Monday, December 31, 2007

Top Ten Nonsense Of 2007


Never ask me to list the best films of the year. I hate ratings and I hate assigning certain values to films according to particular criteria. But it's the year-end, and everyone's busy coming up with lists. Just to mark the end of another year, here's my Top Ten Nonsense of 2007.

10. In the grand spirit of "new wave arty westerns" like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, I'm going to make ponderous, non-action westerns with long-winded titles nobody can remember, starting with Existential Shootout At OK Corral Between Two Cowboys That Never Happened Because They Got Too Busy Pondering On And Getting Into A Discussion About The Meaning Of Life.

9. Everyone's talking about the sauna room fight in Eastern Promises, but if Viggo had a huge junk, it would have been mighty interesting to see him swing it and smash it into some guy's face, bringing about a new history of violence.

8. Nicolas Cage has gone from being interestingly quirky to perfecting that deer-in-headlights look, plus frog-with-constipation as a bonus. Since he's into treasure-hunting these days, I'd love to see him replace Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets.

7. Unlike 5 billion other people on the planet, I thought Ratatouille was mediocre. Pixar should save itself by going all-out adult and making an animated film about automobiles having acrobatic sex in a junkyard, called Rust, Caution.

6. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem, despite a name-change in these parts to Aliens Vs Predator 2, was still a disgrace to the human brain. But I like the idea of pitting two iconic cinematic figures against each other, so next week I will be pitching my script idea for Pontianak Vs Orang Minyak: Requiem.

5. Damn if there isn't a trend now for motor vehicles in action films, like Remp-It and Impak Maksima. I got this crazy idea after seeing how Hollywood crossed geographical boundaries with 2 Fast 2 Furious: Tokyo Drift. So, next week too, I'm going to pitch my new script, 2 Impak 2 Maksima: Orchard Rd Drift, to be set in, yes, Singapore! The MDA and Singapore Film Commission are going to love it!

4. Viral marketing seems to be working well for The Dark Knight. So I propose viral marketing for Cicakman 2. First we announce that his new nemesis will be The Biawak. Then we slowly reveal what The Biawak will look like, with a few decoy character concept drawings that look like Crayon Shinchan in leotards to throw fans off. Then we announce a surprise cameo by a famous superhero and keep them speculating. Closer to the release date, we reveal in a special, exclusive six-minute clip shown before the screening of 2 Impak 2 Maksima (which we'll also post on YouTube and claim that it was "leaked," which will surely cause a frenzy) that the surprise cameo is none other than ... Kluang Man!

3. Since they're making live-action films of classic anime series like Dragonball and Speed Racer, with young, hot Caucasian actors playing the leads, I would really love to see a live-action Hollywood version of Doraemon. It's been around since the 70s, so the time is just ripe. Let's see, we could have Shia LeBouf playing Nobita, with Jessica Alba as Shizuka, Jack Black as Giant, while Doraemon will be a CGI character created with motion-capture technology using the physical performance of Andy Serkis. The film will be directed by action-meister Uwe Boll.

2. Jangan Pandang Belakang made a killing at the box-office. Surely, with such success, there must be a sequel in the works. But logically, they can only make up to five sequels before there can be no more. Why? Well, Jangan Pandang Depan, Jangan Pandang Atas, Jangan Pandang Bawah, Jangan Pandang Kiri, Jangan Pandang Kanan ... see what I mean?

1. Cumi Vs Ciki: Requiem!


HAPPY NEW YEAR!


Master Of The Black Comedy

My acquaintance with Korean director Bong Joon-ho's work recently took a kind of backtracking to his first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite. I'd thought the DVD was out of print, until I discovered it is still available on YesAsia, although it quickly becomes out of stock.

Despite it being his first film, Barking Dogs already bears Bong's signature black-comedy style, and shows him to be a filmmaker who painstakingly thinks out the elements within his films. What I found interesting and consistent about him is that he bookends every film, returning to the point where it all started and visually signifying a change, no matter how subtle, that has been instigated by the events previously unfolded.

The premise of Barking Dogs is simple, but its implications are far from that. It's basically about a down-and-out guy, hen-pecked, and at a dead end career-wise, who discovers a dog in his apartment block, incessantly barking and driving him nuts. He goes to find and kill the dog, an action which sets off a series of events involving a motley bunch of offbeat characters, including a couple of (literally) underground lovers of dog-meat!

Bong's opening shot, or series of shots, is usually already an indication of where he's going to be headed with the story. In this case, the protagonist is seen looking out the window of his apartment at the wooded hills, voicing his intention to go hiking up in the mountains. The feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped begins there and never lets up. People are often crowded together, surrounded by things, crowded out, squeezed together until the only way out is to explode. Here, it's ripe for some commentaries on the perils of modern living, and Bong does it with tongue firmly in cheek. He makes some pointed observations about contemporary Koreans, but they could well apply to any other city in the world. That "outer world" in the mountains, is like the unattainable dream of escape, of freedom, that everyone craves. That opening shot is repeated at the end, but something is different by then.

Here's something I wrote about Memories Of Murder and The Host some time ago.

CUT TO:

If we are to believe Hollywood and subscribe to its mentality, then it always takes muscle and power to overcome obstacles, and most times, muscle and power are all you need. The swaggering male stereotypes that have emerged out of Hollywood have influenced our expectations and the way we perceive the male ego.

South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho subscribes to none of that, and even subverts the idea that the aggressive male is the epitome of problem-solving and the catalyst in the defeat of danger. When Hollywood does subvert its own formula, as in David Fincher's Seven, the male ego still does retain some power even though a lot of the rage is misdirected and at times impotent.

But Bong's
Memories Of Murder, a far superior serial killer film than Fincher's, takes it many steps further and makes that impotency a running theme and almost a running joke as well. Even the sex in the film is impotent, and all the anger and frustration only fuels the aimlessness and hopelessness of the pursuit of an unknown enemy. Its palpable disdain for authority is almost a send-up of the Hollywood cops-and-bad-guys formula, and makes for great black comedy.

The story of three cops (two country bumpkins and one city slicker) trying to capture a mysterious killer in the countryside is encapsulated in a time of martial law and strict curfews, based on true events surrounding South Korea's first serial killer. The three are sent on a wild goose chase, with every clue leading them no closer to, and no further from, the perpetrator. Bong displays highly impressive storytelling skills, using genre staples only as signposts before leading the audience down some paths not taken.

Now comes The Host, Korea's biggest box-office hit to date. Kim Jong-Il was reported to have praised the film for its anti-American sentiments, but in truth, the film takes a whack at both local and foreign authorities.

A mutant tadpole has risen out of the Han river and is on a rampage along its banks. Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) and his family, along with thousands of other Seoul residents, are taken into quarantine. The Americans take over the handling of the crisis, proclaiming that the monster is carrying a deadly virus. But one unforeseen light of hope leads Kang-du and his family on a rescue mission ... that is, if they can escape quarantine first.

The Host is a lot of things at once - an environmental protest, a family drama, a monster movie, a political satire, a science fiction morality tale. Most of all, Bong holds the common man in a very sympathetic view. The man on the street gets steamrolled by both the monster and the authorities who think they know better. In fact, a lot of the time, everybody hears but never listens, and one such moment in the film, involving a cock-eyed American scientist,is a hilarious surprise.

