November 15, 2007

Margot at the Wedding

Directed by Noah Baumbach Starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

With The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach completely refashioned himself as a quasi-Europhile auteur. Truffaut, Rohmer and Bergman are some of the names that critics have dropped while fawning over his recent films. With Margot at the Wedding, the late-achieving Baumbach makes it clear that he has no plans to revisit the Whit Stillman and Woody Allen homage he paid in the late 1990s anytime soon. Baumbach has also insisted in interviews that his much-admired Squid isn’t autobiographical as some in-the-know critics have interpreted it. It’s increasingly unclear whether the filmmaker’s newfound voice is indeed all his.

In Baumbach’s latest, Nicole Kidman plays Margot, a narcissistic author who found acclaim by airing her family’s dirty laundry but alienated her loved ones in the process. Her estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to marry the deadbeat Malcolm (Jack Black), and finally reaches out to Margot with an invitation. But Margot is less interested in patching things up than averting her own marital woes and thwarting Pauline’s wedding. The title really is a misnomer, since toward the end we’re not sure whether there will be a wedding, let along whether Margot will be present.

Margot attempts to give the well-worn tale of sibling rivalry the same kind of cathartic treatment Squid gave to the divorced parents, but with mixed results. Squid focused on how a marital separation affected the two children, and the viewers remained sympathetic with the boys even when they started acting out irrationally. In Margot, the emphasis is on the sisters’ embittered relationship and Margot’s overcompensation for her insecurities. Baumbach’s psychobabble is at times profound, but the film doesn’t articulate the kind of emotional toll that Margot has taken on everyone around her. Nearly everyone in the film is unlikable to varying degrees, leaving viewers no one to identify with. When Margot reaches an epiphany in the film, we’re not entirely sure whether she has arrived at a turning point or she is manipulatively playing for sympathy. Kidman deserves credit for fearlessly making a character so thoroughly unlikable.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Park

Park review in The New York Sun

November 05, 2007

Broken

Directed by Alan White Starring Heather Graham and Jeremy Sisto

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A cautionary tale about an aspiring entertainer who arrives in Hollywood only to land on the proverbial boulevard of broken dreams sounds all too familiar in this celebrity-obsessed culture. With someone like David Lynch at the helm it might turn into a spellbinding phantasmagoria like Mulholland Dr. Otherwise, it’s a well-worn cliché.

In Broken, Heather Graham plays a failed chanteuse not so subtly named Hope, who’s of course waiting tables in some seedy diner — which seems sadly appropriate considering how far Graham has fallen since her Felicity Shagwell days. As if Hope weren’t downtrodden enough, she has to juggle an onslaught of increasingly demanding customers: two losers trying to score women and drugs, a group of partiers making a stop before an orgy, a Hollywood madam and her protégée, an obnoxious movie producer and his writer/director, an arrogant agent and some no-talent band he’s trying to sign, and finally, Hope’s codependent crackhead ex-boyfriend, Will (Jeremy Sisto).

Drew Pillsbury’s screenplay jumps temporally between Hope’s dreadful nightshift and her drug-addled relationship with Will, and there are no discernable parallels between the two narratives. The non-linear storytelling also doesn’t make the unsubstantial plot any more interesting. The flashbacks only serve to reveal the couple’s addictions and rope in some gratuitous sex scenes, doing nothing to account for Will’s intense obsession with Hope and her inexplicable tolerance of him. Graham is extremely photogenic, but it isn’t enough to make us care about whether Hope’s plight is just one big hallucination with a cop-out ending. If anything, one wonders whether Graham will wake up from her own nightmarish career.

Broken also makes a compelling case for independent films to stop employing amateurish guitar scores. It seems as though many indie features, be they thrillers or romantic comedies, have similar scores that inappropriately accompany them as if they were all The Spitfire Grill. Perhaps its production budget all went toward casting recognizable stars; the soundtrack in Broken consists solely of songs from the San Francisco-based band the Brian Jonestown Massacre and composer Jeehun Hwang’s score, which seems to alternate between just a couple of chords. As Hwang slowly strums away any tension left in the film, one can’t help but wonder if it would be better off as a silent film.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 20, 2007

Redacted

Directed by Brian De Palma

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Brian De Palma’s latest bid for relevance seems to be doing the trick. After all, it has all the trappings of a hell raiser, and not in a Carrie kind of way. Redacted lifts from the newspaper headlines and dramatizes events that surround U.S. troops raping a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and wiping out her entire family. De Palma has stumbled upon a truly topical subject in the current presidential race, and talking heads will soon buzz about the film like it’s Fahrenheit 9/11 all over while other button pushers like Lake of Fire and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might have to take a backseat. The director apparently fired the first shot at a now-infamous New York Film Festival press conference, in which he and Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles got into a heated spat over censorship of actual war photographs used in the film’s end title sequence.

