Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 of 2008

It was an effort to plough through and weed out my Top 10 films for this year, given the sheer quantity that I had to park by the side as Special Mentions instead. But there you go, after sweat and tears to whittle it down to the list that you see. No surprises with The Dark Knight, and I would presume it would make it to any decent list out there as well. It's colossal, and would take another juggernaut to knock it off the perch of memorable films of the last decade.

There's a lot of love in my list somehow, ranging from that involving robots in WALL·E and Cyborg She, and plenty of one-sided, unrequited affairs in all the others, save Ip Man which was a top notch action flick. Bollywood, Japanese, Singapore+Malaysia, I guess that's the common denominator in dealing with affairs of the heart, providing fuel for an additional powerful lift to stories in Hancock and The Dark Knight as well, without which would make them lack certain drive.

10. WALL·E

9. Muallaf

8. Hancock

7. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

6. Cyborg She

5. Ip Man

4. Definitely, Maybe

3. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

2. 18 Grams of Love

1. The Dark Knight

And here are those which have just barely missed out on breaking into my top 10 list for the year, with 20 special mentions that have worthwhile merits. Presented here in Alphabetical Order:

2 Faces of My Girlfriend
Away From Her
Black Book
Bolt 3D
Children of Glory
Dan in Real Life
The Days
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
Elite Squad
Gone Baby Gone
The Happening
Jodhaa Akbar
Kung Fu Panda
Mamma Mia!
The Mist
Red Cliff
The Secret Life of Bees
Sky Crawlers
Tropic Thunder

Top 5 Duds of 2008

I guess the title of this post is self-explanatory. This is a year of many duds, but to save some of the other atrocious films the blushes, as per my tradition here, I'll only list down the worst 5 of the lot with no redeeming features. Watching paint dry would be more interesting than watching any of these dishonourable mentions in reverse chronological order:

5. Meet the Spartans / Disaster Movie
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. They should be banned from making another comedy, because it has been proven that they know nuts about bringing on the laughs, and are actually quite lazy filmmakers too. I wonder either they have an enormous trust fund to continue making movies, or these 2 duds of 2008, would already put investors off. Save film! Don't let them at it! Unless of course you want your intelligence to be insulted for 90 minutes (wait, they don't even last that long!)

3. Shaolin Girl
For starters, never get the cast to speak in a language they aren't fluent in, unless the story deliberately calls for it. Otherwise trying to pass someone off as conversationally sound, would become an unnecessary laughing stock. Once that tone is set, everything else goes downhill, as in this film. The icing of the cake is of course the ridiculous buildup and story development, and even more stupid is the ending, which challenged Chen Kaige's 2005 stinker The Promise as one of the most absurd, ever!

2. Linger
I guess Johnny To would also have an off day once in a while, and one would reckon that he'd probably needed to pay the bills which resulted in picking this film up for direction. The story's plain ridiculous, and save for the fans of Vic Chou who might still be stuck in the denial stage, this is something that's best not to allow to linger in your mind.

1. The Spirit Compendium
OK, so first films could be the learning ground where one could use to hone skills. But this film, even as a first film, was incredibly bad, with no sense of direction, a storyline going nowhere, insipid acting, and a WTF homo-unerotic moment thrown in just because. You might want to lambast me for being too harsh on a local movie and a director's first attempt, but my challenge to you would be to sit through this, and see how well you respond to it. And there's no refund on the minutes of you life ticking away...

Lady Cop and Papa Crook (Daai Sau Cha Ji Neui / 大搜查之女)

I'm Cool Like That

The success of the Infernal Affairs series, and high profile projects like Confession of Pain would have made Felix Chong and Alan Mak household names in the Hong Kong crime thriller genre. Their latest offering with Lady Cop and Papa Crook not only comes with a somewhat cheesy title (in English at least), but gone are Andrew Lau's involvement as one third of the famous trio, and the familiar gloom and doom that draped their more famous films as well.

I guess it's always a big step to try and break out of your own shadow. This time round the duo played it quite straight with their story and direction, opting for simplicity and a series of light humour. But even then, this film got entrenched with its fair share of controversy before its recent release, especially since it's got to do with the trimming of its run time allegedly to have the whole deal sweetened for the Mainland Chinese market. which had pushed back its release date from sometime mid 2008, to now.

You know, the same requirement about not having the righteous being put in bad light, especially if they're of honourable professions like the police. With Infernal Affairs, we know what happened with the Andy Lau character that resulted in two different endings for different markets (Singapore unfortunately got the cop-out Chinese version because of our Speak Mandarin Campaign). Here, some six minutes got shaved, and I would suspect that it would have involved the second last scene of the film that resulted in a inexplicable fade-to-black, which could've involved some debatable who-shot-first kinda Han Solo predicament, and of course the very hurried way the film decided to wrap everything up.

But I digress, and what could have happened in those six minutes was just my speculation which would be debunked should there be a release of the actual cut on DVD. In the past, the Chong-Mak partnership had brought on some memorable leading characters, almost all of whom are male, with themes like camaraderie and potential brotherhood forged should the protagonists not be on opposite sides of the law. Here, they throw a spanner in the works by having Hong Kong's Canto-pop queen Sammi Cheng flesh out one of the leads as Maureen Szetoh, an incredibly sassy female cop whom while is professional in her job, faces personal love life problems with her artist boyfriend of 10 years, and the ticking of her biological clock.

Again having their lead characters on different sides of the law, her opposite number is played by Eason Chan, whose John Fok is a crime kingpin dealing in the illegal oil business traversing both Hong Kong and China. A transshipment of their goods went awry with the Chinese law enforcers on their tail, and this leads to bad debt, unhappy underlings, and worse, a kidnapping of his son in which the ransom is some cool 80 million dollars. In comes Maureen and her gang of Hong Kong police much against his wishes to assist in the cracking of the kidnapping case, which of course is a perfect stage set for some really sticky and sensitive encounters between crooks and cops.

It is this tension between both sides that you could come to appreciate what both Felix Chong and Alan Mak were after. After all, how do you assist the cops in investigations if not to reveal who your enemies and friends are, and what more, to expose details of your illegal operations, laying everything down bare for the police to scrutinize? Other shades of brilliance also include how the police could be the largest "gangsters" around given their sheer manpower size and ability to work within the legal framework, though there are moments where the Fok's triad buddies could go around bureaucratic red tape in order to get things done. I sensed some dumbing down in the latter during the movie, which could have irked the Chinese censors, and effected some changes to the story.

Attempts to humanize the characters were not spared, especially with a host of characters going about attending to their personal affairs in the midst of a high profile kidnapping case. And here's where the unexpected fun is too, with some sprinkling of comedy which I thought was a welcome departure from what could have been the usual deadpan, serious approach. With a Chong-Mak production, Chapman To is never far behind in a supporting role, and Eye In The Sky's Kate Tsui is still looking for a lead role given her cinematic outings to date after the said Yau Nai-Hoi directed movie, have been supporting ones only.

I would imagine the potential that Lady Cop and Papa Crook could have achieved if not for the forced re-writes to garner a slice from a larger pie, and it's still an enjoyable film once you recognize the effort put in by the writer-directors. Now to wait for any announcement that the DVD would offer the unadulterated version.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Love Matters By Jack Neo and Gilbert Chan

For those who have been to a GV cinema recently, you just might chance upon the poster to an upcoming Chinese New Year movie titled Love Matters.

It's actually a co-production with Grand Brilliance from across the Causeway, following the production formula as seen in Ah Long Pte Ltd, and with the return of Lai Ming in motherly roles seen in that movie, as well as Money No Enough 2, and this one of course. But what I thought was slightly disturbing, was the billing (or not for that matter) given to co-director Gilbert Chan. Granted that Gilbert Chan has done only one local feature length movie to date - S11 - I thought by means of sharing directorial responsibilities, you do also credit your co-director as well, instead of having it billed simply as 'A Jack Neo Film" on the marquee? Can't it be "A Jack Neo-Gilbert Chan Film", which of course will leave people scratching their heads as to who that other person is, but that's the point, isn't it? And yes, I know the "Jack Neo" branding will sell the film of course.


That aside, I thought the trailer here was humming along quite plainly, and felt that Ekechai's Wedding Of The Year starring Fann Wong and Christopher Lee might get an upper hand in their head-to-head Lunar New Year release. After all, there isn't any major star billing here save for the usual J-Team folks like Mark Lee, this time as an effeminate Thai (1"41' to 1"44"), and by the looks of it, major product placement will be back, given the ready glimpse of OCBC (seen at 1"20' to 1"22'), recycled jokes seen at 1"45', and melodramatic moments such as that at the 51' mark also will raise goosebumps.