As in Memories Of Murder, there is again the impotency of male bravado in the face of unknown danger. Power is not with the macho hero (see what happens to the big American military guy, the staple of many a Hollywood monster movie and action flick). At the film's conclusion is a surprise, a sarcastic and almost twisted destruction of the Hollywood archetype , so much so that "monster movie" becomes a terrible misnomer.

And like in Memories Of Murder, Bong once again disallows the genre trappings from overtaking his own sensibilities. Because of this, The Host is full of surprises, apart from Bong's incisive wit and very black humour, and from the get-go, the film takes off running, making you do a double-take on everything you think you've already seen or known.


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Remake Watch: Dune


You've probably heard it already. There's going to be a new film version of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel. But we're not quite sure whether it's going to be a remake of David Lynch's cult favourite 1984 version, or the 2000 TV series (which was incredibly boring), or a whole new film based on the book. As if there's a difference.

I was a huge fan of Lynch's film, despite all its shortcomings. I was also rather obsessed with the book series at one time. Lynch's version was visually imaginative, but it's been an extremely long time since I've seen it, so I don't know if my opinion would change now.

When I first heard that Peter Berg would direct the new film, the first thing that came to my mind was "Who the heck is that?!"

Berg, as it turns out, was the guy who directed The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights and The Rundown. Some people have called him "the new Michael Bay."

Whatever it is, Berg has got to top the casting of Sting as the menacing nephew of Baron Harkonnen. You can't possibly get any more cyberpunk than Sting in black leather.

And then, there's the problem of who rules the future universe. Could there be a name change in the pipeline? Because the year in Dune is 10191, and the known universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.


How To Make Jangan Pandang Belakang A Little More Bearable

KA-CHING! That's the sound the ghost in Jangan Pandang Belakang should be making. It smashed local box-office records to the cool tune of RM6 million plus. It made a lot of money in Singapore too. But is it any good? I missed it at the cinemas, but when I watched the DVD today, I couldn't help sniggering throughout. Even with that much hilarity, it couldn't beat the pure entertainment of the unintentionally funny Possessed. JPB just gets boring towards the end. Its borrowing of Ringu's template, however, is so not funny. It dupes you into believing everything's been solved. Then out comes the crawling ghost. Groan.

Here's a guide to making JPB just a tad more bearable:

1. When your fiancee seemingly commits suicide, but you and her sister discover a voicemail with her screaming in terror that something's after her, shouldn't you go to the police with the evidence, instead of trying to "get to the bottom of it" by yourself?

2. When you're suppose to be alone at home in the middle of the night, and you hear a voice say "Hey! It's me!", won't you get the hell out or grab a baseball bat, instead of asking "Who's that?" and proceeding towards the voice?

3. Pierre Andre's character comes from a traditional, old-fashioned family that lives in the village but he has a cool name like Darma?

4. Darma seems like a man of few words, but when his fiancee's sister asks "Did something happen between you and my sister?" he immediately launches into a tirade at superspeed, suddenly sounding like Speedy Gonzales on crack.

5. What does that ghostly family of three that enters the lift after Darma exits have to do with anything?

6. Are all office security guards so helpful like those public service Berhati-hati Di Jalanraya ads, even telling you "Drive carefully, and look to your left and right" before you leave?

7. Long-haired ghosts are so passe. What's worse is a ghost that does nothing but claw at the air whenever it appears. What's even worse is a ghost that claws at the air and even splits its hair with its hands (when it's not clawing) to reveal its "scary face".

8. The fiancee's sister is surprised to see the bottle with the yellow cloth tied around it when Darma shows it to her, even when she's actually seen the bottle before when her sister found it on the beach.

9. What's the point of trapping a ghost in a bottle when the ghost appears at the window IMMEDIATELY after it's bottled? And what's the point when it can still haunt people and even kill them when the cork hasn't been removed?

10. Why didn't the exorcist use the cob of corn trick in the first place and save everyone all the trouble? Darma could have been one happy guy instead of moping around unshaven, looking scarier than the ghost.



The JPB DVD has burnt-in English subtitles and poor transfer quality. Otherwise it has fairly clear audio despite some poor synchronisation in the dubbed dialogues.


Burden Of Guilt

Just as it is a story about how things aren't always what they seem to be, Atonement is also a film that isn't always what it seems to be. This frantic unpredictability is its most winning element and offers surprising and unpredictable turns. And because of its unpredictability, it's also best to know as little about the film as possible before stepping into the cinema.

I must admit, I approached the film with some degree of trepidation, and in its initial minutes, thought it was going to be yet another stilted drama about the English upper class. I haven't read the Ian McEwan novel from which the film is adapted. Indeed the initial pace and acting do seem to point in that direction, complete with lots of soft focus shots. Then something happens. Gone is the soft focus as the visuals become darker and harsher. Things take on an almost surreal tone at times, like the one long, single take at the seaside in the evening, a beautiful, stunning scene that's made solely for the big screen. And then, just as you think you know where it's all going, the ending packs such an emotional wallop that it'll literally leave you reeling. The were quite a few left sobbing in the cinema where I saw the film.

I never saw, and never bothered to see, Pride And Prejudice, director Joe Wright's previous film. You see, I'd decided never to see another period drama adapted from a Jane Austen novel after I'd seen Ang Lee's brilliant take on Sense And Sensibility. But the casting here in Atonement is note-perfect. With this, it could easily have turned into a character study of the lead character. Indeed, McEwan's story explores just how far guilt can carry through in one's lifetime, how deep the ramifications of one's actions or mistakes. The lead character, 13-year-old Briony Talllis, does something that forever wrecks the lives of others, especially that of her sister Cecilia and Robbie, a young man from the family that works for the Tallis household.

But far from just a character study, the film explores not just the consequences, but also the possibilities and the could-have-beens. The film flits between what is merely beheld by the eyes and what really transpired, the different perspectives of the truth, coloured by one's own personal feelings. It does so with such frequency and immediacy, jumping back and forth in the timelines, jumbling up truths and half-truths, the real and the surreal, fact and fiction, with or without embellishments; that in the end, when the real truth comes along, it wrenches the heart in its vise-like grip and wrings every emotion out of it. Powerful.

Definitely one of the best and most beautiful films this year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Three Extreme


If you don't already know, three people very important to the film and entertainment industry have retired. Firstly, and very sadly, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of my favourite film writers, will be quitting the Chicago Reader. I guess then, that his last big bang was his review of No Country For Old Men that negated all the rave reviews the film's been getting. But good news, though; he will be having his own website after this. And I hope too, that he will have more time now to write more books.

Next, Borat and Ali G have also announced their retirement, through their spokesperson Sacha Baron Cohen. Thankfully, this also means no more male nude wrestling.


Dreadlocks vs Drool


This is one of those things for which I simply have no explanation. Alien vs Predator was, hands down, one of the worst movies ever made. I'd sworn off the sequel even before it was made. Yet today, I took hard-earned money out of my pocket and bought a ticket to Aliens vs Predator 2.

First off, they must think those of us here on the other side of the world must be really, really dumb not to be able to gauge that Aliens vs Predator: Requiem is the sequel to the first film, thus arose in their kindest of hearts the need for the alternate title, Aliens vs Predator 2, to save our little skulls from caving in while trying to figure it all out.

Thank you.

Secondly, it took me just 10 minutes into the film to realise what a stupid mistake I'd made thinking that this sequel could be better, or at least more entertaining, just because it had a redband trailer.

