Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growing Up Adults

This from The Guardian today.

Perhaps it is Western parents, in particular American parents, who take issue with the "darkness" of children's tales. Why do we feel the need to shield children from reality to the extent that the things suitable for their age are excluded as well?

I agree with the movie's writer Dave Eggers:

"There is a whitewashed, idealised version of childhood that is popular in movies. It has the kids sitting neatly in their chairs, talking with some adult, in a sarcastic, overly sophisticated but polite way – a concoction that bears no resemblance to an actual kid."

I always like to take, as an example, one of the greatest children's tales by master storyteller Miyazaki Hayao - My Neighbour Totoro. Here within the story are two instances of fear - a crumbling old house with a dark upstairs full of clandestine creatures scurrying around, and a mother who may be dying. One is the fear of the unknown, surely a trait we carry with us into adulthood. The other is the fear of loss, another universal and timeless feature. I think the more important detail is always to provide the child with a sense of hope, even when things may seem hopeless. Such as the cob of corn at the end of Totoro, the metaphorical link to an endless future.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Byte-Size Critiques

This is the Age Of Lazy. We want our information quick and easy. It used to be that we go to the library if we want to look up something. But thanks to the Internet, the purveyor of laziness, everything's just a click away. No, mailing a handwritten letter takes just too much time. An email takes just seconds. An encyclopaedia is just too bulky, and we'd have to get up off our asses to get it off the shelf. No, Wikipedia is so much more convenient, no matter that the information there may not be 100% accurate.

And that's the entire history and analysis of Rotten Tomatoes (and to a certain extent, IMDB), why it's so popular especially among pop culture enthusiasts. No one wants to read long, carefully written, painstakingly thought-out critiques anymore. They just want to know, how many percent is it on the Tomatometer?

Don't give us the details; just show us the general consensus.

And you wonder why film criticism is dead.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Living Young

A string of diappointments, after the excellent Toy Story 1 and 2. American animated films, in general, are overly talky, eschewing the importance and beauty of silence. When animated films in other languages - My Neighbour Totoro, for instance - are dubbed for Stateside, extra dialogue is added into scenes originally silent. Wall-E came close to finally silencing the noise, at least in its first half. The terribly overrated Ratatouille was unbearable in its sonic assault.

But Up is a different breed altogether.

This time, Pixar has displayed incredible restraint, letting crucial scenes play out in silence, allowing gestures to do the talking. A critical plot point happens with the protagonist silently flipping through the pages of a scrapbook. A revelatory page, and a familiar gesture, and we understand the implications of it all.

But the most interesting thing about Up, is its striking irony. This is a kids' movie about what it means to be a kid, yet the lead character is a 78-year-old man. Many have taken the story to be about growing old. In part, it is, but more pertinent is that it's about staying young. It's about not losing the child in us, the child who dares to dream the impossible, like flying a house using thousands of helium-filled balloons. The child who sits on the kerb enjoying an ice-cream with his friend and playing childish games like "red and blue cars." Life is one big adventure, because that's the only way we will survive it.

With its wildly imaginative collection of a flying house, talking dogs, technicolour birds and such, it's as if Pixar has made a movie about itself.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kelvin And The Host

This piece of news came earlier this week. The Host 2, the sequel to Bong Joon-ho's family drama/actioner, is now a Korea-Singapore co-production. And somewhere in there is the name Kelvin Tong; he's the joint producer.

Now, name a film that Tong has directed that is of unquestionable quality. Difficult, isn't it? Perhaps he will do better as producer this time. Who knows?

Now, if you noticed, I called The Host a "family drama." Because that's really what it is. Compared to the entire runtime of the movie, the appearance of the monster is brief. But judging from this quote:

Producer and Chungeorahm Film's chief executive, Mr Choi Yong-Bae, said he is confident that Host 2 will become "the best Asian creature movie ever."

... someone obviously thinks it's a monster movie in all conventional sense. And that's pretty troubling.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Man From Hong Kong

The greatest character actor in the world. Hands down. You can find him in almost any Hong Kong movie.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Faces And Places

If we currently have the Malaysian tag team of Woo Ming Jin and Edmund Yeo competing in Venice, then it's a triple threat at the Toronto International Film Festival - Tsai Ming-liang, Chris Chong and Ho Yuhang.

Tsai is there with his Louvre-commissioned Visages, Chong with his Cannes Directors' Fortnight film Karaoke, and Ho with Locarno Netpac winner At The End Of Daybreak.

Tsai's film is perhaps the most interesting, a combination of art installation and film, a new hybrid that Chong also advocates. You can read about it here.
“I think of the film as a moving painting imprinted on celluloid,” said the director, who spent three years studying the paintings at the Louvre. “It is Tsai trying to find a new expression for the art in his head.”

Still: At The End Of Daybreak

Monday, September 7, 2009

Film Merchants Of Venice

Right this minute, even as we speak, two Malaysian filmmakers are competing at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. One is an old hand and the other is a young and upcoming fella.

Woo Ming Jin's latest film, with its obviously-Hong Sang-soo-inspired title of Woman On Fire Looks For Water, is competing in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section. It will be a "surprise film" and a work-in-progress screening. The news hasn't been widely publicised because Woman got itself a place at the very last minute.

An earlier entry was Edmund Yeo's Japanese short film, Kingyo (Goldfish). Shot with the help of his university, Waseda in Tokyo, the 25-minute film, based on a Yasunari Kawabata short story, is simply one of the best short films by a Malaysian filmmaker that I've seen.

Best of luck to both of them!

Photo: Italian actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta literally "opening" the festival with the film Baaria.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Desire This

Truly, a reason to rejoice. I've had my MGM Special Edition for some years now. While that edition is fairly good but with little extras, this two-disc Criterion edition should be a great transfer, and it's chockful of extra features - including a commentary track by Colombo himself!

Out October 20.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Little Orphan Immigrant

Haven't had such a disturbing experience in the cinema in a long time. Orphan's premise isn't new - family adopts child who is not quite there - but it does have a rather original take on the idea. It's always frightening to see such fatalistic downward spiral, helplessly witnessing someone heading towards inevitable doom or self-destruction. It's part of what makes this film so scary, and the pacing is remarkable.

