Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Queen, The (2006)

The only thing missing here is a Prada bag, perhaps?

In retrospect, the British people lost their heads in the weeks that followed Diana Spencer’s death. In retrospect, the Americans lost their heads in the weeks that followed Ronald Reagan’s death. And in retrospect, the Australians lost their heads in the weeks that followed Steve Irwin’s death. In all 3 cases, ordinary people who barely knew the deceased wept and mourned in the streets, hailing the dead person to be the best/most influential person whose passing has left the world impoverished, etc etc. Considering how most of these people were unfamiliar with what the Princess of Wales, Ronald Reagan, and Steve Irwin really did and the chaos they wrecked in real life, one can imagine the consternation of the Queen when faced with a people who have apparently gone collectively insane. But that’s in retrospect, and the Queen must deal with a raving mob out for her blood first...

In Stephen Frear’s The Queen, Helen Mirren plays the monarch whose crown sits rather uneasily on the head in the events of the week following Diana’s traffic accident in Paris. The film is a very fictionalised account of how the Queen changes her mind for a very private funeral with no public comments and grieving, with some help from Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Ordinarily, a movie like this would attract a crowd of royalty-obsessed voyeurs (Diana’s cult extended famously to the US) and the odd historian, but the true gem here is Helen Mirren’s acting. She pulls off at least 3 different kinds of monarch in this single movie alone – a queen accustomed and defined, yet confined, by protocol and sensible behaviour; a queen who is out of touch with her subjects; and a queen who gradually realises to her shock and worry that she is out of touch with her subjects. It’s very difficult to pull off since the subject of Helen Mirren’s portrayal is not known for emoting widely, but the actress delivers a performance that is subtle and nuanced – and multifaceted at the same time.

Frear’s fly-on-the-wall realisation of Peter Morgan’s script provides viewers a look at the protocol and minutiae that cocoon the royals (and stifled Lady Diana). Are the royals pampered, irrelevant elites? Interestingly, the up-close approach also humanises the senior members of the family: the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mom strangely remind you more of those slightly cranky and eccentric folks from an afternoon soap than the owners of various castles. But you will do well to remember this entire movie is a fictionalisation of events and characters: Prince Philip makes none of his infamously politically incorrect quips in this movie (my advice to Stephen Frear: cast Borat as the Duke next time!), Prince Charles does not have ears that look like a mug’s handles, and the royals do go on and on to explain the intricacies of protocol (should Diana have a royal funeral? Should the flag be flown at half mast at Windsor Castle?) in a way that suggests it’s more for the director’s purpose of exposition than a genuinely daft obsession with customs. Although the film does offer this as the reason for the Queen’s PR disaster post-Diana might be due to that. Weaker still is a side-plot about a stag hunt that has the queen acting in a very uncharacteristic manner in her moment of epiphany.

As a historical film and slight social commentary on the relevance (or lack of) of the royal family, The Queen is spot-on. As a character-based film, it certainly manages to evoke sympathy for a very difficult protagonist. Yet as a political film, The Queen might be just about as out of touch with reality as its Queen. While the monarch clearly intimidates and dominates Blair in their first meeting, the movie sets out to portray the Prime Minister as a modernising leader and the saviour of the monarchy, with the Queen’s minor makeover a triumph of his excellent PR skills and spin doctor Alistair Campbell. One only needs to consult the newspaper to consider that the fruits of Blair’s decade in office has been the collapse of the NHS through his reforms, an income gap wider than when he took office, the money for honours scandal, the PR massaging of the Iraq War, his disinterest in public opinion against the invasion of Iraq, and the presidential transformation of his office and diminution and sidelining of Parliament and Question Time. When it comes to Blair and his cabal of greasy spin doctors, The Queen has a disturbing lack of self-awareness and satire, and comes off as playing the story too straight.

Thankfully, the drama in this film centres far more on the Queen than on the Prime Minister. Minor quibbles on the non-political angle of the story aside, Helen Mirren’s performance is of masterclass calibre and makes for repeated watching.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

School for Scoundrels (2006)

Kill Bart if he ever writes this on the board

Jon Heder sort of reprises his quirky arch-loser archetype role again, after pioneering it in Napoleon Dynamite and expanding on the ‘quirky’ side in Just Like Heaven and the ‘loser’ side in Benchwarmers. You’d expect that the moment you see Jon Heder’s name on the movie poster that he’s definitely in another loser role, but School for Scoundrels is far more sophisticated than that: instead of just proclaiming LOSER as way of character introduction and development – and getting on with the comedy, the film actually establishes loserhood as some sort of existential state.

School For Scoundrels opens with Roger (Jon Heder) getting ready for work. He doesn’t goof up brushing his teeth or getting dressed (that would spell ‘retarded loser’ in the vein of a Rob Schneider comedy), but it’s unmistakable, the whiff of loserville that pervades his life. Roger reads tonnes of self-help manuals that are strewn all over his bedroom, on the shelves, and on the kitchen table, in place of a newspaper. And we all know that if there there were just one self-help book that actually worked to change lives for the better, without fail every time, there wouldn’t be millions of different self-help books (and management books!) on the market. Roger works as a meter maid, issuing tickets for parking offences. Problem is, his uniform consists of shorts, and the traffic police vehicle he drives looks like a poor man’s tuk-tuk. And there, a full depiction of loserness even without any physical comedy, a sadly hilarious portrayal even without Heder issuing his trademark drawl and goodnatured, meek loser routine.

And when he does start that routine – wearing pajamas, fainting when he talks to the nice girl who lives down the corridor (Jacinda Barrett) , apologising for issuing parking tickets, getting disowned by his charges in a voluntary Big Brother mentor campaign - it’s actually far more watchable than you expect, and you even get to like that character a lot. Now, the best thing for Roger, as one of his friends points out, is to enrol in a top secret course that turns wimps and mama’s boys into manly men. It’s run by a man only know as “Dr. P” (Billy Bob Thornton with a perpetual smirk and nasty attitude perfected from his stint at Bad Santa). His advice to the class will turn them into a scoundrel like him, and presumably help Jon get the girl who lives down the corridor: Learn how to pick fights with random strangers. Wear sunglasses indoors. Never compliment a girl on a date. Be nasty and underhanded if you want to get ahead.

The brand of humour, as befitting Dr. P’s school for scoundrels, is politically and socially incorrect, and lots of comic mileage from the first half of the movie comes from Jon Heder’s nice guy loser being completely unsuited for his rascally assignments and snagging the girl with his half-baked makeover, yet somehow moving to the top of Dr. P’s class. If this were a normal movie, audiences would get incensed about the ridiculousness of the final item in our last sentence, but in this movie, Dr. P gets incensed and proceeds to destroy Roger’s life step by step. The humour in second half of the movie proceeds from the ludicrousness of the matchup between Dr. P and Roger, between Billy Bob Thornton in major asshole mode and Jon Heder. It’s a very lopsided battle, like Bambi Meets Godzilla, which makes it such a joy to watch when the inept Roger actually gets his shots at his former mentor.

In fact, for all the tussling of alpha male Dr. P and “I can’t believe he topped the school for scoundrels” Roger over the attention of the girl who lives down the corridor, School For Scoundrels works best as a sort of oddball comedy between two warring characters, and not very well as a romantic comedy. And even though Ben Stiller and David Cross make cameo appearances here, they have much less impact than expected – either because of their underwritten parts or because the director has struck a rare comedy goldmine from the pairing of Heder and Thornton.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

Friday, 22 December 2006

Spirit of the Victim ผีคนเป็น (2006)

If the poster looks horrible, don't expect the film to be good?

I remember this film when it was called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. You know, the movie where a bunch of people making a horror film about Freddy are in fact haunted, hunted, and gutted by the cinematic villain when the cameras stop rolling. The Thai horror industry has definitely come of age when it takes on the horror movie within a horror movie treatment of the last great American horror film and puts on a Thai spin, and ups the ante. Even if the results are mixed (a sign that the filmmakers are challenging themselves), it’s interesting to watch this, admire the concept, and think of how perfect it would be without its flaws.

Now, the horror movie within the horror-movie has Ting (Pitchanart Sakakorn), a mediocre but persistent bit-part actress whose skills nevertheless gain the attention of a local cop who needs someone to play all the female victims in his Crimewatch-style television series. While reenacting all the scenes of murders, it seems the ghosts and spirits of the grievously departed are drawn towards Ting, and the supernatural hauntings of her and her crew really begin in earnest when the Thai Crimewatch plans to film a case involving a traditional dancer turned model. Of course, Ting isn’t really Ting, but an actress playing Ting in a movie, and the ghosts and hauntings of the Crimewatch crew aren’t really ghosts... but it turns out that the actress portraying Ting and her crew are really haunted by ghosts...

