Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saw VI

Designer Death

It's pretty amazing how a small film with essentially a two-man cast set predominantly in a stank toilet, could eventually spawn a franchise lasting 6 movies long now, and a contemporary cult anti-hero with Jigsaw and Tobin Bell the actor joining the hall of horror infamy. And what more too with the villain quite clearly not doing any killing himself, but does so indirectly through some mad scientist manner in creating ingenious contraptions that get audiences lapping up for more.

One may add that Saw VI does feel like flogging a dead horse, since we know what happened to Jigsaw already in the past few films, but this installment pretty much showed that there's still one last fight left in ol' Jigsaw, which I hope will be its last outing because it pretty much wrapped up everything nicely. Unless of course you choose to interpret its finale as an open one.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about Saw VI, is how it steered clear of being a parody of itself, or a flick out to exploit with a weak story. Here, the screenplay by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton infused some contemporariness in having a social aspect inserted. Instead of bumping off corrupt cops, drug addicts or folks who seem to live life for granted, they've added the unscrupulous characters from the healthcare insurance workers, whose flawed reasoning of probability turned away folks who are in need of help, and are in dire straits of treatment being denied unto them.

Hiding behind "policy", they disengage without empathy and for selfish, personal gains, just like the protagonist in Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. So it was somewhat a guilt trip in watching how these folks get their just deserts, and not to mention those lawyers who are lacking in morales of course, lending their expertise to ensure maximum profits. Amongst the victims here, while most show their true colours when faced with death, the lawyer is probably the one who will get your utter most attention, and chuckle too, for the behaviour exhibited.

Granted there are less bizarre killings and contraptions here compared to its predecessors, but that doesn't mean that as a standalone film, your goosebumps won't stand. Starting with a bang, the simplest device involving a carousel, ended up the most gripping of the lot, where hard decisions have to be made in a race against time and pain, amidst plenty of accusations and revelations flying. Probably one of the less flashy Jigsaw designed death method, but one clearly the most horrendous of the lot.

Saw VI follows the usual formula in explaining Jigsaw's rationale and methods, and the valuation of life which tie in pretty well with most of the earlier films, with the given twists at the end that helped to elevate this worthy as a "Saw" film, complete with double crossings that just beg for you to re-watch the earlier films. As I mentioned, it's a fitting finale to a long-running series, and I'd wish they stop now before the idea gets too stale, and subsequent effort really coming off as too trying and contrived. In other words, retire gracefully now while at the top of its game as the mother of all torture porn franchises.

Click here for reviews of Saw I, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V


God's Gift to Women

The one scene that will strike you and linger around after you walked out of the cinemas, it's the final scene. It's no spoiler, but it walked right out of National Geographic, where you see up close, how a toad devours a mouse. Swallow in fact, allowing it to semi-digest, while occasionally tugging at the tail. It's downright gross as a parting short, but the camera stayed firmly on it for minutes during the entire end credits.

Anyway, back to the film. If you're blessed with good looks and a fine bod, I suppose sometimes you wonder if you're God's gift to women. For Ashton Kutcher's Nikki, his is a life of a classic dreamer, thinking that with his kind of aesthetics, he could be living the life straight out of a Van Halen music video, with flashy cars, plenty of cash and fast women to spend the rest of his days with. Unfortunately with no life skills to offer except the ability to pleasure women, he exploits his talent in order to live up to that impossible dream.

It's pretty much an instructional video on the tactics used by contemporary gigolos, or at least those who are looking to live off rich sugar mommies. Like a hunter preying on his mark, Nikki's not looking out for hot young things to feed his lifestyle, that will come later after he's snagged the anchor, who is that successful, single middle aged lady to hook up with, leading him to Anne Heche's Samantha (who looks really hot in the film, mind you).

Inventor of the rollover sleeping smile, they form a symbiotic relationship, one needing a toy boy for those lonely nights, while the other needing her extravagant Peter Bogdanovich's ex-mansion, sturdy Mercedes which needless to say, comes in extremely useful for parties and hosting of other nubile women to sucker when the cat's away. The premise of living the life at another's expense, using a bodily trade off, reminded me of the French film Priceless (Hors De Prix) starring Audrey Tautou, who plays the gold-digger in that film.

There's plenty of gratuitous nudity and sex to go around until the second half of the film which switched gears and turned out hunter into the prey, when he meets up with waitress Heather (Margarita Levieva) who's actually more of a player than he is, and it's like a match made in heaven in a karmic round-robin, with what's going around coming around. It is this aspect of the film that somewhat sagged that incredible, dream like freeloading taking place in the first half, and somehow turned this into sappy romance territory with its message on the consequence of non-permanence in relationships that will come back and haunt you.

Ashton Kutcher looked incredibly comfortable as the serial womanizer and slacker in life, clueless about what to do when he meets with the real woman of his desire. He gives Nikki that smugness and comfort in knowing that he's living the moment, with that natural despair coming in when he understands that he's now down the slippery slope of no return. I think he gets it down to a pat in real and reel life romancing older women. Anne Heche pretty much owned the supporting role in the first act, before disappearing for Margarita Levieva to take over the female lead in the second act, as the two women to have made the most impact in Nikki's life.

I could come up with something naughty to say about its title as the parting shot, but I'll leave it at that. Spread isn't top class material with its profound sleaze, but at least it had that memorable ending shot enough to make you reel a little, and talk about it. Strictly for those interested in what the R21 fuss is all about, and surprisingly, a lot more females in the audience than there are men.

Amalfi (Amarufi: Megami no Hôshû / アマルフィ女神の報酬)

I guess even coming back from the Tokyo International Film Festival my appetite for Japanese films still isn't satiated. Amalfi is Fuji TV's 50th anniversary film, and it's no holds barred in terms of the production values, jet-setting throughout Rome, with a bevy of star, even getting Sarah Brightman herself to perform the number “Time to Say Goodbye” on screen.

Yuji Oda stars as what looked to be on the surface as an uncomfortable career diplomat, though I'd like to think of his character here as a behind-the-scenes clandestine operative sent around the world to provide various Japanese embassies that oversight into major events their diplomats are organizing or attending. It's been some time since I last saw a Yuji Oda film, the last I believe being very long ago with the Bayside Shakedown 2 film, and he's visibly aged here, with no hint of a betrayal to the more quirky Aoshima character then, versus a no-nonsense, serious role here.

Caught up in between a kidnapping of a Japanese girl and his actual mission in shadowing the ministerial visit, his Kuroda-san becomes drawn toward the plight of a single mom Saeko (Yuki Amami) who had lost her daughter Madoka (Ayane Omori) while out touring Rome. Sworn to render assistance to all Japanese citizens overseas regardless of rank and title, he takes it upon himself, albeit quite reluctantly given his more pressing, diplomatic matters, to assist in what seemed like a simple extortion case, but one which will unravel itself to reveal a somewhat convoluted plot of a larger conspiracy involving retribution, vengeance and the seeking of justice.