Aliens vs Predator: Requiem is a film that tries to rely completely on its two iconic scifi superstars, not on plot. It attempts to float the entire film on pure action and little else. Unfortunately, people getting face-hugged, having their chests burst, skulls punched through by alien tongues, shot to bits by cosmic hunter's weapons, over and over and over, doesn't quite make for an entertaining action flick. The characters are walking cliches, uninteresting and annoying, and completely defeat their own purpose of being in the film when you just can't wait for them to be killed by the outer-space nasties.

The film is full of scenes that are obvious fillers in between the action, because the dialogue is some of the most banal ever written for a Hollywood movie, and most of the scenes serve totally no purpose whatsoever ... other than as fillers, of course. Meanwhile, the action scenes are badly shot, confusing, and a strain on the eyes when you try to follow what's going on, whose head's being smashed to bits, whose stomach is being impaled, or even who or what is versus who or what.

Probably the only thing that got the loudest laugh in the cinema was a line that I'm really not sure was intended to be funny or otherwise, not at that point in a film in which you don't know whether to laugh or cry at most things.

In the pouring rain and darkness, in utter panic and distress, when told of a horrible truth that shocks her, a character exclaims: "The government doesn't lie to us!"

I almost fell off my chair. A potshot at Bush this late in the game? And in a boring, mindless action film? Wow, talk about trying to be relevant.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Day I Turned Into A Softie


When I read that Hollywood had remade the popular Korean romantic comedy, My Sassy Girl, I wasn't the least bit surprised. Practically everyone around me had, for ages, told me how wonderful My Sassy Girl is. Unfortunately, I was in the phase before I discovered Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and was very much in the opinion that Korean films are long-winded and don't know how to end. That still holds true for many Korean films now, but those two aforementioned directors had fuelled new respect in me and more curiosity about Korean films than I had bothered with after seeing the terrible Shiri and before discovering Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Memories Of Murder.

So, one day I decided to do the unexpected - I slipped the My Sassy Girl DVD into the player.

I couldn't get past the first 20 minutes. It was trying too hard to be funny, the jokes were horribly lame, the characters were too stupid to be likeable, and the acting was just forced and theatrical. Then, I can't remember the reason anymore, but I decided to give it a second chance. This time, I endured the painful sequences with a few grimaces. Then I reached the halfway point, and something happened.

It was the moment from the restaurant leading up to the train station sequence, when Ji-hyun finally realises how much Kyun-woo truly loves her. With the emotive theme song kicking in, I admit my hard outer shell completely caved in. It was a very effective scene, well written and conveyed in an unusual manner, with very minimal sentimentality. I was impressed. From that halfway point on, I was hooked. At that point too, unpredictability kicked in, and you weren't too sure how the whole story would be resolved, while it's obvious something was inevitably going to happen to drive the two lovebirds apart. I just had to get to the end.

Then it happened, the new conflict. And then, came the ending with the big bang. From a resolute dissenting voice against the film, I was reduced to a teary-eyed sentimental fool. Totally unbelievable!

My Sassy Girl turned out to be one of those films that first annoys you to hell, then rewards you greatly if you're willing to put up with all its crap. In short, it's as if the film tests your worthiness.

But then again, you do have to be a sentimental fool to begin with, because I've had friends who still pooh-poohed the film even after getting to the end.


Village People Zombie Show


Zombi Kg Pisang was released at a time when Pakistan was creating quite a buzz with its own zombie (and first ever horror) film, Zibahkhana (Hell's Ground). From what I've read, and from the trailer I've seen, the Pakistani film is pretty serious stuff. But Mamat Khalid's film is a whole different universe. Zombi Kg Pisang, with all its B-grade horror conventions, is played solely for laughs.

I saw Man Laksa on a flight once, and couldn't get past one-third of the film without nodding off. But I'd wanted to catch Zombi when it was in the cinemas, and it came at one of the busiest periods of the year for me. I caught up with it on DVD last week and was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it is. Sure, it's uneven in some parts, but Mamat Khalid's comedy sense is in full swing here. This is helped greatly by leading man Awie's surprisingly good comedic turn. I'd seen him in Afdlin Shauki's Baik Punya Cilok, but in Zombi, there's a whole new side to his comedy acting, especially when he's playing the role of a school dropout who harbours dreams of becoming a rock star.

Zombi is really a tale of the microcosm, or how a closed environment reacts when it is invaded by outer elements. This is standard textbook stuff - a small group of people trapped within their own turf, the stuff so favoured by horror maestros. But Mamat goes the extra edge, imbuing political and social satire every chance he gets. The only figure of authority in the group of villagers trapped in the small building, a Rela volunteer, is also the first to get infected and turn into a brain-eating zombie. At one point, Awie's character likens the zombies to fanatics influenced by deviant religious teachings.

The zombies themselves are not the conventional, dumb flesh-eaters, but intelligent creatures that are capable of speech and even rempit activities. Their "group meeting" in the village centre is like a political ceramah gone wrong. Their make-up is deliberately silly too.

While some of the jokes may not pass muster, like Loloq and his rock band who happen to be passing through the village and who occasionally vogue into magazine cover poses, much of the humour too, is very localised and would be lost on foreign sensibilities not familiar with local culture, mannerisms or slang. But Zombi is still easily one of the most entertaining local films of this year.

There's a bit of trivia here: At one point in the movie, someone very audibly utters the title of Mamat's next film, Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang. Judging from the trailer alone, it looks like that one's going to be a blast too, a horror-comedy-noir thriller shot in black-and-white!


Zombi Kg Pisang is yet another in a long line of local DVDs that are not English-friendly. The main menu, too, looks awful. But the transfer is OK though not great.


Monday, December 24, 2007

The Real Pontianak


This had seemed to be the year where I missed practically every local movie released in the cinemas. I'm finally doing some catching up now, gathering whatever DVDs I can find. I'd heard good things about Osman Ali's Puaka Tebing Biru, and had been eager to see it. Unfortunately, it's only available on VCD, so I had to make do with a little lack of picture resolution.

Puaka is surprisingly a fine effort for a local horror film, although it's so bizarre that I wonder if it could technically be called a horror film. Unfortunately, it kicks off in a rather rushed manner, hurrying us through scene after scene of shock and jolt, at times resorting to well-worn methods and cliches. I say "unfortunately" because as the film progresses, it starts getting better and better, especially when it slows down for some establishing backstory. By then, we're taken deep into Ratna (Nasha Aziz)'s troubled mind, and Osman cleverly alternates between reality and what could be Ratna's hallucinations, bringing things to a fever-dream pitch, deliberately disorienting the audience and aligning us with Ratna's state of mind. Allowing the audience to experience directly what the protagonist experiences is, in a way, trapping the audience in her mind. We can't help but feel for her. And I believe I've never seen a better performance from Nasha.

Broken down to its bare essentials, and discarding its more bizarre aspects, Puaka is a story about morgue worker Ratna who is troubled by apparitions of a woman and her child. It becomes even more confusing for her when the woman appears to be someone close to her.

Things start to get really creepy when Ratna and her sister decide to spend a few nights in their old house by the sea. By then, we're so captured by the mood of things that we won't really mind the conventional long-haired apparition. But Osman never really lets us in on whether it's all real or a figment of Ratna's imagination. The pontianak seems to be a manifestation of Ratna's guilt and shame. Certainly these are two prominent elements in the film, and one of the characters expressly blames all their troubles on the feeling of "malu." And the shame largely comes from cultural fears and anxieties, which are deeply entrenched in this film and serve as the backbone of the story. Ratna is the central figure who tries to break from tradition, belief and conventions. Her friendship with a female companion suggests something much more intimate, usually a taboo in these parts.