Clearly another horror/thriller film symptomatic of the post-911 fear and paranoia, the increasing isolation of America from the rest of the world. If films of the slasher/torture sub-genre like Hostel and Transsiberian see Americans leaving the comfort of home to venture forth into foreign lands and come face to face with danger, Orphan takes it all back home. Infiltration by little-understood foreign elements, in this case, a mysterious orphan from Russia. Probably the irony here is that the movie is helmed by a Spanish director.

Unfortunately people chose to see this movie as a straightforward negative portrayal of abandoned children, thus drawing a lot of flak from orphanages and the adoption community.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Steps Of Defeat

No way out. Surrounded by enemies. Relinquishing all hopes, they walk out and down the steps to defeat, ready to face whatever was out there. For one, it is madness. For the other, it is a flurry of arrows.

Watching Kurosawa's Ran again yesterday, I noticed the similarity, the finality of each sequence. After that, the colour schemes used by Zhang Yimou start to show the source of their inspiration as well. But the burning castle is hard to top.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blue In The Face

This is what happens when you make lavish claims about your upcoming film. Ridiculous comparisons now abound between James Cameron's 3D extravaganza Avatar and the animated flop Delgo. That Movie Line article holds no water at all. What they claim to be "7 Eeriest Parallels" between the two films seem to be in a hundred other films too. Need we, for a moment, revisit that YouTube comparison between the trailers of Tim Burton's Batman and The Dark Knight? That comparison - same refuse, different garbage bag.

Calling Avatar a potential turkey just based on these comparisons smacks of a desperate attempt at being clairvoyant. One thing Cameron always delivers on is a good story. And that itself is a promising detail.

The question is: how do you edit and do post-production and effects work on a 3D movie? How do you make sure it all looks great in 3D? Because so far, the 2D images haven't been very impressive, but feedback from those who saw the pre-released 15-minute footage say the film lives and breathes 3D wonder and awe.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


"Some people are born to sit by a river ... some get struck by lightning ... some have an ear for music ... some are artists ... some swim ... some know buttons ... some know Shakespeare ... some are mothers ... and some people ... dance."

My favourite movie of last year. Life is one big, curious case.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A River Runs Through It

I'd forgotten how scary this movie really is. A story about the environment, the follies of man in trying to control nature, most of all, a cautionary tale about arrogance. The best, most moving scene for me is at the dinner table, where Jon Voight's character breaks down.

Here they are, the people you thought you were better than, providing you the warmth, comfort and safety you so dearly needed.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aliens Resurrection

It's a great, not-to-be-missed and very original and imaginative piece of scifi. It's got exciting action set-pieces. It's moving and emotional.

Yes, we are starved of good mainstream action movies, but do we need to go that far as to heap over-praise on Neill Blomkamp's watchable but ultimately a little disappointing movie about an alien apartheid? Really, despite being mildly entertaining and more engaging than today's (below) average scifi action movie (TF2: ROTF, anyone?), District 9 dares not venture further than its initial premise, a premise laid out more than carefully at breakneck pace and in a mockumentary style. But in trying to streamline the story and focus in on the two main characters, the movie then starts to lose the poignancy, built up in the first half, by filling up the spaces with said action set-pieces and shoot-em-up, chase-and-run moments, and stumbles towards more mediocrity by employing the oft-used shaky cam sensibilities. The only thing that keeps us interested is not the big apartheid allegory but the almost voyeuristic and fetishistic need to find out what will further happen to Wikus, or rather, what other parts of his anatomy would rot off.

While its nuts and bolts are fashioned after the likes of Independence Day (hovering spacecraft, also TV series V), Brundle Fly, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Aliens (the robot suit) and Alien Nation, the theme is just another incarnation, most notably of the rarely-mentioned Enemy Mine, starring Dennis Quaid as a human and Louis Gossett Jr as an alien.

Unlike Enemy Mine, in the end, Wikus doesn't really reconcile with the aliens through better understanding of who they are and what they do.

The Return

I think it's time to revive this blog. It's been too long a break.

The posts will be shorter, more concise, more to the point.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Starting All Over

First of all, Sell Out! is currently going through its opening weekend. Personally, and I think a lot of other people, filmmakers and cinemagoers alike, would agree, I feel that Sell Out! is a good, refreshing change for the industry and worth the support. Otherwise, I don't know how long we would have to wait before another film like this will come our way and give us an opportunity for change.

Secondly, as some might have noticed, I've removed my last blog entry. That was written in haste and in anger and heartbreak, but that doesn't mean I've changed my opinion too. I stand by what I said. It's just that I now feel perhaps there is a nicer way of dealing with this whole issue. Antagonism never solves anything anyway (well, OK, sometimes it does, when push needs to become a shove, but ...).

It's easy to lose sight of the Big Picture. And it's even easier within the routines of revenue-generation that occurs over the span of many years. Same thing with the filmmakers themselves, in the haste to get out there and be known. But if everyone could work together in an honest, sincere way, I believe great things could be achieved. But the first and foremost element that should exist is a real passion for film. And that is what's sorely missing, from the business side of film right to some filmmakers themselves, and even to the support side of things.

The amount of complaints I have heard from various people will make anyone throw in the towel. And most of these problems can easily be solved if the right people were put in the right positions - ie, people who are passionate about film. Unfortunately, this is "mutually exclusive" territory - people who love art won't care about money, and people who only want to make money don't give a hoot about art.

Yes, this is also an irony, because this is exactly the issue addressed by Sell Out!. Strange but true. This is also another reason why I love the film. What is in the film is immediately right in front of you in real life.

I admit, the night I visited the cinema a couple of days before the film's release, I experienced an incredible heartbreak at what I saw. There really wasn't any anger, but a very heavy feeling in my heart that things weren't going to change for the industry anytime soon. A feeling that all our efforts came to naught, wasted away.

Still, I came to realise that the most important thing is to not lose hope. Also to not give up the struggle. And so, I do still hope that someday, somehow, a miracle will happen that will change everything overnight.

Otherwise, let's just take one step at a time, and don't stop walking till we get there.

Peace and hope to all.

