Thursday, 30 November 2006

Flags of our fathers (2006)

Mission accomplished?

Every great civilisation has grown up with its own body of mythology. In history books and epic tales, heroes make speeches they never actually gave in real life, have other less legendary people’s great deeds attributed to them, and shouted eloquent warcries that were actually penned by historians. It takes a few convenient half‑truths to create legends and heroes out of untidy battles and ordinary men, and such is the stuff that Flags of Our Fathers examines. We are fortunate that being the youngest great power, American history and its iconic images are subject to scrutiny: every invented tradition, every mundane occurrence dressed up into a legend occurs before the eyes of historians who not only can debunk them, but also show how the legend was created, and why.

One such instance is the Battle of Iwo Jima, its American victory memorialised in a photograph of 6 faceless soldiers planting a flag on the peak of Mount Suribachi. Titled Rasing the Flag on Iwo Jima, it’s a powerful photograph that signals VICTORY! in capital, neon, blinking letters, bringing an immediate salve to a war-weary American public and near bankrupt war machine on the verge of quitting the war with the Japanese. Yet the truths that were wilfully hidden from millions of jubilant Americans looking for their heroes and icons is troubling: this wasn’t the real flag that was planted on the peak of Mount Suribachi (an arrogant senior officer wanted to keep the first flag as a personal souvenir); both flags were planted an entire month before the island was secured from the Japanese defenders (shades of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner?); the US Marine Corps, President Roosevelt, and key industrialists financing the war needed to create heroes out of the men in that photograph – even to the point of exploiting the 3 survivors by staging demanding they hold a cross-country victory parade to persuade American citizens to buy more war bonds. Even if the photograph wasn’t an intentional photo-ops, it plays out like one anyway.

The levels of injustice don’t stop there, but continue piling up: knowing full well that this is the second flag, the military‑government‑industrialist propaganda complex order the survivors to suppress the truth; discovering that they misidentified one of the deceased participants in the photograph, the cabal order the survivors to again keep mum; and in the worst sort of bad taste, suggest the 3 re‑enact their mountain climb and flag raising in every victory parade event on the cross-country tour. Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) must have felt like hell – they saw the least action in the battle, were shipped back to America while the battle continued and their compatriots died, and had to put on the same show, night after night for the crowds. No wonder the trio react with depression, cynicism, and resignation to their conscription into the war effort that would make them heroes but ultimately destroy them.

Clint Eastwood captures the making of a legend by the media machine very well, very subtly showing on screen the conflicted souls of the 3 survivors through devices like the ubiquitous posters and reproductions of the original photograph. The 3 leading actors carry their roles well, injecting very human emotions into a script that doesn’t have much lines for them in the first place. In fact, the victory tour in America is the true heart and core of Flags of Our Fathers, which would have made an excellent movie if it had just concentrated on this section of the non-fiction book by James Bradley (son of John Bradley) and Ron Powers.

Ever the ambitious director, Eastwood also wants to make a film about the actual Battle of Iwo Jima, as well as James Bradley’s own piecing of the truth, almost 50 years after the battle. It’s all well and good, but the director is unfortunately let down by the screenplay from Paul Haggis and William Broyd Jr. The duo have chosen to tell all 3 stories at once, intercutting freely between Iwo Jima, the victory tour, and modern-day America. Such an approach isn’t flawed, and could make for great storytelling, but somehow it just doesn’t end up like that.

Flags of Our Fathers begins with half an hour’s worth of false starts before the writers decide that actually the Iwo Jima sequences should exist as guilt-ridden flashbacks or traumatic hallucinations instead of being told as a straightforward (and overlong) Saving Private Ryan sequence. Even then, the flashbacks to Iwo Jima show more than is necessary, tell more than what the survivors can remember, and linger on longer than what we normally would allow for flashbacks. Scenes from the present-day consist of a middle-aged man interviewing several old journalists and veterans about the battle. Their voices sometimes break into the Iwo Jima and victory tour segments as needless voiceover narrations – surely the horrors of war and the cynical agitation of its war machine are self-explanatory? That’s not all, for the present-day scenes tell an altogether disconnected story from the rest of the movie. Combined with clumsy intercutting and poor linking between the 3 stories, it is difficult to sympathise for the private tragedies of any of the soldiers.

This movie would be fine if all 3 stories had revolved around an opaque, unreachable core, the missing memory of what really happened in the first flag raising. Once Eastwood and his collaborators decide to show that on screen, all the drama and pathos that had been building up despite their problematic temporal encircling of that event dissipates, leaving behind a weaker product. In the end, Eastwood makes the mistake of re-mythologising the soldiers, gesturing towards an unironic and sentimental tribute to the heroes - and in doing so, unmakes the fine point about the dangers of hero-making. The movie does make an excellent (the deconstruction of war propaganda), if slightly unoriginal anti-war movie (in the wake of Saving Private Ryan), and my only other complaint is it completely washes over the fact that Iwo Jima served no tactical or strategic value to the American Pacific operations thereafter, and that the heroic and costly assault of its marines was a waste of life – the Japanese forces on the island were severely blockaded and would’ve surrendered in a few more months.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Monday, 27 November 2006

Quinceanera (2006)

Ah, Sundance!

The festival evokes impressions of independent films helmed by directors armed with digital cameras, shooting small films with youthful protagonists, capturing the slice of life, that elusive moment in time, of racial minorities and other American subcultures. These indie directors often do not aim for the level of social commentary beyond “Sesame Street for adults”. It’s extremely peculiar that a festival for independent films could, in less than 15 years from its founding, attract films that look so much like each other and are so predictable that you could, like the geniuses at Deconstructing Sundance, write a software programme that predicts (with 80% accuracy) which films will win the Sundance prizes, just by how far they stick to the tried and tested Sundance indie film formula. It’s a pity, because the festival has shown itself capable of springing surprises like Saw, The Blair Witch Project, El Mariachi, and Napoleon Dynamite.

That is to say, read the poster carefully before you decide to buy tickets for the movie. You’ll do well to notice that Quinceanara won both the jury and audience prizes at Sundance this year. The setting: Echo Park, Los Angeles, a run-down Hispanic neighbourhood undergoing the early ravages of gentrification. Its main protagonists in the story read like a list of the usual suspects from a Sundance flick for young adults: a teen mother who is not even 15, carrying a child of a scarcely older boy who’s pretty sure it isn’t his because they never had penetrative sex. Exiled from home by her very morally upright father (a policeman who doubles as the preacher in the community church), she lives with her old-as-time uncle (the stock saintly and accepting elderly relative figure) and her similarly exiled hoodlum and gay cousin, in a small but homely shack at the back of a bungalow, owned by two men who have just moved into the neighbourhood, like the rich Anglos and other lesbian couples you meet in the movie.

The list of characters are such stock characters in stock “awww shucks” indie film situations that the only bright spot in this deliberately harmless movie are the slightly saucy scenes where the gay cousin frolicks with the Anglo landlords, and the times when Chalo González appears on screen. A Sam Peckinpah alumnus, González takes a hammy community theatre role that would easily sink in the hands of any actor, and makes this paper thin role sing. Unfortunately, the inoffensive set-up and characters aren’t sufficient to carry the show.

Underneath Quinceanera is a story about the exclusion and sanctioning of social “misfits” by an otherwise close-knit Hispanic community, the insidious invasion of ageing neighbourhoods by yuppies who jack up land prices and lead to landlords evicting long-time tenants, the invisible racism within the gay community and its exoticisation of ethnic minorities, or even the one-upmanship of middle class families who treat the 15th birthday celebrations of their daughters as a debutante ball than a coming‑of‑age ceremony. Unfortunately, such stories require guts and honesty to tell, and not the directors’ penchant for avoiding confrontations and strange desire to please and baby audiences, and mollycoddle the subjects of their film.

While the film throws up so many possibilities for conflict and resolution, the directors actually present to audiences a film devoid of any conflict, a film that ends up feeling like one of those "and so this happened and that happened and then that other thing happened" just-so stories. Every loose end (since the directors assiduously avoid any real conundrums in their script) is tied up all too neatly, too shallow and yet seemingly heart-warming nevertheless. Quinceanera is a twee little film that should just suit one of those days when you’re too really tired to think, but want to be entertained, and yet ashamed of watching an outright and honestly brain-dead flick at the cinema. Audiences who want to be provoked should remember that the Sundance Film Festival is no longer what it used to be, and watch this with revised expectations.

