Friday, 29 September 2006

You, Me and Dupree (2006)

If Dupree can cook, so can you!

The man who never managed to grow up is a role perfect for comedy. The eternal frat boy even in his mid-thirties, this impossible creature either plays the Holy Fool or the Slacker Loser. With acting talents like Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler, and writers like Kevin Smith on the scene, comedies this decade have been dominated by the second subspecies. That’s even though most recent reiterations of the second man-child type aren’t exactly likeable due to current writers exploring the darker, more pathetic side of life in these comedies.

For quite some time, audiences were left with Dudley Moore’s Arthur, a grown man full of adolescent joy and wonder… and propensity for destruction – until now, with the establishment of Owen Wilson as the sole representative of the likeable and sunny man-child in films. In You, Me and Dupree, Wilson plays Dupree, a slightly older version of a male Pippi Longstocking. That means he’s not particularly bright but is lots of fun to hang out with, and would make a great best friend even if you’re both over 30. And yes, he will probably drive you insane should you make the mistake of inviting him to stay over for an extended period – which is precisely what happens when Dupree loses his job, flat and car and needs to crash into his newlywed best friend’s home.

Understandably, all hell breaks loose, and you expect Dupree to cause serious tensions between his hosts Carl (Matt Dillon) and Molly (Kate Hudson). And of course, burn down their new house in some really funny incident. Making this comedy much less predictable and far more watchable is the introduction of Michael Douglas as Carl’s father-in-law and boss. As a demented Gordon Gecko of real estate development and an insanely possessive and controlling father who didn’t adjust to his daughter’s marriage, Douglas spells trouble for Carl at work as much as Dupree spells trouble for Carl at home.

The plot device that smashes the two elements together is completely far-fetched and implausible that it might sink the movie entirely. The long preparation and comic build-up in the movie makes the eventual plot device seem natural, and is done so subtly that you won’t notice it on first viewing – because you’ll still be laughing at Owen Wilson’s many antics as man-child and the many variations of his relationship with the newlyweds. The payoff is in the third act of the movie, where Dupree, like all holy fools, manages to bring light, warmth and happiness to all the characters in the movie in a very inspiring and insane manner.

You, Me and Dupree is slightly long for a modern comedy based on one silly character, but the combination of the gags, the coherent and non-meandering plot, the sight of Michael Douglas hamming it up, and an irrepressible Owen Wilson make a trip to the cinema very worthwhile. To top it off, there are no fart jokes, scatological humour or gross sexual jokes that American comedies have been overusing for the past decade! The only downside appears to be the underutilisation of Kate Hudson’s comic abilities.

First published at incinemas on 5 October 2006

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Breaking and Entering (2006)

Quite possibly the longest and moving Apple commercial I’ve ever watched

Breaking and Entering takes product placement to a whole new level. Forget the Switch Campaign or the ubiquitous appearance of the iMac in every sitcom. You could put a gazillion G5 iMac Pros in a movie and it will still look like a cheap product placement, miles away from the artistry of Breaking and Entering, which is an entire film revolving around Macs lost and Macs found. It's like famed director Anthony Minghella once won a short film contest sponsored by Apple (yes, the sort of contest that requires aspiring filmmakers to feature their product) and has turned it into a serious feature film. Love, alienation, betrayal, trust and forgiveness! With Macs!

Will (Jude Law) is apparently a partner with an architectural firm that’s just moved into a seedy part of London, presumably in order to tear down the crime-infested tenements, blow up the grimy streets, and replace it with something visually impressive and expensive, but more hideous and tacky – that, by the way, is called urban conservation. Instead of getting firebombed by (justifiably) angry anarchists or chronic out-of-work immigrants, the architecture office is burgled and wiped clean of its Macs by rooftop-leaping Yamakasis from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Twice. Because like most pretentious architecture, the 2-storey office building has a glass roof for Yamakasis to hide on, so they can spy on the security system and break a few tiles to drop down from the roof.

Everything starts getting pretty weird when Will stakes out the company compounds and catches teen delinquent Miro (Rafi Gavron) going for a hat-trick. It’s not just weird because it’s wildly improbable that thieves – even mentally challenged ones – would want to strike thrice at the same place, but because he proceeds to follow the boy home and visit his seamstress mother Amira (Juliet Binoche) on a daily basis, on business and then for sociable company. Without the knowledge of his estranged, long-term live-in Swedish girlfriend Liv (Robin Wright Penn), who has been somewhat distant ever since her daughter developed autism.

Since this is a feature length advertisement, there is a dollop of love, alienation, betrayal, trust and forgiveness involved. It’s easy to tell that Minghella isn’t going for the weird arty existential French movie with optional extra extra-marital sex scenes. Even if the movie hints weakly at less-than-selfless intentions on both Will and Amira’s decisions, they’re such nice people who don’t really mean to harm each other. It’s also easy to tell that Minghella isn|’t going for the weird depressing Swedish movie with estranged couples. Even if Will and Liv stumble about with a shell-shocked expression lifted from Ingmar Bergman’s later domestic dramas, their plight is too showy and overdone, with the autistic and hyperactive daughter. Minghella should have hired a different cinematographer, preferably a music video producer, because Benoît Delhomme’s camerawork accentuates the cursory plot resemblances of Breaking and Entering to the two genres.

Then again, if this were a French existential film, there would be more unabashedly amoral sex, more music, less characters, and much less moralising. And the film would be about half an hour shorter. If this were a depressing Swedish film, there would be more moral indifference, more irony, and less characters, and less chase scenes. And the film would be about half an hour shorter, ditching the last 10 minutes of the film and choosing a silent car ride between the estranged couple as its bleak ending scene.

Neither here nor there, with too much extraneous plot lines that pop in and out intermittently, with an inordinate desire to give everyone an improbably guilt-free, consequence-free happy ending, Breaking and Entering makes a good full-length Apple advertisement but not a movie worthy of respect, despite Mighella's pretensions to Eurocinema here.

First published at incinemas on 22 March 2007

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous comedy would become his best film ever...

This may not be the golden age of comedy in Hollywood, but it’s about good as it gets for audiences. With Robin Williams, Tim Allen, Steve Martin now reduced to doing sequels or comedies involving babysitting little tykes, the fort is held by luminaries like Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell. Almost all 4 are Saturday Night Life regulars (Carrey auditioned but was never chosen), these are brilliant comedians who have brought their often low-brow, sketch-based comic sensibilities to the big screen feature. Their comedies have started to shine with sophistication lately, and the new trend appears to be starring in a deep movie or playing a dramatic actor. The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, and Spanglish are the finest semi-dramatic and serious movies from this group, but as Click, The Cable Guy, and Benchwarmers show, there are certain pitfalls that make these ventures iffy propositions: the lead actor/comedian may succumb to common sentimentality, melodrama, or the dramatic half of the movie may never gel with its comic half. On occasion , the actor may not be up to the task of being a lead dramatic actor at all (witness Sandler in Click).

