December 31, 2004

Worst of 2004

By Martin Tsai

• Policy changes at Telefilm Canada seem to further endanger our film industry. The productions it has bankrolled – including this year’s Intern Academy, Ginger Snaps II: Unleashed, 19 Months, Going the Distance, Hollywood North, The Blue Butterfly, The Delicate Art of Parking, Nothing, Moving Malcolm, Luck, Wilby Wonderful, Twist, A Silent Love and Emile – herald the new wave of artistic bankruptcy in homegrown cinema. Not sure what’s worse: the fact that our tax dollars go to fund these films, or the fact that grassroots campaigns like the First Weekend Club urge us to also pay full admission prices to suffer through them.

• Documentary features’ appeal has broadened considerably, and filmmakers like Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock have become cultural icons. But as with any genre, this one has its share of stinkers. The amateurish What Remains of Us, Go Further and What the Bleep Do We Know? fail to make compelling cases for their respective agendas, but they at least score some points for their admirable causes. Ones that don’t even attempt to illustrate the social relevance of their subjects – such as Broadway: The Golden Age and Words of My Perfect Teacher – turn out to be torturously self-indulgent trivial pursuits.

• The all-media assaults of no-talent multi-hyphenate Barbie-incarnates like the Olsen twins, Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan comprise the year’s most mind-boggling trend. Backlashes against Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé Knowles almost seem premature – at least those two have marginal talents and the good sense not to pile their clothing lines onto the racks at Wal-Mart and Zellers. Mean Girls notwithstanding, these young divas have flooded the multiplexes with after-school specials that should have gone straight to video.

• This year has seen many spectacularly worthless piece-of-trash sequels such as The Whole Ten Yards, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Alien vs. Predator and Exorcist: The Beginning. Singling out Resident Evil: Apocalypse as the worst of the lot would be almost unfair if it weren’t for the fact that it is the offspring of a film based on a video game.

Shakespeare In Love has blazed the trail for the genre of revisionist historical dramas. But unlike its imitators, the film is just mostly harmless fluff. This year’s Stage Beauty and Finding Neverland become vehicles for their respective screenwriters to project their own questionable morals. These scribes abuse the authenticity often associated with fact-based dramas by playing fast and loose with historical facts and figures to serve their purposes. While Neverland misguidedly promotes denial and escapism as sensible ways to cope with personal tragedy, it’s not nearly as offensive as Stage Beauty which urges all minorities to seek refuge in the closet for the sake of acceptance.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 24, 2004

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even though Robert De Niro’s career has mostly descended into a parody of his method-acting former self, his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese still blinks on the radar of relevance. But a desire to land awards recognition seems to have clouded the director’s judgment of late, steering him away from the angst-ridden, heavily voiced-over portraits of studied masculine alienation that first put him on the map. While recent efforts like Gangs of New York and the new Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator aren’t as off course as Kundun or The Age of Innocence, Scorsese has unfortunately overlooked their potential to allow his auteurist tastes to truly take flight. This pair of Miramax Oscar baits has his archetypical solitary protagonists aboard, but the director misguidedly glosses over their inner demons with extravagantly messy pizzazz.

Garishly indulging in old-Hollywood glitz and who’s-who trivial pursuit, The Aviator is sporadically reminiscent of the campier moments in De-Lovely. The two fact-based films not only share Louis B. Mayer as a minor character, both achieve mixed results featuring numerous cameos by today’s celebrities as the stars of yesteryear. Here for example, Cate Blanchett does an amusing riff on Katharine Hepburn while Kate Backinsale is sadly no Ava Gardner. Still, whether Scorsese’s film functions on any level depends on whether you buy the boyish Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. While at the right age and a competent performer, DiCaprio doesn’t embody the larger-than-life aura that one would expect from the aviator/movie mogul/billionaire.

The Aviator starts its engine with a masterful scene of Citizen Kane proportions, foreshadowing the hypochondriac condition that will eventually take a toll on Hughes and also consume the film itself. Later Scorsese obsessive-compulsively fuels the film with depictions of the man’s eccentricities – such as fetishistic hand-washing and erratic quarantine – that frantically scrub away the quiet solitude the director generates through shots framing DiCaprio from behind. Ultimately, screenwriter John Logan is responsible for the film’s biggest mechanical failure. Paul Schrader might have immediately deciphered all the Jake LaMotta parallels in Hughes’ turbulent life, but Logan navigates through it as if it were Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera – with all the song and dance but none of the substance. When it arrives at the climactic congressional hearing where Hughes fought off war-profiteering charges, The Aviator finally dissolves into a mediocre legal drama.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 22, 2004

Or (My Treasure)

Directed by Karen Yedaya

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Winner of Camera d’Or at Cannes, Keren Yedaya’s Or (My Treasure) takes an unwavering look at an Israeli teenager’s descent into prostitution. Yedaya’s ambitious debut endeavours to examine the complex psychosis that propels her into such an undignified existence, but the film sometimes reverts to a typically judgmental blame game like Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (2002).

Set in an indistinct and insufferably claustrophobic Tel Aviv, the film’s fixed frames and abrupt cuts constantly threaten to push its characters outside the compositions or dismember them into mere body parts. Or (Dana Ivgi, daughter of actor Moshe) first emerges from a bustling street dragging a bulky bag of recyclables she has scavenged for their deposits. We soon learn that she also juggles school, a dishwashing job, and pseudo-parental responsibilities in her dysfunctional relationship with her prostitute mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz of Late Marriage [2001]).

The film contrasts Or’s beyond-her-years wisdom with Ruthie’s immaturity in their every interaction. But despite her worldliness, Or desperately needs a role model in her life. She stubbornly attempts to reform Ruthie into a proper mother, ultimately to her own detriment, as Ruthie proves to be a lost cause. The only time Ruthie remotely displays traces of maternal instincts is when a neighbour clues her in to Or’s promiscuous tendencies, but she is still too hopelessly incompetent to properly intervene.

Ruthie seems to resent being cast in a domestic role and meeting the societal expectations placed on respectable women and mothers, yet she goes out of her way to seek subjugation by men regardless of how demeaning the circumstance. Taking a lead from her mother, Or also frequently picks up random boys to engage in some heavy petting in the dark shadows beneath the staircase of the building where she lives. Her solicitation of fleeting affection ultimately impedes her blossoming romance with Ido (Meshar Cohen), and an unexpected confrontation with his mother inflicts irreparable damage on Or’s psyche. Finally deeming herself unworthy of Ido’s love, Or plunges into prostitution.

Yedaya depicts women’s sexuality as a bargaining tool, both for material means and for validation of their self-worth. When pressed for rent, Ruthie and Or separately offer their services to the landlord. The two women both aspire to be in normal relationships, but misguidedly believe that sex is the best thing they have to offer. Ruthie harbours unrealistic hope for her love interest Avi’s (Zahi Hanan) affections in spite of his recurrent insensitivity, constantly obsessing over his seemingly perpetual absence. When Avi actually stops by for an impromptu visit, Ruthie drops everything and skips her housekeeping work to be with him. Ironically, she briefly seeks his approval by bragging about that very same job and renouncing her streetwalking past. Then moments later, she lifts his shirt up and regresses to what she knows best.

Both Or and Ruthie yearn for powerful figures to steer them in the right direction. Instead of giving them a chance, most people end up taking advantage of them. Though ultimately self-defeating, prostitution provides some ephemeral intimacy that provisionally fills their emotional voids. After failing to dissuade Ruthie from prostitution, the heartbroken Or immediately seeks solace by phoning her escort agency and requesting work that evening. Her final submission to world-weary cynicism is the film’s triumph in rendering the intricate link between low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviour.

While Yedaya has created multi-layered profiles with fascinating psychology, her heroines are completely at the mercy of men who are either callous or weak. The first-time director seems to struggle to find the delicate balance between assigning her protagonists responsibility for their own predicaments and placing blame on their dire circumstances. Catherine Breillat has also attempted these sorts of psychoanalytical laments on female sexuality. But as illustrated by films such as Romance (1999), Fat Girl (2001) and Anatomy of Hell, Breillat’s heroines angrily rebel against their predicaments rather than helplessly submitting to them.

In Yedeya’s otherwise deeply thoughtful effort, a neglectful upbringing and the general heartless tendencies of the male gender intermittently come off as simplistic scapegoats. The director’s explanations score some valid points, but she ultimately cuts the mother too much slack on account of her streak of bad luck with men. The emotional and physical cruelty of men elicits understandable sympathy for Ruthie, seemingly excusing her from accountability for her generally poor judgment calls. In due course, this view contradicts and undermines the main narrative, in which Ruthie is actually an antagonist herself and the foremost cause of Or’s plight.