Perhaps the most enjoyable sequences in Quinceanera are its almost voyeurish segments between the gay cousin and the landlords. Clearly, the directors’ previous experience in making gay porn and slightly more mainstream comedies (The Fluffer) make these the most watcheable and entertaining interludes in the movie.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Saw 3 (2006)

If you’ve been to the old Haw Par Villa, before it was redone as a tourist attraction with perky piped music and rendered mostly harmless, you would remember a certain attraction called The 10 Courts of Hell, a series of elaborate dioramas in a grotto depicting the horrific tortures one would have to endure in the afterlife, tortures that were crafted to suit the victim’s sins when they were living mortals. Or perhaps you remember Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, a short story about an elegant execution device that metes out a punishment on the body of each criminal that is uniquely and most appropriately suited to the nature of their crime. Having read Bradley Denton’s black comedy Blackburn as a youth, I have always been waiting for someone to a movie about a vigilante killer who gives his victims – nasty people, not innocents at all – a punishment that fits their crime perfectly.

That movie turned out to be Se7en, of course. The Saw trilogy, on the surface, seems to be about the same thing, with a slight twist. Jigsaw, the serial killer, puts his victims in elaborate snare traps and other deadly devices that remind them of the ‘crimes’ they had committed, and challenge them to free themselves from those devices through an act of sacrificial self-mutilation. Ah, the joys of redemptive suffering, pain therapy, and a punishment fitting the crime!

Except that’s not even the case in any of the Saw films, and especially not Saw III, the closing film of the trilogy. There’s something to be said about a killer who devices fitting punishments for his victims, and then there’s something else to be said when a killer decides that being too detached from one’s emotions, withdrawing from society, feeling depressed, being too professional at work and other related ills are somehow crimes worth punishing. I’d call it a very flawed premise for a serial killer. Jigsaw’s horrific punishments for his victims are clearly excessive and don’t actually fit their ‘crimes’ at all, which adds to my annoyance with this movie. Clearly, if you have a setup like this, it might help if the movie is about the complete psychosis of the serial killer – his moral and ethical universe is something that cannot be taken seriously, and a good script would have to involve a challenge to the killer’s justification and outlook.

Instead of delivering on this challenge in the final part of the Saw trilogy, the scriptwriters pile on even more moralising and couch therapy style musings from Jigsaw, who is now on his deathbed, planning his final set of tests, and hoping that his understudy and possible successor Amanda Young has imbibed enough of his wisdom and philosophy to take over the reins of terror on his passing. The effect of the deeper moralising tone in Saw III doesn’t make the movie “deeper” - it just highlights again the problem with the premise, with the unfortunate fact that Jigsaw’s vigilante justice involves punishments that rarely fit the crime, and victims that aren’t at all evil, mean, or deserving of such brutal torture.

And yes, there is much pain, torture, and gore in the final movie, so much so that it has garnered an even higher censorship rating, even in the USA. That doesn’t help anything at all, but just again points out the flaws in the premise – where is the punishment that really fits the crime? Saw III doesn’t have the jokey feel of the first Saw, the mean victims of the second Saw, and ends up feeling more like a snuff video for guro fans. That’s a terrible mistake, since the point of any decent slasher flick is to have the audience empathise with either the vigilante killer, the vigilante cop, or the victims. There isn’t a single character in Saw III that can move a heart: not the dying Jigsaw, and not any of his victims – who surprising should evoke some sympathy due to the completely disproportionate suffering they go through. I guess we can blame the scriptwriters.

As for the gore and the escalation of horrific visual content, it seems that even the scriptwriters have run out of anything innovative. The exploding neck chain is back, and so is the leg clamp with the saw. The most visceral scenes in this movie are nothing new: James Caan had his foot hobbled by Kathy Bates in Misery decades ago, and we’ve watched trepanation performed on at least one episode on Chicago Hope or ER, Hannibal, and one episode of Rome on HBO/BBC.

There’s lots of gore, but all the pain and suffering is unjustified and makes no narrative sense at all. Because of this, Saw III is not horrific and cannot evoke any sense of horror. What it does evoke is a sense of revulsion and pity, at how a good premise is eventually defeated because of faulty conceptualisation, poor execution, and a focus on all the wrong things.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Battle of Wits, A 墨攻 (2006)

And World Peace!

If you had a classical education, you wouldn’t have heard of the Mohists. Your Chinese teachers – if they had known about the school of philosophy dating from the Warring States period of Chinese history – would never had told you about them, since they were the major opponents of the Confucian scholars. With traditional Chinese teachers who believe that being Chinese is the same as being a Confucian, there’s no way of learning about this brilliant group of philosophers, engineers, and military strategists who had a radically different idea of morality and ethics than the ritual-obsessed and authoritarian Confucians.

Bluntly put, the Mohists were a bunch of ascetic hippies who believed in universal love and world peace, came from the wrong side of the social ladder, and employed their engineering skills (they worked for a living, as opposed to the Confucian gentlemen, who were palace courtiers and aristocratic stock) for the defense of nations. Infuriatingly, they were the only Chinese school of thought interested in the theory of science, analogical reasoning, and justified everything through "the greater good". But it might be unrealistic to be the Pacifist Party in the era of unceasing war, and no way your philosophy will survive when only one state remains. It’s nice to think of how radically different Chinese society would be if the Mohists succeeded in defending every kingdom and made war unprofitable – the map of China would resemble that of Europe, and we’d all be flaky hippies instead of traditionalists, and certain Big Men of Asia would run out of excuses for demanding the unquestioning obedience of their citizens.

Not counting the accidental copying of the entire Mohist canon into the Daoist texts, which saved Mohist ideas from extinction after Confucianism was adopted as the state religion upon the foundation of the Han dynasty, the best thing that anyone has done for the Mohists has to be the Mozi Attacks manga by Hideki Mori. It’s a purely fictional account of how a single Mohist military strategist saves the minnow city-state of Liang from becoming an appetiser for the zillion-strong Zhao army on route to conquering its weak rival of Yan. The manga served as an introduction to Mohist philosophy, authentic warfare for the period, as well as focusing on the convoluted military battle of wits between the hero and the Zhao general and how war-time conditions and human behaviour in the besieged Liang city raises questions in the hero about the viability of his beliefs. Any movie based on Mozi Attacks would be a shoo-in for Best Credible Chinese Period Epic Ever.

And then, there’s A Battle of Wits. Even before you watch it, the fact that it is a China-Japan-Korea joint production should signal some unease. Joint, cross national productions tend to raise much more money to fund a film, but they often come with other strings attached, such as the dubious casting of young and popular but incompetent stars and ex-teen idols (Nicholas Tse in The Promise!), and very badly and inconsitently rendered Mandarin pronunciation. A Battle of Wits has dreadful casting, beginning with Taiwanese pretty boy and ex-teen idol Nicky Wu as a captain of the archers, pretty boy and ex-teen idol. He’s solely in the film because the producers wanted a Legolas moment. There’s the Korean pretty boy and ex-teen idol Choi Si-won, who should fit into the role of a pampered and petulant prince, but lacks any emotional range to convince audiences of his turn mid-way into the movie. There’s Chinese pretty girl Fang Bingbing, who because of her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is utterly unconvincing as a female captain of the cavalry, and despite her vapidness and naif-like beauty, is still unconvincing when Jacob Cheung’s script inevitably turns her into the Mohist strategist Ge Li’s love interest. Yes, Andy Lau may be lean and grizzled enough in this movie to pull off a warrior-philosopher, the presence of Korean legend Ahn Sung-kee is a casting coup for the opposing general, while the Duke of Liang is competently portrayed as an incompetent opportunist by Wang Zhiwen – but the damage is already done. When the casting is good, it is inspired, but when the casting is bad, it is really bad – and both occur in equal amounts for this movie.

Plot-wise, the original material by Hideki Mori prevents the movie from going too far astray, and Jacob Cheung should be commended for toning down the manga-ish humour from the comic book. However some liberties, when taken, cause the plot to suffer. Witness the tragedy of casting Fang Bingbing and the entire romantic subplot, then imagine how much worse it gets when an African slave (no doubt played by a tall Chinese man in blackface) pops up out of nowhere in 300 BC China. It gets slightly more ridiculous when after a long series of military strategems and counter-strategems by Ge Li and the Zhao general, the movie relies on a deus ex machina (an aerial invasion!) to end the battle decisively. For a movie with a Mohist strategist, there is surprisingly very little meaningful discussion about the philosophy or how it actually led to the school’s expertise in defensive warfare. There is very little development on the expected political and philosophical tensions between the strategist and the Confucian courtiers as well – making this film a let-down intellectually.

