Movie Review ~ The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee.

Stars: Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Hye-kyo Song, Chen Chang, Yuen Woo-ping, Shun Lau, Siu-Lung Leung

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I have the distinct feeling I’ll wind up writing two reviews of The Grandmaster.  There’s the review you’re reading now of the US version that just opened, and then there the version originally released in China that’s 22 minutes longer with scenes in a different order and lacking the slightly troubling voice-over narration imposed upon it by the studio heads at The Weinstein Company.

Now that’s not to say that the 108 minute film available to audiences in this country isn’t worth seeing — because it would be recommended on the striking visuals alone.  Still, knowing that another cut of the film is out there waiting to be taken in always makes me curious to seeing what exactly of The Grandmaster was tinkered with as it crossed to our shores.

In brief, The Grandmaster is a look into a specific period of Ip Man, a legendary figure in martial arts history.  Though not exactly a biographical film, it does use the life of Ip Man to chart historical developments in China during from the late 30’s to the early 50’s.  In that time Ip Man asserts himself as a worthy master of the Southern kung fu arts, though he is briefly challenged by the Northern master who arrives as the recently named successor of the visiting Grandmaster.

Tony Leung (reunited with his 2046 and In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar Wai) takes on this famous figure with a muted performance that’s more reflective than action-oriented.  Though the script doesn’t allow Leung to go very deep for the first hour there’s a rewarding final act that fleshes him out to be more than just quiet reserve, knuckles and perfectly delivered kicks.

Though I’ve read that in the original Chinese version Zhang Ziyi had a more rounded lead role, her truncated screen time here is maximized for the most impact.  I found myself more interested in her role, as the well-trained daughter of the aged Grandmaster, than I did about the leading character the story revolved around.  Still remembered for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, Ziyi makes the character more than the icy porcelain veneer she gives off, which leads to a stunning (and gorgeously sad) transformation for the actress as the film winds down.

The fight scenes (choreographed with razor sharp precision by Yuen Woo-ping and captured elegantly by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) feature some truly thrilling visuals…but an overuse of grainy slow-motion gets old fairly fast and one wishes for a fast-forward button to see these near-perfect scenes up to speed.  Accompanied by a heart-poundingly resonant score from Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Méchaly, these aren’t your run of the mill Matrix-y battles with gravity defying roundhouse kicks.  Though wires were clearly used, the movie is conceptualized and edited so well that it’s easy to lose yourself in these moments.  A late in the picture nighttime fight at a train station may be one of the best constructed scenes end-to-end in film this year because it tells an entire story in about five minutes.

There were times in the film when I questioned whether another fight sequence was necessary to advance the plot.  Even though he never sought out a battle, the movie makes it seem like everything in the life of Ip Man was settled with a kung fu battle…I was waiting for the scene where his newspaper was delivered late and he had to fight the paperboy to protect his honor.

A lot of ground is covered in the film and I can see why the voice-over narration was added and the non-linear storytelling was put in chronological order for a more mainstream audience.  The sacrifice in that, though, is that the film winds up feeling choppy.  There are large leaps in time and enough important moments in history are barely touched on before moving to the next fight sequence.  I think US audiences would have been willing to stick around a little longer to feel like they’ve had a bit more of an all-around look into the life of Ip Man and the various people he met along the way.

Ending before the later years (that involved opium use and possible mismanagement of funds) of Ip Man’s life, The Grandmaster is a carefully constructed film that’s half biography and half historical drama.  Between fight scenes and bittersweet musings on love and family, there are enough beautiful moments in the film to overcome any problems that have popped up in tampering with the original material.

Movie Review ~ Closed Circuit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A high-profile terrorism case unexpectedly binds together two ex-lovers on the defense team – testing the limits of their loyalties and placing their lives in jeopardy.

Stars: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarán Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Anne-Marie Duff, Kenneth Cranham, Denis Moschitto, Julia Stiles, Jim Broadbent

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I think we’ve been long overdue for a paranoid thriller with conspiracies at every corner and the threat of mortal danger with each new secret discovered so I was looking forward to the twisty feast that Closed Circuit purported to offer.  Sadly, though the appetizer of the film was filling if lacking spice the main course was a flavorless Jell-O mold of stale red-herrings.

