Friday, 28 April 2006

Kinky Boots (2005)

The drag queen couldn't save this movie from being a real drag

There’s something strange going on in England. I blinked my eye once, and missed the diversification of its one-genre film industry - all those period films! Now, every other film from the UK looks like a remake of The Full Monty. In a small town in the English Midlands, ordinary blue-collar workers seek a way to reverse their fortunes after the local factory closes, or threatens to close. Their plans inevitably involve something naughty – a male strip club in The Full Monty, a nude calendar in Calendar Girls. You know that despite a long teething process (which will generate some laughs), all will end well. It’s a formula that gets more trite, predictable and crowd-pleasing with every subsequent movie, but Kinky Boots is sufficiently gimmicky to avoid boredom.

In Northampton, the traditional industry is shoemaking. Obligation to tradition is what keeps Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) from selling the family factory when he inherits it upon his father’s death. “There’s always a Mr Price in Price & Sons. You’re our Mr Price now,” explains an aged employee. This tradition is something that young Charlie grew up with, under the tutelage of his father (there’s a sentimental opening sequence that reminds me of the advertisements for Werther’s Original toffee candies). It’s also a tradition that grown-up Charlie feels stifled by, and longs to escape. Yet when the new Mr Price learns that the factory is a few weeks away from bankruptcy (great advertisement for the joys of globalisation), the reluctant owner decides to find ways to keep the factory afloat. Following a chance encounter with Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a London drag queen, Charlie strikes on the idea to create a line of ladies’ boots designed for the comfort of their male wearers. For the rest of the movie, outré Lola and staid Charlie will have to learn how to work together as partners, as well as gain the respect and trust of the workers in the Southampton factory.

As the central character of the story, Charlie is flat, insipid and uninteresting – I never quite get why he would want to escape from an equally uninteresting town and family tradition. Charlie may wear sneakers to work as a minor sign of rebellion, but all the audience knows about him in the beginning and by the end of the film can still be summed up by “reluctant heir trapped by tradition yet obliged to save family business”.

Chiwetel Ejiofor saves the show from its predictable setting with his muscular portrayal of the drag queen Lola. Loud and brassy, confident and charismatic, Ejiofor’s Lola steals the show in every scene he appears by avoiding stereotypes of overdramatic, preening and strutting comical men-women. He sings brilliantly – and I suspect Ejiofor would be on top of the list if MGM decides to let a male singer perform the main title theme for the next Bond movie. I was more than entertained by Lola’s numerous cabaret show numbers and his larger-than-life persona. When confronted with Charlie’s timid first attempt at a men’s ladies boots, Lola goes ballistic: “Tell me I have not inspired something burgundy.” What colour should a sexy pair of boots fit for a drag queen be? “Red… Red, RED!!” Lola hisses, then roars. Ejiofor is so engaging that scenes without him feel lethargic and lacking.

Ejiofor has played in almost every film genre, tackling roles varying from a Nigerian doctor in Pretty Little Thing to a polite villain in sci-fi opera Serenity and even a hardboiled detective in the thriller Inside Man. The actor fits into the Lola role like a glove, yet plays Lola unlike any drag queen you’ve ever seen. It’s not a stretch to say that this won’t be the last of the UK-born actor’s memorable roles. His portrayal of Lola invites audiences to empathise with and admire the character, and makes it easier to believe that he can win over the entire workforce of a factory located in a conservative town in just a matter of weeks.

Yes, the moral of Kinky Boots is “drag queens are people too”. It’s a very simple message that gets hammered in during the almost glacial non-musical sequences, a piece of tedious sermonising that surely must be the punishment for the excessive entertainment and joy of Lola’s performances on and off-stage. That’s a hardly revolutionary sentiment and feels about 20 years outdated, even in conservative Asian values Singapore. For a drag queen whose act oozes sex appeal, and who rants about boots that are “2½ feet of tubular sex”, Lola is pretty sexless, neutered, inoffensive, clean enough for a PG rating. While even insipid Charlie gets his woman (a pitiable waste of Sarah-Jane Potts in a “stand by your man” love interest), Lola gets... well, we don’t know what Lola wants or what Lola gets. It’s a flaw of the script that the only way for audiences to love the drag queen character is to make him devoid of sex.

First published at incinemas on 11 May 2006

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

RV (2006)

Will Robin Williams return to form in this family comedy?

RV are the initials for “recreational vehicle”, better known as the trailer that people use for their cross-country vacations in North America. When you throw hapless people on a long ride on one of these vehicles, the comic possibilities are endless – and so are our memories of Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series in the 1980s and Lucille Ball in The Long, Long Trailer in 1954. The family road trip comedy is one of the least likely movies you’ll expect to see Robin Williams in. It’s a well-worn genre that appears to have run out of new ideas, even though recent entries easily entertain and please the family audience. Will RV be the first movie in this comedy genre to break the camel’s back and chalk up yet another failure for Robin Williams after Bicentennial Man, or will this Williams’s comic genius breathe life into this genre and propel his long-awaited return to box office success?

In RV, Robin Williams plays Bob, the head of the Munro family. Bob is a loving husband and father, but the years of devotion to his job has lost him the love of his wife and children. Bratty children unimpressed with the father figure are a standard of the family road trip movie, but Cassie (JoJo Levesque) and Carl (Josh Hutcherson) dish out the put-downs constantly to humiliate Rob. Jamie (Cheryl Hines) is even more scathing and obnoxious to Rob than her children. To make things more miserable, Rob’s slimy boss demands he cancel his Hawaii vacation to give a corporate presentation in Colorado or risk losing his job. This sets off Rob’s scheme of renting an RV for a family road trip to vacation at the Rocky Mountains.

This particular innovation is moderately successful. Part of the comedy in RV comes from the nastiness Rob endures from his family and boss and his humorous reactions to them. These characters come across as difficult to like, but I couldn’t help smiling at the sense of meanspirited fun that Hines, Levesque and Hutcherson radiate when they tag team on Robin Williams. Kudos should go to Hines, an alumni from the Groundlings Theatre comedy troupe and a regular of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for her comic ensemble training. Robin Williams’s improvisational skills are still fresh, but he plays his part with so much uncharacteristic restraint you begin to wonder when he’ll explode, Adam Sandler style, at his mean family.

Here’s my beef with RV: Robin Williams may be funny, but the script does nothing to exploit the new twist in RV’s setup. It’s as if Geoff Rodkey imagined casting Adam Sandler when he first wrote the script, but realised that Sandler is about 10 years too young for the role. Robin Williams’s Bob never explodes, even though the script still builds towards it. It’s a letdown that the movie veers from its borderline subversive path to wholesome mainstream goodness after the half-way mark through an unconvincing incident.

The good news is, the mainstream and predictable elements of RV are genuinely funny. There are jokes about driving trailers badly, the mishaps of cross-country road trips, and the encounters with an overfriendly rural family in a trailer who end up sharing the same itinerary as the Munros. There is something about the performances by Robin Williams, Chery Hines and Kristin Chenoweth (best remembered for her recurring role in the final seasons of The West Wing) that make ordinary and normal gags feel much funnier. This may not be much, but even when RV breaks no new comic ground, it still feels superior to most recent comedies, and it stands head and shoulders above all the comedies released so far this year.

