SCREAM 3 - THE TIGGER MOVIE
MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR.
THE BIG TEASE - A MAP OF THE WORLD
THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN


SCREAM 3

Sidney Prescott's (Neve Campbell) in relative hiding as 'Stab 3' goes into production and another masked killer begins picking off the cast members in the order of their appearance in the film. Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courtney Cox Arquette) are sparring, as he's employed by the the starlet who's portraying her, Jennifer Jolie (indie darling Parker Posey) and Gale doesn't like that one bit in director Wes Craven's "Scream 3."

Laura's review of 'Scream 3':
Screenplay originator Kevin Williamson is stretched too far these days, so while he gets a producer credit, writing duties have been picked up by Ehren 'how apt' Kruger, who showed a lot of promise last year with "Arlington Road." While he takes a game stab at closing the 'Scream' trilogy, he's not in on the self-referential horror genre jokes enough to make this a truly satisfying conclusion.

Director Wes Craven has returned, after his foray outside the genre earlier in the year with Meryl Streep, and manages to get some mileage out of an aspect of this third installment that he's mined before - that of the 'film within a film' trickery of "Wes Craven's New Nightmare." Putting Sidney into sets of her own Woodsboro home is effective for one sequence in the latter half of the film, which is where the movie most outstays its welcome in other regards.

The filmmakers have tried to spice up this outing with cameos, but they don't really work. Silent Bob and Jay pop up briefly from Kevin Smith's flicks, but they appear to be too sophisticated a reference for most of the "Scream" demographic - there was no murmer of recognition from the full showing I attended. Also falling flat is an appearance by Carrie Fisher as a studio clerk who looks like Carrie Fisher, a rather far flung attempt to make a trilogy joke. A terrific cameo is obtained from Jamie Kennedy as the late video store clerk Randy Meeks, who's presented to Dewey, Sidney and Gale on videotape by his sister Martha (cameo by Heather Matarazzo of "Welcome to the Dollhouse"). It's the 'I'm dead if you're watching this video' cliche, but the only time the film really goofs on genre conventions. Unfortunately, what Randy has to say about the dreaded trilogy closer is either ignored or done dead on arrival.

"Scream 3" does has some fun in its initial half, where we learn that Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber) is now a talk show host with a tag line of '100% Cotton' and see that the 'Stab 3' studio chief is none other than Roger Corman (although he plays his cameo drably). Parker Posey is a hoot flouncing around as the faux Gale Weathers and Jenny McCarthy is a worthy addition as a 'Stab' cast member who doesn't know her Hitchcock references. Unfortunately, Neve Campbell is more interesting in seclusion working under the name Laura as a California womens' crisis counselor than she is in the midst of the action. The film begins to bog down as soon as she walks onto the set. Attempts to point the finger at an unlikely suspect are overt, the back story about what really happened to Maureen Prescott (Sidney's mom) is uninspired and the overly extended climax is a yawn. (In fact, a major problem with this entire series has been the unveiling of the killer, although at least the second installment's was a neat reference to "Friday the Thirteenth.")

"Scream 3" is only for die hard fans of the series. If you haven't seen the first two films, you'll have no problem identifying the carnage, but the story line will leave you baffled.

C


THE TIGGER MOVIE

"The wonderful thing about tiggers, is that tiggers are wonderful thing...but, the most wonderful thing about tiggers is that I'm the only one!" These are words that Tigger will come to regret in Disney Animations' first feature length animated film about the friends of Christopher Robin in "The Tigger Movie."

Robin's review of 'The Tigger Movie':
The always exuberant title character wreaks his usual havoc with all his friends and bragging about his unique tiggerness. Tigger comes to realize, though, that being the only one of your kind can be a lonely thing, especially if all you want is someone to bounce with - 'cause that's what tiggers do best! Advice from Owl to trace his family tree inspires the energetic cat to find where his tigger family lives. If there is one tigger, there must be many and, of course, the family tree must be the biggest, hugest, stripiest tree of them all. Tigger doesn't know that this tree does not exit.