From Cinema Scope No. 21, Winter 2005. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 17, 2004

House of Flying Daggers

Directed by Zhang Yimou Starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has inspired artistic responses from a few critically acclaimed but commercially underperforming Asian directors, targeting the historical and exotic martial arts genre. Tsai Ming-liang has abstracted the wuxia pian with the uncompromising and haunting Goodbye, Dragon Inn, while directors like Zhang Yimou and Takeshi Kitano have disarmed their auteurist instincts to create popcorn crunchers like Hero and The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi. Zhang now rides that momentum with yet another wuxia extravaganza, House of Flying Daggers.

In 859 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty, governmental guards are struggling to seize an eponymous clan of blade-throwing guerrillas. Aiming to locate the reclusive group, police captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro of Chungking Express) goes undercover and rescues its blind yet lethal member Mei (Zhang Ziyi) after a staged scuffle. The eventual star-crossed lovers then charge into the wilderness while Jin’s colleague Leo (Andy Lau) secretly follows.

As with Hero, filmmaker Zhang has here abandoned the realist social/chamber drama that earned critical attention for him and other Chinese Fifth Generation directors. Instead, he sharpens the film’s artistic edge with generic slow motion, bullet time CGI and colour coordination. The only trademarks of his that remain intact are the heightened eroticism and the affectionately adoring close-ups of his muse – Hero and The Road Home star Zhang, once again substituting for Gong Li.

In spite of a richly historical backdrop, clever twists worthy of Infernal Affairs and melodramatic potential analogous to Crouching Tiger, the two-dimensional Flying Daggers is about as substantive as the typical Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle. Unlike Hero or Warriors of Heaven and Earth, the film has slashed off a socio-political context. But save from an ingenious bamboo forest battle and the climactic pas-de-trois fencing match, the film’s action quotient isn’t up to current Hong Kong industry standards. Perhaps due to the Cultural Revolution, the director isn’t really invested in the wuxia genre and seems oblivious to its innovations during the past two decades by filmmakers like Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung.

Thankfully, director Zhang is able to orchestrate a heartbreaking finale after the gymnastic and stylistic exercises. Although Kaneshiro and Lau aren’t exactly popular for their acting chops, they’ve nailed the parts and mastered the dialects (apparently an issue for which the Chinese audience had taken the cast of Crouching Tiger to task). Their harrowing emotional showdown is far more memorable than their swordfight.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

A Very Long Engagement

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet Starring Audrey Tautou and Gaspard Ulliel

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Amélie has cast a hypnotic spell on many viewers and swept them head over heels into a worldwide whirl appropriate to the film’s whimsical l’amour-fou theme. It has also drawn considerable ire from a minority of cynics. Some of them have branded it as xenophobic (most notably French critic Serge Kaganski in an infamous Libération op-ed rant), while others have parodied it with cinematic rebuttals like He Loves Me … He Loves Me Not and Love Me If You Dare. Inevitably, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and starlet Audrey Tautou have re-teamed to capitalize on the success of Amélie and silence its critics with A Very Long Engagement.

Based on a Sebastien Japrisot novel, the story concerns two childhood sweethearts separated by World War I. Court-martialed for finagling an early discharge through self-mutilation, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is presumably dead to all but Mathilde (Tautou). A bum leg does not deter her from putting on a brave smile and doing some playfully gamine-like investigative work on proof of life for her missing fiancé. Through extensive flashbacks recalled by quirky eccentrics surrounded in art-nouveau decors, Mathilde unearths some secrets about corrupt officers, scornful widows and mistaken identities.

The film intermittently showcases some epic battlefield sequences that are uncharacteristically bleak, signalling Jeunet’s desire to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it’s business as usual for the director. He doesn’t miss an opportunity to use his staple zoom close-ups, spinning pans, baroque mise en scène and bronze-tinned panoramic compositions. But he hasn’t truly put his bag of tricks to good use since ending the fruitful partnership with Marc Caro, his co-director of the nightmarish fables Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. Jeunet’s usual gimmicks seem more tedious than amusing here.

Tautou and Ulliel don’t really have a chance to act, as the director overindulges in ultra wide-angle reactionary shots in which they bulge their eyes and grin on cue. The film also underutilizes its all-star supporting cast, glossing over colourful performances by Jodie Foster and Tchéky Karyo in essentially glorified cameo roles.

Although Jeunet is once again treading the familiar theme of le fabuleux destin, soliciting emotional response has never been his forté. While compulsively tinkering with the film’s visual details, he fumbles its story. In the end, the uncomfortable dissonance between Japrisot’s sweeping wartime romance and Jeunet’s gâteau-décoratif style only seems to validate those who were critical of Amélie.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

December 10, 2004


Directed by Jerry Ciccoritti Starring Emily Hampshire and Jacob Tierney

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Best known for the inaugural International 3-Day Novel Contest winner Dr. Tin (1979), cult Canadian playwright/novelist Tom Walmsley was dreaming up violent, perverse gonzo pulp before Quentin Tarantino took a job at a video store or Takashi Miike got his break working as Shohei Imamura’s assistant director. Without the benefit of a major hit though, Walmsley struggled at the margins of relevance during the past two decades by maladroitly inserting social grit into his typical absurdist excess. Although he wrote the one-act, two-hander play Blood (1995) to eulogize his late sister and resolve personal issues, he managed to turn even that into sensationalist, exploitative nonsense.

The story’s ex-con/junkie/prostitute Noelle (Emily Hampshire) is trying to score money for a fix when her estranged brother Chris (Jacob Tierney) unexpectedly turns up having recently recovered from alcoholism and a failed marriage. Apparently the siblings share a poisonous history tainted by betrayal, and this blood-doping reunion breaks loose just about all hell. They tirelessly spar about money, addiction, religion and suicide, while occasionally engaging in incestuous debauchery whenever a topic runs dry.

It’s unclear if anything here is symbolic or just plain irrational, as Blood constantly drifts between a weighty exposé akin to The Dreamers and an irreverent parody like Visitor Q. The story touches on a variety of issues, but Walmsley does not tackle any of them meaningfully. Each time the faux-philosophical psychobabble is palpably going around in circles, he injects bloodcurdling shock value by transfusing taboos drained from his play The Jones Boy (1977) and screenplay for Paris, France (1993) – his first collaboration with writer/director Jerry Ciccoritti.

Following Walmsley’s lead, Ciccoritti here recycles some shots from Paris, France. He has filmed Blood digitally on a one-room set and tried to pep it up visually by employing just about every function that comes with iMovie or Avid Xpress. But all the random split-frames, layered images, slow motions and colour changes serve no dramatic or thematic purpose, and they seem like gimmickry rather than ingenuity.

Even though it updates the protagonists from 1970s middle-aged Vancouverites to contemporary twenty-something Montréalers, Ciccoritti’s adaptation still feels archaic in a post-Irvine Welsh world. Hampshire single-handedly salvages the film, engaging the audience throughout with a performance that channels her inner Parker Posey. Still, fans of The Sopranos may wonder if this would have actually been a convincing film had it starred Aida Turturro and James Gandolfini.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

November 26, 2004

Christmas with the Kranks

Directed by Joe Roth Starring Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis and Dan Aykroyd

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Just like enduring the omnipresent carol brainwash propagated by PA systems, watching Christmas-themed movies with the family is an inescapable annual ritual for many. Occasionally films like Bad Santa and Elf magically reaffirm the holiday spirit. Then there are those like Christmas with the Kranks that make one wish the season would soon be over. Perhaps a byproduct of the current cultural climate, Kranks preaches consumerism and intemperance motivated by God-fearing all-American suburban values.

Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis star as Luther and Nora Krank, who splurge on holiday expenditures to the tune of $6,100 U.S. a year. With daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) abroad working for the Peace Corps, the couple resolves to relinquish their lavish annual rituals in favour of a Caribbean cruise. Their decision soon incites furor and intimidation on the part of everyone they know. But when Blair unexpectedly announces that she will return for the holidays, the Kranks are at the mercy of the people they've offended as they launch a last-ditch effort to throw together their famous annual Christmas Eve party.

