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Yi dai zong shi (2013)
Deceptively beautiful ode to martial arts
"The Grandmaster" focuses on the life and times of Yip Man (played by the immense Tony Leung), a master of the Wing Chun style of fighting, now increasingly revered as one of the martial arts greats, in some part at least due to the reverence of association to the iconic Bruce Lee. After a series of movies, most prominently featuring Donnie Yen, the great auteur Wong Kar Wai takes a jab at the increasingly glorified figure and delivers a mesmeric opus to martial arts. The Grandmaster" ventures from his life in Foshan in the 1930s up until his flight to Hong Kong, where he finally manages to setup a successful school. The story itself however seems to only fleetingly linger on Yip Man, instead attempting to encapsulate the art itself (its changing fortune and how various styles from across this vast country ventured and interacted with each other) and the political overtones under which it struggled to survive, because returning to the forefront triumphant and admired. As Yip Man ventures from mainland China to the British dominated Hong Kong, the fight for the existence of martial arts becomes a extension of the struggle to maintain national identity.
As the outer reality of Japanese and English occupation brings about varying internal conflicts, Kar Wai treats us to enchanting poetic scenes of combat, bringing out the beauty of the dance with a mix of slow motion, trademark camera shots and the odd bit of wires. This does cause the fights to lack in intensity, instead bringing about the fluidity of movement and the beauty it encapsulates. Nonetheless this poetry in action and the political undertones are not enough to lift the movie, that is horrendously hampered by a disjointed and messy story. As Kar Wai decides to float in a dreamlike fashion while interjecting pathos into many speeches, the end result is unfortunately a dramatic mess, which fails to flesh out the story, but manages to stay pretentious for all two many scenes.
Restraint borders with pomposity, the tone traverse at time into over- sentimentality, while subtleness flirts unkindly with irrelevance. Unfortunately, this quasi-biopic the lack of structure works to overall detriment, leaving but a set of memorable scenes to admire, while the rest barely registers. Painfully disappointing movie, which despite my admiration, must register as a failed return by the cinematic grandmaster.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Jack Ryan (played by revamped Captain Kirk Chris Pine) is an ex-marine with apparently genius level intellect, who after retiring from active duty becomes part of covert CIA operations in the financial markets. When he digs up odd dollar purchases for a Russian billionaire Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), he alerts his comrades and is soon sent to Moscow to dig deeper into the evil conniving plutarchs of the ex-Soviet empire. He soon becomes a target for contracted hit-man and a part of an ensuing world-saving operation to stop impeding doom. His only hope is experienced field agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner apparently filmed this during lunch breaks on the set of "3 Days To Kill", still even wearing the same clothes). Meanwhile he must also meander between a personal crisis with his fiancée Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who suspects Ryan's second life has to do with infidelity...
Why film a Jack Ryan movie that apparently isn't even based on any of the Jack Ryan novels? Haven't read any, but with such a bold move you had better deliver a well-wrought compelling intrigue to back up your decision. As it stands Kenneth Branagh unfortunately delivers a talkative meandering story, which attempts to recreate some of the best of the Bourne franchise, but fails to create the urgency or intrigue to make it truly work. This is all structured around an absurd plot, which for some unknown reason necessitates a terrorist attack to precede a financial meltdown.
The movie suffers from a chaotically absurd pulp storyline. But whats worse the planning behind the attack ventures into imbecillic with spy mistakes piling up to a level unheard of. In such circumstances, Jack Ryan is always a step ahead of the moronic, saving the day by calling the stupid. Whereas the build-up manages to hold sway, despite the overly long background introducion to Jack Ryan (and moronic plot point of pulling people out of a burning helicopter with a broken back), it loses hold once all the pieces are put into play ending in a cat and mouse chase between dumb and not as dumber.