Stranger Than Fiction is the first ‘serious’ comedy effort of Will Ferrell, who plays the part of a senior IRS agent Harold Crick, a mindnumbingly boring salaryman who lives alone, eats his meals alone, has never taken a day off in the past decade of work, and exults in a fixed routine for even the most mundane of tasks. And then, he discovers a voice narrating every detail of his movements – which tends to be annoying and somewhat distracting – like a disease that one may be afflicted from, but will not die of. It’s a quiet sort of comedy for the audience, especially playing off the ironic tone of the Voice (Emma Thompson) against the un-self-aware demeanour of Ferrell, and his realisation that the Voice may be less innocuous than he suspected. And here’s the twist in the gimmick: If something happens in his life, is it his fault or was it premeditated by the Voice?

The plot gets into full steam when Harold manages to miss his bus for the first time in years, and overhears the Voice narrating "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous incident would lead to his imminent death." So what do you do when there’s a voice in your head that sounds as if it’s reading a book that you’re a character in, and warns of your imminent death? You could begin a course of medication. But perhaps it would be a good idea to find out, as Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), Lit Prof and pool lifeguard, suggests, to find out if your life is a comedy or a tragedy. It should be easy: in a comedy, the main character ends up married to someone who initially hates their very guts (just think of your TCS 8 comedy serials, please), and in a tragedy, the main character dies. And so begins Harold Crick’s re-evaluation of his life, and his attempt to subvert Fate and the Voice.

Just the setup alone shows the ambitiousness of the writers, who not only want a comedy starring Will Ferrell as the foil (Thompson and Hoffman are the comics), but a tragicomedy that references Italo Calvino, metafiction, and English Literature for Dummies. Even though this is a perfect recipe for failure, Stranger Than Fiction succeeds because Will Ferrell plays his role with an effortless charm, truly inhabiting the role of a man almost thoroughly lacking in self-awareness. It’s a role that his talented contemporaries like Sandler can never pull off because in their minds they are the star of the show, the centre of attention. What separates Ferrell from Sandler, Carrey, and Schneider is his ability to pull off the straight man role so essential to this movie.

Stranger Than Fiction also succeeds because it is clever yet accessible. The metafiction gimmick is used without being obscure or deliberately cultured. Thanks to the script and the great lines given to Dustin Hoffman, the entire literary feel to this comedy is made ordinary and familiar so that the plot can go on at a swift pace, like something one would see in a television sitcom should sitcom writers grow a brain someday.

Plot-wise, this movie feels like a coherent movie and not a series of rough sketches stapled together by a writing team – a problem glaringly obvious in comedies produced in the past 2 years. The inspired idea of blending tragedy with comedy (after all, the audience should never know how Harold Crick will end up!) is far better executed than Adam Sandler’s Click, where the tragedy overwhelmed the comedy and veered into cheap faux-Capraesque sentimentality by the third act.

Does Harold Crick die at the end of this movie? Now that the writers have attempted to write a comic into a semi-serious, clever but not snooty, finely balanced tragicomedy, you’ll know the outcome will be appropriate and convincing. And of course, really funny.

First published at incinemas on 28 December 2006

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Hollywoodland (2006)

And then, they started laughing when the movie started...

Don’t point your fingers at Bollywood and the film industry in 1980s Hong Kong for being infested with mobsters. Watch Get Shorty, The Black Dahlia and Where the Truth Lies, and you’ll see that Hollywood used to be just as criminal – and perhaps even more so during its golden age, where studios controlled every aspect of an actor’s life, and studio bosses had teams of publicists who do their work with heavy chains and a genial punch to the stomach to any nosey investigator or reporter digging for negative stories that may tank next week’s movie release.

Hollywood in that milieu would be akin to an entirely corrupt universe. As some directors (Atom Egoyan, Brian De Palma) have realised, all you’d need is a mysterious death, a femme fatale, and a detective to set a noir film in Hollywood. Here, the death is that of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), the man who played Superman on television in the 1950s. A small-time actor whose debut bit part in Gone With The Wind was his biggest film role, Reeves’s dying career was only revived through a fortunate stint as the hero in the morning kids’ serial The Adventures of Superman. The boost in popularity and instant recognition could only mean one thing for Reeves: the end of his film career, as everyone would laugh and shout "Superman!" whenever the actor appeared in some other film.

Did the actor, after losing his job, his looks, and much of his wealth, blow his head off in his bedroom one night just after entertaining his guests? Was it a suicide borne out of despair, or simply the awful company that evening? Or was it murder?

Here, the cynical, amoral, lowlife noir private eye is one Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is not beneath stringing along his paranoid clients to make an easy and regular income. You’d suspect that someone like Louis would be dangerously incompetent, but he does turn up uncomfortable and intriguing leads in the investigation, which suggest that almost anyone could have done it and wanted to do it – Lenore (Robin Tunney), the rejected fiancé who was still smarting that Reeves called off the wedding with less than a week away; Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a Hollywood tai-tai who was keeping Reeves as her toy boy; and Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), her estranged husband who approved of her affair, but might have reconsidered when Reeves dumped her for Lenore. And that’s just the list of initial suspects. A more realistic watcher might argue that might be a sign of his utter incompetence, but this does fit in with the bleak noir feel.

Developing in parallel to the story of Louis’s investigations and his struggle with the studio’s publicists is the story of the last 8 years of Reeves’s life, from the moment he meets and falls for the electrifying Toni Mannix to his eventual death. On the plus side, we are treated to the best performance of Ben Affleck in a long time. Yes, him of the pearly smile and huge stature, but Affleck does channel the good looks and easy charm of George Reeves, as well as his understated wit. Affleck not only does that, but also gives a subtle, just-barely-there sense of humiliation as the popular but typecast actor reaching out for more, all the while realising deep down that this might be as good as he can get.

Even with less screen time, Affleck easily outshines Adrien Brody, whose characterisation is cardboard thin and uninteresting. The detective comes with the standard accessories of an ex-wife and an estranged son who provide nothing to the main story. When written as a standard noir detective, this method of filling up and creating human interest to the character is a sign of poor writing, and is not helped by the dazed and detached performance of Brody in the film. Thankfully, Hollywoodland is propped up by the superior performances of Brody’s co-star and the supporting cast, especially Diane Lane, and should be a serious award contender.

I was impressed by the recreation of 1950s Hollywood as well as the noir atmosphere that surrounded every scene in the movie. Hollywoodland surprisingly offers no new insights and clues to the death of George Reeves, which is the only quibble I have with this film.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

Monday, 25 September 2006

Sukob (2006)

Lo-fi horror strikes back

Most Asian horror movies are rubbish nowadays, and I say this without exaggeration. Little children in white body paint and thin females lurching and crawling about in long wigs while dripping gallons of water from the ceiling may have been scary in Ju-on, The Ring and Dark Water, but theirs is a scare factor that decays over time: by the 3rd or 4th movie, you’ll be sniggering each time these fixtures pop up. It’s not just familiarity, but the increasingly poor and shoddy execution and writing that is putting a natural limit to the Asian horror phenomenon.

