Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Who Am I?

If you're well aware of Terry Gilliam's movies, then you'd know what to expect from his own Imaginarium of stories that get translated to film, stopping short of saying that they're fairy tale fantasies for adults. No doubt the main draw of the film would be that it's Heath Ledger's last working film before he passed away, and with a clever rewrite of portions coupled with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all stepping up to the plate to take over (and bring along their own legion of fans), I'd dare say this film had benefited from its own near death of being shut down, and probably exposed writer-director Gilliam to a wider audience.

As the story goes, Dr Parnassus runs a sort of circus troupe with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and together with Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer aka Mini-Me), their selling act is the Imaginarium which is a portal that will allow those who enter it, a glimpse into and to live out their dream life, for a short while at least, before emerging with that orgasmic satisfaction. That's the plan at least, because they only attract the wrong crowd of troublemakers and have difficulty in making ends meet. Not to mention of course having the devil Mr Nick (Tom Waits) always around the corner waiting for Lily's 16th birthday to whisk her away, as the prize to an agreement with Parnassus.

A new wager got bet between the devil and Parnassus, and as if told through Fate, Parnassuss and his team would rescue a man found hanging from a bridge (Ledger), who would turn out to be their saviour as he joins their troupe while trying to figure out his own identity, and things start to look up for them all as the new teammate seems to relish in working the crowd and yielding an audience for their act.

In some ways I can't help but to chuckle at the character of Tony, being the shady hero here with the coming up of a scheme to help Dr Parnassus, drawing on his own personal background as a charity fund raiser. This of course ties in very well to the local context, where there has been a fair number of smooze scammers or wayward individuals who had started off with good intentions ony to find themselves faltering, and in many ways Tony reminds us of them. His plan to help Parnassus involved the jazzing up of their troupe, the telling of white lies, and then selling them through charisma and sideshow acts in order to draw in the funds, and souls of course as the ultimate objective to prevent the devil from exacting the agreement.

Despite having three other actors covering for him, there is still a lot of Ledger in the film, having each of the others helm just but a segment of the Imaginarium sequence when the character Tony steps through the magic mirror. Which of course worked wonders since each segment touches on a different aspect and facet of the character, with only good looks being the constant here. I couldn't have imagined how Ledger would have carried the role in its entirety, though it does give good reason that this was something of a perfect follow up to his Joker role, something which was balanced between comedy, drama, and the high jinks.

Those who like their fantasy films full of colour, and fantasy drawn from pure imagination, would find them bountiful in this movie. Terry Gilliam scores a fantastic winner here, and despite not thoroughly liking his earlier films, I found this one thoroughly enjoyable, and am looking forward to future tales that come from his imaginary worlds.

Everybody's Fine

Are You?

Based upon the 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene, Kirk Jones' Everybody's Fine follows up the very fine contemporary films that had gone past which dealt with the aged and their families, such as Last Chance Harvey starring Dustin Hoffman, and Away from Her starring Gordon Pinsent. Everybody's Fine would work fine as a Thanksgiving or Christmas movie given its theme on the family, but I suppose having a release right about now would be apt as well given the upcoming festive period of the Lunar New Year which has the reunion dinner component, to take stock once again of the ties that bind.

There are many aspects to this film that I enjoyed, first and foremost that this is a road movie. I've somehow an affinity toward road movies, in accompanying the character in his journey spanning a finite distant in whatever quest that he embarks on, on whichever decision that he'll make, and the many random encounters with people, some good and bad, which at the end of it all will shape his outlook for the better or worse. While it didn't deliberately pause and turn into a scenic, touristy ride, which I am thankful for and in the hands of lesser directors it will almost be a pimping of the locations, it did enough to flavour the cities that our protagonist journeys to, from New York to Chicago to Denver and all the way West toward Las Vegas.

I wonder how many of us out there have dads like Frank, played by Robert De Niro. As the film develops I'm pretty sure his father role falls into the mould of how dads are generally perceived, hence his decision to want to reconnect back directly with his children, who Nature has determined that they connect to him through a proxy, and now that his wife has recently passed away. With dads, they set the expectations that we try to live up to, and the story journeys with Frank to see whether his surprise visit to each of his children, would tally up with what he should or already know. The main worry is of course that the siblings aren't that connected to one another given their individual successful lives, which he will learn about the secrets and the bad things properly shielded from him as well.

To some, there will be scenes and techniques here that may seem a little bit contrived, but which I felt rammed home their intended point. For instance, there's always this point of view when Frank meets his children that they'll always remain as his children, not the adults that they already are. It emphasizes how we always remain a child in our parent's eye, no matter how old we become. Then there's the rather amusing scenes where Frank turns photographer with his film camera, and how people nowadays then to be a little less forgiving and irritated each time someone decides to take a picture in an inevitably crowded location, rather than to be gracious about it and allow the photographer to quickly do his own thing. For the curious, there's the end credits where the photo stills got put up, which I thought was a nice touch.

At its core the film is about basic communications, where the advent of technology allows us to stay connected, yet apart as well because its pervasiveness and ease of use somehow dumbs down the value of that extra bit of an emotional connection, and as you would have experienced yourself, nothing ever beats face to face meetings, because it's not only about hearing the other party's voice, or seeing them through a computerized web camera, but always about the non-verbal channels the entire communication suite brings about when you talk to someone in their presence.

Then there's the top notch casting. We're familiar with how Robert De Niro had gone from wicked gangsters to slapstick comedy without a hitch, and now to add family drama to that list of genres as well. It's practically a one man tour de force as we follow his Frank's journey from start to end, holding up the film together thanks to his wonderful pitch perfect performance. But that's not to discount his co-stars as well, since we have three familiar names playing his children, with the likes of Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale and of course, Sam Rockwell, whom we appreciate what he can do given films like Moon. While they all don't always share the same scene together since Frank's on a road trip to visit all his children, each of them bring something special to the table and portray their characters with sensitivity, each with something to hide to avoid disappointing Dad, who through paternal perception would be able to figure things out as well. You can feel general emotions all around as each child slowly reconnects with their dad, while hiding from him an important fact which they all share.

Everybody's Fine is a fine movie indeed, with heartfelt performances, an excellent story filled with superb family drama that you can almost always identify with. It's incredibly moving to the point that you'll be emotionless if you didn't shed a tear in its last act, and yet doesn't go overboard with its melodrama, balancing it perfectly with its themes, and making you reflect upon your own relationships with family, especially with dad. Highly recommended, and also another noteworthy, early addition to the shortlist of the best presented here this year.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Box

Deal or No Deal?

The trailer goes nowhere near and only scratches the surface of the film and rightly so too, not because it has that obligation to keep its real narrative under wraps, but because what actually transpires, will provoke entirely different lines of questioning, some of which are frustratingly not answered in the film, leaving you to your own devices to interpret the series of events. Which of course means plenty of material for an after-show discussion.

Metaphorically, the box refers to how us humans tend to subconsciously hole ourselves into situations or things in everyday life, and how our enclosed thoughts tend to see things from a certain perspective, seldom out of the box. There's a speech made near the end by one of the characters that will leave you pondering over this fact, which governs the basis of the entire film, and even threading on existentialism, where our bodies are mere vessels for the soul, and from cradle to the grave we put ourselves in more boxes in a way of life fashion.

What I disliked about the film, is how it tried to sound intelligent through the frequent name dropping of covert government agencies like the CIA and NSA, as though there's something overtly clandestine about these agencies that we should be aware of. They serve little purpose other than to put every action and every person under scrutiny, that nobody can be trusted, wrecking havoc in a sense to both the characters and the audience as we try to keep up with trust issues to aid in the interpretation of the narrative. Having it set in 1976, against a NASA backdrop of manned space missions, and in Richmond, Virginia, also provided that heightened sense of wary that will sap your energies as you sit through it patiently.

Based upon the short story Button, Button written by Richard Matheson and made into an episode of the Twilight Zone, the story follows the Lewis family, where husband Arthur (James Marsden) works at NASA and develops a prosthetic foot for his teacher wife Norma (Cameron Diaz), and you'd think it's all happy family with their son Walter (Sam Oz Stone), until one day a mysterious man called Arlington Steward (Frank Langella in a Two-Face inspired facial effect) whom we are preempted of in the opening, comes knocking and giving them a Deal or No Deal button in a box. Plunge the button and they'll get a million bucks (we're talking in dollar terms of the 70s here) although a stranger out there will die. If they don't, well the deal's got an expiry date.

