allowed to state their positions and law, due process and a fact finding jury are not even a pretense in the proceedings.  Each defendant is bound and gagged at some point and forcibly removed from the kangaroo court.
While the film is of the vicious kind, it is skilled and wise enough to (initially) leave room for doubt here.  Punishment Park is not just a horror film illustrating the potential for fascism in America; more importantly the mock-documentary shows us how opposing sides harden themselves against each other, how misunderstandings mixed with prejudice build to tragedy.  The police and soldiers hunting the Corrective Group down are shown as a rough bunch, but even they are given the benefit of the doubt.  After an unarmed prisoner is shot, the camera charges in on the Guardsman who did it, the filmmaker screaming bloody murder while the wide-eyed stammering 18-year-old kid in a too-big uniform looks not evil but just terrified and sick at what he’s done.

The ending is also tragic.  Those who made it through the desert to the American flag are met by a squad of the authorities who execute them on site to prevent them from going free, refusing to live up to their part of the bargain.

Many of the reviews I read about this movie called the premises “thin” — perhaps, but why then do many people believe that Punishment Park is a real documentary not a mock-documentary?

An excellent film you should see particularly if you are concerned about the erosion of freedom and civil liberties in this or any other country.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Mike C Comes in With Some Thoughts on Red Cliff.

Red Cliff Part 1 & 2:

I’ll say this much about the movie – I hope they recycled those arrows. No wonder we worry about the green house effect and global warming! How many trees did the battle scenes take to produce all those arrows?

If this is based on a true story, then this event certainly reduced the human population of China and saved all of us from over population! I mean, if that many soldiers died, imagine what the world would be like today if they hadn’t!

Overall great movie. I don’t often like reading subtitles, but I gave it a shot. Lots of action. Lots of arrows.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Black Hawk Down Experience.

Black Hawk Down is one of my favorite movies of all time—no question about it.  The film was directed by Ridley Scott (who also directed Gladiator starring Russell Crowe) and was based on Mark Bowden’s book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.  I was lucky enough to read the book before seeing the movie.  According to conventional wisdom, reading the book first usually leads to being disappointed with the film and its content and portrayal of events.  However, I have never been much for conventional wisdom.  Bowden’s book is outstanding and so is Ridley Scott’s film.  As far as I am concerned, in the inevitable book vs. movie comparison, it is a horse apiece.

Black Hawk Down creates what veterans of the battle describe as a very realistic representation of combat conditions.  Because the film puts you the viewer in the middle of  the battle experience,  the harsh violence of the movie seem all the more realistic and also justified, not gratuitous.  One of the most remarkable things about Black Hawk Down is that in spite of the chaos created by what many have termed “the fog of war” represented on screen, the film vividly maps out the soldiers’ strategies and tactics.  Director Scott frames the action so precisely, and through such perfect camera angles and placement, we are able to follow all of the action on screen, almost as though we, ourselves, are participating in the battle.  Most, if not all other directors, could not pull off this kind of controlled chaos–chaos that would have led to a very baffling movie experience.  Clearly, every last detail of this film has been thoroughly choreographed and intricately planned.

The film is based on the true story which takes place in Somalia, 1993: A small team of Army Rangers and Delta Force Troops on a peace-keeping mission, attempt to help avert mass genocide and to protect Somali citizens from barbaric acts of violence and the various militias that run the country.  When one hundred American soldiers are sent into Mogadishu to arrest a handful of influential militia leaders, they find themselves in the midst of a battle no one anticipated or envisioned.  Each soldier is confronted with the realities and horrors of combat as they protect each other from the surging ranks of hostile Somali forces.  Black Hawk Down is a relentless, harrowing, and true story of bravery, in the face of war.

Black Hawk Down comes from a genre that has brought out some of the best in directors, writers and actors, yet against all of this competition, the movie is easily the best war movie ever made.  Yes, I know it’s a bold statement, but I said it, and it’s out there now.  Also, what many “non-believers” of the Black Hawk Down experience seem to forget, among other things, is that the film did win an Academy Award for best sound.  I can’t believe I didn’t mention that earlier.

 
19 Comments

Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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JPF Examines the Classic: Dazed & Confused

What a great setting for a movie.  The entire film takes place on the last day of a local high school in 1976.  Over the course of the day, the about to be “cool” freshmen (both boys and girls) are hazed by their elders—the boys get their bums smacked with wooden paddles and the girls are subjected to sucking on pacifiers and sitting in the bed of a pickup truck as it goes through a car wash.  The movie doesn’t stop there.  The Dazed & Confused covers the broadest spectrum of teenagers imaginable, we see the “nerds,” the “potheads,” the “jocks,” and the “cheerleaders” getting ready to celebrate the beginning of summer vacation.

My favorite character is David Wooderson played by none other than a young Matthew McConaughey.  I think Wooderson is so outrageous that I have dedicated two clips to scenes he appears in.  Wooderson also has one of the greatest lines in the movie “why you just gotta love high school girls, I get older, they stay the same age.”  McConaughey, in my valued opinion, has never been funnier or better than he was in Dazed and Confused.

The soundtrack is one of the best ever.  The 1970’s music scene was full of dizzying highs and terrifying lows.  Thankfully the soundtrack highlights the highs while leaving out the lows.  The movie treats us to songs by Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Dr. John, War, and other seminal 1970’s rock icons (though one of the most popular bands is noticeably missing: the song “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin, but that’s ok).  Hands down brilliant, there’s not a single bit of musical debris here adding to the free, relaxed ambiance of the movie.

What else happened in 1976?  Well remember: Howard Hughes died, 45 cents a gallon gas, Frampton Comes Alive, Bad Company, Jimmy Carter, the Marshall Tucker Band – Heard It In A Love Song and Pink Floyd’s “Time.”

If you have not seen this one you are a fool.

A bouquet of roses.

 
14 Comments

Posted by on April 4, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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