Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Haunted House Project (Pyega / 폐가)

The formula is simple. Find an abandoned location, and if it comes with a built in horror premise, use it. Otherwise, one can always make something up, and through documentary styled interviews, hire enough convincing actors to play make believe and give arresting, spooky accounts. Then adopt the latest fad of shooting in the first person complete with quesy-cam technique, exploiting light and shadow, with sudden bursts of movement and sound. Voila, a horror film of today's standards.

Singapore has already contributed to this subgenre with Haunted Changi, and it's no surprise that the formula is resonating throughout the world, that now we get to see the Korean equivalent with The Haunted House Project. We follow a documentary crew of three - the producer, soundwoman and cameraman - who are making a film featuring 3 paranormal hobbyists in their maiden trip to this food factory where the owner and his family got mysteriously killed no thanks in part to the owner's infidelity. We spend some time sitting through interview segments where the controversy gets a different spin by almost everyone on camera, and frankly, we get the idea, though the filmmakers want to hammer this point through.

Beginning ominously like a typical Found Footage film with disclaimers and archival recordings abound, so begins our look at the events that had unfolded which contributed to the disappearance of the team of 6. An abandoned place normally gives up some creepy vibes since the weather has brow-beaten the entire facade, and decay sets in to everything within, where litter gets strewn everywhere, and I have to admit, if this is not a real location, then the art direction gets full marks for making the entire outdoor set spooky from the onset.

With paranormal enthusiasts as some of the characters, the fun comes with observing how they believe in their tools of the trade, and gamely explain and "star" in the documentary made about them and of the location, with little moments reserved for monkeying around. There's nothing much to the story as we the audience are here to witness anything spooky that got captured in their video reel, and again, credit has got to be given for holding everyone's attention span throughout the 83 minutes, especially the build up into a crescendo of a finale where everything got mashed together rapidly and in succession, leaving one with no room to panic or to breathe.

Those who get motion sickness easy may find the cinematography here a little of a torture since it moves all over the place, and gets interspersed with plenty of cheaply done, in-your-face momentary shots of some "ghoul", and scratchy visuals to signify the presence of something supernatural. At least the filmmakers are kind enough to cue you in when something is about to happen, and thereby adding to the tensed environment. Technical loopholes such as the inclusion of a polished sountrack also bewildered and marred what could have been a credible stab toward authenticity. Don't expect great acting here, but the cast did reasonably well as scream kings and queens trying to escape the inevitable. As the saying goes, don't tempt Fate, and be careful what you wish for.

The Haunted House Project works according to formula, so don't expect anything groundbreaking coming out of it.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Resistance is Futile

District 9 probably rejuvenated the science fiction subgenre of an alien presence / invasion on Earth all over again, with no less than three films lined up close to one another that tackle just that - Skyline being the first, then Monsters followed by World Invasion: Battle LA, where the latter had caused the Brothers Strause's Hydraulx effects company probable woes since there is what's deemed to be conflicting interest in The Social Network sense. That aside, Skyline demonstrates that an independently funded film is still feasible, with the usual merits and expected demerits that come with an effects laden movie, but certainly not one that deserved the kind of backlash that it got.

The Brothers Strause Colin and Greg, responsible for AvP Requiem, bring their visual effects wizardry and know-how to making a film that's skewed toward being just that - a special effects extravaganza. How else can you explain the 10 million dollar effects cost against everything else that was budgeted for 0.5 million. Granted that this film was made on the cheap in Hollywood terms, the look and feel was polished, and there can be no qualms about its effects quality, but the story by Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell let it down somewhat.

Unlike District 9, Skyline didn't have anything new to add to the genre, deciding to repeatedly give audiences what we have already seen in a number of genre films, putting them altogether into a single film, be it the Matrix-like sentinels, large spaceships bursting out of the cloudy sky, War of the Worlds like tension between nasty aliens and humans silently hoping everything will turn out fine, with shadows of Transformers, the harvesting of humans for some dastardly alien plan, an Independence Day equivalent of an all out air strike against the aliens albeit with updated weaponry and planes, or even a human-alien hybrid of sorts that opens up the film for a franchise to happen. You're begging for one original thought that the filmmakers could come up with, and you'll find it really tough to get one.

What it did successfully translate however, is how everything was doomed from the start, and gradually we get to realize it's no way out for all the characters, since every conceivable plan that they, and we, come up with, get closed, and closed good. The protagonists are stuck in a penthouse condominium, and escape outside into what's essentially the alien ships vacuum cleaning the entire city of LA of people doesn't sound like a good idea, with the bigger world out there at large, zero communications and a zilch mass media, means questions are constantly raised, with no clear answers.

This fear factor was what I thought the Brothers had successfully translated on screen instead, and frankly will be something quite close to what you or I will do when we panic, and let fear creep in. After all, aliens of all shapes and sizes, flying or on the ground, forcefully ensures every single human being in their sights get sucked into their bodies in the most unsavoury of terms. Think of it as reverse birth, where humans get sucked into what's essentially looks like an alien vagina with plenty of goo, mucus and muck, sometimes with the aid of tentacles shaped like umbilical cords. Bickering is common, with no alpha males stepping up to lead the way because, well, everyone gets picked off one by one.

Characters were expectedly cardboard, although the story did take some unnecessary and uninteresting pains to give us a little bit of a background of those whom we follow. Alas, somehow there's a profound lack of interest in the rich and famous, who stay in swanky apartments and drive cars with the prancing horse logo. There isn't the blue collar, hard worker to root for, and seriously, a bunch of rich pansies don't quite cut it for a film like this where it's about survival of the fittest aided by street smarts. Then again, it does go to show rich or poor, we bite the dust in the same manner when faced with common danger threatening our lives, that Death (by way of Aliens or otherwise) evens the playing field. The premise - you're stuck in a building where all else outside, and soon inside turns into Ground Zero, what will you do?

And also, I suppose films that trumpet the American military might will get the kind of support it does back home, with films like Independence Day and even Transformers 1 and 2, which made it seem like an advertisement for the US Military. Here the military response seems muted and had taken a backseat (well, the budget could be a prime reason), but for what it can muster with the drones and warplanes, one nuke, and a couple of gung-ho boots on ground heli-dropped to nearby rooftops, it isn't the all out war that many perhaps have wanted to see the US forces driving the unwelcome guests away.

With a more original idea and story development to boot, perhaps Skyline could have lived up to its promises and matched the quality of effects put on screen. There's a deliberate void of verbatim answers here, with the filmmakers preferring to keep some cards close to their chest, such as an origin of sorts, or explanation why things occur the way they did, since we're observing from the third person point of view, and the narrative hardly following anyone who has got an idea or a remote clue on what's exactly happening. It's a setup for a follow up film, especially the ending montage, so let's let's hope the area of storytelling gets shored up to develop and add to its mythos.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Confessions (Kokuhaku / 告白)

The Schemer

It's the kind of feeling all over again that makes it a delight to relive moments of a film that's just so steeped with brilliance. It's dark and it's disturbing, a psychological thriller to rival some of the best out there, tackling themes of poetic justice and revenge that's coolly served in perfect tones of subversion, grabbing you by the scruff of your neck with its extended hook from the start and lasting some thirty minutes, before things kick into full gear for a chilling, violent ride that's unflinching in its violence, laced with strong characters filled with perverted motivations all round.

Written and directed by Tetsuya Nakashima and based upon the novel by Kanae Minato, the story's extremely hypnotic and sprawls points of views from multiple characters, each weaved intrinsically with one another and all being uncannily hypnotic in its stylish execution. The hook wraps up everything you'd come to expect from a great thriller, and that riveting introductory classroom scene alone is worth the price of an admission ticket many times over, orchestrating its sound contrast design to perfection where it seems a teacher is unable to control her class, and is nonchalantly attempting to do so until a bombshell is dropped to elicit an automatic silence, and fear.

Takako Matsue (of The Hidden Blade and Villon's Wife fame) plays a schoolteacher whose young daughter was murdered by students identified in her class. Rather than challenging the judge's verdict and knowing jolly well that a juvenile is protected by the law against capital punishment, the plan she devices is so devious that it turns the class upside down turning classmates against the guilty, and yet still hitting them where it hurts most, slowly observing and scheming any exploited weaknesses. Probably the best strategy anyone can adopt when dealing with unspeakable evil, and it is this execution of her plan that forms the remainder of the film told from different perspectives in confessional style (hence the title), where a deeper character study gets presented, while smartly fusing social observations about the restlessness of today's misguided teenagers in wanting recognition and being one up against their peers.

Mothers seem to come into play, and the film provokes thought into this aspect of human nature that's so universal. A mother loses her child, another maintains her protective blindness fending provocative charges against her son, while yet another proudly obsesses with wanting the best from her kid that it becomes detrimental to his development. One knows about the power of Mother's Love and the extent they will go to protect their brood, and here the school teacher's severe loss becomes the catalyst for revenge best served cold, while also becoming pawns in a plan best unraveled when you watch the film.

