Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Rocky Balboa (2006)

The eye of the tiger

15 years after the disaster of Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone has personally helmed and wrotes Rocky Balboa in an attempt to provide fans with a more proper and fitting closure to the series. Aged 60 by this film, Rocky is an old man who should sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, namely a restaurant where customers flock to listen to the gladiator regale them with tales of his past matches, gawk at the posters, boxing championship belts and other memorabilia decorating the walls, and eat the good food. It's like an Italian diner crossed with Hard Rock Cafe, without the tacky T-shirts. Balboa Jr is an up-and-coming corporate suit, and surrounded by family and friends from the past (mainly his brother-in-law Paulie and Spider Rico - the last man who defeated Rocky before he went professional), Rocky should be content. But he isn't, because the death of his wife has left a void in his life, which he must regain by (obviously) choosing to fight one last battle in the boxing ring, against the world heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon.

Of course, there are certain obstacles that need to be negotiated when you want to make a credible movie about a 60 year old's return to the boxing ring. It is all too easy to slide into parody and kitsch - and ultimately the success or failure of Rocky Balboa rests on whether it is a genuine ending to the series, or just a self-parodying film.

The solutions are few, and Sylvester Stallone manages to use every one of them. There's the Clint Eastwood tactic of writing, directing and starring in a movie about the last hurrah of an old warrior, and Stallone pulls no punches by painting Balboa as a man in existential depression. Plotwise, Rocky Balboa is more philosophical than the previous movies in the series and visually, one would be hard-pressed not to notice cinematic techniques such as scenes with severely desaturated palettes and bright red streaks of blood standing out in otherwise black and white frames. I could imagine that if Stallone and his cinematographer had gone overboard with this, the movie would actually be seen as a parody of the Rocky series. But thankfully, the artistic cinematography is so judiciously used that it is effective and dramatic, even if it is a little manipulative.

There's also the nostalgia factor going for Rocky Balboa. If you stay around for the end credits, you'll be treated to a montage of videos where ordinary people - Americans and tourists alike - run up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose in the Rocky salute, just like how the fictional character did it in the very first Rocky movie. Similarly, much of Rocky Balboa spends itself evoking the nostalgia factor: Rocky has mental flashbacks from the first movie, characters we last saw in the first movie make a comeback, Rocky goes on a training regiment that is almost identical to his first movie (using meat carcasses as punching bags!), and he even gets a dog to run with him, just like the original. And like every good Rocky film, the boxer stumbles around before he is convinces himself to make the decision to go all out to fight the match of his life.

Perhaps the best protection Rocky Balboa has is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Rather than denying that the sight of a 60-year-old man training and fighting in a straight boxing match would be a joke, Stallone wisely allows the script to highlight the incongruities and inherent silliness of such a sight. Yes, his new coach points out that the boxer has arthritis, calcium deposits, and the training montage shows that he needs work with the weights, but this is done so lovingly that you'll feel nothing mean or spiteful about it. You might shake your head at the sight of the sexegenarian drinking down 6 raw eggs, but most probably by the time Rocky enters the boxing ring, the nostalgia, the artful cinematography, and the humour will make you cheer him on just like you cheered him on years ago, despite how silly it must be.

And this is how the Rocky series ends, with a crowd cheering on an embattled, bruised, but still standing Rocky Balboa.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Pursuit of Happyness, The (2006)

Run, Will, run!

Gordon Gekko put it best when he said in Wall Street, "Greed is good". Sure, you might have hated him for being an arrogant corporate raider, but who else could serve as Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market? Who else to correct the market when it is inefficient, when companies are poorly managed, when resources are sucked into poorly performing industries? Even though Gekko was Oliver Stone's intended villain, it's clear that him, real life corporate raiders and other investment bankers are the real heroes of capitalism. We can even trace his benign influence to the economic rise of China, for Deng Xiaoping must have been thinking of Gordon Gekko when he made his pronouncement that "It is glorious to be rich!"

For much of what Joseph Stiglitz calls the Roaring Nineties, with the global economy on a seemingly unstoppable rise to prosperity, I was hoping that a director somewhere would make a spiritual sequel to the movie, at last restoring Gekko and his profession to the moral and ethical heights that they truly belong. It seems strange now that almost at the end of bull market, a positive movie about the making of a stock broker/investment banker would be made. But here it is anyway, arriving at an unexpected moment, this Will Smith movie. Of course, circumstances require the filmmakers to be more circumspect - open celebration of wealth, entrepreneurship, and pure market instinct/talent ("The Gekko factor") is on the way out, and hence the movie's title "The Pursuit of Happyness". It's a major example of political correctness, because instead of acknowledging that it's okay to be greedy or to want to be rich, people are so afraid of saying "greed", "wealth" that they insist they just want to enjoy the right to pursue happiness...

With the director succumbing from the word go to the PC leanings of our times, The Pursuit of Happyness can only be a rags to riches movie of an honest family man who makes it big due to hard work, a strong will and sheer perseverence, an honest man who, even when dealt with a less than amazing hand by fate, manages to climb out of poverty singlehandedly by nurturing his latent ingenuity and business instincts, proving his worth and meriting his future corporate position with his skills. Furthermore, such a story requires that the movie be much more about the rags part than the riches part, and that until the final moment, the hero will be constantly struggling against imminent failure and poverty. It's such a typical corporate Cinderella story that you wonder "where could we find people like this nowadays?" Thankfully, for scriptwriter Steven Conrad, such a successful person exists in Christopher Gardner, a founder of an investment company who used to go door to door selling expensive and bulky medical equipment to doctors who mostly didn't feel they need them, and The Pursuit of Happyness is a biographical rags to riches film about Gardner before he became successful.

