Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

That's Me

At the risk of sounding stupid, while I knew that this was based on a book by John Boyne, not having read it meant I had initially thought that it would be one of those childhood based film on fantasy. And I guess so did many parents in bringing their little tykes in what they thought would be a weekend filler in between activities. Little did I and they know of course that it packed such a powerful emotional punch in not wanting to be just another movie set in WWII Germany and the Holocaust, showcasing the horror of that era seen through the eyes of a little boy who couldn't understand the gravity of the dire situation he's plunged into, making it all the more painful to bear witness to.

I was glad that director Mark Herman didn't dumb it down for the audience in masking the horror of the atrocities committed, as are the cover ups and the matter of fact manner in which the Nazis went about conducting their persecution of the Jews in concentration camps. Asa Butterfield stars as Bruno, an eight year old boy from whose eyes we witness the chain of events unfold. Having the family uprooted from Berlin to the countryside in order to follow the father (played by David Thewlis), an officer in Hitler's army, we soon realize the true nature of this assignment, and that's to oversee the activity of building horrendous gas chambers and managing a concentration camp that's just a stone's throw away from their family mansion.

To Bruno, being in a new environment means a severe lack of friends his age, and from his room he spies a farm where farmers mill around in their pyjamas. We see the world through the eyes of an impressionable, innocent boy who has yet to be exposed to the evil of the world, and this presents itself a number of avenues for the corruption of his mind, starting with the family home tutor indoctrinating Bruno and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) in lies against humanity. However, Bruno's sense for exploration and adventure sees him sneak out of his house and toward the "farm", where he finds a boy his age Shmeul (Jack Scanlon) across the other side of the fence whom he befriends.

This sets up some major conflict within Bruno especially when what he's being taught, told and observed within the household, being in direct conflict with his first hand experience with Scmuel, and becomes totally confused, though still afraid of speaking up for obvious reasons. This theme of standing up for what's right (or the lack thereof) and betrayal of the highest order has been explored in similar vein in films such as The Kite Runner and The Reader, but it doesn't mean that this film had its thunder well taken away from it. It still resonates thanks to the excellent portrayals by the kids in roles where their innocence has no place in their world gone mad, having rationale folks like the Mother (Vera Farmiga) shouted down and out.

James Horner gives this film a wonderful score, and became a character on its own highlighting the various dangers lurking beneath the seemingly happier notes. Such as a scene where a screening of what goes on inside the camps was made, but totally for propaganda purposes, in stark contrast to what we know would and had happened, but here fabricated for the mass public. To Bruno, it seemed like his dad is a national hero, though there's this sense of karmic retribution permeating and waiting on the wings to pounce. We also see how double standards can be applied within family, and a general culture of fear being bred no thanks to the Oath that each officer had to undertake.

Despite the dark content, the film is beautifully lensed, and I haven't read any qualm about the actors here all having to adopt an English accent (in contrast with the stark complaints with Valkyrie, which is much ado about nothing). The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an extremely moving piece and I had to admit I was quite affected by it, especially when the final reel came rolling. The last time I was this affected and moved by a "children's" movie was The Bridge to Terabithia. This film firmly joins it in that list of surprises, and a natural contender in my shortlist for the top movies of the year. Highly recommended!

If You Are The One (Fei Cheng Wu Rao / 非诚勿扰)

Are You The One

I'm a keen admirer of versatile Chinese director Feng Xiaogang and am a fan of his films, which covers quite a vast range from War (Assembly), Period martial arts (The Banquet), and a good old thriller in A World Without Thieves, amongst others in his filmography. I've yet to watch something that had disappointed, and his latest romantic drama If You Are The One starring long time collaborator Ge You and Shu Qi, proves to be yet another understated film that deserves a larger audience, if not for the limited number of screens (two only) in Singapore.

Ge You plays Qin Fen, whom we are introduced as a one-time inventor of a product called the Conflict Resolution Tool, which got sold to a venture capitalist for millions. With his new found wealth, he decided to focus on settling down, and follows the recent trend of finding a suitable companion over the internet. Here's where the humour comes in, not in slapstick fashion, but through the earnest ways he presents himself with honesty, starting from his online profile which lists a number of his ordinary points quite upfront. Ge You is again at his element here, and he continues to surprise how he internalizes his roles, be it the grandeur of an emperor, or a straight-talking neighbour next door.

Needless to say the best bits were in the first half, where like The 40 Year Old Virgin he goes on a schedule of blind dates after more blind dates, meeting countless of women with plenty of side agendas except settling down. His surprise comes in the form of Shu Qi's Xiaoxiao, because nobody would seriously expect a babe to hook up with someone through online means, given no lack of suitors already queuing up in the real world. I can trust a story written by Feng Xiaogang in that he crafts his characters with believability, and here he captures perfectly the essence of the dilemma of a middle aged man looking for a love partner. Knowing a below average Joe would never be able to hold onto a relationship with a princess, given lack of funds, looks and power, Qin Fen passes up the chance quite honestly, but forms a firm friendship with Xiaoxiao.

I guess Shu Qi's almost automatic first choice for a female lead role in a romantic film, having been seen very recently opposite Andy Lau in Look For A Star. While that role is a little more vivacious, her character here is a little more subdued, though no less glamourous as a stewardess with Hainan Air. Again she convinces with a credible performance of a woman who has this tremendous emotional baggage of being in love with a married man, who for obvious reasons cannot commit to her, nor wanting to let her go. She epitomizes Selfishness to the maximum, especially when deciding to trade and negotiate a relationship while knowingly still having a place in her heart for someone else, although credit given that she's upfront about it.

What I particularly enjoyed about the film is its examination into seeking love through online means, where one has got to go through arduous ego-inflating profiles trying to seek out somebody for a blind date, which can turn out to be a tad disappointing when real life doesn't meet expectations set, no matter how small that is. The story excels, and is one of the key strengths of the film is in highlighting this disappointment. One can be magnanimous and make the best of the situation, or try to pull the plug as early as you can so as not to lead the other person on, or to waste everyone's time. It's all about having a little chance and taking risk at every possible opportunity presenting itself, and disappointments being just part and parcel of the process, especially when you have little brought to the table.

Blessed with rich cinematography thanks to great locales in both China and in Hokkaido, Japan, look out too for plenty of cameos especially the blind dates that Qin Feng meets, the best (to me) was the short appearance of Vivian Hsu, who highlights once again some of the prejudices that any male would probably subscribe to as well. If there was a gripe, that will be the last scene which was quite unnecessary and too tacky, even though it was trying to make a not too subtle reference and statement to the real world financial crisis now, and the confidence to have in the Chinese financial system.

I would only say to try not to miss this film despite the limited screens and timings, because this is certainly one movie that is worth its weight in gold. For those who cannot make it to the cinemas, the DVD is already out now, so you might just want to own it instead. Highly recommended, and goes into my shortlist of contenders for that end of year top movies list!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Kung Fu Chefs (Gong Fu Chu Shen / 功夫厨神)

I guess it's only Chinese that we can include everything that moves into our gastronomical cuisine, and for films, everything can be kung-fu-ed. From card sharks to period dramas and even basketball, hip-hop and mah-jong, you can slap some characters who are versed in the martial arts of wire-fu into a story, and conjure some bland cinematic magic with it. To boost attendance numbers, throw in a singer / teen idol in it, and you probably won't go too wrong. Kung Fu Chefs follow this tired formula. While there are some limited worthy moments in the film (to be explained), it's below mediocre throughout with uncharismatic leads, weak characters, and having a story which smelt like another.

If Hong Kong movies are running out of steam in coming out with original tales, then this one would be testament that there's some thumbing through of some South Korean screenplays, given some resemblance here to the K-movie of last year - Le Grand Chef, and how that film had some influence over this one. You have a disgraced master in Sammo Hung's Master Wong, a culinary expert and village chief, who fell from grace given a village-wide food poisoning incident. Then there's some unresolved family rivalry, where his nephew (played by Fan Siu-Wong, last seen in Ip Man as a villain as well) accuses Wong of usurping his father's pride as well as a legendary chopper which is quite nicely designed with its dragon-motif handle.

The best bits of the film were actually food related, with some insights, which I hope are real, into the careful planning and preparation of some wonderful Chinese cuisine, from the humble Chinese cabbage, to the renowned Buddha Jumps Over The Wall. I took some delight in the display of skill during the preparation stage, and drooled over the final products ready for the table. Which means of course you should not be watching this (if you've already thought hard and long about it) on an empty stomach. The Best of Chefs competition also harked back to Le Grand Chef, only less grand, and a limited budget meant less screen participants and dishes.

