Wednesday, January 25, 2006

FEARLESS: Jet Li's Lunar Year treat

(kungfu biography)
Time: 103 mins
Rating: * * *
Jet Li (centre) as novice farmer
FEARLESS is a stylised biography of Chinese martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910), the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation which has branches all over the world. In Malaysia, its branches nationwide are known as the Chin Woo Athletic Associations. Huo’s exploits had been featured in many kungfu movies before, the most famous of which was Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury where he was shown to have been poisoned by the Japanese.

This version by director Ronny Yu, however, is not to glorify him but to show how he transformed from an arrogant kungfu master to become the champion of martial arts exponents in Shanghai. As a young boy, Yuanjia is forbidden from learning kungfu because he suffers from asthma. His father (Colin Chou), a famous martial arts teacher, does not want Yuanjia following in his footsteps. However, the boy is so determined to learn the art that he practised it secretly with the help of his best friend Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong).

By the time Yuanjia (Jet Li) reaches adulthood, he has pulverised the school bully and won several street contests. His fame as the top kungfu fighter spreads all over Tianjin — and so does his pride. Yuanjia celebrates his victories with his students and admirers at Nong’s restaurant and chalks up a huge bill. However, when a student’s skirmish with a rival martial arts school results in the death of Yuanjia’s mother (Bao Qijing) and daughter, Yuanjia is devastated.

He flees Tianjin, wanders for hundreds of miles, and nearly dies before he is rescued by an old woman and her blind grand-daughter Yue-Ci (Betty Sun). Yuanjia is taken to an idyllic mountain village where he learns humility and how to live in harmony with nature. When he returns to Tianjin, he finds the town overrun by foreigners who consider the Chinese as the ‘sick men of Asia’.

To boost the confidence and morale of the citizens, Yuanjia forms the Chin Woo school and teaches his disciples the Missing Fist technique. Again, Yuanjia’s fame and popularity grows and this time around, it attracts the attention of the Foreign Chamber of Commerce who plots his downfall.

Sure, we have a seat-gripping duel at the climax but the outcome is not what we usually get in such Jet Li movies.The fighting scenes, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, are realistic and stunning. Yuen avoids using special effects and this makes the duels look more challenging. Yuanjia’s mountain sojourn offers a respite from the fighting sequences but his relationship with the blind Yue-Ci is undeveloped. We suspect it is more of an added distraction than a piece of history.

Also, Jet Li appears more comfortable in his role and he has us eating out of his hand even when he plays the arrogant youngster.It should make a fitting entertainment for the new lunar year holiday in lieu of a Jackie Chan offering.

SYRIANA: Insights into Global Oil

(political thriller)
Time: 125 mins
Rating: * * *
George Clooney and William Hurt
SYRIANA is not for the action fan or those who like the movie’s plot served neatly on a platter. For this ‘geopolitical thriller’, you will have to watch and wait patiently to catch the ‘big picture’ on the players of the global oil industry — and then realise that the ‘payoff’ is not what you expect it to be.

You realise that, perhaps, the ‘big picture’ is actually a complicated jigsaw puzzle of pieces that do not really fit, and that that is what the real-world Big Business politics is all about. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, based on Robert Baer’s book, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in CIA’s War on Terrorism, Syriana is a cynical but ‘factual’ story with real-life parallels. It sets you thinking even after you have left the cineplex. Of course, if you are not patient enough to follow the subplots about wheeling and dealing, corporate mergers, betrayals and assassination attempts, this film will be just one big bore.

There are four basic plot strands. One deals with Robert Barnes (George Clooney), a veteran CIA field agent in the Middle East who is ‘cut loose’ by the government when he becomes a liability to their cause. Having sold military weapons to some shady people, he knows more than he lets on.

The second is about a corporate merger between two American oil companies, Connex and Killen. Killen, which is run by its CEO Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), is a smaller outfit than Connex but since it has acquired drilling rights in Kazakhstan, Killen has become an attractive partner to Connex. The merger has also attracted the interest of the government and lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is brought in to investigate the deal.