And luckily for the audience, Will Smith is surprisingly credible as the sad sack persevering hero in what has to be his first dramatic feature film role. Where the script demands for subdued acting, Will Smith delivers it. Where the script demands for tears to be shed, speeches to be made in frustration because Gardner's son can't understand why they're suddenly living on the streets or camping out in the toilet of a train station, Will Smith delivers it with soul. The only thing you have to worry about is concerns the script itself, questions like: is the story far too bleak, like a the Passion of the Gardner? Does Gardner have to have so many bad things happen to him before he is allowed a small triumph at the end of the movie? Does he suffer ultimately because the script requires his suffering, and not because the story necessarily and naturally leads to that much suffering? Does being a self-made man/hero mean that Gardner must have no friends or allies in the movie? Is he alone, abandoned by wife and buddies because the script requires his solitude and self-made status, or because the story necessarily and naturally leads to him alone standing for himself?

On the whole, The Pursuit of Happyness achieves what it sets out to do, with a few minor distractor points or faults, such as the prerequisite 4 or 5 scenes where Will Smith is required to run screaming down the street chasing after an object or person, as though the producers couldn't decide if he's belieavable as a dramatic actor, or whether they should try to please audiences who remember him more as an action hero. For myself, it's entirely too bad that this movie does not rehabilitate Gordon Gekko - who would heartily eat Christpher Gardner alive for breakfast, with a smile - or serve as a spirited apologia for greed and the pursuit of money. At best, The Pursuit of Happyness could be mistaken for a movie extolling the self-made men of the investment banking industry - but such a story , with its hapless self-willed persevering hero, might be better served extolling the self-made men of the MLM industry, with almost no modifications required. And that would be a cardinal sin.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Volver (2006)

Look who's hiding under the bed!

There must be 2 Pedro Almodovars. One of them makes films with shocking, scandalising topics - sexual abuse by priests, transvestism, homosexuality, murder and shocking family secrets (Bad Education, What Have I Done to Deserve This, Matador) - and the other makes sensitive and mature films about women (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother, The Flower of My Secret). But they're both the same Pedro Almodovar, the one who delights in confounding audiences and critics desperate to nail him down to a single genre or type of film. With Volver, the director returns to his second style of filmmaker, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Witness the opening scene of the movie. The camera pans from right to left to show a family - a mother, her sister and her daughter, visiting and cleaning the grave of her mother in their ancestral village. The contrary movement of the camera points to the nostalgic, retrograde movement in the mind of the director, and also illustrates the meaning of the Spanish word Volver: to return. And returning to the happy family scene, they are joined by their aunt, who visits their mother's grave, as well as to clean up her own. Apparently in some parts of Spain, you can book your grave years in advance, and most people will tend their own gravemarkers during annual visits. It's very much like how my extended family celebrates Qing Ming, actually. We go to the graves of my grandmother and her brothers, clean up their markers, replace the flowers, and tidy up the spots that we've booked in advance so that in death, we'd still be close to each other. And of course, sometimes we address the person's photo on the tomb and speak lovingly to them. In all this is a mode of relating to the dead and the past as something benign, and intimately familiar, a charmingly off-centre (to modern eyes anyway) worldview that marks Volver as one of the oddest, yet most moving films of Pedro Almodovar.

It's not that odd when we figure that Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her sister Sole (Lola Duenhas) and daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) hail from a small village, the type where everyone knows each other, keep no secrets, and have very quaint traditions and folksy beliefs that would be entirely strange and alien if not for the fact that they sound very Chinese. For these villagers, death is not marked by an afterlife destined for either the fiery furnaces of Hell or the heavenly choirs of Heaven. What do dead people do in rural Spain? Everyone believes they sort of hang around in the house, keeping watch over their relatives. And everyone in the village believes that they've seen Raimunda's mother Irene at their old house - even the dotty aunt claims to speak with her on a daily basis. Of course, when the dotty aunt passes on, Irene decides to stay over with Paula and improve her frosty relationship with Raimunda.

We gather that like most Asian families, there is a series of deep secrets and grey lies everyone's been keeping from everyone, and Almodovar uses Irene's return, as well as Raimunda's accidental murder of her good-for-nothing husband and her attempts to hide his body in a restaurant to peel away, one layer at a time, the secrets women keep from one another. Unlike his previous Bad Education, where one could sense the director's seething anger at Catholic church and its priests, Almodovar's love for women plainly shows through the sympathetic handling of the two storylines involving Raimunda and Irene. To tell you what happens would be to give away much of the story, which is more charming if you watch it unfold by yourself, but it suffices to say that Volver is a sentimental tribute to the power of women (there are no male characters of note in this movie). Irene's ghost story, Raimunda's murder thriller, and the story of ancient family secrets are wistful, bittersweet, and best of all, humorous.

Local moviegoers might have a bonus laugh if they recognise how Almodovar turns the J-horror genre on its own head, by adhering to its rules and subverting them at the same time!

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

Friday, 23 February 2007

Hannibal Rising (2007)

"I'll have a Death Wish with my flava beans, thanks!" Hannibal's as hammy as the victims he eats

There's something seriously strange about WW2. According to history books and war movies, the villains are obviously the Nazis and the Japanese occupying army, but according to the arts and popular culture, the real villains and monsters are the survivors of the death camps and paramilitaries. It's a politically incorrect thing to say, but WW2 created monsters out of its survivors and victims - witness how the survivors of Auschwitz torture their children psychologically and drive them to depression in Art Spiegelman's Maus. On a grander scale, WW2 survivors often turn into serial killers and dangerous madmen, the most notorious of whom are Magneto and Hannibal Lector.