But I guess the trailer here available on YouTube, is that there's more Hokkien than the version seen in the cinemas, and I hope that we don't get the predominantly Mandarin version, with the Dialect version heading to Malaysia for release instead. And which part was the clincher for me? The last 20 seconds:

"When the phone ring "Green Green", I Pink up the phone and say Yellow, Blue is this? White do you want? You don't Purplely call me. You make me angry, I will not call you Black!"

LOL! It's so silly it works, delivered in deadpan Hui Ge fashion!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Seven Pounds


Two years ago, director Gabriele Muccino collaborated with Will Smith successfully in their year end offering of The Pursuit of Happyness, which while based on the struggles of real life struggler made good Chris Gardner, had a saccharine sweet and triumphant ending befitting of the end of year mood of putting the last year behind you, and looking forward to a better tomorrow. This time round however, the Muccino-Smith partnership has brought about a sustained doom, gloom and heaviness throughout the film that perhaps accurately mirrors current sentiments of the downturn that doesn’t look to go anywhere upwards next year as well.

If you want to know absolutely nothing about the film, then I would suggest you skip right to the last paragraph. Otherwise, here goes:

There’s nary a light-hearted moment in the film, and it begins in what would be uncharacteristic of Smith to be barraging down on a visually handicapped person (Woody Harrelson in a very subdued, supporting role), insulting him and calling him names. In fact, you’re more than likely to feel kind of angry with Smith’s Ben Thomas, an IRS tax man who continues his verbal assault over the telephone on a stranger whom he doesn’t know, yet.

You see, it’s all a test of character. Ben Thomas is a man on a mission, and while the filmmakers would like you to think that his ultimate aim was something still kept under wraps, it doesn’t take long before you decipher just what he’s up to, given a clue right from the start of the film that he intends to take his own life, and little hints dropped every now and then. Ben wants to help seven people before his demise, and just how he’s going about doing so, is the subject of almost two hours in the film.

The plot brews rather slowly, and curiously, doesn’t bore even as it doesn’t keep you guessing for long. It holds out the real reason and verbatim rationale why he’s doing what he’s doing, though cynics in us might deem it as an extreme case of seeking redemption. But thankfully, we got Will Smith’s acting ability to keep our attention arrested, because he has shown that he’s as adept to big budgeted action blockbusters, as he is with strong drama dealing with human emotions. While you may question Ben’s technique, you cannot deny that here’s a man that’s set in his ways that even best friend Dan (Barry Pepper) could do nothing to change his course, and only to respect his wishes to carry everything through when the time calls for it.

And central to this story, is the relationship between Ben and Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a woman who’s dished out a death sentence that could happen at any time because of an impending heart failure. It is this story-arc that takes up the bulk of the screen time, and the other benefactors from Ben’s magnanimous benevolence only became side shows, with 2 of them just lip service, which was a disappointment because they were relegated to copping out (or the lack of screen opportunities). But it is this love story that could and yet couldn’t be, that was achingly heart-wrenching to watch.

At first I had dismissed this as yet another star-crossed lovers type of story that Fate had a hand in, but this relationship grows on you, and while it looked like an eventual 21 Grams, the chemistry between Dawson and Smith brought out the best in what could have become some really bad melodrama. I guess I always enjoy stories about sacrifices, and what more about the sacrifice that has to happen, as portrayed in the story, that makes it heartbreaking to bear witness to.

Seven Pounds might turn away those looking for some fantastical, escapist storyline to take their minds off temporarily from current troubles, but for Will Smith fans, and those looking for something that doesn’t choose to wince away from what it had set out to do, then this might be the film for you this New Year period. It might not have plenty to offer, but for powerful performances, then look no further than this piece.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

[DVD] Superman: Doomsday (2007)

I couldn't believe it when I first heard DC Comics was going to kill of Superman. Despite dwindling sales and unpopularity because of his Boy Scount tendencies, the world's mightiest superhero was going to get cancelled. This is not some TV show that got canned because of poor ratings, but a legacy that had spanned since the 30s, that had been ingrained very uch in pop culture, and DC was going to call it quits. As a teenager, I believed it, despite some deep rooted common sense saying it's simply nuts to kill such a cash cow, but like thousands around the world, I bought into the hype, and traced the Man of Steel's last battle.

It was toward the tail end of 1992, with the US Presidential elections battle between George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton, but closer to personal life, it was the O Levels, but that didn't stop me from visiting the comic store every week to mourn with other fans what would be the inevitable. Sales jumped through the roof of course, and in the climax of the Doomsday series, Superman #75 came polybagged, and I got my mint (and still mint copy) of it, thanks to my dad who got it for me as I was sitting for an examination paper, only to rush home after it to plough through the normal newsstand edition to see Supes and Doomsday plummet each other to the end.

We see Supes slumped and unresponsive. He's gone, and printing of the comic books seized after Funeral for a Friend. As we all know now, he's still patrolling the skies of Metropolis, after a debacle of the reign of 4 supermen. Novels have been published, and so were trade paperbacks, and at one point in time, Superman Returns was to have adopted this storyline on his death for the cinema. It's still a popular plot line to exploit, so now comes the animated movie for the DVD market, which combines the gist of the stories listed here.

Is it any good? For starters, this isn't like the comics because it had to condense pretty much everything. Gone are the periphery characters involved in stopping Doomsday, and shortened too is the comeback. In about 80 minutes, we witness Superman's death to his ressurection. Under the Warner Premiere however, it allowed for a little more mature moments in scenes, where actual death do get shown, albeit sometimes using shadow play, and it even comes with the suggestion of sex too. Violence was ramped up a bit, and between Superman and Doomsday, it was like a throwback to the Japanese Ultraman series and the likes, with a slugfest without regard to occupants in buildings. Talk about massive property destruction too.

Lex Luthor got a litte more involved this time round, especially with his corporation's discovery of the beast, and his manipulation of DNA to clone a Superman to do his bidding, but I suppose these changes do bring about a whiff of fresh air for those already familiar with the original plot. The best scene here for me is not the animosity between the adversaries, or any of the action sequences, but rather an emotional one between Lois Lane and Martha Kent. The pain that these two share in knowing that their loved one in Clark Kent, not Superman to the world, is something that the filmmakers crafted in top notch fashion, totally moving for an animated film.

Other than that, the quality of animation is as expected, though I must say the Superman here does look a little older with those strong facial lines drawn on like added wrinkles. It doesn't have a lot of defining moments, and narratively it still engages, but the extras contained in the DVD, is worth a way lot more than the actual film itself. Watch this just to get to the extras.

The Code 3 DVD by Warner Premiere comes presented in anamorphic widescreen format with Dolby Surround 5.1 audio for its English track. Portuguese and Thai tracks are also available, as with English subtitles and scene selection over 20 chapters.

For a relatively short animated feature film, the Special Features are worth a lot more than the film itself. First, there's a ensemble filmmaker commentary by Producer Bruce Timm, Writer Duane Capizzi, Voice Director Andrea Romano and Executive Producer Gregory Noveck. While most of the commentary were pretty descriptive in nature, you'll get to hear more about the more “adult moments” that they incorporated into the film, since after all this is the first title released under the Warner Premiere label, as well as each of them bringing to the table their respective areas of contribution to the movie.

But the extra that takes the cake and makes this DVD worth picking up, is the documentary Requiem and Rebirth: Superman Lives! (43:12). Split into chapters which you can use the Play All function, it brings us back to the 90s where the entire Superman creative team got involved in brainstorming an idea to last the entire year, because their initial plan to have Clark and Lois get hitched, was thwarted by studio executives who wanted the television series to do just that, and not the comic books to jump the gun. So credit goes to someone (you'll have to find out just who) in exasperation, suggested to just kill Supes instead. And as they say, the rest is history.

The first chapter of the documentary, Let's Just Kill Im!, introduces the audience to the creative team back then, with the likes of Louis Simonson, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Tom Grummett, Jon Bogdanove, Roger Stern, Brett Breeding, Ksrl Kesel, as well as group editor Mike Carlin, DC editor in chief Jeanette Kahn and president Paul Levitz. We go a little behind the background to the Super Summit, which is a yearly get together to plan stories for subsequent years, as well as listen in to how the entire Doomsday series was conceptualize. A must watch for any Supes fan, as well as aficionados caught in the frenzy back then.

