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.