Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 of 2009

It's time for that annual ritual of putting out the best-of lists, and a pattern can be spotted each year with the films that make it to mine. This year though it's the rather unfortunate predominance of Death as a theme or a backdrop, and it's no wonder though that it had somewhat lent its invisible hand in the shortlist and eventual whittling down a list of at least 50 to the top 10. Here goes...

10. The Blue Mansion
Glen Goei's return to the cinema, The Blue Mansion is probably the most expensive local film ever made to date, only to be shot predominantly up north in Penang's UNESCO heritage site, the Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion. But that doesn't delineate the film from its Singapore roots, given its parallels that can be seen from characters, moods and the issues brought up. It's a Singapore film at its best, with veteran thespians from both sides of the Causeway showcasing their acting talents boosted by top class production values. More from Glen Goei, please.

9. Up
If the first 10 minutes doesn't move you to tears, then you have a certified heart of stone. I cannot recall a film that sucker punches you at an emotional level, like how Up managed to. A reminder that we should live life to its fullest and to continuously create our own adventures. It takes a lot of guts to have a senior citizen anchor a children's film, but Up has proven that it has appeal for all ages.

8. 3 Idiots
To learn and acquire knowledge, not just for the sake of passing exams. This Bollywood film starring one of the Khans, Aamir Khan, tells the story of a group of varsity friends who get influenced by the live-wire of the trio, with all the ingredients that make that perfect masala movie. Containing deep themes of friendship and learning balanced with crowd pleasing entertainment that only a Bollywood film can offer, Aal Izz Well for this film.

7. Talentime
Yasmin Ahmad's final feature film, it has all the hallmarks of the sentimental director in tackling race and religious issues without shoveling them down your throat. With a mixture of fresh faces and the usual suspects in its casting, Talentime will make you laugh and cry at the same time, where the multi-racial school serves as an analogy for the society that we live in, that tolerance and appreciation of our differences were always meant to be celebrated, never scorned at or looked down upon.

6. City of Life and Death (南京! 南京!)
There are a number of Nanking themed films out there, but Lu Chuan's version provides that comprehensive look at the atrocities that were reportedly committed, and provided a stark unflinching portrayal of those horrors, having in place an iconic scene involving a baby that will definitely shock you to the core. The excellent capturing of Fear through mood and countless of facial close-ups make this compelling viewing.

5. The Hurt Locker
A war film like none other, Kathryn Bigelow dispenses with the usual routine red-blue wire bomb nonsense, and crafts a film that deals with the addiction of war amongst its combatants. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff gripping from the get go, with ace performances and chemistry shared between leads Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. joined by a host of notable cameos.

4. District 9
Science fiction has a new classic, and it took a rookie feature filmmaker to breathe freshness into the genre with a tale that entertains and puts you deep in thought about the negativity in humanity's flaws, tackling larger issues such as discrimination. But that doesn't mean that it lacked some eye-popping action sequences when the narrative called for it, with some of the most inventive battles ever seen in a life-action film involving humans, aliens, and mechas too!

3. Departures (Okuribito)
The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this film is achingly beautiful, about a man finally finding his calling in life, only to be shunned by his wife for being in a taboo profession. Wonderful characterization, and a fantastic insight into a rarely seen ritual that honours the dearly departed.

2. Sell Out!
Multi-talented Malaysian filmmaker Yeo Joon Han wore plenty of hats here in order to make his debut feature film, a musical comedy that has one of the most rip-roaring opening sequences I've experienced in a long time. Its brand of humour is broad, from slapstick "mo-lei-tau" to witty dialogue, and there's never a dull moment in this film that has so much going for it that it begs for multiple viewings to catch all the visual gags and easter eggs contained within. A definite delight

1. (500) Days of Summer
It's still quite a painful film to sit through, for me at least, not that it was badly made, but because it cut extremely close to the heart. A love story that wasn't, and one that had its chance whittle away long before it even began. One simple line was all it took about the inability to feel for someone the same way every morning, to hit the nail squarely on the head with its brutal, honest take on relationships that don't work out.

I can only select 10 to highlight, but there are definitely a lot more from the more than 250 films theatrically screened this year that deserves an honourable mention, in alphabetical order and no other particular order:

An Education
Blood Ties (還魂)
Climber's High (Kuraimâzu Hai)
The Cove
Crank: High Voltage
I Love You, Man
If You Are The One (非诚勿扰)
Kabei Our Mother (Kaabee)
Luck By Chance
Nobody to Watch Over Me (Dare Mo Mamotte Kurenai)
Overheard (竊聽風雲)
Personal Effects
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year
Star Trek
State of Play

Mother (Madeo / 마더)

Deny Everything!

We have two foreign films now screening in Singapore which tells of the immense love that parents have for their children in a dysfunctional family nucleus, and the themes are quite uncannily similar, with all round fine performances, so much so that they are representing their respective countries in next year's Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.

Taiwan's Not Without You looks at a father's unrelentless pursuit for societal justice to get his daughter an education, never mind having to jump through bureaucratic hoops thrown in his direction. In Korea's Mother directed by Bong Joon-Ho, whose filmography thus far speaks of quality (the latter two being Memories of Murder and The Host), the spotlight turns to the maternal side, and a mother's immense, natural love and protection for her intellectually challenged son when he's accused by society and the authorities for being behind the brutal murder of a school girl.

If you're familiar with Bong Joon-ho's works, then Mother comes without surprise at how he deftly weaves a story about mother's love into a mystery thriller that will keep you guessing every step of the way, with enough emotional firepower to twist a knot in your stomach when the truth gets played out. It's a standard three act structure here where the first hour establishes the strong family bonds between Mother (Kim Hye-Ja) and child Yoon Do-Joon (Won Bin), bordering quite close to being incestuous (but this is glossed over since we're dealing with a man-child here), before they key murder scene becomes the catalyst for Mother to do some serious investigations work in order to prove her son's innocence, given that the perverted justice system provided that bad after-taste.

I particularly enjoyed the epilogue, which ties in with the inexplicable opening credits which made more sense once you've come full circle at the end. It's the classic mantra of two wrongs never making one right, and how in the protection of loved ones, one will resort to extreme measures that blind common, good sense, and become a "rather you than me" syndrome, which I believe every one of us are capable of if we find ourselves pushed to a corner with no where to run. Bong Joon-Ho is again at his element in unravelling the investigations process, which ties in black comedy with painful, dramatic moments, being evenly paced with heightened tension at appropriate moments.

And kudos of course must go to actress Kim Hye-Ja, who almost single-handedly carried the film on her own, since Won Bin disappears mid-way through. Her single mom, with so much affection for her son, just dazzles and makes it convincing that she's been that single pillar of strength and shelter for her son when he gets up to shenanigans brought about by no good company of his. It's not the first time Do-Joon got himself into a fix, given the strange mannerisms he's been taught to try and jog his memory, and Won Bin showcases his acting chops as the dim-witted boy whose disability gets frequently exploited, coming off as endearing at times, so much so that you're quick to judge and side with him as a victim of circumstances, being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mother is definitely recommended stuff, especially if you're a Bong Joon-Ho fan as he delivers yet another powerful film that will leave plenty of post-screening discussion. My only regret is not having to have watched this earlier (since it's playing on KrisWorld), but better late than never. Make time for this, as it's only screening in 2 halls in Singapore, otherwise you'll have to make do with the DVD which is already on sale overseas.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Not Without You (No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti / Bu Neng Mei You Ni / 不能沒有你)

Where Have You Been?

A man in despair walks down a lonely road, only for a watering truck to creep up behind him while spraying its contents on the roadside, drive by and soaking the man despite having plenty of room to avoid doing so. In some ways this simple scene highlighted the plight that the downtrodden face from society, or from people with the ability to show a little kindness or assistance - that it's easy to kick sand into others when their chips are down, or just plainly don't give two hoots about others.

This black-and-white Taiwanese film by Leon Dai, which walked away with major victories at the recent Golden Horse Awards, tells the simple story based on a true-life incident, where a man took his daughter and perched themselves precariously at the edge of an overhead bridge over major road traffic, threatening to jump off because they've been given the short end of the stick from society time and again.

