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Man of Tai Chi (2013)
Tai Chi Feely
"Man of Tai Chi" arrived with a great deal of fanfare in my present city of employment this weekend, and I rushed to see it. Is it any good? Well, it plays like an unlikely blend of "Fight Club" and "The Wizard of Oz," but if you like chopsocky, this is for you. The action sequences feature a minimum of wire-Fu, and the fight scenes are shot in such a way that you see all the kicks and blows. There's a minimum of blood, but I didn't mind that, especially given that the last film I saw (the abysmal "No One Lives") was awash in it. In addition to being kickass, "Man" is also a meditation on old and new Hong Kong, and traditional versus contemporary values, especially as they apply to the gentle art of Tai Chi--and did I mention that it's kickass?
Star Keanu Reeves has been toying with this project since he first met stuntman Tiger Chen on the set of "The Matrix," and the film was five years in development, with a budget of $25 million. Keanu not only stars in but also directs "Man of Tai Chi," and he acquits himself admirably on both counts. He plays a reclusive billionaire (is there any other kind?), who collects Lamborghinis and Bugattis (not to mention a Bentley or two), but who is lacking the one thing in life that would make him happy: a soulless fighter who doesn't object to killing his defeated opponents.
Enter the Tiger!
Actually, Tiger is a sweet young man, with a sweetheart who works as a Building Inspector, who is still looking for his Tai Chi Master's approval and suffering abuse at his job, where he works as a mail carrier (of some kind). He's often late to work, and, worse still, he can't seem to deliver his packages on time. When his Master's temple is threatened by building inspectors who claim it's a fire trap (have you ever seen a temple that wasn't?), Tiger accepts a mysterious offer from a security firm owned by Donaka Mark (cleverly disguised for box office purposes as Keanu Reeves), to work as a security guard.
Did I mention that Master Yang looks like a watery-eyed cross between Mr. Miyagi and Jim Beavers? It's all part of his charm campaign to keep Tiger on the right path, which put simply is, "Don't Kill Anyone!" But Tiger can't seem to control his chi.
Meanwhile, Tiger's girlfriend is working to save the Temple (did I mention that she's a building inspector?), and Tiger is mopping the floor with his opponents, first at the local championships at what looks like a YMCA and later at Donaka's fight club. At one club, he fights a tag team that looks like the Hong Kong equivalent of Jedward. Most of these guys are much bigger than our boy Tiger, but he has little trouble taking them out. In fact, he's kind of got a thing for ultra-violence.
Well, I don't want to give the game away, but some of you have probably already guessed that Good and Bad will eventually have to duke it out. And Keanu and Tiger do not disappoint. It's great seeing Keanu play evil. He's played nerdy ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure"), and he's played sad (see youtube)-heck, he's even played a Shakespearean-inspired call boy ("My Own Private Idaho")but the last time he got to play pure D evil was in "The Watcher" (we knew he was evil because he danced every time he made a kill), and he's more than overdue. Like Alain Delon before him, he may divide the critics on his acting, but you've got to admit that Keanu is a wonder to behold. Never mind that he's pushing 50, his ruthless take on Donaka Mark is riveting, and reason alone to see "Man of Tai Chi."
Tiger Chen (who plays Tiger Chen) is a bit more problematic. He's a good actor, but he seems to be playing a part that was written for a younger man. Most of the time, it works, but his age and his stature work against him. He has nowhere near the charisma of a Bruce Lee, but, then, who does? As a stuntman, he's mastered the martial arts, and one sees that he's up to all the heavy-lifting in the action department. The only other character who makes an impression is Karen Mok, who plays a police officer intent on bringing Donaka Mark to justice. Most of the other actors manage to grunt on cue and look menacing, although up-and-comer Iko Uwais stands out, in what amounts to a walk-on, as a comely combatant. Perhaps Keanu will make a film with him some day.
Great locations in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Macau. Great score by Hong Kong film veteran Chan Kwong-wing. Keanu has done the genre proud.
Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare's movie
I just saw the film and, frankly, I'm surprised it found an audience at all. Oxenfordians are always making the case that Shakespeare wasn't an actor and couldn't even read. The film makes it clear that he was both an actor and a literate (although with limitations as a writer). If you're looking for a thought-provoking two-hours traffic of the screen, you'll also be disappointed. The film plays so loosely with facts that it's really hard to take offense. It might as well be set in Middle Earth for all the similarity it bears to actual events of history. Of course, if you're looking to rehabilitate the Earl of Essex' image, it does take a (very weak) stab at that. As a film, it's actually quite boring. My interest in going was to see what arguments the filmmakers might come up with that a dyed-in-the-wool Stratfordian would be hard-pressed to refute. No such arguments are on offer. Apparently, De Vere started publishing his plays and performing them on the stage (in a very strange sequence) at a very early age, and everyone close to him knew he was the author. If Elizabeth and the Cecils knew, who was there left to offend? The people obviously didn't care, at least to judge from their universal hatred of the Cecils (where does that come from, by the way?). Was De Vere simply a coward? He claims to want to use the plays to make a political statement. Good luck with that. Richard II is replaced by Richard III as the play put on for Essex prior to the Earl's rebellion, apparently just to get in another dig at the younger Cecil. (Everyone from Thomas More on had characterized Richard III as a hunchback. It may have been wrong, but that was the conventional wisdom.) Richard III was also Shakespeare's most popular play in his lifetime and would already have been familiar to the mob. As a cinematic experience, the film also falls flat. It's dark and depressing. I had expected more color and Renaissance attitude from the reviews. The acting is so-so. I liked Redgrave's Queen Elizabeth, and was amused by Mark Rylance's "player." Derek Jacobi sputters his way through a pointless prologue and epilogue. But the most charismatic screen presence, for me, was Ralf Spall's Shakespeare, and I'm sure that wasn't intended. I appreciated his impishness and bad manners, a welcome counter to the appallingly boring De Vere and his fellow Earls. It's been said that Spall belongs in another movie. Would that I had seen that movie! The only thing that got me through this film was the anticipation of the reveal: when and how does De Vere find out he's the Queen's bastard (as well as lover)? But even that was a letdown. Why hadn't Cecil used this information against his arch enemy when he might have gained some benefit from it? And how does De Vere react? By crying. Too many tears, not enough laughs in this risibly bad attempt at revisionism.
Bollywood Hero (2009)
Like a holy fool
A young Danish actor, Nick (Egbert Jan Weeber), comes to Mumbai to film a Bollywood musical. Once there he is involved in the accidental death of a street girl and discovers that his movie camera is capable of identifying (by way of a penumbra) people who are in need of help. The scenes of Nick on the set and Nick on the street make for an effective contrast--Bollywood vs. the slums of Mumbai. Facing a personal crisis of his own, Nick may be trying to help others in order to compensate for his father's failing memory. With the best of intentions, he only manages to misread the situations of people who are trapped in a rigid caste system. He ends up doing more harm than good. This is a short (80 minutes) film but a very affecting one. Jan Weeber is excellent in the role of Nick. When he shaves his head at the end and goes on a sort of crusade to help a group of children who are being exploited as slave labor, Nick is clearly, by Western standards, a Christ figure. But he is also a lost child himself, in a world that doesn't tolerate saints. The ending suggests an interesting twist, and like all good Bollywood films, this one ends on a musical note. "Bollywood Hero" makes for a strange journey, but a rewarding one.
Alice's Restaurant (1969)
You had to have been there
This is such a beautiful movie. In some ways, Arthur Penn was truly the cinematic voice of the '60s, at least in America. The decade was a mass of contradictions, and, no, I don't think I'm the first to say that. In the face of Vietnam, racism, and political division, young people everywhere suddenly pulled together, until drugs pulled them apart. The casualties weren't all on the battle fields of Southeast Asia, as Penn and Herndon's screenplay aptly demonstrates. Comedy and tragedy go hand in hand in this adaptation of Arlo Guthrie's simple-minded (yet edgy) song. I can still recall the chill I felt at Shelly's funeral--"Songs for Aging Children," indeed! But this is really Alice and Ray's story. Drugs may have been the Trojan Horse that ultimately destroyed the movement, but the sexual revolution put the troops in disarray. It's fine to say that we are free, even in marriage, but somebody always suffers. The iconic final scene, of Alice in her wedding dress standing at the church door, is a haunting reminder of the ambivalence we all felt at the end of the '60s. And what a memorable performance from Pat Quinn!
Lewis: Allegory of Love (2009)
Holes in the plot
That's Lawrence Fox's father James as Deering, by the way, and it's always a pleasure to see James ("Performance") Fox on screen, even in a role that is poorly written. But I agree with the previous poster that the Whately/Fox coupling failed to catch fire this time around. Could it be that (given some hints in the last series) the producers got cold feet about making Fox's character gay, leaving the actors and writers with no "chemistry" to play off of? That said, I loved the location shots and the music. It's also good seeing Art ("Jewel in the Crown") Malik again. But a lot of the story just didn't add up. What was the murderer trying to say with the mirror and the cane--er--I mean, sword? What was Hayden's problem? Was Deering bisexual? Like father, like son?