Yet this is nothing compared to the fact that the battle scenes are done horribly, with poor production value. There’s a battlefield panorama that looks as if it were generated using Rome: Total War, a very old computer game; and many scenes involving soldiers and horses on fire look badly acted, and badly CGIed. Composition-wise, Jacob Cheung directs his battle scenes in a static way, with the camera missing out most of the upfront action, the dynamism of the fighting, and even makes the mistake of presenting the key final battles as a montage of still frames dissolving into a pretty but inappropriate oil painting. This film makes the battle scenes in Kingdom of Heaven look masterly, and makes Troy look like a good war epic. Poor cutting creates very flawed misc en scenes that any well-trained first year film student would actually try to avoid, culminating in a sequence where two scouts are spotted by the Zhao camp at night, and are pursued immediately in the forest in broad noon daylight.

With a staggering budget of 15 million dollars, Jacob Cheung proves that the best source material cannot guarantee a perfect period epic. A Battle of Wits starts from a promising premise, but ends up tripping itself due to uneven execution. Because the film is really good when it gets things right, and really bad when it gets things wrong, I cannot recommend or disapprove of this film. Nevertheless, people should still watch it, just to get an idea of how diverse Chinese philosophy was before the Confucians came and imposed their 2000 year (and still counting!) reign on Chinese thought.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

9:56 (APT) (2006)

Korean horror discovers Ju-on 6 years too late!

Takashi Shimizu, the man who has made 6 films (all with the same name!) and 2 short films with the same ghosts and same scare tactics, was obviously separated at birth with Korean director Ahn Byeong-ki, who has also made a career out of making the same horror film over and over again (Nightmare, Phone, Ouija Board). For his fourth outing, Ahn has decided to submit a formal claim of kinship to Takashi Shimizu – not by a court injunction for a DNA test, but through making a horror movie staring a serial killing ghost that looks (long hair covering front of face, neck twisted to one side or another), moves (a limping, sad reject for the Ministry of Silly Walks), and sounds (you know, like a croaking frog or a log burning in a fireplace) like Kayako, the infamous female ghost from the Ju-on films and their 2 remakes.

Like Kayako, the ghost in 9:56 haunts an apartment. More precisely, an entire apartment block. Starting very recently, every night at 9:56 pm, the lights at the apartment flicker on and off, and a resident dies at that time, sometimes through suicide or a freak accident. Evidently the police are too stupid to connect random deaths together, but our feisty heroine (TM), a spunky career woman working on the night shift, lives in the block of flats just opposite, and gradually suspects something going on. Of course the deaths have to be supernatural in nature – just 5 minutes into the movie, the spunky career woman is spooked by a suicide in a train (it’s not a Korean movie if someone doesn’t get knocked down head-on by a speeding vehicle) into a quivering, job-shirking, blanket-hugging paranoid who sees ghosts everywhere in typical Ju-on fashion (behind you, in the shower! Beneath the bed! In the cell phone! Beside you!), even in her dreams. And you know that when each scare is revealed as a nightmare of the main character, it’s time to bolt out of the cinema hall to ask for your money back.

The heroine puts 2 and 2 together (the only instance in this movie that has some semblance of logic) and decides to get to the bottom of the mystery by spying on her opposite block neighbours with a pair of binoculars – surely a passing nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, since Ahn never bothers to develop the movie in that direction. It’s all rather pointless, since all the heroine needed to do was to look at the movie poster, which gives away the identity of the ghost as well as the “twist” that Ahn delivers in the final third of the film. It would have alerted her to keep a close watch on the only long-haired female in the movie, a helpless, wheelchair-bound orphan simultaneously cared for and ill-treated by the friendly neighbourhood committee of the apartment block, and saved you the price of a movie ticket as well.

Unoriginality isn’t a mortal sin in a horror movie, but being incapable of scaring audiences is. Even more unforgivable though is that Ahn’s methods of serving up the scares via Ju-on style peekaboo tricks, badly timed sound cues, and dark interiors (why is it that a character who is shown to flood her apartment in light in the movie’s beginning leaves her apartment in the dark later on?) are so dated, trite, predictable, and illogical that it’ll generate more derisive laughter and snorting in the cinema hall than any shivering. Poorly made, badly thought out, lazy, unentertaining, and coming far too late in the maturity (if not decline) of the Asian horror genre, Ahn Byeong-ki proves himself to be more of a fraudster than a frightster par excellence with 9:56.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Monday, 20 November 2006

Happy Feet (2006)

Busby Berkeley on ice!

I tend to avoid talking animal cartoons, because they’re mostly pitched towards the very young audience. These movies tend to be altogether too cute, with the scripts concentrating so much on fart jokes, body humour, predictable plot twists and obligatory preaching about the value of friendship, loyalty, being true to yourself , etc. It’s a sure way to ensure that I’d never step into the cinema hall voluntarily, and then, only when accompanied by a child below the age of 8. Thankfully, Happy Feet is none of all that: it’s a very clever movie that had me and my friend entertained without feeling that the director was talking down to us like children, even though to a certain extent, this is still a cartoon for kids.

The animation has a kid-friendly story at its base – the story of Mumble, a penguin who cannot hold a tune, living in a penguin colony that believes the most important thing in the world is to sing – an activity so important that the mating ritual consists of finding a soulmate whose song touches a penguin heart. Unable to sing, Mumble has a talent for tap dancing, which manifests itself each time he gets inspired or happy. Since normal penguins sing when they’re inspired, this sort of behaviour freaks everyone out and makes him an outsider. Until he runs into another penguin colony with an even more peculiar belief system – one that might actually accept him. The premise of Happy Feet, that of an outsider trying to fit in and belong, is simple enough to reach out to the kiddies in the audience, yet deep enough for a parent to have a stimulating talk with the child later on about the movie.

What is there for the older audience, then? On top of the simple children’s story is an entire layer of savvy scriptwriting, visual humour, and sly situational comedy and dialogue. There is much adult humour and pop references that won’t fail to escape the attention of people who were born between 1975 and 1980, or even fans of old movies. For starters, the penguins sing snippets of songs throughout the movie, just like Moulin Rouge. The songs are funny enough and have a great hook, but only the adult will notice and fully appreciate the song selection, which includes Salt-N- Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”, and other classics from Prince, Elvis, Earth Wind and Fire, and other great acts from the late 80s and early 90s.

Then, add in many visual jokes either border on naughty puns (watch out for the scene where Mumble keeps falling on Gloria, the object of his desire!) or take off from Busby Berkeley’s musical choreography married with 1970s-style abstract animated credit sequences. And if that’s not enough, you’ll be thrown off balance with unexpected homages to Nankyoku Monogatari (the original Eight Below), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly, the writing team is talented: the jokes for the adults and kids run parallel to each other, often occurring at the same time. The writers also have a keen sense of balance, preventing jokes and the music from disrupting the flow of the story, and also preventing any intense or depressing moment from dragging on for too long.

That said, the movie does change gears twice: once at the half-way mark, and then again at the end of the third act – and the chances of a perfect, coherent, and unified script are somewhat lessened. You – or more likely, the child you brought along to see the cartoon - may point out that Happy Feet is a mash of at least 3 different movies with 3 different dynamics: there’s the story about the social misfit trying to find a way to compromise with society or have society recognise and accept his difference; there’s the situation comedy about the completely arbitrary differences in traditions and customs across societies; and there’s the overly preachy and naïve environmentalist spiel at the end (strangely not starring Al Gore) that jumps into the movie out of nowhere.

It’s a waste that an otherwise well-written and produced animation film like Happy Feet does not resolve the major problem it introduces in its plot, uses a bait-and-switch technique at the end, and throws in story points that perhaps would work better in feature-length movie of their own. Fortunately, the sheer creativity and humour that went into the making of Happy Feet still make it the best animation picture of 2006.

I have no objections to this film, it’s a sign that George Miller, director of the Mad Max movies, has gone soft in his Babe movie, and morphed into a classic liberal whose chief mission is to bring about the decline and fall of civilisation. If you’re a conservative parent, do consider these points:

1. The movie has Robin Williams playing a blatant stand-in for a televangelist con-man figure. Your kid will lose the ability to unquestioningly respect religious authorities.

