Thursday, March 27, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013); THE PAST (2013); and THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

(Italy/France - 2013)

The recent Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film is equal parts majestic and ponderous, profound and obvious.  It's often stunningly beautiful, and purposefully reminiscent of the legendary likes of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.  Like its characters, THE GREAT BEAUTY overstays its welcome and probably would've been more effective had there been maybe 20-30 minutes less of it, but the things in it that work, work extremely well.  Directed and co-written by acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (IL DIVO), coming off his little-seen, Weinstein-buried English-language debut THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which featured Sean Penn in probably the strangest role of his career, THE GREAT BEAUTY could almost be seen as the later years of Marcello Mastroianni's LA DOLCE VITA character.  Sorrentino's favorite actor, the chameleon-like Toni Servillo (think of him as Italy's Daniel Day-Lewis), stars as Jep Gambardella, a 65-year-old journalist who's always seen where it's important for society's elite to be seen, where people are famous for being famous.  Jep wrote a legendary novel 40 years ago and never wrote another, instead choosing to pen puff pieces and live the celebrity life ("I wrote one book 40 years ago and no bookstore carries it!"). He's no longer able to mask his contempt for his assignments, openly mocking interview subjects like pretentious performance artist Talia Concept (Anita Kravos), whose entire schtick is stripping nude and head-butting a concrete wall.  He's grown increasingly misanthropic with age and can always be counted on to deliver a scorched-earth screed if he's prodded enough (his dressing down of a friend who chastises his "novellette" over drinks at a party provides some unforgettable cringe).  When he's informed by the devastated husband (Massimo De Francovich) of his teenage first love that she's recently passed and her diary reveals she carried a torch for him for nearly 50 years, it forces Jep to re-evaluate his life and what's he's done with it.  He feels emotion where a sardonic crack once sufficed.  He considers writing that second novel and trying to find the promise that once was, saying "I'm at the age where I can't waste any more time doing the things I don't want to do."

As a basic point-A to point-B plot, THE GREAT BEAUTY is hardly innovative.  Where Sorrentino succeeds is with the incredibly poetic way that the film plays out. Showcasing marvelous tracking shots, sweeping crane shots, and Kubrickian framing, it's LA DOLCE VITA with the hypnotic look of Alain Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and the sense of melancholy for the gone forever past of Visconti's THE LEOPARD.  It's a film that mourns the past, lost youth, lost time, missed opportunities, and fading memories, as Jep, from his spacious penthouse apartment overlooking the Coliseum, surrounds himself with the frustrating vapidity of a modern Rome that doesn't understand the beauty it once was. When we first meet Jep, it's at his birthday party, a garish rave populated by the vulgar, the cretinous, and the insufferable:  Eurocult icon Serena Grandi appears as a bloated, haggard, coke-snorting ex-reality TV star, now reduced to jumping out of Jep's cake, and one pompous woman huffs "I wouldn't know her...I've never owned a TV," to which her sighing friend replies "You remind me of that at least once a day." Sorrentino gives the film a freeform structure that sometimes causes it to drag, especially in the second half, but the cinematography is gorgeous and the great Servillo is outstanding as always. (Unrated, 141 mins)

(France/Italy - 2013) 

Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi ventures to Europe for this searing drama that functions as somewhat of a French-language companion piece to his 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner A SEPARATION.  Like that film, THE PAST has lives intersecting in unforeseen ways with consequences the players never see coming.  Farhadi has demonstrated his ability at building strong, believable, and very human characters in situations where all of the details are distributed in a deliberate but never hokey fashion.  There are surprises and shocking revelations in THE PAST, but it's very organic in its construction and Farhadi avoids the easy pitfall of hackneyed melodrama.  THE PAST is an excellent film but, through no fault of its own, it can't help but feel like a bit of a retread after A SEPARATION, even though its characters aren't in exactly the same scenario.  Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who, in the midst of a severe depression, left Paris, his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo of THE ARTIST) and her two daughters from a previous relationship, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin).  Four years later, he returns from Iran at Marie's request to finalize their divorce.  She's now involved with Samir (Tahar Rahim), who's moved in with his five-year-old son Fouad (Elyes Aguis).  Ahmad doesn't expect to walk into a quietly dysfunctional powderkeg of tension, resentment, and other unresolved issues as he's drawn into the various conflicts existing in the household.  Lucie is now a rebellious teenager who regards Ahmad like a father and objects to Samir being in their lives as another of her mother's men who will "just go away after a few years." Samir's wife has been in a coma for eight months for reasons that may or may not involve Samir and Marie having an affair.  Fouad has a playmate in young Lea but is angry that he isn't living at his own house and that he has to share a bunk bed with Ahmad.

