Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

Singapore Says We Cannot Be Normal

So I guess you would have known by now, no matter where in the world you are, of our new rating that's tacitly known as R21-1, which on one hand allows for a film to be released in Singapore, but the censors dictated that only 1 print can be used, effectively elevating it to arthouse proportions accorded by films played in The Picturehouse or Cinema Europa, and of course any publicity is good publicity, a course they had enacted to push curious onlookers to the cinemas to have a look at what the uproar is about. And I can only speculate here for the countless number of postponement to the film's release from last year until now, is because of what's deemed by our nannies and moral police as objectionable.

But seriously, just what is objectionable boiled down to the portrayal of the principle family in the film, which is essentially without a father figure,and having the kids Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, grown up from his Bridge to Terabithia role) by lesbian mothers Nic and Jules (with Annette Benning in an Oscar nominated performance, and Julianne Moore who's no acting pushover herself) in a normal family setup. Those who are holier than thou deemed that such portrayals will corrupt the basic moral fabric of society. Frankly, I'm not sure what film they're watching, and I'm purely speculating that only the first 10 minutes of the show was seen, balked at, fast forwarded to the Hollywood ending, balked some more, then came to that conclusion based on narrow-mindedness that this film be given its controversial restriction.

Better than nothing, right? And seriously it's thanks to its Oscar nominations in major categories such as Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay that even allowed this film to be under contention for screening here, otherwise most who have seen it here would have done so through alternative, and no means legal, sources since the powers that be deem a film noteworthy through the number of awards and Oscar nominations it can garner (we're suckers for rankings, award shows etc). But here's the catch - to anyone who has watched the film in its entirety and thought about it a little deeper (than to stand on the soapbox and condemn it outright), it's not all a rosy picture that's being portrayed, especially with the moral, ethical and of course sexual issues that all get brought to the table for an examination. If you think a typical family will have it easy, a dysfunctional one as this have similar problems faced being amplified, and I suppose for any same sex relationships to want to bring up kids successfully, it hammers home that it's definitely not trivial, as far as the basic issues that form the film's premise goes, and just like any other family, requires plenty of love, patience and truck loads of commitment.

On screen lesbians Nic and Jules' family is constructed as such - they each take sperm that's donated from the same anonymous donor, and impregnate themselves, therefore having their children who can grow up to be half-siblings. Naturally one of them wears the pants in the house - Nic by virtue of being a doctor and raking in big money, while the other the stay home mom though looking to start her own business since the kids are all grown up. All's fine and dandy, though there are numerous problems percolating beneath the surface ready to explode, especially when the kids seek out and make contact with their biological dad Paul (Mark Ruffalo), an easy going guy who naturally appeals since he's out to bond with them, and never applying any parental responsibilities and control over the kid's upbringing. So here comes plenty of comparison, made worse when Paul enters into a physical relationship with Jules, thereby tossing the entire family relationship dynamics right up in the air.

This sudden appearance of a father figure forms the crux of the issues brought up in the film, such as whether a same-sex marriage with children will work, and the moral / ethical issues that come with teenagers growing up, who will one day question their being in this world. Everyones pretty self-conscious about various perceptions being cast upon them, and the usual family issues such as the lack of appreciation, the taking for grantedness, being petty and judgemental about another, all rear their ugly head. But it's not all a bitch fest and no fun. Enough comical moments got fused into the screenplay allowing some laughter to balance up the heavy dramatic moments, though I'm quite sure some may not find certain aspects as funny as I did if they're in the same boat or predicament faced by the characters, such as when the moms here started to suspect if their son had gay tendencies, or narratively co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko just knew when to inject light-heartedness at the right points through her effective direction of the veteran cast.

The cast becomes the natural highlight, with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore being perfect opposite each other as the same sex married couple who have to deal with what I thought was the contempt from familiarity, and a strain in their marriage having a new man in their lives when none of them was prepared for it, since their kids were the one who did the outreach. It's been quite some time since we last saw Bening on screen, but what a comeback in a multi-faceted role. Moore also earns brownie points for her portrayal of Jules as the more emotional of the two, having to cope with the troubles that come from being too sensitive, being the personification of the saying of how we hurt the most those whom we love the most. Mark Ruffalo is also fast becoming one of my favourite character actors, and I'll be watching how he's going to tackle the Bruce Banner/Hulk role in The Avengers, which should be interesting to see his version of it, having Eric Bana and Edward Norton as his predecessors. Josh Hutcherson probably had the least screen time of the lot, but Mia Wasikowska had enough to show why she's probably the next up and coming actress in Hollywood's fold to keep an eye out for.

