Saturday, December 23, 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower

Punting another bunch of reviews. Other projects, like work, have sucked up a whole bunch of my time and I haven't gotten to write nearly as much of this as I would like. --sigh--

Without much further ado, because I've got Christmas shopping to finish and wrapping to do, the review:

Curse of the Golden Flower (Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2006 at Landmar Kendall Square #2 (Preview)

Those coming to Curse of the Golden Flower expecting a martial arts epic akin to director Zhang Yimou's previous wuxia films, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, may well be disappointed. A relatively short amount of time is spent on fighting, but that time has tremendous import because of the film's art-house pedigree: Zhang is working with long-time leading lady Gong Li for the first time in ten years, and that's almost all the film needs.

Gong Li plays the Empress in this film set predominately in the Forbidden City during the Tang Dynasty. She is the second wife of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat); a lover to his oldest son, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye); and mother of First Brother Jai (Jay Chou), who has just returned from three years at the frontier, and Second Brother Yu (Qin Junjie), who seeks more responsibilities. Ten days ago, the Emperor instructed the court physician (Ni Dahong) to have his daughter (and Wan's lover) Chan (Man Li) secretly add black fungus to the Empress's anemia medicine. The formulation will destroy the Empress's mental faculties within two months. The Empress can already see the poison's effects, though, and has set her own plans for revenge into place - if her designs are correct, her son will be Emperor in mere days, after the Chrysanthemum Festival.

It's perfectly clear that Gong Li is going to be this film's central attraction form the start, even as the ornate and colorful production design threatens to swallow her and the rest of the cast. She carries herself like royalty, acting as though the legions of servants that follow her everywhere are her due, even as she relaxes when alone with the princes. The character never verbally acknowledges the tremor in her hand, but the reactions that play across the actress's face are captivating: There's some embarrassment, because an Empress cannot be allowed to show weakness, but also frustration and anger. What's most impressive is how Li makes us believe in the Empress as calculating but also passionate. There's fierce, angry intelligence on display when she plots and reveals her secrets, but also genuine care for her princes. The performance is riveting; Li makes the Empress a compelling monster.

The rest, as always, at HBS.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

2 of the 8 Films to Die For

Well, I suppose I could fit a third in there, as I saw The Gravedancers at Fantasia back in July. I might have seen more, but there was other stuff going on this weekend - Matt was in a play at Northeastern, so the parents were down and needed entertaining. Not a bad play, but long: Three hours broken into seven scenes, each of which is one long conversation. Which actually makes a nice contrast to the horror movies, where people don't necessarily talk a lot but do make with the bleeding.

I liked Reincarnation quite a bit, although I'm not quite sure the story actually works. If someone is the reincarnation of a previous life, why are they being chased by the other victims - it sort of suggests that the spirits are two places at once. That is, I suppose, the sort of thing a horror movie that's kind of dumb like Wicked Little Things can get away with, but Takashi Shimizu's style is to tell the story in a way that engages the viewer's mind, which raises the bar for comprehensibility.

Hopefully, After Dark will do this thing again, although I do sort of wonder how profitable it is to strike hundreds of prints for movies that will play, at most, two days (really, only about six show times per location). The idea, I guess, is that not being tagged direct to video will give these films a little more cachet when they do show up on DVD in a few months, boosting sales and rentals. It's a nice theory, and it results in me getting to see the new Shimizu film on the big screen, so I hope it works out well enough to be repeated.

One thing that is worth noting is that here in Cambridge, these films ran in theater #3 of Fresh Pond Cinemas, which Entertainment Cinemas took over from AMC/Loews earlier this year. The previous owners had let the place get pretty run-down, but Entertainment has done a pretty decent job freshening the place up. The lobby feels a little smaller, although that may just be the result of there actually being people in it. The films screened in one of the upstairs screens, which are the best the plex has to offer, despite their center aisles where the best seats should be. The prices were pretty decent, too - $7.75 on Friday night and $5.75 Sunday afternoon. Entertainment needs to get themselves a website that doesn't outright suck - not only can you not buy tickets online, but the films in this series weren't even listed - but other than that, they seem to have made Fresh Pond a place where I'd at least consider seeing a movie, especially on a cheap Tuesday night.

