Friday, 31 March 2006

Narco (2004)

Hilarious tribute to 1970s pop culture, B-grade movies, comic books – and Jean Claude Van Damme

There are quirkier French comedies, to be sure, but Narco is more appealing to wide audiences. Mass appeal and offbeat humour do not usually go together hand in hand, yet the demented pair of Tristan Aurouet and Gilles Lellouche manage to create a genuinely likeable, French popcorn fare for the cinema.

They begin with the title character, Gustav Klopp (Guillaume Canet). A narcoleptic who falls uncontrollably into sleeping fits all the time, Gus is incapacitated by his condition, and unable to hold any job for long. His best pal, Lenny Bar (Benoit Poelvoorde), is equally unemployable for a different set of reasons. Lenny is a thoroughly incompetent karate fanatic who fancies himself a potential world champion, and is prone to beat up anyone who disrespects the sport, his ambition, or his hero, the black belt and action star Jeanne Claude Van Damme. Rounding up the sorry lot of losers is Gustav’s wife Pamela, a disappointed woman whose unending complaints about the bills finally inspire Gus to draw the dreams he has during his narcoleptic attacks.

And what dreams they prove to be. Raised on a daily dose of bad B-grade movies by his father, Gustav’s dreams are a salad mix of one genre film setup after another. It’s like watching The Last Action Hero mixed with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, without the cheesiness or the bombast. A man with such a unique gift should be able to make a fortune with his drawings, you say. When Gus goes into a coma, Lenny, Pamela, and his psychiatrist (a very slimy Guillaume Gallienne) hatch a hilarious scheme to get rich quick...

The quick run-through of the plot hardly tells you what to expect, or how the film will look. Here, then, is a strong point of Narco: Aurouet and Lellouche conceive of their film as a visual and auditory experience to be savoured in the cinema. The mostly American music in the soundtrack (ranging from Frank Sinatra to early disco) is so infectiously fun and so appropriate that you hardly feel it’s out of place in a French film.

The directors avoid making Gustav’s narcolepsy and dream sequences the key feature of the movie. Instead of an existential comedy that blurs the boundaries between Gus’s reality and dreams, Aurouet and Lellouche veer off into a much less travelled path. Gus’s dreams are a mere plot device, and the real action takes place in his waking world. The gimmick is: his waking world is populated by people who are not that different or less bizarre than characters from your average chop-socky comic book or B-grade movie. There are jokes and plotlines based on the Village of the Damned, James Bond villains, film noir detectives, Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and even madcap get-rich-quick situation comedies of the 1950s. Even the resolution of the film is a part-tribute, part-spoof of comic books from that era! The only quibble I have is the conclusion of Narco, which breaks with what the directors have built up so consistently for the entire movie.

While the telegenic Guillame Canet may get the top billing in this feature, Benoit Poelvoorde almost steals the show with his performance of the karate-obsessed Lenny. He’s droll and laughable when he poses with his nunchakus, but also so pitiable you can feel the depths of his sorrow during a dark moment in the film where he speaks with his conscience – who is none other than the legendary Jean Claude Van Damme. Actually, let me revise my previous claim. While telegenic Guillaume Canet may get the top billing and Benoit Poelvoorde almost steals the show with his all-rounded acting, Jean-Claude Van Damme actually steals the show with his cameo appearances as Lenny’s conscience. He may be known for his bad acting in a series of B-grade action movies in the 1990s, but here, Van Damme is perfectly cast and surprisingly eloquent. And entertaining.

Casting Mr Van Damme is a testimony to the audacity of the directors’ imagination, and their pitch-perfect comic sense. Ordinarily, spoof movies (Naked Gun, Scary Movie, etc.) are deemed good if 1 out of 3 jokes hit home. For Narco, all the jokes hit home and none fell flat. Now, that’s an achievement that an independent French film managed to score where Hollywood couldn’t.

Thursday, 30 March 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

More action and laughs for the kids than the first Ice Age. Everyone else: prepare to have your brain electronically simplified.

Three years ago, the march of the glaciers forced a herd of assorted animals to trudge southwards in Ice Age. Presumably that’s more than enough time for that ice age to end. In this sequel, Manny the mammoth, Sid the sloth, and Diego the Tiger begin another long journey to escape the flood that will most certainly happen when the glaciers melt.