Chapter 2 on The World Was Watching captures the reactions and response of fans and news media worldwide to this groundbreaking comics event, as well as some coverage during that year's Comic Con. It goes on for a bit and covers details of the story arc in Funeral For a Friend. Some nuggests and easter eggs of information will get revealed, and I for one didn't realize those, except for the panel-for-a-page slugfest style used in Superman #75. Chapter 3 - Superman Lives! is quite self-explanatory, but covers the duration of the cessation of issues, before the plan on how to kickstart the return of the Man of Steel (anyone remembers the return of the 4 Supermen?), and how each creative team for each of the four books, get a chance to deal with an aspect of Superman they enjoy with their independent creations, before tying back everything again for the bona fide Last Son of Krypton to return.

All in all, if you need a single reason to pick this DVD up, this documentary would be it!

Other extras include Justice League: The New Frontier Teaser Reel (10:44) containing interviews with filmmakers, voice actors and comic book creators talking about this new original animated movie, which of course includes a sneak peek at the film, and it definitely piqued my interest to pick this up as well. Behind the Voice (5:18) looks at the voice casting process where there was a conscious search for actors who have not worked on any Superman works before, and also a behind the scenes look at the recording booth.

And for those who think you can be Superman duking it out with Doomsday, there's a pretty nifty game included titled Superman's Last Stand where you control the Man of Steel in his climatic battle to take down the beast. It gets very difficult as you progress because it takes a lot more to store power in your punches, and your damage inflicted also gets drastically reduced because of fatigue, while any slugs from the beast will cause some 50% damage on your each time. Now you know what the last boy scout is up against!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Duchess

Yay I'm In Another Period Film

The trailers had tried to market this as drawing some parallels to the late Princess of Wales Diana Spencer's life, given the subject matter being a lady of royal lineage being subjected to a loveless marriage which comes complete with affairs and scandals. It had even superimposed her portrait on the trailer to suggest a deja-vu of history, given that the story here is based on real people and presenting a dramatized snapshot of their lives. Until of course Keira Knightley had to stand up and say that this movie tells its own story without the need for such cheap promotional gimmick.

But frankly, the life of the Georgina, Duchesss of Devonshire (Keira Knightley) in late 18th century England, couldn't be anything less than similar in certain ways, if based on Amanda Foreman's biography which formed the basis for the film. At a young age and to the delight of her mother (Charlotte Rampling), the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) proposes a sealing of families through marriage, where his sole concern is to have a male heir. He wastes no time in impregnating his young wife, and treats her nothing more than a baby-producing factory, given a girl baby after girl baby, in addition to stillborns and miscarriages.

It's also a sign of the times where women have no rights, and are expected to perform their duty, of being a wife and mother, which also translates to having no say to what their husbands are doing. For the Duke, it means spending a lot more time with his dogs with no effort in communicating with a factory worker, and being the sex addict that he is, takes pleasure in bedding chambermaids within his castle, or even the Duchess' good friend Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), who succumbs to trading her body for powerful influences in order to see her children, taken away by her estranged husband.

As with most period dramas, it's a tussle between duty and love, and affairs of the heart. While the Duke's dalliances have taken a toil on his marriage, given that the Duchess one headstrong woman, we slowly see her relent and slide into resignation of her fate, but not before trying to perform a tit-for-tat with her lover, future Prime Minister Charles Grey. From the slate of movies in the period drama genre, it seems that such stories are becoming quite popular to be translated to the big screen, and I recall Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, who was betrothed in similar circumstances just across the English Channel, and share similar interests in game and fashion.

Keira Knightley stars in yet another period drama, and she's quite an old hand at it already, which no doubt translates to her delivering her best performance thus far in the genre. She presents the pain of living a lie quite convincingly, having to put on a front in public, while behind the scenes get surprise after surprise at the revelation of her husband's true character. Ralph Fiennes seemed to be quite stoic this time round with nary an emotion, and given he is Voldermort, has no difficulty in playing the bastard of a character, using his influence and power for his personal gratitude, making no negotiations to wanting things his way. In fact, one wonders men in high positions back then, could get away with a lot of things, and their wield of influence no doubt carries a lot of weight.

The Duchess doesn't present its themes in depth, and sought instead to have breadth in covering a broad range of topics, from social standing to England during the cusp of elections, and while it certainly has no lack of material to last its run time, it certainly hinges on its big name stars to carry the film on their collective shoulders. It's a very straight forward film, like watching the life and times of someone unfold in chronology, and those looking for some satisfying, compelling drama with deep tussles involving heart and soul, might want to look elsewhere instead. Nothing fancy here, but it works.


Forget Me Not

The tattoos on the body, the Polaroid snaps, the notes scattered around the house, and the smoking gun evidence? Short term memory loss, happening every 15 minutes. If this doesn't seem like Christopher Nolan's masterpiece Memento, then I don't know what does. Written and directed by A.R. Murugadoss, I don't see much of a nod of acknowledgement to Nolan's work, and in almost all literature, it only falls back on the fact that this is a Hindi remake of Murugadoss' own Tamil movie of the same name Ghajini, produced in 2005 (Nolan's was in 2000), which joins the ranks of films having their titles named after the chief villain.

In any case this isn't the first time that we see very obvious similarities in premise and characters being adopted for Bollywood's own productions, and the shot-in-Singapore Krrish comes to mind as well, as they had the entire setting of John Woo's Paycheck incorporated into that film. But of course in any version some merits could be found, but I believe some form of acknowledgement would be in order, other than, in this case, a quick flash of a very wordy disclaimer about Ghajini being gleaned from various short stories and material (and another paragraph which I missed given the fine print, and short duration on screen, but I'm pretty sure no mention of Memento).

Well, there are some reasons why I chose to watch this. First up, the music's by A.R. Rahman, and for all the good publicity he's getting for his work on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, I just had to experience yet another piece of his musical magic on a film, besides one that I've watched much earlier this year in Jodhaa Akbar. One just cannot imagine how his musical talent will be put to good use in a film which looks and feels like Memento, and this being the next best thing. "Guzarish" is a track used in the trailer, and it is currently my new ear worm.

Another reason is of course, Aamir Khan. Yet another prolific actor with a penchant for perfection, it was interesting to see how his take on the protagonist's short term memory loss, would rival that of Guy Pearce's. I'm embarrassed to say I've only seen him in action in Lagaan, so this would be yet another opportunity to witness his ability which can be measured against a benchmark. But don't expect the same though, because Pearce's version was more of a thinking man who questions and second guesses himself, while Khan's version was in two parts to serve the story, one as a raging hulk monster who tears through his opponents with savage violence fueled by anger and hatred, coupled with the hurt he experienced and recalled (Hulk producers take note, in case Edward Norton decides against any more sequels, look in the direction of Aamir Khan), while the other as mild-mannered Sanjay Singhania, CEO of a telecommunications company in Mumbai.

Yes, Bollywood's version naturally comes with built-in song and dance, which for once I would have thought looked quite out of place in the movie, if not for A.R. Rahman's score and music. While half of the movie might be seen as a copy of Memento's premise and character, the other half served more to allow the audience to share the pain with Sanjay. Nolan's version had you experience the frustrating condition of the syndrome through its narrative presentation, but this one junks the reverse chronology, and plays it out flat and builds a rich back story for Sanjay, so much so that you'll root for him as he goes on his rampage of revenge. You'll find yourself entrenched in the romance between Sanjay and his lady love Kalpana (the stunning Asin Thottumkal, who reprises her role from the 2005 version as well), who's a model awaiting her big break, and a girl with a genuinely good heart. The plot never fails to give her numerous moments to showcase her good nature, and it's no surprise why anyone would not fall in love with her instantly. Factor in plenty of lovey-dovey moments of comedy and pursuit (under the guise of a different identity, like Shah Rukh Khan's Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) which makes it perfect for a date movie, but with hindsight that you know this love is doomed from the moment it began, which actually makes it quite sad to watch the events unfold since you know what will eventually happen to her.

Ghajini doesn't adopt or try to adopt those very cerebral mind-fuck moments from Memento, but as I mentioned plays it out more like a straight forward action thriller, with a handful of inevitable moments of watching our protagonist get taken advantaged of because of his condition. No other structural styles are used besides flashbacks, where the purpose of two characters in the movie are to read the diary of events so that it could be translated visually onto the screen. However you'll still be kept in the dark for some time as to why the designated thugs of Ghajini (Pradeep Rawat, who also reprised his role in this remake) would want to exact their mettle onto Sanjay and Kalpana, and you'll be held in suspense for almost 2 hours before the reasons get shown.