The Fahrenheit 9/11 comparison is actually quite appropriate, since Redacted is in every way the same kind of angry, rambling, heavy-handed cinematic diatribe. A mockumentary except no one will be laughing, De Palma’s new film pieces together faux surveillance cameras, newscasts, documentaries, blogs, vlogs, and video diary entries shot during the tour of duty of Pvt. Angel Sakazar (Izzy Diaz).

De Palma’s filmmaking here is energetic and deliberately amateurish. It comes off like a meandering trip down the information superhighway in that few of the multiple narratives actually amount to anything. But his visual style is not nearly as crude as the way he not so subtly runs down his list of talking points. The film’s central event is devastating, but the director’s ulterior motives are a lot less pertinent. As much as it is a critique of the Iraq war, Redacted also simultaneously lashes out at multimedia conglomerates filtering information and at technology that allows everyone to pick up a camera, shoot and find an outlet for their “work.” He has a point, but perhaps that could have been another film – it already sounds better than The Untouchables: Capone Rising.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

No Country for Old Men

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The Coen Brothers function only in two genres: the noir and the screwball. This pattern emerged more than a decade ago with their first two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, and little has changed since. Critics at Cannes must have suffered a collective attack of amnesia when they hailed the Coens’ latest, an eponymous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, as a return to form. Not too long before the brothers made such commercial throwaways as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they actually had another a noir merely six years ago called The Man Who Wasn’t There. If there’s anything “new” about the Coens’ allegedly “new” film, it’s the fact that they have Javier Bardem in a role that ordinarily would have gone straight to John Turturro. Rounding out the cast are Barbara Streisand’s son in law and the newly-minted Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s former college roommate.

Although this adaptation is quite faithful to McCarthy’s source material, it’s still unmistakably Coen Brothers: Smalltime crook: check. Unsophisticated cops: check. Creepy mental case: check. It’s perhaps more Coens than is necessary at the expense of the Pulitzer-winning novelist’s touch. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes hunting and accidentally stumbles onto the scene of a drug deal gone bad. He uncovers a truckload of dope and a suitcase full of dough then absconds with the money. On his trail are a ferocious cartel and a recently escaped serial killer (Bardem) armed with a cattle gun and Buster Brown bobbed hair.

The Coens get a lot of mileage out of this cat-and-mouse chase, and the set pieces are expertly executed. But they have missed the entire point of McCarthy’s novel, which the title plainly gives away. The world-weary, near-retirement Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who narrates the book unfortunately becomes a subplot in the Coens’ version. One can venture to say that, albeit entertaining, No Country for Old Men is an even more misguided attempt than Billy Bob Thornton’s stab at McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Although lately Jones seems to be typecast in this kind of role (i.e. In the Valley of Elah), his turn adds some much needed heart and soul to No Country for Old Men. Given that Jones also did such a fine job directing the McCarthyesque Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he should have taken this film over from the Coens.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

October 03, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Directed by Julian Schnabel

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor of French Elle magazine. At the age of 43, he suffered a stroke that left most of his body paralyzed. With the assistance of his physical therapists and transcriber, he communicated through the blinking of his left eyelid and spent 14 months authoring an autobiography The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before his death in 1997. This staggering true story is the basis of Julian Schnabel’s new film of the same name, and fortunately the painter/director has the good sense to not turn it into some sort of uplifting schmaltz like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside.

Instead, Schnabel and screenwriter Ronald Harwood capture all the inner demons – the shame of having to be cared for, the suicidal thoughts, the defeatist attitude, the embittered selfishness – that Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, had to battle. The film doesn’t make him out to be an inspirational hero, because he was all too human. Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his two children whom he never married, dutifully remained by his side in the hospital despite his infidelity. In a heartbreaking scene, his mistress Inés (Agathe de la Fontine) calls, and Céline even facilitates the conversation and tells Inés that Bauby’s been waiting for her visit. Céline then finally breaks down and runs out of the room.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly isn’t entirely anguished and depressing either. Schnabel’s painterly eye creates stunning imagery based on Bauby’s cherished memories and vivid imagination. The generosity and dedication of his physical therapists Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) and Marie (Olatz Lopez Garamendia) also make one deeply appreciative of the human race’s capacity for compassion.

