Sunday, March 30, 2014

Looking Back At: "The Avengers"

By all rights, The Avengers should have been a complete mess of a movie.  It almost seems like an impossible task.  Take a bunch of stars of their own respective successful film franchises, ask them to share screentime in an ensemble picture, yet still retain the essence of what makes their respective films good, and also tell a compelling story.  It’s an unusually complex set of circumstances to put on any director.  Thankfully, though, Marvel Studios was smart enough to bring Joss Whedon to direct this behemoth, and he has proved himself more than capable.

The first thing this movie does right is to not make the action the focus of the narrative.  The first ninety minutes of the film do have some action, but the focus is on establishing our heroes and their efforts to work together as a team to bring down an evil none of them could conquer alone.  With some smart, intricate, and funny writing, it feels a lot more like a witty comedy at some points than an action flick, which provides each of the main cast plenty of time to give some surprisingly deep performances.  The nuance is more than welcome in a genre that is oversaturated with mindless fight scenes with no more purpose than to show off the 3D animation staff’s technical prowess.

This brings me to the giant final action scene.  Yes, it is massively destructive and explosion-heavy; but the fight actually feels like it has some weight to it.  We watch Loki keep his master plan under wraps for the entire film, and then a giant army comes in through the sky to lay waste to New York.  Whedon understands how to build tension in a plot, and the anticipation pays off in a fight scene that not only shows off the abilities of each member of the Avengers, but it is so nicely choreographed that directors of other summer action flicks should look to this film as an example of how it’s done.  (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay!)

Of course, this isn’t a perfect film by any stretch.  I can nitpick here and there that some lines come across as painfully cheesy.  (“I have a plan: Attack.”  Come on.)  There are also some plot points that seem to emerge mostly out of convenience, like that weird eyeball scanning machine or the strange conclusion to Black Widow’s interrogation of Loki.  Furthermore, I’m absolutely convinced that there is a cut of this movie floating around somewhere out there that doesn’t leave out so much Thor backstory.  Though it’s still believable and you can piece together how it happens, Thor just sort of shows up whenever he’s needed to progress the plot or to provide some cool action.  He mostly seems to be here for Loki to bounce maniacal exposition off of, but I would have put up with a longer movie to see more justice done to his character, especially after the strong development he exhibited in his stand-alone film.

Overall, though, The Avengers is the impossible film that lived up to the immense hype that Marvel built in the years preceding its release.  It’s smart, funny, action-packed, and, most importantly, incredibly fun to watch.  The pieces were put together so well here that I can’t wait to see how Whedon plans to keep it fresh in next year’s sequel.

So what do you think of the first collaborative culmination of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?  Did it live up to your expectations as well?  Leave a comment below to let me know exactly where you think this falls on your list of favorite superhero movies.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Looking Back At: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

Captain America: The First Avenger has always been one of my least favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe origin stories, with perhaps only The Incredible Hulk being below it in quality.  However, having rewatched it in anticipation of the upcoming sequel, it isn’t quite as bad as I remembered.  It just feels a bit stale.

The origin of Captain America was always going to be difficult to pull off with a modern audience.  After all, the original purpose of the character was to act as anti-Nazi World War II propaganda, and the character only stuck around after the war’s conclusion because of his immense popularity.  So how does a modern film capture the spirit of an antiquated hero?  Why, it revels in the storytelling tropes of the past, of course!

See, Captain America works because it doesn’t take itself all that seriously.  We have Captain America, all around good guy, who gets turned into a super-soldier capable of taking on a ton of enemy soldiers at once.  We have Hydra, a legion of super-Nazis set to, of course, take over the world.  Hugo Weaving plays the Red Skull, leader of Hydra, and his menacing undertones are perfect for the part.  And there we go!  That’s about as much set-up as we need, and the film runs with it.  It all has a very 1940’s serial feel to it, but still provides enough characterization of our protagonist to keep modern audiences interested.  We’re just along for a fun ride that doesn’t require us to think too much.