Generally it's difficult to fault a film for remaining faithful to its literary origin. But Kranks closely follows John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, which itself is offensive drivel. The novel starts off as a curious holiday satire infused with Grisham's typical thriller urgency, and then it backtracks into a seasonal-redemption fable that rips off A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life while bolstering a conformist moral which seeks to consign the red-nose reindeers of the world to their proper place on the Island of Misfit Toys. Chris Columbus' screenplay dependably inherits the same problem.

With its humour mostly falling flat, Kranks is boring in spots. The rest of it plays out like an excruciating horror flick populated with possessed zombies. But the film is far from a cautionary tale about the groupthink phenomenon prevalent in America, and its protagonists eventually give in to peer pressure and meddlesome community standards. What's worse, every single step for their supposed salvation has a price tag attached. From spending $75 U.S. on a bare Christmas tree to offering to buy the last tin of Hickory Honey Ham at above market value, the film unapologetically champions the commercial exploitation of the holiday season. Finally a random burglary subplot seems to suggest that if you can't afford to deck the halls, 'tis not the season to be jolly.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2004


Directed by Bill Condon Starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In 1938 - long before Sue Johanson and Dr. Drew achieved celebrity by offering sex advice on national television - a zoologist shocked the bucolic Indiana University campus with unprecedented and unthinkable sex research. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's publications would later pave the way for the sexual revolution, legitimizing sex education, homosexuality and other taboos. Decades after having stormed up controversy across America, he and his books have faded into relative obscurity. Bill Condon's tremendous new biopic Kinsey is bringing the researcher back into public consciousness, unwaveringly recounting all of his achievements and failings.

Skillfully portrayed with nerdy enthusiasm by Liam Neeson, Kinsey is a gall wasp expert who has painstakingly gathered the world's largest collection of specimens on his research subject. His student Clara "Mac" McMillen (Laura Linney) tries to impress him with a unique theory about the gall wasps and ends up winning his heart. When by chance asked to provide marriage counselling, Kinsey comes to the realization that prevalent knowledge and attitudes about sexual matters are grossly misguided and only serve to induce unnecessary shame. He then shifts the focus of his research onto human subjects, meticulously collecting sexual histories with the aid of a few assistants.

Unlike the fraudulent A Beautiful Mind, the film doesn't sugarcoat facts to make them more palatable for mass consumption. It candidly depicts the disastrous outcomes of Kinsey's experimenting with gay sex and encouraging colleagues to swap wives. But Condon has also done a more serviceable job detailing the researcher's achievements than Ron Howard did with John Nash's. A heartbreaking testimonial from an interview subject (played by Lynn Redgrave) persuasively articulates how Kinsey's work has changed her life - as well as ours - for the better.

With religious watchdogs south of our border already raising red flags over it, Kinsey is clearly a socially and politically relevant film that viewers will either find inspirational or dangerous depending on their values and beliefs. But the researcher's work and this film are not merely an endorsement of sexual freedom. Their fundamental goal is to advocate diversity and tolerance. Believing that "everybody's sin is nobody's sin," Kinsey proved through his research that some things the society once forbade are indeed normal and ubiquitous. As legions of puritanical zealots are vigorously trying to undo nearly a century's worth of social progress, the film is an indispensable reminder of why progress is essential.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Finding Neverland

Directed by Marc Forster Starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Just as Shakespeare in Love drew its inspiration from Romeo and Juliet and Topsy-Turvy derived its from The Mikado, Finding Neverland tries to imagine the creative process that sparked Peter Pan. Misleadingly touted as "inspired by true events," this gimmicky adaptation of Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan itself resembles a fantasy. Unfortunately, this awfully big adventure is just plain awful.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriended the Llewelyn Davies family and later became guardian of its five boys, who reputedly inspired him to write Peter Pan. Similar to travesties committed in Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty, screenwriter David Magee's revisionist tendencies here push beyond responsible artistic license. He has invented tragedies such as death and illness to contrive drama, and omitted the youngest Llewelyn Davies son for no apparent purpose. Instead of celebrating imagination, the film ends up promoting denial and escapism as sensible coping strategies.

When illustrating how routine dress-up playdates with the Llewelyn Davies kids help flip on Barrie's creative light switch, Neverland relies on superficial visual cues rather than substantive thematic references to establish parallels between the events and specific Peter Pan scenes. Barrie's unorthodox fixation on the boys is also unexplained. The film merely makes clear that he does not have any romantic designs on their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet) despite his failing marriage, nor is he a pedophile because "How can anyone think of such evil?" Without a much-needed analysis of Barrie's psyche and motives, it's impossible for viewers to identify with this eccentric who appears to have as much of a grasp of reality as Michael Jackson.

Inventive directors like Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Peter Jackson might still pull this off, but here we unfortunately have the unremarkable Marc Forster of Monster's Ball. For a film filled with elaborate fantasy sequences, Neverland is surprisingly devoid of fairy-dust magic. Its decidedly theatrical (i.e. fake) special effects do little to make believe, immediately bringing to mind Roberto Benigni's abysmal Pinocchio. The film's torpid climactic opening night also flops badly compared to its mesmerizing counterpart in Being Julia.

Depp and Freddie Highmore (as Peter Llewelyn Davies) manage to fashion a poignant final scene, but it's far too little and too late. Without any ingenuity or dramatic crescendo to engage viewers' interests, this seemingly family-friendly drama ends up setting off anxious antics among children and testing the patience of their adult companions.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

November 12, 2004

After the Sunset

Directed by Brett Ratner Starring Pierce Brosnan, Salma Hayek and Woody Harrelson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With glamorous lawbreaking protagonists and exotic Caribbean locales, After the Sunset outwardly aspires to be one of those sexy and amusing high-concept thrillers that appeal to an upscale adult audience. But in spite of slick execution by its capable cast and crew, the film's unimaginative plans are too easy for viewers to foil. Even its obligatory gotcha plot twists are transparent enough for sharp viewers to foresee long before they actually take place.

Shifting into The Thomas Crown Affair gear, a grizzly Pierce Brosnan stars as notorious diamond thief Max Brudett. (Wasn't Nic Cage available? Oh, wait! He must have been too busy stealing National Treasure.) Max and crime-partner Lola (Salma Hayek) have retired to a Bahamian island to squander the spoils of their unlawful exploits. Diamonds are forever, and old habits die hard. Six months later, they have already regressed to pocket picking for thrills. FBI agent Stan Lloyd (Woody Harrelson) shows up just in time to entice these longtime foes of his with tempting bait, in the form of a rare diamond on display aboard a cruise ship set to arrive at the local port. Crime kingpin Henry Moore (Don Cheadle) soon coerces Max's assistance and then screws him over a promised share. But as you've probably already guessed, Max has hatched a separate plan.

The crook-coming-out-of-retirement-for-one-last-score setup is obviously not novel, as it has manifested itself in such recent films as Gone in 60 Seconds and The Good Thief. In a foolish attempt at ingenuity, After the Sunset pays To Catch a Thief a gauche homage that unwittingly exposes its own inferiority. The film's other sycophantic references - such as cameos by Edward Norton and the entire L.A. Lakers - are just as meaningless.

Although the film seems very eager to be a crowd pleaser, some of its questionable choices have missed its target grown-up audience. The momentary sight of a topless Hayek probably gratifies the likes of Harry Knowles, but the klutzily homoerotic humour of two men rubbing sun-block lotion onto each other is just totally pathetic. Suspension of disbelief is generally requisite for a popcorn flick like this, but who in his or her right mind will believe Hayek has built an entire deck alone while sporting only a bikini and a pair of goggles? Some may revel in the film's ridiculousness, but the others will likely detect an insult to their intelligence.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War

Directed by Kang Je-gyu Starring Jang Dong-gun

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The official South Korean entry to the 77th Academy Awards, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War is the first to receive a local run amongst the 49 films vying for the Best Foreign Language Film title. Boldly inviting comparisons to Saving Private Ryan from the get-go, this Korean War epic cinematically quotes its WWII counterpart by introducing an elderly veteran set to visit the war memorial site in the present day. Grittier, gorier, louder and more melodramatic, Tae Guk Gi eventually trounces that grossly overrated Spielberg flick in every possible contest.

When the war breaks out in July 1950, brothers Jin-tae (Jang Dong-gun of Nowhere to Hide) and Jin-seok (Won Bin) both involuntarily join the Southern army and enter the battlefield. Before they even learn to stomach the sight of corpses, their band of brothers faces its first brush with the Northern enemy. Determined to obtain a discharge for his precious college-bound baby brother, the half-literate Jin-tae goes out of his way to earn a medal of honour despite Jin-seok's disapproval. He volunteers for the most dangerous missions and soon becomes a ferocious killing machine. Their differences gradually turn them into foes, and they will literally face off against each other in a fateful final battle.