I've watched Sammo Hung in some great Hong Kong action movies in the past, especially those that he did in collaboration with his buddies like Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Of late the movies he got involved in were hits and misses, from starring roles such as SPL (hit, except for the ending which I disliked) and Fatal Move, which was a terrible miss. Behind the scenes he's also involved in some action choreography like the forgettable Once Upon a Time in China and America, and the last one being the excellently choreographed action in Ip Man.

Here his role as Master Wong Bing-Yi is extremely plain, maintaining a stoic outlook throughout, whether betrayed, elated or angry, it's just one look to rule them all. While I had admired his agility (for his size), age has already caught up with the big guy, and there are plenty of noticeable scenes where you can clearly tell a stuntman's clearly taking over some of the rough and tumble behind those action sequences.

Vanness Wu as the Japanese wire-fu and culinary graduate student Ken-ichi, is painful to watch no thanks to the act-cute antics, and seemed more interested in flexing some new found muscles in his buffed body. Moreover, his arrogant screen attitude also was somewhat difficult to bear, if not for the about turn in character during the crucial competition. But his cute antics was bowled over by yet another worse actress Kago Ai, who shows one emotion throughout - the saccharine sweet. It seems like a running competition amongst everyone here to best all the rest through a single expression. The other actress given top billing here, Cherrie Ying, is actually quite pedestrian.

I was quite surprised when past the 70 minute mark the film had started to opt for jarring narrative edits in order to fast forward plot development, not that it had anything cerebral to begin with. And seriously, what's up with that tacky opening credit scene too? I'd swear there was a baby in the theatre who started crying the minute that scene came out. Unless you're a fan of Hung and Wu (you can hear those fan girl giggles ringing in surround sound in the cinema), you should give this a miss unless you're in just to watch how food of the elite nature get prepared. See only, cannot eat, so why torture yourself?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3D

Who Do You Think It Is?

Possibly one of the first 3D horror flicks ever, I just couldn't pass this up, and neither could many others, judging by the enthusiastic response and anticipation in the theatre hall just because of the novelty factor, with oohs and ahhs being echoed each time something seem to fling itself from the screen toward the audience. And I'm only talking about the trailer there. I guess it will take a while for the novelty to wear off, though until then, with the selection of 3D films thus far screened at an affordable price, it might just be one of the pull factors to draw in the crowds and put bums on seats.

Like any horror-slasher flick with potential to become a franchise, My Bloody Valentine started off with a bang, and if not for some sporadic body counts in between to lift the narrative sag, it would have been sunk way before the long-drawn finale. To horror buffs, the clues as to the identity of the killer miner would be so obvious, that you'd just be crossing your fingers in the hope that you're wrong. It begins with a brief history of The Miner Harry Warden (Richard John Walters) who goes on a killing rampage, and in quite exciting terms of torn limbs and dismembered insides. Friends like Sarah (Jaime King), Axel (Kerr Smith) and Tom (Jensen Ackles) come face to face with the killer on night in a party in the mines, only for the police to intervene and save the town of Harmony.

Fast forward 10 years later, and we see Sarah and Axel married, with Tom dropping by after his disappearance that night to rekindle some old flame. But his return also heralds the beginning of brutal killings in the modus operandi of The Miner, and it is only natural that suspicion will fall upon the prodigal son's return, if not for the picture of other characters being painted in unsavoury terms to provide a whole host of suspects.

It's the usual pursuit of a killer who's always one step ahead, and in between we have some attempted drama between love lost, and Valentine's Day being in the the festival of choice (hence the title) to set this story against. But this aspect of a love triangle fell flatly on its face, and seriously, we're not here for the strength of the plot, but by the variety of ways the body count gets chalked up. To that, there's no shortfall of bloody gore, as you can imagine how creative one can be with the weapon of choice – a pick axe – being in the hands of a psychotic killer.

For instance, there's impalement by the masses through different body parts as entry points. You name it, you get it, from the eye to the top of the head, from midsections cut wide open to what I thought was the best use of a shovel thus seen in a slasher flick. Being in 3D also meant the gore factor got cranked up a notch, since copious amounts of blood come splashing onto you, and you just might duck when the pick axe got swung in your direction. Some may comment that I'm being a sadist, but I suppose films designed in such nature are for those who expect exactly that, for entertainment and fun escapism, not meant to win awards.

No new ground was broken as a horror movie because it too relied too much on the usual loud banging noises, sudden appearances and quick edits. It makes no qualms to appeal to the lowest denominator and doesn't even attempt to build up any atmosphere. It does take a while to get to the fun bits, and when it does you'll probably find yourself enjoying every sick part of it. The only obstacle standing in its way of become a franchise spawning many sequels, is the stark lack of motivation of the killer, other than of course being plain psychotic, which is the requisite, and demonstrated so in quite haphazard terms with dots left unconnected.

Should you decide to watch this, do yourself a big favour and do so only on the 3D format. And stay right through to the end after the credits roll for that one final swing.

Marley & Me


Based upon the book by John Grogan, Marley & Me doesn't offer any new surprises in what's expected of from a story about Man's best friend, and having been just that to John Grogan (played by Owen Wilson) and his family, the story's very much a personal tale of the Grogans', though John's especially, relationship with their pet dog who had been a major part of their married and family life from the onset.

While the trailer may have made this out to be a comedy through and through, this film's quite a typical dog-drama, where you have the antics of how one dog could turn one's life topsy-turvy especially when it's not properly trained. Picked out from a clearance sale by John and wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), they soon find out that Marley's in contention in being the world's worst dog, and his behaviour just reinforces that – peeing indiscriminately, chewing everything, drinking from the toilet bowl, running everywhere and knocking into things. How the couple could endure and let it get away with his indiscipline, tells you how much they love that labrador named after Bob Marley.

But the film's more about family, or the creation of one. It actually follows the progression of how a newly married couple adapt to their new life, with some real world concerns like the next paycheck, and the issue with raising kids. Some things in life can be planned for while others come without warning, and the dog just ushered in a new phase of their lives with mutual responsibility over something else. Not to mention of course that it provides ample fuel for John's popular and growing column, despite his personal ambition in being a reporter rather than a columnist, like his buddy who gets to lead the life he could only dream of, in being where the action is.

It's about priorities in life, where we have different goals and objectives that we want to achieve, which could run contrary to your partner's. It's about how we give certain issues precedence, and others having to take the back seat. It's about the sacrifices that we have to make from time to time, and therefore missing out on opportunities. It's about seizing opportunities that may seem like road-blocks only because they aren't very clear at the present time until manifestation at a later date. I was quite surprised indeed that these everyday life issues get succinctly masked from within the narrative of a “dog-movie”.

Running almost two hours long, the narrative does seem to fast forward itself in the second half because I thought it felt its first hour build up was taking a tad too long. Like real life when babies and kids come into your world, the focus you have on your individual pursuits get diminished. And in a mirror situation, the film becomes faced with an expanded cast of characters to deal with in the second half, resulting in a mixed balance of focus somewhat. Alan Arkin's role was totally hilarious as the editor of the Sun-Sentinel, and some of the more uplifting moments were where he graced the screen and lit it up with his character's wry humour. Owen is being plain ol' Owen, while Aniston successfully portrayed a (glamourous) housewife whose worries are all over the place.

I had initially thought that Marley & Me had tried to emulate some success formulas from Japanese shows of similar canine nature. Fortunately it did have its own story to tell, thanks to the blueprint spelt out in the real John Grogan book (which got worked into the story here as well). It's a fairly good family drama that I felt could be stronger if it had placed equal emphasis in its second half as it did in the first.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

New Friend, New Love

I'll say it upfront: This is one of the best movies I've seen this year to date. It's heartwarming, well acted, and has a bagful of charm that lifts your spirits through an old-fashioned romantic tale filled with hope. In these depressing times where one gets bombarded with negative news left, right and centre, nothing beats having real escapism in a darkened theatre, in following two individuals finding strength in each other in facing their adversary squarely in the face.

It's been some time since we last saw Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson on the big screen, and Last Chance Harvey unites them in a somewhat talkie movie ala Before Sunrise, but only after spending considerable time in building up their backgrounds. Wee see how Hoffman's Harvey Shine is having the worst day of his life, from losing his job to learning that his daughter is getting her step-dad to give her hand away in marriage. He ends up at a bar where he meets Thompson's Kate, and together they spend an incredible 24 hours together.