The story would dictate a deal be made, which of course sparks off a mysterious sequence of events that unfold, with even more shady characters (who nosebleed) appearing, some whom are inexplicably zombie like, apparently all under the influence, or employment, or Arlington Steward. Whether or not Steward is Death, a clandestine government employee, a messenger from God or a representative of Aliens after an anal probe, remains unanswered, so whichever way you look at it, it's as if he's delivering something expected, just begging that mankind will shake off its innate greed so that his work can be cut short and to return to wherever he came from.

If you need a little distraction from the disparate scenes which make up the narrative, the production sets and art direction are gorgeous in recreating the 70s look, as you try to figure out the mystery of the consequences that stem from a result of not fully understanding the fine print. It's full circle this examination of human nature, of our greed for immediate gratification, manifesting its result in longer term pain, confusion and further choices that we'll make based on real sacrifices. Nifty special effects come into play as well, though it just leaves more room open as to the genre of the film.

So is it horror, science fiction, or a mystery thriller? It's everything rolled into one actually, together with a sprinkling of the philosophical. Just don't go expecting a straight narrative film with clean and easy answers at the end – this is like an X-Files episode on steroids.


Media Power

The media is also known as the fourth estate in certain democracies, where politicians and their policies go through intense scrutiny by those wielding the pen or the camera, going behind the scenes to dig, probe and investigate, to expose misdemeanors and wrongdoings, to act as the non partisan check and balance. Of course it can also be manipulated to the advantage of certain quarters, and just where our own lies, well we all should already know.

Politicians, industrialists, and media moguls all make strange bedfellows. Each have their own interests to pursue which may run contrary to the other, so when all of them come together, you can bet your last dollar just what is being planned, and who the outcome would benefit. For the politician, the mass media remains one of the best ways to pimp their popularity, with a non flattering expose always threatening the outcome of their attempts to get into office. For the industrialists, favours to corrupt politicians would mean corners expected to be cut to pursue their profit making objective. And to a non-independent media, whoever's in control would be painting somebody or something in better light than they are.

Ram Gopal Sharma's Rann examines the corruption of the media and how it can be manipulated or seduced by either party into compromising or even forgoing their ethical obligations, in the name of favours, and money. And in some respect, the issues presented here aren't far fetched, and from incidents time and again, we see how the media can be used to gain an unfair upper hand, and the power that it wields to bring down positions of power when investigative journalism gets into gear. And of course, having the evergreen Amitabh Bachchan star in a leading role as Vijay Harshvardhan Malik, an ethical, no-nonsense media mogul who runs his own news channel called India 24/7, is one of the major draws of Rann.

As the moral compass of the country, Vijay's editorial news programme sets the agenda, but unfortunately in the face of stiff channel competition and falling ratings, his son Jai (Sudeep) wants to take the channel into a new level through the injection of external funds. Cautious that the source of such funds would mean an erosion of ethics that his channel is renowned for, Vijay decides to allow Jai to proceed with his plans, but little does anyone know that under their noses, India 24/7's COO Nanlini (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi) is a mole in their corporation, feeding chief rivals H24, run by Amrish Kakkar (Mohnish Bahl) all the information on India 24/7's strategy, thereby letting the competition always stay a step ahead.

The story by Rohit G. Banawlikar is fantastically multi-layered, with ample development given to the this industrial espionage, and how it draws Jai to the dark side of shady deal-making, which ultimately culminates in the assistance of his industrialist brother-in-law Naveen (Rajat Kapoor), and his friend, the dubious politician Mohan Pandey (Paresh Rawal), with the ambition of taking over the prime ministership of the country, through a carefully crafted scheme which draws upon threats, murder, terrorism as well as a fake undercover expose recording, delivered unknowingly and none other than Vijay himself.

It is also the story of a greenhorn investigative journalist Purab (Ritesh Deshmukh), who idolizes Vijay and his pursuit of journalism excellence, and whose honor and ethics Purab wants to emulate, so much so that he decides to join India 24/7. A part of the story has Purab caught in the entire web of deceit, and the moral dilemma he faces with acknowledging the probable stain in his boss's reputation and career, an act of betrayal, the realization that his inexperience had caused a lot more damage than it should, before deciding to gamble it all in doing the right thing. There are ups and downs as we follow Purab in his journey, making him one of the more well developed characters in the film that we both root for, and be exasperated with.

It's not all doom and gloom though, with well timed comic relief introduced (without going overboard) through Anand Prakash Trivedi (Rajpal Yadav), a presenter who just tries too hard, with an interview scene being one of the funniest delivered in the film. But the more memorable scene here has to be the stinging monologue that Amitabh Bachchan delivers with gravitas, a rebuke on the role of the media, and how it is so easy for those in powerful positions to collude for self interests and money, that everything, including the progress of a nation, can be sacrificed. There's no big bang finale action, but a talkie finale which hammers it in with heartfelt emotion, one that I wish our own powers that be could have a chance to listen in, and perhaps remind themselves of their back to basics responsibilities.

The film quietly builds itself into a fire-cracker finale, having to witness how deep the rabbit hole goes, and just when you thought it had hit rock bottom, more events unfold to dig us further into the consequences of the conspiracy which not only impacts the individuals on a personal level, but you shudder at the thought of how the impact would be on a national scale. When it it bottoms out into an inevitable conclusion, on one hand you'd expect difficult sacrifices and decisions to be made as a resolution to the problem posed, while on the other feel sorry for those innocent caught up in the crossfire, and shrewd as RGV is, there's room for a sequel to be made as well.

Should there be any gripe, those who cannot stand shaky camera movement will find it disturbing to view the film through a camera lens not mounted on a tripod, which in a way provided a sense of a documentary feel to the entire proceedings with its fair share of twists and turns. Female characters too are tokens in the film, mostly relegated to wives and girlfriends who repeatedly looked quite sorry at being bewildered at their man's problems. There was a little bit of a brushing of a couple's differences in religious backgrounds (something sensitive with the older female generation perhaps?) that despite it being mentioned and played out briefly, didn't serve up any depth in the issue, probably side-skirted and being an abandoned sub plot.

If anyone would think that Bollywood makes Masala type films only, then obviously their horizons need to be broadened. Rann is an excellent political thriller that's kept tight and pacey from the get go, coupled with a charismatic cast whose delivery will keep you at the edge of your seat as the narrative unfolds. Definitely recommended stuff, and it goes into my books as an early contender for the top films of this year.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Universal Soldier: A New Beginning (aka Universal Soldier: Regeneration)

Remember Me?

I have a confession to make – I have never seen a Universal Soldier film, not in its entirety anyway, nor even the original way back in 1992 when it starred Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as these programmed super soldiers who are impervious to pain, and a small troupe can take out battalions of a conventional army. For those like me who are not well versed in the mythos, fret not as this film's subtitle – a new beginning – made it a point to do a quick recap of the secret super soldier programme to bring us all up to speed to where the film now takes place.

There were some in the audience who found it rather startling that the film opened in abrupt manner, chiefly because this is meant for the straight to video market overseas. So the distributor's logo doesn't kick in to pre-empt you that this is not a trailer, but the start of the film proper. And boy does it start with a bang, with an ambitious, noisy car chase cum massacre where a small group of freedom fighters kidnap the children of the Russian Prime Minister, and demands the release of their countrymen in lockup, in which failure meant the killing of the kidnapped children, plus the detonation of another reactor in Chernobyl where they are dug in, which has enough radioactive material to cause another fallout.

This of course mobilizes a NATO-Russian alliance of sorts to fight back with 2 mission objectives under 72 hours, with the only snag in the mission being the use of an NGU (Next Generation Uni-Sol) by the opposition, played to mean perfection by Andrei Arlovski as the ultimate killing machine who feels no pain and dishes out his fair share of punishment to maim and kill without remorse. The response of course is for the coalition to send in their own Uni-Sols, which are painfully outdated and obsolete when faced with the NGJ, so all hopes rest on one man, Jean Claude Van Damme, erm, his Luc Deveraux that is.

Director John Hyams keeps it tight and relevant here by creating a film that doesn't try too much fanciful stuff. It's good ol' military and B-action all the way, which at times resembled a violent video game especially in JCVD's first mission outing when unleashed into enemy territory, adopting a third person, behind the character view as he charges and cuts through enemy ranks. Then there's some nifty camera-work as well, the highlight being a continuous take where it's a Counter-strike game-type with JCVD going from primary rifle, to secondary firearm, to default knife, and the fists as he rips through scores of faceless soldiers. I thought that was one of the best action sequences in the film, since the much touted plummeting with Dolph Lundgren, who also returned for this film, was nothing not already seen before, save for the expectation of a rematch here.

For action junkies, there is a bit of a nostalgia in seeing how our old school action heroes still have it in them to carry a movie and give the new wannabes a run for their money. Visibly aged, this film follows the trend of late with our 80s action icons coming out and banding together for one last hurrah. While this may be for the video market in the US, it certainly didn't scrimp on its limited production values to turn in something professional looking, with some impressive gory action compensating for a standard, average plot with room to grow the franchise further. Now bring on The Expendables, and boy, will we action fans just rejoice with that reunion!

