Saturday, June 30, 2007

My Wife is a Gangster 3 (Jopog Manura 3)

Nothing Beats A Catfight. Meow!

Director Cho Jin-gyu of the original action-comedy My Wife is a Gangster returns to direct this sequel. However, without the return of the titular Wife Cha Eun-jin (Shin Eun-Kyung), this movie is nothing more than just a namesake, but there's no stopping the linkage with the box office success of the earlier movies. The new Wife here (though she's actually a guest rather than a Wife) is none other than sultry looking Shu Qi, who plays Aryong, the daughter of a triad leader (what else) in Hong Kong, starring Ti Lung in a supporting role.

There are some bits shot in Hong Kong, and in the Cantonese language, which is all fine and dandy (given it's rare here to hear complete Cantonese dialogue in movies no thanks to the Speak Mandarin campaign), but what was bad in these scenes were the plenty of subtitles - in English, Mandarin and Korean, which cover almost 50% of the screen.

As the story goes, Aryong offends some gangsters in her homeland, and in a bid to ensure her safety, her father gets her packing overseas to take cover from the impending gangland war. She gets packed to where else, Korea (it's a Korean production after all), and becomes a guest to some Korean mafiaso, with Ki-Chul (Lee Beom-su) and his posse being the hosts and guardians of Aryong. But with the bumbling inept fools, you're quite certain who's the protector, and who's in need of protection here.

It's a fairly average movie with the usual lost in translation jokes, the clashing of cultures and of course, societal norms in a male dominated society. Mistaken intentions and deliberate translation errors to pursue individual character ends are the staple here, and some of them are genuinely funny, but like the adage, too much of a good thing cheapens it, especially when it continues to milk and replay scenes, such as over the dining table. You can see most of the jokes coming your way, and it depended very much on the actors' skill in delivery - that exaggerated body language, or that wide-eyed stare of disbelief and suspicion.

The action sequences are nothing much to wow about, especially with Shu Qi's superwoman Aryong character, who's almost only the character here who can fight. Given the number of goons thrown at her, you can't help but feel that many action scenes remind you of The Bride in Kill Bill, as she dispatches henchmen with so much ease, she rarely breaks into a sweat. And most times, with that deliberate long hair obscuring her face, you can bet your last dollar it's a stuntman taking over that lithe frame.

Some cheap shots were incorporated into the storyline, playing to Shu Qi's ex-vamp, slutty image of yesteryears. Guess you can't help it when you have some notoriety in your history, and scenes of boob grabs and woman-on-top staircase-induced gyrating scenes were in the movie quite unnecessarily, if nothing more for some juvenile laughs.

But all said, it's still a tad enjoyable, especially when you can't get tickets into the other blockbuster movies like Transformers and Die Hard 4.0 currently showing. Sometimes, movies like this when released at the same time of the expected sold-out movies, makes its cash by being the catch-all net from the expected overflow.

The Flying Scotsman

I Wanna Go Fast!

The Flying Scotsman is a formula sports biographical movie, based on the book written by a champion cyclist Graeme Obree. As with sports biopics like Cinderella Man and The World's Fastest Indian, Scotsman tells the story of the underdog's triumph against himself and his adversaries through innovation in technique, technology, and of course, perseverance sprinkled with grit and determination. But of course, like A Beautiful Mind, there are inner demons that have to be worked out, before assailing to the summit.

Graeme Obree (Jonny Lee Miller) is a bike enthusiast who works as a courier and owns a bike shop. Life's pretty plain, until he inspires to break an aged old World Hour record for longest distanced pedalled on a bicycle. But record breaking is an expensive ambition, and he realizes that aerodynamics will play an important factor. What I liked about the movie is to witness his keen observation and experimentation at work, to design the perfect sports bike, and riding techniques which some of us would have observed on television in the 90s.

Thus the movie begins charting the ups and downs of his career, starting with his built from scratch and from spare washing machine parts bike affectionately called The Old Faithful. It's something that man and machine, when united seamlessly, is able to go the distance. But of course, what I also liked is perhaps the stereotypical boardroom suits, of the powers that be, who are dead set in making life difficult for Obree, introducing absurd rules, regulations and terms in order to upset the spirit of innovation, and maintain their absolute control over the sport.

There are some moments which seem to mar the movie, despite understanding that they have to be introduced to give our on screen character more than one dimension. Struggling with injustice from the past affected Obree's EQ, but a good support structure in his wife Anne (Laura Fraser), manager Malky (Billy Boyd) and good adviser Douglas (Brian Cox), it makes a constant reminder that no man is an island, and that with good people supporting and believing in you, that's one of life's greatest gifts.

The theme track is excellent in itself, but unfortunately, none can replace the contemporary classic theme composed by Vangelis from Chariots of Fire. The track scenes though do get repetitive, but that's the nature of the sport - on the track, and usually alone when breaking records. When up against an opponent too, you're on opposite ends of the track, so there is no such thing as a photo-finish moment. Recommended movie despite its formula, if you're in need for some perk up when you're feeling down and low about yourself.

You can read more about Graeme Obree here.

[Short] Ah Ma

Ah Ma, the local short film which was selected for the 60e Cannes Film Festival to compete in the Les Courts Metrages En Competition for the Palme d'Or Short Film award, nearly walked away with the top prize, but settled for a Special Distinction award, which is a mean feat in itself, having been 1 amongst 11 others chosen from a pool of 3000 short films from around the world.

Naturally, the curious amongst us have a chance to view Ah Ma, directed by Anthony Chen, on the big screen, courtesy of GV's screening of the short at Cinema Europa prior to The Flying Scotsman.

Made on a budget of S$10,000, it is without a doubt that Ah Ma is well shot. Veering to the artistic film corner, it is a contemplative yet simplistic piece which is based on Anthony's own Ah Ma on her deathbed, and the camera capturing a snapshot of the moment, of the emotions felt by each member of the family. With some recognizable faces from local television and movies, I thought the scene stealer was the little boy, whom I thought was a character perfectly captured during times of impending death - the childlike innocence unaware of the grief of the immediate family, and continues to behave as such in its own little world, unburdened by any thoughts of remorse and regret, of perhaps not spending enough time, or perhaps losing the opportunity to make amends of sorts.

Now I know how an award winning short should look like ;)

However, in today's screening, it seemed that most of the audience (of 7) were oblivious to the screening of Ah Ma. Some wondered loudly if GV had played the wrong movie, and though some posters were put up, honestly none were prominent enough. While the papers have mentioned this special screening arrangement, it does seem that these folks don't read much too.

Some had the audacity to talk loudly and laugh at the movie (I seriously don't think anyone can laugh at scenes of deathbeds), but the worst behaviour exhibited was this man who got up, played with the Cinema Europa entrance door, talked loudly to the ushers that I could make out "what kind of movie is this? I do not watch such productions!", walked in and out of the theatre hall, before asking how long is it, and left the theatre only to return just after The Flying Scotsman got played.

I mean, if you don't like, can just sit down and shut the fuck up right? Serves you right for your ignorance, got free movie/short also complain, might as well watch Scotsman in another cinema chain if you just want to watch that movie. Oh, I think you must be one of those who don't read too.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard / Die Hard 4.0

Return of the Supercop!

Yippie-Ki-Yay, motherfucker!

John McClane, USA's supercop, returns to the big screens. being at the wrong place at the wrong time yet again, kicking some major terrorists ass since the original Die Hard way back in 1988. It has been almost 12 years since Bruce Willis last starred in the definitive cop role, which some would arguably state that Die Hard had kick started the action movie blockbusters in the late 80s to 90s.

I was just a 12 year old kid when I watched the original Die Hard, with a bruised and battered McClane surviving on gut instinct and an incredible amount of sly wit to turn the tables on the bad guys despite being heavily outnumbered. And with a building not big enough as his playground, Die Hard 2 saw him move up a level to weave in and out of an airport. Samuel L Jackson tag teams Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance, where they run around NY City playing Simon Says, and now, McClane has to take on a group of multi-nationality mercenary geeks who threaten the entire USofA. The playground keeps getting bigger, but that's only befitting a supercop, ain't it. both in threat level and geography.

Mark Bomback's story in Live Free or Die Hard continues to paint a picture of woe for McClane. You'd expect a supercop like himself to be highly decorated, rewarded, commended etc, but as it turns out, he's painfully divorced, has almost nothing except for the shirt on his back, his daughter Lucy, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, (Death Proof, Final Destination 3) refuses to acknowledge him, and nothing could be worst than an escorting mission right out of 16 Blocks, right?

