Wednesday, February 28, 2007

[DVD] The Motel (2005)

I've always been curious about Asian American movies, because being Asian, you'll easily find some angle in which you're able to identify with, and despite some being indie, the production values are actually high. In my limited exposure to such films as Robot Stories and Saving Face, both of which I enjoyed tremendously, it just piqued my interest to find out about more of such films out there, and Fate has brought The Motel to my attention.

Everyone will recall some memorable events when growing up, either that tussle with the bully, that disagreement with seemingly unreasonable parents, the sibling you love to hate, or that puppy love experience with someone cute, whom you find a tad difficult to declare your feelings to - hey, you're only a teen!

Written and directed by Michael Kang, and based on the novel "Waylaid" by Ed Lin, this indie movie has already garnered awards in the film festival circuit, like the HUMANITAS prize in the Sundance Feature Film category. And it's no surprise why, as the film is endearing with its ensemble characters, especially the protagonist Ernest, a thirteen year old teen growing up in a sleazy hourly-rated motel, the kind you'd think twice about allowing your kid to be nurtured in.

Played by Jeffrey Chyau, Ernest will probably endear himself to you, because of that rolly-polly frame, and his being stuck at the crossroads of his 13 years of life, lacklustre, dazed and confused. The target for bullies, at home and amongst peers, it's no fun juggling school work and house work - being the designated housekeeper of the motel, picking up dubious remains in rooms, and falling in love with your best pal - Christine (Samantha Futerman), 2 years older and like himself, works in a family owned business.

The film takes its time to introduce us to Ernest's life, but all hell breaks loose with the arrival of carefree Sam (Sung Kang), one of the Motel's customer whom Ernest unwittingly allowed to stay despite his credit bouncing. To Ernest, he's the kind of guy who's cool - with a hot car and spending the nights with hot babes, and not before long, Sam takes it upon himself to guide Ernest through his state of confusion and inertia, imparting valuable skills in which to use to impress the girl of his dreams.

The pacing of the movie is a breeze, as we drift from episode to episode, and Sung Kang really ramped up the movie with his chemistry with Jeffrey Chau. The characters bounce off each other with so much natural energy, you wonder how much more it would take to keep them on screen all the time - Ernest, in having a surrogate father figure, someone cool to counter balance the miserableness of living with a domineering mother (played to perfection by Jade Wu), and Sam, finding an outlet to lend someone a helping hand, a redemption on his part for his sorry past and lifestyle.

With plenty of comedy, through witty dialogue or physical jokes (watch out for that scene to rival American Pie!), The Motel engages your attention before spinning towards a darker atmosphere, leading to a finale that touches the right chord, that perhaps things don't look all that bad and hopeless, that with the right influences, mindset and acceptance, puberty after all, isn't all that bad a stage to go through, despite screwing up once in a while.

For those who want to give Asian American indie films a try, why not check into The Motel?

Audio and Visual
The 16x9 widescreen transfer is generally sharp, save for the outdoor night scenes which at times turned out to be too dark, losing some details. The Motel comes in Dolby Digital surround sound 2.0 stereo or 5.1, which is more than adequate given that there aren't any huge sound effects.

There are a decent number of extras included in the DVD, though what was sorely missing were the deleted scenes which director Michael Kang and actors Sung Kang and Jeffrey Chyau mentioned in their commentary. The commentary shared plenty of inside jokes and behind the scenes look at what transpired in the creation of the movie, and you can almost feel the strong camaraderie amongst the trio, all the way to the end credits, though at times there are occasional lapses of silence, especially toward the end.

The simple bits were the US theatrical trailer, some previews of movies like Wondrous Oblivion, Rolling Family, Clean and I Trust You to Kill Me, and weblinks to the Puberty Sucks webpage, as well as the webpage of Palm Pictures.

The main beef comes from the Behind the Scenes Featurette (22 mins), containing plenty of interviews with cast and crew, and some footage of the rehearsal readings. The featurette is organized into logical sections (though non selectable from a menu), from "Constructing the Motel", "Working With Kids", to individual sections devoted to principal cast members, where opinions from the rest were shared. You can also see how Jeffrey and Sung bonded with their out of production activities, as well as watch how some minor disasters crept their way onto the set.

The Director's Picks contains 4 separate mini featurettes which you can watch them all in one go, or individually. With a combined running time of not more than 4 minutes, you'll see why Michael Kang has chosen these 4 particular scenes for extra emphasis, as they contain memorable moments for both cast and crew, especially "The Kiss", which has on celluloid, Jeffrey Chyau's first kiss, ever!

You can visit the official website of The Motel by clicking on this link, which includes 3 parts of a podcast series with the director Michael Kang speaking to the producer and the leads.

The DVD is available for order, and you can get it from Palm Pictures.

For those of you on MySpace, you can visit the movie's MySpace page. There's also a YouTube "Worst Puberty Story" contest, and you can get the details here.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Nutshell Prediction: 79th Annual Academy Awards

OK, it's that time again when I'll stick my neck out and come out with my predictions for the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Last year saw me walk away with a wad of $$35 as my predictions won me the annual bet, courtesy of the winning prediction of Best Original Song from Hustle and Flow. Hope I'll be spot on again this year. Here goes...

Actor in a Supporting Role
Mark Wahlberg's too uncouth, Jackie Earle Haley's too vulgar, Djimon Hounsou too whiny, and while I love Alan Arkin's role in Little Miss Sunshine, it somehow ended too prematurely.

Which leaves Eddie Murphy to bring home the trophy with his R&B and soul, coupled with some slick dance moves. Everyone loves a performer!

Actress in a Supporting Role
Adriana Barraza didn't have much to do in Babel except walk in the sun. Cate Blanchett put up an excellent performance, but she already won in the same category for The Aviator not too long ago. Which makes it a three way fight between Rinko Kikuchi, Jennifer Hudson and Abigail Breslin. Some have touted Rinko to walk away with the award, but I reckon providing full frontal nudity, and spreading pussy isn't a healthy sign to win.

My heart goes out to Abigail Breslin to win so that she can probably repeat that madcap performance in Little Miss Sunshine, but my head says Jennifer Hudson has become the darling with her lung busting singing in Dreamgirls.

Come to think of it, I would be delighted should Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin both win the supporting role awards for Little Miss Sunshine!

Actor in a Leading Role
Venus haven't made it to our shores here, but I am quite certain Peter O'Toole won't bag it. Ryan Gosling was basically stoned, which half of Tinseltown could do with their eyes closed. Leonardo DiCaprio did a decent job in Blood Diamond, but I suspect his action role was quite generic in nature amongst action heroes.

I would support Will Smith, as I enjoyed his performance in The Pursuit of Happyness, but everyone, bow down to the winner, Forest Whitaker!

Actress in a Leading Role
Missed the chance to watch Penelope Cruz in Volver today, so I guess my judgement can't possibly include her. However, there is already a clear winner, just let me go through the motion on the others. Judi Dench is menacing in Notes on a Scandal, and so is Meryl Streep, in a classic bitch role in The Devil Wears Prada. Kate Winslet as an adulterous mother won win it as we go pro-family values.

Whatever the case, everybody hail The Queen! Helen Mirren is a shoo in for the awards.

So we'll see royalty, a king and a queen, bag the lead acting awards.

Clint Eastwood has been a regular here, so it's time he gave others an opportunity. Paul Greengrass is getting his first directing nomination, so I don't think a newbie will be given the award, not when veterans are around who had done better. Stephen Frears, the second time, so I'm sorry but you'll have to wait your turn. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu as well, a relative newbie, should we compare to the predicted winner.

Martin Scorsese, it's about time you claim the honour, after 5 previous nominations for directing. This one's yours!

Best Picture
The Departed at its core is an Asian movie. By honouring it, it's akin to saying Asia has better storylines. Letters From Iwo Jima is in a foreign language, so chances are slim. The Queen is nothing spectacular, save for Helen Mirren's acting.

Which leaves Little Miss Sunshine, which my heart goes out to for its quirky storyline, but my head will pick Babel to win the coveted title for Best Picture, following the footsteps of Crash, which in structure it's similar to. Until Hollywood gets tired of multiple converging narratives.

