movie reviews September 2013

getawayone directon: this is Usclosed circuitthe grandmasterriddickaustenlandthe familyhannah arendt • insidious: chapter 2drinking buddiespopulaireprisoners

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Prisoners
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

After Thanksgiving dinner, two six-year-old girls disappear without a trace in their own neighborhood. When a lack of evidence forces brooding Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to release the main suspect, feeble-minded Alex Jones (Paul Dano), it sparks vigilantism in Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the doomsday-prepper father of one of the girls. As Dover’s single-minded pursuit of Jones consumes him, Loki fights to widen the investigation.


Prisoners, the first English-language and studio film from Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom, Incendies), strives to bring up uncomfortable and dangerous issues of morality and justice. The psychological drama is backed by the dark, monochromatic photography of cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit) whose ability to create an atmosphere that portends emotional turmoil and a slow buildup to horror is unrivaled. And Villeneuve adds his own ominous touches with prolonged, static shots, such as of a tree’s bark or the mysterious tattoos on Loki’s fingers.

But Villeneuve’s penchant for these shots is also the film’s downfall. He lingers a beat or two too long on clues. Such unmistaken proof, in conjunction with the tightly wrapped screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, takes out the ambivalence needed to sustain the psychological effect. And its most interesting move, bringing in Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the other desperate parents, is short-lived.

The screenplay isn’t brave enough to implicate or justify Dover’s abhorrent behavior. It simplifies his motives and character by stuffing in background information, gives him a confusing drinking problem (Is it a cover story or not?) and then drops him almost literally off the face of the earth only to still save him in the end. By the film’s halfway point, all that’s left is to piece the evidence together in an onscreen scavenger hunt all the while hoping the story still has something left up its sleeve. It doesn’t.

Yet, Loki, left to wrap up the loose ends, can’t seem to complete even the most basic inquiries. Despite his reputation as an obsessive investigator with a perfect arrest record, it takes him an unnatural amount of time to follow his leads. He’s distracted by Dover’s furtive activity, which in a confusing move is both red herring and a key to the case, which Loki can’t quite put together.  And his performance is burdened with back-story — facial tic, affected wardrobe, tattoos — that luckily avoids expositional treatment but is still distracting. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 09/25/13)


Populaire
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Give a roomful of monkeys typewriters and enough time and they’ll eventually
re-create the entire works of Shakespeare. With provided text and a punishing time limit, the typing contests in director Régis Roinsard’s debut feature Populaire have less lofty ambitions. Good thing they’re the red herring — in glorious Technicolor — in this French romance that seems to owe more to the melancholy output of Douglas Sirk than any madcap battle of the sexes in any Doris Day/Rock Hudson confection.


Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) is a two-fingered typist whose style is more search-and-destroy than hunt-and-peck. She becomes the Pygmalion-like pet project of insurance salesman Louis Echard (Romain Duris) who demands Rose win typing contests for him or be sent back to her father’s grocery store in a provincial village in Normandy. While submitting to Louis’ Draconian training regimen, Rose falls in love with him. But Louis’ affections remain with childhood friend Marie (Bérénice Bejo), now married to former America G.I. Bob (Shaun Benson).

The screenplay, written by Roinsard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, focuses on Rose’s dilemma. In 1958, she’s a woman with ambitions beyond marriage to the local mechanic. She dreams of adventure and travel, and she believes, along with dozens of other women, that the fastest course of realizing her dreams is to become a secretary. Instead, she vies to become the fastest typist in the world. Put like that, the story seems to have the potential of a feminist statement — from a modern perspective. From frustration comes empowerment. But Rose is no conquering hero. She has daddy issues, as they say these days. So even though her self-taught talent and distinctively non-pink typewriter save the day, she’d give it all up for Louis.