With elaborate period sets, myriad extras, spectacular combat scenes and glorious scope composition, the film victoriously achieves anything expensive Hollywood blockbusters can afford. Shiri director Kang Je-gyu unleashes literally every weapon in the arsenal, and there is never a dull moment during the film's frantic 140-minute running time. When the bullets, grenades, mines, daggers and fists aren't bombarding the screen, Kang charges the film with treacly melodrama that is borderline kitsch.

In spite of the blatant Hollywood influence, Tae Guk Gi ultimately triumphs by exposing the foolishness and inhumanity of war when comrades, friends and family members suddenly turn into enemies over clashing ideologies. The film uncompromisingly depicts how easily those allegiances can shift once personal ramifications enter the combat zone, and it maintains an equally critical stance toward both sides of the front line for slaughtering innocent civilians. Ultimately no winner has emerged from the Korean War despite the monstrous amount of human sacrifice, and the two Koreas continue their uncomfortable coexistence. Tae Guk Gi reminds viewers of the extreme price of war more urgently than the year's exasperating parade of political documentaries.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

November 05, 2004


Directed by Alexander Payne Starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have poignantly captured the bittersweet everyday crises of Middle America with their short but nevertheless astonishing filmography that includes Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and the latest, Sideways. Based on Rex Pickett's novel, their new collaboration distills the pleasures and pains shared by two friends, both at the crossroads of their middle-aged lives and torn between latching onto their impractical aspirations and succumbing to oft-disappointing reality.

Paul Giamatti portrays Miles, a brooding eighth-grade English teacher/failed novelist who hasn't recovered from his divorce. Thomas Haden Church plays Jack, a vain washed-up TV actor whose wrinkly face has unkindly outgrown his surfer-dude demeanor. On the eve of Jack's wedding, the two embark on a trip from San Diego to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Connoisseur Miles is eager to cultivate in his pal some knowledge of and enthusiasm for wine, but Jack intends to celebrate his last days of freedom by partying with local chicks. Encounters with earthy waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) and sassy wine-pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) unexpectedly reignite their dreams and longings, and force Miles and Jack to sort through the pile of emotional baggage they've lugged along.

Co-writers Payne and Taylor once again decant some of the wittiest and tersest dialogues in recent memory, even if they haven't bottled any genius lightening like Warren Schmidt's letters to Ndugu. They've always mixed pseudo-intellectual savvy with ordinary inanities to perfect exquisitely unaffected conversations. Aside from joking about Merlot, John Kennedy Toole and Charles Bukowski, the screenplay breaks away to serve up the more profound - such as Maya musing that "a bottle of wine is actually alive. It's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks and begins its steady, inevitable decline."

Sideways lovingly embraces every flaw and vulnerability in its characters and cheesy tourist-attraction settings. A lush jazz score nicely accentuates the sparking vineyard scenery. Some truly entrancing montages compensate for director Payne's general lack of visual flair, encapsulating the amazing rapport among the actors. The performances are uniformly exceptional, and even minor characters appear fully realized and effortlessly nuanced. Despite the fact that they offend, lie, cheat and steal, the film's hapless losers share indulgences that are all too human. Although somewhat slight compared to Payne and Taylor's other efforts, this film should resonate like Miles' prized 1961 Cheval Blanc.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 29, 2004


Directed by Margarethe von Trotta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Genocide has wrought devastation on different parts of the world at various times since the advent of civilization. For its sheer scale and terror, the Holocaust is undoubtedly one of the darkest chapters in history with a legacy that haunts generations. It has frequently been the subject or backdrop of both narrative and documentary features, evolving into a genre with its own conventions.

Significant works such as The Pianist and Sunshine depict Holocaust events in an original and thought-provoking manner. But some other films seem to be disturbingly predicated on a kind of shorthand that threatens to undermine the impact of the Nazi atrocities. Rosenstrasse is one of unfortunate films that fail to do justice to the true events that serve as their inspiration.

Told through extended flashbacks, the film focuses on a rare 1943 German protest by Aryan women after the Gestapo arrested their Jewish spouses. These women spent day and night standing outside the Rosenstrasse internment camp in Berlin, and with each day their numbers grew. Their determination eventually paid off and resulted in their loved ones' release. While those women's admirable effort has yet to receive its proper due on celluloid, the highlighting of Aryan heroines entails troublesome limitations on a Holocaust story.

Addressing concentration camps and murders only in passing, Rosenstrasse makes no attempt to adequately illustrate the horrendous prospects faced by its characters. The worst tragedies that take place during the course of the film include merely some chilling abuses by the stock despicable Nazi guards and an Aryan woman's suicide upon learning of her husband's deportation. As they await an impending death sentence, the Jewish prisoners here seem perfectly relaxed playing a makeshift board game. And the courageous Lena (Katia Riemann) only has to don a sexy evening gown and charm some powerful officer for her husband and everyone else to be set free the next day.

Further underestimating her audience in a pseudo-Hollywood way, director Margarethe von Trotta has everyone in present-day Manhattan conversing in fluent German. The contemporary tangent involving a Jewish mother's disapproval of the Latino fiance of her American-born daughter Hannah (Maria Schrader) bogs down the already deficient story. It turns out that the mother was an orphan Lena temporarily took in, a fact that prompts Hannah's impromptu visit to Berlin. The sketchy-at-best parallels drawn between past and present mixed marriages ultimately prove futile, unnecessarily stretching this oft-slight film over two hours.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 22, 2004

Stage Beauty

Directed by Richard Eyre Starring Billy Crudup and Claine Danes

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The disproportionate success of Shakespeare in Love now gives lackluster writers the artistic license to freely co-opt historical figures and then play fast and loose with the facts. Ned Kynaston and Margaret Hughes - respectively one of the last Restoration actors to step into female roles and one of the first actresses - are the latest victims of such revisionist burlesque aimed at mass consumption.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has synthetically stitched their stories together and created the Frankensteinian Compleat Female Stage Beauty, which he now adapts for the silver screen. Predicated on conventions, Stage Beauty is a contrived reworking of A Star is Born and All About Eve with a fervently hateful gender-bending twist.

Supposedly the best female-playing actor in his day, Kynaston here resembles a ghastly drag act (think Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) thanks to an unconvincing portrayal by Billy Crudup. Maria Hughes, played by Claire Danes, is conveniently his all-purpose dresser/secret admirer/imitator-turned-rival/love interest/saviour. When Charles II finally legalises the profession of actress, Kynaston finds himself out of work and abandoned by his patron lover. But leave it to rising star Maria to rescue Kynaston's dame in distress from the oblivion that is cabaret and reform him into a performer of male roles.

Kynaston and Hughes make fascinating subjects, as their separate experiences define that period in the history of theatre. Unfortunately, Hatcher is more immersed in bawdy antics than social annotations. In keeping the veneer of a lightweight crowd pleaser, Stage Beauty deliberately overlooks its delicate social subtext.

The film glosses over the fluidity of gender and the complexity of sexuality with some dangerously ill-informed assertions - such as a homosexual relationship necessarily consisting of two men assuming the roles of a man and a woman. The screenplay caricatures Kynaston as a stereotypical catty diva, who is irredeemable unless he kowtows. Hatcher is single-mindedly preoccupied with the masculinization and heterosexualization of Kynaston, having him subjected to humiliation for his refusal to conform.

By the film's rousing finale, both protagonists have substantially sacrificed their core beings and compromised their integrity. A pretentious bourgeois audience may find this kind of faux art film entertaining in spite of its vile message that basically urges minorities to seek refuge in the closet for the sake of acceptance. But to discerning viewers, the film is simply an unintentionally bleak reminder of how little times have changed.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 15, 2004

Shall We Dance?

Directed by Peter Chelsom Starring Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Never mind the fact that the Aramaic/Latin/Hebrew/Italian-language The Passion of the Christ made more than $370 million U.S. at the box office domestically. Hollywood studios still seem convinced that Americans are a bunch of illiterates incapable of reading subtitles, which is the only plausible rationale behind the recent parade of foreign-hit remakes. including Taxi, Wicker Park, Criminal and The Grudge. Unable to master the originals' steps and techniques, most of these inevitably trip and fall flat.

