Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

Front Cover


A handsome, stylish man.

A handsome, stylish man.

(2015) Drama (Strand) Jake Choi, James Chen, Jennifer Neala Page, Elizabeth Sung, Sonia Villani, Ming Lee, Li Jun Li, Rachel Lu, Wayne Chang, Kristen Hung, Scott Chan, Brian Knoebel, Ben Baur, Shenell Edmonds, Benjamin Thys, Tom Ligon, Fenton Li, Julia Sun, Josh Folan, Peter Benson, Hallie Cooper-Novack, Chris Kies, Morgan Wolk, Jack Ferver, John Cramer, Susan O’Connor. Directed by Ray Yeung

 

Culture can be a blessing and a millstone. Not all of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. That also goes for our sexuality, although that is becoming less of a stigma these days. The LGBTQ community has made some big strides in this country over the past few years but sometimes we forget that it isn’t the same situation everywhere.

Ryan (Choi) is a gay Asian man who works as a stylist in the fashion industry in Manhattan. He’s in demand and very good at what he does, but he is tired of being stereotyped for his sexuality and his culture. He wants a certain magazine cover but instead he’s assigned by his overbearing boss (Villani) to work with an emerging Chinese star named Ning (Chen) who is breaking out in the United States and who had specifically requested a Chinese stylist for his important photo shoot he’s getting ready for.

It is not a match made in heaven. Ning is all about his culture while Ryan is trying to distance himself from his Chinese heritage and embrace his American side. For Ning’s part, he is shocked at Ryan’s open homosexuality. It’s simply not an acceptable part of the culture in modern China. The relationship is rocky and nearly gets Ryan fired but eventually the two begin to find some common ground, particularly when Ryan’s parents get involved. And as the two begin to become friendly, an attraction develops as Ning reveals that he is in the closet. Can two people from two disparate cultures make it work?

This is a movie that has admirable ambitions. Not only does it examine a little-discussed subject in film – being gay and Asian – but from two different angles. Bringing the cultural differences into the mix adds a little bit of spice to the lo mein. One of the big positives here is that Yeung has his feet in both communities and brings his own experiences and perspective to the wok. That lends an air of authenticity to the film that money just can’t buy and is a perfect illustration of what is best about indie films.

The movie rests largely on the shoulders of Choi and Chen and the two work really well together. Their initial antagonism leading to romantic feelings feels a bit Hollywood-esque but the two manage to overcome the clichéd nature of the situation and make the relationship feel real. There’s also some great scenes with Ryan’s parents and grandmother.

In a sense although the romance is at the center of the film, it is really Ryan’s story; it measures his growth and revolves around his perspective. We see the events through his eyes, feel his frustrations and his passions. Ryan is so dedicated to assimilating into American culture that he refuses to have romances with Asian men, only Caucasians. It is this cultural denial – not uncommon among second generation immigrants – that I think is the most fascinating part of the story.

I would have liked the romantic part to have been a little more organic but even though it kind of follows a rom-com formula, this is far from typical. And yes, there are comedic elements here, particularly with cultural fish-out-of-water things but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize this as a comedy or even a dramedy. It tackles some serious issues and gives us insights that maybe we wouldn’t come up with on our own, and isn’t that really the best thing a movie can do for us?

REASONS TO GO: Cultural and sexual attitudes are taken on honestly. There’s legitimate chemistry between the leads.
REASONS TO STAY: The romance aspect seems a little cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are complex; there is also brief mild profanity and some conversation that is a little suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leung also runs the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brokeback Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Tenth Man

The Painting (Le tableau)


Art is a leap of faith.

Art is a leap of faith.

