Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Other Guys

We're The Men!

There are probably three key reasons why I predict this action comedy will be a hit and live up to its potential – the pairing of what's probably deserving of a movie of its own with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson as the toughest, meanest, no nonsense cops in New York City whose careers are nothing but laden with action, the main focus on the quirky pairing of Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as complete opposites to their peer's partnership and crime-busting success rate, and Eva Mendes herself for her firm and perky you-know-whats, spouting lines seen in the trailer that so far has never failed to elicit laughter.

While the film may be hidden under the guise of the classic cops and robbers tale, it is Adam McKay and Chris Henchy's story that made it stand out, because of its relevance and commentary of today's real world woes. Like how the action sequences involving the old school cops become ultra exaggerated and complete with what I'd like to think as deliberate B-grade film special effects, if not to keep costs down in filming along the busy streets of a major metropolitan city, it accentuates how the old ways of doing things will not work, where heroes and villains are no longer clearly and cleanly defined. Aiming squarely at the financial crisis where problems or opportunity for problems stem from financial accounts and affects a lot more people across the board, the skill sets required to solve a crime go beyond just normal policing work.

So with the development of more savvy crooks comes the need for an appropriate response. Out goes the traditional techniques now seen as dinosaurs, and in comes a new breed of problem solvers where the everyday common man, each steeped in their own skillsets, competencies and diligence for menial work sometimes, play that very important role. This is the story of the unsung heroes, and the other guys who are left with filling the void of new opportunity. And the film's pairing of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as detective partners couldn't add more fun into this definition of embracing change and the differences in others, never to judge anyone, as the adage goes, by the book.

Ferrell plays Allen Gamble, a mild-mannered cop whose background in forensics accounting means he's one suited for a desk role in the force, never ever volunteering for the more glamourous aspects of police work, preferring instead to work behind the scenes hammering out reports. This of course to the irritation of whiny partner Terry Hoitz (played by Wahlberg who hammed up his usual macho alpha-maleness here), who yearns to see action and doing his contribution to clean up the streets, if not for that hilarious career limiting move that had stalled his prospect for promotion. Reporting to Michael Keaton's Captain Gene Mauch who has this penchant for unknowingly quoting TLC, this duo will go through a rather satisfying cliché of getting to know each other, warts and all, before finally accepting their differences en route to cracking a big case.

No sooner than the get go are we treated to the very first action sequence of the film that's so much fun and laughter even that your appetite is whet and leaving you clamouring for more. I for one will put up my hand should there be a feature film based on Sam L. Jackson's and Dwayne Johnson's characters since they're totally over the top, and I suppose as a comedy they nailed their roles and were right on the money with personifying self-importance and arrogance, having little patience for their support team, never hesitating to shoot or belittle them, and it's quite the pity we don't get to see more, as they had to make way for the titular guys to take over, so with that goes some of the fun that came right from the start.

The writers McKay and Henchy have developed extremely likeable caricatures, which every cast member especially Ferrell and Wahlberg delivering with a complete repertoire of slapstick and with with aplomb. Between the two leads there are occasional moments where you'll find that they irritate, especially when Wahlberg turns all angry and whiny at the same time, with Ferrell too having to seem that he's been reigned in to play such a restrained character, with moments where the glint in the eye to explode just shows, then dissipates. Still, probably the best scene here were the three way dynamics which included Eva Mendes, some of which you'll already have seen in the trailers.

Adam McKay had directed a fair bit of Will Ferrell comedies such as Step Brothers and Talladega Nights amongst others with varying degrees of success where the comedy's more hit than miss, but The Other Guys really went for that rip-roaring laugh a minute offering which lived up to its potential. A definite contender in my shortlist for favourite films of this year as it's been some time since I laughed so hard during a comedy, one that had its message not lost in laughter. Don't leave the cinema just yet when the end credits roll as you'll be taken through a fantastically done animated piece on the financial crisis we face today as well as the absurdity of pay structures, and between the haves and the have nots / other guys, before one final joke cum outtake between Ferrell and Wahlberg.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (精武風雲.陳真 / Jing Mo Fung Wan: Chen Zhen)


This year marks the 70th year of Bruce Lee's birth, arguably the best martial artist the cinematic world has ever seen, with his short filmography still continuing to wow audiences young and old. With tribute screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year, and at the Tokyo International Film Festival later this month, director Andrew Lau, writer Gordan Chan and leading kung-fu icon of the moment Donnie Yen pay their collective tribute with Legend of the Fist, taking one of the most memorable of Bruce Lee's characters Chen Zhen and imagining a follow up story.

But wait, wasn't the final shot in Fist of Fury quite definitive? But as movie rules are concerned, nothing's canon if you don't see it, so a slew of gunshots count for nothing, passing it off as one of many rumours to discount his death, when in actual fact Chen Zhen (now with Yen picking up the mantle) is still alive and kicking, and sent packing to the WWI front in France to fight alongside his Chinese labourer compatriots against the Axis forces. It's an unsatisfactory explanation I know, but one of the rare blips in what I thought was a riveting story concocted that alas was let down by a cliched ending that was too abrupt to be satisfying, leaving doors open for another film if it does happen.

Other than that, Legend of the Fist continues how Bruce Lee films were steeped in Chinese nationalism, only here it went with trumpets blaring with any given opportunity. Chen Zhen assumes a dead comrade's identity to return to Shanghai keeping jolly well under the Japanese's radar, where now the city in the early 20s gets carved up into settlements, with a microscopic representation of the internal chaos existing within the nightclub of influential Shanghainese businessman Liu Yiutian (Anthony Wong), with whom Chen Zhen befriends, for an ulterior motive of course, since he's now with the resistance, and the Casablanca club providing a hotbed of information as they plot and counterplot moves against the Japanese's brewing aggression.

Of late there's been a wave of such nationalistic movies that Donnie Yen tend to get involved in, such as Bodyguards and Assassins, and his more recent and successful Ip Man films, where Chinese people gather around a representative hero of their time to defeat foreign aggressors, where even in Ip Man 1, we see and expect the same mano-a-mano against a Japanese general who shows off his fair share of kung-fu knowhow. Like how many caricatures would be crafted in many more films that deal with that difficult period in Chinese history. While Yen had portrayed historical characters in those films, this one he continues with a fictional one made famous by a historical martial artist in Lee.

As a film steeped in paying homage to Lee, there are times where you feel the characters and action get shackled from freedom of expression, but this is not always a bad thing. I had followed Donnie Yen's career pretty early when he was still doing television serials for Hong Kong's ATV, where he played Chen Zhen in a storyline that had to mimic Fist of Fury, but expanded to include a romance with a Japanese woman. Like some television dramas that gets new lease of life on the big screen, it helped that Yen has experience in portraying the role other than a few others like Jet Li in another feature film that was a remake, but this one had the guts to continue where the film / series left off with a new spin.

While aspects of the Chen Zhen character were toned down probably because the character has to continue staying under the radar, gone are the high shrieks when he fights in the beginning (purists, please don't worry, you'll hear that toward the end), and got replaced by plenty of what I thought was MMA executed in brilliantly brutal fashion, starting with the prologue action sequence which had Chen Zhen being that one man soldier, followed by yet another nod in Bruce Lee's direction when dressed in a deliberate Kato costume. I'd say if not for his age, I'd give my vote to Yen if he were to be casted as Kato in the upcoming Green Hornet film in lieu of Jay Chou.

More Lee homages were to come, with the necessity to go shirtless in highlighting the chiseled physique that has its fair share of punishment, and what would be defining of Lee in Fist of Fury with the use of the nunchaks, although with all due respect to Yen, Lee is quite indomitable in this area, and the filmmakers here can only up the ante by throwing in a lot more goons to dispatch of in the same dojo from the earlier film. Yen took the action choreographer reins, and skillfully designed some spectacular fight sequences for action junkies to go wow over, balancing the homage aspects as well as coming up with some really violent, finishing moves to rid opponents. Watch this in a cinema with a proper sound system decked out will heighten that sense surround of being within the all round action.

The story's pretty much plain sailing with little surprises thrown in other than to present shifting loyalties in a tumultuous time, where Anthony Wong lends gravitas, Chinese actor Huang Bo providing comic relief as a corrupt policeman, and Shu Qi lending her vocals yet again as a club hostess already seen in films like Blood Brothers. While the story wouldn't be as iconic as Fist of Fury's, the fight action sequences lived up to its billing, and celebrated manifold the legend of Bruce Lee's instead.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nowhere Boy

Rock N Roll

I will count Nowhere Boy as one of my favourite musician bio-pics, even if John Lennon doesn't actually count as my favourite Beatle. Set during his teenage years when he's still a student and a lousy one at that, this film by Sam Taylor-Wood takes a look at his influences, the early years in the formation of his band before the Beatles with Paul (Thomas Sangster) and George (Sam Bell) already onboard, and of the two important women in his life, his mom Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) where the latter had taken on parental responsibilities.