And this may be the year where everything blows up for the genre! Witness this year’s Black Night, where third rate directors from Hong Kong, Thailand, and Japan competed to see who could create a scarier movie based on puddles of water and people in white makeup. What about Voice, the famous horror movie featuring lesbianism and lots of theatre-grade blood, and a last minute Korean-style plot twist that is as incoherent as it was unexpected? Or Ghost Game, the tasteless and hilarious horror movie about a reality show in a former concentration camp? No wonder directors like Akio Yoshida (The Haunted Apartments) feel it more appropriate to make fun of the exhaustion of the genre and to go into horror comedies instead.

There is, however, a silver lining in Sukob, a Filipino horror film that sets itself as the mirror image of the entire recent Asian horror tradition. When Sandy (Kris Aquino) begins to see visions of a ghostly child shortly before her wedding, and then her close friends start disappearing after the ceremony – and in the presence of that child – suspicions begin to arise that she or her husband have broken one of the many complicated arcane wedding taboos, which actually exist in Filipino society and are popularly believed.

As far as horror films go, Sukob feels traditional, far removed from the universe of urban horror, with its viruses lurking in videotapes and ghosts lurking in the wireless network. Yet several features make it more than a filmed version of an old folktale, and elevate it to the status of a true horror classic. This includes high production values, slightly better than average acting, and a genuine love of the camera that shows up in variety of scenes, settings and filming techniques that are used in the movie.

The Ring, Haunted Apartments, etc


Protagonists are urbanites

Protagonists have village roots

Human relationships: lonely, individualised

Human relationships: intertwined

Protagonists are surrounded, aided by friends

Protagonists are surrounded and aided by kin

Goosebump factor: you are really alone in this world, and no one can hear you scream

Goosebump factor: everyone is really related to one another, and there’s no running away

Epidemic of deaths: forcibly integrating individuals into a faceless mass of horror (getting infected, turning into zombies, becoming one of the ghosts)

Epidemic of deaths: breaking down the network of family and close friends of protagonists (by infecting them, turning them into zombies, turning them into the ghosts…)

Sukob is not exactly blood-curdling, even with its occasionally loud soundtrack and objects jumping suddenly in the middle of the screen. That being said, the movie does make up for its lack of scares through its creepiness and subtle sense of dread – just like the best and earliest movies from the J-horror tradition. What’s even better is that Sukob achieves all these on its own terms, mining its own native culture and traditions, and resisting the urge to mindlessly and incompetently lift off elements from Japanese horror films. One wishes that other Asian horror movie directors will learn a lesson Chito Sono.

First published at incinemas on 28 September 2006

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Haunted Apartments 怪談新耳袋: 幽霊マンション(2006)

J-horror enters its camp phase

At first glance, Haunted Apartments comes late in a field dominated by Takashige Ichise, who gave us films like The Ring, Ju-on, the J-horror Theatre series, and their legion of crawling long-haired females and mewing children with the skin tone of washed concrete. What new things can the Japanese say on the subject of horror, now that 8 years have passed since Sadako and her crazy upside down eye haunted our television screens? Surely not the “Tales of Terror” franchise, a made-for-TV horror movie (never screened in Singapore), which had as much hits and misses in its short stories. Yet Haunted Apartments, its first proper cinematic follow-up, is an unexpected improvement over the anthology.

The title of the movie is descriptive of what appears to be the director’s intentions for the first half of the movie. Haunted Apartments, after all, is the simplest and most straightforward title for a horror movie. It’s like giving your movie titles like "Serial Killer", "Romantic Comedy", "War Movie", "Cop Show" and so on. And for the first half, Akio Yoshida does just what we expect, taking time to build up a standard, not particularly imaginative J-horror film set in a set of run-down apartment block that might have come from Dark Waters.

The new tenants to the haunted apartments is a father-daughter team who are escaping or recovering from a recent family tragedy. While moving in and meeting their neighbours for the first time, they should have paid attention to the signs of impending trouble and run away. You know, signs like seeing a uniformed girl with long hair obscuring all facial features standing at a balcony. Who disappears mysteriously. Or the uncomfortable body language of their friendly neighbours, who seem too eager to welcome them and yet simultaneously on a hair’s edge from breaking out into hysteria over something. Or the ominous old couple who quietly remind young Aiko of the arcane rules of the apartment: never mention the name of the daughter of the first landlord, and always come back before midnight – because everyone else who broke the rules died mysteriously or suffered horribly. And no, no one is allowed to leave unless they are the oldest residents and someone moves in. And before you know it, the haunting begins, with the standard ghost terrorises person sleeping in bed routine.

It’s not until the middle of the movie that you feel something strange and unexpected happens. All of a sudden, the slightly creepy performances veer into what feels like a parody of typical horror movie performances, with the desperate neighbours hamming it up as Really Desperate Neighbours, complete with over the top expressions that seem to kick in just as they recount their previous run-ins with the apartment ghost. Gradually, the bizarreness piles up, with moments of unexpected satire and social commentary about cutthroat modern society seeping in.

It will be then that you realise Akio Yoshida has pulled a fast one on us, and what promised to be a humdrum J-horror film has become a twisted horror comedy that skewers various national horror film conventions. We run into a race against time to find the body of the daughter of the first landlord in order to break the curse (The Ring), a group of mindless zombies and a superstitious pitch-fork wielding neighbourhood committee (American classic horror), and a really pointless and ridiculous last minute twist in the plot involving a social taboo, which serves to make the plot over-complicated to the point of incomprehensibility (Korean horror, any of the Yeogo Goedam series).

Rarely attempted, the Japanese horror comedy might be just the best thing for the J-horror genre, as Haunted Apartment neatly demonstrates that the straight approach to horror has run its course and run dry of truly spooky ghosts to serve up scares. I certainly appreciate the subversive turn of the film, as well as the sense of pulp horror fun it evokes, with its delicious roasting of familiar horror film tropes. For one, the parody is done in a clever and subtle style similar to Tobe Hooper’s handling of Mortuary.

One only feels that the director should have made Haunted Apartments a parody from the beginning instead of halfway through the film. As it stands, this film is not a very frightening horror movie. When we compare it to great Japanese horror comedies like The Happiness of the Katakuris and Gozu – both from Takashi Miike – as well as Atsushi Muroga’s Junk, do we realise that Haunted Apartments is not bizarre, surreal, outright funny or twisted enough. Even then, Haunted Apartments is a good place to introduce audiences accustomed to the tired J-horror aesthetic to a far superior brand of horror comedy.

