Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

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Phoenix (2014)


Just one look was all it took.

Just one look was all it took.

(2014) Drama (Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Römer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Sofia Exss. Directed by Christian Patzold

Some people will do anything to survive, even throw the people they love under the bus. Some people will do anything for those they love, even refuse to believe they’d throw us under the bus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nelly Lenz (Hoss) before the war was an acclaimed singer in Berlin. However, she is part-Jewish, enough so that she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Before the camp is liberated, she is shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead. Fortunately she survives but she needs reconstructive surgery on her face. Even though her surgeon tells her that making her look like she did before would be difficult, she opts to be herself rather than look like someone different.

Part of the reason for this is that she wants to be with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) again. However her good friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf) tells her that her husband, who was arrested two days before Nelly was, was released hours before her own arrest and likely betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly refuses to believe this though and goes looking for her musician husband through the rubble of Berlin – and eventually finds him in a seedy nightclub named Phoenix.

However, astonishingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. However, her resemblance to his wife is enough that he hatches a scheme. You see, Nelly had a sizable fortune when she was arrested, but there’s no proof of her death so Johnny can’t collect it. If he can mold this woman to be just like Nelly, she can sign for that inheritance and split it with Johnny. She agrees to the scheme, only to get close to her husband.

She’s walking a very fine line, knowing that if he discovers her true identity there could be trouble. However, she keeps doing as he says while looking into the allegations Lene brought up. The day comes when she is to reveal herself as Nelly – what will she do and how will Johnny react?

This is a brilliant bit of filmmaking by Patzold, who is becoming one of the best directors in Europe. He sets a mood of tension and keeps it going throughout the movie, not so much that you feel that if it isn’t broken you’ll just explode but enough so that you feel a lovely discomfort throughout. He also has crafted a wonderful allegory of guilt and rebirth that is just as relevant now as it was during the period this is set.

His regular collaborator Nina Hoss is absolutely sensational here. A lot of critics have complained that it was slightly implausible that a husband wouldn’t recognize his wife, but clearly Nelly was deeply changed by her experiences. She is hunched over, wrapping herself in her arms as if the terror of her experience hadn’t faded even though her ordeal was over. Her performance is densely layered and is at the heart of the movie; it’s not that Zehrfeld (another frequent Patzold cast member) doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that Hoss is amazing.

The rest of the cast, like Zehrfeld, is solid, but it’s Hoss’ show. They are all a little zombified by the effects of the war; dead expressions that come from being a defeated nation, something that perhaps Americans might not understand directly. The expressions of the American soldiers are much different; we can see a clear difference between the victors and the defeated. Like just about everything else, this is subtly set so that you have to work a little bit to get the actual meaning of what Patzold is presenting to you visually. This is what makes him such a marvelous director.

The setting of a mostly destroyed Berlin is perfect; the rubble is ripe for a resurrection, and Nelly, as ruined in her own way as Berlin is, makes an excellent allegory. War destroyed a beautiful woman and a beautiful city; they both had the option of becoming anything they wanted but had to excise the demons of their past first. Berlin’s transformation would take much longer, but Nelly’s transformation was in many ways more profound.

This is a movie that succeeds on a lot of different levels, from the easily seen to the more subtle. Certainly it gives the audience a whole lot to think about. The ending, incidentally, is just about perfect, from the way it is executed, the camera angles and the expression on the faces of the actors. It wasn’t the way I expected it to end for sure, but it was the right way for it to end. The great ending is very rare these days so when one comes along, it is much appreciated.

Phoenix is a revelation, notice that here is a director who is to be reckoned with. This will likely be showing up on Netflix and other streaming services shortly – it’s American release was back in July although here in Central Florida the Enzian is reportedly considering booking it for early December – and it’s very much worth checking out once it does. Few movies will leave you as breathless as this one does especially after you consider the ending you just saw as it fades to black and are left jaw dropped and mind blown.

REASONS TO GO: High tension. Hoss’ performance is outstanding. Ending is incredibly good.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoss has appeared in five of Patzold’s seven films thus far.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (Check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flame and Citron
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Burnt

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Chasing Amy


Chasing Amy

This is what cool looked like in 1997.