3 Days to Kill (2014)
Covered with Besson's fingerprints
After the unexpected, but well deserved success of "Taken", Luc Besson as is his habit decides to utilise the concept by changes a few pieces, repackaging it and selling it to the audience. Another middle-aged (or even elderly) anti-hero is introduced in the guise of Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), an experienced top-of-the-line CIA contract killer, who finds out that a terminal cancer leaves him with but 3 months of life. Besson mixes family and carnage once again, as the now retired assassin attempts to reconcile with his wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and estranged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) before he passes on. Despite vows to the contrary, Ethan nonetheless decides to reembark into his career path, when voluptuously irritating operative Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) coalesces him into one final hit in return for access to a new experimental cancer drug (viola! magic!). As Ethan stumbles along to fix the ruptured family relationship and with his body destitute through illness he essentially crawls his way to the task at hand.
Mixing up some odd humour, including fraternisation on matters of family with kidnapped objects of torture, Ethan is yet another well-worked distinguishable character within the Besson pantheon. Whereas McG of "Terminator: Salvation" infamy directs, the entire story reeks of scriptwriter Besson's distinct fingerprints - starting from incompetent French police forces and ending at the familial mix of tongue-in-cheek violence. Much in the mold of the aforementioned "Taken", the morality of things takes an intriguing skewed path, however much less daring than that of the Macchiavelian approach of Bryan Mills. Murder, death remain a distant afterthought, never truly delved upon, instead functioning at gimmicks to make compelling or just comedic story structures.
Kevin Costner works his best in the role, but lacks the forceful stature of Liam Neeson, thus never seeming as domineering as a super agent. That said Ethan Renner is meant to be more flawed, less self-assured, however just as efficient a killer. More worryingly the moral overtones are mostly jarring, set in to forward the story, but somewhat troubling in how cynically they are utilised, while being internally lax. Overall however "3 Days to Kill" manage to keep up the action and comedy to a satisfying level, letting the troublesome issues skid by while taking everything at face value.
Somewhere within this movie is the absolutely atrocious character of Viva Delay, sent in by the scriptwriter/director solely to get animalistic response from the male audience, while offering nothing of substance or relevance. The less said the better.
Veronica Mars (2014)
Basing my entire viewing pleasure on relatively high IMDb marks, I was unaware that the movie is a revisit into a Nancy Drew type television series with the ubiquitous then teenage, now fully grown, Veronic Mars (Kristen Bell) the charismatic protagonist. Now no longer an 18-year-old PI living in the nouveau riche fictitious Californian town of Neptune, full of wealth, petty stars and corruption, Mars has escaped to live the simpler life of a New York attorney. However, when the past rattles on her door, when one of her ex-friends brutally murdered and her ex-fling Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) the prime suspect, she decides to postpone her new life and once again pick up her PI goodie bag to find the real culprit.
Subtly mixed in tone, not overly bleak, but also not typical teenage fare, "Veronica Mars" distinguishes itself from the onset with some witty dialogue and well written script, which, albeit occasionally grinding out clichés, manages to intrigue. However it never really feels like seeking a more general appeal, instead a very strict ode to the characters of the series, leaving chance viewers like myself outside of the dynamics of the love triangles, intrigue and personal animosities. It is still well structured and filling in the dots is easily done, but that significantly deprives you of extra layers of affinity to the people involved. Bell especially oozes with charisma, capturing attention with her at times witty, but elsewhile bland and well-worn motivations. Overall, I can understand the general appeal and satisfaction level, but it never really transgresses past the effort of a well-directed season finale.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
Crossing the line
A follow up to the spectacularly overblown pathos of "300", Zack Snyder and crew brings back the "THIS IS...!!!" with blood-spurting slow-mos extravaganza. This time with horses marauding from ship to ship, humans jumping 30 feet like they were half-grasshoppers, an overdose of testosterone that would make Charlize Theron grow a beard and countless dramatic declamations that seem to never end. In between the splattering and burly half-naked men running area in glee as arms, legs and heads fly, we are treated to an endless mix of the grandiloquent tirades, woodenly delivered by varying characters. Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) takes several shots at exalted speeches, struggling not to topple off of the many elevated podiums, thankfully however his loyal soldiers turn a deaf ear and all same cheer on their literately challenged leader. For whatever he lacks in enunciation and screen presence, he makes up for with a six pack, making love with the opposing female general (Artemisia played by Eva Green), lots of shouting and being the world record holder of spear-throwing (at some 300 feet).
