Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster tells the story of influential kung fu master Ip Man.  Ip Man won renown in pre-Invasion China, suffered through the Japanese occupation, and eventually made his way to Hong Kong, where he taught a young Bruce Lee.  His is a fascinating story, told well in the film Ip Man, starring Donnie Yen.
This telling, starring Tony Leung and directed by Wong Kar Wai, misfires.  This surprised me, as Tony Leung (Chiu Wai – there’s also a Tony Leung Kai Fung, who was terrific in DetectiveDee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) and Wong Kar Wai have, in the past, worked together to make remarkable, moving, and memorable films such as Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046.
The problem is that The Grandmaster, a kung-fu biography, is better suited to the directorial talents of a Zhang Yimou or Yuen Woo-ping.  Filmed kung fu is dance: extensively choreographed, intensively practiced, and performed by people with years of training.  When photographed in medium- to long takes, it’s one of the most beautiful things one can see onscreen.  While Leung is entirely capable of performing in such takes (see Jet Li’s magnificent Hero), Wai chooses to shoot and edit his battles in a kinetic, quick-cut style of the sort one uses to hide that fact that one’s star doesn’t actually know what he’s doing.

This short changes Leung, as well as the stuntmen and dancers with whom he performs Ip Man’s contests, and draws the viewer out of the film.  Once drawn out, one begins to notice Wai’s other stylistic choices, such as snap closeups to direct the audience’s eye (rather than trusting the audience to notice important elements for themselves) and a frenetic editing style at odds with the calm and self-possession of the film’s title character.

I’m sorry to find this film so disappointing, as I have great respect for Wai, Leung, and co-stars Zhang Ziyi and Chen Chang.  Nevertheless, Wai and Leung have created enough wonderful films that I’m happy to give this one a pass.  Though The Grandmaster disappointed me, I look forward to their next collaboration.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Three Quick Bites

The Palm Beach Story

The AV Club published an excellent piece on this wonderful film last month.  Here's a link.

The Trip to Italy

Did you like The Trip?  Based on my brief review, do you think you’d like The Trip?  Well, then, you’re sure to like The Trip to Italy, which is exactly the same as The Trip, but to Italy.  What are you waiting for?

Viva Las Vegas!

Man, I don’t know.  Elvis may be one of the greatest vocalists in the history of recorded music, but he comes across as a nonentity on film.  Ann-Margaret may be a talented and beautiful woman, but she comes across as a feral force of nature who’d eat this Tupelo yokel for lunch.

Viva Las Vegas! tries to build a romantic comedy with these two, but I never bought it.  Elvis seemed like a doofus, Ann-Margret kind of scared me, and the whole thing only comes alive when The King sings one of his many numbers.  Viva Las Vegas! doesn’t work as a film, but I’d listen to the album.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

White House Down

Now, here’s a role for Jamie Foxx: President of the United States.  He has presence.  He has dignity.  He can pick up an automatic weapon and spray small-arms fire into the chests of evildoers. 

Unfortunately, White House Down makes him a supporting character.  That’s ok, however, because the lead is the surprisingly versatile Channing Tatum.  Together, the two of them run and gun through a film that’s basically Die Hard in the White House, and they do so with gusto and wit.

In my review of TheAmazing Spider-Man 2, I took that film to task for being nothing more than a formulaic product.  The film’s great failing, however, wasn’t in the fact that it was product: it was that it was poor product.  White House Down is, unabashedly, product.  But it’s good product, with excellent casting, slick effects and editing, and beats that flow one into the next.

Do you like rocket launchers?  White House Down has rocket launchers.  Do you like machine guns?  White House Down has machine guns.  How about genius villains who play Beethoven during their moments of triumph (I told you this was Die Hard in the White House!)?  Spunky kids?  Grizzled veterans who say things like, “I was wrong about you?”  Villains who practically shriek “And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids?”  Oh, yeah.  White House Down has all of these, and more, but it sells them with such glee that you can’t help but bop right along with it.

