Friday, 30 March 2007

Shooter (2007)

Mark Wahlberg is Rambo!

The 80s had the US stuck in a quagmire of Vietnam. Now, the US is stuck in an eternal occupation of Iraq. In the 80s, we had John Rambo, an elite soldier who, since a mission went wrong in Saigon, retired into civilian life. However corrupt officials trying to drive away the drifter provoke the soldier to wage war on his own government. Now, Marky Mark is a sort of modern Rambo, a sharpshooter veteran who hung up his shotguns after a botched peacekeeping mission. He's retired and living it up on a secluded mountain, but when corrupt officials try to frame him for the attempted assassination of the President of the United States, it's time to whip out the Rambo routine!

Don't we live in an enlightened age, you say. Certainly Bob Lee Swagger (I'm not making his name up!) could civilly explain everything, unless powerful shadowy government agencies are trying to kill him before he has a chance. And certainly, Bob Lee Swagger could explain, if given a chance, that these shadowy government agencies hired him to plan the assassination of the President in order to catch a mysterious, existing assassin - nobody expected the agency to actually carry his plan out and pin the blame on him... See here: this sort of excuse is just lame, and truth be told, everyone and you and I would laugh at him for stretching our credulity ("You expect us to believe you never thought of that?"). Hence the only way for Bob Lee Swagger to clear his name is to take out every last conspirator in the shadowy government agency himself! Plus, they killed his beloved dog while trying to set him up.

Aside from the initial setup in the first third of the movie, Shooter feels and plays like a liberal Rambo, with the hero slowly picking off one enemy after another - only this time, they're corrupt and shadowy US government officials who take pride in stating upfront that yes, they invaded Iraq on false pretexts, and well, the American people fell for it, heh heh heh! Yes, these officials are so evil and smirking that you'll want to cheer Sylvester Stallone Mark Wahlberg as he enacts his slow revenge (Nobody! Nobody kills my dog!). But does Shooter really live up to its goal of remaking Rambo for the Iraq War generation?

I'd venture that the results are mixed. Shooter's shadowy agency types do beat the sheriff's department from Rambo: First Blood hands down, and Wahlberg's sharpshooter is at least on par with Stallone's Elite marine veteran. The sharpshooter, of course, is more suited to an action thriller set in the urban United States, as opposed to a marine vet, but there's a danger that the non-contact sport of the marksman may not excite the action thriller fan as much as a good old-fashioned mano-e-mano grapple with Sly. The director attempts to address this issue by resorting to lots of exploding vehicles (cars and helicopters), but the most entertaining points of the movie come from watching Mark Wahlberg do the Rambo thing - operating on his own wounds, picking off his victims while masked in camouflage paint, and conducting a one-man battle against overwhelming forces. He's not Rambo, though, and the explosions may not completely mask your feeling that there's not enough violent killing done in this movie.

What is worth appreciating in Shooter isn't its attempt to update Rambo for the post-9/11 world (slightly above average, but not a complete success), but rather how it manages to update the thriller genre for the post-9/11 world. I mean, with such an incompetent, mendacious, and malevolent President and administration serving the United States, it has certainly taken long enough for popular culture to produce a revenge fantasy where a soldier gives these lying politicians and agencies what they deserve. My only hope is that the movie remake of The A-Team due next year will take its cue from Antoine Fuqua and Jonathan Lemkin, and update The A-Team into Gulf War II veterans bringing down military forces who set them up for a crime they didn't commit. One can only hope!

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

Thursday, 29 March 2007

13 Tzameti (2005)

A bullet to the head

There are times when directors have this crazy idea - in our modern day and age, they will attempt to shoot a genuine black and white film, using production techniques, using only the visual grammar of that era - close-ups, dissolves, odd angles, and throwing away modern cinematic techniques like cross-cutting, quick edits, and so on. Often, they do this because the story they tell can't be told in any other style, and because these directors really want to show off how much they can stretch themselves by mastering their limits. I'm thinking of 2005's The Call of Cthulhu by the HP Lovecraft Society, a faithful and imaginative (even surreal) film version of Lovecraft's original short story - its depictions of the labyrinthine world of nightmares, dream fevers, cult orgies and arcane monsters (using stop motion, forced perspectives) proved that the German Expressionist style is a sensible approach to making a serious and dark horror film set in the 1920s. I'm also thinking of 2000's Shadow of the Vampire, where the only logical way to retell the making of Nosferatu ("What if Nosferatu were played by a real vampire?") could only be in black and white, with intertitles and elided action forming the film's visual grammar.

In the same vein this year, we have the French-Georgian director's debut film, 13 Tzameti. Instead of making a horror movie, Babluani is interested in 1950s noir. So, when you enter the cinema and the film starts playing, don't be alarmed that the film is in black and white (the projection hasn't broken down), or that the first 2 minutes where almost nothing remarkable happens even though the cinematography is flawless - a pail containing rotten wood is pulled down from a roof to the ground, a man walks from the house to the beach and collapses, a workman observes from the roof (the projectionist hasn't put the wrong film into the projector). I'll admit that for a moment, I thought this was one of Monty Python's long-running gags where they parody French art films. However, 13 Tzameti looks, sounds, and is indeed a French noir film, or an evocation of one at any rate.

Sebestien, the odd-job labourer and Georgian immigrant, loses his pay when the owner of the house whose roof he fixes dies off an accidental drug overdose. But no fear - eavesdropping on the curious stream of visitors to the house, he figures that the late M. Godon was due to participate in as yet-unknown scheme (a heist, perhaps?) where he would come into a great fortune at its successful conclusion. There is no clue about what the scheme might entail; the young (and desperately trying to support his entire Georgian immigrant clan) man is owner of only a train ticket and a hotel room reservation. What deed is it that he will end up having to perform? Why is the dead man's widow/daughter/acquaintance and his old-time buddy so apprehensive about the scheme? And who are the mysterious group (or groups?) of people who are determined to track this young man down, or even prevent him from fulfilling the dead man's mission?

All these elements are ingredients for a great thriller, and the interesting thing about 13 Tzameti is how the director turns them into the ingredients of a great noir film, and a classic noir film as well. It's one thing to tell a good noir story, and quite another to film it as such, with the cinematic grammar of noir, and still quite another thing to convince viewers, in the duration of its 90 minutes, that this is the best way to tell the story.

All things considered, I'd say Babluani succeeds wildly. The trailer for the movie - as well as its official synopsis - gives away the revelation of the movie - Sebestien will discover too late that he is taking the place of his late employer in a high stakes game of professional Russian roulette. You should be able to predict that he survive and succeeds in getting his money, but the journey towards the ending is makes you forget the destination: every frame and sequence is composed to exact the highest amount of tension and suspense from the minimal amount of props and razzle-dazzlery, relying instead on good camera placing, stretches of silence, and the intensity of acting - all brought out by Babluani's noir direction of the movie.

13 Tzameti might not break new grounds in storytelling, but it proves that in this day and age, someone can pull off a true noir film without botching it (Hollywood should take notes on this!). I can only marvel at how 13 Tzameti feels like an even darker, French noir version of Battle Royale, MCed by a charismatic Walter Koenig-lookalike instead of a frighteningly genial Beat Takeshi.

First published at incinemas on 16 March 2007

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Meet the Robinsons is the first Disney animated feature since it acquired Pixar in a deal that appointed Pixar's John Lasseter as Disney's Chief Creative Officer. While Pixar did not produce this animated movie, its influences are clear for all to see: Meet the Robinsons is a grand departure from Disney's philosophy of animated cartoons of the previous decade, simultaneously offering a revisioning of its animation aesthetics and sensibility and a return to the original charter laid down by Walt Disney.

