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Review: Kung Fu Hustle

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As genres go, comedy tends to have the bumpiest ride across international borders. Roughhouse slapstick translates more readily than urbane wordplay, “clonk” being equally funny in any language; all the same, it took Jackie Chan the better part of two decades to hit the crossover jackpot, and even then only to a limited degree. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, a whirligig parody of ’60s/’70s Hong Kong martial-arts flicks, seems poised to knock ’em dead from sea to shining sea. Western audiences may not recognize the venerable character actors who pop up in supporting roles (invariably as unprepossessing shopkeepers revealed to be warriors in hiding), or appreciate every wry tweak of ass-kicking convention. But the movie’s English-language title is apt: Kung Fu Hustle boasts an irrepressible exuberance usually found only in musicals, and virtually impossible to resist. I have no idea what inspired the title sequence’s chorus of high-stepping, axe-wielding dandies, but I scarcely think its provenance matters.
    Certainly it helps that Chow, who co-wrote and directed the film as well as playing its nominal protagonist, is such a cultural polyglot. Unabashedly populist, and encyclopedic in his knowledge of Hollywood effluvia, he’s as likely to toss in an obscure allusion to Sean Connery’s death in The Untouchables (“What…are you…prepared…[spits blood]…to do?”) as poke fun at the chopsocky classics. He’s also got the crowd-pleasing contours of the underdog narrative down pat. If I’m a bit less enthusiastic about Kung Fu Hustle than I’d like to be, it’s only because I find Chow’s blustery comic persona onscreen preferable to the cartoonish digital manipulation he favors behind the camera. There’s a pleasing, ZAZ-like absurdist flavor to many of the gags here, but the physical stuff quickly becomes tiresome in its aggressive plasticity; if I want to watch characters leaving plumes of smoke behind them as they run, or being catapulted into space, I’ll stick with animation, thanks. At once old-fashioned and cutting-edge, Hustle steps more lightly looking backward than forward. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Eros

The omnibus film often smells like a bit of overripe indulgence — what can be expected from random shorts by big names, thrown together under an ill-fitting theme? Eros is no exception; it’s rendered doubly precious by its hifalutin’ title and raison d’etre: two auteurs paying homage to a third, Michelangelo Antonioni. The film is saved from the vanity-project dustbin, however, by its stunning opening short, The Hand, which gives Wong Kar-Wai fans just the stroking they need before 2046 opens this summer.
    In his tale of a tailor in thrall to a courtesan, Wong revisits his favorite obsessions: unrequited love and sublimated desire. Chang Chen plays a tailor’s apprentice who is seduced by the cruelly knowing hands of a Hong Kong siren (Gong Li, the queen of long-suffering hauteur) during their very first meeting. Besotted by the handjob, he devotes himself to making qipao dresses for her that give silken form to his desires — a fitting image for Wong, for whom surface breathes melancholy substance. As with nearly all Wong characters, these two are on tragic, diverging trajectories. Why settle for being dumpily happy together when you can be heart-stoppingly sad?
    Steven Soderbergh’s Equilibrium bursts in next, as noisy as its star, Robert Downey, Jr., who plays a jittery ad man seeking the help of a shrink. The good doctor (Alan Arkin) banishes his gabby patient to a couch and stares out the window with enormous binoculars as he administers a deft bit of psychoanalysis. The nature of inspiration, the unconscious, the symmetry of erotic farts from the id — Equilibrium‘s a fun, mordant little exercise, if an unsexy one.
    The Dangerous Thread of Things is a bedraggled, Eurotrash tart of a film, a sad letdown from the other directors’ work and from Antonioni’s own influential oeuvre. A whiny man, his pissed-off partner and a lush beauty with boobs like sandbags are members of ménage a twat who, as one character says to another, look for “purity and end up in shit.” Antonioni tries for his usual bleak compositions, a Paradise Lost, the two women on the beach, one holding out her hands like a Christ gone starkers. But after the opium-dream beauty of The Hand and even Soderbergh’s crackling trifle, Thread unravels entirely. It’s nothing but an haute peep show. — Noy Thrupkaew

Date DVD #27: Sideways
There may be no other DVD that can help you get a date drunk faster than Sideways. Alexander Payne’s terrific, wine-country buddy film cracks open the first bottle — champagne, as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church jump in the car — around minute seven, and the booze keps flowing, lubricating the rest of the film.
    “That was good, warm but good,” says Haden Church, giggling through his DVD commentary, which Church prefers to call “sidebars of hilarity and poignance.” Very possibly, Giamatti and Church lubricated their commentary with a few bottles — a technique that seems to have helped the two, unlike all other actors, avoid the incessant praise of co-stars (themselves not included). I usually hate DVD commentaries, but this is well worth listening to, even on a date. A few samples:
    “You have a foamy crest of hair,” Giamatti says.
    “That’s me, in my fertile crescent of middle-aged doeyness,” jokes Church. “The width of my head is only surpassed by the girth of my belly.”
    “I’m working on a pair of perky man-breasts, aren’t I?” Giamatti says.
    “You do have man-cans of the first order,” agrees Church.
    “It’s my gift to America,” Giamatti says.
    “I never tuck my shirt in, in this movie,” says Church.
    “You can’t tell where my ass begins and his lower spine stops,” says Giamatti.
    “It’s the North Face of K-2, from your back to your buttocks,” says Church. “At any moment, gnomes will repel down your backside.”
    “And nestle in the warm downy hair-“
    “That sits atop your fleshy French scoops.”
    After dialogue like that — and a few bottles of pinot noir — any line you try to drop on a date will seem suave and smooth. — Logan Hill

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