First, the music. Don't expect to listen to any Beatles classics because John Lennon still hasn't found his calling yet in the story, ending just about the time the Liverpool boys are going to head to Hamburg, and the rest, as they say, is history. Instead, there are a lot more other classics that get their air time here that you'd find yourself tapping your feet to, and defines the era that once was, before Beatlemania swept the world with their brand of music to define a new generation. And who would have thought, as the film suggested, that John will be influenced by Elvis Presley because his interest got piqued when a legion of female fans packed in a theatre were swooning and openly gushing their adoration for him.

So begins his quest toward learning how to play, starting with the banjo courtesy of suspension from school and lessons from his mom. As mentioned, the film splits time in defining who John Lennon was in his teenage years, and exploring the relationships he had with his mom and aunt. With his mom, it's all about fun, and her introduction of rock and roll to him, and the kind of connotations that that brand of music gets associated with, which naturally will interest any teenage boy should you tell them that. However, this is very much a love hate relationship, as there's spectre of gloom hanging over their rekindle of relations, especially when John has to learn the truth behind and come to terms with why he's actually living with his aunt Mimi all along.

With Mimi it was almost the exact opposite in how time flies when with his mom. It's more rigid and strict, with her expectations more set toward him doing well in school than to wander off pursuing some crazy dream. But that doesn't mean she's not supportive, but does so at her own time, in her own way, which frustrates John as he cannot see past Mimi's stoic demeanour. Both Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas were excellent in contrasting themselves to set up an inevitable clash that is powerful and stinging, but blood always runs thicker than water, despite how the new found happiness would be cut short.

And who would have thought that Aaron Johnson, who got his ass kicked most of the time in Kick Ass, would actually kick serious ass here with his portrayal of one of the most iconic musical legends of all time. He brings about that aura of a musical god who's just beginning to get hold of his roots, in establishing who he is and what he stands for, and in some ways, prove to be quite the dead ringer from certian angles. With the cast members lending their singing voices here, Johnson provides ample aural pleasure with his crooning, that flair of arrogance and what I thought was a very fine and subtle touch in suggesting some serious competition with Paul very early on in their collaboration.

Nowhere Boy is a fictional dramatization of the growing up years of JOhn Lennon, but has plenty of positives from the songs to cast delivering their roles with aplomb that made this a delight to sit through. Most definitely highly recommended, and goes into my shortlist for one of the best this year.

Charlie St. Cloud

Zac the Sailor Boy

The legion of female teenage fans who turn up in droves for this preview screening is probably testament to the drawing power of Zac Efron, probably Hollywood's latest heartthrob who's standing his ground with his alpha male status from the High School Musical series, to films like Hairspray and 17 Again (also directed by Burr Steers) where he plays a star basketballer who's life didn't turn out as he thinks. In Charlie St. Cloud, a romance flick with its title named after his character (which tells a lot about his ability to marquee a film), he too plays a star sportsman (here it's sailing) whose championship potential got cut short by tragedy, which turned him into someone who can see and communicate with dead people.

I kid you not if you think this was a Shaymalan picture, but it's more Disney friendly that you can imagine, with his powers only limited to communicating with spirits caught in limbo, and thus making him the town looney where it's best to leave him alone. His powers only came where he was pulled from the brink of death by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) some five years ago, where his babysitting of his young brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) turned out tragically in ways that's not his fault, because Zac Efon's the latest blue eyed boy of the industry, and his character cannot be all that negative (see uproar cause by 17 Again's premarital sex)

From what would be the promise of sailing challenges and scholarships, Charlie becomes a cemetary caretaker in the same cemetary his brother got buried in, so as to be able to play catch with him every evening deep in the woods without fail, as his guilt made him succumb to not being able to let go and move on. To most he's a lost cause, that his second stab at life was wasted in doing menial work other than to change the world or something, but this doesn't bother Charlie so long as he gets to seek out his dead brother as a confidante.

But of course a romance movie will suggest to you that love will conquer all and set him free, and this comes in the form of Tess (Amanda Crew), his school mate admiring him from afar, sharing his same passion for sailing (not spook interacting) and is gearing up for the challenge of sailing solo around the world. Curious about Charlie and never hiding the fact that she's interested in him, they soon hook up, but there's more to this romantic angle that I will like to give it credit to as I didn't see it coming, feeling rather bored about the film until a spanner got thrown into its narrative to shake things up a little.

The one thing working against Charlie St. Cloud's favour is just how convenient things can turn out to be, especially in its final act involving shooting stars (told you it's far out) and strokes of luck, but for fans of Efron these can all be overlooked so long as their hero gets plenty of screen time as a romantic lead spouting lines like never leaving you, and being together forever, anything that's swoon-worthy enough to appeal to his demographic fan base. It's not a perfect movie, but has enough to make it an above average date movie.

Outrage (Autoreiji)

Down the Barrel of the Gun

As far as I can remember, the first Takeshi Kitano film that I saw him in was a Yakuza one called Brother, where his character got to get to the United States while on the run from Japan, and showed his relative a thing or two about running a racket and setting up shop in a foreign land. Between then and now there were the offbeat support roles in mainstream films to arthouse fare and now I've gone full circle with Kitano's latest Jpaanese film Outrage which made it to Cannes, telling a story none other than one involving Japanese gangsters.

But this is not your ordinary, romanticized tale of gangsters where there's an identifiable lead who'd probably be that anti-hero, or villain with the heart of gold. Outrage is an intense look at the structure of the Japanese yakuza, where there is proper hierarchy in terms of funding, promotions, and the likes, and how things are run in that secret society. It's almost like a corporation with a CEO in place, with various houses reporting back to him, each having a report card to score, and the weak ones taken out from the organization, in brutal fashion of course.

Written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano, this is one film that tells you straight in the face that these are all bad men, with zero humanity nor any room for redemption, as they lead their corrupt lives very much looking over their shoulders, choosing to go onto the path of obvious hypocrisy, where loyalties are flimsy and count for nothing and are only as good as what you can bring and contribute to the coffers. Which is an interesting notion as you see orders no matter how absurd they sound being followed to a T, and some of the best scenes involve contemplation of what's morally ethical (ok, even for a bit) when told to betray another, and this not only involves the hoodlums, but those who are on the side to enforce the law being no better themselves.

And the catalyst for everything that unfolds in the film, gets sparked off by something as menial as an exploitation of a seemingly harmless man in a karaoke bar turned wrong, which in essence is something hatched by the those in the lower rung of the structure because the head honcho disapproves of certain relationships being linked with the larger family alliance. Yes, those at the bottom of the food chain, gets to do all the dirty work. From then the narrative moves at a frantic pace as things get to spiral out of control and taking on a life of its own, with everything from the gangsters' arsenal of weapons like bribery, assassinations and blackmail being deployed in a systematic execution of foes from each side.

The violence on display doesn't flinch, which sort of provides you that cautionary hint that crime doesn't pay, and that doesn't just mean the mutilation of the pinky is enough in ritual apologies. Kitano's story serves up execution after execution that will make the sternest of hearts cower at the way they are carried out without remorse, even though you clearly know they are evil guys who deserve as good as the punishment and death they dish out themselves. You'd get plenty of bloody good gore thrown in for good measure without the camera cutting away, which splatters the film with plenty of crimson red. In some ways it plays out like poetic justice, especially when accompanied by the really magnificent soundtrack by Keiichi Suzuki.

Outrage is outrageously recommended for those who'd like to sit on the sidelines and observe how people destroy other people in society through the lack of ethics, especially when this film mirrors human nature in general with the plotting of usurping other's position of power any moment, of self-advancement through the stepping on other's backs. Only that here, when it involves turf, money and promotion to get to the very top amongst a group of armed men with little morals, it comes with many body bags as well. Definitely one of the best Yakuza films in recent years for its stunningly brutal and refreshing portrayal of violent men in violent form.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Switch

This Is It?

I've seen films where urine samples got swapped, substituted or diluted, but unless it's an American Pie related teenage comedy flick, I haven't seen one that does the same with semen. Yes folks, The Switch has this plot element early on so as to set up a comedy of errors and to live up to one's mistake performed many years back. Jason Bateman, in what I think is his high-profile leading role in a romantic comedy, gives the performance of his career as the neurotic Wally Mars, whose best friend Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston) is deciding to have a baby through artificial insemination, and as a buyer, she's out there in the market to look for superior seed stock.

True that it comes with a tinge of regret and jealousy, but eventually that donor is found (the ever smiling Patrick Wilson as Roland), only for a drunk Wally to flush down the contents and to replace the stock with his own. Cue 6 years later, and with Kassie back in town with her kid Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), Wally begins to see obvious signs that Sebastian could actually be his kid, and from the romantic angle, Roland serves up as keen competition to Wally as the latter hesitates to tell Kassie the truth.

While the film boasts some seldom seen veterans these days such as Jeff Goldblum and a visibly aged Juliette Lewis, the star of the show is undoubtedly Thomas Robinson as the kid out to charm your heart so effortlessly with his neuroticism, and that penchant for collecting photo frames. He's performance and demeanour is quite uncanny to Bateman's Wally, and that underscores his fine, nuanced mimicry of a character to make it believable that he could be just that kid with the same DNA.

