The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers

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Phoenix (2014)


Just one look was all it took.

Just one look was all it took.

(2014) Drama (Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Römer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Sofia Exss. Directed by Christian Patzold

Some people will do anything to survive, even throw the people they love under the bus. Some people will do anything for those they love, even refuse to believe they’d throw us under the bus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nelly Lenz (Hoss) before the war was an acclaimed singer in Berlin. However, she is part-Jewish, enough so that she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Before the camp is liberated, she is shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead. Fortunately she survives but she needs reconstructive surgery on her face. Even though her surgeon tells her that making her look like she did before would be difficult, she opts to be herself rather than look like someone different.

Part of the reason for this is that she wants to be with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) again. However her good friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf) tells her that her husband, who was arrested two days before Nelly was, was released hours before her own arrest and likely betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly refuses to believe this though and goes looking for her musician husband through the rubble of Berlin – and eventually finds him in a seedy nightclub named Phoenix.

However, astonishingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. However, her resemblance to his wife is enough that he hatches a scheme. You see, Nelly had a sizable fortune when she was arrested, but there’s no proof of her death so Johnny can’t collect it. If he can mold this woman to be just like Nelly, she can sign for that inheritance and split it with Johnny. She agrees to the scheme, only to get close to her husband.

She’s walking a very fine line, knowing that if he discovers her true identity there could be trouble. However, she keeps doing as he says while looking into the allegations Lene brought up. The day comes when she is to reveal herself as Nelly – what will she do and how will Johnny react?

This is a brilliant bit of filmmaking by Patzold, who is becoming one of the best directors in Europe. He sets a mood of tension and keeps it going throughout the movie, not so much that you feel that if it isn’t broken you’ll just explode but enough so that you feel a lovely discomfort throughout. He also has crafted a wonderful allegory of guilt and rebirth that is just as relevant now as it was during the period this is set.

His regular collaborator Nina Hoss is absolutely sensational here. A lot of critics have complained that it was slightly implausible that a husband wouldn’t recognize his wife, but clearly Nelly was deeply changed by her experiences. She is hunched over, wrapping herself in her arms as if the terror of her experience hadn’t faded even though her ordeal was over. Her performance is densely layered and is at the heart of the movie; it’s not that Zehrfeld (another frequent Patzold cast member) doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that Hoss is amazing.

The rest of the cast, like Zehrfeld, is solid, but it’s Hoss’ show. They are all a little zombified by the effects of the war; dead expressions that come from being a defeated nation, something that perhaps Americans might not understand directly. The expressions of the American soldiers are much different; we can see a clear difference between the victors and the defeated. Like just about everything else, this is subtly set so that you have to work a little bit to get the actual meaning of what Patzold is presenting to you visually. This is what makes him such a marvelous director.

The setting of a mostly destroyed Berlin is perfect; the rubble is ripe for a resurrection, and Nelly, as ruined in her own way as Berlin is, makes an excellent allegory. War destroyed a beautiful woman and a beautiful city; they both had the option of becoming anything they wanted but had to excise the demons of their past first. Berlin’s transformation would take much longer, but Nelly’s transformation was in many ways more profound.

This is a movie that succeeds on a lot of different levels, from the easily seen to the more subtle. Certainly it gives the audience a whole lot to think about. The ending, incidentally, is just about perfect, from the way it is executed, the camera angles and the expression on the faces of the actors. It wasn’t the way I expected it to end for sure, but it was the right way for it to end. The great ending is very rare these days so when one comes along, it is much appreciated.

Phoenix is a revelation, notice that here is a director who is to be reckoned with. This will likely be showing up on Netflix and other streaming services shortly – it’s American release was back in July although here in Central Florida the Enzian is reportedly considering booking it for early December – and it’s very much worth checking out once it does. Few movies will leave you as breathless as this one does especially after you consider the ending you just saw as it fades to black and are left jaw dropped and mind blown.

