July 29, 2005


Directed by Rob Cohen Starring Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In the future according to Stealth, the top-gun U.S. Navy aerial squad will have only four pilots but will nevertheless be the poster child for affirmative action: Specifically, it will consist of a white man, a white woman, a black man and a robot. Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas) is blue-eyed, dimple-cheeked suaveness personified. Allegedly "groomed" by her superiors to be la femme Rambo, Kara Wade (Jessica Biel) is rugged enough to single-handedly fend off an entire squad of North Korean soldiers yet feminine enough to develop a girly crush on Gannon and frolic around the waterfalls in a thong bikini. The token black goofball/womanizer is Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx). EDI is the HAL 9000-esque flying machine that gives new definition to the word "autopilot".

Many things won't change in this version of the future imagined by screenwriter W.D. Richter though. When the elite pilots go clubbing, men will put the moves on some bimbos while the careerist woman will be stuck in the middle alone and unable to assert herself. While vacationing in Thailand, an American soldier will score an obedient, me-no-speak-English, me-love-you-long-time, get-me-green-card-so-I-can-leave-this-third-world-hellhole exotic beauty complete with a paper umbrella. The Pentagon won't abolish its Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, and U.S. Armed Forces will rather recruit a computer than a homosexual. In the future, they'll look back to a time when an Oscar-winning black actor would have played sidekick to a relatively unknown white performer in a summer tent-pole movie, and Hollywood would have had no qualms about milking the terrorism theme in light of the London bombings. Bathroom jokes apparently will still be funny.

Exactly as you'd expect, the black dude will sacrifice himself, the damsel will be in distress, and it'll still be up to the white dude with the Gillette smile to save the day. You can already imagine Stealth jacking up the testosterone and patriotic idiocy levels in some viewers off the meter in spite of the fact that cool CGI and deafening sound effects hardly mask the paper-thin story. There are gaping lapses in logic, such as pilots diverted to a combat mission in the midst of a test flight. Despite that the U.S. government has not officially adopted Myanmar as the new name of Burma since its 1989 military coup, Richter absurdly expects that to change in the future. He also bizarrely supposes that the presently non-threatening Tajikistan will somehow attain nuclear warheads, and even have them transported under broad daylight by cow carriages. When the pilots destroy those warheads and visit radioactive debris upon thousands of helpless local farmers, Wade perspicaciously reports "We need serious medical attention down there." Oops.

On the bright side, perhaps the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will get a laugh out of all this in the future.

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

Must Love Dogs

Directed by Gary David Goldberg Starring Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins and Christopher Plummer

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A romantic comedy is often like an old dog that can't learn new tricks. You already know how a story like this is supposed to go. She's still nursing wounds from a previous relationship. He's sensitive and artistic, yet disillusioned about love. At the insistence of their outrageously meddlesome and sometimes unintentionally obstructive friends and family members, the lovelorn singles finally cross paths. Complications such as their insignificant others soon threaten to extinguish any romantic sparks. But in due time they realize that they're really perfect for each other and reunite blissfully. Nora Ephron and the estate of Jane Austen, get your attorneys on the phone pronto!

Though Must Love Dogs may seem redundant, one can't nail the studio for being derivative since the film is actually a faithful adaptation of Claire Cook's novel of the same name. As far as cookie-cutter romcoms go, very few come close to the towering level of charm and poignancy achieved by The Truth about Cats & Dogs (a Cyrano de Bergerac update with animals!) and this is unfortunately no exception. Nevertheless Must Love Dogs (You've Got Mail with puppies!) generates a healthy dose of smiles and chuckles with its impossibly cute banter and some wonderfully plausible scenarios - even through those two elements ultimately work against one another as if dogfighting over the same turf.