The story doesn't throw up any surprises nor is it an outright comedy from start to finish, but it has enough wit and charm in its narrative and coupled with some memorable performances by both Bateman and Robinson (Aniston was playing her character like any other she's portrayed before), The Switch becomes a delight to watch and makes you wonder whether such accidents in real life could happen, but of course that will almost be a crisis to deal with rather than to be comical at all.

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


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Welcome to the Club

Marking Oliver Stone's first sequel in his filmography, I guess it's almost unavoidable to say no when there's money to be made, especially since opportunity presented itself to revisit iconic characters and see how a story can develop if transplanted from the 80s to 2008, just before the financial meltdown put the world on its knees, where like Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) remarks, Greed has now become legal. I've always enjoyed how Oliver Stone cuts and thrusts in making his points across, and this is never more pronounced than in this film, aptly subtitled Money Never Sleeps.

Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, this film had more relevance to me since the original in the 80s was made when I was a kid, and comparing the severity of the greed of man now and then, it made the old Gordon Gekko and what he did with insider trading look like a walk in the park and taking candy from a kid. Here, the severity of the entire issue of a dysfunctional financial system that we have lived through becomes far more complex which have resulted in the bankers in the sector becoming obscenely rich and morally bankrupt, and the ordinary folk bearing a double whammy brunch of this irresponsibility through the almost magical vanishing of their funds, and the decision to use public funds to bail these people and their institutions out is the lesser of two evils.

Money Never Sleeps succinctly wrapped up the recession of our recent times, with the collapse of a trusted, mammoth investment banks (hint), the dog-eat-dog world of the inner financial circle, and how the entire sub-prime nonsense which preyed on everyone's insatiable greed, prove to be everyone's downfall in a buyer's beware market, if only things were that clear especially when rumours are used as tools and weapons to mislead and force a predictable outcome through which to hedge funds on. There were many instances with the release of Gordon from his jail sentence, where his second career as a writer/sought after speaker (only in America folks) brought about opportunities for the character to serve as a mouthpiece of caution in today's world.

There's a new protagonist in the film in Jake Moore, played by Shia LaBeouf, who's very much into alternative energy markets and has a hand in the investment and development of one such nuclear fusion farm. Unfortunately the investment bank he works in goes belly up causing the demise of his much respected mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), Jake swears revenge against Josh Brolin's Bretton James, another head honcho banker in a rival firm, and if you've not been listening attentively, or are not remotely familiar with the financial terms being mouthed around, you're more than likely to find it hard pressed how this link was made to position Jake and Bretton as rivals.

Gordon Gekko enters the picture because of Jake's fiance Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko's daughter, and through a potential in-law relation, both men who see so much similarities in each other, especially the older in the younger's fire in the belly, forge a trade of sorts where Gekko provides much needed inside research and knowledge to Jake in exchange for opportunities set up to reconcile with his estranged daughter. And of course, a leopard never changes its spots, and despite warnings from Winnie, we're left to expect how Gordon will actually screw them all over, if he does decide to put aside family bonds.

In many instances of relationships here involving Jake and his peers on the Street such as Louis, Gordon and Bretton, there's this hark back to the Dark Side in Star Wars where each master keeps only one protege to induct into the evil side of things, and each of these relationships are very pronounced in showing that. Of course one has to demonstrate enough rottenness and ruthlessness in order to be spotted for further grooming, and I found it mildly amusing it had to boil down to that. More interesting would be the fact that they're maneuvering in grounds that are set up for such unethical behaviour that it'll either surprise you that such moves are possible, or make you resign to the fact that it's life.

Shia LaBeouf probably benefitted from not being overexposed, especially with bad films, and Oliver Stone probably elicited one of his best performances here, which is subdued rather than the smart-alecky young adult he usually plays. Here he's more a deer caught in the headlights as a greenhorn yet to but eager to earn his stripes as he goes headlong against seasoned players. Unfortunately for Carey Mulligan, her Winnie role isn't all that fleshed out, being just the romantic lead opposite Shia (which became real for all you tabloid followers out there) and her reconciliatory difficulties with her dad. Perhaps the only bright spark in her character is that she epitomizes free press/speech in the form of a non-profit, independent website out to provide stinging exposes, which has a purpose of course in the last act, like a torchbearer for Stone to champion freedom of speech to bring down the corrupt.

Josh Brolin had starred in Stone's previous film W as the ex US president, and here he becomes chief antagonist with great ambition and is behind every shady deal, that you can't help on one hand to hate this guy, while on the other admire his brilliance to exploit with confidence every loophole in the legal and financial system. Villains have seldom looked that suave in a tuxedo hiding behind arrogant smirks. Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko seemed to have mellowed, though yet having enough scenes to spout soundbites and through the narrative, makes you wonder if he's really reformed and out to make peace, or still has that shrewd streak within him, waiting like a coiled snake ready to strike another blow in the markets. Rounding up the star studded billing is Susan Sarandon as Jake's mother, a real estate agent caught up with multiple housing mortgages and serving as the precursor to inevitable trouble.

Rumoured to have had its ending edited after reactions in Cannes, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps hit plenty of right spots in delivering a relevant followup film on the financial markets of today. For a fictional film it's rather insightful in its ability to bring forth real issues and ideas to the mass market, and I enjoyed its subplot suggesting how the rich can bury innovation should those breakthroughs threaten the well being of their cash cow commodities, where short term billion dollar gains to these folks far outweigh the benefits and greater good for mankind in general. Think about how alternative fuels have always stagnated, or why the electric car had failed to take off. Highly recommended for an all round great film!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Love You Phillip Morris

It All Began With...

While there has been much talk and discussion about the consideration to adopt some or most of the recommendations brought about by the Censorship Review Committee, it is films like this one that continue to suffer under the the current guidelines. While distributors may be bold enough to want to bring in such films for exhibition, even with the highest classification of the land, the film still has to be butchered unfortunately. Perhaps a time will come where R21 films need not go under the knife, and for a paying and discerning audience to know what they're in for basically, and that's to see two A-list Hollywood actors play gay characters convincingly in a refreshingly charming tale about the extent of the con one gets into for that elusive thing called love.

Supposedly based on a true story, no matter how the dramatization of the film will eventually make it quite an incredible tall tale to tell, akin to a scene where a joke got spun and retold so many times that it becomes so ridiculous, Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) seems to be the modern equivalent of Frank Abignale Jr, the protagonist of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Both are extremely convincing con men relying on their superb skills of social engineering, although Steven seemed to be one up in engineering most of his ruses from within a prison sale, posing as a lawyer, CFO, and even judge through his career in crime. It's actually quite a tragic character since his being is based on lies from the onset, cruelly told he's an adopted child, and has been playing various roles up until a near fatal accident woke him up to come out of the closet.

And the lure of the pink dollar, or the lack thereof, meant a life of crime and continued lying in order to fuel a flamboyant lifestyle for himself and his loved one. Jim Carrey hasn't been firing on all cylinders with recent roles, but this one takes the cake as he goes back to his dramatic roots from the likes of The Majestic or The Truman Show even, toning down the comedian within him, and amplifying a rarely seen versatility in what I felt is one of his defining roles. Matching him all the way is Ewan McGregor as the titular Phillip Morris, with whom Steven falls for in a jailhouse sexual bromance, as they demonstrate perfectly nuanced performances from their courtship ritual which is bound to elicit some laughs, but lesser so when they're a steady couple since McGregor's Morris had to disappear into the background for quite a bit.

Yes you read that right, I mentioned laughs. I'm not sure how gay folks will take to others laughing during such romantic scenes, because it's quite hard to keep a straight face watching both McGregor and Carrey romance each other in such convincing fashion, wondering for a moment how much work had gone into the crafting of their respective characters, especially for Jedi Master McGregor to go all effeminate in his demeanour that's not meant to belittle, nor deliberately going overboard with stereotypical actions, but adopting an approach that's somehow just right, and pat probably agreeable and acceptable as accurate from the intended community.

Those who think this is a gay film exploring gay issues need their head seriously checked as well, because Steven McVicker's story (based on his book) and from the challenges faced by the couple isn't glamourizing gay love at all, but highlighting, as humans, the same issues and problems faced with any heterosexual couple in a relationship will face, boiling it all back down to solid fundamentals such as trust and faith, in sticking to and delivering on promises made. Kitted with an excellent soundtrack all round, it is directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's delivery that worked wonders as well, keeping the pacing tight, funny where it should be, and developing it in a way with crucial plot elements revealed in due course in time, unfolding the narrative in a manner always ready to pull the rug from under your feet, especially in the third act.

If you think you'll do anything for love, perhaps Steven Russell will put your efforts into perspective. Don't be a homophobe and avoid the film, because this will mean you're missing out on a great story, backed by acting that's second to none by the likes of Carrey and McGregor. Definitely highly recommended!

