Posted on 10/06/12 07:13 AM
It‚(TM)s a tough life for writer-director Woody Allen ‚" he‚(TM)s been churning out movies like clockwork for the past three decades, one quirky, offbeat romantic comedy/drama per year, to the point that he‚(TM)s now taken pretty much for granted. Every year, we know there‚(TM)ll be a movie with a sprawling ensemble cast spouting witticisms about love, death and marriage ‚" the only difference is whether Allen will play his standard, neurotically Jewish, death-obsessed character, or if he‚(TM)ll find someone to sub for him. (Granted these days Allen is switching it up even further by filming in various cities in Europe rather than sticking to his usual stomping grounds of Manhattan.) It‚(TM)s almost sad to think that a lot of his recent movies would probably be far better-received if they‚(TM)d be made by anyone else. But, because it‚(TM)s Allen, even his long-time fans (and I count myself among them) shrug and go, ‚Oh well, he‚(TM)s just doing what he‚(TM)s done for the last thirty years. It‚(TM)s not as good as his stuff from the seventies.‚?
Much as it pains me to trot out that tired old clich√ (C) again, I‚(TM)m afraid it‚(TM)s appropriate here because that‚(TM)s exactly what To Rome With Love is: not as good as his stuff from the seventies. But it‚(TM)s also not as hollow or bland or bitter as some of its predecessors in the past decade ‚" in fact, it‚(TM)s a solid, sweet little film that reminds you of how good Allen really is at whipping up oddball characters, gifting them with insanely witty dialogue and tossing them into refreshingly strange scenarios‚¶ while still having rather intelligent things to say about any number of topics, from the perils of fame, both real and ridiculous, through to the dizzying heights and depths of forbidden love.
Rome tells four stories which aren‚(TM)t really connected, beyond the fact that they all take place in the lovely, sun-kissed capital of Italy. Allen plays retired opera director Jerry and Judy Davis his psychiatrist wife Phyllis, who head to Rome to meet their daughter Hayley‚(TM)s (Alison Pill) boyfriend Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and his parents. John (Alec Baldwin) is a successful architect who walks the streets of a city in which he once lived and loved, and meets a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) whose travails with the women in his life are oddly familiar to him. Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are a young, sweet couple just off the train to Rome, who get their heads turned by the bright lights and people they meet ‚" including sassy hooker Anna (Penelope Cruz) and movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). Last, but not least, we meet Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an ordinary schmuck who usually doesn‚(TM)t have a single interesting thing to say about his ordinary life ‚" until, one day, inexplicably, he becomes an enormous celebrity and suddenly finds the whole world interested in the most minute, mundane details of his life.
As you can probably imagine, Rome is a little bit like the cinematic equivalent of a butterfly ‚" it flits from story to story, imparting some insights and a couple of great lines, and then dances off to another plot. It‚(TM)s not particularly consequential, nor is any of it as dark and brooding as Allen‚(TM)s melodramas (and even comedies) can sometimes be. If you can imagine a film that manages to be both literate and lightweight, well, that‚(TM)s what you have here ‚" it‚(TM)s smart, fluffy fun that delights in its characters and its gorgeous surroundings (Allen and his cinematographer really do justice to the romance and magic of the city).
Each of the four stories has its charm ‚" Allen takes a couple of sly digs at his critics in Jerry‚(TM)s tale, as he meets Michelangelo‚(TM)s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), an undertaker with a gorgeous operatic voice‚¶ but only when he‚(TM)s singing in the shower. As Jerry frets about his career, proclaiming that he‚(TM)s always been ahead of his time, it‚(TM)s difficult not to imagine Allen quirking an eyebrow at all the critics who‚(TM)ve suggested that‚¶ well, the times have finally caught up with him. Allen‚(TM)s banter with the delightfully wry Davis, a shrink who psycho-analyses Jerry so that we don‚(TM)t have to, is a delight, as is the inevitable solution at which Jerry arrives in debuting Giancarlo before the world.
Baldwin joins Allen‚(TM)s regular stable of actors (he‚(TM)s already working on Allen‚(TM)s next film set in Manhattan) and proves himself adept at delivering the sort of arch, deliberately self-referential and self-aware dialogue that Allen has turned into his stock-in-trade. He‚(TM)s a great mentor to Eisenberg, who believably, painfully and comically wavers between his long-time girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and the siren call of Monica (Ellen Page), a flighty, beautiful, sexual actress with whom he vows not to fall in love. As the young man squires Monica all around Rome, it‚(TM)s easy to see why he finds it difficult to keep his vow‚¶ even as John provides astute commentary about why it‚(TM)s the worst possible thing for him to fall for Monica at every turn.
For the first time in one of the movies Allen filmed in Europe, he employs local talent for more than a supporting turn or as bystanders. Benigni fares particularly well in his little morality tale about a man who becomes famous for ‚" well, having done nothing of much import. This is Allen‚(TM)s treatise on celebrity as we know it these days: reality stars who rise within the pantheon as gods among men, and who are forgotten and disposed of as quickly as today‚(TM)s newspaper. Of course Benigni is actually one of Italy‚(TM)s most famous exports, having won an Academy Award or two for his troubles with Life Is Beautiful ‚" but he‚(TM)s utterly convincing here as Leopoldo fumbles through and starts to enjoy and then dread his fame. As for Tiberi and Mastronardi, they are suitably winsome as the young couple who get an unexpected dose of the big city, although their story is probably the least memorable of the bunch.
All in all, Allen has crafted a lovely, sweet film that‚(TM)s easy enough on the eyes and heart. The narrative is a bit scattershot (some stories take place over weeks or months, others within the span of a day), but that‚(TM)s small enough criticism. The problem for Allen is that he is his own benchmark ‚" this is top-rate fluff by most other standards, but second-drawer magic from a maestro like him.
