Archive for January 2011

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

January 30, 2011

2008’s Ip Man was one of the great modern martial-arts films. Its titular hero was based on a real-life grandmaster of Wing Chun whose main claim to fame in America is that he trained Bruce Lee. The movie followed the humble but virtuosic Ip as he taught students, defended his friend’s cotton mill against thugs, and struggled to survive during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. That last element gave the original Ip Man some gravitas, and even though much of the story was pure fantasy (Ip never fought a duel with a Japanese general, as the film had it), it was never less than engaging and entertaining.

The new sequel, Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster, goes even further into Chinese nationalist mythmaking. Here, Ip is pitted against a loutish, brutal British boxer, who represents the British colonial rule that Hong Kong was under at the time (and which lasted till 1997, actually). This boxer has already killed another local master in the ring, and it becomes important for Ip to defeat him to restore the nation’s pride. I seriously doubt the real Ip fought an English boxer calling himself “the Twister” any more than he fought a Japanese general, but let’s go along with the conceit for the sake of fable, even if it turns the movie’s last act into Rocky IV.

The sequel unavoidably lacks the resonance of the original’s war-torn milieu, but three men return from the first film and keep it entertaining: director Wilson Yip, fight choreographer Sammo Hung (who also appears here as an Ip rival turned friend), and star Donnie Yen as Ip. Yen, slim and severe, walks calmly in a black ankle-length coat, looking like a country priest on holiday. Yet he also has an easy smile and an infinite amount of patience with his students. In this second film, Ip’s wartime experiences seem to have drawn him closer to his wife and son (there’s another baby on the way), and even though you can follow Ip Man 2 without having seen the first, you’d miss touches like Ip’s bittersweet, reflective smile when asked if he can fight ten men (viewers of Ip Man know he did, in a Japanese prison). Yen successfully creates a demigod we can nonetheless care about and relate to — even if everyone respects Ip’s fighting skills, he still has to pay the rent.

So the first half of Ip Man 2 focuses on Ip trying to establish a training school in Hong Kong by proving himself against the local masters (including Sammo Hung), while the second half throws him in the ring with the British empire. As the boxer, Darren Shahlavi gives a pretty awful performance, but he’s cruel and imposing enough as an avatar of British imperialist force (Morrissey should love him). I wanted a bit more of Fan Siu-wong, who has the bullish features and swagger of the young Toshiro Mifune, as the thug who made Ip’s life annoying in the first film but returns here amusingly gentled by marriage and fatherhood. But when Donnie Yen is up there defying gravity and seemingly breaking the sound barrier with his fists, a lot is forgiven. Ip Man 2 is a worthy sequel; I just hope they don’t go for a third outing — who’s left for Ip to fight and uphold Chinese exceptionalism, a Tibetan?

The Green Hornet

January 16, 2011

If any humorless fans of The Green Hornet in its past incarnations have complained at all that the new movie desecrates or disrespects the character, I’d rather not hear about it. The material, which started as a radio show in 1936, has always been goofy kids’ stuff. And after about a decade of grim, scowling superheroes in movies, we could use some goofiness. When I heard that The Green Hornet was being adapted by Seth Rogen (star and co-writer) and Michel Gondry (director, responsible for any number of whimsical art flicks), I figured it would be a big, amiable plaything. What I didn’t predict was that so many critics would piss on the party. Is everyone sick of superhero movies? This one’s more of a Seth Rogen take on superhero movies, so maybe everyone’s sick of Seth Rogen.

Anyway, the movie isn’t just Seth Rogen bumbling through half-assed superheroics; it’s considerably quirkier than that, starting with Christoph Waltz as a crime lord who cares a little too much about his image — he worries that he’s not scary enough. Actually, the bad guy’s preoccupation mirrors that of Britt Reid (Rogen), who inherits his dad’s newspaper and promptly uses it to pump up his own image as the crime-fighting Green Hornet, though the image he wants to project is that of a mysterious criminal. Britt is more or less incompetent, always rescued by his “sidekick” Kato (Jay Chou), yet insists that he’s the hero. Well, his inherited money does bankroll the enterprise. He’s the hero in the same way that Dino DeLaurentiis “made” Blue Velvet.

With false images pinwheeling around inside a spoof of false images (i.e., the superhero genre), The Green Hornet emerges fully as a Michel Gondry installation project, with scruffball humor added by Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg. Rogen’s usual man-child takes his place alongside Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind, and so on. (No need for a Be Kind Rewind “sweding” of The Green Hornet, which essentially swedes itself; it feels like a bunch of people dicking around on the backlot.) The spirit of play is high; the movie both thumbs its nose and tips its hat at masked heroics, like Frank Miller’s equally misunderstood The Spirit.

