> Volume 5 > Number 17

Volume 5, Number 17

This Week's Reviews:  Better Luck Tomorrow, The Good Thief, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Bend It Like Beckham, Nowhere in Africa, Love & Diane.

This Week's Omissions:  Confidence, It Runs in the Family, The Real Cancun.

Justin Lin

Parry Shen

Jason T. Tobin
Roger Fan
Sung Kang
Karin Anna Cheung
John Cho

Release: 11 Apr. 03

Better Luck Tomorrow


Admittedly, I have some misgivings about the underground push behind Better Luck Tomorrow to keep it from falling through the cracks as the rare semi-mainstream, gen-X accessible Asian-American film. What is disappointing is that this is not the type of reaction from within the community that welcomed some of Wayne Wang's better films (Chan Is Missing, Chinese Box), Ang Lee's dramas, or even John Woo's extremely successful vehicles. I suppose, there is some difference in that those films were more director driven and, in some cases (like most of Lee's American films and Woo's later films) have starred mostly Anglo actors instead of the desperately in need of work Asian acting community.

Better Luck Tomorrow deserves a different push, one that does not seem culturally restrictive -- I mean, who wants to see a film that practically announces itself as the "Asian-American film of the new millennium" when your not an Asian-American -- or as sanctimonious. This is a film that works on many levels within its narrative, not at the personal level zealous marketers have pointed it towards. It is notable that this film gives some employment to underused Asian actors (for example, Parry Shen, who gives a great performance in this film, has only had a large amount of lines in one other film, The New Guy, in which he got to be the geeky math whiz Asian) but not necessarily that it is in the marketplace.

The central thesis director Justin Lin and his producers seem to be going for is that Better Luck Tomorrow isn't even Asian at all. This is not another weepy multi-generational drama like Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club, but a Tarantino-esque, adrenaline-infused tale that speaks as equally to the Anglo MTV generation as to the Asian Americans it's supposedly addressing.

The story is about four upper-middle class high school students in Orange County trying to prepare themselves for the "real world." For most of them, this begins with entrance into an Ivy League college thanks to their straight-A grades and exemplary extracurricular activities. But with great achievement comes great irresponsibility, evidently, as they become embroiled in every vice imaginable. First there's the downward spiral of cheating and shoplifting, which soon digresses into theft and drug dealing. The brains of the operation, Daric (Fan), keeps finding more things for them to do, and bad seed Han (Kang; who tries to give Joe Pesci a run for his money), infantile Virgil (Tobin), and love-struck Ben (Shen) are all too willing to follow.

Better Luck Tomorrow is at its best when it tries to work with the satellite characters who are sucked into the hurricane from a teenage wasteland. This is especially true with the plot dealing with Ben's unrequited love Stephanie (Cheung) and her prep school boyfriend Steve (Cho). As narrator, Ben is already the main character of this film, but these characters and thier involvement with him help to establish Ben as the most defined of all the characters (this also allows Shen to show the most acting chops of the entire film).

Lin (who also edited), cinematographer Patrice Lucien Cochet, and production designer Yoo Jung Han have an amazing sense of visuals, especially considering their relative inexperience with the feature film form. Most of the movie has the slickness of a Hollywood production with surely a fraction of the budget (distributor Paramount and MTV Films only came in after the film was finished and had produced a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival).

I respect the film despite its pace problems -- the movie literally goes from ecstatic highs to sedated lows in less than a beat -- and its inability to work in a finale that ever feels as serious or as well crafted as the rest of the film. There is much to like in what Lin has done, and this respect comes from his achievement as a director, not simply as an Asian-American director.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Neil Jordan

Nick Nolte

Nutsa Kukhianidze
Tchéky Karyo
Saïd Taghmaoui
Gérard Darmon
Marc Lavoine
Emir Kusturica

Release: 2 Apr. 03

The Good Thief


Pépé le Moko was the first step to the French New Wave in 1937 (and, for that matter, the realization of the American antihero in Pépé progeny Rick Blaine), but its touch seemed tough to acknowledge 22 years later when Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, et al. were working on their first features. Instead, the comparisons were made with the filmmakers the inaugural five had written so fondly about in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema: Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Jean-Pierre Melville.