When Diane Lane's Sarah goes on a blind date with John Cusack's Jake, they nervously blab out discrepancies between their assumptions and reality before they fatalistically brace themselves for imminent disappointment. He tries too hard to impress her at times and emanates a little creepiness. These observant vignettes are unexpected and delightful. Then there's the too-witty, too-wistful moviespeak - like Sarah telling her sister Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) "You don't meddle with my life" and Carol responding "Technically, you don't have a life", or in a different scene Sarah musing "He wants the full dance and I'm just learning the steps". All those sweet nothings kind of roll over the film's preciously genuine moments and expose the fact that this is really just an escapist middle-aged female fantasy.

At 40, Lane is exactly how Cook described preschool teacher Sarah. She adds some interesting nuance, and her shower-stall breakdown here briefly brings to mind that mesmerizing improvised train scene in Unfaithful. Cusack supposedly improved writer/director Gary David Goldberg's screenplay by rewriting some 35 pages, but he doesn't really embody that slightly manic intensity his role seems to demand. Besides, his turns as a romantic lead mostly invoke unflattering comparisons to Say Anything ...

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

Me and You and Everyone We Know

Directed by Miranda July Starring July, John Hawkes and Miles Thompson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With a still photograph of two silhouettes against a seaside sunset placed in front of a camcorder, performance artist Miranda July adopts two voices and adds narration to the image. "If you really love me, then let's make a vow. Repeat after me ... I'm gonna be free. I'm gonna be free ... Now let's kiss and make it real, okay? Okay." Such a bizarro opening mono-dialogue immediately suggests the film to follow could be utterly brilliant, totally disastrous, or - in the case of July's Cannes/Sundance-winning feature-length filmmaking debut - both.

With her reputation from multimedia installations at Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim as well as radio plays on NPR, one would expect July to follow the footsteps of Guy Madden and Matthew Barney into esoteric avant-garde cinema. But instead she paints a portrait of alienation and fragile connections so wacky and heartfelt, it's virtually unprecedented. Me and You and Everyone We Know is about people with ideals and daydreams, who awkwardly tiptoe through the weary world and sensitively brave its reality checks. As the opening suggests, the film is a series of ceremonies and rituals the characters devise to clumsily strive for that picture perfection.

July's Christine is a struggling artist moonlighting as a driver for seniors. When she stops by a museum to hand deliver a work sample, the curator (Tracy Wright) urges her to mail it in instead or it'll get lost. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to salvage his marriage, shoe salesman Richard (John Hawkes) goes outside the house and sets his hand on fire. Internet chat, WYSIWYG doodles and a coprophiliac fixation help Richard's children Peter (Miles Thompson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) cope with their broken family. Teenage nymphomaniacs Rebecca (Natasha Slayon) and Pam (JoNell Kennedy) test their appeal on Richard's coworker Andrew (Brad Henke), so he cautiously responds with illicit fantasies written on large signs affixed to his window for the girls to read. Sixth-grader Silvie (Carlie Westerman) collects linens and small appliances in a hope chest to be her dowry.

Acting out her id, Christine's romantic pursuit of Richard borders on stalking. Intentional or not, the film's undercurrent advocacy of underage sexuality is also troubling. But those perceived controversies are beside the point. As characters reach their goals, mourn their losses or simply continue spinning an already-invented wheel, July's refreshingly offbeat and peculiarly hilarious film ascends to astonishing poignancy. When Christine's client Michael (Hector Elias) is bereaved of his nursing-home sweetheart Ellen (Ellen Geer), the film's message becomes crystal clear: You can indeed make your dreams come true, just don't wait until it's too late.

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

July 22, 2005


Directed by Sally Potter Starring Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With a one-woman Greek chorus, emblematic protagonists known simply as She and He, dialogue written entirely in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, colour-coordinated designs and Philip Glass's composition, Yes puts the art back in arthouse cinema. Its thematic concern is just as ambitious - a post-9/11 exploration on love and war between clashing genders, ethnicities, classes, religions and ideologies. Regardless of whether the film delivers on its premise, writer/director Sally Potter has imagined the most radical, challenging and provocative artistic endeavor in recent memory.

