Monday, February 23, 2009

My Usual Oscar Contrariness

First off, let me say that apart from Midnight Cowboy (1969), there is no Oscar winner for Best Picture that really matters to me very much. Sure, there have been some good films in there but in a world where 1980's Ordinary People can beat Raging Bull, what good is the Best Picture Oscar anyway?

And I'm probably not the best person to write about racial and gender identity considering how I objectify Asian actresses on my blog but I'm going to do it anyway.

The Oscars usually make me embarrassed to be a liberal. The annual pat-on-the-back marathon, the hard work at showing that "we care a lot" (to paraphrase Faith No More), gets to be wearying after the first hour of the broadcast, never mind as the clock gets near midnight.

Only in Hollywood could a win for a film about a gay rights icon be seen as an actual accomplishment at getting gender equality in America. Maybe the scriptwriter's real and moving speech will change hearts and minds? Maybe.

And there is something a bit disgusting about the way that a handful of British filmmakers accepted their awards for a hackneyed piece of pap using the very actors from the film as little more than window dressing. How is that anything more than another form of colonialism?

Christ, the winning screenwriter couldn't even get the names of the two leads actors right, calling Dev by his name but calling Freida Pinto by her character's name! Is that how little the Indian actors mattered to them?

The producer hugging this kid in the photo brings to mind Bill Clinton scanning the crowd for little black babies to kiss as he worked to get votes in either of his campaign years.

Real progress would be an Academy Awards telecast where an Indian filmmaker won an award.

And Cuba Gooding Jr. whose whole career is a cartoon devoid of dignity, a perpetuation of a whole catalogue of negative black male images, has no right to lecture Robert Downey Jr. -- even in jest -- about playing an actor playing a black man; Downey's performance in the otherwise overrated Tropic Thunder (2008) says more about race and liberal sensibilities in Hollywood than any film this year, Slumdog or otherwise.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Telephone 601 (Or The Rise and Fall of Cecilia Cheung) -- MAJOR UPDATE


I've been thinking for weeks of what made Cecilia Cheung so special in my mind.

And, after watching the Mainland film, Telephone 601, I am now feeling a bit sorry for her.

Back in very early 2001 -- right after Christmas, 2000 -- I dove into Hong Kong cinema with determination. I had just seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and had just bought my first DVD player. I immediately realized that that film owed a lot to earlier -- some would say better -- films. So, now that I had a DVD player, I could easily investigate all those old Tsui Hark films I had seen clips of and read about.

In the process of doing that, I started to branch out into non-action, non-wuxia genres and the first actress currently working at that time who really caught my eye was Cecilia Cheung.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that she's not even one of the most beautiful Hong Kong actresses as far as I'm concerned; Christy Chung, Cherie Chung, and Maggie Cheung are all more attractive to me when judged purely on looks -- I'm a man so I can't help being shallow but at least I'm honest about it.

(And, yes, I do agree with Yvonne and others who have found her too thin at times.)

But Cecilia had a presence that went beyond just looks. She may not have been quite the actress that Maggie Cheung is but, like Maggie, she did manage to bring her personality into her roles and that counts for a lot with me.

And my nostalgia for when I first became a fan of Cecilia is also a tribute to all of the websites that helped me further that craze in 2001 and 2002: Sanney's old Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review; The View from The Brooklyn Bridge where I first read reviews from Brian and Yvonne; and, Kozo's site, of course;

In fact, this old sponsor page from Kozo's site provides a little web evidence of my fan-love of Cecilia from probably 2002 or 2003.

Which is a long introduction to try to figure out why I liked Cecilia so much.

I use the past tense because her career seems to be effectively over. It seems that Cecilia had her share of press issues before the Edison Chen scandal and that incident only made things worse. She needed to retire from the limelight, raise her son, and, hopefully, is planning a return for some time in the future.

I think the first film I noticed her in was the pretty bad Tokyo Raiders. Cecilia is wasted in the film, frankly -- hell, the whole cast is wasted in the film -- but, in 2001, it was easily available on a good, legal DVD and it had a lot of stars in it whose names I had heard of.



And it's worth noting that the majority of real Hong Kong fans probably first noticed Cecilia in Stephen Chow's excellent King of Comedy from 1999.

But I think the moment that she went from just being a spunky character actress to a real actress came with Failan; she is just ridiculously good in this film in a role that would be easy to screw up -- a Zhao Wei or Shu Qi would alternately be too cute or too sexy for this part; Cecilia strikes the right notes of vulnerability and determination in this film. I defy any film fan not to cry like a baby while watching the end of this flick.

And to think that this was a few years before the majority of us saw Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy!

The song is by Karen Mok but the MV features scenes from the film with Cecilia.



Looking at her filmography, I confess to having seen every film on that list with the exception of Master Q and Himalaya Singh.

Having said that, I can recall a little something delightful about her performances in each and quite a bit of variety as well; Kelly Chen can -- barely -- do modern romances and that's me being generous. Cecilia has done those (Everyday is Valentine), comedies (Help!!!; King of Comedy, Mighty Baby), dramas (Lost in Time, Failan, One Nite in Mongkok), period films both semi-serious (Legend of Zu, The Promise) and silly (The White Dragon, The Lion Roars, Cat and Mouse), as well as films that defy easy categorization (Running on Karma, Second Time Around).