The minor plot involves Manny, who was isolated from his mammoth herd in the previous movie. The long period spent at their isolated hideaway leads everyone to believe Manny is the last of his species. The mad rush towards higher ground offers Manny some reprieve from his depression as the trio chance upon a team of two opossums (Josh Leary and Sean William Scott) and Ellie, a female mammoth (Queen Latifah) who thinks she’s a opossum.

Will the herd of animals survive the flood? Will Manny manage to convince Ellie to repopulate the earth with mammoths? Will Scrat (yes, the squirrel rat is back as well) manage to get his acorn (and yes, the acorn is back as well) this time?

The high point of this Ice Age sequel: the animation is so energetic that hardly a second goes by without some object, or some character flying from one end of the screen to the other. It will captivate viewers below 6 years old, apparently the target audience of this movie. Most of the jokes have a strong visual element that will send tots squealing with laughter in the cinema.

What can the adults in the audience look forward to? Between the first and second Ice Age titles, all the dark humour and tension in the script seem to have gone out of the window. The first movie featured a tiger who was out to eat up his travelling companions, as well as digs at the ugly side of evolution (a la Ripley’s discovery of her earlier prototypes in Alien Resurrection). In the reprise, all characters are now cutesified, and the tension that made adults take an interest in the group are gone. The new, watered-down dialogue seems to be transplanted from a generic comedy, and these verbal cuts and parries are a far cry from the wordplay of the original movie.

Then, there is the bizarre concept of the sequel. The marketing division of 20th Century Fox understandably wanted to make a follow-up to the profitable Ice Age. The target audience of the first film are now in their early tweens… but the second film is written for children below 6 – surely a sequel ought to be pitched towards its original fans? This is a fair warning to the kids who liked the first movie: if you’ve grown up slightly, this movie isn’t as funny as you’d expect.

It is true that in the past decade since Pixar, Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox entered the animation fray, cartoons have been geared slightly more towards an adult sensibility. The unmitigated juvenility of Ice Age: The Meltdown bucks against the current trend, as well as the original movie. There’s a piece of advice that movie reviewers give, but usually for summer action movies – leave your brains at the door when you enter the cinema, sit back, and just enjoy the show. You’ll just need to take this animation on its own terms and let yourself be entertained.

First published in incinemas on 30 March 2006

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Eight Below (2006)

You'll cheer for the dogs instead

Forget about weapons of mass destruction. I know for a fact that the most irresistible weapon humankind has ever invented is the dog. Simply screen a movie about man’s best friend, or better yet, feature an entire pack of dogs forced to survive on their own in Antarctica for half a year, and witness how humans are trained to obediently go “awwww” “ooooh, very cuuuuuute” and even cry bucketfuls of tears on the director’s command. Given that this is a Disney animal movie, all these happened in the cinema where I was reviewing Eight Below.

The dogs in Eight Below are so impossibly cute that your children will beg you to buy one or eight – just like how they bugged you to buy a Dalmatian after watching 101 Dalmations. Whatever they say, don’t buy the dog. The Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute are breeds native to the Arctic. In Singapore’s weather, these dogs are prone to heatstroke – and it isn’t a pretty sight. Last year, a malamute died with blood foaming at its mouth due to the neglect of its owner. Just to let you know.

Back to our review. Arctic guide for the UN scientific mission at the South Pole, Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), is a strong, silent, outdoorsy guide at who has better chemistry with his pack of 8 sled dogs than with his on-again-off-again girlfriend and colleague Katie (Moon Goodblood). When David McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), a geologist, turns up in Antarctica prospecting for meteorites from Mercury, Shepard and his sled dog team are enlisted to help transport the prof and his equipment over the icy distances. With winter approaching and a huge snow storm over the horizon, the prof displays his uncomical knack for clumsiness and getting into accidents and gets humiliatingly rescued by the dogs.

The confluence of these factors mean the entire team has to evacuate their base and leave the dogs behind. As the worst storm of the century hits Antarctica (Don’t you think it’s strange how every storm in the movies is the worst storm of the century?), winter replacement teams are cancelled and Walker realises that he has just chained the beloved dogs to their post for at least 6 months.