I'll forgive you for not realising that the good doctor was twisted by his war experiences as a child into a psychopath, because after all, this movie will tell you everything about young Hannibal - how he got his groove, so as to speak. I'll also forgive you for thinking "why would we be interested in the youth of Hannibal Lector? What good will it do?" After all, Hannibal Lector is the sort of character that springs out of the head of its writer fully grown. That Hannibal is a remorseless cannibal with a heightened sense of black humour and irony, a penchant for preparing dishes from choice cuts of his victims, garnishing these dishes and their corpses to fit the nature of their "offenses" and moral failings, has very little to do with his childhood. "You know the man. You know his methods", proclaims one of the taglines for Hannibal Rising. But the point about Hannibal Lector's the man is his methods. While Magneto's methods and beliefs are inseparable from his experience in Auschwitz, Hannibal's methods and beliefs have been presented as complete in themselves in the entire series so far, and I do remember the good doctor telling agent Clarice Starling in their first meeting in Silence of the Lambs that "nobody made me. I happened." - meaning that no childhood or growing up experience traumatised him into a mass murderer. For Thomas Harris (author of the novels and this screenplay) to revise the canonicity of Hannibal, to create an origin story for a figure that has no origins, is a bold move, and this movie will either succeed or fail, depending on how well Harris convinces us that Hannibal requires an origin story, and whether that origin story fits Hannibal.

So what exactly does Hannibal Rising achieve? Magneto, as I've mentioned, is a great villain born from WW2, and according to this movie, Hannibal gets his kickstart from watching Nazi collaborators murder his family in Lithuana, eat his beloved baby sister Mischa, and butting heads with bullies at the Soviet orphanage. His creative campaign of revenge against his sister's killers in Paris (apparently almost all escaped from the Baltics to Western Europe) is apparently what turns him into The Hannibal Lector we all know and love. And his taste for culture and the good life? It's definitely not the time spent at the Soviet orphanage, but the later-day tutoring in Paris by his uncle's wife, the Lady Murasaki.

It almost works as an origin story, but audiences who aren't hardcore Thomas Harris fans might discover that the movie is plagued by a very weak script. Hannibal fans will be horrified to learn that the novel is lacks the sophistication, planning, and maturity of the other Hannibal books. How could it be that the origin story of the most fascinating fictional serial killer is a mix between a simple and straightforward slasher movie and a simple and straightforward revenge fantasy (a Europeanised Death Wish)? How can it be that one feels Hannibal Rising has more in common with Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and other prequels to slasher movies, rather than a true successor to the Hannibal trilogy? What is missing and sorely missed in this script is Hannibal's chilling ability to toy with people while plotting their ruination, an ability that would've made this more than a simple revenge movie.

There is of course the mistaken idea that Hannibal's early past would explain his future self, and the mistake of choosing a mundane past (a simple tale of revenge!), and the failure to even execute it properly - the victims are stock Nazi grunts whom one loves to see killed, and would applaud if they are dispatched by Hannibal. Since we know he'll still be alive at the age of 60, sharing a dinner with Clarice Starling, we know how everything will turn out already. Part of what made the other Hannibal movies and novels work was the fact that there's always a detective who is after a criminal or group of criminals - and that Hannibal would be the twisted Obi-wan figure to this detective. Here, detective Popil (Dominic West) serves no purpose except to deliver the pronouncement that Hannibal is a monster.

There's also the heavy-handed melodrama (child Hannibal screaming to the heavens as he cradles his recently dead mother in the snow), the prevalent purple prose so cliched it's hilarious ("Memory is like a knife", "The boy died the same day as his sister"), and the bad, unsubtle music that telegraphs all the emotions it expects the audience to have, in bold capital letters. For this to happen to a movie whose villain has great taste is puzzling.

Even the great Gong Li fails to lift this movie out of its averageness. As the mentor of the great Hannibal Lector, she is just great for her first 15 minutes of the movie as a female embodiment of the late samurai spirit - equally formidable wielding both sword and brush. But she is Gong Li, and Gong Li seems fated to play strong women who end up confused, weak, shivering and in need of protection. When that transformation occurs (too soon in the movie), it is impossible to think this is the person responsible for the education of Hannibal Lector, imparting key facets of his character like a love for culture, presence of will, good taste, and self-possession, even though this is what the movie is supposed to do. At least Gaspard Ulliel has a ball of a time as Hannibal...

Audiences and readers who preferred the doctor's vague hints of his childhood and times in Hannibal need not worry too much about this movie, even though its clunky story clearly doesn't achieve the poetry or mysterious aura that his "memory castle" phrase in the novel evokes. I look forward to a remake of this film a decade down the road, just like how Manhunter was remade into Red Dragon.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima 硫黄島からの手紙 (2006)

Japanese soldiers realise one world war too late that Dulce et decorum est means nothing

Clint Eastwood spent slightly more than 2 years to research, produce, and then shoot 2 war films, back to back. It's a little like running 2 marathons back to back, and then we remember that Eastwood is about 76 years old. So it's an achievement that the director has not only turned out two gorgeous-looking war movies, but also two war movies that manage to say something entirely new about war in the history of the genre. It's also an achievement that the films, while taking an unflinching look at the same battle from both sides, manage to avoid preaching the same message

Flags of Our Fathers has a unique perspective on war, that it is sometimes nothing more than a propaganda campaign with stage-managed photo ops and endless victory parades to sell war bonds. Superficially, one might accuse Wag The Dog of saying the same things, except with Eastwood's visual and realistic camera style, one is less likely to laugh and more likely to gag at the fact that this was a real war, with more than real battles and soldiers dying, getting maimed, or damaged spiritually. With Letters from Iwo Jima, the director repeats the feat: it's not just an account of a war from the side of the losers, but an account of a war that not just reverses decades of portraying the enemies soldiers as depraved monsters, but merely young men that could very well be our own. Where the American war movie tends to paint its soldiers as badly equipped by honest sons who won the war with their individual honesty and innate goodness, Letters from Iwo Jima is the war movie that has its protagonist soldiers lose the battle because they were worse equipped than the other side, and who lost the war despite their individual honesty and innate goodness.

