This week's reviews update includes a martial arts masterpiece, a wonderful, disarming rom-com and a couple of old B-Westerns. Plus: other stuff.
Ip Man (Wilson Yip, 2008) - This is, simply, one of the three or four best kung fu films I've ever seen, a back-to-basics classic with a realistic setting, a powerful story and a series of superbly-choreographed fight scenes that place an accent on technical skill, and possess a heartening reverence for visual clarity. There are no mystifying close-ups of unidentifiable feet, and the film benefits from both a negligible amount of wire-work and a complete absence of juvenile comedy, placing it in a bracket almost by itself. It's also rooted in a stunning evocation of time and place, complete with poignant, beautiful bleached-out cinematography that calls to mind old sepia photos.
Donnie Yen starred in Yuen Woo-Ping's groundbreaking Iron Monkey (perhaps the first film to properly spotlight the stylistic preoccupations that would find a worldwide audience through The Matrix and Crouching Tiger), and had supporting parts opposite Jet Li in the jaw-dropping Once Upon a Time in China II and Zhang Yimou's disappointing Hero. But, unlike Li, he hasn't had it all his own way. As Yen searched for worthy starring vehicles, so fans had to suffer dreck like New Big Boss, a film which boasts the unique distinction of having a story so mystifyingly convoluted that it makes The Tree of Life look like Under Siege. When Yen ventured abroad, it was to appear as the villain in Shanghai Knights, and then to choreograph the action scenes in Stormbreaker. The poor bastard.
Ip Man, happily, is the perfect vehicle for his talents, casting him as the eponymous aristocrat, a quiet, noble family man who is forced to give up his home, his lifestyle and his beloved Wing Chun martial arts after the Japanese invade in 1937. After a fun, fight-heavy opening, we follow Ip Man and his compatriots through all manner of physical, moral and spiritual degradation, a process of dehumanisation that reaches a symbolic pinnacle when the martial arts masters are offered rice to prostitute their talents in front of the military brass. Ip Man doesn't want the rice, not at that cost, but he would quite like to fight 10 Japanese guys at once, train a factory-full of workers to stick up for themselves, and face down the general in front of the whole town.
It's a story of great heart, masterfully-conceived and perfectly-paced, with numerous punch-the-air(/punch-the-baddie) moments, the dramatic entrances from Yen's near-mythic hero - fists clenched in fury - set-up with such intelligence and emotion that, when he appears, the spirits soar. Each fight scene serves a purpose within the narrative, and every one is viscerally, intensely exciting, Yip and his action director, Sammo Hung, respecting Yen's artistry to such a degree that he's frequently shown in full-length shot, cuts only made to better showcase his skill or to transmit the pure power inherent in those twisting hands and flitting feet.
Agreeably, Yen's hero is also one of the most sensitive and progressive in action movie history. He uses a style of fighting devised by a woman, refuses to fight until given permission by his missus, and dismisses the taunts of a thuggish brute who's just turned up in his house by saying that there is nothing wrong with a man who "respects his wife". Take that, '70s Clint, you chauvinist twat. The thuggish brute, incidentally, is Siu-Wong Fan, who I saw in the terrible Supercop 2 just the other day (see below). There he was a pleasant, slim, slightly vacant young man with big eyes, who turned out to be fairly handy in a scrap. Let's just say that he's eaten several few pies and a lot of creatine since then. And grown a little beard.
Ip Man is an exhilarating experience, one of those films that uplifts you through its sheer brilliance and makes you ask: "Why can't ALL movies be this good?" I never thought I'd type these words, but it's like Fist of Legend. Only better. (4)
Ip Man 2 (Wilson Yip, 2010) - A silly, synthetic sequel that begins brilliantly, before turning into Rocky IV for reasons unknown. We pick up the story with Ip Man (Donnie Yen) pitching up in Hong Kong, where he establishes a rooftop martial arts school, attracting some rather cocky students. That promising story is dropped rather abruptly upon the arrival of a patently ludicrous English boxer called Twister, who insists on punching out the kung fu masters, and showcasing his loud, uber-confident and preternaturally gung-ho persona. Surely he's an American, then. If he were English, he'd be wearing cricket whites, constantly doubt himself and lose the climactic contest in a penalty shoot-out.
The opening 40 is riotously entertaining, peppered with superb action scenes, including a much-celebrated string of wire-work duels atop a table and - even better - a frenetic battle at a fish market that's among the finest fight scenes ever filmed. But then the one-dimensional villains arrive and the film starts to stutter, with much melodrama and a Chinese v Western boxing match between Twister and a very special guest that exhibits the latter's amazing two-footed flying kicks, but seems to go on for about three years. The movie builds, of course, to a high-stakes confrontation between the English boxer and our hero, but it's an ugly, unenjoyable and graceless affair full of ridiculous touches (Yen is told he's not allowed to kick his opponent, but only at the end of the third round?!), which dismantles the mythology around the title character.