Excerpt from the last deleted entry:

All this while, I've been supporting and publicising good Malaysian films in the hope that our industry can change for the better. South Korea's mainstream cinema got a boost after Shiri smashed box-office records years ago, and look where they are today, internationally recognised for their mainstream films. Taiwan recently got its own boost with Cape No. 7, not a great film but a really entertaining, feel-good movie that drew audiences in droves.

So far, we've not had anything like that in Malaysian cinema. We had high hopes for Puteri Gunung Ledang some years ago, but that was not the Great Change we had hoped for both in box-office and artistic terms.

And now comes along a really good crowd-pleaser, and what happens? Some cinemas can't be arsed to promote it. It's no surprise, really, because the general consensus among cinema operators would be that Wolverine and Star Trek would make more money, and therefore should be given priority and more visibility.

But this is our own cinema, our own film. If we do not give it a chance now, when would be a good time? Personally, I think Sell Out! presents probably the best opportunity for a booster shot to the arm of our industry. If we miss out on this one, it will take some years before the next one will appear.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Return From The SIFF

This blog has been deathly quiet of late. Apologies, but it's been a whirlwind of a month at the day job, while preparing for a week-long trip to the Singapore International Film Festival. It was nice to be back at the SIFF after missing it for so many years, although the festival isn't quite the same anymore. I did feel a certain lack of excitement now, and the programming in the last, maybe two, years had been less exciting too. After all, this was the festival where I saw my first Kurosawa Kiyoshi film (Kairo) and first met Tsai Ming-liang. If anything, this year's edition, the first post-Philip Cheah festival, seems a little more nationalistic, what with a plethora of Singapore films making their world premieres and sorts, and the Singapore Film Awards.

I saw two Singapore films this year - A Big Road and White Days. Both were disappointments, the former a bigger letdown. A Big Road treads the fine line between unadulterated emotional wringing and artsy pretentiousness, and falls over into the latter more often than not. Ever since Vive L'Amour, everyone's been trying to copy the minutes-long take of a woman crying or engaging in some overly emotional cinematic exercise. A Big Road has such a scene, of a woman trying on clothes in front of a mirror, which started out as having a surprisingly effective context in the film, but soon degenerates into yawn-inducing, artsy static-cam stunt show.

White Days is even more of a Tsai Ming-liang copycat, albeit married with a Kevin Smith sensibility. I mean, how many films do we need to see in which young people drift aimlessly through life, ranting and yakking their way through the runtime? Clerks has done it much better, so does anyone else really need to make another film like that? Admittedly some of the dialogues were fun and entertaining, but they ultimately lead to nothing, and probably says nothing about the reality of youth in Singapore. They felt more like American versions of Singaporean youths, or rather, Clerks and Slackers transported into the heart of the Lion City.

I missed Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly and Rainbow Troops, and a few others, because tickets to those were sold out fast. But the best film I saw at the SIFF was a Malaysian one. I'll write about that later.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Miscellaneous Miscellany

  • I should have written about this last week, but I guess it's never too late. Gone Shopping is showing now at GSC, and it's probably the best Singapore film I've seen in a long time. It's endlessly entertaining, even touching in some parts and has quite something to say about the Lion City's urban culture. If you haven't already seen it, I urge you to.
  • There's a MacGyver movie in the making. Are we excited or what?
  • A poster of Where The Wild Things Are is available now. View it here at Twitch. It looks mighty fine.
  • Those who know me probably won't believe this, but rest assured April 1 is still some ways away, so trust me, this is real: I like the Transformers 2 "leaked" trailer, even though I didn't think much of the first trailer. Now I'm interested to see it.
  • Lastly, check out the official trailer for musical comedy Sell Out!, directed by Yeo Joon Han. The film will be screening at the Singapore International Film Festival on April 21, so get your tickets now. Otherwise, you'll have to wait till probably May to see it on these shores.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Big Hit Address

What makes a local hit movie in these parts?

I finally watched the much touted Cape No. 7 (Haijiao Qi Hao) last week, having received the boxed set from YesAsia a few days earlier. It's a gorgeously packaged boxed set, made to look like a real parcel (the original soundtrack CD set looks even more authentic as a parcel sent through the mail).

Now there have been all kinds of analyses of how Cape No. 7 managed to become a box-office juggernaut in Taiwan, like this one, the 7 reflections on Cape No. 7. One of the things told to me by a filmmaker friend in Taipei was that the film became a big hit partly because of word-of-mouth through blogs, and blogs are a big thing in Taiwan. And to have good word-of-mouth that spreads like wildfire, the film must have done something right too.

Just as a piece of commercial filmmaking, Cape No. 7 succeeds on many levels to satisfy the masses (the article I linked here is pretty definitive in its arguments). As far as the art of filmmaking goes, the movie leaves quite some to be desired. While the film tries to have two stories paralleling each other - the past story about a Japanese man who has to leave behind the woman he loves to return to Japan, and the present one about a failed musician who inadvertently falls in love with a Japanese woman - the two stories don't quite resonate against each other very well. And then there are the various loose ends that are left unsatisfactorily hanging. In the end, after building up our anticipation, the mystery of the woman at Cape no. 7 is never quite resolved.

But the film is very funny and entertaining, and the characters endearing, especially the elderly folks. The first comedic scene sets things up very nicely - the hilarious moment at the traffic lights with the temperamental traffic cop. The writing, the acting, the comedic timing - almost everything is perfect. After that, you just can't help but like the film.

Then, of course, there's the anticipation of the lead character finally unveiling his song, South Of The Border. And in between and after that are various other songs that are pretty good ones for the entire mood of the film, including a Kousuke Atari song which is unfortunately not on the OST. The pacing and the build-up go so well that you don't really care about all the loose ends and incompetent resolutions, because once the feel-good factor really kicks in in the last moments of the film, during the big concert finale, you just get swept along.

The only problem is that the humour, delivered mostly in the Hokkien dialect, will largely be lost in translation for non-speakers of the language. The English subtitles certainly don't do justice to the jokes, so western audiences would definitely not get them. So, the film may have been a massive hit in Taiwan, but I don't see the potential of it travelling outside of the region.