I was very much drawn towards Yuji Oda's character as a man torn between duty and good sense to help a fellow citizen in a strange land. Very much like his Bayside Shakedown films which examine the perennial tussle between beat cops and its internal bureaucracy, Amalfi also provided a sneak peek into the lifestyle of diplomats overseas who live under the graces of its citizen's taxes back home, and it presented itself as a commentary and a demonstration on the extravagance led by the diplomatic corps, where anything budgeted should be maxed out, and in some instances, allowed to go beyond allocation too.

The plot though did require some suspension of disbelief, given what you would expect necessary for all the disparate incidents to come converging toward each other as the narrative progressed. There are moments which do seem a little far-fetched, especially when it has to do with security processes within restricted environments, and how anyone could go away scot free after causing what could become an international disaster.

Being a film to celebrate an anniversary, no effort got spared in the production front. There's even Sarah Brightman lending her vocals in a scene designed to do just that. On the whole it's a relatively entertaining investigative thriller running around Rome much like what Angels and Demons did.

Love Happens


Love happens when you least expect it, and in this film, it's something put on the back burner as well, since it's a story dealing with facing one's problematic past, and moving on with life in the present. Love​​​​​​​​​​​, if it happens, is nothing more than a by-product stemming from acknowledging one's mistakes, and the gaining of new found self-respect from a hypocritical life that one has been leading in denial.

Aaron Eckhart needs no introduction now, having starred in the largest blockbuster of last year in The Dark Knight as Harvey Dent. I'm been watching a lot of his films before that with keen interest, and there were gems like Conversations with Other Women with Helena Bonham Carter, and Thank You For Smoking, two indie gems which remind you what an ace of a character actor he is. He's no stranger to a romantic comedy, but in this role here as Burke, he crafted a very believable, and troubled even, self-help guru in the mold of Anthony Robbins, complete with a session on walking across the fire pit.

I bear a very cynical view of self-help masters, given that in my opinion, they fleece a lot of cash from telling folks what they already know, or want to know, and sometimes to a certain degree, what they ought to know which is nothing more than common sense. It's a lucrative business going by the lifestyle these guys lead, and their flock are none too smart into supporting such lifestyles, but hey, that's just me. Perhaps one day I'll come up with a book to help others, with the ulterior intention of perhaps becoming a national bestseller just because I'm stating the obvious that makes people happy, and want to come and see me speak in person telling them more of the same positive messages.

With Burke, we see how something personal with his need to get himself out of an emotional rut after his wife's death, hence his book A-Okay, turned into a bestseller, and to his in-laws, here's a man who's milking his situation for benefits of profits and recognition. But for himself, and the audience, we know he's not walking the walk, or doing what he's preaching, which of course leads to the dilemma that we're observing a hypocrite in action. On one hand he's teaching others how to move on from their pain, but in private we see that he still can't quite let go. Here's someone who does his best to help others, but has no one to turn to when he's crying for help, and couldn't be seen doing so lest his entire business built on his new persona, come crumbling down.

As a romantic movie, given that there were scenes interspersed between Burke's seminar time for that getaway meeting of two lonely hearts, the potential lover's introductory conversation from the concierge counter to the gents was nothing less than extraordinary, and probably one of the best dialogue exchanges I've heard in a long while, spewing massive generalizations of the opposite sex in terms of attitudes adopted in the dating game. One ouch moment led to another, and while I applaud Burke's tirade of how beautiful women see themselves with what truly matters being the inside, I too laughed at Jennifer Aniston's Eloise retort in a scene which just has to be seen.

Like who trains the trainer, or who watches the watchmen, Eloise becomes that shining light at the end of the dark tunnel for Burke, although it is up to him whether to head down that tunnel towards it, or prefer to languish in his comfortable position of inertia. This of course has co-writer and director Brandon Camp setting up moments staple in a romantic film for two hearts to connect, but as I've mentioned, the main story of Burke's troubles get priority, and also some screen time for veteran Martin Sheen. Dan Fogler lends his weight as a supporting cast member with nary an embarrassing situation from his rather subdued performance as Burke's agent who has engineered themselves on the cusp of a mega-deal.

Those looking for a romantic film may come away a tad disappointed, but for Eckhart fans just itching to see the man grace the big screen in another superb character performance, then Love Happens, which pretty much lives up to its title, is the film of choice.

Friday, October 30, 2009

London Dreams

Band Members

I've got to admit though my interest in the film is none other than to follow up on Asin's phenomenal Hindi movie debut with the blockbuster hit movie Ghajini last year, and while it took almost 12 months for the release of her latest Bollywood movie (her first real one since she starred in an earlier version of the same role), she's one of the many stars I'm following as my introduction to the current wave of Hindi films, from Deepika Padukone to Ranbir Kapoor, and of course the established ones, which includes Salman Khan in this same film.

While one may not see Asin being featured too much on the promotions and the trailers, I suppose there's a valid reason for that. In fact, she probably got relegated, in my opinion, from leading lady in Ghajini, to supporting role in London Dreams, so much so that her character Priya becomes just one of the many background dancers in the Indian pop group band of the titular name, which is naturally a pity as the camera doesn't even linger too long to show us some of the moves learnt.

However, the good thing here was that she's the token love interest in a triangle between the two leading male characters, and in pure Asin style, took advantage of whatever limited time she has to flesh out Priya as best as she could, a woman caught in between fulfilling her traditional roles in her father's household, yet caught up by the bright lights that the city has to offer, together with a totally different, perhaps more attractive pop culture to want to become a dancer. And fate would lead her to Ajay Devgn's Arjun busking at Trafalgar Square with a makeshift band made up of two brothers of Pakistani descent.

If I could read this on another level going by how the plot developed, it's akin to a warning of sorts against consorting with foreign elements to harm one's own countryman, which should be an absolute no-no at any costs, because it will only open up such bonds to utter destruction. Surely the greed and jealousy of man may frustrate from time to time, but to lead to betrayal would be asking for a downfall.

London Dreams plays out like a classical Cain and Abel type story, where two brothers, one jealous of the other for his talent and recognition, plots the downfall against the other behind his back in betrayal most foul. Arjun has a dream, and that is to take his music to London, and play at the renowned Wembley stadium, where his grandfather had failed in his time and returned to India a broken man. He spends his early teenage life honing his musical skills, and ever ready to sniff out any opportunity to scale the music ladder until his goal is reached. His is a singular mind obsessed with the single goal, so much so that he's willing to self-flagellate (!) himself when his mind gets swayed by Priya and the chance for romance, or any other distractions that crosses his path that day actually.

Ajay Devgn plays Arjun with enough menace and envy to make him believable as a man who would go to great lengths and at any costs to ensure his road to glory is not jeopardized. Salman Khan's Mannu on the other hand, is blessed with great musical talent without even trying, and while Arjun sees this as an advantage to be gained should he bring Mannu back to London and join his band, little did he realize that Mannu's country boy demeanour would start to win the fans over, as well as Priya. There are plenty of scenes which set up this innocent usurping of another's thunder, and the decisions that come to spark off the entire turn of events just after the intermission.

As a musical film, somehow the songs and dance sequences didn't really stand out, although in general they weren't that bad, but not too memorable as well, other than the pulsating number first performed at Trafalgar Square. Salman Khan proves why he's one of the three King Khans of Bollywood through his rendition of a simple boy with simple pleasures, with plenty of cheekiness combined with great comic timing to bring in some laughs. That airplane scene was a classic light hearted touch in what was a dark tale about bringing down a best friend using the cruelest of methods and exploiting the weakness of another for no good benefit.

