Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Majestic Affair

There's a Chinese phrase, "Old ginger is still the spiciest", and I cannot help but be reminded of it whenever I think about Helen Mirren's fantastic performance in The Queen. Sure, the supporting cast do a fine job, especially Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, but without a doubt, The Queen is Mirren's showcase. Hell, it's named after her character, what else do you expect?

In the week after Princess Diana dies, the royal family remains curiously silent, unknowingly committing one media faux pas after another. We follow Queen Elizabeth as she slowly realizes that the world around her has changed without her being aware of it, and tradition has to be left out of the picture when the media and the public begin baying for the royals' blood.

It's a study of the times, but it's also a portrait of Elizabeth that isn't afraid to show her shortcomings and mistakes. This has the effect of making her realizations that much more powerful, and above all, makes her human, and therefore that much more worthy of respect and adulation.

There's an incredibly powerful and moving scene in the film when Elizabeth and family return from a hunting trip. Driving through the throngs that surround Buckingham Palace, she finally senses the enormity of the situation. She gets out and starts walking, looking at the huge pile of flowers left at the gates, and each card that condemns the royal family for their role (perceived or otherwise) in Diana's death is like a stab in the heart - you can see it in her eyes. Yet when she turns around to face her people, her face has a gentle smile plastered on it - but the pain is still there in her eyes, barely hidden. Then there's a brief exchange between her and a little girl with flowers that is simply heartbreaking and perfect, but to say more would be to spoil the moment for you.

Mirren's work here and throughout the film is breathtaking to behold, her nuances and eyes telling far more than her steely, impeccable demeanor. When it finally cracks, there will be a gentle ripple of a sigh throughout the audience, and that would have been the sound of everyone's heart breaking. She brings grace, dignity, humanity and a touch of gung-ho-ness into the role, which is, quite honestly, the role of a lifetime. Watching this grand old dame drive an SUV with gumption across a river, one cannot help but think of some Heads of State who are so unbelievably under-qualifed for their role in comparison that they lack every single one of those qualities (and I'm not just talking about Bush).

It would be unfair to heap praise on Mirren alone. The screenplay is perfect, and even cleverly alludes to Tony Blair's recent unpopularity in an ironic and resonant scene. The direction by the always-good Stephen Frears hits all the right notes, and Michael Sheen makes good acting seem effortless. In fact, if I hadn't already seen Pan's Labyrinth, this might've been a strong contender for best film of the year. It's an amazing film and a great masterclass on how to make damn good movies.


Friday, January 26, 2007

September 2006 Round-Up

After all the round-ups will come the Best of 2006. I promise. Not that anyone cares.

Monster House
This was a wonderful surprise - a kids' movie that's completely uncondescending, and hence enjoyable to adults as well. It's a wild ride, entertaining as hell, and scores additional points for being probably the only mainstream animated movie to feature a character whose voice is breaking from the onset of puberty. The dialogue is naturalistic and sounds exactly like what actual kids would say. The only weak point would probably be the actual look of the animation, as the human characters are a little, well, artificial-looking (although it's a great improvement from The Polar Express). The animation of everything else is superb though, so I guess I'm just quibbling.

Snakes on a Plane
I wanted this to be so utterly bad it was good. Ultimately, that didn't happen. What did take place were sporadic bursts of ludicrousness, but it seemed that things weren't pushed far enough into the realm of implausibility and ridiculousness, such that most of it was really just blah. Still, I did laugh in parts, and also got very pissed off at a fellow audience member who shushed me for doing so. Seriously, the sheer stupidity of Singapore audiences never fail to amaze me - you actually came into Snakes on a Plane thinking it was a serious, straight-up action movie? Wow. You have no sense of humor, and I feel pity for you. How can a bunch of people falling down a staircase and getting impaled (on what, I still have no fucking clue) not be funny?

The Break-Up
I have friends who tell me that this movie depicts the truth about how relationships dissolve, and while I'd argue this might not necessarily be the case, considering the ridiculous lengths that the protagonists go to, and their unhealthy obsession over an apartment, it isn't sugar-coated like the typical romantic-comedy. Actually, it's not even a romantic comedy, is it? I doubt it even qualifies as comedy. Dramedy? A dissolution of a relationship with some unfunny laughs thrown in in an attmept to balance things out? Anyhow, Aniston and Vaughn are to be commended for their commitment, and the pain felt is palpable in some scenes. A valiant, if ultimately failed attempt.

