September 28, 2006

The Queen press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. The Queen director Stephen Frears outside the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 25.

Photo by Martin Tsai. Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña, The Queen star James Cromwell, director Stephen Frears, star Helen Mirren, writer Peter Morgan and producer Andy Harries at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 25.

By Martin Tsai

“If you are British, the royal family is very complicated and they are laughed at nonstop. They are in many respects quite ridiculous. On the other hand, you can’t make the film from many positions that don’t contain sympathy for or curiosity about the sort of human beings underneath it all,” director Stephen Frears said. “What’s shocking and controversial about this film is that it takes them seriously.”

Frears’ new film The Queen, which just opened the 44th New York Film Festival, focuses on how the British royal family coped in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death and the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the height of his popularity. Though much of the film draws from actual events, screenwriter Peter Morgan imagines the goings on behind the scenes.

“The relationship between the queen and the prime minister has always been the thing that sort of piqued the interest for me,” Morgan said. “The fact that they are in a room together and the fact of them talking about politics or all these meaningless conversations, it immediately has constitutional resonance for me as an Englishman – the idea of putting that kind of power in the same room and the sort of private audience they might have.”

The events depicted here took place nearly a decade ago, and the British public’s opinion of Tony Blair has changed considerably. Although depicting him mostly as a sympathetic character, Morgan illustrates the “conservatizing of Tony Blair.”

“We couldn’t do a hatchet job on him if we wanted to because this was sort of his finest hour,” Morgan said. “For the film to portray him badly would just be irresponsible and inaccurate. He conducted himself extraordinarily well. Having said that, we did look for opportunities to try and express some of that.”

In preparation for the title role, actress Helen Mirren said she read a lot, looked at portraits, watched videos and was lucky to have a wonderful voice coach. “I was very drawn to the queen as a young girl, and spent most of my time researching and watching things from when she was young, before she ever had any slight ideas that she would be the queen. I thought that would probably reveal the true character and her true personality.”

Frears said that his empathy for the queen has probably deepened because of Mirren’s performance in the title role.

Mirren allowed, “Actually, I’m not really a very political person. I think a lot about politics, but I don’t mix with politics. I was happy about Labor coming into power, because it was a change and the change was very much needed at that time in Britain. It was exciting and interesting to view what might be coming next. But I am very cynical about politicians, all of them. I am holding out no great hopes for utopia or a new day in Britain. But in terms of it playing into my occupation, I think more of my feelings toward monarchy play into that. I grew up in a vehemently anti-monarchy family, and I embraced these ideas and frowned on the royal family for a very long time – until relatively recently when I’ve mellowed somewhat."

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

The Go Master press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. The Go Master director Tian Zhuangzhuang and Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 25.

Story to follow.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2006

Mafioso press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. Film Society of Lincoln Center associate director of programming Kent Jones; Carla Del Poggio, widow of Mafioso director Alberto Lattuada; and translator Chiara Carfi at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 25.

Story to follow.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 25, 2006

Little Children

Directed by Todd Field Starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Based on Tom Perrotta’s New York Times bestseller, Todd Field’s long-awaited follow up to his Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom has the potential to be something really magnificent but never quite gets there. To be fair, Little Children is indeed lovely. But a film belonging to this particular breed of exposé on suburban discontent inevitably recalls the likes of The Ice Storm, American Beauty and Happiness even if it doesn’t pale by comparison.

Residents of bucolic East Wyndam, Mass. suddenly get hysterical over a recently-released sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) moving into the neighborhood. But this frenzy serves only as backdrop to the illicit affair between the overeducated homemaker Sarah (Kate Winslet) and the ex-jock stay-at-home-dad Brad (Patrick Wilson). Sarah must contend with a bratty daughter (Sadie Goldstein) who refuses to sit in her car seat and a husband (Gregg Edelman) who masturbates to Internet porn. Brad’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) highlights unnecessary magazine subscriptions on his monthly credit-card bill. Among the parents who take their kids to the playground and the pool each day, Sarah and Brad are seemingly the only kindred spirits and quickly gravitate toward each other.

Perrotta’s novels share an unmistakable satirical deadpan, and Jim Taylor did a stellar job fleshing that out with his whip-smart screenplay for Election. While Little Children is occasionally very funny, the overall detached and contemplative tone – due to the third-person narration and Field’s direction – strips away the uniqueness of the source material and renders the film somewhat derivative of American Beauty. Little Children also feels a bit telegraphed, with breadcrumb trail foreshadowing all the way to its neatly pieced-together conclusion.

