Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Clerks 2 (2006)

As Dante is about to find out again, working life is hell...

In the entire history of great movies, one rule of thumb exists: the sequel is always inferior to the original great movie. The only exception? Godfather Part II - Francis Ford Coppola's film is in fact the only sequel to make it into the AFI top 100 films list. This is something that we need to keep in mind when we think about Clerks II. The original Clerks in 1994 launched Kevin Smith's career as a director, and remains his best work to date (with the possible exception of Dogma). The movie may have been about a day in the almost-meaningless life of a couple of 20somethings working at a record store, but it captured the exasperation and nihilism of many a GenXer stuck in mind-numbing, soul-destroying dead-end jobs during the economic downturn, with virtually no avenue for escape. The resulting comedy ensues only because there are only so many ways overeducated (Randall Graves gets the best lines) and frustrated (Dante Hickes shares the profanity-ridden dialogue with his fellow actors) underachievers who have all but given up on the rat race can entertain themselves. The result: an instant classic that not only made Kevin Smith US cinema's equivalent of Douglas Copeland, but also created some of the most profane and perverse dialogue and scenarios ever seen on screen at that time.

Sure, Adam Sandler and the makers of the Scary Movies have tried to outdo Smith in tasteless jokes, but what they do not get and have never been able to replicate is the width and depth of social satire and commentary that accompanied the jokes in Clerks, or even the sense of dark brooding malaise behind every genuinely funny gag. As a member of the office comedy, Kevin Smith's Clerks took the "working life is hell" motiff, adapted it to the real life experiences of a new generation, dripping midnight paint into the genre with the bleakness of the mid-90s economy and at the same time sharpening to a knife's edge the keeness of the satire. Now, what on earth could Kevin Smith do with a direct sequel to Clerks? How on earth would he avoid making a sequel that would be a pale shadow, a weak imitation of the groundbreaking original?

Let me just say that it certainly is possible for any audience to enjoy Clerks 2 without even watching Clerks as its jokes and dialogue are as profoundly perverse and profane as the original's, but what makes Clerks 2 a worthy sequel is how it really relates to the original movie. I'm not really refering to the references and visual parodies to the original movie (although they are there), but to what Kevin Smith has done to the original premise. "Reprisal" would definitely be wrong, and a mere "development" would be an understatement. It's more like Kevin Smith has discovered a whole new dimension to Clerk's comic premise: take the same 2 dead-end workers from 1994, imagine that despite the roaring nineties, fate has conspired to keep their lives in the same job and the same store from Clerks, with the duo dully, sullenly, accepting that fate yet half-hearted hoping for the chance to escape.

And of course, Clerks 2 of course chronicles a day in the lives of Dante and Randall, but what a difference 12 years make. Once more, as they say, with feeling - and Clerks 2 is even bleaker, edgier, and angrier than its predecessor, while being more resigned at the same time. Of course, being 12 years older, the characters are tinged with a sense of futility and desperation... Here, fate plays a joke on the duo: Randall may just have gotten his once-in-a-lifetime chance out of a life of mediocrity with his marriage to a hyper-motivated girlfriend (who obviously was the one who made the marital decision), but can he survive his final day at work? Clerks 2 moves the action from the convenience store to a fictional fast food restaurant, but Kevin Smith's joke is that work is hell, wherever you go, and the only thing to look forward is the collective hilarity and pranks you play on your colleagues and friends.

Kevin Smith has clearly outdone himself with Clerks 2. The satire is even more biting, the sense of despair deeper (and mind you, Clerks was an allegory of Dante's Inferno), and the jokes way funnier. There's a frightful amount of pop culture jokes in them, with pointed comments at Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and even the Transformers, as well as organised religion, Silence of the Lambs, and more. Either way you will laugh. And either way, you will weep. And either way, you will shudder to think what Kevin Smith can conjure up if he decides to make Clerks 3 in 10 or 12 years' time.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Miss Potter (2006)

So are we going with 24-bit colour or 16-bit colour, ma'am?

We remember Beatrix Potter as the author and illustrator of the Petter Rabit books, as well as other children's stories involving the adventures of an entire menagerie of sometimes mischievious but always endearing animals, all dressed in human clothing. It is a little known fact that prior to her publishing career, Ms Potter was an amateur scientist who was the first to painting the appearance of lichens under a microscope, and amongst the first botany scientists to suggest that lichens are formed as a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae - or that she had presented a couple of scientific monographs at the Royal Society. It is also a little known fact that Beatrix Potter became an expert breeder of sheep when she retired to the Lake District after the death of her fiance. I mention all this because you will not learn of these from the Miss Potter movie, which concerns itself with the years between her first Petter Rabbit book to shortly after her move to the Lake District.
More importantly, I mention all this because both director, screenwriter, and Rene Zellweger have managed to form a rather fun and quirky impression of Beatrix Potter in this movie, quite unlike her serious and some say dour self. And what a fun movie it becomes too, as Zellweger plays Beatrix as a loveable eccentric with an almost-permanent crooked smile, silly pinched face, and indeterminable broad accent that makes her look and sound like a younger and taller version of Linda Hunt. Zellweger's Beatrix Potter is somehow both of this world and not of it - a 30something spinster determined to publish her book and willing to get her hands literally (and metaphorically) dirty in the process, as well as a childlike woman who insists the illustrated animals are her friends, has individual names for each of them, and imagines they can come alive (i.e. move and run about) on the page. Now, usually you would either be freaked out, or end up viewing such a person as a curious psychological study ("An iiiiiinteresting person", the doctors will put it. Even most adults in the movie don't quite take her seriously), but with Zellweger portraying Beatrix with such zest, you'll just have to adore her, quirks and all.

Over the course of the movie, audiences will have a chance to look at how Beatrix Potter developed her skill and love for storytelling and illustration during her childhood, while the main story in the movie concerns itself with the straightforward tale of how Beatrix built her career as a children's author, as well as her relationship with her publisher from the company, Norman Wayne (Ewan McGregor), and his freespirited family. This movie would indeed by straightforward and hardly outstanding if not for the playful and eccentric portrayal by Rene Zellweger, the lighthearted and quirky script, but more importantly, the numerous animated sequences that show just how strange and charming Beatrix's imagination can be.

As far as biographical movies go, Miss Potter does tell the most important years of the author's life, is frank about the many quirks of her personality while making them understandable and even sympathetic to modern audiences, and shows a wide range of the author's inner emotions. Even though one suspects Rene Zellweger plays her parts for laughs at times (like her perpetual grin, pinched face and strange accent!), one also suspects that the real Beatrix Potter - not one to conform to the crowds - would have approved of this movie's irreverent and quirky tone.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Monday, 29 January 2007

Half Nelson (2006)

Finally, a teacher turns troubled students around movie that isn't patronising or disconnected from reality!

"Idealistic teacher turns troubled (or terminally bored) students around": hardly a year goes by without some new member of this film genre hitting the cinemas, and older members getting shown on television every Teacher's Day. Traditionally, it is expected that the teacher will have some form of eccentricities, most notably deviating from the prescribed course materials (Robin Williams notably demanded his students "Rip! Rip! Rip!" the introduction to their literature study guide in Dead Poets Society, Julia Roberts forces her young conservative charges to look at nude art in Mona Lisa Smile). It is sometimes expected that the teacher will modify their pedagogical methods to suit the students (Danny DeVito tries to get his underachieving class of army recruits interested in Shakespeare, in Renaissance Man, while Richard Dreyfuss and Jack Black turn kids on to music in Mr Holland's Opus and School of Rock respectively). On the other side of the equation, the students are always expected to be a sort of challenge to the teacher; they are either underachieving, bored, hostile to new methods, or very occasionally disadvantaged urban poor predisposed to gangfights and other self-destructive behaviour (e.g. Michelle Pfeiffer's students in Dangerous Minds, or the students in the early, pre-censorship crackdown episodes of Moulmein High).

