Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Retro Review - Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno


After the success of the first movie, the most successful live-action manga/anime crossover is back for not one but two films in a story arc.

Takeru Sato reprises his role as the wandering samurai and former assassin Kenshin, who has sworn to never kill again at the end of the war, taking up a reverse blade (the sharp edge is on the back to not harm anyone) as a symbol of this oath.

However, one does not simply walk away from their past. As an insurmountable threat to the peace that Kenshin helped fight so hard for begins to show itself in the form of villain Shishio, Kenshin is called upon once again to eliminate the terrorist.

But how can a warrior who has sworn off killing take the life of someone?

This is the moral dilemma that Kenshin wrestles with for most of this movie. While his resolve was strengthened in the first movie to keep to his oath, the bodies of the victims slain by Shishio continue to pile up in this movie, forcing Kenshin to make a difficult decision and go into battle.

Furthermore, in his first duel with one of Shishio's underlings, Kenshin's reverse blade gets broken. This mirrors his coming closer to breaking his oath of not taking a life, because the only blades available that could possibly challenge Shishio are all killing ones.

The film is not an edge-of-your-seat action movie, as one would expect from the first of a two part arc. However the pacing was very well done with adequate climaxes and amazing character development that sets this movie up beautifully for the final instalment.

I can't wait to see the last movie in this trilogy.

Even the greatest heroes cannot do it on their own.

Bechdel Test: Fail. It's all about the lone wondering samurai who is the last hope of the new world.

No. of films seen this year with:
     White man saving the world - 4
     Non-white/male protagonist - 9

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Retro Review - Starship Troopers

There is no way I can analyse this movie objectively. It is one of my favourite childhood movies and just hearing the theme song gives me goosebumps.

It was even more significant for me because I served in the armed forces in the Guards battalion, the elite infantry force that is dropped directly into combat on transports, much like the Mobile Infantry. Every time we were dropped into battle I would hear that this song being played in my head.

So what is it like for me to watch this movie again after almost 20 years? Well I have 3 comments.

First, this was one of the last films of our time to use actual models and animatronics rather than pure CGI for all the big set pieces, from the carrier ships to even the warrior bugs. Thus this film was a showcase of the best non-computer special effects developed over the years, even though it heralded the end of that great era.

After this movie, the film industry went fully towards the CGI direction, and the resulting films over the next decade had really poor graphics. It took a long time before CGI came anywhere close to being life-like (something that miniature models did not have to struggle with as much) and thus Starship Troopers remained one of the highest quality sci-fi films of the time, and I rank it up there with Jurassic Park in terms of special effect's quality.

Second, oh my goodness the sheer amount of nudity and sex in this movie! There are possibly more topless females in this show than males, which is already a high number considering that these are army guys.

I'm ambivalent about the nudity though. It isn't all used for sexual appeal within the story so I'm not sure if i could say it was fan-service, or they were trying very hard to paint a picture of gender equality. With very little distinction between men and women, both genders went to battle together, shared the same bunk, and even showered together. I don't know if this is very progressive or very sexist, but it sure is very subversive.

Third... the gore. We're talking 300 in an era without green-screen. Stabbing, dismembering, decapitation, you name it. But what surprises me most is that there's a toy range for this movie.

Doesn't that mean this movie was... targeted at kids? Okay I can't really remember what this movie was like 20 years ago, but I'm pretty sure I would not have been allowed into the cinema if there was so much blood and gore (and nipples). So maybe there was a more PG version that was released.

Here's a parody toy advert that is more true to the nature of the movie (and how inappropriate it is for them to have children's toys for it).

But the gore was not unwarranted in this movie either. While some scenes look like they are glorifying the military machine, they are balanced out with other scenes of the horrors of war. When troopers whom you've spent half the movie getting to know suddenly have their bodies mangled by giant bugs (that their guns are ineffective against) on an alien planet, you get a glimpse of the shock and horror of battle in it's unadulterated form. It's crazy gory... but the scary thing is that it's not that unrealistic in its depiction of war. 

Except for how their guns never ran out of ammunition although everyone was firing on full-auto. That's just impossible.

Sex, violence, guns, spaceships and aliens... that are mostly not created by CGI.

Bechdel Test: Failed. But women beat up men in this film.

