Thursday, 31 August 2006

Bewitched (DVD) (2005)

Guess which character is the ditzy one here

Bewitched was a popular TV series in the 1960s with a cult following and syndicated reruns, starring Elizabeth Montgomery as the nose-twitching suburban housewife witch. You’d expect a movie remake – if one exists – to hew close to the spirit of the original, and to do it some respect and justice. Many a recent Hollywood remake has been undone by the wide departures from their original series (The Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky and Hutch, The Honeymooners), and one certainly hopes with a much-loved series like Bewitched that nothing would go wrong.

But things do go wrong right from the beginning, starting with Nicole Kidman’s nose. Let me clarify: Nicole Kidman’s nose twitches are a spot on replica of Montgomery’s, but that is about the only right thing that this movie does. In fact, as director Nora Ephron makes a big deal of so frequently in the Making Of extra and her commentary track, Kidman was cast for her uncanny resemblance to Montgomery, and their noses look exactly the same. Okay people, that’s the most compelling reason for a remake of Bewitched, since Nora Ephron follows up with a claim that she finds it impossible to write a straight movie remake of the series. The director doesn’t believe that just updating the series for a modern-day context would work, and if a Bewitched movie has to be made, the entire premise has to be drastically changed.

The gimmick – and it certainly feels very gimmicky – behind the Ephron remake of Bewitched is this: somewhere in Hollywood is Jack Wyatt, a washed-out actor (Will Ferrell) in the final legs of his B-grade movie career, one step away from appearing as a celebrity guest on game shows and reality shows for the rest of his life. He searches around for an idea, any idea, until he comes up with a brilliant idea: cast himself as Darrin in a television resurrection of Bewitched, and a complete unknown as his co-star (Nicole Kidman), so that he’d get the best lines and the attention he so craves for. Brilliant plan, except he unknowingly casts a real witch to play Samantha!

If you think pulling the rug out of the audience this way isn’t nearly quite fatal, that because I neglected to say that Isabel Bigalow (Kidman) may look and twitch her nose like Elizabeth Montgomery, but is poles apart from Samantha. In the original series, Samantha was a witch who just happened to be a housewife, and was far, far smarter and wiser than Darrin. She was the smart one and Darrin was the clueless one. In the pre-feminist age, this was considered subversive and progressive. In this movie, Nicole Kidman plays a very stupid, ignorant, spaced-out California Valley college girl equivalent of a witch, whose latest obsession is to survive real life in a real American town, get a real job, and land the love of a mortal man – all without resorting to witchcraft. Of course, that means living in LA, California and working as an actress. In the modern age, this is an embarrassment and an insult to the spirit of the original series.

With Isabel opening the movie, the wrong notes just pile on each other. The Bewitched resurrection set treats fans of the old series to very few classic moments from the original and somehow feel hollow and pointless. We expect Isobel to create some witchery on the set (like Dafoe’s Orlock in Shadow of the Vampire), but not enough is made out of this possibility. The segments of the "real world life" of Isabel, with visits from her arch warlock father (Michael Caine) and friendly neighbour (Kristin Chenoweth) are amusing, but feel like comic sketches that make little difference to the movie as a whole. Even the overarching romantic plot between Isabel and Jack make little sense; there is little chemistry between the stars and very little preparation, development, and reason in the script to bring the two together convincingly.

With Kidman reduced to a one-joke actress (nose twitching!) and the excellent improvisatory comedian Will Ferrell hamstrung by a lacklustre and unfunny script, the only bright spot in this movie is its supporting cast. The movie perks up each moment that Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Kristin Chenoweth and Stephen Colbert appear, and flags immediately when they leave the screen. And even then, the supporting cast are sorely underutilised.

If Ephron believed that if just updating the series for a modern-day context won’t work, she should have just left the idea alone. If you are interested in a good modern-day update and off-centre version of Bewitched, you might want to rent the Japanese television series Okusama wa Majo (奥さまは魔女). If you are interested in a genuinely funny and biting satire on the production of a television comedy, you might want to rent the HBO series The Comeback, starring Lisa Kudrow.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Singapore Dreaming (2006)

This might have worked in 1997 or 1998. Not now.

There are some people who will watch Singapore Dreaming solely because it is made by a Singaporean director. Must support local films mah. There are a few others who will love Singapore Dreaming because it articulates the undercurrent of discontent, misgivings, and grumblings of ordinary Singaporeans on their everyday lives. You know, people who do not buy into the Singaporean Dream, and believe we are all living in a Matrix. If you fall into any of these categories, you might like Colin Goh’s follow-up to Talking Cock the Movie.

Then, there are people who watch films as films. Singapore Dreaming falls squarely in the genre of the Angsty HDB Film, popularised by Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys in 1997 and Jack Neo’s Money No Enough in 1998. This genre is the local filmic equivalent to the Great American Novel, and almost every major local filmmaker will have attempted their Angsty HDB Masterpiece at least once, as part of their juvenilia. I suppose it is one of those things filmmakers do in their growing up phase, and one of those genres that audiences had to endure during our film industry’s growing up phase, which has thankfully passed. Or has it?

Colin Goh has given us a film that would have been passable in 1997 or 1998. Unfortunately, he is almost an entire decade too late, and it is very difficult to like a film that airs the same old tired diatribes from films that Eric Khoo and Jack Neo made long ago, that voices the same old tirades and true personal life stories that the disaffected ah peks at coffeeshops have been telling for ages. The film is heartfelt, but executed so clumsily that makes its subject matter even more banal than it already is.

It is difficult – no, impossible – to like a film that has characters whose dialogue function as both tedious and repetitive exposition and platform for the director’s complaints of Singapore society. When characters cease to speak as characters, when they function as makeshift narrators to keep the audience up to date with What Has Happened Before, when they function as mouthpieces for the scriptwriters, it is unforgivable. The scriptwriters forget their film school lessons on the difference between what a character needs to say in order to convey the significance of their emotions and dilemmas in terms of what it means to the movie, and just simply having their characters state how significant their emotions and dilemmas are. The problem with this movie is not the Singlish and Hokkien (no one speaks in purely English Singlish), but with the writers’ tin ear for dialogue. Even without dialogue, certain scenes felt too forced, and I believe this movie would have benefited from at least 3 more rounds of rewrites before the directors commenced shooting,

It is completely ridiculous that a movie produced in 2006, and by an "international crew who have been nominated for Academy Awards", should be riddled with continuity errors and a 5 minute stretch where the camerawork is unintentionally and amateurishly jerky, as though someone forgot to turn on the jitter control feature of their digital video camera. I counted a mid-shot, 3 different sets of close-up angles in that long, painful stretch. This is embarrassingly bad production values that the Director of Photography, that same award-nominated Martina Radwan and the editor Rachel Kittner must answer for. Similarly, the script supervisor Evelyn Ng should be taken to task for the amount of continuity errors in the film.

It is frightening that the directors call this "possibly the strongest ensemble cast ever assembled in a Singaporean film", given that everyone overacted more than theatre-trained Lim Yu Beng, who gave his most understated and subdued performance in this film. It is simply unacceptable for Goh and Wu to bombard the audience with gratuitous shots of the Merlion, the Esplanade, Shenton Way, and other tourist traps – as if we didn’t know the movie is set in Singapore, and as if any movie set in Singapore must feature these locations, even for just a fleeting second here and there, and there and there, and here and here. The film even features a funeral wake and procession that looks like a love child of the funeral procession in Jack Neo’s Liang Po Po and Tan Pin Pin’s made for Caucasians eager for exotic Asian fare National Geographic documentary Moving House.