As with A SEPARATION, Farhadi slowly reveals layers of the story, methodically filling in the audience on the history of the characters and refusing to paint things in mere black and white.  Almost everyone--Ahmad, Marie, Samir, and Lucie--provoke shifting alliances with the viewer.  Is Marie a homewrecker?  Does Ahmad relish the turmoil in which he finds himself?  Though you may question the decisions they make, no one is completely right and no one is completely wrong, but they're unmistakably human and deeply flawed.  It's hard to not compare THE PAST to the masterpiece that was A SEPARATION, but it's filled with powerful moments, committed performances (as he did with little Kimia Hosseini in A SEPARATION, Farhadi gets a movie-stealing performance out of a child actor, in this case the amazing young Aguis) , and Farhadi isn't afraid to let takes linger to the point where you're as uncomfortable as the characters.  Witness the scene where Ahmad and Samir find themselves left alone at the kitchen table and just sit there, not with animosity--they aren't by any means chummy but they seem to realize they have no reason to dislike one another--but with the shrugging realization that they don't really have anything to say.  (PG-13, 130 mins)

(US/Hong Kong/China/France/Netherlands - 2013)

Legendary Wing Chun martial-artist and Bruce Lee mentor Ip Man (1893-1972) has been the subject of numerous films and a TV series in the last several years, virtually saturating the Asian market to become their version of Italian DJANGO westerns and French films about Coco Chanel. Donnie Yen starred in two hugely popular but highly fictionalized accounts, IP MAN (2008) and IP MAN 2 (2010) before declaring he was done because the Ip Mania was getting out of hand (he seems to have had a change of heart since he recently signed on for a third IP MAN, due out in 2015).  There were also the competing IP MAN films THE LEGEND IS BORN: IP MAN (2010) with Dennis To, and IP MAN: THE FINAL FIGHT (2013) with Anthony Wong (because of its title, this is often mistaken as a sequel to the two Yen films), as well as the Chinese TV series IP MAN, which premiered in 2013 and starred Kevin Cheng in the title role.  2013 also saw the release of the most ambitious IP MAN project: Wong Kar Wai's THE GRANDMASTER, a more arthouse take on the legendary figure that was nonetheless controversially recut by US distributor Harvey Weinstein and sold as an action-centered kung-fu epic. Wong (CHUNGKING EXPRESS, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE) had already released two versions, running 130 minutes and 123 minutes.  Weinstein--allegedly with Wong's involvement--overhauled the film to 108 minutes for the US, adding some English captions to give a sense of perspective and exposition to American audiences not necessarily familiar with the Sino-Japanese conflicts that impacted Ip Man's life in the 1930s, and while that's helpful, the US release also makes further edits and rearranges some sequences.  Wong wrote that it was a chance to "re-shape it" for a different audience while at the same time admitting that his 130-minute cut is his preferred version prepared with "precision and perfect balance."

Precision and perfect balance are not among the feelings you get watching the American cut of THE GRANDMASTER.  It's a dazzling, sweeping epic (Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography got a well-deserved Oscar nomination), but its storytelling is muddled and confusing, even with the addition of English expository text and additional voiceover from Tony Leung's Ip Man.  The purpose of Weinstein ordering the re-edit was to make Wong's film more linear, but the timeframe still jumps all over the place and there's still enough flashbacks and side stories that you're frequently unaware what year certain parts of the story are taking place.  Covering Ip Man's life from 1936 to the early 1950s, Ip Man establishes himself as a great martial arts philosopher and practitioner and Grandmaster and is forced to leave Foshan after the Japanese invasion in 1938.  The unwieldy plot also involves disputes between northern and southern China, traitorous Chinese martial artists selling out to the Japanese invaders, Ip Man's competitive rivalry/unrequited love with Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), the daughter of Master Gong Yutian (Wang Quigxiang), and how the Gong legacy is defamed and usurped by the treacherous Ma San (Zhang Jin) before Ip Man is forced to relocate to Hong Kong in 1950, where the film even tangentially involves Pu Yi, the subject of Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR (1987).  What's odd--at least in the US cut--is how the last third of the film has Ip Man essentially step aside as a peripheral character in his own story.  Zhang's Gong Er becomes the center of the plot in an extended flashback that details her reclaiming of the Gong dynasty in a brilliantly-shot fight sequence with Ma San, as Wong even works in an opium den sequence that's a straight-up homage to Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), right down to the use of Ennio Morricone's famed "Deborah's Theme." Even in this truncated form, THE GRANDMASTER looks incredible--Wong really loves shooting epic fights in wind, rain, and snow--and the performances of Leung and Zhang are excellent, but there was enough of a cineaste backlash over this recut version that a domestic special edition Blu-ray release of Wong's 130-minute version is inevitable, so why not wait for that?  (PG-13, 108 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

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