Is this a definite return to form by Robin Williams? There’s too much restraint in his performance, so we don’t see his madcap genius. His comic timing and talent for stand-up deliveries and one-liners is still intact. RV is a delightful comedy, but doesn’t qualify as a proper test for the great comedian. RV is the first out of seven films starring Robin Williams this year (including Mrs Doubtfire 2), so we’ll have plenty of time to savour his performances.

First published at incinemas on 15 June 2006

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Ushpizin (2004)

An intimate look at how 10% of the population lives

The Israeli Film Festival returns to Singapore this month with an offering that showcases the rich and diverse culture and storytelling of its peoples. Its opening film, Ushpizin (Hebrew for “The Guests”), touches on the lives of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Jerusalem. Often caricatured in secular culture as the bearded people with funny black hats, the Hasidim now have a film of their own, one that offers a non-judgemental and authentic inside look at the life and joys of their world. That their voices are now heard in cinemas is particularly important as Hasidic Jews number slightly over 10% of the population in Israel, and lead ascetic and secluded lives, far away from mainstream secular society.

Ushpizin is a comic drama, a modern parable about a poor Hasidic couple living in a tenement. Moshe (Shuli Rand), a recent convert, works as a rabbi at a Breslav yeshiva, where he depends on worshippers and the temple committee for his wages. It’s a day away from Sukkot (an important religious festival in the calendar which commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the desert in Exodus, and gives thanks to their God for providing for their needs), but the temple committee decides to withhold the stipend Moshe so desperately has been counting on. Penniless and heavily in debt, Moshe and loving wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) are simply out of luck. They have no money to buy the items necessary to observe the festival in the proper manner – three plants, a citron fruit (apparently the price of these items experience a shot in the arm during the festive season), and a sukkah hut.

It’s a testimony to their religious discipline and faith that the couple do not break down or remonstrate against their God. Instead, they smile and pray for a miracle – miracles can only happen if they pray hard enough about something they really want. Providence comes in the form of a last minute donation of $1000 from an American to the yeshiva, a gorgeous hand-me-down hut, and a priceless, perfect citron. What more can they ask for? Better yet, the couple even get to keep the commandment to host visitors in their sukkah, when two friends from Moshe’s past (played with glee by Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani) come to visit.

Of course, there’s a danger to making wishes: be careful what you ask for. Those friends are escaped convicts on the run and non-believers to boot. The optimism and unbridled joy of the first act (the couple are generally happy even in their poverty and even happier when succour arrives) quickly gives way to a moral play: Will the raucous and troublesome guests blow Moshe’s cover to his community and damage his marriage to Malli? Will Moshe and Malli keep (and find joy in) their religious obligation to extend their hospitality to their guests? Will this be Fiddler on the Roof meets A History of Violence?

The remarkable thing about Ushpizin is how it tries – and succeeds – to be many things at the same time. It is an intimate and authentic (but not romanticised) anthropological film set exclusively in a cloistered religious community. It is also a heart-warming and optimistic film about ordinary people going through the worst week of their lives. At times, it threatens to abruptly switch gears into a violent tragedy; while it never does, both director and writer have such a mastery over their material that the fine balance and the precarious tipping points are believable and emotionally real. It is also a parable, complete with tests of character for its protagonists, and offers subtle lessons on humility, faith, and joy.

As befits a modern parable, the plot advances through a barrage of coincidences and cosmic jokes that may put audiences off if they expect a realistic and gritty film. You’ll simply have to recognise what the film sets out to do, and adjust accordingly. If audiences can get past that, they will no doubt marvel at the performance and writing of Shuli Rand, who retired from stage and film acting some time ago after his conversion to the ultra-Orthodox faith nine years ago. His real life wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand has her debut in Ushpizin (religious rules forbid Shuli from performing with a woman other than his wife), and she is a natural actor who often steals the scenes from Shuli. Their onscreen chemistry fills the cinema with sparks.

One is amazed at how long it has taken for the ultra-Orthodox to make films about themselves, animated by their worldview, devout spirituality, and infectious optimism. Just like how the Latter-Day Saints have surprised the world by making winsome comedies with Mormon cultural references like Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Pride and Prejudice (2003), there is hope yet that Ushpizin will become a beachhead for Hasidic filmmaking.

Sunday, 23 April 2006

Invisible Waves (2006)

An surreal film about the mysterious ways of the universe

There are directors who put their unique stamp on every film they make. Lesser directors just make the same film over and over again, telling the same story with different characters, in different settings. My respect goes to Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who infuses his oeuvre with his unique blend of absurdism and surrealism, yet makes every new film unrecognisable from his previous work. In Invisible Waves, the director brings back Tandanobu Asano, Prabda Yoon and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, collaborators from his previous film, Last Life in the Universe. I must warn you now that although familiar faces (Asao) and names (Noi and Nid) appear here, Invisible Waves is nothing like Last Life in the Universe.

The plot in Invisible Waves, if you really must know, is relatively simple: Kyoji (Asao), who lives in Macau, commutes to work every day to Hong Kong to work in a Thai restaurant. He has an affair with his boss’s wife, and when the affair is discovered, Wiwat (a fatherly and genial Toon Hiranyasap) orders Kyoji to kill her. When the deed is done, Wiwat sends Kyoji away on a cruise ship to a hideout in Phuket. What is worth watching instead, are the increasingly strange and bizarre events that occur to Kyoji during and after the cruise. In a dreamy kind of logic, these appear to mirror the assassin’s guilt, his mental breakdown, the fruits of his bad karma, or all of the above.

All of this are deliciously and unhurriedly framed by the camera work of Christopher Doyle, who manages to evoke the feeling of claustrophobia, whimsical surrealism, and a brooding sense of unease – effects far removed from his usual repertoire in Wong Kar Wai’s films or even his directorial debut, Away with Words (incidentally also starring Asano). While the use of filters and colour grading are still recognisably Doyle, audiences will feel they’re watching his famed camera work through a warped looking glass. When his cinematography is combined with the dark, distended and dissociative synthesizer soundtrack from Hualampong Riddim (who must be channelling the ghost of Mazzy Star here), Invisible Waves becomes an unsettling film that distances its audience from expectations of an easily digestible flick.

That’s not to say that Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s film is dreary or cannot be enjoyed. On the contrary, bizarre elements quickly pile up once Kyoji steps onto the cruise ship, starting with a foldable cabin bed that has a mind of its own, a bartender who wipes blood off an aquarium tank filled with sharks, and a room whose ventilator seems to be connected with the steam exhaust of the engine room! This is pure surrealism, but never as sidesplittingly funny as the weirdness that Hideki Sone’s character experiences during his long road trip in Takashi Miike’s Gozu.

Instead, the surrealism is counterbalanced by the sense of bad karma and impending retribution. In a universe that seems to make no sense, where nonsensical events plague Kyoji (including a Kang Hye-jeong, who appears to be reading her English lines phonetically), can he find a way to live with his recent actions, or make amends for what he has done? Or will the universe, with its mysterious and malevolent ways, do him in first? Pen-Ek Ratanaruang must be commended for making a film that convincingly blends surrealism and absurdism – the concepts that nothing happens for a reason, and the demand that man must find meaning and morality even if nothing makes sense – without a depressing or trite script.

