Thursday, February 22, 2007

October 2006 Round-Up

Continuing the Round-Ups from where I left off (because these are a lot easier to write than actual reviews, and I really have a ton of work to do)...

Miami Vice
I came out of this movie feeling more of a man than I'd ever been. It's because everyone in the movie has balls of steel and go around spouting lines that are so macho it makes me want to cry. This is unapologetic, pulpy stuff, sublimely put together and breathtaking in its stylistic flourishes and action choreography (for once I actually know who's firing at whom, and who's taken a hit). Michael Mann makes me swoon, and the opening is pure bliss, cutting straight into a nightclub filled with sweaty bodies gyrating to Numb/Encore.

The Night Listener
I'm ambivalent about this one, because while some of it is captivating enough, like Robin William's performance, and the relationship between him and the mysterious boy, it meanders a lot as well, and as a result the movie suffers as a whole. I liked the matter-of-fact way in which Willaim's sexuality is handled; you don't need to scream GAYGAYGAY all the time, and failed relationships hurt the same no matter what your orientation.

看上去很美 (Little Red Flowers)
The movie's pretty decent till around the halfway mark, and even then it's episodic (which I dislike). But somewhere around there, it becomes something strange which I can't figure out; the child seems to cease to exist as a character, and instead becomes a symbolic figure for... exactly what I don't know. I'm not against your characters being symbols, it's just that when the symbolism becomes more important than their story and development, I think you're doing things back-to-front.

Cidade Baixa (Lower City)
What can I say? There's lots of sex and nudity. And some violence. And not much else. I didn't give a shit about any character, and actually was hoping that they would all kill each other so everything would just end. God, this movie was boring. Alice Braga is a hottie though.

Little Miss Sunshine
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love how all your characters are so flawed, yet so human inside. I love how when they change, it never feels forced. I love how the sweetness is flavored with biting humor and tempered with sadness. I love your flawless script and dialogue, which are absolute gems. I love your entire ensemble cast, who are so generous of spirit and never draw more attention to themselves than they deserve. I love your ending, which is so hilarious and sad and right and perfect that there's no other way it could have ended without it being a lesser film. I love you, Little Miss Sunshine.

The Departed
I don't understand the hype about this. Everyone you ask in Asia will tell you one thing - Infernal Affairs was better and leaner than this overstuffed turkey. It's not bad bad, it's just not that great. Or perhaps it just appeals more to the American sensibility than all the philosophizing of the original. Mark Wahlberg's character, which he got an Oscar nomination for, is completely redundant - the only functions he served were the final scene and providing some comic relief along the way. Jack Nicholson was out of control and completely over the top, it felt like Scorsese didn't know how to keep him in line. DiCaprio did a decent job, but he's a long way from matching up to Tony Leung's performance. The blatant ending metaphor made me gasp in surprise at how low Scorsese has stooped. The man is capable of far greater things; it's a pity that he'll probably get an Oscar for this as opposed to his more worthy work in the past.

I don't care what anyone says, this is fun, fun stuff. Of course it's fluff, but it's enjoyable and well-made fluff, and I'd rather see fluff by Woody Allen than crap like Norbit or Epic Movie anyday (both of which are opening soon in Singapore, and I'm overhearing conversations at the movies between people who're actually excited to see them! The death of cinema is nigh). Scarlett Johansson is pretty funny doing her best Woody Allen impression, and it's just plain entertaining watching her and Allen bounce off each other.

American Dreamz
It's got a great premise, and is entertaining in parts, but ultimately lacks the vicious bite that's vital to a real satire. How can one like a movie that makes you feel sorry (kinda) for George W. Bush (or someone very similar, anyway)?

Hustle & Flow
Almost half a year after its Oscar nod for Best Song and nomination for Lead Actor Terrence Howard, it finally arrived on Singapore shores... and played for all of one week. Good thing I rushed to catch it as soon as it opened, for it would've been criminal to miss something this enjoyable. Howard is gritty and charismatic as the pimp-turned-rapper, and the supporting cast is wonderful and completely convincing. Scenes of him engaged in the creative process are genuinely exhilarating to watch, and it's all the more impressive since he performed his own vocals. Of course it tells a formulaic story, but when formula is done so well, you love it all the same.

