June 24, 2005

Herbie: Fully Loaded

Directed by Angela Robinson Starring Lindsay Lohan, Michael Keaton and Matt Dillon

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Just as insects have outlasted dinosaurs, the Volkswagen Beetle hasn’t gone out of style since its introduction in the 1930s. This fact has enabled Disney to continue milking its Herbie franchise that first rolled off the assembly line in 1968. The Love Bug has already starred in four features, a TV series and a TV movie, and also outlived other anthropomorphic/possessed/psycho cars such as KITT from Knight Rider, Stephen King’s (as well as John Carpenter’s) Christine and the claymation stars of Chevron commercials. In a serious effort to resurrect Herbie, Disney has let its multi-hyphenate in-house princess Lindsay Lohan take it out for a spin. The resulting Herbie: Fully Loaded is a ride that old and new fans alike can enjoy. It is unexpectedly faithful to the previous films, yet it proves to be the franchise’s strongest vehicle – and not just because special effects have improved.

Lohan stars as Maggie, a motherless skateboarding troublemaker from a modest family who once totaled a car in a street race and has subsequently reformed herself as a college grad/perspective ESPN intern. Her father Ray Sr. (Michael Keaton) forbids her to share the family’s three-generation racing legacy, and her accident-prone brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer) is underwhelming on the track. Upon learning that Maggie’s best pal (Jill Ritchie) got a spiffy new ride as a graduation present, Ray Sr. takes his daughter to a junkyard to let her pick one out for herself. The 42-year-old Herbie is also there waiting to be compressed. Maggie inadvertently rescues the car and soon learns that it has a mind of its own, which would be frightening under normal circumstances but it’s supposedly cute here. The Love Bug longs to relive its racetrack glory, which suits Maggie just fine.

Herbie fans should be happy to learn that Fully Loaded is in extremely good hands, and the makers have handled it with more care and affection than it actually merits. The film is fetishistically authentic, down to the score and decorative No. 53 signs on the car. Matt Dillon’s racing champ Trip Murphy is like an update of David Tomlinson’s Peter Thorndyke from the original The Love Bug movie, tempting Maggie with a better racecar in order to sabotage Herbie. As with her debut feature D.E.B.S., director Angela Robinson lends a breezy and fun retro-chic sensibility with split screens and pop-rock songs.

Like most kiddie fables, Fully Loaded features some well-worn classic themes and morals about believing in oneself, not taking things for granted, etc. Even though Lohan doesn’t entirely flesh her out, Maggie is an interesting character who first succumbs to insecurities and then gradually gains enough confidence to right her wrongs. Racing is integral to a successful Herbie film as it plays up the underdog allure of a zebra running on a horse track. Cameo appearances from Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart and Allen Bestwick boost the film’s credibility considerably, but rookie Danica Patrick’s strong showing at last month’s Indy 500 actually makes it timely.

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

The Best of Youth

Directed by Marco Tullio Giordana Starring Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio Boni

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth almost seems like the seguito to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. Just as Bertolucci’s five-hour film encompasses the first half of 20th century Italian history, Giordana’s six-hour effort covers the second. Both sagas employ symbolic protagonists with contrasting personalities and fates, a tradition seen in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Gianni Amelio’s The Way We Laughed. And like Marco Bellocchio’s films, The Best of Youth addresses the impact of major historical incidents by using the family as a microcosm of society.

The film tracks brothers Matteo (Alessio Boni) and Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) as one transforms from sensitive dreamer to world-weary cop while the other from idealist hippie to humanist doctor. After discovering a scar from electric shock treatments on patient Georgia (Jasmine Trinca) at the mental institution where Matteo works, the twenty-something siblings jettison their vacation plans to help her escape and return to her countryside home. The men would part ways and later reunite for the rescue effort following the 1966 Florence flood – where Nicola would fall for Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco), a radical activist who eventually turns into a La Femme Nikita-esque Red Brigade assassin. Her first assignment is none other than the brothers’ buddy/in-law Carlo (Fabrizio Gifuni), who would rise to prominence at the Bank of Italy. The eldest Carati sister Giovanna (Lidia Vitale) would also become a judge and finds herself in the midst of the 1992 Palermo massacre.

