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.

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's Scary Beyond Your Own Backyard

I'm a Brad Anderson fan, and I think Session 9 and The Machinist are two of the most underrated Hollywood films. Naturally I'd been pretty excited about seeing his latest, Transsiberian. I finally saw it last night, and while it's not as good as those two other movies, it's still a pretty gripping thriller about an American couple travelling from China through Russia and encountering all kinds of trouble.

Midway through the film, it struck my mind that I was seeing a trend being stretched and moulded here. Morphed even. Another movie I'd seen recently, The Ruins, made it even more concrete.

The Ruins is about two American couples holidaying in Mexico who decide to visit an old Mayan ruin and run into killer plants and hostile locals.

See the connection yet?

Both Transsiberian and The Ruins are about American tourists getting into weird troubles abroad. Of course, we've had torture porn like Hostel treating us to Americans being mutilated and killed in strange European resthouses. But now, here's a classy thriller with emphasis on characters and story that also uses the same template, and Transsiberian is definitely not another run-of-the-mill torture flick to satiate cinemagoers' bloodlust. (Although the one constant through all these films are acts of torture, and Transsiberian has one, too.)

It leads one to question why such a proliferation of stories about American tourists and their harrowing holidays. It also has to be noted that there have previously been movies with ideas such as horrid Turkish prisons (Midnight Express) and horrid Thai prisons (Brokedown Palace). But in just the last few years, it seems to have been solidified into a true-blue trend. Americans want to have a good time, Americans travel abroad, Americans meet some foreigners, Americans go along with them, Americans run into trouble.

Is this a sign of America becoming even more isolated now? What's really happening? Of course, in recent times, things like the War on (/of) Terror has probably led to Americans' fear of stepping outside of their own backyards. Take for example, the Green Zone in Iraq, a fortified safe area for Americans, which, according to Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life In The Emerald City, is somewhat like a mini-America inside Iraq. Perhaps it's all these things that has fed the fear of what's "out there," and that a friendly foreign face doesn't always mean someone you can trust.

Perhaps this is what filmmakers have picked up on.

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