All of Tigger's friends - Winnie the Pooh, Owl, Eeyore, Rabbit, Piglet, Kanga and, especially, Roo - are concerned about his obsession and try to make things right. They fake a letter from Tigger's family, telling him to be safe and eat right. Tigger reads between the lines and declares that his family is coming to visit. He makes such elaborate arrangements that his friends come to the party dressed as tiggers, just to keep their friend happy. The scheme backfires, though, and tigger runs off into a blizzard to find his real family, never realizing that his "family" has been around him all the time.

Director/screenwriter Jun Falkenstein makes her feature debut with "The Tigger Movie" and does an exemplary job in adapting the A.A.Milne material. Although there was an earlier 1977 feature called "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" - actually three shorts strung together for theatrical release - this new film is the first, real full-length animation about Pooh and his friends. Falkenstein and a team of some three hundred animators in the U.S. and Japan have crafted a traditional story and created a film for Pooh fans of all ages.

Falkenstein adapted the story by Eddie Guzelian, based on the works written for and about Milne's own son, Christopher Robin Milne, and captures the spirit and the essence of the author's tales of imagination and wonder. There is an elegant simplicity and sentimentality to this sweet tale about finding one's true family, a family that may not be fraternal but a real family, nonetheless. The complexity of the emotions between the characters, like Roo's idolization of Tigger and dream of the bouncy feline being his big brother, are deftly handled with the moral of the story told on levels that little kids will understand and adults will appreciate.

The vocalizations of this lovable menagerie of animals represent a splendid continuation of the characters who came to life on the big screen back in 1968 with the Academy Award-winning, "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day." Jim Cummings is the most notable of the talented, if unknown to most, vocal cast. His voicing of Tigger and Pooh are great, with a dead on rendition of Pooh, first voiced so wonderfully by Sterling Halloway way back when. My particular favorite character, after Tigger, is the morose, long-suffering Eeyore (Peter Cullen) who, you'll be happy to know, finally comes out ahead of the game in the end.

I saw a Saturday morning kids screen of "The Tigger Movie" - attended by 150 or 200 kids all rested up and fed sugar-laden cereal, which could spell disaster if the movie doesn't reach them. They were rambunctious as the trailer ran, but, once the film got under way, they all settled down and were held in rapt fascination for 76 minutes. And, I was, too. There were, this past year, several terrific animations and kids movies. One, "Toy Story 2," is, in my opinion, the best movie of 1999. Others, like "The Iron Giant," "Tarzan" and "The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland," aren't just great kids movies, they are great movies of imagination, humor and good heartedness. "The Tigger Movie," while most definitely geared toward the diminutive viewer, will entertain and touch the hearts of all except for the most Scrooge-like viewer.

Another element that lends to the overall high quality of this first-rate animation the original song work by Richard and Robert Sherman. These songwriting brothers have provided "onliest" songs for the Pooh projects from the start. Their rendition of the well-known Tigger song is sweetly complimented by a variety of other ditties, including Tigger's "Whoop-de-Dooper Bounce" song and the wild and whacky, "Around My Family Tree." The latter is accompanied with a witty montage of the imagined members of the tigger clan, from warrior tiggers to explorer tiggers to Jackson Five and Brady Bunch style tiggers. There is even a Marilyn Monroe tigger!

I'm an emotional sap when it comes to thoughtful, funny, feel good children's films and I'm glad that "The Tigger Movie" is a worthy member of that pantheon. I give it an A-.

Laura's review of 'The Tigger Movie':
Disney scores again with "The Tigger Movie," the first theatrical feature film from the beloved 'Winnie the Pooh' books. It begins with John Hurt's narration over live action footage of Christher Robbins' bedroom, before the animated Tigger jumps into the frame and grabs the title away from Pooh.

Tigger (T-I-double guh-er) is a boisterous as ever, making startling entrances into his buddies homes before leaving them in disastrous tumult (Piglet's chair is burned in the fireplace, Pooh's honeypots are overturned, Eeyore's home is destroyed). When Tigger can't persuade his industrious pals to bounce with him, Tigger changes his mind about the joys of 'being the only one' and begins a quest to find other tiggers via his family tree. Roo, who's the only member of the forest to unabashedly adore the rambunctious feline, tries to cheer Tigger up by learning the 'Whoop-de-Dooper Bounce.' When that effort fails and Tigger finds no others of his kind in the various trees of the Thousand Acre woods, Roo convinces its other inhabitants to write a Tigger a letter from his Tigger family. This also backfires, as Tigger builds a family room and prepares a party for the Tigger clan he expects to visit.

