> Volume 4 > Number 49

Volume 4, Number 49

This Week's Reviews:  The Man from Elysian Fields.

This Week's Omissions:  Analyze That, Empire, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

Repertory Reviews:  Chan is Missing.

Capsule Reviews:  Half Past Dead, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.

George Hickenlooper

Andy Garcia
Olivia Williams
James Coburn
Julianna Margulies
Mick Jagger
Anjelica Huston
Michael Des Barres





The Man from Elysian Fields


The Man from Elysian Fields may be the most meticulously fictional film about writers to come out this year. Lacking the dramatic tension and strong characters that made gems like Wonder Boys so unforgettable, the film does squander some of its best moments, but all in all, it comes across as a handsomely made and intriguing little diversion for two hours.

The character at the center, Byron Tiller (Garcia), is himself a novelist, having spent 7 years writing a bargain basement book called Hitler's Child theorizing that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun had a child who was raised in Argentina by neo-Nazis. Needless to say, the horrible plot kept the novel from every making it beyond a couple good reviews (The New York Times compares him to Ernest Hemingway) and quick trip to the book dealers' bargain bin.

Living in Pasadena with his wife Dena (Marguilies) and son (named Nathaniel Hawthrone Tiller), Byron is finding it impossible to live off of his art. He has the pretentiousness to write interesting tales of "microcosms" but lacks the popular value that his Little, Brown Books publisher is looking for. As the publisher puts it, when someone is reading a book on the bus, they don't want to read about their life being little more than part of a microcosm.

After failing to get publishing, much less an advance, for his latest novel about migrant workers and their lives in relation to Excalibur, Byron lies to his wife to make it seem like things aren't so bad. Soon he's telling her that he's been meeting with the Book of the Month Club despite the fact that no one wants to publish the book in the first place. After failing to get his old advertising job and finding it impossibly embarrassing to ask Dena's rich father for the money, Byron decides to attempt to get the needed money elsewhere.

Instead of becoming Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, though, Byron decides to sin in another way. As he sits drinking away his problems, he is approached by a perfectly groomed and spoken man named Luther Fox (Jagger) who is willing to give Byron a chance to make some money. It seems that Fox owns an escort service for the most affluent city socialites called Elysian Fields. As fate would have it, the Elysian Fields office is just a couple doors down from the office Byron rents so he can write his novels in peace.

After much introspection, Byron decides to take Fox on the offer as long as he doesn't have to sleep with the women he escorts (the film never really explains how the biggest socialites can afford to be seen with men other than their husbands at big events like the opera). As luck would have it, his first client is Andrea Alcott (Williams), a beautiful woman in her thirties who is willing to leave Byron standing on the sidewalk after they attend the opera together. On the second date, when she tells Byron he must get into the limo with her, things start falling apart.

Superficially, they shouldn't: Andrea's husband is the much, much older Tobias Alcott (Coburn), a Pulitzer Prize winning author who is working on his swan song. Tobias, now impotent, is glad to have his wife pleasured by someone -- even if it cannot be him, he's content that someone's making her happy. With another aspiring writer in the house all the time, this gives an asset to Tobias and Byron: one needs a person to clean up his ranting, elderly prose and keep his reputation, the other needs the success of a co-authorship with a high-class author.

The reason that The Man from Elysian Fields succeeds much better than it would as a simple story of two authors learning from each other, is that it has the dynamics of a marriage that must bend and break under the pressure of such occupational obligations. Despite a horrible performance from Margulies, the character of Dena helps to ground the film better than would otherwise happen.

Director George Hickenlooper, best known for his documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (co-directed with Fax Bahr), creates the needed mood to show the devilishness inherent in Luther Fox and the blustering joie de vivre of Tobias Alcott. It helps that he has game actors like Mick Jagger and James Coburn to bring these characters to life.

Much of The Man from Elysian Fields plays like a novel, which adds to much of its appeal. At the end, it is surprising to read "Written by Phillip Jayson Lasker" without any "Adapted from" credit. Much of the film seems to be straight from some methodically paced novel, including the film's disingenuous use of multiple crescendos in preparation for an ending (one particular moment that shows a terrific side to musician-cum-actor Michael Des Barres would have made a perfectly cynical ending that would have fit with the style and theme of the rest of the film).

The film serves as James Coburn's real swan song, which makes many of his scenes all the more painful. Watching him worry about all the aches and pains in his old body finally leading to an ending becomes downright depressing when considering just how painful the final years of Coburn's real life was (bringing back memories of the unfortunate stories of Richard Farnsworth's battle with cancer two years ago). But just when fears of the film becoming maudlin with sentiment at a lost legend, Coburn reminds the audience of why he was a legend in first place: by socking a critic in the face.