For his part, Duris plays the tortured insurance salesman as sneering, sniveling and just a little bit cruel. His shortened upper lip makes him look like a rat, which only makes it more distressing when he withholds his heart. He may be suffering from PTSD, but there seems to be more to his rejection of Rose after her seduction of him in a scene taken almost directly from Vertigo.  Here, there’s a strong suggestion of post-war impotence and shock found often in the work of Hemingway and even in the bittersweet romance The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

So it’s with disappointment that when in her final competition Rose proves more powerful than the available technology that the film’s answer is to strike inspiration in Louis. Up to that moment, the movie had presented a complicated picture of human romance but at least there was a love story with the typewriter. But then, as Rose’s machine lets her down, Louis comes up with a lucrative idea, making everything all better. It’s an ending embarrassing to even type about. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 09/25/13)


Drinking Buddies
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the movies were “life, with the dull bits removed.” For some reason, writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg has managed to make a film composed almost entirely of idle chatter, meandering events and sketchy, uninteresting characters.

Essentially, Drinking Buddies plays as if it was a random collection of sequences where Swanberg just happened to be catching mundane banter in barrooms and sought out the least consequential ramblings. If his mission were to end sleeplessness once and for all, he may have come close to reaching that goal.

The thin storyline that supports Drinking Buddies revolves around a pair of co-workers at a Chicago brewery. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both do something that vaguely resembles labor when they are sampling the merchandise or having long, ambling conversations.

After that, the two have long, pointless discourses in bars. Occasionally, Kate’s boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke’s girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) add their comments to the cacophony.

Drinking Buddies is built around the budding attraction between Kate and Luke, but it’s difficult to care if either winds up with the other. There doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for the pairing, and one wonders if they can do anything without the aid of alcohol. For all the drinking these folks do, they have tight, elegant bods. There’s not a beer gut in sight during the beach scenes.

Then again, no one would probably pay a dime to see a film where Wilde went “method” with her physique and looked appropriately flabby in a bikini.

Although Swanberg has a writing credit, most of the film is improvised, which means the dialogue sounds as fragmented and indirect as real-time and real life spoken discourse. Without any emotional investment in the characters, however, this attempted authenticity is for naught.

With the exception of Kansas City’s own Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s real-life significant other playing Kate’s boss), who can come up with zingers without breaking much of a sweat, there isn’t much to get excited about.

The sad thing is that improvised movies don’t have to be as dull as drinking alone. For example, Lynn Shelton’s 2012 effort Your Sister’s Sister has characters experiencing genuine pain (the male lead has lost his brother), and her scenarios are far more amusing and poignant than anything going on here. Swanberg is rarely willing to go as dark with his setup or protagonists, so nothing seems to be gained or lost.

As a result, Drinking Buddies lacks the immediacy and urgency of a good drama and simply isn’t funny enough to pass for comedy. It’s odd that Drinking Buddies feels both rambling and phony. In real life, if I found myself stuck in a bar with these superficial, tedious folks, I’d hope that I was sober enough to leave the bar so that I could do something more interesting. Nobody shells out good money to see on a screen what he or she could witness for free by looking out a window. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/20/13)

Haiku
Drinking Buddies

Why pay to watch folks
drinking and talking when you
can buy your own booze?


Insidious: Chapter 2
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In 2011's Insidious, director James Wan (the original Saw, The Conjuring) was pretty darned effective at generating some serious real-world dread and anxiety as well as effective shocks — that is, until the whole thing fell apart in the final act as characters ventured off into a silly spirit dimension called The Further (the fact that the dimension has a name at all suggests its nerdy, sci-fi overtones).

The sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, suggests that Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (the first three Saw films, Dead Silence) have already run out of ideas for this intended franchise as they recycle material from the first "chapter" and lift elements from a handful of other, better horror films.

Chapter 2 picks up the story shortly after the conclusion of the first film, in which father Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) retrieved haunted son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from The Further but became possessed in the process. The traumatized Dalton clan moves in with Josh's mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), and the whole thing starts over again.