You'll see this once the curtains part in the cinema - opening the animated feature is a musical short titled Boat Builders. There's the retro style animated Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck/Goofy logo and the classic Silly Symphonies matching of energetic music to onscreen mayhem (which ensues when the trio attempt to assemble a boat by themselves). More importantly, in Silly Symphony tradition, this short showcases breaking new technology (or at least a new philosophy of animation): although it is a 2D short, everything has been created with CG, with certain subtle sequences highlighting what can be done far better and easier with a set of computers. In one stroke, the short encapsulates the vision of Disney's animation philosophy - the company will always move forward, employing and innovating at the front of animation technology, yet preserving its mission to create family-friendly cartoons that reach out to kids, that inspire them as much as provoke their imaginations.

Also, the Disney first attempt at Pixar's pre-feature short outshines the latter studio's flashier, more technically dazzling efforts Boat Builders can be seen as a minature of the ideas in Meet the Robinsons, which is itself a parable of Disney's gameplan for the future: "Keep moving forward!" Plotwise, the movie tells the tale of Lewis, a young ward at an orphanage who doesn't look forward to his adoption interviews as much as to his newest inventions, whimsical and impractical contraptions that are as fun as they look fantastical. Lewis's roommate, caregiver, and potential adopted parents may have reason to fear his budding genius, but all he really wants is to invent a machine to help him find his biological mother. This time round, it could be an invention that might actually work, but then Lewis is shanghaied into the future by one Wilbur Robinson, who claims he needs to protect the slightly younger Lewis from a plot by a mysterious Bowler Hat Guy and his even more mysterious sidekick and collaborator, a flying bowler hat...

Being a Disney project, Meet the Robinsons is pitched at the entire family crowd. The young will have fun with the adventures of Lewis in the world of the future, and easily grasp its simple story of the search and longing for family as well as its upbeat "Keep moving forward" theme. Slightly older children should be able to enjoy its Jimmy Neutron meets Back to the Future story, while adults will find the comedy in this cartoon just right; it's neither too obtuse to please no one but the pop culture savvy or too patronising and dumbed down to please no one but the very young. There are no fart jokes or sequences involving characters getting high from too much sugary substances, and no pointless namedropping to show how hip the writers are.

The jokes (when they come) are an un-self-conscious lot, relying more on what the scriptwriters and directors feel are genuinely funny jokes than what most other writers would cynically put into a movie because "kids dig fart jokes" or "adults like cartoons that make references to real-life companies and celebrities, with slightly changed names". As a consequence, there's a really fresh feel to the tomfoolery that goes on in Meet the Robinsons. Cultural references are minimal and incidental to the jokes instead of being central to them: the Robinsons family are entertainingly quirky and original even if you don't know they're a sendup of the McFly clan from Back to the Future II; their robotic servant and the sinister bowler hat villain loveable even if they are vaguely based on C3P0 and R2D2 from Star Wars; and the ongoing series of jokes about the incompetent Bowler Hat Guy hilarious (various henchmen, accomplices, and even intended victims question the viability of his plans) even though Splitting Image had a similar in-joke with its spoof of Vincent Price villains decades ago. But all this fits into the theme of looking forward, while finding new ways to recapture the magical quality of Disney's classic children's animation.

The deliberately toned down look of Meet the Robinsons fits appropriately with its newfound philosophy. Instead of distracting audiences with an overdose of 3D (backgrounds and buildings are 3D and sometimes photorealistic while characters designs look more like Wallace and Gromit but done with CGI - hence 3D but not hyper-lifelike), the creators of Meet the Robinsons let the story do the talking. Disney will restart its 2D animation studio after this movie, and if Meet the Robinsons is any indication, their products will be no easy pushovers at all.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Because I Said So (2007)


It must be difficult to be Diane Keaton these days. Her film career simply hasn’t aged well at all. The actress, in her heyday, used to play highly intelligent and equally eccentric and flighty women with a taste for eye-catching androgynous fashion. She used to act in neurotic romantic comedies alongside Woody Allen, but this year, she’s appearing in a very conventional romantic comedy alongside Mandy Moore.

In Because I Said So, Keaton is the well-intentioned but overbearing mother Daphne, who in the process of raising her 3 daughters single-handedly, is unable to break the habit of micromanaging their adult lives, to the extent of suggesting what they should wear. That’s not quite a problem: girls grow up and get married, and mothers have to let go at that point. Unfortunately youngest daughter Milly, inheriting from her mother the lethal combination of single-minded devotion to career and underdeveloped dating skills, is a nebbish who holds some kind of track record for strings of failed romances with presumably men who take advantage of her naivete or good nature. In light of Milly’s most recent breakup (she was dumped, of course), it’s mother to the rescue as Daphne decides to secretly place a personal ad for her daughter on the internet, and hilarity ensues as the mother weeds out the undeserving suitors and pushes her choices on the unsuspecting daughter!

You’d probably notice how conventional the story is already – but in the hands of a brilliant writer: the meddlesome matchmaking mother, the scatterbrained daughter who goes to pieces in the presence of the mother, her courtship with the socially approved suitor and the poor (and not approved by mom) suitor, would serve as the ingredients of the modern romantic comedy descended from the sensibilities of Jane Austen.

However, the antics and anxieties of Daphne is far more funny than her daughter’s adventures in dating mummy’s approved and unapproved boyfriend choices – a testament to Keaton’s, but not the writers’ mastery of the romantic comedy genre. Despite the fact that the writers seem to be motivated by their extreme dislike of Keaton’s image (they make her wear one atrocious fashion disaster dress after another, as though this movie is the ugly version of The Devil Wears Prada, and cast her as an eccentric but unintelligent woman), her comic instinct and timing never fails to bring in the laughs.

In contrast, the comic wooing of Mandy Moore by Tom Everett Scott (the mum-approved choice) and Gabriel Macht (mum does not approve!) smacks of perfunctory, almost lazy writing. After decades of Austen and Hollywood, we know that Scott will turn out to be a well-bred cad, while “disreputable” Macht (playing a widower with an unpromising job) will pick up the pieces at the end – what’s strange about this movie is that the writers themselves seem uninterested to invest effort to flesh out the wooing or even attempt to make the courtship less predictable and more entertaining. Watching the abbreviated, compare and contrast style dating sequences made me wonder if we got the Cliff Notes version of a more-detailed script.

Because I Said So only rescues itself from being a weak romantic comedy through Diane Keaton’s comedy, and a half-way switch into a comic ‘tribute’ to process of motherhood and the madness of mother-daughter relationships. As such, I’d recommend this movie more for fans of Diane Keaton and quirky comedies rather than for moviegoers expecting romantic comedy action.

First published at incinemas on 29 March 2007

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Mr Bean's Holiday (2007)

Bean there, done that

Mr Bean was the biggest thing in comedy 15 years ago. I remember watching the original television series, where in the space of 10 minutes, Rowan Atkinson would present a comedy that involved either Mr Bean torturing his teddy bear, making an unfortunate child in public transport very uncomfortable, have culinary adventures with seafood, get pieces of clothing stuck where they shouldn't be, solve puzzles with his uniquely unconventional solutions, and creating havoc for other people as he goes about his general business while contorting his face and body into impossibly humorous or possibly horrifying shapes. As a sketch show goes, Mr Bean was successful because people loved being reminded of the boorish and selfish inner troll that lurks in all of us: if we are not allowed by our inner social policeman to constrain ourselves and behave, we'd probably have as much fun as nasty Mr Bean cutting queues, sabotaging others, vandalising property and so on. But since there's this inner policeman, what we can do at most is to laugh heartily as Mr Bean fulfils our inner antisocial fantasies.