放逐 (Exiled)
Did I say Miami Vice made me feel like more of a man than every before? I take that back. Exiled did that more. Johnny To is the best at what he does, and here he transposes a well-worn story of triad revenge and bloodshed into the trappings of a Western. It's unbelievably stylish and cool, and dripping with "brotherhood" and machismo. Hell, it even made me like Richie Ren in his role, and I normally reserve nothing but the utmost vilification for him.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
The premise seemed hilarious, and this actually has more of a plot than a Will Ferrell fratboy movie ever did, but somehow it fails to be as funny as it should be. Perhaps what I really enjoyed in his previous outings like Anchorman was the riffing that seemed to be so spontaneous, even if it had nothing to do with the plot whatsoever (I'm a big fan of random humor). Sacha Baron Cohen is great in his role, setting the stage for his Borat later on in the year.

The Prestige
Christopher Nolan movies are known for several things - their intelligence and amazing plot twists mostly (OK, so Batman Begins didn't have one, sue me). The thing I appreciate is that he always, always plays fair with the audience, and respects them, which is so bloody rare nowadays. Emotionally, it could be stronger, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a great time. Yes, I loved this one too.

Bloody good fun, in all senses of the phrase. A great, quirky mix of gore and very, very black humor (whaddaya expect? It's British) - I can't remember when I last laughed at a guy getting his leg severed by a bear trap (if ever). It makes for a great time at the movies, if you can stomach all the bloodletting. I think my companion felt a little green at the gills at times.

World Trade Center
An Oliver Stone film that's actually - gasp! - non-provocative, firmly middle-brow and has nothing to say (besides "Man, these guys were heroic!")? Bo-ring! Another example of the trailer being far better than the actual movie (remember Pearl Harbor?). What a shitty way to end the month.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Shameless Self-Whoring

Backstory: So there's this contest organized by Windows Live (I know, ironic, since I'm a Machead) and Golden Village called Movies on Spaces. People submit their blogs (on the Windows Live platform, but of course) each month, and the powers-that-be select 5 top bloggers and unleash them upon the voting public. The winner, as determined by number of votes, walks away with a 6-month VIP movie pass (for two) worth S$2000. That means he/she gets to watch all the movies that a human being can stomach at GV theatres for half a year, which is pretty damn sweet if you ask me. The runners-up get... well, crap in comparison - 10 movie passes worth S$90.

Why do I mention this? Well, this here blog by yours truly is among the top 5 for the month of February. They've only just listed the finalists for the month a few days ago, which makes the voting period especially short - you guys only have till the end of the month to vote. About a week or so away.

Voting is done via SMS (I know, sorry) and each vote costs 20 cents. But think of it this way, it's a pass for two, so try and think how many movies I saw with you in the past 6 months. Let's say each movie costs about S$9.00 on average. Do your math and you can see that's worth a substantial number of votes:

9.00 ÷ 0.20 = 45

Hence people who watch movies with me can, and should, vote at least 45 times each. Hey, if I win, you guys can call me up just to watch free movies - isn't that awesome?

And if I don't know you, or haven't seen a movie with you in 6 months, then I'm just flat-out begging you. Please. Pretty please, with a cherry on top.

So don't wait no more - pick up your phone and enter the following:


(For example, MOS S8016473Z F 1)

and send it to 73300.

Vote now, and vote repeatedly. Of course I'll be voting as well, I'm that shameless. I want that damn pass, because I'm sick of paying for movies. On average, I watch about 150 movies a year, and that's a lotta dough. I'd enjoy saving half of it.

Muchos gracias.

What the Hell Did I Just See?

Most movies progress in a linear path from point A to point B. This is the norm; it's expected, it's what audiences are familiar with, it's what they want (or so the corporate drones tell us). But once in a while, some movies come along that throw us a curveball, and while some may scratch their heads and ask, "What the hell did I just see?", others like me welcome these aberrations because they're so far removed from convention it almost automatically makes them interesting. I say almost, because sometimes these experiments fail to engage on any level, and if so, then they've failed.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer actually follows the straight and narrow path for a good portion of it. In this aspect, it is unexceptional and rote, as it follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan gifted with an exceptional sense of smell through his horrible childhood and subsequent adult life, where he becomes obsessed with the smell of women and is consumed with the urge to bottle their essence. Of course, he has to kill them in the process - it's hardly a secret, what with the title proclaiming it to the world.