The Kids Are All Right boasts fine performances all round living its powerful dramatic screenplay, and seriously limiting it to one screen will dent its box office chances here, and making it a tad inconvenient to those genuinely wanting to see the film for all the right reasons, where moral/social fabric erosion is on the least of their concerns. At least it got shown, so I guess I should thank our lucky stars. Highly recommended!

Never Let Me Go

Blink Blink

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the science fiction romance Gattaca and enjoyed that guilt trip which is Michael Bay's The Island, dealing with a bunch of innocent people living in utopia until being called to well, enter nirvana. With such elements combined from both films (sans Bayhemic levels of explosions of course), it's relatively easy for me to fall in love with Never Let Me Go, whcih is fast going to be a favourite that I will rattle off in any of my best-of list.

Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also penned The Remains of the Day), this film spells lush on all counts, in its production values and the quality of the cast assembled to take on the three principal roles of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, with Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe and Ella Purnell playing the younger versions in the first third of the film set in the orphanage of Hailsham, before Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley taking over as the young adult versions respectively. Things aren't what they seem because it's set in an alternative reality with the introductory titles stating an advancement in medical science and on human longevity, while in the orphanage, technology like access controls and electronic registers, in the 50s no less, make it seem a little odd. But there are good reasons for this, with the film never making its intentions verbatim and explicit, preferring to rely on suggestion so on that same note I'll tread very carefully too.

To compound the oddity, the students aren't made to learn life skills, only being given the fish than to be taught how to fish, as seen through their role plays in class for things as simple as ordering in a cafe, being told to submit art pieces on a regular basis, and being happy recipients of second hand thingamajigs which they have to use tokens, not money, to exchange for. And the title of the film comes from a cassette tape of songs which Tommy gives Kathy, and while you'd half expect them to hitch, in comes Ruth whose earlier disinterest seems to have developed into something more. When they finally graduate, we see Kathy still nursing a broken heart, and together with her friends Tommy and Ruth, they get sent to cottages outside of town in which they mingle with others of the same schooling experience, before Kathy decides to leave on her own and become a care-giver.

Saying anything more with details will spoil the film, but in essence this is one powerful romance that will tug at your heartstrings, not because it follows the typical path of any weepy, sappy romantic films that the Japanese or Koreans can think of, but because of the many ethical and moral issues it raises through its narrative course, being thought-provoking in its theme of what makes us tick, our moral compass, and whether in today's reality, we do see these issues as show stoppers to what technology can finally bring us, and whether we can turn the blind eye to some existentialism issues in the name of self-preservation. But it doesn't do so in a formulaic, dry manner, but skillfully exerts its message through an achingly beautiful romance, that I'd have to admit made me bawl a little within when the end credits rolled by.

And credit goes to the powerful performances by all three leads, each playing uniquely different characters in the same boat, though approaching the inevitable in their lives in varied ways, which leaves one thinking how one would react if passed a sentence or destiny which you know of, but having absolutely zero means to escape from. I haven't been convinced very much by Andrew Garfield, but probably the best scene he had here was this realization of hope being unceremoniously snuffed out - that look on his eyes had something defiant with helplessness all mixed in, that it hammers in great sympathy. Keira Knightley takes a backseat here, being that foil to Carey Mulligan's Kathy and coming in between her and Tommy, but understandably so and you'll probably feel for her reason of fear, of someone putting up false fronts to cover one's own vulnerabilities. And Mulligan is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses with her ability to portray strong roles, having to bookend this period piece. The young actors playing the schoolchildren versions of the characters also did convincingly well since they were the setup, as does Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins, especially in their final scene together.

It's pretty amazing how director Mark Romanek, whose One Hour Photo I had enjoyed and had this sense of creepiness throughout, was able to helm such a romantic film that didn't have to boil it down to melodrama that plagues many Asian ones that utilizes similar plot elements, with Alex Garland, longtime collaborator in many Danny Boyle films, ably translating both human drama and science fiction from book to screenplay, like what he did with Sunshine. And you can lull yourself with the hauntingly beautiful score created by Rachel Portman, as it provides an added dimension to the entire film altogether. There's much to heart about the film, about potentials of lives that cannot be lived or fulfilled, that makes this one of the saddest films I've seen to date. A definite entry into my shortlist of one of the best this year, and into my all time favourites list. Highly recommended!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saat Khoon Maaf / 7 Khoon Maaf (७ खून माफ़ या सात खून माफ़)

Worshipping the Ground She Treads

Based on the short story Susanna's Seven Husbands by Ruskin Bond, 7 Khoon Maaf is Priyanka Chopra's star vehicle through and through, and showcases just why she's one of Bollywood's A-listers with remarkable acting chops. At first glance from the trailers it may seem that she's portraying a handful of characters, or a character who undergoes a different look at each segment, but that's a gimmick that the actress had already tackled before with Ashutosh Gowariker putting her through the paces in What's Your Raashee? to handle 12 characters according to the astrological signs (13 now, depending on your school of thought).