Like I said, this makes for one of the best horror movie premises ever, but unlike Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the translation of the idea to a screenplay seems to have suffered, and then injured again in the execution of screenplay to film. When you’re making a double horror movie, the last thing you should do is to spend too much time on the movie within the movie, then reveal that everything that the audience has watched up to that point isn’t the real story at all. That’s what Wes Craven’s New Nightmare deftly avoids. That’s what Method (one of Elizabeth Hurley’s worst films) also avoids, by running both films at the same go, like a reality show. And by intercutting between the movie-within-a-movie and the “real story”, both Method and New Nightmare actually come off as narratively complex and delightfully dense.

With Spirit of the Victim, the story is forced to reboot itself and cast away any reserve of goodwill it builds in the audience. Better yet, because the director and producers know they’re coming about against Wes Craven’s movie, they inject more reboots along the way – the ghost haunting the crew isn’t the real ghost, their story isn’t the real story, and several haunting sequences are actually bad dreams. Done right, it could actually trip you out and spark off some reflections on the shaky foundations of reality. As it stands, the execution of Spirit of the Victim will just make you stop caring about the characters and then stop letting yourself get scared by its fright scenes. Plotwise, the film lacks a unity and economy of purpose that is very crucial for any entry in this movie-within-movie genre to succeed.

Oddly enough, the fright scenes (very polished CGI and setup reminiscent of those in a Pang Brothers spookfest) and even the plot of the movie-within-the-movie are far more entertaining and inspired than those in the ‘real story’ itself – which consist of ghouls dressed up as traditional dancers (in all their headgear and wayang-like poses) creeping up towards their victims while the gongs and cymbal bang increasingly louder. Not that the fright mood music was any better in the movie-within-the-movie: the ‘scary music’ was so blatant loud it made scary scenes lose their impact, and non-scary scenes look comical. Yes, we regret to inform you, the sophisticated horror fan, that the Thais still can’t get the music right.

I can’t say I liked Spirit of the Victim when its horror sequences got more and more banal and less and less creative the more the director reveals the “real story”. What I can say is I like the director for challenging himself with such a convoluted and interesting premise, even though he does fall short of achieving the potential the movie had within it.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

Don't bite into the wrong fruit, Chairman Kaga!

There are some movies that are meant to be watched back to back, that are conceived as one long film divided into two halves, like Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2. The Death Note movies are the same as well. Death Note: The Last Name continues without a skipping a beat from the finishing moments of Death Note, with the almost pianissimo cat and mouse game between Light and his pursuer L erupting into a full-scale battle. In the cliffhanger ending, Light Yagami demonstrated his mastery of the supernatural killing device, the death note, while the eccentric genius detective narrows in to finger Light as the mysterious mass killer Kira.

With Light joining L’s police task force investigating Kira, the impetus driving Death Note 2 becomes: will Light learn the name of L, or will L devise a plan to unmask Light first? It should be a straightforward contest of wits and wills, but all plans are thrown awry when more people start dying of mysterious causes, and their names aren’t in Light’s notebook. It’s not a copycat Kira for sure, but a bona fide second Kira, empowered by a similar death note and a shinigami. Both L and Light need to locate and identify the second Kira before things get wildly out of hand, while the second Kira, a perky pop idol who doesn’t seem to be too bright, seems to be intent on identifying and working with the original, whom she hero-worships. The stakes are higher this time as well, with more and more people gradually supporting Kira and adopting his strange philosophy of justice.

Watching the first movie, one felt that despite its fast pacing, the director was basically speeding through the sign posts of the manga in order to get through the initial setup of the story, introduce viewers to the workings of the death note, so that he could get on with his favourite bits of the story in Death Note 2. My expectations were fulfilled, luckily, because the second movie is far superior than the first, mainly because Shusuke Kaneko directs Death Note 2 with far more urgency than its predecessor, focusing on the heightened intensity and complexity of the struggle between L and Light.

While the original manga suffered from a poor second act that was and concluded in a mediocre fashion after a desultory plot, the director takes ownership of the screenplay, condensing the sometimes meandering and episodic manga plot to a perfect economy. Less than half way through the movie, you will realise that you’re not watching the manga on film anymore – Shusuke Kaneko actually rewrites 2 major subplots entirely. One wishes he did more of this in the first Death Note movie, because he does end up improving on the original manga story, making the struggle between Light and L sharper, smarter, and more urgent. The identity of the third Kira (oh yes, there’s more than one copycat and hero-worshipper empowered by Death Notes and shinigamis) is completely different from the manga, for instance, and the director’s choice heightens a much-neglected subplot in the manga about the public war between L and Light, as well as Kira’s struggle for hearts and minds through the media.

One of the signs of good writing is when all loose ends are tied up in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying manner. In a masterstroke, the director gives us a totally unexpected conclusion that is cleverer, more poignant and thought-provoking than the original – all while preserving the spirit of the Death Note manga. You also begin to wish that he’d written the manga instead, but will have to settle for the fact that he’s making a spin-off movie about the detective L.

As adaptations of a somewhat cerebral fantasy manga, both Death Note movies (as directed by Shusuke and written by Tetsuya Oishi) do better than expected: instead of functioning as just frothy entertainment and merchandising, they have become an exploration of the darker side of human nature, the danger of ideals, and the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Sometimes, it just takes a fantasy to point us to the darkness in the heart of reality, and to illuminate Plato’s parable of the ring of Gyges, which begins: Let us imagine this: granting the just man license to do as he wishes, where will his desire will lead him? Those who practice justice, practice it constrained by want of power to act unjustly.

First published at incinemas on 28 December 2006

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Eragon (2006)

Eragon wants to succeed to the mantle of both Star Wars and LOTR

From our vantage point in 2006, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien qualifies as a landmark film. Not only does it stand out from all other movies made in its day, it pioneered a movie genre all by itself. And like all landmark films (Star Wars for the space opera, The Matrix for the sci-fi kungfu drama, Tim Burton’s Batman for the second wave of superhero movies), its passing has heralded a procession of imitators and honest entries eager to follow up on the LOTR craze. It is predictable that few will manage to fill huge hollow space in the hearts of cinemagoers, and a huge hollow space in the pockets of movie moguls – witness the competent but flat rendition of the Chronicles of Narnia last year, for example.

This season, the newest contender for the LOTR crown is Stefen Fangmeier’s adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s fantasy novel Eragon. With a name like “Fangmeier”, one’s hopes of seeing a great fantasy movie are instantly bolstered; could he be the Rob Zombie of the fantasy epic? Fangmeier has never directed a feature film on his own before, but his years of experience as a second unit director and special effects director on films like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Galaxy Quest, and Master and Commander should guarantee a wealth of experience that makes Eragon a decent visual experience.

And indeed, Eragon boasts of very competently designed sets, from rustic villages, the respective strongholds of the evil king Malkovich, sorcerer sidekick Carlyle, and the heroic resistance movement, costume designs, the action scenes with CGI and/or lots of extras. Every second of the film convinces you that you are watching an epic fantasy, and an action flick. Now, that’s an achievement since Paolini’s book reads as though a typical teenager stumbled upon Tolkien and Star Wars, tried to write a fantasy epic, only to have readers exclaim that it’s a formulaic, barely original story positively dripping with fantasy stereotypes and lacking depth, sophistication or real drama. No offence meant to the young man, for I think however borderline imaginative his novel was, there still had to be a spark of genius or craft that reached out to his over-increasing legions of fans.

What I find really annoying is the scriptwriters (studio interference resulted in 2 other uncredited writers) didn’t manage to lift the movie’s dialogue and narration above the prowess of Paolini. In fact, they make it far more banal and inane, another feat in itself. It’s not the horribly inappropriate comic-book dialogue of 300, or the “nice scenery, bad dialogue” style of Hercules: The Legendary Adventures. These had bad style, but were stylish in their own fashion. Here, Buchman and his colleagues look as though they didn't know what inspiring lines to put in everyone’s mouth, so they used generic placeholder dialogue that would be replaced once they came back from lunch break. And it seems they never came back from that lunch break.

It’s a pity, because the film looks very acceptable if you bring a pair of earmuffs to the cinema. Or, you could have fun smiling and smirking at how the lines veer from cheesy to stock to very expository. Either way, Eragon the movie shows how easy it is to make a book written by a 15-year-old look worse: just hire a first-time director who’s familiar with how to make action scenes but not string together dialogue into a feature film. In fact, every 15 year-old has written or dreamt up their own private fantasy epics, and Eragon shows that why they eventually didn’t publish these works, or make them into film. Even the Bronte sisters wrote voluminous novels populated in fantasy lands when they were children, and never published them.

What I’d like to see, though, is a more competent director and writer handle Paolini’s novels (including an Eragon remake), and to read what the young man writes in 10 years’ time.

First published at incinemas on 21 December 2006

Friday, 15 December 2006

Charlotte's Web (2006)

Charlotte's Web for the Babe generation?

Charlotte’s Web was a favourite of my childhood. Whenever we stayed over at my cousins’ homes for the school holidays, it would end up being watched at least once. That means we watched the VHS tape at least 4 time a year during primary school. The 1973 cartoon was that good – it had a touching story (save the pig from ending up as Christmas ham!), taught the values of sacrifice and friendship, as well as a very philosophical view about the interconnectedness of all life, and the inevitability of the cycle of life and death – all in a wry, dry, and non-preachy manner, while throwing in nice big words ("salutations") in musical numbers that would eventually make us want to speak better. Or something like that. And we’d cry ourselves silly each time we watched the cartoon, even though we knew that Charlotte would die in the end. It was that good.