Other characters also take on the gauntlet and challenge Stapleton at overplaying their roles, as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), widow-queen of Sparta amps it up with her own dose of pomposity, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) goes medieval as a pinless Pinhead impersonator, Artemisia makes a prolonged death wish by wearing the audiences patience thin, while a couple of other characters challenge for screen time, but fail to resonate. The best actors in this movie are inherently those from Zack Snyder-directed "300", especially Peter Mensah, known best for being kicked down a well or David Wenham as the one-eyed Dilios. That said the stand-out actor in the sequel is Gered Butler as King Leonidas, who features in this sequel as scene excerpts are borrowed from the original. And it says a lot when the best acted scenes come from another movie...
"Rise of an Empire" coincides with the actions of "300", first running parallel, then followed by the decisive sea battle under Salamis, where the sea forces of Xerxes were wiped out in a concerted effort of Greek polis. Naturally, director Noam Murro decides to amp up the action as well as make the war as comical as possible. Inasmuch as Xerxes actually did have superior forces, the difference in soldiers and ships has Persian forces multiplied, while Greek forces divided. Add on the appallingly distasteful tirades about 'fighting for the freedom of the world' and forming Xerxes and the Persian empire into some devilish evil, and you receive a derisive portrayal of events past, which feel ill-suited not only to historical facts, but also common decency.
Overall, much like in the original, this very lax attitude towards truth can be forgotten, even forgiven, given the overblown grandiose concept of storytelling. However, "Rise of an Empire" lacks the same powerful cast, especially given the forgettable Stapleton who is dwarfed by Butler's powerful portrayal, the storytelling swagger as well as the dramatic build-up, which makes the whole ludicrosity of "300" work. Instead, the sequel feels like a poor expansion on Snyder's work, based on a simplistic scheme of introduction, battle, short character focus, grandiose speech, battle, short character focus, grandiose speech (or two for good measure), battle, short character focus, grandiose tirades, ultimate battle (may have missed one or two speeches or battles in between).
As much as graphically this is a riveting eye-catching spectacle, much like the original, it is a ultimately a tiring bore. Technically a joy to behold, but after the first few visual spectacles the form starts to wear thin and the lack of gravity or purposeful storytelling sinks in, exposing it for what it is: a truly appalling TV-grade movie.
The last true action hero, the towering elderly Liam Neeson returns to his recently found career path of on-screen macho in this hi-flying adrenaline rush. Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic ex-cop with family issues (doesn't he always?), who now works as one of the thousands of air marshals, hired in the aftermath of post-9/11 frenzy. Often unverified and with little to no background checks, various non- suitable personnel is let on-board aeroplanes (at least such is the premise of the movie) with an armed gun. Soon after start off Marks starts receiving enigmatic text messages claiming that sooner than later people will start dying on the aeroplane, unless funds are transferred to a given account. As Marks attempts to hunt down the perpetrator the body count starts to increase and soon doubts arise as to who the real culprit is...
Initially promising, especially given Neeson makes for the ideal off- beat antihero, the story shifts into a whodunit scenario, with paranoia rife as to the people responsible. As such the movie however lacks originality and seems like a laboured rip-off of "The Flight Plan", which at least managed to keep tension high and had the audience guessing as to the insanity of the main character. Here the tension is much less palpable, albeit the payoff is way less ridiculous, although still with a significant dosage of ludicrousness. Action sequences are nonetheless top-notch and watching Neeson (once again) combat in closed quarters never gets old. Looking past that the story never really seems mysterious, the identity of the culprits is never really feasible and its pretty easy to identify non-guilty parties, even if at one point in time the finger gets pointed at them. By the end the movie swerves into the realm of laughable resolution, not only with the appalling motivation of the baddies (so bad the actors had trouble with even phoning it in). On top of that we find layered mad-hatter plotting of the evil dudes and all sort of air flight procedures being thrown about in gibberish rants, but the characters seem all to happy to omit the real options at their disposal (such as armed fighters not allowing a plane to lower altitude despite the real threat of a bomb on board).