Yet nothing has prepared us for Ryan Gosling's turn as Dan Dunne, an excellent and eccentric history teacher in a decaying inner-city school. Yes, he does depart radically from the course material (the naughty teacher secretly unloads the students with Engels, Hegel and Foucault hrough the Black Panthers, the civil rights movement, and the everyday life of the students!), is close to the students in a kind of hip manner (teacher is also a very zen-like basketball coach who isn't scared of abusing kayu referees), and has to deal with the behavioural problems of some students - but really, nobody expects that a model teacher like that would have any real problems. Like a barely controlled drug problem. This sort of complication is - despite the more 'realistic' entries in this genre - competely unthinkable. But if you notice, only in films do teachers face no psychological problems aside from the problem of being rebels, whereas reading the Straits Times or just by a simple street poll, we know that one of the perils of teaching in schools is mental instability, depression, and the development of bizarre habits (not necessarily drug abuse, mind you).

So Half Nelson is the most realistic entry of the school drama genre film, and its strength is to show how an individual with a severe problem can still be motivated enough to teach, and how he manages to be an excellent teacher in spite of (or maybe because of) his problems. Intensely psychological, the movie doesn't shy away from the realities of life, refusing to validate the fairy tale that perfect and blameless people walk around in schools, or that teachers have the power to change every single life in the classroom. Dunne is a realistic idealist who will be happy if he manages to change just one student's life, but his entire project enters difficult territory once that student, a promising student (played by Shareeka Epps) who is in danger of joining a gang, discovers his drug habit. How do you inspire and guide a student when you expect them to follow your teachings, but not your actions? Half Nelson explores this intiguing question, and also comes very close to answering how real life, flesh and blood all-too-human teachers work out their ideals and flawed reality in their lessons.

Half Nelson is a testament to the struggles we all have to go through in our lives, and to the noble instinct to reach out to others no matter how flawed we are at the moment. As a school drama, it also comes close to be the most realistic of the lot, with its emotionally and spiritually-struggling teacher, and its lack of a simplistic fairytale ending. Acting-wise, Ryan Gosling fleshes out this very difficult role with ease, bringing out his character's inner turmoil in a sympathetic manner. His Oscar nomination for Best Actor is a recognition of his performance in this movie, and I was also impressed by Shareeka Epps, who is able to measure up to Gosling's intensity.

Despite its very realistic portrayal of school life and subversive teachings, Half Nelson is an inspiring school drama that I hope will be run on televsion on Teacher's Day some time in the future, uncut.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Friday, 26 January 2007

.45 (2006)

Two words why you’d watch this: Milla Jovovich

When they stumble on the remains of our civilisation, aliens from a distant world or scientists from a distant time will have to unravel the mystery that is Milla Jovovich. They will have to explain the rise and rise of the model-turned-actress, whose movies consist of her appearing in skimpy clothing (bandages in The Fifth Element, a leather suit in Ultraviolet and the Resident Evil series) and a breathtaking hairdo, and kicking the ass of assorted characters (alien invaders, the English army, infected zombies) in the same movie.

No doubt alien visitors will be wiser beyond our comprehension, and no doubt scientists from the future will be laughing at our primitiveness, but one thing they will never get is Milla Jovovich’s movies. You see, there are movies where people watch Milla Jovovich. Then there are movies where people watch Milla Jovovich act. The second category is of course a null set... but .45 comes very close to a well-written movie that is far less ridiculous and no less entertaining than most of Ms Jovovich’s movie appearances.

A very short .45 Milla Jovovich cheat sheet
Milla is Kat, a hot and smart chick who: sells guns to gangsters with Big Al, her lover and partner in crime.
Her unique look in this film is: battered girlfriend with chopped up hair and black eye
She kicks the ass of: Big Al, who creates her unique look in a fit of jealousy
And so you better look out for Milla is out for REVENGE!

As you can tell, .45 is a neat little revenge film that is typical of its genre, with a simple premise, and uncomplicated setup. What makes it fun to watch are (as you may have guessed) the gratuitous amount of fanservice involving the physical charms of Ms Jovovich, as Kat slowly persuades and seduces her friends (some female!) and colleagues of Big Al to exact her vengeance. Here’s the not-so-simple premise of .45: you know that she succeeds in her revenge when the first opens, and the question is how did she do it, and who did the dirty deed in the end? You’d also admire the director’s effort in his not-so-straightforward telling of a straightforward story, mixing in expletive-laden interviews with Big Al’s neighbours, families and friends after his imminent demise (apparently even his mother wants him dead!) as the movie ambles from a Bonny and Clyde style love affair to its eventual breakdown, and then to Kat’s vengeance arc. If anything, this method of storytelling gives the film a sense of fun and tells a very familiar story in an unexpected manner – setting up audiences for a few surprises along the way.

I like genre films, because this is where directors hone and sharpen their writing skills by applying and stretching the genre formula to create something that is unexpected despite its familiarity. With .45, Gary Lennon, whose last directorial effort in a movie was in 1995, proves that he can turn out a great tale, and tell it well.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Once in a Summer 그해 여름 (2006)

Those who forget history are doomed to make period tearjerkers!

There’s something strange about asking a 36 year-old man to play a high school student. Yet for his first tearjerker romance, this is precisely what romantic comedy director Jo Geun-sik resorts to. Lee Byeong-heon – whose claim to fame rests on the Joint Security Area movie – is an aging professor (who looks like a 36-year-old with a grey wig and stage latex around his eyes, but none on his wrinkle-free hands) who disappeared completely from public view after a sudden resignation, and one of his former students tracks him down in order to do a television programme, which you never get to see or even figure out what it’ll be about, because it’s a plot device to get the prof to launch the movie into a huge flashback to 1969, which forms the meat of this tearjerker romance. As our young intrepid reporter leans forward in earnest attention, the old prof begins to tell of his first romance as a young college student.

Summer 1969. Retired general Park Chung Hee forces a charter change to allow himself to serve for an otherwise unconstitutional third term as president. The actions of the general (who promised not to run for presidential elections in 1963!) is deeply resented, causing widespread student unrest. Our future prof joins his classmates, who either defy the street curfews or escape them by roughing it out with farmers at a remote village. Perhaps this movie will be something like "Love During South Korea’s Great Leap Forward". Since this is a tearjerker, give yourself 1 point if you guessed that the prof’s going to fall so deeply in love with a villager, yet have the romance turn out so badly or tragically that he never remarried, and this romance is somehow linked to his eventual voluntary seclusion from society.

But then as you watch the movie, it becomes apparent that Jo Geun-sik really wants to do is tell a straightforward love story set in a rustic place, and that the political background and implications are pretty much tossed out of the window once boy meets girl. In time-honoured romantic comedy fashion, boy takes a dislike to girl due to a poor first meeting, but both gradually fall in love with each other as they tease each other while working together at the village. All this is scripted very competently, even though it seems that not enough was made out of the apathetic boy and the girl whose parents actually defected to North Korea. But then, given that not enough was made out of the political background of the story, or from the modern-day introduction and bookending of the story (why did the boy not search for the girl? Why is the television station interested in him, given that it knows nothing about his story? What did he do for the 50 years after the end of the romance? And why?), one can’t really expect much beyond an average romance.

