Saturday, January 26, 2008

December's Dalliances

Several factors contributed to the fact that I saw only 10 movies in December (the least for any month last year), a far cry from the top record of November, when I saw 21. First, for most of the month I was busy on back-to-back shoots. Second, my Golden Village VIP card expired on 30 Nov, greatly reducing the incentive of watching anything that came along, no matter how awful it appeared to be. And third, there was simply nothing much of note released this month.

(Pictures of the movie posters are still stuck in my old computer and will be uploaded as soon as I mange to extract them)

2 Days in Paris
Freewheeling, talky little film that nonetheless is very entertaining due to the fine cast and clever lines. Still, it pulls no punches when it comes to the fighting, and every last barb is designed for maximum hurt. Funny, yes, but also very, very human, and painfully so. Julie Delpy's parents play her onscreen parents as well, and they're one of the best things about the movie, stealing every scene they're in.

神探 (Mad Detective)
Lau Ching Wan is wonderful as the titular 'mad detective' who has the ability to see the 'inner demons' and the 'real selves' of the people he meets. The great concept is revealed slowly, leading us through some very interesting twists and turns, not all of which make sense, even at the end. It's all entertaining as hell though, courtesy of Johnnie To. Even when he's slumming it a little, his stuff is still better than most, and worth a watch.

It's rather pointless to complain about a documentary being Western-centric when it's made by Caucasians. Not to put down their efforts or anything, but the doc really trumpets their heroism at the expense of the real victims. The interviews with real survivors of the atrocities is the most powerful thing about the film, and one only wishes there'd been more of them. Unfortunately, the impact can be blunted somewhat if you've read about the Rape of Nanking before, which was what happened in my case. Above average, but nothing mind-blowing, for me at least.

The Golden Compass
There's nothing here that stands out as a gem in the fantasy movie genre, although the brutal polar bear battle comes close. Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman are standouts, playing their roles to perfection, especially the former. But otherwise, the movie seems rote, and never really rises above being merely 'competent'.

หมานคร (Citizen Dog)
You can expect something visually spectacular from the director of Tears of the Black Tiger, and this doesn't disappoint in that sense. It's a heady rush of whimsical imagery, loopy humor and pure insanity. Examples include a mountain of plastic bottles, a city full of people singing along to a pop song, passersby all dressed in the same green dress, motorcycle helmets raining from the sky - the list goes on and on. Sometimes though, one gets the feeling it might be too much of a good thing, and whether you like it or hate it really depends on your stomach for such things. Unfortunately, the pacing leaves much to be desired as the director meanders into tangents at his leisure, which makes it ultimately a weaker film than it should be.

投名狀 (The Warlords)
Peter Chan wants very badly for his epic to be a grand tragedy, but he doesn't quite reach his goal. Some powerful moments do hint at its potential for greatness, but ultimately it's let down by its characters who don't feel real enough for a connection to be established. Perhaps in trying to cater to a Mainland Chinese audience (and censors), it lost much of its ability to be biting and downplays the sexual tensions and ambiguity that could have been explored. We all know Jet Li can't act, so his role as a taciturn general who keeps all his cards close to his chest is perhaps his best role ever, and he performs surprisingly well. Takeshi Kaneshiro's role as the naive, idealistic youngest sworn brother is the weakest link as it's annoyingly one note, and sinks into unfortunate (and unforeseen) comedic depths.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
The unholy double-team of Bruckheimer and Cage provide a surprisingly entertaining movie - dumb, inoffensive and fun. Sort of a sillier version of The Da Vinci Code, if you will, and way more enjoyable than that movie, because it has the good sense to not take itself too seriously. It's a little overlong in my opinion, but is still good for a brainless night out. The best bits are the sparring sessions between Helen Mirren and Jon Voight. Anything with Helen Mirren gets a free pass in my book.

My Blueberry Nights
My colleague SMS-ed me while watching the movie, complaining that it was awful and that she wanted to walk out. I told her to stick with it, assuring her that it got better and better. And true enough, she enjoyed herself in the end. The first half hour is hard to sit through, because it feels like it's Wong Kar Wai dumbed down for the multiplex crowd, and all the dialogue, while typical of his films, sounds extremely out of place when delivered in English. However, once Norah Jones leaves on her road trip, the film finds its footing and delivers poignant vignettes on various aspects of love. David Strathairn and Natalie Portman are fantastic, and Rachel Weisz makes a terrific entrance as well as a wonderful monologue in an otherwise mediocre role. It all ends with a slice of blueberry pie, a beautiful kiss, and a sweet aftertaste without being cloying.