"The Tigger Movie" is a delightful surprise. The story is heartwarming and contains dialogue that will keep the adults smiling ('That's not a doo-hickey' declares Tigger when Roo finds a heart shaped locket in Tigger's closet, 'That's a thingamabob!') The songs, by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, are terrific - much better than those used in several recent more traditional Disney animations (the ones that get Oscar nominations for Best Song). Tigger and Pooh are both voiced by Jim Cummings, who gives Tigger a little bit of Burt Lahr's 'rrr'. All of Pooh's cronies - Piglet, Rabbit, Owl - get their due, with Eeyore's sad sack donkey (Peter Cullen) providing some of the best moments ('Keep smiling' he adds to Tigger's letter). Loving attention to detail can be seen throughout, such as when a shaft of sun shines on Tigger in the forest or the change in lighting when Kanga blows out Roo's bedside candle (Roo also has a map of references when Tigger sings 'Round My Family Tree,' with Brady Bunch Tiggers, Patridge Family Tiggers, circus Flying Tiggers and even a Dali Tigger.

I had a smile on my face throughout this 75 minute flick (until, I will admit, I got a little misty eyed at the end). Granted the film is a gentle one which doesn't achieve the same level of wit of such Disney efforts as 'Tarzan,' but "The Tigger Movie" is a great family film - a must-see for anyone who's ever felt affection for those whose 'tops are made out of rubber and bottoms are made out of springs.'

B+


MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR.

Cambridge documentarian Errol Morris ("Fast, Cheap and Out of Control") read an article about Malden engineer Fred Leuchter in the Atlantic Monthly and became fascinated - here was a man who had testified in 1988 in a Canadian court that no gas chamber executions took place in Auschwitz at the behest of neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. It is now estimated that there are over a million copies of 'The Leuchter Report' in print, largely via the Internet. When Morris wanted to test his Interrotron, a camera which allows the subject to maintain eye contact with the interviewer, he contacted Leuchter. The interview he captured was so compelling to Morris, that he procured funding to complete the feature length documentary, "Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr."

Laura's review of 'Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.':
Morris' documentary has at its heart an interesting subject indeed - here's a man who believes so strongly in his own expertise, an expertise he himself questions early in Morris' film, that he would deny not only history, but the retraction of the test results provided him by the man who performed the tests. Unfortunately, Morris' film is much more compelling in watching Leuchter's 'rise' - his 'fall' flatlines on film.

Leuchter grew up around the Massachusetts correctional facilities where his father was employed, so had an early exposure to such things as death row and execution equipment. Leuchter became appalled at the inhumane execution devices that were in use across the country. As he explains, it was common practice for a photograph of an electric chair to be handed to an electrician to duplicate, with no thought to the effect on the human body different levels of electricity would have. Fred first began his unusual career by agreeing to revamp the electric chair in use by the state of Tennessee (which he received at his Malden home and was photographed sitting in). This led to being asked to build a lethal injection machine, something Leuchter himself admits has nothing to do with the functioning of an electric chair, but a job which he took on, claiming that any good engineer can solve a problem. He was then asked to repair a gallows.

When the lawyers for Ernst Zundel were looking for a defense witness (Canada has laws against publishing material which could incite racial hatred and Zundel's Holocaust revisionism fit that bill), they were referred to Leuchter by the US prison systems he had worked for. Leuchter, with his new bride in tow, jumped at the chance to visit Poland, where he illegally chiselled pieces of chamber walls from Auschwitz. These were sent, unidentified, to a Massachusetts lab for testing, where they turned up no significant traces of cyanide (the tester ground up the samples without knowing what they were, rendering them useless, as cyanide would have only penetrated the wall surface to a depth less than the width of a human hair). Leuchter also testified that the chambers could not have been used as functional gas chambers (this based on his observations of fifty year old ruins).

