Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No More Female Games

The Poster We May Never See Here

I had been looking forward to the next Kan Lume film at every Singapore International Film Festival edition ever since the writer-director burst onto the scene in 2006, with his Art of Flirting. In 2007, Solos got passed with 3 cuts for an R21 rating, and as part of SIFF's strict policy of screening uncut films in its entirety, the movie was withdrawn from the festival, but was allowed to compete in the Silver Screen Awards.

Then came Dreams From the Third World last year, which was a World Premiere screened in its entirety, rated M18. This year, I was anticipating Female Games, but the latest word from the SIFF was that since it was passed with cuts required, the film is now withdrawn from the festival.

I suppose SIFF will never budge from its stance of screening films as they are meant to be, and I respect that. However, the current system also eliminates any chance of our own homegrown indie filmmakers having their more daring features screened, especially when they try to push certain boundaries and cut against the well-established commercial grain. A local film making a World Premiere in the premier film festival of Singapore, doesn't get any love I suppose, even if it's scheduled to be screened at The Substation Theatre with a seating capacity of about 80 persons (for a more comfortable ambience), we're still afraid of massive corruption of the morals of these 80 poor folks.

Is a Festival Rating then the solution, which of course would be at least an R21? I have no idea, but concessions had been made before for films to be screened uncut or despite a prevailing ban, such as Saint Jack back in 1997 in the festival's 10th edition.

Oh well, I guess unless some appeal is currently made to have some concessions granted, this is all we're gonna get to see of Kan Lume's Female Games... for now.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Climber's High (Kuraimâzu Hai / クライマーズ・ハイ)

No I Did Not Order a Pizza

The title's misleading enough to signal thoughts of mountain climbing to figure in this film. Yes it does a bit, but probably came across stronger as an analogy running alongside the main crux of the story, that being set against the historical backdrop and event of Japan's, and the world's worst single-aircraft aviation disaster where more than 500 passengers perished from JAL flight 123 that crashed into a mountainside.

If I could but name another film that bears similar themes and share the same setting, that will be Ron Howard's The Paper, which I had enjoyed tremendously, so there's a tinge of biasness here when I learnt that a bustling newsroom would be where the action will primarily take place. Here, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi (last seen as the genius mathematics professor in Suspect X) plays Yuuki, a journalist assigned to take over the JAL desk to organize and head the fact finding operation to fuel headlines for the local paper Kitakanto Shimbun.

Things of course are never smooth sailing, and I suppose those working in a newsroom will be able to attest to similar happenings on a day in day out basis, amplified when there's a major man made or natural disaster to deal with and report on. And I can identify with his having to junk readymade plans when emergencies occur, and for him it's the postponement of a climb with good friend Anzai (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who also provides a separate thread about doing what you enjoy, and an emotional, personal issue for Yuuki to grapple with, other than that of his non-existent relationship with an estranged son whom he has not met for years.

When the film moves on full throttle, it doesn't leave you much room to take a breather except during the flash-forward scenes, which parallels the mood that Yuuki goes through during a current climb of The Partition. But as mentioned, the newsroom is where the thick of the action is, where we witness how Kiki has to navigate and do battle with jealous and envious rivals from within, keeping his faith and fighting for his staff's recognition of the hard work and long hours put in, battling unscrupulous, selfish editors who only relish in getting in his way, tussling with the upper echelons of management and those at the lower end of the supply chain responsible for circulation and distribution, and just about every office political situation you can think of, it's here.

Just like how a climber attempts to scale a mountain with confidence, belief, and support, tackling the reporting of this momentous situation calls on Yuuki's utilization of his smarts, making the best of the team he has on his side to deliver what's best. Climber's high runs parallel to that of his journalistic instincts, where he's after the scoop after being scooped upon, and how it's like fighting unexpected elements all round. The mantra of being prepared rings right through here, and this film has plenty of everyting thrown around and about, that your attention gets delightfully scattered just as if you were put right into the thick of the action yourself. The cinematography helps too, weaving you in and out of the press room as you follow the action being offered a first person view.

If there's a complaint, it would be a minor one involving the flitting of timelines to and from the present, but that's thankfully at the beginning, before it gets firmly rooted in the past, recounting the events following that aviation disaster. That I suppose is the purpose basing it on the book by Hideo Yokohama, who was a real journalist at the time at the Jomo Shimbun. As it's in the 80s, you can't help but feel a little nostalgic, not only at the fashion, but at the things we take for granted today's communications technology, compared to just some 20 years ago without the prevalence of computers, mobile phones and all associated technology feeding off the ubiquitous Internet.

The Climbers High is an fantastic film with an equally excellent cast who don't draw too much attention to themselves, nor are self-conscious in delivering a hydra of a storyline which just feeds off the buzz in a press room setting, allowing us a glimpse of how events of such magnitude get handled, and also how relationships get forged or reforged in trying times. Highly recommended, and this goes into my shortlist too as a contender for top films of the year!

Aa Dekhen Zara

Where's Ghajini?

Jumping from great heights and into a swimming pool is firmly a cliche in my books. Hollywood overuses it, and I see that influence has crossed borders as well. Need an escape when your character is cornered? Well, leaping off a building automatically means a body of water deep enough to cushion impact down below. There's nothing more lazy than that nowadays, so thumbs down to any story that offers this quick fix, like a "Goto" statement in a program, rather than opting for a more elegant programming structure.

It's a little bit surprising that Aa Dekhen Zara clocks in less than 120 minutes, with intermission. Not that all Bollywood movies are supposed to be at least 150 minutes long of course, but you can feel that director Jehangir Surti has not grasped the need to tell more in less time, and as such the characters suffer in being nothing more than cardboard caricatures. Sub plots tangent off one another that they felt half-baked, and were introduced for the sake of, rather than for a purpose and a need. Not that it was narratively bad, but the story suffered from the lack of time.

And time plays a key role in this science fictioner. Neil Nitin Mukesh plays Ray Acharya, a freelance photographer with mounting debt and no assignments. His grandfather is a great scientist, and when he passed away, Ray inherits an old camera which turns out to be more than meets the eye. Of course I'm not going to reveal what it does here, which the movie does in a montage one step being behind the audience who would already have figured out by then, but suffice to say that with great power comes great responsibility, and big trouble as well, as a given.

For what it's worth, it delves into the greed of man. With power comes the ability to satisfy the lust after money. You can bet your last dollar that everyone when thrusted with a new power, will try to see if it can be monetized. And if it can, then you're likely to milk it for its worth. And when it comes to money, it's typically all men for themselves, with everyone wanting a piece of the pie, stopping at nothing to try and get at it. If it's a golden goose that lays golden eggs, then there will be neighbours eyeing that fowl of yours. Villains though are extremely one dimension. Having the story shifted to Thailand in the later half of the film, there seemed to be no qualms in highlighting the corruption of the police as either informers, or greedy bastards, that seem to plague both countries.

Bipasha Basu delivers more spunk than the male lead Neil Nitin Mukesh here, and it's no surprise since the veteran has more mileage in action flicks under her belt. Her role as a DJ turned aspiring singer here I felt was little more than to allow the usual song-and-dance routine to come up. While that set in a club was natural, there was one awfully artifical routine in Thailand where Ray and Bipasha's Simi escape into an outlaw bar, and are forced to sing and dance for the Thai men just because they're expected to. Neil and Bipasha also looked very awkward with each other, sharing really no chemistry as lovebirds, but rather clicked when they're supposed to be estranged.

It has a potentially interesting premise and plot device set up, but alas the story's yet another bland action flick with little suspense as you're likely to stay one step ahead each time. If only it had a better story, but perhaps that was left to a sequel (which Aa Dekhen Zara lead into) which will probably not be made since this film would have tanked that prospect.

Friday, March 27, 2009


It's The Famed Compactus!

You really gotta take yours hats off to the writers of Fanboys, because while one might think it's easy to have the majority of the lines here adapted from some memorable one-liners from various of fan-supported films, contrary by the time you sit through this, you would have gathered new found respect in having to string it all and having them make some sense, though some may have felt a little forced (pardon the pun).

Set in 1999 some 3 months before the release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Fanboys has relative unknowns Sam Huntington (who snagged the role of Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns), Chris Marquette (who looks like Paul Rudd), Jay Baruchel (one of those guys in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Tropic Thunder and Knocked Up) and Dan Fogler (Good Luck Chuck, and the lead in Balls of Fury) play a group of buddies who decide to take a road trip from Ohio to the George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, in order to sneak a peek at the first prequel Star Wars film. The initial few minutes sets up their background, suffice to know that they are some really nerdy geeks who live and breathe everything that Lucas created, and save for one, don't really hold a day job. One's living in his mom's garage, while another runs a comic book store and spends his time interacting with the opposite sex online and oblivious to the hints dropped by store worker Zoe (Kristen Bell, who was in Pulse and as Sarah Marshall herself in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, only now in dark hair). You know the (tired) drill.