REASONS TO GO: High tension. Hoss’ performance is outstanding. Ending is incredibly good.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoss has appeared in five of Patzold’s seven films thus far.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (Check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flame and Citron
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Burnt

Certified Copy (Copie conforme)


Happiness is a good public cuddle.

Happiness is a good public cuddle.

(2010) Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carriere, Agathe Nathanson, Gianna Giachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo, Andrea Laurenzi, Filippo Trojano, Manuela Balsinelli. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Some movies defy easy categorization, let alone summation. They require careful viewing in a distraction-free environment, and time enough afterwards to ponder what the viewer has seen, preferably with a nice glass of wine or a good cup of coffee.

Certified Copy is one of those films. British author James Miller (Shimell) is in Italy to discuss the Italian translation of his book which opines that while originality is preferably, there is nothing wrong with a good copy if the original is exceptional. He is talking about art of course, although his opinions also run into other aspects of life.

French ex-pat antique store owner Elle (Binoche) – whose name is never given and is referred to in the credits by the French word for “she” – is intrigued by the lecture and offers to show James around Tuscany while he waits for a 9pm train. He agrees, but first she must take her 11-year-old son (Moore) home as he is hungry and has become a distraction. She drops off her son and drives aimlessly, waiting for MIller to finish autographing copies of his book. Then they drive to the small village of Arezzo. They discuss the book in detail along the drive, then go into a museum to see a famous “copy.”

At a nearby cafe as they are having lunch the proprietress (Giachetti) mistakes them for husband and wife. While MIller is taking a cell phone call outside, she and the antique store owner talk about marriage and the antique store owner doesn’t correct the cafe owner as to the relationship with James, whom she just met. Then, things take an odd turn.

As they leave the cafe, James – who plays along with the perception that he and she are husband and wife – begins to speak to her as if they have been married for 15 years and her son is theirs. The conversation between the two becomes increasingly familiar, and the state of their relationship becomes murky. Are they truly strangers who are playing a role, or are they actually husband and wife who were pretending to be strangers? Which is real?

The truth is never clarified by Kiarostami who in the tradition of good writers allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Kiarostami, an Iranian director making his first feature film fully outside of Iran (he had shot parts of previous films outside of that country and had directed a documentary outside of Iran) is noted for his conversational pictures, with long dialogue taking place in moving cars. I’ve found his work to be an acquired taste, but when I’m in the right frame of mind the rewards are exceptional.

Shimell is a find. An opera singer (a baritone) making his first cinematic non-operatic performance, he projects a good amount of warmth. His British author is a bit prickly particularly about his scholarly work but he gives the aura of a warm giving man. Binoche is one of my favorite French actresses who displays all of the virtues that make French women irresistible; passion, opinionated and independent, which makes her unnamed character absolutely mesmerizing. The two make a splendid couple.

This is definitely not for all audiences. There is a good deal of subtlety going on and some may be confused at the change to amenable strangers to intimate lovers. Let’s just say that the subject of James’ book is a clue to what’s going on and leave it at that.

The pacing is European-slow, which also some American viewers may find frustrating. However, if you let the emotional realism wash over you and just go with the story, you will find this as rewarding as I did. Because I know not all my readers will appreciate the movie, I’m giving it a slightly lower rating than I feel it deserves – certainly this is a movie that inspires thought and debate, and not everyone is into that. However those of us that are will appreciate a movie that makes us look at a relationship from different angles – and takes for granted that the relationship isn’t what it appears to be at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily realistic, particularly from an emotional setting. Binoche and Shimell make a believable couple.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of awkward pauses. Slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Binoche won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for her performance here.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Criterion edition includes Kiarostami’s cinematic debut, the negative to which was destroyed during the Iranian revolution and the transfer of which came from the one battered print known in existence, as well as a detailed making-of feature that includes discussion of the real incident that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on a $4.1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Infamous

The Decoy Bride


The runaway decoy bride.

