Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

DVD: Bridge on the river Kwai

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The epic adventure and anti-war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was both popularly and critically acclaimed when released in 1957, being the highest-grossing film of the year, and also scooping seven Academy Awards. The tale, based very loosely on a true World War II story, follows the fate of a group of British prisoners of war who arrive at a camp to build a bridge for the Japanese. Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, a former silent screen star) and his English counterpart, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), clash over the fact that British officers are being forced to carry out manual labour. Meanwhile, an American sailor who has escaped from the camp (William Holden) is co-opted into British efforts to get back to the camp to blow the bridge up.

The film was shot on location in the colourful jungles of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). The beautiful, languorous cinematography mirrors the heavy steaminess of the conditions the men were under, foreign to the Japanese and British alike. To viewers today the shots may seem overly slow – indeed many of them are undoubtedly indulgent — but they’re a wonderful invitation to really immerse oneself in the world created on the screen.

While the theme of the film – the futility of war – has sustained the decades to remain at least marginally interesting, much in the detail is now quite laughable, but fascinatingly so. For example, it’s difficult to rouse much sympathy for the British officer for his “bravery” when all he’s doing is trying to get British officers to avoid manual labour. The subtext is that mere enlisted men should just put up with their rotten conditions. (These conditions are not actually represented to be as gruesome as history asserts they were.)

The representation of British colonialist attitudes, too, is unintentionally awful. “Here there is no civilisation,” complains one soldier. “Well then, we’ll just have to introduce it,” says Colonel Nicholson. The Brits will show the Japanese “Western efficiency”, even if that means they have to “build them a better bridge than they could have built themselves”. And although not meant to be historically accurate, what is chosen to be represented on the screen is still indicative of the era. “I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it – the British.” In fact, the railway overall was worked on at its peak by 61,000 Allied soldiers, as well as 250,000 Asians. Many from various nations died.

There’s a curious lack of geographical knowledge of the region, which audiences in Thailand will find amusing. A British officer points to a map to indicate the camp’s location, for instance, and mistakenly points to Burma instead of Thailand. At least they really do speak Thai with the villagers who help them. But in the accompanying documentary on disc two, they’re called Burmese!

Directed by David Lean, who would later go on to make Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai is an important, and quite fascinating piece of film history, rather than an epic that will have audiences completely captivated today.

The DVD

VIDEO: The transfer appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 widescreen, and has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The extras are shown on a second disc. Given the age of the print, substantial flaws are to be expected, but Columbia Tristar has done a good job technically with the transfer. The opening scene of a vulture flying overhead is quite dusty, but the dramatic start credits, in their bold yellow font splashed over the lush green jungles, give a better indication of what’s to come. Some imperfections – grit, hair and so on – are occasionally visible, but for the most part the transfer is clean.

Most of the film is sharp, the brightness is good, and the colours in particular are very vivid, with the jungle background and browns of skins and uniforms dominating the palette. No pixellation was evident. Subtitled in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese and Thai.

SOUND: The original sound track is presented here as a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. The surround sound lends great natural depth to many of the action scenes, such as men marching into camp and scuttling along in rail cars. However, the general quality of the soundtrack does vary, with some scratchiness and a discernable variation in volume on numerous occasions.

MENUS: Basic, with the nice touch of bamboo doors opening and closing.

EXTRAS: There are plenty of extras if you think that 162 minutes is not enough. A basic trivia test and screen saver appear on the first disc, but the second contains the bulk of the extra features.

The Making of the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’: This newly made documentary, nearly an hour long, features interviews with film historian Adrian Turner and various people involved in the production of the film. While they provide some interesting trivia about the difficulties of production – the British War office for instance refused to cooperate – there’s a lot of fluff as well, such as discussion on how the actress who plays William Holden’s love interest, who reads all of about six lines, was chosen, what sort of an actress her sister was, and whether she looked better as a blonde or brunette.

The Rise and Fall of a Jungle Giant: This short piece contains plenty of footage taken on the set, and provides some further trivia on the making of the film.

On Seeing Film: This is one of those offbeat gems that DVD devotees love. William Holden presents a 15 minute film from the University of Southern California on how to watch a film, using Bridge as a bit of a case study. Its beauty is in its datedness – can you imagine being told in 15 minutes how to watch a film today?

An Appreciation By John Milius: This short piece splices clips of the film with film-maker John Milius talking about the film’s brilliance.

Also: There’s a photo montage, various film trailers (including Lawrence of Arabia), and brief filmographies. The DVD pack comes with a souvenir booklet that replicates the original released with the film back in 1957. Mine did not seem to have the page numbers in the right order, but this probably happened to a small batch only.