And inevitable that it would be remade. Gary Winick’s smart idea is to remake the Hanna-Barbera cartoon into a live action movie, Babe-style. It seems the only major thing that has been updated for Charlotte’s Web is the technology used to create this movie, and not its plot. The story is more of a transcription from the original animation rather than an adaptation, considering how entire stretches of dialogue and plot points are ported over in their entirety. Storywise, this means the Charlotte’s Web of 2006 cannot go very far wrong, and indeed I found my eyes tearing slightly by the end of the movie (yes, Charlotte dies in this one as well). This is sufficiently good for you to bring your children to the cinema, and for you to relieve that childhood memory.

The fact that the movie milked only a fraction of my emotions and tears might point towards my adulthood, or what EB White called in his book "the loss of childhood". Or perhaps it had to do with certain minor annoyances that served to diminish the project, such as the movie’s adherence to the norms of modern children’s movies despite its very old-fashioned and rustic leanings. This is a movie that celebrates the solemn passing of life and the seasons, growing up and passing away, amidst 2 fart jokes, one burp joke, one stink bomb joke, and an unnecessary shot of a somersaulting pig.

It also might have to do with the awkward juxtaposition of excellent and naturalistic voice acting of the cast with the showy (you tend to notice the very special effects that make the animals look as though their lips are moving or smiling as they talk) but unexciting (animal body language being very limited, the director ends up resorting to animals falling sideways and fainting very early on) visuals. The same problem can be observed on a larger scale: the use of live animals allows the director to remove a huge portion of cheap sentimentality and cuteness (Charlotte is a real and life-like spider here, not a cartoon spider with a feminine face; and the scene of the rat gorging itself is shown in disgustingly realistic detail), yet the director cannot resist having the animals in the barnyard revel in their adorability and smart-alecky lines, and when Charlotte dies, she dies with a smile – with a very human smiley face, in fact. Now why would they want to do that, if the director and the CGI team have portrayed her as a very realistic looking spider with multiple eyes and fangs throughout the movie? This points to an inconsistent vision at best, or an insecurity with their own artistic vision.

The rest of the movie has similar pros and cons: Winick does away with almost all the songs from the original cartoon and tells the story at times from the point of view of the humans. It is at these times that you realise that the story of Charlotte’s Web is more suited to animation: the human characters easily dominate our interest when they appear on screen, the animal characters lose their enchanting touch as live-action figures, and the old-fashioned and fable-like (both in technique, language, and values) narrative voiceover feels out of place in a live-action setting.

What saves this movie from being an unjustified remake is the beautiful sequence where Charlotte spins her web at night in the doorway, against the moonlight. The wonders of CGI let us see her up close, secreting her silk threads as she gracefully falls down and climbs up her web, weaving her first set of magical letters that would save Wilbur by the end of the movie. You wish the director and his art team could have made every moment of the film like this, and struck a convincing blow for CGI talking animal films. Alas, the traditional animated closing credits sequences outshines almost the rest of the live-action CGI wizardry, can captures the wistful, sad, wise and life-affirming tone of the story far easily.

Despite its flaws, Charlotte’s Web is a worthy diversion for kids bombarded with too many cartoons intent on making pop cultural references, and an excellent introduction to the beauty of language and the philosophy of living a good and meaningful life for your children. Unless you still happen to keep a DVD or VHS tape of the 1973 version.

First published at incinemas on 21 December 2006

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 (2006)

COTGF is brought to you by Pantene shampoo. Experience smooth, silky, flowing hair today!

The recent wuxia revival from China’s directors have been a work in progress, with sometimes weak scripts, international casts mangling Mandarin every which way, and dodgy CGI that make armies look like models generated by an outdated Rome: Total War graphics engine. It’s a surprising outcome, since Shaw and Golden Harvest have been making wuxia flicks since the dawn of time, China’s Communist era blockbusters featuring the epic of Chairman Mao had casts of thousands of extras, and you’d expect the only thing to be updated for the wuxia genre to be slicker stunts and higher production values – hardly a challenge for the increased budgets of today’s Chinese wuxia and period movies. But there you had it: the cheesey CGI shower of arrows in Hero, the very silly plot of The Banquet, the overwrought melodrama in House of Flying Daggers, the CGI armies and burning horses of Battle of Wits.

Thankfully, Zhang Yimou’s third wuxia flick proves the truth of the saying "third time lucky". As far as it goes, the production values is top notch. The director takes on the short-lived but opulent and gilded Later Tang empire that ruled Northern China during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, the interregnum between the Tang and Song Dynasties. There’s a good amount of palace ritual, costumes, armies decked with golden armour, and the extravagance of royalty that Zhang invites us to observe within the palace. It’s an ambitious undertaking that demands everything to be perfectly choreographed, with no extras out of place within the screen, and every detail of the props captured just so. To be properly awed by what Zhang has achieved, it might help to see this not as a wuxia flick, but a Chinese version of a 1930s Hollywood costume epic, where you half expect to see Cleopatra bathing in a ivory bathtub of milk, honey and flowers while attended by a thousand servants decked in golden corsets. And yes, Zhang gets all the details right from the start, so you can be wowed by the film from beginning to end.

Curse of the Golden Flower depicts an assortment of poisonings, coups, murders and incest taking place within the royal family. Chow plays a emperor who, despite discovering Empress Gong Li’s affair with the Crown Prince (a son from his previous marriage), decides on a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy combined with a Cold War with the missus, because the royal family is a model for the entire nation, and a rules-bound guy like him doesn’t want to rock the stability of a country he just conquered a few years ago. Gong Li is the trophy wife of the cold, passive-aggressive emperor who’s never loved her, but forces her anyway to take hourly medication for her chronic illness. Until she discovers he’s started to add a new ingredient that will drive her slowly insane or reduce her to a drooling idiot – right in full view of all their servants. And between them are their three sons: the sorrowful Crown Prince, a youngest child innocent to all the machinations around him, and a prince (Jay Chou) recently returned from exile for an earlier coup attempt. Who will have their way in the end? Will the Empress get her justice before she goes the way of the cuckoo? Will the cold and ruthless Emperor get his revenge in the end? Which of the princes will inherit in the War of the Chrysanthemums? In the epic tragedy of the Curse of the Golden Flower , the victims are the entire royal family, done in by the royal family themselves.

I’m told that the movie is based on the play Thunderstorm by Cao Yu, about the disintegration of a middle class family run by a cold and unfeeling patriarch. The play is very much like Zhang Yimou’s first movie, and you can regard Curse of the Golden Flower as a wuxia or period costume epic equivalent of Raise the Red Lantern, with its middle class family and its internecine rivalries and intrigues blown up into the scale of an imperial family.

Once you grasp this fact, you can understand the greatest strength of this movie, and its greatest weakness. Curse is all technical perfection with its gorgeous sets, costumes, and visual composition. Yet it dangerously inverts all the subtext and social commentary of Thunderstorm to the foreground. While the original play made the insinuation that the middle class, the nouveau richex still held old feudal attitudes, with Patriarch Zhou behaving as though he were the emperor of his little household and inventing traditions and customs by his own fiat, Zhang’s movie turns the middle-class pater familias who behaves like a despot into a literal emperor. It could be just about the most unsubtle, in your face move that strips away all the subtext and social commentary from the original text. All surface, no depth, some might say. I’d rather put it this way: when you’re dreaming about flying, you’re actually dreaming about sex in a way – but what does it mean when you actually dream about sex? The danger of inverting subtext to foreground is to strip art of its art.

As a martial arts film, and in terms of its production quality, Curse of the Golden Flower is a more superior film than The Banquet. In terms of scripting, the film is an improvement over House of the Flying Daggers, but still pales in comparison to Hero, ironically the director’s first wuxia effort.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

Monday, 11 December 2006

Holiday, The (2006)

Two romantic comedies for the price of one!

We live in a degenerate age where we are bombarded with unbelievably bad romantic comedies – look at the very wide misses from the cinemas recently: Lovewrecked, Failure to Launch, The Break-up, and you’ll realise that Hollywood has neither the acting talent, writing talent, nor directorial talent to churn out credible entries in a run-of-the-mill, formula-driven genre. Of course, it makes it far easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, and I’m very pleased to say that Nancy Myers (the director who gave us gems like What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give) has struck gold again with The Holiday.

In fact, the movie is so good that I believe Myers has outdone herself this time, by giving us two romantic comedies in one film, both proficiently written and directed. Over in London, Kate Winslet plays Iris, a mousy journalist who nurses an unhealthy fixation with a co-worker who’s engaged but keeps sending conflicting signals to her. Over in Los Angeles, Cameron Diaz is Amanda, a type A personality businesswoman who, despite the inability to cry or be emotional, is emotionally confused about her live-in boyfriend. Both Amanda and Iris suffer breakdowns in their relationships, and since it’s Christmas weekend, both have the wish to get away as far as possible in order not to be reminded of their pathetic romantic misadventures. Since it’s a romantic comedy, both end up enlisting in a vacation programme where they exchange homes for the holidays, and end up meeting the local men.