No. of films seen this year with:
     White man saving the world - 4
     Non-white/male protagonist - 8

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review - Ah Boys To Men 3

This sequel is actually a reboot of the original Ah Boys To Men story, with the boys going into the elite Naval Diving Unit instead of Basic Military Training.

It manages to do something that nine out of ten sequels fail to... and that is to outperform the original.

The focus of the story shifts away from the annoying spoilt brat Ken Chow to the more comedic Aloysius, or Wayang King in the first two movies, as he bungles his way through training. He actually does really well, but his outperformance of the rest of the platoon comes at the cost of his relationship with the rest of his batch-mates.

Lobang is back as the resident ah-beng hero and plays a more prominent role in this instalment. A new addition to the cast is Hei Long who represents 2nd generation immigrants to Singapore who have to complete National Service. He is a Hong Kong's answer to Singapore's Ah Beng (or was it our Ah Beng that was a answer to him?) and clashes with Lobang initially and Aloysius later on.

Justin Mission and Tosh return to play instructors in the training school, and boy do they do a brilliant job. These roles are probably the ones both of them will remembered for for the rest of their media careers.

Some parts of this story are a bit over the top, but that is no surprise. Drugs, going AWOL and dramatic families in disarray are familiar elements in many Jack Neo movies, but by and large most of this movie is a believable reflection of army life and gets a stamp of approval from even my Naval Diver friend.

The movie is not a deep one that will make you think a lot about life, but neither is it a purely slapstick one that has no depth to it. It walks a fine line between being too philosophical and being too silly, and does it with enough finesse to be come out highly entertaining.

Singaporean masculinity at its heartlandish finest.

Bechdel Test: It might have passed, but only thanks to product placement and women talking about items sponsoring the movie.

No. of films seen this year with:
     White man saving the world - 3
     Non-white/male protagonist - 8

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Retro Review - Maleficent


This movie is a long departure from the old Disney films.

For one, it is a retelling of the story of the sleeping beauty from the perspective of the "wicked" witch Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) who cursed her.

For two, the themes are dark, with betrayal as the central theme alongside vengeance. While other Disney movies contain such elements, none of them that I can recall use them to drive the plot. And none of them have ever touched on the issue of rape the way this film did (metaphorically through the cutting off of Maleficent's wings).

Finally, men portrayed in this movie are terrible. Useless at best (the prince) and evil (the treacherous new king) at worst, the men in Maleficent are stereotypical and pretty flat characters that either add no value to the plot or need to be eliminated to save the world.

I see a trend in Disney Princesses lately. Tangled (which I love) showed us that girls can save the guys, just as they are saved by them. Frozen (which I feel more ambiguous about) took it a step further and showed us that princesses don't need the men and can save themselves. Maleficent crossed the line totally and started cursing the men, casting spells on them, driving them insane, and killing them.

Granted, female representation in Disney in general has been as bad as male representation in Maleficent. And I'm aware that there is evil in the hearts of men that is capable of causing great hurt and harm to women as well.

But is the solution to the patriarchy really a matriarchy? Must we swing to the opposite side of the pendulum? Can there never be some fantastic ideal of gender equality at least in children's movies for us to aspire towards?

Your move Disney.

True love is beyond the reach of men.

Bechdel Test: Passed by a wide margin. This movie only has 3 male characters and they are all either heartless or useless.

No. of films seen this year with:
     White man saving the world - 3
     Non-white/male protagonist - 7

Friday, March 6, 2015

Retro Review - Gravity

The plot of this film can be summarised into a couple of sentences.

In between each sentence is a lot of space.

But i guess that is the point.

It's just like being up there in space all alone.

Being trapped up there with little hope of return.

Maybe it is reflective of the fear of being buried alive.

Or stuck in a theatre watching a painful movie.

Whatever the case, I think Sandra Bullock did a wonderful job as the astronaut here, and her story was one of inspiring growth and overcoming helplessness and hopelessness.

Oh and it's also a good lesson that Russians always screw up everything and that Chinese are of little help.

The book is better, well... if only there was a book.

Bechdel Test: I'm not sure. Does talking to a female mission control operator over the radio count? Whatever the case, I don't think this movie is male centric (George Clooney doesn't grow as a character), so I'll count it as a pass.

No. of films seen this year with:
     White man saving the world - 3
     Non-white/male protagonist - 6