My other predictions:

Animated Feature Film - I would say Monster House is a breakthrough, and Happy Feet a bore towards the end. But who can resist the charm of Pixar with its summer offering Cars?
Art Direction - This is tough, as each category offered something unique - Dreamgirls for the musical stage, Good Shepherd for its early American looks, Pan's Labyrinth for its WWII Spain, The Prestige for its Victorian England, and Pirates for something we've already seen before. Dreamgirls to win, since it got the most nominations this year.
Cinematography - I love The Prestige, so I hope it'll walk away with this award.
Costume Design - Contemporary fashion in Prada is like a product placement endorsement. The Queen doesn't offer nothing we've not seen in her real wardrobe. Dreamgirls had its share of costume changes, but I suspect period dramas will win. So Gong Li's heaving bosoms will provide Curse of the Golden Flower the lift it needs to trounce Kirsten Dunst's in Marie Antoinette.
Documentary Feature - An Inconvenient Truth, for its message. 'Nuff said.
Documentary Short - I'll go with Rehearsing a Dream, just because filmmakers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon were nominated twice before, and about time to win it.
Film Editing - There are 2 movies here which I have not seen, so this is tough, but I'll go for Babel, just because it weaved multiple narratives, and not because it had done it well.
Foreign Language Film - With so many folks liking a movie I hate, I'll go with the flow. Pan's Labyrinth will snag this, even though my heart will root for Water or Days of Glory.
Makeup - Pan's Labyrinth to win it, although I though none of the nominees (Click and Apocalypto) had any breakthrough.
Music (Score) - The Good German, as Thomas Newman had been nominated 7 times before, and it's about time.
Music (Song) - With Dreamgirls having 3 out of 5 nominations here, it's likely to snag one. Which one? I'd place my bets on Love You I Do.
Sound Editing - I'd go with Apocalypto.
Sound Editing - I'd go with Apocalypto too.
Visual Effects - Superman Returns, for its many CG shots compared to Pirates or Poseidon.
Writing (Adapted Screenplay) - The Departed to win, since it can't win Best Picture.
Writing (Original Screenplay) - Pan's Labyrinth, since it wasn't nominated for Best Picture.
Short Film (Animated) - No Time for Nuts. Looks like an Ice Age spin off.
Short Film (Live Action) - West Bank Story. I'm a sucker for musical comedies.

[DVD] The Maid (2005)

Are You Spooked?

It's not that difficult to understand why The Maid was successful during its run at the local theatres, and have garnered international attention. I did not catch the movie when it premiered in the theatres (that's another story for another day), but one of the many reasons/excuses I had was that the horror genre of late from Asia were usually laughable efforts, with mediocre storylines, sometimes bordering on the ludicrous.

Not that The Maid didn't have its fair share, but somehow it was tolerable, and actually tried to tell a decent story, which I enjoyed. While some might say it's influences have come from movies like The Sixth Sense and Ju-on, I thought it was a decent effort for our current generation of directors to have spun a yarn from the horror genre, currently monopolized by the Japanese and the Koreans. Curiosity about the effort locally had me borrowing this DVD, and I shall unabashedly say I'd enjoy every moment of it, though not without some gripes of course.

The premise is set entirely during the Lunar Seventh Month, which is the month where the Chinese believe the denizens from Hell are released for their holiday on Earth, where they can roam around, and spook folks who do not observe the rules. Rules like not returning home late, not stepping on offerings, not turning back when someone calls you out, and so on. The Maid, seen through the eyes of domestic worker Rosa Dimano (the very beautiful Alessandra de Rossi from The Philippines), introduces audiences and refreshes those familiar with the strange customs, about the do's and the don'ts.

New to Singapore, her employment comes from an elderly couple, the Teos (television veterans Chen Shu Cheng and Hong Hui Fang), who head a Teochew opera troupe. While the Hokkien dialect has made its fair exposure in local cinema thanks to Jack Neo movies, it's refreshing to hear the Teochew language being the lingua franca of choice in the movie. It doesn't take long for Rosa to violate some of the unwritten laws, and therefore, she starts to experience things that go bump in the day and night.

Yup, strange things happen in the day as well, which I find peculiar. Anyway, be it in limited lighting, or broad daylight, the cinematography by Lucas Jodoigne was beautiful, and probably added a positive dimension to the overall feel of the movie, as did the art director Daniel Lim. Were there moments of disappointment? You bet, and the major one is with the spirits themselves. They just stand around doing nothing! Despite relying on the usual tricks up the sleeves of horror filmmakers, like the passing shadows, musical crescendos, creaking furniture, and close up fast cuts, the technique used never go beyond that, and the spirits just hang around. What gives? Some editing needed to be tightened as certain scenes were inserted without much thought to narrative flow, and looked a bit out of place as a transitional scene.

That said, I'm still of the opinion that Kelvin Tong's The Maid has its niched appeal, and more importantly, cemented his ability to make commercial films that can be enjoyed by the masses. If his Love Story had put me off, The Maid had shown what he is capable of, besides his debut with Eating Air, which I also enjoyed.

The visual transfer is decently done, and allows for details to be seen even in scenes with little lighting, rather than becoming all black. The colours were vibrant during the opera scenes, while maintaining the dull atmosphere of the Teo family. English and Mandarin subtitles are available, though for the first 2 minutes of the film where there was a dialect voiceover, somehow the much needed translation explaining some Seventh Month superstition was missed. While subtitling was good, there were some noticeable grammatical errors in the beginning.

You're given a choice of either Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1, so depending on how spooked you want to be when the music by Joe Ng and Alex Oh comes on, you might want to tweak it for that surround sound capability.

The Code 3 DVD by Scorpio East comes with the standard offerings like scene selections, and contain special features like the 1min 55s theatrical trailer, as well as the Making Of, with both English and Mandarin subtitles. containing interviews with the principle cast, Kelvin Tong the writer-director, and Daniel Yun, executive producer.

Running 22 minutes, there's a decent amount of information revealed on the art direction, and some behind the scenes look during shooting, where I thought a scene showing the cast having a heck of a time dancing during their break, was hilarious.

[DVD] One More Chance (3个好人) (2005)

Siao Liao

While billed as "A Jack Neo Film", the undisputed commercially successful local director actually shares the scriptwriting and directing duties and credits with other collaborators - Du Nan Xing and Michael Woo (directing), and Boris Boo and Ho Hee Ann (story). If I recall, this movie was made in conjunction with the Yellow Ribbon Project, which encourages the public and employers to provide a chance for rehabilitated ex-convicts.

Watching this off the heels of Just Follow Law, and despite other collaborators on board, this movie undoubtedly embodies everything you can identify with in a Jack Neo film. The regular faces of Mark Lee, Marcus Chin and Henry Thia allows the film to reach out again to the heartlander fans of their successful television series Comedy Night, and it did have decent returns at the box office.

You can't fault the story for having a contemporary cliched plot for the three protagonists. For the film to reach out to the common masses, familiar stories which you hear from the grapevine, or from newspaper reports, are harvested for the back stories of the characters, the issues they face while inside prison, and the prejudice they encounter when they're released.

Mark Lee's Youhuang was jailed for commercial fraud, leaving behind a pregnant fiancee played by Apple Hong (who looked real photogenic at every camera angle) for 7 years. Upon his release, his issue is a rival in love, as well as the connection with a daughter he hardly knows. Marcus Chin's Weiguang is a compulsive gambler, and together with wife Meilian (Lina Ng), they face problems with loan sharks and bad debts (albeit this subplot was already done to death in Jack Neo's earlier film, Money No Enough). Henry Thia plays a good for nothing serial housebreaker Hui, who has to fulfill his dying mother's last wishes. Naturally all 3 narratives will come together, but perhaps only Youhuang's story was something relatively refreshing from a Jack Neo movie angle (i.e. not done before), as compared to the other 2 stories.

There are a few liberties given to the movie, since it's out to support the government's initiative of accepting those with a criminal past. For example, the story assumes that most who go to the slammer are uncouth and dialect speaking (although this is a "Chinese" movie, there are some weak attempts into portraying the multi-racial elements of society, having token prisoners from other races put into the shots of Changi Prison). It goes to show that sometimes Hokkien vulgarities are given the green light, or that dialects are spoken at great lengths, contradictory to the Speak Mandarin campaign objectives, which results in Cantonese movies being dubbed. Of course the more valid reason will be not everyone here speaks Mandarin in their everyday life, and when in Rome, do as the Romans do, otherwise the entire movie would have fallen flat should everyone be speaking in perfect Mandarin.

The main draw of the movie is the first 20-30 minutes (akin to Just Follow Law), where you get to take a look at the main crux of the story. Here, we get to glimpse the internals of our own Alcatraz - the fabled Changi Prison, and having the movie filmed on location, raises its profile. You get to see the cell, the amenities, and of course, the story had to weave in montages of what inmates do on a daily basis, from exercise to studies, and the rooms used for family visits.

Comedy is still sprinkled in this relatively serious movie, and given the seasoned comedians, these are pulled off with ease. There are still ample time given to criticize certain policies of the authorities, like the jab on the casino issue, but again, nothing too critical (still toting the safe line), regurgitating much coffee shop talk. The dreaded caning scene was stripped down to just the aftermath, and turned to comedy instead, which I thought if it was filmed and shown in its full gory, I mean glory, would make a somewhat good deterrence for would be lawbreakers.

And what's a Jack Neo movie without explicit product placement? A prominent sushi company, as well as a regular BBQ pork company were so obvious, as their shops were worked into the sets, as well as a jewellery company providing one "perfection" diamond ring. You might think it's easy for Jack to have worked with sponsors to have them featured in a movie, but in reel mimicking real, he too had difficulties convincing them to be featured in a movie like this.

