Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Family fun - Horton, CJ7, The Forbidden Kingdom, and Son of Rambow

One last gasp before starting the IFFB stuff (and then a likely massive catch-up post).

It saddens me a little that HBS/EFC had no reviews for CJ7, even though I didn't love the film; I can't be the only guy there who thinks a new Stephen Chow film is a big deal, can I? Of course, I suspect it didn't get far out of the big cities anyway (it's already long gone from Boston), so maybe not as many people had the opportunity to review it, or did it for some other paying gig.

At least The Forbidden Kingdom opened well, because it's a fun action-adventure that I'd happily use to introduce folks to Jackie Chan and Jet Li if I knew someone age-appropriate. I did feel like a bit of a dummy when I read some of the other reviews, of course - was I the only person who didn't immediately twig to some of the casting (he said, trying to avoid spoilers, even though every other review he's seen lays it right out without worrying about it)?

Horton Hears a Who!

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2008 at Regal Fenway #10 (first-run)

So, it turns out adapting Dr. Seuss well is possible, although like any adaptation, you wind up with something much different in feel from the source material. The story's still there, but part of the appeal of Seuss is stopping to examine some crazy detail he put in, or getting caught up in the cadence of his rhymes. You can't quite do that with movies; they run at a set pace that doesn't allow the audience to explore until home video, and the running time of a feature means that more words have to be put in, until the rhymes are nearly swallowed.

Judged on what it is, though, Horton Hears a Who! is a fun movie. Blue Sky captures the look of the storybooks without being quite so enslaved by it as the live action films have been. Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell both give lively vocal performances, and the story touches on the idea of faith and how we handle things we cannot explain without being too heavy-handed about it. That's pretty impressive.

Cheung Gong 7 hou (CJ7)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

CJ7 was a mammoth hit in Chinese theaters, but didn't produce much of a blip in the U.S. There's just no place for it; parents don't bring their kids to movies with subtitles and the ever-shrinking audience for foreign films would rebel if it was shown dubbed. They won't make it a sleeper hit because they don't see kids' movies. So it slips through the cracks, which is unfortunate - so many kids' movies are terrible that it doesn't make sense to dismiss a good one just because people are speaking Chinese.

Dicky (Xu Jiao) is the poorest boy at his private school; the film opens with him trying to sew his sneakers back together. As so often happens, he's not just picked on by the other kids but treated like crap by most of his teachers. His construction-worker father Ti (Stephen Chow) spends every dime they have on the school, so they live in a hovel near the dump. One night, while searching that dump for a pair of sneakers for Dicky, Ti stumbles across something that came from a crashed alien spaceship. He doesn't realize it, but the toy he gives Dicky is an impossibly cute alien with strange powers ("CJ7", since the rich kid boasts of having a "CJ1" robotic dog).

Chow writes and directs as well as acting, and like his other recent films (Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle), he's using a lot of digital effects. They don't look look completely real, but they're not supposed to. Chow has always been a performer who has tended toward broad physical comedy, so it's not surprising that not only is CJ7 full of rounded surfaces and hyper-cute design, but Chow engages in a lot of Loony Tunes-style slapstick with it. CJ7 is highly malleable, pulls tools out of nowhere, and when he gets kind of beat up, cartoony springs poke through the surface. The story's got large chunks of E.T. in it, but a lot of the stuff with the creature/robot is closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

Even when CJ7 is not on screen, the vibe is something of a live-action cartoon. One bizarre scene toward the beginning has Dicky and Ti competing over who can squash more cockroaches in their kitchen (between this, Ratatouille, and Enchanted, I'm wondering where the meme about vermin being family movie fodder came from). There are students at Dicky's school who shake the ground when they lumber into the scene, and his math teacher Mr. Cao (Lee Shing-Cheung) is a thoroughly hissy snob, who stops just short of pulling out a pair of tongs when circumstances force him to handle something that Dicky has touched. On the opposite side of the fence is the almost impossibly beautiful and friendly Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yugi), who brings the requisite innocent sex appeal to the film.

Then there's Xu Jiao, who delivers some pricelessly funny reaction shots. She's not subtle, and in a lot of movies she'd be dismissed as a child actor trying to skate by on being cute. It works here, I think, though someone would need to have just slightly less tolerant of kids mugging for the camera for it not to. And, yes, those pronouns are right; Stephen Chow's son is played by a girl. This isn't unprecedented (it happens in animation all the time), and the audience will likely hardly notice it; it's just an odd choice.