The first thing we see is Britt, as a boy, flying a caped superhero action figure out the window of his father’s limo. Impatient Dad (Tom Wilkinson) soon deposits the toy’s head in the trash — young Britt has gotten in trouble at school again, trying to defend the honor of some girl. (Thankfully, this girl doesn’t turn out to be the movie’s sole female with a speaking part, Cameron Diaz, who in any event is viewed in the film as nearly asexual.) Britt later, as an “adult,” recounts this event sadly to Kato, who has suffered far more in his life. Britt doesn’t have that insight, but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t. By projecting the “hero” as an overgrown, semi-obnoxious little boy, the film cuts to the quick of most adolescent power fantasies (Diaz’ secretary with a minor in criminology calls this out, too) and critiques such romping rich boys as Iron Man‘s Tony Stark, who is basically Britt Reid with cooler armor (and a similarly underappreciated non-white “sidekick”).

With a $34 million opening-weekend take on 3,500 screens, The Green Hornet may well be Michel Gondry’s most elaborate meta-joke on escapist infantilism. (It’s also, at an estimated $125-150 million budget, the biggest joke he’ll ever be allowed to play.) At the same time, Gondry admires Britt’s efforts to remake himself and loves Kato’s ingenuity (Kato builds an infinite number of gadgets, including a high-tech cappuccino machine, in addition to being a martial artist). And where else are you going to see Christoph Waltz firing a double-barreled handgun while insisting on being called Bloodnovsky, or David Harbour doing a pitch-perfect Charles Grodin turn as a weaselly district attorney (take that, Harvey Dent), or incriminating evidence hidden in a zip drive shaped like a piece of sushi? The Green Hornet is ultimately a cult film, teeming with strangeness, to shelve alongside Rogen’s other cracked ode to heroism, Observe and Report. The 3D doesn’t do a whole lot for it, but doesn’t spoil the fun either.

The Social Network, as performed by LOLcats

January 14, 2011

I apologize deeply for this.

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Somewhere

January 9, 2011

“Antoniennui.” That’s the waggish term that Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris coined to describe the frozen alienation in the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere not only depicts a man in the throes of Antoniennui but suffers from it itself. As Johnny Marco, a movie star wandering from his hiding place at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont to Italy and back again, Stephen Dorff is as much a zombie as any movie creature that ever munched on brains. Dorff isn’t bad in the role, but Coppola’s conception gives him precious little to project. Johnny just drifts through his days and nights. Sometimes eager women present themselves to him, sometimes not. He’s the opposite of a diva — he doesn’t want anything.

This was not true of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s previous run around this track of celebrity disengagement. It’s possible, of course, that there’s more going on in Murray as an actor than there is in Dorff. But we felt that Murray’s Bob Harris, similarly adrift in a foreign land, had desires, however unacknowledged or unspoken. Johnny has nothing. At some points in the movie, he hangs out with his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), who already seems more developed as a person than Johnny is. We sense a vague chumminess between them but not love; it’s as if they’re both holding back because they both know Johnny can’t really love.

Fairly or not, I would classify Somewhere as interesting, yet boring. The particular anecdotes Coppola chooses to spotlight, the filmmaking that makes us lean towards it rather than being battered by obviousness — these all lift the film above the usual Hollywood bummer. Sofia Coppola is a gifted director: she has clear and present control over mood and milieu; she gets the performance she wants out of Dorff and a much more endearing and revealing turn from Fanning. But the script is undercooked. People complained that “nothing happened” in Lost in Translation, but drama roiled under its placid surface. Here, though, there’s no drama, no conflict. We do get two tearful scenes near the end, but Cleo’s touches us more than Johnny’s.

When the film moves outside, following Johnny’s space-age car around the desert or over the freeway, there are images of uncanny beauty. Cinematographer Harris Savides can take a bow. And there were times that I felt the pull of depression that might plague a star like Johnny, who can have anything he wants but has had so much he doesn’t want anything any more. The movie isn’t a train wreck — it sustains its smothering Antoniennui. But I was left wondering why it was made and why Coppola didn’t know she had already made it, only better. The suspicion arises that the alienation of the rich is all she knows — or, to put it generously, that it’s her subject, the one she returns to again and again. But she finds nothing new in it here except the daughter, and I suspect I’m not alone in thinking Somewhere would be a better film if it were Cleo’s story. Maybe next time.

Rabbit Hole

January 2, 2011

Grief is perhaps the weirdest thing everybody eventually has to go through. It tends to deform our sense of the past and present; it’s like being on a hallucinogen that slows everything down unpleasantly. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helpfully defined five stages of it, but that might have been a comforting fiction. Grief isn’t tidy enough to stay restricted to five levels; it grinds on, painfully and inconveniently, and nobody can tell you when it will or should stop. Rabbit Hole is one of the few films that understand this. An affluent couple, Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), lost their young son eight months ago. Becca, who stays home all day being reminded of the boy’s absence, wants to eradicate any evidence that he was ever there. Howie obsessively watches a video of the boy on his phone whenever Becca isn’t around. These people are walking open wounds, and they can’t comfort each other or derive comfort from anywhere else.

