Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Willow Tree, The (2005)


From the Iranian director who gave Children of Heaven to moviegoers everywhere and Homerun to Jack Neo, comes a rare movie revolving around adult characters. One might be forgiven for thinking that this marks a move away by Majid Majidi from his trademark magic realist, sometimes rustic, but always emotionally effective directing style, but nothing can be further from the truth. Yet at the same time, The Willow Tree does offer a subtle and sophisticated philosophy of cinema to critics who say the director relies too much on trite metaphors and cliched symbolism.

In Majid Majidi's latest masterpiece, Youseff (Parviz Parastui) is a kindly and awkward university don who has been living with blindness since a childhood accident involving fireworks. It is not an uncomfortable life that Youseff leads: he has a loving wife who reads his students' thesis for him, as well as perform clerical tasks like typing transcripts of his essays, a child who adores him, and an extended family who is there for him, no matter what. Hampered by his disability, true and complete happiness eludes him until the man regains his sight through a cornea transplant procedure - and this is where the film begins in earnest.

From the setup, it's clear in advance how the film will roughly proceed: the rediscovery of the delights of sight, the end of Youseff's long childhood and innocence, and the deflating of his dreams of having his sight complete his happiness. What makes this film a piece of art are the eventual choices that the director makes to cover these plot points, out of the scores of far easier, emotionally hamfisted, or visually showy options available.

Take for example the representation of sight regained - in the hands of a showy, less creative director, you'd have lots of camera candy, distorted, oversaturated, or just overdone visual effects to present to the audience the world from the eyes of the formerly blind man. It's just the sort of cheap repertoire that gives cinema the reputation of being an overly literal medium, where every visual metaphor is unimaginatively direct. In fact, audiences only get to see directly from the eyes of Youseff about three times in The Willow Tree. What we see, and what is more important in this story, is how Youseff begins to see things for the very first time, and not what he sees. In a way, Majid is far more acquainted with the limits of film as a representational medium than any of the younger, MTV-inspired directors of this day and age. Yet there is no doubt that when you are watching Youseff see things anew, that there is a certain mood of exuberance and uncertainty that is conveyed, far better than any distorting lenses or filters. What Majid has done here is to create a highly symbolic, but anti-symbolist visual language - an achievement in itself. This visual language is paralleled and augmented by the director's painstaking efforts to evoke the lost sense of touch in cinema - the audience can only see Youseff grasp, grapple, play with surfaces and textures, but can never do so themselves.

In a way, the director's ironic treatment of the representation of sight and touch in film leads on naturally to the twist and the true story of the movie: the end of Youseff's prolonged childhood and his simultaneous loss of innocence. What is paradise to a blind man - will it remain a paradise once he regains his sight? What is love and care to a blind man - will his relation to his caregivers and loved ones remain the same once he is able-bodied and able to fend for himself again? Filmed at times as a tone poem, the transition to emotional drama that begins to take over is handled very well - as the film burst with ironies and seething with resentment, what's noteworthy is how Majid's script and directing is extremely subtle and restrained, compared to how a Mediacorp television drama would play out the exact same scenarios. And if this isn't enough, do note that the emotional drama is infused with a philosophical and melancholic touch, courtesy of Sufi devotional poetry by Rumi.

Acting-wise, this marvellous if subtle film is bolstered by the efforts of Parviz Parastui, who effectively plays two different roles that are not entirely separate from each other: the likeable if helpless, childlike don and the troubled but reborn, re-sighted man who grows in self-hood. Roya Taymourian shines, in a classic movie sense, as his onscreen wife - she compares well to a younger Lee Heung Kam!

The Willow Tree is a movie I'd recommend for arthouse fans, as well as any moviegoer hankering for some subtle fare after last month's summer blockbusters. Buy a ticket, take in the movie slowly, and you won't be disappointed.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Invisible Target 男儿本色 (2007)

Party like it's 1980 again!

If you comprehend the Mandarin title of Invisible Target, you'd realise it's just two characters away from similarity to John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. That, by the way - and I kid you not - is the gimmick of Invisible Target. It's almost as if John Woo was still making cops and robbers movies in Hong Kong, and Infernal Affairs hadn't happened to its film industry, but Invisible Target is indeed a movie where the theme of brotherhood, loyalty and justice plays out as much for the cops as for the robbers. Now, I'm not sure why Benny Chan has the fascination for a long-past genre, but this movie would have been a breath of fresh air from the deluge of Infernal Affairs wannabe cop thrillers of this decade, if it hadn't been almost a facsimile of the old 1980s and 1990s cop and robber movies.

But anyway, we have a trio of cops (yes, they're an "odd trio"/mismatched buddies pairing) all going after a newly resurgent violent professional gang of mercenaries. Nicholas Tse wants revenge because the mercenaries' last heist blew up his girlfriend, while a scrappy Shawn Yue has a personal grudge against the gang because they humiliated him in public recently, and freshed-faced rookie Jaycee Chan wants to know if his missing elder brother, another cop, is working undercover with them and hasn't actually turned rogue. They may come from disparate sources, but the squabbling cops will learn the value of brotherhood in a nice bonding session involving massage oils, in order to come a step closer to apprehending the bomb, parkour, and kungfu crazy crooks. The professional gang of mercenaries just want their money back after an insider behind the scenes stole it from them after their final heist. They too are motivated by a strong sense of brotherhood and loyalty, and have a touching backstory somewhere about growing up in the same orphanage and having no one else to trust and depend on. So, whose cause is superior; whose sense of brotherhood will reign supreme? Find out in Benny Chan's modern resurrection of 1980s John Woo style cops vs robbers thriller!

There are only a few things I would judge a film that defies modern fads and goes for an older genre: Does Invisible Target do the older cop genre justice? Does it offer new insights to the older genre? Revitalise it? Provide a compelling reason for audiences and filmmakers not to follow the trend of Infernal Affairs wannabes? In its defense, I'd say that Invisible Target is a very competently-written movie with excellent directing, and Benny Chan's attempt at resurrecting the old genre benefits from the production values of the modern HK film industry. The setpieces are as old school as they come and some even more old school, like a pivotal fight scene (in terms of boding for the cops) in a teahouse that looks and feels like a setpiece in a classic Shaw wuxia flick. All the conversations (and their eventual payoff) about brotherhood and loyalty also remind us of the range of emotions that Infernal Affairs wannabes tend to leave out. The impact of this film could be even far greater, though, if Benny Chan remembered the basic rules of the old cop vs gangster films and followed them more thoroughly, especially at the end. I'm also puzzled at the scripting - it feels that there's one cop too many - Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue play almost identical characters, and their interaction and setup in this movie tends to obfuscate the real cop buddy dynamic that's central to the old school cop genre Benny Chan is resurrecting.

In my mind, there still isn't that extra something that will convince me that Invisible Target is a sufficient effort to reverse the trend of HK cop films. It is, however, an excellent antidote to any audience feeling the jaded feeling from watching too many similar HK cops and gangsters films in the past few years.

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Friday, 13 July 2007

La vie en Rose (La mome) (2007)

Happy new year!

I doubt most people would be familiar with the name of Edith Piaf. Mention "La vie en rose" to an average passerby in the street and all you'd get is a look of incomprehension or confusion. And yet Edith Piaf remains one of the most captivating singers of the last century, whose voice captivated millions, whose music has endured beyond her death, and there's something about her hard-living ways and her tragic life that makes her brittle singing so much more alluring, her public memory so much more precious. Larger than life (with such a talent, she'd have to be a diva!), Edith Piaf deserves to be the subject of a biopic.

Now, faced with a personage like Edith Piaf, director Oliver Dahan has made the choice to film the biopic of the legend, as opposed to the biopic of the person. What this means is you won't get a Great Person Biopic (think Ben Kingsley's Gandhi), but a more impressionistic, bravura retelling of the life a larger than life character who is by now a legendary figure. As such, La vie en rose does not take the expected biopic step of demystifying the legend behind the figure or to put a more human face on Edith Piaf so that audiences can relate to her as a normal person. Perhaps it's because there are no reliable accounts of the singer's early life, or that Mme Piaf's childhood has been shrouded in mystery and embellished in various versions by herself over the years. And perhaps it's because the Edith Piaf who became a public figure and professional singer since the age of 15 really did live life in a larger than life manner, drinking, wooing, and singing in an excess that would shorten her life and age her prematurely, but strangely also make her singing even more irresistible at the same time. Here is the woman who really did live and die for her art, the original diva and artist type whose private life and public music straddled the boundaries between the vulgar and the beautiful - how else can you tell her story?

