Saturday, September 21, 2013


While watching The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai's decade in the making martial arts biopic, I couldn't help but think of the films of Bruce Lee, particularly Enter The Dragon. This is partially because Grandmaster's subject, Ip Man (Tony Leung), went on to train Lee, but mostly because of the contrast in how these films handle action.

The photography in Lee's films were joyously overwhelmed by his physicality. The camera often staying far away, emphasizing his whole body moving as one blurry, unstoppable force. But Grandmaster isn't like that. It's approach to Kung Fu is much more intimate. Wong's camera is interested less in the whole and more in the individual pieces of the body and how they relate to each other. He uses many short close-ups of hands and feet moving into position, an impressionistic technique that, in other action pictures, frequently confuses, but here it provides insight because Wong is showing us strategy. It also helps that Wong is one of the most tactile and painterly filmmakers in the world to the point that he frequently uses step printing and other techniques to make it seem like we can actually see paint smearing on the lens of the camera and the film becomes a beautifully choreographed ballet of singing razor blades, rain drops splashing off hats, falling icicles, crumbling cakes and ritualistically lit cigarettes.

While Wong usually eschews traditional narrative to create his thematic mood pieces, a sort of story does emerge: the film follows Ip Man and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), two expertly talented Kung Fu masters who find their destinies greatly altered because of the times they live in. The film begins in the early 1930's when it seems that Ip, a rising star, might be able to unite the Northern and Southern schools of Kung Fu. But his refusal to collaborate with the invading Japanese results in him being exiled to Hong Kong where he suffers terrible poverty and hardship. By the time Wong get's to the 1950's, the old guard is mostly gone and no one even knows Ip's name.

Gong Er's battle is even harder, she is the daughter of a northern grandmaster and an expert of her 47 Hand's style, she even beats Ip Man in a wonderfully conceived bout, but because of her gender she will always be denied her place as the shepherd of her fathers legacy. Her father, clearly bitter about the limits society puts on her, is forced to pass off his legacy to someone the community would accept and suggests she try her hand at becoming a doctor.

Though history has vindicated Ip Man (films about him are almost a genre unto themselves at this point), Wong views both these people as being defined by lost destinies. Indeed all the characters in the film seem to struggle living in the shadow of the lives they almost had. Like many Wong films, Grandmaster is ultimately about people in limbo, making the best of who they are and using love as a way to cope with crushing loneliness.

There are two cuts of Grandmaster out there. The original Hong Kong cut is not especially long at 130 minutes, none the less it has been cut down to 108 minutes for the American market. The cuts are noticeable but not fatal. The American cut, which Wong oversaw personally, adds a great deal of intertitles to help explain/rush past the complex plot, and it often feels like there are holes in the narrative. The Hong Kong version handles the exposition much more smoothly and there are more scenes involving the Gong family and more stuff with secondary characters such as Razor (Chen Chang), another exiled master. Strangely though, the American cut also contains a great deal of footage not found in the Hong Kong cut, some of which seemed essential when I saw it last week. Both versions are fantastic and worth your time.

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Few comedies are awaited with as much fervor as those of Edgar Wright who, along with frequent star and co-writer Simon Pegg seem to be vying for the title of "patron saint of Nerddom." While Wright's films, particularly those of the Cornetto Trilogy, are draped in nostalgia and genre thrills, they are unique in modern geekdom in that they don't rest on nostalgia so much as they serve as complex, enjoyably conflicted, frequently hilarious meditations on it.

It's hard growing up, particularly if you've been putting it off for a few decades. Such is the predicament of Gary King (Pegg), the rude, drunken and earnestly desperate protagonist of The World's End, the third and possibly best entry of the trilogy. For King, life never measurably improved on a drunken pub crawl he attempted with his friends when they were all 17.

Twenty-three years later King is suddenly eager to get the band back together and recreate that crawl, which he dubs "The Golden Mile:" 12 pints at all 12 of the pubs in their hometown of Newton Heaven, finishing at the titular World's End. But his friends (played by Wright regulars: Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) aren't so eager to join him. Unlike King, who lives his life in a shabby flat doing God-only-knows between AA meetings, they've all settled down and joined society. But one by one they're lured back by King's oily charm and the promise of days gone by.

But recapturing their glory days proves difficult, everything seems just out of reach and they can't settle in like they used to. The town feels slightly off, particularly the all important pubs which have lost their individual flair after a series of corporate take-overs: "Starbucking," they call it. There's a nice, quintessentially Wrightian touch, where every time they enter a new bar, the camera repeats the exact same establishing shot in what is clearly the same set with different extras. This persistent offness launches the gang into existential crisis mode. It's as if the world is against them cutting loose. Of course, this being a Cornetto film, the assertion is soon proven true when we learn that the town's increasing plainness is actually the result of a stealth takeover by space robots. 

This film might be the most confident of the series. We get no winking shots of flying saucers or anything to telegraph the genre shift a la Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. As much fun as that was in the previous installments, it's for the best that we don't get it here, as the importance of the pre-shift movie almost dominates the post-shift one. The film takes a lot of time setting up King and the gang to the point that we might all be perfectly content if the film remained Wright's version of The Big Chill. But the shift into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory works because it all clicks thematically in fun and surprising ways. It's no accident that a film exploring the links between nostalgia and conformity selects automatons as its antagonists.

