Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lucid Dreaming: Inception Blu-Ray review

(Please see earlier entry for the review of the film proper)


When I walked out of the movie theatre after seeing this film with my family, my brother turned to me excitedly, and said "we HAVE to buy the Blu-Ray when it comes out." I must say I agreed, and now he's been proven correct. The format was the winner in the "optical disc format war", pitting it against the now-defunct "HD DVD" format - never since the days of Betmax vs VHS have home video format wars been this brutal. My Dad says he feels for those who stocked up on a HD DVD collection and are now left with a large pile of very useless discs.

Anyway, the format has been around for three-ish years now, but Blu Ray discs are still significantly more expensive than a normal DVD release. In the case of the Blu-Ray release for Inception, is it worth it?

Simply put, yes.

Watching the film in the comfort of your own home, you can rewind, pause or play the film in slow-motion, and Inception is one of those films where many cinemagoers did want to go back to have a closer look at an earlier scene. But why watch it in Blu-Ray?

As you've gathered from the section above, Inception is a very visual film. Oodles and oodles of artfully-shot, awe-inspiring images come one after another. I'm sure it looks great on a regular DVD as well, but the Blu-Ray format does indeed do the film incredible justice. Every tiny detail in unparalleled quality. There's also the sound. Hans Zimmer's throbbing, ominous score and the sound effects - especially the bit where Ariadne steps on a broken glass, and there's that eerie ringing tone - come to vivid life. Not every film needs to be seen in Blu-Ray. When my Dad bought the Blu-Ray player, one of the free discs they packaged with it was a Blu-Ray release of the comedy "First Sunday". That film doesn't need to be seen in Blu-Ray - Tracy Jordan is scary enough as he is on TV.

But Inception is one film that needs to be seen in Blu-Ray. I'll go as far as to say if someone puts a gun to your head and says you can only choose one film to own on Blu-Ray, choose this one. And no, neither Warner Bros. Pictures, Syncopy, Legendary Pictures, Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio nor Tai Li-Lee (the Japanese kid on the train who helps Cobb with the "kicks") are paying me any money to say all this. I'm just really excited that it looks, sounds and feels brilliant at home - as much as it did in the movie theatre.

And of course, the biggest reason that I get video releases of films to watch at home - aside from being able to watch the film at home and as many times as I want to - are special features. Unfortunately, Inception is slightly thin on the special features, at least when compared to some other Blu-Ray releases which contain tens of hours of bonus material. However, quality does trump quantity this time around. The second disc contains most of the supplementals. There's a 45-minute-long documentary featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and real-life PhD and MD-holding dream experts, who discuss the psychology and the inexact science behind dreaming. I always like it when the audience gets a peek into some real-life context behind a movie, and the documentary is informative, deep, yet fun to watch. Apart from the interviews, "Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious" features fascinating animated and re-enacted sequences that attempt to portray what it looks like when we dream. Very artistic.

This here is hard to top.
You also get a "motion comic" of "The Cobol Job", which is a comic book that acts as a prequel to the film and sets it up very nicely. "The Cobol Job" tells of the circumstances leading up to Cobb, Arthur and Nash performing the extraction on Saito at the beginning of the film, and provides great context - provided you watch the film first, as the film in turn provides context to its prequel. A motion comic is a stylised animated representation of the comic book: you get the speech bubbles, narration and onomatopoeic "sound effects", but also a degree of animation accompanied by Hans Zimmer's music and some sound effects. It's a surreal and novel way to tell a story as the characters don't "speak" audibly. It's supposed to be a comic book come to life, and that's exactly what it is. The art is gorgeous, and there are some pretty good likenesses of Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt drawn into it.

You get the standard collection of trailers, TV spots and promotional art, with intriguing and very exquisite concept art thrown in for good measure. Disc 2 is rounded off with ten tracks taken off the film's soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer. I'm not a big fan of the composer, as his scores are often derivative and repetitive - there indeed are moments of the soundtrack that are recognisable as riffs from other Hans Zimmer soundtracks for other films. However, he does use some very clever tricks in his composition, including adapting parts of "Non, je ne regrette rien" (the Edith Piaf song used for the kicks) into his score. It's fun to listen to the music in such quality, and it does suit the film very well.

