March 25, 2005

Up and Down

Directed by Jan Hrebejk

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“In The Children of Herakles, Euripides wrote about emigrants,” muses college lecturer Otto (Jan Tríska) in Up and Down, “and that theme runs through human history like a leitmotif.” That statement encapsulates the central thesis of this Altman-esque modern Czech saga from Divided We Fall director Jan Hrebejk, although the film encompasses many other social concerns. It examines various family structures: operational/dysfunctional, broken/surrogate, biological/adoptive. The film also contemplates the crises that erupt between inherited and desired identities.

Opening with a truckload of illegal South Asian immigrants getting past the Czech-Slovak checkpoint, the film soon launches into an exposé on the roots and manifestations of xenophobia. A missing wallet promptly triggers a panicked confrontation between humanitarian worker Hana (Ingrid Timková) and a foreign bystander. Mila (Natasa Burger) purchases a dark-skinned infant on the black market, which results in a fallout between her meathead boyfriend Franta (Jirí Machácek) and his bigot hooligan father figure The Colonel (Jaroslav Ducek). The film juxtaposes that pair of makeshift domestic relationships with Otto’s two households that haven’t been on speaking terms with one another. Only after a stroke does he finally summon estranged wife Vera (Emília Vásáryová) and offspring Martin (Petr Forman, son of Milos) to gather for the first time in two decades with long-term girlfriend Hana and 18-year-old daughter Lenka (Kristýna Liska-Boková).

The identity crises in the film permeate beyond familial roles. Immigrants endure arduous treks to seek better lives, but their ethnicities still elicit suspicion, discrimination and rejection in their land of hope and dreams. The sterile Mila obsessively yearns for motherhood. Due to a misdemeanor on his record, Franta must settle for being a security guard instead of a police officer. Martin once defied Otto’s wishes to pursue a career in photography, but eventually winds up working in a surf shop.

With all the secrets and lies beginning to mercilessly unravel in its final act, Up and Down is at once chillingly bleak and cautiously optimistic. Hrebejk executes this intricately multifaceted epic with authority, withholding judgment on its morally murky characters and also sparing viewers the P.T. Anderson-ish pretenses. The film’s representation of Australia as a paradise of racial harmony is probably a bit naïve. Still, this magnificent masterpiece is so universally relevant that it offers us much food for thought in reflection on our own immigration and diversity issues.

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


Directed by Danny Boyle Starring Alex Etel and James Nesbitt

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even though this digitally-Botoxed family fare may seem like a drastic change of pace for Danny Boyle, Millions capitalizes on a premise in which the director has previously invested. Just like in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, a duffle-bagful of money here is the root of all evil and does funny things to some people - as per The O'Jays. The most significant deviation here stems from the film's virtuous seven-year-old protagonist Damian (Alex Etel), who is the polar opposite of those callous, amoral sleazebags for which Ewan McGregor first earned attention.

Newly motherless Damian finds solace inside his corrugated cardboard rocket, as well as through imaginary friendships with various saints - such as the selflessly charitable Clare, Francis, Joseph, Nicholas and Peter - who provide him with ethical guidance. Uncertain whether the bag of pounds sterling fallen from the sky is one of his hallucinations, Damian informs his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) about it. Like a junior equivalent of those McGregor characters, the calculating Anthony quickly commissions a schoolyard gang and indulges in wretched consumerist excess. Damian ventures out to follow in the footsteps of his sanctified mentors by feeding the hungry and helping the poor. But with a scary stranger rummaging around for his plunder and only a few days remaining before England's changeover to the euro currency, the brothers' secret threatens to dissolve.

The film is very similar to Shallow Grave in its depiction of how money motivates heinous greed, induces paranoia and threatens relationships. For both films, Boyle borrows the shadow play and stairs/attic motifs from Hitchcock. Grave remained convincing even when its increasingly unstable characters began violently stashing away corpses. But Millions withdraws too far from reality due to the fairytale tendencies and logistical holes in Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay. Even if they can suspend their disbelief in Damian's visions and imagination, skeptics may still find it difficult to buy scenarios like a mock rocket actually taking flight or Damian bestowing his generosity mostly on suburbanites. Where is the working-class underbelly that populates those Mike Leigh and Ken Loach films?

Millions is both cautionary and entertaining, but it may ultimately not be for kids. Boyle expertly cashes in on the story's thriller elements, but those are likely too frightening for youngsters. And the preachy moral stance might not pay off for adults, even if they find the film otherwise enjoyable.

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

March 18, 2005


Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel Starring Bruno Ganz

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The legacy of Adolf Hitler still elicits morbid fascination half a century later, as people continue to grapple with the magnitude of atrocities committed under his rule. It is the source of thousands of published accounts, and also serves as basis for several films - including ones by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Aleksandr Sokurov. Das Experiment director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall claims to be Germany's first kassenschlager on the subject, but this tediously accurate endeavour doesn't shed any new light on this unfathomable madness that eclipsed basic humanity.

Partly based on Traudl Junge's memoir, the film is virtually déjà vu for those who've seen Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Many of the same recollections by Führersekretärin Junge in the 2003 documentary also manifest themselves as re-enactments in Hirschbiegel's film. The story commences in 1942 with 22-year-old Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) taking a stenographic test before Hitler (Bruno Ganz), and ends in 1945 as she makes her way past Red Army troops following the Third Reich's surrender. While it is meticulously detailed in its portrayal of her experience, the film lacks the nuance and perspective that Junge herself supplied during the Blind Spot interviews.