Chen Wen-Pin and Chao Yo-Hsuan play the father Li Wu-Hsiung and 7 year old daughter Yu-Ting / Mei in very convincing terms, being the broken family that they are with Wu-Hsiung not even being the legal guardian of his child because she was born out of wedlock, with his "wife" walking out on them, and Wu-Hsiung not even knowing that she was already married then. It is these complications in his family setup, that they somehow slipped through the cracks of society and its welfare system, whose safety nets don't offer much reprieve when he's found out to be illegally living in an abandoned warehouse with his daughter, though happy in their makeshift home.

Much of the initial scenes highlights their living conditions and the odd, high-risk job that Wu-Hsiung undertakes to put food on the table, and this gets down at a leisurely pace to evoke sympathies for the audience to their plight, making one wonder just how things deteriorated into attempted suicide. The other bulk of the movie focused on how any bureaucratic system can fail those who somehow find themselves outside of the system, being treated as a no-good problem that refuses to go away. In such cases the easiest way to wriggle out from, is to push the problem to some other folks for them to take it on.

I suppose anyone who has dealt with bureaucracy would have faced this "taichi" (or pushing hands) in one form and one place or another, either having legislation thrown at your face, or just faced with impassable red tape. With the law being cold and justice being blind, if we were to put ourselves into Wu-Hsiung's shoes, we can imagine the frustration at how folks just refuse to think out of the box, or discard that uncaring hat (that it's just a job) for a moment, and to come up with real, from the bottom of the heart, solutions, than to pay cheap, lip service with a sense of relief that the issue is now passed along. The film's other message directs at our uncaring attitude that we are prone to exhibit - that if there's nothing in it for me, then it's not worthwhile investing effort in.

But the film is also more than that, and the story by Chen Wen-pin and Leon Dai also allowed for the capture of really harsh scenery from the port city of Kaoshiung. Running at a breezy 85 minutes, it captured enough to layer the story, without a minute going overboard with its art-house tendencies. What I also enjoyed here is the friendship between Wu-Hsiung and A-Tsai, the latter who has stood by his friend for many years, offering him as best as an advice anyone could give, and going out of his way to assist in ways that are way, way better than those in the system and with the know-how could.

The more interesting observation however, as far as the local scene is concerned, is how this film finally made it to our shores here, with its highly mashed Taiwanese Mandarin, Hokkien and Hakka dialogue completely intact, without a single snip, including all the "Kans" (subtitled as "F*ck" intact as well, without blurring / blacking it out). Word on the street was that this may not have been screened here due to its language, but the major victories at the recent Golden Horse Awards where it also won Best Picture, had likely boosted it chances and warranted a review.

Furthermore, this film is rated PG, compared to the last Taiwanese film Cape No 7 (NC16) for language, though the latter film had expected broad-based appeal and had vulgarities which had to be crudely snipped off (then rated PG). Perhaps we may be seeing a relaxation of the rules for award winning art-house films, bestowed upon with a lower rating despite some elements which may have given this something higher than a PG. But no matter the case, if a Taiwanese film can be screened with its language intact, then I am still crossing my fingers one day, in my lifetime, that Hong Kong, Cantonese films be screened intact as well. It's a baby step that I hope can turn into a giant leap in due course.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

[DVD] Blue (2009)

If I may broadly categorize Bollywood films into two camps. One, the original works, which might even extend to remakes of films from the other regions in the subcontinent, but seldom seen outside of it. The masala formula would work its magic into creating an entertaining tale filled with a song and dance extravaganza. Then the other would be the stitching together of elements from other films, seldom referred to as paying homage or acknowledged if at all, and trying to pass them off as originals. These tend to be predictable, and plainly concealing a bad, if non-existent story. Blue unfortunately falls into the latter category.

I had originally wanted to watch this on the big screen, given its tooting of the horn that it's the first to feature stunning underwater photography in a Bollywood action film. But the result here, for an actioner, is something that left much to be desired. While references to Into The Blue can be discounted by virtue of it being just another treasure hunter movie set in the high seas, the other sequences here were something that you would have seen before, from boring MI:2 motorcycle chase scenes, the Bourne Ultimatum for fisticuffs on board a boat, to the one that takes the cake involving a gunfight that was a lift out from Bad Boys 2.

Lines were also found lifted from films like Hitch, but thankfully this was kept to a minimum. Set in the Bahamas with locations like Thailand also included, this film dwells on the search for the missing sunken ship Lady in Blue, which is said to contain treasures beyond a man's widest dreams. A simple, carefree fisherman Sagar (Sanjay Dutt) holds key to the location of the ship, given a diving expedition with his dad when young which resulted in a tragedy. His good friend, rich playboy Aarav (Akshay Kumar, whose films this year had rather mediocre box office returns) desires that Sagar would come to his senses and make them both richer, but to Sagar it's a secret that he would bring to the grave.

Enter Sagar's reckless brother Sam (Zayed Khan) who's being pursued by thugs all the way from Thailand for a sum of 50 million dollars that he owes, and you know just what the solution is for our reluctant Sagar. As mentioned the film got made through the stringing of action sequences one after another, with room for some romance between Sagar and Mona (Lara Dutta, and Sam and Nikki (Katrina Kaif in a short supporting role), but the much touted underwater action scenes turn out to be nothing more than a drop in the ocean, much of it against faceless thugs who seem to appear quite conveniently to challenge our testosterone filled trio.

There's a nice twist to the story about families which gave the weak story some sense, but alas this was too little too late, as the finale was one hurried affair that seemed more like a haphazardly inserting a coda just for the sake of, damage having already been made by the uninspiring action and plot. If only it had taken time to further develop the characters beyond their cardboard caricatures, which would have made it all the more palatable in terms of story, rather than to stick its guns to the action which were cobbled from films made in the West.

Region Free DVD by Shemaroo Entertainment comes presented in gorgeous anamorphic widescreen format, except for an opaque watermark which pops on screen at the bottom right corner every now and then. Audio is presented in its original Hindi/English track and you can select from a 5.1 Dolby Digital or plain Stereo. Subtitles are available in English, French, Dutch, German and Arabic, and Scene Selection is over 18 chapters.

Staple to Bollywood film DVDs, the Songs section is separate, and allows you to choose specifically which track you want to revisit, either Rehnuma (3:59), Aaj Dil (3:09) or Kylie Minogue's Chiggy Wiggy (4:25). There's a play all function as well, and all songs once completed will lead you back to the menu.

Other Special Features include the standard Making of the Movie (20:16), presented in letterbox format, which goes behind the scenes at the shoot, as well as interviews with the cast and crew. A lot of time got devoted to the making of the action sequences here, and you'll even see Akshay Kumar get hurt while filming underwater. Some of the clips here also had segments from the respective Making of the Songs such as Chiggy Wiggy (6:58) and A.R. Rahman's Fiqrana (5:26).

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Launch - Latent Images: Film in Singapore (2nd edition) by Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde

Latent Images: Film in Singapore Second edition has just been published. This extensively updated edition with new colour and black-and-white illustrations presents a comprehensive examination of the country's film landscape from the early days of local film production until 2007/08.
(Ridge Books, National University of Singapore Press, 2009. 368 pages, 37 colour plates, 108 b/w photographs. ISBN: 978-9971-69-456-2. Soft cover.)

For anyone interested in learning about Singapore films, there's a key "Go To" book that you have to get your hands on to bring you up to speed with the local film scene, providing details of our glorious filmmaking past, tracing the current evolution, and containing just about everything from screening venues, film festivals, and rich appendices upon which the more serious of us would rely on for the building of research. Over the last few years there have been other books written about Singapore films and the film scene here, but there is none other like Latent Images.

I read the first edition of the book a couple of years back just as this blog was in its infancy, and without a doubt that library loaned copy of the book provided some firm grounding upon which my interest was piqued even further. It was tough luck too to try and hunt down a retail copy, and over the last few years there have been various other books written about local films, but none as comprehensive as what Professor Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde had put together.

Books Actually played host this evening to the two authors in the book launch of the 2nd edition of Latent Images, which now covers the scene up until 2007/8. Extensively researched into neatly organized chapters tracing the beginnings to spotlights on short films and specific interests items such as censorship and a comprehensive write up on the Singapore International Film Festival, Latent Images cements itself yet again as the foremost book to get for any local film buffs, as well as those who are keen to get up to speed with Singapore films and the local film scene.