Immediately, the same creepy goings-on that signified trouble the first time around — closet doors creaking open, toys moving on their own, a piano playing itself, strange voices from the baby monitor — begin again, this time to significantly diminished effect, partly because we saw them all in the last film, but mostly because they were horror movie clichés to begin with. As wife and mother Renai Lambert, Rose Byrne is given little to do this time but fret and eye her husband suspiciously. Bickering ghostbusters Specs (screenwriter Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) also return with less purpose but a higher annoyance factor.

Meanwhile, the plot skips all around the timeline of the first film, flashing back, forward, and sideways in an effort to set up an M. Night Shyamalan-type twist that, like most such stunts, isn't worth all the convoluted effort. Along the way, Whannell and Wan ineffectively loot plot and motivation from a number of iconic horror films, most notably The Shining and Psycho (as if Norman Bates' mother were portrayed by a Mommie Dearest-style Joan Crawford).

With such a confused plot and no real character development to speak of, Chapter 2 resorts to cheap jump-scares to jolt its audience. Sudden cuts and startling pop-up appearances are accompanied by such clamorous, jangling sound effects that they seem a parody of horror movie jump-scenes. Even the film title abruptly bursts onto the screen in huge blood-red letters amid over-the-top shrieking and pounding.

And let's get one thing straight: no matter how skillfully or successfully accomplished, startling an audience is not the same as horrifying it. With few new or genuinely scary ideas to offer, the filmmakers merely trigger reflex instead of manipulating the deep-seated fears that truly horrify. The real scare here is that a cliffhanger ending virtually guarantees yet another chapter of this tired story. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 9/20/13)


Hannah Arendt
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

German writer-director Margarethe von Trotta can make movies about ideas and people talking for two hours on end that never seem dull or stilted. She can also present these sometimes complicated subjects visually without dumbing down the material in the process. 

It probably helps that she's a former actress because von Trotta has an unerring instinct for picking performers who can handle the sophisticated material she hands them and who are subtle enough to make even the smallest of gestures engrossing.

In the case of Hannah Arendt, she's teaming up yet again with Barbara Sukowa (who also starred  in von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg and Vision). Sukowa projects warmth and an intelligence that makes her ideally suited to play the title character. No, she looks nothing like the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, but she easily conveys the sort of questioning mind who's willing to look unflinchingly into what makes people embrace evil.

Even surrounded by minds like the witty author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and The New Yorker editor William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), Arendt comes across as the smartest person in the room. 

That maybe why the magazine has agreed to send her to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man who organized the logistics for the Nazi's Final Solution. Having fled Germany for America in the 1930s with her Gentile husband Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg)  because she was a Jew, she can offer a unique perspective on a man whose life's work could have ended in her own death.

Arendt arrives in Jerusalem expecting to see a sort of mad genius like the sort of person Vincent Price usually played in movies. The Eichmann she and others imagined was an intimidating mastermind. 

The man in the courtroom, however, is nothing like that. Eichmann looks more like an accountant than a charismatic demagogue. Instead of laughing maniacally when the prosecutors and the judges question him, Eichmann answers the queries in bland, bureaucratic jargon that seems more pathetic than contemptuous. While the man is responsible for the deaths of millions, he seems to have no sense of the harm he has caused. 

In a way, Eichmann is even scarier than Vincent Price could ever have been. Under questioning he admits that he would have killed his own father if the Nazis had ordered it. His enthusiasm for being part of the team seems to have blinded him to any sense of morality. 

It's no wonder this guy was able to hide out in Argentina for as long as he did after World War II. Until he opens his mouth and reveals what a dangerously thoughtless fellow he really is, it's disturbing how someone this depraved can blend into a crowd.

One of many wise decisions that von Trotta has made with Hannah Arendt is not casting an actor to play Eichmann. Instead, she features television footage for the actual trial. From the sequences provided, it's easy to see how Arendt reached her chilling conclusions about Eichmann and humanity in general. In addition to the war criminal's eerily robot-like delivery, the trial features spectators yelling from the gallery and tormented witnesses fainting on the stand. You don't have to embellish this stuff to make it compelling.