Bauby told the truth and nothing but in his autobiography, and Harwood and Schnabel faithfully depict his ordeal onscreen without filtering it through subjective editorializing. They don’t sugarcoat the fact that Bauby could be horribly disagreeable and difficult to deal with, but the viewers could still relate to him and care about his plight. If this film were in the hands of a Steven Spielberg or a Ron Howard, it probably would not be nearly as genuine and heartfelt.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 27, 2007

Lust, Caution

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Ang Lee made history in becoming the first Asian director to receive an Oscar – Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Edward Yang are still rolling over in their graves at that one – but he has retreated from Hollywood to make Lust, Caution, a WWII espionage tale set in China. Considering that Lust, Caution is rated NC-17, it’s obvious that Lee is attempting to lower expectations after the enormous success of Brokeback Mountain rather than simply returning to his roots. Based on Eileen Chang’s short story, the new film is actually similar to Brokeback in that it manifests Lee’s ability to stretch a novella to a meandering two-hour-plus epic.

In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a group of college students led by the idealistic Kuang Yu-min (Taiwanese American pop star Wang Leehom) tries to do its part in the resistance by putting on patriotic plays. Fueled by early success, the group grows more ambitious and hatches a plot to assassinate Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The troupe’s leading lady Wang Jiazhi (newcomer Tang Wei) transforms herself into Mrs. Mak, infiltrates the social circle of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and begins a dangerous liaison with Mr. Yee.

In other words, Wang Jiazhi is Suzie Wong in the guise of the Dragon Lady. It’s no surprise that Lee would again exploit Chinese culture for Western consumption as he did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his Father Knows Best trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman). But at least in his previous “Chinese” films, he never resorted to such worn-out caricatures as the demure Asian woman and the chauvinist Asian man (as embodied by Mr. Yee).

Lust, Caution is like the Chinese remake of Black Book, in which a Jewish heroine goes undercover in Nazi headquarters and carries on an affair with an SS officer. Unfortunately Lee isn’t a shamelessly shrewd filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven, and Lust, Caution comes off as ponderously dull in spite of all the graphic sex scenes that earned the film an NC-17. It’s no small irony that Verhoeven managed to get away with all the sexual innuendo and frontal nudity with merely an R rating and still ended up with a far superior movie. Since the Chinese WWII espionage film doesn’t measure up to its Dutch counterpart, let’s just hope Survivor: China won’t similarly turn out to be more lethargic than its other editions.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 21, 2007

Eastern Promises interview

By Martin Tsai

“I like to steal from my colleagues, because we all do it anyway,” David Cronenberg said. He was joking of course – he coveted that cup of coffee just served to screenwriter Steve Knight, who was sitting next to him.

No one has ever accussed the iconic helmer of such films as Naked Lunch and Spider of stealing. But in a period of time in which remakes seem to be proliferating, Cronenberg has mixed emotions.

“I didn’t even know they were remaking The Fly. I knew they were remaking Scanners. You know, I could live without it. That’s pretty much the totality of my comment,” he said. “My version of The Fly was indeed a remake, so I’d be hypocritical to say it’d never work. It worked for me because I thought I did a good film that didn’t do anything to diminish the original film. You know, it’s still what it is. But in general, they’re getting quite ridiculous now, because sometimes they want you to remake a film that has barely been released. I have had Norwegian films proposed, French films, Thai films, Japanese films, Korean films – all of which have been released within two years.”

Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s latest, revolves around the criminal underworld (specifically, the Russian mob in London). Viggo Mortensen plays a henchman with an identity crisis. The film has relatively few violent outbursts, but they are unsettling to say the least. Discerning fans probably would think that sounds exactly like the auteur’s previous effort, A History of Violence. Cronenberg pointed at Knight and joked, “It’s his fault. He wanted to do the reverse flip of A History of Violence, so he stole everything from that movie and incorporated it into his script.”

Cronenberg explained that he was contemplating several scripts to direct, and Eastern Promises just happened to be the one that came together. Any similarities between the films aren’t intentional on his part.

“I wish I had the power to say ‘Now I will do a movie that is like the other but only not in America’,” he said. “Don’t forget, creatively it’s totally different for us from the inside. You can say, ‘Well, Viggo is also playing a character who has a split identity and he is a gangster and blah, blah, blah.' But creatively for him, it’s totally different. The guy speaks English with a Russian accent. There are no American characters in this movie at all. It’s not about America. It’s not set in America. It’s a real film noir, which is to say it’s at night in the city as opposed to in the daytime in a small town – totally different creatively, even though I can see the connections. It’s completely accidental.”

Indeed, the cast and crew burned the midnight oil researching in preparation for Eastern Promises. Cronenberg read Vadim Volkov’s book Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. Aside from visiting Russia (just as costar Vincent Cassel did), Mortensen learned slang from Russian ex-cons, viewed a documentary called The Mark of Cain that was filmed at a Russian maximum-security prison, and bought a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo – which is fitting given the director’s long obsession with “body horror.”