The runaway decoy bride.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Kelly Macdonald, Alice Eve, David Tennant, Hamish Clark, James Fleet, Dylan Moran, Sally Phillips, Michael Urie, Federico Castelluccio, Danny Bage, Hannah Bourne, Maurice Beattie, Muriel Barker, Jeannie Fisher, Sally Howitt, Rony Bridges, Matthew Chalmers, Victoria Grove, Alisha Bailey. Directed by Sheree Folkson

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-2

Our celebrity-obsessed society sometimes forces people into unusual situations. People who crave fame go out of their way to get it while those who seek privacy often have to go to extreme efforts to achieve it.

Hollywood megastar Laura Tyler (Eve) just wants to get married but like most divas she has the perfect wedding in mind. A wedding that doesn’t involve the paparazzi and helicopters buzzing overhead. Her husband-to-be, noted author James Neil Arber (Tennant) had recently written a novel set in the lovely Scottish island of Hegg and Laura thinks it might be lovely to get married there.

The press gets wind of it though and Laura is at her wits end. Ready to walk, the star is mollified by her press team who come up with the brilliant idea of getting a local girl to dress and look like Laura so that the press can chase her, leaving Laura and her groom to tie the knot in peace.

The girl chosen, Katie Nic Aoidh (Macdonald) is getting over a broken heart of her own, but could sure use the money the publicists are paying for the gig. In order to fool the press, Katie will have to spend a lot of time with the groom and she and James get along pretty much like the Israeli Secret Service and Hezbollah. Of course, you know what’s going to happen to them.

This is one of those movies that you can point to later in the careers of the two leads and say “I was a fan of them back when.” Tennant and Macdonald are both up and coming stars, Tennant already with Doctor Who under his belt and Macdonald voicing Merida in Brave and impressing on Boardwalk Empire.

Mostly the press has been complaining about the lack of chemistry between the two of them but I disagree. What their onscreen relationship suffers from more to the point is lack of characterization. Neither one of their characters has been given a good deal of depth to work with and some of that is due to the writing, but both actors – who have been marvelous when given something to work with – fail to imbue their characters with any soul. The problem becomes that the audience isn’t as invested in seeing the couple work out. Now, I’m not saying that the two are awkward together – there is SOME spark here – but just not as much as I would have liked.

As romantic comedies go, the movie tends to rely more on charm than on out and out jokes although there are a few bridal gown pratfalls and some lowbrow humor here and again. A few more jokes would have been welcome here.

I like that there aren’t any sharp edges to the movie; while it ostensibly is lampooning Hollywood’s celebrity entitlement culture and our own obsession with it, the satire is gentle and likable. It doesn’t slap you in the face so much as tickle you on the underside of your arm. This is a good thing when you’re going for a romantic mood with your sweetie.

Sometimes you want to cuddle up with something that’s easy to watch but at the same time isn’t something you’ve seen a hundred times and I’m certain this will fit the bill for that mindset. It will feel familiar – a lot of the jokes and situations are regurgitated from other films and television sources – but at the same time you’ll also get an attractive couple and, along with the absolutely jaw-dropping beauty Eve you get to see them at the beginning of their careers. Nothing is certain, especially in the notoriously fickle film industry but these three young stars have a bright future ahead of them.

WHY RENT THIS: Gentle and easy to digest. McDonald, Eve and Tennant are all solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As a comedy, could use a bit more humor.

FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly rude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers received a 300,000 pound grant from Scottish Screen (the national board for film and television in Scotland), the largest amount possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not much but there are some cast interviews and a fairly interesting special effects featurette.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $859 domestic on a $4.1M production budget; please note that its European box office isn’t included.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaway Bride

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)


There's nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

There’s nothing quite like a civilized after-dinner cocktail.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Ashley Johnson, Emma Bates, Tom Lenk, Nick Kocher, Brian McElhaney, Joshua Zar, Paul Meston, Romy Rosemont, Elsa Guillet-Chapuis, Sara Blindauer. Directed by Joss Whedon  

When William Shakespeare wrote “the play’s the thing,” movies hadn’t been invented yet. I wonder if he had been born in modern times if he’d have written something different. Certainly the way that comedies and dramas are written have changed in the intervening years, not to mention how they’re performed – and received.