And that's where he gets to the fabled wrong place wrong time territory, getting back to the formula. In fetching an easily impressed geek hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long), he finds himself in the thick of the plot to bring down the national infrastructure in a coordinated takeover using a Fire Sale methodology which Farrell unwittingly contributed, and it's up to the duo to save USA, especially when the old school cop obviously had his inadequacy and disdain for technology show, sometimes leading to comedy.

While most of the action sequences have been shown in the trailers, and while they might look like your usual car chases, explosions and gun battles, somehow there is still a "die hard" feel to them all. Perhaps this can be attributed to formula again, and some familiarity of "have we seen this before" (aka the lift shaft sequence), only to have them being updated for today, and of course, being a little faster, a little more furious, than our aging hero could handle. There's a scene which might make some scream "True Lies!", and Maggie Q unfortunately is a tad overrated, relegated into a typical role that if it's Asian, then there must be some kung-fu involved.

And speaking of the bad guys, the Die Hard franchise have always featured foreign subversive elements, like Euro terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard, and his brother Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) wanting to avenge Hans in Die Hard With a Vengeance, while some General in a fictional country made McClane Die Harder. The trend continues here, especially with the employment of Frenchmen who can do Parkour. The motivation, save for Die Harder, has always been the same - Money.

The bad guys of course never learn from history, and repeat the same mistakes. In this one, while they seem a little smug with themselves, actually work with less loyalty than those in the other movies. Timothy Olyphant's Thomas Gabriel comes from within, out to prove a point as a disgruntled ex-government employee, Obviously Thomas has no respect for history, and although he has access to records, is quite oblivious to know who he's messing with, and repeating the same mistake as Hans Gruber did in taking a family member hostage. Despite some similarities in plot development in the hopes of stalling McClane, the formula too extended to things like McClane making contact with the bad guys without actually seeing each other in the flesh.

That bit though contributed to a kink in the production, with a somewhat major error in having the walkie talkie seem like a working telephone, and bad editing made mouth movement out of sync. There are other loopholes, or some would deem ridiculous, preposterous or impossible sequences (just like how I say Die Hard With a Vengeance had this scene where Willis and Jackson slam onto containers, and yet survive), but hey, so long as McClane gets to kick some arse in a satisfactory manner, without mercy and almost always with a quip, I'm not complaining.

Die Hard 4.0 is indeed another hurrah for John McClane. Willis has played other cop roles like in Hostage, Sin City, Mercury Rising, 16 Blocks and the likes, but none of them are as memorable nor as definitive as McClane. Of late there is a return of old school heroes like Rambo and Rocky teaching their contemporary peers just how to stamp their mark in action flicks, and there absolutely is no doubt on McClane's successful return.

Yippee-Ki-Yay indeed!

Look Ma, No Guns!

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Watch Out Prime!

Growing up in the 80s, you can't help but take notice of the Transformers toys which can change from various vehicles to robots, or the cartoon series which had a pretty good run, with its fair share of spin offs having different character variations (Headmasters anyone?), settings in outer space, 3D animation (Optimus Prime as a mean looking gorilla), all great symbiotic marketing strategies between the toys and the cartoons. But one thing about the animated series though, both the Autobots and the Decepticons had lousy aim, which the Movie (1986) sought to correct, and "traumatized" (well, at least me when I was a kid watching this) kids with mortality for the beloved bots.

When Michael Bay was announced to have taken over an updated movie version of Transformers, I was a bit apprehensive, especially when character designs started to leek, and I admit, they were not really pleasing to the eye, and most, if not all, had vehicle model updates. So if anyone's a stickler that the characters must look like their animated originals or the toys, then it is likely you'll probably not enjoy the movie since you can't stand the sight of blasphemous character designs. There are some liberties that the cartoons take, which the movie tries hard to address, especially with the transformation bits, designing which part goes where instead of hiding unwanted bits (especially wheels) magically, though broad strokes for certain characters were maintained.

But I'm glad to say, this IS a Transformers movie, albeit a little updated in Michael Bay style for the big screen, a worthy summer popcorn blockbuster which delivers and satisfies. It bears Bay's signature style, and truly, it was one heck of an adrenaline ride from start to finish, pausing only to allow you to breathe a little (with some comedy which might not be everyone's cup of tea, like that call-center bit), before ripping everything up again. It's loud, it's noisy, with the usual camera work you'd come to expect from Bay's brand of total mayhem when he unleashes the action. There are times when the intricate character designs work against the movie in the action sequences though, with too many details on screen, and the robots seem to be collapsing in a heap of metal when they clash head on. But these scenes of robots clashing in an urban landscape were mighty realistic, as are the slick transformation sequences, and will leave the fan boy inside you whooping for joy.

Fans should be pleased with the effort that went into the live action movie. I was grinning from ear to ear with the little sly bits of references incorporated, like the classic transformation sound effects inherited from the cartoons, and if you keep your ears peeled, you might pick out lines here and there which were reminiscent of the cartoon series and the animated movie back in 1986. The scene in the autoshop with Bernie Mac was fun, especially with the jab at having an actual Volkswagon Beetle parked beside the new look Bumblebee (which I thought behaved like Herbie the Love Bug for the most parts of its introduction, despite the update in look). There were some inevitable Bay movie references like the flare bit for signalling which was a tad too obvious, camera swirling around characters, the slow-motions, and yet another highway sequence.

The story's not as bad as I would expect it to be, but it's nothing to shout about as well, being but just a vehicle (pardon the pun) to move the story from action sequence to action sequence. It managed to cram quite a bit in its 143 minute run time, especially in its many human fronts on dealing with a perceived invasion - you have an updated "Spike" (Shia LaBeouf) and his new girl Mikaela (Megan Fox) being caught in the thick of things with their direct friendship with the Autobots, a group of soldiers led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) dealing with Decepticon attacks in the Middle East, and Secretary of Defense Keller (Jon Voight) trying to understand the situation by enlisting a group of hackers, which includes Maggie (Rachael Taylor). As you can tell, the humans have quite a bit going on, and Transformers allowed them to get in on the action as well, making it man versus machine too.

Plenty of things went right in my opinion. The casting of Peter Cullen to voice Optimus Prime was a major coup in lending this movie some credibility, as is the replacement voice of Megatron with Hugo Weaving's. The filmmakers too addressed the issue of Megatron pretty nicely - the handgun will just not work in a live action film, and would especially be stretching it a bit should the handgun turn into a gigantic robot. The selection of the Autobots was probably ideal in having Ironhide, Jazz, Ratchet supporting Bumblebee and Prime, leaving the rest for possible future movies. Prime's sympathy for humans again gets exploited by Megatron (though most times verbally, which got repetitive), and what was quite lacking, were the weapons. Prime's black cannon, if I'm right, only managed a very brief appearance, as does Megatron's, as the battles are more fist fights rather than laser gun battles (which they might miss!) And was that Prime's Autobot Leadership Matrix peeking out of his chest?

Watching the Autobots roll out on a highway brought out the goosebumps, and with the door being left open for follow up movies, should this do well in the box office, then we can expect more rolling, and the advent of more characters! And if rumours of the coming of Unicron are correct, then we all know what to expect of Megatron.

Hoo Yeah!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

[DVD] Barton Fink (1991)

DVD Cover

This is my first time viewing a Coen Brothers movie, so why not start with one which had won them the 1991 Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or award for Best Direction, and a movie which had also garnered an award for Best Actor in that same festival year for lead John Turturro as the titular character.

Barton Fink is a successful playwright, the talk of NY City after the staging of a highly successful play to the delight of critics. His ability and dream of writing for the theatre about the common man, for the common man, strikes box office gold, and while his intentions are noble, let's face it, a man's still gotta pay his bills. An opportunity arose with an offering from Hollywood in getting him to write a studio's wrestling picture. So off he goes to the West Coast, but all he could muster was one line, before being struck by writer's block.

His prima dona demeanour and intentions somehow strike a chord in me, in that there are folks out there who have a distain for the rather formulaic Hollywood movies that get churned year after year. There's little creativity that goes around to come up with something different, and plenty of rehashing the same old tried and tested material to pull wool over audiences. With Barton's passionate speeches about his noble ideas, you can't help but to agree with the imperfection of the system.

And there are plenty of wry humour in the movie, most of which slyly prods the Hollywood studio system of yesteryear. You can't help but laugh at the veiled references, especially that of having a clueless head honcho who's in the film business not for the love of films, but in it for the profits (hey, it's a business after all). But it's not always about the movie business, as a good part of the movie also focused on Fink's friendship and camaraderie with his hotel neighbour, a certain insurance salesman called Charlie Meadows. an affable man who's more than meets the eye.

