Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Goal 2: Living the dream (2007)

Product placement movie

Once upon a time, the soccer movie could never quite stand up on its own; you had to tell it as part of a larger narrative - a WW2 Nazi prison escape movie (Escape to Victory), a kungfu parody (Shaolin Soccer), or even a second-generation immigrant culture clash comedy (Bend it like Beckham). In this light, Goal! represented soccer's very late entry into the realistic sports movie genre. Taking off where the first movie in the series left off, Goal 2 continues the bildungsroman of the football prodigy Santiago, and charts the next episode of his rags to riches story, his rise from obscurity in the streets of Mexico to global superstardom.

Here, after making his name winning games for Newcastle United, the talented Santiago is approached from the managers of Real Madrid and given an offer he cannot refuse - either for the sake of his career prospects, to validate his sense of really having arrived, or as a necessary plot point to push the protagonist along the obscurity to increasingly stratospheric levels of superstardom story. The formula that served the first Goal! movie is unchanged here - Goal 2: Living the dream alternates between scenes of soccer matches between Real Madrid and its various opponents with the dramatic angle of the story. This time round, though, the writing team appears to have crammed in an astonishing amount of sideplots and parallel stories, quite possibly succeeding in making the movie feel as cluttered as a Pirates film.

On one hand, we have Santiago's progression from gimmick signing to supersubstitute to a full member of the team, matched with his turn to be tempted by the glamorous party life of an A-list athlete; on the other, the up and down, on and off relationship with girlfriend Roz, and the introduction of his long-lost mother and half-siblings. While the first Goal! film meshed well its sports sequences and drama, the second movie doesn't do so well on this account, due to the large amount of multiple stories and concerns going on, all at the same time, all vying for precious screen time. The result, unsurprisingly, is that the multiple stories get very little screen time each, and the movie ends up looking as cliched as The Great Game.

Thankfully, the soccer footage is top notch, because of the director's decision to film almost all soccer sequences in film instead of simulated grainy television footage as is the fashion of most recent soccer films. As a result, there's this very odd but visually compelling presentation of soccer as a sport - and more importantly, a highly cinematic sport. Coupled with cameos by Madrid stars like Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Zidane, and Raul, the soccer sequences of this movie are its high points.

I understand that Goal! 3 is currently in production. My hope for a worthy successor that will outshine both Goal! films are high, since the next director is none other than Michael Apted. Until then, though, we have to conend with the mixed bag that is Goal! 2.

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Shrek The Third (2007)

No more role reversals in the Shrek franchise, but prepare for more pop culture references!

"And they lived happily ever after..." is a phrase that the denizens in the world of Far Far Away have heard of, but never really get to experience. Lest you feel sorry for them, bear in mind that this is the only reason why Shrek is a franchise - we only get to watch more installments of our loveable green ogre and his green princess because they never get to live happily ever after. Alas, Prince Charming, the villain from Shrek 2, doesn't realise this simple fact of life, and upon the death of the King, rallies the ultimate collection of fairy tale villains to take over the kingdom of Far Far Away in order to fulfill his very own "happily ever after". It should be Shrek to the rescue, but for the fact that our loveable Scottish ogre is next in line for the throne - a career development that he relishes far less than being a new father - and is off in the country to retrieve the other candidate for King of Far Far Away, a wimpy bullied loser called Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake). Will Shrek, Donkey, Puss-in-Boots and Arthur save the day? Or perhaps, will Princess Fionna and her assorted friends from Shrek2 save it instead?

Shrek The Third is part of the original Shrek franchise, and there are basically so few changes to the formula and setup that if you loved Shrek 1 and 2, this movie will be just as appealing to you. For strangers to the Shrek movies (seriously, where have you been?), the template for the cartoon consists of melding adult-oriented comedy with a dash of kiddie appeal. The pop culture in-jokes, the general satire of fairy tale conventions and characters, as well as the wordplay is unmistakably adult, while the comic action sequences and the generous serving of bodily humour jokes are meant for the kiddies. Even so, Shrek The Third has a few noticeable changes from the formula that marks it sufficiently different from its predecessors. I thought the jokes in this movie were less densely packed than the previous entries in the franchise. The adult comedy element with its verbal jokes are still here, but these often take centrestage to the soundtrack, where songs play at the most hilariously wrong times - do look out for Live and Let Die, the Sound of Music theme, That's What Friends are for, and the Monty Python coconut shell sound effect, for starters...

While its predecessors can be seen as satires of fairy tales, with pop culture references thrown in for the wallop, Shrek The Third feels more like a satire of pop culture with even more pop cultural references thrown in for the wallop. As a result, one does not get the situational sketch comedy feel ("What if everything we knew about fairy tales were the opposite of what they really are?") of previous Shrek movies here. In Shrek The Third, villains stay villainous and the good guys are the good guys - which might be the most radical thing to ever happen in the Shrek series, if not for the fact that this just means this movie is basically a very straightforward fairy tale adventure that seems the most removed from the original Shrek.

Perhaps the visual elements in the action scenes may be the universally funny enough to bring down the house without fail, but I do hope that the next Shrek sequel will hew closer to the franchise tradition of skewering conventional fairy tales instead.

First published at incinemas on 31 May 2007

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Shrek 2 (DVD) (2004)

I assume you’re up to date with the premise of the original Shrek movie, no? Well, just to recap, the Shrek franchise takes your familiar fairy tales and gives them a spin by overturning the genre, inverting stereotypes, and injecting a strong dose of pop culture references. And what you get is an animation that plays like a subversive comedy for adults, but has the CGI design, action sequences that will appeal to children.

Now, when we last watched Shrek, the unfriendly green ogre managed to save Princess Fiona from the dragon and the castle and all that jazz, wins her hand, and undoes the curse that has been afflicted her for years. Now, in Shrek 2, it’s time for the newlyweds to meet the bride’s parents, who rule the kingdom of Far Far Away. Needless to say, Fiona’s parents aren’t quite enamoured of their daughter marrying an ogre, much less becoming one, and desperate measures are enacted by the King (John Cleese) to salvage the situation – a device that introduces more wacky characters into the Shrek series such as the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders from Ab Fab as a celebrity godmother!), the self-absorbed Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) whom Fiona was actually meant to marry, and Puss in Boots, the king’s assassin and Shrek’s new hilarious talking animal sidekick.