The ending too was too clean and too quick, where a pep talk magically puts one into empathy mode with perfect hindsight. I had expected a lot more from London Dreams with its premise and its cast, but what came across was something still palatable and won't get you all riled up like the audience in the film, but with potential as a successful box office dream likely going unfulfilled.

My Sister's Keeper


I've been a fan of films that deal with genetics and cloning, because they always come with that staple moral dilemma that allows you to ponder a little about how science has and will progress, and how we harness that knowledge to do good, or exploit it for selfish desires. Gattaca has always ranked amongst my favourite, and though not really science fiction, My Sister's Keeper would be there as well for there's nothing to stop its suggestion that a child could be engineered, based on current technological capabilities.

Abigail Breslin burst onto the movie scene with that memorable role in the indie film Little Miss Sunshine, and undoubtedly stole many hearts with her rather cute performance with that oversized spectacle, and that amazingly insane finale dance. Here, she inevitably shines again as her character Anna Fitzgerald is an engineered baby, who's crafted from the baseline parts from mum Sara and dad Brian (played by Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric), and coddled together in a petri dish in a lab to ensure that she becomes a genetic copy of her sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), who's suffering from leukemia. That means that from day one of being born, she's all ripe for harvesting, starting with the umbilical cord blood, and various other procedures to become a walking, talking, genetically live support system for Kate.

So who could blame Anna's pessimistic introductory voice over about her views on pregnancy, be it either a coincidence, engineered and planned for. She's basically an unorthodox donor child, brought onto this world for one purpose only, and calls for both Sara and Brian to be judged on moral grounds that their child got born for selfish reasons, suffering plenty of pain in her childhood with nary any power to say No to, until now. Seeking the help of lawyer Campbell Alexander (played with glee by Alec Baldwin) who touts himself as a quick hack with a high success rate, she sues her parents for the rights to her own body, to be in control for once, and having the power to say no to invasive procedures which included the removal of a kidney. Of course this would mean that her sister would die, being denied a critical organ to replace her own failing one, though this is something you'd see a resolution coming from a mile away.

The story doesn't just focus on this aspect though, and it's a more powerful, meaningful and extremely moving story about family, and the loss or potential loss of loved ones. What's worse is always knowing that you've got limited time here, and that there's nothing within your power to change that inevitable. Will you resign yourself to fate and mope, or seize whatever time you have left to live it to the fullest? Personally I'd opt for the second, and would call for the plug to be pulled rather than to be artificially kept alive on a machine, during which you know you're basically a burden to everyone else, especially to family members. She faces the guilt consciousness of being the problem child who has taken away all the parental attention needed by her siblings because she's sick, and how everything got to be sacrificed for her, from careers to time, and the immense strain that this compromise impacts on the relationships between family members.

Cameron Diaz too deserves special mention for dropping her sassy demeanour and glam looks factor to play a mom and a housewife (even shaving her head bald!), who had given up her high-flying job just to take care of Kate, while slowly becoming the control freak facing great difficulties to let go and come to terms with the inevitable. We know she can do drama, and this film just reinforces that. Jason Patric unfortunately has nothing more than a minor support role here, given that the drama clearly centered on the mother and daughter relationships, and that of the brother as well.

Narratively, this film may seem like a tale of two halves, with the first having this documentary feel to it with its individual character point-of-view moments with voiceovers explaining their personal thoughts, and the structure was rather non-linear as well, moving forward and backward in time depending on who's actually presenting then. There's also a romance story written into it, and some courtroom dramatics as well to give it some punch aside from the more touching moments, with that general doom and gloom permeating throughout the film.

Saving a life is better than to build a seven storey pagoda, but life is finite, and when it's time, we have to come to terms with it, and for our loved ones to know when to let go rather than to prolong the pain and burden for both the individual and family. My Sister's Keeper presents this moral dilemma, and makes a brooding, movie piece out of it for you to ponder over long after the lights come back on.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Is It

King of Pop

It was one of those mornings like any other mornings, where I would wake up, and turn on the TV set to the news channel, as it plays in the background while I go about getting myself ready for work. It was a news feed to a flurry of police activity from a helicopter vantage point, and I thought there was probably another massive shootout in the USA, until I squinted at the news flash at the bottom of the screen. It mentioned something about Michael Jackson's passing, and I couldn't believe my eyes, I had to put my glasses on.

I pretty much grew up with the music of Michael Jackson, being all but 6 years old when I got the Thriller album on cassette tape, and was hooked. It was played countless of times, and I too performed Beat It with a primary one school friend, in front of the class, big MJ fans that we were. And in 1993 when he was in Singapore which served as a pit stop for his Dangerous World Tour, I was there as well, for the first night out of two when his birthday was celebrated. And all that just around the time when the craziest negative news about the man had surfaced.

But This Is It is not that documentary, but one that's set to allow audiences and fans all around the world witness what MJ was preparing for – that grueling 50 shows in London that would be as much a showcase as well as a swansong. I mean, he's no Peter Pan, and it's still pretty amazing that he still possessed this fabulous energy to create that special magic that only MJ can create on stage. Watching him perform live is definitely an entirely different experience from watching it on video, but I suppose Kenny Ortega had created the next best thing, culled from rehearsal footage of his practices leading to the run up of the landmark performances.

Naturally, don't expect MJ to be at his very best or performing everything 100%, as many a times he had mentioned that he's conserving energy, though most times he just couldn't help it but to perform his numbers through and through. It's also a valuable peek into how he crafts the entire performance to perfection and love, never losing his temper as he offers his two cents worth on what he exactly wants out of the performers, musicians and dancers. You can see the respect he commands from his crew, who knows that they must be up to the mark whenever he comes on set to practice with them, and it's very much amazing that when MJ is on fire, everyone else will be silenced, and in awe. Look no further than Billie Jean where the man just captivates everyone's attention.

And you cannot get better ringside seats than what this film has to offer. Culled from various rehearsals sometimes of the same song, it allows you to see how MJ finetunes and experiments with various ideas, especially for his dance. His stage performances were always a spectacle, and the sheer amount of effort in pyrotechnics and special effects, would make you wonder how awesome the actual London performance would have been, which sadly will never materialize beyond the ideas tossed up in this documentary.

If you'd wish not to know which were the rehearsal segments that made it to the film, then skip the next paragraph, though they do seem like a lineup very typical of a Michael Jackson concert, at least from Dangerous to the History World Tour:

As always, Wanna Be Startin' Something would open as a warm up number thanks to its title promising something bigger and better to come, as will Jam to keep up the energy level. Special effects are relied on for They Don't Care About Us to create sheer soldiering numbers, and Human Nature slows things down a little before we get shown new, prepared footage for one of the concert favourites with Smooth Criminal. MJ goes up close and personal with one of his handpicked crew playing an attractive lady he falls head over heels for with The Way You Make Me Feel which starts off with some slow blues, before going back to his Jackson 5 roots with a medley which included I'll Be There. The offerings somehow sagged with Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) and I Just Can't Stop Loving You, before a slew of favourites get built up for a crescendo. Many new video segments, in 3D too, was shot for Thriller, which features, check this, a giant spider in which MJ will emerge from, and some flying ghouls which will glide down the aisle and into and around the audience. Beat It will see MJ on a “cherry picker” hovering above them, before Black or White's mean electric guitar riffs and air blaster get turned on. In between environmental reminders with Earth Song and Man in the Mirror which also features new video clips, is one of my all time favourite performance from Billie Jean, though of course being a rehearsal, MJ stops short in delivering the entire sequence. Strangely enough there isn't a single moonwalking sequence to be seen in the film at all.