Seriously, what other Hong Kong actress of the past decade could be so good in films as different as Twelve Nights and The White Dragon and Lost in Time and Wu Yen and Mighty Baby?

I was going to talk about how even Cecilia's husky voice is a great acting tool -- how it sometimes reminds me of Demi Moore but that's an insult; Cecilia's career is more interesting and more varied than Demi's was ever going to be. Bruce Willis' ex was a humourless robot in every film she starred in next to Cecilia's persona even in something as silly and lightweight as her cameo in Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer.

Which finally brings me to her last film to date, the woeful Mainland film, Telephone 601 (2006). In a role that eerily both echoes Cecilia's past mishaps with the press and foreshadows the fallout from the Edison Chen scandal, Cecilia plays a pop singer, Tianyou, in modern Shanghai whose cellphone number gets switched with a dour and seemingly doomed office worker Yishu. Yishu pines for Xiaowen who is a handsome punk rocker (though the music is more like the Backstreet Boys) dying of cancer as he writes his final song that he dreams to give to Tianyou to perform.

And I'm probably not ruining anything by telling you that she sings it in a tearful finale. The film is crap and, in the States, it would be in the bargain bin at Blockbuster or straight-to-cable to show up on Showtime in the middle of the night.

I think maybe I was pissed off seeing Hu Ge after enduring his sub-Ekin Cheng acting in The Butterfly Lovers? It goes without saying that he plays the dying, cancer victim/punk rocker.

This fan didn't enjoy the scenes of Cecilia's character preparing to plunge to her death from a balcony as her label bosses watched from a far; it was just too creepy to imagine the kind of crap that happened in real life after the Edison story broke.

There's not much here for me to recommend; I watched the film as a Cecilia completist as I was too scared to open Himalaya Singh. It's as simple as that.


Even the simple pleasure of seeing Cecilia have a great crying scene -- she's a great on-screen crier on par with Gong Li -- was denied me as the insipid, predictable ending meant that I had to sit through this cancer guy's song -- again!

The picture quality was horrible as well. Should I go on? I am just thankful that I found the legal DVD for less than $10 in a local Chinese video store.

You can order the Hong Kong DVD here.

It is dubbed into Cantonese and I am pretty sure that Cecilia's voice is dubbed on both the Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks on the DVD.

So, in the end, there are quite a few of us -- Jason would probably chime in with me now -- who really miss Cecilia and want her to return to film.

Hopefully someone like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or a director of a similar mindset would one day attempt to give Cecilia another chance.

Here's hoping he watches her in Failan first and not Para Para Sakura!



MAJOR UPDATE: In what seems like a moment from one of her films -- the scene where Cecilia starts to choke up, her voice going all raspy, as she speaks up for herself -- Cecilia Cheung gave an interview on the Edison Chen sex scandal on a TV program last night, February 28, 2009! Crienglish has the details

My favorite quote from the article is this paragraph:

"A report in sohu.com said Cheung showed sincere regret for her actions during the program and placed all the blame on herself. But she also criticized actor Chen, claiming he shed crocodile tears when he testified in a Canadian court last Monday for his involvement in the scandal."

She even hinted at a return to acting if she was presented a decent script!



And even if this TV interview was the equivalent of a Barbara Walters interview, or merely some kind of public penance to get the scandal over with already, I'm happy because it means that Cecilia is going to be back eventually. Good for her, good for her fans!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another DC Disappointment


Well the Michael Turner-esque cover fooled me into expecting greatness within.

Don't get me wrong; Ed Benes was born to illustrate the Justice League of America but this book is pretty weak. A strong start leading to a weak conclusion.

Justice League of America: Sanctuary starts with a great premise: supervillains seeking asylum in the JLA headquarters. The setup is great, echoing current political events -- especially in Batman's distrust of the government's secrecy -- as well as the Marvel Universe's recent Civil War series.

Unfortunately, after this beginning, not much happens beyond the usual.

Maybe if Ed Benes had illustrated the whole thing, if more had happened, if the above ideas had been expanded? But, as it is, this slight volume is a dull, quick read apart from the Benes art.

Save your time and enjoy the cover without buying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Teen Titans and Batman


As a kid I was a bit too young to fully appreciate theDennis O'Neil/Neal Adams era at DC Comics and so, by the time that I was buying comics on a serious, monthly basis at the age of 11 or 12, DC Comics was a bit of a joke. Marvel was hip and popular and had the quality goods: The Uncanny X-Men was about to flourish, The Avengers had George Perez, the Fantastic Four had also experienced the Perez touch and were about to get the John Byrne treatment; there really was no reason to pick up a DC comic in the late 1970's.

Now, that all changed when George Perez started to draw The New Teen Titans for DC Comics in the very early 1980's. One title made me reconsider DC.

