The Grandmaster


Because I’m a lucky so-and-so, I recently found myself undeservedly invited to a rather exclusive early screening of Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster last week. The screening was a Heineken® Star Screening, organised as part of the Open Your City, and anyone can be as lucky as me – head to the Heineken Star Treatment Page at for more information about other ‘Star Access’ events.

In Hong Kong cinema, Wong Kar-wai is not known for his martial arts action spectaculars. The Hong Kong peninsular has produced plenty of action auteurs – your John Woos, your Johnnie Tos – but Wong always stood apart from the crowd. His films, like 1994’s Chungking Express or 2000’s In the Mood For Love, were more thoughtful impressionistic dramas, rather than the wild action stylings of his countrymen.

The Grandmaster is not as wilfully silly or outlandish as other action Hong Kong pics. There’s plenty of slow-motion fight scenes, sure, but they’re resolutely grounded, by a sense of solemnity, a deep and abiding respects for the Chinese traditions, and a tale of unrequited love – a typical Wong trope – which underpins it all.

The film tells the contemporary legend of Ip Man, a martial arts master who revolutionised Kung-fu by bringing together rival schools from the north and south of the country. Among his many achievements, Ip Man trained a certain Bruce Lee.

This is not the first film to recount the Ip Man story – 2008’s Ip Man saw Donnie Yen play the master – but it is surely the most impressive. Wong’s reverence for his subject matter is manifested with a preternatural level of care and craft. (“Kung fu is not a circus act”, as the Ip Man says.)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in lead actor Tony Leung. A veteran of both Wong Kar-Wai and Hong Kong action cinema in general, it’s almost unthinkable to consider anyone else as the titular Grandmaster: every appearance he makes – stalking almost every frame of the film – has gravitas, quiet dignity, and crucially, the physical prowess needed to convince.

The technical ability and precision required to portray such expertise is immense. (Or at least, I presume it is – believe it or not, I know nothing of the intricacies of the Wudang Boxing northern school.)

Leung’s technical mastery is only matched by his supporting cast, and though there are several pretenders to his throne, only one challenger actually manages to defeat him. Zhang Ziyi plays Gong Er, the daughter of a grandmaster who could never hope to rise the Kung fu ranks, due to her gender.

Zhang is superb, but Wong’s third act focus on her, temporarily discarding his title character, leads to a slightly uneven structure, as he jumps around timelines and locations, and we sometimes wonder why a film titled the Grandmaster doesn’t focus on the Grandmaster.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall, it’s an immensely satisfying entry in the crowded shelf of Hong Kong martial arts epics: sumptuously shot, with depth and purpose to all its characters. Here’s hoping Wong Kar Wai stays in this world.




As genre mashups go, science fiction and romantic comedy aren’t regular bedfellows. But in typically ingenious fashion, writer-director Spike Jonze (purveyor of offbeat comedies like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has put a remarkably fresh spin on a the boy-meets-girl template: what, so the premise here goes, if the girl was Siri?

Theodore Twombly (a never-more-charming Joaquin Phoenix) is our human guide in this near-future tale. An incurable romantic, he writes bespoke love notes for an online letter-writing service, conjuring a false reality for lovers everywhere.

But he’s plagued with loneliness. Hounded by memories of his estranged wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he lives quietly in a plush high-rise apartment overlooking a glossy city of similar high-rises, his life at a virtual standstill – until he hears about the ‘OS’ programme, a highly advanced artificially intelligent helper that can live in your mobile phone, and talk to you as if human.

It’s here that Theodore ‘meets’ Samantha (the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson). Perky, self-effacing, and with a sly sense of humour, the curiously human-like Samantha learns and evolves in the haven of Theodore’s shirt pocket, until, almost inevitably, man falls in love with machine.

The parameters of what constitutes a real relationship are suddenly thrown wide open. Samantha wonders aloud whether her feelings are real, before observing that “we’re all just matter” and that everyone, humans and robots alike, are technically the same age – i.e., 13.7billion years old.

