Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty

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The Change-Up


The Change-Up

Jason Bateman knows that no matter how much Ryan Reynolds pleas he's not getting Leslie Mann's teddy bears.

(2011) Comedy Fantasy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Mircea Monroe, Gregory Itzin, Ned Schmidtke, Lo Ming, Sydney Rouviere, Andrea Moore, Craig Bierko, Taafe O’Connell, Ed Ackerman. Directed by David Dobkin

It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side and as with most clichés, there is a good deal of truth to it. It is human nature to want that which we don’t have. However, most times when we finally get to the other side we come to the understanding that the greener hue was just a trick of the light.

Dave (Bateman) is a family man with three children, two of them infants. He’s married to Jamie (Mann) who is beautiful and loving. He’s also a hard-working corporate lawyer who’s about to shepherd a merger that will virtually guarantee him the partnership he’s been working towards for a decade. However, Dave is working so hard juggling family and firm that his family focus has begun to suffer and Jamie is beginning to question how present he is in the relationship as husband and father (he has the breadwinner thing down cold).

Mitch (Reynolds) is Dave’s best friend, a ladies’ man and perpetually unemployed actor who spends most of his day getting stoned, playing video games and having every kind of sex with a wide variety of beautiful women. The two hang out at a local bar one night, watching a baseball game and talking about their lives. As the shots flow and the evening wears on, each professes admiration for the lifestyle of the other. As they stumble from the bar well past last call, nature calls and the two find a fountain in a public park nearby. As they urinate into the fountain, they both manage to say simultaneously “I wish I had your life.” The lights go out dramatically and the two go home to sleep it off.

Except when they wake up they are in each others’ bodies. Mitch suddenly has to cope with changing babies, attending meetings, seeing things through and the kind of intimacy in a relationship that goes beyond sex. Dave has to cope with kinky sex, loneliness and learning how to relax. However without meaning to, each one is screwing up the other’s lives. They must become the men that the other one is in order to get back to their own lives.

This may be a first for body switch movies – transference via urination. Certainly I for one am going to be much more selective into which troughs I pee into and with whom from here on out. However, pee isn’t the only bodily fluid you’ll be encountering here; in the first five minutes Dave gets a face full (and mouthful) of baby poop. That kind of sets the tone.

At least it does for the first half of the movie. From going Judd Apatow-raunchy in the first half, the second half is all Frank Capra-sentimental as the men learn the value of appreciating what they have. That almost sounds like a studio shying away from a complete raunchfest which is kind of bizarre because in addition to the scatological you’ll find sex with an EXTREMELY pregnant woman as well as with a decidedly mature woman, not to mention masturbation and extra scrotums. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of carnal delight.

Bateman is scaling comedy heights that will soon have him rubbing elbows with Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Here he shows off that he can be much more versatile in his range, playing both the irresponsible horndog as well as the conservative family man. Reynolds seems to be more involved doing action movies lately but it’s easy to forget he’s done some pretty solid comedic roles as well (Definitely Maybe, Waiting…) and is quite good at them. Bateman and Reynolds have some good chemistry together and in fact the whole ensemble fit together nicely as a whole.

Mann has some genuinely affecting moments as Dave’s long-suffering wife who isn’t quite sure if she and her children have the place in Dave’s heart that they used to. The always reliable Alan Arkin has a few scenes as Mitch’s estranged dad and Olivia Wilde looks gorgeous as a law clerk with a thing for Dave…err, Mitch…err, Dave. It’s hard to get straight.

Body switching movies are as old as the hills and have been done in as many different ways as you can think of. This one purported to be a raunchy sexy version of the genre but only really sticks to it for the first half of the movie before being roped into the schmaltz that Hollywood seems to demand of its comedies. Not every great comedy has to come with a heart-warming ending, after all.

I wish The Change-Up had the courage of its convictions and had stuck to the raunchiness throughout. That seemed to be where the movie was in its comfort zone. I had hoped with the leads that the movie had it could have ended up a lot better of a movie. It’s still not that bad but it is a bit disappointing given my expectations for it.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds and Bateman are extremely appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie veers wildly from crude to cuddly. Humor is hit or miss, usually the latter. Been there done that factor is high.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit more nudity here than is usual for most Hollywood films of the 21st century; also there’s a good deal of salty language, drug use and innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bar scenes were filmed at an Atlanta watering hole called Joe’s on Juniper.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one you can save for your Netflix queue.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Another Earth

Miracle at St. Anna


Miracle at St. Anna

If you mess with these guys, they'll sic the kid on ya!

