Sunday, December 31, 2006

Top 5 Duds of 2006

This list is self explanatory, so here goes:

5. Ultraviolet
You will not believe what you have just seen. The only redeeming factor here is Milla herself, and her psychedelic outfits from wigs to sunglasses to costumes. A special effects extravaganza dud.

4. Sinking of Japan
Yet another special effects extravanganza that forgot that you need a strong story. Size doesn't matter, you can sink the whole world and still, it makes a dud if there's no story to hold it all together.

3. Love Story
Kelvin Tong won a directing award at this year's Singapore International Film Festival for this effort, but sorry, no love storyy here. The stories are uninspiring, and the characters just caricatures with no depth.

2. Zodiac: The Race Begins
Singapore's first ever 3D animated feature film is a disgrace. Bad story, modified from the original folk tale, with even worse voice casting. The section of the credits which says "Voice Talent" is itself a joke.

And the dud of the year goes to...

1. Invisible Waves
Utter crap. Waste of money and time. Incoherent plot disguised as arthouse cinema? Please.

Top 10 of 2006

2006 is coming to a close, and it's natural for this list to come out at this time of the year. From 242 theatrical releases to decide from, it's not easy, but here goes! Unlike 2005's which had a dominant romantic theme, this year's selection is pretty eclectic... though 3/10 had something to do with road trips...

10. Elizabethtown
I continue my love with Cameron Crowe movies, and Elizabethtown is something I enjoyed. Perhaps it's also because I'm looking for that perennial sunshine girl, full of optimism, joy, etc to add that spark back into my life. You'll also probably know if she's the right one for you if she can send you on a road trip complete with kick ass music to accompany you, and be there at the end of the journey.

9. The World's Fastest Indian
Anthony Hopkins as a fuddly-duddly New Zealander with a passion for his little Indian motorbike. Yet another road trip movie across the USofA, the people he interacts with make this a gem.

8. An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore presents the inconvenient truth that we are polluting the world, and Mother Nature is pissed about it. Not really an apocalypse warning, but you get to see the signs. Start changing your lifestyle people. Reuse, Reduce, Recycle!

7. Thank You for Smoking
Superb satire about the tabacco industry, and its smooth operating spokesperson. In a game of who plays who, who convinces who, get tips in learning how to win an argument. I'd say again, superb satire, a must watch!

6. Little Miss Sunshine
The finale nailed this movie into the top 10. Never had I laughed so hard in a long time, and it had to surprise you coming out of the blue. The ensemble cast rocks, and this is probably one of the most dysfunctional family put on screen in a long while.

5. The Host
Korean's answer to the monster movie genre, by breaking all the rules. There are plenty moments which keep you glued on screen and at the edge of your seat, and you feel for the characters, from the bumbling to the unlucky, from joy to complete sadness. It's bold in making a statement, and unconventional enough to constantly pull the rug from under your feet.

4. The Prestige
Starring the sexiest woman alive (so says Esquire Magazine), together with two of the hottest actors in Hollywood at the moment - Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and directed by Christopher Nolan, this is one movie which kept me at the edge with its theme of obsession and revenge, and that twist ending which I didn't see coming. One to put on your DVD collection when it comes out, hopefully with tons of extras.

3. Crazy Stone
The best heist movie on screen this year, and it came from China! Part of the Focus First Cuts, it's tight plot and non linear timelines bring out the best you'd come to expect from the genre. Pay close attention!

2. Gubra
Two words - Yasmin Ahmad! 'Nuff said! Go watch!

and my number one movie for 2006...

1. Singapore Dreaming
Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen are famous for their satirical website Talking Cock and their first feature length comedy of sorts with the same name, but you continue to wonder in amazement how they pulled off Singapore Dreaming. To date, I still rate it as THE movie to show your friends from overseas, and THE movie which has the best ensemble cast ever put together for a local movie. For a local movie, I'm proud of it, at long last something to boast about from our fledging industry. Winner of the San Sebastian Mont-blac New Scriptwriters Award.

20 Other Notable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

After This Our Exile
Casino Royale
Constant Gardener
Citizen Dog (ASEAN Film Fest)
Hard Candy
Imagine Me and You
In Her Shoes
Inside Man
Kinky Boots
Lady In The Water
Match Point
Paprika (Animation Nation Film Fest)
Pretty Persuasion
Robocon (Japanese Film Fest)
The Banquet
The Departed
The Devil Wears Prada

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Queen

The Queen and the PM

This is as much a movie on Queen Elizabeth II as it is on current British PM Tony Blair. With the movie starting from Blair's win at the elections, and being a new PM expected to usher in change, his character here is in opposites with the Queen's, one steeped in stifling tradition of the monarchy.

The movie contains some excellent blending of archived footage from news bulletins to images shot with that look and feel of a television feed, as well as dramatized elements which tried to tell the story of what really happened behind the scenes. With the crux of the story focused on the period of time immediately after Princess Di's death in 1997 (wow, it's been almost 10 years), it's usually landmark events like these which people remember what the Queen / Monarchy did, versus the period of approximately 50 years she had ascended the throne.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, The Queen is an excellent character study piece of one of the world's longest surviving monarchies, as well as arguably the one with the most scandals and controversies. One must bear in mind that this is fiction and by no means representative of actual events, though it is a fictional version with the possibility of putting OEII in better light, given her reaction of no response to the public immediately after the tragic news. The story and plot are nothing new, and therefore offer no such thing as a shocking plot twist, or controversial scenes, although the movie's attempts to provide an explanation from the other side of Buckingham will be its attraction.

Much has been said about actress Helen Mirren's outstanding performance as QEII, and I'm of the opinion that she deserves every accolade bestowed upon her, and is indeed a strong contender to snag that Oscar come Feb 2007. But kudos must go to her costars as well, like James Cromwell as husband Prince Philip, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, but more importantly, Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. The makeup and wardrobe department also deserve mention to create the physical resemblance, which probably would assist loads in having the actors flesh out their respective characters.

It's an interesting look into the workings of the monarchy, and the relationship amongst the members. For those curious as to the relationship between the government and the monarchy will appreciate the many moments of interaction between Blair and the Queen.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Super Size Me With Extra Lies

At first glance, my impression of Fast Food Nation is that it'll take a more documentary approach in highlighting issues about the fast food industry. It did look like it had room for satire with a provocative style, but should you be expecting something along the lines of Super Size Me, then this is the wrong movie for you.

For starters, it's got an appeal like Thank You For Smoking, but its narrative choice of attaching characters to mouthpiece different issues, seemed to make the movie feel very scattered in its presentation of ideas. While this approach had its merits, giving different ideas appropriate focus and dedicated screentime, it didn't make a very compelling, thorough argument as a whole. Something along the lines of having too many cooks spoiling the broth, and it really kept the best for the last, building an anticipation which got glossed over too quickly.

Fast Food Nation contains an excellent ensemble cast assembled, and characters ranged from illegal immigrants crossing over the US border from Mexico, to cattle ranchers, food processing plant workers, fast food outlet workers, and all the way up to the corporate boardroom of a fictional fast food chain. The entire supply chain of the fast food industry gets addressed, and every perceived skeleton from the closet gets its fair share of air time. You have doctored reports, tales from the production floor, sexual favours, poor work conditions and lack of benefits, and tons of lies.

Richard Linklater movies have dialogue which rock, and there is no lack of those in Fast Food Nation. In particular, pay attention during the scene with Bruce Willis (yes) and Greg Kinnear. It meanders around, trying to reason, before coming down like a sledgehammer. That conversation itself is a worth the price of an admission ticket, seriously.

The book (I managed to scan through it) probably packed a lot more theories and figures which should make it a compelling read, but the movie, whose screenplay is also co-written by the author Eric Schlosser, in having to adopt a different approach to present those ideas, somehow diluted some of them. But the movie should make you want to pick up the book for more.

And yes, I'm swearing off burgers and fast food for a while.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Painted Veil

Look Yonder

The last time we saw Edward Norton on screen, he was hidden behind a mask in Kingdom of Heaven. Naomi Watts turned heads by snagging the coverted role opposite King Kong. Now, both of them square off against each other in a romantic tale set in 1925 China amid a cholera outbreak, as they battle against the disease, as well as marital infidelity.

OK, so I made it sound like some action movie, but no, The Painted Veil is as sentimental as its beautiful soundtrack.

To read my review of The Painted Veil at, click on the logo below:

Harsh Times

Game On Homey!

Batman gone bad.

That about sums up this movie, as a platform, similar to The Machinist, for Christian Bale to show off his acting chops. Eva Longoria you say? Again, she's the token pedestrian in this gritty crime drama.

To read my review of Harsh Times at, click on the logo below:

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Jak Sie Masz! Vair Nice!

Borat is unapologetically vulgar. And it is no surprise that various groups, from the Kazakhstans, to the gypsies, gays, charismatic Christians, Jews, feminists, and even Americans themselves would find certain aspects of it distasteful. But I like, vair nice!