Enjoy the proceedings from the book launch, (LtoR) Yvonne Ng Uhde, Professor Jan Uhde, and Moderator/Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin:

Part 1 of 4

Part 2 of 4

Part 3 of 4

Part 4 of 4

Latent Images is now available in bookstores, and of course, at Books Actually.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Fourth Kind

A Real Hoax

I suppose the formula is simple enough to follow and fabricate on your own. After all, we've seen at least one monster movie, and two horror flicks rake in the millions with something small, viral, and highly effective. But unless it's properly done, it can turned out quite half-baked like what The Fourth Kind is, forgetting that beneath the gimmick still lies the essence of a sensible story to make everything credible.

The view through a camera lens is beginning to turn out as the gimmick of the decade possibly, where the narrative takes the audience through witnessing what is known as "the truth", since videographic evidence cannot lie, or so it seems. Be it live action footage, or one which has the paranormal caught on camera, filmmakers also rely on the web to spread some hokey background about the origins of the film, and as such hopes to drum up pre-release buzz to put bums on seats. Needless to say this scheme works best for horror flicks, or sci-fi ones with still a touch of horror.

The Fourth Kind breaks the fourth wall in the beginning and ending, serving as the bookends to a strange tale that seemed to lack proper meat in-between. Milla Jovovich walks up to the camera and tells the audience that she plays a character called Dr Abbey Tyler, whose recorded, archived footage serves as the basis for this entire reenactment that we're going to watch, which deals with strange sightings and experiences with aliens. We're also advised to believe what we want to believe, and the finale also reminded us of the same school of thought, reinforced by writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi's own appearance to do the same.

The film then shuttles between "reel" moments, and "reel within reel" footage, voice recordings, third party cameras and so on, to tell the story of Abbey Tyler's strange experience in the early days of October 2000, where her patients in a town in Alaska begin to exhibit unorthodox behaviours during treatment. Sheriff August (Will Patton) believes it could stem from Abbey's probable professional negligence, or even a tinge of her own insanity getting the better of her, no thanks to a husband she claims was murdered in their house.

Her companions Abel (Elias Koteas) and Awolowa (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) also leaned in and supported her through their investigation into the phenomenon experienced, although when called to stand up for her, seem to do their own disappearing act. Much of the narrative then goes on to suggest that either they were on to something that's much beyond them, given their personal involvement and experience of the unpleasant, or squarely puts the entire episodes on the plea of insanity, never to be discussed again.

Knowing that the entire film is based on an imaginary, fictional premise, kudos must still go to writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi for building up the creep factor, where the hair on your back will stand on ends as the film progresses, utilizing the same old bag of tricks found in any horror movie. "Abbey Tyler" looks deranged enough for you to pity and doubt her, and Osunsanmi uses plenty of camera tricks and a variety of presentation techniques to make it look like a documentary and a horror film combined.

But as mentioned, the essence of a sensible story is key, which the film failed to deliver on that count. It tried to wriggle its way out through its setting of expectations right at the beginning, but that is just plain old smokescreen. It might have worked better should it have made a clearer stand, rather than to sit on the fence and not commit to anything other than to continuously suggest that it's real. That itself is a tell tale sign (if it's really real and that big of an issue, surely we've heard it on the news before) that it's made up, and took away some of the lustre of a classic that this could have become.

Still, it's an interesting film in how recent trends exploiting "reality" could be used to dabble in a whole array of genres.

Old Dogs

Good Old Chums

Being a Disney film, one would not expect anything raunchy to contribute to the laughs here, having just one particular moment about having two dads who are close would have suggested something of an unconventional family nucleus, but this was quietly and quickly broached. Other than that, this film happened to be funny man Bernic Mac's swan song, and one which came in the aftermath of personal tragedy to the Travoltas, with John a starring roles opposite Robin Williams, and wife Kelly Preston being in a supporting role playing the latter's object of affection.

I would like to give this film some brownie points, but this is quite typical of the many parents-children films out there, with the former group put into situations to please the latter, and therein ripe for many comedic moments. John Travolta and Robin Williams play Charlie and Dan respectively, two best friends for over 30 years who co-own a lucrative boutique sports marketing film which is on the cusp of one of their biggest deals ever with the Japanese. However, a fling from the past (Kelly Preston) re-enters Dan's life, and came with a pair of 7 year old twins in tow (one of whom is played by the real life daughter of John Travolta and Kelly Preston). Needing to serve time for 2 weeks, Dan agrees to become the guardian of his own kids whom he has never met, and since Charlie has to get into the act, his character is someone who would stand by his friend and to help out where necessary.

So begins these two old dogs' adventure into parenthood, other than looking after dogs, hitting on women and running their business. You can name films like Dwayne Johnson's The Game Plan and Vin Diesel's The Pacifier as films belonging to the same genre, with this one having plot development that you can predict with your eyes closed as it follows a set formula of reaching out, and gaining the respect, trust and love of the kids. Themes like the importance of family and friendship rear their usual heads here, though being a Disney film such themes are like a given.

The title too has some significance for old fogeys like myself that time and tide wait for no man, and if one doesn't focus on the important things in life, life will just pass you by. The funniest moment in the entire film involved the mix up of pills in an extended scene involving a big fat appetite, facial twitches and contortions and the lack of psycho-motor skills on a golf course no thanks to an exaggerated visual haywire depth of field. Other than that the film never lets up on any moment where it could sneak in a Grandparent related, geriatric joke to highlight the disparity of ages between the two friends, and the kids.

There were some noticeable errors in the film though, stemming mostly from calling of the actors' real names, with more than one instance where I caught a “Bernie” (Mac) or a “John” (Travolta). But minor nitpicking aside, cameos by Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Justin Long and that animatronic gorilla provide additional characters to laugh with and laugh at. Only that such laughs come in limited quantities, with a visibly muted Robin Williams unable to go the whole nine yards since we know what he's capable of as a humourous live-wire. It's Disney family friendly fare after all.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

The New Entourage

Gone are the days when a comedy with a premise as simple as this, would have made me laugh uncontrollably at every instance of humour. It's either I've grown older and more cynical, or have totally lost my funny bone. I'd reckon that it's more of the former, as I still laugh just as hard when I revisit comedies done by the Zucker Brothers time and again, which measured by my personal yardstick, goes to show that the comedies these days lack a certain oomph. Watching this was a reminiscence of an era that I'm still missing, where comedies really gave audiences some bang for their buck with jokes that will send you rip-roaring.

What filmmakers like director Neal Brennan would reckon is funny, is the constant dropping of F-bombs and turning everything possible into a sexual innuendo, be it hitting on the gays, or treading so finely on pedophilia, which I suppose to him is meant to be funny with a female cougar scouring quite unsuccessfully a boy who's trapped in a man's body.

The flimsy plot on which the laughs are built upon, involve a used car business founded by Ben Selleck (James Brolin), who has seen better days, and is now threatened with foreclosure. His sales force, made up of the likes of a senile drill sergeant (Charles Napier) and a madcap Korean (Ken Jeong rising to some prominence these days), spells doom especially when they lose customers more than keep and sell them something. Hence extreme times like this meant to engage an external, proven consultant, and that's Don Ready (Jeremy Piven) and his team of Jibby Newsome (Ving Rhames), Brent Gage (David Koechner) and Babs Merrick (Kathryn Hahn).

Part of the fun here I suppose is how each character has to exorcise their personal demons and issues, especially with members of the Selleck family. For Don, it's the prospect of acknowledging a long lost son whom he had unknowingly left behind, and the wooing of Ivy Selleck (Jordana Spiro), who is engaged to boy band leader Paxton Harding (Ed Helms from The Hangover). Then there's Brent who has to keep Ben Selleck himself off his back given the latter's newfound sexual desire. Babs is trying to hit on man-child Peter Selleck (Rob Riggle), a 10 year old trapped in a 30 year old body. And Jibby just wants to make love. Right. Jeremy Piven also lacked that cocky charisma to have carried his character off, and unfortunately for him too that the last act have him moping and whining more than the cocksure seller that he supposedly is.

There's nothing you won't already predict in the narrative as it unfolds and coasts along from joke to joke with its cardboard characters, some of which do work, but most falling flat on its face. Nothing surprising will turn up as you'll see all incoming development from a mile away, right up to the finale. The saving grace may just be Will Farell's uncredited appearance together with two gospel angels who don't mince their lyrics, but other than that, The Goods should have tried harder to live up to its tagline in putting bums on seats - I got an entire hall to myself!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

3 Idiots

Aal Izz Well!

