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Grandmaster leads pack

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The key to enjoying this holiday weekend it to remember that Labor Day means a break from labor. So if you’re not cruising down that lone lonesome highway you might want to hit your local cinema.

Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster stars Tony Leung as Ip Man and Ziyi Zhang as Gong Er. In his inimical style Kar Wai uses slow motion and rain to analyze Ip Man’s action  as well as the greater motivations of the combatants. Make no mistake The Grandmaster is an art film full bore. Even as Kar Wai moves from the 1930s to post war Hong Kong, back to the early 40s and still forward again to 1952 and the death of a main character, the audience is swept away with his hypnotic manner. Much of the story concerns how the Northern and Southern schools of hand-to-hand fighting are similar and yet different.

There was another recent Chinese film about Ip Man. But Kar Wei’s version despite its non-linear narrative conveys both the romantic depth of the story as well as an almost documentary breakdown of the different styles of martial arts seen throughout The Grandmaster. Ip Man practiced the Wing Chun kung fu style. Cinematography is by Philippe Le Sourd, and action choreography is by Yuen Wo Ping.

While The Grandmaster may be a film I love, there’s few films also opening this weekend that I only kind of like. When Prince Avalanche had its Southwest premiere earlier this year at SXSW director David Gordon Green told how the indie with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as two guys painting a forest highway was a “hip pocket project. We literally made it before anybody even learned we were doing it.” Headquartered out of Austin, Green used the same crew that he’s just employed to shoot a car commercial. Prince Avalanche was lensed in a Texas State Park that had been devastated by wildfires in 2011. At the film’s Q&A Rudd noted: “you could smell the destruction in the trees and ground.” Prince Avalanche explores the relation between Rudd’s older grumpy straight arrow type and Hirsch’s younger lackadaisical kid as they paint road stripes by day and camp out at night.

Austenland will be guaranteed a lifetime of cult adoration. After all it’s about a Jane Austen theme park where you attend and live in 19th century surroundings and meet characters from Austen’s novels. Kerri Russell stars with support from Jennifer Coolidge and Jane Seymour. Austen aficionados will appreciate the layer upon layer of Austen irony.

For my taste the laugh lines, especially Coolidge’s always talking with an Eliza Doolittle accent, just weren’t funny period. The sets and costumes are excellent but the harsh lighting was unflattering the actresses’ faces. There’s a new FOD in town – Friends of Darcy

I Declare War is the current entry in the Emperor’s New Clothes category of indie films. Yes, it’s very different and cut from a fresh bolt of cloth. And no, the story seldom elicits serious interest emotionally or metaphysically.

A group of kids play war games in the woods. We know they are armed with sticks and stones but the filmmakers show them armed with heavy ordnance complete with blazing gunfire. It’s a Lord of the Flies scenario played out with ever increasing hostility. Kids are shot but the don’t really die because they are really not shooting guns, just like the kid whose eyes glow and shoot laser beams of hatred. It’s all in their head, but it’s not where my head is.

Interestingly enough I Declare War bears a slight genre resemblance to the Stanley Kubrick debut film that was withheld for years, Fear and Desire. Both films are shot on low budgets at a single (albeit large) location with unknown actors pitched in battle.  The acting on display in I Declare War is a problem too; some of the kid actors are effective and hit their marks, while others look like kids trying to act. I Declare War unwinds exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park.

- Michael Bergeron

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