May 27, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Chronicling New York City public schools' fifth-grade ballroom dance program, director Marilyn Agrelo's documentary Mad Hot Ballroom follows students from three neighbourhoods of dissimilar ethnic and economic make-ups as they undergo 10 weeks of rehearsals leading to a citywide contest. Kids in affluent Tribeca giggle over the prospect of mingling with the opposite sex. Children reconcile their racial and religious differences in diverse Bensonhurst. For the impoverished and predominantly Dominican youths of Washington Heights, dance dips into their potential and initiates their self-respect.

The film invites easy but apt comparisons to other features that spin in the world of competition involving kids or the ballroom: Fame, Shall We Dance? - not to mention Spellbound and Strictly Ballroom, as cited by Ken Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Underpinning themes of the positive influence of the arts, hopes of upward social mobility and multicultural upbringings depicted in Mad Hot Ballroom also bring to mind many other films, such as Our Song, OT: Our Town, Born Into Brothels, Hoop Dreams and Raising Victor Vargas. But Agrelo's film does offer its own unique glimpse of pre-teen views on gender roles, competition and success.

Overbearing and meddling parents seen in Spellbound and "Showbiz Moms & Dads" are absent here. The kids' spontaneous observations are amusing, but they also nonchalantly address harsher aspects of their reality - including adulterous parents and teenage pregnancies, as well as drug dealers and latent sexual predators on the streets. Washington Heights principal Clarita Zeppie said that 97 per cent of her students are from poverty-level families, and ballroom dance has turned many troubled kids who have never had encouragement at home into goal-driven leaders. When selecting teams to enter the contest, the teary and distraught Tribeca teacher Allison Sheniak says, "They are all my kids. I feel like they are turning into ladies and gentlemen."

Agrelo stumbles onto - then sidesteps - some fascinating dynamics, like teachers ignoring their own male-female dance-partner rule after an administrative meeting, and the promising dancer Jonny branding Spanish-speaking Wilson "gay" before quitting ballroom altogether to pursue basketball. The film feels slightly incomplete, as it relies on teaching staff to put into perspective the students' transformations rather than following them extensively to record examples. Still, the director's fluid hand-held close-ups gracefully capture the children's mesmerizing unspoken communication. And few will be able to resist their adorable dedication and infectious enthusiasm.

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

May 20, 2005

In the Realms of the Unreal

Directed by Jessica Yu Narrated by Dakota Fanning

Outsider artist Henry Darger completed more than 300 avant-garde paintings and a 15,145-page, single-spaced, hand-bound novel. But before his 1973 death at age 81, people only knew him as a reclusive janitor who attended multiple masses daily, scavenged trash, and conversed with himself at home using different voices and dialects. Named after Darger's novel, director Jessica Yu's documentary In the Realms of the Unreal transports viewers into his world - both a dingy apartment and a fertile imagination manifested in stories and paintings where little hermaphrodites wage epic battles against child-enslaving soldiers and chimeras.

His marginal existence and traumatic upbringing - including seven years of hard labour at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children - find many parallels in his escapist fantasy. Passages from his novel, autobiography and journals (read by Larry Pine) here accompany lingering pans of Darger's sometimes 10-foot-long, double-sided, butcher-paper canvases. Ingenious animation of his drawings vividly illustrates disquieting eccentricity, as do the dried paint, worn books and tarnished clippings inside his cluttered room. Preserved by landlords until 2000, his residence of more than 40 years resembles homes of sociopaths from Seven and The Silence of the Lambs.

The film hints at more disturbing aspects of Darger's beautiful mind. Aside from anti-social tendencies, his meticulous weather journals, rage over unanswered prayers, and disproportionate obsession with a misplaced picture all signal mental illness. His collecting and painting pictures of unclothed girls as well as his failed attempts at child adoption suggest the psychological profile of a pedophile, though he was probably too socially inept to do harm. The facts that he drew girls with male genitalia and that he claimed a 17-year-old woman raped him reveal his startling ignorance about sex.

Darger makes an interesting case study for art scholars and psychologists alike. But Yu deliberately bypasses expert opinions in favour of speculations by his few acquaintances. The overlaying, often unattributed and at times conflicting accounts from those who knew him almost sound like voices inside a crazy person's head. As interviewees disagree over the pronunciation of his last name and where he usually sat in church, Darger and his mental state remain mysteries in the end. Although the film deftly opens the door to Darger's realm, it meanders somewhat without focus and perspective. The significance of his work and the meaning of his life are entirely up to the viewers to envision.

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

May 13, 2005


Directed by Todd Solondz Starring Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A rare auteur in today's American cinema, Todd Solondz has elevated suburban satires to sociological epics. While David Lynch and John Waters plot perversions into their backyard freak shows, Solondz develops everyday personal failing, shame, hypocrisy and betrayal into side-splitting horror. And unlike the conceited Garden State and American Beauty, his films don't pander to average middle-class sensibilities with identifiable characters or moralist corollaries. With Palindromes, he takes on divisive subjects such as abortion, religion and underage sex to once again shake viewers out of their complacency.

The film is a sequel of sorts to Welcome to the Dollhouse, opening with the funeral of Dawn Wiener from that 1995 indie hit. Resolved not to follow in Dawn's suicidal footsteps, 13-year-old Aviva is intent on becoming pregnant. "I want to have lots and lots of babies. That way I always have someone to love." Eight performers of different ages, sizes, skin colours and even genders portray Aviva - Hebrew for springtime. As the title suggests, she isn't the only character with such a palindromic name and radical metamorphosis. The film's neatly symmetrical story arc is itself analogous to a palindrome.