Joan Allen's She is an Irish-American molecular scientist trapped in a loveless marriage to British politician Anthony (Sam Neill). Simon Abkarian (Ararat) plays He, a Lebanese exile surgeon-turned-chef living in London. She is distraught over Anthony's extramarital indiscretion until He comes along. “A woman left alone ... if it was me …/I wouldn’t – wouldn’t what?/Let such a beauty/Out of my sight. Not for one moment. No.” “And let me add: I’d like to steal/You from the man who cannot see/That you’re a queen. When are you free?” The pair's initial erotic sparks and amusing cultural exchanges soon come to a halt, as He struggles to endure coworkers' taunts before eventually losing his temper and his job while She tries to overcome an estranged relationship with her gravely-ill aunt in Belfast. Frustrations and misunderstandings soon escalate to a heated confrontation in which they trade rancid insults like "Terrorist!" and "Bitch!"

Gender politics have been the running theme throughout Potter's body of work. Because of that preoccupation, she neglected the multicultural aspect of the central relationship in The Tango Lesson - the 1997 film failed to flesh out the romance beyond a generic colonialist portrayal despite a gender reversal: To the director’s credit, at least it has the Brit woman fetishizing the Argentinean man instead of the conventional WASP men doing it to women of other ethnicities. But with Yes, Potter fully realizes the curiosity, fascination, prejudice, objectification and resentment of an interracial relationship from both sides of the spectrum, and uses it as a metaphor for all power struggles in the world today.

Reminiscent of 1980s works by director Peter Greenaway, the film is stylistically outré. Sometimes we hear the characters' inner voices before or after they speak, and thoughts ramble on even if people choose not to express them. After main characters exit the scenes, random janitresses in the background will suddenly stop and knowingly gaze into the camera. Omnipresent taken-for-granted conveniences such as maids (at times not seen but only heard through vacuum-cleaner noise), cell phones and close-circuit monitors cryptically represent middle-class complacency that fosters ignorance. Potter's avant-garde touches may be difficult for mainsteam moviegoers to overcome, but the film's substantive thesis certainly requires and rewards a careful contemplation.

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


Directed by Ingmar Bergman Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Forget Revenge of the Sith. Here at last is the summer movie-sequel event for cinema-studies academia set: Saraband picks up the story where 1973 Swedish-miniseries-turned-international-arthouse-phenomenon Scenes from a Marriage left off. It's also likely the final offering from 87-year-old Ingmar Bergman, a cinematic giant with high-profile followers like Woody Allen. Bergman has spent the past two decades only writing scripts and directing for television. First broadcast in Sweden in 2003, Saraband certainly fits the auteur's late-career pattern. A concerto of Soren Kierkegaard citations, Bach and Hindemith compositions and Bergman's staple emotional entanglements, the project is cause for celebration amongst cinephiles.

Last time we saw divorced couple Marianne and Johan - respectively played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson - they rekindled a secret fling while unsatisfactorily remarried to other people. Directly addressing the camera for the first time, Marianne reports that she hasn't seen Johan for three decades since he took up yet another affair. For no reason, she now decides to visit him at his Orsa countryside estate. Upon arrival, she wakes him from a nap with a kiss. They soon embrace and hold hands. If Scenes means anything to you, this sentimental moment should induce some tears.

The other nine chapters in Saraband are another matter entirely. The emphasis shifts to the bitterly estranged relationship between Johan and his son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) from a previous marriage, as well as the codependent bond between Henrik and daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Jobless, penniless and staying rent-free in his father's guesthouse, Henrik has never recovered from his wife's death two years earlier. The only thing he's got going is providing cello lessons to Karin, but that may soon end as she contemplates enrolling in a conservatory.

