January 28, 2005

The Sea Inside

Directed by Alejandro Amenábar Starring Javier Bardem

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The advertisements might give the impression that The Sea Inside is a stirring true story about transcending physical paralysis, but the life aquatic with Ramón Sampedro isn't exactly uplifting. The Spanish quadriplegic poet portrayed by Javier Bardem spent some 30 years trying to end his life, even though potential lifesavers such as poetry, imagination and love were within his reach. Here we get glimpses of his relationships with joyless family members, a lawyer (Belén Rueda) crippled by the degenerative CADASIL disease who fights for his right to die and encourages his writing, plus a laid-off single mother (Lola Dueñas) who makes it a personal crusade to find him a reason to stay alive.

This effort falls short of persuasively pleading its case amid the recent wave of films touching on the divisive subject of euthanasia including The Barbarian Invasions and The Event. They all seek to show patients drowning in misery and gasping for a way out, as well as illustrate the moral and ethical dilemmas of such a choice for their loved ones. But The Sea Inside trivializes the Sampedros' constant battles by not depicting their daily routine of suffering and sacrifice in graphic detail. Without witnessing first-hand the laborious process of washing, changing and cleaning up after bodily discharges, it's impossible for viewers to fully grasp the undignified aspects of Sampedro's existence and justify his pursuit of the big sleep. The film also curiously omits much of the legal proceedings that made him a household name in Spain, sparing viewers a generic courtroom drama but also skipping some big-picture perspective on the assisted-suicide debate.

Sampedro's poetry and Javier Aguirresarobe's sweeping cinematography supply the film's more memorable moments where viewers actually gain rare access to the poet's perspective. The most salient scene is a fantasy sequence in which Sampedro's imagination literally takes flight, out to the sea of his youth where he suffered the irrevocable injury. The rest of the film is somewhat suffocating and debilitating, with non-engaging stereotypical characters and pedestrian dialogue worthy of a TV soap.

Director/co-writer Alejandro Amenábar has capably fashioned mysterious atmospheres in Open Your Eyes and The Others, but here his cold and detached style doesn't really float a story that carries the weight of a melodrama. Unlike the third act of Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside merely splashes at ripples on the surface without reaching the emotional depths below.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

January 21, 2005

The Woodsman

Directed by Nicole Kassell Starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

One of the few cringe-worthy taboos remaining in a post-Monicagate world, child molestation has become a dinner-table topic thanks to extensive media coverage of Michael Jackson's decade-long legal woes and the 2002 scandal involving Catholic priests. Stanley Kubrick's Lolita addressed the subject on celluloid back in 1962, but Happiness would still lose its original American distributor nearly four decades later due to Todd Solondz's more frank treatment. The floodgate only opened recently as general heightened awareness of the issue led to considerably less outrage surrounding Mystic River, L.I.E. and Capturing the Friedmans.

The Woodsman is of note because it is possibly the first film to depict a child molester chipping away at his inner demons. While the flawed effort offers little else, it boasts a fascinatingly complex and unnervingly unprejudiced portrayal of its predatory protagonist. Walter (Kevin Bacon) has emerged from serving 12 years for the crime and tries to carve out a life for himself outside the prison walls. He cautiously rebuffs friendly gestures from a coworker at his new lumberyard job, attempts to reach out to the family that disowned him, resists temptations all around, endures taunts and harassment, and presses his therapist as to when he will finally be "normal." Disturbingly, Walter's splintered existence only seems completely unperturbed when he works his charm on potential prey.

Often contrasting Walter's instinctive thought process and his struggle to suppress it, the film elicits both disgust and sympathy from viewers. This effect might not have been possible without Bacon's nuanced and multifaceted performance. A therapy session - where Walter bridges a connection between a seemingly innocuous childhood memory and how it manifests into his deviance - is perhaps the film's most emotionally charged moment thanks to the actor's gripping turn.