Ths Is It is as much about MJ, as it is about the meticulously handpicked dancers and backup performers who would have been part of a legendary concert. It's not easy supporting the King of Pop given the innate pressure to excel and he acknowledges that effort put in, though I feel it must have been quite heartbreaking for them to learn about the passing of the superstar, and a mentor whom I'm sure they would have learnt a lot from during their time spent together in preparation. At least their efforts will not go to waste with the release of this film, which may seem to be gimmicky since it's going to be on screen for only 2 weeks. And a reminder too not to leave the hall prematurely before the end of the end credit roll.

RIP Michael Jackson, you will be missed by your fans worldwide as the greatest performer who ever graced the stage.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Lonely, Dangerous Road Ahead

There are enough films out there made by the West over the years on the current theatre of war in the Middle East, either indirect political thrillers like Syriana or Lions for Lambs, or action based ones such as The Kingdom, or Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, which is a superb, microscopic examination of the state of confusion, fear and desperation for survival seen from the eyes of a small, three man detachment from the Explosive Ordinance Unit, who basically risk their lives on a daily operational basis to disarm bombs and improvised explosives so as to save countless more of civilians and fellow soldiers alike.

The presentation style adopted, shaky cam cinematography aside for that documentary feel of the field, is a narrative joy to behold, where each scene stems from its respective incident, and there's plenty of patience devoted to the development of each scene proper without the feeling of being dragged out longer than its welcome. I think I can count the number of major sequences here with my fingers, where nothing came across as rushed, and provided ample opportunity for you to bond with the characters, ponder over their motivation and actions.

For action junkies, there's plenty here that will leave you literally begging for more, ranging from edge-of-your-seat type race against time in defusing devices, made all the more exciting when you have a wild man at the helm of the operations, to sniper action, close quarter combat, and the likes. You'll also applaud the authentic feel for the film in terms of its section movement techniques, and its divide between the pencil pushers versus real men on the ground with tremendous field knowledge. Watch out too for notable cameos by the likes of David Morse, Guy Pearce and even Ralph Fiennes!

Before you brand this film as pro-war and a one-sided view, this film actually examines how war has an effect on the soldiers participating in it. Granted that it doesn't provide a balanced viewpoint from both sides, because it is not this film. Rather, we see how some are adrenaline junkies out for action and adventure, with little regard for the tremendous risks that surround, or those who need constant counselling in order to deal with the confusion and the pain, or about those who are just counting the days to get out of the hell hole, by following orders to the book.

The film centers around its star character Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner in a fine outing here), who joins Bravo company and heads his two man team of Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who are left rudderless after an incident gone wrong. Naturally it takes time for everyone to warm up together as a team, made all the more difficult by William's guts and unorthodox methods out in the field. But when they do gel together, it's an out of this world feeling that they could take on all insurgents, and the world even, as they buddy up and prove that they could hold their own, as good or better than private contractors and mercenaries in the war zone for profits and glory.

The opening quote had highlighted that war could be an addiction to some, and this is something to ponder over, since it is probably telling that some may feel more alive when they are constantly on the brink of experiencing death. William is one such man, who's actually the best what what he does, and his record of more than 800 bombs defused would have been a telling indication that he has served more than his fair share of the tour of duty. He's a wild man alright, preferring to live life on the edge.

I can't say I've seen a lot of war movies or am a war movie junkie, but The Hurt Locker definitely ranks up there amongst the best I've seen thus far, and it is definitely a highly recommended adrenaline pumper!

[Public Service Announcement 2] Research Survey

A group of students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information at the Nanyang Technological University are currently doing their final-year project on local film heritage and are in the process of compiling their formative research on film attitudes in Singapore. They have prepared an online research survey which targets moviegoers in Singapore of all ages and would like you to participate in their survey.

They are also planning a nationwide campaign on film heritage and advocacy in December/January and data would be useful for other research purposes. As an incentive to get your butts moving, they are offering a lucky draw for free movie passes.

I've done it, and it's painless. You should too!

[Public Service Announcement] Asian Film Archive Commemorates UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage

As part of its education and outreach efforts, the Asian Film Archive is, for the first time, launching an online campaign to generate greater awareness of the importance and urgency of saving Asia’s film heritage. In line with UNESCO’s message on World Day for Audiovisual Heritage to save a fading heritage, the Archive anticipates that this series of videos will reach out to the public as well as film communities with the vital message on the need to properly and adequately preserve their filmic works.

In Asia’s tropical climate and environment, films in both print and digital video formats can disintegrate rapidly when not kept properly. Even films in the digital format are not spared given that the longevity of the digital format is still under scrutiny. Through these videos, the Archive hopes to generate the realisation in filmmakers on how urgent it is to archive their works early as they become aware of the fragility of their creative works physical shelf life when stored improperly.

Released on YouTube, these part informational and part tongue-in-cheek videos will be released online periodically. Two videos have already been uploaded onto the Archive's YouTube channel, as well as on its Facebook group.

Clip 1

Clip 2

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

[Blog Aloud] The Blue Mansion Q&A Session

Producer-Director Glen Goei, Screenwriter Ken Kwek and cast members Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lin and Emma Yong were in attendance today for a post-screening discussion on The Blue Mansion. You can watch the proceedings of the Q&A below, with mild spoiler alert of course, so go watch the film and come back to savour this where a wealth of information and anecdotes got shared!

My review of the film is over here, and you can click on this link to check out the Q&A session that Glen and Emma had over at the recently concluded Tokyo International Film Festival.

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

The Blue Mansion

Was It The Son With The Violin In The Study?

In Singapore's recent film renaissance, I'm sure many would have seen or heard about the movies that come from the creative minds of Eric, Jack, Royston and Kelvin. My personal journey with local films extended a little beyond the prolific quartet, and it started when I was a teenager, and with a few friends went to watch one of the rare local films that made it to the cinemas. There were others released at around the same era that didn't augur well as a film, but this one did. Like its main protagonist who got inspired by the onscreen "Travolta" and became a disco dancing fan, I left the cinema with a smile on my face, that this was a Singapore film that had quality as much as widespread appeal, and inked an indelible mark that Singapore films can be outrageously fun, with a good story to tell. The Weinsteins agreed too, and the film had a North American theatrical release, the first for a Singapore film. The filmmaker? Glen Goei.

