The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book manages to be kinda-sorta a good film, despite the fact that the odds are stacked so much against it.

Live-action remakes of animated properties don’t usually inspire much confidence. The live-action The Last Airbender springs to mind as an example of a live-action adaptation of an animated franchise that failed on every level – in terms of its casting, writing, direction. It can often be hard to translate the unique aesthetics and logic of animation into a live-action format without losing much of the appeal of the original animation in the process.

In the case of The Jungle Book, a live-action adaptation of the animated Disney 1967 classic, the challenges it faces are compounded. There’s only one actual human character, Mowgli, in the entire movie (and a first-time child actor, Neel Sethi, to boot), and all the other characters are talking CGI animals that need to look and feel like the real thing. With so much of the film subject to the technical skill of its special effects crew, it’s easy to imagine how the film might be especially vulnerable to being torpedoed by defects in any one of these requirements.

To director Jon Favreau’s credit, however, the film does pull it off to a degree, despite these challenges. The Jungle Book is a high-spirited, if somewhat derivative, kid’s movie with a great deal of visual splendor. There’s a little uncanny valley quality to the talking animals at the start, in particular: the lip synch with the animal mouths can look and sound a little janky and floaty, like the voices aren’t coming out of the animal but are instead disembodied (which they are). But after a while, I somehow got used to it.

In terms of performances, the various voice talents behind most of the animals get it down to a decent degree, but they’re pretty uneven. Lupita Nyong’o, in particular, gives an emotional performance as the she-wolf Raksha. Idris Elba, however, can barely keep his performance above being a caricature of a generic whisker-twirling villain as the vengeful Shere Khan. As for Neel Sethi, he does admirably given that this was his first film and that he probably had to contend with green screens and endless parkour.

The film struggles when it comes to tone, however. On the one hand, it tries to be a more realistic and gritty alternative to the lighthearted animated film of the 1960s. But it has to balance that with its homages to the original’s sense of camp, not least its famous musical numbers and the comedic pratfalls of the small, not-as-cute-as-their-animated-counterpart critters. The sight of a photo-real bear singing “Bare Necessities” or a gigantic, florid ape bellow “I Wanna Be Like You” Walken-style is cringey at best and grotesque at worst. Live action CGI does not a musical make.

In all, The Jungle Book is a good film, but I wonder why it even exists in the first place. Does it provide a more progressive take of the moral lessons promulgated by its predecessor, particularly in terms of human hubris and protecting the environment? Is it a proof-of-concept that CGI animals can actually not suck? Who knows. Watch it for a visual extravaganza and as an object lesson not to judge Jungle Books by their trailers.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 tools

 

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The Adjacent

What happens when a highly regarded author with a penchant for weird science fiction has too many ideas and not enough book to put them in? Probably something like The Adjacent.

Christopher Priest’s novels often dwell on themes of illusion, magic and mirroring. Priest’s most well-known novel is arguably The Prestige, a book about feuding magicians who will do anything for their craft, which was adapted into a well-regarded film starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. But Priest has had a prolific career writing novels that wend their way through dreamlike realms, where magic, duplicates, and altered realities are the norm. The Islanders, which I read and wrote about last year, is one such book. The Adjacent is another.

In The Adjacent, reality itself becomes the subject matter of Priest’s thematic preoccupations. Adjacency, as a concept, is featured in the book – characters, people and places are displaced through time, space, and reality. The island-strewn world Priest created in The Islanders makes a major appearance as the other reality complementing our own. Characters become adjacent to themselves, their alternate selves, alive or dead, co-existing in the same possibility space.

While this might sound like an intriguing concept on paper, when played out across a narrative continuum of a single, overarching plot, The Adjacent comes across as an incoherent jumble of different stories tied together by the tenuous thread of adjacency.

The book mainly features three plotlines, across three loose time/space/reality periods: one in a climate-ravaged future Earth, in which Great Britain has (for no apparent reason) become an Islamic Republic ruled by sheikhs, one during WWII, and one taking place in the alternate reality dream-realm of Prachous, an island in the Dream Archipelago. There is a medley of characters that feature these three realms, and are, for some reason, supposed to be loosely “adjacent” to one another. They flit across these periods and somehow “become” their alter egos as they cross from one realm to another.

There is really no perceivable thematic or literary significance to these linkages at all. Why are these characters adjacent to each other? How can they become each other as they flit through realities? These questions are never answered or even broached. It’s almost as if Priest had ideas for three or four different books but didn’t feel like pursuing them, so he chucked them into a single book and linked them together with a tenuous application of plot contrivance masquerading as ‘adjacency’. The result is one of Priest’s more desultory efforts; a book that reads more like a messy compilation of short stories from Priest’s various literary creations, including the Dream Archipelago. Indeed, it incorporates many elements of other, contemporaneous works, including the fixation on illusions in The Prestige and the dream-like irreality of The Islanders. And unlike The Islanders, whose island-vignettes often featured interesting plotlines, The Adjacent’s characters and plots never develop far enough to capture the reader’s interest outside of their relationship to the overarching web of adjacency.

