Beautiful Boxer

Also: Bride & Prejudice, Donkey Skin, Hitch, and Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.

Beautiful Boxer

Runs Fri., Feb. 11–Thurs., Feb. 17, at Varsity

You'll want to give Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham's debut feature a great deal of credit for its photography, its affable sense of humor, and its compassionate attempt to tangle with the complexities of gender confusion, a subject too little explored and even less frequently understood. You'll want to acknowledge all of that, unfortunately, without actually having to sit through the entire movie. By the end, when the titular sportsman has transformed himself into an elegant lady who benevolently advises a would-be little boxer to fight from the heart, the sentimental goo of Million Dollar Baby resembles cinema vérité.

No question about whether the film has a helluva true-life story on its hands. Parinya Charoenphol, nicknamed Nong Toom, was a heralded Thai kickboxer who spent his life struggling with the intense belief that he was meant to be a woman and who, at the peak of his abilities, finally retired from the sport to become one. And in depicting the tale, Uekrongtham matches eye-catching visuals—Choochart Nantitanyatada's plush cinematography drips invitingly both in the sweat-infused boxing matches and out in the verdant Thai countryside—with a physically striking cast, including real-life kickboxing champion Asanee Suwan in the lead. (He's great in the fights; outside the ropes, however, he doesn't display much beyond a beleaguered pout.)

But what is lovely to look at, to paraphrase the old song, is not always delightful to know. Beginning with a prologue that features a high-heeled Nong Toom rescuing a reporter from a gang of thugs, it's evident that the film plans to work in veeeeery broad strokes. It's initially sort of charming in a big, crowd-pleasing way; the movie knows what's funny about Nong Toom's lifelong fascination with makeup without condescending to it. Too soon, however, the whole affair turns into the most endlessly derivative of bathetic biopics, right down to the inevitable training scenes when a gruff, dying coach decides to take the effeminate lad under his tutelage (this is to say nothing of an impoverished childhood straight out of silent-movie melodramas). The young boxer's ascent to an ass-kicking icon controversially sporting lipstick and powder in the ring only makes you long for a documentary account of the real Nong Toom's uncommon bravery. (NR) STEVE WIECKING

Bride & Prejudice

Opens Fri., Feb. 11, at Egyptian

Gurinder Chadha's Bollywood transposition of 19th-century Jane Austen into a 21st-century global tunefest may beguile you for at least some of its running time. This patchy English-language film remains true to the spirit of both Austen's tale of hard-won love and the grinning, giddy, sometimes garish conventions of Indian musical epics.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are here relocated to modern-day India, where generation gaps and Western presumptuousness do much to enrich the nuances of Austen's original story. The Bennet girls become the middle-class Bakshi sisters, whom their comically desperate mother (Nadira Babbar) would like to see married off as quickly, traditionally, and wealthily as possible. But Lalita (Aishwarya Rai), the eldest, can't settle her differences with arrogant visiting American Will Darcy (Martin Henderson of The Ring remake), and then brings the roguish Wickham (Daniel Gillies) into the home to further upset the romantic balance.

Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) elaborates all this in a vibrant milieu that roams from India to London to California and back again, calling for characters to occasionally burst into song-and-dance in an even more random fashion than we've grown accustomed to in Hollywood classics. The colorfully kitschy numbers are faithful to Bollywood fashion, though they're not staged in a particularly accomplished manner. Contrary to the airy, nomadic wanderings of the rest of the picture, they feel a little crowded, never really cutting loose.

Beautiful Rai, a huge star in her native India, has sunny charm, but she's stuck between the bland beauty of Henderson's Darcy and the Abercrombie & Fitch wiles of Gillies' Wickham. Naveen Andrews, Juliette Binoche's love in The English Patient and a castaway on TV's Lost, brings life to his role as the on-again, off-again suitor of Jaya Bakshi (Namrata Shirodkar), though Chadha is too focused on trying to pump life into the inert main affair to make that subplot truly engaging.

