There are a few actors I will watch in literally anything. Chow Yun-Fat remains one of them, and I have sat through some of the most amazing junk just because he was in it and could make anything seem plausible — or tolerable — with that snappy smile of his. He made the bloated Curse of the Golden Flower marginally watchable, and he even made it possible to keep my eyes on the screen during the bottom-of-the-barrel Bulletproof Monk (at least, when he was actually visible). Likewise, he makes Confucius that much more watchable, even when the film itself never remains more than average.
The title should be a tipoff. It’s a lavishly-funded and spectacularly-photographed (by veteran HK cinematographer Peter Pau) look at the thinker who has become most closely identified with Chinese culture generally. His ideas remain important and thoughtful: he put human beings above abstractions like gods and empty ritual; he emphasized the importance of personal cultivation and learning; he noted that all of this had to take place within a stable social structure for the benefit of all. He came up with this doctrine at a time when China was a patchwork of feuding kingdoms and when violence was terribly commonplace, and so to many ears his words sounded Utopian and unreachable. Read more
The first half of The Last Princess gave me hope — not much hope, but hope all the same — that this remake of The Hidden Fortress, one of Akira Kurosawa’s better films, would not be the crashing bore that was Tsubaki Sanjuro or (egads) the Samurai 7 anime. The second half didn’t dash those hopes completely, but they served as a reminder of how spectacle and noise are quickly becoming substitutes for vision and storytelling in modern movies.
What they do get right, though, is a sizable slice of the romping spirit of adventure in the original. I can’t deny Princess has great energy and visual style, and there isn’t a single boring second of it. It tells more or less the same story: during one of Japan’s periods of internecine war, two conscripts escape from being captured by the enemy and blunder into the lair of a princess hiding out as a commoner. Her bodyguard has been hatching a plan to get both her and the gold from the royal coffers back home, and he’s tempted to let these two scruffy troublemakers rot in their dungeon. Then they suggest a sly way to avoid the authorities, form a tentative alliance, and encounter one dangerous enemy after another. Read more
I liked Neil Marshall’s previous film Doomsday for its sheer unapologetic audacity. Centurion is essentially the same movie stuck in a single timezone (the Roman Empire vs. the Picts), minus the audacity and with no Frankie Goes To Hollywood music over the climactic battle. It’s mostly a showcase for some stuntwork, costuming, helicopter-shot scenery, and a neat title sequence where the credits hover in midair. No one, me included, is going to have much to say about the storyline, the characters, or the acting. They’re as functional as a taxi ride: they get you where you need to be, but unmemorably.
Centurion’s lead is Michael Fassbender, the haunted-looking fellow who was at the center of the disturbing movie Hunger. Here, instead of playing an IRA hunger striker, he’s a Roman soldier, Quintus Dias, who’s taken prisoner when a Pictish tribe storms his outpost. He escapes and encounters another Roman legion that’s been sent north to put down the Pict leaders once and for all. In their company’s Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mute Pict tracker whose allegiances are, shall we say, questionable at best. It isn’t long before Quintus is once again stuck behind enemy lines with only a few men to his name and a plan that may simply drive them that much further into the mouths of the wolves chasing them. Read more