Nakashima's assured direction keeps you glued to every gorgeous frame thanks to its beautiful cinematography and shots that make it picture perfect, supported by an excellent soundtrack to bolster the dark mood created visually, and I just fell in love with the plenty of slow motion used which brings a sense of calming rhythm that betrays the dark undertones that were constantly brewing in the narrative. There doesn't seem to be a wasted frame or scene in the film, each moving the narrative forward in an engaging manner, keeping you guessing what's the next curve ball to be thrown, and silently rooting for justice in whatever form to be meted out, and on the other hand cannot help but to check yourself since they're kids to begin with, albeit guilty ones whom the teacher chooses a punishment that will resonate deeply throughout their lives, which is obviously a very long road ahead.

The predominant cast of teenagers also performed their roles admirably since one can imagine the kind of thought process they have to go through to play characters who are basically mentally unsound for doing what they did, and frankly these aren't things that are far fetched given notable crimes committed by juveniles here too. The violence can be unsettling here for those with weak stomachs, not so much whether there's plenty of gore put on screen, but psychologically when you're made to crawl under the perpetrators' skins seeing things from their viewpoints.

Confessions lives up to every critical acclaim garnered thus far, and I too love this film enough to put it firmly in my shortlist as the best film of the year, where all the technical elements that make up filmmaking gelled perfectly together with excellent performances all round. A movie gorgeously filmed that justifies why I go to the movies. A definite recommendation!

[SFS Talkies] Sex Volunteer (섹스볼란티어 / Sekseu Bolrantieo)

For Real

Playing to a sold out crowd and ultimately winning the Silver Screen Award for Best Feature and Best Director at this year's Singapore International Film Festival, Sex Volunteer tosses up the taboo and raises a lot of questions through its sprawling view points, with no clear answers in sight since it’s unlikely anyone would have thought about them out of the blue in the first place, until confronted with the issues squarely without room to wriggle out from.

If we wonder whether androids do dream of electronic sheep, then something more realistic is that of the disabled wanting to feel sexual intimacy. The last time as far as my personal film experience on this issue had gone was Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, where a frustrated Vietnam Vet played by Tom Cruise got really, really frustrated when he couldn’t erm, get it up through paid sex.

Sex Volunteer offers multiple narrative viewpoints which makes it a little more interesting to sit through, culminating in a film within a film that served as a bookend to its introduction, where we follow a police vice bust operation, which calls for the barging into a hotel room used illegally for sexual services. To the cops’ surprise they find a man suffering from cerebral palsy being caught up in the thick of the action. Things get a little bit stranger when the broker between the man and the prostitute turns out to be a priest, and that the prostitute was volunteering her services for free. The disabled man aside, I’m sure the involvement of a man of religion, and a free service would always raise eyebrows.

The film then took on what I thought was a pseudo-documentary attempt, where experts and general folks offered their take on the subject, which covers the pluses and minuses of the issue at hand. This comes courtesy of the narrative’s interviewing crew, where we peek into the Q&As through the lens of a camera in talking heads style. The second half of the film however dealt with a film student Ye-ri (Han Yeo-reum, whom some will remember starring in Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow) wanting to explore the same subject through a recreation of the incident at the start. With one film being made and the production process being shot at the same time, you’re forced to adopt different perspectives, which also serve to fill up the backstory and narrative gaps leading to the opening scene.

This of course means a repeat of what we’ve seen earlier, though with a little bit of a disgusting twist to it taken from stuff which urban legends are made of. There’s also that challenge in the forward moving timeline when Ye-ri’s hired AV actress failed to turn up for feeling of the sheer absurdity of it all – she has to make love to a real cerebral palsy sufferer – which opens the filmmaker to decide if she’s going ahead to sacrifice for her craft for real by filling in for the role, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend who also turns out to be the DoP.

Ultimately you’re confronted with the notion not only whether sex is a basic human right, but that everyone, the disabled included, have an inescapable sexual desire wired into us, something that can’t be willed away like what one of the CP sufferers lamented in the film. If he’s able to, that will somewhat address the issue of not being frustrated with not physically able to get what they inherently desire (not that they do so always), because frankly even getting a service will depend on the provider willing to achieve some compromises, and break the taboo barrier rather than to chicken out and service someone normal instead, for an easier time and probable faster turnaround as well.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tangled 3D

The New Princess

There's some controversy over the name change from Rapunzel to Tangled, but in Singapore we probably got the best of both worlds with Rapunzel - A Tangled Tale, highlighting that this was still in essence, a Rapunzel-Rapunzel-Let-Down-Your-Hair tale. The latest offering to add to Disney's growing list of Princess films, and thought to be the last, this 50th animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series sees the Brothers Grimm's tale being given the Disney update, and that means being more child friendly, thought slapped with a PG rating rather than the usual G.

The formula that Disney uses on its chosen princesses from fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson amongst others, seem to come with the requisite beautiful singing voice since breaking out into song about their plight and a duet is the norm, and have this aura that birds, butterflies and bees tend to flock to, possessing this power over animals and assisted by a sidekick from the insect or animal kingdom. There's also the Prince Charming equivalent who will gallop over hills and valleys to save his beloved, before living happily ever after expected ending.

In all counts, Tangled satisfied the above, though there was a moment in the finale which I thought, since it's touted as the last Princess film (though never say never with box office success) that they would go for the jugular and put a new spin on things, but I guess what's formula shouldn't be tweaked unless it's broke. Mandy Moore the singer plays Rapunzel and so automatically gives the character her singing voice as well, being captured by the evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) and imprisoned in a tower (well, very nicely discouraged from getting out to the big bad world out there), though yearning very much to be part of the world seen through her window, much like The Little Mermaid's Ariel. Her chameleon sidekick and palace horse Maximus, though without a voice, are likely to be the more popular Disney animal sidekicks out there with their timely antics, and if there are soft toys of them, I'm quite sure they will do pretty brisk business.

But what's slightly different here is that the male lead Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi) happens to be a rogue in all sense of the word, a thief who has double-crossed the Stabbington Brothers (Ron Perlman) during a joint heist. Not a prince and hardly the gentleman to begin with, his accidental chance upon Rapunzel doesn't result in an instant love connection, but one that developed over time in their journeys to bring her out of her tower, to somewhere close enough to observe a lantern festival that happens on her birthday, where the royalty of the land commemorates the disappearance of the kingdom's princess (no prizes here of course – most of the time one party amongst the lovebirds has got to be of royal blood). I suppose the character's tapered to be slightly more realistic than the swashbuckling hero according to plan.

Villains wise, Tangled's Mother Gothel is probably more simple in her motivation to keep Rapunzel's magical hair powers all for herself, an elixir for immortality, though her schemes and execution to do so are more complex and cerebral, preferring mind games and manipulation instead to get her wants, rather than magical powers and potions, being the weak old lady she actually is who's cheapskate enough not to go for botox. With no real powers nor weapons to exercise her threat, she's actually quite weak if it boils down to fisticuffs, inflicting injury from the shadows. The Stabbington Brothers also pose no threat as they are only mean looking and ultimately nothing but posers, and the flick also has in its theme to never judge a book by its cover for the dreamers it made out of a tavern full of thugs.

If one were to compare the earlier Disney princesses from what has evolved over the course of time, there's no qualms about the female characters being stronger now than their predecessors. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty had unparalleled rivals in the looks department, but ultimately the docile, demure ladies don't cut it nowadays, especially when they are in comatose in their own films, especially the latter almost throughout. Today's princesses fight against bad authority, and are never flinching if the situation calls for self sacrifice. Alas they still cannot shake off emotional needs of desiring a man in their lives, so not all things are changed for happily ever afters.

Still, Rapunzel is that worthy addition to the Disney stable, and I am wondering just how long it'll take before she could be found on the Disneyland grounds. Recommended for its intended demographics definitely, while accompanying adults may find that this is no longer the same as those we all grew up with.

Bruce Lee, My Brother (李小龍)

There Can Be Only One

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Bruce Lee's birth, and if he were alive today, I'm pretty sure the celebrations in the film world for one of Asia's pioneer international star will be monumental. Already there are films made which nod in his direction and influence, such as Gallants and the marketing of the Ip Man films which remind us who his earlier Wing Chun teacher was, and festivals have been running tribute retrospective screenings, such as the Hong Kong and Tokyo International Film Festival that concluded last month. I am a Bruce Lee fan, and naturally the bar is set fairly high to see how this film does justice to the legendary icon. Thankfully it does, and with any film, the dramatic license taken all seem to fit well into the story and provided insights into his character.

