Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

A young martial artist’s unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.

Man of Tai Chi tells the age-old martial arts tale of a student devoting himself to an art, he gets too extreme, loses his way and has to find himself again.  It’s simple, well-paced, and communicates martial arts philosophy.

Tiger Chen holds his own as the breakout martial arts lead. His Tai Chi movements are beautiful. The core of his charisma is that he is a real human being with vulnerabilities. He is not preening for the camera in a showy or narcissistic manner (ahem Andy On, Wu Jing…) and plays his scenes earnestly.  Does Tiger Chen fit the description of a leading man? I don’t know, but it’d be nice to see more of him in future roles.

As for the supporting cast, Karen Mok fares better when she’s required to be loud and peppy. Silent performances aren’t her forte. Simon Yam is collecting a cheque and there’s nothing wrong with that. Qing Ye makes an adorable love interest. Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption (my review here) makes a nice cameo as a fighter. Yu Hai is charismatic as Tiger’s Tai Chi master, the dramatic scenes between Tiger and him were engaging and form the heart of the story.

The comedy gags in Cantonese spoken by the Hong Kong policemen actually do work. I laughed, though I worry how the gags will play as subtitles for English-speaking audiences. It’s like Reeves found a way to seep into the culture. That’s a thing that really impressed me with Man of Tai Chifor a film set in China that’s directed by a foreign director, it remains true to the culture. There’s no Orientalist gaze on Chinese culture, or a laundry-list showcase of the tourist hotspots. Mainlanders speak Mandarin, and people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. There’s no misrepresentation here. I love how the film shows that many Chinese people are bilingual these days.

Tai Chi is a difficult martial art to capture on film. The idea of countering a hard energy with a soft energy is something you can only feel when you’re practicing the martial art, it’s a hard thing to see and be a part of as a bystander. It’s difficult to locate where the skill of the fight is. Previous cinematic attempts at Tai Chi, such as Jet Li’s The Tai Chi Master or Yuen Wah in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, have solved this problem by exaggerating Tai Chi to a cartoonish degree. Yuen Woo Ping executes this wonderfully and finds the right assortment of other martial art styles to fully test the limits of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen fights his opponents in the air, rolls on the ground, uses objects and the surrounding environment. There are no quick cuts hiding pulled punches and I love that. The fights are covered in wide shots with real martial artists and anybody can follow whats going on.

Contrary to popular belief, I sincerely do not think Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’m a fan. There’s a great article online by Kate Ronnebolm called Keanu Reeves is a Queer Superhero that aptly analyzes his success as a movie star. It says the reason Reeves has lasted this long is because he possesses a pensive quality, like he’s constantly reflecting upon himself and his surroundings. This has served his roles in ConstantineA Scanner Darkly, and Neo from The Matrix. I agree with this point, Reeves owns pensive. I think his performances have varied depending on the director’s ability to capture that quality on camera.

That all said, unfortunately Reeves is the own worst part of his own movie. I take no issue with his performance in Man of Tai Chi, but casting himself as the main villain meant that he is the final boss of his own kung fu movie. After 90 minutes of seeing Tiger Chen beating numerous opponents of varying styles, there simply is no way I can believe that Keanu can beat Tiger Chen. The film doesn’t provide any assistance as there’s no establishing scene showcasing Keanu’s character’s fighting abilities early in the story. For example, the final henchman that fights Tony Jaa in Ong Bak is obviously physically inferior to Jaa in real life, but the story makes him the more superior fighter by stating it beforehand. I would have been fine with even that. The end climatic fight is stiff and awkward; it’s obvious that Keanu didn’t have time to train with his directing duties.

That said, there is still a lot to like. And perhaps I like Man of Tai Chi more for intellectual reasons rather than its final result. But I have seen too many recent Chinese martial arts films that don’t star martial artists in them, but rather pretty boy actors just dancing around trying to look good in their own money-making vehicles. That’s just boring to me. I would rather see a film that’s trying something ambitious and fall short than make something that’s vacuous and faceless. Even with a disappointing climatic fight, the heartbeat of Man of Tai Chi is what won me over. I don’t’ know if Keanu Reeves want to keep directing in the future, but this is a good debut film.

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The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

An adaptation of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitgerald, a Midwesterner becomes fascinated with his nouveau riche neighbor, who obsesses over his lost love.

I had a fear that watching this movie before having a solid memory of the original novel will taint my mind’s eye of the original story. I read the original novel in high school but don’t have a distinct memory of it. So before watching the movie, I reread the original novel. So on with the review…

The film starts off blasting at full volume and ramps it up to maximum for its entire first act. Fortunately, Luhrmann does takes a step back and tones down for the latter two-thirds and lets his actors do their magic. The film is well-casted. The actors are playing Fitgerald’s character descriptions exactly to a tee.

Leonardo DiCaprio chooses to play Gatsby as a hopeless romantic with a big dream. He’s able to find a lot of depth to the character without going to darkness and projects the necessary charm. A darker approach to playing Gatsby that would be equally legitimate and interesting. For all the times he has tried to cover his baby-faced looks with facial hair, Leonardo DiCaprio plays young here. In my favorite sequence where Gatsby reunites with Daisy, DiCaprio feels and acts like a young trepid boy who hasn’t imagined a life beyond his grand vision. The lack of an alternate choice in Gatsby’s eyes is such a stark contrast to when he’s playing host in his parties. Give him an Oscar, he’s earned it so many times now.

