Shanghai Knights is really just a thinly veiled plot device to a) show more of Jackie Chan's amazing abilities; b) show the chemistry between Chan and Owen Wilson and c) show Chan in yet another fish-out-of-water situation. As a sequel with all the "right stuff" already in place Knights apparently doesn't need an intriguing story. Starting where Shanghai Noon left off Chon Wang (Chan) is living large in 1800s American Wild West. Yet when Chon learns his estranged father the Keeper of the Imperial Seal has been murdered in China's Forbidden City and the seal stolen he immediately vows revenge. To get to the killers who have escaped to London Chon reluctantly reteams with his old partner the incompetent Roy O'Bannon (Wilson). Once in England they run into Chon's sister Lin (Fann Wong) who has had the same vengeful idea as her brother (and has the same skills). Much to Chon's chagrin Roy is quickly smitten with the beautiful Lin who has uncovered a plot to kill Queen Victoria and the royal family but has trouble convincing the authorities since the instigator of the evil plan is Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) seventh in line to the throne (hence why he wants them killed off). Not good. With the help of a kindly Scotland Yard Inspector and a 10-year-old street urchin Chon kicks Britain in the pants as he attempts to avenge his father's death--and keep the romance-minded Roy away from his sister.
The Chan/Wilson comic duo works well once again. Chan's easygoing unassuming style matches well with Wilson's smarminess. Wilson seems to have become one of those actors-for-hire saying yes to just about anything offered to him (why else would he have done I Spy?) ; still we know he has the goods when he turns in hysterical performances in quirk-fests such as The Royal Tenenbaums. There definitely is something special to his pairing with Chan who fits into Hollywood's mainstream like a glove. The only way to aptly describe his abilities is to compare him to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly who could dance with anything from a woman to a hat rack and make it look so smooth. Granted Chan is getting a little long in the tooth (rumor has it he didn't perform all the stunts) but the combination of martial arts and Chinese acrobatics he displays is stupefying. Wong handles herself very well getting in a few swift mean kicks of her own. As well baddies Gillen and real-life martial arts master Donnie Yen who plays a Chinese rebel aligning himself with Rathbone snarl with the best of them. It is intriguing to see Yen and Chan go at it in their very different yet mesmerizing styles.
Doing a sequel to Shanghai Noon was a very smart move. Why not pair up these two likable heroes again throw them in a different adventure and watch the sparks fly? It's the kind of repeat performance that doesn't require much attention to detail and director David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons) shouldn't feel the need to top Knights' predecessor. Each action sequence is spectacular and the interim goofiness sustains the time when Chan can do his stuff again. Still it would be nice to have at least some semblance of glue to hold the movie together. It's all over the place trying to pack in as much fighting as possible together with funny awkward moments with Chon and Roy as well as playing with the history of London in the 1800s. For example the kindly Scotland Yard detective who helps them is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before he starts writing his Sherlock Holmes series (Roy comes up with the pseudonym) and the street urchin so impressed with Chon's moves is a young Charlie Chaplin. Ah very clever. At least Lin gets to kick Jack the Ripper's butt. Oh who are we kidding? The film's fun and it's going to make big bucks. Who cares about a story?
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is having a very very bad day. His harpie ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener) who happens to be the head of Amalgamated Film Studios cancels his contract. The lead actress in his new film (Winona Ryder) also a harpie walks off the set. The opening doesn't bode well for anyone with feminist sensibilities filled as it is with the farcical shrieking of these two women; the film seems to say that in order to make the ingénue look enticing all other women must be utterly appalling. Fortunately the device is used only briefly to set up Simone's entrance in the form of a hard disk delivered to Taransky by a dying one-eyed man. Simone a computer construct that is "art and science the perfect marriage " is destined the man says for the big screen--and he believes Taransky is the director to put her there. Considering his leading actress has just bolted the seed couldn't have been planted at a better time and nine months later Taransky gives birth--Frankenstein-like (he's not called Viktor for nothing)--to Simone in her first feature film. Of course Taransky has also planned to take his sweet revenge on the studio system and the Hollywood celebrity hounds by eventually revealing his creation but when she becomes an overnight sensation his over-reaching ego gets the better of him and he can't bear to reveal the truth and sacrifice his own newfound fame. His struggle to conceal Simone's identity and the length to which her admiring public and the paparazzi will go to discover it becomes an ever-escalating joke building to a hilarious pitch and an unexpected punch line as the creation's success threatens to destroy the creator.