Based upon the book Bruce Lee, My Brother by Robert Lee, Bruce's youngest brother, directors Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong take us on a journey that's begging to be made about the life and times of the formative, growing up years of Lee Jun Fan / Lee Sai Feng (Phoenix). It doesn't need to encroach into the territory that Rob Cohen's Dragon had already touched on, the Hollywood film done some 17 years back with Jason Scott Lee (of no relations) in the leading role that begins from his teenage and adult years in the USA, Jeet Kune Do, Kato, Fist of Fury and all. Instead this film takes a more nostalgic look back from the 40s to 60s Hong Kong, focusing on the somewhat wayward youth and teen actor prior to being “exiled” by his dad to the US for his own protection, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I'm beginning to sense that nostalgia has crept into a number of Hong Kong films of late, and after all Hong Kong does boast exciting times from an era past filled with luminous stars and great productions, not to mention the sheer number of output coming from the British colony back then. Echoes of the Rainbow, which was a festival and commercial success, coincidentally also stars newcomer Aarif Lee (credited as Aarif Rahman in this film) whom I thought bore strong resemblance with the titular character at certain angles. It's no surprise to hear that he had snagged the role, and one can imagine the sheer pressure not only to live up to expectations, but to closely mimic some of Bruce Lee's film characters in the melodramas he made as a teenager. He passes the test convincingly in his portrayal which called for a balance in character sensitivity, as well as physicality.

In what would be something like a calling as an actor when his father the opera megastar (Tony Leung Kar Fai) assisted a director friend in need by volunteering his infant son in Golden Gate Girl, Bruce Lee's film forays was way before the kung fu movies launched him into super-stardom, starring in The Orphan and many others, and through this narrative angle, allowed the filmmakers to pay tribute and homage to famous screen actors who once were and the films they were in, the filmmaking mover and shakers behind them, and a commentary on the state of the industry at that time, with unions and hectic film schedules, actors often handling simultaneous projects that require flitting from one sound stage to another. No effort was spared in the attention to detail in sets and costumes, and I thoroughly enjoyed everything the filmmakers had in pulling out all the stops in recreating the mood, look and feel, plus the wonderful actors taking great pains to bring back the memories of acting veterans.

Acting career aside, Bruce Lee, My Brother also touches upon his family members as well, with scenes involving his siblings and parents, their upbringing and the value system instilled upon them. It shows the affluence of a traditional extended Chinese family living together, and not just under the same roof with kin, but that including the servants and their children too. Glimpses of stepping out of traditional boundaries are shown through his mom, played by Christy Chung in a comeback role, as deliberate attention was paid to her wearing the pants of the household when her husband's away, taking charge of delicate situations, including cursory mention of her fine family background. It is little nuggets of information like these that make this film a wonderful gem to sit through for trivia.

And of course, no story will be complete without friendship and romance thrown into the mix, especially when dealing with the pains of growing up. A tempestuous youth almost always never shying away from a fight, nevermind his semi-stardom, Bruce Lee is part of a group nicknamed the Kowloon Tigers, and it is this allegiance with his buddies that take centerstage, with a subplot running to the finale, involving loving the same girl as his best friend, and how he puts his loyalty with friends and family above everything else. They hang out mostly at dance parlours, and the hours he puts in explains his nimbleness and gracefulness that we'll see infused into his fighting prowess, not to mention being crowed a Cha-cha dance champion at one point as well.

The fights are widely touted in the trailer, and here's where chief credit must go to the filmmakers for conscientiously steering clear of too much Wing Chun, and avoiding the temptation to stage cliched big battles with the Japanese soldiers or British corrupt police. These have been touched upon too frequently of late, with the two Ip Man films, as well as the Andrew Lau's tribute to Bruce Lee with his Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Meeting up with Ip Man himself is probably requisite for this film, but it placed it in proper context that Bruce was most of the time being trained by one of the pupils instead, and we do see some hints of Jeet Kune Do in his fights, which are never deadly, but friendlier in nature meant as a comparison of skills and fighting philosophies.

Bruce Lee, My Brother is a fitting tribute about the early life of Bruce Lee, hitting the mark on famous milestones in his life, and showing his character not as the superstar to be, but the down to earth and fiercely loyal friend, brother and son he was known to all those close to him. Dramatic license is of course heavily used especially when putting in subtle hints throughout the film that references the famous movies that he will make in the future (loved that makeshift nunchak using preserved sausages, as well as the banter with a certain Shek Kin). A definite must watch especially for fans who must stay put during the end credit roll for a photographic comparison of pictures taken in the film with the real thing. A film I enjoyed tremendously and goes into my books as a firm contender for the best this year has to offer!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Next Three Days

Happy Family

Paul Haggis is a filmmaker whose body of works in the story / scriptwriting arena happens to be more prolific than that as a director, at the helm of films like the Oscar winning Crash (which was my favourite film of 2005) and In The Valley of Elah, while having story and scriptwriting duties in notable films like Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and his WWII companion pieces Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, and being involved with rebooting the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

The Next Three Days though is adapted from Pour Elle (Anything for Her), a 2008 French thriller by Fred Cavaye, based upon a story by Guillaume Lemans, which tells the tale of a high school teacher developing an all out plan to bust his wife out from jail. It's the same premise here with Russell Crowe as John Brennan leading what was a happy little life with wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and son Luke (twins Toby and Tyler Green as the toddler, and Ty Simpkins taking over the six year old role), before their routine gets rudely interrupted with the cops banging their door down and arresting Lara, with John getting caught offguard in similar fashion as Gerard Butler in Law Abiding Citizen.

It's a tale of two halves as the first hour dwelled on John trying his best to work the legal angle for almost three years to defend and appeal his wife's sentence, before her suicide prompted him to walk on the other side of the law. Taking the cue and words of wisdom from Damon Pennington, played by Liam Neeson, that scene was perhaps the best within the first 60 minutes, as he briefs John on the clockwork fashion and insights on how the homeland security forces will work in an escaped convict situation. And it's not far fetched because this brings to mind the now famous incident from our own shores, with a terrorist having to escape from a detention centre through a combination of well thought out routines, and the exploitation of complacency created through those routines, and always being one step ahead in knowing the type of response met out every step of the way to aid in an escape.

But before Prison Break can happen, part of the fun amongst the talk heavy first half, is to witness John's stumble as he hooks up with those in the illegal trade to obtain the necessary tools to aid in his mission. It's gritty stuff here that plays along with our imagination should we walk on the dark side - where and how do we begin, and the tremendous distrust issues. It's an instructional first hour reminding us how much information is readily available for research out there on the Internet, for those determined enough to try at all costs. For John, nothing matters other than to reclaim his family life and to reset three long years of futile waiting, and the sacrifices he goes through makes us question the same - just how much are we willing to lose, including our morality, for our loved ones?

As expected and revealed in the trailers, those yearning for some action to happen will sit up during the second half, where it becomes The Fugitive for both John and Lara to escape from the pursuit of various security and the police force, and a scene I thought was paying homage to the Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee Jones movie was one where the pursued disappears amongst a procession. Some may balk at the unexpected pregnant pause as well where almost nothing is said when the husband and wife team sit out on a road shoulder, but I felt that the relatively quiet scene alone was screaming of a class treatment by Paul Haggis, a moment reflecting the sheer unbelievability of something intense that's pulled off, and a break necessitated by a conflict of objectives, and a hair-raising

Some may find fault with a slew of coincidences found in the film, but with most movies, Fate has to lend a hand for the narrative to happen, and it's no different here, although again referencing the local escaped convict incident, stranger things have happened that may seem absurdly unbelievable, but they did, and Haggis does deal with some of these scenes, big and small, with a deft hand to heighten the tension and suspense, albeit a little bit cliche with you likely being able to guess the outcome.

With Brian Dennehy and Olivia Wilde, who will be seen in TRON: Legacy coming out soon, their scenes are brief but provide that potential for sprawling subplots that didn't overstay their welcome. Olivia Wilde's single mother Nicole could have thrown a spanner in the works, but I suppose she's the counterbalance necessary to demonstrate just how dogged John is in his prime objective, and commitment for better or worse to his wife. An admirable effort from Paul Haggis, but given his pedigree, I have actually expected a lot more unfortunately. Still, it's a recommended and respectable prison break flick with Crowe once again reminding us that he's capable of playing ordinary characters bounded to extraordinary situations.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Hainan Meets Teochew (当海南遇上潮州)

I Can't Hear You Say...

The requisites for a romantic comedy film will inevitably be good looking, swoon worthy leads against gorgeous backdrops, brought together by a beautiful coincidence that catalyzes a chance meeting into a relationship. The inverse of that will be an unromantic drama with nary the electrifying meeting-of-the-windows-to-one's-soul moment, amongst ordinary folks that make up most of a population who are not blessed with flawless complexions. Rarely will a film utilize this as a premise, but under the hands of Singapore's leading comedic filmmaker Han Yew Kwang, this spells an opportunity not only to make an entertaining tale, but one that incisively grapples with universal themes of acceptance and love.