Today, Eichmann in Jerusalem is taught in classrooms, but von Trotta and American co-writer Pamela Katz recount how Arendt's work inspired a torrent of backlash because her conclusions upset fellow intellectuals and Jews. In the New Yorker essays that comprised the book, she criticized European Jewish leaders for going along with the Nazi's genocidal policies. 

New research indicates that some of these leaders actually saved lives by slowing down the work of people like Eichmann, but her most controversial assertion was the one that ironically became the best known component of her philosophy. 

She coined the term "banality of evil" to describe how Eichmann was able to live with himself despite the fact that he had oceans of blood on his hands. Arendt never excused Eichmann and thought the Israeli's punishment for him was just, but people misread her conclusion and thought she was letting him off the hook. Many condemn her without bothering to read her demanding text. 

Just as Arendt took an unflinching look at Eichmann and his crimes, von Trotta presents a sophisticated but occasionally critical look at a woman she clearly admires. If Sukowa's Arendt persuasively argues that not thinking led Eichmann to become a mass murderer, von Trotta notes that the young Arendt (Friederike Becht) has an affair with her mentor, philosopher Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl). Despite being a formidable thinker, Heidegger also joined the Nazi party.

Being smart doesn't prevent you from embracing evil.

Von Trotta and Katz also make the turmoil Arendt's writing generated seem far more than a tempest in a teacup. The director actually embraces the language barrier by having conversations start in one tongue and end in another. Not only does it make it easier to explain why Arendt's ideas weren't initially easy to grasp, but also it gives the film a feeling of authenticity that might have been lacking if Arendt and her fellow exiles spoke entirely in one language.

Believe it or not, most of the movie was shot in Europe, and most of the Americans were played by Brits. Katz's English dialogue is snappy and eloquent enough to do justice to the thinkers she and von Trotta depict. 

Arendt's clear-eyed examination of Eichmann sadly didn't prevent others from embracing the same sordid path. At least von Trotta does an admirable job of conveying why the questions that disturbed Arendt haven't gone away. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 09/20/13)

Haiku
Hannah Arendt

This film is neither
banal nor evil and makes
thinking look so cool.


The Family
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

One appealing trait that French writer-producer-director Luc Besson has is that he’s willing to go out of his comfort zone, which is blowing things up in movies like La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. He supported Gary Oldman’s terrific directing debut Nil by Mouth, which was a grim domestic drama, and he also made the captivating underwater documentary Atlantis.

Sadly, not all of Besson’s risks pay off. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc was the sort of arty, pretentious movie he accuses other Gallic filmmakers of making, and The Family resoundingly demonstrates that he doesn’t have much of a knack for comedy.

His newest does, at least, offer a workable setup. An ex-Mafioso named Giovanni Manzoni (Robert De Niro) is hiding from his fellow goodfellas in France. While ratting on every New York wise guy has landed him the protection of a surly FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones) and scenic French locales, life on the lam hasn’t reformed him. Even though he no longer commands capos with a mere shrug, Gio isn’t above beating up or killing anybody who might upset him.

His constant moving is wearying on his family. In more capable hands, the toll of living a life of crime might have been more wittily realized. Sadly, Besson relies on his old standbys: gunplay and explosions, which net diminishing returns as the film progresses.

Gio’s wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) hates the condescension she feels from her French neighbors, so she bombs their buildings. His son Warren (John D'Leo) is following in Gio’s crooked footsteps, and Belle (Diana Agron) is trying to win over a handsome student teacher, when she isn’t beating up men she deems disrespectful.

None of this is terribly witty or all that involving. De Niro has played wise guys and even made fun of them so often that he was to work harder to get past the monotony of seeing him repeat gestures and facial expressions that he used to better effect in more substantial and entertaining films. It doesn’t help that Besson even tosses out a reference to one of De Niro’s classics as part of the plot. Doing so only makes viewers want to watch that film instead.