Final Thoughts: Bridge on the River Kwai is an important film historically (in terms of film, not in terms of what it presents, which is largely inaccurate), and this DVD adaptation recognises this. Much of the detail in the film has not aged well, but again makes intriguing viewing in terms of history. This is a film for buffs, not for those who wish to idly be entertained for a few hours.

DVD: Gandhi

01.12.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The winner of nine Academy Awards in 1982, Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi has endured as a compelling and powerful testament to one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic, awe-inspiring and influential people. Gandhi’s approach to life and politics were hardly conventional – it’s not everyday that one man says he won’t eat and a nation comes to a standstill – but this record of his life is.

The film begins with Gandhi’s massive 1948 funeral. Some 400,000 extras (a few throwing rose buds at Ben Kingsley’s cadaver in the hope of making him flinch) make these initial scenes superb feats in themselves. Then we flash back to Gandhi as a wet-eared but privileged attorney arriving in South Africa in 1893, only to be thrown out of first class due to his colour.

The story moves on chronologically from there, at a deliberate, slow pace but without being overly meandering. Sometimes the narrative’s fanatical reliance on accuracy wins out at the expense of explanation. Various characters, for instance, are trotted out for display seemingly so the historically attuned audience can tick them off, rather than being woven inextricably into Gandhi’s development as a leader and icon. Yet other characters – such as Gandhi’s children – are mysteriously quite invisible.

While such treatment does lend shallowness rather than intrigue to the characters, the grandeur of the scenery and the sweeping cinematography that captures them cannot be faulted for their ambition, nor their execution. Englishman Ben Kingsley – sporting a suntan he worked hard at — plays a faultlessly charismatic Gandhi, and is well-supported by a big name cast.

The pompousness of the colonial British, too, with their indignant cough spluttering and stupid, blinkered adherence to British law, is wonderfully presented. But the British were more than just a silly inconvenience, and the horror of a their rule is brought home soberly when British troops to fire on thousands of unarmed Indian protesters. It doesn’t make it difficult to comprehend why Gandhi, who once revelled in his sons being “proper little English gentlemen”, turns into one of the strongest driving forces behind the expulsion of the British from India.

Gandhi’s remarkable life was crying out to be recorded on film, and the events he lived through and helped shape are monumental enough to sustain the well-trodden narrative path Attenborough takes us along. While he didn’t devote much attention to gaining a fresh insight into the man’s life through a cinematic exploration of what made him tick, Attenborough nevertheless produced a masterful epic worthy of each of its Academy Awards.

The DVD

VIDEO: The nearly 20-year-old print used for Colombia’s 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is in superb condition, and allows audiences to see precisely why Gandhi won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The colours remain vibrant, rich and natural, an important virtue when long shots are so integral to the film overall. The images themselves are for the most part sharp and crisp, with consistent brightness. Specks and pixellation are not a problem, and although there are a few tiny jumps in the transfer, they are not enough to distract attention away from the film. This is a very impressive transfer – a shining example of why film-lovers should opt for rewatching all their favourite films on this medium. Subtitles are availabale in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.

SOUND: The Dolby surround sound of Gandhi adds drama and movement both to the big scenes – and there are plenty of these, involving huge crowds and protests – to the smaller, more intimate scenes where simple things like doors being closed on one side of the room are picked up accurately. George Fenton and Ravi Shankar’s evocative score is given more resonance, too, by the crispness of the audio recording. Oddly – and inexcusably — the sound quality seemed to drop substantially during Ben Kingsley’s interview.

MENUS: Basic, easy-to-follow menus that follow the film’s themes.

EXTRAS:

Featurette: Interview with Ben Kingsley After seeing him play such a humble character as Gandhi, it’s surprising to see how quietly confident, or even arrogant, Ben Kingsley is in person. He claims – not in as many words, but in a roundabout way – that capturing Gandhi’s character was easier than learning how to spin and talk at the same time. Nevertheless, Kingsley provides some very valuable trivia about the making of the film (it took 20 years to get backing), the cast (he and Martin Sheen shared what he calls one of the greatest moments actors can have) and how he prepared to play such a revered Indian leader (lunch with Gandhi’s grandson, chats with Indira Gandhi). The only disappointment here is that this interview is the only one provided.

Newsreel clips of the real Gandhi: These are inspired choices to include on this DVD. You’ll think the portrayal of the British as pompous idiots in the film is bad enough: Then comes this fantastic collection of four short news reels about Gandhi they produced, with titles such as “Gandhi Goes to England”, which show how truly patronising the British were. Gandhi’s a “little man” who hundreds of Brits wait to see in the pouring rain on his first visit to England. “They waited to see what he really looked like. And they saw quite a lot of him — even his knees!” laughs the newsreader, making a reference to Gandhi’s traditional Indian attire. This stuff is worth its weight in Oscar gold.

