Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Snow Cake (2006)

And then, she pulled out the flamethrower...

The road movie has a lesser-known kissing cousin called the pit-stop movie. Like the road movie, the pit-stop movie is never about the destination, but on the internal process of self-discovery while on the journey. In the case of the pit-stop movie, the main action (internal and external) takes place in just one waystation, which is what happens in Snow Cake, a tale about Alex (Alan Rickman), an English ex-convict on a long cross-country journey to a new life and a rendezvous in a Canadian city. The proverbial wandering soul picks up Maggie, a spirited and charming passenger (Carrie-Anne Moss) at a pitstop, and following one of the most basic plot types, the passenger is killed in the accident while Alex emerges injury-free but guilt-ridden, and decides to stop over to visit the girl’s mother in the town of Wawa. Of course, the mother Linda (Signourney Weaver) turns out to be an autistic woman, and Alex turns out to be the only person she’d allow to take care of her for the week before her relatives arrive in Wawa. You should expect this movie to be a bittersweet melodrama and a tearjerker.

Except it isn’t. Angella Pell has the wisdom and artistry not to serve us a warm-over Hallmark weepie (see Weaver’s previous effort in A Map of the World) revolving around the well-worn themes of forgivenes and redemption. That would be a little too smug, self-serving, and artistically unadventurous. Pell’s script invites audiences to discover and accept Linda and Alex for the type of people they are, just as how Linda and Alex learn to see past stereotypes to come to some sorts of understaning and comfortable acceptance of each other. After all, it isn’t easy to speak to someone who looks like the saddest man on earth, a silent man who croaks like a morose frog if and when he speaks. And it isn’t easy to want to understand a weird little lady like Linda, who eats snow from her backyard and tends to talk the ears off anyone unfortunate enough not to be disliked by her.

And as the guilt-ridden Alex takes it upon himself to organise the funeral for Maggie (it takes effort to get to know a dead person well enough to give them a sending off they would’ve wanted) , Pell and Marc Evans use this as an opportunity to peek into the townsfolk, and to examine the enemy of honest discovery and acceptance - well-intentioned, knee-jerk politeness bordering on civil pretense!

Snow Cake may be a small movie, but it has several things going for it: the captivating performance of Signourney Weaver, who plays a character type so far removed from her usual roles, Alan Rickman, whose shy, tortured, and restrained turn as Alex Hughes surpasses his efforts in Pride and Prejudice. Even Carrie-Anne Moss and Emily Hampshire, in their short appearances in the movie, impart an aura of uniqueness that you feel their presence even when they are absent from the screen.

Charming, beautifully-shot, and wilfully unpredictable, Snow Cake has a personality of its own that deserves to be watched.

First published at incinemas on 21 December 2006

Monday, 30 October 2006

Scoop (2006)

What did you just say? I lost it in the audience laughter

A strong case could be made, I think, for the home theatre experience, especially for a film like Scoop. It is a breezy, light-hearted gem of a movie that is practically unwatchable in the cinemas. Scoop is a Woody Allen comedy starring Woody Allen, with his trademark eccentric, offbeat, strange and funny lines, punctuated with generous self-parody and a good sense of fun.

What spoils it all in the cinema will be the audience sitting around you. You see, whenever Woody Allen spouts one of his farfetched lines, the audience will burst out in laughter for the next ten seconds. Yet Allen doesn’t stop talking after delivering that funny line with his deadpan expression; the dialogue goes on, without a pause. So amidst all the guffaws in the cinema yesterday night, I could see the mouths on the screen moving, without being able to make out what everyone was saying for a good ten seconds. This wasn’t a one-off occurrence; it happened every few minutes. One imagines the audience was having so much fun they didn’t notice the missing dialogue. One would have hoped that the audience come upon the realisation by say, the middle of the movie, but they were still at it even in the end.

Let’s get this clear. There are 2 types of jokes. The stand up comic builds up the joke towards a punch line at the end, and then you laugh. On film, the dialogue stops almost entirely for a briefest moment (say, 5 seconds), and you laugh. Woody Allen’s writes comic routines that begin with plain weird and surprising funny lines that serve as a springboard for more hilarious elaboration or a jazz-like riff. It’s an opener, not a punch line – and if you do laugh right off the bat, you’ll miss the entire joke which comes after that. It’s like laughing after the first line of a Seinfeld sketch and then covering the rest of the dialogue with your laughter. Or rather, sitting in an audience that does that.

It’s not that I have a defective sense of humour – Allen writes his dialogue for people to chuckle at in the beginning, then bask in the frisson as the joke develops. You laugh at his sight gags, his oddly appropriate but very wrong choice of soundtrack music. And you, the person sitting right next to me, must definitely not repeat the funny lines word for word to your movie partner when the audience is laughing.

Don’t get me wrong, Scoop is a great movie – from what I managed to make out of the remaining dialogue. Singaporean audiences are clearly more comfortable with the Jack Neo Variety Night weekday shows, and are not ready to watch this other brand of comedy. Since they are incapable of appropriate moviegoer behaviour, I recommend everyone to skip the cinema screenings for Scoop in Singapore and just wait for the DVD. Regardless of whether you are a diehard Woody Allen fan or someone who just wants to laugh out loud and hard during a comedy.

On 21 November 2006, the DVD of Scoop will be released in the US, and hopefully shortly after in Singapore. Then, I will watch it and get all the lines, and that will be enable me to write a review of the movie. I might even watch it with a friend who laughs loudly and inappropriately, since it’ll be very easy to turn on the English subtitles.

First published at incinemas on 5 October 2006

Friday, 27 October 2006

Crank (2006)

Speed on legs!

The premise of Crank is very much like Speed: instead of lots of people dying if your vehicle slows down, Jason Statham dies if he slows down. Statham plays professional hitman Chev Chelios, who has been injected with some poison by a gangster as payback for a botching an operation. He will die if his heart rate slows down, and he needs to find as many ways of stimulating his adrenaline level before obtaining a proper cure or failing which, killing the gangster and his entire crew. This is of course an excuse for making a film where Statham gets to take lots of illegal drugs, steal vehicles, assault random strangers, drive a car through a shopping mall, and top it all of with a bout of public sex in a Chinatown street. It’s like an English yob’s dream movie: you don’t need much of a flimsy or coherent excuse to indulge in laddish behaviour, just lots of style and attitude.

Indeed, the plot of the movie never gets deeper than what I described in the premise, the characters never get any more 3-dimension or interesting than what you could read about them in my introduction, but the directors see that as a very good thing in itself. I bet that could explain the huge amount of plot holes and continuity errors in the movie, such as Statham running unimpeded without a shadow of a limp despite receiving a bullet in his shin.

