February 25, 2005

Bride & Prejudice

Directed by Gurinder Chadha Starring Aishwarya Rai and Martin Henderson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Bollywood's mushy melodrama, lavish designs and glorious performance numbers have become institutions in their native India, while its aesthetics and sounds have also cast a spell over Western pop culture. The influence has been multimedia and far ranging, from Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! to Truth Hurts' hit song "Addictive." But B-wood musicals remain mostly veiled to North American moviegoers, and their local runs at Raja Cinemas perpetually fail to make the review and listing sections of the mainstream press. Fresh off the sleeper success of Bend It Like Beckham, director Gurinder Chadha seems like a promising matchmaker to properly introduce Hindi sense and sensibilities to Western audiences. Unfortunately, her seemingly ingenious bhangra-song-and-kathak-dance update of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice dilutes that piquant masala flavour to cater to the food-court palette.

In Bride & Prejudice, Bollywood's reining queen Aishwarya Rai of Devdas stars as Elizabeth Bennet - oops - Lalita Bashki, one of the prized daughters for whom her traditional Indian family eagerly wants to find a suitor. Martin Henderson plays pompous American hotel-empire heir "Will" Darcy, who accompanies his pal Bingley - sorry - Balraj (Naveen Andrews) to the rural Amritsar to arrange a monsoon wedding. Mr. Darcy's nemesis Wickham (Daniel Gillies) happens to be vacationing at a local beach resort where Ashanti is conveniently plugging her new track.

Other than trimming an hour off the typical three-hour-plus running time, the film follows most of Bollywood's wet-sari, no-kissing traditions step by step. Still, its various concessions aimed at kid-gloving Western audiences are decidedly underwhelming. Not only are its musical interludes few and far between, but the film frequently cuts away from the convoluted choreography so characters can relay English lyrical translation and poke fun at peculiar dance moves. Quite a number of scenes - such as the opening montage - scream for musical treatment but fall on Chadha's deaf ear. Rai bears a bizarre resemblance to a younger and slimmer Kirstie Alley here, while the director must have explicitly instructed Henderson to imitate Tom Cruise. His Mr. Darcy even sports a haircut and a tan jacket seemingly fallen from Vanilla Sky. All this attention to trifling detail quickly becomes tedious, and Bride & Prejudice ultimately does as much justice to the satin allure of B-wood as does The Guru. Since Harvey Weinstein handily makes a cameo during the end-credits outtakes, you get the idea who's to blame.

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

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Directed by Niels Mueller Starring Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson and Naomi Watts

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Boasting impressive credentials including stars Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Naomi Watts, as well as producers Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio, last year's award-season leftover The Assassination of Richard Nixon must have been promising on the drawing board. Based on a real-life botched plot to crash a hijacked plane into the White House, it has an eerie post-9/11 timeliness. But it ultimately unfolds as a pretentious by-the-numbers Taxi Driver rip-off. In fact, first-time director Niels Mueller demonstrates a blind ambition for superfluous acclaim rather than probing social commentary.

The film re-imagines assailant Samuel Byck as Sam Bicke (Penn), an all-around loser struggling to get a grip on his failed career and personal life. With his idealist conscience often eclipsing work-a-day-world practicality, he is unable to hold a steady job and support his family. Unrelenting motifs of American-dream-fulfillment Cadillacs, ruthless Dale Carnegie/Norman Vincent Peale mantras, racial repression and televised Watergate coverage endlessly divulge his sense of disenfranchisement. As his slimy boss (Jack Thompson) suggests Tricky Dick as a model salesman who twice closed the deal with American voters pitching identical plans to end the Vietnam War, a target emerges in Bicke's quest for prominence and social justice.

Though few Scorsese homages have managed to make the riveting impression of Gaspar Noé's teeth-gnashing I Stand Alone, that path still serves as a shortcut for novice filmmakers starving for attention. In spite of Mueller's repeated denial in the Assassination press notes of any Taxi Driver influence, parallels between the two films go beyond the thematic and the protagonists' names. His film similarly relies on voice-over narrations - lent by Bicke's reverential messages to Leonard Bernstein that evoke Eminem's "Stan." Bicke's clinging to his estranged wife (Watts) emulates Travis Bickle's stalking of campaign aid Betsy, just as Bicke's rehearsals of the hijack are reminiscent of Bickle's "You talkin' to me?" routine. A strip joint also serves as a flippant replacement for the porn theatre Bickle frequented.

Although Taxi Driver lacked Mamet-esque white-collar disaffection in its pathology case study, Mueller's treatment isn't exactly novel after Falling Down. Assassination chokes on its aesthetics deep throat, with excessive non-diegetic sound, jittery camera and Steven M. Stern’s pseudo-Philip Glass score rescinding any sense of alienation. The most remarkable element is Penn's dependably intense performance, which is always something to behold.

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

February 18, 2005

Born Into Brothels

Directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The Oscar-nominated documentary Born Into Brothels wades into the suffocating squalor of Calcutta's infamous Sonagachi red-light district to meet the prostitutes' children, all between the ages of 10 and 14. Surrounded by poverty, filth, negligent parents and vulgar neighbours, they cope with being the dregs of a rigid caste system, endure deadening dawn-to-dusk domestic toil, and face a grim future in which teenaged girls have little choice but to join the family business. Their tragic existences in this clandestine underworld undeniably make a compelling feature.

Photojournalist - and the film's co-director - Zana Briski initially lived in a brothel to capture the lives of prostitutes, and ended up supplying photography lessons, point-and-shoot cameras and film stock to their kids. They each assembled a portfolio of arresting, vibrant, spontaneous and layered snapshots, for which Briski then worked hard to attain exposure through various exhibitions, an Amnesty International calendar and a Sotheby's auction. Convinced that a boarding-school education was the children's only ticket out of the Sonagachi sewer, she raised tuition money selling their work.