Melville seemed the most noticeable of the forbearers because of his involvement in Godard's Breathless, both as a cameo player and through an homage to his Bob le Flambeur. What isn't mentioned is the relationship Bob le Flambeur in 1955 had to Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko and Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (and, for that matter, Breathless' Jean Paul Belmondo emulating Casablanca star Humphrey Bogart and indirectly emulating Pépé star Jean Gabin).

That all this comes full circle helps to reveal the circular pattern that was Franco-American films from the 1930s (French film noir becomes American noir) to the 1940s (America overtakes France as the central film artists as World War II and the Nazi Occupation halt French film production) to the 1950s (French filmmakers learn the trade from the newly released 1940s American films and create their own hybrid of French cinema). By the 1970s, though, it was the American filmmakers following the French again, if only for a short time.

Neil Jordan's The Good Thief serves as the modern follow-through of this cycle. Remaking Bob le Flambeur in spirit and some story, Jordan, an Irishman best known for such '80s U.K. grit like Mona Lisa, '90s U.K. resistance like The Crying Game, and a few bad apples in between like We're No Angels, finds the charm of the original but also the Americanization that both preceded it and followed it in French cinema. Calling The Good Thief French is as much a lie as calling it American (the film was, I should note, financed in England, Ireland, Canada, and France).

Now with a jazz composition that is as gruff as star Nick Nolte's biography and worthy of the Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack, The Good Thief takes Bob le Flambeur and makes him into Bob Montagnet (Nolte), an American of French lineage who spends his time among the scum of Nice as one of the scummiest citizens. His vices are many, though the addictions ultimately lead to gambling and heroin. Since luck doesn't always follow those on a high (and vice-versa), Bob must attempt to get rid of the heroin when a gamble of a heist -- stealing priceless paintings from a local casino -- comes to him.

The actual heist takes up a large part of the story, but like the best caper films -- many of which The Good Thief takes elements from, like The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle -- the most alluring part of The Good Thief is the collection of people who checker Bob's life. Not only is he an intriguing character, but so is the slinky Russian prostitute Anne (Kukhianidze) he keeps as a Lolita-like companion, the love-struck Arab partner-in-crime Paulo (Taghmaoui) he keeps to his side, and the well-meaning police detective Roger (Karyo) he keeps as a close friend.

There is something wonderfully ugly about Nolte's performance, which seems like the realization of his own life. The actor, known for his body-abusing, risky lifestyle, seems worn to the point of exhaustion. Both Bob and Nolte have understandably seen enough in their lives to make some gambles in life seem expected. Nolte, one of the finest actors to come out of the stigma of being a "pretty boy" (albeit ungracefully), gives an amazing performance by playing Bob as himself. One gets the impression that the weight of Bob's final gamble is equal to the gamble Nolte gives in each career decision. Now that he has found snake eyes as a Hollywood leading man, he has made a great place for himself in little films with demons as ugly as the one gestating in him.

What makes Jordan's take on Bob le Flambeur so enjoyable -- surprisingly, considering the likelihood of anyone succeeding in a remake of Melville's seminal film -- is that he understands the importance of levity in telling the story of such deeply stranded characters. Like Mona Lisa, the best of his early films, the characters in the movie are all flawed humans trying to find some form of solidarity within themselves and their surroundings. Each person sees themselves one way, understands the difference they may have with society as a whole, and then tries to allows themselves to either conform or happily rebel. This is not simply the underlying story of Bob the Gambler and Nolte, but also Jordan, Melville, and the film history that links them.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Guy Maddin

Tara Birtwhistle

Wei-Qiang Zhang
David Moroni
CindyMarie Small
Johnny A. Wright
Stephane Leonard
Matthew Johnson
Keir Knight
Brent Neale

Release: N/A

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary


According to the Internet Movie Database, there have been 23 films to come directly from Bram Stoker's Dracula, but the most recent addition, Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary almost feels like the first and only.

Maddin, one of the most important names in vanguard cinema thanks to his love for the styles of older international film movements in contrast to the cinematic ethos of today, was brought into this project as merely a hired gun by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to film the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's performance of Dracula. According to Maddin in a Fresh Air interview, his original intention was to take the money and run, to merely make the film exactly how the CBC wanted, collect the cash, and finance his next work of impressionist genius like 2000's unanimously praised short The Heart of the World (which used the style of Russian masters to tell the story of romance vis-à-vis the death of the earth's core, a far superior telling of The Core's story for a fraction of the price and in only six minutes).