The main special feature is back on Disc 1: "Extraction Mode", which is a version of Warner Bros' "Maximum Movie Mode" feature only available on its Blu-Ray discs. It's like an audio commentary, but much cooler: at certain points in the film, a behind-the-scenes clip detailing the making of that particular scene is inserted into the film. This includes astounding and revealing footage of how some of the mind-blowing special/visual effects were done, and interviews with the main creative team (and Leonardo DiCaprio). This is sure to excite any movie buff: an opportunity to enter the mind of the mastermind, so to speak, and hear it straight from Nolan himself. For those who want to go deeper into the story and want some questions answered, watching the movie this way is sure to be a treat. But, just as a magician never gives out his secrets, Nolan attempts to remain deliberately vague on those plot details. At any rate, the "extraction mode", which is exclusive to the Blu-Ray edition, is a really big reason to get this on that format. You can also watch the clips by themselves, without having them pop up during the film.

I don't own it, but there is also a limited edition release packaged slickly in an aluminium briefcase-type case. You get the Blu-Ray, DVD and digital copy versions of the film, as well as four postcards, an in-universe "instruction manual" on how to operate the PASIV device that enables the shared dreaming in the film, and coolest of all, a prop replica of the spinning top totem.

The Blu-Ray release of Inception lets you dream big, dream clear, dream in vivid detail and dream as often as you want to. Now, the dream truly is real.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Have a Butt-kicking Christmas!

Thanks, Santa!
The time of year is upon us. The time where we celebrate the birth of our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ. The time where we spread cheer and goodwill among friends, family and the needy. The time where children squeal in delight as they open presents. The time to breaking out the M4A1 assault rifle.

Oh yes, you heard right.

While most Christmas-themed movies seemed to be drowned in sticky, cloyingly sweet sentimentality, there is a genre of Christmas films that offer as much gunfire and explosions as they do tinsel and lights. Action movies and Christmas seem like odd bedfellows, but the combination is often very enjoyable.

The website "TV Tropes", a bottomless collection of every storytelling device known to man, calls this "An Ass-kicking Christmas".

The immediate examples that come to mind are the first two Die Hard films. Die Hard took the action genre and gave it a much-needed shot in the arm. The formula of the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time is easily relatable, and Bruce Willis played John McClane as equal parts everyman and superhero policeman. All he wanted to do was visit his wife for the holidays. Many action films today owe more than it appears to Die Hard. There is a subgenre of action films known as "Die Hard On an X". Think about it: Speed is "Die Hard on a bus", Under Siege is "Die Hard on a warship", Cliffhanger is "Die Hard on a mountain", and Air Force One is "Die Hard on...Air Force One".

"Now I have a machine gun. Ho...Ho...Ho."

As a Batman fan, I must mention Batman Returns, as far as Christmas-themed action films are concerned. I'll be honest, I didn't really enjoy Batman Returns. I thought it was less a Batman film and more an exercise in the language that is Burtonese. A language that I do not speak. Bizarre, grotesque, at times inappropriately hilarious and altogether not very Batman-ish, Batman Returns is not everyone's cup of tea. But when it comes to an action-packed Christmas movie, this delivers. And the scenes of a snowy Gotham City are gorgeous.

One of my favourite action-thriller films is Enemy of the State, which pretty much cemented Will Smith as a marketable action star, and paired him with Gene Hackman as surveillance expert Brill (in a nod to his earlier film The Conversation). Smith's character, lawyer Robert Clayton Dean, comes into possession of an incriminating videotape, and is mercilessly hunted down by corrupt congressman Thomas Reynolds, who uses cutting-edge NSA technology to track him down. Cue asking Brill for help - which includes putting a bug in a Christmas tree ornament.

Also starring Gene Hackman is Behind Enemy Lines, the film in which Owen Wilson attempts to play a straight-up, serious action hero - and succeeds. Though to a lesser extent than the films mentioned above, Behind Enemy Lines is set during Christmas. For naval crewman and other soldiers stationed away from home, Christmas is a bittersweet time: there will usually be some sort of celebration going on at their base/ship, but at the same time they are unable to be with their families. The beginning of Lt. Chris Burnett's (Wilson) troubles is when Admiral Reisgart (Hackman) sends him off on a reconnaisance mission as punishment for misconduct. instead of letting him join in the festivities.