That's probably it. To make a local blockbuster hit, you have to have everything local audiences would identify with - language, mannerisms, situations, issues, locales - but that would also mean that your film would be pretty alien to foreigners. Rare is the case where a massive local hit is also a massive international hit. But then again, it might also depend on the genre, because Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon certainly didn't have any problem with both sides of the world. Was it the action? Or was it because it was a period film? Are contemporary films that much harder to deal with?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cinematic Misdemeanours

Since there's been a recent barrage of blog posts which are mainly complaints about cinemagoers behaving badly, like so, I thought I'd join in and relate some bad experiences of my own. Here goes:

1. This guy behind me kept kicking the back of my seat. It always happens that the seat-kickers are always folks who are way shorter than me. And there I am usually with my legs not touching the seat in front of me. So it always gets me wondering how they are able to sit in such a way that their knees push, and hard, against the back of my seat. And so, I turned around and told him: "Dude, please stop kicking the back of my chair."

His reply? "But I wasn't doing it on purpose!"

"Whether it was on purpose or not, you were doing it. So, please be more careful and stop it."

2. Just the other day, a group of young people sat in the row behind me. The one right behind me, again, had her knees against the back of my seat. And she was one fidgety person; she shifted in her seat every few minutes. And when she did so, my seat would also be vibrating. I turned around and told her: "Please stop kicking my seat." Fortunately she was intelligent enough to understand what I said and did stop.

3. Two girls, in their 20s, seated next to me,were yakking non-stop throughout the movie, commenting on every single thing, verbally describing what was happening on screen, which really confounded me, because if you could see what was happening on screen, why would you need to describe (I don't know to who) what is happening? I turned to the one next to me and said "Look, do you mind?!" She looked at me like I was a retard, then duly continued yakking with her friend. With a loud, angry remark, I got up and moved two rows to the front.

4. Guy's mobile phone rings and he answers it, talking loudly. I turn to him, tell him: "If you want to talk on your phone, please do it outside!" Surprise, surprise, he actually gets up and goes out the hall.

5. During Spirited Away, again two girls were yakking away, this time a row behind me. So you can imagine how loud they were. It reached a point when I couldn't take it anymore, turned around, stretched out my arm and waved it at them, and told them: "Could you shut up?!" Guess what, they didn't. What else could I do? So the entire movie experience was ruined.

6. During CJ7, a couple next to me were talking loudly and non-stop. Big mistake for them because I'm a huge Stephen Chow fan. I kept my cool, and did my best to ignore them. But the last straw was when the guy's mobile phone went off ... and he answered it. It was all a blur after that, but I think what I basically did was hit the guy on the shoulder real hard and told him to shut up. I think he was shocked, as I was at my own behaviour. He and his girlfriend were then quiet as mice for the rest of the movie. I don't recommend this to anyone, really. On hindsight, I think I could have been killed or maimed. For a movie? Not worth it.

7. I was watching a Star Trek movie (forget which one). And this kid in the back started to throw a noisy tantrum. I thought it would eventually stop, but the kid just kept on going like the Energiser Bunny. Now, it's not the kid's fault, of course. Kids are kids. But the adult should know better than to bring a kid to a Star Trek movie. And it's the adult's responsibility to make sure the kid behaves. So I turned around and shouted: "Could you please shut the kid up!!!" (I'm always polite.) The father uttered a little "Sorry" and carried the kid out the back exit. I'm pretty sure most of the other patrons secretly thanked me.

8. It's never the kid's fault. And so, I was watching Spider-Man 3, and there were this guy, his wife, and his mother seated a few seats to my right. Behind them were this huge family with I forget how many kids. Halfway through the film, I noticed some commotion to my right. It seemed the kid behind the guy kicked his chair, and the guy (stupid idiot) turned around and grabbed the kid's collar, threatening him. The kid's father then went up and shouted at the guy. After some heated exchanges of words, the father apologised to everyone in the cinema for the commotion, then turned to the guy and told him: "I'll settle this with you after the show!"

Sure enough, after the movie was over and the lights came up, the father went over and continued to harangue that guy. I didn't want to get involved although I was so near, because:

a. Guy's dumb to threaten the kid. He's just a little boy. Pick someone your own size. And it's never the kid's fault.

b. The father overreacted. What, did he expect the guy, who looks like a complete geek, would hit his kid?

So I just sat back and watched the after-show. It went on and on, when clearly the two guys weren't going to hit each other. Then the verbal attacks continued outside the hall, into the corridors, and out into the foyer. It was extremely stupid. And the worst of it, the ushers took the side of the father when they should be trying to calm both parties and defuse the situation (which wasn't going to blow up anytime, anyway). Of course, nothing came out of it, both parties went home.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Adaptations I'd Like To See

If adapting a graphic novel were as easy as copying every detail in every frame of the book, with characters mouthing the exact words from the speech bubbles, then anyone can be a great director. Yes, including Zack Snyder. I only have one question for Snyder, which I think he won't be able to answer convincingly: What did HE bring to the film adaptation of Watchmen?

This is an entry that I'd been itching to do, but never got down to it until now, for some reason. I'm reading more and more voraciously as now as I'm older, much like trying to make up for all that I'd missed when I was younger, playing catch-up. Time and again, I come across books that I think would make great films, if someone would only get the rights and adapt them. Here are some of them:

The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas
This year, I read two great books about vampires - John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let The Right One In, and this one from 1980. The Vampire Tapestry is a book that I'd heard so much about and had been hunting down for the last couple of decades. Now that it's finally back in print, I got my hands on a copy and devoured it in record time. It's an endlessly fascinating book, extremely well written and conceived. It features a vampire who is intriguing as he is frightening, yet you care about what happens to him. No crosses, no garlic, no stakes. The vampire is portrayed much like a domesticated wild animal, whose wild instincts remain sharp even when his humanity "threatens" to overwhelm him. This is a book as much about the wild vampire as it is about humanity's propensity for overindulging and overestimating its own intelligence. It's very much a battle between man and beast, the duality within all of us. At first, this book seems unfilmable, because a lot of what's important is internalised. But perhaps a smart director might be able to pull it off.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
This novel is one helluva wild ride, a real page-turner. It features time travel, werewolves, stilt-walking sorcerers, and a whole lot of other crazy stuff, including Coleridge himself! It's so madly imaginative that it'd leave your head spinning for days. It really leaves me wondering why no one has made this into a film. It has all the ingredients of a blockbuster adventure, and now with the availability of CGI, it could really be done. Or at the very least, this could be a great animated feature. I would think that Back To The Future 2 and 3's "stuck in the past" dilemma was inspired by this book. But The Anubis Gates does it better, and really keeps you wondering how the hell its protagonist is going to get back to his own time.