Wayne Wang

Wood Moy
Marc Hayashi
Lauren Chew
Peter Wang
Presco Alarcon
Judi Nihei
Ellen Young





Chan is Missing


"I am mentally bifocal."
                        -Pearl S. Buck
                        on being an American in Asia,
                        New York Times, 19 June 1983

Hong Kong born Wayne Wang has known the life of an émigré. Educated and residing in San Francisco's Chinatown, Wang learned the American culture through the integration of his neighbors and the Hollywood films readily available. His first film, Chan is Missing, is a glance at the same internationality that he found in his own life living in America.

At its simplest level, Chan is Missing is a standard mystery with characters attempting to solve a missing person case (and, for the 'detectives,' retrieve $4,000 that has also disappeared). Considering the characters are Chinese, the automatic reference is to Charlie Chan, which is exactly the type of film and stereotypes that Wang is trying to debunk. Though there are many noir elements -- a protagonist voiceover, the mysterious woman -- there is far more cultural value to Chan is Missing than a Charlie Chan mystery. Jo (Moy) is really Chinese, unlike Charlie Chan actors Warner Oland (Swedish) and Sidney Toler (American). To further his point, Wang hired Japanese-American Marc Hayashi to play Steve, who is refers to himself as "Number One Son" at one point. As Jo says in the film, "I am no Charlie Chan -- although I did start watching some of his reruns for cheap laughs."

Peter Feng wrote in "Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: Chan is Missing" of the way the film attempts to merge the two cultures and the way intercultural Americanism stands as the strongest attribute to Chan is Missing. Looking for "the third part of a binary," the film tries to find the idea of both Asia and America in Asian Americanism. Though covering many different cultures in Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian, Laotian, etc.), being Asian American "yolks together a continent and a nation" bringing attention "to the personality and contradictions that it contains (or fails to contain)." Feng looks at the fragmentation inherent in such a relationship -- the question of Asian Americanism vs. Chinese Americanism, heritage vs. subculture vs. hegemonic society -- and Wang's attempt to deal with these issues in the film.

Wang, to his credit, refrains from making this the dominant issue of the film. An inattentive viewer might leave the film without ever thinking about the social and cultural issues Wang is indirectly dealing with -- the film is, ostensibly, about the mystery, not politics. Many of the film's most apparent cultural references come indirectly, like when Jo comments on a flag debate that pits a couple Asian Americans against each other: should they wave the American flag, the Taiwanese flag, or the Chinese flag?

Feng, referring to David E. Wellbery's The Postmodern Moment: A Handbook of Contemporary Innovation in the Arts, sees the idea of Asian Americanism as a means "both of 'purvey[ing] and challeng[ing] ideology.'" Wang seems to be asking people to look into the puddle that appears at the end of the film, and come to terms with who they really are: people who cannot be summed up in a single ethnicity or even a multi-ethnic hyphenate.

Probably the biggest achievement of Chan is Missing, though, is that it helped to end a marginalizing of Asian Americans in films. There had not been a large market for Asian-centered films up to that point, unless they happened to star a Hollywood celebrity like William Holden. The affronts to the merits of Asian artists remained clear: just one year before Chan is Missing, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen came out with Peter Ustinov playing the detective.

Almost single-handedly, and probably unintentionally, Wayne Wang opened the door for a new Asian American cinema -- one that recognized and prided a culture that had long mystified Americans. As Claire McDowell said in the 1935 Bela Lagosi film Murder by Television after the Chinese butler (played by the Oakland-born Allen Jung) pointed out an omen, "Don't pay any attention to Ah Ling. He has a mania for quoting Confucius -- and Charlie Chan."

Half Past Dead

(Dir: Don Michael Paul, Starring Steven Seagal, Ja Rule, Morris Chestnut, Nia Peeples, Kurupt, Tony Plana, Michael Tariferro, and Matt Battaglia)



Normally, a film like Half Past Dead would mean the end of some over-the-hill action star, a type of forced retirement cause by a bad film. But that doesn't seem the case with Steven Seagal's films. He's made a dozen of these swan songs now and yet he still gets movies into theatres. Half Past Dead, which has nothing good to speak about other than the fact that it is relatively short, tries its best to hide the fact that Seagal's overweight and out of shape; meanwhile, the studio tries to hide the fact that he's also a cinematic cancer.

Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie

(Dir: Mike Nawrocki and Phil Vischer, Voices include Phil Vischer, Mike Nawrocki, Tim Hodge, Lisa Vischer, Dan Anderson, Kristin Blegen, and Shelby Vischer)



Didacticism has never felt so smothering than it does in Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. The film, which comes from a series of straight-to-video religious adventures for a collection of animated vegetables, recounts the Biblical story of Jonah with all the moralizing one would expect. While competent and well meaning, its impossible to not feel pushed by the film's moralizing to the point that its meaning is lost and all you can think about is, "God must have a great sense of humor to give an Asparagus the love for the guitar but no arms."




Reviews by:
David Perry