Carey Mulligan plays to my image of Daisy from the novel, the light empty way Daisy carries herself and particularly the way she speaks. Mulligan’s Daisy says things just to say them but does not necessarily believes the meaning in her words. Joel Edgerton plays a convincing jerk as Tom Buchanan, and it’s played in a way where we can see Tom’s side of things as well.

Tobey Maguire has a natural kindness to him that makes his Nick Carraway a believable third wheel and keeper of everybody’s secrets. The narrations start a bit awkwardly, but they get better as they go on. I didn’t like that Luhrmann cut off the opening paragraph from the novel. Luhrmann could have helped the actors a lot more by giving them more space to breathe out the scenes. He’s directed them to speaking very quickly and constantly overlapping each other. That said, the best dramatic parts of the novel are retained. The actors are what ultimately save the film from spiraling out of control.

There’s been a common complaint about the use of modern hip hop music in the film. Let me say that the hip hop music did not bother me. Why? Luhrmann isn’t concerned of the story’s historical context or presenting the class conditions that the original novel was addressing, but rather re-energizing this classic story with a post-modern sensibility. There’s no way to take Luhrmann’s world completely seriously as a real-life depiction of America in the 1920’s. The world presented in the film has a texture akin to a Jay-Z hip hop music video that happens to have a Great Gatsby theme running through it. If you think about it for a minute, life did not move as quickly back then as this film depicts. Nobody conversed or drived their automobiles at light speed. A sports convertible back in the day wouldn’t have roared like the Batmobile.

Luhrmann is not operating in terms of reality, but hyperreality. He’s punctuating the story purely in terms of emotional states. It’s as if the director is pondering, “How does Nick Carraway feel the moment he meets Jay Gatsby? How can I make that feel like a nuclear explosion?” “What now would equally communicate the materialistic excess in 1920’s New York? Gangster rap!” So in that light, I rather enjoyed the soundtrack. Ultimately, the film remains Luhrmann’s interpretation of Fitgerald’s novel, not a definitive film interpretation of its literary source. Being aware of Luhrmann’s stamp is important to truly enjoying this film. Perhaps the novel is such a classic, a definitive film version of The Great Gatsby probably is not possible. Similar to a Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film adaptation where the literary source is open to a director’s individual interpretation and is passed on from author to author. Fitzgerald’s novel is tight and well-written enough that it can allow multiple filmic interpretations.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. For my purposes, I’m glad that I reread the book first. I may have to check out the Robert Redford version now.

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

 

Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire who was imprisoned in a coffin but is unearthed and makes his way back to his mansion now inhabited by his dysfunctional descendants. He soon runs into trouble revitalising the family’s canned fish business, as his jealous ex-flame and imprisoner Angelique Bouchard, runs the rival company.

A screenwriting teacher of mine used to stipulate that for each scene you write in a screenplay, you must ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene? How do I want the audience to feel in this instance?” For Dark Shadows, I imagine it would be a difficult question for the screenwriter to answer and he would end up thinking for a long time the right combination of words to describe the specific feeling.

The story structure of Dark Shadows is an issue common amongst TV-to-Film adaptations. It reminded of Andrew Lau’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of the Japanese anime Initial D, where they tried to cram the first season into one cinematic film experience. Dark Shadows has a meandering TV show-like storyline where it plants several subplots that it doesn’t have enough time to develop within the span of a theatrical film. There is a delayed sense of driving action in this enclosed world. For instance, considered that all the evil things she has done to him, Barnabas has a lot of patience with Angelique. It would have made complete sense if Barnabas set out to kill her on a quest of revenge right after he is unearthed in the 70’s. They stylistically choose not to do that, which explains this heavy sense of TV pacing in this movie.

The ephemeral tone is what really drives the movie. It’s tongue-in-cheek at times with the 70s, there are fish-out-of-water jokes and people are murdered at the drop of a hat. There is a very “anything goes” tone and the weirdness of it all kept me entranced, anticipating where it was going to go. It was very funny, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way, but in a cerebral way. It’s hard to describe but there is structure in its chaos and it’s existence alone is something to be marveled at.

The cast and performances were noteworthy, mainly because of how specific they were to building the tone of the film. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas completely straight, much to many of the movie’s fish-out-of-water gags. Maybe because he looked so much like Nosferatu in his appearance and in some of his physicality (notice how he wraps his arms), if they ever made another post-modern silent movie like The Artist, Depp would fare well in a silent film performance.  I really liked the amount of humanity Eva Green was able to inject into Angelique Bouchard. She finds a human center to such an evil character and we see the motivation behind her irredeemable actions. I’ve complimented her performances three times now and she’s slowly becoming a favorite. Lastly, it was nice seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in a film again.

I do wonder what people who have seen the original series would have said about this movie. I’m too young to know. Personally I  had no prior knowledge of the original television series and for anybody who aren’t ready to put in the effort and fill the gaps mentally, they will probably be disappointed by the film adapation. It’s a very odd film operating on an obscure frequency and it wouldn’t have been made without the prior financial success of Burton-Depp collaborations. In a sense, they’re both getting weirder together.

If Tim Burton’s goal was to adapt the original Dark Shadows tone to film, then he accomplished it. Is that a worthy justifiable goal? Does it justify the TV-like tone? I can’t say but I would rather see Burton experiment with something than just slapping the usual “Tim Burton Brand” onto something.

The film worked on me, but I honestly cannot say I’d watch it again. As a movie about a vampire, it might not have longevity.