Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Heavy Metal Lite

Funny how some people were clapping like schoolkids during the preview when Robert Downey Jr gets fully suited up for the first time as Iron Man. But the again, Iron Man is a movie that's very calculated in its every move - rock music to pump up the mood, slapstick moments and one-liners to get the audience laughing, sneering bad guys to get the audience hissing. Stuff like that.

So it's no surprise how the summer-blockbuster audience would react. In that sense, Iron Man does its job well. A calculated job. Even so, what little seriousness it tries to convey, in particular how Tony Stark becomes a changed man after witnessing the weapons of his making causing mass destruction, comes across as just another tactical move in providing us non-challenging entertainment.

Still, this component of the movie is a crucial element. This is because the Iron Man of the comicbooks is a jingoistic, flag-waving superhero, albeit a troubled one. The movie's titanium-clad superhero is a man with a newfound conscience, after learning things the hard way, getting kidnapped by Afghan insurgents. He learns that the weapons his Stark Enterprises is making is falling into the wrong hands. Yes, "wrong hands." In the real world, no weapons should be in any hands. But in this fantasy world, not only do the weapons fall into the hands of one-dimensional "evil" insurgents, they do so because of unpatriotic and capitalist elements back home in America. Learning that he shouldn't be making weapons that would kill people, Stark then builds the Iron Man suit, and dons it to go back to Afghanistan to, well, kill some insurgents.

Funny, isn't it?

While its politics is pretty muddled, as a popcorn fare, Iron Man has wit and excitement, and is watchable owing, in very large parts, to Robert Downey Jr's charisma and on-screen presence. Replace him with any other actor, and I believe you would have another run-of-the-mill superhero picture. But even Downey becomes ineffective when the movie decides to turn into juvenile robot mayhem territory towards the end.

Unlike Batman Begins, which had a real emotional core to its story and a complex character, Iron Man is a pretty straightforward action-adventure movie that doesn't concern itself too much with striking originality nor a mature take on a comicbook hero.

Monday, April 28, 2008

It's Tough Being A Man

Finally having the time to sit down and watch James Mangold's remake of 3:10 To Yuma, I am appalled at myself for not having caught it earlier when the DVD came out, and more appalled at the distributors for not bringing such a fine film to our cinemas.

Nicely paced and with superb performances all round, the film is both complex and entertaining, two qualities which, with today's films, seem mutually exclusive. The tautly written script contributes much to the film's overall feel, but I'm extremely impressed by the meticulousness of everything, from the framing right down to the soundtrack. What's more, Mangold is subtle enough to understand the effectiveness of silence, and the allows the actors a lot of space to express with their faces rather than with dialogue.

I've never seen the original 3:10 To Yuma, which was made in1957. But I'm pretty sure this new one is far more brutal and informed with a contemporary urgency. While it's simply a story of desperation, where Christian Bale's Dan Evans, in a bid to save his ranch, takes up the job of
escorting a dangerous outlaw, Russell Crowe's charismatic Ben Wade, to the railway station, it's also a meditation on what it means to be a man. But what I'm really taken with is the film's preoccupation with survival, not often a thing to be found in Westerns. Usually, you get the good guys and the bad guys, and the mythical heroes like the Marshalls and the Cavalry trumpeting their way to the rescue of some poor souls.

Here, sometimes the roles and motivations are blurred, especially when backstories are revealed and you learn the true nature of some of the characters. In the chaos that often follows the lawmen and volunteers and their prisoner through the rough terrain, it's often you don't know who's rescuing who and who's leading who to where. Everyone's just doing their thing to stay alive. In his desperation to save his ranch, Evans even ends up working alongside some of the people who burned down his barn in the first place. In a nighttime Apache attack, Evans unwittingly hands his weapon to Wade who then saves everyone.

But the most interesting of course, is the complex relationship between Evans and Wade, with both men's original intentions on this journey to catch the 3:10 train to Yuma prison gradually morphing as they come to understand more about each other.

This has been a terribly underrated film. It's as beautifully shot as any John Ford film (coincidentally, the sound mix was done at the John Ford Theatre at 20th Century Fox), gorgeous in its 2:35 photography.