It’s entirely to the credit that Myers is improving on her art: in order to let Amanda and Iris get their men in the end, there aren’t too many incredulity-stretching coincidences, or at any rate, none that feel overly intrusive and purely just there to move the plot forward for a beleaguered writer. The parallel storylines that take place in Los Angeles and a small English town offer enough contrast that we can forgive the director for pushing the runtime of the movie over 2 hours. Lovers of romantic comedies won’t be bored; the Kate Winslet-Jack Black story is quirky and doesn’t involve the two romantically linked till the very end, while the Cameron Diaz-Jude Law story is the more traditional “love affair in a foreign land”.

If you’re not in the cinema due to a love for the romantic comedy genre, you can take solace in two things: as with her earlier works, Nancy Myers loves to take gender stereotypes, turn them on their head, and then throw them back into the romantic comedy genre. The results, as always, are always interesting to observe, especially with Jack Black as a romantic leading man. The other, more superior ingredient that makes this movie more than watchable is its smart self-awareness – it’s like Scream for romantic comedies. Amanda, being a producer of movie trailers, constantly has fantasies of her romantic life flash out before her eyes – and on the screen – as trailers, while Jack Black plays a talented composer for film soundtracks, who gets a juicy and entertaining scene in a video store. Myers also gamely admits that the heyday of Hollywood produced greater romances and romantic comedies than the modern day, and goes on to reference them, mostly through Eli Wallach, playing a retired master scriptwriter in the LA story who passes remarks about the blockbusterisation of Hollywood, recommend great classics in the same breath, and proceed to woo the stockings off any sceptic who believes there isn’t a well-craft movie nowadays, or a truly likeable character in a formulaic genre. I personally found the Kate Winslet-Jack Black portion far more entertaining solely due to the presence of the unpredictable charm of Eli Wallach.

If anything, The Holiday will make audiences more appreciative and pay attention to ‘minor’, almost invisible components of a movie – its soundtrack, trailers, and scriptwriters. And perhaps, it might even spur a few to investigate old movies from the 50s and 60s as well. What more do you want from a fluffy romantic comedy?

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Flyboys (2006)

Will this CGI Top Gun WW1 movie... fly?

There haven’t been too many WW1 films made in the previous decade, if you notice. That’s in spite of the fact that the war movie genre is going strong, with many landmarks made this decade – Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbour, and even Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. Perhaps it has to do with the bleak reality and the futility of WW1: armies were stuck in frontlines that scarcely moved during the war while millions of soldiers charged unsuccessfully into trenches under artillery shells and poison gas that they had very little counter against. Yes, modern audiences get lots of WW2 movies that are gory, but with the exception of Tererence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, most US-produced shows in this genre are more interested in playing up the chivalry of soldiers, the nobility of brotherhood, and the victory of courage rather than acknowledging the hopelessness, stupidity, and futility of war.

Flyboys may be a movie about the Lafayette Escadrille in WW1, but it feels more like any other WW2 movie. Or actually, more like Top Gun. I make this comparison without any joke or cynicism, though, because most of the film consists of rivalries between the newest recruits for the Escadrille and the veteran pilots in the squadron, between the recruits and the snotty, showy, and villainous German flying aces, conducted in ever-complex air manoeuvres that, while performed in wooden biplanes, are still reminiscent of the pointless but breathtaking stunts from Top Gun and the Iron Eagle movies. Like Top Gun and the Iron Eagle movies, most of the volunteers for the Lafayette Escadrille appear to have joined the war just for the fun of it, spending their nights drinking and posing (heroically or in a state of melancholy) in a pub, or sampling/wooing the local fare. And that, by the way, is as far as the script goes to develop their characters.

What is worth watching in Flyboys are its computer-generated air fights. These fights may look slightly artificial due to problems with colour-correction and matching the sunlight with the background, and with the green-screened actors in their planes, but for what it’s worth, the air combat is exciting and dramatic – if too spaced out between the non-combat sequences. It’s hard to create realistic dogfights today, mainly because there isn’t much surviving documentary footage of these, and not many surviving pilots alive now. There’s a slight downside to all the wonderful CGI, though: audiences will have this thought at the back of their heads throughout the movie: could actual WW1 planes physically perform these stunts without disintegrating or blowing up? But if the stunts can fascinate you enough to keep these questions at bay, then the movie will have succeeded.

For a more bleak view of the war on the ground, I’d recommend All Quiet on the Western Front, and a more realistic WW1 fighter pilot movie, made with real planes, would be The Blue Max, starring George Peppard (Hannibal in television’s The A Team), George Mason, and Ursula Andress.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

Friday, 8 December 2006

Isolation (2005)

In a cinema no one can hear you scream

You know it’s a Lionsgate film when it’s either a horror or a slasher movie done on a low budget, shot in nausea-inducing unsteady cam, and involves some form of disturbing or sickening gore. I’m talking about the studio that brought us such gems as The Blair Witch Project, The Devil’s Rejects and the Saw trilogy, but it’s also the same studio that brought us the awful and irredeemable Crank, Hostel, and Alone in the Dark. Isolation, helmed by novice director and writer Billy O’Brien, is one of the lower budget films of the Lionsgate lineup, and you begin to worry – generally speaking, the lesser films from this studio are its relatively cheaper ones.

On paper, though, Isolation shows promise. It’s a mutant killer animal film, the latest member of a club that includes good trashy flicks about mutant killer piranhas, cats, crocodiles, bees, spiders, flies, earthworms and even frogs. Yes, frogs. Then again, Exodus was the first mutant killer animal story. Isolation is about how genetic manipulation creates mutant killer cows that go moo, then eat people up. More specifically, our good farmer discovers that his very pregnant cow has given birth to a bad-tempered calf that bites the fingers off people foolish enough to pet it, like himself and a veterinarian. It turns out that the calf’s insides are all wrong, and it is also pregnant: the innards reveal tiny pouches of deformed, boneless, inside out cow fetuses. That are alive. And hungry. Obviously one escapes, and begins to terrorise the scientist, the farmer, the vet, and a pair of eloped lovers who arrive on the farm. The worst thing is, apparently the deformity is infectious, meaning every other cow on the farm could be giving birth to such monstrosities.

The problem is the execution of the movie: crippled by an ultra-low budget, O’Brien clearly does not have money to develop models and prosthetics for his mutant cow monsters, but still wants to write a story that evokes Alien, right down to the salivating monster on the ceiling shot, the stealthiness of the early lifecycle of the mutant cow, and how it eats through its victims’ bodies. What we end up seeing, though, are obviously jelly beans created from special moulds (I’m not joking about this!), and a piece of canvas wrapped around the skull of a cow in the one shot that you get to see a full-grown mutant.

With a somewhat competent ability to evoke the claustrophobic environment of the Aliens spaceship in a farmhouse, a credible cast, and an interesting premise, O’Brien somewhat creates a very disappointing movie. Isolation is not frightening at all, and is frankly embarrassing to watch once the monsters are unveilled. Neither is it entertaining and funny at all, unlike other mutant killer monster movies, which were invariably horror comedies. When O’Brien botched the final scene, forgetting to For a true horror movie that achieves what O’Brien tries to do, on a comparable budget, rent John Carpenter’s The Thing. For a horror comedy that shares the same ideas as O’Brien’s films, and pulls it off well, rent Joe Dante’s Piranha or James Cameron’s Piranha 2.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Deja Vu (2006)

Denzel Washington has been relegated to lending credibility to trashy sci-fi and action flicks

Deja Vu is a word used to describe the feeling you get when you start watching this movie. Perhaps it’s the whole Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer style of cutting up their opening scene in a thousand cuts, camera panning disjointedly at faces of happy people smiling and dancing on a ferry boat, in eerie slow motion as a band plays on. A girl on the ferry drops her doll into the river. Since it’s Scott and Bruckheimer, you expect the "dramatic and fatalistic" scene to build up into an explosion. KABOOM! Denzel Washington is the port security officer who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of who planned and carried out the terrorist act, and for dessert, solve the mystery of a woman who may have been murdered, and then dumped into Mississippi to look like a victim of the explosion.

Instead of thinking how clumsy, trite and predictable Bruckheimer and Scott have become, perhaps it’s far better to admit that Deja Vu is the most tasteful and subdued film about 9/11 that Hollywood has churned out to date. It’s definitely much less objectionable than Michael Moore’s shrill and conspiracy-laden Fahrenheit 9/11, less shamelessly exploitative and delusional than United 93, and less sentimental and saccharine than World Trade Centre. As a bonus feature, Deja Vu not only references (unsubtly, of course, but this is the Bruckheimer and Scott team) the terrorism of 9/11, but also throw in Katrina and Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing as well.