I'm quite certain that Barton Fink has more subtexts and harbours a lot more depth that I would have gleaned from superficially from the first viewing, and certainly, this movie deserves at least a second viewing or more. With plenty of interesting dialogue laced with quick, dark wit, and interesting incidents encountered by Barton Fink, this movie is beautifully shot, especially the finale containing an pseudo action sequence.

Code 1 DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment comes in widescreen anamorphic with aspect ratio 1.66:1. Visual transfer is crisp, and audio comes in English Dolby Digital 2.0, or English, Spanish and French Mono. Subtitles are in English or Spanish. Scene selection is spread over 28 chapters.

The special features contain only the photography stills (21 of them), and trailers for this movie, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing. The only other major extra is the collection of 8 deleted scenes, and usually is the edited portions of scenes in the movie (versus additional ones). What's neat is those portions that remain in the movie are recollected in black and white, while the deleted parts remain in colour. The 8 scenes are Richard and Poppy Loved the Play (0:40), Garland's Pitch on Hollywood (3:25), Desk Clerk Calls Barton (1:16), Barton Bonds with Charlie (1:04), Barton Meets Mayhew (0:43), Sink Overflowing (1:10), Detectives are Downstairs (2:27) and A Note Under the Door (0:55).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hooked On You (Mui Dong Bin Wan Si)

I'm Hooked On You Too

When I first heard about this movie and read the synopsis, I thought it would be one of the regular run of the mill romantic comedy productions that Hong Kong churns out every now and then. And I am glad that I'm proven wrong, that this movie had its moments which totally charmed me, not so much because of the eye candy cast, but the story. I'm sold when the story somehow touches me in ways I'd rather it not (cutting too close to experiences and personal life), but in doing so, makes me appreciate it a whole lot more. Richard has a knack of inviting / introducing me to movies that surprise me (like My Name Is Fame), and this one is no different.

I'm sure most of us have set up some goals at some point in our lives, be they one of those 3-5-10 year plans. I never did something formal, but in my mind had this sort of rough guide about where I want to be and what I want to do. Naturally doing well in a career of choice, and probably getting settled down some time in the future did make its way to those plans (though scratch that settling down bit for now, and snuff that laughter!) One thing's for sure, this movie blog was an accident of sorts, an indirect result of one of those plans gone awry, not that I'm complaining, but it goes to show that life can be unpredictable, that you might find some other goals or calling that appeal to you that you just want to jump along head on.

And while Miriam Yeung's Mui holding out for that Mr Perfect, and not knowing that Mr Perfect for you is right under your nose probably seemed typical for a movie like this, what I thought had given her character an added dimension, was her certainty in proclaiming that she'll never want to begin a relationship with someone in the same business as her, and that means totally writing off Fishy (Eason Chan), a fellow fishmonger from the Fortune Market they both work in. She's holding onto a dream that one day she'll be able to break free of her bonds of debt, and start a totally new life out there in the world sans smelly fishy odours, and probably if her partner was someone from this side of the world, then it'll constantly remind her of a life she wants to forget. Or, she might be looking down at the profession she's in, stereotyping her once business adversary as amongst the lower class of society.

Which makes one reconsider what it takes for one to woo someone else who has written you off from the onset. Do you persevere in the hopes of getting that elusive dream fulfilled, or do you decide that enough's enough and abandon all hope? On the flip side, you'll also start to ponder if you should be holding out for that perfect someone, or actually to make something perfect with someone who just might not meet your criteria. Had some of these thought swirling while sitting through the movie, despite its outright veneer of what may be deemed as fluff.

In the most superficial manner, it is a romantic comedy where Mui and Fishy play off each other, the usual opposite attracts kind of story, where the lady thinks lowly of the frog, but the frog discovers some inner beauty in the lady, especially with her industry, and secretly assists her along obstacles in life. Despite its formula and the various reasons it touched me as mentioned, I can't mention enough of identifiable moments for anyone who had been in, and out of relationships. Being a comedy, while you might be able to see some of the jokes coming from a mile away, there are some which are genuinely funny and will catch you off guard, especially a certain scene which you have to keep your ears peeled, when the characters launch into a discussion relating analogies between sex, relationship and fishing. I wish I had seen this in Cantonese though.

Another thing I enjoyed is how the story takes place over a period of 10 years, starting from the handover of Hong Kong back to China, and having the story unfold in front of a backdrop of changing social and economic times, highlighting certain pertinent events in the course of history, like the SARS outbreak, MLM fads, scams like fake marriages and the likes. However, the presentation at times seem a bit choppy with editing failing to keep pace with the movie, and too many characters introduced (some of whom are lovable in their own right though, especially the Fortune Market stallholders and patrons) made them seem rather one dimensional, and at times, unnecessary.

But overall, I view this as one of the sleeper hits that might just surprise me when I compile my top ten for the year, for the reasons that it made me think, having a good ensemble cast with great chemistry between the leads (I thought Stanley Fun Shui Fan made an interesting appearance as the dad), and best of all, being able to identify with them, and the relationship issues they face. Hey, I'm entering my 30s too!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

[DVD] Golden Swallow (Jin Yan Zi) (1968)

DVD Cover

Touted as the sequel to King Hu's Come Drink With Me starring Cheng Pei Pei, this movie is anything but. Except for the return of Pei Pei's Golden Swallow role, Chang Cheh's movie doesn't share any similarities with King Hu's original, clearly stamping his own take on his movie utilizing the lead character from Come Drink With Me, and relegating her to supporting role status.

As a fan of the original, this is downright disappointing, as I had expected to see Pei Pei kick some serious rear again as the fabled swordswoman. Instead, what we get is a story involving a love triangle of sorts, with costars Lo Lieh as Golden Whip Han Tao, a man who saved Golden Swallow from bandits and nursed her back to health, and Wang Yu as a beau from long time ago, who now calls himself The Silver Roc. The Drunken Cat, with whom Golden Swallow rode into the sunset with, is clearly forgotten and totally written out.

In actuality, this movie can be renamed The Silver Roc. The story centers on this figure, an orphan bearing a scar on the forehead similar to Harry Potter's, and is one of the fellow disciples to Golden Swallow's teachers. Disappearing one night to seek revenge on his family's murderers, he resurfaces to look for Golden Swallow, and does so by killing villains in her name, in an attempt to lure her out of seclusion. Being the self-proclaimed number one swordsman with an attitude helps too, and not before long, our trio will meet, with Golden Swallow being indecisive about both alpha males, that they have to duke it out to settle scores.

In Chang Cheh's signature ketchup blood style, this movie doesn't lack in the gore department, with really bloody scenarios, dismembered bodies, slashes to face and an inspiration to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, albeit done in a more straightforward manner. But some of the kung fu moves seemed recycled from One Armed Swordsman, especially Wang Yu's Silver Roc, who holds his sword akimbo similar to his One Armed days. And his much revered "Coup De Grace" killer move was never seen until the finale, and that too was too weakly executed and laughable. I wondered too about numerous scenes where characters liked to leap out of windows, clearly to a mat at the bottom, out of the screen. But one thing's a bonus, and that's having plenty of outdoor shots versus indoor studio ones, which boosts production values a little.

Still, it's a decent martial arts flick, but one which could have been miles better. With Wang Yu hogging too much of the limelight with his character in this movie, it suffers by neglecting the other leading characters by Lo Lieh, and especially Cheng Pei Pei, because the movie, after all, is named after her Golden Swallow, or in the original English title, it's the Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick (apparently it's a misnomer, she doesn't have that skill, nor executed any recognizable kicking moves).

If anything, watch out for a young Wu Ma as Hu Zhen, a supporting character and friend of Golden Swallow and Han Tao. Nothing memorable, but just a getting a kick out of recognizing a star (to me at least) in his earlier youthful looking days.

The Code 3 DVD by Celestial Pictures features remastered visuals presented in anamorphic widescreen. However, there are portions where the picture seemed out of focus, and I'm unsure if it's because it's inherent from the print it was transferred from. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital, with only the Mandarin track. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters, and optional subtitles are either Traditional Chinese or in English.

The special features are a bit scant. There are a total of 5 remastered trailers included, with Golden Swallow (0:58), Come Drink With Me (1:04), The Magnificent Trio (1:00), Five Shaolin Masters (1:00) and One-Armed Swordsman (1:00). There's also a section on "Movie Information" which doesn't have much, except for a photo gallery with 8 pages of 11 original behind the scenes stills, and 10 movie stills, the original poster for "The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick" (the original title), a one page one paragraph production notes in Traditional Chinese and English, and the biographies and filmographies of Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Cheng Pei Pei, Chao Hsin Yen, Yang Chi Ching and director Chang Cheh.