“When we started, the Russian mob in London was a pretty obscure subject. By the end of the shoot, it was front-page news everywhere in the world because of the poisoning of [former KGB agent Alexander] Litvinenko, which happened within half a block of where we were living – Viggo and I, and Vincent as well,” Cronenberg said. “Litvinenko had been there after he’d been poisoned. There were traces of polonium there. We walked by it everyday. One day we walked by, there were police in hazard suits and a forensic van. Steve really had his pulse on something that was waiting to happen.”

Eastern European criminals have fascinated Knight, and the screenwriter also wrote about them in his Oscar-nominated script for Dirty Pretty Things. Although Eastern Promises specifically deals with Vory v zakone and the prostitution industry rather than with the Kremlin or spy assassinations, the film is still relevant to the current events. Knight noted, “The Kremlin is almost a religious organization. Criminals actually preceded the Soviet Union. It’s a secret response to a secret society. A code of secrecy was very important in that organization because people needed to stay where a lot of people were spying on them. I think also in the Soviet era, being an entrepreneur itself was considered to be illegal. So when the Soviet Union disappeared, the line between being an entrepreneur and being a gangster didn’t exist – in people’s minds it doesn’t exist. What happens then would unleash naked capitalism in its rawest form.”

Eastern Promises boasts one of the most buzz-worthy scenes in recent memory: Mortensen, bare-fisted and buck-naked, battling two henchmen in a steam bath brawl that ends with a particularly stomach-churning eye injury. The actor shrugged off potential concerns about images from the scene eventually finding their way to the Internet.

“I am just trying to do my job well, and so is David,” Mortensen said. “I think as far as the brutality of the scene – the way he did that, the way he did the other scenes, the way he did A History of Violence in that regard, makes him just about the most responsible filmmaker there is. Some people will say it’s so gratuitous; it’s so over the top. It’s actually not. There’s very little screen time overall devoted to violence in either of those movies and very little body count in either of those movies if you compare them to any number of movies – also very good movies – like The Departed or the Bourne movies or what have you. Lots more people get hit many more times and a lot more people get hurt or die. And you kind of just watch it because you have this buffer, because these movies are so stylized in some way. But he doesn’t give you that buffer. He doesn’t want you to get out of it. You see what it is – it’s terrible. You see what the consequences are, physically and emotionally – they are terrible too. It’s not a good thing.”

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

September 11, 2007

Eastern Promises

Directed by David Cronenberg Starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The biggest surprise in Eastern Promises isn’t grotesque graphic violence, a peek at Viggo Mortensen’s naughty bits, or a cleaver plot twist. For David Cronenberg fans, it would be the fact that the auteur’s latest is so reminiscent of his last outing, A History of Violence. After all, Cronenberg has been anything but predictable over the years. Not only do both films revolve around the criminal underworld, on a more cerebral level they both deal with duality, role-play and vengeful vigilantism. Without spoiling too much, Eastern Promises plays out exactly like A History of Violence in reverse. Nothing wrong with that, since A History of Violence is such a triumphant meta-thriller.

When a pregnant teenager dies after a C-section, North London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to locate her family so the newborn won’t become part of the foster care system. Anna stumbles upon a diary written entirely in Russian, and tracks down the owner of a posh trans-Sibirian restaurant (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who overeagerly volunteers to translate it for her. Coincidentally, Anna has a Russian-born uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski) who will faithfully reveal the teenager’s ordeal with the sinister Organizatsiya, Vory v zakone.

The casting of Mortensen as a Russian thug is a no-brainer, especially considering the parallels between his roles here and in A History of Violence. Eastern Promises does allow him a showier presence, with the tattoos, the Russian accent and the killer charisma.

Cronenberg again makes an understated film with disturbing outbursts of brutality splattered throughout. The auteur has staged the gory scenes in such a deadpan way, viewers will find the over-the-top bloodshed both revolting and funny at the same time. But while A History of Violence’s happy ending came off as ironic, the one in Eastern Promises seems somewhat absurd. Screenwriter Steve Knight is most likely the one to blame, considering his Oscar-nominated script for Dirty Pretty Things has some of the same problems. Both films have intriguing and gritty premises, but Knight is never sure what to do with them. Still, Cronenberg does his best and puts his auteurist stamp on Eastern Promises, turning it into an admirable companion piece to A History of Violence.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

August 19, 2007

Black Book interview

By Martin Tsai

Naked babes and special effects are such staples in Paul Verhoeven’s work, that it’d be out-and-out strange to see him do a film without some combination of androids, giant bugs, invisible men or hot blondes in all their buxom glory. He doesn’t always win over the MPAA, but there seems to be no shortage of actresses willing to strip on his cue.

