#91: Moonfleet (1955) January 14, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : adaptations, 3 stars, 1950s, Adventure, Historical, 2012 , add a comment
A colour CinemaScope Hollywood adventure movie from a director best known for epic German silents or dark film noirs?
#42: The Return of the Musketeers (1989) December 22, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Action, adaptations, 3 stars, 1980s, Adventure, British films, Historical, 2012 , add a comment
16 years later, they filmed Twenty Years After… Today’s 100 Films Advent Calendar review:
#85: War Horse (2011) October 20, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, War, 5 stars, adaptations, British films, Historical, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
Steven Spielberg’s film based on the stageplay based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo.
#24: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) August 28, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Drama, War, 5 stars, 2000s, adaptations, Adventure, Historical, 2012 , add a comment
I can’t say a naval inaction film with Russell Crowe held massive appeal. Turns out I was completely wrong…Action, Fantasy, 3 stars, Mystery, world cinema, Historical, 2010s, 2012 , 1 comment so far
For the full version of this review, with pretty pictures and everything, please see it on my new blog.
This year’s 52nd film is, in many ways, thanks to DC’s The New 52 (the comic book initiative/publicity stunt that saw DC relaunch their entire universe across a series of 52 new #1 issues, for those who don’t do comics): it got me back into reading regular comics, and featured in multiple titles for several months was a cool-looking advert for the US release of Detective Dee, complete with the attractive review quote, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Sherlock Holmes, only a lot more fun”. A little research finds it highly recommended in other arenas too: there’s a host of awards nominations and wins, from the Venice Film Festival to the Hong Kong Film Awards; an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; Blu-ray.com furnished the UK BD release with a glowing write-up; Time ranked it the third best film for the whole of 2011 (behind The Artist and Hugo). Even the unreliable film section of the Radio Times saw fit to give it four stars.
All of which hopefully establishes how I found it to be a massive disappointment.
Days before the coronation of China’s first Empress, a high-ranked man is mysteriously burnt alive from the inside out. Then the man charged with investigating the case suffers the same fate. On advice (from who or what I shall mention later), the Empress assigns the case to Detective Dee — who has been in prison for eight years for rebelling against the Empress. Sounds like a good setup, eh? A super detective, at conflict with his employer, looking into supernaturally-tinged murders; and it’s a Hong Kong movie so you know there’s going to be some impressive action sequences.
To take Time’s opinion as a starting point, I have to wonder if they would rank Detective Dee so highly if it had been an American-produced film with actors speaking English. I don’t mean if the film was Americanised, but exactly the same, just an American production. In that instance, I think it would very much be viewed as a summer blockbuster, because that’s definitely what it strikes me as. It’s one with lots of talky bits and an over-complicated story, certainly, but then it’s not unheard of for US blockbusters to confuddle the viewer with an under-written over-developed plot (less so these days, I grant you).
Apparently it makes commentary on the economic and political situation in modern China. It must be done quite subtly, then. That’s a good thing I suppose, but I imagine you’re only going to notice it if you already have a familiarity with what’s going on. I don’t. Best I can tell, the film’s message is, “even if you think you’re ruler’s a bad person who’s done bad things, they’re you’re ruler and you should let them get on with it and not rebel”. I could have misread it, of course, but that’s what I got from the ending. Not a position I’d personally agree with.
Naturally there are plenty of action sequences (choreographed by Sammo Hung), several of them tacked on for the sake of it. Personally I wasn’t impressed. They’re all clearly shot on digital video (the whole film was, but the smeary fights really show it up), several are under-lit, there’s too much Hollywood-style choppy editing, it felt like some had bits missing, others are stop-start in a way that adds up to not very much… Many of them left me confused about what was meant to be going on, not in awe of the performer’s abilities or entertained. One of them features the hero fighting a gaggle of cheap CGI deer. Yes, deer. Why?