What makes La vie en rose very much watchable is its stream of consciousness editing and non-linear approach to telling Edith Piaf's story. The movie intercuts freely between her childhood, early years as a performer in Parisian cabarets, her later tours in America and her final years, but where it would normally throw any audience off, the strong editing and musical interludes linking various time periods help create a coherent mood. It's so well done that by the end of the movie, you can't help but want to cheer the frail old hunched-over lady on as she struggles to sing her closing number. I can't imagine this movie being told linearly - Mme Piaf's life story would then look like several long stretches of soul-sucking misery, illuminated by brief, blinding glimpses of hard-living and intoxicating happiness - such a story might be unpalatable for most.

As far as musicals go, La vie en rose is creatively filmed, with very few static, stagey angles. Marion Cotllilard does an impressive impression of Edith Piaf, which is augmented by the director's decision to have the actress lip-synch to the vocals of Edith Piaf heself, digitally restored from her old recordings. A constant sore point I have with this film, though, is the decision by its distributors not to subtitle most of the songs performed here - and when they do, they have taken an odd decision to water down the translations - Piaf's songs were well-known for their strong use of language. This is unfortunate - a whole new generation of fans could have been nurtured if the distributors had made the right decision.

La vie en rose deserves to be watched, despite its minor flaws. Like Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, it is an utterly unconventional telling of the life of an utterly unconventional, strong-willed but physically fragile individual who went down not without a fight. La vie en rose is the definitive biopic of the life of Edith Piaf, until the day when a director decides to adopt the playful and postmodern approach from Beyond the Sea to tell the story of Edith Piaf.

First published at incinemas on 26 July 2007

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Condemned, The (2007)

Yet another WWE film. Remember, kids: FUCK BEER!

Think of this as a more adult and Americanised (by way of Survivor: Vanuatu!) Battle Royale, and you would have the premise of The Condemned down pat. Step 1: take 10 criminals on death row around the world, dump them on an island in Indonesia, and let them fight to death for the grand prize of freedom and loads of cash to help the lucky winner to start their life anew. Step 2: broadcast this over the internet as a pay per view event. Step 3: Profit!

There isn't much to say aside from pointing out that WWE's Steve Austin and perennial tough guy Vinnie Jones are the star actors in this movie. Luckily, they're not tag-teaming at all - Vinnie Jones is a psychotic badass rouge British special forces officer who takes pride in eliminating all opposition, and far more joy in personally ensuring that the deaths of his opponents are painful, unpleasant, and very humiliating, while Steve Austin is the tough but fair guy with a mysterious past and a girlfriend back in town whom you know you should root for. The island, the scenery, and the other 8 contestants are just cannon fodder for these 2 giants to chew up as they approach the final showdown, of course.

Make no bones about it: The Condemned sets out to tell a story about 10 people trying to kill (openly, or by subterfuge; bare-handed, or with exotic weapons - anything goes!) each other while millions on the internet watch on. Like Battle Royale, most of the runtime here is devoted to how the contestants hunt down and kill each other. The movie's almost workmanlike in its singlemindedness, but what saves it is the enthusiastic acting by Vinnie Jones (he's clearly having fun here), and Steve Austin's heroic rebel attitude. And if you're a fan of entertainment wrestling, do keep a close watch on the various wrestling manoeuvres that are performed in the fight sequences. Try to ignore, if you can, the slightly high count of plot holes in the script that you'd expect to have taken care of for a movie with this budget.

The only things that make The Condemned a lesser film than Battle Royale is its lack of levity, wit, and satire - it is, after all, a very American action film. In its defense, however, I would like to point out that Scott Wiper adds a very interest angle to the old premise by turning the spotlight onto the media, and audience's taste for watching violence. The buildup is handled very slowly, so that when the eventual denouncement comes, it's only when things have built up to a slow boil - and not because the director decided to insert a moralistic speech at the end of the movie. Of course, if violence in movies doesn't do anything for you, maybe it's not a good idea to watch The Condemned. For everyone else, and for die-hard fans of WWE and Vinnie Jones, this B-grade action flick isn't a bad deal at all.

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Monday, 9 July 2007

Rise: Blood Hunter (2007)

Lucy Liu plunges into B Movie depths

There's no reason to watch Rise: Blood Hunter if you're not a fan of Lucy Liu, or if gratuitous female nudity doesn't get a rise out of you. This is basically a vampire and revenge movie with lots of nudity, as far as I can tell, but due to its ridiculously low budget, it has even less production values than anything playing on television right now (aside from straight to TV telemovies starring Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal!). Ordinarily, genre movies can be made on lower budgets and flimsier scripts, but beyond a certain point, what you get on your hands is a really bad or rather badly-produced movie, where clearly the director of photography couldn't do much with the equipment they gave him (and ends up shooting and framing every scene like a television director), where clearly the scriptwriter was constrained by the lack of budget to flesh out his script, and where the director was constrained again by the lack of budget to bring the script to some semblance of cinematic life. This is Blood Hunter. And this stars Lucy Liu.

Perversely, if you're not a fan of Lucy Liu, and gratuitous female nudity doesn't get a rise out of you, Blood Hunter might be the ideal low budget diversion (watch this on a Monday night or rent the DVD!). Remember, every A-list actor has made at least one unforgettably bad film in their past, but it's rare for actual A-list actors to end up starring in an unforgettably bad movie in the peak of their careers. This is why you might want to watch Blood Hunter!

But enough, on to the plot! Lucy Liu is an intrepid reporter for some tabloid rag whose last assignment on the poseur goth subculture (literally poseurs - angsty goth girls pretending to be vampires) leads her into an accidental initiation into the world of real vampires, who live for sex and murder. The end result: an undead Lucy Liu hungry for revenge, amongst other things, and a very angry cop hungry for the truth behind his estranged goth daughter's death, as well as revenge. Strangely enough, it is the cop character who does most of the investigating and unearthing of the truth, while Lucy Liu's vampire reporter gets the beans spilled by some David Carradine-wannabe mentor. And then, it's just a matter of hunting down the vampire coven who started all this, and killing them all. YAAARRGH!

Clearly Blood Hunter takes a few pages out from the Blade franchise: it's one of these modern films that have vampires in a modern setting, and radically remakes the vampire mythos. I would like to remind readers though, that Blade itself failed the Blade test - simply put, Blade was just a gangster movie that merely happened to have vampires as gangsters. It's not surprising that Blood Hunter also fails the test (it's just a police/investigation drama that merely happens to have vampires as underworld criminals), but that it fails the test so spectacularly. Why on earth would we have a movie where vampires are immune to sunlight and crosses, yet cast no reflection in mirrors? Why have all this... and yet offer no explanation?

Blood Hunter may pretend it's about vampires. It may pretend that it's about gratuitous nudity. Yet its script is so brain-dead to the point of squelching any interest that normal B-grade movies would evoke, while its camerawork is so uninspired that any other television serial would look better, and its acting is just flat-out flat. And unfortunately, the almost 40-year-old Lucy Liu doesn't actually appear nude in this movie (sorry, guys and gals!), but her body double.

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Friday, 6 July 2007

Cashback (2007)

Clerks meets science fiction

There is something about directors who graduate from other professions and training - often, they bring a radically different paradigm of filmmaking to their craft, and cross-pollinate their own trained sensibilities with those of film to create something new. Occasionally, like what happened over the last decade with music video directors crossing over to feature film (take Michael Bay and Len Wiseman, for example), they can even transform how mainstream movies are made. The there is something about the first film of every director - often, they either have some major obsession to get off their chest (like making the quintessential American/Singaporean/British/etc Movie) or they want to pull off all the neat tricks they've learnt in film school, showing off their technical proficiency and art design.

Now, knowing director Sean Willis used to be a fashion photographer and that Cashback is his first feature film, which is in turn an expanded treatment of his Oscar-nominated short film (also his first film project), everything becomes clear and understandable. Cashback is a romantic comedy that looks as if it's done by a very good first-time director: it's highly cerebral (jilted art student Ben Willis develops insomnia and the power to freeze time, the upshot of which he uses the extra 8 hours of his life to work for cash at a supermarket, and freeze time there), and full of shots, sequences, and special effects that show off the filmmaker's visual creativity and technical proficiency.