Crank strings together over-the-top violence and scenes designed to cause offence (misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia being the least objectionable here) with a dazzling array of video game style overlays, MTV cuts, and more split screens than 24. The overweening mass of visceral violence, drug taking and high speed chases should hold together with the duct tape of music video-influenced editing, but sadly the style is highly inconsistent, You’ll get the feeling that the majority of the special effects were just added because they would make the movie look cool and exciting, but were added in a haphazard manner. I am fine with split screens! But what’s with the continuously interchanging panels that switch over for no apparent rhyme or reason? The barrage of non-stop violence, loud music and bad editing style may be reason enough to make a highly-entertaining "experimental short film", but after 20 minutes, I got very bored and tired, and by movie’s end, I felt nauseous.

Crank is not a movie you want to pay good money to watch in the cinema, but I can imagine an occasion where this Jason Statham vanity project might be entirely appropriate: you can rent the DVD for one of those Friday nights where you invite all your male pals over to watch rugby and eat lots of snacks from a huge bowl, or when you have a stag party and need something playing in the background. Then again, for those occasions, I’d recommend a sick, violent, offensive but funny and clever movie called The Devil’s Rejects. I suppose getting 3 out of 5 of those qualities isn’t too bad for Crank after all.

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Tiger and the Snow, The (2005)

Benigni on the road to Baghdad

Like auteur directors who frequently make the same movie over and over again (Hitchcock, Orson Welles, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Godard), there are actors who frequently play the same character over and over again (Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen, Christopher Lambert, Christopher Walken). Watching The Tiger and the Snow, you could easily come to the conclusion that Roberto Benigni is that rare soul who bridges both worlds. This movie is a retread of familiar themes and motifs best brought together in La Dolce Vita: the mixture of absurd humour in the tragedy brought on by war; the funnyman routine of Benigni, who refuses to be intimidated by setbacks, disasters, and generally bad situations; and his exuberant ways to court women (invariably played by his real-life wife, Nicoletta Braschi).

This time round, the war is in Iraq and Benigni is Attilio, an eccentric and absent minded improvisatory poet and university literature lecturer who has the same surreal dream every night – that of getting married to Vittoria (Braschi), who resembles a darker-haired Meryl Streep from certain angles. He persistently woos her in the waking hours, almost to the point of stalking her. Luckily Benigni is hilarious and over-the-top in his protestations of love that Braschi can only act annoyed, feel flattered, and run over to the washroom to cry at the insanity of the situation. You’ll feel like doing so as well, since Benigni’s character here is scarcely different from the clownish role he played in La Dolce Vita.

The key difference is the addition of Jean Reno, who plays Fuad, an Iraqi poet in exile in Italy. Just on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, Fuad returns to his homeland with his publisher Vittoria in tow. Closely stalked by Attilio, who uses his outrageous charm to get into the war-torn, heavily bombarded and roadblocked country to locate and save his friends from a certain doom.

While the film is pretty easy to sit through, it wasn’t too difficult to feel that you’ve watched some of Benigni’s antics in a previous film, or that the bare bones of the story served as a scaffolding to tie various Benigni sketches of varying quality together into a more-or-less conventional narrative. While the movie concentrated on Benigni, one had, at times, the desire to watch more of Jean Reno’s interesting and wiser character on screen. Ultimately though, this film fails to express any effective denunciation of the invasion of Iraq despite the apparently intention of the director.

The saving grace is simply that Roberto Benigni still hasn’t lost the power to charm audiences and to script truly magical moments on camera. It’s a pity the seduction wasn’t as complete as what he achieved previously. I consider The Tiger and the Snow to be far better than Pinocchio, but a lesser film than La Dolce Vita.

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Sinking of Japan 日本沈没 (2006)

There was a time when disaster movies meant watching scenes of people running around in rubber suits knocking over scaled-down buildings, cutting to stop-animation sequences of monsters and the demolition of miniature cities. It all looked silly, fake, and cardboard-like, but it was good fun in the 1970s. I guess everyone took a perverse pleasure in seeing their home city or country getting destroyed over and over again, preferably by giant radioactive dinosaurs or by natural disasters.

That was before the disasters got bigger, more improbable, and more ridiculously stupid. A volcano suddenly sprouting up in Los Angeles (Volcano)? An asteroid field on a collision course with Earth (Armageddon, Deep Impact)? Or how about an alien invasion (The Alien Invasion, Independence Day)? One way out is to make a parody of the entire genre (Mars Attacks!), or to go back to the basics, by concentrating on more credible disasters, better CGI, and using less rock music by Aerosmith (The Day After Tomorrow).

In the post-Millennium Godzilla era, Toho goes for broke by taking the second option, remaking the original 1973 disaster film, Sinking of Japan. The remake shares the same title, premise, major characters, and almost identical disasters. What this remake has going for it is simply better, more modern special effects (no more collapsing cardboard miniature model buildings!), and a younger cast to attract a whole new generation of moviegoers.

Of course, you’ll have to indulge in a little suspension of belief as the movie as a chief scientist explains how tectonic movements will result in the complete submersion of the Japanese archipelago within a few years. It’s a little easier to go down, especially after the thrilling earthquake rescue sequence before the opening credits establishes not just the horror following a seismic episode, but also the two bankable and inevitably romantic leads of the movie: SMAP heartthrob Kusanagi Tsuyoshi and Battle Royale’s Shibasaki Kou.

In a way, these first two scenes establish the structure and tight rhythm for the rest of the movie: earthquake scenes ranging from aftershocks to full-blown Richter scale busters intersperse scenes with scientists investigating the earthquake, the situation room drama in the Japanese version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a typical salt-of-the-earth family trying to survive the quake and the evacuation, and the lead couple’s romance story. Don’t roll your eyes; she’s an emergency rescuer who will be put to use during the emergency evacuations across the whole of Japan, and he’s a submarine operator working for Japan’s top earthquake specialist who discovers that Japan will sink not in a few years, but a few weeks. In other words, there’s a bit of human drama, a romantic subplot, a political comedy of errors much alike the sheer incompetence of FEMA’s response to Katrina, and the situation room thriller that Japanese movies have seem to perfected. And if you get bored by any or all of these, there’s always the carnage of the disasters, from an epidemic of volcano eruptions, zoom outs to show the complete destruction of Japanese cities, massive tsunamis, and collapsing buildings and bridges. All these are well-paced so that the movie feels far less than 2 hours long.

The icing on the cake is the very realistic look of the destruction and earthquakes. These aren’t cardboard miniatures, but very expensive CGI that is reason enough to catch this movie. Higuchi Shinji certainly brings his experience as effects director of Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Gemara monster movie trilogy to great effect in this movie.