That's the new battlecry!

When I told a friend that 3 Idiots is the best film this festive period, he told me it takes an idiot to be able to tell one, and that I saw myself in the film. If anything, I'll take that as a compliment, as the film is about self-actualization, or the simple fact that it's a wake up call in this rat race of a world that we live in, that we lose sight of things that matter in the pursuit of success. It's a wake up call that we should be pursuing Excellence instead, which in the work environment one gets easily drowned in mediocrity, or blind faith that success follows without putting in too much hard work.

Set predominantly in the varsity days and told in chunks of flashback, this film will allow you to reminisce about a time where life was nothing but exams, lectures, and that paper chase, either making the grade or having to repeat. But there's also probably that one person, or a few if you're lucky, whom you'll meet on campus that will help you directly or indirectly, shape your outlook, thinking and just about forming long lasting bonds, whose interaction with will shape your character just before entering the workforce.

3 Idiots tell of such a friendship, amongst 3 buddies Farhan (R. Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), two mediocre students who just scrape through, and the one huge influence in their lives, ace student Rancho (Aamir Khan), the livewire of the trio who irks the Dean of Imperial College of Engineering (modelled after the famed Indian Institute of Technology), Professor Viru (Virus), played by Boman Irani. In fact, it's something like a Hindi equivalent of the local I Not Stupid with its critique on the educational system, but done with a lot more finesse, fun and without sledgehammering its ideals down your throat.

The gist of the disparity here is the concept of learning how to learn, or teaching somebody how to fish compared to just giving the students the fish. It's a reminder that knowledge gathering goes beyond just doing so for exams, and the techniques of blindly cramming will do one not much good later on. It's about the application of knowledge for the real world than to answer papers, and the joy of acquiring such knowledge. It's the 3 Idiots versus the Professor, and their peer Chatur "Silencer" (Omi Vaidya who played the role with glee, as the peer bootlicker that everyone loves to hate) who throws down the gauntlet to Rancho as to who will eventually be the more successful of the lot.

What made 3 Idiots work remarkably, is the excellent chemistry between the leads. Aamir Khan, the big name as he is, doesn't upstage his co-stars R. Madhavan and Sharman Joshi, as their characters get into various forms of shenanigans in college. Instead they complement one another in their roles, and thanks to makeup, look very much comfortable as their aged selves, and their younger teenage ones through closely cropped hair, and outfits. Aamir aces the role of Rancho as the boy who gets ahead of the pack without really trying and at times being perceived as both the smarty pants and the troublemaker of his cohort, though his sudden disappearance after graduation has made his good friends try to track him down, albeit unsuccessfully.

The film also doesn't take itself too seriously when the time calls for it, switching quite playfully to ramp up its funny moments, even at times breaking the fourth wall when telling the story of Raju's background (in black and white melodrama no less). The jokes here worked wonders as well, as do the couple of twists that roll along in the 2nd act after the interval, which is somewhat telling of the narrative depth that the film possessed. Songs were breezy and plenty of fun, and I personally enjoyed Aal Izz Well (All Is Well) best, a chant that the Idiots adopted from Rancho, who uses it to calm his heart when it's filled with anxiety and fear. I think it works.

Affairs of the heart though are kept at a bare minimum, when Rancho falls for the daughter of Professor Viru, Pia (Kareena Kapoor). While they start off in quite testy terms, things start to thaw when Pia sees Rancho for who he is, except that the secret Rancho keeps threatens to keep them permanently apart. And that is unless the other 2 pals could help it in their quest to locate Rancho. Everything falls into place at the end, especially telling of the second act when you learn of this secret at the cliffhanger prior to the interval, and this provides yet another emotional sucker punch to your gut when themes like friendship lasting forever starts entering the picture.

Chase excellence and success will follow; this film lived up to that tagline in being one of the most excellent I've watched this year. Amongst all the film offerings put out this festive season, my choice for the most uplifting, the most hopeful and a jolly entertaining ride all around with elements of everything only a Bollywood film is renowned for, is this one. Don't miss it, and it goes directly, albeit a late entry, as a contender for my top films of the year!

The Treasure Hunter (Ci Ling / 刺陵)

We Need an Exit Strategy

For what it's worth, I had rather enjoyed the first Kevin Chu - Jay Chou cinematic collaboration in Kung Fu Dunk. Thinking that their follow up film in The Treasure Hunter would be somewhere along the same vein, despite the obvious lifts from films such as Indiana Jones, The Mummy franchise and just about every desert based Hollywood film out there, I'd had rather they really go all out to copy those elements outright, than to come up with this half baked film doomed with a nonsensical story plagued with bad acting throughout.

I suppose the pairing of two of the hottest Taiwanese celebrities in Jay Chou and Lin Chiling (after her maiden outing in John Woo's Red Cliff) would be a no brainer, except that the attempt here is pretty much lame (oh how I hate to use this word), since a supposed romance turned out to be worse than the indecisive ones faced by the lovebirds from Twilight. Here there is absolutely zero chemistry between the leads, in a romance that's plagued by a courtship full of crap dialogue that will make you foam in the mouth, and a love that's so cloy and coy, that it'll make Bella and Edward look like they actually know what they're doing.

Lin Chiling had admitted that her character Lan Ting was done in a chaste manner so as not to ire Jay Chou's female fans, but I thought that is only an excuse, since the film had only one cheesy seduction scene to boast of, and even that came across as quite amateurish. Then again, perhaps this is not a romance film, but one steeped in action and adventure, since Jay Chou's character has a stylish name in Qiao Fei, some incredible powers a couple of notches up against Indiana Jones, and with a morally upright calling in life to return all antiques to their rightful place?

Wrong on that count as well. In fact, this is more of an unintentional comedy with some really bad villains who pop up now and then just to satisfy their sado-masochistic tendencies in having their arses kicked by Qiao Fei. There's a mummy man who looked as if he stepped out of a toilet wrapped from head to toe with toilet paper that just won't run out, a ghoul and a gang leader decked out in armour which were nothing more than sideshow villains, and a group of common thugs termed the Sandstorm Legion (ooh) who decided their outing should involve pulling down the structure of the only bar in the middle of nowhere. Or how about the "mysterious" desert eagle who's supposed to be the messiah and guardian of all things surrounded by sand dunes?

The entire film is one big schizophrenic affair in not knowing what it wants to do with itself, other than to milk the money off fans of Jay Chou and Lin Chiling (if she has any to begin with). Characters are tossed around with zero motivation or purpose, being in the film for the sake of. There's absolutely no plot here other than everyone trying to get their hands on a treasure map first, then to follow the markings to some mysterious area as marked out for the promise of treasure. Yawn.

And in between there's Chen Daoming and Eric Tsang (allowed in the film to switch between Cantonese and Mandarin) with the former being a poser, and the latter being the loud mouth, complementing each other as a duo out on their last adventure, one having plenty of emo moments to reflect upon, which is uninteresting to begin with. For the most parts they look like a lost duo roaming around waiting to pass time, contributing to the ensemble of wandering, mindless characters talking rubbish, given the nonsensical plot. Then again, having 5 writers contributing succumbed to the adage of having too many cooks, and one wonders if all had been smoking something to write something so comical as this film.

If there are those who are still holding on to slivers of hope that Kevin Chu can still make a decent film, this one will pulp all that to the ground pronto. The film's all over the place, with laughable action sequences. Clearly he has some fantasies about the good old dynamite sticks which can blow up like cluster bombs, or got too engrossed in the special effects that, hmm, what's the point of it all again?

There's one thing this film confirms though, it's that Jay Chou cannot act and his game is up - he's a one-expression chap made to look good thanks to wire-fu stunts. That however does not bode well for his Hollywood stint as Kato, since he has huge shoes to fill in, that of Bruce Lee's. I hope for the sake of The Green Hornet that he would have done miles better than this terribly dismal effort, clearly made just to milk off his popularity and the festive period.

