Film reviews

Iron grip

Shaolin Soccer
dir. Stephen Chow

Originally released as Siu lam juk kau in 2001 in Hong Kong to much acclaim and record-breaking box office bucks, Shaolin Soccer was one of the sell-out hits of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

I hope you don’t like your genres sorted into neat, restrained categories, as Shaolin Soccer is what one might call a kung fu/soccer/comedy cross-over picture.

Pow! Ka-blammo! Or rather, Hee-ya!

Now that’s in the open, it’s time to put on the Cantonese cinema connoisseur cap. Warning: if your cheese-o-meter has low tolerance, you might baulk at this light, fun comedy.

Director Stephen Chow stars as Shaolin monk and aluminium-can-seller Sing (Shaolin name: Mighty Iron Leg) who dreams of Shaolin kung fu regaining prominence in modern-day China.

The opening scene introduces Golden Leg (Man Tat Ng), a former soccer champion who is down on his luck, alcoholic and physically disabled, thus fulfilling all the criteria for the archetypal role of the has-been whose dream is to coach a team of talented misfits, and transform them into superstars.

The misfits are six ‘brothers’ from the hallowed Shaolin Temple kung fu school, who are finding it hard to get by—there’s no call for Shaolin heroes these days. My favourites are Brother One (his Shaolin moniker is Iron Head), a chain-smoking, portly man who cleans toilets at a nightclub; and stockbroker Iron Shirt, who propels the ball forward with mighty kung fu chest muscles.

Hong Kong martial arts movie fans will appreciate Kwong Ting-Wo’s refreshing cinematography: the camera dances around the action, a great deal of which is tasty computer generated imaging from Centro Digital (Storm Riders). There’s artful spinning of dough into steamed buns a hundred feet into the air by love interest Mui (Vicki Zhao) and the close-up sequence of a computer-rendered soccer ball’s metamorphosis from a blazing flare to a flame-tiger that slams into the intravenously enhanced Team Evil defenders. Memorable.

Generally, the comedy in Shaolin Soccer is camp slapstick, but well executed. Chow’s delivery is self-deprecating and witty, but occasionally risks being too self-conscious. The cast includes many veterans of Hong Kong cinema, and aficionados might enjoy a Karen Mok cameo.
Writer/director/actor Stephen Chow made his name with All The Winners, a spoof of a Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) classic, God of Gamblers. He’s been compared with the Farrelly brothers, Jim Carrey, and Charlie Chaplin. I doff my cap to Chow—selling the idea of a soccer/kung fu/comedy movie with Matrix-style effects, and choreographed song and dance routines—impressive.

Gil Maclean

Smoke screen

Fahrenheit 9/11
dir. Michael Moore

Make no mistake; this film has no intention of being balanced or even-handed. It is, deliberately, a propaganda film aimed squarely at getting George W. Bush kicked out of office at the next election.
Non-compulsory voting in the US has meant that, historically, a large proportion of potential Democrat voters—particularly black, Hispanic, and working class people—have simply not participated in the political process. Fahrenheit 9/11 aims to motivate these predominantly left thinking non-voters out of their political passivity.

Criticisms that the film preaches to the converted miss the point entirely—the film doesn’t aim to change people’s minds, its intent is to urge a specific group to vote on what’s already in them.

Moore’s starting point is the Gore/Bush election, which, as he argues in Stupid White Men, was clearly won by Gore, but snatched away by Bush through a combination of corruption and political manoeuvring on the part of Republicans, and the incompetence and passivity of the Democrats.

With his usual humour and flair for making the political personal, Moore makes his case for why Bush must go. As evidence Moore cites the corruption and illegitimacy of the Bush administration, the Bush family’s economic ties to the Saudis (particularly the Bin Laden family), the incompetence and compliance of the US senate, the engendering of an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in the American people (in order to persuade them to accept a restriction of their constitutional rights) and Bush’s obsession with Iraq at the expense of any attention to al Qaeda.

The information Moore presents is nothing new, nor does he ‘prove’ the links he seeks to make between the different threads of his story. Indeed, his ‘argument’ is essentially ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ He does, however, find a lot of smoke.

The film is the cinematic equivalent of Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar—a rhetorical display of passion and emotion aimed at provoking ‘the people’ to rise up and overthrow an illegitimate putsch. In so doing, Moore takes up the banner of a proud tradition of leftist political documentary, especially in his emphasis on the manipulation of found footage for rhetorical effect.

The documentary tradition has long been engaged with the real world, often explicitly in order to change it. References in the media to Fahrenheit 9/11 as a ‘pseudo documentary’ fail to adequately distinguish between documentary and journalism. In many ways the film is less tendentious than Bowling for Columbine. Such criticism fails to recognise the politics of the film for what they are—nothing more or less than a call to action.

Allan James Thomas

A drag?

Connie and Carla
dir. Michael Lembeck

After My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s quarter-billion-dollar success, Nia Vardalos probably thought she could indulge herself. Trouble is, you need either gorgeous looks à la Monroe, or fantastic talent à la Streisand to pull it off: star vehicles only work if you have a star. Vardalos can act and even sing, (if that is really her voice and not a dub) but as the writer of a film that draws so heavily on Some Like it Hot and on Birdcage she needed to deliver quality, and she hasn’t.

Connie and Carla is not a gigantic disaster on the Hudson Hawke scale—say, more like chicken pox than smallpox. David Duchovny is wasted as the romantic interest; Toni Collette, (awakening girl-double-act memories from the good bits of Muriel’s Wedding) is  wasted as Vardalos’ dumb friend. Both work hard to get something out of the lame script which, Streisand-like, feeds all the best lines and shots to Vardalos. Remember Yentl? As an exercise in narcissism it had academic value for psychologists, but for this reviewer it had a powerful emetic effect. So if Streisand cannot get away with it, how much less can Vardalos? The story? Two show-tune singers witness a gang killing; are discovered and pursued by baddies of little brain (e.g. did not outwit brainless girls.)

Said brainless girls flee to L.A. and pretend to be drag queens to get work singing show tunes that are the only redeeming feature of the film.

The rest is all Vardalos upstaging Collette and vamping Duchovny. One of the problems is that the script often makes no sense; for instance, there is a load of inspirational stuff about women accepting their size and not buying into the whole thin is beautiful thing. This would make sense if Vardalos did those lines, because although she is not overweight she is not thin. But, madly, it is the reed-slender Collette who is admonished for over-eating and who has to talk about accepting one’s size. Don’t go with all that cheese, you gotta watch the cholesterol.

Juliette Hughes




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