Whether Verhoeven is a chauvinist or a feminist has been a longstanding debate. Most were up in arms about Showgirls and Basic Instinct for portrayals of women using sex for social climbing or thrill seeking, but some feminists like Camille Paglia also came to his defense. His latest discovery, Carice van Houten, has this to say: “He’s a little boy who looks up to women. He is also an intellectual. This combination makes him interesting.”

In Verhoeven’s WWII thriller Black Book, van Houten plays a Jewish woman named Rachel who bleaches her pubes, infiltrates the Sicherheitsdienst headquarters and seduces a German officer. The actress was unfazed by the nudity and the sex scene. She did not, however, enjoy having a gigantic, three-foot-tall bucket of prop poop dumped on her in a torture scene.

“I didn’t realize what was going on until I came on the set and I came into this little trailer. There was a little plant with a note from Paul and his wife, and it said ‘Good luck for the coming days.’ So I thought oh God, if Paul said that, it’s going to be horrible,” van Houten recalls. “Even if you mix cookies with potato powder, peanut butter and a combination that you’d never make a soup out of, it smells. It’s not a shit smell, but at the end of the day it still smells. Real shit I’d know how it smells. This is something different. They made it warm, of course, then they made it cold for me. Ugh, it was horrible.”

The Dutch bad boy himself insists that his films are not gratuitously exploitative, and all naughty bits are all integral to the plotline – yes, even when Sharon Stone uncrossed her panty-less legs in Basic Instinct. The director based Black Book on historical facts found during 40 years of research, and van Houten’s character is a composite character of Esmée van Eeghen, Kitty ten Have and Dora Paulsen. Even though there was no historical documentation for the pubic hair bleaching, Verhoeven thought it was a no-brainer for the Jewish woman who is trying bed the German officer. The real-life tortures were far more degrading and humiliating than what he showed on the screen, he contends.

He thinks that actresses are willing to go the distance for him because he is always upfront with them. “I tell them exactly what I want, and basically there’s no improvisation on the set for anything that would be unpleasant like sexuality, nudity or whatever,” Verhoeven says. “I would never introduce new ideas on the set with these kinds of scenes. I tell them exactly what I want, so that there’s no confusion. Often they really like it, certainly that’s the case with Sharon. I give them all the storyboards. They can look at those. They can look at the video after we shoot it, and if they have a problem we’ll reshoot it. So I think it’s a question of being straight about it, not suddenly telling them on the set ‘Now you have to suck her nipple’ or something like that. I tell them in advance just exactly what I think the lips should do in a scene, and what parts of the body would be exposed to the camera, how much nudity, and whatever it is.”

In one scene, Rachel walks into the officer’s bedroom and he greets her with a little tent slowly rising beneath the bed sheets. These kinds of Verhoevenisms may seem juvenile to us, but the actors take them pretty seriously. Ask Sebastian Koch, who played Sicherheitsdienst head Müntze as well as the lead in the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others.

“When I read the script I was wondering how to play this. This can be so ridiculous, this weapon going up. In the beginning Paul just wanted me to be this Nazi officer who just loves her body and wants to fuck her, but no, he has to fall in love with her immediately. So we changed that, and Paul made it a little different. It’s only when this guy is in love that you can make the scene believable, because he is so despondent, so injured by that,” Koch said. “[Paul] always searched for new paths. There were no erotic thrillers before Basic Instinct. Starship Troopers had all these special effects. It’s similar to what I’ve done. I search for new paths, because the new paths include a risk. I think an artist shouldn’t work without risk. Paul is very similar to that. He is always trying to develop new tracks, even this Nazi thriller with an S.S. officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl.”

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

June 22, 2007

The Boss of It All

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Jens Albinus

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“Here comes a movie that is already a little weird,” Lars von Trier announces during the voiceover prologue in The Boss of It All. “You can see my reflection, but the film isn’t worth a moment’s reflection.” As the crane shot rises outside a building in an industrial park, a mirror image of the infamous Brechtian provocateur standing behind a camera emerges on the windows. Unlike The Kingdom in which he only served as a presenter, von Trier is the narrator here. “It’s a comedy and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinions. Just a cozy time,” he assures. The film will “poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture.” Mmm, really?

The Boss of It All revolves around a Danish IT company where the owner Ravn (Peter Gantzler) has invented an absentee owner, Svend E., whom he blames for all of the unpopular decisions. When Ravn plans to sell the company and screw his employees out of their fair shares, he hires unemployed actor Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to act the part of “the boss of it all”. Although he has provided Kristoffer little material to work with, Ravn apparently has been supplying contradictory characteristics about Svend to different employees. Kristoffer must fish out the expectation of each and react to him or her accordingly. So how precisely does this office comedy poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture? Leslie Felperin of Variety suggests that the film is spoofing the “good cop/bad cop” relationship between von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen. While that theory may be valid, it’s unlikely that von Trier has devoted an entire movie to a Danish film industry in-joke that would be pretty obscure to the vast majority of moviegoers.

