Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo

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Seventh Son


"No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?"

“No more cracks about Jedi Knights, okay?”

(2014) Fantasy (Universal/Legendary) Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Olivia Williams, Djimon Hounsou, Antje Traue, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, John DeSantis, Gerard Plunkett, Jason Scott Lee, Kandyse McClure, Luc Roderique, Zahf Paroo, Timothy Webber, Lilah Fitzgerald, Marcel Bridges, Libby Osler, Primo Allon, Taya Clyne. Directed by Sergei Bodrov

In Hollywood’s seemingly unceasing attempt to grab the newest Harry Potter, Bella Swan or Katniss Everdeen from a Young Adult novel series, they have moved on to their latest attempt with a cemetery full of potential candidates who didn’t make any sort of box office impact behind them. So will this enter that final resting place of dismal cinematic failures or will it be the next license for the studio to print money?

Master Gregory (Bridges) is the last of a once-vaunted but now nearly extinct order of Knights, the Knights of the Falcon – more popularly known as Spooks. That’s because this particular order hunted the supernatural, witches and dragons and such. In order to be effective in such a venture, they are all made up of the seventh sons of seventh sons, which makes them stronger than ordinary humans as well as more sensitive to magic and wizardry.

With his most recent apprentice (Harrington) indisposed, Master Gregory needs to find one in a hurry. That’s because one of his most powerful foes, Mother Malkin (Moore), a particularly powerful and malevolent witch, has escaped her entombment in a mountain and becomes more powerful by the moment with the approach of a once-in-a-century Blood Moon. She has the means to perform a ritual that will allow her to be all-powerful and to strike down Gregory which will allow the witches of the land to rule with impunity.

Gregory seeks Tom Ward (Barnes), an honest hard-working sort whose mother (Williams) seems to know more about what he’s in for than she’s saying. Gregory doesn’t have time to train Tom properly but he’ll just have to learn on the job; Malkin is gathering her forces including her right-hand witch Lizzie (Traue), master assassin Radu (Hounsou) and were-cheetah Sarikin (McClure). There’s also young Alice (Vikander) who Tom becomes sweet on but she’s actually Lizzie’s daughter, which complicates things.

All will come to a head in the witch’s castle high in a forbidden and desolate mountain range where a sacrifice needs to be made for the witch to become all-powerful. With the world at stake, can Gregory the aged knight triumph with an untested apprentice at his side?

Like many of the Young Adult fantasies to come our way in recent years, there is a heavy reliance on CG creatures which here have a kind of Ray Harryhausen-like aesthetic, only without the jerky movement of stop motion. One definitely has to give Bodrov, who wowed Russian and American audiences with the epic sweeping Mongol back in 2007, props for the respect.

Unfortunately, he has a very weak script to work with, one that was evidently written by Captain BeenThereDoneThat. We get an untested young protagonist who seems destined to fail, despite trying his hardest time after time but when a significant event occurs, he finds the power within himself and turns out to be even more powerful than anyone ever imagined. Most of those who litter the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed have very similar storylines.

Sadly, this doesn’t have a Jennifer Lawrence or a Daniel Radcliffe either. Ben Barnes is an attractive young actor and he’s certainly got the looks that you need to pull in the hormonal teen girl crowd, but he’s got about as much charisma as his character name implies. Not to knock Barnes who shows moments of talent, but this kind of part requires charisma of a once-in-a-blue-moon sort. Barnes does his best and makes a likable lead, but not a messianic one.

Bridges and Moore, both familiar with Oscar (and in Moore’s case, likely to become even more familiar shortly) get to chew the scenery and they have at it with abandon. In Moore’s case, she becomes a sexy femme fatale who has been wronged and who has seen her people persecuted. If only the writers had chosen to explore that aspect of it more and make Mother Malkin less of a black hat and more of a tragic villain, this might have been a far different – and far better – movie.

Bridges mumbles and slurs his speech like a drunkard (which, to be fair, Master Gregory is) which wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s donned a similar affectation in his last four films. His Van Dyke beard looks a bit anachronistic considering this is supposed to be set during a medieval period but I can overlook that. There’s just little chemistry between him and Barnes so there’s a distance between the two characters that belies the fatherly affection that Gregory displays later in the film.

Part of the problem is that for a Young Adult series to succeed cinematically, it has to appeal to an audience beyond the target. In other words, Old Adults have to find something to latch onto as well, thus the casting of Bridges and Moore. However, the lead character needs to be charismatic and memorable and Barnes simply has not shown that he has that kind of screen presence, not as Prince Caspian and not as Tom Ward. Not yet anyway.

The attempts at humor mostly revolve around Gregory’s drunkenness leading me to think that this is a movie that takes itself way too seriously. While the supporting crew – in particular Hounsou, Williams and Vikander – are satisfactory, Moore and Bridges are both fine actors having a fine time with Barnes trying to and falling a little short. This isn’t a bad film, you understand – there have been far worse in this genre – but it’s just fairly ordinary entertainment, making this a likely candidate for a headstone in the Cemetery of Young Adult Fantasy Would-Be Franchises That Failed.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice monster effects. Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Some decent support.
REASONS TO STAY: Humorless. Clunky. Predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of swords and sorcery violence, some frightening images of monsters and mayhem and some brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally to have been released in early 2014 by Warner Brothers, when Legendary’s distribution contract with that studio expired and a new one signed with Universal, this was one of the movies whose release date was delayed as Universal took over distribution.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Harvey

Back to the Future Part II


Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can't believe what's in the script.