I can only imagine the flak that this film might receive because of having to adapt, and not properly acknowledge perhaps that it's not original material, save for the romantic spin on it. But if you would look past those ramifications and treat this like a re-imagining of Memento in more straight-forward terms, that this would still serve as an entertaining thriller done Bollywood style.


Friday, December 26, 2008


Sealed With A Kiss

If you're making a movie entitled "Australia", you had better get it right, no? And I thought Baz Luhrmann actually hit it quite squarely on the head with his Gone with the Wind-ish sprawling epic set in the Australian outback and around the time when the Japanese Imperial Army rained bombs over the Northern Territories, with a sprinkling of his keen eye for visual flair especially in the first few minutes where he had to set the stage for everything else to happen.

Initially I was quite taken aback by its opening inter-title, and actually wondered what we could be in for. It's a warning of sorts, though much of it would be lost in translation outside Australia. In this film Luhrmann has boldly tackled the issue of discrimination head on, especially the attitude taken towards the Aboriginals and the plights of their children - the Stolen Generation, and crafted through this film, the natives who were quite heroic and self-sacrificial, putting bad light at those who deem themselves cultured, giving them really disgusting behavioural traits who run at the first signs of trouble.

The similarities with Gone with the Wind cannot be denied. Call it inspired by, a homage to, of what have yous, there's a huge range called Faraway Downs where a Miss Scarlett O'Hara equivalent, proud English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) inherited upon arrival due to the death of her husband, and got caught up in a devilish plot to bankrupt her and take over her property, no thanks to beef monopolist King Carney (Bryan Brown) and chief henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, of Faramir fame from Lord of the RingS, who is creepily evil here). In comes saviour and romantic, roguish-looking hero Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose name is derived from his occupation, who's quite the free spirit and actually does give a damn.

The story's told in two distinct acts, The first focused a whole lot on cattle driving, where Sarah Ashley and Drover have to assemble a rag-tag team of ranchers from their household to drive 1500 heads of cattle all the way from their ranch to Darwin in order to make some dough to stave off bankruptcy and battle everything that's evil put in their way, from man-made disasters to Mother Nature. And this is where the action's quite exhilirating, which I put on par with Kevin Costner's buffalo hunt in Dances with Wolves.

The second arc focused more squarely on the romance between the two leads, as told through the eyes of the little boy Nuallah, whom people insult as "creamy" (half-white, half-aboriginal). His condition is such that children of his nature get sent packing away to a remote island by missionaries to "re-educate" them, and Sarah Ashley, having taken a liking to the boy, fights hard to keep her under her wing. They form a family nucleus of sorts, given that we slowly realize that the boy could probably be what they had both lost or could never attain, and is that social glue that keeps their pseudo-family dynamics in order.

Casting is no-brainer as well, because you're likely to put together the biggest Hollywood stars (who are Australians naturally) in this movie to pull fans in, and watch them breathe life into their characters. If not for The Dark Knight, we'd probably see the late Heath Ledger involved as well. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman shared perfect chemistry together, transforming loathe to love through the course of the film. More obvious changes were physical of course, where Sarah Ashley had her pasty white skin from her idyllic days in England slowly baked by the sun into a healthy tanned glow, while you can hear the audible gasps from female audiences when they see Hugh clean clean shaven after spending much time hiding his sexiest man alive fame behind a beard.

The rest of the ensemble supporting cast also pulled their weight together, and even Hong Kong actor Yuen Wah had a bit part playing the non-English speaking kitchen help. What I thought was a romantic subplot played down and probably written out or edited to the cutting room floor, was that between the Australian Captain Dutton (Ben Mendelsohn) who had clearly taken a liking for Sarah Ashley, but probably kept for deleted scenes in the DVD release, if shot at all. There was that glint in the eye each time they both come together on screen, but it became more like a whatever-happens-off-screen-stays-off-screen relationship.

Some might balk at the length of the film as I did prior to watching the film, but you'll hardly notice the run time once you get immersed into the spectacle of the film with its lush cinematography, and even pace. Elton John contributed to the score as well, and The Drover's Ballad could be a shoo-in for Academy nomination I think. If there's a gripe, I felt that Luhrmann did a Michael Bay in his battle sequences in the second act which Bay would probably be proud of, but it was a vastly one-sided affair with the Zero bombers holding their advantage from a surprise attack.

Australia works on many fronts, and while it might not be a great movie, it certainly is a good one, with wonderful visuals, sets and all round chemistry between its cast. I'm not sure how there are those who can slam this earnest effort, but for Luhrmann fans, you're in for a treat with his film, with the romance maestro doing what he does best for his characters, making them fall in love under extraordinary circumstances.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Transporter 3

Admire This!

I'm beginning to see a pattern here, and I'm thinking that The Transporter, if it has the legs for more movies, could be the franchise equivalent of being a poor man's cousin to James Bond. Created and written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen for three installments so far, the character of Frank Martin is a roguish looking strongman with a penchant for suiting up when going about being the best of the best in personalized delivery, with no questions asked, no names, and a whole host of other rules which he will of course break during the course of the movie.

Like Bond, he drives a cool, sponsored signature car. While Bond has his Aston Martins and BMWs, Frank Martin traded his BM in the first movie, for the armoured Audi A8 W12 which he has brought over from the second film, and here, that sweet supercar got to be put through even more punishment. It also shows itself to be a cut about the rest in being waterproof too, and an occasional dunk in the river won't put out the powerful engine, with tyres that self-inflate too (ok, so just in case you don't realize, I'm pointing out mistakes).

And it follows the Bond formula in having the Chick of the Flick highlight too. Shu Qi came on board in the first film as the vixen who traded her body to convince Frank to take the job. Then we had the good girl-bad girl combination for Part 2 with Amber Valletta and Kate Nauta respectively. Here, model Natalya Rudakova, with her very obvious freckles getting in the way, continues from where Shu Qi left off, being the flower vase who can't speak English fluently no thanks to her strong accent, and that's fine since their characters hail from a non-English speaking country.

Director at the helm has been round robin too (now by Olivier Megaton), with Hong Konger Corey Yuen crafting the first movie, before taking the back seat in every film by taking charge of how Frank Martin does hand to hand combat. So we do get to see some consistency in the technique that Jason Statham adopts in performing martial arts and various stunt work on his own, and Statham definitely has what it takes to fill up the void of having the lack of Western action heroes on the big screen. I suppose with more hits under his belt (pardon the pun) he could cement this status, and I sincerely hope that he avoids the plague of being relegated in his later years to the direct to video market.

As far as the story goes, it just provides a basic premise and an excuse to see how our hero gets to sit behind the wheel again. The Frank Martin now is more laid back, and spends most of his leisure time with the French detective Tarconi (Francois Berleand) whom he has befriended now. Until of course his reputation catches up with him, and in a Crank inspired moment, has to do what he does best for the bad guys, much against his wishes. The villains almost always seem to be part of what's topical at the moment, and this time Frank Martin has to contend with some eco-terrorists who are blackmailing a minister, involving some permit for industrial waste.

But who cares about any semblance of the plot anyway? We're looking for some adrenaline pumping, high octane action aren't we all? And here's where it takes a slide for the worse actually. Unlike Bond, there isn't anything new or refreshing to keep the audience engaged and away from the deja-vu feeling. For some reason, Besson and Kamen's story seemed to be stuck in a lot of drama and talk-talk-talk, giving our hero not much time to flex his muscles. And when he gets the chance to, it's the same old one-man-surrounded-by-thugs routine where he effortlessly dispatches them all with aplomb.

Such fight scenes are becoming common in The Transporter franchise, and Corey Yeun definitely needs to rejuvenate his action sequences designed for the franchise pronto. There are only two major fisticuffs scenes, and they all follow the same routine, which spells boring. And apart from that, we get the usual complementary car chases which seem to be rather standard with the usual camera shots and angles capturing the action too.

Fans of the series and of Statham will no doubt make a bee line at the box office for this, but I suspect that should there be any more thoughts on extending the franchise beyond the three films, then while the formulaic plot format can be kept, the action better be innovative because nobody likes seeing the same thing twice. Since different directors got a chance to have a go at the franchise, perhaps a change in action choreographers might give Frank Martin the lift that he needs.

Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea (Gake No Ue No Ponyo)

Ponyo Ponyo Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki's magic continues with this absolute crowd pleaser Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, his latest animated film, which turns on the usual sweetness to charm your socks off. I thought that the trailer featured its song which was quietly hypnotic, and I didn't have to wait for an invite to make sure I got my ticket for the sneak preview of the movie, scheduled to open here next week.