Veering into the land of fantasy, we have Steven Spielberg's Hook, an interesting take on the Peter Pan mythos, which asks the question: what if Peter Pan did indeed grow up? The majority of the film doesn't have a very Christmassy vibe (as it is set in Neverland), but Christmas does frame the story. Peter Banning (Robin Williams) and family take a trip to London for Christmas, to visit his grandmother-in-law Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith). Peter Pan's old foe Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Banning's children, and Banning has to rediscover his lost past as the boy who said he would never grow up. A good deal of swashbuckling follows, fulfilling the "ass-kicking" criteria.

Finally, we have the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Adapted from C.S. Lewis' classic book, the series has strong undertones rooted in Christianity. Blending in popular Christmas mythology, Father Christmas himself pops up, giving the Pevensie children gifts that will serve them in their future voyages to Narnia. The film is perfect Christmas-time family viewing, and has a glimmer of epic fantasy action too.

I'm aware that there are several other films suiting the theme that I didn't cover, including the first Lethal Weapon movie and indeed the first Rambo film. First Blood. I haven't seen them yet, so didn't write about it 'ere.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron Legacy review now on the Fwoosh!

Hey everyone, just a quick update: after posting my review of Tron Legacy on the forum of action figure website the Fwoosh, Ron "SamuRon" Mirasol asked if I would like to write movie reviews for the website. I was very honoured, and my review for Tron Legacy has been published on their site.

Here's the link to it:

I'm really happy to have a professional online publication use my review, and hope there is more in store! If you like what you've read here and are looking for a film reviewer, please contact me! Thanks everyone.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tron Legacy


Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Walt Disney Pictures

            In 1982, director Steven Lisberger gave us Tron, a visual effects masterpiece that was something of a game-changer in the world of movie magic. Futurist Syd Mead, who also worked on Blade Runner, had a hand in designing the virtual world of Tron, with its high-tech lightcycles and identity discs. 28 years later, Disney has given the cult classic an upgrade with this sequel.

            The film opens in 1989, where maverick software engineer, videogame developer and CEO of software company Encom Kevin Flynn (Bridges) mysteriously vanishes, leaving behind his young son Sam (Owen Best as a boy, Hedlund as an adult). Sam watches as Encom is turned into a corporate machine, against the wishes of the elder Flynn who would have wanted to share the technology with the world for free.

            Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Kevin Flynn’s partner and friend, approaches Sam, saying that he had received a page from Kevin’s old office. Sam investigates, and is transported into the digital world of the Grid. He is forced to familiarise himself with advanced technology and participate in gladiator-like cyber battles as the ruthless ruler of the Grid, Clu (also Bridges) looks on.

            Sam reunites with his father, who has been trapped in the Grid and living in exile away from the main city. Clu, a computer program that Flynn had created in his own image, turned against him. Kevin relates the story of how he and Tron, a program made in the likeness of Alan Bradley, were betrayed by Clu, the very creation that was meant to help them create and develop the world of the Grid.

Kevin and his son are aided by digital warrior Quorra (Wilde), and the three must return to the real world and evade capture by Clu, who will stop at nothing to acquire Kevin Flynn’s identity disc, the master key to conquering the Grid – and the real world.

            To the modern eye, the original Tron can’t help but feel a tad dated; a relic of the world of 8-bit video games like Pac-Man and Pong. However, the main draw of Tron Legacy is how The Grid has progressed into a marvel that will impress even the most jaded gamers. If making movies is akin to creating worlds then, in the hands of CGI-wizard and first-time director Joseph Kosinski, this film has indeed reached the ultimate. It ushers viewers into a believable world completely created from scratch.

            Tron Legacy is every digital designer’s dream come true. Production designer Darren Gilford, vehicle designer Daniel Simon and a team of designers and artists have lovingly crafted a sleek, stylish and very sexy world of light, pixels and reflective surfaces. Instead of using CGI as a way to cheat, the filmmakers have instead pushed the technology to its limits in the name of creating a fresh and novel film-going experience. The practical costumes do actually light up, and several practical sets were constructed as well.

            It seems that every major film is finding an excuse to use the 3D gimmick, and in some cases it makes no sense at all – as the god-awful Yogi Bear trailer before the film amply reminds. However, Tron Legacy is exactly the film that is perfect for jumping off the screen. Scenes set in the real world are in 2D, but the bulk of the film, taking place in the Grid, is in 3D. The added dimension gives real weight and scale to what would otherwise merely be computer graphics, and helps the viewer buy into the conceit of the virtual reality universe.