Asano is perfect as the shell-shocked, almost sleepwalking assassin, while Toon Hiranyasup employs his nice-guy image honed in previous Thai films to draw a sympathetic portrait of a man who just ordered his wife killed by the same person who was having an affair with her. Eric Tsang has a memorable cameo as a monk or an ersatz monk whose mini-temple in Hong Kong is a front for a weapons shop that Kyoji patronises. The cast in Invisible Waves carry their roles solidly; a lesser ensemble would have sunk this film in an ocean of laughter.

This film is a drastic departure from Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s previous films. Dark, brooding and difficult, it may put off fans used to the cheery style of Last Life in the Universe. Even so, it signals a turning point in the director’s filmography, and I am now curious about which path his next film will take.

Invisible Waves challenges, puzzles, entertains, and engages well with its audience, provided they are in a mood to be challenged.

First published at incinemas on 22 April 2006

Saturday, 22 April 2006

Friday Night Lights (DVD) (2004)

Why make it look like a documentary if you’re not going to tell it like it was?

In the economically-depressed small town of Odessa, Texas, the Permian High School is the foremost football high school and its Permian Panthers team, the darling of the townspeople. Friday Nights Live chronicles the team’s failed championship bid in the 1988 season, and offers a peek at what it’s like to live in a town obsessed with football and how it feels to have the hopes of thousands of grown-ups pinned on a group of 17-year-olds.

There is much to be said about the feel of the film, which is achieved by the copious use of jerky handheld cameras, close up shots that have faces taking up half your screen, over the shoulder angles that leave the other half of the screen covered by the back of some actor’s head, and amateurish fast panning and constant zooming in and out on moving characters. Yes, the film looks and feels like a documentary, and this will set it apart from the hundreds of sports movies generated by Hollywood so far.

While looking like a documentary, Friday Nights Live still manages to play like a typical zero to hero sports team film, complete with standards like a hard-hitting but caring coach, players tackling their own egos, family relations, career-threatening injuries, psychological blocks, and performance anxiety. In fact, by the final third of the movie, you wonder why the director, his director of photography, and their editor bothered to create the documentary feel, given the overdramatic and predictable build-up to the championships and a high-scoring game that won’t be decided until the final second of the match.

Why make it look like a documentary if you’re not going to tell it like it was? Odessa was a huge town, numbering more than 100,000 people, and Permian is one of the only two large-scale schools there. The Permian Panthers lost to the Carter High School team in the semi-finals, not the finals, and it was a low-scoring affair. Instead, little touches in the film hint at the different and more superior path it could’ve taken – the townspeople are obsessed to the point of freakishness, pressuring coach and players to deliver results, while senior community leaders and backers of the team continue to wear rings commemorating their participation in previous championship-winning Panther teams, back in their heyday.

An excellent sports documentary could’ve been made from this material. After all, Tim McGraw’s abusive local football legend character bitterly tells his underperforming athlete son that this will be the highest point in his life: “This is the only thing you're ever gonna have.” There’s something vastly interesting about people who think their lives will stop counting after their final high school college game, or people who need to experience the rest of their empty, meaningless, post-high school lives through the performances of 17-year-olds.

What kind of cultural desert, what kind of poverty-stricken economic wasteland, what kind of town would produce a people who put their young sons under such relentless and unhealthy pressure? This film is based on the original non-fiction book of the same title, which asked these questions and offered a sociological look at the income gap, racism, segregation and desegregation, and poverty in Odessa. That book created a hugely negative reaction from Odessa residents when it was released. This film, however, asks no hard questions and pleases crowds with a dramatic fairytale “little team that could” narrative that is at odds with its documentary style and the original material. Whether you like Friday Night Lights or not will depend on what you prefer – sports/social documentary or sports drama.

DVD extras

The most important extra is “The story of the 1988 Permian Panthers”, which catches up with the present-day lives of the main characters in the book and film. Some of the deleted scenes show just how bizarre and freaky Odessa residents can get in their obsessive support of the home team – I wish there were some way to work these into the film, to give it a more realism. The audio commentary with the director and writer is very informative, with Berg and Bissinger taking turns to quiz each other on the artistic choices made in the jump from book to film script, as well as the historical background of the story.

First published at incinemas on 21 April 2006

Thursday, 20 April 2006

Serenity (2005) DVD

Only for the compleatist

There’s a certain charm about the sci-fi Western, complete with federal authorities pursuing gunslingers, rebels and smugglers in a wild Frontier expanded to a galactic scale. This pulpy mashup genre was a regular fixture in the golden age of sci-fi, appearing in magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. It’s a mystery that despite their popularity in print, pure sci-fi Westerns haven’t made an appearance on television at all, aside from enjoyable Japanese animation series Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. As the first live action sci-fi Western on American television, Joss Whedon’s Firefly managed to garner a cult following despite Fox Broadcasting Company cancelling the series before the mid-season mark. Serenity is the big screen resurrection of Firefly, a gift to the legion of fans of the well-written series. With a very limited theatrical worldwide release last year, local fans of Firefly will want to pick up the DVD.

Serenity is both a condensation and continuation of the television series, reintroducing the main cast and setup to new audiences before resuming the plot from the television series. That’s actually a difficult task to handle. As a standalone movie, Whedon must ensure the characters are sufficiently fleshed out and properly introduced, while at the same time preventing existing fans from getting bored while waiting for the plot to catch up with what they already know. Here, I feel the writer-director does more than a serviceable job with his well-paced script. The characters feel the same as their television incarnations (it helps that the entire original cast of Firefly returned for Serenity); they even speak the same way as they did – which is to say all of them communicate in the same snarky teenspeak as characters in Buffy and Angel, other Joss Whedon serials. How you will take to that will vary, depending on your position in the Joss Whedon fandom.

Looks-wise, the sets and overall production value of Serenity resemble a 2-hour TV special of Firefly more than an actual movie. To be sure, Serenity cost USD 39 million, a very low budget for a film, but Firefly was an expensive series (costing an estimated 2 million per episode) that looked far better than this.

The plot of Serenity is serviceable and its twists and turns and clichés are standard Joss Whedon. It ties up most loose ends and unsolved mysteries in the series (I was fuming, however, at where the evil industrialists went to), while leaving a tantalising possibility for a sequel, either on television – something that will please fans to no end. The only other thing that will please them more is the availability of the Firefly DVD set in Singapore.

DVD Extras

Joss Whedon’s film commentary is something that all Firefly fans will appreciate. The director gives very detailed explanations for every scene and every set. Newcomers will find his frequent references to the television series informative, especially if they feel a little lost about the characters or the historical background of the Firefly universe, something plays a big part in the setup, but is too vaguely hinted in this movie.

The high value-addedness of the DVD continues with the deleted scenes, which receive their own commentary from the director – in Dolby 5.1. One gets the feeling that some of these deleted scenes should not have made the cutting board – they do provide the exposition that is important to newcomers to the series, and allow the film to stand on its own legs.

First published at incinemas on 19 April 2006

Tuesday, 18 April 2006

Karol: A man who became Pope (2005) DVD

This Italian-Polish-French-German-Canadian production covers events in the life of the late Karol Wojtyla between the German occupation of Poland in 1939 to his election to head the Catholic Church in 1978 as Pope John Paul II. There are three things you need to keep in mind while watching this: Karol is a fictional biography of the Pope, which means several characters and relationships have been invented in order to make the film feel more like a narrative drama than a dry documentary. That being said, the film is faithful to what we know about the early life of the Pope and at no point does the film invent details about the Pope himself.