Song Of Kali by Dan Simmons
I wrote about how American slasher/torture porn movies these days feature American tourists getting themselves in trouble in "scary" foreign lands. Song Of Kali would then be perfect for this era. Much like a scarier and more intelligent version of The Ruins, and probably the anti-thesis of Slumdog Millionaire (!!) and City Of Joy, this is horror of the disturbing kind that takes place mostly in Kolkata, or Calcutta when the book first came out. It's about an American poet who travels to Calcutta with his wife and child to retrieve the latest work by a Bengali poet who seems to be back alive after his disappearance for some years. There is a passage in the book that's a real harrowing experience, and which takes place in complete darkness with something stalking the narrator that may or may not be the goddess Kali. In hindsight, it's a story that reeks of xenophobia to some extent, but in capable hands, this could become an interesting horror film.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
I saved the best for last. I love, love, love Iain Banks' psychological horror novel, The Wasp Factory. I don't believe I have ever read another novel quite like it. It's a slim book, but there's a whole lot going on within its pages. It's disturbing as disturbing can get. Essentially all of its characters are mad, and all are headed for certain destruction. The sense of fatalism is thick, and inevitability runs through the novel like a roaring stream. It concerns a boy whose genitals were bitten off by the family dog when he was a baby. He maintains "sacrificial poles" on the island where he lives with his father, as a way of warding off possible invaders. Meanwhile his older brother escapes from the mental asylum and makes his way to the island. The book was deemed a little too controversial when it first came out, but I think it's not so by today's standards, although the effect of its violence and sadism hasn't waned one bit. There's a truly horrific scene involving flies and a baby that I'd really like to see on screen. Sadistic I am!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lazy World Of CGI

In that interview in the previous entry, Alan Moore basically expressed what I've long been frustrated with, that is the extent to which CGI is being used in movies. It's true that there are movies that wouldn't have been possible without the advent of computer graphics, but I think the usage of CGI has become increasingly reckless and less thoughtful.

This kind of led me to thinking, what if several famous movies from the past - long before every household could afford a PC, or even before it was invented - were made today?

1. In Star Wars Episode IV, C3PO would be a CGI character. We'd never hear of an actor named Anthony Daniels.

2. In Jaws, Bruce would be a CGI shark. The production would have been on schedule and within budget.

3. John Carpenter's The Thing would feature CGI monsters, and the Blair Monster in the end sequence would become a reality.

4. Linda Blair's transformation in The Exorcist would probably be quicker on screen just to show off what CGI can do.

5. Ray Harryhausen would be out of a job.

Consider this. There wouldn't be any human mime artistry to C3PO. The CGI robot would just follow the exact motion-capture movements of an English butler. There is no sense of awe such as in seeing the wonder of human talent in putting together a metal-like suit that fits a slim actor, so flawless in its design that it doesn't give away any seams.

Seeing a CGI shark (Deep Blue Sea is the prime example), no matter how perfect the computer simulation, just isn't the same as wondering how they made the mechanical shark so life-like. And the fact that you know the mechanical shark is a physical presence on set and on screen, that it's really Robert Shaw caught in its munching jaws.

It's the same with The Thing and The Exorcist, that what occupies real physical space is somehow more believable and relatable to us than something you know isn't really there but was drawn in later.

The biggest draw of old-school special effects, as opposed to computer generated images, is the "How did they do it" factor. Those old enough to recall seeing Clash Of The Titans for the first time would surely remember the jaw-dropping amazement of seeing those mythical creatures come to life in stop-motion animation. Of course, it all looks hokey now compared to today's smoothly executed CGI, but the level of wonder cannot be replaced.

The first two films with CGI that I remember ever being truly awed by, were The Mask and Jurassic Park. We literally queued for miles to get tickets for those movies. They were the first time anyone's seen CGI done on a huge scale, although Robert Zemeckis's Death Becomes Her predated both movies. But these two movies relied almost entirely on CGI.

Then, filmmakers started using CGI to do stuff just because they could. Reason and necessity went right out the window. I found the highway chase in The Matrix Reloaded utterly boring, compared to say the ones in Bullit or even Ronin. You know that in the latter two, they were real stuntmen choreographing and coordinating the real set-pieces for real close shaves. No CGI were added.

Two things I particularly hate seeing nowadays are the camera going underneath a truck or some big vehicle in a chase scene, and a piece of something flying towards the camera in an explosion. You just know that they're fake when you see it.

The only filmmaker whom I think uses CGI smartly is Zemeckis. Death Becomes Her being the only exception, his CGI is never showy (see Contact for a good example) and used out of pure necessity (like removing Gary Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump).

Not only does the rampant use of CGI destroy imagination and thought, I think it also breeds repetition. How many times have you seen the chase scene and explosion examples that I mentioned above? How many warring hordes clashing on an open plain do we need to witness?

I think the careless way filmmakers have plunged into the world of CGI has saturated the amazement we get from seeing the impossible on screen and bred laziness in terms of conception of ideas and basic creativity. It's reached a point where there has got to be something more.

But to be fair, I'm speaking as a person who grew up witnessing the advent of computer graphics and it's eventual takeover of traditional special effects. Therefore I have a certain amount of bias due to nostalgia. I can't speak for the generation who grew up seeing CGI and never knew a time when special effects were painstakingly created with clay, stop-motion animation, hydraulics, double exposure, forced perspective, matte paintings, etc. I won't purport to know how it is for them.

For me, the real wonder is still seeing something like the train sequence in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). From a close shot of the interiors of the carriage, it pans out and away from the window until you see the whole train chugging along the tracks, and the camera continues to follow the window from a distance for some while.