Concurrently, Theodore undergoes a painful divorce with Catherine, and his best friend Amy (Amy Adams) suffers the collapse of her own marriage. Where Catherine is emotional, volatile, and cold, and Amy’s husband shallow and pedantic, Samantha has a lust for life and learning, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Are the fragility of human relationships even a match for an artificial intelligence “untethered by space and time”?

These are huge questions smuggled in under the guise of a sweet and deceptively straightforward love story, and it’s extraordinary how well a balance is kept. Weighty musings on existence are expertly tempered with the simple and intimate dramatics of romance.

And while there’s a satirical edge to it, Her is also blissfully earnest. Though it ponders our over-reliance on technology, its cynicism of the future is gentle at best. In place of the usual sci-fi paranoia, there’s sunny Californian optimism in every frame. Aided expertly by Hoyte van Hoytema’s glistening cinematography, it revels in the honeymoon of a new love as much as it cautions technology’s tightening grip.

Her explores our ever-shifting relationship with technology, but it’s what it says about our relationships with each other that’s most striking. As an affirmation of our humanity, Spike Jonze has made something quite unique.

Lone Survivor

lone survivorPeter Berg’s last film as director posited the threat of sea aliens attacking a navy ship based on toy, with a pop star as a weapons specialist.

Lone Survivor, mercifully, is not Battleship. Instead, we find the director on significantly more sober ground, with a calculated approach towards authenticity. Berg reportedly embedded himself in a real US Navy SEAL team and lived in Iraq for a month in the run-up to production, as well as having Marcus Luttrell (whose real-life account forms the story) as a close advisor.

Luttrell’s remarkable story of survival is worth telling. Inevitably, the temptation to depict US military as consummate heroes creeps through. Yet it’s a more balanced account than you might expect.

Our introduction to the SEAL team is a by-now-familiar parade of machismo, facial hair, wisecrackin’ about good ol’ gals back home, and the word “hoo-ah”. The main cast (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster) are solid, but virtually indistinguishable.

It’s a slow start. Yet once the disastrous Operation Redwings gets under way – an assassination attempt gone wildly awry – the pace and tension crescendos. As the four-man team comes under heavy fire from an army of Taliban insurgents, Berg pummels the screen with action. Intense, unremitting, taut and brutal, the gunfights paint a grim picture of a grim war.

It’s muscular, gripping, back-to-basics action. Politics takes a back seat. Berg has publicly stated his film is apolitical – and there are those who might wish otherwise. But just when the balance seems skewed, an unexpected ending highlighting the compassion and bravery of ordinary Afghans lends a bit of much-needed perspective.

Admittedly, there’s some mawkish military tributes. An opening credits montage offers real-life training footage; the closing credits feature photos of the real SEALS, complete with a syrupy Peter Gabriel cover of ‘Heroes’.

Both sequences, despite playing well in the States, will sit a little uncomfortably outside of Republican rallies. But the filling of this stars-and-stripes sandwich, the meat of the movie, just about excuses any near-propagandism. Lone Survivor’s impressive battle scenes, feverish pace, and admirable pursuit of realism makes for a hugely well-crafted war film, and one that deserves your time.


The Wolf Of Wall Street

wolfThe Wolf of Wall Street opens with Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) ostentatiously reeling off a list of his various assets, riches, and vices: beachside mansions, private jets, sparkling sports cars and luxury yachts sit perilously alongside gambling, drug-taking, hookers and truly outrageous parties – all funded from fraudulent stock-broking scams.

Told in a montage so fast it could give you whiplash, the whirlwind first five minutes are an apt introduction to both character and film. Belfort’s a man entirely driven by his addictions – sex, drugs, and the almighty dollar – and Martin Scorsese provides, with breathless energy, a deliciously ambiguous portrait of greed.

As Belfort, DiCaprio makes for a superb anti-hero, a tornado of charm and macho ruthlessness. With one hand, he shows no scruples for the gullible investors who fall for his slick sales technique (often silently flipping the bird to the telephone); with the other, he fritters his ill-gotten gains on a hedonistic lifestyle approaching absurdity. DiCaprio’s a marvellous fit for the role, and his slimy charisma could charm even the steeliest of souls.