It's been an extremely long pause between Forever Fever (retitiled That's The Way I Like It in the USA) and his latest film The Blue Mansion, some 11 years where he had too many other projects to be listed that were accomplished between these two films, but it was a wait well worth it. Just ask the Japanese fans, who were equally thrilled that they could savour his latest offering just after its world premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival, I've always felt that Forever Fever, which also starred Adrian Pang, was ahead of its time in terms of how a Singapore mass appeal film could be made, without relying on cheap gimmicks, but instead possessed a strong story and an all round excellent delivery from its ensemble cast. The same continues in The Blue Mansion in stylish, sophisticated fashion.

On the surface, there's this three act structure, with the first setting the scene with the premise and the introduction of the myriad of characters of the Wee family primed with the basis for some severe family bickering, the second hammering its way in parallel to a detective duo's acting on an anonymous tip regarding foul play with pretty much a Cluedo being played out within the confines of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion in Penang being the titular location, and the last addressing all the secrets that had been furiously buried away, out of sight and out of mind by each character.

But the film isn't as much a comedy and a murder-mystery than it is an excellent character study piece, of who else but ourselves, of the secrets and dreams we harbour, but always giving plenty of leeway to instructions that come ordered from the top, be it from family, companies, and more so from the authorities. The nanny state mentality could well be mirrored with that of the family patriarch, who reserves the last word and instructions, where defying orders would be unthinkable, since they are always made with the best interests of everyone. We're conditioned to be unquestioning "Yes" men, where we're do as we're told from a culture of respecting an elder or a superior, swallowing ego and pride until they seek to explode. This can be seen quite clearly in each of the three siblings in the film.

The Singapore family comes under scrutiny again, In some ways, this is like a continued film exploration into the psyche of contemporary Singaporeans and this society of ours which Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen embarked upon in Singapore Dreaming back in 2006, which examined the trials and tribulations of a heartland family. And like the adage that suggests the rich are bogged down by a different set of challenges in life, the Wee family of The Blue Mansion, headed by the Wee Bak Chuan (Patrick Teoh) the Pineapple King who built his Wee Unlimited empire from scratch, see some fundamentally similar family issues from sibling rivalry to perceived favouritism too, surfacing deep unhappiness beneath the facade of calm, peace and immense material wealth. From a macro-perspective, it's what we normally hear from transient visitors to any country given the short timespan spent would allow for more positive experiences, but I suppose cracks would begin to appear should one stay anywhere long enough. Ho Tzu Nyen's HERE had tackled this societal outlook from a more arthouse perspective earlier this year, while The Blue Mansion did it in more direct, accessible terms.

There are plenty here that reflects the way of our multi-racial and religious harmony, one of which was the schizophrenic way the funeral rites were performed, not only side by side, but simultaneously, leading to great tragic comedy, though admirable in effort which I think wouldn't be pulled off in real life, just an analogy of how far we have progressed in terms of that harmony. Much of the laughs come from the incredibly witty script full of Brit-flavoured ironic humour, which played to the premise of a murder-mystery well, making it wickedly fun as we follow in the footsteps of a wandering Pineapple King spirit as he goes about listening through the thin walls of the mansion in both trying to solve the mystery of his death, as well as the hidden secrets banished to the dark ebbs of memory in episodes best left forgotten, but playing an integral part to its final revelation. And by the way, part of the fun also got derived from connecting the dots with the much talked about allegories seen in the film against that of a prominent family in Singapore too, that is extremely difficult not to have some parallels drawn.

With an international crew and a cast of who's-who from the Singapore-Malaysia theatre scene, it is a battle half-won with quality stamped on the production. Given most of the cast being seasoned thespians on stage, you're guaranteed of some great acting talent under the roof of The Blue Mansion, where the spoken word predominantly in English is proper, though curiously never feeling artificial or forced, perhaps of its theatrical presentation style which was deliberately set out to be. In short, it's a real treat to witness Glen's consolidation of an ensemble who are comfortable in their respective roles, and who knows (and I am wishful thinking here) that this film production could also pave the way for a stage version as well, since the ingredients are all there.

Our local film calendar had ended on a high note with the release of this film, and hopefully this continues well into the new year with a fresh slate of Singapore films raring to go. I only wish that I wouldn't have to wait so long for another film that has in its credits, “A Glen Goei Film”. Highly recommended, and definitely a contender in my top films for 2009!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Song of Sparrows (Avaze Gonjeshk-ha)

Big Bird Running

I've only seen but a handful of films from Majid Majidi the master Iranian filmmaker, and he continues to open my eyes to Iranian cinema with his latest The Song of Sparrows, telling the tale of a down and out of luck Karim (starring regular Reza Najie), a general worker in an ostrich farm, and the life of his family in a quaint little village. Being the perpetual loser in life, sometimes as a consequence of victimization, we follow his misadventures as a small time guy being caught up with opportunities in the big city, again being the puppet on whom Chance chooses to smile upon.

There are plenty of comedic chaos in the film which makes this quite the delight to watch. In the beginning we see how he orders a group of children around when they were treading around sludge waters in an abandoned well to find the hearing aid belonging to his daughter. Taking charge over the operations and barking orders to the kids, we discover he's not exactly that inspirational a leader even amongst kids, being devoid of clever ideas whose bark is more severe than his bite. Then comes the escape of an ostrich in the farm which he and a group of fellow workers fail to recapture, leading to his dismissal from work.

With time on his hands, he journeys to Tehran to get his daughter's damaged hearing aid fixed, though the exorbitant repair costs provides additional headache. But he stumbles upon the motorcycle taxi business in the city by accident, and discovers it pays quite handsomely. Before you can say “opportunity”, he's already on to it, and in a short span of time made a lot more money than he could have imagined, meeting with a myriad of characters, and with the cash, stocking up his home with material wealth. This segment of the story was made quite enjoyable by Karim's customers, some of whom are good to him, while others seek some incredible ways to exploit.

There's a sense of measured hysteria toward the end, but I had felt it was somewhat a statement made on how the ambitions stemming from opportunity would have presented an avenue for misguided corruption, as well as the failure to see the finer things in life that mattered a lot more. The son portrays the wishes of the common folk, in wanting to seek out their interest and a better life quite off tangent with the father figure of authority, who continues to punish his son and his friends, and discouraging them from pursuing their now broken dreams, which involved quiet determination in wanting to take over and clean up a filthy water storage tank for fish rearing and profit. The patriarch figure determines and dictates what can, or cannot be done, and doesn't hesitate to use a little violence to slap his orders across.

From success to loss, the final arc was one of the most colourful, and filled with some picture perfect imagery that would leave you spellbound, especially the scene with the hundreds of goldfish flapping around in need for water. Majid Madjidi once again crafted a film that will leave you reflecting upon the layers and messages hidden behind a film which came across as deceptively simple, on one level seeking to entertain, and on another a probable commentary of life hidden underneath the simplistic veneer.