Pfeiffer has a similar problem in that one of her greatest roles is in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. Yes, it was made quite a while ago, and it’s still funnier and more stylish than anything Besson delivers here. As for the Gio’s kids, it’s as if Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo (working from Tonino Benacquista’s novel Malavita) came up with them as an afterthought. As a result, there are long stretches where the film can’t decide which uninteresting character to focus on.

Besson has difficulty determining what sort of tone he wants to establish. For as tedious as The Family gets, there are bursts graphic violence that do little to wake viewers up. He also goes out of his way to make sure that the film’s villains look as grotesque as possible. The gangsters chasing the Manzonis all look as if they’ve escaped from Saturday morning cartoons, and the school bully who torments Warren has a case of acne that resembles a relief map of Colorado.

Even when Besson and Caleo manage to come up with a gag that works, Besson’s shaky sense of timing ruins it. Walter Matthau and Buster Keaton secretly loved performing in dramas because comedy requires a finesse and precision that’s different from drama. Here’s hoping that Besson picks up those traits before he tries to be funny again. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/20/13)

Haiku
The Family

If De Niro is
not with Bradley Cooper, save
your movie money.


Austenland
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The 1995 six-hour television adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice created an interesting sensation. The main culprit — the scene in which Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy strolls back to his mansion in wet shirt and pants — proved so popular that this summer a statue of Firth’s likeness as the arrogant fictional character was erected in Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London, and is touring the United Kingdom on its way to its permanent home Lyme Park, Cheshire, where the iconic scene was filmed.


The irony of this scene is that it doesn’t come from the source material. Yet, it’s made Jane Austen more popular than ever, even with fans that have never read a single word of any of Austen’s six novels. This phenomenon has been cleverly spoofed, most notable in the novel and film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary.

There’s plenty poking fun at Austen’s unread fans in Austenland, the movie adaptation of Shannon Hale’s novel. The obvious choice Jennifer Coolidge performs this role suitably well, even for those tired of her shtick. But there’s supposed to be more here than shooting fish in a barrel (or stuffed birds thrown in the air). The actual protagonist of the film knows her Austen, or, at least, says she does, so it’s an even greater disappointment that director Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre), who co-wrote the screenplay with Hale, fails in the execution of what could be a satire as satisfying as one of Miss Austen’s novels.

Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes, a 31-year-old New Yorker whose obsession began at age 13 with Firth’s Mr. Darcy, but then continued to an adulthood in which no real man is ever romantic enough. To try to un-arrest her development, Jane empties her savings account to pay for an immersive, all-inclusive stay at a Regency-era B&B, with the added amenity of a guaranteed Austen-like romance, even if her limited funds cover only the Copper-level package.

Hess has her own obsession: she seems capable of filming only the absurd. With Austenland, she fails miserably at making any of the characters seem like real, believable people. This marks a huge misstep for a movie that depends on members of its cast to switch between acting and playacting. The layers of truth here are blurred by unnecessary wackiness, especially the scenes revealing the players behind the scenes. And Jane, in her steadfast willingness to play along, loses all credibility, making it impossible to go along with her happy ending. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 9/20/13)


Riddick
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The main concern that seems to have guided co-writer and director David Twohy in making Riddick — the third film in a franchise he initiated with 2000's Pitch Black — is to avoid repeating the bloated 2004 bomb of a sequel that was The Chronicles of Riddick. This he manages, but just barely, skipping between genres until the whole thing finally collapses into a tedious mess.

As the terse title suggests, this latest installment pares things back to the elements that made the first film successful. Gone are the mythologizing and (soap) operatic scope of the sequel — disposed of in a lengthy and, frankly, unnecessary flashback. In what is essentially a franchise reboot, convicted murderer Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) once again finds himself stranded on a hostile planet, pursued by bounty hunters and deadly aliens.

This still leaves Twohy with a critical problem: Riddick himself, a lumbering, doltish symbol of hypertrophied masculinity who communicates solely through a series of clichéd witticisms, all delivered in the same guttural monotone. Super-strong, able to withstand immense pain, and possessing the rather underwhelming super-power of night-vision, the Riddick character has no real weaknesses, physical or otherwise. He remains throughout this installment the same smug, emotionless killing machine he was in the first two.