I liked the shock and awe tactics used on unsuspecting folks on the streets and various other locales in this mockumentary, never mind if some sequences were scripted, versus the spontaneity of others. There's slapstick, witty lines, double entrees, sight gags, toilet humour, fact is, the filmmakers threw in everything from the humour genre, save for the kitchen sink.

If there should be any semblance of a plot, it would be Borat's adventures to the United States and America, at first to learn the culture and good stuff that the Americans can offer, make a documentary for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan. From NY to Los Angeles, it becomes a road trip of sorts, with each city or town along the way made a pitstop for his madcap antics. Borat has a hidden agenda of course, and that is to track down and marry Pam Anderson, whom he fell in love while watching an old episode of Baywatch. That's all I will say, and I'll not even suggest anything in particular which I enjoyed for fear of ruining the pleasure for you. Word of advice: if you haven't seen the trailers, DON'T!

I shan't attempt to go into supposed deeper insights as I refuse to believe that this was made with the intention insulting others or find wicked pleasure at laughing at ourselves, or laughing at our own inner prejudices, blah blah blah. It's a god-damned crazy movie, and you must admit that Sacha Baron Cohen had the guts and gumption to pull off something like this with his Borat character. The only gripe, if I should have, would be the pacing of the movie. It's rather jarring as episodes are presented one after another, and the pace naturally goes whacked, especially with the slower bits. Thankfully, they were not allowed to drag on for too long, before another lighter moment takes over.

So if you're allergic to the sensitivities of the less fortunate, or cannot stand making fun of various self interest groups, then give Borat a miss. Otherwise, you're in for a rip-roaring good time, and remember to listen attentively to the dialogue - there are plenty of gems in there!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

[DVD] The Lone Ranger (1956)

Hi Ho Silver!

The last time I saw a movie with a Caucasian and a Red Indian partner, was the French movie Brotherhood of the Wolf. Perhaps it's had its origins of such a pairing from The Lone Ranger, or so I'd like to believe. After having spent some time with old martial arts classics, I thought I'd set my sights on the western genre, and what more appropriate than the adventures of the legendary Lone Ranger astride his steed Silver, and his Red Indian sidekick Tonto.

For those not in the loop of this character, he's like the daytime vigilante of the Wild Wild West, in his mask concealing his true identity, and loads his guns with silver bullets. The silver bullet also functions as a calling card of sorts, and come to think of it, it's like a friendlier version of Batman, only in a different setting. And with that theme music - William Tell Overture - blaring in the background as they ride into the sunset, it's pure nostalgia. Not hard to imagine that I actually grew up on such stuff.

The movie begins by diving right into the story, with our heroes up against some mean and corrupt and greedy cattle ranchers who are after more land, and some bad hats amongst them trying to stir up war with the Native Americans. So it's up to our heroes to expose the truth, and to prevent bloodshed. That pretty much sums up the gist of the plot.

Although this is not an origin movie, the beginnings of how the Lone Ranger came about was mentioned in passing - His brother and himself, both Rangers, were ambushed by outlaws and left for dead. But Fate has Tonto rescuing the Ranger, and he decided to use the clothes of his dead brother to make a mask, to stay mysterious, to be feared by the villains he hunted down. The origins of Silver, his mighty loyal steed, is also mentioned, but more to the effect that it was nursed back to health by the Ranger himself.

Given that this was made in the 50s, you'd come to expect some very stilted and stiff dialogues, as heroes in those days, are expected to be squeaky clean. You probably can't find a speck of dirt on the Ranger's character, as he embodies everything that is good, with that All American feeling. Called the "trusty scout' (Kemo Sabe) by his Red Indian ally Tonto, the movie also takes a look at the prejudices faced by the Native Americans amongst groups of white men, and the strong partnership between our leads, is testament to the fact that ignorance and the lack of understanding, isn't the way to go.

The visual transfer isn't all that great, and it looks like it's VHS based, with little remastering done to remove the cacks and pops. The colours were inconsistent at times, and although it comes in both full screened and wide screened versions on the same disc, it isn't anamorphic.

The DVD extras are on a second disc, and has two sections. The first section contains interviews, while the rest goes into "Special Features".

There are two interviews included, and the first is with Michael Ansara, who plays Angry Horse. Interviewed by Michael Druxman (writer/director of The Doorway 1999), this interview fell short in quality as Ansana wasn't too chatty, and Druxman was chatting most of the time like a fanboy. Nothing much comes out of this interview, although a trivia was shared that the Lone Ranger actually never kills anybody on screen. Running at 17mins and 15 secs, I would recommend going straight for the second interview instead.

The second interview has more substantial material discussed, and it's natural given that it's conducted by Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight, with the guest Dawn Moore, daughter of the Lone Ranger himself Clayton Moore. Conducted and recorded on 9 Feb 2001 and clocking in at 39 minutes, it is a heartfelt session with recollection of memories of Clayton Moore, about her childhood and growing up with the legend, many behind the scenes discussion at the production, anecdotes shared that only a child will know, and even talk about Silver the horse. Given her account, you'll be amazed at how hard Clayton Moore actually worked for the character, in character, in publicity that the company wanted him to do. This is a gem that all fans should give a listen to.

The Special Features section contains the following, though nothing in particular stands out:
a. Text biographies of main cast and director Stuart Heisler
b. A photo gallery with colour and black and white movie stills
c. Trailers for The Lone Ranger, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, and trailers for two non Lone Ranger, but Western, films - Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (both starring Jack Nicholson)
d. A text writeup on The Lone Ranger Creed, which is also available on the insert.

[DVD] Hiroshima (1995)

DVD Cover

The closing stages of the Pacific Theatre of WWII are revisited recently by filmmaker Clint Eastwood, in his two movie compendium Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters from Iwo Jima, depicting the Battle of Iwo Jima from both perspectives of the Americans and the Japanese. Hiroshima, a made for TV movie in 1995 for Hallmark Entertainment, does so in one movie, clocking in at a massive 180 minutes.

But the running length is fully deserved, as this is probably as detailed one could get without boring the audience. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and Koreyoshi Kurahara, they each take on their respective country's angle, beginning from April 12th 1945 with Roosevelt's death.

Spottiswoode focused on Truman's abrupt taking over the presidency, with a lot of catching up to do with regards to the war. As Vice President, he's kept largely out of the daily workings during Roosevelt's term, and suddently is thrust into the hot seat with the passing of Roosevelt, making decisions that will affect countless of lives worldwide. Of note is the moral dilemma faced with the Manhattan Project, as well as looking into the inner circle's politicking of racing toward being the 1st nuclear power, and the demonstration of such a might with a public display of a detonation. You'll also see how the pilots train with mock bombs and mock targets during their countless drills just to get it right.

On the other hand, Kurahara was focused on the Japanese's lack of understanding and therefore deliberation on surrender, and takes a long hard look at how the Imperial Army dealt with impending invasion by the Allied forces. What's to note here is the portrayal of Emperor Hirohito, as he surveys his land bombed incessantly by B29s. Politics and bickering between politicians and the military take the spotlight here.

I'd bet most would find new nuggets of information from this informative dramatization of the events leading up to the detonation of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like how Kyoto was deliberated over and spared, being the equivalent of a religious city, and a city with monuments worth preserving. I'd learn that the US actually had to call the bluffs, having only 3 bombs at the time, with Little Boy (Hiroshima's) made of uranium, and Fat Man (Nagasaki's) made of plutonium, and another plutonium one used as a test bomb, because the method of fission is slightly different from uranium's, and had to be tested first to ensure it works.

If technical details aren't your cup of tea, then perhaps cultural differences between the two countries, and the bridging of this understanding, might be of interest to you. It's equivalent to today's lack of understanding, and the lack of a well thought out strategy, that we see wars fought and degenerated into the issues faced today. It was interesting to note that prior to WWII, Japan had never lost a war, and therefore, doesn't know what defeat, nor surrender is, and hence, absolutely had no idea going about doing it. It could also be attributed to the asian "face" value, that death always be a better option compared to a humiliating defeat.

Combined brilliantly with stock archive footage, documentary reels and interviews from veterans on both sides. Hiroshima is well worth the 3 hours spent watching it, unravelling itself like a history book. My only gripe was that the ending was abrupt, all over with the announcement of the Japanese surrender.

All Region DVD comes with no extras.

Monday, December 25, 2006

[DVD] Come Drink With Me (Da Zui Xia) (1966)

DVD Cover

Come Drink With Me is touted as arguably the greatest martial arts film, ever. In its day, this is the movie that broke a lot of grounds, thanks to meticulous direction and vision of King Hu.

The story is simple though, telling of Golden Swallow's (Cheng Pei Pei) quest to rescue her brother, a government official, in a ransom case with a bunch of bandits. While her prowess is formidable, a little help is always appreciated when up against the masses, and little does she know that a beggar of sorts, called the Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua), turns out to be her guardian angel. While the Chinese title is obviously a reference to Yueh Hua's character, this movie is clearly Cheng Pei Pei's breakthrough in the martial arts genre.