Chadha clearly has a huge heart on her sleeve in a filmmaking era that too often rewards slick misanthropy. Bride isn't really very good, but it's a cheerful film. Few will complain on a rainy Saturday afternoon if it doesn't live up to its clever ambitions. (PG-13) STEVE WIECKING

Donkey Skin

Runs Fri., Feb. 11–Thurs., Feb. 17, at Varsity

Jacques Demy died of AIDS in 1990 and came back to life big-time in 1996, when his widow, the revered director Agnès Varda, unveiled the restored version of his 1964 masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There was nobody like Demy in the French new wave, nor anyplace else in film history—he was a one-man wave, hanging 10 on his own weirdly childlike imagination, surfing a sea of lollipop fauve colors and endless Michel Legrand recitative.

He was never weirder, nor more childlike, than in this homage to Jean Cocteau, the twee 1970 fairy tale Donkey Skin, newly restored under Varda's hawklike eye. In the film's dreamy demesne, Demy reteams with Legrand and his favorite bland blond beauty, Catherine Deneuve, and plunges once more into that crazy-bright palette he loved.

Deneuve plays a queen who drops dead, but not before making her king (Jean Marais, star of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) promise never to remarry until he finds a dame more gorgeous than she is. His eye falls on, their alarmed daughter (also Deneuve). The girl consults her fairy godmother (slinky, amused Delphine Seyrig) on how to elude daddy's clutches. The answer: Get him to kill the royal donkey and give her its skin for a cloak. The king is reluctant, since the donkey poops rubies and doubloons, like Wall Street in a Republican fantasy. But he gives in. Disguised in the stinky dead donkey skin, Deneuve escapes the castle for life as a scullion in the hovel of a hag who literally spits toads out of her mouth. The king hunts for her, but can't find her.

Since it's a fairy tale, it's not so odd that Marais winds up with a more appropriate spouse than princess Deneuve, and that a handsome prince weds her after elaborate Cinderella-esque shenanigans. What is odd is the curious blend of innocence and . . . something else. Somehow, there's nothing creepy in the incest theme—it's puckishly apparent that Deneuve's not in actual danger and the king is just dotty, not grotty. Everything is distanced, as if glimpsed through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope; the colors aren't impossibly brighter than life, à la Cherbourg, but artificial, lifeless. Cocteau's fables will live and move forever; Demy's homage is a waxwork.

Donkey Skin is an important film-history lesson, but it can't hold a parti-colored candle to Cherbourg or the lesser-but-good 1967 Young Girls of Rochefort, and Legrand's tunes are more pallid, too. The tale's jokey fakiness has a suspicious whiff of period patchouli. In one of many party scenes, Deneuve and her swain croon, "We will do whatever is forbidden/We will eat at the snack bar . . . we'll smoke a pipe in secret," and Deneuve takes a big toke, which she expels in coughs and laughter. Sound familiar? Maybe to Varda and Demy's close pal Jim Morrison, who was watching on the set. I'm not sure the film is one big, stony put-on. But now that the 1970 party's over, that's how it plays. (NR) TIM APPELO


Opens Fri., Feb. 11, at Meridian and others

Will Smith, metrosexual. Lime-green Lacoste polo shirts. Baby-blue V-neck sweaters. Tailored Prada suits. Artful stubble. Spotless TriBeCa loft. Impeccable manners. Smooth with the ladies. In fact, that's his career—discreet "Date Doctor" to men who can't catch a break with chicks. "My job is to create opportunities," says Alex Hitchins. His doughy CPA client, Albert (Kevin James), needs just such a chance with beautiful heiress Allegra (Amber Valetta), whose money he helps manage. His closest contact with her was loaning her a ball-point pen, but Hitch has a plan—perhaps derived from the Dynamic Dating Diagram flow chart on his wall. Would that the movie were so well planned and executed.