The 1996 Japanese sensation, Shall We Dance?, is a natural candidate for such treatment. While those unaware of the original may find it somewhat of a guilty pleasure, the remake will strike viewers in the know as lazy, superfluous and borderline offensive.

Richard Gere stars as a married lawyer who becomes intrigued by a dance instructor played by Jennifer Lopez. He routinely spots her gazing out of the studio's window during his daily commute. One day he spontaneously hops off the train and enrolls in a ballroom dancing class, which turns out to be a much-needed diversion.

Audrey Wells' screenplay remains obstinately faithful to Masayuki Suo's source material, down to the minute fact that the class meets on Wednesday nights. The original's cultural observations also stay intact, but here it's as awkward as dancing with two left feet. Many elements at play are peculiar to Japan: a buttoned-up "salary man," an impassively dutiful marriage, and the public's misgivings toward ballroom dancing. Since these are either irrelevant or implausible in America, the remake is basically reduced to a run-of-the-mill story about an upper-middle-class bore's midlife crisis. The film's token stab at originality manifests itself in the ugly form of persistent homophobic humour that denigrates an otherwise adult story.

The star-studded cast here waxes over the charming modesty of the original. Perhaps cast for their fancy footwork rather than acting chops, Gere and Lopez are unable to apprehend the nuance indispensable to their respective roles. Gere doesn't really transform his character from clumsy to confident the way that Koji Yakusho did so charismatically in the same role. Meanwhile, Lopez spends much of the movie conveying melancholy with a blank facial expression. The film comes alive during their dance sequences, but those just seem as fleeting and disposable as the ones in Strictly Ballroom or Flashdance.

While Napoleon Dynamite is burning up the dancefloor, there is just little room left for another geek-to-chic-through-dancing flick.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 08, 2004

Wilby Wonderful

Directed by Daniel MacIvor Starring Paul Gross, Sandra Oh and Rebecca Jenkins

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Paging Mr. Harvey Weinstein! If you are looking to find another afternoon TV movie special concerning small-town outcasts à la The Station Agent, look no further. Even through Wilby Wonderful doesn't involve a dwarf, it nevertheless boasts plenty of insipid stock eccentrics and one of those trite live-and-let-live themes to boot.

Just like that overrated Miramax sleeper, Wilby is obdurately simple-minded. Every occupant of its fictional Nova Scotian island has precisely one dilemma to resolve. There's a depressed gay man trying to commit suicide, a trampy single mom trying to seduce a married man, a cop trying to investigate troubles at a recreational spot, a high-strung realtor trying to unload a house, a mayor trying to develop a golf course and a teenage girl trying to get serious with her boyfriend.

Writer/director Daniel MacIvor is deficient in the depth and the skills necessary to adequately cultivate a film like this. He lacks John Sayles' knack for socio-political observations, Robert Altman's or P.T. Anderson's ability to manage an intricately interwoven story, and the Coen Brothers' ear for regional colloquialism. Halfway through, MacIvor has already fumbled several threads of the story. The little that's left comes off as too slight and convenient to convey generic messages about acceptance.

The characters in the film react to rather than really affect one another. The fact that they are all interconnected comes off like an afterthought. Their individual personalities and convictions also seem to shift, depending on whether they are the protagonists or antagonists in a particular situation. In spite of the capable cast of Canadian actors that includes Paul Gross of "Due South" and Maury Chaykin, none of the characters will strike viewers as particularly memorable. Except possibly for Sandra Oh's realtor, who seems like a blatant carbon copy of Annette Bening's in American Beauty.

As if to compensate for the main characters' inability to engage viewers, MacIvor throws some provincial gossip and ignorance into the mix in a calculated effort to educe some identification and sympathy. Perhaps oblivious to libel and invasion of privacy laws, he embellishes the small-town bigotry with the newspaper threatening to publish a blacklist of local homosexuals. It doesn't work, and viewers will quickly become skeptical of the director's intent. But there are always far worse manipulations, and thankfully the film doesn't ultimately resort to exploiting a dwarf for the sole purpose of pulling heartstrings.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 02, 2004

Ladder 49

Directed by Jay Russell Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Firefighters often risk their own lives in order to save others, and few professions are as admirable. Unfortunately, these everyday heroes seem to inspire inconsequential films with cardboard characters, worn-out cliches and predictable plotlines (Backdraft, The Guys) that really don't tell us anything we don't already know. Ladder 49 is another one of those five-alarm catastrophes that even a fleet of fire trucks can't prevent from going down in flames.

Newly pudgy Joaquin Phoenix plays Jack Morris, a Baltimore fireman who gets himself swallowed up by debris in a burning building during a rescue mission. While his band of firefighter brothers search for him, Jack spends the remainder of the film reminiscing about the seminal moments of his career and personal life: The first time he reports to the station; the first time he plays a prank on a coworker; the first time he puts out a fire; the first time he meets his wife; the first time his wife gives birth; the first time he attends a fallen comrade's funeral. The tedious litany goes on.

The film relies heavy on flashbacks to pad its running time in a desperate attempt to disguise the fact that it scarcely has a plot. But after a while, the parade of flashbacks removes you so far from the central storyline that you just stop caring about what will happen. To compensate for its ineffectual screenplay, the film employs heavy-handed musical cues to announce whether a particular scene is goofy or tragic. The scene in which Jack rescues a teen on Christmas Eve stands out as the film's strongest, but it looks so uncharacteristically stylish that it doesn't seem to belong.

Ladder 49 leaves no conventional expectations unmet, and the Dalmatian's all that's missing from this modern-day Norman Rockwell firehouse. Screenwriter Lewis Colick patronizes the viewers by creating characters devoid of any flaws and complexity for fear that such may somehow make the firefighters less heroic. As if stereotypes can substitute for character development, the screenplay tirelessly bludgeons the viewers with arbitrary information such as the firefighters' Irish-Catholic heritage. The film makes a last-ditch attempt at relevance and a final bow to convention by sacrificing a central character, ensuring a teary-eyed eulogy. Alas, that cheap shot ending seems to suggest that those who make it out alive are somehow less noble than those who don't.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 24, 2004

The Five Obstructions

Directed by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier

Directed by Martin Tsai

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier has achieved notoriety for two reasons. Thematically, he has created some of cinema’s most memorable martyrs and subjected them to the cruelest of ordeals in his gut-wrenching epics. Stylistically, he has formulated the influential Dogme 95 manifesto that imposes strict filmmaking rules. In The Five Obstructions, von Trier does a variation on both with devious glee.

He persecutes mentor Jørgen Leth into remaking Leth’s 1967 short The Perfect Human with seemingly impossible restrictions – such as no shot exceeding half a second. Believing this will be a therapeutic experience for his hero, von Trier encourages Leth to make crap. Much to von Trier’s dismay, Leth rises to the challenge. To finally render Leth powerless, von Trier makes his own “obstruction” then credits Leth as director.

The exercise proves that artificial limitations actually inspire filmmakers to creatively express the same ideas using different means. A testament to Leth’s talent, the various Perfect Human updates are as witty and enthralling as the original. In a year flooded by uninspired remakes (Dawn of the Dead, Around the World in 80 Days, The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Alfie, et al), it’s refreshing to see someone thinking outside the box.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Good Morning, Night

Directed by Marco Bellocchio

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In the past four decades, Marco Bellocchio has made several films that examine the socio-political upheaval in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. He revisits that dark chapter in history with Good Morning, Night, which recounts the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro by members of the Red Brigade. Moro served as the Italian prime minister between 1963 and 1968. His violent death impacted Italy like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shook the United States. Told from the perspective of one of Moro’s assailants, the film is controversial for its moral ambiguity.

Bellocchio often employs a family unit as a microcosm of the society. Here, the interplay between and among the quartet of kidnappers and the prisoner ironically feigns domestic normality. Between meals, arguments, watching TV and babysitting, drama unfolds in this house of cards.

In a post-9/11 world where terrorism elicits strong responses, the film is singularly uncompromising in its refusal to demonize terrorists. Increasingly elaborate dream sequences insinuate the protagonist’s detachment from her crime and her guilt. With crucial questions still unanswered by its end, this elusive film is more rewarding to those intimately familiar with its historical background.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.


Directed by Takashi Miike

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Obscenely prolific (pun intended) Japanese shock-meister Takashi Miike’s third film this year is a time-traveling, genre-bending samurai swashbuckler that ponders existential mores. An unofficial sequel to Hideo Gosha’s 1969 epic Hitokiri, Izo is one of the more somber and substantive efforts among Miike’s 60 titles.

