Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Warning To Blu-ray

There's a nice article at Silicon Alley Insider linking to a Content Agenda write-up about Blu-ray that tells it like it is. The first paragraph sets it up:

"Paul Sweeting at ContentAgenda argues that Blu-ray needs to stop pretending it's a revolutionary new format like DVD and start acting like what it is ... a minor quality improvement that consumers won't pay any more for."

Trawling through my archive, I found that I, myself, wrote this about Blu-ray. I basically said the same thing: that Blu-ray is a minor quality improvement that consumers won't pay any more for.

If I were to indulge in Blu-ray, then I would have to purchase a widescreen HD TV set. Sure, the prices of HD TVs are seeing a reduction now, but Blu-ray discs remain expensive at the moment, and logically will remain so for at least the next two years. There really is no incentive for a consumer like me to invest in both.

Sweeting correctly points out:
"What it is, is a fancy DVD player for those who want to get the most out of their HDTV sets."

Read the rest of his interesting write-up here.

Asian Films Everyday

Ladies and gentlemen, I announce the birth of The Storyboard Daily, the sister blog to this one. I hope to maintain a steady stream of the latest news on Asian films from blogs and other sources. The operative word here is "hope." But if not daily, then at least I will update it as regularly as I can.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Dark Night Of The Soul aka I Eat My Words

In the long, dark hours of the soul, ie. between 2.30am and 3.30am, I was trawling through my archive, and to my utter surprise, found this:

Strange, but I don't even remember writing it. This was back in December of last year, back when I was still very highly sceptical of The Dark Knight because of the ridiculous viral marketing that was going on. I had thought, if they need to plug it so much, then it can't be a good film. So I decided to make fun of it.

Now, I must eat my words!

Yes, I love The Dark Knight and think it's the best Hollywood film this year. I've just acquired the two-disc special edition DVD and was bowled over by it all over again two days ago. Now, looking back at those "questions," a few stand out like a sore thumb.
5. What's the big deal about The Joker anyway? Isn't Heath's just a carbon copy of Jack Nicholson's seminal performance?

Boy, could that be any further from the truth.
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?

OK, this one still stands. I suspect it's Christopher Nolan's homage to Tim Burton.
7. Doesn't Heath's "maniacal laugh" sound exactly the same as Nicholson's?

In some of the scenes, yes. But now, I think Heath's laugh is much more menacing.
8. Could they ever top Danny Elfman's wonderful score?

My God, they actually did. In that other entry below, I've already mentioned how the minimal and understated score of The Dark Knight is so effective, using sounds rather than an actual, full-blown score.

So, now I've come full circle. And I realised why The Dark Knight works so well and is a superb and appropriate follow-up to Batman Begins. It's because the story is bigger and more complex; the filmmakers smartly focused on getting a bigger story right, before any other considerations. Compare that to say, Spider-Man 2 or X-Men 2, where the main idea was to provide bigger special effects, bigger action sequences, which ultimately becomes boring. But The Dark Knight resonates and resonates for a long time.

Too bad the extras on the DVD, especially the making-of documentary, isn't quite as spiffy as the movie. There are tonnes of stuff about the special effects, gadgets, action sequences and stunts, and a whole lot more about IMAX. But where's the stuff about the acting, the story development, etc?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I Have No Love For Hollywood But This Is Ridiculous

While I do find the occasional Hollywood film to love and rave about, I generally have no love especially for contemporary Hollywood. More and more bad films are coming out of it now than ever. But this, reported in the NST, is just sublimely stupid (a term I've come to appreciate more and more).

The Malaysian Film Producers Association has submitted a proposal to FINAS on how to help local films perform better at the cinemas. And one of the proposed move is:

to increase ticket prices of Hollywood movies to RM20.

Oh, yeah, that's a superbly smart move, if ever I'd seen one. Sure, if I can't afford a RM20 ticket, I'll go watch Cicakman instead. If the ticket to The Dark Knight is way too much for me, I'll definitely go watch Congkak instead.

A letter to the editor by a far more sensible reader of The Star today raised some pertinent but obvious points. Simply, the problem is not the ticket price.