Others: Two minutes of famous Gandhi quotes set to music are merely a time filler, while a photo montage of the making of Gandhi is only marginally interesting. A trailer and plenty of filmographies are also included.

Final Thoughts: As Ben Kingsley points out during his interview, Gandhi is one of the last true epics, with a fantastically huge cast rather than digitalised extras. This film is the result of the fitting efforts made by many people, but they still pale in comparison to the efforts Gandhi made throughout his own life. It’s a story that can’t go wrong, and a beautiful film well-worth watching in its DVD format.

Faithful and creative

29.11.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fans are desperate to know: “Is the film true to the book?”

Well, that depends. As the Sorting Hat says while reading Harry’s mind, “It’s all here, in your head.” The world that millions of passionate fans have conjured in their own imaginations based on JK Rowling’s writing is unlikely to coincide precisely with what director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire, Stepmom) has created for the big screen. And that may or may not be disappointing.

But purists will at least be reasonably pleased to see that the basic plot and certainly more dialogue than the norm have been preserved in Hollywood’s version. And that’s a very good start.

For those who haven’t read the book – which takes just eight hours to read aloud – a brief synopsis is possible. Harry Potter, who’s been brought up by his nasty aunt and uncle, discovers he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. His parents were not, after all, killed in a car crash when he was a baby, but were themselves masters of magic, tragically murdered by a wizard gone bad. During Harry’s first year of wizardry education at a very English boarding school, he has a mission to complete as he makes friends – and enemies – and uncovers more of his past.

Disclosure: I’m not a fan of the book. It’s a conventional magical tale of the poorly treated kid who comes to understand he’s special, simply but competently executed. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t envelop me and compel me to rush reading through to the end. But the film itself is more watchable than most other Hollywood productions of its ilk.

Despite the film’s length (152 minutes), some scenes have been skipped, and many efficiently streamlined or combined. For instance, there is not as much focus on Harry’s adoptive parents, and more specifically, Hermione uses a wave of her wand to get the gang out of a trap towards the end, instead of her steely logic. But there are some nice little changes: Harry’s adoptive brother Dudley ends up behind glass as the boa constrictor slithers away from the zoo, a chocolate frog springs to life in the train, and the design of the Quidditch spectator stands is marvelous.

And the characters remain mostly true to form. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) starts off a little woodenly, seeming quite unsurprised at his conversion to wizardry. He grows into character however, and has a very British capability of being a subtle but strong screen presence. Ron (Rupert Grint) is fine as Harry’s sidekick, delivering some good one-liners on cue, while the utterly precocious Hermione is delightful to watch. The only real disappointment is the downgrading of Draco Malfroy’s visibility a notch or two.

The adult characters, too, are finely conjured. Hirsute Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is the slightly dense but friendly giant with an accent true to the book, although his repetitive slips of tongue (“I shouldn’t have told you that!”) become a bit predictable. Snapes (Alan Rickman) is memorable as a very Gothic and teacher with a sinister talk; but headmaster Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall are unforgivably underused.

At the screening I saw, British sarcasm seemed for the most part to be lost on Thai audiences. When Hermione saves a screaming Ron from a writhing Devil’s Snare, and does so in the nick of time, a relieved Ron says “Thank goodness we didn’t panic!” (That’s one line, by the way, that’s not in the book.) On the other hand, Hermione only had to flick her hair and the audience was in hysterics.

The special effects are refreshing to watch, precisely because they are used as such – high- and low-tech effects used specially. They don’t overwhelm the film and undermine the story, but for the most part enhance it instead. The scene where hundreds of owls gracefully fly into school to deliver the mail is memorable, as is Mr Ollivander’s selection of Harry’s wand. Harry’s invisible coat is well-utilised and the three-headed dog, trolls, centaur and dragon are authentic enough. The Sorting Hat is a simple but excellent creation, and touches such as airborne candles and moving staircases provide further diversion. The Quidditch match, where seemingly dozens of players shoot around the screen on fast-moving broomsticks, is the only time the film moves too quickly for the audience and aims to dazzle for the sake of dazzling.

While attention was given to the visual effects, it’s a shame more wasn’t placed on John Williams’ bland and forgettable score. Not a single point for originality there.

In all, for a Hollywood production of a very English tale, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone succeeds. It’s at once mostly faithful to its creator, while bestowing some extra whimsical imagination for the screen. For some, that will be a delight. Others may prefer to go home and read their book again.

Sugary sweet, but palatable

16.08.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The Princess Diaries

There are few G-rated films that adults can happily stay awake throughout without the help of coffee and maybe a crying baby (Meet the Parents, for instance). The trailer for The Princess Diaries suggests that it would be a most unlikely film to scrape into that elite group, so to see the full film, which is a very watchable, well-executed comedy, is actually a pleasant surprise.