Even then, you can’t expect much of this average romance when the political reality of 1969 catches up with the lovers. I’m depressed enough to report that during the most preposterous interrogation scene in a Korean movie starring Lee Byeong-jeon, which involves him and Su-ae weeping as they communicate their loves through their eyes while managing to fool their secret service interrogators that they don’t know each other, I was hoping that the director had stuck to a straightforward, apolitical, ahistorical romance instead.

Who is to blame for all this? I can’t tell since there are 8 (EIGHT!) credited writers for this film, which probably explains its multiple deficiencies. This movie does start out well with an interesting premise, an uncommon setup , and a promise of mixing politics in a tearjerker, but develops none of the premises, and fulfils none of its promises. Taken by itself, Once in a Summer is a decent romance, but falls behind the well-established Taiwanese and Chinese political weepies genre. One hopes Lee Byeong-heon lands better projects than this in the future!

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Monday, 22 January 2007

Bobby (2006)

And a liberal conspiracy is born

It’s a sign of how low George W Bush’s popularity has plunged that Emilio Estevez, a former Brat Pack actor of the 1980s who was reduced to starring in the Mighty Ducks movies, has resurfaced to become a director, persuading 23 other top Hollywood actors to star in a film that is nothing less than an full frontal attack on the president’s handling of the Iraq invasion and occupation. At this point, you’d probably throw up your hands, give a good laugh, and move on to the next review. But please bear with me. It’s easy to expect Hollywood liberals to make a political movie out of good intentions, but fall completely and utterly flat due to either incompetence, arrogance, a tone-deaf script, or any combination of the three.

Yet to my surprise, Emilio Estevez has probably pulled off a coup here. Bobby works well precisely because it doesn’t mention Bush or Iraq at all, and yet somehow compels the audience to connect the dots inevitably, like an involuntary muscle twitch. Theoretically, Bobby is about an ordinary day in 1968 – an “interesting time” in history, with the civil rights movement making its hugest gains, a strongly grassroots movement protesting against a wasteful and unjustified war that had killed too many Americans and Iraqis Vietnamese, and the hippie subculture spreading its message of universal love and peace for all to the wider population. It’s also a special day: the California primaries to decide the candidate for the Democrat nominee for President would be held that day, and senator Robert Kennedy was widely expected to win California and go on to win the Presidency, pull the troops out of Iraq Vietnam, heal the racial divide once and for all, and possibly lift hundreds of thousand out of poverty. Robert Kennedy would be shot and killed by a crazed gunman later that night at the Ambassador Hotel.

Through 24 characters who live and work at the hotel, Bobby is a film that evokes the optimism and sense of social justice of 1968, despite the very bad state of the nation then. There are the rank and file employees in the hotel and their managers. There are guests of the hotel, each struggling with their own problems and tribulations. And there are the campaign staff of the senator, who have set up their campaign headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel. Estevez flits from character to character, vignette to vignette, plumbing their emotional depths, private tragedies, and minor epiphanies. The director manages even to evoke the ghost of Robert Altman, working in very obliquely issues of class and race divides, turning the Ambassador Hotel at times into an American Gosford Park. With more than half the characters working at the hotel or for the primary campaign, you’ll be fascinated with the hidden world of the servants, with the plays of power and relationships between the many-layered hotel hierarchy that is further complicated by issues of race and the Vietnam war.

For a movie that’s based on the 24 hours at the hotel before Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Estevez devotes much screentime to historical reels of the senator’s actual campaign tour around America, as well as a lengthy voice montage of his best and most idealistic speeches. For an ensemble movie, Estevez lets almost every character deliver a really grand or profound speech. Ordinarily, this is a recipe for a disaster, but somehow it all fits together, because of the well-written script. The best performances, speeches and storylines that you should look out for are from Laurence Fishburne as a head chef who is resented by the Latino busboys; Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez as an alcoholic fading diva and her depressed manager husband; Shiaf LeBouf, Nick Cannon and Ashton Kutcher as two young Kennedy campaign volunteers who spend the afternoon at a hippie drug dealer’s room; and Sharon Stone’s portrayal of a beautician married to a manager at the hotel.

Fortunately though, the balance is just right: watching this movie, you realise how easily it could have gone wrong with its liberal politics and an overload of big-name stars giving grand speeches. And then you realise that this movie didn’t just turn out all right, but is a great success and an inspiring film to boot. And all this is credit to the directing and writing skills of Emilio Estevez. The movie puts forth a convincing case that all is not lost, that idealism is necessary even for these dark times, and that the world will be a better place if we place more value on the lives of others – and should be watched just for that.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

Friday, 19 January 2007

Jackass Number 2 (2006)

It may be crude, silly, and vomit-inducing, but you will laugh. Yes, you will!

A wise friend of mine quoted an even wiser friend of his: "Women show affection for same sex friends by edifying them and buying them presents, while men show affection for same sex friends by insulting them and physically tormenting them." You know it’s true: only best friends taupok and pillar their other best friends, and close fraternal ties can only be formed through great pain and humiliation. It’s not a mystery why your closest army buddy is the one who suffered next to you during BMT, and your closest university mate is the one whom you wrestled naked during the initiation ritual to the fraternity club. That’s why, watching Jackass number two, one gets the impression that Knoxville has such great affection for his fellow cast that it’s almost Brokebackian.

Now, let me explain: Like its predecessor, Jackass Number Two has no climax, no plot, and no point, and consists of various stunts where Knoxville and friends put themselves in danger of bodily harm for a couple of laughs. Often, they wince in pain or vomit copiously from the sheer disgusting nature of their jokes, but intriguingly, the Jackass gang seem to get their biggest kick out of when their pranks involve the following: injury to someone’s sexual organs, ass (yes, someone’s ass gets torn in the first 10 minutes), or stunts involving defecation and ingestion of semen. That’s not counting the heavily suggestive undertones of stunts involving grabbing anaconda snakes in a pit full of balls, or phallic shaped rockets, or branding someone’s buttocks with a brand shaped like a male sexual organ, or ride too many phallic shaped rockets. It’s as though Knoxville and gang really like the idea of having things done to each other, but are too all-American to do it with each other – hence the very indirect methods (a horse, a brand, a dildo!). Like I said, there’s something very Brokebackian about Jackass Number Two.

Or, you could see Jackass number two as a really entertaining movie where Knoxville and friends prove that half a century after the very physical comedy of the Marx Brothers and the violence in the original Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, it’s still possible to get people in the mood to laugh when someone on screen suffers pain, and laugh even louder when someone on screen suffers pain to his family jewels.

That being said, the jokes do get repetitive after the first hour, and some of the pranks and stunts aren't as outrageous and insane as either the first Jackass or the original television series. People who are hooked online will know that Youtube has a vast collection of videos done by amateurs - similar in terms of both video quality and concept, and may find Jackass Part Two to be slightly antiquated. Otherwise, you’ll be mortified, horrified and shocked into having the best laugh of your movie-going year.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (46億年の恋) (2006)

Your moment of extremely offbeat humour, courtesy of Miike.

There’s something about Takashi Miike. It’s not about being prolific (the man directed 14 films between 2001 and 2002) or being shocking (a Takashi Miike film isn’t really complete without some element of sexual perversions, blood-soaked violence, and far-out surrealism) – it’s that every film the director makes is completely different from anything you’ve seen from him before this, that you’ll never know what to expect when you watch a new film from Miike. He’s done children’s movies (Zebraman), horror musical comedies (The Happiness of the Katakuris), gross-out gangster films (Ichi the Killer), and even the odd surreal yakuza road movie involving talking cow heads and gender-switching gangsters (Gozu).

