Friday, 24 February 2006

Transamerica (2005)

A new twist on road movies

At the heart of Transamerica is a simple device: the comic Road Trip. Force a bunch of characters together on a long journey spanning half the continent and drop them in a series of adventures that by the end of the movie, change the way they think about each other, and make them better human beings. The simplest comedy act involves just two people, an odd couple – there has to be a uptight straight man (otherwise known as the comic foil) and his eccentric, unorthodox, or funny partner. In a road movie, the comedy duo have to be so different as to drive each other crazy during the prolonged and enforced close proximity of the trip (think Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles).

This could be a routine and conventional comedy, if not for the brilliant casting and writing of Tucker. Yes, one half of the comedy duo in Transamerica is a pre-op transsexual woman, Bree (Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives). In the hands of a lesser director and writer, Bree would be a freakish character providing the cheap laughs. Here’s the twist in the comedy formula: Bree is the straight man. Prim, proper, respectable, and schoolmarmish, Bree is a workaholic who holds two jobs at a time and lives in a small LA apartment to pay for her upcoming gender reassignment surgery. She’s so diligent that she religiously does her voice exercises every morning to better pass as a woman and “live in stealth”.

With just a week to go for the operation, it turns out there’s only one obstacle to her life as a real woman. Bree discovers that while in college, when she went by the name Stanley, there was a drunken encounter that resulted in a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), now a 17-year-old drug addict and street hustler incarcerated for shoplifting in New York. Bree’s pychoanalyst will not sign the consent papers for her surgery unless she bails Toby from jail and patches up with her son.

The reluctant parent trudges to New York to pose bail for young Toby, who mistakes the conservatively-attired Bree for one of those Christian caseworkers bent on saving the souls of sex workers for Jesus. It’s a misunderstanding that Bree cultivates, since she is eager to wash her hands off the unfortunate reminder of her past. She’d be more than happy, however, to drive him to LA just in time for her operation – and Toby is more than happy to hitch a ride with the humourless adult, since he’s aiming for a film acting career (making pornography) in LA.

The wonderful world, on the Road

Part of the charm of road movies is the world that the comedy duo land into. Between the cities is a slice of reality that somehow reflects contemporary culture in America. What strange denizens and dangerous encountes are on offer in Transamerica? What alien situations will bring out the screams from Bree, cool sangfroid from Toby, and laughter from the audience?

Felicity Huffman is convincing in her role as a pre-operative transsexual. It takes a Herculean effort to master her body movements (one’s attention is drawn constantly to how Huffman moves her hands and makes them look huge like a man’s) and voice, for Huffman to complete the illusion that she is a man trying, almost flawlessly, to pass as a woman, yet remind us that Bree is still male. She even manages to morph into Roy Schneider when Bree loses her hormone pills through a mishap!

Between the efforts of the two lead actors, the supporting cast, and Tucker’s script and direction, a typical genre film is transformed into a sensitive essay on family values and kinship, and the idea that everyone is as normal and deserving of respect as the next person.

Hits and misses

“Level 4 vegan” shaman
Native American cowboy
Coven of transsexuals
Visit to Bree’s awfully rich and really awful parents

Camping in the open without a toilet
Hitching a ride with farmers

First published at incinemas on 2 March 2006

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Underworld Evolution (2006)

You want to watch the same vampire-lycan war how many times?

Underworld Evolution is made for fans of the original Underworld (2002), for only these fans would be willing to sit through a story about a war between vampires and werewolves twice. And only these fans would suppress the urge to run out of the cinema when this film begins with a groan-inducing Star Wars style screen crawler, which re-introduces the main players and the new angle of this sequel.

If that’s not cheesy enough, to establish the convoluted and almost incomprehensible backstory to this sequel, the audience is bombarded with flashbacks for the next half hour. For centuries, the vampire elders have misled their followers with a false history of their clan. It turns out that the first and most powerful vampire is not Viktor (Bill Nighy), but Marcus (Tony Curran), last seen mutating into a giant bat-like creature in the previous movie. Marcus has a brother, William, who happens to be the progenitor all lycans. At the beginning of the vampire-lycan war six centuries ago, the wild and uncontrollable William was captured and imprisoned. Their father and the ultimate ancestor of all vampires and lycans, the powerful immortal Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi), watches everything from his mobile fortress and headquarters.