Expect song montages, and an ending so fantastical, it borders on the absurd to come out with a happy ending (again akin to Just Follow Law), somehow I wish that one day we won't experience anymore cringe worthy, contrived finale, which highlights the inability to end off a movie in believable satisfactory fashion.

The visual presentation is adequate, and at times lacked the sharpness of a digital transfer. Words and titles on the film suffered from bleeding, though the subtitles, available in English and Mandarin, were ok. Audio was decent, though there is no fancy multiple stereo surround sound to choose from, unnecessary for a film like this.

Code 3 DVD from Scorpio East contains some special features, though for non Mandarin/Hokkien speaking viewers, you'll rue at the lack of English subtitles.

The usual theatrical trailer (2 min), scene selections, and photo gallery are included, together with a section known as the "NG Shots" (No Good), where goofs on the set are captured, alongside missed lines and the cast flubbing in their scenes. Included are some scenes which didn't make the final cut. Running at 7min 30s, the bad thing is that everything is lumped into one, so you'll have no choice but to watch this feature from start to end.

The other notable inclusion is the Making Of documentary. At 21 minutes, this is clearly made for television as there are appropriate advertising pauses in between for stations to slot in commercials. It's the usual making of documentary with interviews of cast and directors, and their sharing of experience having shot this film in Changi Prison. Curiously, there are Chinese subtitles included when the interviewees rattle off in English. Nothing fancy, as it ends off with one of the theme songs.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness

That's My Boy!

Will Smith has come a long way since his Fresh Prince of Bel Air days. Starring in an average of 1 movie per year, ranging from action to serious drama, it's without a doubt that he's one of the world's most bankable stars, and turns in an Oscar nominated performance for his role as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, inspired by the events of the real Chris Gardner's life.

Smith's role was wonderfully multi-faceted, as the loving father who's trying his very best to bring home the bacon, for his family, and to pay the bills. A sales person whose product is a bone density contraption, he faces dark days when sales targets are consistently missed, and the bills start to mount. Soon enough his family structure breaks down, as he goes in search for financial independence against incredible odds, in the quest to lift himself and his son from the doldrums of life.

It's a basic rags to riches story, which made the grade based on Smith's performance. With steely grit, determination, and the refusal to back down, it's inspirational in a way, though at times cliched, with reminders not to let others put you down just because they can't themselves. You feel down when the characters face their challenges, and celebrate when they gain little triumphs. For anyone who had faced financial hardships one way or another, it's easy to identify with elements presented, like how difficult it is to reclaim bad debts, and the feeling of dread when you have but a few dollars in your wallet.

Told as a narration introduced by titles corresponding to the events presented, there were some elements that brought back some memories of my internship days as well, especially the scene where Gardner had to make cold calls. It's not easy, even though you're prepared with some sort of script, you have to be on your toes to negotiate for a meeting to present something substantial, and the challenge is to snag that meeting. Of course, more often than not, it's great training to build up a thick skin, as you'll face with more rejections, some of which are as soon as you introduce yourself. A little street smart slyness is the order of the day, and Gardner in the movie managed to kill multiple birds in one stone, constantly probing for opportunities.

The art direction was superb, capturing the 80s setting perfectly, with little clues dropped every now and then to remind you that it's the 80s - the ads for Robert DeNiro's Raging Bull, Ronald Reagan as President, and the fashion of the days. The Rubik's Cube, the breakthrough toy of the day, was all the rage, and if you want to learn more about the Rubik's Cube, you can click on this link. I have one cube, but yet to solve it!

While Thandie Newton co-stars as Gardner's wife Linda, a role which allowed her to contribute a lot more than her recent outing in Norbit, the real co-star is actually Jaden Smith, who plays Gardner's son Christopher. In fact, if you thought the father-son chemistry he shared with Will Smith was natural, it is, because Jaden is actually Will's son, so it's no surprise how comfortable they look together on screen.

For an inspirational movie and as much one on father and son relationships, of the sacrifices fathers make, it's balanced in both its lighthearted and melancholic moments, A definite must watch for fans of Will Smith, and for those curious to check out his Oscar nominated performance before the awards ceremony this weekend. My bet is if Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin role in The Last King of Scotland is not competing in the same year, then Will Smith would have had a better chance.

Those interested in reading more about the real Chris Gardner, you can click here for his official website, or here for the wikipedia entry.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Smile Now Scream Later

I like monster movies, but somehow Primeval was treading along the same path, offering nothing too groundbreaking in presentation. The beast didn't look too menacing, and was cut to size by, yep, censorship because of the more family friendly rating opted. Without allowing an audience to witness the sheer power of those razor sharp teeth, the movie turned out a bit wanting, and made for divided attention from its superficial militia politicking subplot.

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Fountain

Our Love Is Forever

After watching Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, I realize why some booed and walked out during its screening last year in the Venice Film Festival. This is one movie which you'll either hate to the core, or simply love. No in-betweens because it doesn't allow you to, with its storyline totally, and I mean totally, open to an individual's interpretation, which makes it truly unique. I suspect if I were to watch it again, and multiple times even, each experience will be different, as you draw upon and focus inevitably on different aspects of the plot. Such is how diverse and layered The Fountain is.

For those enticed into this movie by its trailers, let me say that this is one which the editing of the snippets make it look so accessible, you'd think you know the plot. The fact is, you'll probably be shell shocked within the first 15 minutes, akin to drowning and desperately gasping for any pocket of air that will help keep you alive, just for a little while more. And my advice is to stick to it, grit your teeth, bear with it, as slowly, bit by bit, with more details revealed, you'd start to see some semblance of the plot, though still stuck with the difficulty of assembling all the pieces into their rightful place.

This is a story about love, loss, spirituality, myth, science fiction, fantasy, all rolled into one. It contains fantastical elements for the most parts, which you'll have to take them for what you will. And you have to salute Aronofsky's storytelling craft, for wielding together chunks of seemingly disparate plot elements and dialogue to tie in so intricately to one another, becoming a mirror to its talk about the circle of life. Almost every spoken line of dialogue becomes a visual element, every action measured and not wasted, and when seen as a whole with that helicopter hindsight, just masterfully done. The music by Clint Mansell is extremely seductive, probably one of the best I've heard in recent times, complimenting the visuals perfectly, eliciting every mood out of you on cue, becoming that directional signboard to follow even when the environment around you becomes confusing. If there is a gripe, then it should fall on the close-ups and fast cuts during night action pieces, like what Batman Begins had.

The next paragraph contains extremely mild spoilers, so skip it if you don't want to know, in my opinion, how you should anchor yourself to gain some bearings.

Hugh Jackman plays, amongst others, Dr Tom Creo, a man obsessed with seeking out a cure for his wife, Izzi Creo's (Rachel Weisz) cancer. He knows that time is running out, and you feel his pain of wanting to be by her side as she spends her last days, versus spending more time devoting himself to his research, for that breakthrough he needs that can heal Izzi. That basically sums up the central story from which to base whatever happens outside this narrative structure, where, depending on how you look at it, will give you totally different interpretations.

The following is my take, which contains MAJOR spoilers, and you should read it only if you've watched the movie. Otherwise, skip the next two paragraphs.

What happened in medieval Spain, I would believe, is Izzi's written story, and it makes a heartfelt one. Like the Queen, she believes in her knight, sending him on an errand to the Mayan land, vis a vis Dr Tom's quest for a cure, to allow them to live together, forever. She stands firm in adversary, ever optimistic, and in total trust of her man. It ended the way it did, because it became Tom's story, entrusted by his wife to complete the book, to write the final chapter, because in truth, the outcome will depend on how his research/quest will turn out to be. And with that slightest of hope (the little rubbing of the sap from the Tree of Life on his wound), it developed to a possible full fledged cure, but alas all is lost, too much too late, and he lost his will to live - what use is the solution, when the problem no longer exist?

But he has the other side of the equation to choose from - instead of giving up on himself, to continue with his efforts so that others might live. This follows the futuristic tale (of what could happen in future), of travelling into the nebula together, of the Mayan belief of rebirth and new life, of the sacrifices one makes, so that others will benefit from the fruits of your labour. The end is presented in an amalgam, of the choices presented in itself, and the difficulties in making that sole decision, and the exploration, and probable existential feeling, that perhaps both can co-exist together. That Dr Tom Creo chose both to grieve his personal pain and loss, but yet to seek strength from that grieve, to continue, symbolized by his planting of the seed atop his wife's grave, as in the Mayan story of a new life.

I thought Hugh Jackman put in one of his best performances in The Prestige, but his multiple roles here, especially the central figure of Dr Tom Creo, is his best to date. You feel his pain and anguish, the fear, the hopes, the moments of joy, he gave his character that much sense of sadness, you'll probably want to weep alongside him, as you get exacerbated by his desperation.

Rachel Weisz had plenty of roles in bathtubs before (Constantine and Chain Reaction comes to mind, both starring opposite Keanu Reeves you wonder), and in this movie, while she didn't have much to do in her roles per se, she managed to bring about that touch of vulnerability, coupled with some inner strength to see her through her dark days. Her sad, tender moments with Jackman will make your heart sink, and yes, one of the best happened at the bathtub as well.