It's a different story here, and director Vishal Bhardwaj tackles this very much differently so that it won't be that sense of deja vu in putting Chopra through the paces as Susanna, a poor little rich girl who has always yearned for the true affections from the men in her life, looking for that father figure since her dad passed on when she was still young. And it's most unfortunate that the one who truly loves her, is well, too young for her early on in her life, and it is through the eyes of the orphan Arun Kumar (Vivaan Shah) that the story of Susanna's life unfold for the audience.

Granted that the narrative moves in episodic fashion especially before the interval, and the second half throws up a little more surprises and culminates in a moving ending of a tragic figure made all the more sympathetic. But to build on that, credit of course has to go to all her male co-stars, who play characters you love to hate, and probably each highlighting the atypical irresponsible guys who throw romance out of the window once the wedding is accomplished. Every single individual had their primary flaws amplified, such as jealous filled army Major Edwin Rodriques (Neil Nitin Mukesh) who's overly possessive with an ego wounded by his limp, the choir boy turned rock star Jimmy (John Abraham) who can't help but dabble with the sex and drugs that come with rock and roll, the meek poet (Irrfan Khan) who turns out to be a closet pervert with a penchant for bedroom violence, a Russian even - Nicolai Vronsky (Aleksandr Dyachenko) who thinks he can escape with infidelity in different countries, the police inspector Keemat Lal (Annu Kapoor) who has the hots for Susanna ever since being involved in investigating her and seriously breaching work ethics with favours for sex, and the new age spiritual healer Dr. Modhusudhon Tarafdar (Naseeruddin Shah) who turns out to be a man in debt wanting to maximize his returns from a marriage.

The story's made fun with its dose of black comedy, and for a Bollywood film I'd thought it's quite adult in its language (or at least subtitling) and the many scenes of sensuality. Each husband figure gets about a short film treatment in the entire film, and continuity is ensured thanks in part to Susanna's servants who are all accessories to plots in carving an escape route for their mistress when her wedding vows turn out to be shackling her to an unhappy life, and Arun too happens to be part of the gang, indebted in some way to Susanna for the many favours she had bestowed upon him, such as letting the orphan boy stay and grow up in the household, and granted him that opportunity for a Russian medical education when husband number four rolled along. There's always some tension between the two since its quite clear Arun nurses an infatuation (who wouldn't!) and this ongoing subplot across the stories turned out to be something quite powerful and a trump card for 7 Khoon Maaf.

An additional point I'd appreciate from the film, which I thought made it stand out from the crows, is how landmark events in history get mentioned as we moved through the years, with Susanna maturing (Hollywood make up effects at play here to age Priyanka Chopra), and society getting a little bit more complex with the kinds of incidents that you would have heard of, defining an era in time especially contemporary ones that I clearly identify with such as India becoming a nuclear power, and the infamous Mumbai terrorist attacks in Nov 2008. But the top draw of the film still remains Priyanka Chopra's tour de force performance, as she handles plenty of complex emotions across an entire spectrum, that it probably will be one of her most memorable in time to come, if it is not already.

The songs also worked wonders, reigning from the cheesy O' Mama picturized on John Abraham with bad wig, to the ultra catchy, Russian influenced Doosri Darling (based upon the folk song Kalinka) which is signature enough to have made it to the promotional trailers. Vishal Bhardwaj spared no effort here with the tunes given his background, with each having a place in every relationship without the need to jump awkwardly out of and back into the narrative proper.

7 Khoon Maaf is not one of those typical black widow type stories with a predatory female going around knocking off her rich husbands for wealth. Hardly so, as it's really a story about romances gone wrong, and consistently drawing the shortest end of the stick with Fate making it a comedy of errors for allowing one to always fall for the wrong person, and getting exploited before defying the choices laid out by taking them out of the equation in life. Oh and seriously, if you're keeping count on the number of husbands above and thought I need to brush up on my math, the last is supposed to be a surprise, and therefore deliberately omitted. Watch the film to find out who!


