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.