Such depictions of (apparently authentic) excess – midget tossing and a five-hooker-a-week-habit among the tamer examples – are riotously entertaining, even if they probably oughtn’t be. Scorsese’s arms-length approach, directing with a stonking exuberance that belies his 71 years, passes no precise judgement on his crooked cast. It’s a morality play with a potentially troubling lesson.

Yet Belfort and his team aren’t immoral, they’re amoral: existing in a world of dollar-signs-for-eyes, wholly detached from reality. As Belfort’s narration admits: “it was obscene, in the normal world – but who wants to live there?”

With partying given precedence, Scorsese (perhaps wisely) skirts around the minutiae of Belfort’s financial swindles and, it’s fair to say, plumbs rather shallower depths than his previous work.

But this seems entirely in keeping with its shamelessly shallow subject, as does the indulgent three-hour running time. This is Belfort by Belfort: an unreliable narrator taking us on a chaotic carnival ride of capitalism at its most unfettered. For an exercise in sheer self-indulgence, the actions speak rather loudly for themselves.


All Is Lost

all is lostAt a time when filmmakers are desperately throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks, it’s refreshing to see a film like All Is Lost come along and turn the more-is-more formula on its head.

This is pure, minimalist cinema. The plot can be described in a single breath: Robert Redford finds himself lost on a damaged boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and must use his resourcefulness to survive a storm.

And that’s essentially it. There’s only one actor, and barely three lines of dialogue – one being “Help!” There is no backstory, no flashbacks, no shots of fretting family members at shore, no Helen Hunt moving on with her life, no CGI tiger posturing theological queries. There is only a man, a boat, and the elements.

It’s curiously radical to have a film stripped to the dramatic basics. (The very first shot sees salty water leak into the boat’s cabin.) Every triumph, every pitfall, every turning point becomes amplified to the nth degree.

Our anonymous seaman does his level best to save his own life, deploying some Macgyver-esque ingenuity to repair the damage inflicted by stray shipping container, and his efforts – workmanlike and sensible – are absorbing to watch. But without navigation or radio, he is effectively doomed.

This pared-down approach does make you wonder if other factors have been skimped on; save for a pre-credits voiceover epilogue, we know practically nothing about the never-named hero, other than his skills at the helm of a yacht.

But this is where Redford shines: communicating noisy emotion behind a veil of deafening silence. Huge sections of the film pass with only the ocean (and Alex Ebert’s eerie soundtrack) for aural comfort, and it’s only the veteran actor’s screen presence that fills the gap. Lean, relentless, and gripping: All Is Lost is, in essence, a perfect disaster movie.


47 Ronin

47 roninThe tale of the 47 ronin, the samurai without masters, is deeply enshrined in Japanese culture. An epic revenge mission, the legend of the ronin exists in the very marrow of Japan’s national psyche, speaking to quintessential themes of honour, loyalty, and sacrifice.

It’s history become myth, and though the story is verifiably true, this film is pure myth, playing fast and loose with the annals and mixing fantastical elements – not to mention a square-jawed A-lister – into the soup.

Keanu Reeves, whose previous work in eastern-flavoured action makes him a decent fit for this sort of CGI-heavy martial-arts fare, plays a “half-breed” orphan who helps the ronin in their epic quest to avenge their fallen master.

Though slick and sinewy in the fight scenes, Keanu plays everything in his usual husky monotone, and the cast around him – largely Japanese stars, for whom English is a second language – mimic his dull delivery. This, coupled with horribly wooden dialogue and an inert script, gives the impression of a B-movie in an A-movie’s clothing.

And like many B-movies, it exists in a vacuum of humour or self-awareness. A cackling witch, played by Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi, seems plucked straight from a Blackpool pantomime.

With a reported budget just south of $200m, it’s flush with production values. There’s pomp and pageantry in every frame, but the emphasis on historical accuracy in costume and set design sits a little queasily alongside the witches, demons and dragons.

