Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dean Spanley (2008) (SIFF 2009)

Not a shaggy dog story

Watching Dean Spanley at the Singapore International Film Festival, my mind was brought back on several occasions to memories of listening to the BBC Radio 4 quiz/comedy show Just A Minute, where celebrity guests ("contestants", in the Iron Chef-esque parlance of the show) are made to speak extemporaneously on an unseen subject - without hesitation, repetition, or deviation, for just a minute.

The most entertaining results tend to happen when a guest approaches the given subject from an unexpected, unorthodox angle, to tell a hilariously absurd yet coherent story. And it is this strange, wonderful clash of the absurd and coherent that meet in this film adaptation of Lord Dunsany's short novel, Dean Spanley.

It is - on the surface - a tale about reincarnation, but like the performance of a good, mischievous guest on Nicolas Parsons's show, the magic lies in the eccentric and absurd angle the film takes on the subject, and how coherently it all comes together - even as you're grinning at the sheer lunacy of it all, and wondering how the cast managed to deliver all their lines without bursting into fits of laughter to ruin every take.

But while you're regaled by the sight of Sam Neil as a bland if affable clergyman recalling his past life as a devoted spaniel and raving about the bond between master and dog, there is a simple, emotional tale existing by its side, created through the masterclass performances by Peter O'Toole and Jeremy Northam, who play a wintry, emotionally abusive patriarch and his unhappy filial son.

As a movie, neither the comedy or the emotional drama stand well on their own; yet they come together in a wondrous, sublime manner.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Dish (2000) (SIFF 2009)

My first film selection from the Singapore International Film Festival for this year, The Dish is a charming and laid-back Australian comedy set during the moon landings.

Yes, those were great times, when people felt the potential of mankind was limitless and were inspired to greatness, seeing all the records of spaceflight broken. For the first time in decades, people had something to be proud of - first man in flight, first dog in space, first unmanned module to make it in space - as opposed to the dismal firsts of a few decades ago - first global war, first deployment of a thermonuclear explosion on a civilian population... you get the idea.

When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, it felt great to be human. It felt better to be an American. Everyone else just lived vicariously through the snowy television footage. Unless they were Australians, who were somewhere between vicarious second-hand pride and actual pride, since they provided the titular dish that transmitted the footage from Apollo 11 to the rest of the world.

Of course, this mixture of provincialism and the curse of being aware of one's second banana status doesn't go unacknowledged in this comedy; the disasters and comic situations that happen in the movie all revolve around Australia's second banana and provincial status. It helps that the producers of The Dish are the comedians behind the Jetlag travel guides to fictitious countries - the comedy is light without being lightweight, the social and political observations cutting without cutting it.

The Dish owes a huge debt to Japanese film and in particular, the situation room drama. Most of the action in the movie occurs in the control room of the satellite receiver, and the writers must have made a detailed study of the entire genre, pouring the right amount of personalities, conflicts, and minor disasters and triumphs into the mix. All the characters in this film - from its avowedly apolitical mayor to its mailman - are endearingly and eccentrically drawn in the style of Japanese small-town dramas and comedies. Even the feel of being second banana, without the expectations of bristling angst and wounded pride, is almost what you'd get in a Japanese film with an international plot.

Like I said, the debt owed is huge. But The Dish is probably one of the best and well-balanced control room dramas there is.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)

Why so serious?

Early last century, the Americans invented their own genre of cinema: the film noir. At the closing end of the century, another genre: the suburban angst movie. At the heart of both lies a love-hate affair with the city, but unlike the film noir, the suburban angst movie tends not to have any subtlety.

Part of the problem is that urban angst has far less creative room to manoeuvre: it's about how people are slowly driven to boredom, depression, and madness in their failed attempts to escape moral sterility, stifling conformity, and the puritan judgementalism of their neighbours.

In noir, one could at least make its characters in strange situations, make them do very interesting or outrageous things. All while being set in a bleak, fallen world. In urban angst, the furthest one could artistically go would be Little Children.

And then, we have Revolutionary Road, the 1961 novel by Richard Yates that kicked off the entire suburban angst cottage industry. Its cinematic adaptation by Sam Mendes (American Beauty) provides an unwitting lesson about the limitations of the genre, especially in an era where Desperate Housewives is the title of a suburban comedy, not angsty tragedy.

Picture this: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett star as an artistic and angsty (movie stereotype alert: it's all the same anyway!) couple who cannot take suburbia at all and are falling apart while making plans to quit and uproot themselves to Paris. Everything proceeds to fall apart because their plans meet a seeming wall.

I suppose one could sleepwalk through the movie and come out of the cinema convinced they've seen a most tragic film. But even the worst intentions of Yates and Mendes fail to deceive us here: this is a startlingly realistic movie about quitters, in the sense that Woody Allen's Sleeper and Terry Gilliam's Brazil are realistic movies about dictatorships and intellectuals in dictatorships.

Just like how the most efficient of dictatorships tend to historically produce the most navel-gazing, ineffectual and politically unaware 'intellectuals', suburbia tends to produce more angsty dilettantes with pretentious to artiness than truly angsty artists.

Hopefully, audiences not sleepwalking or in other states of somnolence will realise by middle of the movie that it is secretly a brilliant and daring comedy whose premise is how people who bitch and moan about how insufferable and soul-destroying suburbia and conventional life are really are insufferable and soul-destroying mediocrities themselves.

The clues are strewn all over the place - the histrionic, tripe-filled and overwrought declamations by the couple, the comedy of manners style naming of every character in the movie, and an otherwise annoying holy fool character whose sole purpose is to make too-accurate observations and analyses about the motive of every character. The screen time is filled with passive-aggressive dialogue where people batter and shame each other into submission, go on and on talking melodramatically about not talking to one another, or worse, about being honest with each other while communicating absolutely nothing. Comedy gold, this is.

As a tragedy, this movie is too full of theatrical tripe to work - you can blame the direction of Sam Mendes for this, and its success as an unintentionally campy flick. As a comedy, this movie is as black as they come. Still, one wonders what Ernst Lubitsch would have made about this American film genre. I suspect he might have laughed Revolutionary Road off, saying "Why so serious? Don't you know that suburbia and middle-class boredom isn't an American invention? Or even that devastating? Go on, it's okay to laugh at it!"

An earlier version of this review was published at incinemas on 16 April 2009