Month: May 2014

Nativity!

nativity

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.

“Nazareth”

“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

Love is the Only Answer (人約離婚後)

love is the only answer

Patrick Kong is at it again with another tale of love in the city. Like Marriage with a Liar, cheating couples expound on the nature of romance and relationships; unlike that movie, this one is fairly enjoyable, thanks to the credible acting skills and unexpected chemistry of the leading couple. Lest you be too greedy, still expect snipy women, painful acting, frenetic editing, and a big reveal.

Kong trades up by casting TVB star Charmaine Sheh as his leading lady. Neither an ingenue nor a busty leng mo, à la Kong’s previous muses Stephy Tang and Chrissy Chau, Sheh brings a grounded realism that makes her character Bo seem relatively normal in the hyperactive and reactive world of cinematic Hong Kong women. She takes control of her life, as adults are wont to do, in a very dramatic way on her wedding day – by exposing her new husband Ryan’s (Alex Fong Lik-Sun) sex tape with her bridesmaid (Jeana Ho).

For most, that would end the relationship, full stop. But Kong just uses it as his starting point to spin a nonsensical plot. One year later, Bo and Ryan are getting along fabulously, in a way that has no basis in reality. He uses her to get rid of clingy girlfriends and, since he is filthy rich and the landlord of her fruit stall, she exploits their quasi-friendship to get more favorable rent. They go out for dinner together when good food and good deals are involved, and they seem to enjoy exchanging rapid fire insults and constantly reminding each other that they are in fact divorced. I don’t know divorced people like them, but maybe you do.

Feelings start to get muddled and hurt when Ryan convinces Bo to join a spouse swap. As luck, or the writer, would have it, the couple trade with another young and good looking pair, Lai (Kelly Fu) and Kit (Him Law). Ryan and Lai are eager to dive into things and immediately get on with whatever it is that swapping spouses want. Meanwhile, Bo and a very reticent Kit, who just joined to please his wife, try to turn their awkward situation into something more genuine.

While that part of the story is on slow boil, Kong introduces a minor plot involving an engaged couple, Jason (Jason Chan) and Christy (Anjayliya Chan). Jason spends most of his screen time making puppy eyes at his fiancée, who returns the favor by snapping like a hyena at every single thing. It is an exercise in bad storytelling; this part seems totally extraneous – until the closing minutes of the film when it.all.comes.together. But by then, the couple feel like more of a contrivance, an overly complicated way to squeeze in a commentary on love that would be better made by focusing on Bo and Ryan’s story.

This frantic tying up of loose ends is endemic to Patrick Kong, also serial abuser of flashbacks. As with previous movies, the writer-director slices and dices at will – I want to say like a Jack Kerouac of Hong Kong romantic comedies, but that would be wrong. Again the editing tends to prove distracting rather than reflective, with the action toggling back and forth between past and present and one couple or another.

Kong also cannot overcome his penchant for casting supremely unskilled actors. Sheh and Fong shine like bright stars in his firmament, and I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that. The mismatched couple surprises in several ways. They make convincing sparring partners, but I also found myself drawn to the brazen honesty of their characters and relationship. Alex Fong the Younger is devilishly magnetic as the cad. Unfortunately the same appeal does not extend to the supporting cast, which, cobbled together, make about ¾ of an actor. But this is Hong Kong film, so we all have to make sacrifices.

超生記 – themesong by Charmaine Fong.

Released: 2011
Prod: Wong Jing 王晶
Dir: Patrick Kong 葉念琛
Writer: Patrick Kong 葉念琛
Cast: Charmaine Sheh 佘詩曼; Alex Fong 方力申; Him Law 羅仲謙; Anjayliya Chan 陳嘉寶; Jason Chan 陳智燊; Rose Chan 陳嘉桓; King Kong 金剛; Siu Yam-Yam 邵音音; Fu Ka-Lei 傅嘉莉; Chak Hoi-Tai 翟凱泰; Timmy Hung 洪天明; Charmaine Fong 方皓玟; Jacqueline Chong 莊思敏; Harriet Yeung 楊詩敏; Dada Lo 盧頌之; Evelyn Choi 蔡穎恩; Michelle Wai 詩雅; 6 Wing 陸永; Jeana Ho 何佩瑜; Carol Yeung 楊梓瑤; Raymond Chiu 趙永洪; Bob Lam 林盛斌; Kandy Wong 黃山怡; Tat Dik 狄易達
Time: 90 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

Valentine’s Day

valentines day

Here is the least painful way to review the scattershot film that is Valentine’s Day. I will give you one handful of plotlines and another handful of stars, and you try to match them up.

1) Girl dates doctor, decides to surprise him, but discovers he is married.
2) Teenage boy and girl decide to have sex, and then don’t.
3) Mom loves her little boy.
4) Boy proposes to girl, she accepts, but everyone knows he should really be dating his best friend.
5) Girl meets nice boy and they hit it off, until he learns that she is a phone sex operator.
6) Girl throws anti-Valentine’s Day party every year to bemoan her single status.
7) Boy loves boy.

A) Hector Elizondo
B) Julia Roberts
C) Anne Hathaway
D) Bradley Cooper
E) Topher Grace
F) Jennifer Garner
G) Jamie Foxx
H) Taylor Lautner
I) Shirley MacLaine
J) Ashton Kutcher

If you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t. This is as close as you will come to caring about this movie anyway. It is as if Garry Marshall and his writing team were afraid that no more romantic comedies would ever be made, ever, ever, and therefore they needed to cram every damn scenario and cliche and demographic and movie star and Taylor Swift song they could into one ginormous motion picture. In fact, the only thing they missed was an animal, possibly cross-species romance. Why didn’t they think of that?!

Since the filmmakers didn’t give this film much thought, I’m going to extend the same courtesy and say only these three things. First, it tries so hard to be Love Actually. It’s not. Know your limits, as in limit your storylines and star wattage. Second, the film takes place in L.A. It’s a fact that almost all the non-white people disappear from L.A. on Valentine’s Day. Finally, this movie reminded me of a Korean pop music video. We all have our favorite member, but he or she only solos for 7 seconds. It also reminded me I would rather watch a K-pop video because it’s shorter by 120 minutes. And they dance.

Released: 2010
Prod: Mike Karz; Wayne Allan Rice
Dir: Garry Marshall
Writer: Katherine Fugate
Cast: Ashton Kutcher; Jennifer Garner; Jamie Foxx; George Lopez; Patrick Dempsey; Julia Roberts; Anne Hathaway; Jessica Biel; Queen Latifah; Bradley Cooper; Eric Dane; Bryce Robinson; Hector Elizondo; Shirley MacLaine; Topher Grace; Taylor Lautner; Taylor Swift; Emma Roberts; Jessica Alba; Kathy Bates; Carter Jenkins; Larry Miller; Kristen Schaal; Erin Matthews
Time: 124 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014