Ultimately, this vision of feudal Japan seems to fall somewhere between a graphic novel and computer game. But even comics and games are less witless and tedious than this. If only they’d spent a little more time on the script and less on the dojo colour scheme…


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

anchThe release of the original Anchorman, back in 2004, passed almost without fanfare. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s enjoyably daft comedy, set in the world of 1970s local news, hardly set the world alight.

But like many cult comedies before it, home video and word-of-mouth transformed its fortunes, and it wasn’t long before practically every line of the script was being quoted on t-shirts, social networks, tattoos, even actual news programmes; suddenly, phrases like “a whale’s vagina” had improbably entered the vernacular.

This sequel, almost a decade on, does not come riding the wave of box-office success (the original didn’t even break the $100m barrier) – but rather, at the behest of an eager fanbase.

Expectation can ruin a film, and if you are expecting an earth-shattering, game-changing comedy, expect to be disappointed.

If, on the other hand, you are expecting a gleefully stupid comedy with the occasional belly laugh and a few affectionate nods-and-winks to the original, you’re more than likely to be satisfied.

The legend continues in much the same fashion as it began: hirsute newsreader Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) remains hopelessly stuck in a retro America of poor fashion taste and casual sexism. Finding themselves at the advent of rolling 24-hour cable news, Burgundy and his estranged news team reunite to invent the concept of news-as-entertainment.

The plot does not stray remarkably far from the original: Ron loses and wins back both his news team and his wife, Veronica (Applegate), just as before. But the relentless machine-gun ratio joke ratio is far too distracting to worry about plot niggles.

There’s certainly about half an hour that could have been trimmed from the running time – bizarre meandering tangents concerning a freak ice-skating accident and a baby shark might raise more eyebrows than smiles, and Carrell’s Brick is almost entirely reduced to trading non-sequiturs with female Brickelganger Chani (Kristen Wiig).

But just when things start to flag, the stage is set for a finale so insane, it has to be seen to be believed. To say anything else might ruin an entirely bonkers surprise.

Anchorman 2 is bloated, overlong, and sometimes just downright odd. But as both a hymn to the original, and a bruising comic contender in in its own right, this is sequel that manages, against the odds, to stay classy.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-ColorIt’s something of a shame that Palme d’Or-winning drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour has been overshadowed by controversy. Following an acclaimed Cannes premiere, the two female leads had a very public falling out with director Abdellatif Kechiche, claiming they were poorly treated on set.

The actors have since partially recanted their statements, but all focus is now on the much-hyped lesbian sex scenes, and whether they amount to exploitation.

Pity, because it’s actually a beautifully crafted romantic drama, and greater than the sum of its parts.

The scenes in question are indeed about as explicit as mainstream cinema is likely to get (aided in no small part by prosthetic genitalia). But they actually take up a small fraction of the three-hour runtime.

The story told roughly spans a decade – from early schoolgirl crushes, to a settled adult life of housewife-esque domesticity.

When we first meet Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), she is naive and shy, racked with confusion. It takes artist Emma (Léa Seydoux), with her shock of blue hair and worldly nature, to help the teenager grapple with her burgeoning sexuality.

Like 2011’s Weekend, this a gay love story which generally shirks the ‘issues’ that similar films might previously have felt obliged to consider.

Adèle inevitably experiences some homophobia from her classmates at school, but the age-old battle to be accepted by society is infrequently touched upon.

In fact, it’s a fairly conventional love story, with familiar relationship rigmarole every couple can recognise: meeting the parents; a messy split; an awkward post-break-up coffee.

The debate will rage as to whether those now-infamous love scenes are exploitative, or even pornographic. But in such an intense portrait of love, they’re arguably key to the broader narrative.

This is a love story told in intimate tones. Kechiche’s camera hugs Adèle throughout, the frame perpetually filled by her puppyish face. By the time the heartbreaking finale rolls around, we feel irrevocably intertwined with her story, and share in her grief.