Narrated by a croaky folk singer, the film depicts the afterlife of an assassin captured and crucified by the Shogunate in 1865. Endlessly wandering through time and space as if condemned to eternal hell, Izo is out for blood and spares no one – his mother, an ex-lover, school kids, Buddhist monks, samurais, yakuza, a SWAT team, vampires and the prime minister (a cameo by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano).

A conceptually ambitious pastiche that blends the hallmarks of David Lynch, Akira Kurosawa, Dante and Shaw Brothers, Izo isn’t exactly the kind of trashy pulp that fans expect from Miike. The film struggles to make sense of the perpetual cycle of violence throughout the history of human existence, sporadically using archival newsreels to illustrate the phenomenon. Ultimately too cryptic and iconoclastic, this unparalleled effort will leave most viewers baffled.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Missing

Directed by Lee Kang-sheng

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Best known as the enigmatic star of all of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-sheng has garnered international attention as the alter ego/muse/fetish of the Malaysian-born auteur. Making his directorial debut with The Missing, Lee also establishes himself as Tsai’s worthy apprentice. The film is a deserving companion to Tsai’s haunting masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn. In fact the two films were originally conceived as halves of the same feature, but split due to considerations of length.

Following two separate but intersecting narratives, The Missing depicts a grandmother’s frantic search for her lost infant grandson and a student seeking diversions in order to cope with the disappearance of his grandfather. The film offers some fascinating insights into how people helplessly resort to irrationality in dealing with loss and desperation. The grandmother hops onto a random stranger’s motorcycle, while the student skips school and spends all day in an arcade.

Lee borrows some of Tsai’s favourite cinematic techniques, but achieves drastically different results here. His studied long takes and long shots quietly unravel a sense of urgency centering on Lu Yi-ching’s tour-de-force performance as the grandmother. Simultaneously unnerving, frustrating and droll, this masterful effort demonstrates the tremendous potential of a new filmmaking talent.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

10 on Ten / Five

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The two new documentaries from Iranian visionary Abbas Kiarostami are worthwhile for his loyal fans and daunting for the uninitiated.

In 10 on Ten, he revisits his triumphant 2002 drama Ten and lectures on his cinematic method. Following the same template, he navigates around Tehran in his car and discusses various aspects of filmmaking during the 10 segments. While informative and absorbing, the film requires viewers’ prior knowledge of Ten. A pair of sunglasses largely conceals Kiarostami’s facial expressions, and the unwarranted English dubbing here further eclipses any signs of his animated zeal. Since the film’s visuals are mostly futile, the director’s insights probably better serve as a commentary alongside Ten on DVD.

On the 100th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu’s birth, Kiarostami pays tribute to the late Japanese master with Five. Kiarostami trades his signature winding dirt roads for the beach, and sets up five Ozu-esque long takes to survey driftwood, people, dogs, ducks, waves and ripples. Some will find this exercise excruciating, as the entire screen is nearly pitch black for over 20 minutes during one segment. But the film’s wonderfully studied details will reward the kind of patient and observant viewers who find amusement staring into a fish tank.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 17, 2004

A Silent Love

Directed by Federico Hidalgo Starring Vanessa Bauche and Noel Burton

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, A Silent Love sets out to explore the dynamics of a mail-order marriage. It's always refreshing to see a homegrown film appropriately reflecting upon Canada's omnipresent diversity and immigration issues, although this particular effort doesn't ultimately venture into any ground not already covered by similar films like Green Card or Sylvia Chang's Siao Yu (a more serious treatment scripted by Ang Lee).

Through an internet service, middle-aged Canadian professor Norman (Noel Burton) and twenty something Mexican schoolteacher Gladys (Vanessa Bauche of Amores Perros) have corresponded for a year with the aid of a translator. Despite the fact that they can barely converse, they decide to get married and invite Gladys' widowed mother Fernanda (Susana Salazar) to join them in Montreal. Apparently still ambivalent about the arrangement, Gladys often bursts into melodramatic tirades worthy of a soap opera on Telemundo. She constantly argues with Fernanda - en Espanol - as if the dumbfounded Noel is invisible.

That language barrier is not something that just the protagonists have to struggle with. Feebly written with prosaic dialogue, the multilingual screenplay makes about as much sense as the lyrics to Livin' la Vida Loca. Like its running silent-film motif, most everything in the screenplay fails to communicate the meaning and significance of the story.

The characters are constantly making rash decisions and taking action on a whim, such as Noel giving Gladys a home office or Gladys taking a job as a dishwasher in a Chinese-owned Japanese restaurant. What do these episodes mean? Should we care? It's not as if they shed any light on the characters' personalities or advance the story. On the rare occasion the screenplay allows some explanation, it awkwardly engages the characters in tactless and humiliating confrontations. For instance, Gladys and Norman's dinner party guest dishes out hot potatoes like "You got to admit this system of wife-buying is pretty colonial."

A Silent Love misses several opportunities to meaningfully explore obvious subjects, such as the cultural shock of moving from Mexico to Canada or the effect that a generation gap has on a marriage. First-time director Federico Hidalgo seems totally uninterested in his characters, and invests no time in examining their motivations, values and cultural differences. It's really a shame, because the film might have been fascinating if he actually bothered to.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 10, 2004

Intern Academy

Directed by Dave Thomas Starring Peter Oldring, Pat Kelly, Dave Foley and Dan Aykroyd

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Intern Academy offers viewers a new appreciation for the TV series Scrubs. Both revolve around the misadventures of hospital interns/residents, but that's where the similarity ends. This film gives you an idea what the sitcom would be like if everything went horribly wrong. Not only does it lack the engaging plots, likable characters and zany silliness that make Scrubs a success, Intern Academy alternates between the embarrassingly unfunny and the repulsively crude throughout.

Within its opening minutes, Academy already resorts to such lowbrow humour as a plastic doll stuck in a patient's rectum. It continues to scrape the bottom of the bedpan with more mind-numbing gags involving body fluids and waste products, gratuitous nudity and the obligatory strippers. The film is shamelessly sexist, and eventually turns even its most uptight female characters into total whores.

As if the juvenile humour isn't offensive enough, it ups the ante with blood and guts. There are some messy surgeries - including one in which the surgeon vomits into the incision opening - plus a fight with characters throwing organs at each other. Unfortunately this isn't a Takashi Miike film, so all the gore elicits more cringes than laughs. Equally unpleasant is Matt Frewer's Jim Carrey impersonation as a knife-happy surgical instructor.

Aside from its tasteless sense of humour, the film has plenty of unintentional logistical gaffes. For starters, the characters are still learning pre-med basics in a classroom despite the fact they are already hospital interns. Plus, nobody ever wears a surgical mask during the operations here. Moreover, a doctor in the film has just performed open-heart surgery but immediately tells the patient's family that his office will call to schedule a follow-up, when in reality the patient would recuperate in the hospital. This lack of attention to detail reflects the filmmaker's laziness.

Writer/director Dave Thomas (of SCTV fame) provides a series of situational skits complete with amateurish shot/reverse-shot filmmaking in the total absence of an intelligible storyline. All of the characters are merely plot devices, and they fail to register even by the film's end. The climax-if you can even call it such-is so inconsequential, that it only serves to give the viewers a sense of relief knowing this mess is nearly over. Thomas continues to dig deeper into his colostomy bag of tricks with a desperate gag reel during the credit sequence, but even that cannot resuscitate this incurable film.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 03, 2004

Wicker Park

Directed by Paul McGuigan Starring Josh Hartnett, Rose Byrne, Diane Kruger and Matthew Lillard

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Despite its stylish appearance and engaging plot, Wicker Park unwittingly falls into the common traps that encumber most American remakes of foreign films. It is a by-the-numbers adaptation of Gilles Mimouni's 1996 French thriller L'Appartement, but unfortunately far too many elements here get lost in Hollywood translation.

Josh Hartnett stars as Matt, who spontaneously puts off an important business trip and a marriage proposal after a brush with a woman reminiscent of his old flame Lisa (Diane Kruger). He traces her using a hotel key she has left behind, which eventually leads him to a different woman (Rose Byrne) who claims that her name is also Lisa. It turns out that her name is really Alex, and she has an ulterior motive to keep Matt and Lisa apart. The jigsaw puzzle of a story weaves a web of obsession, and every character appears to be stalking someone else.