Across the Universe
It's a stunning achievement for musicals. For a theatre director, Julie Taymor has an astonishing grasp of the strengths that film has, and she exploits it to the fullest in sequences that are outstanding in their visual richness. The musical numbers are gorgeously done, with breathtaking choreography, editing and often wonderfully surreal imagery. I wasn't that taken by it the first time I saw it, perhaps because it does feel a little overlong, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. The best thing about the film is that it lets you look at the Beatles' familiar music through fresh eyes.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Undeniably, it's fun to watch Cate Blanchett chewing up all the scenery in her vicinity and spitting it out with unabashed vigor. But soon you realize that it's all in the service of a nonsensical plot that's really quite boring and nothing more than stock melodrama. It tries to distract with ridiculously overblown camera angles and movements, and more over-the-top costumes than you can shake a stick at, but all the visual gloss hardly disguises a wafer-thin excuse of a story.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Say It Isn't So

The first SMS I received this morning was from my colleague. With some news that seemed so unbelievable, it felt like a parody or some kind of sick joke.

A quick check online revealed that it was all too true.

From the website:

Heath Ledger dead at 28
Actor found deceased in New York City
by Associated Press

Heath Ledger was found dead Tuesday at a downtown Manhattan residence, and police said drugs may have been a factor. He was 28. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Ledger had an appointment for a massage at the Manhattan apartment believed to be his home. The housekeeper who went to let him know the masseuse had arrived found him dead at 3:26 p.m.

The Australian-born actor was nominated for an Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain," where he met his wife, actress Michelle Williams, in 2005. Ledger and Williams had lived in Brooklyn and had a daughter, Matilda, until they split up last year.

Ledger was to appear as the Joker this year in "The Dark Night," a sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins." He's had starring roles in "A Knight's Tale" and "The Patriot," and played the suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in "Monster's Ball."

Ledger grew up in Perth, and began doing amateur theater at age 10. At 16, he moved to Sydney to pursue an acting career, quickly landing TV movie roles and guest spots on Australian television.

After several independent films and a starring role in the short-lived Fox TV series "Roar," Ledger moved to Los Angeles and costarred in "10 Things I Hate About You," a teen comedy reworking of "The Taming of the Shrew."

Offers for other teen flicks came his way, but Ledger turned them down, preferring to remain idle than sign on for projects he didn't like.

"It wasn't a hard decision for me," Ledger told the Associated Press in 2001. "It was hard for everyone else around me to understand. Agents were like, `You're crazy,' my parents were like, `Come on, you have to eat.'"

His latest role was in "I'm Not There," in which he played one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan — as did Cate Blanchett, whose performance in that film earned an Oscar nomination Tuesday for best supporting actress.

RIP, Heath. The world is a darker place without your talent.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

30 Days of (Mostly) Crap

In the 30 days of November, I saw 21 movies at the theatre. Out of these 21 flicks, I'd only recommend 5, and am ambivalent about 1 or 2 others. Everything else was crap. Such is the bane of the holiday season in Singapore, when every distributor only has dollars on the mind. OK, fine, there were still a bunch of "arthouse" movies, but honestly, they weren't very good at all.

Note: I'm having trouble migrating files to my new computer, so there are no movie posters in this post. I will rectify that as soon as I can.

Honestly, I agree with its political point of view, which makes it all the more disappointing when this movie does not work. Its biggest downfall is that the villains are pure cardboard characters with no shades of gray. There's also a plot twist that seems neat but upon reflection is rather pointless, because it neither serves to further the plot nor adds any other dimension to the events occurring. All in all, a perfect movie for the middlebrow anti-Republican crowd.

It does feel overstuffed with way more characters than seems necessary, and many great actors are wasted in minuscule cameos. However, it still ends up being rather fun and entertaining, despite the complete lack of chemistry between Claire Danes and Charlie Cox. Adaptation-wise, of course it's all over the place, but if I wanted to see a by-the-book adaptation I'd watch the first two awful Chris Columbus-helmed Harry Potters. Pfeiffer and De Niro have a grand ol' time camping it up, and it's worth watching just for their scenes.