The basic storyline: geeky girl with frizzy hair and thick glasses is transformed into a beauty who gets the guy. Yes, there’s not an awful lot originality contained within The Princess Diaries, the cliches abound and the story’s sugary-sweet to the point of saccharine saturation. And yes, it’s a far cry from the celebration of female independence that Nurse Betty pulled off, but it’s a story with a soul still worth bearing. Friendship and following your heart are at its centre.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for audiences watching this film will be that Julia Andrews is still alive (oops, blew it for you). Looking frighteningly like Glenn Close, she plays the imposing, upright Clarisse Renaldi, queen of the tiny European country Genovia. Following the death of her son, Queen Clarisse turns up unannounced in San Francisco to inform her granddaughter Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) that she’s now heir to the throne of a country she didn’t know existed.

Mia is unimpressed. Curly-haired, bespectacled, clumsy and shy, Mia says her sole aim in life is to become invisible. Her artist mother has kept her ex-husband (the dead guy, divorce was amicable) and daughter’s royal heritage a secret, in order to give her a normal childhood. But with her father’s untimely death – he left them when Mia was young to carry out his princely duties (go figure) – that childhood comes to an abrupt halt.

Mia decides to submit to the princess-moulding talents of Clarisse, but defers the decision of whether she will actually become a princess until the date of a royal ball. Her intellectual development is covered in a brief spiel by Clarisse about the "classics, political science, arts" she’ll be able to study as princess – conveniently forgetting that even commoners can do this. Clarisse’s teaching strengths instead lie with the physical. What that entails is utterly predictable, as we sit through scenes of Mia falling off chairs, Mia smashing important pieces of art, Mia dropping things and Mia being an all-round clutz.

Mia’s makeover is placed in the hands of the macho Paolo, who breaks his brush as he tries to get it through her hair. (Alas, there’s no explaining exactly what’s wrong with curly hair, which will certainly disappoint curly-haired people.) In retaliation, he breaks Mia’s glasses, demanding she wear contact lenses instead. It’s all been done before and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with wearing glasses; but this can almost be forgiven as we also watch Mia being swept away by the school hunk Josh (Erik Von Detten). She lets her best friend down and is (amazingly) oblivious to the attentions of Liam Gallagher lookalike Michael Moscovitz (Robert Schwartzman, son of Talia Shire, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage). There’s no prize for guessing the lessons she learns and who she ends up with.

Spouting homilies about the importance of princess-like behaviour is certainly rather passe; the weight of this film is carried on the shoulders of its solid actors and by enough good one-liners to keep you smiling. Bodyguard Joey (Hector Elizondo) in particular has fun with his overly serious role, while Heather Matarazzo as Mia’s best friend Lilly Moscovitz brings an enjoyable gusto to hers.

The Princess Diaries isn’t going to change the lives of anyone – we are, after all, talking about a film that has been dubbed Pretty Woman for children. But it could provide a little reassurance for teenagers stuck inside braces, glasses and clumsy limbs that their ideas and voices matter. Older girls will probably scoff at the candy-coated story, but younger ones just might find themselves coming out feeling a bit better about themselves.

Singing for their souls

06.08.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Duets

The world of karaoke must be filled with quirky, offbeat characters. It must be riddled with people who truly live to don sequins and suede and stride up on stage to belt out tunes for fun and prize money. Duets promises to capture these very people in that very world, to show their hearts and humanity, their dreams and their drive. Instead it delivers, for the most part, mundanity and a muddled message about the soulless nature of American society today.

Duets is comprised of three interlocking stories about pairs of characters brought together by karaoke. It’s an often awkward and overly-loose plait. Occasionally the right notes are hit, but for the most part it’s all just a little off-key.

Firstly there’s an ageing karaoke hustler Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis), who is oddly reunited with the daughter he’s never met, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), over his ex-lover’s casket. He’s heading – as will all the characters – to a karaoke competition in Omaha. Liv tags along and discovers she’s got her father’s voice; but can she win his affection too? Lewis shows that although he can carry a tune very well, his acting skills are clunky and robotic. Gwyneth is in gawky mode, all flailing limbs, doe-eyed stares and hallmark-card sentimentality.

Then there’s Billy (Scott Speedman), a sweet-natured person whose girlfriend is sleeping with the guy he owns a cab with, and karaoke-addict Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello, whose performance is one of the film’s highlights), who steals beggars’ cups and offers to give guys blow jobs in lieu of cash when she’s shopping. She only tells Billy that she’ll be nice to him, however, and he agrees to drive her across the country.

