THE GRANDMASTER // Kung-fu is not a genre of action film that I am often drawn to. Even when I saw the trailer for “The Grandmaster”, I wrote it off slightly, but the pacing, the storytelling, and the lore of Ip Man achieves greatness no matter what the genre. Nominated for two Academy Awards, in Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography, the film reaches admirable levels of both, but reaches much further, producing amazing performances and an intriguing story of a nation divided and a man that is less a hero and more a temple of martial arts knowledge. A man that weathered the storm and went on to teach the greats, including one of the most popular martial artists of our time, Bruce Lee.
Beginning in the pouring rain, we are subject to witness Ip Man (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) fight a number of combatants. Kung-fu is hard enough to catch on film correctly, but it becomes a dance for Le Sourd, involving the camera movements gliding gracefully along the masters as they battle one another from room to room from street to street. With the camera dancing alongside the fighters, producing rich visuals throughout the choreography of fighting, it’s hard to deny the actors in these roles, convincing the audience that they are grandmasters, indeed. Soon, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) from the North arrives in the South to announce his retirement and his successor, but places a challenge for a South successor as well. With Ip Man picked to represent the other grandmasters, the passing of knowledge from a handful of fellow grandmasters commences in one of the most appealing bouts of storytelling of the film. Along with Gong Yutian comes his daughter Gong Er, played by the gorgeously talented Zhang Ziyi of “House Of Flying Daggers” and “Memoirs Of A Geisha” fame. Let the untouchable romance begin.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN // Charles Dickens was a selfish man. “The Invisible Woman” depicts his true story courting of his mistress Ellen “Nelly” Ternan in 1857 while still married to his wife Catherine. With twenty-seven years separating the two of them, the film really depicts the relationship as heavily one-sided, placing Ellen in the predicament of always being the “other” woman, with no possibility of marriage and a life filled with solitude. Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Dickens, playing the role with an exuberance that brings the character to new life. His multi-layered performance brings a new dynamic to the way you picture Dickens, making him a suave people pleaser, as well as a brooding creative type. For being one of the greatest writers of all time, you get the feeling Dickens is not very in touch with his emotions. Also, you begin to disassociate him with his body of work and realize the man had a life and before tabloids and entertainment news was a thing, gossip and newspapers were handed out from person to person.
The star of “The Invisible Woman” is by far the young and talented Felicity Jones, who continues to leave me in awe of her performances. Blossoming into a fully formed woman in the flash forwards of the film, she not only wears the brilliant period costumes with a zeal that steals the show, but her emotional presence in the role really adds a depth to her character, that Jones brings to all her roles. There’s always something going on in her eyes and her pouting lips that truly delivers the emotional connection between her character and the audience. As the innocent, eighteen year old Nelly, Jones still brings a maturity to the young girl that rings true, as she’s obsessed with Dickens’ work and far more intelligent than most people around her. Jones is a such a beautiful young woman and I cannot wait to see her in more roles and especially if she continues to progress as she does in this role.
RENDITION // Before “Zero Dark Thirty” caught everyone’s attention about the treatment of terrorist suspects in other countries, “Rendition” explored the same basic idea six years prior to a much lesser audience. But what’s the difference? Were people not ready to hear about the idea of “extraordinary rendition” back then, which was a very real thing that occurred under the go ahead from the George W. Bush administration? One thing “Rendition” did have on its side was star power, which is actually what finally got me to see it. While “Zero Dark Thirty” has impressive newcomers that will be legends decades from now in Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke, “Rendition” has household names like Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon, which on paper, really sells this film on its own.
When “Rendition” came out in 2007, I paid little attention, probably because I am not that in touch with politics, especially back then. With its entire plot focusing on the event of a U.S. citizen and family man being intercepted at an international airport and being immediately deported to be tortured in a foreign country, there’s not much sheer entertainment value in that to grab anyone’s attention. But add to that the familiar faces, like Gyllenhaal in his follow up role to the dark and brooding Fincher movie, “Zodiac” or Meryl Streep in one of her only villainous roles, and the reasons for seeing the film skyrocket. And once you take the film at face value, the story becomes interesting and you start learning more about this strange occurrence in our nation’s history and you start to wonder why this wasn’t a bigger deal in the media at the time.