It’s a shame, too, because, by themselves, the individual plot lines take place in intriguing settings. Most compelling is the vision of a near-future Earth ravaged by extreme storms, where armored cars trundle across a blasted English landscape roving with armed insurgents: a radically different political and social order than our own. However, we are never really told how Earth got into that state of affairs, or indeed, the broader societal dynamics of this future world. It’s a shame that Priest has decided to use this compelling premise as mere stage dressing upon which to hang a tenuous plot, without delving slightly deeper into that vision.

In sum, The Adjacent has the same tenuous grip on reality as The Islanders, although the latter novel, at least, has the decency to take place in a single space-time continuum. But what makes The Adjacent a more frustrating read  than The Islanders, is its cavalier disregard of the strictures of plot, setting and character in service of a self-indulgent postmodern dance of dream-states, deception, and irrealities.

I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 Spitfires

 

10 Cloverfield Lane

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***OBLIQUE SPOILERS.***

One heck of a chapalang movie.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a spiritual successor of sorts to the found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. Why it is touted as one is not quite clear to me. The putative reason –  the slogan about monsters coming in many forms – is somewhat tenuous.

The other link, which I think makes more sense, is in the ways in which both movies were marketed to the public. They focused on guerilla marketing and chose to conceal their subject matter in their promotional materials. Cloverfield, for example, never actually shows what the monster looks like, and the film itself, as I recall, only gives us a brief glimpse near the end. 10 Cloverfield Lane came in out of nowhere and was largely spread through internet, social media and word-of-mouth; its plot a secret beyond some vague intimations of it featuring some monsters.

In both cases, the deliberate lack of information disclosure created quite a bit of hype around the products. People went to watch the films because they were intrigued by the secrecy and wanted to find out what the big reveal was all about. Of course, the positive reviews helped. Both films rode the crest of positive testimonials from reviewers who told their readers that it was worth watching the films just for their reveals.

But it turns out that in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, it really is a bit of a bait-and-switch. 10 Cloverfield Lane’s strength is its ability to subvert audience expectations through its eclectic mishmash of tropes from different genres – slasher horror, post-apocalyptic drama, sci-fi action with body horror elements. When it comes to the final signposted “reveal”, however, it feels almost like an M Night Shyamalan movie: a hackneyed, tacked-on addition that, unfortunately, lends an off flavor to the otherwise decently-crafted edifice.

10 Cloverfield Lane starts with a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who gets into a car accident. Upon awaking, she finds herself trapped a bunker built by the ex-Navy veteran Howard, a conspiracy nut and survivalist who tells her that everyone outside is dead from some sort of chemical or biological attack of unknown origin, and the only chance of survival is in his hermetically-sealed home. Here, the movie maintains a good balance in straddling the two possibilities – either it is a bona fide post-apocalyptic thriller, or a slasher scenario predicated on a madman’s paranoid fantasy.

All is well and good, and the film unfolds satisfyingly, until Michelle learns (or thinks she learns) the Truth Of Things, and engineers her departure from the house. It is after that that she then learns the Real Truth of Things. Sorry, it’s hard to describe these things obliquely. It is here that the film goes off the rails. In an abrupt tonal shift, the film shifts gears into reality-warping sf-action and turns Michelle into some sort of latter-day Ellen Ripley in the space of 20 minutes.

Now, I’m not in principle against such tonal shifts. I think their intention was to be audacious in capping off their genre mishmash with a dose of off-the-rails action: a final ingredient in their potpourri of tropes, and I’d be able to go with that if it had been executed with some degree of care. But in the case of 10 Cloverfield Lane, however, the abruptness of that shift, as well as how lazily it appeared to have been written, makes it very difficult to take seriously, especially when compared to what came before. It does open the road to sequels, though. Given what happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if Michelle became the so-called monster of the third Cloverfield film. It would go with the mythology.

The necessity of talking about 10 Cloverfield Lane in filmic innuendoes blunts the essential point, which is whether one should feel obliged to watch it. Here I will tell you not to expect too much from the Reveal, but watch the film as an interesting experiment in audience subversion.

I give this film: 3 out of 5 missing jigsaw pieces

 

 

Mee Pok Man

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***SPOILERS***

Mee Pok Man is only suggested for historians or aficionados of the Singaporean cinema scene; otherwise, it has relatively few intrinsic merits.

The feature debut of now-famous director Eric Khoo, Mee Pok Man is often regarded as the film that revived Singaporean cinema after a decade-long dry spell in the 1980s and early 1990s. It starts out by chronicling the developing relationship between mee pok seller Johnny and prostitute Bunny, but soon takes an very unexpected turn.