One of the worst movies this year, and definitely not something that you'd want to ruin your start to 2010 with. Avoid at all costs, even the DVD.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

It's Exercise Dear Watson

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had arguably created the literary world's greatest detective operating from that famed 221B Baker Street address in London, and has been the subject of countless film interpretations, but none quite like what Guy Ritchie had crafted in making Sherlock Holmes a lot more sexier for today’s audiences, compared to the rather stiff persona perceived so far, picking up the various clues from the books and cranking those elements up by a mile. It’s hard to find someone who’s never heard of Holmes’ superb powers of observation and deduction, being that consulting detective for the police, but never one comfortable with the limelight.

Ritchie had sexed up the characters of Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and his trusty assistant Dr John Watson (Jude Law) so much, that you can’t deny the homoerotic vibes that reverberate all around when these two gentlemen grace the screen in the same scene, obviously still trying to work out emotional issues with their brotherly bonds now threatened with Watson’s engagement to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and his moving out of their operating apartment. There’s this perpetual reluctance in allowing Watson to leave, and the jibes that they share is unquestionably very much like a bickering, seasoned couple, toward the end of a close partnership which had yielded tremendous success.

Which became the opening scene of the film, where we see the dynamic duo working hand in hand to crack and solve a case of demonic rituals as conducted by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a villain who is pronounced dead by hanging, but turning up very much alive and walking the streets of London to exact his sinister plot based on Fear. Black magic, superstition and secret orders become the themes that Holmes and Watson, through science, have to solve before a New World Order gets underway in Old Victorian England, in an era just on the cusp of massive industrial revolution, having the landscape very much the highlight as well thanks to wonderful CG work that chugs along nicely in the background.

As a film for both fans of the Sherlock Holmes character and as an introduction, this film did its obligatory scenes well to bring you up to speed with the character and his idiosyncrasies, be it little tidbits like Holmes’ erratic eating habits, the ordered chaos of 221B Baker Street, his roguish methods at times, the myriad of disguises employed and of course, Watson being the biographer of their joint exploits. Some of these elements get the in-your-face treatment, while others get quietly snuck into the narrative that will certainly delight fans who spot them.

And Guy Ritchie stamps his usual trademarks with the flash forwards and backwards to highlight some of these prowesses, from his monologues on the deductions formed, to that of spicing up the limited hand-to-hand combat to show off Holmes’ natural advantage when having to rely on brute force thanks to physics and anatomical knowledge, not to mention coming with a touch of arrogance in determining how long his opponent will be out of action. Ritchie would seem to be at home with his filmography boasting a vast array of character thugs, now having his same storytelling technique applied to the other side of the law.

Some may think that Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law share no chemistry, but I disagree. Their scenes together as Holmes and Watson couldn’t be any better, and I would be hard pressed to think of another buddy pairing, which would bring out the same spirit as buddy-cop pairings from the past, such as that from the Lethal Weapon series with Gibson-Glover. Both men bring about a cavalier attitude to their respective roles, and seemed to be having a heck of a good time when paired up together, utilizing each of their specific skill sets brought to the table, especially when called upon to use their fists once in a while over their cerebral abilities. A major action sequence here also had this unbelievable fight which spilled from a lab to the docks, complete with sinking ship and flying anchors thanks yet again to the non-intrusive CG work.

The wildcard of the film proved to be Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, the only woman who could catch Holmes’ offguard, and well, the one who perennially escapes. Her role here is probably nothing more than to contribute to the setting up of the next film (if it materializes, though I don’t see why not), with the shadow of Holmes’ greatest nemesis Professor Moriaty constantly hovering, and which the filmmakers did quite brilliantly to keep him under wraps from the credits even, so that casting calls for a follow up movie would likely go into this frenzy when deciding who should step into those shoes to rival Holmes.

Only time would tell whether that follow up film would be made, but for now, do enjoy this jazzed up tale of Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, in an adventure that would keep you at the edge of your seat. Highly recommended!

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

So Cute!

I will not deny that I've grown up with the Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon series on television, and had unabashedly enjoyed their very first cinematic outing way back in the year 2007, formulaic the storyline may be like an extended cartoon episode. That it had raked in enough cash meant a sequel wouldn't be far away, and the logical progression in terms of the introduction of new characters, translated to the ushering of The Chipettes, voiced by Christina Applegate, Amy Poehler and Anna Faris as Brittany, Eleanor and Jeanette respectively.

But the sequel suffered from having a rather half baked plot in trying to pit one set of chipmunks over the other, and complicated itself by trying to do too much in too little, having to write off their human guardian Dave (Jason Lee) to replace him with nephew Toby (Zachary Levi) who's about as plain as a piece of cardboard, and the very tired Alvin versus his brothers in an all for one and one for none subplot involving his association with the football jocks in search for a higher popularity.

Even the villain too was a repeat in having Ian (David Cross) make a comeback, in trying to exploit the Chipettes for his comeback after falling from grace in the first film, without the clunky corporate executive being corrupted by greed and money stemming from good intentions. Here he's manipulative in a child-like fashion through and through, and you can see his grand plot from a mile away when he tries to isolate one of the Chipettes whom he thinks will be a better solo artist at the expense of the rest.

So it's a revisit of the same old themes of family togetherness over friends, or over careers, which got repeated twice for the different triplets. And it's either me, or somehow having the chipmunks all sounding alike (despite having a different voice cast) got to me this time round. The redeeming grace of having them sing and dance to contemporary pop tunes also took a nose dive here, having the number of performances got reduced, and of course the novelty of having such songs “munked” have lost their lustre.

However, having it released during this festive period would mean that all will get forgiven, and children will once again be thrilled by the all singing, all dancing chipmunks welcoming the festive cheer. There's a coda at the end of the film as well, so don't just head out the cinema once the credits start to roll.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

For a Limited Time Only: Burma VJ

May I Have Your Attention Please

Earlier in mid-July this year, the Singapore Film Society and The Embassy of Denmark presented a special one-off screening of Burma VJ, which had since then gone on to screen in many more countries and garnering a series of accolades.

At that screening at the Raffles Hotel Jubilee Hall, the response was tremendous, and people had to be turned away at the door most unfortunately. There were also 2 special screenings organized by Maruah Singapore in November, and if you've missed all those earlier screenings, well now is the chance to catch this riveting documentary for the first time, or all over again.

Shown exclusively at The Picturehouse, only seven (7) (yeah you read that right) screenings are available, so do catch this film while you can this weekend!

24 Dec 09 Thursday (Christmas Eve) 7.50pm
25 Dec 09 Friday (Christmas Day) 7.50pm
26 Dec 09 Saturday (Boxing Day) 4pm, 7.50pm, 9.35pm
27 Dec 09 Sunday 4pm, 7.50pm

You can read my review here, which contains snippets from the Q&A session with the director Anders Østergaard over video conference.

Don't Miss This! (OK, if this is of any push for you to watch this, it's one of the shortlisted documentaries for the Oscars next year as well)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Chaw (차우)

The Fellowship of the Boar

The last time I've seen a real wild boar, is when I was wearing green in Pulau Tekong. An endless route march brought us to some forsaken part of the island, where one little boar bolted when a group of sweaty army boys started to invade its abode. It'll be something if it's a man eating boar like the one in Chaw, some two meters long, and weighing almost half a ton, with an appetite for human organs!

Taking place in a small village which boasts itself as crime free, the film's highlight turned out not to be the set action pieces, which is the usual formulaic thrills and spills, but rather the myriad of characters that pepper the narrative, mostly for comedic reasons. Sure it has its fair share of gory moments, complete with numbing sound effects of becoming quite the enjoyable meal for the boar, but nothing beats its little moments given that breathed life into the characters. Furthermore, that throwback at Hot Fuzz with its quirky town, and a complacent attitude that just about nothing occurs in it, is something ripe for a horror-comedy such as this one.

The finale might use some trimming though, but it probably allowed for some nifty boar-charging scenes which were only a tease earlier. Some CG effects were still too cheesy but I suppose for a B-movie, one shouldn't complaint. There's a coda midway through the end-credits, so don't leave the theatre just yet when it starts to roll.

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


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar 3D

I Need to Sit Down

Yesterday, an irate friend IM-ed me and demanded to read my review of Avatar, or more to gloat over the fact that I've taken this long. He knows how anal I usually am in wanting to be the first one off the blocks, though I have to also admit I was jaded by the 15 minute preview, as well as the countless fan-fare hype surrounding the film. I saw a select cast and crew in Tokyo, and Sam Worthington either looked jet-lagged, or uninterested. Zoe Saldana on the other hand was quite the eager beaver, and Sigourney Weaver had this regal presence of being there and done that. They were there for yet another 15 minute preview for the Japanese audience, the lucky few chosen through a ballot.