So why isn’t this one of the better pre-Avengers films?  I think the best way to describe it is that we’ve all seen this movie before.  We have the scene where the good guy proves himself as a hero.  We have the obligatory love interest.  We have the final showdown where only the Cap can save us all.  By reveling in the well-established tropes of the film’s setting, it ends up feeling like just about every other generic action movie of the past seventy years.  It doesn’t even distinguish itself much from other superhero films of the past few decades, borrowing some recent films’ tropes, like the death of the hero’s mentor or the loss of a friend that drives the hero’s need for vengeance, both a la Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.  The movie feels very by-the-numbers, and awareness of that detracts from the experience a bit.

There’s also a clear sense of obligation in this movie.  We NEED a Captain America origin story before The Avengers comes out.  We NEED to plant plot seeds for The Avengers and the inevitable Captain America sequel.  We NEED to contrive a reason for the Cap to end up cryogenically frozen for seventy years so he can appear in The Avengers.  This movie feels like a box to check off on the to-do list before the more fleshed-out flicks do it all better.  I admire the ambition of establishing a Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while I’m not sure a successful Captain America movie could have been made without that push, I do think that the obvious continuity seeds do limit the movie’s ability to tell a unique story.

Overall, though, I liked Captain America.  It’s a ton of fun, if a bit predictable and contrived.  Here’s hoping that the upcoming sequel can build off the groundwork that was laid here and be something truly awesome.

Excited for The Winter Soldier?  Would you like to see more retro reviews in the future?  Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Wolf Of Wall Street": A Turd In Talent's Clothing

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I was incredibly excited to see this movie.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, a director I respect.  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor I respect.  Written by Terence Winter, the mind behind the incredibly engaging Boardwalk Empire.  Critics loved it and it was up for multiple Oscars.  I was set for this to be one of my favorite films of 2013.

This was three hours of my life that I will never get back.  And believe me, I want them back.

(SPOILER ALERT: There are mild spoilers ahead.  I would avoid it if it weren’t essential to my analysis of this movie, but if you still want to see it, stop reading here and know that I think it is total shite.)

What the hell happened here?  This was a dream team of talent, and instead we got a grueling and painful experience that just never seems to get any closer to ending.  Well, in part, I blame the source material.  The film is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street scam artist who became insanely wealthy by fraudulently convincing investors to put money into worthless stocks.  And herein lies the biggest problem.  This is a story of a despicable man, told from the viewpoint of a despicable man, with about as much humanity as one can expect from a despicable man, i.e., none.

DiCaprio does a capable job of portraying Belfort as the self-centered egotistical ass that he is, but the film revels in his villainy, making his exploits completely unrelatable.  The first two hours of the film play like a bad comedy, showing off the exploits of Belfort and his cronies as they scam and cheat, mostly while completely high on their own hubris and whatever illicit substances just happen to be lying around.  The problem is, none of the scenes that are played for laughs are even remotely funny.  One of the key elements of a comedic moment is that someone has to suffer, but that suffering is inconsequential if the people involved are too intoxicated to understand their situation or the implications of their actions.  Instead, the film becomes a series of drawn-out, redundant idiocies, one after the other.  It’s as if Scorsese decided that he wanted to direct the new Jackass movie, and the result is just as tedious.

The third act of the movie was what I painstakingly waited for.  There was an undercurrent in the plot that the FBI was monitoring Belfort’s activities and was waiting for the right opportunity to strike.  It was inevitable that they would, but as the noose pulls tighter around Belfort’s neck, he doesn’t begin to see the error of his ways; he has an opportunity to step away from his illegal enterprise, but his hubris keeps him in the game.  This is ultimately his downfall, and his “great” character moment is the realization that all the people he brought into the game with him will go down too if he tries to save himself.  But this all rings incredibly hollow, though, as it doesn’t negate the attitude the film has toward his shenanigans earlier in the film.  He doesn’t regret the harm he’s caused anyone.  He doesn’t regret his life of excess made through spending other people’s money.  He regrets that he got caught and that his friends will be caught as well.  His character has learned nothing, and we as the audience learn nothing from watching him, so his entire journey through the course of the film is pointless.  Belfort’s character arc is a flat line on an EKG machine, completely devoid of life, dead on arrival.