Detective Dee is a film of moments. There are some pretty shots, occasionally even sequences; the fight in the Phantom Bazaar, an underground river network, is guilty of some of my criticisms but also pulls off a few nice bits. The CGI is what you’d expect from a mid-range US miniseries, but (with exceptions such as the fighting deer) it works well enough, even creating some dramatic vistas, particularly of the 200-foot tall Buddha statue that’s central to the plot. Some of the sets are also incredibly impressive — again, the interior of the Buddha. Occasionally I was frustrated reading the subtitles (which fly by at a rate of knots, it felt to me) because I wanted to look at the detailed, busy production design.
I mention the fast subtitles because the film feels like it’s moving at quite a lick. There’s little room to get to know the characters, or the situation, or their relationships, or their political machinations, before it’s racing on to the next plot point. And yet despite that it feels incredibly slow as a whole — I was clock-watching before the hour mark.
Perhaps one of the things that suffers for this is the film’s relationship with the supernatural. It’s at first supposed that the deaths are some kind of divine intervention, but then this is kicked away — what a silly idea by some foolish characters! But then everyone’s more than happy to accept a talking magic deer (seriously; and they happily take it’s advice (see second paragraph)), a fighter whose arms fly off and turn into… something else (choppy editing means I’m not sure), facial transfiguration (imagine Mission: Impossible’s masks with face-churning magic instead of masks), and so on and so forth. Some of it ultimately has a rational explanation, but why is “divine intervention” so much less believable than “magic”? And why do you have to explain the talking deer and flying arms when the face-churning-thing is left untouched? I can take people flying unrealistically through the air — that’s the style of the genre, much like regular folk breaking out into perfectly-pitched musically-accompanied song is the style of the musical — but not internal inconsistency in other areas.
I’ve avoided the comparison so far, but Detective Dee is like a Chinese version of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, only a less inventive and comprehensible one. And it’s certainly not “a lot more fun”. Dee is a great deducer, a la Holmes, though the film gives him no opportunities to significantly show that off. The plot concerns a series of apparently-supernatural murders that actually have a rational explanation, and are ultimately all about taking control of the country. It stars a period detective who’s been reconfigured as younger and a man of action. But whereas Holmes kept things clear-cut and fast-moving, Dee (as I’ve noted) fudges and obscures motivation and plot and feels tediously long.
There are actually quite a few little things to like about Dee, and maybe there are a few big things too, but I feel like it’s making you work for them — you could enjoy the characters, or the political machinations, but only if you take time to study them slowly and work out what was going on for yourself, because the film’s in too much of a rush to explain it to you. There’s something to be said for entertainment not spelling everything out — it’s often a highly-praised element of anything that achieves it — but Dee doesn’t do that, it rushes headlong past things that could do with more clarity. (One thing I should do is listen to Bey Logan’s commentary — there’s a fair chance he’ll have insights that illuminate me. But in a moment you’ll see why I haven’t done that before posting this.)
Believe it or not, I didn’t hate Detective Dee… but I didn’t exactly enjoy it either. Not fully. I started this review by saying it and I think it’s my key feeling: after getting a little hyped up about something I’d previously ignored the UK release of, I found it to be disappointing. Your mileage mary vary.
The UK TV premiere of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is on Film4 and Film4 HD tonight, Friday 6th July, at 11:10pm.
#62: Ip Man (2008) February 23, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Drama, 2000s, 4 stars, true stories, world cinema, Biography, Historical, 2011 , add a comment
I liked Ip Man, but as we know from experience there are times when I find myself with little to say about a film, or I fail to make any notes, and this was an example of both. So I’ve decided to try something a little different.
I’ve read several different reviews of the film, found by various means, and have compiled a selection of quotes from them below. These are all segments of those reviews that I agree with or found to be an interesting point — I’m not trying to accurately represent each reviewer’s opinion, but instead using their words to enlighten my own. Each quote is, of course, credited and linked, so if you want to know their full opinion you can click through.