Things only pick up when the chaps hit the road, and like a typical road movie, it's episodic, with almost everything already seen in the trailer. Each episode allows some geek trivia to be loaded on screen, be it lines of dialogue, a cameo by a celebrity (William Shatner, Billy Dee Williams, Ray Parks and so on...), coupled with the insane arguments within the passionate members of the group as they debate live and death issues like the incestuous relationship between the Skywalker siblings, and to every Star Wars fan who are not Trekkers, the intense rivalry between the two, who in my opinion represent as rabid a fan can get in their allegiance to possibly two of the largest make believe worlds.

Unfortunately there are few moments of genuine laughter, and you'll be left quite unsure if you're laughing at the jokes, or at the very lame delivery of the punchline. Suffice to say that the trailer gave away most of the best bits, and there's a slew of the expected twists and turns coming up that would already have been hinted at. I'm not sure how Harry Knowles got himself a short stint at this gig, but again, most guys here are either playing themselves, or show some flashes of flamboyance from their legendary on-screen characters. For example, since there was much talk about Leia kissing Luke, you'd half expect somewhere for Carrie Fisher to pop up playing another character, and locking lips with someone.

This film is made for the fanboy in you, or for those who are itching for a challenge in identifying any fan moment or reference, to determine who amongst a group is the bigger geek. Otherwise, there are plenty of situations that'll just fly by your radar, with some folks getting it and guffawing away, and others sitting and staring blankly at the screen. If pop culture is beyond you, then skip this. Otherwise the only kick you'll get is from the trivia pursuit game you'll automatically play.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Buy Buy Buy

Welcome to the Isla Fisher show, where despite her diminutive size she holds court throughout and I thought she's finally getting the recognition she deserves in being able to marquee a film herself. One cannot forget how she burst onto the scene in Wedding Crashers as the psychotic stalker after Vince Vaughn, and from there some other bit parts like those in Wedding Daze, and one of my favourites from last year, Definitely, Maybe. She has this indescribable aura, that goofy grin, and that incredible perfect timing for physical comedy, without looking stupid.

One can easily dismiss Confessions of a Shopaholic as just another chick flick, and its premise is nothing not already attempted by the East (in the film The Shopaholics starring Cecilia Cheung before her fall from grace), even though this film is based on a best selling novels by Sophie Kinsella. It's an interesting illness that Rebecca Bloomwood (Fisher) suffers from, where she lives a Jackyl and Hyde lifestyle, having fashion labels as close friends whom she addresses intimately by first names, and owns plenty of clothes, shoes, and enough accessories that can fill her entire room. Her Hyde hears mannequins at shop windows call out to her, and interaction with animated objects is just part of her everyday life. Hyde too comes with a magic (credit) card that grants instant happiness delivered as soon as a magnetic swipe at the cashier's.

But her Dr Jackyl is what makes the film a draw actually, because in times like this of economic hardship, it just hits home the fact that quick credit is the path to the shambles that many would readily share their experience. Joining a financial magazine as a stepping stone toward her real objective in writing for a fashion mag in the same umbrella of publishers, Rebecca soon finds herself making the best use of her opportunity in combining her zilch knowledge in finance with the pizazz and flair she has for fashion, and writes under the moniker of The Girl In The Green Scarf, dispensing some real life financial advice that even a layman (or woman) would understand and make sense of.

Which of course is complete irony for Rebecca, as she doesn't practice what she preaches. As we know from the onset she's someone who can't balance her financials, and is already deep in debt no thanks to her impulses to buy. The ditzy klutz teaching everyone how to live a financially responsible life, and slowly realizing her influence and clout amongst her readers, winning new fans from the woman on the streets to the suits in boardrooms. But what's a movie without an adversary? So we have a stereotypical bean counter in Derek Smeath (Robert Stanton), complete with slicked back hair, ugly glasses and a dogged attitude of a debt collector. This provides avenue for a number of laughs, besides those in the self-help therapy group, or cat fights amongst those looking for cheap bargains. Yes, there are the inevitable cliches, unfortunately.

Besides Fisher's charismatic turn, she's surrounded by a supporting cast whom you can broadly categorize under the great lookers, and those with gravitas. Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy) as Rebecca's object for affection (other than fashion labels) and Alicia (Leslie Bibb) as a long legged rival belong to the former, not very interesting other than being eye candy, while the powerhouses of Kristin Scott Thomas and John Goodman bring some extra oomph in their roles as a French woman who's also the magazine editor of "Alette" (really hamming it up) and Rebecca's dad respectively, in addition to others like Joan Cusack and John Lithgow. The soundtrack provided extra lift too, with some of the latest pop acts contributing bubble gum tracks that will leave you tapping your feet to.

Confessions of a Shopaholic treads a fine balance between fluffy entertainment and a film with a strong message of what really matters in a materialistic world like ours. Friends and family come first, in addition to an everyday careful examination of needs versus wants. Sure there's no need to watch the film, but you know you just want to. Enjoy this rom-com, and girls will find the numerous outfits here a thrill to drool over. At least those in my screening did!

The Unborn

I See Demonic Kids

Written and directed by David S. Goyer, who is still in his infancy in being at the helm of feature films, but no stranger to writing screenplays from the horror genre to the reboot of the Batman franchise, you would have thought that he might have steered clear of the usual cliches that plague a horror film. Imagine that the following all made it to his film The Unborn - mirrors, demonic kids, setting in toilets, insects, darkened corridors, dogs, haunting nightmares, and of course, a pretty woman in the lead.

If you'd think Odette Yustman is such a familiar face, then perhaps you would remember that this pretty face had the power to influence a guy and his friends to trek halfway across a city to save her from a leaning skyscraper, while a monster rampages New York City in Cloverfield. Such is her influence, and here, she's Casey Beldon, a teenager whose mom had inexplicably hung herself, and her dad being conveniently out of town the entire time she's in distress. Her influence? Being able to arrest everyone's attention in having the assets to prance around in undies (camel toe alert!), and convincing that she's not a nutcase imagining things, to have a rabbi (Gary Oldman, what a surprise actually) help her perform an exorcism on herself. She's the new Helen of Troy.

Not slamming Goyer's story for the sake of doing so, as he actually had quite an interesting tale involving some bits of history, the phenomenon of twins, the kabbalah thrown together in a nice mish-mash. If a horror film needed a reason for you to anchor your disbelief to in order to enjoy some illogical moments of scare, then Goyer had a wealth of subplots and rationale going on. Unfortunately, the pacing was a bit strange as the middle portion really sagged and got bogged down by uninteresting, supporting characters such as Meagon Good as Casey's BFF Romy and a fair weathered boyfriend (well, more like forgotten for the most parts) Mark Hardigan (Cam Gigandet from Twilight).

I suspect that there probably was some unceremonious tinkering to the story, or in having some sections rearranged during post, which accounts for the rather choppy narrative. Some parts didn't gel too well, and stuck out like a sore thumb when you feel that it's chronologically messy. There were very little scary moments, to my surprise, though I had to admit there were some "instant" scare moments that genuinely made me (ahem, and the audience) jump at our seats. Credit too has to be given to the make up team, and the special effects crew for rigging some really insane visuals, though the spidery walking scene with heads upside down reminded me of The Exorcist.

And if homage is Goyer's idea here, then there were additional attempts, and the one which made me burst our laughing, was the mention that holy books and instructional manuals on shooing the devil away, are only effective if the users truly have immense faith and belief in this sort of things. Fright Night was the film that said something similar to the effect that it stuck on me, and hearing something along the same lines just cracked me up.

But a comedy this is not, just that it's quite economical in the way this is shot, relying on the usual build ups and the cliche springing of surprises when you (least) expected them to. If only the finale didn't degenerate into an all out, free for all action fest given the keen anticipation it had built up, nor if it had resembled Fallen too in a way of how the ghouls here are capable of travelling, this would probably have been a more than above average flick.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

[DVD] For All Mankind (1989)

Yes, it's strangely surprising that the next DVD I would pop in the player would be NASA related as well. The previous was mission specific, looking back at the Apollo 13 mission, but this documentary by Al Reinert consists of many first hand account as well as rarely seen footage caught by various moon-bound astronauts over the series of successful Apollo missions.

And it isn't really surprising that the astronauts all have a film camera with them when they blasted off into space. After all, who better than to record some never seen before visuals, either en route to the way up to outer space, or to the lucky few who got to land on the moon, the view from out there looking back on Earth. They become filmmakers in documenting their lives too living inside a cramped space craft, to bring to us some National Geographic moments of the lunar surface, and plenty of picturesque shots of our planet.