Of course, one of the key points of a Takashi Miike film experience consists of the hours-long post-movie discussion with your movie partners, where you ask each other "So what do you think happened in the movie?" and "What was the movie about?", both questions quite possibly prefaced with "Don’t recite what we saw on the screen..." But the fact remains that we watch a Takashi Miike film to enjoy the pure sensory experience; there is a logic to his madness, to be sure, but it works on a bizarre dream-like level that one can never quite explain, yet still participate in.

So for all the fans and critics who have complained that they don’t get whatever is really, really happening in his films, Takashi Miike has produced what has to be his most logical movie to date, Big Bang Love: Juvenile A. A change from his free-flowing dream/nightmare narratives, Big Bang Love is filmed as a murder mystery. Set almost entirely in a state of the art, retro-futuristic juvenile detention facility, a police investigation is set into motion to find out what really happened when a meek, waifish inmate is found with his hands on the throat of a very dead fellow and previously very lethal fellow prisoner. I’m sure this movie is a very private joke of Miike’s: the detectives, like our audiences, keep wanting to get to the point of what really happened, what the murder was really about, and why it happened. But perhaps, like our audiences, they might be asking all the wrong questions, and imposing their own idea of logic and causality on a most unique crime...

The movie could really be about the fragility of youth and lost innocence – at least, that’s what one of the detective muses when the film opens – but that might not be the real point of the movie, even if it does describe the movie. Maybe it’s a very twisted male version of a women’s prison drama, with the prerequisite waif, the sadistic wardens, the creepy director of the prison, the abusive inmates, and the strange same-sex attraction between the waif and the mysterious and hyperviolent fellow prisoner – but that might not be the real point of the movie, even if it does describe the movie. It could be set in a futuristic world where the streets of Tokyo jostle aside Mayan pyramids and rocket launchpads – but that might not be the real point of the movie, even if it does describe the movie. Personally, I thought Takashi Miike has made a veiled criticism of the inhumanity of maximum security prison life that causes paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and increasing disconnection from reality in its inmates, amidst a touching story of how two emotionally and psychically-damaged individuals strike an impossible friendship in the least likely of places. Of course, my movie buddy had a completely different take on what the movie was about. And so will you.

This time round, Miike does round up his movie with a set of neat answers to the interrogating officers (and the audience). You get to know what the movie was about. And then you realise those answers are completely unnecessary and missing the point, and that the entire point was how gorgeously Miike (as always) has mixed dream and nightmares, sound and sight, desire and loathing, reality and whimsy, to create a haunting film about the waif and his violent friend. And hopefully, you’ll promise to watch the rest of his films in the same light, without insisting to find out what really happened, what it was really about and just enjoy the ecstasy and the madness that is a Takashi Miike film.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Babel (2006)

Are we there yet???!!!

Imagine a movie made of 3 seemingly unconnected stories whose characters eventually end up being linked to one another, either through the unintended consequences of their actions, or through their common suffering or the thematic unity of their separate stories. That’s what make up the concept for Traffic, 3 Needles, Requiem for a Dream, Crash, Amores perros, 21 Grams and now, Babel – the last 3 efforts of Inarritu and Arriaga. Now these may employ a large ensemble of actors with interweaving storylines like the complex pieces Robert Altman and his spiritual successors make, but instead of the plot being driven forward by the interactions between a huge cast, a portmanteau movie builds up its own structure through mirror movements of the characters in each of its short stories. In other words, Altmanesque films create a frisson through an intricate social reality, whereas portmanteau movies are formalistic exercises in structure: you derive pleasure spotting the layering of similarities and coincidences multiplying between unrelated plots. That is its greatest strength and worst weakness: in the hands of a master, a movie like this approaches artistry; in the clumsier hands of a mere apprentice, a movie like this will appear too forced, contrived, and manipulative.

Recently, the team of Inarritu and Arriaga have added their own touch to the portmanteau movie, by telling the stories in his movies out of chronological order. A portmanteau movie like this – regardless of what its constituent stories are about – will begin to resemble a Greek play of yore, a meditation on causality (who caused what to happen?), irony (because we don’t know what happened first, until the very end when we piece the stories together), guilt (who/what should be the one to blame for everything that happens), retribution (tied in to irony: perhaps bad things happen to everyone because they have some innate flaw), and justice (are people punished by karma for what they might have done, or can bad things really happen to decent if flawed people?). Watching the wrenching drama that is Babel, you realise that Inarritu and Arriaga have pioneered and perfected the structure of their film to evoke the best of Greek tragedy: there is irony, guilty, retribution, justice, and perhaps some painful redemption.

That being said, Babel does not quite measure up to the genius and freshness of Amore perros or 21 Grams: director and scriptwriter appear to have put in all their energy into honing perfect structure and storytelling that they have neglected to tell compelling stories. Indeed, watching Babel, one gets the impression that the team didn’t really care this time about the individual stories they told, as long as they link back into each other inevitably, in a fatalistic fashion.

Here’s the greatest puzzle about the movie: if the audience is not bedazzled by how brilliant the stories are structured to crash into each other, viewers would be forced to pay attention to these stories in themselves – and realise that these stories are poorly chosen, consist of mostly unpleasant characters too wrapped up in themselves to be unworthy of our sympathy, trapped in offensively racist and laughably fantastic situations (there’s a teenage nymphomaniac deaf and mute girl who flashes men and boys - obviously Japanese!) involving a high number of improbable coincidences (A pair of ugly American tourists are accidentally shot by two young goatherd boys playing with their father’s rifle because the boys got tired of masturbating behind a rock - obviously Arab!). Occasionally, attempts at drama actually fail, because you don’t care for the characters, and because the drama can be rather heavyhanded and blatantly manipulative at times, and because when that happens (for example, when a chicken gets decapitated the natural way, are you supposed to feel shock and horror, or bemusement at the horror of the two rich white kids who’ve never stepped into a farm before?) you get the urge to actually laugh at how terribly off the point the director-scriptwriter team can get. Don’t worry, the urge to laugh at some scenes in Babel aren’t as perverse as you think.

Perhaps the best part about Babel is the first half hour, where Inarritu and Arriaga set up the individual stories, and you have almost no inkling how everyone will be linked to each other. At this stage, some of the storylines are actually compelling, especially the one involving a Mexican illegal immigrant working as a nanny. Yet after some time, you begin to suspect that everyone will be linked to each other, and how the movie contorts itself to achieve that proves it is a product of brilliant structure, but a victim of weak and contrived writing.

Frankly, the director-writer team could have substituted any other storyline involving other characters, and it won’t affect to their study of irony, causality, guilt, karma, and so on. Personally, I’d like to see them tackle a feature version of The Bloody Case that Started from a Steam Bun, but it’s a pity that the team has recently broken up and are unlikely to collaborate again. Babel is indeed a strong contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, but you will either love it or loathe it.

First published at incinemas on 25 January 2007

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Illusionist, The (2006)

You don't have to ponder and obsess over how the magic tricks are done. They're not the focus of this film.

To begin this review, let’s look at The Prestige, which this film will inevitably draw comparisons to. I frankly didn’t quite like the first film. Perhaps that was due to the liberal amounts of spoonfeeding that Christopher Nolan whacks onto his audience, as well as the incredibly generous amount of foreshadowing that served to give away every plot twist way before it happened. And yet here’s another movie about a magician, his showstopping act, and a rival determined to figure out how he does it. There’s even a serious battle of wits between the magician and his rival, as well as an all-out attempt to ruin each other. So how on earth would The Illusionist be a better film that The Prestige?