But Maddin was intoxicated by the Stoker story, which he had not read in decades. When it came time to make the film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary became less about the ballet and more about Maddin's visual touch and the way he could turn this into something akin to Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr while containing a potent eroticism throughout. The love of old film stock coupled with the 1920s film conventions (irises, tinting) make the film into a feast for the eyes on par with the Maddin's 1992 feature Careful, a German expressionist-style film that integrated the slightest levels of Fassbinder and Herzog to give it an underlying level of horror.

In the end, the presentation of the ballet becomes paramount to the ballet itself, which may be fortuitous. It's tough to capture the frenzied artistry of ballet on film and then project it on the screen with the same pizzazz that made it work on stage. Maddin understands this and attempts to couple these elements, both the ballet and the cinematography, to the point that the ballet still seems amazing (this is, after all, one of the finest ballet troupes in the world) even if it must be edited to the point of losing its gracefulness since Maddin's emulating Eisenstein to an extent.

The biggest problem that faces Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is its audience. Ballet enthusiasts have already attacked Maddin for destroying the achievement of the original production in his film, and most of America remains uninterested in a silent film production of a ballet in the style of 1920s Russian expressionism. The cosmopolitan appeal is one that will help the film make money in the coasts and in international markets, but its place in the rest of the America is going to be nearly nonexistent. This is greatly unfortunate considering that these are elements of our cinematic past that are so rarely available in modern films.

Maddin is working on the same level that Todd Haynes has in his recent exploits with understanding the past to reflect on the present. Haynes' Poison, like Careful, had his own touch with German expressionism and Fassbinder (see the "Homo" section), and also turned in a glossy Hollywood production in Far from Heaven last year (Maddin's attempt at this, The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, is a comparative disaster). These two postmodernists have helped to reignite a passion for the cinematic past of film enthusiasts that cannot be overstated. Their impact is that they have, through their own analysis, understanding, and restoration of their cinematic forefathers, allowed the film community to again remember what it was that drew most of us to the movies in the first place.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Gurinder Chadha

Parminder K. Nagra

Keira Knightley
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Anupam Kher
Archie Panjabi
Shaheen Khan
Shaznay Lewis

Release: 12 Mar. 03

Bend It Like Beckham


Not since Jonathan Brandis was forced to dress like a girl to play in an all-girl soccer team in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Ladybugs has a sitcom about girl's soccer been as forced, as predictable, and as boring as Bend It Like Beckham. The film, which has been one of the most popular films ever released in England and looks to be nearly as big in America, comes from the same mold as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Sikh traditions instead of the Greco ones.

Clocking in at 112 minutes, Bend It Like Beckham gets some credit for tackling more issues than My Big Fat Greek Wedding (or, I'm sure, that film's spin-off TV series), but all of it causes the movie to take a bloated length that struggles to work with its many stories in a barely attentive fashion.

The central story, as seems to be the case with every film now made by second-generation Indian immigrants, is that of the cultural barriers that stand in the way of modernity and feminism overcoming the traditional Sikh values. Bend It Like Beckham turns this problem into a series of stereotypes that push the boundaries of the audience's interest. What charm that exists is quickly destroyed by the repetition of elements (some jokes are played more than a dozen times) and the throat-shoving lesson director Gurinder Chadha wants to impart.

The story is that of Jesminder Bhamra (Nagra), child of Sikh parents living in London. She wants more than anything to be the next David Beckham, her hero (the title refers to the Manchester United player's ability to bend the path of the soccer ball so that it goes around the goalie to get in the goal), but traditional Punjabi values have made it impossible for her to go after her personal goals without defying her parents (Kher and Khan).

Behind their backs, she becomes involved in a local all-girl football team with new best friend Jules (Knightley). Not only is there the risk that they might learn of her decision to play a game that bears her legs to total strangers, but they might also learn that a romance is a-brewin' between Jess, as she prefers to be called, and her white coach Joe (Rhys-Meyers). And, as if she didn't have enough, her sister Pinky (Panjabi) is preparing her own wedding where Jess is expected to be in full Punjab tradition for (you'll never guess what day the big game Jess desperately wants play in is scheduled).

