Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Flippin' February, Robin!

S-l-o-w-l-y making my way through the year; here are my notes on the movies I saw in February.

While the story didn't feel completely original or surprising, the good performances more than make up for it. The Final Twist (more of a twist of a knife in the gut, really) wasn't too surprising, but packed quite a punch emotionally, especially with Vanessa Redgrave's fine, fine performance. It also boasts a great score, especially in the opening scenes, the sound editing of which meshes perfectly with the visuals - rather ostentatious, but it worked well, nonetheless. Finally, there's an astoundingly good performance from the young Saoirse Ronan - she's worth the admission price alone.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
While it serves as a rather entertaining and obnoxious "Fuck You" to the MPAA, it isn't really a good documentary in any sense of the word. Filled with far too much muckraking, it doesn't seem to have much to say beyond "Look at how stupid these MPAA people are". Less of that and more conversations with actual filmmakers might've helped tremendously. Very, very cool posters, though (to avoid accusations of sexism, I'm including both male and female versions).

長江 7 號 (CJ7)
I have to admit, it's amusing in bits (rather small and miserly bits for me), but Stephen Chow's recent penchant for including more and more drama in his comedies just does not work at all for me. This is especially when it tends towards manipulative melodrama and hackneyed plot developments. A filmmaker needs to establish his tone right off the bat, and unfortunately the tone for this was established as cartoony action, which means the melodrama completely fails to engage because one simply cannot believe in it. It ends up being one big, weak and disappointing mess. A tip for Mr. Chow - leave it to Spielberg. He's got much more control of tone than you do.

Away from Her
Probably one of the best films of the year, this film proves you don't need to have huge thundering Serious Themes That Are Vitally Important and huge Hollywood budgets to be a winner. You simply need a small, deeply human story that's well told, and actors who have the ability to touch the audience with deceptively simple portrayals. This is a beautiful film, emotionally rich and resonant, featuring a stunning lead performance by Julie Christie. To appropriate a line from the film: "We should all be so lucky". Indeed.

Gone Baby Gone
Who would've thought it? Ben Affleck as director, and a damn good one at that. This noir twists, and turns, and then twists some more, leading us down several different, diverging paths before finally revealing itself as something completely different from what it appeared to be initially. It takes a lot to surprise me, and I was surprised by this film. It's a refreshing and strong directorial debut with some really great tension and oodles of authenticity. Casey Affleck, while probably a nepotist casting decision, really shines and shows that his amazing turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was no fluke.

The Leap Years
I originally thought this was going to be the worst local movie of the year - until Dance of the Dragon came along and appeared to completely blow this out of the water (in more ways than one). Not having actually seen the latter (it was dropped from cinemas faster than body parts from a leper), I'll have to be content with dissing the former. There are just so many annoying things about this vile movie - the never-quiet score, the ridiculous contrivances, the awful writing, the horrible acting from almost everyone, the complete and utter lack of chemistry between the leads - in a romance, go figure. I could go on and on. Definitely a strong contender for "Worst of the Year", and a real black mark on Joan Chen's career.

No Country for Old Men
Entire books could be filled with the online debates on this film, and I couldn't possibly do it justice in these few lines. Epic in scope, but minutely observed, this is the Coen brothers operating at the top of their game. This is one of the finest filmic adaptations of a novel, both in spirit and in form. It's masterful, brilliant, hypnotizing; full of sadness, futility, ambiguity. In short, it's unmissable.
(Both posters looked so gorgeous, I couldn't decide between them)

The Kite Runner
Not having read the novel, I can't say how this adaptation compares, but as a film, there's precious little to love about it. It's resolutely middlebrow and utterly bland. Sure, Muslim fundamentalists cry foul over it, but religious fundamentalists cry foul over every fucking thing, because they're complete fuckwits. Anyhow, there's nothing remotely controversial over it, because there's nothing much there beyond shamelessly in-your-face emotional manipulation and pretentiousness.

While it has some decent action sequences, the politics of the movie are rather off-putting. They roughly translate to: A bunch of Asians is killing lots of other Asian types. Oh well, that's just too bad, isn't it? They slaughtered entire villages? How naughty. No, wait, now they've kidnapped a small group of Christian missionary types?! How dare they? We'll send in John Rambo to wipe their fuckin' asses off the face of the planet!

P.S. I Love You
An stinking pile of crap designed for the same people who love wishy-washy bullshit romances like The Leap Years (i.e., stupid, stupid females), this movie irritates from the very first scene, which made me want to slap the leads already. This scene also establishes the complete artificiality of Gerard Butler and Hilary Swank's marriage, and it only becomes more and more twee when he dies and becomes this psychotic stalker who seems to insistent on making his words heard from beyond the grave. There are some mildly amusing turns from Swank's friends, but that's about all the movie has going for it.

There Will Be Blood
Wow. The second masterpiece this month comes courtesy of P.T. Anderson, in the form of this utterly captivating film that's epic in its scope and overwhelming in its intensity. In a fierce and strangely charismatic performance, Daniel Day-Lewis sucks you right in for an exhilarating, exhausting journey into the dark depths of humanity and capitalist greed.

