Saturday, 29 July 2006

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

You won't perform any delicate surgeries in this car. No you won't.

There's only one reason why you’re reading this review, and I’ll bet that it has nothing to do with comparing FF: Tokyo Drift to works of art like Brokeback Mountain, Crash, or Capote. No. We are interested to find out if the FF: Tokyo Drift is a mean work of art. Unlike some credibility-challenged movie reviewers out there, let me make it very clear that I will not mention the acting capabilities of the cast of Tokyo Drift. This movie runs on a different set of energy sources, after all.

There are only 3 questions I need to answer before recommending you to bring your friends to the cinema.

1.How is the racing choreography? How good-looking are the cars?
2.Is the soundtrack something you can groove to?
3.How are the girls?

And any bonus would be a coherent plot (note I didn’t say believable plot), and whether this movie has any added depth. These two points make up the must-have X factor that might pip Tokyo Drift on top of its Fast and Furious predecessors. It's a must-have simply because Vin Diesel and Paul Walker do not star in this movie. Think about it: Vin Diesel, who was already irrelevant by 2002’s xXx, and Paul Walker, whose role involved sharing top billing with a pack of 8 sled dogs in this year’s Eight Below, could not be enticed to return for a second Fast and Furious movie. Is this a sign of an embarrassing end to the franchise?

Thankfully, up-and-coming director Justin Lin, who made a big splash at Sundance in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow, has invigorated the predictable series by moving the setting to Japan, the home of the Initial D manga and a sport known as drift racing. As a country where space comes at a premium, small is beautiful, and underground car races take place in multi-storey carparks. As newcomer Sean (Lucas Black) finds out during his exile from America, the tried and tested methods of drag racing won’t work out. You’ll have to learn how to drift, or in plain English, make your car skid and slide into sharp corners with precision.

As a result, the car races in Tokyo Drift are more interesting to look at, and when an entire fleet of racecars just drift by in perfect synchronisation. It’s not just eye candy, it’s car porn. I couldn’t imagine a sequence in the two previous instalments where the choreography was this appealing. And I couldn’t imagine watching Tokyo Drift’s racing scenes without the remarkable soundtrack for the movie. The movie is just filled with pop, punk-rock, ska, and Eurobeats, in both US and Japanese incarnations. When you combine good music to long stretches of car racing, what you get is pure bliss. FF: Tokyo Drift has music so hardcore that makes it look like a brilliant 108 min car commercial that you’d want to watch again and again, and then lobby Universal Studios to include a music-only audio track for the DVD, just like how John Williams’s orchestration was so good that Warner Bros decided to include a music-only track for the Superman DVD.

The only major letdown is in the area of the female cast. Aside from the main love interest Neela (Nathalie Kelley) and the 2 main squeezes of Sean’s friend and boss Han (Sung Kang), the quality of the rampant female objects on the screen is pathetic. I read that over 600 extras took part in the movie. Yet the camera, aware of their ugliness and ashamed of it, pans over the girls in a quick motion all the time, blurring their faces out of recognition, just to play safe. When the camera picks up enough courage to linger for more than a second on a female face, it’s because they finally got a decent enough extra.

Such camera behaviour is criminal, because it calls to attention the very fact that it attempts to obscure. But wait, here’s worse: for a movie set in Japan, how did the casting team fail to secure the immensely cute girls lounging around at Shibuya and Harajuku? I saw some girls in ugly makeup, some that could have passed for Japanese housewives in gear they are 10 years too old for, and much more Filipino-Americans than Japanese. Even Sean’s two male co-leads (Sung Kang and Brian Tee) are played by obviously Korean actors! Are the Japanese people still angry over the travesty that was Memoirs of a Geisha? Is this why they are punishing us? Oh, the horror.

And now, for the X-factor report. Yes, the plot is remarkably coherent, but I suspect it’s only because Tokyo Drift plays like an Initial D for the White Man. That said, I consider Tokyo Drift superior to Initial D for 3 reasons:

1. Better and more varied music.
2. The Japanese inventor of drift racing, Keiichi Tsuchiya, has a cameo in Tokyo Drift. Take that, Initial D!
3. Sonny Chiba appears in this movie. And practically steals all the scenes he appears in. In fact, at the end of the climactic race, Sonny Chiba radiates much more charisma that you expect him, instead of the winner, to get the girl.

And finally, the XX-factor that makes FF: Tokyo Drift a winner in my eyes, is its depth. Any movie that quotes Pat Morita's lines from The Karate Kid, does a homage to him and the old beggar from Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, and recreates the old mentor role so thoroughly and unexpectedly, is worth my Saturday night movie ticket money.

First published at incinemas on 29 July 2006

Friday, 28 July 2006

S11 (2006)

Are you scared of the dark?

The film industry in Singapore produces an average of 3 feature films a year – one by Jack Neo, another by Eric Khoo, and an independent title. 2006 is a bumper year for Singapore film: no less than 7 films will be released this year! We have 2 produced by Eric Khoo (Be With Me and 4:30), 1 from Kelvin Tong (Love Story), and 4 independently-produced features: Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga, Han Fook Kwang’s Unarmed Combat, and Colin Goh’s Singapore Dreaming.

Yes, I mentioned 4 independent films. The latest independent feature to hit the cinema screens this year is S11, by Gilbert Chan and Joshua Chiang. I understand their script has won the Singapore Screenplay Awards. That was in 2001, and the road from screenplay to feature film has taken a long 5 years. In that time, we have seen an explosion in local film, and drastic improvements in storytelling, production, dialogue and acting, even in independent films. Does 2001’s S11 measure up to the very large class of 2006?

In order to realise the significance and worth of S11, it is perhaps necessary for a rundown of the class of 2006, to look at their strengths and weaknesses.

Be With Me – Arthouse, poetic gem
4:30 – An interesting premise masks a lack of content, depth, and development, and showcases Royston Tan’s weakness in the feature film format.
Love Story – Very good first 30 minutes with wild and interesting ideas out of Italo Calvino, fizzling out shortly afterwards.
Singapore Gaga – Experimental masterpiece, a sonic painting
Unarmed Combat – A far cry from The Call Home, which remains the only flash of brilliance from Han.
Singapore Dreaming – basically an early Jack Neo film crossed with your average TCS 8 drama serial. Embarrassingly banal and unoriginal, trite and whiny – quite unlike Jack Neo or even your average TCS 8 drama serial.

As you can see, there isn’t a single mainstream feature film this year that would get me running to the cinemas. Part of it is the absence of Jack Neo. Part of it is the failure of imagination and creativity on the part of Singaporean filmmakers who do have the resources to make a feature film. We are stuck with the angsty HDB heartlands melodrama or the clever but only for the first half hour quirky film.

And then, we have S11. At first glance a story covering the events of one day and the lives of 3 unconnected people not so much are pulled together by fate as much as are clunked together haphazardly like ice cubes in a shaken glass. Their unconnected stories will link up, but in an unexpected manner, leading to either an explosive or wild resolution. This is a type of genre by itself, but it’s a genre with a very loose structure, allowing for all sorts of permutations.

Here, we have a salariman (Timothy Nga) working at a jewellery store who has lost a huge sum of company money when his suitcase is stolen by gangsters. There, we have a stuttering loser of a mousey cook (Kevin Murphy) daydreaming about being a hero in the Young and Dangerous series while the rest of the world laughs at his ineptitude and lack of cajones. And thither is a teenage student who puts on a pink wig and sells pornographic VCDs at makeshift stalls in order to raise support her family and boyfriend.

You know that all their problems will be solved by film’s end, but what is surprising is that I couldn’t really guess most of the time how that resolution could be effected. Unpredictable is the keyword here, and unpredictable is what the mainstream local features of this year are not. The dialogue was blisteringly funny, and the black humour had me grinning. Singlish, if used, was so lacking in artifice and self-consciousness that it ceased to be even noticeable. This is what a Singaporean film of quality should feel, look, and sound like!

As part of the MDA film project, S11 was shot in digital video (DV). This format, with its overly harsh look, sharp edges, and absolutely awful rendition of anything illuminated by fluorescent light, is usually a mainstay of indie short films and art festivals and a kiss of death everywhere else. Except here. Credit have to be given to Chan and Chiang and their DP for choosing locations that complement and show off the strengths of DV, and in one scene, actually managing to make digital video look almost like film. There are some very minor missteps that make you almost want to shield your eyes in the cinema, such as the use of slow motion and time-lapse sequences, which showcase the worst visual shortcomings of DV.

On the whole, I love S11 for being a truly original Singaporean film. While all the commercial releases of local films this year could be traced as “being influenced by the films of XX director or XX novelist”, I honestly could not imagine Gilbert Chan and Justian Chiang’s script or cinematography as derivative of any big names. These two independent directors have created a film that is all theirs, and I hope they bring more feature films to our cinemas in the future.