The third deals with Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a trader based in Geneva who is assigned to propose a deal to the Emir of an unnamed Middle-Eastern nation. A family tragedy in Spain lands him a job as analyst to the Emir’s second son, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig).
And the last strand is about a young Pakistani labourer named Wasim (Mazhar Munir) who succumbs to the lure of radical Islam while working in the oil fields of the Gulf nation.

These four strands present insights into the global oil industry and they are woven into a complex fabric of intrigue and conspiracy. Director Gaghan (who wrote Traffic) fills the cast with familiar faces and allows them to flesh out their roles. Christopher Plummer is the boss of Bennett’s law firm, Amanda Peet plays Bryan’s wife, Julie, and William Hurt is the mysterious former colleague of Robert Barnes. Syriana is a thinking man’s movie that gets more fascinating at each additional sitting. Makes you want to get the DVD, doesn't it?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: A tale of Forbidden Love

Time: 136 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2
Ken Watanabe and Zhang Ziyi
THE sensual and secret world of the geisha has always intrigued and fascinated the non-Japanese. From books and travel brochures, we have been made to understand that the geishas are ‘ladies of the arts’ instead of ‘ladies of the night’. They are for entertainment, not for sex, they insist.

Can this be for real? It was this worldwide fascination that turned Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel into an overnight success. His Memoirs Of A Geisha had been on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than a year since it was published, selling more than half a million copies. Golden took more than 15 years to complete the book and he had to dump the first draft, which was written in the third person.

He then met and interviewed a real geisha and wrote another draft which he had to junk again in favour of a first-person account. The thinly-veiled biography is pure fiction but many readers called him, wanting to know how they could get in touch with Sayuri the geisha.

Naturally, the novel would make a great movie and producer Steven Spielberg was set to direct before he declined and picked Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) for the job. I must say Marshall has done a fine job of translating Golden’s vision on to the big screen. The movie may not have cultural nuances of the book but it makes up for it in lush exotic sets and soap-operatic approach.Also, I have nothing against its non-Japanese cast led by Chinese heart-throbs Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Malaysia's Michele Yeoh who are obviously the box-office lure.

The movie opens, circa 1929, with an impoverished fisherman selling off his two daughters. The eldest, Satsu, is sold into prostitution, while nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is accepted by an okiya (geisha house) where she will work as a servant until they find her elegant enough to be a geisha. At the okiya, Chiyo befriends fellow servant Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) but incurs the wrath of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the top geisha at the house.

However, a chance meeting with ‘The Chairman’ (Ken Watanabe) seals her future when she gets to train under Mameha (Michele Yeoh) who happens to be at loggerheads with Hatsumomo. The Chairman takes a special interest in Chiyo and she falls in love with him. But love is definitely a luxury a geisha cannot afford to indulge in — and this is the main theme of Golden’s book.

Detractors, especially western critics, have complained that the male characters, like The Chairman, are not properly developed. What they should realise is that in the world of the geisha, the clients’ identities are never divulged. Also, sex is always hushed up and spoken of figuratively in terms of ‘eels and caves’. Among the leads, Zhang, Yeoh and Gong Li give a good account of themselves but it is the spunky Suzuka Ohgo (as young Chiyo) who steals the show and melt our hearts. Memoirs should delight fans of Asian movies.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The 3rd GENERATION: Bold bid at Artiness

(Malaysian art movie in Cantonese)
Time: 110 mins
Rating: * *
I-Fun and Nicholas Teo in 3rd Generation

TO movie-goers, the term ‘art movie’ often implies boring efforts by ego-centric film-makers keen on exhibiting self-aggrandising works. So it is a wonder to me why the people behind The 3rd Generation would want to proclaim it as Malaysia’s ‘first art movie in Cantonese’.

Do they honestly want to attract only ‘art movie’ fans? Or, as I suspect, ride on the coat-tails of Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love?