The whole work is by-the-book and its adherence to genre conventions hurt what could have been a work of greater substance. The way this film glazes over everything -- from the Indian traditions to Jules' mother (Stevenson) thinking that her sporty daughter must be a lesbian -- becomes tiresome. What merits can be found -- Kher and Stevenson do wonders with their poorly written roles and the young actresses, though still green, show great potential -- are moot when taken into the full scope of Bend It Like Beckham.

I know that I sound awfully like a killjoy, taking potshots at an amiable little film that does no one any harm regardless of its amateur feel (Chadha has, in fact, directed two previous features including the far superior Bhaji on the Beach), but it's just so stupefying that films like this are grossly popular when there is a greater understanding of its own subject waiting to be seen by everyone. Bend It Like Beckham is, for a recent example, Monsoon Wedding-lite. Instead of getting the complete picture as is the case in the Mira Nair film, Bend It Like Beckham just offers a half-baked film that turns the simplest parts of Ladybugs, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and East Is East into a parade of well-meaning hogwash.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Caroline Link

Julianne Köhler

Merab Ninidze
Karoline Eckertz
Lea Kurka
Sidede Onyulo

Release: 7 Mar. 03

Nowhere in Africa


If a bit overblown, Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa, the recent winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, helps to elucidate one of the minor stories of World War II and the treatment of Jews in direct comparison to others oppressed. This was part of the impact of Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy, in which a black driver in 1950s Georgia is directly compared in stature to the elderly Jew who hired him. Though their statures are not equal, they are both treated as lesser by the dominant society that surrounds them.

I liked what Nowhere in Africa tried to say about the treatment of Jews during World War II in Africa even if I had misgivings about the way Link chooses to tell the story. Unfortunately, the director sees fit to include everything she could cram into the film’s 140-minute length from Stefanie Zweig’s semi-autobiographical memoirs, which means that much of the important information the film brings to the table is lost in the muddle of a dozen other plots Link wants to record.

The film begins in 1938 as the Redlich family prepares to come back together after a short separation. The reason for their parting was not out of a marital spat, but instead because the husband Walter (Ninidze) began to see the threat of Hitler’s power of the German people and the violent anti-Semitic shift preparing to come down on his Jewish (albeit non-traditional) family. He moved to Kenya and takes the job as a sharecropper for a British landowner (Kenya was a British colony). When it looked like it was no longer feasible for his wife Jettel (Köhler) and daughter Regina (Kurka) to remain in Germany, he has them join him at the farm.

Jettel isn’t prepared for the lowly life she is expected to live in Africa. Having been spoiled by a rich family and a prosperous husband (Walter was a lawyer in Germany), she cannot comprehend the modest living Walter has adapted to. When Walter asks her to purchase a refrigerator, one object he needs on the farm, before she leaves Germany, Jettel chooses to instead buy an evening gown.

During the film’s length, there is a shift, though, as Walter, attracted to post-war Germany and the reestablishment of his law practice, begins to hate their Kenyan life and Jettel, attracted to the land and the labor she has put into sustaining it, feels happy with her African home. Regina (played by Eckertz as a teenager) never changes: she has enjoyed being in Africa from the very beginning, a type of extended child’s adventure.

All of this is okay for a melodrama as the film does gangbusters at plodding through all the exposition and evocative dialogue to get the point across, but it causes one to miss out on the historical touches that are interspersed throughout. First is a British internment, in which the colonials gathered all the Germans living in Kenya to watch over them in the event one was a Nazi spy. What this involved was the gathering together of Germans who were supportive of Hitler (though most likely had little involvement in the Nazi movement) and the refugees trying to get away from him. Link misses some wondrous opportunities in this scenario, but it is still one with great impact, bringing to mind the internment of Japanese immigrants in America at the same time. Today, through all the apologia this has created, the American internments are common knowledge while the British internments, far from the eyes of the public, are not.

Another occasion of Jewish treatment at the time comes in Regina’s treatment at the all-white private school she is sent to. While this is thankfully kept low-key, there is still something disturbing about teachers fingering Jewish students and asking them to walk to the side of the class while the gentiles in the class say the Lord’s Prayer.