Reincarnation (Rinne)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 November 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #3 (8 Films to Die For)

It's easy and popular to bust on Takashi Shimizu for how much he and producer Takashige Ichise have gone to the same well with their various iterations of the Ju-on franchise, and to be quite honest they don't stray too far from the basic template: You've got a father killing his family, a creepy kid, and a crime scene that should be avoided, even years later. Despite all that, Reincarnation has a very different feel from the Ju-on movies; if he's a one-trick pony, he at least knows a few variations on that trick.

This time around, we're told of a spree killing that happened in the early 1970s, where a university professor on vacation at a hotel in the Tokyo suburbs killed not only his wife and two children, but the hotel staff and the rest of the guests for good measure before killing himself. Now, thirty years later, Ikuo Matusmura (Kippei Shiina) is making a film based upon the crime. He casts inexperienced actress Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) as the professor's daughter (and final victim) Chisato, noting that the six-year-old girl has been rewritten as a teenager. In casting Nagisa, he passes over Yuka Morita (Marika Matsumoto), who feels strongly that she was murdered in a past life. Soon, Nagisa is seeing an apparition of a tiny girl towing her favorite doll around, occasionally passing out on set (which strikes her castmates as unprofessional). Meanwhile, college student Yayoi Kinoshita (Karina) is having strange dreams of her own. Her boyfriend introduces her to Yuka, and both sense a connection to the hotel murders. When the director has the cast visit the hotel, it soon becomes clear that the past (and past lives) still have a strong connection to the present.

It's a decent enough set-up for a ghost story, and Shimizu does a fine job of creating a foreboding atmosphere despite going out of his way to remind audiences that it's only a movie. Take Yuka's too-earnest comments about her past lives, or how the picture will occasionally get downright procedural in showing the audience how a movie is made - rehearsals, bits of sets being disassembled so that a camera can follow the star around a corner, mundane gossip off to the side. You may wonder just how many of the scenes in the "real" hotel are shot on the film-within-a-film's hotel set. The film establishes enough of a sense of the ordinary that the strange things that happen wind up feeling a little stranger, especially when the movie picks up speed toward the end.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wicked Little Things

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2006 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #3 (8 Films to Die For)

Horror filmmakers have come up with some pretty lame excuses for vengeful spirits over the years, but just as often, it's not really the idea that's weak, but the implementation. Wicked Little Things has all the makings of a good ghost story; the trouble is that it wants gore as opposed to shivers.

The prologue gives us good reason for a haunting, as a group of small children working in a Pennsylvania coal mine at the turn of the twentieth century are trapped during a cave-in. Ninety years later, Karen Tunny (Lori Heuring) and her two girls, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Emma (Chloe Moretz) have inherited a house near the tapped mine from Sarah's late husband. It needs a lot of work, and teenage Sarah hates being out in the middle of nowhere. There are other complications - a weird neighbor (Ben Cross), and the descendant of the mine owner is telling them to vacate the house because the Tunny's "miner's deed" is only good while the mine was open, and he's looking to develop the mountain into a ski resort. And, of course, few of the other dead children are nearly as nice as Emma's new imaginary friend.

Creepy ghost kids haunting the adult descendants of the people who made them work and die in a mine, I'm down for. It's a great idea. What's not so great an idea is having them crave raw flesh (although they'll generally shy away from eating family). It raises the inevitable question of just how much of the surrounding livestock and population has been eaten if the little buggers have shown up every night for the past ninety years, or, alternately, why they're showing up now. It's probably related to the mine-owner's descendant being in town, but one of the locals certainly seems to be fairly used to dealing with zombie kids. But even then, what's a penchant for eating the living got to do with being killed in a cave-in? If they were tunneling underneath things and planting explosives, yeah, that would be fitting and scary, but having them just sink their teeth into something alive is just pedestrian.

Read the rest at HBS.