Normally, these maiden film efforts tend to reek of self-indulgence, superficiality and surface style, but Cashback manages to rise above all this into a class of its own, because behind the effects-heavy movie is a strong story laced with disarming humour. While it's true that the short film was just a showcase of Sean Willis's skills, and used the fantastic setup as an excuse of the special effects, the treatment in the feature film is far more sophisticated. For one, the theme of alienation of modern work and underemployment plays out more strongly, that Cashback feels at time like Dilbert or The Office (the UK version, of course) set in a supermarket. Willis also makes use of the additional hour of runtime in the movie to fully flesh out Ben's fantastic power of time-freezing, in a way that fully justifies the liberal use of speeded-up, slowed-down, and frozen sequences in the movie. And best of all, the sense of humour that was already evident in the short film is even more engaging and hilarious in this movie. Willis has managed to blend the dark cynicism of a movie commenting on the exchange of time for money in modern society and the witty satire of work-place comedies with his own unique, loopy and quirky style of narrative and observational comedy.

How on earth do you manage to make an Oscar-nominated short film into an even better feature film? I suppose only Sean Willis knows the answer, and we can only gape in amazement. After all, it's far too easy to do the opposite: I remember how Royston Tan's feature film version of 15 continued from the ending of the short film version, and how that extension of the story didn't quite feel as tightly-plotted and disciplined as the short film. In contrast, Willis wisely keeps the beginning and ending of the short film intact, with the feature film filling in all the scenes within, and yet writes with such economy and creative fecundity that every scene feels so necessary, that you can't imagine the feature film as a padding out of the original short.

Cashback is easily one of the better independent films to screen in Singapore this year, and my only hope would be for Sean Willis to make more movies.

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2007

Paprika (2006)

This is anime on brains!

It's all a matter of timing and missed chances, but if things had happened just slightly differently, Singaporeans would have the opportunity to watch two Japanese animations at the same time in cinemas, both adaptations of novels by science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui. I cannot recommend more highly Mr Tsutsui as the preeminent modern writer of his generation, whose prose smashes together science fiction, social critique, dark satire, and groundbreaking originality. And I cannot recommend more highly the recently concluded The girl who leapt through time as well as Paprika to any animation fan. Unlike the first movie which was a readaptation of a fluffy Yasutaka Tsutsui novel, Paprika is an adaptation by a director whose last 3 anime projects subjected Japanese society to a playful yet sharp comic satire, of a novel whose author wasn't in a fluff-piece writing mood. In other words, dear reader, you have been warned: Paprika is the highest order of anime and science fiction to come out of Japan this decade, and will thoroughly disabuse audiences of any impression of the childish, childlike, or geeky nature of Japanese animation.

The story begins when the prototypes of an experimental device that allows psychoanalysts to enter and participate in the dreams of their subjects is stolen. An inside job, this theft must be taken care of by the inventor of the device and his research team before the somewhat illegal project is halted either by the conservative chairman of the board, a police discovery of the theft and illegal research, or a demonstration of the psychological warfare capabilities of the dream device by terrorists. However, the investigation that takes place in the real world isn't quite the story that we watch in Paprika. The interesting thing is how Tsutsui's novel takes the standard investigative narrative model and tosses it away - after all, if the villains have stolen a device that enables people to enter into others' dreams, with the intention of driving the world insane, why not have the investigation start from tracking down the perpetrators through the dreams of their victims? And since this is an animated movie, why not make Dr Atsuko Chiba the chief researcher the most proficient user of the device, complete with her own alter-ego (the Paprika of the title) in the dream world that she steps in and out of?

So even as the movie dances around the in between space of dreaming and waking, sanity and madness, the plot is driven by an inexorable logic that makes its zaniness and far-out surrealism bearable and even comprehensible. Clearly Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent), with his brilliant obsession with making movie that blur reality and fiction, is the perfect director to trust the adaptation to, and he doesn't disappoint here. The director continues his meditation on film from Millennium Actress, adding a new layer that resonates with the theme of liminality in the original novel, by having the investigation take place parallel to Dr Atsuko and Paprika's counselling of a policeman plagued by recurring dreams that take off from the movies? Ah, such sweet, intoxicating cleverness and insanity!

While regular watchers of anime will not be surprised with how Paprika plays out (plot points may be a tad predictable), the surprising thing is how the plot is executed, and how the story is animated. Simply put, this movie is full of mind-blowing images that are a proof of a genius the apex of his powers: Satoshi Kon manages to fashion the raw chaos of dreams into an animated art. I'd advise audiences to be fully rested before they enter the cinema, because the visuals in this film demand your absolute attention in order for you to appreciate their inspired brilliance and hilarity. While it is a 2D animation, Paprika is convincing proof that 3D CGI will never supplant its place completely; the entire movie itself is a showcase of the unique power of 2D animation to depict and evoke the sense of the fantastic that 3D CGI animators, with their trend towards 'realism', have all but given up on.

It is fortunate that a deep writer like Yasutaka Tsutsui can be paired with an equally imaginative and daring director like Satoshi Kon, and joined with the luminary voice talents of Megumi Hayashibara in this animated project. Paprika is a visual spectacle, full of creative images and creative imaginings - it is a must-watch for all animation fans.

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Good Shepherd, The (DVD) (2007)

As a high concept non-action spy thriller (no car chases! no explosions! no showdowns with bowler hat tossing henchmen!) The Good Shepherd is something best watched on DVD. Robert De Niro and Eli Roth fully deserve their Oscar nomination with this movie, but due to its non-action status and running length, it is best appreciated in your favourite cushion at home, with a glass of Chardonnay in your hand. And any tome on American history written by Noam Chomsky by your side - you might end up consulting its pages more often as the movie progresses.

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is the central character, and the movie spirals around his role in two periods in American intelligence history - the years leading to the creation of the CIA, and his role in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and its aftermath. The most audacious thing that Roth's script does is to turn the spy genre on its head. It's not a furious denouncement of the failure and corrupting nature of American intelligence at all (and one might argue that perhaps its subtlety and very understated criticisms may have cost it the crowdpleasing quality that a major Oscar contender should have). Instead of say, a generic angry denouncement or an overblown morality tale of innocence lost, the script of The Good Shepherd surprising and audacious, stripping both Yale's Bone and Skulls secret society (which provided both candidates for the 2004 US presidential election!) and the CIA of their aura, mystery, and mythology ever so effectively. According to De Niro and Roth, what damns these two elite institutions together is the fact that the secret rituals and cloak and daggers are nothing more than grown-up boys recreating their atavistic love for playground games, Hardy Boys novels, and the whole need to be approved by the select few. In other words, behind the two most powerful secret societies of the modern world lies a petty juvenile impulse.

Better yet, the duo further damn the CIA and their patriotic subterfuge by stripping the spy game of its heroics and excitement - Edward Wilson, his masters, collaborators, and enemies could very well be faceless, boring bureaucrats who work in offices full of cabinets and boxes - little insignificant men who use domestic housework terms to describe their spy operations, very little men of little heart and stature who must imagine they are doing a greater duty, who call their skills the "dark craft", as though they are in some Harry Potter movie. And of course, these heroic bureaucrats, these masters of the dark craft are responsible for their complete and utter failure at Cuba.

Perhaps because of its high concept and the dedication of the director and scriptwriter to the original premise, the end result is The Good Shepherd turns out to be the least exciting spy movie in existence. It is most a series of anticlimaxes, disappointments, and as lethargic as watching a few good men wasting their lives away in a two and a half hour film. Because this movie moves and plays more like a hefty 4-part miniseries, you might want to watch this DVD a little by little, but I assure you the genius and subtlety of the story will seep through by the end.

DVD review

Most Oscar nominees and winners of 2007 got what I call the "rush to DVD" treatment, where in some unholy haste to sell these movies to home audiences, DVD publishers and distributors have chosen to produce frills-free basic DVD packages. The Good Shepherd lacks a director and scriptwriter commentary track (most disappointing, I know), as well as what I consider almost compulsory: a featurette on the life and career of James Angleton, the CIA chiefs whom Edward Wilson is based on.

What we have as form of compensation are 7 deleted scenes, which are all worth watching. An entire subplot was taken away, as well as more buildup towards the breakdown of Edward Wilson's marriage. The last deleted scene feels like an alternate ending, and I suspect some might find it a far more appropriate way to end the movie than what De Niro has chosen. There's no fatal flaw in these deleted scenes at all, and I rather suspect that if included in the final cut of the film, it would make the total runtime for a 4-part mini-series.

First published at incinemas on 3 July 2007

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Die Hard 4.0 (2007)

Hello tech support? Yipee-kai-yay to you!

Because Justin Long is the trusty sidekick to Bruce Willis's Officer McClane, this review will be formatted in part as a hypothetical Mac Switch campaign ad.

