mostly sweet, sometimes sour

Movie Reviews

Retro is in: A silent movie review (“The Artist”)

I love silent movies. Fire up a Humphrey Bogard special or a Charlie Chaplin classic, and I’m all set to be entertained for the next two hours. Beautiful classical music, emotive facial and body expressions, dialogue kept to a mere minimal. Silent movies were always meant to be an escape- not to imitate life, but to be larger than it. Watching a silent movie today- where directors are far more concerned about realism, is like a throwback experience. Fun, but well, we’re glad that’s over.

Nowhere was this more true than when I recently watched the Best Picture favourite, “The Artist”. All I’d seen before the movie was a one-liner synopsis: ‘silent movie star struggles to adapt to talking cinema.’ I certainly wasn’t expecting a movie that was entirely silent. But, well, it was. Even in the critical middle of the movie, when a transition is being made from silent movies to ‘talkies’ and we finally hear a voice for the first time, it turns out to be the voice of a female singer. Nope, no dialogue here. Move along now…

Silent Films are not subtle

For a silent film to go beyond ‘fun’ and be artistic and serious, it turns out, subtlety need not apply. “The Artist” is just about the most in-your-face arthouse film you’ll ever see. For example, the star’s last silent movie, his swansong, is screamingly titled ‘Tears of Love’. Just in case you don’t get it, we spend two minutes watching the actor die in the last scene of his movie: sinking slowly but surely into quicksand, never to return from oblivion.

There are tonnes of examples like this. As the one-time star crosses the road having just auctioned off everything he owned, a billboard in the distance flashes the film for the day: “Lonely Star”. And when the actor finally decides to see a talkie, he chooses one starring a girl he had a crush on, and who’s been silently looking out for him. The film’s name? “Guardian Angel”.

Then of course, there’s the fact that his best friend in the whole show, a great fellow actor, who at one point also saves his life, is a star that can never talk: his dog. At one point, as the actor walks out from “Guardian Angel”, a woman stops him. Is his fame still lingering? Does she remember? No, she wants to see his dog. “If only he could talk!” Our star sighs. Of course, the one refusing to talk- refusing to act in a ‘talkie’- is the star himself.

No worries. There is a happy ending, as there always is. The star does finally decide to act in a ‘talkie’. In the movie’s final five minutes, the star makes an amazing transition, skipping past the entire ‘talking drama’ genre, and reinventing him and his costar as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, tap dancing extraordinaires. So the artist gets to remain an artist (now throwing himself into dance), while finding a way to become relevant again.

Astaire himself would have appreciated the irony of this ending, having once quipped, ‘the actors today… they think they can dance with their faces!’ Dancing with his face is what the star of this movie, one George Valentin (movie name) does best. His smile is megawatt, up there among the best of them, and his ability to emote expressions is wonderful. But perhaps the greatest trick of acting he pulls off only gets revealed in the last scene. There he stands, having just finished a dance with his co-star, in the American studio “Kinograph”, for the American film “Sparkle of Love”, evoking one of the greatest American stars of them all, when he utters his only words of the movie.

“Perfect take, George… But can you do it again?”

“Avec plaisir”

That single scene sums up the best and the worst of a silent movie. A silent movie is truly art, and needs the finest director and actor to guide the plot so the audience wouldn’t get lost. But it was also an exceedingly difficult genre, and anything not-obvious (in this case, that the American star is in fact French(!!!)) would easily be missed.

“The Artist” is a movie with excellent acting, with great direction, but with a fluffy popcorn plot. In that sense, it’s very unlike most other Oscar nominees (the script seems to be serious + boring = winner). So why is it, in fact, a leading Best Picture contender? I think this reviewer sums it up best:

“If you’re looking for an explanation to all the Oscar buzz, then consider this — like Valentin, Hollywood loves few things more than its own reflection. No surprise they’ve fallen hard for the simple pleasures of The Artist.”


Immortals is a whole lot of fun

Half an hour into the movie “Immortals”, it becomes extremely clear why the movie has been rated M18. As punishment for his cowardice, a defecting soldier is made to spread his legs, and a guard walks in with a giant hammer. The scene mercifully cuts away so you don’t see what happens, but you certainly hear the screams.