In other words, expect Letters from Iwo Jima to completely overturn expectations of how war films have been made for decades as propaganda, feel-good victory movies, expect a very depressing time in the cinema, and yes, expect to be wowed off your feet because Letters manages to be better than its companion piece. Clint Eastwood has a better eye for the artistic and dramatic potential when telling the Battle of Iwo Jiima through Japanese eyes, because here there is only one story to tell: how men prepare for their inevitable deaths, and fight a war they know they will never survive. Relentlessly, over the course of over a very fatalistic 2 hours, Eastwood begs his audience to ponder with him: how do soldiers doomed to die behave? What do they tell themselves to justify why they're stuck in a no-win situation? And what do they do once they start losing a battle they know they mustn't allow themselves to lose, yet know that there is no other outcome for them?

With such concerns, Letters could very well end up a mawkish film, but Eastwood finds a good answer that acts as a magnifying glass and fulcrum for his many questions. The doomed men of Iwo Jima write letters that will never reach their receipients, not least because of the depletion of most military resources. Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) illustrates his letters to his young son about how he spent a decade in America before the beginnings of escalations between the two countries. Saigo, a baker press-ganged into the defense of Japan by a desperate Japanese army, writes home to his wife on the war preparations on the island. Former Olympic winner Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara, the Japanese pugilist from Jet Li's Fearless) brings embargoed news to the General about the true state of the Japanese war machine: expect no reinforcements or armaments as the Japanese combined fleet was sunk a month earlier. Even the American soldier they capture has a letter from home, a motherly reply that stands in for what every soldier had wanted to hear from their own families when they wrote their letters.

And all this happens during the course of the film, while the Japanese change defense strategies, get bombed by American fighters, ambush the American soldiers, painfully lose inch by inch of the island while crawling or hiding in their huge subterranean complex, argue amongst themselves about whether it's nobler to regroup after a losing battle or just to die in a blaze of self-administered glory - and go mad or attain enlightenment in the process. For a film about losers and "historical villains", Clint Eastwood is smart enough not to turn this movie into an apologist reel or a revisionist drama extolling the nobility of the fallen Japanese hero-soldiers in place of the fallen American hero-soldiers. in this movie, the men who act with the noblest of intentions and the most honourable passions are the ones whom I suspect the audience will have the least sympathy for. Instead of a trite "everyone's human" or "there are no good sides in a war because everyone suffers and dies", the message of Eastwood and his film is perhaps to show that because everyone is human, no country, military or political establishment should be allowed to provoke, enter or engage in a war without strong justifications - and also that patriotism, defense of the motherland (or fatherland), protecting the future generations - all good-sounding soundbites, are no excuse to wage a war.

I am told that the movie is mostly historically accurate, with some WW2-era weapons actually featured. As there weren't many Japanese survivors from the Battle of Iwo Jima, some events accounted in the movie are a result of well-informed and scholarly conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless. Even so, I'm actually impressed that Clint Eastwood has managed to bring out the subtlety of the state of the Empire of Japan, with the notorious jockeying, rivalry, and mutual sabotage between the Army and Navy making it to screen for the first time, I believe, in western cinema. There is no doubt that this is an important film - the All Quiet on the Western Front for the Pacific Theatre in WW2, and so far the only WW2 film by non-Japanese that doesn't make the Japanese army out as monsters or pure evil wearing a human form.

In Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood's remarkable eye for cinematic detail merges well with his single-minded and focussed storytelling, and I find the film a more superior product than Flags of Our Fathers. There are no extraneous scenes, no strained jumping in between locations separated by vast distances, mood, theme, and time. Aside from a few flashbacks that I felt were too "obvious", Letters is a well-made and compact war film that I hope will inspire filmmakers to tell more different types of war stories.

First published at incinemas on 22 February 2007

Monday, 19 February 2007

Norbit (2007)

Makes you wonder how Dreamgirls would’ve turned out if Eddie Murphy played all 4 Supremes

There’s a mystery surrounding Eddie Murphy. He’s a great comedian, but aside from Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, Nutty Professor, and Dr Doolittle, almost all of his other comedies were difficult to watch. In his long career, he’s made more bombs than ribtickling movies. And in the same year, he’s starring in Dreamgirls and Norbit.

Dreamgirls is sort of a secret history of the Supremes, with Eddie Murphy wowing audiences with his singing and acting talent. Norbit is a comedy about a meek African-American man who is constantly bullied by his oversized and vulgar wife, and her extortionist brothers (they’re in the property business). Part of the humour in Dreamgirls comes from Eddie Murphy’s the over-the-top performance as a stereotypical sex on legs male singer, and part of the humour in Norbit comes from Eddie Murphy’s over-the-top performance as Norbit, his gigantic wife Rasputia, and Mr Wang, who ran the orphanage where Norbit grew up. Yet Norbit is a rehash of old Eddie Murphy movies. Like the ones where he dons a fat suit and plays every character in the room. If that’s not too unoriginal, it has some of the most recycled fat jokes in movie history, and is the Nth movie after Scary Movie to parody the Paris Hilton Carls Jr ad.