As its title suggests, this is a stately court dance of a film. Loosely following the rhythm of its prequel, it orchestrates a series of chamber-piece duets and solos riffing off emotional discord. But it's unclear why Bergman would want to briefly revisit Scenes only to use it as groundwork, especially when the new material never reaches the powerful crescendo of its predecessor. While it's probably unfair to compare Saraband to an imitation like Allen's Interiors (as Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice did), Bergman's seemingly disingenuous effort to draw parallels between Marianne and Johan's relationship and Karin and Henrik's does at times make it feel like he is just lazily milking his reputation. Movements that resonate here sound somewhat derivative, while there are some glaring false notes such as the erotic tension between father and daughter. Moments of profundity – like Johan musing "I've ransacked my past, now I have the answer sheet" – are too rare.

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

July 15, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Directed by Tim Burton Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore and David Kelly

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has remained a classic in children's literature over the years, and even Mel Stuart's messy 1971 movie adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has a cult following. But the diabetes-inducing story continues to be an endless waterfall of controversy even after a major 1973 rework by Dahl himself. Oompa Loompas - the factory's miniature workers who receive cocoa beans for salary - always invoke parallels to slavery and racism in spite of the fact that Dahl explicitly attempted to address this issue in his revision. Candyman Willy Wonka emits creepy Michael Jackson vibes for his hermitic existence and childish eccentricity. Even the story's well-meaning moral about the importance of good manners can't disguise its unwitting encouragement of children falling prey to the gotta-have-it-now public hysteria orchestrated by scheming corporations.

Following his underwhelming venture into mushy Spielbergian territory with Big Fish, Tim Burton returns to familiar ground with an update of Dahl's challenging world of pure imagination. Overcoming some inherent problems, the new Charlie is certainly worthier of classic stature than Stuart's take. Burton wisely downplays aspects of realism to establish a highly stylized fable-like quality, immediately inviting an allegorical rather than literal reading of the material. Charlie (Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland) doesn't have a paper route and lives in a crooked shack of a home on the outskirts of the city. While still portraying the factory-tour contest as frenzy on a global scale, the auteur seems to revel in its overblown ridiculousness. John August's screenplay also wittily renews the bratty winners and distinctly articulates the troubling phenomena they represent - obesity, entitlement, parent-prodded drive and video game-inspired antisocialism.

The film comes up a little short of Burton's best work. Even though it eliminates the atrocious musical numbers found in Stuart's version, its new Oompa Loompa songs (with Danny Elfman's music set to Dahl's lyrics) remain a significant setback. Burton reliably delivers a visionary spectacle, but his go-to production designer Bo Welch is still sorely missed in the director's recent efforts. Johnny Depp shifts into Ed Wood gear and does a serviceable job as Willy Wonka. The film screams for other choices all the same, from no-brainers like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams to inspired ones like Dana Carvey and Jude Law. Although Burton and August have invested considerably in the Freudian/Jungian trauma from Wonka's childhood to account for his oddity, the role basically requires more shtick than performance. More than a few have noticed that Wonka is more reminiscent of Jacko here due to the pale skin and long hair, but fans would probably see him instead as a possible template for The Riddler had Burton bothered with Batman Forever.

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

Hank Williams First Nation

Directed by Aaron James Sorensen Starring Gordon Tootoosis, Stacy Da Silva and Bernard Starlight

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Policy changes at Telefilm Canada have polluted the country's film industry of late, and the Crown corporation's crop of beneficiaries in 2004 is seriously unspectacular. But amidst what seems like a creative drought among up-and-coming Canadian filmmakers, Aaron James Sorensen's Hank Williams First Nation stands tall. Made outside the federal-funding system, this earnest and genuine debut actually celebrates our heritage far more than do the cookie-cutter Telefilm projects. Unlike most of his attention-starved contemporaries, Sorensen isn't replicating the formulas of established local auteurs or emulating the contrived quirkiness dominant in American indie cinema.