For fans of Studio Ghibli films, you'll probably know what you're in for, as Miyazaki has yet another winner in his filmography, that will win new fans over. I'm embarrassed to say the least that I've so far watched only My Neighbour Totoro (eyes that pile of Ghibli DVDs) and love it to bits, but I guess this would serve as a final push for me not to continue missing what would likely be animated films that I would enjoy.

Ponyo (voiced by Nara Yuria) is a magic goldfish that yearns to know what is life beyond the sea, with her constant forays in a bubble to the surface of the water to sneak a peek. Nonetheless these ambitions do not bode well with her humanoid dad Fujimoto (Tokoro Joji), who harbours some hatred toward the human race for pollution, and briefly touching a subplot on environmental protection / revenge by Mother Nature as well. An accident one day sees Ponyo being washed ashore, and picked up by five year old boy Sosuke (Doi Hiroki) who lives on a house on the said cliff with his mother Lisa (Yamaguchi Tomoko), while dad Koichi (Nagashima Kazushige) is mostly out to sea since he's a sailor. And you can expect some moments of throwback to the likes of The Little Mermaid, or Splash made for kids. Saying anything more would be to spoil the fun.

The artwork here is still simply astounding even though it's in 2D glory, knowing that each cell is painstakingly worked on. There are so many things going on at the same time within the same frame, that you'll probably be game for repeated viewings just to spot them all. This definitely beats any 3D or CG animated production any day given its beauty coming from its simplicity, and not only from the artwork department, but on its story too, despite complaints coming in that it took a leaf from the Hans Christian Andersen classic. While there are avenues to make this film extremely dark, it only suggested certain dark themes, but opted instead for a film with more positive emotions, suitable for both kids and adults alike.

At its core, its about love, that between the family members of Koichi, Lisa and Sosuke, and especially between mother and son. More so, it's about the love between the boy and his new pet fish which he christened Ponyo, and I tell you Ponyo herself has enough cuteness in her to beat the likes of Bolt, WallE and Eve all hands down. Characterization here is top notch, and it's hard not to fall in love with Ponyo, in whichever form adopted, especially when she's such a playful being who doesn't hide her emotions - if she's upset with you, either she turns away or you could expect a jet stream come spewing from her mouth into your face!

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is a definite shoo-in to my top films of this year without hesitation. And the next time I go to Tokyo, I'm sure as hell going to make my way to the Ghibli Museum to bask under the magical world brought to us by Hayao Miyazaki. Highly recommended film, so don't you go missing this on the big screen!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bedtime Stories

Take That Jim Carrey!

At first glance from the trailer, I thought this would be somewhat as insipid as 2006's Night At The Museum, where Ben Stiller had to dumb it down to provide for mass entertainment with Safe written all over it because 'tis the season of good tidings and such. But as it turned out, Adam Sandler proved to have struck some gold with this Disney offering, and I thought it was successfully refreshing for a change after his vulgar outing as Israeli counter-terrorist operative Zohan Dvir.

Sandler stars as a hotel maintenance man Skeeter Bronson, whose father Marty (Jonathan Pryce) had to sell their family hotel to Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths) to stave off bankruptcy. As a verbal clause, Barry promised to have let Skeeter run the hotel in the future, but as it turns out, maintenance is the department that Skeeter's stuck in instead. And things don't turn out all the more better in his life, where rival Kendall (Guy Pearce) gets slated to take over a new hotel since he's dating the boss's daughter Violet (Teresa Palmer), while Skeeter's sister Wendy (Courteney Cox) has to get out of town and dumps her two children Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) for him and her friend Jill (Keri Russell) to babysit.

Hold on, didn't I just name drop a lot? You bet! Part of the fun in this movie are the familiar faces that pop up now and then. I had always associated Guy Pearce with more serious roles, and watching him ham it up here (his Broadway number especially) was something quite fun. Keri Russell continues to show that she ages with grace and Courteney Cox didn't lag any far behind too. We also have Russell Brand whom we know as the Brit rock singer in Forgetting Sarah Marshall star as yet another clueless slacker friend of Skeeter's, while Xena fans will lap at their star Lucy Lawless' supporting role here, and quite unrecognizable too with her bob hairdo.

And that's not all! Imagine having Carmen Electra in a cameo, together with Rob Schneider and I thought I spied Will Farrell too (I could be wrong with his uncredited blink and you miss appearance though) as they lend support to this Happy Madison co-production, as they always do the previously produced films. But what I felt had held the movie together, aside from that impossibly bug-eyed looking guinea pig, were the two kids Jonathan Morgan Heit and Laura Ann Kesling. They are Cute personified, and in all earnestness, just as how Sandler's Skeeter echoed, one cannot fathom how anyone would bear to abandon them, or as far as Wendy's upbringing is concerned, made them lose out on the fun things in life. I'd cuddle them, seriously (while at the same time try and get them to spin tales that go my way, haha!)

The two kids carry the show really well, and as the story goes, they have this inexplicable ability to make their version of the bedtime stories come true to life, while not exactly always in verbatim fashion. So while Skeeter thought he had figured things out, he tries to manipulate them so that they continue his stories which skew to his advantage, but of course this being a comedy, always end up in situations that provide fuel for laughter. And the production values don't come cheap too, as we have stories brought to life from medieval times, the wild wild west, outer space as well as in Ancient Rome, but always mirroring their real life counterparts and situations that Skeeter so decides. No effort was spared in making these stories as zany as they can be, but always kid safe.

There are some nice messages to impart, moral values if you wish, in what you could expect from a Disney film. It's extremely kid-friendly (I think I've mentioned this for the umpteenth time), and looking at the line up of offerings this Christmas season, this is certainly a no brainer for anyone to bring their whole family to. It doesn't try to be more than it is, and has this fuzzy warm feeling for its ending that suits the mood for celebration. It doesn't go over the top, and the ensemble cast all looked as if they had a good time putting together something for the season, for all to enjoy. Not an instant classic, but the bedtime stories here will grow on you. Recommended!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Spirit

Blah Blah Blah

I wonder what Will Eisner will think of Frank Miller's interpretation of his classic character The Spirit. While I have not read the comic books of old, I am feeling curious enough to want to know whether Miller's version sticks to Eisner's vision, or came off as his own creation, like what he did to The Batman with The All Star Batman and Robin. Miller probably got his interest in filmmaking piqued when he witnessed two of his graphic novels Sin City and 300 rake in big bucks at the box office with Robert Rodriguez (and Miller) and Zack Snyder at the helm, and thought that his stint with the former, and employing similar CG techniques, would allow for a rookie to have a go at it.

So in came The Spirit, with Miller writing the screenplay, and providing the direction. Truth be told, it felt a lot like a fanboy given a palette and having the freedom to go at the canvas. This is basically self-indulgence, no two way about it. You know how comic book movies feel like comic book movies because certain elements from the books get translated verbatim into the movie, and one of the guilty elements was like the reading of text with every monologue that found its way into the movie. Gramted the style here was to adopt from detective noir, but it felt pretty artificial.

And what was more artificial, was the dialogue, which was farcical at times too. Fan boy elements reared their ugly heads again when Miller felt that he had to just have characters spew lines referencing comicdom, and there were so many lines which self-parodied the film, that it just raised your goosebumps. And when combined with lengthy monologues that made it seem like it's a one-man stand up comedy. For instance, when The Octopus (Samuel L Jackson) has The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) tied up and ready for the kill, he lapses into yet another blah-blah egoistical speech, so much so that The Spirit had to break the fourth barrier and remind him to get on with the show.

Macht is a relative unknown, and I guess the decision was quite right given that the material probably couldn't entice any big names to want to don a fedora, trenchcoat and red tie, jumping around rooftops and proclaiming that they are the city's spirit. Samuel L Jackson seems to sleepwalk through this role which he hammed up with plenty of tongue in cheek, and the costumes handed to him in the film was nothing less than zany, from Samurai garb to Nazi uniform, it provided plenty of platform for him to reprise his villanous role, which did seem like an over the top version of the many baddie roles that he had already played in the past. Action-wise, between these two characters, their immortality becomes the crutch of this film, where everything including the toilet bowl (yes, complete with filth) can be thrown at each other, with nary a scratch, as if to say they're shit-proof, not!

There are but a few redeeming factors of course. This film doesn't feel a need to have its narrative follow a chronological order, and it worked wonders, especially when it's used to break the monotony of dead dialogue that borders on going nowhere. Backstories are told in flashbacks, and for a first movie, it worked its origin other than to follow the usual formula in telling the audience how policeman Denny Colt become this supernatural being who can't die. Sort of how The Crow meets Batman/Daredevil, which Miller had opportunities to work on. At times though I do feel that the references to “my city” do seem a little Bat-heavy.