Director Giacomo Battiato’s approach is to provide audiences an understanding of the historical conditions that created the world leader and shaped his unique outlook and philosophy. Originally shown as a two-part feature on Italian television before it premiered in Polish cinemas, the first half tells of the Polish experience of occupation by Nazi forces, their brutal suppression of the Polish citizenry and extermination of Krakow’s Jewish people, and the organised resistance which young Wojtyla (Piotr Wojtlya) finds himself embroiled in.

While Karol does not directly experience the worst tragedies that befall his countrymen, the film, through a host of invented characters and relationships, show how several role models influence Karol to choose a non-violent path of resistance, first as an actor in a patriotic underground nationalist theatre group, then as a priest.

The only weak point in this portion is what I call the ‘Allo ‘Allo effect: if the Germans, Poles and Jewish characters all speak in English, why are all of them speaking in multiple and varying accents, with the Nazi soldiers and their leader Hans Frank (Matt Craven) getting the most stereotypical and hammy voices since Indiana Jones and the Ark of the Covenant. There is also some whitewashing of history here: many Jews were persecuted and delivered to the Nazis by their generally anti-Semitic Polish countrymen, but watching Karol, you wouldn’t even know that such a thing happened.

The second part of Karol deals with life with Poland under the repressive Soviet police state, Kojtyla’s promotion to Bishop of Ombri and philosophy professor at the Catholic University of Lubin, and his decade-long dealings with Communist Party bosses who would like to see Roman Catholicism stamped out of the country.

While this portion offers the more engaging drama (in the form of pervasive spies and informers), I find few gaping holes in the telling. The pacifist resistance of young Bishop Kojtyla and his preaching of love as the only answer to violence, oppression and evil transforms without warning or explanation to a more rigorous (while still non-violent) condemnation of the brutal Party bosses. We do not know why the Bishop changed the focus of his sermons from the correct form of resistance for Polish Catholics to outright confrontation and condemnation of the authorities. This is a minor failure of the biographical film.

What I like about Karol, though, is a glimpse at the philosophical foundations of Kojtyla’s beliefs. The director suggests that later theology of the Pope may have been influenced by Kojtyla’s doctoral thesis Love and Responsibility, of which several passages are quoted throughout the movie, at appropriate scenes. He was an unassuming and unaffected athlete, writer, playwright, and one of the most rigorous thinkers in post-war Poland. For those of us who remember Karol Kojtyla as an old man, one of the longest-serving pontiffs, or as an ultraconservative, this film reminds us of the humanity and ordinariness of the man who became Pope.

Notes: The sequel, titled Karol: A pope who remained a man, will air on Italian television on Canale 5, on 10 and 11 May 2006

First published at incinemas on 17 April 2006

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Just Like Heaven (2005) DVD

Quite so fluffy

Reese Witherspoon is the star of this comedy, where she plays Elizabeth, a workaholic doctor who can’t remember why her spirit now haunts her old apartment instead of doing the usual ascension to heaven thing, or why David, the reclusive new tenant recovering from the recent death of his wife, is the just about the only person who can see and hear her.

With this set-up, the film will have several phases: Elizabeth refusing to believe in her current status (and mistaking David for an intruder), several brilliantly funny failed exorcisms, the mystery segment where David and Elizabeth put aside their differences (He’s alive! She’s a spirit!) to find out why she hasn’t moved on, and their eventual falling in love.

There’s nothing really special about Just Like Heaven. Its plot is essentially sound but with some holes here and there, which is quite expected of a romantic comedy where the audience needs to just accept things as they happen. Instead, what you should look out for are the top-quality performances by the always likeable Reese Witherspoon, whose professionalism and skill can transform any average part in an average film, the acclaimed dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo, who isn’t known for playing in comedies (his physical comedy reminds me of Jim Carrey), and Jon Heder, whose cameo as a psychic bookstore owner is a delicious send-up of Whoopi Goldberg’s psychic in Ghost. Their lines are smart and funny without being gross or juvenile.

Together, Witherspoon and the rest of the cast turn an average and passable script into a level just like heaven.

DVD Extras

Even if you’re the type who don’t bother to watch the extras, given that The Making Of features from DVDs tend to be played as long advertisements on television and TVMobile, you must watch the deleted scenes feature. I’m impressed with the amount of work that went into this. Actually these are more of scenes that when taken together, present an alternate version of the movie you just watched. Depending on the deleted scene, a sharper or even zanier movie emerges. The alternate ending shows how much effort the editors, writers and cast put in, just to crack a joke. The alternate/deleted scenes are definitely funnier than the gag reel, and if your sense of humour is sufficiently warped, even funnier than the original movie.

First published at incinemas on 15 April 2006

Saturday, 15 April 2006

Daisy 데이지 (2006)

You can’t make some flowers grow out of mud

Daisy overflows with possibilities; it represents an attempt to grow out of the formulaic direction of Korean cinema, by retelling familiar genres in an experimental way. Hye-young (Jeon Ji-hyun), an street artist becomes a love interest of Pak-ui (Jeong Woo-seong), a professional killer who prefers to observe her from the sidelines. He is hunted by Sung-wu (Lee Seong-jae), an Interpol agent whom the artist falls in love with, because she believes, erroneously, that he is the mysterious sender of the daisies she receives every day at 4.15 pm. Shorn of the daisies, this set-up borrows liberally from the past 20 years of Hong Kong cinema. There’s the love triangle story between an artist, an assassin and the cop chasing him, the hard-boiled Interpol crime story in Amsterdam (Hong Kong’s directors have this obsession with Amsterdam and Haarlem Square), and the gangster story involving the assassin. The challenge is to mix all 3 stories together into 1 movie such a unique way that can make you forget how unoriginal the ingredients were.

The first act of Daisy impresses with its innovative storytelling. The same story is told from the points of view of the three main characters; first, by the assassin, then the artist, and finally the detective. Each character is privy to knowledge that is out of reach from the other two, and yet unaware of other things that are known to them. This gives the comic and light touch that keeps the story fresh during the multiple retellings. At the same time, key scenes that keep repeating in the retellings gain an emotional and cinematic intensity that suggest the director and his writers are on the verge of an unforgettable movie.

Alas, everything falls apart near the end of the first act. Writers Chong and Kwak must’ve felt that it was would be enough to stitch a romantic comedy, a Korean TV melodrama, a cop thriller, and a Hong Kong crime story that incidentally feature some characters in common together, and a cohesive movie would emerge automatically. Instead, they have created a Frankenstein monster that is less than the sum of its parts, a movie whose abrupt mood and stylistic changes in every scene leave you disoriented, because no effort was made to work in the alchemy once the individual stories begin to intersect and meld into each other.

Before long, the movie looks like a montage of greatest moments from various Korean and Hong Kong flicks from the past, with well-dressed stars posing and preening in an exotic locale. Why is Daisy set it in Amsterdam anyway? I hope it wasn’t because Amsterdam used to be the favourite overseas shooting location for Hong Kong directors before the industry meltdown in the late 1990s. Why bother shooting a movie in Amsterdam if you’re not going to feature its sex industry or its liberal drug laws? Why turn Hye-young into a mute if you’re going to hear her constantly in the voiceover anyway? It’s pointless, because it steals without understanding from John Woo’s The Killer, where Sally Yeh was accidentally blinded by a stray bullet and is cared for by Chow Yun Fat, a top assassin who falls in love with her. Daisy could have been 10 minutes shorter had it not been for a pointless and tacked-on section that imitates the worst-written gangster movie endings from Hong Kong. Why does the theme song have to tell the audience the moral of the story, as though they can’t work it out themselves? The Final Fantasy video game series has theme songs in their closing sequences that state the morals of the story less blatantly than Daisy, surprisingly.