Covering the viewpoints of multiple astronauts, most have confessed that it's easy to get distracted by the view from up there. You get to listen to their thought process, and plenty of unseen footage of the surface that while on one hand fascinating, on the other it may be a bit monotonous because frankly, there's nothing up there except miles and miles of rock and dust. You can tell the enthusiasm of all the astronauts as they frolic around in tumbles and falls, thrilled by the 1/6 gravitational pull, with the nagging fear that should they spring a leak in that suit because of a sharp edge, it'll mean instant goodbyes. If you'd think it's all grim and serious there, then this documentary would change your mind.

The Region Free DVD by Criterion is presented in 4x3 Full Screen format and comes with Dolby Digital 5.1 English. Subtitles are available, and there's another option for the subtitles to feature instead the labels to identify all the space crew so that you know who's who. Scene selection is available over 19 chapters, and as per all Criterion Collection DVDs, this one-disc edition comes with a chock-load of wonderful extras.

First up, the Commentary by filmmaker Al Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the moon, and can be listened in through 19 chapters as well. There's a wealth of information dispensed from Cernan being the man who has been there and done that, and he shares plenty, so much so that he doesn't exactly just talk about what's happening on screen, which most commentaries will lapse into. For Reinert, he shares from the filmmaking aspect, and it's quite a tedious task of sieving through some 6000 hours worth of footage within NASA's archives for footage befitting a 90 minute film.

Astronaut Identification is subtitle-related, as mentioned, and by turning this on, the subtitles will come on to identify astronauts and mission control specialists in the film. The usual closed captioning and subtitles are turned on separately though, so you can't use one with the other concurrently. Paintings From The Moon features some 24 beautiful paintings by Astronaut Alan L. Bean, who was the 4th man to walk on the moon, and comes complete with an audio annotation by Bean, who turned to painting full time after retirement from NASA. The audio annotation is rich in content and filled with plenty of personal anecdotes, and should definitely be given a listen to.

NASA Audio Highlights contains some 21 audio clips from the Freedom, Friendship, Gemini and the Apollo missions, including many legendary Apollo 11 moments such as The Eagle and that Neil Armstrong's statement about the small step and giant leap for mankind, and that from Apollo 13. 3...2...1... Blast Off! features 5 launch footage for all the rocket boosters (to see the progression made until the Saturn V rockets) in project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Missions. Lastly, this extra - Color Bars is curiously added for color adjustments for your television screens. Nothing much here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

12 Rounds

For Love

Renny Harlin has been relatively quiet these days, but I won't be shy in stating for a fact that I had enjoyed some of his action movies in the past, with the likes of Die Hard 2 (despite all the loopholes), Cliffhanger with Stallone, Driven (also starring Sly) and The Long Kiss Goodnight even. Despite being better known for duds starting with Cutthroat Island, Mindhunters and even The Covenant which turned out to be a comedy, 12 Rounds turned out to be better than expected, also because John Cena looked the classic action hero that Hollywood so sorely misses.

No, I'm not a WWE John Cena wrestling fan, because my interest in WWE was left back when it was known as WWF, and like The Rock (now wanting to be known simply as Dwayne Johnson), Cena follows in his footsteps in making that leap to the big screen. While his first outing as The Marine was pretty much straight to DVD fare, this one was designed for the big screen with its big set action pieces befittingly challenging the big man, and having an old hand of action at the helm helped to bring out some enjoyable moments despite cliches abound.

As the trailer would already have suggested, Danny Fisher (Cena) is a beat cop who gets in the way of a heist by international arms trader Miles Jackson (Aiden Gillen who was just a mile wide of being a memorable psychopathic villain), and in his pursuit causes the latter's main squeeze to die in a traffic accident. Ridden with rage, Miles remembers his pursuer so that he can exact revenge when he breaks out of prison. Only that he harbours some diabolical plot to play with his prey, hence the kidnapping of Danny's girlfriend Molly (Ashley Scott) and the devising of 12 rounds of city-wide games with the overcoming of each round leading Danny closer to his girl.

So begins a running around New Orleans to perform the usual one-man cop stunts that calls for everything from intellect to brute force. It could easily fit into the Die Hard franchise, or Speed for that matter as one sequence in a bus would have me reminisce. In shows like these, things do get a tad convenient, and though I tried to examine just a little bit more into it, the plot still made some sense and held some water. In some moments it seemed like it's paying its own tribute to the emergency services of New Orleans post-Katrina, with the police, fire and medical departments featured prominently as occupations of choice of its characters.

12 Rounds is rip-roaring fun. As an action film, it has enough thrills and spills if you'd just park aside believability for a minute, and bask in the possibility of one man saving the world only because it got personal stakes involved, coming complete with obnoxious FBI agents who think they know the world. Sprinkled with some light touches of humour, the body count here is surprisingly low, which in some way gave a breathe of fresh air instead of subscribing to the mantra that the more gruesome or gritty, the better.

But if there are qualms, it's directed more at the technical areas, like the lapsing into the shaky cam, where I had thought to roll my eyes and exclaim that Renny should have bought a bloody tripod for his DOP. Also, the editing probably needed to rethink his quick cuts in the final action sequence in closed quarters, as well as some cheesy lines where it's not warranted (I swear if I hear one more "wrong place, wrong time" comment...)

However if you go at this with expectations set low, you might just come out with a grin at the end of it. I'll be anticipating more John Cena movies to come, and will probably go dig at his older film as well, but here's hoping that he doesn't go the way that most action stars do - easy come and easy go - that he gets some longevity at the box office, before being unceremoniously pushed aside (if it does happen, like Seagal's career) to the straight to video shelves.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Crisis of Credit Visualized

We're all staring down the face of a recession and signs aren't looking too good toward a quick recovery. News of lay offs, and incredible, unjustifiable bonuses just infuriates everyone. So how did we end up in this mess in the first place?

While this is mainly something US-centric, I guess it paints a fairly easy to understand picture of just what the heck has happened when fundamentals go wrong and we get seduced by Greed. The Crisis of Credit Visualized by Jonathan Jarvis is an interesting visual medium presented to show us layman how everything is intertwined, and take stock. As the website says,
The goal of giving form to a complex situation like the credit crisis is to quickly supply the essence of the situation to those unfamiliar and uninitiated.

You can view the video on the Official Website here, or through YouTube here (which is split into 2 parts):

Part 1

Part 2

It's visually very impressive, to say the least. and it fulfilled its objectives well! You can even get a T-Shirt too!

Writing, direction, animation & sound by Jonathan Jarvis
Narration by John Levoff
Music by Brandon Au - a.k.a - DJ Skwint

Sunday, March 22, 2009

[DVD] Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back (1994)

If you're game to revisit the Apollo 13 mission and want to do away with the dramatics of the Ron Howard version, then perhaps this documentary would be what you're looking for. It doesn't come with a lot of bells and whistles, relying instead on plenty of stock footage and CG graphics to enhance the narrative in explaining what the astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert had to go through when they're seemingly trouble-free mission turned out to be something quite unexpected, relying on the smarts of everyone from the lunar capsule right down to mission control to pull them out of their predicament.

It doesn't just focus on the mission itself, but at appropriate times branches off to provide the viewer with a more holistic view of the entire 60s space race between the USA and USSR, with the latter gaining plenty of one-ups against their rival, until unexpected tragedies forced a quiet shutdown of their lunar program, with JFK pushing the lunar objective through to NASA. We also get to see some of the failed attempts of the USA's with their rockets going anywhere but skywards, and you wonder just how massive each space program was in trying to get mankind lifted off from Earth.

It doesn't get any better than this with the real life astronauts and mission control crew providing first hand account of that mission which some of the superstitious had a field day with, given the 13th mission of the Apollo program, which blasted off on the 13th of April, at the time of 1313 hrs. That aside, the documentary by Noel Buckner and Rob Whittlesey is presented quite matter-of-factly with talking head interviews with the Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and many more from ground control, including their rival Cosmonauts where you realize that on an individual level, it's about the triumph of man over which country being able to get bragging rights. On a National level, yes it boils down to being ahead, but for those involved and on the ground, whatever progress has been made, is a triumph in itself, and every tragedy reverberating through the space community.

And yes, that infamous duct tape solution also gets mentioned here, although not in more details that I would have preferred, including any post incident investigation into what exactly had gone wrong. So if your preference is more for the dramatic flair provided by actors, then you just might want to stick to the Ron Howard version. Otherwise for a very succinct overview of the challenges faced in the mission, then this documentary account would be right up your alley.