When Hainan Meets Teochew tells of the struggles of the minority in society against what society in general wants them to be, and who are after what everyone yearns for in emotional terms – not necessarily romantic love, but to have someone for companionship, to care for, to lend a listening ear to, and to support. Seeking acceptance is not easy given the rejection from the onset within their families. Miss Teochew (Tan Hong Chye) has to continuously seek the approval of a stoically silent father to accept him for who he is, coupled with that inner voice of guilt no thanks to the ghost of his brother Guang (Alaric Tay) urging him constantly to be a man, and Hainan Boy (Lee Chau Min) having to bear the brunt of jibes from siblings (played by the director himself, and Sharon Loh, cinematographer for Boo Junfeng's Sandcastle) and pressures from a typical mom (Catherine Sng) to have someone look after her. The titular duo begin as squabbling neighbours in the same block of flats, and through a less than sexy incident involving a stolen/lost bra, Hainan Boy invites Miss Teochew to put up in her flat taking responsibility for the latter to be kicked out of his rental room by the landlord, played by Soundrarajan Jeeva.

Alright, to keep this review (and me) sane, I will refer to the Womanly Man Miss Teochew as a He, and the Manly Woman Hainan Boy as a She. I suppose this forms part of the fun when you watch the film, and you'll soon find yourself surely but surely, gravitate from feeling a little irksome (if you do), to soon forgetting this gender bender and embrace these characters because the net of it is that it is still a heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman in the eyes of the law and in a brilliant scene where a retort is called for, spells that out in the local context which made sense. They cannot help if they're mentally wired differently (to paraphrase a character), and frankly I can imagine how when growing up and being constantly taunted - and Hainan Boy continually so in her workplace, would have ultimately added plenty of steel to their characters and resolve.

Now you may wonder about similar gender bending films like the famous Hong Kong movie He's a Woman, She's a Man directed by Peter Chan and starring luminous leads like the late Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen in the he-she role, but the actors here in Lee Chau Min and Tan Hong Chye, while not as good looking as established stars, offer convincing performances in portraying their characters, and the brilliance in casting non professional actors here works like a charm, since they are probably playing the comedic offshoots of themselves without necessarily going over the top. Tender moments provide for the actors' challenge to demonstrate their acting range, and they emerge a success.

As I was once told while travelling through the various countries in Europe on a whirlwind tour, things are never strange, just different, and that's precisely the mindset one should adopt when watching this comedy. Yew Kwang's films so far has rarely subscribed to slapstick to draw the laughs, relying on wit and language prowess to elicit the laugh out loud moments from an audience instead. It's no different here, although I felt that the comedy did take a backseat to the themes, dramatic moments and conflicts tossed up, although the stylized dream sequences would likely be some of the funniest sequences in the film for its cheeky mirroring of subconscious desires.

I felt the narrative picked up for the better once the film shifted a gear with the budding romance being threatened by the return of Hainan Boy's ex girlfriend, the hyperactive and spoilt Meihui, played by Yeo Yann Yann to whiny perfection, epitomizing that all is far in love and war, the indecisive, selfish lover that has come back to her ex just because Hainan Boy is always there waiting. And her character's introduction brought on another point of discussion about the losing of the languages our forefathers used for communication, when not only Mandarin was the lingua franca of the Chinese people here like today. A scene has Meihui, a young woman, mocking and finding one of the two languages in the title funny, and is unappreciative of the metaphors and sayings. An earlier scene also has Hainan Boy's siblings trying to learn the language, and picking up only a smattering of phrases, some through guesswork.

Subtly I had felt it made a commentary about the dying Chinese languages outside of Mandarin in Singapore, the older folk as characterized by the leads and their characters' parents all seem all too comfortable in conversing using Hainanese or Teochew, and in the larger real world context here, other Chinese languages as well. I suppose this will be lost in one or two generations later, and unfortunately disappearing with it are the wise words of wisdom, interesting sayings (if you haven't already know the significance of the two language groups in the film with regards to marriage then you have got to watch this film), customs and idiosyncrasies associated with the beauty of that particular language, a pity since there will always be some implicit lessons to be gleaned from.

A quirky comedy that provokes thought, the film is essentially that celebration of the spirit of independent filmmaking in Singapore. Mostly self-funded and with help from cast and crew members who have laboured during their free time to complete this project (took slightly over a year I believe), production values are at their best within its clear financial constraints, but delivered through natural acting by two acting rookies bolstered by the stellar presence of a veteran team, an assembly of actors from Yew Kwang's previous films with the likes of Marilyn Lee, Catherine Sng, Soundrarajan Jeeva, Yeo Yann Yann and Alaric Tay.

Fans of Han Yew Kwang, and those who are wondering what is Singapore's comedy cinema outside of the usual Jack Neo films, will probably like to know that you can watch this film from December 3rd at The Arts House or Sinema Old School and tickets are on sale already. Selected screenings will have the director in person either making an introduction, or to conduct a Q&A session. Also in December will be the debut of his telemovie Love in a Cab, and to usher in the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit, look out for his next theatrical feature film Perfect Rivals which should be due out in late January / early February.

But first, it's When Hainan Meets Teochew, and it's recommended stuff!

Related Links
- Official Movie Website
- Facebook page filled with plenty of photos, videos, and a chronology of the film's development in anecdotal form all posted on the Wall.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

[DVD] Nixon (1995)

Holding Court

I was but a teen who set enthralled by everything that went on screen with all the controversies and conspiracies thrown into Oliver Stone's JFK, and again I sit in awe as he takes creative license on the life and times of Richard Nixon, based on open source and in some case incomplete records of course, from how his family background shaped his young life, before following his political career through its ups and downs, from his failed presidential election to victory that led him to the White House, until the Watergate scandal that brought him down.

The last film about Nixon I had watched was Frost/Nixon, and that takes place way after his resignation, so if your interest has been piqued by that film, I'd recommend that you'd give Oliver Stone's Nixon a go as well, knowing well that the director has always been pointed in his films, and is full of opinion when recreating the world he wants to talk about. I haven't got to W. yet, but am definitely going to do so soon if that film is anything like Nixon, and besides I do enjoy movies about politicians and an historical epic, with dramatic license always taken of course because you just cannot condense everything into a 2, 3 or even a 4 hour film.

Running close to 3.5 hours, Nixon begins at a point which is probably defining the end of his presidential term, and that's the Watergate break-in, before we see Anthony Hopkins' brilliant portrayal of a man who seems to perpetually find himself, or prefers to find himself forced in a corner, and want to come out fighting when the chips are down, who find it his destiny to, as he puts it, give history a nudge. It's not easy to tackle a central figure when there has been tons of material about the character or perception of the character/figure, and there will always be counter-arguments from various quarters who deem the character portrayal inaccurate.

For the uninitiated, I felt it contained enough to tickle your interest to read up a lot more about the era, which is filled by the agendas of agencies such as the CIA and FBI, still under J Edgar Hoover (Bob Hoskins), and the tremendous power play from behind the scenes. It's an era of the Vietnam War, of Cuba, of the loss of American innocence with the death of JFK, flower power, student protests, the ping pong diplomacy with China and the Soviet enemy, and the list goes on, with problems faced both domestically, and from a shaky foreign policy making strange bedfellows amongst the players involved, slimy characters abound.

And of course with the film dedicated to Stone's father, many have been quick to point out some parallels between Nixon and Stone, that the Nixon here is simply Stone voicing his contempt of the System in the USA. But I'd rather go with opinionated, and the fascination of the man and the era, with the typical Stone commentary worked into the story and the protagonist, who surely doesn't mince his words given his free use of expletives and free discussions even though he has put in place recordings in the Oval Office, which will ultimately contribute to his downfall, what with the lies and the scapegoats made of situations, where allies can be buried if they are deemed sacrificial to the cause.

The narrative also goes adopts different styles in presentation, from black and white flashbacks, news reels, archival footage, some manipulated through CG as what Forrest Gump had done to put the actor against an historical backdrop, or just plain old superimposition. Deleted scenes also found its way into the feature film (this being the Director's Cut) and you can tell this apart from the rest from the lack of finished quality, such as Nixon's visit to the CIA and intense conversation with CIA Director Richard Helms (Sam Waterston) which was one of the best scenes in the film, a face off between two evils if you will, going through an oral chess game where one tries to overpower the other, trying to gain an upper hand and a psychological advantage in their poker mind game.

Peppered with wonderful actors like Joan Allen as Pat Nixon the estranged wife to her husband's insatiable political ambition, Ed Harris, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, James Woods and even cameos like Bai Ling (in what was a very conservative appearance as Mao's interpreter), the film ultimately belonged to Anthony Hopkins in his portrayal, transforming himself into Nixon and disappearing into the character, highlighting his constant inferiority complex stemming from his modest background going up against the Ivy Leaguers in the country, and his struggles for mass acceptance by the people he is leading, made complicated by his inherent need to keep secrets and lie.

It's a fascinating film about the character, which kept true to certain details like his lack of television PR skills and his incessant sweat issues under bright lights (which Frost/Nixon also made mention with his upper lip almost always covered in a sweaty grime). It may not be the definitive biopic of Richard Nixon, but I suppose it'll be quite the tall order to try and top this effort by Oliver Stone. Recommended.