Hitch's Valentine's Day opening is a sad reminder that the romantic comedy genre seems to be dying in Hollywood. There's too much sincerity and not enough comedy. Everyone in the movie is supposed to be screamingly sophisticated (based on their hair, wardrobe, professions, and apartments), but absent is the fun in seeing them behave like fools for love. Back in the screwball '30s, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and company got their comeuppance for their crushes. We could enjoy movie stars acting like idiots, because falling in love should be silly, messy, and somehow humiliating—never cool.

Apart from a flashback to his dorky student days at Columbia and a food- allergy gag that flares up and instantly subsides, Smith never really loses his cool in Hitch. Sure, scenes are written to make him seem flustered around journalist Sara (Eva Mendes), but they're as fake as her tabloid newspaper. In place of real comedy, there's some nonsensensical back story about his being hurt in a past relationship, about his inability to open up to women (boo hoo) to show, in short, his sincerity. Where's the fun in that? We want insincerity toppled, sophistication upset, tables overturned, furniture broken.

The only one in Hitch to understand this is TV comic James (The King of Queens), who throws himself into pratfalls, epileptic dancing, and sweaty desperation around Valetta (a former model who falls into the casting category of "Get me a younger, cheaper, less-expressive Cameron Diaz"). The double-plotted movie begs a popcorn break whenever smooth Smith and Mendes are on-screen; it should've been broken into two separate romances so we could enjoy James and Valetta, then skip the rest.

Carpeted wall-to-wall with pop songs, Hitch coasts along with the lazy expectation that when in a jam, like its hero's hapless clients, Smith will somehow bail everyone out. You know the movie's in trouble when its biggest laugh comes from quoting Jerry Maguire. Unlike Cameron Crowe, the filmmakers here don't understand that love—and its humiliations—is what humanizes a star like Smith or Tom Cruise.

Leave it to James to have the final word. He asks, "You know what it's like, waking up every day hopeless?" So far as romantic comedies go, yes, we do. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Opens Fri., Feb. 11, at Metro

This is Tony Jaa's Rumble in the Bronx, nothing more and, well, sometimes a little less—a star vehicle meticulously designed to showcase the lithe Thai action hero's repertoire for potential Hollywood suitors. It even plays like a highlight reel: Every time Jaa executes an impossible sliding split beneath a car, tiptoes atop the heads of a menacing street gang, or triple lutzes in midair before landing a knockout blow, we get an instant replay—and sometimes two for good measure.

The endless (and yes, impressive) acrobatic display makes the story incidental—a good thing, since it's terrible. Handsome, unassuming "hillbilly" Ting (Jaa) practices the deadly art of Muay Thai, aka Nine Body Weapons, then promises his monk instructor that he'll never use it. Such a vow is not exactly conducive to 100 minutes of wall-to-wall ass-kicking. So, luckily, an urban gang member named Don swipes the head of Ting's village idol, Ong-Bak. This prompts an elderly woman gathered amongst the dazed townsfolk to wail, "Don, you are a bastard!" in Unfortunate Subtitle, which prompts Ting to light out for big, bad Bangkok and reacquire the golden dome.

Of course, as soon as Ting broaches city limits, his doughy, deadbeat hustler cousin Humlae (an amenable Petchtai Wongkamlao) conscripts him to a series of deadly, illegal underground fights in exchange for assistance in finding That Bastard Don. Ting drops some serious Van Dammage on any and all comers; in the film's most astonishing sequence, he takes on an oak-sized rock-and- roll Westerner, a lightning-quick, foot- shuffling peacock, and a mountainous mute who employs anything that the fight club hasn't nailed down as a weapon.

In these one-on-ones, Jaa flaunts both Jackie Chan's comic timing and Jet Li's eye-popping dexterity. Ong-Bak, sadly, lacks his otherworldly balletic grace. Will Humlae grow a heart and stop exploiting his hick cousin? Will humble Ting snare the idol head from a sadistic gangster against all odds? The answers are obvious and irrelevant. The only pertinent question this film poses: Can Jaa springboard off Ong-Bak to stateside superstardom? Seems inevitable. We'll give him a tentative ETA of 2007. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI

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