Still, The Woodsman has plenty of defects. First-time director Nicole Kassell has that fresh-out-of-film-school eagerness to install the unvarnished texture and the freeze-frames from the 1970s to ostentatious effect. Steven Fechter and Kassell's screenplay also often gets lost in loose-fitting minor characters and wobbly subplots. Despite praiseworthy performances by Kyra Sedgwick and Mos Def, tangents involving their characters are unconvincing. Not only does Walter inexplicably live in an apartment that is a box seat for the playground directly across the street, he later hypocritically sets out to protect children from other sexual predators. When the film ultimately stacks the pile too high with calculated confrontations with molestation victims, it finally wanders off into the forest of contrivance.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Directed by Clint Eastwood Starring Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

For all its train-wreck brutality, boxing dependably delivers knockout entertainment that has viewers reflexively dodging punches and vicariously experiencing an adrenaline rush. True champions among boxing films - such as the biographical Raging Bull, Ali, and the inspirational first Rocky - are almost not about the sport. Yet the identification with characters and their against-all-odds struggles intensify viewers' reactions to every blow thrown in the protagonists' faces.

In Million Dollar Baby, director Clint Eastwood supplies the expected series of routine set pieces like those seen in Girlfight. But a surprisingly sentimental final round advances the film to somewhat of a B-movie masterpiece.

Eastwood's character, Frankie Dunn, is a predictably world-weary trainer whose chip on the shoulder stems from an estrangement from his daughter, an old pal's injury, and losing a pupil to a hotshot manager. Frankie begrudgingly takes under his wing Hilary Swank's feisty underdog Maggie, who has left her trailer-trash family and forages leftovers from a table-waiting job in order to pursue her elusive dream. Morgan Freeman's Scrap tends Frankie's gym and also lends his unmistakable deep voice to narrate the film as if it were a sequel to The Shawshank Redemption.

Million Dollar Baby is a throwback to smaller 1950s' matinee flicks usually shown as double-bills alongside expensive star vehicles. It's an accessible, solid story without any Michael Bay music-video slickness or art-film pretensions. Eastwood is a wildly inconsistent filmmaker, but he seems to be at top form when he is working within the confines of a discernable genre and resisting its clichés as with Unforgiven. Million Dollar Baby is not entirely flawless in that regard, and there is no short supply of stock one-dimensional opponents answering the bell in and out of the ring. But with the gradual development of a surrogate father-daughter relationship between Frankie and Maggie, the film steadily transcends conventional expectations.

Eastwood not only drops a few uncustomary tears on screen, but he strikes some of the most intimate and tender notes in his directorial work to date. He locates the heart of this character-driven piece by employing an earnest, minimalist style and a contemplative score that he composed himself, rather than resorting to typical low-angle hero shots and soaring musical cues. Maggie's against-the-ropes personal setback in the final act doesn't register as manipulative, but it will leave few viewers unmoved.

© Copyright 2005 Westender. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Bad Education

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar Starring Gael García Bernal

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Critics ordained Pedro Almodóvar the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema in the 1980s, when he made the sinfully racy Matador and Law of Desire - works that would later influence filmmakers such as Álex de la Iglesia, J.J. Bigas Luna and Gregg Araki. During the past two decades though, Almodóvar's films have lost that campy zaniness and melodramatic hysteria while his staple trannies and junkies have also worn out their novelty. Judging from its title, early buzz and an NC-17 rating courtesy of the MPAA, his latest promises to be a scandalous semi-autobiographical hell-raiser about abuse in Catholic school during the Franco Era. But Bad Education turns out to be a rather orthodox genre exercise recalling the director's relatively forgettable High Heels and Live Flesh.

