Month: May 2014



My critical defenses are lowered at Christmastime. Average movies that earnestly convey the Christmas spirit and enkindle greater love for others tend to get a pass. Bonus points are awarded for really cute kids, and singing. By this measure, Nativity! qualifies as a damn good holiday movie. At risk of sounding like an internet troll, if you don’t feel a little better about humanity after watching this group of underdog kids pull off the best nativity play ever, you have no heart.

The story revolves around Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) and the primary students of St. Bernadette’s in Coventry, who attempt to stage a successful Christmas play after years of mediocre efforts. The retiring head teacher, Mrs. Bevans (Pam Ferris), tasks Mr. Maddens with organizing the production, but that is the last thing the burned out teacher needs. Besides, Christmas is just a seasonal reminder that his girlfriend Jennifer (Ashley Jensen) has left him.

Mr. Maddens, an undistinguished graduate of Midlands Academy of Performing Arts, nevertheless begins to compose a few songs, but his meticulous planning is thrown into disarray with the arrival of his teaching assistant, Desmond Poppy (Mark Wootton). Wooten’s antics test the audience’s patience; Mr. Poppy has the emotional maturity of a middle schooler, which younger kids find boisterous but which thinking, responsible adults probably find offensive. When he is not encouraging general pandemonium, he is planning a field trip to a maternity ward so that the students can better act out the birth of Jesus. “I’ve got a big oaf helping my children to fail,” says Mr. Maddens, after suffering a complete breakdown in classroom control.

Mr. Poppy needlessly complicates things when he overhears and spreads a rumor that Jennifer, a producer, will be filming St. Bernadette’s nativity play. The misunderstanding escalates far too quickly to be believable but does provide the narrative tension to move the film towards its showy climax. Before long, the entire town thinks that Hollywood will be descending on the school. Mr. Maddens’s old friend and current nemesis, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), doubles down and plots a grander production for his elite private school students. “We need something edgier, more dangerous, something darker. Something like the RSC do every year….Something European, strange, exotic. Something the Americans don’t understand but love.” They decide to stage “Herod, the Opera.”

This strain of dry humor, which Freeman is especially adept at, runs throughout the movie, but the comicality of the script is complemented by Mr. Maddens’s more serious conversations with his students. Not only does he encourage a group of ordinary kids to be a little more than that but he also wants them to just be kinder people. His heartfelt attempts to teach them something actually worthwhile do not come off as syrupy or manipulative but as simply honest, so says the teacher in me.

Those Christmas-appropriate lessons of love and generosity come together in an uplifting finale. It is a nativity play to beat all nativity plays, not because of its polish but because the spirit and story of Christmas shine through so clearly. The soundtrack is truly unbeatable, one that will last for many holidays to come.

There are 6 original songs in the nativity that are sung by the children. Here are 3 that will make your heart melt.


“She’s the Brightest Star”

“One Night, One Moment”

Released: 2009
Prod: Nick Jones
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Writer: Debbie Isitt
Cast: Martin Freeman, Mark Wootton, Jason Watkins, Ashley Jensen, Alan Carr, Pam Ferris, Ricky Tomlinson, Clarke Peters
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

Robin Hood (2010)

robin hood

Against my better judgment, I approve of this movie. There are problems aplenty, starting with the casting, namely the casting of Russell Crowe. This wasn’t one of those Daniel Craig as James Bond situations where everyone recanted with fawning apologies after watching the movie. No, the outcry continued after the film’s release. To be sure, Crowe is not the worst actor for the part, but Robin of the Hood possesses a certain cheekiness that people love, one that makes his rascally pursuit of the rich in service of the poor all the more winsome. Think merry men, think jaunty (mis-)adventures. Crowe is imposing and someone who you would ask to help steal back your grain, but he’s not someone you’re comfortable sharing a turkey leg with; “cheeky,” “merry,” and “jaunty” are not adjectives in his Venn diagram.

The fault is not entirely Crowe’s though. Director Ridley Scott belongs to the gritty rehash school of filmmaking where dark and weighty reimaginings of old heroes and historical adventures reign (Batman Begins, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven). This puts a damper on the storytelling. The bloated script runs about half an hour too long and is really an extended origins story. The movie begins with our hero, Robin Longstride, common archer for the king’s army and veteran of the Crusades, storming a French castle for king and country. He is also nursing some absent father issues, and these are magnified when he stumbles upon a dying Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), whom he impersonates in order to get back home. He promises to return the knight’s sword to his old, blind father (Max von Sydow), but back in England, Robin finds he cannot shed his new identity so easily.

This is a fine perspective from which to better understand ye olde Robin, except this movie also has the rumblings of an early constitutional convention. The kingdom is a mess: Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) has just died, felled by a French cook with an excellent shot; his brother John (Oscar Isaac), the royal runt, ascends the throne; the French threaten to invade, aided by English conspirator Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). The last thing the new king needs is barons bickering over trivial matters of rights and laws. But the hallowed Magna Carta, at least its first draft, worms its way into a stuffed script, thus giving Robin the chance to bellow that “every Englishman’s home is his castle!” Right on.