Sounds depressing, but it’s precisely written (by David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own 2007 play) and directed with clear eyes and honesty by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus). The movie doesn’t emote for us; it observes, quietly. This is yet another project in which Mitchell explores the trauma of outsiders and how they do or don’t communicate; Becca and Howie are outwardly conventional — nice home and cars, the usual — but their loss separates them from the larger community. People who haven’t been through it don’t know how to act around them. They try going to a support group, but Becca tires of the “God talk” — she takes offense at the notion that her son died because “God needed another angel.” This is the best Kidman has been in a film since Dogville; full of anger, but with no outlet for it, Becca punishes everyone around her and herself too, and Kidman conveys this mostly through small, razor-sharp shifts in intonation. Eckhart has the more difficult role, the husband trying to hold it together and make it back to some semblance of normalcy, and we see his own rage just in the way he plays racquetball near the beginning. Like Becca, he’s temporarily insane, but he has a job and must keep up appearances. At times, Eckhart’s mask of sanity, and how fast it drops, is more than a bit frightening.

Mitchell also, it seems, likes to focus on the pain of unformed young men — the identity-less Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis; the depressed, onanistic James in Shortbus. Here it’s Jason (Miles Teller, a genuine find), a smart teenager who accidentally hit the boy with his car. An odd but somehow logical relationship develops between Becca and Jason; they sit together in a park, talking quietly. Howie, meanwhile, continues going to the support group and finds solace (and marijuana) with the like-minded Gabby (Sandra Oh), who’s been attending for eight years. Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire satirize therapy-speak ever so gently, aware that it brings peace to some but becomes a crutch to others.

Hedwig and Shortbus are two favorites of mine, but Rabbit Hole solidifies Mitchell’s place on my brief list of directors I’ll follow anywhere. He seems to want to make meaningful, healing films without all the sentimental muck that usually coats Hollywood films that try it. His work here is stripped down yet expressive — subtly poetic, like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, another drama about the anguish of wealthy suburbanites. I do regret a bit of character tidiness: everyone in the movie is there solely to make a further point about Becca’s or Howie’s pain, and Becca’s black-sheep sister Izzy (a lively turn by Tammy Blanchard) becomes conveniently-for-the-plot pregnant. But still, none of this is pushed; it’s as if we’re getting only the essential scenes and encounters from a marriage, with no flab. By the time Becca’s mom (Dianne Wiest), who’s suffered her own loss, defines the progress of grief in plain and simple words, Rabbit Hole has become a rarity — an honest work of catharsis.

The Annual Box-Office Lament, 2010 edition

January 2, 2011

We live in a country where:

  • Vampires Suck made more money than The American.
  • Marmaduke made more money than Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
  • Furry Vengeance made more money than Splice.
  • Skyline made more money than The Kids Are All Right.
  • My Soul to Take made more money than Let Me In.
  • Gulliver’s Travels made more money in nine days than Machete did in its entire run.
  • With two exceptions, the top ten grossers were sequels, remakes, or based on previously popular material. The two exceptions were Despicable Me, a kiddie cartoon, and Inception, a non-recurring phenomenon.Every movie in the top ten was targeted to kids or fanboys or both.

Look at the box-office top ten from twenty years ago and you see a similar story:

  1. Home Alone
  2. Ghost
  3. Dances with Wolves
  4. Pretty Woman
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  6. The Hunt for Red October
  7. Total Recall
  8. Die Hard 2
  9. Dick Tracy
  10. Kindergarten Cop

A lot of kiddie shit, sequels and fanboy stuff there, too. But the difference is, there’s room for Dances with Wolves, Ghost, Pretty Woman and The Hunt for Red October. Now, those films do not rival Bergman or Kurosawa. But they’re at least a separate order of maturity from, say, Iron Man 2.

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

January 2, 2011

WordPress sent me this. It’s pretty funny.

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. This blog was viewed about 54,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 7 days for that many people to see it.

 

In 2010, there were 85 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 708 posts. There were 618 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 37mb. That’s about 2 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was October 30th with 635 views. The most popular post that day was Scarface (1983).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, robsmovievault.com, selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com, comicsreporter.com, and google.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for scarface, lost in translation, avatar movie, little miss sunshine, and theresa wayman.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Scarface (1983) July 1983

2

50 Best Films of the Decade, Part III December 2009
1 comment

3

Avatar December 2009

4

The Hurt Locker June 2009

5

Where the Wild Things Are October 2009
1 comment


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