Review: Yen, Tyson make ‘Ip Man 3’ fun to watch

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“Ip Man 3” was a modest box office success this winter. I gave it 3 stars when I reviewed it for the Buffalo News.

There’s an easy way to tell whether “Ip Man 3,” the third in a series of films based on the life of iconic martial arts master Ip Man, is right for you – answer the following question:

Are you intrigued by the idea of a three-minute survival-of-the-toughest fight sequence between martial arts mindblower Donnie Yen and former boxer Mike Tyson? If you answered yes, you’ll likely emerge from “Ip Man 3” with a smile on your face.

It is an ideal bit of mindless late-January cinema, albeit one that might require a little pre-film study. The real Ip Man was the master of a style of martial arts known as Wing Chun. One of his disciples? Bruce Lee.

The two films in the series, “Ip Man” and “Ip Man 2,” are streaming on Netflix. Both are directed by Wilson Yip and star the great Donnie Yen; all three are uniquely intense historical action films that play fast and loose with the real facts of Ip’s life.

As “Ip Man 3” begins, the title character is already renowned for his mastery of Wing Chun. The rather odd story that follows first involves his son’s school, and the real estate scheme of a shady developer played by Tyson.

Tyson’s gangster, Frank, oversees brutal matches dominated by Cheung Tin-ch (Zhang Jin), a rickshaw driver struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Frank’s henchmen follow through on his plan to take the school by any means necessary. Ip Man, of course, stands in the way.

After Ip and Cheung team up to protect the school, Frank challenges Ip to the three-minute challenge. It’s a gloriously fun sequence, one highlighted by the divergent styles of Yen and Tyson – I mean, Ip and Frank.

The property storyline is soon dropped, and the film’s second half is instead concerned with Cheung’s jealousy over the fame earned by Ip. He starts a competing school and challenges the mighty Ip Man to a public battle. And quite a battle it is.

Director Yip prefaces the final fight with some tender moments between Ip and his dying wife, Wing Sing (Lynn Hung), and it provides a nice counterpoint to the closing duel. Like the rest of the 105-minute film, the ending is both silly and involving.

The presence of Yen is the chief reason we stay interested. An immensely likable star who will be seen in December’s “Star Wars” spin-off “Rogue One,” Yen is known worldwide for both his extensive background as a legitimate martial artist and his filmography.

His Ip Man is calm, controlled and even sweet. Yen is as believable in quiet scenes with Hung as he is battling Cheung or Tyson.

Yip and cinematographer Kenny Tse surely deserve credit as well. One sequence, a lengthy fight scene going down a stairway that is shot overhead, is particularly impressive.

However, it is hard to know what to make of the appearance of Tyson. The still-fascinating, still-controversial Tyson is a matter-of-fact actor, one whose performance seems wildly out of place here. Yet his involvement makes that three-minute fight far more memorable.

“Ip Man 3” is unlikely to win over anyone who is not already a fan of martial arts cinema, but offers modest pleasures for action junkies. It also reaffirms Yen’s status as a worldwide star. He might be the calmest butt-kicker in cinema, and that’s noteworthy.

Review: Unflinching ‘Aferim!’ is a worthy addition to Romanian New Wave

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“Aferim!” was strange, occasionally disturbing, and surprisingly funny. Here is my 3 1/2 star review for the Buffalo News.

It is the exclamation point in the title of “Aferim!” that seems to illustrate its creators’ intentions. A harsh, unflinching Romanian drama set in the 19th century, the film is – against all odds – very, very funny. (The title means “Bravo,” and, the Wiktionary tells us, it often has an ironic meaning.)

Using the tropes of a Western and utilizing real narrative situations and dialogue from historical documents, “Aferim!” feels like an angry shout against the unbendable laws of the time. While Romania’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 88th Academy Awards did not earn a nomination, it certainly deserved one.

And what a grim, violent, prejudiced time it was. Consider that every Gypsy onscreen is referred to as a “crow,” and many are forced to work as slaves.

In this picturesque Eastern European landscape (shot in deceptively gorgeous black and white), one such Gypsy slave is on the run. He is Carfin (Toma Cuzin), and he fled his estate following an affair with a nobleman’s wife.

Tasked to find him is our “hero,” a constable named Costandin (exceptionally played by Teodor Corban). He is the type of person who thoughtfully tells a priest, “Each nation has its purpose. The Jews, to cheat; the Turks, to do harm; us Romanians to love, honor and suffer like good Christians.”

