MAN OF TAI CHI

manoftaichi MAN OF TAI CHI

Man of Tai Chi was supposed to be a big deal. Directed by Keanu Reeves and starring a martial artist he became friends with on the set of The Matrix trilogy, it was supposed to feature dazzling fight sequences shot with a new technology in which a camera is rigged to a robotic arm. In doing this, one could achieve long, smooth takes which highlighted the fights and brought the viewer into the action without muddying the choreography with quick cuts or broken continuity.

Logistical problems prevented the equipment from being shipped to China, where Man of Tai Chi was filmed. What we end up with is a very traditional kung fu movie directed by an untraditional Hollywood star. The most rewarding scene comes at the end when we see the nearly fifty year-old Keanu engage in a final showdown with stuntman-turned-leading-man Tiger Chen. Though not as spry as in his cyberpunk days, Keanu nonetheless brings the goods.

After you’ve seen enough kung fu movies, decent fights are no longer enough to sustain your interest. There needs to be more, otherwise you’re just watching people dance with each other. In the case of Man of Tai Chi, the innovative way in which the fights were filmed was going to be that X factor. Failing that, we’re left with a completely competent and mostly forgettable movie. Even a few amusing acting eccentricities by Reeves aren’t enough to change that.

PRISONERS

prisoners 1 PRISONERS

This is what a “dad movie” looks like to someone who never had a father. It’s a rainsoaked examination of whether rageful misery can be more poetic and productive than sadness.

Prisoners is the kind of film I thought only South Korea was bothering with these days. I’m glad to be wrong. I’m glad people are still interested in savage R-rated thrillers. I’m glad Hugh Jackman can portray a grim antihero, because he sure as hell wasn’t doing that in Wolverine earlier this year. I don’t know what that movie was supposed to be… but it ended up lameass tripe sold on a bill of good looks and fanboyish goodwill.

prisoners 2 PRISONERS

The idiosyncrasies of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Detective Loki has garnered a lot of attention, not so much for its quirkiness but because he sticks his landing. The character is more interesting for his efforts, like when you happen upon an interesting person in the real world: evidence of a contradictory life bursts from the seams of their self-presentation, but not in a way you fully understand. When stuff like this happens in a Hollywood movie people rush to assign it labels like “Oscar-worthy performance.” But what they really mean to say is “cool, Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t bland as hell.”

You don’t get to know Detective Loki by the end of the movie. In fact you know precious little about any of the characters at all. You experience their anger and pain for two and a half hours and you like it because it feels familiar. You like it because it exploits your paranoia about how ugly and hateful the world can be. The movie is titled Prisoners because its plot deals with child abduction, but the movie is about brutish, miserable men: a condition no police investigation is likely to remediate, a condition without escape.

Let’s get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

breaking bad Lets get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

Breaking Bad finished and I saw it finish, but last week I also saw Steve McQueen’s first two movies Hunger and Shame, so after sipping that brilliance I’m not at all feeling the whole “golden age of television” idea everyone bandies about. Even if this is a golden age, television is still a mostly developmentally stunted medium that at its very best isn’t aiming for much outside of the allure of the question “what’s the white sociopath gonna do next?”

Oh yeah, and AMC has to drop the audio every time someone says fuck because audiences can’t handle that shit. They want an antiseptic story about a suburban drug dealer superhero that doesn’t dramatize or challenge reality in any convincing way. And they don’t want to hear filthy language.

ray donovan Lets get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

That brings me to Ray Donovan, the latest hard-edged drama about a middle aged white guy with sociopathic tendencies going through the motions with his marriage, his family, his job. I haven’t found a single one of these that’s worked since The Sopranos. Ray Donovan has great performances, authentic characters with realistic relationships, yet it fails to feel like it’s going anywhere, the kind of drama that might as well stop pretending it has a million different plot points because in every episode Donovan will gruffly go through life and surmount obstacles with violence and sexy times, more or less unchanged as he grimly marches forward until the show’s cancellation.

People need to start writing these kind of shows with a focus on accomplishing interesting things in each individual episode, and less time on groupthink-addled story arcs. How the hell does a drama starring Jon Voight and Liev Shriber get monotonous? I’m blaming contemporary writers room culture.

But let’s not despair, 2013 saw the debut of two of the best crime films I’ve seen in recent memory, and I watch a fair amount of those.

drug war Lets get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

new world Lets get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

Johnnie To’s Drug War and Park Hoon-jung’s New World compliment each other rather well, despite being entirely different movies from different countries: Johnnie To’s supremely matter-of-fact directing style and the subdued performances it encourages contrasts sharply with the charismatic melodramatics New World demands from its actors.

