Monday, June 30, 2008

Kallang Roar The Movie - 21 Aug 2008!

So Euro fever is now over, and the Spaniards have clinched the title. Being an Arsenal fan, Cesc Fabregas gave a kick-ass performance, didn't he? So I'd come to expect more of the same for Arsenal next season! He's only 21, but already commanding our midfield engine!

Closer to home and in fairly recent times, with our National Stadium refusing to budge to make way for the new Sports Hub facility, Singapore got humiliated in our 2010 World Cup Qualifiers by the Uzbeks in a 7-3 scoreline which looked like a one set tennis match, before biting the dust against Saudi Arabia in a 2-0 defeat against the oil barons. But I gotta give credit when credit is due, that coach Raddy had more or less come up with a team which can take on the best in the region, but require more mental strength, stamina and skill to take on the bigger boys.

While the press and everyone else was lamenting about the lack of local support at the 55,000 seater stadium, Kallang Roar the Movie rekindles the magic of a time bygone, where Singapore was indeed magnates on the indomitable home stadium, and opponents who step into the pitch will pee in their pants given the fervent supporters everywhere, roaring the Lions on. That magical era is now captured in a feature length film soon to be released on local screens come 21 Aug 08.

Capture the highlights of the movie in the following trailers, and I can't wait to watch this on the big screen to experience something way before my time. Rock on!



For the uninitiated, you can read more about our local football team here

Sunday, June 29, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Professione: Reporter (The Passenger) (1975)

Check It Out

I guess from time to time we've considered the notion of assuming someone else's identity, and wondered what life would be like if we were somebody else. Usually, we adopt from someone we already know of, or perceive to know, and chances are their predicament should be something more positive than what we are experiencing with our current selves. But what if it's someone else whom you have totally no clue who they are, or worse, leading a life that you won't want to touch with a 10 foot pole?

A very young, buff and rugged looking Jack Nicholson stars as the reporter David Locke in Michelangelo Antonioni's Professione: Reporter, and he's the titular character whose reporting career doesn't seem to get anywhere. Stuck in an unwanted assignment somewhere in Africa, he struggles to find some semblance of a life, getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of communication with the locals because of language skills, where the currency of choice happens to be cigarettes, and con-artists and incompetence seem everywhere. Like Antonioni's Le Amiche, he returns to his hotel only to find that the next door guest had passed away. In a moment of opportunity and without much thought, he trades identity with the guest, and in that case, fakes his own death.

So you would expect friends and family members becoming concerned with the circumstances, not that the wife (played by Jenny Runacre) was an angel to begin with, and so begins a wild goose chase where they try and track him down when they realize that there was a possibility of an identity mix up, but more so, why he had wanted to assume another identity. In true Antonioni style, this is not a concern, as we follow in Il Grido fashion where the protagonist runs away from the life behind him, the new life of David Locke as he wanders from point to point, as he slowly learns that his born again life comes with many dangerous strings attached, and becomes romantically involved with an architectural student (Maria Schneider), intriguing her with his supposed links with weapons smugglers, spies and rebel fighters, like Doc Brown who got entangled with Iranians in Back to The Future.

Most of the story was filmed in Barcelona, and having appointments already pre-arranged by his predecessor makes it all the more easy for David to flit from site to site, each time getting a little bit more dangerous than the previous. I guess Jack Nicholson is as Jack Nicholson does, while he gives a relatively more subdued performance than we know what he's capable of, it's still no less than an arresting performance as he brings us on this journey to the big unknown. The much talked about climax which consists of a 7 minute single take remains as enigmatic as it is, which unveils a lot with numerous events happening at the same time, and which can be interpreted either way.

Technically, the first 10 minutes or so of the movie suffered from bad audio which sounded quite airy, and for some documentary like sections, some aspect ratio differences were noticed. But that's just nit-picking on my part. Perhaps one of the more accessible Antonioni movies in his filmography, no doubt made more interesting with Nicholson in the lead, and that payoff right at the end.

The screening concluded with a 12 minute documentary called The Last Sequence of The Passenger, which is a deconstruction of that fascinating sequence none other than Antonioni himself, in an interview. Here, he explains it in a little bit more detail, and shares with the audience how the shot was technically conceived and executed. As if like a DVD commentary, you can't have it any better than this with Antonioni providing the detail required as it is, and the gem is always of course having him bring us through his thought process.


Be My Ace in the Hole

While Las Vegas is Sin City personified, having been there in person actually stripped away much of the glitz and glamour that comes courtesy of various movies and television series. Maybe because I'm not a high roller (or even a simple punter to begin with) that I don't get to enjoy the sexiness that comes with attention lavished at their well-known, well-paying customers. But in any case, the mathematics of it is that the house always win, and it is not a zero sum game, always in favour of the house. A bus driver in Vagas once told me that it's simple logic - look at the hotel above the casino. The larger it is, the higher the overheads, and guess where their revenue is coming from? You guessed it.

Based loosely on a true story about a group of MIT students who utilized their smarts from what the textbook never taught them, you can trust Hollywood to sex it all up, especially with a professor in the mould of Kevin Spacey, and teammates who look like they jumped right out of glamour magazines. Being naturally smart and the cream of the crop, they get seduced by Spacey's Professor Micky Rosa, who rationalizes that they aren't cheating, but beating the system on their own numbers game through card counting. That means back to basics probability and statistics, together with some tools of the trade such as disguises, fake IDs and a whole elaborate rouse of communication using secret words and sign language.

And here's the flaw of the movie, perhaps to dumb it down for an audience because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that signs and codewords should change each time you hit a different casino so that you won't be caught repeating the same trick over and over again to the eyes in the skies, which provided a separate sub plot dealing with the threat of security personnel being outsourced and downsized by technology, and therein making old school folks like Laurence Fishburne's Cole Williams obsolete.

Jim Sturgess is slowly getting his profile raised, last seen in these parts with Across the Universe. Here, his Ben Campbell is the A student who's just like every other A student trying their best to get to Harvard Medical School, and that sole scholarship up for grabs will be awarded to just one fella with the most impressive resume. Knowing that his chance is slim, he has to figure out how to cough up US$300K just to get himself into his dream institution, so as the tale would have it, that rationale and figure required became his excuse to take up gambling as a means to his end.

Joined by fellow students Jill (Kate Bosworth, in her third movie with Spacey after Superman Returns and Beyond the Sea), Choi (Aaron Yoo), Kianna (Liza Lapira) and Jimmy (Jacob Pitts) under Prof Mickey's tutelage, they hone their mathematical and social engineering skills in an expected montage, before hitting the gaming floors of Vegas to rake in the dough. And in between they will find time for a rushed romance, and constantly battle the urge of easy money, emotions running high, and all the trappings from the lifestyles of the rich. However, don't expect a lot from the supporting characters, as Kate just got to preen around looking like a pretty vase, while the token Asians get caricature roles, like a kleptomaniac.

While Spacey is his usual chilling self and Sturgess managed the pretty boy charismatic presence well, 21 still found it necessary to explain everything, from detailing every bit of plot development including laying out all necessary twists and turns out on the table neatly, and how the mathematical rouse actually worked. However, don't expect to pick up a tip or two from the movie, because it actually requires a step one for you to be a mathematical genius for mental gymnastics to be performed at the top of your head. Otherwise, you can just forget it, and just pick up a lottery ticket and hope for the best.

But what I enjoyed from the movie, is all the wink-winks with regards to the corruption that permeates through the education system, be it getting grades from your tutors, or admissions requiring exorbitant amounts of cash. Granted that the tuition fees are not cheap because of rising salaries and cost of maintaining the school, sometimes these can be contributed in nice ways which are quite above the board, in cases of having to scratch your back and having you scratch mine back.

Still, 21 made for an enjoyable heist/gambling type of movie, sans those comedic ones which HK used to put out continuously at one point in time. It has a decent, Hollywood-hyped up story to tell, with the usual message that crime does not pay, and to use your smarts wisely in the right direction. And I'd bet there will be those who will take the next 2 years honing their card counting skills in time for our own gambling tables to open in Marina/Sentosa.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Il Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert) (1964)

Don't Come Closer

The first Michelangelo Antonioni movie in color, Red Desert stars Monica Vitti whom audiences would by now be already acquainted with after the successful and acclaimed trilogy with L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse. While much has been said about Antonioni bringing about a stark palette of colors which highlights the inner psychological turmoil of the characters, or use it to great effect to talk about the negative effects man has on his environment just like how deadly the yellow was representing sulphur, it did plod on a little especially when it dwelled upon the usual relationship factor between its lead characters.