But it's because of this complexity in the storytelling that Puaka becomes slightly messy, by trying to say too many things at the same time. Apart from its wariness of cultural rules and beliefs, it's also a story of women left alone to fend for themselves, among other things. Here, a touch of the melancholy, teetering on melodrama drives the story along, adding to the mood of the unreal, the hyper-reality that Ratna doesn't seem to be able to escape. But when we're led to identify with the central character so well, the numerous branches of the backstory, complete with intertitles announcing each "chapter," is a little jarring. It's like a whole sudden change in tactic. That's why I find the film a little bizarre, but in an interesting way.

In fact, the film is never boring for one minute. It's not every day that we get such an intriguing and complex horror movie locally.

The VCD picture quality is a little too dark in some parts, but watchable overall. And of course, don't expect any subtitles.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

What Do You Think You're Doing With Those Malaysian Movies?


I went to the stores today to get some DVDs of local movies. And I had the strangest of experiences.

First off, it's a fact that our DVD stores have more Bollywood and Korean films than local ones. And you'll find mostly Saiful Apek's face staring back at you from the local DVD shelf. Right now, the shelves are mostly filled with the very colourful (and shiny-shiny) DVDs of Otai.

Secondly, you'd be hard-pressed to find most local titles that had been released in the cinemas. Thankfully, Yasmin Ahmad's films are still widely available (but don't hope for a Rabun DVD though). I was looking particularly for Osman Ali's Puaka Tebing Biru, but had to settle for only the VCD, and the title is carried only in a couple places in town. Thankfully, Zombi Kg Pisang was easy to find, and on DVD too.

But all the while, when I was browsing in this one particular store in a major mall, one of the store minders stood right next to me ... and just stared. I swear, he did, and he had this look on his face, of disbelief, like he was saying: "Hey man, why the heck are you buying local titles? Do you have nothing better to do?"

That was a little disconcerting, and I guess, it shows that there's still a stigma attached to local movies. Most would regard that, yes, it's fine to pay RM10 to see a local film in the cinemas, but to fork out RM20 for a DVD is insane in their eyes. But hey, RM20 for a DVD is dirt cheap, and I've bought Thai DVDs in Bangkok for that price, albeit their transfers are much better than ours.

And when I went to the counter to pay for the three local DVDs I'd picked, I got more stares of disbelief from the cashier. It was infuriating, to say the least. I wonder if they throw the same kind of stares at people who buy Kitaro In Concert or Kenny G Live.

Anyway, expect to see some reviews here in the coming days.


Friday, December 21, 2007

How To Identify A Fanboy

Last year, I wrote a scathing criticism of Transformers. The review, published on an international website, drew hundreds of responses, a majority from extremely angry fanboys. I was called everything from "stupid" and "retard," to even "terrorist" (?!). Most assumed that I do not like the Transformers cartoon series anyway (wrong, I, like any 80s kid, grew up with the series and the animated movies), that I hate any and every Michael Bay movie (true, but I did find Con Air and the first Bad Boys to be stupidly entertaining), and that I already had preconceptions about the movie before I stepped into the cinema.

About that last point, I booked tickets early before the movie's release, and I booked them at the IMAX cinema in Berjaya Times Square, because I had hoped to, at the very least, enjoy a stupidly entertaining movie on a huge screen with a great sound system. Yes, the only preconception I had about the movie was that it would be "stupidly entertaining." But what I got was endless yakking by the characters, annoying and juvenile humour, and no action in the first half. When the action did come, it was a complete mess.

Weeks after my review was published, there still seemed no end to the vehemence directed at me. So I wrote to a friend, telling him how amazing the response has been. He wrote back: "Beware the wrath of the 14-year-old!"

I say, how true!

So, here's a simple guide to identifying a fanboy:

1. They get so infuriated by a negative review of their favourite movie, they get personal and spend precious time writing in to the reviewer, not to dispute the points made, but to call her/him a "fucking retard," and use "Your review sucks!" as their main point for an intellectually engaging discussion about a movie that "rawks."

2. They are walking encyclopedias of quotable quotes from "kewl" movies that could rival IMDB:
"What? The boss refuses to approve my leave? THIS ... IS ... SPARTA!!!"
"You've been promoted? Congratulations, and remember, with great power comes great responsibility!"
"They're building a new outer ring road? Yeah, one ring to rule them all!"

3. They dress up as their favourite characters when going for the movie, no matter that they're too short to be Darth Vader, look ridiculous as half-man, half-robot with an Optimus Prime head and a human body, or seem more like a children's party clown than a wizard from Hogswart.

4. They use (often misspelled) words like "kewl," rawks," and "awesome" to describe a movie. Or even a combination like "awesomely kewl," "kewlly rawks" or "rawksly awesome."

5. They wear the t-shirt of a movie months before it's even released. (Yooohoo, Mr Nutshell!)

6. They'll buy into any sort of viral marketing and blog endlessly about every little update. Give them a teaser trailer consisting of nothing but a logo and a voice-over, and watch them spray their pants. "Man, that's a kewl ... er, logo! Awesomely rawks!"

7. They will show the same vehemence to a movie and its director, as they do to a reviewer who trashes their awesome movie, if said movie deviates from the ending of the book from which it was adapted. Or, in J.K. Rowling's case: "Dumbledore is NOT gay, dammit!"

8. They have a fixation on beautiful women in a movie and call them "super hotties," and lament that the world could have been a happier place if only "she had shown more cleavage."

9. They watch their favourite movie at least 30 times in the cinema, just so they could do No. 2.

10. They'll pre-order the "Special Edition, Limited, Individually numbered, Ultimate Director's Cut Boxed Set with Alternate Ending and Deleted Scenes" of their favourite movie.

11. MERCHANDISE!!! No matter that they don't really need that RM2,000 LOTR sword for protection as no orcs are going to be storming their houses anytime soon, or that it would break apart if they really do knock an orc over the head with it.

12. They regard anyone who thinks movies should be more than mere entertainment as just an old pretentious fart like Guo Shao-hua.


You know, right, that I'm just kidding you with this article? Because sometimes, I can be quite a fanboy myself. Just not in the extreme sense!

My Berlinale Experience

The Berlinale is starting to gain momentum again. All the line-up announcements for next year are coming along in a steady stream. The big news for us is of course, Liew Seng Tat's Flower In The Pocket competing in the Generations category. That category was where Yasmin Ahmad's Mukhsin won this year. Here, there are a few funny coincidences. Yasmin's mother is in Flower. The young actress Amira Nasuha who was in Mukhsin also has a role in Flower. Amira plays a tomboy in Flower, and in Mukhsin, Orked played by Sharifah Aryana was a tomboy.

Last year, the Berlinale featured two Malaysian films - Mukhsin and Amir Muhammad's Village People Radio Show. I was there for both films, and I had a really exciting time. Really, it was very exciting! And here's why:

CUT TO:

Mukhsin was screening in the afternoon at the Zoo Palast and I had to find my own way from Friedriechstrasse to the Zoological Gardens by train. Except for missing the red carpet and photo-op, I made it on time for the screening. The Zoo Palast used to be the main venue of the festival in the past, until they decided to move it to the Berlinale Palast in the centre of the city. So the Zoo Palast is some ways from the main venue, and my hotel was even farther. After the screening, the Malaysian contingent headed over to a cafe, after which Amir, composer Hardesh Singh and I took a bus back to the main venue.