Don’t waste your time on this one.  It’s stupid, pointless, and a complete waste of great talent by those involved.  Don’t direct comedy, Mr. Scorsese.  Your dark and brutal sensibilities are completely lost on the art.

Thought this movie was hilarious?  Think I’m missing something vital?  I’d love hear why I’m wrong about this one.  Tell me in the comments below.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"American Hustle": Hustled Out Of The Price Of Admission

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

There are some things in this world that I will never understand: why sentient life came into existence; why the taste of Nutella never gets old; why critics were so in love with American Hustle.  I’m not much of a scientist or a food critic, but I do know movies, and the appeal of American Hustle is just painfully lost on me.  It’s a soulless flick that features some nice set design and costuming, but it doesn’t amount to much more than a showcase for recreating the feel of the 1970s.

The story follows a couple of con artists, portrayed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who have been entrapped by the FBI into working for them in order catch some corrupt politicians.  The premise sounds like it has a lot of promise, and the acting in this movie isn’t half bad.  Bale is about as competent as he usually is, playing a con artist who has conned himself out of having meaningful relationships in his life, and Adams adequately fills her role as being emotionally torn between her con work and her various other loves.  Bradley Cooper plays the vain and egotistical FBI agent in charge of the two con artists, and Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s clueless, yet relatable wife.  Now, I won’t say that the actors don’t do a bad job in their roles.  In fact, for the material that they are given to work with, all four do a pretty good job.  They portray the right emotions at the right times, and there’s an intensity there that works to each of their credit.  The only one I wasn’t totally on board with was Adams, but that has more to do with the fact that she serves as a whole lot of eye candy with a stand-offish personality than a fully realized character.  That said, all four of these performers were nominated for acting awards at this year’s Oscars; none of them deserved to be.

But that isn’t entirely their fault.  After all, you could have Daniel Day-Lewis guest star on an episode of Family Guy, but that doesn’t mean that Family Guy’s writing is going to be made any better by his presence.  This movie’s plot is an absolute mess.  It just doesn’t know what it wants to be.  The set-up seems perfect for a classy con job film, rife with intricate plotting to a strong twist-filled pay off at the end.  The film instead decides to become a character drama, focusing on the flaws and inner turmoil of some pretty shallow characters.  The weird thing is, it doesn’t even do that well.  The film perpetually forces its characters to say how they’re feeling as they emote, but that breaks the very first rule of film as a storytelling medium; show, don’t tell. 

But then we get all these strange subplots about a fake Arabic sheik, the FBI agent’s humiliated boss, and getting tied up with the mob.  There was a point in the middle of the movie where I had to ask myself what the hell I was watching and mentally track my way from the beginning of the film to the present, and when I got to the end of the movie, I realized that nothing in that intense plot tracking mattered.  The film ends on a terribly clich├ęd and predictable note, which I would have been fine with if the plot hadn’t meandered so long in getting there.  I felt cheated out of a tight, well-told story because the director decided all his side-plots were more important.

The only thing that I can really praise the film for is the set design, which feels very much like the 70s exploded a swath of yellows and browns at the height of the era's uniquely classy style.  I also found the costuming very well done… on the men.  If using two strips of fabric to make a dress that is designed to show as much breast as possible, and then using that as the basis for every dress worn through the entire film will get one nominated for costume design awards, well, I may just have a career in fashion.  Or in porn.  It felt incredibly jarring to see the women dressed up in outfits that exploited their bodies, whereas the men were dressed in classy suits that emphasized the style of the times.