The martial arts here is distinctively different. For its time, it was a breakthrough, with its moving cameras, violence, splattering of blood, as well as fights done with adequate pauses and breaks, like a Western stand off at times, before lunging at each other. The movement, while fluid, is slow compared to these days, then again, having action done too fast would mean either stunt people taking over, or you can't see a thing. The style in this movie struck me as samurai styled swordplay, even though the weapon our heroine used was a pair of short swords rather than katanas. The weapons used too were real, lending a sense of realism when the combatants clash.

There are still some opera influences in the movie, especially when it comes to the music, done with chinese orchestra, and accentuates the scenes like a big opera. Playing in sync to the action on screen, it's an early base on which films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon adopted to great effect. The cinematography is great too, given the many exterior shots in backlots and elaborate sets, featuring classical locales like inns and temples. The introductory scene in the inn will take your breath away, never mind that some cheesy (for today) techniques of stop motion and the reversing of film were used.

Cheng Pei Pei is a star in the movie, and she has managed to infuse her background in ballet and dance to the martial arts moves for the movie, bringing forth a very beautiful poise when executing her moves. Her eyes too were luminous and have a life of their own, and can stare daggers at her enemies. Yueh Hua though felt more carefree, given his role as a wandering beggar. And while there are hints of romance between their characters, don't hold your breaths on counting them developing it any further.

A to-the-point story, and excellent martial arts. This is a definite must watch for all martial arts genre fans.

IVL Code 3 DVD Extras:

A departure from the other IVL releases I've watched so far, this DVD had a valuable commentary by Cheng Pei Pei herself, and daughter Marsha Yuen, presented by film producer Bey Logan, in English. It's quite hilarious listening to Logan try and identify some of the actors, but always getting them wrong and had to be corrected by Pei Pei, until he knew not to embarrass himself further and allowed Pei Pei to introduce them instead. Marsha however, had little to contribute, except to laugh loudly into the microphone.

There are two Come Drink With Me trailers included, one the original which had its written script which you have to read running from right to left, and the quality is pretty degraded. The new remastered one is definitely clearer, and so were the trailers for other movies, some starring Pei Pei herself.

You have the usual extras as well, like the few movie stills, one original poster, a one page one paragraph worth of production notes, as well as a short cast and crew biography and filmography. A pity thought that you can note some typos in the DVD menus and subtitles.

The real gems of the extras, are the interview clips.

The longest interview on the disc is with Cheng Pei Pei (18 mins 30s) done in English, where she compares martial arts movies then and now, shared some production nuggets such as the duration of shooting the fight scenes, on sexuality of those days, her working relationship with King Hu, provided insights into working under Shaw Bros. explained her ease with learning martial arts, and shared on her working experiences with Yueh Hua.

Yueh Hua too has an interview included, though it was quite short, clocking at 4 mins 45s. He shares his thoughts on working with King Hu and Cheng Pei Pei, as well as revealing that he had real wine in that wine bottle prop to assist him in getting into character. However, the interview is conducted in Mandarin, with no subtitles provided.

I'm surprised at the inclusion of an interview with Marsha Yuan (daughter of Cheng Pei Pei) in English, for 6 mins and 40s, as she shares her thoughts on the movie, her realization when growing up that her mom was famous, and the big revelation is that there is going to be a sequel she's gonna star in. Is there?

The last two interviews are with film critic Paul Fonoroff and film producer Bey Logan, as both talk about Cheng Pei Pei and King Hu, clocking at 9 mins 50s, and 4 mins 40s respectively. The former interview is more insightful though, as he shares a little on the history of the rivalry between Shaw and Cathay in their heydays.

The restored version in the DVD is pristine, save for one or two scenes in soft focus which seemed a little blur. Audio transfer is great too. The only pity is that it's not in Anamorphic Widescreen.

[DVD] Ode to Gallantry (Xia Ke Xing) (1982)

DVD Cover

My love affair with classic Shaw Bros martial arts movies continues, and it's a good thing that the Esplanade Library has a decent selection. In continuation of my recent hunt for stories based on Louis Cha's novels, I chanced upon Ode to Gallantry (Xia Ke Xing) on the shelves, and despite it being cast with a relative bunch of lesser known names (of today), there's one name on the credits that compelled me to watch this: Director Chang Cheh.

My memory of the story dates back to the early 80s, based on the TVB series starring Tony Leung as the lead twin characters Shi Po Tian and Shi Zhong Yu, in a classic tale of mistaken identities. The story begins with Shi Po Tian aka the Bastard, a beggar of sorts, stealing a bun which contains the Black Iron Token, created by skilled pugilist Xie Yanke, who grants the holder one wish, and includes not killing the wielder of the token. As they say, the Heavens smile on the Idiots, and having been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Shi Po Tian slowly learns formidable skills while under the tutelage of Xie Yanke.

Given that my memory is likely to be faulty, I can't really compare this movie to the original novel, but like all movies based on Louis Cha classics, it's usually a condensation of themes and characters, but unlike The Proud Youth, this movie doesn't overhaul the characters and allow them to undergo name changes. Strong in its theme of Gallantry, embodied by the dim-witted Shi Po Tian, the movie does move along quite fast with little time devoted for depth.

Acting chops are nothing spectacular, and as the usual martial arts movies of the time goes, romance takes a backseat, even though you have a female character Dingding Dangdang (Candy Wen Xue-Er) having the hots for our lead twin characters, played by Philip Kwok Chun-Fung.

But of course the main deal here is the martial arts. There are not many wire work here, and the fights are a combination of weapons and palms, as well as a great deal on evasive techniques, as Shi Po Tian is a reluctant fighter, who sees no rational behind fights and the taking of lives. Expect the usual blood fests from Chang Cheh, reputed for his generous dose of fake blood usage.

Like all movies of its genre, the ending is usually weak, as if after the big fight, there's nothing left to do, and no purpose in life, and it ends just there. As mentioned before, the novel is a rich source, but having to translate it for the big screen, can be daunting at times. The crux of it gets a treatment, but the rest got forgotten. Remember though, this was made in the early 80s, where outdoor shoots were zilch and sets and backdrops used extensively indoors, so story telling techniques have evolved loads since then.

This Code 3 DVD produced by IVL contains the usual extras you expect from their packaging of Shaw Bros classic movies. You have a few production and movie stills, one original poster which is quite small in size, a one page one paragraph worth of production notes, the theatrical trailer and other trailers of the same genre, which have undergone an update (I doubt they are the original trailers), and a very short cast and crew biography.

Perhaps the best bit of extras here is a documentary on director Chang Cheh himself, running at 17 mins and 20 secs. It contains interviews with stars of today and yesteryears, as they recount their memories and experiences with working together with the great man who have revived the martial arts genre, and other genres in the Hong Kong movie industry. Definitely not to be missed, though it could have been done with a little bit more detail. For those who have not watched most of Chang Cheh's works, be warned of the loads of spoilers (character deaths especially) featured in it.

Thankfully too the documentary also comes with English subtitles for those who cannot understand Mandarin/Cantonese, and Mandarin/English subtitles are also available on the feature film, restored decently in the DVD (you can see how picture quality had degraded in the documentary above).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Confession of Pain (Seung Sing)

How Much Do You Love Me?

Confession of Pain is draped in deep melancholy. From story to cinematography, one cannot escape the strong moodiness painted by the creative trio of directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, and together with writer Felix Chong, this movie is widely anticipated as the one which will top their earlier acclaimed creation, Infernal Affairs. And signs were positive too, as they had snagged great leads in Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro.

But unfortunately, the strengths and chemistry between the two leads are what lifted the movie from mediocrity. Both Leung and Kaneshiro again play cop roles in the same movie (the other being Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express as lowly beat cops 663 and 223), and in the prologue, we're introduced to their close friendship, as well as a bust which set the tone for the movie, and added a shade of grey to one of their characters.

We know Kaneshiro can do intense. His recent roles in Perhaps Love as the obsessive, driven lover boy, and House of Flying Daggers' bewildered constable Jin, are nothing short of being spirited. Here, his Bong character looked somewhat similar to Aaron Kwok's role in Divergence, as the cop who's turning to the bottle in seeking solace for love lost, and the perennial quest to uncover the Whys to his past relationship. Tony Leung, well, we all know what he can do, and he doesn't disappoint. His role as Detective Hei brings about a duality of sorts, and he delivers this dilemma perfectly. The two men, while best friends, are almost in complete opposites from one another in character, yet their bond is strong, up until the final scene, which probably explains the title.

It's surprising that the story decided to show its hand midway in the movie. While it doesn't exactly provide any definitive answers, by planting that seed of thought in you during its presentation, it locks your thoughts in and doesn't allow them to wriggle free. You're left wondering why, the rationale behind the actions, as well as the filmmakers' deliberate lack of effort of hiding the truth. Bong's character will bring you on that journey of discovery. however, audiences who have consumed their fair share of crime stories, will find it a no-brainer connecting the dots themselves when the clues are presented.