About a day later, I had to make my way to the Zoo Palast again for an afternoon of short films, and my Kenyan friend and I got on the wrong train that somehow headed in the right direction. But when I tried to make my way back, the train station platform looked somewhat different. I asked around for the right direction to Friedriechstrasse, but all the people there said the same thing: "I'm not from Berlin. I don't know."

OK, alarm bells went off in my head; I seemed to have teleported myself to another part of Germany where the people are not Berliners. Was there some dimensional gateway I had unwittingly stepped through?

I went downstairs once more to get my bearings, and finally realised there are FOUR platforms, two in each"building". I had gone up to the platforms that were servicing out-of-town trains! My sci-fi fantasy shattered, I headed back to the hotel.

CUT TO:

It was the night of Amir's screening. I headed to the Cinemaxx in the evening, and got myself to the cinema hall 15 minutes before showtime. To my surprise, the hall was huge, and rather packed. I took my seat, surveyed the hall, and was duly impressed with Amir for being able to draw such attention, when a South American friend and his companion sat themselves next to me. We got to talking.

"So, you're familiar with this director's work?" I asked.

"Not really," my friend replied.

"Well, this is the sequel to his previous film," I said proudly. "Have you seen his documentaries?"

My friend looked confused. "This is a documentary?!"

Alarm bells again. "Erm, am I in the right hall?" I asked aloud.

"Yes, this is the film by the Hungarian director,"he replied.

Without anything more than a quick apology, I jumped out of my seat and headed for the Sony Centre, which was across the road. I had about 5 minutes left.

I made it in time, of course, but boy, did I feel stupid!


CUT TO:

That was part of my exciting adventures at the Berlinale, apart from getting my finger slammed in the heavy door of a cafe, and fighting fever and a bout of bronchitis. The first couple of days were spent learning the ropes, getting familiarised with How You Do Things At A Major Festival. For my very first screening, Park Chan-wook's I'm A Cyborg But That's OK, I was seated a row from the screen. Then, I couldn't get into the packed conference hall, and had to aim my tape recorder at the big screen TV outside, where the Park interview was broadcast live. Of course, I got smarter after that. And despite having Rain and Park standing right behind me in the Cinemaxx one night, and then repeatedly bumping into Park on the streets, I was too awestruck and tongue-tied to say anything to the guy!

But the one thing you just have to experience for once in your life, is to go for a really bad film, and then jeer at the end of it. We collectively booed at Zack Snyder's awful and racist 300, in the five jeering minutes of which we became an organic, hating beast spitting murderous venom at the screen. Now, that was great!


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ten Questions People Should Be Asking About The Dark Knight


1. Why such an extreme viral marketing strategy? Why is it pissing me off?

2. Why have the trailer screened exclusively in cinemas, when you're going to release it online later anyway? Isn't it just a publicity stunt?

3. Why hold a screening of the first 6 minutes of the film for a chosen few when you know it's going to be bootlegged anyway? Didn't they learn from Iron Man?

4. Wait a minute, could it be that the bootlegging was done by the film company itself, because a bootlegged trailer on YouTube will excite fans more?

5. What's the big deal about The Joker anyway? Isn't Heath's just a carbon copy of Jack Nicholson's seminal performance?

6. Doesn't the way The Joker stand in the middle of the street aiming a gun at Bats on wheels remind you of Tim Burton's version where The Joker stands in the middle of the street aiming a gun at Bats on wings?

7. Doesn't Heath's "maniacal laugh" sound exactly the same as Nicholson's?

8. Could they ever top Danny Elfman's wonderful score?

9. Instead of viral marketing, what, I wonder, would happen if Warner's didn't release or announce anything at all, until the day before the film is released, and pounces a surprise on us, like "Hey, guess what? The Dark Knight opens tomorrow!"? Wouldn't that be even more exciting?

10. So now, doesn't all this viral marketing seem stupid?


Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson Should Stick To Small Budgets


Sam Raimi, we adored your early work, its rawness, ingenuity and reckless fun. While many have loved the Spider-Man films, I was bored to bits by them, especially the first two. The third seem more interesting, slightly displays the camp of Raimi's early films, and is deliciously darker.

Which is why I think it's a good idea that Raimi's going back to basics with Drag Me To Hell, his next film. The film will be "a 'spook-a-blast,' a wild ride with all the chills and spills that Evil Dead delivered, without relying on the excessive violence of that film."

Raimi's Ghost House partner, Rob Tapert, says in Variety:

"The appeal to Sam on Drag Me to Hell was returning to what he had once done and loved doing, which was entertaining a very specific group of fans and providing a roller coaster ride for them. He doesn't have the enormous pressure here that goes with handling a hundreds of millions of dollars franchise."

It's funny, but at this point, something struck me, because Raimi is said to be directing The Hobbit after this. Why do directors like Peter Jackson and Raimi lose that interesting edge they had as small-budget directors, when they take on huge projects? Personally, I found the Lord Of The Rings films to be one giant bore. Even though they've been a huge success with Tolkien fans and other folk, there's no denying the extra-special appeal of Jackson's early works like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Just like how Spider-Man lacks the gung-ho appeal of the Evil Dead films.

The recklessness just isn't there anymore, because, like Tapert says, they're handling multi-million dollars with enormous pressure.

Funnily enough, these directors are even better when they embark on non-genre dramas like Heavenly Creatures and A Simple Plan. Raimi, especially, has the ability to tap effortlessly into the darker side of the human psyche. That's why Spider-Man 3 is, to me, the best of the three.

Please, Mr Raimi and Mr Jackson, stick to the small stuff!


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I Don't Want To Sleep Alone


I'm thinking. it must be wretched hell to have your novel, regarded as a masterwork of science fiction, fantasy and horror, turned into a film that completely misses the point you were making with your book. I'm also thinking, if I were in that situation, what would I do? Would I kick up a fuss, or let it pass, hoping more people would be turned onto my books?

Few writers in the world have ever made public their frustrations with film adaptations of their work. Anne Rice did, but after she saw Interview With The Vampire, she retracted her criticisms. Hey, after all, it's Neil Jordan. How far wrong could you go with him? Then, there's Alan Moore, who keeps dissociating himself from the films of his books, but never stopped selling the rights to his works. Which I think is the smartest thing to do. Shut up, take the money, and laugh all the way to the bank as they make a fool of themselves.

The thing that filmmakers and screenwriters don't seem to realise is that once you adapt a great work, no matter if you decide to deviate from the point of the book, if you don't make as strong a point, you're going to look extremely silly. And shouldn't filmmakers want to adapt a book because they like what the book is saying, and not just the premise?

With I Am Legend, it's completely the other way around. It seems they read the story (or maybe watched The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man) and decided, hey this is a great idea, have a last human being on earth battling a world full of vampiric monsters. Why else would they have turned the talking, intelligent vampires of Richard Matheson's novel into primal, roaring creatures?