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Darling is a Foreigner (Darling wa Gaikokujin / ダーリンは外国人)

My Darling and I

Based on a manga series written by Saori Oguri (portrayed by Mao Inoue in this film version) about her own life with husband Tony Laszio (Jonathan Sherr), My Darling is a Foreigner takes on a delightful look at this thing called love that's to overcome the challenges of a cross-cultural and language barrier. While it's a theme that's not new, it's the approach that director Kazuaki Ue took with a whimsically fresh look and feel that will win you over, despite falling for the usual cliches as it builds toward an expected finale.

It begins almost documentary like, with Ue interviewing a myriad of couples who are into relationships with someone non-Japanese. Curiously enough though, that all those interviewed were couples where the guy is a foreigner, not the female, so I'm not sure if it's an accurate representation of what the demographics are actually like in Japan. These interview segments take on a question each, peppered throughout the narrative as a hook to the next chapter, offering that bit of comedy at times with their candid answers (well, at least I hope they weren't staged!)

One of the best bits in the film, is of course Saori's manga coming to life in animated segments, and being a published artist, I'd say her designs are quite kawaii (cute), that provides that caricature of herself and her bearded boyfriend in their adventures of a relationship starting from their relatively disastrous third date at a friend's party. They meet through serendipity, one being a budding artist providing her artistic services, and Tony being bitten by the language bug to decide to relocate to Japan to be where the action is.

Ultimately, the story isn't just solely about the comical situations arising from things lost in translation, or the obvious problems faced through the misunderstanding of culture. Rather, it's about how relationships tend to be rocky at times once past the honeymoon stage, and how two people have to find their own workaround of their unique problems. It's about how resilient one's relationship is from the inevitable external knocks, which is almost testament to how mature and stable it is to begin with, and I suppose love knows no boundaries to allow itself an interference from outside to come and derail it, unless hope is lost and no effort expended to try and reconcile.

The film's delivery is boosted by the fine performance by the leads, not to mention that they do make a pretty couple together, and being eye candy themselves never hurt a romantic comedy. Map Inoue brings about a shy yet steely young girl who's a klutz at times, but fiercely protective of her foreigner darling and perhaps working too much and too hard to trying to make the relationship work, which presents itself as one of the main obstacles in the film, barring her dad's non-consent. And the lanky Jonathan Sherr provides ample chemistry as the man still having lots to learn of the Japanese language and culture, often finding himself perplexed at their intricacies, while grappling with the simplest things such as communication, and being that house-husband he's set out to be.

My Darling is a Foreigner has real charm - you don't have to be in a similar relationship to identify with the characters and their situation, and perhaps it'll offer you suggestions and reminders not to take things for granted as well. Recommended!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

[Short] Red Princess Blues

Guess Who?

It's not everyday that you get something in your mailbox that screams out at you to put it into the player immediately, but Alex Ferrari's Red Princess Blues, an 11 minute short film, just compelled me to do just that, having seen the trailer already online:

and been anticipating the film's arrival since. I am not disappointed.

The short is based on Alex Ferrari's feature length screenplay, and everything put into this short film spells quality, from the production sets and design, to costuming and the highlight of the film - the fight sequences. Seeing how Hollywood does the shaky-cam to death to compensate for the lack of ingenuity in designing proper fight scenes where you can actually see something, and more importantly, feel every blow, Ferrari's technique here becomes like the 101 guide on how to execute action to perfection.

But before you get to that stage, the set up of the story tells of a young teenage girl Zoe (Tabitha Morella) being lured into a carnival tent by a burly Rimo (Richard Tyson), only to find that his invitation is more than she had bargained for. Offending him in trying to make her escape, the titular Princess (Rachel Grant appears to save the day, which of course means pulling out all the stops to teach Rimo and anyone else standing in her way, a thing or two about respect.

Truth is this short film works like a teaser or a showreel to a promising feature film, and there are a number of questions here that will of course go unanswered, such as why Zoe was found hanging around outside of the carnival tent waiting to be picked up, and the probable rich background of the Princess and her abilities. The potential of an extended story just leaves one salivating at what can actually be done should a feature film be green lit, but for now, you can partake in this potential by checking out the link below:

Purchase the Red Princess Blues App from this link for your iPhone, iPod or iPad, and for US$0.99 not only do you get the film, but other exclusive content such as behind the scenes videos amongst others. So what are you waiting for?

Related Links
Official Movie Website
Facebook Page

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Villon's Wife (Viyon No Tsuma)

For Better or Worse

Feminists will find this film being quite exasperating to watch, since the female lead character is a long suffering wife of a self-destructive writer husband, who is left to her own devices to fend for herself, keep her family together, look after their young kid, and to constantly bail her husband out of trouble. Perhaps it's because of the time, set during post WWII Japan, that there's so much uncertainty in life that nobody in the right mind will want to rock the boat on their own family nucleus, where survival is of the utmost importance.

The film opens with Otani (Tadanobu Asano) being accused of stealing from the bar of an elderly couple, who had chased him all the way home. His wife Sachi (Takako Matsu) in an effort to provide compensation, offers herself and her time to work at the couple's bar to serve drinks to customers, with the guarantee that she'll work until either her husband returns to pay the couple back, or work until the debt is repaid, which took into account the amount of freeloading that Otani had exploited the couple over the years.

And that's not all the negative issues that Sachi has to come face to face with, as Otani seemed to be the husband from hell, making us see absolutely no brilliance of the author he was touted to be, and wonder how long more does Sachi has to put up with her husband's nonsense, which included seeing him with another woman, his attempted suicide with his lover (played by Ryoko Hirosue), his accusation of her betraying him and being disloyal that makes him a cuckolded husband, followed by a stint in jail which Sachi has to bail him out of.

It is this last episode that hinted at Sachi's new found independence and discovery of the power she wields over men, as we see that she's attractive enough for a young boy to proclaim his infatuation for her, and a rich lad at that too, providing that level of financial security I guess most would jump at during the time, and leaving the audience guessing whether she did or did not do the deed with an ex who's now a lawyer in her quest to get her husband out of jail.

Based upon the short story of Osamu Dazai's, Villon's Wife is as the title stated, an examination of that feminine character and her trials and tribulations during a period of grave uncertainty, brought to life by the excellent art direction and production sets that transported us back when American GIs first set foot on Japan. Credit goes to the two leads Asano and Matsu as the husband and wife in the film, as both bring out excellent performances and made the plot rather engaging to sit through, nevermind that most times you'd wonder if this was in the modern context, the wife would have walked out already. Takako Matsu especially impressed in her role as Sachi, showcasing her character's mettle and steely determination to get through her ordeals unscathed and with dignity, celebrating self-reliance and survival instincts during times of hardship.

The Infidel

Religious Buddies

When I watched this film I wonder if a story like this could actually come out from Singapore's film industry. After all, we're one multi-racial and multi-religious melting pot so the context of having such characters here isn't that far fetched, and to have this screened here (albeit under an M18 rating), does say something. Moreover, it's a great film speaking up against religious fanaticism, and aimed its sights well at false prophets who adopt a holier than thou attitude in hoodwinking their followers.

Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) and his family are a typical moderate Muslim family, with Mahmud himself living the rather carefree life that had just overcome the death of his mom. His son Rashid (Amit Shah) announces that his intended fiancee and wife to be Uzma (Soraya Radford) will soon be getting a new stepdad, and as it turns out permission for her hand in marriage will have to be sought from none other than Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor), a firebrand Pakistani cleric infamous for his anti-Western tirades. To Mahmud, this spells trouble to be associated with such a negative, high profile figure, but for the love of his son, have to put up his best behaviour when this international figure comes for a visit to discuss marriage. Not to mention the stress of having to portray himself as a devout Muslim man!

And to make matters worse, like the trailer already suggested at length, Mahmud discovers while clearing up his mom's place that he's adopted, and traces his lineage to be actually that of a Jew. A major identity crisis ensues because of his son's future happiness, and of course him having to rediscover and seek out the truth about his roots. With his birth father in critical health in the hospital and at the insistence of a rabbi (Matt Lucas), Mahmud has to reconnect with his Jewish roots in order to stand a whiff of a chance to talk to a man on his deathbed. Thus begins a comedy of errors arising from a clash of obvious cultures and attitudes when Mahmud has to reconcile with a one-time enemy Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff), in order to learn the Jewish customs and culture in double quick time.

There are plenty of jokes here that treaded the fine line of being racist, and I mean a very fine line. But as the movie put it across, it isn't racist if the one telling it is actually highlighting and poking fun at one's own race, which leaves some food for deeper thought. So we have a barrage of comical situations, some brilliantly crafted and full of wit, while others fell flat and came across as quite distastefully done, but nonetheless there were more positive rip-roaring moments than not, which I feel only the relatively more uptight folks will find additional reasons not to let loose and enjoy the film as it is.

