Dec 072012

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By Joe Bendel. She was one the biggest stars of her generation but the press was out to get her. Eerily, Ruan Lingyu’s short life paralleled the trajectories of her most tragic roles. Her career was marked by scandal, making her story a natural for big screen adaptation. Mixing narrative with documentary snippets, Stanley Kwan sympathetically profiles Ruan in Center Stage, which fittingly concludes the Asia Society’s Goddess film series tomorrow.

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There are two divas in Stage, Ruan and Lily Li, played by two divas of a later generation: Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau, respectively. A gifted actress, Ruan is often called the Greta Garbo of Republican China. She gained fame as a romantic heroine, but is now best remembered for her more politically charged films. Unfortunately, she fell for the wrong man at an early age. Arguably, it was a mistake Ruan significantly repeated once, perhaps twice. Ultimately, her ne’er do well ex would serve as the media’s willing tool.

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Stage can be quite maddening, because it recreates scenes from many of Ruan’s films that are now considered lost. Many of them look like they were really darn good, but we can only hope they eventually turn up in a mysterious film vault someplace. Naturally, Kwan also gives the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the surviving classics, Goddess and New Women, which kicked off the Asia Society’s retrospective last month.

Cheung is not a bad likeness for Ruan, perfectly expressing her brittle vulnerability. Her Ruan struggles to maintain a placid façade, but she obviously feels the sleights of others on a very deep level. Indeed, screenwriter Peggy Chiao clearly ascribes a great deal of her success as an actress to her remarkable empathy. It is a star turn from Cheung, justly awarded best actress at the 42nd Berlinale.

Kwan’s talking head segments, both archival and original black-and-white interviews with cast and crew, give the film a stop-and-start rhythm that can be distracting. Still, much of this commentary is rather interesting stuff, including the final sit-down granted by Li Lily, Ruan’s friend and fellow diva (represented in the Goddess series with Daybreak). Cheung’s sympathetic take on Ruan adds an intriguing meta-dimension to the film. Her candid segments also serve as a reminder how striking she is, considering how pale and drawn she often looks when appearing in character as Ruan.

At well over two and a half hours, Stage truly brims with ambition. Sort of the HK equivalent of Jessica Lange’s Frances Farmer bio-pic, it is a finely crafted period production that should satisfy Ruan’s fans with its earnest ardor for their star. Viewers will come to feel like they understand the exquisitely morose idol, yet suspect there is something about her that will always remain unknowable. Anchored by a great lead performance, Center Stage is highly recommended for fans of Ruan, Cheung, and Hong Kong cinema in general when it screens tomorrow (12/8), wrapping up the Goddess film series at the Asia Society.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on December 7th, 2012 at 11:09am.

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By Joe Bendel. Where are the Griswolds when you need them? It is the season for sentimentality and Edward Burns intends to indulge. He returns to Long Island for a big Irish family get together in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, which opens today in New York.

Their mother’s birthday is two days before Christmas, but aside from Gerry, her favorite, none of the grown Fitzgerald children want to come home to celebrate. Grown might be too strong a word. Let’s say they are over twenty-one. Gerry is the professional martyr who still lives at home. He has four sisters whose names are impossible to keep straight. It is easier to just number them in accordance with how annoying they are, number four being the most insufferable. He also has two brothers, one of whom would have been forgotten were it not for a handy set of press notes.

There is still a Fitzgerald father out there, but he is dead to Rosie Fitzgerald after he walked out on her when the brood was still quite young. Unfortunately, Jim Fitzgerald will be dead to everyone soon. His final wish is to spend his last Christmas with the family. Gerry tries pleading his case, but his mother and assorted siblings remain steadfastly opposed.

Various other family dramas crop up, including Sister #1’s pregnancy with her abusive husband. Brother Quinn and Sister #4 are pursuing significantly younger and older romantic partners, respectively, while Sister #3 sent her husband packing in favor of their landscaper. Sister #2 actually has a presentable husband and young baby, but she is still absolutely miserable to be around. Meanwhile, completely forgettable Brother Cyril just got out of rehab. Right, good luck with that.

From "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas."

Christmas with the Fitzgeralds will make viewers convert to Buddhism. The only appealing scenes involve Brother Gerry’s awkward courtship of Nora Daugherty, the nurse of a longtime family friend. It is nice to see realistically flawed, everyday looking (slightly worn even) people develop a down-to-earth relationship. Reuniting from The Brothers McMullen, Burns and Connie Britton display real romantic chemistry together. He helms these sequences with a sensitive touch the rest of the middling family chaos lacks.

Granted, it should also be noted Ed Lauter might just give a career performance as the remorseful absentee father. In fact, there are several very nice supporting turns peppered throughout this overstuffed holiday feast of subplots, each of which is neatly resolved, lest they spoil the turkey. While not an outright affront to cinema, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is unlikely to become anyone’s holiday tradition. More liable to test viewers’ patience, it opens today (12/7) in New York at the Village East.

LFM GRADE: C-

Posted on December 7th, 2012 at 11:08am.

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