It seems that movies/ shows about ancient times- 300, Spartacus Blood and Sand- all come served with a heavy dose of gore and blood these days. It’s not even just violence. It’s gratuitous, celebrated violence. Kinda reminds me of Kill Bill. Immortals is slightly less stylish, and more gory, but the blood is the same.

This, in short, is a guy-flick through-and-through. If you’re the kinda guy who enjoyed 300, this is right up your alley. (They’re even produced by the same people). There is lots of fighting. Everything is stylised, from the brownish skies to the over-the-top costumes. There is also a dash of humour: when the main character meets his mother outside of a temple, he remarks: “I don’t believe in your religion, but your monks sure do have strange hats.”

The monk in question had a hat slightly stranger than this one

The only thing missing from this movie was skin. For an M18 show, it was very tame. We only got to see one woman disrobe from behind- the kind of stuff that, frankly, you can easily catch on TV nowadays. Anyway, I’ve been watching a lot of such shows lately (finished the entire Spartacus Blood and Sand in less than a week), and this was a movie I certainly enjoyed. As long as you don’t expect this to be a ‘superhero saves the world’ type of action movie, you’ll probably enjoy it too!

Recommended.


Tower Heist review: More Eddie Murphy please

Kudos to the marketing folks at Universal Pictures for creating a trailer that far outperforms the movie.

The trailer for the Tower Heist is wonderful- it is short, succinct, well-paced, and drums up excitement around the movie. Unfortunately, the movie falls far short of these standards. It’s as if somebody took the trailer and expanded it into a movie, adding plot-fillers around all the wonderful highlights that were summarised in the ad. Heck, they even screwed up the best joke in the movie- a hilarious scene that has a Jamaican woman talking suggestively about ‘using your fingers’ and capping it off with ‘are you married?’ In the trailer, this is the punch-line to a slam-dunk-of-a-joke. In the movie, it was a letdown- there was too much dialogue, and it really seemed like the two were having a serious conversation about marital life.

There were a few saving graces, however. I’ve sometimes thought that Ben Stiller’s movies (eg. Dodgeball) were too over-the-top. This one was a lot more subtle in its humour. There were also a few casting gems. Eddie Murphy displayed his comic genius in practically every scene he was in, and Gabourey Sidibe (last seen starring in “Precious”) continues to show that she has serious acting chops- even for comedy. Unfortunately the two’s screen time was very limited, and instead we get Matthew Broderick trying to make us laugh by cutting the security tag out of a Gap sweatshirt in an attempt to steal it. I don’t even remotely see how that could be funny.

After seeing the trailer, I was really looking forward to Tower Heist. Too bad the movie was this disappointing. Among the numerous plot “huh?” issues, there was a love story that went nowhere; a heist without any suspense; a comedy without many jokes; and b-listers trying to act stylish ala Ocean’s Eleven.

Too many marketing folks with their focus groups results trying to write the script: and so we get a movie that tries to please everyone, but ends up satisfying no one.

In case the movie-makers at Universal Pictures are reading this blog (they’re not), here’s a tip: all we needed was more Eddie Murphy. And maybe more Gabourey Sidibe too.


Movie Review: Footloose is still a great song

Of all the classic dancing movies that I remember, Footloose is probably the best candidate for a remake. Can you imagine anyone trying to say “nobody puts baby in a corner” in a remake? Or any other movie trying to recreate the magic that was the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive being played to a smooth John Travolta’s strut down the street?

No, those movies could only be done once. Footloose is different, however. Its themes of “city meets country” are evergreen, and whether city meets country (as in this movie), or whether country meets city (Coyote Ugly, for example), the result is always the same. Both sides discover they’re more alike than different, and America lives happily ever after. And if America living happily ever after doesn’t lend itself well to a remake, then I don’t know what does.

Relevant themes aside, the movie also has one other key ingredient that endears it to a remake. Its biggest stars are still translatable today. The Footloose theme song continues to be extremely catchy, and I couldn’t help but bob along when the movie opened with this classic. The movie’s other big star (as the name suggests) are the feet, and thankfully, feet look quite similar today as when they first made the movie. We’re reminded of this again immediately, in the opening scene’s homage to the original.