The 3rd Generation, the first feature of director C.L. Hor, is based on the urban legend that a family’s wealth cannot be retained after the third generation. The story is about the Chan family headed by its patriarch, Chan Wah (Cheng Kam Cheong), who believes in maintaining clan traditions and social responsibilities.

When his younger son, Charlie (Nicholas Teo), comes home with his beautiful bride, Susan (Amber Chia), the old man beams with pride. At the wedding ceremony, Daddy declares that Charlie, who has been educated in England, would henceforth run all his businesses.

Now, is Charlie, a shy and unassuming boy, going to take the family’s companies to greater heights? Or make a mess of them? These questions are not satisfactorily answered because we are ‘distracted’ by vignettes of Chinese culture in Penang, notably, trishaw visits to a foreshore home on stilts (where Daddy Chan has a secret liaison), to a Chinese opera (where Chan Senior is a patron) and a grand old church (where the bored Susan goes to pray).

Charlie takes after Daddy too. He has a thing going with his secretary, Linda (Carmen Soo) but the things they say in their courtship ritual can give you the goose-bumps. And Charlie’s sister, Judy (I-Fun), has not one but two admirers named Alan (Paul Khoo) and Adam (Mervin Sia) whose ‘signature’ gesture is whipping out their comb and primming themselves every now and then. Alan and Adam are from rich families and they squander their inheritance on wine, women and song.

Talking about song, Hor, a former director of MTV spots, has a harmonica number going repeatedly throughout the movie — unlike Wong Kar-Wai’s fine selection of oldies in In The Mood For Love. And yes, Hor adopts Wong’s splendid display of Fifties fashion, including some lovely batik outfits. Unfortunately, he also copies Wong’s irritating static camera angles, filming through doors and corridors, and on feet and shoes.

Story flow is a muddle as we are taken through confusing flashbacks and fast-forwards, like ‘Three Weeks Later’ or ‘Three Months Later’. Indeed, Hor shows a fetish for the number Three, like in 3rd Street, 3rd Shop, 3rd Lamp-post that marks a meeting place, and everything in the movie is in threes or 30s. Why, he even has a wall clock stopping at three o’clock. Very ‘art-three’, eh?

The cast is forgettable, except for I-Fun who livens things up whenever she appears. Nicholas Teo is morose and ineffective as the lead while Amber Chia does what she does best: modelling clothes. To be of any value, a piece of art has to make an impact on the heart and mind of the buyer. The 3rd Generation does nothing of that sort.

My TOP 10 MOVIES of 2005

My TOP 10 MOVIES of 2005

1. King Kong
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Batman Begins
4. Sepet
5. Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe
6. Kingdom Of Heaven
7. Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith
8. War Of The Worlds
9. Spanglish
10. The Machinist

THE Malay Mail READER'S TOP 10 MOVIES 2005

1. Chronicles Of Nania…
2. Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire
3. King Kong
4. Star Wars Ep 3: Revenge Of the Sith
5. Chicken Little
6. Batman Begins
7. Charlie & The Chocolate Factory
8. War Of The Worlds
9. Zathura
10. Sepet

Best Local Movie: Sepet
Biggest Disappointment: Aeon Flux

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

PRIDE & PREJUDICE: A Must For Romantics

Time: 128 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2
Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennet
THOSE who love romantic intrigues will find this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel riveting and even fascinating. Directed by Joe Wright, from a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, this British production captures the very heart and soul of Pride And Prejudice, arguably the best of Austen’s novels.

The cast of accomplished veterans and young actors, led by Keira Knightley, are a sprightly bunch who fleshed out their roles with relish. Pride And Prejudice is primarily about the Bennet family for whom marriage is not just about romance but a means of survival. Asked why Mrs Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) is so obsessed about wedding off her daughters, she replies: “When you have five daughters, the business of my life is to get them married.”