First published at incinemas on 21 September 2006

Monday, 18 September 2006

Miami Vice (2006)

No smiles in Miami Vice remake

Miami Vice, if you care to recall, was the 1980s cop show where Don Jonson and his partner worked as undercover cops busting drug rings and bringing down smugglers and kingpins, while dressed in colourful designer casual wear, driving expensive cars (convertibles only, please), and wooing the hottest female denizens of the Miami, Florida area – while accompanied by groovy 1980s music. Armed with a light-hearted and irreverent attitude, the antics of detectives Sonny Crocket and Ricardo Tubbs in urban Miami set the television series apart from other cop dramas during the period, and turned Miami Vice into an instant classic.

And now, for the remake. I’ll try not to point out how Hollywood’s recent remakes have all been disappointments. That Michael Mann is directing, writing, and producing the movie should offer some relief to our fears of another botched remake since he was the mind behind the original television series, but then, you might remember that the reason behind the decline of Miami Vice from its third season onwards was due to a decision by Michael Mann himself to turn the series into a dark, boding and serious cop drama.

It is therefore my duty to report that the remake hews close as close to Miami Vice as possible. Except that it is the latter-day Miami Vice, the one we do not want to remember – gone are the pastel shirts, the laid-back, sleazy, and stylistic mood music, the urbane dandy machismo of the leads. If Miami Vice the television series was a triumph of style, then Miami Vice the movie is a triumph of no nonsense, gritty anti-style that so famously brought down the franchise. Yet the passage of time does do wonders, and this grim style is very appropriate for post 9/11 world. In stark contrast to the lemming-like rush to make hysterical and shrill films on War on Terror (United 93, World Trade Centre), Mann focuses on the real enemy that will undo modern civilisation: global drug cartels run by vast international conglomerates. In other words, the latest incarnation of Miami Vice is a serious attempt to engage the War on Drugs.

Plot-wise, Michael Mann jettisons the unconventional storylines of the television series for a traditional undercover cop story – cop goes undercover, cop falls for the gangster’s moll, cop’s family/friends are threatened, cop gets the gangster but loses the moll. That’s not grounds for complaints because Michael Mann clearly has strong, pitch perfect scriptwriting. Accordingly, the performances and art direction for the film integrate seamlessly into Mann’s new vision for Miami Vice.

While Collin Farrell continued his deadly serious, self-important thespianing from Alexander, he manages to have several scenes stolen by Jamie Foxx, leading to a very strange situation where Sonny Crockett does not feel like the star of Miami Vice. The dour disposition of the duo are heightened with the no-nonsense camerawork. Shot entirely on high end HD cameras, the picture can turn out harsh and clinical at times, with the colour balance cold and brittle, especially in scenes with quick transitions between shadow and sunlight. The unnaturally high contrast, the sharper than sharp edges and blurred motion – all hallmarks of digital video – serve to make this Miami look and feel like a well-made 2-hour telemovie and not a movie at the cinemas. This impression is difficult to dispel when Sonny Crockett just needs to take down meaner, more sophisticated and dangerous drug barons than his television incarnation, and especially when the combined with the standard story template.

The only undeniably weak point of Miami Vice is the casting of Gong Li as the love interest of Sonny Crockett. At 41, she is an entire decade older and a few folds saggier than an already haggard-looking Colin Farrell. Their love scenes have a creepy quality that is entirely unintended. And when Gong Li isn’t disrobing for the camera or sitting pretty in her business suit, she speaks. In very horribly stunted English that can’t even be explained away by her character’s mixed Chinese-Cuban heritage in the movie.

Without the flashy clothes, cars, music and irreverent style, this is the Miami Vice remake that no one expected. If you are willing to take Michael Mann’s vision on its own terms, the movie might prove to be more rewarding. Otherwise, it is still a great buy for the DVD collection, but not for the 1980s nostalgia factor.

First published at incinemas on 21 September 2006

Imagine Me and You (2006)

Completely inoffensive, by-the-numbers romcom, nevermind the lesbianism

The romantic comedy is more often than not a creature of such predictability that one wishes an enterprising taxidermist would publish a catalogue of romantic comedy typologies, just like what Roland Barthes and Aarne-Thompson have done for folk tales, myths, and James Bond novels. After all, the romantic comedy, being apparently made for crowds who seek agreeable entertainment, is much less complicated and variable and hence easier to prune into a few stock types.

Imagine, if you will, a coroner of film peering over the dissected body of what used to be Imagine You and Me, his white smock hardly stained by the efforts of the autopsy. Muttering under his voice to you, like a housewife exchanging tips on shopping at the farmer’s market, he declaims matter-of-factly: "Romantic comedy. The newly-married spouse discovers love at first sight. With a person so nice and responsible they try to deny their mutual attraction, and then to try to hide the fact from the innocent party. Hilarity and comedy ensue."

Imagine You and Me is just like what the coroner described, with the minor twist that the spouse and the person she falls for are both women. It’s a twist that is so inconsequential that it generates not even faint ripples on the inoffensive romantic comedy template it is based on. Yes, you’ve heard me correctly. Despite featuring a lesbian love affair, the plot and twists, the structure of this movie reads like any other fluffy romantic comedy you’ve watched and forgotten the names of, despite their ‘twists’.

Hence, expect your usual romantic comedy requirements to be fulfilled: the initial meeting between the leads, the introduction of the eccentric (they’re always eccentric in romantic comedies!) in-laws and friends, the early outing where something funny must transpire at a public place, the realisations of love, the initial euphoria and giggly phase of romantic discovery, the conflict between what feels right (the affair) and what should be done (loyalty to the marriage), and of course, the breakup that is followed very closely by the capitulation of the innocent spouse to the cause of true love, and a reconciliation involving a race to the airport. So formulaic is Imagine You and Me that you might actually forget that this movie is about a lesbian affair, given the unimaginative writing and direction of Ol Parker. Even the incredibly inoffensive PG-rated Kinky Boots had a more interesting and inspired plot!

Given the director’s oath to hew to the PG-rated romantic comedy formula, do not expect this film to have any intimate scenes between its lesbian characters (a major disappointment), deep social commentary, or any resemblance to the real world. The only scandalous thing about this movie is its R21 rating, despite its bloodless treatment.

You’ll love watching Imagine Me and You if:

1. You’re a lesbian and don’t mind a frothy romantic comedy because it has lesbians. Must support mah.
2. You’re a hotblooded male longing to see how the other team plays its game. Lesbians feature in fantasies of heterosexual males mah.
3. You like all sorts of romantic comedies, especially those directed by the British, who seem intent on making their comedies as bland as their cooking.