The film's visions of what conformity means is interesting in that Wright and Pegg don't automatically discount the Starbucked life the robots are offering. Like in Hot Fuzz, it seems as if nostalgia and conformity are linked in Wright's mind. King may prod and tease his friends for working for 'The Man' and living flavorless lives, but it seems like they have more options than King. He may have succeeded in staying away from societal norms, but his freedom and his refusal to let go of his youth has put him in damaging routines that he isn't even aware of. The film sympathizes with his desire to be the ultimate individual while observing that the quest has made him a friendless slave to drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, it seems that King knows he's a fuck-up, but he wants the freedom to be a fuck-up, even if that's not exactly freedom and has disastrous consequences for everyone around him. That's a pretty tough conundrum for a comedy to present but Wright handles it about as deftly as one can handle such a messy worldview. In a dark, telling echo of Shaun of the Dead, the gang doesn't just have to fight robots, but King, who's insistence that they finish the Golden Mile and get to The World's End starts to seem more self-serving and suicidal by the minute.

That multifaceted view of King and his situation is what makes the film so good, and that lens is also turned on King's "friends" who all have their own outlooks on their youth and how the town has changed. Nick Frost does a fantastic job playing against type as the mature one of the group and there's a scene where Eddie Marsan encounters a former bully that's touching to say the least. It is a pity that we don't get the same kind of detail with the character played by the wonderful Rosamund Pike, who is saddled with being "the girl." Pegg and Wright have consistently shown an eagerness to be emotionally honest and mature with the film's they make together, so they owe it to themselves to stop underwriting their female parts.

Still, World's End is fantastic. Wright and Pegg have capped off an already excellent series with their most thoughtful entry without ever losing their sense of humor. The film might be about alcoholism, lost innocence and self-destruction, but it's also a really funny movie about alcoholism, lost innocence and self-destruction. Also the robots are a blast. In a year filled with dumb sci-fi (Elysium, Man of Steel) and moronic looking comedies (does anyone actually want to see The Family?), it's exciting to see a film like this, take on these issues so successfully and emerge as a great ode to the joys and pitfalls of getting loaded.

Grade: A

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Monday, September 2, 2013


In 2009, Neil Bloomkamp made sizable splash with his debut feature District 9, with complex characters and a well thought out world, it seemed like a real piece of visionary filmmaking on par with the likes of Paul Verhoeven. Unfortunately Bloomkamp is suffering from the sophomore slump with his follow up, Elysium, an earnest, reductive, pandering, startlingly dumb film.

The year is 2154 and the rich have left Earth to live in the titular, hood ordainment shaped, space station. Elysium is meant to stand in for upper-class America, but unintentionally comes off as Heaven, where beautiful, kinda ethnically diverse people sit around all day by the pool and tan themselves and there is no sickness or pain because every home has a med-pod that magically cures you of anything instantly.

Our unambiguous, White Savior/friend to children hero is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a lowly Earthling orphan with a dream in his heart to save up enough money to cross that Space Border into Space America. One day while working in a factory, making robots for The Man, Max sustains a heavy dose of radiation that will kill him in five day unless he can get to Elysium.

Getting there is going to be a challenge as Elysium is off limits to the proles on Earth which, in the absence of the wealthy, has become an over-populated, planet sized shanty town. Sometimes people try and sneak into Elysium, but more often than not they're shot down by the stations security chief, Delacourt (Jodie Foster in one of her worst performances), who really hates undocumented migrants for reasons never coherently explained.

Have you figured out the metaphor yet?  Because Bloomkamp doesn't think you have. Max recruits the help of Spider (Wagner Copley), a techno coyote who agrees to help if Max first agrees to a very convoluted heist that requires him to go under the knife and be outfitted with a neural link-up and exoskeleton. But, the exoskeleton is one of the film's many ideas and details it doesn't have time to develop. Yes, the film does look fantastic, particularly the Earth segments and there are few people with a sharper eye for future tech than Bloomkamp but great production design means squat in a word this flat and cartoonish. I'm a real sucker for immigrant stories and blue collar strife, but the border analogy Bloomkamp draws never progresses beyond its initial conception.  Everything feels sketchy, particularly as the action moves to the space station.

Bloomkamp has repeated a lot from his earlier film, both films are races against time with a hero who's physiology is altered against their will and must fight all powerful oppressors, and the similarities get even more specific from there. That's fine, there is a serviceable tradition of director's using newly acquired Hollywood resources to essentially remake their independent (or pseudo-indipendent) breakouts. What's startling is what he chose to not copy, namely the humanity. In District 9 we had a protagonist who was pitiful one second and complicit in the oppression of an entire race the next. That complex relationship between a film's main character and the audience is rare and kind of magical. At the very least that unpredictability gave the action scenes a huge shot in the arm. Elysium doesn't have that. Its characters are cardboard at best, running around, shouting and getting involved in some very badly done action scenes and the one or two moments where Bloomkamp does try to undercut Max are mindbogglingly forced.
Instead of treating the genre as a gateway to complexity, he indulges in simplistic, pandering fantasy. In Bloomkamp's mind, the poor are all helpless saints waiting for an able bodied white man to save them, women are damsels and the rich have always had the ability to magically cure all that ails us with a literal push of a button, but choose not too out of pure evil. If the film didn't favor the common man, Ayn Rand would be proud of how reductive this film film is. The film does have an admirable social consciousness, but an allegory this simplistic and lacking in humanity doesn't do any good. Elysium isn't a terrible entertainment, but boy it's a disappointing come down from an ambitious debut.

Grade: C