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.