First published at incinemas on 3 August 2006

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

A Map of the World (1999) DVD

Oprah Winfrey recommends this film. The rest of you stay far far away from it!

The DVD cover of A Map of the World should have a sticker in huge friendly letters that say based on a novel selected by Oprah’s Book Club for December 1999. It serves as a flashing neon come-hither to fans of Ms Oprah or followers of her literary tastes, and a warning to the rest us mortals of mush and sentimentality far in excess of the limits of human tolerance. Not only that, but the novels selected by Ms Oprah’s book club tend to be tedious, aesthetically-challenged products of literary-wannabes. You know, the overreaching type.

If not for Ms Oprah’s ringing endorsement, there wouldn’t have been a small cinema release for A Map of The World, or a DVD release. Just how sentimental, bad, and stupid exactly is the book and the movie it is very faithfully based on?

Sigourney Weaver stars as Alice, a mother of a family newly relocated from the city to a rural town in Wisconsin. Her entire world is filled with stock characters from melodramatic weepies, such as a mentally and emotionally absent milquetoast of a husband (David Strathairn, finally cast as a parody of his trademark autopilot, absent husbands), whose presence, like their two unlikeable and unmanageable young daughters, exist solely for Weaver’s character to emote the “mum on verge of breakdown and exhaustion, yet strangely spirited enough to comment sarcastically or wittily at all family members”. It’s an absolute stinker from the start, folks, because while Weaver can indeed convey the emotions of such a character, that character and her immediate family already come across as fake and pretentious as the pretensions of the novel’s author.

We are to believe that the mundane, pedestrian chores of childrearing, the loneliness of being married to a hat that that mistook itself for a man, and being relocated from the stressful city to Green Acres is so alienating that, when Alices’s best friend and neighbour Theresa’s (Julianne Moore) kid daughter takes an unsupervised swim in her pond and drowns, the guilt is enough to send her reeling to cuckoo land.

This movie might have been good if it concentrated on how the two mothers come to terms with their joint and individual guilt. It might have been good if it concentrated on how the town begins to ostracise Alice. There’s a certain plot development that marked the transition of this film from “interesting despite of flaws” to “just plain bad”.

I am talking here of the false accusation of sex abuse by a student of a school where Alice works as a dentist. It is then that you realise this movie falls into the genre occupied by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where in pornographic detail, the hero of the genre movie is subjected to physically and emotionally painful ordeals, not because there is any redemption in sight or any value and significance to the suffering, but merely because The Hero(ine) Must Suffer. Unfortunately for viewers who didn’t fall asleep while watching the DVD, the director and scriptwriters present the most unreal, stupid and Illogical List of Ordeals ever to be subjected to heroines of melodramas.

Alice’s family is subjected to exclusion and pariahship, but even vicious adults in real life are sensible enough not to display their venom in front of their own children, for example. In this movie, they do that. Even smarmy, slimy lawyers (yes, there is a courtroom scene as well in this movie!) are not obnoxious enough in real life to pelt candies at the children of their clients. In this movie, lawyers get away with things like that, because milquetoast husbands are just so “with it” and full of sangfroid. Or maybe it was indifference. I wouldn’t blame David Strathairn for giving up on this movie, even though he is in the company of other big-name stars. And in this movie, black female inmates speak as though their white female novel authors have never met a person of colour in real life

Sigourney Weaver, bless her soul, never gives up with the script, and manages to give an energetic performance that manages to plumb the madness and grief of Alice. Unfortunately, this performance recycles the basic emoting from her far more superior and moving performance in Alien: Resurrection and The Ice Storm. Julianne Moore is very good, but is cast in such a small part that it hardly matters.

First published at incinemas on 25 July 2006

The Ice Harvest (DVD) (2005)

Billy Bob, we know you're a Bad Santa, but a lying, thieving Santa??

Here’s a slightly new take on the heist movie. What if, after the heist, the perpetuators cannot make their getaway? The Ice Harvest begins immediately after mob lawyer Charlie Arglist (John Cussack) and his professional partner, the strip club owner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) make off with local mob boss Bill Guerrard’s (Randy Quaid) proceeds. It’s a perfect heist, since Bill won’t discover the missing money until the duo, long under his thumb and control, are far away and safe from his hulking presence.

There’s a hitch, though. It’s Christmas Eve, and Kansas is snowed under, the roads are frozen, and the guilty parties are stuck in town until the next morning, by which time, it might be a little too late to escape Boss Bill. As Charlie puts it, “I sue people for a living. You sell pornography. Bill Guerrard kills people.” How will they get through the longest night in their lives? It is, after all, Christmas Eve, and they need to act normally and attend the requisite social parties, have dinner with the family, meet their friends, all without giving the game away.

Friendly company is hell, especially if you have plans to skip town. Being forced to spend time smiling to strangers and friends you cannot shake off because you’re supposed to be a nice person on Christmas Eve is like stuck in the ninth circle of Hell. Ramis, Russo and Benton deliver a scathingly satirical and darkly funny account of one Christmas Eve night, compressed in a very short and snappy 88-minute plot.

The Ice Harvest will be perfect if you can overlook one very glaring plot weakness. How is it that Charlie Arglist is the best mob lawyer in the entire state of Kansas – a boast that his very drunken best friend (and the husband of his ex-wife) carelessly makes during the entire evening – and yet appears to be the stupid partner in the heist team? It’s not that Arglist is relatively stupid compared to the criminal genius of Vic, but that he is in fact somewhat of a fool, so much so there is absolutely no arguing that temporary custody of the stolen millions will go to Vic. Because Arglist is not just a little dumb, but a little nervous and a little too nice to everyone. He’s a mob lawyer, mind you. At no point do the writers attempt to explain this incongruity, so the viewer is advised to suspend disbelief on just this one point.

But back to what is good about the movie! One thing to like: the morbidly funny dialogue. Almost every character with a speaking role in this movie speaks with a deadpan humour darker than indigo, because they realise what wretched lives they’re leading, and how nearly impossible it is for them to escape their fallen states. Yes, that means Billy Bob Thornton and John Cussack don’t get the funny lines in The Ice Harvest, but their supporting cast all do!

Thornton and Cussack are beneficiaries of the second comic device in this movie. How will they crack under the pressure? Who will they blab their secret to? And ultimately, because Vic is a cold and heartless genius and Charlie is a man of all heart and no brains with a soft spot for down-on her-luck nightclub manager Renata (Connie Nielson), who will betray and double-cross the other?

The proceedings are starkly portrayed without any appeal or pretensions to dramatics, cinematics, or self-conscious Tarrantino-style hipness. I believe it’s all for the better, because the entire post-heist film is a brilliant situation comedy whose edge is actually sharpened with every nauseatingly happy Christmas song in the soundtrack.

If you could accept the conceit of Cussack’s nice and dumb top mob lawyer role, there’s an additional payoff, in that part of the droll humour of the movie consists of just how nice Charlie is, in a very nasty world inhabited by mostly nasty people, and how he reacts to them. It’s a role that only Cussack can pull off, with his choirboy looks.

First published at incinemas on 25 July 2006

Monday, 24 July 2006

Nine Queens (2000) DVD

I’m a sucker for films about grifters. They’re what you’d call conmen, but that would be calling an artist “someone who draws pictures”. Grifters are those people who trick ordinary people into giving up their money willingly. It may take something as simple as offering an old lady a “magic rock” that could cure their ailments (the preferred scheme of local conmen), or something as complex as a rare vintage stamp collection that the title of this movie refers to.

Grift movies, like heist movies, are strictly genre. They’re readily identifiable, there’s very few variations to the plot we haven’t seen before, and adhere to several unwritten but iron laws. Inevitably, a grift involves a careful set-up, where the grifter acquires the bait and the assembles the necessary accomplices, and targets a victim. There will be a seemingly random encounter, followed by the grifter introducing the victim to the bait, pitching his con on the victim (“A relative of mine is in jail, and his assets all but frozen…” or “Aunt Bernise, can’t you remember your favourite nephew?”).

That may seem like a lot of rules, but just remember this: the key to the best con jobs, the ones that bring in the big money, depend on the greed and dishonesty of the victim, and requires a team of at least 2 grifters working in concert. The details may change, the lines used may change, but there are a fixed repertory of grifts, as limited as there are types of winning poker suits, for example.

In the beginning of Nine Queens, Juan (Gaston Pauls) does something no self-respecting grifter whould do: after trying the same trick twice at the same venue. Juan is caught red-handed cheating a cashier counter girl of spare change (the $45 dollar spare change trick), a cop, conveniently hanging out at the convenience store, apprehends the young man and walks him to the neighbourhood slammer. Except the cop is just an older and more experienced grifter, Marcos (Ricardo Darin).