This time round I had turned down friends' invitation to watch this together when the film hit our shores in a simultaneous worldwide release, and also been turned down as well because many (though I did find 2 good men) thought I was nuts to journey that far to watch this film. My screening venue of choice is at Singapore Discovery Centre's iWERKS theatre, boasting a screen that's 5 storeys high and a good sound system. Sure, many theatre chains have now added more halls for what is possibly the 3D movie event of the year, with GV converting a hall in all its cinemas, but I am still stubbornly adamant in wanting to watch this at the SDC. If it's an immersive experience James Cameron wanted audiences to feel, then I'm not going to make compromises. The icing on the cake: iWERKS only costs about half the ticket price anywhere else, with no tiered timing nonsense. It's 7 bucks flat, though it has only 2 screenings in a day at 215pm and 615pm.

So was the experience worth it? You bet, save for the end credits being unceremoniously cut off toward the end because of another screening. James Cameron is indeed no stranger to science fiction and the creation of new worlds, having been there and done that, even when there are quarters which point to plot similarities. He had continued Ridley Scott's Alien and made the sequel just as, if not even more memorable, having a Titanic film that stood out amongst those created before his technological marvel, gave spy films a good run with his True Lies, and even upping the ante of his own Terminator film with its sequel (which those that followed struggling hard to fill those shoes he left behind).

To say Cameron is a technology junkie is quite the understatement. For each film that he made, there's something new added with a Wow factor, and I still remember to this day the liquid T1000 rising from a patterned floor, making the ugly Harrier jet look sexy, and made us gawk at the recreation of the ill fated ocean liner. Between that film and this one, he had made another 3D documentary exploring the wreckage of the Titanic, and I've watched that on 3D IMAX, which sadly such a hall no longer exists in Singapore. The 3D experience now with Avatar is nothing short of mind-blowing, for the first few minutes at least, and it subconsciously just melts into the background as you continue to enjoy the visuals of the film, hardly noticing the effort that had gone in creating that depth of field or the photo-realism of the fantasy realm of beautiful alien flora and floating mountains, as if you're now watching something real that's unfolding as if you're staring out with your very own eyes, witnessing a perfect blend of live action and computer generated wizardry.

He's created a new world with Avatar, which may have jolly well been Dances with Science Fiction Wolves, or any parallels with other films cutting so close that it's easy to scream plagiarism, but like the title of the film, it's only a vessel in which to tell the story of what's probably a major mind-set shift of how a science fiction 3D film should be like, and exploited for the modern audience. The story has been told countless of times in many different forms, about the prophetic messiah who would come from outside the community, to lead them against adversary. And although the idea has been reported mooted at least a decade back, one cannot but feel how close the concept of Nature Vs Man being all the more relevant now, with that constant reminder that Nature will fight back one day, and Man will be on the losing end should we be up against a concerted force.

Sam Worthington continues his charge as leading man material, even though he's covered in blue and in gangly animated form for more than half the time He's the perennial flawed hero (and I think come complete with touched up limbs) who sees his initial mission as a chance to reclaim what was, only to find that the grass is greener on the other side, due to what else, but love. That pits him against his master, and his dilemma to regain the trust of a community that he had chosen to betray and regret. I can't help but to compare his Marine Jack Sully to Kevin Costner's John Dunbar, with his time spent living amongst the natives (here it's 3 months worth) and to learn their ways, so much so that he's more of them than he is from his own, despite the need to report back, and knowing that they will be the eventual enemy when push comes to shove regarding land and minerals.

And the great good versus evil divide comes from Colonel Miles, played to wicked perfection by Stephen Lang as the war mongering officer who just can't wait to lock and load and pick a fight given any opportunity, and the diplomatic scientist Dr. Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her crew, who are all for mutual co-existence and the sharing of cultures in a bid to understand what makes the native Na'vi tick, not to mention the countless of secrets that lie hidden in their eco-system, besides some valuable mineral to mine, the largest deposit which is sitting directly under the Na'vi's million year old giant tree.

In the Na'vis, Cameron has created quite the indigenous alien beings complete with a pigtail, which can be used to plug into nature, from binding and controlling just about every living creature (there was a mating scene, though I didn't get to see if this was put to good use), and to plug themselves into a spiritual realm as well. I suppose this provides for plenty of empathy, and I liked the part where Zoe Saldana's Neytiri chides Jake for thanking her when she fatally dispatches the more aggressive beings which in a way, were provoked to action. Action too is something not short of in the film, though one must be patient for that full scale, all out war that was done quite in the mold of Battle For Terra, leaving you without a doubt who to root for.

I don't suppose this film will make as much at the box office as Cameron's last even though it shared that similar romantic angle behind events that are of a higher magnitude. Instant classic this is not, but Avatar has its moments, primed for a sequel or even for an expanded television series, that could continue on its ecological message, its technical wizardry, or just plain old narrative familiarity that could put the spotlight on the other hastily added clans that made up the final stretch.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Singapore Launch of Amir Muhammad's Book Yasmin Ahmad's Films

Amir Muhammad @ Books Actually

The weather in Singapore of late hasn't been too kind, although I welcome the rain for the cool breeze it brings along. Tucked along the shophouses at Club Street near Telok Ayer, Books Actually, a quaint, independent book store, played host to Amir Muhammad and the Singapore Launch of his book Yasmin Ahmad's Films this afternoon in a cozy and intimate setup.

If you haven't been to Books Actually, the first-timer myself will urge you to get on down and have a look - you'll be amazed by its sheer collection squeezed into all three floors, a section with antique books, as well as countless of knick-knacks that fill the staircases and shelves. Your wandering eye will be kept extremely busy with the artifacts and decor, and that unmistakable smell of fresh books just waiting to be picked up.

I apologize to be slow on the trigger and had missed Amir's introduction to the session (and much of the talk about Rabun too!), but everything else is intact. Enjoy!

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

My first impressions after reading half the book (I had to put the book down for dinner and to do up this entry while waiting for the videos above to load up in YouTube), is that it certainly has something for everyone, for fans of Yasmin's films, the virgins to her films (erm, what are you waiting for?!), and probably to researchers who need to sieve out some film details or behind-the-scenes bits that are perhaps less widely known unless you're a close friend or a keen observer from up close.

Amir's style in the book is extremely casual and conversational, and has plenty of personal anecdotes and nuggets of trivia on each of Yasmin's films told at times through wit and humour. It's also loaded with cultural explanations if you will, for those not familiar with life in this part of the world (or specifically Malaysia), to bring you up to speed with what one would probably not catch or realize. The importance and impact of Yasmin Ahmad's filmic contributions also get discussed as Amir presents them as they get highlighted through scenes from the film, so for those who have not seen any Yasmin's films, do watch them first, and come back to what Amir has discussed for that bit of enlightenment!

So excuse me while I continue to plough through the remaining half of this very enjoyable read that every Yasmin Ahmad film fan should get!

Other Related Links
Malaysian Launch of Yasmin Ahmad's Films
Amir Muhammad's blog
Yasmin Ahmad's Storyteller Blog
Yasmin Ahmad's Filmmaker Blog
and to friends from abroad, you can purchase the book from Amazon!

All the writer's royalties from the first edition will be donated to the MERCY - Yasmin Ahmad Fund for Children.

P.S. Local film buffs take note. Books Actually will also be the venue of the launch of the second edition of Latent Images: Film in Singapore by Professor Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde. This will happen on 28 Dec at 730pm, so mark your calendars now!



A Cannes prize winner, the film weaves a complex look at the activities of the Camorra, a crime syndicate that had the book author Roberto Saviano put under police protective custody for his expose on their activities, which range from drugs to dealing in toxic wastes, and their extensive money laundering activities which the closing credits stated their involvement in financing the new World Trade Centre in New York.

It's a gritty, unflinching look at the crime activities a modern day Italian crime family undertakes day to day, and the community that it both supports, and taps from. From the get go we're thrust into an environment where the gun is the leveller in settling disputes, and disputes which we do not have much detail of, only that scores of hitmen get engaged to permanently dispatch enemies. The introductory scene in the artificial tanning room will make you sit up for its mindless violence.

