Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One For The X-Files ...

So this and last week, the world was abuzz with the news of the disappearance of one Tony Jaa, international action superstar. One day he was on the set of Ong Bak 2, directing and acting, and the next, he had gone into the jungle to meditate. After that, he became something like Bigfoot and Elvis, reports of him being spotted in various places popping up like mushrooms. Even Variety picked up the story, and that's got to be important. His producer held a teary-eyed press conference begging Tony to come back, please come back. And lo and behold, today it's reported that Tony appeared on a TV show and claimed he never abandoned the movie at all.

Tony Jaa's disappearance and re-appearance is spooky enough as it is. But this piece about William Castle and Rosemary's Baby is even spookier. One coincidence is just that, a coincidence. But several coincidences? It becomes one too many for comfort.

Read on, and discover how the movie adaptation of Ira Levin's story about Satan's child being born in New York is linked to director Roman Polanski's wife Sharon Tate's murder by Charles Manson, Mia Farrow's divorce from Sinatra, two other deaths, and Castle's prolonged illnesses.

And the weirdest and spookiest?

John Lennon had spent the spring of 1968 with Mia Farrow at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India. During their stay, Lennon had written "Dear Prudence" for Farrow's sister (who shared a name with Sharon Tate's Yorkshire terrier) and it featured on The Beatles' White Album that November. Charles Manson claimed that the LP contained coded messages about the impending race war he hoped to provoke with the Cielo Drive slayings. Lennon himself met a violent end in December 1980 when he was gunned down in New York — outside the Dakota apartments which Castle and Polanski had used for the exteriors of the Bramford block where Rosemary gave birth to her child.

Woah. Brrr!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Tragedy Of Watchmen

Admit it, you knew this post was coming.

The Watchmen trailer is out (no, I won't link it here), and the Geekdom has cheered its approval, complete with fists punching air. The San Diego Comic Con has a model of Nite Owl's ship on display for fanboys to walk through and gawk at. Everyone's playing it like the trailer has shown us a glimpse of pure genius, like we will be weeping our eyes out when the final masterpiece is unveiled.

This, unfortunately, is the reality. Let's think about it for a moment. Would the fanboy geekdom wield so much power and influence had there not been the Internet? Now is the Age Of The Geek. Now is their time. With fast and wide connection, wired throughout the world, the geeks even dare go up against the Weinsteins. Now if that's not power, I don't know what is.

Now, with this much enthusiasm and approval for Watchmen, anything short of a hit for the movie would be unthinkable. The positive reaction so far is just a symptom of the current need for slickness and style. And that's what Zack Snyder is all about. All style, no substance. That's also why 300 was a massive hit among the fanboys. We can safely blame Sin City for this. From thereon, movie adaptations of comicbooks became much more concerned with emulating the panels of the comicbook, in lieu of everything else. The oohs and aahs of the fanboys came from seeing how much 300 the movie looks like 300 the comicbook. No fanboy much cared for the racist and fascist overtones. Hell, it's an awesome movie to look at, why politicise it?

Snyder's modus operandi for Watchmen seems to be more of the same. The first information released on the Net was about how painstakingly Snyder and gang paid attention to every detail of Dave Gibbons' artwork. If only movie adaptations of comicbooks were so easy, every comicbook movie would be a hit. Why did Christopher Nolan and his brother have to crack their skulls to come up with such a brilliant script when just emulating every panel of The Killing Joke would have been enough?

The very basic, simple point missed by folks like Snyder is that: even if your Watchmen don't look like they do in the comicbooks, but you have a story of substance to tell, and you're able to retain the essence of what the original story was about, it would be a good movie anyway.

The first thing already wrong with Snyder's vision of Watchmen is that everything is slick. Everything is cool. I've said before, there's a reason why the superheroes' costumes, as rendered by Gibbons, look a little odd and ill-fitting. It's not just the superheroes are older and paunchier in the present time of the story. The idea Alan Moore grapples with in the book is that if superheroes did exist, they would be the odd ones out. They would be the outcasts. They would be weirdos. Having that much power would screw your head up in some ways.

But it looks from the trailer like there's just going to be more "carnage in slow-motion", as someone described. The way the guy explodes at Dr Manhattan's touch is cool. The way Nite Owl's ship comes out of the water is cool.