Justin Long: Hi, I'm a Mac. You can tell from this movie because my character is a cool dweeb, slightly geeky but very adorable, and comes with his own MacFarlane Spawn figurines. Did I say I'm a Mac? You can tell that like most Macs, I'm not built for anything productive and useful, because Bruce Willis, aka John McClane, does all the real work here, while I go into panic mode and turn all 7 colours at once and spin around in circles once the gunfights begin. (looks at Bruce Willis) Why are you so calm, man? Have you done that kind of stuff before?!

Bruce Willis: If you remember Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and Die Hard with a Vengeance, of course I've done that kind of stuff before - you know, singlehandedly foiling terrorists and saving the day, and not to mention, dispatching off the criminals myself. I get the job done all the time, no matter how dirty or difficult it is. Hi, I'm a PC (smug grin).

Cyberterrorist: And I'm a virus. The kind that blows up computers - literally! - and brings down the entire national infrastructure. Now you can't even call tech support because all the phone lines are down. MUAHAHAHAHAHA!

I mean, there isn't any point to write a serious review for Die Hard and kill all the fun, because the movie is meant to be a silly but fun action picture that has lots of exaggerated yet PG rating-friendly violence. This is why Die Hard 4.0 was chosen to be directed by Len Wiseman, the visual stylist who brought us both Underworld and Underworld Evolution. For a script that demands every scene and set end with a huge explosion, Wiseman is the action director du jour whom Hollywood can count to make action scenes and big setpieces look stylish.

But say you beg to disagree. You might not be unjustified, but perhaps you might be watching the wrong movie in the wrong cinema at the wrong time, but there's indeed something fishy about Die Hard 4.0 - despite the massive explosions, the almost non-stop explosions, Wiseman's direction tends to sap the aura of suspense and thrill out of the movie, so that we're left with just very well-crafted action scenes. These may suffice for most moviegoers, but probably not all. Thing is, Wiseman's predilection for throwing in the blue filter in every camera lens is a little like his technical proficiency at action scenes: Wiseman, you see, has the directorial equivalent of Zoolander's Blue Steel: soulless, overused, predictable, plastic, incapable of evoking the sense of the real.

Die Hard 4.0 actually starts with a great premise - old school cowboy McClane must team up with new school hacker Farrell in order to stop this installment's terrorist from destroying civilisation and bring American to its knees. This premise holds good promise, but in the more than technically proficient hands of Wiseman, somehow the explosions and action start before the actual plot and drama begin, and somehow the detail to action is counterbalanced by the squashing of any sense of suspense from the script. And somehow, Farrell doesn't actually do anything hackerish to save the day at all. Puzzlingly, he doesn't do much hacking at all in the movie. He just hyperventilates a lot, like a Mac.

Old Die Hard series fans will probably love the action-packed nature of this installment, but that's only 1 of 3 things they'd consider, aside from suspense and tautness of script. What's the third consideration for an action film fan, you'd ask? Nothing is more important than the villain in any Die Hard movie, and I'm sorry to say that Olyphant's cyberterrorist villain has even less charisma than Blackheart of the Ghost Rider movie, and is nowhere near the sheer meanness, magnetism, or brilliance of Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) or Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons). Still, one out of three isn't that bad, since Die Hard 4.0 clearly beats any of the Die Hard movies hands on the action portion.

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2007

Friday, 29 June 2007

Transformers (2007)

Shrapnel in my eye!

Perhaps the beauty of the Transformers franchise is its resilience to any strange or outlandish innovations. reimaginings, and reboots various production teams have subjected it to in its 2 decades of existence. One can afford to chuckle at the horrendous Hong Kong English dubbing of the 3 first Japanese Transformer animation series, the sheer power rangers style of Robots in Disguise, and even the Pokemon "collect them all" Transformers: Armada. Good or bad, or just plain weird (like the heretical yet mature and philsophical take in Beast Machines), nothing is capable of derailing the franchise. Not even if Michael Bay comes up with an Alien Invasion Disaster Transformers movie.

Here's the good news - fans of Michael Bay's style will not be disappointed with this movie. There has to be at least 1.5 hours screen time which is crammed from screen to screen with lots of silly explosions, scrap metal and debris flying all over the place, all orchestrated to loud music or the combined fury of detonating bullets and other ammunitions. I mean, that's what people go to watch a Michael Bay film for, right?

Oh, wait. You, sir, sitting over there, think it's different just because its the Transformers. For the fans, fetishists, and fashion-of-the-week followers, there should be just one consideration only about this movie, and it's not whether Michael Bay's new robot designs do justice to the original, whether Starscream manages to double-cross Megatron, or whether Megatron is killed at the end of the movie by Optimus Prime. No. Because this is Michael Bay, we must adopt the simplest of tests - the one a friend of mine calls "The Blade Test". Simply put, Blade was just a gangster movie that merely happened to have vampires as gangsters. And unfortunately for fans of the cartoon franchise, most parts of Transformers really play like an alien invasion movie that merely happens to have transformer robots as the aliens. There's also a second blow to this: Transformers is also a generic "rival factions struggle over a priceless Artifact of Power" movie, with Autobots and Decepticons being the rivals.

But what of people who would foolishly step into the cinema expecting a film? You know, people who care about scripting, dialogue, pacing, and all that jazz. Here's the good news: if you take out all the scenes with the robots in them, Transformers makes a really good alien invasion comedy, spoofing Men in Black, ID4, and government conspiracy movies and TV shows. To me, the levity, genre-parodying and self-parodying was the best part of this movie. Thing is, I just don't quite understand how the robot sequences could end up this disappointing, though. Don't get me wrong, lots of things blow up, but the robots are basically a dud. Take for example the Autobots - Bay and his writers apparently can't decide whether they're supposed to be the less dangerous faction of alien invaders singleminded after the prized Artifact of Power, or whether they're bumbling fools who learnt bad English through the internet (!!!11111), or whether they're highly noble creatures. Bay and his writers can't decide whether they want to give the old Transformers canon a kick in its nuts, or whether they want to pay a homage to it. The upshot: We're still wondering how Optimus Prime is capable of surviving a fall from a skyscrapper, and not damage the soft squishy human in his hands... when he practically mangles the lawn of a home while "reconnoitering". We're also wondering why Optimus and Megatron rehash their old Transformers (cartoon) Movie argument about protecting the innocent human race - it's a nice touch, but wasn't the entire movie was about their clash over the Artifact of Power?

Here's the killer, though: for a live action Transformers movie helmed by Michael Bay, all I wanted was a remote control in my hand with pause button at my thumb. For the seemingly neverending battle sequences, the most flabbergasting thing is how the overproduced feel of the film ensures that you never really get to see what exactly is happening. Like every other aspect of the movie, the battle scenes are just too incoherent - way too many explosions, human vehicles getting tossed around, too many projectiles and bullets whizzing around for you to actually know what is exactly happening. Oh, sure, we know what roughly happens, but it is obscured by the countless other things happening, that you won't know how what is happening, actually happened. Chalk it up to either overproduced and unfocused CGI, or the director and writers' inability to visualise properly what actually happens, but the result is a growing wish to watch this movie on DVD instead.

Since we've established that this is a Michael Bay movie, it wouldn't really be fair to go into considerations of how well-written the plot is, and how well-balanced the story is (though I have to note that it has a really long first act, a 20-minute second act, and a really long all-action third act), or whether the story is coherent or logical. For what it sets out to do, Transformers is a most decent movie. And the Transformers franchise has seen far worse than this.

First published at incinemas on 28 June 2007

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Hooked on you 每当变幻时 (2007)

Nothing screams 70s than a wet market comedy!

For some reason, Hooked on you is marketed as a romantic comedy, when it really is an incredible homage and reworking of Michael Hui's brand of social comedy. Perhaps the Hui name carries connotations of a satire too sharp for modern, post-handover sensibilities, but every second of Hooked on you indicates that even though Hui has not directed or written for more than a decade, his comic sensibilities are making a comeback through a new generation of filmmakers who have grown up watching his movies. Regular readers of my reviews will be familiar with my despair at how Hollywood insists on resurrecting and remaking old genres that it has neither the means or talent to pull off (currently, the romantic comedy). Yet there's something really interesting happening here in Hooked on you: not only are Law Wing-cheong and Fun Chi Keung reviving the Michael Hui comedy, but they're updating it for the modern day, in a respectful and credible manner.