2. In having little penguins learn all the basics about singing and the ‘heartsong’ that will lead them to their mates, this movie endorses sex education for kids.

3. This movie endorses moral relativism. It will be impossible for you to teach any rules or discipline your child in the future, since he’ll tell you flippantly that "in certain other cultures, this will be perfectly acceptable."

4. You may laugh at me now, but when your son grows up to be un-penguinny, indulging in alternative lifestyles and hedonistic practices, corrupting the youth of the community, and refusing to attend the counselling camp run by your religious authorities, don’t come crying at me. I have looked into the dark, liberal heart of George Miller, and I have told you so.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Thursday, 16 November 2006

Forbidden Siren サイレン (DVD) (2006)

Meet the Ryukyuan welcoming committee...

There’s something about movie adaptations of video games that filmmakers should realise: it might sound like a great idea, but invariably the end result is a massive disappointment at best, and a huge embarrassment at worse. I mean, hasn’t anyone learnt? Street Fighters, Silent Hill, DOA, Doom, Resident Evil, House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne – our cineplexes are littered with corpses of failed films and tonnes of furious teenagers screaming for their money back. Aside from the first Mortal Kombat movie (which was improved by the presence of Christopher Lambert), the general rule of movie adaptations make for poor movies. Why so? When you’re playing a video game, the game mechanics and in-game fight sequences often overshadow the fact that the plot is emaciated and that the premise is far-fetched and incredibly unbelievable. When you’re watching the movie, it is very hard not to notice that the plot and premise aren’t enough to generate material for the length of the movie, or that in order to fill out the plot, the filmmaker has taken the decision to shift the movie away from the basic premise of the game itself. Either way, you the moviegoer will lose out each time you enter a cinema to watch a movie game adaptation.

Yet Forbidden Siren could turn out to be different. While it’s a horror survival game – and we know just how bad Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead and Resident Evil were – we expect 2 things that it has going for it. Firstly, it’s a Japanese movie, and the Japanese aren’t usually known for making horrible horror films. Secondly, it’s a Japanese homage to HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, complete with a plot to revive a dead (but eternally sleeping) underwater god, a remote village full of secret cultists, and zombie creatures mutated in the image of the dead god. In other words, it would take great talent to make a poor movie out of this video game.

There are some things that I am glad were carried over from the game to the Forbidden Siren movie. There is the whole mystery of the siren that the protagonists have to unravel by finding video game-ish clues such as strange scrawls made with blood on the wall, torn notebooks, newspaper clippings, and interviewing or speaking with non-player characters wandering around the remote village. There’s also the great sound production, which does evoke at times the horror mood of the video game.

Unfortunately for us, there is very little horror or horrific suspense in this movie – while the set design is superb, the actual zombies look so badly done you’d think this has to be a spoof of bad zombie movies, and the chase sequences aren’t particularly frightening. The script is somewhat of a let-down, with the writers ditching much of the Cthulhu mythos and sense of ancient horror that made the video game memorable and harrowing to play. Gone are the secret cult of villagers, their sacrifices to the dead god, and the terrifying mutant creatures. Yes, there are zombies, but they aren’t the real attraction of the video game. Instead, the story is pared down to a standard and cliched tale of a woman and her weak kid brother who arrive on a remote island together with their anthropologist father. Worse still, the ending of the story is a slap in the face of the Forbidden Siren games, as well as a very bad way to end any story – almost as bad as saying “it was all a dream”. This is one of the signs that the director and scriptwriters just wanted to make any old horror movie and didn’t care about the video game they were supposed to be adapting.

While the soundtrack and the set design are well done, and tend to make you sit on edge for a real scare, the poor execution and script actually make you unimpressed when the scares do come. For a horror movie fan, Forbidden Siren would be a disappointment because it has far too few scares, an emaciated plot and a terrible ending. For a fan of the video game, Forbidden Siren would be a disappointment because the scriptwriters have take far too many elements of the game out of the movie, elements that would actually have made it more frightening and richer. As far as I can tell, this would be a good movie for people who are looking for safe horror fare, i.e. people who want to be scared, but don’t really want to be scared at all.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Monday, 13 November 2006

Time 시간 (2006)

Almost a commentary on the dating game

Kim Ki-duk’s latest offering was not invited to Cannes, although Time harks back to the director’s sometimes harsh commentary on contemporary Korean society in his early films. Looking at the film, I can almost see why. Time’s appeal comes through its very weird premise: Sae-hee (Park Ji-yeon), possessive to the point of unhealthy obsession, decides that her hold over her still very devoted boyfriend Ji-woo (Ha Jeong-woo) is waning, despite her daily shrillness, tantrums, and demands for proof of fidelity. Giving in to her suspicion that her boyfriend would rather date someone new, the girl decides to disappear from his life, undergo extensive plastic surgery, then stalk the poor man before seducing him under a new identity (Seong hyeon-a) – but retaining her original name, just to freak him out a little since he’s still pining over her (the old her, that is).

There are a few things about Korean culture that you will have to understand before you can 'get' this film, though. The possessive, borderline psychotic, sassy girlfriend in so many Korean romantic comedies isn’t so much a convenient plot device or an exaggeration, but an almost realistic portrayal of how many Korean girls behave in a relationship. And apparently, this sort of behaviour is considered appealing and direct, and much favoured by Korean boys. So instead of being repulsed by the utter insanity of Sae-hee, puzzled by why Ji-woo pines over such a character and actually looks for her characteristics in other women he dates during her absence, I suppose audiences should fall over themselves at the depiction of a perfect relationship. And instead of complaining about how Ji-woo is a picture of passive-aggressive pathology (he’s a wimp when attached to Sae-hee but non-Korean audiences would consider his more than forthright dating techniques border almost date-rape), we should realise that this is how males actually behave in real life, at least in the Korean dating scene.

In other words, instead of a psychologically disturbing thriller dealing with the loss of identity brought on by plastic surgery (a very popular cosmetic enhancement procedure in Korea), or a dark comedy about the psychotic side of everyday dating, or a satire about how dating couples take photographs at the most kitschy and artistically pretentious (ergo grotesque) locations, Kim Ki-duk delivers an honest and conventional romantic drama with an extremely devoted couple (slightly more devoted that others, but still a conventional couple nonetheless) with gratuitous shots of "Sculpture Island", an outdoor installation art gallery located at a beach.

In other words, Kim Ki-duk wastes a perfectly perverse premise to make an artsy but hollow romantic drama filled with eye candy. I can imagine David Lynch using exactly the same plastic surgery premise, main characters, and dating scene to produce an absolutely horrifying and surreal masterpiece. And I’m sure that’s why the Cannes committee regretfully decided to skip the usually spot-on satirist’s work this year.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Friday, 10 November 2006

Just Friends (2006)

There is a comedy sub-genre that deals with losers from high school and what becomes of them after graduation. They might remain sad losers and social outcasts as adults (Kevin Kline’s Clerks and Clerks 2), revel in their unique status and still have more fun that the school jocks and queens (Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), or take revenge on their childhood tormentors (Revenge of the Nerds and its sequels).

Or they could grow up into highly successful, good-looking alpha males and females who get all the attention and love they want. Just Friends takes the final choice for its comedy setup, a rare choice nowadays. As the movie opens, Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds, seen on sitcoms like Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) is painfully obese, socially awkward, dweebish, mawkish, and very much infatuated with his long-time playmate, platonic friend and classmate, the very beautiful Jamie (Amy Smart). Who understandably says something to the effect of “thanks but no thanks, let’s remain just friends” when Chris chooses, during the graduation party, to express his feelings for her and his hopes for a closer type of relationship. Adding insult to injury, Chris is humiliated in front of all his classmates and decides to run out of town.

While an entire comedy could be made about the transformation of Chris from the guy in the fat suit to an athletic, handsome, rich, flirtatious record executive who gets all the girls, Just Friends brings Chris back to his hometown, the only place where his self-confidence would melt away easily, especially at the sight of Jamie, the only object of desire that the master of seduction was unable to conquer in his youth. Will Chris woo her as the alpha male he is, or will he again be reduced to a blubbering, self-conscious nervous wreck of a dweeb he was? Will he achieve his life-long dream and desire before his borderline psychotic, utterly self-centred, and positively bimbotic pop star charge (Anna Faris) kill him or seduce his kid brother (Chris Marquette)?