Having seen The Dark Knight, I have to wonder what Watchmen would have been like had the project gone to Nolan. Nolan would have understood, he would have dug even deeper into the story, probing the very nature of the Watchmen. Moore's book is a dark, disturbing, and terribly unsettling story, and you come away from it not being able to look at superheroes the same way ever again. At least I did.

Snyder obviously didn't. There's a reason why Watchmen was, for many years, considered unadaptable. But it seems Snyder so easily jumped into it, and churned out a movie in record time.

That has got to be cause for worry.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Crazy As A Bat Part 2

So, it's kind of nice to hear that "assault" doesn't exactly mean beating up someone, in the UK, that is. It can mean shouting or even spitting. Over there, beating up someone gets you a "battery" charge. Simply, Christian Bale went to the police station (voluntarily, according to the press) to explain why he shouted at his mom.

Some members of the media are already quick to jump on the bandwagon of painting Bale as a violent guy, prone to rage-filled outbursts and threat-making. Like a recent "expose" about Bale threatening to kick a cinematographer's ass on the set of Terminator Salvation.

Thankfully, The Dark Knight has become quite a phenomenon, its box-office numbers greatly overshadowing those silly, unethical news reports. While Dave Kehr alleges that Batman could be construed as kind of a stand-in for Bush (see the link in Part One), J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader (Gotham Reader?) sees Batman as a Christ figure. ("Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”) But you know, we've long established that almost any character in movies can be paralleled with Christ (Alien 3, anyone?).

But what this proves is simply that The Dark Knight is so multi-faceted, multi-layered and complex that it warrants a myriad ways of looking at it. But not all views are valid, though. For example (and Mr Nutshell knows I'm getting here eventually), this review that keeps harping on the comicbooks and how accurately Nolan has followed the comicbooks. It's a classic example of an overlong review that says absolutely ... nothing. It gets so much that you want to slap him upside his head and say: "Dude, Nolan's moved on from the comicbooks! You're left behind!"

The Dark Knight has transcended its comicbook origins. But it hasn't exactly transcended the superhero genre, as some have claimed. What it has done is simply rethought, reshaped and remoulded the idea of what a superhero is. Quite simply, if superheroes do exist in this world, what would be the consequences? It's basically the same question asked by Alan Moore with Watchmen. While Nolan explores the external effects, Moore is more concerned with the internal issues.

Would the existence of superheroes really save us from destruction? What kind of an internal pressure would a superhero have to face? What happens when individuals have that much power? At one point, Lucius Fox, when a giant surveillance system was revealed to him, does question if a person should possess that much power.

Ultimately, I guess it's the question of "Who watches the Watchmen?" that inspired Kehr's observation of totalitarianism as the sole, effective guard against anarchy, and that Batman, as batty as it sounds, is really Bush.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Three Kingdoms, Two Movies

Let's hold off the stuff about superheroes assaulting their mothers for a while. Here's something long overdue on this blog. I've simply been doing too much movie stuff in the real world that I've sort of lost momentum here in cyberspace.

It's John Woo's Red Cliff (Chi Bi) I'm talking about. There really are two main issues here regarding the timeliness (or not) and effectiveness of this film. Firstly, and foremost I think, is the fact that this is Woo's Asian comeback. He was perhaps the first Hong Kong director (I might be wrong, so kick me in the nuts if I am) of his period to head to Hollywood in search of greener pastures and bigger budgets. It was a really exciting prospect at the time, of having Woo making more of his bullet-ballet movies in the scale of Hollywood. Hard Target notwithstanding, Face/Off was the real result of that marriage.

Pretty soon, everyone else followed suit - Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Ronny Yu, Yuen Wo-ping, even Chen Kaige. It was an exciting time, especially after Ang Lee opened the gates for Asian films with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Just when we thought, ya, this is it, then things started to look not so good. Something was going wrong. The movies, the performances, everything was becoming lacklustre. On the surface, it looked like Hollywood was swallowing up the talent and spewing out run-of-the-mill results. Of course, beneath, it was anyone's guess what was going wrong. But you know, if you take char kuey teow to America, and you put mushrooms, spaghetti sauce and meatballs in it, it's not going to taste quite the same as the char kuey teow in Asia.