David Bordwell visited the film's mixing session.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Beautiful Washing Machine

Sometimes it pays to give the video stores here a complete look-around. You never know what you might find. Lately, there have been some surprising finds for me, especially when I thought all they ever carry are popular Hollywood titles and Asian tearjerkers and soppy love stories. Imagine my complete shock when I saw the DVD of Bubble Fiction: Boom Or Bust.

Mr Nutshell who was at the Hong Kong International Film Festival last year, reported that tickets for Bubble Fiction were sold out, and the positive reviews it got kind of had me fascinated. After all, one of my favourite time travel movies is Back To The Future, and Bubble Fiction is reportedly heavily inspired by Robert Zemeckis' film.

Known in its Japanese title as Bubble E Go!: Machine Wa Drum Shiki, the movie is very silly but very entertaining at the same time. It's one of the very few DVDs that I've had a barrel of fun watching. Very simply, it's about Mayumi, a debt-ridden young girl, who discovers that her mother is actually a brilliant inventor who has gone back to 90s Japan in a time-machine she created. Mayumi is then recruited by the Ministry Of Finance to travel to the 90s too, to rescue her mom and also the Japanese economy which will go bust because of an incident that happens in 1990.

Much has been said about how the movie is a real nostalgic trip for the Japanese, who fondly remember the time when Japan was at its economic height, and life was one big party. But even if you're not familiar with that background, Bubble Fiction can still be enjoyed for its various culture shock moments. Mayumi discovers her mobile phone is useless in the 90s, and that her bump-and-grind style of dancing and hipster jeans are a real shocker for the people there. Of course, it's even better if you're familiar with some of the pop icon cameos in the film, such as Ijima Naoko and former J-Leaguer Ramos Ruy.

Sure, it borrows heavily from BTTF, and it isn't really concerned with the scientific nitty-gritty of time-travel (what do you expect when the time-machine is a yellow Hitachi washing-machine!), but it has enough of an endearing story that it can hold its own.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Death And Texas

Funny that rotten movies make it here to our cinemas sometimes much sooner than in the US. But the really worthwhile movies are either nowhere to be seen, or like No Country For Old Men, open months after all the excitement has died down. It's instances like this that wear me down, but sometimes deprivation makes it all the sweeter to finally savour the tastiness of a good film.

I had read Cormac McCarthy's novel way before, and I received filmmaker Amir Muhammad's enthusiastic text message from Berlin conveying his belief that No Country is the Coens' best film. I won't go so far as to proclaim that, because I still like Fargo a whole lot more. But No Country certainly is their most mature work to date, and perhaps their most complex too.

I have a review officially published elsewhere and it will not be linked or republished here for reasons I cannot disclose. But instead, I will relate a little online "debate" I had with a film critic over at a members-only forum.

Said film critic saw the film as about how the world changes but some of us refuse to budge, remaining stuck in our old ways. I think that's quite the opposite of what the intention was in the novel, and then in the film. Clearly, Sheriff Bell's lament at the beginning already indicates the feeling of displacement he's experiencing.

Mild spoilers ahead

The various rhyming instances (the critic duly informed me that I was wrong and that they're not called "rhyming instances") already indicate the changing viewpoints of people in a world of constants. The most telling scenes were when Chigurh enters a house, gets out a milk carton and sits in front of a TV looking at his own reflection in the glass, and when Sheriff Bell later does the exact same thing, sees the exact same things. For Chigurh, we felt an audacious intrusion because he is essentially on the wrong side of the law, but we feel differently in the Sheriff's case. There are many other instances - a dead dog at the site of the botched drug deal seems like a sign of total disregard for life in the ensuing chaos, but Lewellyn Moss's shooting of the dog that chases him down is a struggle for survival; both Lewellyn and Chigurh tries to buy clothes from young passers-by; etc.

Every generation creates its own rules, its own set of realities. It's natural that as we grow old, we feel out of touch and out of place, because we'd rather relish in nostalgia, dreaming of the good old days. But the elements that remain constant - greed, death, evil - take on different forms.

It's interesting to note how the main characters change or have changed over time. Lewellyn was a decent hardworking guy until he finds the money and becomes greedy. Sheriff Bell has been in law enforcement all his life but near retirement, has begun to question the point of it all. Only Chigurh remains unchanged throughout, because death is constant.