But I Am Legend is very watchable, entertaining in most parts, and, very surprisingly for a Hollywood blockbuster, has some atmospheric moments of quiet tension. It's smart too, how the director chose to film the desolate surroundings and how they affect Robert Neville's mind. Most of the psychological effects are nicely rendered with moody moments. The creepiness is straight out of Matheson's novel, such as when Neville and dog companion lock themselves up for the night and hear the spine-tingling sounds on the streets. Will Smith does well, although he doesn't completely shed his "Look, I'm Will Smith and I'm cool to watch" camera consciousness. Granted there's more earnestness in his performance this time (although they still can't resist having him show off his physique to female audiences). His character is nicely realised and conveys the human need for contact, and the desperation that comes with its lack-of.

But the film starts to fall apart in the second half. Firstly, despite a nicely filmed sequence in a dark, dilapidated building, the second half is full of the usual guns-a-blazing action sequences and the film loses whatever slow build-up it had in the beginning. It becomes just another action film.

And the ending gives way too much credit to the human race. The nihilism of the novel is not acted upon, but discarded completely for a tone that's not quite out of place with America's need for hope and a clean resolution to all the mess it created in the first place, which is how the virus in I Am Legend spread, created by human beings as a cure for cancer but later wrought havoc on the genes. There is, however, one moment when Neville's lab, where he experiments with some of the creatures he had captured, adopts the disturbing elements of a torture or concentration camp. But that isn't followed through.

In the end, I Am Legend is just an entertaining film that squanders all the story's opportunities to make a powerful and lasting point. It's not a bad film, just forgettable.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Is That A Flower In Your Pocket ... Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?


I remember watching my first ever Liew Seng Tat short film, Breadskin And Strawberry Jam at Kelab Seni Filem's Malaysian Shorts showcase (nah, the showcase had nothing to do with pants). I almost fell off my chair laughing. Even back then, he already showed a knack for working with children. Then I saw Not Cool, which was equally hilarious. Here, I thought, was our very own comedy expert.

Then I saw the much talked about Flower, a whimsical short film about growing old. I wasn't laughing as much, and I wasn't as impressed. I thought some scenes were done purely for laughs and weren't entirely necessary for the story. But it was clear there was a sense of a style in his films.

Then came Flower In The Pocket, his debut feature. And, yes, Liew made me laugh all over again. The film won the top prize in Pusan this year, including an Audience Award. It's going to be competing in Rotterdam next year. God knows where else it will end up, as it's easily the most entertaining film from the Malaysian independent scene. Liew was one of the participants at the Berlinale Talent Campus this year, and when I met him in that wintry German city one night, he was joyfully inebriated, his happy spree seemingly spilled over from Rotterdam, from where he and a bunch of other Malaysian film folks had crossed over. (I, on the other hand, discovered the House Of 100 Beers only on my last night in Berlin, and by then, I was pumped full of antibiotics, courtesy of a bout of bronchitis, that I couldn't join in the revelry!)

Last night, I received a message from him, that a bunch of promotional clips for Flower In The Pocket had gone online at YouTube. Some of them are pretty funny, especially the one with Italian critic Paolo Bertolin verbally "reviewing" the film. Here are the clips:

Italian critic reviews FITP
Good Doctor promo
Sunflower Boys Part 1
Sunflower Boys Part 2
The Kids promo
Mislina promo


Flower In The Pocket opens on Dec 20


Miscellaneous Miscellany: Tintin, The 80s, Dragon Ball


Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, Logan's Run, Space: 1999 ...

I'm rambling about the TV shows I saw as a kid in the 80s. What brought this on? After a series of movie versions that kind of ... sucked, like S.W.A.T., Starsky And Hutch, The Dukes Of Hazzard, Charlie's Angels, etc, I was thinking about which of my favourite sci-fi series they were going to eye next. Fortunately none of the above. But talks of The A-Team has recently resurfaced, and John Singleton has been attached to the production. Early rumours were that Ice-Cube would be the new B.A. Barracus (played by Mr T in the series, fool!), but that was soon proven untrue.

Singleton? He's had an inconsistent record, and 2 Fast 2 Furious grates on the memory like a cheese shredder. But you can expect updates on The A-Team; they're now a bunch of Iraq war vets wanted for crimes they did not commit. That sounds pretty dodgy, politically.

One more cast member has been announced for Dragon Ball the movie. Emmy Rossum will play Bulma. And now I get on my knees and make a plea to the film's producer, Stephen Chow: "Mr Chow, I've been a fan of yours since time immemorial. Heck, I even like Curry And Pepper! So, please, I beg of you, don't let Hollywood screw up Dragon Ball!"

Ahem. OK, grovelling over.

We already know Spielberg and Peter Jackson are making a trilogy based on The Adventures Of Tintin. That's another great series that I grew up with in the 80s. I've recently re-collected the series in the large, single volume versions (not the three- or four-in-one volumes), including the very racist and politically incorrect Tintin In The Congo. This production has naturally piqued my interest considerably.

Andy Serkis has been announced as part of the cast for Jackson's production. And no, you can breathe again because, thank goodness, he's not playing Tintin. And yes, it IS going to be in 3D. But what worries me are the words "performance capture technology." That's weird tech territory were in, as evidenced by Polar Express and Beowulf. I'm not so concerned with the creepy, lifeless eyes of the characters, as many have complained about. But this technology isn't aesthetically great either.

The French have been making pretty entertaining live-action movie versions of Asterix, so perhaps Spielberg and Jackson could learn a thing or two there.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Non-fiction Into Fiction


Reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran's award-winning non-fiction book, Imperial Life In The Emerald City. It's a very interesting book that will have you angry, shocked and bemused at the antics of the American occupiers of Iraq.

Having the news that Paul Greengrass would be making a film version of the book, starring his main man, Matt Damon, I was struck by how this could be the start of a trend. Earlier there was Richard Linklater's fiction film version of Eric Schlosser's shocking Fast Food Nation. When Linklater's film was announced, we all wondered what it would be like, especially since Schlosser's book was a tome of facts after facts, and the film was announced as a thriller.

I suppose it's easier to envision how Greengrass would handle Imperial Life, but where did this eagerness to fictionalise non-fiction books come from? I'm not talking about biographical books like Jarhead or Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. The books being adapted now are factual, journalistic reports, although Imperial Life and Fast Food Nation are written in narrative forms.

Admittedly there has been that interesting mesh up of Truman Capote's biography and his book, In Cold Blood, in 2005's Capote. But see? There's that word again - "biography."

There may have been earlier fiction films of non-fiction books that I'm not aware of, but there's only one conclusion I can make. With the proliferation of new media, where now you can even record videos with your mobile phone, films are approximating or imitating the immediacy of real life more than ever. The Blair Witch Project, following on from the little seen mockumentary, The Last Broadcast, did just that. And when the embedded broadcast journalists followed the American troops into Iraq, recording within the thick of the action, it came full circle - life was now imitating art imitating life. Then came films like Haneke's Cache, and now Adam Rifkin's Look, that see life through surveillance cameras and implicate their audiences in the process.

Now, if you take the plausible view that the embedded news cameras during the Iraq war, and now news footage post-war, and their selectiveness are in a way making truths out of what is largely fiction (Iraq is a happy country now, people are grateful, everything's hunky dory), then perhaps Greengrass' fictionalising the truth (as does De Palma's Redacted, in a way) is a kind of payback that tips the scale back to the position it belongs.


Did You See That???


More Cloverfield, this time a full five minutes of the film. Watch it here at Twitch.