Presented in an episodic form with the focus on a myriad of one-function characters, such as a boy making his rounds to delivery groceries to family members of those incarcerated. But amongst the characters, the ones to stand out, in my opinion, happen to be from the point of view of two teenagers (who adorn the posters), for that sheer attitude that they consider themselves a cut above the world, like frogs in the well thinking that the world is not limitless, and being youths, think they have plenty of opportunity ahead of time, and hence with a lot of time to waste. They mock at the crime lords, not knowing what's in it for them, with false bravado fueled only by the cache of arms which they stumble upon.

It's somewhat hilarious as well, given that they are fans of Scarface, and can recite lines and mimic Al Pacino's mannerisms from that movie, thinking that it is all there is to it should they want to survive in the underworld, coupled with the usual wounded pride and ego in wanting to challenge the established crime family. They do seem extremely clueless of the kind of trouble they're getting themselves into, especially when trouble comes looking for them at a time when they're most vulnerable. Caught with their pants down literally, and while comical, it just goes to show that patience is all that it takes in order to strike effectively.

Gamorrah is a very bleak film, devoid of much hope, and there are some scenes especially toward the end which could be quite disturbing and unsettling. But I guess violence begets more violence, and it's difficult to try and break out of the circle when you're essentially entrenched into the system.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bodyguards and Assassins (Shi Yue Wei Cheng / 十月围城)

Friend or Foe?

I can't remember the last time I watched a film which dealt with a Dr Sun Yat-sen character, or one that was set on the verge of a major Manchu Qing Dynasty and the Revolutionary's clash of ideology and politics, with a fictionalized account of an historical milestone, with real life characters being thrust into a make-believe fantasy world of martial arts. Perhaps Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China II came close, where Jet Li's Wong Fei Hong got involved with a proxy for Dr Sun, and went up against the evil Manchus led by Donnie Yen, who incidentally, is in this film as well as a mercenary.

In that film, emphasis was placed on the pocketwatch, and the significance of time, where it was a race to keep a secret ledger out of the Manchu's hands, which registers all the identities of the Revolutionaries in waiting. Here, the same motif gets played out again, with the time piece being the emphasis once more as the highlight is the second act of the film, which plays out in almost real time, an entire hour where a rag tag team of hastily assembled exponents have to protect Dr Sun, whom none of them have any inkling of his significance and the ideological plans that he has brought to Hong Kong, from a group of Manchu martial arts experts led by Chinese actor Hu Jun, who has of late been playing villainous roles.

And that 60 minute action extravaganza is one of the most exhilerating fight-fest that you're going to see coming from a Chinese film this year, where every individual battle sequence is uniquely crafted, with the multi-million dollar set production providing that extra dimension of a real brawl on open streets, from rooftop melees and trishaws as both an offensive and defensive weapon, to crowded five foot way parkour, right down to suave swordsman like moves as executed from an unrecognizable Leon Lai. It's only a pity though that to cater to a broad audience over here, some of the more violent bits had to be unceremoniously snipped. The trade off for this is well, there's some Cantonese that was able to make it through, although the Pan-Chinese production meant that Chinese was to be predominantly spoken (Simon Yam was dubbed throughout).

Minor complaints aside, it's 16 Blocks meets Seven Samurai, where Dr Sun's trishaw entourage scuttles through the streets of Hong Kong, playing it out like a video game where the Manchu assassins go up against boss after boss of different skills at various pit stops, with each exponent providing ample stand-off time for Dr Sun to make his escape, or to buy time for certain meetings to happen. It's a sacrificial of self for the greater good of the community at large, knowing the dangers involved, with the hopes of a new future pinned to the survival of one charismatic man.

This sense of danger gets wonderfully epitomized by Tony Leung's Revolutionary, and The Tycoon played by Wang Xueqi, who are the mastermind and one of the main sources of funding respectively, as they go about recruiting men for their cause. In fact, Wang Xueqi almost single-handedly made the first act watchable thanks to his gravitas and screen presence. His tycoon undergoes a period of awakening where inaction, or the thought of action through the simple, relatively pain-free means of finance, has to give way to some form of concrete action, and the father-son arc here remains one of the strongest amongst the narrative.

Interesting subplots get bandied around the first act, which provided ample time to allow some degree of characterization amongst the ensemble cast, such as Leon Lai's Beggar who is pining after a lost love in 2046 style (with Michelle Reis in that Maggie Cheung equivalent cameo), Nicholas Tse as the affable, simple-minded Richshaw Man who pledges loyalty to the Tycoon as his son (Wang Bo-Chien) and Donnie Yen as the mercenary Gambler whose ex-wife (Fan Bingbing) has moved on to become the concubine of the Tycoon, yet being thrown a request to protect the latter.

Speaking of Donnie Yen, his fight with Cung Le (Vietnam's world class fighter and martial artist) provided one of the major set action piece which unfortunately have all the best bits included in the trailer. To my untrained eye, Yen's fighting style here was quite MMA, and given the large cast and premise, didn't allow the spotlight to shine on him for too long, as the other best action sequence was kept under wraps and followed on after Yen's, which I shall not mention lest I ruin the surprise.

Part of the fun here is to identify the myriad of recognizable faces in bit roles, from Jacky Cheung to Eric Tsang being the toothless Chief of Police, and it goes to show that Chinese films continue to have that potential to spin an interesting yarn starring some of the best in the business now, while remaining both entertainment at its best, and somewhat thought provoking with its bravado talk on revolution (well, this is China, remember) to bring about sweeping change against corruption and oppression through democracy, with a fine balance struck between all-out action and heartfelt drama. A classic in the making most definitely!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Looking Back

Similar to Evening, this film examines the life and times of Pippa Lee, played by Robin Wright Penn in her current, older age, happily married to Herb (Alan Arkin) and spending their twilight years in a retirement village, where everything seems perfect with friends and family, but with a series of events that threaten to tear at the fabric of their relationship, one fearful of dying, while the other discovering that her sleepwalking may prove to actually be the least of her worries.

I suppose when one's retire, one will look back and reflect on the life that has so far past by, assessing if it was a life well led, or if there's any last ditch attempt to rectify and address issues before the time is up. For about half the film, the narrative takes a walk down memory lane, and as we know how a woman's heart holds plenty of secrets, so does Pippa's, now played by Blake Lively, watching her lead a life that's aimless, and how she finally found an avenue of attachment to someone older, who provided her with that rudder in life.

The film also touches for the large part on the role of mothers, with Pippa's tumultuous relationship with her mother, a woman reliant on a cocktail of drugs to get through life, and presented an entire series of bewildering emotions and mood swings through which Pippa grew up under. Maria Bello aces this role as the mother, who one minute can be laughing out loud, and the next could be crying her heart out. You can imagine the kind of negative influence she has on the impressionable Pippa, who ultimately in desperation, does what her mother does, only to find herself wanting out, and from there spiraling her life out of control. In the current narrative, it shifts from Pippa's relationship with her own children, how they brought her peace, though still not without the reconciliation that she seeks with her daughter (Zoe Kazan).

Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, part of the draw here is the ensemble casting, from the leads in Alan Arkin (again given some of the best lines here, with hair too to boot), and the bit roles played by Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, a thirty-something ex-priest in the making now turned divorcee and working in a convenience store, with whom Pippa forms a strong, inexplicable bond with. While they may be bit roles, each play an important part in the formation of the Pippa character, especially Monica Bellucci as Herb's ex-wife, in a sequence that's quite shocking and unexpected, contributing to the key guilt factor that Pippa finds herself shouldering. Fans of Robin Wright Penn will undoubtedly applaud her turn in this dramatic role.