It's a proven fact that those fighting a losing battle with no quick solution in sight often resort to blaming anything but themselves. If the Malaysian Film Producers Association would just get their thick heads out of the holes in the sand, they'd not be in denial that most local films are of piss-poor quality.

Says the letter writer:
"It’s time to get creative with the film-making and not get ridiculous with problem-solving. Raising the prices will only mean cinemas going bust. Pirated VCD/DVD pedlars will be throwing parties every day, and file-sharing programmes will become the most-used service in the country."

Raising the ticket price is not a solution when other cheaper alternatives for moviegoers, like Bittorrent, are available. The layman can see this, so why can't the "Malaysian Film Producers Association"? No wonder we make piss-poor films when our producers can't even understand simple economics and logic. Instead, we get delusional statements like this one from the association's president:
"... some of today's locally-made movies are on par with foreign movies in terms of quality."

Wow, really? Has he actually sat down and compared say, Antoo Fighter with Iron Man? With special effects that are almost 30 years behind Hollywood, sure, we're on par with others. With a massive handicap, that is.

He also goes on to cite Indonesia as an example of how the disparity between ticket prices has helped the industry there. I'm sorry to have to point this out to him, but Indonesia has the capability of making a simple but very enjoyable and imaginative movie like Janji Joni, which even I paid for a ticket to see in the cinema when it opened here.

Would I pay for a ticket to see Brainscan Topi Ajaib (or whatever crap it's called)? Nope, sorry.

An industry that wallows in denial and delusions of grandeur isn't going to go anywhere fast. I just hope some sensible heads in FINAS will prevail.

It's also not fair to put the blame solely on the industry itself. Those critics who blindly praise anything local are helping to perpetuate a culture of patting each other on the back. Honest, constructive criticism is the last line of defence against bad filmmaking, as are informed critiques and opinions. Too many self-appointed "critics" quoting Robert McKee and Syd Field are lending false hope to our filmmakers, who often do not believe in tough love.

But tough love is what is needed, as are sincerity and sensible minds. Too bad they're in such short supply.

Note: I predict that we'll soon hear a storm of protests from the cinema chains.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Is What 2008 Best

As you might already know, I don't do lists. Normally. And I don't believe in ratings. Everything is so grey in the arts that you can't really grade or rate anything, let alone accurately. So I do general rundowns and recaps without assigning an order or hierarchy to anything.

I was excited to see horror novelist Stephen King naming The Dark Knight as his no. 1 film of 2008. But upon second thought, it's actually a no-brainer in such a dismal year. So, a lot of folks would argue that it wasn't a bad year, but most of these folks also put WALL-E as their no. 1 film. Take, for example, Liza Schwarzbaum (of Entertainment Weekly)'s completely misfired comment about her no. 1 film, WALL-E:
"Years from now - yea, unto eternity - all who love movies will rank WALL•E among the medium's most profound, subtle, sophisticated, and gorgeously inventive specimens, ever."

Yet another sublimely stupid statement this year, ranking among the frothing praises afforded to the Watchmen trailer. "Sophisticated"? "Subtle"? "Profound"? Obviously Miss Schwarzbaum hasn't seen any Miyazaki.

I would readily admit that the first half of WALL-E is indeed a surprising new side of American animation. But beyond that, the movie is just another yakkety, run-of-the-mill chase cartoon. Whatever quiet dignity it displayed in the first half gets sucked completely into outer space. Here is a movie that's as utterly and insanely overrated as the local film, Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang.

Enough of what went wrong with other lists. The top of the line movies this year are few. I can mention all of them in one breath, in one sentence.

The Dark Knight, Sparrow, No Country For Old Men (it was released here this year).

If I had seen Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Tokyo Sonata and Miyazaki's Ponyo On A Cliff By The Sea, I'm very sure they would have easily slipped into that sentence.

Special mentions go to Speed Racer, Hancock and The Happening. I do realise that last one is going to get me flamed, but I have a lot of respect for M. Night Shyamalan's work, and I enjoyed that film more than, say, Iron Man, which is another overrated (but vastly more entertaining than WALL-E) movie.