But while this modern movie is supposed to be a remake, it also pokes fun cheekily at the original. In the opening scene, for instance, we see feet. Lots and lots of feet. While the original did this to wow audiences (“what loose feet!”), this one adopts an angle that will be painfully familiar to any photographer who has ever taken a picture and realised that something critical had been cut off from the shot. When I saw the original I never felt this, but here I found myself thinking- where are the dancers’ bodies?

The humor of this scene is a little subtle, but in my favourite scene of the movie the laughs come thick and fast. We watch as Miles Teller clumsily ‘learns’ to dance to a song that was on the original soundtrack- “Let’s hear it for the boys”. The key difference? Rather than being used as a heart-wrencher, the song is now relegated to status of ‘oldie’, and is sung, tongue-in-cheek, by 7-year old girls belting classics from a ‘barbie’ karaoke set.

One thing is clear: humor is this movie’s strongest point, and Miles Teller in particular steals the show time and again with his brilliant comic acting. In his first scene, for instance, he bumps into the lead. They square off, trade insults, and look like they’re about to come to blows (oh no, not another teenage angst dealing with high-school movie…). But then at the perfect moment, Miles smiles and introduces himself: he’d been joking all along. The actor also has an effortless talent for physical comedy, and one scene in particular is practically worth the price of admission. As he listens to a story about a Russian menage a trois, Miles displays an array of priceless facial experiences and breathless anticipation. It sounds ordinary in the retelling, but trust me, it’s good.

Sadly, Miles is the only decent young actor in a show about young people. Julianne Hough is obviously an amazing dancer (though she doesn’t show it much) and extremely pretty, but she’s called upon to carry a very emotional role and she’s found lacking. Her brother dies at the beginning of the show, and her father votes in draconian laws like ‘no drinking, no coming home past 10pm, and… no dancing’ for the city. While all this is happening the camera is transfixed on her, so we know it’s important- but then we spend the rest of the movie trying to find out why. After the rules are set, something is different about Julianne. Early on we learn she used to be a real goody-two-shoes, but now she’s suddenly courting danger, and when pushed to her limits, even gives up her virginity to a nobody. The question is, why?

The pieces start falling together, but more because the plot (and dialogue) throws (not drops, throws) hints at us. Initially she seems thrilled by the high-life. She breaks the rules, and she seeks out the new city-boy, seemingly as a symbol of rebellion. But things are not so simple. When the boy rejects her (“I want to kiss you… someday”), her heart starts to soften. No, it’s not the high-life that attracts her, it’s something else. Eventually everything falls apart in a church as father and daughter confronts each other after she’s been beaten up by her ex-boyfriend. You’ve blamed our brother for everything, she screams at him, so that now nobody can do anything fun anymore- everyone remembers her brother for causing the draconian laws and not his virtues. Finally! We understand. She’s angry at her father for taking away her childhood fun, and for tarnishing her brother’s memory.

Or so we think. Nope, that’s not it. Something’s not right in this scene. After all, nobody else seems to care that there is no dancing (the standard response: a shrug, and ‘it’s the law’). And as for her brother, Julianne does not mention him anywhere else in the movie. There’s not a single scene where she recalls the memory of her brother. No, this was never about him. We finally (this time, well and truly) learn what the matter was when she utters this line, almost as a throwaway, to her dad after they patch things up: “I didn’t want to disappoint you”. So it turns out that it was about her all along. She saw how much her father did to honor her brother’s memory after he’d made a mistake, and in her adolescent jealousy she wanted this too. “Hey, I’m bad too, dad! Change the law for me!” There’s all this festering under the surface, but it never comes out. Julianne’s role is evidently limited to: smile, wear tight jeans, and dazzle.

That she does. Thankfully, the movie stays out of its own way. It knows that it has a crop of dancers masquerading as actors (none of that James Dean or even the original Kevin Bacon coming-of-age stuff here), and so the writers just put in strong dialogue that speak for themselves (they have no choice), and then stay out of the way as the stars do what they do best. They dance. The lead actor is extremely athletic, and he spends a lot of his dance routines in mid-air. We’ve all seen Julianne on Dancing With The Stars; and even the dorky Miles Teller shows himself a smooth operator on the dance-floor.