After destroying a vampire elder in the first Underworld, Selene (Kate Beckinsdale) and her lycan-vampire hybrid boyfriend Michael (Scott Speedman) are immediately hunted by Viktor’s forces. She also possesses a childhood memory that could hold the key to freeing William, a compelling excuse for Marcus to stalk the hapless couple across a vaguely Eastern European countryside – but why he’d even want to free his rabid brother is a mystery. Marcus has a more outrageous reason for the pursuit: what Selene knows may make him a god. (I told you this sequel would be batty!) Did you manage to get all that? Well, it doesn’t quite matter since the remaining 90 minutes of Underworld: Evolution is composed almost entirely of 3 long chase sequences between Marcus, Viktor, Alexander, and Selene.

Underworld: Evolution actually involves major conceptual changes from the original. Wiseman ditches the Matrix-like choreographed fights in Underworld for old-fashioned sock on the jaw action. In the many fight scenes, monsters are pumped with bullets, rifles, stabbed, sliced, diced, bled to death, impaled, crushed, and decapitated with relish. While CGI effects are used mostly for monster transformation sequences, the battles are mostly carried out by stunt actors. These battles manage to be messier and bloodier than the slow-motion CG-aided spectacle of the first Underworld, although the story never indicates how vampires and werewolves started to fight completely differently between the first and second movies.

Wiseman also makes full use of Selene and Michael’s run in the countryside to shoot in a series of increasingly gloomy and gothic locations like abandoned warehouses, crumbling castles, subterranean caves and even a dungeon. These give Underworld: Evolution a grittier feel than its slick predecessor, and actually justify the director’s obsession with using the steel-blue filter for every scene and decking out almost all his characters in black clothing.

The sole undisputed improvement the sequel has is the drastic reduction of tedious technobabble that made audiences’ eyes glaze over in the first movie (Virus infections create vampires and lycans? Genetic mutations and engineering? Blood compatibility?). This time round McBride skips the bloodless exposition in favour of more expressive dialogue, mostly to the benefit of the insane Marcus. It’s a pity then that McBride left the job half-done: Derek Jacobi, as the powerful immortal Alexander Corvinus, gets the most boring lines, and is non-essential to the entire story. As a result, he appears distant, disinterested and detached, and looks as bewildered and ultimately uncaring as the cinema audiences trying to figure out the point to the story or his role in the movie.

The liberal (and repetitive) use of flashback scenes and recycled clips from the first movie just scream “stock footage alert!”, and remind audiences that Underworld: Evolution could be at least 15 minutes shorter. The poor pacing plays out in the fight scenes as well, which are all too short, inconsequential, overwhelmingly one-sided (where’s the thrill when there’s no serious competition in a fight?), and utterly predictable.

The movie’s ultimate sin: the final battle is as short as any previous fight scene with lesser monsters, and you’ll even know how the villains will die just by observing the oversized props in the arena. There is but one plot twist in the movie (it involves the new vampire-lycan hybrid Michael) but you’ll be able see it way off in the distance like a beacon flare. The key thing to do if you’re not going to run out of the cinema is to just sit back and drool over Kate Beckinsdale’s tight PVC outfit.

What to watch out for: Kate Beckinsdale in PVC outfit.
When to catch that toilet break: During Derek Jacobi’s sidestory.

Ultraviolet (2006)

Ultraviolet looks pretty but is not particularly exciting or coherent. Maybe this is what happens when you throw millions at a director who is only worth tens of thousands.

Ultraviolet adds to the flood of sci-fi films featuring heroines kicking ass in skimpy leather costumes, mutant viruses, shadowy organisations, rebel terrorists bringing down corrupt governments. Just as the films it rips off were major disappointments, Ultraviolet is no exception. However, I’m here to bring news that Kurt Wimmer’s creation is no tanker, and Milla Jovovich is no Catwoman.

The plot – which bears more than a passing semblance to the Resident Evil franchise and Aeon Flux – is set some time in the late 21st century, where a mutant virus developed in a government laboratory escapes and infects the populace, creating a world where everyone wears a facial mask as though SARS never left us. Those unlucky to be infected (“haemophages”) develop the haemophagia disease, which confers superhuman abilities in exchange for a drastically reduced lifespan and being hunted down mercilessly by fearful authorities.

As the film opens, the conflict between the humans and the haemophage rebels is in the endgame, with the military-pharmaceutical complex developing a biological bomb that may eradicate the haemophages for good. Top rebel fighter Violet (Milla Jojovich) steals the suitcase containing the ultimate weapon, and discovering that it is an innocent child, decides to go on the run from both humans and her former comrades, a battle-hardened bunch who wouldn’t bat an eyelid to destroy the tyke.

There is nothing striking about the plot, but Wimmer does have a unique and consistent artistic vision: Ultraviolet looks and feels as if it leapt out of a comic book, instead of merely being adapted from one. This will be the flick’s greatest achievement and greatest curse.