Also, more shaky camera. The first thing that came to my mind was, is the entire movie going to be like that? Oh my.

And looks like American movies are still feeding off the post-911 fears and anxieties.



Friday, December 14, 2007

The Return Of 3D


One of the most memorable moviegoing experiences in my life was seeing my first 3D movie, Jaws 3D. The tagline duly proclaimed: The third dimension is terror! The experience wasn't terror-filled, mainly because it was a terrible movie. But it was awe-inspiring to see, for the first time, things in a movie floating right before your eyes. I still remember trying to dodge the harpoon that was shot right into the camera, and the severed leg that floated down to the bottom of the sea.

As a kid, I was thrilled, despite the uncomfortable cardboard glasses. But that was it. Movies in 3D were just a great novelty back then. The technology came and went, came and went. But now it seems there's a sudden explosion or revival of 3D movies, thanks largely to digital projection. To think at one point, it became sort of a joke to have a movie in 3D because you know it's just not going to be a good movie. But if even The Nightmare Before Christmas has been converted for 3D exhibition, you have to admit something's going down. Read Kristin Thompson's account of watching Nightmare here at the blog she shares with hubby David Bordwell.

Believe it or not, the first patent for a 3D process was filed in the 1890s. The first 3D film was shown in 1915. And in 2005, I saw the second 3D movie in my life. It was an IMAX film called Haunted Castle. I remember that compared to my first experience in the 80s, this time the glasses were plastic and comfortable, and the images were easier on the eyes.

The latest we had was Beowulf in 3D, and it's not the first blockbuster to go 3D, and definitely not the last. We're pretty lucky to have an IMAX cinema in Malaysia, because in Singapore, there are no IMAX cinemas, therefore no 3D screenings.

Some of the upcoming 3D films are Ice Age 3 and Shrek Goes Forth. And the most anticipated is probably James Cameron's sci-fi flick Avatar. Spielberg and Peter Jackson, too, are reportedly working on a 3D trilogy of The Adventures Of Tintin.

But why the sudden interest again in 3D? Some have attributed it to the growing need for movies to be more than what they are, because of the ease of access now to normal 2D movies, especially with downloads. Then there's also the shorter time between a movie's theatrical release and its DVD one. All this makes quite some sense. Read the Times Online article here.

But isn't the advent of digital effects also another factor? Probably an indication of it is how most 3D films are animated features or something like Beowulf (of course, this also has to do with the difficulty of shooting live action in 3D). It's definitely not a matter of 3D making a movie better. Could 3D enhance the experience of watching a Bresson film, or even a Tsai Ming-liang film? I think not.

It's definitely still a novelty to see a movie in 3D, and just a novelty. It's just that effects technology has just made it more fun to see one.

But this quote about Avatar from Cameron in The Hollywood Reporter sure puts a chill in my spine: "We’re going to blow you to the back wall of the theatre in a way you haven’t seen for a long time."

Coming from the guy who's always been at the forefront of movie technology (T2, anyone?), it just not too hard to believe.


Note: See also the interesting exchange between Thompson and Bordwell about 3D here.



Remake Watch: Clash Of The Titans


It was just a matter of time, wasn't it? I just knew it had to happen. And the result of this would possibly be the opening of the floodgates to more remakes of films featuring Ray Harryhausen's early special effects. Well, simply because they feel they can do better than Harryhausen, because they've got CGI.

But to old farts like me, digital effects take away the awe and wonder of stop-motion and forced perspective effects, and other tricks that came out of the sleeves of some of the greatest minds in cinema. People like Harryhausen and Rick Baker had to work within strict confines and limited resources, and relied largely on their ingenuity in creating magic for the screen.

When Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her and The Mask came out, it was wild fun and breathtaking to see the new possibilities created by computer effects. But at this point, there are no surprises anymore.

The producers of the Clash Of The Titans remake better realise that they should have a GREAT story and not rely on audiences to go see it for the effects.


Coming Soon ... Or Maybe Not


Seeing as how A History Of Violence never made it to our screens, it was certainly a joy and big relief to see, via a trailer on the big GSC screen while queuing for tickets, that Cronenberg's Eastern Promises will be released on Jan 3.

And seeing as how the Coen brothers' films hardly ever screen over here, I'd be terribly surprised if No Country For Old Men gets a slot next year. I've read the Cormac McCarthy book, and yes, while it's not among his best work, it's certainly gripping and suspenseful, and a nice observation on whether the world really has become more violent today ... or it's been this way since time immemorial.







Other films I'd put on the to-watch list (or as Nutshell puts it, "I want see" list):

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood

3:10 To Yuma

The Assasination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Persepolis

Atonement

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited

Brad Anderson's Transsiberian

Yes, it seems like I have a thing for films made by people named "Anderson." Heh. And I can bet you, Brad Anderson's film is going to make a short, surprise appearance on our screens, unannounced, and then disappear quietly. It happened with the terribly underrated Session 9 and the excellent The Machinist. It's going to happen again.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lords Of War



If Peter Chan's The Warlords had an alternate title, it would well be "800." Here, a band of 800 bandits-cum-soldiers pit themselves courageously against an army of 5,000. But this is no over-the-top tale of the triumph of courage over might like that silly Spartans vs Persians movie.

This is pretty serious stuff. In the midst of all that talk of war, strategising, and bloody action, there's political machinations, tests of brotherhood and friendship, and a love triangle. A pretty nice mesh-up, if only it could have worked extremely well.

First off, this is a very bloody film about ancient warfare. From the very start, director Chan holds nothing back to show that he means this to be realistic as far as the action goes. Limbs are hacked off, bodies blown to pieces and heads lobbed off. It's no graceful martial arts war with wire-work. It's chaotic, and sometimes painful to watch. One particular sequence has an enemy soldier trying to impale Jet Li's General Pang with a long spear. Watch what happens.

Secondly, it's a wonder how many buckets of tears Takeshi Kaneshiro sheds in this film!

Chan drips everything in earthy browns and blacks, lending grittiness to the dusty, war-torn landscape of 19th century China, under the Qing dynasty rule. This could easily have been an all-out action version of Sun Tzu's Art Of War, but Chan centres the film on three characters, bandits Er Hu (Andy Lau) and Wu Yang (Kaneshiro), and General Pang, and their friendship.

Pang is a man with a lot of baggage, who deserts the army after his men are wiped out in a betrayal by the Kiu army. Er Hu and Wu Yang are brother bandits in arms living by their own set of rules. The two recruit Pang into their gang, but when things take a turn for the worse for their village, Pang suggests that they join the Qing army and give up their life of crime. They take a blood oath and a pledge, but the two "brothers" soon find themselves having to adapt to a new set of rules while Pang becomes embroiled in a political web of deceit.

The film begins and enters the midway point being an action film. It certainly has gorgeous shots and compositions, close shots of close combats, exciting camerawork that lends the battles real suspense, and some really audacious set-pieces. But after the halfway point, it seems like even Chan knows the action cannot be sustained without it being repetitious and monotonous. The focus shifts towards drama, the tension between the characters and the political manoeuvres in the dark. In short, the film slowly becomes Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet!

No, I'm kidding, but that second-half sure reminds me of that other film a lot, for some reason.

