Thor: The Dark World **1/2 Tom Hiddleston, spectacular production design and genuine laughs overcome a weak villian and muddled story. tm
Gravity **1/2 Survival of the human spirit in Alfonso Cuaron’s technically impressive but emotionally stunted outer space adventure.
In fighting, as in storytelling, one of one’s greatest allies is the element of surprise. A well-placed strike, an unexpected kick. When I walked into the local cineplex this afternoon, I felt I knew what was coming as I sat down for Wong Kar-wai’s THE GRANDMASTER. And at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I found it to be the most unexpectedly terrific film I’ve seen in more than a year and possibly the best martial arts picture since Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.
What makes it so great? Intention and detail. When I first saw the Grandmaster trailers I thought, “Wow, Wong Kar-wai’s doing a genre film again?” He hadn’t really done one since Ashes of Time in 1994 (and the cine-revisionist Ashes of Time Redux in 2008). In the between years, the man perfected the slow-burn romance drama with In the Mood For Love, 2046 and The Hand – his contribution to the omnibus film, Eros – and brought his sensibilities stateside with the noble Norah Jones and Jude Law-led My Blueberry Nights which wasn’t perfect but grew on and blossomed for me very quickly. So when I saw Tony Leung fighting ten or fifteen random people at night in the rain as the renowned Wing Chun master Ip Man — more recently played with general action flick acclaim by Donnie Yen — I thought it was an unusual step for WKW to make something so popularist, so apparently standard-looking. Like Edward Hopper penciling an issue of a Spider-Man comic. Not a bad move, just… Well, unexpected.
I should have known better.
The Grandmaster is about fighting, both one’s physical opponent and one’s own desires. Part biopic and part action flick but all art film and even more so than it appears. A beautiful bait and switch, things start out as you might expect but in the latter half the film’s real strengths are revealed. Lovingly filmed, edited, photographed and performed, it’s not so concerned with badassness, sweeping vistas and operatic theatricality, though there is quite a bit of that in the first half and specific moments in the second and those scenes are still very well done and rank among the best anyone has ever done them. Then the visceral thrill of battle and excitement gives way to a more serene, heartfelt and contemplative second half that fits squarely into WKW’s more recent oeuvre. You realize that you’re watching something different, something that will tug at your emotions as much as it fulfills your need for fight choreography. You feel the fights more when you care about the characters this much, when they’re this well-drawn.
No slap to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films is intended here. They’re a lot of fun and remain well-made and well-performed action adventures. WKW’s Grandmasters is just a different take with different artistic concerns. Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are both haunted house films. One’s a fun, sweet thrill ride and one’s a strange and shattering artistic wonder. The Grandmaster, just as The Shining does with Kubrick, also serves as a reminder about the sure-handed skill of it’s director, Wong Kar-wai..
The guy couldn’t make an average movie if he tried.
(See this thing in a theater, if at all possible. This deserves to make a ton of money. And stay a moment after the credits start. There’s an unexpected midway “gotcha” there that gets a real smile.)
The Wolverine ***1/2 Retells a classic Marvel tale of the tragic ways of a mutant warrior who battles fear, inner demons and prejudice. tm
Fast and Furious 6 **1/2 Weak entry in the epic FF Saga with a flaccid antagonist, incomprehensible action, and an underutilized Gina Carano. tm
This god-awful German film is something that some of us in the Basement decided to watch based on the strength of the DVD menu, which showed a fifteen second clip of people falling all over the place and getting mauled by lions. (One of us even Vined it.) We’d just had a grand old B-movie time watching the cult classic Raw Force (aka Kung-Fu Cannibals, 1982) and were prepared for a similarly-disreputable type of cinematic insanity. Having no idea what to make of A Crazy Jungle Adventure just yet, we put the disc in for a spin. We were then subjected to a movie which the first scene of the film features a burly, adventure Thug yelling to a ten year old Jungle Kid, “Hey, you little black bastard!!” We were stunned. “That’s the first line of dialogue? What the hell is this movie?!”
We assumed it would be some sort of gritty action Commando-type of thing based on the opening moments. The aforementioned Kid is the little buddy of James Mitchum (one of Robert’s sons, sleepwalking through most of the movie), who lives a quiet life in a jungle, somewhere, for some reason. After Mitchum beats up that racist bunch of thugs who dared approach him, the Kid is abducted and the Thugs use him as leverage to force Mitchum into their service. Sounds promising so far, right?
The “service” is to pilot a plane of goofy Passengers on a vacation, of all things. That plane, though, is rigged to crash so that the Owner (who resembles Peter Boyle playing Danny DeVito’s role in Romancing the Stone) can collect on the insurance with the added bonus of killing his kinda-sorta enemy, Mitchum… The Vacationers really don’t matter to anyone in the scenario. Especially not to us in the audience.
Somehow the Kid escapes his captors and ends up on that plane which then crashes quite safely with Mitchum, the Kid and the Passengers — who include lusty teenagers, an older couple and a total moron buffoon who must be Germany’s version of Roberto Benigni, only without the charm or likeability. After a wacky scene or two in which this cast of hootenanny explores the island, the next thing you know everyone’s being set upon by dozens of growling, hungry-looking lions and tigers and cheetahs. We settled in for what we hoped would be some Ten Little Indians meets Jurassic Park style animal-on-human carnage. And then… the lions and other vicious animals… start kissing everyone and playing games with them. I’m not kidding. They’re all tame and friendly and here to help the humans get along just fine. Forty-five minutes of buildup and we get nutty shenanigans where kids ride lions all over the place and Herr Benigni makes friends with a giant tortoise and a seal. (A seal… In the jungle.)
The Badguys come to inspect the wreckage and boom, the animals attack them – since they’re the Badguys, and all – and everyone goes home at the end, except for the Kid and Mitchum, who stays on to live in sexy, sandy beach sin with the Jungle Girl who took him on an elephant tour of the island — and completely out of the movie — for a good twenty minutes. I… I can’t even begin to make sense of this thing. It makes the Home Alone movies look like David Mamet masterpieces. The scenes in which the animals are all docile and loving are sort of heart-melty cute though. At least until the weird moments we get glimpses of what must have happened just as the film quickly transitions to the next scene — moments like when the giant tortoise fell off the roof of a building and probably got killed and an obviously tranquilized tiger decides its had enough and comes very, very close to biting an actor’s face off. We’re guessing the carnage we were looking for all took place off-camera.
We wanted something crazy and adventurous and got neither. Mark, at least, was smartly prepared for the silly family film aspects of the picture. But all any of us really wanted was anything of interest to happen. After a few minutes, Tim and I were praying for some dark or violent fate to befall at least half of the characters in the film. Especially Benigni Guy.
Mark reminds us that the DVD of this film out of print… so not only did we watch a terrible German family film, we watched a hard to find, terrible German family film. So unless you’re really seeking it out, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to experience A Crazy Jungle Adventure for yourself.
You’re better off.
Pacific Rim **1/2 A generically titled, emotionless, cartoon-like live action FX orgy rife with giant robots fighting giant monsters.
Monsters University ***1/2 Pixar revisits an old classic in an impressively scripted story about friendship, elitism and higher monster education.
Now You See Me *** Mark Ruffulo highlights an all star cast Caper with equal parts humor, adventure, action and social commentary.
Man of Steel **1/2 Frenetic unfocused & emotionless Destruction Epic with impressive casting, music & FX but undermined by its Direction.