While Morris has picked a good subject, the film loses steam in its second half when he is forced to make extensive use of recreations and show old news footage out of context (we see Leuchter walking through town surrounded by Malden police, but do not understand what the particular event signifies). As Leuchter essentially has his career handed to him, we see documentation of his youth and a visit to the execution room where that Tennessee electric chair lives. Background is filled in - Leuchter claims to drink forty cups coffee (he was briefly married to a Dunkin Donuts waitress) and smoke six packs of cigarettes a day. Morris' use of a 1903 Thomas Edison film of the electrocution of an elephant is not for the faint of heart, yet it works to underline Leuchter's words.

What is Morris trying to say about Fred Leuchter - that evil is banal? Leuchter seems tragically misguided, yet never inherently evil. His largest sin was egotism, enjoying the initial notoriety his report gave him, taking the opportunities to speak in front of groups that wanted to hear the Holocaust denied with the end result that he became identified with the neo-Nazi movement (an unwise move to say the least). While Morris asks at the end of his film if Leuchter has ever wondered if he was wrong (no is the surprising answer), I wanted to ask many more questions, such as how does Leuchter explain the retraction of the test results as well as engineering drawings located at Auschwitz which clearly diagram the construction of gas chambers? He admits to having lost some Jewish friends because of his report - why couldn't they convince him of his folly? (It should be noted that Leuchter has paid for his claims, losing his livelihood, his wife and his home.)

Many of Morris' stylistic visual flourishes embellish the film (the opening credits play to an ironic 'Frankenstein' set piece, Leuchter is reflected in coffee as well as the puddles at Auschwitz, etc.) and the score by Caleb Sampson recalls an old time carnival atmosphere. "Mr. Death" is a must-see for fans of Morris' work, but it shows its beginnings - that initial interview is the meat of this work.

B-


THE BIG TEASE

Crawford Mackenzie (Craig Ferguson, TV's "The Drew Carey Show") is the best and most famous hairdresser in ...Glasgow, Scotland. When he receives an invitation to the W.I.H.F (World International Hairdressing Federation) freestyle hairdressing competition in LA, he has a huge sendoff, then jumps in a plane with a BBC documentary crew. After a couple of days of living the high life Mackenzie learns the harsh truth from Monique (Mary McCormack, "Private Parts") - he was only invited to watch the competition and can't compete anyway without a US H.A.G card.

Robin's review of 'The Big Tease':
Crawford Mackenzie (Craig Ferguson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sacha Gervasi) is a Glasgow hairdresser and the best in Scotland. An invitation to Crawford to take part in the prestigious Platinum Clippers competition in Los Angeles attracts a BBC television team led by Martin Samuels (Chris Langham), a documentary filmmaker. The excitement of the trip and the opportunities it may spawn sweep up Crawford and his docu crew as they wend their way to America. But, Mackenzie got his signals crossed from the very start and things go drastically wrong for the hairstylist, but not for long, in the mock documentary, "The Big Tease."

Once ensconced in the City of Angels - in a luxury suite at a swanky (and expensive) hotel - the Scottish hairstylist gets down to enjoying the excesses of the town. Crawford takes advantage of his status as a competitor and rings up a sizable bill at the hotel. He is "invited" by the hotel manager, Dunstan Cactus (Larry Miller), to Cactus's office only to find out that he has overextended his credit card and owes a bunch of money. After having his passport impounded by the hotel, Mackenzie heads to the Platinum Scissors headquarters to get things straightened out. There, the competition coordinator, Monique (Mary McCormack), informs him that his invitation was only a form letter - an invite to be merely an audience member at the competition, not a participant.

Believing the whole thing is a big mistake, Crawford tries to get into the contest, but hits roadblocks everywhere he turns. He learns, first, that he needs his HAG card (Hairstylists of America Guild), to qualify as an entrant. He uses his charm, perseverance, and a claim of friendship to Sean Connery to try to wheedle his way into the show. Using his professional magic, he transforms Connery's LA publicist Candy Harper (Frances Fisher) and earns an ally in his quest for the coveted clippers. The rest is a Rocky-esque tale of Crawford's desire to enter the competition and take the title of the world's best hairdresser.