Then there's the mantra of how we think we know somebody, only for that someone to turn out to be not the person we thought they were. This proved to be a mold that's easily applied to each and every character here, where somewhat negative experiences transforms into one becoming jaded, or be filled with mistrust with people who we think are our friends, only to have betrayal stare right back in our faces.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee turned out to be less than the chick flick I thought it would be, and was quite the powerful drama it was, although I felt that it had room to flesh out more of Pippa's past, which seem to be rather quickly glossed over since it's a steep decline into a drug infused lifestyle. Still it's a decent dramatic film, so while awaiting the loud action blockbusters to reach our shores later this week, you might just want to bask in the calmness of this film instead.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Rebound Sucker

I have to admit that I was quite entertained with the first Twilight film, despite it being steeped in teenage puppy love, and breaking plenty of established rules about vampires, such as sunshine giving them a funky glow rather than turning them to ashes, or them being without fangs, so it's a good thing though that their thirst for blood was left intact. And well, being the completist that I am, I just have to continue with the franchise, and New Moon suffers from the usual middle-movie syndrome, inheriting and choosing to dwell on what its predecessor did without adding any significant meat, and yet not being the second last movie to have increased its pace and intrigue, if any to begin with.

Instead, New Moon are for Twilight fans who support the other hairy side, where hot boys run around half naked almost all the time to show off their toned bodies, driving female members in the audience into a gasping frenzy each time a shirt is taken off. Yes, Mr Metrosexual Vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) really pales in comparison (pardon the intentional pun) in the buffed body campaign, so thank goodness there wasn't much of a pissing competition between him and werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner, who was very close to being dropped).

Otherwise we''re where we left off, with the initial scenes recapping some of the issues the lovers Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward face with her being the tempting meat hanging around a pack of reformed vampires, and her incessant whining about wanting to belong to the immortals, because of her innate fear that Edward will leave her once she turns old and wrinkled. In a sudden about turn, Edward and family decide to leave her for her own good and protection, given the events from the first movie, they think it's for the best so that they do not implicate her, or rather, wanting to risk their own lives and limbs to save her from other vampires out for easy meat.

So yes, Edward dumps her in the most unceremonious of ways, and is quite the liar for continuing to appear to provide sound advice to stop her from taking risks, and basically from having a good time. Talk about selfishness. His retribution? Being as stupid as Romeo from Shakespeare's classic, a character whom he loathes, and frankly the third act of the film based on the same level of stupidity, having to fulfill his own suicidal tendency. Once dumped, our girl then spends the rest of the movie moping, whining, and being depressed, that she inadvertently leads Jake on, and quite timely too as he was on the verge of finding the other strutting half-naked boys too attractive to resist. The wolf got let out of the bag, and Bella learns of the secret of her best friend, along with plenty of rules and regulations governing the truce between vampires and werewolves.

If compared to the earlier film, New Moon is quite the bore, with the never ending indecisiveness of Bella. It's not that she doesn't know who she wants to end up with (no prizes for guessing she wants to remain youthful forever), but then the short term appeal of a hot bod bad boy may prove to be too hard (heh) to resist. Furthermore, on one hand you have a vampire who's such a new age metrosexual with a penchant for heavy foundation and lipstick, but on the other the tremendous power and rage of an angry were-man would potentially leave one physically scarred in any moment of insanity. So if you're a rational person, the choice is rather obvious, despite wolf-boy always wanting to hang around to play hero, being sworn to protect the human race from evil vampires. With great powers come great responsibility, we understand.

Set action sequences were severely limited in this installment, although they were designed for the wolves to spring into action. And these wolves are really huge, almost Ultraman sized as they hunt for their vampire prey in fast moving packs. Transformation from Man to Wolf is effortlessly done and happens in a blink of the eye with shirts and pants ripping into nothing, though you don't get to actually see the reverse happen, because this is a family friendly movie, and the filmmakers chose not to give young teenage girls too quick a start into the anatomy of our hairy friends. The vampire battle sequences here were also nothing to shout about, preferring to overuse slow motion because, well, they move fast.

In any case, this film is review-proof. Immediately when the end credits start to roll, I heard a few female voices around me proclaiming to want to watch this again. God knows this is their umpteenth time already! It ends with a cliffhanger, since the next film was shot back-to-back, and what a wonderful way to make you anticipate its release. I only hope for more sensible action given the introduction of Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning's oh-so-powerful Volturi council characters reliant on tourism to bring in the bacon, rather than another ai-mai-ai-mai (want-don't want) tussle on the affairs of the heart. Make a decision people, like means like, so stick to it.

Don't Look Back (Ne Te Retourne Pas)

Who Am I?

Selected for competition in Cannes this year and the closing film at Singapore's French Film Festival, Don't Look Back is a rather straight-forward psychological drama starring two European actresses who would need no introduction in Monica Bellucci and Sophie Marceau playing the same role of Jeanne, or so it seems.

We're introduced to Sophie's version first, where she's attempting to write a novel after a series of successful non-fiction works, for the sole reason of revisiting her much forgotten, and likely repressed past. Despite her publisher's persuasion to abandon the idea because it's only to dig up some skeletons best left hidden, she forges forward and bit by bit discovers that she's starting to lose her mind, where furniture starts to be in places she no longer remembers, and family members start to look physically different, which of course is enough for anyone to freak out. And the icing of the cake, she morphs from French looking Sophie Marceau, to the Italian babe Monica Bellucci. Which is not a bad thing of course, considering one can morph into somebody less attractive or endowed even.

In the meantime, we're left to wonder if Jeanne (in whichever version) is starting to lose it, whether it could be an extreme and early onset of the Alzheimer's, as roads become unrecognizable, husbands become someone else, and scars disappear and reappear. It's an extreme case of severe identity crisis where one is thankful that it doesn't take the cop-out route and make everyone wake up from a bad nightmare.

It's an extremely well made psychological piece which explores the fear that comes with losing the things that we hold dear, and also the uncomfortable sense of being outside an established comfort zone, journeying into the big unknown, deducing what actually is happening, despite not knowing where to start, and the developing suspicion that everyone is in on the joke, except for yourself.

It's tough to compare who was the better Jeanne, because Sophie disappears for the most part from the second act onwards. Screen time shared by both actresses in the same frame is extremely limited as well, so we'd only get to savour one sold performance after another, turn-based. There's a proper explanation to everything that's happening, though one has to be patient in order to allow the narrative to reveal itself in due course. So meanwhile, accept what's presented, and try to piece together the jigsaw yourself.

The Princess and the Frog

Pucker Up!

The Princess and the Frog may have gotten off the wrong foot with certain quarters who decide to see this through a tainted, racial prism, but what this film actually did, was to reaffirm that old school animation still has its place amongst CG and 3D offerings, bolstered by an impressive storyline, which is always important if to entertain children and the kids who accompany them.

And Disney surely knows what it needed to do given its years of established experience to know what works, and what don't. Like most of its classics, it takes on a well known tell, and gives it its own Disney spin complete with a Happily Ever After. It's the same excellent spin applied on the frog prince who wants to be human again, and only so if kissed by a princess. The joke of course, is to have the princess turned into a frog, though no fault of her own because that's just what's needed to turn the classic on its head. We've had Disney-fied versions of tales from the little mermaid under the sea, to the Chinese Hua Mulan, and now, an ambitious African-American girl Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) determined to fulfill her father's dream of opening her own restaurant.

Ron Clements who came up with this version of the story, deserves that pat on the back for its really wacky humour that got put into this tale, and the design of one of the most determined heroines in Disney's fold. Set in New Orleans, the first 20 minutes set the stage with its neat introduction and the back stories of every key character all spelled out, before mixing them up altogether to present that amphibious problem to solve, no thanks to a dash of black magic by Dr Facilier (Keith David) to turn a visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) into a frog, although still keeping his glib tongue intact.

And what is a Disney flick if it doesn't come with the requisite talking animals, and plenty of song and dance numbers? You'll be hard pressed not to like the firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) who pines after his Evangeline (a star by the way), or the Jazz crazy crocodile in Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), whose only dream is to play with the humans, in front of a crowd, without scaring everyone away. But the one who steals the show each time she comes on, is that dumb blonde Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), the childhood friend of Tiana who grew up with that silver spoon in her mouth, where her demands no matter how ridiculous, will always get met. You cannot help but laugh at her naivety, and I suspect she just might get her own direct-to-dvd film soon enough.

The message of the story's quite clear too, for everyone to clearly distinguish between a need and a want, which for the characters, and ourselves in real life, sometimes struggle to identify. It's feel good, although I was quite surprised with certain darker elements in the characters' battle against the chief villain, which while violence is shown off screen, the effect it has on kids still reverberate quite strongly. Then again, it wrapped itself up very neatly and clearly, one of the better animated films out there this year, standing proud that it's done in classical 2D, Disney style, through and through.
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