BASICALLY: There‚(TM)s a lot to love about this love letter to Rome, but (all together now) it‚(TM)s a far cry from Woody‚(TM)s best.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:12 AM
Logan Lerman hasn‚(TM)t had the best of luck so far with literary adaptations ‚" it looked like his career was going to go supernova with the Percy Jackson franchise, failing which he could count on the latest blockbuster incarnation of The Three Musketeers to get his name out there‚¶ right? Unfortunately, neither of those movies were particularly well-received, and for good reason: they were pretty terrible, or at the least, disappointingly mediocre. Good thing he didn‚(TM)t give up on bringing characters who live and breathe on paper to the silver screen though, or he‚(TM)d have missed out on the smart, sweet, emotionally powerful Perks Of Being A Wallflower.
Lerman plays Charlie, a sweet, troubled loner of a kid who dreads starting high school after spending some time away in hospital. At first, it looks like his only friend is going to be his English teacher Mr Anderson (Paul Rudd), and he‚(TM)ll be an outcast forever‚¶ until he meets kooky free spirit Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his charmingly screwed-up, adorable stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Thereafter, Charlie is inducted into the Wallflowers, a group of misfit kids ‚" boasting such outcasts as punk Buddhist Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) ‚" and the story of his life, including all the history and problems he‚(TM)s had to live through, begins to intertwine with theirs.
There‚(TM)s something to be said, it turns out, for having the author of the novel also call the shots on the movie ‚" Wallflower is clearly a passion project for Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the book and the script and directs the film. There can be no suggestion here that, in translating the novel to film, the plot or the characters got lost along the way, as too frequently happens with literary adaptations. Of course, the opposite could happen: Chbosky could be so lost in the details of the novel that he fails to bring out the themes in the film, or creates something that‚(TM)s little more than a staged reading of his book. Fortunately that doesn‚(TM)t happen here, or at least not overly much: Wallflower is, for the most part, a rich, moving gem of a film about the difficulties of growing up, the tragedy that is high school, and the power of friendship to get you through it all.
The trio of complicated, broken, very real kids at the heart of Wallflower are a big reason why the film succeeds as it does. A lot of people have looked upon this as Watson‚(TM)s breakout movie after her own far more successful foray into the realm of turning books into movies. On the strength of her turn here, there‚(TM)s hope for her yet ‚" she‚(TM)s not the strongest actress by a mile, but she‚(TM)s good enough at what she does and doesn‚(TM)t suffer much in comparison to the real bravura performances in the film.
These belong, of course, to Lerman and Miller. Miller ‚" already so chillingly impressive as the lead character in We Need To Talk About Kevin ‚" completely turns that dark, creepy performance on its head and makes Patrick one of the giddiest, most appealing young teen characters in recent movie memory. He steals every scene he waltzes through, a starburst of life, energy and sass, while still managing to effectively convey the heartbreak and vulnerability that underscores the great love of Patrick‚(TM)s high school life.
His is the showier role, however, and Lerman actually matches ‚" if not exceeds ‚" Miller every step of the way with his raw, tremulously authentic performance as Charlie. I‚(TM)d always wondered why Lerman had been talked up to the high heavens as a great little actor who was wise beyond his years by the people who took a chance on casting him as Percy Jackson in a potentially huge kids‚(TM) fantasy franchise that seemed to be Harry Potter‚~s natural successor. That movie tanked, and I really didn‚(TM)t see any hint of Lerman‚(TM)s purported acting prowess in it. I‚(TM)m happy to say that Wallflowers proves that he really is that good. The role of Charlie is a tough one to calibrate: he tries so hard to bury his secrets, rage, guilt and problems that it would be easy for him to appear blank-eyed and sullen. Lerman doesn‚(TM)t go down that route, instead presenting us with a Charlie who‚(TM)s tentatively keen to live his life again, who is trying (even if not particularly successfully) to get away from his past and his troubled memories of his aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey).
There‚(TM)s a great deal more to savour and enjoy in Chbosky‚(TM)s film than there are in any number of coming-of-age high-school dramas ‚" the web of relationships he weaves is powerful, sad and real, with Charlie never quite being able to get as close to Sam as he‚(TM)d like. This helps a great deal in papering over the moments in the film that meander, or which don‚(TM)t have as strong an emotional impact as Chbosky was probably going for. Sometimes the film feels clumsy and Chbosky‚(TM)s direction a mite too heavy-handed, but you‚(TM)re rewarded with bliss-out moments like a musically-charged drive through a tunnel or faithful, fun re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
BASICALLY: Don‚(TM)t judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its poster ‚" this is considerably more thoughtful and heartbreaking than you‚(TM)d expect from a movie about teenagers hooking up and breaking up in high school. Lerman and Miller are absolutely fantastic.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:12 AM
It‚(TM)s happened before ‚" I‚(TM)ve read poor to middling reviews for a film, wandered into the cinema with my expectations accordingly dialled down as low as they can go‚¶ and wound up really enjoying myself. I figured that could be the case for The Words, which has pretty much been slammed from all corners in a way that suggests either (a) it‚(TM)s really quite terrible, or (b) it‚(TM)s one of those oddball cult movies that‚(TM)s likely to gain its own small, loyal following. So I went in with an open mind ‚" and came away with the unfortunate conviction that The Words is every bit as bad as reviews will have you believe.
The film opens with celebrated author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) reading from his latest novel, which tells the story of Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). Rory‚(TM)s life looks like a charmed one ‚" he‚(TM)s the new darling of the literary world following the publication of his book, The Window Tears, and he‚(TM)s deeply in love with his beautiful, supportive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana). But then he meets a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons), weighed down by years and secrets and pain‚¶ and Rory‚(TM)s fictional world starts to crumble even as Clay finds himself defending his book and protagonist to grad student Daniella (Olivia Wilde), one of his most ardent fans.