So, instead of seeing this as a quirky romantic comedy - as the official poster and website art would have you do - I'd rather tell it like it is. Hooked on you takes place in a wet market and revolves around the lives of its stall operators. In other words, it's a social comedy about the ordinary, small people in their element. And all you have to do is just place the denizens of the wet market (appropriately given the typical Michael Hui name of "Prosperity Market") in and let the comedy unfold naturally, like clockwork. And this is how we'd get various skits linked together, about the silly games and tricks rival fishmongers play on each other, about how the entire wet market plans a comeback after a Cold Storage supermarket opens next door, how the stallholders get involved in a silly pyramid scheme, and even the continual success story of a former wet market stallholder turned smuggler and conman. The concept of all these comic skits and the sheer ensemble work required to pull them of is typical for a Michael Hui at the top of his game - except of course, Michael Hui isn't on the credits.

And much to my amazement, the director and scriptwriter actually do succeed in reviving the old style of comedy. While it's true that the most pungently satirical and slapstick sequences of Hui are nowhere to be found here, what you can savour is how the spirit of the comedy gets transfered into the at times absurdist dialogue. Armed with the benefit of the modern HK film industry, Law and Fung manage to not just recreate Hui's comedy and sociological imagination, but also turn out a slicker production that will no doubt be more suited to the tastes of modern audiences.

Now, don't get the impression that Hooked on you is any lesser for its romantic comedy angle, which covers about a third of the runtime and plot. What I like about the director and writer is that having developed such a homage to Hui, they aren't going to sell out at all by inserting a fluffy and stupid romantic comedy involving impossibly cute leads falling in love in the most improbable manner through the most impossible coincidences. You'd be far better off watching something else if you had that in mind, but if you had any curiosity about how Michael Hui might have incorporated a romantic theme and premise ("A woman slowly turning 30, still in search of a mate") into his social comedies without compromising his satirical vision, Hooked on you would be a good movie to watch.

On the whole, Hooked on you is highly recommended for fans of 1970-1980s social comedies directed by Li Han-hsiang and Michael Hui.

First published at incinemas on 28 June 2007

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

13 Beloved (13 เกมสยอง) (2007)

Deal or no deal?

Released everywhere else under the title of 13 Beloved, this Thai psychological thriller comes to Singapore as 13 Game of Death, probably because the distributors thought Singaporean moviegoers need less subtle movie titles to flock to cinemas. Don't be mistaken, though - this is not an action movie; you won't see Bruce Lee; and you shouldn't expect to see any character in a yellow tracksuit running about here. Instead, it would be helpful to think of this movie as the Thai version of The Game, and more useful, in fact, to realise that it's just about as decently made and conceptualised as a commercial Thai movie can get.

The setup, allowing for certain updates and cultural changes, is the same as The Game: it's a psychological thriller with Krissada Kukosol in the Michael Douglas role, willingly participating in a mysterious game even though he's not too aware of its details. And like The Game, central character Puchit finds himself forced to complete tasks that often find him reenacting unpleasant memories from his childhood and troubled relationship with his father, with each task regressing him further into either pure childhood Id or into pure animalism.

You might be thinking now - why watch this if you've already watched Michael Douglas get his mind toyed with so brilliantly in The Game? For one, I think director Sakveerakul and author Thairaat have tried their fair share of updating the concept of The Game for modern audiences - think of it as a highly secretive reality game show staged for the benefit of persons unknown.

So perhaps you would be wondering instead - have the director and author enough planned out for the 13 labours of Putchit? Perhaps realising that having 13 traumatic memories for their hero would be too much of a stretch, the team decides to mix several things in - which creates an at times incoherent product that doesn't quite mesh at all. Half of the trials may be about toying with Putchit's childhood memories, but the other half is just plain exploitation film, where for some reason, Putchit gets to beat up beggars, teenage delinquent gangsters, abusive rock singer boyfriends, and bikers. I'm sure this is a failed attempt at social commentary - recognisably social problems are raised without the director/writer asking the right questions, giving real answers, or even just riffing along or even minimally recognising that they've moved on to the Blackburn or Falling Down style revanchist satire.

The slightly better attempts at social commentary may not be all that noticeable if audiences aren't clued in about the specifically Thai culture of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious spending beyond one's means, the dynamics of typical lower class families, and so on. However, some of the social commentary can get out of hand, resulting in the morally smug tone of amateur Singaporean short films, with their over the top, overemotionalised focus on the plight of the old, the unravelling of family ties, and the generation gap. Yet, before you know it, there's a huge hamfisted denouncement of Thai society and the hypocrisy of the average citizen in the form of a speech.

I imagine this film being remade under the far more capable hands of Park Chan-wook, or being far more focused and tight if its editor had tried harder to rein in the meanderings of the director and writer. At 13 trials, it seems that both director and writer lost focus of their essence of their story and got too easily sidetracked, barking up the wrong trees at times.

That being said, I believe that 13 Beloved is still the most decently conceptualised and produced Thai thriller to hit our screens this year, and is very much worth watching, especially for crowds tired of the Western gore-slasher-horror genre.

First published at incinemas on 28 June 2007

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Ratatouille (2007)

Anton Ego and Roger Ebert: Separated at Birth?

After the heights and brilliance of The Incredibles in 2004, I was sorely disappointed with Cars - for the first time in its history, the studio had managed to produce a predictable and formulaic animated feature, so totally at odds with the conceptual creativity evident in all its previous movies. As fun as Owen Wilson was, and as competent the animation and character design were, as far as the story was concerned, Cars simply a far cry compared to the studio's previous efforts. At around this time last year, I remarked to my movie partner in the cinema that the teaser trailer for Ratatouille looked promising, at least - the idea of a rat with the passions of a gourmet trying to cut it as a chef in a French restaurant is a completely new idea altogether that perhaps Pixar would redeem itself.

First, the good news. Again, Pixar has produced an 3D CGI animation that stands heads and shoulders over its American competitors. One only needs to point to the quality of its animation. The strongest point of Ratatouille is its agreeable animation style. For this outing, Pixar applies the Japanese philosophy of softening 3D CGI to look like cell animation, while adding its own touch - there is still some degree of 3D detail for viewers to marvel at. And like most American animations, Ratatouille has plenty of sequences to showcase the technical brilliance of the animators and their brilliant application of the latest animation technology. Strangely, for an animated movie, and a CGI at that, the close-ups of food in the kitchen is as appetising as real food on cooking shows, and somehow the animated rats look lifelike and cute, in equal proportions. The story, about a rat and an aspiring chef reaching the heights of cookery, is expectedly far more mature and reined-in than the surface celebration of pop culture references and cheap gags by other US animation studio offerings from this year. Clearly Pixar gets both animation and story right, and does both much better than many US studios.

While it outclasses its competitors without breaking a sweat, there are a few issues with Ratatouille that make it a good, but not excellent Pixar film. Instead of heralding a return to originality by the Pixar team, and despite the far-out original premise given by the teaser last year, Ratatouille turns out - after you get accustomed to the food porn and the kinder and gentler animation techniques - to be the studio's second genre film turned cartoon. And for a studio like Pixar, whose most original stories were its best animation projects, that's a serious underachievement. One thing that comes across is the derivativeness of Ratatouille: from its presentation, style, humour, and even plot twists and villain designs, Ratatouille is very much a traditional and unremarkable member of Japanese-inspired food/cooking shows (taking the stylistics of Cooking Master Boy, Iron Chef, Yakitate!! Japan).

For a studio that has broken genre conventions in storytelling in its earlier features, and has indeed carved a name for itself with its transcendent writing in both Toy Story movies, this uncharacteristic shift to cultural riffing of existing genres and conventions is puzzling, and perhaps may disappoint Asian audiences eager to watch the next original Pixar movie. While Pixar's cultural riffing is far less annoying and more sophisticated than Dreamworks efforts like Shark Tale, the impression that they've arrived late for the party is somewhat heightened by the fact that Ratatouille's villain is by far the most unimaginatively conceptualised, traditional, and one-sided of all Pixar features - even flatter and more stereotypically villainous than the comic Bowler Hat Guy in Meet the Robinsons. Sharp-eyed audiences may even identify the aspiring chef and his plight as a straightforward male version of the Classic Disney cartoon helpless heroine who is forced to rely on magical characters to do what she's expected to do (Rumpelstiltskin!).

While Ratatouille is a clear improvement over Cars, and vastly superior to rival animation offerings, it comes nowhere near the sophistication and creativity of The Incredibles and Toy Story. If you stay to watch the entirety of the closing credits, which comprise of solely 2D animation and stills all equally brilliantly done by Pixar (the studio should consider doing a 2D animation project in the future), you might understand what is missing in the heart of Ratatouille: the 2D closing credits artwork is brimming with mood, atmosphere, character, and effortless fun. Pixar's animators may have had to spend weeks in the real city of Paris, eaten at real restaurants, gone into real kitchens, and studied real rats, but they fail to realise this time round that animation is not about recreating reality at all. In terms of telling an original story, Pixar's scriptwriting team seems to have failed narrowly to deliver; in terms of using animation to create wonder in cooking, its team have done no better than say the cameramen at the Kitchen Stadium or the cel-animation and 2D animation studios from Japan.