But even successful comedy series have a shelf life; public tastes change, jokes wear thin, and writers find themselves running out of fresh ideas and gags - after 5 years of the television series, Rowan Atkinson and his co-writers called it a day. In 1997, Bean, created after the end of the series are faced with a gargantuan challenge - if the creators of the show felt they had said all there was to strange Englishman and his comic ways, what could a feature film possibly offer after that? By all accounts, the 1997 film has to be a failure: it was a compilation of recycled gag routines from the television series, trotted out for an American audience who presumably haven't seen the originals before (no one watches PBS, apparently), tacked on with an ending that was entirely out of character for Mr Bean (the character known for articulating in half-swallowed vowels and other brief vocalisations gave a speech). Now that Rowan Atkinson has a new Mr Been movie a decade after the first feature film, we can only hope that Mr Bean stays in character while the jokes and gags are new this time round. And hopefully, the world hasn't changed that much for us to find his new or old antics difficult to laugh at.

The chances are high: Mr Bean wins a trip to Cannes, France - hopefully the vacation, a change of scenery, and an immersion in a different culture should provide Atkinson and his co-writers chances to invent new gags for their creation. But then, that was what everyone expected when Mr Bean went to America 10 years ago...

Mr Bean's Report Card

Yes, Mr Bean is in character for the whole of the film! He mumbles, vocalises, and speaks occasionally, but rarely uses more than one word in a sentence.

Novelty factor

The first 2/3s of the movie recycles many familiar Bean jokes from the television series - the seafood adventures, the falling asleep/dozing off face contortion gag, the attempts to annoy a kid on public transport gag, the Mr Bean dance routine... The silver lining in this is that a few of the jokes and comic routines have been updated, although you may still suffer from occasional bouts of deja vu watching this.

The most novel jokes actually involve gadgets that have come to the forefront in the years between the two Bean movies - the handphone and the consumer camera. Atkinson misses with the handphone jokes, but the consumer camera is gold (and provides more than one gag)!

General Hilarity

I suppose it all depends on whether you ever get tired of the typical Bean jokes, and whether you react with nostalgia or boredom watching some recycled jokes. But regardless of whether the joke was old or new, Mr Bean's Holiday is genuinely funny when the jokes work perfectly. I personally felt the funniest part of the movie was in its final 15 minutes, because the gag was largely performed by Willem Dafoe playing a self-absorbed auteur, and Mr Bean's involvement in the joke was entirely unexpected (good, since we want to see new Bean jokes) and yet in character (we still want new Bean jokes to feel Beanish!).

Improvements over first Bean movie

The disappointing thing about Mr Bean's Holiday is that 10 years after Bean, Rowan Atkinson and gang still haven't figured out how to make a feature length Bean film without turning it into a series of short sketches. The great thing about Mr Bean's holiday is its last 15 minutes and its Buster Keaton style gag at the end.

Come back for more?
Rowan Atkinson has said that this will be his final movie as Mr Bean. It's hard not to see why - only 15 minutes of the movie feels totally new, and the best joke in the movie was performed by Willem Dafoe. Mr Bean's Holiday is still a vast improvement over Bean, and a fitting and honorable end to the Mr Bean series.

First published at incinemas on 22 March 2007

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Pathfinder (2007)

There can only be ONE caption for this image!

There are bad movies, mediocre movies, and B-grade movies - you might think they're all alike, but a B-grade movie is a movie as entertaining as it is bad, while a mediocre movie fails even to entertain and generally fails to create any strong reaction in you, and a bad movie actually inspires you to swear you hadn't watched it. Most people think B-grade movies are just bad movies, but they're dead wrong - it takes special effort and art to create a B-grade movie. One could aim to make a B-grade movie (say, Equilibrium) but more often than not, one ends up with either a mediocre (Ultraviolet) or a bad movie (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). And in this age, you just can't find many B-grade movies

Until now, that is. Pathfinder may be the best Hollywood can offer for a B-grade movie this decade, but I'm not complaining. The story's about an orphaned Viking (or Norse, for the politically correct) boy marooned in North America, raised by American Indians, rising up to defend his adopted tribe from the savage Viking raid a decade or so later. It's a little like Apocalypto, with a gentle native using his knowledge of the local scenery to launch hit and run guerilla attacks against savage and evil invaders who are hunting him at the same time. Of course, he miraculously remembers how to wield a sword in battle and even ride a horse (horses aren't native to North America, incidentally) even though he hasn't seen one or practised with both since he was a wee lad... but then again, you probably won't be bothered by this little detail - after all, this is a movie where Vikings land in North America to plunder Amerindian tribes they never really met in actual history. What matters is whether the Viking orphan's guerilla campaign against the invaders is as clever and violent as we expect, and whether it evokes a sense of fun in the audience.

It's clear that Pathfinder is not as stylistically gory as say 300 or any modern war movie with severed body parts flying across a CGI-blood splattered screen; its violence is far less cartoonish, probably achieved with prosthetics and props instead of blue or green screens and computers. The violence is strictly from the best of violent B-grade movies, the type that makes you flinch even though there isn't that much blood and not too much explicit imagery, save for the totally wicked and never-done-before scene where a severed EYE flies across the screen. The war and guerilla fighting sequences won't get crowds cheering and clapping - this isn't some CGI roman bread and circus act, but a well-executed B-grade stalk and kill operation that brings to mind Rambo in the jungles.

Perhaps the strongest B-grade element of this movie is the hero himself, a warrior savant caught in an identity conflict, the orphan is one of the long list of roles that Christopher Lambert, one of the trinity of the B-movie gods (aside from Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme) is famous for: witness the genius-level mastery of the sword and the cultural confusion in Tarzan, Duncan McCleod, and Beowulf! While Karl Urban (Eomer from LOTR) lacks Lambert's charisma and intensity, the fact that you can see Lambert superimposed on Urban's face throughout the entire movie (if you squint hard enough) is certification of its B-movie status. The Vikings aren't just big loud scary shouty men with horns on their helmets; they all look like Brian Blessed in his Richard IV role from Blackadder! How can you not feel the B-movie power of Pathfinder? And here's a bonus: look out for the proto-bobsledding scene in the movie, and tell me it doesn't look like the classic James Bond mountain snow chases!

Seriously, even if Pathfinder doesn't star Christopher Lambert or Brian Blessed (but hey, it has The Kurgan from Highlander!), it is probably the best B-movie that Hollywood has made in this past 10 years. One only hopes that this movie sparks off a real B-movie revival, bringing back my heroes Lambert, Seagal and Van Damme back to the big screen!

First published at incinemas on 22 March 2007

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Nada Sou Sou 涙そうそう (2006)

Okinawa is the very last area of the world occupied by the US Army after the end of WW2, unless one considers Europe to be permanently occupied by the Americans via NATO. Okinawa, despite the rent the US Army pays Japan for its naval bases, is still by far the poorest prefecture in Japan. Okinawan culture isn't exactly Japanese - the islands have their own language and traditions which still survive a century after their annexation during the Meiji Revolution. Poor, colonialised, and marginalised, Okinawa barely registers in pop culture at all - do you remember the j-dramas, movies, manga, or even anime set in Okinawa? In recent years, only the Forbidden Siren movie and the vampire anime series Blood+ were set in what one might charitably call a fictionalised Okinawa. Even sadder to contemplate is the fact that Karate Kid Part 2, set in a more realistic Okinawa, was actually filmmed in Hawaii...

I suppose all good things come to those who wait, and Nada Sou Sou is the first huge movie from Japan that takes place in its entirety on Okinawan soil. It's a tearjerker about a pair of step-siblings growing up in the poverty of Okinawa's islands. More than that, it's a tribute to the noblest kind of love there is in the world - the love one has for their family. Even though they aren't related by blood, the idea of family and kinship compel the older brother to take care of the kid sister when they are orphaned early on. It is this love that enables the elder brother to selflessly sacrifice his education for his more academically-inclined sister's, while at the same time still pursuing his own scaled-back dreams and ambitions. In this way, Nada Sou Sou is also about the resilience of the human spirit, celebrating people who never give up even in the face of crippling obstacles, and fulfils the necessary ingredients for a tearjerker ending, which the movie relentless builds towards.