They’re arranged in an order that I think makes sense, too — by which I mean, rather than just bundle a selection of quotes in any old order, I’ve sorted them so that if you read them through as presented they should form a structured (more or less) piece.
Biographical martial arts drama starring Donnie Yen. China in the 1930s: Ip Man’s reputation as a martial arts master has brought fame and fortune to the city of Foshan. But hard times are ahead, as the Japanese invasion brings the once prosperous city to its knees.
Donnie Yen plays the eponymous Wing Chun master, who stove off hunger, poverty and half the Japanese army during China’s WW2 occupation – by kicking ass!
Though that’s an amusing thought, the film’s not quite that simplistic:
As he rallies his people to stand up for themselves, Ip Man becomes about how war pushes a peaceful man into action, but also how he tries to maintain his faith in what it means to be civilized.
Ip’s transformation from diffident bourgeois to symbolic man of the people is rendered as compelling period melodrama
There’s a pleasing playfulness about the opening scenes, which contrast… with the downbeat mood that follows during the occupation.
Not everyone was so impressed:
In transforming a humble real-life martial artist into the type of the reluctant hero (and nationalist icon), screenwriter Edmond Wong has turned his subject not only into something that he was not, but also into an overfamiliar kung fu movie cliche. This is an impression not helped by the film’s desaturated period look (yet another cliche), and a drift in the second, war-set half towards melodrama
a shameless hagiography that only bears a passing resemblance to history.
The presence of young Zhun [Ip Man’s son] suggests an eyewitness veracity to the events as portrayed on-screen — after all, Zhun himself, now a much older man and a wing chun master in his own right, served as a consultant on Ip Man. The film, however, does not hesitate to sacrifice the truth to the demands of dramatic entertainment.
almost none of what you see in Ip Man actually happened, and in some sense that’s too bad, because the real Ip sounds like a fascinating figure. He was a pre-revolutionary police officer, a reported opium addict, and a refugee who fled the Communist takeover in 1949 for a new life in British Hong Kong. But all those factors make him undesirable as the hero of a work of rousing nationalist agitprop. So instead we get Yen’s remarkable performance as a man of prodigious Buddhist-Confucian composure and tranquility, who goes from wealth to poverty to near-slave status, and finally must fight a public gladiatorial match against a sinister Japanese general
disappointingly simplistic. Yip, Wong, and Yen never develop any real tension between Ip’s true story and the exaggerated myth-making of a martial-arts movie. But as an exaggerated, myth-making martial-arts movie, Ip Man is often thrilling.
True-to-life or not, action star Donnie Yen largely shines in the lead role:
Donnie Yen delivers a charismatic portrayal of Ip Man, the martial arts master of the title.
Man is the role Yen was made to play: a stoic tough guy that everybody in the community knows is the best
Yen’s performance is also a bit one-dimensional as the modest wing chun expert, but at least he gives a good account of himself in the finely composed and inventive close-combat scenes — an impressive highlight being when he wipes the floor with ten soldiers with methodical precision.
Indeed, fighting is still what the film does best:
As a showcase for the distinctive moves of Wing Chun, or more generally for some formalised (if largely wire-free) chopsocky, Ip Man is exemplary, thanks to the action choreography of cult Hong Kong star Sammo Hung.
Hung’s fight choreography is clever and exciting, with sequences that have Ip felling a sword-wielding rival with a feather-duster, or holding off two men with a 10-foot pole.
That final conflict between evil General Sanpo and Man — who of course still has to fight the biggest bad guy since the locals are too incompetent to even fight a group of disorganized bandits — is also curiously ruthless. Sanpo is likened to Man’s coat rack-like training apparatus, making the flurry of blows Man rains down on Sanpo’s head a vicious attack on a dehumanized piece of furniture. It’s a fittingly abstract and totally brutal finale.