Vitti stars as Giuliana, a woman whom we see in the beginning and get quite uncomfortable with, as she purchases an already eaten piece of food, and going off to a corner to munch on it with much satisfaction. We learn she's a neurotic, a creation of a vehicle accident, and pretty much obsessive compulsive as well. She has funds to open a shop, but doesn't know what to sell. She has a son, but doesn't know what to do with him and is at wits end with his malingering ways. Her husband we get to see for just a bit, but this isn't exactly a story about him too.

Without Vitti in the lead role, I think the fascination with the character ends there. Vitti through her charisma manages to hold your attention, and possibly through this role, highlights her prowess as a commendable actress. I guess it is through her great performance here as an explicitly portrayed confused woman, that made sitting through this story bearable, because otherwise, we'll be stuck with Richard Harris' Corrado Zeller, a rich industrialist with a one track mind, and that's to bed Vitti's Giuliana, at whatever the cost.

And his attempts don't fall short of persistent as well, with his constant probing, requesting, so much so that he's desperate personified. In between their emotional and physical tussle, there were some episodes which stuck out like a sore thumb, perhaps due to my lack of understanding why they should be part of the narrative. One such scene is the story of a young girl which Giuliana tells her son, complete with enactments, which suggests some significance to it. The other though was quite interesting, where a supposed sexual orgy is to have taken place, but what we got to experience was a whole host of party games that a group of men and women engage in, which actually bordered on the weird.

Needless to say I didn't really enjoy the story nor any perceived message it tried to bring across. I do however, continue to admire what Vitti can do within the confines of an Antonioni movie.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Short Films by Michelangelo Antonioni (1978 – 1997)

Akan Datang

Saturday, June 28, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962)

No No No!

Lorenzo Codelli highlighted to us that this was the first time that Michelangelo Antonioni had back to back to back productions, with the famed Trilogy movies released over a span of 3 years. And they cover distinct cities in Italy too, with the poorest parts of Italy in L'Avventura, the industrial capital Milan in La Notte, which had a lot of dialogue, and here, it's set in Rome. Compared to his peer Fellini, Antonioni preferred to shoot using real settings, which gives his films a kind of documentary like feel, versus Fellini's preference for recreating sets indoors. Being the last film that Antonioni shot in black and white, it closes a chapter and with colour in The Red Desert, opens a new one.

L'Eclisse opens with a man and woman in total silence in an apartment. The woman behaves in a restless manner, moving from one area to the next, while the man remained seated on an armchair, unmoved. It went on for a few minutes, in utter silence save for the whirring sound of a table fan. But when they start to speak, we realize that Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) and Vittoria (Monica Vitti, whom I thought looked the most gorgeous in an Antonioni movie role so far) are in the midst of a potential breakup. The reason is not given despite the former's probe, whether there was someone else coming between them. He gets a response he doesn't believe in, but realizes nonetheless that Vittoria has lost all feelings for him, for one reason or another. He sees her home as he always does, and says goodbye for the very last time.

For some strange reason, it reminded me painfully of my own experience, so the opening scene served as a clincher right from the start. It's easy to relate to Riccardo because I too found it somewhat incomprehensible, and whatever he tried to do later - seeing her back, trying to call her later and so on, rings a bell that goes far back. But this is not a story about my life, but it's Michelangelo Antonioni's final movie in his loose Alienation trilogy, which I felt was the most accessible of them all, despite its extremely abstract finale consisting of a montage of images, lasting for a few minutes.

In essence, I thought L'Eclisse contained what was essentially a very easy-to-follow story, with charismatic leads with whom you're able to hook your attention to, and while it continues with its crafting of powerful characters with complicated problems to deal with, it doesn't overwhelm and allows some breathing space to appreciate them a bit more. But I note that my focus had turned away from the "same-old" relationship issues, to the floor of the stock exchange, where Alain Delon's Piero got introduced, and in which the film seemed to spend a lot of time with a showcase of how deals were made through cryptic shouting and hand signals, which still has its usefulness in today's modern context, except for the bit where phone calls were still taken from the booths in harried manner.

With Piero as a hot shot stockbroker, it allowed for this indulgence in setting many scenes in and around the stock exchange, where professionals and curious public punters gather to listen in for the best deals, and fervently place their bets. Perhaps one of the key takeaways here is that it served as a cautionary tale of blindly following the masses into stocks and commodities without fully understanding and appreciating the risks involved, with a fear of poverty spearheading a belief that the stockmarket provides an avenue for get rich quick schemes.

But back to our lovebirds Piero and Vittora, it's a fairly simple courtship ritual they embark upon, with Piero being persistent in his chase, and Vittora being afraid to commit, especially since she's just coming out of a relationship where her feelings for her ex-lover inexplicably died off. There were some unintentionally comic moments in this chase that provided again a brief reprieve from the heaviness in its theme, and I can never get that very loud and rude "PRONTO!!" answer to a phone call out of my mind, where a hesitant cold call by Vittora to Piero caught him unexpectedly in a wrong mood. However, amongst the Trilogy, I felt this one had one of the more positive endings compared to the rest, with unflinching hope settled upon quite clearly, sans the last few minutes.

As mentioned earlier, L'Eclisse has this end montage sequence that included revisits of the venues that the lovebirds had been to during the course of the story, and others. To me they seem quite jarring and I never fully understood their inclusion to round up the movie. But one thing I'm sure of, is that in Piero's mesmerizing mansion, his study had one of those pens which I'll be on the lookout for, and most definitely will get one for my personal use!

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Il Grido (The Outcry) (1957)

Let's Go Kiddo

For those who've been attending the Retrospective religiously, one of the best bits during the screening is the introduction to each movie as presented by Lorenzo Codelli, where he shares some little known facts of the movie with the audience. Today we were told that Monica Vitti actually was featured in Il Grido, not in person though but providing the dubbed voice behind Dorian Gray's character Virginia. So their collaboration stretched further back, even before L'Avventura.

The story centers on a working class sugar refinery worker Aldo (American actor Steve Cochran) who we learn has waited for 7 years cohabiting with Irma (Alida Valli), whose husband had recently passed away while in Australia. Thinking that this is a blessing in disguise in that he can finally marry Irma, Aldo gets the biggest surprise when he learns that the love of his life had in the last 4 months, given her heart to someone else. In rage he dished out unforgivable physical violence in public on her, and with a broken heart, picks up his daughter Rosina (Mima Girardi) to embark on an aimless road trip, wandering all over Po valley (which was the subject of one of Antonioni's early documentary).

Shot in the great outdoors, there's always a lingering mist in the first half of the movie, as if to accentuate Aldo's state of uncertainty and blur in his current state of life, without a clue what lies ahead as he drifts from location to location, and from person to person, as if like a person on a rebound, latching onto every opportunity that present itself to him, but all this while having absolutely no plans and unsure of what to do (kind of reminds me of Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray). While he seeks out his first love Elvia (Betsy Blair) and there comes this speed boat race, I thought Il Grido really picks up when he wanders toward a highway petrol kiosk, and meets with Virginia (Dorian Gray) and her alcoholic aged father (played by Guerrino Campanini).

Romancing the lady boss for food and lodging, having his daughter at his side demonstrated in truth that his relationship with and welfare for his daughter takes precedence over everything else, so while on the surface he might seem aimless, deep down he still bears a sense of responsibility to provide for Rosina, which probably gave him an invisible guiding hand in what he was doing, until of course he clinically evaluated and decided otherwise.

As he goes from woman to woman, having short temporal relationships with everyone we see on screen from Elvia to Andreina (Lynn Shaw), each played out like small skits, but a common thread running through it is that the characters here seem to be people who have wasted away their prime, missed the boat and are holding out for one last possibility at true love and happiness. Irma found hers although at Aldo's expense, and everyone else demonstrated memories with loved ones whom they cannot forget. The ending is nothing less than heart-wrenching, a discovery and affirmation of sad truths when people indeed have moved on, but then you realize that insofar you're still stuck in a rut. Very depressing if you ponder over it.

The last act also dwelt on impending change, with landscape changes ordered from the top, with common people on the ground being forced to accept these changes, with little regard to their livelihood. I thought it provided a poignant moment to reflect upon such frenzy, and sometimes the insensitivity that comes together with forced policies probably, and hopefully for the greater good.


