Martial arts films seem scarce these days, at least to western audiences. Occasionally, certain films break out, owing perhaps to previously unprecedented levels of brutality (The Raid: Redemption). In the case of The Grandmaster, we have what may be the most visually beautiful of all martial arts films.
In that regard, director Wong Kar-wai one-ups his own 1994 film Ashes of Time with a slow, sumptuous portrayal of the life of legendary martial arts teacher Ip Man (best known as Bruce Lee's teacher and the subject of countless other Chinese movies).
Wong puts his indomitable fighting style in bold perspective: Even he is helpless in the face of the Japanese invasion that devastated China during the Second World War. Against that trauma, Ip (Tony Leung) still maintains his dignity and skill, which explains why he remains such a consistently inspiring figure in recent Chinese history. Ip, portrayed with grace by Leung, is unflappably cool, whether battling foes or the fair martial arts scion Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Such is Wong's regard for Gong, he gives her, not Ip, the film's gorgeous climactic duel with a treacherous collaborator at a train station in what might be interpreted as the martial arts movie's answer to Anna Karenina. Stunning. Four stars
A drunken ad man on a downward career spiral, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is an obnoxious choice for a hero. Joe sneaks vodka into his soft drinks. He is behind on his child-support payments. He blows an important ad deal by coming on to the girlfriend of his client.
But as unpleasant as he is, he doesn't appear to be deserving of 20 years of solitary confinement.
And that's precisely what he gets after waking up from a drunken stupor to find himself in a grungy hotel room that locks only from the outside.
Even on his own, Joe's traumas continue. On his room's TV set, he learns he has been accused of the brutal murder of his wife. His daughter is now an orphan. He is a wanted man.
By the time 20 years pass, Joe has managed to kick the alcohol habit, he shapes up from exercise shows and learns martial arts from watching old kung fu movies on TV. Fit for battle, he is suddenly set free with a wallet full of cash, an iPhone and a powerful thirst for vengeance.
But revenge does not come easy. On that path, he encounters his sadistic jailkeeper (Samuel L. Jackson), a sympathetic nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) with her own troubled past and a mysterious, effete billionaire (Sharlto Copley) who offers the key to Joe's brutal confinement, even as he threatens the life of Joe's now-grown daughter Mia (Elvy Yost).
Spike Lee directs this remake of Chan-wook Park's Korean original from 2003, and the good news is that it is an apt translation, courtesy of screenwriter Mark Protosevich. It lacks Park's delirious inspiration and originality. But it does register as an intelligent variation of the revenge movie.
In the wildly variant career of Spike Lee, this constitutes a positive entry in his career ledger, his best dramatic film since Inside Man. Three stars
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Forget "hunger." The second instalment of this franchise is an overflowing cornucopia of cinematic stuff: romance, action, social commentary, nature gone mad, mystery, intrigue and even fashion.
And yet, as in the first instalment, there is the gnawing feeling of something lacking.
In the first film, remember, plucky teen tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) managed to emerge victorious from the annual state-sponsored teen gladiator spectacle where representatives from every "district" in the dystopian plutocracy of Panem are obliged to fight to the death. Not only that, she managed to ensure the survival of her fellow District 12 scrapper Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) by pretending a romantic affection.
Now returned home, Katniss is suffering both post-traumatic stress and a troublesome love life. Her real lover, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), resents her staged affection for Peeta and the lovelorn Peeta is likewise rankling.
Worse news for Katniss: Panem's ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland) thinks she is becoming a symbol of rebellion for the starving masses of Panem and is eager to contrive her demise in a conspiracy cooked up with the sinister new gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman). Director Francis Lawrence takes over the directing chores from the first film's Gary Ross, a move that mostly translates to an absence of shaky cams and a more stately approach to the franchise's large-scale spectacle.
But the director, who gave us the cartoony post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend, is largely obliged to whistle us through the film's busy traffic jam of romantic and political intrigues.
It is Jennifer Lawrence who continues to make these films worth seeing. The young actress brings such steely gravitas to Katniss, one stays hooked into the story, no matter how preposterous it gets. Two and a half stars