Perhaps eager to institute an anti-cleric body of work, Gael García Bernal has traded the Roman collar of Padre Amaro for glamorous Gautier dresses to portray an aspiring actor stage-named Ángel. Claiming to be a long-lost boyhood pal/sweetheart, he pays a surprise visit to rising filmmaker Enrique (Fele Martinez) and entices him with a juicy short story based on their past just as Enrique happens to be searching for a subject for his next project. The short story-cum-film The Visit cleverly serves as Enrique's subjective flashback. But underneath the film-within-a-film masquerade is a generic noir cinematically quoting classics such as Vertigo and Double Indemnity, with the cross-dressing Ángel as its femme fatale. Unlike in The Boys of St. Vincent, the controversial topic of child abuse and its psychological effect on the victim seem like a sideshow rather than the central catechesis in Bad Education. The film barely hints at those hot-button subjects, rendering them coincidental plot elements while a murder mystery takes centre stage. The guilty priest is merely another sucker caught in the black widow's web.

Bad Education is at times luminous thanks to José Luis Alcaine's cinematography, and even its predatory creeps have strangely seductive twinkles in their eyes. Curiously, the film presents its central plots in the Scope format, while flashback scenes supposedly lifted from The Visit resemble the arguably less cinematic VistaVision. This interesting stylistic choice certainly invites interpretation, as do the period setting and cinephilic references. Still, some viewers may find the film too slight to merit any additional decoding.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

January 07, 2005

Best of 2004

By Martin Tsai

1. Distant Traveling the paths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan measures the magnitude of urban alienation with this intimately melancholy and wittily observant allegory about the unraveling relationship between an urban-dwelling loner and his country-mouse cousin.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman finally transcends his automatic writing-esque stunts and thinks up an ingenious and heartfelt romance. Despite a fragmented, time-jumping, brain-teasing narrative, he and Michel Gondry envisage the crazy little thing called love with all its fleeting joys, sorrows, insecurities and impulses.

3. Kinsey Uncompromisingly recounting the life of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, Bill Condon crafts a socially and politically relevant film that is controversial and thought provoking. Advocating diversity and tolerance through his work, Kinsey’s story is an indispensable reminder of the importance of progress.

4. The Fog of War In a sea of election-year documentaries, Errol Morris’s cautionary tale remains the most chilling. Former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara’s lessons on the Vietnam War are urgently essential. But they fell on Dubya’s deaf ears, and history tragically repeated itself in Iraq.

5. In This World Michael Winterbottom’s verité follows the journey of two Pashtun youths braving bumpy truck rides, dark sweatshops, shady handlers and untimely deaths from Afghanistan to England. Its eye-opening and harrowing depiction of their plight cogently challenges preconceived notions about illegal immigration.

6. Baadasssss! Mario Van Peebles’s loving and mythicizing account of his father Melvin’s making of the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is monumental in its own right. This passionate tribute to blaxploitation and independent filmmaking also has Boogie Nights-like style to burn.

7. Dogville Lars von Trier treads the familiar theme of martyrdom, but this time with a different set of self-imposed “obstructions” – filming on a bare soundstage with few props. The product is an unsettling parable about failed Christianity that’s especially applicable to modern-day America.

8. The Saddest Music in the World Harmonizing parts of vaudeville, German expressionism, early talkies, newsreels and even 1970s’ David Lynch, Guy Maddin orchestrates a bizarre and wicked Depression-era musical melodrama. While most Canadian filmmakers drone in discord, Maddin fine-tunes his virtuosity without compromise.

9. Before Sunset The reunion of Céline and Jesse nine years after Before Sunrise results in a little treasure that’s sharply intelligent and hopelessly romantic. Richard Linklater guides the pair through a wide range of emotions and philosophies while serenading them in a sparkling air of magic.

10. Sideways Distilling the pleasures and pains shared by two middle-aged friends torn between latching onto their impractical aspirations and succumbing to oft-disappointing reality, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor once again encapsulate that exquisite bittersweet poignancy and seal their auteur status.

Second 10: The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni), Control Room (Jehane Noujaim), Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring (Kim Ki-duk), The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev), Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock), Bon Voyage (Jean-Paul Rappeneau), I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell), The Take (Avi Lewis), The Mother (Roger Michell), Ray (Taylor Hackford)

Note: The list is based on at least one full week of public screenings in Vancouver during 2004.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.