The Region Free DVD by WGBH Boston Video comes presented in 4x3 Full Screen format, as it's made for television, and don't expect stock footage to be in pristine condition. Close captioning is provided in English, and scene selection is available over 8 chapters. No other extras included.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gran Torino

This Is For Your Lawn

You know Clint Eastwood means business when he stares down at you with those steely eyes, and his rumbling, booming voice tells you to either make his day, or to get off his lawn. Either way, only a fool would want to stand his ground, with anyone else preferring to back off and never cross the man again. Having a weapon pointed straight at you adds to needless convincing too.

It's a somewhat different role of Clint's that I've seen, not that I've seen all. Here he takes on both directorial duties as well as the lead role, where he plays an unsavoury character, a very angry, racist man who doesn't mince his words to tell you in your face just what he thinks of you. And pepper that with plenty of personal insults laced with fluent vulgarities while at it. Words like gook, spook and unflattering nicknames come flying, and he gets away with it because he's an old man, and second, that weapon he always packs nearby.

A Korean War veteran, the film opens with the funeral of the wife of Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), and we learn that he doesn't get along with his sons and their family, and just about everyone else besides his dog Daisy. He finds the persistent young priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) a real pest, and his Asian neighbours nothing but noisy trouble. His twilight years is spend fixing things given an impressive tool house, where his prized possession of a 1972 Gran Torino is kept in. A gang initiation heist of his vehicle goes wrong, and he strikes up a father-son relationship with neighbour Thao (Bee Vang) and his sister Sue (Ahney Her).

It's a great character study of how a man can change, given that, and I think I've overused this phrase, this is a world without strangers, only friends we never met. While he begins as a very hardened man, Walt's relationship with the Hmong community slowly softens him up to accept differences, despite having started off on the wrong footing. And while he harbours some deep resentment, hatred, and pain that he locks away, the two Hmong children become the children that he never had, given his estranged relationship with his sons (not that they are angels to begin with), with new found respect from Thao and Sue because they find that he's their cool guardian, and so does everyone within the neighbourhood who showers him with gifts after a valiant and successful attempt in fending off the black sheep of their community.

Gran Torino has classic Clint Eastwood direction – assured and very economical in movement and technique, never showy but packs a punch whenever it needed to wear its emotions on its sleeve. It's really tough not to laugh along at the banter of barbed insults traded, and all conversation between Walt and his barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch) will test anyone without a sense of humour to chuckle at how only such statements made could be done so between buddies, as Thao learns the hard, but hilarious way. It's not a comedy of course, because trust Eastwood to sucker punch you when you least expected it to, and I absolutely love how he manages to lead you on with hope everytime you feel the notion that things have past beyond the point of no return, and shake things up a little just as you get too comfortable.

It's somewhat a pity that this is possibly the last movie that Clint Eastwood would star in, preferring I guess to being behind the camera rather than in front of it. If Gran Torino is anything to go by, I still feel he has some legs to go on doing both. He never ceases to amaze me at the boundless energy he has to continually craft some critically acclaimed movies, and Gran Torino firmly stands tall in his filmography. Definitely highly recommended, and goes into my books as one of the contenders for my list of favourite films published at the end of the year.

[Celebrate Local Feature Films] Chicken Rice War (Ji Yuan Qiao He)

Go Local!

Long before the Carrot Cake Conversations, which borrowed its title from one of the local culinary favourites here, there's the Chicken Rice War made by CheeK (or Cheah Chee Kong) which was a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet given a local spin, with yet another can't-miss food that provides the background for a family feud, what with secret ingredients, and side-by-side food stalls in competition, one Famous Wong's Chicken Rice (The Montagues), and the other Only Chan's Chicken Rice (The Capulets).

Actually, it's not a far fetched idea having 2 stalls coexisting in the same hawker center in close proximity, as there was one (or maybe still there) at my interchange, where both sides employ their own minders to try and pull business to their stalls, where any passers-by will inadvertently be asked if Chicken Rice is their meal of choice. Things are a little civil of course, compared to the full blown verbal barbs and physical violence, with plenty of colourful vulgarities thrown in for comedic effect here in the film. In fact, my favourite scenes involve the brawl between the Wongs and the Chans, as they trade insults in dialects, which degenerate from hilarious touting to vulgarities flying.

So the stage is set with each side being on the warpath, and their offspring fated to fall in love with each other. Only that CheeK planned on his Shakespeare within a Shakespeare to be rather different. Yes it's a story about the star-crossed lovers Fenson Wong (Pierre Png) and Audrey Chan (Lum May Yee), but also about them having to star in a faculty play in an experimental punk rock version of Romeo and Juliet, where Audrey is in the lead role, and her boyfriend Nick Carter (Randall Tan) being the stud who can't deliver his lines, only to be unceremoniously replaced by Fenson the stuttering nerd/geek, much to Audrey's disdain.

CheeK had probably distilled some observations of the Singapore Girl here in crafting a Juliet that's materialistic from the onset. And that actually paints the heroine in a very bad light (i.e. a super bitch). In one fall swoop, we get to see that she prefers Leonardo DiCaprio-wannabes (such as Orked's best friend in Malaysian movie Sepet, something about the Caucasians having it easy should they be in this part of the world), likes to party hard, play childish mind games, and best of all, is totally materialistic through and through. For the infatuated Romeo to start wooing his lady love, he has to break the bank and get her Tiffany diamonds first, before getting some attention showered in which he maximizes with his language skills courtesy of Shakespeare.

Alas the falling in love bits in the film, which is supposed to be central to the story you might think, was nothing more than a very flimsy portion of the entire narrative. Sure you know that they will, but it was a little bit abrupt, and what's with that cheesy sounding song each time they eat each other's mouth (yeah, that's how each kiss between Fenson and Audrey actually looked like). Not to discredit them both, but while they look the perfect couple on screen, they're very much upstaged by the other characters easily each time they come on screen, such as Catherine Sng's Wong Ku (The Fat Woman), Gary Yuen's Vincent Chan the Chan patriarch, Kelvin Ng's Sydney Wong the brother of Fenson, and Teh Su Ching's Penelope Chan the highly sex-charged teenage sister of Audrey. Cheong Wui Seng and Irene Ong rounds up the family members of Wong Terr and Wendy Chan, spouses of Wong Ku and Vincent respectively.

So while this is actually not much of a love story, there's still a lot going on in the film that kept it interesting at almost every turn in large part thanks to the supporting characters pulling their weight in delivering the crazy scenes crafted by CheeK. Like most early Singapore comedies, the authorities are almost always not left spared in being lampooned to look stupid and to speak improperly. Some other unavoidable cliches are how homo-erotic undertones are not too subtly presented, and some rather convenient plot development involving sidekick wannabes. The somewhat childish antics between the feuding families worked wonders in delivering the laughs, as do the translations that fly on screen to translate local colloquialism from vulgarities to meanings of Chinese horoscope which describe succinctly the characters they represent.

There were a number of moments where the 4th barrier was broken in part due to the semi-documentary/news fashion that Chicken Rice War adopted, no doubt allowing the Muppets-like old men in Muthiah (Mohan Sachden) and Ahmad (Alias Kadir) to muscle in with their commentary. But the real star of the show I feel, is the hilarious hamming it up by Jonathan Lim as the sleazy go-go dancing, chicken supplier Hugo A Go Goh, in a role that has to be seen to be believed. If I could but name one character in the spate of Singapore movies that personifies all that is zany, then this character is it, besting even all those created in Talking Cock the Movie.

Watching this now, I felt it was probably a little ahead for its time, but managed to pull it off given some creativity in production. You could tell when innovation was used in telling a story with little money, with costumes and off-focused shots being employed to mask details. The humour here would set the stage for many relatively newer local films today to employ, and so is the predominant use of dialects too (Cantonese) that would be the staple in many local films that make a dent in the box office, as are some cunning social observations fused into the narrative like how wealthy hawker centre operators can be, with a Mercedes being their vehicle of choice. Food too gets prominent screen time in what would also be a staple in local films.

Without a doubt, Chicken Rice War comes recommended, not that it's a perfect film, but it's one that is unfortunately seldom seen, and deserves a lot more credit than the initial flak that it received. For starters, it has shown that we've come a long way, and in some ways (to the detriment of the current state of affairs), this still comes through as a more entertaining production than some of those produced today.


Celebrate Local Feature Films is part of the Media Fiesta 2009, and Cathay will be showing the following films from 19-22 March - 12 Storeys, Be With Me, Invisible City, Eating Air, Chicken Rice War, 881, Singapore Dreaming and Cages.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Hi We're The Good, Bland Couple

Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Thomas Jane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rosario Dawson. Not too bad a cast put together in an ensemble about a couple who bears witness to some killers who in turn want them taken out. Sounds like a plot for a solid good old-fashioned thriller right? Unfortunately director John Madden's pedigree didn't allow for anything that's slightly above average, with a plot that's riddled with bullet holes and delivering cliches through and through.