There’s just one magician, not two. Edward Norton plays The Illusionist of the title. That’s Eisenheim the Illusionist for you, but for Duchess Sophie, he’s just a plain old childhood friend, the son of a cabinetmaker, the young teen she almost ran away with. Now that she’s engaged to be married to the liberal reformer Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who will someday inherit the Austrian Empire from his arch-conservative fuddy duddy daddy Franz Josef I, but would much prefer to snatch the crown for himself first, it’s understandable that there’s plenty of tension between the illusionist, the duchess, and the crown prince.

Rivalry adds to intrigue, not detracts from it. Together with his trusted crony the chief of police Uhl (Paul Giametti), the crown prince, a man of science, is especially fixated on trying to figure out how Eisenheim creates his illusions and magic tricks, and constantly looks for chances to humiliate the other. Despite this, the movie doesn’t demystify the world of magic tricks (unlike The Prestige). The key point in this movie is the important magic tricks are never revealed or explained – there are only plausible conjectures and educated guesses, and unlike The Prestige, they aren’t even the central focus of the movie. What then, is the central focus? Well, the Duchess Sophie still has feelings for Eisenheim, but the Crown Prince is a figure who will not tolerate any betrayals, and is rumoured to resort to ruthless measures if pushed to it...

A real battle of wits that goes beyond "How does he do it?" to "What will he do next?" Part of the charm of The Illusionist is how the fight between Eisenheim and Leopold intensifies when the body of Sophie is found at a river, possibly a victim of a murder. It is from then on that the prickly rivalry between Eisenheim, Leopold, and Uhl become more deadly, with the Crown Prince and the trying to set up Eisenheim for a fall, while the grieving Eisenheim tries to pin the Crown Prince down at the same time. Both the nature and tools of their machinations are unpredictable, and has more plots and counterplots, lunges and feints than you’d normally expect or predict. In fact, the handling of the rivalry between Eisenheim and Leopold, and their mutual attempts to unmask each other, is written with an intricacy and subtlety that approaches the art of Neil Gaiman, and comparable to the battle of wits that both Death Note movies played so well.

Of course, this unconventionally written film benefits from excellent acting from Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giametti – all actors who haven’t hesitated to play the odd non-commercial, indie movie, and consistently choose parts that are more ambiguous and eccentric than characters from typical Hollywood scripts. All 3 principal actors impart this ambiguity to great effect in The Illusionist, giving a sense that the characters are involved in a far larger and deeper game than what we’re seeing, that everyone might just be playing at cross purposes to each other. As the movie ends, I too was stunned, like Inspector Uhl, at the unmasking of the great game that has just been played. It’s a great feeling, compared to the deflationary aftertaste I had from the final reveal of The Prestige.

First published at incinemas on 18 January 2007

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Gridiron Gang (2006)

Last chance to catch The Rock before his Samoan genes turn him into The Boulder

Dwayne Johnson used to be the world’s best wrestler and most impressive actor who got his own spinoff feature film out of a CGI bit part in a kid’s horror movie (The Mummy), but time is running out for The Rock. It’s a simple matter of biology, really. Like most Samoan men, Johnson has a huge physique that will slowly grow... sideways, and muscles that will melt into fat. His male relatives, all fellow wrestlers (including Yokozuna), are all known for starting their careers are well-built athletes and ending them as morbidly obese ex-wrestlers. So as The Rock approaches his mid-thirties, it is understandable that he covers more of himself, and moves into more dramatic roles.

The Rock couldn’t have made a better choice with Gridiron Gang. It’s about a juvenile correction facility officer who starts an American football team for his young charges, most of whom are barely in their teens. Sean Porter (The Rock) realises that the recidivism rate for juvenile detainees all over the country are depressingly high: the kids will just return to their gangs and lives of crime and violence. They might lose their lives in a silly gangfight, or return to juvenile detention centres and jails shorter are their release. And the depressed Porter cares enough to know that he has to give his charges back their self-respect and confidence, take away their depressed cynicism – and what better way to achieve that than press ganging them into a football team? Of course, he’d have to convince other college teams to play against them, and also motivate his players to keep their gang rivalries out of the team – but it’s all part of the job.

Now, this is a football movie. One can’t actually demand to see something completely new and creative in a genre film; that’s not how it works. One could however judge a genre film on its quality and how far it rearranges familiar elements to produce something novel or superior compared to other entries to the genre. There aren’t many realistic sports movies (aside from the highly observant Friday Night Lights), and Gridiron Gang leapfrogs over many of them by focusing on juvenile prisoners and gang members, as well as their inner-city families. There’s not much sentimentalising or sugar-coating of how prison life works, and I’m quite pleased that The Rock’s Eyebrow didn’t star in this movie. In fact, this movie shows that The Rock was dreadfully miscast as an action hero type in his earlier films. Starting out as a college football player certainly has prepared Dwayne Johnson to play the role of a coach convincingly enough.

You may be a little puzzled at how over the top Sean Porter comes off, even if he is trying to motivate his charges from their low self-esteem, cynicism, or disillusionment in society. Surprisingly, it isn’t because of a bad script, but because this is very closely based on a real-life story, and the original coach/prison officer (he went on to run an annual football programme at the juvenile prison after the success of the first batch) really spoke all those corny lines to his charges – documentary footage of which you can watch as the end credits roll, by the way. One wishes that the scriptwriters had taken more liberty in their script, in this respect. At the same time, it is only through the end credits that we discover that the first football team, whose formation and tribulations are chronicled in this movie, wasn’t quite a rehabilitative success. One would have expected the scriptwriters to give an indication of this in the movie itself, since they apparently wanted to make it as close to actual events as possible.

This minor issue aside, Gridiron Gang is not a bad choice for a weekend DVD, and if you’re a fan of inspirational sports movies. The Rock, this time round, comes as a bonus!

First published at incinemas on 18 January 2007

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) (2006)

The movie critic, as he appears in every director's nightmare

Long before Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm got their grubby hands on Europe’s vast folklore and edited them into compendiums, the fairy tale was an altogether totally different creature. Granted they had a magical setting that often involved talking creatures, magical treasures and quests, but the original fairy tales were very disturbing affairs, with more scenes of violence and cruelty than would be allowed in a PG movie, intimations of darkness and danger, and sometimes even frank sexual references, and often no happy endings. Following their first edition, the Brothers Grimm succumbed to complaints by their foolish middle class readers that these elements were not suitable for children, and each subsequent edition of their Tales become more and more cleaned up. It’s a pity because these cleaned up versions would have had its original peasant kiddie audiences snorting in derision: “Where’s the blood? Where’s the part where Little Red Riding Hood was tricked by the wolf into eating her grandmother, you idiot!”

And this is how the infantilisation of children’s literature began. Sure, Tolkien may have stemmed the tide with his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that hasn’t stopped the world from producing literature that only serves to coddle and baby children. Witness the Eragon, Narnia and the Harry Potter books and movies – it is hardly surprising that they’re all lightweight, witless, uncreative, patronising, gee-whiz kids entertainment. Yet Guillermo del Toro single-handedly resurrects the old fairy tale with Pan’s Labyrinth, offering a glimpse of just what we’re missing out when we make children’s stories too kiddie, even for kids.