More importantly though, beyond the laughter, is its theme of family and friendship that transcends how we look and who we are on the surface, segregated and branded by our name, or religion, or culture, which should never be the case. Sure we can have the freedom to believe in what we want, but with that also come tolerance for that of others, and a reminder never to judge others or compare just because we're different at that level, but fundamentally we belong to the same species inhabiting the same shared earth, and life will be all the more harmonious should we not try to impose bigoted thoughts on others.

While the ending may seem a little bit stretched, it did work as intended, and provided a fitting finale with moderate views triumphing over extremism. Both Omid Djalili and Richard Schiff put up fine performances and share excellent chemistry together as enemies turned friends, with their scenes together being some of the best be it focused on physical comedy, or through that rapid fire exchange of insults. Highly recommended for its relevance in our day and age for the messages it sets out to counsel.

[SFS Talkies] Picture Me: A Model's Diary


When you think of models, you think of incredibly beautiful specimens of the human species sashaying down catwalks, gracing fashion events, being that perfect clotheshorse for fashion designers to drape their latest collection on, and being plastered on everything from glossy magazines to billboards. The nastier side of us will tend to pass snide remarks on their lack of brains as we become jealous of their looks, their fat paychecks for doing what seems to be simple (like how director and documentary subject Sara Ziff puts it, how difficult can it be walking down a runway that is straight?), and living the lifestyles that seem to be on a different stratosphere altogether.

Enter Sara Ziff, a successful fashion model and her documentary film Picture Me, which takes an autobiographical charting of her career, as well as that of her peers, inviting candid interviews done on camera as shot by her then boyfriend Ole Schell, given that expose of the industry from within, covering a wide spectrum from the time a potential model is talent scouted on the streets at a tender age, to living the life jetsetting the fashion capitals of the world week in and week out. Key to her treatment in this documentary is the portrayal of models as normal human beings rather than robots or dolls that as puppets are manipulated by almost everyone vertically in the industry, from agents right down to the makeup artists and fashion show directors.

Yes the first act sets up the unreal, fantasy world that the models live in, with their impossibly fat pay cheque in the 5-6 figure range for work that involves shooting or casting or runway walking, things that we deem are simple enough, but Ziff's documentary captures that with high income comes the inevitable high tastes, and one tends to lose that sense of reality, never mind if what seems to be a high cost of living getting charged back as debt to the models when they first start out, from the limo and the chauffeur to the rental of that swanky shared apartment. Family and friends get to express on camera how they feel about such money going around in the industry as norm, probably amounts that you and I take a lifetime to make, these models do so in a day.

That just about alienates the average us from them, though Ziff never allows us to forget that they too have simple hopes and dreams they want to live out. The documentary's never apologetic, yet didn't manage to probe deep enough into the issues raised, especially those involving the sleazier aspects of the sexploitation and drugs, choosing instead to allow peers to fleetingly talk about them in very general terms without naming names (lest a lawsuit come flying or an industry-wide black list getting imposed). Naturally one cannot expect that she burn bridges with an industry that has brought her fame and fortune, though it is good to note that Ziff herself has been advocating unionizing the models to set up protection for fellow professionals, especially the fresh-faced ones, from the unscrupulous.

Much of the clips here involve handheld cameras following Sara Ziff from place to place, even into fashion show backstages where we get candid interviews from industry players. Famous names in the industry though are not covered over here, so top fashion houses and designers get mentioned by the bucketload in name only. What I enjoyed most about the film is how it captured the highs and lows equally, with the lows especially highlighting how the industry has continued to shift its tendency to recruit younger these days, and provides that theirs is a profession that is constantly under threat all the time by new entrants who are probably taller, prettier and fresher looking that those already in the scene, eager and hungrier to prove themselves, and hence puts them into harms way.

Through the following of Ziff's developing career, one gets a feel of the superficialness of the industry, where you're only as good as your previous work, and the grueling, punishing schedule that they live their lives in, and what I thought was an automatic weight loss program for the constant lack of sleep, pressure and literally being on your toes almost all the time in those unbelievable heels, as well as to fend off unwanted attention from sleaze bags. For those looking to understand the industry a fair bit better, then perhaps Picture Me will be that recommended film to catch.

The Shock Labyrinth 3D (Senritsu Meikyû 3D)

It's The Killer Bunny!

We're at a time with the rest of the world catching up with Hollywood in offering 3D content, since an explosion of screens with the right infrastructure put in place, and the marketing machinery already being rather successful in convincing audiences to accept having to put on an extra pair of plastic glasses, and to pay more to do so, means more money to be made in putting out a 3D film, whether shot with the right type of cameras, or done so doing post-production. The Shock Labyrinth, as the marketing language puts it, is touted as J-Horror's first live action 3D offering, and don't let the cheesy looking trailer fool you, it's actually much better than the teaser made it out to be.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu who was responsible for the original Ju On films as well as the American adaptation The Grudge, one wonders if he had preferred to stay within his comfort zone in yet having to craft a story with children and water, and a tale of revenge even, where a group of childhood friends gets an unexpected visit by one of their own 10 years after her mysterious disappearance. Things get stranger when it is learnt that she had presumably died, and as such, just who is this Yuki (Misako Renbutsu) who turned up. Even stranger is that the group of Ken (Yuya Yagira), Mikoto (Ryo Katsuji), Rin (Ai Maeda) the blind girl and Yuki's sister (Erina Mizuno) all seem to head back without a single recollection toward the scene of their misdemeanour, a house of horrors within the Fuji Q Highland theme park which is fit out to resemble a hospital.

The narrative is a strange brew of reality and fantasy, with even a time warp of sorts get thrown in, complete with the paradox of time travel, which makes it seem a little bit implausible for the non-linear narrative to hold water, other than to suggest that memories can be faulty, especially a collective one from some 10 years ago. The constant flash forwards and flash backs do make it a jarring experience, and forces you to work hard at piecing the fractured stories together, which didn't help when you allow the paradoxes to set in, or have the visuals interfere with solving the mystery of what exactly happened during that fateful day when the children decide to head off on their own to the labyrinth.

But to give credit where it is due, the story does try to add some depth to its characters as we navigate through their individual guilt trips of their involvement pertaining to Yuki's mystery, and even found some time to thrown in some romance into the mix, which on one hand may seem unnecessary, but provided a contribution to motivation on why things do go bump in the night. It examines that collective repressed memories that we tend to bury deep within our subconscious, and what more when this is shared amongst a group who wants to best forget what they're all directly and indirectly responsible for, becoming in turn the victims of their guilt and recipients of their just desserts which the resident spook of the film piles on.

And it is the execution of Yuki's revenge that exploited the best of its atmosphere within the confines of a house of horrors (strangely the title here) that comes complete with porcelain mannequins with grotesque features. The film possesses an incredible depth of field as well to bring out the best of its 3D, while not overdoing its attempts in throwing everything toward the screen, opting to instead take it really slow, like a hand reaching out slowly to grasp something. The character Rin also provided some opportunity to mimic the radar prowess of Daredevil's, which I thought was strange since she could actually see, and probably provided actress Ai Maeda some reprieve from trying to act blind all the time.

Most of the surprises and inevitable twists happen in the final half hour of the film, and while probably not reaching the standards set by the best in J-horror, The Shock Labyrinth certainly does have its moments, other than what you see from the trailer that contained relatively raw looking special effects, and with its numerous bunny scenes made it look rather fluff in treatment.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Love You Too

Love Your Friend More

It's not everyday that we see an Australian romantic comedy on Singapore screens, so if you're game for a smaller film that takes a more heartfelt look at modern love and relationships, with lovable characters each with their own quirks, then look no further than I Love You Too, its title playing on the 4 words that the commitment phobic try to avoid all the time. For some, asking them to proclaim their love for another is sounding the death knell, with Freedom being kissed goodbye...

Peter Helliar's story is perhaps what made I Love You Too quite refreshing, focusing on various aspects of love instead of a sole romantic one, such as that between two siblings who have to fend for themselves for almost two decades when their parents perished in a car crash, a married couple facing a new entrant into their lives, the brotherly love between two best buddies, and that instant connection and bond shared between two strangers who start off on the wrong footing, but find in each other's company strength and the beginning of a genuine friendship. Such is this tale that we'll find nuggets of character aspects that will appeal to, and identify with.

Essentially it's the story of a break up between Jim (Brendan Cowell) and Alice (Yvonne Strahovski), two unlikely souls who meet in a bar and their one night stand had carried onto 3.5 years. With that kind of a relationship comes the expectations of progressing further, such as uttering that three word phrase, a long awaited proposal, and marriage. But to Jim, a man-child who refuses to grow up and works in what was once the largest miniature train in his father's co-owned theme park, having to commit means getting Alice a commitment ring at best. Disappointed, Alice breaks up their relationship on Jim's birthday, and so begins Jim's quest to try to woo her back.

The beauty of the story comes from the many friendships and relationships between the ensemble characters. There's Jim and his best buddy Blake (Peter Helliar) who more often than not plays his wingman when they hit the bars, and opens up that blokes like him can only hope to feed off the scraps that Jim passes of. Blake is the kind of tragic character who does a lot to get noticed, and like all best buddies know how to pull the other up when the chips are down, although sometimes leading to hilariously disastrous situations.