Which is a pity, because everything turned predictable thereafter, narratively. However, stylistically, it is what assisted in keeping the attention on screen. The cinematography is brilliant, capturing moody loss and melancholy effortlessly in its never ending night shots of the cloudy city, unappealing streets, and empty apartments, and the effects enhanced crime recreation probably is one of the best I've seen coming out from Hong Kong. The pacing is kept tight, and a pursuit of a villain on foot was reminiscent of David Fincher's Seven where John Doe gave our detectives a run for their money.

The supporting characters had little to do, and I find it difficult to try and think up reasons for their roles besides being there for our leads' interaction. Shu Qi is largely wasted in her role as a beer maid and romantic interest for Bong, and Chapman To, an Andrew Lau and Alan Mak film regular, finds himself as a fellow cop in yet another role for comedic effect, in trying to lighten up moods whenever Bong and Hei begin to wallow. Xu Jinglei as Susan, Hei's wife, also had fairly little to do except to love her husband, and to show pain when things had to go the way they did.

Decorated with a great musical score, Confession of Pain is an adequately engaging story of friendship, loss, and the sacrifices one makes in achieving one's goals. The truth is always never easy to swallow, and discovery it seems, would be just as painful as the outcome.

Death Note: The Last Name (Desu Nôto 2)

Buaya Alert

A warning to all who attempt to watch this without watching the first movie - you'll be lost, totally. It doesn't come with a summary or a montage, and dives right into where the first film left off. You'll probably have plenty of questions, and there is almost zero character introduction. Even the brisk recap of the Death Note capabilities quickly flips by, offering you no time to complete reading what's on screen. So you've been warned. A review of the first movie can be found here.

Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) now becomes part of the team hunting down Kira, and a reluctant L (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) still refuses to drop his assumptions of Light being Kira himself. However, a new Kira emerges, thereby casting doubts on L's theory, and its seems that this new Kira is more powerful than the last. Another battle of wits ensues, but this time, who's playing who, and at what price?

The cast here is basically the same, just that bit characters Misa Amane (Erika Toda) and Kiyomi Takada (Nana Katase) get expanded roles here, to balance the strong testosterone flavour seen in the 1st movie (ok, not quite, since both Light and L are exactly hunks), and given that they're beautiful, I sure am not complaining. Their roles as the television celebrity and the news reporter respectively aren't flower vases by design, and are totally involved in the plot, though still pawns in the entire scheme of things.

What made the first movie interesting, even though for the most parts it's devoted to setting up the premise, was that there were many bits of surprises and revelations along the way. Here, all the bits and pieces are sacrificed for one major plot, with Sacrifice being the recurrent theme here, and although we learn more of the capabilities and limitations of the Death Note, it lacks the freshness of its predecessor as everything was hinged on that grand central scheme. And being just one scheme, it had the weight on the entire movie hinging on it to make, or break.

Also, there were many moments which made it too contrived, and largely dependent on plenty of coincidences and lucky breaks, even up to predicting how others would behave. Compared to the first, it just didn't cut it, and came across as lazy storytelling on the filmmakers' part. Even though the ending of the first movie was made of predicting what others would do, and involves being ahead many steps of the way, the same technique as presented in the sequel, is far too complex with many determinants hanging in limbo, for it to work as it should.

The pacing didn't help, and its dragged out finale was almost laughable, adhering to the tragic villain soliloquy for far too long. However by then, you'll be glad that it's just all over. I suspect if the two movies are watched back to back, it'll be more enjoyable than watching both as standalones. Still, it makes for some good harmless entertainment on lazy afternoons.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

[DVD] The Proud Youth (Xiao Ao Jiang Hu) (1978)

Faked Du Gu Jiu Jian Not Working!

As mentioned in my earlier review of Swordsman, it isn't easy condensing plot elements from Louis Cha's richly textured martial arts novels for the big screen. In The Proud Youth (bad title by the way), somehow it managed to do so, given a screenplay written by Ni Kwang, but it's ultra summarized, with zero room for character development, and scenes which don't seem to flow smoothly from one to the other, resulting in episodic treatment of sub plot development.

But the most unforgivable thing done to it, was complete name changes to almost 90% of the characters. Gone are Linghu Chong, Renwo Xing, Dong Fang Bu Bai etc, and in place were some generic names like Gongsun Song for Linghu Chong! My guess was that given the summarized nature, having the actual names will do no justice to the original source material. So the next best thing would be to change the names, while retaining certain character traits that will allow them to be distinguished and mapped back to the original.

It's a pity though, while the names of the 5 sword sects are kept, the ultimate swordplay technique had to undergo a complete, unnecessary revamp of title and style, which made it look like a very lame, generic martial arts move, with totally different origins. Fans of Du Gu Jiu Jian, I'm sorry but you won't get to see it demonstrated here. The fight scenes are reminiscent of styles of old though, with the heavy reliance of "ketchup" as a substitute for fake blood. While the fights look interesting, at times they turn out to be quite clumsy, with its special effects being shoddily done (yes, I'm aware it's the 70s), and camera angles being out of position, and revealed quite clearly that swords were flimsy cardboard, and driven into the sides of bodies only.

There are familiar plots like the introduction/battle with Dong Fang, the book Kui Hua Bao Dian requiring the practitioner to castrate himself, the rescue of Ren Wo Xing, the driving out of Linghu Chong from Hua Shan sect, and his learning of the Du Gu Jiu Jian, the musical number consisting of the flute and zither, and on hindsight, it's pretty amazing how all these were squeezed into 90 minutes. I was surprised at the exposure of a boob though, and in slow motion some more. And that was in 1978, for a martial arts movie some more!

This is no Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. In name only, but definitely not in spirit. Please give this a miss, and proceed to the version starring Sam Hui.

Code 3 DVD contains very limited special features. There are a few production and movie stills, one original poster, a one page one paragraph worth of production notes, the theatrical trailer and other trailers of the same genre, and a very short cast and crew biography.

No qualms about the transfer, and traditional Chinese and English subtitles are available over a Chinese language soundtrack.

Stranger Than Fiction

Stop Ogling!

Director Marc Forster has a really diverse filmography, with Monster's Ball, the touching Finding Neverland, and the science fiction thriller Stay, all under his belt. The trend continues with Stranger Than Fiction, a film which is quite difficult to categorize, as it's really a mixed bag, bringing memories of Adaptation (2002), along similar lines where fiction crosses into reality.

Will Farrell is Harold Crick, an IRS auditor who lives live by the clock. Everything is precise, and he has this fixation with order. Some might term it obsessive compulsive, but that's the way this closet mathematician lives, doing seemingly mundane things like counting the number of brushstrokes when he brushes his teeth. His ordered life goes awry when he happens to start hearing a female voice narrating his life as it happens, and that is bizarre enough to freak out anyone since an ultimatum was issued.

I appreciate the parts where fiction and (screen) reality collide in some weird twists of fate, and contemplate moments where reminders about living life to the fullest, the way you want it to be, get drummed up in the narrative. Taking it to the extreme, it's about the power some of us wields over others, be it employer-employee, or master-slave, or relationships of such. Given that you have the ability to cause hurt, will you continue to go with the decision on the basis of the greater good, or will you seek out a win-win situation, or in less selfish cases, allowing yourself to back down on the negotiations? The closest I can think of when watching Stranger Than Fiction, in the event of the course of work we remove someone from a position, will you be emotionally detached and end your concern at that, or ponder what will happen to people around the victim?

Those expecting a comedy by virtue of it being a Will Farrell movie, will be severely disappointed. Similar to Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum, Stranger Than Fiction does contain funny moments, but these are not intentionally funny. It's filled with dark humour along the veins of fellow comedian Jim Carrey's Truman Show, with another being having supreme control over the life of the protagonist. But Will Farrell doesn't disappoint in his dramatic ability to carry the film through as the bewildered, desperate man, and that is essentially what made this movie, which plodded along at times, bearable.

Assisted by a strong supporting cast, it's perhaps one of the strongest this year end. It's been sometime since we last saw most of them. The script allowed Dustin Hoffman to make some references to The Graduate, and it's indeed since Meet The Fockers was he seen on the silver screen. Emma Thompson too, given the last outing she had was under heavy disguise and makeup in Nanny McPhee. Here, she's sans makeup most of the time, as the writer Kay Eiffel, suffering from a bad mental block. Queen Latifah didn't have much to do, while you'll probably be distracted by Maggie Gyllenhaal's huge arm tattoo, as she's the token eye candy in the movie.