Derivative and weak, Daisy does not get my recommendation. Even if its first act held some promise, the rest of the movie fails to deliver, and quickly sinks into the quicksand it was built on. See this movie if you are a fan of Jeon Ji-hyun, or if you like watching movies that remind you of the reruns playing on television last week.

First published at incinemas on 27 April 2006

Friday, 14 April 2006

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Underappreciated today, but in 20, 30 years this film will be hailed as a classic

There are musicals, and then there are musicals. I once remarked to a friend that most film adaptations of musicals tended to be too mainstream and predictable: the ones that succeeded best had either a very simple and simplistic plot (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) or a happy ending (the otherwise cynical Chicago, or any of the musicals from the 1960s). Kevin Spacey presents to us a very different sort of musical, one that breaks out of every convention of musicals and conventional films, that is as complicated and convoluted as its music is enjoyable. In other words, Beyond the Sea is an audacious, ambitious attempt to create an enjoyable and intellectually busy musical.

You get the warning signs early on. Half a minute into the impressive opening number, the singer Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) imperiously interrupts the jazz band and demands they start from the piece from the top again. Turns out everyone is on a film set, with Darin trying to make a biopic of his own life, but unable to decide on the best way to tell the story, or what to sing for his opening number. He then walks over to the editing room to view the outtake on monitors and film equipment 20, 30 years ahead of his time period, and then gets thrown a question from a reporter on the set: “Don’t you think you’re too old to be playing Bobby Darin?”

I suppose the best person to act in a musical about the most arrogant and talented singer of his era would be the most talented and arrogant actor today. That’s Kevin Spacey, who does his own singing in the movie. Incidentally he’s a great fan and admirer of Bobby Darin and to add to the bargain, Kevin Spacey directs the film as well. The film becomes as much about Kevin Spacey as it is about Bobby Darin (Just like how the character of Orson Welles became an integral part of Citizen Kane).

Back to the reporter and his question. You really don’t know if he’s addressing it to Bobby Darin (who never made an autobiopic in real life) or to Kevin Spacey. Most of the lines in the movie are like that. It’s a rather playful and clever stunt that will be appreciated by some and derided by others. It’s really creepy to see Kevin Spacey, complete with receding hairline, play the 20-something Bobby Darin and hamming it up as a teen idol singing “Splish Splash” to a studio of screaming teenagers. It’s really entertaining if you ignore that fact and concentrate on the well-sung and choreographed numbers. But if you accept that fact and keep it at the back of your head, it’s also a hoot to spot the film proclaim its own artificiality (during a flashback sequence, the child Bobby complains to the adult Bobby that it’s unreal to have the entire street filled with people dancing), especially since the receding hairline joke keeps popping up at the most unexpected moments.

I’m happy to say that it’s possible to ignore all this if you feel such gimmicks are too artsy or tedious. Kevin Spacey dances and sings pretty well, and is a decent facsimile of the real Bobby Darin, a frail but determined and arrogant singer who sang his way to the top. In fact, he’s a much better actor than Bobby Darin. Aside from the singing, the accompanying big band music is authentic and lively, and the jazz and pop music manage to bring back the heady feel of the 1950s and 1960s. The sets – whether outdoors or in the nightclub scenes – are a colourful feast for the eyes.

The director, over-clever as he may be, does demonstrate quite clearly his admiration of and identification with the often-misunderstood Bobby Darin. There is no better actor to portray the singer. Co-stars Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn round up the piece with memorable performances. In fact, you will be delighted at the surreal but touching ending, where Spacey shows he can share the stage with someone unexpectedly talented as himself.

First published at incinemas on 20 April 2006

Monday, 10 April 2006

Where the Truth Lies (2005)

Beneath this murder mystery lies a cautionary tale of celebrity idols

Ah, the lure of showbiz, circa 1950. Appearing in stand-up acts at nightclubs, comedy revue shows at theatres and wildly popular telethons on television (think a Hollywood version of the NKF charity shows), Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) work a classic straight man–funny man comedy act that pleases crowds tremendously. The fictional comedy team are on top of their game. They have the money (and those were the days when a million dollars was a great deal of money), the audiences, and all the girls they want. The discovery of the corpse of Maureen O’Flaherty, a college student, in the bathtub of their hotel suite one morning signals the end of that dream, even though there is never any evidence to link both comedians to the girl. The duo will never perform together again, speak to each other, or answer any questions to the press about the mystery.

The world has turned into a different place in the 1970s. Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) is a writer who specialises in tell-all celebrity biographies. Through creative means, the determined young woman manages to secure a contract with Vince to write his biography (Vince apparently needs the money). Will Karen be able to convince Vince to spill the beans? Will she, a lifelong fan of Lanny and Vince, be able to face whatever truth she learns?

Etom Egoyan’s latest offering is a multi-layered tale that attempts to work on many different levels all at once. At the most basic level, Where the Truth Lies appears to be a straightforward murder mystery. There is a body, there are only a few suspects who were around the time of the murder. Better still, Lanny and Vince apparently locked their conjoined hotel suite doors that evening, so the murder had to be in the hotel room already – the most annoying thing in murder mysteries is the unveiling of a completely unknown character as the culprit. The question, then, is who killed Maureen, what was the murder weapon, and why?

But remember, Egoyan is hardly known for making genre films. All of his previous movies featured twisting, convoluted plots, and Where the Truth Lies is no exception. This murder mystery is Rashomon meets Sunset Boulevard. Through a series of machinations and sometimes questionable tactics, Karen cajoles the aging has-beens to slowly peel away at the truth, yet every version of the story each comedian tells holds back something even more shocking. On screen, the events of the same fateful night are continually reconstructed as Lanny and Vince attempt to tell the truth – but not all of it, and as Karen attempts to reconstruct the real story in her mind. With each re-enactment, new and unpleasant truths emerge (Notably, in “real life”, Lanny and Vince are not quite the nice guys they appear on stage) that hint at some scandalous secret that led to Maureen’s murder and death. And each further re-enactment causes viewers to suspect that there must be some deeper truth behind what they have been presented with. Very few directors can pull this off convincingly and without annoying or confusing their audience.

At the same time, Egoyan’s movie pays its dues to the film noir genre, with copious amounts of voiceover narration by all 3 principal characters. There is a certain hardboiled quality to how the investigation unfolds, and the gritty and unsavoury world of the 1950s it gradually uncovers. Getting the noir feel right is no easy task, but it is even more challenging to create and sustain that mood when the events of the movie took place in the booming, glamourous 1950s (this period marked the rise of television and tv celebrities) and the psychedelic 1970s. It’s a peculiar experience to watch the picture-perfect 1950s and 1970s sets, and know at the same time that this is a noir film – and that despite how it sounds, this apparent mismatch actually gels together quite well.