At the same time, the creators of Nada Sou Sou also cram in as much of the local flavour as possible - this movie should be watched for its depiction of many unique Okinawan/Rykyuan traditions and culture, ranging from its summer festivities, language (look out for old folk spouting not standard Japanese or Okinawan-accented Japanese, but Okinawan language), architecture and even music. I'm not sure if the centrestage promotion of Okinawa culture would appeal to local fans of Japanese movies, but I personally was impressed by both the strong local flavour of the movie as well as how the Okinawan elements actually didn't hinder - and in fact helped - the development of the tearjerker plot.

Nada Sou Sou boasts of all-round great acting by its cast, and its simple but homely style neatly complements the strong rural Okinawan setting, making this movie a classic triple hanky tearjerker which should appeal to not just the young Japanese movie fan, but also older audiences who have been starved for good tearjerkers.

First published at incinemas on 29 March 2007

Namesake, The (2006)

Filed under: baby photos you hide from your friends

It's easy to make a movie about immigrants! Just play up the stereotypes - traditional elders vs thoroughly acculturated second generation youngsters, and depending on the slant of your politics, we'll either have a comedy like Bend It Like Beckham where the sympathies lie with the free spirited youngsters pitted against parochial and ultra-conservative parents trying their best to curtail the freedom of youth, or a romantic melodrama like Awakening aka "Wu Suo Nanyang" where the heroic and self-sacrificing elder generation is ultimately betrayed by a fickle, Westernised generation of thankless and selfish youth. The problem is both approaches lie in the wrongheaded reliance on paying up the angst of fitting in, either for comic or melodramatic effect. I guess it's fine if one wants to be entertained in a superficial way, to watch yet another "2nd generation immigrant comes to terms with adopted culture and original heritage" movie, but what about people who prefer to watch a more realistic and less manipulative, stereotypical, and hysterical movie about immigrants?

The Namesake, based on a book by Mira Nair, offers itself as a solution for us. It tells of the Gangulis, one of the odder immigrant families in fiction to date (aside from the Kumars at no. 42!). Ashoke and Ashima are the Bengali couple (matchmade in India, of course) who came all the way from India, while Gogol is their American-born son who sort of chaffs at his name. This is a reversal of dramatic convention, not least because the parents were the ones who chose the westernised name Gogol (as in Nikolai Gogol), while the hip, rock-music listening, liberal shiksa goddess-dating son is the one who really wants to be called by his good Bengali name of Nikil. It may be a simple reversal, but this minute detail describes the state of immigrant culture far more realistically than any dramatised movie - everyone is already bicultural to some extent - especially first generation immigrants. This "reversal" also reflects the ground far better - the anxiety of identity is more keenly felt by the second generation, and they may actually turn out to have more hang-ups being bicultural (and hence make a bigger deal out of it) than their assimiliationist parents.

So The Namesake begins right, addressing an emotive issue without sensationalism, using the idea of naming as a less sensationalist (than say, an arranged marriage or a ban from untraditional activities!) entry point into an often emotive issue. And with that beginning, everything just follows naturally. The first third of the movie concerns itself with the Ganguli elders - their uprooting from India to settlement in New York City, the middle third with the congenial, even cheeky struggle between Ganguli pere and fils (Kal Pen, from Harold & Kumar go to White Castle) about the naming issue, and the final third a sombre rumination on bicultural adaptation, misunderstandings, and acceptance for both generations of the family.

Instead of poking unfair fun at stereotypes, much of the comedy in this movie is good-natured and sympathetic to both sides of the issue, without falling into cheap sentimentality either - a rare trait in the immigrant genre movie. One can only praise the screen adaptation of Nair's novel, which preserves much of the wry humour, spot-on observations, and empathetic understanding of the immigration/culture issue. I am loath to say it, but The Namesake holds up very well against Ang Lee's Eat Man Drink Woman, itself a strong immigrant genre movie. What The Namesake has in its favour is its less formulaic handling of the issues, while its cinematography - emphasising the energy of NYC and Calcutta - is on par with the food porn approach of Ang Lee's film. Both endings and resolutions are equally surprising, although one might be tempted to prefer Nair's film because of its stronger emotional impact.

Do watch The Namesake: it has no screaming traditionalist parents, no Bollywood dance sequences, but reaches to all parents and children - and is itself a strong proof that biculturality is a universal condition.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

Monday, 19 March 2007

TMNT (2007)

What the shell are you looking at?

Like the recent Batman and Superman movies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon have undergone a bit of a makeover in recent years. When the original creators of the TMNT comic books managed to gain control of the cartoon franchise in 2003 (Mirage Studios now holds 1/3 of the rights to the series, as opposed to none in 1987), the entire storyline was rebooted to bring the animated cartoons in line with the darker and edgier comic series. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the blundering villain Krang, along with mutant sidekick Bebop and Rocksteady, were written out; they never even existed, while Shredder is a much crueller and capable villain than the original cartoon version. Oh, he's dead now, though. That wasn't as much surprising as how the turtles have changed - they still wear those multicoloured bandannas, but the sibling rivalry, friction, and faux swear words exchanged between the foursome (note the tagline of this movie is "Raising shell in 2007!") is a new element that makes TMNT more worthy of its "teenage" moniker.

So the expectations are high when you know that there will be a TNMT movie this year. Will the CG animation look better and meaner than a live action movie with 4 actors in turtle suits, and will it be a kiddified version of the cartoon series, like the previous 3 TMNT movies? And which cartoon series? Will the movie follow the revamped storyline and adopt its mature style, or will the darker-themed revamp be rolled back in favour of the kid-friendlier original series? Any way you look at it, a TMNT movie will have to negotiate through a minefield just to please various crowds that have grown up with radically different incarnations of the turtles: the fans of the comic book, the original cartoon, and the revamped cartoon; the older fans and the target kid audience that this movie wants to sell merchandising to; the original creators from Image Comics who are now co-producing this movie, and the creators of the original kiddified TMNT movies who are still co-producing this movie. Who will have the final say in the kind of movie TMNT will be - and will the final product be coherent enough?

Here's the good news: TMNT (2007) will adopt much of the darker tone and edgier storytelling from the new series. This comes with other good things, like the CGI look of the movie and the edgier character art for the turtles. However, all this comes at a price - TMNT is indeed a consensus product, meaning that in trying to please everyone, the movie becomes a victim of its contradictions and political juggling.

Backgrounds, architecture and turtle designs cue towards the meaner and edgier sensibility in the movie's story, but for some reason, it is difficult to reconcile this with the cutsey Sims-style character designs for all the human characters - who look like they just jumped out from a cartoon from 2000 at the very latest. The movie has Max Winters, a new supervillain who is cursed with immortality and voiced with Shakespearian angst and ambition by Patrick Stewart, but looks like a Mr Incredible with black hair, cosplaying at a Warhammer 40,000 convention. Shredder's successor Karai (voiced with bad stock Chinese-accented English by Zhang Ziyi, the sort of accent that even Wok With Yan eventually disavowed!) looks like Jade, the little girl from Jackie Chan Adventures - why Karai had to be chibified when her character design already exists in the 2003 cartoon series is a total mystery. Getting the unneccesary facelift is April O'Neil, who again bears no resemblance to either of her cartoon incarnations, but whose character design is evidently recycled from the Akina character from Zentrix, another CGI animation series that Imagi Studios, the HK-based co-producers (and no relation to Image Studios) used to produce before 2000. You have to understand that it is very difficult to get into the dark atmosphere of the story if more than half of the characters scream I'M CUTE at your eyeballs while pretending to be lethal, monster-kicking ninjas.