Normally, movie trilogies tend to from the law of diminishing returns, but the Dreamworks team appears to stave off the decline by sticking true to their original subversive formula and amping the pop culture satire here – if you though Disney icons were skewered by Shrek 1, wait till you see what the Dreamworks team do to Hollywood and popular TV!

First published at incinemas on 22 May 2007

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Peter Pan (DVD) (1953)

What a timely release of the platinum edition of Peter Pan! For one thing, Disney Animation Studios had recently announced its decision to overturn its wrongheaded decision to abandon traditional (read 2D) animation - what better way to celebrate this than releasing a platinum edition for all the Walt Disney Classics? The only possible cure for people who are convinced that 3D animation is the wave of the future, and that traditional animation is just hopelessly déclassé, who have never seen the wonders that Studio Ghibli trots using that outdated medium, is to let them watch the old classics again.

But hasn't everyone watched Peter Pan before? Surely on an old television broadcast, or on a VHS tape in the 1980s - but for the platinum edition, DVD visuals have been restored - dirty spots in degrading prints cleaned up, but not intrusively enhanced - while the audio has been remastered to 5.1 Dolby sound. The result may be more farreaching than you think: for once, it is possible to view this movie as Walt Disney and audiences in 1952 did. It certainly is easier now to see what's so great about Peter Pan (and the rest of the classics) - there's a kind of magical fluidity to movements, a complex choreography that seems more and more rare despite the technical advancements that 3D animation offers. There's the marriage of incidental music and pop music of the day to film sequences that just isn't done anymore (changes in musical taste may have something to do with it). And there's the strange realisation that somehow, backgrounds and characters, even though composed using traditional, visually boring, 2D ("flat") methods, can impart a sense of wonderment, of imagination beyond the over-literal mode of CGI.

And this is what the platinum edition of Peter Pan promises: a return to eternal wonderment, the evocation of magic, the eternal childhood. The story may feel dated - no thanks to our more politically correct age where it's not cool to depict Indians as gutteral-voiced, slope faced tomtom-banging hunters, and no thanks to a certain entertainer who has turned "Neverland" into a name of ill repute - but the animation technique creating challenges for animators in complex yet unflashy sequences and the beauty of well-composed music will speak to audiences' hearts through the ages, for yet another 50 years.

DVD review

Walt Disney thought very highly of JM Barrie's Peter Pan, taking more than 10 years to produce it with a gargantuan committee of animators, writers, artists, and live action models before he gave the go-ahead. The special features on the platinum edition make full use of currently available material from the Disney archives, and it shows.

On Disc 1, the commentary is not so much on what is happening right there and then in the animation, but it is a series of interviews by various voice-over artists, animators, scriptwriters and many many people involved in the decade-long production process. Some of these interviews or reminiscences have been recorded years ago, others are brand new. There's alot of stuff to entertain and inform adults revisiting this classic, animation history buffs - mostly because all the commentors have the benefit of decades separating their interviews with their roles in the film.

Disc 2 has all sorts of goodies for the animation historian. Under "Backstage Disney" are 6 features, each 7 to 15 minutes long, about the history and mechanics of making Peter Pan. Of note is "You can fly", which compares Disney's animated feature to previous stage productions. You'll appreciate the innovativeness of Walt Disney even more after watching this one. Also an eye-opening is "The Peter Pan that almost was", which has an alternate opening sequence and other deleted scenes - some in almost-completed stage, others in storyboard form - thanks to the fact that Walt Disney took his time to fully think through the script and experiment with ideas before fully committing them to film.

Everything that can possibly be in this platinum disc is here, except for the live-action model videos which the Disney animators shot to help them study and realise the characters on film. Footages of these videos are few and far in between, appearing in various featurettes on disc 2, but they're extremely good. One hopes that the full videos can be found in some buried corner of the Disney archives one day, so that the studio can release an ultimate version!

First published at incinemas on 21 May 2007

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Infamous (2006)

And then, Sigourney Weaver whipped out her flamethrower...

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about Infamous is that it comes less than a year after Capote. Both movies centre around the figure of Truman Capote, the high society author and wit who would write a mostly unlikely serious book about a murder in Kansas, and create an enduring piece of art and non-fiction writing that effectively destroyed him as an author. Both movies cover the same period of events, from Capote reading about the murders in a New York newspaper to shortly after the execution of the murderers, with Capote achieving his literary mission but ending up as a broken man haunted by intellectual and emotional exertions he made in order to get the book done.

But as the saying goes, sometimes it does take a person to do the exact same thing for spectators to realise how differently it can be done. And sometimes, it takes a movie like Infamous to show that despite its Oscar win, Capote wasn't the perfect story about Truman Capote and the writing of In Cold Blood. Watching Infamous, it is apparent that Capote was a self-consciously Serious Drama - it's like a moral play on film (Does the author lose his soul in his dealings with the murderers? Did he do greater symbolic violence to them then they did to their 4 victims?), shot entirely in a cinematic style with Big Movie angles, film stocks and colour tones, and having a tight focus on the cold-blooded author. You'll notice there are no such pretensions with Infamous - it's filmed in a mix of a naturalistic style and a comedy, and has a far wider focus, prefering to focus on Capote as a part of New York high society than the solitary artistic individual.

While it is true that Infamous tells the same story, it's completely different. For one thing, it's not a work of Great Art like Capote, but a risky and gutsy movie. Take for example, its propensity to poke gentle fun at how ridiculous Truman Capote must have appeared even in his day while laughing along with his jokes and witticisms about his friends, acquaintances, and hosts in Kansas, or perhaps the faux interview segments with his society friends, presumably made years after the publication of In Cold Blood - and there you have the essence of the complex comic style of the movie - it's an impressionistic collage of one man - and his friends, told as a "reality comedy" instead of a moral play, more interested in telling the truth about what a silly, conceited, entertaining, ridiculous, and clever man who had lots of other silly, conceited, ridiculous, but more respectable friends. When you look at it this way, you might see that Truman Capote was flattened into a solitary tragic hero in Capote, whereas in this movie Tobey Jones plays the Truman Capote that we remember and love, the awfully funny, witty, and one-of-a-kind queen who was everyone's closest friend, and the supplier of amusing gossip of his best friends. It's really a matter of taste whether one prefers a movie that tells the truth or a movie that tells The Truth.