It's a reminder to seize the day and any positive opportunity that comes along, and finding oneself falling in love when you least expect to. And observing how this couple are having the time of their life, with good natured humour injected to smile at challenges, Last Chance Harvey is a surprising gem that you should opt for in this crowded week of cinematic releases. Trust me, the charisma of both actors playing off each other, is well worth the ticket price already.

You can read my review of Last Chance Harvey at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Singapore International Film Festival 2009

Having attended other film festivals which I have thoroughly enjoyed, the SIFF still holds a special place for me because hey, it's homegrown, it's with local flavour, and it costs only a bus/train/cab fare to get to the venues. As per any festival, part of the fun comes from the hair-tearing moments to decide just what to watch given all the clashes, and having to sometimes leave it to chance to pick one out of the many screened during the same time at different venues all around town.

Once that's done then depending if you qualify for those early bird discounts, you'll have to cross your fingers that the shows you have on your list, are not all sold out by the time general sales begin. Of course there may be a chance that those that are sold out will have another screening, but that's just another spanner thrown into your nicely planned schedule, isn't it?

Click Here for the festival schedule, and ticketing details!

Gripes aside, the Singapore Panorama feature films seemed to have shrunk this year, from the bumper crop of 13 last year. In this edition, we're going to get to watch Brother No.2 (Jason Lai), Female Games (Kan Lume, making it 4 films in a row in SIFF, trailer can be found here), Invisible Children (Brian Gothong Tan, Excerpt 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The film was screened at last year's BKIFF and Wise Kwai has a review), This Too Shall Pass (Ang Aik Heng), and White Days (Looi Wan Pin). Alec Tok's A Big Road is in Competition for the Silver Screen Awards - Asia Feature Film Competition though, so it doesn't fall under this section.

While Sinema Old School was the one-stop venue of choice for the Singapore Panorama, this edition unfortunately relegates the most of the section to the Substation. Curiously, with most being world premiere, I thought there should be some confidence that a larger venue would sell out, unless of course more screenings are planned and the schedule isn't finalized. Speaking of which, imagine all single and only screenings of Female Games, A Big Road and one of the Invisible Children screenings all having to fall on the same day at the same time slot at different venues. So take your pick, Singapore. :(

Sinema Old School now becomes the venue of choice for re-runs from last year. Granted these films are now in competition of sorts for the inaugural Singapore Film Awards. For the first time we have a film awards dedicated to the celebration of local films in the various categories mentioned. Previously the local films would have to compete with the rest in competition for the Silver Screen Awards if they're deemed worthy, but here's a special category for them all to slug it out. Films at least 60 minutes in length, and completed and screened in the previous calendar year are eligible for nomination, and all films will be screened again during the festival (I wonder if Rule #1 has a fat chance to be screened in Cantonese?) Here are the nominees, and having watched them all already, I shall stick my neck out to root for the one which I think is worthy of triumphing over the rest.

Nominees for Best Film
A Nutshell Prediction: 18 Grams of Love. My review should already explain why.

Nominees for Best Director
12 LOTUS: Royston Tan
18 GRAMS OF LOVE: Han Yew Kwang
RULE #1: Kelvin Tong
A Nutshell Prediction: Han Yew Kwang. Again, I heart the film, and it's time for someone to break the stranglehold on the household names already, given the merits of 18 Grams.

Nominees for Best Screenplay
18 GRAMS OF LOVE: Han Yew Kwang
HASHI: Sherman Ong
RULE #1: Kelvin Tong
A Nutshell Prediction: Han Yew Kwang. Rule #1 had shades of other films like Fallen and Suicide Club, and I guess 18 Grams will face a tough fight with Hashi. But my choice will be for Han's story - watch the films, and you'll know feel why it should walk away with the prize.

Nominees for Best Performance
12 LOTUS: Liu Ling Ling
12 LOTUS: Qi Yu Wu
LUCKY7: Sunny Pang
A Nutshell Prediction: Sunny Pang. C'mon, surely you have to award Sunny for taking on no less than 7 different roles according to the whims and fancies of each director in that exquisite-corpse film Lucky 7.

Nominees for Best Cinematography
12 LOTUS: Alan Yap
THE DAYS: John Lim Beng Huat
LUCKY7: Roszali Samad, Brian Gothong Tan, Sharon Loh, Jaye Neo, Cain Chui, Andrew Mark Sobrielo, Chris Yeo Siew Hua, Adrian Lo
A Nutshell Prediction: The Days. Unless it's about the size of the participants, I still feel that it's gonna be a fight between 12 Lotus and The Days. It's tough, but I feel the latter has an edge because the former was a shade of 881.

The above might seem slanted toward 18 Grams of Love, but hey, that's my personal opinion from what I've watched, and my gut feel, unless of course like the Venice Lion, no film can win in more than One category, then I'll be off the mark.

Back to planning what to watch! What's your choice?

Related Links
- Singapore International Film Festival Official Website
- Wise Kwai provides an excellent writeup on Thai Film offerings in this year's SIFF!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Persistence of Memory: The Films of Terence Davis

From 27 February to 1 March, the National Museum of Singapore presents four amazing films from Terence Davies – The Terence Davies Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes and Of Time and the City.

The Terence Davies Trilogy
Presented by the National Museum of Singapore in collaboration with The British Council
Fri 27 February 2009, 7.30 pm
101 mins
Gallery Theatre, Basement
National Museum of Singapore
Tickets at $8 / $6.40 (Concession)

Part I – Children
The theme is violence – social and domestic – and its effect on the main character Robert Tucker. The story is told in a series of extended flashbacks and incidents from his childhood in Liverpool, his Catholic upbringing and how they have affected his adult life. Constant bullying at school and a violent and sick father at home are events intertwined with Tucker’s view of his own sexuality. The film ends with a memory – the death of his father – where the boy appears to be trapped in his sexuality and his childhood.

Part II – Madonna and Child
Part two tells the conflict between Catholicism and sexuality, a severe and intimate portrait of Robert Tucker in middle age, trapped between his private and public personas. A dutiful son and conscientious worker, he is also a man for whom religion and sexuality have become synonymous. This dilemma produces in him an overwhelming sense of despair from which he feels there is no escape.

Part III – Death and Transfiguration
Part three completes the story in more ways than being merely the final instalment. It is a summing-up of Tucker’s life and his attitudes towards the remembered events of his life, and his coming to terms with his mortality. In this synthesis of memory, times of the past and present merge into the single moment which puts into a new perspective Tucker’s life, and the trilogy as a whole.

Distant Voices, Still Lives
Presented by the National Museum of Singapore in collaboration with The British Council
Sat 28 February 2009, 4 pm
80 mins
Gallery Theatre, Basement
National Museum of Singapore
Tickets at $8 / $6.40 (Concession)

Drawn from his own family memories, Distant Voices, Still Lives is a strikingly intimate portrait of working class life in Liverpool during the 1940s and 1950s. Focusing on the real-life experiences of his mother, sisters and brother whose lives are thwarted by their brutal, sadistic father, the film portrays beauty and terror in equal measure. Davies uses the traditional family gatherings of births, marriages and deaths to paint a lyrical portrait of family life – of love, grief, and the highs and lows of being human that is at once deeply autobiographical and universally resonant.

The Long Day Closes
Presented by the National Museum of Singapore in collaboration with The British Council
Sat 28 February 2009, 7.30 pm
85 mins
Gallery Theatre, Basement
National Museum of Singapore
Tickets at $8 / $6.40 (Concession)

The Long Day Closes focuses on Davies’ own memories of growing up in a working-class, Catholic family in Liverpool. Eleven-year-old Bud finds escape from the greyness of 1950s Britain through trips to the cinema and in the warmth of family life. But as he gets older, the agonies of the adult world – the casual cruelty of bullying, the tyranny of school and the dread of religion – begin to invade his life.