Frankly, I was rather bored with this portion of the movie, because apart from a few nice attempts at expressing his acute sense of smell visually, there was nothing striking about it. I was hoping for more from director Tom Tykwer, because nice visuals coming from him are a given. Possibly the only thing that stuck in my mind from the first and second act, but for all the wrong reasons, was Dustin Hoffman's jarring performance as an Italian perfumer that takes the young Grenouille under his wing as an apprentice. For some reason, he chose to give a comedic performance that was simply unfunny, and his lame attempts at humor (and a bad Italian accent) stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise sombre movie.

Speaking of accents, does anyone know why a movie that's set in France, helmed by a German director, has everyone speaking British English (apart from Hoffman)? No? Neither do I.

I was about to dismiss Perfume as simply another over-hyped, mediocre movie when the third act rolled along. And every previous conception I had about it was blown to the winds as I stared at the screen, jaw open in surprise.

I really don't want to give anything away, so suffice to say that the final scenes are so audacious that they transcended all expectations I had; they were so out-of-the-world bizarre, yet were so completely fitting, that days after the movie, I still couldn't stop thinking about it. I haven't read the novel it's based on, so I have no basis for comparison, and don't know if this was what was originally written or if Tykwer put his own stamp on it, but damn, it's a great blast of cinema.

46 億年の恋 (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), on the other hand, was bizarre from the get-go. A bad-ass youth is strangled while in a penitentiary, but how could he have been killed if he was more likely to kill his would-be killer before the latter even got a punch in? So who did kill him - was it his rumored lover and fellow prisoner, the warden, or everyone in the damn place? Everyone has a motive, but the truth is far simpler.

Okay, so the premise isn't so bizarre, but the presentation sure is. It starts with a monologue read from a book, then segues into a dance sequence intercut with an ominous-looking old man instructing a young boy to go through a rite of passage (which basically getting it on with a strapping young man). And then some of it's like Dogville, with its Brechtian bare stage and areas demarcated with white lines, and some of it's more conventional. Then there's the direct address, and text onscreen, and a pyramid right outside the penitentiary, as well as a space shuttle, for some reason. The performances are intentionally stilted, you never figure out why some directorial choices were made, it's all quite incomprehensible and makes you go, "What the fuck?", but there's one very important plus point - it's never boring.

It all looks like Takashi Miike shot it when he was high on illegal substances, but that's part of his appeal for me. He might not have the most original plots - in fact, the storyline for this one is quite straightforward for those who can see past all the mumbo-jumbo he throws in the way - but he'll always do something completely original and whack with it (and he does more of that here than in any of his other movies), and I'd rather see something interesting but not easily decipherable than a run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter product any day. And hey, it's a departure from his usual horror flicks, and if he's brave enough to try something new with his 70th film, that's something to be embraced.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

I Hate Chinese New Year... Kinda

So all seems to be going well. I just sent in my application for On the Lot, even thought the chances of being selected are pretty much zero, and the last few nights were fun. Except, though, that Chinese New Year is just around the corner. Well, tomorrow, to be precise.

I don't feel any real affinity for Chinese New Year. Sure, it's meant to be joyful and all that, and I do enjoy the hanging out with friends and mahjong. But too much of it is a drag for it to be all that fun.

Like Chinatown around this period is just annoying. Loud music with lots of cymbals and drums blast everywhere, and the crowds are just freaking insane. That's why I tend to stay out of the area during this period. Too bad I had to go to a meeting there yesterday, and ended up waiting an hour for a cab, and late for several other meetings as a result.

And yes, about cabs. They just seem to disappear around this time of year, don't they? Just waiting to pick up a booking and get S$ 4.00 more. Why, I've seen them drop a customer off at a taxi stand, then immediately pick up a call booking even though there was a huge line right at the stand.