It's not such a bad idea to build a movie on small slices of dramedy, and Infamous succeeds best when it does not strive for the dramatic moment or strive to create a literary effect. However, as history would dictate, Capote does meet the killers, gets obsessed with Perry Smith, and destroy himself in high Greek tragedy style. I personally felt that the change in gears is almost jarring at times and doesn't quite gell with the dramedy elements of the movie, although when Douglas McGrath wants this movie to be serious, he does succeeds fairly easy. There's a scene in the prison cell that will convince you why Philip Seymour Hoffman was severely hampered by his size, as well as shock you into the sudden realisation that Infamous is fundamentally different in its treatment of Perry Smith than Capote. I wouldn't want to spoil it for my readers, but suffice to say that it again shows the literariness of Capote and contrasts it with the emotionally more realistic style of Infamous.

I would highly recommend this movie to anyone who had watched Truman Capote on television or was highly entertained by his short stories and adventures in high society, and wondered how he could possibly have been the same man who wrote In Cold Blood.

First published at incinemas on 24 May 2007

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Udon (2006)

Eat your heart out, KF Seetoh!

It seems Singapore's cinema distributors are having a fever on area films this season. You know, ones that are set in rural provinces culturally distinct from the larger nation, like how Forbidden Siren and Nada Sou Sou are Okinawa area films set against the wider Japanese culture. If you like, it's entirely possible and appropriate to consider Udon as another area movie, this time from Kagawa. While not as poor as Okinawa, the prefecture is the smallest in Japan, and largely rural. A little bit of a backwater, one might say, which might explain why Kosuke, the protagonist of Udon, like the contestants from Battle Royale (also set in Kagawa prefecture), has this frightfully huge chip on his shoulder, the whole "boy must move out of small town or die doing so" thing. It's actually understandable - would you want to grow up, work and die in a rural place that's only famous for its udon, and the fact that it has more udon stalls for every person that Tokyo city has MacDonald's eateries for its denizens? You'll have to concede the point then.

But you will see, as does an embarrassed Kosuke when his long-life dream of making it as a stand-up comic in New York turns to ashes, that perhaps there is something about udon, after all. You might be surprised (or maybe not): in a town where udon is the only industry, cultural landmark and feature of note, the monolithic stature of udon, conjoined with how there is nothing else for natives to do, leads strangely enough to the invisibility of udon on television, newspapers, leisure and lifestyle magazines. Forced to join a restaurant magazine, Kosuke and his directionally-challenged editor Kyoko strike on what I call the KF Seetoh idea: visit, catalogue and review every udon stall in Kagawa, like an udon fanatic on a wild pilgrimage. Given that there are no food courts (or udon courts?) in Kagawa, the rest, as they say, is history as hordes of food fanatics descend onto the island province on wild pilgrimages to savour the ultimate udon stall (or all of them).

It's straightforward enough as comedy material, but what really aces it for this film is its execution. It's filmmed in what a faux documentary style I'd call "unreality dramedy" - think the opposite of a reality drama. It's not quite the expected straight-laced making of udon documentary or even the cheeky KF Seetoh "search for a great foodie place" narrative. These are fun in themselves, but the makers of Udon have a different story that they really want to tell, which is the creation and rise of a food fad, the life cycle of an irrational national exuberance for udon. Hence, everything that you'd expect to watch in a movie called Udon is here, but thrown at you with a top-volley spin. The slow discovery of the udon stalls and their individual styles by the magazine team is there, but is merely part of a story that has sequences of out of control tourists, hilarious sketches with udon otakus, idiosyncratic udon owners, over the top cooking segments, and even an incredibly absurd low-budget Bayside Shakedown meets tokusatsu "Captain Udon" superhero gag.

The humour, as you can guess, is equal parts slapstick and irony, but never mean satire. However the movie skews its subjects, you will laugh knowing that this is good-natured humour, part tender teasing of food fanatics, part celebration of food, part self-deprecating homage to one's hometown. You'd expect a comedy like this to either go over the top to celebrate udon, Singapore comedy style, or for the satirical bits to be a bit too pungent. However, it seems that the director and makers of Udon find the right balance, mostly through the deliberately cheesey style that normalises the absurd instead of mocking it. It's the same way how the music from Bizet's Carmen accompanies most of the comic sequences and montages in the movie. It's not a mock heroism or a mocking of empty heroism, but a screwball valorisation of the mundane that's become quite the fashion nowadays in some Japanese comedy variety shows.

In a way, this brilliant comedy is something that you don't expect the director of Bayside Shakedown to achieve (aside from the lengthy runtime), but this style has far more in common with the comedy troupe The Rahmens, whose presence in this movie goes beyond their casting. Like their youtube sketch How to eat Sushi, this comedy is a fine example of how to celebrate food and poke fun of the oddities in its customs without being mean, but without losing the sharp insights either.

Of course, by the end of the film, you'll not only have laughed several wrinkles off your face, but you would, like Kosuke, find out the heart of real Udon cuisine!

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2007

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Good Year, A (DVD) (2006)

Stunt casting alert!

A Good Year is a fine piece of movie that relies on stunt casting as its central gimmick. Russell Crowe, known everywhere as the burly, manly actor who appears on-screen in ultra-masculine roles (a Roman general, a captain of a ship, a boxer) in action flicks, and who gets into fights with people off screen. Stunt casting occurs twice here, when for some reason, Russell Crowe is cast as a lead in a mellow romantic comedy that directed by Ridley Scott. This is doubly gimmicky, because A Good Year is an adaptation of a novel by Peter Mayle, the writer of the "Life in Provence" series of books, about a former English go-getter investor who finds a second, more humane and relaxed life in France.