I suppose you can let your eyes glaze over when the Merlion et al pop up on the screen, but you won’t be able to miss the theme song, "Gazing at the Eastern Wind". This Taiwanese folk song is a heartfelt piece meant to be sung simply by an unadorned female voice. The directors employ this workhorse to cue pathos in every scene that might be sentimental or emotional, practically bludgeoning audiences over the head with the music. Adding salt into the wound are the many instrumental-only rearrangements of the theme by Dr Sydney Tan, who evidently didn’t realise that the entire point of the song is to be as unadorned and plaintive as possible, that having a chamber ensemble or piano arrangement would actually betray its folk roots and realism, and render the music insincere and bombastic. The entire effect is rather annoying and grating.

As a film, Singapore Dreaming makes mistakes that we might have forgiven in the infancy of Singapore’s film industry a decade ago. Raw and angsty directors like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo have grown up, refined their filmmaking skills, and moved on. It is time for Colin Goh to do that as well. They also need to understand that having good intentions isn’t enough to make a good film.

First published at incinemas on 7 September 2006

Friday, 25 August 2006

Lemming (2005)

Forget about snakes on a plane! There are lemmings in your sewage pipes!

Hollywood is incapable of making truly frightening horror movies, and has been ransacking the Asian horror cabinet for years, with mixed results. The final insult to the genre might not come from unimaginative remakes like The Omen, incompetent offerings like When a Stranger Calls, or wholesale plunder like The Ring and Dark Waters, but from French filmmakers like Dominik Moll.

Nominally described as a psychological thriller (the French cannot appear crass, after all), Lemming recalls thrillers from the 1930s-1950s and animal horror films from the 1970s-80s. Imagine, if you will, that Jaws, Piranha, Crocodile, Anaconda, were made by the same director who gave us Vertigo and Rear Window. After all, he did make The Birds! Imagine then, a thriller whose tension is built up and sustained like a horror movie. There. You’d end up with Lemming.

Alain (Laurent Lucas) and Bernadette Getty (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are the model yuppie couple living in the suburbs, the picture of Barbie and Ken doll marital bliss and middle class comfort, not unlike Jeff and Lisa from Rear Window. Alain is an inventor with a high tech French firm that appears transplanted from Silicon Valley, and his latest invention, a miniature flying webcam, puts him in the boss’s good books. Richard Pollock (Andre Dussolier) is such a friendly boss that he invites himself and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to dinner with the Gettys. When Alice uses the occasion to stage the latest round in her long-festering marital war with Richard, shows her hostility towards the plastic couple, and then proceeds to blow her brains out in their spare bedroom, everything starts taking an uncomfortable turn.

Does Richard really visit callgirls openly? Did he really attempt to kill Alice 20 years ago? Will this vision of a unhappily married – but still married – couple serve as a roadmap for the future of the Gettys? And what of the mysterious rodent Alain excavates from the kitchen sink pipe? The lemming, a creature only found in the arctic region, comes to life from that watery grave, but no one knows how it could show up in France. That’s not the most pressing mystery, because Alian needs to know why Bernadette is slowly taking on the behaviour and characteristics of Alice. But should he be paying more attention to the lemming instead?

Lemming would be an poseurish angsty urban drama about bickering couple without its soundtrack and Dominik Moll’s horror movie sensibilities. Instead, Moll turns the potential existential angst and mutates it into a harrowing horror thriller. You will not fail to notice the how the camera follows the couple along the corridors through their urban house, as if something horrifying might jump at them in the dark. You will not fail to notice the soundtrack, alternating between unsettling ambient noise and avant garde compositions by David Sinclair Whitaker, which builds up the tension even without cranking up the volume or resorting to screeching violins. And yes, you will not fail to notice that each time Dominik Moll builds up to an emotional crescendo with the music and camerawork, actually delivers the scares, and lets the camera linger on a few more seconds for the unpleasant implications to sink in to the audience. There isn’t a single cheap thrill or false alarm here. Unlike any Hollywood "horror movie". You will not fail to notice the close ups on their faces, several sequences in almost pitch black rooms, and several long and wideangle shots that serve to unsettle viewers, inject discomfort, doubt and paranoia, or that this camera style has been rarely seen since the golden age of horror, or since Hitchcock wove his magic.

What makes the horror movie more than watchable is its construction as a simultaneous thriller, and the spot-on casting of the 4 principal actors, who have never acted together before. Rampling delivers the chills on and offscreen, Gainsbourg is the object of pity and horror, Dussolier cautions in svelte, suave tones, while Lucas is the Everyman and central character through which the audience views the movie and experiences the escalation of evil, horror and paranoia.

The horror in Lemming lies in can happen to the perfect marriage of Alain and Bernadette, in what could have happened to Alice, and what is happening to Bernadette – and perhaps Alain. Moll refuses to provide easy explanations and neat endings, and as a result, the horror never fails to let up even in the final shot of the film, even after its supposed resolution. Audiences will either love or hate the unique melding of Hitchcockian thriller and classic horror, as much as they will either love the avant garde soundscape or find it incredibly cheesy – mostly because it has fallen out of fashion. Fans of classic thrillers from the 1950s will probably have an easier time identifying with the movie.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

Thursday, 24 August 2006

On the Edge 黑白道 (2006)

This is why you take pictures with cellphones instead

Imagine Donnie Brasco transplanted to Hong Kong as a crime drama. Imagine if the drama was about Donnie Brasco after his undercover assignment ended, if he went back to the police force instead of retiring to the witness protection programme. The result, I imagine, would be an premise for a movie with strong storytelling – if we can find the right director to do it. After all, Hong Kong crime drama is often too easily spoiled by skin-deep writing, non-credible plot points, and a tendency to glamorise the criminal elements of the drama…

Much to our surprise, Herman Yau meets the requirements that the premise demands, and turns in an emotionally compelling film that is also intricately plotted. That’s right, Yau answers the intriguing "what if Donnie Brasco had to continue living after turning in his gangland boss" and bursting with ambition, goes further than that. You’ll notice all of this in the first 5 minutes of the movie, because it actually consists of two intertwined stories alternating with each other. On one track, we have the story of how Harry, a young cop, manages to gain the trust of an up-and-rising gang leader, gets accustomed to years of living with friends and lovers from the underworld, before gathering the evidence that will put his boss away for good. On the other track, we have the story of how Harry, now an older cop, returns to police work, and finds that he has to gain the trust of his superiors, partner, and the ICAC internal watchdog body, as well as face the guilt of betraying his former gangland friends.

Stylistically, the twin stories in On the Edge are handled with class, without resorting to cheap emotionalism and trite parallel plotting. In a turn that strongly reminds us of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yau begins both stories at their ends with an arresting, even shocking image: that of Harry holding a gun to the temple of Dark, his gangland boss, and of Harry lying face down on a road, dying before his police colleagues, a victim of a sting operation gone wrong, perhaps. I am impressed with how Yau juggles with developing both stories and finds the appropriate moments to cut between each other. The story of the cop is told mainly through shifting between the locations of the anti-vice raids he must now carry out in the police force, which happen to be the locations where key moments of his undercover gangland career developed.

Yes, it sounds gimmicky on paper, but somehow as a cinematic experience, Yau is skilful enough to ensure that there is no easy mirroring of the two stories, by shifting between the stories in a natural and non-intrusive manner, sometimes causing us to wonder if we’re watching a flashback or a prophetic flashforward. Yet what matters is the sense of forboding fate that will finally catch up with both Harry and Dark. Shifting between two stories and two timelines, the movie is told much less linearly than most Hong Kong criminal dramas, and further adds to the sense of quality this movie already has.

Like Donny Brasco, the issues of trust and honour lie heavily in the mind of the protagonist of On the Edge. But unlike Donny Brasco, which focussed on the mentor-pupil relationship of Lefty and Donny, On the Edge focuses on the relation between Harry and his rank and file gangland colleagues and their molls, and presents his internal turmoil as a result of the extended betrayal of those friends instead of as a result of the betrayal of their leader and friend. Yet this is a move that has payoffs and pitfalls for the film. Yes, the sense of guilt and self-hatred is more understandable and palpable, but this is achieved through an underdevelopment of Dark and the nature of his mentoring of Harry in the gang. Dark, as the ultimate prize of the first story, is a strangely insubstantial character.

