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THE GRANDMASTER

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There was a time when kung-fu movies were simply empty-headed fun, filled with excitingly choreographed fight scenes, earnest hero-versus-villains melodrama and, in all likelihood, a dollop of slapstick comedy. Now, however, we get a picture like Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” a loose biography of Ip Man, mentor to Bruce Lee (among many others)—a serious, gravely artistic, stylistically operatic film that’s visually intoxicating but also a crashing bore. Some fans are complaining that the American distributor has cut the picture down from its original 130 minutes to 108 or so, but it’s hard to imagine that in this case longer could conceivably be better.

Tony Leung, whose placid, beatific face bears a curious resemblance to Barack Obama’s, stars as the preternaturally calm Ip, whom we first see in his native Foshan dispatching an opponent using the southern Wing Chun school of which he is a young master, impressing the visiting northern grand master Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), who aims to unite China by bonding its two halves in martial arts. Like many of the fight scenes in “The Grandmaster,” this first one is in the rain, with lots of shots carefully composed to feature artistically splashing water. It’s also shot and edited, as are most of the others, in a way that obscures full-body action in favor of close-ups and partial images—a misguided practice akin to filming dance sequences in the style of the original “Footloose,” shifting from upper to lower body in a way that prevents you from fully appreciating the grace of the movements.

Gong Yutian’s admiration for Ip leads him to suggest a friendly bout between them, which Ip wins. That leads the grandmaster’s lovely daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) to challenge him to a rematch, in which she emerges victorious. That balletic encounter fires the embers of love between them, but Gong Er must return to her father in the north, leaving Ip behind but planning eventually to go to her.

Unfortunately, everything is thrown into turmoil by the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s. Gong Yutian is killed by his erstwhile protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin), a collaborator who seizes the master’s property and sends his daughter packing but plotting revenge. Eventually she confronts him on a railway platform and metes out his just deserts. Ip, meanwhile, suffers economic hardship during the war but enjoys domestic happiness with wife Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo). After the war (and the establishment of the Communist regime) he moves to Hong Kong, where he searches out Gong Er, now practicing as a doctor, and they briefly rekindle their feelings for one another. He also establishes himself as a master teacher of kung fu among the exiles living there, who include Chang Chen as The Razor, a darkly dashing guy who’s unfortunately dismissed after a cursory conversation.

Such are the episodes of Ip’s life that Wong chooses as the linchpins of the biography, at least in this truncated version (Ip’s wife simply disappears along the way, without any discernible explanation, and The Razor certainly feels like someone who might have been treated more extensively). Since the purely expository or dramatic sequence s are staged like solemn, slow-moving and rather tedious tableaux, moreover, the highlights are certainly the periodic fight sequences, even if many are disfigured by the preference for soggy, water-drenched visuals and the chop-chop editing technique. But there are outstanding moments, most notably the intense but honorable match between Ip and Gong Er, marked by some impressive slow-motion work, and an abruptly energetic sequence in which Ip deals with a bunch of roughnecks in his Hong Kong studio. There’s also an intriguing “practice session” that Ip has with other southern masters before his contest with Gong Yutian, though it’s turned into a kind of descriptive catalogue of various kung-fu schools whose dialogue will be of little interest to anyone not fascinated by the technical details of martial-arts practice. As for the final face-off between Gong Er and Ma San, it’s elegantly composed and lusciously photographed, but the decision to interrupt it with cuts to a chattering monkey sitting on the shoulder of Gong’s trusted servant was certainly a miscalculation. It makes you think you’re watching “Crouching Tiger, Nattering Simian,” or something of the sort.

As a project Wong has long dreamed of undertaking, “The Grandmaster” pretty clearly reflects his vision. And one has to admire the fastidious work of production designer William Chang Shuk-ping and costumer William Chang, as well as Philippe Le Sourd’s lustrous widescreen cinematography. But though it’s not entirely fair to render a final judgment on the basis of this non-director’s cut, the film strikes one as handsome but turgid, vacuous and just a bit silly—the kung fu equivalent of “Heaven’s Gate” (the shortened version, of course).