To wit: Russell Crowe plays a lying, cheating, cold-hearted stock investor who makes lots of money. Everyone in London financial circles is jealous of his competence, everyone hates his guts, and everyone secretly wants to be like him. When news of the passing of his favourite uncle (a man who went native as a winemaker in Provence decades ago) reaches him, Max Skinner does the only sensible thing to the vineyard where he spent his best childhood summers at. Yes, the talented corporate raider intends to give the aging walls a fresh coat of paint, pass off its substandard wines as vintage microbrews, and sell the place - lock stock and barrel - to the highest, unsuspecting bidder.

Given that this is a romantic comedy, do not be surprised when the character everyone loves to hate suddenly undergoes a personality change and morphs into Mr Nice Guy before the movie is over. And given its pedigree as an entry in the Provence series, do not be surprised when Mr Moneybags gets overwhelmed by the provincial Provencal culture, its fiery women, fine wines and lush sunshine reflected in golden hues from leaves, and turns into Mr Sensitive Guy.

This is a movie that you'll either love or hate, really. There's Russell Crowe playing completely against type, matched only by director Ridley Scott directing against type. There's the whole improbable self-transforming experience story whose smugness can only be matched by the "cute little exotic French rural province" story that Peter Mayle is equally and strongly loved or reviled for. Sure, all the Oscar-worthy acting chops of Russell Crowe and Albert Finney are here, as is Ridley Scott's directorial excellence (do watch out for the brilliant colours of provincial France!) - but what really bought me into this movie was the unaffected story, set as flashbacks from Max Skinner's childhood. The interplay between Freddie Highmore and Albert Finney brings to mind the quality of childhood, and the nostalgia one gets from recalling scenes from childhood. If you have no problems with the stunt casting and the genre itself, A Good Year is a surprisingly Good Movie.

DVD review

Very tastefully done is Postcards from Provence. You can either, in the old style of embedded videos, switch to the mini-features in the middle of the movie at certain cues, or view the mini-features on their own through the Special Features menu. Through providing behind the camera footage of key scenes, Ridley Scott talks about the great cast of actors in the movie while showing how film production works. One thing you'll notice is that the director's commentary continues after those scenes and trails off halfway - it's all part of the full-movie director commentary, which of course isn't included in our local region-release DVD. It's an extremely annoying effect, and frankly, if you bothered enough to watch these features - which are basically director commentaries and videos - you'd be interested enough to give the full-movie director commentary a spin.

The music videos are fascinating enough - it's not quite well-known that Russell Crowe had a career as a rock singer. The 3 music videos feature original music by "Russell Crowe and The Ordinary Fear of God". Okay, Mr Crowe is a decent enough rock singer, and his band seem to be melodically inclined... but we suggest the actor has far greater talent in acting...

First published at incinemas on 14 May 2007

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Vacancy (2007)

Frank Whaley and Ned Flanders: separated at birth?

Vacancy has a really simple premise that's so barebones and generic that one wonders why this movie should merit their movie tickets. A bickering couple get lost on a highway detour and end up at a motel, whose owner intends to kill them, and film their deaths for a snuff film series. So here's the thing: as the movie went on, I found myself liking this movie, because its director Nimrod Antal does it in an unexpected manner so unexpectedly well that it actually stands out from the slasher and tourist trip gone wrong film genres that are currently the rage in cinemas.

What Vacancy has that the rest of the genre films I just mentioned don't boils down to just one thing: its director Nimrod Antal, who brings with him a distinctly (continental) European sensibility and production values that show up everywhere, from cinematography, script, to even scene composition. Antal starts it all off with two farreaching decisions - a strong rejection of the grainy, handheld camera aesthetic of recent American horror and slasher cinema, and a rejection of its much older fake scare technique. Robbing himself of these two easy clutches creates a challenge for the director that ultimately makes Vacancy far more superior than it should ever be, given its premise.

You'll notice that for a horror film, the cinematography of Vacancy is highly stylised. This may not be Hitchcock, but the director, set designer, and director of photography sure know how to create suspense and claustrophobia, as well as create the impression that this is visually different from other slasher/horror flicks with similar premises. Every scene is shot from an angle that's not quite conventional; every other scene involves the artful use of mirrors and reflections, images from second-hand sources; and once trapped in the confines of the motel room, the couple are framed in the camera so tightly, even in chase sequences, that one cannot but feel their claustrophobia. A director who bothers and has the imagination to set up scenes like this certainly knows how to freshen up a tired genre.

Elsewhere, the scriptwriters with their superb writing, make the movie far stronger than it deserves to be. Of course, one can't expect Oscar calibre dialogue, Kauffman level intricacies or Lynchian surrealism, but Antal and Smith pair the unsettling (but realistic) visual style with equally unsettling but realistic villains. This may be a slasher film, but there are no hockey-masked, superhuman killers, no supernatural self-resurrecting soldiers of darkness. Just one very bored and mundane looking hotel receptionist who, for a living, makes snuff videos where people really get killed. It's just a job, y'know, that comes with necessary henchmen who aren't remotely evil, but just doing what would be a mundane job. That involves killing tourists who stay at the motel. And probably selling the videos to other bored but ordinary people who aren't evil, but just get off watching snuff videos. The banality of evil, indeed.

And in accordance to the design of the movie, you should be even more pleased to know that Vacancy has the smartest protagonists ever in slasher movies. Okay, that they got lost on a highway and quarrel themselves pass obvious signs that Something Is Wrong With This Motel are really stupid, but brilliantly stupid in a normal, reality-based people way. There's not much to say about how the director, writer, and cinematographer handle their attempt to escape their fate as reluctant snuff film stars, except to say that whatever happens is shot with style and competence that is almost never seen now in American slasher and horror films with bigger budgets.

There's only one flaw I can see in having a European team produce a slasher flick. You'd get brilliant and thoughtful cinematography and outstanding direction, but at the cost of having a few slips here and there. One major slip occurs near the resolution, where apparently the most basic slasher rule gets broken - the Last Girl (Kate Beckinsdale) must always be the sole survivor!