Now, all these are minor quibbles, of course, and should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie - which is indeed enjoyable. The screening of Ratatouille is also accompanied with the teaser for Wall-E, Disney Pixar’s next movie. Judging from the teaser, Pixar’s next film is worth waiting for, and seems to be a completely original idea. Here's to hoping that it'll set Pixar back on the path to greatness!

First published at incinemas on 30 August 2007

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Death Proof (2007)

Even Kurt Russell had to take a smoke break from Tarantino's yakking

Due to an interesting decision made by The Weinstein Company, the Quentin Tarrantino-Robert Rodriguez doublebill feature Grindhouse will split be split into two separate films for its international (non-US/Canada) release. You might complain about paying twice to see what people a continent away paid once to watch, or about waiting 2 months between Death Proof (coming June) and Planet Terror (coming August) while people a continent away merely had to wait for the intermission to watch Planet Terror. Also, don't try to remind me about how all the brilliant fake trailers (Machete, Hobo with a Gun, Werewolf Women of the SS, Don't, and Thanksgiving) that helped sustain and develop the directors' idea of making a parody of bad 1970s grindhouse cinema are missing from the release. But look on the bright side - the international release of Death Proof is 30 minutes longer than its Grindhouse version!

The Grindhouse project functions as a parody and homage to exploitation movies of the 1970s, with their lurid gore, kungfu, and sexploitation antics, and Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino's take at recreating and mashing up two of its genres: the slasher flick and the revenge film. Here, Kurt Russell is cast as a charismatic, sex-on-legs stuntman "Stuntman" Mike, who has an unfortunate obsession with killing girls with his "death proof" stunt car. In any collision, the stuntman drives away mostly unscathed while the victims are literally all smashed up in their wreckage. So, for the first half, Death Proof is the slasher film that introduces us to the modus operandi of the killer, and his first set of victims, who in good old sexploitation tradition, are a posse of drugged out, trash-talking girlfriends looking for a little fun, and its second half has a different set of victims metaphorically taking bloody, chopsocky revenge on Stuntman Mike, on behalf of dead girls.

The point about Death Proof, isn't really about the story, but about the recreation of a genre, its look, and hopefully an evocation of the sense of guilty pleasure a bygone generation had in the 70s, watching such "bad movies" in cinemas. On that note, Death Proof can be said to be somewhat of a success, as Tarantino finds ludicrous (i.e. authentically grindhouse) ways to insert all sorts of mainstays of the grindhouse movie experience, like the meaningless to the plot but still so provocative lapdance, the in your face blood and gore, the inexplicable loss of colour halfway in the film, and so on. And on the same note, Death Note has its minor failings as well, when Tarantino forgets that grindhouse films were never about endless self-referential, meta-movie trash-talking, and gives us far more than is necessary, to the point of boredom, of characters going on and on with their hip trash-talking.

I am given to understand that in the shorter Grindhouse doublebill version of Death Proof, much of the overlong dialogue and meaningless sequence were cut out - that seemed to be the right decision to take, actually, given how the pacing just felt off for a quarter of this movie. Thankfully though, Tarantino does deliver the money shots by the end of the movie, and if you're a true fan of grindhouse cinema, it would be more than enough to redeem him. For others, perhaps the thrill of sitting through a deliberately cheesy movie experience would be worth the price of admission. And yet others will probably be satisfied at how well Tarantino has mostly adhere to the form of the grindhouse pic. For me, Death Proof has my attention set on the Grindhouse concept, and looking forward with interest to Planet Terror.

First published at incinemas on 21 June 2007

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The 時をかける少女, (2006)

Pratfalls galore

The girl who leapt through time is actually the second movie to be named after the original serialised novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka, the first having screened in Japan more than 20 years ago. I mention this for the benefit of the audience, who probably will not consist of 30 to 40-year-olds acquainted with the novel, the first live action film, or the 1972 anime series - all going by the same title. But The girl who leapt through time (2006) is not an animated remake of the first film or the series, despite anchoring its premise on a girl who develops the ability to leap back in time (much like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap) to the recent past of her life. This is, rather, a sequel of sorts to the original novel and its live action movie and anime series adaptations: the 2006 animated film takes place 20 years later after the events of the original story, a sci-fi romance between a schoolgirl who could leap through time and a visitor from the future. This time round, it's her niece who mysteriously acquires the same powers, in another accident in a school lab.

You'd wonder - why do the same thing twice, as something that falls in between a sequel and a remake? Perhaps because there are different lessons to be learnt, for this animated film is as far away from science fiction and fluffy romance as possible. Taking the same premise and starting point, director Hosoda Mamoru and writer Okudera Sakoto serve up something completely unexpected to any follower of the novel/film/anime series franchise. Quite simply put, once the idea of teenaged Makoto's ability to leap is established, the fantastic takes an immediate backseat to the real concerns of the duo: for someone who has the ability to go back in time to make sure things turn out perfectly, what is the value of the path not taken? What is the true cost of perfection, but the opportunity cost of the path not taken?

As Kazuko, the protagonist from the original novel remarks, it's entirely interesting that armed with such a unique power, her niece uses it for completely unremarkable things (experiencing karaoke singing over and over again, getting out of accidents), instead of say, enriching herself or trying to take over the world. How unremarkable, true, but how mature the script for this movie becomes, once diverted away from expectations that the sci-fi anime genre tend to evoke. Instead of a futuristic romance (which essentially was what the 1983 movie amounted to) or a monomythical adventure story (travel back in time, save the world!), The girl who leapt through time is an almost introspective story, smoothly blending the bittersweet experience of growing up with the lost opportunities of perfectionist time-travelling.

There can be no doubt that the 2006 film is a vast improvement over its 1983 predecessor, and the novelist himself has given the thumbs up for the mature sequel. It's surprising that a fluffy novel by Tsutsui Yasutaka would actually be retooled 50 years later in the style that the author is more known for: with a serious focus on social issues and philosophical concerns, livened with a satirical and comic bent. Yes, you will be glad to know that this film has a huge collection of the most entertaining pratfalls and amusing time travel jokes ever in animation history.

Animation-wise, the character designs are drawn in clear line style, complementing the story's focus on realistic emotions. What viewers should watch for are the beautifully rendered backdrops that border on art, as well as a soundtrack that entire action scenes are choreographed to, right down to the last bar and note - do brace yourselves for the psychedelic time-leaping sequences, all timed in a stroke of genius to Glenn Gould's 1983 performance of the Goldberg Variations. There's nothing quite that comes close to this - except for maybe the 10 minute section of 2001: A space odyssey, and there is no wonder that this animated movie swept the top animation awards in Japan and California last year.

First published at incinemas on 21 June 2007

Friday, 15 June 2007

Eye in the Sky 跟踪 (2007)

Don't expect a walk in the park

As the movie opens, you are aware that a heist is about to take place. What is more interesting, though, is that the robbers are watched intensely by different groups of people on the street - all disguised as ordinary passers-by and civilians - and that you don't know who whether these are cops or criminals, or whether there is more than one (or two) opposing groups present on the scene. But everyone tails everyone else, and everyone is watching the robbers as they approach the location of their heist. And yet the rival factions are both unaware that they're being monitored by their counterparts... It's the most delicious opening scene for a crime thriller I've ever seen, and far outshines all other Hong Kong scriptwriting.

So yes, this movie does have an interesting premise, which you may have guessed reading the first paragraph - if both sides of the law rely heavily on the same method and philosophy of manual surveillance for their stakeouts, stings, and heists, whose methods will ace the operation, whose subterfuge will reign supreme? For this movie to work perfectly, it has to be a highly technical story, much like a cop procedural, but multiplied by two since the criminal gang in question appears to equal the cops in the area of surveillance. For the most part of the first act, Eye in the Sky delivers the promise by delving into both the police and the criminal procedure and their games of subterfuge, hinting at a great matchup.

However, astute moviegoers will begin to question early the utility of the film's secondary plot, the initiation story of newbie Surveillance Unit member Pig Girl (everyone goes by codenames in the unit. Simon Yam, her superior, is known as Dog Head). With its premise and setup, the most natural and best thing to do is to script the plot into an Enemy at the Gates style battle of wits between the criminal gang and the cops, as well as giving almost equal time to both operations. Instead, the introduction and development of the Initiation Story is done at the expense of the premise, with the script losing the fine balance that its own opening scene demands from the rest of the movie. In terms of screen time and audience allegiance, the cops dominate the movie.