            With atmospheric sound design and a throbbing techno score by Daft Punk complementing the eye-popping visuals, the film is clearly a triumph of style over substance; however substance is a close runner-up. Tron Legacy is ultimately a father-and-son story, and an off-key performance is all it would take to invalidate the visual effects bells and whistles. It is a good thing then that the performances are serviceable.

            Jeff Bridges, fresh off his Academy Award win for Crazy Heart, carries the film squarely on his shoulders. He has the challenge of playing two characters; with the help of digital de-aging he appears more than 20 years younger as Kevin Flynn circa 1989, and Clu. Bridges comes off as sincere and quietly sad and sometimes hippie-ish as Flynn in exile, and charismatic and commanding as Clu.

            Garrett Hedlund proves himself a competent leading man, able to stand up to both the dazzling visual effects and his onscreen father Bridges and possessing potential action hero credibility. Olivia Wilde seems destined to become a sci-fi geek pinup, cutting an elegant figure in her skin-tight, luminescent bodysuit and rocking a stylish bob. Michael Sheen camps it up enjoyably as nightclub-owner Castor, relishing the chance to go flamboyant and chew some of the high-tech scenery.

             Tron Legacy’s main flaw is its somewhat convoluted storyline. Viewers are likely to get at least a little confused by the technobabble or distracted by the light show, and while the film stands pretty well on its own, it probably would help to have seen the original first. The dialogue is unwieldy at times, and the emotional aspect of the film is often drowned out by the sensory feast.

            It seems a tad ironic that this may be the best video game movie ever, and isn’t even actually based on a video game. As opposed to being made merely to cash in on an aging franchise, Tron Legacy is a worthy successor and breaks just about as much ground as the original – quite a feat considering how far technology has come already. And the best part is that while the film is mainly enjoyable for its visuals, there is a little more to it than that.


Jedd Jong Yue

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Starring: Skander Keynes, Georgie Henley, Ben Barnes
Directed by: Michael Apted
20th Century Fox/Walden Media
  After The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, released in the summer of 2008, Disney dropped the franchise. The reasons are not entirely clear, but speculation is rife that the film lost out to the heady competition that season and didn’t make as much money as Disney would’ve liked. Thankfully, 20th Century Fox has picked up the series and  with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we return to the magical land of Narnia.

            The Pevensie siblings Edmund (Keynes) and Lucy (Henley) are living in Cambridge during the Second World War, with their precocious but annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). Edmund and Lucy are pulled back into the world of Narnia, with Eustace as an unwelcome tagalong.

            The three children board the Dawn Treader, the finest vessel of the Narnian kingdom, and Edmund and Lucy reunite with King (formerly Prince) Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the swashbuckling talking mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg). Caspian tells them that he is searching for the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia; noblemen who had been banished from the kingdom after Caspian’s evil uncle Miraz usurped the throne.

            Edmund and Lucy jump straight into the adventure, while Eustace continues to irk the crew with his reluctance to participate and his refusal to believe in the world of Narnia. Along the way, the crew of the Dawn Treader must deal with slave traders, invisible mischief-makers, sea serpents and an ominous mist that, like the symbiote in Spider-Man 3, brings out the dark side in those in its thrall.

            The film’s trailers piqued my interest mainly because of the ocean setting. The C.S. Lewis-written source material offers much cinematic potential, especially since the makers of the film have decided to go 3D. Sure enough, the film looks gorgeous with its added visual dimension, creating an adequately immersive world.
            While the first two films seemed to offer up a Narnia that felt more real, Dawn Treader gives us a Narnia that seems more theme-park-esque, the titular ship itself reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Hook. That is not necessarily a bad thing though; the film retains a buoyant, family-friendly style mood throughout as opposed to the slightly gritty Prince Caspian, and the darker moments are not overwhelming and are well-handled.
In the world of visual effects, we seemed to have reached a level where computer-generated characters can hold their ground against live-action actors with acceptable believability. The actors have to be commended for various scenes where they must interact with nothing. Reepicheep looks even better than he did in the film’s predecessor and holds up to extreme close-ups with good facial expressions and nicely-textured fur.

            This instalment is more “adventure” and less “action”, taking a break from the more brutal fantasy violence of the second. The climactic battle with the sea serpent is still a good action sequence though.

            Since messiah-figure Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) deemed that the older Pevensie siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) had learnt all they needed to learn from Narnia, the two only appear in brief cameos, and the film is carried by Keynes and Henley.