Stranger Than Fiction contains nifty special effects but it's something already seen before. The soundtrack is nice, but nothing memorable. That pretty sums up my sentiments of the movie. It's something, but yet something else at the same time, never being bold enough to stick to what would probably work better, allowing itself to surrender its potentially brilliant strength for a typical finale.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Night at the Museum


Night of the Museum is this year's Chicken Little. With the trailer played almost every time before a movie is screened, it's arguable that this is probably the most watched movie trailer for the year, with that T-Rex skeleton taking a sip from the water cooler, made the iconic scene for the film, taking over Chicken Little doing its rendition of "the running man". Given its marketing muscle, it'll work two ways - live up to its hype, or gets buried in it when it fails to deliver, given its continuous build up of expectations. Night at the Museum treaded dangerously close to the latter.

Fans of Ben Stiller, myself included, will definitely not miss this movie. There's this tinge of zaniness in his movies and characters, and most of his comedic films never fail to crack me up. I reckon at least one scene in every movie will have me ended up in stitches with tears rolling. Sadly, this was not to be for Night at the Museum. It's a pretty ordinary role about a very ordinary quitter, who can't seem to hold down a regular job, and is faced with losing respect from his son, now living with his estranged wife.

So as the story goes, he gets a job as the sole night watchman of the Museum of Natural History, and as you would already know, it's a kids fantasy as inanimate objects and statues all come to life when the sun goes down. At its heart, this is a children's movie, through and through, having caricatures for villains, and situations which are deemed very family friendly, which suits its target audience to a T.

It's filled with top notch special effects and costumes to bring history to life, but again it's nothing groundbreaking about it. The storyline is rather plain and almost buried itself under ultra predictable plot lines, which is a pity because it had some great supporting cast, like Robin Williams, who was surprisingly very muted and restrained, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, the latter two playing combative, bickering figures from different eras who are in constant battle for more territory.

To thoroughly enjoy this, bring along a kid, or allow the kid inside you some leeway to take over your emotions for a while. Otherwise, this movie will be a tad tough to sit through without constantly checking your watch. Hope the next Ben Stiller project will be much better, rather than resorting to spanking the monkey for laughs.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower (Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia)

A Grand Waste

Zhang Yimou is desperate. Desperate for that elusive Oscar. In his third attempt to lift that statuette, he has stuck to the martial arts genre, still deciding to go headlong since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's (CTHD) win. For his previous attempts, he has utilized CTHD star Ziyi Zhang in both Hero and House of Flying Daggers (HFD), and had resorted to casting big Asian stars like Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, all of whom are known actors to the West, and the likes of Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Here, he dug deeper, and went to snag CTHD star, and another recognizable face Chow Yun-Fat, as well as ditching Ziyi Zhang for his original muse, Gong Li, in roles fit for royalty.

Well actually, they are royalty in this Shakespearean inspired tragedy. Or should I call it comedy. The family of Chow as Emperor, Gong as Empress, and royal princes played by Jay Chou, Qin Junjie and Liu Ye, are as dysfunctional as can be. They scheme, they plot, they fight, they switch loyalties, they have deep dark secrets and huge skeletons in their closets. They have complex relationship problems of the paternal, maternal, brotherly, and you can probably name every issue from incest to heterosexual sex, they're all in it. These folks know how to love, but for all the wrong reasons, and in all the wrong ways.

Someone should remind Zhang Yimou that story is key. Seducing audiences with costumes that show twin peaks, peekaboo moments, and having grand sets and massive foot soldiers running around, just can't cover up the lack of a strong story, and it lapsed into convenience of wrapping it up ala HFD with nonsensical, implausible (maybe it's possible but I doubt) plot elements. If you thought having HFD's extremely quick transition of the seasons bad, wait till you get a load of this, and its loopholes (like one dealing with travelling time) stuck out like a sore thumb.

If you're expecting cool martial arts swordsplay, then I'm sorry, look elsewhere. The fights are few and far between, and nothing spectacular. Other than relying heavily on CG trickery, the fights are short of exciting, save for the first showdown at the beginning of the movie. It all went downhill after that, except for one scene where a funky weapon was wielded by one character. It brought back the memories of old Shaw Brothers martial arts flick where combatants wield the most interesting weapons like clubs and rakes, but this one takes the cake! True to the theme, it's in gold too!

Despite its convoluted plot, which credit though, makes itself clear as the movie progressed, the actors are probably sleepwalking through their roles. Chow had little to do except be nasty (and surprisingly, little screen time!), Gong had to break out in sweat from her tight tube top, Jay looked extremely lost, while Liu Ye who played the Crown Prince, was portrayed as one horny bastard. The sets, while beautiful at first, gets tiresome after a while, especially the psychedelic palace decor which really will get to your nerves.

This is truly a wannabe Banquet gone stale, and one wonders how much those gold plated stuff, if they're real, could have fetched on the market to make up for lost box office revenue once word gets out that it leaves a bad aftertaste. If there's any consolation, at least it's better than Chen Kaige's The Promise, and there's a scene here which is finger lickin' good!

I'm Over 10 Centuries Late!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

[World Premiere] Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤)

Painted Faces

In the Singapore of today, the closest the man in the street can get to watching an opera troupe performance, is during the Hungry Ghosts Festival, and that is only if the getai nearby is not one filled with B-grade singers or blaring repetition of current prices during the auctions. Last I remembered anything about opera troupes, was the Hong Kong movie Peking Opera Blues, as well as something on television which I had followed in the 80s, a series produced by then SBC/TCS called Painted Faces, if memory serves me well.

Today marked the world premiere of Royston Tan's latest short film, Sin Sai Hong, which features a series of vignettes of Singapore's oldest Hokkien opera troupe, piecing together the troupe's favourite performance pieces, all set in the backstage. It's pretty amazing that a short film can garner a world premiere reception of this scale - with its own production booklet distributed for free to the audience, the attendance of the cast and crew of the troupe, and a mini dinner reception (read: food). When was the last time you saw a local short film get so much attention, and played to a full house at the National Museum's Gallery Theatre. Commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore for its opening festival, I would say this short film is indeed a valuable one, as it marks a chapter of our cultural history now very rarely seen, and yes, it truly deserves to be an archived piece once it makes its rounds on the silver screen.

And seriously, who better to helm the project, than Royston Tan himself? When we interviewed him earlier this year, he mentioned that he was rushing off after the interview as a volunteer opera troupe actor, playing a foot soldier. Little did we know it was all part of his dedicated research, all of a year, for this short film.

Like Hock Hiap Leong, Sin Sai Hong is full of energy, but of a different sort. While the former is jazzed with Ge Lan's song and comical moments of the cast hamming it up for the screen, the latter is of a more serious tone, in its capturing of moments behind the stage, where cast and crew mingle in costume, and belt out their personal favourite numbers. No worries if you're not versed in Hokkien, there are English subtitles to reach out to you, as well as beautifully rendered Hokkien subtitles for those who would like to try their hand at reading them.

Watching this today with the attendance of the troupe (from head honcho right down to musical crew), and their family, friends and fans, it was indeed a boisterous moment when many identified with the stars on screen, and you know who the fans were as they sang along to the familiar tunes belted out from classics of yesteryear. Those who watched it today were in for a special treat, as the screening began with a 5 minute presentation made up of a series of old photographs of the stars, flashing across the screen to an unidentified Hokkien song. And while waiting for everyone to be seated, I thought the title put up on screen was beautifully done too (sorry no pics, didn't have a camera with me you see).

While Sin Sai Hong has that distinctive Royston Tan signature flavour, it somehow seemed relatively muted in influencing the narrative, as you can feel the sheer immense power of the performing troupe coming across with its beautifully cluttered sets, elaborate costumes (they don't call it "big movie" for nothing), immaculately painted faces, delicate hand gestures, and the loud clashing of cymbals fusing with other Chinese musical instruments, including an electronic keyboard.

Yes, in its 4 generations and 96 year history, Sin Sai Hong has to evolve too. And what made the short poignant, are the two new pieces of song delivered by the cast toward the end of the movie, with thanks and pondering about the future. It's no mean feat to be surviving so long and facing constant challenges to stay relevant and attract new crowds, or more importantly, the quest to inject new blood into this medium of entertainment.

I'm confident that this short will garner acclaim and awards if it makes its run in the film festival circuits, but more importantly, allow audiences both local and around the world, to experience up close, the magic of street opera. Highly recommended, and yes, you should grab a ticket as soon as there's any announcement of this short being up for any screening any time soon! Hope to see this included in the next Royston Shorts DVD collection!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Charlotte's Web

You Got A Friend In Me

I had initial hesitation in deciding whether to watch this movie - not because it features a talking pig ala Babe, but probably because, if rumour has you believe, that viewers will swear off pork. They look so cute that you would not imagine them being on your dinner table, ever after. I've read the book when I was a kid, but heck, I can't remember much of the details beyond the friendship between spider and pig.

Wilbur the piglet's destiny is set from birth - being the odd one out without access to its mother's teat, he's earmarked for immediate transformation to pork, but the intervention of a young girl Fern (Dakota Fanning) helped prevent it, albeit for a little while. Put in a barn with the other animals, Wilbur is in desperate need of friendship to wilt away his loneliness, but given the indifferent attitudes amongst the resident animals, he gets a none too friendly introduction to farm life. That is until he meets Charlotte, a spider who will try help to extend the lifespan of Wilbur, saving the spring pig from becoming Christmas ham.