Throughout the film and especially in the opening scenes the cast has a tendency to play the farce all the way up and over the top--and to a certain extent it works. The overblown acting style works with the themes of the film and eventually becomes the reason the dialogue plays so well. Keener's (Full Frontal) unique brand of awkward gawky comedy stands her in good stead here although she's annoyingly shrill in the role early on. Ryder's (Mr. Deeds) catty movie star ("a supermodel with a SAG card") and Pacino's (Insomnia) Taransky indulge in a bit of the stilted clunky dialogue we've come to expect from Ryder but Pacino more than makes up for that early scene during the rest of the movie. He's quite possibly the only actor who could deliver such lines as "A star is digitized " or "If a performance is real what does it matter if the actor is fake?" in any kind of meaningful way. He delivers his dialogues with Simone--which are really monologues because he speaks for her and for himself too--with intelligence and just the slightest hint of wry humor. He's the only cast member who doesn't entirely give in to the impulse to ham it up; he's funny without becoming a joke himself. Pruitt Taylor Vince on the other hand steals just about every scene he's in as tabloid journalist Max Sayer mainly because his character's never called on to be anything but a joke.
The unfortunate flip side of any farce is that the dramatic scenes are sometimes overplayed--and that's what happens here. It's difficult for the audience to follow the sometimes too-swift transitions between farce and sincerity and it's too easy for the actors to drift into melodrama which they occasionally do. When it's being funny Simone is great but its serious moments come off as a little shallow. Then again considering this is a movie about just how shallow people can be maybe that proves director/screenwriter Andrew Niccol (Gattaca). Simone recognizes that actresses directors producers studio executives and yes even the press all take the ideal of celebrity way too seriously placing too much value on image and not enough on substance. Scene after scene of outrageous public reaction to Simone illustrates Hollywood's insatiable desire for the famous; it's as if Marilyn Monroe had returned from the dead with all her charisma intact--so much so that she doesn't even have to be physically present to charm the masses. Simone has her own cologne. She becomes a pop star singing (what else?) "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" to crowds of thousands. A mad rush at a cocktail party sends a girl who looks like Simone hurtling into a pool; another girl wants to sleep with Taransky so she can feel close to the actress. As the movie sends up this lust for secondhand stardom it becomes clear that Simone a computer-generated image is more authentic than the people watching her. "Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it " Taransky says. Beyond that Simone's sly ending implies we don't even want to.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.
We hear that Edward Norton ("Fight Club") may step into Paramount's crime actioner "The Score" as the young hood who locks horns with the older thief played by Robert De Niro. Ben Affleck was to co-star opposite De Niro but quickly exited the project for unknown reasons. Norton recently completed "Keeping the Faith," in which he made his directorial debut.
PLAYGROUND'S SETTING OF PLAY: Some big -- albeit under wraps -- names are involved in the highly secret development of a new version of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with the tony beach resort community of East Hampton, N.Y., to be the whimsical, if unlikely, setting.
There have already been at least eight big-screen adaptations of Shakespeare's fantasy-comedy, so it's a relief to learn that this latest effort is headed for its original home -- the stage. Speaking of home, East Hampton is summer home to throngs of scenemakers -- its famous beaches a far cry from the forests where the Bard's sprites and fairies co-mingle -- and is real home to Hollywood royalty such as Steven Spielberg, Barry Sonnenfeld and Alec Baldwin.
No, these latest "Midsummer" producers aren't eyeing Alec for the role of Puck, although the not-obviously puckish Stanley Tucci did a nice turn as the mischievous Puck in the recent Fox Searchlight version of "Midsummer."
PRICIER, LONGER & UNCUT: With the upcoming millennium celebration clouded by fears of terrorist attacks and uncertainties surrounding the fate of Beanie Babies, we thought we'd focus on something more positive for the new year -- resolutions, or, more specifically, how well Hollywood keeps its promises.
For ages, the studios have resolved to spend less and entertain more (in 120 minutes or less). Think the infamous Jeffrey Katzenberg memo from the early 1990s, in which the then-Disney executive called for fiscal restraint and contracts that required directors to deliver pictures less than two hours.
Easier said (or written) than done.
While Hollywood budgets in 1999 didn't reach the "titanic" heights of $200 mil, holiday films such as "End of Days," "Sleepy Hollow," "The World is Not Enough," "Bicentennial Man" and "Galaxy Quest" all orbited around the $100 mil mark. Not exactly chump change.
More egregiously (if you believe in resolutions), the studios bombarded us this holiday season with two-hour-plus time-busters such as "Magnolia," "The Insider," "The Green Mile," "Angela's Ashes," "The Cider House Rules," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Titus," "The World is Not Enough," "The Hurricane," "Any Given Sunday," "Anna and the King," "Bicentennial Man," "Liberty Heights," "The Messenger" and "Ride With the Devil."
Happily, at a swift 92 minutes, holiday hit "Stuart Little" was the rare film that lived up to its name. Though its not-so-mousy budget of an estimated $80 million is another reminder that resolutions in Hollywood are tough to keep, indeed.