Skin, Bones and Tattoos

A young man stuck in a mundane job suddenly got pulled out of it by a beautiful dominatrix, and into a world where it seemed like he's The One savior to rid the bad guys from the face of it. When the trailer first came out, there was word that hey, it's the Matrix all over again, this time with one of Hollywood's latest "it" boy James McAvoy (it rhymes too) in the starring role of an indestructible superhero with a penchant for the gun theatrics. Save to say though the storyline for Wanted is anything like the 1999 Wachowskis movie, for the sole fact that it's many miles away from the various philosophical musings that ploughed deep into the Matrix world.

Based upon a comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted is Russian director Timur Bekmambetov's first foray into the English language Hollywood big-budgeted blockbuster, and if you're looking for a no-brainer summer popcorn movie, then Wanted would be right up your alley. It's noisy and in your face, it's spruced by special effects, it has immense violence and it's littered with so much profanity, I thought Bekmambetov might have felt it was standard English. For those familiar with his Russian science fiction works in Nightwatch and Daywatch, Bekmambetov brings about the same distinct style of his in delivery high octane action, and balletic gunplay that would probably rival John Woo in the business, set against pulsating rock music, and plenty of bullet against bullet, in shots so cool, it deserved to be repeated again, and again, milking the one trick in various screen situations.

From the onset, you know you're in for a ride that requires a suspension of belief. Wanted sits right up there with any superhero movie, because the characters all perform superhuman stunts, from leaping out of buildings unscathed, to possessing prowess that can be trained in weeks, to the creation of a Lazarus Pit equivalent to heal all bodily wounds. If any assassin can plough their trade as demonstrated in the story, I guess all of us have got to be afraid, from their 100% accuracy from 10,000 miles, to - wait for it - curving a bullet around the bend via a flick of the wrist. OK, so all these might appeal to even the most jaded action genre fans, as it's honestly something that is refreshing, especially since it combined effortlessly with the visionary visuals of Bekmambetov.

But Wanted gets plagued by lazy storytelling, even by standards for no-brainer action movies. The first few intertitles compressed the timeline from 1000 years to just 6 weeks ago, and undoubtedly the ending too reeks of carelessness and the same super summary. All these to tell a story of the transformation of McAvoy's Wesley Gibson from The Narrator to a Tyler Durden equivalent, complete with the account of daily drudge with easter egg visuals filling up the screen, as he channels his energies into the right direction of assassination after being accepted by The Fraternity, undergoing a training regime equivalent in toughness as experienced by Kung Fu Panda. Picking up skills from Gunsmith (Common), The Repairman (Marc Warren), the Butcher (Dato Bakhtadze) and The Exterminator (Konstatin Khabensky) - there you go, the equivalent of Crane, Mantis, Monkey and Viper - he's chief tutor is the ultra-skinny Fox, played by Angelina Jolie.

Now we all know Jolie's body comes tattooed, and in her movies they usually get the full makeup treatment to mask them. I'm not sure if those are authentic tattoos on Jolie, but I guess they do provide you a hint at how they adorn her body. While not quite your Trinity type, she thrives on a whole lot of adrenaline that would make a drug junkie blush, and gets assigned the duty to train the rookie in the ways of The Frat, whose motto Kill One, Save A Thousand, she believes in wholeheartedly. I can't remember watching Jolie on screen and quite anorexic looking as well, though her new found uber-svelte figure gets featured in some of the best action sequences in the movie.

As mentioned, you've got to leave your logic prowess at the door and leap into fantasy mode so that the action here would be plausible, and sometimes ridiculous to boot, especially when some unfortunate attempts at humor found its way into the mix. And I can't help but to laugh out loud when a crucial plot development sounded like a rip-off/broken record of another famous trilogy that will go unnamed here, which in actual fact can be seen coming from a mile away.

But there is a saving grace to its limited intelligence though. It's a timely reminder again of how absolute power over life and death corrupts absolutely, and what's there to stop corruption at the top when they have the means and the firepower to exact changes? And given anything that is prone to human interpretation, you'd come to expect some form of corruption, as folks at the top skew things in their favour, either for self-preservation, or climbing Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It explored this very quickly, mainly because it had to make way for more action, but I thought it was a somewhat good effort to have it included, no matter how small. Oh, and many things in the movie also went unexplained as well, so don't try to spend too much time figuring out how to harness the power of an extreme adrenaline rush.

For those who like their screen violence graphic, unadulterated and unflinching in slow motion, reverse motion, and pulling out all tricks in the special effects book, then Wanted is for you. Otherwise it'll just be another routine exercise that is all style and little substance, something which most reviews tend to harp on, and I'll throw my 2 cents worth of contribution at as well.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) (1955)

Sisters of the World

Lorenzo Codelli introduced this film as the only real literary adaptation by Michelangelo Antonioni, based on a short novel written by Cesare Pavese, whose short life but impressive career had a largely influential impact on Antonioni's works. It's a film about women (the literal translation of the title of the story "Tra Donne Sole" means "Between Women Only"), in today's context known as the career girls, and it's also interesting to note that the co-writers of the screenplay were both female, each on opposite ends of the literary spectrum, one a "low-brow" pulp novelist, the other a "high-brow" writer.

And I guess this pairing provided a very complete and enjoyable story which in today's contemporary context would classify if as a chick flick, only that this had plenty of intelligence and a lot of heart, and doesn't come across as a dumbed down condescending story with many cardboard characters thrown in just because. Opening with a sprightly tune, and set in Turn, La Amiche has plenty of insights into the female psyche, and I am quite surprised that it had stood the test of time (more than 50 years!) to be as relevant today just as it was back in the mid-50s.

The story follows Clelia (Eleonara Rossi Drago) from Rome, sent to Turin to supervise the setting up of a fashion boutique branch, and in her temporary stay at the city, befriends a group of high-society and debatably successful ladies through the attempted suicide of one of their clique members Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), who was found in her adjoining hotel room. From there we examine all their love lives, their work attitudes, their relationships with one another, the entire spectrum which while presenting themselves as little gossipy episodes that women might be prone to (I'm readying myself to be pelted with rotten tomatoes with that statement), it always felt that each individual piece was a perfect contribution to the entirety of the movie, with nary a wasted scene, nor unnecessary subplots provided just to bloat the story.

Antonioni has proven his deftness at handling an ensemble of characters (much unlike his earlier movies, or his famed Trilogy where only a handful of characters get explored) like the de-facto leader of the group Momina De Stefani (Yvonne Fumeaux) whose rich husband being always away on business provides her with an avenue for affairs and the need for constant emotional connection, or what I thought was the more interesting of the lot, was between successful ceramics artist Nene (Valentina Cortese) and her less successful painter fiance Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), who becomes romantically linked to Rosetta after painting her portrait, or rather, it was Rosetta who throws herself at him. Completing the group is Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), a flighty flirty woman with a devil-may-care attitude.

For some reason I was concentrating on the Lorenzo-Nene-Rosetta story, because it was quite compelling to see how it played out and developed, having one of them throw the first salvo at attempted suicide. It also provided a platform to examine how relationships can be strained possibly through emotions like jealousy and one being envious of the other's success, and maybe taking it out on the person through other means, such as the breaking of hearts. Again like Story of a Love Affair (I have no idea why I keep going back to this) it was a similar situation presented, though more explicitly presented rather than leaving it to second guesses. The confrontational scene between Nene and Rosetta was the best in the movie in my opinion, and one of the best I have seen in movies where rival lovers have to confront each other on the truth of the situation, and you can hear the unbelievable groans of an audience upon its resolution, which was quite pathetic and awkwardly delivered, by today's standards. Which is what was intriguing, as it highlighted the perceived role of a woman back then, that the career first mindset was still a novelty, and standing behind your man was possibly the only acceptable societal norm.

And it is this forward-thinking presentation and exploration of modern day themes even by today's standards, that make La Amiche a winner, being still relevant and all. Having 5 girls presented allowed for some comparisons over how some choose love over career despite expected setbacks which come part and parcel with it, and how some choose career over love, where one can excel in without the distractions of disappointment from the heart. Included as well is work ethics, when one doesn't have money as a prime motivator, one would wonder how the other non-tangible benefits would appeal to workers who have to turn up at work everyday, versus coming and going as they please, which I have experienced for myself (as on the receiving end of having to manage the non-attendance of others).