As a movie, Deja Vu plays to everyone’s favourite post-9/11 fantasy, disguised as a tribute to New Orleans. Not only is Denzel Washington a regular Poirot, who manages to solve the more than half of the mystery of the bombing himself, before a pudgy Val Kilmer introduces the detective to Snow White and the 7 spy satellites that allow users to spy on virtually anyone they desire, 6 days into the past. This sounds like it must’ve come from a wet dream of the Patriot Act, but is probably inspired by a similar machine in Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Dead Past. Deja Vu, being a creature of Bruckheimer and Scott, neatly sidesteps the troubling issue of voyeurism and the ethical eschatology of the advent of the surveillance society, and transforms this sci-fi device into a time-travelling fantasy when Washington, bored of solving the bombing and murder case by just watching huge plasma monitors in a secret research facility, exclaims “For once, I would like to stop crimes before they happen!”

And actually, Deja Vu gets really, really good to watch after that, although Denzel Washington is no Marty McFly.

There are 2 reasons why you might want to watch this movie. Mind you, it’s really difficult to make an action thriller when you have 5 fat (Val Kilmer!) or ageing (Denzel Washington’s looking distinguished nowadays) guys stuck in a room with an ubergeek (Adam Goldberg, typecast for life) staring at 15 computer screens, performing a stakeout on a murder victim-to-be – so, I was impressed with the director’s efforts to make the ops room scenes visually engaging, by shooting his stakeout scenes like an interactive PC programme, with the apparent ability to zoom in and out, swerve to alternate angles, at all once. It’s so visually engaging that you might forget these are 5 guys stuck in a room, spying on the daily routine of a woman who is already dead. Also, Deja Vu has just about the most creative car chase in a highway scene ever. Separated by 6 days and 6 hours, and using the nearly omniscient spycam device, Washington chases a suspect in a highway. Only it’s not the same highway. But still the same highway – oh, you know what I mean. The common point about these two great scenes is that even though Bruckheimer and Scott make very trashy, unbelieveable films, these films are very watchable and qualify as good visual experiences.

This also means that whatever consistency or cerebral gymnastics you expect of a movie about time travel will not come to pass. Most writers of time travel flicks try to adhere to one of the two consistent possibilities: the Twelve Monkeys scenario (you can never change the past, no matter what you do, you’ve already done it) or the Back to the Future scenario (you can always change anything!). My grouse is the script for Deja Vu doesn’t really know which scenario it wants to follow, and the ending is inconsistent from what the rest of the film builds up to.

First published at incinemas on 7 December 2006

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Knot, The 云水谣 (2006)

The return of the triple-hanky weepie!

Once upon a time, Taiwanese author Qiong Yao was the bedside companion of many a young and impressionable girl. In the 1960s and 70s, her novels, together with San Mao’s diaries, introduced individualism and the Romantic sensibility to youths in the Chinese world. Since the 1990s, Qiong Yao’s books have been adapted into television serials on Taiwanese television, mostly starring Chin Han as the leading man, and the pretty girl du jour as his ill-fated, often separated love interest. One might argue that the author’s novels are very formulaic and dripping with saccharine sentimentality and melodrama, but one would never make this argument within the earshot of one’s female relations.

At first glance, The Knot comes across as a movie that could have been based off one of Qiong Yao’s novels. There’s the literary naming of the central protagonists: Qiu Shui and Bi Yu. He’s the poor village boy made good as a medical student in the city, who falls in love with the pretty daughter of a wealthy household which hires him as an English tutor. The obstacles are few, but impressive: despite the tacit approval of the father (played by Chin Han!), the mother is less enthused with the growing romantic undertones of her daughter’s friendship to the young man, who is himself a radical left-wing student activist, a rather dangerous vocation in a 1940s Taiwan administered under martial law by the Kuomintang dictatorship. Of course they end up marrying each other in secret, and of course they are separated quite unwillingly by fate and circumstance.

If this were a Qiong Yao weepie, though, the story would centre on the lovers pining for each other through the years, but here, The Knot reinvigorates the genre by giving the lovers a second act: both are pursued by ardent admirers who aren’t about to give up, and who are willing to live with the fact that Qiu Shui and Bi Yu will never place them in first position within their hearts. It’s this well-fleshed and developed storyline that moves the almost trite first act forward by leaps and bounds, rounds up the characters into ones that you’d actually care about, and sets up the movie properly for its inevitable melodramatic twist. Given how well and maturely this story was told, I found it impossible to make fun of the melodrama in the end.

Story-wise, aside from its mature writing, the movie also features an incredible soundtrack of Taiwanese and Tibetan folk songs, as well as Korean dances and Chinese revolutionary choruses. It has something to do with the wanderings of the separated lovers, but I’ll admit I was quite engrossed with the authenticity of the period reproductions – they didn’t just bother about the sets (every Taiwanese tearjerker could do that), but they even went to the extent of showcasing folk music every chance they could.

I’m sure there’s something snarky that could be said about a love story set in Taiwan, China, Korea and Tibet – this could be a Peach Blossom Land, or that this is just a very subtly political romantic drama that’s set in all 4 corners of Greater China. But I’m very pleased with how well done the movie is, and how it adheres and recreates a great movie genre that I’d like to recommend all romantic hearts in need of hankies to watch this movie.

First published at incinemas on 14 December 2006

Friday, 1 December 2006

After This Our Exile 父子 (2006)

Down and out in Ipoh

For me, the early eighties will forever be the height of Hong Kong cinema. Filmmakers long schooled in television production discovered neorealism and began making many movies about social underclasses – the poor, the uneducated, street hooligans (not to be confused with John Woo gangsters), petty criminals, all leading their lives in run-down tenements, dreaming of striking it rich or emigrating before the dreaded 1997, but more often than not succumbing to ignominious, tragic ends.

All About Ah Long, starring Chow Yun Fat as a former bike racer and Sylvia Chang as the long-suffering old flame who left him, is the culmination of the neorealist movement in Hong Kong cinema. Yes, Chow’s Ah Long may have been illiterate, a wastrel, a womaniser, and a very nasty boyfriend who probably deserved to be dumped by Sylvia Chang. But he is genuinely devoted to their son, displays an occasional charm despite the squalor he has sunk to, and a bruised humanity shines through all the flaws that should make us hate the man. We cannot help but empathise and weep over the pathetic situation father and son are stuck in, and the more bleak fate that awaits Ah Long. That movie, with its neorealist sensibilities, sensitive script, unexpected humour, and a strong and nuanced performance by Chow Yun Fat, fully deserved the Best Actor award win, as well as its nominations for Best Film and Best Supporting Actor.

Long dormant as a director, Patrick Tam marks his return to directorial duties with After This, Our Exile, which reaches back to Hong Kong neorealism for inspiration. It’s All About Ah Long transplanted to a tiny and impoverished hamlet in Ipoh, with Aaron Kwok as the deadbeat dad, Charlie Young as the abused (but not battered) spouse, and Goum Ian Iskandar as their young son. An incurable gambler with a streak of violence, a sky-high debt from loan sharks, self-centred and perpetually aggrieved by perceived slights and disrespect from others, Kwok’s character is destined for a long decline and fall, and the only question is whether the little tyke will be brought down with him.

Young leaves the husband early in the film, after one too many broken promises that things will get better, that he will change, and that he really loves both mother and child – but this is the sort of movie that will slowly heap degradations on the father-son pair, until the straw breaks the back of the camel in a satisfying catharsis. After all, Kwok’s character is a car-wreck just waiting to happen, and when it happens, will just cuss at the driver for running into him, and then walk blithely into the next car wreck.

Yet in spite of its promising concept, Tam’s movie suffers from unbelievably bad and trite dialogue. This is the sort of dialogue that you hear every evening in the TCS 8 serial, that you’ve heard in every TCS 8 for the past few decades. Tam turns an interesting character into the sad sack, ne’erdo-well stock character from a TV melodrama, by taking away everything and anything that is likeable or even half-way human about him. Unlike any of the gritty and bleak neorealist dramas in the heyday of HK cinema, this movie is completely humourless, dragging the audiences to wallow in its unending pathos. It doesn’t even show the central flaw of the character properly, and isn’t the slightest bothered in character development. It should still work if Kwok’s character ends up destroying himself painfully and horribly while having his sole moment of self-realisation at the end, but that doesn’t even happen. Tam and his co-writer are interested only in hurling the father-son pair into one quagmire after another, but after an hour, the audience does tire of it. All that tedious piling on of minor tragedies, with no proper catharsis, and a botched, unsatisfying ending is unforgivable.

In other words, instead of giving us a HK neorealist movie, Patrick Tam and his collaborators have made the ultimate TCS 8 television drama. It’s one that Mediacorp and Jack Neo should be capable of producing, and producing a better product. I can’t imagine why this movie couldn’t have been a joint Malayan production, cast with actors from both sides of the Straits of Johor. It would be far preferable to this movie, because Tam has clearly forgotten that Ipoh Chinese residents speak mainly Hakka, not Cantonese, and never pure Mandarin – surely a director attempting a neorealist film set in Malaya would have his characters speak in authentic Straits patois? Tam’s decision to film this movie in Ipoh appears more economically motivated instead of any love and reverence for the region. After all, Hong Kong city’s slums have virtually disappeared, and one would have to travel far inland, far beyond Shenzhen to find a real slum. And surely, a director filming a movie about illiterate, poverty-stricken Chinese villagers in Ipoh would know much better than to hire a composer who drapes every other moment of the film in violin-piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky!