Costandin is therefore one of the more remarkably unself-aware characters in recent cinema, one fond of aphorisms like, “When a wise man opens his mouth, open your ears.”

Many of these life lessons are imparted to his teenage son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who has joined him on the hunt.

He’s a father who yells at his son to try some brandy, shouting “Drink like a man.” And later, shortly before buying the boy some time with a prostitute, asks, “You’re not a Sodomite, are you? Because if you are, I’ll drown you with my own hands.”

That’s Costandin, a buffoonish authority figure who nevertheless accomplishes his mission. The duo finds Carfin shirtless and running, and gather him up, along with a luckless young boy named Tintiric.

The remainder of the film is a “Last Detail”-like march toward Carfin’s grim fate. They sell Tintiric along the way in a heartbreaking scene, and find time for a prostitute while staying at a raucous tavern.

They also ponder what to do about Carfin. Does he deserve to be killed, or at the very least beaten, by the nobleman? However they look at it, as Costandin puts it near film’s end, “That’s our law.”

The finale is the film’s most violent section, and hammers home its themes of the utter foolishness of deeply held prejudices, and the horrors that result from male posturing. Knowing that so much of the dialogue comes from historical documents means the experience is even more insightful.

In doing so, director Radu Jude has made a sharper, more memorable Western than Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight.” Jude’s third feature earned him the Silver Bear for best director at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. It moves him to the upper echelon of Romanian filmmakers, a stellar list that also includes Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) and Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”).

This group is responsible for cinema that is harsh, moving and relentless. “Aferim!” is funnier than most of the other entries that make up the Romanian New Wave, but it is no less powerful.

And in Costandin, we have a character worthy of being called unforgettably daft. “Man is asked to beat his wife, but with kindness,” he says. How utterly, wonderfully absurd.

New to Buffalo Spree: My monthly ‘Coming Attractions’ column

REBELS WITH A CAUSE POSTER COURTESY OF KELLY+YAMAMOTO; CULTIVATE CINEMA CIRCLE POSTER FOR A GOOD AMERICAN DESIGNED BY JARED MOBARAK

REBELS WITH A CAUSE POSTER COURTESY OF KELLY+YAMAMOTO; CULTIVATE CINEMA CIRCLE POSTER FOR A GOOD AMERICAN DESIGNED BY JARED MOBARAK

I recently started writing a column about upcoming screenings for Buffalo Spree, with the March issue serving as the official kick-off for “Coming Attractions.” Each month, the column will appear in print and as an updated version on the Spree website. Here’s the debut.

This month marks the debut of my new column in Spree, a brief roundup of upcoming local film screenings and cinema-related events. Expect to see a diverse selection of classics, recent blockbusters, experimental works, and documentaries gracing screens in Buffalo and (slightly) beyond. 

Stay tuned for more fun in the months to come. Now on to our feature presentation. (And an end to this month’s film puns.) 

Buffalo Film Seminars: It’s hard to argue against the “classic” status of every selection in this spring’s installment of the Buffalo Film Seminars. And March might be the finest month yet for the long-running screening/discussion hosted by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian. The lineup includes Sergio Leone’s epic western Once Upon a Time in the West (March 1), William Friedkin’s tough-as-nails Oscar winner The French Connection (March 8), Martin Scorsese’s Jake LaMotta biography, Raging Bull (March 22), and Akira Kurosawa’s late-life masterpiece Ran (March 29). Don’t pass up the opportunity to see the latter two on the big-screen, especially. (7 p.m. at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html)

Cultivate Cinema Circle: In less than one year, the Cultivate Cinema Circle screening series has shared films from greats like Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, and Agnès Varda. The series has also brought newer films to town for the first time. March features two examples, both free and open to the public. Petra Costa and Lea Glob’s Olmo and the Seagull (March 1), the existential study of an actress in the late stages of pregnancy, is cosponsored by the Women & Gender Studies Program at Canisius. And Friedrich Moser’s A Good American(March 16) is the gripping true story of codebreaker Bill Binney. (Olmo: 8 p.m. on March 1 at the Canisius College Science Hall, 2001 Main St.; American: 8 p.m. on March 16 at Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.;cultivatecinemacircle.com)