The surprise discovery of this year, for me, was Charles Burnett's endlessly poetic Killer Of Sheep, which finally came out on DVD. And of the box sets I acquired this year, the best is probably the Casablanca Ultimate Collector's Edition, with The Last Emperor Criterion four-disc set coming a close second for its fascinating extras.

Of course, if I could afford the Happy Together 10th Anniversary Limited Edition box set, it would top everything else.

Well, that's it. I did say it was going to be short.

Note that I haven't had the chance to see Ip Man or Let The Right One In, both of which are strong contenders.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jingle Bells

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Up next is the Best Of 2008.

And it's a very short list, for obvious reasons!

Happy holidays.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Listening To Movies

I was flipping through the papers today and came across this article about movie soundtracks. I couldn't really finish reading it after the first paragraph, which really got the neuro-gears grinding overtime.

"Soundtracks in movies are a bit of a cheat, when you think about it. Like canned laughter in sitcoms, a sneaky way to tell us: right now you should be feeling scared, or happy, or sad. You would think that any story and acting that was good enough would not need that kind of help."

Well, that's not exactly accurate. If you factor in the Hollywood norm for providing scores and songs to movies, then yes, because the usual Hollywood method is very manipulative. Otherwise, the general rule is, a good score is stealthy, and you're not supposed to notice it at all. I guess it's different with songs, because those will always be in-your-face.

That's why scorers like John Williams and Howard Shore are like old relics. In contemporary times, these big, sweeping, orchestral scores by the likes of Williams and Shore are passe, more annoying than complementary to the movies to which they play, because they tend to overwhelm and drown out everything else.

An example of a good contemporary score would be The Dark Knight's, composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The music is most times understated, leaving the job more to a rhythmic pulse than an all-out orchestral swell. It is sounds and beats interlaced with only necessary notes that become a part of the visuals, not just driving them. You see the music, not just hear it. The score literally becomes the pulse that drives the movie. Thank goodness there's none of that now-cliched choral outbreak. If there were, then it's still a good job because I certainly didn't notice it.

But having said all that, Williams' score for A.I. Artificial Intelligence is surprisingly understated, low-key and wistful. But you wish he'd do more of that.

When Films Confound Us

I was reading Kong Rithdee's write-up on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes And A Century, here at Criticine, and was reminded of something I wrote a while ago. Mostly, it's this line from Rithdee that frustrated me:
"Maybe Apichatpong’s films are not meant to be explained, but felt. They enrich and wrap us whole in their smothering hugs not because they can be understood but perceived. We receive the images through the eyes and they go directly to the heart. Like great music, his films bypass our critical faculty ..."

I've long disagreed with this kind of views on films. Great music does not bypass our critical faculty. If a piece of music or a film truly makes you feel something, then you should be able to articulate why. It's only natural. If, as a critic, you cannot, then you've failed.

Here's the piece I wrote a while back, on another blog:

I was originally going to write, or attempt to write, a review of Mirror, but Andrei Tarkovsky's film proved to be a really hard piece to crack.

There I was on a Saturday night last week, having had supper, showered, and gotten all relaxed in my favourite armchair, I decided to pop this into the DVD player, excited at the prospect of seeing my very first Tarkovsky film. After all, my introduction to Bela Tarr has been no less than awesome, and Tarr is reportedly heavily influenced by Tarkovksy.

After about 30 minutes into the film, I had to switch it off.

I was dumbfounded, frustrated and a little bit incensed, the exact same feeling I got watching Fellini's
8 1/2.

This was probably one of the most self-indulgent crap I had ever witnessed. Where was the story, or at least where was my concern for what the filmmaker was trying to present? If it's autobiographical, why should I care about his mother, his childhood, his whatever? How does it all relate to me, that is, to the universal human condition? Nothing came across.

Mirror is widely held as Tarkovsky's great masterpiece, and even after reading some critiques of the film, I remain unconvinced of its perceived merits. Here's what was written in Senses Of Cinema:
"Tarkovsky made Mirror, a non-narrative, stream of consciousness autobiographical film-poem that blends scenes of childhood memory with newsreel footage and contemporary scenes examining the narrator's relationships with his mother, his ex-wife and his son. The oneiric intensity of the childhood scenes in particular is so hypnotic that questions of the film's alleged impenetrability dissolve under the impact of moment after moment of the most visually stunning, rhythmically captivating filmmaking imaginable."

