Golden Slumber

What do the Beatles, a serial killer and a gentle soul have in common? 'Golden Slumber' takes inspiration from the Beatles song that appeared on their last album, 'Abbey Road.' The Japanese-language film begins in a very calm manner, as a family shops in a mall and two old college friends reunite. The two old friends, Aoyagi and Morita, have a pleasant chat before Aoyagi falls asleep in his friend's car. When he wakes up, Morita begins spinning a tale of paranoid conspiracy that sounds very far-fetched ... until the Japanese prime minister's car explodes nearby and Aoyagi is immediately suspected. Shocked, Aoyagi goes on the run.

Under the expert direction of Yoshihiro Nakamura, 'Golden Slumber' smoothly veers from political thriller to human drama to family comedy and then back again. Just when you think you have the movie pegged -- it's a Hitchcock 'Wrong Man' scenario -- it morphs into something else entirely. Nakamura, who made the amazing 'Fish Story,' a word of mouth hit at Fantastic Fest last year, isn't afraid of naked emotionalism. Yet even when the movie's heart is on its sleeve, it never feels contrived; Nakamura reins in the melodrama in a captivating, compelling manner. This is a movie that deserves wider notice.

'Ong Bak 3,' unfortunately, does not. It continues the downward trend of formerly hot action star Tony Jaa, who broke through in sensational fashion with 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior,' released in the U.S. in 2005, and then eventually pushed until he could sit in the director's chair with two "sequels" in name only. The troubled production resulted in old comrade Panna Rittikrai coming on board to help out. In his review for 'Ong Bak 2,' Todd Gilchrist observed: "Cinematically speaking, there may be nothing worse than when an action star or purveyor of thrills starts taking himself too seriously" and concluded that the film "is evidence that too much fighting and not enough plot really can be a problem, and maybe more importantly, that action stars probably shouldn't get too carried away by their commercial success."

The third film magnifies those problems to an embarrassing degree. Save for a brief action scene, the first 45 minutes of 'Ong Bak 3' are torturous to sit through. Filled with tedious philosophizing and long sequences where absolutely nothing happens, it's evidently meant to explain why Tien, the character played by Jaa, has been suffering great pain. The audience can sympathize.

The tedium is relieved when Tien's childhood girlfriend tries to help him stand up by singing to him, provoking laughter from the audience at Fantastic Fest. Finally Tien appears to be healed, which we can tell when we're treated to a sequence of him flexing his muscles in front of waterfalls and dancing with the girl. Eventually, we get to a couple of extended, brutal battle sequences, which are then negated by -- oh, it's too awful to relate and would spoil the surprise for anyone who was still awake at that point of the movie. Suffice it to say, it's not worth the wait.

Ip Man 2

To round out this trio of Asian films on a more positive note, 'Ip Man 2' provides an abundance of the classic action that fans crave. As previously reported by yours truly, Donnie Yen stars as the titular character, a master of the martial art of Wing Chun. Following World War II, Ip Man moves his family to Hong Kong, where he intends to start a martial arts school. He is strongly resisted by the other martial arts masters in town, who question his skills and then demand a monthly stipend for their approval. Emotions remain contentious until a bloodthirsty American boxing champion arrives for a demonstration and kills a respected master in the ring. Differences are set aside as Ip Man fights for the honor of all Chinese people against American imperialism.

For action junkies of all nationalities, the first hour or so of the picture is glorious. Yen facing off against Sammo Hung, as the leader of the martial arts masters, is a particular highlight. The rest of the film is taken up with some overblown fisticuffs, an "East vs. West" boxing match involving a nasty Western pugilist and the purity of an Asian master. Even in those fights, however, the filmmakers carve their own initials into the signature sequences.

'Ip Man 2' will play at Fantastic Fest on Sunday and Tuesday, but don't fret if you're not in Austin: it will received a limited theatrical in January 2011.