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.

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