Overall though, I can’t say that it’s a bad film.  It just isn’t a good one.  The acting is on par for the confusing and tortuous script, and the directing is competent if the editing isn’t.  I just can’t understand how American Hustle was such a darling at the Oscars this year.  Maybe it’s something I’m not meant to understand though.  Like why people watch Family Guy.

So what do you think?  Can you tell me why this is one of the greatest films of the past year?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Saving Mr. Banks": More Like Saving Mr. Hanks... 's Career

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Prior to seeing this movie, I kept hearing how shocking it was that this film was not anywhere in the pool of Oscar nominees.  After seeing it, I’m a bit surprised myself.  But it’s a pleasant surprise.  This film is competently directed and very well acted, but it is precisely the type of Hollywood self-aggrandizing that the Academy all too often likes to sink its teeth into, and I’m glad to see that this time they did not take the bait.

This is the story of Mary Poppins.  Rather, it is the meta-story of Mary Poppins, as only Disney can tell it.  Mrs. Travers does not want to give up the film rights to her beloved novel, for she fears that Walt Disney’s production will destroy the characters that she sees as family.  Through flashbacks, we learn of Mrs. Travers’s troubled childhood and how the whimsy of those times turned out to be a dark, depressing lie.  Over the course of the film, it is up to Walt Disney to turn her around, to get her to see the brighter side of life… and you can pretty much see where this is going.

To be fair, telling this tale could have gone so horribly wrong, but the film smartly plays itself as artsy and dramatic rather than as whimsical as Walt Disney himself.  The flashbacks are particularly well done, showing both the original inspiration for Mary Poppins and how her childlike wonder turned into an antisocial cynicism.  These flashbacks could have been a good movie on their own; even the usually underwhelming Colin Farrell gives a good performance as young Mrs. Travers’s father.  The rest of the film’s storytelling is also done reasonably well, even if the plot does feel a bit predictable.

What really sells the film, though, are the performances of the two leads: Emma Thompson as Mrs. Travers, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney.  Thompson plays an appropriately embittered Mrs. Travers, and the way her manners seem comically curt slowly transforms into very understandable behavior as more of her background is revealed.  But Hanks’s Walt Disney is where the magic lies.  If anyone deserved an Oscar nomination in this film, it’s him.  Hanks is Disney.  The childlike wonder with which he sees the world is nuanced by his tough business sense.  He’s a human being with vices, who drinks and smokes, but only when others can’t see him.  His image is everything, not solely out of vanity, but because he knows that being a good role model is how he’s going to be able to bring smiles to the children of the world.  It is a surprisingly human representation of Walt Disney, and I’m pleased that Walt Disney Pictures was willing to allow such a nuanced portrayal of him.  They probably allowed it, though, because the film allows for what I find to be its greatest flaw.

You see, Walt Disney is the driving force behind Mrs. Travers’s development as a character.  She comes to him as a dark and brooding author bent on protecting her greatest accomplishment from his imminent bastardization of it.  For most of the film, I’m totally on her side; film adaptations notoriously miss the mark in communicating the intent and message of the original author, and nothing Disney was telling her should have lead her to believe this would be any different.  However, as the film progresses, he wears away at her tough exterior, bringing her around to being a happier and well-balanced person.  At the film’s climax, in what is quite frankly a moment of weakness for her, he convinces her to sign away the movie rights by confronting her with what he has researched about her past.  But that’s all okay because he has brought joy back into her life and she ended up liking the resulting film, despite her protestations to the contrary.