Other moments in the film that were equally enjoyable, include the fashion runway type shows in the old days, without the runway of course, where models have to present the clothes up close and personal in a closed door, intimate setting within the fashion boutique. And what was probably a precursor to the beach scene in L'Avventura get played out here, though it was a location for the rich folks to just stand around and flirt, with no real plan for a weekend getaway. It's still amazing how this particular little setting seem to squeeze so much into it, providing a catalyst for future incidents to burst out from.

Le Amiche will go down in my books as a story starring women, about women and for women that is still highly relevant in today's society. It has withstood the test of time perfectly, and its exploration of women, their relationships, their attitudes that differ depending on either their single or married status, is an amalgamation of keen observations that make this an enjoyable a must-watch, peppered with good punctuations of humour throughout.

Friday, June 27, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] La Notte (The Night) (1961)

Get A Room!

The second movie in the loose Alienation trilogy, Lorenzo Codelli shared that the trilogy also went by another label known as the Incommunicability - being the inability to communicate. While Michelangelo Antonioni's films in the 60s were about individuals, they also reflected the troublesome period in Italian society of the time. The important link in the films is Monica Vitti, whom we had seen in L'Avventura, and she has a minor role here, before taking back the mantle of the lead in L'Eclisse. I guess we'll get quite acquainted with her since she has 2 more other Antonioni movies outside the trilogy, being Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald) and Il Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert). Cordelli mentioned that while she may not be the perfect actress, she was perfect for what Antonioni wanted her to do, and was perfect in the space of Antonioni's world. Unfortunately though, she's making no more public apperances given she's now late into life.

Initially, my thoughts were that La Notte should join the ranks of Zabriskie Point in being an Antonioni movie which I did not like. While the latter had an ending which would be a talking point, and one which I thought was too jarring a sequence from the movie, here the lead characters of popular writer Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) just droned on in dialogue, each lacking the courage to call it quits, while making every effort to try and rekindle a degenerating relationship, afraid of stepping out of their malaise of being in a comfort zone. Perhaps I'm an optimist by nature and too much negativity in a movie would automatically put me off somewhat. But there's a single shot in the movie that lingered onto my memory, and that was the scene where Monica Vitti's Valentina Gherardini was cloaked in darkness against a brightly lit balcony window, dissolving into a silhouette, which I felt was an extremely beautiful shot.

Technical brilliance aside, La Notte, as the title suggests, happened over the course of a single day, with more than half the movie taking place at a nighttime high society party with dancing, games, and plenty of other idle indulgence, such as frolicking in and around a pool despite heavy rain. We begin with the Pontano couple visiting an old mutual friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki), but right from the onset the body language of husband and wife weren't normal of a loving couple, and seemed rather strained. They hardly walk together, nor talk much to each other, and in the presence of their friend, seem to operate individually, and the icing on the cake being Lidia requesting to leave their presence first, and we next see her outside the premises, in one corner sobbing away. Tommaso, despite being ill, can sense this uneasiness, and I suppose his being bedridden and fighting for his life, cannot do anything more for his two good friends other than to remind them to oblige an open invitation to visit his home and his mom.

Surprisingly, I thought Giovanni was a relatively stronger character than other preceding male characters in works before La Notte. While we can sense the marital problems in the movie, he had enough resilience to be able to withstand and resist somewhat, the advances of a gorgeous (though probably crazy) patient in the ward next to Tommaso's, and had the courage to tell his wife about it, though you might look at it the other way as him being spiteful and reminding her that he's still an attractive man. He holds his own against caustic remarks his wife makes in front of strangers, and sometimes just plainly ignores her presence through indifference. But ultimately, it still boiled down to the question of not wanting to pull the plug, of keeping something that's emotionally dead, alive.

That doesn't mean that Lidia just rolls over and plays dead. She doesn't give a second thought of just getting out there wandering about the streets, and soaking in sights and sounds (the various helicopter, jets and home-made rocket scenes still baffles me), before getting into trouble through unwarranted attention from a street-fighter. Throughout the most parts, she's often alone both physically and emotionally, likely to utilize such time offs to ponder about the future of her marital status. Of all the lead female characters I've seen to date in an Antonioni movie, sad to say she's one of my least favourite.

The movie takes place in multiple settings, before converging into the night at the high society party. But there was a pit stop at a nightclub which I thought had a couple of poignant moments for the couple. I felt that they tried to connect with each other the most here, with their reminiscence at various points about their happier times, set against a backdrop of an acrobatic performance. Like in Antonioni's documentary Cina, this film preceded that, though it likely gave us a hint that the director might have found such performances fascinating enough to warrant an extended screen time, set against a fantastically hypnotic jazzy saxophone music piece. Essentially the performance was one of careful balance involving body parts and a glass of wine, perhaps suggesting that in this scene the couple was trying their earnest to tread delicately along their road paved with numerous thorns, that it would be best to just stay on an even keel, to keep to status quo.

Which leads us to the primary setting in La Notte where the status quo got challenged, and to the luminous Monica Vitti, whose hair has gone from blonde as seen in L'Avventura, to jet black here. A lot of things happened during the party, such as Giovanni being offered a job, but especially focused here is the dynamics between the couple and the inclusion of Vitti's Valentina, the bored daughter of the host. There's a continuous sense of probing between letting go, and being presented a chance to break free and engage in some emotional dalliance, including Lidia's short dalliance with a stranger, travelling in a car outside in the rain. Like Story of a Love Affair and L'Avventura, something's in the way in seeking to prolong a temporal happiness, and again, we do not exactly see how that got resolved in the end, as it still posed a series of questions, with no clear cut answers.

And I think I should learn to accept that there will be no clear answers in Antonioni's movies from this point on, and if I could frivolously put it, such is with life itself at times too. But again what continues to intrigue is how the characters in his stories get crafted with extreme care, sensibilities, never being one-dimensional, but fully fleshed out.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] L’Avventura (The Adventure) (1960)

The Fling

It's on one hand hard to imagine that L'Avventura got booed by the audience in Cannes back in the May 1960 edition of the film festival, then on the other, perhaps it was a film quite ahead of its time, if compared with the earlier Michelangelo Antonioni movies which preceded it with no more than a decade separating them, there isn't really a clear-cut narrative structure here that his earlier movies had employed. Nonetheless in today's context, many believe that it's one of the greatest films in the world, but I think for me it would take repeated viewings to enjoy L'Avventura more thoroughly and to think deeper into it.

As Lorenzo Codelli explained, while Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita was awarded the Palme d'Or for that year in Cannes, L'Avventura walked away with the Jury Award, no doubt thanks to a band of international critics who had rallied around it after its dismal screening. And it was after the success of L'Avventura that Michelangelo Antonioni became much more daring and ambitious in his filmmaking career, giving us the loose Alienation trilogy which consists of this movie, La Notte and L'Eclisse. The alienation term used back then refers much to the feeling of a newly affluent society, where the low/middle class aspire to be the middle/upper class, and therein lies various existential, psychological and moral problems, which Antonioni became a master of exploring these themes subtly in his movies, which is quite opposite in style to Fellini's movies which were more in-your-face (and with that being said, I'm more than convinced to give Fellini's films a go too)

But to an average movie goer like myself, the opening score sets the mood and tone for the film, in quite an ominous manner. Granted I had done a bit of homework on the movie and how its story developed, but nothing beats having to experience it for yourself, and leaving the technicalities aside to allow for emotions to flow right until the simple end credit flashed on the screen.

We follow Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) as they prepare themselves for a sea excursion with a group of friends, which includes Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) whom Anna has not seen in a month. However, this time apart didn't make the heart grow fonder for Anna, and to me, I thought she was indeed a hard woman to please, probably because Sandro couldn't satisfy her, both physically and emotionally. And to think that I've experienced for myself the incomprehensible emotion interpreted through an uttered "I want to be alone" statement before, Anna's cold reaction toward Sandro leaves him perplexed, confused and likely in frustration, as her no-reply to his probing eventually causes indifference.

Come to think of it, all three are quite unlikeable characters, easily with flaws that we can identify with ourselves. For Anna, if she had not consciously chosen to make herself scarce, then it's quite highly irresponsible for her to do a Houdini, and take off without a trace, knowing that in any group excursions, your friends are likely to (unless you made bad choices on who you call friends) exhaust all possibilities in their search for your whereabouts. Despite it being a small rock island, it is still fairly large with its varying landscapes, and dizzying, dangerous cliffs. And like Lost the television series fashion, a number of strange incidents occur, such as an Australian who appeared from nowhere in the rain, and the sounds of many unseen, but heard of, boats, which continue to plant ideas in your mind.

