Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Grandmaster — 9/10

THE GRANDMASTER (2013, Wong Kar-wai)

Wong’s other martial arts film is called ASHES OF TIME, and that title would have been fitting for this entry as well — a meditation on what in life lasts and what doesn’t; how history is written in action, and while regimes change and humans die and lands are restructured, devotion to honor, morality, love, and principal somehow puts an everlasting stamp of permanence on something that should only be ephemeral.

There’s a lot to chew on in this bold historical epic, and I’d love to see the original Chinese cut (20 minutes longer than this American version), which is why I snap-ordered the Blu-ray as soon as I got home. I have a feeling I’ll love this thing even more when that present comes in the mail. But there’s a lot to be said for initial pleasures, and THE GRANDMASTER is an overwhelming experience — [insert non-cliched version of the phrase “feast for the senses” here] what a gorgeous, luscious blend of sound and imagery: the audio track sings with the noises of water splashing, bones crunching, metal scraping, and cloth whipping. Every composition is more beautiful than the last — it appears Wong’s DP came equipped with a 10-foot-tall tripod and nothing more, for he frames dialogue scenes at a ludicrously high angle, placing his characters like chess pieces observed from above, slightly off center and in narrow depth of field. There isn’t a single frame of this picture that couldn’t be a work of art hanging in a gallery.

But none of that beauty would elevate the film to anything beyond a formal exercise in cinematic bravado if it weren’t for the emotional gut-punch it packs. The weight of its impact builds very slowly — the first third is a dry history lesson, then it becomes a streamlined narrative, and finally it explodes into tear-jerking melodrama, but every step of it is earned and I was a sucker for it. Leung is as cool as ever, looking barely a week older than he did 13 years ago in Wong’s best film, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Zhang Ziyi has aged into a tremendous actress, replacing the teenage instability and physical showmanship that carried her through THE ROAD HOME and CROUCHING TIGER with a restrained wisdom, quiet power, and of course a retained ability to kick some ass. There have been dozens of Ip Man biopics and every prestige Chinese director has done period wuxia films with the country’s biggest stars, but Wong Kar-wai is too good a filmmaker to lose his personal stamp to a genre. This is every bit as dinstinctive and intensely earnest a picture as anything he’s done, and holy shit does it look great.

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The World’s End — 8/10

THE WORLD’S END (2013, Edgar Wright)

So many golden throwaway lines delivered at a breakneck pace that I could barely keep up with it. Doesn’t quite have the masterful formal jokes that made HOT FUZZ some kind of a masterpiece (the editing here is serviceable and good, but not part of the joke — though given that Wright is doing John Carpenter instead of Michael Bay, no reason it should be), and I’m not sure it really resolves itself very well in the end, but it’s a riot of a good time throughout. This is easily my favorite performance of Pegg’s ever. In the STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE films he’s a perfectly good nerdy sidekick, and in Wright’s previous films he’s been likable enough. But he just relishes this role like a starving man. The timing on his rapid-fire banter is fantastic (“WTF?” “What the fuck does ‘WTF’ mean?” “What the fuck?” “Oh right”) and his reaction shots are cartoonishly perfect. But he also finds just the right balance between clownish fuck-up and hidden emotional pain that allows the film’s themes of wasted nostalgia, misplaced ambition, and friendship to resonate so clearly. Improves considerably on reflection, though a few of its surface pleasures evaporate.

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Drug War — 9/10

DRUG WAR (2013, Johnnie To)

Starts midway through the second act of the story and powers through until the end of the third act like a runaway truck. To hell with exposition, backstory, setup, and characterization. All of that comes anyway, and through the most subtle and efficient means To is capable of. In the opening scene, we’re already at a moment in the plot that many films would take 50 minutes getting to: a drug manufacturer has just fled from an explosion at his factory that has killed his wife and two brothers, and at the same time an undercover cop is finally nailing a group of traffickers that can lead him to the big bosses running most of the drug traffic in Northeast China. The cop and the manufacturer meet up and agree to work together, as the hardcore gangster turns criminal informant to avoid a death sentence. This is in the first five minutes.