Egoyan never plays any genre straight and shows it again here. Traditional noir is marked by a sense of physical danger lurking behind every frame, ready to pounce on the male detective character. Since the sleuth in this film is a young woman, Egoyan replaces traditional danger with emotional blackmail and very weird sex (that apparently is another one of his trademarks). While it may be somewhat gratuitous, I believe this choice works, only because it creates a sense of something rotten lurking behind the simple murder mystery, something so rotten it could even contaminate Karen O’Connor.

For all that, Where the Truth Lies would merely be a clever movie. However, the screenplay is deep enough to reach the souls of its characters, and offers some thought-provoking insights. Egoyan casts a discomforting light on the creation of idols, the lure and allure of celebrity to performers and their fans, and its intoxicating and corrupting influence on all parties. Kevin Bacon utters one line that illustrates all of that, when he confides to Karen that “Having to be a nice guy is the toughest thing in the world if you’re not.”

Also, I’m struck by the similarities of this film to Capote. A celebrity journalist sets out to uncover the truth about a murder mystery, and has to play a cat and mouse game with the interviewees in order to get them reveal more of the truth. There is a struggle of wills and power between the investigator whose career will be made once the interviewees tell the complete truth, and the interviewees who want to preserve their own agenda to control what the interviewer can and can’t know. Where the Truth Lies is much darker, mainly because the deception and emotional blackmail played by both sides knows no bounds, and because both sides must go all the way to either uncover or obfuscate the truth.

Egoyan is a consummate storyteller and filmmaker, and I have very few objections to the film. Several details are changed from the original novel by Rupert Holmes, some of which may affect the audience’s impression of who really killed Maureen Flaherty. You’re forced, at the end of the film, to wonder if the revelation is the final one or whether someone has told an untruth somewhere. You will step out of the cinema confused, trying to work out the infinite possibilities, or possibly get a copy of the novel for yourself. That may be a good or bad thing, depending on your preferences.

First published at incinemas on 20 April 2006

Black Night 黑夜 (2006)

Run quickly, it’s coming after your purse! You’ll wish this film never existed.

It must have sounded like a sure-win idea. Making a film is an increasingly expensive enterprise as consumers demand higher production standards, while pirates make bootlegs of your movies scarcely a week after it hits the screens, and distributors release the VCD or DVD a month after that. What you need is a cheaper way to make a film, so how about finding 3 directors from different countries to make 3 separate short films and join them together after they’re done shooting? The costs of production will be spread out among the investors, while you can get fans from 3 countries to watch. And then, you can market it to film markets in the West as an “Asian Horror Anthology”, and their critics will go soft in the knees over the exotic and cultural importance of your film.

It’s a fool-proof plan. It’s also not far removed from the very smart plan in The Producers. I watched Three in 2002 and realised that you can’t count on each member in a 3-legged film to produce work is as good as the other two. In fact, like most similar anthologies, you can count on the film to contain one dud, one indifferent effort, and one rough gem. Since short films are used by directors to pitch for a full-length feature, you might see the longer version of the best short as a bonus on the DVD.

Three was an average anthology with hits and misses. Its sequel, Three Extremes, was a real gem since all the directors cut no corners, gave their best efforts and made each segment unforgettable by going beyond the typical horror fare. And since we already have an average Three, a brilliant Three Extremes, perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that Black Night is the dud. Black Night is not related, funded, or produced by the same people who made Three and Three Extremes. But clearly the temptation to use a winning formula proved to be too much...

Next Door

The fact was simple: he wanted to take care of Annie Wilkes himself. He had been that man, and he supposed he ought to be ashamed, but that man had had two big advantages over this one: that man had had two feet. The snow storm to which Paul had awakened the day after his expedition to the bathroom had gone on for two days — there had been at least eighteen inches of new fall, and heavy drifting. Aye, she were a great lady, and it is a terrible thing the way His Lordship's went on about it — “Aye, she was fine,” Geoffrey said gently, and found to his dismay that his own tears were now close, like a cloudburst which threatens on a late summer's afternoon.

Indeed, the paragraph above doesn’t make any sense at all. It is in English and consists of grammatically-correct phrases that even make sense when taken singly. You’ve probably seen something like this before, perhaps in a spam email that you promptly sent to the trash with your delete button. Patrick Leung’s Next Door segment is like that. It is recognisably a horror short. The scares kind of make sense when taken singly. Yet they make no coherent story as Leung’s approach is to just take out every scare tactic and horror movie convention and string them together without sense or sensibility.

How did it work on the audience? By the nth time he brought out another stock ghost sequence near the end, the folks in the cinema had gotten so tired of the everything and the kitchen sink approach that they burst into laughter at the sheer horror of watching a horror film written by a director who apparently doesn’t know how to make a short film, and understands very little about horror.

Leung has none of the originality of Peter Chan in Three and none of the pointed social commentary of Fruit Chan in Three Extremes. He doesn’t even have Christopher Doyle, who did the cinematography for both directors and ensured their short segments looked nothing like a typical bad Hong Kong ghost movie from the 1980s. Leung should be very, very afraid.

Black Hole

Takahiko Akiyama was the man who did the art direction in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. He also wrote and did the special effects in last year’s underappreciated Hinokio. If you didn’t walk out of the cinema in the middle of Next Door, Akiyama shows how to make a decent short horror film. It’s so engrossing that you won’t even notice he did it on a low budget. Actually, you’d notice how cheap and cheaply made Next Door looks.

Akiyama’s short combines creative use of camera angles and judicious CGI effects to tell a psychological thriller and horror story about a woman who remembers nothing about her childhood, despite having people close to her die mysteriously. Of all 3 directors, Akiyama is the only one who understands that true horror lies in not unveiling the real monster – every thing becomes more scary if it’s mediated through hazy childhood memories, hallucinations, and mutilated corpses. The material is sufficiently coherent and plausible enough to warrant a longer script, and I look forward to watching a feature-length version of Black Hole from Akiyama soon.

The Lost Memory

Thanit Jitnukul never ceases to make trashy and interesting movies. From a director whose oeuvre includes Andaman Girl, a mistaken identity gangster gay porn comedy, and Bang Rajan, a B-grade no-budget version of Suryothai, I expect many great things. You wouldn’t have known that THE Thanit Jitnukul could make an average, boring, conventional horror picture – he must’ve been sleepwalking through this segment somehow. Think of how it could’ve turned out if Thanit stamped the segment with his extreme B-grade sensibilities. Instead, the audience gets yet another boy in full-body paint, puddles of water flowing down the stairs, and a mother-child story, combined with the same amnesia plot device as Kim Ji-woon’s segment in Three.

The Round-up

When the Scary Movie series makes fun of Ju-on, Dark Water and Ring, it’s a sure sign to move on to new gimmicks and ways of telling horror stories. Even Takashi Shimizu reinvents the genre with every subsequent entry in his J-Horror Theatre project. It is clear that Three Extremes represents the peak of the Asian Horror Anthology franchise, with Fruit Chan’s social commentary, Park Chan-wook’s morality play, and Takashi Miike’s extreme, disturbing and bizarre perversions.

Dark Night merely looks like a movie put together by disowned drop-outs from a film school run by Shimizu.