All I can say is, go to The Fountain with a very open mind. Like a sponge, absorb the proceedings, groove to the soundtrack, listen intently to every whisper, gaze intensely at the visuals. Feel, people, don't analyze during, do it after. It's gonna be extremely rewarding, and a very memorable, trippy ride.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Paris, Je T'aime (Paris, I Love You)

Having The Cake And Eating It

I love Paris. Having spent only 2 days in 2004 in the City of Lights is definitely insufficient, and sitting through this tapestry, a series of 18 shorts each helmed by diverse filmmakers, was pure bliss as they each create a story set around the 18 neighbourhoods of Paris itself, bringing back memories of the sights and sounds, each very distinct with their own style and narrative structure, but all focused on that central theme of Love.

The gimmick here would of course be recognizable names in the cast. The list is impressive - Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell, Natalie Portman, Gerard Depardieu, and even Jack Flowers himself Ben Gazzara (Saint Jack)! Whew! And the list of filmmakers is no less formidable, with Olivier Assayas, The Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Christopher Doyle, Gus Van Sant, with Wes Craven and Alexander Payne also lending themselves to cameos.

Not all shorts will be your cup of tea though, but I can bet there will be some which will definitely be on your favourites list. I liked them all for one reason or another, so I shall list down some notables. I enjoyed the mime sequence in Sylvain Chomet's Tour Eiffel, as the feel good story made it extremely easy to follow. The Coen Brothers' Tuileries was hilarious, especially with Steve Buscemi as the star, while Loin du 16eme (by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, starring Maria Full of Grace's Catalina Sandino Moreno) was simple yet very heartfelt, and Quais de Seine looked at love transcending religion and culture.

Some shorts totally rely on technique, with stories ranging from the fantastical, like Christopher Doyle's colourful and snazzy looking Porte de Choisy, and the gothic vampire tale, Quartier de la Madeleine by Vincenzo Natali, starring Frodo Baggins, I mean Elijah Wood (you know, it's hard to think of him in any other role, that hobbit kept getting back to mind) to Alfonso Cuaron's talkie with a twisty in Parc Monceau - for a moment you'll do that all-knowing nod, before he throws your thoughts totally out of the window, all done in one single camera motion. While Nick Nolte was easily recognizable here by his voice, I didn't realize it was Ludivine Sagnier starring opposite him.

While most had its setting in one locale, I particularly enjoyed Faubourg Saint Denis by Tom Tykwer, not because it stars Natalie Portman (yay!), but because it squeezed so much into so little time, compressing plenty of locales and timelines, and teasing you at the same time - this particular short warrants a rewatch to catch everything as they whizz by in double quick time. However, those that are based on one single location too can be as powerful, like Wes Craven's Pere-Lachaise, starring Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell, in a cemetery, or Gerard Depardieu's and Frederic Auburtin's Quartier Latin, set in a restaurant - the dialogue and repartee is to die for.

Given that this ode to Love didn't premiere here in time for Valentine's Day, make it a date with a loved one during the Lunar Valentine's instead. Wonderfully beautiful stuff for romantics.

Lazing on the lawn

Monday, February 19, 2007

Hannibal Rising

Eat Me

The story of Hannibal Lecter continues, what with so many movies starring everyone's favourite cannibal - Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon. In most of these movies, Sir Anthony Hopkins brought to live the vivid horror of the character, sending chills down your bones with his measured performance and that steely gaze. It's natural that in following recent trend, there would be a prequel movie made of sorts which goes back to the origins of the primary character, in an attempt to explain and discover who he is, and what made him to be.

Written by Thomas Harris, which makes the proceedings of the mythos here canon, you would have half expected something special. Instead, it turned out to be rather run-off-the-mill, succumbing to many instances of easy coincidences for the most parts, with its revenge theme making Hannibal Lecter more of a vigilante rather than a calculated serial killer.

Then again, we're looking at his past, all the way back to 1944 towards the tail end of WWII, where the Lecter family have to vacate their Lithuanian castle. His family gets massacred during a crossfire, leaving him to fend for himself and his sister Mischa. But in times of chaos and hunger, the advancing Russian troops ate what they could, hence leading to revenge burning deep inside Hannibal, probably snapping his mind in the process. It then played out like Bruce Wayne's quest to seek justice, with his travels, attainment of skills through medical school, and from an acquaintance with a distant aunt, played by Gong Li. And as all brash youth go, his techniques lack finesse, and he makes a number of mistakes which he learns from.

Gaspard Ulliel takes over from Sir Anthony Hopkins as the title character, since the latter can't possibly play the role of a much younger Hannibal without the prolonged aid of digital effects which did the job for Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in X-Men 3. Some of you might have seen Gaspard in A Very Long Engagement, and I thought he did quite an OK job with the role. Don't compare him with Hopkins as he'll definitely fall short, relying for the most parts on his snarl and stare.

Gong Li seemed to have taken up a lot more roles in the West, barring her inability to speak good English. You can't fault the lass for trying, and here, although her diction is still poor and you scratch your head wondering what she had just said, it has definitely improved. However, the role as Lady Murasaki Shikibu is almost decorative, adding little depth to the Hannibal role besides being an alternative of a life that could have been, an abandonment of love for revenge and the thirst for blood.

Some of the gruesome bits got censored here, but I suspect that even if they were left untouched, it'll probably be more for the gore factor rather than to serve up real fear and horror. Plenty of decapitations, but no scene that'll really make you reel from and cringe, which I thought that finale scene in Hannibal is the scene to beat. And that pretty much sums up the movie - plenty of potential to tap on the origins, motivation and rationale of the Hannibal character, but ended up very much vanilla plain.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sing Along Folks!

This policy trailer has been screening in the theatres recently, and I totally dig it, because it encompasses all the pet peeves that shouldn't be tolerated - the ringing cell phone, the talkers, the seat kickers, the munchers.

And it's peculiar too that although it's done in karaoke fashion, why isn't anyone singing along to it when it's screened? Think we should practise it offline, and sing-along when it's aired. You can clap along to it too! Anyone game?

This ain't your living room yeah yeah...

A Comedy of Power (L'Ivresse Du Pouvoir)

So What're You Up To Today?

Based on a real incident in France known as the Elf Affair corporate scandal involving the French oil company, the movie opens and denies categorically that all semblance to real life is pure coincidence. As the movie unfolds with its revelation of evidence pointing to corruption at the highest levels, with kickbacks, abuse of funds, cronyism, etc sounding really familiar given our own scandal of late.

If you're expecting some high powered courtroom or investigative action, then you'll be sorely disappointed. Rather, you get a social drama instead, and given its peculiar slant towards French societal observations, I got very bored with it, finding it difficult to identify with.

Isabelle Huppert stars as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, an investigating French magistrate who is charged to look into looking at a corporation's shifty wheelings and dealings. We witness an early arrest of Humeau (Francois Berleand), the corporation's head honcho, and slowly the web of shady connections get revealed. We also see how the investigations take its toil on Jeanne, as her personal life also get affected due to threats, and the hiring of bodyguards did not go down well with her spouse.

And it rambles on and on, with little insight to investigative techniques, focusing instead on Jeanne's go-getting ways, and subtly dwelling on themes like feminism, and norms of living in a patriarchal society. I've never done a short review in a long while, but this boring movie deserves the plug to be pulled. Should appeal to the European crowd, which turned out in droves in the screening I was in today.


Don't You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?

When I first saw the trailer for Norbit, I have to admit I was tickled, more so by the familiar antics that poke fun at weight and size. Apologies though that I'm laughing at the expense of plus sized people, and it dawns upon you if there's any valid reason why they should be constant punching bags for gags. From Shallow Hal to The Nutty Professor, it seemed that Eddie Murphy is revisiting familiar territory with prosthetics all over again, and can't get enough of piling on fake weight on himself.

Murphy again takes on multiple characters, in Norbit, Rasputia and The Golden Wanton Orphanage owner Mr Wong, I thought his politically incorrect Mr Wong was the most enjoyable amongst the three, as he had some of the best lines in the movie, especially during his toast in a wedding scene. Norbit is as plain as the character is designed to be, a meek, mild-mannered hen-pecked man, while Rasputia his wife, probably the most revolting, demeaning and vile woman you've ever come across on screen, who changes hairstyles in almost every other scene.

As the story goes, Norbit the orphan grows up to be an unassuming man, only to be taken advantage of by his wife Rasputia, who rescued him from bullies when he was a teenager. Being a significant (pun intended) other in his life, and as marriages go, that's when the real nightmare starts. When Norbit's childhood sweetheart Kate (Thandie Newton) returns to town, it's time for him to decide whether to put up with the nonsense, or try to seek out a life which should have been.