Akeelah and the Bee
This paint-by-numbers fictional version of Spellbound isn't half as exciting as the former, and you can see every plot "twist" (if you can even call them that) coming a mile away. Predictable is fine only if you've got an amazing interpretation, but this is standard TV movie of the week fare. The slow pacing and overabundance of subplots don't help matters either, and neither does watching it when one is bloody sleepy after reservist training. Skip this big yawn and rent Spellbound instead; you'll be glad you did.

夜宴 (The Banquet)
Shakespeare in ancient China! I'd sat through two thirds of the film when I suddenly remembered that this was an adaptation of Hamlet, and suddenly everything clicked into place and made sense. Things like the theatricality of the lines, the often larger-than-life performances and the bizarre dynamic of the characters. The weakest link is probably Zhang Ziyi (I refuse to say Ziyi Zhang) as the Gertrude character, who lacks the presence and deep emotional reserves necessary for the role. One can only imagine what Gong Li might've done with it, and bemoan the fact that this was not so. Zhou Xun acquits herself well as the Ophelia character, whose role has been expanded and included in the finale instead of dying off in the middle. Strangely enough, Hamlet's role has been reduced, and this is probably better for the movie, since you have Daniel Wu, not especially known for his thespian abilities, in the role. Ge You is delicious as the Claudius character, though. All in all, a highly watchable Shakespearean adaptation.

美滿人生 (Singapore Dreaming)
It's a quiet, unassuming little movie about the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. Some might find the plot a little hackneyed, but the pain and desperation of each individual character rings true and brings it back down to earth. Some performances are over-the-top (*ahem* Dick Su *ahem*) and sometimes issues are a little too on-the-nose for my liking, but hey, it's miles ahead of what Jack Neo is capable of. If you're Singaporean, it's likely you'll find this film affecting in some way.

トニー滝谷 (Tony Takitani)
I'm a fan of Murakami's writing, and while I think this adaptation of one of his short stories replicates the mood and tone of his work remarkably well, I have to admit that I was incredibly bored. Perhaps his work just doesn't translate that well to the filmic medium, or I was just feeling tired. Or perhaps it would've been better as a short film. As it was, the barely 75-minute film felt like twice its running length to me. All I can say is, perhaps I'll like it better the next time I see it. But for now, apart from the captivating visuals, it did nothing for me.

A taut psychological thriller that appears to take a twist into the supernatural (or was that my misinterpretation?), this is good, gripping stuff all the way. Much of the credit must go to Charlotte Rampling playing Psychotic Bitch with relentless intensity, and it's amazing how she inspires a creeping dread to crawl over you in every scene she appears in. The ending is a little of a let-down, but hey, the ride was well worth the ticket price.

괴물 (The Host)
Honestly, I don't get what all the hoopla about this movie is about. It's been said that it's a monster movie unlike every other monster movie that's gone before. On this point I agree, but it's not necessarily a good thing. In his attempt to go beyond the confines of the genre, the director seems to throw every conceivable genre into the mix, including over-the-top physical comedy that seems out of place in a scene ostensibly about a family's grief. The individual scenes work great, and there are some genuine thrills to be had, but the whole is considerably lesser than the sum of its parts. The lacklustre finale is, especially, a let-down.

Friends with Money
Jennifer Aniston earns herself more street cred as one-fourth of a group of actresses comprising some of the most talented in Hollywood. To her credit, she acquits herself well, especially when you consider that she's going up against the likes of Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack. This fine character piece doesn't have melodramatic ups and downs; instead we're invited to observe these people as they go about their lives, and gain insight into them from their behavior and actions. It's a tender, witty and sometimes sad portrait of middle-aged women, but it's not weepy chick-flick material at all. It's real and human, and more than that, humane in every way.

Imagine Me & You
Nice Girl falls in love with Nice Guy, and they get married. However, at the wedding, Nice Girl sees Someone Else and is intrigued. She realizes she might have made a mistake by marrying Nice Guy, and slowly gets involved with Someone Else. Finally Nice Guy finds out and is devastated, but because he loves Nice Girl too much, he knows he has to step aside and the Nice Girl and Someone Else be together, because they're in a romantic comedy and he's obliged to do that. Either that, or die in a horrible accident so the star-crossed lovers can finally be together. Sounds like the plot of a typical romcom? You're right, except that the Someone Else is another Nice Girl, making this a lesbian romcom. Apart from this, everything else is standard, lightweight fluff, with no distinguishing characteristics.