It's easy to see why Jet Li was given a huge paycheck for this role. The Warlords is essentially General Pang's story and Li carries the film throughout, playing a character who's slowly consumed by his obsessive ambitions. The shift in focus is interesting and a smart move, but the characters are not well-developed enough to make that shift effective. The relationships between them are vague at best, introductions seemingly hurried as if just to forward the story along. It's unclear how Er Hu and Wu Yang became as close as they are, and the love interest, Lian, flits in and out of the story inconsequentially, only appearing solely to throw glances at Er Hu or Pang, or make love to each man. She was rescued from being sold as a courtesan, and feels obligated to her saviour but at the same time, is drawn towards what we can assume as the man she truly loves. But not enough screentime is given for that aspect to really come through.

In the end, no amount of tears shed by Kaneshiro can help imbue more emotions into the film. As such, the Greek tragedy doesn't quite get pulled off, although Li's performance is commendably controlled, the strongest of the three leads.

There are certainly Shakespearean nuances in the story - see the three old men and tell me who they remind you of - but where The Banquet ended with a full spit of deadly venom, The Warlords is more of a quick bite with a little agony.



Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Waiting For Ponyo


Miyazaki's new one, Ponyo On A Cliff, is currently in production, and there are weekly updates on Japanese radio. GhibliWorld is keeping tabs on it.

The pictures look deliciously like My Neighbour Totoro, and it's understandable why I'm excited about it because Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw and remains my most favourite for how it looks upon childhood and all its trials and tribulations from such an endearing and beautiful perspective.

Those of us who grew up in the 80s would surely have been either addicted to, or at least paid much attention, to the various anime series on TV at the time. Macross and Mospeada captured my imagination as a teenager, but by then my anime senses, and my friends', had already been sharpened to a degree by early anime such as Broker Corp Machine Blasters (very few people ever mention this series). Even earlier on before the robots came along, we grew up on Sinbad and Marco, which had really great stories that kept us glued to the TV every weekend. They took us to various exotic places, meeting all kinds of characters, and in Marco's case, tugged at our very hearts on his quest to look for his mother.

Then came Totoro, and I was completely bowled over by it. There was something completely different about it. It was emotional but not in the Disney Bambi-Dumbo manipulative kind of way. It just is. As simple as that. It told its story, showed us what needed to be shown, but what a movie it is. And the biggest magic is how Miyazaki is able to evoke the exact time of day - whether it's morning, afternoon or evening - with just 2D cell animation.

I saw the much touted Ratatouille recently, having been won over by the trailer that had swells of Gershwin's An American In Paris. The critics loved it, the Pixar fans rejoiced, but I remember sitting in the cinema and wondering "Why don't these annoying characters just shut up for even one second?"

The endless banter by both humans and rats left my ears ringing, and not in a good way. There was recently a wonderful article online about how American animated features have characters that just can't stop talking. Unfortunately I can't find that article to link, but I must agree with that opinion. And in Ratatouille, it reached unbearable proportions. Not only do the characters yak non-stop, there's even a voice-over!

There's not much appreciation of the beauty of silence. If you give the Region 1 DVD of Totoro a spin, you'll see that during the parts where the characters don't speak, the American dubbing has added laughter or other sounds or even words that are not in the Japanese version. It's as if silence is a terrible evil!

One of my favourite moments in a Miyazaki film is the train ride in Spirited Away. It's a quiet, contemplative moment, where no words are exchanged and the sequence, exquisitely rendered, is punctuated only by Hisaishi Joe's emotive score. It's one of the loveliest moments in cinema. It's simple, solid proof that you don't need fancy motion and banter a la the kitchen chaos in Ratatouille, to make an effective and memorable scene.

Give me a Miyazaki film any day. There are enough talking-animal animated films and overrated ones like Ratatouille.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Book Versus Movie


The I Am Legend press preview was this morning. I couldn't attend, but since this was a movie adaptation of a book (by the great Richard Matheson, no less), AND the novel was also adapted into a graphic novel by comics bigwig Steve Niles, I just knew some hilarity would ensue.

Sure enough, the fanboys cried foul that the movie isn't like the book. I suspect some had also wished that the movie should have looked like the comicbook (like, you know, Frank Miller's 300, you know, like, that was so awesome!), but I speculate!

I've always maintained that one shouldn't be comparing apples and oranges, or mee rebus and spaghetti, when it comes to film adaptations of written works. First and foremost, they are two different mediums, and secondly, film audiences and book lovers are different targets. Last week it was the Philip Pullman fans who got their Pampers in a knot when they found out that The Golden Compass had a different ending than the book. This week it's the Matheson and Niles fans crying foul that the movie is similar to the book only in name.

Look at it this way - if Peter Jackson had followed every word in the Tolkien books, we would have had to endure hours of songs by Tom Bombadil. It's already possibly the most boring trilogy in movie history - OK, so maybe I'm the only one who fell asleep at all three movies, but the point is, it's ludicrous to expect a film to be exactly like the book from which it's adapted.

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I'd told a friend of mine the day before, that I couldn't be bothered whether I Am Legend the film was different from the book. I loved the book, I said, and I only hope that the film makes as strong a point as the book does, even if their points differ.

I read the book some years ago, and like The Old Man And The Sea, and almost as long too, it is basically a one-man act. But so great is Matheson's imagination that he manages to draw us deep into the protagonist's mind. The final chapter is just such a jaw-dropper, although it's not really a twist. I knew about the ending but it still knocked me off my chair.

What Matheson had done was to look at the whole idea of good and evil in terms of perspectives. In today's world, the story takes on a whole new relevance when you consider that there are people today eagerly wanting to paint the world in shades of black and white, to draw clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. In this respect, I Am Legend can be seen as a story about the intolerance of humanity, of selfishness, of how if we succumb to our baser instincts, understanding becomes less of an option. It could also be an allegorical tale about being different and in the minority. There's so much in today's world that could be explored with the story, the potential is huge.

I'll have to see what they got up to in the film, but I'm definitely not complaining that the San Francisco setting has been changed to New York, or that Will Smith doesn't "look" like Robert Neville, the last man on earth.

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I hated V For Vendetta the movie, and was quickly admonished for being a fanboy who hated it only because it's not like Alan Moore's graphic novel. That, I must clarify, is entirely untrue.

The movie can hardly be said to be faithful to the book, which I absolutely worship, but that's not the main problem. The filmmakers' seeming eagerness to adopt the subversiveness of Moore's story completely lapses at the movie's ending. That was the problem for me, not because it's different from the book's ending.

In the book, V is an idea, one that has the capacity for living on, being passed from hand to hand every time the one who dons the Guy Fawkes mask expires. It is individuality against the mob mentality, against the control of the herd, the one who inspires and embodies freedom, and emphasises the importance of differences. But towards the end of the film, an entire crowd of Guy Fawkes mask-wearers appear. Where's the individual? Beats me. Where the V of the book was fighting fascism, the movie seems to advocate a new form of conformity after V.

And now we have to brace ourselves with yet another possible bastardisation of an Alan Moore masterpiece - Zack "300" Snyder's movie version of Watchmen, the hallowed ground of modern superhero comics.

Good if Snyder can pull it off, but Watchmen has long been recognised as an unfilmable story. And Snyder's attention to imitating every one of the comicbook's visual details is a little disturbing, as it mirrors the current trend of making a comicbook-to-film adaptation look exactly like a series of comicbook panels. Out with substance, in with visual wonder.

I'm not exactly holding my breath for this film. Lest I turn as blue as Dr Manhattan.

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