While that between Alice and Jim is supposedly set to be the strongest relationship on display here since this is almost primarily their story, the one that I enjoyed most was that between Jim and Charlie (Peter Dinklage), a vertically challenged man who got to know Jim when the latter broke into his car. Reading a letter Charlie made out to a "Francesca", Jim is adamant that Charlie assist him in being his Cyrano, pestering him to come up with the perfect letter to woo his lady love back. These two soon grow in their friendship, and in a tit-for-tat manner, Jim decides to return the favour by hand delivering Charlie's letter, which opens up a delightful yet bittersweet subplot that runs parallel to Jim's quest for love. Saying anything more will ruin the surprise package, but I suppose one will be hard pressed not to experience some heart-wrenching moments, especially when we see how Charlie, through no fault of his own, constantly become the butt of harsh comments, and him having a heart way larger than his physical stature.

Blessed with a wonderful soundtrack, I am growing to admire Peter Dinklage's performance, where he brings forth that quiet dignity of a character given receipt of the short end of the stick in life, and his Charlie's story arc turned out to be more engaging as you'll inevitably root for good things to happen in his gamble, versus the one that Jim has to win back, to which feminists out there will probably go up in arms over with how the finale was treated, treading very close to a combination of implausible coincidences and convenience. Still, I Love You Too is recommended, for its take on friendship, relationships, and how a network of family and friends help to provide some sanity check, as well as to pick you up when you fall down.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


What's Happening?

Maybe it's because M Night Shyamalan is finally coming to terms that he no longer is the toast of the town, that he has decided to focus his energies on producing and writing suspenseful thrillers for his project known as The Night Chronicles, with the first film Devil off the blocks, and others to come including his original story idea from his planned sequel to Unbreakable. We know how Shyamalan of late likes to direct and include himself as one amongst the cast, though this time it probably took a lot of effort to vacate that director's chair and quash that acting bug, to allow someone else to helm what is essentially a film that's right up Shyamalan's own territory. It's almost like putting a candy jar in front of a kid, but not allowing him access at all.

Enter directors Drew and John Erick Dowdle, who I thought made a decent effort in bringing to life Shyamalan's story set around the confines of a claustrophobic lift, where five strangers happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, each of them being trapped inside the lift and sharing some common traits that will be revealed as the story wore on. The film addresses the notion that nothing is ever coincidental, especially if powerful negative forces like the devil decide to walk the earth and claim a few souls, while at the same time having fun toying with their prey. Weaving in a folk tale like what he did for Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's tale here involves the full works of how the devil operates, and comes with a method to defeat the supernatural forces seen in the film.

The directors managed to steer clear of the usual cliches for a fright fest, and rightly so as well because this is not that film. Granted that there are a few well crafted scenes to suggest that there are spiritual elements involved in how the victims - a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), an old woman (Jenny O'Hara), a young woman (Bojana Novakovic), a guard (Bokeem Woodbine) and a salesman (Geoffrey Arend) - the real draw is how visually arresting this film is in capturing fear from within close quarters. The opening sweeping shot of the city of Philadelphia upside down will bring about some disorientation, before reducing that spatial distance down to within the lift, mirroring that view through a CCTV camera back to the building's security control room, which to me is where some of the best instances of the film shines through.

I'd actually preferred what went on outside of that lift, since what's going to happen within is more like a done deal, with one of the five already revealed through marketing that he/she is someone who doesn't belong. There's more fun in following Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who has to make sense of what's going on, balancing his deductive prowess against something that cannot be explained by logic, and watching how his due diligence and process get blown to smithereens when at first he thinks this is a simple open and shut situation, until he realizes that he's up against something that's inexplicable. It's one thing to swagger in with a plan, before fear sets in that one can be so helpless when trying to save the lives of others.

The strength of the film lies in Shyamalan's story, which is deceptively simple, yet highly effective in weaving all the plot threads together, and the linking up of the characters so crucial in providing a satisfying finale. Fans of Shyamalan's stories will find that he still has more than enough gas in the tank to come up with suspenseful tales that others now have a chance to helm on the big screen, something like what Luc Besson does these days. My interest is now piqued to see how the rest of the Chronicles will present themselves.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

Don't Mess With These Two Ladies!

Think Resident Evil the movies, and the first image that'll come to mind will be Milla Juvovich as Project Alice kicking zombie butt. It's been some 8 years since Juvovich became synonymous with the Resident Evil movie franchise, and personally, I still enjoyed the first one best, followed by Extinction, then Apocalypse for its really awful story. If I have to rate this one, I'll put it below the first and third films in that order, where once again it has its special effects, which is really an amalgamation of things seen before, to save the movie from its weak plot.

Paul W.S. Anderson goes back to the director's chair after giving up directing responsibilities for the sequels, assuming only producing and writing credits, and although it's widely touted as having used James Cameron's 3D technology, Afterlife hasn't actually benefitted from that because of the way scenes were crafted that didn't exploit that technology fully like what Cameron did for Avatar. Either that, or we're already too tired with the gimmick, and this one doesn't offer anything new to provide any instance of Wow. We don't require any more depth in field please, at least some depth in plot rather than something that looked to have jumped straight out of Prison Break.

That's right, Prison Break, with the largest tongue-in-cheek joke being the casting of Wentworth Miller as Chris Redfield, brother of Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) who was introduced in the previous film. The first shot of Chris was within a prison cell within a prison, and the irony of it all is when he alone holds the key to everyone else's salvation from blood thirsty flesh lusting zombies trying to get past the high walls and heavy gates, which they eventually do to provide our ensemble human survivors, led by Alice, a fight sequence or two.

You may grumble that plot is secondary here so long as we get to see the hotness that is Milla Juvovich grace the big screen and doing what she does best in the franchise. True, Juvovich's Milla undergoes a glam facelift from the grungy look seen in the previous installment, but even her strikingly beautiful features can't save the film from slipping into the territory of bore. The prologue started off wonderfully though, with its moody atmospherics to canonize how the Umbrella Corporation's T-Virus got unleashed, and picked up from where the last film left off with the salivating promise of a whole bunch of Alice clones all waiting to be awoken to kick Umbrella's behind. Once the fight sequence is over, which included a nice way to get rid of Alice's invulnerability and god-like abilities, there's only so much one can stand on Alice flying around and lull you into a deep sleep with a lot of voiceover mumbo-jumbo.

Reuniting with Claire Redfield and trying to figure out the promise of a zombie-free land in Arcadia mentioned in Extinction, Afterlife fell prey to a bunch of movie cliches, that even you can guess who will bite the dust first amongst a group of survivors, who will survive, who will turncoat in loyalty, and so on. There's no real threat here offered by the villains, led by Umbrella head honcho Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) that he looked quite the typical egomaniac who can't just pull the trigger fast enough to get rid of his enemies. Other than that, the finale fight involves two CG rabid dogs that seriously, nobody will think will pose a threat to Alice, even in her vulnerable state. Plot loopholes are plentiful, but don't expect the CG effects to compensate for that. As already mentioned, the 3D here is nothing to shout about.

I was a tad disappointed as well with the fight scenes, which seem more like a rehash of what's on offer from the earlier films, with only Claire/Alice's battle with the Axeman (Ray Olubowale) the only fight sequence something worth mentioning. Otherwise for those who are still keen to sit through the end credits, you'll get a coda involving Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) that will only make sense to fans out there, who will celebrate in knowing that the 3D ticket sales had boosted numbers enough for another Resident Evil film to be added to the franchise.


Watch That Gun!

Some robbers celebrate their success in their hideout after a daring heist, only for one man to come knocking on their door, a lowly police officer whom we think will intervene and bring justice to his town in Uttar Pradesh. Like a western film, he's a one man show taking on every thug in a no nonsense, no holds barred fashion, employing deadly force without remorse, and blessed with the skills seen by the Transporter with a hosereel, Neo's bullet time technique in the dodging of bullets, Ong Bak's Muay Thai knees to chest, and well, even The Incredible Hulk at a much later point in the film!

That in itself should indicate the attitude Dabangg adopted, especially when during the intense introductory fight sequence the proceedings got interrupted by a thug's mobile phone ring tone, and the cop pauses to dance a little jig, before adding that he likes the tune so much it should be sent to his mobile. Directed by Abhibnav Kashyap and co-written by Dilip Shukla, the filmmakers have created an awesome alpha male type whose shoulders they firmly rely on to carry the film from start to end, and rightly differentiated itself from the tons of cop films available from Indian cinema with having a character that lives and breathes its title Dabangg (Fearless), alongside being an awkward romantic, a filial son to his mother, and pretty much multi-faceted in all dimensions.