Marcos, whose last associate has disappeared for a while, needs a partner to pull cons with. As a gesture of an older, wiser, statesman of crime, he decides to show the ropes to Juan, just for one day. And on that one day, both grifters are presented with the one-in-a-million opportunity to pull off the big one, when a disgraced Spanish politician in exile and stamp collector arrives at the local Sheraton.

Nine Queens is far less predictable than audiences expect, because Argentinean director Fabián Bielinsky combines the genre with a fresh and perverted angle on the buddy film. Marcos, as it turns out, is somewhat of a cold and heartless operator who actually preys on his partners. He is the worst sort of partner that the guileless, inexperienced, and principled Juan can team up with. If not for the fact that Juan has a natural talent for improvisation and a face that people can trust, he would be just a coman condemned to working on small change instead of partnering Marcos on this assignment.

There is much fun in watching this movie. Bielinsky showcases a few of the classic grifts for fans of the genre. Juan’s talents at improvisation gives an unpredictable, on-the-fly feel to every grift he pulls with Marcos. And the best part is wondering when and how Marcos will fleece Juan’s share of the profits.

I particularly like the nature of the obligatory twist in Nine Queens, as well as the smart, hard-boiled script and the ensemble cast. While Fabián Bielinsky directed only two feature films before his death in June 2006, it is not difficult to see why he has been looked upon by critics as an outstanding Argentinean director. I’m told that the English translation loses some of the slangy quality of the original Spanish dialogue, but the creative energy of the director shines through the camera.

First published at incinemas on 24 July 2006

Friday, 21 July 2006

The Libertine (2005)

Not even John Malkovich’s prosthetic member can keep Johnny Depp in the shadows!

When audiences watch The Libertine in the cinema, it is likely that some will notice the original compositions by Michael Nyman, who wrote the music for The Piano and Gattaca. For a period drama, you’d expect lots of fluff pieces. Some easy listening from that era, maybe a few gigues and sarabandes, all mildly agreeable, none at all memorable. Yet Nyman’s score, ever uncompromising, delivers far much than expected. The music in The Libertine is a authentic blend and reworking of Baroque, Renaissance, and minimalist styles; strangely old and new at the same time.

It will also be more than likely that the audience will notice the film’s cinematography. Again, for a period drama, you’d expect lots of frilly costumes, opulent sets and the like. Yet Laurence Dunmore rejects this Hollywoodised version of Ye Olde Englande to give us an uncompromising and historically informed portrayal of the 1660s. That means without the invention of modern plumbing and municipal sewage systems, London was literally covered in excrement (euphemistically known as "mud" and referred as such to the faint of heart). People waded through that stuff all the time in those days, and any expensively bedecked Cavalier gentleman, even a rake like John Wilmott, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (we’ll come to him in a moment), will get his attire soiled even on a stroll in town. And what better to capture this dank and dirty city on film than with a handheld camera, with grainy film? Everything old is new again, and very appropriately so.

It is entirely fitting then, that Johnny Depp plays the role of John Wilmott like a rock star. It is after all the Restoration, where Puritan mores and strictures have been overthrown and replaced with a creative flowering in the arts and sciences – and yes, even in sex. In the dizzy, bawdy age of the Restoration, Rochester was its shining star. Famed for his sharp tongue, acerbic wit, killer one-liners, and his riotous antics with the Rat Pack of his age, the earl was a dramatist and a skilled writer of profane verse or what we might call "naughty poems", except he writes them with such cleverness and style that they become art. He was also a close confidant and court favourite of Charles II (John Malkovich with a huge appendage), except during the times when he was exiled (but never for too long) for writing too satirical and bawdy a poem of the Merry Monarch. Did I mention that Rochester, like all good Cavaliers, was a hard drinking, dissolute rake? This man is sex on legs, and as Depp warns so charmingly in the prologue, "I am up for it, ladies. That is not a boast or an opinion, it is bone hard medical fact." The man is so very naughty, and yet so very funny. No wonder everyone loves him so.

Everyone loves Rochester! Alas, no party goes on forever, and after a spot of plagues and a Great Fire, even the Merry Monarch, the greatest rake in England, must put on a show of sobriety. And so must Rochester, for Charles II wishes that his close friend reform into a statesman and lend his oratory skills in Parliament, and also to write and stage a play that will impress the new French ambassador and make Rochester his very own Shakespeare. For a perverse man who works diligently at being dissolute, this extraordinary conferment is the beginning of a death sentence.

Everyone loves Rochester! Even his lawfully wedded wife Elizabeth Mallet (Rosamund Pike), who fell in love with him the moment he tried to abduct her in her girlhood. She doesn’t mind the philandering, the 5 years of constant drunkenness, or his dalliances at the whorehouse. Theirs is a love so complex and absolute that she is more offended by Rochester’s unnatural fascination with the playhouse (the panoramic shots of which are the only occasions of non-handheld camerawork in the movie) and his very chaste mentorship with Elizabeth Barry, the legendary actress of Restoration theatre, who was known at that time as the worst stage actress alive.

The Libertine is an account of Rochester’s physical, mental and literary explosions; the final 5 years of his life. Rock stars have overdoses, the 17th century had syphilis. And no self-respecting historically informed picture will be complete without showing at least one person with a face half-eaten by disease. And that would be Rochester’s. Would it be any surprising that a libertine would waste and die from exhaustion and excess? Would it be any surprising that a libertine will continue fighting for the experience of his life, even then? Or that despite his badness, we’d still continue loving his genius and company?

Even a very incensed and offended Charles II forgives (something went horribly wrong in his commissioned play), because Johnny Depp delivers a speech that eclipses John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man. For that speech, and for his performance in The Libertine, Johnny Depp really deserves not just an Oscar nomination, but the statuette itself.

The Libertine is utterly memorable because the brilliant conspiracy of Nyman’s score, Dunmore’s cinematography, and a rude and funny script by Stephen Jeffreys, who also wrote the original stage play.


Did you know John Malkovich played the part of Rochester in the 1995 stage version of The Libertine?
Watch out for John Malkovich’s prosthetic member!
Watch out for Jeffreys sneaking in actual poems and writings of Rochester in the movie.
Listen carefully for all the naughty puns and double and triple entendres.
Rochester’s manservant Alcock is more hilarious than Baldrick!

First published at incinemas on 27 July 2006

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Nacho Libre (2006)

This priest has been caught in a compromising position

If School of Rock represents Jack Black at the top of his game, Nacho Libre is one without a doubt one of the weaker offerings from the comedian and musician.

As you would know from the ubiquitous trailers by now, Jack Black plays Nacho, a Mexican priest who wrestles in secret in the city’s Luca Libre tournaments. Why does he do it? Nacho’s day job as a cook in a monastery is depressing; the church elders look down on him and his incredible lack of talent for cooking – or any duties, for the matter. His dedication and love for the orphans at the monastery and newcomer Sister Encarnacion (Ana de la Reguera) keep him going. A chance meeting with Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez) inspires Nacho to team up with the former street thief to embark on a wrestling career, and also provides money for Nacho to buy fresher groceries to make better meals for the orphans and Encarnacion.

Hilarity ensues because
1.Nacho farts a lot
2.He is a horrendously bad wrestler who loses every match
3.He’d go through any means to improve his wrestling skills

At this point, I’d like to say that Nacho Libre is mildly entertaining, only because of Jack Black’s delivery and lines are so ridiculous it’s funny. The fast-paced wrestling matches are cleverly-disguised skits on just how many ways can Nacho lose a match in a hilarious and catastrophic manner. They also have another function: speeding the audience to the end of the movie.

The best test for a comedy is this: Will you want to watch it again the next day? The premise of a wrestling priest is not offbeat or even gimmicky enough. While Black’s lines are ridiculously funny, there are no actual comic payoffs, and the movie feels like a collection of comedy sketches that have no punchlines at the end. These are a hallmark of a script that has been rushed, that should have been edited about two more times before the production of the movie can go ahead.

As it stands, Nacho Libre is a slightly above average comedy of 2006, only because of an escalation in risqué humour and scatological jokes in every other comedy (Scary Movie and Little Man, anyone?). For Jack Black or even director Jared Hess, this is one of their weakest films to date. Mildly amusing, but no real buzz.

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

Dragon Tiger Gate 龙虎门 (2006)

AFAIK, the 3 heroes of Dragon Tiger Gate are powered by Solution X. Apparently a shampoo brand.

Several thoughts were swimming through my mind as I watched Dragon Tiger Gate. Like, how do the three heroes manage to fight when their hair perennially flop over at least one eye? How does Donnie Yen actually beat evil minions up when he has hair that flops over both his eyes? Why does the villain look like Raoh, the overpowered final boss of the Fist of the North Star arcade game, and has the same cloak that deals insane HP damage?