With that said, Field’s new film is still quite a worthwhile experience due to its complex characterizations and its moral ambiguity. The subplot involving Haley’s sex offender Ronnie truly stands out here, to the extent that it eclipses the central plot revolving around Sarah and Brad. In the film’s best-executed scene, Ronnie goes swimming and sightings of him quickly send a wave of panic across the pool. In another powerful scene, his overbearing mother (Phyllis Somerville) confronts a disgraced ex-cop Larry (Noah Emmerich) who has taken it upon himself to chase Ronnie out of the neighborhood. It’s fascinating how the most reviled characters here completely captivate viewers while the readily identifiable protagonists’ midlife crises seem frivolous by contrast.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Marie Antoinette

Directed by Sofia Coppola Starring Kirsten Dunst

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Sofia Coppola’s New Wavesque Marie Antoinette gives a rare sympathetic glimpse at the rise and fall of the infamous French queen. The kind of public ridicule Coppola endured after making her acting debut in The Godfather: Part III most likely helps this daughter of a Hollywood monarch identify with Antoinette’s story of a clueless royal reviled by her subjects. As if cautioning the audience on her through-the-rose-colored-glasses subjectivity, Coppola here adopts a predominantly cotton-candy pink mise en scène.

First seen here as a giggling blonde, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie must leave all her Austrian connections (puppy included) behind at age 14 for France to marry Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), the gawky grandson of King Louis XV (Rip Torn). With international relations on the line, Marie quickly faces the daunting task of producing an heir with the sexually unresponsive Louis-Auguste in order to prevent the annulment of her marriage – a feat that would eventually take her seven years to accomplish. Meanwhile, she finds consolation in a life of excess involving fashion, food and parties to relieve her sexual draught, especially with the lack of adult supervision after Louis XVI’s coronation. With the royalty’s lavish lifestyle and the country’s contribution to the American Revolutionary War, the French people become embittered about the national debt and their own revolution is imminent.

Reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola puts together several visually poetic montages – many overflowing with silk, bonbons and gâteaux. Unfortunately, these vignettes seem to really work against the film’s true strength in illustrating Marie’s insular existence. The most memorable scene is a silent shot of a stoic Marie blankly looking out from the balcony, with the telephoto lens rapidly pulling back to reveal the enormity of the palace that represents the oppression she must bear.

Coppola manages to further undermine her own effort by going off on a tangent with Marie’s alleged affair with Swedish Count Alex von Fersen (Jamie Dornan), whom the film characterizes as some kind of a manwhore. Curiously, the co-writer/director leaves out Marie’s imprisonment and decapitation by guillotine, which would be devastating here given Coppola’s sympathetic treatment.

The most notable gimmick in Marie Antoinette is its use of a contemporary soundtrack consisting of bands like The Cure, The Strokes and Air. The film’s attempt at the New Wave feel loses its momentum whenever Coppola half-heartedly trades rock songs and handheld camera for classical music and stately cinematography. This novel concept works well with some of the montages, but becomes laughable when Coppola employs it diegetically – particularly in a ballroom scene. Any of the film’s attempts at authenticity are futile at that point.

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 23, 2006

Little Children press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña, Little Children director Todd Field, stars Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Noah Emmerich and novelist Tom Perrotta at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on Sept. 22.

By Martin Tsai

“Family life is fascinating to me because that’s what I’ve known for a very long time and because there is so much drama and melodrama in family life. Things that happen in my household are mind-boggling to me,” Todd Field said. The director/co-writer of the Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom returns after a five-year hiatus with the big-screen adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s bestseller Little Children. With these two films, Field has already established a knack for the domestic relations milieu. Set in a suburb startled by the recent arrival of a newly-released sex offender, Field’s latest effort focuses on the unraveling lives of several families.

“There have been many fine movies of late that deal with – specifically in fine detail – characters with this kind of behavior as a whole film, and those are hard films for me. I have three children and I don’t really want to see that sort of thing,” Field said. “I always looked for reasons to say ‘no, I’m not gonna do this’ and I couldn’t. Its voice was so strong and it affected me in a way that I probably didn’t fully understand.”

The complex drama also attracted Kate Winslet in spite of the fact that she too grappled with its subject matter. “I was initially very hesitant to even read it, because I knew that there was this sex-offender character within the piece. One would just have an extremely powerful allergic reaction to that initially as an actor,” she said. “And then I knew it was Todd whom I had admired for a long time and also Tom. After Election and etc., I was very aware of the book. Then I read the script, and I not only really, really loved the script, the story and the dialogue, it was just so seamless somehow.”