(2011) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Jean Barney, Chloe Berthier, Julien Bouanich, Serge Fafli, Thierry Jahn, Jean-Francois Laguionie, Adrien Larmande, Jessica Monceau, Jeremy Prevost, Jacques Roehrich, Celine Ronte, Magali Rosenzweig, Thomas Sagols, Michel Vigne. Directed by Jean-Francois Laguionie

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In this French-Belgian co-production, the figures in a painting lead their own lives behind the canvas walls that we see. In one particular painting, there is a rigid social strata; in the luxurious castle live the Alldunns, the completed figures who are at the top of the food chain and are altogether pleased with themselves as the painter meant to complete them. Below them but worlds apart are the Halfies, figures not quite finished with occasionally the matter of only a few brush strokes separating them from the top of the rung – but it is in the garden they must live. Finally there are the Sketchies, little more than pencil drawings who hide in plain sight and are the low carvings on the totem pole, the objects of derision and hatred from both the other groups, exiled into the forest.

Of course everything begins with a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between Alldunn Ramo (Larmande) and Halfie Claire (Berthier). This is deeply frowned upon by the Great Candlestick, the Doge-like leader of the Alldunns. The Halfies are just as resentful of Claire and so she runs away. Separated from his love, Ramo goes into the woods to find Claire, accompanied by her friend Lola (Monceau) and Plume (Jahn), a bitter Sketchie who watched his friend Gom (Bouanich) horribly beaten and thrown from the castle balcony to the ground below.

The three go on a journey to reunite the lovers and to find the painter, who can bring harmony to the world of the painting by completing his work. They will discover new worlds inside other paintings and find out that the things that seem important on the outside pale in significance to what’s inside.

The paintings here bring to mind the works of Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso and Chagall although they are representations of different styles of art more than of a specific piece. The world of The Painting is imaginative and clever, although the animation, while colorful, is a bit choppy in places, looking almost like a Cartoon Network version of an art history course.

Still, this is solid family entertainment with a lovely little twist at the end and a distinctly European point of view, especially in regards to class differentiations and in changing your environment. It took four years to realize and I suspect that the things I found deficient in the animation itself may well have been done deliberately to make a point which I can appreciate but still in all with a little bit more care this could have been the work of art that it was trying to portray.

REASONS TO GO: Very colorful. Imaginative and innovative.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is spotty in places. Very simplistic story.

FAMILY VALUES:  One of the paintings in the movie is of a topless woman, but in an artistic way and certainly non-sexualized. There is a bit of violence including one rather disturbing scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The distributor name, GKIDS, stands for Guerilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate, and began life as the organizers of the Oscar-qualifying New York Children’s International Film Festival which they continue to do today.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Putzel and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Young Goethe in Love (Goethe!)


Young Goethe in Love

Note to Twilight fans - these aren't vampires! They just SHOULD be!

(2010) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hubchen, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Anna Botcher, Stefan Haschke, Xavier Hutter, Oscar Weidner, Guido Lambrecht, Vitus Wieser. Directed by Philipp Stolzl

 

Writers have a tendency to use their own lives for inspiration. Their experiences become kind of a template on which their best works are based. Some of the best templates are those based on terrible experiences.

Johann Goethe (Fehling) – with an “oe” – is a writer, or he wants to be. His poetry and drama up to that point hadn’t been well-received. His father (Hubchen) wants him to be a lawyer but Goethe is a bit too flighty for that. He fails the law exams, doing a mocking little dance afterwards and writing the words “kiss my ass” in the snow. Dear old dad sends his unruly son from the big city lights of Frankfurt for the country seat that is Wetzlar where his father has enough pull to get him work as a clerk for the local prosecutor Johann Christian Kestler (Bleibtreu).

Kestler is a bit of a stickler and one of his junior clerks, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (Bruch) – a terrible stammerer and a somewhat shy nebbish to boot – is given Goethe to take under his wing. The two become fast friends and Jerusalem takes Goethe to a dance, where Goethe – urban sophisticate that he was – is terribly bored.

That is, until he meets Charlotte Buff (Stein), a plain-spoken country girl with a voice like an angel and a face to match. He becomes completely smitten with her. Riding off into the country, he meets her again and spends an afternoon baking bread, playing with her many younger siblings and playing the clavichord. It becomes plain that she has feelings for him as well.