A middle-aged admissions director, played wonderfully by Laura Linney, has a fling with a promising young student because he is the spitting image of her deceased ex-boyfriend, and coincidentally enough, shares the same name as well (and let's not forget the mid-life crisis that usually comes into play). There could have been tons of sleaze that arose from this, but amazingly enough, the script and actors display such a rawness of emotional vulnerability that touches you instead. Topher Grace as the student holds his own against Laura Linney, not an easy feat at all. The supporting characters are also richly-drawn and it all adds up to a captivating journey through the emotional landmines of such an unlikely relationship.


Monday, January 22, 2007

August 2006 Round-Up

Like I said previously, I hadn't written anything movie-related for 4 months before my recent burst of effort. That means there's a ton of movies I've been silent on, and that cannot stand. I'll have the last word. Even if it's just one word.

Presenting, my monthly round-ups for 2006, starting from August!

De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)
It meanders along slowly, but the mood and rawness of the emotions eventually get to you. Too bad about the bad dance music the lead listens to.

Combien tu m'aimes? (How Much Do You Love Me?)
Starring Monica Bellucci's breasts. No, seriously. They could form a small country all by themselves. Otherwise, the movie starts well, but deteriorates into a mess of over-the-top theatricality. Not before some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments of bawdy humor though.

The Libertine
The opening monologue promises lots of dirrrty goings-on. The only thing dirty is the image, which looks like it's been thrown out in the street and stomped around on before being exhibited. Boring as hell. Not even the amazing Samantha Morton can save it.

Me and You and Everyone We Know
Quirky, lovable movie. A bunch of misfits look for love and human connection. There's so much love for the characters, you root for them all the way, even when they're doing fucked-up shit to each other. There's a lot to be said for the expert handling of tone when a scene that would normally be seedy is, instead, even strangely touching.

Adams æbler (Adam's Apples)
A must-watch, if not for the fine performances, then for the extraordinary skill with which the film treads the fine line between black (very black) comedy and pathos, sometimes even simultaneously.

Fun script and good voice performances. Pity it looks So. Bloody. Ugly.

Ask the Dust
I think I was too busy falling asleep to pay attention to this one. Colin Farrell is a writer, and has a fling with Salma Hayek, and not too much happens. I think they have sex at the beach once, and we get to see Farrell jumping around in the sea naked. But then, isn't he always showing his ding dong to anyone and everyone anyway?

Sophie Scholl - Die letzen Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days)
Well-made. Apart from that, I can't really say much. But hey, well-made is good enough, when most movies are crap.

瘋狂的石頭 (Crazy Stone)
Probably the most entertaining movie to come out of China. Ever. A convoluted heist plot, loaded with tons of hijinks and fun, makes this a wonderful time at the movies.

Don't Come Knocking
Just don't go knocking on the box office door asking for a refund after this snoozefest. Interesting in parts, but on the whole lacks something vital - a soul, perhaps? I don't know what Wim Wenders was thinking...

Hard Candy
Starts of brilliantly, but after the first 20 minutes, becomes a disgusting, exploitative and unbelievably noxious piece of crap. And I'm not just saying this because I'm a man and like having my testicles attached to my body. First 20 minutes are absolute gold, though.

The High Cost of Living
Wants to be many things - dark, brooding, dramatic, tense, exciting... Unfortunately, fails to be any one of these. The High Cost of Watching - pain.

A gripping documentary on a massacre that took place in Indonesia. Well-made, if a little overlong. Here's a review from (of all places) Australia.

The Devil Wears Prada
It's fun, fun, fun whenever Meryl Streep is onscreen. What a lady. To quote her, "That's all."

Lucky Number Slevin
Wannabe-Tarantino. More smart-alecky than it is clever, which makes it ultimately very annoying.

Pretty Persuasion
Starts off a black comedy, then heads in directions darker than I imagined. But hey, it works, and makes the drama even more powerful. Evan Rachel Wood is a revelation.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

5 Lessons I Learnt from The King

With both The King and The Queen playing in theatres at the same time, it was a bit of a toss-up as to which figure of royalty to watch first. My friend tipped the balance when she declared that the former was the obvious choice because Gael García Bernal was a hottie. And so The King it was.