Packed with fascinating characters and scenarios, Hank Williams First Nation depicts life in a remote Albertan Cree community - the frigid cold, the idleness, the hopes of its members and its adulation of the titular country-music legend. Adelard Fox (Gordon Tootoosis) asks the school principal (Ron Waller) to excuse his grandson Jacob (Colin Van Loon) for a few weeks right before midterms. Suspecting Hank Williams, Sr. might still be alive and hoping to track him down, 75-year-old tabloid enthusiast Martin Fox (Jimmy Herman) needs Jacob's assistance on an impromptu journey to Nashville, Tenn. Meanwhile, high-school valedictorian Sarah Fox (Stacy Da Silva) is struggling with insecurities as she searches for a date and copes with her parents' perpetual absence. Practically a dropout, Huey Bigstone (Bernard Starlight) sells firewood door to door and raises money for the sketchy Community Betterment and Enhancement Committee.

Sorensen's affection for his subjects is undeniable and infectious. There isn't a false note in the lives he depicts in spite of the implausibility of some insignificant subplots. Unlike the Inuit-themed Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Hank Wiliams First Nation avoids a myth-making ethnographic portrayal. One priceless scene has Adelard and Chief Chicken Wings (Raymond Carafelle) conversing in Cree without any subtitles, but the occasional English vocabulary in their exchange hilariously clues viewers in on the topic of discussion and ingeniously underscores the larger cultural war and identity crisis within the community. Another amazing scene captures Huey and Jacob's small talk over lunch entirely in a masterful long shot.

The film as a whole is unfortunately not as great as the sum of its parts. Sorensen's status as a novice filmmaker is sometimes painfully evident, as his plot, characters and style remain static throughout. His colourful vignettes would serve better as backdrop rather than the central theme, like how Banks/Egoyan vividly illustrated a small community coping with a school-bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter. Sorensen raises some weightier issues - such as addiction, broken families, ineffectual social work policies and lack of recreational outlets - but without necessarily resolving or even addressing them in a meaningful way. With John Sayles’s observant social commentary and David Gordon Green’s languorous visual style, Hank Williams First Nation would have had the potential to be something truly magnificent. Still, it's exciting to see a fresh and original voice finally emerging from the Canadian filmmaking scene.

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

July 08, 2005

My Summer of Love

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski Starring Natalie Press, Emily Blunt and Paddy Considine

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Unquestionably the most exciting new talent to emerge from the British filmmaking scene is Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski. Along with Shane Meadows, he is an extremely worthy torchbearer for England's national cinema of social realism. With a background in documentaries and a preoccupation with working-class themes, Pawlikowski's films definitely invite comparisons to Mike Leigh's and Ken Loach's docudramas. But Pawlikowski also has something in common with contemporaries like Danny Boyle: he's not a naturalist. His dazzling 2000 breakthrough Last Resort and latest film My Summer of Love both curiously blend Brit grit with a fable-like quality to intoxicating effect.

Not quite literally an adaptation of Helen Cross's densely constructed novel of the same name, My Summer of Love basically pares the story down to the CliffsNotes essential relationship between lasses Mona (Natalie Press) and Tamsin (Emily Blunt). The poor, bereaved and uneducated Mona rides an engineless motor scooter, shags a married man and lives in a defunct pub that her born-again ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine of In America) is converting into a temple. Suspended boarding-school attendee Tamsin rides a white horse, lives in a huge mansion, practices cello and listens to Edith Piaf. Troubled and neglected, the pair immediately overlook class differences, and their fast friendship soon turns into romance. But Tamsin's habitual thrill seeking foreshadows the disaster to come.

Striking a balance between Peter Jackson's digitally-enhanced Heavenly Creatures and Catherine Hardwicke's in-your-face thirteen, My Summer of Love fashions the ethereal realm of girlhood as well as the dangerous naivete, neediness and temptation lurking in the foggy idyll. Protagonists from Pawlikowski's films haven't quite outgrown their need for adult attention and childish games of role play and make believe, yet their warped minds and growing appetites are capable of channeling that need into chilling pathology. As one would expect, perpetually absent adult figures contribute to the phenomenon.