Field credits Perrotta’s observant characterizations, as well as his “very sharp, very funny, and also appropriately kind” writing voice that has eased his qualms about the controversial subject matter. “Part of what struck me when I read Tom’s book about this character is that he is everybody’s nightmare. He is a receptacle to this whole form of McCarthyism by this community based on hearsay, and based on one man’s accusations in which this entire community turns against this man and his mother. We don’t really know what he’s done. We know there are things he’s battling with, but he is also in many ways more upfront about what his problems are than these other characters.”

The film features the relatively unknown Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley in two of its meatiest roles. Haley won the challenging part of sex offender Ronnie after an equally unconventional audition, and Winslet also gave him a raving recommendation. “When you think about a role like that, probably many people would have the same five ideas, and I heard them over and over and they were all good actors. But it was important that whoever played this role be somebody who wasn’t on that top-of-the-head list, but I had no idea who that would be,” Field said. “I came back to the hotel one night and there was a tape sitting there. It was from Jackie Earle Haley. So now he had gotten his hands, I don’t know how, on a very, very early draft of the script. He had made a short 20-minute film as this character. It was rather daunting actually, because Jackie for the last several years has been making his living as a regional commercial director. So you get tracking shots in this very involved thing. And I thought, oh Lord, this guy can really direct!”

Perrotta said the actors help fill in many blanks in the script, especially when many of their characters’ backstories in the book aren’t part of the shooting script. “There’s a lot of the book that just by default has to get lost. It’s a 350-page book with seven main characters. I think the interesting issue for Todd and I when we were writing the script was how to deal with the past and the whole background. The book actually begins with character sketches, and you really know a lot about who these characters are by the time you meet them,” he said. “What happens is somehow actors in their physical presence imply a past. I was surprised how little that stuff that was essential in the novel needs to be there. There was this ghostly presence of the past that just lingers around these characters.”

Despite all the acclaim that In the Bedroom received, Field said he had a tough time getting another film off the ground until he came across Little Children. Conveniently, his producers had already collaborated with Perrotta on Election which gave him first dibs on the novel.

“The strange thing for me is, you make a film, it goes out, and has a life of its own completely separate from you. And I think there’s a natural assumption, I certainly have this, that it will be easier to make another film. That simply isn’t true,” he said. “I spent five years trying to get another film going. I’ve not been able to get backing for kitchen-sink dramas. I’ve written scripts that no one wants to make. When I found this book of Tom’s, I wanted to make it like I wanted to make other things. I was just fortunate to have somebody that said ‘yes, let’s make the film’.”

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2006

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Directed by Stanley Nelson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The 1978 mass murder/suicide involving more than 900 Peoples Temple members in Guyana – hundreds of them children – remains one of the most chilling examples of the religious cult phenomenon. Featuring newly procured home movies, photos, and voice recordings, as well as interviews with the survivors, Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple serves as a chilling cautionary tale on the dangers of blind-faith fanaticism.

Reverend Jim Jones was an outsider during his formative years in 1930s’ Indiana, which was then a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. At this early age, he found a sense of belonging at church services and sympathized with the plight of oppressed black people. Interviews with his childhood peers reveal Jones’ unorthodox early fascination with religion: He would kill small pets and perform mock funerals for fun.

Jones began building Peoples Temple in 1950s’ Indianapolis. Survivors describe the electrifying services where church members sang and danced in the aisles. The film also features several recordings of the church choir performing. “Peoples Temple really was a black church. It was led by a white minister, but in terms of the worship service, commitment to the social gospel and its membership, it functioned completely like a black church,” an interviewee recalls.

Feeling that Indianapolis was too racist for his ideal of a racially-integrated congregation, Jones moved the church to rural California in 1965. Gradually, he convinced members to surrender their salaries and life savings as contributions to the construction of a self-contained utopia.

As Peoples Temple grew to thousands strong, Jones lent support to various causes by mobilizing his followers to attend various rallies and demonstrations. He gained tremendous political clout in San Francisco during the mid-1970s, when Mayor George Moscone appointed him to be Chairman of the City Housing Authority. Meanwhile, Jones grew increasingly paranoid as his substance abuse problems worsened.

In 1977, on the eve of a magazine exposé, in which defectors from Peoples Temple detailed physical abuses at the church, Jones and nearly 1,000 members fled to a settlement in Guyana, where he was in total control of all aspects of the people’s lives. When Representative Leo Ryan and several journalists visited Jonestown in 1978 at the urging of concerned relatives, Jones ordered the assassinations of Ryan and the rest of the delegation, as they were about to board the plane to return to the U.S.