From this point on, the movie belongs to the dogs, the Antarctic icescape, and their struggle to survive. It’s like a National Geographic documentary, except you know that all or almost all of the dogs will break their chain and survive anyway, despite how much Jerry mopes morosely, moans about his guilt at abandoning his dogs, and desperately plans to return and rescue them, in the sequences that alternate with the ongoing canine tale.

Due to the weak acting from Walker and dialogue from the writers, the audience will want to scream at the director to get back to the story in the Antarctic. Will the dogs break free? What will they eat during the coming winter? Will they freeze to death in the snow? Are these animals enough of a team to see each other through the perils of shifting ice, howling ice storms (I swear they have a far worse effect on visibility than the haze that hits Singapore between the monsoon seasons!), and a horrific giant seal that probably escaped from Jurassic Park? Besides, the Antarctic landscape and its aurora australis displays are so much more picturesque and captivating sights.

Even though you could probably predict the ending, it’s the unnerving uncertainty in the middle that keeps audiences rooting for the sorry dogs. Clever titles serve as a gentle reminder of the passing months, as well as the increasingly mangy and emaciated look of the sled dogs. The acting from the canines are so superb that even if you can’t match each one with its name, you’ll still feel the pull on your heartstrings with every closeup of their faces, and join half the cinema in weeping when they get rescued after their long ordeal.

First published in incinemas on 13 April 2006

Thursday, 16 March 2006

The Wild (2006)

The Wild will find it hard to avoid comparisons to Madagascar and Finding Nemo

I really want to watch The Wild when it opens in cinemas here. My usual plan (it works every time!) when it comes to watching animated movies is to bring my favourite nephew along. This time, however, it may be a challenge to persuade the little tyke. We were in the cinema watching the trailers last week, and he complained that The Wild looked like another Madagascar, and since he watched that one already, I should treat him to another animation instead. That was enough to start my tear ducts working in overdrive, and soon everyone in the cinema was either motioning for me to keep quiet or sympathetically passing tissues to the strange man.

Which is my little way of saying how disappointing the years since 1997 have been. Sure, we now have full-fledged animation studios at Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks SKG, but frequently, their products seem to remain just a little too similar to justify watching everything. This is a pity, especially if people like my nephew get put off watching a superior film because a similar cartoon was released last year.

Comparisons between the two animation projects will be inevitable (which is why I got them out first), but surprisingly, The Wild proves to be the superior product. For one thing, it is the rare Disney animation picture that young and adult audiences can feel equally at home with. Part of this comes from the decision not to make the focus of the movie on the CGI. This is a 3D movie, but it’s not the point of the movie (thankfully, since very few CGI masterpieces also had great storylines). The background and characters are competently done, but not to the point where every shimmering hair on the fur of the animals take your concentration away from what’s happening, or become the point of the entire movie.

Instead, the focus is placed squarely on the situational comedy and the witty dialogue between the characters. There are almost no fart jokes that will turn adults off, nor a barrage of references to pop culture themes that would be entirely lost on the younger audience. This is a relief, given the failure of Shark Tale, with its delusion that references are automatically funny just because they’re referencing something.

The first half of The Wild suffers from pacing and the Madagascar problem, but once the team of animals are in their element, the zaniness of the plot approaches originality. The carefully-built character traits of the team of animals pay off and hit comic gold by the second half when they are transplanted into the alien environment (which is supposed to be their natural element!) and chance upon the natives.

The voice talents of Eddie Izzard and William Shatner are perfect in their roles as Nigel, a cute koala stuck with and resentful of his cute status, and Kazar, the crazed and megalomaniacal leader of the native wildebeests. There’s an extended surreal sequence involving the 2 that is a stunning tribute to the superior skills of Disney’s scriptwriters and their understanding of what makes comedy, and a reminder that Nigel was originally written for Eric Idle of the Monty Python team. Idle more than makes up for his absence by contributing some excellent, hilarious and bizarre songs that must’ve inspired the animators in the sequences accompanying them.

I’d highly recommend The Wild to everyone. Made with just US$77 million, it is funnier, better animated, and has a stronger story than Madagascar. Even if it did take 1 script rewrite and 6 more months to produce.