My Ex (Fan Kao / แฟนเก่า)

I Promise You The Moon

My Ex serves as a cautionary tale to us guys out there to be careful when making promises to the opposite gender. If they turn out to be some psycho, you'll get your Fatal Attraction. If they harbour their vengeance into the afterlife, then well, they'll haunt you wherever you go, making your life extremely miserable, exacting their jealousy onto whoever your main squeeze currently is. This serves as the basic premise of what was Thailand's largest box office response to their homegrown horror show, My Ex.

Ken (Chakhrit Yamnam) is a playboy of an actor who beds women with a frequency like changing his underwear. Sweet talking and then in wham-bang-thank-you-ma'am fashion, he loves and leaves them without an inkling of commitment, taking pride too in his tabloid coverage of his latest conquests. The secret to his strategy comes from his empty promise, telling his current lover that he'll leave his playboy ways, and that she'll be the only and last woman in his life. They fall for it, and in the case of Meen (Navadee Mokkhavesa), once she announces her pregnancy he's out the front door faster than you can say “Sawadeekup”.

But because we see so many of his Ex's on screen, it gives you that little bit of a guessing game as to who the central spook is, with the likes of Bow (Atthama Chiwanitchaphan) or even Ploy (Wanida Termthanaporn) to a certain extent being possibles at one point or another. The story by Piyapan Choopetch, Sommai Lertulan and Adirek Wattaleela gets a little choppy with some scenes that are disparate to the current narrative, although some aspects do get addressed as the movie wore on. What it suffered from was its ending, where it couldn't decide how to end it and hence we're presented with at least two, before the final of the final scene delivered where it mattered, otherwise we'll be left with a half-baked, unsatisfactory finale which doesn't seem to address the fact that a leopard seldom, or never changes its spots.

Director Piyapan Choopetch handled the spooky scenes with a mixed bag of techniques and in a tale of two halves, opting for the usual loud screeches and sudden audio bangs to elicit cheap shocks and scares, especially guilty of in the scenes at the front. For the later half of the film, a bit more finesse got adopted, and the scares were designed in a much better, subtle manner. Which of course meant it got spookier as we went along, all the more better for the audience. There were times when the narrative proved to be a little too draggy with repetition, and worse the constant “waking up” that plagued the initial scenes, which thankfully were gotten rid off.

There are horror shows that put something new on the table, and there are horror shows that take what's already available and assemble something from the tried and tested formula. The Ex follows the latter, with the basic building block structure of a typical horror film firmly in place, utilizing a series of flashbacks as it builds toward the crescendo to provide that logical or emotional angle why and how someone would go off the bend, and unleash horrific rampage upon the victims we see.

If there's a comment to draw out from the film, it'll be something which I think you'll notice too of contemporary films from any geography. A car crash can no longer be a car crash if the audience does not see a full, head on accident with plenty of noisy bone-crunching, metal against flesh and bone audio and visual effects. That said, watch this if you're starved for any horror flicks good or bad – this one straddles somewhere in the middle. Good fun, but nothing classic about it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Talk to the Handgun

Edge of Darkness heralds the return of Mel Gibson back to the front of the camera, and it's been 8 years since he last left a starring role for the director's chair, having to make films like Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto. I would have hoped he might have taught Martin Campbell a thing or two about how to deliver a film that can hold an audience's interest, because Edge of Darkness is just so boring, that you'll find tracing the lines on Mel's face a lot more interesting than to tune in to a bunch of characters that you couldn't care less about.

Mel Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a lowly Boston detective whose daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) comes to visit during her break from work. In the span of 5 minutes we learn that she's pretty, extremely smart, and as a nuclear scientist / research assistant who seemed to be poison in spy versus spy fashion, Thomas commits a Gerard Butler's Clyde Shelton in Law Abiding Citizen, where opening the front door nowadays means death. Daddy's little girl got dispatched in brutal fashion, and this makes daddy piss. Except that Thomas spends most of the time walking wounded emotionally and hallucinating, trying to piece together disparate clues in order to find the bastards responsible for his daughter's demise.

Also based on a British television series, this is no State of Play, which also got itself transplanted across the Atlantic into a big budgeted Hollywood film, where one would expect thrills, spills and plenty of twists and turns. Unfortunately, Edge of Darkness is not that kind of film, as the narrative is pretty flat with everyone behaving suspiciously or afraid of the shadowy powers that be, as represented by Ray Winstone's Jedburgh, a Michael Clayton type consultant who advises his clients just how to get out of the mess they're in, involving nuclear weapons, terrorism, treason, profits, and corrupt government officials, corporate bigwigs and activists.

But seriously, what it became was plenty of shadow play, of punching in the dark, of empty threats of who is in possession of a bigger dick. It came to the point of the ridiculous with everyone verbally posturing just where they should be, you-never-seen-me-here, or we-never-had-this-conversation, that it becomes the unintentional comedy. The absurdness continues when you know Campbell lacks inspiration to direct a lacklustre William Monahan and Andrew Bovell screenplay, where the bad guys all get dealt with in one fell swoop, with again, comedy stemming from stupidity. The conspiracy theory is so full of hocus pocus that will leave you wondering why a simple whistle-blower story, can be told in such an uninteresting manner, with neither a human emotional angle to reel you in, nor with any intelligence to multi-layer it.

Worse of all, it then decided to go the Taken route, which was also about a father's relentless, no nonsense search for his daughter. Here the criticality of time is removed, and Thomas just goes about doing his own thing in piecing clues together, and toed the law as compared to Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills who chose to operate outside the system. It was too little too late, and made you wonder just how this could have been summarized into a short film instead. Actors were all going through the motions with nobody showing any emotional depth that make you feel for them, and for some reason everyone adopts the Bale-Batman low baritone gruff voice when speaking to one another. And boy, do they just talk and talk a lot!

In trying to be smart, Edge of Darkness falls flat on its hype and exposed its lack of intelligence and wit. It's amazing just how anyone can make a boring film, and this one is testament that it's very possible. Like one of the characters uttered in a self-fulfilling prophecy of the film itself, with a convoluted plot come a situation where there are no facts. Well the truth is it's also a situation where there's no substance either. Watching paint dry will give you more satisfaction.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

14 Blades (Gam Yee Wai / 锦衣卫)

Stand Off

It's about time Donnie Yen made an impact yet again in the fantasy wuxia-pian genre, given the rather recent dismal films with Painted Skin (where he only had a supporting role), An Empress and the Warriors, and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords back in 2005. Most of us went ballistic with his more modern action roles ranging from SPL to Ip Man, and his 14 Blades character of Qing Long (Green Dragon, thanks to those mean looking tattoos adorned all over his upper torso) here looks quite set to become yet another memorable role similar to his morally ambiguous one in Bodyguards and Assassins.

Here, Yen's Qing Long is the General-in-chief bodyguard to, and assassin for a Ming Dynasty king, who had set up the Jin Yi Wei (the Mandarin title), or the Brocaded Robe Guards, a special army known for its dogmatic principles in fulfilling mission objectives, whose loyalty is to the king only, and are at his beck and call to do just about anything the king commands. That of course leaves room for evil eunuchs to manipulate, especially when they can get the king easily distracted with wine, song and plenty of nubile women.

The first few minutes of the film introduces us to the background of Qing Long and his army of bodyguards and assassins, the evil that lurks within the royal family and palace from eunuchs to an exiled prince (an extremely short cameo by Sammo Hung), and of course, the fabled 14 Blades. Unfortunately, we are told of the uniqueness and names of each blade, but never see all of them in action, coupled by the fact that they look quite generic. Only Qing Long is assigned this utility box containing the swords and lugs it everywhere ala El Mariachi's guitar case, and at his will can throw up the appropriate weapon to battle adversaries, including a set of grappling hooks!

Writer-director Daniel Lee managed to create a film consisting of a successful amalgamation of wuxia-pian elements, with iconic fight action sequences set in tea houses, desert duels, forest brawls with abandoned temples and exotic cities enhanced by CG to play host to a film complete with double crosses, a prized possession that everyone is after, and had time to sneak in unrequited romance. In some ways the film plays out like a Cowboy Western with its one man sheriff and an escort agency up against various bands of outlaws in endless desert filled land, with that theme of hope that they'll make it unscathed against changing odds, save the day and to ride off into the sunset with the damsel.

