Tom Yum Goong

by Prachya Pinkaew (2005, Thailand)

In 2003, a little unknown film from Thailand called Ong-Bak rocketed up the charts of action and martial arts film fanatics the world over, and for good reason.  Unlike so many action movies these days, which make use of copious amounts of CGI, wire effects, stunt doubles, Ong-Bak was, for all intents and purposes, the real deal—no special effects, no wires, just lots and lots of jawdropping stuntwork and cringe-inducing martial arts choreography. 

Not surprisingly, the film’s star—Tony Jaa—was soon being proclaimed as the successor to the throne of both Jackie Chan and Jet Li, due to his incredible abilities and seemingly suicidal risk-taking.  All eyes were on Jaa’s next film, Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector here in the States), and the clips that began popping up on the Web were certainly encouraging.  Tom Yum Goong promised to be Ong-Bak turned up to eleven.  Which, considering that Ong-Bak itself had turned the action movie thrills up to eleven, was something indeed.

But the fact is that Tom Yum Goong is a decidedly inferior film, and proof that Jaa isn’t quite up to Chan and Li’s levels as a martial arts star.  He’s got the bone-breaking chops to be sure, but he’s missing the necessary charisma—and it doesn’t help when he’s backed by a storyline as weak and nonsensical as Tom Yum Goong‘s.

Continue reading…

Curse Of The Golden Flower

by Zhang Yimou (2006, China)

I never thought I’d say this, not in a million years, but here it is: with Curse Of The Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou has become the George Lucas of “wuxia” cinema, and I mean that in both the good and bad ways.

But mostly the bad ways.

There’s no question that, by year’s end, Curse… will have been the most opulent, visually astonishing film to grace movie theatres in 2007.  Compared to the elaborate set designs and costumes that fill every single scene here, Zhang’s previous period pieces—2002’s Hero and 2004’s House Of Flying Daggers—look like shabby high school productions.  Thanks to the incredibly elaborate costumes and stunning sets, each frame of Curse… is awash with every color of the rainbow, so vibrant that it’s almost blinding.

Unfortunately, like those Star Wars prequels, visual splendor is about all that Curse… has going for it.  And even the visuals ultimately fail to satisfy thanks to the shallow characters, threadbare-yet-still ponderous plot, and lumbering execution—qualities that I never thought I’d use to describe a Zhang Yimou film.

Continue reading…

Shut Up & Sing

by (2006, United States)

On March 10, 2003, while performing in London, the singer of the Dixie Chicks Natalie Maines said something that received cheers from the English crowd: ““Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”  And yet this single sentence would haunt her and her band mates for the next three years, and probably still does haunt them to this day.

At first blush, it doesn’t seem like that big of a statement.  It’s certainly not the worst thing that an entertainer has said about Dubya.  However, coming from the Dixie Chicks—a group that was deemed about as all-American as possible—it was nothing short of anathema.

Within weeks, Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison began experiencing a massive boycott from what had once been their core audience.  Fans began destroying CDs, stations refused to play their music, corporate sponsors threatened to pull their support, and perhaps most shocking of all, began receiving death threats.

Shut Up & Sing captures this tumultuous time in the Dixie Chicks’ lives, chronicling both the intense criticism that they weathered as well as the intense loyalty shared by the trio, who respond to the threats with a raucous blend of fear, incredulity, stubbornness, and even laughter.

The documentary begins in 2003, as the Chicks are preparing for their latest tour.  One of the most successful recording acts in recent history, having successfully bridged the gap between worlds of pop and country music, they’re literally on the top of the world.  As they begin preparations for the tour, tensions in Iraq are mounting and war seems imminent.

When Maines says her infamous statement, it’s obvious from the footage that it’s partly in jest, that Maines is clearly not intending it as a political slam.  And yet, in those halcyon days when Bush’s approval ratings were at their highest, and the United States’ involvement in Iraq seemed to be on sure footing, the statement was seen as incredibly un-patriotic, if not traitorous.

Although Shut Up & Sing attempts to capture the overall sentiment that was rising against the Chicks, from former fans protesting their concerts, from country music radio DJs decrying their records, and from talking heads like Bill O’Reilly (who said the Chicks should be “slapped around” for their comments), it’s primarily concerned with the three girls as they attempt to soldier on.

Continue reading…

Jesus Camp

by Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing (2006, United States)

There’s a scene part-way through Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp where Levi, one of the children who attends the titular camp, and who is already a burgeoning preacher at the age of 13, claims he can always tell when he’s around non-Christians. There’s something off about them, he says, something that makes him feel sick.

Some might find such a statement to be rather horrifying and judgmental, most likely the result of the sort of parental indoctrination that gives Richard Dawkins the heebie-jeebies. Others might find the young man’s naivete laughable. For myself, it brought on a curious form of nostalgia.

Born into a predominantly Christian family and raised with Christian ideas my entire life, and having attended church schools and regular youth group meetings, I often had very similar things to say about those who existed outside my Christian bubble. That all came crashing down when I began attending public schools. For the first time in my life, I had friends who weren’t Christians. I had friends who held beliefs directly opposed to much of what I had been taught, who believed and practiced paganism and witchcraft, New Age spiritualism, agnosticism, and atheism.

My ministers and teachers had taught me that such people were going to hell in a hand-basket unless I made sure my witness was infallible, I didn’t engage in sinful behavior, and I lived a righteous life. There was one problem with that approach: these hell-bound friends of mine were, in some ways, much better kids than many of my Christian peers.

Continue reading…

The Proposition

by John Hillcoat (2005, Australia)

A western set in the outback of Australia in the late 19th century, The Proposition is a stark, violent, blood-soaked film that hearkens back to the finest Clint Eastwood westerns.  Guy Pearce—who, with his long straggly hair, stubble, and cigarette, even looks like the Man With No Name—plays Charlie Burns, whose outlaw family has become legendary in the country for their bloodthirsty ways.

When he’s captured by the military along with his younger brother, he’s given a second chance.  He has 9 days to dring back his older brother Arthur, the head of the gang and mastermind of their violence.  If he doesn’t, his younger brother will be hung on Christmas Day.

Continue reading…