If seeing a nude Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give tested your gag reflex, you might want to skip Calendar Girls (opens Friday, January 2, at the Little Theatre). Instead of one middle-aged woman in her birthday suit, you get 11 in Girls.
Even though Girls is based on a true story, it still comes off as another desperate attempt to replicate the same success enjoyed by The Full Monty. Both films are about an unlikely group of people who take their clothes off for money. Both are set in quaint British villages. Both follow the same cookie-cutter story. But only one is a good film.
Instead of unemployed steel-mill workers, Girls offers bored housewives who suffer through local Women's Institute meetings focusing on such exciting subjects as milk, rugs, and broccoli. Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) is one of them, and when her husband (John Alderton) dies from leukemia, fellow WI member Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) cooks up one zany idea: Get other WI members to pose nude for a calendar and use the proceeds to purchase a new couch for the family area of the local hospital.
The photography session for the calendar is Girls' best feature and, despite the nudity, I wished it were longer. Like the real-life calendar, the women's privates are covered up, Austin Powers-style, by various objects, which accounts for the light PG-13 rating (we see more skin than is revealed in the photographs, though). Girls'first two acts are relatively harmless, but the wheels fall off in the third, in which the calendar becomes a surprise hit. The women end up on The Tonight Show, and we all learn a very important lesson about fame.
Girls was directed by Nigel Cole, who also helmed the instantly forgettable Saving Grace. True story: I looked on-line to see what Grace was about and was surprised to find one of my own reviews, despite having no memory of seeing the film.
That's the same kind of empty experience you'll get from Girls. The cardboard-cutout characters and typical jokes are aimed at 50-plus women and people who laugh out loud at the hysterically unfunny Will & Grace. I guess some folks might crow about how empowering Girls is, but is it still empowerment when you have to get naked for people to notice you?
You'll get much stronger empowerment in Come Drink with Me (screens Friday, January 2, at the Dryden Theatre), the 1966 film that raised the bar for two generations (and counting!) of the historical martial arts epic. Come Drink kicks off the Dryden's Heroic Grace program, which runs throughout January on every Tuesday and Saturday evening (except January 30 --- visit www.eastman.org for more scheduling info).
Come Drink is just one film from the impressive and staggeringly large catalog (over 800 full-length movies) of the Shaw Brothers, who also produced Five Fingers of Death and 1978's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (screening Tuesday, January 20, at the Dryden). The Shaws made more than just action pictures, but the chop-socky is what defined their careers. If the names ring a bell and their pre-credits logo looks familiar, you must have gotten to the theater on time to see the very beginning of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which was nothing if not an homage to the Shaws and the insanely fun wuxia films they made over several decades.
Essentially a spaghetti western in a dusty Asian setting rather than the Wild West (that genre will be Tarantino'd up in the second installment of Bill), Come Drink is about a band of thugs who kidnap a governmental emissary to use as bait to free their captured leader. The area's most ferocious sword-wielder is sent to negotiate the ambassador's release, but it becomes clear pretty early on that Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) isn't going to be doing much bargaining with bandit leader Jade Face Tiger (Chen Hung Lieh). Along the way, he meets and is aided by a stumbling boozer named Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua), who turns out to be more than just a stumbling boozer. And at some point, Golden Swallow reveals himself to be a woman.
Come Drink establishes characters (the drunken bum who can really kick a whole lot of ass) and situations (the two-story tearoom brawl) that have practically become clichés of the genre in the subsequent four decades. It also gets points for not forcing a romance between Golden Swallow and Drunken Cat, and for, as rumors suggest, director King Hu allowing Hua to get loaded during most of the filming.
Hu, by the way, went on to become a Cannes winner in 1969 for the three-and-a-half hour epic A Touch of Zen. And I bet more than a few of you have seen Pei-pei in the last year or two --- she played the villainous Jade Fox in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Golden Swallow, who must have been the archetype upon which Elektra was created, continues her journeys in 1968's Golden Swallow, which screens at the Dryden next Friday (January 9).
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.