Drug War is so dry you might think you were tricked into watching some television procedural, if it wasn’t for that tripwire mine of intensity ready to explode at any moment, buried underneath it all. And when the music swoons in time with an actor’s contorted face of dismay in New World, there’s no question you’re watching a different kind of flick, one that’s propping up emotions, using empathy and charisma to sell you on the unfolding action.

officer down Lets get back into the swing of things by talking some shit.

I have yet to see a 2013 American crime film that succeeds on anything close to the same level as these two. The closest might be Officer Down, you know, the movie starring Stephen Dorff, and it doesn’t come close at all. Merely typing the words “Stephen Dorff” brings to mind feelings of misused potential and lost opportunity, feelings which apply equally well to Officer Down itself.

What it is, REBUILD OF EVANGELION?

eva What it is, REBUILD OF EVANGELION?

The Rebuild of Evangelion movies, of which 3 out of 4 have been released, are a Hideaki Anno-helmed remake of the landmark 1995 television anime, and they do financially well as theatrical releases in Japan, bringing in old fans as well as a new younger generation of people.

Shortly after being released on home video the third movie hit the Internet airways with lots of fanfare. As rapidly as it was pirated a storm of complaints arose concerning how terrible this one was. Here’s the truth about not just that, but the whole shebang.

The first two Rebuild movies are glorified reanimated compilation movies based on the TV show. Anime compilation movies are always terribly paced and never function well as movies, but otaku like to be sold the same thing over and over, so they always show up for them like lemmings, no matter how pointless or lackluster they are.

The third Rebuild movie is actually paced like a movie. It goes in its own completely odd direction, sure, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, fine, but this time they finally made a real movie and not just a ninety-minute commingling of television episodes. It doesn’t matter if you can’t imagine them wrapping the story up with one final installment. It doesn’t matter if Anno is trying to bishonen the series up with the silver haired kid. They actually did something halfway interesting this time.

All three of the Rebuild movies are disappointments. You know, for all the brilliant characterization people like to credit the original series for having, in these flicks Shinji Akari doesn’t evolve or change from one movie to the next. In each one he vacillates from being afraid of everything to being a take-charge protagonist, until it blows up in his face, then he goes back to being afraid of everything. I’m not sure how people don’t get tired of that same arc being used over and over again for the same protagonist in the same series of movies without any growth or understanding implied.

These Rebuild of Evangelion movies don’t have a lot going for them outside of their lush visuals.

HIMIZU

1 HIMIZU

Himizu is a Japanese movie directed by Sion Sono in 2011 from my “good luck waiting for this to come out in North America” pile of foreign flicks. You can get it on BD from the UK but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Himizu is supposedly based upon a manga of the same name, a manga so utterly different from this movie I intend to talk about it separately.

The movie isn’t really based on anything but the director’s interest in melding a few contemporary issues into one long, drawn out morality play encouraging the youth of Japan to preserve their hope and integrity, even as corrupt social institutions doom them to failure.

Shota Sometani plays a disillusioned student with no aspirations. He wishes to inherit the family business, a decrepit boat rental shop, and live out his life by a simple principle: he won’t bother anyone else, and no one should bother him.  He shrugs off the “you’re a unique flower who can do anything” existential encouragement of his public schooling, rebuffing these notions with curt aphorisms that a quiet girl in class, played by Fumi Nikaido, transcribes and puts on her wall at home.

2 HIMIZU

Eventually Nikaido’s character works up the confidence to walk Sometani home, and as she struggles to get to know him better the frail structure in his life is demolished by outside, uncaring forces. He collapses under the pressures of parental abandonment and an inherited yakuza debt. There’s only so far you can push a character like this, invested in civil society to the bare minimum, before they lash out in unpredictable ways. The rest of the movie is about Sometani alternately cry-screaming in the rain and becoming cold and unfeeling.

Both actors are talented at portraying intense mad teenagers, elevating their repetitive, melodramatic characterization into something that isn’t unbearable to watch onscreen. But the problem with this movie is that the last forty-five minutes play exactly like the first ninety. The characters don’t grow or develop, they mostly continue to be miserable, in the same ways and for the same reasons.

One last thing: this movie was released the same year as the historic 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and director Sion Sono hastily rewrote the screenplay to incorporate the aftermath into it. The result is a crass tableau of decay that doesn’t impact the story in a direct way, kind of like how Spike Lee decided maybe fifteen minutes of 25th Hour had something to do with a post-9/11 New York City, maybe.

3 HIMIZU

Himizu is entirely lacking in strong ideas to compare to its strong emotions, and while there’s enough meat to make watching the entire thing not an entirely fruitless experience, I can’t recommend it to anyone. I was going to say “maybe a younger audience more accustomed to navigating the peaks and valleys of adolescence will find more power in it,” but that’s just a polite way of saying this movie is too dumb for me.