I have to admit, Bernal is an attractive-looking man. And he does take his shirt off a lot in the movie, to the joy of my friend. But unfortunately, that wasn't enough to save the movie.

Honestly, I don't know what all the fuss is about. Why critics are raving about this film is beyond me, because I found it predictable and boring. Why, it simply feels like 雷雨 (Chinese playwright Cao Yu's Thunderstorm - which happens to be the basis for Curse of the Golden Flower) with a revenge plot thrown in for good measure.

The bewildering music cues seem to want to suggest that Bernal is a benign figure, or that underneath his friendly mien lies a deceptive, twisted heart. But we know that already, right from the start, no thanks to the many reviews already written on it. So it's fooling no one, especially when he seduces a 16 year-old with the full knowledge that she's his half-sister. From that point on, every plot twist that comes about can be anticipated, save a sudden, unprovoked act of violence. When the young lass announces she's pregnant, it was all we could do not to heave a sigh of pure boredom, and I turned to my friend and said, "Wow. We didn't see that coming."

The bloody ending didn't do much for us either. For a far more superior revenge drama, I'd suggest the recently-screened Turning Pages, which builds to a white-knuckle climax that's all the more powerful for not spilling a single drop of blood.

But that's Turning Pages, and this is not. This movie made us so bored that we came up with a list of 5 lessons that we learnt from the film. Tongue firmly in cheek, of course.

1. Gael García Bernal's English is much better than expected
This shows that there's no excuse for crossover actors not to sound natural in a foreign language, provided you have a bunch of language coaches standing by at all times.

2. Good Christian girls are easy
All you need is a cool, retro-looking car and a willingness to go down. Yes, that way.

3. If you're Christian, it's OK to kill someone, as long as you say you're sorry
You need a good Christian girl to pray together with, and say that it was an accident. Then you can be at peace with yourself and continue to bang said good Christian girl, who just so happens to be your half-sister.

4. Christians will applaud anything
But only if you are invited onstage during one of their services. Then no matter what crap you spout, even if it's just "Hi... hi..." they'll go batshit insane for you.

5. Two words: Birth control
Everything in this movie could've been avoided if these silly people had just used a damn condom. This is probably the strongest argument for the use of contraceptives in the history of film. Basically, if you don't use a condom, your illegitimate child will come back one day, impregnate your silly teenage daughter (again, condoms, people!), kill your son, and then later your wife and abovementioned daughter along with her unborn child. And you don't want that to happen, do you?

Now that you've learnt everything there is to learn from this movie, there's no need to actually see it anymore. There, I just saved you the price of a ticket. You're welcome.


It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's...

On 16 June 1959, George Reeves, the star of the TV show Adventures of Superman, was found naked in his bedroom by his party guests, with a bullet through his brain. It looked like a suicide, but various conspiracy theories have surfaced, none of which have been conclusively proven. In Hollywoodland, cut-rate private detective Adrien Brody is hired to find out the truth about his death, and in the dirt-digging process, gains self-awareness. Brody does good work here, playing a sleazy, desperate man who finally realizes how much of a scumbag he really is.

Too bad the movie shouldn't have been about him. As it is, the genuinely affecting sequences involving Ben Affleck as Reeves share screentime with Brody's thread, which upon comparison is far weaker. While it is true that both story arcs have similarities and differences that are juxtaposed against each other, it ultimately seems that Brody is the main character, since we follow him as he uncovers more about Reeves' death. When your supporting character has a more compelling arc than your main character, your movie's in trouble.

Ben Affleck may seem like a strange casting choice, since he's not known for his emotional range, but he's perfect here as Reeves. His confident swagger gradually deteriorates throughout the course of the film until there is nothing but naked desperation and despair left in his eyes. Fine supporting performances by Diane Lane as Reeves' lover Toni Mannix and Bob Hoskins as her MGM executive husband also lift Affleck's scenes far above Brody's.

As a result of the main thread being weaker, the entire movie feels overlong and honestly, I was bored for much of the time. Which is a pity, for it looks good visually and could've been great. As it is, apart from Affleck's performance, it's merely adequate. Because, really, how Reeves died isn't the main point. It's how he lived that ultimately proved far more compelling and engaging.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Whitey Saves the Day Again

As a general rule, I don't like Edward Zwick's movies. True, while I did like Legends of the Fall, I saw that when I was merely a teenager, and easy to impress. I haven't seen it since, so I'll reserve my comments on that one. I was incredibly bored by Dances with Samurai - sorry, The Last Samurai, fell asleep during an action sequence, and was annoyed by the arrogant and simplistic East Good West Bad But West Must Save East's Ass dialectic of it.