Okay, maybe the evil minions are typical movie minions, blindly rushing into the fists, feet, or weapons of the protagonists. And if Donnie Yen can’t really see clearly the wall of minions that come crashing towards him, he’s got this move like the Hadouken from the Street Fighter arcade game that creates a force to clear the mob away without even touching them.

Now, when you have Donnie Yen as the fight choreographer for a wuxia movie, the last thing one expects is fantasy fight scenes assisted by wires and CGI. You wouldn’t expect to see heroes who are invulnerable to minion attacks for more than half the movie. And you certainly wouldn’t expect veteran stuntman and fight choreographer Yuen Wah, displaying technical proficiency in the Chinese glaive, to lose in a fight to some “god move” by the villain, whose fist glows red moments before the killing blow.

After the freshest take on fighting choreography in last year’s SPL: Sha Po Lang, with its innovative, fast paced, and realistic sequences, I don’t really know what Donnie Yen was doing in Dragon Tiger Gate, a film that is carried more by its CGI and comic book fighting than his choreography. After the brilliant storytelling in last year’s SPL: Sha Po Lang, I don’t really know how Wilson Yip manages to write a script that is filled with bad dialogue, poorly thought scenarios, and plot holes the size of the craters the villain leaves on the floor, pillars, and ceiling of his partially-CGI evil lair in the final showdown.

The worse part is, all this would be forgivable if this were a comedy in the vein of Wong Jing’s Future Cops, but the problem is Wilson Yip doesn’t set out to make a campy spoof of the original wuxia comic this movie is very loosely based on. There is, I am sure, an intrinsic value in unintended humour arising from cheesy dialogue from all characters, cutesey and abysmal acting from Nicholas Tse, who again manages to ruin every martial arts and period film he stars in (think: A Man Called Hero, The Promise, A Chinese Tall Story), and a badly-written script (why oh why doesn’t the silly girl use a broom to sweep the scattered beads on the stairs onto the floor and then gather them with a dustpan, instead of picking them one by one?), but this movie wasn’t made as a comedy, and this is indicative of a very bad movie project.

This film would be just fine if it were directed and written by Wong Jing, choreographed by and starring Stephen Chow, and has Ng Man Tat as the godfather of the hero. If Wilson Yip went all out to make this even more of a bad, campy, and nonsensical movie, I would actually be entertained. As it stands, this film fails at being a serious fantasy martial arts movie, yet it isn’t farcical enough to qualify as camp. It’s also a major disappointment to fans of Donnie Yen’s classic performances in Iron Monkey, Once Upon a Time in China II, and SPL: Sha Po Lang.

First published at incinemas on 28 July 2006

Monday, 17 July 2006

Thumbsucker (DVD) (2005)

Mum says that thing will fall off if you continue to suck on it!

In 2000, Darren Aronofsky made a film called Requiem for a Dream, about suburban anomie, the general addiction of people to their dreams. What I hated, hated, and hated about the film was Aronofsky pulled a bait and switch with us, because the film wasn’t about the addiction of people to their mistaken dreams and ideals, but about their addiction to drugs. Not only that, the film was a nothing more than a banal, shrill scream (DRUGS ARE EVIL!!!11) that would have fit in with the 1950s moralising social problem scarefest genre that delighted in whipping up conservative suburbanites into a moral panic on the supposedly rampant phenomena of urban ghettoes, promiscuous youths, teen gangs, cross-dressing and other moral ills that will destroy civilisation as we know it. Instead of a look at how ordinary Americans (and by extension, other people) are prisoners of their dreams and desires, Aronofsky gave us a stylised MTV experience, replete with all the laughably self-indulgent "special effects" and gimmicky shots that he pioneered to better and more honest effect in Pi.

If you want an honest, down-to-earth movie about the human addiction to dreams and desires, about how bored suburbanites tend to escalate all their ordinary problems into Major Problems That Need Immediate Fixing, if you want a quirky growing up movie that isn’t patronising to its protagonist and audience – Thumbsucker is just the perfect movie, doing everything that Requiem for a Dream promised but never delivered.

In Thumbsucker, Justin Cobb (Loy Pucci) plays a teenager who never grew out of the habit. Normally, it isn’t that big an issue, but this kid has parents from the other side of the Twilight Zone. Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio) – calling him Dad will make him feel old – and Audrey (Tilda Swinton) – calling her Mom would make Mike think she is too old – are incompetent parents, one a washed out has-been who blew his chance at entering the NFL and the other, a registered nurse with an unhealthy obsession on bad soap opera star Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt). They’re completely nuts in the seemingly ordinary and boring suburban style, and probably the reason why Justin continues to suck his thumb in secret, or is painfully shy, insecure, and underachieving.

Justin’s New Age orthodontist Perry Lymann (Keanu Reeves), concerned with the constant tooth repairs he needs to make, suggests hypnosis to cure the addiction. Because it’s Keanu Reeves, the unlikely and flaky-sounding method does work, but once Justin is ‘cured’ (and not by Lymann alone!), he becomes a arrogant perfectionist and a star in the school debating team, scaring even his own debate coach.

And that’s just the beginning, as Justin continues his quest to be normal and ends up experimenting with increasingly bizarre cures and undergoing more teenage angst. While all this sounds typical of alienated teenagers, the script by Mike Mills makes it impossible to predict what would happen next, and when it happens, it’s both surreal and funny at the same time.

Movies about suburban angst tend to be exercises in navel-gazing (in a world where most people have worst lives than suburbanites), but the high calibre supporting cast of Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn and Keanu Reeves, supported by stripped-down camera aesthetics, add credibility and make interesting the central themes of "everyone has problems", "no one knows what they’re doing", and "everyone loves quick fixes to their problems". What I like about this movie is how it makes everyday teenage and suburban angst feel worthy of interest, without indulging in pathos. Its dry humour and the three cameo appearances by Keanu Reeves helps.

First published at incinemas on 17 July 2006

The Lake House (2006)

I promise we'll run far away from public transport. No buses, no boats, no planes!

More than 10 years ago and half-forgotten by now, there was a series of illustrated books that almost everyone pretended they had read or displayed in their bookshelves. The Lake House reminds me strongly of the Griffin and Sabine trilogy, then Sleepless in Seattle, and finally Frequency. In other words, this movie features a couple who write regular letters to each other, gradually fall in love with each other, and repeatedly try – and fail – to meet each other. The twist is this: due to some glitch in the US Postal Service, Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) and Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) are communicating two years apart. He’s in 2004 and she’s in 2006.

Unlike Back to the Future 2, the possibility of getting filthy rich due to such temporal discrepancies is never exploited. At no point in The Lake House does Alex ask Kate "who won the monthly derby races in 2004 and 2005?" No does Kate offer Alex useful advice such as "Buy as many Google stocks as you can afford!" If they did this, I’m sure Dennis Hopper would pop up as the villain and make himself incredibly rich without hijacking a bus.

Keeping in mind this is a romantic movie, we are treated to a filmic version of the epistolary novel. In a succession of letters, Kate and Alex move from bewilderment, amused disbelief, confusion, acceptance of their situation, become pen pals, and finally fall in love with each other. I mention the epistolary novel not because I wanted to make an obscure literary reference, but precisely because in pen pals Kate and Alex, we get a chance to watch characters mature in spirit and develop a relationship and identification with each other, even when they are miles (and years) apart.

Singaporean moviegoers will be familiar with the basic setup of The Lake House; we are told this is a remake of Korean film Il Mare, from 2000. Now, the very phrase Hollywood remake tends to send chills down the spines of movie lovers, for the simple reason that these tend to be uncreative scene-for-scene clones of the original foreign film. The urban legend is these remakes are necessary because American audiences aren’t used to foreign language films, and Hollywood has no new ideas anyway. Recent examples of disappointing remakes would be La Femme Nikita/Point of No Return and Vanilla Sky/Abre Los Ojos.

It’s a pleasant surprise then, that The Lake House is actually superior to Il Mare. It’s simply not a remake, but a very loose adaptation of the original movie. The script by Pulitzer and Tony Prize winning playwright David Auburn fleshes out the personalities of the two main characters. In the Korean original, the main characters were just given cool-sounding professions (the male lead is an architecture student, the female an anime voice actor) that had absolutely no impact on the plot at all. As an architect, what does Alex think of the house on the lake? You wouldn’t know in the Korean original, but here, Keanu Reeves gives the most lucid, profound, and non-giggle inducing speech in his acting career so far. What exactly was the nature of the estrangement between Alex and his father? Again, details are sorely lacking in the original, but here it turns out Wyler pere is an even more monstrous Le Corbusier. Let’s just say that Keanu Reeves has lingering issues with the Architect, and their troubled relationship add to the multilayered depths of The Lake House.