And included too which I suspect is included in every Celestial Pictures DVD of a Chang Cheh movie, is a documentary on the director himself (17:20). It contains interviews with stars of today and yesteryears, as they recount their memories and experiences of working together with the great man who has revived the martial arts genre, and other genres in the Hong Kong movie industry. For those who have not watched Chang Cheh's works, be warned of the loads of spoilers (character deaths especially) featured in it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Goal II: Living The Dream

So Owen, The Bench Warm Enough?

Living the Dream? More like Living the Nightmare!

The first Goal movie brought plenty of cheers to football fans, who celebrated the coming of a decent movie about the beloved Beautiful Game. And it didn't disappoint, with a likable hero in Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker) in a rags to riches story, nifty footwork and camerawork, locales familiar to English Premier League fans, the seamless combination of real world match footage with fictional shots taken on match days, and access to seldom seen areas in and around the stadiums.

The story of Santiago continues in this UK-Spain-Germany production, with the stage moving from England to Spain (and to Germany of course for the World Cup). With the first movie centered on the domestic football league following Newcastle's season, the sequel brings us to the Spanish La Liga, and firmly the spotlight of matches put on Europe's Champions League games. It's a no-brainer that German involvement will be of course the World Cup which just ended last year, and given that this sequel is delayed, you'd still get to see Real Madrid's ex-galacticos like Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Ronaldo, besides mainstayers like Iker Caillas and Raul Gonzalez, amongst others (see if you can spot McManaman!)

In a player swap deal with Michael Owen, we see Munez head to Real Madrid, in probably almost every footballer's dream to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world. And of course with hard nosed coach Rudi Van Der Merwe (Rutger Hauer) at the helm, our new recruit has to prove his worth before being handed some first team duties. But good friend and ex-Newcastle player Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola) is on hand at the club (reference the first movie shall we) to provide Munez some action, especially when Harris is running afoul with Rudi for his lost form.

The football sequences here are rather straightforward, and more of the same we saw in the first movie, save for some spectacular, probably CG-ed movies like the volleys, overhead kicks and diving headers. The number of matches being featured too is much less, as the story wanted to focus on our player's life outside of football.

You know, by putting all the press reports that you read day in day out of boozing, incessant partying, easy models who don't bat an eyelid looking to get between the sheets with the players, flashy sports cars, designer togs, mansions with numerous rooms, and the likes. Munez lives the dream in material wealth, although this starts to get into his head and takes a toil with his relationships, especially with girlfriend Roz (Anna Friel). There are numerous subplots put into Goal 2, but most times they are superficially touched upon for the sole purpose of covering the ground, and then forgotten conveniently, like the paparazzi photo-journalist, and various incidents on and off the pitch.

What I thought slowed the movie down further, was the injection of Munez's typical stepbrother brat from hell, and mother, who were conspicuously absent in the first movie, then reintroduced here just to amplify the moments that try to touch the heart (like in the first movie with the dad and grandmother), but one without which I feel would not make much of a difference. Couple this family reunion-reconciliation of sorts, together with his struggles with injury and attempts to shake off the "super-sub" tag, Munez has his hands full.

While the other real life players do not have much speaking lines (or none at all), you can't help but to feel both Kuno Becker and Alessandro Nivola being fish out of water in the Real Madrid dressing room, where either the charismatic players will undoubtedly get the audience attention with their antics or camaraderie which shines through, or clever editing and cinematography tells you that shots have been made with the clear exclusion of those players in some movie magic moments. The movie too seemed to like David Beckham, given plenty of scenes, befitting probably of his real last hurrah at the club before leaving them this summer.

And for Arsenal fans like myself, while it's a blast to see the team featured in this movie, and the likes of Jose Antonio Reyes (who incidentally played for Real Madrid few weeks ago and created then scored 2 crucial goals in their final league game to hand them the La Liga title), Robert Pires and a fictional TJ featured alongside our Captain Thierry Henry (don't leave!), the result is blasphemous as the last time we went head-on with Real, it was in the first knockout round 2 seasons ago where we triumphed 1-0.

So the scoreline at the end, well, it's actually living in the dream. Given that the ending is one of the technical worst that can happen, leading straight to the third installment, let's hope that the concluding chapter really does see the light of day. Not as polished as the first one with the novelty factor wearing off, but let's judge the series as a whole once the sequel screens. Excellent soundtrack once again, coupled with the usual product placement shots for Adidas.

Friday, June 22, 2007

13: Game of Death (13 Game Sayawng)

Deal or No Deal?

Originally titled 13: Beloved, this Thai movie undergoes a name change in its release here, which I thought was slightly more suitable given its subject. A man given the opportunity to win up to 100 million Baht if he completes 13 challenges, which range from the ordinary (to get you hooked) to those which will slowly challenge your moral values.

Imaginative flick from Thailand with great premise and promise, only to be let down by execution and pacing at times. Not to say the movie's bad though, but one of the more interesting movies released here from the Land of Smiles after the dismal The Passion. Nonetheless, the finale is something to be reckoned with.

To read my review of 13: Game of Death at, click on the logo below:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof

Dude That's My Car

After the relative success of his homage to kung fu with his Kill Bill movies, Quentin Tarantino turned his sights to the 70s exploitation movies with Grindhouse: Death Proof. However, for us outside the US, we do not get the Grindhouse double bill with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and a host of easter egg styled trailers, but rather we get the longer cut of both movies. Many have said that Planet Terror proved to be superior to Death Proof, but without watching the other, I thought Tarantino's offering was pretty decent stuff.

Perhaps his detractors loathed how he made references to and probably paid homage to his own movies and signature style. This spelt E-G-O, and doesn't go down well, with its plenty of foot fetish shots, reminiscent of foot massages, and if you pay attention enough, you'd spot and hear about the Big Kahuna burgers, familiar tunes over the ringtones, yellow and black striped colour schemes, the alpha female type chicks, and loads and loads of vulgarity laced dialogue just about everything under the sun, with characters mouthing off in cars or around a dining table. That about sums up stuff from Reservoir Dogs all the way to Kill Bill.

But Death Proof is a different animal altogether. Being his own cinematographer, QT has full control over the shots that he makes, and injects plenty of sleaze into his story - buxomy, leggy girls in tight tees and perky butts peeking out of hot pants, flaunting their power of sexuality in alpha-female styled attitudes. It's actually two different segments in one movie, each being quite different from the other in terms of themes, and style.

The first half introduced us to characters like Arlene (Venessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), Jungle Julia (Syndey Poitier) and Pam (Rose McGowan), who end up in a bar doing their own thing (read: plenty of dialogue and flirting with the camera). We get introduced quite slowly to the psycho Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, with Snake Plissken styled scar), who while on one hand befriends the girls, but on the other hand, we are just waiting for the action to begin. Being a stuntman, his car is "death proof", meaning it's rigged like stunt cars that provide protection for its driver, and nothing else. And if you're twiddling your thumbs for some action to take over, then be prepared to wait a bit.

You see, despite what you think Death Proof might be, it's nothing about the action, not at least until the driver takes the wheel. And when QT lets it rip, out comes the blood and gore, exploitation style. Given the fake jump cuts, bad editing and scratchy film stock, it becomes near impossible to find out just which parts were censored for the local M18 version. It does seem to make sense still and flow well, but you can probably bet your last dollar that some bits were removed. On the other hand, we have stuff like the lap dance kept intact, which was omitted from the double bill Grindhouse. Win some and lose some.

The second half of the movie is a different story altogether. For the most parts, the 70s style gets junked, maybe because it got tiring, or it's too tedious to replicate the cheesy special effects over to this story arc, where the hunter becomes the hunted. There's plenty of action, but could I say it's somewhat repetitive and lacks that oomph, until the final moments where you probably might go "that's awesomely cool". Other than that, it's more of the same, with more eye candy courtesy of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Sky High, Final Destination 3), Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thorns and Zoe Bell, with plenty more QT styled dialogue of pop irrelevance.

While stylistically the movie might want to try and resemble low budgeted 70s exploitation movie, Death Proof juxtaposes certain current day elements into itself, making it somewhat messy with gizmos like cell phones and portable music players. What put a smile on my face though (besides the beautiful ladies of course), is Kurt Russell's two-faced Stuntman Mike performance. He can be nonchalant one minute, oozing indifference, and in the next, he can be so silently deranged you'd rather choose to leap from the vehicle, if you had a means to that is. Or he can be the classic road rage driver, before realizing he has bitten off more than he could chew. It's been some time having Russell on the big screen, and I thought he did fine, despite not being QT's first choice for the role.