I had only 2 issues with Sinking of Japan: the relative youth of its cast, compared to the original, does not make for hyperreal drama, softening the emotional impact of the disaster movie. The second is the mysterious teleportation ability of the hero, who manages to traverse tracts of collapsed hills, abandoned cities, and impassable regions with apparent ease to shuttle between his beloved, his submarine, and his brilliant scientist boss.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

Thursday, 19 October 2006

DOA: Dead Or Alive (2006)

Mostly harmless

DOA is a movie adaptation of the arcarde fighting game series of the same name, famous for its stable of well-endowed female characters and its physics emulation engine, which is used not to create realistic battlegrounds or fight simulations, but rather to produce realistic facial expressions and more importantly, the trademark jiggly, bouncing appendages of the aforementioned female characters. More recent instalments of the game feature female character designs with skimpier clothing and even more realistically jiggly parts, as well as a beach volleyball sidegame for the overwhelmingly male fans of the series.

All these features appear in DOA: Dead or Alive, making it one of the first relatively faithful movie adaptations of video games this decade. For the movie, the plot is harvested from different campaign stories of the later DOA arcade games, involving an international fighting competition organised by the mysterious DOA organisation. This puts the DOA movie into almost the same genre claimed by Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. The only question you should be asking is whether DOA can top the very fun and irreverent Mortal Kombat, or whether it is as toxic as the Street Fighter movie.

I like the fact that the writers of DOA did attempt to structure their movie like the actual arcade game. It’s very promising and fun in a nudge nudge, wink wink sort of way - the main characters are introduced and their backstories and motivations for joining the contest told in quick succession and in summary form, just like the obligatory pre-fight sequences in the arcarde game itself. The writers even manage to work in a live-action arcade hybrid style more than once, complete with health bars and huge K.O. titles at the end of a fight. With the help of CGI and blue screens, fight locations are pretty close to those in the game, and the entire cast of fighters in the movie are faithful to their characters in the arcade. Even the main overarching plot and conspiracy is taken from the game itself. So what’s there not to like? Why am I not saying this is more superior than Mortal Kombat?

Part of the problem appears to stem from the budget of the DOA movie project. Although backed by 4 production houses, including one that benefits from generous German tax exemptions (witness Uwe Boll’s remarkable oeuvre), most of the CGI effects have a very raw and rough feel to them that screams "this effect would look decent if we had more money!" This is offset by Corey Yuen’s faultless choreography, but unfortunately choreography cannot carry this action movie through, for the simple reason that there is way too much dialogue, and limp dialogue at that. It’s not bad enough to the point of cheesiness or pure entertainment, and at times, I wished I could just press any button on the arcade console to skip the dialogue to get to the next fight already. Maybe the director should include this feature in the DVD version. There is either not enough realistic jiggling of scantily clad female parts, or the martial arts director simply isn’t the right man to direct a fighting film that feels sensual and sexy.

But in the end, it is the lack of a real sense of fun and wild abandonment that marks DOA as agreeable but mostly harmless fare, instead of a genuine crowd-pleaser. You might well get more entertainment out of playing the actual game on an arcade machine.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Glastonbury (2006)

Shut out and listen to the music

Julien Temple comes with great credentials. He was the director of the 1980s Sex Pistols documentary The Great Swindle, which captured the punk scene accurately, as well as demolishing the carefully cultivated public image of the band. Between his other Sex Pistols documentary in 2000 (this time authorised by the band), Temple’s documentary and musical films lack the brilliance of his maiden effort.

And then, we come to Glastonbury. Its premise is simple: unleash the filmmaker on the Glastonbury Festival from 2002 to 2005, let him hunt down additional footage and amateur home videos from the first instalment of the festival to now, and put together a documentary film that should provide an immersive experience of how it’s like to be at Glastonbury, as well as track its changes over the years.

Well, one could hope. But what Julien Temple delivers is a middling music video that goes on for far too long, and a film that is useless as a documentary. Glastonbury is a series of musical performances by various bands, matched with footage of crowds from over the years – crowds who never met those bands at the Festival. There is footage of absurdist street installation performances by some visitors, as well as shenanigans of latter, more unruly, violently antiestablishment and anti-Thatcher punks, and the smiling crowds from this millennium. And lots of people talking into the camera about how they get the Glastonbury vibe, or just performing for the camera. And of course, Michael Eavis, the gentleman farmer who started it all, occasionally enters the screen as he gets down to the task of planning and organising another year’s Glastonbury Festival, and dealing with the ever-increasing numbers.

That’s fine if all you want is to shoot a music video, but by decontextualising footage in such a cross-stitching exercise, much of how the festival has really changed from a small hippy gathering to an annual musical event (on the level of Womad) is glossed over. Despite the occasional voice-over historical segments, the visuals and music conspire to create a timeless, contextless, lump of always-now that is resistant to analysis.

Questions that could and should be asked cannot be asked because of this approach: Given that Michael Eavis admits the festival has evolved through the years, how and why exactly did the festival change from hippy flower power to anarchism to… well-behaved commercialism? Did certain crowds stop attending, replaced by new ones with different expectations of what to do at Glastonbury? What do the crowds do when they’re not at Glastonbury – Do they party elsewhere? Aside from Michael Eavis, what other groups were a semi-permanent or stable fixture at the festival? How did they contribute to the festival? Did the attending bands stay for the festival or did they just airlift themselves in and out just for the duration of their performances? How are bands chosen to perform at Glastonbury? Has the criteria changed? Could we have some interviews with the earlier participants and performers from the previous decades? When did commercial companies begin to put up tents and booths at Glastonbury? How does this compare to the Burning Man Festival in the US, the only other long-running counterculture music and social gathering?

All these questions are never asked or raised by the filmmaker, making Glastonbury more of a feel-good piece of merchandising for the festival than a serious documentary. It’s almost Julien Temple wants us to shut off our brains and just enjoy the music. The only realistic thing about this documentary is Mr Temple’s choice of music, which reflects the extremes of quality and taste that music programming at similar festivals; there is the unbearably bad stuff, the occasional gem, and the rest is simply overcommercialised music that feels completely out of place with the ethos (original? Discarded? Evolved, but into what?) of the festival.

Afraid to raise the big questions and the small questions, uninterested in delving deeper than the pretty surfaces, and intent on creating a mood that never really existed through matching period singers with modern crowds, Julien Temple’s documentary may provide the big party atmosphere and interesting visuals, but fails to document the festival. The whiff of Temple’s self-indulgence wafts through the air, as he bookends the movie with quotes from William Blake. Those verses may have meant something in Jerusalem, but feel ponderously pretentious and self-important when married to an anarchist and self-mocking festival. Like everything else in this movie, it just feels mismatched.

Viewers might be interested to know that better documentaries and musical captures of Glastonbury Festival exist. I recommend Glastonbury the Movie (1996) and Glastonbury Fayre (1972).

