Step On It

Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (Columbia, 12.9) is this year’s model of the big bland Best Picture contender that everyone who isn’t a sucker for this kind of thing — expensive, beautifully produced, Oscar-hungry, terminally boring — needs to throw tomatoes at.
Seriously…let’s start the ball rolling now. IM your friends and coworkers and tell them you’ve heard it’s a tedious costume-movie drag, but also that it’s caught a certain headwind and there’s a slight chance it could metastasize into this year’s Chicago.

Ziyi Zhang during her big geisha-in-a-snowfall performance number that has zip to do with her character but a lot to do with Rob Marshall’s creative sensibility

The best thing about it is Gong Li’s performance as a jealous-bitch geisha in a Bette Davis mode. Otherwise the film is all costumes and pretty photography and a rags-to-riches story that creeps along at a petty pace.
It’s porcelain, nothing, stupefying…and every Godforsaken line of Chinese-accent English-language dialogue is like screeching chalk.
The first Academy-member Geisha screening happens tonight (11.21) so no pulse- readings until tomorrow, but there’s a poll of eleven connected journos that just went up today on Movie City News called “Gurus of Gold,” and Geisha is being project- ed as one the top five Best Picture contenders.
< ?php include ('/home/hollyw9/public_html/wired'); ?>
Two of the respondents — Variety guy and Maxim critic Pete Hammond and USA Today‘s Scott Bowles — are actually projecting it as the most likely Best Picture winner…at this juncture.
The stars of Memoirs of A Geisha are Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li… three famed Chinese actresses played Japanese geishas and speaking English …and the feeling of Hollywood fakery and retrograde attitudes is fairly relentless.
The same Anglos-first mentality that led to the casting of Marlon Brando as Sakini in The Teahouse of the August Moon (’56) and Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura in Sayonara (’57) has prevailed once again.

And at no point does Memoirs of a Geisha feel like anything more than a colorful but perfunctory corporate tour of an exotic culture, tailor-made for Disney World Americans who won’t pay to see movies with subtitles.
I can tolerate the three Chinese actresses playing Japanese (although Ziyi doesn’t look Japanese for a second, and there’s a clear genetic difference in the faces of the two peoples), but the language and accent barriers are impossible.
Marshall should have shot a Japanese-language version concurrently, which Columbia could have concurrently released into select big-city theatres. Difficult but not impossible, and then people like me would have had an easier time of it.
There’s a scene early on in which a pair of young sisters are about to be forcibly separated. A very traumatic thing, but if this were to happen in real life the sisters would be in such shock they’d probably whimper a little bit and spend most of their last few seconds just staring at each other. Not in Rob Marshall’s world. When Geisha‘s sisters are torn apart the more spirited of the two goes, “Noooooo!!”
That’s a bullshit Hollywood reaction. People in bad Hollywood movies always go “noooo!!” when something bad happens. In a way, the whole movie is like this one scene. I didn’t believe a word of it.
And I wonder if the women for whom it’s been made will either. And I doubt if any real critical support will manifest. A publicist friend tells me all the journos he’s spoken are saying “pretty to look at, but cold.”
Robin Swicord and Doug Wright’s script is based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, which is a huge international best-seller. I think it’s safe to say that the movie will dampen interest in anyone who hasn’t yet read it wanting to do so. My God, who would want to take this journey twice?

Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanebe

Set in Japan in the 1930s and ’40s, Geisha is essentially a Cinderella story, and there’s not a hint of story tension or rooting interest in any part of it.
A little Japanese girl (Suzuka Ohgo) who will eventually be called Sayuri is sold to a geisha house (called an “okiya”), kicked around and treated like a slave. She’s quite pretty as an adolescent and is considered a special standout because of a pair of very weird-looking blue eyes (which throw you completely out of the film because they look like dopey contact lenses, pure and simple).
And then she grows up to be Ziyi Zhang, who doesn’t resemble Ohgo in the slightest.
This much-celebrated 26 year-old actress gives her first nothing performance here. She brought a fierce glaring passion and a taut physicality to her roles in Crouch- ing Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and found a sense of emotional truth in Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, but here she’s a piece of wood.
Gong Li wields a much sharper blade as Sayuri’s wicked geisha nemesis Hatsu- momo. She’s stuck in the same mediocre Rob Marshall movie, but there’s fire in her veins and the heat burns through, and right away she has you thinking impure thoughts.
Sayuri, in any event, is trained to be a geisha and soon gets into an ongoing generational cat-fight with the older Hatsumomo. Her ally is Yeoh’s Mameha, a 40ish geisha playing a stock older-mentor character, dispensing sage advice with the usual kindly-patient smile.

Suzuka Ohgo (l.), Gong Li

Eventually Sayuri meets Prince Charming in the form of a businessman called “The Chairman” (Ken Watanabe) and falls for him. The usual hurdles and compli- cations have to be overcome before Watanebe finally recognizes what a treasure she is and tells her he loves her.
I think I was a little happier than Sayuri was when this happened.
The most irritating performance is given by Kaori Memoi, who plays the crusty and conniving Mother, the head of Sayuri’s geisha house. Her English is so bad and so grating I literally twitched in my seat at one point.
The movie stays with the explanation in Golden’s novel about what being a geisha is all about, which is that geishas are in no way prostitutes and are more about being a very refined form of arm candy…a poised and disciplined ideal of Japanese femininity.
And yet somehow, despite all the talk about no sexual favors, Sayuri and Mameha end up doing some nocturnal skinny-dipping with a bunch of Japanese business- men and an American colonel (Ted Levine) in the third act.
A Japanese businessman admirer of Sayuri has asked her to cuddle up to the American Colonel so he get get a business deal out of him, and when Levine’s character makes a move a few minutes later Sayuri is shocked and offended.
This is ridiculous, and another reason I didn’t believe what the film was selling. Geishas are not hookers, okay, but all my life I’ve been told that carnal knowledge is sometimes part of the equation. You just have to be the right guy with the right attitude, the good manners of a gentleman and a lot of money.

No one will argue with Geisha getting the usual below-the-line nominations that are always handed to a film of this type. Dion Beebe’s cinematography, John Myhre’s production design, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and John Williams’ score are all topnotch. What the hell, throw in nominations for the editor and the sound editing guys.
Geisha was mostly shot in the Los Angeles area (an outdoor Japanese village was built north of the city), including the Sony soundstages in Culver City. That means a lot of local people were paid top dollar, which tends to produce in the minds of Academy people an urge to reciprocate in the form of handing out Oscar nomina- tions in the less-important categories.
But classy window-dressings aren’t enough to justify nominating a film for Best Pic- ture. The above-the-line nutrition in Memoirs of a Geisha simply isn’t there, and no amount of cheerleading by its supporters is going to change that fact.

USC Interlude

Ain’t It Cool’s Drew McWeeny and yours truly paid a visit Monday night to Charles Fleming’s “Entertainment, Business and Media in Today’s Society” class at the USC School of Journalism. We talked about internet journalism, industry politics, survival skills, the shortcomings of Tom Rothman and what the students thought about the hot new movies. Defamer’s Mark Lisanti, profiled in the current issue of Los Angeles magazine, was supposed to show but bowed out at the last minute….something about his girlfriend having told him they already had “plans” (does that sound like a crock of shit or what?). Thanks to Fleming (pictured at left with the suit and tie) for having us down.