Director Kevin Allen takes a conventional turn in this light hearted little fairy tale of one Scottish lad's desire to achieve the greatness that he knows exists within. Cute is the term that comes mind to best describe "The Big Tease." There's a little glitter thrown in the mix with Crawford's search for his Holy Grail, but the tale is a routine rags-to-riches yarn, at best. Craig Ferguson is, like the movie, mildly likable as the ambition Scottish hairdresser who has visions of his own greatness, whether real or perceived. The obstacles that befall him are met square on and, with a little help from a bunch of new friends, he defeats them one by one. He attains the unattainable HAG card by taking a job styling the costumes of animal characters at a theme park. He confronts the denial of his quest by the organizers of the competition by getting in to see its billionaire owner and making friends. There is an inevitableness to Mackenzie's pursuit of the platinum shears that makes the results of the Big Contest a foregone conclusion. There are few, if any, surprises in the fairy tale.

The film is peppered with a number of "friends of Mackenzie" with the likes of Drew Carey and David Hasselhoff appearing as themselves in small cameos. There is little amusement in these cameo appearances. Everything else, including the hairdressing shootout at the film's finale, is by the numbers. When we finally arrive at the competition, which we have no doubt that Crawford will get in, you know what's going to happen. The outrageous, absurdist nature of the final hairstyles bears resemblance to something out of the era of Louis XVI - one style is a pagoda, another a soccer field and a third a Viking longboat. Mackenzie's is a giant Scottish thistle that has a dancing piper as a part of it. It's all very silly and whimsical.

There are a few little laughs along the way. The best of which poke fun at the Scots. Otherwise, there is no bite to this little puppy and it may have done better as an hour-long TV show. I give it a C.

Laura's review of 'The Big Tease':
'The Big Tease' is yet another mock-documentary that travels the well-rutted road of "This Is Spinal Tap" et al. While conceptually this sounds like a springboard to hilarity, 'The Big Tease' is mostly a drag.

Luckily for the film, its lead and cowriter, Craig Ferguson, has an extremely good natured presence. He also appears to have a large number of friends in Hollywood - the cast seems like a bunch of buddies who've gotten together to put on the type of show that's more entertaining to the performers than the audience.

Chris Langham is the beleagered BBC documentarian who gets Crawford's mum to tell us how the gift of a chess set uncovered his talent when he dressed it in grass skirts for a production of Bali Hai. Frances Fisher ("Titanic") is the well connected publicity agent who agrees to hook Crawford up with Sean Connery after he gives her a makeover (Connery does not appear in the film). David Rasche (TV's "Sledge Hammer") is Stig Ludwiggssen, the three time winner of the Platinum Scissors and Hollywood hairdresser to the stars. Sara Gilbert appears in a small role as Candy's secretary, Larry Miller is a weird hotel manager and the likes of David Hasselhoff, Drew Carey, Cathy Lee Crosby, Bruce Jenner and Jose Eber appear as themselves.

I had a few laughs watching 'The Big Tease,' and two of them were geared towards a Scottish, rather than American, audience. My mum's from Glasgow - if yours isn't you may laugh even less. At the sixty minute mark, I didn't know if I could bear to go the distance with this 86 minute film. The final climatic competition is patently unfunny and ridiculous (Ferguson does his model's hair as a giant thistle from which a dancing highland doll emerges), although Stig's norse boat hairstyle was somewhat interesting. Stig gets a perfect ten, while Crawford goes out to capture an eleven! Where have I heard the eleven joke before?

D+


A MAP OF THE WORLD

Alice Goodwin (Sigourney Weaver) is an outspoken city girl viewed with suspicion by her new rural neighbors in a Wisconsin farming community. Her husband Howard (David Strathairn) has just transplated the family here to try out farming. Her job as a school nurse puts her up against the likes of Carole Mackessy (Chloe Sevigny), who keeps bringing her sick son to school. Her abrasive relationshipship with her 8 year old daughter and her upside-down household contrast spectacularly with her best friend Theresa's (Julianne Moore) perfect home and two blond girls. Life is generally OK for Alice, though, until Theresa's youngest drowns in the Goodwins pond and Robbie Mackessy's mom accuses her of child abuse in "A Map of the World."

Laura's review of 'A Map Of The World':
'I used to think if you fell from grace it was the result of one big mistake,' Sigourney Weaver says in voiceover at the beginning of "A Map of the World." What her character Alice discovers, is that it's the build up of small gestures and moments that can have a dramatic impact on one's life.