The entire courtship between Alex and Kate have been rewritten to showcase the beauty of Chicago architecture and the unique quality of the light in the city, as well as tighten the plot and eliminate the cheesy and clichéd dialogue from the original. Cinematically, it’s pure heaven watching the duo in The Lake House appear in split screens and dual-exposure scenes, with their missed chances and misrecognitions. Never has a movie referenced and actually used Jane Austen’s Persuasion as a thematic template to such great effect.

While David Auburn’s script sparkles with an undeniable romantic impulse, veteran Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti films this movie like a love note to Chicago, and almost made me vividly experience and then effortlessly fall in love with the city. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock finally reunite in this movie, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the onscreen chemistry we saw in Speed is tangible and real. The supporting cast, especially Christopher Plummer and Willeke van Ammelrooy, put in such soul in their performances that they will be just as remembered as the characters of Alex and Kate.

Oh yes, since this is a movie about time-travel, let me state that the logical paradoxes are never resolved, and the plot will seem illogical by the final scene. This is something audiences have to accept, I’m afraid. Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Agresti and Auburn are far more interested in the emotional intensity and verisimilitude of the story than with sci-fi mechanics. In the end, though, I was sufficiently charmed by the movie to forgive the bad science.

First published at incinemas on 27 July 2006

Sunday, 16 July 2006

Cry_Wolf (2005) DVD

This movie wouldn't be so bad if the directors knew what they were doing. Hell, Jon Bon Jovi probably knew more than the directors

One of Aesop’s Fables is called The Boy Who Cried Wolf. You know, the one about a bored shepherd boy who gets a kick out of screaming "Wolf!" and laughing when his villagers come to his rescue. Then one day he is punished when a real wolf appears and the villagers ignore his cries. In the darker version of the fable, the boy is eaten by the wolf. Then, there is the party game sometimes called "Wolf and sheep", in which the entire flock accuse each other, create paranoid conspiracies, and target their enemies in order to unmask the wolf among the sheep.

In Cry_Wolf, this game is played by a really bored bunch of rich brats in a boarding school, who, when a local student is killed in the woods, decide to create a rumour about a serial killer in a red ski mask – creatively named The Wolf – and in effect play the game with the entire school population. Somewhere along the line, though, it turns out that there really is a serial killer called The Wolf, but can the clique convince its members, their schoolmates, and the school administration that this isn’t one of their hoaxes? It’s like The Boy Who Cried Wolf turned into a teen slasher flick.

Unfortunately for us, Cry_Wolf is the first ever feature film for Wadlow and Bauman. This means that the identity of the serial killer is more than apparent by the first third of the movie. The basic failing of the director-producer team – and an immense one at that – is their failure to see through any of their plot ideas. Why do they bother to spend 5 minutes of screen time on "clever" Scream-lite dialogue when there is no intention to develop a modern self-referential, self-deconstructing teen horror flick parody and homage? Why do they bother making a slasher movie when the killings only begin in the final third of the movie, and there is no proper buildup of suspense or horror in the first two-thirds?

Okay, there is a scene involving multiple Wolf-lookalikes in a Halloween party, but the expected chase scene is not only predictable, but sorely lacking in any thrill, and forces audiences to think of how scary that scene was, when Wes Craven did it years ago in Scream. Why oh why do they bother introducing the very convoluted game of Wolf and Sheep if they’re not going to make emotional manipulation, conspiracies and mutual suspicion the key motif of the movie? Or even make the bunch of bored, rich boarding school brats slightly more conniving, given their expertise at the game? Enquiring minds want to know – but the directors cannot deliver.

Let me say that if you hadn’t fallen asleep during this movie (I was fighting off the Z-monster for the sake of our readers!), and if you paid any attention to the movie (instead of cursing at its poor execution), you would’ve easily identified the serial killer as well as the plot twist, all within the 20 minute mark of the movie. Even viewers who aren’t choosey about the cleverness of slasher flicks will be appalled at the fundamental failure of the directors to convince them that the murder scenes and chase scenes are actually scary.

Poor buildup, no atmosphere, no payoff: Cry Wolf tries to be smart but is in fact pedestrian, twice-warmed over fare that fails as a slasher flick, a psychological thriller, or even as a murder mystery. The only silver lining in the cloud is in fact the good lighting and cinematography in some sets, and a performance by Jon Bon Jovi (as a journalism prof!?) that is actually more impressive than the acting-school efforts of the main cast. Oh, the horror!

First published at incinemas on 13 July 2006

Thursday, 13 July 2006

Ask the Dust (2006)

Not a Mills and Boon bodice ripper, but a hard-boiled romance

I’ll admit that the poster for Ask the Dust sent me into hysterics the first time I saw it. For one, it reminded me of a cover for one of those hokey, stilted, unintentionally funny Mills and Boon bodice rippers (sorry, gals!) that my sister used to read during her teenage years. She’ll never admit to it now, but I’m more than willing to say that after watching Ask the Dust, I will no longer make fun of its poster. In fact, I happen to believe that this is the most underrated film of the year so far.

Still, do try to ignore the poster, because Ask the Dust is not a bodice ripper type of romance movie. Instead, it’s a period noir film set in 1939 about a struggling writer who, after getting one short story published by the legendary HL Mencken in the American Mercury literary magazine, decides to pack his bags and move to Los Angeles, to better experience life (and women), become a better writer, and live in the centre of the American literary and publishing universe.

To his growing horror, aspiring writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell, delivering a performance much better than in Alexander) finds himself to be a naïf, hopelessly out of touch with what women really want, so woefully inexperienced that he is reduced to hiding from his dour landlady (Eileen Atkins), stealing oranges and milk, and accepting favours from perpetually drunk fellow tenant and WW1 veteran Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland). He spends his very last nickel on a what might qualify as the worst cup of coffee in the world, served by a haughty Mexican waitress Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek) who just rubs him up the wrong way. The feeling is mutual, and the mean pair bicker with each other, insult each other, as they are alternately attracted and repulsed by each other.

It’s not a period romance, but more of an old-fashioned, thoroughly American story of struggling immigrants and outsiders seeking acceptance and a better life in the promised land, striving to fit in and stand out at the same time. Depression era Los Angeles, the place where old people go to die and young people go to fritter their dreams away, is an appropriately poignant and cutting setting for Arturo and Camilla’s struggles with society and themselves. Here are a pair of very mean and mean-mouthed individuals, insecure with themselves, hungry to get out of poverty, who have to fight with every inch of their minds not to go raving mad from each other’s company – whether out of romantic tension or a mutual (and paranoid) feeling of being insulted.

Romance? No, this script is pure artistry, exuding a writerly glow over the entire movie, an aural glow that demands the modern viewer, long accustomed to throwaway lines in movies, to truly listen to the dialogue. Robert Towne fabricates long volleys of smart, dark, and funny repartee and acts of vengeance between Arturo and Camilla. The interior monologue and stretches of voice-over narration by Arturo possess a literary quality and hardboiled noir sensibility that feels ironic and depressing at the same time, as he admits doubts over his social skills and ability as a writer.

There is also a touch of surreal imagination in Towne’s plotting, as he throws the characters into wild, unlikely, yet utterly believable situations and fantasy sequences, yet maintaining all the while the noir style of the film. Do look out for a memorable appearance by Idina Menzel as a mysterious, erudite but insecure fan of Arturo, whose bonding with the author enables the “mean man” to be just a little nicer to Camilla.

Desire, poverty, pride, the struggle of insecure outsiders to fit in, to belong, to be normal: this is the stuff that great novels are made of, and this screen adaptation of John Fante’s semi-autobiographical novel is just as great.

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Forces of Nature (1999) DVD

I hate people who sing 1000 Green Bottles on long journeys too

There’s something to be said about a movie that mixes Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Runaway Bride. In other words, this is a road movie consisting of a soon-to-be-married man rushing off to his wedding, while getting stuck with a travel companion (who obviously has to be of an opposite personality type) in a long list of travel accidents that delay his arrival at the chapel, and giving him a bad case of pre-wedding jitters.

Let’s introduce the players in this comedy genre mash-up. The straight man is Ben (Ben Affleck), an unadventurous, by-the-books copywriter (he writes the blurbs on the backs of book jackets) who is so strait-laced, he can’t even enjoy a little bit of naughtiness during his own bachelor party. The companion on his long, winding and probably cursed journey – the forces of nature induce breakdowns in any plane, train or automobile they choose to get from New York to Savannah – is Sarah (Sandra Bullock), who is somewhere between “trailer park white trash” and “wild child” in the Natural Disaster Travelling Companion rating scheme.

