Friday, August 30, 2013

The Star eCentral: Movie Reviews


Released in the spring of 2008, My Blueberry Nights was expected to be the big American breakthrough for the esteemed Chinese filmmaker Wong Kar Wai - the first English-language movie from a director whose previous work (In the Mood For Love, Chungking Express, Happy Together, 2046) had earned him an international fan base on the arthouse and film festival circuits.

But despite a starry cast (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz) and a healthy promotional push by The Weinstein Co, the movie was a critical and commercial failure in the United States, grossing less than US$1mil/RM3.2mil (the film fared much better overseas, earning nearly US$22mil/RM70.4mil).

So, Wong turned his back on Hollywood and went back to his roots. Six years later, he emerged with one of his best films to date.

The Grandmaster is a sweeping epic that uses the life of Ip Man (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the kung fu master who trained Bruce Lee, to recount two tumultuous decades in China's history.

Packed with elaborate, eye-popping fight sequences choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill), The Grandmaster is the most action-intensive film Wong has made. It is also among his most personal. The movie incorporates his recurring theme of romantic longing (Ip has an unspoken, unfulfilled love affair with Gong Er, another martial arts master played by Zhang Ziyi) into a recreation of Japan's invasion of China in 1937 - an event that forever changed the country's culture.

Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung Chiu Wai had to do all the fight scenes in The Grandmaster themselves.

"The Grandmaster was new territory for me, because I knew nothing about martial arts," Wong says. "This is also the first time I've made a film about China in the 1930s. But when I was writing it, I wasn't conscious of the love story elements.

"The immediate attraction between Ip and Gong is more than just man and woman. They are both martial artists. They are more like comrades. When they're forced to say farewell, they're not just saying goodbye to a friend or a lover. They're also saying farewell to an era, which will probably turn out to be the best times of their lives."

Wong spent three years researching The Grandmaster before a single frame was shot. He travelled to various cities in China and Taiwan in the company of martial arts coach Wu Bin (who trained the action-film star Jet Li) and met with a number of masters who shared their philosophies and differing fighting styles. Wong wanted to make sure he got even the smallest details right, because he felt a responsibility to pay homage to a past that was on the verge of being forgotten.

"I didn't want to make a kung fu film," he says. "I wanted to make a film about the history of kung fu. It's a film about that world at that precise time. In the 1930s, people like Ip Man and Gong Er were not typical martial artists. They weren't street-fighters. They came from very wealthy families with their own banners and rituals. That is a class that doesn't exist any more."

The Grandmaster was shot in 22 months over a period of three years, allowing time for the actors to becomes experts in the various schools of kung fu they were representing. Wong insisted that Leung and Zhang perform all their own fighting (no stunt doubles were used), and the action sequences were so elaborate that they would take weeks to film (the opening setpiece, in which Ip fends off hordes of kung fu students under a rainstorm, took a month).

Born in Shanghai in 1956, Wong moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was seven, and his childhood memories were part of the motivation that led him to make The Grandmaster.

"I grew up on a street where there were several different martial arts schools," he says. "Some of them were from northern China and some from the south. I was curious to know where they all came from and what happened to their past. When you spoke to an established master in Hong Kong, their best stories were all about their younger days.

"The year 1936 was one of the golden years for Chinese martial arts. It was right before the Japanese invasion, and after that happened, all these martial artists wanted to do their part. They had a platform to be noticed and do something other than challenge each other, so they joined forces to help defend their country."

One of the pleasures of The Grandmaster is learning about the multitude of kung fu styles. Ip practiced Wing Chun, which consists of only a few basic but critical moves. Gong was the daughter of a master of Bagua, a more complex form of kung fu that was sometimes referred to as "64 Hands".