The saving grace here would be the dynamics between Rourke and Gordon-Levitt in some kind of master-apprentice relationship, with the former being a veteran killer training the latter's small time crook on how to operate ruthlessly in the big league. Even then, Gordon-Levitt's loud-mouthed character almost always chews up the scene each time he comes on, outshining even the comback kid Rourke in the scenes they share. If anything, his performance here is what would define Killshot.

As for the victimized coupled played by Diane Lane and Thomas Jane, they share nothing more than frustration as they play an estranged couple who are quite indecisive in wondering if they should stay together, or break up for good. On one hand she runs to him each time there's danger abound, yet pushing him away when he responds. Jane's character on the other hand is extremely whiny and needy, so no guesses that his role is none other than a supporting one, but still better than Rosario Dawson's flower vase character in this probably just to pay the bills.

Still, as mentioned this is slightly above average fare, so don't be expecting any edge-of-your-seat moments as everything is quite straightforward and potential surprises in build ups were let out of the bag very early on.

You can read my review of Killshot at movieXclusive.com by clicking on the logo below.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

This Calls For The Inverted Helicopter Kick!

I was a late starter to the Street Fighter video game, having pick it up only during the army days where our platoon was LOBO (left out of battle order) and just mulling around waiting for things to happen. So there was this holding area that turned out to be our place of refuge, and stationed there was a coin operated Street Fighter II arcade game. My character of choice were surprisingly M.Bison, E.Honda and Blanka, just so because they were easy to use, and execute those special moves compared to the fan favorites of Ryu, Ken or even Guile, no thanks to a very well used joystick.

For those of you too young to remember, some 15 years ago Jean-Claude Van Damme fronted a team of actors such as Ming-Na Wen and Kylie Minogue even, as Guile, Chun Li and Cammy respectively, up against the evil few led by the late Raul Julia's M.Bison. The movie undoubtedly boasted plenty of characters from the game (almost all of them I think) but was nothing more than a box office disaster like most other Hollywood adaptations of all things Japanese from comics to games. That effectively torpedoed further thoughts of filming the Capcom franchise, until now.

Made in collaboration with Capcom, I think someone probably thought enough time had past and the past stinker forgotten, and to follow suit in a franchise milking programme like what Marvel and DC had embarked upon, a reboot is in order and the current buzzword. So just like how the characters in Street Fighter hail from all over the world, the production too has input from everywhere, like actors in the West and in the East, being filmed in Thailand and having Indian producing input as well. It's like a melting pot of cultures collaborating in breathing life into a possible franchise should this film prove to be successful. But chances are I suspect it'll at most hit the direct to DVD route after this.

It's a little surprising that the filmmakers opted for Chun Li instead of the signature character of Ryu. Maybe they have faith in Kristin Kreuk, better known for her Lana Lang role in Smallville, to pull in the fanboys, or once fanboys, of the video game. But as it turns out, while she may be a looker, and her personal grounding in gymnastics and martial arts do help, she's ultimately let down by a weak plot (ok, so that's expected) and some very weak supporting characters. On the side of the good, you have Cheng Pei Pei in a one scene cameo, who does nothing but to tell her to go to Bangkok and live like a pauper, useless cops with Chris Klein as an Interpol cop Charlie Nash who's basically cardboard and Moon Bloodgood (love that name) as a Thai policewoman Maya who just preens and purrs, and Robin Shou as Gen, a mystical David-Carradine-Kung-Fu knock off with long grey hair.

As if the villains were good enough, being nothing but bland and uninteresting. I thought it was a good spin on things to have Neal McDonough's Bison being a corporate raider with his Shadaloo organization, aided by lesbian femme fatale Cantana (Hong Kong's Josie Ho), a very underused Vega (Black Eyed Peas' Taboo) and Michael Clarke Duncan's Balrog, who's more like a relegated Kingpin of Crime from Daredevil, now playing sidekick. Like Robin Shou, who also once had leading role status, I feel that this film was like a collection of would be has-beens waiting for another chance at the big league.

If there's any cause for celebration, then it might be Edmund Chen's role as Chun Li's dad Heung. From Ivan Heng to Adrian Pang to Fann Wong and to the coup of seeing Chin Han having possibly the role of his life in The Dark Knight, Edmund Chen looks set to follow in the latter's footsteps, but only up until some stuntmen unceremoniously took over almost all his fighting scenes, even those that require him to perform some non-life threatening qi-gong stances. The body double is really too obvious and one can tell it isn't him at all. So shave off some 50% of his "appearance" from the film.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li is a straight forward film without much depth in its story, and it's relatively lower production budget translates to many of the jazzy special prowess in the game being considerably toned down. Perhaps director Andrzej Bartkowiak's intention was to have it more rooted to reality, but therein lies the danger see, because this film has tremendous parallels with that of another super-powered movie called Elektra. Both have recognizable female actresses in the lead role, and they share a plot involving secret organizations, mystical healing, an experienced teacher to learn the ropes from, and plenty of hokey martial arts. Even the training sequence looks super summarized, uninspiring and filled with unremarkable, cliched dialogue.

Having said that it was more rooted in reality, that doesn't mean there weren't fun opportunities for some game-like signature moments. I had enjoyed how Bison power packs his punches and kicks, just like in the game but without any glowing-blue glove to visually enhance it (just throbbing sound effects). Chun Li doesn't appear in her iconic qipao, but makes up for it in one scene where she has to execute her Tenshokyaku, the spinning bird kick where she inverts herself and spins her legs like helicopter blades, and dons her hair "ox horns" style. Other than that, her costume's pretty much well suited for the heat and humidity of the Bangkok temperature, as well as the usual black ensemble made hip by X-Men.

It had tried to be more cerebral in crafting a father-daughter story between Chun Li and dad Heung, Chun Li and her master Gen, and that between M.Bison and her daughter Rose. But anything in depth has no place in the film as it opted to be more fleet-footed that even a three year old could follow. It's an origin story, and depending on which camp you're on, you may or may not agree with some of the tweaks made here to accommodate the film version of things. Despite being called "Street Fighter", the fights here are nothing too fantastic or memorable, and looks comfortably in place with many B-grade action movies out there, with the occasional lapsing into the crutch of having the fight scenes edited in double quick time.

I suppose the filmmakers had tried their best, but there's a lot of room to try harder and come up with a better product. The lead to the sequel involves a martial arts tournament, but please don't go down the same road as Mortal Kombat and the likes. Come up with a proper and stronger story, and perhaps, we could get a chance to see a franchise being developed, straight to the cinema or DVD market. I'm willing to give it a shot, even with or without Kristin Kreuk returning.

Monday, March 16, 2009

[3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest] Closing Film - The Alpha Diaries

2.5 (and now 2) years of active service during the prime of our lives, and 13 (now 10) cycles of reservist duty thereafter. Ask any male in Singapore about their national obligation and you're gonna get a myriad of colourful views, some of which of course are unprintable here. But as we're conditioned, National Service is a rite of passage, and frankly it's where great bonds are forged, where you live with, play with and work your butts off as a unit fulfilling some mission objectives.

It's an open secret that the pioneer batches of conscripts were trained by the Israeli army, and similar to our IPPT which is dumbed down from the US Marines standard, so too is the duration of service as compared to the IDF, where at aged 18 they become soldiers for 3 years, before serving 20 years of reservist where they're called back for 30 days each time. That's double of what we're obligated to serve, barring those holding officer ranks and appointments. I guess the environment they operate in is vastly different from Singapore's, where here a two week high key stint sees us fighting "ghosts", while there it is as great a reality check can be, with real danger potentially lurking at every corner.

As with any conscript army, they face the same issues that we do, especially when we get notification of our call up, and literally bitch about it, until we report back, see our buddies, reminisce the good old days, and work together to perform whatever's necessary in order to go back to our loved ones, and on with our lives. And having a group of men banded together spells nothing but comedy when we let loose in base camps, and I can attest to some of the shenanigans shown in this documentary, could rival those that happen in our camps too. There will always be that misgivings about living life in olive green where we turn into beasts, and those who are featured in this film, do not mince their words in sharing their frustrations about the system as well.

Yaniv Berman's documentary was filmed in the last 5 years of his reservist, between the years of 2002 and 2006, and offers an unflinching look at their operations from the ground level, through the eyes of the riflemen in his Alpha company. While we do not get the details of operations, since after all every military operation is secret, I thought that such a film could not have existed in the first place, and I was wrong. It's hard to imagine that permission would even be granted for an independent filmmaker to try and attempt to document something like this here in Singapore, which would probably offer a whole lot of honest insights into the psyche of the troops who are disrupting their lives to serve.

