Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

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The A-Team


The A-Team

Here's another plan coming together.

(20th Century Fox)  Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Henry Czerny, Brian Bloom, Omari Hardwick, Yul Vazquez, Maury Sterling, Terry Chen. Directed by Joe Carnahan

Adapting a beloved television show into a major motion picture carries its own pitfalls as well as a built-in audience. That makes it something of a double-edged sword for the filmmakers; how to keep fans of the original show satisfied while delivering something that stands apart from the original.

Colonel Hannibal Smith (Neeson) heads up a team of Army Rangers who specialize in tackling jobs that most covert teams would run away from screaming like little girls. They never fail because of their specialized skills; Cpl. Faceman “Face” Beck (Cooper) is a smooth lady’s man who is second in command on the team; Cpl. B.A. Baracus (Jackson) is as strong as an ox and is the team’s driver while Capt. H.M. Murdock (Copley) is just on this side of insane (and maybe on the other side) and is the team’s pilot.

They are in the process of leaving Iraq when they receive a visit from two separate people; one is Captain Charissa Sosa (Biel) who has a past with Face, but has come to warn the team to stay out of Baghdad. The other is a smarmy slimy CIA Agent named Lynch (Wilson) – one of many, apparently, with that name – who has a mission for the “Alpha” team; to retrieve plates from the U.S. mint that renegade Iraqis have stolen to print their own U.S. currency. While Hannibal’s superior officer, General Morrison (McRaney) has some reservations, ultimately he decides to allow Hannibal to go, even though it violates direct orders so this mission is strictly “off the books.”

It also pisses off a mercenary from the Black Forest Corporation by the name of Brock Pike (Bloom) whose team was originally set to retrieve the plates but is now being moved aside for Hannibal’s cast of characters. It’s a very tough job involving getting aboard a moving semi while avoiding a convoy of heavily armed trucks escorting the semi, but the A-Team pulls it off.

Unfortunately, when they return to base General Morrison is killed when his jeep explodes and the Black Forest team absconds with the plates. Despite their protests of innocence, the A-Team is accused – and convicted – of colluding with the mercenaries and get sent to prison.

Of course, no prison will hold them for long and with the help of Lynch – who wants to retrieve the plates – the A-Team escape from the four separate penitentiaries that are incarcerating them and go about the business of retrieving the stolen plates, find out who set them up and clear their names in the process. How? Hannibal has always got a plan in mind…

Director Joe Carnahan has a history of quirky movies like Smokin’ Aces to his credit. This is his biggest assignment to date, and he doesn’t do a bad job at all, considering the limitations he has to work with and they are the ones that came with the property.

One of the problems with any television series is that they have a tendency to have a very similar modus operandi for each episode; the details may be different but they tend to follow the same plot outline. When a big budget movie remakes a TV show, generally the film wants to retain many of the same elements of the show in order to establish continuity between the show and the movie; this is to attract the original audience to the movie. However, this can lead to the movie feeling more like a retread than a re-imagining.

To be honest, there is some of that here; however, enough of the movie is fresh and new enough to distance it from the show and make it a little more 21st century, a little different.

Part of the reason for that is the cast. There was some criticism of the casting in online circles which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Neeson is one of the finest actors in the world and while this is a role he doesn’t usually tackle, he is excellent in creating a Hannibal Smith that recalls George Peppard’s character but is completely Neeson.

He’s solid but Copley, so tremendous in District 9, makes Murdock fascinating; you want to see more of him every time he’s onscreen. Like the Dwight Schultz Murdock, he’s crazy like a fox; just sane enough to make you wonder how crazy he really is. Copley plays the character as a cross between Scott Bakula and Robin Williams. Cooper further cements his standing as a rising star; Face is not only a lady’s man but also a brilliant military strategist. Cooper makes both sides of the character believable and does it with leading man charisma.

Patrick Wilson, impressive as a middle-aged hero in Watchmen, plays a very different character here and he’s quite good. He’s shown some real versatility in his performances and is moving into the territory of actors I look forward to seeing in whatever role he might be cast in. He makes for a terrific villain, almost to the level of my favorite bad guys Alan Rickman and Sean Bean.

As summer movies go, The A-Team is a perfect fit. It’s frenetically paced, light-hearted, well-acted and above all, fun. When I go into a theater on a hot summer day (or even a warm summer evening), I want to forget my cares and be taken on a delightful ride. Here’s a movie that fits that bill to a Mister T.

REASONS TO GO: This new A-Team does surprisingly well. The action sequences are seriously fun and the pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance. Wilson makes a great villain.

REASONS TO STAY: The same problems the TV show the movie is based on haunt the adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of big bang explosions which may frighten the tykes; there is some bad language as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo and Hannibal smokes cigars throughout. In other words, probably mature pre-teens and above for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head judge at the court martial of the team is named Carnahan after the director; also an actor credited for “The Greater Escape” movie shown during the Murdock escape sequence is Reginald Barclay, the name of a character played by Dwight Schultz who played Murdock in the original television show.  

HOME OR THEATER: Big action movies deserve big screens; see it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Killers