SPIRITED AWAY // Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar winning animated film “Spirited Away” tells the story of a little girl who follows her parents into a strange amusement park and gets lost in the world of the spirits. Following the helpful young man, Haku, the young girl takes refuge in a bathhouse, run by a witch named Yubaba. In trying to free her parents from the spell that casts them into living, breathing livestock, and in trying to keep herself out of danger, she must brave the being known as No-Face, Yubaba’s giant baby, and Yubaba’s twin sister, Zeniba. The animation matches the quality of Miyazaki’s previous work and contains a much more entrancing story that “Howl’s Moving Castle”. Miyazaki has a way with developing large amounts of characters in all his films, which makes them so entertaining to watch. He creates these fantasy worlds that are fully formed, with their own laws and rules, and then brings these worlds to life through the stories that are told in them, often filled with heroes and adventures, an unsuspected damsel in distress and evil ugly witches that can be conquered through friendship rather than destruction. “Spirited Away” is my favorite Miyazaki film yet, with “Howl’s Moving Castle” being the only other film of his that I’ve seen, but already I enjoy the story-telling much more than I anticipated and even though I have zero affinity for anime, these films transcend that styling and create a genre of Japanese animation all its own.
[Directed by Hayao Miyazaki] [PG] [125 min] [28 March 2003]
PLUSH // Without the talented Emily Browning, “Plush” would almost be unwatchable. But with her innocent style mixed with the precarious nature of her character, she becomes the focal point of this feature as Hayley, the rockstar that loses her brother/bandmate to drugs. Following a poorly received second album, Hayley begins an intimate connection with her new guitarist Enzo (Xavier Samuel) rather than being at home with her husband (Cam Gigandet) and her son. This connection slowly turns obsessive as Enzo reveals himself to be more than Hayley bargained for and the thriller portion of the film ensues. “Plush” is not as much predictable as it is dull and anti-climatic, begging for the “dun-dun-dun” of a hokey horror score. Browning is the glue that holds this film together, keeping the viewer invested just to see her losing herself in the character and leaving all inhibitions at the door. She’s a bright young actress that deserves much more than she’s given yet continues to surprise through every bad role and B-rated movie.
[Directed by Catherine Hardwicke] [R] [99 min] [15 October 2013]
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES // To sum up “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” into one word; derivative. Copying just about every horror and possession device in the book, this detour in the franchise adds basically nothing to the narrative yet tries to attach itself desperately to the previous installments. Once again we meet new characters who are simply living their lives until their downstairs neighbor ends up dead and turns out to have been a Satan worshiper with a basement (who has basements in California?) filled with plastic sheets and pictures of the upstairs tenant, our main character Jesse. As Jesse devolves into a mindless demon drone, the audience is taken through the steps of the average found footage, shaky camera horror film, begging the question, how many times can one be scared of fast camera movements revealing unexpected objects off screen? Relying heavily on the camera to provide the scares and never even really delivering on most of the suspenseful moments, I questioned the legitimacy of this even being considered a horror film. Bringing back many of the moments that actually worked in the other films, like a coven of witches and sudden rooms displacing all of its furniture, I wanted to like “The Marked Ones” but felt it was trying too hard to reach the Hispanic audience and, in the end, does nothing but further the general disinterest in this franchise, which is really too bad considering where it began. With another sequel on the horizon, I am praying that the creators learn from their mistakes and deliver something fresh and revolutionary, rather than bland and recycled.
[Directed by Christopher Landon] [R] [84 min] [3 January 2014]
MAGIC MAGIC // If you’ve seen the trailer for “Magic Magic”, then you’ve successfully been duped. Not to say “Magic Magic” isn’t an exceptional thriller with fine performances, but anyone expecting a sinister, psychological thriller where everyone is out to get the leading lady will be sadly mistaken. Juno Temple plays lead Alicia, vacationing from the States to Chile to visit her cousin Sarah (the lovely Emily Browning) and her strange group of friends, which includes a wonderfully dark comedic turn from the talented Michael Cera. Upon arrival, Sarah has to ditch Alicia for school, sending her off, alone, with her friends. Highly relatable, the audience can almost certainly relate with the awkwardness of being left alone with a group of people you barely know and in Alicia’s case of being somewhat socially awkward to begin with, the tensions are high. Here’s where the bait and switch happens.
[And spoiler alert for anyone wanting to be completely surprised]. Instead of Sarah’s friends actually being sadists like the trailer leads you to believe, Alicia is actually the afflicted one. Off her meds and insanely paranoid, the film’s darkness comes from its lead, rather then the surrounding characters, which is honestly a nice change of pace. The thrilling nature of the film is brought on by Alicia’s paranoia as she struggles to be alone with this group of people while they hunt birds as a game and hypnotize one another. However, without the director clearly developing a point-of-view to trust or follow, the audience is left flailing through most of the film, wondering where it is going and how we got there when it does arrive. And with a strange and anti-climatic ending to which only the close watcher is privy to, “Magic Magic” is anything but. That being said, I admire both Juno Temple and Michael Cera for carrying the film as well as director Sebastián Silva, who does establish a very eerie tone to the film, despite being fragmented and unsure of itself.
[Directed by Sebastián Silva] [R] [97 min] [26 July 2013]