The incessant "joyful" music gets on my nerves as well. If you want to play them to put people in the mood, sure, I get that. In malls, in restaurants, fine. But I really don't like hearing drums and cymbals and irritating screechy kids insisting I have a happy new year when I'm shopping for clothes or anything else that requires a decision-making process.

And since we're talking about shopping, let me just say that the discounts offered now suck in comparison to the post-Christmas shopping season last year. Which is why I never buy anything around this time of year now.

Since my mom made me start giving out ang pows to my grandparents, the new year just hasn't been the same, financially. I'm happy if I don't make a bloody loss, like I did the year I started giving them out and was over-estimating everyone else's generosity. Fingers crossed this year.

But hey, I'm a sucker for the food. I guess the only food I haven't stuffed my face with this year is bak kwa (barbequed pork slices). Anyone have some? Besides that, since my relatives all don't gamble, I'm left with the dry, boring option of visiting their homes only to zone out on the couch and watch fucking reruns on TV that I'd have no interest in even if they weren't reruns.

How can I forget the traditional spring cleaning? I'm sitting here typing in the middle of the war zone that's my room (I tend to let things lie where they fall for a week or two before doing anything about them), I need to change the sheets that I think I've been using since Christmas (to whom it's concerned: I know because the salsa stains are still there), I should probably do some dusting since I can write essays on the top of my shelves with a finger, and I have about 5 hours to do all that before the reunion dinner. I really should start soon.

Lest you say I'm a spoilsport, I still like the notion of celebrating new year twice in any given year. If you've been fucking up the first month or so, hey, there's still another chance for resolutions.

So, happy new year to all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Belly-Dancing Dogs

I was rather miffed that for the last two films in the Focus First Cuts series, Golden Village chose to screen them as a mini-festival as opposed to full commercial releases, since this entailed higher costs on my part. Then again, with the huge load of movies being released right now, I guess it's kinda silly to show anything that hasn't a snowflake's chance in hell of making any money. Not all of them are Crazy Stone after all.

Not that they should be. 太陽雨 (Rain Dogs) from Malaysia is a gentle mood piece that traces the coming of age of a teenage boy, and it works just fine as what it is. The protagonist Tung starts off as an innocent from a small town, visiting his brother in the big city, and barely 5 minutes into the movie, he's robbed of all the money he brought. He looks at everything with wonder, tinged with wariness, and clearly he's unable to fend for himself in that unfamiliar environment.

Then his brother is killed, and the loss of innocence begins. Unable to talk sense into his mother, and unhappy with her deadbeat boyfriend, Tung takes off to a village to stay with an uncle. There, he undergoes a slow journey of self-discovery, taking baby steps towards becoming a man.

What's notable is that this journey is not signposted with big events and transformations. It's the little things that count, and it's a pleasure to see him gradually evolve. The meditative, lulling quality of the Malaysian countryside is essential to the soothing rhythms of the film and the small, tentative changes in him. Tung is reticent, if anything, but this doesn't stop us from feeling what he's feeling. At the end of the film, he has not changed greatly, but we can see that he's taken the first steps towards the rest of his life.

Contrasting with that, 師奶唔易做 (My Mother Is a Belly Dancer) is loud and noisy. It charts the lives of a group of women having their mid-life crises, who take up belly dancing as a hobby but find that it has the power to change their lives. Or does it?

The thing I like about it is that there's a real palpable sense of space. The flats they live in are tiny and claustrophobic, and so are their surroundings, and there's real dirt and grit in their homes and lives. This goes a long way towards making us feel for the characters and their trapped lives.

What's unclear is what belly-dancing has to do with all of this at all. The film badly wants it to be something that lifts them up and out of their troubles and worries - this is seen in many scenes where they dance with abandon and real joy lights up their faces. Yet it also wants to be realistic - belly-dancing is not a cure for their troubles. After the music ends, they all have to go back to their lives, and these are areas in which dancing serves no purpose. It can't put food on the table, it can't make their husbands love them again, it can't find a father for their baby, it can't bring them respect from their husbands and families.

It's an uncomfortable blend of downbeat drama (which feels realistic and good) and feel-good fantasy (which wants to be transcendental but is ultimately artificial), and the two parts are hurting the whole. This, in my opinion, is the biggest failure of the film - not knowing exactly what it wants from the belly-dancing. A temporary escape? A metaphor for a real life? A symbol for who they really want to be? There's a lot of gyrating around with no real point, and ultimately, a pointless movie is an unnecessary one.