This movie wasn't necessary, but it could - and should - have been great. Instead, it squanders a sensational opening to emerge as a curiously joyless affair, no better than Jet Li's foray into similar territory, Born to Defend, and light years behind that extraordinary first outing. (2.5)
Delicacy (David and Stéphane Foenkinos , 2012) is a charming romantic comedy with plenty going on under the surface, which sees grieving widow Audrey Tautou - who's devoted herself to work after her husband's untimely death - feeling a strange attraction to an ungainly, balding Swede (Francois Damiens), much to the mystification of everyone else, including him. Tautou's films away from Jeunet tend to be either rather wonderful (like Priceless) or absolutely terrible and enlivened solely by her presence. While 2010's Beautiful Lies promised whimsical escapism but delivered only a refined form of cinematic stress, this potentially heavy, gloomy film does quite the opposite, tackling complex subject matter but emerging as a wonderfully entertaining romantic comedy thanks to real characters experiencing real emotions, a pair of lovely performances and a great lightness of touch. Tautou is typically affecting as the sweet-natured Nathalie, who represses her playful, tender side upon the death of her soulmate, and Damiens is simply hilarious as a man who can't believe his good fortune, and is frankly terrified by it.
The film starts in a heightened romantic vein, full of joshing and snogging, moves sure-footedly through tragedy - with the confidence and conviction to give us nothing else for 20 minutes - and then sparks up a romantic comedy, clambering over a couple of contrivances to provide not only a succession of big laughs but also some very real feelings, ending with an ambitious closing solliloquy that strikes just the right note: staying true to its story whilst also looking to the future. There's the romantic scene filmed against the Eiffel Tower that you might expect - though with an amazing punchline that's entirely out of the blue - but my favourite scene is one you won't have seen in any other romantic comedy. After an underwhelming introduction to Tautou's friends, happily lacking in crass Meet the Parents-style disaster, the pair return to her house, where they just sit happily and quietly in one another's company, before nodding off.
These are characters whose mutual attraction has as much to do with a shared sense of humour and a similar way of seeing the world as it does the physical connection that dominates the genre, and I think that's true in real life. For this affable, lanky, socially uncomfortable nerd, batting similarly out of my league with a funny, brown-eyed brunette, I found the film a welcome change: an unusually mature, intelligent and nuanced romance, albeit with a few clear concessions to broad comedy. It's also nice to see Tautou's preposterous talents used to their full. She's too rare a talent to have to wade through rubbish like Beautiful Lies. I watch a lot of romantic comedies (shut up); if only they all had this film's humour, wisdom and view of humanity. (3.5)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) - Another tale of two men tied together by love and loathing from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few directors from whom every movie is a must-see. And, as with his last one, the story is framed so tightly around these central characters that there's barely any room for anyone or anything else to squeeze in. But whereas There Will Be Blood was a gripping experience - that ill-judged ending aside - this follow-up is as erratic as its protagonist: a frustrating, pretentious and unsatisfying film that builds up a head of steam time and again, only to repeatedly fall away to nothing. Joaquin Phoenix is an unpredictable, alcoholic and horny World War Two vet still crippled by PTSD, five years on from being demobbed. Wandering by chance into the life of a cult leader and skilled manipulator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he falls under his spell, prompting numerous peculiar psychological experiments.
What power the film has comes largely from its performances. Amy Adams is decent but underused in an underwritten part, while Hoffman plays a man of menace and charisma with oodles of both, but it's Phoenix who leaves the greatest impression, with surely his finest performance to date. Gaunt, haunted and hampered by a slow mouth and a slower mind, his characterisation is coarse, violent, dislikeable and yet human, a man living in the shadow of past failings, but too inarticulate and fuzzy-minded to put things right. Unfortunately his efforts and the strong period atmosphere - created by an ingenious photography sequence and a slew of jazzy period tunes - are spent on a script that has a great many virtues and fine individual scenes, but even more flaws, with many sequences that are laughably written, elliptical to the point of parody or just plain boring. Anderson is out of his comfort zone, striving for the existential majesty of a Malick film, and frankly he seems out of his depth.
The Master is a film with an enquiring mind and an intriguing view of cultery - shown insightfully from the inside - but it's also extremely self-satisfied, entirely humourless and a good deal less than the sum of its parts. (2.5)
See also: My favourite Anderson film is still Punch-Drunk Love.
I thought it safer to Google the poster.
