Monday, August 27, 2007

Scottish Sheep Torture

I bet that title got your attention. Unfortunately there won't be any torturing of animals here, Scottish or not. I will, however, be giving my two cents' worth on a torture-thriller, a horror-comedy involving zombie sheep, and a biopic of a Scottish cyclist.

First off, I'm grateful that Vacancy never quite slips into torture porn, although the setup seems perfect for one. Instead, it's a tight and perfectly serviceable little thriller that delivers the goods in 80 lean minutes. For such a flick to work is a rarity in Hollywood, because most scripts of this genre are fed to hack directors who mistake gore for scares and annoying musical cues for tension. Nimród Antal does a good job maintaining the tension throughout by putting actual thought (gasp!) in his cinematography and editing, and the casting of Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale tells you right off the bat this might be better than your typical stupid gorefest. Frank Whaley though, is perfect in his demented motel owner role, and almost steals the entire movie based on his memorable introduction scene alone. Keep an eye out for the gorgeous opening titles.

Black Sheep, however, is a tale of missed opportunities. The premise is clever and hilarious enough, but unfortunately the execution falls far short of its potential. The gags never quite plumb the depths of zombie sheep comedy, and the writing's far from sharp, never really mining the possibilities of satire. The movie's populated with stock characters which aren't particularly memorable, and aren't really given much to do besides run around panicking. I thought it was going to be a lot more fun, so I was rather disappointed in its sheer mediocrity and blahness. For a terrific example of the awesomeness that a B-movie is capable of, you should just rent Slither at your neighborhood video store.

Speaking of mediocrity, The Flying Scotsman also has it in spades. It's supposed to depict the highs and lows in the competitive life of Graeme Obree, a Scottish competitive cyclist who broke the world hour record twice, all the while battling with manic depression. While Jonny Lee Miller is decent enough in the role, the movie doesn't really have many dramatic highs and lows at all, and ultimately everything kind of blends together in a rather boring and unchallenging movie. It tells you nothing new about depression, and in fact it rarely even surfaces in the movie, and the way its dealt with is rather perfunctory, even. To be honest, I wouldn't have seen this movie if not for the fact that a local short film was screening with it. Ultimately, it's utterly forgettable, and that's one of the worst verdicts a movie can get.


Thrills and Chills

The Hong Kong film industry right now appears to churn out movies of only three or so genres: Cutesy vomit-inducing romantic comedies, police/gangster thrillers by Johnnie To wannabes, and action flicks with lots of ass-kicking. Or at least, you'd think it by the selections that Singapore distributors bring in. Because I tend to avoid the first category, and so didn't see the latest Eason Chan vehicle, this post will be about the latter two instead.

跟蹤 (Eye in the Sky) is written and directed by frequent Johnnie To collaborator Yau Nai Hoi, and he makes an assured directorial debut in this slick procedural thriller. Working with a seasoned To-ensemble, he can't really go wrong, except when he expects a little too much from the newbie playing the lead role. The Surveillance Unit of the Hong Kong Police Force is the focus here, and the obsessive details of how they go about doing their job isn't boring at all, it's bloody captivating, and that's a big credit towards Yau's skills as a storyteller. Yes, we feel the dreariness of the wait, but we also feel the intensity as they locate their target and the thrill of the hunt. Great handheld cinematography, careful choreography and skillful editing make everything flow together seamlessly, and the tension holds up for the majority of the film.

I appreciate how Yau doesn't treat the audience as fucking morons; he doesn't spell out everything in capital letters, but instead trusts them to infer conclusions based on what's presented. We see everyone using their Octopus cards (the Hong Kong public transport stored value card) to pay their busfares, then crime lord Tony Leung steps up and pays with coins, and we get it right away - he doesn't want to be traced, for you can't track journeys paid in cash, a conclusion which is validated by a later sequence where one of his henchmen is tracked down via his Octopus card transactions.

The movie's so good for most of it, you can even forgive the contrivances that occur near the end of the film, including a poorly-played emotional moment for the lead actress. There's also a seemingly tacked-on happy ending which goes against all medical logic that I had trouble with, but I suppose with what's gone before it, I can't really complain all that much.

男兒本色 (Invisible Target), on the other hand, is pretty much empty when it comes to the brains department, thanks to incompetent director Benny Chan. Thankfully, there are plenty of cool fight scenes liberally scattered throughout the movie, but in between them there are way too many plot/character scenes which are horribly executed in every department. Seriously, when you have lots of ass-kicking, you shouldn't even bother with plot; it's irrelevant. We don't give a shit about these characters being real human beings; from their fighting we know they're superhuman, and we just really wanna see them slug it out, that's all. We don't want to see Nicholas Tse emoting, or Jackie Chan Junior trying to cry for the umpteenth time (God, is he fucking annoying or what) - it's just painful. Neither do we want to see bad guys humanized. Give us more of Chinese martial artist Wu Jing kicking ass (he's always great in action) and more of stars like Tse giving their all in the action sequences.