All this, and a Jamie Foxx on his game.  What more could you ask for?

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I saw the first act of Amazing Spider-Man 2 on one of those little screens on the back of an airplane seat in business class.  All I could think about was how fake the CGI looked.  I saw the second and third acts on my nice tv at home.  All I could think about was how lame the story was.

Here’s the movie in a nutshell: it begins with Andrew Garfield breaking up with Emma Stone (who is wonderful in everything.  I’d watch that woman burn toast.).  So right off the bat, we know he’s an idiot.  Soon enough, we meet proto-villain Jamie Foxx.  Foxx plays a nerd as only a jock can play a nerd:  a complete loser, a barely functional basket case who just happens to be an incredible genius.  Soon enough, the nerd turns into a super villain and the movie loses me for good.

Why?  Because Jamie Foxx is an Academy Award winning actor, and the movie doesn’t trust him to show us how he’s feeling.  Instead, it gives us a horrible voice-over of his supposed inner monologue.  It’s a waste of his talent and an indication of just how simplistic and condescending The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really is.

But wait- there’s more!  This film boasts an Emo Harry Osborn who (a) doesn’t dance, and (b) should be wearing a t-shirt reading “B Story.”  He’s there solely to pad things out and provide an additional villain.  This makes no sense.  The movie’s already over two hours long.  They could have cut his entire arc and still had a ninety-minute movie.  

There’s still more!  The climax plays like it was written by some guy working from an outline provided by some other guy who not only lazily Xeroxed a page from some screenwriter’s manual, but is actually stupid.  I mean, the whole thing hinges on the audience’s willingness to believe that you can punch electricity.  There’s a subplot about airliners in danger that feels like it was added in post to generate extra tension, and that doesn’t even make any sense to anyone who knows the first thing about air traffic control.  There’s a needless death that, while well handled, eliminates the only reason I can think of to see The Amazing Spider-Man 3.  And there’s a denouement that suffers from a shockingly bad performance by Paul Giamatti, embarrassing effects rendering by the F/X department, and unearned emotional manipulation that just feels cheap.

Oh, this movie.  While Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 still stands as a high-water mark for the genre, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like something hastily cobbled together by people with no investment in the material.

I even liked TheAmazing Spider-Man.  If Sony decides to have another go with this creative team, it’ll take one heck of a critical reception to get me to so much as stream it on Instant.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’ve had it with Wes Anderson.

The Grand Budapest Hotel looks marvelous, represents a unique vision, and tells its story with wit and creativity.  I hated it.  It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of movies.

Its love interest has a birthmark the exact shape of Mexico running down her cheek because – whimsy! 

Its one honest and noble character meets a horrific end because – unpredictability!

Its paragon of class and carriage is a vulgar buffoon because – honesty!

It concludes with an image suggesting an entire nation living in grateful wonder at its story because – self-indulgence!

I swear to God, I half-expected this movie to pull out a ukulele and improvise a tune about the wonder of dewdrops.  Up yours.  Entertain me.  Blow up a car.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Worst of 2014

I’ve been putting off writing this post.  I only see movies I think I’m going to enjoy, and I take no pleasure in dissing any particular film.  After all, it takes incredible chutzpah to release any kind of creative work, hanging your creation out there for all to see.  I respect anyone who makes anything, and especially respect anyone with the combination of talent, skill, leadership ability, and business sense required to make a feature film.  Nevertheless, anyone can misfire.  Here are the misfires I saw in 2014.

10.  Elysium:  Possibly the ugliest film I’ve seen in years, Elysium dares tell the world that rich people are bad.  This is particularly brave, given that this is a major studio production.  Somewhere in Hollywood, rich studio executives, a rich director, and several rich movie stars all decided that telling the world they’re bad people was a good idea.  Oh, what’s that?  They meant *other* rich people?  I get it.  Well, at least they served up their hypocrisy with a serving of ‘splosions.