The story though gave way at the midway mark, where it clearly became nothing more than a stringing together of battles and one on one duels, which thankfully were still exciting to sit through, with none of the fast cut edits or crazy closeups that will make you cringe. With the introduction of Wu Chun as Judge, the leader of a brigade of bandits who has this cool boomerang double blade, and Kate Tsui in a role where she only grunts as loud as Maria Sharapova hitting a return volley, ample time got dedicated for one to mirror QIng Long's transformation and road to redemption, while the other, well, just serves to grunt a lot, in a get up that looks inspired by Medusa, and armed with a serpent sword-like-whip, and powers of CG stealth.

But underneath the fights, the flimsy storyline and gorgeous costumes, 14 Blades turns out to have an incredibly strong romance instead, with Vicky Zhao (her umpteenth period role straight) starring as Qiao Hua, daughter of the Justice Escort agency founder (played by veteran Wu Ma), enamoured by the manliness of the legendary leader of the Jin Yi Wei, since she grew up on fairy tales and harbouring the hopes that a fabled swordsman would one day save society from its evils. In a way her Qiao Hua exhibits the Stockholm Syndrome, being held captive against her wishes, but slowly being drawn romantically to her captive, even endangering herself (in a scene to provide comic relief) by willingly becoming his aide and pawn.

It's far from being the perfect film, especially with unbelievably incoherent flashbacks and the going overboard with explosions (of the RPG type), but Donnie Yen once again shows that when it comes to the fisticuffs, he still has a lot to offer, despite the story's potential that had it go off the blocks strongly, only to fizzle out before the end in a case of severe narrative burn-out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

11 Singapore Films at Rotterdam 2010

A record 11 films from Singapore have been officially selected to screen at the 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam (27 Jan – 7 Feb), the mecca that showcases the most exciting filmmakers in the world. 13 Little Pictures is honoured to have co-produced 4 of them: 2 feature films, FLOODING IN THE TIME OF DROUGHT (Sherman Ong) (my review here but that was for a different cut) and MEMORIES OF A BURNING TREE (Sherman Ong. Shot in Tanzania, Africa) and 2 short films, TICKETS (Sherman Ong) and ONE DAY IN JUNE (Daniel Hui). Ho Tzu Nyen will have 2 works presented: Earth (short feature) and Newton (short). Other short films are made by acclaimed filmmaker Royston Tan, as well as up and coming filmmakers Kirsten Tan, Ng Wai Ha, Vladimir Todorovic and Wesley Leon Aroozoo.

How Sherman Ong managed to make 2 feature films and a short film in a year, the film programmer of Rotterdam, Gertjan Zuilhof, expressed his admiration on the programming notes:

"A film maker who makes friends quickly settles in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Because he can't afford to pay any actors, he teaches his new friends to act. Because he hasn't written the screenplay, he asks his new actors for stories. Because he can film, the result looks great...The secret is in his approach. Previously, Ong showed in his film HASHI (2008), shot in Japan, that he was able to improvise a feature in a strange country where he doesn't speak the language. MEMORIES OF A BURNING TREE also came about in improvisations. Ong loves the approach of dancers and theatre makers who put together a show step-by-step. Here, all the performers were amateurs. Most had no acting experience at all. Ong's answer to that is to rehearse calmly and patiently and to involve his actors in building up the story and situation."

Other participants from Singapore include Philip Cheah (Jury for Tiger Awards), Fran Borgia and James Leong (both for the Rotterdam Lab), Lim Song Hwee and Hee Wai Siam (film scholars researching on contemporary Singaporean/Malaysian filmmaking).

The Media Development Authority is supporting several Singapore filmmakers to attend the festival through the INSPIRE grant.



Feature Films

Short Films
EARTH by Ho Tzu Nyen
LITTLE NOTE by Royston Tan
KISSING FACES by Wesley Leon Aroozoo
MAY by Ng Wai Ha
NEWTON by Ho Tzu Nyen
ONE DAY IN JUNE by Daniel Hui
SINK by Kirsten Tan
SNAIL ON THE SLOPE by Vladimir Todorovic
TICKETS by Sherman Ong

* A detailed list with synopses and links can be found here:

About 13 Little Pictures
13 Little Pictures produces and presents innovative feature films by filmmakers who love cinema. Hailed by critics as the “real New Wave” from Singapore, the collective completed 7 feature films in 2009 and is developing 7 new feature films for 2010. For more information, please visit

Monday, January 25, 2010


What Are We Stealing Today?

I do have a soft spot each time a movie's soundtrack comes with a Massive Attack track, and here the riffs from their song Angel is unmistakable. Unfortunately it was good music which accompanied a nicely done pivotal scene which kept you wondering, for a while at least, if a security officer, sworn to do what's right, would finally cave in to his buddies' temptation and offer to steal their cargo load of a cool US$42 million, an act which with the right, consistent cover-story and alibi, and the promise of nobody getting hurt, can solve anyone's financial problems in one fell swoop.

Directed by Nimrod Antal who directed one of my favourite films Kontroll, Armored turned out to be less fun, highly cliche, and riddled with plot loopholes. Any security professional would be able to see through the gaping loopholes, but hey, without which the story would never have made sense anyhow. If anything, the star casting is interesting given the likes of Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno even lending their weight to a mediocre film that would otherwise be comfortable sitting on the shelves of direct to DVD movies.

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


Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Boys Are Back

Yes They Are

Mention Clive Owen, and chances are you'll think of that suave persona playing no less than roguish characters ranging from secret agents to well, erm, the go-to man if you want things done. Like Jackie Chan in The Spy Next Door, he's about to discover that the biggest challenge of his cinematic career is parenting, and in The Boys Are Back, Owen sheds his larger than life, indestructible spy characters for the role of Dad, and a complicated one too in having to reconnect with two boys from different marriages.

Based on the memoirs by Simon Carr, Owen stars as Joe Warr, a British sports news reporter now living in Southern Australia with his wife Katy (Laura Fraser) and son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty). But an unforeseen tragedy forces him to rethink his priorities in life, and figure out just how to cope with bringing up a kid, having no experience when he abandoned his ex-wife and his son Harry (George MacKay) from a previous marriage. So he hatches what he thought was a brilliant plan, and that's to bring Harry to Australia, and together, as a trio, would seek out new adventures in their parent-child relationship, imposing no rules other than to listen to him when commanded should the boys get out of hand.

The opening sequence would give rise to a certain expectation of how this film would play out, and little would you guess just what the beach going public was cursing at Joe for. It's this no holds barred growing up adventure that elevates this beyond just another movie with mourning and longing, where the protagonists realize that their unorthodox ways of bonding together, forging strong family ties, is just as easy and fragile as it is to be torn down.

Scott Hicks doesn't sugar coat the film with saccharine sweet moments, but instead offers some real pragmatism in what one would expect in a household lacking a woman's touch. And as a male I too abhor household chores unless it's absolutely necessary, so watching how the art direction of the Warr household just brought out that smirk that the filthy pig sty, erm, isn't far off from personal experience.

But it's not always just about the boys, as the narrative did offer a sneak peek into another what if moment, where budding romance with Laura (Emma Booth) was suggested at, though smartly worked on in not allowing it to overshadow the examination of the main relationships in the film about a father's attempt to connect with his sons, and them with each other. You'd wish for more given Booth's fine performance as the divorcee giving out all the right signals, only being frustrated that they're not acted upon with some degree of sincerity, with that unfair feeling of always being used.

For those familiar with what Clive Owen does best in his cinematic, larger than life personae portrayed on film, this role of Joe Warr would lead you to believe the the actor certainly has dramatic chops for more serious, father roles even. With excellent tracks by Sigur Ros, The Boys Are Back is one film that manages to get under your skin and make you feel very much for the dysfunctional family trying to find its rudder in the confused world they live in.

Hachiko: A Dog's Story

Americanized Mutt

I came to know of the Hachiko story from one of the film screenings during the Japanese Film Festival more than two years ago, and having visited Tokyo, who would not have heard and noticed that one of the exits of the busy Shibuya station had one exit named after the famous dog? Why an American version of the story would be made baffles me, if not only to tell of yet another dog story following the likes of the Lassies and the Marleys that because dog is Man's best friend there will always be a ready market for it?

Directed by Swede Lasse Hallstrom, at least there's the sensibility to still ensure that Hachiko remains Japanese, only for it to be accidentally transported from a Japanese monastery, and thanks to a botch up in cargo handling, Hachiko the puppy's destination ended up to be an American town with the Bedridge train station, where his first night wandering around the station's platform brought him to encounter Professor Parker Wilson, played by Richard Gere. Taking pity on the puppy whom he thought was abandoned, Parker brought it home to the opposition of his wife (Joan Allen), but who can deny a homeless dog especially one that looks as cute as a button?