Originally intended as an RAI miniseries, The Best of Youth is showing theatrically in two parts. In addition to bracing for its prodigious length, those not too familiar with the Italian storia may want to do some extra homework in order to fully appreciate it. The six-hour running time shouldn’t faze seasoned moviegoers, as the film is immensely absorbing. But while it starts off as provocative in spite of its implausibility, the story wanders off halfway through when the history turns uneventful. As it sets course toward a happy ending, the film becomes increasingly trivial with the characters celebrating their dolce vita in an expensive villa and amusing themselves mocking Vito Corleone. The final surrealist tracking shot again tries to evoke Bellocchio, yet Giordana uses it to convey sentimentality rather than scrutiny. In the end, The Best of Youth is too apolitical for its subject matter and too lightweight for its length.

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

June 17, 2005

Batman Begins

Directed by Christopher Nolan Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Liam Neeson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Although Hollywood studios more often than not get things wrong, they do occasionally make serious efforts to handle a franchise with extra care when there is a fastidious fan base and hundreds of millions dollars at stake. They've come up with a few solid and even ingenious pairings between comic-book superheroes and reputable hotshot directors - Spider-Man with Sam Raimi, X-Men with Bryan Singer, and Batman with Tim Burton - which have spawned films that actually manage to balance extravagant style and excessive effects with captivating storytelling. But sometimes studios just can't help but mess things up despite their best intensions (i.e. The Hulk with Ang Lee). Even with Burton onboard as a producer, Joel Schumacher still turned tales of the Caped Crusader into campy overkill. The average fanboys didn't buy it, and the domestic gross of Batman & Robin failed to meet its budget.

While it's easy for anyone to improve upon Schumacher's takes, it's just as impossible to top Burton's. Now, it's up to Memento director Christopher Nolan to rescue the ailing franchise. There are probably worthier candidates for the job - Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro, Darren Aronofsky, Alex Proyas and David Cronenberg - but hey, Nolan has just directed Insomnia for Warner Bros.

Nolan's Batman Begins would seem to be on the right track with the choice of David S. Goyer of Dark City and the Blade trilogy to pen the screenplay. The movie opens with a series of crosscutting flashbacks to the formative years of Bruce Wayne - played by Gus Lewis and later by Christian Bale - as he develops a fear of bats, witnesses the murder of his parents and gets schooled in martial arts on the snowy slopes of Bhutan by Pat Morita-esque Jedi master Liam Neeson. But the film's deadly serious take unfortunately turns out to be somewhat ridiculous.

Burton's Batman and Batman Returns are infinitely darker for their moral ambiguity, but they also gleefully embrace their madcap comic-book origins. And just as Insomnia has demonstrated, Nolan isn't particularly interesting as a filmmaker when telling a story in straightforward chronological order. He isn't known for having visual panache, unless you count the fact that he shot Following in black and white. Batman Begins is stylistically incoherent, and it doesn't even establish the requisite gothic atmosphere of Gotham City.

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

June 10, 2005

Layer Cake

Directed by Matthew Vaughn Starring Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney and Michael Gambon

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The cockney gangster genre hasn't offered anything truly delicious since Get Carter and The Long Good Friday came out of the oven more than two decades ago. American offering Reservoir Dogs has cultivated a new following for these flicks in England, inspiring filmmakers to shove more down moviegoers' cakeholes. Flash-in-the-pan successes by Guy Ritchie and Paul McGuigan have only shifted this trend into overdrive. Most of these efforts have been pure fluff, made with colourful, flashy and cool ingredients but nonetheless tasting half-baked and stale. Ritchie's producer Matthew Vaughn makes his directorial debut with Layer Cake, another slice of the same variety. Still, it was apparently impressive enough to land Vaughn in the director's chair of X-Men 3 even though he later balked.

Daniel Craig of Road to Perdition stars as a seemingly alright drug supplier, stuck between mouthy bosses and dodgy dealers within the strata of London's criminal underworld that spawn the film's metaphoric title. The fact that he remains nameless throughout should serve as a giveaway to the other knackered clichés that follow. In a surrealist, TV-commercial-like prologue, he walks past a wall of designer drugs with designer perfume packaging as they digitally morph into over-the-counter stuff on a pharmacy aisle. His voiceover monologue rationalizes his illicit way of life with a bromide about supply and demand: "I'm not a gangster. I'm a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine. I deal only in kilos." Of course, would there be a film if he weren't looking to get out after one last score? And as you'd expect, it's abso-bloody-lutely all going Pete Tong.