(1997) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Matt Damon, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Dwight Ewell, Carmen Lee, Rebecca Waxman, Welker White, Kelli Simpkins, John Willyung, Ethan Suplee, Casey Affleck. Directed by Kevin Smith

Director Kevin Smith became the critic’s darling after Clerks, then became the critic’s whipping boy after Mallrats. This is the third movie set in what Smith calls his Askewniverse, a small trio of New Jersey towns called, oddly enough, the “tri-town area” (which actually exists, and Smith actually grew up there), inhabited by stoners, slackers, libertines and jerks. In short, it’s the real world, without the annoying odors.

Ben Affleck lives in this world, or rather he plays someone who does. That someone is Holden McNeil, a successful comic book artist (Smith is something of a fanboy who is heavily involved in the four-color world of comic books) who’s best friend Banky (Lee) is also his writer and business partner.

Their superheroes are based on the exploits of two guys familiar to Smith fans; Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), and the book they draw has reached a level of success that has attracted the attention of MTV (look for Matt Damon in a cameo as a smarmy Empty Vee exec) who want to turn it into an animated series. There is a nice scene where they’re confronted by J&SB who are predictably none too happy that the characters based on them are doing so well.

At a convention, Holden meets struggling artist Alyssa Jones (Adams) and falls in love with her. It soon turns out that Alyssa is a lesbian, and perfectly content to be one. Hope springs eternal, however, and Holden eventually confesses his feelings for her. In a somewhat unlikely turn, she falls for him as well (and you’ve gotta love a movie where the lead actress is an unlikely bet to fall for Ben Affleck). That’s where things go sour.

Unlikely many romantic movies, this is a relationship between imperfect people who can – and do – say and do the wrong things. Smith has a gift for being able to expose you to differing viewpoints and enable you to relate to all of them, diverse as they may be. This is ostensibly a comedy, with some hellacious laughs in it (the bit in which acerbic gay black artist Hooper X (Ewell) tries to convince the frenetic Banky that Archie is actually gay is hysterical), but this is also a movie that forces you to examine your own viewpoints, especially as they relate to your own relationships.

We are all chasing Amy, the metaphor Smith uses for searching for the perfect partner, our life’s soulmate. Many times we find that partner, only to screw up the relationship. Then, forever, we are measuring our partners against The One that Got Away (this is particularly a guy thing, but it can be a girl thing as well). Too often, we end up messing up by trying to fit our partners within our preconceived notions of what they should be, rather than accepting them the way they are.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise to some that this is my favorite Kevin Smith movie, even more so than his more beloved Clerks. Then again, I understand from his Wikipedia page that many critics feel the same, although Clerks continues to be the movie Smith is most identified with. Maybe that’s why he is planning on retiring from film directing after his next movie. Still, Chasing Amy remains one of his best-reviewed films ever.

There’s good reason for that. There are times Chasing Amy is actually painful to watch, as you realize that with one thoughtful word said (and sometimes, one thoughtless word not said) things would be great between Holden and Alyssa. That they aren’t makes this a movie we can all actually relate to – and learn from.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith’s best film ever. A real world romantic comedy that deals with real world relationship issues. Relatable to most viewers who have ever messed up a romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Smith can be an acquired taste. Lots of pop culture references dates this a little.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair amount of bad language, much of it related to sex. There’s also some sexuality and drug use as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Smith was dating Joey Lauren Adams at the time and wrote the movie based on his experiences with her.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD was released as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection and while there aren’t a ton of features beyond the usual DVD making-of and commentary fare, the director commentary is one of the best ever released. While the film has yet to get released on Blu-Ray on it’s own, it was released as part of a Kevin Smith Blu-Ray Collection along with Clerks and Mallrats. While the excellent commentary track wasn’t ported over to the Blu-Ray edition (because the rights to it belong to Criterion) there are some excellent features, including a 10th Anniversary Q&A session with the cast and a conversation with Smith and Adams long after their relationship came to an end that is sometimes poignant and awkward but is mostly funny and charming.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.2M on a $250,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster relative to it’s low budget.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: After.life