Don’t get me wrong about Norbit, though: skits and stand-up routines with male comedians dressed as stereotypical big fat black women with stereotypical big bad attitudes are a staple on the comedy circuit. The problem is a really funny theme for jokes and sharp criticism on typical behaviour by ethnic minorities ("Blacks are fat and loud and have no manners!", for example) works in stand-up routines only because the skits are short, and people are used to very politically-incorrect jokes told by ethnic minority comedians. It’s like Sacha Baron Cohen making fun of Jews in his sketch shows, or Bill Cosby criticising the poor education of black people in front of black audiences.

One thing about these jokes is they would never really work in a conventional feature film (Borat worked, but only because it was less of a film than a long series of filmed sketches), because feature films require a coherent, sustained storytelling that is often at odds with the punchline-driven, superficial haha style of jokes seen and heard on stand-up routines. This very minor, but very fatal weakness shows itself in Norbit, which is genuinely funny and funniest in its first half hour, but the fat jokes get a little tired, a little worn, and a little less funny after that. The entire "Eddie Murphy’s playing everyone in the room!" thing is good, but getting old, and ever since the scene in Being John Malkovich, nothing Eddie Murphy does now can top that.

The funniest thing about Norbit isn’t really Eddie Murphy, but his co-stars Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams, who play the most hilarious characters in this movie. Their appearances are guaranteed to bring down the house in the few scenes they’re in, and the real reason to watch this comedy.

First published at incinemas on 18 February 2007

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Nicolas Cage knows he's in a trashy movie and he's enjoying it

I've had enough of serious superhero movies, with stoic characters with chiselled looks burdened with saving the world from a certain disaster while still having the time to make grand speeches about the responsibilities of being a hero. As far as I'm concerned, all the complex moralities with superherohood should be thrown away, because all I want is to watch an enjoyable flick without being preached at and without its hero (or heroes) looking moody because theirs is a dark, serious and dramatic character. If like me, you are disappointed with last year's Superman Returns, or wish a reprieve from the ultra-realistic, psychological Batman Begins-style superhero films, then Ghost Rider is just what you need. Ghost Rider is a whole load of fun because it doesn't take itself seriously, and there's no way Mark Steven Johnson could make a serious and dark drama based on a premise that a motorcycle stuntman transforms into a tough-talking, leather clad, flaming skeleton without us snickering at him.

Instead, Johnson's establishes Ghost Rider as an old school comic book movie - campy and deliberately cheesy, Ghost Rider will make you think how what an excellent "bad" movie it is. It's the sort of fun feel you get from reading old Dr Strange comics where the hero had to battle spandex-clad villains with portentous, sinister names, Flash Gordon radio dramas, or the original Highlander movie. Like all these great classics, Ghost Rider has a dialogue that is deliberately "awful", yet strangely appropriate for the atmosphere of its pulpy plot, which revolves around one Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stuntman who, having sold his soul to save the life of his father, becomes a servant of the demonic Mephisopheles. That Johnny Blaze is the titular hero of the Ghost Rider movie, and as a result of being a liege to the demon, is virtually unkillable - something that surely benefits his career as a daredevil stuntman. However, when an even more dangerous demon seeks to imperile the world, Mephistopheles calls in the debt on the reluctant and remorseful Blaze, turns him into the flaming Ghost Rider, and even granting him powers to punish the wicked. Now, that's what I call a good old fashioned pulp plot, which has none of the failings of movies like Daredevil, where too many sideplots happen all at once, or Constantine, where too many plotlines from the original comic series are compressed into the space of a feature movie.

Like I said, only in the most old school of pulp fantasy comics will you get a setup where a superpowered servant of a major demon acts for all purposes on the side of good! I've already mentioned the classic"bad" dialogue and setup, but what's more important is the portrayal of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider by Nicholas Cage. Detractors may say that Cage is an actor who has only 3 types of facial expressions that he uses throughout his movies: the intense/tortured look (think Leaving Las Vegas), the hangdog expression (any movie where Cage's character has a romance), and the insane look, accompanied by maniacal laughing (think Castor Troy in Face/Off), but in Ghost Rider, when Cage unleashes nothing more than those 3 facial expressions, it is more than appropriate: it is exactly how you'd expect a pulp hero like Ghost Rider to behave. In Cage's performance, there are no pretensions to nobility of spirit, but a simple joy in acting out a simple role in a larger-than-life manner that was last seen in Kevin Spacey's similar portrayal of Bobby Darin in Under the Sea.

Perhaps it's a good thing that motion picture technology has improved since the 1970s, when good pulpy hero movies were made. The special effects in Ghost Rider are solid without being gimmicky or flashy, and are effectively used to bring to life the fantastic powers of the Ghost Rider, such as his flaming attire and motorcycle, transformation, and his special power, the Penance Stare.

All things considered, if you're in the mood for a superhero movie that's well-written and acted, and yet doesn't take itself too seriously, Ghost Rider is just the thing for you. You'll probably be slightly embarrassed at how much you'd enjoy this trashy pulp movie, but it's okay - I enjoyed myself too!

First published at incinemas on 15 February 2007

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Protege 门徒 (2007)

Drugs are bad, mmm'kay?