I see Mee Pok Man as a somewhat X-rated (for the time) send-off of Channel 8 soap opera tropes, involving unlikely but sweet relationships that blossom between two very different people from different walks of life. In this case, the bovine-dim mee pok seller watches the beautiful but self-absorbed prostitute from afar, and gets his chance to show his love when she gets into a car accident and he takes her back home to care for her. There’s even that well-treaded trope of the girl’s diary entries being read out as a narrative voice-over: a lazy if convenient way to reveal her inner psyche.

But this developing romance is cut short before it can develop according to the expectations of the audience; when, in the crowning act of coitus, the girl unexpectedly dies (from internal bleeding, perhaps?). From there, the film veers hard towards extreme morbidity, as the increasingly deranged Romeo-aspirant sinks into madness, continuing to husband her slowly mummifying body as life goes on around him.

This premise really makes Mee Pok Man a bit of a one-trick pony. It is a spring trap designed to deliver a jolt to an audience no doubt accustomed to the trite pablum of local primetime television. I can see how Mee Pok Man might have revived Singaporean cinema back then by showing local audiences the subversive potential of the medium, especially in what was then a straight-laced, conservative Singapore.

The film is best viewed as a piece of environmental storytelling, serving as a visual counterpoint to the contemporary vision of Singapore as a spotless, efficient city. By chronicling the lives of street hookers and impoverished noodle sellers, the film serves as an often beautifully evocative visual reference to the grimy interstices between the gleaming facade. If anything, Mee Pok Man is a great showcase of Eric Khoo’s directorial eye and style – there are many stills from the film that would make great art posters. The film also protests the censorious impulses of the Government – it starts with brief flashes of boobs and genitalia, not for any narrative purpose, but to make a statement to the censors – testing the boundaries of what was allowed on film in Singapore at the time.

Unfortunately, the film hasn’t aged well in many other respects. By the standards of modern efforts, Mee Pok Man is deficient in many areas. The acting and dialogue are often abysmal – a function of the film’s seminal nature and its use of amateur actors. The characters are one-dimensional cutouts. The mee pok man Johnny, in particular, is an infuriatingly boring character: a barely articulate milquetoast who shuffles his way through the entire film. That kind of characterisation might have been intentional, in order to fit in with the twist, but it certainly doesn’t benefit the viewing experience in the first half of the film, when the audience is expecting it to be a sweet romance film, only to confront this milksop of a leading man. The film could do with a stern dose of editing – certain segments overstay their welcome, and there are some half developed plot threads that don’t seem to go anywhere – like the whole segue into Bunny’s odd, silent, snooping brother. The film lacks logical consistency and coherence in many areas – like why Bunny’s family didn’t appear to have filed a missing persons report for Bunny. And where did they dig up the actor for Bunny’s creepy Caucasian photographer boyfriend, who can’t even pronounce his words right?

Regardless of its defects, Mee Pok Man is a film worth watching once, if only to appreciate the service it did for the medium in Singapore. Now that I look back on it, I probably don’t regret watching it, but if I had to give advice to prospective viewers, try to think of the film in terms of its extrinsic merits instead of its inherent aesthetic virtues.

I give this film: 2.5 out of 5 diaries

***

The film was double-billed with an earlier Eric Khoo short called Pain, shot in monochrome, also grimy, and also characterised by a twist. Evocative in its approach in visually depicting pain and torture. Disturbing, grungy and somewhat anachronistic in its approach to storytelling – almost like a silent film. Better viewed as if a film student’s final-year project than something people would actually want to watch.

The Songs We Sang

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The Songs We Sang is a documentary that details the development of xinyao, a genre of Chinese music, unique to Singapore, that developed during the 1970s to 90s, which served as an influence to famous Singaporean Chinese pop stars like Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin.

The documentary is told entirely through the records of interviews with figures in the xinyao movement, including the performers themselves, producers, and radio DJs that collaborated in the effort to popularise the genre. This lends it a degree of intimacy and authenticity, but also runs the risk of over-representing their perspectives without clear critical commentary.

Indeed, The Songs We Sang can be viewed as a quiet indictment of many things – the parlous state of Chinese education and cultural awareness in Singapore (of which yours truly is a prime and unrepentant example), the Government’s heavy-handed approach in promoting English at the expense of Mandarin; the “cultural desert” that is the Singaporean musical arts scene.

In that sense, The Songs We Sang has value to me. As a product of a decidedly English education myself, I find xinyao as alien and foreign as Armenian folk music. I’m not really interested in xinyao in its capacity as a form of art. What I am interested in, rather, is xinyao as a response or coping mechanism to societal changes that are brought about by the Government’s policy decisions.