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Prestige, The (2006)

A night assignation in a romantic destination

In a strange way, Michael Caine’s monologue in the opening scene of The Prestige becomes a stand-in for a mission statement from Christopher Nolan: the structure and logic of a thriller is almost like a stage magic act. To wit, there are 3 acts: "The Pledge" - the magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn" - the magician makes his ordinary something do something extraordinary, like disappear. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige" - the object will reappear, but in a way you've never seen before if it’s a good magician. In a thriller, a perfectly mundane situation develops into something unexpected, complicated, and mysterious, leading to a final revelation that clarifies and reveals a solution, but in a way you’ve never seen before – if the director is good.

And indeed, The Prestige turns out to be a thriller involving two magicians who excel in making objects and people disappear and reappear. One of them is dead at the beginning of the movie, and the other is sentenced to hang for his murder. That’s because the two have a long-running professional and personal rivalry dating from their days as stage assistants to an aging magician, when Angier (not his real name since his family disapproves of the stage) lost his wife (the lovely assistant who escapes from a tank of water every night) due to a tragic mistake by Borden. Since the two men cannot kill each other, they try to ruin each other professionally by either deciphering how the rival’s stage tricks are done, and to do a superior version of the same thing. Or by sabotaging their stage acts. Much like the Apple-Microsoft rivalry, I suppose.

And since Borden is the far superior magician (albeit with inferior showmanship), the parallel story has Angier on a hunt to decipher, duplicate, and procure the same equipment that Borden uses for his showstopper Transported Man trick. Tying all 3 timelines – Borden’s prison story, the rivalry story, and Angier’s hunt – is a set of diaries by both magicians, and Christopher Nolan’s non-linear but highly structured storytelling, which should remind audiences of the gimmickry the director employed in Memento previously.

With the support of a well-constructed period set, the resulting story is engaging, though not without several glaring flaws which seem to highlight the limits of applying the Memento-like structural tricks to this movie. The first mistake is conceptual: while the stage magician’s act is similar in structure to that of a thriller, what a thriller – and especially this film – does is to strip away and explain the central secret and mystery in the story. And as different characters remark throughout The Prestige, magicians never ever reveal the secrets of their tricks (unless for an extraordinary sum of money, and then only to very few people, under a pledge of secrecy); unsolved tricks infuriate and mystified, but once the secret is given away, the trick becomes worthless. I was just surprised that this self-undermining tension wasn’t recognised and then made full use by the talented writer-director.

The more objectionable flaw in this movie comes as a consequence of the first: far too much is given away and amplified by Nolan’s overneat story structure that he gives the game away far too early. All you need to do is pay some attention to repetitious bait-and-switch magic routines, and you’ll smell the first plot twist within 10 minutes of the opening (Nolan reveals it way close to the final 15 minutes). You’ll identify the second plot twist within half an hour, and the third within the end of the first act. Act three merely just confirms the plot twists and gives more clues to how everything was done, way in advance of the dramatic reveal at the end.

Coming close to this is the poor casting of Michael Caine. The actor is highly talented, and the only member of the cast who does not mangle the Cockney accent, but by chewing up the scenery so much, he actually provides too early the clue to the final twist of the movie. It’s a pity, because David Bowies’s Nikola Tesla had every license to chew up both scenery and co-actors, and yet turned in a comparatively bland performance.

We realise that Christopher Nolan is an exceptionally gifted writer, but it appears that this movie has too clever a script, so skilfully put together structurally that its artistry makes it paradoxically too predictable. When you are done unravelling the mysteries by the end of the first half or slightly later, you’ll realise that the overattention to plot and structure make for an intricate plot with characters that you are just unable to root for, sympathise, or even care for. This is the beauty and the tragedy of Nolan’s latest project.

First published at incinemas on 19 October 2006

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Truth or consequences!

Watching this documentary, you will come to the realisation that losing the US presidential election in 2000 was the best thing that ever happened to Al Gore. He has a sense of humour now, speaks in a genial and relaxed manner, and introduces himself publicly as "the man who was the next President of the United States".

Although he’s not a scientist, Gore learnt about global warming while taking a course at Harvard under the scientist Roger Revelle, and has kept up-to-date with since then. Gore’s political career as a congressman, senator, and vice-president consisted of patiently organising hearings by leading climate scientists, pushing for climate reform policies, and making detailed speeches to a crowd of legislators who remained unappreciative, sceptical, and in denial of the real and very dire problem.

Al Gore has won by losing the elections. He now spends his time travelling around the planet giving public presentations (last count: over 1000) about global warming to lots of people. Those are people who can be swayed by the generous body of evidence Gore marshals to his cause. Those are people who can be jolted into enacting change or to lobby their leaders to change. You could be one of them. In fact, this movie is a compilation of the same presentation Al Gore gave to different audiences in 2004-5, spliced with cuts to the environmental crusader explaining his decision to embark on this mission while at work, in his Tennessee ranch home, and in his travels around the world.

For what is essentially a 100 minute Keynote presentation, Al Gore puts his case in an easy-going manner, like a good-natured uncle having a chat with a favourite nephew or niece. At no point does the allegedly ponderous politician come across as tedious, patronising, superior, or insincere. Gore just simply shows us the facts – the statistical trends, the before and after photographs of ice caps in Greenland and Antartica, the increasingly severe and unpredictable climate patterns (droughts in Africa, hurricanes in New Orleans and Brazil) – explains how these facts fit in with global warming, why the current observed weather trends should be a cause for worry, and why we need to act sooner rather than later. For dessert, Gore also explains why the global warming issue hasn’t been reported, and reported accurately in the media, who continue to insist, completely without basis, that global warming is merely a theory whose existence isn’t supported by that many scientists.

Remember, it’s just one man and lots of animated Keypoint slides. You might step into this movie as a sceptic yourself, but after that many photographs, charts, projections, testimonies from respected and peer-reviewed scientists, and (most importantly) South Park cartoons, you might want to accept all this is incontrovertible proof of global warming. Far more incontrovertible than say, Colin Powell’s claim of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the UN Security Council.

You will be sceptical and amused. Then, you will be shock and awed by the evidence. Then, you might be angry at why nothing has been done to address this in a serious manner – especially while we still are capable of solving the problem entirely. If you take this movie serious and do your part to reduce global warming, then this may be the ultimate triumph of the human race. If Al Gore can reach out to thousands with his travelling presentation, imagine the real change he can do by reaching out to millions with this movie.

Watch it, then ask your local cinema distributor why they aren’t bringing in Who Killed The Electric Car?, and then your local politician what measures Singapore will be instituting to implement the full Kyoto Protocol.

3 Things I learnt from this movie

1. American automobile manufacturers cannot sell their vehicles in the PRC because they fall short of Chinese emissions standards.

2. It is actually not difficult to reduce global warming right now. It just takes a little political will from our leaders.