First published at incinemas on 21 September 2006

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Covenant, The (2006)

The climactic fight scene consists of people throwing Hadoukens at each other

From the trailer, you should already know that the twist in the latest witchcraft movie to hit the screens this decade has to do with male witches. The first minute of the movie explains in a semi-coherent way that in the town of Ipswich, Mass., the legacy of witchcraft flows in the male line of five of its founding families. More specifically, the eldest male son of the eldest male son. It’s a great use of the opening credits sequence – except that you, the average teen target audience of this movie, would probably arrive late and miss it anyway.

But never mind, since apparently everyone in modern-day Ipswich knows about the Salem witch trials, and most are aware of the histories of the five families – the official Ipswich Salem crossover book is available in the library for all to see anyway! Everyone calls the latest descendants the "Ipswich Four", and not because they’re a boy band. You see, to allay the suspicions of mortals about the existence of witchcraft, the families make the covenant never to display their powers in public, and the latest scions of the families hang out together like a boy band.

The elite rich boy clique makes this movie look like The OC with male witches, instead of a male version of The Craft or Charmed. For this movie, the head boy/head witch struggles, in classic OC tradition, with the arrival of two transfer students in their exclusive private school. The girl, of course, becomes his romantic interest, while the upstart self-confident boy turns out to be a descendant of the fifth Ipswich witch family (which was assumed to be wiped out during the witch hunts) and is now back for revenge, power, or something like that. You would already know this from the trailer, by the way.

One problem with The Covenant is its predictability. We know, or are able to guess rather early on, almost everything that is about to happen. This is further exacerbated by the second problem, its dreariness. Even though the plot twists are blatantly obvious, the movie takes too long to get to those twists. Scenes drag for too long and are burdened with bad dialogue from the cast. Who look absolutely great in their various states of dress and undress, but can’t handle their lines. And when the twists, scares and fight sequences begin, they are executed so poorly that the wait just isn’t worth it. Plenty of screentime is invested setting up the constantly overcast and rainy weather, the mouldy architecture of Ipswich and the haunted hostel look of the private boarding school, and even more screentime spent in setting up the horror subthemes, with ghoulish phantoms, nightmares and false alarms in college bathrooms making up the numbers. Yet when the scares really begin for real, you’ll actually think the false alarms in college bathrooms were scarier. When the climactic showdown begins, only one of the Ipswich four turns up, and the fight consists of the hero and the villain hurling Street Fighter 2 style Hadoukens at each other for 5 minutes. With the corollary that Street Fighter 2 had better visual effects than this.

The Covenant does have a certain charm, though. While utterly forgettable, the cast is blessed with good looks. And as Ulla from The Producers puts it, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it!” The best bits of the movie have one girl in a bathroom shower scene, two girls in their underwear gossiping to each other about their boyfriends, an entire male swimming team in various states of nudity in a bathroom, and too many scenes of sweaty half-naked male witches waking up from nightmares (don’t ask). Plenty of eye candy for everyone, in other words.

It’s a pity that Renny Harlin and JS Cardone never realise what a gold mine they have been sitting on. The Covenant would have been a truly entertaining teen/young adult movie, if it had taken the concept of "Charmed with male witches" and ramped up the outrageous campy parody factor. Instead of taking male witches seriously and pretending it isn’t the silliest and laughable concept ever, the writers should have just accepted the ridiculousness of it all and ran with the flow, not against it.

We await the definitive witchcraft movie with hilariously vapid male witches starring droolworthy actors!

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Lower City (Cidade Baixa) (2005)

The director left the camera on 100x zoom

Let’s get the plot out of the way. Two best buddies use their dinghy boat for cross-province smuggling operations – sneaking across borders anything from contraband to prostitutes. When a sexy pole dancer hops on for a ride and offers pays in kind, a torrid relationship is formed when the two buddies fall for her. It might be useful to take note the cardboard cut-outs that these characters come from: Karinna’s the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold, while Naldinho, a Latino, and Deco, a Black, grew up together as childhood friends. Throughout the film, the trio continuously run into the two inevitable facts of life: sex (almost every 5 minutes) and death (in the form of the warfare between all of them, and between them and the city). Will the hot chick destroy the two men’s friendship? Or will the trio come to some kind of happy arrangement?

Story-wise, there isn’t much to say about Lower City, because hardly anything happens aside from lots of sex between Karinna and Naldinho, Karinna and Deco, and Karinna and her clients. I’m sure this film could have come up with a deeper, more substantial story: after all, the classic Jules et Jim had the same premise of a woman coming between two very close friends. And I’m sure there was a chance to focus on the uncomfortably close relationship between Naldinho and Deco, beyond the sole token comment from Karinna about their "husband and wife" relationship. Sergio Machado, however, is interested in developing none of these. He’s in it for the grimy, seedy underground life of the trio. And the sex.

Machado is also very interested in his handheld video camera. Which he sets to 100x zoom mode on his actors. 99.9% of the time. While jerking the camera like a maniac. It’s some kind of aesthetic statement, I’m sure, but repeatedly plunging a salad fork into your eyeball gives you an equally stylistic experience. Perhaps you don’t get the picture, but then again, neither did I. How could anyone? There is no background in the frames. There’s no foreground either. Everything frame is an ugly, unnatural super close-up of the main actors, with no mid-shots to give a proper perspective and framing. In fact, forget about the sex. With the 100x zoom effect, the sex is absolutely unsexy and looks like dislocated body parts getting thrown together. That’s right – the camera zooms in so much you can’t even fit a torso into the frame. The lack of perspective and proportion makes some sex scenes look like fight scenes, and when Deco is fighting in the boxing ring against some opponents, you can’t really tell if that’s just a sex scene.

However, I’m quite sure this movie takes place in some Brazilian city. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell which city, or where in the city. Even when Naldinho spends a few scenes walking through a crowded street thronging with multitudes, guess what? You can’t see anything because he takes up 80% of the screen.

This film is an insult to the visual senses, and Machado should brush up on his screen composition, or just read the manual for his video camera. I guess we should be thankful that there is no IMAX version of Lower City. The camera technique might be suitable for a completely incomprehensible "arty" short film that you can watch at the Substation every first Tuesday of the month, but dragged to a feature length running time, you’ll feel like you just watched the cinema equivalent of a vomit-inducing thrill ride. If you watch this movie and stay till the end, it is likely that you’ll want to stab Machado through the eye for inflicting this unwatchable, poorly written, poorly executed, and very pretentious film on the world.

First published at incinemas on 28 September 2006

Monday, 11 September 2006

Pulse (2006)

"Hello, Tech support? There’s a ghost in my machine." Actually, make that an entire army of ghosts, leaping out of emails, LCD computer monitors (Philips), cell phones (Motorola Razrs), wifi network, the television – anything that apparently requires electricity or a broadcast frequency. Strangely enough, if you cover your doors and windows with red construction tape, this will stop them from popping out from your walls. Together with that minor incoherent implausibility, this is the premise of 2001 Japanese horror flick Kairo and its US remake, Pulse.