The First One to Bite the Dust

Xuanfei became the first one among our group of friends to get hitched on Monday. 王媽 has officially become 劉太, and embraced auntie-hood.

Ladies in White

Everyone has history, and everyone has baggage. Time to leave it all behind and move on. Some things are best forgotten, and moments like these are to be treasured.

No Time


Best wishes to Xuanfei and Junxian, and may they be happy forever.

Blur Couple

Rings & Roses

How long will it be before the serial killer claims his next victim?

How long will it be before he takes us all out? Or will he ever?

In this marathon of a slasher flick, will there be a survivor? How long will the damn movie be?

What the hell am I talking about anyway?

A Boring, Unromantic (But Pretty) Valentine Post

I'll come right out and say it, I didn't like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus much at all. It's not a biopic of the photographer that made her name taking portraits of all manners of freaks and social outcasts, and even says so right in the title. And similar to a portrait, also referenced in the title, it gives you a picture of the subject, but not a full one, so you never get anything more than just a general feeling about the main character. Like most traditional portraits, it is also inherently pretty and looks amazing, but lacks greater depth.

A bored housewife gets sick of helping her photographer husband, and goes out seeking subjects for her own photography. She meets the hairy freak living upstairs, who is Robert Downey, Jr. underneath tons of makeup, and the two forges a connection. He shows her an entire alternative world of freaks, and she is fascinated; her inner artist awakens.

Yet for a film that ostensibly wants to portray these freaks as human, it hardly gets over letting the audience leer at their freakishness. Apart from Downey, few of them get any personalities at all. But I guess it kind of makes up for Nicole Kidman having no real personality throughout the movie - if she's barely human, then perhaps the freaks are more human than we thought.

This movie is pretty - the makeup effects and production design all help create a wonderfully dreamlike world that blends seamlessly with reality. But this doesn't help the glacial pace of everything, and at the end of it all, you realize that the movie doesn't really go anywhere and you don't give a damn about anything. It's wannabe-art that doesn't have much to say and is overwhelmingly unnecessary and purely masturbatory.


A Grandly Romantic Valentine Post

A strained-looking Caucasian couple trudge through rolling vistas in China, carried by grunting Chinese, and you can feel the sweltering heat. As they travel, their story up to this point is told in flashbacks - a marriage of convenience, a betrayal, and an ultimatum (and rather cruel revenge). Thus The Painted Veil begins, with the couple hating each others' guts, and slowly works its way towards their eventual reconciliation, and even love.

There's a very classic feel to the film, in the grand Merchant-Ivory tradition, and everything feels very smooth and measured. It takes its time to build character, but is still well-paced enough that you never feel it's slow. And what characters it builds! The couple, played by Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, barely have anything to say to each other at first, and most of their exchanges are cruel and cutting.

Yet this is not a film of dialogue, but rather built on non-verbal communication - looks, glances and gestures. As Watts slowly discovers how hard her husband works to help the cholera-stricken population, her heart warms to him at last, and she finds it in her selfish, spoilt self to aid the efforts as well. On Norton's part, he gradually rediscovers love and respect for his wife, and the beautiful thing is that not a word is spoken by him. He just simply changes in front of our eyes, and we can see it. It was a nice surprise to see Anthony Wong as well, and find out that his spoken English is actually really decent.

The plot is nothing to shout home about, but this is purely an actors' vehicle, and what a vehicle it is. Norton and Watts believe so completely in their characters and imbibe them with such fierce conviction and love that it's hard not to get caught up in everything. This is a grandly romantic film in the best sense of the phrase, and it's all due to their performances. Lovely.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007