To be honest, while I enjoyed Juno and found it very entertaining, I felt it was one of the more overrated ones in the current crop of award-winning films. Certainly the screenplay, which tries too hard to be smartass and cool, doesn't really deserve a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. The entire enterprise rests on the capable shoulders of Ellen Page, who is excellent in the titular role, letting her vulnerability shine through her facade of wisecracks and jibes. Michael Cera, the best comedy actor of his generation, bar none, is also great in his sweet, awkward shyness (which he perfected in Arrested Development). I wish there was more of him, though. He's da bomb.

While the structure is rather episodic, which I'm not usually a fan of, the film itself is still captivating, nonetheless. There are nice touches of black humor and wry observations on living in such an insane environment. The animation style does wonders for the storytelling, making it much more powerful than a regular live-action film possibly could be. However, I kinda expected a little more from it, so I couldn't say I was completely satisfied. I suspect this to be due to inflated expectations from all the hype about it, so it's definitely still well worth your time and money.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me

'Tis better to give than to receive.

Whoever said that has obviously never been on the perpetually-non-receiving end of things.

I'm sick of never getting what I deserve.

From the company.
From my country.
From people.
From life.

It's not my job to make sure you get to keep yours.

I'm super fucking tired.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Jumpin' January, Batman!

January's movies. They're very late. Half a year late, to be precise. Whatever.

While January is typically a filmic drought in the US, it's different here in Singapore, for January saw a bumper crop of film releases that have been eagerly anticipated. We got all the good stuff that the Yankees saw months ago, and we got them all at the same time.

In the Valley of Elah
For most of the film, I was captivated by Tommy Lee Jones' wonderfully subdued performance, his grief and confusion etched in every line of his face. I was also surprised that Paul Haggis finally seemed to have learnt some subtlety, but his ending proved otherwise, for he unzipped his pants, took out his big dripping Theme, thrust it in the audiences' collective face and slapped it around. Apart from that, though, it's good, good stuff.

I Am Legend
The first half of the movie is mesmerizing, especially in its stark desolation and psychological aspects. Yet, at the halfway point, these are completely abandoned, at which point the movie becomes just another action flick. To be honest, the wasted potential bothers me more than anything else in the movie. I can pinpoint the exact scene too - when Will Smith, so rational and logical before, suddenly just decides to fuck all and try to battle it out with the creatures on the pier - a huge What the Fuck moment if there ever was one. And there I was, almost believing Will Smith could've made an intelligent action flick. Maybe next time.

Michael Clayton
This is a wonderfully slick thriller for the literate, which means it's got much more talking than explosions. But hey, is the talking ever gripping and intense, especially the final confrontation between Clooney and Swinton. A great showcase for a stellar cast, this is a thoroughly effective thriller, and keeps the tension high from start to end.

American Gangster
Yeah, it's long, but you don't really feel it, thanks to Ridley Scott's tight pacing and the involving characters. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe deliver topnotch work (it's rare nowadays that I don't find Crowe annoying in a role), and the moment they finally meet each other is one for the record books. A great gangster epic that's thoroughly entertaining too.

ベクシル 2077 日本鎖国 (Vexille)
There are some spectacular action scenes, but when the characters are standing still and, well, talking, you become extremely aware that they're animated and look rather eerie, with lots of unnatural motion (kind of like Beowulf). That could be forgivable, if the plot didn't seem like such a retread of countless other anime and sci-fi stories, and the characters were given more dimension, as opposed to being pulled out of some character stock library.

集結號 (Assembly)
An underwatched war epic from Feng Xiaogang that focuses more on the individual instead of the epic. It's stunning in its gritty action, yet never loses sight of the wrenching humanity at its core. The lead actor is fantastic, as are the fine supporting cast, and Feng's direction is assured and virtually perfect. The only flaw is that it feels slightly propagandistic at times, but that's almost inevitable with Mainland Chinese films.

Eastern Promises
In the hands of a lesser director, this little film would have been a pathetic B-movie with over-the-top acting and zero audience connection, especially with its none-too-original plot. However, in David Cronenberg's assured hands and with Viggo Mortensen's brilliantly intense performance, it rises above the filth to become a minor masterpiece that's almost perfect.

Reservation Road
The actors seem to be giving their all, or maybe they just feel really really hurt all the time. Unfortunately, the setups are just a shade too contrived to be believable, and while it happily doesn't venture too far into melodrama, it's also too by the book to stand out. There's really nothing to recommend about a movie that depresses the hell out of everyone and doesn't even do it at a decent pace.

The Darjeeling Limited
The film is gorgeous to look at, almost a visual poem proclaiming the beauty of India, and it's got all of Wes Anderson's usual stylistic flourishes, but ultimately I wasn't really able to connect with the navel-gazing, privileged characters. Then they come into contact with the "natives", and suddenly, the whole film comes to wonderful life, poignant and even touching. Too bad it took so long to get there.

By the way, Wes Anderson also made a short called Hotel Chevalier that's a direct prequel to The Darjeeling Limited. OK, well, it's not so much of a prequel, but it's a great short and it explains why Natalie Portman shows up in a montage in the movie for all of two seconds. You can see it here.