But what I found more powerful in this film, is not the parallels that we can identify with. Rather it's the nature of the troops' mission and operations each time they hit the road, that surprisingly was allowed to be featured in this documentary. Besides the usual sentry or guarding duties, they perform raids in the occupied territories, where the soldiers go from house to house in the dead of the night, barging into apartments in skeletal battle order and conducting searches for, I presume, contraband and those deemed wanted. Pointing their guns at faces, men get separated from the women and children and interrogated, the entire house turned upside down in order to conduct a thorough search and so on. One could only imagine the intense humiliation a family has to go through, probably repeatedly by different companies, and if there's any violation of basic rights, this is it.

It's no wonder that the Palestinans vent their frustration where they can, some express it through the throwing of rocks at the Israeli convoy's APC, to the laughter of the soldiers knowing that they are untouchable from within. It's almost like a cowboy town where the rule of law becomes the rule of those who have weapons. It's a little unsettling to witness locked doors being hacked at (really heavy metal doors actually) and if unsuccessful with the sledge hammer, some explosives are the order of the day. Even the soldiers themselves, in an interview, admit to the unpleasantness and wouldn't want to be at the other end of this, and like true soldiers, they follow orders, not questioning them, whether morally they know it is not right. You can feel that there's nothing personal, but they're carrying out their day to day orders in counting down to the day where they will be obligation-free, and the intense joy that comes with that day, whether it be celebrating because they are free from the shackles of being called back, or free from executing humiliating orders, or both.

I guess that's what life in olive green fatigues could degenerate into. We may lose our humanity once we don the colours and behave badly. Complain as we may, we understand the need of a defence force though not all may agree with it, preferring a professional outfit to a conscript model. There will always be that inconvenience to balance, but after this, I do prefer to fight phantoms than to be under unknown enemy fire, or tasked to carry out duties that will put your morality under heavy questioning, conscience being masked by leaving your brains with your civvies.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Panda Diary (Pandafuru Raifu)


The immense popularity of wildlife documentaries once reserved for National Geographic or the Discovery Channels have made their way to the big screen, in no doubt having their path cleared by the success of March of the Penguins. Of late, the foxes got the spotlight in a more fictional take with The Fox & the Child, and now, the Japanese jumps on the same bandwagon by making an animal documentary but on the Chinese's iconic panda bear, with the Chinese being co-producers of course to avoid similar protests of lamentation over Hollywood's Kung Fu Panda, and having it shot in China's Great Panda research facility in Sichuan would be a collaboration of sorts.

What makes a successful documentary of such nature (pardon the pun)? I guess the prime ingredient here will definitely have to be the young ones. You must always have cute babies, and how adorable they are will proportionately affect how audiences will take to the film. The baby penguins made March of the Penguins, and so did the baby Fox. Here, we get baby pandas while they're still slightly pinkish, and the rolly-polly one year olds who roll around the nature reserve, in chase of the camera.

Panda Diary follows the more conventional model like March rather than to have a total fictional narrative spun on it like Fox. And as the title already suggests, the narrative here follows a month by month account from August to August where we have two threads before they converge together. The first focuses on two pandas who had lived their known life in a Japanese theme park, before being repatriated back to China for further assimilation with their own kind, as well as to support efforts in having the pandas breed through environments set up for it.

The other thread of course is the day to day operations within the research facility, where we see how they are coaxed into mating - the researchers being very much like voyeurs in a way, their dietary habits and immense liking for bamboo shoots, and how efforts are made into trying to preserve their wildlife habitat as far as possible. The pandas are solitary by nature, and they need to be given plenty of space, which of course is only a luxury these days. There were a couple of scenes where they had to be caged (for transportation purposes) and you can tell the bears are very much uncomfortable and distressed by it.

As an educational tool, you can get to learn a lot more about the Pandas in 100 minutes, such as how they contribute to their own dwindling numbers where they mate only once a year (miss the boat and it's another 365 days of waiting) and usually give birth to twins, where they would only nurture one of them and leave the other for naught. Naturally in the research facility some manipulation is done to ensure both babies get raised with equal attention and resource, and there are a lot more nuggets of information like these that will simply amaze you.

Why wait for Panda diplomacy in order to get up close and personal with these likable cuddly creatures? The film offers an opportunity not to be missed, so if you like to know more about the fact behind the fictional Kung Fu Panda (no, they don't do Kung Fu though they have tremendous strength), then this documentary would be right up your alley to understand more about this endangered species.

The Tale of Despereaux


Never did I think that The Tale of Despereaux would have all it takes to be a fairy tale in the spirit of Stardust, and I had actually found myself enjoying this tale from once upon a time, which provided entertainment to children, and not leave the adults in the lurch thanks to its rather mature story that spread out like a hydra thanks to the myriad of colourful characters inhabiting its kingdom of Dor, where citizens enjoy the yearly ritual of witnessing and subsequently tasting the soup of the year created.

There's a difference between a mouse and a rat, as far as likability and the cuteness factor goes. And central to the story are a world-weary rat Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) who lives aboard a ship and finds himself grounded in part due to his love for good food, and that of an innocent mouse with a big heart, the titular character Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), who is smaller in size than the average mouse, but born with big Dumbo like ears which he uses to great effect. Roscuro's presence in the kingdom happens to be the root cause of the king having to ban soup and outlaw the presence of rats in his kingdom, and disappears for a while in the middle section of the story, leaving room for Despereaux to step up to the central role.

We learn that Despereaux is no ordinary mouse, not only in physical terms, but in character, because he knows no fear and very much unlike the other mice who must learn to be meek and cower as an innate response to danger. For his steadfastness in holding true to his principles, he finds himself banished as punishment for speaking to Princess Pea (Emma Watson), and so paves way for the little one to exhibit the values of honour, chivalry, loyalty and courage, stuff in which he found appealing from a story book that he read, with which he imagines himself to be a mouseketeer/knight.

What made this movie work, are the many threads and characters in seemingly disparate narrative arcs, where you can't help but to anticipate how they would all come together. Each character created was quite balanced in having grey area to tread, so that the theme of forgiveness could ring through. And having a star studded cast to voice them worked wonders too, such as Tracey Ullman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Ciaran Hinds (who is also in this week's Race to Witch Mountain), Frank Langella, Christopher Llyod and Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, which quite interestingly, doesn't always narrate verbatim to what's shown on screen. Each character has their own motivation put out clearly, and while some, like the key characters, have their work cut out for them, you can rely on the support cast to liven up things a little and provide some comic relief.

I guess the animation studios in the west have already reached a plateau in terms of the technical know-how in putting out a photo-realistic animated film these days. You can imagine the texture of the animal's fur, as well as the smell of the dark and stank underground city of Rat Town, or the perfumed sweetness that comes with a princess' room. It goes to show that the benchmark has been raised permanently, and it will take many years and larger budgets if local animated film studios (that have given us cringeworthy titles to date, with poor stories and poor graphics) are thinking of reaching the same heights. Not wanting to put them down, but they have to understand that a strong story is key (and doesn't mean you tweak it to suit the flavour of what you think will sell) in order for the animation to do its part (e.g. Barnyard – excellent CG art, but poor story = box office disaster).

The Tale of Despereaux again is family friendly fare save for one scene which I thought might be pushing the envelope a bit (for a children's G-rated film that is). Other than that, for those looking for a more adult fairy tale, give this mouse a chance, and in all honesty, this little guy got more spunk than Ratatouille. Recommended!

Hotel For Dogs

In Need Of Rooms

Being Man's best friend, I understand the slew of movies that are made these days in honour of our canine friends, from the chihuahuas in Beverly Hills Hollywood or the Labradors in Miami, to the Roadside Romeo in Bollywood, I guess you just can't put a good dog down, as they continue to endear even through the most cliché of stories.

For dog lovers, the appeal here is the whole range of dogs being put on screen, coming in all shapes, sizes and attitudes, trained of course to execute those stunts meant to show their intelligence beyond the heels, stays and roll overs. The other draw of course is how makeshift technology in the form of contraptions made using almost everyday objects, can be used to keep the dogs occupied and entertained. Unfortunately, almost every mechanical device has been shown in the trailer, leaving nothing new nor surprising, talk about letting all the cat out of the bag. Wait, make that almost every plot device shown that you can sleepwalk through the film and still know what it's all about.

Andi (Emma Roberts the Wild Child) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) are two orphans who have in the last few years gone from foster family to foster family, because they happen to be two misunderstood kids who find it almost impossible to live with their new foster parents whoever they are, especially if they come in the form of would-be performers completed with lack of intelligence and inflated egos like the Scudders (Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon hamming it up in full camp regalia). They find it increasingly impossible to keep the fact that they are keeping their pet dog Friday (a terrier similar to Milo in the Mask) from the Scudders, and in one night time escapade, find themselves with Friday and a couple of strays hiding in an abandoned hotel from the authorities.