Nevertheless, when TMNT works, it does so with style. The scene transitions are breathtaking and show a cinematic imagination influenced by classic black and white film, while the outdoors set designs evoke a feel of nighttime New York as Gotham City. The turtles look ultra-realistic thanks to the CGI, as do the monsters that Winters unleashes. Perhaps the high point of the movie is its action sequences, especially the well-choreographed battle between Leonardo and Raphael, a culmination from from the intense rivalry and animosity between the turtles that the movie patiently builds.

As a consensus product, this movie will not please everyone, but at least everyone will find at least one thing that they'll like, whether it's the darker and meaner storytelling, the turtle design, or the Saturday morning CGI cartoon style. Meanwhile, though, hopes of a more coherent TMNT movie will have to be postponed till the next installment.

First published at incinemas on 23 March 2007

Monday, 12 March 2007

Hearty Paws 마음이 (2006)

Lassie come home!

Dogs may be man's best friend, but in Korea, they're man's best dish. You'd probably remember a minor fracas during the 2002 World Cup, where FIFA's officials had to beg the South Korean government to do something about the restaurants selling dog and cat meat and sparked off a national debate, with South Koreans young and old rising to defend their culture, and eating more pet meat in defiance of alleged Western imperialist cultural meddling. In the end, the government reluctantly complied with FIFA's requests, banning the sale of dog meat in restaurants in Seoul - an irony surely, since the Korean government actually banned the consumption of dog and cat meat as well as dog and cat farms, in 1991.

Perhaps attitudes are slowly changing after all: Hearty Paws stars the first ever Korean dog to be raised for acting instead of being raised for your dinner plate. It's a sort of Korean Lassie movie, featuring a loyal white Labrador who sticks with his human owners, a pair of young orphans living in penury in their family home. Through thick and thin, Hearty the dog endures hardships with his young master Chan, tracking him across the vast country after the accidental death of younger sister Sol-i drives a wedge between boy and dog. Unlike the Lassie or Rin Tin Tin movies, Hearty doesn't save his owners from certain deaths and huge trouble, but I'm sure modern children will be more appreciative of dogs that are just there for their owners. But like the classic Lassie and Rin Tin Tin movies, there's a grittier and more serious subplot, where the dog is eventually expected to save the owner. In Hearty Paws, this comes when the brother ends up as a beggar on the streets of Seoul after a failed search for his long-lost mother, and joins a gang or syndicated of child beggars run by what appears to be a Korean Fagin, who serves as the antagonist for the rest of the movie.

On the whole, a dog movie like this should appear to the children below the age of 12, with its oh-so-cute leading dog role, its emotional storytelling, and very simple and predictable plot (though still not that simple and predictable to the point of cliche). Parents, be warned though that while this is ultimately a children's movie, Hearty Paws is first and foremost a Korean children's movie. What would seem normal and acceptable for a children's movie in the Korean cultural context may seem a little out of place elsewhere. Think about whether your young ones may be traumatised to see a caged dog-fight sequence (no, not Snoopy vs the Red Baron dog fight, but more like a cock fight, but with dogs, and behind a steel cage!), or whether they'd be turned off at the many scenes where the star dog is presumably kicked or beaten with a metal baseball bat, Old Boy style. I bet you may not expect scenes like this to take place in a children's movie, so I'm letting you know in advance.

Fans of the Korean wave may find some joy in identifying the really cheesy bits of the movie. No, not the predictable and heartwarming bits, but the prerequisite elements that make Korean movies uniquely Korean: there's a tragic death from a debilitating illness that's accompanied by the melodramatic "body goes limp in the arms of the beloved" death scene, the completely unexpected by prerequisite death from a speeding vehicle, and the casual violence. Unfortunately here they just jolt the young audience out of the illusion that this is a children's film, and serve to highlight that for a movie industry with so much talent in creative scriptwriting and directing, there is way too much cheese...

Frankly, I'm already impressed that the Koreans have actually made a movie with a dog as a hero. After all, you'd think that a movie about a pair of poor orphans living with a dog in their house would be a short movie - they'd cook the dog when they run out of money.

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

White Countess, The (DVD) (2006)

I'm always true to you in my fashion

If you take a trip to Shanghai, you'd see the ghost of the old city in its fast disappearing colonial style buildings. Even then, there is enough character in them to suggest its old reputation as the Paris of the East, the cosmopolitan jewel of China. Much of this architecture has been dismantled in the decades after the Communists took over, as though they would rather not be reminded of China's period of troubles as the Sick Man of Asia, the process hastened now by the march of industrialisation that grips the nation. Yet the idea of old Shanghai exerts its influence in popular imagination, not least in the best TVB production of all time, The Bund ("Shanghai Tan" to those of you who watched it in the 80s) and the lyrics of its Frances Yip theme song. Far ahead of its time, The Bund saw Shanghai as the Paris of the East, its glamour tied intimately with a criminal underworld conducting business through the dance halls, gambling dens and parlours - a beautiful dream coming to an end with the invasion by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The White Countess does one better than The Bund, focussing on the underbelly of the underbelly. The criminal underworld is there in this movie, together with Japanese spies, Communists sympathisers, and corrupt Kuomintang party functionaries, who spend their evenings in a bar/dance hall named after the movie. But they are hardly the focus of The White Countess: the underbelly of cosmopolitan Shanghai have their own underbelly; the charm of old Shanghai is built on the disreputable dens, halls and parlours that are staffed by the disgraced, the enterprising, the disreputable. If anything, The White Countess, unlike the TVB production, shows cosmopolitan Shanghai as it existed - an international refugee city hosting dispossessed Russian aristocrats, expelled Jews from Germany, disgraced businessmen and diplomats from the West.

The story of the White Countess is, naturally, about a world-weary blind American diplomat, a Japanese spy, a dispossessed Russian noblewoman, and a German Jew struggle with the remnants of their dreams in this city. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the screenplay can be thoughtful and subtle, showing the great lengths people will go to achieve their dreams, questioning the solidity of these dreams while simultaneously believing in the seeming reality of the illusions and dreams they create. In a way, these are the classic themes of both Merchant-Ivory and Kazuo Ishiguro, and The White Countess is a fitting end to a long series of films by the producer-director team.


For any Merchant-Ivory fan, the "Tribute to Ismail Merchant" would be the first feature they'd watch - the producer passed away before the film could be released. It's very tastefully done, no weeping collaborators and friends proclaiming what a genius he was - instead, it's a highlights reel of English and Indian movies he's made over the years, excerpts from past interviews, short documentaries, and news archives. It's a loving, tasteful, and informative tribute, but it doesn't quite reveal anything new that a fan wouldn't know already.

Merchant and Ivory are the masters of period movies, and the Behind the scenes and Making of featurettes are great ways to see how they recreate both the city Shanghai as well as its grandeur and spirit.

First published at incinemas on 12 March 2007

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Stomp the Yard (2007)

Don't they do this every Saturday night at Zouk?

It's unfortunate that I didn't grow up in the hood, get my BA in an all-black high school, or join one of their Greek letter fraternities - which makes it hard to understand this hiphop meets black campus meets dance movie. While this movie is about dancing (a very predictable and formulaic genre), it's set in a world where every move you dance may set off a riot and get you killed because you just insulted someone with that hand-flapping action. In the ghettoes of Los Angeles, dancing is urban warfare by other means, almost as lethal as a combat sport and taken by its participants with just about the same amount of seriousness, as you will discover at the film's opening, where 2 rival dance groups wage battle over money, pride, and bragging rights in what appears to be an underground boxing arena. It's like watching a Balinese cock fight or an Aztec sport without any commentary track by the ringside anouncers. Yes, the crowd reacts with hisses, cheers and stunned silence as each team insults the other (but what did that flapping action with the hands really mean?) through their hiphop dance moves, but the point is you can't read or make sense out of what is undeniably a beautifully choreographed sports/dance/fighting scene that's bursting with energy.