Yes, the title was derivative of Chris Claremont's similar revival of The Uncanny X-Men, but, over time, the title became a favorite of many fans. New characters and updates on earlier characters made this The New Teen Titans quite popular. And simply for George Perez fans, it was a pleasure to watch his style progress from his first run on Marvel's The Avengers.

Which is a long way of introducing Judd Winick's recent update on the same characters, now called simply Titans, in Titans: Old Friends. Being one of those fans who can't keep up with DC Universe continuity even while trying, I was happy to not feel frustrated this time when picking up a title I hadn't touched in a while; the book works as simply a spin on an origin story, with the new team being reassembled by Cyborg.

I picked up the book because of Ian Churchill's art and Judd Winnick's writing -- he worked on recent Green Arrow stories including the lead-up to the Black Canary/Green Arrow wedding which I enjoyed immensely.

I have to say that, while I will always hold the artwork of George Perez in high esteem -- particularly the way he drew Starfire -- he is given a run for his money by the way Ian Churchill draws the same character sunbathing.

And that's not to slight Joe Benitez either; he has a nice style even if he makes Donna Troy look like one of the Beverly Hills Teens.

A nice beginning to future greatness with the reappearance of Trigon, one of the great Titans villains and Raven's father.

Both artists managed to make Nightwing look cool; sorry, Dick Grayson should be Robin in my book.

Which leads to this mini-series from Batman, Batman: Rules of Engagement, which pits The Dark Knight against Lex Luthor in an interesting spin across familiar ground.

I quite liked the way Andy Diggle envisioned the Green Arrow origin story, so I was more than happy to buy this Batman story which takes place about one year after Batman has taken up crimefighting.

Artist Whilce Portacio has a lively style that is similar to Rags Morales, for lack of a better comparison, and is not as cartoony as some artists who've worked on Batman, nor as dark and gloomy; it feels bright even in the dark scenes.



And while the story did lose some steam for me near the end, there are some nice touches -- the scene where Batman reprograms Luthor's robots made this hater of George Bush and his policies a happy reader.

I am still an artist guy but I'm beginning to think that Andy Diggle is a writer I should read more often.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

More Than 200 Posts

I just noticed that, despite deleting a few early posts, I've now posted 202 -- now, 203! -- blog posts of various import.

Do I get a prize in the mail?

The blog hasn't been exactly what I envisioned it being *but* I did not abandon it yet and that's something.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kristin Hersh Album



I've got 22 years of being a Kristin Hersh fan that I could write about.

I could write about all the various ways that Throwing Muses songs saved my life during a few crucial years of my youth.

I could write about the first magical concert I attended at the old 9:30 Club: Hugo Largo opening for Throwing Muses in the fall of 1987. I followed my friend Wolfgang's roommates to the concert. (I have no idea why Wolfgang didn't go to the concert as well, especially since he was one of many people that hipped me to the Muses in the first!)

But, for now, I just want to post a link to the CASH Music website which offers a new business model for musicians.

One of the benefits of this is that fans can buy the latest Kristin Hersh album for a donation via Paypal.com and I -- as always -- highly recommend anything she releases.

The link is here.

Here's hoping there's another 50 Foot Wave release in the near future!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Shoe Fairy


I can see why people wouldn't like Vivian Hsu and not just because of her "risque photos" background (much like Shu Qi's); she is cute to the point of being almost annoying, like Charlene Choi but without the pep.

At least without the pep in this 2006 movie from Andy Lau's Focus Films production company (he also narrates). Vivian Hsu plays a woman called Dodo who grew up a sad and somewhat serious little girl. She couldn't walk and so consoled herself with fairy tales, like The Little Mermaid, until an operation allows her to walk.

As an adult, she moves through a fairy tale-looking landscape with little purpose as she works at a strange publishing company that makes pop-up books at a leisurely pace.

She does have an obsession with shoes to rival Carrie Bradshaw's and her storybook house is filled with shoes.

The start of the film is filled with precision, suggesting that all of these little details are going to add up to something, but they don't. They are just bits and pieces of things the director has thrown in, like all of the details in Wes Anderson's Royal Tenenbaums without the rich characters that Anderson's film had to carry the film.

The lessons learned here are obvious. The characters are not really developed beyond Dodo's character -- and that is a slight character to begin with; Vivian's expression and wardrobe are the character.

I just felt a sense of disappointment at the end of this film as I expected something to happen to tie everything together.

There is some joy in appreciating the film's production values; The Shoe Fairy is a film whose success depends largely on how much one appreciates art direction and cinematography. The film looks gorgeous -- like the chocolate factory in the original Willy Wonka -- and every shot does seem to be carefully considered and composed. I did appreciate the care behind that aspect of the film.

Compared to a film like Sakuran, which had a similarly rich production design, this film is sorely lacking; Sakuran had Anna Tsuchiya's playful performance at its center, as well as a good deal more story than The Shoe Fairy has.

But I found myself bored with the slight plot as I got distracted by the lovely composition and color scheme in just about every scene.

It's hard to write about a film this whimsical. What can you say about cotton candy?

You can order the reasonably priced, all region DVD here.

I'll close with this photo of the ever beautiful Vivian at the last Golden Horse awards.

[Photo: Crienglish.com]