Thursday, January 26, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

I've been waiting impatiently for this film to come out. Still, it took me two months to get to the theatre to see it, and some of that delay may have been because of my fear that the transfer from book to film might be disappointing.

Memoirs of a Geisha would be a difficult job to transfer to film, to be sure. While some scenes obviously lend themselves to wonderful cinematography -- who wouldn't want to film a geisha in those gorgeous kimonos? -- Memoirs was always a mostly internal story, but an epic one, starting in pre-war Japan and extending to post-war Japan. And while novelist Arthur Golden could expound on the meaning of a simple term in geisha life -- and there are many in the novel -- there's no such trick in movies.

A young girl and her sister are taken away from their simple shoreline hut one night as they watch their mother die. It seems their father sold them into slavery when it became clear to him he could not care for them. The sisters are split up, and we find out immediately that the choice as to where the two girls end up is made because one of them is prettier than the other. A most unfair way to begin their lives, to be sure, as one -- Chiyo -- ends up as a servant in the house of a famous geisha, and her sister as a product in the red light district.

Unfortunately, the film skips quickly over important facts one needs to know, such as the fact that as soon as Chiyo comes into Mother's house (the splendid actress Kaori Momoi), she is facing a debt as long as her arm. Besides the price Mother paid for the young servant, every time Chiyo feeds herself, or takes lessons, she racks up more debt. As it turns out, the only way to erase the debt is to become a geisha. Because of Chiyo's beauty, she is finally allowed to reach towards this goal which will allow her more freedom in a rather rigid world.

While we do see a little about the geisha's training, that's not the point of this movie. Geisha's world has women at the center, with men seemingly in power in their sphere of influence. We see these women clash, struggle for power, in a most fascinating way.

And you see the transition between a structured Japan where everyone understands their place, and a post-war where chaos ensues. There is a series of shocking scenes when it's obvious Japan has lost the war when you see young American G.I.'s take over the streets, raping and pillaging, just as any invading warrior class is wont to do. And we watch the Japanese adapt to this change in their best effort to survive.

It was most unfortunate that some of the English spoken wasn't easily understood. Director Rob Marshall went with Japanese and Chinese actresses, and fine choices they were, but their words weren't always clear. Ziyi Zhang, as our Chiyo who becomes geisha Sayuri, was especially hampered by English. I was surprised that the two women who communicated the best, through words and action, were Gong Li, playing the irrepressible Hatsumomo, the most beautiful and feared geisha in the city, and Michelle Yeoh, playing the older geisha who takes Sayuri under her wing. Gong Li recited her lines, I understand, phonetically, but poured real power into her hatred of her younger rival, while Michelle Yeoh received her first acting training at the old Hong Kong martial arts films and, later in her career, in English-speaking films. Each of these actresses virtually lit up the screen every time they appeared, and catapulted young Ziyi Zhang into the background shadows with their intensity.

The weakness of Memoirs of a Geisha, besides the fact that this is often an internal story, is that it skips through scenes without explaining the unique Japanese nature involved, an explanation needed to understand these scenes. For instance, when Sayuri sets up a seduction scene with the American general, you haven't a clue why unless you understood that Noble-san could never be interested in a woman who had given herself up to another man (even though she had done so publicly for a large sum of money). Add to this the idea that this is supposed to be a love story, a string that doesn't quite hold the other marvelous scenes together, and these pieces of incongruity damage the storyline.

However, you still have an engrossing story of the behind-the-scenes battle among powerful women in pre-war Japanese society, and all of that wonderful cinematography of the beautiful country of Japan. I was not disappointed at all in this version, and I'm sure I'll see it again. Memoirs of a Geisha definitely deserves a thumb's up.


I sat down to watch Closer, a 2004 film directed by Mike Nichols and starring four of the hottest actors/actresses around, thinking that I would only watch a few minutes on the DVR, then erase it to free up some memory. Two hours later, I finally got up from the couch.

I still don't know what it was that pulled me in about this film. The actors? They're pretty enough: Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts. Sure, but that only lasts for a few moments, so it's more than that.

The tagline for the film is, "If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking," a rather clever way of describing a film that a one-liner cannot describe. It's love. It's intrigue. Games. Betrayal. Distrust. Abandonment.

