Singapore Garden Festival

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Singapore Garden Festival, originally uploaded by sangsara.

I went with my mom and girlfriend on some complimentary tickets, and on the whole can’t say I’m too sorry I spent a Saturday afternoon looking at indoor “fantasy gardens”, even if they were largely useless vanity projects for rich landscaping companies. Some, like the one above, made for good photos.

Bali

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Altar, originally uploaded by sangsara.
Spent a few days in Bali last week, and it was pretty awesome. I was never a fan of short, un-epic vacations before this, but now I can see myself squirreling some money away for a few more of these getaways. Seminyak was a far more pleasant and quieter place than the popular Kuta, with its gaudy local economy built around serving foreign surfers.

Every meal was pretty great, and almost always half the price of their equivalents in Singapore. I daresay I had the single best pasta dish of my life served in a Belgian bar/restaurant with six fresh prawns for just SGD$12. Anyway this altar here was in a street corner restaurant where we stopped for lunch after 3 hours of walking in the heat after coming off a night without sleeping on a really uncomfortable flight on Indonesia’s Lion Air.

Film Notes: Get Smart (2008)

It’s been settling for two days now, and I think Get Smart was better than Wanted and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, but worse than Kung Fu Panda. I liked some of the references to the old series, and I always like looking at Anne Hathaway too, but an unnecessary remake movie’s gotta have more to offer than that! I doubt many people are on the fence about seeing this anyway, so I won’t go into any details. It’s an alright 2 hour movie to see in the middle of a hot afternoon, but don’t make it the high point of your night out.

I laughed a couple of times, so I’d say it was worth 3/5 stars. For the record, Wanted got 2, Zohan got 2.5 (mostly for its opening minutes), and Kung Fu Panda got 3.5.

Film Notes: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

I saw this last night and was rather disappointed with the story. This movie has gotten something like 88% at RottenTomatoes.com, which is in a region previously reserved for Studio Ghibli and Pixar movies (or Disney, if you’re old enough to remember a time when they didn’t suck). So naturally, I had my expectations high enough that anything short of a beautiful, sensitively made film that delivered the old “if you believe, you can do anything” message in new ways was going to feel like a waste of 10 dollars.

Kung Fu Panda, sadly, is not that ‘something new’. And it is very flawed, structurally. I think they were just hoping that the animation and inherent panda cuteness would make up for the fact that the writers never managed to solve the problem of how to have an unfit panda convincingly best the world’s greatest warrior in combat, apart from using his ass/belly as a bouncy surface. As a result, the film looks like this:

2 minutes of Panda being a bad-ass (dream sequence)
is followed by
55 minutes of Panda shown as well-meaning but incompetent as a fighter
followed by
5 minutes of his teacher having an epiphany
followed by
1 minute of training montage
followed by
10 minutes of Panda being a full-fledged kungfu expert
followed by
10 minutes of doubt
followed by
5 minutes of unbelievable, unjustified competence
followed by
THE END.

I know I sound like a picky asshole who can’t just relax and enjoy a summer blockbuster for kids, but the bar has been raised by others that came before, and so Kung Fu Panda has to work a little harder. In ways, it is the perfect example of Dreamworks’ approach to animation, and offers several reasons why they consistently fail to deliver something as timeless as say, oh… any Pixar film? These include: loud, brash characters who don’t change so much as they do unlock their artificially stunted potential that everybody else saw from the beginning. Pop culture jokes (admittedly fewer here). Uneven pacing and plot progression. Disregard for the passage of time – and this is a big one for me.

In order to build believability, you have to let certain events breathe. Compared to something like Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda occurs almost in real-time. It honestly feels like everything happens overnight. The result of such carelessness is a lack of drama and audience emphathy for the characters. How are you supposed to feel that Po (the panda) is really ready for his challenge when you’re given at least 30 times as much evidence of his unreadiness as his 1 minute training montage? Classic heroes were products of sustained hardship. Rocky had the heart, and even Remy from Ratatouille had the nose and talent from the beginning. Po, in contrast, is only shown having a fan’s interest in the history of kungfu. It’s like saying little Johnny Redneck by ringside can throw it down with a pro wrestler after a weekend of training with Hulk Hogan.

Animation is a feature film industry where you have far more time and money to get things right, and so directorial failures are even more disappointing. I imagine the guys at Pixar (and I’ve read a little to this effect) hammer the hell out of every detail for their films in pre-production. They’re not afraid to throw away great scenes in order to find even greater ones. The results haven’t just been the best 3D animated films; they pretty much legitimized the form. Kung Fu Panda has a couple of dead-air scenes that I think John Lasseter wouldn’t even wipe his ass with.

One last thing. I’ve had Pixar movies move me to tears. Those guys know how to write emotionally effective scenes that don’t feel like manipulation. And when the time comes to deliver an inspirational message, they know how to show rather than tell. WALL·E pretty much proves it by having two non-speaking leads. Kung Fu Panda on the other hand relies on lines as false as fortune cookie proverbs.