On the Edge is so well made that there isn’t much to criticise. The soundtrack is neatly composed and appropriate, except for the few beats of choral music in the key dramatic scenes near the end, while the cinematography is every bit as mature as the scripting and premise of the film. One only gets the feeling that 39 year old Nick Leung should lay off playing roles meant for actors 10 years younger. Even if he dyes his hair and has youthful features, his age still shows easily, no thanks to Yau’s strange directorial decision to focus the camera on the star’s sagging body parts.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Birthday Girl (DVD) (2001)

Her character can't speak English, looks cute, but is good with guns. Ergo, Nicole Kidman's in a role Milla Jojovich turned down.

Perhaps the Butterworth brothers should have left it to the French. After all, Birthday Girl does start out as a quirky French or French Canadian comedy.

In an absolutely boring town lived a bank teller who had an absurdly inflated job title and just celebrated a meaningless job promotion that granted him a key that opens one of the safes. He’s a sad geek of a man whose most comfortable interactions with other humans is through the glass panel at the bank. Understandably that will do no wonders for his love life (which consists of a few magazines), so he gets a mail order Russian bride from the internet. That’s what a sad sack our protagonist John is. You’d expect him to end up picking up a rather huge, hairy and bearded woman at the airport arrival lounge, but he ends up with Nicole Kidman, smoking like a chimney and speaking no word of English aside from "Yes...?"

There are only a few ways to develop the initial absurd situation, really. The oddball, introverted bank teller and the clueless immigrant eventually touch base using a Russian-English dictionary and some adult video tapes. That could develop into the sexy and quirky genre that the French and Spanish are adept at. Midway through the film, Nadia has a "Bad Day" (birthday) and some of her compatriots drop in to visit, possibly staying for the long term.

Somehow this quirky sex comedy turns into a black comedy, then morphs into a thriller (the compatriots force him to rob his own bank!), then a suspense thriller (more plot twists as it turns out not everyone is who they appear to be), and then an all-out adventure with Ben Chaplin as almost an action star. And so on.

The problem is for all its twists and turns, the Butterworths refuse to allow the plot to linger long enough to build up something solid. So while the furious genre switching can be appreciated in itself, this appreciation is lessened by the fact that the film isn’t a particularly good comedy, thriller, or adventure at all. There’s just no sustaining the feel or sensibilities of a new genre after one plot twist, because all the movie is gearing up to is the next plot twist and transition to another genre.

More disturbingly, Ben Chaplin’s nerd act does not evoke any emotions. Are we to pity him? But he isn’t really a humiliatingly sad case because the movie has moved on to its next twist before we could get to know him as a sad case. Is Nadia likeable? She certainly looks hot, but the helter skelter plot twists gives the filmmakers enough time to show much of her character in its various guises for us to get acquainted with and grow to like.

It hurts even more because when you think about it, the plot holes are everywhere in the movie. For instance, why does John find the guts to rob his own bank when Nadia is held as a hostage? Why does he not alert his colleagues, since the getaway car is a mile away from the bank? And why is it a mile away in the first place? Why, when John becomes a wanted fugitive, does he walk into hotels, eateries and airports without anyone noticing him? The immense stupidity of the plot holes make the plot twists even more unbelievable and weak.

While it is easy to get caught up with the fast-paced plot and reversals, your enjoyment of the film may take a slight hit if you begin to think about the film too deeply. Birthday Girl is still worth the rental, just make sure you’re not in a critical mood when watching this.

First published at incinemas on 22 August 2006

Monday, 21 August 2006

Supercross: The Movie (DVD) (2005)

What do you mean, I get 4 seconds of fame? Just FOUR?!

The brains and purse behind Supercross: The Movie are none other than Fox and Clear Channel Entertainment Motor Sports. Perhaps that’s why the main cast hail mostly from Fox television dramas. Or why Supercross is less of a sports movie than an 80 minute PR kit for the motor racing event known as Motorcross.

There are only 3 questions you should care about when watching a racing movie.

1.How is the racing choreography? How good-looking are the bikes?
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 or non-cringe inducing dialogue.

Unfortunately, Supercross fails on all counts. Steve Boyum has several credits to his name, notably as the stunt director for Buffy the Vampire series, but in this movie, he appears to be out of his depth. There is nothing inherently wrong with the sport of motor racing and the aerial stunts drivers frequently perform. There is something really wrong with Steve Boyum’s handling of the camera, which captures all the stunts and racers from a mid-shot. Where is the drama in that? Where is the danger? Where is the spectacle? The races looked terrifyingly dull and boring, and it must take special talent for Boyum to do that. What’s even more wrong with Steve Boyum is the final race sequence, where he finally discovers the close-up button on his camera, and the gritty, grainy film stock that he didn’t know what to do with earlier!

In the midst of the roaring motorcycles, there is surprisingly little soundtrack, and what was left of it couldn’t be heard over the roar of the motorcycles at times. That’s fine, because we gather that the fans of Motorcross don’t really listen to hip hop and are more of the rock music types. But for all the mean growling of the bikes, we still have to watch the ineptly-filmed sequences of the bike races and stunts, so what’s the point?

The girls occupy far too little screentime and look too familiar (they are after all your Fox television drama regulars) for anyone to care. And we should care about these girls – like why Sophia Bush does a remarkable disappearing act in the middle portion of the movie, and why Cameron Richardson keeps getting cut off when she takes off half of her blouse or all of her pants and only reappears at the end of the climactic race to cheer on the protagonist.

Can you tell that I seem to be avoiding any description of the movie’s plot? I apologise. Simply put, the best parts of Supercross: The Movie are its racing sequences. Once the characters start talking, you begin to lose the war with sleep – the dialogue is that corny. Plot angles that are heavily worked at are dropped for no reason whatsoever: the rich girl-poor boy romance between Sophia Bush and Steve Howie’s characters; the racetrack rivalry between Aaron Carter and Mike Vogel, who happens to be dating Carter’s onscreen sister; the mysterious death of the protagonists’ father, an indie, non-factory backed Motorcross minor legend.

Perhaps if the director had any sense of decency and honesty to the sport, he’d take out the dramatic plot and release the remaining badly-shot racing scenes as a fan movie. Real motor racing fans should watch Chow Yun Fat in All About Ah-long, a movie about the Macau Grand Prix.

First published at incinemas on 21 August 2006

River King, the (DVD) (2005)

This was almost the second coming of Twin Peaks. In midwinter, in a northern town, a body of a teenager is found. The image is striking: a young man with arms open, lying on his back, frozen solid in a river. It’s truly a sight to behold, and that’s why you rented this DVD. You think of flawed or eccentric investigators gradually unearthing deep and dark secrets of the townsfolk, as well as discovering the deceased wasn’t that innocent a victim. It helps that there’s a quirky mandolin score in the soundtrack, it raises our expectations of the Twin Peaks theme.

So. Abel Grey (Edward Burns) is our morose Canadian police investigator channelling the spirit of Duchovny, and is strangely convinced that the apparent suicide case could be more complex than it appears, and decides to poke around. The dead boy, Gus Pierce (Thomas Gibson), appears in flashbacks as an angsty genius outcast suffering – suffering! – in the local private boarding school and rejected membership by the elite fraternal society.

Apparently the investigation is hindered early on because the governors of the school make huge donations to the police force. Apparently the elite fraternal society might have something to hide about the boy’s death. And apparently, so did the girl he was having a close platonic relationship with, the same girl who is having a normal relationship with the fraternity’s leader and head prefect of the school.