To be charitable, I suppose Brian Krugman and Lee Sternthal ‚" who are both credited as directors and writers for The Words ‚" had grand ambitions of devising a profound, literate drama blending a wealth of intriguing questions and themes: what is reality, and what is fiction? What happens when you‚(TM)re not as good as you hope to be? How far will you go to get what you want? Is it really your story if you don‚(TM)t get to tell it yourself? Certainly it sounds like an intriguing movie could be concocted out of these elements, one which darts from reality to fiction and back, weaving a cinematic spell from lies and fiction until reality itself is warped and changed.
The Words is not that movie. For much of its running time, it‚(TM)s pretty inoffensive ‚" a half-baked drama that plods along in its mediocre fashion, with nothing that particularly recommends or condemns it. It‚(TM)s pretty to look at, Rory and Dora seem like a sweet couple, and the old man‚(TM)s story is interesting enough as sepia-tinted tales of falling in love on the cobblestoned streets of Paris go.
But then the film reaches its climax, which is a misnomer in this instance because there‚(TM)s nothing especially exciting about it. At that point, the film actually manages to plunge downhill from its steady plateau. Laughably bad dialogue abounds, the sort that is so clunky that Cooper‚(TM)s best efforts can‚(TM)t rescue it. Sometimes, the performances in a film can salvage it from the dustbin of history and The Words really does boast an unusually impressive cast. Tragically, not even Irons can do much to elevate the distinctly poor script, while actors who usually do solid character work like Quaid and Wilde seem to be sleepwalking through their scenes. It feels almost as if the directors cobbled their cast together by calling in favours from the biggest names on their Facebook friends list.
How Klugman and Sternthal‚(TM)s script ended up on the Black List in 2005, an annual compilation of the best unproduced scripts making the rounds in Hollywood, is a mystery to me. Somehow, from script to screen, the movie floundered and wound up committing the greatest crime imaginable for a film so concerned with the power of language ‚" it failed to find the right words to tell its story.
BASICALLY: A waste of words.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:11 AM
There‚(TM)s a reason why the story that lies at the heart of Dangerous Liaisons has been told over and over again since it was first published in France as a controversial novel in 1782 ‚" even after 230 years, the novel‚(TM)s racy mix of sex, mind games and gender politics remains bitingly relevant today. The story‚(TM)s ability to bridge differences in culture, geography and history means that it‚(TM)s been played out countless times on stage (as a straight play, an opera, and even a ballet!) and in film, where you can have your pick of adaptations: there‚(TM)s the Oscar-winning 1988 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, a Korean version set in the 18th century featuring dreamy auntie-killer Bae Yong Joon (Untold Scandal), or a thoroughly modern interpretation playing out in the halls of an American high school (Cruel Intentions).
So there‚(TM)s certainly a lot of promise in a version set in 1930s Shanghai, where the familiar web of tangled relationships is filtered through the lens of a deeply conservative society on the brink of a devastating war. Jang Dong Gun plays Xie Yifan, a rich, slick playboy who schedules his sexual encounters by day of the week and who has only ever felt really alive around Mo Jieyu (Cecilia Cheung) ‚" a feisty, power-hungry woman who is every inch his equal in business and in bed. Jieyu challenges Yifan to a wager ‚" she will offer herself to him exclusively if he can help her humiliate her most recent lover by deflowering the latter‚(TM)s sweetly virginal fianc√ (C)e Beibei (Candy Wang). In his cavalier way, Yifan ups the stakes, offering to throw the seduction of the recently bereaved, extremely virtuous Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi) into the bargain.
As you can imagine, a movie based on such a tantalising premise should be an electrifying, provocative experience. Unless you‚(TM)re a sociopath, you‚(TM)re not likely to easily identify with the unscrupulous duo who lie, cheat and manoeuvre their way into the hearts and beds of pretty much every other character in the film. But stronger adaptations of the source material still find a way to make you care ‚" to grab you by the gut when you least expect it, and elicit pity for the ways in which characters like Yifan and Jieyu have trapped themselves in their own games.
Unfortunately, this incarnation of Dangerous Liaisons feels safe and sedate when it should be anything but. It hits all the familiar story beats, but does so with a lack of heart and urgency. The stakes in the gamble between Yifan and Fenyu are high, but they never come across that way even when death and despair enter the equation. As the characters stumble purposefully towards tragedy, the overwhelming response is, frustratingly, one of clinical detachment. On many occasions, Korean director Hur Jin-Ho‚(TM)s camera literally loops around his characters, trapping them onscreen in their gilded cages ‚" which I‚(TM)m sure is partly the point, but has the unintended side-effect of further distancing the characters from the audience. In the end, watching Yifan and Jieyu prowl around each other and their prey is like watching ferocious beasts of the wild within the entirely safe confines of a zoo - the caged creatures are dangerous in theory, but neutered in practice, and the entire experience is as far removed from reality as it‚(TM)s possible to be.
That‚(TM)s not to say the lead actors didn‚(TM)t do good work in this film, even though the script (which departs from the ending of the novel in a couple of annoying ways) does them no favours. Zhang comes across as rather miscast at first ‚" she‚(TM)d have been a more natural fit for the part of sexual predator, surely! ‚" but manages to convince as Fenyu starts to respond to Yifan‚(TM)s advances. Jang is appropriately sexy and tortured as Yifan, as it becomes clear that he‚(TM)s in his own way as much a victim as his sexual conquests. Cheung is the real star, gliding across the screen with steel and grace while hinting at a heart that keeps Jieyu on the right side of tolerable.
