Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a pair of reviews on CHICAGO's Rob Marshall's next flick MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. We have a couple different reviews on the flick from a test screening last night. Keep in mind the flick might not be completely done. Here's the first review, a positive from someone familiar with the original book. Enjoy!
Greetings, AICN buds. It’s Enigma Boy, back after a three year hiatus. Where was I? Getting a career in the ‘biz. Why should you care? Honestly, you really shouldn’t. If you actually remember me as a writer on this site—author of roughly ten reviews since 2000—you have too much time on your hands.
Well, enough is enough. I’m here to tell you that the Hollywood bigwigs at Sony and Dreamworks gave to the greater Los Angeles area one of the first test screenings of Rob Marshall’s greatly anticipated follow-up to “Chicago,” the sprawling Oscar-baiting “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Based on the novel by Arthur Golden—a surprising bestseller considering it’s long, intelligent and subtle, something that mainstream America seems to steer clear of in literature—and adapted by Robin Swicord (the upcoming “The Mermaids Singing”) and Doug Wright (apparently NOT the same Doug Wright that adapted his own play “Quills” into film form), this one is just shooting for Academy Award glory. Fortunately, this one isn’t falsely uplifting and pointed at Middle America like “Seabiscuit” or “Cinderella Man,” but a far quieter, character-driven piece that would be home to a David Lean film if only it had some spectacular war sequences.
Its December 9 release almost ensures Oscar attention. In fact, about a month ago I read an article where oddsmakers placed this film along four others as the frontrunners for best picture, the others being George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” Mr. Marshall’s old theater partner Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” and, of course, Spielberg’s “Munich.” In other words, this year seems to be entirely driven by politics in film, and “Geisha,” so far, remains seemingly the least hokey message-driven film of the bunch. (If Ron Howard gets his way, though, expect one of those films, probably “Good Night,” to be pushed aside by the hokey but well-made “Cinderella Man”).
Instead, “Geisha” shows that Marshall, in only two films, has brought something missing from most of the recent years of film—elegance. Only a few films can truly be called this in the last ten years, and even fewer have been nominated for Best Picture. Include “The Aviator” on that list, plus “Master & Commander,” “The Pianist,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Elizabeth” and “Fargo.” The film flows marvelously as long as it can, until it hits a few notable but difficult-to-avoid story adaptation mishaps. It is helped along by some of the best art direction money can buy and unbelievably nuanced performances.
I read the book back in 2001, and while going into the film I could not recall a good deal of the events—the many books one reads as an English major tends to turn one’s brain into a cloud of indistinguishable literature. Five minutes into the film, however, everything fell back into place—the film is that evocative. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is gorgeous without flaunting itself relentlessly and Colleen Atwood shows why she has a little gold man on her mantle among five nominations.
But enough about the hoopla. The plot and characters are where it’s at. After a very fast introduction to the world of pre-war Japan with a voiceover taken somewhat awkwardly from the book’s journalism-oriented framing—the narration is the film’s biggest flaw, not being placed in any time despite the obvious wheezing of an old woman—we meet young Chiyo, 9-years-old, whose recent loss of her mother forces her father to sell both her and her sister to geisha houses in the Gion district of Kyoto. Within minutes, the two are separated, prompting a lifelong sadness in Chiyo as she becomes owned by a major geisha house and is made to be a worker, especially to the spiteful and mean Hatsumomo (a strikingly cruel yet beautiful Li Gong). While Hatsumomo’s cruelty here pales in comparison to the hell she puts young Chiyo through in the book, she makes as the film’s formidable villain.
Chiyo will not let this world get her down, though, and soon she—helped by her glowing and alluringly rare blue eyes—is taken under the wing of famed geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). She is now 15 and performed effortlessly by the acclaimed Ziyi Zhang. In a montage worthy of the best editors, she trains to become a geisha, renamed Sayuri, and is soon one of the most desirable in the country. But war is coming, and the culture is changing.
The journey is what works best about this film, so I won’t ruin too much of it. Instead, I will explain that this is a mature, greatly enjoyable film. The first half is impeccable in its ability to incite great emotions from an audience more and more weary of 2+ hour films, even though the romantic triangle between Sayuri, the scarred war hero Nobu (Koji Yakusho) and the attractive Chairman (Ken Watanabe) who raised Chiyo’s spirits when she was at her lowest point in her life. This was the focus of much of the book, but here seems to be lightened considerably to focus instead on Sayuri’s own journey.