Ultimately, just one warning about the movie - expect plenty of dialogue, and I mean plenty, with characters talking about sexuality and about people who never appear on screen, and if you can't stand irrelevance, then steer clear. The action comes on in limited spurts, so if that's what you're after, then savour every moment when the gear shifts into overdrive. The loopy soundtrack too is a bonus, and adds some authentic exploitative flavour. QT did not manage to outdo himself, but still managed to capture the correct spirit in those films he wants to emulate. If Rodriguez's installment is as they say far superior than QT's , then I'd say bring on Planet Terror already!

Looking For A Joyride

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nancy Drew

Murder I Wrote

I last read a Nancy Drew book about 20 years ago, so much of my memory of the fictional character is probably faulty. From what I gathered, the books were introduced to me at an era when teenage sleuths were popular to children growing up at the time (for my case, the 80s and early 90s), with Hardy Boys, Famous Five, and of course, "Carolyn Keene"'s Nancy Drew amongst the more famous ones. I still remember those hardcover books with very dated cover illustrations, usually quite heavy (for a kid) to lug around, and the thickness of the book perhaps attributed to the fact that the words are printed in large fonts.

Well, the character has been given some updates along the way, as I recall my sister's subsequent Nancy Drew books becoming less thick, of softcover, with updated and a more chic Nancy illustrated on the cover. I can't remember if those stories were the same as the old hardcover ones, but I guess these books, being ghostwritten, have their fair share of updating itself for the times.

In this Warner Brothers release of Nancy Drew, the character no doubt gets its update to suit the times, but somehow the writers Andrew Fleming and Tiffany Paulsen maintained her 50s-ish small town sensibilities, thereby retaining some charm and flavour that erm, folks like me, would appreciate. Her fashion sense, her prim and properness, even some quirky little behaviour traits that makes her, well, Nancy Drew.

Her family background remains more or less the same, living with her single parent father Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), who is moving his daughter and himself to the big city for a better job opportunity, and to wean his daughter off sleuthing in the town of River Heights. Mom is but a distant memory, and the housemaid makes a cameo. But what made Nancy Drew work, is the casting of Emma Roberts in the lead role. Niece of her famous aunt Julia, she too possess that sprightly demeanour, that unmistakable red hair and that megawatt smile. Her Nancy Drew, while in the beginning does seem to rub you the wrong way, actually will grow on you. And in almost what I thought could be a discarded scene from Pretty Woman, it had the characters walk into a classy shop with almost opposite reactions.

While Dad Carson Drew tries hard to bring Nancy out of her sleuthing environment and to assimilate into normal teenage life, trust Nancy to find themselves living in a house whose owner, a Hollywood type has been, was found murdered under suspicious circumstances. Mystery solving is her comfort food when she finds herself an outcast of the local fraternity, and not before long we're whisked off along with her on her big screen adventure.

There's nothing too Black Dahlia about the crime and mystery, and instead it's a pretty straightforward piece for Nancy to solve, in between befriending Corky (Josh Flitter) a chubby friend from school, and pacifying jealous boyfriend Ned (Max Thieriot), while hiding the truth of her extra curriculum activities from her dad. The story's laced with cheesy fun and an oldie sentimentality which charms, and together, it becomes somewhat scooby-doo like. With minimal violence and no big bag gunfights or explosions, this is seriously a genre which is labelled clearly with "chick flick" alert.

It's actually quite breezy and a fluffy movie to sit through amongst the summer offerings thus far, with a decent contemporary soundtrack to boot. I guess the movie will generate a new generation of fans, rekindle the memories of old ones, and probably, just probably, might spark a new fashion trend of sporting penny loafers.

Click here to learn more about Nancy Drew.

Monday, June 18, 2007

[On Location] Muallaf

The Mukhsin set visit was a blast last year, being fortunate to visit on the first day of principal photography in the wide outdoors of Kuala Selangor, with its vast padi fields under the clear blue skies. This year's visit to the Muallaf set was quite opposite in contrast though, with its predominantly dark night / night time scenes, dim indoors and being on the last 18 drizzling hours of the film shoot which culminated in that scene so talked about in the Malaysian press the last few days. Much have already been said about Sharifah Amani "taking it all off" (the hair on the top of her head lah), and the surprising backlash that came almost immediately after from some sections of society, and from the detractors of both the director and actress.

Sharifah Amani's New Look

I'd like to say that from what I know of the story outline, from that scene shot which I had observed, and through quick discussions with Yasmin, being controversial or doing it for the sake of a cheap publicity stunt is probably the furthest thing away from the truth. No doubt the scene will raise eyebrows, but it's integral to the Muallaf storyline conceived by the storyteller, and if a publicity stunt is what is after, then permission would have been granted to the press to observe the barber in action when shaving Nani's hair, and of course, coupled with pictures of the process for the papers the next day, and videos for primetime television.

But no, that's not part of the script, and with the photographs already released, that's all there is to it. The scene will probably be no longer than 2-3 minutes(?), but I tell you it packs its fair share of an emotional punch even on standalone (though I credit this to Nani's younger sister - Aleysha), and I bet that watching it in context to the flow of the narrative, would come across with more impact.

11 June 2007 1900hrs

It was a relatively long bus journey from Singapore to Ipoh, taking approximately 10 hours door to door, from home to the Hotel Majestic where the cast and crew were staying, and which also doubled up as one of the sets in the movie. We found ourselves staying next door to The Visitor, and with our rooms being a connecting one, it made shuttling to and fro a blast, such that we had a deluxe suite of sorts lol.

We had to go to Ipoh Parade to stock up on some groceries and for dinner, before adjourning back to hear that the schedule calls for a 0100hrs wake up. For some reason, we chose instead to watch the erm, best bits of Van Wilder and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, before realizing that time flies fast when you're having fun, and it's midnight. One hour left to hit the shower and grab that all needed quick snooze.

12 June 2007 0110hrs
It's assembly at the Hotel driveway for a ride to the set. The cast and crew had already made their way, and I joined madam director, Visitor, as well as an NST reporter for a short journey to the dark outdoors...

It was a small dimly lit street with a row of shophouses on one side, and while every shop on the row was closed for business, lights were radiating from Sid's Tavern Pub and Cafe, where it the only one bustling with activity by the film crew setting the stage, both outdoors for the scene, and inside the pub, fixing up the lighting, cabling and such for scenes to be shot indoors later.

And here I was again, in the company of Yasmin's excellent film crew who went about doing their own thing like clockwork. It's pretty amazing that time is not wasted idling around, everyone knew what they needed to do, and got them done. But my eye caught someone else instead. Earlier in the day, the Visitor was raving about a certain "Yan Yan", and here, she's was rehearsing a scene while waiting for the film to roll, and my jaw dropped.

Guys and Girls, Yeo Yann Yann is in Yasmin Ahmad's Muallaf! Yet another reason to watch the movie I'd bet!

Yann Yann got almost a unanimous vote of agreement (from my fellow columnists) that her performance amongst the ensemble cast of Singapore Dreaming was one of the best, and to be able to see her in action was nothing short of amazing. I do have to apologize for the lack of photographs here, but my camera is a dud when shooting at night, even though I can do some manual controls or switch it to night mode. But that would mean taking out some of the fun when you do see Yann Yann in character as Cindy the bar maid. The on set rehearsals took a while, but almost each rehearsal had something tweaked, especially the dialogue. Her role here is nothing we've seen before in her earlier movies (Singapore Dreaming, The High Cost of Living), perhaps quite similar to that cameo bit in One Last Dance (blink and you miss though), so fans of hers will be in for a real treat!

It's almost definite she's not one of the main characters, but I guess her supporting role here's a bit of a joy to watch. And I couldn't imagine that this morning's filming was centric on her, in that one location, right up until 0600hrs. While I won't be damned to reveal just what was shot - you have to watch the movie yourself to find out - but suffice to say that she's a brilliant actress in her own right. When Madam Director cued for certain emotions to be tried out, sometimes a glint in the eye was just what's needed for Yann Yann to effect just what the director wanted. Unbelievable stuff, something you just have to be there to observe first hand! Makeup too was perfect, as is its role in the other scene to be shot later that morning.

If my count was correct, some 6 scenes were shot in and around Sid's Tavern, and as the morning drew on, the number of cast members on set dwindled for their much needed rest. A number of extras had been hanging around waiting for their parts to be shot, and you could tell they were definitely thrilled to be part of the movie.

Arrived back at the Majestic at about 0620hrs, and slept like a log until almost 1000hrs.


Totoro Inside!

We made our way to the final shooting venue for the day, a huge red-white bricked bungalow with a huge garden, where tents were set up for lunch, as well as for the press to hang around while the crew got busy with getting everything in order for the final scene to be shot. Furniture deliveries were made too!