Jerusalem has become enamored of a married woman and is entertaining thoughts of running away with her once she leaves her husband. Even Kestler, Goethe’s boss, has found someone and enlists Goethe’s help in wooing her. Goethe, happily in love, is only too pleased to help someone else find what he has found. Goethe is as blissful as a man can be.

That’s usually when the floor disappears from beneath your feet and thus it is with Goethe. Jerusalem’s mistress has decided to stay with her husband and it turns out that the object of Kestler’s affection is Charlotte, who because of her family’s dire financial situation has agreed to become engaged to Kestler who is far more prosperous than Goethe. A distraught Jerusalem commits suicide in front of Goethe and now he is under arrest for illegally dueling. Will he survive to write Faust?

Of course he will. The trouble with biographical movies is that you know that the threats of suicide are mainly bluster and won’t be acted upon, at least not successfully. The events here correspond to the events that Goethe used to base his first great novel on, The Sorrows of Young Werther which combined all of the main characters into a love triangle. It was such a sensation that it spawned copycat suicides among the lovelorn.

The period is well-depicted here, from the brutality of Teutonic justice to the wide disparity between wealth and poverty. The cast here is solid and bring life to long-dead figures of history. Fehling’s Goethe is mischievous, somewhat anti-authoritative and full of piss and vinegar. I will admit this is a bit at odds with the Goethe that I knew, a stolid conservative who very much seemed to reject the tenets of following one’s heart in favor of trusting one’s logic. Still, even Goethe had to be young once.

Stein is a real beauty and it’s easy to see why Goethe would fall so hard for her Lotte. Stein and Fehling make an appealing couple and turn this into one of the most appealing onscreen literary romances since Shakespeare in Love. The similarity in the titles of the movies isn’t necessarily coincidental.

I am to understand that certain liberties have been taken with historical accuracy but that is to be expected – after all, if you want to learn something, there’s always the Discovery Channel – or wonder of wonders, actually reading a book. The Twilight set will appreciate the hopeless nature of the love between Goethe and Charlotte even if they have not a clue who Goethe is or his significance in literature – it is not an unmerited claim to state that without Goethe, it is unlikely Twilight would have come to pass.

The movie has a goodly amount of romance, a bit of intrigue and a quiet sense of fun. There is humor, drama and even a bit of sex. It’s entertaining and while some might grumble about subtitles, there is a certain sense of humor here that is appealing. It’s a wonderful movie well worth seeking out in your local art house or failing that, on home video when it is released in that medium next spring.

REASONS TO GO: Most Americans are unfamiliar with Goethe, his work and his life so it’s a good way to find out more about one of the world’s great literary figures.

REASONS TO STAY: Subtitles are a hassle for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a couple of disturbing images and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful German countryside deserves to be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Behind the Burly Q

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long)


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Defying gravity is all in a day's work in China.

(2000) Martial Arts (Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Yang, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung, Cheng Pei-Pei, Fa Zeng Li, Xian Gao, Yan Hai, De MIng Wang, Li Li, Su Ying Huang, Jin Ting Zhang, Rei Yang, Kai Le, Jian Hua Feng. Directed by Ang Lee

Every so often a movie comes along that changes all the rules. People’s perceptions, not only of a certain genre of movies, but sometimes of themselves, of their culture, of other cultures are given a forced re-examination because of work so thought-provoking, so emotionally stimulating, that it can’t be ignored.

For a very long time, martial arts movies had been ghettoized as “chop sockey,” ridiculed as “B” movies or worse, and dismissed except for loyal cultists who knew better. Those of us who had seen such classics as The Killers, Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story can appreciate the ballet of the fight scenes while often overlooking horrible, dubbed dialogue, bargain basement plots and other low-budget thrills.

Hollywood discovered these movies as well and before long directors (John Woo) and actors (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) crossed over to American mainstream awareness. Their successes, however, pale in comparison with this magnificent film.

Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) uses as his source the fourth novel in a five-novel cycle by Wang Dulu. Set during the 19th-Century Qing Dynasty, we are introduced to a legendary swordsman named Li Mu Bai (Fat, perhaps the best pure actor ever to come from Asia). He has tired of his violent profession and wishes to retire to a more contemplative lifestyle. To facilitate this, he intends to give his sword — the Green Destiny — to someone more worthy. Because he’s not sure who will wind up with it, he asks his good friend Shu Lien (Yeoh) who it should go to. She recommends an honest civil servant named Sir Te (Lung). Lien, a warrior who has made a reputation of her own, delivers the sword, only to see it stolen.

Eventually, suspicion points to the house of the governor, whose precocious daughter Jen (Ziyi) has bonded with Shu. The evidence points to Jade Fox; a ruthless bandit who murdered Li’s master in order to steal the manual of his order’s fighting style. This brings Li back into the fray, not only to recover his sword but to avenge his master’s death.

This may sound like a rather pedestrian action movie, but the weak description above merely scratches the surface of what the movie is really about. It is a love story, driven by two couples (one of whom is not revealed until nearly halfway through the movie). It is also a study of the Chinese culture and renders less inscrutable the face of China.

The twists and turns here are so intricate that to go into them would be confusing and moreover, would ruin several pleasant surprises that dot the film. Suffice to say that while Li and Shu appear to be the leads, they are not. The cinematography is breathtaking, filmed in mainland China. It is easy to see why many consider it the most beautiful country on the planet. The characters move about stunning vistas of forest, mountain, and desert. As a sheer travelogue, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be worth seeing.

 The action sequences are fabulous. The intricacy of the swordplay, the graceful leaps (some find the wire-aided flying about unbelievable — these people should probably stick to The Dukes of Hazzard), the fists moving at warp speed, make for a dazzling display. The thing to remember here is that martial arts, in China, are arts the same way ballet is in the west. They are never more of an art than in this movie.

The characterizations are superb. Each of the characters move through this story with their own motivations. The characters who are the “good guys” have weaknesses of character that make it easy for us to relate to them. Similarly, the “bad guys” have motivations that render them sympathetic. Director Lee has always been uncanny at capturing the female viewpoint; hence it is no surprise that the female characters (Jen, Shu and Jade Fox) are better drawn and more interesting than the male characters – Li, Sir Te, the outlaw Dark Cloud (Chang).

The acting is awesome. Chow Yun Fat can hold his own against anybody, including guys like De Niro, Hanks, Washington and Pacino. His troubled warrior could easily have netted him an Oscar nomination, although it was one of the few awards for which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn’t nominated. Michelle Yeoh, who first appeared on American screens in Tomorrow Never Dies and has been a staple here ever since, is lustrous and holds her own, action-wise, with the men.

There is a scene between her and Chow Yun Fat, near the end of the movie, in which the two are drinking tea in an exquisite mountain setting, where much of the truth about their past relationship is revealed, and the regrets that come through in both actors makes it one of the most magical movie moments ever. Zhang Ziyi is a name that may become familiar to a lot of us; her performance here is one of the most evocative in the film. I hope and pray Western casting directors take note of it.

This was, by far, the best movie of 2000 and in my opinion, one of the top ten best ever. All the positive press you’ve heard about it? It’s an understatement. This is a movie you owe it to yourself to see. Forget the teen drivel, the patently silly romantic weepies, the cliche action flicks and the recycled comedies and dramas and put this at or near the top of your must-see list. You’ll thank me for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put, one of the best movies ever made. Gorgeous scenery, impeccable acting, impressive martial arts action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wire work may put some off.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of martial arts violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: Not only was it the first foreign language film to earn over $100M in box office in the United States, it still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a non-English language film to this day with ten.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an interview with Michelle Yeoh well after the fact in which she discusses her role in the film and how it’s affected her career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.5M on a $17M production budget; the movie was an enormous worldwide blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Way

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2

Jane Eyre (2011)


Jane Eyre

One thing you won't find much of in adaptations of Jane Eyre is smiles.