            Henley has blossomed into a young woman and it does take a while to get used to seeing the cutest Pevensie sibling all grown up, but she maintains the character’s likeable demeanour and childlike wonderment and seems destined to be an ideal leading lady. The film’s subplot dealing with Lucy’s insecurity when it comes to her appearance and her desire to look as beautiful as her sister is handled a tad clumsily, but that is not Henley’s fault.

Keynes, who in the first two films at times verged on irritating as a third wheel to the sibling team, steps up to the plate as the de facto second-in-command to King Caspian, and does a good job. He is no longer an awkward teenager and the two earlier trips to Narnia have seasoned the character into a competent warrior.

            Ben Barnes seems to have improved quite a bit from his stiff-at-times turn in the previous film. He has grown into the role of Caspian and plays well off the Pevensie siblings; they often banter like close friends. It’s quite a relief that Caspian doesn’t stew over his shortcomings as a king, though the story does adequately address the ruler’s struggles. Will Poulter as Eustace is unlikeable to a fault, and it is to his credit that he manages to make the audience despise him utterly, as the character edges towards a possible redemption.

            Simon Pegg, filling in for Eddie Izzard, is a remarkably fun Reepicheep, lending good vocal comic timing to the role. The other main voice role is that of Aslan, and just as he did in the first two films Liam Neeson sounds fatherly, wise and firm yet kind. However, don’t expect to see a lot of Aslan, as he has a fairly minor role in this film.

            Unlike in the first two films, there doesn’t seem to be a solid antagonist for the siblings to work against. The story is more episodic, as the crew of the Dawn Treader sail from small adventure to small adventure, perhaps like levels in a video game. Therefore, the movie feels like it lacks a solid narrative backbone, even though the “levels” are all quite enjoyable.

            Taking over from Andrew Adamson, director Michael Apted (of Gorillas in the Mist and The World is Not Enough fame) treats the film more like an action adventure and less like a fantasy, but has a firmer grasp cinematically on the material, compared to Adamson whose experience was mainly in animation.

            There is, unfortunately, one trait that all the three Narnia films made so far share, the hard-to-shake feeling that it is not an important motion picture event and rather a semi-epic. The theme park feeling comes up again, and for all its visual spectacle and fine performances, this adaptation doesn’t seem to be as grand as the source material deserves.

            The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ultimately makes for a good holiday season family outing at the cinema, and is a fitting end to the Pevensie trilogy-only time will tell if the remaining four books will make it to the screen. It’s not a game-changer as far as fantasy films go, but it is more than passable as an adventure movie and is something everyone, young and old alike, can enjoy.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Transformers: The Dark Of The Moon teaser trailer

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a huge disappointment for me. Rehashing the plot of the first film with even worse writing and even more incoherent action sequences, the sequel left a sour taste in my mouth. And yet, the money kept rolling in. Enough for a third entry into Michael Bay's childhood-destroying Transformers film franchise.

They've ditched Megan Fox in favour of supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, added several big names (including Frances McDormand) to the cast and gone 3D. Transformers: The Dark Of The Moon is the title of the new film, and frankly, I wouldn't get my hopes up.

Here's a link to the trailer:

The trailer builds upon the conspiracy theory introduced in the first film, that the United States government has, for a long time, been aware of the existence of the Transformers. This teaser gives us the setup that while on the moon, the astrounauts of Apollo 11 discovered a large alien wreck on the far side of the moon. And what they discovered will probably come back to torment Shia LaBeouf and his new leading lady.

It certainly looks like they didn't have a budget problem: the footage looks slick and well-produced, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (or CGI approximations of them) hopping across the surface of the moon and exploring the crashed spaceship containing the Transformers.

I can't help but wonder what the actual astronauts feel. Do they think that the explosions-obsessed Hollywood director is mocking them? Or are they grateful that there is still hype yet to be milked from their trip to the moon made more than forty years ago?

The first film was passable, in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. It was certainly not high art, but it was fun to watch. The second, however, pushed the "leave-your-brain-at-the-door" quotient way too far, such that it was not a stupid-but-fun film, it was a stupid-and-stupid film.

And then there's the matter of "Executive Producer Steven Spielberg". Spielberg has always been one of my idols, but I can't help but feel that by throwing his name behind such garbage as the Transformers films, he has been seduced by the Hollywood machine, the promise of big returns from so much as raising a hand in support of what may not be a good venture.