Dereck Yee started out as an actor in the late 1970s, and has been nurturing a parallel career as a director. What distinguishes his films from most other directors, consequently, is his ability to bring out convincing and intense performances from his casts, perhaps because of his background and continuing work as an actor himself. With screenwriting and creative talent in perennial short supply in Hongkong film, Yee's approach as an actor's director ensures that while he may not have perfectly-written scripts, the delivery and performance of his actors elevates any movie he directs to a higher standard than expected. Occasionally, when he does have a sparkling script, Yee can perform real magic with his cast, such as in One Night In Mongkok or Drink-Drank-Drunk. With the advent of the Infernal Affairs trilogy and the Election series, Hongkong film returns to the gangster-and-cop genre in a big style, and Dereck Yee's Protege is an acknowledgement of this trend. Is there cause for worry, since Yee hasn't directed or scripted any gangster-and-cop genre film in more than a decade, and that much of his reputation as an actor's director rests on his unconventional treatment of standard genres

At first glance, Protege looks like standard post-Infernal Affairs fare, with Daniel Wu playing the mole to Andy Lau's crime lord. Even in its opening minutes, Protege looks like a standard cop-and-gangster movie, with a 5 minute police dragnet operation on the roads of Hongkong. This, you gather, will be one of the more standard and unsurprising films from Yee and correspondingly, one expects a well-done genre story. This time round, Andy Lau's crime lord is a major player in the field of heroin processing and sales in Hongkong. A self-styled "banker" (the "House" in casino terminology), Lau is the fatherly and genial Eric Tsang-esque mentor to his promising protege Daniel Wu, who of course happens to be an undercover cop who has spent 7 years in this operation, waiting for the eventual raid that will net not just Lau's entire operations staff, but his suppliers as well. Much of this movie will, if you haven't guessed, focus on scenarios that continually test and reaffirm their loyalty and friendship, but Dereck Yee's script makes Lau's crime lord a very intruiging character. Forget that he's a fuddy duddy family man who's planning to hand over his reins to the protege - the crime lord protests too loud about the ethics of profitting from selling drugs, and probably has some deep issues to work out in this movie, far more than any undercover cop is expected to have.

For Wu's character, Yee throws away the Infernal Affairs playbook to develop on the drug trafficker's relationship with one of the end-users of his products, a young addict mother who struggles between the needle and her vow to kick the habit. Zhang Jingchu shines in this role as the vulnerable mum who veers from hope to disappointment, manic energy to drugged lethargy. Her performance also brings out the best in Wu, whose spiritual dilemma in this film stems not really from his undercover status or his deception of his "good boss", but from his status as a trafficker and a friend who tries to wean Zhang from heroin.

While Yee brings out the best performances from his principal actors, the script for Protege is weaker than his typical film. Character development is problematic at best: Lau's conflicting justifications for trafficking drugs indicate a troubled personality, but nothing is ever made out of that; the movie does build towards an eventual Infernal Affairs face-off between the crime lord and his protege - a standoff that curiously lacks any emotional payoff because there wasn't any proper buildup in the script; and there are 2 puzzling scenes that drag on beyond the climax that draws questions about uncharacteristic motivations for a major character. At worst, character development is non-existent: Anita Yuen is disposable as the wife of the crime lord, while a daughter has a bizarre side-plot with Wu (a twisted arranged match made by the crime lord and the missus) that appears quite suddenly and is dropped with the same speed as well.

Protege may not be one of Yee's best movies, and it may not be one of the best post-Infernal Affairs movies, but the movie is worth watching based on the strength of the performances alone. Dereck Yee proves again that he alone can bring the best out of his actors, even without a strong script or character development.

First published at incinemas on 15 February 2007

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Paris, je'taime (2006)

The rules are simple and straightforward: Paris has 20 districts (or arrondissements, as they call them). Invite 20 directors from all over the world to make 20 short films, each lasting no more than 5 minutes, on each of the 20 districts. Stitch 18 of them together (2 directors created sequences that couldn't fit in with the rest) with brief sequences of overhead shots of Parisian traffic and architecture, and there, you have a film. It sounds impossible that such a film would be anywhere coherent, but then again, these 20 directors count among the most artistic filmmakers in the world, ranging from Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, the Coen brothers, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Richard LaGravenese, Sylvain Chomet, and more. Some of these names would be familiar, others less so, but almost all are mainstays in the film festival and indie scenes.

And what is this Paris that flits by 18 times in 2 hours? It is the Paris of popular imagination, the Paris according to directors from all over the world; the Paris inhabited by natives, immigrants, cosmopolitan visitors and casual tourists (as well as ghosts and vampires!); the infinite Parises we see through their experiences; the Paris of countless films past, and the Paris that directors now pay homage to - in short, Paris, the City of Love. And love, surprisingly, is completely different depending on who you ask, and all 18 answers have nothing to do with the hackneyed ideas that we read in cheap paperback romances about Paris. To Gus Van Sant, it is the feeling the triumphs over a series of beautiful but botched pickup lines; to the Coen Brothers, a cultural misunderstanding by the ugly American tourist; to Tom Tykwer, something that is keenly felt and realised only in its aftermath and passing; to Richard LaGravenese and Isabel Coixet, something that becomes true only when it is self-consciously performed.