Adam Davis takes pleasure out of humiliating Chris at every chance he gets, creating the bulk of the meanspirited comedy for Just Friends. There are so many things that made this movie succeed at getting my laughs: a good eye for comic potential and a determination to go all out to milk it; perfect comic timing, both in the execution of jokes and in making sure they linger just long enough for the laughs to turn into tears, but not long enough for your laughter to turn into yawns; the Marx Brothers brand of physical comedy between Ryan Reynolds and Chris Marquette; the very bizarre triangle between Anna Faris, Reynolds and Marquette that actually has more comic potential than the other triangle involving Reynolds and Amy Smart.

Of course, it helps that Anna Faris brings the house down every time she appears on screen as the spiritual (or is it demonic) incarnation of what you’d get if you mix Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and every vacuous and untalented airhead singer. Director Robert Kumble pays attention to even the tinniest of details, and ekes out recurring jokes out of them!

In a way, the made-in-Canada comedy proves to the world that it is actually easy to make a good romantic comedy, even if it is a little formulaic. All Hollywood needs to do is to stop casting A-list actors in romantic comedies, because scriptwriters tend to lose all proportion in a mad rush to tailor the screenplay to the image and brand name of the stars instead of writing a genuinely funny and slightly more original script.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Colic เด็กเห็นผ (2006)

Even Junior knows this movie should be pulped, juiced, and tossed out

Perhaps we have Thaksin to thank for Thailand’s economic boom in the recent years. With the frequent pump-priming of the Thai economy, it was inevitable that the film industry would find a way to get its hands on the excess liquidity circulating in the country. This is my way of saying that perhaps we have Thaksin to blame for the avalanche of ill-conceived Thai horror films in our cinemas, often as a part of an international trilogy (Three, Black Night), or as stupidly offensive and disrespectful movies that have caused diplomatic incidents and complaints from foreign ambassadors (Ghost Game, Lucky Losers). For the uninitiated, it’s like making an Auschwitz Holocaust Zombie Chainsaw Massacre or a soccer movie calling the Malaysians the worst football team in the world. Meanwhile, groundbreaking and superior storytellers like Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Invisible Waves, Last Life in the Universe) and Wisit Sasanatieng (Citizen Dog) are forced to sit out the "Thai film revival" in their day jobs with advertising agencies because Thai audiences prefer cheap horror movies and comedies – even if they are badly made. I weep for Thai audiences, the two great young directors of Thai film, and for Singaporean audiences, who are subjected to imported Thai box-office hits that lack the quality to justify a cinema outing to overseas audiences.

This is, of course, a roundabout way of saying that Colic is one of those films. A less direct way would be to mention that Patchanon Thumjira is a first time director whose previous experience in the film industry consisted of designing posters and trailers for local films. He has one bright idea that might serve as an interesting premise for a horror film: babies with colic (a disorder marked by incessant crying) behave that way because they are tormented by apparitions and spirits they have sinned against in their previous life. One could imagine that if the film industry had no access to easy funds, or if Thai audiences were more discriminating, the director would have taken more time and enough to write a better script, edit his movie more professionally, or just thought through the idea more thoroughly.

What you get, then, is a horror movie that is badly mis-timed, where sound cues (you know, spooky music, lots of gamelans, shrieky synths...) do not match what you see on the screen. You will, like me, feel like running out of the cinema (not in horror, but in despair!) by the first half hour, where static shots are accompanied by the horror music cues that seem to suggest something IS happening when you know nothing is happening; horror music cues come in seconds after a fake scare has been executed, and the music cue lingers unbearably after the scare has been revealed as a fake. You will scratch your head over an infamous dream sequence that gave the movie its poster – although effective, it has nothing to do with the theme of the horror movie you are watching.

You will want to run out of the cinema when you realise that the movie has so many loose ends and side-plots that pop out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere just as quickly. Case in point: cursed baby’s mother receives a phone call from a mysterious lady for hubby when he is (supposedly) out doing overtime work. The phone call and the lady are never mentioned again, even though clearly the couple are supposed to be estranged due to the stress of baby’s condition. And of course, the couple are estranged one minute and fine the next. Someone clearly threw out a huge portion of film stock on the editing room floor and forgot to tidy the mess or do a clean job of the pruning.

More evidence of either a butchered film or a poorly written film: Baby’s mom proclaims that every time baby breaks out into a crying spell, he saves the family from a disaster. That clearly isn’t shown in the movie - at that point, parents and caregivers see strange apparitions whenever baby cries. People DIE whenever baby cries.

And what is Thai cinema without its strange insistence on stupidly offending people across the board? If you believe the director, babies with colic may end up retarded and autistic, and have to be interned in a mental institution and put in straitjackets. I vote for the director, his scriptwriter, editor, and the producers of this movie to be put in straitjackets and detained in mental institutions for their worse than amateurish effort to produce a horror film.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Thursday, 9 November 2006

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

Leatherface won't be receiving an invitation from Chairman Kaga any time soon

There’s something to be said about Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was surprisingly good because it was shot in documentary style (Blair Witch before its time!), focused more on pacing, suspense, and dramatic tension. The film wasn’t even particularly gory or graphic at all. There’s something else to be said about Hooper’s sequels to that film: they failed to develope the Leatherface mythos in a credible manner, and failed to hew to the same gritty and unsettling look that made the first film a piece of art (a print of the film is on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan).

Yet when Michael Bay, the man who started his career directing music videos for Meat Loaf, then graduated to making loud, crass, bombastic and stupid big budget action movies with lots of crashing vehicles and exploding objects. Bay produced the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, fulfilling all expectations that he would turn the horror film into a loud, crass, bombastic and stupid big budget gory movie modelled on the modern horror genre instead of Hooper’s original vision. In other words, a typical horror slasher with lots of ridiculously loud sound effects to generate false scares, an frantic obsession to film the gore of Leatherface in action, combined with Michael Bay’s trademark middle finger to coherent editing (not to say plot) and love for stripping away all vestiges of intelligence in his movies.

For the prequel to the remake, audiences are treated to yet another one of Michael Bay’s tics, namely the one where he recycles entire sequences from a previous film in its sequel. But what about the "The Beginning" promised in the title? Aside from the opening credit sequence that chronicles the birth and growth of Leatherface from a baby to a teenager, the rest of the film is a standard slasher movie about Leatherface and family luring and trapping a group of teens for the graphic torture and slaughter that form the key attraction of this movie.

Story-wise, none of the Hooper Massacres could be honestly summarised as retarded psycho chops up victims for 90 minutes, but clearly that is the direction that Michael Bay and his directorial team wish to take for their remakes. Nothing else matters – The Beginning is a no-style, no-plot (there is some cultural and historical commentary that is half-heartedly raised and then half-heartedly discarded minutes later), unimaginative, stale piece of cinema that fails to evoke any sense of horror despite recycling sequences from its predecessor, sound cues and plot points from the past decade of horror and slasher flicks.

For a movie that bills itself as a prequel to the franchise, there is nothing new offered – that should be enough of a condemnation for all involved in this effort, except there’s a much bigger insult to Messrs Bay, Liebesman and Turner. I speak of course, of Rob Zombie, a music video producer turned film director and the two slasher films inspired by Hooper’s massacres: House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects – both disgustingly perverse, humorous, stylish and very intelligent films – brilliant additions to the slasher genre. The Firefly family don’t really relish in straightforward meat chopping, but in psychological torture and mind games that bring the horror to a meaningful high – something that Bay and company should learn soon, if they want to inflict yet another Massacre on us this decade.

Take for example Leatherface’s penchant for skinning off his victims faces and wearing them. That’s all there is to it. Zombie’s Fireflys skin off their victims faces and wear them in order to taunt the victim’s friends, and then sew the faces to the friend’s head. Now that is something so original that it is worth paying money to watch.

I would have preferred a more engaging prequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One could easily imagine Leatherface as a perennial runner-up (aka "loser") in the Iron Chef competition, because Chairman Kaga wasn’t impressed by Leatherface’s replacement of the usual carving knives with his trusty chainsaw. Unable to take the string of unbroken defeats in his stride, the chef began his rampage...