It's a story about friendship, and the miracles gained from trust, help, and the fulfilling of promises. And this movie gets a huge boost through its A-list voice talents, with the likes of, check this out - Julia Roberts as Charlotte, Steve Buscemi as Templeton the selfish rat, John Cleese as Sam Sheep, leader of the pack of sheep followers (played to hilarity), Katy Bates, Cedric the Entertainer, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford, Thomas Haden Church, Andre Benjamin and Sam Shepard. They seemed to have a rip-roaring time, and I thought Julia Roberts' Charlotte came across as extremely calm and collected, while the character with probably the best lines was Templeton the rat.

Fanning already got experience playing opposite her animal counterparts, like in Dreamer earlier this year, though this time in the barnyard the animals are enhanced by technology and graphics. Her role however is limited in screen time, and although there are hints on puppy love, it's very much unexplored in depth as the focus is squarely on our animal friends. The score is an unrecognizable Danny Elfman contribution without the dark overtones, and the songs played during the animated stills of the end credits, do sound radio friendly enough to warrant airplay.

Charlotte's Web is a feel good, heartwarming family movie which is suitable for this holiday season. It is uncomplicated, and has a simple message, but is engaging enough for both children and adults. A warning though, the movie is poignant yet hopeful, so to sentimental folks, a tissue or two will help.


Raging Hormones

In local culture, it's a big deal when you hit 21 years of age. Being legally allowed to watch R21 movies is just but a blip, but what I suppose the usual celebrations will include some hard core partying. It marks a coming of age, of a transition to young adulthood.

In Latin American culture, Quinceañera refers to the young girl's reaching of age 15, celebrating maturity, with the fusion of food, dance, religion, and of course partying with family and friends. And from what the movie portrayed, it's indeed a very big deal, with beautiful gowns, elaborate customs and plenty of trinkets of gifts, as you can recap in a site like this.

The movie however, is not about the custom per se, but about young Magdalena (Emily Rios), who's finding it tough to try and assert celebrating her 15th birthday the way she wants to. It's your usual rage against the system from a teenage perspective, especially from strict upbringing by her minister father. The huge clash comes when she can't control her ranging hormones, and in a huff goes off to be with her great grandfather Tomas (Chalo Gonzalez).

There's a separate storyline running parallel though, and that is of her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who's also putting up at Tomas' abode. With a tough exterior - tattoos, attitude and all, he finds himself attracted to two gay neighbours as they share their little trysts in secret, and you'll be kept guessing for a while just which way Carlos swings.

It's a clash of cultures - conservatism, liberalism, and the changing of attitudes. But not to worry that this movie is heavy. Surprisingly, it's rather poignant, yet has this sense of fluff and light-heartedness thrown in at various points to lighten up the mood. And it manages to pack a punch despite its compact 90 minutes. The leads of Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia help too, in making their characters believable, and not too contrived.

A movie like this introduces us to different cultures, but as we learn, the lessons of life are truly universal. Quinceañera is currently showing at GV VivoCity's Cinema Europa theatre exclusively.


Water Water Everywhere

Water is the last installment of writer-director Deepa Mehta's Elemental Trilogy, the first two being Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), of which I did not have the opportunity to watch on the big screen. But no matter, I'm glad I did watch this. For those who have this misconception that all Hindi movies are loud, boisterous and full of dance energy, perhaps this movie will change your mind (ok, so it isn't from your regular Bollywood movie-mill). Water is quiet and extremely meditative, which is quite surprising as it takes on controversial themes like religion.

The "Sacred text of Manu" dictates a few choices for Hindu widows - to marry the dead husband's younger brother, to cremate herself together with her dead husband, or to live a life of celibacy and self-denial amongst women in the same fate. We follow one of Water's protagonist, the child bride Chuyia (Sarala), as she enters a new phase of life at "The Widow's House" in the holy city of Banaras, given the demise of her spouse. Not one who follows the rules (hey, she's only a child), she finds herself rebelling against the system, and finding friendship in widows Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), and the gorgeous Kalyani (Lisa Ray), of whom the story also puts the spotlight on, in her love with Narayan (John Abraham).

Naturally, if you look at the religious laws in which the women are subjected to, and the movie's depiction of the marginalizing of these women's lives, it is no surprise that the production was interrupted with protests, and had to shoot in Sri Lanka. There is a lack of freedom, and plenty of restriction, and they are not permitted to love another, and in Chuyia's case, probably is condemned to living out her life all alone, save for the friendship amongst the community. But what also raised eyebrows, is how these women are exploited for sex by those in power and with money.

I thought the love between Kalyani and Narayan was one trying against the odds, and it's bittersweet in development, as you root for them to be together despite the insurmountable challenges that they face. And you'll call into question the rationale behind those obstacles, as well as seethe in anger at the obvious exploitation so close to home. Their love is within the historical context of the winds of change within India, led by the return of Mohandas Gandhi in his movement of non violent struggle, of civil disobedience. There are those who enjoy the status quo of having the British rule over them, and there are those who don't. Similarly, this is in contrast with the widows who yearn for a change, but have no choice given circumstances and the acceptance of their fate because of their faith, and of the lovers being denied opportunity, as you root for the change to be soon.

With plenty of beautiful cinematic shots, and complemented with the excellent music of the renowned A R Rahman, Water has just whet my appetite to go and hunt down the other movies in the Elemental trilogy, as well as to get my hands on other Deepa Mehta movies, most notably, Bollywood Hollywood, which also stars Lisa Ray :-)

3 Needles


Released in Singapore to coincide with World Aids Day (1 Dec), it actually took me this long to cast my eyes on the movie, no thanks to weird and limited screenings at one or two theatres. Perhaps it's because of the subject matter, about that disease which, as far as I can recall, doesn't get named at all in the movie, which probably won't sit down well with audiences who are up for the latest feel good movies in town this holiday season.

Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, 3 Needles comprises of 3 distinct stories set in 3 distinct continents - Asia, North America and Africa, but looks into a common killer disease that is plaguing our world today. It takes a look at common fears of those who have the disease, and those from high risk groups who fear of getting the disease, as well as the bad practices and schemes as perpetrated by the greed of men, eager to sacrifice all to make a quick buck.

The story arcs, in my opinion, were not weaved together to form one long narrative. Rather, it looked as if 3 short stories were glued together at the seams to make up the runtime sufficient to call itself a feature film. The first had an illegal blood trafficker, Jin Ping (Lucy Liu), milking all that its worth in a small Chinese village, and for US$5 per packet of blood, managed to entice villagers to undergo unlicensed blood donation drives for a few dollars. Next, we have a porn star Denys (Shawn Ashmore, Iceman in X-Men2 and 3) who, while aware he has the disease, covers up this knowledge through tampering with the provision of blood samples, fearing otherwise he would lose his job in the adult entertainment industry. And lastly, a group of nuns (Chloe Sevigny, Olympia Dukakis, Sandra Oh) journey to a South African village to assist in the care of the villages, only to have Sister Clara (Sevigny) deciding whether it's worth compromising her beliefs, in order to help those she cares for.

When watching these stories, you'll feel a sense of injustice as the characters do what is obviously morally incorrect. You feel angry at the way blood is trafficked without regard to safety and basic hygiene, you feel disgusted at how selfishness clouds the mind into deceit, and the better to go with others rather than oneself, and you feel sorry for the way sacrifices have to be made, while wishing eternal damnation to those who choose to exploit situations for their own gratification. As a movie, if its objectives is to make you feel for the issues presented, then it's done its part.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I find it rather strange that HIV or AIDS is never mentioned explicitly. Could it be there this "disease which shall not be named" is following its self-fulfilling prophecy amongst men that it is shameful to be infected, and the misconception that victims were actually asking for it when they engage in risky activities, to follow the common attitude to hush it all up, and choose to disbelieve the bringing forward of the expiry date on their lives?

As a movie, the presentation is rather plain, and I thought that the narrative probably would be better if the stories were somehow spliced together neatly so that it flows nicely from one arc to the next, rather than opting for the lazy obvious way to segregate them. While nothing controversial is discussed, there are a few scenes that will raise a few eyebrows, and the best amongst those involves a very pregnant Lucy LIu in a field. I don't think I've seen any such scenes in graphic detail, and definitely not in the manner presented. Beats the one which is most talked about involving Chloe Sevigny.

It doesn't offer you new insights into the disease, but exhibits on common fears from both sides, and offers the dramatization of unscrupulous acts which help to propagate the problem on a much larger scale. If you're intrigued to watch it, you have to do so soon as I suspect it wouldn't last another week at the screens. Look out too for the local actor, Ng Chin Han (from the local television "comedy" series dud Masters of the Sea) in quite a meaty role as a Chinese soldier.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Holiday

Can Someone Pass The Soap?