Downfall scatters its narrative among numerous other historical figures and fictional characters. Naively patriotic teen Peter (Donevan Gunia) defies his father and joins the Hitler Youth in street warfare. A cheerleading Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler of Nowhere in Africa) gathers people in the bunker for a dance party. Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) plans to kill her own children to save them from growing up in a world without National Socialism. Operating chiefly in two divergent modes, Ganz's twitchy Hitler alternately rants paranoid edicts like a mad demagogue or fatalistically laments unfinished grand plans. Although the film shows his relatively gentler private side, Hitler still seems like a caricature here - unlike in Menno Meyjes' Max, which broke ground with its speculative psychoanalysis of Hitler's motivations.

Besides its episodic chamber pieces, Downfall lacks tangible narrative structure and relatable characters. The various vignettes are of interest, but they don't amount to anything significant. With only a brief shot showing a pile of corpses, the film seems to address massacre and anti-Semitism merely in passing. This Moralität primarily cautions on the absurdity of brainwashed Germans' foolhardy trust in a maniacal despot, and the regime's blitzkrieg against its own people to make them pay for failing to defend their glorious Vaterland.

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

March 11, 2005

Phil the Alien

Directed by Rob Stefaniuk Starring Stefaniuk, Joe Flaherty and Graham Greene

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even with its paranormal festival expeditions at Toronto and Slamdance, Phil the Alien seems otherworldly when probed alongside archetypical Canuck cultish sci-fi specimens such as Cube or David Cronenberg’s films, It somewhat resembles the campy Howard the Duck and Earth Girls are Easy for emitting that lame F/X and cheesy humour circa 1980s. The story concerns alcoholic extraterrestrial Phil (Rob Stefaniuk), who crashes into northern Ontario and the local populace of trailer-park boys and hookers. He befriends a beaver, hangs out at a tavern, and becomes frontman of a Christian rock band. Meanwhile, some deranged American special agents in fur coats are out to capture him.

Judging from its unmistakably Canadian setup, the film likely won’t abduct audiences outside our home and native land. Like the execrable Intern Academy, this shoddy production mystifyingly body-snatches some of the country’s iconic talents. The fact that Joe Flaherty lends his voice as the talking beaver will probably pique some interest. Graham Green here assumes the thankless role of a barkeep, while Seán Cullen briefly steals the show as another alien species. Even Ryan Malcolm makes a self-deprecating cameo. Sadly, these one-note gags quickly go sour.

Low-tech sci-fi B-movies aren’t all bad, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 has helped spawn some new geeky appreciation. Last year’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra smartly paid homage to the outdated subgenre and affectionately lampooned it. But it’s unclear what writer/director/star Stefaniuk tries to accomplish with Phil the Alien, which is even more misguided than Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Geared in Red Green/McKenzie brothers-style flannel shirt and quilted vest, his Phil whines and shrieks throughout as if he were Ray Romano/Zach Braff on helium. He embellishes the film’s Canadian quotient, only to have Phil’s mutation into a “rock-‘n’-roll evangelist” stick out like a sore thumb.

Stefaniuk fills the film’s vacuous sphere with irrelevant subplots. There’s a redneck (Boyd Banks) who treats his hard-drinking, shotgun-toting teenage son (Brad McGinnis) to a whore to prevent any homosexual leanings. Then there’s the intense Agent Jones (Bruce Hunter) who is traumatized by the memory of murdering two puppies with a cheese grater. This nonsense provides some much needed digression, as does the film’s ultraviolent finale. Still, there are too few moments like these to actually morph this poorly conceived, written and executed film into something watchable. Just please beam up Stefaniuk already, along with whatever he’s been smoking.

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

March 04, 2005

The Jacket

Directed by John Maybury Starring Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

One of the buzzed-about titles at this year's Sundance, The Jacket is alarmingly reminiscent of the festival's '04 dud The Butterfly Effect. Aside from the obvious studio backing and marquee stars, the two films also share time-traveling protagonists who are mentally unstable and time-tattered twists designed to artificially dress up the torn and frayed plots.

The Jacket opens with a music-video-esque montage of various swathes of night vision footage supposedly set during the 1991 Gulf War. Adrien Brody stars as U.S. Marine Sgt. Jack Starks, whose critical combat wound earns him a ticket home. Fast-forward to a year later, and he is in Vermont on trial for a murder of which he has no recollection. A guilty verdict gets him sentenced to a mental institution, where the shady Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) subjects him to a 1970s medical experiment involving injections, straightjacket restraints and hours of confinement inside a morgue drawer. Ensuing head trips take him to year 2007, where he learns that his death is to occur within nine days back in 1992 and he must mesh together some ill-fitting puzzle pieces to prevent it.

Even if those involved with this film have never heard of 12 Monkeys, they should know that the unreliable narrator is no longer a novel device after Psycho, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense. Many recent films with that pattern woven into their plots have also padded that material: the backwards narrative of Memento, the metaphysical and nostalgic Reagan-era subtexts of Donnie Darko and the scientific jargon of Primer. Even 12 Monkeys - which similarly features a protagonist thrown from time voyage into the loony bin - boasts elaborate production designs that make it a visual spectacle. Unfortunately The Jacket doesn't sport any such inventiveness.

Stitched together with inconsequential subplots, Massy Tadjedin's screenplay becomes threadbare with each revelation. Intriguing initial setups eventually prove fruitless. Stylish trimmings by director John Maybury and cinematographer Patrick Deming of Mulholland Drive simply aren't enough to patch up the story's obvious flaws. Impressive turns by Kristofferson and Daniel Craig (as a Brad Pitt-esque mental patient) seem to deserve a better vehicle. Perhaps the biggest shocker here is the Touched by an Angel ending, since fans of this kind of sci-fi thriller wouldn't likely check out the film if they expected this payoff.

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