Watching Pan’s Labyrinth, you will be reminded that before fairy tales got watered down, they used to unflinching yet poetically comment on society as it really existed, warts and all. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a little girl reluctantly follows her heavily pregnant mother to the Spanish countryside, where her stepfather, a brutal captain in Fraco’s army, is stationed to mop up the last of the Republican resistance. Apparently he doesn’t quite care for wife or stepdaughter, but more for the satisfaction of methodically hunting down and breaking down the will of the resistance. Ofelia is quite devoted to her children’s books, and one doesn’t quite have the heart to blame her: the new house is reminiscent of a dungeon; the dinner company consists of devout, pious, and thoroughly hypocritical traditionalists and clergymen who fully support Franco’s fascists; and her position in her stepfather’s household seems to be that of a barely tolerated piece of furniture that came along with the new wife.

The director films his movie in an interesting manner: he doesn’t quite scream out the connection (if any) between Ofelia’s daydreams involving her exploits with magical creatures and the exploits of the resistance movement against her stepfather. Yes, I mentioned magical creatures. In her daydreams (or is it reality?), Ofelia is visited by a faun-like creature – a marvel of prosthetics and mime acting – who claims that as a reincarnated princess, she may press a claim to her fantastic realm, but only if she does a series of brave tasks (like stealing a key to a blind, faceless ogre’s treasure room). Her exploits take place parallel to the resistance of the remnants of the Republican army, who have infiltrated the captain’s household and must also perform a series of brave tasks (like stealing a key to the captain’s storeroom, where medical supplies are kept).

Because the dark and intense imagery of Ofelia’s fantasy sequences mirror the dark and intense imagery of the resistance army story, it is unclear if Ofelia has really retreated to her private world, or has internalised the horrors of what is happening around her into a fantastic setting, or whether her tale is an allegory of the resistance army’s story – or whether the resistance army’s story is in fact an allegory for her tale. What I like about this movie is del Toro’s strange reluctance to make the connections between the two tales clear, as if some things were just not meant to be made explicit. Consequently, there is a very magical and dark atmosphere that hangs in every scene, whether in Ofelia’s story or the story of the Republican resistance.

Like the original fairy tales, don’t expect a happy ending to either story. Instead, marvel at how the director replicates the old school bitter-sweet, emotionally drenching ending in the movie, and at how he achieves this through splendid visual imagery. Pan’s Labyrinth certainly deserves all its film award nominations, and is the true fantasy movie of 2006.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

Saturday, 6 January 2007

One Last Dance 茶舞 (2005)

Harvey Keitel implores the filmmakers not to mix comedy with hardboiled noir. Will they heed his advice?

MacGuffin: a mainstay plot device of noir and thriller films, reportedly coined by Alfred Hitchcock. It is most often an object (although it could be a person) which compels the main characters to chase each other in the movie. In a heist film, it would be a necklace; in a spy film, it would be a set of documents; in any episode of Alias, it would be whatever Sydney Bristow has to retrieve before Sloane got his hands on it. The best MacGuffins is one where the audience have no idea what it really is, yet functions so well (i.e. draws every character into the plot) that the audience don’t care: it is the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible 3, the wristwatch and suitcases in Pulp Fiction.

In One Last Dance, the MacGuffin is the "Tatat" that low-ranking local gangster Ko (Joseph Quek) is outsourced by the Italian mob to procure. We don’t know what it is (Diamonds? Drugs? A doomsday device? Parts of a human body?) aside from it being stored in 3 suitcases, but Ko’s search for Tatat, assisted by his hitman friend T (Francis Ng), quickly embroils half the criminal underworld which ends up dead from his overzealous search. The problem revealed to us early on is that T’s major (and anonymous) client is out for revenge as a direct result of Ko’s actions, and will surely order the deaths of everyone involved, no matter how marginal and indirect their role. And he has commissioned T to carry out the killings.

It takes a very special breed of hitman to perform these executions – some of which involve his friends and colleagues. Professional isn’t just the word to use, perhaps philosophical or ethical would be far more appropriate. This introduces us to our next words of the day: Alain Delon and Le Samouraï. That’s the actor who plays the perfectionist hitman in the seminal noir film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Francis Ng’s T, like Delon’s Costello, lives by a strict code of honour and philosophy, has an impeccable fashion style, and is a perfect hitman. And like Costello, T’s perfection in a world that is very far from perfect, professionalism in a criminal underworld that suffers from bureaucratic bungling and a lack of thieves’ honour, will lead him to tragedy. And like Costello, T’s final assignment leads him to the first pangs of love, in the form of a waitress who is involved in the Tatat affair...

Now in my review for The High Cost of Living – the first feature noir film from Singapore – I mentioned that the main aim of genre filmmaking is "not about coming up with something completely original, but to create rare combinations from familiar elements of the genre, and to improve the telling of the genre film." It is on these standards that Max Makowski and his work should be judged.

The first innovation is the nature of the philosophical and professional killer. What Melville achieves by flashing austere quotations from a fictional Book of Bushido in the opening of Le Samouraï, Makowski drenches his movie with excesses to show that T’s spiritual and philosophical depth: his opening voiceover feels like a poem recited at the gallows, full of imagery and allusions; he meets up with his old friend the police captain (Ti Lung) regularly, often baffling each other with ethical riddles while engaging in a game of correspondence chess, and expounds on his ethics of killing ("Vodka would be a happy time; whiskey, a sad time. Gentlemen, what would you like to drink?") before dispatching his victims. We get the point after a while that this is one deep dude you don’t want to mess around with, but somehow all the painstaking setup goes to waste when he turns all silly and gooey after meeting The Love Interest, aka the waitress (Vivian Hsu, who looks great in tears).

The second innovation is a stylistic one: Max Makowski, director of television’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, assembles a wide range of visual styles cobbled from Pulp Fiction to Mr Vengeance. On screen, it sure is fun to watch as you don’t quite know what will come next. At times, though, Makowski can go too far in his stylistic acrobatics and leave you scratching your head to wonder why that needed to be done. Faring far better is his narrative style, which lets the story unfold in a very non-linear style that resonates with the ethical and moral murkiness of the city Ko, T and the police captain inhabit, as well as magnify the mystery-within-a-mystery hook that sets the movie up for a major plot twist near the end of the final act. Your mileage may vary – I am sure I understood 80% of the story, but wouldn’t mind watching One Last Dance again. Others may just give up at the seeming incomprehensibility of the convoluted story.

Makowski’s final innovation is a melding of noir with slapstick and lowbrow comedy. I’m sure Stephen Chow could make a slapstick gangster film if he wanted to, but noir is much more than gangsterism – it is a mood, an outlook, a philosophy. The slapstick – reminiscent of the early Mediacorp bumbling gangster comedy style – jars badly with the noir elements. It’s a pity: even though average audiences may not detest it, film noir lovers – the people who would most want to watch One Last Dance on the strength and promises of its trailer – would be somewhat let down by the intrusive comic elements. Makowski has Harvey Keitel deliver some advice to Ko in the movie about not mixing two incompatible gangster cultures together, but fails to recognise the flaws dealt to his film by mixing two incompatible film genres together.

First published at incinemas on 10 January 2007

Friday, 5 January 2007

Painted Veil, The (2006)

Where's the welcoming committee of the natives?