And while it may all seem hopeless, Sheriff Bell finally finds the answer to his questions in a dream about his father that he relates to his wife at the end. For him, the world just seems to get more violent and senseless each day, as if whatever he's done hasn't been of any good. But in his dream, he saw his father carrying a torch in a dark place. His father doesn't say anything to him, but walks on ahead carrying the torch. Simply, there'll always be darkness in this world, but sometimes all we can do is just try to make it a little brighter for our children.

And that's why the ending is so poignant and moving for me.

Kamal Haasan In Overdrive

Maybe you don't know this, but I have a slight penchant for Tamil movies. Somehow the characters in the movies feel more real than the ones in Hindi films.

One actor whom I've been following off and on is the great Kamal Haasan. This is one busy actor who constantly challenges himself by taking on what are sometimes seemingly impossible roles. I've seen him play a midget; he was walking on his knees throughout the film, but they used perspectives and angles that made it look like he had short legs. Then there was the time he played the dual roles in the Indian version of Mrs Doubtfire. The guy really is a chameleon. I remember how he used to be quite skinny, but suddenly became super-buff, back in the days when musclebound action heroes like Schwarzenegger and Stallone were the in-thing.

I like Kamal Haasan. And I enjoy watching him on screen. That's why when I saw the trailer for his upcoming huge-budget epic, Dasavatharam, I almost fell out of my chair.

The guy's really gone and done it this time. He's playing TEN different characters in this movie! While the story is still a big mystery, I'm guessing from the looks of the trailer that it's going to be something like Quantum Leap, where he leaps into the bodies of different people. I'm just speculating, but nonetheless, the trailer looks fantastic, and I can't wait for the movie to open.

It was partly shot in Malaysia.

Grady wrote a bit about it, too.

Visit the Official Website here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eric Khoo Goes To France ... I Eat My Shorts

Sometime ago, I wrote an entry and asked when we would see a major festival winner from Singapore. The island state is going places with big co-productions (Kelvin Tong's Rule #1 just came and went, The Tattooist is here and The Painted Skin will soon be here), and its indie filmmakers have just started making rounds at the festivals in a big way. But unlike Malaysia, they still don't have a winner at any of the major fests.

That entry started some kind of a comments war, quite hilariously.

But wait, a few days ago we heard that Eric Khoo's My Magic will be screening at this year's Cannes. His Be With Me was, of course, the Director's Fortnight showcase two years ago.

And today, we got confirmation that My Magic will be in competition.

The film is 80% in Tamil, with a bit of Hokkien and English. The story is inspired by real-life fire-eater Francis Bosco, who will play a downtrodden alcoholic magician who tries to reconnect with his 14-year-old son.

Congrats, Eric. I eat my shorts.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Some Things To Look Forward To

Of all the surprises that could come our way, it's the one about Slit-Mouthed Woman opening here on May 1. That's Labour Day. TwitchFilm has been following the film for a while now, and I've been following Twitch following the film. So understandably, I'm quite excited about it.

The other one is that Nakata Hideo's Kaidan will open April 17.

I had this funny thought reading the synopsis for Slit-Mouthed Woman. If she ever comes to haunt me, and says to me "Am I beautiful?", I'd just play James Blunt's You're Beautiful at top volume.

Instant love, man.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

You Got To Heart Office Kitano

Well, this piece of news certainly made my day.

I'm a big Kitano Takeshi fan, ever since I saw Hana-Bi, and it was my very first Kitano film. I cried like a baby at the ending. It was the most sentimental gangster film I'd ever seen, if there could ever be such a thing.

But it is.

Then I got the UK R2 box-set that includes Violent Cop, Boiling Point and Sonatine. The first was very disturbing and sad, the second had me scratching my head at the framings, the third was endearing. It was the most endearing gangster film I'd ever seen, if there could ever be such a thing.

But it is.

Over the years, I acquired and saw the rest of his filmography, and now Kikujiro shares the spot with Hana-Bi as my most favourite Kitano films. A couple years ago, I caught Takeshis in Singapore, and ended up scratching my head again. That piece of mindfuck is the most confusingly personal film of his, if ever there could be such a thing.

But ... it is.

I still haven't seen Glory To The Filmmaker (Kantoku Banzai), but from what I can gauge from the very mixed reviews it got, I'll be expecting something along the likes of Takeshis. The thing about Kitano is that as frustrating or confusing as he has ever been, and as frustrated and confused as he has ever made me, he's yet to make a film that I can truly hate. There's just so many of his personal touches in his films that they have the ability to exist within their own universe, governed by their own set of rules, so there's nothing to compare them to except each other.

