'Dee' a feast for the eyes, but a mess for the mind

  • Detective Dee (Andy Lau) attacks a demonic chaplain in the martial arts fantasy "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame."

    Detective Dee (Andy Lau) attacks a demonic chaplain in the martial arts fantasy "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame."

Posted9/22/2011 6:00 AM

Reel Life review: 'Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame'
Sherlock Holmes would have a devil of a time unraveling how officials in 7th century China suddenly burst into flames and suffer agonizing deaths. Detective Dee (Andy Lau) figures it out, of course, but don't go to see "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" for its logic (non-existent) or intricate plotting. (I got lost somewhere after an ugly demon attacks.)

Hark Tsui's fantasy action film is a visual world unto itself, an unbelievably beautiful, masterfully crafted work of cinema that roughly recyles "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" through the surrealistic sensibilities of Monty Python filmmaker Terry Gilliam.


Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is about to be coronated as China's first female Empress, and she needs to have the incendiary killings solved before that happens. She reaches out to the exiled Dee and appoints him chief judge of the empire.

His tour of duty includes displays of martial arts, magic, trolls, fire beetles and a conspiracy that would work nicely in a sequel to "The Wild Wild West" if it were retitled "The Wild Wild East."

"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" opens Friday. Rated PG-13 for violence. 122 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life review: 'Restless'
Gus Van Sant's "Restless" invites comparisons to the cult drama "Harold and Maude," and comes off second best. Instead of a death-obsessed teen paired with elderly Ruth Gordon, he's paired with a young, death-obsessed girl named Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska).

Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper) meets Annabel while both are crashing funerals of people neither one knows.

She is fighting a deadly return of cancer. He's fighting life, depressed over the deaths of his parents. His only friend is Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a World War II Japanese kamikazee pilot.

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"Restless" squeezes sincere performances out of Hopper and Wasikowska, but the dialogue brings nothing new to the table about death, the meaning of life, or how Enoch finds a happy, or a least non-depressive, reason to give living one more chance.

"Restless" opens at the Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations. 95 minutes. ★ ★

Beware Munger Road!
Last Sunday I traveled on Munger Road to St. Charles to attend Patty Duke's appearance at the Arcada Theatre. On Tuesday, I saw the horror film "Munger Road," filmed on location in St. Charles and Bartlett by St. Charles resident Nick Smith.

Now, I feel lucky to have gotten home alive.

"Munger Road" is part "Blair Witch Project," part "Halloween," part "Psycho" and all-get-out scary.

Bruce Davison stars as the St. Charles police chief trying to locate four students whose car mysteriously stalls on Munger Road at the train tracks.

"Munger Road" will have its official premiere Monday night at the Charlestown 18 Theaters for cast, crew, St. Charles city employees and VIPs. It opens to the public at the Charlestown18 on Sept. 30 and goes into other Northwest suburban theaters Oct. 7, the same weekend that St. Charles hosts its annual Scarecrow Festival, which happens to be the setting for the movie..


I'll have a full review of "Munger Road" in next week's Time out!

'Fancypants' premiere
The low-budget professional wrestler movie "Fancypants," premiering in Chicago next Thursday, Sept. 29, comes from a new Chicago production company called Humble Pie, but that's not the best part. "Fancypants" features lots of Northwest suburban filmmakers both behind and before the camera.

Take Amanda Hogan of Lombard, a College of DuPage grad. She worked as the movie's associate producer. She handled purchases, made up budgets, painted sets and tracked down tools to finish sets.

"At one point we had no extras for a scene," Hogan said. "I literally drove around, asking people to be in the film. It was a Sunday, so I even tried a church. I think I was even an extra in the crowd scenes."

Or take Arlington Heights native (and Palatine High School grad) Ken Craig. He plays Albert, the mob boss in "Fancypants."

"The most challenging thing for me was not having as much time as I'd like to prepare for the role," Craig told me. "But I had fun experimenting on the fly."

Why work on a small budget, independent movie?

"When it's over," Hogan said, "you have something tangible, this product that you have almost no idea how it happened because what you watched being made is nothing compared to what it looks like on the screen."

"Fancypants," directed by Josh Russell, stars westling pro legend Rowdy Roddy Piper and "Revenge of the Nerds" actor Robert Carradine as comic match commentators.

Maywood resident Patrick Gleason (an ex-con who served 15 years for attempted murder) is the real star of the movie, a wrestler striving for redemption in the ring.

Next Thursday's premiere at the River East 21 Theater in Chicago is sold out, but at press time, seats were available for added shows on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Go to humblepiefilms.com or amcentertainment.com.

Manhattan fest here?
Yes, even Manhattan has a Short Film Festival, and you can vote on the winner. The fest is being presented in two parts -- at 5 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday -- at the Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles.

Out of 598 entries, 10 films have been tagged as finalists (among them Neil LaBute's "Sexting" starring Julia Stiles). These will be presented at the Arcada and in 200 other cities around the globe. Viewers will get ballots to vote for the best. The winner will be announced Oct. 2. General admission costs $10 ($5 for students). Go to oshows.com for details.

Most vile villain?
Mark your calendars for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, when Dann & Raymond's Movie Club presents "The 15 Vilest Villains of the Silver Screen" at the Schaumburg Township District Library, 130 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg (schaumburglibrary. org). Who will be No. 1? Stay tuned.

After Hours 'Tabloid'
The After Hours Film Society presents Errol Morris' doc "Tabloid" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. Morris tells the story of controversial beauty queen Joyce McKinney's attempts to win the affections of a Morman man by chaining him to a bed and engaging in sex against his will. (That's just the beginning.) Chicago FIlm Critics Association member Josh Larsen will serve as guest host. $9 for the public. afterhoursfilmsociety.com.

• Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!