The film also boasts a gorgeous aesthetic. It‚(TM)s lovely to see Shanghai lit with the kind of soft autumnal glow usually reserved for Paris ‚" the Chinese metropolis feels like a storybook city, cloaked in snow and underscored by the gentle swirl of jazz and classical music. Occasionally, the movie sparks to life when it‚(TM)s tied more firmly to its location ‚" with references to the civil unrest that threatens to disrupt a night out at the Beijing opera, or the poverty that was rampant on the streets of China even as the rich grew richer from the fortunes of the city‚(TM)s bustling port.
If you‚(TM)ve never before encountered Dangerous Liaisons in any form, you might find within this film a story intriguing enough to compel you to seek out better versions of the same tale. Otherwise, this is the movie equivalent of a snow-globe ‚" an insular, obviously constructed world that‚(TM)s lovely to look at, approximates a storm when you shake it up, but holds no real sense of danger or life.
BASICALLY: Many liaisons, not much danger.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:10 AM
These days, pretty much any movie featuring two people in love and a fairly healthy hit rate of laughs is packaged with industrial-strength gloss and tossed out to the masses as a sweet romantic comedy. In recent memory, this happened with Hope Springs, which was actually a more unflinching, dark look at marriage than its trailer would suggest.
Same goes for Celeste & Jesse Forever, which tells the story of, well, Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), a pair of college sweethearts who are perfect for each other ‚" they complete each other‚(TM)s sentences, share a lifetime of in-jokes‚¶ and oh yes, they‚(TM)re about to get divorced. The trailer showcases a comedy of embarrassments as the duo fumble away from each other, and seems to be trading on the promise inherent in its title ‚" ‚~forever‚(TM) means these two idiots will finally figure things out and get their happy ending, right?
Well, maybe, I‚(TM)m not saying one way or another. But what this little indie also sets out to do is to show us another definition of ‚~forever‚(TM) ‚" not just in terms of ‚~happily ever after‚(TM) but also in the sense of how the people you love remain with you always, even if you‚(TM)re no longer together. It‚(TM)s about how the absence of them still makes you grow, and change.
Much smarter fare than you‚(TM)d expect from a mere rom-com then ‚" and co-stars Jones and Samberg, who are best friends in real life, do a great job of selling the profound love the characters share. Don‚(TM)t be put off if you recognise neither of the lead actors, both of whom are better known in the US for their television work (Parks & Recreation for her, Saturday Night Live for him). They are charming onscreen, together and apart, with Jones particularly impressive as control freak Celeste struggles to find herself again after Jesse appears to have moved on ahead of her.
Celeste & Jesse Forever does meander a little as it goes along, and sometimes it feels as if the funniest moments were all used up in the trailer. Don‚(TM)t lose hope, however ‚" it‚(TM)s worth the watch to see how the film resolutely steers away from fairy tales and situates itself firmly in the real world. Granted it‚(TM)s a real world in which the lead actress is hopelessly beautiful and characters stumble upon each other in the kind of chance encounter that always happens in movies‚¶ but it‚(TM)s still a smart, uncompromising look at what happens when the course of true love doesn‚(TM)t run smoothly at all.
BASICALLY: Stick out the duller moments and you‚(TM)ll be rewarded with a story that manages to break and warm your heart at the same time.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:09 AM
Over the years, the Chinese martial arts epic has been reinvented in countless ways. It‚(TM)s been played broadly for laughs, modernised, Westernised, soaked in different hues and called high art ‚" so you‚(TM)d be excused for scoffing cynically when director Stephen Fung declares that he plans to revitalise the genre with Tai Chi 0. (Read that as ‚~zero‚(TM), and you‚(TM)ll quickly see the pun the producers were going for in naming the upcoming sequel Tai Chi Hero.)
Plot-wise, Tai Chi 0 isn‚(TM)t anything special. It tells the story of Yang Luchan (Yuan Xiaochao), a sweet, slightly daft idiot (in local lingo: blur sotong) who also happens to be a once-in-a-generation martial arts prodigy. When he discovers that the type of martial arts he‚(TM)s grown up practising is quickly killing him, he resolves to regain control of his inner energy by learning taichi from the renowned master of Chen Village. But there are many obstacles in his way to becoming a taichi hero, including the village master‚(TM)s smart, self-assured daughter Yuniang (Angelababy); her childhood sweetheart Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), who‚(TM)s helping the government build a railway through the village; and a goofy handyman who keeps picking up the pieces after Luchan‚(TM)s repeated attempts to fight for the right to learn taichi.
The real thrill comes from playing witness to the bucketloads of style and imagination that Fung pours into the film. One of his main goals was to infuse Tai Chi 0 with a steampunk sensibility, weaving the cooler-than-cool aesthetic and Victorian fantasy elements of steampunk into a martial arts epic that still revolves around the more traditional notions of family, love and honour. On this count, the movie succeeds. Luchan‚(TM)s universe is a far funkier one than you‚(TM)re used to, littered as it is with imaginary contraptions that never existed in Chinese history. Troy, for example, is a squat monstrosity of a machine that steams its way up to the village, laying railroad tracks in its wake and serving as a constant, literal reminder of the modernisation that Zijing is hellbent on bringing upon the Chen clan.
The inventiveness doesn‚(TM)t end there. Watching Tai Chi 0 is a lot like having all your senses and your brain assaulted by a Tarantino film ‚" just as cultural magpie Tarantino merrily mashes up genres for his movies, Fung plunders from a wide range of cinematic influences to create Tai Chi 0. Luchan‚(TM)s childhood unfolds in utterly charming fashion via a Chaplinesque silent-movie homage. Fung cites Hayao Miyazaki as one of his favourite film-makers, and accordingly, there are boldly colourful, arresting anime sequences littered throughout the film. At other times, it feels as if Luchan has unwittingly led us into a video game or a Spaghetti Western, by way of a Looney Tunes cartoon (complete with onscreen info-graphics that are both helpful and mischievous).