The gist of the story you would already know from the trailer which decided to tell all. The film curiously didn't spend too much time with Hachiko as a puppy, and decided to fast forward to when it became an adult dog, starting to walk with Parker to the station, and at 5pm every work day, promptly made its way back to the station to wait for its master, and then walking back. The Japanese version did this very well with people interaction along the way, which this version decided to erroneously gloss over. It's not about just the Professor and his dog, but the community around in which the dog's loyalty, faithfulness and street-smartness touched. Sure there was some attempts at that in this version, but there was too little and probably wanted to approach the story in a different direction.

Unfortunately it got a little carried away, and after the pivotal turning point, it somehow went downhill with the narrative being dragged out because here's exactly when the relationship between community and the dog would have taken over to move this to another emotional plane, and didn't because the foundations were not established, granted though there were enough moments and scenes to tug at your heartstrings.

One cannot deny that the Akita breeds are cute, and many would have missed the disclaimer toward the end of the credits that the dogs are for experienced dog owners, so don't you be heading toward the pet store to get one puppy on a whim, as the worst thing that shouldn't happen, is an abandonment because fancy has worn off, and would have been very contradictory to the message preached in the film.

Between the American update and the original Japanese film, no prizes for guessing that I much prefer the latter for the simple reason that it had more genuine emotions with a better focus on Hachiko, and the locale which the American “Hallmark” version just tries so hard to replicate. Good news is the Japanese film made in 1987 is now re-released locally on DVD and is available in the shops now, and hopefully, the homage paid to the original story and the dog at the end of the film would pique interest in more picking up that version to watch.

The Spy Next Door

All In A Day's Work

While we anticipate Jackie Chan's Asian production with Little Big Soldier this Lunar New Year, he continues his journey in the West with yet another kid and family friendly production with The Spy Next Door, which would fit into the Disney Channel stable given Chan's penchant to appeal to the lowest denominator to draw in the family crowd, and you know just how safe the stunts of Hollywood tend to be when appealing to this demographic.

Which leaves The Spy Next Door pretty much a departure from contemporary adventure flicks which tend to draw upon violence and gore in its action sequences, to keep it within a safe, acceptable rating. Jackie Chan plays Bob Ho, a man with as much personality as his any of his past heroes, which tend to be cop / secret agent belonging to the Hong Kong / Chinese police / spy agency, and here he's on loan to the CIA because of warming Sino-US relations. For years he's been helping out and solving what the Americans cannot, keeping in line with Hollywood's trend of putting China in good light, and he does so undercover and under fake glasses, living next to a divorcee (played by Amber Valletta) whom he fancies, and her three kids.

They do not know his identity as his cover is as a geeky pen salesman, and like any super-hero film, has to keep his identity, abilities and tools a secret, which you know will be threatened for exposure as he grows closer to the family, wanting to take his relationship with Valletta's Gillian to the next step, and working toward seeking acceptance from her children, only for a Russian criminal to escape and threaten the world's oil reserve, and having to grapple with a mole within the CIA. Sounds complicated, but it actually isn't, really, especially when the main villain (Magnus Scheving) spends a lot of his time trying to look trendy and fashionable.

If there's something that will appeal, it'll be two items. First up the opening credit montage which played like a celebration to Chan's illustrious career as an action hero, where you get to see clips from classics such as Hong Kong's Armour of God when he was at his peak, to disasters like Hollywood's Tuxedo when he sold out to the West. Then there's even some drawing from Chan's own real life experiences in his character's monologue about love and family, exploited to add certain emotional gravitas in an otherwise empty film that spends fleeting moments in its underdeveloped subplots about the adventures in parenting/babysitting, from the youngest daughter with a fetish for anything pink, the only son who's a school-bully fodder trying too hard to be cool in school, and an eldest daughter with the usual rebellious teenage attitude problem.

With Jackie Chan growing older and slowing down, this shows up in the carefully crafted action sequences, which while I didn't notice any obvious signs of a stunt double, the stunts performed here are quite the walk in the park for Chan many years ago, where I remember being thrilled by the money-shot stunt sequences that each of his films would highlight. Of late there's none and he seems to be relying on his past laurels, though “improvised” fights and acrobatics that Chan is famous for, still has enough legs to entertain, especially when battling the bad guys in closed quarters using everyday household items. If anything, there's a number of obvious wire-work that you know Hollywood would dabble with, either for stunt safety reasons, for laughs, or just to plain exaggerate.

The Spy Next Door works as a family popcorn movie, keeping a lot of things safe and will entertain any 5 year old kid. Stay tuned during the end credits with hilarious outtakes from the film, and you see that JC still struggles with the English language.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Warrior and the Wolf (Lang Zai Ji / 狼灾记)

Epic Failure

Nice poster, nice trailer, disaster of a film. I didn't expect to discover something so bad so early in the year, but I did. If you're looking for a film that's self-indulgent to the point that the narrative doesn't make sense, nor even attempted to tell a proper story, then look no further than Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Warrior and The Wolf.

If there's only one plus point, then I'd say to watch this for the lusciously beautiful cinematography which captured plenty of postcard picturesque landscapes that will take your breath away, and one action scene involving a large stampeding pack of wolves. Otherwise, the film is wrong on many counts, starting with the casting of art house darling Jo Odagiri opposite Maggie Q, both of whom cannot speak Mandarin and had to rely on dubbers to speak on their behalf. Which of course is a curious case of casting, since I for one amongst the audience gets disturbed when the lip movement doesn't sync with dialogue.

Why these two were chosen I have no idea (Maggie Q replacing Lust, Caution's Tang Wei actually), but probably because of the fact that the film contained rape scene after rape scene, that it really went overboard. What more in a very uncreative, repetitive coming from behind each time, that I wonder what Tian Zhuangzhuang actually wanted to infer from gratuitously boring sex that never seemed to know how and when to end.

Based upon the short story by Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue, the film is set during the warring states period, and tells of the tale of a warrior Lu Chengkang (Odagiri), an indecisive chap who one day on his way home with his troops, chance upon the nomadic Harran tribe, and forces his way to a woman, played by Maggie Q. To follow the story is extremely tiring because the narrative flits back and forth with nary a proper transition to cue you in, and made worse by Odagiri having to play his character from hero to cad, from determined leader to indecisive chap.Maggie Q fared no better though, and had absolutely zero chemistry with her co-star.

Then there's the myth inserted that the Harran people were once wolves, but at this point you'll probably give up by the lacklustre storyline, the needless graphical sex (with blink and you miss peekaboos) that had the lovers just go on continuously like jackrabbits, and wondering just what everyone was possibly smoking to have had this project green lit and shot. You'll wonder what it's angle is about, and just what it was trying to achieve with bad filming techniques making its convoluted narrative worst off.

You have been warned to skip this.


Ripping 5kg of Flesh Look

One of the curious things about watching a Hindi film here, is how you get to see the censor certificate before the show begins, with signatories of approval as well as something which I like to spot – the physical length of the film measured in feet, over X number of projected reels. For Veer, this marks the first time I see the censors being quite upfront about the amount of snips down to the movie, which amounted to some 10 ft worth of film. At least you'd come to expect that the film was cut, and here it's for the gratuitous violence which unfortunately had the more gory bits left on the cutting room floor.

Salman Khan follows up on the disappointment of last year's London Dreams with this effort directed by Anil Sharma, responsible for what's arguably India's largest film Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. Unfortunately for what Veer had promised to be one heck of an epic set in a time of tumultuous India with factions battling it out for land, and the invasion of the British by virtue of alliances with Indian kings craving that upper hand in military logistics, not knowing that they're being nothing but slowly colonized by their British masters.

As the story goes, Salman Khan plays Veer, a Pindari general's child whose clansman were massacred through a betrayal by Madhavgarh King Gyanendra (Jackie Shroff). Fearsome in battle and men of their word, the warrior clan Pindaris are not taking this lying down, and have scattered with a vow to one day exact their vengeance against King Gyanendra. The first child born during their exile, Veer gets taught the ways of the warrior kind, before being sent to London with his brother Punya (Sohail Khan) in order to learn the ways of the Britishers (yeah) and especially their cunning minds, one small step toward their goal of overthrowing the Madhavgarh king through the exploiting of his backer's weaknesses and to circumvent their strategy of divide and conquer over India.

Alas Veer has to fall in love in typical Bollywood fashion, and what more in true Romeo and Juliet style. In fact, most of the film adopts this epic love story, which becomes centerstage for Veer's romance, and plot against his father's and people's common enemy. Like the fabled line from Shakespeare's tragedy “too early seen unknown, and known too late”, he and Princess Yashod (Zarine Khan, a fleshier dead ringer for Katrina Kaif) realize the enormous obstacles lying in front of them, and have to choose whether to fulfill personal desires, that of their father's (in crushing the other side), while shouldering the weight of their people's welfare as well whether to fight another bloody war, or to kowtow to the British who are pompously throwing their weight around.

