Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Dec. 24

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ASHES OF TIME REDUX The motion picture as mood ring, Ashes of Time Redux is another Wong Kar Wei production that relies as much (if not more) on the sensations created by its aural and visual flourishes than on any narrative devices. Originally released in 1994 as Ashes of Time, the movie has since faced challenges both from within (a deteriorating negative) and without (bootleg copies all over the planet). Thus, the Hong King auteur decided to construct what's basically a "director's cut," and this tinkering has effectively brought the film back from the margins of Wong's canon. Leslie Cheung plays the central part of Ouyang Feng, a martial arts killer-for-hire who resides in a distant desert. Within the span of one year, he's visited by an assortment of allies, enemies and strangers – among them are a feuding brother and sister (both played by Brigitte Lin) who just might turn out to be the same person; a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) prepared to go out in a blaze of glory; and a poor warrior (Jacky Cheung) who agrees to help a young woman (Charlie Yeung) out for revenge. Ashes of Time (and, by extension, Ashes of Time Redux) earned a reputation for shouldering an impenetrable narrative, but the truth is that the story isn't nearly as complicated as one might expect. Its denseness instead comes from the fact that it holds less interest to Wong than the images he creates for the screen. Through cinematographer Christopher Doyle's visions – and with a powerful assist from composers Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia – Wong wordlessly ensnares viewers in his movie's tightening web of wonders. ***

AUSTRALIA Director Baz Luhrmann's frenzied approach, which worked just fine for Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet, ends up hurting this roller coaster of a romantic epic. As Lady Sarah Ashley, who journeys to Australia and ends up trying to protect her late husband's cattle ranch from being taken over by rival King Carney (Bryan Brown), Nicole Kidman never fully immerses herself in the role – too many actorly tics spoil the broth. As Drover, the hunky cattle driver who agrees to help Sarah in her quest to save the business, Hugh Jackman fares better, choosing to play most emotions close to the vest – make that close to the (bare) chest – and thereby emerging as an oasis of calm amidst so much rampant scenery-chewing. The worst culprit of overacting is David Wenham, whose dastardly henchman Fletcher ends up being perhaps the most risible movie villain since Billy Zane took shots at Leonardo DiCaprio as the Titanic sank into the chilly depths. In between scenes of Nicole and Hugh gettin' sweaty and sequences involving the Japanese advancement during World War II, Australia touches upon the country's horrific treatment of its half-caste children (produced when whites raped Aboriginal women), although with so much territory to cover, the movie doesn't provide more than a surface look. What it does provide, in those moments when Luhrmann isn't allowing the material to spin out of control, is the sort of old-fashioned yarn Hollywood used to produce on a regular basis, with sweeping vistas providing backdrops for couples clinched in love. But for a primer on the land down under, you'd do just as well renting Crocodile Dundee. **1/2

BOLT In recent years, Disney plus Pixar has led to some terrific animated features, but Disney minus Pixar has led to yearnings to locate the nearest auditorium exit. Bolt is straight-up Disney, which would be worrisome if it wasn't for the fact that Pixar guru John Lasseter has been handed the keys to the studio's entire animation department. So while Bolt isn't a Pixar production, it falls under the auspices of Lasseter (billed here as executive producer), and that might possibly be the reason this fast-paced confection is far better than such studio sourballs as Chicken Little and Treasure Planet. But make no mistake: This is still a long way from the giddy heights of the Pixar pack. It mixes the speed of an ADD Nickelodeon toon project with narrative elements from The Incredible Journey, as Bolt (voiced by John Travolta), a canine who believes he really possesses the superpowers he employs on his hit TV series, gets separated from his owner/co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus) and ends up crossing the country in search of her. It's entertaining while it lasts but dissipates from memory the moment it's over, a condition predicated on the fact that neither the noble, stiff Bolt nor the typical toon preteen Penny are especially dynamic characters. There are some clever inside-Hollywood touches, but the lack of any real tension means that the scripters are ultimately forced to turn to a burning building to serve as the "villain" of the piece. Still, the visual design is inventive, and kids and adults alike are sure to love Rhino (Mark Walton), a portly hamster always on the go in his plastic ball. Whenever he's on screen, you can be sure he keeps the movie rolling. **1/2

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