(2011) Mystery (Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Romy Settbon Moore, Harry Lloyd. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Some stories withstand the test of time, striking a chord with readers over different eras with startling similarity. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is like that; as a mash-up of Gothic castles, bleak windswept moors, barely restrained eroticism and a Victorian-era morality tale that is surprisingly subversive it has spoken to feminine sensibilities in ways we men cannot comprehend fully. Let’s put it this way – it’s no accident that the brooding angst-y vampire of the Twilight series is named Edward.

There have been 28 different screen versions of the tale, dating back to silent movies and including broad stroked television mini-series to a classic version with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine. The question then becomes why make a new version at all.

Director Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre was an acclaimed hit a couple of years ago, wanted to emphasize the Gothic elements of the novel and thus he does, making this less of a Harlequin Romance as some versions have been and much more of a character study. He even chooses to tell the story non-sequentially (the novel was chronologically told), beginning with Jane (Wasikowska) fleeing across the moors only to collapse, exhausted and suffering from exposure, and the door of St. John Rivers (Bell), a kindly pastor with two bubbly sisters (Grainger, Merchant).

From there we see Jane’s story; the cruelty suffered as a child at the hands of her aunt (Hawkins) after her parents pass away, leaving her orphaned. The hardships suffered at a school for girls, particularly at the hands of a sadistic and cruel vicar (McBurney) who runs the establishment. The placing of Jane as a governess of a naïve French child (Moore) at Thornhill, a gloomy mansion on the moors of England, whose household is run by the gossip-mongering Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and presided by its master, Edward Rochester (Fassbender) whose shadow pervades the castle even in his absence. There Jane, described as a plain and simple girl, falls in love with Rochester and he with her, but dark secrets in Rochester’s past threaten to destroy them both.

I haven’t read the novel in probably thirty years, but it stays with me still. Some guys pooh-pooh it as a “girl’s book” but it is much more than that. Many of the elements that inspire and drive girls into womanhood can be found there. While strong female characters such as Jane might dissuade some boys from paying attention to the book, there is a great deal of insight into the female psyche to be found there. Don’t understand women? Read “Jane Eyre.”

The performances here are solid if unspectacular. Wasikowska, who has shown herself to be a capable actress in such movies as Alice in Wonderland (also playing a strong Victorian heroine from literature) and The Kids Are All Right, has the movie resting squarely on her shoulders and she carries it with surprising strength. I thought her a bit too pretty to play plain Jane, but she manages to look the part with the severe hairstyle of the era and plain clothing.

Fassbender, one of the best actors who you’ve never heard of (see his performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds if you don’t believe me), has a difficult role to fill in the enigmatic and brooding Edgar. The part has already had its ultimate portrayal by Welles, but to Fassbender’s credit he doesn’t try to mimic a previous performance and rather goes to accent elements of the character that haven’t been done often (to my knowledge anyway).

The art direction and the cinematography are two of the reasons to see this movie. It is well photographed, particularly the lonely vistas of the storm-swept moors. The interiors are well-appointed in the style of the period and you get a genuine idea of how the people of the time lived. The costumes are spot on, and when the action takes place at night, flickering candlelight appears to be the only illumination.

The movie does move slowly and modern audiences might have difficulty adjusting to the pace. Those who are used to the quick cut no-attention-span theater that is what most teens are used to will really have a lot of problems with losing focus during the movie. However, it is for certain worth checking out, if only for no other reason to acquaint yourself with one of the most brilliant novels of all time and to check out a story that resonates throughout history, influencing so much of literature all the way up to the “Twilight” series.

REASONS TO GO: Lushly photographed and well-acted. It is one of the most iconic novels of all-time and as close as many are ever going to get to reading it.

REASONS TO STAY: As befits a novel of that era, the pacing is majestic, sweeping and slightly overbearing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is the examination of a painting which depicts nudity and there’s also a very teensy bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Charlotte Bronte book was initially published in 1847 under the pen name “Currer Bell.”

HOME OR THEATER: While the bleak vistas of the moors look gorgeous on the big screen, the intimacy of the main story is well-received on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint Ralph