In Wimmer’s picture perfect world, stunning visuals, moods and looks are everything. Almost every establishing shot and key frame is composed to give it a dramatic comic panel look. The cityscape of 21st century resembles a bigger, flashier version of Shanghai with gleaming skyscraper after gleaming skyscraper. The interior of buildings are all similarly shiny and coating with plastic – imagine the polished plastic look of iPods as interior design. To mar it all, Wimmer seems to have forgotten to take the plastic wrapping off his lenses – everything is as blurry and soft focused as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, surely a disservice to the striking good looks of Milla Jojovich.

Action sequences are similarly comic book inspired. The fights are fast, furious and athletic, and involve an impressive array of weapons. These set pieces are frequent and violent – often pitting Milla Jojovich against opponents in the double digits – but are too short and one-sided. The over-neat choreography and the obsession with perfectly framed shots and having people fall to the ground at the exact same moment, turn the visual spectacle of these fights into the sci-fi action equivalent of synchronised swimming. It’s extremely pleasing to watch, but not terribly exciting because of its bloodless and unimaginative execution.

Continuing with the high concept of a movie posing as an adaptation of a comic book, Ultraviolet has dramatic, over-the-top dialogue which would be a perfect read – on paper. When spoken, some of the key lines come off as corny, too precious, self-absorbed and affected. To heighten the sense that they are Speaking Very Dramatic Lines, the cast in the film tend to insert facial punctuation (perpetually arched eyebrows, pouting lips, smirks) into every other line. Thankfully, this film is low on dialogue and high on action scenes.

To complete the comic book convention, Kurt Wimmer parachutes in preposterous plot elements so awkwardly to show these are very important points. There is a mass of mystifying elements in the story that have no apparent reason to be in the movie – why do Violet’s hair and eyes keep changing colour? How does the virus actually do? How does Milla Jovovich hide that many weapons in her skimpy costume? Why do haemophages have huge fangs and are called vampires, but never actually use their teeth and clearly aren’t night owls? Why is the villain, the boss of some government/military/pharmaceutical conglomerate, called a “Cardinal” and works in a cross-shaped lair when there isn’t any trace of religion in the movie? How are we to take him seriously as a nasty villain when he has salt and pepper shakers stuffed up his nose all the time?

Ah, imagine how much tedious exposition it would take to clear all that up. They must be lying around somewhere on the cutting floor, since this movie feels over-short at 88 minutes. Either that or these plot holes resulted from too many script rewrites. Or, they could have been left behind at the same bargain basement counter where Wimmer got his Star Wars surplus costumes from. What audiences get is an expertly-constructed visual confectionary, and a sense that a comic book adaptation of the movie – if it exists – will explain everything. Failing which, you might want to wait for the director’s cut of the DVD release.

First published at incinemas on 30 March 2006

Thursday, 16 February 2006

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

A sympathetic portrayal of a forbidden love affair

Movie fans, rejoice! Brokeback Mountain has been passed uncut by the Singapore Film Censorship Board. Prior to the change in film rating rules, other movies have fallen to the Edward Scissorhands-like moral guardians – remember how 3 very chaste, almost sisterly kisses in The Hours (2002) were obviously hacked away? There’s a reason for all this madness: Ang Lee’s latest masterpiece, chronicling twenty years of a bleak, unromantic and doomed relationship between two cowboys, is as far as possible from promoting and glorifying homosexual lifestyles.

Ang Lee’s faithful screen adaptation of Annie Proulx’s original short story begins with Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), 2 down and out 19-year-olds seeking a summer job at Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. Their new boss (Randy Quaid) tasks them to tend sheep on the mountainside. In the harsh but scenic landscape, Ennis and Jack have no other human company, and the normally rugged and taciturn men strike up a friendship. Jack’s winning ways manage to draw the quiet Ennis out of his stony silence into a new-found eloquence. “That’s more words than you’ve spoke in the past two weeks,” Jack exclaims in surprise. “Hell, that’s the most I’ve spoke in a year.”

The two handlers open up to each other more, and then it happens: after a drink too many, the duo consummate their friendship. The morning after, both men attempt to shrug off the brief encounter. It’s a one-off deal, Ennis tries to convince himself. “You know I ain’t queer”, he adds, and Jack agrees “Neither am I.” Yet the rest of the summer is spent in fierce embraces.