In the end, one by one, they started to come home to Asia. They started to make good movies again, reclaiming their mojo. And when one of the guys who was among the earliest to take to the migration, returned as well, and was going to make an historical epic based on one of the most famous Chinese historical, cultural and literary stories, it was really cause for celebration.

Secondly, the trend of Asian big-budget epics is reaching an almost ridiculous level. We've been inundated with them, and in the last months alone, we've had Peter Chan's The Warlords, the Andy Lau-starrer Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon and An Empress And The Warriors. And as we all know about those things called trends, they eventually combust, implode or just simply deflate into nothingness. And we'll all look back with a little embarrassment.

Perhaps if Red Cliff had come at an earlier time, it would have been easier to digest and appreciate. Had there not been an endless supply of such big epics, Red Cliff would have been something of a wonder for Asia. But then, we are arguing against time and its unstoppable flow, and the jetsam and flotsam that inevitably get carried by its currents. And that's a void argument.

The real concern is that big epics need a focused and intimate story at its heart, and the sprawling epic images and feel need to have a central purpose. The Last Emperor's grandiosity frames its titular character, and even imprisons him, becoming an essential device in the storytelling. In Zhang Yimou's Hero, it informed the struggle of a few individuals against a larger scheme of things, and underlined that battle, making the futility of it all more pronounced.

Red Cliff's only sole purpose for its epic scale, seems to be to bend over backwards in fearful respect for its source material; a well-known, widely read, endlessly studied portion of Chinese history and culture. This fervour to honour the legendary source material with an attempt to emulate its grand scale drowns out every other reason there may be for undertaking such a huge endeavour. In the end, it becomes an epic just for the sake of making an epic, visual grandeur solely to impress the eyes.

Yet, it's certainly difficult not to want to welcome back one of Asia's most important action filmmakers, and to recognise the once-lost vigour returned in the form of wild action and characters making cool poses more than actually engaging in combat. It's these things we love and missed. At least Woo does give us that much, but whether that is enough to overcome its too-apparent need to wow us visually, it really depends on how much you've actually missed the John Woo who made Hong Kong movies and tired of the one who made Hollywood assembly-line ones.

And in Red Cliff, it's a very close race between the two. So close, it's almost a photo finish.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Crazy As A Bat

It seems now that The Dark Knight is going to go down in cinematic history as both a very good film and a legend, for both the right and wrong reasons. You can be sure it will be fuelling speculations for a long time, because this just in: Christian Bale has just been arrested in Leicester for assaulting his mother.

While Mr Nutshell has been complaining that The Dark Knight tickets are sold out even on weekdays, and that he can't get into a cinema to see the film again - and IMAX tickets in the US are sold out till next week - I say too bad, because I've seen it twice already. The second time was in the IMAX cinema, but I think it's probably a regular 35mm print blown up for the giant IMAX screen here. The picture quality wasn't good at all, but I guess they meant for us to "see it on an IMAX screen" and not "see it in IMAX." And the ticket price is much lower than for normal IMAX movies. Picture quality complaints aside, the city skyline scenes and flying scenes do look very breathtaking in IMAX size. And the sheer scale of the Tumbler and Batpod chase sequences do come across stronger.

Meanwhile, here's some crazy discussion about Dave Kehr's crazy assertion that Batman = Bush! The discussion is still on-going.

More on Bat stuff later.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Darkest Of Nights

I saw The Dark Knight as early as last Thursday. But there was an embargo on reviews. And anyone who knows me knows how much I hate the idea of embargoes, unless it is on an exclusive. When a bunch of 20 or more journalists, bloggers and reviewers attend the screening, and there is an embargo, what purpose does it serve? Someone somewhere is going to post something online, and the rest of us would be screwed. Embargoes on something that's not an exclusive is just plain stupid.

And sure enough, while I obediently observed the embargo, two idiots posted their reviews online almost right away. So much for the fucking embargo.

Having waited for so long to write this, I've kind of lost steam now. But I can say that whatever I had gleaned from the trailers before this, none of it comes close to the actual final product. I had little confidence in this sequel, partly because of the trailer, and partly because early reviews had mentioned that this was more action and less introspection. And from the trailer, I had felt Heath Ledger's Joker was no different than Jack Nicholson's, right down to the manic laughter.

But having seen the actual film, I take it all back.