“Theater unfolds itself at the point it ends,” Kristoffer says in the first scene, while applying soot to his forehead as part of his actorly ritual in tribute to some playwright named Antonio Stavro Gambini. Unless you’ve been following von Trier’s advice (about not reflecting on the film) from the outset, it would be pretty obvious that he is telegraphing the ending here. So perhaps the intended butts of the joke are the genre conventions and the viewers’ expectations. The IT company’s Icelandic buyer Finnur (a cameo by film director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson) soon criticizes the Danes for “dripping in sentimentality and the rest of the time they just giggle.” Lo and behold, Ravn and Kristoffer are giggling at this very moment. Then Kristoffer/Albinus delivers his line awkwardly, and the translator (Benedikt Erlingsson) comments that “The pauses confuse me. Could you repeat it faster?”

In the next scene, the company’s employee Lise (Iben Hjejle) confronts Kristoffer/Svend. “I don’t know actors that bad,” she says. “You are not who you pretend to be” – a prescient observation, albeit unintentionally so since she is really referring to his purported homosexuality. He soon bends her over the desk and has his way with her, perhaps to prove that his bad acting is on purpose – even though up until that point he has been oblivious to the fact that Ravn has been telling Lise that Svend is gay. So there it is: the humor of the film stems from its self-reflexivity. Since the film is reflecting on itself, von Trier is probably right about it not being worthy of our reflection.

Half way through, von Trier chimes in again to announce the necessity of introducing a new character. The visual doubling has Kristoffer and us initially mistaking her for Lise, but she is really the actor’s ex-wife Kisser (Sofie Gråbøl), who is now Finnur’s attorney. She fills him in on Ravn’s plan to cheat the company’s employees while throwing in a jab at von Trier’s own Dogme 95 aesthetics, and suddenly everything comes together for Kristoffer “like a Gambini exposition.” The actor soon attempts to coax a confession out of Ravn in front of the employees.

Frequently, von Trier invents new gimmicks that reinvigorate cinema for him and sometimes for the viewers. The latest is Automavision, which is credited as the cinematographer here. Basically von Trier would set up the camera, and then a computer program would decide where to frame, pan or zoom. This aims to limit human influence over the filmmaking process, and actors are often awkwardly cut out of the frame. One of the Dogme 95 “Vows of Chastity” dictated that directors should give up good taste, but we learned from Jesper Jargil’s documentary The Purified that most Dogme brothers could not lower themselves to adhere to that rule. Here von Trier has finally succeeded in shooting a film counter-intuitively.

Intentionally making matters worse, von Trier throws continuity editing out the window as well. In a scene set inside a movie theater auditorium, Ravn is holding a panda bear ice cream bar while carrying on a conversation with Kristoffer. The cherry nose on the panda’s face keeps switching color with each cut. Ravn and Kristoffer are shushed by their fellow moviegoers, but the shush also seems intended for us as if von Trier were anticipating that viewers of The Boss of It All would chatter about this continuity error. Then the two characters start making even more noises by tearing up tissue paper.

When Kristoffer/Svend is delivering the climactic speech, Finnur observes that the soliloquy’s “sentimentality is so nauseating, no human being would take it seriously.” Ravn breaks down and cries, so we laugh. But when Ravn confesses and reconciles with his employees, they make the mistake of “forgetting the actor” (i.e. Kristoffer). “Silence in the back!” He shouts, again seemingly addressing the actual viewing audience. Finnur wonders, “Is the idiot going to sign or not?” Funny, since Albinus played the ringleader in von Trier’s The Idiots. “Formalities have to be kept,” Kristoffer resolves, and then proceeds to carry out the ending that von Trier has promised us from the outset. Like Ravn, Lars the manipulator needs to be loved while his actors do the dirty work.

“I’ll have to get home,” von Trier says during the epilogue. “I apologize to those who expected more and to those who expected less. Those who got what they wanted deserved it.” So basically, whether the film works for you is dependant on whether you’re expecting a self-reflexive comedy that lampoons conventions, a satire on corporate culture, or just a cozy time with good ol’ Lars.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

New York Asian Film Festival 2007

The New York Sun

June 16, 2007

Eagle vs Shark

Directed by Taiki Waititi Starring Jemaine Clement

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Eagle vs Shark might be positioning itself as this summer’s sleeper hit. It’s one of those movies that seemingly none but the exceptionally media savvy have heard of, starring some up-and-comer who is virtually unknown outside New Zealand. The film is certainly getting a lavish marketing budget, as is evident from those outsized bus-stop posters plastered all over East Village.