"I had to understand the differences between all the various schools so I could film them properly," Wong says. "I spent a lot of time attending demonstrations and meeting martial artists. One master said something to me that I never forgot. He said 'When you go into a fight, it's almost like kissing the other person'. I (asked) what that meant and he said 'First, you have to get close to your opponent. And when you kiss someone, you can feel it throughout your whole body. Your reaction is very concentrated. It's almost like a reflex'. That was his way of describing kung fu."

Wong clearly remembered that description while shooting the face-off between Ip and Gong: In one beautiful, slow-motion shot, the two warriors hover in the air, their faces just inches apart, like two lovers about to embrace. The sensuality of the moment is so subtle that some viewers may not even notice it. And even though the film's third act takes on the dreamy, gorgeous aura that is Wong's trademark, The Grandmaster is categorically an action movie first.

However, some of Wong's stylistic flourishes have been lost. The version of The Grandmaster being released in the United States by The Weinstein Co runs 108 minutes; the cut released in China was 130 minutes.

"We had an obligation to release the film here (the US) under two hours," Wong says. "But I didn't want to just cut and take out entire scenes. The structure of the original version is extremely precise: If you removed certain things, the movie's structure would collapse. So I decided to make a different version for American audiences that tells the story in a more linear way."

Eugene Suen, a Chinese-American filmmaker and producer of the coming drama Abigail Harm, has seen both cuts of The Grandmaster and strongly prefers Wong's original edit, which may still get a DVD release stateside.

"The differences are very noticeable, to the extent that I feel they are different movies," Suen says. "Many of Wong's previous movies dealt with Western preoccupations and a heightened sense of romance, so they could travel the world without any re-editing. This one is a great reappropriation of his prominent themes - the passage of time, unfulfilled love, romantic longing - as a survey of contemporary Chinese history."

Suen also says the references to Bruce Lee in The Grandmaster are much more overt in the US version (including a title card preceding the end credits that spells out the connection). "There are a couple of scenes of Ip Man training his students and there's this little kid there practicing, but there's no strong hint as to who he is," Suen says.

But in the same way Lee helped popularise martial arts movies in the US in the 1970s, his aura may help attract audiences who might have not otherwise noticed The Grandmaster. And this sumptuous, spectacular movie merits attention. -- The Miami Herald/McClatchy-Tribune Information ServicesKICK-ASS 2

LOCK up your comic-books and stash the perps in protective custody - the costumed vigilante with damaged nerve endings is back, and if he's here, can the fan-favourite Hit-Girl be far away? The sequel to the most refreshing "superhero"/vigilante flick in recent memory is here at last and, although it's all a little familiar by now, the over-the-top violence and audacious attempts at comedy (some hits, some misses) still have an impact.

Basically, it's about the three main players on the Kick-Ass stage - Dave Lizewski/ Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Mindy Macready/ Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Chris D'Amico/ The Supervillain Formerly Known As Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) - trying to find themselves; in short, that age-old quest to belong. Dave joins a (somewhat sad) superhero team; Mindy falls in with the cool girls at school; and Chris ... spends a lot of money.

If this were a teen comedy or drama, well, same old, same old; but this is a Kick-Ass movie, from the nihilistic comics of Mark Millar. As such, things seldom transpire as they would in the "real world" - no matter how many times writer-director Jeff Wadlow (taking over from Matthew Vaughn) tries to stress that this isn't a comic-book but the real world.

The film has some big laughs and the action (especially the Hit-Girl fights) is quite terrific, but the resolution of the main characters' respective paths could have been handled much better. That bit with Mindy, the mean girls and the "sick stick" for example - sure, it's gross and a bona fide "Tell me they didn't just do that!" moment, but it's neither skilful nor satisfying. - DAVIN ARUL ***


THIS movie is certainly filled with eye candy for two generations of moviegoers.

Tweens and teens have teenager Clary Fray (Lily Collins, who seems to have tamed her eyebrows somewhat), who starts to unconsciously draw a strange symbol obsessively and see things others don't, and the unconventionally good-looking Shadowhunter Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower), who becomes her love interest, as well as fellow sibling Shadowhunters Isabelle (Jemima West) and Alec Lightwood (Kevin Zegers).

