THE GREAT Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai tends to favour mood over narrative, which is why it’s often easier to fall into fits of reverie over the gorgeously designed sequences in his films than it is to get swept up in their stories.
THE GRANDMASTER (15)
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Chang
Star rating: ***
Exhibit A? The Grandmaster, his sumptuous but stagnant biopic of Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher Ip Man (played here by frequent Wong collaborator Tony Leung). Marking the director’s first foray into martial arts since Ashes of Time 20 years ago, the film is a visual wonder, but it’s so obsessed with the minutiae of every Yuen Woo-ping choreographed fight sequence – right down to the way individual raindrops bounce off flying fists mid-rumble – that the wider story becomes opaque.
The Chinese Civil War, the Japanese invasion, and the post-Second World War spread of kung fu to the rest of the world are the great swathes of social history through which Ip moves. As the film delves into the many intricate regional variations involved in martial arts, however, it becomes difficult to hold on to the impact these momentous events have on Ip’s life. The loss of his family to starvation, for instance, is dismissed with a cursory line of narration – and yet the imparting of an obscure life lesson via an exquisitely orchestrated battle over a cake is dwelt upon at greath length. It’s as if Wong is willfully trying to remove his protagonist from his own story, denying us the human details in order to chart how the real person behind a legend is necessarily obscured as that legend takes shape.
Indeed, Ip almost disappears from the story altogether as the film switches focus to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a ravishing female rival whose one-time defeat of Ip precedes a lifetime of tragedy and heartache. There are other deviations that appear even more meaningless and it’s difficult to work out if Wong really had some biopic-subverting purpose in mind or if he just found himself unable to tell the story in a way that gelled with his sensibilities (Harvey Weinstein’s insistence that he re-cut it for western audiences can’t really be blamed this time). On the plus side, dedicated fans will doubtless find more to love here than in his last film, the misbegotten My Blueberry Nights. As for kung fu fans, the suspicion remains that in attempting to put the cinematic art in martial arts, Wong has ignored the primal beauty of the chopsocky films for which Ip’s greatest student would become famous. The spirit of Bruce Lee lives on not in The Grandmaster, but in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Gareth Evans’ The Raid movies.
Penguins of Madagascar (PG)
Directed by: Eric Darnell, Simon J Smith
Voices: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch
Star rating: ***
All credit to DreamWorks for finding yet more madcap mileage in the hugely profitable Madagascar franchise. This frantic spin-off hits the ground running with a swift, laugh-packed prologue featuring the sublime tones of Werner Herzog, sending himself up brilliantly as a documentary maker shooting a film about penguins. Serving as an amusing origins story for the titular troupe of avian wise guys that enlivened the first three Madagascar films, this opening salvo also sets the frantic pace with which the rest of the action unfolds as the penguins become embroiled in a plot by a disgruntled octopus (voiced by John Malkovich) to disfigure their species for being too cute. Indeed the action moves so fast, the story barely has time to register Benedict Cumberbatch as the vulpine leader of an interspecies task force determined to stop Malkovich’s threat. But the gag rate really is something to behold, ensuring this has more in common with old Looney Tunes cartoons or the screwball sensibility of Tina Fey’s sitcom 30 Rock than its Pixar-chasing forebears.
St Vincent (15)
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts
Star rating: ***
If there’s a saving grace in St Vincent it’s that Bill Murray’s natural irascibility means that he instinctively avoids the traps this blatant piece of awards bait seems intent on pushing him into. Cast as an ageing, grouchy Vietnam veteran who gets roped into babysitting new neighbour Melissa McCarthy’s precocious 12-year-old son, Murray approaches his character’s by-the-numbers redemption with such obdurate disdain that even when a third-act plot twist spins the movie into affliction-of-the-week territory, Murray makes it seem as if he’s satirizing the whole concept of Oscar showboating. Sadly the film around him isn’t, and there’s only so much fun to be had watching Murray blatantly at odds with a movie so clearly intent on sentimentalizing audience affection for him.
Men, Women and
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Emma Thompson, Rosemarie DeWitt
Star rating: **
Juno and Young Adult director Jason Reitman seems to have lost his form of late if the spectacularly silly Labor Day and this similarly over-cooked melodrama, inset, about the dangers of the internet are anything to go by. A sombre Adam Sandler heads up a large ensemble cast of characters all grappling with sexual mores in a digital age of virtual hook-ups, online porn and internet role-play. Though a couple of the storylines have some of the bite of Reitman’s earlier work, the film mostly resorts to look-how-crazy-this-is handwringing as Emma Thompson’s pithy narrator weaves together intersecting tales of marital infidelity, parental paranoia and teenage trauma into a histrionic jeremiad against iPhone culture.
Get Santa (PG)
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall, Warwick Davies
Star rating: **
St Nick in the nick is the high-concept selling point of this naff British Christmas film about an ex-con (Rafe Spall) charged with saving Christmas after Santa gets himself locked up. As Father Christmas, Jim Broadbent gets to be extra-twinkly as he reminds inmates of the true meaning of the silly season, but a plot strand in which his authenticity is called into question is quickly abandoned in favour of flatulent reindeer, sugary sentimentality, ropey effects and a rubbish riff on The Shawshank Redemption.