A bombing in a populous square in London leaves many dead and is described as the worst terrorist attack on record.  A suspect is arrested and, due to issues of national security, given two lawyers for his defense.  One will try the case in open court while the other is appointed as a Special Advocate, privy to private, classified information that the other lawyer can’t hear and will present in a closed session.  It’s a strange situation and unlike any we’ve seen in most courtroom thrillers so the set-up is appealing…at the start.

Taking elements from any number of government conspiracy thrillers from the 70’s and 80’s, the film starts out sharp with a nicely tense opening sequence of the closed circuit cameras that pick up the moments leading up to the bombing.   When the original lawyer assigned to the case takes his own life (a scenario no one seems to bat an eye at in a case we’re constantly reminded is the most important in British history), the job goes to Martin Rose (Eric Bana, Star Trek, Lone Survivor) who soon finds out that the Special Advocate assigned to the case is his former mistress Claudia (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3, The Awakening).

Now their past relationship should mean that one of them has to recuse themselves but, no, where would that leave us?  The law states that the two are to have no contact so the audience is left to wonder two things.  The first is why Martin and Claudia ever got together in the first place.  There’s an obvious lack of chemistry between the actors and it’s tough to pinpoint who is more at fault, Bana’s cocky puffshirt of an attorney or Hall’s chilly take on her character.  The second thing is how long it will be before Martin and Claudia break the rules and start talking about the case with each other.

As the movie follows Martin and Claudia conducting their own investigations into the bombing, a whole slew of extra characters are introduced and nearly all are written in solely to give information that moves the plot along.  Julia Stiles’ (Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Most Likely) miniscule role is given such short shrift that her exit from the film might very well be missed if you look away.  Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Ciarán Hinds (The Woman in Black, John Carter) get their jobs done efficiently, even if they are merely obviously placed roadblocks to Martin and Claudia getting at the truth of it all.

If the film is worth seeing it’s for a scene that I can’t even talk about because it would give the one interesting twist the movie has up its sleeve.  I’ll just say that it involves Hall’s character cross-examining a witness that audiences won’t see coming (well, if you’ve seen the trailer you may…so take my advice and don’t watch it).  That this scene crackles is thanks to the actor playing opposite Hall and it gives way nicely to several more scenery chewing moments.

Unfortunately, this scene a little over halfway through the movie can’t snap the film back onto the promising track it started off on.  It winds up blowing totally off course as it struggles to find an ending that is suitable and winds up settling for a denouement that’s not very exciting or satisfying.  Arriving at the tail end of the summer movie season, Closed Circuit seems out of place for this time of year and with so many other strong films arriving in the last few weeks, this isn’t one I’d make a serious effort to see.  A fine rental for a rainy day but not worth the trip to the theater.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dallas Buyers Club

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Synopsis: The story of Texas electrician Ron Woodroof and his battle with the medical establishment and pharmaceutical companies after being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, and his search for alternative treatments that helped established a way in which fellow HIV-positive people could join for access to his supplies.

Release Date:  December 6, 2013

Thoughts: It’s hard to believe it now, but it wasn’t all that long ago when it seemed like Matthew McConaughy’s film roster was destined to be filled with an endless stream of forgettable romantic comedies.  With three films that found the actor playing nearly the exact same character (Failure to Launch, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and (shudder) Fool’s Gold) I had all but written him off when McConaughy took a step back from the blockbuster-type money being waved at him and instead started showing up in roles that gave him room to stretch, breathe, and find artistic success with.  After turning in strong supporting turns in 2012’s Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe, and The Paperboy, 2013 may wind up even better for him with November’s The Wolf of Wall Street and this real life drama that could net him an Oscar nomination.  Losing an extreme amount of weight to play an HIV addled man that isn’t content to roll over and die, McConaughy is pushing some limits here and that makes this a must-see.  Check out Jared Leto too!

The Silver Bullet ~ Lone Survivor

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Synopsis: Based on the failed June 28, 2005 mission “Operation Red Wings.” Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd.