So begins their very slow starting mission of saving abandoned dogs from around their city, with the help of pet shop employees Dave (Johnny Simmons) and Heather (Kyla Pratt) and a friendly neighbour Mark (Troy Gentile from Drillbit Taylor), who is mostly underutilized and in it like a sideshow extra. And with any typical dog movie, the enemies are always the folks who operate the dog pound, who according to stereotype just cannot wait to imprison dogs and then put them to sleep when their lease expires under their charge.

To add certain gravitas here, there's Don Cheadle whose Bernie the social worker works at having Andi and Bruce find proper homes, and to serve as that Deux Ex Machina mouthpiece toward the end, exposing director Thor Freudenthal's weakness in wrapping this up naturally. And there were a couple of moments which I thought could have been brilliantly explored and not left at just a fleeting and passing remark, where Andi realizes that their inexplicable assistance rendered to stray dogs, happens to be a mirror reflection of their own predicament in being passed from place to place, longing for a perfect, functional home that they could never have, and as such relying on her brother's technical wizardry to make it all complete and worthwhile for the dogs under their charge. Like adoption, very rarely do people want to take on anything but a puppy, if not for its cute factor, but for the reason that they can be nurtured, versus the adage that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

Hotel for Dogs, being a Nickelodeon movie, has to subscribe to the same old feel good and feel safe formula to make it suitable for all families. In that you can't find anything that will rebel against the established order of the genre, so much so that you're inclined to go along with the formula as dictated. Like a good pet dog.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Detroit Metal City

Devil In The House

Don't worry if you don't appreciate heavy metal music, because this film takes on a rather satire feel of the genre, with its focus firmly rooted in its characters and a key human condition, that about the masks which we put on and the behaviour adopted through the persona on the surface that's donned.

And I felt the filmmakers nailed it squarely on the head with the casting of Ken'ichi Matsuyama, more famously known these days as the teen detective L from the Death Note series. In that film he had disappeared behind a stoic and serious demeanour behind a lithe frame, being quite fleetfooted while snacking on sweet food. Here, Ken'ichi again disappears and in more challenging terms, being on opposite sides of the spectrum from the meek to the flamboyant, and if you're not impressed by his L, his turns here would impress as being a consummate character actor capable of fleshing out characters very convincingly. If it's a chameleon actor you're looking for, look no further than Matsuyama.

As Negishi, his mushroom cut hairstyle sported fits the character to a tee. A mild mannered sissy nerd, he shuffles his feet from his hometown village to the bright city of Tokyo in the hope of fulfilling his dream of being a trendy pop singer. You know, the one who belts out bubblegum pop tunes about first love and sweet kisses. He lives by the mantra of “No Music No Dream”, and inspires his fellow peers to do the same and seize the day. Just so to tell you he's still a straight character despite his effeminate ways, he's attracted to Aikawa (Rosa Kato, who resembles a little like Aoi Miyazaki, who's starring in yet another similar music-based movie in Shonen Merikensack which I am looking forward to). Who wouldn't?

But an unexpected opportunity to join a band, he soon finds himself manipulated by his female boss (Yasuko Matsuyuki) into becoming the frontman for the heavy metal band Detroit Metal City (DMC) as Johannes Krauser, the long haired, pale skinned singer from the depths of hell who sings raged filled songs and preaches satanism, hate, anger, murder and rape. He garners a country-wide following filled with rabid groupies, and is more wildly successful as part of the engineered metal band, than trying to strike out on his own as a frivolous pop singer that's a dime a dozen.

It's an exellent contrast of characters, but more so, an examination of self and the personas we adopt in different situations. It might even be a classic case of Schizophrenia for Negishi, because as Krauser, he's really good at what he does, and almost comes second nature as that sissy man who had found an avenue to unleash his pent up frustration and hit back at the whole world, and get adored for that as well. Cursing and swearing comes second nature, and he can get really confused at times if his interests got mixed – romancing his lady love who abhors metal music, and satisfying his legion of fans with a public appearance. Unlike the Incredible Hulk within whom Bruce Banner disappears, it's interesting here because Negishi has full conscious control over Krauser, but allows himself to cut loose and live up to that masked persona even if it means having to embarrass the woman he loves.

It's about striking a balance between living your dream, and being practical about it. As Krauser, he inspires others into living theirs, even though he doesn't exactly get to do the same. But only because he does what he does best, even though he doesn't exactly subscribe to it. He commands his unwavering fans for whom he inspires, though in some negative ways, but what better than to express one's rage through music and at the concert venues only rather than to hit back in society - we don't see any of the metal fans causing trouble, and the amount of clout one has in influencing his followers (eg. His brother) to live for the better. It's this realization and awakening (thanks to his mother's contribution too) that Negishi understands his calling in life, that he cannot live a life that's for selfish personal interest (in throwing away Krauser just so he can pursue his love) over that of the benefit for the masses and those who adore him.

It's like a superhero story of sorts as well, where the hero disappears into his sanctuary by having an alter-ego within which he can operate normally without the pressures of expectations. We become somebody else very easily when we have ourselves hidden behind a costume incognito, and can carry out feats which we normally wouldn't do for fear of identity, repercussions and of course shame if something goes wrong. The white face makeup is Negishi's secret formula in transformation from geek to devil, without fear of his family discovering his secret (he tells them he works at a floral shop) and disappointed his parents that he's a preacher for hate, in direct contradiction to the gentlemanly ways he's brought up in.

But of course like any other movie, this one is not perfect. There were a number of scenes that were played out purely for laughs, but sometimes fell flat on its face for its repetitive nature. Such as having his boss from hell come trash Negishi's pastel coloured apartment just so that she could awaken the devil in him permanently, and provide for some misunderstanding between Negishi and Aikawa. Or that inexplicable scene of running with his legion of fans for miles before reaching a concert venue. One could actually tell Ken'ichi Matsuyama was panting under that thick makeup and heavy costume.

To no surprise, DMC attracted more female fans than the male ones in the screening I attended, despite having metal music blaring that degrades the female of the species, so that can only attest to the magnetism that Ken'ichi has over his fans. It isn't exactly about metal music, nor is it about the comedy here (which were best provided for by the rabid head banging fan boys sticking middle fingers or stabbing the devil's horns in the air), but it's about self and the masks we all wear. For that, this comes definitely recommended in the dilemmas that we lead our lives under from time to time.

[3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest] China Indie Doc Focus: Session 1 - Who Killed Our Children?

The Substation has been running the 3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest for almost a week now, and unfortunately I had missed a number of films which had piqued my interest, only managing one session today. You might also be glad to know that there are some slight improvements to the seats at the Guiness Theatre, where bright red cushions of the RITVA design (from Ikea) get to provide some much needed comfort for feature films, because your bum's not resting directly on a wooden seat.

Today's sessions and films were all curated by Professor Paul Pickowicz of UC San Diego, which boasts some more than 2000 films in its library of Chinese indie features and documentaries. Prof Paul did mention that not all are of similar quality, and in today's selection were 4 films which he felt were deserving of highlighting at today's session.

Just last year, China was rocked by one of the deadliest earthquakes in her history, where a magnitude 8.0 quake hit Sichuan, and besides the usual disastrous effects that come along with a major natural disaster, this one had reports streaming in with an uncharacteristically large number of children killed because the dormitories and schools they were housed in had all collapsed.

This documentary by Pan Jianlin, as explained by Dr Paul, was probably one of many where filmmakers had journeyed to the epicenter in search of human stories to tell. And I guess it is typical to find documentarians hitting the road and to the site of interest to document an important part of history, even if it's one filled with tragedy, but also with its fair share of survival stories. Heading into the epicenter of the Muyu distriict in Qingchuan County, the film had centered its findings and discoveries on just one of the many sites, with the collapse of the Muyu Middle School dormitory, where very early on, in moments of silence, we see a crumpled pile of stones and bricks where once stood the building structure.

When Mother Nature releases her wrath on earth, unfortunate victims usually do not stand a chance. Here, it seems that there are certain man-made elements which resulted and contributed to a higher than usual death toll, especially amongst children. There's the issue of the much touted shoddy construction job due to corruption, and what I didn't know was the very dangerous practice of locking doors. I can't help but to compare how even in Singapore this bad practice continues, where it's so easy to create death traps just because of somebody's negligence in looking for the easy way out, or to cut corners.

There are the usual finger pointing of course, and Pan interviews all sides of the equation, preferring to let the audience form their own conclusions from hesitant government officials, to the teachers and school principal, surviving students and the grieving parents. It poses some hard questions to which there are no easy answers to, and what I found to be peculiarly true, is that we also have similar attitudes displayed quite rampant and applicable to other countries as well, such as innate complacency, passing the buck, and the creation of one's own rules that may run contrary to established practices.