Making up a shark incident too to spoil the day for others just because you're feeling lousy, tells of a very selfish nature. So it's probably good riddance that we never see her ever again. It made me wonder too if love lost and wanting to be alone meant ditching all your current friends and current lifestyle, in order to bury memories and start everything afresh, which is quite an extreme behaviour.

So therein lies the mystery as to why the story chose to left this thread hanging. It's never fully resolved, and there are a number of theories proposed at one point or another in the narrative, but that's just it. And if you suppose with the attention now shifted to Sandro and Claudia would make things better, it just turned out to be a tip of the iceberg. I thought Antonioni's debut feature Story of a Love Affair took off from a tangent, and there were some similar parallels between the relationships of the two lovers then, and now between Claudia and Sandro. In the former movie, the lovers were kept apart by the existence of another woman. Here, the opportune with Claudia's absence set the lovers free, and paved way for the two to succumb to the advances of each other like animal magnetism. Claudia was apprehensive about throwing caution to the wind, as with most rebound cases, and almost always feel guilty about the speed at which they fall into each other's arms. Having the fear of Anna potentially re-appearing as sudden as her disappearance, repeatedly cast doubts into her new found relationship with Sandro.

Sandro continues the unflattering look at the weakness of male characters in Antonioni films. He might seem like a cad for having to forget his lover Anna at a drop of the hat, but frankly it looked as if a big weight had been lifted from his shoulders, that he need not try to appease the whims of an unreasonable woman. In 3 days he moved from what could possibly be a tragedy with Anna's unknown, unproven demise, and went ahead to forge a new romance. While he relentlessly tried to pursue the truth, in his frustration his ugly demeanour reared its ugly head, in a scene I thought was particularly interesting where he ruined a perfect work-in-progress, by spilling black ink all over it. He's a man with a roving eye, and once he had tasted the liberating forbidden fruit, probably craved for more, hence his additional dalliances with someone I thought would have been a closer resemblance toward what he had lost.

It's a tale of two halves, with the first dwelling on the mystery and its background and circumstance leading toward it, and the second essentially became like a road trip which focused on the aftermath of the characters. A running element in both halves are the time that Antonioni devoted to look at relationships, with 2 supporting sets of couples placed strategically into the story for comparison and contrast purpose. Looking at it, it seemed that married couples do have some loss in romanticism in their relationships, especially personified through Guila (Dominique Blanchar) and Corrado (James Addams), where the latter almost always chide and mocks his wife's less than keen observations. And for Guila, given the lack of respect from her husband, and being constantly flattered by a certain Prince Goffredo (Giovanni Petrucci) meant that Corrado will have to wear a green hat as she conscientiously drifted toward the lavish attention paid, and reciprocated physically.

Perhaps I failed to appreciate various subtleness in the finale which I suddenly felt the minutes tick by, in sequences that were hugely devoid of dialogue, but filled with moody melancholy, revelation and betrayal. There were hands that looked like they could strangle someone, but started to ease off and ruffled some hair instead, as if to say all was understood, forgiven, and all could be well. At least that's my interpretation of it, as with life, we see things from our own perspective, and is indeed a challenge to step back and take a broader, objective look at what had transpired.

L'Avventura gets a second screening at the National Museum Gallery Theatre during the Retrospective on Sunday 6 July at 11am.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Run Up To The Dark Knight

OK, so we've been faced with a barrage of miscellaneous posters, but what really amazed me is how WB cranked the marketing machinery on this one, with a slew of online websites, teasers, what-have-yous, to really toot the horn loudly for Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins.

No doubt there are no less than 5 TV spots out there in the last 24hrs, and having watched them (against good sense that they might contain potential spoilers), I thought that those precious minutes from a runtime of approximately 150, told me enough that Nolan got it spot on again. We go deeper into the psyche of the Bat, as well as the much touched upon theme in comic lore about his presence that actually draws the weird criminals out into Gotham. Plus Joker taunting and challenging the Bat to break his sacred oath? Spot on I tell ya!!!

I'm already creaming in my pants.

Meanwhile, there are also some manufactured "videos" that serve as supplementary material for the story in The Dark Knight. Here's a Gotham City TV current affairs programme titled, yup, Gotham Tonight. The first one here, which runs close to 8 minutes, touches on the election of Harvey Dent to District Attorney

while the second Gotham Tonight programme, gives us a 10 minute lowdown on Gotham's favourite son Bruce Wayne, with some really classic performances by Bale and Eckhardt in their respective characters that I bet you won't get to see in The Dark Knight, at least not in this version.

What's more, Nolan has moved, logically of course following the events from Batman Begins, Bruce/Bat's operations from stately Wayne Manor, to a penthouse. Fans will celebrate the fact that indeed our hero operated at a time from a penthouse in the comics version circa the 1970s.

I'll continue to update this entry as soon as more Gotham Tonight episodes appear. Do check back!

July 17 couldn't be here soon enough!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sparrow (Man Jeuk / 文雀)

Get Ready For The Big Time Boys

Taking almost 3 years to make, and finally making its way to our shores, Sparrow is worth every moment of waiting, and again cements Johnnie To's reputation as a living maestro who conjures up magical cinematic moments from the tired Hong Kong crime genre. This time though it's totally sans violence and elaborate gunplay, and what came across was a short film idea that's brimming with class, injected with well placed humour, postcard picturesque framing and the unflappable Simon Yam who can do no wrong as the lead.

Clearly this movie plays up on the sparrow motif, of a bird trapped in a cage, and one from the avian family associated with, as this story goes, ill fortune that will soon befall. While the Hong Kong slang for pickpockets is "sparrow", the figural bird here refers to Kelly Lin's Chung Chun Lei, a mysterious, statuesque beauty who baits our gang into unlocking the cage that's trapping her in a life of misery. The first act plays out like a little mystery, weaving in a deeper introduction of our gang of pickpockets, played by Lam Ka Tung, Kenneth Cheung, Law Wing-cheong and led by their leader Kei (Simon Yam). Thinking they got lucky individually when they each encounter Chun Lei, they soon realize the hard way about who they're dealing with, and realize that they stand a better chance as a group, with unity in strength rather than playing individual lone wolf.

Here's where you'll find the quintessential To movie dripping with camaraderie and brotherhood, written by Chan Kin Chung and Fung Chi Keung. The story unfolds in a rather unconventional manner that leaves you guessing, before it even keels into a mid-section, all the while avoiding big sets and big action sequences. They allow for Yam to play up on his well known photography hobby by working it into the story, and Yam delivers what audiences and fans would have expected, that of a charismatic leader.

Unlike To's previous movies like Exiled and the Election series which were rather heavy in nature and tone, Sparrow, like the bird, is very much light and breezy. It doesn't try to cram too many subplots into its close to 90 minute running time, and provides you a main thread to focus your thoughts on. As mentioned, it is like a short film idea extrapolated effectively into a feature film length, allowing moments of To's signature style of stand-offs to enter the fray, building much needed anticipation, with good natured humour. Some however, might want to draw parallels with Feng Xiaogang's World Without Thieves given its subject matter and its core one-upmanship challenge.

There are two gems in Sparrow that makes its ticket price more than worthwhile. First, the wonderful original music and score by Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux, whose theme for Sparrow will definitely linger in your mind for quite a while after the end credits roll. With a jazzy feel and a combination of western and eastern musical instruments, the score has a life of its own, and elevates Sparrow to a higher plateau with something memorable to take away, emphasizing the lightness the general tone of the movie takes.

The other gem, will be its fantastically designed major action piece that occurs in the last act. Probably the only "action" you'll see in the movie, it decompresses normal time into slow-motion, in order to exaggerate the lightning quick reflexes all the operatives in the movie possess. The rain, the umbrellas, action designed around them and all done at a single traffic light crossing, remains a cinematic marvel which deserves a second, third helping, and more. Just thinking how it's done technically will already send you into a frenzy, and this likely served undoubtedly as a showpiece for Sparrow.

Sparrow is an elegant movie, which reminds us that while To might have his off-days with movies like Linger, he's back at the top of his game again delivering a movie with deftness in skill, and adding to his already glowing repetoire of movies defining the new wave of crime genre stories that speak volumes of his signature style.