Release Date:  January 10, 2014

Thoughts: Is it OK to say that I’m really over these war films that have anything to do with Afghanistan or the Taliban?  Even if Lone Survivor has an impressive cast and is adapted from a New York Times bestseller, I just don’t know if I can bring myself to sit through another shaky camera war themed movie where the audience already knows the ending but chomps away on their popcorn waiting for people to die.  I think there’s been such an impressive line-up of fiction and non-fiction films surrounding the war in the last decade that with every new addition one has to reevaluate how many times we want to bear witness t another tragic story.  That being said, I’ll choose to focus on the diverse array of committed actors that director Peter Berg has assembled.  Mark Wahlberg (Ted, Pain & Gain, Contraband), Eric Bana (Closed Circuit, Star Trek), Taylor Kitsch (Battleship, Savages, John Carter), Ben Foster, and Emilie Hirsch all bring something different to the table so I hold out hope that Berg uses the war setting as a canvas where the focus can ultimately be on the actors.

The Silver Bullet ~ Devil’s Pass (The Dyatlov Pass Incident)

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Synopsis: Five young filmmakers retrace the steps of a doomed group of hikers in pursuit of an unsolvable mystery.

Release Date: August 23, 2013

Thoughts:  Here’s a film that can’t even decide what it wants to call itself.  Released outside of the US as The Dyatlov Pass Incident (see below for the original poster), the movie has been retiled Devil’s Pass to ensnare audiences merely looking for thrills.  Renny Harlin is a director that certainly has had a tough tumble down the Hollywood ladder, going from directing big budget money-makers like Cliffhanger and the surprise hit Deep Blue Sea to making a rash of films in the last few years that have bypassed theaters completely and gone direct to the bargain bin at your local shopping superstore.  That’s too bad because whatever you think about Harlin’s body of work, his movies had a decent amount of style to them.  Back to the film at hand, Devil’s Pass is yet another found-footage film that looks to be derivative and forgettable, a disappointing outing from a once-hot director.

 

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The Silver Bullet ~ Her

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Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly-purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Release Date:  December 18, 2013

Thoughts: The fourth feature film from director Spike Jonze looks like it’s traveling in the same universe that his first film, Being John Malkovich, exists in.  Though I feel like the whole man-falls-for-a-woman-he-can’t-have angle has been done to death, making said woman part of a futuristic operating system and truly unattainable may get some mileage for Jonze and star Joaquin Phoenix (The Master).  Phoenix has never been quite the accessible Hollywood star that everyone seems to want him to be but this preview reveals a softer side to his out-there persona.  With a quartet of A-list Hollywood actresses on board as well, early positive word-of-mouth for Her has been strong and its studio recently moved up the release date to take advantage of awards season.  We’ll see if Jonze has another quirky winner on his hands (Adaptation) or another troubled (but ultimately respectable) experiment like his last film, Where the Wild Things Are.

The Silver Bullet ~ Enough Said

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Synopsis: A divorced woman who decides to pursue the man she’s interested in learns he’s her new friend’s ex-husband.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts:  The sudden death of James Gandolfini (Zero Dark Thirty) in June is something that many fans can’t quite wrap their heads around quite yet.  Gandolfini’s tough guy persona kept him from getting roles with a softer edge…which is why Enough Said has caught my eye.  It’s not just because it stars the invaluable (and undervalued) Julia Louis-Dreyfus and features Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, The Way, Way Back) in a supporting role but because it’s Gandolfini’s last film…and it’s a mature romantic comedy. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has been delivering solidly for nearly two decades yet while she’s popular in the indie film niche she’s yet to truly break into mainstream fare.  Enough Said is probably too small of a film to help make that leap but the public’s love for Gandolfini will get more than the usual amount of people to check this one out…myself included.

Movie Review ~ The Spectacular Now

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”

Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: James Ponsoldt

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The best thing about seeing July’s The Bling Ring was getting to see the first preview of The Spectacular Now and ever since that time I’d been counting down the days until I’d be able to get my butt into the seat.  Harkening back to the early days of John Hughes (I’m talking Pretty in Pink era, not Curly Sue thank you very much) yet possessing a style and confidence all its own, The Spectacular Now may not have wound up being the perfect film of 2013 (that honor still goes to The Way, Way Back) but it makes it to the winner circle thanks to two incredible lead performances and director James Ponsoldt’s smart, attention-to-details direction.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and coming armed with an observant screenplay by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, there’s a lot to like within the 95 minute journey that The Spectacular Now takes viewers on.  “Like” may be just too…easy of a word.  “Relate to”, “empathize with”, “agree upon” could be the better way to say it because there seems to be something at the core of the movie and the lives of the people we meet that will speak to anyone regardless if you’ve been home schooled or passed through the walls of the famed “high school experience” so often put on celluloid.