Tokyo International Film Festival 2009 Coverage Index Page

At the End of Daybreak (心魔)
Cove, The
Drag Me To Hell
Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン) (World Premiere)
Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久) (World Premiere)
If Blessed (World Premiere)
Laughing Policeman, The (笑う警官) (World Premiere)
Luck By Chance
Mary and Max
Muallaf (The Convert)
My Rainy Days (天使の恋) (World Premiere)
Night of Whirlwind Restaurant, The (つむじ風食堂の夜) (World Premiere)
Oil Rocks - City Above The Sea (La Cité du Pétrole) (World Premiere)
Our Brief Eternity (World Premiere)
Rain Dogs
Road, Movie (Asian Premiere)
Snowfall in Taipei (台北飄雪) (World Premiere)
Staten Island (International Premiere)
Ten Winters (Dieci Inverni) (International Premiere)
Tochka (World Premiere)
Wheat (麦田)

Duel for Love (斗爱)
Great Pilgrim, The
King of Thorn (いばらの王)
No More Cry!!!
Snow Prince (スノープリンス)

Press Conference
Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久)
If Blessed (真幸くあらば)
Laughing Policeman, The (笑う警官)
Snowfall in Taipei (台北飄雪)
Ten Winters (Dieci Inverni)

Blue Mansion, The
Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久) #1
Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久) #2
Ten Winters (Dieci Inverni)

Stage Appearance
If Blessed (真幸くあらば)
Laughing Policeman, The (笑う警官)
My Rainy Days (天使の恋)
Sideways (サイドウェイズ)

Green Carpet Opening Ceremony Snapshots
Audience Award Competition Section
Closing Ceremony Awards
Closing Ceremony Press Conference

In Memory of Yasmin Ahmad

Sunday, October 25, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Press Conference] Award Winners

A press conference was organized soon after the prize presentation ceremony, and here's your ringside seat to the comments made by the winners:

First up, it's directors Ounie Lecomte ("A Brand New Life") and Tetsuaki Matsue ("Live Tape"). Singapore readers / fans of Singapore's Japanese Film Festival will be familiar with Tetsuaki Matsue, as he was here just last year to present two of his films at the festival. Congratulations on his recent achievement!

Part 1 of 12

Part 2 of 12

Next, a large group consisting of Director Sebastian Cordero and Actress Martina Garcia (Rabia), Actress Julie Gayet (Eight Times Up), Director Jacob Tierney and Producer Kevin Tierney (The Trotsky)

Part 3 of 12

Part 4 of 12

Part 5 of 12

Then the Director Kamen Kalev and Producer Stefan Piryov from Eastern Plays, which swept 3 awards including the Sakura Grand Prix:

Part 6 of 12

Part 7 of 12

Part 8 of 12

Then as part of tradition, the Jury President, this year being Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, gave an address as well:

Part 9 of 12

Part 10 of 12

Part 11 of 12

Part 12 of 12

[TIFF 2009 Award] Closing Ceremony

From 1300hrs Singapore Time, I should be able to update this on the fly as the awards are announced... stay tuned and hit that refresh button!

Update 1435hrs: Eastern Plays takes 3 of the major awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor!

Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix - Eastern Plays
Special Jury Prize - Rabia
Award for Best Director - Kamen Kalev, Eastern Plays
Award for Best Actress - Julie Gayet, Eight Times Up
Award for Best Actor - Christo Christov, Eastern Plays
Audience Award - Trotsky
Award for Best Artistic Contribution - No Selection

TOYOTA Earth Grand Prix - Wolf

Best Asian film Award - A Brand New Life
Special Mention - I Saw The Sun
Winds of Asia Special Contribution Award - Yasmin Ahmad

Best Picture Award - Live Tape

[TIFF 2009 Review] Up

[Up is the Closing Film of the 22nd Tokyo International Film Festival, which runs from 17th to 26th Oct 2009. This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF.]

This is a Private Flight!

Much has been said about the opening montage, and I fully agree that it's an extremely touching sequence in itself, bringing out and establishing the lonely character of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a man living out his twilight years, finally deciding to take the plunge and fulfill a lifelong dream and a promise made. If the first few minutes doesn't make you cry, then you must have a heart of stone, or never loved before.

What transpires in the film is more or less captured in the trailers already, with Fredricksen lifting up his home with thousands of helium filled balloons, off for his adventure of a lifetime, only to find a stowaway, little wilderness explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) scared stiff on his front porch. While the boy offers to become Carl's sidekick for that final badge of honour to be promoted to senior explorer, little did he know that he too is up for a crazy adventure in South America, joined by a talking dog Dug (Bob Peterson) and an endangered bird, to Carl's dismay as they detract him from his mission.

While seemingly implausible in many ways (for instance having the flimsy contraption the size of a house with perishable balloons survive a mean thunderstorm), in order for the narrative and plot elements to work, you have to accept what's going on with a pinch of salt. Pixar has so far never disappointed me with its films, and Up continues the company's successful box office juggernaut by reminding everyone that it's all about the story first, the strong characters next, and animation just going about getting the job done.

It's a moving tale about loss and the prospect of letting go. Essentially it's a Carl Fredericksen story, where through the interaction with his new found friends, as opposed to fiends such as contractors and developers eyeing his property, discover new meaning to life, and a second chance for that sense of adventure that's been buried by life's unfortunate ups and downs. While a chapter has been closed in his earlier life of companionship, herein lies another opportunity to live out a new adventure, no point sitting around and mope in self pity. It's quite uplifting in that it's full of hope, yet dishes out enough nostalgic reminiscence that makes you all warm and fuzzy inside.

There were two moments that I particularly enjoyed, outside of the opening montage. The first was that parallel with The Fountain, where one is tasked to complete a beautiful experience by making new ones, on one hand never to forget, but on the other never to make a crutch of an excuse out of it, and to move on. The second was how life as depicted unfolds itself in phases, where the unexpected can crop up and derail even the best of intentions and plans. But so long as you have someone to share the spoils with, good and bad, then perhaps everything else is tolerable.

If there's a complaint about the quality of the 3D here, then I must say that amongst all the 3D live action and animated ones shown here to date, Up is unfortunately most disappointing of the lot because there wasn't much sequences that maxed out its 3-dimensional ability. You might just be better off with the 2D version, to save some cash for films that are truly designed to envelope your senses, rather than just to provide some depth of field.

Up is utterly moving, a romance story if you'd like in its inner core, filled with plenty of lovely moments that never lose you, and punctuated with adequate and well timed comedic. The short film that preceded Up, called Partly Cloudy, also served as a great appetizer to the feature, and reinforces the notion that a simple tale about a stork and a cloud that addresses the perennial children's question on where do babies come from, and without dialogue at that, can still move you if told in a way that's sincere and full of heart.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久) (World Premiere)

Worlds Apart

It is the 1980s, and China is on the cusp of opening up its economy to the world. Writer-director Li Fangfang's story which unfolds over a period of twenty years, enabled her to succinctly capture in the backdrop, a slice of life in its contemporary history, where its citizens stand at the doorway to globalization and opportunities such as the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, yet faced with issues such as decadent youths, and with a more open border, the SARS epidemic. It is this macroscopic backdrop that she unfolds a love story that calls to question the notion of everlasting love, whether such a fluffy idealism does exist.

And you can't help but to feel the tremendous pessimism that the characters have to experience, being quite pointedly told that there is no such thing as true white, that all white will eventually yellow. The lead female protagonist, Shen Xingchen (Liu dong), had to witness the breakup of her parents' relationship that came from the blind side and with tragic consequences, sowing the seeds of the non-permanence of Love, as she experienced the second of such breakups at her next foster home, her uncle's.

