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Shake your booty . . . and kick some ass: (l-r) Liu, Diaz and Barrymore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

Terminator Barbies
By Laura Leon

Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Directed by McG

I debated bringing my 7-year-old movie-loving son to see the sequel to Charlie’s Angels with me, but opted against for fear that the movie would contain inappropriate subject matter. In one way, I was wrong: Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is merely a bigger and much louder version of the cartoon (and less cartoonish) The Powerpuff Girls, merged with adrenaline-thumping action milked from another animated series, Rocket Power. He would have gotten a kick out of the nonstop chases involving dirt bikes, surf boards, and weapons seemingly left over from the Iraqi conflict. Angels Alex (Lucy Liu), Dylan (Drew Barrymore) and Natalie (Cameron Diaz) are as versatile as my old Barbies: In the blink of an eye, or, rather, a quick change of costume, they are ready for anything. Indeed, this ability to change from sexy crimefighting babes into, say, sexy CSI specialists or sexy burlesque stars or sexy dirt bikers is played for fun. What point is there to question believability? Then again, I would have been uncomfortable sitting next to my son during many of those quick changes, since they mostly involved so much butt smacking and booty shaking as to make me wonder if I had somehow wandered into a rowdy stag film.

To a large extent, Full Throttle is a flawless production, fueled by amazing computer-generated action scenes, and complemented by beautiful actresses coiffed and costumed in styles reminiscent of a she-shopaholic’s wet dream. The angels’ glistening hair blows seductively, as in countless Victoria’s Secret commercials, even as they beat back an army of vicious Mongolians, and their taut limbs and washboard abs seem instantly recognizable from so many Tae Bo infomercials. Liu and Diaz seem thrilled to show off the results of their training regimens, and this shows through “fun” scenes in which the girls dance to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” If the more clayfooted Barrymore seems slightly less thrilled, it is because she still comes off as being in awe of being included in this trinity of babehood.

The movie is nothing if not action. From the git-go, we’re swept along as the angels escape exploding tanks and free-falling trucks, by hanging onto the wings of jets or by swinging, Tarzana style, from impossibly long strings of light bulbs that had formerly festooned the top of Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel. Director McG’s background in commercials and music videos is completely apparent—which is not a complaint. Each scene in Full Throttle seems timed to either late-’90s electronica or, strangely, late-’70s disco or ’80s power rock. Weirdly, despite this disparity of jukebox tastes and styles, each audio moment works perfectly. I’m still not sure if it’s because of this videoesque quality, or incidental to it, but the movie, for all its high jinks and moments of humor, is oddly cold and mechanical.

And speaking of cold and mechanical. . . . In a “comeback” that’s being touted as something akin to finding the Shroud of Turin, or at least a really good wrinkle cream, Demi Moore is on hand to play the villainous fallen angel, Madison Leigh, and perhaps it is the face-off between this actress, who for years tried grimly to be Hollywood’s version of strong, independent womanhood, and the unabashedly fluffy Liu, Diaz and Barrymore that ultimately depresses. Moore can’t seem to get the joke and plays her role like she’s Ma Barker channeling Tennessee Williams, but hey, she looks fantastic in red silk garters and a fur coat, and isn’t that what empowerment is all about?

The three stars, on the other hand, are nothing if not irreverent, which—again—serves the tone of this movie well. But it’s as if they’ve worshipped at the alter of Demi, carefully studied her ability to morph into a body beautiful, and learned well the shaky idea that the ultimate female fantasy—one that McG throws up to us in countless ways—is to make millions, become an icon and stay hot after having had three kids. In that way, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle manages to entice and lure—not just the guys to their bodacious bods, but also their ever-yearning-for-perfection sisters.

Played With Care

Together
Directed by Chen Kaige

Together, the story of a father’s ambition for his violinist son, is a slight, sweet, and gently affecting tale, and a complete departure for Chen Kaige, one of China’s most important filmmakers. Chen is best known for monumental political epics such as Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin; here, he scales back to a few months in the life of Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a cook in a small village in the provinces, and Xiaochun (Tang Yun), a child prodigy who is the village’s annual winner of a music prize. Father and son encounter obstacles and butt heads on their way to the fulfillment of Xiaochun’s talent, but mostly, their story is a heartwarming example of determination, devotion, and caring friends.