Of Time And The City
Presented by the National Museum of Singapore in collaboration with The British Council
Sun 1 March 2009, 2 pm
74 mins
Gallery Theatre, Basement
National Museum of Singapore
Tickets at $8 / $6.40 (Concession)

From the original voice of the great British auteur, Terence Davis, comes the visual poem Of Time and The City which draws on the first 28 years of the director’s life – his life in Liverpool until he left in 1973. Many of Davies’ themes from his earlier narrative pieces thread through this film – Catholicism, homosexuality, violence, death, loss, the glory of cinema, outsider-ness and childhood. But Of Time and The City also documents the memories, the City and the country which shaped those themes in the growing artist. And throughout the film, a masterful voice guides the audience with his strength, his poetry, his candour and his anger.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

[DVD] Swades: We, The People (2004)

Motorcycle Evangelism

I'm been very much impressed by the films of Ashutosh Gowariker with his epics like Jodhaa Akbar and Lagaan, that it's a no brainer for me to continue seeking out his earlier films, especially so when they have been scored with music provided by A.R. Rahman. Swades: We, the People struck a common chord in some aspects of the story with Delhi-6, but only just, and I found it strangely compelling to dwell a little on some similarities between the two.

Well for starters both had an NRI (Non-Resident Indian, or jokingly mocked as Non-Returning Indian) returning from the United States, only to find themselves in a small town/village/district where the ways of their lives are a little backward, and the protagonist has to find time to get used to the slower pace, and life without its luxuries, even what we deem as basic like electricity. Email? Internet? Unheard of, naturally. There's also some time in both narratives dedicated to the well known story of the three way tussle in Lord Ram, Sita and Ravana, though the one in Swades benefitted from Rahman's wonderful music enveloping the stage play, in more complete terms than that in Delhi-6 (also scored by Rahman by the way).

And when it's a blast to the past, some common themes that seem to find themselves a staple in a Gowariker film are the tackling of caste (Lagaan), as well as religion (Jodhaa Akbar), with the need to see the bigger picture and to overcome these issues and put aside differences for the greater good. Arranged marriages too have no place amongst women who are strong, independent and self-reliant, but I guess such tradition and customs are still quite commonplace and widely practiced, for movies from then until now still featuring such arrangements in the plot, as if to mirror some frowning of the deliberate, and sometimes forced practices of culture and tradition, just because.

LIke how Abhishek's character echoed in Delhi-6, "India works, the people make it work", it's like a wake up call to the community as seen in Swades too, that while there are niggling issues like corruption and the reliance of social crutches in tradition or culture, things really work when everyone rolls their sleeves and get down to doing things. In Swades, everyone complains about the lack of electricity and the frequent disruption, but it takes one guy to wake them up and show them the way to progress. Aamir Khan took on such a role in Lagaan, and in Swades, Shah Rukh Khan plays that equivalent in Mohan Bhargav, a project manager in USA's NASA who journeys back to India in search of his foster mother Kaveriamma (Kishori Balal) because he's feeling guilty of abandoning her.

Clocking in at just over 3 hours (which recent Gowariker film isn't?), it allows plenty of space for a number of themes to be explored. The narrative also took advantage of the run time to inject the staple romance and exploration of Mohan in his new environment, and the vast myriad of likable characters here also add to the film's endearing approach.

Running central in the story is Mohan's tussle with his lady love Gita (Gayatri Joshi, in her debut and only role to date?) for his foster mother who's now also the only family of the latter and her brother Chikku (Smith Seth). Mohan wants to bring Kaveriamma back to the US to enjoy the last stage of her life amongst luxuries, while Gita wants her to stay in India. Both have their selfish reasons, and needless to say, falling in love just complicates matters. If affairs of the heart is not your cup of tea, then Mohan's one man crusade to fight for what's correct, and galvanizing support at the grassroots and community level, do make it a little moving as he sees what everyone doesn't, or choose not to, unless you go on the ground like he did.

One of the more poignant scenes, which also provides the opportunity for Rahman's Yeh Tara Woh Tara theme song for Swades, takes place in a community outdoor screening. With the screen set up in the middle of the field, the upper caste folks get to sit on the right side, with benches too for VIPs, while the lower caste folks sit on the opposite side of the screen, and obviously the incorrect side, having to view the movie in its mirror image, separated and out of view from the higher caste. In one fell swoop, Mohan uses the downtime of electricity interruption to demolish the unhealthy practices through children, who are always colour/race/creed-blind, and through them, hopefully, educating the older generation on the spot, while bringing about reasonable change of mindsets amongst the new generation. This scene alone sticks, amongst many others thanks to Gowariker's strong story, and direction.

At its basic level, with Hindi movies travelling the world for its global audience, the film seeks to call out to the NRIs to remember their roots, and to make that contribution back to their homeland, given that while there are problems that might have contributed to push factors, with the success, knowledge, capabilities and resources now ploughed back, they would effect some change no matter how small, and progress will always be made with that single small step in the right direction. The film isn't as heavy as it might seem, and that's the beauty of it, working itself on many levels.

I've yet to be disappointed by a Gowariker film, and am going to continue seeking out even earlier films, while waiting with bated breath for his next.

The Region Free DVD by UTV Home Entertainment is presented in anamorphic widescreen format. Visual transfer seemed to be truncated a bit on the right side, while at times you do notice some pops and cackles. Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1, but there are noticeable moments where volume fluctuates inconsistently. Not the very best in quality though, and I didn't know that there was actually a 2-disc collector's version with more extras included.

This one was pretty bare bones, with subtitles available in English, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. Scene selection is available over 36 chapters, and the only separate section is the standard fare Song Selection which serves as a jump point (and doesn't bring you back) to the movie where the song selected gets played - Swades Theme, Yun Hi Chala Chal, Yeh Tara Woh Tara, Saanwariya, Pal Pal Hai Bhaari, Dekho Na and Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

K-20: Legend of the Mask (K-20: Kaijin Niju Menso Den)

He's There!

There's no stopping Takeshi Kaneshiro in charming the socks off everyone, especially since new fans were won over by his heartfelt performance as the Grim Reaper in Accuracy of Death last year, and following that with his Zhuge Liang in Red Cliff. This year in Singapore, he marquees a big budgeted action-mystery masked vigilante movie, and while his powers and abilities to hark back to the Batmans and Spidermans, K-20 turned out to be rather entertaining for its liberal use of special effects, comedy and some fantastic action sequences, set against at alternate Japanese universe.

Which is interesting because other than the unmistakable Tower, Tokyo now known as Teito, is quite unrecognizable, and plaguing the country is a huge class and income divide between the aristocrats, and everyone else, which reads the Poor and have nots. It's set after WWII which never happened since Japan signed a peace treaty with the US and the UK, and hence what we have is some strangely futuristic backdrop, and some peculiar background on everyone being conditioned for pre-determined jobs and not having the ability to switch careers. Doesn't make a difference actually to the story, but gives you the feeling that everything is centrally planned.

While the title points to K-20, the fiend with 20 faces, the story's actually focused on Heikichi Endo (Kaneshiro) as a poor circus acrobat. And if Bat-fans would see some similarities here, I'd say his character's more like Dick Grayson and with putting his abilities to fighting crime, it's almost exactly how a Nightwing would behave. But back to Japan, Heikichi gets set up by K-20 himself, and gets framed into allowing everyone to believe he's actually the masked villain himself. Breaking out of prison thanks to a merry bunch of thieves whom he soon allies himself with, Heikichi makes it his quest to flush out K-20 and to clear his name, with the help of a nifty grappling hook and rope device.

Not being sexist here, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that K-20 is directed by a female - Shimako Sato, who also adapted the screenplay from a novel by So Kitamura. It's a fresh perspective having to watch an action movie directed by a female at the helm, and the focus here was of course on the characters. We have Takako Matsu as the Duchess Yoko Hashiba, who isn't your standard fare damsel-in-distress, and Toru Nakamura as the police inspector Akechi Kogoro, the arch-enemy of and resident expert on K-20.

It's a classic action mystery which like The Prestige has Russian scientist Teslar providing the object of tussle, a device capable of harnessing and transmitting vast electrical power across locations without the use of cables. K-20 wants it to rule the world, and it's up to our heroes to crack the mystery as to where the device is, and to stop the villain from achieving his goal. The plot's fairly simple, which includes an origin story for Heikichi including the antics of a hero in training, but what made it palatable was the excellent delivery by the cast, together with gorgeous sets and edge-of-your-seat action, especially in the last act itself for that fitting showdown. A key element here too is the identity of K-20, having nobody actually seen the villain in the flesh except for Heikichi himself.

The story however does sag a little when it lingers on the more dramatic moments, and you'd know for sure when Kaneshiro gets replaced by stuntmen for most of the action shots not on closeup. But as far as big-budgeted movies like these go, K-20: Legend of the Mask still came across as pretty entertaining and all primed for sequels and a franchise should the box office prove to be successful.