You know the joke by now. Hollywood executives are enamoured by J-Horror cinema, but always end up butchering the genre in their remakes. I am somewhat happy to announce that Pulse is a decent adaptation, trading some improvements over the original with some silly misses. In other words, the two movies are almost on par with each other.

For one, this is the first serious Hollywood attempt to remake a Japanese horror film. You’ll notice the desaturated colours and the vaguely blue-green filters, and the very understated, very creepy, mostly-ambient soundtrack. How about the pale, flickering phantoms who probably have an official permit from the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the creepy blurred out phantom face that stars at you from a monitor, then moves in closer and closer, till you can almost see its features? The surprise is not just that American filmmakers have finally duplicated the J-Horror look down to a pat, but that the producers of Pulse have made a film that hews closer to the J-Horror aesthetic than Kairo. For instance, the original had a fairly intrusive and over the top soundtrack, with an operatic female solo vocalising over a string section, and lacked the desaturated colour scheme of The Ring.

At the same time, we cannot expect and respect a remake to be a carbon copy of the original. Sonzero, Ray Wright and Wes Craven have therefore added a twofold change in Pulse. As the social isolation and existential loneliness of Japanese youth do not have easy analogues in US society, the filmmakers throw a curve ball by leveraging on the even more wired, technology savvy, can’t live without a cell phone/Blackberry/email/personal blog/messaging client worldview of 2006. The turn towards science fiction instead of spirituality as an explanation for the ghostly phenomena is a trick taken from the latter Ringgu series, which makes the proceedings feel somewhat more believable than the original. That several key scenes and gimmicks from Kairo successfully made the leap despite the adaptation and the reworked premise is a testament to the ability of the writing team.

Their second move is to blend the J-Horror aesthetic with the sensibility of the typical Hollywood horror movie. With the help of generous CGI, the understated, often faceless menace of the phantom figures in the original is ramped up to visceral levels. Yes, Pulse may have bald phantoms with kabuki white powder (not present in the original, surprisingly), but where the J-Horror manual advises the filmmaker to obscure their faces, Sonzero makes the interesting choice to turn the shadowy immaterial phantoms into ghouls out of Halloween. Everything, from the phantoms, their appearances in mirrors and their doomed victims, is given the Tales from the Crypt style makeover. J-Horror purists will no doubt cry for blood over this awkward mixing of horror styles. Sensible horror fans will end up scratching their heads over the unfamiliar stylistic blending.

Compared to Kairo, Pulse has a more compact and coherent script, with a more plausible explanation (though only less improbable) of the ghosts. Most flaws in the plot are in fact due to the writers' remarkable faithfulness to the original movie, which if you may guess, wasn't the poster boy for J-Horror cinema. Either way, Pulse is a decent horror film that is worth watching even if you have seen the original. And if you haven’t, Pulse is certainly a must-watch, a rare and solitary example of how horror can be realistically pulled off without resorting to gore and empty scare tactics that have almost destroyed the credibility of recent American efforts.

First published at incinemas on 14 September 2006

Saturday, 9 September 2006

Ultraviolet (DVD) (2006)

"My name is Milla Jojovich, and I star in a movie which you may not understand", is how Ultraviolet should have begun. The movie’s heroine kicks ass in skimpy leather costumes, while being infected with an exotic mutant virus, battling shadowy organisations, and collaborating with rebel terrorists to bring down corrupt governments. No wonder we can’t understand the movie, but that’s fine anyway.

Kurt Wimmer's follow-up to cult favourite Equilibrium is a movie that takes the high concept route by posing as an adaptation of a non-existent comic book. He takes the conceit to its extreme, imitating the over-the-top dialogue, the overdramatic facial expressions, and overconvoluted, preposterous plot elements of your average pulp comic book. If you can’t understand the movie, it’s because he meant it that way!

What you can understand and appreciate is the incredible eye candy of Milla Jojovich and the action scenes she appears in. Well choreographed, the fights look very beautiful but are bloodless and lack logic. It's like the rest of the movie, in other words.

Read the original Ultraviolet review here

DVD Review

You wish Milla Jojovich begins her commentary with “My name is Milla Jojovich, and I star in a movie you may not understand”, but “Hi~ My name is Milla Jojovich ~” is quite cute as well. And that’s as good as it gets, because Ms Jojovich, despite her stunning looks, isn’t really suited for solo commentary tasks on DVDs. Paired with a director and a producer (such as on Aeon Flux), she can be entertaining and dizzyingly fun but alone, the actress is reduced to a succession of “Wheee” and “this scene was fun to do” when the action sequences begin, and silence when they end. Absolute silence. At times, I had to doublecheck that I was watching the DVD with the commentary track enabled.

Why is poor Ms Jojovich doing solo commentary work, you may ask. Production of Ultraviolet was marred by the fact that Sony Pictures had a minor loss of confidence in director Kurt Wimmer during post-production, and edited and finished the movie themselves, without further input from Wimmer. The director was apparently not invited for the production of the special features and interviews.

What special features, you may ask. The unrated edition (only available in Region 1) has a 30-minute making of documentary which comes with interviews from the producers and special effects designers, who try but fail to explain the movie well because they are not the director.

Reportedly 30 minutes of footage was excised from the movie. About 7 minutes have been restored by Sony for the unrated version, but we are unlikely to see the rest of the missing footage until Sony and Wimmer make up and release a director’s cut.

First published at incinemas on 9 September 2006

Friday, 8 September 2006

Friends With Money (2006)

Jennifer Aniston wears a French maid outfit in this movie. Watch it now!

You probably wouldn’t notice at first, but a decade or more after graduation, it finally hits you: some classmates whom you continue to meet up every so often, the ones you count amongst your closest friends, have been dealt a somewhat different hand in life – a miserable hand in life, if I might say so. You know these as the ones who are not as rich as everyone else at the table during the monthly dinners, the ones in cheap mass-produced clothing. The ones who, for reasons unknown, continued to end up in low-paying, almost dead-end jobs, and unmarried to boot, even though they’re way past their 20s. You smile genially and try your best not to remind them too much during lunch that you are ridiculously rich, even though the topic of discussion for lunch today is the charity gala that you hope everyone is going next month. They’ve been your best friend for so long now, a small matter like money and rich spouses wouldn’t come between the gang. But still. You wonder, perhaps, if that poor friend just prefers the simple lifestyle, freelancing, and singlehood instead of the well-beaten route. Maybe you should feel happy for her instead of worrying. But still, you ask in concerned tones what they’ve been working as, and their love life. And after dinner, on the ride home, you turn to your spouse and discuss how awfully sad the marriages of your friends have turned out, and wonder if you should pay that friend to do some work at your home/office, or whether that would really spoil the friendship.