And what keeps the pace of this rip-roaring thriller so propulsive is that during the quiet moments (and there are just a few) you’re trying to catch up with the plot and taking wild guesses as to what might come next. And between these are the bravura setpieces that have defined Johnnie To (and co-writer/producer Wai Ka Fai, himself the director of a near-masterpiece called PEACE HOTEL) for over 20 years. At times — especially in the holy-shit shootout that steamrolls the last 30 minutes of this film — DRUG WAR looks like another To brag-fest like THROW DOWN, where he just constructs awesome action sequences like he’s barely breaking a sweat. But at other, even better times, it starts to reveal the profound philosophical subtext of his best work, e.g. VENGEANCE and EXILED. One of his pet themes is smearing the line between law and disorder, using honor and the brotherhood of crooks as the glue. And early in the film, the cop (played by the great Sun Hong-lei, veteran of late-period Zhang Yimou films) has to role-play twice in one night as polar opposite thugs in order to fake a meeting that can gain him access to the boss. The metacommentary is deep, and what pays this off so handsomely is a twist of sorts towards the end (which I won’t reveal) that is even more surprising if you come into the movie with the baggage of knowing how To likes to fuse his warring bad guys with friendship. And as the final shot proves, even drugs themselves aren’t strictly the domain of the criminals.

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The Canyons — 2/10

THE CANYONS (2013, Paul Schrader)

Look, I get it. A bunch of vapid L.A. trust-fund babies talking about making a movie that will likely never get made (and suck if it does), nobody trusts each other and every hollow movie theater is run-down, mirroring the moral decay at the center of their identities. Ellis has been doing variations on that theme in his books for 25 years, and it comes across way better on the page because the characters — as amazingly shallow as they are — are still human. As acted by James Deen, Lindsay Lohan, and an entire cast of incompetent imbeciles, the ones at the center of this debacle are not. And that makes every single redundant scene, loaded with horrendous exposition, a slog. A few striking compositions aside, Schrader’s effort is disastrous, failing to grasp the tone of Ellis’s world, and for his own part, Ellis has failed to craft more than a handful of interesting lines. (Because even when the people are shallow in his books, the dialogue is not). Cinematography, editing, and especially the sound mix are horrifically incompetent — I haven’t heard audio this shoddy in a theatrical feature film maybe ever. There’s a lot you can read into the meta-levels of casting Lohan in this hate-letter to wasted potential, but you can’t give it points for trying when the effort is this full of shit.

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Hell Baby — 6/10

HELL BABY (2013, Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon)

The knock on most Lorne Michaels-produced comedies is that they’re exactly what they are: feature-length SNL skits. THE LADIES MAN, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, MACGRUBER, etc. And most people like SNL skits because they’re 5 minutes long, not 95. But the problem with Michaels comedies (and some fare way better than others — MACGRUBER actually has quite a few laughs) isn’t really that they’re too long, it’s that the sketches themselves aren’t that funny, and SNL isn’t really that funny.

But there’s one sketch show that is hilarious, and it’s The State. So whenever there’s a feature-length State skit, I’m usually pretty excited. I’ve written a ton about my favorites in this now-nearly-15-year-long parade of them, most directed by David Wain (e.g. WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, ROLE MODELS, WANDERLUST) or Michael Showalter (THE BAXTER), so I’ll try not to repeat myself. But long story short: these guys make me laugh. Garant & Lennon (veteran Hollywood script doctors in their post-State careers) are making their co-directing debut here (Garant has done a couple of solo films before) and although this is precisely a feature-long State skit, it still displays the razor-sharp satire of not only that seminal series but also that of its spin-offs in the past decade, like Human Giant (Scheer and Huebel are great as po-boy-pounding cops) and Childrens Hospital (Rob Corddry anchors the film nicely as an atypical straight man).

Some of the gags do fall flat, and although Garant and Lennon’s roles as chain-smoking badass priests provide some good meta-laughs, their emphasis on plot tends to drag the movie along slowly. HELL BABY seems to have been made for about $350 and a bag of weed, so there’s a lingering odor of wasted potential throughout, because while it’s frequently hilarious, it leaves a lot of sets unspiked. And while you might assume cameos from the likes of Michael Ian Black or Wain himself (who’s only the voice of a doctor on the phone whose messages get promptly deleted — Garant & Lennon friendly ribbing their former partner) would be the highlights, the MVP is actually Keegan Michael Key, who responds perfectly to his colleague Jordan Peele’s work in Childrens and WANDERLUST. I do wish this thing had one more polish and was maybe 20 minutes shorter (but nobody releases 70-minute features), but the satire is smart enough that fanboys of this troupe will be somewhat satisfied.

P.S. If you’re looking to read something substantial into the film, an essay can be written on the entire thing as a metaphor for hormonal mothers during pregnancy (ground covered by ROSEMARY’S BABY, but obviously with more comedy), fear of parenthood, gentrification of ghetto neighborhoods, and the like. The fact that it ends with the parents violently pummeling, stabbing, shooting, and electrocuting one of their newborns is ammunition for a disturbing reading of the film’s psychology. But I won’t really bother with such a reading. Leave that to someone else.

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