Roycroft Film Society: The East Aurora-based Roycroft Film Society follows up two stunners—the heartbreaking Timbuktu and Jim Jarmusch’s vampire daydream Only Lovers Left Alive—with a unique documentary. Rebels With a Cause is a David-and-Goliath tale, the story of a group of citizen activists intent on preserving open spaces near urban areas. Frances McDormand narrates the film, which shows how these dedicated individuals took on big industry and government. (4 p.m. on March 13 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Avenue, East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)

Burchfield Penney Art Center: BPAC has embarked on an ambitious series of films under the “History of Terrorism” banner. This month starts with The Mumbai Massacre (March 3, time TBA), a documentary about the 2008 terror attack that grabbed the world’s attention. Next is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (7 p.m. on March 10), the Jessica Chastain-starring chronicle of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Also screening is the documentary BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez (7 p.m. on March 17), part of the Beyond Boundaries: Dare to Be Diverse Film Series. (1300 Elmwood Ave.; burchfieldpenney.org)

TCM Big Screen ClassicsThe Ten Commandments: Celebrate sixty years of Edward G. Robinson’s most absurdly miscast role as Turner Classic Movies presents The Ten Commandments. (2 and 7 p.m. on March 20 and 23 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Avenue, and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Road, Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

North Park Theatre: The North Park’s family matinee series offers some wildly diverse films this month: the still-funny Mike Myers comedy Wayne’s World on March 5 and 6; Monster Hunt, China’s second highest-grossing film of all time, on March 12 and 13; and the local premiere of a new family film called Against the Wild: Survive the Serengeti on March 19 and 20. Star Trek: Voyager’s Jeri Ryan stars in the latter. The family matinee films all start at 11:30 a.m. And one of the most controversial—since it beat Saving Private Ryan—Best Picture Oscar winners of the late-90s screens at 7 p.m. on March 7: the wildly entertaining Shakespeare in Love is presented by the UB English Department. (1428 Hertel Ave. ; northparktheatre.org)

The Screening Room: The March calendar for Amherst’s Screening Room is so vast that, quite honestly, I could not include it here. So make sure to visit screeningroom.net for the full rundown. Rob Reiner’s much-loved (although not by me) The Princess Bride screens at 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 4, and 5. The wonderfully titled locally-made film Dick Johnson & Tommygun vs. The Cannibal Cop hits the Room at 7:30 p.m. on March 3. And the anime film Kizumonogatari Part I: Tekketsu makes its Buffalo premiere at 9:30 p.m. on March 4. It also screens at 4 p.m. on March 5 and 6 p.m. on March 8 and 10. There is plenty more to come this month, including a documentary about Swept Away director Lina Wertmüller, cult favorite Donnie Darko, the late David Bowie in Labyrinth, and the Noam Chomsky doc Requiem for the American Dream(3131 Sheridan Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net)

Fredonia Opera House: The Opera House’s ongoing cinema series offers three unique films this month. The Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, featuring a superb performance from Saoirse Ronan, screens on March 5 and 8, while Maggie Smith leads the cast of The Lady in the Van on March 12 and 15. Finally, Joel and Ethan Coen’s already underrated 2016 release Hail, Caesar! is showing on March 19 and 22. (7:30 p.m. at 9 Church St., Fredonia; fredopera.org)

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center: A new film from Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) is always news in cinema, and his latest, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, is his most high-profile effort in years. The fascinating story of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s (Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky) experience shooting a film in Mexico is coming to Hallwalls for three screenings: 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 3, and 8. Also this month, filmmakers Bill Brown and Sabine Gruffat will appear in person to present their documentary Speculation Nation, about the devastation of the global financial crisis in Spain. It screens at 7 p.m. on March 17. (341 Delaware Ave.; hallwalls.org)

Historic Palace Theatre: This month sees the aforementioned Brooklyn at Lockport’s Palace Theatre on March 1, 2, and 3. Animated sequel Kung Fu Panda 3 takes over from March 4 through 10, and Disney’sZootopia screens from March 18 to 31. (Times vary; see lockportpalacetheatre.org.) Lastly, the very odd but often cute Easter-themed film Hop shows at 10 a.m. on March 26. The day also includes a visit with the Easter Bunny and an Easter egg hunt. (2 East Ave., Lockport; lockportpalacetheatre.org)

Next month features one of the finest and most difficult to find films of the last two decades, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. See you then.