But really, did you think the dinner was that tension-free? Or that the poor classmate really felt comfortable sitting next to people in $1,000 outfits? That the classmate didn’t feel a tinge of ressentiment during the discussion about your plans for a third storey expansion of the bungalow? And yet all of you meet ritually every month, people who would never otherwise know each other, and probably won’t become acquainted at all had you just met in the street now, because of that precious time in college, when everyone was a slacker and a pothead anyway.

I know many people with friends like that. They don’t know whether to pity their friends for being poor or themselves, for having no more security and happiness than those financially challenged friends. Friends With Money is a film about all these depressing subjects, but without the angsty feel one expects. The brilliance of this ensemble film lies in director Nicole Holofcener’s decision to play it as a social comedy, and to avoid any chick flick navel gazing, emoting, and "no one knows the depth of my sorrows!" melodrama. Yes, people make bad decisions and suffer from their decisions in this film, but Nicole Holofcener invites you to laugh with them nonetheless.

Impossible? But there it is, since Holofcener has done it again, as with her previous uncomfortable, unnerving comedies Lovely & Amazing, and Walking and Talking. The special, almost literary way the 4 women characters and their husbands weave in and out of the narrative is what sets her latest film out as something special. The literary quality continues with the continual unpeeling of each character to reveal an essence that tends to be wildly out of touch with their appearance. At the same time, the unveiling always comes as a punchline to a gag rather than a melodramatic second-act closer. This sunshiney delivery helps Friends With Money dodge the chick flick label and propel it towards the direction of hypermodern indie comedy, where all the characters end up in worse situations than they began with, yet becoming more comic the worse their situations get.

This is the first film where Jennifer Aniston is willing to ditch her picture perfect American princess image, and consequently her first decent film after a long line of duds (you may recall the rotten Break-up which was showing here barely a month ago). Her entire ensemble of co-stars have turned in a high level of performance that went a long way to make her presence in this film credible.

The combination of Jennifer Aniston’s cuteness, her co-stars’ acting chops, the sharp, witty comedy and the keen social observation is worth more than the price of a movie ticket. That, and the fact that Jennifer Aniston appears in a (apparently Japanese anime style) French maid costume that shows off all her curves, is more than reason for you to run to the cinema to catch this movie.

First published at incinemas on 14 September 2006

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Capote (DVD) (2006)

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

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

This film provides no easy answers, and virtually every character is in a hell of their own devising, facing dilemmas of their own construction.

Read original film review here

DVD Visuals

Somewhat disappointing is the presence of frequent black dirt and white lines from the film print that got transferred to the DVD without any cleanup. While not earthshakingly bad, these occur somewhat frequently, and in the same areas of the screen.

The very muted and washed out palette that cinematographer Adam Kimmel uses is reproduced faithfully, although it feels to me that projecting it on a cloth screen in a cinema produces a cleaner and less washed out colour tone than watching it on a television screen at home.


Answered Prayers

Capote is an award winning film, and everyone involved in the features are thankfully free of the compulsive need to play up the importance, artistic value or cleverness of the movie, unlike the DVD features of other less acclaimed movies. What you get is a no-nonsense, fluff-free, dispassionate look at the historical figure of Truman Capote, his novel In Cold Blood, and his long correspondence with the real-life killers. Interviews with his biographers and contemporaries flesh out the very flawed but very personable man, while a short video clip of the author should dispel criticisms that Hoffman merely did a mime job – the real Truman Capote lisped much more and spoke in an even higher pitched whine-drawl.

Making Capote

The filmmakers definitely put a lot of thought and preparation even before principal photography began for the movie. Their conceptualisation and extensive planning for the movie more than warrants the 45 minute documentary, which can be viewed in 2 sittings.


Best enabled after you have watched the film/DVD at least twice, as Hoffman, Miller and Kimmer reveal in detail how they constructed the film character of Capote, as well as the look and feel of each scene. These commentaries are worth the viewing, considering how much a work of art the film is.

Monday, 4 September 2006

Yours, Mine and Ours (DVD) (2005)

Needs more pratfalls!

A long time ago in 1968, there used to be a comedy called Yours, Mine and Ours. It was an average comedy about a strict navy widower with 10 kids meeting a flaky nurse widow with 8 kids, and marrying each other and their broods. Once the 2 unlikely parents and their families are brought together, everything else that unfolds should be quite predictable: comic scenes laced with mayhem as the very large blended family handles daily chores, shopping, meals, as well as getting into the territory of family squabbles between the children, the clash of parenting styles, and so on. What made a very predictable movie so memorable and worth watching was the presence of Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as the leads.

Cue to 2006. There is a remake of Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Rene Russo and Dennis Quaid. Somehow their characters have been updated for the new millennium in predictable Hollywood fashion, receiving far more glamorous positions and jobs (Quaid plays a navy general and Russo is a fashion designer), swapping the number of kids, but nothing else has changed.

That’s not a flaw in itself, because despite the predictability of the movie, the comedy is likeable, inoffensive, and average family fare. Except there is no rubber-faced Lucille Ball to send the average fare to hysterical heights, no inspired scenes where parents get into really unexpected and wacky situations thanks to their children’s antics. Instead, you get to see Dennis Quaid slip and land his face into gooey, colourful liquid twice, Rene Russo deliver a pratfall once, and a huge pet pig run about the house every few minutes.

You’d expect the standards of comedy writing to increase over time, but what passes for slapstick seems to have deteriorated somewhat, so much so that the 1968 movie can now be accused of having clever and innovative comedy sequences.

So here’s the real problem with the movie: Hollywood has neither the acting talent, writing talent, nor directorial talent to top what was a run-of-the-mill filler comedy from the 1960s. Barely on par with the original, the 2006 remake can barely justify its existence. If you have to rent or watch an utterly inoffensive family comedy, why not just get the original?


A symptom of this degenerate age of filmmaking is the fact that both the director and his scriptwriters have absolutely no clue just how middling, average, close to forgettable, and just half an inch away from bad their film is. You’d either scream with horror or scream in delight as the director and his casting assistants go on and on about how "sparkly" and beautiful the 18 children are. There’s this bit about how Gosnell and the writers had wanted more pratfalls, visual jokes and mayhem in the movie, and were only stopped by the producers. That’s when you keel over in total shock over the fact that studio bureaucrats actually managed to prevent this film from being more banal than it already is.

First published at incinemas on 4 September 2006

Producers, The (DVD) (2005)

Support creativity: watch original versions, not remakes!

You wouldn’t be interested in this DVD if you hadn’t watched or heard of Mel Brooks’s original 1968 movie of the same name, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as the aging Broadway producer and the high-strung accountant who stumble upon a way to enrich themselves beyond their wildest imagination by producing the biggest and worst flop on Broadway. Part of the fun lie in their quest to locate the worst script, the worst director to helm the script, and the most inappropriate actors to cast in the musical. It’s the salad bowl combination of the sheer outrageousness of the scam, the over-the-top hysteria of Bialystock and Bloom, the genuinely likeable pairing of Mostel and Wilder, their daft sexbomb of a secretary, and their outré collaborator Roger DeBris and his airy crew, that made The Producers one of the funniest Mel Brooks movies ever.