Almost every mainstream Malaysian press (and some from Star TV too) was represented on site today to get the scoop on Sharifah Amani's "hair today gone later" moment, but there were sighs of slight disappointment when they heard that they cannot witness the shaving process, in which case I think does not appear in the movie.

The Yasmin and Nani Interview - Note Her Chic Short Hair!

Who's Got Shorter Hair?

Nonetheless the press were kept busy with interview opportunities with Yasmin, Nani and Brian. From the photos, he looks like a Tibetian monk, or some say like Taiwanese actor Chang Chen. Up close, and during the interview, you can't help but feel a sense of zen like calm in his presence. Unfortunately for me he has already shot all his scenes, so I have to wait for the movie to see him in action. However, if you visit Yasmin's blog the past few days, based on the movies stills, somehow his character, also called Brian, comes across as always in deep contemplation. We shall see, once the movie's released!

Brian as Brian

I didn't hang around the bungalow itself, as it seemed that during this time some coda was being filmed and though I could have inadvertently heard what it was about, I didn't want to know any more than I should!


We were huddled at the ground floor of the bungalow, where a video feed has been set up for everyone to catch a glimpse of the action being shot upstairs. As you can tell, every was eager to witness THE scene which the press was here for. We can't see it with our very own eyes because (later as I found out as we adjourned upstairs) there just wasn't enough space, having the scene shot in a room, a track set up, and the remaining space used by other essential equipment necessary to capture the scene onto film, and not forgetting cast and crew too.

After the rehearsals and setting up of equipment, we were waiting for quite a while as the barber went about doing his job. You can't believe the air of anticipation and impatience around as almost everyone can't wait to see the actual scene being shot. In the meantime, Sharifah Aleysha was dropped by the ground floor and the press kept themselves occupied by fielding her some questions with regards to the particular scene, amongst others.

Interviewing Aleysha

And finally when it's time for the actual shoot, everyone without prompting became glued to the monitor, as the camera slowly panned across the room, and revealed in what I thought was time freezing itself, to that emotional scene between the on/off screen sisters. Like I mentioned earlier, it has an emotional punch even when viewed by itself, and with young Aleysha all teary eyed, you can't help but to go "Awww....". Watching the scene in context will no doubt be more meaningful.

Once the scene was shot and completed, everyone rushed upstairs, eager to talk to Nani to get from her first hand how she felt about the scene, and what went through her mind that whole afternoon. You could see that the official stills photographer was sniffing, and a couple of crew members were too. I guess it's hard not too, especially when you're witnessing the scene unfold in front of your very eyes.


And It's A Wrap! Cheers and plenty of smiles went round, to wrap up what was an 11(?) day shoot. It's a cause for celebration, but you realize that hey, there's still the post-production stage to get everything else together, and Yasmin did hint though that the first cut would probably be ready by early July. From the few scenes I've seen so far, it is without a doubt an interesting movie to look forward to, especially when Yasmin has now broken away from the Orked storyline, and venturing into new ground, stories and characters, while retaining her signature brand of storytelling and the exploration of human emotions.

What's There?

I can't wait for the movie, and I'd bet Yasmin fans around the world are also eagerly anticipating the cinematic debut of Muallaf!
Say Cheese!

Do visit Yasmin's blog for more details and some beautiful movie stills and behind the scenes pictures of her latest movie offering!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

[DVD] The Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre (Moh Din Tiu Lung) (魔殿屠龍) (1984)

Beam Me Up Scotty

The Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre are two fabled weapons in Jin Yong's novel of the same name, and though I haven't read the original book, my recollection of the story goes back to the 80s where Tony Leung Chiu-wai was playing the lead role of Zhang Wuji in the Hong Kong TVB series. In fact, days were the those that I was weaned on plenty of Jin Yong martial arts stories through television.

Big screen adaptations of the novels are always difficult because one has to decide just how much material to squeeze into a two hour movie. And adaptations have ranged from the arty-farty remote resemblance like Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, to the plain comedic like The Kungfu Master starring Jet Li, which was actually supposed to be two movies, but had the second part canned. And some, like The Hidden Power of Dragon Sabre, just reused characters and put them into new creative spin offs, which unfortunately, doesn't make much sense in its treatment.

I don't think this story is canon nor Jin Yong endorsed, since the background of some characters and artifacts have been changed. For example, the Jiuying and Jiuyang Zhen Jing manuals are not stored in both swords. Rather it was the war manual Wu Mu Yi Shu which was kept inside the Dragon Sabre. Also, combining both weapons doesn't produce laser beams like what's depicted in the movie (don't ask!) but rather, the clanging of two swords together will break them to reveal the manuals. But perhaps what's more ludicrous, is the fusion of some science fiction elements into the story, with a set I swear looks like a poor man's cousin of Star Trek coupled with a roof adorned by faux pas Biblical-like chapel drawings , and some God like element from a passing of a Caucasian!

That aside, this story tells of the aftermath of that in the novel, where the Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang collaborates with the villain Song Qingshu (Alex Man) to attack the Mongolians, led by a Princess (a very young Cherie Chung, in a classical flower vase role) and General Tieh Zhen, played by Ti Lung. The imperial forces under the scheming Qingshu, disguise themselves as Ming Cult members in the attack, thereafter framing Zhang Wuji (Derek Yee, in pre-directing days) who is leader of the sect. Familiar Ming Cult members like the Bat King and Wuji's Godfather the Golden Haired Lion also make supporting appearances, but this movie sits squarely on the rivalry amongst General Tieh, Zhang Wuji and Song Qingchu, who becomes a Dong Fang Bu Bai wannabe with his androgynous transformation, as well as superior martial arts skills.

But don't watch this movie for its martial arts or action set pieces. There are none which warrant special mention, and nothing truly groundbreaking or classical in that sense. The action scenes are long drawn, and sad to say, boring, with plenty of repetitive moves and exploding bodies. What's more, the special effects team was probably having a field day with the laser effects, and almost every battle feature so many laser beams, you will not be faulted if you think you're watching Star Wars. Unless it's the Liu Mai Shen Jian skill, I don't really recall Jiuying or Jiuyang Shen Gong being laser beam producing, and the final fight was pretty ridiculous for its light show.

As with many Shaw Bros kungfu movies, the ending does leave one wanting for a more satisfactory finish, since most of them usually stop short by the time the baddies get their just desserts. If the West have their spaghetti westerns, then these are the equivalent. Some fight scenes are violent, but blood doesn't flow as much as in some of its counterpart movies. Don't get me wrong, they're still plenty of fun though, with their outlandish costumes, stilted dialogue and cheesy kungfu moves.

They Don't Make Them Like They Used To!

The Code 3 DVD by Celestial Pictures has crisp visual transfers in anamorphic widescreen, and audio is available in Mandarin or Cantonese in Dolby digital surround sound. Subtitles are in Traditional Chinese or English, and scene selection is available over 12 chapters.

The Special Features are a bit lacking though. There are some remastered trailers for this movie (1:05), its prequel Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre 2 (1:05), Shaolin Intruders (1:05), Descendant of the Sun (1:00) and Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (1:07), which is a story with the Xiaoli Fei Dao character played by Ti Lung. Most of the movies here stars some of the cast in this movie, hence their inclusion.

The other features are quite scant, with 10 movie stills, the original poster, a relatively useless one pager one paragraph production notes, and a biography and selected filmography section consisting details for Derek Yee, Ti Lung, Alex Man, Cherie Chung and director Chu Yuan.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Surf's Up


It's easy to roll your eyes when you see yet another animated movie starring talking animals, and what more, talking penguins. Guess you can credit the popularity of our feathered friends from down south to award winning films like the documentary which started it all, March of the Penguins, and the other animated movies Madagascar (where they were scene stealers) and Happy Feet. But before you actually decide to pass on this one, Surf's Up a surprisingly refreshing tale set in the bright sunny beaches with laid back "dude" attitude, which doesn't seem to try too hard to please, and comes up just about right.

One of the good things about the movie is the voice talent featured. Like Happy Feet, it contains some recognizable names, but just as a reminder to our Legend of the Sea friends, big names doesn't necessarily equate to good voice acting. Shia LeBeouf (a name which we will see quite frequently over the next few months with Transformers and Disturbia) gets the lead role of Cody Maverick, a surfer penguin wannabe who dreams of making it big in the surfing community. His idol is Big Z (Jeff Bridges), a world champion who had made an impression on a young Cody. However, Big Z is presumed missing in action during one competition, and the new world champion, Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) looks set to retain his status for the umpteenth time.

The supporting characters too are a delight, with Zooey Deschanel as a Baywatch lifeguard babe and James Woods as a sports tzar, and Jon Heder continues his stereotype by playing Cody's new best friend Chicken Joe, a chilled out surfing chicken who finds himself at probably the wrong place each time and associating with the wrong species.