Even before you know it, a promising whodunit has turned into a vehicle for... teenage angst and the evils of the private boarding school. What makes this standard mystery (which comes with its standard twists) somewhat less tolerable is how fast the movie glosses over the plot points, as if furiously ticking off some list hidden offscreen. There’s the love triangle between Abel, a female teacher, and her fiancé who happens to be the dean of the school. In both cases, you know there is something evil (TM) about the head boy and the dean, because they speak in really English public school accents, are cold and domineering. The dean is more evil because he invokes the harsh philosophy of the Spartans ("There must be no individuals!"), plays the cello (and hence is like a cultured Nazi officer), and hence probably knows what is happening.

Yet for all that these clichés are worth, and for all the time spent building up on the probable moral evil of the school and the people involved in Pierce’s murder or suicide, the horrifying thing is there is no real follow-through and no real payoff at the resolution of the movie. There is the side-plot of the apparitions of a small little boy wandering around during Abel’s investigations and what appears to be the ghost of Gus Pierce popping up in photographs. Both are resolved by the end of the movie, and both resolutions feel false.

If you liked the premise of this movie, I recommend you read the original book by Alice Hoffman. It appears that the film adaptation focused on all the wrong story arcs and themes from the book, and the screenwriter may have rewritten the original great ending.

First published at incinemas on 21 August 2006

Friday, 18 August 2006

Tony Takitani トニー滝谷 (2004)

This was originally a short story by Haruki Murakami, translated and published in the New York Times in 2002. I’m offering this factoid as a means to explain why this film runs for barely over an hour, and why it is still worth paying to watch. Murakami’s sparse, even Spartan style, the interiority of his characters, and elements of the fantastic and absurd in his prose, have all been forwarded as reasons why his works are impossible to adapt to film.

Perhaps, as Ichikawa Jun seems to imply, the most appropriate material to choose are Murakami’s short stories. The short story format is supposed to be Spartan anyway, and fits in with these mood pieces. Tony Takitani, the short story, is a distillation of Murakami’s pet themes of alienation, loss and longing as the human condition. Tony Takitani (Ogata Issei), the character in the short story and movie, is a living shell of a man who has led a lonely life and has grown used to it, doesn’t know what he is missing, and is perfectly fine with it. The artistic genius frowns on beauty and aesthetics (irrelevant and wrong), doesn’t see the point in human society, and speaks to his father (Ogata Issei) once every 3 years because they wouldn’t know what to do with each other after they run out of things to say. Spartan to a fault, Tony works as a technical illustrator for ad agencies until a chance meeting with a client introduces the one and only time in his life where he is possessed by an emotion, and it changes everything.

If there is a quiet sense of tragedy that hangs over people who lack self-awareness, that sense of tragedy hangs over Tony Takitani like a permanent haze. A man who doesn’t know he is a hollow shell is somewhat pathetic, when the same man fills up that void with something meaningful, only to lose it in the end – this is tragedy.

Ichikawa Jun chooses to make a very straightforward adaptation of the original short story by refusing to turn this into a full length feature. The most interesting and compelling decision, though, is to deliberately film Tony Takitani as an illustrated short story. Scenes are mostly short and sometimes disjointed, with camera panning as a method of screen transition. On the big screen, this evokes the sensation akin to reading a classical Japanese illustrated scroll, with the narrator (Nishijima Hideoshi) standing in for the calligraphic text and Ichikawa’s postcard style photography standing in for the illustrations. An artistic touch that may or may not work on audiences is Ichikawa often has the characters speaking aloud and completing the narrator’s lines. It might seem a little affected, but I personally derived some satisfaction knowing that a film about an ascetic can only be made through a keen aesthetic sense.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

Thursday, 17 August 2006

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Laurence Fishburne is clearly eyeing Mr Garrison's role in South Park

I loved the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, which introduced the sport of spelling bees to a much wider audience than English teachers and their students in the high school spelling club. Jeffrey Blitz had good sense to focus on eight ordinary young competitors from the real world: some are geeks and seen as outsiders by their peers, others struggle with teenage parenthood; some are simply precocious, others have been hothoused by yuppie parents, and still others come from much more humble backgrounds. These children come from everywhere; it seems many are immigrants or children of immigrants. Aside from their parents and coaches, most of these kids take the competition with their heads screwed on, and simply shrug, grin and move on if they get a word wrong and are eliminated. As a sports drama featuring little tykes saying the darnest things, Spellbound works because there are very little dramatics despite the potential for drama.

Yet the success of Spellbound has led to the development of an entire genre of movies, coming under the label of "spellingbeekidsploitation". Last year, we had Richard Gere and Flora Cross in Bee Season. Now, we have Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee. Here, the director has chosen to create an inspiring film, one of those that are designed to get the heartstrings of the audience in a way that only a film about young children doing their best at sports can. In other words, a dramatic and sentimental (thank goodness it’s not based on any real life story!) account that follows the journey an ordinary girl must take to reach the finals of the National Spelling Bee contest.

Just to let you know, the film does succeed at tugging heartstrings, because it is a filmed as a sports film, albeit with an academic and cerebral sport – and sports films with kids, films about students struggling to doing well in academic pursuits are almost impossible to fail at tugging at heartstrings. The only questions are academic: whether the director was overly and overtly manipulative of the audience.

We understand that there are several rules to follow if you intend to make a sports film. Like having a wise old and cranky Karate Kid style mentor. That would be Laurence Fishburne for this movie. You know, the actor who usually plays the huge black man who looks capable of tearing off your head, whether he’s on the side of good or evil. How much did Atchison have to twist to turn Laurence Fishburne into Dr Larabee, a Chicken Soup for Nelson Mandela quoting professor at UCLA? Turns out Fishburne has to don a pink cardigan sweater, act like a prissy schoolmarm, has a gardening hobby like a grandmother, and come in close proximity to a box of puppets and dolls while coaching Akeelah (Keke Palmer) on spelling techniques. There goes a symbol of African American male virility! Doug Atchison will sacrifice anything just to pull your heartstrings! Not only that, but Dr Larabee is given a tragic past that only bears on the film for a scene that lasts shorter than 2 minutes, and only serves to pile on the heart balm.

This excessive gratuitousness is grating, especially when you consider that Laurence Fishburne does succeed in the rest of the Karate Kid training sequences with Keke Palmer.

The key point in the standard student sports film genre is that the protagonist often has to struggle against their environments. Since Akeelah is African American, it means that she lives in a bad neighbourhood, her brother is a gang member wannabe, and her mum is a single mum struggling to keep everything going, and is firmly opposed to her daughter wasting time on frivolous extracurricular activities like spelling bee contests. And of course, Akeelah goes to a school where being too clever is a death sentence and an invitation for school bullying.

So far, so good? But Atchison veers wildly off when he ditches the emotional and social realism halfway in the movie and begins to shoot with rose-tinted glasses, dropping issues developing in the background. I am of course talking about the problem of the African American race here. The student community’s suspicion of Akeelah isn’t so much a rejection of success than a symptom of reverse racism: Akeelah, by being too good at her studies and winning regional spelling bees, is too white for them. Her mother (Angela Bassett) forbids her from travelling upstate to a posh school not because it is in the suburbs, but because it is really in a white neighbourhood, populated by token minorities like rich Hispanics and overachieving Chinese. It smacks of intellectual dishonesty that Atchison refuses to acknowledge the real causes of the symptoms in his characters, and then proceeds to mow them down as if they never existed. Don’t ask me how Akeelah wins the approval of her classmates and mother – even I can’t figure out a satisfactory answer.

The bad neighbourhood angle turns ever so suddenly into Sesame Street meets Hillary Clinton’s "It Takes A Village" when Akeelah’s coach persuades her to seek the coaching of her own community. How is it that the friendly local gangster in his pimpmobile is so kind as to offer a poem to the girl, and insist that her wannabe gangster brother spend time with her spelling bee preparation? It boggles the mind. What of the friendly Korean grocery store owner who Akeelah also hangs out with? Has he forgotten the rift between Koreans and African Americans in the US, caused by black gangsters murdering Korean store owners in the early 1990s? After the fantastic sequences of the entire neighbourhood chipping in to coach Akeelah, I was expecting Oscar the Grouch and The Count to join in as well.