While I didn't appreciate much of the token battle and action sequence in the first half, and even Veer's attack of a train for treasure and the love at first sight encounter with Yashod, the narrative was kept tight in the setting of the premise until you realize it's a love story after all, with Veer being a rather smart Romeo in trying to kill multiple birds with a single stone. The scenes in London where both Veer and Punya enrol in a college, and reconnect with Yashod again, was something out of a high school romance with plenty of song and dance to go around so much that it actually gets boring no thanks to the repetitive romantic theme played until ad nauseam , until two tragic turn of events set the stage for a cliffhanger just before the interval. It is in this section that Sohail Khan shines as Punya, used mostly for comic relief and then fading away as an underdeveloped character despite some glimpses of a fearsome warrior in the making.

The second half after the interval somehow imploded through its lost sense of direction, and the muddled development of plotting for revenge, fulfillment of promises, and the battling for the hand of Yashod all seemed too scattered. For all the sweeping motion of battle horses and foot soldiers clashing in battle, there was a distinct lack of big battle sequences which are obligatory for a sword and sandals film, and in its place you got a hokey joust with a muscular Caucasian, as well as an emotionally empty father versus son tirade. You cannot deny that Salman Khan tried hard, but it came across as trying too hard yet again, made worst by his display of only two emotions in the entire film – lovelorn and rage, which for some inexplicable reason the latter facial display comes with complete with some cheesy lion-roar effect to accentuate his angry mood.

India has its fair share of contemporary epics set in its period days, and two excellent films which I have watched come to mind in Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar (incidentally both directed by Ashutosh Gowariker). Unfortunately Veer doesn't even come close to matching the standards set by those two in terms of story, action and songs even. You can see glimpses of what Veer had tried to do, but it lacked focus and was poor in delivery, and the final, cheesy and needless scene just drove the final nail into the film's coffin. I'm also sad to say that of the 3 Khans of Bollywood, Salman has yet to impress me with this choice of projects to star in.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Angel From Hell

The trailer had me thinking that this would be one heck of a slice and dice fest in the same vein as Feast or even The Mist, with a group of rag tag survivors being huddled together in a diner / supermarket, and the fight for survival against invading monsters of all shapes, sizes and surprises. The latter film also had a bible-thumper, and religion forms the basis of the premise here, when you see how it all becomes a modern day reimagining of the tale of Mary, Joseph, and the prophetic messiah baby.

That's just my angle at making sense of the flimsy plot which didn't develop properly, despite ample time in the first half that had characters talking, rationalizing and reflecting on just what their predicament is, and how senseless it all seemed, at the expense of action sequences that undeniably got better as the film wore on. Amongst the action offered that I've not seen before involved the angel Gabriel (last done androgynously by Tilda Swinton in Constantine), which brings to mind just how angels would be clad for battle, with armour, close combat weapon with frills, and those metallic wings used both defensively and offensively in quite elegant ways as shield and blade combined in one sweeping motion. Not to forget, flight too.

Unfortunaately there are a number of close references to other films, most notably the Terminator movies and the Matrix combined for certain scenes that looked way too familiar. The beginning already had Terminator like arrival of the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) to our world, earmarked for destruction by God because he was losing faith in the bullshit of mankind. He's not following his book of Revelations though, as he sends his angellic force to earth mimicking how Terminator robots get sent back in time. Or the severe warping of the human face to indicate possession by a higher, in this case, spiritual force.

Basically, the world is God's matrix, and the angels being his agents sent to stop and destroy the birth of the prophetic Neo, who is but an unborn child in Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), an unwed mom who's waitressing at a diner out of nowhere aptly titled Paradise Falls, run by the estranged father and son team of Bob (Dennis Quaid) and Jeep Hanson (Lucas Black from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), who get thrown into the thick of the action together with the rest of their diner crew and customers, which can be easily read as fodder for the apocalypse, which came in the form of a spider granny, ice cream man and the likes.

For the film to work, you have to buy into its reasoning that God has decided to end the world through an unfair battle using his angels against humans, and the absence of the Devil whom a friend thought would actually either rejoice, or would have gathered new followers with the exodus of human souls now being abandoned by the holy one. If you don't subscribe to this premise, then everything will not hold water, and it'll become just another mindless action flick that flits from one sequence to another.

And let me know if you don't agree that the baby is the messiah (if I wanted to go one step further it could even be the second coming), since every angel bowed their heads in reverence, and stopped dead in their tracks. It wasn't explained why the baby held the key to the salvation of mankind, so that's my speculation. After all, Michael the angel did find it worthwhile to switch sides in order to find some glimmer of hope amongst mankind to change his master's mind.

Legion had an interesting potential but ultimately got let down by its half-baked plot development and references so close you'd think it was The Matrix or The Terminator. It got played out too seriously for its good, though with room given for a sequel if one ever gets made given the way it ended (really like The Terminator again), and this time maybe with room to deal with the demons now that angels are likely out of the way.


You Ain't Heavy

A remake of the Danish film Brodre, what this version boasts is the star presence of Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular brothers Sam and Tommy Cahill, with Natalie Portman starring as the former's wife Grace, in what would be some powerful dramatic performances delivered by all three actors in a story that deals with the pain of loss, the exhilaration of purpose, love and family, and the confusion that comes when jealousy starts to creep in a relationship no thanks to the presence of another man in one's home.

Tobey Maguire plays Captain Sam Cahill, who is bidding his family of wife Grace and kids Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare) farewell before he ships out for his tour of duty in Afghanistan. A well respected Marine, he's actually looking forward to this return to the war zone (talk about that addiction to war last seen in The Hurt Locker) to fulfil his belief in the fight for freedom to keep America safe, and is the pride of his parents Hank (Sam Shepard) and Elsie (Mare Winningham) as compared to his good for nothing brother Tommy who's just released from prison, and bumming around to find what he could do when he's out in society.

Then comes the tragic news that Sam's Blackhawk helicopter went crashing down into a river, and the devastation that event had on the surviving family members. This of course provided director Jim Sheridan to cover some pseudo-Afghanistan war scenes and making some statements about the war on terror, but also allowed for Portman and Shepard to showcase their acting chops, in particular Portman as you can feel that level of pain with the sudden cutting short of a young person's life, and of course the reverse when excellent, unbelievable news came her way.

Brothers is an excellent character study piece which both Maguire and Gyllenhaal fleshed out their roles in stark contrast toward each other and the drawing of parallels in their characters as the film progressed. One's calm and collected, but affected by recent experiences in guilt and blame to finally explode in “Bale Out” style, while the other's laissez-faire approach to life suddenly found some purpose when he subconsciously took it upon himself to look after his brother's family, so much so that it borders extremely close to that of being a surrogate husband and substitute father figure, yet endearing himself to the family as he grows into a better, likeable person. It is this constant, tense “will he or won't he” questioning that will keep you engaged in the film, and then again with the pivotal turning point that will introduce elements of jealousy and needless suspicion into a relationship.

There are plenty of memorable scenes in this film, which I thought made it stand out amongst the crowd. One involves all the principal characters gathering over the dinner table in conversation, and the dynamics of everything, and I mean everything, was magic, from how the scene was shot, edited and especially down to the roles that the kids play, with kids Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare almost always stealing the thunder from the veteran actors with their antics.

Granted that the assumption of death and how it screws up a relationship is nothing new (heck, even Michael Bay found time to squeeze it into his action packed Pearl Harbor), it boiled down to the excellent performances all round to deliver an emotionally powerful film. You'll feel that intense fury and worry when the film hits its crescendo, and for that alone it's worth the price of an admission ticket. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

20th Century Boys 3: Redemption (20-Seiki Shônen: Saishû-Shô - Bokura No Hata)

Secret Revealed

The best way to really enjoy this installment of 20th Century Boys, is to quickly break out the DVDs of the previous two films, watch them to jog your memory, before turning up for this one. Given the myriad of characters and the lag between the local releases, a revisit is somewhat necessary since there's very little recap, and the juxtaposition of timelines through flashbacks also provide that additional narrative challenge, not to mention that memories, being memories, tend to be faulty as well, for both you, as well as the characters in the storyline.

For fans of the franchise, the wait is finally over. Loose ends get tied up and the greatest mystery of all, the identity of Friend, gets revealed, albeit in a more definitive ending, diferent from the manga series, that gets played out after the end credits roll, so do not head for the doors anytime soon, otherwise you'll miss what's probably the best part of the entire film.