First published at incinemas on 13 April 2006

Saturday, 8 April 2006

King Kong (2005) DVD

King Kong’s back! Bigger, longer, and more insufferable! Peter Jackson blows King Kong to LOTR-sized proportions

Surely you must’ve watched the original King Kong some time in your life. It’s the grandfather of monster movies, and the image of King Kong grabbing the screaming Faye Wray as he climbs the Empire State Building will forever be seared into our pop culture consciousness. King Kong wasn’t the best movie of its era, nor was it the most original. Instead Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack ransacked all the current special effects and camera tricks used in other films to create a movie that would inflame the imaginations of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson and inspire them to make movies of their own.

Cashing in on his success from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson decided to remake King Kong as his next project. The director has chosen to work in the spirit of the creators of the original movie, which means his version features as many special effects and CGI methods cribbed from other science fiction and monster/horror movies he could find. Will the result be a spectacular and inspiring work of art, or will they only remind us of what movies Jackson’s special effects are imitating?

In addition, the original movie was politically incorrect, with accusations by film critics that Kong and the natives of Skull Island stood in for every backward, uncivilised, barbarian savages who require subjugation, or even the African-American other. Others have complained about how creepy it was for a giant gorilla to tear apart a screaming Wray’s blouse (that’s the other unforgettable scene from the movie). How will Jackson make a more politically sensitive, yet authentic film? And we do expect Jackson to put his own mark on the movie, since it’s pointless to make a straight, scene-for-scene remake.

With so much many issues for Jackson to contend with, does his remake work? I definitely would agree that King Kong is visually stunning. From Depression era New York to Skull Island, Peter Jackson’s sets are meticulous and more real than real. On the special effects front, you can see references to Jurassic Park, Jumanji (there’s a stampede of dinosaurs), his own Lord of the Rings series (the only thing different in Skull Island’s jungle are the missing elves and ents, while the natives live in a fortress from Mordor), the Alien series (facehugging monster insects make an appearance), Arachnophobia (the original scene where the sailors are eaten after falling into a spider’s nest was deleted from the original 1933 film and recreated here) and even the Blair Witch Project (I disagree completely with the use of slo-mo, jerky handheld footage in a few scenes). The result is impressive, but it will take to time see if Jackson’s King Kong will inspire or even be more well-established in public consciousness than the 1933 original. Certain scenes, though, appear to be there just because they might spark off a really cool video game (King Kong wrestling multiple dinosaurs, knocking over cars, or scaling the entire New York City skyline).

Several key elements in the plot have been reworked to so that the movie bears the stamp of Peter Jackson. Notably, Jack Black’s Carl Denham is more of an Orson Welles figure, a genius director with a touch of the madness of Captain Ahab. Adrien Brody is too waif-like to play a leading hero but since Jack Driscoll is a playwright aiming for off-Broadway success, he fits in just fine until he starts scaling mountains to save Naomi Watts’s Ann Darrow. The most significant change is the relationship between the blonde and the ape. Jackson’s version will be known as the one that humanised King Kong (played by Andy Serkis), that made Watts sharing tender moments with the great beast instead of screaming at it for the entirety of the movie.

An unwelcome change is the persistent references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a character borrows the book, others quote from it) – the American party of explorers are less of colonising imperialists on Skull Island than crazed hunters of a Great Black Ape hiding behind the bushes. Sadly, the savage, barbaric natives have not been humanised or reworked. On the other hand, some memorable lines from the original are preserved, proving Peter Jackson knows just when not to change something for the sake of change.

One of the weakest points of the film is Jackson’s belief that longer is better. At 3 hours and 7 minutes, King Kong is very tiring to sit through. Even his final showdown with the planes on top of the Empire State Building reaches epic length. Kong’s death is foreordained, yet the planes fly round him again and again, shooting more and more bullets that hurt him, slow him down, but cruelly and sadistically don’t deliver the final blow. It’s like Peter Jackson decided to make The Passion of the Kong. That’s what I hope this otherwise great remake won’t be remembered for.

DVD Extras

Skip the R3 Singapore release. There are not much extras on this R3 disc, merely a car advertisement involving King Kong and a Tourego, and a tourist promotion advertisement for New York. You are advised to either buy the 2-disc R1 DVD set, which has a Skull Island pseudo-documentary, a 35-episode production diary, and a featurette on how the dinosaur fight was made. If you have the patience, you can wait for the 4-disc collector’s edition, which will feature commentary tracks from Peter Jackson himself, and probably an extended director’s cut.

First published at incinemas on 7 April 2006

Friday, 7 April 2006

Art of Seduction 작업의 정석 (2006)

Great premise but weak execution bogs down a promising movie

Let me tell you I like the idea behind Art of Seduction. Ji-won (Son Ye-jin) and Min-jun (Song Il-guk) are first rate players in the dating game. Operating separately, each has developed a set of rules to charm, snag, conquer, and then dump rich members of the opposite sex without incurring any painful consequences. The perks for Ji-won: free meals and extravagant gifts from lovestruck males. For Min-Jun, getting away with flirting and seducing many women in quick succession is its own reward. What happens when both master players decide to seduce the other? Who will give in first, whose tactics will emerge victorious?

The more important point, though, is these two players are in fact con artists armed with fake identities, professions, uniforms, and even a repertoire of scams (Ji-won loves to drive her car into her prey’s vehicle by way of introduction). The battle between two con artists trying to pull a fast one on each other, the clash of wills between a roguish male lead and a smart and dangerous vixen – this is more reminiscent of classic comedies of the 1950s than recent fare like How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Given that modern romantic comedies are mind-numbingly bland, the return to clever and intriguing setups like these bode well for Art of Seduction, and in fact the film shines in its first half hour.

The rest of the film details the escalating tug of war between Ji-won and Min-jun to gain the upper hand of the relationship over a series of dates whose failure occur precisely because both parties refuse to give in to each other. Somewhere in this section of the movie, one comes to a realisation that both parties are unlikeable, obnoxious liars, with Ji-won marginally more unlikeable than Min-jun. It is simply near impossible to identify or sympathise with, or care for these characters or the decisions they make (aside from the fact that they’re played by your favourite Korean film idols). There are several valid ways to continue – the movie would still work if it’s a satire of dating in general, or if both con artists move towards their eventual comeuppance. Neither of these happen. The film can’t decide whether to play as a satire or a straight romantic comedy (and that requires endearing both characters to the audience, something that is never done) and chooses to vacillate between the two. The resulting film is a confused creature whose plot is continuously pulled in two opposite directions and never manages to decide where to move towards.

The final act of Art of Seduction reads like a textbook for How Not to Write Romantic Comedies. Ji-won and Min-jun find out very early on, during their first outing, that their date is a player, a liar, and a con artist. Why they continue dating each other is unclear, and what they actually see in each other to justify that decision is unclear. As far as I can tell, behaving as Ji-won does, in a saccharine-sweet and artificially cute manner would an warrant immediate expulsion from the school of love rather than making her a “master player”. Perhaps Koreans have a vastly different idea of what’s hot in a woman, but this point sticks like a fishbone in the viewer’s throat for every occasion in the movie where Ji-won switches from normal to ghastly cute and girly. When the two con artists fall in love with each other for real, it’s so incomprehensible you keep feeling there’s a joke set up in there somewhere. Apparently, that’s when both characters are unveiled as players to each other. Wait, they were supposed to have known that early on, during their first date… Oh boy.