But one cannot stop this smart teenager from falling in love, and Xingchen's beau turns out to be Ming Yuan (Huang Ming), a boy she knew since childhood and has been taking care of her since. Both are scarred characters when it comes to love though, with Ming Yuan being unable to forgive his mother for finding another man when his dad had to be incarcerated for a smuggling racket gone wrong. With backgrounds as these, one wonders if they could pull through, since their expectations have been pretty much set, that nothing lasts forever, and have this innate fear of being abandoned by their loved ones, no thanks to being witnesses to the previous generations's non-permanence in relationships.

They understand what's the point of their love if not forever, and Li Fangfang's story throws at this pair of lovers, one of distance given Xingchen's enrolment to the prestigious Peking University and Ming Yuan's staying back at Hang Zhou, one of disease in the SARS epidemic keeping them further apart through quarantine, and the last one which I find the most problematic for the protagonists, one of a third party. I suppose it's always a dilemma when you are in such a scenario, whether to continue to pursue you one true love despite not being able to be physically close to each other, or would you make do (and I mean short-changing yourself here) with a nearer alternative who has demonstrated that she's probably insanely in love with yourself.

Besides romantic love, Li Fangfang's story which is excellent, also involves a more holistic look at Love from the parents angle (like the tough love on their children) and also has a very maternal look at the involvement of mothers. There are those who abandon their children in exchange for love, like Xingchen's, and those who despite being rejected and have left, never fail to return or find opportunities in trying to reconcile with their children. The role of women in China has also evolved, and through Li's multi-layered story, we see how it used to be of a mindset that one has to marry a rich man in order to secure a comfortable life for the future, versus Xingchen's modern woman approach of getting a good education, and then striking it out on her own. She doesn't even bat twice at resigning from a high flying job, because she is confident of her abilities in carving a niche for herself.

Technically, first time feature film cinematographer Lyle Vincent does a fantastic job in lensing this picture with quality, with a certain romanticism in the rhythm of the picture. And there's one scene which was fantastically crafted and edited involving a standoff and a pursuit (that culminates in the still you see above) that you just achingly feel for with your heart as you root for the lovers, if not for their responsibilities to others that come as a show-stopper. The leads chosen for the film were also competent in their delivery of their characters spanning the two decades with noticeable, subtle differences in performances as they mature in their roles, especially Liu Dong in making her Xingchen a rich little poor girl in the emotional aspect.

With an excellent soundtrack supported by songs from Taiwanese crooner Chyi Chin and the late Hong Kong mega-star Leslie Cheung, Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting is my last film screening for this year's festival, and what a joy it was to have ended with a film that came with plenty of bitterness before getting to be achingly sweet.

[TIFF 2009 Q&A] Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting (天长地久)

LtoR: Li Fangfang, Huang Ming, Liu Dong and the producer whose name I didn't get as no questions went his way!

There was yet another Q&A session after the second screening of the film today, though only director Li Fangfang, producer , actors Liu Dong and Huang Ming were around to meet and greet the audience, as well as to answer their questions. In a nice surprise gesture, the first three who had asked questions, were given autographed posters each!

The session from the Q&A as follows, in English, Mandarin and Japanese:

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

You can also check out the Press Conference held earlier over here and the previous Q&A session from this link.

My review of the film can be found here.

[TIFF 2009 Award] The Audience Award Competition Section

And the winner of this year's TIFF Audience Award Competition Section goes to Jacob Tierney for The Trotsky. Held at the outdoor TIFF Park / Arena, both director Jacob Tierney and his father/producer Kevin Tierney were on hand to receive their prizes and to acknowledge and thank for their win:

The Ceremony

Friday, October 23, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] The Laughing Policeman (笑う警官) (World Premiere)

We're On Your Side

Hong Kong may have its Laughing Gor, and now comes Japan's very own Laughing Policeman!

Based on the novel “Haruki Library” by novelist Jo Suzuki, the plot has all the ingredients of a gritty police suspense thriller that plays out just over 24 hours. Literally starting off with a bang, a policeman in Hokkaido leaves behind a suicide note "I didn't sing" before pulling the trigger with a gun to the mouth. Then comes the whirlwind of a media circus on the police force's alleged corruption and its secret slush funds, where cops pocketed money into personal accounts rather than for investigations use, calling attention to its unlawful accounting practices. The Article 100 Committee is soon set up, given powers to call up, in secret, any police officer for investigations and to probe into corruption within its ranks.

The plot further thickens with a seemingly unrelated murder case with a policewoman found dead in a strange apartment premise with ownership links back to the cops, and the precinct cops told to beat it when HQ representatives consisting the elite top brass, muscle their way to take over the investigations. It soon wraps with the Special Crime Task Force given the kill order for the accused detective Tsukui (Hiroyuki Miyasako), which we all should know, amongst the police force, would be something that would send shockwaves throughout the organization since they are going after one of their own.

Naturally all cops are tensed, with their organization reputation at stake and an investigations that seem more to be a cover up than thorough, and a group of policemen and woman decide to band together and work outside of the system to unravel all the mysteries involved in this complex web of intrigue. Led by Saeki (Nao Omori), they set up a shadow investigations unit at the Black Bird Jazz Bar, opened by an ex-cop, and call their rag-tag group The Laughing Policeman, giving themselves some 15 hours to solve the murder, and to deliver Tsukui to the Article 100 Committee when they find out that he might have been framed as his appointment with the Committee has been leaked, that he probably holds crippling information and whose testimony could bring down some folks at the top.

And so the stage is set for many dizzying twists and turns, where allegiance to the police organization, and amongst The Laughing Policeman get called into question from time to time. It just gets to you when integrity even amongst the unofficial grouping gets put under the spotlight, never being able to trust intentions. With careers at stake, you would know how hard it is to have to go against your employer, and the dilemma here is of course to either uphold justice which is what is morally right in the career of choice, or to take the more selfish, myopic view of saving one's own skin and be part of the corrupt system to help cover up its ugly tracks.

Director Haruki Kadokawa handled all the plot threads like a seasoned professional, opting not for quick edits and frantic pacing, but for a measured pace despite the race against time gimmick, leaving you room to analyze the clues and to connect the dots. I particularly liked how he had demonstrated the moral dilemma everyone faces, and how lines are drawn in the sand, with the grapevine being the imperfect tool to get to those wanting to assist in blowing the whistle, and to get some help from within official resources. Kadokawa designed plenty of moments that keep you guessing who's trustworthy, and who's not, with some buddy-cop brotherhood like a typical Hong Kong thriller thrown in for good measure as well.

With sophistication in how intricate the plot points all spiral like a hydra, this isn't your typical action thriller, so don't be looking out for the next big action sequence. It's more dialogue driven with a couple of surprises thrown up along the way, telling of just how deep the rabbit hole of corruption had been, and the difficulties in working outside the system against one's employer and organization. The cast delivered their roles without much fuss, and against a jazzy blues soundtrack, this film comes as quite the laidback surprise despite its rather abrupt finale.