Christopher Nolan has done the seemingly almost impossible, given us a sequel that builds upon the first film, builds upon the characters, and gave Gotham City a tangible place in the real world by linking it to Hong Kong. This is no longer a purely fictional world, but something much closer to home, which is probably why The Dark Knight feels extra disturbing. Tim Burton's version was set in a purely fantastical place, therefore rendering the whole affair a whimsical spectacle, and we watch it, distanced and detached, as purely a spectacle. Nolan's sequel cannot be removed from us simply because being rooted now in the real world, the issues it addresses become far more immediate than we could imagine from something of a comicbook origin.

The nature of hero and villain, good and evil, is explored through a glass darkly, the mirror images of both being far more conclusive in Nolan's treatment of the subject than any graphic novel has thus far done, the closest being Arkham Asylum, but which dealt the same cards in a different order. Then, for Nolan, there's also the idea of what a hero is in a society on the brink of anarchy, and he questions the very essence of human nature.

But the most interesting thing I find is the film's version of The Joker. Not only did Heath Ledger give a monumental performance, presenting us a Joker like we've never seen before this (and with a gloriously ingenious introduction to him involving a pencil), The Joker of this film takes on a whole different purpose altogether, removed from its comicbook mentality and disregarding the idea of him as merely a villain. This Joker appears seemingly out of nowhere, with no clear purpose or motive, origin unknown. He is the very basic idea of evil, if you want to call it that, the other end of the scale, one-part of a dual concept that is meaningless without its counterpart. That this evil simply exists is enough for the film, that it's as much a symbol as Batman is, that its genesis is untraceable, is the symptom of its role as metaphor, idea, representation. He is the catalyst for the anarchy that threatens to swallow an entire city, and the fact that his origin is ever-changing in the tales that come right out of his own mouth, only makes him ever more the disembodied.

All the action is great, and Nolan has improved on the last film even in this aspect, giving us sequences that are better shot and more controlled. Exciting as they are, it is what's brewing beneath and then spilling over the top that makes this more than just a superhero movie.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

They Gave Me Something To Talk About

This is it. This is the motherlode. This is the Ultimate Collector's Edition of CASABLANCA. One of my all-time favourite films.

According to Digital Bits, this boxed set will include 40 minutes of extra features, 2 feature-length commentaries, travel-related premiums, a photo book, etc!

Alas, I will have to salivate until the end of the year, which is when it will probably be released.

Michael Bay Wanted To Do Batman

It seems that Michael Bay wrote a script of The Dark Knight, which Warner Bros rejected. You can read it here.

Some of the comments are rather entertaining. "I'm not so sure this script is even real to be honest."


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Film School Follies

I'm still reeling from an incident that happened a few days ago. Not that it was something I hadn't already expected, but nonetheless, it was still quite unnerving.

It all started when a well-known film critic and scholar said that Hancock is just an unimpressive mish-mash of other movies, and nothing more. That would not have been so bad, although it was indeed disappointing, but he went on to say that Wanted was a better film.

That got me completely flabbergasted. I think they could hear me hurling even down in Antarctica. How could someone so well-versed in film theory and all that, find a vacuous film like Wanted far more viable than a film with a more interesting conflict and emotional weight at its centre?

This is a guy who teaches film, and is respected and looked up to by some filmmakers and students. I know some filmmakers who run their films by him to get "approval." Certainly, it's impressive to hear him talk about film theory and all that, and he does know a lot.

But personally, I've always taken everything he said with a dollop of salt. This wariness came rather early - when I first met him, in fact - because he told me that Gladiator is about family. "All that Russell Crowe's character wants is to go back to his family! So, the film is really about family!" he told me rather authoritatively. And yes, he speaks with exclamation marks.

I nodded silently of course. What can one do in the face of such booming authority but to cower in humility?

There is a scene right at the beginning of Gladiator that, like many other films, signifies the beginning of the backbone that will hold the story together. Right before the big battle with the barbarians in the forest, Crowe's Maximus watches a bird on a branch. There's a little smile on his face, as the farmer in him clearly enjoys the beauty of nature and the serene respite it offers. Then in a split second, he turns and his expression changes into that of a hardened general about to lead his army into war. The important fact is not that Maximus wants to return to his family, but the duality of the tough war general and the gentle farmer. All three main characters - Maximus, Commodus and his sister Lucilla - are forced into situations that they'd rather not be in but know it's the only way to lead them where they want to go. Lucilla begins as a somewhat confident woman, but we soon discover she has a past with Maximus and later, we see a different side of her. Commodus, for all his swaggering, is still a scared little boy at heart, as we see in two scenes, with his father and with his sister.