9.  Silver Linings Playbook:  This film got accolades during last year’s Oscar season.  I don’t get it.  90 minutes with people who know how to communicate only by lying or shouting is 89 minutes too long.  I couldn’t get to the credits fast enough.

8.  Ted:  A 10-minute sketch stretched into a 90-minute feature, this film's premise wears out its welcome less than a third of the way through.  I don’t understand how anyone could have read this screenplay and said, “This is a film I want to make!”

7.  The Incredible Burt Wonderstone:  Another failed comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is based on the assumption that audiences enjoy watching hateful characters treat one another poorly.  If I wanted that, I’d see Silver Linings Playbook again.  At least that movie doesn’t pass itself off as something trying to be funny.

6.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug:  This big-budget action-adventure actually put me to sleep during its climax.  At least numbers 10-7 on this list kept my attention, in a train-wreck kind of way.

5.  Room 247:  This amateurishly made film about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has absolutely nothing to say.  It’s like being stuck with the crashing bore at a party.  I’m fascinated by The Shining and was looking forward to learning about its production.  Instead, I got conspiracy theories and stock footage.  Ugh.

4.  Robot & Frank:  Here’s another film that failed at its most basic function: to entertain.  I fell asleep roughly halfway through this film about a disagreeable man doing bad things.  When I woke up, I realized that I had missed absolutely nothing at all.

3.  After Earth:  I couldn’t even get through this one.  I’m sure Jaden Smith is a nice kid who’s trying to make it in the family business.  Unfortunately, he isn’t ready yet.  He lacks screen presence, and I just couldn’t get invested in his character’s journey.

2.  The Heroic Trio:  Such a sad waste of the talents of the queens of mid-‘80s Hong Kong kung fu cinema.  Not even Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggi Chung can enliven this poorly shot, amateurishly choreographed, laughably bad movie.

1.   Pain & Gain:  As I understand it, this film was Michael Bay’s pet project, a low-budget comedy that, presumably, came from the heart.  Michael Bay’s heart must be a cold, dark place.  Pain & Gain revels in stupidity, cruelty, and a pervading cynicism that made me feel like a terrible person just for watching it.  The world is a worse place for the presence of this film.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best of 2014

I don't see as many films as I used to when I rode the Metro to work every morning, but I still see more than the average bear.  That said, here's a list of the ten best movies I saw in 2014.  You may quibble with my ranking, but I don't think you can go wrong by spinning up any of these wonderful pictures.

10. The Bridges at Toko-Ri:  Forget Top Gun.  If you really want to know what it's like to be a naval aviator, this is your film.

9. Interstellar: Tense, beautiful, and thought provoking, I loved every minute of it.

8. Seven Psychopaths: Such a great script, and so well performed. I don't understand why this wasn't a big, big hit.

7. The Raid: Redemption: Pay no attention to the paper-thin story. The stunt work in this picture is the best I've seen since Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior.

6. Gravity: Stunningly beautiful and masterful in every way, it'll look great sitting on my shelf next to Interstellar.

5. 3 Idiots: I'm a sucker for singing, dancing, life-affirming pictures that give me a window into another culture. Aal izz well!

4. Edge of Tomorrow: The most underrated film of the year, and the one I most look forward to seeing again. Creative, exciting, and featuring a brilliant lead performance, this is everything you could want in a summer action movie.

3. A Separation: A thoughtful, compassionate, yet devastating film, A Separation takes us into another culture and crumbling marriage with care and love. This is a heartbreaking, absolutely necessary film.

2. Chef: When I wasn't laughing during this charming film, I was sitting with a big, dopey grin on my face. If you relish the idea of spending 90 minutes with good people trying to do the right thing, all while making you laugh, this is the movie for you. I'm smiling just thinking about it. Smiling and craving a Cuban sandwich.

1. After Life: I think about this film every day.  It makes me a better person. I hope I think about it every day for the rest of my life.