I can only hope that Bay has taken into account what the critics had to say about his previous Transformers flick. But knowing the ego the man has, he most likely has not, and the sad part is even if Dark of the Moon is as agonizingly awful as the second film, everyone will still go and see it.


Friday, December 3, 2010

Point(less) Of Entry - a rant

Everything the show is NOT!

Everyone has probably heard it too many times before: a disgruntled viewer complaining about the upsetting state of the local entertainment scene, particularly the television shows turned out by MediaCorp. I will readily admit that I am among the scores who turn away in shame when the title screen of a locally-made television series appears on the screen.

MediaCorp has just debuted a new "action" TV show, the English-language Point Of Entry, which had its pilot episode aired last night. I heard about the show some time ago from a friend who knew people who was working on it, and anticipated it with cautious optimism. I have always thought that the best way to break into the mainstream was with a genre that crosses all language or cultural barriers: action. Let's face it, people love the excitement and escapism of an action film or TV show. Every film industry from Hollywood to Hong Kong has made action films, and many amateur filmmakers enjoy trying their hand at shooting action scenes.

However, Singapore has had a history of getting it all wrong when it comes to action. And, very very regrettably, Point of Entry is yet another festival of unintentional comedy. Let's get this clear, I wanted it to be a good show. I wanted to enjoy a locally-made action television show. I really did. But in the end, I didn't.

Point of Entry follows "Team Epsilon", a specially-trained covert strike team of the Immigrations and Checkpoints Authority (ICA). The team tracks down and arrests smuggling rings and helps prevent illegal smuggling and trafficking. Well first off, there's the concept. It's not long before the show becomes a one-hour long propaganda film for the ICA, endlessly glamourising and glorifying the job. I appreciate the work that real-life employees of the ICA do; it's important to keep our borders safe. However, contrary to its intention, the show mocks and degrades the ICA.

The show opens with a disclaimer that "any relation to real persons or events is purely coincidental". And then, the next screen announces "inspired by true events". So far, so insipid, and we're less than a minute in. We begin "somewhere in Myanmar", where a brother-and-sister pair are preparing to journey into-illegally, of course-Singapore. The actors in this scene are quite good, and appear to all speak Burmese pretty well.

Then we have the obligatory opening action scene. The team is shown to be on pretty good terms, apart from the tech specialist doubting the skills of the rookie on the team. They enter a warehouse, and, spoiler alert, the team leader gets shot in the head. The sniper rifle looks unconvincing to begin with, but they had to add a CGI effect of the bullet leaving the barrel, creating shockwaves and hitting the guy in the head.

Let the unintentional comedy begin!

As if to completely nullify what little drama that moment had, the baddies take aim at the token chick of the group, played by Pamelyn Chee. She dodges the bullet by bending backwards, Matrix-style. O-kay. So, team leader is dead, everyone is really grumpy, the veteran of the group is stewing over it and plotting his revenge against the baddies.

The new team leader and de-facto male lead Glenn Chua, played by Hong Kong actor Carl Ng, is introduced. The new team leader is portrayed as an utter douchebag, being arrogant, insensitive and unkind to the team who is still in mourning, and sporting a pretentious American accent. He introduces himself by going to each person and rattling off their personal details that he had read from their files, as if just to tick them off. Then he goes over to his office, which still has the name of the dead guy on the door. "Oh, and...change my sign", he says, as he flicks the card out of the slot.

Let's play "count the number of landmarks we squeezed into this title card"

This is our male lead. We're probably supposed to like him. But I'll give the creators of the show the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they made a show with an unlikeable main character on purpose. Or even worse, they'll attempt to soften him up as the show goes on.

More blabber, a foot chase to track down the informant who had set the trap for them, Glenn meets with an old friend through contrived coincidence, we follow the subplot of the siblings being smuggled into Singapore, there's a ridiculous flashback with Glenn as a kid (and inexplicably redubbed with the voice of the adult Glenn), Team Epsilon goes to the causeway checkpoint (cue more glamourising of the ICA officer), crack the smuggling ring, the sister dies of asphyxiation, Team Epsilon (apart from Glenn) turn up at the cemetery to mourn their dead former team leader, the brother weeps over his sister's body at the morgue.

And lest I forget, there was the theme tune, which was an awful throwaway synthesiser piece that sounded like the "Crimewatch" theme. This would have been almost forgiveable, if they did not reuse that musical cue about 17 times during the show.