That being said, after watching Blood Diamond... I still don't like his movies. It's not that I have a problem with simple good-versus-evil dialectics or big-budget action movies. It's when they attempt to exploit a global tragedy, trivialize it in the process, and stop every few scenes to make sure the audience gets the Message that I get very annoyed. The action scenes are competent enough (even though like in The Last Samurai, I also fell asleep in one of them), but the pacing goes to hell with all the moralizing and moping around. Yet still, the basic message is very similar to The Last Samurai's - There are Noble Black People who are being exploited, and they need the White Man to save their miserable asses. It's well-meaning liberal bullshit, but also incredibly arrogant.

Perhaps you might think that I'm being overly sensitive in reading political messages into this sort of thing, but I think it's justifiable because Zwick desperately wants to be political. He wants to be political so bad you can smell it in his sweat. And as any foxy girl in a dance club can tell you, desperation is a huge turn-off. Besides, I find it repugnant that he wants the audience to root for one exploited African, but finds nothing wrong in blowing hundreds of other such Africans, including child soldiers, to Kingdom Come in a pyrotechnic-filled attack. In other words, these people don't matter because it's their fault they weren't important enough to have been friends with the White Man.

Speaking of white men, the highlight of the film has to be Leonardo DiCaprio, who brings to the stock character of Danny Archer layers upon layers when neither the movie nor the director demanded any, in addition to a damn good South African accent. Compared to his riveting turn, Jennifer Connelly appears merely adequate, and Djimon Hounsou simply reprises the Noble Savage role that he plays in every bloody movie he's in. Leo makes me root for the character, despite disliking everything else. His performance is the heart and soul of the movie, and worth the admission price. Not like, say, Tom Cruise in Samurai...

Addendum: I have to whine a little about Safra here. They seem to take delight in sending me free passes to movies right after I've paid to see them. I saw Fast Food Nation last Saturday, and received free passes to that on Monday in the mail. Blood Diamond I saw on Monday, and lo and behold, in my mailbox are free passes the very next day. I know I shouldn't complain about getting free swag, but it would be nice to actually be able to use some of them instead of giving everything away.


Autism Rox!

Vastly underrated actor Alan Rickman plays a sad, lonely man who gives a vivacious girl a ride one day, only to get involved in a car accident that kills said girl. Feeling immense guilt both from the wreck and his tons of emotional baggage that follow him around like a determined stalker, he decides to pay her mother, Sigourney Weaver, a visit and apologize, only to discover that she's (gasp!) a high-functioning autistic! Not knowing what else to do, and feeling a sense of responsibility towards her, he agrees to stay till after the funeral, and in those few days, manages to connect with her and comely next-door neighbor Carrie-Anne Moss, who appears to be ostracized because she (double gasp!) enjoys sex (the whore!).

As you can see, Snow Cake is a resolutely middle-brow film, whose sole purpose seems to be telling us at every available opportunity that Autistic People Are People Too!, Why Can't We All Just Get Along? and even Sometimes Being Autistic Is Better Than Being Normal. It's to the credit of Rickman that it doesn't quite descend to TV movie level, but it gets dangerously close.

As a character study of Rickman's character, it's a pretty decent one, as through his interactions with Weaver and Moss he slowly peels away the walls he's built up around himself to reveal a wounded soul. Rickman is able to get us to look past the fact that his character is exactly like all the wounded souls that typically pop up in navel-gazing indie flicks by getting at the humanity inside, and it is precisely this humanity that connects with the audience. In fact, he single-handedly makes several potentially cringe-worthy scenes actually watchable. Unfortunately, Weaver is less effective playing Cute or Crazy Autistic, sometimes crossing over into pure annoying. Moss is decent, even though her small role is limiting.

Bottom line: It's a well-meaning, if ultimately rather mediocre movie apart from the rather good character study that Rickman provides. If you're expecting an engaging, entrancing time at the movies, this isn't it. If you like character studies though, it just might be worth your time.


Let Me Get This Straight...

Will Ferrell, best known for his over-the-top comedy roles, playing it straight (mostly)? In an wannabe-existential romantic comedy?

Yep, and it works. Mostly.