Older viewers have Clary's mother, Jocelyn (the luminous Lena Headey), who tries, but doesn't succeed in shielding her daughter from her heritage, family friend Luke Garroway (Aidan Turner), and villain Valentine Morgenstern (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who projects bad-boy sexiness despite the mini-braids in his hair).

Major props to the costuming department, whose choices contributed a great deal to the characters' appeal.

Based on Cassandra Clare's book of the same name, this movie adaptation is quite well done.

The plot is well-paced and has a good flow, although there are deviations from the book, and the action is well-choreographed with good CGI.

As far as Young Adult movie adaptations go, I would recommend this over Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

My only quibble is with the overly emotive soundtrack; the acting is good enough for me without the musical manipulation.

A recommended watch for fantasy fans. - TAN SHIOW CHIN ****


THE year is 2154, and mankind is divided into two: the haves, who live in a luxurious, peaceful space station called Elysium, and the have-nots, who remain behind on an over-populated, polluted and crime-ridden Earth.

Most significantly, the people of Elysium have the technology to cure practically any medical ailment, while hospitals on Earth are ill-equipped to treat even basic injuries.

Max (Matt Damon) is a reformed criminal who is simply trying to make a living for himself on Earth, until a dire turn of events forces him to embark on a desperate attempt to break into Elysium. This earns him the wrath of Elysium's Secretary Of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), and her hitman on Earth, Kruger (Sharlto Copley).

Those who enjoyed director Neill Blomkamp's amazing debut District 9 will see his signature all over Elysium - his realisation of the era is fantastic, with stunning details that are both familiar yet otherworldly. He also doesn't compromise on the action either, which is both gory and hugely exciting.

The storyline, while lacking the freshness of District 9, is pretty decent sci-fi fare, and brings up relevant questions about government and society's class systems.

And despite some rather unlikely plot turns, a stellar cast keeps your attention riveted. The best, however, has got to be Copley's surprising turn as the deranged, bloodthirsty and yet thoroughly enjoyable Kruger - Hollywood, this man needs to be in more films! - SHARMILLA GANESAN ****


THE premise of this British action thriller is quite typical. Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) is a thief who has managed to evade the police until one young detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) is put on his trail. Despite getting close enough to touch Sternwood, Lewinsky doesn't get to arrest him and Sternwood disappears. Three years later, Sternwood makes an appearance and Lewinsky is back at work, sniffing him out. Only thing is, the game has shifted quite a bit for both men.

No doubt there are more intense films involving robbers and cops - Michael Mann's Heat comes to mind immediately thanks to the blue tint director Eran Creevy uses and the subject matter. Except here, Creevy works in the fact that British police officers are not allowed to carry firearms on normal patrols.

There are some good action scenes too - but again, they resemble other Hollywood productions. However, if there is a reaason to watch the film it is to see the performances - all the cast members deliver, especially the leads. Strong exudes danger with calm control while McAvoy ably conveys Lewinsky's self-hatred and determination with just a look. - MUMTAJ BEGUM ***


PLANES is a classic example of a perfectly entertaining, perfectly unoriginal and perfectly unmemorable movie.

The Cars movies have always been at the bottom of my Pixar movies list, mainly because their other efforts have far better stories and characters (in my opinion).

So, I didn't really have high expectations for this spin-off.

That, perhaps, was the key to my enjoyment of the movie.

Telling the story of Dusty Crophopper, a cropduster plane, whose biggest dream is to participate in the elite Wings Around the World racing competition, the plot is about as dramatic as deciding whether to paint your house white or beige.

Every character in the movie has a counterpart in either Cars or Cars 2, from the young hopeful to the reticent mentor and the silly sidekick to the arrogant villain.

But the visuals are beautiful, especially in 3D, and many of the puns are quite hilarious.

A good movie to escape the daily grind for a short while and have a good laugh.

Also, a good one to bring the kids to. - TSC ***

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