Atchison did not need to resort to such Pollyannish measures to sell this movie. What was initially a sound movie might, in hindsight, come off as slightly corny. I am betting that local audiences, being less in tune with the cultural milieu of the American that Atchison whitewashes, will be more accepting of its positive message.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

High Cost of Living, the (2006)

The perfect getaway - or is it?

The High Cost of Living is the third and final feature release this year under the Film Incubator Programme (FIP) for digital films. It is also Leonard Lai’s first ever feature film, and the eighth local feature film to hit cinemas this year. Watching most of these movies, I get the sense of excitement and ambition, much more so in the FIP series (S11 and Unarmed Combat), that directors are more willing to take risks with unconventional topics and stories. In particular, the FIP series is marked by directors rejecting arty films like Eric Khoo’s, as well as broad comedies like Jack Neo’s. In itself, this is no guarantee of a good movie; S11 had a tight script that complemented its relatively original premise, while Unarmed Combat did not manage to expand out of its quirky original short film.

Leonard Lai and Jeremy Chia are certainly ambitious, for The High Cost of Living is an attempt at neo noir, refracted through the lens of Hong Kong criminal action thrillers, set in a mostly Singaporean locale. The central characters are Long (Timothy Nga), a member of the Special Ops department in an unnamed government agency, who also has a license to kill (and never fails to exercise that license), and Gid (Roy Ngerng), a professional assassin who accepts contracts only if the intended victims deserve to die – like a corrupt Singaporean businessman who had too much guanxi in Shanghai. Gid murders nasty people, and Long investigates those murders in a brutal shoot first, ask later fashion. When the driven and merciless bounty hunter begins to hunt down the driven and passionate assassin, who will win? Who will walk away with the cleaner conscience?

You would be forgiven for thinking straight away: neo noir meets Infernal Affairs meets Assassins! But the point about genre films is not about coming up with something completely original, but to create rare combinations from familiar elements of the genre, and to improve the telling of the genre film. By this yardstick, High Cost scores with its mixing of the noir genre with the hardboiled Hongkong 1980s cop vs killer setup, as well as the mutual amorality of the cops and criminals in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. What is disappointing, or perhaps expected, is that screenplay is unable to keep all the balls in the air. Lai and Chia do try to give equal screen time to Timothy Nga and Roy Ngerng, but the key thing that must be done in a proper noir film of this nature is not just to show the amorality of the detective’s actions, but deliver on the existential dissonance or cynicism it creates in his character. Despite their intentions, it is all too easy for the audience to sympathise with Gid killer than with Long, and for them to focus on Gid as the central character.

Script-wise, High Cost feels relatively tight, but occasionally there are overlong scenes that disrupt the filmic rhythm that a noir film should have, mostly due to the director lingering too long over death scenes and reaction shots, leading to an undermining of the credibility of some scenes. There are only a few unnecessary scenes, but they are forgivable given that this is the first feature attempt by the director and writer.

More annoying is the dialogue in the movie. While Ngerng, Nga and Hamish Brown are comfortable using English, their older co-stars are not, and it is noticeable when they obviously stumble through their lines. The brilliance about filming on digital video (as the FIP series uses) is the cheapness of film. If the actors stumble through their delivery, with hesitant pauses and extraneous sibilant syllables between words, the director should have just deleted the scene and reshot it. Digital video is so convenient that when mistakes like this slip through, they are even more damning than they would normally be.

Technical skill and production values in High Cost is average. Precisely because the director and cinematographer throws in a kitchen sink’s worth of wide angle, Dutch angle and low angle shots, their efforts scream out the fact that they are haven’t moved beyond the short film mindset. That’s the one where filmmakers feel a pressing need to show the audience how many innovative angles and shots they can cram within a 10 minute short. It looks great at times, but over a period of 90 minutes, continuous mishmash of fancy shooting techniques can get tiring, and is ultimately a distraction from the telling of the story.

The shortcomings of digital video are all but exposed by the (deliberate) constant changes in lighting – some scenes, especially those under fluorescent light, simply look ghastly. Generally, High Cost and S11 prove that low cost digital cameras are better suited for outdoors scenes and handheld scenes. It is also possible that the low end equipment caused a few colour palette changes from just a change in camera angle, and in bright outdoors lighting, cause a blurring effect on moving objects. What this means is digital video is a very sensitive medium, cheap but requiring huge investments in post-production time. We note that colour correction has much to be desired, and hope that High Cost does not dissuade future and aspiring filmmakers to abandon digital video as a legitimate medium.

First published at incinemas on 17 August 2006

Monday, 14 August 2006

Don't Come Knocking (2005)

A special kind of mood is required to watch the world go by. Or a Wim Wenders film, for the matter.

Long before Sofia Coppola was doing Lost in Translation, Wim Wenders was beating a trail in intercultural cinema. The German-born, American-influenced (Wenders grew up in occupied Germany), and French-educated auteur is known for works like Paris, Texas, Tokyo-Ga, and Wings of Desire.

From their titles alone, you’d have an idea of what to expect from a Wim Wenders movie. One can imagine dislocated persons wandering around in foreign landscapes, alienated yet searching for some common humanity with others. As a filmmaker of the old European school, Wenders eschews the tyranny of realism and plot in favour of the image and the soundtrack. Whether it is angels perched on top of skyscrapers and statues or even slow pans of the desert vistas of the American Southwest, watching any of his movies is a cinematic experience of pure experience. Dialogue may be at a minimum and the plot may take a while to develop and then a while for us to figure out, but in those many minutes, we chill out in our seats admiring the stunning cinematography and the soundtrack.

While most of us are used to film as a means of storytelling, Wenders employs film as a mode of philosophy, of mellow observation of the deeper qualities of humanity. That’s not to say that his films are unwatchable or are intimidating and artistic. There is a sense of wry humour and irony that creeps along in each film; we sometimes hear it humming along in the background, and sometimes it just jumps out at the most unexpected places, discreetly and in a non-showy fashion, of course, since Wenders is still more European than American in his directorial sensibility. So when you watch Don’t Come Knocking, all this will hold true for you: the languid pacing, the meditative, taciturn dialogue, the profoundly beautiful camerawork and the unforgettable music – you know what to expect, but the joy is seeing it delivered in an unexpected manner.

While Don’t Come Knocking returns to the setting of Paris, Texas and reprises its opening scene of a cowboy riding off into the desert, everything is different. For one, it turns out that the figure is really an actor, a washed up former Western film star who, after decades of hard living and celebrity scandals and a slow slide to has-been status, has decided to walk off the set of a film so bad that it almost is a parody of all Westerns and The Bridges of Madison County, and had to be financed by a small-time businessman. We will never know why Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) left, but we are treated to half an hour of seeing how this celebrity (however much he is a has-been) manages to pull off and sustain a disappearing trick on his handlers at the production company. Or to appreciate slowly the irony and humour of a man disappearing from the world’s eye by going into the real world, of a man making it difficult to be found in order, perhaps, to find himself. The humour is understated, in the background, and yet sustained over half an hour on just one philosophical joke, will generate tingles in your flesh.

At the same time, Don’t Come Knocking is still a Western. Relentlessly and mercilessly on the heels of the outlaw is some kind of bounty hunter (Tim Roth), a creepy man who speaks ever so politely in clipped syllables and even pays a visit to Mrs Spencer (Eva Marie Saint), a little old lady in Nevada who Howard has never spoken to in more than 20 years. Perhaps he’s fled to the safety of his childhood home. Or perhaps, like outlaws in the movies, Howard has escaped in order to come to terms with the hearts he’s broken – after all, he did have a wild past – and reap the seeds he has sown before he meets (and will surely meet) the bounty hunter.

I liked Wender’s handling of what appears to turn out as Howard’s quest for personal redemption. In the hands of a lesser director, this would turn out to be a preachy, moralising film about the evils of the Hollywood lifestyle, If Howard realises that much of his time was lost in his youth and literally suspended in the endless succession of film shoots, can he regain it? Instead of asking dramatically if Howard can be saved, Wenders gently asks if he could regain that lost time. Instead of asking if Howard’s attempts at rapprochement with an old flame (Jessica Lange) could ever lead to his redemption, Wenders asks with a twinkle in his eye whether how Howard attempts to make up for his lost time is the test of redemption in itself.

First published at incinemas on 17 August 2006

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Ghost Game ล่า-ท้า-ผ (2006)

This movie bombed at the Thai box office, was pulled out after a 3-week run, sparked off protests in Cambodia and caused a diplomatic incident. Watch it now!

The cast of Academy Fantasia (a popular Thai reality show about aspiring actors) star in Ghost Game, a horror movie about a paranormal Fear Factor type reality show where contestants are apparently taken to creepy locations to rough it out, and the last one to be spooked out wins. Imagine what would happen if the contestants were brought to a really haunted prison camp formerly run by a bloodthirsty commander.

That’s an interesting enough premise, but something has gone very wrong. I’m guessing it might have something to do with letting a first-time director helm this film, or the fact that this is the very first film from this production company. I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers are rookies as well – that would fit in just nicely with the amateur acting cast of Academy Fantasia.

The reality game horror movie is something that hasn’t been fully tested, aside from a mild flirtation in Halloween: Resurrection. While reviewers complained its director was underinformed about the very plot device he used to update the Halloween series, it is clear that Sarawuth Wichiensan has even less of a clue about reality television than he has of horror movies.

Here is my list of cinematic crimes that Sarawuth Wichiensan is guilty of:

1. For a reality show set on a sizeable island, where are the crew with handheld cameras tagging along each of the 11 contestants for almost all their waking and sleeping hours? How do we see what happens in the film if there are no camera crew around to film the footage?

It’s rather bizarre since we do know that the CCTV-style cameras on the ceilings of the rooms and corridors in the former prison camp are incapable of broadcast quality footage and not to mention are incapable of shooting close-up angles or even moving about. Yet at times, parts of Ghost Game look as though they are shot in hand-held, and we know there are no on-site camera crew in those scenes. What gives?

2. Sarawuth Wichiensan has this rather cute impression that a reality show that follows the movements of 11 contestants over a few days can be aired live on television at apparently all times of the day in Bangkok. In real life, reality shows are filmed on location, then edited at a studio, and broadcast on television months later.

That this ill-conceived notion went uncorrected is quite a feat when you realise that at least 11 people on the set just went through a reality TV show, and would know much more than the director on the topic.

3. Can someone tell me why there are tonnes of screeching violins and assorted horror movie sound effects when the horror movie is about what takes place during the actual shoot of a reality TV show?

Either the Ghost Game takes place in supposedly “real life” and “real time” – in which case there should not be any non-diegetic music – or the Ghost Game is a partial parody of reality shows, in which case the director should play up the music, using cheesy Survivor tribal council style theme and the Tribal Challenge theme, and arrange to bump off the annoying characters in style, accompanied by more cheesy music of the non-horror kind.

4. Perhaps the greatest crime is this: at the beginning of Ghost Game, footage is shown of a previous camera crew mysteriously dying of extreme shock at the same site. At the end of Ghost Game, when the killings begin, the contestants and crew do not die in the same manner, despite the fact that they encounter the same forces that killed of the previous crew.

5. A horror movie is simply not worth watching if it breaks its own rules. Or if the makeup for the ghosts is so amateurish and half-baked that it reminds you of your secondary school drama night event.

Ghost Game is a horror movie so poorly conceived and far worse executed that the only horror you can experience comes with the realisation that you paid money to watch it. It is incompetently made, yet unlike the glorious trash of Ed Wood, it lacks creativity or even entertainment value. Yet there is one way to get me watching this movie again, and to pay good money too: some enterprising television network should get the rights to do an Asian version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and screen this with a running commentary by sock puppets making fun of every bad line, scene, and concept in the movie.

First published at incinemas on 17 August 2006

Monday, 7 August 2006

Limit of Love: Umizaru 2 (Limit of Love: 海猿) (2006)

This group of 5 either came for an audition for a sentai show or YMCA

Summer disaster movies are largely a disreputable lot. For one, they’re gimmicky, always trying to find a new way to destroy New York City. There are bombs in every mode of transport you can think of! Exploding buildings, tunnels, and vehicles! Is it no wonder then that audiences do get jaded, or that when real life deals you with a real exploding building and bombs in subways, you just want those stupid summer disaster movies to just die off?

Yet there is a single disaster movie that I can respect – Wolfgang Peterson’s The Perfect Storm. On the sea, against the elements, trapped on a single set, the director is forced to ditch the more improbable plot devices, the bells and whistles of CGI armageddon. At the end of the day, water-based disaster movies tend to work better because of their premise is more grounded in reality, and what can happen on a boat is very limited. This is why Poseidon failed, because its director broke these two rules, preferring to rely on tonnes of special effects and mind-numbing explosion counts.

Like it or not, the water-based disaster movie is a strictly genre film, where directors can only make better movies by following the rules and not going out of hand with their fancy creativity. It’s a worksmanlike craft, in other words. Now Umizaru is an example of a well-done film that sticks to the rules of its genre, and yet provides an alternate imagining of the standard (read: Hollywood) disaster flick that audiences here are accustomed to.

We begin by ignoring for the time being the key actors in this drama, and even this drama at all. The feature of this film is a passenger ship the size of a 5-storey high building, sort of like the ones Star Cruise has, but bigger. We’d call it a liner here and name it Superstar Constellation or maybe the Superstar MosesLim, but the quaint Japanese insist that it’s a ferry boat and call it by the cute name of "The Clover". You know, because it’s petite.

Because the show is about the coast guard diving search and rescue team, you know for certain that this ocean liner is fated for some unpleasant end that involves either some explosions in the engine room, a fire spreading to multiple decks of the ship, some flooding compartments, and probably some sinking to top it off. That’s par for the course, but Umizaru 2 has a uniquely Japanese take on the entire disaster movie genre.

Rule #1. Drop the entire shock and awe agenda of CGI, explosions. Umizaru 2 isn’t a cheap movie at all, but it doesn’t spend its huge budget on multiple explosions on the set every few minutes. You have to respect the director’s dedication to a more realistic and gritty type of rescue movie. It is probable that the budget was spent in researching ship layouts, constructing believable sets, and making sure that in real life, you can in fact crawl from the level 3 storeroom to the level 5 stairwell on a Clover class ocean vessel.

Rule #2. Go for the drama feel. There is no horde of screaming passengers doomed to die en masse. That is a ballsy move that only the Japanese would consider for a disaster movie, really. No need to waste precious screen time deposing the unworthy, the whiney, the rich, the stupid and all those social undesirables one by one like a slasher flick. Instead, showcase the national coast guard team in an evacuation that goes completely smoothly (after all, the Japanese are efficient), except there are 2 passengers left on board, and 2 rescue divers who must locate and rescue them and evacuate the ferry before it blows up or sinks. So you have a very compact drama, based on the tension of just 4 people interacting with each other.

Rule #3. Go for more dramatics. Like any Japanese cop movie, rescue team movie and disaster movie, you can never go wrong by introducing additional tension and drama by involving the HQ situation room team, who must find a way to guide the rescue divers and their charges out of the ship. It’s a little like Apollo 13, but the Japanese have been writing scripts involving situation teams for years now, and Umizaru 2 deftly switches between the 2 different types of tension in the rescue operation (will the rescue team get out alive?) and the situation room operation (can they get the rescue team out alive?). Admittedly, if you haven’t been exposed to the real Godzilla movies, the situation room sequences will feel positively boring.

