Friday, April 18, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom!!!! CJ7!!??!

Every great golden once in a while, some Hong Kong films wash up on these shores and play non speciality cinema. This week, we have two... sorta.

"The Forbidden Kingdom" really isn't a Hong Kong film, strictly, tat is. It's an American / Hong Kong co-production that features the first ever teaming on Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now, I'm absolutely certain this film will ruffle a few critical feathers, because this films isn't some "Kill Bill" masturbatory Tarantino flick. This is a true, dyed in the wool HK Martial Arts celebration. There is so much respect and reverence (and no irreverence) done here that it's impossible to not be rapturous while viewing. What we have here is a Hollywood film that finally gets the Hong Kong aesthetic right... and it only took 20+ years!

The film concerns a young man, Jason Tripitikas (smartly played by Michael Angarano) who is obsessed with Martial Arts movies. The opening title sequence shows that his character's (and the filmmaker's) heart is worn on his sleeve. Indeed, if the opening credits doesn't elicit a gleeful response, then you're in the wrong theatre. Exits are located in the rear.

Jason often goes to a run down shop in Chinatown to buy his videos. Sure he could go to a regular store, but he seems to go for the atmosphere as much as anything. The owner of the store, Old Hop (played marvellously in old age makeup by Jackie Chan), humors the young boy and lightly rebuffs him on his martial arts obsession. Jason notices something golden in a back room of the shop. It turns out to be a mythical staff that, according to Old Hop, is waiting for it's owner to pick it up.

On his way back home, Jason is accosted by a local street gang and they force him to help rob Old Hop's place after hours. A scuffle ensues, Old Hop is shot in the shoulder and the staff sends Jason back to another time and place.

Not so long story short, Jason finds himself in ancient China where he meets a drunken master, Lu Yan (Also Jackie Chan), Sparrow (Crystal Liu) and a Silent Monk (Jet Li). Turns out the Staff belongs to the Monkey King (also played by Li), who was encased in stone 500 years before by the evil Jade Emperor (Deshun Wang). What follows is an extremely satisfying mixture of Broad humor and some excellent Kung Fu.

Anyone saying the film is derivative is missing the point entirely. There is no such thing as a "new twist" on the genre. This is a film that loves the films that came before fiercely and is trying to gently bring these films back or, at least, let audiences remember how much fun they were.

There has also been some hemming and hawing about the White lead. This is bogus and the invention of liberal ridiculousness. This is a Hollywood movie, guys and girls! Did anyone bitch that John Saxon fought along side Bruce Lee in "Enter The Dragon"? Anyone remember Kurt Russel in "Big Trouble In Little China"? It's not a sin to have a white person in a Kung Fu Film. That barrier was broken in the 1970's fer gawd's sake. Michael Angarano has nothing to be ashamed of here. He more than holds his own comically, dramatically and physically in this film.

Of course, the major attraction is the fight between Jackie and Jet and it's incredible. I'm sure it's no surprise that it's a draw (though Jet has the edge, I believe), but it may be a shock that it occurs so early in the film. Anyone who has anything to say about these two being past their prime is an old fuddy duddy. Don't just write their eulogies yet, people. They're great in this movie.

So, I officially give this film the SHOCKADELIC SEAL OF APPROVAL. Please go and see it. Bring the kids, too. You won't be sorry.

The same can't be said, sadly, for the new -- highly anticipated, long awaited -- Steven Chow movie, "CJ7". The last two films Steven Chow had done ("Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung Fu Hustle") had led me to almost believe Chow was cinematically invincible. The films were universally admired and won new fans wherever they played. I say "almost", though, because I'd been a HK film fan for a couple of decades now. I remember watching Steven Chow way back then. Let's face it, crew, on the whole, his films were greatly hit and miss. Of course, this had to do with local humor and the fact that he was releasing 3 or 4 films a year in his prime.

It's been a couple of years since "Kung Fu Hustle" and it seemed like Chow was taking his time to do things right.

Here's the thing. Even though the film opens in limited release today, I saw it a couple of months ago. The reason it's taken me so long to write a review for it is, frankly, "CJ7" really isn't that good of a movie.

The film concerns Dicky, a destitute little boy who attends a private school. He's sent there by his single parent father who works multiple jobs and rummages through landfills for clothes and food for the boy. One night, feeling bad for not being able to afford an expensive toy for Dicky, he finds a green ball in the landfill. Unbeknownst to him, the toy is actually a high tech alien toy dog left behind when a flying saucer takes off suddenly. The dog has a regenerative touch, but it drains his battery (and he only has the one). Dicky misunderstands the toy's talent and expects the dog to work other types of miracles.

I mean, it's OKAY, but it's nothing special at best and a serious error at worst. First, to be fair, let's discuss the good.

At the top of that list is the actual star of the film, Jiao Xu. She plays Dicky, the son to Steven Chow's character, Ti. As a little girl playing a boy, she's fantastic. Her timing is dead on and she carries the comedy as well as the drama. Steven Chow is also good, but he's basically playing a straight man in a movie with very little laughs. I kept seeing him as some modern day Charlie Chaplin, as this film does have the feel of a depression era drama. The other thing that gains high marks from me is CJ7 itself. CJ7 is a CGI created character that looks like a green gelatin dog with a furry white head. The thing is so damned adorable that when it is mishandled for mostly comic effect, I felt myself cringing instead of laughing.

While the film doesn't have many laughs, there are a few, courtesy of Chow's gang of grotesques; most notably a 6 foot tall grade school girl that is played by a man in drag with a little girl's voice dubbed in. Dickie's fantasy day at school is also a hoot with a great homage to both "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung Fu Hustle" contained within it.

The downside to this movie is the depressing atmosphere the film has. It seems to want to be an "E.T."/"Gremlins" hybrid, but the story never explores those avenues. What the film is essentially about is a rather sad story of a widower father and his precocious son and this wonderful alien being that rolls into their life. The kids in the film are bullies, most of the adults are also bullies and the film just doesn't seem to be that much fun because of it.

Worst of all, the ending seems rushed and that's the saddest part. The film only runs about 80 minutes without credits and there's so much more that could have been done within the film's framework. The film's ending promises a sequel of sorts, but even that seems labored and dull.

So, the film opens today and, while it's pretty much a kid's movie, it's being released in Mandarin with English Subtitles. I'm not getting Sony/Columbia Pictures here. It took them so long to realise that adults want their films to be subtitled, and that's all well and good, but you just can't do that to children. This is one film that should have been dubbed into English.

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