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.