Somehow, most of the "fat" jokes were already included in the trailer, so don't expect anything more. Rather, the focus for the most parts tended to be on the romantic tangle between Norbit, Kate and Rasputia, on the premise of a grand scheme by Rasputia's brothers to gain control over the orphanage to turn it into a strip joint known as Nippleopolis. Like I mentioned about my criteria for laughs, if my tears ain't rolling, it ain't so good, and nope, while some bits were funny, they were rare occurrences. The pacing of the movie was uneven as well, with plain dramatic moments and plain, expected sub plot development.

Thandie Newton makes a comeback to the big screen after her outing in Crash, and has another role in a soon to be released movie (in Singapore) The Pursuit of Happyness starring Will Smith. I'm surprised that Cuba Gooding Jr lends his presence as the Kate's shady fiance Deion Hughes, and Marlon Wayans has a role that seemed pretty out of place as a pimp daddy.

For those who want to see Murphy tackling newer ground, head over to Dreamgirls to watch him sing and dance in a musical drama. Otherwise if you're up for some low brow nostalgia, then Norbit is the movie for you. And a pity though that the version shown here is censored at one point.

Saturday, February 17, 2007



Dreamgirls had garnered 8 nominations in the upcoming Academy Awards, but somehow missed out on all the main categories like Picture, Director, and the Actor and Actress nominations. Based on the Broadway musical, with new songs added for the movie (3 of which are in the running for Best Song), it tells of a group of singers' meteoric rise in the music industry in the 60s, and on their trials and tribulation which plague any successful singing group.

If the previous years had musical dramas like Ray and Walk the Line taking their fair share of honors, then this year it's expected that Dreamgirls follow the same formula and footsteps, only that instead of actors, this movie boasts two actual singers in its lineup, one an American Idol reject, Jennifer Hudson, and the other, bone-fide singing sensation Beyonce Knowles, who finally is casted in a movie which allowed her to show off her performing chops, rather than just her body in Austin Powers: Goldmember, or a dumb downed singer role in Pink Panther. Reported rivalry between the two? I'm not sure why the fuss, but clearly, Knowles had taken a back seat and the movie actually allowed ample screen time, and singing time, for Hudson to shine.

While Knowles' performance is way polished, and her fans eager for her character to take the limelight, it doesn't happen until almost an hour into the movie, during which she happily sings as one of the dream triplets. Hudson on the other hand, put up a more heartfelt performance in a role which had a little more depth, and I'm of the opinion that her Oscar for supporting actress, is almost signed, sealed and delivered. One thing to note though if you're watching this movie in a theatre equipped with a decent sound system, listen out (!) for Hudson's eardrum busting vocals.

Rounding up the star studded cast are veterans like Danny Glover, and two comedians turned serious performers Eddie Murphy (whose Norbit opens here soon), and Jamie Foxx. Murphy stars as Jimmy Early, a successful singer in the small time circuit, who seems contended with his comfort zone, and Foxx, in a meatier role, as Curtis Taylor Jr, a car salesman who, in his discovery of the Dreamers and his wheelings and dealings, built up a music empire of his own. I thought Foxx's character was villainous in a certain way, a man blinded by success and becoming one of his own pet peeves. And yes, everyone in this movie sings. Eddie Murphy's performance is almost always full of energy, but fans of Foxx, don't count on him singing too much though, since he's already done his fair bit with Ray.

Dreamgirls is a musical, so expect characters to break out in a song or two, or at times just a line or two. I didn't expect it to happen the way it did though, and was slightly taken aback when songs get interjected into dialogue, so you'll have to remind yourself it's a musical and it's perfectly normal. Loosely based on the Supremes' rise to fame, it tells of the prejudice and dirty tricks employed to get your way to the fame game. Having a good voice and nifty performances don't just cut it, you'll need a manager who's just as sly and cunning to work your way to the big league.

And at times, talent gives way to how the business want things to be done. In the name of record selling and profits, you give what audiences want, compromising craft if you have to. Otherwise you'll have to be prepared to ship out. And it is during their climb to fame, that each character have to face up to changes, whether they like it or not, including replacing leads, or changing styles. You'll see how fame and fortune can corrupt, how envy and jealousy get in the way of something good, and wonder if being unscrupulous is the only way to survive.

Besides the business aspect, love and relationships also complicate matters, with perceived love triangles and breakups amongst the team causing more harm than good. And a common theme running throughout is just how much you'd love somebody, whether as a person, or a product that you can milk for profits.

Great costumes, great singing, great songs, great stage performances and a star cast, Dreamgirls has all the ingredients to what makes a successful musical movie. One thing to note though, I thought the end credits contained a nice touch with its showing of clips relating to what the crew did for the movie. You don't see that kind of a presentation too often.

Letters from Iwo Jima

I See Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood continues his WWII war drama with Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion film to last year's Flags of our Fathers. Shot back to back, this version shows the same battle from the viewpoint of the Japanese, and if compared to Flags, this is a somewhat more heartfelt, personal story about the pride and honour of the defenders of Iwo Jima.

Flags had its focus on the troops who participated in that iconic planting of the American flag atop a captured hill in Iwo Jima, and having the narrative actually leaving the battleground for a different battle - that for funds - back in US soil. Letters on the other hand, seldom leave the field, only for moments of flashback to build its characters' backstories. And surprisingly, it doesn't mar the flow of the narrative, but rather helped to enhance your appreciation of the characters who are on that island, defending it for most parts because of faith and allegiance.

Face it, not everyone wants to be dumped into a forsaken land with limited resource, to fend off attackers throwing all their might at you. And for these soldiers forming the last bastion to defend a piece of land that would be used by the enemy as a launchpad to attack their homeland, it's their Alamo to fight to the last man in order to do so. And culture, face and pride ensures that this would be done, and watching events unfold, you can't help but feel sorry at times, at their inability to comprehend surrender when all else fails, and salute their honour and spirit in standing their ground.

Letters is played out through the eyes of the commanding officer General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), and lowly footsoldier Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). It's interesting to note that the far ends of the spectrum are represented to flesh out the narrative, given their different backgrounds, one a career military man, while the other, a conscripted baker. On Iwo Jima their lives get intertwined, and their hearts, clearly elsewhere with their respective loved ones.

Ken Watanabe exudes a magnetic appeal as General Kuribayashi. Being appointed to the much shunted role in leading the Japanese Imperial Army in its defense of the island, he sets out to overhaul the entire defence mechanism, much to the disgust of the commanders on site. If you'd watch Flags, you'll understand what those tactics were, and nod in agreement that well, they do work, and the idea stemmed from being brave enough to break conventions. In fact, his daring out of the box ideas were actually what kept them holding the fort for a longer time than expected, though by breaking out of the comfort zone of his subordinates, it doesn't earn him much support. It's a battle of ideals as culture and tradition go up against being pragmatic. Kuribayashi walks the walk and talks the talk, and it is this kind of commanders that soldiers usually respect.

But amongst the detractors who think that General Kuribayashi's methods are weak, is Lieutenant Ito, played by Shido Nakamura. Movie fans will find him familiar, as the Japanese fighter who went up against Jet Li's Huo Yuanjia in Fearless, and starred in one of my favourite movies of 2005 - Be With You. Here, he embodies the traditional ideals of the Japanese soldier in offense mode, who cannot fathom the idea of defense, and is quick to apply ideals without putting things into perspective. He's not a bad hat per se, but one who represents soldiers who are misguided.

As with war movies, there are moments where the brutal fighting takes a backseat in order to ponder over the commonalities between soldiers at either end, that each is a son, brother, or father, and deep down inside if given a choice, neither would have wanted to leave their loved ones to end up being killed, or to kill. While the character backgrounds help to evoke sympathy for their predicament, it doesn't get too soppy or sentimental, just a tinge to think about, before it moves on.

I like the fact that there are attempts to portray the bad hats, and that they exist on both sides, the Americans and the Japanese, even though this is a movie shown from the Japanese viewpoint. And the score worked wonders to the movie. Simple chords, and with probably just one identifiable theme, it managed to enhance each scene it was played. I thought in this instance, there is beauty in its simplicity, and somehow brought about a sense of calm amidst the chaotic environment.

Clocking at 141 minutes, you hardly feel its length as you'll get engrossed with the narrative. I've always been in a fan of Clint Eastwood's movies, and it's no doubt that Letters of Iwo Jima is yet another quality work from the director. If asked to decide which of his latest two movies is the better one, my vote will go to Letters for the fact that it brought out its themes rather well, and for the cast's ability in making you feel very much for them. Recommended.

Notes on a Scandal

Let's Gain Experience

The movie marathon today were all Oscar nominated movies, from nominations in the major awards like Picture and Director, to miscellaneous others (Dreamgirls), and acting, in which Notes on a Scandal garnered two for both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, who are both already winners of the coveted award.