But some things haven’t changed – human nature, for one. We are as prone to meddling in each other’s lives as we always have been. We can still laugh at buffoonery. And love can still be found in the unlikeliest of places – and the unlikeliest of couples.

The Southern California home of Don Leonato (Gregg) is all abuzz. Don Pedro (Diamond) is coming to visit for a few weeks, his retinue including the young Claudio (Kranz), the somewhat malevolent Don John (Maher) and the soldier Benedick (Denisof). Leonato’s daughter Hero (Morgese) has goo-goo eyes for Claudio but her cousin Beatrice (Acker) has nothing nice to say about men in general but Benedick in particular. Beatrice and Benedick have a past but there is nothing but constant sniping at one another between them now.

Pedro, seeing the state of things, vows to help create a match between Claudio and Hero, who stands to inherit Leonato’s substantial fortune. On a lark, Claudio, Pedro and Hero decide to get Benedick and Beatrice together just because they think they can – only Don John has plans to sabotage everything.

Much Ado About Nothing has been described as Shakespeare’s love letter to love and it does seem to indicate that much of what is wrong with the world can be cured through the love of a good woman (or a good man). I can’t say I disagree; love is what makes this world bearable, with all the pettiness and dishonesty we all deal with on a daily basis. As human beings we are all flawed but it is in love that we find our noblest aspirations and features.

Whedon filmed this during a break in his Avengers duties and it seems to have re-energized him. He’s also been a long-time admirer of Shakespeare and conducts regular readings of his plays at his home, so the thought of a director as connected to sci-fi and comic book movies as Whedon is isn’t as radical an idea as it might seem.

Loving Shakespeare and capturing his essence are two entirely different things however. I’m definitely down with changing the setting from 16th century Messina to modern Santa Monica, and I’m even more down with filming the proceedings in glorious noir-ish black and white. I’m also for keeping the Bard’s original dialogue because you simply aren’t going to improve on that.

However, Shakespeare’s language has a certain rhythm that is very different than our own, and while I don’t think one has to be a stentorian Englishman in order to deliver it properly, you certainly have to be able to make it sound organic and authentic. Sadly, not all the actors were successful in that regard.

Fillion, as Constable Dogberry, is perhaps the most successful. Dogberry is comic relief through and through and Fillion gets the nature of the character as a bit pompous and a bit foolish but also a bit thin-skinned. He gets the subtlety of the character and so makes him the fool without making him a caricature. Acker, as Beatrice, also gets the nature of her character as well as the rhythms of the speech; while when certain actors say “How now?” with a bit of a smirk, she instead treats it as language she uses every day and that really is the secret – every word sounds natural coming out of her mouth.

 

I like the atmosphere of upscale SoCal hipster that Whedon creates here. It serves the play well, and while nearly all the action takes place in a single location, it never feels stage-y at all.  Whedon adds a lot of physical business that enhances the comedy nicely (as when Claudio intones “I would marry her were she an Ethiope” in front of an African-American woman whose expression is just priceless). Although Da Queen would have preferred a color presentation rather than black and white, I liked how it gave the movie a kind of timeless look.

Friends of mine who had trouble following some of the dialogue because it is in Elizabethan English still managed to love the movie in spite of it. Don’t let that keep you away though – I think you should be able to follow the movie just fine even if a few phrases and words might throw you every now and again – you’ll figure it out.

For those who aren’t into Shakespeare and wonder what all the fuss is about, this is a nice starting point. For those who love Shakespeare and wonder what sort of liberties have been taken, fear not – this is still the Bard, despite the modern setting which simply reminds us how timeless his wisdom and prose are. Any movie that can do both of those things for two different kinds of audiences is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Very funny in places. Some very good performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors really didn’t get the nuances or the rhythm of the language of Shakespeare.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief drug use as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was mostly filmed at Wheden’s own home over a 12 day period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100; the critics liked this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taming of the Shrew

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Family Tree

Puss in Boots


Puss in Boots

Some cats are just cooler than others.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie, Guillermo del Toro, Ryan Crego, Tom Wheeler, Conrad Vernon, Nina Barry. Directed by Chris Miller

Some characters are larger than life. Others are life-sized. Some are one size fits all. However, there are those characters, rare as they might be, that leave such an indelible impression that it doesn’t matter what size the canvas is, they seem to dominate it large or small.