3. They actually managed to fix the ozone layer problem! (see point 2)

1 Thing I learnt, but not from this movie

Singapore has the highest per capita energy consumption in East Asia – higher than South Korea, and the highest per capita carbon emissions in East Asia – higher than Taiwan.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

Monday, 16 October 2006

My Summer of Love (2004)

This could easily be Mona’s summer of hell. The teen is stuck in a tiny backwater village where the only likely way her life will develop would be to find a job at an abattoir, get married to an ass, churn out 10 children, and look forward to menopause, cancer, or suicide – whichever will do her in first. Her 30-something boyfriend just dumped her, she’s not quite over her mother’s death, and her ex-con brother Phil’s just discovered Jesus and has converted the family pub (converted, as in poured away the entire wine selection into the sink) into a place of worship for some freeloading evangelical/charismatic/Pentecostal crazies who might as well be charming snakes in their speak-in-tongue sessions. And by the way, he’s building a horrifically huge and tasteless iron and wood cross to plant on the top of the local hill in order to rededicate the town to God and drive Satan out of the valley. Needless to say, he tops it off with a grand scheme to convert Mona to the light as well.

I’d shoot myself already if I were in her situation, but Mona has a chance encounter with Tamsin, recently suspended from public school. Tamsin literally comes riding in on a white horse. The two set eyes on each other, get to bond over their existential loneliness and dysfunctional families, leading to a magical summer for both. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is another Imagine Me and You, a daft lesbiansploitation romantic comedy where the protagonists fall in love at first sight and live out a typical romantic comedy plot no different from your brain-dead heterosexual romantic comedy of the week.

My Summer of Love is about the giddy process of friendship, between bemused interest, bonding over cigarettes, playing pranks on the locals, and identifying with each other. There are some issues to be ironed out first, of course. Tamsin considers the backwater village to be an ideal spot for a vacation home, and wishes to introduce Mona to the joys of Nietzsche and Edith Piaf. She lives in a manor on top of a hill, complete with her own tennis court and a white horse, while Mona lives upstairs at the pub and sort of wheels around a motorcycle missing an engine. That’s a real and tangible gap between the girls that the movie has to negotiate, and Pawlikowski does it in a convincing and emotionally true manner as well.

Much like Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, the budding friendship and eventual courtship of the girls is lit by dreamy visuals choreographed by unearthly light and filters. Together with an excellent choice of soundtracks, My Summer of Love is a heady and experiential film, so beautiful that when the real world comes crashing in on Mona and Tamsin, you’ll be as heartbroken as they are, and yet still live to treasure this teenage memory with a smile days after.

First published at incinemas on 19 October 2006

Saturday, 14 October 2006

The Ten Commandments (DVD) (2006)

Val Kilmer is Moses again

The success of Prince of Egypt should prepare audiences for the eventuality of spinoffs like musicals, musicals on ice, live action dramas, and an animated series. What brings a ray of hope to our future is a spinoff starring Val Kilmer, who provided the superb voice acting for Moses in the 1998 animation, and this hope is brought to us in the form of a stage musical called The Ten Commandments. What you will be watching on this DVD is a filmed version of a stage performance at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

It’s a huge undertaking and a very courageous move – the story of Exodus is suited for a film extravaganza that only a Cecille DeMille or a Dreamworks can provide. Can the special effects-heavy premise of Exodus be easily and convincingly portrayed on stage? Then, can a stage performance really be framed and filmed by a video camera and not lose its physical dynamism?

It could boil down to the execution of set pieces, like the pyramids. the 10 plagues. the Golden Calf, the parting of the Red Sea, and the burning bush episodes. There is something sorely lacking when not all 10 plagues are featured, and that those that appear in this musical are shown on a screen projector at the back of the stage. And then you are seriously underwhelmed by the most comical animated frogs to jump out of the Nile. Would you be awed by the parting of the Red Sea, if it looked like two blocks of acrylic? Would you be awed if the burning bush were more of a bronze potted plant with tiny flames spouting from specially-designed recesses at the tip of its artificial leaves? All this may have looked splendid on stage, for all I know, but on screen, it feels like a long series of misses – the singular success being when I uttered aloud, “Now how did the Israelites manage to smelt all that gold and build that enormous calf statue in the desert?” That is the sense of awe I’m talking about, the one that this musical film fails to generate most of the time.

Perhaps then, the key to The Ten Commandments: The Musical lies in the choreography and the music? The huge cast do exude an undeniable sense of energy and conviction in their powerful performance, so much that Val Kilmer, a movie actor, seemed overwhelmed by the size of the ensemble nimbly dancing and singing before him. Then again, with a huge paunch and good 15-20 years over his co-star Kevin Earley, he must have been so uncomfortable with playing frat brother to the regent Ramses in the beginning of the show that he never quite recovered from the trauma.

There is no dialogue as the entire story is told entirely through song. The music, you must be warned, is strictly contemporary rock opera. It’s the type of music you’d expect to find at a service in a local megachurch – you’ll either love it or hate it with a passion. I can’t recall any hummable tunes right now, just half a day after watching the DVD.

The Ten Commandments has to be the first to have a DVD release in the same year as its first stage production – usually it takes 5 to 10 seasons before a popular musical like Les Miserable or Phantom of the Opera ever gets filmed. The Ten Commandments does not deliver what is expected of a stage musical, although it may appeal to those amongst us who just have to watch any biblical story as a rock musical. For better music, rent Prince of Egypt. For more majestic sets, rent either Prince of Egypt or the Cecille DeMille Ten Commandments.

First published at incinemas on 14 October 2006

Friday, 13 October 2006

Talladega Nights: the ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Will Ferrell does Murderball!

Don’t get me wrong. Cars was a good animation, but certainly not the best that Pixar could come up with. For its almost 2-hour duration, I kept wondering where the Pixar originality of storytelling had went, considering that the plot was remarkably similar to Michael J Fox’s Doc Hollywood. Through the entire “arrogant hotshot learns a jolt of humility to triumph in the end” story, one wondered if the writers at Pixar produced the script blindfolded, and with one arm tied behind their backs.

Everything became clear to me when I watched Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights, however. Sure, it’s about the same story as Cars, with a hotshot rider learning some humility to triumph in the end, but here, you can really feel the creativity and imagination bursting from the other end of the screen. Real Nascar culture, as Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) puts it, is about “I wanna go faster!” And you realise all this were missing in Cars. As the top circuit driver, Ricky is a self-centred mass of macho posturing, redneck pigheadedness, and loveably silly.

In other words, the gags in this movie come from Will Ferrell’s cheeky celebration and parody of red state values and air-headed denizens. Aside from this interesting premise, the comedy also benefits from its twist: Ricky Bobby’s decline (and redemption) is set off by the arrival of Jean Girrard (Sasha Baron Cohen, the comedian who recently posed as Kazakh reporter eager to invite George Bush to his film premiere!), a European racing champion to the American circuit. The snooty driver is the complete opposite of the redneck hotshot; for every ridiculous red state stereotype set up with the portrayal of Ricky Bobby, his friends and family, there is a corresponding ridiculous ultraliberal stereotype set up with Jean Girrard. It’s all good clean fun, since the only thing more funny than a movie that makes fun of rednecks is a movie that makes fun of both rednecks and liberals.