Role Models

Dorks Leading Dorks

No man is an island, and deciding to be miserable all the time is not going to make life any easier. You'd either grin, bear it and look on the bright side, or stay a sour puss and irritate everyone with that attitude. Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are colleagues who are pimping an energy drink for 10 years, one the evangelist who preaches, while the other prances around in the mascot Minotaur suit.

Unhappy with having nothing to show for, and going through the motions day after day, Danny finally snaps one fine day in a moment of madness, and the duo gets offered a choice of either jail time, or community service hours. Not wanting to be raped in jail (yes, it's that insane), they opt for community service, and get thrown into a baby-sitting service where adults volunteer time to spend with children who are a little bit special. In that sense, Wheeler gets to be the buddy of Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), whose mouth is way bigger and vulgar than his size, while Danny got to pair up with Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse of McLovin fame from Superbad), the nerd whose life revolves around a fantasy cosplay world whose players gather in a park to enact their medieval dreams.

Needless to say this comedy relies plenty on the pairing of misfits to draw some laughter, and I'd admit I got the kicks out of that little swearing kid with a penchant for boobies. And faster than you can say "formula", you can bet your last dollar that amongst the pair they will learn how to trust, respect and eventually learn from each other. After all, that's what friends are for. And adding to the humour in almost every scene she's in is Jane Lynch as the founder of the Big Brother program, being an ex-con/abuser/etc who can smell BS from a mile away, the bane of both Danny and Wheeler.

While one can stay almost one step ahead all the time in what the story would throw up next, the delivery here mattered, and thankfully none of the actors here irritated nor put you off their characters. What worked also were the plenty of sly, subtle jokes that flew by, some which would have you do a double take in "did they really say that?", and the numerous references on pop culture, and the more obvious dig on the metal band KISS.

Elizabeth Banks might have been given the role of her life thus far in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, though here she plays the obvious second fiddle in a negligible supporting role as the girlfriend of Danny who dumps him because of his negativity. Paul Rudd seems stuck in playing characters who have indifference for breakfast, while Sean William Scott is pretty much typecasted already, with almost each role being a dude. Time for him to try and break out of that mold, if at all possible. Not that I'm complaining of course.

But the two boys literally stole the thunder here with their crazy antics, with Ronnie the outspoken boy who shoots his mouth off, while Augie is the exact opposite in his more hesitant and timid performance. Those familiar with Superbad will spot Mr McLovin here as Augie. If not for the language and nudity, this would make it somewhat of an above average comedy that all ages could enjoy. So pity the kids would miss out on cursory messages like leading the life you want to and to stand up for yourself, while the rest of us who are in the mood for some laughs, may want to check this out. As the saying goes, nothing fancy, but surprisingly it works.

Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang / 梅兰芳)

Shall We Dance?

I got to watch this trailer inadvertently when it was part of a montage sequence honouring Chen Kaige with the Akira Kurosawa Award during last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, and I was actually thrilled to have caught glimpses of it. I thought the boo-boys were out too early in lamenting Chen's choice of Leon Lai in the titular role, thinking that he would ruin what would be a decent biopic about one of China's greatest opera singer.

To me, those fears were quite unfounded, as I felt Leon Lai actually did reasonably well when under the thick operatic makeup to transform himself for his stage persona, from Mei Wanhua to Mei Lanfang, where portrays only female characters. But of course if put side by side with Chinese actor Yu Shaoqun, Lai paled considerably as Yu was obviously the better of the two, portraying the younger Mei who found his true calling when opportunity came knocking on his door, and deciding to seize it, yet being mindful all the time of where his roots were.

And the best parts were of course the first act, where Mei decides to up the ante and challenge his master, the then largest opera star Shi Sanyan (Wang Xueqi) to a show-down of sorts if you will. Under his master's wing, he finds himself somewhat stifled in not being able to explore his roles much further, given the master's fear that his thunder will be stolen. At the encouragement of maverick magistrate and future sworn brother / business manager Qiu Rubai (Sun Honglei), he finds some new found confidence to test waters while still keeping true to the core of his character, thus earning new praise, and given one's talent with nothing much to lose, one will go for broke - win and you win all, lose and you have really no reputation at stake, in contrary to his master.

It's about control, or the lack thereof. From early on we learn that actors in the days of the crumbling of the Chinese monarchy that they do not have any respect, and have to play to the whims of those with power, money and fame. Even then the child actors have to pander to lords with a penchant for young boys. Mei does not buckle his self-worth, and is pretty clear that while he portrays ladies in more feminine terms than real ladies, that it does not make him easy fodder. And we follow through his life how he does not get to live the life he wants to lead, but rather according to both the rules and regulations of the stage, as well as the same off it in society. Be it instructions from his managers, his wife Zhifang (Chen Hong) or the Japanese occupiers, each seemingly want to exert an influence over his career and personal life, not so much for personal gain, but to propagate that legend and persona so carefully crafted over the years.

Naturally Mei finds an avenue to fight back, and does so through an affair of the heart. While he portrays females on stage, he meets his equal in Meng Xiaodong (Zhang Ziyi), who is his mirror opposite, the best in the business in playing male characters. Together they blaze a trail of glory, and naturally leads to tongues wagging. While Zhang Ziyi may share top billing, in actual fact she's nothing more than a supporting role, coming in only in the middle portion to highlight Mei's need for escape from his rigid world.

Much is said about the supporting actors doing a far better job than the leads, and that is true, in a nice way. My respect for the Chinese actors have grown from watching a number of indie and mainstream films, and I can't credit the likes of Sun Honglei, Chen Hong, Wang Xueqi and especially Yu Shaoqun in being nothing less than superb each time they come on screen to chew up the scenery. It's not really fair to say the leads acted poorly, because the supporting cast had raised the bar in delivery, which adds to the enjoyment of the film.

I can never forget the really poor movie The Promise which Chen Kaige made a couple of years back. The story was so bad it allowed the special effects to run wild in trying to salvage the show. There aren't a lot of Chinese bio-pics (or at least those I have watched) in recent years that were non-martial arts related (think Ip Man, Wong Fei-Hung, Fong Sai-Yuk, Huo Yuanjia etc), and somehow I'm glad Chen Kaige found his mojo back to helm this, and in far elegant terms that I'm now better convinced to check out more of his filmography. He was able to shift gears quite effortlessly between distinct acts of the narrative, which straddled a timeline from after the Qing Dynasty to after the surrender of the Japanese. However, there might seem to be a quantum leap in addressing issues towards the last 30 minutes, but for everything else, it was paced quite evenly to keep you interest from waning.

Forever Enthralled has all the ingredients of a credible epic, from beautiful set designs and art direction, to a wonderful soundtrack and elegant costumes, Chen Kaige does not scrimp in making this film look and feel just like it would back in those days of sheer opulence. While opera may be an artform that is dwindling here, don't let the Peking Opera focus here put you off, as you just might find some reason to want to watch the real thing if you have the opportunity to. Definitely recommended.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Delhi 6


Abhishek Bachchan's character Roshan made a remark relatively early in the movie that made me laugh out loud. While watching a stage play, and not totally well versed in the history nor story, he commented that it was the one about a "golden deer", and to a certain extent, it was true, but of course totally taken out of context. It reminded me of a personal anecdote many years ago, where a Caucasian couple was standing next to me and watching a lion dance performance. Not knowing what they were, the wife asked the husband, who proudly replied "They're dogs, but they're good dogs!". I was chuckling too hard inside to want to enlighten them.

And personal stories of life is what Delhi 6 contains, being reportedly somewhat semi-autobiographical of director-co-writer Rakesh Omprakash Mehra's growing up years in Delhi. The film is set against the backdrop of Old Delhi with the postal code of 110006, hence the title, and for the wide-eyed boy like me who has never been to India (yet), it's quite an eye opener that the film captures plenty of the sights, sounds, food and you can imagine the smells, as seen through the eyes of Abhishek's Roshan.

An American citizen, he volunteers to accompany his aged grandmother (Waheeda Rehman) back to her hometown in Delhi 6 out of duty and curiosity as to hie ancestry, and for the first half, he's floored by plenty of new experiences formed from interaction with his extended family and friends of his parents and grandparents. From starting out wondering why his grandmother would want to pass away in Delhi 6, he soon realizes that it's the community spirit that is so strong within the town, that he too fell head over heels with it. And of course, getting to know the neighbouring beauty Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) helped too, even though it got off the wrong footing to begin with.