This isn't as big a mistake as having the cops outclass the criminals without much effort - apparently only the mastermind of the criminal operation is aware of the surveillance possibilities and dangers from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public places, and much of the thrill that could arise from a battle of wits is lost early on when you realise that his gang members, for some unexplained reasons, aren't as sophisticated and clever as him. To rub salt into my intellectual wound, even the criminal mastermind - who, if you remember, outwits, outcloaks, and outplans the cops in the opening scene - manages to get trailed and spied on easily once the cops begin their operations in earnest. There's nothing so deadly to the sense of thrill in this movie as showing that its villains are run-of-the-mill criminals who aren't even a challenge to their police counterparts, despite employing the same methods as the cops themselves.

The overall success or failure of this movie will then depend on how audiences take towards its secondary initiation of a newbie story, which I felt played second fiddle and was less finely written and conceived than the main story. Cliched and predictable might be the word, alas! The strengths of Eye in the Sky lie in the execution of its opening scene, as well as in the performances of Simon Yam and Tony Leung Kar Fai. For an extremely plot-driven script where all other characters were at best collections of exaggerated personality traits, Yam and Leung managed to stand heads and shoulders above the cast by inventing out of thin air, the depth of their characters.

Eye in the Sky has the most interesting and creative premise in the HK cop vs robbers genre, but weaknesses in its script and the execution of its premise mean this film will still not replace Infernal Affairs as the best HK film of the decade.

First published at incinemas on 21 June 2007

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the silver surfer (2007)

Sci-fi's Ursula Andress moment

Perhaps the reason to rave about the Fantastic Four movies are the same reason why others might decry the Fantastic Four movies. Made in a decade where the superhero genre has shifted to a dark, epic, and serious tone, the Fantastic Four movies of 2005 and 2007 either stick out like a sore thumb or illuminate in the darkness like a diamond (depending on your tastes in superhero movies), marked by an unserious, jokey, even irreverent approach to storytelling. That's not to say that Fantastic Four is a spoof of the genre (like how the Scary Movies are a spoof of the horror genre), but rather a legitimate if slightly out of step with modern fashion member of the genre (like how NEXT or Ghost Rider were honorable outliers of the superhero genre).

Understanding this minute but profound truth can lead to greater realisations to one of the great questions that have plagued movie reviewers for 3 years now: why on earth did the critically reviled Fantastic Four movie become a smash hit? Perhaps it's a matter of choice and difference - not everyone is convinced that the only way to be a good superhero movie is to produce a 2-3 hour long epic that takes itself so seriously it has to involve some diatribe about the nature of the human condition, the responsibility that comes with power, the darkness that lies in our hearts, or even racial/gender discrimination. Sometimes, you know, we just want to watch a superhero movie that doesn't take itself seriously while we devour fistful of popcorns as we chew with our mouths open while smacking our lips audibly - just like how the gentleman who sat next to me genuinely enjoyed this movie - and how I still managed to walk out of the cinema smiling even after sitting next to him for 92 minutes.

I applaud the foresight of director Tim Story to make an unserious, lightweight superhero movie in 2005 and applaud him for sticking to his artistic vision in this sequel. The Fantastic Four are back with more misadventures than adventures (a large part of the comedy derives from the wedding preparation hijinks of the soon-to-be-wedded Mr Fantastic and Invisible Woman), which provide excuses for very cheesy and comical special effects, which one would expect to see employed in more typical rescuing the planet scenarios. Another comic thread to look out for is this movie's treatment of the Fantastic Four as celebrity superheroes, and its depiction of the group as a bunch of squabbling, bumbling bunch. Note that the issues of celebrity, growing too big for one's head, and failure are classic superhero themes (last seen in the preachy Spiderman trilogy), and then note how the same issue are given the most comic and agreeably popcorn spin here.

Now, the only problem with this movie is that its central plot doesn't quite gel together with the director's style. The planet is visited by a mysterious Silver Surfer, a herald of the planet-destroying Galactus (who doesn't turn up at all until the final 3 minutes!). It's a rather heavy existentialist theme here, one that is somewhat out of sync with the general levity of the Fantastic Four movie concept. For one, we're anticipating the most god-like villain of the Marvel comics universe, and that tends to dull the humour appreciation. I'm sure it's possible for Tim Story and Don Payne to have written a matchup between the bumbling celebrity superhero group and the near omnipotent villain and his messenger in a way that would preserve the humorous tone of the rest of the movie - but they seem to have elected to take the story in a more conventional direction instead.

All in all, Fantastic Four: the rise of the silver surfer is an interesting alternative to the psychologically realistic and dark epic model of the modern superhero movie and comic genre, and a good introduction for the masses and new comic fans to the sensibilities of the Silver Age superhero comic genre.

First published at incinemas on 21 June 2007

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Hot Fuzz (2007)

The Airplane! of buddy films

Imagine what would happen if Terry Pratchett watched too much Reno 911 and wrote a script for a Naked Gun movie - you'd end up with something awfully hilarious like Hot Fuzz, a comedy filled to the brim with wide-ranging parodies of B-grade buddy cop actioneers, whodunnits, British pastorals and cowboy westerns - and that's just for starters. Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) proves that he's no one-trick pony with this wild and entertaining movie.

Here's the set up, which you'll miss if you turn up even a minute late: Nicholas Angel, arguably the finest cop in the London metropolitan police force - only because he's really obsessed with crime-busting to the extent of setting everyone around him on edge - suffers an injury that provides an excuse for his superiors to reassign him to a nice tiny village in the middle of nowhere, so as to presumably get the type-A bundle of nerves off their backs and to give themselves a chance at the awards he's been monopolising. From then on, it's like a trip to the opposite of the Twilight Zone for Nicholas and the audience, because the town of Stanford is so perfectly pastoral crime-free slice of heaven, winning effortlessly the Best Town in UK award for decades on end and populated by such agreeable and reasonable folks that like Nicholas, you would feel just the slightest twinge of paranoia, of being stuck in a strange and looney alternate reality. And then you start guffawing as how ridiculously mundane and insanely eccentric the populace is - as though they are provincial analogues of characters from a Discworld novel. The joke just gets better as dead bodies start piling up in town and no one - not even the village police department! - gives credence to Nicholas's insistence that these cannot be mere accidents...

What is hilarious - aside from the sheer drollery of the plot and over-the-top characters - is the amount of in-jokes and parodies that the director and scriptwriters squeeze into the movie. I tried counting, but gave up 15 minutes in... There are references to Die Hard, John Woo, awful but guilty pleasure movies like Break Point and Bad Boys, Harry Potter and Monty Python, Luc Besson and the Toho Godzilla films. They all manage to fit into the movie in completely unforced and unexpected ways, while the movie itself manages to sucker-punch the cop movie, murder mystery and pastoral genres for desserts. That's probably why this comedy - not too far different from what Mel Brooks, Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers when they were at the top of their game - ends up with an impressive hit-miss ratio: I couldn't actually recall a single joke, comic reference, or even sight gag that actually fell flat in this movie!

First published at incinemas on 21 June 2007

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Shadow Man (DVD) (2006)

If it’s a Steven Seagal action movie, you could reasonably expect a few things right off the bat, like:

1. Seagal will play an ex-CIA/mercenary/cop
2. He will battle rogue or foreign government/army/police units
3. Who have either murdered or kidnapped a close family member
4. FIGHT!

That’s about as simple as the Steven Seagal actioner goes, really, and Shadow Man does not fall far from the formula. Here, Seagal is an ex-CIA agent who is now enjoying life as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company – we don’t really know what he does, but he seems to make a fortune from teaching aikido, a mystical martial art that allows practioners to punch holes in the internal organs of any opponent with a single strike. It’s quite mystifying because presumably you need volunteers in order to teach that (“Sensei, I want to learn how to poke a hole in my opponent’s torso with a taichi move!” “Okay Wang. Stand still and I’ll demonstrate on you.”).

More mystifying is the fact that his old CIA colleagues, an entire criminal underground, and a crooked foreign law enforcement system want to bring Jack Foster (totally generic name, which is why we’ll stick to STEVEN SEAGAL for the rest of this review!) back into the game by slipping some top-secret deadly biological warfare agent into his handphone, kidnap his daughter, and strand both of them in a seedy East European country (Romania, to be exact). Obviously, they’re all itchy for some exploding internal organs action. That or they’re clearly out of their minds!