Despite its mouthful of a title, Talladega Nights is a comedy that is watchable, brings on the laughs easily, and doesn’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. The structure of the movie may be fairly predictable, but how Will Ferrell moves the script to its key destinations and waypoints is almost unpredictable and wacky that you have to smile at the inspired lunacy of it all. Clearly with the presence of Will Ferrell, Hollywood’s long stretch of poor comedies certainly seem to be at an end.

First published at incinemas on 12 October 2006

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Hustle & Flow (2005)

8 Mile with black men?

Perhaps Craig Brewer was such a great fan of James Toback’s Fingers, a film about a small-time mobster who, through a chance meeting with a figure from his childhood, aspires to be a professional pianist. And maybe he saw how French director Jacques Audiard did a rework of the same territory with his even grittier and more realistic The Beat That My Heart Skipped last year. So why not remake Fingers with an African-American pimp reaching for his dream of becoming a professional gangsta rapper?

The joke here is many professional gangsta rappers in real life grew up in comfortable middle-class suburbs, their posses actually hangers-on acquired after their climb to commercial success, and their persona a carefully cultivated image calculated to give the impression of street credibility. In Hustle and Flow, Djay (Terrence Howard) is the real thing. While rappers talk about pimping their girls – of course, in a metaphorical sense – our hero actually runs a daily operation with 3 girls under his charge. While rappers talk about smacking their girls – of course, most of them just wish they could, those armchair misogynists – Djay mixes his tender care (he sermonises to white trash Nola about the need to have a dream) with an iron fist (instead of smacking a disrespectful charge, he hurls her furniture, clothes, and baby out on the doorstep).

It’s a tough life, pimping, as the soundtrack for this movie goes, and when Djay turns the age where his father died prematurely, the imminent return of a local boy who made it big as a commercial rapper triggers a dormant childhood dream of making it big as a musician and getting out of the slum city of Memphis. As in Fingers, the reintroduction of music has a transforming effect on the hoodlum’s life and business operations. What’s better, the conflict within Djay’s soul seeps to the girls under his charge. This change is handled by Brewer in a realistic manner – we don’t expect Djay to renounce his evil ways, or his girls to quit their career and enter university – it would border on grotesque comedy. And like Audiard’s hero, Djay is full of passion and honesty but lacking the true talent for music.

What sets Hustle & Flow apart from Fingers and Beat is a little help from Djay’s friends, who take time off from their more legit, middle-class but equally deadend lives and jobs to help him record a demo tape. While the conceit of this movie and the gangsta rap music may not appeal or feel right to everyone, the way tiny bits and pieces congeal together slowly in their jam sessions has the authentic and electrifying thrill familiar to true musicians. The end product of their recording sessions may be yet another hackneyed and uncreative misogynistic poem, but the process was at least riveting to watch.

For all its realism in certain aspects and its arthouse aspirations, Hustle & Flow is severely flawed on two counts, both stemming from Craig Brewer’s desire to have his cake and eat it. While caked with the veneer of gritty realism, the film nonetheless plays like a fairy tale, with very predictable plot points and clichés. One wonders what to make of the middle-class, church-attending, uppity wife of Djay’s producer, who detests the moral filth of Djay the moment she sets sights on him, which of course causes a strain between her and her husband which will be neatly resolved through a sit down session by film’s end. Or how about the unflinchingly uncritical “Stand by your man” routine that Djay’s girls pull? Worst of all, Brewer loses the plot and allows the untalented (but well-produced) pimp achieve his big dream – all without any sense of self-irony or even criticism of the actual gangsta rap industry. The feel-good ending is vastly at odds with the entire premise and the slow set-up. And after all that is said and done, this promising and very well-acted tale careens into a typical rags-to-riches telemovie.

That the film is flawed in such a manner is a pity. Nevertheless, the good cinematography and all-round excellent acting – especially by Terrence Howard – should be a reason to watch this film, provided you are also a hip-hop or gangsta rap fan.

First published at incinemas on 12 October 2006

Death Note デスノート (2006)

The Japanese have something about black leather-bound notebooks. My favourite J-drama from a couple of years back, Kurokawa no techou, (黒革の手帖) featured a black notebook that had the names of several corrupt directors and politicians who collaborated with a bank to cheat the government of back taxes, and whoever possessed the notebook could either finish off the careers of these people, or extort millions of yen from these no-gooders. Helmed by the mature and seductive Yonekura Ryoko, one never knows whether the current possessor of the notebook would succumb completely to her own ambition and greed while pursuing her unique brand of justice.

In Death Note, the black notebook is a supernatural item that comes with its own user manual. To wit: anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die. In any manner and situation stipulated by the writer, provided a complicated set of conditions are adhered to. Helmed by charismatic Fujiwara Tatsuya, the vigilante hero/terrorist of Battle Royale 1 and 2 and owner of the notebook in this movie, one never knows whether Light Yagami would succumb completely to his own ambition and greed while pursuing his brand of justice, which consists of murdering violent convicts, notorious criminals and suspects through the Death Note.

It’s a fair enough conceit for a supernatural movie: let a mostly-good character come into possession of an unparalleled power, and see what they do with it. How will they use it, and how will it change them? It might be just as well that Light is the current possessor of the Death Note; as a young genius who has helped his father’s Tokyo Metropolitan Police unit solve several crimes, he should be able to put it to good use. Except using it means killing people (bad people), and the police soon feel pressured to investigate the mysterious deaths occurring around the world.

From the larger picture, Death Note is a whodunit in reverse – the audience knows the identity of the murderer and how he does it, but the question becomes: Who is L, the investigator? How will he manage to identify the murderer and his method of killing? Whereas in typical mysteries, the audience are privy to the thoughts and plans of the detective while the murderer strikes from the unknown, in Death Note, the situation is reversed entirely. The twist may not be entirely original, but it makes for a more thrilling cat and mouse game, a battle of wits between two geniuses who will not hesitate to use questionable tactics to attain their goals or protect themselves. It’s also a battle for time, since the mysterious death-at-a-distance vigilante becomes ever more popular amongst media-savvy, trend-starved teens, and he has an additional weapon hidden: a 12-foot shinigami “death god”, an indifferent supernatural monster who handed him the Death Note.

Death Note is based on the (deservedly) popular manga series, and covers the first 3 volumes of the 12-volume series. Death Note comes off better than most manga to film adaptations, and sticks quite faithfully to the original material without losing too much feeling too cluttered or losing focus. This is an imminent danger for straight adaptations, since the early volumes of most manga series tend to be quite episodic, consisting of very fast and short plots that establish the mechanics and lay the groundwork for later story arcs that are considered the meat of the story.