Aviva's teen pregnancy and abortion put her directly at odds with the values of both conservative and liberal Middle America. Hitchhiking from a New Jersey Jewish family to a Kansas Christian safe house, nowhere can she find acceptance or refuge. Her passive-aggressive mother (Ellen Barkin) turns from "You know I'll always accept you no matter what" to "You have the baby, you find another home" in a matter of minutes. The "house of love and faith" Aviva stumbles upon also contorts its "Every child has a right to be born" slogan to propose that every abortionist should be shot. The film pushes even more hot buttons as Aviva willfully falls prey to a sex offender (Stephen Adly Guirgis) on her quest for motherhood.

Solondz's brilliance is most evident in his deadpan scenarios and dialogue that reveal deeply ironic ramifications only on second thought. He downplays the taboo with leisurely daytime-television ambiance to better scrutinize the burden of conformity and acceptance. With nods to The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, The Night of the Hunter, Jackass, talent shows, boy bands and MTV, Palindromes leaves nothing unscathed and assures that there's no place like home indeed.

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

May 06, 2005


Directed by Paul Haggis Starring Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis' directorial debut Crash is both admirably ambitious and deceptively pandering. No relation to David Cronenberg's eponymous 1996 J.G. Ballard adaptation, Haggis' film is actually another intertwined and encompassing modern L.A. saga à la Short Cuts, Magnolia and Grand Canyon. Although the meditation on race and class in Crash does have an impact, stereotypical caricatures and contrived scenarios fuel its engine. Instead of provoking thought and discussion, it merely provides affirmation to those who subscribe to labels and make assumptions.

Haggis schematically engineers a series of polar-opposite dummies based on race, class, wealth and ethics before systematically driving each into an ambiguous grey zone. The story involves a rich white couple (Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser), a rich black couple (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard), a pair of carjackers (Larenz Tate and Ludacris), a few honest cops (Don Cheadle and Ryan Phillippe), a crooked cop (Matt Dillon), a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and a Persian shop keep (Shaun Toub). All of their lives intersect under improbably coincidental circumstances. The good end up making compromising concessions, while the bad find unlikely redemption.

The articulate and pensive moviespeak in the film's dialogue is as affected as its hokey plots. "Any real cities you walk, you know, you brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass," Cheadle's detective muses. "It's the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other so we can feel something." As if people would casually utter something like that in real-life conversation. Tomboy boxer Maggie notwithstanding, Haggis is maladroit at fleshing out female characters. Bullock's desperate housewife and Newton's harassment victim are peripheral compared to the male protagonists. The director/co-writer's portraits of races other than black and white also fail to make a dent. Who knew Asians were so invisible and insignificant in Los Angeles?

If Thom Andersen ever decides to make a sequel to the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, Crash might be a worthy inclusion. Its night scenes are luminous, if not as memorable as the ones in Mulholland Dr. or Collateral. But if you want to see a real masterpiece about race, class and karmic justice, Up and Down will play again next month at the Ridge.

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

The Year of the Yao

Directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Even if you don't follow basketball, Yao Ming has probably caught your attention in those witty Visa and Apple Powerbook ads. The 22-year-old, 7-foot-6, Chinese wunderkind has quickly ascended from butt of American sports-radio jokes to bona-fide phenomenon. As No. 1 overall NBA draft pick of the 2002/2003 season, he shoulders tremendous weight from Rockets devotees, the city of Houston, China's 1.3-billion population and pretty much Asian fans worldwide who expect him to live up to the hype. And as the NBA's tallest player, commentators also thrive on pitting him against formidable superstar Shaquille O'Neal. (One even likens the rivalry to Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell.) Yao's turbulent rookie season is the subject of James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo's documentary The Year of the Yao.

From initial language barriers and culture shock to adjusting to a different set of basketball philosophies, Yao certainly has his work cut out for him. Despite a disappointing beginning, he quickly charges through the learning curve. He relies on relatively young and inexperienced interpreter Colin Pine to assist him in daily life, and the two become almost inseparable. Pine also narrates the film, though it is often difficult to discern here whether he is speaking for Yao or supplying his own commentary at any given point.

The film feels like an extended profile as shown on Rogers Sportsnet or TSN. It's mostly a reheated serving for avid basketball fans, while its feature length and theatrical confinement will likely deter the uninitiated. With NBA Entertainment as one of its producers, the film isn't exactly a piece of objective reportage. It certainly doesn't address all the licensing fees and merchandising revenues the NBA might generate by tapping into the vast Chinese market through Yao.

Realizing early on Yao's promise as a cultural ambassador between China and the States, Stern and Del Deo replay that aspect from every possible angle. But they score only a few tangible points such as glimpses of Rockets coaches and teammates randomly shooting off a word in fluent Mandarin or thoughtfully reflecting on Chinese culture. The co-directors' explanations for the team's less-than-stellar playoff performance that season also seem desperate, first hinting at Yao's burnout before finally placing blame on the cancer battle and untimely departure of coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Yao's history making and barrier breaking are undeniably significant, but The Year of the Yao just seems incomplete.

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