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.