That, for me, takes real effort, talent and imagination.

Watch What?

In a last minute decision, I decided not to see the Watchmen movie at all. Nope, I would like to preserve the good memories of a good "graphic novel" and no sublimely stupid filmmaker is going to ruin those for me. Like I've said before, I find something very wrong with the slick and "cool" look of the characters, costumes and overall film. And the fact that Zack "Fucking" Snyder seems to think the best way to adapt a comicbook is to copy every frame and every visual detail. That, to me, is just fucking stupid.

There was a press screening this morning, which I decided not to attend. There will be no review here. However, here's a superb interview with Alan Moore in Wired magazine.
When we did meet—which was mainly just because I thought it would be really good fun to meet Terry Gilliam, and so it proved—Mr. Gilliam did ask me how I would go about translating Watchmen into a film, and I said to him, "If anybody had asked me, Terry, I would have advised them not to." I think Terry is an intelligent man and came to that conclusion himself.

Moore addresses several issues, but basically:

1. He thinks that adult comic readers are either "hopeless nostalgics" or "cases of arrested development."

2. CGI and huge film production budgets are killing imagination and creativity.

3. Watchmen was intended as a work that would open new possibilities in the comics medium but instead, kickstarted a whole trend of morose superhero comics.

He also wonders why superheroes only originate in America. As does this local reviewer in his Superman Returns review.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Darko Revisited

This weekend was spent watching a lot of good films on DVD. More about that later. But one of them was a film I decided to revisit for a simple reason.

It's been at least more than two years since I last saw Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, a film which just gets better with each viewing. The straight-to-video sequel, stupidly titled S Darko, about Donnie's Sparkle Motion sister, is coming out, and the trailer, which you can see here, looks incredibly stupid.

Donnie Darko wasn't a hit when it came out, but later became a cult favourite. When there's a cult following, it simply means there's a group of people who truly understand and appreciate the film. So what is the point of making a sequel to cash in on the following, when this group of people who truly understand the film would also understand that no sequel is needed?

Stupid sequels aside, everytime I watch the film, it ends up stuck in my head for days. I can't stop thinking about it, figuring out its quirks, clues and philosophies. It's one of the most original films of recent times, and the certainly one of the most moving, partly due to its fantastic soundtrack. This time around, it's the operatic tune, For Whom The Bell Tolls, by Steve Baker and Carmen Daye, that has haunted me over and over, making me relive that frightening moment in the film that takes place in the darkened cinema.

To make things easier, I'll break down what I want to say into a list.

1. If there's one film also about time travel that shares a similar fatalism with Donnie Darko, it's Chris Marker's La Jetee. But Donnie manages to find a way to escape, not his own fate, but from becoming the cause of others' deaths.

2. Interestingly, the discussions between Donnie and his science teacher seem to suggest that all arguments for fatalism inevitably ends up in the realm of theological fatalism. Donnie, is in essence, a fatalist, but his teacher argues that if the future is predetermined, then we, knowing the outcome, would have free choice not to take the path leading to that outcome. The discussion stops when Donnie starts bringing God into the equation.

3. The film questions what the idea of "doom" really means. Frank is a recurring "character" in the story. He is the giant bunny rabbit who keeps appearing to Donnie, he is the guy Donnie's parents talk about as "the guy who was doomed," and he is the character that Jim Cunningham uses as an example in his presentation at Donnie's school. Interestingly, and this you will only notice and understand on second viewing, Frank, when he appears to Donnie in the cinema, says "I'm sorry" to Donnie, hinting at why his right eye is shot out. Donnie himself is a doomed character, but the question is, to what end?

4. A plane is essentially a time machine. So I think the use of an airplane engine as the catalyst for the unfolding events of the film is very apt. Depending on which direction you fly, if you travel by plane, you will either end up jumping to a day ahead, thus having a missing day in your life, or you could end up reliving the day you left your port of embarkation. That's really another concept of "time travel."

5. Perhaps the most memorable sequence, or the one that stands out the most, is the Head Over Heels "music video." We are introduced to the various characters in the school while the Tears For Fears song plays, and the manipulation of the film speed really underlines the idea of time and its manipulation in the film. Several things in that sequence, such as Sparkle Motion's Notorious performance, of which we get a brief glimpse, have their later significance hinted at. And of course, Head Over Heels being a love song is appropriate, especially with the closing line "Funny how time flies ...".

6. And then of course, there's the sequence with For Whom The Bell Tolls, when Frank, the giant bunny rabbit, finally reveals his true face, and what he says to Donnie, together with the haunting music and vocals, point to a certain inevitability. It's an incredibly powerful sequence.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beautifully Curious, Curiously Beautiful

This blog may seem to be falling into neglect. But worry not, it's the result of systematic laziness of the blogger. Well, not laziness alone, but that coupled with a few other matters that take up all available brain cells and leaving none for the pleasure of blogging.

Anyway, I'd planned to write something on John Carpenter's The Thing, which I recently revisited, and also because a remake is coming (which means it will be a remake of a remake, great). But as time went on, the desire to write about it fizzled out. But fear not, it will come back some time.

So what's left to talk about is that over the weekend I saw a really crap movie and a very brilliant film. The crap was the horror movie House. I knew the moment a character, approaching the house, uttered "No cars. Weird!" that the movie was in big trouble. I thought it peculiar that there's a character with awesome cleavage but who never takes it off, and a male character who hints at having the hots for her but barely even touches her. And no one says "Fuck." Not once.

Unusual for a horror/slasher movie, I thought.

Until I read that it's supposed to be a "Christian horror movie." I'm not really sure what the heck that is, but then it does make perfect sense why the movie is so anti-septic.

The brilliant was The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. I was so enthralled by the film that I spent a good part of my sleep that night dreaming and thinking about it. Why does a film about death and growing old mean so much to me? Perhaps it's because I recently looked mortality in the eye. It's beautiful, fascinating, engaging, moving, and in showing us a man who ages backwards, it forces us to examine our own mortality and what it means to be youthful.