What made this movie work is that the filmmakers recognize they have to come up with a narrative style that is different in order to engage, and given that it's a sports type movie, they went for a sports entertainment channel style, complete with replicating camera techniques including details like less than perfect wireless camera transmissions (love those on-board cameras, nevermind if it doesn't make complete sense or is illogical), over the top channel transition sequences, and you just gotta love those faux pas interviews with just about every character. If you can't get enough of baby penguins, the filmmakers too are shrewd enough to include these crowd favourite characters in endearing scenes.

With Father's Day mood all round, this movie is apt too for the season, given its theme of family, and bonding with (surrogate) father types. The humour injected ranges wide, from subtle lines and references, to the more obvious physical slapstick moments. I can't resist but to again advise our Legend of the Sea friends, this is what computer animation is about, with its depiction of photo realistic quality of the sun, sand and the sea, with realistic surfer moves, a simple story yet packed with adequate thematic moments, with song and music that don't irritate, but serve to move the narrative along smartly.

Recommended animated movie, despite the overused penguin characters. Stay until after the end credits for a short scene (there's also one played during the credits, so don't walk out of the hall just yet).

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki Wo Kakeru Shôjo)

I Believe I Can Fly

The poster of this animated movie looks a little suggestive, but nope, it's actually a wholesome time travel movie which explores a little on the vestment of such powers to a klutzy individual, as well as relationships, and the perennial question of what would anyone do if you have the ability to go back into time, and make changes presumably for the better.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time tells a wonderful story centered on 3 friends, the tomboyish and clumsy Makoto Konono (voiced by Riisa Naka), and two hunks Chiaki Mamiya (Takuya Ishida) and Kousuke Tsuda (Mitsutaka Itakura). Theirs is a friendship formed after school at the baseball court where they spend quality time talking about typical teenage stuff. Things start to change however, when Makoto by accident gets the power to time travel, and in her own ditzy way, uses her new found abilities for "good" - directly for herself, or in some Emma like moments, to influence the outcome of relationships for her friends and play matchmaker.

And that's just scratching the tip of the iceberg. While it's animation style is kept simple and fairly straightforward, it doesn't compromise on the complexity of its storyline. Not that it serves to confuse, rather you'll be amazed by the amount of pathos the story contains, with its various subplots especially when the time travelling stuff kicks in. It has adult sensibilities in the treatment of the plot, and knows exactly when to hit the right emotional chords when warranted.

Although based on a book, the story here serves as a quasi-sequel of sorts which takes place some 20 years later, what I can say is that the love stories intertwined has its major one being able to touch like that in Be With You. I loved that movie, and watching how this bore some similarities, you can't help but feel the same emotions coming across in the same way, nevermind that the characters here are animated, as you can feel the pain, the love, and their despair. And that is something that I should say is difficult for the genre - they're not real persons on screen - but yet being able to evoke emotions and for one to react and empathize, definitely makes it powerful, and a cut above others. Something that our local animated films had failed to do in giving us cold characters and bastardized stories from folklore.

But it's not always all the time serious in tone or mood. The movie has light hearted moments, sometimes bordering on the slapstick, no thanks to the bumbling Makoto character. In a sequence, it was reminiscent of Chinese Odyssey starring Stephen Chow, where each time travel moment gets played ad nausem with different comedic effect. Undoing blunders as we see is not exactly Makoto's forte, and while she may be using her powers in a carefree way, with great powers come great responsibilities (sorry, can't resist that one!)

As usual, anyone can find fault with the time travel paradox which rears its ugly head in any time travel movie, but I would suggest that you park those thoughts aside, and enjoy the story that the Girl Who Leapt Through Time is telling. There are slight attempts at addressing it with its creation of totally new and different realities with each jump, but even then a major paradoxical flaw still exists. At its lowest denominator, the film reminds to seize the day like it's your last, do what's right, and don't be shy in telling someone how you feel about them.

The Best Animated Film of the recent Awards of the Japanese Academy, this film gets my vote of support too with its superbly emotional and touching tale, and with its similarities to that aspect of the film which I like in Be With You, it will be no surprise if this movie finds its way to my Top Ten of the year. Highly recommended!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Who's Hotter?

I've written almost two years ago that I adored the movie adaptation of Fantastic Four, despite many out there who hated it to the core. Back then, what I found was right about it was its spot on characterization and its capture of the spirit which was FF, the bickering amongst its members as well as its theme on unity and family. I'm surprised that I actually predicted the coming of Galactus, though some would be disappointed with his big screen appearance.

Don't kid yourself if you say that you didn't see Galactus coming. As its herald, no Silver Surfer story is complete without the arrival of the master wanting to devour planets to keep itself alive (kinda reminds me of the other Transformer animated movie with Unicron). However, purists would go up in arms at the depiction of possibly one of the largest being in the Marvel Universe, which I thought was a better alternative in the movie without making it look too stupid with its ridiculous purple tin helmet.

And what is a Silver Surfer story without Victor Von Doom showing interest in its immense power? While you might think that the movie might have too many villains, with Galactus, Doom and the Surfer (well, for the most parts), and with 4 heroes in the fray, Rise of the Silver Surfer managed to maintain a breezy pace without getting too deep into its themes nor suffer from having to introduce in detail its characters. We've already established most of that in the first movie, and the details of the Surfer and its master was just enough to enlighten new fans, while keeping older fans happy enough with its accuracy.

So it's much like the comic book again, with our family of four having to deal with first of all, the rock star like atmosphere of the marriage between Mr Fantastic and Invisible Girl, before the Silver Surfer's rude arrival causing major climate changes in cities around the world, and of course, trusting the USoA army to wanna play world police again.

This movie is not without obvious flaws though in continuity and logic in its narrative. For one, while its big action scenes take place in busy parts of the world, the crowd usually gets dispersed in record time. I believe some parts of the action were chopped off to prevent it from being overly draggy, but therein some logic and crowd magically disappear. Some parts too will make you wonder why doesn't the Invisible Girl just knock everyone out with her invisible projectiles, or groan that the make up artist managed to make Jessica Alba look like a fashion disaster with her unnaturally dyed-blonde hair. She looks hot when it's all tied up, but when it's let down, I tell you it's time for some shampoo ad to do some major corporate sponsorship.

But I still got a kick out of its humorous moments (not that it was so funny, but they had charm), and I can't get enough of the banter between the Thing and the Human Torch. One thing's for certain, while the acting might not be first class, the cast of Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis (with the help of the suit) sure looked their parts. And that in itself, is movie magic bringing comic book panels to life. Look out too for Stan Lee, whom I think for the first time in the recent slew of Marvel movie adaptations, actually play himself!

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer brings back the best elements in the first movie, and provides an avenue for more of such adventures with the familiar quartet. It's a popcorn movie, and one which entertains throughout its relatively short 90 minutes duration. And I'll stick my neck out and say it again, this is probably one of the better movie franchises that Marvel has put out so far. Given the way things are set up, if this movie still proves to be a box office success, may I now say that we can expect to see the Mole Man next?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

[VOD] Shinobi (2005)

Romeo and Juliet, Japanese Kung Fu Style

If you notice that this post is prefixed with [VOD], yup, had watched this in an express coach from KL back to Singapore, with a personalized 10"2 inch LCD screen affixed to every seat. With more than 80 movies to select from, I had to choose this because it's something I have yet to watch, and also one that I would like to. Didn't reach or exceed my expectations, but the kungfu is stylishly executed.

There are many Romeo and Juliet type stories out there, and this happens to be one of them, set in Japanese medieval times, with fantastical martial arts moves that will probably wow action fans with their pace and brutality. It reminds me of the time when I was watching Hong Kong's Stormriders which somewhat raised the bar for such movies, and in terms of action set pieces, Shinobi doesn't disappoint.

The story however, given its romantic element, somehow misses the mark. Yes, we know that it's written in the stars that the star crossed lovers are doomed to begin with when they fall for each other, having their only love sprung from their only hate, and it's actually quite a critical plot point in terms of character motivation when they become the appointed heads of their respective clans, but I guess romantic tangles get tossed aside when more room for action is required to satisfy genre fans.

Shinobi is set during the time of feuding clans in the Tokugawa era. The Iga and the Kouga clans reside in hidden villages, and the Lord of Lords have just decreed that the clans can go on an all out war against each other. This naturally spells trouble for both Oboru (Yukie Nakama) and Kouga Gennosuke (Jo Odagiri), who have recently professed their love for each other in secret. The decree dictates that each clan selects 5 of their best warriors to duke it out, and no prizes if you guess that both Oboru and Kouga Gennosuke are amongst the warriors selected. There's more political intrigue up the movie's sleeves, but these plots and schemes are secondary to the action that unfolds.