Puss in Boots (Banderas) is a kitty raised in an orphanage in the tiny town of San Ricardo under the loving guidance of Imelda (Marie). He befriends Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Galifianakis), an egg who endures constant humiliation at the hands of his fellow orphans. Humpty longs to go on adventures, particularly finding the magic beans that will grow a beanstalk that will take them to a castle where the goose that lays the golden eggs resides. Such a goose would make him wealthy beyond imagining.

Humpty proves to have few scruples and ends up robbing a bank which the felicitous feline is framed for. Puss goes on the run, becoming an accomplished cat burglar, the finest in all of Spain. When he hears about the magic beans turning up in the hands of a couple of unsavory sorts named Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris), he runs into another party who is interested in the same merchandise – Kitty Softpaws (Hayek), a competitor of like skills.

It turns out Kitty has been meant to bring Puss aboard a more elaborate attempt to capture the beans, one masterminded by Humpty. Puss trusts the egg about as far as he can fry him but Humpty proves persuasive and the quest begins. Can Puss redeem himself and give up the outlaw life?

This is meant to be a prequel to the events of the Shrek movies and to the credit of the writers and filmmakers they take it far away from the landscape dominated by the jolly green ogre and place the action in what is identified as Spain but looks more like the California of the Zorro series (there are many allusions to Zorro, a nice touch as Banderas famously played the part in two hit movies). That reminds me a little bit of Rango, but there is definitely more of an Old California feel to it.

The Puss character that Banderas has brought to life is a compelling one. He is in many ways a stereotypical Latin hero – brave, loyal, honorable and irresistible to the ladies. He’s no different than Zorro in that regard.  However, he has the feline cockiness that is absent in the masked hero, plus a hint of a sophisticated cat thief a la David Niven in Pink Panther.

He has an able adversary in Hayek, who has worked with Banderas extensively in the El Mariachi series from Robert Rodriguez, among other films. She gives Kitty a certain sauciness (sorry, couldn’t resist) and a bit of a sexual tension (as sexual as tension can get in a family animated film anyway). They make a fine duo.

Humpty is not a terrific character, although Galifianakis gives it a good go. Unfortunately, he’s too much like the Syndrome character from The Incredibles as voiced by Jason Lee for my comfort. He’s just…a rotten egg (I’m having trouble resisting today).

This is a good looking movie that has some of the sass of the Shrek series but not enough of it, although it distances itself wisely in other ways. Puss could certainly carry a franchise all by his lonesome and I don’t doubt given the opening weekend success that a sequel that might bridge the gap between this movie and Puss’ first appearance in Shrek 2 might not be unwelcome.

I liked the movie and it has a good shot at a Best Animated Feature Oscar next February, with this being an off-year for animated features in terms of quality. However, this seriously doesn’t measure up with the best of the Shrek series let alone any of the Pixar gems; it’s kind of upper middle of the pack in that regard. Hopefully the next one will be better; until then, good enough will have to suffice.

REASONS TO GO: Puss is a compelling character and taking him completely out of the Shrek landscape was a smart move.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is nothing much to write home about. Nothing really got a huge laugh.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few jokes that are on the rude side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally meant to be a direct-to-DVD release but DreamWorks decided because of home video market conditions to make it as a theatrical release instead. It is the first film in the Shrek franchise not to be set in Far Far Away, Duloc or Shrek’s swamp.

HOME OR THEATER: If you have kids you’re going to see it in a theater sooner or later. Might as well make it sooner.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil

The Promise (Wu ji)


The Promise

Just one of many stunning visuals from The Promise.