What sets this movie apart from its contemporaries is how un-clichéd the story develops and how impressive it is that it manages to maintain this for all but a scintilla of time as it nears its conclusion.  Though it does rely on the oft-used voiceover narration/college essay as a framing device, I didn’t mind the commentary as much as I normally do because the narration makes sense in the context of the story being told.

High school charmer Sutter (Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole) is living the teenage dream.  He’s popular, has a great girlfriend, has a long leash of freedom from his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and generally deals with each new life situation with a can-do spirit.  The trouble is, all of that positive energy and care for others is masking some inner conflict he’s not ready to deal with.  We’ve all had to face these moments when we look around to see that we may possess everything we could ever want yet are frightened to recognize that maybe having it all doesn’t equal happiness…or at least what we thought happiness was meant to be.

Sutter is also an alcoholic…a hard subject for a teen romance to deal with yet an important one to call out as it’s a growing problem in our schools.  In their small town, Sutter has no trouble finding liquor or going to work with a flask to freshen up what’s really being held in his Big Gulp.  As the movie begins, a misunderstanding has caused a rift between Sutter and his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and after a night of hard partying he wakes up on the lawn of a home on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants)  paper route.

A classmate he’s never noticed, Sutter befriends Aimee and a relationship soon develops.  Is Sutter using Aimee as a rebound, as a way to get back at his girlfriend who has moved on, or does Aimee’s understanding and sensitivity to the pain she sees beneath his surface mean that Sutter can finally be seen and loved for who he truly is?  These are the very adult questions being asked in a movie that could be carelessly classified as just another trivial teen romance.

It’s Teller and Woodley’s dynamic chemistry together and apart that make the movie really ignite.  Teller fits the bill for his character but never lets Sutter drift into maudlin sentimentality just because he’s finding new corners of himself.  Woodley too shows an introspective maturity that far exceeds her years as she takes Aimee through first love to heartache and back again.  Though Aimee takes some selfless, hard turns that are tough to watch and may be frustrating to some, they all feel like they are coming from the right place and have an earthy truth that side-steps hitting a false note.

If anything, it’s the supporting characters that don’t live up to the performances of Teller and Woodley.  The young actors that portray other members of Sutter and Aimee’s social circle don’t come across with the same confidence and it’s not just how they’re written.  They seemed to be playing catch-up in a race that Teller and Woodley were always destined to win.  Leigh has a nice turn as Sutter’s sometimes distant mom and Kyle Chandler gets the job done as Sutter’s estranged father.

The movie trips a bit when it gets to these scenes with Sutter and his father because it appears the writing is on the wall as to the cycle that Sutter seems to be on.  Thankfully, the script is smart enough to take a flimsy contrivance and spin it into, if not gold, a solid silver of an ending.

With a few genuinely surprising elements, The Spectacular Now is absolutely a movie to seek out and soak in.  The lead performances are some of the best you’ll see all year from two rising stars and Ponsoldt is quickly establishing himself as a director with depth and a keen eye for casting.  Worth a serious look from viewers that don’t mind a little heartbreak at the hands of honest men and women.

Movie Review ~ Kick-Ass 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Like I said in my review of the red-band trailer for Kick-Ass 2, I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2010 original which had a premise (everyday kid turns crime fighter with less than spectacular results) that was exploited ad nauseam and was much longer than it needed to be.  While I enjoyed that when the good guys got a beat down they actually bled and that some had vocabularies that would make a sailor blush, the original film just felt played out before the first reel was done.

So a sequel was not high on my wish list in the grand scheme of things.  Ah, but when you have a film that does surprisingly well at the box-office that didn’t cost a lot to make, movie studio execs quickly get those crazy dollar signs instead of pupils and before you know it three years later I found myself taking in a decent if totally unnecessary second chapter in the story of Kick-Ass and his rough and tumble compatriots.