And so 18 short films show the crucial moments when characters realise they've fallen in love, fallen out of love, have love rekindled, thwarted, awakened, relived, realised, and lost. They hit you in a perfect rhythm: just enough time to realise you've never quite seen any love story told in such an unconventional manner, or focusing on such a peculiar aspect of love, or told from such an unexpected angle (a muslim hijab sparks off a love affair, a mother's love for a child is sacrificed because she needs to babysit for another's, and what happens when two mimes fall in love?), and just enough time for you to realise that each short film is a perfectly formed miniature. But then, the short film has always been more difficult to write, direct, and realise to screen than a feature film, because its time constraints demands that the filmmakers demonstrate their point, maximise its impact, and make it so different yet emotionally true in order to impress audiences into remembering it 10 or 20 short films later. That all 18 directors succeed is a testament to the height of their skill to weave a short story that is both compelling and self-sufficient.

I cannot recall any other anthology film that has worked so well (most others have just 3-4 short stories in 2 hours), aside from the brilliant 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. A tribute to the late pianist, the movie consisted of 32 very different short films, each forming a different impression of the artists, through vastly different types of storytelling - comedy, drama, animation and so on. Paris, je t'aime has the same inspired genius and brilliant execution as 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, but it may be a far better film because it is made by not one, but 18 directors.

I would recommend Paris, je t'aime for lovebirds and lovers of Paris and short films. Its 18 unique and individualistic stories - romances, Murakami-styled miniatures, comedies, tragedies, and above all, whimsy - will appeal to romantics and cynics alike. The good news is that Paris, je t'aime is only the first of 3 movies. I'm already looking forward to the next ones on New York and Tokyo, and wondering which talented directors will be chosen for their 5 minutes in these movies.

First published at incinemas on 22 February 2007

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Love for Share (Berbagi Suami) (2006)

Not a campaign poster for polygamy

Love For Share is about the issue of polygamy as seen through the eyes of women who are married to men who have other wives. Already, I can hear you groan, probably because you found out this movie is made of three interconnected stories about 3 women, each from a different social class, facing a serious and widespread social problem in Indonesia. Yes, Love For Share sounds like An Artsy, Independent Film With An Important Social Message by a fresh director that's destined to play at film festivals around the world. You'd expect normal audiences to be turned off by the self-importance that such a movie exudes. Looking at the director's previous films, you'd probably come to this suspicion as well - Arisan had a group of well-to-do 20somethings gossiping willynilly in their gatherings as they match make each other with all sorts of wrong partners, which Ca-bau-kan tackled adoption and concubinage in society.

Enough already, you must protest. But it might be better to give Nia Di Nata the benefit of the doubt in her third film, because she does the right thing finally, and saves the audience from terminal boredom. Instead of a dreary social problem movie about polygamy, Di Nata offers a comedy on polygamy. Instead of preaching down to us about the ills of polygamy (oppresses women, spreads STDs, robs people of their dignity and independance) and hammering her message (don't practise polygamy!), the director invests a healthy sense of humour to her stories, so that we can laugh with her characters, who look nothing like the stock long-suffering concubines or neglected first wives that we'd expect.

Sure there's a modern Muslim woman, a highly-educated doctor who simmers with years of disappointment after her husband takes on a second wife (telling her off-hand when No. 2 bears him a daughter) but the delicious comedy begins when the husband suffers a stroke and is found to have a third wive, unknown to both warring households. There's a young girl who becomes the newest mistress in a household filled with interesting marital rituals (shades of Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern?), but the comedy begins when instead of fighting amongst themselves, the wives build up a close friendship to collaborate and collude with each other to share their childrearing burdens - and overcome the wretched poverty of their home. It's this sense of situational irony that makes Love For Share a charming and fun film to watch, and what makes its final story a partial letdown, as it feels out of place with the other two parts. It has no situational irony and unexpected twist, and an attentive audience would probably notice that it must have been included only because it completes the third possible permutation in a relationship between a man and his two wives. Viewers will also wonder about the Aceh tsunami disaster of 26 December 2005 - this time, the groans are entirely justified because the the tsunamis are throwaway references that don't quite play a necessary part in the movie.

When it works, though, Love For Share works brilliantly. Through her latest movie, Nia Di Nata proves that her instinct for subtle urban comedy is rapidly maturing, and her at times overwritten scripts are finally coming under control. She may one day be Indonesia's Feng Xiaogang, and I'd certainly pay serious attention to her next movie - it could be the big one.

First published at incinemas on 8 February 2007

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Little Children (2006)

Little Children is abound with very bored and desperate housewives

Tales of suburbia have become all too familiar in the recent years. You know, the tales of housewives dying of boredom, slowly driven mad, or driven to escape by the moral sterility, stifling conformity, and puritan judgementality of their middle-class neighbours. I suppose these films have such a hold on the cultural consciousness of America, because this suburban film has taken over the articulation of urban horror, which modern horror movies have fail to express because that genre has become a parody of itself (is the Scary Movie series or the countless sequels to The Ring and The Grudge any scary?). That's not to say that audiences aren't tired of angsty suburban movies; I suspect that reason behind the success of Desperate Housewives is a sign that even the angsty suburban genre is moving towards self-parody and irrelevance.

While it's true that Little Children is a typical suburban "horror" film (Kate Winslet is a bored former-feminist graduate housewive falling into the arms of bored unwilling law school candidate househusband Patrick Wilson), Todd Field and Tom Perrotta believe they have found the secret to rejuvenating the genre, by creating a script that is completely unpredictable despite its familiar setting and characters. You notice almost immediately when the film begins of their intention: There is a voiceover narrator (voiced by Will Kymann) who confides in us like a David Attenborough of suburbia or a documentary narrator providing the inner thoughts and processes of the humans as if Little Children were the sequel to March of the Penguins. In other words, expect to be acquainted with the whimsical, unexpected, and unconventional inner life of Homo Suburbia, to flit from the inner life of one character to an almost unrelated character through the most tangential of coincidences, to bear witness to the strangest practices of the natives, and listen to their (reported by the narrator, of course) even stranger justifications and explanations of why they do what they do.