In the end, this movie still ends up being loads of fun. It’s funny, the dialogue is strong, and the actors aren’t really called upon to act all that much. They focus on doing what they do best- they dance. To the beat of a song that was first released the year I was born, and still holds the magical formula to get audiences off their seats.


Movie-Review: The Change-Up (it’s Good!)

I got a chance to watch a sneak preview of The Change-Up on Monday night at the Cathay. I’d gone in with low expectations. After all, ‘let’s swap!’ movies are APLENTY, and you just know how the plot is going to go. It’s going to be alternatively good and bad, then finally a lesson will be learnt and everyone will happily go back to their own lives.

And the moral of the story is always the same: The grass is greener from the other side, and so all it takes is to look at your own life from another person’s eyes to appreciate it better.

But the devil is in the details. What separates a good comedy from a bad one is not its plot, but the way it executes the jokes. Does it do it subtly, or does it smack you in the face with it jokes ala over-the-top Jim Carrey style? Do the writers do new and unexpected twists, or rehash the same-old “age/gender/sexuality” change-ups? As far as such comedies go, The Change-Up is in the “subtle and novel” camp, and the movie is all the better for it.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but the movie’s gags generally relies more on conversation than slapstick. Even the ‘action comedy’ scenes are relatively subtle. When needed, such as during Ryan Reynold’s love scenes with the very gorgeous Olivia Wilde, the movie turns off humour almost entirely, much like a master chef sprinkles just a sprinkling of pepper to season his dish.

As a result, the movie never feels like it is trying too hard. It’s effortlessly and (more importantly) believably funny. Its jokes come across as the kind that a regular funny-guy in the office might try on his colleagues (which is NOT something I can say about Jim Carrey or increasingly even Ben Stiller). The characters in this movie are generally believable rather than stereotypical, and the movie ends up having much more heart than I’d expected it would.

For a movie in this genre, you could do much worse. Definitely recommended if you’re looking for a light-hearted-but-not-entirely-stupid comedy.

Edit: I’ve now read some other reviews of the movie. Apparently some other reviewers were fixated on the number of boobs showed in this movie. And there were many. At least 3 pairs, in my count. But The Change-Up is not an erotic movie by any means, and it didn’t feel like they were trying to pull the trick of ‘let’s mock ourselves by showing as many boobs as possible’ either. Not a big deal in my mind.

 


Hangover 2: the exact same movie, but in Thailand

This was the first time I’ve watched a movie that was basically an exact replica.

The movie begins after the hangover, with a group feeling awful, having screwed up their bachelor night celebrations. They then try desperately to recall what happened the previous night, and can’t for the life of them recall anything. (While they were doing it they certainly seemed full of life, though). They then pick up all clues they can and try to retrace their steps (think Memento, but trying too hard to be funny), while making fun of all the stereotypes of that over-the-top city that they’re now in.

It all ends well, and in the credits you get a set of pictures summarising in chronological order everything that happened, just in case you’re still confused.

Hangover 2 is basically the exact same movie, but set in Thailand. Don’t expect anything different or exciting when you watch it, and just focus on the stereotypes being mocked.

So how are the laughs?

In Hangover 1, the movie played up stereotypes of Vegas as a crazy anything-goes place, and this worked because almost everyone thinks of Vegas in the same way. Hangover 2 has Bangkok as the new Vegas. The movie is caters to an American audience who stereotypes Bangkok as a mysterious, crazy place with ladyboys and sex shows coexisting next to strange but devout religious practices like monks taking a vow of silence.

Unfortunately, for a Singaporean audience that knows Bangkok better (Thai Massages, MBK shopping, JJ market bargains) a lot of this just comes across as poor taste and bad humour. There remain a few good genuine laughs, which mostly occur when the cast is allowed to work their own magic instead of trying to go ‘WTF’ at yet another cultural shock. There was a particular scene I loved that was evil genius. The whole plane is sleeping, but one of the hangover guys is intently staring down the back of the head of his new rival for apparently the whole sixteen hour flight to Bangkok (the groom’s brother-in-law, whom he met five minutes ago). It is completely random, completely out of left field, and completely surprising. In short, the stuff of great humour.