First published at incinemas on 9 November 2006

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Red Cockatoo, The (Rote Kakadu, Der) (2006)

Growing up artistic in a socialist country can be a pain

You’d associate period romances with the English, with their Jane Austen films, and the Chinese, with their television melodramas by Qiong Yao. Aside from the class society, English inheritance laws, the Chinese civil war or the distant approach of the Japanese soldiers, there isn’t much solid background in period romances, which ostensibly take place in a period of social and political interest but are written as though this background never really existed, aside from the strange clothing people used to wear then.

And then, there is Dominik Graf’s The Red Cockatoo, where the romance is intertwined with the political background, yet finely balanced such that neither element drowns the other out. The time is 1961, and the Berlin Wall will come up in the summer. But for now, 20-year-old Siegfried (he prefers to be called Siggy), a scenery painter in a Berlin theatre, is keen to prove himself worthy of acceptance to a fine arts college. In his free time, the young man travels to the West to sell off porcelain figures to art collectors, a quick way to raise the cash needed for his future studies. He also goes to the local park to practise sketching, to hone his artistic skills. And this is where he lays eyes and falls in love with the beautiful poet Luise, her impulsive and boisterous husband Wolle, and their merry crew of poetry-reading, hard-partying, rock and roll loving beatnik friends. Who are of course proscribed by the state and under surveillance by the Stasi’s network of informers, and avoided by all polite society for their decadence and radicalism.

Fraternising with these social undesirables might jeopardise his chances of getting accepted to college, but when you’re in love, does it matter? So begins Siggy’s first love affair, a complicated but honest triangle with Luise and Wolle, his introduction to rock and roll and individualism, and a very fun dance club called The Red Cockatoo, so hip and teeming with energy and youth that state officials make it a point to dance there once in a while to demonstrate their touch with the common people.

Technically, the coming of age love story between a young boy and an older couple has been done before, but what makes The Red Cockatoo worth watching is how the background of history, politics and daily life in communist East Germany is worked into the romance story as well as the lives of the protagonists. Dominik Graf has a mostly realistic take on life in the GDR, taking the opposite view of Good Bye Lenin!, while refraining from simplistically painting the communist days as relentlessly bad.

I am sure this film will find resonance with audiences here. Problems in the film have their local parallels, such as the idea that people will generally get where want through their own merit, but an introduction from a well-placed person, a testimonial from a higher-up, and a stint at the right places would do well for your resume. Similarly, the permitted existence of a rowdy, hedonistic, Westernised and countercultural club in East Berlin, the non-violent, almost non-repression of artistic and bohemian society, and the ludicrously light punishments for cultural and ideological offenders (but of course they still need to be punished) – astute observers will argue that all these have their analogues here: the Nation Party, Zouk, the government’s hot-and-cold affair with homosexuals and the cultural elites and the almost non-existent policing of the blogosphere (but of course they still need to be policed).

Perhaps the love story is just a smoke screen for the deeper historical and social study of the GDR. Yet perhaps the exercise in recreating the GDR is just a smoke screen for the deepest question that all idealists and dissenters need to ask themselves: Do I stay here and try to make my country a better place, or do I join the brain drain? I feel that The Red Cockatoo works because of its attention to historical detail and realism, as well as its attention to raising important, universal questions.

First published at incinemas on 9 November 2006

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Step Up (2006)

This was merely the prelude to the bloodbath that followed in the wake of The Bride

Behind this dance movie is a director who used to be a dance choreographer for Bring It On, a writer who wrote Save The Last Dance, and a director of cinematography who shot Fame. Step Up has a pedigree that should easily make up for the shortcomings of Anne Fletcher’s first feature attempt – not hat it is easy to turn out a dismal product, because the dance genre pretty much writes its scripts from a very simple formula: boy meets girl, boy and girl teach each other to dance, boy and girl triumph against other snobbish competitors or against the system. The only point of departure one can make is having a dance teacher and student(s) variation instead of the boy meets girl scenario, but that’s as far as one can make changes in the very standard genre of dance films.

As befitting the first-time director, Step Up has a very vanilla plot: boy Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum, former underwear model and co-star in She’s The Man) is a teenage delinquent growing up on the wrong side of town with his homies (i.e. he’s poor and talks and moves like an African American), stealing cars and driving girls wild with his hot moves at dance halls. Girl is Nora Clark, an ambitious student in the dance programme for the local school of fine arts. Middle class and a perfectionist to a fault, the girl has no tolerance for modern or urban dance but wants to get a contract with a professional dance company with her graduation performance piece.

Needless to say, the couple are brought together rather conveniently when Tyler is caught breaking into the school and vandalising its property, and sentence to community service as a janitor at the fine arts college. Since we’re in a dance film where Channing Tatum is the male lead, Nora’s training partner needs to suffer an injury that leaves her stranded, with all the male dancers in the school lacking the skills to be her replacement partner, and persuading the principal to reassign Taylor to her – thus opening the way for Tatum and Nora to get together, bicker, grudgingly respect each other’s dance traditions and become close personal friends and maybe lovers.

There’s only a few ways to evaluate any dance film: On the plus side, the choreography, the chemistry between the leads, and the amount of skin and/or hot moves the leads show off. On the minus side, the amount of improbable plot twists and focus on non-essential side stories. Already from the previous paragraph, you would notice a few improbabilities, such as urban dancing Taylor being a natural for the gruelling and physically demanding routines of classical dance. That’s followed by the idea that his funky style of dance is actually interesting, fresh, and compelling enough for Nora’s dance routine to be completely redesigned around it – something that is topped off by the fact that the fine arts college appears to be a very progressive institution complete with hip-hop composers and mixers, but turns out Nora, the ultimate ultraconservative dance student.

Storywise, Anne Fletcher and her writing team have created a dance movie that isn’t completely about the dance floor, choosing to concentrate on several subplots like Nora’s classmates in the fine arts college and their struggle to carve out a little recognition in time for their graduation as well. I had no trouble with this as Nora’s classmates do play an important role in her graduation piece, but the portions that dealt with Taylor’s poverty background and his homies didn’t feel they really belonged to the same movie. Similarly, the class differences between Nora and Taylor are clumsily and perfunctorily raised and half-heartedly dropped just as quickly.

Luckily, the choreography for Step Up is pleasing to the eye, and manages to suggest a certain chemistry that Channing Tatum and Janna Dewan had a little trouble emoting outside the dance sequences. Pity Channing Tatum’s physique was covered, burqa-like, in horribly baggy gansta-wannabe street wear and coveralls, while Dewan isn’t exactly a sex bomb. Step Up may not be Flashdance, but it’s tolerable and somewhat entertaining, even if it does not go far enough.

First published at incinemas on 9 November 2006

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Free Will, The (Freie Wille, Der) (2006)

Free will is the greatest intangible (and some say imaginary) characteristic of humanity, so integral and important that any attempt to deprive an individual of their free will is a crime. Take for example, the crime of rape, where one is forcibly robbed of control over their bodies, and forced to participate in what is normally a freely-given act. Such an act, incidentally, opens the film and promises that the rest of the 2.5 hrs will be similarly uncompromising - but then, you had the free will to step into the cinema, didn’t you? Or the crime of emotional abuse by parents who dominate their children so completely that one is unable to extricate their individuality from the suffocating ego of the parent.

Incidentally, this describes the situation that both protagonists in The Free Will experience. Prior to his release from a psychiatric home, Theo (Jurgen Vogel) suffered from a violent social and psychological disorder that made him attack, batter, and then rape 3 women. Now rehabilitated from his illness and possessing tremendous guilt over his past actions, does he possess that measure of free will to deny the urges from his past, from his mental condition? Can he be the normal guy that he says he wants to be, a man with a job, friends, and a woman to love? And prior to cutting all ties with her family, Nettie was suffocating lfor the past 27 years of her life in the grasp of her father, a respectable owner of a printing facility that the rehabilitated Theo works at.

For a man who longs for a decent relationship with a woman while being unable to relate properly with them, perhaps the ideal partner would be a woman who longs for a decent relationship with a man while unable to relate or interact properly with them. Perhaps there can be hope and redemption for an ex-rapist and a girl who dresses very much like a boy, especially when the first words they utter to each other are: “Let’s skip the conversation. I don’t like women.” and “That’s fine. I don’t like men either.”