In Stranger Than Fiction, he plays a taxman who discovers that he's a character in a novel written by Emma Thompson when he begins to hear her narration during his daily activities one day, telling of his impending death. While this begs the questions of whether he existed before that day, and if so, why did the narration only start that particular day, the winning performances tend to make one forget about them quickly.

Ferrell is touching and convincing, as a man who suddenly starts trying to find meaning in and make something out of his life, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is radiant and quirky as always, playing his romantic interest (yes, I do have a soft spot for her). The romance should have been the focus of the film, given their good chemistry together. This would also have let me see more of Maggie.

Too bad the plot has to get in the way, where Ferrell enlists the help of a literature professor, charmingly played by Dustin Hoffman, to help him make sense of it all. Not to say that it isn't entertaining, but far too often it feels like the writer is trying too hard to beat Charlie Kaufman at his own game - which we all know is impossible. It ends up feeling half-hearted and uneven.

It doesn't help that the supporting roles are weak. Emma Thompson tries, but her tortured writer role is nothing but a big, walking, chain-smoking cliché. And don't get me started on Queen Latifah's completely unnecessary part as a "stenographer" come to "inspire" Thompson. And while it was nice to see Arrested Development's Buster on the big screen, he had even less scenes than Queen Latifah. It's a testament to his talent that he wrings far more out of his character than she does.

It's no big secret that in the end Thompson changes her novel's ending such that Ferrell survives, even though everyone tells her that it weakens the entire novel (Side note: Why people are always gushing over her writing when it sounds so clunky is beyond me). This is, after all, a Hollywood movie. The biggest irony is that the cop-out feel-good ending is exactly what weakens the entire movie the most, and undercuts everything that has gone before. Sure, the original ending might've ended on a dark note, but it doesn't mean there's no hope left. In his quest for meaning and love, Ferrell has given it his all, and it could've been inspiring, even. Ultimately, the ending just serves as a reminder that Hollywood demands happy endings, even when they so obviously don't work.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

An A-Maze-ing Ride

Awards season is upon us, and this is typically the time of year when stupid Singapore film distributors, after torturing us with month upon month of shitty releases, decide to dump their entire load of "worthy" films on the general public. This results in about 5 releases per week that are watchable, and much teeth-gnashing and marathon viewing on my part.

Last weekend, I literally had a list of 10 films that I was interested in. But after watching this one, I looked at the rest of the list and thought to myself, "Why bother? None of them can be better than this." Yes, El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) is that good. I'd go so far as to say that this might possibly be the best film of the year (although if that's true, I really have nothing to look forward to all year, and I'll be very sad).

When it comes to writing about it though, I'm at a loss for words. How do you describe something that grabs hold of you for two hours and brings you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, finally ending with such perfect beauty that it brings tears to your eyes and makes you sit there for a minute more just coming down from the experience? Fortunately, I think enough reviews and blogs and whatnot have written enough about the plot that I don't need to rehash it again, so I'll just put down some thoughts (and adjectives, I suppose).

What writer/director Guillermo del Toro has done is what I suppose could be called a mash-up in the filmic sense. He's taken two genres that don't seem to fit together - war and fantasy - and mixed them up and they work beautifully, each enhancing the other, with scenes that play in opposition and harmony, creating a wondrous whole. (Did that make any sense at all?) He's a great storyteller, and never has that been more on display than here, the entire film drawing us in right from the start and building to a thrilling, moving climax.

Unlike some other directors/filmmakers we know (ahem), he has a message, but doesn't hit you across the head with it. It's woven so intricately and intrinsically into the film that you instinctively get it, but it's not spelled out in huge letters and emblazoned across the screen. As he describes it in an interview with The Onion, it's a parable, not a pamphlet.
"A parable discusses things that are relevant in the past, the future, and the present - regardless of the outcome in the present. A pamphlet, on the other hand, is completely concerned with affecting an outcome in the present, the most immediate present."
It's a dark movie, but ultimately ends on a note of such beauty, courage and hope that you can't help but be moved by it, and by the journey that has taken you there. It is the most perfect ending I have seen in a long time, and I was awed, humbled and overwhelmed by the entire experience.

It may just be the best film of the year.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Mmm... Beef

I have a lot of respect for Richard Linklater. Most of his films have been really good, if not drop-dead amazing, especially in recent years. The "Sun-" pair of movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), Waking Life, School of Rock... Hell, the only movie he's made recently that I missed was Bad News Bears, and that was the fault of shitty Singapore movie distributors who didn't care to bring it in, and not mine.

