Monday, March 24, 2008

The Cropped Emperor

I was one of those who were extremely breathless at the prospect of a four-disc Criterion boxed-set of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Right now, I'm beside myself every day trying to decide whether to order the set or not. I'm a little broke, you see.

The Last Emperor was a real event when it came out in the late 80s. It was a huge epic that paid incredible attention to the minutest period detail. Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous grand photography and Bertolucci's sweeping vision were one of a kind, with many, many memorable scenes (one of which Criterion has chosen as its DVD cover).

Over the years I've had the film in various formats, from VHS to DVD, but none of the transfers were really acceptable. All the DVD versions before this Criterion one were completely hopeless. You just couldn't believe that such a beautiful film wasn't given the proper respect it deserves. But I knew someday it would be.

As chockful of extra goodies as the Criterion boxed set is, with both the longer version and the theatrical versions of the film included, it was quite a shock to hear that the transfer here isn't in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Yes, it's shocking, but apparently this is the format in which both Bertolucci and Storaro intended the film to be seen.

It's 2.0:1, with cropped sides, but if it's what the filmmakers wanted, then it should be so. Peter Becker wrote an explanation about the aspect ratio and why it is so, on the Criterion blog.

Producer Jeremy Thomas revealed that the original intention was for the film to be released on 70mm, in 2.2:1 or 2.0:1. But of course, there were also going to be 35mm prints in circulation, so the filmmakers filled the wider frame as well.

I'm just hoping David Bordwell would do a side-by-side frame comparison on his blog. It would be interesting how Bertolucci worked with an expanded frame while preserving the characters' relation to their space, as is Bertolucci's main preoccupation.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three Men And A Little Lady

That should actually be the title of An Empress And The Warriors. There's the evil king's nephew who wishes to usurp the throne by killing everyone in his way, there's the loyal warrior who was the princess's childhood buddy, there's the mysterious forest dweller who teaches lessons about nature and its beauty, and there's the princess who has to grow up too soon.

Standard period drama stuff this. It could all work, though. It's got Donnie Yen, and you just know there's going to be some ass-kicking. The movie's directed by Tony Ching, so there's must be some hard action, right?

But by the first quarter, you know things are taking a dip downhill when Kelly Chen gets into tough-cookie mode, trying to emote as a hard-edged warrior princess but coming across more like a modern pop songstress attempting to look like a hard-edged warrior princess. Then when Leon Lai's Jungle Book character appears and spews some new age-sounding tree-hugger crap, you know that's the end of it all.

And for a Tony Ching-Donnie Yen movie, there's strangely very little ass-kicking. Whatever there is seems unexciting and bland. But there's much cheesy romance and a cloying love song to boot.

After long-haired, crawling ghosts in horror films with twists, the new trend is the period costume epic. There are lots more to come - Three Kingdoms and Red Cliff, most notably, and some smaller scale ones like The Painted Skin.

I just have nothing left to say.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Game Boys

I admit, I've been addicted to Pacman for the longest time. It's simply the hardest video game ever created. If you're a first-timer, trust me, you won't last five seconds. Even the first stage is a harrowing play, and I've only ever reached close to 70,000 points, which to the average gamer, must be a really pathetic score. Even so, once I get into trying to better my own score, the addiction begins all over again.

So, it's easy to understand why the competitive gamers in The King Of Kong seem to take video games a little too seriously. And that's an understatement even. This fantastic documentary about the competitive gaming scene from the 80s till now, encompasses the myriad aspects of humanity - ego, struggle, self-esteem, epiphany, obsession, self-validation, and more. It's a surprising revelation that video games are more than just entertainment, that once a gamer officially enters the competitive scene, it's about honour, respect, friendship, brotherhood - in short, everything John Woo ever taught us.