Fresh-faced Hartnett seems awkward in the lead role, which probably demands someone slightly older (think Vincent Cassel of the original). Essentially playing himself as always, Matthew Lillard somehow gives the most memorable performance in the film as Matt's best friend Luke.

Screenwriter Brandon Boyce substantially retains the characters and the scenes from L'Appartement, but inevitably simplifies and demystifies their complexity for North American consumption. He maintains the original's effective structure that constantly shifts time and perspective, and then patronizingly goes on to explain all the twists and turns to a degree that is totally unnecessary. In an attempt to dumb down the story further, Boyce sacrifices the original's murder-mystery subplot involving Lisa's widowed stalker. Although that character remains in the film, he has been reduced to relative insignificance.

Director Paul McGuigan infuses a few gracefully layered images, making even split-screens pleasing to the eye. But he ultimately utilizes this device too infrequently, despite the fact that it works wonders with the film's fragmented storytelling.

McGuigan seems to be on autopilot the rest of the time, duplicating scenarios from L'Appartement while completely missing the point. The original pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock classics such as Vertigo, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train and while some of those elements remain in Wicker Park, the director leaves an impression that he is oblivious to the Hitchcockian references in Mimouni's version. To make matters worse, the film blasts an ill-conceived pop-rock soundtrack with placid guitars slowly strumming away what little suspense remains.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 27, 2004

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Set against the desolate Gobi Desert in Mongolia, The Story of the Weeping Camel is a simple fable that blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction. Shot on location with a cast of non-professional actors and untrained animals, it's devoid of the ubiquitous trappings of most narrative films. Despite its National Geographic/PBS facade, the film is no less magical than an effects-laden Hollywood flick.

The story concerns a newborn camel rejected by his mother after a particularly arduous labour, and the lengths that a nomadic family goes through to reunite them. While its plot seems pedestrian, the film delivers some of the most heart-wrenching and life-affirming moments on celluloid in recent memory.

Imagine an abandoned baby camel helplessly crying and whimpering alone, while another calf nearby is nuzzling up with her mother. It would take a heart of stone to resist the effect of such powerful images.

Members of a nomadic family portray themselves here, and the film follows their routines and rituals with wide-eyed wonder. Weeping Camel is reminiscent of early ethnographic films such as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico!, as it documents real people performing or re-enacting their activities during the course of narrative storytelling. In contrast to those films, Weeping Camel depicts its cultural milieu with an affectionate clarity rather than a distorting mysticism. Unlike Flaherty or Eisenstein however, the film's co-writer/co-director Byambasuren Davaa is part of the culture she is presenting, as her grandparents are also Mongolian nomads.

The illusion of ethnographic mysticism vanishes as the family's two sons venture into Aimak-a settlement some 50 kilometres away from their yurts-to invite a musician whose performance is vital to the traditional ceremony that will reconcile the estranged mother and child. Viewers get a dose of reality shock here, as sights of power lines, motorcycles, televisions and satellite dishes disrupt what initially appears to be a timeless rustic fable.

With the vast Gobi Desert as its sweeping backdrop, the film has a scope that begs to be seen on the big screen. Viewing it on television would somehow trivialize it because of its visual resemblance to educational documentaries. As the camel of the title finally begins to weep, viewers get to witness a miracle so incredible that it's closer to a religious experience than anything Mel Gibson conjured up in The Passion of the Christ.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 13, 2004

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie

Directed by Hatsuki Tsuji

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

If watching something as devoid of action as World Championship Poker is your idea of a good time, you may find Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie tolerable provided that you fully comprehend the rules. Yu-Gi-Oh! - literally meaning king of games - is a popular Japanese franchise that has spawned an animated series, video games, comic books and a trading-card game which plays like Magic: The Gathering.

Yu-Gi-Oh! has clearly capitalized on the fact that many kids have outgrown the Pokemon craze that stormed North America four years ago. The two franchises share a similar premise that allows players to duel using their arsenal of monsters. With more grotesque monsters and more graphic battles, Yu-Gi-Oh! naturally appeals to former Pokemon fans who now find the cutesy pocket monsters embarrassing and unacceptable amongst peers.

While the Pokemon animation always makes an attempt at a coherent plotline, the Yu-Gi-Oh! animation comes off solely as a commercial for the merchandising. Poorly disguised behind the veneer of some bogus 5,000-year-old Egyptian myth, the series often devotes several episodes to a single duel just to showcase the various monsters and their special powers.

Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie is very much like an extended episode of the TV series. There isn't much of a storyline, as it takes only 45 minutes before the hour-long climactic card game begins. The film sporadically interrupts its pageantry of monsters to deliver its awkward, ham-handed message. For example, the characters pause to reflect on the value of their friendship while the scary mummies chasing them have already caught up. Fearing that viewers may somehow miss that important message, the film continues to bludgeon with dialogue like "Victory means nothing unless you share it with people you love!"

You may seriously consider submitting to your children's constant begging and taking them to see Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie against your better judgment. But why take them to see something they already watch on television everyday? Is it because all of their friends are seeing it? Could it be the can't-live-without collector's trading cards the theatres are handing out with each ticket purchase? Do you really see yourself struggling to make sense of a silly card game while kids all around you yap away about the monsters in their decks? Let's face it, you've probably just read this review because you want to be talked out of it.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 06, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate

Directed by Jonathan Demme Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Updating John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cultural monument, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a timely and effective political thriller in its own right. Frankenheimer’s Cold War conspiracy debuted amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, and foreshadowed the shootings of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and George Wallace that would later change the outcomes of American presidential elections in 1968 and 1972. Demme’s conglomerate conspiracy has an equally well-timed release concurrent with last week’s Democratic National Convention, but it’s unlikely to have the same impact since Fahrenheit 9/11 has already changed the present cultural climate.

This soldier-programmed-into-political-assassin remake is rather faithful to Frankenheimer’s original while also drawing from The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 corporate variation on the Manchurian theme. Changes are inevitable, as Communism no longer poses an immediate threat. Manchurian Global, an amalgam of Halliburton and The Carlyle Group, substitutes for the Communists as the villain. Exploiting fears of terrorist threats takes the place of Communist witch-hunts.

Faux war hero Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) himself is now the vice-presidential candidate, replacing his McCarthy-esque stepfather who is notably absent here. Shaw’s venomous mother (Meryl Streep) is a senator herself, beyond being just a shadowy string-puller. Shaw and his commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) have been abducted during Operation Desert Storm instead of the Korean War, and brainwashed with high-tech implants rather than hypnosis.

Candidate is the first true thriller and perhaps the most successful film that Demme has made since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. It still alarmingly signals a creative dry spell, as this is his second remake in a row (following his misguided Charade-remake The Truth About Charlie – his documentary The Agronomist notwithstanding). While very engaging and entertaining, Demme’s version doesn’t quite measure up to Frankenheimer’s original. Several key scenes fall short here, including the pivotal nightmare sequence and the precisely paced climactic assassination. The new screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris often lifts entire scenes from the source material, but with sporadic shorthand that seems to presume the viewers’ familiarity with the original.

The remake appropriately incorporates governmental branches such as the FBI and the U.S. Army as part of the conspiracy. Its visual vocabulary – complete with surveillance cameras, colour-coded terrorism alerts and some graphic details recalling Lambs and even Ridley Scott’s Hannibal – does help intensify the paranoid atmosphere. Supporting performances by Kimberly Elise and Jeffrey Wright add significant depth to their respective characters. Another decided improvement is the omission of the original’s offensive racial stereotypes and its ridiculous kung-fu fight scene.

Demme’s Candidate would almost be complete if instead of entirely omitting the character of Shaw’s demagogue stepfather, it modernized him to a Rush Limbaugh-type political pundit. Something to try if yet another remake is unavoidable.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

July 23, 2004


Directed by Irwin Winkler Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd and Jonathan Pryce

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

As an influential musical figure of his day, Cole Porter certainly merits a bio-pic along with Wolfgang Mozart and Glenn Gould. Unfortunately, the resulting De-Lovely is not even remotely in the same league as Amadeus or Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

De-Lovely re-imagines Porter's relationship with socialite Linda Lee as a stage (and briefly, filmed) musical, with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd in the respective roles. At the outset, the film promises an exploration of whether that relationship is based on love, money or convenience. But instead the misguided film indulges in largely trivial follies throughout, with director Irwin Winkler indiscriminately cramming in as many gratuitous musical numbers, name-dropping references and pop-star cameos as imaginable.