The Region 1 Collector's Edition by Hollywood Pictures Home Video is unfortunately presented in letterbox format - I had hoped for an anamorphic widescreen presentation - but for its length and the inclusion of two separate commentaries by Oliver Stone, which frankly could have been combined because there were gaps of silence throughout the commentaries and perhaps would be a better flow if combined, which contained plenty of Stone's approach to making the film, and history as told from his point of view as a filmmaker with plenty of valuable insights. Audio is available in English Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 Surround, with English closed captioning and Subtitles in French and Spanish. Scene selection is available over 37 chapters.

Disc 2 is the special features disc, which features the following extras:

Deleted Scenes with Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone contains 10 deleted and expanded scenes from the film, and this section gets introduced and closed by the director. Running a total of 58:32, there's a play all function as well so that you can sit through everything in one sitting, where Stone takes time to explain why some were omitted or shortened, otherwise we would probably be faced with the four hour fifteen minute version.

Featurette (4:58) is the summarized version of what can be the making of documentary, but in under five minutes all we get are a few clips behind the scenes with quick sound bites from cast and director. Charlie Rose Interviews Oliver Stone (55:10) is the television interview that has Stone go into depth discussing the film and the life of Richard Nixon covering portions not in the film, and the disc rounds off with a pretty lengthy Theatrical Trailer (4:30).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

[DVD] Elizabeth (1998)

The Virgin Queen

Elizabeth was one of Cate Blanchett's earlier films that had propelled her to stardom given that it won her a couple of major acting awards in her role as the titular Queen who ushered in what was the Golden Age in English history. I had seen the sequel Elizabeth The Golden Age some three years ago also directed by Shekhar Kapur, and this film dealt with Elizabeth's rise to power and ascension to the throne, ending with her consolidating her influence and having that grip on her court and kingdom.

Period films about the English monarchy has always been rich material for filmmakers to dwell into, such as Justin Chadwick with his The Other Boleyn Girl which featured one generation earlier with Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn. This film skips everything then and jumps in at the point where Queen Mary I decided to imprison her half sister Elizabeth into the Tower of London for treason and for her Protestant faith, before illness and a whole host of politicking that didn't succeed meant Elizabeth succeeded Mary as ruler of England when the latter passes away.

Michael Hirst's story deals with the rise of Elizabeth to power, and how she develops from girly girl, into the powerful yet lonely woman at the apex of her kingdom. Cate Blanchett brings a sense of vulnerability in her performance early in the film as the girl thrust into the hot seat where her innocence makes her instant fodder for conspirators to pounce upon and usurp the throne for herself. Being ruler of the land means a certain steely determination required, and charm to ensure policies get pushed through, and the episodes selected and highlighted in the film goes about doing just that. Not only that, the film has this constant sense of fear going on, of not knowing what to do, and who exactly to trust, and Blanchett brings about this quality, and other qualities associated with the role in flawless terms.

The pressures of course come from all quarters, where even allies consistently tells upon her to fulfill certain conditions for power consolidation, where as a woman she's quite expected to marry and to produce an heir under a political marriage either with the Spanish or the French, since she had inherited what's essentially a bankrupt country. Danger lurks primarily from the Catholics, who deem her position in the country inappropriate, calling her a heretic spreading heresy with her faith. Yes, there's this constant subtext and battle between religions here, with even Daniel Craig starring as a priest on the orders of the Pope at the Vatican to do what's necessary to rid England of her.

Then there's always the danger from affairs of the heart, where her relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes) is out in the open and in a scene probably will raise some eyebrows since Elizabeth is much touted as the Virgin Queen. But hey, with every film biopic, artistic and dramatic license is always taken, and this serves but one angle of how the director wants to portray this concept. The main suitor comes in the form of Vincent Cassel's cross dressing Duc d'Anjou, who is quite the comical farce, in a relationship desired to be brokered by Monsieur de Foix played by Eric Cantona. You read that right, the football star in what's probably his earliest major film role in English.

Unlike the sequel, there's no major action sequence here, not only because of the smaller budget. But that doesn't mean that it's less engaging, because what will hook you in is the political intrigue and conspiracy brewing at every corner of the Elizabeth rulership, where allies can become hidden enemies, and political survival is of the utmost concern. Both Richard Attenborough and Geoffrey Rush shine in their role as stoic advisors to the Queen, especially Rush's Sir Francis Walsingham who also commands the clandestine spy operations to ensure the eradication of the Queen's enemies. In some ways I thought the finale had resembled very closely to The Godfather's, with an opera soundtrack playing over a montage of assassinations being carried out simultaneously.

If you, like me, have an insatiable appetite for period movies about Kings and Queens in their darkest days, then give Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, probably the most definitive film out there, a go, and not to forget the sequel as well. Recommended.

The Region 1 DVD by Universal presents the feature film in an anamorphic widescreen format with audio in English 2.0 or 5.1 Dolby Surround, and subtitles in French and Spanish. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters.

The Special Features aren't much on the disc, with all the features presented in letterbox format. The most substantial feature on the disc will be the Director's Commentary, where Shekhar Kapur begins with explaining why he happens to be the director of the film, which is something he always get asked. He goes in depth about the technical aspects in making the film and is a one-man film school in explaining how things get done, and he's extremely frank to go into what exactly he liked, and disliked in his own movie.

The Making of Elizabeth (24:52) contains the usual behind the scenes clips together with talking heads interview segments with the crew and cast who talk about the production process and their characters. This is followed by a meaningless Elizabeth Featurette (6:01) which serves as a very limited extension to the making of feature, since a good portion consists of a trailer of sorts. There is also the Teaser Trailer (1:31) and the Theatrical Trailer (2:30). Rounding off the special features are the Photo Gallery consisting of 39 stills from the film and behind the scenes, and text based biographies of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough and director Shekhar Kapur in the Cast & Filmmakers section.

I would have preferred if the extras had contained the many deleted scenes that Shakhur Kapur had mentioned in his director's commentary, but alas that is not to be in this DVD edition.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guzaarish (गुज़ारिश)

Well I Didn't Know!

I don't speak Hindi nor will admit to understand it beyond a smattering of words I picked up here and there, and the first time I heard the word "Guzaarish" was actually in A.R Murugadoss' film Ghajini in 2008 starring Aamir Khan, where a song number was titled the same way, and one of the more beautiful songs in the film written by A.R. Rahman and sung by Javed Ali. And yes I am digressing because this has absolutely nothing to do with Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, which he wrote, directed and even had a hand in creating the songs in Guzaarish his latest film.

The casting of Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is something that may set tongues wagging especially when tabloid hype enjoys focusing on the much touted sex scene here, which turned out to be nothing more than a tit-for-tat prank played by one against the other character who turned the tables. But you have to admit that both of them have this excellent magnetic chemistry they share when they grace the screen together, from Dhoom 2 to Ashutosh Gowariker's sprawling period epic Jodhaa Akbar, and their roles in Guzaarish is no less in delivering the impact required when the focus also hinges on the moral controversies behind euthanasia, or mercy killing.

Hrithik Roshan plays Ethan Mascarenhas, a top magician who because of an accident while performing an illusion, got paralysed from the neck down, leaving him immobile, and under the tender loving care of his nurse Mrs Sofia De Souza (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) for the last 12 of his 14 years as a quadriplegic. The film opens in most gorgeous terms of how his caretaker goes about her duty, forsaking youth, marriage and relatives, in order to do her best to nurse a man she and everyone knows only can get better if a miracle happens. We see how she prepares him for the day, the cleansing, and his routine of going about his second career as one of the best radio DJs in Goa, However, deciding enough is enough, Ethan summons his best friend and lawyer Devyani Dutta (Shernaz Patel), and tells her to file a petition against the Indian Constitution to allow him to end his life.

Hrithik Roshan didn't have much luck at the box office with Kites earlier this year (curiously some attested to Kites containing a lot of English which turned the local Indian audiences off, but this film also featured a fair bit of dialogue in the English language), but I still reckon that he's an actor of his generation to look out for. Ethan Mascarenhas is perhaps his most challenging role to date, as we know Hrithik for his physicality and his gracefulness in dance, but his obvious character condition here limits the former as we see how slight his frame is, clearly allowing his built to be slimmed down to portray the role more convincingly as a man whose muscles are wasted through inaction and atrophy. As for the prerequisite dances, the film allowed some moments in flashbacks where he shows off some graceful moves as a magician with a class act in presentation and packaging his brand of magic, further cementing Hrithik's reputation as one of the heroes of Bollywood who can actually dance.