While the movie does end with a cliffhanger before the major fireworks begin, the director and scriptwriter have come up with a well-paced plot that zips through the many major key points without ending up in a tangle. Some plots have been rewritten to enable the film to come to the cliffhanger ending fast enough. The movie might actually move too fast for its good, and certainly gave me the feeling that the director was in a rush to touch all the necessary goal posts before sprinting to the meat that is Death Note 2 – sacrificing much psychological depth of the story, and eliminating the psychological study of Light, whose fall from grace is much more subtle and slow in the manga.

The CGI is on par with the budgets for manga to film adaptations, meaning that the shinigami Ryuk is a competently-animated monster figure with realistic and life-like movements, but not exactly scary or menacing.

My reservations aside, Death Note does end on a high note that promises the sequel (debuting in Japan in November) will be much better, exciting, and thrilling.

First published at incinemas on 18 October 2006

Saturday, 7 October 2006

Severance (2006)

Dilbert meets Survivor meets slasher horror!

There are few ways to make horror comedies. One way is to spoof conventions of the genre itself, and to use self-conscious dialogue. Characters in Scream openly discuss old horror movies and guess which amongst them will be killed off, while the Scary Movie franchise brought us incompetent, unscary, but somewhat funny ghosts. Christopher Smith has other ideas, such as ditching teenyboppers, brainless blonde celebrities, and high schools from the script of Severance. These horror movie denizens may have provided pure entertainment in the early 1970s, but have grown more tedious and annoying, and out of step with the different efforts to reinvent the horror genre this decade. In Severance, these characters are replaced by grown adults. It should be a great idea – while not being vapid and brainless, adults can be mean, self-delusional, selfish and backstabbing on a higher dimension than teenagers. Hence: imagine a slasher flick with adults as the prey!

The twist that makes this more than just a normal slasher flick with a different set of victims is this: the adults are the corporate types. The office politics between the co-workers are straight out of a Dilbert comic strip, and the defense contractor company they work for is even more dysfunctional than Scott Adams’s creation. They’re merchants of death, dysfunctional corporate types, and hence fully deserving of the slasher treatment.

And what fun it gets! On their way to a corporate resort/team building weekend/marketing trip to Eastern Europe to peddle their weapons of mass destruction to post 9/11 governments eager for reliable security, the merchants of death get hopelessly lost, end up in a rickety compound that they mistake for their resort, and begin to be picked off one after another by very standard slasher film types. The comedy lies in how off-centre the reaction is by these corporate types, the macabre humour from both Smith’s sneaky subversion and fulfilment of slasher film conventions, and the very horrible and gory things that happen to the group of corporate weekend warriors.

Severance is full of visual jokes, deadpan dialogue, thoroughly appropriate ends for its nasty characters, and a thoroughly inappropriate soundtrack to accompany the carnage. The director, scriptwriter, the cast and extras had tremendous fun making this movie – and it shows. There is no way you can or want to escape the infectious fun! Severance is one of the rare horror comedies that does not take its audience to be idiots, and the result is a smart and enjoyable flick that brings to mind a more innocent era where slasher films were not a waste of time to watch.

Just imagine the cast of Dilbert getting bumped off by psychotic killers on a corporate retreat: this is all you need to know in order to want to watch this movie.

First published at incinemas on 12 October 2006

Friday, 6 October 2006

Days of Glory aka Indigenes (2006)

Neocon twits, take note: the Arabs liberated France from the Nazis in WW2

WW2 movies tend to be predictable, and fall into broad categories – the historically-inaccurate American triumphalist liberation of Europe narrative, the prisoner of war story, the Holocaust story, the final days of the Third Reich story. Then, Days of Glory comes along from an unexpected corner and hits you from behind the head. With the surrender of France and the establishment of the puppet Vichy regime, the obstinate De Gaulle retreats to the African colonies to recruit soldiers for the liberation of France.

That’s about as far off the mainstream as you can get in a WW2 movie: in the popular eye, the French got eliminated early in the game (only next to Poland) and with their lack of manpower and equipment, contributed little of consequence in the Allied campaigns. That’s still not as left-field as the idea that France’s colonial subjects in Africa would willingly and enthusiastically volunteer to liberate what they call La Patrie, ("the Fatherland"). Windtalkers may have featured a few Navajo code talkers, but Days of Glory has entire regiments of Arabs and Pied Noirs, who made up the bulk of the Free French army. The film follows one such platoon from its recruitment in Algeria, training in Morocco, and its progress in the Italian and French campaigns.

War movie buffs will notice the director’s attention to historical detail and accuracy – all uniforms, weapons (fully functional), equipment that appear in this film are authentic and date back to WW2 itself. It’s a feat that has never been quite duplicated since Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo attempted it in 1966 for their alternate history flick It Happened Here, after more than 20 years of sourcing for material.

But that’s not the main point Rachid Bouchareb is making in this film. In a world that recently marked the first anniversary of riots in Muslim quarters of Paris, or a Europe whose Muslims live a self-imposed state of separateness from the rest of the countrymen, Days of Glory offers a much different vision, a time where it was possible to both a good Muslim and a patriotic brown-skinned Frenchman. For ex-British colonies that fell in WW2 (like Singapore), the film offers an alternative Empire: surely the French must have done something right (though clearly the British Empire was more profitable) – Singapore’s future leaders were already plotting and conniving to expel the Brits off Malayan soil while collaborating with the Japanese occupation, while the good peoples of Algiers, Tunisia and Morocco were selflessly sending their young and able-bodied to fight and reclaim every piece of the French Fatherland from the Germans.

As you follow the members of the platoon across Italy, the Alps, and then France, it becomes easier not to dismiss the idea of genuinely patriotic colonised peoples as a quaint, outdated and outlandish – by participating in the liberation of France, some in the platoon are just there for the glory, some for the loot and plunder, and some for a commission at the end of the war. And yet still some believe that it is neat and right to liberate what they consider to be their Fatherland (despite the brutal French invasion and subjugation of their peoples not more than 3 generations ago), and what they believe to a chance to gain true equality and acceptance from mainland France.

Race and religion may divide us bitterly today, but the director makes an impassioned defence to show that it never was like this always. Even better, Bouchareb knows when to go easy on his agenda of restoring pensions for African war veterans, and allows the uncomfortable reality of racism play out by showing that for every person who believes in ideals, there are at least 2 more who don’t. No matter what, after seeing all the young men slog it out, you too may shed tears at a pivotal scene where French villagers emerge from their shelters to greet the Arab regimen as "our boys! The French Army!"

Days of Glory is a war movie, but it is also an elegy to the few, brief years in history where it was possible that an Empire could promise and deliver its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity to its citizens, across all states, territories, and colonies.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Silk 鬼丝 (2006)

Waiter, there's a ghost in her soup!