Fortunately, there‚(TM)s a fairly solid movie underpinning Fung‚(TM)s playful quirkiness, or it might all become a bit wearisome after a while. For the most part, Tai Chi 0 gives us characters with both dramatic depth and comic potential. It‚(TM)s easy to laugh at Luchan as he bumbles into a brawl with yet another highly-skilled Chen villager, but you do also find yourself caring about the outcome when he tries valiantly to defend the village and almost loses what life he has left as a result. Even Zijing, the antagonist of the piece, isn‚(TM)t the standard 2D villain ‚" he‚(TM)s given a backstory that plausibly explains why he‚(TM)s so eager to bring change to the village and, ultimately, why he pledges to destroy it.
That‚(TM)s not to say everything is perfect ‚" there are so many gags flying about that it‚(TM)s inevitable for some to fall flat, and a subplot involving Zijing‚(TM)s dalliance with the wonderfully-named Clare Heathrow (Mandy Lieu) comes off as awkward rather than romantic. There‚(TM)s a dramatic reason for why a key scene between them is performed in English, but it‚(TM)s painfully evident that Peng ‚" despite his best efforts ‚" is not comfortable with his English dialogue.
It remains to be seen whether the younger, untried members of the cast can provide the sequel with more emotional heft as the trailer suggests they‚(TM)ll have to do. For the purposes of Tai Chi 0, at least, the completely untested Yuan fares well enough ‚" he might not be the most skilled of thespians, but, much like the film he‚(TM)s starring in, he‚(TM)s a boundlessly energetic puppy and it would be almost impossible to hate him. Angelababy and Peng provide able support, even if they‚(TM)re nowhere near as instantly charming as the veteran Tony Leung ‚" who waltzes in and out of the film, stealing every scene he‚(TM)s in.
Though not quite as revolutionary as Fung would have you believe, the incredibly cheeky, stylish Tai Chi 0 is like nothing you‚(TM)ve ever seen before ‚" in a very good way. You would have to be a grouch of the first order not to find at least something to like in this whirlwind blend of tongue-in-cheek humour and stylishly off-the-wall action.
BASICALLY: This zero is already a hero.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:08 AM
Any movie, really, whatever the size of its budget and marketing team, would be ecstatic to receive the critical plaudits and hugely positive word-of-mouth that Ruby Sparks has been enjoying since its early September release in American theatres. Critics have hailed it as one of the smartest, freshest romantic comedies to have hit the silver screen in ages ‚" on the strength of which, I imagine, this movie managed to make it to our shores as quickly as it did.
Screenwriter Zoe Kazan pulls double-duty as the eponymous heroine, who‚(TM)s bubbling over with life and vitality ‚" except, well, she isn‚(TM)t technically alive. She‚(TM)s actually a product of tortured author Calvin Weir-Fields‚(TM) (Paul Dano) imagination. You see, Calvin, who‚(TM)s long been celebrated as a genius after publishing a novel while still in high school, has suffered writer‚(TM)s block for the better part of a decade, pouring out his insecurities and troubles to his gym-rat brother Harry (Chris Messina) and psychiatrist Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould). One day, he meets the vibrant, beautiful, complicated Ruby in a dream and starts writing about her‚¶ only to find her, suddenly and without explanation, in his apartment and in his life. He falls in love with her (how could he not?), this very personification of a dream girl made flesh, and vows never to abuse his authorial power to change her on the page. But Calvin soon starts to learn that dealing with one‚(TM)s notion of the perfect girl on paper is nothing like co-existing with a living, breathing human being with her own ideas, demands and anxieties.
At its heart, then, the story is actually much the same as any other by-the-numbers rom-com: boy meets girl in an adorably quirky fashion, boy thinks girl is perfect, boy and girl embark on the honeymoon phase of their relationship, boy realises girl is very much not perfect, boy and girl break up and, inevitably, make up. Same old story that‚(TM)s been rehashed in a million different, increasingly credibility-stretching ways.
The difference here is that the way in which this particular story has been told is really quite brilliant. Filtering the traditional rom-com through its distinctly literary prism, Ruby Sparks manages to be smart, quirky and deeply romantic without coming across as completely manufactured and fake, as so many rom-coms do these days. The quirkiness is built into the film‚(TM)s narrative, begging you to suspend your disbelief ‚" just as Calvin must suspend his ‚" before you can come to the realisation that the film is really a very astute commentary on actual issues that come up in real-life relationships. It‚(TM)s not just about choosing the bookish nerd over the hot sexy stud, but genuine dilemmas that people really face when they‚(TM)re deeply in love ‚" anyone would recognise themselves in Calvin when he struggles mightily with Ruby‚(TM)s refusal to do what he wants her to, or thinks she ought to. When do you stop trying to shove your significant other into your pre-conceived notion of perfection?
Kazan‚(TM)s script takes an unusually dark turn towards the end, one that‚(TM)s both unavoidable given the characters and situations she‚(TM)s devised, but also frustrating because it‚(TM)s such a brutal, mortifying injection of reality. At that point, the film does a hundred-eighty and almost becomes a horror movie: I don‚(TM)t think anyone watching Ruby in her misery at that point will be able to forget it anytime soon. In that moment, Kazan, as scriptwriter and actress, pushes the envelope as far as it will go, and comes very very close to alienating her audience from Calvin completely. It‚(TM)s a toss-up whether you‚(TM)ll be swept up in the emotion of it, or so flummoxed by the twist in the tale that you become numb to anything that comes after it.