Alice Goodwin is aggressively opinionated and a bit of an intellectual for a farm country. She makes off-the-cuff remarks about wanting to do horrible things to children, loudly, in the school corridors where she works to vent off steam. She makes no bones about her disgust with Carole Meckessy's parental skills, although her distate for the Mackessy boy is more mysterious. Her husband, Howard, is the type of guy who sits at the kitchen table smiling dreamily as a frying pan beside him smokes and flames. Emma Goodwin (Dara Perlmutter) is prone to that brand of temper tantrum that begets war. It's clear that from Alice's point of view, she's a tower of strength that bears the brunt of adult responsibility within the Goodwin household.

When Theresa and Dan Collins' two year old drowns while in Alice's care, it's clearly the type of tragic accident that could have happened to anybody. Alice, consumed with guilt and sorrow, freaks out at the funeral and runs from the church, sealing her fate with a town that's already viewed her with a suspicious eye. She finds Theresa by her pond and her best friend tells her 'I know you're sorry and I'm even sorry you're sorry, but that doesn't do me any good right now.' Alice retreats from life - she only wants to have a nervous breakdown. Howard first brings in his well-meaning mom (Louise Fletcher) to help run the household, but his resentment at the loss of his partner's help grows as Alice doesn't snap out of it. When she finally pulls herself together to go on a much needed grocery expedition, the police arrive and arrest her for the abuse of Robbie Mackessy.

Alice in jail is even more out of touch with her environment. Her defiant nature overtakes her emotions, so that Howard even has to remind her to ask about the welfare of her own children. She's distant from the other, mostly black, inmates who brand her a baby killer. Howard is overwhelmed and at sea - forbidden by Alice to let their kids see her in jail, Howard can't find a single person willing to look after them and resorts to paying the woman who delivers eggs to watch them. Theresa returns, horrified with what's happened to Alice (although, oddly, she never visits or contacts her in jail) and the Goodwin household suddenly is tranformed into a place of calm and order. Dan rejects Theresa's overtures to the Goodwins outright while Theresa and Howard have an awkward reevaluation of their own relationship.

'A Map of the World' is a good movie that loses its way somewhat in its prison scenes, which don't ring as true as the goings on of the outside world. (In fact, a persistent emphasis on The Oprah Winfrey Show seems to pull the film itself into TV movie territory.) Sigourney Weaver shines as the all too human Alice, warts and all. Julianne Moore plays the perfect Theresa with natural grace, although her perfection makes her less interesting than Alice. Sevigny's believable as the trampy Carole Mackessy who can pull tears out of the air. Louise Fletcher knows how to make well-meaningness exasperating. Unfortunately, every male character in 'A Map of the World' is either weak or unlikeable. David Strathairn is a fine actor, but we've seen him in roles like this before. It's to his credit that he engages our sympathy as he struggles to keep afloat and restore his family. Ron Lea plays Dan as a macho boor - what did he do to deserve Theresa? Arliss Howard is the hot shot lawyer who takes great pleasure in bringing his opponent down while caring little about the human drama playing out.

'A Map of the World' recalls 'The Deep End of the Ocean' with its themes of a mother breaking down over the loss of a child and then fighting her way back into the world. First time director Scott Elliott has the talent to let a picture speak - the perfect arts and crafts project laid out on Theresa's dining room table, the way Howard approaches Alice for love-making. He's made the more emotionally involving, complex film with two powerful performances from Weaver and Moore.

B


THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN

For hundreds of years the numerous minor kingdoms and fiefdoms of third century BC China have been warring with each other. The stronger states overpowered the weak until just seven kingdoms remain. The leader of the most powerful kingdom of Qin, Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian), has decided that, for "the peace and prosperity of all China and her people," it would be best to unite the seven under one leader - himself. This decree leads to brutality and slaughter, not peace and prosperity, in director Chen Kaige's epic tale, "The Emperor and the Assassin."

Robin's review of 'The Emperor And The Assassin':
Director Chen Kaige, now the premier director in China, is renowned for his lush, grand period dramas, such as "Temptress Moon" and "Farewell, My Concubine." (Both of which also star the beautiful Gong Li .) With these films, along with his lyrical "Life on a String," Kaige delves on a personal and intimate level. The helmer takes a major leap with "The Emperor and the Assassin," depicting an important, violent time in the birth of a great nation.