He’s uptight and bland as vanilla, she’s a little loopy and unburdened with social norms. He’s dreadfully boring and induces nausea in people by incessantly crowing about the impending marriage and showing all and sundry neoprints of him and his fiancé. She’s unpredictable, fascinating, full of fun and optimism, and an advocate of free love. When he’s trapped with her for the entirety of the trip, we want to know: Do they kill each other before reaching Savannah? Will Ben learn to loosen up, and Sarah learn to confront whatever it is she seems to be running away from? Will the assortment of crazy characters (and their horror stories of failed marriages) Ben and Sarah meet on their road trip totally turn Ben off the idea of marriage? Will Ben fall in love with Sarah and run off in extramarital bliss (okay, an exaggeration since he’s not married yet), leaving his beautiful bride (Maura Tierney) at the altar?

Even though Sandra Bullock hit a home run with Miss Congeniality a year later, Forces of Nature still has several things going for it. Despite the almost stock genre roots of this movie, the script by Marc Lawrence is anything but predictable. The comedy isn’t strictly for laughs; there are dark edges lining the entire film, almost veering it occasionally into the direction of pitch-black comedy and satire. The cinematography and editing are stunning, and I haven’t seen such arresting and beautiful depictions of clouds, sunsets, hailstorms and hurricanes outside of paintings.

My only quibble with this movie is twofold. Marc Lawrence can’t make up his mind whether he wants a straight romantic comedy or a dark comedy and satire on marriage. As a result, the script feels a tad uneven and unsatisfying as it tries to balance between the demands of two opposing sets of comic sensibilities and demands on how to resolve the plot. The chemistry between Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock is a non-starter as well - due to the script or the personal qualities of the stars, I cannot say.

Overall, though, Forces of Nature is impossible to ignore because of the risks Lawrence takes with his script, and his refusal to write an easy, predictable romantic comedy.

First published at incinemas on 11 July 2006

Saturday, 8 July 2006

Mortuary (2005)

My diagnosis? Hmmm it seems a simple case of zombie movie, but note the Lovecraftian angle...

Since 1977, Tobe Hooper has been making horror films. The director is an icon in the world of horror movies, but his output is wildly inconsistent. When Tobe Hooper is good, he is very, very good (Texas Chainsaw Massacre); but when Tobe Hooper is bad, he is very, very bad (Crocodile). Here, Tobe Hooper surprises everyone by being funny. Very, very funny. Mortuary is the culmination of Hooper’s decades of craft; it is not a horror movie, but a campy spoof of horror zombie movies of an older era. Hooper has no intentions of making a serious zombie revival like Shaun of the Dead, so audiences are warned as they enter the cinema not to expect a scary movie, but rather a horror-themed comedy.

Shortly after the death of her husband, flaky mom Leslie (Denise Crosby) uproots her two children, Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and Jamie (Stephanie Patton) from their home to a small town in California. With her correspondent degree in mortuary sciences and some help from the corrupt town business council, Leslie is installed at the town’s latest mortician or funeral director. The real estate agent (and head of the business council) evidently forgot to mention that the new home for the Doyles is the long abandoned Fowler Brothers Funeral Home and cemetery, the place of business for generations of Fowler undertakers until a recent tragedy that still has the townsfolk whispering darkly about cursed land, tainted blood, and deformed monsters.

The script, which refuses to take itself seriously, bursts with references and in-jokes from HP Lovecraft’s mythology, quoting from classics like “Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour Out of Space”. The Lovecraftian conceit is taken further by Tobe Hooper, who abandons the copious blood and gore of standard zombie films in favour of sometimes corny, sometimes menacing, but always tantalising glimpses and never full-on exposures of the Horror that lurks beneath the sewers of the ramshackle funeral home, which are of course connected to a vast subterranean tunnel complex manned by mindless zombie-thralls.

Hooper serves up effective scares, jolts, and entire scenes illuminated with dread at appropriate places, showing that he hasn’t lost his touch for horror films. However, Hooper’s energies are focused on the comic aspect of Mortuary, and to his credit, manages to pull off a casting coup by creating unforgettable weird and left-field minor characters, such as the perennially giggling real estate agent, a scaredy-cat sheriff who falls into swoons on seeing blood, and a washed out proprietor of a diner who does a great impression of Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone character from Absolutely Fabulous.

Why have a horror movie without the gore, without even a full revelation of the monster lurking beneath the mortuary? That’s old school horror, which relies more on atmosphere and hints than on explicit shots. Hence the only appropriate frame of reference is an old master like Lovecraft. Yet, living in this day and age, the only way one can credibly do Lovecraft is through parody and comedy, never through a straight adaptation or telling. In this sense, Mortuary joins Re-animator as one of the more successful film tributes to the American horrormeister.

Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary makes up in infectious fun what it lacks in gore and horror. Bring a friend along, and if you’re a geek, you might have double the fun identifying all the hidden Lovecraft references!

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

Friday, 7 July 2006

Hoodwinked (2005)

Little Red Riding Hood gets the Rashomon treatment for the kids!

During the last decade, there has been a fad in the world of children’s literature. Old folktales have been given the makeover treatment, often by feminists and other spoilsports indignant at the simplistic moralising and depiction of weak, defenceless trophy heroines in fairy tales. Hence, on one hand, we have the standard Brothers Grimm fairy tales with their bowdlerised, watered down kiddie-friendly fare that no longer entertains savvy children of the modern age; and on the other hand, dreary and self-righteous modernised revisions of fairy tales that owe more to the manifestos of political correctness and universal victimhood than to any entertainment value. Aside from Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples and Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, there aren’t many examples of entertaining and thought-provoking fairy tales redone with a modern sensibility.

Until now. Everyone is familiar with the age-old tale of the Little Red Riding Hood. It’s true that the Brothers Grimm version is a watering-down of older and darker versions, but today’s audience will no doubt be familiar with and perhaps will know only of this version. Edwards, Edwards and Leech offer us not one, but four retellings of the fairy tale, and package them in the form of a comic Rashomon meets The Usual Suspects and Shrek.

In the aftermath of a crazed woodsman breaking into Granny’s house and frightening Red, her Granny and the Big Bad Wolf out of their skins, the cartoon police (led by a long legged frog and two of the Three Little Pigs!) decide to step into the situation to find out who to prosecute and at the same time, solve the mystery of the Cookie Bandit, whose nefarious deeds have put members of the fairy tale snacks industry out of business. Not only is there a definite criminal in the strange kidnap/abduction/impersonation/breaking and entering case at Granny’s, one of the 4 suspects might also be the Cookie Bandit.

Like the Rashomon story, each of the main characters in the Little Red Riding Hood tale are not what they seem, the stories they tell the police are not exactly the truth or the whole truth, and part of the fun is how their little secrets are revealed in a way that satirises the entire fairy tale concept, and adds a fun (and not at all dreary or preachy) modern spin to an old tale at the same time. Even the obligatory musical interlude/showpiece of cartoons are made fun of, a touch that had me laughing and entertained by the songs nonetheless.

Hoodwinked was made on a very low budget (USD 20 million), but the well-constructed and zippy plot and the sheer entertainment value makes this feel like a real gem. Animation style is simple – the creators waste no time and resources on self-indulgent extras like over-realistic skin pores, shiny bobby hair, or hyperreal blades of moving grass, but manage to create character models with sufficient character to carry the cartoon. In the 3D animiation industry where looks and effects sometimes override originality of plot, Hoodwinked is a sign that all is not lost, that cartoons can still be enjoyed for the value of their stories and strength of their ideas.

First published at incinemas on 20 July 2006

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté) (2005)

I'll beat you hard if you skip that note!

In 1978, American indie director James Toback made Fingers, a tale about a gangster torn between a life of crime and the musical world. What Jacques Audiard has done is not a remake at all, but a very loose adaptation that takes the central idea of a man with divided loyalties to two different worlds. Right from the beginning of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Audiard signals his desire to radically make the story his own vision, to dissuade viewers from thinking of the word 'remake'.

In the film’s opening shot, an unnamed man tells the listener in the couch of the struggles he’s had with his father, of how their tortured relationship became both infinitely more and less bearable after the father begins his slow decline to senility, and death. The man tells the tale of how he had to care for his father slowly and grimly, alternating between calm measured tones, nervous agitation, and resigned depression. This man will never appear again, but his almost-monologue sets the tone, themes and issues for the rest of the film: how ties and relationships between fathers and sons change over time; the love – sometimes painful, sometimes masochistic, always loving – sons have for their fathers; emotions and conflicts all internalised into a roiling state of mind, illuminated by gritty and realistic camera style that eschews the phantasmagoria of quick jump cuts, and employs just one long shot in every scene.