Even so, there‚(TM)s a great deal to enjoy and treasure in Ruby Sparks. Kazan, descended from a long line of accomplished screenwriters going all the way back to Elia of On The Waterfront fame, packs her script with gems, be they witty dialogue, hilarious comic moments or delightfully kooky supporting characters. There is an entire sequence set in Big Sur, where Calvin and Ruby go to visit his earth-mother mom Gertrude (Annette Bening) and her spicy, fun-loving partner Mort (Antonio Banderas). It‚(TM)s a physical burst of life and fun much like Ruby herself, as Calvin fusses about in his fastidious, buttoned-up way, in a wonderfully-imagined, utterly charming set that‚(TM)s part jungle and part beach bungalow (as it was surely intended to be).
The performances are also top-notch ‚" it goes without saying that the extended cameos from Bening and Banderas are fantastic: both of them explode into the film with such good humour and charisma that they steal the entire movie away from the lead actors whenever they‚(TM)re onscreen. But that‚(TM)s not to say Dano and Kazan aren‚(TM)t great ‚" they are, in fact, very much so. Sharing a fantastic chemistry that surely must be at least partly rooted in their real-life relationship, both actors will hopefully be getting a lot more work on the basis of this film. Dano plays the neurotic, controlling Calvin in a heartbreaking way that keeps the character just on the right side of sympathetic. He also displays an unexpected gift for physical comedy ‚" I defy you to keep a straight face as you watch him descend the stairs when he first becomes aware of Ruby‚(TM)s physical appearance in his apartment. Kazan, too, is a winning screen presence: her Ruby is an adorable, huge-eyed waif in the style of Zooey Deschanel‚(TM)s kooky new-age sweetheart, but Kazan finds a reality and pathos in a character that‚(TM)s, well, literally an ink-and-paper creation.
If it isn‚(TM)t clear by now, a great deal of the praise that has been lavished upon Ruby Sparks is well-deserved. It‚(TM)s a smart, literate breath of fresh air in a market saturated with rom-coms so predictable they‚(TM)re almost painful to watch. Whether or not you‚(TM)ll get completely swept up in Calvin and Zoe‚(TM)s metaphysically impossible romance, however, is something else entirely ‚" but it‚(TM)ll be interesting to see what Kazan goes on to do, and whether she can hone her already impressive writing skills to the point that she can more effectively handle the huge tonal shift that the film undergoes near the end. I suspect she‚(TM)s entirely capable of meeting that challenge.
BASICALLY: A bold, brave, romantic movie that starts out as a fairy tale and winds up in the uncomfortable realm of horror story slash psychological thriller. Still, it‚(TM)s a worthy effort and serves as a great calling card for Dano and Kazan.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:08 AM
Chinese warlord and military strategist extraordinaire Cao Cao (played here by Chow Yun-Fat) might have won any number of battles in his day, but has by and large lost out in the war of public opinion. In films, literature and even history, he is typically portrayed as a megalomaniacal tyrant, the great villain of China‚(TM)s Three Kingdoms era against whom folk heroes like Liu Bei and Sun Quan are more favourably compared.
At first, it seems as if The Assassins is heading down that same route: Cao is set up as the villain of the piece, the focus of any number of assassination attempts from every possible corner of the kingdom. As young children, Ling Ju (Crystal Liu) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki) are groomed to become killers whose sole mission in life is to murder Cao. The ineffectual Emperor Xian (Alec Su) is not above endorsing a plot or two hatched by his ministers to get rid of Cao. Even within his own family, Cao is hardly safe from threat ‚" his dead-eyed son Cao Pi (Terry Chiu) lusts after both the throne and empress of China (Annie Yi), and one gets the feeling he‚(TM)s unlikely to let his father get in the way of his ambition.
But Assassins has a more complex story to tell. As these characters and conspiracies spin relentlessly around Cao, the audience begins to get a sense that there is a lot more to Cao than meets the eye. The film doesn‚(TM)t try to suggest that Cao is a saint ‚" far from it. He is trapped by the blood on his hands and the untold death and suffering he has caused, he is suspicious and paranoid of everyone around him, and, as proven by a breathtakingly tense scene set in Emperor Xian‚(TM)s court, he is completely, terrifyingly ruthless in dispatching his opponents when their plots against him are uncovered. But Cao is also portrayed as an occasionally kind man, one beset by headaches and the loss of his virility, and a father who has no idea how to love a son he must also treat as a potential enemy.
It all makes for a rich, complicated blend of character study, family drama and political intrigue, and first-time director Zhao Linshan does a pretty good job of juggling all the plot threads and characters. He pulls off a couple of nailbiting confrontations between Cao and his enemies ‚" including a moonlit face-off with his own son ‚" that are as fun as they are nerve-wracking to watch. As the centrepiece of the entire film, Cao is an absolutely fascinating character: more kingly than his king, less villainous than the snakes lying in wait for him, as fragile, real and complicated as any of the humans around him.
If anything, Zhao is let down by a script that plays a little fast and loose with history, weaving folk tales and a love triangle into the story that lend Cao a little more humanity but cost the film as a whole quite a bit of credibility. Ling Ju‚(TM)s moments of introspection as she wanders through Cao‚(TM)s court as his new consort are necessary, but often feel hollow in contrast to the far deeper, darker tales unfolding all around her. Assassins is also not the film for you if you‚(TM)re looking for an epic movie that will double as a booster shot of adrenaline. Apart from one thrilling midnight assault involving an ingenious use of ropes, the movie is talky and its pace more measured than you might hope for.