Each of the 5 warriors have unique skills, and when they're exhibited, it's edge of your seat stuff excitement. However, the major flaw is that most of them are one skill wonders, meaning they're masters of that skill, and you see little more. It's akin to X-Men's mutants, and some powers though will ring familiar, like the blatant claws from fists, and healing prowess. But the best bits of powers though belong to our leads, because it's only natural for the most powerful to be leading their respective clans, but again, they suffer from limited fighting scenes. Most are quite violent and enhanced with some really nice special effects, but for those who are squeamish, you probably would wince at the stabbing, decapitations, etc.

What started off quite promisingly, gets dragged into cliche-land. Shinobi though boasts some stunning landscape visuals, that will make you wonder if they really exist, or are spruced up with a computer. Strictly for those who enjoy Romeo and Juliet interpreted in various retellings and adaptations, and fantastical kungfu junkies.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Be Back Soon

Going overseas - ok, so crossing the Causeway is also going over the seas right?

By the time you read this, I'll be on my way up north, making two stops in two cities, before heading home to the Lion City. So don't be expecting any updates until Friday where I, being super kiasu, have already gotten my ticket to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. That is, unless I can find an affordable internet connection, and beat the queues to watch this movie before my return.

Otherwise, it's adios, amigos!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

[DVD] My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) (1988)

So Cute!

I have never sat through a complete Hayao Miyazaki animated movie despite all the good vibes, reviews, recommendations I got from friends. Actually I have Spirited Away on DVD just waiting to be watched, but for some reason it still sits on my desk amongst others. Well, a good friend from up north passed me THREE Miyazaki DVDs, and given I'm going to where he is tomorrow visiting someone who mentioned during a visit to the previous movie set, how the scene was reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro, I thought I'll pop that DVD and give it a watch.

I was blown away. This IS animation, with a story suitable for kids to understand, and for adults to get a kick out of given its fantastical pieces. I shan't spoil the movie by spelling out the storyline, but suffice to say it centers very simply on a family, the father a professor who has recently uprooted his family of two girls, Satsuki and Mai, to the countryside, to provide a healthier environment for their ailing mom, currently in the hospital, to recuperate in. Thus begins the children's adventures in the country, with its lush greenery, and of course, with their new found friend, a giant ghibil known as Totoro, with seemingly magical powers of flight and fantasy.

And it is in its simplicity where its beauty shines through. It is always said that children can see things that adults don't, and hence, there's a constant question as to whether Totoro is real, or not, and if so, how its interactions with the kids are possible. It's not just Totoro itself which is out of this world, but I totally like that grinning cat-bus.

This is the kind of animated movie that our local animation production houses should be looking at. First and foremost, the story. While it doesn't contain huge battle sequences, complex or multiple characters for the sake of stuffing the movie, it goes to show that the story matters, in its ability to touch and resonate with audiences young and old (while the young ones go to the cinemas, don't forget the adults have to bring them too, and somehow you have to entertain them as well without being too complex for the little ones to understand).

The character designs are also kept simple, but nonetheless effective. The animation here is top notch despite it being 2D, as are the cast who voiced the characters. The acid test here is whether the movie can stand the test of time, and watching it close to 20 years after it was made, the answer is a resounding yes, it passed with flying colours. There are plenty of moments where you go "so cute!" without it being saccharine, or trying too hard, and that is indeed remarkable. Characterization is superb, especially Mai, whom I think everyone who has a kid sister, would be able to relate to. That's how realistic I thought she was!

Everything in this movie works well together, like a fine orchestra performing its pieces with precision yet with lots of heart. I do feel compelled to pop in and watch all the other Hayao Miyazaki DVDs I have in my collection, but I have to travel tomorrow and be away the next few days. You can be sure however, I will be back and complete watching them all real soon!

I like Tonari no Totoro, certainly one of the best movies I've seen!

Code 9 DVD from Studio Ghibil Movie Collection comes in widescreen letterbox format, with menus unfortunately in Japanese only. Visual transfer was ordinary and not pristine, probably because the movie's from the late 80s. Audio is in Dolby Surround in either Japanese or English, with subtitles available in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Scene selection is available over 18 chapters.

It is curious to note though, when watching it in the original Japanese audio with the English subtitles turned on, the subtitles actually follow the English track. At some scenes where the characters do not speak, the subs actually came on, and when I switched to the English track, yes, the characters do speak those lines. Makes you wonder though, because I thought some non-verbal communication in the Japanese audio version actually is more powerful than the words that are spoken.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

[DVD] Marie Antoinette (2006)

Let Them Eat Cake!

Sofia Coppola takes on a historical character in Marie Antoinette, providing her own vision of the doomed Queen of France and the French Monarchy under the reign of Louis XVI, based upon the biography written by Antonia Fraser.

Kirsten Dunst, whom we ever so often remember with red hair for her Mary Jane Watson roles in the Spider-Man series, plays the titular role, bringing forth girly innocence, frustration and strength as her character develops through the course of the movie. Sofia Coppola clearly made this movie focused on events from her point of view, covering major incidents and happenings in her life.

I thought the first half of the movie was excellent, where Marie gets married to the Dauphin of France Louis XVI, a marriage of strategic importance to seal the Austrian and French alliance, but one which seems to be stuck in the ruts because of incompatibility. She likes theatre, he's into hunting. She's into fashion, and he's into locks and keys. Consummating their marriage is a problem, and remains a major obstacle and puts constant strain on Marie Antoinette, because without producing an heir to the throne, her position in the court is always precarious, not to mention, without influence to further advance Austrian interest.

But don't forget, she's but a teenager, and Sofia Coppola never fails to remind us of that - the difficulty of a young one living within the constricting protocols of a monarchy. And not to mention under public scrutiny all the time. Although a period movie, Coppola managed to bring forth the issues faced into current time, since the themes and events explored are quite similar to the contemporary era. The bitching, the rumour mongering, and the superficial small talk of people of perceived importance are nothing new in this day and age, and Marie more often than not is the favourite subject for the tabloids.

It's not all sympathetic to the character though, as her vices like gambling, drinking and rumoured dalliances with Count Fersen in her holiday home of Petit Trianon are played out, together with her rather callous attitude toward what was happening to the commonfolk. While politics is rarely touched upon, the portrayal of the King's handling of foreign policy for face rather than taking care of his subjects is probably one of the fundamental contributing factor to its downfall, and France is shown to be slowly bankrupted while sending aid to American for the revolutionaries to fight against the British, unaware of growing resentment in home soil.

The second half felt more of a rush job, with Marie's spiral into unpopularity with her perceived extravagant decadence. It's a reminder of how someone's image can be greatly tainted by uncorrected, vicious rumours, and when the power of the people is at full force, you can't help but submit when all is lost. Some have questioned why the movie didn't pursue all the way until the final demise of Marie Antoinette, but frankly, looking at the film's treatment of the character, there's actually no need to, and all in all, quite a balanced presentation on how an historical character is brought to life on screen.

With beautiful costumes, rich colours, and sets based within the actual Palace of the Versailles, it's a pity that this movie did not make it to our local screens, and I believe watching it on the big screen will make all the difference. For those who want to take a look at the much talked about easter egg in the movie, the Converse shoes are shown at the 55:48 mark.

You can read more about the real Marie-Antoinette from this Wikipedia entry.

The Code 3 DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment comes in English, Chinese and Korean Menus. Visual transfer in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is pristine, important to bring out the colours and the scale of the Versailles set. Audio is in 5.1 Dolby Digital, in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese Chinese and Korean, and Scene Selections is available over 24 chapters.

The Special Features contain the Making of, two deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer (2:30) and the teaser trailer (1:45). The Making of Marie Antoinette (25:57) is the main feature in the specials, and the first thing that is presented, is the incredible amount of hairspray used to style Kirsten's hair. Expect the usual cast and crew interviews, and their reaffirmation of Sofia's interpretation of the character, and her vision. Subtitles except English are available.

Two deleted scenes are included. The first is "Scene 88 - Second Opera" (2:15) and the second is "Scene 125 - Return from Petit Trianon" (1:30). There's no commentary by the director why these were removed, but there's a provision of a one page text prior to showing the scenes on the rationale for their removal.

Lastly, there's a "Cribs with Louis XVI" featurette (3:50) where Jason Schwartzman brings the audience on a tour of some of the rooms in the Versailles used in the movie. Little overdone in MTV styled editing and language.

To wrap things up, there's a selection of trailers from the following movies included in the DVD - All the King's Men, Running with Scissors, Stranger Than Fiction, Casino Royale and Art School Confidential.
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