But what he aced in his role is how he convincingly portrays his immobility, relying very much on his facial expressions to bring across a wide spectrum of emotions. There's an added air of eccentricity and mood swings as expected of a man who gets handed lemons by Fate, so what best than to try and make lemonade from the situation, sharpening his wits in the process, since quick fire repertoire is something he can do, other times the scenarios constantly remind him how helpless he is without his caretaker by his side, and Hrithik shows this vulnerable side of him best. Not only that, Hrithik Roshan too lends his vocals to What a Wonderful World, which will probably delight his legion of fans.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan also has Guzaarish to thank in bringing out her best performance for this year, peppered by films such as Raavan, Endhiran and Action Replayy. While Endhiran was essentially Superstar Rajnikanth's starrer and didn't really challenge Aishwarya with the role she had to play, Raavan and Action Replayy were roles that were pushing those boundaries but the box office responses didn't quite match to expectations. I'll put my hand up to say she's back at her best as Sofia De Souza, the nurse who makes tremendous sacrifices in order to ease the suffering of Ethan, who got taken aback by his decision that will of course mean an end to her services and that notion of being emotionally slighted. There's always a touch of tenderness in her care of her patient, and that romantic tension constantly underneath.

Sofia De Souza is typically prim and proper, and has a rather curious, lush wardrobe for a nurse - a point brought up later on by the public prosecutor Vipin Patel (Rajit Kapoor), though Aishwarya provided that tell tale spunk in Sofia with her (also much talked about) experiment with the cigarette, and the letting of her hair down in the song number Udi, sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and Shaul Hada, which stands out as one of my favourites in the film for that unmistakable Spanish influence. Joining her in the film is fellow Action Replayy alumni and Bollywood rookie Aditya Roy Kapoor (lucky him, to have made two debut films side by side with Aishwarya) whose Omar Siddique aspires to be Ethan's protege, and goes to great lengths to being accepted and inevitably becoming a part of the extended family, which includes Ethan's mom Isabel (Nafisa Ali) and Dr Nayak (Suhei Seth).

But the real hero of the production, has got to be writer director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has bounced back from what many thought was a disappointment with Saawariya (which I begged to differ), weaving such a beautiful, sensitive tale without relying on melodrama or sensationalizing its main topic of Euthanasia. Flashbacks are used to effectively tell of Ethan's entire backstory leading up to and including a cringe inducing accident scene, and the pacing well done with the non-intrusive use of musical numbers to add to the narrative, without feeling forced. Bhansali has a keen eye to exploit the beautiful sets and through wonderful framing, light and shadow play, elevated Guzaarish into a film that's aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

As the adage goes, it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to seek permission, and the main crux of the plot deals with Ethan and friends trying to push through the legal system to allow him to die at his own will. If there's a blip in the film it will be the treatment of the courtroom scenes, which was necessary to allow Ethan outside the confines of his physical prison, but addressed issues more so on the surface and rarely scratched the content deep down. It piques your interest to evaluate circumstances if you were to put yourself in Ethan's shoes, but rarely goes beyond that fleeting thought in the mind.

But as mentioned, at least it didn't degenerate into over the top silliness, keeping itself in check most of the time in seriousness, and allowing the top notch performances to continue to engage, with a number of side characters appearing to reinforce certain aspects of Ethan's life and add an expanded dimension to a man unfortunately cut down at his prime. It reminds us again to live life for what it is and to appreciate it to the max, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali has this beautifully crafted film to tell us just that. Highly recommended, and it goes into my shortlist as a possible addition amongst the best this year has to offer. It looks like the Hrithik-Aishwarya partnership continues its success.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

[DVD] Redacted (2007)

Lull Period

Redacted never made it to the cinemas here, and I wonder why, since it's presented mostly in the first-camera perspective in pseudo-documentary style which has always been popular with the horror genre at least, and has Brian De Palma at the helm, a director whom I always associate with making stylish films, from his impressive resume such as The Untouchables right up to The Black Dahlia.

With Casualties of War he had already done an anti-war film, albeit it came a little too late, some two centuries after the Vietnam War, to critique on. So it's no wonder that with the Iraqi War that's still ongoing, and with public sentiments quite bewildered against a needless war (wherefore art thou WMD?) he had come out to write and direct a film that deals directly with the atrocities of war, any war for that matter, that aims its sights squarely on how Truth is always the first casualty, because what comes out will almost always be a slew of cover ups to mask cock ups and accidents, intentional or otherwise, that will have negative impact on those currently or have been involved.

There are already a fair share of films both dramatic and action based that takes up this topic (the more recent one being Paul Greengrass' Green Zone), but De Palma's film is presented in a different fashion to put us, the audience, in the driving seat witnessing events as they unfold through cameras of various shapes, sizes and placed in different situations. With first person perspectives, it's usually through a single camera with an incredible battery life, but De Palma infuses common sensibilities in his film and involves multiple camera points of view to present a congruent narrative that's loosely based on the disgraceful Mahmudiyah atrocities as committed by the US military.

So we see the entire episode, and what we normally see from the daily news networks, all rolled into one tight and grippingly paced film, through the eyes of a wannabe filmmaker soldier, documentary filmmakers, press corps embedded in raids, Arab and Eurp press members on the ground and over their respective news networks, videos through insurgent websites, responses through viral videos, webcam chats, surveillance cameras and so on. It's a breathtaking number of cameras involved, each presenting something different brought to the flow of the film, and if there's one person who can pull it all off convincingly, it's De Palma of course. One can imagine how world events get told nowadays, no longer relying on a single source for information, or a handful of sources, but an entire plethora of platforms to choose from thanks to technology and social media such as Twitter and Facebook, bringing us much closer to events from a first person perspective, where the man on the ground telling his actual, real time experience can garner a world wide audience at the click of a button.

It's a powerful anti-war, or anti-Iraq-war for that matter, which follows a group of grunts whom we see performing their routine, rote duties of securing checkpoints and going through the tense checks they're tasked to perform, which keep everyone on the edge since Death can come knocking at any time should they slip up. De Palma doesn't sweep a lot of things under the carpet, and tells of how shootings become indiscriminate, of how cover ups are part and parcel of military reports and investigation outcomes, of the near certain circle of violence and revenge cycles each side get into. Definitely recommended material to sit through.

The Region 1 DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment is presented in pristine anamorphic widescreen format as it was shot in HD, and audio is available in English 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital, but this is not the typical war film that will max out your aural sense surround. Scene selection is over 20 chapters, and comes with English close captions and Spanish subtitles.

The disc autoplays with previews of films that for an uncanny reason (marketing and cutting of the trailers perhaps) I want to watch - Terror's Advocate (2:15), Outlaw (2:01), Flawless (2:08) and The Signal (1:29) before rounding off with an introduction to HDNet Movies (0:32).

Special Features on the disc include:

Higher Definition: Redacted Episode (8:53, letterbox) consists of an interview segment with writer-director Brian De Palma, who talks about parallels between this film and his earlier Casualties of War, where as he puts it, examines similarities where young boys get sent into a war with no clear purpose and cannot tell the enemy from friendlies, and just go berserk under an explosive situation. He also talks about his decision to use high definition, and the different formats adapted to tell the story, all coming from his researching the topic on the Internet.

Behind the Scenes (5:00, letterbox) consists of clips that's just that, centered mostly around the poker scene where the soldiers discuss their atrociously bold plan that formed the main incident in the narrative.

Refugee Interviews (61:37, letterbox) consists of a series of interviews with Iraqis displaced outside of their country, who have lost their loved ones during the war, and we listen in to their recount of confusion, frustration and the kind of treatment they get subjected to either in the hands of the US solders or insurgents from within. It's heart-wrenching stuff, where like the narrative of the film dwelled upon, we listen to and we see, but choose not to or cannot do anything about it, at least not directly.

Rounding off the Photo Gallery is a set of photographs consisting of 20 stills from the film and behind the scenes, but no, the powerful set of photograph montage at the end of the film is not included here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

I Know It's Part VII, But...

The Harry Potter film franchise has come a long way, with 6 movies already spawned over a period of almost 10 years (my god, has it been that long already!), each building upon the previous in setting the tone that the film is today in its final installment, to be told in 2 parts – Part 1 now, and Part 2 cashing it in on 3D by Summer next year. When the film started with The Philosopher's Stone, I wouldn't have thought how dark everything would have turned out to be. Part 1 had introduced us to the key trio of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), with a whole host of characters at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry especially, though the storylines in the first few films seemed to have a repetitive formula built into them, with Chamber of Secrets being my least favourite of the lot.

Until now, where a curveball has been thrown by author J.K. Rowling, and this episode contains a lot more references (at least film wise) that had gone back to the second film that had gained new found respect from me. This is not a run of the mill series, but something which has been intricately planned for from almost the very beginning. With the last few films crafting the level of suspense into a crescendo, where each film augments the impending doom and gloom culminating in the finale seen in The Half Blood Prince, things get a lot worst here from the start, where The Deathly Hallows begins with a grim reminder from the Minister of Magic, before we see Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his ghastly lieutenants plot to take over both realms Muggle or not in quite Fascist terms.

Yes you read that right, and what I thought was quite the brilliant stroke of genius to transmit that level of fear and dread into the Potter world through something quite familiar in our world, where there's a takeover of ministries and the installation of past villains who are puppets of the regime, the continued discrimination and probable extermination of the ordinary, non magical Muggles and even the half-breeds against those who are of pure magical blood, and a curious scene where a disguised Potter head inside the undergrounds of the Ministry only to see propaganda being created by the masses in creepy, clockwork like fashion.