This is the whole point, though: Umizaru 2 works well because it evokes the feeling of macho fraternity, the feel that we are all in it, that subconscious samurai solidarity that people in the front line and the backend of operations believe in. When the film makes you feel that the suited bureaucrats in the situation room are every bit as deserving to be called heroes, then it has succeeded. When the film makes you believe how heroic the rescue team is, without even casting Stallone-class musclemen as the leads, then it has succeeded.

Umizaru 2 is the sequel to Umizaru, which strangely enough, was never shown in cinemas here. You’d probably have not heard of the original movie or the TV series it spawned. It wouldn’t hurt to know that Limit of Love brings back the protagonist Daisuke Senzaki (Ito Hideaki), his buddy Tetsuya Yoshioka (Ruyuta Sato), and fiancé Kana (Ai Sato), who helmed the original movie and the TV series. As a true sequel, Umizaru 2 concludes the growth of all 3 people, from divers in training to full fledged coast guards, from a dating couple to a couple on the verge of marriage. Audiences should be able to follow the plot even without watching the original film or the series as this film can stand on its own legs, but they will miss the fun of seeing Tokito Saburo return in an unexpected position for this sequel.

Umizaru 2 is a decent disaster movie, and sufficiently different from Hollywood fare. Depending on your tolerance for the plot conventions of the typical Japanese television drama and your love of Japanese kitsch, you might either find this just an average film that does everything just right, but only just, or a wildly entertaining film.

First published at incinemas on 10 August 2006

Friday, 4 August 2006

Break-up, the (2006)

Actually, this alternate ending sequence from the extras is the only reason why you might want to rent the DVD.

Vince Vaughn is a very watchable actor. He has good comic sense, ad libs his lines, and is even capable of playing uncomfortable, slightly creepy people in non-comic roles (for example, in Thumbsucker). Vince Vaughn displays none of these qualities in The Break-up, a romantic comedy that has 1 interesting idea, 10 genuinely funny minutes, and 2 screaming matches between its main characters.

The smart idea behind The Break-up is this: instead of a romantic comedy showing how two people meet and fall in love, how about a romantic comedy showing how a married couple break up acrimoniously, but in the midst of their pre-separation feuding and calculated plots to annoy and humiliate each other, realise that they’re not fighting over ownership of their swanky condo, but for their relationship?

Hollywood and the movies it produces are always dependent on limitations of its A-list actors and screenwriters. The truth of the matter is The Break-up would have been made into a good film in the 1980s or the 1950s, but not now. Neither acting or scriptwriting talent is on hand for what The Break-up would ideally look like– a romantic comedy variation on The War of the Roses and Ruthless People.

Character-wise, Vaughn and Aniston are sorely miscast. Vaughn is an excellent comedian while Aniston is still stuck in her Friends era cutie pie image. Neither can do mean. Sure, Vaughn can carry off slob well, and Aniston can scream and shout her lines, but that doesn’t amount to anything at all.

Script-wise, The Break-up is a car wreck. It lacks any sense of fun, dark humour, satire, angst, or pathos. Yes, we have a couple on the verge of pulling the plug on their marriage. That’s fine, but the writers have absolutely no sense what they want out of this excellent premise. Is this film a mean social satire at suburban divorce? Or perhaps a zany look at completely mismatched, inherently incompatible couples and their friends? Or a depressing study of a marriage in decay, like late Ingmar Bergman? We have absolutely no idea either. There are mediocre attempts at all these possibilities, but the comedy falls flat, the insight is shallow to the point of non-existence, there is only one moment of uncomfortable comedy that might qualify as satire, and the shouting matches and shenanigans between Aniston and Vaughn are so very pedestrian.

What is far worse about the scripting is this: the writers forget to balance out Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). Whether they intended a comedy, satire, social commentary or a drama, the important thing is to have the couple be equally mean, equally likeable, or equally dislikeable. Instead, Gary not only lacks any funny lines, he also lacks any redeeming quality and comes across as an arrogant oaf to Brooke’s American pie image. With an imbalance like this, it is impossible for audiences to derive any satisfaction or entertainment from the bickering couple, simply because they will have to side with Brooke.

The Break-up might have been funny if Brooke wasn’t such an innocent aggrieved party, or if Vaughn was not a total prick. Make Brooke an annoying and sanctimonious character, give Gary some likeable qualities. Either way, there would be something entertaining or fitting about the two…

The meat of the movie lies in the feuds the couple engage in. The condo is the prize for the party able to endure the annoyances that their ex-spouse puts up (he invites his buddies for strip poker in the living room, she invites her brother’s band over for rehearsal). All this feels episodic, like a comedy drama, but the sequences strangely lack humour of any kind and are painful to watch. What a bored audience with all the time in the world can do to block out the bad cinematic experience is to think, and come to the realisation: the two were never meant to be together, so how on earth did they get married in the first place? Then, the movie falls apart rather quickly. You might want to run out of the exit before then.

One good thing about this movie is it eschews the standard romantic comedy ending. But then, you weren’t expecting it to anyway because film completely demolishes any chance, or scenario that could bring back them together. The other good thing is the supporting cast, especially Judy Davis as Brooke’s eccentric art gallery boss ,most of whom are actually funnier than Vince Vaughn, but some of their routines could be hit and miss affairs (Richard Meyers). Overall, there isn’t enough fun in The Break-up to warrant even a DVD rental 6 months down the road.

First published at incinemas on 17 August 2006

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Insomnia (DVD) (2002)

Seasonal affective disorder is particularly pronounced in the higher latitudes

A friend of mine told me once that noir is not a genre but a state of mind. I laughed at him for all of 5 seconds before realising that yes, you can forgo the realism (Sin City), the detective protagonist (A History of Violence), or even mirror the morally conflicted cop with a morally conflicted criminal (Infernal Affairs) and still end up with what undoubtedly feels like a noir film anyway.

The noir trend this decade is typified by directors who make an creative exercise of producing noir films by forgoing certain sacred cows of the genre, but the most radical move to date was made by Erik Skjoldbjærg, with his decision to relocate the detective story to a small town just inside the Arctic Circle, where there are 24 hours of daylight in summer. If you think on the meaning of the word noir, this is about the most sacred cow that can be slaughtered. In this 2002 US remake and adaptation of the Norwegian film of the same name, the original conceit is revisited, given depth and even broadened.

In this installment of Insomnia, Al Pacino plays LAPD detective Will Dormer, who is sent (or perhaps has pulled some strings to be sent) to a small town in Alaska to investigate a murder, together with his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

The local police department may feel this is a routine investigation that will no doubt be sped up by Dormer’s legendary skill, but the detective is also trying to get out of the heat of a departmental investigation. Apparently, like some noir heroes, Dormer is willing to bend a few rules in order to get the guilty the justice they deserve – or maybe not, but we aren’t sure, and neither does Eckhart, who decides to cooperate with the departmental investigation.

In the land of the midnight sun, what happens is the noir film becomes interiorised. Or as my friend put it, the essence of noir then becomes a state of mind that the director must impress upon the audience. What I liked is how Christopher Nolan does it by refocusing the film on the state of mind of Dormer, documenting the decline of his body and mind from insomnia (until one acclimatises to 24-hour daylight, it is somewhat difficult to sleep), guilt, and paranoia.

When the murderer turns up in an unexpected fashion in the half-way mark of the movie, another conceit is introduced: from a whodunit, Insomnia switches to a “why did he do it” mystery, and more importantly, the interaction between Dormer and his designated prey is complicated by the fact that the murderer is more than aware of the investigations in New York, and wants to simultaneously help and blackmail Dormer in return for his freedom.

Will the detective bend the rules yet one more time? Will he bend the rules instead to ensure the capture of the murderer? Nolan in his remake does some tweaking of the plot to ensure that Dormer is a shade more sympathetic to audiences, a move that actually brings the character to noir specifications of an amoral but conflicted protagonist. Also, the casting choice and direction of the murderer is an act of brilliance – no one expects Robin Williams is able to pull off a “normal to the point of banality” killer, which is more creepy than a demented killer type, and somewhat appropriate for this noir with many twists.