At more than two hours, it feels weird to ask for more out of a movie, but that is certainly the case with Nowhere in Africa. It has all the touches that should make it a greati epic, à la The English Patient with its bled of cinematic pomp and historical circumstance, but all of it comes in such an unwieldy package that the film begins to fall apart. If more streamlined with more story and less atmosphere, Nowhere in Africa could have been the type of movie that deserves the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award instead of being the type of movie that usually wins it.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Jennifer Dworkin

Love Hazzard
Diane Hazzard

Donyaeh Hazzard

Release: 16 Apr. 03

Love & Diane


The central theme of Jennifer Dworkin’s documentary Love & Diane is that of the cyclical nature of human conflict and self-abuse. The people who populate her documentary are all trying to find something; they call it their Holy Grail, various other names and other objects, but it is ultimately a mere need for love. This isn’t to say that Love or Diane aren’t loved, though, but instead that they cannot comprehend that there is someone out there willing to love them.

All this seems so heavy and melodramatic that I can understand an audience member feeling uninterested in entering a theatre playing Love & Diane based on its seemingly conventional theme for documentary fodder and its staggering 155-minute length. But the epic space with which Love & Diane is given to breath, similar to the work of Frederick Wiseman, helps to build the layers with which the documentary can record the respective layers of life. Despite the length, there isn’t a moment when Love & Diane feels forced or bloated.

The two women who give their name to the film are a daughter-mother pair that has seemingly begun to patch the wounds separating them before the film begins. Raising her six children, Diane had fallen into the welfare system after wasting all her money on crack in the 1980s. It was Love, her second child, who told this to a schoolteacher and had the children taken away from Diane. The next few years of foster homes and social services are described as being a “hell” by Love, and the feeling seems mutual for Diane.

What marks the divide that this should create is that understanding Diane brings to it. Instead of blaming Love for the loss of her children for five years, Diane understands that this event is what helped her to come clean and find religion. Now she is an upstanding citizen, trying to piece her life back together. If not for Love’s indiscretion to a teacher, Diane probably would not have made it this far, nor would her children. At the same time, though, she struggles with the fact that her eldest child, Charles, fell victim to life on the street during the separation and killed himself. With her parents dead and all her siblings dead from alcohol-related ends, Diane is not blind to her own mortality and the fleeting bind she still has (and must retain, lest she lose everyone) with her remaining five children.

Though they accept the neglect they felt both in and out of their mother’s custody, there remains a great split between Diane and the rest of her children. Though her middle child has decided to leave the welfare-paid home for a life on the streets that seems destined for the same void that Diane once inhabited, the worst of these is nonetheless Love. There is an unquestionable love between them, but this isn’t evident to Love, who still blames her mother for everything that has happened to her, as well as any misfortunes that now fall on her.

Love is 18, HIV-positive, and a new mother at the beginning of the film. Regardless, Diane needs this. Her grandchild, Donyaeh, also HIV-positive, brings a binding into Diane’s life that she has not seen in a long time -- in many ways, he represents a clean slate, a child that she can touch, nurture, and love with all the effort she couldn’t give to her own children. Plus, the new baby in the home means that the state will give her a larger housing check.

As bleak as most of this may seem, this is the happy beginnings of Love & Diane. Most of the film deals with Love’s attempt to regain custody of Donyaeh after tables turn and Diane inadvertently reports Love’s neglect to her doctor. Meanwhile, struggling with the weight of this, Diane begins the steps to entering the work force. Each of these stories is amazingly engrossing, from the red-tape laden wonderland Love is forced to walk through to the image of Diane trying to raise herself back to the level of the rest of the populace after finally noticing she was in the gutters.

I see it as no great badge of masculinity, but it is rare for a movie to strike me in such a way that tears begin to well up in my eyes. Schindler’s List and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial did this, as did It’s a Wonderful Life the first Christmas after James Stewart died. I remember each of those moments when I cried over a movie because of the rareness in which it happens.

Perhaps, that is the reason I will forever remember Jennifer Dworkin’s Love & Diane. I’ll happily admit that tears were running down my cheeks during one scene, as Donyaeh’s incredibly kind foster mother prepares to lose this child she has nurtured as her own (there is no question in the audience’s mind whether this woman or Love would be a better mother for the baby). I couldn’t hold it in. I will remember this minor moment in the film for a long time. More importantly, though, the rest of Love & Diane, regardless of the tears that didn’t fall, will remain just as vivid in my memory.

©2003, David Perry,, 25 April 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry