APRIL 18, 2008
Reviewed: The Forbidden Kingdom, The Visitor, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, The Singing Revolution
By Mark Jenkins
Across the Universe: Li and Chan flank the Forbidden Kingdom newbies. (Lions' Gate)
Also this week: reviews of THE FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON and MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS and interviews with the director and musicians of YOUNG@HEART
JACKIE CHAN AND JET LI have suffered starring roles in many Hollywood knockoffs of their Hong Kong work, films that generally have little charm beyond their inspirations' presence. Initially, that seems the likely course for director Rob Minkoff's THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, although the movie does boast one distinction: It's the first to star both Chan and Li. John Fusco's script musters the weakest of setups: Boston teenager Jason (charisma-free Michael Angarano) is a fan of kung fu flicks, but has no martial artistry. That has to change when he's attacked by bullies, grabs a magic staff, and is transported to ancient China. Or rather, Hong Kong cinema's idea of ancient China, since the movie is derived more from such films as Monkey Goes West, Come Drink with Me, and The Legend of Drunken Master than from any history book. The movie's heartfelt homages to these predecessors, and Wo-Ping Yuen's action choreography, keep things interesting as Jason allies with wine-guzzling Lu Yan (Chan), sober Silent Monk (Li), and pretty Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) to free the Monkey King (Li again), who's been turned into a statue by an evil warlord. If that plots sounds pretty cheesy, so are the films that inspired it. The Boston framing sequences aside, The Forbidden Kingdom is a pretty respectable Hollywood knockoff. (2008, 113 min; at area multiplexes.
IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE, the children's book of that name warns, you'll just obligate yourself to perform more tasks for the demanding rodent. But if you give a boring white guy a djembe, a new movie informs us, much the opposite will occur: The white guy will be deeply beholden to you. That's how it goes in Tom (The Station Agent) McCarthy's THE VISITOR, a well-meaning but unfortunately preposterous immigration fable. Widowed economics professor Walter (the Bob Newhart-like Richard Jenkins) is living a life of quiet academic desperation in Connecticut when he's ordered to travel to New York to deliver a paper. Arriving at the apartment he keeps but — absurdly — never uses, Walter finds that it's been surreptitiously sublet to an illegal-immigrant couple, Palestinian drummer Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Senegalese street-fashion designer Zainab (Danai Gurira). It's the outgoing, unguarded Tarek who gives Walter a djembe (plus a Fela Kuti CD), and soon the new pals are trading beats at drum circles in Manhattan parks. After one such session, Tarek is busted, and faces deportation. Walter strives to help him, and even entertains the drummer's mom (Paradise Now's Hiam Abbass) when she comes to visit her son. Ultimately, though, Walter is left alone to thump out his feelings on a subway platform, angry but reborn. Tarek deserves better, this cuddly propaganda piece suggests, but the Palestinian's bad luck serves a vital purpose: making the white guy infinitely more alive. (2008, 103 min; at Landmark E Street and).
THE SCOURGE OF MCDONALD'S goes after the godfather of Islamic terrorism in Morgan Spurlock's new semi-documentary, and that pairing isn't the only thing about WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN? that feels wrong. More Jay Leno than Michael Moore, Spurlock puts himself at the center of this tour of North Africa and West Asia, which at least covers more territory than Albert Brooks's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The filmmaker has even contrived to get his wife pregnant, so that the quest to return for her imminent delivery provides urgency to a trek that's otherwise largely pointless. Spurlock visits Egypt, Morocco, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan before finally calling off the trip — a decision that's presented as spontaneous but feels as contrived as the movie's video-game and music-video parodies. (Is M.C. Hammer really still funny?) There are glimmers of reality, but the film is mostly a mix of stale facetiousness and jejune earnestness. Summing up his sojourn in Israel, Spurlock notes that "there are so many things that are wrong on both sides" — an insight that might get him a gold star if he were still in fourth grade. (2008, 93 min; at Landmark E Street and).
ENTIRELY EARNEST, THE SINGING REVOLUTION is an account of Estonia's break from the Soviet Union that makes a bit too much of the country's choral tradition. As narrator Linda Hunt reports, Estonia began a national song fest in 1869, and patriotic songs sustained the locals after a series of invasions (Soviets, then Nazis, then Soviets again) that directors James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty illustrate with copious atrocity footage. At the fest's centennial, nationalism warbled prettily, and in 1991 Estonia managed to extricate itself from the CCCP without violence. But lots of peoples tweaked the great powers in 1968-70, of course, and most of the other Warsaw Pact nations also extricated themselves with little bloodshed. A treat for fans of uplift, plucky Baltic nations, and massed voices, the film plays a little too much like a Chamber of Commerce production. When a movie extols a country's "high literacy rate," you have to wonder if the worker's-paradise mindset has been entirely abandoned left behind. (2006, 94 min; at Landmark E Street).