At the end of their job, the two part, convinced they’ll never meet again. They get married to different women, raise their children, and yet are continually haunted by the memories of that summer in 1963. A chance meeting four years later lead to a long distance correspondence through postcards, a series of romantic escapades (explained to their wives as “fishing trips”) over the next 20 years, a faithful arrangement that endures their failing marriages and disappointments in life.

To call Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy movie” would be to cheapen the inspired writing of Annie Proulx and the sensitivity of Ang Lee and his screenwriters, and to miss and misunderstand the entire point of the tragedy of their love. In the background of Jack and Ennis’s affair are several invisible forces whose pervasive presence create an oppressive atmosphere in the movie.

In the realistic rural poverty of Ang Lee’s Brokeback, cowboys have lost their allure and status as the icons of the Wild West. There once were cowboys, but in their place now are a diminished lot struggling with unemployment – part-time ranchers guarding sheep (in the movie, even their jobs are getting outsourced to Mexican labourers), midwives to cows, rodeo riders at entertainment shows. Poverty, being broke, is a noose that hangs over the 2 lead characters. It constricts their possibilities to the point where they can only do what is expected of them.

Ennis gets married and honourably does his duties to wife and children. This is very hard work, considering his pay hardly covers the family expenses. Alma (Michelle Williams), his wife, contemplates moving to the city, but the couple cannot even afford the simplest lodgings in town – and one suspects Ennis does not have the skill to survive in the city. There is no way out in rural Wyoming, a region where today a quarter of the population is living near the poverty line, with an additional 10% below the line. Nothing to look forward to in life, except fulfilling what society expects: get married, have children, and die earning money to feed everyone.

Like a character in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Jack realises there are very few ways out of the poverty trap. He confides in Ennis he may be drafted, but before he escapes through the army, the daughter (Anne Hathaway) of a rancher snags him. Quite possibly the only rich cowboy in the movie, Ennis’s father-in-law sells very large and very expensive farm machinery, and does his best to make the rodeo cowboy feel unwelcome, even though he is part of the family.

There is the small-minded society in both Wyoming and Texas. Ennis speaks with horror of the lynching of a pair of ranchers. Then nine years old, Ennis is dragged by his father to look at their remains, and the image scars him for life – vanquishing any inclination to seek for a life with Jack. Fear rules his decision to keep his relationship with Jack under wraps. “Bottom line is... we're around each other an'... this thing, it grabs hold of us again... at the wrong place... at the wrong time... and we're dead.” He’s not too paranoid, though: in 1998, openly gay youth Matthew Shepard was murdered in a hate crime in Wyoming. The ridiculously small social circle in Texas drives Jack to alternate between despair and a mad desire to run away. Both men are driven by their society towards each other, again and again – yet the same society also condemns them to lead lives of quiet desperation.

There is literally no escape from their situation. Both men find themselves unable to move away from their obligations, to have a place of their own. They fear escape, they don’t want to escape. And so they have nothing but each other and the picturesque but ultimately suffocating Brokeback Mountain – which comes to stand for both men the limitations of their circumstances and their decision to make do with these limitations.

Those who complain that hardly anything really happens in Brokeback Mountain will do well to understand the constricting and ever-shrinking goldfish bowl of a world that Ang Lee painstakingly creates and brings to full emotional intensity. Ang Lee’s previous works (Eat Man Drink Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) featured repressed women dealing with the confines of their society. This new masterpiece examines the same themes (with repressed men in the place of the women) in such great detail that one is unable to condemn both men or even their wives for their flaws.

First published in incinemas on 16 Feb 2006.

Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Capote (2005)

Truman Capote is more mad, bad, and dangerous than the killer he befriends

Hollywood has a long tradition of making films about artists. The combination of their genius, eccentricities, huge ego, self-destructive neuroses and troubled relationships makes for good storytelling, netting acclaim and awards for directors and actors over the years.

The year is 1959. Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an up-and-coming author of popular short stories and captivating conversationalist who rubs shoulders with celebrities, fellow authors, critics and tycoons from New York society and beyond. On 15 November, he chances upon an article in the newspaper: four members of a family in Kansas were brutally murdered. Like Gustav Flaubert reading of a tragic suicide in the papers, Capote smells an opportunity to write something ground-breaking and important. Capote persuades William Shawn, his editor (Bob Balaban) at the New Yorker magazine, to fund a trip to Kansas to research for an article on the murders.

With his natural charm and practical legwork from his friend and assistant Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – yes, the same Harper Lee who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird – Capote wins the trust of the townspeople, the cooperation of the sheriff, and strikes up a close friendship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr) and Dick Hickcock (Mark Pelligreno).