To foster Xiaochun’s “genius,” Cheng takes him to Beijing to enter a competition that could place the quiet youth with a prestigious music teacher. As they’re packing, Xiaochun picks out an especially tacky outfit for his father to wear; an unsophisticated peasant, Cheng eagerly complies. (It isn’t until the end of the film that we realize why Xiaochun, who has innate good taste, would want his doting father to look like a bumbler.) The competition, Cheng soon learns, is rigged, but using his peasant wiles—and the sad story of how Xiaochun was abandoned by his violinist mother as a baby—he manages to hire a highly regarded teacher, the reclusive and slovenly Prof. Jiang (Wang Zhwen). But Xiaochun, a born romantic, finds inspiration instead in Lili (Chen Hong), a beautiful escort who lives in the high-rise across the lane. A stubborn traditionalist, Cheng is appalled by the disreputable young woman, causing his reserved son to passively rebel.

These events are hardly earth-shaking, yet the deeply appealing performances from Liu and Tang engage the audience in every small turn in their characters’ fortunes. And the film is not without political shadings: Lili, along with Xiaochun’s next teacher, the internationally savvy Prof. Yu (played by the director), represent the Westernization of China, while Prof. Jiang embodies the pursuit of “consummate artistry.” Aside from a shambling interlude or two in Jiang’s cat-infested flat, the story is ably pared down to its emotional essentials, which are the interactions between these five flawed but well-meaning people. Chen’s stature is also apparent in the offhandedly symbolic set design; Lili’s studio apartment, in particular, speaks volumes about the new China. But overall, Together is simply about the bond between a parent and a child, and on this one, unassuming level, it succeeds like a masterpiece.

Ann Morrow

And Then There Were None

28 Days Later...
Directed by Danny Boyle

There’s nothing quite like a convincing cinematic apocalypse. In 28 Days Later . . . , the world is destroyed by a deadly virus that induces extreme rage and turns its victims into mindless murderers. Jim (Cillian Murphy) misses all this, however, unconscious in a hospital bed. When he wakes up, he’s the only person around. He stalks silently around London until stumbling upon a church full of corpses. It turns out that not everyone in the pews is as dead; he’s chased out of the church with an infected priest in pursuit.

Soon enough, Jim meets up with other survivors. There’s Selena (Naomie Harris), a tough warrior intent on survival; tender father-and-daughter pair Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns); and a group of nervous young soldiers led by the Machiavellian Maj. West (Christopher Eccleston).

28 Days Later . . . is smart and self-aware. The legions of infected suggest numerous zombie films, but the focus here is on disease: These are not brain-eating undead, but ill people tragically destroyed. This raises the mood to complete seriousness, which, in turn, makes the tension palpable and real.

The film’s obvious antecedent is a 1971 flick, The Omega Man, in which Charlton Heston survives a deadly germ that turns most of the population into light-averse, loquacious zombies. Jim wandering a deserted London mimics Heston’s hero walking a silent Los Angeles; other lifts from (let’s call them homages to) Omega Man include the tough black chick who saves the hero (Rosalind Cash then; Harris now) and the fact that the infected can be kept at bay with light.

28 Days Later . . . is not really a remake of anything, however; its story is taut and imaginative, and the characters are varied and uniformly compelling.

This film is a roaring comeback for English director Danny Boyle, who debuted with the terrific one-two punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and then failed miserably to connect with a pair of big Hollywood stinkers. While never losing sight of the necessity of keeping things tense, violent and (somewhat) logical, Boyle, with screenwriter Alex Gardner, succeeds in raising philosophical questions about the nature of violence and human cruelty and the possibility of redemption when life itself is so fragile. Visually, Boyle’s evocation of a post-apocalyptic landscape is sly and sobering.

Boyle even gets away with pulling off a “gotcha” ending, by making the audience think the film is over when it’s really not. That 28 Days Later . . . can end poignantly without seeming cheap or pandering is a tribute to the filmmakers’ terrific mastery in storytelling.

—Shawn Stone


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