Sunday, January 25, 2009

Flick of the Week: "When it comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be a consummate idiots."

This week's flick of the week, which also doubles as "Oscar is Always Right (except when it's wrong) Part IV", takes us from Tomorrow Never Dies with Michelle Yeoh to the amazing martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The year 2000, it might surprise you to find, was a pretty good year for movies. The Oscars voters that year had to choose from Gladiator, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Traffic, Chocolat and Erin Brockovich. Other big movies that year were Cast Away, The Contender, and The Perfect Storm.

It was a good year, especially when you compare it to this year's lot.

And I have to say I think the Academy made a great choice by picking Gladiator as Best Picture. It is an absolutely wonderful example of Hollywood doing well what Hollywood does well - it is a big epic blockbuster of a movie that was full of great acting, brilliant set pieces and a stack of geez-they-must-have-spent-a-tonne-of-money-making-this moments.

I loved it when I saw it, still love watching it on DVD, and I have no qualms about Russell Crowe winning Best Actor. Yes it's not his best work, but it was a great example of an actor carrying a film. He made it; no Crowe, no film. I don't think any other actor in Hollywood could have played the role - a guy who looks strong enough that he could be a gladiator, but also smart enough to be a general. He needed to be strong, but not buffed in a Brad Pitt/Eric Bana in a Troy kind of way.

Plus he needed to be able to win over the audience to the point they would have gone into battle with him - indeed, for him.

Crowe did this, and deserved his Oscar (should have been his second in a row...)

In any other year I would have been happy for the film to win the Best Picture and be viewed as the pinnacle of Hollywood. But in 2000 the greatest moment for me in a cinema occurred while spending two hours watching Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow play out one of the great unrequited love stories in film history against a backdrop of the greatest action scenes you could wish in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Apparently, director Ang Lee wanted to make the ultimate martial arts movie. I probably haven't seen enough of them to judge whether he succeeded, but it certainly is the one by which all others will now be judged - and it also led to a number of excellent films from China/Taiwan such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

The story involves a great warrior - Li MU Bai, played by Yun-Fat Chow, who has decided to give up fighting. He asks his close friend (with whom he is obviously in love) Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to give his sword (the Green Destiny) to their benefactor in Beijing. After doing so the sword is stolen by the young Jen Yu (played brilliantly by Ziyi Zhang in only her third role) who is the daughter of a high official, but who has secretly been trained in the ways of fighting by the female outlaw Jade Fox, whom Shu Lien has sworn to kill because she murdered his master.

Add to this the elements of love - Jen Yu is engaged to be married, but her true love is the outlaw Lo; and Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien are also achingly in love with each other, and yet... and yet.. and yet!!!! they seem unable to tell each other.

When I saw this film in the cinema I really knew nothing about it except that it was supposed to be amazing. It started well enough; I was enjoying the story, was quickly drawn to Michelle Yeoh's character. And then the Green Destiny is stolen, Shu Lien catches the thief and they begin to fight... and they begin to fly. Watching them fight by running up walls, floating across rooftops, and generally defying gravity while also clashing swords left my my mouth open in wonder. I recall turing to my wife and saying "this is brilliant". It's not often you know half way through a film that you want to watch it again, but that was the case wit this one.

The year earlier The Matrix had messed around with "bullet time", and the effects were great - but they were obvious special effects with lots of CGI. In this movie, when the characters fly through the air, or run across water, or stand on the flimsiest branches, the effect is dazzling and yet completely real.

No matter how good are computer graphics, you generally know when something is faked because the characters are doing things that cannot be done (or cannot be filmed - such as the massive CGI shots of Rome in Gladiator), and so instead of thinking it's real, your brain knows it is all a computer (part of the reason why the Star Wars prequels lack emotion - there's too much CGI, and your brain doesn't believe it regardless of how good it looks - and thus you don't care as much).

In this film everything seems real - even that which is magical, perhaps because it is so magical.

And while the fight scenes are jaw droopingly amazing, it is the two love stories in the film that keep you coming back. The final scene between Mu Bai and Shu Lien is up there with greatest of tragic moments in film. Their love is as good as any tyou will see on screen - Zhivago and Lara, Rick and Ilsa, Maria and Tony in West Side Story, or Laura Jesson and Dr Harvey in Brief Encounter - and like all good romances in films, the two are destined not to end together (that is the difference between romance dramas and romantic comedies - romcoms are all about requited love - if When Harry Met Sally... was a drama, Harry would run to tell Sally on New Years Eve that he loves her only to be hit by a car on the way, and then for her to go to the hospital to tell him she has consumption and will be dead in two weeks).

The film also has an intelligent undercurrent theme on the position of women in society. Shu Lien is a great warrior herself and is the love of Mu Bai's life, but even she has been denied learning the full secrets of the Wudan way of fighting. Jen Yu wants to free herself from her arranged marriage. She is taught by Jade Fox who killed Mu Bai's master because he would not teach her the Wudan secrets - and so she stole them, and seeks vengeance on the world of men.

It makes for an incredibly layered film, and would have been my choice to be the first non-English language film to win Best Picture (though now I think of it, there may be some other films that I will pick as Best Picture in earlier years - perhaps Wings of Desire, Z or Rashamon).

My only advice is do not for the love of God watch this film in the English dubbed version. Acting is all about use of voice, watch this with the real voices and read the subtitles.

Best Actress: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
Nominees: Juliete Binoche (Chocolat), Joan Allen (The Contender), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), Laura Linley (You Can Count on Me)

Should have won: Anyone else!

Geez. Can you believe all it took was for Julia Roberts to win an Oscar was to wear a push-up bra and slutty clothes? Talk about method acting! Julia freaking Roberts, Oscar winner...!? Now look, I don't want to diss Ms Roberts' acting prowess - she was great in Notting Hill playing a famous Hollywood actress. But hell, this is just about the worst choice ever in this category. I'm not even going to say why she was so bad in this - ok not bad, but you shouldn't get an Oscar just for just not embarrassing yourself.

Also if she hadn't won we all would have been spared her atrocious acceptance speech where she went on and on and on, thanked everyone in her life and anyone who had anything to do with the film except Erin Brockovich herslef, and she also expressed undying love for Benjamin Bratt...

Ok who to give it to then?

Juliette Binoch is delightful, but Chocolat is a desert (pardon the pun) and Best Actress should go to a main course.

Ellen Burstyn has been much lauded fro her role as the aging woman addicted to slimming pills, but to be honest I don't know if I think Requiem for a Dream is brilliant or a complete crock - and to be honest it's so damn depressing I know I'm not going to watch it again to find out.

So I'm going to give it to one of my favourite actresses, Joan Allen for her role as the Vice-Presidential contender with a past (or perhaps not) in The Contender. She is strong, sexy, smart and believable.

She also had to go up against two excellent actors in Jeff Bridges (playing the President) and Gary Oldman (a powerful Republican Senator)- and she had to be able to be more than just the woman in the room - she has to be able to match it with them, and in fact beat them - a tough ask, especially against Gary Oldman (who should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor - Jeff Bridges also was deserving of a nomination for Best Actor).

So she gets my nod (I'm betting her speech would have been better than Roberts's as well).

The following scene shows her meeting with Oldman to discuss the dossier which contains information about Allen's supposed gang-bang while she was in college.

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