The deadbeat dad is written without much character development, without any redeeming qualities, without any meaningfully dramatic dialogue, and played without any nuances by Aaron Kwok. All he had to do in this movie was grow a sparse beard and moustache, talk loudly in a vaguely threatening manner, gesticulate widely, and stare into the camera, which went for too many close-ups on his face without letting the audience look at Kwok’s body language. Plummeting towards certain doom, the character doesn’t get destroyed, but neither do you see the crucial reformation and turnaround. Judging from what we could see on the screen, I find it preposterous that Aaron Kwok could actually win a Best Actor Award with this performance, with such stilted dialogue, and such a turgid, featureless script could win a Best Film Award.

If every former teenybopper had to be rewarded with a Best Actor Award just because they decide to play against type, then it’s clear that the Hong Kong and Taiwanese film industries should be allowed to ride quietly into the sunset, and Golden Horse Awards be shut down.

First published at incinemas on 7 December 2006

Thursday, 30 November 2006

Flags of our fathers (2006)

Mission accomplished?

Every great civilisation has grown up with its own body of mythology. In history books and epic tales, heroes make speeches they never actually gave in real life, have other less legendary people’s great deeds attributed to them, and shouted eloquent warcries that were actually penned by historians. It takes a few convenient half‑truths to create legends and heroes out of untidy battles and ordinary men, and such is the stuff that Flags of Our Fathers examines. We are fortunate that being the youngest great power, American history and its iconic images are subject to scrutiny: every invented tradition, every mundane occurrence dressed up into a legend occurs before the eyes of historians who not only can debunk them, but also show how the legend was created, and why.

One such instance is the Battle of Iwo Jima, its American victory memorialised in a photograph of 6 faceless soldiers planting a flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Titled Rasing the Flag on Iwo Jima, it’s a powerful photograph that signals VICTORY! in capital, neon, blinking letters, bringing an immediate salve to a war-weary American public and near bankrupt war machine on the verge of quitting the war with the Japanese. Yet the truths that were wilfully hidden from millions of jubilant Americans looking for their heroes and icons is troubling: this wasn’t the real flag that was planted on the peak of Mount Suribachi (an arrogant senior officer wanted to keep the first flag as a personal souvenir); both flags were planted an entire month before the island was secured from the Japanese defenders (shades of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner?); the US Marine Corps, President Roosevelt, and key industrialists financing the war needed to create heroes out of the men in that photograph – even to the point of exploiting the 3 survivors by staging demanding they hold a cross-country victory parade to persuade American citizens to buy more war bonds. Even if the photograph wasn’t an intentional photo-ops, it plays out like one anyway.

The levels of injustice don’t stop there, but continue piling up: knowing full well that this is the second flag, the military‑government‑industrialist propaganda complex order the survivors to suppress the truth; discovering that they misidentified one of the deceased participants in the photograph, the cabal order the survivors to again keep mum; and in the worst sort of bad taste, suggest the 3 re‑enact their mountain climb and flag raising in every victory parade event on the cross-country tour. Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) must have felt like hell – they saw the least action in the battle, were shipped back to America while the battle continued and their compatriots died, and had to put on the same show, night after night for the crowds. No wonder the trio react with depression, cynicism, and resignation to their conscription into the war effort that would make them heroes but ultimately destroy them.

Clint Eastwood captures the making of a legend by the media machine very well, very subtly showing on screen the conflicted souls of the 3 survivors through devices like the ubiquitous posters and reproductions of the original photograph. The 3 leading actors carry their roles well, injecting very human emotions into a script that doesn’t have much lines for them in the first place. In fact, the victory tour in America is the true heart and core of Flags of Our Fathers, which would have made an excellent movie if it had just concentrated on this section of the non-fiction book by James Bradley (son of John Bradley) and Ron Powers.

Ever the ambitious director, Eastwood also wants to make a film about the actual Battle of Iwo Jima, as well as James Bradley’s own piecing of the truth, almost 50 years after the battle. It’s all well and good, but the director is unfortunately let down by the screenplay from Paul Haggis and William Broyd Jr. The duo have chosen to tell all 3 stories at once, intercutting freely between Iwo Jima, the victory tour, and modern-day America. Such an approach isn’t flawed, and could make for great storytelling, but somehow it just doesn’t end up like that.

Flags of Our Fathers begins with half an hour’s worth of false starts before the writers decide that actually the Iwo Jima sequences should exist as guilt-ridden flashbacks or traumatic hallucinations instead of being told as a straightforward (and overlong) Saving Private Ryan sequence. Even then, the flashbacks to Iwo Jima show more than is necessary, tell more than what the survivors can remember, and linger on longer than what we normally would allow for flashbacks. Scenes from the present-day consist of a middle-aged man interviewing several old journalists and veterans about the battle. Their voices sometimes break into the Iwo Jima and victory tour segments as needless voiceover narrations – surely the horrors of war and the cynical agitation of its war machine are self-explanatory? That’s not all, for the present-day scenes tell an altogether disconnected story from the rest of the movie. Combined with clumsy intercutting and poor linking between the 3 stories, it is difficult to sympathise for the private tragedies of any of the soldiers.

This movie would be fine if all 3 stories had revolved around an opaque, unreachable core, the missing memory of what really happened in the first flag raising. Once Eastwood and his collaborators decide to show that on screen, all the drama and pathos that had been building up despite their problematic temporal encircling of that event dissipates, leaving behind a weaker product. In the end, Eastwood makes the mistake of re-mythologising the soldiers, gesturing towards an unironic and sentimental tribute to the heroes - and in doing so, unmakes the fine point about the dangers of hero-making. The movie does make an excellent (the deconstruction of war propaganda), if slightly unoriginal anti-war movie (in the wake of Saving Private Ryan), and my only other complaint is it completely washes over the fact that Iwo Jima served no tactical or strategic value to the American Pacific operations thereafter, and that the heroic and costly assault of its marines was a waste of life – the Japanese forces on the island were severely blockaded and would’ve surrendered in a few more months.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Monday, 27 November 2006

Quinceanera (2006)

Ah, Sundance!

The festival evokes impressions of independent films helmed by directors armed with digital cameras, shooting small films with youthful protagonists, capturing the slice of life, that elusive moment in time, of racial minorities and other American subcultures. These indie directors often do not aim for the level of social commentary beyond “Sesame Street for adults”. It’s extremely peculiar that a festival for independent films could, in less than 15 years from its founding, attract films that look so much like each other and are so predictable that you could, like the geniuses at Deconstructing Sundance, write a software programme that predicts (with 80% accuracy) which films will win the Sundance prizes, just by how far they stick to the tried and tested Sundance indie film formula. It’s a pity, because the festival has shown itself capable of springing surprises like Saw, The Blair Witch Project, El Mariachi, and Napoleon Dynamite.

That is to say, read the poster carefully before you decide to buy tickets for the movie. You’ll do well to notice that Quinceanara won both the jury and audience prizes at Sundance this year. The setting: Echo Park, Los Angeles, a run-down Hispanic neighbourhood undergoing the early ravages of gentrification. Its main protagonists in the story read like a list of the usual suspects from a Sundance flick for young adults: a teen mother who is not even 15, carrying a child of a scarcely older boy who’s pretty sure it isn’t his because they never had penetrative sex. Exiled from home by her very morally upright father (a policeman who doubles as the preacher in the community church), she lives with her old-as-time uncle (the stock saintly and accepting elderly relative figure) and her similarly exiled hoodlum and gay cousin, in a small but homely shack at the back of a bungalow, owned by two men who have just moved into the neighbourhood, like the rich Anglos and other lesbian couples you meet in the movie.

The list of characters are such stock characters in stock “awww shucks” indie film situations that the only bright spot in this deliberately harmless movie are the slightly saucy scenes where the gay cousin frolicks with the Anglo landlords, and the times when Chalo González appears on screen. A Sam Peckinpah alumnus, González takes a hammy community theatre role that would easily sink in the hands of any actor, and makes this paper thin role sing. Unfortunately, the inoffensive set-up and characters aren’t sufficient to carry the show.

Underneath Quinceanera is a story about the exclusion and sanctioning of social “misfits” by an otherwise close-knit Hispanic community, the insidious invasion of ageing neighbourhoods by yuppies who jack up land prices and lead to landlords evicting long-time tenants, the invisible racism within the gay community and its exoticisation of ethnic minorities, or even the one-upmanship of middle class families who treat the 15th birthday celebrations of their daughters as a debutante ball than a coming‑of‑age ceremony. Unfortunately, such stories require guts and honesty to tell, and not the directors’ penchant for avoiding confrontations and strange desire to please and baby audiences, and mollycoddle the subjects of their film.