Which is why the film works best during its first 30 minutes as Riddick, alone and nursing a broken leg, actually struggles to survive the relentless heat and deadly creatures of this strange, new world. Although the CGI landscape and critters look a bit cheesy and cheap, they draw on vintage pulp sci-fi illustrations, giving the proceedings a campy Edgar Rice Burroughs feel reminiscent of 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

With the arrival of two teams of bounty hunters, however, the film slips into disappointingly predictable territory. Like Riddick, himself, the bounty hunters are largely one-dimensional stereotypes. Reckless, volatile Santana (Jordi Mollá) and his gang of tattooed, undisciplined outlaws quite literally want Riddick's head while the crack paramilitary squad under the command of cool, collected Johns (Matt Nable) simply desires a chat (another misguided link to a decade-old plotline). Riddick, like any number of ‘80s-era screen slashers, lurks in the shadows, slipping in windows or (even in space!) through unlocked skylights to knock off stragglers, one by one.

What both groups — and, apparently, director Twohy — have in common is an ugly and relentless misogyny directed at the sole woman on the planet, John's female second-in-command. Portrayed by Katee Sackhoff (Sci-Fi channel's “Battlestar Galactica)”, the ironically named Dahl is easily the most interesting character on screen. Openly gay ("I don't fuck men. Sometimes, I fuck 'em up if they need it.") and demonstrably able to take care of herself, Dahl nonetheless seems to exist simply to be leered at and threatened with rape with Santana eventually attempting it. And after peeping at her during a gratuitous topless shower scene, even anti-hero Riddick threatens the same.

So audiences may be forgiven for caring very little when, in the film’s final third, the survivors finally come under attack by swarms of subterranean nasties that have been rejuvenated by a colossal storm. Given what we know about them by this point, most of these jerks deserve their fate. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 09/09/13)


The Grandmaster
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If the name Ip Man doesn’t mean much to you, it should. He’s the Hong Kong-based kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee and others how to master their craft. Because of his formidable legacy, Ip is entitled to a biopic that neither lionizes him nor cheapens his legacy. It wouldn’t hurt if the filmmakers also tried to be a little creative with his story. After all, in Asia he’s a household name, so merely hitting points on a timeline would be boring for people who know about him and confusing for those who don’t.

Wong Kar-Wai, who’s made such intriguing efforts as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, has certainly wrestled with the subject for the last few years. It reportedly took him nearly a year to edit his latest offering The Grandmaster, and it still feels as if he has not quite captured the meaning of Ip’s complicated life. Nonetheless, it’s often engrossing to catch Wong trying.

One of the smartest things that Wong has done is cast his frequent leading man Tony Leung. In addition to rigorously training for the role, Leung is an old hand at martial arts films and has a natural unaffected camera-friendliness that makes him intriguing to watch, even if he’s just sulking.

Yes, he’s handsome, but Leung’s smallest gestures convey quite a bit. In Wong’s In the Mood for Love, he and the equally charismatic Maggie Cheung had more sexual tension simply staring at each other fully clothed than most thespians have with full frontal nudity. The two barely made contact.

In applying that sort approach to a martial arts film, Wong does set up some spectacular showdowns and uses more dramatic cutting and camerawork than most of his fellow Hong Kong filmmakers do, but it’s still easy to follow and appreciate the action.

What’s both intriguing and frustrating about The Grandmaster is that Wong isn’t all that interested in building up to a final butt whooping the way most martial arts films do. Even with fighting, Wong is more interested in building anticipation instead of delivering thrills and jolts.

Ip has become one of the most respected martial arts instructors in the south of China, but the leadership in the North has been handed from Gong Yutian (Qingxiang Wang) to the reckless Ma San (Jin Zhang). Gong wishes he could have passed the crown to his skillful daughter Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, The House of Flying Daggers), but women are not allowed to carry titles in 1930s China.