I was entertained by the first film given the interesting premise, and T-Rex's 20th Century Boys track, but it left us all with an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The second film was somewhat weaker since most middle films in a trilogy are, as the timeline gets fast-forwarded way into the future, with the focus on Kanna, the girl who possesses some ESP abilities which got totally forgotten in this installment. A lot more characters get introduced, and a lot more subplots revealed, some of which didn't actually gel with the main narrative thread, which unfortunately bloated the film into a hydra of ideas that were still left hanging by the time the film ended.

So for the patient amongst us, don't write off the franchise just yet, as whatever can of worms Part II opened, Part III sought to address them all. Although it meant shuffling quickly from character to character, and even having Kanna being relegated back to a supporting role, the film picked up speed with the re-introduction of Kenji (surely you can't be expecting him to disappear after Part I, can you?), and plenty of the good ol' familiar faces, though aged now, from Part I.

Production wise, the filmmakers do not scrimp on sets and props, with the largest being an invading robot shaped like a ball with two limbs on either side to crushingly stomp all over Japan, never looking out of place should it decide to jump straight into an Ultraman film. The seamless mix of CG and life-action in this film would triumph over that of many movies, as the effects don't serve to distract, but rather enhanced the overall look and feel of the film, especially since the bulk of it is set in the future, with Friend's world domination, and recreation of the Tokyo from childhood.

One of the more successful manga adaptations to have come out from Japan, 20th Century Boys is a very different science fiction show put together which tells of consequences from what would seemingly be insignificant seeds sowed, and the action-reaction that we sometimes would experience that would come later in life. Clearly the franchise exhibited that the strength lies in the summation of all the films over each individual installments, which you would find more enjoyable if you approach the last film after quickly recapping the significant events from the first two. Definitely recommended for the fans of the franchise since you're likely to be seeking a satisfying closure.

20th Century Boys 3 Opens on 28 Jan!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tooth Fairy

You Can't Handle The Tooth!

Dwayne Johnson is perhaps one of the more successful WWE Stars who had managed to cross over to Hollywood and make quite an impact in both action films, as well as family friendly comedies. Despite the trailer painting yet another run of the mill comedy, I thought the film actually worked thanks to the wonderful supporting cast from Stephen Merchant, who shares some of the best banter here opposite Johnson, and an unrecognizable Billy Crystal, provider of Tooth Fairy equipment and tools to get the job done.

Being an arrogant sportsman is nothing new for Dwayne Johnson, and he plays the role with aplomb, especially when his titular nickname stemmed from the hard tackles he dishes out to his ice hockey opponents and causing them to lose their tooth. But it's not funny as he finds out when his disbelief in fairy tales and What Ifs in life resulted in a penance of tooth fairy duties, complete with girly wings and pink tutu, for a scene at least. To make matters worse, the randomness in which he's called upon provided for much of the narrative episodes, each complete with a demonstration of the tooth fairy toolset he carries with.

It's predictable fare with a feel good Disney-ish ending, complete with messages that will inspire the young, and to ignite one's inner child again.

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


Are You Camera Shy?

If not, do help a group of NTU students and do your part to help 'Save Our Film' as well! The 'Save Our Film' campaign is a nationwide outreach effort to raise awareness amongst those aged 15 to 35 and educate them on the importance of saving our local films for the future. It is held as a part of the 5th Anniversary celebrations of the Asian Film Archive, a local charity dedicated to collecting, conserving and sharing our local films from before the Golden Era ('50s and '60s) till today, and will launch on 30 January till the end of February.

Part of the 'Save Our Film' campaign involves a nation-wide Call for Memories where members of the public are invited to contribute video clips of themselves or their "memory-keepers" like parents and grandparents to share their recollections of Singapore film. This can include actual Singapore films and the experience of watching films in Singapore in the good old days of large hall cinemas and the like. These video clips will be amassed on the Asian Film Archive YouTube group to form an online video memories exhibition accessible to the public and our targeted audience of youths who will not have these memories of their own.

They would like to extend a warm invitation to anyone who holds and wishes to share their favourite local film memories and will arrange to interview and record you and any other friends or family you can gather for this personal sharing session. This is a wholly non-profit endeavour aimed at recreating experiences for our youths and creating conversations between the generations. Please feel free to email them at saveourfilm [at] and do come forward to join in this very worthy but overlooked cause!

Monday, January 18, 2010


I Surrender!

Expectant mothers and those with heart conditions take note. Santau is not for you, so says the cliche warning (used to drum up curiosity no less), and in some ways I found it quite true, because it's one heck of a guilt trip down the old school horror lane, except that this one starts with a bang and never quite take a breather, opting for a thrilling roller coaster ride of scares and inevitable comedy that go down best with a jumpy, vocal audience.

The story is a fairly simple one, and given that this is probably my first proper, theatrical viewing of a contemporary Malaysian horror film, I do find some parallels between the black magic genre of the Malaysian film, to that of the Thai counterparts, with witch doctors being heavily involved in hexing and the setting of curses to fulfill their own miserable wants against another human being. The chief difference is of course how religious rites (I'm not expert here by the way) in Islam are involved in exorcism, through the chanting of religious verses (available in CD too!) which due to my limited experience with this genre, I cannot go beyond the surface, and the lack of subtitles to check on the authenticity of what's being chanted.

But i digress. Essentially it tells on how negative behaviour like envy and spite can cause someone to curse another man and his family, wishing them anything but being well, and to seek the help of wandering spirits to wreck havoc in their seemingly perfect lives. Halim (Esma Daniel) throws a celebration for this neighbours as he had won a lucrative tender, but there's someone in the village who sees green, and decides to hex him, his wife Nina (Putri Mardiana) and child Ecah (Farisha Fatin). Talk about being vicious and cowardly at the same time, as that unknown entity starts to channel the spooking onto the wife and child, playing on the notion that kids can see things that adults don't.

While the usual bag of scare tactics doesn't get exploited beyond boredom, you still get your fair share of worm infested food being guzzled down with gusto, appearances and disappearances of people and spirits, and credit to Putri Mardiana for entering the Hall of Fame for actresses who can contort their bodies while speaking in weird tongues and controlling the amount of icky, foamy goo coming out of their mouths. Being the unfortunate, primary victim here, she has enough scenes to matriculate herself into scream queendom, chomping down fried eggs and chicken.

There are a number of points here that one shouldn't start to think too much of, such as the varying degrees of tactics the spirits use, from scaring others from within the confines of a physical body, to getting out of the human vessel and doing so from the outside. They're a fickle bunch these spirits here. And it seemed that every one religious in the kampung has supernatural abilities in dealing with ghouls (quite an awesome skill to possess), save for disbelievers like Halim, who through the course of the story, would reaffirm his faith (well, it was made to look that way). A cursory lesson that one shouldn't be losing one's religion perhaps?

The last half hour was where the most fun was, beginning with an unintentionally comedic episode that took place within the confines of a vehicle. There was wife-bashing (I kid you not!) and the playing of a prayer CD while en route to seek the help of more powerful bomohs, which of course heightened the opportunities to showcase some nifty special effects besides having humongous fans blow strong winds on everyone. And if there's a formula in the genre, it's the unwritten rule that bomohs get visited in ascending order of ability, so that you allow the less powerful ones to gain some field experience, before proceeding onto someone who can solve the issue together with a support team.

It's nothing fancy but it works, especially when writer-director Azhari Mohd Zain has formulated the film to allow you to expect something to happen at almost every corner and turn, literally and otherwise, and then delivering it when you least expected it. The only way not to walk out of this disappointed, would be to pick the right crowd to watch this with - the vocal and the jittery, who will amplify both the bad (you'll get laughs) and the good, scary parts to perfection.

Santau opens on 28 Jan 10.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen

Trust Me I'm On Your Side

Law Abiding Citizen is one of those thrillers that has a great premise and idea, but bogged down by so many plot loopholes that it becomes an effortless comedy. What was supposedly an excellent run riddled with implausibilities became even more ridiculous in the final 10 minutes that you'd wonder if anyone had any inkling of a logical conclusion, or had decided to cop it all out to avoid being branded as anti-establishment, and as a result, just plain ordinary lacking the guts to just stick with its plan to the end.

Jamie Foxx stars as hotshot (assistant) district attorney Nick Rice, who boasts an extremely high conviction rate, a fact that he repeats many times, and we learn his dirty little secret was to make deals with the guilty - charge them for less, but they still get charged anyway. A conviction is better than no conviction at all should he lose the case. Too bad his latest case was, in my opinion an open and shut one, and he steps on the shoes of the victim, Clyde Sheldon (Gerard Butler), making a deal with the murderers of his family such that one gets sentenced to death while the other gets a short jail term. Not very ethical, but he gets to chalk up his positive statistics.