How is it a story primarily concerned with family? I don't know. If you can find a consistency about that anywhere in the film, call me.

All talk about theories is always to mask the inability to observe human behaviour and quirks, the interconnectedness at the core of all of us. All the stories in the world are about one thing - the human condition. Even March Of The Penguins ultimately is a reflection of our very basic human needs. If we can't find the mirror within a story, then the story is worthless to us. If films are only about signifiers, semiotics, gestalt and whatever theory out there, then films are worthless to us. But they are not.

We don't have to look at the blueprint of a house to know that it is a beautiful house and that it functions well. Of course, knowing how the house was constructed adds to our appreciation of it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Don't Mess With The Hancock

So the verdict is out, and most critics have made up their minds about Hancock. Unfortunately , or expectedly, most of them hate it. You can head on over to Greencine Daily for their compilation of Hancock reviews. One of them is that dreaded Christopher Orr of The New Republic. I don't know why this guy is still allowed to write "reviews." He's way off most times, as with The Happening where there's lots more to talk about the film but he chooses to slag off M. Night in a childishly sarcastic manner. He's way off again with Hancock, calling it a "clumsy, half-hearted mish-mash."

Clumsy? Half-hearted? You'd think that only if you watched the movie while in a coma.

That's why David Poland is fast becoming one of my favourite critics. He has just written a review with spoilers, following up on his initial spoiler-free one. He is one of the very few, very few, people who could see Hancock for what it really is. Although he calls it "complex," I wouldn't though, but I do think Hancock is a very well thought-out, extremely cleverly conceived film.

It's probably the first superhero movie to deal directly with the idea of "power" in such an interesting manner. There is one scene in the movie that I thought was perplexing the first time I saw it. Three bad guys that Hancock has recently put away are sitting in the prison courtyard talking. One tells the other two that their "power" has been taken away and they have to take it back. But this is actually very consistent with the rest of the movie.

Read Poland's great review for more, but only after you've seen the movie.

The only real problem with Hancock is that Peter Berg has given us a movie we cannot discuss properly without giving anything away. Those of us who want to support the film and tell others to go see it can't do so convincingly without giving away spoilers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Here's The Real Summer Blockbuster!

An online friend boasted that he could write a review of Hancock just from watching the trailer, because he thinks the trailer gives too much away, ie. the entire story. Well, I'm sorry to say, he's dead wrong.

Yes, there's a lot in the trailer, but the most important plot point, the major one that actually makes the movie, isn't even hinted at in the trailer. After being inundated by Hollywood summer blockbusters that are entertaining but forgettable (Iron Man), plain forgettable and painfully boring (The Incredible Hulk), and vacuous (Wanted) - and also having been plain disappointed with one Hollywood blockbuster after another over the years - it's just pure delight to find one that can still genuinely surprise and move.

Hancock blows all competition right out of the water (well, the competition isn't that great to begin with anyway). It gets top points because of its unpredictability and because it's got a very big heart at its centre, something so lacking in mainstream movies today. Yes, it actually manages to be moving in more than one instance.

I really cannot reveal any more about the movie than to say that it starts off as almost a spoof of the superhero genre, but then takes a completely unexpected turn somewhere and becomes a whole different movie. Some of the jokes are painfully obvious or quite unfunny, but thankfully most times the humour works. When it doesn't, it also doesn't get in the way of the movie.

It's very obvious what's going to happen with Hancock among the summer blockbuster audiences. Those who have been programmed by Hollywood on what to expect and what to like, aren't going to take too kindly to Hancock's surprise. Those who still want something fresh out of Hollywood apart from the usual stale offering, will love what they get.

You won't see that major plot point coming. At all. And when it comes, it's going to pack such a wallop that some will go "WOW!" while others will wonder "HUH?!"

I haven't been following director Peter Berg's work. Guess it's time to get The Kingdom on DVD. Heard it's pretty good too. Well, a director for whom Michael Mann thinks is good enough to produce must have something right going for him.

And Will Smith? I think it's his best role yet. And if he keeps on going at this rate, he'll be earning some serious accolades soon.

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