Wong creates the anticipation that Ip Man and Ma San are going to face off against each other and even includes an impressive showdown between Ip Man and a legion of street thugs to show how good Ip Man has become at breaking others’ bones. As he has done with his art films, Wong then subverts viewer expectations, but it’s a little tricky to find out what his objective is with The Grandmaster.

Wong deals with the oppression the Japanese placed on the Chinese during the 1940s, but that gloomy era is presented almost as an afterthought. It seems abrupt to rush through the era, but it does add a bit of realism to the story. After all, the Chinese were probably more interested shaking off the yoke of tyranny instead of who would be China’s greatest martial artist.

Wong only hints at some of Ip Man’s greatest achievements. It would seem natural to have him interact with the young Bruce Lee, who would go on to popularize martial arts in the rest of the world. Wong presents that relationship only fleetingly. The original cut of The Grandmaster is reportedly four hours long, so what we’re seeing here in the States may not reflect what the film truly has to offer.

Like Leung, Zhang is an infinitely watchable performer. She can play Gong Er’s frustration at the sexism in China during the era without it coming off like a cliché. Also, it’s a delight to watch her turn much larger men into broken masses of flesh with a few swift kicks.

Because its narrative has some awkward gaps, The Grandmaster doesn’t inspire the awe the real Ip Man did. That said, there’s something commendable about the fact that Wong certainly aimed high. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/03/13)

Haiku

The Grandmaster
Ip Man was known for
kicking butt, but Wong gives him
a brain and a fist.


Closed Circuit
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The latest film from director John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A) will deceive audiences into thinking they’re at home watching television on a Sunday night. With its overt themes and well-broadcast twists spelled out so they that won’t confuse novice anglophiles or old fogies, Closed Circuit is too tidily wrapped for the big screen and is more in line with the issues-driven programming on Masterpiece Contemporary.

The film’s title and opening sequence set up a concern about England’s ubiquitous closed-circuit TV cameras, but the screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deals more with the intricacies of the country’s justice system in dealing with terrorist suspects. It’s really no more than a fancy television procedural that devolves into paranoid fantasy. Big Brother doesn’t have to watch; he already knows.

Because classified documents and testimony will be used in his defense, a Turkish emigrant accused of bombing a busy London shopping area must undergo two trials — one open and one secret — with two separate lawyers. Once the lawyer for the secret trial is given access to the confidential information, she must not have any contact with the lawyer for the open trial, though they’re on the same side working toward the same end.


The entire plot hinges on this separation provision meant to protect national security. But despite a capable cast, including Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall as the defense attorneys and Ciarán Hinds as the solicitor/fixer, the script doesn’t take full advantage of the arrangement. Instead of a clever cat-and-mouse game played by these members of the same team (Bana’s character doesn’t even really try to stay away and when he makes contact its clumsy and amateurish), Knight brings in opposition from higher quarters.

Jim Broadbent is given an unsettling and implausible turn as a crooked attorney general, and we’re led to believe his orders, including killing off the informed yet weirdly bubbly journalist played by Julia Stiles, come from even further above. Secret intelligence agents, played almost comically by Anne-Marie Duff, wearing a ridiculous wig, and Riz Ahmed, are not threatening and easily foiled.

Comparisons to post-Watergate era films, such as The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor are flattering but unwarranted. What was intended to be taut and alarming is actually clunky and preachy, and even the stringed score can’t class up the desperation in that final chase scene. There are several potentially intricate dynamics in the script — an undisclosed affair, a colleague’s betrayal — but they get lost in more obvious workarounds. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/03/13)


One Direction: This Is Us
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Viewers expecting One Direction: This Is Us to provide anything resembling an all-access look at this superstar boy-band will be disappointed. Like other recent pop-star "documentaries" featuring Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, what viewers get is a  painstakingly squeaky-clean depiction of the its subject.