The final pair are a middle-aged corporate businessman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) and an ex-prisoner the cops are again hunting, named Reggie (Andre Braugher). Todd’s having a mid-life crisis, but has been saved by karaoke. When he picks up the hitchhiking Reggie, it’s clear that Reggie’s going to have his chance to be saved too.

Although the film revolves around all its characters, Todd is the focal point, and this is one of the films problems. Having spent the past 18 months of his career trying to ruin a turtle’s breeding ground in the name of a new fun park, he’s suddenly wondering about the values of corporate America. Couldn’t he see from the outset that what he was doing was screwed? Yet somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him as he turns proselytiser, warning others about the conversion of America to strip malls, but finding himself whole again when he’s standing in front of a blue-screen karaoke machine, popping beta-blockers to still his nerves.

Yes, it’s this art-form from Japan, home of the neon light and consumerism, that’s supposed to be giving Ricky his new lease on life. "I can’t go back to being who I was before. I sing. I’m different now," he tells his baby-faced wife. Somehow I don’t think director Bruce Paltrow is aware of the irony of karaoke being the safety net of Ricky’s leap from sad middle-class existence, that he has to find solace in adding his unique voice to tinny background music that’s usually the last thing in the world anyone would really want to dance to.

But in Duets, the crowds are joyful. The crowds clap wildly and mouth words that don’t match the music actually playing, and they look like they’re really digging the music too. It just doesn’t gel.

The characters peppering this meandering road movie are either flat or too much of a caricature themselves to be believable. Fatally, I found myself wishing to watch a documentary about the real people who inhabit this intriguing world of glitz and glamour. Now there’s an idea for a good movie…

Finally, it finished

02.08.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Final Fantasy

Some films are enjoyably bad. You can rip into them with your friends afterwards, laugh at how there was that big hole in the plot towards the end, and whine about their obvious flaws and fatal errors. But Final Fantasy, the latest cinematic hi-tech sci-fi video-game tie-in, is so bereft of any heart or soul or interest that even complaining about it seems an absurd waste of time.

Let’s start with the positive: the computer-animated special effects, which have been trumpeted endlessly in a blaze of PR prior to the film’s release. Indeed they are diverting and eye-catching, at least for the first ten to fifteen minutes. The scenery is occasionally alluring; but most of the time I couldn’t help thinking that the vast landscapes resembled closely the sort of images teenage hoons airbrush onto the back of their panel vans in Australia. And people are getting excited about putting that on the big screen and watching it move?

There’s an overall gloom of dinginess throughout Final Fantasy, and you may be forgiven for wondering if someone forgot to turn the lights on in the tech-heads’ workrooms. Or maybe they spent so long in there tweaking and fiddling to create their new world that they forgot to occasionally go out and get some sun in their own.

It is reasonably intriguing to check out the reality of the human characters. A number of reviewers have criticised the technical geniuses responsible for the film for not quite managing to capture the idiosyncratic look of real people. However, according to Reuters, director and writer Hironobu Sakaguchi says that:" Aesthetically we felt it would be more interesting if we stepped away from photo-realism and created our own look."

So instead, marvel at how the mouths move too slowly for the speech of the voice actors, say oooh at the strangely smooth gestures the characters make when they walk, and frown at the way a character’s face can alter so much from cut to cut.

Whether or not you like the style of the futuristic world, the real problems begin when the excitement of the new fades and you start to look for good old-fashioned cinematic ingredients, like narrative and character. You don’t have to look for long to realise there’s nothing there.

The story is set in 2065, 34 years after a meteor has crashed into Earth, bringing with it a species of phantoms – which are pretty cool undulating, glow-in-the-dark cretins looking like dragons and giant crustaceans – that can suck the lifeforce out of humans. A war has been raging since, with survivors living in walled cities hiding from the deadly beings. The government is about to launch something called the Zeus canon to destroy the meteor. But Dr Aki Ross (voice of Ming-Na), a compassionate scientist who looks uncannily like a Bridget Fonda, and her mentor Dr Sid (Donald Sutherland), believe that this will damage the Earth’s "gaia", or spiritual centre.

Their theory, sprinkled with a confusing blend of superficial Buddhist and animist tenets, is as yet merely a theory. To prove it – and save Dr Aki’s life – they’re trying to collect the eight spirits (yes, go figure why) that will together neutralise the evil phantom force. She’s helped out by various soldiers, including her love interest, Captain Gray Edwards, a Ben Affleck-clone (Alec Baldwin). Their on-screen kiss is suitably one-dimensional.