We first meet Dan (Jude Law) when he spots the young Anna and is instantly attracted to her, red hair and all, when BOOM! a car hits her just after their first look. He helps her to the hospital, they strike up a conversation, and more is assumed as we pick up with Dan in the next scene in a slide of time as he's having his photo taken for his new book jacket. The photographer is Anna (Julia Roberts), and he is instantly attracted to her. After he makes a pass at her, and she sort of responds, he admits that he has a girlfriend. She recoils and throws him out.

We meet dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) in an amusing scene as he's having online sex in the middle of a hospital. This is the first time he's ever done such a thing, but he finds it exciting, so he agrees to meet the girl at an aquarium to continue in person. He finds Anna, whose name matches, and after some awkwardness, she explains to him that they've both been set up in a practical joke by Dan. Still, Larry and Anna are instantly attracted to each other, and we can assume they enter into a long-term relationship.

We never see these relationships evolve. We just see the beginning, and then Nichols instantly cuts to the next scene. It's a wise choice, and we're never bored by it, as he explains in conversation just what the time lapse has been, and we understand gradually where these relationships are.

But everything blows up in these relationships when all four meet at Anna's photo exhibition -- by the way, this is the only scene in the movie where all four are in the same room at the same time. Larry knows "Cupid" (Anna and his pet name for Dan) is trying to make a move on Anna, while at the same time Larry finds himself attracted to Alice. When we find ourself in the next shot after time elapses, we know doom will follow.

The intriguing idea to me is that these are not one-sided characters, and we learn the different sides of them through their bad decisions. Dan seems to be self-effacing, gentle and kind when we first meet him, as he's drawn to the young and helpless Alice. But then we see the sadistic side of him as he easily lies to his girlfriend and has fun deceiving people online. Larry is a decent sort who is rather bored with his professional life. He might stray but he's honest about it and wants to keep his relationship with Anna real. Anna seems to be a good person when she's literally sucked into this relationship with Dan, a move that seems to destroy who she is. But Alice is the most interesting of all, shifting like a chameleon in most surprising ways.

All of the actors are wonderful here. Clive Owen is increasingly watchable, from Sin City to Closer; "Larry" lives in a body where his feelings are close to the surface, and we feel each one as he expresses them. Natalie Portman as Alice is in a role that should have been an academy award nomination: she's young and frail, clinging to Dan as he feels compelled to go to someone who doesn't need him as much, but eventually shows surprising strength. Each of these characters may not always present who they truly are to the ones they love, and feelings can shift in a second. Just like in real life.

Thumb's up for Closer.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wedding Crashers

My young 23-year-old friend told me about Wedding Crashers when he caught it in the movie. "It was the perfect film. Until they ruined it by making it a romantic comedy." He was right.

At last, an original idea in Hollywood! Two 30-ish year old guys who are marriage mediators by day become wedding crashers during the summer months in high hopes of scoring with the bridesmaids at weddings, women who hope they'll be next.

John Beckwith: Hey, listen. What angle are you going to play here?
Jeremy Grey: I am going to go with the balloon animal display. For the kids. And then when she comes near, guess who is the broken man, haunted past? How about you?
John: I am going to go dance with the little flower girl. Oh, and I might be a charter member of Oprah's book club.
Jeremy: It's all deadly.

Great dialogue, funny scene-after-scene as these two lotharios who will stop at nothing hop from wedding to wedding, Jewish under-the-chupah to Chinese ceremony. It is an amazingly funny sequence.

And then the unspeakable happens. The writers introduce a plot. Guy meets girl, guy never got girl, guy wants girl. You know where this is going. And so the pace of the movie starts to crawl as our guys stop crashing weddings.

The second half doesn't nearly have the payoff that the first half promised, but it's still fairly funny even with the slower pace. And all of that is due to Vince Vaughn. Vaughn finally finds a role that is his mettle, a star-creating role. Vince IS wedding crasher Jeremy Grey. While we all recognize Owen Wilson as the pretty boy blond guy, he is no match for Vaughn's quick quipping Jeremy. This is a buddy film, but only one buddy is worth watching.

Original plot, snappy dialogue, and Vince Vaughn. Rent the DVD. Thumb's up.

Match Point

The first scene of the movie underlines the theme, the "match point," the moment in tennis, or life, where the ball hovers above the net. Will it go over or fall back? Is it luck or fate? This point is thoroughly drummed into our heads as we plunge into the life of a young man in contemporary Britain.

Chris Wilton is a former tennis pro who decided to quit when he became painfully aware he was never going to be among the best. We get the backstory right away, as we see Chris going for a job as a tennis pro at a London recreation club. Right away, he meets Tom Hewett, whose tennis game needs improvement, and wham! Chris vaults into the world of the well-to-do.