Here, the actresses go head to head in a psychological drama which pit one against the other, and their characters allow for a range of emotions to be displayed. You'd probably be impressed by their performances more than anything else in the movie.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, a spinster who's an historical relic in a rowdy neighbourhood school. She's strange, stern, unpopular, and quite the difficult person to work with, nor want to get close to. Her character narrates the story, as she meticulously documents the (boring) events of the day in her trusty diary. The school environment gets changed when a new beautiful art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett) enters the scene, and becomes Miss Popular amongst both students and staff. Her feminine demeanour brings about a tinge of envy, yet attraction for Barbara, and for a moment, you'd cast that queer eye onto the development of their relationship.

Rarely do we see a story hinged so closely on the delivery of its leads, as it looks at emotions of obsession, envy, and lust. As Barbara gets close (and tries real hard) to Sheba, she learns that the latter's doesn't have that perfect family she envisioned from the presumptions made about a person, and managed to gain an upper hand in their relationship when she learns of a deep, dark secret of an affair with a minor. It's basically a primal power play amongst the women, as you see how a hunter snares its prey through cunning schemes and loaded barbs, blackmail, and threats.

It's a study into loneliness, as both Barbara and Sheba experience in their lives. One who obviously is alone, looking for long-lasting, and trusted companionship, while the other, alone in her messy family - coming from a bohemian lifestyle to the shackles of matrimony, with two challenging children to care for.

Alas, what ruined the powerful buildup of a full blown, potentially satisfying story, is the meek tapering off of its finale. The conflicts between the two women are a joy to watch, be it whether one party is cowering to the other, or if the other asserts herself with threats veiling her true intentions. And to see it all given up to end in a whimper, just failed to do the movie any justice.

Nonetheless, it's still highly recommended, as Blanchett and Dench don't disappoint. Just don't hold your breaths for a mind blowing ending, instead, it played off as it is, without much fuss.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Epic Movie

For Gnarnia!

My opinion whether a comedy is a good comedy is fairly simple - even laughs throughout, and in having at least one sequence to make me chuckle so hard that my tears will roll down uncontrollably. I don't care if it's physical slapstick, witty dialogue or crass toilet humour. So long as my tears roll, it's a winner. But sadly, Epic Movie failed to meet the mark.

It's plain boring. Drawing its material from some of the largest "summer" blockbusters, like The Da Vinci Code, X-Men, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Borat, Pirates of the Caribbean, Nacho Libre, Click, Snakes on a Plane, Fast and the Furious, Harry Potter and Superman Returns, Epic Movie follows the formula of taking a mickey out of genre movies. Written and directed by two of the many writers who gave us Scary Movie (a dig on horrors, thrillers and slasher flicks, the strongest of the franchise and still going), and Date Movie (one off bomb, taking a dig on romantic movies), Epic Movie is uninspiring, and the jokes are very lame.

In fact, I found myself yawning at the juvenile antics on screen, playing up plenty of times at the expense of sexuality - big boobs, kinky names, and countless gyrating female bodies. Even Stifler's Mom Jennifer Coolidge makes an appearance as the White Bitch, as do many other celebrities having themselves spoofed at by lookalikes - P Diddy, Ashton Kutcher, Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, Samuel L Jackson, James Blonde, I mean Bond, even, and various Star Wars characters . Even theme songs from the movies get parodied, the most obvious being Teriyaki Boyz's Tokyo Drift theme.

The only kudos you can give to the filmmakers, are how they try to gel all these skits into one coherent movie - having all the different movies put together into a common thread is indeed a challenge, and you can't deny the effort. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe forms the backbone of the story, while the rest are scenes which tangent off, or brought together into the world of Gnarnia. The sets too from the movies it adapted from also get recreated, probably on the cheap, and they do look as good as the original (if not gotten from them).

To really make your money's worth, stay throughout the end credits which run pretty long, where you'll see three sequences at various points, and you can bolt out of the door once you see the jab on Mel Gibson. For those who want to give this a miss on the big screen, a word of advice, don't even rent it on VCD unless it's free.

Just Follow Law (我在政府部门的日子)

I Can Act Like Siao Char Bor!

Jack Neo is undoubtedly Singapore's most commercially successful director, having made 10 films (including this one), and almost each time, you'd hear his movies topping the charts and breaking box office records. His films touch the common heartlander chord with his fusion of satire and subtle jabs at topical issues, much akin to his skits during his Comedy Night days, and given a huge fan base built, it's no surprise if local audiences turn up in hordes to lap up his latest offering which set its sights on the civil service.

Almost everyone can identify with the frustrations of red tape bureaucracy, that incident of unpleasantness with staff in their less than helpful robotic stick-to-the-rulebook answers, and of course, attempts to shift responsibility and cover their rears. Wait! Doesn't that sound familiar, like what every other company employee will do as well? For the first twenty minutes, it's recounting office politics 101 with spot on accuracy, jazzed up by some special effects, as every tactic in the office politic arsenal get brought out to the table.

The story is set in a fictitious government body which is tasked to create jobs and encourage skills upgrading. But the fact is that almost everyone in the department needs a serious upgrade and look at themselves. You can spot the inept CEO, the conniving scheming colleagues, the unskilled miscellaneous workers, the bootlickers, and the elite scholars all having a go at each other. And at times when you laugh at their antics, somehow you're wondering if you're laughing at yourselves, especially when you recall incidents you experienced, or characters whom you see in others.

While the idea was there, the delivery was somehow let down. It played out quite childishly, and looked more like mini school skits put together in a very choppy manner. You don't fault the number of ideas the story writers have, but rather at their inability to gel them all together into an engaging narrative from start until end. At times you might think you're watching a tele-movie plagued by too many minor characters, each being a one-dimensional mouth piece for the issues they represent.

Casting Fann Wong was a coup, as she's one of the top darlings of Caldecott Hill. And one of the appeal in watching the movie, is to see how she junks her glamourous goody-two-shoes image, for a comedic role requiring her to act like a siao char bor (mad woman). And she pulled it off with aplomb, which is what manages to hold the attention of the audience. She burbs, farts, frequently molests herself by grabbing her boobs, walks like a beng, talks like a beng, swears like a beng too. According to reports, her minders got into fits with her role as Tanya Chew the scholar manager, who got her body swapped with Gurmit Singh's Lim Teng Zui, a lowly employee, as it called for her to act against her image. Well, she sure have thrown caution to the wind and it turned out well, but I thought she could have gone further, instead of having to rely on cheap editing tricks.

If Fann Wong acting like a man raised interest, the same couldn't be said for Gurmit's role as a woman, as it sure isn't like Mrs Doubtfire or Tootsie. It's relatively muted, and when the pairs on screen together, there is no doubt as to who is the movie star, with Fann giving the veteran comedian a run for his money. Although they have some chemistry together, I thought the story and dialogue sometimes lapsed into the two characters being their correct selves instead of their swapped ones. The other supporting characters are played by the usual faces from television, and are caricatures requiring

As mentioned earlier, scenes are usually made out of mini skits which try to be funny in itself, and then glued together with the lazy fade out transitions for the most parts. While there is a resemblance of a main plot, the subplots display meek attempts at comedy, or stick out like a sore thumb trying to shovel its social message down your throats, at times presenting itself awkwardly in out of place scenes. Being a Jack Neo movie, product placement is never far away, and in his latest offering, there are plenty of opportunities for product placement, which are milked to the max, one of which I thought was a mistake in having Fann seen in an advert. Jack too can't help but to put himself in a cameo, and hammering referential jabs in the script at the government (66.6% for a test out of 84, it doesn't come across any clearer than that).

The production values seem mixed though. Despite being budgeted at more than a million dollars, the look and feel at times seem like a million dollars, and at times, just felt cheap. There are a lot of special effects put into the movie, and that probably took a huge chunk from the budget, as did Fann Wong's paycheck. The effects though were rather surreal which brought out some fantastical feelings about the movie, and were also used as substitutes for obvious stunts or backdrops that proved relatively costly to make. For once, I was of the opinion that the songs in the movie weren't necessary as they failed to elicit or enhance the mood of the scene, and was there a recycling attempt at using one of the songs from an earlier film?

Just Follow Law will do well, given Fann's against-the-grain role, something audiences would not have seen before, and the fact that it's opening this Lunar New Year period. Fans of Fann, and the usual support base of Jack Neo, will definitely make this movie a hit. A pity that it could have been much better.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ghost Rider

Sio ah! SIAM!

Mark Steven Johnson, I hate to break it to you. 3 strikes and you're out. I understand your earnestness in trying to write-direct Marvel superhero movies by trying to stay close to the source material, but somehow they all turn out to be mediocre efforts. Although you didn't direct Elecktra, you produced and wrote it, and wrote-directed Daredevil and now Ghost Rider. I enjoyed Daredevil even though most others did not, and that unfortunately was your best effort.

Marvel superheroes have their fair share of material being translated to the big screen, the largest cash cow being Spiderman, which opened the doors for efforts like The Hulk and Fantastic Four, creations of Stan Lee, and others, which I deem on the lower echelons, like Daredevil, Punisher, and Ghost Rider. The floodgates have not closed, as Spiderman and Fantastic Four will spawn their sequels this year, with Iron Man coming our way as well. Naturally not all the movies are hits, and too bad, I had hopes for Ghost Rider to join the hit list, even though I've not faithfully followed the comic books nor am a fan.

