The Review: Yuen Woo-Ping is a name that should be well known to any lovers of Western movies from the last ten years or so, his choreography being key to the fighting styles of The Matrix movies, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. He’s had a much longer career, starting out as an actor and then working steadily as a director up until the mid-Nineties. This is his return to directing after a long break, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that he’s chosen a sweeping historical epic, packed with opportunities to show off the fighting styles he’s become so well known for.
The movie itself falls so neatly into three acts that it’s almost like watching three separate short movies with the same characters, stitched together one after the other. The first is effectively a war movie, with large scale battles and multiple fights taking place on screen, but the second narrows the focus to a single character, Su Can (Vincent Zhao), the general from the first part, and the family conflicts and dangers represented by his former ally and adopted brother Yuan (Xan Zhou), now bent on revenge. Su almost dies at Yuan’s hand, but unbeknown to all but his wife is saved by a reclusive doctor (Michelle Yeoh) and, when he discovers the “God of Wushu” in the nearby countryside, vows to improve his skills to return and confront Yuan once more.
The twists and turns in the narrative structure will feel familiar to anyone who took in Crouching Tiger and its contemporaries in the last decade, with high drama and personal loss being recurrent themes. There is certainly a slightly lighter feel to this, especially around the mid-section, with the God of Wushu sequences being shot in 3D and consequently having an otherworldly feel to them. The consequence of this is that some of the dramatic weight of the rest of the drama feels lost in the process, the whole movie feeling just slightly more lightweight as a consequence, but there’s enough to keep the interest and Yuen doesn’t let the pace flag. The money certainly feels like it’s up there on screen, the first two acts both being sufficient in scope to justify your continued interest.
The final act is when things take a turn for the truly strange. There are a number of familiar faces to Western audiences in the movie, not only Michelle Yeoh but also Jay Chow as the God of Wushu (soon to be seen alongside Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet), and even David Carradine, in one of his last roles as the master of a wrestling arena surrounded by tigers. So if historical martial arts epics with 3D fantasy sequences which culminate in fights with wrestlers above a pit of tigers are your thing, then True Legend is well worth your time. If that last sentence has sent you running for the hills, then I probably can’t blame you, but in this slight curiosity of a movie its the martial arts, as ever, that make it worth the effort.
Why see it at the cinema: Epic vistas, sweeping camera moves, and a large screen allowing you to capture all of the bone-crunching action. The early sequences are packed with detail and will benefit from the size of the cinema screen.
Why see (bits of) it in 3D: As entertaining as anything in the movie was the fact that most people at the screening I went to didn’t realise that the whole movie wasn’t in 3D – there was much embarrassed guffawing when the “put on your glasses” logo appeared before the first fantasy sequence. (That maybe doesn’t say much for other 3D movies, that people couldn’t tell, of course.) The sparing use of 3D and the manner of it’s use actually makes it more effective and complements those sequences well, although to offset the brightness issues of 3D, those sequences have been made very bright – expect to lose sight for a day or two if you inadvertently take off your glasses during these sequences.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Particle Man: The Movie.
The Review: The battle between science and religion has occupied and fascinated man for centuries. Similarly, the battles between religions have defined our culture and our environment on almost more occasions that you can count. But there’s still something to be said about a film which is willing to look at such clashes through modern eyes. Not only Spain’s highest grossing movie of 2009, but a source of controversy with the Catholic church in Spain (maybe not unsurprisingly), this takes historical events and uses them to highlight the divides between people and their often dramatic effects. Any film willing to tackle this part of history is almost inflammatory by default, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an era worth exploring.
Agora feels in some respects like an old-fashioned swords and sandals epic, and indeed was filmed in some of the same locations as Gladiator and Troy. But there are only occasional flourishes of violence, although it must be said that when they come, director Alejandro Amenábar doesn’t skimp on the details. This is a sumptuous film visually, the camera regularly panning and swooping over the streets to capture the action when it comes, and the CGI-augmented zoom-ins from space to Alexandria are especially impressive, giving a true sense of the scale of events.
But any film must stand or fall on its script and its performances, and thankfully Agora delivers on both counts. The script is divided into tracking two historical periods, and the gap between the two allows us to see the effect of changing attitudes on the characters and their world, while examining different aspects of the conflicts in both. Rachel Weisz is completely believable as Hypatia, the scientist who favours philosophy over religion and Michael Lonsdale as her father brings instant gravitas to proceedings. The rest of the cast are less prominent, but there is solid support across the board and the tone never wavers.
People are inspired, sometimes to great rights or wrongs, by their passions or beliefs, and sometimes their judgement can be clouded. As such, I think it’s only fair to point out when writing this review that I am both a mathematician (my subject of study at university) and a Christian (other religions are available). So this film will maybe have appealed to me more on both those counts. But there is still plenty to enjoy here, even if you’re an agnostic biologist. The messages from the film, about the importance of morality regardless of belief and the willingness to question yourself are still relevant to all of us. Not only are movies with this kind of scale done well uncommon, but also movies prepared to engage the mind as well as the heart aren’t as common as they maybe should be. So for efforts like this, we should be truly thankful.
Why see it at the cinema: To be able to absorb in full every last detail of the perfectly realised world of 4th century Egypt, and to take in the stunning sights and sounds at their best.
The Score: 9/10