J.J. Connolly's novel and screen adaptation are all over the shop, scrounging stock plots of wheeling, dealing and double-crossing from other films along with pseudo-Tarantino trivial flashbacks that are neither amusing nor helpful in advancing the story. Not only is Connolly's naff writing way past its expiration date, Vaughn's direction is similarily moldy. A montage of Craig's protagonist tripping on booze and pills set to Duran Duran's "Ordinary World" fails miserably at imitating that brilliant pairing of the overdose of Mark Renton with Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" in Trainspotting. The cast of Layer Cake - which boasts Colm Meaney, Michael Gambon and Jason Flemyng - collectively phones in the performances. But with the screen presence of a young Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, Craig spreads on the icing and makes the film easy to swallow.

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

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Directed by Thom Andersen

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Ranked No. 17 in the Film Comment annual critics' poll, Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself struck a chord much as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 did within some circles last year. The documentary is almost like a college course on the roles the city has portrayed in cinema, with California Institute of the Arts lecturer Andersen painstakingly cramming a semester's worth of material from more than 70 films into a three-hour running time. It encompasses everything from usual suspects like Chinatown, Double Indemnity and Heat to the eponymous gay porn that lends its title.

Los Angeles Plays Itself observes various cinematic incarnations of different buildings, monuments and neighbourhoods, and considers depictions of ugly houses, palm trees, bland suburbs and seedy inner cities. Andersen complains that most filmmakers don't get the city because they use nonexistent street names, addresses, phone numbers and government agencies or they never set foot in the suburbs. But he has a nagging tendency to digress into other subjects ("Just as modernist architecture connotes epicene villainy, Spanish Revival suggests petty bourgeois good taste") and make gross generalizations ("People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank"). When he claims that "the best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation" by citing examples such as Falling Down, Midnight Madness and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one has to wonder why he has omitted Speed. Andersen's all-inclusive study seems disorganized and roundabout, although he has since followed up with an article in Cinema Scope - which covers more recent films such as Collateral and Mulholland Dr. - that articulates the points much more cogently.

Filmmakers do often rely on mise-en-scène as shorthand to quickly establish bakground or mood pieces, and they also dwell on the unique auras of other cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris. While an analysis of the mythical role that Los Angeles performs in films is valid, Andersen's passionate rebuttal to these portraits seems like an overreaction. Considering that women and ethnic minorities actually have to live with the stigma of such stereotyping still ubiquitous in today's cinema, the consequence that a city suffers is irrelevant and insignificant by comparison. Then again, the majority of critics and scholars in North America won't know the difference since they are just as predominantly white and male as the majority of filmmakers and studio executives.

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

June 03, 2005

Cinderella Man

Directed by Ron Howard Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Sorry to inform all you Caddyshack fans: Cinderella Man isn't a film based on Carl Spackler or an adaptation of Bill Murray's book, Cinderella Story. Instead, it's about Depression-era boxing champ James J. Braddock. To Hollywood, the Great Depression must seem like a golden age for inspirational tales. Like racehorse Seabiscuit and fictional golfer Rannulph Junuh of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Braddock allegedly brought an "on-its-knees" America "to its feet" - never mind the fact that he was a mediocre brawler whose successful challenge for Max Baer's heavyweight title would prove to be a fluke two years later when he failed to defend it against Joe Lewis. Expect James "Buster" Douglas's biopic soon at a theatre near you.

As if anyone would buy brash Russell Crowe as a hard-luck underdog or pouty Renée Zellweger as the mother of three, they star respectively as Braddock and his wife Mae. After a lackluster bout that costs the boxer his license, they must live on welfare, drink watered-down milk, sell everything they own and send their kids to live with relatives. But Braddock soon gets a second chance. "I had a run of bad luck. This time I know what I'm fighting for." What an incredible Cinderella story! This unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack at Madison Square Garden! The normally reserved New York crowd going wild for this young Cinderella! He's come out of nowhere! He's the Cinderella boy! The Cinderella story! Out of nowhere! A dock worker now about to become the heavyweight champion!

With The Contender on television weekly, this kind of feel-good Rocky story has already become stale. Batman & Robin screenwriter Akiva Goldsman again supplies tripe like "Every time you get hit, it feels like I'm getting hit", "I believe we live in a great country", and even "You're the champion of my heart". To put events into historical perspective, he has the characters reciting newspaper articles verbatim. It's also difficult to fathom someone as established as Ron Howard blatantly stealing the cut, fade, focus pulling, freeze frame and slow motion from Raging Bull. Unlike Scorsese's Bull and Mann's Ali - but just like Sheridan's The Boxer and Jewison's The Hurricane - Cinderella Man has a saintly protagonist, a manipulative storyline and a schmaltzy message that become suspect early on. Long before the clock strikes midnight, the film has already turned into a pumpkin.

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