So what do I like about this movie? The supporting cast carries a lot of extra weight and does so nimbly. Cate Blanchett is the fairest Maid Marian of them all, a medieval, uh, Renaissance woman. No one would doubt that she is capable of running 5000 acres in her husband Loxley’s stead. Blanchett embodies Marian’s tenderness but also lends an emotional, and physical, strength to her character. Strong also satisfies as a duplicitous, self-serving knight, but Isaac proves to be the scene-stealing baddie with something of a Napoleon complex. Meanwhile, the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham is only a footnote here but Matthew Macfadyen makes use of his limited screentime to show a more buffoonish character than we are used to. Robin’s partners in crime (Kevin Durand and Scott Grimes) are also a stalwart bunch who counter their friend’s somber mood with good comedic timing. Despite all efforts to heighten the gravity of this tale, enough lighthearted moments sneak in that recall Robin Hood adventures of yore and why you wanted to watch another adaptation in the first place.

Released: 2010
Prod: Ridley Scott, Brian Grazer, Russell Crowe
Dir: Ridley Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Eileen Atkins, Max von Sydow, Mark Addy, William Hurt, Kevin Durand, Matthew Macfadyen, Lea Seydoux, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Danny Huston, Mark Lewis Jones, Douglas Hodge, Jonathan Zaccai
Time: 140 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014

Love in Disguise (戀愛通告)

love in disguise

In the opening minutes of this movie, Wang Leehom’s alter ego, Du Minghan, a wunderkind pop star, tells a reporter that he calls his musical style “‘chinked-out,’ combining Beijing opera with hip hop.” I can think of many names for this genre, but “chinked-out” is definitely not one of them. (Wang also used this term, to much controversy, during the promotion of his actual record.) It is a pretty egregious misstep in a movie filled with lazy writing and aimless directing, but one still has to admire the director-writer-actor-singer-composer’s effort to infuse a run-of-the-mill romcom with some traditional arts and history.

DMH, as the main character is styled, makes the leap from pop to classical Chinese music by way of a plot device picked from a hat. One night, a girl on a bike runs into his car. Xiaoqing (Liu Yifei) is no plain Jane, however, even if she looks it, but instead a top guzheng player at the a music conservatory in Shanghai and the dean’s daughter. Whenever he hears her play, DMH finds himself in a hallucinogenic daze, awash with glittery purple butterflies. Music is a drug, folks! He just can’t get enough of it and convinces himself that he must enroll in the school as well.

But being a famous pop star, he first has to lower his profile. DMH and his guitarist buddy Wei Zhibo (Chen Han-Tien), or WZB, disguise themselves as simple villagers from the boondocks, a place called Nail Town. This provides an hour and a half’s worth of jokes and hijinks, all predictable and none particularly funny. DMH needs to avoid being found out, both by his rabid fans and his doting manager (Joan Chen), so that he can get closer to Xiaoqing. It is unclear what kind of sweet music he wants to make with her once they do partner up, but here, the pursuit is the thing.

This is Wang’s first foray into filmmaking and it shows. Not only does he play it safe and stick with the usual gimmicks, visually, the film is also flat and lifeless. Wang himself is not a fantastic actor, at least not when it comes to comedy. He is helped by Chen Han-Tien, whom I like for the cheeky but charming personality he brings to many of his characters. Chen hams it up but avoids being screechy, and of the two friends, I’d rather trail WZB for a day.

What Wang tries to get but still misses is that the strength of this movie is the music. Its best moments come when one filters out the bland love story. For a movie filled with musical passion, Xiaoqing is a pretty inert wallflower. Liu does delicate well but that makes a boring romantic lead. The real love story is between music and culture. This is where Wang’s intensity shines through. He makes no effort to mask his thesis, that music is democratic, boundless; it doesn’t distinguish between history, class, or genre, and actually, it can be pretty damn good when everything fuses together. Arguing for the establishment is Mufan (Qiao Zhenyu), a young and brilliant composer so disgusted with popular music that he pontificates at every opportunity, whether on the quad or in the cafeteria.

The questions of what music and which artists are worthy of popular appreciation, of how music can be used to explore and connect with cultural roots and history, of the very nature of music to express and feel – all are relevant in today’s Chinese music market. No doubt Wang, who is a Berklee College of Music graduate and proficient in more instruments than one has fingers, was and continues to try to help the adoring masses deepen their musical knowledge and appreciation. With that in mind, he should have included more scenes like the one where DMH and WZB jam out in the dean’s office with just an erhu, a ruan, and lots of attitude.

A sampling of Wang Leehom’s musical styles – “Beside the Plum Blossoms” from Heroes of the Earth album.

Released: 2010
Prod: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強; Michelle Yeh 葉育萍
Dir: Wang Leehom 王力宏
Writer: Wang Leehom 王力宏; Du Xinyi 杜欣怡; Chen Hongjie 陳虹潔
Cast: Wang Leehom 王力宏; Crystal Liu Yifei 劉亦菲; Chen Han-Tien 陳漢典; Joan Chen 陳沖; Qiao Zhenyu 喬振宇; Zeng Yike 曾軼可; Xie Yuan 謝園; Xie Na 謝娜; Khalil Fong 方大同; Lang Tsu-Yun 郎祖筠
Time: 98 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2014