The character of Chulbul Pandey is one of the most charismatic that I've seen coming out of Bollywood recently, and Salman Khan adds his own fine touches to make him really over the top, complete with an unmistakable swagger, attitude and wit. Chulbul instantly becomes one of my favourite anti-heroes, whose threat made to his enemies include the pumping of so many slugs into their bodies that they won't know which hole to use for breathing and farting! But from the onset we know that he's not an honest cop, giving himself the moniker of Robin Hood because he robs from his prey, and well, pretty much keeps the loot for himself, sharing some spoils with his colleagues. Rather than getting promotions for his many successful exploits, he prefers to live life as it is with his lowly paid job and a bunch of merry men type colleagues, where his reputation is stratospheric amongst the local community, and being quite the go-to cop to assist the down and the trodden.

Dabangg is a play up on the corrupt cops and politicians in India, and it's done in an extremely cartoony manner that provides sheer entertainment in the form of its kinetic action done with a tinge of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and plenty of over the top moments for laughter. It ribs counterparts' cop films, though never disrespectful. If you think that Indian films have rather exaggerated fight choreography, perhaps the treatment that this film adopts will change your mind about it, and adds a lot of fun and colour to a film that doesn't take itself too seriously when it comes to entertaining the masses with some over the top action that as a finale, seemed like that of a typical epic Western shoot-em-ups with plenty of explosions thrown in for good measure. In fact, there are plenty of Western elements put into the film, from action as mentioned, to even the music - Udd Udd Dabangg remains my favourite from the film for its cheesy looking moves that tells us in one song, just what Chulbul stands for.

Central to its story are a few sub plots running in parallel, involving Chulbul's falling in love with and the romancing of the headstrong Rajo (Sonakshi Sinha in a film debut), the Pandey family problems with the non-recognition from his step dad Prajapati Pandey (Vinod Khanna) to whom his mom (Dimple Kapadia) marries, and his step brother Makkhi (Arbaaz Khan), a non too bright, good for nothing who finds support in Chulbul's political enemies. Yes, politics does get mixed up into the film, with corrupt, power hungry politicians (Sonu Sood) looking to consolidate power, with everyone not hesitating to seek out the point man in the community to collaborate with, in a mutually beneficial partnership sealed with hush-hush yet open secrecy. Being the man with the plan, Chulbul has his hands full, and it's half the fun just to see how he solutions each situation primarily for one man's benefit - himself, especially when enemies come at him both from within his family, and externally.

I can continue to wax lyrical about Salman Khan's performance, and I will be honest to admit I haven't been quite convinced with his roles in Veer and London Dreams, though I must say this role of his has converted me into a fan. He plays up the caricature of Chulbul really well, achieving a spectrum of emotions required and delivered where it mattered - the action sequences, to put his rippling muscles to good use, when not kept under wraps in his impossible tight uniform, slicked hair, pencil thin moustache, and a pair of large shades he has a penchant to hang backwards on his collar, for a reason you have to watch the film to find out! Not every actor has natural charisma, but Salman Khan here just oozes plenty as he makes this role his own.

Dabangg swaggers its way into my shortlist of some of the best films this year. Do yourself a favour, especially if you are in need for a film that strikes that fair balance between seriousness, comedy and great entertainment!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

อินทรีแดง, Soon

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden)

She's Back

In case you're not already aware, the films based on Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium Trilogy books are released here in successive months, from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in August, followed by The Girl who Played with Fire this month, and then concluding with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest in October. While I had enjoyed the first installment tremendously, being a great introduction to fascinating characters, especially the titular girl Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), and having an aged old mystery to solve, the same cannot be said of this one, which like most middle films of a trilogy, find it hard to live up to the first film's billing, and leaving things open for the third film to wrap up.

The Girl Who Played with Fire picked up where the previous film left off, and had some fine touches to link elements back to its predecessor where Lisbeth revisits her corrupt guardian Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) to remind him that she's still keeping tabs, and threatening him with his own gun should he remove the tattoo she left on him. On Mikael Blimkvist's (Michael Nyqvist) end, his Millennium magazine had just recruited a freelance writer Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) who's working on the finishing touches of his expose on the sex trafficking industry. However he and his girlfriend, who also completed her thesis on the same subject, were found gunned down in their apartment with Bjurman's gun, and Bjurman himself also found murdered. On the gun is Lisbeth's prints, and so begins a race against time to clear her's name.

Much of the fun from the first film is the chemistry shared between Lisbeth and Mikael as investigative partners working toward a common goal to solve a mystery, relying on their respective skills to do so, while working through an awkward relationship and romance. Here, their story arcs diverge much more, with each seemingly going about doing their own thing, one being quite behind the other (no prizes for guessing who) and rarely sharing the same frame together. We've been spoilt by the mystery in the first film, and would come to expect a similar level of engagement in the storyline, but this is not to be the case, as the plot here is of a more personal nature dwelling into the background of Lisbeth, with the sex trafficking plot somehow abandoned midway through the film.

But this reduced focus will be quite the delight to Lisbeth's fans, working on a backstory that we only get glimpses of as suggested in the Tattoo. The sadistic nature of the mystery in its predecessor now gives way to developing a richer background of Listbeth's character, in some ways at the expense of Mikael's even, which I thought skewed the film to tread very closely to a one-character film. However it is undeniable that the top draw for the Millennium Trilogy is the tattooed hacker Lisbeth, and Noomi Rapace gets a gorgeous amount of screen time to get to showcase her nuanced performance, as well as to delve deeper into her abused character, through a hidden past that will link up to the present day case, in some way.

The villains here may not seem quite as menacing from those in the first installment, other than an extremely strong man who's impervious to pain (quite cliched), and a handicapped senior citizen both of whom have links to Lisbeth's past. They're the archetypal villainous type with the brains and the brawn distinctly kept separate, successfully proving to be quite the dangerous couple when cooperating together, though this is only keenly felt in the finale, given the build up of the film at times feel as if it's going nowhere.

You'll require some pre-requisite knowledge from the earlier film to appreciate the dynamics of the lead characters here, especially in understanding why Mikael feels rather compelled to assist Lisbeth in clearing her name, and to go one level deeper into her troubled past. I'm just not about to pass judgement on Daniel Alfredson's helming of the film, taking over from Niels Arden Oplev since this is to be concluded in the final film, but if standing alone, my personal preference will still be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Let's wait and see come October!

The Girl Who Played with Fire opens on 16 Sep 10!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Hole

Sneaking a Peek Inside

Gremlins remains one of my favourite films from childhood, and it is thanks to Joe Dante who helmed the films with enough to keep it frightening, yet kid friendly and family oriented at the same time. It's been a long while since I've missed Small Soldiers on the big screen, that he now returns with The Hole, yet dabbling with a similar treatment of making it quite the entertaining romp for both young and old to sit through.

A pity about the 3D version though, as I opted to watch this in 2D, and clearly because of the 3D gimmick, there were a few needless scenes stuck in, like having a kid throw a baseball toward the screen while lying on his back on his bed. On the whole there weren't too many deliberate 3D shots designed for the film, though I thought that the special effects put into it were spiffy enough, especially since there was a good mix of traditional stop motion efforts deliberate done in a cheesy manner, and those of the modern money shots toward the end.

As it's family oriented, this film like the rest of what Dante did thus far, has family being in the centre of all things that trip up in the dark, and we get three stories put into one, by virtue of each character having to deal with their fears come alive. Written by Mark L. Smith (who scripted Vacancy), the narrative keeps you guessing exactly what the reason is behind the threats are as faced by each child/teenage lead in the Thompson brothers Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble), and their neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett) when they look down the cursed hole, found in the new home of the Thompsons.

The idea is pretty cool in itself, because what could spook you more than what's truly your greatest fear? However that itself served up a mixed bag of scares, because the scares here are customized to the character's. For instance, Lucas has to deal with something straight out of Child's Play, although this little thingamajig had a small scene as a stinger after the end credits (well, if you have to know, it's only a wink, so you didn't miss much if you failed to stay behind). For Julie, it has to deal with a guilt from the past that manifest itself as something spiritual, and to face one's guilt is something that takes up her story arc.

For Dane's however, it was kept under wraps until the last, which provided for a fitting finale with all the bells and whistles thrown in, dealing with how the magnitude of one's problems when young seem to shrink in size as we grow older, possibly because we may either have outgrown it, or that being older we have a lot more other concerns to deal, in his case, the growing into a surrogate paternal role over the care of his younger brother, in a single parent family.

Still, despite being a horror/thriller, this is still something that will find a broad appeal, being somewhat simple in its stories, but nothing less than effective and of course for those catching it in 3D, yet another film to provide you that fixation with putting on the glasses. I'm not quite sure if a sequel would be made given the way it ended with a plot thread so glaringly hanging out, but we know how Gremlins 2 went.

Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur)

Who's Seducing Who?

Alex Lippi (Romain Duris, of The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Russian Dolls fame) is the anti-Hitch. He doesn't stay behind the scenes to impact knowledge on seduction to guys clueless on getting the girl of their dreams. Rather he's leading the charge himself in a family business designed to break couples up. But he's not the cad he's made out to be, nor their business model immoral, because he follows a philosophy of how he reads women – those who are happy, unhappy and those who won't admit they are unhappy. His business focuses on the last group, where concerned family members and friends can engage Alex's seduction expertise to ruin the relationship between a woman and man, but drawing the line against grounds that are religiously motivated, or to break up genuinely happy couples.