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2007

Friday, 11 May 2007

NEXT (2007)

Nicholas Cage applies the Ludovico Technique on himself

Blade Runner was the best adaptation of any Philip K Dick story, Scanners the most gory adaptation, Minority Report the most faithful (literal) adaptation, and Total Recall the most surreal and faithful (intellectual) adaptation, while A Scanner Darkly was the most visually stunning and hallucinatory adaptation. All these movies, though, are more or less straightforward (as far as they could be) adaptations of works by an author who played around with issues of multiple (and fakable) realities and identities, of plastic authenticity and grounded inauthenticity. Next is just about the weirdest movie adaptations of any Philip K Dick short story, because it takes the highly surreal and improbable far future alternative-humanity scenario of The Golden Man, where the protagonist of the short story is a feral human mutant who operates on pure animal instinct and a limited power to tell the future, and turns it into a more recognisable superhero movie, where the protagonist is a magician by day and reluctant superhero by night - one who dodges bullets and saves America from a nuclear attack by rouge Russians who have stolen a nuclear warhead.

As you can guess, there's practically nothing from The Golden Man that survives the transition to the movie aside from the vague idea that our hero, played by Nicholas Cage, has roughly the same transhuman powers from the short story. As a radical adaptation, it is clear that Next must be evaluated on its own merits, and how its trio of scriptwriters and the director weave a completely original and credible narrative around the single idea of a man who can tell the future of his own life, 2 minutes ahead.

Here's what I feel the director and scriptwriters have done right:

1. There is a commendable effort at reintroducing classic Philip K Dick obsession with mixing up multiple realities into the film. You'll see this in several sequences where what appears to happen before you is merely a mental picture that Cris (Our hero, incidentally, is a Las Vegas magician. A deliberately bad magician, in a stroke of ironic genius!) conjures up with his power to predict all possible futures of the next 2 minutes of his life. The scriptwriters use this at times for comic effect (imagine dating a woman and trying out all possible come on lines first!), suspense (just when you think he's backed into a corner, or forced to make a deal he cannot refuse!), and even good action and chase scenes (Nicholas Cage dodges bullets and bulkier objects far better than Neo!). It is cheeky, it can get overused, but this is how Philip K Dick wrote his novels and short stories too... Sure, I can imagine audiences getting a little annoyed when the next sequence turns out to be another vision of the future.

2. There are two scenes where Cris utilises the full extent of his powers that are just visually stunning and somewhat creative - and clearly is a credit to Lee Tamahori's experience as a Bond director and the scriptwriters' knowledge of pulp sci-fi conventions.

Here's what I feel the director and scriptwriters could have been better:

1. For some reason, the switch from a classic Philip K Dick narrative to a Hollywoodised superhero story has turned the precog animal-like feral protagonist to a world-saving superhero. For all intents and purposes, Nicholas Cage really plays the Kwisatz Haderach in this movie, the Dune messiah who has the absolute powers of prescience, to predict all possible futures and ultimately select his course of action. There's a reason why Frank Herbert and other sci-fi writers who create near omnipotent characters never quite succeed in making these characters feel real, or have them as the sole main protagonists - omnipotence is boring. Where's the sense of suspense that every film or story needs if you invent a character that cannot lose?

2. At times, the visual representation of the hero's powers, like Matrix-style bullet dodging or splitting up into multiple selves, ends up looking dated and cheesey, thanks to Lee Tamahori's rather literal visual style, honed from his experiences from Die Another Day and XXX: the next level. This may not be fatal, but in conjunction with Nicholas Cage's offbeat charm, the at times quirky and over-cute narrative style of this movie, this could end up annoying some audiences. As someone who grew up with cheesey pulp sci-fi, though, I had fewer objections to this.

Next may be the most inaccessible of all Philip K Dick movie adaptations because of its style of adaptation, but if you're a hardcore sci-fi fan who appreciates honest efforts in storytelling and forgives over-enthusiastic, overreaching efforts, you'll do fine with this one.

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2007

Thursday, 10 May 2007

28 Weeks Later (2007)

You'll feel like running off to the exit in this overlong, pretentious, and uncreative sequel

28 hours after the movie screening, my mind is still in a rage against the sequel to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which reworked the zombie movie genre by introducing fast-moving ghouls. Anything to save a genre slipping into self-parody, I say... it was getting too difficult to take seriously the idea of lurching, drooling monsters moaning "Brraaaaaaains, braaaaaaains". While scientific, medical explanations of zombies in horror movies aren't the new thing, 28 Days Later succeeded because Boyle cross-fertilised the horror elements of a bloody, fast moving epidemic (say, Outbreak) with rapid, fast moving zombies that just pop out of nowhere, both brought together by a light touch of civilisational collapse (12 Monkeys).

But look at 28 Weeks Later. For all the trendsetting that went into its predecessor, the sequel has nothing new to offer, much less a justification for its own existence. The story, essentially, fast forwards audiences 28 weeks into the future of the first movie, where thankfully the zombie epidemic has washed out, and a US-led NATO force is coordinating the reconstruction of the United Kingdom, beginning with the city of London. Ditching the original director, writer, and cast, 28 Weeks Later offers more of the same: a carbon copy of the infection narrative of the original, with the epidemic breaking out from an accident, causing hoards of infected victims to run amok in the city. The dizzy handheld videocam technique from the first movie is back, as is the emo rock soundtrack. This time round, the US Army will clean up the infection, but in a brutal yet logical manner - killing the infected and anyone who could be infected - but for some reason, the irony of this new development is not developed or exploited to any emotional extent at all.

It's as though the new director thinks that "more of the same" is equivalent to "great movie" - disjointed videocam sequences in the sequel go on for so long that they could create a massive headache, while the emo rock soundtrack that is the calling card of Danny Boyle is duly recreated here. Not only does this movie play like a carbon copy of its predecessor, it also looks and sounds like it too. But wait, the problem is far greater than you think. It's not just that 28 Week Later is a note for note remake; it's that the movie is a poor knockoff of its sire, but with an inferior script, cast, director, and cinematographer. The script does not have anything new to warrant the existence of a sequel. Worse still, due to the ineptness of its writeres, the new cast lacks the emotional depths and horrors that the original cast exhibited and merely serves as emergency zombie food supples; while the movie lurches from one obvious set piece to another without any justification aside from "this will look good on the big screen" - there isn't any other reason why there would be a long motorcycle ride on the empty streets of London (which appeared just for a few seconds in the original film), why the survivors would make a pitstop at an abandoned carnival, or end up making a rendezvous with a helicopter in the middle of a stadium. It doesn't make sense, but since it looks good on the big screen, the script pushes the poor characters to these destinations without rhyme or reason.