Art of Seduction promises so much in its premise and initial setup, but squanders it all by relying more on the star quality of its main characters to pull in audiences and box office receipts rather than a fully-realised script. On a brighter note, I am impressed with the supporting cast of actors, whose superior acting skills and comic timing liven up each scene they appear in. Park Yong-woo is underutilised as an ex-flame who can’t let go off Ji-won, while Hyun Yong is perfect as Ji-won’s girlfriend, who is either more nutty or more sane, depending on how you view it. Park Jun-gyu shows us how a truly charming conman/seducer would look like, as Min-jun’s millionaire father. It’s a pity that the supporting cast did not have more screentime to develop their roles. As a non-follower of Korean film idols Song Il-guk and Son Ye-jin, I kept wanting to see more of their more engaging and interesting co-stars.

First published at incinemas on 13 April 2006

Thursday, 6 April 2006

The Benchwarmers (2006)

Q: What can be better than a Rob Schneider comedy?
A: When it stars other great comedians and ex-colleagues from SNL.

Rob Schneider is the greatest American comedian alive. He – unlike his detractors – understand what good comedy is about. To have a great situation comedy, you need a gimmick, and a twist. For example, in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, the gimmick is Rob Schneider playing an inept and clumsy male prostitute. The twist is all his clients are bigger losers than his character. Or take Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant HBO comedy, The Comeback. The gimmick is an aging, fading, irrelevant comedian who attempts to stage a career comeback by starring in a reality show about her life, and the twist is Kudrow’s character is deliciously unaware of how pathetic she looks on camera (and how more pathetic she will look, post-editing), despite her efforts to convey her charming and optimistic personality on camera.

This is the gimmick in The Benchwarmers: Richie (David Spade), Clark (Jon Heder) and Gus (Rob Schneider) were always condemned to the back bench during sports games and bullied by the jocks when they were young finally get a second chance, much later in life, to play in the baseball league. This being an American sports movie, expect them to win, against all odds. The twist? Their fearsome and tough opponents are 10 to 12-year-olds, who have much more athletic talent than them.

Ordinarily, the sight of grown men beating children at sports is not funny at all. I consider it a sheer evidence of comic genius that this movie made me laugh non-stop, since the group of friends are as unathletic, uncoordinated, socially inept now as when they were 10 years old. So, the kids are more than likely to beat the grown men, if not for Gus, the only talented player on the team. It’s also a sign of brilliant writing that Richie and Clark remind you of real-life losers, and yet are able to remain likeable and worthy of some respect as human beings.

This film celebrates not just the athletically untalented (or the talented unathletes, in the case of Clark), but also the other group of social outcasts in schools, the geeks. Jon Lovitz has an unforgettable role as a geek who grew up to be a "zillionaire", and owns a house populated with Star Wars memorabilia.

What type of jokes can you expect in this movie? Surprisingly, The Benchwarmers has very few low-brow jokes that Rob Schneider’s previous films received criticisms for. Instead, the writers poke gentle fun at geeks, the weird and off-tangent lives and world of Richie and Clark, and America’s dual obsession with sports and the Internet. Most of the gags in The Benchwarmers are rooted in situational comedy and take preparation to set up, instead of the typical visual gags and one-liners we expect to see from modern low-brow comedies today. The writers appear favour situational comedy with less jokes in between, which produce a high percentage of hits to misses, over typical comedy, which produce many jokes, but a low percentage of hits.

Part of this change in comedy style from Rob Schneider’s earlier films can be explained if you look at the comic talent involved in The Benchwarmers. Lovitz, Spade and Adam Sandler are all alumni of the hit television comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. This film has the feel of a meticulously planned and written SNL product, rather than a Rob Schneider vehicle or even Adam Sandler comedy. As an ensemble effort, this film shows that more comedians are always better than one working alone. Kudos should also be given to the fast-rising talent Jon Heder, of Napoleon Dynamite fame. His dorky but optimistic vibes prevent The Benchwarmers from descending into a mean-spirited comedy that slams elite athletes.

In the end, you feel all the actors have really enjoyed themselves while making this movie, and that’s also their message to sport players and benchwarmers everywhere: you should be allowed to enjoy yourself, no matter how well or badly you play.

First published at incinemas on 7 April 2006

Tuesday, 4 April 2006

Running Wild 야수 (2006)

Well-made cops vs. gangsters drama follows classic formula. That proves to be its undoing

Will Kwon Sang-woo, the previously hot leading man of Korean television and cinema, be able to break his recent box office jinx? Released earlier this month in Korea, Running Wild performed below expectations, failing to ignite at the box office or take off with Korean critics. Thanks to the Korean wave, this movie may be able to recoup domestic losses through screens in China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore. It’s taking a page off April Snow, which failed to hit it with moviegoers (hardly anyone watched it) or critics (they found it boring), but became box office gold in Japan and Singapore with the help of Bae Young-jun’s fans.

I’m not saying that Running Wild is as weak as April Snow. On the contrary, Running Wild is very well-made and slick, even when compared to movies of the same genre from Hong Kong cinema’s golden age in the 1980s. It boasts the highest production values for an Asian cops vs gangsters action movie so far – and that surely counts towards something.

At the heart of the movie is the buddy film between by-the-books deputy public prosecutor Oh Jin-woo (Yoo Ji-tae) and hard-boiled detective Jang Doo-young (Kwon Sang-woo). Jang is the wild man of the two, preferring to solve crimes with his knuckles, while Oh is the mild-mannered office creature who relies on evidence, warrants, and subpoenas to bring down criminals. The two don’t mix well, but are forced in their interests to work together in order to bring down the kingpin of crime, Yu Kang-jin (Son Byung-ho).

There’s no excuse for unoriginality, but then again, there’s nothing wrong to being unoriginal. What matters is whether the film works as a whole, and how it compares to similar movies. Let’s look at the acting for the time being. Yoo Ji-tae plays the passive desk-bound prosecutor well enough, but creates no sparks. Forced to supply the dynamism to the buddy movie is the very mad (Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon mad) and out of control detective whom Kwon Sang-woo plays. He’s rather self-destructive and violently incompetent, but his fans will be howling at how their idol looks so unappealing and weather-beaten with his third-degree tan and monster of a moustache. This may very well be the first movie where Kwon does not lift up his shirt to titillate that very important demographic.

The real problem lies in the character of Yu Kang-jin. The kingpin is tough as nails, slippery as an eel, and wilier than a fox. The two cops attempt to hunt him down and pin a few unsolved crimes to him, and as per classic 1980s fare, the gangster too easily swats them away by manipulating the judicial and political system. The payoff and eventual resolution that audiences expect cannot be fulfilled, and it’s not because the director wanted a bleak ending. Like a few cops vs gangsters Hong Kong movies, the villain is too resourceful, powerful, and out of the league of the cops. The scriptwriters here have written themselves into an impasse, just like how the scriptwriters then wrote themselves into an impasse. The payoff in this movie, as with its filmic ancestors, is a hastily put together One Year Later sequence that comes out of nowhere (but yet is predictable if you know the particular formula) and screams “cop out!”

How does this film compare to the movies of the 1980s? The writing has not changed from the old formula. With better equipment, acting, a dedication to higher production values, and the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Running Wild looks much better than all the movies the audience are bound to be reminded of when watching this flick. We certainly hope that Singaporean moviegoers will be more appreciative of this attempt than the Korean audience.

First published at incinemas on 6 April 2006