Wild Things (John McNaughton, 1998) - Like every other boy who was 14 in 1998, I've seen two minutes of this film before. The rest of it's good too, probably better: a pervy, shallow but very entertaining neo-noir that plays like The Last Seduction made by FHM. Matt Dillon is a Gareth-Bale-faced guidance counsellor who's accused of rape by two students: a pair of lips with a blue bikini attached (Denise Richards) and a weed-smoking malcontent from the wrong side of the tracks (Neve Campbell). As his life is torn to shreds by Richards' wealthy mother and her society friends ahead of the much-publicised trial, he enlists the services of a lawyer and some time insurance fraudster (Bill Murray), who starts to look for dirt on the accusers, while cop Kevin Bacon sniffs around.
There's no depth to the characters and I do have an issue with the utilisation of such serious subjects in such a light-hearted film, but there's no quibbling with its entertainment value, and just as you think the momentum may be starting to flag, so the twists and turns start coming again, at breakneck speed, and don't you dare switch off once the credits begin to roll. Murray, who's not on screen for more than 10 minutes, steals the show as the low-rent but deceptively brilliant shyster, directed by John McNaughton, who drew such an interesting performance from him in Mad Dog and Glory, but who made his name with one of the best and most shocking films of the '80s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. George S. Clinton's swampy if repetitive score is another plus.
Incidentally, that scene (not the one with Kevin Bacon's penis), whilst a formative part of my adolescence, looks entirely gratuitous and a bit silly to grown-up eyes, not least because Campbell appears to be so incredibly uncomfortable, but it's still, y'know, alright. (3)
Not a great photo, but then it's not a great film.
Supercop 2 (Stanley Tong, 1996) - An idiotic, interminable spin-off from Supercop, one of the best actioners of the '90s, with Michelle Yeoh reprising her role as the high-kicking Inspector Yang, who pitches up in Hong Kong to fight bank robbers. She's always a joy to watch, with a balletic grace, an invigorating physicality and a cat-like ability to spring to improbable heights - or to fall from them, and land on her feet. Sadly the film has a terrible story, banal, ridiculous characters, and an abundance of abysmal dialogue (at least in the dub), with Yeoh simply given too few opportunities to do her thing. Many of the action scenes don't feature her at all, instead just offering endless footage of people firing machine guns. It's as if you've decided to watch a musical, and most of the songs just consist of people shouting (a bit like an Ethel Merman film, then). Jackie Chan, who starred in the original, appears only in a woeful three-minute cameo, dressed in drag. A couple of the fight scenes did briefly rouse me from my stupor, and Siu-Wang Fan isn't bad in a scrap, but this is still one of the most boring, confusing and poorly-directed films I've seen in quite a while. It's full of product placement too. I would tell you more, but I can barely see the computer screen through the smoke from these MARLBORO CIGARETTES BUY MARLBORO CIGARETTES BUY CIGARETTES CHOOSE MARLBORO DELICIOUS MARLBORO MARLBORO ARE THE BEST MARLBORO MARLBORO. (1.5)
Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) - It was John Wayne who started it all. Budd Boetticher needed a star for his next Western, Seven Men from Now, and his big-name producer had an idea. "Let's use Randolph Scott," said Wayne, "he's through". And so began a remarkable collaboration in which, to quote the director, he and his spirited team "shoved Randolph Scott up Duke's ass". Fans known them as the 'Ranown Cycle': seven lean, mean chamber Westerns usually featuring the athletic, stoic Scott as a bereaved gunslinger searching for redemption. The highlights, Seven Men, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, hold a strong case for being the best B-Westerns ever made, lit by breathtaking cinematography, Burt Kennedy's spare, poignant dialogue and a complex worldview that allows for a succession of fascinating antagonists. Ride Lonesome, which sees bounty hunter Scott escorting prisoner James Best to a hanging, accompanied by Pernell Roberts' mesmerising anti-hero and a debuting James Coburn, is probably the greatest of the lot: an action-packed, emotionally arresting oater that takes hold from the first, and just never lets go. (4)
Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 1960) - The last film in the Ranown Cycle is a fitting swansong: the saddest and most elegiac of the bunch, with a heavy human cost that recalls Douglas Fairbanks' farewell to swashbucklers, The Iron Mask. Randolph Scott stars as a mysterious stranger who frees a married woman (Nancy Gates) from captivity a year after she was swiped by Comanches. But with the Indians on the warpath and a reward posted for her return, the pair are soon forced into an uneasy alliance with a shady figure from his past (Claude Akins), and a pair of young gunmen with an unexpectedly human side. From the unorthodox opening to one of the greatest endings in Western history, Comanche Station is a masterful film, full of warmth and wisdom, but touched by an acute melancholia, and featuring a hero not unlike The Searchers' Ethan Edwards. Scott is more noble, certainly, and has a more progressive view of Native Americans, but he's a man consumed by his endless quest, which in the end isn't so different to Wayne's. (4)
Thanks for reading.
ClintFest '13 will return in Reviews #156.