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Reviews for November 18th, 2009

Red Cliff

Directed by John Woo.

In Mandarin with subtitles. In China during 208 A.D., Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) persuades Emperor Han (Wang Ning) to declare war on two kingdoms, East Wu in the south and Xu in the west. Cao Cao, the northern warlord, battles against the warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). General Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), Sun’s advisor, leads the southern army during their battles against Cao Cao’s incredibly large army. Eventually, Liu and Sun form an alliance together. Eventually, Zhuge (Takeshi Kaneshir), Liu’s military strategist, convinces Liu to form an alliance with Sun in order to strengthen their forces to win the battles. Director/co-writer John Woo, who’s well known for directing such action films as Face/Off, Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible II, blends action, thrills and drama with mostly entertaining results. There are so many characters throughout the film and neither of them truly comes to life in a way that would make them worth caring about or rooting for. Much of the dialogue during the dramatic scenes seems merely ho-hum and dull, with the exception of a few suspenseful scenes when the warlords devise clever tactics to weaken their enemy. One such tactic involves Cao Cao sending corpses of diseased soldiers down the Yangtze River in hopes of infecting the soldiers of the Southern warlords with a deadly plague. The most thrilling and exciting moments when Red Cliff comes alive occur during the many dazzling, spectacular action sequences which are essentially a feast for both your eyes and ears. There’s an unforgettable action scene when Cao Cao’s army shoots thousands of arrows onto their enemy’s ships, but, for a reason that won’t be spoiled here, none of the enemy soldiers die during that attack. At a lengthy running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes, Red Cliff manages to a sensationally entertaining, visually stunning epic filled with enough thrilling and invigorating action sequences to compensate for its dull, less captivating dramatic scenes.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Gigantic Pictures.
Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and City Cinemas Beekman Theater.

The Sun

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov.

In Japanese and English with subtitles. In Japan 1945, Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) decides to renounce his divinity to the public before his defeat at the end of World War II. The public and even his own servants have always regarded him as the divine incarnate of the Goddess of the Sun. In the opening scenes, Hirohito listens to his chamberlain (Shirô Sano) going over his schedule for the day which includes studying marine biology, resting, composing a letting to his son and meeting with his own generals. The first hour of the film isn’t particularly compelling as you watch Hirohito going about his daily routines as his divinity mask, so-to-speak, gradually falls down. At times, he twitches his mouth in an idiosyncratic way that makes him seem very odd and, most importantly, less-than-divine. During his rest, he has a very vivid nightmare of American warplanes in the form of fish that drop bombs onto Japan. When General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson) arrives in Tokyo and has a meeting with Hirohito, that’s when the plot begins to get somewhat interesting. Hirohito emerges in front of the press wearing clothes that very much unlike the kind that you’d expect to find on an emperor. He behaves so much like Charlie Chaplin during his poses that the press calls him by the name of “Charlie” as they snap photographs of him. Director Alexander Sokurov, who previously directed Alexandra and Russian Ark, maintains a slow pace that feels very sluggish at first and takes a while to get used to. He includes a visual palate that’s filled with washed-out colors and cinematography that provides a dreamlike atmosphere. The choice of musical score adds an eerie quality to the film, which gives you the feeling that something tragic and devastating might happen at any given moment. Issey Ogata delivers a low-key performance that’s not captivating per se, but that’s more because of the rather dull screenplay by Yury Arabov which fails to tap into Hirohito’s thoughts and feelings throughout the film. With the exception of a few gently revealing scenes, Hirohito pretty much remains at a cold distance from the audience, especially at the very end of his downfall as the divine emperor of Japan. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, The Sun boasts stylish cinematography and a well-nuanced, gentle performance by Issey Ogata, but it often drags and fails to be truly captivating and engrossing as a character study.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4
Released by Lorber Films.
Opens at the Film Forum.

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