Everything is doom and gloom with copious amounts of shades, shadows, black and grey (save for Hermione's red dress in one scene), where our heroic trio are quite clueless without their guardian headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) always ready to pull some strings from behind the scenes. His absence is largely felt, and they are left mostly to their own devices and smarts to try and figure out a way to get to the remaining Horcruxes and to destroy them. They become the hunted with little allies to rely on, where betrayal seem the norm, almost from within their own circle of trust as well where a major subplot continues to dwell on the suggested romantic/platonic dynamics between Hermione with Harry and Ron, the former sharing a curious dance sequence while on the run, and the latter, well having his worst fear confront his lack of courage to tell Hermione just how he feels for her, well, from how many films ago.

So the verdict is whether The Deathly Hallows warranted two films. My answer is a resounding, definite yes, because there's so much going on in the story, of the relationships and friendships forged over the years, of the closure both good and bad that has to come to the myriad of characters introduced (J.K. Rowling doesn't show a lot of mercy by the way), and not to mention the inherent quest that Harry, Ron and Hermione chose to embark on that has gone beyond just the survival of Harry Potter, and what's more, introduces to us what those Deathly Hallows actually are, which goes just beyond the destruction of the Horcuxes. Danger lurks at every corner and the narrative spins at breakneck speed, harrowing most times with the frequent close shaves the rookies encounter against their enemies who are growing more powerful by the minute.

While the previous films have boasted special effects extravaganzas be it little things to pepper the scene or large battles between wizards and witches, this is kept surprisingly muted in the film since it's swaying on one end of the spectrum with Evil gaining an upper hand, and most of the effects not already something seen before in the earlier Potter films. But what ultimately leads this film into being the more powerful one, is the strength of the story and how it leads you along the way, building anticipation as we root for positive outcomes as much as possible, with slight comedy punctuating appropriate moments to lift the spirits.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson all share that perfect camaraderie that's been built over the years, it's no wonder that they add that convincing depth and natural realism to their friendship, with an audience that has largely grew up with them as well. There's no ensemble cast like the one assembled for the Potter franchise, though most of them - Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Tom Felton and a long list more - come and go too frequent and too soon, but one hopes the evil Death Eaters do get their spotlight by the time the second installment rolls over.

Chris Columbus may have begun the film franchise and made it a large welcome for the young (especially) and old to embrace J.K Rowling's magical world, but I am of the opinion that David Yates inherited the franchise at the right point from The Order of the Phoenix where things required a consistent hand rather than a rotating director's chair, and developed the franchise into what it is today in quite unassuming terms. Credit also has to go to Steve Kloves who has adapted from Rowling's books (save for the point where Yates came onboard), knowing what best to adapt into the film, and what to leave behind, steering clear of the more cutesy tales and plunging us headlong into Voldemort's return and ascension to power.

You know that this will end in a cliffhanger, and what a cliffhanger it is, whetting your appetite to devour Part 2 as soon as it's released, just so to witness how the film franchise of our generation will fittingly conclude. I can't wait, and I'm sure the hundreds of thousands of fans around the world cannot wait for the next too.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Easy A

Come To Mama

Welcome to the Emma Stone show! While the recent hype may be on her snagging the Gwen Stacey role in Marc Webb's Spiderman reboot, and how she's actually a natural blonde rather than the brunette we've always known her to be on screen, perhaps it's time for us to back up a little and see her carry off a movie on her lithe shoulders. Where Alicia Silverstone once did with Clueless and Ellen Page with Juno, Easy A has Emma Stone written all over it, and it came off just fine after supporting roles (that I've seen) in The House Bunny, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Zombieland.

Here she fits like hand in glove as Olive, one of the many unknowns in her high school, who is neither brainy nor nerdy nor pretty enough to be noticed, going about her own business with nary anyone giving two hoots about, except perhaps for best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka from Bandslam). One thing she learns though is how rumours get spread around like wildfire, and having seen the effects of how her little lie about a weekend one night stand, get to make its ugly rounds around campus. Soon she helps a gay acquaintance who's not ready to get out of the closet yet by pretending to have an orgasmic session during a party, and the rest, as they say, is history as she gains notoriety, and overnight becomes THE girl in school, and a go-to person for the down and the trodden to seek help with affirming their studly status, for a price of course.

So what price that of a simple, harmless lie, if only to assist others in need to find their self-worth and self-esteem back amongst their peers, even at the expense of being labelled as a skank or a whore? The story grapples with this dilemma in a comical fashion, but when you think about it, is one's reputation easily traded for money and gifts, or is it something to be protected against baseless accusations, or what if one is responsible for purporting these rumours in the first place for acting the part, like what Olive does with her wardrobe and attitude transformation, especially when one is basking in the limelight and the grabbing all the attention, than to be ignored and unnoticed. And who says what will happen if you repeat a lie enough times so much so that they become the "truth"?

The main driver that made this movie the fun romp it is, is the rapid fire wordplay in the dialogues. It's just been too long that a film came by to provide that witty, and cheeky even, conversational pieces between characters, and Stone, together with her parents played by Stanely Tucci and Patricia Clarkson who chew up all the limited scenes they're in with their charisma, provide plenty of that in their dysfunctional family of sorts, though I must admit it's a pretty novel, risky and unconventional way to bring up the kids, but if the rapport is as what's seen in the film, I'd say why not.

Director Will Gluck also crafted the film in a unique fashion, with multiple narrative ideas running, each introducing a different dilemma for our heroine, splitting them up into logical chapters before wrapping everything up neatly, and I mean that in a nice way, and not the convenient cop out, though one can always fall back on the inevitable cliche especially on the romantic subplot where it dwells on not realizing that true love has always been there waiting from the start. And not to forget with most chick flicks, the relationships with the best friend forever type, and the archetypical enemy who just cannot stand the sight of the other.

Bert V. Royal's story also seemed to have an axe to grind with the hypocritical religious zealots, and while they play out for most of the laugh out loud comedic moments in the film (as we identify their traits amongst some folks all of us definitely have our brushes with), you can't help but feel that some may feel slighted by the portrayal, or even that of a particular group who get passed off as cheap misers in the film. I think comedies probably have a leeway where on one hand pokes fun, but on the other raises some serious thoughts about what's actually happening right under our nostrils. And not to forget his homage to the 80s romantic comedies that will hit a nostalgic spot for film fans who grew up in that era.

Supporting Emma Stone is a slate of recognizable stars who make the most and best use of their limited screen time. Leading the charge is Thomas Haden Church as Olive's favourite teacher in school, who stays fairly non-judgemental and thinks Olive's rebellious ways is but a phase to outgrow. Lisa Kudrow plays his wife and councillor in the school who has a dirty secret that her mister is unaware of, and though introduced late in the film, is quite instrumental in providing that catalyst for a conclusion. Kudrow still hasn't lost her comedic timing yet. Malcolm McDowell shows up as the no nonsense principal of the public school, and his sarcasm is quite top notch.

But Easy A also demonstrates the fickleness of the Hollywood starlet system, and how you're popular one day, and quite forgotten the next. We haven't seen Amanda Bynes for quite a while, and she stars here not as the protagonist as one may think she would, but as the antagonistic fiend of Olive's who is quite misguided in her faith, hypocritical in thinking she can, heaven willing, change Olive and smack her back on the right path of righteousness. However, as all sinners can attest to, her mouth is also quick to hurl insults. Not a favourite character of mine, and definitely very negative, but hey, kudos to Bynes for taking up a character against type and trying to expand the range of roles she can handle. Ana quite well at that too.

For the excellent casting, story with nuggets of pop culture, an excellent soundtrack and dialogues that are music to the ears, this is one chick flick that I enjoyed enough to shortlist into my favourites for this year. Highly recommended stuff, even if you're a guy and wondering whether such chicks do exist to lend a hand or two. For a price of course. Highly recommended! And I'm not telling you a lie!

Monday, November 15, 2010

[DVD] One Hour Photo (2002)

Mr Lonely

I grew up with Robin Williams movies in a way, watching him on the telly with his Mork and Mindy series when I was a kid, and following almost all his films should they make it to the big screen here. Everyone knows he's quite the live wire comedian, so it's probably groundbreaking each time he gravitates towards more dramatic, serious fare such as Dead Poets Society and The Night Listener, with even rarer turns as negative characters, such as that in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, and One Hour Photo.

Written and directed by Mark Romanek, the film has as a central character, somebody in the background, easily forgotten, never a hero and frankly someone that we don't really care about unless we know them personally prior. Robin Williams junks his jokey side, and plays a quiet loner who works at a megamart as the one-hour photo lab tech guy who processes your photographs. Yes it's Year 2002, so cameras of the digital type were not that prevalent, and surely a film with a premise of this nature probably can no longer use this setting because it doesn't exist, at least not in a widespread manner. If you, like me, have seen the demise of this part of the photo industry, may have a tinge of sadness since you're likely to have built up some keen rapport with the person who through the development of your film, likely to have entered your personal circle of trust.