Clearly none of the films reputed US$140 million budget was spent on plot development – although a fifth of it was spent on rendering Dr Aki’s hair attractive. Nor was the remainder spent on script development, with lines like "This city may be lost, but we’re not" and "There’s a war on. No one’s young anymore". You’ll just want to laugh out loud.

If you worship technology or video-games, Final Fantasy might flick your switches. But in case you haven’t caught my drift so far, my switch stayed firmly unflicked at off.

Backwards and brilliant

27.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Memento

Remember the twists in both The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense? How you had to cast your mind back to rewrite the narrative you had thought was true, armed with your new piece of information? Multiply that twist by a few dozen times, and you begin to approach the heart of the fantastic, wholly-original and compelling Memento.

Memento starts at the end: that is, the story’s final chronological scene is the film’s first. The second scene is the one that leads to the beginning of the first, and so on, with the connections smoothed over by cutting to black and white scenes of the protagonist somewhere else in the story altogether, and earlier on in his life during a period related to his current condition. Each new scene throws out a number of clues and hints that means you’ll have to reconstruct what it is you’ve already seen along different lines. It’s a kind of ongoing palimpsest of the mind.

The concept is disarmingly simple really, and in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, it engages the viewer entirely. This would be an easy technique to turn into a messy gimmick, but in Memento it’s intrinsically connected to the substance of the story itself – a cinematic onomatopoeia, perhaps – with the audience’s constant uncertainty of the truth allowing a complete empathy with what the protagonist is going through.

For former insurance investigator Leonard Shelby (Australian actor Guy Pearce) has lost his memory, or at least the ability to form short-term memories. He can remember his life up until the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox), but events after that just don’t stick in his mind. He can’t remember people he’s met since then, or any facts about his wife’s death that he’s managed to uncover (he even keeps forgetting that she’s actually dead).

This is a serious hindrance towards his mission of finding her attacker in order to exact revenge, so to deal with his affliction, Leonard relies upon annotated Polaroid photographs. He has to pull them out and shuffle through them whenever he meets someone or is confronted with something he feels he should know about; and when he discovers a fact he thinks is integral to finding the murderer, he has it tattooed on his body. Through the skilful presentation of some medical information, Leonard’s situation is real enough to be believable, but still strange enough to be fascinating.

Guy Pearce received plenty of acclaim for LA Confidential but his role was restrained and fairly undemanding. In Memento, however, he’s perfectly cast, and mesmerising to watch as he transforms from upset and vulnerable victim to raging vigilante and then confused medical patient in seconds. ("Am I supposed to be chasing him?" he asks during one chase scene. "Nope, he’s chasing me," he adds when the guy turns on him.) He’s well supported by Joe Palantonio as his friend – or perhaps foe – Teddy, and Carrie-Ann Moss as Natalie, a complicated bartender who may or may not be helping him in his quest.

For audiences, the constant struggle to remember what it is you were just remembering is tiring, but the plot twists aren’t so ridiculous as to frustrate. Rather, they prompt a desire to sit through multiple viewings, which I suspect would be as enjoyable as the first. Clever, understated humour punctuate the ongoing tenseness with welcome relief at intervals, while the existential questions that losing one’s short term memory pose are prodded and explored just enough to get you thinking along tangents you probably haven’t travelled along before. This is an original, refreshing thriller that demands its viewers meet it halfway. It amply rewards them for their efforts.

Go see Memento on the big screen, then go take out The Usual Suspects on video one more time. Because once Memento hits the video shelves, it ‘ll be your new Friday night standard.

A good Australian film

15.06.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The Sum of Us

"Russell Crowe and John Polson kiss. I don’t know about you, but that certainly flicks my switches," said my Australian friend, who has seen the 1995 Australian release The Sum of Us numerous times. And this is why I was surprised it was chosen to open the one-off Australian Film Festival happening at Grand EGV these next few days.

After all, when Australian novelist Luke Davies read an excerpt of his writing on masturbation at an embassy-sponsored Chiang Mai cultural evening, it caused a minor internal scandal. So now we were going to officially showcase an Australian film about – gasp – homosexuality?

Three cheers for the maturity of this choice – even if it was largely driven by the fact that Looking for Alibrandi had already been shown on Cinemax throughout May, and that Russell Crowe is now a major star. The Sum of Us is a heartwarming but unmawkish film about all kinds of love and how it might be found both in unexpected and expected places, like your own home.

Harry Mitchell, played by an affable Jack Thompson, lives with his only son, Jeff, played by a young Russell Crowe in one of his first features. Jeff is gay, although Harry prefers to say he’s "cheerful", a rare euphemism used by a man who otherwise supports his son’s sexuality right down to buying him pornographic magazines and interrupting him and his lover to ask how they’d like their cup of tea in the morning.