In 1848 a short article appeared in newspapers in Normandy. A 20-year-old woman, disillusioned with her stagnating marriage, runs up huge debts on her shopping bills and begins an affair. Under severe emotional and financial pressure, she commits suicide by swallowing arsenic, leaving behind a daughter and a grieving husband.

Gustav Flaubert reads the article, and unable to shake it off his memory, takes 6 years to write Madame Bovary, the novel that would establish him as the most important French author of his day.

Within 6 years, the murderers will be executed, Capote will publish In Cold Blood, a bestseller that would turn him into a household name. Yet shortly after, Capote would become a withdrawn recluse and slide into alcoholism, never to complete another work. Did Truman Capote profit from the killers, their trial and execution? Did he manipulate, then betray the real-life subjects for his “non-fiction novel”? Was this what haunted the author for the rest of his life?

What is the obligation of the non-fiction writer to his living subjects? Miller takes his time to set up, brick by brick, wall by wall, the ethical dilemma that the eponymous character finds himself trapped in.

Capote the writer is bound by several rules of his enterprise. In order for his book to be well-written and successful, Capote needs to find out everything that happened on the night of 15 November. Newspaper reports being moralistic, sensationalist and unforgiving towards the fallen, Capote feels honour-bound to present the true face of the killers, while resisting the temptation to be their spokesperson and apologist. He tells Perry Smith in a prison visit, “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster.”

Unsympathetic and quick to condemn? If the newspapers had come across these characters, we might not see any redeeming feature in them.

Othello - "Love-crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter"
Madame Bovary - "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Fraud"
Oedipus Rex - "Sex With Mum was Blinding!"

On the other hand, both killers understand their doomed situation. Being published in a best-seller would be a kind of immortality for them, and a chance to speak from their cells and graves.

The negotiation between the author and the killer is deftly executed by Hoffman and Collins. Hoffman’s Capote sees Perry as a victim deserving of pity, and even manages to identity with the killer; their bonding and mutual respect provides solace for both men’s personal problems. Like the narrator of One Thousand and One Nights, the prisoner reveals the truth piece by piece, so that Capote would have to return for more.

Keener’s no-nonsense Lee Harper knows Capote much better than the unsuspecting Perry. “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” she asks in a penetrating moment, and the professional writer is defensive: “Well, he’s a gold mine.” Even as Capote’s professional interests begin to affect how he treats the killers, Hoffman portrays the author as an essentially likeable man caught in an ethical and moral struggle, a lonely dandy full of love for himself, yet hungrier for the love of the public.

Having profited – in terms of popularity and acclaim as a groundbreaking writer – from his public readings and sale of In Cold Blood, was Capote a greater monster than Perry? The film offers no easy answers; like how Capote saw Perry Smith, Miller refuses to condemn the author, choosing instead to humanise the flawed man.

First published in incinemas

Saturday, 11 February 2006

When a Stranger Calls (2006)

When a Hollywood director does a remake, do not watch

Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle), a high school track athlete, is sentenced to VWO by her parents for running up a hefty handphone bill. Her punishment - to babysit for a rich couple living in a remote mansion in the forest, who have left for a night at the movies. With the entire high school attending a party at an even more remote beach, a serial killer (Tommy Flanagan) decides Jill is his next victim, and plays a psychological game with the young babysitter.

Will Jill be able to outwit, outlast and outrun the killer, or will she be his latest prey?

We wonder if the director Simon West had fallen into a deep sleep and missed the 1990s. When a Stranger Calls feels like something we’ve watched over and over again in the cinemas over the past decade, and the worst thing is, we can probably identify all the slasher films it was based on, and then all the parodies of those slasher films.

Or worse still, the writer Jake W. Wall could have written the script by sifting through all the items in Ye Olde Horror/Slasher Movie Checklist.

By this point, does it even matter what the plot of this movie is about? West and Wade draw from the arsenal of scare tactics from recent horror and slasher flicks to build a sense of menace and suspenseful horror around the babysitter. Well, that was the plan anyway. They come across as making a competent (but hardly creative) horror movie from a guidebook.

The opening scene, however, uses none of their stock peek-a-boo scare tactics, and turns out to be the most seat-gripping and hair-raising scene in the movie. Latecomers will miss out the most effective introduction in a horror movie this decade.

In fact, if you watch the movie with ear muffs, it’s possible to be enthralled by the director’s skilful and creative use of the camera to add to the atmosphere, an effect that impresses far more than the tired use of sound effects and props.

When a Stranger Calls is perfect for the faint-hearted out for a mild scare and ideal for a date movie, but it will be disappointing for hardcore fans of the horror/slasher genre.

First published at incinemas on 4 May 2006