The listener on the couch is one Thomas Seyr, or Tom, as he is known to all. But who is Tom’s father, and how are the two bound to each other? At 28 years of age, Tom has taken after Robert’s profession, that of the small-time real estate agent. Near the bottom of the real estate chain, Tom and Robert live in a shady, even thuggish world, planting rats in apartments, forcibly evicting squatters from abandoned public housing projects, persuading or even tricking landlords to sell their property. It’s not exactly the mafia, but this is the kind of life that Tom has found himself drifting into, under the tutelage of Robert, since the death of his pianist mother.

Tom may be at the top of his game, but his father is beginning a slow decline, with clients and tenants suddenly defaulting on payments. What is it exactly that bonds the son to his father, despite the emotional abuse and blackmail? Is it Seyr pere’s charismatic charm (after all, he did snag Tom’s mother)? Or the inevitability of a son’s unconditional love for his father, regardless of what he does? There comes, almost as an accident, a possible reprieve for Tom, as he runs into his mother’s old concert manager, a man who believes Tom may have the potential of a concert pianist, and encourages him to prepare for a placement audition.

The meat of this movie take place during Tom’s preparatory period for the audition, where the shady real estate agent slowly and never surely discovers the alternative, better, or just simply more legitimate life that his long-buried musical talent can bring. The transformation is slow and never guaranteed, the slow motion character study making the clash between the two sides of Tom’s soul all the more stark and painful, and the pull between middle class respectability (his mother and the piano representing the same maternal-sensual order) and his semi-criminal lower class roots (his father and business colleagues representing the same paternal-practical order).

It is very easy to ruin a film based on these themes just by playing up Tom’s emotions, presenting him as an out-and-out musical genius, or playing up his torn loyalties as a form of schizophrenia. This is where Jacques Audiard’s effort is far superior to that of James Toback’s. The director’s commitment to realism - emotional, psychological, and as a mode of cinematic storytelling; his eschewing of artifice and "composition"; and use of long shots and filming entire scenes in single shots, creates a convincing exploration of Tom’s tortured heart.

First published at incinemas on 27 July 2006

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Royston's Shorts (DVD) (2006)

Short films:
Hock Hiap Leong
The Absentee
The Blind Trilogy: Blind, Old Parliament House, Capitol Cinema
Careless Whisperer
New York Girl

4A Florence Close
In-depth interview with Royston Tan

Distributed by Asian Film Archive

Is Royston that great a genius that barely out of the infancy of his film career, he gets a retrospective? You decide!

For its first DVD, the Asian Film Archive gave us the definitive collection of the short films that kick-started Singapore’s indie filmmaking scene in 2002. Its follow up collection appropriately focuses on Royston Tan, the brightest and newest star to emerge from the class of 2002. The young filmmaker, born in 1976, is an instant icon for the indie scene and its followers. Tan’s rapid rise, garnering strings of awards from 2002 onwards (Tan has made very few short films prior to this) and brickbats from conservative members on Singapore’s film censorship board, has made him an icon and a rallying point for the artistic community.

This collection of Royston’s Shorts is a sampler of the director’s short film oeuvre, charting his work from 2000 to his latest offering this year. There are 4 award-winning short films that show Tan at his best – Sons, Mother, Hock Hiap Leong, and Monkeylove. As a representative of his MTV-inspired style, the curators at the Asian Film Archive have chosen works like Jesses and The Absentee. And lest we think Tan is all style and no substance, we get to see some experimental films that may or may not work – but certainly show a director unwilling to rest on his laurels, grasping furtively to assemble a new grammatology, an new language, a reinvention of his easily parodied style. That’s 24hrs and the Blind Trilogy. There are the tales of individuals dislocated in society, told in 3 different narrative forms: Careless Whisperer, New York Girl, and Monkeylove.

Watching the offerings over a few days, a certain pattern emerges. Dancing around Royston Tan’s films are the twin concerns of memory (of places, times, and relationships lost), and of outsiders and their alienation. Yet Tan manages to coax from these two strands, infinite permutations of emotions, genres, modes of storytelling, and visual style.

Here is my personal list of favourites:

Hock Hiap Leong
A young visitor to a coffeeshop facing its last days muses about the memories the place must’ve grown, about the hidden lives of its proprietor and stall owners. A tender narration segues into a full-blown musical. Every other local short film I’ve seen that tries to commemorate a disappearing landmark or trade ends up as an emotional tirade or a maudlin, lachrymose piece. Hock Hiap Leong shows how it is possible to celebrate disappearing monuments.

The voice-over narrator (always male) is a fixture in many Royston Tan short films. Yet here, Monkeyboy is the first who isn’t filled with angst or filled with anger. Made last year, Monkeyboy represents new grounds for Royston Tan, from fresh protagonists to fresh themes. This is the least typical of Tan’s short films, and leaves one wanting to see this young director take on more.

The Blind Trilogy
Partly a homage to the abandoned Capitol Cinema and the old Parliament House, and partly an exercise in a sonic fugue. It’s an interesting experiment, even though it’s not a great short film, and I applaud the curators for including this film in the collection. The Blind Trilogy only appears long and not-that-great to me because I’ve heard Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy, which showcased the innovation of contrapuntal audio, in which many voices and noises are blended all at once, yet retaining coherence and audibility. I would’ve included The Old Man and the River in this collection, just to show Royston’s other approach to the same topic and material.

Does a short film director with only 16 titles over 7 years deserve a best of collection? Asian Film Archive makes a very compelling argument with this collection.

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2006

The World's Fastest Indian (2005)

Burt Munro was also a member of the Beyond Thunderdome reenactment society

Burt Munro is a relic in 1967. Played by Anthony Hopkins, Burt is a feisty octogenarian who should be enjoying his retirement begins his mornings test running his motorcycle engine, making a racket that wakes the neighbourhood. Burt’s dream is to tinker and modify his custom-made Indian motorcycle so it can participate in a US motorcycle race and break some land speed records. Burt’s derring-do, gallantry, and easy charm endear him to his neighbours and fellow citizens in Invercargill, a small town in New Zealand, even though most remain sceptical about his ability to ride his rickety bike at any speed.

Once Burt manages to raise sufficient funds for his journey (you just have to see the scene where he takes on a motorcycle gang!), the fun is on as Burt negotiates an ocean trip, and then a cross-country trip across America to get to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where the annual Speed Week is held. A little low on funds, Burt may come across to his American big city hosts as some kind of Don Quixote, an old man after what must be an impossible goal. Yet Burt is rich in charm and luck, and it is a cinematic spectacle just to witness how the guileless old timer wins the trust and liking of his companions, fellow travellers, and even competitors at the race so effortlessly.

The World’s Fastest Indian is both a sports movie and a road movie. While there isn’t much motorcycle action until the final third of the movie, the first two thirds on the road manage to communicate extremely well just how much the sport means to Burt, and why he feels compelled to take part in it, even at his age, and even if he had to sleep in a rented car. When the time finally comes for Burt to don his helmet and enter his motorcycle, it’s a sure bet that audiences, along with all the characters at the Speed Week event, will not only cheer him on, but believe that he can do it. That, in spite of the fact that Burt’s motorcycle is an antique, or that he made almost every part himself, with homebrew materials. High speed tyres? Just carve out the threads in ordinary tyres with a kitchen knife! It’s impossible not to root for such a DIY character, especially when you know this movie is based on a very true story.

What makes this film great? The storytelling is so effortless it doesn’t appear artificial or strained – a rare occurrence for a road movie. Burt has an easy charm, but that’s not really the key point of his character. It is the very embodiment of a long-gone spirit of exploration, whose heroes tinkered and built their very own contraptions, invented their own vehicles in order to get around. This very special age of invention and travel receives an indirect tribute from the director of The World’s Fastest Indian, in his script and characterisation of the legendary Burt Munro.

Anthony Hopkins shows that he is not just an actor best suited to playing bland butlers, crazed cannibals, and other roles in Shakespeare and political dramas. Here, we see the impossible: an eccentric but good-natured, self-deprecating and naïve old man, played convincingly by Hopkins! It’s such a testament to the skill of Hopkins’s acting that I was able to – along with other members in the audience – forget his previous acting roles for the duration of the movie, and fall to the spell of this rascally, gallant, inventive old man, tinkerer, this charmer.

While many actors and thespians long to end their careers with a heavy and dramatic role, I feel that being Burt Munro will be seen as a one of the more memorable roles in the great Welsh actor’s late career.

First published at incinemas on 6 July 2006

Stay Alive (2006)

Let's see... what's this goatse site link about?

There is a video game for the Playstation 2 that’s floating around, a beta version either awaiting final approval from the game classification authorities or in an ultra-secret invitation-only testing stage. Passed hand to hand or mailed from the gaming company to its list of games testers, Stay Alive is a game to die for, a horror survival FPS shooter with insane amounts of gore, violence and scenes of the supernatural. The final boss of the game is based on the real life character of Elizabeth Bathory, the infamous Blood Countess who drank the blood of girls to stay youthful. Of course, you’d want to get your hands on this game. Even if it kills you.