While it could almost seem strange – this need for Harry to be so involved in his son’s sex life – it’s really just the opposite extreme of the way most parents behave towards their children’s sexuality, whichever way it blossoms. Perhaps Harry’s interest stems from the fact that his own mother lived with another woman for 40 years: "It just skipped a generation with me," Harry believes.

For Jeff though, Harry’s wish to be helpful becomes a hindrance when he brings home Greg (John Polson, also the organiser of the now-famous Australian short film competition, Tropicana). Greg lives in an oppressive home environment, and hasn’t yet told his parents about his sexuality. To be suddenly talking to his prospective lover’s father about safe sex and breakfast in the morning is all a bit too "domestic". Greg takes flight and Jeff’s left wondering who he’s ever going to meet.

In the meantime, the widowed Harry is looking for a second chance at love for himself. He plucks up the courage to go to an introduction agency, through which he meets Joyce, a divorcee with whom he gets along well but doesn’t tell about Jeff. Considering how adamant Harry is that he’s proud of Jeff, it’s a surprising secret to keep. Joyce’s reaction when she does find out is either a little over the top – or a stark reminder of how homophobic many seemingly ordinary and nice people can still be.

The Sum of Us was adapted from a screenplay by David Stevens, and it maintains a theatrical feel with the two main actors occasionally speaking lines directly to the camera. In the hands of lesser actors this would be downright annoying, but Thompson and Crowe simply make you feel like you’re really part of their story, and it proves a useful device for injecting some great Australian one-liners along the way.

While the movie is definitely gay-friendly, it’s still somewhat disapproving of gay promiscuity. Jeff and Greg are searching for meaningful partners; most of the other men on the scene, they complain, "only want one thing". Phew, says the subtext, Jeff and Greg might be gay, but at least they’re not promiscuous. It’s okay to like them!

On the other hand, Jeff and Greg can be seen as just two people seeking a stable relationship in a world where most people, regardless of sexual orientation, aren’t necessarily after the same anymore. And in the end, their relationship is seen as being equally important and potentially just as complex as that between father and son.

I guess the only disappointment was provided by an Australian Embassy staff member at the end. "I’ll never be able to look at Russell Crowe in Gladiator the same way again, haw haw," he guffawed. Some people should really just stick to Gladiator.

Meaningful and understated, but entertaining

03.06.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Mifune’s Last Song

The opportunity to make a new beginning in life can be alluring. Mifune’s Last Song is about making new starts; but it’s also about keeping secrets and having them eventually catch up with you. The film gently chastises its characters’ occasionally distasteful moral choices – that is, to lie – while also championing their bravery for at least trying to remake themselves into something better. Mifune’s highlights the ambiguities in human nature, pointing out that we’re all a bundle of contradictions seeking to straighten ourselves out somehow. And harnessing this aspect of human nature makes for great understated, dialogue-driven cinema.

This is the third film certified as an authentic Dogma 95 production, meaning that it adheres to the ten principles enshrined in the famed cinematic "vow of chastity" taken by a group of Danish directors to create what are really, when it comes down to it, nothing more than truly independent films. Among other restrictions, to be considered a Dogma production only available light and sound may be used, cameras must be handheld and genre conventions eschewed. Following in the footsteps of Tomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, Mifune’s is a sparse and unfussy production – an honest and raw portrayal of dishonesty and its consequences, if you like. At a technical level, it’s a forceful reminder that film-makers don’t need a big budget to capture the simple beauty of a sunset or the lighting of a candle.

As the film opens, the good-looking Kresten (Anders W Berthelsen) is the epitome of modern success. He’s a successful Copenhagen businessman complete with BMW and mobile phone, and has just married Claire (Sofie Gr?b?l), the daughter of his boss. On his honeymoon, however, he receives a phonecall early one morning, and tells Claire he has to return to the family farm as his father has just died. Claire is understandably suspicious; Kresten had told her previously that he had no family. The audience is left wondering whether Kresten is hiding something too, watching him nervously brush off Claire’s attempts to come with him.

It turns out his father really has died, his mother has committed suicide some years before, and he has an intellectually disabled brother named Rud (Jesper Asholt), living on in a farmhouse that’s a mere step up from a hovel. Claire knows nothing of this, as Kresten has disowned his red-necked history to partake of a more sophisticated life in the big city.

The question of what to do with Rud leads Kresten to stay longer at the farm with no animals – bar a few hens and a cat that has no name. ("It used to be called Fresa, but it wouldn’t come, so Dad said we shouldn’t call it anything at all," explains Rud in a special cat-lovers’ moment.) Through an understated but very amusing turn of circumstances the two are able to afford a housekeeper, so Kresten places an advertisement to which an unexpectedly attractive woman, Liva (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity), responds. Kresten doesn’t explain what’s brought him to the farmhouse, and Liva doesn’t reveal that she’s a prostitute escaping a creepy telephone stalker. The two are left to wonder about each other. When Kresten asks one too many questions, Liva simply responds sarcastically: "Woops, we nearly talked that good atmosphere all away."

