The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
In true straightforward comic-book style TMNT starts with a brief backstory (without the laborious explanation on why four turtles and a rat become human-like in the first place) and then launches into the heart of the movie. After the defeat of their old arch nemesis The Shredder the Turtles—fun-lovin’ Michelangelo (Mikey Kelly) tech guru Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) hotheaded Raphael (Nolan North) and pragmatic leader Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor)--have grown apart as a family. While Leo is off honing his craft the turtles no longer fight crime--except Raphael who still fights crime under the pseudonym Nightwatcher. Struggling to keep them together is their rat sensei Master Splinter (the late Mako). But strange things are brewing. Tech-industrialist Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) is amassing an army of ancient monsters to apparently take over the world. With the help of old allies April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones (Chris Evans) the Turtles finally come together as brothers to fight the good fight and once again face the mysterious Foot Clan who have put their own ninja skills behind Winters' endeavors. As opposed to hiring just A-list actors TMNT is a nice eclectic mix of veteran voice-over artists who give the Turtles their voices and regular actors such as Gellar Stewart and Evans. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’s Ziyi Zhang also gets in on the action providing the voice of the Foot Clan leader Karai who was once an enemy of the Turtles but now sees the value in what they do. Of course there isn’t a Robin Williams or Ben Stiller to laugh with but Kelly is pretty funny as Michelangelo who has had to resort to entertaining kids at birthday parties as “Cowabunga Carl ” a clown-for-hire in a “fake” turtle suit. It will all depend on whether those ninja-fightin’ pizza-eatin’ giant turtles still have a monetary appeal but methinks a new TMNT movie franchise has been born. The comic book was created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman as a spoof to the superhero stories and quickly took off into merchandising heaven with a toy license and then a television series. The original 1990 live-action movie used state-of-the-art animatronics but somehow felt static and fake. Since the last TMNT movie in 1993 the whole Turtle phenomenon has sort of fallen off the radar at least in the U.S. so the time was ripe for a renovation. Using the innovative CGI we know and love this new TMNT--created by a team of animators from California and Hong Kong under the watchful direction of Kevin Munroe--gives the Turtles not to mention all the otherworldly monsters they have to fight a realistic look and feel. With this kind of freedom the film can focus on the action which is the best part of the TMNT lore. Though the demographics may skew male ages 8-11 (as well as those 8-to-11-year-old boys who loved it back in the day and are now grown men) TMNT is just your basic supercharged animated fun.
Near the end of the Tang Dynasty in 10th century China things are not well between the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) and his Empress (Gong Li). She serves more as an arm piece to him and begins to suspect that he is poisoning her to keep her subservient. The Emperor brings his son Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to the palace and Jai is concerned for the Empress's health. She also seems to have some sort of hold on her stepson Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) who just wants to run away with the palace doctor's daughter Chan (Li Man). With all the scheming and ulterior motives going back and forth it all hits the fan when the Emperor's convoy is attacked by assassins. From here secrets come to light through death and battle as the assassins force both sides' hands. The family relations and dynasty lore may be too complicated to understand in one viewing but that is often the case with these kinds of historical epics especially in a foreign language. Still the elements are beautiful to watch and once it becomes a war movie the threat of boredom is lifted. Curse of the Golden Flower offers traditional epic performances. Gong Li’s Empress may be bitter in servitude angry in conspiracy or pained with tragedy but it's all big dramatics. Few can do it better than Gong. The lavish emotional material is her forte and this is another tragic epic in which she can shine. Chow Yun-Fat does his stoic thing. What makes him the ultimate badass action hero also suits him well as a plotting monarch. Some range of issues face his character but he greets them with a strong even-keeled temper only breaking down in pivotal moments. The assassins serve as a singular character too. They move so gracefully as a single unit you don't even need to see who's under the masks to get the personality of this unstoppable killing machine. Other characters just serve as pawns in the plot. There's the whiny sissy son and lovelorn kids all convincing as they serve their purposes in Gong and Chow's chess game. Curse of the Golden Flower seems to be a culmination of all of director Zhang Yimou's work. It includes period drama with epic tragic themes and even more newfangled martial arts action since his last effort Hero. He also uses color schemes to reflect emotion. Superficial gold barely masks the palace corruption and forest greens welcome in the change brought by the assassins. Golden Flower does seems a tad melodramatic. But the Chinese language is based on subtle sound differences and going over the top may be the only way to convey it. It certainly works for a political intrigue family drama. The best parts of the film are the assassin attacks big but full of nuance. The dark figures flow gracefully through the scenes seeming to defy gravity but not in a Crouching Tiger sort of way. Their acrobatic antics are based on some level of physics at least as the film establishes the group. It's never just clanking swords there's always some careful tactics to enjoy. Combining so many aspects masterfully Curse of the Golden Flower could be Zhang's masterwork.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg understands that to turn what is in essence a series of 10-minute segments into a 90-minute feature it's necessary to keep things very simple. With that he's envisioned a sort of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure for SpongeBob in which the hapless hero sets out on a quest to find the balding King Neptune's treasured crown. We all know it's been stolen by that tiny green megalomaniacal one-eyed sea creature known as Plankton--who sold it and has framed SpongeBob's boss Mr. Krab with the crime so he can be rid of him and rule the world--but the rest of Bikini Bottom doesn't including King Neptune who wants to turn Mr. Krab into an appetizer. Now even though he has just been passed over for the promotion of his dreams SpongeBob still believes his boss is innocent and convinces the king to spare Mr. Krab's life long enough to allow SpongeBob to go retrieve the crown. Along with his best pal Patrick SpongeBob embarks on the treacherous mission battling any number of obstacles in order to save Mr. Krab's life restore order in Bikini Bottom and prove once and for all he can be a real man…wait a grown up…er a big bad sponge? Yeah something like that.