乙是個好選擇,那是公認的。本來好不容易等到希望存在的時刻,只可惜希望就只存在於那一瞬間,馬上又滅了。這是暫時的熄滅,還是長久的? 還是個未知數。

丙呢? 這故事也能算是命運奇怪的安排吧。還是新加坡真的太小了? 安排卻又不完美的排上,也不知該怨誰。




Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Under a (Snooze) Spell

I couldn't help but pick up a flyer for the recent Mexican Film Festival over at GV Vivocity, and saw to my delight that tickets were only going for S$5.00 a pop. Wotta deal! So I quickly scanned through the listings, and realized that only Un Embrujo (Under a Spell) both fit my schedule and interested me. Why? Take a look at the synopsis, reproduced below:
Under a Spell is a beautifully accomplished work that combines the magic of cinematic style with superb performances in a period piece full of sexuality, class struggle, and mystery. On one level a not-so-simple coming-of-age story, Under a Spell focuses on the thirteen-year-old Eliseo, son of a longshoreman/union organizer, whose dreams of a world away from the docks lead him to a series of liaisons, beginning with his sexy teacher, Felipa (Blanca Guerra), a woman whose intense desires and worldliness end with her ostracism and banishment. Director Carlos Carrera interweaves elements of politics, superstition and mysticism, melodrama, and realism in fashioning a thoroughly enrapturing, quasi-supernatural tale. The lush settings and intense, almost physical force of the film's visuals create a truly transforming experience. Indeed the magic of the film's colour, music, and denouement grants us access to a complicated culture that combines history and imagination. Carrera has demonstrated the abilities that mark the development of a remarkable cineaste.
Besides, Guillermo del Toro was listed as a producer, and I was still full of that del Toro love from Pan's Labyrinth. Not to mention the director of photography was Brokeback Mountain's Rodrigo Prieto. As it turned out, I quickly came to the realization that the remarkable piece of copywriting above was just that, a remarkable piece of copywriting. In fact, it's so remarkable, let's analyze it in parts, shall we?
Under a Spell is a beautifully accomplished work that combines the magic of cinematic style with superb performances in a period piece full of sexuality, class struggle, and mystery.
In reality, I felt it didn't look as pretty as it could've been, although the production design team is to be commended. I don't know if I saw a lot of that cinematic style, since most of the shots and edits felt rather workmanlike to me. Yep, Prieto definitely got much better as he went along. Performances were OK for the most part, and the kids were especially good. Yes, I agree with the last sentence, to the extent that it was set many years ago, has sex, poor people and superstition/magic in it.
On one level a not-so-simple coming-of-age story, Under a Spell focuses on the thirteen-year-old Eliseo, son of a longshoreman/union organizer, whose dreams of a world away from the docks lead him to a series of liaisons, beginning with his sexy teacher, Felipa (Blanca Guerra), a woman whose intense desires and worldliness end with her ostracism and banishment.
On second thought, maybe the copywriting isn't that great, because it starts off with "on one level" but never mentions any other levels. Anyhow, I didn't see Eliseo dreaming about a world away from the docks at all. The series of liaisons was present, and very much appreciated, because which pervy moviegoer (i.e., me) wouldn't want to see a young boy get it on with some MILFs (the fact that they weren't exactly MILF material was somewhat unfortunate)? The banishment was really more of she just packed up and left rather than having an angry mob run her out of town, so that's a bit of misdirection there.
Director Carlos Carrera interweaves elements of politics, superstition and mysticism, melodrama, and realism in fashioning a thoroughly enrapturing, quasi-supernatural tale.
Yes, I agree that all of these elements are there, but rather than "fashioning an enrapturing tale", the end result was something that lacked focus (too... many... subplots... Can't... be... bothered...) and was curiously bland, in spite of the fact that it had underage boys screwing their friends' moms. The first half which concentrated on the boys was passable (or perhaps that's just 'cos I'm such a perv), but just when I thought the movie was ending, it launched into a long, drawn-out second half set over 10 years later, and the only thought going through my head was "I don't give a shit anymore".
Indeed the magic of the film's colour, music, and denouement grants us access to a complicated culture that combines history and imagination.
Not much here, besides pointing out that I didn't get anything much from it, and the denouement was overlong and unnecessary. In fact, call me a philistine if you want, but besides making me wish that I'd been seduced by a hot teacher when I was 13 (oh, if I could turn back the hands of time...), I was bored to tears.

But perhaps it wasn't all the movie's fault. Coming right after the drop-dead amazing The Queen, it had a lot to live up to. Too bad it failed in every single department.