"Memoirs of a Geisha," after years of false starts and various directors, has opened to controversy and mixed reviews, but it is still one of the finest movies this year.
Having passed through the hands of several directors, from Spike Jonze to Steven Spielberg, Rob Marshall ("Chicago") took the reigns. The movie, full of beautiful sets and scenery, clearly has its eyes on Oscar gold. Every scene seems set up to capture the top prize - and seemingly that seems to be the issue many critics are having with it. "A beautiful bore," says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Gorgeous to look at--but that's about it," says E! Online. The Boston Globe says, "Its commercial compromises cripple it as a movie." But what the hell do they know? The film is beautiful, yes, and Marshall definitely had commercial interests in mind when creating the film, but are those necessarily flaws? "Memoirs of a Geisha" is one of the most engaging films this year; whether that engagement comes from the story or the visuals alone, it really doesn't matter.
"Geisha" takes a look at the life of Sayuri, from the day she is sold by her family to a geisha house and through the years of training, social climbing and war. Sayuri's one goal in life is to win the affection of Chairmen (Ken Watanabe), a man who helped her as a child. But as she grows into a magnificent geisha, she finds herself drifting farther and farther from the man she loves, and events in her life all but cripple her chances of being with him.
Zhang Ziyi, the absolutely beautiful young woman from such films as "House of Flying Daggers" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - who is also my future wife when I become rich, learn martial arts and win her love in a fight-to-the-death competition - stars, and does a terrific job in the lead. Her sheer beauty and expression-filled eyes make her the perfect choice, even if she is Chinese (apparently some Chinese have pronounced both her and co-star Michelle Yeoh as traitors for acting as Japanese women in this movie, though I don't really understand since American-made films such as this one often use Asian people in a general sense). Yeoh, who had a really cool fight with Ziyi in "Crouching Tiger," also delivers a fine performance, as does Kaori Momoi as Mother. Watanabe is unfortunately given a rather small role that doesn't give him much to work with.
The story, despite what some more prestigious critics say, is never boring. The characters well-written and the film engaging from beginning to end, "Geisha" is one of the most captivating films of the year. It doesn't set any new benchmarks nor gives us anything we haven't seen before, but it gives the popular book a proper tribute.
The third act does lose its momentum a bit when the war starts, but Marshall is able to regain the pace near the end. The ending is also a bit fluffy, but if anything it is only being faithful to the book.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" doesn't necessarily take things to the next level, but it does a stupendous job of bringing the book to life. Beautiful and well-done, "Memoirs of a Geisha" is one of the best movies of the year.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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