P.S. Richard has sent me this link to Fred Avril and Xavier Jamaux's MySpace website where the 4 tracks from the soundtrack is available for sampling (in full!). Click on the CD front cover below to check it out! Instant earworm I tell you, especially Pickpockets Theme From Sparrow!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Family by Yasmin Ahmad

Acclaimed Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad was in Singapore earlier this year to embark on a commercial project commissioned by Singapore's Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, and if you haven't caught it on local television yet, then it's time to rely on online sources to have a look at this very beautiful commercial. Rarely have I been glued to the gogglebox just to wait for it to appear.

Have a look at it yourself, and you must be quite hard-hearted if you can say that you're not moved by it.

Suddenly I feel guilty for not spending quality time with my family! It's time I make amends!

Oh, and if you're curious about her upcoming film projects, you can take a look at this link and the clues (yes, not one but two!) are right at the end of the article!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Get Smart

The New Dynamic Duo

Just to set the record straight, I've been a fan of the original series when it played on local television many years ago when I was a kid, so I've been weaned on Don Adams as the original Maxwell Smart aka Agent 86 in Get Smart, and if I had the cash, I would not bat an eyelid to shell out good money for one of my beloved television series that I follow religiously. For one yet to be exposed to the glitz and glamourous world of James Bond, I thought Maxwell Smart had all the coolest gadgets that a spy would possess, and have a competent agent/partner in Agent 99, then played by Barbara Feldon. And who can forget that catchy theme song and the hypnotic opening and closing sequence where he makes his way to and from the CONTROL headquarters?

When the movie was announced, I sort of celebrated the casting of Steve Carell. He resembled a bit like the late Don Adams (except for, pardon this, being a little wider on the girth), but nonetheless being the comedian as he was, I thought he would be perfect in the movie version, which served as a Redux of sorts in an updated re-telling (as I would prefer to imagine it to be) of sorts, as Maxwell is still an Analyst within CONTROL, and itching to get out as a field agent. So like James Bond's Casino Royale, we go back to basics, but yet retaining whatever's necessary for a modern audience to get chummy with the lead character. Even Barbara Feldon too got a cameo (even though through a photograph only), which weaved in perfectly for the movie version of Anne Hathaway to take over.

Forget the Johnny English and Pink Panther remakes, which the former was trying hard to emulate past success stories from television series such as this one, and the latter being a tad more slapstick than it warranted. Get Smart the movie actually captured perfectly the essence of the television series, while yet paying it the respect of a series well done. I can't help but to tear a little as I see the car that Don Adam drove, the cell-phone shoe, the original cone of silence as well as what I would like to think as the original suit Adams donned in the series. All these get fitting tribute early in the film, before making way for Carell's version to take over.

So what's appealing in the new movie? For starters, it played a lot on Maxwell Smart being Smart. In the series there was no question of him being a victim of circumstance with Lady Luck smiling on him, and here it managed to combine that with proper intelligence of his analyst background, so much so that The Chief (Alan Arkin) had to reject him being out in the field, but serving his organization by sieving through intelligence for their field agents. So our updated Smart actually has a lot more brains, and in the brawn department, he's not a pushover either.

Then the story doesn't dumb down too much, and had quite an even keel in providing mass entertainment without condescending the audience. That, I felt, was quite difficult to achieve given that you're trying to make people laugh, and the temptation is there to slapstick everything to elicit a few cheap chuckles. So in trying to avoid situations like that, I tip my hat to. It's no rocket science of a story, but there's enough properly designed set action pieces to entertain, and not make it look all too stupid. It had its fair share of spoofs from Entrapment to mentions of peer movies like James Bond, down to even borrowing an obvious Jaws-like villain.

But what really worked and made the movie special, was the chemistry between Carell and Hathaway. Just like how Adams and Feldon seemed so natural with each other, Carell and Hathaway worked wonders and brought back the magic as the Agents with a tinge of romantic / sexual chemistry between them. They have surely taken over the mantle and proven worthy of succeeding the original duo, and that's coming from a long time fan of the series myself. Supporting the duo are plenty of surprise casting like Bill Murray's short cameo as Agent 13, and David Koechner who I've mentioned before, is making some headway in recent comedies. The Rock had some pretty comical moments as well (I just loved his character's introduction) but the one who took the cake was James Caan's role as The President, modelled so clearly after George W Bush, and no holds barred mimicry of his reading to schoolchildren during a crisis, his mispronunciation of "nuclear" and plenty of other sight gags.

In the villain department, they come naturally from KAOS, this time with Terence Stamp heading the organization as Siegfried and Ken Davitian as his sidekick Shtarker, and we learn that they have laid low since the Cold War ended. Now their diabolical plans include handing out nuclear weapons to states which are non-friendly to the USA, and with activation codes granted, there is no question where those bombs will be heading towards. Like the first Mission: Impossible movie, you won't need much time before you guess who the secret villain will be once he appears on screen as well.

Boasting an excellent soundtrack which began with ABBA's Take A Chance On Me to Madonna's 4 Minutes, given the way things developed in the movie, I won't be surprised that there would be a sequel in store should the movie rake in strong takings from the box office. The chemistry's set up, and there are definitely more stories to tell, and I know I'll be in line for another go. This is one of the rare remakes/reboots/tributes done right, and it comes highly recommended. Should I not succeed in getting the original series on DVD, I'll probably be contended with this one on my shelves too!

P.S. this is something unrelated to the movie, but an observation that this is probably the first PG rated film here, that had a full blown guy on guy lip-locking scene that went past the censors. Probably because of context, but then again, probably because of box office revenue as well. Perhaps if it had nothing to do with sex / eroticism that it is allowed? One wonders.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady Without Camelias) (1953)

My Trophy Wife

While this is the third feature film of Michelangelo Antonioni, it would mark the second time that Lucia Bose had starred in his film, the first being Antonioni's debut feature Story of a Love Affair. As Lorenzo Codelli pointed out, Antonioni's The Vanquished had made its debut at the Venice International Film Festival, and in this movie, it contains scenes from the Festival, thereby giving it a somewhat documentary feel as it serves as a backdrop. It tells the story of a fictional star, charting the meteoric rise and fall of her career, and made quite a statement on the Italian film industry of the time, which was producing more than 300 features annually.

Again, the female of the species turn out to be quite strong in character, while the male counterparts continue the trend of being rather meek, and lacking some alpha-male qualities befitting of a leading character status. Here, we have Lucia Bose's Clara Manni, a shopgirl from Milan who was talent spotted and brought to prominence on celluloid by film producer Dr Gianni Franchi, who together with the film world, fell in love with the dazzling beauty (Bose herself was crowed Miss Italia once before). In today's context, this would be akin to continued casting calls for any scream queen/sex siren/teenage starlet to be typecast in a role in their respective blockbusters, with nary an opportunity for them to venture out of the tried and tested, all in the name of profit.

Being rushed into marriage in the middle of a film production, we see how Gianni turns into a green-eyed monster, possessive of his trophy wife and chiding her for wanting to go along with the norm in getting herself casted in roles that require the revelation of some flesh, be it in steamy love scenes or in seductive poses in glossy magazine spreads. Granted, his idea of marriage is to have her become a homemaker given his wealth to provide her a more than comfortable life, but to Clara, it's akin to being imprisoned. So one will come to expect the usual marital woes that befall couples as fools who rush in, and find themselves smashing head on toward a rocky time.

In today's blockbuster world, I guess it's obvious that sex and violence sells. In those days, as explained by the producer character Ercole (Gino Cervi), sex, religion and politics in movies put bums on seats, which accounts for why scantily clad women could have been considered a de-facto "must-have" in order to appeal to the lowest denominator amongst audiences. To Gianni, in his good intent to want to elevate his wife's status to drama-mama, decided to make an arthouse Joan of Arc (which we are spared the torture of watching, only provided glimpses of it), much against the common grain of filmmaking, and with Clara being bored to tears, decided to go along with the project.

With her Joan of Arc being both a critical and commercial failure, Clara becomes vulnerable. But here's where her character got interesting. Like Eve, she's fully aware of the forbidden apple, but yet found herself weak to resist the advances from a fan. She conscienitously knows of the destructive path she'll be walking down, both in reputation and personal life should she embark on an affair, but I guess the appeal that Mr Nardo (Ivan Desny) had, was being the wedge at the right point in time when she was emotionally at her weakest. Again, Nardo is a slimy male character that one would love to hate, given his motive of personal satisfaction in having to conquer a famous actress. However, you must salute his thick-skinned persistence and his great pretension, well hidden behind a suave demeanour.