A burger can only be wide and flat (or medium all around)

I just had to defend wide/flat burgers against tall/thick burgers for 30 mins. I’m finding that this is an argument I get into with too many people. For the record, it’s not about taste. I acknowledge that it is possible (but less technically likely) a tall/thick burger can be evenly cooked and taste great. My issue with them is one of design, construction, and symmetry.

Real burgers need to be large, pleasurable meals (I’m not talking about those goddamned sliders or mini-burgers; when was the last time you ordered a half-pint as your first drink?) and a wide footprint on a burger encourages the eating of it to last longer, while visually implying a satisfying quantity. Width also make them stable against cutting actions, letting you slice in straight lines perpendicular to the plate. If you eat them with your hands, then it’s also less likely that bits are going to be squeezed out.

One solution for my rage is to not think about them as “burgers”. Or to think of them as “Tall Burgers”. Somehow, that makes everything better. It’s like “Chicken Luncheon Meat”, or “Turkey Bacon”. Build an excuse into the name and suddenly all can be forgiven. I’m just very protective over some words and can’t stand to see something wrongly labeled. This could be a problem with my brain, because lately I’ve realized how much I hate some words, because of the way their sounds kinda feel wrong.  Like unexpectedly biting into something crunchy when you were expecting smooth ice-cream. It just ruins your day.

“Terrier” is an example of a perfect word. When you look at a terrier and think of how it came to be named that, you know the guy did a fucking first-class job. It absolutely fits.

Test Drive Unlimited for cheap

I’ve spent some time on driving games recently, although generally I’m quite poor at them and like smashing into stuff more than anything. I’m overcoming that habit now and spending more time on PGR 3 & 4 than Burnout Revenge. Play-Asia is selling Test Drive Unlimited for just $25 SGD, which is very tempting. It’s a Massively Multiplayer racing game that models the entire Hawaiian island of Oahu, and has people from all over driving across it in real time, challenging each other to races and so on. I wonder how many people still play it though, and whether Atari might be discontinuing server support anytime soon. Still, for 25 bucks it’s hard to say no.

Film Notes: Bullitt (1968)

Since I don’t have a lot to blog about these days, I think I’m going to write short bits about movies I’ve seen, right after seeing them. Who this could possibly appeal to remains to be seen. I’ve also been feeling overloaded with work lately, and am making the effort to declare some break time on a daily basis, because otherwise my entire day is split between writing and being unable to write. There are no other states between them that I care to consider.

Hopefully I’ll manage a film every day or two.

Tonight I saw Bullitt on DVD (haven’t gotten to the special features yet). This was actually the first time I’ve seen Steve McQueen in a movie, ever. He’s pretty bad-ass and reminds me of Daniel Craig a little, and Robert Redford. The bad guy at the end looks like Clive Owen. They should do a remake… actually, no. It’s got plot holes, yeah, but the rest is a very well-constructed movie that I don’t think modern audiences would pay money to watch for two hours, which is a shame.

I should explain that the archetypical ‘modern viewer’ in my mind is an American teenager with a short attention span, bad grades, and who likes to plays Halo. That’s really the target audience for 99% of the movies that I see coming out anyway. What other reason could there be for the dumbing down of everything? I can’t remember the last time I saw a thriller that made the viewer work to distill its elements; to piece together a chronologically dissected heap of stimuli, or guess at characters’ meanings and motivations before they are formally introduced (or not at all). It’s sad because I go to the theatres most days now only to become irritated at the couple beside me, one member of which will inevitably ask the other at some point, “who is that?”, or “what just happened?” as if they were watching two different movies. And mind you, these aren’t Hitchcockian movies, or foreign imports where thick accents might have caused a crucial line to be missed – I’m really talking about shit like Wanted, or Tokyo Fucking Drift.

Bullitt is two hours long and nowhere as kinetic as I’d expected, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. (However) there’s a car chase in the middle that I hear is the main reason for its cult status: it is one of the earliest examples of modern chase sequence structure, and has some phenomenal stunt driving down the hilly slopes of San Francisco. Very impressive work. But I think the movie’s strongest point is the way it frames and presents its dialogue. Some incidental scenes have characters speaking words that feel like they’re exchanged for purely practical purposes in the film’s world, and not for the benefit of viewers. There is no benefit for us at all, except immersion. I think I’ve just been watching too many bad movies lately, where every line is used for some ham-fisted exposition or foreshadowing of later drama.

And yet there are long stretches where nothing is said, like in the chase scene. McQueen does not quietly curse to himself, and the two antagonists in the other car barely exchange looks, let alone words. It’s a fantastic change. At times the camera just settles on Lieutenant Bullitt (that’s the name of McQueen’s cop), squarely on his face from the shoulders up as his eyes search the room we cannot see, or ponders his next move. It’s far more effective than what M. Night Shymalan has done recently with The Happening, which tries a similar gimmick with Mark Wahlberg as he supposedly struggles to reconcile his science-rooted atheism with growing evidence of intelligent design. The necessary charisma is lacking.