And I guess when it comes to casting the femme fatales that The Spirit flirts with given his Casanova erm, spirit, this film had its cake and eaten it as well with the likes of buxomy actresses in skimpy outfits, such as Paz Vega in a minor role as Plaster of Paris, Scarlett Johansson as The Octopus' partner in crime Silken Floss, and Eva Mendes in a meatier role as an old flame with a thing for bling, Sand Saref, and this in addition to Jaime King's head-scratch inducing Lorelei Rox, Sarah Paulson as The Spirit's current squeeze Ellen Dolan, daughter of the commissioner, and a whole host of beauties as well.

The Spirit is probably hit and miss for most audiences given that the negative factors outweighing the positives, but I suppose if one approaches this with low expectations, you might just get some kicks out from the load of sticky cheese this movie gets to fester with. If the littlest moments count, then perhaps you would likely enjoy the end credits roll a lot more, especially when you get to see Miller showcasing his artwork, to the sounds of Christina Aguilera belting out the song “Falling in Love Again". I know I did, and was left pondering how this would probably be a better film should it be animated right from the start, because The Spirit firmly roots itself with B-genre pals like Darkman and The Shadow.

Kan Lumé's Female Games

If you're wondering what Kan Lumé has been up to these days, I've found a fresh trailer which provides more than ample clue to his next cinematic outing.

Going by the tags, it seems to have been shot in both Singapore and Malaysia, and stars Evelyn Maria Ng & Shen Qiaoyun aka Sheylara. Entitled Female Games, I'm now wondering if it's a short film, or a feature length one, possibly making its debut come next year's Singapore International Film Festival? What's your guess?

Kan Lume Filmography (Feature Length)
- The Art of Flirting
- Solos (co-director)
- Dreams From The Third World

And here's a link to an interview done earlier this year.

Update: Yes, Kan Lume has confirmed that this is a feature film!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Visitor

Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum

The law is black and white and without compassion, and as they say, Justice is blind. So I guess either way one could get basically screwed if you end up on the wrong side of the equation. For illegal immigrants, the strict policy we have here is a jail term, plus caning, and deportation. We could argue the merits and demerits of punishment, but that's for a totally different post altogether. How this ties in with the movie, is because it set me thinking a bit about the treatment one could provide should you find yourself in a similar situation as the protagonist Walter (Richard Jenkins).

A professor who's walking wounded since his wife passed away, he's what one would immediately label as going through the motions, without putting his heart into his work or life itself, coasting through just because he can. On a conference trip back to New York, he gets surprised when he finds a couple living in his apartment, and illegal immigrants from Syria and Senegal at that, but an inkling of compassion show toward them made him retract his initial intention to throw them out. Thus begins an uneasy friendship that gets improved through Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his love for music and the drums, much to the dismay of Tarek's lover Zainab (Danai Gurira)

Slowly, through friendship, Walter's life begins to fill with true meaning, and we observe his opening up to the world, and extending that compassion even to Tarek's mom Mouna (Hiam Abbass), which also develops into the inevitable romance. It's akin to Yes Man, where the protagonist finds himself presented with opportunities which he would have thought to be impossible if he had maintained his old grumpy attiude, instead of embracing a new one due to conscious change.

If there's a gripe here, that will be how the music of the African drums wasn't really allowed to be showcased fully. We have little chances of grooving to the beats, though of course these mini-concerts weren't the main plot point, which you will find yourself tapping your feat to. However there's nothing that could take away the excellent acting by the cast, especially Richard Jenkins in playing Walter, whom we see basically transforming into someone living life full of meaning. Haaz Sleiman also played Tarek with aplomb, where you can sense his fear and dread of being forgotten, or casted aside. Hiam Abbass as the mom took over midway through the movie in the interaction with Walter, and I thought was extremely competent in her role as a mother who wants to be close to her son, nevermind if there are physical barriers placed between them.

What also came through in the movie was the stark commentary of how illegal immigrants are human after all, and need to be treated with basic dignity, rather than getting embroiled in complicated processes, and metted punishment for nothing they did wrong except that of trying to etch out a new and better life in a new land of opportunities. Sometimes too, these folks get tricked and exploited into coming because of the false promises of jobs, only to find that their deposits paid to unscrupulous middlemen disappear, and they're left to fend for themselves. Homeland Security also took a beating here with compassion-less officers enforcing black and white rules, with no negotiation attitudes painted on their gruff faces.

Something like this would probably not work here, given one's duty to report illegals residing in your apartment, otherwise one would even lose that roof over your head. But if you would just step back and think for a moment, and this movie forces you to when the end credits roll, that it almost always doesn't hurt should you show a little compassion to a fellow man.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

[DVD] Anaconda III (2008)

Lock and Load

Bad story and bad acting. I guess one of the top draws of this film is the starring of David Hasselhoff as a hunter who gets charged with capturing or killing a pair of mutated snakes on the loose, under cheaper production values which didn't have the budget to shoot inside a moving vehicle. The snakes looked too fake, and the order of the day is blood and gore, gratuitously delivered on screen.

You can read my review of Anaconda III at by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nothing Like The Holidays

Christmas Carols

Christmas has become so commercialized, no thanks to Santa Claus and the spirit of consumerism having to buy, buy, and buy some more to meet those pesky wish-lists of friends and family. I guess there's this feel good feeling to this holiday because it's just at the edge of the new year, and it's the spirit of sharing good tidings, and to look forward to better things ahead in the new year. But I share similar sentiments with the head of the Puerto Rican Rodriguez household, that it should be none other than a festival to have everyone get together.

Edy Rodriguez (Alfred Molina) and wife Anna (Elizabeth Pena) look forward to Christmas because it's a time where family members far and wide, and doing their own thing, get to come back home to share in the festive spirit. This year's gathering is all the more special, because son Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is permanently home from his tour of duty in Iraq. There's eldest son Mauricio (John Leguizamo) and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) who are two accomplished corporate folks in New York, and daughter Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) who's a Hollywood star in the waiting. Add friends such as Johnny (Luis Guzman) and Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) and you have one happening get together party, right?

Not quite, as the veneer of what would be a joyous occasion, get marred by everyone bringing their baggage to the table. Anna and Edy contemplate divorce, Jesse gets flak for being the hero, as well as being co-opted to run the family provision shop business. He also continues to nurse an aching heart toward ex flame Marissa (Melonie Diaz) who has now moved on. Mauricio and Sarah's marriage get strained by her refusal to bear children because of an impending promotion which she doesn't want to jeopardize. Roxanna is nowhere near being a star, still stuck at bit parts on television. Whew!

While billed as a comedy, it's not laugh a minute, even though there were a couple of smart one-liners to tickle your funny bone. Instead, it's quite a thoughtful drama to see how each character navigates through the sea of their own problems, and whether they are able to come out tops. And everyone could identify with one or more of the characters, especially in their attitudes toward family member, being envious of the more successful sibling, of favouritism, of being at loggerheads, of reconciliation, and ultimately, the notion of blood being thicker than water.

Not all subplots get resolved amicably and reasonably, which roots this film to a tinge of realism rather than opting for a feel good fairy tale styled finale where every loose end gets tied up with a smile. Which makes this film stand out amongst the crowd of feel good Christmas theme movies out there this season. It's quite a compelling drama to sit through despite some story threads being just a little bit bare, but for the powerful ensemble cast pulling everything through as a convincing family unit, you might want to invest some time on this film as well.

Pride and Glory

Wanna See My 25th Hour Rant?

I wonder if a film like this could be made here at all. Not that you can't do it on the cheap, because it's literally sans explosions and action sequences that calls for things to be wrecked or shoot em ups in built up areas, and all you need are charismatic actors to bring the plot to live, but one with the story of having corrupt cops within the force? And it's not just a make-believe force, but one that says NYPD on its sleeves.

Yes, there are disclaimers put out immediately when the end credits roll that it's a work of fiction, and the movie originally planned on being made in 2002, which for obvious reasons of not wanting to taint (if for the lack of a better word) the NYPD at the time of a heightened threat environment. But I suppose our film industry probably is not mature enough, or if permission will be given if at all, for our own force to be used as a more realistic backdrop for a moral (or there lackof) story such as Pride and Glory.

It's a cop drama about a family of cops who get embroiled in a scandal, and having their morality put to the sword. Beginning with the murder of four officers under the charge of the CO Francis Tierney Jr (Noah Emmerich), dad Francis Sr (Jon Voight) gets adamant that his best son Ray (Edward Norton) join the task force to weed out the cop killer. But slowly Ray begins to discover a link back to his cop brother in law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), and the rabbit hole goes down a lot further with possible involvement back to his own family, together with opening up a Pandora's Box that implicates almost everyone in the precinct.