There are definitely better kung-fu flicks in terms of pure action spectacle, but Ip Man delivers as tremendous entertainment even if you don’t much care about martial arts.
It’s not all rosy:
The film was a box office hit in China… That may have had less to do with the excellent fight sequences, directed by Sammo Hung with the help of one of Mr. Ip’s sons, than with the appeals to nationalism and, particularly, the heavy-handed depiction of the occupying Japanese as giggling sadists or implacable killing machines.
The Japanese themselves couldn’t be more stereotyped in their presentation, with the honourable-but-brutal general and his cackling, sadistic henchman
On the other hand, as that “sinister Japanese general”:
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi… imbues what could have been a cardboard villain role with dignity and grace
To revisit Film4’s point about the “desaturated period look (yet another cliche)”:
Yip’s aesthetics are more muted and traditional than those of well-known florid imports Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet such modesty is in tune with his soft-spoken protagonist, and also provides clean, sharp views of Yen’s awe-inspiring skills
But in conclusion:
a throwback to those chopsocky Hong Kong films of the 1970s - a period piece filmed on obvious but eye-pleasing studio sets with wall-to-wall kung fu and a simplistic, philosophical message.
I’m not qualified to judge whether [Ip Man] belongs among the top martial-arts films ever made, an opinion that’s been gaining credence as the movie bounced around the world… But there can be no doubt that director Wilson Yip has crafted a gripping, rousing, beautifully structured yarn, built around a calm but charismatic star performance by Donnie Yen and magnificent action sequences choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung.
Consulted sources (including some unquoted)
- Abrams, Simon ‘Ip Man’ ushers in the return of the tough guys (New York Press)
- Adams, Derek Ip Man (2008) (Time Out)
- Cook, Simon IP Man 2 (Empire)
- Ebert, Roger Ip Man 2 (rogerebert.com)
- Film4 Ip Man Review
- Glasby, Matt Ip Man (Total Film)
- Hale, Mike Mastering Martial Arts (The New York Times)
- Healy, Jamie Ip Man (Radio Times)
- Johnson, G. Allen Review: ‘Ip Man’ is a fun kung-fu throwback movie (SFGate / San Francisco Chronicle)
- Jolin, Dan Ip Man (Empire)
- Murray, Noel Ip Man (A.V. Club)
- O’Hehir, Andrew “Ip Man”: A dazzling martial-arts epic (Salon.com)
- Schager, Nick Bruce Lee Mentor Ip Man Gets His Own Kickass Movie (The Village Voice)
#8: Ironclad (2011) January 28, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, War, 4 stars, Adventure, British films, true stories, Historical, 2010s, 2012 , 1 comment so far
In medieval times, a group of filmmakers set out to prove you can make a Hollywood-quality historical action epic with independent funding in Britain, while in the present day a ragtag group of seven samurai— sorry, gunslingers— sorry, warriors, defend a small town— sorry, castle, from evil bandits— sorry, an evil king.
I think I got some details confused there.
Set shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, Ironclad tells the true story of King John not being very happy and, with the backing of the Pope, setting about reclaiming England. Violently. Naturally the men who forced him into scribbling on the famous document aren’t best pleased, so while some set off to persuade the French to invade, others hole up in Rochester castle, vital to John’s efforts as it controls trade routes to the rest of the country or something.
Firstly, I say “true story” — I have no idea how much fact has gone into this. Some, at least. Was John really supported by a Viking-ish army? Dunno. Were the Knights Templar really dead set against him? Dunno. Was Rochester really defended by a dozen men? Dunno. But this isn’t a history lecture, it’s a piece of entertainment — aiming for the same ballpark as Gladiator, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on, albeit less grand; and there’s a sort of connection to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood too, which I seem to remember included the signing of the Magna Carta.
Anyway, it seems to me its use of facts are probably strong enough to support it as an entertainment. So some of the story structure may be reminiscent of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but it’s not the first to use that and it won’t be the last (and I’ve never seen either anyway. Bad me). And so the special effects-driven climax may occur on the wrong tower of the castle’s keep — I think we can live with that level of deception.