As good as Liam Neeson is, the story does syphon your intellect, leaving me ultimately disinterested. Obviously not as far fetched in idiocy as "The Flight Plan" or the cult favorite "Snakes on a Plane", but just enough on the wrong side of logic to derail an otherwise well paced high-altitude thriller.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Best Flop EVER!
It what seems to be the most spectacular big budget flop of the season, comes "Edge of Tomorrow", a sci-fi action extravaganza that is one of the best genre movies of the decade. With home sales losing out to teen bromance, overseas return seems to be doing very well, which brings all sorts of questions as to why the Cruise-led alien invasion flick got pummelled so hard in the United States. Word of mouth must be immensely positive, as this is obviously the must see movie for all true sci-fi lovers, and critic's feedback has been verging on unanimous praise, so obviously something else is awry.
Two films immediately come to mind when watching "Edge of Tomorrow", a correlation so obvious that probably every other review pinpoints the influences, namely comedy classic "Groundhog Day" and Verhoeven's vastly underrated "Starship Troopers". Stuck between these two concept movies evolves a surprisingly original and fresh story, which manages to successfully warp expectations.
All out war with an alien invasion brings together humanity, when an asteroid crash-lands into central Europe, carrying with it a scourge of otherworldly twirling dervishes called the mimics. As they quickly conquer most of Europe, the counterattack is initiated by a victory under Verdun, where the Full Metal B... Rita (Emily Blunt) singlehandedly kills over a hundred mimics with the newly designed exoskeletons.
Cage (Tom Cruise) is the head of PR for the army, a whimpering coward so terrified of the front-line he attempt to blackmail his superior to avoid participating in the fight. With an imminent Normandy type assault planned the following day, Cage finds himself stripped of rank and thrown into a unit heading for the front-lines. The mass landing ends in slaughter with Cage killed in action... only for himself to be inexplicably captured within a time loop.
Within a mix of exceptional features and poor contrivances, this summer has been one of the most successful. Following "Captain America 2" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past", the blockbuster season seemed to have peaked. And apparently so did the audience, leaving out "Edge of Tomorrow" from their 'to-watch' list. Nonetheless as far as movies goes Liman (a hit-and-miss director of "Jumper", "The Bourne Identity" and "Mr and Mrs Smith") blows his predecessors out of contention in terms of a stunning mix of style and substance. Whereas other features had their flaws and "Godzilla" was an outright disappointment, "Edge of Tomorrow" comes good from the get-go, the only jagged moment coming late on with a jarring out-of-tone ending. Successfully mixing drama, comedy, bleak atmosphere with moments of emotional tension functioning hand-by-hand with ice-breakers and comedic jumps, the scriptwriters truly nailed it. And who would have thought given how uninspired some of Christpher McQuarrie's and the Butterworth brother's previous endeavors were: ranging from "Jack Reacher" and "The Tourist" to "The Last Legion" (although it must be said McQuarrie also has "The Usual Suspects" credited to him).
Unlike many features of its kind, "Edge of Tomorrow" manage to avoid being solely testosterone driven, albeit the movie does feature a rag-tag squad of misfit soldiers in the Aliens mode, together with Bill Paxton. Albeit action-packed there is a lot of heart flowing, especially with the notion of death being such a frivolous thing and the concept of constantly reliving your beloved one die. Naturally a lot is taken tongue-in-cheek, even these intruguing issues are primarily utilised for their dramatic effect, not for their philosophical options. Issues are skin-deep, tooled and geared so that the video-game premise of immortality isn't the sole pull of the story. Thus the movie is nowhere near "Groundhog Day" in terms of underlying contextual commentaries. In essence this is a popcorn movie. Just one of the damn finest there is.