(2005) Martial Arts Fantasy (Warner Independent) Hiroyuki Sanada, Dong-Kun Jang, Cecilia Cheung, Nicholas Tse, Ye Liu, Hong Chen, Cheng Qian, Anthony Wong. Directed by Chen Kaige

Over the past ten years or so America has discovered the films of Asia. Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon major Hollywood studios have been looking for the next Asian film to connect with Western audiences. In particular, the Weinstein Brothers of Miramax films and more recently of Weinstein films have snapped up a number of pictures in the Crouching Tiger vein and left them languishing on the shelf, leaving fans of Asian films (like myself) twisting in the wind.

Long listed on Weinstein release schedules as Master of the Crimson Armor, the Weinsteins and filmmaker Chen Kaige (who is best known for Farewell My Concubine) couldn’t agree on a release strategy so eventually the rights were let go and picked up by Warner Brothers, who in turn shuffled them off to their independent arm Warner Independent. Finally the now re-titled The Promise (which was its title in other English-speaking territories) would see the light of day here in America. Unfortunately, it didn’t get such a wide release that a ton of people were able to see it, and quite frankly it didn’t do thrilling box office numbers.

In all fairness, it’s somewhat of a confusing story and Western audiences may not appreciate Eastern fantasy. Set in the Kingdom where Gods, mortals and not-quite-mortals dwell side-by-side, a young girl makes a promise to a goddess to forego true love in exchange for wealth, comfort, beauty and power. Somewhat later, the young girl has become a princess (Cheung) in the Kingdom where the King’s best General (Sanada) fights against a ruthless warlord (Tse). Aiding the general is a slave (Jang) with remarkable powers.

The general receives word that the King (Qian) has been surrounded by the forces of the Warlord and sets out to save the King, but is attacked by a mysterious man in black (Liu) and wounded. He sends his slave to rescue the King, dressing him in the general’s magical Crimson Armor to hide the slave’s identity. The slave, not knowing who the King is, kills the King when the King tries to murder the Princess (don’t ask). The slave rescues the princess and the two fall in love, except that the Princess thinks he’s the general. Unfortunately, the Princess is recaptured and to spare her life, the slave agrees to jump over a cliff, which he does. This being a Chinese fantasy, he survives long enough to aid the General in rescuing the Princess. However, she thinks she’s in love with the General, who discovers her feelings early on and because he has fallen for the girl himself, doesn’t correct her error. However, according to her promise to the goddess, she is doomed to lose her love. What’s a fantasy princess to do?

The plot is all over the place and the less said about it the better. Don’t try to follow it or else your brain will swell up to the size of a dishwasher and float out of your head until it reaches some bizarre Chinese heaven at which point it will….see, it’s happening to me too. There are numerous CG effects in the movie and quite frankly, some of them simply don’t work. Both the writing and the special effects really make it difficult to love the movie.

What saves it is the cinematography of Peter Pau, who is for my money the best at what he does in Asia. Almost every shot is visual poetry, filled with color, form and elegance to the point that you nearly weep. After awhile, I found myself just tuning out the dialogue and plot points and just watching the visual imagery, like a visit to an art gallery.

The DVD contains both English and Mandarin versions of the movie. I do recommend the Mandarin version for two reasons. Firstly, the acting isn’t nearly as overwrought and quite simply it is much easier to then ignore the plot and subtitles to concentrate on the visuals. I can see now why the Weinsteins hesitated to give this the kind of general release that Kaige wanted. Quite frankly, it isn’t up to snuff in terms of Western storytelling expectations. Still, it is lovely to look at and worth seeing just for the visual aspect alone, but just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning cinematography by Peter Pau. Impressive martial arts seqneuces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders all over the place and quite frankly defies belief. The acting is nothing to write home about.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some stylized violence and fantasy martial arts sequences, as well as a few moments of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: At the time of its release, this was the most expensive film ever made in China.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.9M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Green Lantern