快樂工廠 (Pleasure Factory)
The film has a completely ironic title, and in more ways than what the director meant. It's absolutely horrendous, and has the ability to inflict actual pain on the audience. You can literally feel your brain cells dying from the sheer pointlessness, the horrible acting, the awful dialogue and unbelievable situations, the pretentiousness of it all, and the ugly-ass cinematography. Or rather, the complete lack thereof. There is good reason that directors in their right minds do not hire fucking video artists to shoot movies, because all they know is to turn the fucking camera on and point it at shit. Focus? A steady hand? Bah! Who needs them? We're making art, man! This is probably my choice for worst film of the year.

鐵三角 (Triangle)
This has a great, never-before-done premise: Take three top directors, and have them do a semi-'exquisite-corpse' movie, with each one continuing where the previous one left off. Tsui Hark starts everything off, passes the baton on to Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To finishes everything off with a bang (literally). It's basically an excuse for them to have fun, and they each use their individual segments to delve into their own pet topics and filmmaking bag of tricks. You'll enjoy it the most if you're a fan of Hong Kong cinema, for you can really tell just by the style and content where each director leaves off and another picks up the baton. Of course, such an approach also comes with its price - plot and character inconsistencies, plotlines and themes that never get resolved, that sort of thing. But you're really having too much fun to care, especially when To does such a good job wrapping everything up in an inspired sequence full of his trademark black humor.

Lions for Lambs
Fucking hell, two "message movies" in a month? What are the chances of that? This is by far the worst such movie I've seen though, because what Redford does is basically package what is essentially a lecture as a narrative movie. It's full of talking heads and not much else, and this is both completely lazy and utterly unacceptable. Even documentaries full of talking heads get tiresome fast, and this is far worse, especially when they're spouting fucking op-ed pieces for dialogue. There ain't nothing cinematic about this crapfest at all.

December Boys
Another of those completely mediocre coming-of-age tales, aimed squarely at the middlebrow wannabe-arthouse crowd, and it caters unashamedly to their tastes. This means that it's one big snorefest for any discerning filmgoer. The locales are gorgeous, and Radcliffe is decent enough, if a little stiff trying to emote while affecting an Australian accent. But everything is too episodic to connect, and honestly, no one gives a shit.

The 11th Hour
Ah yes, the talking heads strike back, only this time it's in documentary form. And holy shit, there are a lot of them - it's just an endlessly repetitive parade of fucking talking heads, saying a lot of nothing much that's new. I don't care how much I agree with its message; having a message doesn't mean you have a movie.

Lars and the Real Girl
Given the outrageous premise, this could've been an unwatchable movie, with another approach and some wrong choices. But instead, it's made into a surprisingly heartwarming, bizarre little movie that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, by a wonderful ensemble that plays everything straight and touchingly human. Ryan Gosling, in particular, is a standout, for the entire movie rests on his shoulders, and he not only makes us empathize with his essentially inhuman (not inhumane; the guy is just like no other human being on the planet) character, he makes us love him. The biggest surprise is actually that the director made Mr. Woodcock after this movie. Mr. fuckin' Woodcock. Inexplicable.

Masz na imie Justine (Your Name Is Justine)
I know I should be outraged by the atrocities performed against the main character in the film. After all, she's conned from her home country, held against her will, raped repeatedly, forced into prostitution, constantly demeaned, blah blah blah. But you know what, I've seen it all before, and done much better. Here everything just gets repetitive, predictable, and completely, utterly, boring. It's never a good sign when halfway through a movie, you wish the main character would just die just so the movie can end.

Bee Movie
I'm sure this seemed like a no-brainer pitch to greenlight. Jerry Seinfeld! Voicing a bee! Ho, ho, ho, what hilarity! And, get this, he falls in love... with a human being! And... he brings a lawsuit against bee farmers and honey plants, for exploitation of bees! I'm wetting my pants already! Too bad it's an idea that's great for a throwaway scene in Family Guy, but an awfully bizarre and overly weird one for a full-length movie. Nothing about it works, really. Except the trailer. Man, I love that trailer. You know, the one with Seinfeld in a bee suit, and Spielberg just kind of chatting and sipping coffee? Yeah, that one.