I'm not quick to dismiss that comic book material can't be turned into powerful motion pictures. Batman Begins and the Spiderman movies have earned their mark of respect for having that emotional oomph to engage the audience, coupled with effects and stunts to wow. I guess we're spoilt from the excellent efforts of Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi, as they've raised the bar and their movies are now the de facto benchmarks for comic book adaptations to reach.

The first sign that things aren't going all that well, was that this movie was postponed, if I recall correctly, for almost one year, on the pretext of jazzing up the special effects. True, the flames on the skull were as realistic as can be, but that's about it. Every other effect seemed quite ordinary, and nothing to make the jaw drop. In fact, some CGI shots became so repetitive, that you start to wonder if the same clip was being recycled to save time.

In essence, much like the origins of Daredevil, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) unwittingly signs a pact with the devil Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), and indirectly caused the death of his father. Blaming himself, and because of the sale of his soul to the devil, he abandons all hope in life, and his true love Roxanne (Eva Mendes), and leads a dangerous life as a stunt biker who throws caution to the wind, knowing that he can't perish because of his secret "guardian angel", and awaits the day when he can be free from fear and blame.

Fast forward to the quick introduction of the main villain Blackheart (Wes Bentley), son of the devil, who recruits the Elementals (Earth, Wind and Water spirits of sorts) in his cause to bring hell on earth. Yes, it's Constantine all over again. The plot was too vanilla plain, lacking much conflicts to challenge our anti-hero, besides his love interest. The villains, especially the Elementals, were a joke, and were so easily dispatched, that you'll scream for your money back.

Given that it's an origin story of sorts, you'll get to see how Johnny becomes the rider who can walk on both worlds, and slowly get introduced to how he got his tools of the trade, including his jacket, gloves, chain, bike and shotgun. Unfortunately, one of the Rider's powers, the Penance Stare, is overused, making him look like a one-trick pony, and to cinematic audiences, we've probably seen a similar version in Alex Proyas' directed The Crow starring the late Brandon Lee. While there are some remotely funny moments, most of the time the humour seemed contrived, and you'll probably cringe at some of the cheesy Western reference, no thanks too to one of the tracks performed by Spiderbait.

If you're on the lookout for Stan Lee, who frequently pops into the Marvel films, don't. I think by steering clear, it's another indication that well, perhaps it's not as good a job as it should be. The narrative sagged in the middle, and contained some illogical, lazy plot moments, like a public transformation, and a busy jail house with no cops (yeah right).

Nicolas Cage could have been Superman with a hairpiece, but I thought he looked good as Johnny Blaze with a hairpiece. To his fans, you would've already seen the acting range he showed here, especially from John Woo's Face Off. That crazed look with the eyeballs almost popping out is repeated here, and at times, his Castor Troy scene comes to mind. Eva Mendes was largely wasted as the buxomy Roxanne who cockteases Johnny, and you actually wonder what Wes Bentley is doing in a movie like this. Sam Elliot shows up as the Caretaker, and is actually involved in a pretty cool scene which you might have seen revealed in the trailer.

All in all, I would still say an enjoyable movie if you don't compare to, or have seen some of the other movies which I've mentioned above. It should do well at the box office in the initial week, before word of mouth gets to it. Fans of Ghost Rider, I sure would like to hear your views if you've liked it, or not, because after all, the fans are the ones who hold their hero dear.

Anyway, to those who think they can be Ghost Rider and ride his cool bike while executing some daredevil stunts, you might want to check out the game at the official website by clicking on this link. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

[DVD] Batman Begins (2005)


I'm gonna summarize it a little and not cover the review of the movie, which I have already done twice. You can read them here and here. What I'll do is to zoom in onto the special features of this Code 3 Two-Disc Special Edition from WB.

Disc 1 contains the movie, and the theatrical trailer. Visual transfer was great, in widescreen version, and did not suffer from being too dark that you can't see the fast fight scenes (that audiences complain about), as compared to the 1989 Batman where night scenes are shrouded in virtual haze. I've the Two-Disc Special Edition for that as well, but the review will come the next time.

You don't have much of a choice with the audio selection, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but naturally it's all fantastic, with a choice of either English or Mandarin subtitles. Nothing much fancy in this disc, no cast and crew commentary put in, but very gorgeously done animated menus, and the provision for scene selection.

My beef will actually come from Disc 2.

Disc 2 is the special features disc, but while there are loads of features embedded into the disc, the logic of the presentation could have been drastically improved. You are "forced" to navigate through a comic-book embedded with somewhat hidden links to the features. With the digital comic book being nice to look at, with some of the drawings in the panels being animated, you'll probably be oblivious with the embedded links, until you chance on one, then realize you have to find more (how many, you just won't know).

Navigation will drive you nuts, until you realize that in some pages, the stylized bat symbol provides simple forward/backward functions, while some sub menus or menu items that you click on, lead you right to the beginning of the comic book. It's not intuitive, and you need to navigate it a couple of times before feeling comfortable with it. And you realize, that at the very end, everything's listed down (well, almost) like a site map, so you won't miss the major documentaries.

The main beef is, THE MENUS AND COMIC BOOK PANELS ARE NOT IN ENGLISH!! So unless you can read Chinese, Thai, Korean or Bahasa Indonesian, this Code 3 version will drive you up the wall in navigation. Wonder what gives, that while effort is made to make this special features disc a force to be reckoned with in terms of content, the instructions are not in the English Medium. Hello, Code 3 also means we can speak English! Thankfully the content is in English, with the mentioned languages available in subtitles.

And I present to you a glimpse of the content inside, done page to page according to the sequence in the comic book styled menu:

Page 1 Panel 2, click on the books on floor.
Batman - The Journey Begins is the summary making-of, detailing the concept stage, interviews with the director Christopher Nolan and co-writer David S Goyer, and their shrouding of the project in secrecy. Christian Bale also shares about his need to bulk up after his role in The Machinist, and we look at the filmmakers' assembly of the great cast in a Batman movie (which I am still in awe, and hope the sequels will pile on great actors who can really act).
14 mins 8s

Page 3 Panel 1, click on Batman
The 8 mins 15s documentary focuses on the design of the costume, from cowl to cape. It's interesting to note that the comfort level of the costume has improved, so much so that Christian Bale was able to wear it the whole day. The cape was designed to give it a life of its own, and the cowl (which I thought was more like a helmet) enabled the Dark Knight to turn his head, much unlike the earlier Batman's with Keaton's, Kilmer's and Clooney's costumes.

Page 5 Panel 2, click on Scarecrow's eyes
This is a Finders Keepers Easter Egg running 1 minute long, which looks at the Visual Effects and the creation of a digital Batman. While the filmmakers could have digitized many aspects of the movie, Nolan made it a conscious effort to perform stunts, and really on CGI only as a no-means resort.

Page 7 Panel 1 and 2, mouseover the texts.
Here's where the navigation of the menu selections and hyperlinks will start to drive you mad. Containing short writeups on the cape and utility belt, there are links to links about other informative bits on the bat-equipment including the costume, and the batmobile, and more links to character bios of Friends and Foes, with animated menus and short character video clips.

Page 7 Panel 3, click on the building
Gotham City Rises - how Gotham City was built using massive sets which included a freeway, and enhanced with digital graphics. We also learn about the sourcing of a Wayne Manor equivalent, and the building of the batcave to resemble a real cavern, coupled with the difficulties with lighting the sets. It makes you appreciate that no effort is spared in creating the sets which serve as realistic as possible the backdrop for the movie. Remember, Gotham City itself is a character.
Runs 12 mins 45s.

Page 8 Panel 1. short writeup on costume.

Page 8 Panel 2, click on Batman's reflection in a puddle of water.
This is a Finders Keepers Easter Egg running 2 mins and 25s, presenting itself as Wayne Enterprises Applied Sciences Division Testing Labs. Contains the test driving of The Tumbler, various uses and tests done on the cape, observing stunt people put through the motion of stunts in the film like the fights and the torching of the batsuit.

Page 8 Panel 3, short writeup on the Batmobile.

Page 9, mouseover to highlight the names of the villains for more of their respective character bios.

Page 9, click on Ducard.
Path to Discovery - a documentary running 14mins 13s which focuses on Bruce Wayne, and largely details the filming of the big action sequences in Iceland.

Page 11, click on Batman
Shaping Mind and Body explains and showcases the adopted fighting style of Batman, the relatively new Keysi Fighting Method, which is fast, brutal, and allows for much creativity in designing the various fight sequences. Runs 12 mins 45s, and we're told that Bale has such a photographic memory, he can master 20 sequences in a short period of time, much to the surprise and envy of the stunt master.