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can’t believe what’s in the script.

(1989) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Weissman, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, J.J. Cohen, Charles Fleischer, Ricky Dean Logan, Darlene Vogel, Jason Scott Lee, Elijah Wood, John Thornton, Flea, Buck Flower, Joe Flaherty, Tracy D’Aldia. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future was one of the biggest successes of the 1980s for Hollywood, and has stood to this day as a cultural linchpin. Could Robert Zemeckis capture lightning in a bottle yet again?

Marty McFly (Fox) has just returned home from his trip to 1955 when Doc Brown (Lloyd) returns, having gone to see what 2015 was like. It turns out that the future’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Something has to be done about his kids.

It turns out Marty Jr. (Fox again), a nebbish nothing like his dad, is about to take part in a robbery gone bad which will get him sent to jail. His sister Marlene (also Fox) will attempt to break him out of jail and get caught and jailed herself. The plan is for the 1985 Marty to meet up with Griff Tannen (Wilson) and tell him that he won’t take part in the robbery. Griff, who’s got bionic implants that are a bit fried, blows a fuse and with his gang of thugs chases Marty on hoverboards until Griff loses control and crashes into City Hall, going to jail himself and returning the future into something more palatable.

Doc catches Marty purchasing a sports almanac that would give Marty all the results of every sporting event for decades. Marty is thinking he can make some cash off of the deal but Doc refuses to allow it and throws the almanac out. They then go to find Jennifer, who after being knocked out by Doc (who doesn’t want her to see too much of her future) had been picked up by the cops and taken to her future home, not knowing that Griff’s grandpa Biff (also Wilson) overheard them and quickly figured out a plan.

That plan was to steal the Delorean, return to 1955 and give himself the book. He manages to do so and narrowly returns back to 2015 before anyone’s the wiser. When Marty and Doc return back to 1985, they find it a very different place than where they left it – a place in which Biff has amassed an incredible fortune, turning Hill Valley into a rat hole and marrying Marty’s mom Lorraine (Thompson) after her husband and Marty’s father George (Weissman) was murdered.

Doc realizes what has happened and the two must return to 1955 and prevent Biff from getting the almanac so that the timeline can be returned to normal. However, they’ll need to avoid the original Marty so that he can take care of business or risk further contaminating the timeline.

Sequels rarely live up to the originals and this one doesn’t at the end of the day when it comes to heart but it does make up for it in innovation and imagination. The 2015 sequences are visually striking while the alternate 1985 sequences are wrenching. The real payoff here however is the 1955 sequences which preserve the integrity of the original movie while telling its own story – which isn’t easy when time travel and the consequences thereof play such an important role.

Fox by this time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, in no small part thanks to the first movie. Despite a nearly five year gap between films he steps back into the Marty McFly role without missing a beat (although he had to learn how to skateboard all over again). One of Fox’s strengths as an actor is his ability to interact seamlessly with other cast members and create chemistry with everyone, no matter how small the role. He is always in the moment which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Zemeckis who had filmed Who Framed Roger Rabbit in between the Back to the Future films (the third one was filmed back to back with this one) made it easy for Fox to step back in so perfectly – you know this because every other actor did the same thing which we don’t always see in sequels. Watching the three movies in order you never get a sense that there was any kind of gap between them, the characters are so perfectly matched between films. That’s a tribute to both director and cast.

However for all the technical excellence and the fine performances all around, the movie lacks some of the elements that made the first movie great – the portrayal of parents as people who have been through many of the same issues as their kids, the 50s nostalgia, the feeling of coming home at the end. The latter element can’t really be helped – the movie is meant to lead directly in to the third film in the franchise and so the film ends on a cliffhanger note which is understandable but one leaves the theater feeling like they haven’t seen a complete movie. Of course, these days you just pop in your disc for the third film into the Blu-Ray player and continue on but even so the movie feels more like a transition and less than a stand-alone story which of course it isn’t.

The middle film of the Back to the Future trilogy isn’t as good as the film that preceded it nor as good as the film that succeeded it but even so it is solid entertainment and an innovative piece of cinema that stands the test of time.

WHY RENT THIS: Fox delivers a star turn. Innovative and imaginative. 1955 sequence is right on the money.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: 2015 sequence doesn’t work as well. Lacks some of the elements that made the first film great.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While most of the cast of the first movie returns for the sequel, two notable cast members did not; Claudia Wells, who played Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (played by Elisabeth Shue here) was caring for her mother who had cancer and had given up acting for the time being, and Crispin Glover who played Marty’s father George made exorbitant salary and script control demands and was essentially written out of the script; his future self was played by Jeffrey Weissman and was mostly see from the back, at odd angles, upside down or with dark sunglasses.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” from the first film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $332.0M on a $40M production budget; once again this was a big blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Butterfly Effect

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT; The East