Trust me to look deep into a typical chick flick dealing with love and romance, and actually buying into it. The Holiday, starring Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black, carries itself through via the solid performance of its cast, predominantly eye-candy, save one charismatic Jack in a non-comedic, dramatic role.

Being character and issue driven, The Holiday has its characters all suffering from and being out of favour with Love, and from there, begin the story of their struggle and development. Stories of unrequited love, being taken for a ride, doubts about long distance relationships, commitment, and of course, trust. You'll probably feel for the four primary characters, because if you're someone who have even been in a relationship, then you're more than likely to identify with them, at one point or another as they move along the story, dealing with different aspects of love, but ultimately, being afraid of being hurt by Love.

I thought Cameron Diaz was back at her ditzy best, being someone unable to feel and connect emotionally, and being cheated upon by her boyfriend played by Edward Burns. Kate Winslet was very believable as someone suffering from unrequited love, and looked ultra vulnerable, pining for her supposed beau portrayed by Rufus Sewell (last seen in Tristan and Isolde). Jude Law doesn't do much except to turn on those charms when needed, while Jack Black was at his element when in the video store, with his character romancing Shannyn Sossamon, who more than faded away after her stint in A Knight's Tale opposite Heath Ledger.

Much of the movie managed to unravel itself with quite a number of little surprises, as the trailer did not give away too much besides the fact that two out-of-love girls perform a home exchange during the holiday season, and found more than they bargained for with new opportunities in love. These little surprise elements are like presents being unwrapped during Christmas - you guess what's coming, get strong hints, and finally, while suspecting what the gift is, you'll still be pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Be they plot devices, elements or even characters, there are plenty of moments to warm your heart. I guess "cute" never ran out of fashion, not in this genre.

What works is the pacing and editing. Running at 2 hours and 15 minutes, it will be rare if you find any moment a bit of a bore. While at the veneer there are tons of issues and problems about romance itself, and the trials and ghosts that each character had to exorcise, beneath the exterior are feel good, hopeful messages, those that you'd more or less expect a close friend to dispense, never mind if they sound cliche or obvious.

Date movie, Christmas movie, romance and feel good drama all rolled into one, The Holiday is very much a been there done that trip down memory lane for those experienced, while at the same time giving plenty of hope to those who haven't or are holding out for that special someone. But only if you buy into its message. Feel the love, people, and peace and goodwill toward all men.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


The Horse Riders

I'm not sure why many have cited this to be yet another epic fantasy movie in the mould of Lord of the Rings, or even Harry Potter. Perhaps it's the release date, given that all make it to the silver screen toward the end of the year. However, given that the story is based on a novel written by a sixteen year old at the time, the shades of familiarity stem from something on a grander scale. And to me, it's Star Wars: A New Hope.

The similarities are obvious. Eragon (Edward Speleers), the farmboy, raised not by his parents, but by his relatives. He learns how to use mystical power bestowed upon him, and has a mentor, Brom (Jeremy Irons), teach him the ways too. The villains wield same capabilities, and they all wear black, seeking to destroy hope. Midway, there's a quest to save Princess Arya (Sienna Guillory), and it all culminates in a huge battle, except that the villains launch the initiative, like the Battle of Hoth rather than Yavin.

If that doesn't sound like A New Hope to you, then you'd probably come to enjoy Eragon, the first part of the Inheritance trilogy. However, if you make the connection, then I'd say you'll be pretty much bored as the movie has neither many moments to whip up your adrenaline, and is filled with a number of dialogue that will make you cringe. Perhaps the finale battle is the only saving grace of this movie, but even that has shades of LOTR's attack at Helm's Deep, only that it's on a much smaller scale, and lacking in detail.

The cast is quite spectacular, though I'm a bit surprised that Jeremy Irons is in the movie. Some of you would have known he starred in the grand daddy of fantasy realms - Dungeons and Dragons, but unfortunately, that movie bombed. I suppose he's back here to make amends, but unfortunately, he doesn't get much opportunity to do so. Robert Carlyle as chief villain in this installment is your typical over the top overconfident bad guy, and he's the one with the inappropriate funny lines, which seem to repeat themselves over and over again. John Malkovich is a complete waste as the evil King, and as villains, repeat themselves ad nauseam. Perhaps as a hint, the filmmakers have reigned him in to unleash more mayhem in the sequels.

Saphira the dragon is designed beautifully enough though, given the last celebrity voiced dragon we saw was in Dragonheart, provided by Sean Connery. But I suspect that the baby dragon will win a lot more hearts than a fully grown one. You can hear those gasps amongst the audience, that should some marketing folk start making the plush toy, it'll sell like hotcakes this Christmas.

Eragon clocks in at way under 2 hours, which is hardly material enough to consider it an epic. Given the shortened run time, there are various bits on the character's learning and development of abilities which seemed very rushed and summarized even, making it feel very choppy. However, as with all first films of the trilogy, it's the establishment of who's who and what's what, so hopefully, if a sequel pulls through, that it'll be way better than this one.

And yeah, it cracked me up upon hearing Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz) stating that she needed a rider. Ha!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Midnight Sun (Taiyo No Uta)

If She Busks, I'll Be There Every Night!

I'm a sucker for romances of such nature, and I thought romances usually fall broadly under two categories - one bearing films like Midnight Sun, and the other being romantic comedies. It's a sweet love story between a busker with a great voice, and an unskilled surfer dude. It's a tale about a love with an end date put on it, and it makes you wonder if it's only with an end in sight, that you try and make the most our of everything, rather than to waste time and take things for granted.

Japanese singer Yui plays Kaoru, a girl inflicted with a rare disorder, which makes her nocturnal. She cannot go out in the sun as the UV rays will wreck havoc on her skin and kill her, and so, from birth, has been kept indoors most of the time, and let out an night to allow her to do what she loves most - busking at a secluded corner at her neighbourhood. She has a crush on Koji (Takashi Tsukamoto), a surfer dude, an average guy with an average life. Each night, she observes him, without his knowledge, from her bedroom window, until one day when she picks up enough courage to make the first move.

Welcome to the world of Japanese romance movies once again, where beautiful cinematic shots are used to enhance locales and make them so integral in the story. Where love is saccharine sweet, and the leads oh-so-beautiful. The songs too, written and sung by Yui, grows on you, and I won't be surprised if the soundtrack for the movie is selling like hot cakes.

What I thought raised the movie to a different level, is how parents are involved. Usually, in most romances, the parents are out of the picture. Here, they are so very much part of the entire set up, and while they do take the backseat at times, there're scenes dedicated just for the parents, and especially the father figure. It's always especially painful to see your child suffer under an incurable disease, and as a parent, incapable of lifting a finger to help, because you just can't, definitely hurts. Here, the melodrama works full steam, but I thought it was a nice touch to be inclusive of those who always provide unconditional love - parent to child.

Clocking at two hours, the initial pacing is a bit slow when establishing characters and premise, but once that's done, the movie's a breeze. It's an excellent date movie, so guys, take your lady love to this movie, and of course, Yui is opportunity for you to ogle ;-) Remember to bring those tissues!


The Red Baron Cometh!

This is yet another war movie coming out of Hollywood, but this time it leaves the dramatics and contemplative issues aside, and focus on the action pieces. With its prologue flashing across the screen that we're expecting to learn about the heroes of the war, you know the mood is set for some wham-bam pyrotechnics and stunts.

Movies set in WWI are different in the sense that it's the first massive war on a near global scale, which uses various weapons for the first time, and these weapons, though standard of today, were considered weapons of mass destruction for that time with its ability to inflict mass casualties. Weapons like machine guns, tanks, planes, and even chemical warfare unleashed into the trenches are hallmarks of WWI. Flyboys, as the title puts it, turns the spotlight on a group of mostly American volunteers into the French Lafayette Escadrille, a flight squadron. With the plane a relatively new piece of technology in those days, you can trust us humans to find methods to turn technology into killing machines.

If you're a fan of flight simulators of old, then Flyboys is right up your alley. For me, I've become an addict on a game called the Red Baron running on an old PC of mine, and I spent countless of hours, just like those pilots in the movie, deciding my affiliation, and flying various missions from the comfort of an armchair. And Flyboys probably took a cue, and what we have were awesome aerial combat, and beautifully modelled aeroplanes employed in missions ranging from bombing, to air defense, and even the attack on German zeppelins. However, after a while, the stunts become pretty ordinary, almost like Star Wars set in WWI, especially with the fleet's style of head to head engagements, except for the ace pilots where specific moves were developed just to show why they're top gun.

And this movie does show shades of other similar movies, with the obvious one being Top Gun in the first half, where the motley crew of combatants undergo training at a flight school. It's kind of interesting to observe how training those days are conducted, since the technology and training techniques were still at their infancy. You won't get bored though, as it's almost breezing through flight school with everyone graduating because the life expectancy of a fighter pilot is between 3-6 weeks. They're falling out of the skies like flies.