It's not to say that this movie is entirely without merit. 28 Weeks Later would have been more promising if the director actually followed up on his own half-hearted comparisons of the US-led reconstruction of the UK/London with the real life, incompetent and mendacious reconstruction of Iraq/Baghdad, or the parallels between the army mowing down innocents and zombies alike and a paranoid, triggerhappy US Army in Iraq shooting down civilians and terrorists alike. 28 Weeks Later would have been promising too, if the director dropped the half-hearted political references and made fuller use of the stadium, the public squares, and the carnivals to perhaps make a dig at football louts, urban crowds, and shopping mobs, as zombies. But apparently, your $28 dollars (two tickets, drinks, and popcorn) only go as far as funding a movie, and not the creativity behind the movie.

On one hand, one dreads the fact that Danny Boyle is talking about making a third "28" zombie movie. It's like we need a one-trick pony trilogy. On the other, one hopes that with the original director back, audiences can look forward to something entirely different once more.

First published at incinemas on 10 May 2007

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Village People Radio Show (Apa khabar orang kampung) (2007)

Malaysia's last malay communists

It wouldn't be a mistake to think of Village People Radio Show as a follow-up to Amir Muhammad's previous movie on Chin Peng, The Last Communist, but it'll be a pity to see this documentary as merely a continuation of Amir's investigation of surviving members of the Malayan Communist Party and its armed forces. The key to this documentary lies in its subject, the 10th regiment of the Communist Party of Malaya, composed almost entirely of Malay volunteers and activists. While Chin Peng may have been an ideal launching point for a documentary on the fading legacy of the communists and the disproportionately long shadow they cast on Malaya, this sequel of sorts arrests the convenient national propaganda (undertaken by both Malaysian and Singaporean governments) that has demonised Chin Peng and the Malayan Communist Party as some sort of Yellow Peril, the ChiCom threat.

And so, it might be more rewarding to regard Village People Radio Show as a corrective educational piece that parades before its viewers elderly Malay men and women, who dedicated the better parts of their youth - and then some more - to the ideals of the Communist Party of Malaya, who volunteered in the anti-colonial struggle for independence, and then were rejected by the new leaders of Malaya, and fought a long guerilla war in the jungles before retiring to Thailand. These are the same elderly Malay and women who pray dutifully at their village mosque, construct probably the last remaining authentic Malay stilt villages on the Peninsular, and spend their evenings playing traditional music together. These people, because of who they are and what they do, because of the language they speak, are the gravest threats to the official propaganda of Malaysia. And because of their age, they may no longer pose a threat to official history of a PRC-backed Malayan Communist Party that lost out to more democratic forces because it could never touch the hearts and minds of non-Chinese in the Peninsular.

And so, Village People Radio Show, being aware of its duty to history, is more serious and less whimsical than The Last Communist. Amir Muhammad duly lets the camera roll as veterans of WW2 and the Emergency speak of their life histories and activities as members of the Party, and their life after the signing of the armistice in 1989. It is unclear whether Amir had pushed his subjects hard enough during the interviews, but at times, their reluctance to discuss the party's attacks on civilians becomes disturbing, like an elephant in the room or an itch that cannot be scratched.

Like The Last Communist, the Village People Radio Show has a narrative within a narrative, a Thai radio play that apparently is an adaptation of A Winter's Tale. At times whimsical and overdramatic, it speaks of a sense of lost and exile that must surely haunt the surviving members of the Malayan Communist Party. One only wishes, on the documentary strength of the material in Village People Radio Show, that Amir Muhammad had instead made a far more serious documentary trilogy on the party, interviewing (and not just commenting ironically from the sidelines of his road trip) Chin Peng, the Malay communist soldiers, as well as surviving politicians and fighters on the side of the colonialists and their successors in Malaya. That would surely be documentary project far more worthy of its subjects of inquiry, instead of 2 film essays that just feel incomplete.

First published at incinemas on 10 May 2007

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Overture, The โหมโรง (2004)

One of the things that amazes me about Thailand's film industry is how often its great directors are out of a job, while lesser talents find no difficulty in funding their next small project. It's a pity that trashy, sub-standard flicks (mostly horror) have apparently mopped up the easy money while better directors find it difficult to fund their next great film. In these 3 years that represent a boom in film production benefitting from easy money and excess fluidity fuelled by former Thai PM Thaksin's pump priming policies, directors of undeniably great films like Pen Ek Ratanaraung (Invisible Waves, Last Life in the Universe) and his collaborator and colleague Wisit Sasanatieng (Citizen Dog) have languished in their day jobs in the advertising industry.

That being said, not even Ratanaraung and Sasanatieng can rival the portfolio of director Ittisoontorn Vichailak, who has made just 2 films in the past 20 years, in an apparent attempt to personify the ideal of quality over quantity. It would have been easy for Ittisoontorn to follow up his award-winning 1983 debut Look Bar with any commercial project, any dozen projects of substandard but crowd-pleasing films, to line his pockets (being a just reward for making a critically-acclaimed movie), but apparently this man believes in only doing movies that he can justify to himself. The result is a 20-year wait for The Overture, a largely fictional film based on the life of Luang Pradit Pairoh (Sorn Silapabanleng) Thailand's last master of the renad ek, a wooden xylophone instrument. In a parallel movement, Ittisoontorn tells of the teen prodigy's test of fire in his early career against an enigmatic and frustratingly adept rival Im Khun, and decades later, of the old master's silent opposition to the banning of traditional music performances during the reign of WW2 dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram.