This is Rakesh Omprakash Mehra's ode to Old Delhi, filled with plenty of montage, with special effects no less, squeezing all things memorable that he had to say and pay homage to, on all things quirky like the community stage plays, superstition and rites, and down to the negatives like the rampant corruption of those in uniform, as well as the inane media news reporting and the caste issue, as seen through the eyes of an NRI - Non Resident Indian.

While the first half may be more touristy in spirit, with the filmmakers opting to showcase plenty of romanticized shots of streets and everyday life courtesy of Roshan's Motorola mobile phone, the tone of the film got more serious after the intermission, exploring base feelings, primal instincts and intolerant mob mentality coupled with sectarian violence. From the onset there's a kind of supernatural/mystery feel to the narrative with the strange hypothesis and theories of a "Black Monkey" being in the midst of and terrorizing residents, and surprisingly I actually appreciated how this angle was eventually treated and wrapped.

Sonam Kapoor had her debut in the feature Saawariya which I had enjoyed but unfortunately many didn't and the film tanked at the box office. While Saawariya co-star Ranbir Kapoor had already gone on to make his second film Bachna Ae Haseeno released last year, Delhi 6 marks the second film for Sonam, and I felt that while the role here didn't give her many opportunities to shine, given that it's the usual small town girl with big dreams, and very much more modern than the culture and tradition she is brought up in, again she lights up the screen with plenty of genuine vivaciousness that it actually became quite infectious for you not to fall in love with the character. Like the pet dove, her Bittu too has her wings clipped and tied by the father, preventing her from soaring to fulfill her dreams of becoming an Indian Idol. John Woo would've wondered why he didn't think of a dove-inspired dance!

While Sonam Kapoor was the first choice as the lead actress, surprisingly the lead actor role was bounced around and rejected by many, before Abhishek Bachchan gave the nod. I thought he brought out the role of Roshan quite convincingly, and his ability to single-handedly journey the viewer and navigate the new land was never doubted, bringing his big town tendencies to a small town he doesn't quite understand. And as bonus, no prizes for who was featured as an additional lending of gravitas to the film.

I particularly liked how the film inserted many plot devices and elements which were addressed and closed for the most parts, albeit some being done in quite an abrupt manner, such as how the grandmother's intent in the first half got forgotten immediately after the intermission. It did feel quite rushed toward the finale, but all is forgiven for the presence of A.R. Rahman's music. Again he provides some majestic tunes to highlight the key moments in the film, and while I had enjoyed every single one of it, one that I truly liked best was Makahali, which in the film was the name of the clipped dove. It had this really catchy tune that sticks, and picturized very effectively in the film, bringing out emotions of the moment wonderfully.

Delhi 6 preaches (yes it did feel that way, for the lack of time and very obvious ranting in the last act) about community, how as one people standing united with love for one another, that despite the frequent chaos, no obstacle cannot be overcome. But this balance is ever fragile, and it takes so little of a catalyst of fearing the unknown and unfounded superstition and suspicion to break it all down for the worst. It's a lesson for all of us, to open our minds and not fall prey to negative emotions, especially those that cause more harm to the greater good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

[DVD] The Paper (1994)

I’ve been to a newsroom only twice in my life. First, it’s to collect some lucky draw winnings, and I had a sneak peek into the hustle and bustle of a newsroom from behind a glass panel. The next one was more up close and personal, because a journalist friend brought me right up to his desk (and an incredibly piled up one at that), and I had first hand view of how news got made. Or at least it seemed that the next day’s articles were done up because there were few people left in the office, and there was a group huddled at one corner.

Ron Howard’s The Paper was one of those films that I didn’t catch at the cinemas (at that time, the teenage me only recognized Michael Keaton of his 1989 Batman and 1992 Batman Returns fame), and missed a number of scheduled telecast and re-runs on television. So it’s no surprise that I snapped up the DVD the minute I saw it in the discount bins at the store. And I wonder just why the heck it took me so long to get down to watching this, with no regrets (save for the technical aspect of the presentation).

Keaton plays a Henry Hackett, a sub-editor for a small time tabloid in New York. Being a go-getting workaholic, he often puts his family life aside, which of course puts his very pregnant wife Martha (Marisa Tomei) under a lot of stress especially with her pregnancies woes, and not being able to get out there and do stuff. For their financial stability, one of the many subplots here involves her getting Henry a job interview at a larger paper, The Sentinel, and threatens him not to sabotage his own opportunities for advancement, which we learnt that he does so quite frequently in order to stay where he is.

And it’s not rocket science why too, as the bunch of folks he’s working with is really madcap, and I think I too can thrive in such as a stressful, chaotic, but totally livewire environment. Each character presents a separate subplot which intertwines with Henry’s life, and in one scene which I was totally mesmerized with, was when everyone dropped by Henry’s office, and it went just off the hook. Wonderful stuff there, especially when you have Glenn Close as a rival sub-editor who happens to be the office bicycle (erm, that means everyone had had a ride), Robert Duvall as an ailing editor stricken with cancer and trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter, and Randy Quaid in a totally hilarious role as the bummer in the office.

All these while the team had to debate with the front page story for the next day, centered on reporting what’s accurate and doing what’s right – the social responsibility in being a paper, with pressure on them because they had missed the previous day’s scoop. Everyone’s preoccupied with their own personal agenda, set against an office where the air-conditioner isn’t working and driving temperatures and tempers up. It’s work and family over a period of 24 hours, and I felt that this film had a story that ranks itself up there with other films that deal with their narratives over the same time period.

You’d have come to expect a certain assured standard from director Ron Howard, and this film demonstrates nothing less. Everything naturally comes together perfectly toward the end like the birth of a new dawn, with relationships bruised but not battered, and what I also enjoyed here was John Seale’s superb cinematography which had this extremely fluid motion when bringing us in and around a newsroom for that office tour each time we run around like crazy with Henry. The paper would be one of my personal favourites, and my only regret (besides the technical aspects of the DVD) was why it had taken me this long to uncover this gem of an enjoyable film.

The Code 3 DVD by Universal, despite being stated it's in a widescreen presentation, turned out to be a 4x3 full screen version instead. Disappointingly misleading, if I may add. It's a barebones version, so I thought the very least was that it was in its proper aspect ratio. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai and Korean, and scene selection is available over 16 chapters. Some text-based production notes, and cast and filmmakers filmography are included for Michael Keaton, Glenn Glose, Marisa Tomei, Randy Quaid, Robert Duvall and director Ron Howard.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Suspect X (Yôgisha X No Kenshin)


I have mulled over the story for a bit, and while I'm fairly convinced in the way it presented itself to stay true to its theme, I can't help but feel that I'm still suckered into feeling the same way as the cops do, in being made to see things from one singular point of view just because the logic points itself that way conveniently, rather than to peek around the corner and see it under a different light. But if you believe and buy into its idea and rationale, then Suspect X's story would appeal to you definitely.

Which is the power of love, which by itself causes one to do irrational things. I won't refute the point though, because otherwise we won't see florists making a killing during the already-so-commercialized-it's-meaningless Valentine's day. To make its point, we have someone who's highly logical in manners, demeanour and genetic makeup, to undergo a transformation due to being struck by cupid's arrow. But does this irrationality extend to assisting and becoming an accessory to murder? One can only wonder.

That in itself is the issue that one has to buy into, in order to enjoy the film. A murder is committed by a single mother and child, and because he is smitten with his love for that single mother, mathematics genius and professor Tetsuya Ishigami (Shinichi Tsutsumi) helps them by applying deep logic into the creation of alibis, and instructing them with pinpoint accuracy, their behaviour, answers and such when the police come knocking on their door. There's a twist to it all of course, but it's more akin to the treatment as seen in Confession of Pain, where the extent of the killings had its hand shown early in the film, so those looking for a whodunnit, or an investigative crime drama where the investigators get stumped, would be expecting a totally different film altogether.

