Marshall’s Memoirs Is Pretty as Geisha

The turkey bones go into the trash, the Christmas lights come out of the attic, and on the day after Thanksgiving, the year-end blizzard of big, important, prestigious, expensive Oscar contenders commences. For the next four weeks, expect an avalanche of holiday movies. From what I’ve seen so far, the number of quality films far exceed those of previous years, with three of the very best films of 2005— Memoirs of a Geisha, Brokeback Mountain and Mrs. Henderson Presents—opening next week, all on the same day, no less. Let the countdown begin.

If films still aspire to visual art, Memoirs of a Geisha belongs in a museum. Director Rob Marshall proves that the talent he displayed in Chicago for telling a story rich in detail with clarity, freshness, passion and maximum opulence was no first-time stroke of good luck. The secret world of the geisha—the most exotic and revered women in Japan—kept novelist Arthur Golden’s 1997 saga of romance and adventure on the best-seller list for two years. Gorgeously photographed, meticulously directed and hypnotically acted, Memoirs of a Geisha is luxurious, ethereal and intoxicating.

Told in lyrical revelations from the confessions of a geisha, like pages in a diary, it’s a story that spans several decades, beginning on a rainy night in 1929, when two terrified little sisters are torn from their father’s dirt-poor fishing cabin on the Sea of Japan, orphaned and transported to Kyoto. While her older sister is sold into prostitution, 9-year-old Chiyo is put to work as a servant in a geisha house in the hanamachi (geisha district).

Despite the cruelty of the chain-smoking housemother and the hardships of forced labor, Chiyo’s life evolves around the ceremonial mysteries of the geisha. Years of education in and dedication to the art of the geisha eventually pay off. To her surprise, the girl finds herself the focus of an emotional tug of war between two renowned geisha—Hatsumomo, a hateful, jealous femme fatale who resents her youth and tries to destroy her spirit, and Mameha, a kind and legendary geisha who becomes her friend, sponsor and mentor.

Chiyo blossoms into the alluring Sayuri, an accomplished geisha who conquers the most distinguished and influential men of her time, but whose love for one unattainable man called “The Chairman” remains unrequited. The Chairman, who once stopped on a bridge to buy an ice cream for a poor and hungry Chiyo when she was still a child and remained the object of her desire from a distance throughout her years growing into womanhood, is played by Ken Watanabe, the Oscar-nominated actor who stole The Last Samurai right out from under Tom Cruise.

Hatsumomo, Mameha and Sayuri are played by the three most beautiful and accomplished Asian stars in world cinema—Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang. Gong Li, the most famous and internationally celebrated of the three, makes her American film debut in English. She takes you to dark and dangerous places no geisha is supposed to go, breaks the rules with a forbidden sexual affair, and shows the glamour of the cloistered life of a geisha as well as the misery and sacrifice. She also shows the tragic ravages of age, which is the natural enemy of every geisha who outgrows her illusion. She’s a Brontë character transported to Japan. The shocking way she ends up reminded me of the madwoman in the tower in Jane Eyre. In contrast, the wise and altruistic Mameha is played with great warmth and generosity by Michelle Yeoh, the star of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And the role of the charming, radiant Sayuri is assigned to Ziyi Zhang, who captivated audiences as the blind musician and martial-arts wizard in Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.

They all bring to throbbing life the different periods in a riveting, complex story as historical as it is fascinating. A geisha is not a prostitute. She is never allowed to marry. She is a woman of education and charisma, trained to be a glamorous and intelligent companion to men of wealth and influence. She must sing, dance, play a musical instrument, listen compassionately to her client’s problems and opinions, laugh at his jokes, and perfect the art of serving tea. A geisha shares her mind and manners, not her body.

At 15, Sayuri becomes one of the lucky few who graduates from manual labor to become the protégé of the refined Mameha, who teaches her in a few months the skills it takes years to learn. The exhaustive research by Rob Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord pays off in scenes of both nuance and splendor, as we watch the arduous tasks of binding breasts and applying seductive wigs, kimonos and white rice powder.

As the years pass, we watch Japan in its glory and defeat, in its violent victory and tears of surrender. From the balletic savagery of the sumo wrestling matches to the elegance and grace of the flowering cherry-blossom festival, from the summer picnics to the snowy cobblestones of winter, you get a tour of Japan you won’t get on a discount tourist weekend. And through the story of a survivor, the culture and pride of a great country is celebrated and captured in the camerawork of Dion ( Chicago) Beebe, who deserves an Academy Award for the kind of visual artistry you rarely see on the screen today. Not since David Lean has a movie looked this magnificent.

But with all the shimmer of the kabuki and the subtlety of haiku to marvel at, I never lost interest in the lives in this geisha’s profound memoir. After the hardships and dishonor of World War II, when the lute has been replaced by Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters, she is the one who must resurrect the purpose of the geisha, get out the jade combs and crushed silk kimonos and pay back the ruined lives of the people who saved her from the bombs. Here, after nearly two and a half hours that I did not want to end, the ultimate power of a true geisha is tested again, in a finale that will reduce you to tears.