The other familiar element, is the romance bit. Yes, besides flying, pilots do have a life, and with movies, it just cannot do without a beautiful love interest. An accident allowed James Franco's Blaine Rawlings to meet Jennifer Decker's Lucienne, a French woman he develops feelings for, but she is hesitant to reciprocate because such budding relationships during war sometimes do not last, more so when he's part of a high risk, high death unit. So what does a pilot do? Why, set the example for Ben Affleck to follow in Pearl Harbor - take the lady up to the skies! See the tactic? Tried and tested I tell you!

James Franco once again plays the brooding lead, and alternates between angst and cockiness with aplomb. Girls will probably watch this movie to squeal each time he appears in uniform. Here, he's your sensitive leader, one who galvanizes his men, as well as shower tenderness on his love. Naturally, he's the recognizable star amongst the rest, besides a ground role for Jean Reno, so he's the ace (or becoming to be one), trying to learn from the guru with the most kills, Reed Cassidy, your expected and seemingly cocky pilot (wait! Aren't pilots all?)

There's a theme I like which the movie explored, and frequently mentioned, and that is the way battles are fought. In olden days, there is always honour, and men fought honourably, according to a moral code of conduct. Which brings us to wonder, do you prefer to fight fair, i.e. should someone lose a sword, either lose yours or allow him to pick his up? Or do you attack enemies on parachutes by shooting at their chute? Battle without honour or humanity just to win the fight, is what Rawlings have to come to grips with, and by the end, you will know which is the path he will take.

If there's a gripe I had, it was the excessive nodding. It's an acknowledgement that you're good/bad/gonna get screwed, and while the first few might have raised some goosebumps, this particular thingamajig went on and on and on, it just turned our plain hilarious. Do something - nod, downed a bogey - nod, crap in the pants - nod. OK, so I exaggerated on the last one.

All in all, it's an aviation action movie fan's wet dream. If games are to be believed, then the German planes have better specification and maneuvered better, but if you believe what the movie said, then it all boils down to the pilots. These flyboys deliver.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Beauty is Only Skin Deep

No, this is nothing about that fairy tale with the pumpkin coach, fairy godmother and the glass slippers, but if I were to elaborate, I would have to spoil it for you, which I won't. But don't let curiosity get the better of you, as this movie is not fantastic. It's one of those movies that start off promisingly, before betraying its audience with cheap scare tactics and an incoherent storyline. And that's real horror.

Yoon-hee (To Ji-Won) and Hyun-soo (Shin Se-kyeong) are your ideal mother and daughter. One's a successful plastic surgeon, while the other your dutiful, obedient, and beautiful teenage daughter. Their relationship is like hand in glove, so close you'd think of them more as siblings rather than parent-child. But things start to go wrong (don't they always) when Hyun-soo's friends, whom Yoon-hee has operated on, start to go berserk.

Perhaps it's a warning to audiences, and for those Koreans ladies who don't bat an eyelid when going under the knife, if news reports are to be believed. The only truly scary moments are those scenes in plastic surgery, though somehow, I thought Kim Ki-duk's Time actually had more gore when featuring and describing what goes on during the surgery itself.

It's a tale of two halves, the fist being an attempt to shock audiences with standard scare tactics, which, I admit, did get to me now and then. However, the second half degenerated the movie into mindless mumbo-jumbo melodramatics, and was quite contrived into its forcing its ideas down your throat. Some things begin not to make sense, and while attempts are always presented to explain, you probably won't buy it, not that horror movies are logical to begin with.

The leads are all beautiful, and there is a distinct lack of male presence besides the negligible cop role. But hey, I'm not complaining, though the storyline could have been improved tremendously. I'd recommend you to watch this, only if you're a fan of mediocre Korean horror, on VCD. Watch out for those face off-ish moments!

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Nativity Story

Away In The Manger

The Nativity Story is probably the most staged skit/play/musical in the month of December in most churches, and everyone who has been to Sunday School will definitely be all too familiar with the humble birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. With Christmas becoming too much of a commercial farce (in my opinion anyway), and with plenty of movies set during the Christmas holiday being a little lightweight, I thought this production is timely in remembering the origins of the festival.

Not that it's 100% accurate (as in exactly as what's in the Bible), as it dramatizes certain events, but on the whole, the familiar plot elements are all there. While Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was a controversial piece with big named stars, and probably blown out of proportion with the general focus on its graphic violence, The Nativity Story in contrast is a humble, beautiful film that celebrates life, making its way to become the first feature film to premiere at the Vatican, compared to Passion's fixation with painful death.

Director Catherine Hardwicke, in her third movie after Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, begins the movie with the premonition of the coming of John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin. Which I thought was a nice touch, rather than zooming it straight into our star parents Mary and Joseph. And she deftly brings out believability in both Keira Castle-Hughes as Mary, and Oscar Isaac as Joseph. Their Mary and Joseph come through as God-fearing and obeying, yet, like all humans, have the tendency to doubt. Between the two, I thought Isaac's Joseph had the meatier role as the man being entrusted the responsibility to take care of his wife and unborn child in times of strife, though of course, with God on their side, you'd come to expect nothing bad to befall them.

All's not gloomy and serious in this story though, as comic relief is provided via the Three Wise Men, though I'm not really sure if it'll go down well with audiences. What I thoroughly enjoyed was to see certain milestone scenes from my faulty memory about the story, being played out on screen - the discovery of the virgin pregnancy, the visit of Gabriel, the census, and of course, the awesome scene at the Bethlehem manger, where the shepherds and the Wise Men arrive to pay homage.

It's a tale of love and sacrifices made by the central characters of Mary and Joseph, of their unwavering belief and faith, and in my opinion, that's what made this telling of the Christmas story compelling to watch. And I liked the bit where discrimination crept in as a minor plot point.

The movie has excellent production values and no effort is spared in creating the telling of the arrival of the King of Kings, especially in the costumes and sets department, be they computer generated cities, or rock-walled villages. The musical score also evokes the mood accurately, and if you listen attentively, you can hear whispers of familiar Christmas hymns and songs incorporated into it.

While biblical movies of old like The Ten Commandments has itself a place amongst cinematic greats, The Nativity Story, if I may add, certainly has earned its keeps amongst movies for this holiday season of goodwill, by putting up an excellent movie on the origins of the festival.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Singapore Films Released on DVD

This is an article which first appeared at Twitch.

As Todd mentioned in an earlier post, Singapore just had its first online DVD store launched. Which means an international audience will now have an opportunity to sample some of this year's theatrical releases from Singapore on DVD format. I shall attempt to recommend some of the more recent releases, and it's up to you to give them a shot!

4:30 is Royston Tan's latest feature film, and was the closing film of this year's Singapore International Film Festival, the first local film to do so. It has won several critical acclaim, the latest being the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award at the 26th Hawaii International Film Festival. Some of you would have been familiar with his first feature, 15, about a group of delinquent youths seeking an identity in our orderly island, or have watched a number of his short films (also released in a separate collector's DVD), and you would find this film very much different with its distinct lack of "noise". It's quiet, contemplative, and very mature storytelling.

In contrast, Singapore GaGa, a documentary made by Tan Pin Pin, captures vividly the aural landscape of Singapore, tuning in with accomplished musicians, and buskers on the streets. Playing to full houses in its limited run at a local screen, it'll offer you a different perspective into the lives of Singaporeans as seen, or rather, heard, through the background sounds and music of our everyday lives.

Also another documentary, Diminishing Memories, in my opinion, is an important one showcasing the progress made in Singapore's relatively short, modern history. As much as most know about the rapid rise to urbanization, this film captures the story of now forgotten villages of old, when farms dominated the landscape in the west. Told from a very personal point of view from the filmmaker, Diminishing Memories contains numerous clips and photographs of a bygone era, and interviews with the residents who were once neighbours, being forced to relocate into new urban living environment. It's a valued film that deserves a place in our film archives for its preservation of lives that once were, of a lifestyle now almost forgotten.

Saving the best for the last, Singapore Dreaming is an excellent piece from husband and wife team of Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen. Relatively new to the local filmmaking scene, their movie Singapore Dreaming played to a full house in a Charity Gala screening during this year's Singapore International Film Festival, and is a portrayal of an average family in Singapore, looking into their trials and tribulations which some deem too close for comfort. To me, it's an honest amalgamation, and an acute observation of some of the issues we experience today, on our fixation with that perennial Singapore Dream, or is it rather, the material Singapore Plan? Winner of the Montblanc New Screenwriters Award in the 54th San Sebastian Film Festival held earlier this year, it contains arguably the best ensemble cast for a local movie to date.

4:30 Official Website.
4:30 Embedded Flash Trailer at YouTube.
Order the DVD.

Singapore GaGa Official Website, containing a link to an Embedded QuickTime trailer.
Order the DVD.

Diminishing Memories Official Website.
Order the DVD.

Singapore Dreaming Official Website .
Singapore Dreaming Embedded Flash Trailer at YouTube.
Order the DVD.
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