I've been promoting this film to anyone and everyone who would listen. The funny thing is that I found most of those who dislike the film or found it boring were of the younger set. It got me thinking that perhaps it's a film that will become more relevant and meaningful to us as we grow older.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Death By Daily

If you've noticed, The Storyboard Daily, that other blog of Asian film news that I started recently, has been pretty dead. (Not that many would have noticed anyway, sigh.) Well, I've decided to shut it down.

The reason is, unfortunately, not as "glamorous" as Variety Asia's. I just simply discovered, over the course of time, that maintaining a daily news aggregate just isn't a one-man job.

So, if I could put together a team, then maybe I would try and run another blog like the Daily. For now, au revoir, zai jian, sayonara, adios, goodbye.

Meanwhile, The Storyboard continues as usual.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bigger Is Better?

Transformers was Michael Bay's ultimate boys' toys fantasy movie - cars, robots, weapons, and yes, a hot chick. Everything in the movie is a collectible that begs to be bought at the merchandise store, even whatshername.

So the Superbowl spot for Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen is out (even the title is a vomit of male bravado and a pseudo-mythical proclamation). As expected, it shows the sequel to be bigger, badder, louder, brasher, etc. Bay piles on the explosions, clashes, explosions, destruction, explosions, flying debris, explosions. The robots are bigger and more varied, the military has a bigger presence, there are battleships, tanks, helicopters, you name it. In short, a movie with even more collectibles.

While the first movie should have been a fun adaptation of a fun 80s cartoon series, it was, instead, a showcase for the Most Annoying One-Note Actor Of Today, and suffered from a serious lack of action and fun. When the action does come, it's the usual shaky, disorienting, incomprehensible rubbish.

It cemented Michael Bay's reputation as a pasar malam director who shamelessly panders to the demands of the lowest common denominator.

Here's the thing: why should bigger be better? Must sequels top the originals with bigger action sequences, bigger explosions, bigger everything?

The lesson should have been learnt last year. Bay should take a leaf from Christopher Nolan's book - all that The Dark Knight had was a bigger, more complex story. And the story comes first before anything else.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Troublesome Night

Talking about discrimination, here's another controversy currently blowing up online, and I thought I'd better get on it too.

Everyone, from Asians to non-Asians, are up in arms against the all-white casting of M. Night Shyamalan's live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's indeed frustrating and demeaning that a series known for being completely immersed in, and inspired by, Asian and Inuit cultures will be adapted into a movie populated by a main cast of Caucasians.

I'm not an avid follower of the series, but I've seen a few episodes of it on some lazy weekend mornings. It's impressive indeed, to say the least, not only because it's a rare moment where an American animated series (and one for kids) is wholly based on ethnic minority cultures, but also because from what I've seen, it's not one of those shows built from a white obsession with Asian exotica. At no time did I feel I was being Hong Kong Phooey-ed.

And then this happens.

Of course, this kind of discriminatory, racist practice isn't new. It's been around for ages. From the old "black-and-white minstrel shows" to Sir Alec Guinness putting on tan make-up to play an Indian man in A Passage To India. There are lots more examples of this kind of thing, from racist stereotypes to discrimination against Asian actors. But this time, Paramount, whose behind the Avatar movie, is dealing with a huge existing fanbase, and that's what's getting them into hot water, I guess. Plus, of course, this is the age of the Internet. Nothing gets by without close scrutiny by the online community.

This is not just something that can be construed as a subconscious decision by the studio, because it's blatant even to the extent of interviews given by the chosen actors. As one of them said to MTV:

"I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan," he said of the transformation he'll go through to look more like Sokka. "It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."

It's a real WTF moment. In this day and age. But I don't think I would want to put any part of the blame on Shyamalan. He's always had Asian actors in his movies, including himself, even though the leads are always non-Asian. But seeing as how his recent track record has been dismal, he probably doesn't have much say or choice in all this. (Although some might want to use his alleged rant against Brazilian crew members as proof of otherwise.)

I won't say more, but I'll just point you to some websites and blogs that have written about the controversies. There are online petitions and letter-writing campaigns in which you can take part. Otherwise, write about the issue and publicise it on your blog or website. Spread it far and wide.

Check out:

Good Riddance

I'd love to say it's been a long time coming; unfortunately the reason for the demise of Kaiju Shakedown isn't what I wish it were.

It's confirmed - Variety Asia is no more, due to the rough economic times. I will miss Variety Asia because it delivers fine news on Asian films. But what I definitely won't miss is the rubbish blog called Kaiju Shakedown.

Here and here are the reasons why.

I got so tired of the discriminatory crap and hypocritical garbage that I stopped reading that blog completely and even removed it from my sidebar.

I, for one, am glad to see it go. No tears shed here.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fake Real Footage

I'm a hardened cynic, or so I'm told. And I didn't have any interest whatsoever in seeing Spanish horror flick [REC]. Especially after the artistically famished Cloverfield. Yes, the main reason that put me off seeing [REC] is the YouTube-influenced shaky cam.

When the movie first came out, it caused quite an excitement among genre fans who raved about the unexpected shocks. But to me, the last great horror film was Ringu, and ever since, nothing else has come close. At least nothing else resonates that much.

The idea of mixing Blair Witch-type shaky video with zombies is a pretty nifty one, I must admit (though I haven't seen Diary Of The Dead). But with this kind of "video footage" comes a whole set of problems, which I believe has not been ironed out by filmmakers who seem more enamoured with just using the immediacy of the "format."

As much as we'd like to believe that this YouTube style puts us right smack in the midst of the action, we also cannot truly escape its voyeuristic nature. With this style, it takes a whole lot more suspension of disbelief than the traditional film method. Yes, the immediacy is there, but all the time we're also conscious of the artificiality of what's on-screen, to the point that sometimes the eagerness to make us believe nears desperation. People scream, camera shakes, total chaos - we're supposed to believe, within that moment, that all of it is really happening right in front of us. But no one goes into a movie not knowing that it's a movie and those are actors.

It worked for The Blair Witch Project the first time around because it benefited from a great marketing plan, and some people apparently did enter the cinema thinking they were going to see authentic found footage of documentary filmmakers who were lost in the woods and hunted by supernatural forces.