Fortunately, Chow anchors the entire film with his electrifying performance as Cao ‚" radiating charisma and menace, he is reason enough to cough up the price of a movie ticket, and memorable enough to make up for the weaker performances from the rest of the cast. Like their characters, Liu and Tamaki seem a little lost and green when sharing the screen with Chow, albeit unintentionally so. In contrast, and to their credit, early ‚(TM)90s Chinese pop stars Su and Yi fare reasonably well in their roles, with the former especially effective as a puppet king retreating into his own shadow world of music and play-acting.
Assassins is apparently the first film in a planned trilogy focusing on the turbulent warfare that passed for history during the Three Kingdoms era. On the evidence of this solid if flawed attempt to exhume Cao from his villain‚(TM)s grave, there‚(TM)s a great deal of history left to re-tell.
BASICALLY: Assassins makes a strong case for why Cao is a great man, even if he may not always be a particularly good one. Watch this for Chow and you won‚(TM)t be disappointed.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:07 AM
Sometimes, I watch movies that have been deemed classics and find myself bored to tears, puzzled or just plain disappointed. Fair enough, I suppose: how could every one of these movies live up to all the hype, if they‚(TM)re always referred to in hushed, reverent tones? I‚(TM)m glad to report that Ferris Bueller‚(TM)s Day Off - often talked about as one of the best high-school teen comedies ever made ‚" is every bit as good as its reputation makes it out to be.
Ferris Bueller (an adorably young Matthew Broderick) is a whirlwind of chaos, intelligence and energy, all of it devoted to one goal: cutting class for a day, with his best buddy Cameron (the impressive Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) in tow. So he comes up with one inspired, complicated scheme after another to free each of them from the tedium of school in favour of a day exploring the big city of Chicago. Of course, even if the townsfolk and his cheerfully oblivious parents don‚(TM)t have a problem with him calling in sick for the day, Ferris can‚(TM)t quite shake the suspicions of Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who is determined not to let Ferris get away with it again, and his own sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey), who‚(TM)s jealous that Ferris keeps managing to pull the wool over everyone‚(TM)s eyes when she can‚(TM)t.
It sounds like a slight premise, and hardly a very important one ‚" for crying out loud, you might say, it‚(TM)s just about a kid who wants to skive off with his pals! How could anyone make a great comedy out of that? Ferris is more than happy to prove its naysayers wrong. The moment writer-director John Hughes decided to break the fourth wall was the moment the film became eternally hip ‚" it allows Ferris (and the endlessly charming Broderick) to be every bit as sassy and self-aware as the character needs to be onscreen, as he relates his observations, motivations and, crucially, his goals for the day. You get to understand Ferris in a way you wouldn‚(TM)t in the typically vapid teen-com, and it makes the movie feel as fresh today as when it was first released 26 years ago.
Ferris‚(TM) quips and asides ‚" as he dissects the world around him with a laidback wisdom beyond his years ‚" are reason enough to catch this movie, but there are other great comic moments littered throughout it as well. He hardly ever comes to face with the doggedly hapless Rooney, but nevertheless leads the latter a merry dance, causing the beleaguered headmaster to suffer all manner of indignities and bruises (to both body and ego). Ferris‚(TM) attempts to get into a fancy restaurant are still amusing, even now, as are all moments throughout the day when he almost gets busted by an authority figure. There‚(TM)s also no denying that his iconic infiltration of a massive street parade is the cinematic equivalent of a starburst of comedy and joy.
All of this would mean much less, however, if there weren‚(TM)t a solid emotional core underpinning the entire enterprise ‚" and there is one here that‚(TM)s surprisingly dark and complex. When the film kicks into that particular gear, it actually takes a hard, pointed look at his friends and the effect his shenanigans have on them‚¶ and it‚(TM)s at this moment that Ferris ceases to be merely the symbol and bringer of chaos into the lives of those around him, and the film becomes something more than a bog-standard teen comedy. When it becomes clear just why Cameron looks at his friend and says ‚" not with admiration but with profound gratitude ‚" ‚~You‚(TM)re my hero, Ferris Bueller‚(TM) is the moment Ferris graduates to being a cult hero, rather than the glib, slick bad boy you know you shouldn‚(TM)t emulate but secretly admire.
It‚(TM)s also why this film has come to mean so much to so many ‚" it‚(TM)s not just that it was the first teen comedy to so patently celebrate the virtues of being a lazy layabout‚¶ it‚(TM)s actually a movie that dares to remind everyone of all those clich√ (C)s we know but too easily forget ‚" about life being for the living, and taking the time to bend the rules a little so you can stop and smell the flowers ‚" without ever shoving them like homilies down your throat. The verve and sparkle in Ferris is all relentlessly, sardonically good-natured, but also surprisingly philosophical: don‚(TM)t let the routine and what‚(TM)s expected of you cause you to lose track of what‚(TM)s important in life. Shake it up a bit. Live a little. Live a lot. Live again.
What‚(TM)s more surprising to me than the quality of this film, fortunately left untouched by the passage of time, is the fact that a sure-to-be soulless remake isn‚(TM)t already on the cards, with today‚(TM)s teenybopper of choice (Zac Efron? shudder) on board as a too-cool-for-school Ferris for the new millennium. Perhaps, for once, the movie industry recognises that lightning has been caught in the proverbial bottle with this film, and it would only be an act of arrogance and hubris on their part to try to do the same when it was already done so very well to begin with.
BASICALLY: A classic for very good reason. Smart, fresh and inventive, even after 26 years.