Unfortunately this is not an investigative drama per se, because like Confession of Pain, it decides to show all its hand 30 minutes into the movie, and you'll know who are those responsible, together with who is indirectly guilty within the force. The only thing left is the extent of their involvement, but there becomes rather rudimentary. Everyone in the story have varying shades of grey, and nobody is squeaky clean, even for Ray as he demonstrates some unorthodox investigative techniques involving promises to his informants. And most of the supporting cop characters do seem a little surreal when you observe how they can get away with the blatant corruption that they engage in.

While it slowly builds upon the story despite its revelation midway, the finale becomes something of a letdown because of its convenient way of wrapping everything up, and gets marred by some out of place fisticuffs which seem to draw some laughter rather than its intended gentleman's way of getting things resolved sans weapons. Also, there was a sub plot involving an investigative journalist which gets introduced in the third act, and then junked unceremoniously, rather than allowing this sub plot develop through.

Pride and Glory boasts a stellar cast with powerful performances, from Jon Voight's dad who wants Ray to cover up as much as he can so as to protect his eldest son and not let their family legacy get tainted by a scandal which they can spin it to their advantage. I thought Noah Emmerich is slowly becoming quite a strong character actor, despite his rather low key presence and screen time in the movie. Edward Norton is typical in his flawless delivery, this time wearing a physical scar to represent an emotional wound which his character carries, a reminder of how he's now faced with the same unfair odds of having to shoulder some blame and spin facts to everyone's advantage.

Colin Farrell though returns to his bad boy roots with some scenes that will enrage you toward his Jimmy character, where money talks and power rocks, and being the in-law, you'll feel his fear of being sidelined should the adage of blood running thicker than water come true. I thought he stole some of the other actors' thunder each time he comes on screen to light it up with corrupt intensity, given that Norton's Ray does a disappearing act from time to time.

It's standard fare, and without any element that will make you sit up and go wow. That doesn't mean that it's a bad film, but lacked that particular x-factor in making it memorable. It wanted to tread in the murky waters of the questioning of morals, but in the end doesn't address it head on and felt a bit of a let down. Even the superb performances by the actors fail to lift this beyond mediocre, and I guess it's still the story that counts first.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

Dance With Me

I guess it's a no brainer to know I'll head to the box office to watch any movie with Shah Rukh Khan on the marquee, and what more when he plays a middle aged, average working class salaryman who's about to embark on quite the romantic adventure of his life.

His Surinder Sahni is your typical routine joe who works for Punjab Power, meek and gentle, and a nerd to most. His love life is practically zilch, but on a visit to his old school teacher's home, he gets captivated by the beauty and vivaciousness of his teacher's daughter Taani (Anushka Sharma), who has heard about him because of the frequent comparisons her father makes. But that day turns out to be a tragedy instead, with her fiance and in-laws meeting with a fatal accident, and her father coincidentally suffering a stroke. A decision was made then, for her to be betrothed and married to Surinder, someone whom her father trusts, but this shotgun, arranged marriage turns out to be a loveless one for Surinder.

There's this albatross hung around his neck, because his arrival heralded the darkest period in Taani's life, and thus was told upfront that while she can be a good wife to him, but she will never love him. Naturally this breaks Surinder's heart because there's nothing in this world he wouldn't do in order to bring her happiness that was originally hers, if he had in the first place not been associated with pain when he entered her life. While he has some little itsy-bitsy happiness stemmed from Taani's taking care of him, he still feels shattered knowing that whatever sincerity, care and concern he'll be showering on her, will have zero effect in trying to win her over.

Opportunity presents itself of course, when Taani, bored with being a housewife, signs up for a dance class with Surinder's sponsorship. With the help of his good friend Bobby (Vinay Pathak), he transforms himself to the suave romantic hero with an alter ego Raj, crafted according to the male leading men in films that his wife appreciates, and decides to take ownership on his love life by wooing Taani from scratch with this new, outgoing persona. But alas as we all know, such a plan becomes a recipe for disaster, because while Taani would not change her heart for Surinder, he has now taken the extreme into becoming someone totally different, and thus struggles with the pain of living a lie, especially when his plan becomes successful and leaves him pondering over whether to live a lie forever, just to be with her.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi thus becomes embroiled with plenty of situational comedy involving different identities, but at its core is still a very strong romance story dealing with the notion of unconditional love without expecting anything in return, which Taani fails to fathom why anyone would go to such lengths in order to bring happiness to her life. Written and directed by Aditya Chopra, this story is strictly for the romantics at heart, otherwise you'll naturally balk at the thought that nobody could recognize Shah Rukh Khan whether or not he's the ordinary man Surinder, or the styled up Raj, especially when his wife Taani is the one who is blind-sided. But of course you can live with it if you buy into the whole Clark Kent-Superman secret identity where a pair of spectacles does wonders.

The literal translation of the title means "a couple made by god" and as you know the man up there has a sense of humour sometimes, preferring to allow the couple to go through a number of painful periods in order to strengthen their resolve for each other. However, the story still steered very clear from the darker themes such as adultery, although Surinder and Raj are essentially the same person, Taani's falling for the latter does come after a long period of courtship, and curiously, she doesn't reveal her marital status till late. So while that theme might rear its ugly head once in a while when you pause from the incessant bonding between Raj and Taani, it doesn't get broached beyond that.

Being a Bollywood movie would also mean plenty of song and dance, and being set against the backdrop of a dance competition, it brings about opportunities for the characters to hit the dance floor their moves - I particular enjoyed the sequence in Dance Pe Chance. Shah Rukh Khan gets to showcase both extremes in character, one being the nerd with two left foot, while the other being at the opposite with plenty of smooth moves to show off. If anyone's in doubt of his acting ability, I guess this one movie will show what he's capable of. In fact, between his portrayal of Raj and Surinder, I prefer the latter more, because he had fused some wonderful nuances into his Surinder, that makes him an instantly likable character, while at appropriate moments, his portrayal shows you that tender side of him as well as the internal emotional struggles he has to go through as he woos his wife. Newcomer Anushka Sharma holds her own against the veteran as the young wife Taani, who's at constant odds with her marital obligations, and on the other knowingly falling in love with someone whom she becomes dangerously attracted to. Of course what she fails to realize is that they're the same person after all, and her best performance comes from the finale where you can see how she reacts to her make believe world come crashing down under the weight of realization.

I guess loving someone unconditionally is that constant challenge, if it's at all possible extending otherwise from that of a mother toward her child. This film is an ode to that kind of loving emotion, and to a certain extent it puts the other person on a higher pedestal than oneself. I would prefer to overlook the flaws in the movie if any (well, if you consider how Surinder has those bulging muscles to begin with, not like he has some Handsome Suit to fit into!), and highly recommend his one to all the die-hard romantics out there, given the excellent performances, story as well as the beautiful songs that puts romance back into the air. An average joe can have an extraordinary romance, and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi captures that wonderfully.

Dance Pe Chance

Friday, December 19, 2008

[DVD] The Invincible Iron Man (2007)

The only reason why I picked this up was because it's on cheap sale, and it doesn't hurt to see how Marvel would have envisioned their hero way before the live action feature film starring Robert Downey Jr hit the big screens, right?

The Invincible Iron Man is an origin story, but as far as origins are concerned, they are open to updates and reinterpretation. The original Stan Lee version had Tony Stark develop his suit of armor during the Vietnam War, since this character was developed in the 60s. With the movie version, it got updated to reflect some Middle East sentiments. For this animated version, since they wanted to fuse his origins to that of chief villain The Mandarin, we have it set in the Orient, where Stark Enterprises got itself a project to lift an aged old monument from the buried underground, only to unleash some prophecy which involves the second coming of The Mandarin.

There are a couple of changes to how Tony got his heart injured and had to rely on an oversized pacemaker, but this time he got help from good friend Rhodes, since he's now an employee of Tony, and has nothing to do with the Air Force. I suppose purists would already foam at the mouth by now. Nonetheless you know the drill as plot elements are kept quite consistent - they build a crude suit of armour, and break away from imprisonment. But to speed things up to meet run time requirements, it turns out that Tony Stark already has a whole array of suits back in his penthouse, and can call upon the fancy variations to do battle with the Elementals who are in the quest to recover the Mandarin's power rings to resurrect him.

