Monday, 16 July 2007

Invisible Target 男儿本色 (2007)

Party like it's 1980 again!

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Friday, 13 July 2007

La vie en Rose (La mome) (2007)

Happy new year!

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

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 26 July 2007

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Condemned, The (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Monday, 9 July 2007

Rise: Blood Hunter (2007)

Lucy Liu plunges into B Movie depths

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

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Friday, 6 July 2007

Cashback (2007)

Clerks meets science fiction

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

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2007

Paprika (2006)

This is anime on brains!

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

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

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

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

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

First published at incinemas on 19 July 2007

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Good Shepherd, The (DVD) (2007)

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

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

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

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

DVD review

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

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

First published at incinemas on 3 July 2007