Eventually Claire turns up and suspects the worst, and when Liva’s nasty brother Bjarke is kicked out of school Kresten offers a free bed to him if it means Liva will stay. Together, the four inhabitants of the house get to know each other, and in this way, Mifune’s also becomes quite a conventional story about families, how they can be formed from the least likely of situations, and why they are more important than mere material goods.

The title of the film refers to renowned Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who died around the time that the movie went into production. In honour of Mifune’s memory, the storyline incorporates Kresten dressing up as the brave samurai Mifune to cheer up Rud when he’s upset. But in the end it’s not Rud who needs to learn from the example of Mifune – it’s Kresten and Liva. The former needs to let go of a glamorous life in the city, while Liva needs to learn that some people can be trusted.

In lesser hands, such a storyline may have stooped to mawkishness, but in this case director S?ren Kragh-Jacobsen and the main actors have created a very watchable, off-beat piece of cinema that’s both meaningful and entertaining. Mifune’s Last Song is not groundbreaking; but with Dogma films, that’s really the point.

The wedding yawner

21.04.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

The Wedding Planner

A friend of mine once accidentally took her conservative and frail grandmother to see Pulp Fiction; she was so psychologically scarred by the experience that she still always rates movies based on the "grandma-watchability" factor. The Wedding Planner, a highly-formulaic, painfully predictable and clean romantic comedy, pulls in very big on the grandma factor. There is a stray concrete penis that falls off a statue, but for the most part, this is a safe film that shamelessly attempts to pay homage to good-old fashioned romance and the institution that makes a lot of money out of it: marriage.

Mary Fiore (Jennifer Lopez) has a highly succesful career as a wedding planner. In the opening scene, she effortlessly keeps a wedding from falling to bits by giving a heartwarming pep talk to a nervous bride, sobering up the drunken father-of-the-bride, relocating a big-haired guest out of the video camera’s angle and talking the priest into not dashing off to the bathroom. She’s sophisticated, she’s cool, and she has no love life to speak of. Gasp! She has to eat her meals alone! She likes to be in control! Horrors! Her social life consists of Scrabble tournaments! Could a woman’s life possibly get any worse?

Well, she could always lose a pair of her Gucci shoes. Luckily, Mary just manages to save hers from a street grate as a dumpster accelerates its way towards her down one of those San Franciscan hills. The doughty Steve (Matthew McConaughey, sporting the most annoying accent since Kevin Costner in Thirteen Days) thinks she’s about to be hit and dashes across the street to save her. She’s literally swept off her feet. Audiences, however, won’t be.

Lopez can act. The scene where she realises her hair’s not perfect and her lippy requires reapplication demonstrates her watchability (I’m serious!); ditto for when she announces to her assistant (Judy Greer) that she’s a professional. McConaughey’s well cast as the hunk who’s basically a nice guy but, despite being a paediatrician, isn’t too intellectually demanding when it comes to choosing a life partner. But there’s little real chemistry between these two, beyond the stars we’re supposed to see sparkling in their eyes as they first dance together under the stars. Who care’s if they don’t get together?

There’s a twist, alas, as Mary (a name very close to the word marry, it’s pointed out in one pathetic moment) discovers that Steve is actually the fiance of her most important client ever, businesswoman extraordinaire, Fran Donolly (Brigette Wilson). Would Mary scheme and plot to win the heart of the man she’s fallen for? If your grandmother’s watching, certainly not.

Mary in fact eventually gives what we now see is a tired old pep talk to Fran when she has second thoughts about marrying Steve. Mary’s personal ethics may be noble, but she unwittingly reveals the emptiness and vacuity of her chosen profession with this speech that inevitably brings the bride-to-be to tears. "Not only is your marriage going to work, it’s going to last forever!" she gushes. Muriel’s Wedding this ain’t. You don’t need to be told the ending.

One distraction on-route to the inevitable sugary climax is worth mentioning. Mary’s father introduces an Italian stereotype – I mean immigrant – to Mary, in the hope she’ll marry him. He idiotically assumes somehow that Mary has agreed to be his wife; not knowing how to speak English well is one thing (even with an excruciatingly inauthentic Italian accent) but being scripted as an idiot just because you’re from another country is another. This part of the film stands out as being simply quite strange.

At least strange is interesting; such kind words can’t be said about the rest of the film. Save this up for when you have to take grandma out. Or better still, have grandma round in a few weeks and watch it on video.