No Night Is Too Long (2002)
Possible Spoiler - But I won't spoil the ending!
This film is based on one of those psychological thrillers by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine. Like "Gallowglass," and others, it betrays her fascination with all things homo-erotic. Every thing here is ambiguous, from Tim's "love," first, for Ivor, and second, for Isabel. Is he capable of love? Does he even know what it is? The casting of Lee Williams (Seth, from "The Wolves of Kromer") as Tim is a stroke of genius; as anyone can sense his attraction, whether they respond to it or not. Marc Warren as Ivor is a bit more problematic; it was not too many years ago that he was being routinely cast as a street hustler or a cop, and he doesn't fit into a paleontologist's shoe's very comfortably. But he and Williams make a convincing couple. Mickela Mikael is attractive, in a feline sort of way, but her character's motivation is often obscure. The important thing is that she is blonde and seductive enough to be an appropriate stand-in for her brother, who also figures in the plot. The most interesting aspect of the story to me is Tim's self-destructive nature. He is only a kid when the story starts, in his first year of college. Yet he enters into a love affair that obviously has no future. Just as he falls magically "in" love, so does he fall "out." Some of the plot contrivances that follow are hard to accept (Ivo just allows Tim to go traipsing about Cananda and Europe on his dime?), but they all work as counterpoints to Tim's psychological development. This is an intriguing story, one that raises more questions then it answers, but I dare anyone to see it and not be affected by the conclusion.
Fah talai jone (2000)
A Stylistic Hybrid
"Tears of the Black Tiger" is a stylistic hybrid that brings together the cinematic excesses of Douglas Sirk and Sergio Leone, with a smattering of Quentin Tarrentino. The storyline and dialogue are strictly from hunger, but the voice-over narration can be hauntingly beautiful. It involves a poor boy who falls in love with the governor's daughter. They are separated in childhood and then reunited as adults. In the meantime, the girl has become engaged to a policeman, and the boy has linked up with a band of outlaws and is now known as the Black Tiger. His male-bonding with one of the outlaws is reminiscent of the Monty Clift/Arthur Kennedy relationship in "Red River." It's all very clichéd and yet strikingly original (I half expected a Brokeback angle). The music is folkish, the colors pastel, and the violence over the top. But somehow it makes an impression; this is a film that will continue to haunt me.
Run the Wild Fields (2000)
A Lovely Period Piece with Fine Performances
Somebody asked what the "radio waves" speech was all about. I believe Tom is trying, without reference to Christianity, to say that we are all immortal in the sense that radio waves are immortal. Even though FDR is dead, his words will continue to bounce, forever, like radio waves, from star to star in the universe. This struck me as a quite touching and genuine moment in the film. I was less enchanted with the biography provided for Tom, especially as it became known at the most opportune moment (the scene when Tom is being heroic). But the performances by the three leads were enough to keep me interested in this bittersweet film.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
What's all the fuss?
I watched the Bourne Ultimatum. Actually, I was hoping for a bit of Daniel Brühl, and that's all I got. Why bother hiring a brilliant up-and-coming young actor like this and then not give him any screen time? The movie itself was okay--pretty standard spy vs. spy stuff. What bothered me was the camera work. Can't anybody in Hollywood hold a camera steady these days? The cuts were so quick, you couldn't really make out what you were watching half the time. I guess that's the point; the loss of detail covers a multitude of sins and is a special boon to the stunt-persons, who can step in and out of the action practically without being observed. Just turn the sound effects up and no one's the wiser. That being said, I did enjoy parts of the movie. Matt Damon is very effective when he doesn't have to act (think of his Thespian turn in last year's The Good Shepherd). Julia Stiles had the best moment in the film, when she finds a reason to smile. The villains were interesting, especially the hit men, all of whom, like Brühl, deserved more screen time. So, I liked the film; I just don't understand why critics think it's the second coming of the spy genre. Producers, please note: three Bournes were at least two too many. That well is now officially dry.
Shakespeare's Sonnets (2005)
A Trailer for the Movie
To begin with, although Samuel Park's novella of the same name is based in part on Oscar Wilde's "The Portrait of W. H." his film makes no mention of Wilde at all. In fact, even Shakespeare gets short shrift. And, although, it has the same title, Park's film is not really based on his novella. The characters names have been changed (from Adam and Jean), for one thing, and the novel covers a lot more territory. The short film does serve as an intriguing introduction to the essential milieu of the book, which is superior in every way. Park has assembled an excellent cast, especially Vincent Kartheiser as Sebastian, and I hope he'll now get the chance to expand his film to feature length. This is just the kind of part a young actor like Kartheiser should be able to get his teeth (no "Angel" pun intended) into.