So the moral of the film becomes “Look at how great Walt Disney was!  Disney brought so much magic into P. L. Travers’s life, and then did the same for all the world when he brought Mary Poppins to the screen.  Let’s all give a round of applause for Disney.”  It completely undermines Mrs. Travers’s personal journey throughout the course of the film.  And, ultimately, it comes off as a conceited attempt by Walt Disney Pictures to earn awarded acclaim for stroking their own ego.  Despite not having any glaring technical or plotting issues, the purpose of this film is obvious and distracting.  If you think you can ignore the cinematic masturbation, by all means, give this one a shot.  If, like me, you cannot, it’s not worth your time or disappointment.

There!  I made it through the entire review without calling the movie pretentious.  …Damn it!  Leave your comments below.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Frozen": I Just Can't "Let It Go" Unscathed

Available Now on DVD and Blu-Ray

(SPOILER ALERT: Considering that just about everyone and their dead parents have seen this movie already, I'm going to write this review assuming you know all the major plot points already.  If you are one of the two people who haven't seen it yet, I do recommend it, despite my reservations below.  Come back when your spoiler-free sensibilities won't be shocked.)

Alright.  Let's get this part out of the way.  Yes, Frozen is a good movie.  It's a damn good movie, as much as one can say that about a Disney princess movie.  And on that score, it improves upon the Disney princess formula in just about every conceivable way.  It subverts the trope of finding one's true love only having just met the guy.  It makes the female lead (Anna) a fully realized character whose identity isn't reliant on the existence of her prince.  It makes a point of demonstrating that more than just romantic love matters when finding those who will love you back.  Hell, it gave us Olaf, who should have been just another annoying, pointless sidekick, but instead is the film's comedic center with a surprisingly dark sense of humor.  These points put the film a step way above any animated film Disney has put out in recent years, and it deserves commendation and recognition for them alone.

But let's take a step back here.  Is this really as great a movie as the hype would have us believe?  I would posit that no, it is not.  I could nitpick about how the song "Fixer Upper" is total tripe and completely antithetical to the film's message that one can't just fall in love over the course of one day.  I could point out how Prince Hans's betrayal was nowhere near sufficiently foreshadowed, making it feel like a bit of a cheat when he is revealed to be the film's villain.  I could make an issue of whether this film needs a villain in the first place.  But no.  The film's biggest flaw comes down to one word.  One character.


Yep.  I said it.  Elsa is the biggest problem with Frozen.  Now, that isn't to say that I don't like the idea behind her character.  A princess locked away by her parents because of her supernatural abilities, only to have those abilities become the manifestation of her inability to cope with her anxiety?  I'm totally on board with that premise.  Unfortunately, it's in the execution that the film fails to fully realize Elsa's potential.

Think back to before Elsa leaves the kingdom.  The film establishes her as a painfully introverted individual, hurt by the emotional abuse of her upbringing and seemingly unable to cope with the world around her.  She runs away after everyone discovers her icy powers, off to the frigid mountain where she can be in isolation.  That's all well and good.  But here is where the film's pacing just kills Elsa's character.

We get one huge surge of character development in the form of "Let It Go."  Yes, it is a good song, isn't it.  But think about how quickly and suddenly Elsa gets over the emotional trauma she just went through.  In the three minutes and forty-four seconds it takes to sing that song, Elsa goes from a mess to a self-empowered queen of her own ice castle.  It's jarring.  It's sudden.  I don't like it.

Then her development grinds to a screeching halt.  When Anna and Elsa are reunited, Elsa is understandably withdrawn, and at the realization that her kingdom is frozen, her relapse into anxiety is totally valid.  But that's about all we get to see her actually grow.  From that point on until the climax, Elsa is either fighting off those who would do her harm, in captivity, or running away.  She doesn't get nearly enough screen time for us to really connect with her in any meaningful way.  Because of that, when she finally does figure out how to thaw her realm, the conclusion to her character arc feels hollow and convenient.

I've seen this movie twice now, and the first time around part of me thought that I was putting pressure on this film for it to be what I wanted it to be and not judging it on its own merits.  However, upon a second viewing, I stand by my original thoughts: Elsa is a severely underdeveloped character.  And when you take that into account, it really undermines the climax of the film when Anna saves Elsa.  Aside from Elsa's anxiety, we really don't know much about her, and that makes the connection between the sisters harder to believe in. 