Briski's noble efforts emerge as the film's dominant narrative. She thanklessly cuts through bureaucratic red tape to secure a passport for the prodigious 12-year-old Avijit to attend a World Press Photo conference in Amsterdam, persuades boarding schools to admit the kids, and takes them to a clinic to get STD tests. The film's arguably more significant and riveting accounts from the children's own perspectives unfortunately lack focus and take a back seat. This presents a curious contrast to the segment in The Five Obstructions, during which Lars von Trier sought to challenge Jørgen Leth's detachment as a documentarian by sending him to shoot in Bombay's Falkland Road red-light district. Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman have considerably more access to the brothel and its inhabitants than Leth did, and she even becomes a major figure in the daily lives of her subjects. Yet with Briski's own viewpoint overpowering those of the children, Born Into Brothels emanates that adverse sense of detachment. It's possible to misconstrue this as subconscious colonialism on the part of the directors, since the kids here seem more like Briski's charity cases than subjects she's recording.

Despite its flaws, the film renders some truly heartbreaking vignettes in which the children grapple with their bleak reality. Briski provides a few practical examples to assuage their predicament, and perhaps some viewers will find her efforts inspirational.

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

February 11, 2005

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew Starring Tony Jaa

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The recent crop of Thai films filling festivals and theatres worldwide offers a diverse array of idiosyncratic fare such as Blissfully Yours and Tears of the Black Tiger as well as pop flicks like The Eye and The Legend of Suriyothai. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is one of the latter, an homage to Bruce Lee that's also tailor-made to showcase the kickboxing prowess of its star Tony Jaa. Even though its generic storylines lack punch, the film is far from weak. Without benefits of stuntmen or CGI, it kicks the bar of its genre up several notches such that it might become a cult favourite and turn Jaa into a superstar.

The film opens amidst a timeless rural backdrop where the theft of a Buddha statue's head jeopardizes the fortunes of a small village. An orphan raised by a monk (Woranard Tantipidok) and trained in Muay Thai, Jaa's character Ting is the town's only hope of retrieving its treasure. After villagers have pitched in their life savings, Ting journeys to a seedy Bangkok where music video-style slow motion, fades, jump cuts and an inauthentic hip-hop score scream culture shock.

Despite his master's warning never to unleash his unmatched martial arts skills on ignorant poor souls, Ting is resolved to get back the plunder at all costs. The thief (Wannakit Siriput) conveniently hangs out at an underground fight club where an assortment of challengers awaits, including the stereotypical Caucasian villain (Nick Kara) who instigates a fight by roughing up a lady and talking such bewildering if not infuriating trash as "Thai women go to my country to become hookers!" What ensues is reminiscent of Lee's squashing racial oppression and rallying Asian representation on film, the thematic context that Jackie Chan and Jet Li never explicitly break into perhaps for fear it might alienate their international audiences.

Director Prachya Pinkaew packs Ong Bak with fights, chases and explosions to compensate for its general lack of plots, but he adds an indigenous flavour - such as utilizing local three-wheel taxis for a car chase - to keep these hackneyed elements fresh. Still, none of this would be possible without Jaa. Aside from giving a disarmingly earnest performance, he is a one-man special effect who defies gravity without wires. His shtick might get old some day, but for now it'd be impossible to take your eyes off of him.

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

February 04, 2005

The Wedding Date

Directed by Clare Kilner Starring Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

For or better or worse, moviegoers remain faithful to cinematic weddings. Be it Muriel's, Betsy's or Julia Roberts' best friend's. Be it American, Polish, or big fat Greek. Even the banquet, the planner and the singer seem to get warm receptions at the box office. If they throw in three extra weddings and a funeral, they'll even win over Academy voters. Geniuses in Hollywood must have figured that the nuptial theme and a Pretty Woman twist would make a perfect match. But with tin cans of well-worn clichés in tow, The Wedding Date should probably have kept its better-suited original title, Something Borrowed.

Debra Messing is Kat, a single, flaky Kirsten Dunst-esque Manhattanite who would be more convincing as a Californian. Her half-sister Amy (Amy Adams) is a spunky Reese Witherspoon-ish bride-to-be. One can only imagine other A-listers who might have turned down this film. Anyway, Kat rents escort Nick (Dermot Mulroney) to accompany her to London to attend Amy's wedding, so she can alleviate put-downs from her mother (Holland Taylor) and also one-up a heartless old flame (Jeremy Sheffield) who happens to be the best man. Much to her surprise, Nick turns out to be a dreamy hooker with an Ivy League education and (gasp!) a heart of gold. Money apparently can indeed buy you love.

Aside from its derivativeness, the film is often absurd. Elizabeth Young's source novel, Asking for Trouble, is an opportunistic Bridget Jones knock-off complete with that oh-so-charming Englishness. By converting half of the characters to American ex-pats, The Wedding Date divorces itself from the most interesting aspect of the novel. Screenwriter Dana Fox doesn't attempt to make up for the awkwardness brought about by the change. Instead she showers the script with more glaring plot holes - such as Kat trying to board an international flight out of JFK 15 minutes before departure, which would be impossible even in a pre-9/11 world.

Unlike most romantic comedies about matrimony, the film is rarely festive or even intentionally funny. Fox's inept screenplay hopelessly tries to inform sketchy back stories and nonexistent character developments to no avail. Characters incessantly blab out their every thought, to the point that they don’t seem to care about others listening in on their private conversations. When a nasty can of worms opens in the film's final act, you'll wish the theatre lobby had an open bar.

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