Garguatuan delivery of monsters, lax drama
Gareth Edwards reinvigorates Godzilla on the American soil with his gargantuan portrayal of the famed post-nuclear monster, which retreads the origins of its fame and imprints them within this big-budget modern-day extravaganza. Even Godzilla itself diverts form the T-Rex blunder of the 1998 movie and captures the big-footed original monster of the Japanese series in CGI perfection. However Godzilla is not the sole malevolent creature to appear in this movie, as the famed mega-predator enters into a all-destructive chase for another humongous kaiju (or MUTO as it is defined in this movie) with a devastating EMP blast.
In the midst of this epic battle humanity and the army struggle to contain the destruction, while Edwards, like in "Monsters", struggles to imprint human drama as a backdrop to events. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a scientist at a nuclear power plant, loses his wife (a brief cameo by Juliette Binoche) to one early attack by the MUTO, thus becoming obsessed with the monster and the encompassing government cover-up brought in effect to hide the truth. As a character and as an actor Cranston is a short-lived emotional highlight in the story, which unfortunately soon loses traction with what feels like his premature death. This loss leaves us battling for interest in the lax son of Joe, demolitions expert soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is a bland shell of a character, generic to the extreme, effectively keeping us disinterested in the story and leaving us hoping for a fast-forward to more massive destruction of metropolis. MUTO expert Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and the wife-nurse Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) are equally unengaging, dull as a dishwater and forgettable. The overall lack of character imprint into the story coupled with audacious coincidences littering the movie, make the drama inert and feel like an important position on Edwards' checklist of blockbuster movies components.
I did however immensely like as Edwards slowly builds tension, initially only showing massive bones of the leviathan creatures or just the aftereffects of their presence, then only sifting through bits and pieces of destruction through news reports, whilst avoiding showing the battles between Godzilla and the MUTOs, leaving space for total San Francisco annihilation for the final act. Nonetheless with the lack of emotional engagement "Godzilla" feels like but a mild success, a poor dramatic relative to the much more successful giant-bashing "Pacific Rim" feature of 2013, who has a superb mix of absurdity, pathos and general character formation that is vastly superior to Edwards effort.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Comic enjoyment intertwines with top notch acting and excellent human drama
In the convoluted time-travelling plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fox molds two X-Men franchises into one, by colliding the future mutants, now living in the post-Sentinel cleansing wastelands of Earth with the past versions of themselves from Nixon-era 1970s. With mutant genocide bringing about the collapse of civilisation, the remnants of the mutants, including core X-Men members: Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Warpath (Booboo Stewart) and the once infamous Magneto (Ian McKellen) attempt one last daring ploy to avert the imminent disaster. This means Wolverine must be sent into the past with the use of Kitty Pryde's powers to stop the murder of Sentinel mastermind Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by mutant rights activist turned rogue Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The future's hope lays in averting the past - thus Wolverine must force the downtrodden and resigned drunkard Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the imprisoned Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) to stop the occurrences of days to come from ever coming into being. Only Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and a fickle youth Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are willing to aide the best at what he does...
Amongst the many faucets of success of Bryan Singer in he reclaiming of the franchise, one seems to be strongly undervalued by most viewers. Despite an onslaught of characters the X-Men are rejuvenated thanks to one simple truth: not all character need to be character studies and albeit each of the cast receives their moment in the limelight, the X-Men resonate all so much more strongly that the super-powered mutants need no introduction. To a varying extent introduced in previous episodes of the series, most of the characters function as direct imprints from the comics, cartoon series or previous movies with the entire mythology appropriated to them. They need not be presented, delved in, they just function as part of a well-oiled team of superheroes. Much like in the comics the movie finally understands that focus can only be placed on a select number of characters, the rest operate within action sequences to wow the audience into submission, while the drama evolves around just a few in their midst.