Instead, the story goes behind and looks at motivation. The deed is done, but the mystery here is the Why, and here's where help to the cops, come in the form of expert physicist Galileo Yukawa (Fukuyama Masaharu). The opening scene that set the stage had actually piqued my interest, as we see a classroom experiment seamlessly transition into a full scale, military styled showcase. Unfortunately, that's just one of the better parts of the film in terms of using scientific knowledge to help solve crimes. Unlike L in The Death Note series, the intelligence quotient here has some real world links (hey it's physics after all), and our hero has zero affiliation with law enforcement, helping only because of the challenge the situation posed. Don't expect some heavy theorems being thrown at your face, as the story smartly avoids situations to alienate its audience.

In fact, what it boiled down to, was succinctly summarized in one line where two friendly adversaries face off with each other across a road. The question posed was which side each of them was on, whether one would prefer to create the perfect, unsolvable puzzle, or to be the one who can solve the unsolvable puzzle, where for both there is an answer to. To that, the setting of the stage, and the throwing of the gauntlet, I have to salute how director Hiroshi Nishitani had it all planned out and delivered.

Something that disturbed me a little during the film, was the not too subtle sexual discrimination against the female cop Kaoru Utsumi. A prime suspect is referred to as sexy (though I have to admit Yasuko Hanaoka does look attractive, being cast as a bar hostess), but the more surprising one, was how the cops in the department were pushing Kaoru around, often referring her to do some menial tasks like fetching coffee, or ridiculed against when she came across as unprepared. There wasn't any statement made about it, but happened more as a matter-of-fact. Perhaps to echo some sentiments that such discrimination still happens?

As mentioned, it took me a while to mull upon the film, looking at it from a separate angle than I first had when the end credits roll. I may not had subscribed to the plausibility of how love can affect oneself to do silly things, to the extreme as that in the story, but I suppose it can happen given many crimes of passion that we read about from time to time, and with the little nugget of wonders that happen at sporadic intervals throughout, I'm come to the verdict that Suspect X is still worth your while. Just chuck that expectation of a whodunnit-mystery-thriller at the door.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Singapore Cinema 2008, Talentime and The Missing Ingredient

For those wondering what kind of money does a Singapore make from the local box office, Bee Thiam from the Asian Film Archive has on his personal blog compiled a succinct list of Singapore films screened in 2008, their numbers, and has listed down quite succinctly some criteria he uses to classify a local film as, well, local. I agree with that criteria as well, since anything less defined will probably drive anyone nuts. Head here to read that article.

Yasmin Ahmad has revealed two rough trailers for Talentime on her blog and the film is scheduled for a 26th March 2009 release in Malaysia, if the date on the trailers is correct. I hope that the Singapore release won't be too long after!

O Re Piya

Abidah "Next!" Noor

I've met and known filmmaker Sanif Olek since the time Yasmin was in Singapore for a Retrospective of her movies. Sanif has made a couple of short films such as Lost Sole (2006) and à la folie (2009), which are parts 1 and 2 of his Love Trilogy. We had briefly talked about his debut feature film The Missing Ingredient then, and you'd be glad to know it's currently in production! Looking forward to see it hit the big screens some time in the near future. Meanwhile, you can take a look at the teaser trailers that were produced way before production started, and have a peek into the production from the photos here in the Facebook group.

Teaser 1

Teaser 2

Monday, February 16, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You

My Sisters

You're more than likely to identify friends, family, colleagues, casual acquaintances, and even yourself amongst the ensemble big-name cast assembled to bring to us this Valentine's customary film for that perfect date movie to ponder over our past, current, and probably future relationships with members of the opposite sex. It's a talkie movie for almost 130 minutes, but the fun factor here is to watch the cast go through some zany moments that you just might be guilty of perpetrating too.

It might seem like a pseudo-documentary at times split nicely into logical chapters, but truth is there are probably enough one liner fortune cookie sayings peppered throughout, that you can't help but to feel that it's like a quick instructional guide to affairs of the heart. While I can't vouch for the accuracies of some of the female psyche as put out in the film, those for the male I felt were pretty spot on at times, or at least as far as I'm concerned. That is, if I don't like, I'll run away. HA! And there's no second guessing needed for that because it's pretty obvious.

Music-wise you have the usual pop and ballads, and given the huge cast, there's plenty of room to categorize them into various cardboard characters for reasons so that each individual and characteristic could be explored further. Only Ben Affleck, and Drew Barrymore turn out to be nothing more than disappointing extras. As a date movie, this works, but you're likely to start guessing, second guessing, and lapse into those mindless games that make a relationship so darned complex already. Should be fun dissecting this movie with your movie date.

You can read my review of He's Just Not That Into You at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

New In Town

Ditzy and Klutzy

In this economic climate of corporate downsizing, one wonders how the corporate boys in monkey suits on the board run their business with the help of a spreadsheet. It's always easy to see which areas of the business bleed red, and decide then on to send hatchet-men to the ground to execute (pardon the pun) and prune various portions of that wound to try and stop the hemorrhage, failing which a complete amputation would be required. It's easy making such decisions from the ivory tower devoid of decent human interaction, but never easy from the folks on the ground to do it, because it leaves just a bad aftertaste, especially when the folks are friends, and people you know.

For Lucy Hill (a visibly aged Renee Zellweger), she's a high flying executive of a corporation headquartered in sunny Miami, but what I think was because of a sexist board, she gets sent off to the wintry conditions of a small Minnesota town to effect their wishes, and that is to remove 50% of the employee population there to keep an unprofitable factory there under some cost control. Being an alpha-female type who never say no to challenges and her career, she makes that journey and has this high-and-mighty air about her, which through the course of her stay in town, their warm hospitality, sense of humour and all round, small town camaraderie, will slowly thaw that cold heart of hers.

There were plenty of charming moments in the film, courtesy of a whole host of ensemble characters built for the plot, such as Siobhan Fallon's Blanche Gunderson, who becomes Lucy's personal assistant aka secretary, and in all earnestness, tries to establish a friendship with her would-be boss, as well as trying to hook Lucy up with the town hunk Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr) who so happens to also be heading the workers' union. Complications naturally arise from this conflict of interest, which puts Lucy in two minds as she has her orders to follow, yet find herself inevitably drawn to follow her heart as well. And yes, this is also truly a romantic movie, which I thought had effectively balanced affairs of the heart as well as how modern day corporations run the shop, with pink slips being very easy to dish out.

Some portions remind me of a Hong Kong movie about a noodle factory (whose title eludes me at this moment, but starring Sam Hui and Tsui Hark, yes you read me right), where a band of merry men have to put aside their differences from their immediate manager and amongst themselves, to try and salvage their jobs and their livelihood. It's a pretty standard affair that you see both the problems and the solutions coming from a mile away when they're mentioned, and the plot is extremely straightforward as well, with no meandering twists and turns. But hey, it's supposed to be a romantic story, and both Zellweger (complete with excellent comic timing) and Connick Jr did well given their limited screen time together to make it all believable.

But the scene stealer here has got to be J.K. Simmons, who disappears effectively behind a fat suit and is quite unrecognizable. He represents the kind of supervisors that managers love to hate and have no qualms giving the marching orders to, but also serves as a reminder that such on-the-ground folks who garner the respect of the troops, are always worth their weight in gold, because once they're on your side, they have motivational techniques par none to get things done.

I was OK with the romantic plot here, but the Management 101 issues presented, was way more entertaining and valuable.

The Pink Panther 2

I've Got It!

I think it's time to shelve comparisons of Peter Sellers iconic take of Inspector Jacques Clouseau with that of Steve Martin's. Take it like a total reboot, not necessarily for the better of course, since the franchise thus far has taken Clouseau into more slapstick, as well as quite surprisingly, turning him into both a sexist and a racist, excuses being he's a total nincompoop.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's story makes no apologies in being offensive and politically incorrect, and taking Jacques Clouseau in the same direction of distaste deliberately, so that some non-witty exchange could take place between Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, who plays the etiquette officer locking horns with Clouseau to try and rehabilitate his crude mannerisms. Some jokes too get repackaged and recycled in a different form, carrying over one hamburger joke too many left over from the first Martin-Pink Panther movie in 2006.

In fact, not only does that get brought over, but the entire plot involving international heists committed by the mysterious Tornado, unfortunately had a similar Eureka moment to 2006's, proving that lightning does get to strike twice in a plot that feels right at home to a Scooby Doo cartoon. Given renowned and valuable artifacts being stolen from their exhibition home, including The Pink Panther diamond, an international Dream Team of detectives get assembled to solve the crime, headed none other than Clouseau himself, based on his past conquest in retrieving the diamond.