He finds that he likes this life. He has a bit of pride, always insisting that he pay for his own opera ticket, or his own dinner, but soon that pride or willpower fades away in the face of overwhelming opposition. He meets and likes Chloe, Tom's "sweet" sister. It's obvious Chris isn't as interested in Chloe as much as he is in her style and level of living. When he succumbs to all the trappings and gets married, we see them enter their future apartment, an expansive affair with breathtaking views of the Thames.

We get the idea that Chris is a nice guy, self-effacing and handsome with nice manners, but never with the easy wit and charm of a Tom Hewitt. While Chris doesn't belong in this stratum of society, he sincerely wants to, and takes an office job that is stifling to him. Because of this boredom with his job, and yes, his new wife, we almost understand the next step when Chris meets Nola, Tom's current girlfriend, a blonde American who drinks a bit too much, flirts a bit too much, and can pout with the best of them. Against all reason, Chris goes after Nola like a cannonball shot. She becomes the obsessive object that has nothing to do with his newfound world. The movie after this is how this affair affects his life from that moment forward.

Is this the match point director Woody Allen was pointing us toward? It turns out not to be, and there are several moments within the film that tantalize us with the idea that this might be it, moments that act as red herrings. When the moment hits, do not fear, director Allen will pound us over the head with the obviousness of it all.

Character Chris Wilton seems a likeable fellow at first. But then we learn what he's really like. He has no feelings whatsoever for his new family, for his wife, even for the woman over whom he risks it all. They are all pawns in his game, a game that must be tightly controlled. With so many pawns on the board, however, it becomes inevitable that he can't control them all. And Nola, the spoiled American whom we don't at all like when we first meet her, gains our sympathy as we watch her rolling down the hill, picking up momentum with her bad choices.

There are fine performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris, and especially from 21-year-old Scarlett Johansson as Nola, who gets stronger and stronger in each film role. Johansson may garner an academy award nomination for this one, as she gets every stroke, every nuance right.

I would hate to give the ending away, but I have to point out that this movie is really an inverted A Place in the Sun, the '50's movie starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. And that's grand company. The largest surprise in the plot of Match Point is one that doesn't stand close inspection. But that's nitpicking. Let's just say that this latest of Woody Allen's films is one of the most surprising, one of his least predictable films. And that's good enough. Thumb's up.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Producers

The Producers is a movie based on a stage play based on a movie, if you can wrap your mind around this concept. It stars, of course, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, the two who made it one of the biggest Broadway hits of all time.

I've seen the original movie. I've seen the updated play. I've now seen the 2005 movie. All are worth seeing, but I have to admit, the idea's getting a little old.

I think one of my difficulties with the new movie is the fact that Matthew Broderick's Leo Bloom has obviously said these same words over and over, too many times. Broderick's performance was tired. Nathan Lane's performance as Max Bialystock, on the contrary, seemed still fresh, perhaps because playing over-the-top is easier than being the straight guy, and also probably because it's more fun.

Do I have to tell you the plot here? Okay, okay -- Bialystock is the laughing stock of Broadway, as his musical of Hamlet has hit the skids, closing the same night as the opening night (a running joke here). Bloom wanders in as his new accountant, and just happens to mention that he'd make a lot more money with a flop, as none of the financiers would be expecting their money back. Bialystock and Bloom go into business together and their plan starts to work -- except that "Springtime for Hitler" becomes a major hit because it's so damn silly.

Director Susan Stroman just doesn't show us particular scenes in the funniest way. Two scenes stick out as being much funnier in the stage version: the one where the old women Bialystock is shtupping dance with their walkers, and the other where Bloom is in his office, realizing he's hit a dead end with his accountant's life. The wonderful Jon Lovitz as his boss is practically wasted in the latter scene.

But there are other scenes that shine. Any scene with Will Ferrell, as the Nazi-loving playwright Franz Liebkind, is hilarious, especially if it includes his goose-stepping pigeons. Uma Thurman gets good laughs as Ulla, the tidy-oop secretary. And Nathan Lane is falling-down funny with his one-of-a-kind delivery. And, before I mention this next group of scenes, let me just say that, while I realize that hilarity from gay stereotypes is so 1980's, the scenes with Obviously Gay Director Roger de Bris and his assistant Carmen Ghia are still gut-wrenchingly hilarious. Yesssssssssss.