On paper, both Theo and Nettie are unsympathetic and flawed characters that audiences learn not to like in conventional movies, but the pensive camera, the striped down lighting, the harsh digital video look conspire, together with the sensitive script and the intense acting of both protagonists, to eke out every drop of empathy from viewers. Both are painfully alienated from normal society, and have to deal with their crushing loneliness, with the free will that is implicit in the numerous dating clubs, bars, sex-filled advertising and easy availability of pornography. It is a free will whose existence each struggles to prove to themselves. Vainly, painfully, yet hopefully as they seek each other out from behind the heavy shrouds that contain both of them from normal society.

The up close and personal, almost documentary-like cinematography and the languid pacing of the film prevents audiences from making hasty judgements of all its characters, and for audiences to mull over each shocking or heartening development. The film does not come with any political baggage or agenda aside from its suggestion to viewers that they suspend their judgementality for two and a half hours, and to take a second look at society’s malcontents and misfits with a human eye. As the writer has gone on record to say in every screening he has attended, “I hope you do not enjoy the movie.” I hope this movie does provoke you to think – not just about society’s downtrodden, and not just about the alienating effect of the modern world, but also about the universal loneliness that lies in the hearts of us all.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

Friday, 3 November 2006

Open Season (2006)


In an average year, Sony Animation’s maiden cartoon effort would receive more attention and a warmer reception. It would be considered a fairly interesting cartoon – even if it is somewhat less than original, Open Season cobbles together familiar elements seen elsewhere to form an arguable superior and individualistic piece of animation. In other words, CGI animation is finally maturing to a point where there is an identifiable genre, one where directors and studios improve their movies and skills by evolution and experimentation with already-existing elements found in other genres, and not through constant reinvention of the wheel.

But since there are about 9 other animated films this year, you’d probably react to Open Season with a "Hmmmm. Okay. Fine." I assure you, that will be a mistake. It would be just wrong to see this animated film merely as a mixture of Madagascar (domesticated animals returning to the wild), Over the Hedge (much scenes of animals eating junk food in fake generic junk food product endorsements), and The Wild (character designs that look like animated plush toys). Open Season is much more than the sum of these, and is almost as good as The Wild while being slightly more original than Cars, while being zanier and wackier than any animated film from this year.

To boot, Open Season pairs a huge grizzly bear and a deer as the prerequisite odd couple. Not just any ordinary bear or deer: Boog (Martin Lawrence) is a domesticated bear living in the garage of Beth (Debra Messing), a nice forest ranger who dresses like Steve Irwin. The bear is well-trained – he sits on a potty when he needs to go, and goes to sleep easily with a stuffed toy, a blanket, and a good night song from mommy. He’s what every little tyke watching this movie should aspire to, essentially. And Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) is a deer with just one antler whom Boog regrets saving from demented game hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise), because Elliot is an even more extreme version of Eddie Murphy’s Donkey in Shrek.

Not long before tame domesticated bear meets mono-antlered deer, the duo will land up in lots of comic hijinks and get set free by Beth into the wild, where the animals belong. Three days before hunting season (or open season) begins. Will Boog and Elliot buddy up and save their hides – and those of the other forest animals – from the imminent arrival of Shaw and the rest of the big game hunters? Will Boog get used to living in the wild, or will he have to escape to the safety of… the city?

What makes Open Season far more entertaining and watchable than other talking animals cartoons this year is the incredible enthusiasm that Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher put into their voice acting. That, and the realisation by Sony Animation’s writing team that cartoons with fart jokes and too many pop cultural references have outstayed their long welcome. The comedy in this film are geared for kids, but are genuinely funny and entertaining that adults will end up grinning like crazy.

Character designs for this movie give it an entirely original look for a CGI animation film. While the animals tend to look like plush toys, the film plays with giving the background imagery a more traditional 2D cel look, while the long shots make the film look as though it was filmed with miniature models and stop animation. The look – while composed of highly unoriginal parts seen before in other cartoons, is a unique mix that is visually appealing and as quirky as the story.

Open Season is a pleasant enough way to spend time with your children on an afternoon.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

Casino Royale (2006)

Your Ursula Andress moment

In the long run, I believe movie lovers will come to the realisation that the Bond franchise was almost destroyed during Pierce Brosnan’s turn as the British superspy. Without the Cold War or the superior writing of Ian Fleming to provide a decent plot, the Brosnan era was typified by over-the-top action sequences, crackpot villains with far-fetched devices and plots to take over the world, blatant product placements, super gadgets out of this world, and many silly, even ridiculous excuses to put huge explosions in almost every scene. Just take a look at the movie posters for the past 4 films: each feature a huge explosion in their key art. At best, the Brosnan era marked the change of the Bond franchise into a parody of itself, sparking off even more ridiculous and entertaining series like Austin Powers and xXx, and imitators with bigger explosions like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible trilogy. At worse, you could say the Brosnan era was a huge joke, bolstered by the fact that no one – not the audience nor the producers – could take James Bond seriously.

It’s a bit like how Joel Schumacher single-handedly destroyed the Batman franchise with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Just like how Batman was revived by a reboot of the story, the Bond franchise stakes its survival and credibility on a similar reboot. As Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, this version of Casino Royale resets the series by re-introducing James Bond – this time played by the controversial Daniel Craig – as a rookie in his very first assignment, and shifting the timeline to the modern day. That’s not the only move the writers take to wipe the slate clean and rid the series of its jokey taint – Bond is not the perfect, suave superhero armed with an arsenal of improbable tools; the villain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a mad genius and neither does he possess some doomsday device (he’s merely an ordinary banker who provides instant, worldwide credit transfers to terrorists, guerillas and other criminals); and the action is limited to good old-fashioned chases, fights, and very few explosions. I am happy to say that the self-parodying Q and the weapons development laboratory do not appear in this movie, even though it’s set in the modern day. Good riddance!

Casino Royale follows quite faithfully the events in Ian Fleming’s novel, with a few minor updates to allow for the modern day setting. Strangely enough, the updates – as well as the refusal to resort to complex gadgetry (the only device of note was a portable defibrillator!) - don’t give the film a dated feel. Instead, the nitty gritty of the post-9/11 world is very much referenced silently, with mostly low tech villains operating in a relatively modern world. Due to the overzealous actions of newest 00 agent James Bond, Le Chiffre’s investments in global terrorism are liquidated, causing him to lose money and gain the anger of his clients. The only way out for Le Chiffre to recoup his losses, save his life, and continue funding global terrorism is to enter the ultimate poker tournament for no-limits Texas Hold’em at Casino Royale, and Bond is dispatched – this time under the watchful eye of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) – to foil Le Chiffre’s plan and apprehend the villain. The only drawbacks are these: Le Chiffre got his nickname for being a mathematical wizard, Bond may too arrogant and egotistical to win the game of bluff, and Vesper Lynd is repelled by Bond’s overconfidence, yet attracted to his little vulnerabilities.

So. imagine James Bond not as the superagent we have grown to know and love and then fall out of love with, but as a very human rookie, insecure, not infallible, and possessing an unwarranted arrogance and self-assurance. Imagine him as a man who has no super powers, no expensive hi-tech gadgets, imagine him as a true brawler. An actor playing him will have to rely on his raw animal magnetism, as well as work very hard on his stuntwork. That will be Daniel Craig, arguably the best James Bond since Sean Connery.

What you have to look out for in Casino Royale is not the gadgets or product placements, but the sheer energy and stripped down action style of its main actor. Daniel Craig fights unarmed most of the time in the movie, and does so much running and sweating that you instinctively appreciate the difference between Craig and the previous Bond actors: he is a bona fide action star, while almost all the rest had to rely on the dinner suit, the cheesy introductions, the Aston Martins and the gadgets to get audiences believe they were playing Bond. The re-imagining of James Bond is gives the franchise a much-needed and welcome dose of realism that has been lacking in its films for almost a decade. After the end credits roll, the movie promises that Bond will return. We certainly look forward to seeing more of Daniel Craig in this role, as well as more of the real world sensibility of the new James Bond screenplays.

First published at incinemas on 16 November 2006

Thursday, 2 November 2006

Man of my life, The (L'Homme de sa vie) (2006)

As magical as the all-night discussion you had with your best friend years ago

You can almost smell the magic in the air, when you are lying in bed turning over your memories of summer vacations, the times you stayed up way after bedtime, or went out for a walk in the middle of the night when it seemed the rest of the world was asleep. It’s a magical time that exists outside of space, clocks, calendars, set apart from the strictures of polite society, social obligations, timetables and schedules. Unless a director makes a film about childhood, it is actually difficult to recreate or approximate this mystical feeling on film. The ultimate test of a director’s sense of storytelling comes when the script isn’t ornate, and when it can create that set apatness. Considering this issue from every agnel, we feel that actress/director Zabou Breitman has created a rare and mystical movie that is filled with magical moments.