These universal themes of love – the joys, the tragedies,  the “infinite tenderness” as Emma puts it – will, with luck, resonate far beyond any media-generated controversies.


frozenIt’s a Disney recipe as old as time. Take a much-loved fairytale, add a princess looking for love, reduce the story’s unpalatably dark elements, chuck a couple of talking animals into the soup, season with some catchy singalongs, and bam – you’ve got yourself an animated classic.

The blueprint has had a chequered history over the years, but Disney are riding a new, confident wave at the moment, and Frozen is a new height.

This time, it’s the turn of The Snow Queen to be run through the Disney-fier. Little of Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak original makes it to this adaptation (which has been mooted by the studio in one form or another since the late 1930s).

Instead, it’s a largely winning blend of Disney old and new: an unabashedly crowd-pleasing musical of princesses and true love colliding with more contemporaneous themes of independence and femininity.

Interestingly, Anderson’s tale has been diluted to the extent that, at least until the conclusion, there is no significant ‘baddie’. The biggest conflict comes from within Elsa, a princess with powers over ice and snow.

After a lifetime of incarceration for her powers, she accidentally sends the quasi-Scandinavian town of Arendelle into an eternal winter.

But if Elsa is the film’s confused, screwed-up head, its heart and soul is in younger sister Anna (voiced with gusto by Kristen Bell). She’s recognisably well-rounded and immediately endearing: sassy but awkward, sunny but insecure, relentlessly positive but inescapably klutzy.

Peppy Broadway show tunes are sprinkled throughout, and while they might induce the odd wince among grown ups (‘Love Is An Open Door’ imparts few great truths on the mysteries of the human condition), the appeal is plain to see. Frozen’s likeability factor is too hard to resist.

There’s inevitably the usual guff about the transformative power of love. But with a neat twist on the old ‘only true love can break the spell’ concept, an age-old formula is neatly refreshed.

In fact, the zippy, engaging approach is enough to forgive a few infractions. The character design, for example, is hardly original – Barbie doll for the girls, boyband looks for the guys. But then Olaf the singing snowman bobs along, with a heart of gold and a brain of mush; your cynicism melts and your grin widens.

With a semi-sophisticated sense of 21st-century wit mingling with a bit of old-fashioned Disney charm, it’s nearly impossible not to be enchanted by Frozen. Walt himself would approve.




How do you spin comedy out of tragedy? The true story of Philomena Lee, a Cathloic woman forced to give up her infant child for adoption in 1950s Ireland, is not exactly laugh-out-loud material on paper.

But Steve Coogan – who both stars and co-writes the screenplay with Jeff Pope – extracts some convincingly warm and human moments amid the horrors of Irish Catholicism’s darkest chapters, in which children born out of wedlockwere effectively sold to the highest bidder.

Stephen Frears’ unfussy direction – and Coogan’s splendid script – maintains a confident balance across many potential conflicts: between humour and pathos, religion and atheism, revenge and forgiveness. And, at its core, a careful equilibrium between the two leads, who join forces to track down the long-lost son.

On the one hand, there’s Philomena: a gentle soul who, despite the grave injustice dealt against her, bears no grudge or bitterness towards the church. On the contrary, a cross hangs permanently from her neck, a prayer never far away from her lips, forgiveness in her heart.

Martin, on the other hand, is almost her antithesis: a lapsed Catholic, an almost-lapsed journalist, impatient of Philomena’s grannyish tendencies, and cynical about the wider world.

They certainly make an odd couple. And much of the comedy is mined from this clash of cultures. Martin observes his unlikely accomplice is what “a lifetime’s diet of Reader’s Digest, the Daily Mail and romantic fiction” will result in.

But despite plenty of opportunities, Frears and Coogan never veer into clichés. It’s emotional without being maudlin, heartwarming without being over-sentimental, a comedy-drama which never once feels cheesy or overcooked.

In the title role, Judi Dench is reliably superb. And as investigative journalist Martin, Coogan delivers a strong, convincing supporting role, laying (at least temporarily) the ghost of Alan Partridge to rest; his powerful, sweet-natured and effortlessly funny script only cements this further.

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