Ryszard Lenczewski's documentarian-styled handheld and zoom-in camerawork generates an exhilarating spontaneity akin to youth itself. But the technique doesn't necessarily translate into rawness, and the film captures plenty of lovely serenity from unimpressive locales with the help of soft focus, saturated colours and an inspired soundtrack. But while Pawlikowski does render the gist of Cross's work, perhaps he should have preserved some of its rich context - the girls' weight obsession, the miners' strike, fear of nuclear war and a serial killer - that would likely make the final product seem less slight. Given his impressive portrayal of class issues in Last Resort, it's somewhat of a disappointment that Pawlikowski doesn't substantially address the class warfare in My Summer of Love. Even though his superimposed Christianity subplot is integral to a significant development late in the game, it still comes off rather forced.

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

5x2 (Cinq fois deux)

Directed by François Ozon Starring Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Stéphane Freiss

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

François Ozon has established a reputation by essentially making films as stunts, irrationally blending genres and machinating twists for pure shock value. His juvenile exercises in perversion have certainly won over many critics and fans, and the commercial success of Swimming Pool and 8 Women have further legitimized his shtick. The writer/director's latest project 5x2 (Cinq fois deux) is yet another effort calculated to impress and disturb. It examines a couple's relationship from the bitter end all the way to the blissful beginning in successive flashbacks.

Unfortunately, this time his truc du jour isn't something novel. Intentional or not, the film is like a brazen rip-off of Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal - brought to the big screen in 1983 under the direction of David Hugh Jones - as they share virtually identical narrative structure and thematic concern. The reverse chronology proves to be a useful device when it comes to masking an underdeveloped story, and the gimmick has certainly garnered Christopher Nolan's Memento and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible more attention than they probably warrant. After seeing 5x2, one can't help but wonder if Closer might have been better off had Mike Nichols edited it backwards.

Although a more subdued style signals his maturity, Ozon still can't resist an inclination to sensationalize the material. During the opening sequence, newly divorced Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss) check into a hotel for breakup sex which then quickly turns into rape. It's difficult to recover from the shock of such nastiness right off the bat, so the rest of the film's five chapters just devolve progressively. The only other plot element that comes remotely close to that dramatic intensity takes place immediately in the second segment, with Gilles responding to the forthright open partnership between his brother Christophe (Antoine Chappey) and trophy boy-toy Mathieu (Marc Ruchmann) by disclosing his own participation in an orgy which Marion also witnessed.

Unlike the more explicit and exploitative Noé, Ozon here exercises some self-discipline by not staging the orgy as an actual scene. But considering how uneventful and anticlimactic the film turns out to be, he probably should have included that gratuitous scene as it is supposedly the turning point of the central relationship. Much of the film seems like an afterthought conjured up for the unconventional narrative device, because many parts don't add up – Gilles's rape and Marion's betrayal being just two examples. With these soulless and thoroughly despicable protagonists as well as the coolly detached storytelling, 5x2 makes one wonder whether Ozon has contempt for relationships in general or for humanity at large. The eclectic Italian oldies soundtrack for this French film emerges as its most memorable aspect, and Paolo Conte's "Sparring Partner" – which plays during the end credits – is significantly more haunting than the film itself.

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

July 01, 2005

War of the Worlds

Directed by Steven Spielberg Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto and Tim Robbins

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

H.G. Wells’s 1898 alien-invasion classic War of the Worlds is actually a disguised cautionary tale about British imperialism. Orson Welles’s notorious 1938 radio adaptation – which generated mass hysteria during its broadcast – is also significant for inspiring future demagogues to prey on public fears with the Cold War and the War on Terrorism. The story itself should still prove timeless more than a century later, as American economic/political/military power now looms large over the rest of the planet. But the involvement of Hollywood’s two most bankable names guarantees that the latest treatment will be populist rather than politically relevant like Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s take on War of the Worlds certainly is a huge improvement over the embarrassingly awful 1952 movie adaptation by Byron Haskin. But if they’re not making this as a comment on American imperialism, then what’s the point? The only politically charged element in the entire film is the passing “Is that the terrorist?” which characters mutter during an alien attack. Certainly, it doesn’t have the McCarthyism implications of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a kick-ass president who’d hop in a fighter jet himself like in Independence Day. Perhaps this is Cruise’s The Passion of the Christ-ish ode to his religion, especially since John Travolta’s Scientology epic Battlefield Earth has failed so miserably at making anyone a believer.