So with that comes an opportunity to put an international ensemble cast together, which actually seemed a good idea, if not for an average story involving love triangles against a backdrop of crime-solving which breezed through quite quickly. Returning are John Cleese (well, since Bond didn't requier a quartermaster for fancy gadgets, he's got to look for a job, right?), Jean Reno as Ponton the Watson to Clouseau's Holmes, and Emily Mortimer as Clouseau's secretary Nicole with whom we learn they share plenty of personal romantic time together in a restaurant scene that played on too long.

Joining them are Andy Garcia playing Vicenzo from Italy, who tussles with Clouseau as head of the Team as well as for Nicole's heart (note that Don Corleone reference), Alfred Molina as Pepperidge from England, possessing acute powers of deduction rivaled only by Clouseau, Yuki Matsuzaki as Kenji from Japan, a computer whiz, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Sonia, the resident expert for her study on Tornado. And if that's not enough, throw in Jeremy Irons too.

Quite an ensemble you'd notice, to want to come together to make a comedy like this. Thankfully, some of the film's limited funnier moments weren't revealed in the trailer, which had made some sequence of events less funny that they are in proper context. A largely forgetable film, if not for the memorable opening credits animation with Harry Mancini's Pink Panther theme, which is possible the best sequence throughout the whole movie. A few good laughs, but that's it, and I won't be surprised if this can have the legs to continue for one more film.

The Other End of the Line


Much has been said about the outsourcing of call centers to India, but so far I haven't seen one portrayed in a film in this manner, where Ifelt the portrayal of its inner workings was one of the better moments in his romantic-comedy. As far as I can recall, those who make cold calls to me for surveys, credit sign up and the likes, seem to sound local, or have that distinct regional accent that wasn't disguised, but if things happen per the movie, I won't be surprised that I was duped to believe they're calling from somewhere locally, rather than from abroad.

So welcome to the world of tele-marketers/helpdesks agents/salespersons, where in-house training centres established take their employees through continuous training in order to ensure their accent are masked, their pop-culture knowledge brought up to speed, and they're well-versed in local colloquial terms, so that they seem to be your friend from next door when they talk to you, rather than a feeling of resentment knowing that their neighbours job has gone offshore. It's no easy training, and naturally one that calls for great measure of patience for facing phones being slammed down, or worse to stand up to verbal abuse in many forms.

The Other End of the Line is your standard romantic comedy, which in my opinion got lifted from mediocrity thanks to this aspect of the story that I had a peek into. However, like most east-west fusion films made by Hollywood on Indian culture or aspects of India, it does get romanticized a great deal, and shots of Mumbai looked far too much like it's being lifted from a tourism board promotional video, or some tourist's excitable travel video of an exotic locale that he came back from. Think along the lines of Mistress of Spices, and Bride and Prejudice, and you have an idea how this story by Tracey Jackson had been approached by director James Dodson.

Priya Sethi (Shriya) works in a call centre in Mumbai belonging to CitiOne Bank (no prizes here), and her daily night shift (to be on the same timezone as the USA) gets frowned upon by her conservative family (Anupam Kher from Victory as Dad, and Sushmita Mukherjee from Dostana as Mum), even though she's earning good money to become the chief breadwinner, versus than her insurance salesman dad. She adopts her Jessica David profile for calls she makes to CitiOne's customers, putting on a perfect American accent as she speaks to strangers every night, only to call on a handsome young man (she knows because she Googles) Granger Woodruff (Jesse Metcalfe of John Tucker and Desperate Housewives fame) who had his identity stolen and a whole host of credit card transactions erroneously billed to him.

The both of them strike up a friendship as they speak frequently to clear up and verify his credit card transactions, and with one thing leading to an impulsive another, they set up a date, even though she knowingly lives on the other side of the world in India, while fibbing that she's actually in San Francisco, a city which Granger would be going to for a make or break advertising deal with a hotel chain.

As with any romantic movie, the chemistry between the couple is important for it to be believable that they're falling for each other, and in this aspect both Jesse Metcalfe and Shriya excelled in, looking good on screen as they share plenty of romantic moments the plot had thrown at them. You'd find yourself inevitably rooting for them as they overcome expected challenges, knowing that these issues will probably not be show stoppers, since they conflict with the type of characters they are, strong-willed and stubborn as a mule toward tradition that the modern generation do not buy into, or just don't buy into spending time with someone they don't believe in.

Possessing some amazing powers and ability to hear from a distance, The Other End of the Line is a long-distance infatuation that took on a life of its own, where characters step out of their comfort zones to pursue what their heart tells them. Since it's just a few days after Valentine's, this movie got made and released now for a reason, to have you partake in some lovey-dovey movie with comedy courtesy of a traditional family thrown in for good measure. Need a movie for a romantic night out? Then The Other End of the Line will satisfy that objective. Nothing fancy, but it works.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Lock In Your Final Answer!

Deep down inside, I personally believe some game shows are rigged to a certain degree. After all, organizers do try to profile you through a questionnaire which also contain clauses such as telling-nothing-but-the-truth-or-you-risk-forfeiting-any-prizes-won. So you're presenting yourself on a silver platter for opportunities to exploit both your strengths, if they choose to make you a hero, or your weaknesses, should you so be deemed as being there for entertainment value. This of course does not apply to some situations where obvious hints are provided so that you're given an idiot-proof situation to make away with some cash, should the sponsors be generous.

Game shows are mathematical and probability at its best, and of course one that can be programmed such that the house can win all, or choose to let you go for a little bit of laughter at the side. You can be asked questions that you know or to do something that you're comfortable with, from the profile you built, or when the stakes are too high and the house's appetite for risk is somehow subdued, in comes the real challenge to see if you'd buckle under pressure, or can overcome your fears. For Jamal, (Dev Patel), he's one question away in India's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, hosted by Prem Kumar (played by Anil Kapoor, and in real life hosted by Amitabh Bachchan who gets some mention here), to winning 20,000,000 (count the zeroes, man) rupees, given that he's answered seemingly random questions correctly, but on the show's logical break, get arrested on suspicion of fraud and tortured during interrogation to spill the beans.

Based on the novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup, this Danny Boyle-Loveleen Tandan co-directed film brings us on an incredible journey through the chapters in Jamal's life, where each episode of his tremendously rich tale of survival had Destiny place every nugget of required information toward those million dollar rupees. Hailing from the slums of Mumbai, we see how Jamal and his brother Salim carve a living out of exploiting their street smarts, even at one point being little artful dodgers themselves in a Charles Dickens tale. It boggles everyone that someone without a formal education could nab those random questions correctly, a tea boy working in a call centre, beating participants like lawyers and doctors. He captured the imagination of the entire nation, that sometimes the wildest of dreams can come true.

You'll find yourself rooting for Jamal, because here's a character crafted so earnestly by the storytellers that it's hard not to root for the underdog. And his story as told to the police inspector (played by Irrfan Khan), especially in his early life, set the stage thanks to the two adorable boys playing Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) who arrest your attention in a solid tale of two brothers growing up who eventually set foot on very different paths - one unassuming, while the other ambitious. And nothing better to drive the wedge between them than a girl Latika (Rubiana Ali) they knew by chance, and grew up with.

One of my favourite films of Danny Boyle's was Millions, where a cute little boy with tremendous imagination, held court when a bag full of cash come literally crashing down on his play house. Boyle seems to hold court again with a tale of the little ones overcoming impossible odds of survival through the honing of their street-smarts and instincts, and again shows his eclecticism in direction with some dizzying cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. And providing the score and music to punctuate the movie is none other than the Mozart of Mumbai A.R. Rahman, whom I hope gets his due recognition with non-Indian film fans, and even though I felt that his work here might not have been the best I've heard, it's still a great introductory platform to everyone caught up in the buzz for this movie.

For a story with events firmly written in the stars, and had plenty of coincidence and luck playing a part, it never for one moment felt forced nor contrived. Everything seemed possible, which makes it magical with Destiny having a big say, but one primary fact here is that Jamal had entered the gameshow not to win money beyond his wildest dreams, but to try and reconnect and search for a love that is lost, through a media platform. It's not that far fetched an idea, because I do know from personal experience that this type of scenarios do happen, with differing success results of course.

Slumdog Millionaire is up against very strong contenders for the Best Picture Oscar, but it firmly has my support as one of the best this year so far, and I'm rooting for it to take home the statuette. It's a magical film with Destiny playing a huge part in changing the lives of underdogs, where hope and belief are made chic themes again.
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