Of course, that's the point. After all, 12-year-girls aren't thronging the multiplex for a warts-and-all exposé of the star maker machinery; they want an up-close — not necessarily in-depth — glimpse of the five dreamy guys they've been getting all tingly over. And to that end, This Is Us delivers on a larger-than-life, 3-D scale.

The only real surprise is that such a project wound up in the hands director Morgan Spurlock, whose 2004 Super Size Me gleefully skewered McDonald's and fast food. This film lacks any of the cheeky subversion that made Super Size Me so appealing — odd since on-screen talking heads keep assuring us that what makes One Direction unique is their cheekiness and subversion.

Instead, we get the usual rags-to-riches fairytale, specifically, that all five members were X-Factor washouts, were formed into a group by svengali Simon Cowell, finished third in the competition but were saved by the social media efforts of a relentless female fan base, convincing Cowell to sign them, record them, send them on tour and, subsequently, to the top of the UK, US and world charts. This is followed by concert footage of their 2012-13 world tour, enhanced by 3-D video game and comic book graphics. Numbers from the set list are interspersed with backstage antics and brief interview material as well as scene after scene of screaming fans all over the world.

As performers, One Direction seems genuinely talented and, judging by the audience response, charismatic although in a vaguely collective, not necessarily individual, sense. Off-stage, they come off likeable and humble, consistently marveling at their luck and rightfully attributing their success to their fans. Cheekiness or subversion, though, seems limited to rampant shirtlessness, hiding in trash barrels, and hijacking golf carts for rides around the various arenas.

Anything messy or truly personal — any mention of girlfriends, infighting, resentments, or regrets — has been carefully excised, replaced by testimonials from grateful parents and a ridiculously contrived camping scene in Sweden where members gather round a fire — actually, only halfway around; got to keep everyone in the shot — to reflect on their futures.

More than anything else, This Is Us seems intended to reassure fans and convince the uninitiated that One Direction are superstars. And to that end, it succeeds, making the entire affair more infomercial than documentary. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/03/13)


Getaway
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

A movie is in deep trouble when pretentious twit Ethan Hawke is its highlight. In Getaway, Hawke plays a former professional racecar driver forced to wreak havoc on Sofia, Bulgaria, in a stolen specially armored Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 Super Snake. But this isn’t a regular car chase movie. The car is outfitted inside and out with webcams, so the focus stays on Hawke by way of a claustrophobic, reality show competition-like view of his face as he mows down pedestrians under duress. The repeated close-ups of Hawke's foot expertly slamming the clutch and his tattooed hand shifting gears can be forgiven for their deviation from point of view just because they’re downright sexy.


If director Courtney Solomon (An American Haunting, Dungeons & Dragons) had been allowed to work from this premise to the end, Getaway might have amounted to something, not quite on par with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive but at least better, or even watchable. Hawke could never match Gosling’s mercurial intensity, but when his mouth is shut he can actually deliver. And Solomon shows competence in scenes that piece together the events that spur the movie into action, and then again in the one actual car chase scene that doesn’t rely on grainy low-resolution images.

But the screenplay from writers Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker forces the movie into less imaginative action movie territory. It unceremoniously adds a sidekick in Selena Gomez as a smart-alecky rich kid with MacGyver-like computer skills. It’s her car, bought for her by an absentee banker father, and when she tries to claim it in the most implausible, out-of-character way possible, she too becomes imprisoned within the car.

The banter between Hawke and Gomez, in her continuing effort to shed her good girl image (see Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers for the first try), is labored and often out of sorts with the action it accompanies. Gomez claims she fears for her life, but her performance doesn’t make it feel as if she actually does, and her technology savvy is always too convenient.

The plot involves a mastermind plan from a man, revealed only through shots of his mouth, who gives directions over the phone. Although he speaks in a vague European accent, those lips unmistakably belong to Jon Voight (the only other pair close to them is on the face of daughter Angelina Jolie). Technology plays a crucial part in his carrying out the plan, but the final twist is ridiculously outdated. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 09/03/13)




Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.ireland@att.net
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com


 

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