In between special effects, screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp stuff a soap-operatic broken-family subplot involving Cruise’s all-American dad and his estranged/on-visitation kids played by Nanaimoian Justin Chatwin and young-Drew Barrymore-esque Dakota Fanning. (Wait a minute. Cruise actually didn’t object to all the Freudian/Jungian psychobabble?) While Haskin’s version considerably dumbed down scientific aspects of the story, Spielberg’s leaves too much unexplained and demands familiarity with one of the previous treatments.

Fans of Spielberg may be eager to see his take on extra terrestrials who aren’t friendly or wanting to call home, but he has already done this kind of disaster stuff before with dinosaurs and sharks. The director clearly could have made this film in his sleep, which is probably what he ended up doing. Nowadays he is investing most of his energy in prestige projects like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can rather than silly summer blockbusters like this. His War of the Worlds not only lacks a discernable stylistic stamp, there are also a few instances where he inexplicably pays homage to Haskin’s totally forgettable version.

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

Saving Face

Directed by Alice Wu Starring Joan Chen and Michelle Krusiec

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Simply put, Alice Wu’s debut feature Saving Face is The Wedding Banquet meets Eat Drink Man Woman meets Kissing Jessica Stein. The writer/director liberally plagiarizes Ang Lee’s films, appropriating elements from inane jokes about stinky tofu to the climactic surprise. Her effort also inherits essential problems of Lee’s: It’s basically an Asian film made for a non-Asian audience, and a lesbian film made for a heterosexual audience. More so than Lee, Wu panders to the dominant ethnic and cultural myths and exoticisms in the western world that only serve to compartmentalize already disenfranchised minorities further into convenient and marginalized fringe segments of society.

The film features an onslaught of lazy stereotypes that are practically caricatures, including uptight overachieving surgeon Wil (Michelle Krusiec), her no-speak-English beautician mother (Joan Chen), Wil’s tai-chi-practising traditionalist grandfather (Jin Wang), and numerous charmless and outwardly asexual Asian men prowling the dating circuit. At the Flushing Chinese socials which she reluctantly but dutifully attends, closeted Wil reacquaints with childhood friend Vivian (Lynn Chen) and a romance ensues. Meanwhile Wil’s widowed mother inopportunely moves in with her when a mysterious pregnancy prompts grandpa to throw her out on the street.

What follows is actually sweet and almost poignant considering that the characters are one-dimensional. But despite its central theme of tolerance, the film’s generic ethnic portrayals are as troublesome as minstrel. The mother’s excursion into a video store in one scene – impeded by the language barrier, she asks for Chinese-language movies but instead rents Asian porn – is reminiscent of Alex Borstein’s Bunny Swan skits on MADtv, except that here it’s wholly sincere rather than farcical. And unlike Margaret Cho’s impersonation of her mother, the film doesn’t convey these grotesque caricatures with affection. A couple of Do the Right Thing-esque tangents about clashes between Asians and blacks almost makes Saving Face interesting, but Wu again resorts to stereotypes.

The material seems behind the times by a decade as Wu appears somewhat detached from Asian circles. Despite the authentic bilingual dialogue and a bubble-tea sighting, the film’s characters watch Chinese soap operas as opposed to Korean ones. Many may still find Saving Face enjoyable, as there has always been a serious lack of remotely identifiable Asian representation in western media aside from TV news anchors. But as films such as Better Luck Tomorrow and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle gradually challenge perceptions of the Asian-American identity, ones like Saving Face should really be obsolete.

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