戒|色 (Lust, Caution)
It didn't fare as well with Western audiences and critics as Brokeback Mountain, perhaps due to the sheer Chinese-ness of it all. Indeed, you have to be really attuned to all the details and have some basic knowledge of Chinese customs and habits to fully get everything. For example, the mahjong scenes are fantastically choreographed and played, with machinegun dialogue between the ladies that are nothing less than cutting. But if you don't know the game, you're missing a big part of what's going on, especially when Tony Leung plays with them for the first and only time. How he plays already betrays his feelings towards Tang Wei - he intentionally lets her have a tile that she needs, and this leads to her winning the round.

Ang Lee's films have always been full of layered characters and laden dialogue, and this has more than most. Indeed, the mores and historical events of the era dictated that everyone hid their real selves from public view, either by tradition or for survival. But if you pay attention, everything is there, simmering under the surface, only exploding to the fore when our two leads join their bodies in coupling. The incisive character study is totally dependent on Tony Leung and Tang Wei, for without top-notch performances, everything falls apart. As they negotiate their relationship from fucking to lovemaking to something that transcends even that, we too, fall in love along with them.

One final note: I wrote before how Singapore distributors brought in only the cut China version. However, to set the record straight, after a whole lot of brouhaha in the local press, including a scathing letter to the forum by yours truly (not that I'm trying to claim credit or anything), the distributors later decided to release the full uncut version - which proceeded to make even more money than the wider release. My friend has a theory that they planned all this as an evil marketing ploy, but I'd like to think they aren't that smart.

ドラえもん のび太の恐竜 2006 (Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur)
I had a real fondness for the old Doraemon cartoon as a kid. Come on, which child wouldn't want his very own robot cat from the future, with fantastical toys and machines that could do virtually anything - including time traveling? Yes, it was pretty formulaic, but man, the gadgets were fucking cool. So when they released this new movie, I had to go see it.

Too bad I hated it. First, the Mandarin dubbing was horrendous. Even though the original cartoons were also dubbed when they screened here, I don't remember it being so bad. This was just lousy voice actors trying to outdo each other in terms of making their voices as high-pitched and annoying as possible. The plot was nothing to shout home about, especially with a completely unnecessary subplot (that became the main plot) of big game hunters who traveled through time, which seemed to be added only to pad up the running time. Speaking of padding, the whole movie should've been a one-hour special at the most, for over half of it was pointless meandering around at a glacial pace. Thanks for killing my fond memories.

This movie demonstrates how something can suck horribly and yet be rather decent at the same time. There are some genuinely thrilling action sequences, and the adaptation of the script is interestingly done, with some nice additions and modifications that actually add depth to the old tale. However, the dialogue seems to be rather too modern at times, with nod-nod-wink-wink innuendo that doesn't really sit well with everything else that's going on. The worst part though, is the animation, which is just that little bit off. These characters look human, and sound human, but they sure as hell don't look human when they're talking, especially in the dramatic scenes. There's something missing from them, some spark in their eyes, something just not quite right, that make them feel like pod people or replicants or androids, never quite human. It actually distracts an awful lot, and brings everything crashing down like a huge dead dragon.

The Kingdom
The opening titles for this are absolutely brilliant, telling the historical background of the Saudi-US relationship quickly, economically, and with tons of stylistic flair. Right after that, though, the movie quickly devolves into a typical action movie that just happens to be set in the Middle East. I was so bored I fell asleep during an action sequence. Since the writer also wrote Lions for Lambs (shudder), he's obviously obsessed with The War Against Terror, so there's some token political comment and tacked-on message of tolerance. Which comes after shooting every fucking Evil Arab dead, of course. Way to go, USA, rah rah rah. Oh, and I highly doubt that in real life terrorists carry out all their activities and live in one single apartment building, so that their enemies can conveniently locate them and wipe everyone out in one fell swoop. You might as well call it Al-Qaeda Plaza, that's how ridiculous it is.