What better way to pay tribute to the movie about a musical than to make a musical of the movie? Brooks and Thomas Meehan have done just that in their hit Broadway adaptation, which has proven to be just as funny and even more of a spectacle than the original. And what better way to pay tribute to that musical than to make… a musical movie? After all, if the original had a funny setup and hilarious lines, all its adaptations and their subsequent spinoffs should be as funny, right?

There’s a flaw with this reasoning, though. The Producers musical in 2003 was only good because it offered audiences something more than a staged version of the original movie. It had much more singing and dancing than the movie, and a fantastic stage set. What the 2006 movie had to do was offer far more than the stage musical.

Yet from the beginning, this enterprise was doomed with a miscalculation by Mel Brooks, in hiring Susan Stroman, the choreographer and director of the stage musical, to direct the movie. The result is a filmed version of the stage musical: it is as though Stroman built a slightly bigger set and planted a camera dead centre of where the front row seats would be if this were a playhouse, and just set the contraption rolling, occasionally adjusting the zoom and panning the camera. It is as though Stroman forgot to remind Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick that they are on camera, and the audience can see them very clearly even in the back row of the cinema (hell, they’re gigantic on a cinema screen!) and they don’t have to do the theatrical overacting anymore.

The result? A movie where the 2 stars are even more over-the-top than the Mostel and Wilder, except Lane and Broderick come across as pantomimes and Mostel and Wilder look comparatively realistic in their deliveries. A movie where the best scene is a fantasy sequence ("I want to be a producer"), because it required some measure of creativity in set design and visuals, and was a decent piece of cinematography.

When you compare The Producers to Chicago, Moulin Rouge, or last year’s U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, it becomes clear where this musical movie fails where others have successfully made the leap from stage to film. The directors of these 3 films offer something that the stage musical cannot – angles, shots, scenes that would be impossible to film on a stage set. In other words, they made a cinematic film, and not a filmed musical. As films, there is no duplication and hence redundance between dialogue and music. Since Stroman did very little rewriting in the movie remake, almost every scene in The Producers feels like 2 minutes of dialogue followed by a 5 minute song making exactly the same points as the dialogue.

If not for the entertaining performances by Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, The Producers would be a decent but somewhat flat and possibly overlong movie that doesn’t do the original proper service.


The must watch is the Deleted Scenes extra feature. None of these scenes were botched NGs. They might have been cut from the final print due to time constraints of the movie, but most of these scenes are non-redundant parts of the movie, and some feature songs that were the hallmark of the stage musical itself. What I cannot fathom is why a few of these deleted scenes appear to be much more dynamic in cinematography than the actual film itself.

First published at incinemas on 4 September 2006

Friday, 1 September 2006

Little Red Flowers 看上去很美 (2006)

Irresistible child actors steal show!

In a previous life, respected director Wang Yuan made unflinching movies on social issues like Mama (a mother caring for her mentally-challenged son), Seventeen Years (a girl is released from prison after serving 17 years for killing her stepsister), and East Palace, West Palace (a gay writer facing sanctions from state authorities). We miss the Wang Yuan who had the keen eye of a sociologist and a documentarian. We dread the day where he follows up Little Red Flowers with a martial arts epic, in a lemming-like move that follows the double career suicides of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who have proved in the past year their incapability to churn out decent movies on a big budget. You don’t have to wait for that martial arts epic to witness the artistic fall of Wang Yuan, though – you can see his degradation in this misguided film.

Little red flowers are what the staff at a 1950s kindergarten boarding school give out to nice children who show they can dress themselves, tie their shoelaces, poop in the morning at the communal latrines, obey their teachers, and treat their fellow boarders well. Little red flowers are both little shiny stickers stuck on a whiteboard that chart the performance of each little tyke for all to see, as well as the little crepe flowers that the teachers give out to the students. Sort of like how you were rewarded with golden stars in kindergarten and lower primary school for work well done. Yet from this innocuous measure comes a tale by the director on the struggle between individualism and conformity, the little people against authority figures, and so on.

With minimal dialogue, Wang Yuan establishes Dong Bowen as the latest addition to the boarding school for tiny tots. When you first see him, the crying child is literally dragged by his pilot father and deposited to the care of the ugly minders at the kindergarten. It’s clear you’re meant to take the side of the tyke. Over the next 90 minutes, you will learn through a series of incidents that

1. Conformity is the enemy of individualism. And in case you didn’t notice, conformity is evil!
2. Little children, when left to themselves, can invent their own games. The games and exercises teachers organise in school for the mass participation of kids are evil because they encourage conformity.
3. The more disciplined the regime, the harsher the rebellion.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning, problems that make Wang Yuan’s final social film simplistic and naïve, falling short of the meticulous compositions of his entire oeuvre. Perhaps Wang Yuan should have applied the Socratic method on himself, posing questions such as:

Is rewarding young children to reinforce positive behaviour always wrong? (Parenting in early childhood would be impossible if you say yes)
How else should you potty-train 80 young kids?
Is all structured learning and group playing always wrong? (We might as well abolish school and close down all the Montessori playschools as well)

For a fair comparison, one would have to look at how accounts and movies about how children grew up in kibbutzim (for example, The Children’s House). Or just read Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window for a more subtle and nuanced take on conformity, individuality, and creativity in a playschool environment. And then one might come to the conclusion that Wang Yuan is lashing out at the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The problem with Little Red Flowers is it’s not so much that the rewarding is bad, but that the teachers begin to isolate the non-performing children and punish them through by encouraging their classmates to shun them. That happens only in the second act, and is developed for all of 5 minutes, and feels tacked on as an afterthought to the 3 central premises of the movie. If the real evil in the kindergarten isn’t the little red flowers, but something else entirely, why the obsession with the little red flowers? It is the mystifying refusal to delve into the subtleties and nuances of the topic at hand that makes the message behind Wang Yuan’s film seem unsophisticated, despite its gorgeous camerawork.

The saving grace, or perhaps the most obvious sign of this film’s failings, is the chockfull of awwwwwww moments where little tykes do their cute little tyke things with their cute little tyke antics, like running around without clothes on, urinating on snow, and playing doctor/patient. This is the sole factor that will either save or break the movie for audience, given its relatively thin plot and thematic development.

In the end, Little Red Flowers feels like a short film that got padded into a feature length movie, with a weak second act and an even weaker ending that is atypical of Chinese cinema. It feels like the first 1/3 of a movie about a fictional boy who grows up during the Cultural Revolution and matures as an adult during the Tiananmen Massacre. Now, that movie would be a must-watch.

First published at incinemas on 5 October 2006