With this truncation, the film loses some of the Dickension spirit that made the book such a delight—cruelty at a young age, past figures suddenly reappearing in ones life, the scarred bastard with a heart, etc. However, it is not a book that’s easy to adapt, and I have to commend Marshall and his team for creating something so beaming with life and spirit. Without knowledge of the book, most audiences will eat up this movie. It’s part chick flick, part sprawling historical epic, part subtle character drama for those lit-lovers. I think it’ll attract more women than men—especially considering that Ziyi close-up that is the poster. While the story may droop a bit in the middle as the war comes and goes, it picks up as it slowly focuses more on the love triangle. (An appearance by Shang Tsung from “Mortal Kombat” as the lecherous baron doesn’t hurt, either.)
Ziyi Zhang is a wonder here. Left to her own devices without the spectacle of martial arts (“Crouching Tiger,” “Hero,” “Flying Daggers”), she can elicit something very deep within us, as evidenced by her underplayed dramatic roles. From a physical perspective, she is the most perfect subject a choreographer like Rob Marshall can have. Her movements are something to behold, and her accent—a source of some controversy, as she is obviously not Japanese—is sweet yet unobtrusive.
I wish I could do more than spew what seems to be a review of clichÃ©s, but this is really quite an exquisite film. It’s not perfect, but I have a feeling that its otherworldly, exotic settings, a surprisingly restrained John Williams/Yo-Yo Ma score, and its embrace of a time when films had elegance will hold the attention of many an audience member and many an Oscar voter. Look for nominations for picture, director, lead actress, supporting actress (Li Gong is more notable than Michelle Yeoh), cinematography, art direction, costumes, music (maybe) and makeup. No, this is not a plea to the Academy, just a very good guess.
While it doesn’t come out for another two months, the film seems very much finished. The score was intact and no obvious coloration problems. The only problem is the pace—slow in the middle, rushed at the end—but I chalk this up more to the adaptation than Marshall’s direction. He has proved with two films and his Broadway credits that he is something old, something new, and something worthwhile. This one’s ready.
And it’s much, much better than that trailer, which captures the sweep and color but not the subtle shadings of the poetry that is the film.
Till another time,
(Call me a plant again and I’ll bring up “Serenity,” thus ensuring another web battle)
P.S. Marshall is a surprisingly humble and kind man, who after the screening indulged me in my commendation of the version of “Cabaret” he and Mendes brought to Broadway in the late ‘90s and geeked out with me over his former screenwriter Bill Condon’s upcoming “Dreamgirls” (we share an obvious musical fetish).
This one's more smart-ass, but it's certainly a fun read. It's also a positive and echoes that there may be a little flab on the 2 1/2 hour long movie. Enjoy!
Last night I went to the Sherman Oaks Galleria to see a screening of the feel-good whore movie of the Christmas Season, Memoirs of a Geisha (translated from the Japanese: "A Film About Water").
The film had a huge audience last night, and I know there was plenty of crew seeing this for what seemed to be the first time. After the screening I passed several conversations along the lines of "that looked a lot better than when we shot it" and "I was surprised they fixed all those sound problems so quickly".
Regardless, I had wanted to see this film back in 1895 when Spielberg was attached to direct. If it wasn't 1895, it was a long time ago. I had never read the book, but I was always amused by the fact that some dude with an American-sounding name had written this runaway bestseller about Japanese culture, and specifically females in that culture. As a writer, I always find it refreshing to see a dude writing a book about women and it being a hit.
Rob Marshall, award winning director of such hits as "Chicago" and… well… this, probably, did a beautiful job with the film. The cinematography is beautiful, but it also doesn't hurt that Dion Beebe had beautiful things to take pictures of.
The acting was great, as long as you go with the idea that all of these people are Japanese and rarely do they ever speak that language. I always find it odd that we're afraid to make our own subtitled movies. It's ok if "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" comes to the States and people have to read it, but we don't want to make our own "foreign film" and listen to those crazy folks speak their own language. Americanize a story completely about the Japanese? Hmph.