Obviously knowing that this horrific act would sound the death knell for him and his utopian dream, Jones directed the poisoning of nearly everyone in the compound with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Veteran documentarian Nelson here constructs a fairly standard film. Various interviewees, mostly survivors or relatives of deceased Peoples Temple members, lend narration to the archival photographs, newspaper clippings, and never-before-seen footage.

However, Jones remains somewhat of an enigma throughout the documentary. Audio interviews and sermons, as well as news footage featuring the charismatic pied piper, offer little insight, and viewers must piece together his mental state based on fragmented descriptions supplied in the interviews. The most chilling piece of evidence here is a voice recording made during the mass murder/suicide, when Jones urged the killing of children at Jonestown.

The 85-minute documentary seems to be on the short side. Nelson carefully constructs the first half, which details the rise of Peoples Temple. Then the film rushes through its more disturbing second half, as survivors describe their own ordeals of unwanted sexual advances without necessarily establishing the big-picture magnitude of Jones’ corruptions and abuses.

Nelson does not address the conspiracy theories that have surfaced since the disastrous event, especially the alleged involvement of the CIA. He also fails to touch on the fact that 5,000 pages from a government investigation remain classified to this day.

Judging from recent headlines on religious and polygamy sects, the story of Jonestown is certainly pertinent today with some universal notes as well. But Nelson doesn’t really provide the perspective that would come from delving deeper into the scale and the modern-day relevance of the Jonestown tragedy.

Reprinted from EmanuelLevy.com. © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 16, 2006

My Country, My Country

Directed by Laura Poitras

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A documentary on Iraq’s 2005 election, Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country presents a viewpoint too rarely seen in the slew of news coverage and other documentaries on the war that ravaged nation. Unlike Gunner Palace, The War Tapes and The Ground Truth – which all spotlight American troops – Poitras’ film follows the six-month campaign trail of a Sunni candidate running for the Governorate Council of Baghdad.

An all-around nice guy, Dr. Riyadh goes out of his way for patients at the Adhamiya Free Medical Clinic, even lending money to a woman whose husband is unemployed. Although he is critical of American secularism, Riyadh believes that it's crucial for his fellow Sunnis to participate in the election so they can have their say in the all-important drafting of the constitution.

Chaos is still ubiquitous in Baghdad two years after the U.S. invasion, when the docu is set. There’s no water or electricity as shootings and bombings continue. At the Abu Ghraib Prison, an inmate has stayed for over a year without getting a hearing, while another is only nine years old. Inspecting the prison, Riyadh can only shrug his shoulders and say to the grumpy inmates: “We’re an occupied country with a puppet government. What do you expect?”

Just three months before the election, the U.S.-led Fallujah offensive leads to the decision by Riyadh’s Iraqi Islamic Party to withdraw all of its candidates. With the deadline for withdrawal already past and the ballots printed, Riyadh continues to rally the Sunnis’ vote amid much resistance. One of his family members says: “Politics are not good for you. You do more good as a doctor for us and other people.”

My Country is a possibly unprecedented story, told almost entirely from the Iraqi perspective. Riyadh’s tale is fascinating, especially when seen alongside those of the U.S. soldiers related in the numerous other documentaries on the Iraq War. This engrossing film unfolds with captivating dramatic tension, which builds all the way up to the climactic election day.

Riyadh’s journey allows Poitras tremendous access into areas mostly untapped by Western journalists, such as a meeting of Iraqi Islamic Party members. She counterbalances Riyadh’s views by featuring vignettes involving U.S. military personnel, U.N. officials, Australian security subcontractors, Kurdish militia, etc.

The documentary still appears to be somewhat one-sided since even the seemingly pro-Bush Kurds criticize the fact that things are not getting better under the U.S. occupation. In one very telling digression, a U.S. official tells the Iraqi election police that they have “the front row of one of the best shows that are gonna be in the world.” Then an election policeman with a puzzled look raises his hand and asks “Election for show?” Riyadh in another scene asks someone whom she’d vote for, and she flatly replies “Saddam Hussein”.

The film comes off a bit like Secret Ballot, due to its focus on Riyadh’s tireless promotion of democracy. Unfortunately, My Country fails to fully illustrate its political backdrop. The docu clocks in at only 90 minutes, so there would seem to have been ample room for a more expansive take. Poitras doesn’t really explain where the Sunnis fit in relation to the Kurds, the Shia, the Arabs and the Turks. Another problem is the film's conclusion, which could be somewhat misleading to viewers who haven't closely follow the news.

Even so, despite shortcomings, My Country is essential in venturing into new fertile grounds that arguably no journalists or filmmakers have previously explored.

Reprinted from EmanuelLevy.com. © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.