The catch? One by one, gamers turn up dead, murdered in the same manner their character die in the game. Coincidence? A group of gamers whose mutual friend is a victim decide to investigate, and soon they start seeing things and believe that the game does have a curse that causes the deaths of players. And once you die in the game, your death is pretty much inevitable… Can the group break the clues surrounding the game in time before more deaths occur, such as their own? Before the game itself changes the rules?

It helps if you don’t think of Stay Alive as a horror movie, but as a movie adaptation of a (non-existent) horror-themed video game. Once you do this, several things will fall into place automatically, such as the realisation that this movie doesn’t need to be horrifying to be successful. Or the fact that this is a much cleverer picture than the entire Final Destination series, given that the writers of Stay Alive bothered to create an entire lore and coherent background to explain how the Blood Countess and the cursed videogame work (surprisingly enough, the game doesn’t really change the rules of the curse).

Even better yet, this movie has plenty of scenes of actual gaming, and far outdoes Uwe Boll in terms of scenes of live action FPS-style sequences, and I believe Stay Alive might hold a record for mixed CGI-live action scenes, where the characters continually battle creepy-looking creeping videogame sprites. These are presumably the ghosts of the victims of the Blood Countess, but the way they crawl will bring to mind Samara/Sadako from the Ring. The CGI-live action mix looks extremely good, if not at all horrifying.

First published at incinemas on 6 July 2006

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Murderball (2005)

Seize life by the balls!

The natural sex ratio for human societies is about 105 boys to 100 girls at birth. That brings up a problem: what happens to the surplus males? We expect the more macho of them to succeed in life, the so-called Type A theory, if you will. Jocks snag the girls when they are young, become boardroom warriors when they are older. That’s plain wrong. What happens to overaggressive males of the population is simply called natural selection. These young men lead the type of wild life that snag the girls, but they often get killed doing one of their impressive but dangerous stunts, or in a pointless brawl, for example. That’s how the adult sex ratio gets evened out slowly. Those overaggressive males who survive their teens? Historically, they get themselves in the army. It’s a convenient way for societies to get rid of their surplus males once in a while, by sending them into battle. That’s natural selection.

But what happens when natural selection doesn’t finish the job?

Meet the cast. Aside from two cases of childhood diseases (polio and meningitis), the rest are victims of natural selection. There’s the jock who drank himself into a stupor, lay down in the back of his friend’s truck, and was catapulted into a river when the truck crashed. There’s another jock who got into a brawl and was hit in the throat, severing vertebrae in his neck. There’s another one who simply says he was thrown off a balcony at a drunken party. We assume he must’ve tried to pull some silly party trick, or worse, that was his silly party trick. Now quadriplegics and wheelchair users for life, with varying control of their four limbs (or stumps), you’d expect them to be more circumspect, but these people aren’t going to let natural selection get the better of them!

Instead, they play wheelchair rugby, a game that is played in an indoor basketball court. As star player Zupan explains, the sport was originally called murderball, “but you can't market Murderball to corporate sponsors.” It’s even an official sport in the Paralympics, and the cast are players on the US team for wheelchair rugby. And there’s Joe Soares, an ex-player in the US team until he was taken out for old age. Believing he can still contribute, Soares is the coach for Team Canada and the nemesis of Team USA in this documentary, which refuses to play like a weepy Hallmark matinee feature. Instead, the filmmakers take great care not to cast a pitying eye on the athletes, and open the film with a bold and fresh concept: show viewers who these players really are: jocks.

And by that, I mean arrogant, overaggressive, assholes. In an interview, Chris Igoe (the friend with the truck) explains: "Joe Soares is an asshole. He was before his accident. and he is now." There’s no love lost between Soares and Team USA, but Soares is just as obnoxious and arrogant an asshole as any member of his former teammates. That’s refreshing! How bad are they? We get to see match-long displays of utter unsportsmanlike behaviour from everyone on the field, off the field. The grudge match is so deep ("If he were on the side of the road and on fire I wouldn't piss on him to put him out") that the traditional handshake between players before the match is accompanied by trading of insults between the Canada and US teams.

The game itself is a joy to watch. Wheelchair rugby is a contact sport, where players build and customise their competition wheelchairs to the point where they describe these machines as “something out of Mad Max”. These contraptions have a front bumper, which are designed to crash into opposing wheelchairs, and the best result of a crash is seeing an opponent’s wheelchair getting toppled. No worries, the referees simply right the contraption over for the player.

Yes, every one in the court plays to win the game. They’re jocks after all. The filmmakers are pros, taking their time to slowly – using the first half of the film – to disabuse audiences of the notion that these are pitiable people. Whether on court, in practice, at play, or at home, most of the players are simply unpleasant people to live with. I respect the filmmakers’ decision, because by refusing to take the easy way out, they set themselves the gargantuan task in the second half, of persuading the audience to give a care for the players, to see them not as just arrogant jocks, to make us root for both Soares, Team USA, and Team Canada. For them to do this in less than one and a half hours adds to the scale of their task.

Do Rubin and Shapiro succeed? I believe they manage to humanise the cast eventually, while avoiding almost all of the Hallmark weepy moves. There is a lot of sharp humour and honesty in the filmmakers’ rehabilitation of the cast, and by the time the curtains rise for the final showdown between the two teams, all nasty memories of the first half might be well forgotten.

Murderball may be a documentary, but it rivals the best sports dramas (Friday Night Lights, for example) in terms of sheer intensity, emotional scope, storytelling, and sports camerawork. This is a must-watch for all sports fans!

First published at incinemas on 6 July 2006

Monday, 3 July 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead man's chest (2006)

A pirate's life for me!

Great Disney and Pixar movies get made into roller coaster rides at Disneyland Park. When I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl 3 years ago in the cinema, a sense of incredulity struck me. That movie was outrageously fun, energetic, whimsical and exceedingly silly, but never for once did the adult in me disapprove or feel stupid for liking it. And then, imagine my surprise when I realised that I have seen this before. On a pirate themed ride in the New Orleans Square section of Disneyland Park. And yes, the name of that ride is Pirates of the Caribbean, and that opened in Disneyland Park in 1967, and since then has been a fixture at every Disney resort of note.

What can we expect from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest this year? The same as the last film: pirates, curses, and treasures! Johnny Depp returns as Jack Sparrow, now rightful captain of the Black Pearl. Unfortunately it appears that Jack is a victim of a most frightful curse. In return for certain favours in the past, Jack owes his soul to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), the King of the Sea, and the time has come for the Cthulhu-lookalike to collect the debt. That’s unless Jack can find a way to destroy or control Davy Jones, or find a treasure that the octopus-faced man will willingly trade the debt for. Unless Captain Jack tries running away, but remember, the King of the Sea has a crew of undead ex-pirates and a great kraken at hand.

Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley), on the verge of getting married, are once more swept into into Captain Jack’s adventure, no thanks to the machinations of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the British East India Company. But what is the East India Company’s top representative doing in the West Indies? The enterprising man has figured out that in order for the company to rule the sea, he needs a certain item in Jack Sparrow’s possession, and that only with the help of Will and Elizabeth can he obtain what he seeks.

Can Jack escape his debt to Davy Jones? Can Will and Elizabeth have their moment of peace together? Will the East India Company rule the world? Do these questions even matter – because what we really want to know is: Is this just as fun as Curse of the Black Pearl? Are the action scenes and setups even more wild? Is the humour still as off-kilter and whimsical as before?

Yes, even as the wheelings and dealings get more baroque. Yes, and you’d think (wrongly) that some of them must have been inspired by a Disney theme ride. And yes. The script sparkles with even more dizzy wordplay than the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Jack Sparrow gets the best lines here, punning and reverse punning as if the writers had gone wild on the Black Adder series, while the absurdity of a running commentary in a certain extended joke reminded me of vintage Python.

Should you watch it? Yes! I would watch it again!

What might be Captain Jack’s Song
(sing it to... the Lumberjack Song!)

I’ve always wanted to be a pirate!
Sailing from port to port!
As I float down the islands of the Caribbean
Port Royal!
Isla da Muerta!
The smell of the fresh sea, the crash of mighty waves!
With my best girl by my side – we’d sing, sing, sing!

Oh! I’m a pirate and I’m okay
I sail all day and plunder all night!

I set my sails, I eat my lunch,
I hunt for cursed treasure.
On Wednesdays I go shopping
and have buttered scones for tea

I set my sails, I raid and loot
I like to press wild flowers.
I put on more mascara than Lizzie
and hang around in bars.

I set my sails, I brave the seas,
a-swaying with each passing wave!

First published at incinemas on 13 July 2006