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.
This long-delayed fantasy film touted as the most expensive film in South Korean history is some kind of mess. As the title implies dragons do go to war--but the real casualty of this endeavor is the patience of even the most undiscriminating viewer. Here is a movie absolutely overstuffed with exposition and backstory but none of it adds up to anything remotely cohesive or comprehensible. An ancient prophecy about Korean serpents becoming dragons and laying waste to the world is about to come true--some 500 years after it first came to pass. Pressed into service to save the world (or a computer-generated facsimile thereof) are a young TV reporter (Jason Behr) and a girl named Sarah (Amanda Brooks) both of whom are destined to play a pivotal part in the ultimate salvation--or destruction--of mankind. It’s only a matter of time before downtown Los Angeles becomes a war zone. Both Behr and Brooks play their roles with absolute conviction. Unfortunately in this unintentionally outrageous context they come off as laughably stiff as a result. Their obligatory onscreen romance comes off as just that--obligatory. If they’re humanity’s last hope then we’re in big trouble. Chris Mulkey and Elizabeth Pena turn up as FBI agents. Nice to see them getting work but it would be even nicer if they--being the talented actors they are--were given something anything to do. By default Robert Forster comes off best as Jack a wise antiques dealer who definitely has a vested interested in the fantastic goings-on. It’s a stock role and not a particularly good one loaded with senseless dialogue. But Forster manages unlike his co-stars to inject just a little bit of humanity and humor into the proceedings. Writer/director Hyung-rae Shim relies totally and wholly on CGI effects to tell the story but because the story is so unabashedly stupid that reliance comes off as seriously misguided. Dragon Wars is not remotely credible even by fantasy-film standards and it’s not fun enough to encourage audiences to suspend disbelief. There’s never a sense of wonderment or fun and that’s deadly in a film like this. As befits the filmmaker behind such a one-dimensional a film Shim is basically a traffic cop. The actors go here. The effects go here. And despite the endless CGI effects the rest of the cinematography is murky and dark. Dragon Wars (or D-War as it was originally known) does qualify as a movie: It has a beginning a middle and an end--and all of them are useless.
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.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
September 27, 2002 10:25am EST
Ben and JoJo Floss' daughter Diana is gunned down only days before her wedding when she accidentally gets in the way of a violent husband-and-wife dispute at a Cape Anne Mass. restaurant. Her fiancé Joe soon becomes a surrogate member of the Floss family and the three cope with their grief in various ways. JoJo attempts to avoid all the attention that is being paid the family and Ben throws himself--and Joe--into a commercial real estate venture that needs big-time developer Mike's support to succeed. Joe meanwhile combs through big bins of undelivered mail with postmaster Bertie in an effort to retrieve the 75 wedding invitations that had been sent. Bertie who in addition to her postal work also helps out in the local bar owned by her missing-in-'Nam-action beau is also grieving and soon she and Ben are a couple. As writer-director Brad Silberling's gentle drama unfolds it becomes clear that the film is a "hundred-whys" effort. For a start why is the film titled Moonlight Mile a lesser-known Rolling Stones song? It's never explained. And why does the film take place in 1973 when only the film's rollicking soundtrack and a passing reference to the Vietnam War evoke the era? These questions--and the many many other whys in Moonlight Mile--remain unanswered resulting in a film that falls as flat as a bad souffle.
The actors in Moonlight Mile for example are among the choicest of ingredients--three Oscar winners a promising newcomer and an almost legendary comic talent. So why is young Jake Gyllenhaal so bland as the sweet hero-fiancé Joe so opaque and passive suggesting nothing of a background education or professional aspirations? Why did talented Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon agree to star as the parents except for the fact that each actor is given the chance to sink his or her teeth into an 11th hour set piece? Why do Oscar winner Holly Hunter (as the tough prosecuting attorney Mona who warns Joe Ben and JoJo that there's a good chance the perpetrator will get off lightly) and comic virtuoso Dabney Coleman (as gruff real estate developer Mike) squander their talents?
Part of the answer to all the whys Moonlight Mile raises can be found in Silberling's direction. He clearly knows the ingredients Hollywood seems to want these days: nice recognizable characters in emotionally wrenching situations; some resonance of a bygone period; a soundtrack that will help with the marketing; big-name leads and a compelling young star; a dash of unpredictability and feel-good ending. But as Silberling mixes up this all-too-familiar recipe his strokes create a thin watery batter that just refuses to rise above cliché. As a writer he knows the rules but he skirts wit irony humor and convincing raw emotion in favor of the formula raising more questions than he answers.