I guess the appeal of The King Of Kong comes stronger for me at this moment, apart from my still-engulfing obsession with Pacman, because of a bunch of local documentaries, independent and otherwise, that I've seen lately. They're largely disappointments, lacking focus and depth, overlong, and often self-indulgent. Either things are expressly stated in narration, or the documentary is just simply pointless. Documentaries like The King Of Kong never has to explain itself, nor make explicit its inner workings. Instead there is no narration, and the story is pieced together expertly by allowing the people in the film to tell their story and reveal their world. It also takes a great a mount of understanding and research on the filmmakers' part.

And most of all, it looks at the world of gaming and geeks with an endearing, non-judgemental eye, resulting in us developing a strong connection with the various people involved. There are no villains nor heroes; there are just people informed by their biases, inner conflicts and sense of being.

While I thought Pacman was the hardest game ever created, now through the film, I know that Donkey Kong is the undisputed champion frustrator of many a-gamer. Myself, I never got past the second stage!

But my time spent playing Pacman made me realise that the game uses very much the same concept of "ghosts" as in Chinese superstition - that ghosts move in straight lines.

I bet you didn't think of that, did you?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

No Woman No Cry

You know, Roland Emmerich's films don't really insult your intelligence, but they don't really stimulate the braincells either. They just are - they're entertaining, visually spectacular, but they're also ultimately forgettable.

I must admit I like Stargate very much, but that's because, like Emmerich, I'm rather obsessed with Egyptology. It's also because the film has James Spader (what's he doing these days?) and Kurt Russell. But that's the only Emmerich film I like.

If you think 10,000BC is going to be a visual spectacle, well don't hold your breath. It's one historical and anthropological mash-up, somewhat like Darwin on speed. You've got cavemen, woolly mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers ... and pyramids, Egyptians, turban-wearing horsemen. I kid you not.

While the film does try to be as multi-cultural as possible, I did find some of its elements rather disturbing, like the fact that the bad guys look middle-eastern and don turbans. My friend complained that I was being my typical complaining self, but how do you explain the fact that the good guys speak English (of course it's supposed to be some ancient tongue) and follow a prophecy about a "blue-eyed child," but the bad guys speak a foreign language and get subtitled?

But as the movie goes along, you'll find that you won't care anymore as the mash-up gets more and more ridiculous. 10,000BC is really Cloverfield in ancient times - it's about a guy who goes through all sorts of shit to save the girl he loves. And like all Emmerich films, it's got forced emotions, cardboard characters with plastic feelings.

The most interesting thing here is how Emmerich is still trying to convince us that the ancient Egyptians came from outer space. He's obviously read Robert Bauval's and Adrian Gilbert's book, The Orion Mystery, which alleges, very convincingly, that the positions of the pyramids of Giza correspond with the constellation of Orion.

The real mystery of the pyramids, and why they have fuelled so much speculation about them being built by aliens, simply boils down to two factors. Firstly, the pyramids were built to such mathematical perfection that it seems impossible that they were the work of ancient people without scientific know-how. Secondly, the first pyramids were built in the Third Dynasty and were small structures that were far from perfect, and have not lasted the ravages of time. In the Fourth Dynasty, the Great Pyramids were built, and it was as if the method was suddenly perfected. Then in the Fifth Dynasty, it seemed like there was a brain-drain and the pyramid-building technology seemingly disappeared.

As for 10,000BC, if you were going to go crazy with the whole idea, you might as well go hog-wild with it, instead of trying to be all serious. This kind of movie should be a complete cinema of spectacle, but there just aren't enough monsters. (I can't believe I said that.) They should have harnessed that sabre-tooth and used it as a battle-cat, like He-Man.

Lastly, what's with the pose below, so overused in movies?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Shutting Down Sexy Time

If you think the Lost In Beijing fellas had it bad, just look at poor Tang Wei. Looks like the seemingly endless humping in Lust, Caution has earned her ad a ban by the Chinese authorities.

Her Pond's skin cream ad is being pulled. And she got paid a lot of money for appearing in it, but I wonder if she gets to keep the dough or if there's a penalty clause in the contract.