The film opens as angel Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) rehearses the musical in an empty theatre for the approval of a weathered Cole. As the camera pans, the stage transports its cast to the better days of Cole's life where everything is light and, well, gay. Cole excuses himself and explains that he "wanted every kind of love available" and "can't find it in one person or one sex," while Linda dutifully smiles in solidarity. It will eventually take several years of sleeping in separate bedrooms, many indiscreet extramarital affairs and numerous campy musical numbers before Linda finally confronts Cole with "I've indulged you. I've spoiled you. For what? For a little music!"

While Porter and Lee's relationship provides the framework, the film observes it from a strictly superficial level. The screenplay by Jay Cocks leaves much of the actual character development for Porter's own music and lyrics to convey. Unfortunately, most of these songs are rendered useless to the film as they frequently face interruption by insignificant dialogue. Cocks also seems hell-bent on throwing in an Irving Berlin here and a Louis B. Mayer there, even though these name-droppings do not even remotely advance the plot.

Winkler desperately stuffs the film with Porter's songs nearly from beginning to end, including subpar ones such as "Be a Clown" and "Another Opn'in, Another Show." Even though a star-studded vanity soundtrack with Porter's tunes is an understandable marketing gimmick, the cameo performances here serve no purpose but to completely cheapen the already superfluous film. There are a few truly bizarre-if somewhat cringe-inducing-sights, including an ear-licking Diana Krall and an overly earnest Elvis Costello channeling Al Jolson.

De-Lovely never manages to actually draw any conclusion on the nature and the significance of the relationship between Porter and Lee, except that she is his sometime muse. It seems that Winkler has love and affinity for Porter's music, but he merely delivers the pieces of the puzzle without actually assembling them into a meaningful picture.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

I, Robot

Directed by Alex Proyas Starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and Alan Tudyk

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Within the opening minutes, it becomes readily apparent that the futuristic I, Robot is a soulless machine of a film.

No sooner than you can say 'product placement,' the protagonist played by Will Smith has already pitched his "2004 Vintage" Converse sneakers a few times. The rest of the film operates like a formulaic and well-oiled mechanism, as everything from its story to its production design is a direct rip-off of another source.

In the Chicago circa 2035 depicted by the film, there is one robot per every five human beings. These bots mostly work as domestic help, and follow strict laws that require them to always obey human orders and protect human lives.

Days before the introduction of the new NS-5 model robots, their programmer mysteriously jumps out of his lab's window and dies. While most people regard the death as a suicide, Det. Del Spooner (Smith) suspects that a robot has violated the laws and committed murder. Although everyone thinks he's unreasonably paranoid, Spooner's right. The bots are plotting to overtake the world, and moviegoers know we can count on the Fresh Prince to save the day.

Despite the fact that I, Robot claims to be an adaptation of Issac Asimov's sci-fi literature, it merely incorporates Asimov's concept of "The Three Laws of Robotics": A robot may not injure a human being or allow a human being to come to harm, it must obey human orders, and it must protect its own existence. The rest-written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman-streamlines a hybrid of Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix, A.I. and Metropolis (both Fritz Lang's original and Osamu Tezuka's manga versions).

The story, which concerns some murderous machines and a robot grappling with the concept of human emotions, is obviously derivative of the aforementioned films. I, Robot will especially strike those initiated viewers as a blatant carbon copy of Tezuka's Metropolis (and its anime adaptation by Rintaro), but it doesn't compel the powerful emotional response that Tezuka's fatalistic vision elicits. The production design here is as unimaginative as the film itself, and the crash-test-dummy-like robots seem as if they are straight out of Bjork's "All is Full of Love" music video.

While Metropolis and Blade Runner are essentially cautionary tales about the prevalence of humanity in a futuristic world, I, Robot appears to be a poor excuse for product placement.

The film is marginally entertaining, but it's clearly aiming for kids who are oblivious to the superior films from which it so unashamedly steals.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

July 09, 2004

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Directed by Adam McKay Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Fred Willard and Paul Rudd

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

At first glance, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy appears to have the right ingredients for cooking up a successful comedy. Set in a not-too-distant past where political correctness is nonexistent-as in the Austin Powers franchise-the film stages a workplace battle of the sexes reminiscent of Nine to Five.

The film features an airhead news anchor similar to the Ted Baxter character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Despite its promising premise, Anchorman feels like a missed opportunity as many of its ideas remain half baked when the credits roll.

Will Ferrell stars as Ron Burgundy, a top-rated news anchor in 1970s San Diego whose sole talents seem to be reading the teleprompter, playing the jazz flute and conversing with his pet dog. Ron and his uniformly inept "news team" revel in fraternizing and drinking scotch on the job, until the station recruits its first female reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) in an attempt to diversify the newsroom. Veronica and Ron quickly storm up a romance, but her ambition of one day becoming a network news anchor threatens his ego, and their relationship.

The film gives a few interesting-if unexpected-glimpses of the dynamics between the genders in the 1970s workplace: as a woman working in a male-dominated atmosphere, Veronica faces frequent sexual harassment from her chauvinist-pig co-workers. To her dismay, her gender also relegates her to covering such trivia as a cat fashion show or a meatloaf recipe, over hard-hitting news. These plot elements stand out and seem to demand further development. But the film doesn't even begin to address these issues in a meaningful way.

Aside from its lack of substance, Anchorman fails on a comedic level. Saturday Night Live alumnus Ferrell has written the screenplay with director Adam McKay, a former SNL scribe. While the similarly nostalgic Austin Powers films have various early Michael Caine vehicles and James Bond films to serve as reference points, Anchorman has very little to draw on and often appears to be a one punch-line joke more appropriate as an SNL skit.

There are a few memorable moments of irreverence, but the film exhausts its shtick rapidly in the short 95-minute running time. It gets sadly desperate when it relies on cameo performances by Vince Vaughn, Jack Black, Luke Wilson, Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller as a source for laughs.

By the time the film ventures into its final climactic scenes involving talking animals, Anchorman no longer entertains or even remotely engages its viewers.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

July 02, 2004

The Notebook

Directed by Nick Cassavetes Starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands and James Garner

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In The Notebook, Duke (James Garner) dutifully sits by the Alzheimer's-plagued Allie (Gena Rowlands) all day in a nursing home and reads her pages from a notebook to remind her of her past. "This is a good story. I think I've heard it before," an engrossed Allie tells Duke. Viewers will also be able to relate to this feeling of déjà vù.

The entries in the notebook recount the against-all-odds summer fling between privileged debutant Allie (Rachel McAdams) and destitute lumberjack Noah (Ryan Gosling). This romance seems to face every contrived obstacle imaginable-class difference, a meddling mother who confiscates love letters, a fiance standing in the way and even the World War II draft. All these time-tested plot devices inevitably bring to mind Cinema Paradiso, Titanic, Big Fish and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Moviegoers can be assured this is the kind of sappy yarn to bring them to tears, be it out of sadness or boredom.

Even if you are really in the mood for an escapist romance or a sentimental tearjerker, to enjoy this film from beginning to end still requires more than just the suspension of disbelief. While the equally over-the-top Big Fish at least passes as an elaborate revisionist fantasy, The Notebook stages its improbable melodrama with all the seriousness and sincerity of a TV movie of the week. The film eventually rewards its viewers with a moving finale, but only after it drags on in the mud for what seems like a lifetime.

Despite the charismatic performances of Gosling and McAdams set against the picturesque backdrop of the mystic American South, this star-crossed romance is memorable mostly for its borderline ludicrousness. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, the already cliche-ridden plots meet their match in a ham-handed adaptation by Jeremy Levin and Jan Sardi (The Legend of Bagger Vance and Shine, respectively). To ask Allie out, Noah suspends himself midair hanging onto the Ferris wheel with one arm. Once she agrees to go out, the young lovers would lie on the street watching the traffic lights change or frolic along the beach pretending to be flying birds. When Allie misses her curfew, her mother forbids her to see Noah again and angrily declares "He is trash!"

The film's saving grace is its modern-day scenes featuring Garner and Rowlands, mother of the director. They manage to overcome the inane dialogue and elevate the film with subtle yet powerful performances. During the haunting final scenes, they beautifully realize a love challenged by the torment, desperation and horror associated with Allie's memory loss. All of the troubles depicted earlier in the film seem like much ado about nothing in comparison.

Unfortunately the film has vested the bulk of its running time on the sexier flashbacks involving the young lovers, and those precious scenes between Rowlands and Garner are too few.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.