Dan in Real Life
For once, a big-screen comedy that's not some high-concept bullshit. This one's got believable characters and realistic situations, and so what if it feels like a sitcom sometimes? It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and Juliette Binoche and Steve Carell are so down-to-earth and human that you believe completely in them and are rooting for them every step of the way. Carell, especially, is amazing in his everyman persona that's imploding from self-imposed repression.

野‧良犬 (The Pye-Dog)
A Hong Kong indie (how rare!) that actually is pretty good (even rarer!), this is a mishmash of various genres that would normally seem incongruous next to each other, but somehow it all manages to come together relatively nicely here. Eason Chan gets to show off more range than he's ever had, and proves himself to be a decent actor who's improving with every film, in addition to being one of the greatest Chinese singers alive today (personal bias). Singapore always gets the Mandarin dub instead of the original Cantonese (stupid government policies!) and this one has a bizarre change of song at the climax, from a well-known English one to a strange, never-before-heard Chinese song. The change was glaringly obvious from the subtitles to the lyrics, and so the entire sequence was very odd indeed. It should probably be much better in the original Cantonese.

Have you ever wondered how filmmakers can keep making the same movie over and over again, and instead of improving, it gets a little shittier each time? Well, this is a prime example that treads the well-worn territory of illegal immigrants in the US and how they are abused. Contrivances pile on one on top of another, to the point where suspension of disbelief is simply impossible, and you just sigh and hope that it ends soon. The mostly unknown leads put in commendable performances, but they aren't enough to make you care. Cool poster though.

In a nutshell, The Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. Many moviegoers in Singapore were pissed off at it, mostly due to their general ignorance. "Wah lau! I anyhow get some poly students also can make a movie loh," was a comment that I overheard walking out of the theatre. They just don't get it. This is brilliant entertainment that's raw, immediate and in your face. The CGI was especially amazing, considering everything was handheld and there was no way to do motion tracking. And at the end, there are no answers, shit just happens. Unsatisfying for those who like nice, pat closure, but it's more than enough for me. The only drawback were that sometimes the characters make completely stupid decisions, but hey, people do that in real life all the time too.

Comme Tout le Monde
(Mr. Average)

The premise is interesting enough, and rather original. It had the potential to be a sharp satire on the media and the ubiquity of reality TV, but unfortunately, it's more interested in the romantic comedy angle, and so lacks any real bite. Everything thus becomes, well, average. It's watchable enough, but not more than that.

3:10 to Yuma
I love this movie. There's brutal action, stirring heroism, and above all, deeply human characters and emotion, fueling the adrenaline and tugging the heartstrings. Russell Crowe goes two for two this month with a deeply charismatic portrayal of a badass who finds his humanity, and Christian Bale stands toe to toe with him as a father who has to prove himself. With its themes reminiscent of the best of John Woo, this is a Western updated for today, yet transcending the genre to become a timeless classic. Gorgeous.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
If 3:10 to Yuma was an updated Western, then this is a complete reinvention of the genre. It's an absolutely beautiful film, with perfect, gorgeous cinematography. The portrayals are all deeply sensitive (especially Casey Affleck's career-defining turn), and serve to make this an utterly different filmgoing experience, period. It's a strong film, to be sure, but the narrative and treatment has a distancing effect. I admire this as a work of art, but can't feel a strong emotional connection to it. What a work of art, though.

Stephen King's The Mist
It's a B-movie premise, and as a B-movie, this works relatively well, with some nice buildup of tension. However, the middle segment focusing on the splintering of the survivors could've been handled much better, especially since Marcia Gay Harden's crazed evangelical character seems very one-note (not that she's not good at that note - she's a force of nature). The final ironic scene ends the whole film on a sour note, and while I ordinarily wouldn't complain about ending on a note of despair, this one simply doesn't gel well with what's gone before, making it feel forced instead.

The Savages
With two of my favorite character actors starring, how could this film suck? And true enough, Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver fantastic portrayals of deeply human, deeply flawed individuals taking tentative steps towards reaching out to each other. Realistic developments instead of generic clichés are the order of the day, making this film sadly funny and amusingly sad at the same time. It's a must-watch.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
I've never seen the stage musical (and it's rather unlikely that it'll make its way to Singapore shores anytime soon), and so I can't really compare, and will have to judge the film on its own merits. I'm not terribly taken with the music, but perhaps it's something that grows on you. The visuals though, are another thing altogether - Burton's world is terrifying, yet fascinating and undeniably gorgeous. While Johnny Depp looks great in the titular role, he doesn't really have very much to do, and plays it rather one-note. Carter, on the other hand, is fantastic, elevating her supporting character role to something that pretty much steals every scene she's in.

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon
(The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

You don't watch this film; you experience it - it's a total sensory immersion into the world of the protagonist, confined to his bed, seeing the world through a single eye, communicating only by blinking. It's experimental, yet deeply moving at the same time, with lensing that's adventurous and beautifully flawed. Strong performances abound, and veteran Von Sydow is a standout in his few scenes, particularly in a heartwrenching one where he talks to his stricken son via telephone. All in all, a wonderful filmgoing experience, not to be missed.