The saddest character here remains Gianni Franchi. You'll realize that while he has the best of intentions for his wife, life would have it that her reaction to his concern would go unappreciated most of the time. And pride would come in the way when someone who had broken your heart once, come knocking on your door for an opportunity. As Clara's character develops, she slowly learns about her naiveness, and becomes more aware of the business side of the industry. Here's where the film becomes a critical mouthpiece of the state of Italian cinema at the time, which led to potential Claras dropping their willingness to star in the film lest they offend industry folks.

It makes comparisons and draws parallels between the exploitation of an actress's good looks, versus grooming them into serious thespians, and through Clara's bold reinvention of herself, one would have thought she would have learnt a valuable lesson to apply, given an about turn with her new found understanding and strength. But as it turns out, there's this invisible glass ceiling in place.

I thought the ending was one of the most powerful ones, and a definite heart-wrencher, seen thus far. It has a resignation to Fate, that no matter how hard one tried, the outcome has already been pre-determined by the stars, and try as you might, you just cannot effect any change. The streaming of tears down the eye, while masking it as tears of joy and forcing a smile, probably reflects Clara's greatest acting moment to date, smiling to mask some extreme unhappiness toward her life and career choices, that she became nothing more than a train on a railroad, following the tracks laid out in front of her. The absolute last frame that lingers, is well worth a ticketed admission, for the fact that Clara finally got to act.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] I Vinti (The Vanquished) (1953)

We Will Prevail

As introduced by Lorenzo Codelli, The Vanquished consists of 3 short stories taking place one each in Italy, France and England, which while not a successful commercial film of the time, it garnered strong reviews, cementing Michelangelo Antonioni as a director with a critical audience and not considered a commercial director. And I agreed that all the characters here have rather interesting backgrounds and stories, and the England segment has Blowup written all over it, serving as a precursor to one of Antonioni's more famous works.

The movie begins quite documentary like, with a prologue touching on violence and the wayward youths of the post-WWII generation. Like outcasts who challenge conventional societal norms, the 3 stories with youth characters in pro/antagonist roles puts a fictional spin to the numerous articles and newsreels that set the tone of the movie.

The first segment is set in France, and I felt was the strongest of the lot. With a myriad of characters, it tells of six friends embarking on a trip sans their parents' concerns, but as they set up their excursion, you can't help but feel that something's amiss, and character motivations are not quite what they seem. For example, why are two boys packing a pistol to bring along? And what's with the manipulative Simone (Etchika Choureau) up to, dangling a carrot in front of different boys, being probably one of the masterminds, and chief executioner of some hideous plan? How about the braggart Pierre, who flaunts his wealth around by lighting cigarettes with money bills, and boasting of a model girlfriend, but in fact has to borrow 100 francs? It's classic bluff against bluff with plenty of jealous and envious emotions thrown in for a good mix, together with survivor styled alliances being formed, that you just aren't too sure who's in cahoots with whom. It's a perfect short which builds on your anticipation, with a tinge of mystery and foretelling of a gruesome, inevitable crime to be committed, and the ending being the cherry on top.

The Italian segment was unfortunately the blandest of the lot. It highlights how most families and parents especially being clueless to their offspring's disillusionment and life of demeanours. Here, the parents of Claudio (Franco Interlenghi) have absolutely no idea that their son is running a smuggling racket, and knows neither his friends, or his girlfriend, except for a photograph in his room. We then follow Claudio throughout the short, watching him seek out his girl Marina (Anna-Maria Ferrero), who's obviously from a well to do family, and uses the excuse of living the life of crime to build up capital so that he can elope with her to a place they can call their own. Not too interesting, though it did make me dig deep and wonder about the many crimes committed out of passion or using love as a crutch.

I'm not sure but I felt the England segment had a wry humour filled thread with a faceless receptionist at The Daily Witness. Just when I thought I had heard the last from this person, it gets popped up again and I can't help but to chuckle. So far the movies in the retrospective have been rather grim and serious, but here's a sliver of wit that I didn't see coming, if expected at all, and so however short it was, I thought it opened one big refreshing window.

I can't make out much of the tennis game here which lasted no longer than a few seconds, but the England segment draped itself with, as mentioned earlier, plenty of elements which would later be referenced, used and explored further in Blowup. While Blowup didn't feature the crime in progress, this short however provided some probable clues, and did the conventional through an enactment, a luxury which audiences in Blowup, or even Story of a Love Affair, never got to see, and can only imagine if and how it happened. Ken Whatton (Patrick Barr), a journalist of The Daily Witness doesn't provide any interesting insights in the movie but serves his function as a proxy for the more interesting Aubrey Hallan (Peter Reynolds) from Saffron who discovers a dead body, and calls him up to provide him the front page scoop material. The Aubrey character runs along the theme on exploring delusional youths, as he's a fame seeker who doesn't think twice in cutting corners to the path of glory and money, putting a lot of pride in himself in being able to analyze and make money from dog races.

However, he's quite a tragic character in living his dream and not giving a hoot about being pragmatic, and holds onto his poetry to overcome his unrequited love for Sally. And in fact, most of the characters in all the shorts have dreams, and it is their inability to fulfill their dreams with concrete workable plans in a down to earth, hard/smart working manner, and in their wanting to make a name for themselves overnight, that they resort to unorthodox, risky behaviour with little responsibility or perhaps even the awareness of consequences in their actions.

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair) (1950)

Would You Come With Me?

The very first feature film of Michelangelo Antonioni, Story of a Love Affair as introduced by Lorenzo Codelli, was a film that dealt with the metaphysics, and had very little neo-realist elements which was a departure from what one would come to expect from a filmmaker whose documentaries were neo-realist. Watching it for the first time, I thought it would make a wonderful thriller/crime-mystery involving two lovers, and I suppose in the hands of Hollywood, we would get just that.

But this is not Hollywood we're talking about, so again I get to throw all standard notions I was weaned on out of the window. As I was warned by a friend, I would be in for a rough ride because whatever structure of story-telling I was familiar with was going to be challenged, and strangely enough, I am beginning to find this challenge quite liberating, like the hitting onto a goldmine or an oilfield, and just raking in the sights and sounds from how beautiful a black and white movie could be, in terms of story, and characters.

However, the characters need not be goody-two-shoes, or perfectly looking beings with zilch problems that they couldn't take care of within 2 hours. There are some serious and complex issues that the leads here have to grapple with, and together with an audience, we try and probe, and discover for ourselves just what those are, though naturally we aren't given all the answers on a sliver platter, and have to work hard at it, sometimes even utilizing some precious moments to breathe, digest, and compute, only being able to scratch the surface.

Whatever the story or mystery is, it never really got addressed, not directly anyway. But story aside, I was really intrigued by the lead characters. We have a beautiful married woman Paola Fontana (played by Lucia Bose whom we'll see later in another Antonioni movie, and at one time the reigning Miss Italy) who seem to have the best of what luxuries life can offer, but is stuck in a loveless marriage to a rich man Enrico (Ferdinando Sarmi). We're told that in her youth, she was a head turner, and almost always changes her boyfriends, each being the alpha-male type.

Surprisingly, her lover whom she maintains contact with, Guido (Massimo Girotti) is anything but an alpha-male type. In fact, I would call him a loser in the classic sense of the word. No real job and penniless, he has some magnetic qualities to be be able to mesmerize Paola into trysts in cheap motel rooms. Meeting on the sly, we see how a high society woman have to dodge around from being discovered, and setting up alibis just to meet Guido, and we soon learn how wicked a woman she can be, for coming up with plans for crime to be committed to get things done her way. Which brings us back to the original thought of how she was involved in a more heinous crime / accident, where she could well be the chief manipulator then made to be seen as the victim.

The main crime thread that got weaved into the story, was one involving a certain unseen Ms Giovanna, whose demise was linked to the two lovers. We never really learned what exactly happened, and Antonioni makes us work in order to try and piece clues and accounts together. And the probing of this mystery by a private investigator serves as a catalyst to the rest of the story, where we first see our lovers meet after a long while, but instead of enjoying each other's embrace, seem a lot more concerned with the PI's probe, as if afraid that it'll uncover hidden skeletons in their closets.