In Zabou’s film, the story is actually simple and straightfoward: an extended family vacations in their château in the country. Frédéric (Bernard Campan) is the happily married husband of his namesake Frédérique (Lea Drucker), the father of their children, who come in 3 different flavours of hyperactive, weird, and extremely cute, and a devoted son to his widowed mother. It’s as disgustingly perfect a life as it can get, with Frederic actually making jokes about his and his wife’s names to a bunch of family friends who have dropped by for supper one evening. They’re such nice folks that they even invite the next door neighbour, Hugo, a gay man who skinny dips in his private pool when he’s not hitting the pubs.

In the evening, after supper, Frédéric and Hugo have a free-wheeling and intense philosophical discussion, the sort of good-natured talk between friends that lasts through the entire night into dawn. The two men talk about what it means to love and relationships; Frédéric thinks it’s the best thing in the world since sliced bread, while Hugo sees this as a form of death and stagnation. Both men make facetious arguments for their cases, provoke much intellectual ferment in each other, and by morning, it is entirely possible that they no longer hold the same views that they held last evening. It is entirely possible that they might re-examine their lives, all because of that one evening spent together, and it is entirely possible that they see something in each other as well.

No one knows for sure, but Zabou Breitman is the master of the story here, telling the movie (and insinuating much more) by splitting up the long evening discussion with flashbacks and flashforwards to show where these men come from, emotionally, and the ramifications on their lives immediately afterwards. Scenes are occasionally repeated from different points of view, intercutting with almost dreamlike sequences. It sounds like a mess, but actually plays out like a beautiful layer cake anchored in emotional logic and coherence instead of the arrow of time. Zabou is interested in capturing the fleeting beauty of the moment, flitting in and out of the changing relationships between Frédéric and Hugo, and between Frédéric and his wife, and offering audiences a peephole into every character in the story, through sometimes whimsical and arty but well-composed shots that seem to just capture the magical minutes and seconds.

Overall, Zabou’s simple tale interweaves around itself in such a charming manner, and is married to a perfect blend of dreamy visuals and music that you can’t help but be swept away by her masterful understanding of the human psyche, love and our attitudes towards it. All this effortless evocation of mood, emotion and feeling in the audience is something to marvel at, given that this is only Zabou’s second outing as a director. The Man of My Life is best consumed at a leisurely pace, in tandem with how the movie develops. Any attempt to find a motive or a moral in the movie, to figure out the plot of the story will only result in a missed chance to enjoy a well-told film.

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Grudge 2, The (2006)

Suzuki! Mitsubishi! Honda!

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Only Takashi Shimizu can tell us what you get when you repeat history 3 times.

Takashi Shimizu has been making the same horror film over the past few years. It all began with 2 short films, each lasting below 3 minutes; one with 2 schoolgirls scared out of their wits by a crawling, long-haired woman in white, the other with a naked boy in Kabuki paint mewling like a cat. As far as short films go, these are pretty arresting images that – if you’ve never seen them before – could whip up a storm of goose pimples in their creepy simplicity, even if the crawling woman is a tired meme from The Ring.

Combining the two visual elements together (but not before turning the Sadako clone into the limping apparition with a broken neck) gives you the backbone of Shimizu’s horror film, Ju-on, a low budget direct-to-video release from 2000. Aside from introducing the backstory of a murder-suicide case involving a jealous husband, his wife, their son, and his cat, the movie was a study of how many different ways the director could make the limping woman and her catboy materialise on the screen. That’s fine for a low-budget film. The sequel Ju-on 2, also a direct-to-video release in the same year, rehashed the first movie and even used the same footage, with a few additional scenes and extra characters thrown in. That’s very sloppy film making, but apparently you need to repeat yourself sometimes in order to get heard – and Takashi Shimizu’s 2 videos eventually gained a huge cult following and enough profit for the director to film the theatrical versions of the same 2 films in 2003, which were scene-for-scene reproductions (with better sets and production values) of the original videos. And you might be right in thinking there has to be something wrong with people who claim to be scared out of their knickers when they watch a remake of a remake.

And you might be right in thinking that it must be sheer madness to remake the Ju-on franchise for a third time, which is what Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge amounted to. Granted that the movie was a well-produced, faithful reproduction of the original, there wasn’t any real justification for the remake, and we begin to suspect that the director is simply a one-trick pony trying to distract audiences from his creative bankruptcy. The good news is Shimizu finally injects a silver of something new in the plot of the second Grudge film. The bad news is Shimizu’s innovation is buried under the rehash of the original Ju-on 2 plot, a virtual carbon copy down to its non-linear telling of 3 short stories (only this time, with a Tokyo populated by Anglo actors and one English-speaking Edison Chen instead of Japanese).

The worse news (you thought that was all there is?!) is the scare factor of The Grudge has steadily been worn down through media exposure, overhype, and sheer repetition over the past 6 years. The catboy figure has been parodied in more than one Scary Movie, and the limping, long-haired woman with the bullfrog croak regularly appears (together with Sadako) as a cute mascot character in the popular Japanese image forum called 2chan. At this point in time, no amount of mewling catboys can put a chill to our hearts, no matter how loud the sound effect. Similarly, I’d tell Kayako if she materialised in front of me now, that she won’t even qualify to be an office lady at the Ministry of Silly Walks.

But enough of what I think. The Grudge 2 is almost a direct re-telling of the tangled plot of Ju-on 2, which has a reputation even among Japanese fans as being inferior to the first instalment. An American family in Chicago find themselves re-enacting the events that led to the birth of Kayako’s ghost. A group of schoolgirls visit the haunted house and are hounded to death, one by one, by Kayako and her son. Because Sarah Michelle Gellar survived in The Grudge, her sister now has to rush to Tokyo to visit her and to complete the task of dispatching the ghost once and for all, since Ms Gellar exercised her “early exit from the story clause” for the sequel. Who can blame her? As with the original Ju-on 2, Takashi Shimizu weaves the 3 tales clumsily with each other, cutting from one plot to another by the appearance of the ghosts.

If you thought a non-linear story would free a director from a consistent plot, you haven’t considered that Shimizu and his American collaborator appear incapable of stringing in a credible plot. Incredibly awkward twists are subjected onto the characters, just to lay the foundation for a scare or two. Take for example how Edison Chen, who plays an internet savvy techie, uses an old-fashioned camera that requires him to develop his photos in a darkroom. As far as I know, most major camera companies have stopped selling analogue cameras in East Asia (outside China), Europe, and the United States. But he uses an old camera because the director needs to have Kayako’s head emerge from a tray of chemicals.

If you’re thinking, “well, whatever! Whoever said a horror movie had to make sense?”, you obviously haven’t factored in the incontrovertible fact that Takashi Shimizu has run out of ways to scare people. The same old ghosts appear in the same old corners of the screen. The innovations the director puts in are laughable: when the 2 schoolgirls, previously missing, reappear as ghosts next to their unfortunate friend, I almost died of laughter. Because the schoolgirls looked so fake in their makeup and were doing the most pathetic and hilarious “WOOOOOAAAH WOOOOOAAAH” moaning noises that only secondary school girls make in their camps when they want to scare some people. I expected them to shout “Surprise! It’s a joke, you silly girl”.

And what about the ballyhooed innovation that Shimizu tack on in his attempt to revitalise his franchise? It has something to do with the history of Kayako. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I’ll tell you that in a movie Japan where even nurses and policemen in metropolitan Tokyo can’t speak simple English (relying only on Edison Chen to translate), an old shaman in a village that requires 2 connecting buses from a train station speaks perfect English and even quotes from Pepys. She is the one who will explain everything you need to know, as well as send you in paroxysms of laughter when you realise that the innovative backstory does little to make the plot of the movie more coherent or move the franchise forward.

The Grudge 2 is mostly a remake of Ju-on 2, a miserable sequel to the first Ju-on. Isn’t it time Takashi Shimizu either make new movies, or admit that he has run out of ideas after milking audiences twice over from a very flimsy, almost non-existent premise that has always played second fiddle to a pair of visual motifs that have outstayed their welcome.

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006