When one attempts an "sci-fi horror" movie that attempts to reinvent aspects of supernatural oldies, there had better be a compelling reason. Maybe it makes for a good action thriller, like Blade, The Ghostbusters, or Underworld. Maybe it makes for a social commentary on modern life and trends, like Pulse, Kairo, or The Ring. But always, there is a coherent re-examination of why ghosts (or vampires, werewolves and the like) exist, and why they exist - even if there isn’t an explicit explanation (see The Sixth Sense).

Flush with Hong Kong money and actors from Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Su Chao-pin’s sophomore directorial effort is a complete letdown. Or perhaps, the combination practically guarantees the failure of the effort. With a mult-ethnic cast, the only thing worse than actors dubbed over in a uniform Mandarin accent is actors speaking in a thousand mangled accents of Mandarin (or Cantonese, for the Hong Kong release of the film). That was what I thought before I entered the cinema yesterday, but I have since learnt to be more imaginative than that, because characters in Silk switch effortlessly from impeccable Mandarin to impeccable Japanese and back again, for no apparent reason. If the ghost child could speak as well, I suppose it would alternate between Japanese and Mandarin. For no apparent reason.

And reason is king, if you claim to have produced a sci-fi horror. Your pseudo-scientific explanation of ghosts needs to be not just coherent, but necessary. The audience should not think that yes, that’s an interesting and logical retelling of ghosts, but it feels as though the rules were pulled out arbitrarily from thin air just for this movie. Never mind that, but half way through the movie, I felt that more than half of the scientific babble had no relation to the supernatural elements in Silk. How on earth would the studies of a Japanese scientist pioneering a form of material that could enable antigravity be related to a Ghostbusters style hunt for the supernatural? Why does the director finally give up the scientific bent of the movie – despite the very anaemic attempts at pseudoscience – more than half way through? Are ghosts mostly insensate manifestations of psychic energy re-enacting their daily routines, or do ghosts have a sophisticated mind and desires of their own? Are ghosts formed through loads of benevolent love and attachment to loved ones, or do they exist to kill random strangers on the street? The director can’t decide, and we don’t care.

It’s not just the premise and the scriptwriting that are muddleheaded, though. The casting is extremely confused, with Barbie Hsu pouting meaningfully at the camera and their male co-stars, as if they have, had, or will have some interesting relationships – but gets killed off as the first victim of the ghost less than half-way through the picture.

Clearly, the Asian horror genre has peaked and is now on a steady downhill decline. This actually compares poorly to the trashy and mindless reruns of 1980s and early 1990s Hong Kong horror flicks that TCS 8 shows every now and then on late nights. In 20 years’ time, you might be so bored that you’d watch this on television on a late night, then complain that this movie makes no sense, and runs too long for old and cheaply-produced Hong Kong horror flicks.

First published at incinemas on 12 October 2006

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Guardian, The (2006)

Ashton Kutcher's Tom Cruise moment

Earlier this year in August, there was a Japanese film called Umizaru 2: Limit of Love, an ocean liner disaster movie starring Ito Hideaki and Sato Ryuka as heroic Japanese Coast Guards. It was a good movie, coming close to the brilliance of its predecessor. Umizaru was a kind of Top Gun for the Coast Guard, putting through Ito and Sato through a water-based boot camp with a strict but kind-hearted instructor with a troubled past. Now the circle of intercultural adaptation is complete: what Umizaru took from Top Gun and made its own, The Guardian takes from Umizaru, combines it with An Officer and a Gentleman, and makes it its own. Kind of.

Here, Ashton Kutcher stars as the talented and arrogant star swimmer Jake Fischer, who enrols in the US Coast Guard’s elite training school, where the attrition rate is over 50%. Ben Randall (Kevin Costner) is the record-setting rescue diver who, after losing an entire rescue team and buddy in a freak rescue operation, is posted to the school as its newest chief instructor. Expect youthful arrogance to run into age-dulled bitterness and resentment all around! Expect Randall to devise a tough new training programme for the new batch of trainees under his watch, and to dole out special loving treatment for the guy who keeps smirking at him in the corner (that would be Kutcher, of course).

I don’t know how true to life the training for coast guard rescue divers is in the movie, but the director certainly knows how interesting the different diving drills look on screen, and gives the audience plenty to look at. Since boot camp films have been mostly about the Army, Marines, Air Force or the Navy, The Guardian offers gives a fresh look at how the game is played in the Coast Guard. Like the first Umizaru, this movie makes drills in a swimming pool feel more engaging and purposeful. It helps that Kevin Costner shows he is still capable of pulling off the role of a tough but ego-less mentor who really wants to mould his recruits into lifesaving miracles, and Ashton Kutcher is able to exude a cheeky confidence that makes him far more likeable than the average arrogant jock character type he is asked to play.

Unlike Umizaru and Top Gun, this film does away with the standard rivalry between the lead character and the foil, and concentrates on the complex loathing, jealousy and subtle admiration between Randall and Fischer, as well as how the unorthodox and gruelling training methods of Randall turn to be highly appropriate and quite the opposite of sadistic.

Unfortunately for us, the first 2/3s of the movie do focus far too much on the two characters and give short shrift to both love interests of Randall and Fischer. If you have an instinctive dislike of either Kevin Costner or Ashton Kutcher, you will find this movie very difficult to sit through. Whether or not you find Kutcher’s turn for serious drama credible, it might be very difficult to stifle the urge to hum the guitar entrance to “Take my breath away” when he puts on sunglasses and combs his hair in a mirror – and the scene wasn’t meant to be a parody of Top Gun. That’s a pity because both give their best film performances in a long time here.

Randall may continue to stress over and over again the importance of teamwork in a diving rescue team, but the Fischer is paired with a buddy only nearly at the end of the training portion of the movie. Given that rescue divers apparently have long-term buddies (Randall as well as the Japanese cast for Umizaru), it was somewhat bewildering to see the movie vacillate until the final moment between the criminally-underused Dule Hill, face fully visible with a “look at me!” expression but constantly in the background of many scenes, and Brian Geraghty, the token repeat student who keeps failing the same item in the final test and had the same “look at me!” expression as well. At over 2 hours, The Guardian runs longer than Umizaru, but strangely fails to flesh out the personalities of the diving trainees or the camaraderie in the team that should develop due to their extreme training under Randall.

Otherwise, the direction and camerawork for the movie are almost perfect. There were a few slow motion sequences and hallucinatory flashbacks that seemed overemotional and over the top compared to the subdued and controlled tone of this movie, but The Guardian is far too well-made to trip up badly. The indoor training sequences are sufficiently dramatic, the sea rescues are supported with at least 3 studios’ worth of CGI and special effects, and Kevin Costner’s performance is the most understated and effective in this decade – what’s there to really stop The Guardian from being one of the best action dramas of this year?

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006