(Touchstone) Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino, Valentina Cervi, Matteo Sciabordi, Walton Goggins. Directed by Spike Lee

It all begins with a post office and an old man trying to buy some stamps. This leads to a senseless murder, a nearly-retired postal worker pulling a gun on the old man and shooting him dead in cold blood. Further investigation turns up something startling; hidden in the apartment of the postal worker is the head of an ancient Italian statue, worth a ridiculous amount of money. What was it doing in the home of a postal worker and why did he kill that old man apparently at random?

See, it all really begins with World War II, and the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers during the invasion of Italy. Four servicemen – straight-arrow SSgt. Stamps (Luke), huge child-like PFC Train (Miller), steady Cpl. Negron (Alonso) and skirt-chasing asshole Sgt. Cummings (Ealy) – survive the brutal crossfire of a Nazi ambush coupled with the artillery barrage from their own commanders who didn’t believe black soldiers could have advanced that far that quickly. They flee across a river to relative safety where Train befriends an injured Italian orphan boy (Sciabordi) who refers to the lumbering Train as his “chocolate giant.”  

Train carries around the head of a statue he picked up in Florence, which he believes makes him invisible or invulnerable when he rubs it (Run, Forrest, RUN) which fascinates the boy. The four soldiers and the boy make their way to a small Italian village which has suffered cruelly under the yoke of the Nazis and the Fascists. They welcome the soldiers in, and nurse the injured boy back to health.

The soldiers feel at ease here, as Stamps comments “I feel freer here than I do at home.” The bond between the soldiers is tested when both Stamps and Miller chase after the same white Italian woman, while an Italian partisan shows up trying to find out why a small Italian town nearby was massacred by the Nazis. The interlude allows the men to talk about why they’re fighting. However, it becomes clear that it isn’t a matter of if the Germans are going to come back to town but when, and getting the four soldiers back to their unit is going to take a miracle.

I’m deliberately withholding a good deal of plot points here, mainly so that they don’t get spoiled, although to be honest it makes the plot sound like a bit of a mess. It all winds up making sense, even though it takes nearly two and a half hours to get there. Lee hasn’t directed a war movie before, but he does a credible job. Some of the battle scenes are brutal indeed, with limbs flying everywhere and blood spattering everywhere else. It might even be argued that the battle scenes are too brutal, although I found them to be no less visceral than Saving Private Ryan, I can see where sensitive sorts might feel a little queasy.

The problem here is that the movie tells a story that is about an hour and a half long in two and a half hours. The bookending sequence of the post office murder and its aftermath seems a bit unnecessary and there are places where the plot gets bogged down. I think it might have been a mistake to let novelist James McBride adapt his own novel; it is difficult for writers to edit their own work and the script could have benefitted from someone less emotionally invested in it cutting some of the fat.

The battle sequences, while gory, are really well done, particularly the final Nazi assault on the town. There is a bit of a mystical background that I won’t get into that plays a role nicely here; the movie could have easily ended at this point, although it goes on for some time after that.

This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, with none of the actors really standing out, but here that’s actually a compliment. Luke, Ealy, Miller and Alonso work off of each other to make a good movie rather than a star turn; it shows professionalism and sacrifice on the part of each man and they should be applauded for that if nothing else. However, you can also applaud them for bringing some humanity to their roles which could have easily descended into one-note caricatures.

I have always blown hot and cold about Spike Lee. When he is at his best, as in Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It, he is one of the best directors of this generation. When he’s at his worst, as in She Hate Me and School Daze, his work can be mind-numbing. Miracle at St. Anna falls somewhere in between; while it raises the conversational bar about racism in the military and the motivations of African-American fighting for freedoms that they didn’t enjoy at home, it fills so much space with soap opera and extraneous material that the film’s message gets lost in the noise. Still, when you have a director as technically proficient as Lee is, even the noise is entertaining.  

WHY RENT THIS: A sometimes brutal look at World War II from a different angle than the more mainstream films we’ve seen lately like Saving Private Ryan and A Flag for Our Fathers.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie runs overly long and some of the combat sequences seem to be carnage for their own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: As this is a war movie, there is some battle carnage, also a good deal of salty language. There’s also some nudity and sexual situations; rent this for viewing after the kids are in bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wesley Snipes was originally cast in the film, but had to drop out due to his tax evasion trial.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Exclusively on the Blu-Ray edition there is a roundtable discussion between Lee, McBride and veterans of the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen regarding racial prejudice in the armed forces, and a featurette on the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Yes Man