Correction: questions of the film's impenetrability should NEVER be put aside under ANY circumstances. It is absolutely rubbish to say so. I want to know what the film's about. I don't want to be told that I should just "enjoy the visuals."

Here's the
Time Out blurb on the DVD sleeve that says essentially the same thing:
"See it, above all, for a series of images of such luminous beauty that they will make your heart burst."

There are just too many of these kind of cop-out "reviews" that basically avoids the real question of what a film is about, how it should connect with the audience's sensibilities, what it really offers in relation to universal truths. Mainly because, well, the reviewer or critic her or himself doesn't know!

Take, for example, another confounding film,
Tropical Malady, from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The film's already infamous disparate halves will forever cause confusion and uncertainty about what it all really means. Here's Dennis Lim of the Village Voice's take:
"(Weerasethakul's) films, at once rapt and dislocated, have the flavor of hallucinated documentary. They compel the viewer to look anew at the ordinary, to modulate their passive gaze into a patient, quizzical scrutiny."

That's not exactly explaining what
Tropical Malady conveys.

Here's more from the same critic:
"The film's mysteries are so cosmic that any attempt to ascribe allegory can seem puny."

So, basically what he's saying here is that
Tropical Malady is a failed effort, yet he wrote a glowing review of it. But Tropical Malady is not a failed film. Unlike my encounter with Mirror, I love Tropical Malady. It's one of the few films that truly enrapture me with their themes and ideas.

Tropical Malady is simply about the intensity and primal nature of love and humanity, and the blurring between man and beast. How presumptuous we are, to regard ourselves as beings of greater intelligence when nature is obviously bigger than all of us. We dress ourselves in all sorts of civilities, surround ourselves with a civilisation of our own making. But once primal feelings are unleashed, we are nothing but beasts. The film also explores a little about the nature and relevance of folklore and fantasy. The first half of the film is Man, the second half is Beast. Or is it the other way around?

That's only my take, but a take nonetheless.

For me, if a film gives you nothing to take away with you, however impressive its visuals or mood are, it is then about nothing important, and therefore is nothing in itself.

If only more critics have the courage to admit that whenever they come across films of such nature.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Big Deal

Anyone else feel a little disturbed by this?

No kiss shown, 'Histeria' leads to big letdown

Since its release last week, Histeria has been causing pretty much the wrong kind of buzz (but I suspect, the right kind for the producers) - the alleged lesbian kiss between two characters. Now, this kind of girl-on-girl lip-lock action is rather too passe for any controversy, but of course, in Malaysia where even male-female kisses are snipped from film and TV, it's gotten some people hot under the collar.

What got me a little suspicious about the whole thing is, as evident in the NST report above, the very last quote by a "source." Apparently the press were shown the print that had the kiss, but the public at large got the version where that kiss has been cut.

That "source" said the scene must have been "inadvertently cut" during mass printing in a Bangkok post-production house. In my experience, I've never encountered a case like this, where ONE print is made just for the press preview, while 46 (that's FORTY-SIX) other prints were made AFTER that for circulation in the cinemas. But to be fair, I was told that it is possible that some might make one print first for a preview to gauge the response before going further.

If Histeria was shot on film, it would seem impossible that additional prints made from the master could have "1 or 2 seconds" accidentally cut from them.

If it was shot on video, then transferred onto film, there is a possibility that whoever handled the film recorder could have screwed up a frame or two, but to have the exact moment of the kiss "accidentally cut" would have to be the rottenest of the most rotten luck in the world. And to have that happen 46 (that's FORTY-SIX) times, well, you must have done something really rotten in your past life to deserve such an exact bad karma.

Anyway, what I'm most disturbed by is that last quote:
"The print which was shown at the press preview is being shown in one cinema. We just don't know which at the moment," the source said.

Well, sorry but I'm the last person to try and seek out that "kiss print" by watching the movie in different cinemas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Flushed Away

Here's an example of film criticism/journalism gone down the drain. A review of Cicakman 2 that appeared in the NST:

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bullet Time: Who Did It First?