Fast moving and tight (after all, genre movies – action thrillers, spy thrillers, wuxia – involve lots of condensation and narrative shortcuts that leave out the tedious exposition needed to help audiences connect the dots), Seagal is a man on a mission, expertly dodging assassins, double-crosses, and mowing down opponents in a single-minded search for his missing daughter.

Shadow Man is a straight to DVD release, but in actual fact, it is one of Steven Seagals better movies of the past 5 years. The man has been in a slump, he’s grown fat, but here you can see the improvement in acting, slightly better charisma, and a higher percentage of pure fighting scenes than in his last few movies. It’s not just the aikido, but the sheer imaginativeness of the fight scenes – I haven’t really seen anyone else aside from the A-Team assemble a rocket launcher, an explosive, and a getaway vehicle from household parts, but Steven Seagal does 2 out of 3, in an entertaining effort.

Of course, the acting from most of Seagal’s co-stars is bad or hammy, the dubbing is obvious, and the aikido fighting, bordering on the fantastical, is an acquired taste (but so is wuxia action!), but remember: Steven Seagal does his own stunts! And he’s the only actor who has a body double engaged for non-action scenes! Priceless viewing if you’re a B-grade action movie fan armed with a remote control with a pause button.

First published at incinemas on 9 June 2007

Friday, 8 June 2007

Stick It (DVD) (2006)

You'd be tempted to tell the director to Stick It too

Stick It comes to us direct to DVD because its target audience is pretty limited. I suppose the market for a sports comedy that involves anti-authoritarian, punk-rock posturing brimming over the top with attitude (or attitood") and a fervent believe that infantile rebellion is the path to salvation would probably be defined to a certain writer who makes a living from her pink-themed, foul penned, brutally honest blog, and the few hundred people who look to her as some sort of a role model. The problem, though, is that Wendy Chong has far more authenticity and real attitude in her stick-on nailed pinky than Jessica Bendinger has in this movie.

Let's review: Jessica Bendinger, in her first screenwriting debut, wrote Bring It On, a full of attitude teenage rebellion authority-thumbing comedy about the sport of cheerleading. It was an unexpected hit, which may explain why Bendinger, failing to get any directing or writing spots on the other 3 Bring It On direct-to-DVD sequels, has apparently decided to remake Bring It On, transposing the rebellious teens, the strait-laced coach, and even the corrupt, narrowminded judging committee to a different sport - gymnastics, in this case.

I'm not sure why this can't possibly work, but perhaps it's because Bendinger gets far too lazy with her script, or because she's out of her depth in her directorial debut. To distract you from her utter lack of familiarity with the dynamics of real life gymnastics, Bendinger attempts to pad the film with as much teenspeak posturing by the rebellious heroine or her brainless but catty antagonists as possible, creating as many outlandish and childishly-conceived showdowns between heroine and oppressive authoritarian figures as possible, and when there are sports sequences, what passes for gymnastics routines are actually impossible in real life, but achieved through liberal use of CGI.

Because Bendinger has absolutely no knowledge of the real sport of gymnastics, apparently no intention of actually finding out what goes on at gymnastics competitions and training programmes, and no respect whatsoever for her subject matter, it is no wonder then that the punk-rebellion feel of Stick It rings so false, so hollowly, and so vacuously. If you're in the mood for a real teen rebellion sports comedy, it is a better idea to rent Bring It On, and if you're in the mood for a rebellious gymnastics sports movie that actually knows what it's talking about, you might like to try Personal Best, starring Mariel Hemmingway and Scott Glenn.

First published at incinemas on 8 June 2007

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Ocean's 13 (2007)

Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's series would probably provoke much more interest and excitement in film historians and anyone interested in Hollywood fare from an earlier era, than from its ideal audience. Instead of staring wide-eyed at the endless parade of celebrity actors in this stunt-casting extravaganza, or going slackjawed from the effortless convergence of baroque plans and long cons, unexpected questions would be raised - either to the director's delight or rue - about Hollywood's ability to cannibalise its own creations and recycle them. One might as well ask how Hollywood's golden age genres of heist, noir, and con films could ultimately end up getting recycled by modern Hollywood into the Ocean's films.

Seriously. How do you make a heist film or a con film full of double crosses between conmen and plots within plots, into pure entertainment, and take out the nastiness, the noir morality issues, cynicism, and biting humour about how the world has become a corruption of itself, or of the disappearing honour amongst thieves? And yet there they are, the three Soderbergh Ocean's titles, smirking at us with enough lightheartedness to send a zeppelin into the air.

So here's what Ocean's 13 is: a brain-free heist movie perfect for a summer release, where there is no need to figure out what all this double-crossing, corruption, cons within cons actually mean. It is a breezy move that only requires you to sit back and watch a showcase of teamwork, of various plans connecting together at the right time to give a right result. It is a condensation of the heist movie into its clockwork parts, demanding you consume it like an eight-year-old watching the magic of a model train going round and round the tracks.

The only thing saving grace of this movie is that unlike its predecessor, the plot of Ocean's 13 is reasonably coherent without major plot holes, inconsistencies (safe for one - how does Reuben, a seasoned conman, get conned in the beginning of the movie by a villain so transparent as Banks?), and bad faith twist endings. The entertainment-loaded, superficial, ponder-free mixture of Ocean's 13 makes it an agreeable but ultimately unmemorable heist movie.

Movie fanatics might take pleasure in knowing that like Pirates of the Caribbean, Ocean's 13 has a reference to Singapore - its integrated resort (aka casino!), no less.

First published at incinemas on 7 June 2007

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, The (Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Ang) (2005)

There is a folksy feel about The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. For a coming of age movie whose central character is a cross-dressing pre-teen who grows up in the crime-ridden slums of Manila with his loving family (dad and 2 elder brothers run an illegal lottery, steal and sell cellphones, and aren't beneath a little bit of robbery and extortion if business goes south), there is surprisingly very little angst, guilt, or much social agitation - either for the plight of the downtrodden underclasses whose only means to survival is to be criminal, or the cross-dressing effeminate subculture in certain parts of the Philippines. At the same time, equally and perhaps far more astonishing is how this movie manages to charm and warm hearts, despite its angst-free, guilt-free, surface-deep delivery of its story about the cross-dressing, sashaying Maximo and his family.

Perhaps it boils down to director Auraelus Solito, who has spent more than a few years revisiting his indigineous tribal roots in Palawan, and the folk theatre practice he started there with his people. What we see in this film is the sort of charming but somewhat awkward and unschooled aesthetic (the use of digital cameras without a conscious desire to showcase the high def look, a drama set in a slum without any neorealist goals) that is extreme in its simplicity to the point of coming across as unschooled - in other words, Solito has achieved with his folk theatre and indigineous background, what should be seen as a filmic version of naive art.

Like Maximo, who traipses the streets of Manila's Sampaloc slums, the film breezes through its 102 minutes with childlike innocence and lack of artifice, taking time to saunter through Maxi's playacting as a girl - cooking for his family, buying groceries, dressing up with pals for a make-believe beauty pageant, watching pirated melodramas on a neighbour's DVD, and his expectant excitement at getting teased by his family, friends, and neighbours. These slice of life moments are in fact the best parts of the movie, because of their unaffected charm. When the plot begins, it is as though naive art has been animated into film. It has to do with the new neighbourhood cop Victor striking up a friendship with Maximo that poses problems to his family business. What follows is probably unsurprising to any filmgoer or even afternoon soap watcher, but in fact, the second best part of this movie has to do with the straightforward, uncomplicated, and even naive manner in which the plot unfolds and how dramatic scenes are shot, without any foreshadowing or narrative sophistication. It's as though Solito, reaching deep within his indigenous roots, has succeeded in transfering the naive quality of folk art into film itself - by no means a small achievement, and the most compelling reason why you should watch The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero.

That's not to say there aren't any blemishes on the film. Of minor interest to us is the film soundtrack, which consists of jingly guitar sequences that could very well have come from a spaghetti western. It fits the easygoing nature of the naive film, until you realise after a few bars of the spaghetti showdown music is playing in a scene that doesn't and isn't supposed to have any tension in it, for example. It's a minor blemish, and some might take it as a feature of the naive mode of filmmaking in this movie. I'm more than willing to overlook that if the director had sustained this naive mode for the entirety of the movie - near the end, there's this inexplicable move into more symbolic or even sophisticated storytelling that is extremely jarring to audiences, and doesn't quite gell with how the story and its artistic direction have been moving for some time now. It is entirely to the strength of the director's naive vision that this brief moment doesn't spoil our vision of an artless film, and it is the larger part of the movie that stays in our minds.

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2007