No, you can't do sexy time anymore, they seem to tell her. Actually she can't do pretty much anything anymore! Look at the latest rules the State Administration Of Radio, Film And Television (SARFT) came up with:

No hardcore sex, rape, prostitution or nudity

No vulgar dialogue, music or sound effects of a sexual nature

No murder, violence, horror, evil spirits or devils

No excessively terrifying scenes, conversations, background music or sound effects

No distorting of civilisation and history of China or other nations

No revealing of police investigative techniques

Wow. If that doesn't leave you more breathless than Tang Wei's love scenes did, then you need to try and make a film in China today.

Actually the whole regulating of China's industry is one wild mess. Despite the filmmakers of Lost In Beijing being banned from working, the film was released in China (albeit a cut version) and the fully uncut DVD is available in Hong Kong. Same with Lust, Caution which was screened in China despite the sexy content and touchy subject matter.

I guess through these murky depths, the question to ask now is, which Chinese filmmaker is courageous enough to bring sexy back?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mist Gets In Your Eyes

Watching The Mist in the cinema yesterday was the most fun I had in a long time. It was also one very strange experience. The audience screamed, gasped, laughed, shouted, cheered and even clapped. At one point, when one of the giant bugs was about to attack the evil Mrs Carmody, one guy shouted "Makan dia!!!"

This little monster movie was clearly far more enjoyable than the flaccid Cloverfield, a movie that I'm now convinced is being used as an excuse to intellectualised what cannot be intellectualised by those who cannot intellectualise. It's how Kenny G is to those who cannot appreciate jazz, how the Boston Pop Orchestra is to those who cannot appreciate classical music. How a first-person point-of-view is supposed to give Cloverfield an iota of intelligence is anyone's guess. I certainly haven't heard a convincing argument yet.

Frank Darabont, the best filmmaker ever to adapt Stephen King's books so far, may not have made an incredibly intellectual film, but he's definitely intelligent enough to know how to stir the audience's emotions without ever resorting to cheap tricks and heavy CGI use. The Mist, both the book and the film, is the world encased in a mall. What it has to say is different from Dawn Of The Dead, of course. The clue is already in the opening scene, when David Drayton (Thomas Jane still looks a lot like Christopher Lambert) sits painting a commissioned artwork for a book cover. Apart from the tribute to King's The Dark Tower, there is a painting on the wall that is the DVD cover of John Carpenter's The Thing.

Both The Mist and The Thing show what happens when a group of individuals are placed within stressful confines.

And like Carpenter, Darabont doesn't allow the monsters to take centrestage, and instead, focuses on the people. The people are the story, and the monsters are the catalyst for creating the dynamics between the different individuals. It's then easy to see why audiences relate so much to the characters - it's like the world in a mall. You have the left, the right and the centre, the brave, the foolish, the ignorant, the apathetic, the fanatic, etc. The only difference with the book is that Darabont adds the military within the crowd and more focus on the government.

But even though it's highly entertaining and suspenseful, The Mist is hardly a movie to remember. Perhaps it stays a little too faithful to the novella. The original story appeared in Skeleton Crew, King's 1985 anthology. It was probably written earlier. That's more than 20 years ago. Ideas like this have been done to death. You can find much political and social relevance in the movie ("Scare people enough, and you can get them to do anything"), but a plot done more than two decades ago may have needed stronger updating.


In the novella, the origin of the mist is never made clear, and the government's mysterious Arrowhead Project is only alluded to a few times. The movie expressly reveals that the mist was the result of the project gone wrong. This is probably necessary for the movie because of its many references and jabs at the current and recent political situations. It makes the case stronger.

But the novella had an ending that's far more resonant, as the group that escapes the mall finally holes up in a building in the city, and continues its efforts to reach out to other possible survivors, a hopeful denouement. The movie's ending, while departing far from the novella's, is like the complete opposite of the recent version of I Am Legend. It has a sarcasm that's completely lacking in that other also-apocalyptic film, and our lousy track record surely forces us to agree with its pessimistic view of human beings.

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