April 30th, 2008

"Forbidden Kingdom"

Saturday the 26th, we got a bunch of local fans together to see "Forbidden Kingdom." As I said in my e-mail about the movie: "Jackie Chan AND Jet Li, Mythic China, what more do you need?" Well, if "chop-socky" isn't your thing at all, this movie won't do anything for you, but if you might enjoy a fantasy adventure heavy on the martial arts, then "Forbidden Kingdom" is as close to pure fun as any film I've seen lately.

Michael Angarano does a good job playing a king-fu film obsessed nebbish from gritty South Boston, who gets coerced by the local gang into helping hold up the pawnshop he frequents to scrounge cheap DVDs. In the course of the botched robbery, the aged propietor (Jackie Chan) gives him the Staff of the Monkey King and tells him to return it to its rightful owner. Fleeing from the gang, he falls off a roof, and, instead of hitting the pavement, wakes up in "Mythic China." He eventually joins up with Chan, doing his "drunken master" role, an enigmatic Monk (Jet Li), and Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a maiden warrior intent on taking vengeance on the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who is responsible for the deaths of her family. For varous reasons of their own, they help him in his quest by guiding him to Five Elements Mountain, the lair of the Jade Warlord, and training him in kung-fu.

By the time they get there, Jason (Angarano) has learned enough to be a formidable warrior, especially when armed with the Monkey King's magic staff, and the quest has become personal. Angarano did indeed learn (movie) king-fu for this role and manages to look credible bouncing around the Jade Warlord's throneroom fighting the Warlord's Jade Army and the witch Ni Chang (Bing Bing Li).

However, the real stars of the movie are Chan and Jet Li, and when they are fighting on screen, everyone else fades into the background. Absolutely the best fight scene in the movie is when Chan as drunken Lu Yan and Li as the Monk go one-on-one. Of course, there are bits where obligatory slo-mo and "wire-fu" are mixed in, but just the pure hand to hand combat with its speed and precision is amazing to watch.

Chan's comedic style tends to set the tone for the film, but even the more serious-action oriented Li gets into the act, as he also gets to play the trickster Monkey King, with a roguish grin and twinkling eye.

Collin Chou makes a good master villian as the envious and treacherous Jade Warlord, ably abetted by henchwoman Ni Chang, the whip-wielding white haired witch. (I don't know what it is with Chinese witches and bullwhips, but I've seen this combo in a couple other films, notably the "Swordsman" series--.)

Cinematography and settings are fantastic. The film is shot on location and takes advantage of the many stiking vistas China has to offer. Special effects are well integrated. (Once again, I am struck by the influence "The Lord of the Rings" has had on fantasy films. The Jade Army marching out is a distinct homage to the army of Mordor leaving Minas Morgul, and the mystic waves attendant on Monkey King being freed echo those that accompanied the dissolution of Sauron.)(That being said, conventions of Chinese cinema remain. Evil henchmen multiply geometrically--i.e. two go down, four more appear, then eight, then sixteen, etc.,--until the good guys break away.)

Typical of the kung-fu genre, there is very little actual blood: a bit seen when one character is wounded by an arrow, an artistic bit from a split lip at the end of a fight. Other than the arrow shot, however, I don't think a blow is landed with an edged weapon throughout the film.

Of course a high-stakes adventure can't be without cost, and who dies in the course of the film may be a bit troubling, although dramatically and honestly foreshadowed.

The movie's quest plot is simple, straightforward, and played with sincerity as well as humor. All the actors do a marvelous job of integrating their actions with special effects flying staves, magic bursts, and room-length flailing hair. Pure fun.

In English, with occasional Mandarin with English subtitles.

Florentine Opera, "I Capuleti e i Montecchi"

Our season with the Florentine Opera ended with a very fine performance of "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" (literally, "The Capulets and the Montagues," but usually subtitled "Romeo and Juliet."). This opera, by bel canto composer Vincenzo Bellini, to a libretto by Felice Romani, gives almost an alternate-universe version of the story of the 'star-crossed lovers.' Unlike others such as Gounoud's "Roméo et Juliette," the story is not based on Shakespeare, but is instead drawn from the same Italian sources as Shakespeare drew upon.

This production was set in the time of the Guelph/Ghibelline conflict, and, as the opera opens, there is open warfare in progress. The Capulet home is a grim fortress, not the elegant palazzo we usually see, and Romeo is leader of the opposing army laying seige to the town. Romeo (Marianna Kulikova) arrives in mufti as an ambassador offering to make peace between the families by an interdynastic marriage with Giulietta (Georgia Jarman). Despite the positive advice of Lorenzo (Kurt Link), the family physician and counsellor, the Capulet patriarch, Capellio (Jamie Offenbach), refuses, determined instead to marry his daughter to his loyal captain, Tebaldo (Scott Piper). Capello's son was killed in combat with Montague troops, and Capellio hates Romeo for his son's sake.

In the second scene, Lorenzo arranges a secret meeting between Romeo and Giulietta. Although Giulietta loves Romeo in return, she refuses to elope with him, as it would be dishonorable. In the third scene of the first act, Romeo infiltrates troops into town and disrupts the planned wedding of Tebaldo and Giulietta, but himself barely escapes.

Faced with the potential death of everyone she cares for, Giulietta agrees to take the sleeping potion to feign death and elope with Romeo. However, word of the plan does not get to Romeo because Capellio becomes suspcious of Lorenzo and has him imprisoned.

Romeo and Tebaldo are about to fight to the death when news of Giulietta's supposed end reaches them. In a nice ironic scene, the would-be combatants each beg for death, each blaming himself for Giulietta's loss and claiming to be made the more miserable thereby.

The opera ends in Juliet's tomb. Adding a bit of Gothic horror, Juliet awakes just after Romeo has taken the poison, such that he dies in her arms. In some productions, Juliet then dies "of grief", although here she took the more Shakespearean route of stabbing herself with Romeo's dagger, whereupon the curtain fell.

The opera is "small" by some standards, with only the five principals, and the sixth character being the Florentine men's chorus representing Capulet and Montague retainers. "Bel Canto" however, calls for fine voices, and we were not disappointed. Soprano Georgia Jarman was outstanding as Giulietta, with a beautiful, strong, and expressive voice. Marianna Kulikova (mezzo) as Romeo, was not well reviewed by our local paper, which claimed she was frequently overwhelmed by the chorus and orchestra. I don't know if she "let it out" a bit more in the final performance or what, but we had no trouble hearing and enjoying her performance from our seats in the center loge. it must be noted that the "Romeo" role is a demanding one, since she was on and singing in all six scenes, with substantial running and fighting in scenes three and five. We thought she handled it all very, very well. Scott Piper (Tebaldo) has an excellent tenor voice and performed without flaw or seeming effort. Bass Jamie Offenbach, as the family tyrant was a dominating presence, and Kurt Link (bass) ably moved the plot along as Lorenzo. We detected no fault in any of the singing.

In our opinion, Bellini deserved his reputation as a musical genius of his day. With the support of the well-drilled chorus, and the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Joseph Resigno, the opera gave us gorgeous melodies, harmonies, and sonorities.

As well as being lovely to listen to, the production was good to look at as well. The sparse sets, hired from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, were brought to life by an expressive light plot, designed by Peter Dean Beck, and costumes were handsome and generally period-appropriate. Between stage director Bernard Uzan and fight choreographer Todd Denning, the company handily avoided the "typical" bel canto opera staging. ("Come down center, stand, and sing--.")

All in all, both Georgie and I agreed it was a wonderful treat to find an opera that was both new to us and so thouroughly enjoyable.