And part of the brilliance of the film is how detailed it is to show how films were processed back then, from the small film roll into negatives on which photographs get printed on. William's Seymour "Sy" Parrish narrates this delicate process, which tells us his personality and his approach in life, chillingly meticulous and taking pride in his profession to deliver the best of his services, where memorizing facts and figures of his customers seem to be part of his edge in delivering customer service, never betraying that hint of misappropriation where he siphons off extra prints of the Yorkin family photos to feed his obsession.

Working 11 years on the same job, he has seen the Yorkins - husband Will (Michael Vartan), wife Nina (Connie Nielsen) and son Jakob (Dylan Smith) grow in the community, and they soon become his family of choice, a unit that he craves for but knows he has missed the boat and can never enjoy what this family has in its ties. So the next best thing is to creepily collect mementos, and plots to be as close as he can to members of the family, stalking Nina even and trying extremely hard to connect at any level through a little bit of ingenious social engineering.

A lesser story will have this degenerate into something of the Fatal Attraction kind, exploiting Sy's loneliness into something dangerous and threatening the family direct. But here's where Romanek's story succeeds in providing a breath of fresh air, where that tinge of danger becomes a suspenseful thriller, keeping us constantly wondering just what sort of edge does Sy get pushed over, and rolling his disgraceful past into the mix as well in one fell swoop, in desiring his utopia of what a family is to be maintained at that virginal level, keeping it perfect.

It didn't go down the road of the mediocre or the typical, but kept things open especially in the final moments of conversation between Sy and detective Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle), where we get the rug pulled from under our feet, yet allowing things to swing either way, depending on whether we desire to sympathize with Sy, or prefer that it be something more bleak than it already is. One thing's for sure though, with the advent of technology, the potential for something like this has moved from the photo-studio where a select few employees have privy to the photos you send for development, or this gets unwittingly revealed through the lack of securing our digital photos on social networking sites.

Robin Williams is a one man tour de force, and he disappears effortlessly into the role, hidden behind the shy, lonely facade, becoming somewhat of an an eerie avenging angel type who sees his utopia being destroyed, and wants to do something about it. And the misc-en-scene gets carefully crafted to support this, from the music, sets and the spot on creation of mood that gets to crawl under your skin. His performance alone is astounding, and he totally owned the role and made this film come alive. Watch this to see what Robin Williams can do outside of comedy, and for Mark Romanek story and dare in taking Williams out of his comfort zone. Recommended!

The Region 1 DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio available in English 5.1 Surround, Spanish or French Surround. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, and Scene Selection is over 32 chapters. Special features though are presented in letterbox format only.

Those expecting an energetic session in the Commentary by Mark Romanek and Robin Williams since Robin Williams is in it, may be disappointed. The two, while sharing tons of nuggets of what happened during the making of, and recount anecdotes or memories from the set, were actually quite boring to listen to, sounding very academic most times, and dead serious. If only they had lightened it a lot more, but hey, this is a serious movie after all.

The Cinemax Featurette (13:21) turns out to be the making of featurette, where we have the writer and director Mark Romanek talks about the idea behind the story which comes from a fascination from the megamart, and contains the usual behind the scenes look at the production. Plenty of interviews here with the cast, and we get to see the tremendous comedy Robin Williams breaks into in between or during takes, since he has to suppress his gregarious character most of the time when in character.

For those who miss the Robin Williams we associate with comedy, then you must check out the Charlie Rose Show (35:54), where Charlie Rose interviews Robin Williams and Mark Romanek on his show for the promotion of the film. We'd get to see how much of a live wire he is, and even Charlie Rose himself gets into the act with his jolly repertoire opposite Williams, which somehow leaves the director quite loss and alienated from the merry-making where the other two just took the entire session away.

Sundance: Anatomy of a Scene (27:50) is another making of documentary type, with the filmmakers and cast talking about their characters, the subtexts in the film, plus some rehearsal footage as well, primarily centered around the moment where Williams' Sy meets up with Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan) for the first time in the store, and the entire thought and creative process that had gone behind this scene to make it layered and powerful.

Rounding off the special features are the Theatrical Trailer (2:12) and The Dancer Upstairs (2:09), followed by TV Spots for the film titled After Hours (0:32), Psycho (0:33) and One Hour Photo (0:18), with a play all function.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

[DVD] Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

The Lumbering Giant

It's been an extremely long time since I last laid my eyes on the awesome Ghost in the Shell, and while a sequel and an animated series have spawned a much wider universe, it is up until now that I've finally picked something up to continue where I left off. Written and directed by Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence just about shows why Japanese Anime remains a cultural force to be reckoned with, boasting fantastic looking visuals, and a deeply engaging storyline that just begs to be watched multiple times in order to appreciate it.

There's something keenly missing from this film though, and that's the presence of Major Kusanagi, who had disappeared at the end of the first film. I suppose it's a tremendous void to fill and thought she was primarily what was interesting as a character, and not to forget her prowess during action sequences, and this sense of loss gets translated wonderfully by Oshii into the character of Batou her cyborg sidekick, who becomes the protagonist we follow in Innocence. Being very much his story and his piece of investigations, together with new partner Togusa, we journey once again into the fictional Japanese city of New Port, which is modelled more after Hong Kong, and what more, Cantonese seems to be the order of the day as well in the finale action sequence.

The main plot here involves the investigations into a series of gruesome murders by what would be illegally made sexbots known as gynoids, which have gone berserk, killing their principals before committing suicide. Made by the company Locus Solus, it brings Batou and Togusa up against the Yakusa as well, which provides for some crazy gun battle sequences, as they get close to the truth behind what these gynoid dolls seem to possess - a ghost - that demands attention to what goes on behind the scenes.

And what is a Ghost in the Shell movie, or a Mamoru Oshii film, without a dabbling in philosophy that almost always boggles the mind and in some ways, bogged down the film unnecessarily. Some dialogue felt forced, especially when the two investigating partners address their testy relationship, with Togusa constantly doubting his own abilities, and trying hard to measure up against Kusanagi in being the perfect partner for Batou. They exchange sayings and philosophies as quoted in famous books, sayings and philosophers, and will probably pique your interest enough to find out more on your own, and their relevance to the context of the film.

In addition, there's the usual talk about hacking, and an incredible sequence involving Batou's routine in an old supermarket involving revenge hacking and some good ol' slow-motion shoot-em-up, while giving us a first glimpse into Batou's oft-touted guardian angel which suggested the return of an iconic GITS character. And any GITS film will not be complete without the mind-numbing portions of the narrative, which involves repeated sequences with a dash of subtle changes that will keep your mind on its toes in deciphering the many layers or reality and fantasy that Inception did best in.

A challenging film brought to another realm by music from Kenji Kawai, the visuals here are a mix of the traditional hand drawn, as well as computer generated CG and 3D, which I think will be gorgeous if transferred into the 3D picture format of today, a technology that has been used by lesser films to milk more money at the box office. They are extremely detailed, especially a phenomenal sequence involving an extended showpiece of a Taiwanese-inspired festival somewhere in the middle of the film that razzled and dazzled, presented together with a haunting piece of music that will make your hair stand on its end.

The Region 1 DVD by Dreamworks Home Entertainment comes presented in a widescreen anamorphic transfer that gorgeously brings to the screen all the intricate animated 2D and 3D details. Audio is presented in its original Japanese soundtrack where you can choose between a Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Surround option. Subtitles are available in English and French, and Scene Selection is over 20 chapters.

There are only a handful of Special Features on the disc. First is a Commentary by Director Mamoru Oshii and Animation Director Toshihiko Nishikubo, where non Japanese language speakers like me can read off their conversation on the making of process through subtitles, as they share plenty of what went on behind the scenes, and the decisions that came off to make the final product. Don't come to expect some reading off of what transpires on screen that plagues most commentaries, but expect the duo being critical of their own work as well! Incredibly detailed for any animation fan keen on learning what goes on behind an award winning film.

The Making of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (16:00, letterbox format, in Japanese with English subtitles) is filled with interviews of the voice cast on their roles (Akio Otsuka, Atsuko Tanaka and even Naoto Takenaka!), including a talk with writer director Mamoru Oshii, as we get that glimpse at how animation in the studios are created through conversations with the various designers working on the film. This segment ends with a montage of the red carpet, reception and post-screening thoughts at the Cannes Film Festival 2004 where it was in the running for the Palme d'Or which eventually went the way of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

The Japanese Trailer for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (5:35) is fairly interesting as it is extended, which plays off exactly like a music video of the title song Follow Me.

Rounding off the disc is a section that Previews titles Coming Soon to DVD, presented in Letterbox format of the the original Ghost in the Shell (2:02), Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (1:29) and Millennium Actress (1:05).
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