Story of a Love Affair becomes an examination into these 2 characters, and interesting enough, to dwell on the problems that they face, in a somewhat lose-lose situation throughout their relationship. The first was when Giovanna served to be in the way of their coming together, being an in-between, and when that's settled, there's the other more pressing issue of whether they can elope successfully, where pragmatism takes over romanticism with Guido knowing for sure that he has no money, and little means to support both of them, especially the lifestyle that Paola currently enjoys.

Definitely deserves a second viewing to try and develop my thoughts on it further! And to enjoy the beautiful score all over again too!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Chung Kuo – Cina (China) (1972)

A Peek Inside

It was very strange indeed when the Chinese government of the time banned this film and called it anti-Chinese propaganda. Surely, the communist government then had watched Zabriskie Point and perhaps agreed that its ending of blowing up consumerism literally in your face, warranted the commissioning of Michelangelo Antonioni to shoot a documentary about China, and probably expected some beholden, pro-communist doctrine look at the state of things in the country, where the positives exalted and the negatives swept under the carpet.

Alas Cina in my opinion stayed quite objective, and doesn't offer any judgemental criticism through its eye in the camera lenses, either for or against policies that unfolded in front of them. For the period of time that Antonioni and his crew were the host of the Communist Part in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, what we got instead was an extremely fascinating look at the facets of live within the iron curtain, from major sights and recognizable attractions, to the lesser seen mundane activities of the everyday lives of the average joe.

A magnum of a movie unfolding itself in 3 parts, we begin this rare look of a journey into China during its Revolution, and if pictures can tell a thousand words, what more moving images? Starting off at a defining location in Tiananmen Square, there are some subtle differences at the Square then, and now. The theme song for the documentary happened to be "I Love Tiananmen Square" which schoolchildren sing with gusto, and we see later how the little tykes get indoctrinated quite innocently through propaganda infused into song and dance that they participate enthusiastically. Besides this recognizable landmark, it became like a journey through time as we also get to look at The Forbidden City, as well as The Great Wall in its pre-restored state of today, sans millions of tourists too, and witness broken, unmended sections that riddled the monument which was referred to as not one built by an Emperor, but one built by slaves.

It's a rare treat indeed because the filmmakers dare to push the boundaries of permission granted to them, where on occasions even after explicitly being told "No" to filming a particular moment or location, the camera still rolls anyway, and we're told and get to see just exactly what was forbidden, which I think in today's context, is nothing to get riled up with. We get an observation of a slice of everyday life, where the camera lingers on to provide strange yet intriguing images such as a typical work day in a factory, women with bound feet, and amazing sights and sounds such as a man riding a bicycle and practising Qigong simultaneously! We also get explained certain policies of the communists at the time, which seem quite unbelievable that home rentals are capped at 5% of whatever your monthly salary is, or how workers work with a general lack of anxiety and urgency.

In true Antonioni fashion, we get to see luxurious shots of vast landscapes in the country as they make way to the rural areas, such as the Honan Province and the Yellow River, in a balance with city landscape shots in Shanghai and Suzhou. It's this fine balance of the rural and the urban, of Chinese people living and working in both contexts in the country, that I thought makes this documentary quite a winner.

But what was truly fascinating, were the carefully prepared episodes that pepper the documentary. One unforgettable episode that you must see for yourself, is something of a celebration of Chinese traditional medicine vis-a-vis modern Western medicine. I just cannot imagine how acupuncture is used as an anesthesia for a Cesarean section, as we see incredibly long needles poked into a woman to numb her womb and nerves, as doctors both work on getting her newborn out, while talking, and feeding(!) her at the same time! It's so unsettling at I was tempted to look away when the scalpel cuts through flesh, yet on the other hand, just refused to blink with wide-eyed amazement at how this feat was performed, and wondered if it's still being performed until this day!

Something else I found peculiar, was how the last act rattled on like an acrobatics variety show. Granted that for an audience of the time, they might have found it to be an experience watching it, but somehow, I thought it was a sense of deja vu, whether or not having to watch that particular segment on some other variety show on television (could be this one, I'm not too sure), but the stunts performed were found to be quite familiar. I believe some would have made their way as a standard export items for travelling Chinese acrobats to arm themselves with in their travels overseas, and I'm fairly certain some I've seen in Chinatown some years back. But anyway, it's still quite something

Cina as a documentary film was one which was draped with fascination for both filmmakers as well as an audience, rather than championing anti-whatever sentiments from either side of the world. Not having seen many movies, either features, shorts or documentaries made during the Cultural Revolution era or about that era in question (propaganda included), I think this Antonioni film has more than made its mark as a definitive documentary that anyone curious about the life of the time, would find it a gem to sit through.

You Don't Mess With The Zohan

Teach Me To Be Silky Smooth

Comedies go up against each other at the local box office, with Adam Sandler squaring off against Steve Carell, and incidentally, both lead characters in their movies are of the spy / special forces kind, with Sandler's Zohan Dvir being the top Israeli counter-terrorist operative, and Carell's Maxwell Smart thinking he's the best, working for the CONTROL organization to bring down KAOS. Just which agent will outdo the other remains to be seen, but I thought Zohan had opportunity before throwing it away when it goes back to the usual saccharine sweet ending with a nicely inserted moral message of peace and harmony.

Directed by Dennis Dugan who was at the helm of comedies like The Benchwarmers and the recent Adam Sandler movie I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, You Don't Mess With The Zohan has its title come across as a warning to those who cross the Zohan's path. In every sense of the word, Zohan is Israel's #1 superhero for his superhuman strength, speed, agility, and just about being as indestructible as Superman, without that heat ray bursting through his eyes. Having killed many in his lifetime, he seeks a life away from the glitz, glamour and hero worship in his homeland, and harbours a secret desire to style hair, with the ambition to make the world Silky Smooth!

Going up against his arch-enemy The Phantom (John Turturro), he fakes his own death, and finds his way to New York, where under a pseudonym Scrappy Coco, he exhibits the much stereotyped mannerisms that all male hairdressers have broken wrists. Yes people, Zohan would be quite offensive to some, as the jokes come hard and fast when it comes to race (there are tons of Arab jokes here, mostly putting them in bad light), politics (even wives of prominent politicians are not spared) and plenty of sexual innuendoes, perhaps no thanks to the writing input from Judd Apatow, who gave us flicks like Superbad (super-sized dong anyone?), The 40-Year Old Virgin, and the likes. If you don't mind politically incorrect flicks, then Zohan would be right up your alley, where no orifice is sacred.

So has Sandler sunk to a new low? Perhaps not, but I think he's in need of a boost to his career, which seemed to have stagnated with fairly plain comedic flicks such as The Longest Yard and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and even Click, perhaps being loaded with a tad bit of drama and feel good messages. And it doesn't really help when personally I still think that Spanglish was his best non-comedic work which stuck to me, for some reason. He tries to reinvent himself, but I feel he's still quite a distance away from peers like Mike Myers who comes up with crazy characters every now and then (am looking forward to the troubled and controversial Love Guru), and even Sacha Baron Cohen (whom I'm looking forward to his Bruno).

Here, Sandler's Zohan relies on both his amazing prowess to bring down the bad guys, as well as his oversized crotch to seduce plus sized and elderly women who come visit him for a haircut, and extra special services he dishes out. Granted they bring on the laughs, and there were some really genuine funny moments to compensate for some expected laughs on the horizon. But aside from that, the story's pretty much lost its direction after the mid-way point, where it couldn't decide whether to be an all out romance flick, with Zohan getting stiff for his salon owner Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), or to focus on the aged old dispute between the two cultures where fellow immigrants and enemies find out his true identity, and revive their aged old feud in a foreign land. There were some bewildering scenes that seemed to have, like the mentioned threads, been abandoned halfway, for example, with the rallying of troops to the game of Hacky Sack.

Nonetheless, what's an Adam Sandler movie without the list of cameo appearances to spice things up? Here you get Rob Schneider who makes regular cameo or supporting character appearances in a Sandler movie, together with Chris Rock, Mariah Carey who hams up her Diva status, Kevin James his co-star from Chuck and Larry, and even George Takei, whom I thought was a strange cameo given that he just came out of the closet recently, and gets himself involved in a somewhat homophobic scene.

You Don't Mess With The Zohan doesn't always hit the mark, but it surely has enough moments in its close to 2 hour runtime to make it worthwhile to sit through and enjoy. Only if you prefer your comedy to be politically incorrect, of course.

P.S. Am just wondering how many will emulate that crazy accented "Nononono".
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