But things are not meant to be and the victorious team is waylaid by the sore losers who want their money back. The gangfight that occurs claims the life of one young man, and his talented younger dancer brother gets a short jail record, a rude awakening, and a chance to reform himself, via a relation's connections in an all-black college, where our young hero will learn the value of hard work, solidarity in brotherhood (without joining a gang), woo a girl who happens to be the dean's daughter and the girlfriend of a fraternity leader (stock villains alert!). Since this is a dance movie and the hero does end up in college, this means all the fraternity clubs are actually competitive dance (or "stepping") societies, and the boy who grew up on the wrong side of town will teach these middle-class steppers something about real dancing from the hood. Which will lead to a dramatic finale involving a dance competition!

No prizes for guessing that the college dance competition will be just as energetic, involving just about the same amount of energy, aggressiveness, and coded insults in dance movies as the opening scene. Bookmarked by such mysterious yet well-filmmed sequences where you don't quite know for sure what is actually happening but it sure looks impressive, the rest of the film is too easily predictable and mundane, going from necessary plot point to necessary plot point. When there are no dance sequences, the movie goes into autopilot. Yet when there are dance sequences, only the opening and closing scenes stand out - because hip hop kungfu dance is far more visually arresting and interesting than college stepping, which unfortunately looks like any run-of-the-mill school orientation mass dances Singaporean students have to endure in their lives. If the director had wanted to make a film that promoted stepping, audiences might be led to think that he has achieved the exact opposite, showing instead that the street dance is far more superior and less silly than the sanitised college version.

Stomp the Yard has one good idea but doesn't go far enough to pursue it - for me, the movie would have been far better if the director completely ditched the fictional narrative and just went to the streets and underground arenas of LA and Chicago to film punks and gangsters waging war through hiphop dance. That, I'm sure, would be a great dance and music documentary. And perhaps Stomp the Yard is meant to suggest that to us...

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Man of the Year (2006)

Jon Stewart goes to Washington!

Ever since Mr Smith goes to Washington, many other unlikely people have become political operatives in the new political fantasy genre that Frank Capra created. You know, the genre where an outsider to the political process gets elected to office in what a political leader would call a "freak election result", an anomaly that doesn't quite create the chaos and rioting the leader fears, but a reform and general cleaning up of crooked politics on the Hill. We've seen Eddie Murphy as a conman turned Congressman in The Distinguished Gentleman, Lisa become a Congressgirl in an episode of The Simpsons, while Martin Sheen and Geena Davis asarch-liberal Presidents of the United States on The West Wing and Commander-in-Chief respectively. So it's no surprise that in this degenerate age of political incompetence and dishonesty, that another political fantasy will be made, simply because it's more difficult to impeach George W Bush.

But what sort of political outsider would suit the tastes of a modern-day Mr Smith goes to Washington? Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog) feels he has a good answer: in this degenerate age where the mainstream media covers up for the government's lies and undemocratic actions, the only source of credibility is the political comedy, the fake news show typified by Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, The Onion, and Bill Maher. I kid you not - the audience of The Daily Show tend to be more educated than the average American voter, more aware of the issues, and more capable of separating fact from fiction (they were far less likely to believe that Iraq was involved with the 9/11 attacks). So in this degenerate age, why not have Jon Stewart, gadfly of Washington politics, go to Washington to set the politicians right? Imagine how fun it would be to see a comedian in Stewart's mould on the campaign trail, saying truthful things that career politicians will never dare say!

Okay, so Jon Stewart won't be running for president, and he doesn't star in this movie, but Robin Williams is funnier than usual with his one-liners and piquant observations of what's wrong with the media and politics. He's joined in this movie by Lewis Black from The Daily Show and Christopher Walken. Any danger of any one of the 3 actors (all famous for overshadowing their co-stars when they are in funnyman mode) dissipates because bringing all 3 of them together creates some sort of nullification field that prevents them from eating up the scene, while retaining the quality of their funniness.

In addition, the director decides to introduce a serious sub-plot to the story involve a Diebold-like company whose complacent executives unleash faulty and unverifiable voting machines into the elections, and attempt to cover up or even silence the only talented programmer who discovers the error. The mixture of comedy and thriller may not quite mix well together, which is a pity because I feel Levinson forgot an important thing about the concept of this movie: it's not the jokes that make a political comedy funny, but the fact that you're satirising the political process and political discourse. This movie has funny jokes, but not the amount of satire and mockery that one expects. It might not be such a bad thing, considering that Levinson intends to pitch Man of the Year to not just the wonky liberals who watch The Daily Show, but to conservatives as well.

This film will work if:
1. You like the comic style of The Daily Show, The Onion, or even the new Half Hour News Hour
2. You aren't offended by political comedy, unlike some political leaders
3. You find that Robin Williams's character isn't in the end bland or safely acceptable like how we expect politicians to be

First published at incinemas on 8 March 2007

Monday, 5 March 2007

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Dance dance revolution, the 70s edition!

After nearly a decade of Adam Sandler and American Pie, then followed by remakes of 1930s and 50s films, a sane movie buff would have begun to write off Hollywood's ability to produce decent romantic comedies. There has to be something wrong when the words "romantic comedy" bring to mind either gross-out, flatulence fuelled flicks or badly remade movies that don't measure up to the originals - either way, it's probable that the industry no longer has the writing and acting talent to produce really funny and smart romantic comedies, despite having the producing talent and the money managers at studios who believe they do. And all it takes is an unassuming and decent comedy to demonstrate clearly what's wrong with the previous decade of Hollywood romcom filmmaking, and that film is Music and Lyrics.

Romantic comedies are a stock genre, formulaic as anything, but still it's common to goof them up. So here are the rule again, just to make sure future writers don't lose their way after thinking "Boy meets girl, and they should get together at the end."

Rule no. 1: At the very least, you should cast a couple who have good screen chemistry. That doesn't mean that they're supposed to be dating in real life, people! And that doesn't mean that they both look good beside each other. It means, rather, that the personality quirks of the couple actually play off each other. Here, Drew Barrymore plays one of her patented mildly eccentric and borderline but within the boundaries of safety screwball girls. That's quite safe fare, but what makes Music and Lyrics great is Marc Lawrence's idea to pair her off with Hugh Grant, who plays another self-deprecating character with a rather off-centre charm.

Rule no. 2: Even though it's a romantic comedy, it helps to have some real comedy in it. In Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant is a has-been, the "nobody knows where they are now" half of a Wham!-style group who is resigned to performing at county fairs, class reunions, and carnivals. If he plays his cards right, he might end up as a decent nostalgia act 10 years from now, singing to screaming females (menopausal by then) at Disney. But that's if he has a career by then, as his manager points out that there are always "new old acts" popping up. His potential break is to land a duet with his biggest admirer, an underaged, oversexed singer who looks like Britney, Christina Aguilera, and Dharma (from Dharma and Greg) rolled together. Then, you realise that Music and Lyrics is not going to be just a romantic comedy, but a comedy about the music business as well.

Rule no. 3: Character interaction is important in a romantic comedy. No, that doesn't mean having the lead actors stare dreamily into each other's eyes, or go through a process of meeting the parents and friends. No. You wonder what sort of dialogue and situations a hypochondriac, eccentric indoor gardener (Barrymore) would have with an aging has-been pop star when the latter realises that the former has the talent for spontaneous and interesting lyric writing (like all loopy people, she has a degree in Literature) - and then you realise that this will be a comedy that relies more on witty dialogue, the odd couple pairing between Barrymore and Grant (and between both of them and Haley Bennett as the even loopier Britney-Christina monster), and lots of digs and jokes about 1980s music and fashion.