Which brings me to Fast Food Nation. Most movies are mediocre at best. It's not their fault. It's just the way of the business, just like how most books that are written are crap. Even though I subscribe to the train of thought that says that it's better to make a spectacularly awful movie than a mediocre, forgettable one - at least people will remember you better - it's not a crime to make a mediocre movie.

Unless you're Richard Linklater, that is.

And that's what exactly what Fast Food Nation is - mediocre, forgettable, disposable. Sadly and ironically, just like the very products in its name.

It's sprawling, with a large cast of characters and subplots, when it really needs to be sharp, concised and focused. As it is, I can't tell whether the focus is on the fast food industry, or the meat processing industry, or the lives of illegal immigrants, or one man's dilemma between doing the right thing or safeguarding his career.

Linklater is great at long, talky scenes like those involving a bunch of idealistic college students (the cow-releasing sequence is pure genius) or Ethan Hawke (is it just me, or is the guy in every Linklater movie?) as a concerned uncle. His observations on human (and corporate) behavior is also sharp and well-observed, like in a scene where a hotel receptionist goes through all the questions on her internal script without caring about the answers, and when a human resource executive (they really are the antichrist) is, well, being a human resource executive (i.e. pure evil). Especially delicious is an extended scene between shady guy Bruce Willis (oozing charm and slime in equal quantities) and truth-seeker Greg Kinnear that goes on far too long but is enjoyable as hell. But equally common are scenes in which information, facts and statistics are doled out to the audience in the form of exposition-ey dialogue - especially criminal in a Linklater film.

I haven't read Eric Schlosser's nonfictional bestseller on which this fictional film is based, but somehow I doubt it would go into as many irrelevant subplots. Enjoyable as they are, they're nonessential to the film and its arguments, and merely serve to pull everything down into a mush of decent ideas in need of better execution and focus. Here's hoping that A Scanner Darkly (which those fucking Singapore distributors seem to be ignoring) will be better.

Addendum: Funnily enough, I think I wasn't that affected by the cow-slaughtering scenes. Do Americans, used to seeing their meat in palatable styrofoam plates at the supermarket, react stronger to these than Asian or European audiences, who see bloody carcasses at every market they go to? Just a thought.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Devil You Know

Let me start off by saying that Water does not, in any single frame, look like a movie that was shot in secret and shut down for several years due to protests. It's gorgeously shot and composed, with almost every shot looking perfect, like a painting. And perhaps that's its weakness.

An 8 year-old girl, Sarala, finds out that she's a widow when her husband dies and she's sent to live in an ashram to spend the remainder of her life in poverty and loneliness, surrounded only by fellow widows with their shaved heads and self-denial. Now, a child in a movie cannot and will not be struck down by the hand fate has dealt them, and she manages to touch and change some of those living with her. One of these middle-aged widows who eventually comes to doubt her beliefs and that of society has a really compelling story, and she's played exceptionally well. The main focus of the film though, lies in a forbidden romance between a beautiful widow (conveniently, the only one who's allowed to keep her hair because she's being pimped out) and an upper-class young idealist.

Even though that particular story thread is formulaic enough, the portrayals and handling thankfully never descend to cheap melodrama, and it also helps that the actress Lisa Ray is bloody gorgeous. I know I had a hard time keeping my eyes off the screen, and winced when she had her pretty locks shorn off by a vindictive old bitch.

Formula is formula though, and at the end I felt the film could have been a lot stronger had it explored the stories of some of those other women a little deeper. There's a lot of talking about the caste system and how changes are happening in society; I just wished most of it didn't come from the mouths of idealistic students proclaiming their philosophies to all and sundry. The biggest impact, I felt, came from the women who were being oppressed, yet chose to live in oppression because of their beliefs. They couldn't envision a different world, and even if they could, that would've completely destroyed their belief system and brought their worldview crumbling down around them. Isn't that the greatest tragedy of all, when victims believe that they should be victimized, that they deserve to be victimized? And widening this allegory, isn't this also true of the public at large in certain so-called "democracies"?

I could also go on about the use of water (duh!) as a Symbol, but it's been many years since I last wrote a literature paper. I guess I'll just stick to the tech stuff then. Perhaps a rawer shooting style could've helped in conveying its message. As it is, the film is very good, but feels just a little too slick to have enormous resonance. You can't fault it for trying though, and for the most part, it does work pretty well.