This may be a standard, cut and dry fictional biopic about the education and humbling of a headstrong child prodigy and his dignified opposition to a tyrannical, even fascist regime. In the hands of lesser directors, this movie may be laughably hackneyed predictable - but Ittisoontorn does far better than that. It seems that the director knows more than a thing or two about music and performance arts, and offers convincing performances of reconstructed traditional Thai ensemble scores on period instruments, as part of the many musical competitions that accompany the growth of the master musician. More importantly, the movie rises beyond the standard monomythic narrative, to encompass musings on the relation between culture, innovation and tradition, and the value of music as an art for itself. The director reverence for traditional music and his respect for radical innovators is shown through some unique music compositions in the movie, which features a improvised duet between the renad ek and a Brahms piano piece, a string duet between the lead character and non-diagetic music, and a modernist composition for the renad ek, played by the chief antagonist Im Khun.

Now, even with its multi-layered, contemplative and serious storyline, even with its well-researched and well-performed music that would bring joy to any ethnomusicologist, there are two minor details that may take audiences momentarily out of the magical charm of the movie. Occasionally, the music competition scenes may be overdone. Watching them, you might think how easily the facial reaction shots have already been parodied or unknowingly self-parodied on shows like God of Cookery, Iron Chef, Yakitate! Japan... (The judge's face plainly shows: "this music... it's absolutely delightful! Why haven't I heard anyone play like that before!" The audience faces plainly show: "Oh no, the antagonist is way too good! His playing is flawless! I'm having constipation thinking of just how the poor protagonist can reply to this musical passage!") Secondly, while great effort and care have been taken to reconstruct the scores of traditional Thai music and period instruments, I wonder how even though the movie takes place in WW2, and about 40 years or more before that, the architecture of the stilthouses always look brand new, and the clothing freshly minted from the factory...

Depending on what you expect out of this movie, you might find these 2 issues either trivial or glaring, but I'm sure that the director's heart-felt efforts can still reach audiences easily.

First published at incinemas on 24 May 2007

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Priceless (Hors de prix) (2006)

Gold diggers in Paris!

The fact is, Hollywood just can't make good romantic comedies, and making things even worse for movie audiences over the past 2 years, Hollywood has developed an obsession with remaking romantic comedies from the 1950s, despite no longer having the directorial, screenwriting, and acting talent to pull off this genre. It takes someone like the French to prove my point, though. Priceless is a modern entry into one of the oldest subgenres of the romantic comedy that Hollywood made in its Golden Age, between the 1930s and 1940s. You know, the type of romantic comedy fronted by frank, strong-willed, worldly, roguish (even bad) female leads, who would be nothing like the squeaky clean, wallflower decorative "romantic interest" types of later and lesser Hollywood fare. I'm talking in particular about the society comedy popular in the 1930s that portrayed the world of dating and marriage as a cynical game played by gold-diggers of both sexes, of course, with the lead roles played with fiesty abandon by the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Barbara Stanwyck. It is, as you may guess, an incredibly tough act to follow, and one wonders if Audrey Tatou, queen of the quirky French romantic comedy genre, can fill their boots, or whether the French screenwriters can recreate the old genre competently...

But yet it works: Audrey Tatou is convincing as Irene, a hard-nosed modern gold-digger, living off a succession of high society geriatrics because she loves fine clothing, haute cuisine, living for months in hotels, and getting really pampered. One gathers that a creature like her would be at the top of her game, but she makes the error one night of mistaking Jean (Gad Elmaleh), a sad sack but strangely charismatic (think a more subtle Nic Cage) barman at the hotel for a millionaire (whereas he makes the error of using his access to the Presidential suite for their after-drinks activities). It's a colossal blunder for both parties: Irene is cast off by her soon-to-be geriatric husband, while Jean decides to make it up to her by spending the rest of the day and night with her... which amounts to breaking his bank account, of course. And thus pauperised (not that he was anywhere comfortable in his finances to begin with) and reduced to a needy state, it becomes almost natural that high society widow Madeleine (Marie-Christine Adam) would mistake the impeccably behaved and servile barman as a male gold-digger and keep him as her toy boy...

From a setup like that, I think it's safe to say that the script delivers what is expected: much of the comedy after the initial set-up involves the initiation of the shy bachelor into the world of gold-digging, his learning (or rather, fumbling) at the ropes, and his persistent vying for the attention and love of Irene, even though he now knows she's basically an old-fashioned, pre-Code gold-digging hussy. What's interesting is that the scriptwriters and director have resisted the typical modern Hollywood urge to turn this into a self-satisfied, moralising "redemption of the golddigger" comedy, and instead indulge in the wicked fun of portraying the modern dating scene (albeit high society) as a cynical game for rich willing fools buying the attention of their trophy boyfriends and girlfriends with expensive gifts. Priceless, like the great society comedies of Hollywood's golden age, doesn't give a damn about being politically correct; I haven't seen a crooked and corrupt protagonists (Irene, and the steadily corrupted Jean) in a judgement-free movie for a long time!

What Pierre Salvadori brings to this update of a very old genre is also unexpected. Even though the movie is about gold-diggers in high society, Salvadori's direction ensures that deafest of viewers will not miss the undercurrents of his critique of the class divide, and the excesses of conspicuous consumption that an accelerating class divide would generate. Through a moment here and there, a camera focussing on waiters, maids, and counter staff, the director ensures that even while you're laughing at the movie's physical comedy, its digs at the dating scene, you'd never quite be able to escape - quite like how the gold-diggers will never really escape - the entire inequality and social tensions that underpin the premise of this comedy. Priceless is a remarkable and understated achievement for the director, but I just want to make clear that he has make the golden age shine once again.

First published at incinemas on 10 May 2007

Friday, 4 May 2007

Blades of Glory (2007)

Wax on, wax off!

From its trailer, one is led to believe that Blades of Glory would be pure comedy gold. By pairing Will Ferrell's wildly redneck cowboy character with Jon Heder's prissy effete character and throwing them into what has to be the most self-parodying and gayest sport - ice skating, and then making them perform a same-sex ice-skating doubles act with uncomfortably hilarious and provocative poses and routines, the trailer essentially promises a movie that might well be the odd couple movie of the decade. Remember, as I split my sides laughing at the trailer in the cinema - and I am in the cinema 3 days of every week at least - that I was a believer.