Music and Lyrics succeeds beyond the low romcom expectations because it is genuinely fun (the scenes where Barrymore and Grant hammer out a song have a certain manic energy about them that sharpens the humour), and genuinely funny (the filmmakers clearly love music, and their digs at both the New Wave/Romantics era as well as modern pop ring so true). It succeeds because the filmmakers don't pander to audience expectations to oversell the romance - at no point in this movie will you feel that Marc Lawrence will hit you over the head with the message that the two characters are destined for each other and will be in a state of romantic wedded bliss on a sunkissed island. And because Lawrence wisely recognises the humour in the music industry setting can be greater than the humour in any typical romantic comedy, Music and Lyrics ends up funnier than it should be.

First published at incinemas on 8 March 2007

Saturday, 3 March 2007

300 (2007)

Battle stations ready!

The Battle of Thermopylae is one of those legendary battles that inspires people to write all sorts of stories about it, no doubt because it's such a compelling event. In the course of the battle, 300 Spartan soldiers together with 700 other Greek allies defended the mountain pass at Thermopylae against 100,000 Persian soldiers. Though Xerxes I won the battle, he did so at a great cost: the miniscule Greek force inflicted such heavy and disproportionate damage that the Persian campaign to invade Greece and conquer Europe was effectively over and done with, for a generation. Bards explain the overwhelming victory of the Spartans to their heroism, military discipline and fighting prowess; modern military strategians merely need to point out the extremely favourable geography and terrain. It is inevitable that the tale be more alluring than any historical account, that poets and artists would embellish the tale with each telling, so that it grows, becomes more fantastic and noble.

Understandably, Frank Miller is of the party of the poets, and his graphic novel "300" has become a pulp classic. As a fictionalised account of the battle, it marries his unapologetically masculine and pugnacious storytelling together with the most macho of stories - the heroic last stand. And like most comic classics and other Frank Miller tales, 300 was destined to be adapted into a movie. Zack Snyder, the man chosen for the undertaking, apparently believes that the greatest challenge is a matter of procedure - by what means should a visually stunning comic book be brought to film? How should the film proceed, what story should be filmmed, since a comic book is basically a montage of freeze frames and a film is a series of unbroken images? And so the decisions are made: 300 is a panel by panel reproduction of the Frank Miller book, with many scenes functioning as the "in-betweens" of the panels. Frank Miller's dialogue is faithfully replicated by the actors, with the director filling in completely new dialogue and scenes very sparingly. In order to capture the extreme visual style, everything aside from actors and props will be created with CGI, as a sort of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow style project.

Yet for all the artistic and technical choices Snyder makes, he fails to understand that in order to make a movie adaptation, one has to realise that what passes on the printed page may not be similarly acceptable in film, and vice versa. A comic book is allowed more lattitude in its politics - for instance, no one would bat an eyelid if an artist publishes a graphic novel about Lucifer, Holocaust denial, or religious superheroes conducting a righteous genocide of homosexuals, but a line in moral and aesthetic sensibility is crossed when they become movies. What we are willing to tolerate as mental escapism, visual sophistry... becomes troubling when they are made flesh, albeit on a screen (This is why Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation would be more acceptable as comic books). The problem with 300 is it's a particularly jingoistic and belligerent novel, less a defense of the struggle of free Greeks against a despotic tyrant than a defense of the fascist state and glorification of the hazing rituals of the Spartan army, disguised as "character building" or "soldier making". If the director isn't too imaginative or is too faithful in his adaptation, this will transform an interesting thought experiment into a morally repugnant movie.

So here's the good news: Snyder is extremely faithful to the Miller graphic novel, and his use of CGI makes the art direction of the movie top notch. Landscapes, sets, and even the sunlight are all CGI-rendered and the colours oversaturated, which give the movie a unique look. You may find it visually unreal somehow, and it can take some time to get used to it. CGI armies, though, have the unfortunate low budget multiple "cut and paste" look, and certain characters - notably a wolf menacing a Spartan boy - look extremely fake. Battle scenes are much better, with the CGI milking out every possible bit of gore and violence, but there is a gratuitous use of slow motion may get annoying for the less impatient audience member.

The bad news? The reliance on CGI backgrounds and sets has a direct impact as well on the actors, resulting them to overcompensate for the lack of context with over-the-top acting. And if you take it the wrong way, there are many scenes where the movie just lapses into a parody of itself, because of its earnestness and lack of a sense of irony.

While 300 is good to look at, its plot is troubling on so many levels. There is of course the blatant historical revisionism and neocon baiting, with its glorification of sacred warriorhood and the fascist Spartan state as the protectors of democracy, truth and liberty. Minute changes, additions, and omissions from the graphic novel serve to take out what little criticism Frank Miller had about the Spartans. Where in the comic book, the Spartans torture and kill every Persian ambassador sent by Xerxes, the movie's dead are victims of the Persians, villagers tortured in spectacular ways. And the change is great - the movie demonises the Persians, whereas they are merely a force of nature in the comic book. The movie expounds on how evil the Persians are through the "LOTR effect" - theirs is the army stocked with human freaks and misfits, Immortals with scarrred faces, led by a Stargate Goa'uld, and having a hunchbacked Gollum as its mascot. Where Xerxes I was a megalomaniac playing convincingly the part of a God-king in the comic, he is now a tantrum-throwing brat in the movie. These changes unfortunately make the movie even more polemic, belligerent, diminishing what little criticism Miller might have made of the Spartans in his book.

300 isn't meant to be viewed as a historical movie (inaccuracies include a senate, when Sparta wasn't just an autocratic state but ruled by TWO kings), but more of an animated comic book that tells an exaggerated view of the last stand of King Leonidas. Its very unique slant on telling the story might mean, however, that you'd want to watch it only if you're a fan of Frank Miller, or a fan of very cartoonish gore.

First published at incinemas on 8 March 2007

Friday, 2 March 2007

Messengers, The (2007)

You know it's a horror movie when people make bad real estate decisions at the drop of a hat

If I were to make a horror movie, I'd start with a family of Asian filmmakers who decide to uproot themselves and start live anew in America. Since it's a horror movie, they'd end up making the worst real estate decision of their lives and find themselves living in a creaky old mansion with bad plumbing, moldy wallpaper, and a mysterious dark cellar that you won't want to go down because in it are all the scary ghosts that come along with all mysterious cellars. And with the house comes a curse more horrifying than - our Asian filmmakers will be doomed to make uninspired films that showcase none of the ingenuity, intelligence, or style that they are known for. Now, that would be a horror movie that I'd pay to watch - and not the movies that these filmmakers make. I'm speaking of the wave of Asian filmmakers whose Hollywood chapters of their careers have not been marked by breakout success, but very much the reverse - there are Samo Hung and Chow Yun Fatt in their forays into US television and film, but more importantly Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata as the J-Horror directors who travelled to America to make watered-down remakes of their films.

Joining this sorry bunch of J-horror auteurs are the Pang Brothers, in their US-produced entry The Messengers. One thing about the Pang Brothers' horror films is their strong visual style (Re-cycle being the jewel in their crown), which transform their J-horror-cobbled entries into a feast for the eyes. You can always count on the duo to deliver films based on ideas and motifs that are beginning to wear out their novelty (The Eye was basically an Asian Sixth Sense), yet film them in such a way that still creates an impact.