The moon rising over the sea. The bamboo and cedar shingles of a city of rooftops. The swirl of the parades and ceremonies. The art of fans. The music of John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma. So much to see and hear, yet the magic of Memoirs of a Geisha is the human way it touches the heart. The cumulative effect is like being knocked unconscious by the wing of a butterfly.

Ch-ch-ch-anges!

On television, Felicity Huffman is one of the Desperate Housewives; off-screen, she is the wife of that fine actor, William H. Macy. His versatility has rubbed off, but that still might not prepare the audience for the shock treatment that awaits all who enter a film called TransAmerica. This gender-bender is a real trip, but maybe not the one everyone is dying to take.

Ms. Huffman plays a man in Los Angeles named Stanley Osbourne, who suffers from something called gender dysphoria. Now he lives the transsexual lifestyle of a woman named Bree. Bree wears pink suits, panty hose and a neck scarf to hide her Adam’s apple and, after all the gene therapies, pre-op hormones and psychological evaluations, is only a week away from the penis removal that will free Bree forever and turn her into a real woman at last.

On the eve of his “sexual-reassignment surgery,” the phone rings and a male hustler in a New York jail claims to be Stanley’s son. Suddenly, Bree’s shrink threatens to withhold the signature approving surgery unless she makes peace with the past. Slashing on extra lipstick, Stanley uses up some of his desperately needed savings and nervously heads east to bail out the kid, a 17-year-old named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who is the result of a forgotten episode of early sexual experimentation. Pretending to be a church missionary, Bree plans to drop off the handsome but psychologically damaged kid to his stepfather’s house in Kentucky. Mistaking Bree for a conservative Jesus freak who converts street kids to the Bible, Toby goes along, hoping to land in Hollywood, pursue a career in X-rated gay porno flicks and find his father. He doesn’t know that Bree is his father.

When Bree learns that the boy’s mother committed suicide and his stepfather raped him, a queasy and totally alien feeling of parental responsibility creeps in. Toby turns tricks on the road to contribute to the gas money. Trying to keep up feminine appearances and extend some paternal compassion at the same time, Bree pulls over for a quick bathroom rest stop and accidentally exposes his johnson in the rearview mirror. The boy goes ballistic. A peyote junkie steals their car. An Indian (Graham Greene) drives them to Arizona, where Bree indulges in the humiliation of a family reunion with his vulgar, mortified right-wing parents (hilariously played by Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young), who still call him Stanley. Lonely and more confused than ever, Toby (who still doesn’t know Bree is his father) reaches out for affection and climbs naked into bed with the scandalized Bree to “do the thing I do best.” There’s more, but you’re on your own.

Crudely directed by Duncan Tucker, TransAmerica is part road movie, part comedy, part heartbreaker and part self-indulgent sexual sideshow. A man who wants to be a woman, a boy who falls in love with a transsexual, and all of the relatives who can’t figure any of it out at all—how they learn to grow and mature and change for the better is what this movie is about. Finding the right balance between farce and melodrama is a risk that isn’t always satisfactorily resolved, but good acting and some witty writing help, and you gotta admit that Felicity Huffman is nothing if not fearless: She tackles the Bree/Stanley role like a desperate housewife trying to get a live rattlesnake out of her kitchen with a dustpan. America is changing, all right, but a zoned-out film like TransAmerica convinces you that it’s changing too fast for society to keep up. Changes that creep you out are not good for a healthy box office.

Not Mine!

As a confirmed and dedicated bachelor, I can testify to the fact that when I see a movie as punishing as Yours, Mine and Ours, I did not make the wrong decision. This dirge is about 18 no-neck monsters of every age, all living in the same house. It’s supposed to be a comedy. It’s as funny as bamboo shoots under the fingernails.

Poor Dennis Quaid—he was on such a roll after Far From Heaven and The Rookie. He looks great and works hard not to make you hate him, but he probably wouldn’t take his own kids to see this trash. In this idiotic remake of the lightweight 1968 charmer with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, he and Rene Russo are former high-school sweethearts, now widowed, who remarry in their 40’s. She has 10 kids, he has eight. Apparently the only thing they didn’t study in school was birth control. No problem about what kind of shoe to live in: He works for the Coast Guard, so he dumps them all in a run-down lighthouse. This architectural contrivance exists for no other reason than to provide a series of claustrophobic crises, none of which is remotely amusing.

After some sexy get-acquainted stuff, the parents never seem to have much in common again, in or out of bed. He’s a military dictator, like Robert Duvall in The Great Santini; she’s a Dr. Spock libertine for the Oprah age, like everybody on The Brady Bunch. The rest of the movie belches out every cliché from Eight Is Enough to the second, bad Cheaper by the Dozen with Steve Martin. It’s a fax of an already faded Xerox. (My advice: skip them all and rent the original 1950 Cheaper by the Dozen with Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy and Jeanne Crain.) The director is the creatively challenged Raja Gosnell, who made Scooby-Doo. This means a pet pig, vomit jokes, and Linda Hunt as a jackbooted Nazi nanny who craves professional wrestling. Not a fresh insight or genuine laugh in sight. Nothing here, in fact, for you, him, her, yours, mine, theirs or anybody’s.