To her, the universally acknowledged truth is that “a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” So when she learns that her new neighbour, Charles Bingley (Simon Woods), has an income of four or five thousand pounds a year, she sets her sights on matching him up with her eldest, Jane (Rosamund Pike).

Mrs Bennet manages to bring Jane and Bingley together at a local dance, and sure enough, they fall in love. However, things are rather different between her second daughter, Elizabeth (Knightley), and Bingley’s friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), a wealthy landowner. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are stubborn and self-opinionated, and she finds him arrogant but interesting.
Elizabeth’s acquaintance with dashing soldier Wickham (Rupert Friend), a childhood friend of Darcy, does not help improve her opinion of Darcy either — until Wickham runs away with her 15-year-old sister Lydia (Jena Malone).

Yes, first impressions are almost always wrong and as Lizzie learns more about Darcy, we root for them to kiss and make up. Austen’s book has several subplots but Wright and scripter Moggach have either condensed or eliminated them to concentrate on the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy. The subplot about the ‘unsuitable suitor’ Rev Collins (Tom Hollander) offers a neat contrast to the main thread and even a little comic relief, especially with Dame Judi Dench in a cameo as Collins’ benefactor, Lady Catherine.

Donald Sutherland plays the kind Mr Bennet, a father whose concern for his girls’ happiness outweighs that of financial design. Still, this is Knightley’s movie and she exudes charm and confidence as the sassy Lizzie. MacFadyen is more subdued but there is definitely chemistry between them. This is TV director Wright’s first feature and he even employs Bollywood devices like a quarrel in the rain to ‘wash’ away the couple’s differences. A must for love story fans.

CHEAPER By The Dozen 2: Cheaper by the Sequel

Time: 94 mins
Rating: * * 1/2
Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin

TOM BAKER’s dozen are back in a predictable sequel about their summer camp exploits at Lake Winnetka. Its 2003 predecessor, a remake of the 1950 movie starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, was rather cliched and uninspiring — and this one looks as if it is trying to make amends for it with more action and gags.

However, under director Adam Shankman, the comedy looks forced and Steve Martin is easily upstaged by a mouse and a young actress named Alyson Stoner. Martin reprises his role as Tom Baker who plans a summer vacation as a reunion for his clan at the scenic lake outside Toronto, Canada. From the word ‘go’, things start to go wrong and we get a series of ‘wrecking crew’ gags, one of which involves a thieving mouse.

Tom’s plans for family bonding goes awry when he bumps into the Murtaughs, another big family who are also vacationing at the resort. Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy) is Tom’s former high school mate and arch-rival. Jimmy has eight children but his prized ‘possession’ is his young trophy wife, Sarina (Carmen Electra). No, Tom does not envy Jimmy having a trophy wife; he just cannot stand the fact that Jimmy is more ‘successful’ than he is, and he wants to show him that the Bakers can beat the Murtaughs — at least at the camp competitions.

Tom starts training his kids. And the kids, who have their own agenda, start to rebel.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Sarah Baker (Stoner), the Tom-boy of the family, is beginning to notice boys and when she is asked on a date by Eliot Murtaugh (Taylor Lautner), we have a neat subplot that all youngsters in the audience can identify with. Well, which girl would forget her first experience with make-up, the first date, how her parents would wait up...?

Bonnie Hunt is also back as Ma Baker and so are Hilary Duff and Piper Perabo as Lorraine and Nora, respectively. Perabo, who plays a pregnant Nora, provides the sequel with a little Parenthood twist at the ending. And, surprisingly, Electra gets to play a stepmom who really cares for her husband and his children.

The responsibility of churning out the laughs falls mostly on Martin and Levy who are having a ‘rematch’ here after their ‘face-off’ in Bringing Down The House (2003). But there is nothing solid in the script for them to work on here. Shankman and screenwriter Sam Harper rely mostly on slapstick and destructive ‘crash gags’ that may get only a few giggles from the kids. These Baker Boys and Girls are anything but Fabulous.