There's a beautiful sequence where Tse is pursuing Wu who's chasing some punk across rooftops, and they make a leap for an adjoining rooftop one by one. The punk lands and twists his leg or something. Wu lands gracefully and glances back to see Tse jumping right at him, so he immediately launches backwards into a flying kick and fucking kicks Tse away before he reaches the roof, sending him into a tree, then crashing down on a container truck before painfully hitting the ground. And that's former pretty-boy star Tse doing his own stunts, falling off the roof and hitting the ground. It's a spectacular sequence, and you have to give props to Tse for his effort, but damn the melodramatic crap in between to all hell. So this is half a great action movie, and half a spine-chillingly horrendous melodrama, and eventually they just cancel each other out to make this a pretty "meh" experience.


Friday, August 24, 2007

The New 旻

Finally, after months of planning and non-action, I had my second tattoo done yesterday. The main reason for it was just so I had something a little more visible than my Ouroboros symbol on my back, so I decided to go for something safe. And hey, what can be safer than my own name, right?

By the way, this was one of the more surreal experiences I'd ever had, as I was getting a tattoo in a tattoo parlor in Chinatown, with graphic illustrations of Japanese demons staring down at me balefully, and with Johnny Cash playing on the CD player in the joint. I will forever associate Sam Hall (with the refrain "Damn your eyes!") and Danny Boy with tattoos.

Thanks to the tattoo artist Colin for completely redesigning the symbol when my original version didn't work well - I was going to use the one on my business card, but it was too skinny and looked odd on my arm.

Tattoo 1.jpg

Tattoo 2.jpg

So there you have it: 旻 (Min).

Tattoo 3.jpg

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Come Home When It Gets Cold

天冷就回來 (If There're Seasons...), which literally means Come Home When It Gets Cold, is a Chinese musical set to the songs of 梁文福 (Liang Wern Fook) and written by acclaimed Hong Kong playwright 杜國威 (Raymond To). If you grew up listening to Chinese music, Liang's name will be a familiar one, seeing as how he was instrumental in the 新謠 (xinyao - local music, for lack of a better descriptive term) wave of the 80s and went on to pen many more hits for popular Chinese music artistes like Kit Chan and Jacky Cheung.

To took Liang's entire catalog of over 200 songs and pored over them, finally making his selection and weaving them into the plot of his play. Granted, the narrative itself is nothing to shout home about, with its overdone themes of lost love, unrequited love, searching for dreams and so on. In fact, sometimes it seemed overly insistent on nationalistic themes - why go abroad to chase your dreams when you can do it at home? - when we all know the reality isn't nearly as simple as that. In fact, I found that viewpoint mildly offensive, even. But the sheer quality of the music and lyrics overcomes all these shortcomings to make for a wonderful experience overall.

Even the hiccups were forgivable. At the matinee show I watched, neither female lead had warmed up their vocals sufficiently and ended up killing their first few numbers. It also didn't help that they were saddled with the more difficult tunes, originally sung by the incomparable Kit Chan, and they were simply not in the same league - 你酷 (You Are So Cool) was noticeably mangled in the constant switching to falsetto, a feat which Kit pulled off seemingly effortlessly. Sebastian Tan had a nice quality to his voice, but it unfortunately gave way while belting out 最後還是會 (In the End), and the poor guy croaked his way through the rest of the song. I had nothing but sympathy for him; I already feel embarrassed when I croak in karaoke - imagine what he must've felt in front of the entire sold-out Drama Centre. Of all the leads, only George Chan managed to escape unscathed from vocal issues, and sounded like the only person who had proper musical training (although Sebastian has also appeared professionally in musicals). But you know what, Liang's tunes helped me through all these.

The nostalgia factor probably helped in this. These were songs I'd grown up with, and even if I wasn't familiar with all the tunes, I'd heard all of them before, all 40 of them. As such, the emotions invoked went beyond the play into personal memories, which went a long way towards increasing my tolerance levels and feelings of goodwill. They were woven into the narrative smoothly and unobtrusively, for the most part, and it was surprising to find that sometimes, in the context of the plot, they even gained another level of meaning and emotional heft (細水長流, or Friends Forever, being a prime example). In fact, even though I was rather annoyed with most of the main characters for being wishy-washy for almost the entire duration of the play, I still teared multiple times. I think credit has to go to Liang and the music arranger Bang Wenfu (who rearranged all the songs wonderfully) for this phenomenon.

One point which I think has to be made is the fact that the songs were written over a period of 20-odd years, and solid crafting and artistry shows. Most musicals tend to have their music and lyrics churned out within a year or so, and as a result there tends to be lots of "filler" songs of inferior quality - I'd be glad if there was one particularly good song in an entire musical. Not so with this one; the quality is consistently high, and Liang's smooth melodies and deceptively simple, multi-layered lyrics have never sounded better, awkward deliveries aside.