Elsa deserved to be a much more fleshed out character.  They should have given her more scenes, both with her sister and in her isolation.  Solitude doesn't have to be boring if you're effectively showing its effect on the character.  (Watch the first half of Wall-E and tell me I'm wrong.)  This should have been a story about two very different sisters trying to understand each other and repair their relationship.  And I think the movie is trying to be that on some level.  The other plot threads and characters are more than welcome, but they distract from the true substance of the narrative, which is the sisters.  Unfortunately, half of that equation got bungled along the way.

So there.  I have effectively ruined Frozen for you.  Leave your hate mail in the comments below.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Oldboy (2013)": I Think He Needs To Be Put Down

Available Now on DVD and Blu-Ray

Oldboy is a prime example of how not to write a screenplay.  Having neither read the original comic nor seen the original film that this one was based on, I don't know whether to blame the source material or the screenplay's author, but this movie is rife with one of the worst sins that a plot can have.  And the sad thing is, I started off really interested and somewhat liking this movie.

Our story opens on Joe Doucett, an advertising executive who is a chronic alcoholic, horrible to his wife, neglectful to his daughter, and a giant asshole whenever he thinks he can get away with it.  His comeuppance quickly gets served, though, as he is nabbed off the street and imprisoned alone in what appears to be a motel room.  He starts to gradually lose his mind in his isolation, with only his television as company.  However, he sees in a news report that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his wife, leaving his three-year-old daughter as an orphan.  Fast-forward over the next twenty years, and Joe has turned himself into an alcohol-free fighting machine, self-trained through exercise tapes and martial arts movies.  He has vowed to escape his prison, exact revenge on those who imprisoned him, and find his daughter.  Josh Brolin handles portraying this transformation well, even if it does come off as a bit of a contrived redemption when his change of heart isn't even the focus of the movie.

Unfortunately, Brolin can't save the movie from itself.  In the course of a potentially successful escape attempt, Joe is knocked unconscious and wakes up... outside his prison in a suitcase.  Alright, I guess I'll roll with it.  And then he runs into a nurse who... feels the need to come to his rescue later in the movie after having barely met the guy.  And of course, she becomes his love interest.  You see, here is where the movie starts to fall apart.  Plot points just start happening without any provocation.  As an audience member, one can see how the movie is going from Point A to Point B, but the internal logic to the characters' actions and motivations is shaky at best.  Why is it that when Joe brings his story of being locked in a room for twenty years and being framed for his wife's murder to his bartender friend, that friend doesn't question that ridiculous story in the slightest?  When Joe collapses from exhaustion, why does the friend call 911, then hang up on 911 and call that nurse instead?  Pure plot convenience, that's why.  The writer needed a way to move the story along, and he was too lazy to come up with a good reason why anything needed to happen the way it does.  And the plot ultimately resolves itself into one of the most amazingly contrived plot twists I've ever seen.  I won't spoil it in case anyone decides to actually watch this disaster, but I will say that it's something that could have worked decently well if the film hadn't bungled its plotting so horribly along the way.

With the exception of Brolin and a later-introduced Samuel L. Jackson, the performances range from being wooden and lifeless to cartoonishly over the top.  Brolin does well with his scenes of isolation in the first half of the film, and, though silently brooding for the rest, works well with the script he was given.  Jackson's role seems pretty much written for him, being his larger than life badass self in what is, unfortunately, an all too fleeting role.  However, as much as these two are a joy to watch in most other roles they fill, their talent is severely underutilized here in this pathetic tale where every other actor is clearly either trying too hard or disinterested in even trying at all.

