Thursday, 12 March 2009

Valkyrie (2008)

And then they discovered his head made great eraser material

Do not be mistaken: a movie may be based on real people and true events, but it ultimately stands as a piece of narrative where out of a universe of possible facts, only a few are selected and framed to achieve a dramatic or emotional effect in its audience.

Even Bryan Singer's mostly straightforward and by the facts accounting of Operation Valkyrie is not exempt from the artifice of storytelling. The dramatic turning point of Valkyrie occurs near the end, when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg's martial coup falls apart as the voice of the Fuhrer on the radio rings through the conspirators' makeshift headquarters. The director's treatment of this scene provides a lesson on the deliberate choices that a director takes and those he consciously moves away from, and simultaneously illustrates the movie's strengths and weaknesses.

Told as a political thriller, the scene caps off half an hour of ominous dread of Things Going Wrong, beginning with botched instructions, hesitating coup conspirators, and a German Resistance leadership determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. From here on, the failures begin their cascade, culminating with the tragic end of one Col. Claus and the mass execution of the German Resistance.

Yet it's not too hard to picture this scene as an emotional turning point. With just a whisper on the wireless, the Fuhrer puts an end to the coup; his voice sweeping away all compunctions on the part of undecided military commanders to cooperate with Claus's plan, and the previously unshakeable loyalty of most of Claus's rank and file conspirators to his cause. And instead of pointing towards a thriller, the scene suggests rather a character study on loyalty and charisma, and questions that the director elided:

How did Colonel von Stauffenberg manage to break Hitler's charismatic hold on the loyalty of the German army?
How did Colonel von Stauffenberg manage to command, up to that point, an equally mesmeric hold on the loyalty of his co-conspirators?
Why was Colonel von Stauffenberg made the commander of the coup, despite coming to the conspiracy late?

Bryan Singer's political thriller has the Colonel as a German version of an all-American blue-eyed boy. Perhaps it is understandable that given the casting of Tom Cruise, it would have been box-office suicide for Singer to focus on the colonel as a German poet, war hero, and moral philosopher whose aristocratic pedigree, bearing, and moral conviction made him a larger-than-life opponent whose charisma did match Hitler's.

Eschewing the moral and idealistic dimensions of tyrannicide completely, Singer and his scriptwriters concentrate on the story as pure thriller, avoiding the ire of audiences who rarely take kindly to "overacting", especially from actors of Cruise's calibre. Though pacing is generally taut and the tale succinctly told, I am not convinced the tradeoff was worth it - given that the ending was never in doubt (hint: they FAIL).

The second, and greater strength of Valkyrie lies with the quality ensemble acting by its cast, culled almost entirely from the British stage. Far outshining the pared down, almost bland performance of the lead, the veterans offer subtly drawn portraitures of the historical players involved, far beyond what the script provides.

Compared to efforts like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Bryan Singer's Valkyrie is a much more mainstream, streamlined, and perhaps too conventional product that takes next to no risks in its treatment of the various attempts by ordinary Germans to protest against Hitler. The movie, though, has no glaring missteps to recommend against it.

An earlier version of this review was first published at incinemas on 19 February 2009

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

18 Grams of Love (2007)

More than love, the idea of love itself, and the words employed to incite the state of love..

Cosi fan tutte, the sex comedy about spouse swapping and mistaken identities, is as politically incorrect as they come. While no one batted an eyelid at the subject matter in Vienna in the 18th c., the moralistic turn in Europe condemned the opera to a historical footnote till its post WW2 revival.

You'd think that Mozart's opera would find new favour in cinema, especially in the age of Judd Apatow flicks and the American Pie franchise, but sadly, no. It might be the idea of mistaken identities; few of Shakespeare's comedies (the ones involving twins, crossdressing twins, and multiple impersonations) have had a decent showing. One could say that the idea of mistaken identities is so dreadfully passe it could only work in a hoary, stodgy narrative like the superhero movie.

And yet, we keep trying. The Singapore Lyric Opera production of Cosi fan tutte in 2006 attempted to keep the shenanigans of the plot realistic by having the impersonations and multiple identities take place in the virtual world, with giant video screens standing in for cyber-relations.

Perhaps learning from the over-enthusiastic and stagey update, Han Yew Kwang's 18 Grams of love romcom posits the 4 lovers in the modern time, but uses a romantic, slightly outdated, and very charming conceit: the anonymous love letter as the means to the spouse-swapping shenanigans.

It's a mature acknowledgement that the story is only slightly outdated (presumably letter writing was the fashion in Singapore's Chinese schools 3 or so decades ago), but still romantic and charming as hell. Accordingly, the set design is suitably boudoir-ish while the cinematography is a succession of whimsical Amelie-esque visuals.

As a comedy, 18 Grams of love is a strong showcase of Han's sense of sight gags, offbeat humour, and cinematography. What pushes it to the top is the cleverly written dialogue, which bears more than a trace of producer Kelvin Tong's fascination with the idea of words, as per Love Story.

The movie benefits from Han's unusual and bold decision to rip out the typical first act, allowing the narrative to hit the floor running without unnecessary preambles found in Hollywood's tired, mass-produced romcom genre. For this reason alone, (though there are more, and more justifiable ones), a trip to the cinema to watch this movie is recommended. Romantics and cynics alike, 18 grams is after your heart.

22nd Singapore International Film Festival

My picks for the festival, which begins 14 April.

16 Apr: The Dish
17 Apr: Call me if you need me
18 Apr: Dean Spanley
19 Apr: Disengagement, Laila's birthday
21 Apr: White Days
22 Apr: Son of the Northeast
24 Apr: Kippur
25 Apr: Still Walking

Random thoughts

The Chinese directors seem to be amply represented in lineup. Pity that their fare this year are as appealing as their compatriots' entries in last years' ARTSingapore 2008 festival. All about boredom, whining about urban life, they seem to be cynically produced and cynically flogged off to festival directors...

The Asian Features in the Silver Screen Awards have synopses that either sound so wrong or are downright awful. I wasn't quite willing to part with my money for Boy - I fully expect the film to have a small release in Singapore after this. The words "idealistic coming-of-age film of a sensitive boy" doesn't suggest a dramatic departure from the director's charming naive art style in his first film, The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero.

The Singapore Film Awards is a failure of curatorship. Are you trying to say that none of the local entries for this year's SIFF deserved their nomination? Are you trying to say that as long as any Tom, Dick or Harry made a film last year, they'd be up for nomination - even for weak attempts like Kallang Roar the Movie, Lucky 7, Money No Enough 2? 12 Lotus for Best Film, Jack Neo and Kelvin Tong for Best Director RLY?

My money's on 18 Grams of Love. Just catch it and ignore the rest of the entries.

The Korean film industry imploded in 2008. Apparently its directors are still recovering, and still searching for ideas that would work.

Honourable mentions (aka "If money and geography weren't an issue"): Before Tomorrow, Yuri's Day, Rain of the Children