Many critics are quick to point out similarities between this offbeat rom-com involving two social misfits and the sleeper hit of summer 2004, Napoleon Dynamite. In reality, Eagle vs Shark is more a ripoff of the under-the-radar hit of summer 2005, Me and You and Everyone We Know. Sure, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords) is like a 30-something version of Napoleon Dynamite, but this story really belongs to the awkward and homely fast-food worker Lily (Loren Horsley). Like Miranda July’s character Christine in Me and You, Lily is a go-getter who is not above acting out of desperation. When her coworker tosses aside Jarrod’s invitation to a party, Lily seizes the opportunity and invites herself.

Napoleon Dynamite worked in spite of its free-for-all dig because it was at least compassionate toward its protagonist and his pal Pedro. But while Eagle vs Shark is sympathetic toward Lily, writer/director Taika Waititi paints Jarrod as mean-spirited and writes his demeanor off as the product of chronic sibling rivalry and bullying. It doesn’t work though, no matter how many quasi-whimsical stop-motion sequences Waititi can squeeze into the film.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

Once

Directed by John Carney Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Winner of an Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, John Carney’s Once is already possibly the most overrated baloney we’re likely to see this year. This musical romance is virtually plotless – it involves the unexpected encounter of some unusually craggy Irish aspiring rocker/part-time vacuum cleaner repairman (The Frames’ lead singer Glen Hansard) and a Czech domestic worker (Markéta Irglová) who happens to be a pianist. Their encounter leads to them making beautiful music together. And he repairs her broken Hoover. The end.

Despite the fact that the film has no real plot, it does have a pretty impressive soundtrack that sounds like Coldplay meets Matchbox Twenty meets The Wallflowers. Hansard and Irglová, who previously collaborated on the 2006 studio album The Swell Season, are responsible for most of the songs in the film. It’s mind-boggling that they don’t also receive screenwriting credits since, well, the film has practically no plot. Hansard gives an impassioned, star-making performance here, while Irglová’s character development seems a bit hazy.

Once is nothing much to look at. Musicals don’t have to be Technicolor extravaganzas, and Dancer in the Dark was able to achieve incredible scope with unpolished DV photography. By contrast, Once just resembles any amateur music video you can find on YouTube. Your money is much better spent on the soundtrack.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

June 02, 2007

Day Watch

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Based on popular sci-fi novelist Sergei Lukyanenko’s novel, Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch is one of the top-grossing blockbusters in Russia and certainly merited its U.S. release. The film only appropriates a third of the novel in order to make room for Hollywood-esque special effects, resulting in something like The Matrix meets Harry Potter. Basically, forces of good and evil have been duking it out for centuries, each with its own destined-for-greatness chosen one. While not causing damage here in non-virtual reality, warriors can enter an alternate universe by putting on Ray-Bans.

The first film is entertaining enough, but the inevitable sequel bares little resemblance to the novel Day Watch and instead chooses to delve into leftovers from the Night Watch novel. Bad move, as any diehard fan of Ringu would tell you. Bekmambetov’s new movie is basically two or three SFX set pieces with a load of borderline incoherent crap filling in the gaps. After driving his son Yegor (Dima Martynov) to the dark side in the first film, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) finds himself torn between his evil offspring and virtuous love interest Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina). And coincidentally, Yegor and Svetlana are both chosen ones in training, and only one of them can live.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen all that Day Watch has to offer. While everything here is as impressive as any Hollywood blockbuster can offer, it’s just not enough to sustain a film that’s more than two hours long. While those who’ve seen Night Watch can still follow and try to make sense of the scant plot, uninitiated viewers will be completely lost. It’s unfathomable what Bekmambetov can possibly do for the third installment of his planned trilogy, which will be filmed in English and financed by 20th Century Fox. Oh well, in all fairness The Matrix Reloaded sucked and disappointed just as much as Day Watch, and people still went to see The Matrix Revolutions.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2007

Operation Homecoming

Directed by Richard E. Robbins

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 created Operation Homecoming, an initiative that dispatched writing coaches to military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to conduct workshops that helped the servicemen put their experiences to pen and paper. The initiative has finally come to fruition with the publication of a 2006 anthology and the release of director Richard E. Robbins’ eponymous tie-in documentary. Operation Homecoming prominently features 11 selections from the anthology – read by the likes of Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, Justin Kirk, Josh Lucas and Blair Underwood – interspersed with interviews with the authors and various talking heads such as Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford.

While the soldiers’ writings are certainly of interest, the film has virtually nothing to contribute to the current debate on the war in Iraq. The works selected for the film vary a great deal in quality, but they are all descriptive and draw you right in. With lyrical images, these first-person narrations could have turned into something powerfully meditative in the fashion of The Thin Red Line. Instead, Robbins has decided to present the literal visualizations of the troops’ written work with a range of styles best suited for music videos. As a result, the film undermines some of the vivid imagery within the writing. Under Robbins’ unimaginative direction, most of the segments are only comparable to B war films starring Chuck Norris.