This new film, Achilles to Kame (Achilles And The Tortoise), sees Kitano play "a talentless-but-dedicated artist who plugs along with the support of his long-suffering wife." I don't know about you, but this, keeping in mind his last two films, sounds like Kitano has reached a point every artist reaches, where he attempts to grasp at ... something, and we're not quite sure what.

And the fact that he's going to feature more of his "idiotic paintings," like in Hana-Bi, well folks like Jonathan Rosenbaum who don't think much of his canvas work should watch out.

Personally, I think those paintings of his are affecting, in the way that his films are in a world of their own.

Glory to the filmmaker!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Box-Office Boogie

This blog is still slacking off, as is usual these days. I tire out like shit every day. Things are pretty much the same over the Causeway with Mr Nutshell. He's going hog-wild at the Singapore International Film Festival, which is on this week, and tiring out at the end of the day. I think he will collapse and deflate into a lifeless puddle by the end of the week. You can trust me on that. (I heard from him that Wisekwai of the Thai Film Journal was there, too, and Wisekwai's review of Lav Diaz's nine-hour epic at his blog confirms it. And by the way, sometime ago, I, too, survived a Lav Diaz epic, the 11-hour-long Evolution Of A Filipino Family.)

The SIFF used to be THE festival for us who couldn't travel to anywhere else. It was where I first saw Tsai Ming-liang in person, and watched my first Kurosawa Kiyoshi film (the creepfest, Pulse, after which I had to withstand a night alone in my shadowy hotel room). But over the years, I just lost interest, because the selection there seems to challenge little nowadays and offer little in excitement. I could be wrong because according to Mr Nutshell, the SIFF has so far been an exciting affair and a cool excuse to hang out with and meet like-minds. He's really making me regret not going over there this year.

But THREE James Lee films this year? Who programmes these things? Granted one of the films is a mainstream horror flick, but I don't think his track record should invite such reverence.

Talking about Singapore, the latest news from Buena Vista is that Jack Neo's Ah Long Pte Ltd is now officially the highest grossing Singaporean film in Malaysia. I have no idea who the previous record-holder was, though. I caught it this past weekend, and the hall I was in was packed. The audience seemed to enjoy the movie a lot, laughing every few seconds, although I was mostly groaning at the low-grade humour. My friend did laugh at a few of the Hokkien jokes though.

And then, there's this shocker at the box-office: Evolusi KL Drift has grossed RM2 million in just three days!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Big Kingdom, Small Kingdom

This past week and few days have been hectic as hell, which explains the lack of updates here. I've missed out on a few things, such as the Iron Man trailer, which features really stupid and cliched rock music, the Incredible Hulk trailer which nothing more spectacular than Ang Lee's version, the My Sassy Girl remake which features annoying acting and annoying music, and a few other things, including a bunch of stuff about John Woo's Red Cliff. I'm not going to link any of these things here, since they're old news now and you can find them practically everywhere on the Net.

This week, despite the full schedule that left me no breathing space, I did catch a couple of films. First up was Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon. Real stylo title, real stylo film. The posters are neat, and you'd expect the neatness to be matched by the film's overall quality. But Three Kingdoms turned to be a rushed affair, with the filmmakers trying to cram as much as they can into a two-hour film. The action is shot closely, resulting in a lot of blurry action, and they are not particularly exciting for the lack of any build-ups. They've got a bunch of very able stars but all of them are wasted on an adaptation that can't seem to find a foothold on any emotional or excitement quotient.

Then there's Horton Hears A Who, which, very surprisingly, is far more entertaining. But it's nothing really great, partly because I'm so tired of these very "talky" American animated films. The characters just cannot shut up. That's why the most memorable sequence for me is the nighttime escapade by the Mayor of Whoville's son as he goes up to the town's observatory. Quiet, no dialogue, just music. Nice.

This is one very weird movie. I don't really know what to make of it, except that it's not really a kid's movie, despite it being a Dr Seuss affair. It's so damn subversive! There's the weird, loopy mindtrip about how each world is just a speck in a bigger universe beyond, and the insistence on the belief that "if you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist," and some stuff about how children, if allowed to use their imaginations, could become anarchists.

I told you it's weird.

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