[TIFF 2009 Stage Appearance] The Laughing Policeman (笑う警官)

Standing Proud

The Laughing Policeman sent quite a contingent with 10 cast and crew members gracing the occasion of their world premiere, with Haruki Kadokawa (Director), Jo Suzuki (Original Novel), Nao Omori (Actor), Yasuko Matsuyuki (Actress), Hiroyuki Miyasako (Actor), Shugo Oshinari (Actor), Yukijiro Hotaru (Actor), Eugene Nomura (Actor), Meiken Ito (Actor), Kohei Otomo (Actor) all in attendance this afternoon.

In Japanese only:

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3, Final Words Before The Film Began

You can read my review of The Laughing Policeman here.

[TIFF 2009 Press Conference] The Laughing Policeman (笑う警官)

LtoR: Director Haruki Kadokawa, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Nao Omori, Yasuko Matsuyuki and Novelist Jo Suzuki

This afternoon, the team from the Hokkaido Police suspense drama The Laughing Policeman conducted a press conference to promote their film, together with the original novelist Jo Suzuki.

In Japanese, with an English translated voiceover (if you listen hard enough!)

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

You can read my review of The Laughing Policeman here.

[TIFF 2009 Stage Appearance] If Blessed (真幸くあらば)

A larger entourage from If Blessed turned up for the Stage Appearance with the audience prior to the screening of the film, and talked a little bit about their movie.

In Japanese only:

My review of the film can be found here.

[TIFF 2009 Press Conference] If Blessed (真幸くあらば)

LtoR: Producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama, Machiko Ono, Cartoonist Tatsuya Egawa, Masashi Kubota, Director Kite Okachimachi

This afternoon the team from If Blessed, based on a manga, was present to introduce their film in a press conference. The original creator and cartoonist Tatsuya Egawa was also on hand to present that piece of art that we see in the picture, and true enough, the actors do resemble their print counterpart!

In Japanese only:

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

My review of the film can be found here.

[TIFF 2009 Review] Mary and Max

Mr Lonely

This was shown during the recently concluded Animation Nation film festival back in Singapore which I missed entirely, and boy was I glad to have managed to catch this here! Mary and Max is an excellent stop-motion animated piece, but more so it has a very intelligent, engaging and moving story to boot, supposedly based on a true story as the filmmakers would like to remind you, that tells of a time when pen-pals existed, something which I think has dwindled in significance and probably taken on in a different form with the dawn of the Internet.

Written and directed by Adam Elliot, Mary and Max is an extremely touching tale hidden within a wickedly dark comedy, about the unlikely friendship formed from the 70s between a young Australian girl and a middle aged American ex-mental patient, both of whom connect almost instantly for being sad, lonely souls with a yearning for some genuine friendship. Each character come with their own quirks, warts and all, but through the manner of baring their souls in the snail mail they write each other, together with little gifts from the heart, it traces the ups and downs that any relationship goes through, always emerging stronger than before.

The structure of the story is simple, giving us through the letters Mary and Max write each other, the entire backstory of their characters. Mary is 8 year old, with a dad working in one of the craziest careers I have seen ever put on film, with a mom who cannot be still because of her constant state of dizziness from her addiction to liqour, with a penchant for shoplifting to boot. And as for Max, he's a 44 year old coasting along quite peacefully in a routine lifestyle, but harbours a very ill mental condition, going into severe anxiety attacks each time Mary asks the most innocent questions pertaining to life and love.

What I totally love about the film, is how each scene comes chock full of sight and verbal gags, that just begs for more than one repeated viewing just to take it all in. It tells you a lot about the labour of love from the filmmakers in stuffing every moment with something to take away from, and something new to discover each time you watch the film, enriching the previous viewing experience. There's also plenty of animation going on in the film, with sequences crafted full of humour each time any character thinks of something, or flashes back in reminiscence, confirming that there is no effort spared in really making this an animated film to remember.

And with its wonderful visuals come the A-list voice cast, with Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman voicing the titular roles with aplomb, with Eric Bana voicing a support role as well. It's a film about the beautifully imperfect, with some really dark moments and that sense of genuine danger set up early, and cutting really close to fulfilment that makes this one gripping tale to sit through from start to finish, especially when the notion of betrayal of trust gets thrown in the picture, and the fragility of friendship when honesty isn't that forthcoming, or that feeling of being unfairly used for someone else's gain to fame and fortune.

I've always been a fan of stop-motion animation, and Mary and Max just reinforces this love for the art form, going to show that there's no need for gimmicks such as 3D, so long as there is a strong sincere story to tell, alongside some top notch animation. A definite on my recommended list, a fairy tale treatment done right and set for adults to enjoy.

[TIFF 2009 Review] Rain Dogs

[This review is pulled forward from the archive to coincide with the film’s screening at this year’s TIFF.]

Growing Pains

The FOCUS: First Cuts project seemed to have stalled into making the local screenings despite last year's fanfare during the project launch, and it's probably because of the lacklustre box office sales that seemed to add to the reluctance. Rain Dogs (and the other remaining movie My Mother is a Belly Dancer) were given new lease of life at the local halls in a one-off weekend screening, which allowed me to view this movie which have been making waves at major film festivals overseas.

Maybe I did not get the appeal of the movie, as I found it difficult to seek that iota of connection with Rain Dogs. Perhaps I haven't been the kampong boy nor experienced the type of life that the protagonist led. What I do see though, are two separate stories telling the life of Tung, in the first where he's in KL with his brother, and the story dwells on the excellent brotherly love between the two boys, while the second, his exodus from home into the solace of relatives, where he experiences puppy love and somehow finds strength in character, a departure from his relatively whimsical earlier self.

Directed by Ho Yuhang, Rain Dogs tells of Tung's development from boy to man, and maybe, just maybe, his innate search for a father figure in his life. We see that his brother served as the person he admires, and one who takes care of him, while in the later stages, it becomes his uncle, and even more interestingly, the suggestion of Tung being the big brother whom his nephew looks up to. And I thought while Tung develops his bravado, he still retained a certain gawky demeanour, which is actually true of anyone coming of age.

Given the two disparate settings of the movie before and after the opening credits, it allowed for some contrast between the city and the smaller town, with the city being portrayed as dangerous - gangsters, pimps and their broads stalking their next prey, snooker parlour gangsters, and even the blatant corruption amongst white collar workers. The small towns on the other hand, provides opportunity for growth, family bonding, and even a whiff of romance in the air.

There are plenty of picturesque scenes in the movie which allows for some quiet contemplation, and some touching moments too where and when characters connect. If you keep your eyes peeled at the minutest of details, you will probably break out into a smile or two. One of my favourite scenes involved a beer can, which I thought was very subtle, and I actually burst out laughing, much to the puzzlement of the rest. Also, I would like to highlight that the movie is almost devoid of songs save for one, which in my opinion, epitomizes my general feeling towards watching the movie.

Fans of Yasmin Ahmad will also relish seeing their favourite director in front of the camera rather than behind it. Playing the aunt of Tung, she speaks Cantonese quite flawlessly in her role, and yes, she can act too you know? In case you're not aware, Yuhang has also starred in Yasmin's movie - Rabun.

Rain Dogs may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is just as diverse as the FOCUS: First Cuts project sets itself out to be.
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