One comes to suspect that a few of the soldier scribes have seen too many bad movies. Some of the writings are fairly trite, with the kind of over-the-top clichés you’d only expect from Hollywood. Clearly the worst of the lot is Camp Muckamungus, Parker Gyokeres’ attempt at a humorous letter home that is mostly pointless and even potentially trivializing of the servicemen’s experience. With animation, cheesy music and lame sound effects, Robbins fashions this misguided effort into some sort of frat literature.

Mike Strobl’s Taking Chance emerges as the most memorable piece, detailing his journey accompanying a fallen solder’s remains across the country for a hometown burial. But the segment stands out solely for Strobl’s heartfelt writing, since Robbins shot it as if it’s an homage to Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” music video.

Films like Jarhead as well as docus like Gunner Palace, The War Tapes and The Ground Truth already render Operation Homecoming somewhat redundant. Since Robbins’ film has such a narrow focus on the troops’ literary endeavors, it isn’t particularly relevant politically. With its action-flick aesthetic, it doesn’t stake out a clear position on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there’s indeed a massage, it’s one that is pro troops. Many of them here voice complaints about their experiences abroad and at home: unexpectedly entering the war, enduring boredom and emotional trauma, expecting to be thanked when they return but people back home couldn’t care less, etc. Overall, Operation Homecoming adds little to the soldiers’ narratives on which it is based, saying nothing new and perhaps not much of anything at all.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.

January 17, 2007

The Situation

Directed by Philip Haas

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Last year, United 93 and World Trade Center had people buzzing about whether it was too soon to put out 9/11-themed films. Appropriately arriving nearly one year later, Philip Haas’ new film about the war in Iraq raises the same question. While the two films on 9/11 met with overwhelmingly positive critical reception, the arrival of The Situation seems premature. But political sensitivity has nothing to do with it this time. The film simply feels like a series of misfires and blown opportunities.

American journalist Anna (Connie Nielsen) is in Samarra investigating the death of Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia), a prominent community figure whom she had recently profiled. Insurgence leader Walid (Driss Roukh) had been upset about Rafeeq’s dealings with Americans like Anna. The Americans suspected that Rafeeq was a terrorist due to his association with Walid. To complicate things further, an Iraqi policeman’s marriage proposal to Rafeeq’s daughter Noor (Cherine Amar) met with her father’s disapproval and interference. Meanwhile Anna is also juggling two romantic relationships, respectively with American intel officer Dan (Damian Lewis) and Iraqi freelance photographer Zaid (Mido Hamada).

“There are no bad guys and there are no good guys. It’s not grey, either,” Dan says. “It’s just the truth shifts according to each person you talk to.” That would have been a nice theme for the film, but The Situation never manages to achieve half of that moral complexity. In spite of its 16 speaking parts, one third of the dialogue being in Arabic, and an interwoven story with characters from drastically different backgrounds, the movie quickly pales by comparison to such intricate films as Syriana and Babel.

The vast majority of problems with The Situation come from an amateurish screenplay by journalist Wendell Steavenson. The story sticks with the perspective of her surrogate/alterego Anna, whose love triangle seems trivial and tedious while the viewers aren’t all that invested in characters getting brutalized or murdered either. Scenes in the film, many taking place in restaurants and sidewalk cafes, are filled with wall-to-wall dialogue. The wooden delivery by the non-English speaking cast also makes everything sound like conversational exercises from an ESL class. The gratuitous sex scene involving Nielsen and Lewis accompanied by machine gun and bomb noises is borderline laughable. All these do little to establish the urgency of the war.

Nothing else here really manages to bail out the screenplay. What journalist in her right mind would walk around Iraq in a sexy summer dress as Nielsen does? The sound is badly mixed, with an intrusive score that makes the film sound like a TV movie. Haas also doesn’t seem like the right man for the job. The Situation might have been quite something in the hands of someone like Michael Winterbottom, who has impressively delved into this territory before with Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World and The Road to Guantanamo.

The Situation has some interesting tidbits, but nothing capable of sustaining a moment, let alone an entire film. Haas has said that he was compelled to put the film together quickly while the Iraq war is still going on. But the sort of points he’s attempting to make have been made more eloquently and convincingly elsewhere. Even if one considers the film timely and relevant, it is ultimately forgettable. It definitely leaves the impression that Haas should have waited a while, perhaps for a couple of rewrites at the very least, before proceeding with this project.

Reprinted from EmanuelLevy.com. © Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.