While the film throws up so many possibilities for conflict and resolution, the directors actually present to audiences a film devoid of any conflict, a film that ends up feeling like one of those "and so this happened and that happened and then that other thing happened" just-so stories. Every loose end (since the directors assiduously avoid any real conundrums in their script) is tied up all too neatly, too shallow and yet seemingly heart-warming nevertheless. Quinceanera is a twee little film that should just suit one of those days when you’re too really tired to think, but want to be entertained, and yet ashamed of watching an outright and honestly brain-dead flick at the cinema. Audiences who want to be provoked should remember that the Sundance Film Festival is no longer what it used to be, and watch this with revised expectations.

Perhaps the most enjoyable sequences in Quinceanera are its almost voyeurish segments between the gay cousin and the landlords. Clearly, the directors’ previous experience in making gay porn and slightly more mainstream comedies (The Fluffer) make these the most watcheable and entertaining interludes in the movie.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Saw 3 (2006)

If you’ve been to the old Haw Par Villa, before it was redone as a tourist attraction with perky piped music and rendered mostly harmless, you would remember a certain attraction called The 10 Courts of Hell, a series of elaborate dioramas in a grotto depicting the horrific tortures one would have to endure in the afterlife, tortures that were crafted to suit the victim’s sins when they were living mortals. Or perhaps you remember Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, a short story about an elegant execution device that metes out a punishment on the body of each criminal that is uniquely and most appropriately suited to the nature of their crime. Having read Bradley Denton’s black comedy Blackburn as a youth, I have always been waiting for someone to a movie about a vigilante killer who gives his victims – nasty people, not innocents at all – a punishment that fits their crime perfectly.

That movie turned out to be Se7en, of course. The Saw trilogy, on the surface, seems to be about the same thing, with a slight twist. Jigsaw, the serial killer, puts his victims in elaborate snare traps and other deadly devices that remind them of the ‘crimes’ they had committed, and challenge them to free themselves from those devices through an act of sacrificial self-mutilation. Ah, the joys of redemptive suffering, pain therapy, and a punishment fitting the crime!

Except that’s not even the case in any of the Saw films, and especially not Saw III, the closing film of the trilogy. There’s something to be said about a killer who devices fitting punishments for his victims, and then there’s something else to be said when a killer decides that being too detached from one’s emotions, withdrawing from society, feeling depressed, being too professional at work and other related ills are somehow crimes worth punishing. I’d call it a very flawed premise for a serial killer. Jigsaw’s horrific punishments for his victims are clearly excessive and don’t actually fit their ‘crimes’ at all, which adds to my annoyance with this movie. Clearly, if you have a setup like this, it might help if the movie is about the complete psychosis of the serial killer – his moral and ethical universe is something that cannot be taken seriously, and a good script would have to involve a challenge to the killer’s justification and outlook.

Instead of delivering on this challenge in the final part of the Saw trilogy, the scriptwriters pile on even more moralising and couch therapy style musings from Jigsaw, who is now on his deathbed, planning his final set of tests, and hoping that his understudy and possible successor Amanda Young has imbibed enough of his wisdom and philosophy to take over the reins of terror on his passing. The effect of the deeper moralising tone in Saw III doesn’t make the movie “deeper” - it just highlights again the problem with the premise, with the unfortunate fact that Jigsaw’s vigilante justice involves punishments that rarely fit the crime, and victims that aren’t at all evil, mean, or deserving of such brutal torture.

And yes, there is much pain, torture, and gore in the final movie, so much so that it has garnered an even higher censorship rating, even in the USA. That doesn’t help anything at all, but just again points out the flaws in the premise – where is the punishment that really fits the crime? Saw III doesn’t have the jokey feel of the first Saw, the mean victims of the second Saw, and ends up feeling more like a snuff video for guro fans. That’s a terrible mistake, since the point of any decent slasher flick is to have the audience empathise with either the vigilante killer, the vigilante cop, or the victims. There isn’t a single character in Saw III that can move a heart: not the dying Jigsaw, and not any of his victims – who surprising should evoke some sympathy due to the completely disproportionate suffering they go through. I guess we can blame the scriptwriters.

As for the gore and the escalation of horrific visual content, it seems that even the scriptwriters have run out of anything innovative. The exploding neck chain is back, and so is the leg clamp with the saw. The most visceral scenes in this movie are nothing new: James Caan had his foot hobbled by Kathy Bates in Misery decades ago, and we’ve watched trepanation performed on at least one episode on Chicago Hope or ER, Hannibal, and one episode of Rome on HBO/BBC.

There’s lots of gore, but all the pain and suffering is unjustified and makes no narrative sense at all. Because of this, Saw III is not horrific and cannot evoke any sense of horror. What it does evoke is a sense of revulsion and pity, at how a good premise is eventually defeated because of faulty conceptualisation, poor execution, and a focus on all the wrong things.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Battle of Wits, A 墨攻 (2006)

And World Peace!

If you had a classical education, you wouldn’t have heard of the Mohists. Your Chinese teachers – if they had known about the school of philosophy dating from the Warring States period of Chinese history – would never had told you about them, since they were the major opponents of the Confucian scholars. With traditional Chinese teachers who believe that being Chinese is the same as being a Confucian, there’s no way of learning about this brilliant group of philosophers, engineers, and military strategists who had a radically different idea of morality and ethics than the ritual-obsessed and authoritarian Confucians.

Bluntly put, the Mohists were a bunch of ascetic hippies who believed in universal love and world peace, came from the wrong side of the social ladder, and employed their engineering skills (they worked for a living, as opposed to the Confucian gentlemen, who were palace courtiers and aristocratic stock) for the defense of nations. Infuriatingly, they were the only Chinese school of thought interested in the theory of science, analogical reasoning, and justified everything through "the greater good". But it might be unrealistic to be the Pacifist Party in the era of unceasing war, and no way your philosophy will survive when only one state remains. It’s nice to think of how radically different Chinese society would be if the Mohists succeeded in defending every kingdom and made war unprofitable – the map of China would resemble that of Europe, and we’d all be flaky hippies instead of traditionalists, and certain Big Men of Asia would run out of excuses for demanding the unquestioning obedience of their citizens.

Not counting the accidental copying of the entire Mohist canon into the Daoist texts, which saved Mohist ideas from extinction after Confucianism was adopted as the state religion upon the foundation of the Han dynasty, the best thing that anyone has done for the Mohists has to be the Mozi Attacks manga by Hideki Mori. It’s a purely fictional account of how a single Mohist military strategist saves the minnow city-state of Liang from becoming an appetiser for the zillion-strong Zhao army on route to conquering its weak rival of Yan. The manga served as an introduction to Mohist philosophy, authentic warfare for the period, as well as focusing on the convoluted military battle of wits between the hero and the Zhao general and how war-time conditions and human behaviour in the besieged Liang city raises questions in the hero about the viability of his beliefs. Any movie based on Mozi Attacks would be a shoo-in for Best Credible Chinese Period Epic Ever.

And then, there’s A Battle of Wits. Even before you watch it, the fact that it is a China-Japan-Korea joint production should signal some unease. Joint, cross national productions tend to raise much more money to fund a film, but they often come with other strings attached, such as the dubious casting of young and popular but incompetent stars and ex-teen idols (Nicholas Tse in The Promise!), and very badly and inconsitently rendered Mandarin pronunciation. A Battle of Wits has dreadful casting, beginning with Taiwanese pretty boy and ex-teen idol Nicky Wu as a captain of the archers, pretty boy and ex-teen idol. He’s solely in the film because the producers wanted a Legolas moment. There’s the Korean pretty boy and ex-teen idol Choi Si-won, who should fit into the role of a pampered and petulant prince, but lacks any emotional range to convince audiences of his turn mid-way into the movie. There’s Chinese pretty girl Fang Bingbing, who because of her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is utterly unconvincing as a female captain of the cavalry, and despite her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is still unconvincing when Jacob Cheung’s script inevitably turns her into the Mohist strategist Ge Li’s love interest. Yes, Andy Lau may be lean and grizzled enough in this movie to pull off a warrior-philosopher, the presence of Korean legend Ahn Sung-kee is a casting coup for the opposing general, while the Duke of Liang is competently portrayed as an incompetent opportunist by Wang Zhiwen – but the damage is already done. When the casting is good, it is inspired, but when the casting is bad, it is really bad – and both occur in equal amounts for this movie.

Plot-wise, the original material by Hideki Mori prevents the movie from going too far astray, and Jacob Cheung should be commended for toning down the manga-ish humour from the comic book. However some liberties, when taken, cause the plot to suffer. Witness the tragedy of casting Fang Bingbing and the entire romantic subplot, then imagine how much worse it gets when an African slave (no doubt played by a tall Chinese man in blackface) pops up out of nowhere in 300 BC China. It gets slightly more ridiculous when after a long series of military strategems and counter-strategems by Ge Li and the Zhao general, the movie relies on a deus ex machina (an aerial invasion!) to end the battle decisively. For a movie with a Mohist strategist, there is surprisingly very little meaningful discussion about the philosophy or how it actually led to the school’s expertise in defensive warfare. There is very little development on the expected political and philosophical tensions between the strategist and the Confucian courtiers as well – making this film a let-down intellectually.