A film of true epic proportions, "The Emperor and the Assassin" is a study of the first emperor of China, Ying Zheng. (He's the guy whose burial tomb is guarded by an army of a thousand terracotta warriors.) He believes that it is his ancestral mandate to unite his kingdom of Qin with the other six provinces. Ying devises a plot with his long-time concubine and trusted aide, Lady Zhao (Gong Li), to fake an assassination attempt on himself, making it look like the plot was hatched by the neighboring kingdom of Yan. The Lady has herself branded with Ying's slave mark to give visible credence to her search for a killer to kill her king.

Ying Zheng proves to be a single-minded and brutal conqueror as he takes the weak kingdom of Han in a violent, overwhelming assault on its capital. His vow for "peace and prosperity" for his people is forgotten as he turns his sights to the lady's homeland of Zhao and slaughters the inhabitants, including the children, burying many alive. This massacre stuns and infuriates Lady Zhao, who turns against her king and lover and plots a real assassination with the Prince of Yan (Sun Zhou). They seek out master assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fegyi), to fulfill the mission to kill Ying. But, Jing refuses the job, having given up his deadly profession after a blind girl killed herself when he murdered her family. Lady Zhao strives to convince Jing that the elimination of the king is necessary to stop further bloodshed, but she falls in love with the enigmatic assassin.

While this epic saga of war and intrigue unfolds, other elements are added to give the story dimension and complexity. Ying's prime minister, Lu Buwei (Chen Kaige), is fired for going against his king's plans for conquest. But, Lu has a secret that Ying wants kept at all costs - Lu Buwei is Ying's real father, making the ruler's ancestor-inspired quest for empire a sham. Meanwhile, the Queen Mother (Gu Yongfei) is carrying on a secret affair with a scheming official of the king's court, Marquis Changxin (Wang Zhiwen), who has his own plans to overthrow the king.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" is a huge, sprawling, epic historical drama about the making of an empire. Helmer Chen also co-wrote and executive produced this, his seventh film, and the dedication to accurately depict the monumental events that occurred over 2000 years ago is evident on all levels.

The exemplary cast is led by Gong Li, one of the world's most beautiful women and a terrific actress, as the strong-willed, sensitive Lady Zhao. Gong gives her character an elegant dignity that hides a subtle sense of humor - when she voluntarily allows herself to be branded, she kids the man doing the job so he won't feel bad for his deed. Lady Zhao truly loves her king until his inhumanity drives her to seek his destruction. Gong is perfect in the role of the Lady.

The two men in Lady Zhou's life - the king and the killer - are played with skill and talent. Li Xuejian portrays the obsessed king with a force that convinces you of his ruthlessness. His may be a truly honest desire to unite China, but the heartless way he achieves his goals are too costly. The end doesn't justify the means and Li shows the kings as a man who, in the end, has his empire but lost his humanity.

Zhang Fengyi plays the other title character, Jing Ke, the hired gun. Jing is a deep character who is monumentally affected by the suicide of the blind girl. Zhang plays the man with an air of despair over his past and says volumes with his face. We can feel the weariness he feels, especially when he is forced to see that he is the only one who can kill the rampaging despot, Ying. These three actors are compelling and believable in their depiction of larger than life historical figures. Supporting cast - including an appearance by the director as the prime minister - flesh out the background characters to help give the film some of its many layers.

The production - the most expensive Asian produced film ever - is a world-class effort. The research time spent on the attention to historical detail is all there on the screen with lavish sets, brilliant costuming and battle sequences that are some of the best I have seen, rivaling even the great Akira Kurasawa's best efforts. The battle scenes, in particular, are stunning, with enormous siege machines and massive battering rams lending a Crusades-like medieval primitiveness to the horrors of war, which includes the mass suicides of the children. Costumes, particularly for Gong Li, are equal to the rest of the production, reflecting the 2-" years of careful research by designer Mo Xiaomin. Lush photography by Zhao Fei caps off this impressive production.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" is a long film, as suits its epic scale, and it is in Chinese with English subtitles, which may scare some people off. But, it is an excellent opportunity for the history/film buff to get a look at a unique time in world history not well known by Westerners. Chen Kaige has always been an imaginative and aggressive filmmaker and is equal to the task of telling such a grand tale. I give it an A.