It’s a curiosity that the 3 most memorable movies to come out of the Chinese film industry in 2006 have an old-school, almost antiquated feel about them. It’s as though Chinese cinema, with its recent massive injection of funds and leaps in technological/technical know-how, is poised to enter a long phase where it will make films from the Golden Age of cinema in the 1930s-50s. I speak of Curse of the Golden Flower, The Knot, and The Painted Veil – all box office successes in their native land. The first is a film in the style of the Hollywood period costume epic, with its opulent, extravagant, and very baroque sets. The Knot is a revival and update of the classic Taiwanese triple-hanky tearjerker, with more sophisticated storytelling and expert camerawork, and a more lavish budget. The Painted Veil, itself a Chinese co-production, is a splendid recreation of how Hollywood used to make films in the late 1940s, and based on a Somerset Maugham novel set in the 1920s.

The elements are unmistakably old-school: Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited and headstrong flapper whose parents are eager to marry off to ease their finances, and Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is the very reserved gentleman who the parents conspire to marry Kitty off to, just because he exchanges a few (too few!) words to their daughter at a dinner party, and seems to be an eligible candidate anyway – given his civil servant status and smidgeon of interest in Kitty. We didn’t think for a moment that the marriage would succeed: Dr Fane is far more dedicated to his bacteriological research than to his wife, while the fabulous Kitty prefers gentlemen of action, and the both of them soon find their marriage falling into a benign neglect in the city of Shanghai, where Fane practises.

For the first act of the film, we very much enjoyed looking at the self-centred Kitty indulge herself while being contemptuous of her inert husband, and the type of emotional torture that only Walter can submit his wife to when he finds out her indiscretions. You see, in the golden age of Hollywood, every story about man’s incivility to women (or vice versa) was really a set up for a love story. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton pull off easily the type of characters that used to populate movies from that era: the miserable, equally and co-equally suffering couple who are too dignified to snipe at each other, and instead each other more harshly in non-verbal ways; too dignified to break down into tears and screaming, and instead execute their resentment to each other in alternative but louder methods.

But it’s not all fun and games, as Dr Fane decides the most cruel and unusual punishment would be to continue the scornful neglect of his wife – not in Shanghai, but in a remote Chinese village situated near ground zero of a cholera outbreak. You wonder if he intends to have her die there of an accidental infection, or whether he intends to be the one who dies there, because neither of them are selfish, decisive, or courageous enough to walk away from each other. It’s a strange kind of love that is grounded in hate, and the beauty of Maugham’s tale is that it essentially tells a love story in reverse: with both couples indifferent to each other during courtship, detesting each other during marriage, and perhaps slowly coming to terms and affection to each other only during the end of their matrimony – mainly because there is no one else to talk to in that village.

A nice sub-plot augmenting this tale is the modernisation of China during its period of troubles with major colonial powers. The director and screenwriter avoid the simplistic extremes of both the White Man’s Burden as well as the Evil White Man narratives, and settle for a subtle but accurate depiction of the many struggles between Walter Fane and the villagers, between a charity mission and its orphan charges, between Fane and the KMT colonel (an unforgettable cameo by Anthony Wong, incidentally) tasked to protect him from anti-foreigner elements as well as from himself, and between the colonel and an older order in China. All these are sparked off or deriving from the colonial incursion into China, even though everyone believes they have acted in the best interests of the many.

I’m very pleased with the set design of this movie: whether in scenes set in Britain, Shanghai, or the village of Mei-tan-fu, the old world charm of the 1920s are resurrected very faithfully and vividly by the director and the production team. The score by Alexandre Desplat added to the evocation of a long-lost age, despite being very modernist.

No one makes movies like this anymore, not in the grand old tradition, not with classic character types, and not with such sensibilities. You would normally have to rent a DVD to enjoy a vintage experience, but would have to endure colourisation and crackling audio, but now this is the best chance of watching an old school movie made with today’s resources and technology.

This is my only point of dispute with this film: If they’re going to make fun of fat, short, moustachioed Chinese warlords, the producers should have cast (and Anthony Wong should have lobbied for) the most excellent Michael Hui to reprise the role he made a cultural icon all the way back in 1972, with The Great Warlord.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Fast Food Nation (2006)

The Big One??! No one said that fast food advertising had to be subtle or tasteful

Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the American meal was an incredibly dense book at 400 pages, making frequent detours to comment on American history, the military-industrial complex, the rise of the automobile, the strategy of advertising fast food, Disney, and even the economics of school cafeteria lunches. With its occasionally shrill denunciations of just about everything, you might forget, in the middle of a long paragraph, that the book is ultimately an expose of the fast food industry. One could imagine that a movie adaptation of the book would be a pugnacious creature, combining the conspiracy theories of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 with the strident capitalist proselytising of The Corporation and the horror movie disguised as a fast food documentary style of Supersize Me. One could imagine that if this book were make into a movie, it would cause people to renounce capitalism and meat, or laugh at its over-the-top liberal posturing.

Thankfully, none of this happens, because Richard Linklater pares down the intellectually stimulating but overcomplicated and wild-eyed morass into a manageable film. In Fast Food Nation the movie, Linklater keeps the action firmly focussed on the fast food industry, dividing the action between 3 main characters employed by the fictional Mickey’s Burgers (surely a stand-in for MacDonald’s?). It’s a neat idea, having each character ‘tell’ one part of the process that brings the cow to your tray, from the actual slaughtering and meat processing to the marketing, and the actual counter sales. Very Altmanesque too, with the random coincidence that push the characters into each other at least once in the film.

As the story begins, there’s a slight problem with the fast food Mickey’s, despite its recent record-breaking new burger campaign: in a top secret meeting with the CEO, hotshot VP of marketing Don (Greg Kinnear) is told that some tests carried out by high school students have unearthed high levels of shit in the meat, and appointed to travel to what I call “Ulutown”, home to the UniGlobe meat processing plant to unearth the truth. His story is done in an almost noir style: every visit he takes to the plant reveals nothing wrong, yet every industry insider he interviews insists there is something seriously wrong with the slaughtering process (“But did they show you the slaughtering room? No? Then they didn’t show you anything!”), and advise him to keep quiet about it. And of course he keeps quiet, even though he is completely disquieted by the revelations, which may or may not amount to anything at all.

Perhaps there isn’t any real dirt at the meat plant, and maybe it’s the bored and passively hostile bunch of high school students working at the behind the counters and in the kitchens of Mickey’s all around the country? Unlike her friends and colleagues, who relieve their anger onto beef patties, Amber (Ashley Johnson) is like a Gilmore Girl: very sensible, the more pragmatic of the mother-daughter pair, and driven to existential angst from the dead-end prospects in Ulutown. She’s almost like a female George Bailey, in other words. That’s until she joins the Cow Liberation Front after being influenced by her hippy uncle (played by Ethan Hawke), who together with Kris Kristofferson, function as mouthpieces for the author’s anti-corporate, anti-authoritarian jaunts. The funny thing (aside from the hilarity that ensues when the Cow Liberation Front begins its activities) is Richard Linklater manages to keep a level hand on the till, turning the (perhaps necessary) Jeremiads by Kristofferson and Hawke into very amusing tall tales, blunting the social activism of their speeches through his humorous treatment while sharpening the social satire of all liberal and corporate positions.

However mildly informative and entertaining the proceedings of Don and Amber, it is the story of the Mexican illegal immigrants working at the plant that move the entire movie beyond a simple polemics of corporate greed and rural disaffection, and unify and resort the stories into a meditation on the alienation of the human. Like Don and Amber, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her friends are essentially nice people who are forced to make certain compromises in their search for happiness, find themselves gradually corrupted by those compromises, and crushed little by little, by the processes of work and life – which ultimately have very little to do with the contaminated meat.

