Mini-Reviews: Wadjda, Populaire, The Grandmaster


In an ideal world, Wadjda is required viewing for every girl 15 and under. It’s the simple story of a young girl who doesn’t fit in and her mother who’s trying her best. Yet because of its setting, modern-day Saudi Arabia, the film becomes so much more. Haifaa Al-Mansour has written and directed a superb human story, remarkable because it’s the first film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Even more remarkable, the filmmaker is a woman, creating a story about women in a country that actively seeks to suppress women at every turn. Yet regardless of the film’s origin, it’s the execution that makes it so special. Waad Mohammed is extraordinary as young Wadjda, the girl who simply wants a bike in a country where girls don’t ride bikes. The film predominantly rests on her shoulders, but her mother, Reem Abdullah, embodies grace in the face of impossible adversity. It serves not only as a reminder of what life should be, but what it sadly is for some. We watch as two older teens, going through typical rebellion, are turned into school pariahs; we wince as young girls laugh when a fellow 13-year-old is caught with pictures of her wedding, married off to a much older man. Every young girl will watch this film and feel for Wadjda, understanding her teen angst and the relationship she has with her mother. Thankfully, this isn’t some movie for girls where her value is defined by whether a boy likes her or not; her value isn’t even defined by whether her country accepts her or not. She remains dutifully true to self; true to family, true to spirit. If only more films treated their female characters so well and taught young women such delightful lessons about character.


I find it wildly unlikely that we’ll see another date movie this year as thoroughly charming and earnest as Populaire, a French romcom set in the 1950s. In late 1950s France, all of the women long to move up in the world of business by becoming secretaries for powerful businessmen. Rose Pamphyle (Deborah Francois) is one such woman, moving from a small provincial town into the city in hopes of making more of herself. She finds herself trying out for a handsome insurance man, Louis Echard (Romain Duris), who doesn’t see her as a terrific secretary but is impressed by the incredible speed of her typing. He agrees to hire her, but only if she lets him train her for the international speed typing tournament. They train together, and you can imagine where it goes from there… but the joy of this film isn’t in the surprise, it’s in the chemistry. Francious and Duris are terrific together as the pseudo-Hudson-and-Day couple, exchanging barbs and the occasional secret glance of longing. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this style as well: the lively music, the bright Technicolor costumes and sets, and the utter absence of irony. It’s never mocking the idea of speed typing as a worldwide phenomenon; it’s gleefully embracing it, sending us on fancy flights into the realm of the absurd. Far too many romcoms are lacking in wit and style. Populaire provides a free-flowing abundance of both.

Note: Populaire is rated R, for one subtitled four-letter word and two successive moments in which breasts are briefly bared. For this, teens looking for a lovely date night must look elsewhere, because to the MPAA, this film is on par with Hostel. Yet another in a long series of embarrassing decisions by the MPAA.

The Grandmaster:

Wong Kar Wai’s epic biopic of Ip Man, the legendary kung fu figure best known to Westerners as Bruce Lee’s mentor, has been years in the making. Strangely, The Grandmaster is at its worst when it’s focusing its energy upon Ip Man: Tony Leung does fine work and terrific stunts as the leading man, but he’s not given a tremendous amount of character depth into which he can sink his teeth. There’s plenty of talk about the nature of kung fu and so on, but these Ip Man-centric chapters left me cold. However, Wong’s film soars when they focus on Gong Er, the daughter of a master who encounters Ip Man at a few important points in his life. Played by Zhang Ziyi of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, Gong Er steals the show whenever on screen. The film departs from its narrative about halfway through to tell a Gong Er-themed flashback for about forty-five minutes, and this segment is so strong that I wish the whole narrative had revolved around her. The best two scenes are between her and Ip Man: a magical fight-dance upon first meeting, and a conversation at an opera for their last meeting. Zhang is balletic in the first, heartbreaking in the last, and positively electric for her entire tangential storyline. Kung fu fans may find this film too slow for their liking, but with the exception of the Ip Man/Gong Er fight and one conflict at a train station toward the end, the magic of this film doesn’t reside in the kung fu, but rather in Gong Er’s story arc. After the first hour, enough of the film had left me cold and/or disoriented (there’s a fifteen-minute tangent about a character named Razor dropped in the middle apropos of nothing) that I was saddened by my disappointment at Wong, normally a top-drawer filmmaker. However, when the film suddenly focuses in on Gong Er, it becomes one of the better films so far this year. How does one grade a film that’s half cold disappointment, half rich wonder? I’ll hedge my bets down the middle and let you decide. I’d give The Grandmaster a chance if I were you, but find patience for the first hour: I promise it will pay off eventually.

~ by russellhainline on September 21, 2013.

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