Laura's review of 'The Emperor And The Assassin':
Actor/Cowriter/director Chen Kaige's ("Farewell My Concubine") "The Emperor and the Assassin," which tells the historical story of King Ying Zheng of Qin, who united the seven kingdoms of China in 221 B.C., is the most Shakespearean story Shakespeare never wrote. Despite a handful of editting glitches (or were they weird artistic choices made too randomly?), this is epic storytelling with the sweep of Kurosawa and more intrigute than Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor."

Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian, "Shanghai Triad") begins as a benevolent ruler intent on creating peaceful harmony throughout China. Lady Zhao (Gong Li, "Farewell My Concubine"), who grew up with Zheng when he was held hostage as a young boy in her province of Zhao, dismisses her plan to leave (she's afraid Zheng is no longer interested in her) and concocts a plan. She has her face branded and then appeals to the Prince of Yan (Sun Zhou), Zheng's hostage, to travel to Yan and find an assassin to kill Zheng, thereby giving Zheng an excuse to invade Yan and unite the northern territories. Meanwhile, Zheng has palace intrigue afoot - his mother (Gu Yongfei) is having an illicit affair with the former servant of the prime minister Lu Buwei (Chen Kaige) who she's elevated to the title of Marquis (Wang Zhiwen, "Blush"). The affair has produced two sons which they keep hidden within the palace while plotting their potential royal futures.

Meanwhile we're introduced to the assassin, Jing Ke (Zhang Fengyi, "Farewell My Concubine"), a brutal swordsman, as he takes out a family of swordmakers, then discovers their blind daughter who takes her own life when he refuses to kill her. Haunted by guilt, he becomes a lowly sandal peddler until Lady Zhao pulls him into the court of Yan and her heart.

Zheng (who frequently is referred to as 'goddamn Zheng') goes slowly mad much like King Lear as those close to him reveal different faces (Kaige stages a spectacular sequence where the Marquis storms the palace with rebels only to be ensnared). After receiving his own revised history from the Marquis, Zheng snaps and becomes a brutal and bloody tyrant who even attacks the kingdom of his own beloved Lady Zhao. Shocked by his brutality, Lady Zhao puts the assassin scheme into action, but she desires an entirely different outcome.

Kaige and Wang Peigong have done a first rate job of writing this historical epic. The central characters never become overwhelmed by the scope of the story. Particularly poetic is the ying/yang relationship of Zheng and Jing Ke as the one begins well intentioned and turns foul while the other begins cold and becomes a humanist. (Lady Zhao also echoes the words of the blind girl later in the film - nice symmetry).

The cast is wonderful. Gong Li is a complex Lady Zhao. Initially we're not sure of her motivations as she appears to be scheming along with the other members of Zheng's court. She's torn between two men, leaning towards the diminishing light of one, then the rising light of the other, much as a plant toward the sun. Xuejian is a commanding Zheng until he loses his family, one by one, when he dissolves into emotion before turning on the Lear act. Fengyi, resembling an Asian Morgan Freeman, is a dark horse to route for much as Clint Eastwood's old cowboy in "Unforgiven." Wang Zhiwen gives a deliciously two-faced performance as the Marquis, simpering outwardly, until, turning on his heel, he reveals the face of no fool. Gu Yongfei provides a sweetly rotting presence as the Queen Mother.

Gorgeous vistas and battle scenes are provided by cinematographer Zhao Fei ("Sweet and Lowdown"), placing the audience inside the action. Production designer Tu Juhua recreates Zheng's palace and several Chinese cities circa third century B.C. on location in China, providing such splendid detail as a bridge which rises from an indoor pool in Zheng's palace. Costume, hair and makeup are also noteworthy - the Queen Mother's rice powered face is in stark contract to her yellowing teeth and the hairstyles of the men resemble organic architecture. Zhao Jiping's score isn't quite up to the rest of the film's achievement.

"The Emperor and the Assassin" has it all war, romance, intrigue, tragedy and even humor. As a historical footnote, Emperor Ying Zheng ordered every book in his empire burned, built the Great Wall and lies in a tomb guarded by the famous army of terra cotta warriors.

B+


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