Indeed, Richard Linklater’s best touch in the movie is in its ending scene, where a certain character realises her absolute moral and spiritual degradation. It’s a slow buildup from the start of the movie, and yet when it occurs, it hits you square in the face: not so because of its visceral quality, or that anything shocking and perverse has happened, but you will be impressed by how the director manages to bring out the sense of hopelessness by resorting to mundane visual elements (unlike say, Aronovsky’s schlocky ending in Requiem for a Dream).

Those expecting and demanding the film to be a denunciation of fast food may be disappointed at Linklater’s treatment. On the other hand, if you’re tired of preachy films, you’ll be surprised that the director does not attempt to convert anyone to vegetarianism, but rather to show the little tragedies born out of everyday acquiescence and compromise.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Accepted (DVD) (2006)

Ah, the weird initiation rites of college

The campus comedy genre has by now just completed one full cycle of creativity, stagnation, and rejuvenation - the last phase famously ushered in by movies like Road Trip and Old School, while the entire Revenge of the Nerds saga chronicled the earlier rise and fall of the same genre from 1984 to 1994. The genre is quite straightforward: pre-rejuvenation of the genre, the losers, slackers, and other assorted underachievers enter college and proceed to gain self-worth while fending off humiliation and rejection from the jocks and the conservative members of the faculty (Revenge of the Nerds). Post-rejuvenation, the losers, slackers and other assorted underachievers recreate their experiences of humililation and tribulation from the distance of time - either retelling and embellishing the tale (Road Trip), or through reliving it in a reenactment (Old School).

It is a strange thing that coming at what we would consider the rejuvenation phase of the genre, Accepted basically takes the familiar elements of both periods of the campus comedy and meshes them together, producing an even more familiar cinematic offering that one would imagine possible if its writers had stuck to just filling in the template of either period. It is stranger still that Accepted does have a somewhat original (albeit Old School-ish) premise that you'd never expect to descend softly and gently into familiar ground after a mere half hour in the film.

But for your cerebral entertainment, here's the most original thing about Accepted: smart aleck goof-off Bartleby (Justin Long, the guy who plays the Mac in Apple's Get a Mac commercials) and his 2 buddies discover after graduating from high school that no college (or "university", for us folks in the UK and the Commonwealth) would accept them. Hence, the need to set up a fake university (or college), complete with website, application forms with authentic-looking mastheads, and an entire campus to fool their parents into thinking they has been accepted. Presumably the amount of work that goes into the deception far outweighs the social shame of not attending college. Of course, when you set up a deception on such a comprehensive scale, it's impossible to keep it secret, and pretty soon 300 fellow rejectees from other colleges turn up at the front door of the South Hampton Institute of Technology (I kid you not about the name or the initials of the college!) demanding entrance. And because this is a college comedy, the prospect of empowering rejects and losers (as well as heading his own college) prompts Bartleby to operate the college as if it is the real deal.

It's suprising then that the scriptwriters fail to make an iconic film out of this intriguing mixture of overfamiliar tropes and occasional creative ideas. Perhaps the talent of comedian Lewis Black (from the Daily Show fame) is squandered in his thin role as the candid (i.e. frothing at the mouth) and radical former academic who Bartleby and friends rope in as the Dean of the school. The scriptwriters also miss the boat at a chance for a stronger and pungent satire of the education system. Instead, much of the comedy derives from the over-familiar tropes of teenagers slacking off in style in their own college, an obligatory love interest with a barely-formed subplot, the students' rivalry with the uptight frat boys from the legitimate and prestigious college across the road that culminates in what else but a phoney court battle. The lack of research that would have gone into making Accepted a great film shows easily: apparently Adam Cooper and Bill Collage are unaware of the Nordic folk high schools that basically operate like Bartleby's radical and hippy "make your own course, teach your own peers" educational programme.

As a comedy, Accepted is entertaining but not great. One would've wanted more of Lewis Black than Justin Long, who one wishes had better luck choosing his first leading comic role. On the whole, though, Accepted is certainly worth the rental and the easy laughs it generates.

First published at incinemas on 1 February 2007

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Blood Diamond (2006)

Every time you buy a diamond, an African child dies!

As I understand, marriages are highly commoditised in Singapore. If you wish to meet your date again, remember to show up at her door with a car, and pay for everything – from the meals to the shopping done on your dates. The monthly expensive dinner and a gift costing at least $150 is mandatory if you want to last to the endgame. And if she does accept your proposal, remember that you should never have your wedding dinner at a cheap hotel, that you should never have a catered reception/garden party to replace the wedding dinner, and that your wife will resent you for the rest of your life if your wedding ring weighs below than 1 carat or costs less than 3 months of your salary.

Yes, Singapore society may be going to hell in a handbasket, but now you can do your part to staunch the decline and fall, if you bring your date to this movie. Blood Diamond just might shock the date out of her asinine materialism, with its intense dramatisation of what goes behind the scenes of the diamond trade. Because your girlfriend and other idiotic females who really believe that Diamonds Are Forever without realising that it’s the marketing slogan of the De Beers cartel, wars are being waged in African for these shiny rocks, very nasty multi-factional civil wars where little children are kidnapped and brainwashed to be child soldiers, where entire villages are razed to the ground, and villagers either tortured to death, amputated of their limbs, or set to work in mines and rivers to gather the diamonds that your girlfriend and other idiotic females lust for. If your girlfriend doesn’t even blink by the end of this movie or express some form of regret or change of mind over the insistence of the 1 carat diamond ring, you know it’s time to dump her, get a new (younger, more impressionable) girlfriend and let her to watch Blood Diamond with you.

Blood Diamond is a very heartfelt action movie that shows the horrors of the diamond-fuelled wars of Africa without heavy-handed commentary – something that Edward Zwick, the director of politically correct films like Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai is a master at. In lesser hands, we would probably feel too manipulated by the director to genuinely care about the poor Africans, but here, the audience is more likely to be shamed and embarrassed by the depiction of the Sierra Leonean civil war of 1991-2002.

The key to Zwick’s success here is to draw us into the story from the point of view of the very unsentimental mercenary soldier, diamond trafficker and all-round war profiteer Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio). It is through him that we know how the global diamond cartel operates, and how international trade finances monsters like Charles Taylor and his Sierra Leonean cronies to wage wars across the continent. It is also through him and Jennifer Connelly (playing the stereotypical journalist who wants to change the world) that we see how difficult it is to solve the madness in Africa without solving the problems that originate outside of Africa. It is only after the careful and anti-sentimental preparation that the story of one Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) becomes truly poignant. A stand-in for the African Everyman, he has been separated from his family during a raid by the guerilla army, his son recruited and brainwashed into a child soldier, and himself sent to work at a mining camp by the river, and finding a huge and rare diamond that will pull in the involvement of Archer, his reporter acquaintance, the guerilla army, a mercenary force, and the cartel’s buyers and proxies in London.

I found this movie to be far less preachy than I expected, and counted only 2 awkward scenes where the director allowed his characters to make The Speech (thankfully short). Zwick balances the superb acting of Djimon Hounsou and DiCaprio against the action-filled war scenes, and leaves very little space for blinkered liberal handwringing that could bring down the film.

Even if your date might not change her mind about this, the subtle message that diamonds are actually more common than thought should sink in. After all, carbon is just about one of the least rare elements on this planet, and diamonds are abundantly created by geological processes. It might interest your date to know that gemstones are rarer than diamonds, but cost less – because there is a global cartel headed by De Beers that exists to keep diamonds rare in the market.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007