Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
I long ago gave up hand-wringing about Hollywood’s preoccupation with remakes. Still the trailers for Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid the 1984 underdog classic that introduced such priceless phrases as “Wax on wax off” and “Sweep the leg!” into the pop-culture lexicon set me ill at ease. To me the film seemed little more than a high-profile vanity project for child star Jaden Smith son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett who for all we know gave him the movie as a Christmas gift a $40 million stocking-stuffer. Pillage my childhood memories if you must Hollywood but damnit at least show a little respect for the source material.
Much has changed in the update: Daniel Larusso is now Dre Parker; California’s San Fernando Valley is now Beijing China; Mr. Miyagi is now Mr. Han; and karate is now kung fu. Most of the story beats and thematic elements however are essentially the same. After his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer 12-year-old Dre (Smith) is forced to move from his native Detroit to the unfamiliar climes of Beijing where he’s besieged by a local group of pubescent fascists after being caught innocently flirting with a pretty schoolmate.
Dre’s tormentors all of whom practice a peculiarly sadistic version of kung fu taught at the neighborhood martial arts academy adhere vigorously to the “No weakness no pain no mercy” credo of their autocratic master. As such they’re not about to let their puny prey off with just one humiliating beatdown. During a subsequent ass-whooping Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) the eccentric maintenance man from Dre’s apartment building comes to the rescue fending off the ruthless urchins with some pretty fancy fighting moves of his own. After some cajoling Mr. Han reluctantly agrees to teach the child kung fu and several life lessons and inspirational montages later a resurgent Dre finally faces up to his adversaries at a climactic kung fu tournament.
The case for nepotism in this new Karate Kid is not without merit. Though allegedly 11 years old Smith doesn’t look a day over 10 and appears jarringly undersized for a 12-year-old. Seeing the baby-faced lad (he definitely takes after his mom in the looks department) get repeatedly brutalized by adolescent thugs twice his size gets uncomfortable as do later scenes of him training shirtless his torso the size of Chan’s forearm.
But it’s a minor quibble. In truth Smith surpasses his predecessor Macchio in both acting ability and martial arts proficiency. Whereas Daniel-San’s fighting scenes in the original Karate Kid require a suspension of disbelief that diminishes his eventual triumph at the All-Valley Karate Championships (Even as a kid I always suspected that the Cobra Kai kids were either sandbagging it or their sensai was the worst in-game coach since Jim Tressel) Smith’s moves are both more authentic and more athletic. Moreover he has the good sense not to collapse hysterically into a wailing heap at the slightest touch from an opponent as Macchio so famously did.
The Karate Kid is every bit an unabashed crowd-pleaser -- which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing in a summer movie season that has thus far given audiences precious little to cheer for. At two-and-a-half hours it takes far too long to get going and would have benefited from a more assured hand behind the camera. Zwart’s overemphasis on the bullying and fish-out-of-water elements becomes redundant and the dialogue and culture-clash jokes border on embarrassing at times. But the meat of the story the bond that forms between an unlikely kung fu teacher and his equally unlikely student is undeniably affecting.
Barely remembered by his fellow countryman but revered to this day by the Chinese George Hogg was an Oxford-educated adventurer who led 60 war orphans on a 700-mile trek during the Japanese occupation of China to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing occupying forces. In director Roger Spottiswoode’s leisurely retelling of this heroic feat Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is introduced sneaking into Nanking in 1937 to report on the three-sided war between the Japanese Chinese Nationals and Chinese Communists. Upon his arrival Hogg witnesses Japanese soldiers execute hundreds in cold blood. With the aid of Communist resistance leader “Jack” Chen (Chow Yun-Fat) and Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) an injured Hogg is taken to recuperate at a school in Huang Shi. Once better Hogg plans to tell the world what’s happening in China. But he takes such a shine to the orphans that he decides to stay as the school’s headmaster. Soon though news spreads that Japanese troops are marching toward Huang Shi. Hogg has no choice but to take the orphans on a months-long journey--with rough terrain and bitter weather ahead of them--to find a safe place to live and learn. Let’s ignore the fact that pretty-boy Rhys Meyers struts through the Second Sino-Japanese War looking more like a fashion-conscious playboy on vacation than a war correspondent dodging bullets and bombs. The hunkiest Henry VIII ever--sorry Eric Bana--downplays the onscreen Hogg’s evident superior complexity in order to react to the horrible circumstances he’s found himself in with the appropriate amount of fear compassion and resourcefulness. On the other hand Yun-Fat acts like he’s in Apocalypse Now. He gleefully spouts war-isn’t-hell Kilgore-isms even though his fervor and glibness are out of place in a film that treats the war with obvious grave solemnity. The tough-as-nails Mitchell does serve as something of a calming influence whenever she’s around Yun-Fat. Unfortunately sparks don’t fly between Mitchell and Rhys Meyers making it impossible to buy into their perfunctionary romance. Honestly Rhys Meyers generates more heat with the sublimely regal Michelle Yeoh whose black marketer is taken with this most charming customer. Too bad Yeoh doesn’t share any moments with her Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon costar Yun-Fat. Of the orphans the stone-faced Guang Li makes the greatest impression as a warrior among children who rightfully fears Hogg will usurp his authority. “We’re all something different in China ” Pearson tells Hogg. That certainly holds true for Hogg. Beyond serving as a CliffsNotes-style history lesson in the Second Sino-Japanese War The Children of Huang Shi asks what it takes during a time of conflict to transform an observer to a participant a pacifist to an advocate of war. Actually it doesn’t take much for the reporter portrayed here to abandon his personal and professional principles. Even if director Roger Spottiswoode pulls no punches whenever he places Hogg in harm’s way our hero’s swift conversion from impartial bystander to unlikely savior would still probably be laughed at by the hardened war correspondents in the director’s superior Under Fire. Sadly after depicting the horrors of war with bloody and brutal honesty Spottiswoode falls into the trap of presenting Hogg as the all-knowing all-sage Westerner out to rescue 60 “savages” not just from the Japanese but from themselves. The students don’t teach anything of value to Hogg. Even his relationships with a select few students aren’t as fully explored as those he shares with Pearson and Chen. That’s not to say that the much-anticipated journey across the Gobi Desert isn’t inspirational. It is even if it seems more rushed and less eventful than expected. The Children of Huang Shi isn’t as powerful or compelling as Schindler's List but there’s no denying that it may help Hogg receive the recognition he deserves outside of China for his selfless actions during a war that he had no vested interest in.
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.
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.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
The oft-trod theme of the disintegration of tradition is the subject of this curious glance at Chinese bathhouse culture. Cell phone-talking city-dwelling Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) returns to his childhood home having mistaken a postcard from his mentally handicapped brother to mean that their father has passed away. Instead he finds dad and brother alive and well and catering to their clientele of old men who soak in tubs receive scrubs and rubs and generally wile away an afternoon wrestling crickets and bickering. When his father's health fails and the wrecking ball threatens to replace the bathhouse with a shopping mall Da Ming's return to big city life hangs in the balance.
This keenly observant film reveals an array of authentic singular characters the quirky denizens of the bathhouse. Jing Wu is endearing as the simple-minded merry Er Ming who is devoted to the staid if steamy life of the bathhouse. Zhu Xu plays his father as devoted to his loving handicapped son as he is disappointed by Da Ming the rejecting son.
Zhang Yang follows up on his international success "Spicy Love Soup" with this well executed but unexceptional rendering of a familiar theme. Nonetheless cinematic attention to detail and subtle characterizations bring interest.