Page 12, click on Panel 2
Genesis of the Bat running at 14mins 50s takes a look at the source material of Batman - the comic books. It's a must watch for comic book fans as it contains interviews with the industry folks, like Dennis O Neil and illustrators such as Jim Lee. It also flips through the pages of the three books with primary inspiration for the movie - Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Year One, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween. Recommended reading those 3 books.

Also on Page 12 Panel 2 is a link to a poster gallery, which contains only 3 poster pictorials, and I thought there were more, as Batman Begins had probably one of the largest poster gallery out there.

Page 13 Panel 2 has a link to the character bios of Lucius Fox.

Page 14, click on the Batmobile
Batman The Tumbler making-of which details the creation of the Batmobile, from the concept state in Nolan's garage, to the actual building of the 2 ton monstrous tank and putting it through its paces in various test drives in various stages of production. The stunt driver is the envy of everyone as he actually gets to drive the car at high speeds up to 130miles per hour (and they were filming the chase sequence at that speed!), and it is clear that this is a vehicle everyone desires. Clocks in at 13 mins 36s

Also on Page 14 is the character bios of Alfred Pennyworth.

Page 15, click on Batman.
Saving Gotham City details the large train sequence in the finale, and how the entire shot was put together using live action, miniature sets, CGI, and stunt teams to make it as realistic as possible. Runs 12 mins 55s.

All in all, a decent production package put together for the special features disc. Now if only someone had remembered to put in ENGLISH menus and text as well.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Protégé (門徒)

I Feel Good

The Hong Kong crime movie genre has another worthy addition to its collection, hot off the heels of the Infernal Affairs creative team's Confession of Pain. While movies of the genre of late are almost always gearing toward sophistication, Protégé plays out its story in surprisingly straight forward fashion, although the characters are draped in shades of grey. What makes the movie compelling, are the relationships formed between the principle characters.

If any synopsis suggests anything complex in the cops-and-robbers treatment of its key characters, it sure didn't play out that way. Daniel Wu is Nick, an undercover cop spending the last 7 years working for Andy Lau's "Banker", one of the top drug lords in HK. Ill health has forced Banker to look for a successor, and as all crime lords without natural heirs go, it sure is difficult to trust an outsider to takeover the business without stabbing you in the back. In fact, instead of Asian superstar Andy Lau, Protégé as the name implies, is actually a Daniel Wu vehicle, as we see events unfold through his eyes, and in two concurrent threads. The first being his contacts with the suppliers, and the second, his personal relations from someone who is part of the demand pool. If you were to add an additional dimension, his allegiance with the law enforcers serves as a minor subplot. No wonder Nick is one confused chap!

In contrast to the slick production look of its peers, Protégé turned out rather grimy, in deliberate fashion, as much of the time we're stuck in the doldrums of society, the ready market of those willing to abuse drugs for that quick fix in escaping their woes. And it is in this part of society that we spend much of our time in. Nick befriends a single mom played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who is a drug junkie, unable to break out of her habit, try as she might. They form a reluctant friendship, more because of the fact that Nick takes pity on Jing-jing the little girl, the innocent sufferer of her mom's ineptness to break out of addiction.

Written and directed by Derek Yee, Protégé covers the whole spectrum of the heroin supply chain, from the farmers right down to the individual junkie, and examines the concerns of each layer. It's basically a roadmap 101 to drug production, with loads of cash to be made, especially for those willing to take big risks in dealing, trafficking and producing. It's a showcase on the drug operations, with its low tech, high manpower operations in the extensive network of runners, and its compartmentalization of roles and responsibilities. You can't but be impressed by how things are run, akin to any large organization, only clandestine, led by businessmen in it for the money, with warped morals and a sense of being the bridge for sellers to satisfy demand.

Despite top billing for Anita Yuen and Louis Koo, they actually have only bit parts in the movie, the former as the pregnant wife of Banker, and the latter as yet another junkie, husband to Zhang Jingchu's Jane. Somehow, with the audience I'm with, Louis Koo seems to be the one drawing in the laughter, perhaps for his general wardrobe and make up in the movie. Zhang Jinchu's performance managed to highlight the plight that junkies go through, in either trying to resist their urges, or succumbing to temptation, and the natural willingness to lie their way, even sell their souls, just for that quick fix. It's one thing to show compassion and trying to help, but totally a different ball game altogether as professional and sustained rehabilitation seems the only way to go. Hers and Louis' roles are probably to send out strong anti-drug messages.

On the other hand, Andy Lau's role, although muted in some ways, seem to want to endear him to audiences, with his character's penchant for candy, and all round nice family man. Never one who spends extravagantly on home turf, you'll probably not even suspect he's the head honcho of a multi-million dollar syndicate. And it is this harmless facade, that complicates Nick's relationship with his mentor, should he embark on following through with his mission. The mentor unreservedly showing you the ropes, making you a rich man in the process, and that his family takes a liking for you as well, but as the undercover, how could you draw the line, especially when its dealing with human emotions, of deep friendship, trust, and betrayal?

Daniel Wu played his role really well, and I'm surprised that he's super charismatic here, holding his own against Lau by playing the many facades of Nick excellently. His role too offers a comparison between members from both sides of the law, of trust and loyalties amongst those in the force, albeit from another division, who spare no hesitation in using him for personal glory, and contrasted against the unwritten law of brotherhood, anonymity and trust of those in the illicit business.

One of the biggest movies hitting screens in Asia during this Chinese New Year period, it won't be difficult for Protégé to make a killing at the box office, given its powerful, engaging storyline which doesn't complicate, and the star-studded cast. As Raintree Pictures had a hand in co-producing the movie, expect to see one scene shot here, which reiterates our long no-nonsense approach to drug traffickers.

P.S. While I'm quite surprised at the many cinematically detailed instruction of drug production and drug use that remained intact in the version shown here, what was snipped instead was a sexy scene (damn!). What gives? Yes, so besides having to watch this movie dubbed in Mandarin, it's an edited version to boot.

The Matrimony (心中有鬼)

Who Am I?

I usually get perturbed when I watch movies with Hong Kong actors, because our Speak Mandarin campaign here dictates that these movies if in Cantonese have to be dubbed into Mandarin. Add to the fact that most times, the audio and lip movements on screen rarely sync, besides the frequent use someone with a poor voice quality that results in the stars coming across with squeaky or irritating voices. No such situation in this Chinese horror movie production because the cast are speaking in Mandarin, and this somehow earns some brownie points.

The Matrimony, like the name implies, focuses a lot more on relationships and love, with the supernatural angle adding that extra dimension to complicate matters. It is not a horror movie per se, but a tragic love story that has its characters perpetually stuck with their various issues. Leon Lai stars as cinematographer Shen Junchu, a man who can't forget his true love, living in a state of denial and guilt. Fan Bingbing plays Xu Manli, that love of his who now belongs to the netherworld, but still trying her best to make contact, and rounding up the main cast is Rene Liu as Sansan, the present wife of Jinchu, stuck in a loveless unconsummated marriage, looking too for ways to reach out to him.

While there are moments initially where the usual complimentary attempts at scaring the audience are put through the motions, like creaky doors, quick edits, camera pans and sudden appearances, these tactics are soon abandoned when the story decided to contrast that affections of these two women have for their man. It's about unattainability, and the methods employed to try and bridge that gap. To Manli, it is obvious that her appearance and touch will harm Junchu, and for Sansan, it's clear that nursing that crush you have without that emotional connection made both ways, is futile. So a pact between them is made, at first seemingly to benefit Junchu, but later revealed to be much more than meets the eye.

There's nothing fancy to the story as it plays out rather ordinarily, but to its credit it stays coherent, and brings about the storytelling days of old. There isn't any twist save for what I deem as cop-out wrapper scenes which, if you ignore them being used as bookends, actually makes for a refreshing experience given that horror movies these days are always so cliched with the unexpected (and usually disappointing) ending. The narrative rarely gets over the top or too full of itself, and thus the beauty in its simplicity.

But there is nothing simple in terms of production values. The film sets are lush and gorgeous, and no effort made to try and match the authenticity of yesteryears, making it a beautiful film to look at. The only thorn that marred the visual spectacle, was a crucial scene, which I thought could have either be done away with, or done conventionally. Instead, it decided to use visual effects, and it was badly done and cheesy. Not that the quality of the effects were limited, as later scenes were done to perfection, but I guess for this particular one, some quality control was abandoned. The movie started off rather slow but thankfully picked up the pace as it moved along, and you won't feel bored as your eyes will be admiring almost everything on set in the scene.

I deem Rene Liu as having the most to do here, as surprisingly, much of the story revolves around her character Sansan, also in having the richest backstory created amongst the three, thus attempting to challenge her acting range. Leon Lai was stoned for most parts, while Fan Bingbing was largely scheming, given the age old superstition that any spirit clad in red is the most vicious.

Given Valentine's Day just around the corner, I'd probably stick my neck out to say that this makes a decent date movie too, despite the secondary subject of spirits and ghostly possession. Just remember not to play with fire, that rarely is there a free lunch, especially when the dealmaker isn't from this part of existence.
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