It works on YouTube because of the open, anonymous nature of the video-sharing community - that is, anything goes and we don't really always know the who, what, where, when or how about an uploaded video. Best case in point is this infamous video about a bunch of people in a car who supposedly pick up a hitchhiking phantom.

But for movies like [REC], we go into it knowing we're seeing a movie, and that glass wall between us and the screen isn't really removed at any moment. The "traditional" way of shooting a horror movie utilises lighting and camera angles to create atmosphere and engage the viewer, to "coerce" us, the audience, into a momentary suspension of disbelief. It's pretty much like a thrill ride on a rollercoaster - we know it's not going to harm us because it's just a movie, but we become active participants anyway for the fun of it.

It's when film tries to approximate reality that some parts of the machinery breaks down, simply because no matter how much we try, we'll never be able to simulate reality to the point where our brain would accept it as so. And a film like [REC] requires us to be so. The format, the style, seriously tells us: "This is real. What you're watching is real. Look, it's video footage captured by the people who were there when it happened."

And also, a lot of what happens in real life, be it a video from an embedded war journalist, a YouTube upload, eyewitness footage of a disaster or other such events, only last for a few minutes, at most. Sitting through one-and-a-half to two hours of such stuff isn't a good idea to begin with. Not only will people be throwing up and getting motion sickness, the shaky cam will also start to annoy, as will the screaming, the shouting, the running, the chaos.

While there are a few good moments in [REC], the best and most effective moments are when the camera "calms down." What this simply proves is that shaking the camera is just a cheat, a way to do away with the "troublesome" traditional way of setting up and blocking scenes. Disorientation doesn't always mean excitement and suspense.

I don't see this as a natural progression for film, nor do I think it's a fad that would catch on like wildfire. It's more like a signpost of the times, which will remain within these times. Perhaps what would be next is the splicing of real footage with made-up ones, the ultimate way of confusing the audience into believing what they see.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Comedy In The Dusk

Unfortunately for "f," who'd left an "interesting" comment in the last entry, I'm back. And I mean to stay around for quite awhile. So sorry to cause you so much pain!

During the four-and-a-half-hour flight to and from the East, I caught Kurosawa Kiyoshi's much-acclaimed Tokyo Sonata on the tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me. Not the most ideal condition for movie-watching, but one has to make do when one is stuck in a tiny seat in Cattle Class, with nothing much to do and sleep being an almost impossible endeavour with the constant buzz of the airplane engines and little space to manoeuvre the restless body.

Well, I actually didn't catch the entire film, so to speak. I had missed a substantial amount of the beginning when I was flipping through the channels and duly discovered that it was showing on the flight. When I reached the part where the wife meets the burglar, I suddenly fell asleep. When I awoke, the film had ended. When the film replayed, I missed a bit of the beginning again, but managed to catch much of what I had missed the first time. Then, we got into serious turbulence. Being thrown around right after you've had your lunch isn't exactly a fun thing. And watching something on a tiny screen while that happens doesn't help matters at all.

So, I closed my eyes and drifted listlessly in the subconscious before I gave myself the chance to go for the barf bag.

But whatever I managed to see was great. It wouldn't be fair to do a full review since I didn't see the whole film, but suffice it to say that I didn't expect so much humour in it. But as with all of Kurosawa's films, there's a very dark undercurrent that slowly emerges and overtakes everything else. Snatches of his thriller-horror instincts can be glimpsed in one dream sequence and some shadowy interior scenes. But this is a family dramedy, and one that was way ahead of the economic crisis that's hitting us right now. So the film's become extra-relevant and scary all of a sudden.


Right before my trip, I caught another Japanese comedy, but one that is a straight-out crowd-pleaser. I've long been a fan of Mitani Koki, ever since I saw Welcome Back, Mr McDonald (Rajio no Jikan). That film was the longest running at GSC's International Screens in Mid Valley, and I think it still holds the record till today. I don't remember how many months it ran, but I do remember going to see it a total EIGHT times.

Welcome Back is also another crowd-pleaser (does Mitani make any other kinds of movies, eh?) and a completely feel-good movie that doesn't make a bad word out of "feel-good." It's a movie full of characters that one would have encountered in the course of one's life, a note on life and all its quirks. It's all about how life requires us to constantly adapt to new circumstances.

That seems to be the one continuing thread in all of Mitani's films, but far from being a one-trick pony, he makes it fresh in every movie, with new nuances and dynamics. It's no different with his latest, The Magic Hour.

It's a film about filmmaking, and also a look at the fine line between ambition and delusion. While film requires us to suspend disbelief most of the time, The Magic Hour reminds us of that constantly because almost the entire movie is built upon an impossible premise.

A guy caught in bed with his mobster boss's girl is given an ultimatum - get the boss to meet a mysterious assassin or else. Because time is quickly running out, he has no choice but to get a two-bit actor to play the part of the assassin, fooling the actor into believing that they're making a movie where everything has to be so natural that actors stay in character even off-camera and the camera is hidden most times.

Impossible? Yet amazingly everyone buys into the scam, mobster boss, actor and all. The story even takes place in a fictional town that it seems hasn't developed very much and remains looking like a 1940s movie set!

As impossible as everything is, Mitani has us in the palm of his hand from the get-go, never letting up the pace. I was initially skeptical of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, having been told by some that the movie's a bit too long. But the movie felt like  a breeze to sit through, with nary a draggy moment. This really goes to Mitani's credit as a really talented writer; everytime you think he has reached the end of an overstretched idea, that he's reached a dead-end, he surprises you with even more gags and funny situations.

And like Welcome Back, it all reaches an explosive finale, with every character appearing in the last scenes. The ending is inspired, to say the least. And by the end of the long running time, you'd be feeling that buzz of Mitani's trademark feel-good-ness.

Life's OK, Mitani tells us, and no matter what the curve ball it throws us, even if we mess up, there's always tomorrow. And somehow I believe him, no suspension of disbelief required.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Temporary Downtime

In the next couple days, I'm off to somewhere and won't be online.

When I return, I hope to hammer out something about Donnie Yen, Ip Man and Iron Monkey.

(Note that both of Yen's best films have the same initials, "I.M.")

The Storyboard Daily will also maintain radio silence for the next two days.

Back soon.

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