The action sequences do look a bit lacklustre, because the Elementals are basically one-trick ponies, and it doesn't take much effort for our hero to dispatch them one by one. Then again of course this is Tony Stark's first foray as a hero utilizing his suits for good, so he's not all that versed with battling enemies, and magical ones at that too. But in an effort to build up to the climatic finale, there are a couple of missteps. First, it's actually an antique armour that he uses - for one I would like him to have used his most powerful suit available, but no thanks to SHIELD. And if you think the finale battle would be something like the image on the back cover of the DVD sleeve, it's not! In fact while there's an interesting twist on The Mandarin which you could see coming from a mile away, alas the battle is nothing but a big letdown.

There are also a couple of recurring characters to complete the animated universe, such as Tony's dad Howard, where the plot follows that of Batman Begins involving some major boardroom struggle, as well as faithful secretary Pepper Potts, who had a lot more to do here than Gywneth Paltrow's version in the feature film. But they don't add much value to the film here. The pace moves quite hurriedly, and coupled with the disappointing lack of a proper finale, this is one animated flick that could have been much better if it provided some more exciting action sequences, since after all, an animated feature opens up the imagination to unlimited boundaries, just like how a page on a comic book does the same.

The Code 3 DVD by Alliance Entertainment is presented in anamorphic widescreen format and 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio. No subtitles available, but closed captioning is provided. A 20 chapter scene selection also allows you to skip the boring parts and zoom in straight to the action.

Special features wise, there's an Alternate Opening Sequence which lasts for 3 minutes, which is actually a long prologue about the Mandarin and the prophecy in which he will return one day to wreck havoc. Would have made for a cool introduction before the Marvel opening credits rolled. The Origin of Iron Man documentary is the money shot in this Special Features section, where for 12 minutes you get to hear from both the filmmakers and the comic writers and artists on what the appeal of Iron Man is, which includes head honchos like Joe Quesada. We get to learn of Iron Man's comic book origins, as well as see some comic book panels both classic and contemporary. Spoilers are abound, so watch the animated film first before launching this feature.

Other than that, the rest of the extras included didn't surmount to anything. There's a gallery titled The Hall of Iron Man Armor where a total of 15 armors and their descriptions are placed in gallery styled presentation, which includes which issue in the comics they first appeared in. Iron Man Concept Art runs for 3 minutes and shows off some storyboards, character designs, raw set layouts, and both 2D and 3D computer modelling and rendering. No commentary to go along unfortunately, so it's just an exercise for the eyes.

Lastly, for those who want to take a look at more Marvel Animated Films, then there's A Look At Doctor Strange which consists of 7 minutes worth of the opening scene from the new animated film focused on the titular character, which is also an origin film.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


We're the Formulaic Threesome

One thin guy, one fat guy, and one nerd. Put them together, make them sex crazy and booze loving, and make the fat guy the loudest of the bunch with a penchant to swear by the bucketloads, and you have your teenage sex comedy. It seems like this it the formula these days, where filmmakers think that spewing profanity like a machine gun is cool and can elicit laughter. It does NOT. In fact, this formula is too tired already for the genre, no thanks to films like Superbad, and even adopted in "friendlier" comedies like Drillbit Taylor.

Fielding a cast of mostly unknowns, you'll probably only recognize Ms Buddha's Delight Haley Bennett in a forgettable role as one of many bevy beauties in the film, who are mostly left anonymous only to allow some in-your-face boob baring on screen. The comedy's here really unfunny, falling flat all the time, relying on the usual toilet humour and Andrew Caldwell making a jackass of himself.

You can read my review of College at by clicking on the logo below.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ip Man (葉問)

The Man

If you look at the last 5 movies in Donnie Yen's filmography, I feel that his better works had resulted from his collaboration with director Wilson Yip. In Painted Skin and An Empress and The Warriors, he was relegated to supporting roles, with the former being ineffectively cast against type, and the latter playing second fiddle to the leads Kelly Chen and Leon Lai. With Yip, he's the able star of the show, and in each of the movies, was put to do what he does best – numbing arse kicking action, with SPL sparring with Sammo Hung and Wu Jing, Dragon Tiger Gate having to lead Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue battling bad hair days, and introducing some wildly kinetic Mixed Martial Arts action in Flash Point. So how does his latest collaboration with Wilson Yip fare?

They do no wrong. I shall now proclaim unabashedly that I absolutely love this movie! It's been some time since we last saw a biopic on one of the Chinese's martial arts folk heroes, with Jet Li's Fearless being the last memorable one to hit the big screen. While Li lays claim to three of such roles in the iconic Wong Fei Hung (in the Tsui Hark movies), Fong Sai Yuk and Huo Yuan Jia in Fearless, after which he felt he had to hang up his martial arts roles because he thought that he had communicated all that he wanted about martial arts through these films. And thank goodness for Donnie Yen still being around to pick up from where the genre left off, and presenting a memorable role which he truly owned, with Ip Man being the first cinematic rendition of the Wing Chun martial arts grandmaster.

In this bio-pic, Ip Man, one of the earliest Wing Chun martial arts exponents credited to have propagated its popularity, gets portrayed as the best of the best in 1930s Fo Shan, China, where the bustling city has its own Martial Arts Street where countless of martial arts schools have set up shop to fuel the craze of kung fu training. With each new school, the master will pay their respects to Ip Man and to challenge him to a duel. Ip Man, an aristocrat who spends most of his quality time developing and perfecting his brand of martial arts, will take them on behind closed doors, so as not to damage his opponents' reputation nor embarrass them in public. His humility is his virtue, and his style is never violent or aggressive, which often gets assumed and mistaken for being effeminate, since Wing Chun after all was founded by a woman.

The bulk of the story gets set in the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, and it's not all fight and no story. Witth this historical setting, at times it does seem that there is an air of familiarity with the type of stories told, with how the Japanese Imperial Army had made life really miserable for the Chinese, and how the Chinese being fragmented in spirit, fail to unite during dire straits. More often than note, martial arts become a unifying force, and this aspect of the narrative might seem to be a walk in the usual territory.

But with its array of charismatic supporting cast with the likes of Simon Yam as Ip Man's best friend and industrialist Quan, and Lam Ka Tung as a cop turned translator, there are little nicely put sub plots which seek to expand the air of respect that Ip Man commands amongst his community. The story by Edmond Wong did not demonize all the villains, often adding a dash of empathy and sympathy to the likes of the Japanese General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a highly skilled exponent from the North called Zhao (Fan Siu Wong) as well as Lam's translator character who is deemed as a traitor for being in the service of the Japanese. Ip Man the family man also gets put under the spotlight, where his passion could sometimes leave him neglecting his wife and kid, and through the course of the story this focus often leaves one quite exasperated for his family's safety as he puts his countrymen above self and family when going up against the oppressive Japanese forces.

So what's the verdict on the action? Action junkies won't have to wait too long before watching Ip Man in action, and to Sammo Hung and Tony Leung Siu Hung's credit, they have intricately designed some of the most varied martial arts sequences in the movie, such as private fights in his home, a factory melee, a Japanese dojo battle as seen in the trailer, (which I know has actually sent some positive vibes amongst moviegoers, mouth agape at that incredible scene of Yen continuously beating down a karateka) being somewhat of a throwback and reminscent of Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury, and a ringside duel amongst others. And it's not just Ip Man who gets in on the action, but specialized martial arts moves designed for the various practitioners as well. It's so difficult to name any particular one as a personal favourite, though I must add that you definitely won't feel short changed by the time the inevitable final battle comes rolling along and gets delivered with aplomb.

I'm no Wing Chun practitioner, but Donnie Yen has this marvelous calm and zen like approach with his Ip Man taking out his opponents quite effectively with the minimal of moves. Like Huo Yuan Jia, he doesn't deliver the killing blows to friendly opponents, but rather simulates the various hit points, which actually calls for some astonishing control of strength and precision. This approach will change of course as the opponents become anything but friendly. And unlike the usual martial arts stance of crouching low, here we see him standing tall and striking with such precision and efficiency, it's like poetry in motion with some astounding closed quarter combat utilizing plenty of upper limb strength.

With Wong Kar-wai at one point also declaring interest in making a Ip Man movie, I thought that this effort will be hard to beat, just like how Tsui Hark has crafted some of the more definitive movies in modern times about Wong Fei Hung and Jet Li benefiting from a major career boost, I'd say Ip Man just about cements Yen's reputation as a martial arts leading man, which I guess the cinematic world these days severely lacks. This has to go down in my books as one of my favourite movies of the year, and I'm already setting some money aside to get the best available edition of the DVD when it gets released. Highly recommended, so make a beeline for the box office now!
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