Let me start off by saying that this post came about because I found, to my surprise, the Matrix Revisited DVD, which has been out of print for some time now, at a local store recently.

When I first saw The Matrix, I wasn't really impressed. But over time, the movie grew on me, and having overcome my initial take that the film was more style than substance, I now accept it as a very entertaining and very clever movie that uses a lot of known ideas and technology of the time and packaged them all in a very appealing way. It's great eye candy, an exciting Cinema Of Spectacle that at least doesn't dumb down its audience. And best of all, it brought the great Master Yuen Wo-ping to international recognition.

Now, in the Matrix Revisited documentary, there's a very funny segment about "bullet time," a special effect that has been largely credited to the Wachowskis. At first, they were trying to figure out how to execute the bullet time scene, and initially thought they could strap cinematographer Bill Pope to a rocket. Of course, that fell through pretty quickly (!), and later everything else they thought up somehow involved the prospect of the camera blowing up.

But what gets me wondering is why the Wachowskis had to think that hard to come up with the innovation when it was already used in a music video from 1997, two years before The Matrix.

That video is Coolio's C U When U Get There, and you can watch it here, complete with two or three bullet time sequences.

Granted at the time of the music video, the bullet time didn't look as polished or smooth as in The Matrix, but the fact remains that someone had already done it two years before. I recall watching Coolio's video and wondering how they did the effect, going around people and objects in a frozen frame.

So, who did it first?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Malaysian Blockbusters Busting No Block

Watching Antoo Fighter was a painful task. It's a case of bad story, bad direction, hammy overacting, regressive CGI effects and unoriginal ideas. With this, it's easy to develop a rash when thinking of whether to fork out money for a ticket to Cicakman 2: Planet Hitam.

The first Cicakman was a terrible bore; for a superhero movie, there's little action and completely no sense of wonder. The background CGI left a lot to be desired. And most baffling was the decision to set it in an unknown futuristic city, which looked closer to New York (complete with yellow cabs! in winter!) than Cyberjaya. Why? Our cities not good enough? Our tropical weather not "cool" enough?

Taken together with Antoo Fighter, a couple of conclusions can be drawn about our local special-effects blockbusters. One, our SFX extravaganzas always involve bad CGI and hammy acting. Two, we're nowhere near competent with this type of blockbusters.

The simple rule is, if you can't do it, then don't. Trying on effects-laden films when your technology is not yet up to scratch is putting the cart before the horse. And it's so easy to forget that expensive CGI isn't all there is to making movies like these. The bottom line is, you still need a good story.

But what do we have? Cicakman bitten by a radioactive lizard? Spider-Man, anyone? A squad called Antoo Fighter battling a band of demons and monsters? Does The Monster Squad or Ghostbusters sound familiar?


Another recent "blockbuster," the supposedly kungfu actioner, Kinta, was previously hyped up so much that we'd expect no less than at least a decent martial arts flick. The initial artwork looked great, as did the trailers. And now comes the actual movie itself, but what a huge disappointment it is.

Not only is it laughable, it's also incoherent and with action that is exciting as a fly hitting the windscreen of a car.

No, actually, where's the action? Whatever few fight scenes it has are repeated in flashbacks, in their entirety. What's that for? Beats me.

Apart from the completely illogical plot, there's the bad dubbing and out-of-place music track. And then there's this story that appeared more than a week ago, where the director basically blames everyone else for the final result. If what he says is true, then everyone from the executive producer to foreign buyers are to be blamed for forcing him to compromise on his original vision of a grand historical epic, including, gulp, western audiences.

Granted what he says is in a very diplomatic tone, but still, it doesn't sound quite right for a director to be seen as basically putting the blame on others. A good director, if forced to compromise (admittedly it does happen all the time), would do his best to strike a balance that everyone would be happy with it.

But having seen the incomprehensible mess that is the film, no amount of explanations can help to justify or clarify matters. It's just simply a bad film. But credit must be given to the lead actors, who are all real-life martial arts exponents, who really gave it their best. Their passion and dedication are really the only good things about the film.

And also, a good journalist, once told that the film was shown in Cannes, would have asked which section of the festival it was, and if it was in competition or otherwise.

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