In The Messengers, the Pang Brothers achieve merely half of their reputation: there is the estranged family fleeing a yet-unnamed recent tragedy, their setting up in an abandoned and decripit farmhouse (both points, incidentally captured in the by-now cliched Drive Across The Country) that was a witness to a spate of horrifying and mysterious events that led to the disappearance (or death) of the previous owners. In typical horror fashion, our family are the rebellious teen, the innocent toddler, the patriarch who obliviously makes the worst employment and real estate choices possible, and the distracted and brittle mother. There is the mysterious door that Leads Downstairs to a cellar where Something Lurks, and Something Else Oozes from the floorboards. There are the ghoulish figures who keep appearing, but only to the mute toddler and the petrified teeen, always appearing near enough to harm them, but never quite doing just that (i.e. The Eye and Sixth Sense style ghouls). And then, bizarrely, there are the host of crows that should black out the sky every time they appear.

There's a problem with all these horror elements, one which the Pang Brothers must not have realised - they're done to death, they're old and cliched, and it means that the only way to jolt audiences is through particularly loud shocks administered by the crows and the speakers in the cinema. If you look at it, this is a huge failure already for the Pangs, who have never depended on loud shocks, false alarms, and flocks of birds to deliver scares before. To add insult to injury, all these horror elements, together with the much of the first half of the film, are so done to death, old and cliched that they've actually been parodied last year by Tobe Hooper in Mortuary, which had a family uproot themselves to a frightfully old building where the dotty matriarch would pursue her new profession of being a mortician while some dark evil oozes from the plumbing...

In the end, there isn't much to recommend in The Messengers, and far less to condemn in it as well. It would do just nice for people who aren't really willing to be scared out of their socks. Fans of the Pangs will find this to be their weakest effort by far, unfortunately.

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

See No Evil (DVD) (2006)

And then, the powerslam!

It's all about the past. Like how, before he became a professional wrestler called Kane, Glen Thomas Jacobs used to be a very nice and decent looking junior high school teacher. Or how, before he made his first feature film, director Gregory Dark used to direct pornographic films before producing music videos for the likes of Snoop Dogg. The past comes back to haunt us all the time, in other words, and it is no less true for the characters in See No Evil: there's the policeman haunted by his narrow escape not so long ago from a giant hook-wielding serial killer, the delinquent charges of the policeman are haunted by their past of crimes and misdemeanors while they are stuck cleaning up an aged motel as part of a reform programme, and the gigantic crazed hook-wielding serial killer himself is haunted by memories of his childhood as he haunts the motel's secret passages, as well as being haunted by a huge bullet wound at the back of his head, courtesy of the policeman who through a stroke of luck (good for the killer, bad for the policeman) is at the motel with his charges.

Goodness knows how bad or naughty these convicts can really be if they're allowed to clean up a motel as part of their reformation, but surely the awful way they behave to each other is supposed to make audiences relish and look forward to their eventual exits from the film, courtesy of the giant crazed killer. I'm not going to pretend that this film even works as a slasher flick, because surely you're reading this review now with a copy of the DVD in your hand because KANE is the killer.

Nobody expects Kane to be Anthony Perkins, so I'll just cut to the chase: does Kane dispatch his victims in a style that is deserving of his pro wrestler status and legendary name? The answer is somewhere in between - Kane performs chokeholds, bodyslams, flings victims casually into walls, which is always a good thing. However, when he resorts to his weapons, the effect of seeing KANE kill is much lessened. I got some fun out of Kane's eye fetish and collection methods, and the flashback sequences - while not starring Kane - are pretty entertaining even though no one would claim that they were written with psychological insight.

See No Evil is the kind of DVD that you'd put on one night when you invite your friends over to watch Wrestlemania 35 and need something to watch before the show starts. It may not be as well-produced as movies of The Rock, but it is just as enjoyable. Worth renting for the entertainment and novelty value, and worth a buy if you're into collecting DVDs starring your favourite WWE superstars.

First published at incinemas on 2 March 2007

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Kallang Wave, The (2007)

Ole, ole, ole!

As the filmmakers of the Kallang Wave (fans of Singapore soccer themselves) point out, the local game has been in decline and free fall since 1995, when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) withdrew the country withdrew from the Malaysia Cup and set up the S League. Match attendance has declined, falling in tandem with news coverage of local matches, and some say the quality of the local league. Kallang stadium and its brethren, once the carnivalesque home of passionate fans, have fallen silent despite the intensive nurturing of local football talent that the S-League and the Sports School represent. With football fanatics more likely to don the colours of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid instead of Balestier Khalsa FC, watch ESPN's international broadcasts of soccer matches instead of S-League match highlights on local television, Singapore football is as good as finished, aside from the occasional Tiger Cup finals match at the stadium.

And so in the coming decades, if anyone asks "Who killed Singapore soccer? Enquiring minds want to know!" they might want to skip the National Archives, hundreds of thousands of back issues of the Straits Times and The New Paper, and go straight for The Kallang Wave, a documentary that investigates the reasons for the decline of local football, in a series of interviews with football fans, local football players past and present, reporters from the newspapers, and the immense S-League officialdom. The better part of the bargain, should you choose to purchase tickets for this movie, are the footage of past Malaysia Cup finals. With the loss of most of the old broadcast archives in the Caldecott Hill fire, The Kallang Wave is the easiest avenue to relive past glories and view the image of stadium-sized Singaporean crowds celebrating and cheering their team on.

The almost forensic approach to the team's investigations generate many long talking-heads segments which thankfully alternate with the more gut-pleasing footage from the National Stadium. Each group of stakeholders are singled-out, a la Who Killed the Electric Car? as prime suspects of the demise of local soccer: lack of fans, lower standards of the local league, a media uninterested in playing up interest in the local league, and even the EPL is fingered as well.

The filmmakers are silent on where they personally stand, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that underlying the mutual fingerpointing is a mistaken sense of "entitlement" each group feels: Why should fans feel entitled to have a premier league with star players? Why should the S-League officials feel the press should, as a matter of patriotism, cover their games automatically? And why should the press feel that it is merely their duty to report what the masses are genuinely interested in, but expect the S-League to generate its heroes, hype, and excitement on its own? Perhaps this documentary missed a chance to truly examine the "problem" of the decline of local soccer, and doesn't take long before all 3 groups start blaming Singaporean society and culture. Cue the list of alternate suspects that the groups can agree is killing enthusiasm for the sport: fast paced society, kiasuism, paper qualifications, overpressured schoolchildren - and the movie slips into Singapore Movie Territory, where filmmakers cannot take Jack Neo out of their hearts even when they make their own films. Of course, this may actually make the movie more accessible to the common moviegoer, who might not be that great a soccer fan, but remains a true blue Singaporean heartlander.

Thankfully, the love and conviction for the sport is all but evident in the faces of all the interviewees despite their mutual fingerpointing and very Singaporean complaints, in the narration of the filmmakers despite their sometimes high-flown language and mythmaking language. As a record of the passions of local soccer and simpler times, The Kallang Wave is an excellent movie that every Singaporean - soccer fan or not - should watch.

As a good old-fashioned investigative documentary though, the movie's record is mixed: audiences may leave wondering why the murder mystery never even makes a case against the butler. Missing a chance to examine the institution itself, the filmmakers free S-League's management, coaches, and players from questions about its organisation, recruitment policies, and justification for existence. It becomes impossible to imagine the S-League is responsible for the eclipse of local football, if one equates the S-League is local football. Deserving every bit of our respect, football legend Fandi Ahmad is the only official who manages to pinpoint the flaw of the entire system, and puts it blunting. Otherwise, the documentary is missing all mention of the promotion and abandonment of Goal 2010, the initial explanations by then-Prime Minister Goh that the league would create community and regional identity and bonding, or even the simple fact that Singaporeans have had to put in longer and longer hours of overtime work since 1994.

Audiences will derive more satisfaction from The Kallang Wave if they watch it not as a documentary like Who Killed the Electric Car?, but as a non-fiction movie that captures neatly the mood of football mania from previous decades, like Glastonbury. This movie, despite its rough spots, is a sincere and well-meaning celebration of the love for soccer.

First published at incinemas on 25 March 2007