The whole gang is here including standup comic Tom Kenny who provides the high nasal voice of SpongeBob; Bill Fagerbakke (TV's Coach) who voices the dopey but lovable Patrick; and the booming I'm-master-of-the-universe voice of Mr. Lawrence as the evil Plankton. There are also a few celebrity voices thrown in for good measure including Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor as the vain and insecure King Neptune; Scarlett Johansson as his kind and patient daughter Mindy (who looks a little like Velma from the Scooby-Doo series); and Alec Baldwin as a malevolent hit man. But the best cameo of all belongs to David Hasselhoff appearing as himself--in Baywatch mode of course. Hasselhoff helps SpongeBob and Patrick who find themselves in the "real" world get back to Bikini Bottom safely and looks like he's having a ball poking a little fun at himself--as well he should.
Hillenburg a former marine science teacher created SpongeBob after he decided he wanted to do a sea cartoon and thought a square sponge wearing shorts who lives in a pineapple house in a world of real sea animals was just the ticket. Sure we get why the kids love it. The cartoon is madcap slapsticky gross-out fun with SpongeBob and Patrick just big ol' kids themselves living in an undersea community where eating Krabby Patties showing your underwear and blowing bubbles are the bomb. It's the parents you gotta wonder about--the ones who say they are only watching it because their kids do but who secretly look forward to SpongeBob SquarePants episodes so they too can laugh their asses off. "It's about keeping your kid-nature in life and not totally becoming a curmudgeon " Hillenburg explains--but it's more than that. SpongeBob's humor is oftentimes aimed completely at the adults following the habits of some stellar predecessors such as the old Looney Tunes shorts and even more recently Ren and Stimpy. Examples: SpongeBob and Patrick laughing manically for five minutes longer than they should; the two of them getting totally blasted after eating too many ice cream sundaes and then waking up the next morning in a puddle of their own sick; and confused side glances at the camera from some scary-looking sea monsters who stop short from eating SpongeBob and Patrick after the two start singing about being real men er well you know what I mean. Funny funny stuff.
Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) is the most skilled martial artist in the region
yet after years of training and fighting he's ready to give it all up to
lead a new peaceful life. Only he's got two more challenges ahead of him:
love and a young mysterious thief with martial arts skills like he's never
seen. Before he can slip into retirement he attempts to make a deal with
the young thief: He'll become her master and polish her martial arts if
she'll turn from her evil ways.
Unlike most martial arts films this one is an equal-opportunity flick -
with the two female co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi doing the bulk
of the karate chopping. Their scenes are one of the many highlights
throughout this little gem which is told in the form of an ancient fantasy.
Fat's presence dominates the screen with his portrayal of a wise and highly
skilled martial artist who can deliver deadly damage to a foe with a single
finger jab. Ziyi's also delivers an impeccable performance of a character
who can be innocent at first glance but when provoked can unleash a flurry
of kicks jabs and tumbling acrobatics.
Ang Lee (The Ice Storm Eat Drink Man Woman) adds a very different film
to his impressive repertoire. Here he plays on his childhood fantasies in
Taiwan to create world of ancient martial artists who fly through the air
during their many fighting sequences. As corny as it may seem Lee's
character's supernatural abilities give these sequences an air of elegance
to the martial arts. And he's managed to skillfully blend the special
effects with a romantic subplot in China's beautifully spacious landscapes
of deserts and lush forests.