By starting the documentary with an account of the closure of Nanyang University to form NUS, the documentary seems to suggest that the suppression of Chinese education formed the conditions for xinyao to act as a kind of kindling flame to sustain Chinese culture and education in Singapore. It forms a clean and compelling narrative, but one that is perhaps too simple and self-serving, and bears more careful investigation. The nostalgic reminiscences of figures like Eric Moo also contribute further to a narrative edifice in which xinyao and its early practitioners were the cool outsiders, pioneers of a uniquely Singaporean art form, providing joy to the joyless, the only spark in Singapore’s barren artistic landscape. Again, at face value I’m not particularly sympathetic to this sentiment. But from an anthropological perspective, if you will, it’s interesting and instructive.

It suggests that Chinese-ness as a social and political force is alive and well. On one hand, there are the xinyao practitioners who claim credit for the emergence and success of your JJ Lins, but on the other, that the Chinese literati are still active and still somewhat resentful of their treatment under the Governmental aegis, forced to operate using a language they did not know well and put at a disadvantage vis a vis their English educated peers.

It’s ironic, then, that The Songs We Sang appears to have benefited from NHB grant funding. The film is about a grassroots folk music movement that arose as a response to the English language policy instituted by the PAP regime. Bright spots in our arts scene arise because of unsalutary social conditions, and governments in the future look at them as unexpected but desperately needed tools to build some semblance of a national identity for very technocratic ends.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 Straws

 

This Idea Must Die

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This Idea Must Die is a compilation of answers to a question posed by Edge magazine in 2014 to leading scientists and academics: what scientific idea is ready for retirement?

The question is predicated on the often true assumption that new scientific ideas often gain traction at the expense of the old. Judging from the numbers, it seems that scientists in diverse disciplines, such as cosmology, theoretical physics, cognitive science, science studies, psychology, mathematics, biology, the social sciences, philosophy, and many others agree that their respective fields contain much antiquated cruft to be reconsidered.

A broad summary of some controversial scientific ideas that were put forth for retirement include:

  • The need for “complete understanding”, leading to pushes for theories of everything, such as string/M-theory
  • The idea of the anthropic principle – that the laws of physics are consistent, pre-ordained, or unique, and therefore tuned to support existence
  • The idea that certain scientific precepts such as parsimony, falsifiability and replicability should be applied automatically to every scientific venture, especially in a causally complex world
  • “Essentialist” analytical lenses that taxonomize based on “innate” criteria, such as race or gender
  • Frameworks that rely on “culture” as the primary medium of memetic propagation, without explaining its mechanics (still quite controversial as the alternative is some form of evolutionary psychology)
  • Essentializing differences between animals and humans, such as models of animal behavior that characterise them as mindless automata, or that humans are evolutionarily unique because of adaptations like language and tool-making
  • Any distinction between “nature” and “nurture”, or the idea that environmental factors can be taken in isolation from genetic ones when analysing traits and behaviors
  • The idea that human intuition is consistent across culture, and can therefore be used as a basis for philosophical arguments (i.e. the “intuition pump”)
  • Current methodologies of scientific research, such as peer review, current “results-oriented” funding models, large randomised controlled trials, liberal application of arbitrary statistical rules like p-values, regression, standard deviations etc
  • Taking statistical results from analysis of datasets as conclusive of a causal relation (such as in Big Data), rather than using those results as a starting point to conduct empirical studies to demonstrate causality

Many of these answers are not conclusive, and often, different answers may contradict each other in small or large ways. The cosmology section has scientists arguing for and against string theory, for example, with some using string theory’s lack of options for empirical falsifiability as a basis for its rejection, with others declaiming the limits falsifiability when applied to this particular case.

The anthology is rich, detailed, and the provocativeness of its question has allowed for a wide range and variety of answers across many fields. This quality makes it an often arresting read. If I had to suggest how to improve this book, however, I would say that it would benefit somewhat from a degree of curation. Not in the sense of content editing, because that would detract from the richness of the material, but in the sense of providing context and structure to the various answers.

The book is already halfway there in that respect. There is a suggestion that the answers are roughly grouped by theme and discipline. Where this book could have done more would be to create explicit categories for certain groups of answers, in order to increase clarity for the reader. And in those categories, it might be beneficial to have a paragraph or two explaining the broad context and schools of thought underpinning those disciplines, in order to give a little bit more context to the layperson.

Despite the above, however, I can see how more curated approach like the one I described might not be feasible from a process or person-oriented standpoint. Answerers may take issue with having their views categorized in ways that they do not like, or having their answers co-opted into a meta framework without their explicit consent. As it is, positioning without commentary may be the best that the editor can come up with to preserve the original texture and richness of his sources.

I give this: 4 out of 5 wrong-but-useful ideas