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Pretty, and pretty boring

A look at some other movies in the theaters now.

By Steve Persall
Published January 11, 2007


Curse of the Golden Flower (R) (114 min.) - Zhang Yimou's latest historical epic is his most hysterical, with first century royals canoodling without regard for bloodlines, secret poisonings and computer-generated battles resembling bloody Super Bowl halftime shows. That should be more fun than it is.

Zhang is a master of opulent detail, re-creating palaces and costumes with vibrant colors, making this indisputably beautiful. Yet the filmmaker coasts on those sensory delights for nearly an hour before the real action kicks in. Too much time is spent by contemplative actors allowing the sets to overpower them.

That is surprising since Curse of the Golden Flower features two of China's most formidable screen presences. The usually heroic Chow Yun Fat looks paunchy and out of place as the scheming Tang Dynasty emperor. He keeps several secrets from his second wife (Gong Li) and two sons, each eyeing the throne.

One secret explains why Gong listlessly spends much of the film on the verge of sweaty faints. The empress knows more than she lets on, although viewers see it coming long before the soap operatic revelations. Coups and illicit couplings should create more tension than Zhang commits to film.

Neither are the action sequences anything special, seven years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dazzled Americans with the wonders of modern martial arts movies. Zhang recycles images from Hero and House of Flying Daggers of raining arrows and gravity-defying assassins, often cloaked in uncharacteristic semidarkness. That isn't an advance in style but a retreat from entertaining. C+


Volver (R) (121 min.) - Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar's film is a ghost story of sorts, except in his oddly sentimental view, mothers never really die. They linger in something beyond memory, helping with housework or giggling at how survivors talk about them. Almodovar adores women, especially nurturers, and can't bring himself to admire them in conventional fashion.

That is the oeuvre making an Almodovar film either a blessing for fans or a curse for latecomers to his occasionally outrageous vision. Volver is one of his least perplexing works, a bit lighter on the garish colors and wild fantasies then usual.

It is so subtle by comparison that seeing someone described as deceased walking among the living, or a bloody crime of passion, isn't shocking or darkly amusing. We hand ourselves over to Almodovar and feel a bit disappointed when he doesn't take us somewhere uncomfortable.

What makes Volver special is its reminder of Penelope Cruz's potential before she became tabloid material and American movie window dressing. Returning to her native language creates a comfort level that releases her talent. Not only is Cruz one of the sexiest women onscreen, she is also an underrated actor, a direct creative descendant of no less than Sophia Loren.

Cruz plays Raimunda, wife of a shiftless drunk and mother to a sweet daughter named Paula (Yohana Cobo). Raimunda comes home from her restaurant job to find her husband stabbed to death on the kitchen floor. Paula admits she did it to fend off his sexual advances. Raimunda is ready to take the rap to spare her child.

Help arrives in supernatural form, the spirit of her mother (Carmen Maura) who has been "living" with her senile sister. Nobody except the audience sees her, but everyone feels her presence and smells her flatulence and baked goods. Memory doesn't disintegrate, as Salvador Dali - another Spaniard surrealist - proposed in his art. It informs and guides, securing the future by straightening out the past.

Volver is lightweight material compared to Almodovar's Talk to Her and All About My Mother, which earned him Academy Awards and visionary status. However, it may be the primer some newcomers need for his zestier, more challenging films. Certainly having Cruz exuding continental sex appeal won't hurt its chances of drawing a crowd. That she displays other movie star assets than simply decolletage is a bonus. B+

Steve Persall, Times film critic

The Painted Veil (PG-13) (125 min.) - Viewing this visually alluring, emotionally limp version of W. Somerset Maugham's novel is akin to watching Rembrandt's paint dry. Director John Curran uses his Chinese locales well while overrating the topicality of the 1925 novel. Feminism, disease and infidelity are timeless, but Curran's repressive execution of those themes is unduly static.

The usually volatile Edward Norton is an unlikely actor for such staid conditions. He attempts to stretch creatively by shrinking into a role. Norton's energy is minuscule as he plays Walter Fane, a bacteriologist traveling through 1920s China to research a cholera epidemic. Norton struggles to suppress his modern vibe, no matter how neatly his hair is combed and British accent clipped.

Along for the ride is Walter's wife, Kitty (Naomi Watts), whose contempt for this trip - and Walter - is clear. Waiting for a caravan gives them time to flash back to the London origins of this prickly marriage. Those are the only scenes utilizing Watts' charisma.

Kitty was a high society party girl amused by middle-class Walter's shy affection. Marrying him and moving to Shanghai for his work is an act of defiance toward her stern parents. She becomes bored and has an affair with U.S. ambassador Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) that Walter discovers.

Schreiber's oily performance and a few scenes with Toby Jones (Infamous) as a decadent expatriate bring out the exotic, forbidden pleasures Kitty heeds and The Painted Veil needs more often.

Walter can't forgive Kitty and won't divorce her. Instead, he exiles them both to a remote village where cholera levels are dangerously high. That this behavior could be considered an attempt at murder-suicide isn't addressed. Instead, the pair silently lives apart together, until tragedy leads to longings and regrets that Curran makes long and regrettable.

Out of Africa and The English Patient are carefree romps compared to this dour attempt to match their dubious Academy Award success. Each frame and performance is grandly calculated to impress. There's a constant air of "this is art and you'll like it." Yes, it is and, no, I don't. D





[Last modified January 10, 2007, 10:00:13]

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