So, in a nutshell, I don't much care for the narrative or characters, but it's got awesome music that adds so much to everything. You come out humming your favorite tunes that you loved all those years ago, with a warm fuzzy feeling inside the dark pit you call your soul. That's the main reason I like it so much, and that's also why I'm watching it for the second time next week. You should too.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Robots, Wizards and a Badass Motherfucker

I know it's already August, but permit me to talk about July, because I'm a bad blogger who loves procrastination. More specifically, I'm talking about the blockbuster flicks from July.

1. The transforming sequences are pretty awesome.
2. Shia LeBoeuf is an entertaining guy to watch.
3. Megan Fox is a hot girl to watch.
These are the three things that are good about Transformers. Everything else, Michael Bay has pissed on, like the irredeemable scene in which an Autobot takes a leak on some government flunkies. There are some of the worst lines I've ever heard in a movie, including some really lame plays on "more than meets the eye". There are confusing character designs (as in, every fucking robot looks exactly the same), which, coupled with the Michael Bay style of shooting and editing action, means that you don't know what the fuck is going on and who's fighting who at any given time. There is a confusing climax that doesn't really make any sense. There is just so much wrong with this movie, and I haven't even gone into the fanboy gripes yet (Bumblebee?!). I admit that when I heard the "transforming sound effect" for the first time in a trailer, I gave a whoop and punched the air in joy, which makes the suckiness even harder to bear - not that I was expecting very much from Michael Bay anyway.

Live Free or Die Hard
In comparison to the hunk of junk that was Transformers, Live Free or Die Hard (renamed as Die Hard 4.0 in non-US countries, because, y'know, only Americans can read titles more than three words long) comes off much stronger. A great deal of credit has to go to Bruce Willis, who's such an incredible badass, he's incredibly fun to watch. Justin Long is surprisingly entertaining as the new sidekick, and while many of the action sequences are flat-out unbelievably ludicrous, one has to consider if they are any more ludicrous than, well, transforming robots from outer space. Above all, this is a great popcorn flick, full of 'splosions and loads of fun, and it knows it. Yippee ki yay, motherfucker.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The Harry Potter films are beginning to seem like serialized episodes of a drama series, because they seem to almost demand that you be familiar with the "mythos" of the wizarding universe in order to enjoy them. This is unfortunate, because I'm of the opinion that movies should be able to stand on their own, but perhaps I'm in the minority. Each movie seems to be more or less the same as the rest (I'm not counting the first two, which were absolute rubbish thanks to Chris Columbus), and it seems that they're only distinguishable from each other by their key scenes or characters, such as Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in this one. Not having read the books beyond the halfway point of Book 3, I'm in no position to comment on the adaptation. I will point out though, that Staunton is wonderful in her Pure Evilness, and probably rescues this installment from being just "The 5th One". Still, it's more than competent, and at least it won't make you feel like someone just raped your childhood (*cough*MichaelBay*cough*).


I'm Getting Too Old for This

I swear, the older you get, the more a night out on the town takes out of you. Not in terms of a hangover or anything, but just in terms of sheer exhaustion.

But let it be known that I'm never one to turn down free booze. Even though it didn't actually turn out to be free for me. Whatever. It's complicated.

Dressed Up.jpg
The outfit was planned to revolve around the new hat.

Some people drink shots, some people don't. Those that don't aren't in the picture.

Bye, Leeann!

And in a couple of weeks, it'll be "Bye, Taemi".

We tight. Or something.

ST is the only normal person in this picture.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Whinings of a Serial Procrastinator

Why do I always procrastinate so much and end up killing myself?

I've probably done more writing in the last 24 hours than in the whole of the last two weeks put together. So why didn't I do it earlier, instead of waiting till the day before I go on vacation?

I dunno. I guess I was lazy. I suck. And now it sucks to be me.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mozzie Invasion

I just found out that two of my neighbors in the same row of houses have gotten dengue fever. While they have since then recovered, it's still a scary thought considering that I was almost eaten alive by mosquitoes on Friday.

The typical incubation period for dengue is a week or so, which means that even if I do get it (touch wood), it might not strike till my little Phuket diving escapade is over on Sunday (I leave tomorrow afternoon - yippee). Fingers crossed.

We've been trying ways and means to drive the little fuckers away, including burning incense, using electronic repellents, and the traditional method of smacking them to Kingdom Come. Unfortunately, I have a terrible aim, so I'm not much use in the last department, but nonetheless, numbers seem to have fallen, despite the stupid fucking construction work going on nearby that creates tons of potential breeding sites.

If I do get dengue, I'll be sure to let you know so the sympathy gifts can start pouring in. Cash will be preferred, since I blew my budget doing all that shopping last month.