While I can't agree with the Golden Globes' nomination of The Producers as Best Motion Picture, I can say that this latest of Mel Brooks' musical is worth a look. Thumb's up.


I took another look at Gladiator, the 2000 Ridley Scott movie that won five academy awards, including Best Actor for Russell Crowe.

I didn't care for the film when I first saw it. In fact, I fell asleep halfway through it -- not in the action scenes, mind you, but during the political mishmash. Since everyone that year raved about it incessantly, I knew sooner or later I'd spend the time to try to see what they saw.

Roman General Maximus is a hero to his men and to his leader, Marcus Aurelius, stellar in battle but politically ignorant. When Marcus Aurelius' son, Commodus, kills the old man and assumes the throne, he has Maximus arrested and condemned to death. Maximus escapes only to find that his wife and son are murdered upon Commodus' orders. Maximus is captured by slave traders and trained to be a gladiator, fighting for his life.

The fight scenes are simply astounding. The opening sequence where we watch Maximus in battle with his men is carefully crafted to show us what kind of man Maximus is, what an amazing leader he is. We see why his men follow him. When later on in the story Maximus says about his men, "They fight for Rome," Derek Jacobi's senator points out, "They fight for you."

And the gladiator scenes are the best we've ever seen. Just when you think Maximus and his band of untrained fighters won't get out of this one, they show us how they do. It's shot perfectly, convincing us that we're there in the arena with these gladiators. The scenes with the tigers taking swipes at our gladiators are breath-taking. And the story shows us each of these characters, what they're like, who they are. We begin to root for them to survive.

One fun piece of trivia is that when director Ridley Scott visited the real Colosseum in Rome, he declared it "too small." He had his designers expand the arena to look massive.

Gladiator has an epic sense about it, following this man's journey from complete command of his life to a place where he's lost everything, to his eventual and painful rise out of these ashes. It's a story we follow easily because we care about this man.

The performances are excellent. Yes, I did get tired of Joaquin Phoenix's moaning as Commodus, and I do wonder at the motivation of Connie Nielsen's Lucilla. But Russell Crowe was the perfect actor for such a physical role. It must not be easy to play the perfect hero, but he manages to do so without forcing the character into a one-sided box. The late Oliver Reed is almost unrecognizable, if you remember his younger, physical roles, as the gladiator-training Proximo, but he sure can act up a storm. And Richard Harris is so smooth as Marcus Aurelius. One of the perfect lines of this movie is when he says to his daughter, Lucilla: "Let us pretend that you are a loving daughter, and I am a good father." She replies, "This is a pleasant fiction, is it not?"

It is, indeed. Thumb's way up for Gladiator.

Fun with Dick and Jane......Or Not...

Jim Carrey's new comedy had a lot of promise. It's based on the 1977 George Segal/Jane Fonda comedy that did well for both actors. This 2005 version has Jim Carrey, whom some say is at the top of his game in both serious and funny roles, and Tea Leoni, fresh from a good showing in Spanglish. Not too many women can sparkle standing next to scene-stealing Carrey, but if anyone can, Tea can.

But the movie is not so much a movie as a series of scenes strung together. You realize director Dean Parisot was going for funny, but many of these vignettes don't work. The whole extended scene of Dick bonding with illegal immigrants, then getting picked up by the INS because he can't speak well (due to a punch in the mouth in an earlier scene) is embarrassing and ultimately unfunny.

But some scenes work rather well. There are another couple of scenes where their son speaks in a Mexican accent, and we reach the obvious conclusion that he's spending more time with his Hispanic housekeeper than his parents, who are consumed by the entrapments of middle class. These scenes are pretty funny until later when the boy mysteriously loses his accent.

The movie does its best when it sticks to the story, or at least, the story they've tacked onto the second half of the movie, where Dick's Enron-type CEO escapes with all the money and leaves his employees, including Dick, jobless and pension-less. We see Alec Baldwin in a role he owns in these last few years as a despicable Kenneth Lay-type. In fact, the funniest scene is AFTER the movie, when the credits roll, as CEOs of fallen companies who have screwed their employees are listed with "thanks."

Fun with Dick and Jane is a disjointed comedy with some hilarious bits sandwiched in between scenes that don't work. But it still has the talented Jim Carrey, who is still the best in his field at physical comedy, and Tea Leoni, who holds her own against tough odds. Thumb's up for this one, barely.