Addendum: I saw this at GV Vivocity, and the print was awful, with lots of scratches. Shame on you. "Singapore's No. 1 Movie Destination" indeed.


Monday, January 15, 2007

First Movie Review in 4 Months

Yep, I looked through my old posts, and my last movie-related post was on September 19, almost 4 months ago. That's kind of ridiculous, for a Cinewhore's blog. It doesn't mean I stopped watching movies or talking about them, just that shit happens and when it does, blogging is always the first thing to be sacrificed.

So I decided to start again. New year, new beginning and all that jazz. So here's the first movie I saw this year, and it's a "local" film - 茶舞 (One Last Dance).

I say "local" because even though it's from Raintree Pictures, the movie-making arm of the evil media conglomerate/monopoly here, it's got a Brazilian writer/director. Now, I have no problems with Brazilian filmmakers. I mean, who can, after City of God, right? My beef is just with the trailers that scream "100% produced in Singapore" and immediately follow that up with a foreign name, as opposed to, say, Tan Ah Kow of Jurong West. To add insult to injury, the top-billed actors are all foreign, and our local talent are mostly used to fill out roles like "Gangster #12" and "Old Man at Bar". Hell, they're lucky if they get a line of dialogue.

But enough about the cast and crew. Let's talk about the actual movie. After all, that's the fairest basis on which to judge a film - whether or not it stands up on its own. And on this basis, how does this flick fare? The answer is: Not very well.

Looking at it, one of the biggest problems lies in the script and dialogue, and how disparate those two factors are. Those who understand Chinese and read the subtitles will quickly realize that what the characters are saying have very little in common with the English subtitles. In fact, in many situations, the subtitles are much cleverer than the actual dialogue spoken. I can only think of one reason for this: That the script was written in English and then translated (badly) into Chinese, losing about 80% of its wit and depth in the process, and the subtitles were taken directly from the actual script. Not that it was that clever in the first place, though... Perhaps it got into Sundance by strength of its subtitles. If so, that would be really sad.

茶舞 wants desperately to be a Quentin Tarantino flick, and to give it credit, the chopped-up structure actually works rather well. Unfortunately, it also wants to be Tarantino-like in its dialogue, and the writer tries to do this with pseudo-intellectual pretentious lines. But it is a sad fact of life that most actors in the region, or most actors period, for that matter, can do these kind of lines properly. And it's all in the delivery, baby. Out of the entire cast, only Francis Ng and Ti Lung have the presence and ability to pull off dialogue like that. Everyone else just kinda woefully flops along. Vivian Hsu tries very hard to add depth to her role, but ultimately it's a one-dimensional character, whose sole reason for being there is to act as the impetus for Francis Ng to start killing a whole bunch of people (oops, I suppose that's a spoiler). However, her character is too thinly-written to be a convincing-enough reason for him to do that, and so the entire basis for the plot falls apart. And don't even get me started on the annoying actor that plays her brother. He was so in-your-face irritating that I spent the entire movie just wishing they'd kill him.

It's a Raintree picture, and so dear Executive Producer D.Y. will have to leave his grubby fingerprints over everything. This comes in the casting of several local celebrities in pointless roles - case in point Hossan Leong and 93.3 DJ Zhou Chongqing in a completely unnecessary scene - and an insulting montage of the killings in chronological order for All The Stupid People Who Didn't Get What Was Going On.

Pacing-wise, it was slack in many parts, and could definitely have benefited from more judicious editing. However, giving credit where it's due, some scenes were treated interestingly enough, like an entire party sequence that's told in polaroid snaps, but even that scene goes on twice as long as it should. Visually speaking, the movie was adequate, but won't be winning any awards for camerawork.

If I had to say something positive about it, it would be Francis Ng and Ti Lung, who manage to play their respective parts well (even though the roles are such weary cliches) and have real chemistry together. But then again, they're much stronger in Hong Kong movies in general than here. Harvey Keitel has a small role but a big credit, and frankly, anyone could've played his part. The less said of everybody else the better.

All in all, not the best movie to start the year off with, according to Cameron's theory. But hey, that means it can only get better from here (and it has).


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Beginnings


Starting over is a good thing.

Here's to new beginnings.

Cheers, my brother.