If you are hoping that some fun action scenes can save this storytelling train wreck, then I'm sorry to inform you that just isn't the case.  Most of Joe's kills happen in a matter of seconds, and while gratuitous, they aren't really anything new or spectacular.  A couple of nameless baddies get their heads smashed in with a hammer.  Whoopee.  The only thing that resembles an actually realized fight scene is shot on a two-dimensional plane, where a bunch of guys surround Joe and wait for him to beat them all up one at a time.  It felt like I was watching someone play a high-def version of a 1980s beat-em-up game.  It was lazy cinematography, lazy choreography, and lazy directing.

In fact, that's exactly the right word for this movie: lazy.  I know that Spike Lee is a better director than this, and something tells me that he only agreed to do this film as part of a deal to get funding for a better movie.  The entire production feels phoned in and seems like what a studio executive would think is a great way to squeeze a few more dollars out of the original international hit movie.  Don't waste your time with this one, folks.  It deserves to be locked away like its protagonist, but never let back out.

So what are your thoughts?  Was this the scathing criticism you wanted to see?  Or do you think I was too hard on the old boy?  (Ha, get it?  Old boy?  Oldboy?  ...Shut up.  I thought it was funny.)  Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"The Grandmaster": The Art of Precision

Available Now on DVD and Blu-Ray

This is a very difficult movie for me to review.  In general, I'm not a fan of martial arts movies.  They all seem to blend together in a giant mass of tired revenge tales that offer very little that's new in the way of storytelling or in visual spectacle.  And in many ways, The Grandmaster falls into that mass on a storytelling level.  However, as a visual spectacle, the film is very well crafted and unique.

Ostensibly, the story revolves around Ip Man, the martial arts master who would popularize the art of Wing Chin in the mid-20th century.  However, this story takes place mostly prior to the foundation of his legendary school, and instead focuses in the time surrounding the Japanese occupation of China.  The primary focus of the tale is on the Gong family, the death of the elder Gong at the hands of the heir to his martial art style, and the Gong daughter's quest for revenge.  It's fairly standard stuff, and the villain, known as "The Razor," is about as two-dimensionally written as his name would imply.

The real meat of the story, though, lies with Gong Er, the previously mentioned daughter.  Her journey to accept her father's death and to take back the school from The Razor is reasonably compelling, and as far as this type of story goes, it is well done when the film finally decides to finally focus on its main plot thread.  But, considering that Gong is the focus of the film, it begs the question of why Ip Man is even here.  For the first half hour of the film, we're led to believe that we'll be focusing on his journey, but after that he, at best, is an observer, and at worst he isn't even present for the events unfolding onscreen.  Occasionally, the film will cut back to him, but his scenes are mostly inconsequential to the overarching plot.  It just seems so strange to name the film after him and then completely shift focus to another character who ultimately ends up being more interesting and worthy of our emotional investment.

But maybe I'm missing the point here.  These films often are made to showcase martial arts forms and give audiences some cool fight choreography.  And when this film does a fight scene, it is done beautifully.  The martial artists flow from one form to the next with an artistry that seems like more of a dance than a fight.  It's stated throughout the film that martial arts relies on precision, and the attention to detail with which the actors move is astonishing and quite breathtaking to watch.

This is only enhanced by the superb cinematography.  The camera will often slow down just enough so that we can see every minute movement the martial artists' bodies make.  A blow will then connect at normal speed, and we'll see the recipient connect with the environment, causing wood to splinter, water to splash, or railing to screw loose.  And that connection is shown up close and in slow motion.  All of this is done so fluidly that the transition from normal speed to slow motion is only really noticeable if one is looking for it.  Don't expect any 300-style slo-mo effects.  Where 300 was about emphasizing brute force, The Grandmaster is about showing you the meticulousness of the artists' movement.  Even in the quieter scenes, the camera focuses on the minutiae of fairly routine activities, but the precision with which the artists move is breathtaking.