Whether it is for Nolan actually improves on the original, the acting of Al Pacino and Robin Williams, or the cat and mouse game between the two, Insomnia is worth the viewing and more than worth the DVD purchase.

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2006

Mr and Mrs Smith (DVD) (2005)

Maybe Doug Liman was doing a parody of John Woo making a romantic comedy, like one of those sketches you see on Saturday Night Life, where Kevin Spacey once did impressions of Walter Mathau, Christopher Walken and Richard Dreyfus auditioning for roles in Star Wars.

Or maybe this movie proves a theory a movie kaki once expounded on, aeons ago. To wit: Any film is a product of the movie industry, and what genre of movies are doable and how well they turn out are determined by the limitations of its A-list actors. And if I may build on my friend’s excellent observation, the current film products of Hollywood are also determined by the limitations of its scriptwriters, aside from the qualities of its A-list stars.

Take for example Mr and Mrs Smith. A couple happily ("numbingly", "soul-destroyingly", in the suburban speak) married to each other for 5 or 6 years turn out to be keeping secrets from each other. He’s an assassin for some agency. She’s an assassin for another agency. And these are rival agencies competing for the same contracts and kills, so you can imagine how fatal this revelation is to their marriage, and what manner of measures the couple will take to clarify the rather awkward position of being betrayed by each other.

Bickering couples being very nasty to each other, to the point of wanting each other dead – and actually trying to kill each other, while continuing their verbal battles. We have seen this done before, most recently with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses, or Danny DeVito and Bette Midler in Ruthless People. Going even closer to married assassins scenario, we have Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi’s Honor. Going much further back, there is a treasure chest of classics from the Golden Age featuring almost all-out gender war between strong male leads and fiercer female leads.

What makes Mr and Mrs Smith a failure is the lack of A-list actors who can pull off these roles with believability. Sure, Brad Pitt is Mr Pretty Boy and occasional action star, but he cannot play an unpleasant man, and is completely unsuitable for black comedy. Sure, Angelina Jolie is Ms Tomb Raider, but her limited acting range is so severely limited, she can’t even do comedy, let alone dark comedy. So ,we are left with a movie where the two leads pout a lot, yet fail to convey any sexual tension, and are utterly unconvincing as people who would want to do each other in.

What could be worse? The screenplay is a clumsy, 3-legged lumbering beast. Never mind that it fails to create truly dark, truly funny, or even humorous dialogue needed for the genre and concept this film requires. Never mind that in place of truly dark and funny dialogue, we are treated to banal repartee that disgraces the name of repartee and only manages to elicit laughs because of its anticlimactic banality. The problem with the screenplay is it cannot decide what to do once the couple (the blandly named John and Jane Smith) find out the secret identity of their spouse. Will it be a dark comedy? Will it be an action movie? Will it be a car chase movie? Will it be a weapons porn movie? Will it be a John Woo movie? The scriptwriter doesn’t know and tries to smash the plot in a new direction every 20 minutes.

Your patience will be stretched as the gear shifts come in fast and furious, yet incoherently. Your credibility will be stretched in the final moments, when Doug Liman and Simon Kinberg just toss out the entire premise and (badly constructed) build-up for a John Woo shootout in a supermarket. So they work in assassination agencies, are have about 50 assassins targeting them at the end, and the Smiths don’t even need to aim to shoot their enemies, they can fire their rifles, two in a hand, and look as if they’re doing some kind of balletic dance?

I guess that’s what happens when the screenplay happens to be the Masters thesis by a recent film graduate. Or maybe that’s what happens when Liman’s screenplay had to go through more than 50 rewrites by studio hacks. Maybe, just maybe, someone at the studio should’ve just taken a look at the script and the stars that were cast, and just said there’s no way we can make this movie a reality. Since that didn’t happen, the resulting movie is a joke.

Rent this if you’re a fan of Brangelina. Rent this if you want to break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Otherwise, just hunt down Prizzi’s Honor, War of the Roses, or Ruthless People.

Little Man (2006)

Q: What can be worse than making an unoriginal and uninspired film?
A: Making a film that is a blatant work of plagiarism.

As a movie reviewer, I can tell you that unoriginality is not a sin. For remakes and quite often in genre films, directors and scriptwriters end up making more polished and refined films the more they take on the same type of material. However, I have an intolerance when filmmakers lift ideas, scenes, and dialogue wholesale from a previous work and pass it off as their own, without acknowledging the originator of the idea. That’s called plagiarism, and if you do it in school, you will no longer have a place in school. Simply put, it’s the sin of being completely uncreative, pretending otherwise, hoping no one notices, and then hoping to profit from it.

Q: What can be worse than making a plagiaristic work?
A: When your film plagiarises a short cartoon from the 1954.

In Baby Buggy Bunny, Babyface Finster, a criminal who happens to be a dwarf, has to masquerade as a baby in order to get retrieve his ill-gotten gains from a clever bank robbery, after the money is dropped down Bug Bunny’s rabbit hole.

In Little Man, “Babyface” Calvin (Marlon Wayans), a criminal who happens to be a dwarf (the torso of Linden Porco), has to masquerade as a baby (the torso of Gabriel Pimental) in order to retrieve his ill-gotten gains from a clever jewellery store heist, after the jewel is dropped into the purse of Vanessa (Kerry Washington).

Q: What can be worse than that, then?
A: When it’s so blatant almost everyone notices the rip-off (i.e. US critics who saw this in May, like Art Biniger).

There’s the scene where Bugs Bunny discovers a military tattoo on the baby. That scene is repeated when Darryl (Shawn Wayans) and Vanessa discover a military tattoo on the baby.

There’s another scene where the baby is given the “upsy daisy” by an initially reluctant adoptive parent. Occurs in both films.

There’s yet another key scene, the “lights out gag”, where baby clubs a henchman over the head every time he turns off the lights, and you get to see what’s happening in silhouette.

And these are some of the best scenes in Little Man. This is not only unoriginal, it is mindlessly uncreative, and the Wayans brothers didn’t even bother to acknowledge their debt to Chuck Jones or Michael Maltese, the creators of Baby Buggy Bunny, in the end credits. Did the Wayanses think movie audiences wouldn’t notice? The old Bugs Bunny cartoon is syndicated and still showing around the world!

Q: You’re not going to tell me there’s more.
A: When everyone also notices how utterly incompetent the filmmakers are.

The main comedy in Little Man appears to be the Wayans brothers trademark scatological and raunchy jokes. In this case, just think of all the NC16 situations a grown man masquerading as a baby can get in, and you have half of the jokes in this movie, which centre around inappropriate contact between that man/baby and his adoptive mother and other female caregivers.

Problem: Marlon Wayans’s head is glued very badly to the torsos of Porco and Pimental that you can see how much it moves the wrong way from the body, or how much his head jiggles (a sign of cheap and nasty CGI). You will giggle not at the risqué jokes, but at the horrible CGI.

Then, imagine all the jokes involving hits to the groin, urine on the face, and you’ll have the other half of the jokes in this movie.

Problem: You’ve seen these jokes elsewhere, in Scary Movie 2 and 3, and in other ranchy movies from the past 2 years. The Wayans brothers have actually achieved something they’ve never done before, which is to make a movie with recycled raunchy jokes that have been watered down. If you’re going to make a bad comedy, at least put in some effort with these grotesque jokes!

Ordinarily, I’d say this is the worst movie you can watch this year, but then audiences did flock to the cinemas to watch Superman Returns, where the titular hero exists in a world that doesn’t notice Clark Kent looks exactly like Superman, even with his spectacles on. These same audience should flock to the cinemas to watch Little Man, where the titular anti-hero exists in a world that doesn’t notice the cute little baby looks exactly like an ugly dwarf.

First published at incinemas on 7 September 2006