As to the point of “why not just go round the castle?”, I presume the answer is more or less, “well… he didn’t…” Somewhat thankfully, the commander of the Danish forces puts this very question to the King, whose answer is some muttered speech about how his family built it and… I dunno. I’m not clear why they can’t just use the massive camp next to the tiny castle as their appropriate base of operations, other than the film wouldn’t be half as exciting.
And exciting it of course is. There are stretches some may find dull — there’s little new to be done with the whole Recruiting The Team bit, and once John gets the castle under siege and everyone’s twiddling thumbs and eating horses some viewers will be doing one of the two as well — but there are regular bursts of sword-swinging violence that achieve the film’s primary aims. The fights are generally well staged, even if many resort to the modern vogue for close-up quick-cut handheld shakiness, and they’re certainly gory.
I’ve seen some complain about the level of graphic detail in this regard, but this is medieval times, they didn’t just bump each other about a bit; and you don’t think a giant axe swung down on someone’s shoulder with all a man’s weight is going to just leave a scratch, do you? Director Jonathan English doesn’t linger on detail as if this were a horror movie. There’s cleaved bodies, severed limbs, squirts of blood and more, and it all feels gruesomely realistic, but individually each moment passes quickly.
This is as appropriate moment as any to mention that the film should be in the ratio 2.40:1, but UK Blu-ray (and presumably DVD) was for some unknown reason mastered in a screen-filling 16:9 — I thought some of the shots looked tight! On the bright side it means English isn’t incompetent; on the dark side it means whoever mastered the UK Blu-ray is. (I’ve seen grabs from the US BD and that’s in the right ratio. Completely different special features too — a director’s commentary may well trump the half-hour of EPK interview snippets we get, for those that care.) I found this to be most blatant in dialogue scenes, where characters are barely squeezed into the extreme edges of the screen, with even the occasional moment of pan & scan required to get everyone who’s speaking on screen. I think it must also hamper the impact of the occasional epic shot — and there are a few — which is a shame because I think that feeling is really part of English’s aim here. I imagine it also makes some of those fight scenes even more disorientating, which is a pity. Nothing will help the sometimes-too-obvious use of digital video though, which looks as nasty as ever.
The battling cast — led by James Purefoy and supported by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman — all seem to have a whale of a time with their swords and axes and general fisticuffs. Their roles don’t offer too much depth, but only Flemyng (who I never rate) struggles. They’re supported by some talented thesps in the shape of Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, quality actors who maybe don’t always have the greatest taste for quality roles (Dance was recently in that direct-to-DVD Tesco-funded Jackie Collins adaptation, for instance) but always offer gravitas. There’s also Kate Mara, who does a fine British accent as an unnecessary love interest for Purefoy’s warrior monk type.
The real star, though, is Paul Giamatti as King John. Petulant, entitled and fundamentally weak, he rants and raves and chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth into (not literally, but at times I swear he came close). It’s a well-pitched performance — he doesn’t go too far with it, making the King ridiculous and laughable without dragging the whole film down around him. That makes for a good villain.
Despite some occasional cheapness in the cinematography, Ironclad largely achieves its goal of creating a Hollywood-esque historical action movie on British soil (it was shot in Wales). Yes some of the CGI is obvious, and some stuff that looks like CGI was apparently model work, but these are all forgivable, especially when you remember this was made for just $25 million. The unfamiliar true story also gives it the added edge of not knowing who lives or dies, or whether our heroes even succeed. If the ultimate end feels guessable, I think it’s only in retrospect. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of it’s historically accurate anyway.
And so what? It’s an action movie. And on all points that matter, it scores well.
Ironclad began on Sky Movies Premiere last night and continues daily throughout the week. I have no idea which aspect ratio it’s in.