The Tattooist
A tattoo artist nicks an ancient tattooing tool from a Maori elder, but discovers that whoever he tattoos from then on is killed by a vengeful spirit who literally tattoos them to death. Helluva premise, to be sure, but it's all wasted on a generic angry ghost story that wouldn't be out of place in a shitty J-horror. There are also gaping plotholes and leaps of logic everywhere. Raintree Pictures' money is in it, so the movie opens with pointless scenes set in Singapore for no real reason, and later features Singaporean supporting actors that mostly suck and are jarring as hell. Honestly, if you're going to play an Asian who grew up in New Zealand, learn the fucking accent. It's not that hard, you just have to, oh I dunno, take some lessons? And while you're at it, it wouldn't hurt to take some acting lessons too. That last comment actually applies to most of the cast as well.

A movie that's an extension of a much-loved Japanese TV series about lawyers that don't seem to have much work at all, to the extent that they can investigate cases and fly to Korea to track down a truck. They also spend days poring over photographs taken with the mobile phones of hundreds of witnesses. Yeah, they're committed, but you have to wonder exactly how they're getting paid. There are also tons of in-jokes, references and one-scene character appearances that make sense only to fans of the TV show, of which I have not seen anything of. Thus it all made no sense to me at all. I hate movies like that.

Enchanted is an immensely likable movie, and to dislike it is akin to seeing a sweet adorable puppy that's looking at you with wet, loving eyes - and then kicking it in the face. This is all due to Amy Adams and her glowing lead performance, for without it, the movie is nothing. Her role, while it seems simple, is in fact extremely difficult to pull off, for it requires 100% conviction and sincerity, 100% of the time. There's no way anyone can slum through a role like this without the movie falling apart around them, and Adams rises to the task formidably. She is the sweet center that anchors a well-executed, high-concept flick which could've been incredibly annoying, but is thankfully immensely entertaining, and sweet without being saccharine.

I don't play the game, so I can't expound on how faithful it is to that magnum opus (*snicker*). There's lots of stuff getting blown up, bullets flying, that sort of thing. Oh, and apparently the best assassins are the ones who go around with a bald head and a fucking bar code tattooed into the back of their skull. Awesome disguise, that. Also, a reasonably attractive chick walks around topless quite a lot for no good reason. It's the biggest attraction, methinks, which really says all there needs to be said about the flick.

Fred Claus
The cast is extremely over-qualified for this one, which manages to lift it from completely unwatchable to somewhat bearable, if overflowing with mediocrity. Vince Vaughn tones down his unrated verbal diarrhea to get a PG-13 rating, and as a result, loses much of his sting. I shan't even get started on all the embarrassing things that are asked of Paul Giamatti as Santa. There's one note of real comic hilarity and smarts in the "Siblings Anonymous" meeting scene, but one good scene out of an entire movie, and after squandering any good faith through sheer crassness and yawn-inducing faux-hilarity, is just too little, too late.

30 Days of Night
The original comic book didn't leave much of an impression beyond the fact that the premise is good and very high-concept, it was tight (it's a very thin book) and the stark black and white imagery was rather cool. Here, they get the visuals down right by stripping almost all color out of the scenes. But the premise of the "30 days of night" where vampires feed like it's their first time at an all-you-can-eat buffet is completely wasted on a movie that's content just to have pretty (or actually, gory and disgusting) images and nothing deeper to any of it. Sure, they try to give the characters some backstory and motivations, but it all seems very superficial; you can't do that much to beef up a stock character. Round this off with a loud and overbearing score (which pretty much represents the entire fiasco) and you've got a real stinker.

The Heartbreak Kid
I've come to dislike Ben Stiller quite a bit. From the lovable loser of his There's Something About Mary days, he's gradually evolved over the years into a shrill, angry and above all annoying middle-aged man - and this seems to be the default character he plays in all his movies now. What's worse about this one is that the entire film is painfully unfunny, misogynistic, sloppily-paced, disgusting, and reeks of desperation. The only plus point in there was Michelle Monaghan, who sticks out like a sore thumb in view of the fact that everyone and everything else around her is profoundly unlikable.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Hooray for Singapore

I don't watch a lot of videos online, so I only just came across this short, made by a Singaporean documentary filmmaker whose works have been consistently suppressed by the powers that be.

Here's the link to the original page.

The short pretty much speaks for itself. Yes, the ending is rather pointedly obvious, but it works.

Hooray for Singapore.