You will laugh heartily during Blades of Glory, but your guffaws may be a little diminished if you should watch this movie with memories of last year's Talladega Nights and School for Scoundrels in mind. These films provide an unfortunate reminder to the audience that Will Ferrell was better paired with Sacha Baron Cohen in Tallageda Nights, while Jon Heder had far more comic sparks with Billy Bob Thornton in School for Scoundrels. Perhaps they will remember that Talledega Nights had the slyer social commentary - which will raise the question: shouldn't it be easier to make fun of the visually ridiculous sport of ice skating - or that School for Scoundrels had the whole maliciously bickering, combative odd couple thing down pat. And perhaps audiences may remember that Will Ferrell was the perfect foil to the stereotypical yet subversively effette Sacha Cohen, or that Jon Heder came across as an even better and more hilariously bland/emptyheaded/emasculated man-child when juxtaposed with the alpha-maleness of Billy Bob Thornton. And perhaps, just perhaps, audiences may remember that Talladega Nights and School for Scoundrels had excellent scripts that sustained a high level of comedy from start to finish...

The problem with Blades of Glory is that aside from the key sight gags in the skating ring, half of which have been revealed in the trailer, most of its jokes are either tepid or fall flat. Dialogue-based jokes (the repartee between Ferrell and Heder, the ad libbed lines by Ferrell in over half the movie) lack real comic punch - surely a product of a director who decided to shoot a feature comedy based on a not very well-written skeletal script. In truth, the non-skating parts of this movie play like a succession of sketch ideas. You know, the type that we watch on Whose Line is it Anyway?, where the scriptwriters pull out a piece of paper with a minimal description of a sketch idea ("Will Ferrell spends hours apologising to Jon Heder through his cellphone's mailbox", "Will Ferrell is a sex addict who enters a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting"). The difference is that Whose Line is it Anyway? has comedians who have spent hours rehearsing before the show, whereas in Blades of Glory, the director just films the comedian for the next hour where he tries one ad libbed line after another, then choose the funniest or the least groan-inducing line...

I don't quite lay the blame entirely on the poor showing Will Ferrell (which isn't as bad as his turn on Bewitched), though. Clearly, the script somehow fails to bring out the comic potential of Jon Heder, or even the cartoonishly evil villains of the movie. Look, the idea that a figure skating pair decide to dress as JFK and Marilyn Monroe in their final routine is a monument of ultimate bad taste that should look even funnier and more outrageous than the latent homoeroticism of a male-male skating duo - but somehow that never gets utilised. There's even a scene where the JFK skater attempts to assassinate Will Ferrell's skater, but for some reason, there's no irony or hilarity at all in the chase sequence - aside from the fact that both skaters are slowly inching their way in a mall... on ice skates. All the missed chances are an indication that there's something very lacking in the script of Blades of Glory, and that the director never quite picked up on it.

Everyone has their bad day, though, and I'm willing to overlook this entertaining (yes, this movie brings down the house when it's funny) but disappointing (the situations thought up by the scriptwriters have far more potential than what was realised in the movie itself) comedy. Will Ferrell desperately needs the scriptwriting services of his long-time collaborator Adam McKay to bring out his best comic talents, while Jon Heder just needs better luck with casting. But nice try, guys.

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2007

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Perfect Stranger (2007)

Remember, kids, the Internets is full of scary dangers!

Here's a film to warm the heart of the most curmudgeonly of our society, echoes the direst warnings of Singapore's well-meaning guardians of morality and order, and packs a visceral punch into the "What has Singapore come to?!" and "The world is not safe at all!" articles that Singapore's scaremongering tabloid press (The Straits Times, The New Paper...) prints on a slow news day. Remember, kids, the internet is full of scary dangers! On the internet, monsters lurk, predators abound, and no one is entirely who they seem to be! And of course, on the internet you can find all sorts of kinky romance... Now, about 10 years ago, this idea would have been terribly shocking, even revelationary. But after a decade of The Net, Enemy of the State, Hackers and Alias, do forgive me for being less than impressed if Hollywood makes a thriller whose premise and twist at the end are both based on the single idea that very rotten things happen on the internet. Ten years ago, this would have been gimmicky... now, it's just further evidence of the heights that director James Foley has fallen from since his award-winning Glengarry Glen Ross.

But back to the film at hand: muckracking investigative journalist Halle Berry runs into her childhood friend one fine evening, who turns up dead 5 minutes later. Turns out that the childhood friend had been carrying a troubled affair (over IM!) with the wealthy. powerful, and very married ad agency boss Bruce Willis before her horrific murder, and it's all up to Berry to start chatting up Bruce Willis on IM and go undercover at his ad agency to find out if he, his chilling, almost reptilian wife, or her lesbian secretary killed the said best friend, whom we obviously don't care about because we only saw her for less than 10 seconds in the movie. And of course, we can't expect Berry to go in alone; she is aided by Cheesey Tech-thriller holdover #1, the hacker sidekick, played by Giovanni Ribisi.

In recent Hollywood, once A-list actors are cast in a movie, scriptwriters feel forced to rewrite the screenplay to accomodate the public image, favoured screen personas and star appeal of these actors, leading to a disaster in the making. I'm not saying that Perfect Stranger is a stinker, but it would have been far easier to achieve a noir thriller with a cast of less celebrited actors. I mean, just look at the potential here: with a better script and a director more in control of his project, Perfect Stranger could be a techno-noir, with Halle Berry as both femme fatale and unethical, sad sack investigator who plunges herself into a corrupt world way out of her league. Instead, the realisation of the idea to screen is almost laughable - due to the overcomplicated plot (whose purpose and meaning crashes to pieces upon the twist at the end), Halle Berry's one-note acting, and most importantly the writers' off-key handling of the entire "internet is evil and freaky" meme. But even more important than that, the writers spoil the entire movie by choosing the worst of all possible endings. No, it's not the one where Halle Berry wakes up to find that the entire movie was a drream - it's far worse than that.

In a world where broadband, IM, Myspace, and internet pr0n are seen as average and normal, Perfect Stranger fails because of its incoherent hysteria of the internet and failure to weave a true murder mystery around this technology.

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2007