Thankfully also focus shifts away from Wolverine, the franchises most important and recognisable character, towards the trio of Professor X, Eric Lensherr and Mystique. Wolverine still features heavily in the plot, but is mostly a backup cast member with limited impact on proceedings, but with charm and character attributes helping to liven up the story throughout. Nonetheless McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence shine with a well-thought out plot centred around the morality of Mystique and the dark path she has chosen to follow. Support cast is unanimously superb within their characters, even if they receive but a few minutes of screen time they each memorably capture their moments: Storm is godlike and enchanting, Colossus is almighty, Blink has a lingering presence, Iceman is all-powerful, while Magneto of the past and future display their otherworldly power. Quicksilver naturally steals the show, but Singer has improved in leaps and bounds in his presentation of fight sequences. Only Bishop cries out for more screen time and focus, which hopefully he will receive come X-Men: Apocalypse.
Also thoroughly enjoyed the teamwork, so key to the comic book, that is on show throughout all the future sequences of battles with Sentinels.
It says a lot that the two mayor flaws of the movie are its short runtime of 130 minutes (it honestly feels like the movie could easily go on for another 60 or so minutes and never lose traction on the audience) and the fact that we have to wait for the next episode of the series for another 2 years (how I wish this was a mega-budget several episode series...). Minor faults of the feature are some laboured story, which at times struggles to piece together the plot holes of past episodes, and the somewhat funny, but ultimately jarring, jokes centred around Magneto's supposed involvement in the assassination of J.F.Kennedy.
By far the best comic-book movie of the year and arguably only inferior to "The Dark Knight". The mouthwatering prospect of X-Men: Apocalypse is just too far away to bear...
Famed Taiwanese auteur Ming-liang Tsai ventures into France to deliver a love poem to the works of Truffaut in the form of an opaque slow- flowing visual poem, devoid of a conventional story, instead harbouring its message of collages of images. The slight frame of the script focuses on the filming of a movie by a foreign director (Kang-sheng Lee), arguably the most proclaimed participant of a quasi-plot. Intertwining with him are the cast and crew of the movie, with Truffaut's favourite actor Jean- Pierre Léaud as the lead man, Fanny Ardent as the film's producer and Laetitia Casta as the co-star.
"Visage" however detaches itself from indulging into a flowing story to tell, instead building the entire movie around carefully designed set- pieces with jump from image to image. The camera is mostly static, peering in from the outside on the actions of the cast, as if eavesdropping and voyeuristically capturing the moment. However, whatever happens outside these moments is irrelevant, forcing the viewer to arduously fill in the dots, a task that in the movies taxing runtime may prove too strenuous for most viewers, even to the cinephile crowd so in love with the odd and unexpected.
The movies is constructed from these captured moving images, slow shots with little to no dialogue with moments of musical outbursts, when characters lip-sync to various songs. Several moments have you especially captivated, the highlight being in the beginning sequences, when a static camera peers into the director's kitchen and observes his futile attempts to clog a drain, finally resigning to the inevitable and resting at his mother's bedside in an awkward quasi-incestuous scene. These wackier, off-beat scenes manage to liven up the otherwise laborious proceedings, but the movie shifts focus slowly to more darker imagery with a sexual culmination in a abattoir as eerily disgusting as it was distasteful. Each such scene of this fragmented movie lasts several minutes, thus utterly deflating a casual viewer and even leaving the more auteur crowd grasping at straws to admire. The imagery is at times starkly captivating, with certain moments fully worth the watch from a purely aesthetic point of view. Nonetheless the visual side in itself fails to engulf for vast periods of time, instead capturing imagination on-and-off.
The entire movie is also unfortunately a black box, which requires all the appropriate background input to deliver any type of understanding to the ongoings. The type of movie where any self-respecting film critic would never dare say that he failed to understand the references and symbolism, thus giving him an intellectual ordeal to paste together the scenes. Thankfully the long scenes offer apt possibilities to contemplate each passing portrait, given you don't nod off in the midst. Personally I felt lost in translation, even if vast elements struck a cord, the overall message remained an enigma, not helped by my attention constantly dropping in-and-out of the movie. As such I can fully understand certain auteurs finding the viewing a hard-worked pleasure, but overall I hold the firm belief that whereas movies should be challenging, they should also not require the audience to strain to just keep awake during the watch. As a medium it needs to be engaging, not a painful chore, pure artistry and intellectual proficiency is not enough.