As a viewer, I was in complete disbelief. It was not only that Mediacorp had made another bad show - they've done that about 247 times earlier - but that it appeared that they weren't even trying. Not one bit. It appeared that they had learnt nothing from the mistakes they had made in the past, had taken into account none of the feedback they had received, and further proved their non-commitance to producing entertaining and quality programming for the masses.

It has often been said, "you're one to talk. Let's see you do better!" I'll gather up all my clout and say yes, perhaps I can. Maybe this is me blowing my own trumpet, but perhaps I can. I've heard things about MediaCorp from people who have written for the station. I won't repeat those things here. It seems no wonder that the actors appear half-hearted - if I was an actor and were given a script like that, I probably would've turned in a slipshod performance as well.

Come on, it's not impossible to make a good action TV series. The budget isn't the problem. We've proven time and again that we can sink impossible amounts of money into anything we're interested in. The problem is that those who work for the television station have come to accept the mediocre as the norm. There's no point in making good television. Nobody will care anyway right?


Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Walk (With Dinosaurs) To Remember

This is not, strictly speaking, movie-related, but what the heck. I just saw the Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular at the Singapore Indoor Stadium this afternoon. The live show is based on the acclaimed documentary series by the BBC, its roots can be traced back to Jurassic Park, except Walking With Dinosaurs was more of a natural history series.

There's your film connection!

Anyway, when I first heard about it, I was really excited. When I was 7-9 years old I was positively obsessed with dinosaurs. Since then, science has marched on, and old theories are debunked as often as new ones are created in the paleontology world. However, I thought to myself "this will never come to Singapore", but it did, and I cannot be more grateful.

I purchased the second least expensive seats. You know you're talking about something big when the "second least expensive seats" cost $68, excluding the $3 booking fee. The production originated in Australia and has sinced toured North America, Europe and Japan, and after its Singapore leg will move on to Hong Kong and China.

I have always liked practical effects, especially live theatre effects. Animatronics and good old-fashioned model work will always trump CGI for me, so imagine my excitement at watching life-sized animatronic dinosaurs plod about on stage. The thing I like about "spectacle"-based theatre is that unlike with films, there is no filter, no "post-production" stage where you can edit the footage or enhance it. What you see really is what you get.

The dinosaurs are gigantic animatronic puppets really. The bigger ones are mounted on a chassis that conceals a driver, and while they appear to walk, they are really moving via wheels under the chassis. The smaller ones are suits that a puppeteer wears. There's a bit of a design problem in that the legs of the performers are visible, because human knees and dinosaur knees don't bend at the same place.

Hats off to the puppeteers really, because a lot of effort was put into making the creatures appear lifelike in their behaviour and movement. The skin does look a little fabric-like, but on the whole they're really believeable. Creature designer Sonny Tilders had earlier worked on films like Peter Pan (2003) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

The scenic design was especially intriguing. The show is designed to tour and as such props and set pieces have to be relatively mobile. The central piece of the set were four rocks that could move apart and have conifer trees sprout from them. The inflatable plants were really clever, allowing to show a kind of "time-lapse" effect, and also allowing the plants to "die" and "grow" as and when required.

The plot of the show was that a paleontologist named Huxley (after the Victorian scientist Thomas Huxley) takes the audience back in time through the three main periods of the Mesozoic Era: the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. The actor playing Huxley did a good job; he had to hold his own against the massive creatures and command an enormous stage. He also had to exude enough charisma that we would buy into the conceit of the show and go along on the ride. And all these he did.

However, being so huge, most of the dinosaurs were very sluggish. Some interaction between the creatures was written in, but the scenes couldn't help but feel a tad clumsy. I think the best bit was at the end of the show, where a mother Tyrannosaurus and her baby interact just before the comet strike that heralded the end of the dinosaurs. It was a really sweet, slightly emotional scene, and it was moments like that that reminded the audience this was more than just a gimmick exhibit; this was a piece of live theatre.

There were several nice moments in the script that would fly over the heads of most of the children the audience. For example, Huxley explained "a Tyrannosaurus can eat 75 kilos of meat in one bite - that's the weight of two supermodels!"

It was wonderful to feel like a child again, and this truly was a magical experience, especially for a fan of big-budget "spectacle theatre" such as myself.  It was a lovely marriage of art, science and technology.