Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Today's "Only in LA..." Moment

Quick, all you martial arts movie aficionados out there...do you remember a series from the 1990's called "The Best of the Best"? It started out with some B-level star power in the form of Eric Roberts (Julia's bro) and James Earl Jones in your classic story of a motley American team who sets out to conquer the world taekwondo championship, no doubt defeating evil Koreans along the way. (If you're thinking this doesn't sound like a classic in the making, you're probably right: Ebert completely trashed the movie, and I'm guessing didn't bother to review any of the sequels.) As the saga continued through #2, 3, and 4, it eventually shifted focus to the character of Tommy Lee, the young Korean dude who got to avenge his dead brother in the first one. At least, this is the info I gathered secondhand - I haven't seen any of the movies myself, though I'm now curious enough to add the original to my Netflix queue.

Why? Because it turns out the guy who plays Tommy Lee (real name: Philip Rhee), who also apparently co-wrote the original "The Best of the Best" and directed & produced the third and fourth installments, is one of the instructors at my taekwondo school. I can't vouch for the quality of his movie work - though I hear his martial arts skills were fantastic - but I can certainly vouch for him as a fantastic teacher. I could hardly believe it was the same guy, esp. when I discovered how old he must be. He's 47, but looks 10 years younger. Which led to a question that I of course can never ask him: he didn't have "work" done, did he?

Oh, surely not. The thought seems disrespectful, somehow, and I have an enormous amount of respect for Master Rhee. More likely he's just aged remarkably gracefully, which is not uncommon among Asians. But...he was in the movie business. And apart from the age thing, his features look a little different in the stills from the later movies than those from the first one...Or is that just the lighting and/or my overactive imagination?

All I can say is only in L.A. would it occur to me to wonder whether my taekwondo instructor got plastic surgery for the sake of his movie career.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fall Movie Preview

Fall, as everyone knows, is the harvest season for high-quality movies: serious dramas featuring A-list actors and directors, prestige pics based on award-winning novels, and the usual overload of Oscar bait. But who's complaining?

Here are my top ten most hotly anticipated movies due out this fall, listed roughly in order of their release dates (though those, of course, are always subject to change):

1. 3:10 TO YUMA
Directed by James Mangold, starring Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol (Sept. 7)
It's a remake of a 1957 western, and remakes generally are toss-ups. But Russell Crowe squaring off with Christian Bale? I am SO there.

Directed by David Cronenberg; starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl (Sept. 14)
The last time Cronenberg and Viggo teamed up with "A History of Violence," Viggo knocked his part out of the park. (The movie wasn't bad, either.) From the previews for this one, he looks even more mysteriously menacing as a Russian mobster who may not be all he seems. And since Naomi Watts is one of my top five actresses working today, I foresee electric sparks flying between them. Not romantic sparks - in fact, given that it's Cronenberg directing, probably anything but.

Directed by Robin Swicord, starring Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy; based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler (Sept. 21)
I seem to be one of the few people I know who really enjoyed this book. I admit I'm skeptical that the subtlety with which it weaves the themes from Austen's novels into the context of a modern-day book club can translate into a big-screen production. But the cast is appealing (though they all skew about a decade younger than the characters they play) and director Robin Swicord did write the screenplay for the 1994 film version of Little Women, which I adore. (Then again, she was also responsible for the screenplay for "Memoirs of a Geisha" - ugh.)

Directed by Ang Lee, starring Tony Leung, Joan Chen, and newcomer Tang Wei (Sept. 28)
A luscious-looking period thriller set in 1940s Shanghai, in which a young woman (Wei) seduces a corrupt official (Leung) with the intention of assassinating him. I trust Lee's craftmanship, and no one can look world-weary better than Leung or Chen.

Directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish (Oct. 12)
If anyone can make lightning strike twice with the same character, it's Ms. Blanchett. I'm also looking forward to seeing Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh.

Directed by Terry George, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino (Oct. 19)
This looks like a major downer, or at the very least a feel-bad thriller: lives intersect and (I predict) angst and violence insue after a child is killed in a car accident. Still, with this cast, it's gotta be worth a look. Plus I needs me my seasonal dose of Ruffalo.

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor (Nov. 2)
Speaks for itself. And finally, a movie that doesn't make me cringe for Cuba Gooding, Jr's career.

Directed by Chris Weitz, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Eliott (Dec. 7)
Word on the street is that the powers that be have gutted Philip Pullman's trilogy of all the blistering atheism that runs through the books. No surprise there, but how then is this gonna work? Still, the trailer looks awesome. Let's hope that Kidman and Craig have a better landing here than they did with last week's clunker, "Invasion" (which I confess I kind of want to see, but that's another story).

Directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Vanessa Redgrave, Romola Garai, Brenda Blethyn (Dec. 7)
Oscar bait at its baitiest. I didn't love last year's "Pride and Prejudice" as much as a lot of people did, but it did leave me with very favorable expectations for Joe Wright's directorial future. It'll be interesting to see what he does with this book, since it's so metafictional - it's as much about the act of writing and storytelling as it is about the rather tragic characters played by Knightley, rising star McAvoy, and Redgrave/Garai.

Directed by Tamara Jenkins, starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Christmas)
I reeeally wanted to see this at Sundance this year but unfortunately it wasn't playing during the second week of the festival, when I was there. PSH and Linney play brother and sister, reluctantly reunited when their father requires long-term care. The last brother-sister movie that starred Linney was "You Can Count on Me." 'Nuff said.

Also keeping an eye out for:
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Julie Taymor's take on the Beatles should be visually interesting, if nothing else); THE DARJEELING LTD. (lately Wes Anderson has gotten a little too preciously quirky for my taste - but I always have hope for the director of "Rushmore"); George Clooney vehicles MICHAEL CLAYTON and the lighter-looking LEATHERHEADS; the Coen Bros' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN; and Noah Baumbach's latest dysfunctional family dynamics festival, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (starring Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as sisters); ENCHANTED (fresh new spin on Disney princess tale? the trailer actually looks promising, and count me an Amy Adams fan after "Junebug").

And tooting the horn loudly for
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING, which I saw and loved at Sundance (find my review here), and which is set for limited release on Nov. 2 (opposite AMERICAN GANGSTER, ack, what are they thinking?). It's a beautiful little movie featuring the venerable Frank Langella, who definitely deserves Oscar consideration for his performance. With any luck the film won't slip completely between the cracks in the fall for-your-consideration stampede.

I close with the usual caveat: any, if not all, of these movies may turn out to be lemons, and my top ten list of movies for 2007 may end up including films that I haven't even noticed or mentioned. But hey, that's what makes the fall season so fun - you never know what you're going to like.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac

If you thought Allen Ginsberg stirred mixed reactions, you ain't seen nothin' yet...With On the Road approaching its 50th birthday, the New York Times posed the following artfully artless question on its ArtsBeat blog:

"What do you think are the lessons of On the Road?"

Whatever you may think of the question, it's certainly provoked a voluminous and richly variegated response...450 responses, to be precise, and counting. Most are lucid; some are brilliant, and a few are downright poetic. They range from passionate rhapsodies to caustic deflations, from wistful nostalgia to sharp feminist demurral. (There does seem to be a pretty clear gender divide in opinion on the book's appeal, for reasons at once obvious and complex.)

Overall, the responses are more interesting than I remember the book itself being. To be honest, I only read On the Road once - for a seminar in grad school, I believe - and it didn't particularly resonate with me. It's not that I disliked it or thought it was sexist (though it no doubt was); I just didn't feel very strongly about it one way or another. But seeing the impact it's had on so many has inspired me to revisit it. In the words of one reader, "The lesson to be learned from On the Road is that a lot of people are still talking about it." Perhaps I'll put it next on my reading list. If so, it would rather appropriately follow The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Some of my favorite responses (I haven't read them all - I mean, I do have work to do!):

"I am a type-A, high-strung, anal-retentive yuppie. Which is why I loved this book so."

"Don't write on benzedrine."

"I learned: 1) that many miserable people simply don't realize they're miserable & 2) lugubrious is a great word that can be used frequently."

But, perhaps pithiest and truest to the Kerouac spirit (the idealized version, anyway):

"Lesson's over. Live it."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

One Minute Movie Review: "The Bourne Ultimatum"


directed by Paul Greengrass
starring Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney, Paddy Considine, others

"The Bourne Ultimatum" is that rare thing, a sequel that's also a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Go see it, if only for the bravura sequence in which Bourne, Nicky Parsons (Stiles), and a CIA hitman pursue a nerve-jangling, three-way stalking chase down the alleys, through the windows, up the stairs and over the rooftops of Tangier. Or the countless other equally breathless chase and combat scenes that director Greengrass ("United 93," "Bourne Supremacy") relentlessly, almost brutally draws out to an unbearable level of tension. Or the subtler pleasure of seeing old hands like Strathairn and Joan Allen circling each other warily as ostensible teammates who are really on opposite sides of the Bourne question.

I still slightly prefer the first movie, "The Bourne Identity," partly because of director Doug Liman's lighter touch, partly because it showed Bourne at his most vulnerable and thus made it easier to empathize with him. (In that sense, it reminded me a little of the original "Terminator," which to my mind was far more effective than T2 - because our sympathies lay with a very human, though skilled, guy who was making it up as he went along, not the streamlined killing machine that took charge of the later movies.) But there's no denying that Greengrass has made a hell of a good capper to a solid trilogy. More than that, he's brought excitement back to the damn-near-exhausted genre of the action film. That, in itself, makes "Ultimatum" well worth a trip to the theater.