First published at incinemas on 27 Apr 2006

Thursday, 9 March 2006

The Shaggy Dog (2006)

Even a shaggy dog story would be more interesting than this

Tim Allen plays yet another Disney dad who, through an unfortunate mishap, learns to be a better husband and father.

This family movie comes just in time for the mid-semester school holidays. Should parents visit the cinema with their children? Parents will want to know whether the gags are funny enough to keep the children in their seats, and whether the movie is sophisticated enough to entertain the adults as well.

The Shaggy Dog stars Tim Allen, who is probably the Hollywood acting equivalent of Jack Neo. Since Home Improvement ended its run, Allen has made a career playing likeable Everyman characters in several crowd-pleasers like the Santa Clause series and the entertaining Galaxy Quest.

A goofy spin on the werewolf tale, Dave Douglas, a career-oriented, family-ignoring lawyer turns into a canine after he is bitten by a mutant, 300-year-old Tibetan sheepdog. Tim Allen isn’t the obvious choice to play the laywer. There’s the riotous Rob Schneider, who pulled off multiple animal impersonations in The Animal (this installation of Shaggy Dog has the lawyer acting like an animal even in his human form), or the funnyman’s funnyman, Eddie Murphy, who speaks with animals in the Doctor Doolittle movies. But since this is a Disney movie, we can’t have the adult ribaldry of Schneider or Murphy. Tim Allen’s transformed into a rather fat, bearded, jolly Santa Claus in his earlier movies, so he does come with prior relevant experience for The Shaggy Dog.

Since this movie is targeted to families with young children, the comedy is necessarily simple and predictable so kids can get it. With the assistance of CGI, The Shaggy Dog rides on Tim Allen’s ability to contort his face and exhibit the physical behaviour of canines. Sight gags and physical comedy rule the movie. Aside from the usual jokes about dogs sniffing butts, and a questionable scene where Tim Allen, galloping on all fours, knocks down an elderly lady in a hit and run accident (why the team of FIVE writers okayed that gag is mysterious), concerned parents will be glad to hear that there is nothing objectionable with the comedy.

At no point in this movie will parents be required to explain the plot to their children. The writing team has made sure that plot rolls out at a leisurely, digestible pace, and that any fantastic plot device occurs at least twice – so that the children will figure it out, or at least expect the device to occur the third time round, probably near the climax of the movie to resolve the plot.

The obligatory villains in this piece is played by Robert Downey Jr. He hams it up as a mad (but more than capable) scientist, who is just one step from riches and fame, and an immortality serum. Since (and I like to remind my readers again) this is a Disney movie for the family, the villain is larger-than-life, but mostly harmless and not scary at all (we wouldn’t want your 10-year-old to wake up at night screaming, do we?). Even with these restrictions, Robert Downey Jr appears to have a ball of a time, even managing to look like a younger version of Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

Parents do not have to be warned that there’s a strong family values message in this movie. It’s expected in every Disney movie for the kids anyway. I’m only mentioning that contrary to expectations, the message is brought across in an entertaining and even subtle manner, due to competent scriptwriting and the believable acting of Tim Allen’s co-stars. Yes, Dave Douglas has to learn how to spend time with his wife (Kristin Davis) and angsty kids (Zena Grey and Spencer Breslin), but thanks to the constant gags, the point isn’t hammered home in a preachy manner that grown-ups are allergic to. Similarly, the animal welfare message is delivered through stealth, and I was personally tickled by how the movie poked fun at radical animal rights activism.

Readers should also know that this is the third remake in the Shaggy Dog franchise. While it does update the Shaggy Dog movie formula, using the angle of science and genetics instead of mysterious curses. As for innovations like the central character exhibiting canine behaviour or talking to a menagerie of animals, Rob Schneider and Eddie Murphy have done this already, and better than Tim Allen’s likeable but decidedly average effort. This remake is frankly unnecessary.

The Shaggy Dog would do fine for a family outing, especially if you have children less than 10 years old. It is very watchable, but not particularly memorable. Otherwise, the sanitised and tame Disney formula may prove to be trying to those with adult sensibilities.

First published in incinemas on 9 Mar 2006