Posted on 10/06/12 07:06 AM
In a movie season when fresh ideas are hard to come by and cinemas are flooded with the umpteenth sequel, remake or reboot, no one in their right minds would be betting on 21 Jump Street to be any good. After all, it‚(TM)s not re-starting a franchise that would be profitable no matter what (The Amazing Spider-Man), nor is it being lent goth maestro Tim Burton‚(TM)s name and credibility to account for the fact that the original series isn‚(TM)t particularly well-known (Dark Shadows). The drama series on which this loopy comedy is based ‚" about adults infiltrating high schools to solve crimes ‚" didn‚(TM)t have anything much to recommend it, beyond its then-fresh-faced star, Johnny Depp, and certainly I wasn‚(TM)t going into the cinema for nostalgia‚(TM)s sake, having never seen the television show before. But I was curious as to why a comedy reboot would garner the unanimously positive reviews this film had been getting across the board since it debuted on screens in America. And I can happily report, having now watched this movie for the second time, that it‚(TM)s because 21 Jump Street is one of the best, silliest, most refreshing comedies I‚(TM)ve seen all year.
Flash back to 2005, if you will. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) is a bleached-blonde nerd. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is a popular jock. High-school stereotypes being what they are, they don‚(TM)t really get along. Fast-forward to 2012, when Schmidt and Jenko are both training to be police officers ‚" they bury any lingering high-school enmity and become best buds, helping each other to get through training‚¶ only to discover that routine duty is, well, pretty routine. After a disastrously funny first arrest, they get thrown onto a particularly interesting detail: they‚(TM)re sent to 21 Jump Street, where the constantly rage-filled Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) is in charge of police officers who are young enough to infiltrate high schools. Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to ferret out a drug that‚(TM)s taken over a local high school before it goes viral ‚" can their friendship withstand the return to high school?
The real thrill of watching this film is that screenwriter Michael Bacall‚(TM)s comedy is rich, unexpectedly intelligent and multi-layered ‚" with a helping of crazy and a dollop of random, just as it was in Scott Pilgrim vs The World. In fact, 21 Jump Street shares a lot of that film‚(TM)s comedy DNA, wringing humour from the bizarre, the unexpected as well as the everyday.
As it is, the premise ‚" when played broadly for laughs ‚" is promising enough, allowing Bacall to say a lot of really smart, ridiculously funny things about how high school has changed for the Internet Generation. Nerds, as traditionally defined, aren‚(TM)t necessarily reviled anymore, nor do working hard or caring about the environment constitute automatic deductions in cool points. Jenko discovers quickly that the kind of macho punch-‚(TM)em-up shit that made him too cool for school during his own halcyon high school days aren‚(TM)t quite as welcome now, just as Schmidt realises that he‚(TM)d have had a far better time in high school if he‚(TM)d only been born ten years later.
But that‚(TM)s not all you get with 21 Jump Street. This sly, smart observational comedy is paired with self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek gags ‚" Parks And Recreation alum Nick Offerman sneaks in some meta-comedy when he turns up with a quick lesson on reviving cancelled programmes from the ‚(TM)80s, and off-hand remarks yield incredible comic pay-offs later in the film (think: doves and unexpected explosions). And of course, there‚(TM)s all the other random, raunchy, rude and just plain surreal jokes that fly thick and fast across the screen. There really isn‚(TM)t a single moment when something stupid or funny (or stupidly funny) isn‚(TM)t happening, whether it‚(TM)s Schmidt fretting over the photographic shrine his parents have put up to him or AP Chemistry tutor Ms Griggs (Ellie Kemper) being completely, inappropriately bowled over by Jenko‚(TM)s incredible sexiness.
Even better, the characters in 21 Jump Street don‚(TM)t get buried beneath the flurry of jokes and gags ‚" in fact, their friendship manages to remain the emotional centre of the film in a way you really wouldn‚(TM)t have expected. But the odd-couple pairing of Schmidt and Jenko really does work, whether they‚(TM)re horrifyingly trying to throw up after ingesting the very drugs they‚(TM)re after or chasing down criminals on bikes. Somehow, that core relationship works its way into the humour of the film in such a way that more emotional moments don‚(TM)t feel like a cheat or something darker snatched out of a completely different film: it‚(TM)s organic, and once you‚(TM)ve seen them in action, you‚(TM)d be rooting for a sequel (even if you weren‚(TM)t pretty much promised one by the end).
Both lead actors are excellent. Hill‚(TM)s comic chops come as less a surprise, since comedy is where he‚(TM)s cut his teeth all along. He plays frustrated, nerdy boy-man with a sensitive soul as well as he always does, and delivers his lines with such hangdog aplomb that you‚(TM)ll find yourself cackling before your brain has even processed what he‚(TM)s saying.
Tatum, however, came away with the lion‚(TM)s share of critical plaudits, and for very good reason. He is goofy, silly and utterly charming as Jenko, especially when he inadvertently winds up as the resident science nerd ‚" despite being woefully unqualified for said position ‚" and has to battle through geek minefields he always managed to sidestep in his actual youth. Just as unexpectedly as Mark Wahlberg did in The Other Guys, Tatum proves he‚(TM)s hiding a pretty darn sharp funny bone under his chiselled good looks and dance-toned body, as he crashes through giant gongs, gets ribbed for looking like a really, like, old dude, or struggles manfully to learn the Miranda Rights off by heart.
Having never watched a single episode of the television series, I wouldn‚(TM)t be able to tell you if the movie is in any way faithful to Depp‚(TM)s version of the tale. What I can say, however, and in a completely unreserved fashion, is that 21 Jump Street will surprise you with just how funny and sweet it is ‚" it‚(TM)s the one remake this year that comes off as fresh, smart and original on its own terms even while it lovingly lampoons and pays tribute to its source. If all remakes were as good as this one, I‚(TM)m pretty sure a lot of critics (myself included) would find it a whole lot easier to give them the benefit of the doubt.
BASICALLY: Best remake of the year. Just as funny on a second viewing as it is on the first.