The perversion of the justice system gets highlighted, since justice is blind and the law can be manipulated with flip-flopping highly paid lawyers and incompetent judges. So Clyde decides to take on the system and teach them all a lesson. Which is a walk in the park because he's a clandestine strategist, but who had misguided faith in the system which explains why he sits around and does nothing, until 10 years later, which is acceptable according to an old Chinese proverb, to exact some form of revenge, making this like a torture porn outing, but without much of the gore on display.

I'd appreciate the film for its take on vigilantism when the system fails you through its corruption and incompetence, and just how much the limit actually is in order to push a man over the edge to declare war on just everybody, and pissing on the system while at it. Turning the system's tools and procedures over its head and onto the same organization may seem like guilty fun, but when the payback gets a wee bit sophisticated each time, you'd start to wonder on the plausibility of it all, even though it was established that Clyde Shelton is a man who can kill you softly while looking directly at you.

The film boils down to which side will you be on, and who would you root for. There's this shade of gray in both men, one willing to make deals with murderers to keep up his personal record, the other taking the law into his own hands, only to not want to stop when the going gets good, but being more ambitious in wanting to take down the whole system. From his prison cell no less. Although Clyde has a valuable lesson to impart to Nick in that what's important is doing the right thing, it did go a tad overboard in order to amplify its idea, especially with sweeping statements like how the entire city got gripped by the apparent acts of terrorism.

Gerard Butlner plays his character crazed since he's a man with absolutely nothing to lose, though it's quite unbelievable that for someone who's well versed in clandestine operations to be ambushed like you see in the trailers, without so much of a counter-strategy in place. But between the two leads Jamie Foxx seemed a little uncomfortable as he can't really portray that degree of arrogance required, and given the emotional distance from his family director F. Gary Gray failed to allow you to feel Nick's fear when his own family got threatened by Clyde.

But the real stinker was the insult to the audience's intelligence in the final moments which tried way too hard to be clever in introducing an impossible twist which has to involve time travel. It's quite the slap in the face telling you that Fate will shine its light on the powers that be, or on any one else bent on seeking justice, but one must know when to stop before going too far and lady luck begins to turn her attention away. Recommended for the build up, but not its unsatisfying, gutless ending.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chance Pe Dance

Fitness Programme

Well it seems like Dance movies are the rage these days, and this week alone we have two films that seemingly centers on dance, with Jump coming from China/Hong Kong, and Chance Pe Dance from Bollywood, both being romantic comedies appealing to their respective distinct demographics. And it's not too surprising that unlike dance films of old where there's a male-female pair who would exhibit some signature moves on the dance floor, the contemporary films this week have absolutely none of that, which in some ways is a pity.

Chance Pe Dance follows recent Bollywood films such as Luck By Chance in having their characters lament about the open secret of their film industry, where one has to be well connected, or come from an influential family in the industry in order to have one's big break served on a silver platter. For the rest of the mortals aspiring for that opportunity, it's more hard work, toil and sweat in order to get noticed, otherwise it's an endless cycle of mundane work to pay the bills, and juggling auditions in between.

Shahid Kapur plays one such struggler from Delhi, Sameer Behl, who has spent the last 3 plus years trawling the audition houses of Mumbai in order to find work in the film industry. Living under meagre terms, he gets disappointed time and again, which is pretty much against the way he was brought up to believe that his good looks and charisma automatically meant he'd be the hero in his life, all the time. The narrative takes a very whirlwind snapshot of Sameer's life, highlighting his debts and being played out by both his best friend as well as filmmakers who promise him the sky, but never hesitant to pull the rug from under his feet.

The story tries to jam pack too many subplots into the film, which makes you wonder whether this is a dance film if at all. First of all, there's the school days arc, where in order to sustain his city living, Sameer takes up a teaching job, imparting his dance skills to pesky children (he's never good with them) in order to help them win their dance competition. The key message here is of course if one couldn't do anything with one's current lifetime, there's always the imparting of skills to the next generation for them to live the dream that we have missed out on. This story arc could have been better fleshed out, other than to be squeezed into the film just before the intermission, and then resolved right after the film resumes.

Then there's the continuation of Sameer's own struggle, where he has to learn never to give up because a life-changing opportunity may just be around the corner. In what would be like an American Idol clone of a dance/idol contest, this story too wasn't fleshed out properly and we're taken in for quite the fast tracking from the competition's start, right to the finale, with nary any tension due to the lack of competitive characters, and the larger culprit being the lack of dance (it's chance pe dance after all, right?)

But the largest waste here was the under utilization of the character Tina, played by Genelia D'Souza, a choreographer whom Sameer serendipitously meets, and falls in love with. The character reminded me of Asin's Kalpana from Ghajini, the free-spirited, strong girl who teaches a thing or two to her guy about what it means by being resilient. I thought Genelia looked like Asin too from certain angles, and possessed the same vivacity here as well, together with some really stunning dance moves that we would see at the start of the film, with so much promise that when the lead duo gets paired together, sparks will fly and magic will happen. But it didn't! If there's anything to rue about, it's precisely this missed opportunity to have the duo perform a lot more dance numbers than one which quite sedately celebrates their love for each other, by mucking around exotic locales.

For a dance movie, I wouldn't doubt that Bollywood cannot pull one off, given the musical like quality in almost all of the films, but it's a real pity that Chance Pe Dance is not that film. Thankfully the leads have charisma and share pitch perfect chemistry together, which managed to carry the film through from start to end, limited dance moves notwithstanding.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Blind Side

Do What You Do Best

Much of the hype in this film comes from Sandra Bullock's fine performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a God fearing rich woman who had chosen to adopt a kid off the street out of plain human compassion, offer him a home, school, even introduced him to football, and essentially turned his life around without ever wanting anything back in return. Incredible as it may sound, it's actually based on the true story of Michael Oher's life given a new lease to stay off the streets, and the opportunities extended to him as part of the Tuohy family, to turn him into the pro-footballer he is today.

And this heartwarming story reminds us that while it's easy to pay lip service to charitable organizations, or at times feel overwhelmed with the myriad of societal issues that need fixing, all it takes is that small step forward to spark a massive change for the better, especially when help comes from within and from an honest and sincere heart. We cannot change the world and cure it of all its ills, but it's the little things that we do within our capacity that will make the most difference and impact.

The story may not be something new, and you've probably watched countless of films with similar themes and the fusion of inspiration and sports. Moreover, some may feel that the rich characters here have within their means to extend help, but pay no heed to that, because just how many out there would find it compelling to do something like what the Tuohys did? And I kid you not when I say the marketing of the film tried to pass this off like a cliche rags to riches film where a character finds his true calling in American football or learn about values such as teamwork and group above self and so on. It's not exactly a sports or football movie, but one about compassion, change and the belief that with effort comes result for a fellow human being who had been tossed an unfair circumstance to cope with.

Sandra Bullock's come a long way from the days of driving a bus in Speed, to various average romantic flicks, and finally settling in a role that calls for plenty of gravitas, which she pulled off wonderfully. In Erin Brockovich style complete with blonde hair, Southern drawl and Maximizer bra, she plays Leigh Anne as the tough cookie who gets her way and never takes no for an answer, which explains how what may seem like a whim, turn and become something of a crusade in genuinely fighting a prejudiced system to get others to open up to Big Mike / Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) and get to engage with the quiet boy in more meaningful ways through out of the box techniques. I have never seen Sandra Bullock come close to playing any character like Leigh Anne, and this is indeed busting any preconceived glass ceiling that dramas are not her forte.

Quinton Aaron also provided that perfect pairing opposite Bullock as the lumbering giant with a heart of gold, knowing that his strength is not in the physical sense (not that he doesn't have that in abundance), but in his innate ability for ball games and protective intuition. He may be slow in learning, but he's not stupid, contrary to many especially his teachers who seem resigned to the fact that he cannot be taught subjects through the proper schooling channel. Aaron plays this role with plenty of sentimentalism and sensitivity, that it's extremely hard not to empathize, nor to feel for him when the chips are down or to cheer and root for him even when good things happen.

And the rest of the cast, especially Tim McGraw, Jae Head and Lily Collins all add a little sparkle as members of the Tuohy family (who owns a chain of fast food franchises) who because of Leigh Anne, all learn to accept and embrace Michael as one of their own. Kathy Bates round off the wonderful cast when she enters the picture in the final act as Miss Sue, Michael's personal tutor engaged to ensure he passes high school with a decent GPA needed to further his studies as well as the sport of choice.

The Blind Side will open up your eyes to a worthwhile "true life" story that you should be aware of, and be inspired from, and I'd say Sandra Bullock should be quite the shoo-in for the Golden Globe, and way overdue for an Oscar as well. Highly recommended as her performance alone is well worth the ticket price!
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