Yet this is nothing compared to the fact that the battle scenes are done horribly, with poor production value. There’s a battlefield panorama that looks as if it were generated using Rome: Total War, a very old computer game; and many scenes involving soldiers and horses on fire look badly acted, and badly CGIed. Composition-wise, Jacob Cheung directs his battle scenes in a static way, with the camera missing out most of the upfront action, the dynamism of the fighting, and even makes the mistake of presenting the key final battles as a montage of still frames dissolving into a pretty but inappropriate oil painting. This film makes the battle scenes in Kingdom of Heaven look masterly, and makes Troy look like a good war epic. Poor cutting creates very flawed misc en scenes that any well-trained first year film student would actually try to avoid, culminating in a sequence where two scouts are spotted by the Zhao camp at night, and are pursued immediately in the forest in broad noon daylight.

With a staggering budget of 15 million dollars, Jacob Cheung proves that the best source material cannot guarantee a perfect period epic. A Battle of Wits starts from a promising premise, but ends up tripping itself due to uneven execution. Because the film is really good when it gets things right, and really bad when it gets things wrong, I cannot recommend or disapprove of this film. Nevertheless, people should still watch it, just to get an idea of how diverse Chinese philosophy was before the Confucians came and imposed their 2000 year (and still counting!) reign on Chinese thought.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

9:56 (APT) (2006)

Korean horror discovers Ju-on 6 years too late!

Takashi Shimizu, the man who has made 6 films (all with the same name!) and 2 short films with the same ghosts and same scare tactics, was obviously separated at birth with Korean director Ahn Byeong-ki, who has also made a career out of making the same horror film over and over again (Nightmare, Phone, Ouija Board). For his fourth outing, Ahn has decided to submit a formal claim of kinship to Takashi Shimizu – not by a court injunction for a DNA test, but through making a horror movie staring a serial killing ghost that looks (long hair covering front of face, neck twisted to one side or another), moves (a limping, sad reject for the Ministry of Silly Walks), and sounds (you know, like a croaking frog or a log burning in a fireplace) like Kayako, the infamous female ghost from the Ju-on films and their 2 remakes.

Like Kayako, the ghost in 9:56 haunts an apartment. More precisely, an entire apartment block. Starting very recently, every night at 9:56 pm, the lights at the apartment flicker on and off, and a resident dies at that time, sometimes through suicide or a freak accident. Evidently the police are too stupid to connect random deaths together, but our feisty heroine (TM), a spunky career woman working on the night shift, lives in the block of flats just opposite, and gradually suspects something going on. Of course the deaths have to be supernatural in nature – just 5 minutes into the movie, the spunky career woman is spooked by a suicide in a train (it’s not a Korean movie if someone doesn’t get knocked down head-on by a speeding vehicle) into a quivering, job-shirking, blanket-hugging paranoid who sees ghosts everywhere in typical Ju-on fashion (behind you, in the shower! Beneath the bed! In the cell phone! Beside you!), even in her dreams. And you know that when each scare is revealed as a nightmare of the main character, it’s time to bolt out of the cinema hall to ask for your money back.

The heroine puts 2 and 2 together (the only instance in this movie that has some semblance of logic) and decides to get to the bottom of the mystery by spying on her opposite block neighbours with a pair of binoculars – surely a passing nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, since Ahn never bothers to develop the movie in that direction. It’s all rather pointless, since all the heroine needed to do was to look at the movie poster, which gives away the identity of the ghost as well as the “twist” that Ahn delivers in the final third of the film. It would have alerted her to keep a close watch on the only long-haired female in the movie, a helpless, wheelchair-bound orphan simultaneously cared for and ill-treated by the friendly neighbourhood committee of the apartment block, and saved you the price of a movie ticket as well.

Unoriginality isn’t a mortal sin in a horror movie, but being incapable of scaring audiences is. Even more unforgivable though is that Ahn’s methods of serving up the scares via Ju-on style peekaboo tricks, badly timed sound cues, and dark interiors (why is it that a character who is shown to flood her apartment in light in the movie’s beginning leaves her apartment in the dark later on?) are so dated, trite, predictable, and illogical that it’ll generate more derisive laughter and snorting in the cinema hall than any shivering. Poorly made, badly thought out, lazy, unentertaining, and coming far too late in the maturity (if not decline) of the Asian horror genre, Ahn Byeong-ki proves himself to be more of a fraudster than a frightster par excellence with 9:56.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Monday, 20 November 2006

Happy Feet (2006)

Busby Berkeley on ice!

I tend to avoid talking animal cartoons, because they’re mostly pitched towards the very young audience. These movies tend to be altogether too cute, with the scripts concentrating so much on fart jokes, body humour, predictable plot twists and obligatory preaching about the value of friendship, loyalty, being true to yourself , etc. It’s a sure way to ensure that I’d never step into the cinema hall voluntarily, and then, only when accompanied by a child below the age of 8. Thankfully, Happy Feet is none of all that: it’s a very clever movie that had me and my friend entertained without feeling that the director was talking down to us like children, even though to a certain extent, this is still a cartoon for kids.

The animation has a kid-friendly story at its base – the story of Mumble, a penguin who cannot hold a tune, living in a penguin colony that believes the most important thing in the world is to sing – an activity so important that the mating ritual consists of finding a soulmate whose song touches a penguin heart. Unable to sing, Mumble has a talent for tap dancing, which manifests itself each time he gets inspired or happy. Since normal penguins sing when they’re inspired, this sort of behaviour freaks everyone out and makes him an outsider. Until he runs into another penguin colony with an even more peculiar belief system – one that might actually accept him. The premise of Happy Feet, that of an outsider trying to fit in and belong, is simple enough to reach out to the kiddies in the audience, yet deep enough for a parent to have a stimulating talk with the child later on about the movie.

What is there for the older audience, then? On top of the simple children’s story is an entire layer of savvy scriptwriting, visual humour, and sly situational comedy and dialogue. There is much adult humour and pop references that won’t fail to escape the attention of people who were born between 1975 and 1980, or even fans of old movies. For starters, the penguins sing snippets of songs throughout the movie, just like Moulin Rouge. The songs are funny enough and have a great hook, but only the adult will notice and fully appreciate the song selection, which includes Salt-N- Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”, and other classics from Prince, Elvis, Earth Wind and Fire, and other great acts from the late 80s and early 90s.

Then, add in many visual jokes either border on naughty puns (watch out for the scene where Mumble keeps falling on Gloria, the object of his desire!) or take off from Busby Berkeley’s musical choreography married with 1970s-style abstract animated credit sequences. And if that’s not enough, you’ll be thrown off balance with unexpected homages to Nankyoku Monogatari (the original Eight Below), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly, the writing team is talented: the jokes for the adults and kids run parallel to each other, often occurring at the same time. The writers also have a keen sense of balance, preventing jokes and the music from disrupting the flow of the story, and also preventing any intense or depressing moment from dragging on for too long.

That said, the movie does change gears twice: once at the half-way mark, and then again at the end of the third act – and the chances of a perfect, coherent, and unified script are somewhat lessened. You – or more likely, the child you brought along to see the cartoon - may point out that Happy Feet is a mash of at least 3 different movies with 3 different dynamics: there’s the story about the social misfit trying to find a way to compromise with society or have society recognise and accept his difference; there’s the situation comedy about the completely arbitrary differences in traditions and customs across societies; and there’s the overly preachy and naïve environmentalist spiel at the end (strangely not starring Al Gore) that jumps into the movie out of nowhere.

It’s a waste that an otherwise well-written and produced animation film like Happy Feet does not resolve the major problem it introduces in its plot, uses a bait-and-switch technique at the end, and throws in story points that perhaps would work better in feature-length movie of their own. Fortunately, the sheer creativity and humour that went into the making of Happy Feet still make it the best animation picture of 2006.

I have no objections to this film, it’s a sign that George Miller, director of the Mad Max movies, has gone soft in his Babe movie, and morphed into a classic liberal whose chief mission is to bring about the decline and fall of civilisation. If you’re a conservative parent, do consider these points:

1. The movie has Robin Williams playing a blatant stand-in for a televangelist con-man figure. Your kid will lose the ability to unquestioningly respect religious authorities.

2. In having little penguins learn all the basics about singing and the ‘heartsong’ that will lead them to their mates, this movie endorses sex education for kids.

3. This movie endorses moral relativism. It will be impossible for you to teach any rules or discipline your child in the future, since he’ll tell you flippantly that "in certain other cultures, this will be perfectly acceptable."

4. You may laugh at me now, but when your son grows up to be un-penguinny, indulging in alternative lifestyles and hedonistic practices, corrupting the youth of the community, and refusing to attend the counselling camp run by your religious authorities, don’t come crying at me. I have looked into the dark, liberal heart of George Miller, and I have told you so.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006