And so the most interesting characters in Little Children aren't really Kate Winslet or her neighbour Patrick Wilson (though their story is one of the two planks of this movie), but perhaps the mundane yet bizarre habits of the spouses who cause their alienated states. Similarly, the focus isn't so much on the stifling conformity of the gated community (although its pressures do bear down on and drive the two main storylines), but more on the curious rituals and games of membership and exclusion that everyone plays. And watching this, one gets the idea that the filmmakers are far less interested in provoking an instinctive horror of suburbia than in provoking audiences, suburbanites, and other filmmakers to relook at their surroundings. This playful provocation and frustration of expectations is no less than a challenge to audiences to look at movies with a new eye as well, of course. That the writers of Little Children aim for this is not incredible - every filmmaker hopes their film will make the cinema experience anew - and what is actually incredible is that they have succeeded.

The proof is in the second main storyline of this movie, where Jackie Earle Haley plays a former sex offender released on parole but shunned and castigated by the community. Yet from this rather trite starting point, the character mutates so quickly that who we know he is at the end of the movie is so far removed from what we the audience expected in the beginning. For the duration of this movie, Jackie Earle Haley plays a wide range of roles: from a victim of society, a dangerous criminal not in control of his manias, a dangerous criminal fully in control of his manias, a master manipulator to a very helpless and lost man - evoking the full gamut of emotions, anxieties, and sympathies in the audience. This performance, ever so convincing and intense despite its wide range, is a treat that must be savored and enjoyed.

Clearly, Little Children deserves its nominations for its screenplay and supporting actor, and is a movie that is greatly rewarding, if you have the patience for its long runtime.

First published at incinemas on 8 February 2007

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Dreamgirls (2006)

It's showtime!

Dreamgirls may be about a fictitious all-girl band called the Dreamettes and their manager and soon-to-be record mogul Curtis Taylor Jr, but it’s really a roman a clef about the Supremes and Motown Records. It’s a rags to riches story, but Diana Ross and the Supremes only climbed to the charts by trampling on the career of their more talented lead singer Florence Ballard (who in real life, died penniless, depressed, and alcoholic), and Motown's success depended on not just talent, but also paying off radio stations to play their songs and micromanaging the creativity and musicality out of their own singers and songwriters. You could even say Dreamgirls is about the American Dream, its achievement and simultaneous perversion, and you won't too wrong. Such elements definitely make for a tale with an epic scope, historical sweep, drama and tragedy, inspiration and moral caution, but the question remains: will this tale translate well into a musical?

Well, since Dreamgirls has been done before as a Broadway musical, yes. But a movie musical plays by far different rules than stage musicals: what audiences are willing to see on a stage in a theatre may not be the same as what they're willing to see in a cinema, as a series of moving pictures. While most of the songs from the Broadway musical are intact here, a striking difference is the treatment of the dialogue. Originally sung as recitatives, the dialogue is now spoken - serving to regulate the pacing between the musical setpieces. The songs often follow through on one another like waves, telling the story in broad sweeps and providing the emotional narrative of the characters, in addition to serving in the traditional role of a musical number.

But even gorgeous music does not guarantee an excellent cinematic experience. Tobias A Schliessler complements the grand sweep and emotional depth of the songs with an equally involved camera. The sets are so well-designed that you'll never think of them as merely a decorative stage on which the singers perform: there are real nightclubs and showbiz venues in the beginning, but as the movie progresses, there sets expand to stages with revolving mirrors, interiors with pop art renditions of the stars and even recording studios. Despite its origins, you'll never think of Dreamgirls as merely a filmed version of a stage musical, simply because Scheliessler knows better than to leave his camera in front of the set to just capture the action (this is what made The Producers a let-down in the cinemas). Editing from Virginia Klatz ensures that the energy in every scene is multiplied unto itself from constantly changing angles, that transitions occur between scenes seamlessly, creatively, and without losing narrative energy so that you'll never consciously notice we just went from Act I to Act II, for example. Visually speaking, both cinematography and editing conspire to make the movie a dazzling, kinetic experience that you feel like standing up and dancing to the music at times.

Aside from the great visuals and music (which ranges from soul, R&B, rock, to power ballads), Dreamgirls has one more bonus to sweeten your cinematic experience: Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson deliver sterling performances, and outshine the presence of Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles. With his portrayal of the tragic James Early Thunder, Murphy displays a musical talent that hasn't been seen since he parodied the godfather of soul in the James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party sketches on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and also a magnetic and serious performance that hasn't been seen from him before, ever. This puts him in the lead for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Jennifer Hudson, as the diva lead singer who turns over a new leaf, captivates the eye and ear with her soulful belting and sheer screen presence, totally driving the better-known Beyonce in the dust. And this puts her in the lead for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In what has to be a casting in-joke, Beyonce Knowles plays a bland, characterless PR-created figure with an inoffensive voice. It doesn't put her in the lead for anything other than a few knowing winks and smiles, though.

Perhaps the producers and writers of Dreamgirls believe in giving only the best, and as a result, Dreamgirls delivers top quality in every category you could think of: acting, singing, camerawork, set design, the works. At the end of this 2 hour movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking you sat through the best and longest THX sound test ever made, but I think it's a fitting tribute to the showbiz philosophy philosophy of James Brown: Give people more than what they came for — make them tired, 'cause that's what they came for.

First published at incinemas on 22 February 2007