PLANES

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Only the very youngest children will find much to enjoy in this misguided spinoff of the Pixar “Cars” franchise, which looks and sounds like something made for the Disney Junior cable channel and unwisely rerouted to theatres. And that’s not far off—it was actually intended for direct-to-DVD release and switched to theatrical mode at the last minute. Though that’s worked before (with “Toy Story 2”), in this case it seems a cynical move related more to profit than quality of product.

The plot of “Planes” is basically nothing more than a recycling of the first “Cars” flick with the setting changed from land to sky. A genial cropduster named Dusty Crophopper (voiced blandly by Dane Cook) wants—like Lightning McQueen in the earlier picture (not to mention Turbo the Snail in a more recent one)—to be a racing champion. (Since the world of the story is, like that of “Cars,” entirely human-free, one presumes that all those crops are being grown solely to make ethanol.) Though he suffers from a fear of heights, forcing him always to fly close to the ground, he’s encouraged by his pals, forklift Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and fuel trick Chug (Brad Garrett) to pursue his dream, and is eventually trained by crusty old Skipper (Stacy Keach), a veteran navy plane who was in the famed Jolly Wrenches flying squad a long time ago.

Though he doesn’t ace the preliminaries, through a fluke Dusty makes the roster for an around-the-world competition and is soon up against the best in the world. That includes the arrogant champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), another American, who will stoop to every nefarious move to win again. Happily the representatives from other nations are friendlier. There’s Bulldog (John Cleese), a stiff-upper-lip Brit whom Dusty saves from crashing in an early lap; Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a coy, sweet French Canadian; Ishari (Priyanka Chopra), a luscious Indian for whom Dusty develops a crush; and especially El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), an ebullient Mexican who becomes Dusty’s best buddy and cheerleader. (The last character’s prominence points to a trend—witnessed also in “Turbo”—to emphasize Hispanics and Latinos in animated films nowadays. In this case there’s great emphasis on the partnership between Mexico and the US, with El Chupacabra, presented as a reliable compadre to Dusty and given a major subplot as a suitor to the stand-offish Rochelle effectively becoming the picture’s second lead. Whether this represents a laudable development in cultural sensitivity or a crass effort to appeal to a growing segment of the family audience is a point worthy of discussion.)

Anyway, the race proceeds lap by lap in a by-the-numbers fashion that will make every beat predictable even to the tykes in the auditorium, let alone their parents. There are setbacks aplenty for Dusty—including one act of betrayal (quickly reversed, however)—and a revelation about Skipper’s past that temporarily brings things to a sudden halt. But the plucky little fellow’s friends all pitch in as needed to help him fulfill his ambition, and things end precisely as you’d expect. Unfortunately, the kind of witty repartee in the dialogue that has elevated so many animated movies in the past is totally absent here. The writing is as formulaic as the plotting, and even this voice cast can’t breathe life into lines that have no verve in them.

The computer-generated animation is mediocre, too. Admittedly it’s difficult to make planes, cars, trucks and forklifts very appealing, but the boxy, cheesy look they’re given here leaves one longing for the real Pixar touch. (Though a spinoff from “Cars,” “Planes” is an in-house Disney project.) The addition of 3D doesn’t help; the glasses dim the colors, giving the visuals a pallid, dreary tone.

“Planes” turns out to be less funny—and exhilarating—even than Ken Annakin’s 1965 comic epic about an air race, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.” And one can only hope it doesn’t lead to another sequel to complete a “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” trilogy. Of course that would be completely redundant, since this movie—and so many of today’s animated kids’ pictures as well—are just regurgitations of the old Little Engine That Could template. Completely lacking in imagination and panache, it makes for a boring flight during which passengers young and old will inevitably get restless.