And that in itself is quite the unique selling point of the film, making this a remarkably fresh injection into the romantic comedy genre. As with most field experts, there won't be a story if they stick by their own rules, and hence with growing money problems, Alex accepts a job that has to see him break off the impending marriage of a flower tycoon's daughter (Vanessa Paradis) Juliette to rich English scion Jonathan Alcott (Andrew Lincoln), where research sees him and his team gathering all kinds of facts, figures and trivia about his mark, and a race against time to fulfill his objective in 10 days. An idea crops up, and he poses as her newly assigned bodyguard who come courtesy from her dad.

Now his is quite the dream job, getting to romance countless of women if only for a brief moment, having absolutely no strings attached (and strictly no sex) and being in a position to positively influence their decisions to quit being engaged with jerks out there. I think it's noble to a certain degree even, being the heartbreaker and opening the eyes and minds of impressionable ladies, and having to be a fine actor in order to pull such a stunt off. Romain Duris shines in the role of Alex, having to employ his acting range in a variety of situations designed to challenge his skillset, given a number of staged and unexpected situations his character has to handle, including that involving his own heart. While having his usual repertoire of staged lines and techniques used to impress, new skills have to be employed if he's going to make an impression.

But the film won't be as fun as it was without the involvement of the comedic duo Julier Ferrier and Francois Damiens, who play Alex's sister Melanie and brother-in-law Marc respectively in this family business, the former being his point-person and the latter adding that technological edge in well-oiled operations on par as seen in heist movies. The trio provide excellent banter with one another while going about their mission and their believable chemistry is one of many reasons why this film is delightful to sit through. They rely on impersonation, lies and trickery, and the fun comes when things don't go exactly as planned, especially when Juliette doesn't seem to fall prey to Alex's usual bag of tricks, made complicated with the arrival of Juliette's best friend Sophie (Helena Noguerra).

I wonder how much of that in the film is applicable in real life, since there are those who think that opposites attract, yet others who deem having shared interests is key to sustain a relationship. This film presents both sides, yet curiously made it seem that lies being told are acceptable as well, so long as the guy is suave in his delivery. To enjoy this film would also mean to temporarily suspend disbelief, or to subscribe to the notion that soul mates do exist, and come into your life at the very last minute prior to getting married. After all, one can never deem it too suspicious when someone actually shares every single one of your interests, from favourite movie, singer and even breakfast food.

In some ways, Heartbreaker toes the line of girls who fall easily for bad boys who show them a good time, rather than for the boring, stable ones. Learning Juliette's missing year from college and what that would unfold just reinforces the point that girls just wanna have fun. Being a romantic comedy will also mean the usual expectation that you don't expect any treading of new ground when the finale rolls along, although I was half-rooting for that to happen. If you're tired from what Hollywood produces as romantic-comedies, then this French film will give new vigour to the genre that is starving from ideas like this one. Highly recommended, and it goes into my shortlist as one of the best this year!

Love Cuts (割爱)

Family Blues

It's indeed a blue moon when we have two Singapore films hitting the big screens here at almost the same time. Haunted Changi is now playing, but if family drama is more your cup of tea, then Clover Films' Love Cuts, starring the Queen of Caldecott Hill Zoe Tay, will be your choice as it sneaks this weekend. While we have a number of film production and distribution companies in Singapore, Clover Films is one of the rare few that does both, and being the relative new entrant (though founded by industry veteran Lim Teck, who also provided the story), its two mass appeal films made to date in the same year – comedy Old Cow Versus Tender Grass, and now with Love Cuts, prove that it's quite the force to be reckoned with, teaming up with production houses in Malaysia, as well as having clout to rope in regional stars for its films.

Love Cuts happens to be sort of the public service announcement type of film, with an undoubtedly clear cautionary message for all womanfolk out there to go for regular mammogram checks, lest there's something suspicious detected that can be treated early, rather than to discover a fourth stage cancer out of the blue. And the fact is that breast cancer doesn't come with a pre-warning, unless a checkup is done. With the support of the Health Promotion Board and the various cancer centres here, Love Cuts demonstrates how the public service do tap on the power of film now and then to drive their message through, and if you remember, Jack Neo's One More Chance also fell into the same genre to remind society to give ex-convicts another chance in life.

And such genre films somehow cannot escape the formulaic way its story gets told, relying heavily on melodrama, and this being a film that deals with an illness, hospitals, medicine, caregiving and the likes are only less than a stone throw's away. In essence it deals with how a terminal illness affects loved ones around, which will likely effect lifestyle changes to centre around the patient, and usually effect a positive mindset and character change for the better. Here, Sissy (Zoe Tay) the seamstress is the all round do-gooder, who finds her life turn topsy turvy with her discovery of fourth stage breast cancer, which effectively had dealt her a death hand. When her condition is revealed to family, husband Wai Mun (Kenny Ho) the restaurant manager shelves plans to return to Hong Kong to start up his own business, and turns into a full time caregiver rather than to OT at work (yeah, the condominium mortgage is expensive, you know?), while children Mabel (Regene Lim) and Howard (Edwin Goh) find that they have to grow up, fast, with the biggest change seen in the son, turning from the indifferent brat, to the filial young adult.

One story cannot keep an audience engaged for two hours, so a companion tale comes in the form of lingerie model Kristie Kong (Christy Yow, whom I think had her voice unceremoniously dubbed), who suffers from the same condition, only at the earlier stage where she can give up one breast to save her life. Of course this will mean an end to her career that's going to take off with being a brand ambassador for some overseas lingerie chain, and her fear of losing her filthy rich boyfriend Timothy (Allan Wu) since she thinks she'll be less of a woman. The two women meet and their stories interlock, which I find it to be stretching credibility (and thus dragging the narrative) since Sissy's friendliness extends to her family's acceptance of Kristie almost like one of their own (not that the rest know of her condition). Perhaps lingerie models do get a lot of doors open to them?

I've always been curious how the Singapore film industry always seem to not tap on the talent of its television actors. Granted not all are suited to make the jump to the big screen, but there are a few success stories, such as Qi Yuwu (881, 12 Lotus, Home Song Stories, 14 Blades, Painted Skin, The Leap Years) and Fann Wong (Shanghai Knights, The Wedding Game, Ah Long Pte Ltd, Just Follow Law, Happy Go Lucky), the latter who seem to be going overboard with her cutesy, kitschy antics in a series of comedies. Zoe Tay surprisingly, being one of the top stars of local television, only has one feature film under her belt (The Tree), but Love Cuts showcases her versatility, and this film doesn't play her as some femme fatale, but a regular middle aged mom who befits the “auntie” moniker. She carries her role with finesse and grace, being the perfect mom for her children, and juggling career and family which tells of the modern day family pressures in Singapore, necessitating a dual income in order to sustain that comfortable lifestyle as seen in the film.

Other television stars who got cameo appearances include Huang Shinan as a disgruntled restaurant patron, and Zhu Houren as a doctor, and I'm really beginning to wonder if we could adopt what Hong Kong has with its plethora of stars given the opportunity to make films and for production companies here to hire our own without costing an arm or a leg. But the top draw here will be Kenny Ho, a star who hasn't been seen for quite some time already (and not seemed to have aged!), making a big screen come back with Love Cuts which naturally is a casting coup for the fledging production company. We're heading in the right direction to not dub Kenny because that will be massively disrespectful (the trailer, with a dubbed Mandarin voice, was plain awful) and his character is allowed to straddle between Cantonese and Mandarin (in his own voice), alongside Zoe's Sissy when they communicate with each other. While this is more natural, I am hoping that a change can be effected in my lifetime that we do away with the ratio-rule, and allow for characters in film to speak in whatever language that brings a keen sense of reality, especially the Chinese ones such as Hokkien (for Taiwanese films) and Cantonese (for Hong Kong ones).

You can tell that the film has a limited budget to work with which translated to only modest production values, since Sissy's Seamstress shopfront rarely has anyone walking into it – it's an excellent business model she has in giving generous discounts yet having extremely limited walk-in customers – and the shopping mall seem to have nobody patronizing it. Kristie Kong's modelling shoots by her photographer (played by real life photographer Anthony Levi Kho who also had a role in The Days) also seem to revolve around the same locale (unless that swanky sea-facing glass house is his photo studio, then wow), and the cruise they take on board a ship, doesn't seem to be moving at all. The theme song however got played ad-nauseam, while its presentation seemed more suited to direct-to-video productions.

But of course, Love Cuts got made with an objective in spreading the message and awareness about breast cancer, and nothing more. If a narrative film cannot move you to get yourself a mammogram, then perhaps Jasmine Ng's Pink Paddlers, a documentary done three years back on the sufferers and survivors of breast cancer, may more successfully spur you to have those checks done.
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