Chow himself takes a back seat to Xu, playing Ti as generally a good dad without being anything close to saccharine. Folks expecting a lot of him may be disappointed. His work behind the scenes is pretty good for most of the film, but it does seem to come apart a bit in the end - after an hour or so of fun, CGI-enhanced slapstick, the movie decides to get serious and be heartwarming, and that leaves the ending kind of a downer on the one hand and kind of random on the other.

Kids might not mind that, though, and that is who CJ7 was made for. The question is, just how many English-speaking kids are likely to see this movie, even if it is a lot better than much of the stuff being sent their way?

Also on HBS.

The Forbidden Kingdom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2008 at AMC Boston Common #18 (sneak preview)

I don't know if an attempt to measure such things objectively would actually find that the audience with which I saw The Forbidden Kingdom enjoyed the obligatory scene where martial arts masters Jet Li and Jackie Chan pummel student Michael Angarano in the name of training more than they usually would. You'll forgive us if we took a certain amount of sadistic joy in it, though - after all, no-one came to the movie to see him, and it's fun to see the movie acknowledge that.

Angarano plays Jason Tripitikas, a South Boston teen who loves his chop sockey movies. A group of bullies forces him to help rob the shop where he gets his import DVDs, and after the owner is shot, he winds up in possession of a golden staff that fans of the genre and those who watched the prologue will recognize as belonging to the Monkey King. It somehow pulls him back in time to ancient China, where he's told the story of how the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) tricked the Monkey King, freezing him as a statue until his staff is returned. That job's too big for James, but he does meet up with drunken master Lu Yan (Chan), revenge-seeking orphan Sparrow (Liu Yifei), and a mysterious monk (Jet Li). Together, they attempt to reach the Warlord's fortress atop Five Elements Mountain, though he has sent white-haired Wolf-Witch assassin Ni Chan (Li Bingbing) after them.

It is easy to mock The Forbidden Kingdom for casting Jet Li and Jackie Chan in the same movie and having them technically be supporting characters to the American kid. There's probably a line of less-than-ideal compromises that have to be made to get to that point - it takes Hollywood money to make it happen, Hollywood money means Hollywood producers, and Hollywood producers means it has to make money in America, so shoot it in English with a central American character so that the previews don't look too foreign. It's forgivable, though, in part because the movie did, in fact, get made, and in part because John Fusco's script wears its love for these movies on its sleeve. He makes Jason an annoying name-dropping fanboy, but he drops good names. Fusco tailors his script to his cast, giving Jet Li chances to do both quick hand-to-hand combat and wire-fu, while Jackie Chan gets to reference what is likely his most beloved work (the Drunken Master movies) and do his "using whatever is near at hand" shtick. Heck, we got a "Journey to the West" movie when I'm certain that at one point, some American studio exec said "what's all this 'Monkey King' stuff; can't they just be rival cops?"

That's not saying it's a great script; it's frequently sort of awkward, and the Boston scenes feel a little rote. There are great huge information dumps, although I do like the way Fusco and director Rob Minkoff quietly toss the basis for a clever plot twist into the middle of a long-winded retelling of the Monkey King myth. That one bit of misdirection makes up for a story that seems to be cobbled together from several sources. It's worth noting that despite the presence of a time-traveling American teenager, this is probably the sanest Journey to the West movie I've seen; be relieved or disappointed as you will.

Enough about the script, though - Jackie Chan and Jet Li fight! How cool is that? Pretty darn cool, actually. I must admit to being a little worried during Chan's early scenes; combine Lu Yan's bulky hair and more shots from behind than usual, and he could have been doubled as he was in bits of Rush Hour 3. The Chan-Li centerpiece dispels those fears, though; they're both in good form, and Minkoff makes sure the audience gets a good look at them in action. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping keeps things going at an exciting pace and does a good job of blending their styles - Chan's drunken boxing is a fun contrast to Li's more violent fighting. The two are clearly having a blast, and that's conveyed to the audience. There are probably a couple places this sequence could have stopped, but the movie lingers on it; after all, this is what the audience came for.

The pair acquit themselves well enough when they're not fighting as well. Chan seems more comfortable being funny in English than in many of his other movies; Jet Li does a nice job of making his character seem human as well as being a testy man of mystery, as well as being surprisingly funny in other scenes. Anganaro sometimes does perform his role a little too well - he's sort of fan that collects and catalogs, but hasn't yet moved beyond that superficial level, and that's kind of annoying. Liu Yifei is a bit tough to get a handle on, since Sparrow is given an odd way of speaking, referring to herself in the third person in a sort of disengaged manner. I wish Li Bingbing had the chance to do more of the heavy lifting as the villain; as much as Collin Chou hams it up a bit, he never seems as ferocious as she does.