Alas, those quieter scenes are where I find the most fault.  I found myself wanting the movie to get on with it and show me another cool action scene, but instead I was treated to the actors spouting poetry that may or may not be profound.  Maybe there's a cultural gap that I'm just not breaching, but I found the symbolism-heavily dialogue to be tiresome after a while.  And, ultimately, because I'm much more a story lover than a cinematography buff, the movie just didn't resonate with me like I thought it could have.

So do I recommend The Grandmaster?  I can only answer with a resounding "maybe."  I don't think I'd ever care to watch it again, but it also isn't a film that caters to what I like to watch movies for.  If you want to watch a martial arts film with some fantastic choreography and cinematography, then you might appreciate it on a level that I don't.  Just be prepared to endure some unnecessarily poetic storytelling in the process.

Now I'd like to hear what you think.  Is The Grandmaster a mastery of its art form?  Or is it a poorly told story with some pretty visuals?  Or don't you even care and just want me to review a movie you haven't heard me rant about yet?  Leave the answers to any of these questions, or any other thoughts you may have, in the comments below.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"Inside Llewyn Davis": The Film The Oscars Forgot

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

I love the Coen Brothers.  This isn't news to anyone who knows me.  Their films have a way with me.  Between their movies' eclectic cast of characters, and unique, often meandering, method to storytelling, I find that the Coens tend to speak to me in a way other directors just don't quite achieve.

Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception to that rule, and not only is it one of the best films to come out of 2013, but it is one of my favorite films from the Coens' entire career.  This film follows Llewyn, a struggling folk musician in the early 1960s.  Llewyn is, quite bluntly, an asshole.  He bums from couch to couch, seemingly only taking up space as his friends and acquaintances only begrudgingly accommodate him.  Llewyn is an incredibly talented singer, but he can't seem to bring his act outside of the same old dingy bar.  His manager doesn't do anything useful for him, his sister doesn't want him being a bad influence on her son, and his closest friend won't stop berating him for being responsible for her pregnancy.  Oh yeah, and he carries around a cat that he accidently let out of his friends' apartment.

This is a movie about the pain of a struggling musician.  Without giving away too much, Llewyn has very good reasons for his depression, much deeper than anything that could be characterized as a mere artistic melancholy.  The characters Llewyn meets in his journey of self discovery are the medium by which Llewyn can see his pain reflected back at him.  Some are reflections of a past he would rather not remember; others are looks into the future to see what kind of person he could become.  The people closest to him are constant reminders of how the present could hardly look bleaker.  As his friend Jean says, he's like King Midas's idiot brother.  Everything he touches turns to shit.

That isn't to say that the film isn't without its comedic side.  Dark humor pervades this film's dialogue, as Llewyn hides his sorrow behind a veneer of sarcasm and insults that are hard not to chuckle at.  The humor is equal parts awkward and mean-spirited, and it works well with the film's cynical nature.  This is only even better served when a comedic moment revolves around one of the side characters simply being an odd example of humanity, or the begrudged feline sidekick being a surprisingly significant character.

But what is film about a musician worth without the music? I wasn't kidding when I said that Llewyn is a talented singer, and there are many musical performances to back up that assertion, all of them beautiful.  He has such a perfect voice for folk music, and the music acts as the perfect conduit for Llewyn to express the sorrow that he can't seem to voice to anyone else.  It makes Llewyn into the relatable character that the audience needs him to be, and it makes one genuinely care about his struggle.

Speaking of which, Oscar Isaac sorely deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance as Llewyn Davis, and it's a damn shame that the Academy saw fit to pass over this film entirely.  "Please Mr. Kennedy" should easily have been a contender for Best Original Song, and the Coens should have at least have been a nominee for Best Screenplay, Best Directing, and Best Picture.  The last five minutes in particular are so wonderfully powerful that it ties the entire film together into a bar of cinematic gold. 

Do I recommend this film?  Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes YES!  Get a hold of a copy of this film as soon as you possibly can.  Seriously.  It's that good.