In the years since the first film, two of the three leading actors have turned in some interesting work.  While Dark Shadows wasn’t the hit Chloë Grace Moretz thought she signed up for, her character had a wacky arc that the actress went to the mat with.  Even more surprising, Aaron Taylor-Johnson got the Oliver Stone treatment in Savages before buttoning-up nicely for Anna Karenina last fall.  It was refreshing to see that both actors easily slid back into their roles and try though they might to get something cooking with the development laid out by writer/director Jeff Wadlow, there’s only so much you can do with very few ingredients.

The worst thing about the movie is not the crazy violence (violence so outlandish that star Jim Carrey, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, refused to promote it…after cashing his sizable paycheck, natch) or the funny-in-a-sad-way performance of Christopher Mintz-Plasse (The To Do List…and what’s with the three name names of our leads?) but that it’s not very well made.  This had to have had a larger budget than the original…so why does everything from the sets to the costumes to the special effects look so flimsy and cheap?  There’s a chase scene on top of a van that, while impressively choreographed, appears to be filmed via time travel to 1985.

Another sticking point was that the movie keeps our two leading players apart for so much of the movie.  While Moretz is off working a Mean Girls meets Carrie subplot (bad-timing, because Moretz is starring in October’s Carrie remake), Taylor-Johnson is making new friends in Carrey, Donald Faison, and Lindy Booth as upstart civilian superheroes.  When Moretz and Taylor-Johnson are together the movie finds a pleasantly comic groove but these moments come too little, too late.

All said, Kick-Ass 2 is no gem and not a film worthy of your dog days of summer time or effort.  If you’re a fan of the original, this can wait until you can rent it…all others are advised to pick something else.  (Check my archive if you want a few suggestions!).

Movie Review ~ Fruitvale Station

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: There’s little doubt as to how December 31, 2008 will end for Oscar Grant…we’re shown the actual footage of the shooting at the hands of a police officer that led to his death before the first five minutes of Fruitvale Station have elapsed.  For a movie that starts and ends with death it says something that you come away with powerful thoughts on your own life and the path that we’re all on.

One of the most buzzed about films at the recent Sundance Film Festival, I’d already read a lot about Fruitvale Station, the family that the film was based on, and the journey the movie took to the screen.  Being released at the tail end of a very busy but not totally memorable summer movie season was a bold move of counter-programming and I think that the film was timed right for audiences that were ready to put aside overblown superheroes and frat boy comedies for a more serious movie-going experience.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler favors efficiency over showmanship with a script filled with scenes that pull no punches and a reserved directing hand that guides his actors to strong performances.  It would have been easy to paint Oscar Grant as a tragic hero but Coogler and Michael B. Jordan let the flaws show…giving  way to a leading performance that’s honest and grounded.  Oscar had run-ins with the law and dealt with problems that many inner-city youth face and if he had lived maybe things would have changed or maybe they would have stayed the same…but the tragedy of it all was that we’ll never know what could have been.

As a young father, the movie really crackles when Jordan and the mother of his daughter (Melonie Diaz…another vastly underrated actor) have moments of anger and intimacy over the course of the day.  Their relationship may have had its ups and downs but these two people understand each other…which makes the disappointments hurt that much more.  Same goes for Oscar’s relationship with his mother (stoic Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer).  In a powerhouse flashback, Oscar’s mother visits him in jail and delivers a galvanizing tough love speech, proving that Spencer’s Academy Award was no fluke.

If I had to quibble with the film (and, let’s face it, I have to quibble with something) it’s that perhaps the 24 hours we spend with Oscar Grant seem a bit too packed with forward-motion developments.  By the time he boards the train that will lead him to the Fruitvale Station platform he seems to have figured out a lot of things like work, love, and future plans.  It makes the tragedy to come that much more painful but also seems like a small manipulation in a film that has eschewed any easy outs until that point.

I was surprised that when the reenactment of those final moments came how much of a gut-punch it actually was to watch.  We know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen the camera footage 80 minutes prior…yet by this time we’ve gotten to know the man who died that day.  We’ve met his daughter, visited his mother for her birthday, watched him care for a wounded dog….so to see him cut down in such a way is chilling and numbing.

Aside from any award recognition this will garner (expect Oscar nominations for Jordan and Spencer), the movie is a testament to the influence of restrained direction and committed performances.  It’s a motion picture that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater and had the chance to hug your loved ones.  When you do, chances are you’ll be like me and remember Oscar Grant, his death, and the family that misses him.