Unfortunately these scenes are few and far between. The real star of this show is Bangkok- not the Bangkok we know, with warm and friendly people, and great food and shopping. It’s the ‘that’s weird as hell, man!’ Bangkok that is on display here, and it gets old very quickly.

Bottom Line

There are a myraid choices of films right now- Hangover 2 shouldn’t be on the top of anyone’s list.


I am Number Four VS Shaolin

On the flight back from my vacation (Beijing->Singapore), I watched two movies in my awesome Singapore Airlines economy class seat. Here’s a quick recap. (In two words, “no good”).

I am Number Four

Basically this show is Twilight meets Heroes. A bunch of youngsters have powers, fight evil, evil loses, guy and girl make out and fall in love (forever, because the guy’s special race of people only deal with true, eternal, one-only love), show ends. Yawn. Nothing really awful about this movie, but nothing really great either. I found myself thinking I’d rather watch two episodes of heroes than sit-through one movie of this.

Shaolin

The movie was incredibly stereotypical. There was the evil Nicholas Tse, with his floppy pretentious hair reminding you that you’re supposed to hate him, and instead love the monks (who have no hair). There was the evil warlord (Andy Lau) who suddenly found a renewed sense of purpose behind Buddhism, by passing out food to refugees, and who improves his martial arts skills overnight (cos’ that’s how it works, really, no hard training of muscles is necessary) by being at Shaolin. There’s the small-time Shaolin chef, except we know he’s gonna be awesome cos Jackie Chan doesn’t do small parts. And then there’s the eye candy, Fan BingBing, whose role in the movie can best be described as cry-and-die.

Oh, I forgot to mention the must-have in every nationalist Chinese movie: the sadistic British general who does the evil laugh (think Stephen Chow laughing, except Shaolin is not supposed to be a comedy) as he steals national treasures and slaughters the Shaolin monks mercilessly.

The movie boasts of mostly a great list of characters. Unfortunately they’re forced into a movie that stereotypes them, gives them zero character development, and ends with this you-know-its-supposed-to-be-beautiful cliche: “Shaolin is not destroyed. Its spirit will live within us forever”.

Great SIA experience though

Awesome Krisworld system (play on demand, nice big screens), pretty air stewardesses, friendly service, and good legroom. It was a great flight back to Singapore- pity about the movies.


30 Rock is Awesome

I initially didn’t give 30 Rock a chance. Saturday Night Life is sometimes great (eg. Cowbells with Will Ferrell), but I thought it was typically over the top and I liked closely scripted sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother more than the standup arena where Tina Fey got famous. But because I got bored, I decided to try watching it.

Wow.

It’s hilarious. Tina Fey is not over the top at all. She’s sweet, funny, realistic, and extremely self-depreciating. In fact, the whole show encourages laughing at themselves. Jena and Tracy Morgan, for instance, do crazy things all the time and are extremely proud to admit it. In one episode, for instance, Jena was extremely proud that Tina Fey ‘cared enough for her’ to come up with a fake trophy for her (which doesn’t sound that funny until you realise the fake trophy was a painted cookie).

But the biggest way the show makes one laugh at themselves is the trick it pulls on the audience. Watching the crazy stunts that they show on TGS with Tracy Morgan (which is the show within the show that this cast is producing), we can’t help but laugh. At Tracy’s crazy slapstick humour; at Jena’s attempt at using ‘my sexuality’. We also can’t help but laugh at the audience of this show within the show, for laughing at such stupid things.

Here’s the thing, though. There is no audience of this show within the show. The one looking at these stunts, and laughing at them, is us. We’re laughing at ourselves.

It’s a brilliant trick. We laugh at the silly audience, not realising its ourselves. And then when we do realise that it’s us, we learn something. Maybe life really doesn’t have to be all that serious after all.

That’s why watching 30 Rock leaves me feeling not-entirely frivolous. The best comedies all do this- let people laugh at characters who are actually representations of the audience themselves. Take it easy, folks, and have a laugh. Especially at yourself.