And this IS a foreign film. It's beautiful, romantic, full of drama and quality acting. If it was in Japanese and subtitled, it could win the little bald golden guy for "Best Foreign Film Made Right Here At Home". It really is quite good.
As a plot round-up, Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young girl and her sister sold by her father into slavery. The sisters are separated, and sent to different boarding houses where most of the women grow up to be Geisha. Now don't automatically jump to the obvious conclusion that this will spin off a reality show. "Growing Up Geisha" wouldn't fly here because we don't like people that paint themselves white. Ask a clown.
So our main character, Sayuri (that's what we'll call her, since her name changes three times in the film, we'll stick with the most prominent one), is whipped and beaten and begins taking Geisha classes, but still wants to find her sister. The main, money-making Geisha at her house doesn't like her because she has watery eyes, or, as normal people like to say, she's beautiful.
The main, money-making Geisha, Hatsumomo, played with increasing gusto by Li Gong, sees Sayuri as a threat, but she is also in love with a man, and that ain't what the Geisha are about, my friend. This does allow Sayuri to begin to understand the life of the Geisha, but something deep down tells her that she must find her sister. So, even after severe beatings and the house gets locked down, she decides to meet her sister to escape. She fails. She gets patched up and taken out of Geisha School as punishment. She's sad. But the next day, she meets The Chairman, played like an Asian Victor Garber by Ken Watanabe. He sees the little girl, buys her a Fla-Vor-Ice and the little girl falls in love with him because he was kind.
At this point, she decides to grow up to be the best Geisha she can be, so that she can eventually wind up with The Chairman. It's not realistic on her part, due to the fact that, as a Geisha, she has to sell her virginity to the highest bidder, and, as an act of defiance, wins the favor of a scar-faced businessman, but, hey, you can't have everything.
That's pretty much the story. Michelle Yoeh takes Sayuri under her wing, as she is the main rival of Hatsumomo, and turns her into a Geisha. From there, we have the trials and tribulations of being a Geisha and from time to time we have Geisha vs. Geisha action, not to mention the war and how hard it is to start again after devastation like that.
The film is long. It ran about 2:30 give or take, and there was easily 30 minutes of stuff that could be tossed and no one would be the wiser. They spend a terribly long time with Sayuri as a kid, much longer than they needed to, searching for her sister, etc., for no real payoff.
I mentioned very early on that this was a film about water. They always say her eyes are filled with water. They say that water is powerful. Every other fade is into water of some sort. If you are afraid of water, don't see this film. It's everywhere. If you aren't seeing it, you're hearing about it. Keep that in mind. This film is not for the aquaphobic.
The film really does tell a good story, and it is visually stunning. The characters are well played and crafted, and the music by that little know indie artist John Williams, with a little bit of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Pearlman for good measure, is pretty F'n fantastic.
So I keep saying that the film is good and that it will probably win some stuff, hopefully at least Production Design or Cinematography, etc., but why does it feel like I'm holding back?
Frankly, other than all the English speaking, the idea behind this is what throws me. It's essentially a film about being a whore (sorry, "companion", for all you "Browncoats" out there), and how women not only liked doing it, but WANTED to do it, and they felt that this was the only way to survive.
Sure, cultures change and the past is the past, etc., but what gets me is there is no sincere feeling of, well, anything in the movie. Being a Geisha isn't really a problem, and it isn't really a great thing, either. It's a means to an end, just like anything else, but Rob Marshall goes out of his way not to make a statement about whether being a Geisha is good or bad. He stays indifferent, and that's what holds me back from loving this film. Even though all of these bad things happen to Sayuri, I never really felt bad for her. She chose to keep doing it. Was it her only choice? Was it what she wanted? Either way, I follow the love story instead of the "whole story", if that makes any sense. Nevermind that she's in love with Ken Watanabe, who was middle-aged when he met her as a girl, and when she grows up she still wants him. She must've seen "The Last Samuri".
So yeah, I think this is a good film. I'd give it 8 out of 10 on a scale of something or other. I think it has a shot or two at Oscar nods. I even recommend seeing it, especially on a big screen if you can, because the visuals demand it. I just think that if you make a film that long, you should give me more of a reason to want the characters to get what they have always wanted.
And what? No Lucy Liu? Was she too busy? C'mon.
If you use this, call me Constable Kreegal, and I wouldn't mind a shout out to my entertainment blog, but ya don't gotta.