I'm glad The Forbidden Kingdom turned out to be as good - and as much fun - as it is. Aside from not knowing whether we'll ever get to see Chan and Li work together again (it took a bunch of North American money to make it happen and Chan's not getting any younger), I want it to remind audiences how much fun this style of movie is. Last year gave us the depressing one-two punch of Rush Hour 3 and War; hopefully this signals a return to martial arts stars actually putting on a great show on the big screen.

On HBS along with five other reviews.

Son of Rambow

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (sneak preview/Sunday Eye Opener)

Son of Rambow knows kids. You can tell from the opening credits, where a twelve-year-old boy runs through the neighborhood, only stopping long enough to cause mischief, or when the little sister of the other main character simply can't stand still even though her jumping around might distract from the two people talking. The movie shares its young cast's surplus of energy, and even though it's got adult wisdom to it, the end result's never a lecture.

The kid running across town after sneaking a VHS camera into a cinema to record First Blood is Lee Carter (Will Poulter), a brat who lives in the back of a nursing home with his brother Lawrence while their mother spends her time in Spain with her new husband. He soon meets his polar opposite in Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) when both are sent into the hallway during school - Lee for being a disruption, Will because his family's strict religion means he's not allowed to even watch the documentary being shown in geography class. Will already loves to draw, and when he winds up accidentally watching the Stallone movie while hiding from Lee's brother, it's like nothing he's imagined before. Soon the pair are shooting their own sequel together, even though that means hiding the project from Lawrence (Ed Westwick) and Lee's mother Mary (Jessica Stevenson). Meanwhile, the arrival of a group of French exchange students, particularly ultra-cool Didier (Jules Sitruk), is blowing other kids' minds the same way the movie blew Will's.

Among other things, Son of Rambow is a love letter to the movies, making them as much as watching them. We see Will stunned and amazed by his first movie-watching experience, transported into another world where a scarecrow can come alive and be the villain in the movie they're going to make. He's already been making flipbooks, and soon he's drawing scenes in his Bible that evolve into storyboards. Will and Lee are about as far from cool as kids can be, but once the word gets out about what they're doing, Didier and his crew suddenly want to hang out with them, because what's as cool as making a movie? Of course, once Didier joins up, it doesn't take much to read the next scenes as a riff on going from small independent films to big studio works, with more people on the set than you can handle and demanding stars taking charge.

Writer/director Garth Jennings doesn't spend so much time talking about movies that he shirks his duty to make a good one, though. This is basically a coming-of-age buddy flick at heart. Will and Lee are a fine pair of opposites: Lee is a pint-sized thief and con man, Will's a sheltered kid who dives in head-first because he's never had this sort of outlet for his creativity before. They make a good team, whether Lee is taking advantage of Will in a Tom Sawyer manner or just busting out laughing at some of the screwy stuff that Will does. Their misadventures are honestly funny, with a perfect level of whimsy. Jennings is also very good at presenting physical comedy and genuine peril differently, which becomes a factor toward the end of the movie. I love things like the repeated sound of cheering when Lee is kicked out of his classroom, and how it lightens up a potentially heavy moment toward the end.

The most important thing Jennings and his producing partner Nick Goldsmith do, though, is get great performances out of Milner and Poulter. The movie would likely disintegrate completely if we ever stopped believing they were genuine early-eighties kids. One false note, whether it be a script that was too self-aware or a young actor who can't just relax and play on-screen and the movie would be a goner, just adults who couldn't get the kids quite right. Happily, that never happens. Will Poulter is especially terrific; he makes Lee the sort of kid that would drive the adults who had to deal with him absolutely insane but shows the audience he's not really a bad kid (there aren't any really bad kids in this movie's world). Bill Milner finds just the right notes to hit for Will; he's as much a regular kid as his unusual environment will allow. He never plays Will as stupid, or even ignorant - he's just uninformed.

The movie belongs to Milner and Poulter, but the rest of the cast is good. Jules Sitruk is pretty darn hilarious embodying everything about the eighties which has become embarrassing twenty years later. Jessica Stevenson is just right as Will's mother; there's a whole other movie about how she and Neil Dudgeon's fellow sect member Joshua implied whenever they're both on screen, although Jennings keeps it implied, so as not to distract from the kids or make the film too harsh or easy a condemnation of the characters' beliefs.

I can't say for sure that kids will love this movie; there weren't any at the screening I attended. The former kids there got a real kick out of it, though, and there's enough straightforward fun without talking down or over-reliance on nostalgia that there's no reason for them not to have a good time.

On HBS come 2 May, along with at least one other review.

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