This documentary is like an investigative piece, with the director in journalist mode, constantly probing for answers or any clues as to what could constitute the truth amidst any attempts to cover up, and to sieve through the rumours which can spiral out of control depending on interpretation and hearsay from whom, given that the deceased can tell no tales.

It might not be a remarkable documentary technique wise with the use of many talking heads, but the content is more than sufficient to thoroughly engage you throughout. There was one arc in the second half that dwelled upon burial, and the insensitiveness of trying to, what I thought was, literally covering up evidence on the pretext of preventing an epidemic, and a botched attempt in accountability just made things worse. There's always a lot of disconnect between the authorities and common folk, in what is supposed to be done, against what is perceived to be done. Tempers flare and a lot of people are upset naturally, but one can see for all their bravado in wanting to demand justice, it's really quite left in the open whether or not they are successful in getting some reprieve.

The power of film at times is to bring you to places where you normally won't have access to for a myriad of reasons. Here, it is obvious that access got restricted as aid came in and got dried up, and with the media slowly being barred save for the official ones, there's a cap already on what can be seen in the aftermath. Even Pan got arrested and detained briefly for trying to re-enter the zone for additional follow up filming.

Should you have the opportunity to watch this film, don't pass it up, as besides bringing you a wide spectrum of the topic, it does reinforce the point of how inaction on all our part in doing what's right, would lead to severe repercussions if not acted upon swiftly.

Race To Witch Mountain

Follow Me

If aliens exist, and if they have access to the films made from Earth, they would likely make a mental note to remind themselves that should they visit our planet on terms other than a hostile takeover or annihilation, to avoid landing in the USA at all costs. Hollywood has enough dough to continuously churn out effects laden science-fiction movies, and most of them are big budgeted action fests like Independence Day and Men In Black, which don't exactly paint a good picture of the extra-terrestrials. Aliens who have more benign intent, would be frightened by how trigger happy and violence prone the US is toward illegal aliens, even if popular culture meant the landing zone for extra terrestrials is the USA and not other larger countries.

Race to Witch Mountain being Disney fare means the toning down of practically everything to ensure that it is safe for the entire family to experience together. Dwayne Johnson seems right at home in family friendly flicks like The Game Plan (also directed by Andy Fickman), and I guess his action days on screen will be few and far between, especially when he gets to flaunt his dramatic and comedic flair. Woe is the fan boy like me who have grown up with The Rock, but there's no more people's eyebrow, and we should start to get used to seeing our idol in a different light on celluloid.

Johnson plays a Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno who has a colourful past that he tries to bury, in order to earn an honest living to buy his dream Mustang featured in the Steve McQueen movie Bullit. In a confluence of the stars he picks up a scientist who specializes in extra terrestrials, before chancing onto two of them when they boarded his cab without his knowledge. The brother and sister aliens – Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alenxander Ludwig) – are here on a noble mission, and are in hot pursuit by the shady government agents led by Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) as well as something like a Terminator from many light years away.

This naturally gives rise to your standard set action sequences where we get to see the alien twins exercise their rather innocent demeanour (“they're only kids!”) to their advantage, behind which hides the immense powers they possess such as Telepathy and Density manipulation, which I thought was a very cool power to have. Imagine being able to pass through walls, yet having tremendous strength in the form of a road block, literallly. AnnaSophia Robb whom I felt did a fantastic job in The Bridge to Terabithia, stars as the female child, and because of her character's ability, she brings forth a more trusting, and empathetic character, in direct contrast to the other alien Seth (The Seeker from The Dark is Rising is all grown up now), who's more direct, commanding, aloof and non-trusting of humans in general, no doubt their initial experience was in having their space ship confiscated to Witch Mountain, and being chased for the conduct of experiments.

Carla Gugino, last seen as the aged Silk Spectre in Watchmen, got active only in the last third of the show, which was somewhat of a pity because she shared great chemistry with the rest of the cast, and got involved quite late into the thick of things. But of course if there's any consolation, like how the bits during the end credits would suggest, and depending on the box office results, there might be room for more in a sequel, if it comes.

There are references galore in the film given that there's a science-fiction convention event featured in the movie, and you can't help but also think about the potential for theme park rides with the yellow cab being pursued and pretty banged up. In fact I was wondering each time the cab got put through an action sequence, that it would make for a great 4D ride in Disneyland. You can't help it because it was quite in your face, with the sequences designed in that manner, deliberately or otherwise.

Despite some glaring plot loopholes, Race to Witch Mountain has all the ingredients for a great family outing. The story doesn't try to be more intellectual than it can handle, and doesn't let the special effects run wild and take over everything else. For being such a sentimental fool, the ending also got some brownie points from me, as it's tough not to shed a tear or two given the trials and tribulations from which a solid bond is formed amongst all the characters. Recommended for a family outing, but don't go expecting something out of this world (pun not intended), as everything's pretty formula.

Friday, March 13, 2009

[DVD] Gone Shopping (2007)

Tis The Season

Better late than never! It was last August that I got the DVD for Gone Shopping, and in 2007 that the film was screened theatrically in Singapore. It was a different cut, and the film had gone through a revision, with the Director's Cut travelling to festivals and competing overseas, and also the version that's presented in this DVD. I had highly recommended this film in my original review, and having to watch it on the big screen and host a Talkback session at Sinema Old School late last year, as well as watching it again now on DVD, I still highly recommend this film for its really fine storytelling, and compelling characters.

Coincidentally, Gone Shopping is also theatrically released in Malaysia currently, and it's the first theatrical release outside Singapore. So for all you readers who are in KL, you can head to 3 exclusive GSC cinema venues that are now screening the film, at Mid Valley KL, 1 Utama (New Wing) and Pavilion KL. You can read my review of the movie here, and there's not too much difference from that version then, and the director's cut now, save for some new scenes, and a major change to one of the security guard characters' true motivation. I had enjoyed the version tremendously then, and rewatching this cut twice, I still feel that both have their respective merits.

I still feel that Gone Shopping remains one of the gems amongst local films, and it's a wonder that this is writer-director Wee Li Lin's first feature film (after a series of award winning shorts), but this film has a very assured and mature direction as if being done by a seasoned veteran. Watch out for that buggy scene and one involving 3 gossipy salesgirls, they are crowd favourites, and would likely be your favourites too!

The Region Free DVD by Innoform Media comes presented in pristine anamorphic widescreen format! Despite its rather tacky looking and cluttered cover art, it is presented as is to be experienced (and being shot in HD helps I suppose), and not in the compromised 4x3 letterbox format that plagues a lot of DVDs for local films. Audio is in Dolby Digital Stereo in its original language track of Mandarin, English and Tamil, and subtitles are available in English and Mandarin. An 8 chapter scene selection is available as well to zoom into sections of the story.

Special Features wise, given it's a DVD-5, comes limited unfortunately. If this DVD was made overseas, I can see a two-disc edition already, with one disc the original theatrical release, and the other disc containing the director's cut. But no matter. The first section of features contain Teasers and Trailers which are all presented in letterbox format and with subtitles. Teaser 1 (0:40) features Clara, Teaser 2 (0:40) is that Aaron in the carpark scene in tribute to Highlander and Teaser 3 (1:00) is that kiss outside Tanglin Mall. There are three trailers included which spotlights each of the main characters, Clara (1:10), Aaron (1:00) and Renu (1:08).

There are only 3 Deleted Scenes included and presented in letterbox format. However, no commentary was available to understand why these scenes were omitted. They also come without subtitles, so non Mandarin and Tamil speakers, you can only guess what the characters could be talking about. Running a total of 4:43, the first scene is set in the flower department of Mustafa, where Clara and Renu are in conversation, the second in Mandarin involving Aaron bumping into his mother at a food centre, and the third is in Tamil where Renu talks to the security supervisor at Mustafa. A Photo Gallery containing 22 photo features both a behind the scenes look at the production, as well as some movie stills and cast and crew group photographs.

But the highlight of the features is the availability of the Director and Kym Ng's Commentary. It's predominantly in English unless Kym decides to use Mandarin to better express herself, or some local terms got made mentioned without explanation. This shouldn't detract you from the main meat, where both director Li Lin and Kym recounted their experience when making the film, sharing some interesting trivia and nuggets of behind the scenes information to the listener. You'll get to know the exact venues where the shots took place, as well as how each mall served as a convenient place to shop for both cast and crew alike during each day of filming! Despite some moments of silence from time to time, don't let this commentary pass you by, as you hear about which lines in the film had to be muted (!) and just how Li Lin got some of her cast, supporting cast and cameos assembled too! If you have gotten your hands on the DVD, listening to this track is a requisite after watching the movie proper.

In case you missed the earlier link on my review of the film, you can proceed to it by clicking on this link and here's the event coverage for the DVD Launch.
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