I Don't Know You

One good turn deserves another. Liam Neeson is like fine wine and gets better with age. He's pushing 60, but that doesn't mean he cannot kick ass, which he did to perfection as an ex black ops hunting down his daughter and her abductors through the streets of Paris. In Unknown, he plays Dr Martin Harris, a researcher invited to a bio-technology congress in Berlin, only to find his identification papers missing, getting involved in a near fatal accident, and if his week has not been great, culminates in having his wife (January Jones) no longer recognizing him, and acknowledging another as the husband/himself instead. Talk about a major identity crisis and theft!

Based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert, this Euro-thriller directed by Jaume Collet-Serra uses plenty of familiar plot elements of such mystery thrillers, but turn them completely on their heads that they are still able to provide the necessary thrills and spills complete with twists and turns that makes this one heck of an intelligent film, albeit with some minor loopholes. But don't let that detract you from what seemed like an update of The Fugitive, with the protagonist on a constant run from those who want him dead, while at the same time assembling bits and pieces of information that can be used to prove his innocence, or in this case, identity.

Identity theft has always fascinated, and I suppose one should be of some value, be it social stature or credit, for someone to try and impersonate you, more easily online than in person, given our connectivity these days, where photographs, websites and social media networks probably serving as that double edged sword in having our identities proven, or stolen. Neeson's Martin Harris finds to his amazement that his closest kin in a foreign land would want to pretend not to know him, and the set up for the mystery here is of course the presence of someone (Aidan Quinn) who purports to be the same person, leading one to wonder how far does the conspiracy go, and to what value and involvement is Martin Harris up against.

I believe Liam Neeson can probably now sleepwalk through roles like this one, with his size giving him that physical edge in fisticuffs, those deep facial lines adding that sense of intellect and gravitas, and that iconic, booming voice that just screams authority. Aiding his character is Diane Kruger as Gina the illegal immigrant part time taxi driver who had picked up Dr. Martin Harris early in the film, and found herself, her passenger and her cab plunge into a river no thanks to an accident, and being on the wrong side of things, stuck in the same conspiracy that Harris is trying to unravel.

For fans of the German film Downfall, or that of the well-spoofed clip of Hitler ranting in his bunker, will find Bruno Ganz no stranger. As Ernst Jurgen the one time East German military intelligence who hears of Harris' far fetched story and had piqued his interest, perhaps amongst all the scenes in the film, the one involving Ganz opposite Frank Langella is my favourite from the film, that goes to show that the elderly have enough between them to hold the film through a critical scene, hinting of danger throughout yet never necessitating big action sequences to steal everyone's thunder.

And credit of course goes to the director who kept the pace quick, the story tight, and containing enough action - the car chase sequence was impressively designed so kudos to the stunt team for pulling it off - to keep it engaging for an audience. Collet-Serra's filmography is very mixed at best, responsible for the horror film House of Wax, the footballing drama Goal II, and another psychological thriller Orphan, that will put this effort of his as probably the best one yet. Granted there is a huge parallel with one of the more contemporary spy thrillers in the last decade, but to mention that by name will blunt one's enjoyment at not knowing just what may pop up.

For fans of Taken, this is a worthy follow up, perhaps not as much action as the former, but definitely as engaging from a story perspective. Highly recommended!

[SFS Talkies] The Four: Short Films by Woo Ming Jin

Unfortunately the much anticipated The Tiger Factory by Woo Ming Jin is not to be screened during today's session because the Singapore Premiere is due for the Southeast Asian Film Festival, so those who turned up had to make do with an alternate program, showcasing four short films form Woo's filmography instead:

1. Catching the Sea
Exploring the theme of how people reconcile death and sickness, and to move on in life despite their less than pristine surroundings, this short touches upon a sick man (Pete Teo) who's back in his village to recover from an illness, and a separate story starring fellow filmmaker Liew Seng Tat in the role of a bigger brother who cannot get over the loss of his mother, spending time with his brother hanging out from dumpster to dumpster riding their DIY motorbike. There are many scenes that show the grimy side of livelihood, with a stinky looking toilet being the highlight for one of the character arcs, in this tale that boasts striking visuals that would be a hallmark of his feature film Woman on Fire Looks for Water.

It Is Possible Your Heart Cannot Be Broken
My favourite of the lot, this film highlights Woo's wit and humourous side in crating a romantic comedy starring two fellow filmmakers from Da Huang Pictures. I mean, can you imagine Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat being lovers? The thought itself is funny (no offense!), and the delivery even more so, dealing with the desperation of a home electronics salesperson Ah Tat to try and hook up with this girl Apple he met at the sidewalk, befriending her and going a step at a time to progress their relationship, notwitstanding even selling wares (that she doesn't need) to her.

The narrative was patchy but worked, with talking heads, flashbacks and enactments from each of the couple, which of course paints a different picture on every event depending on whose perspective is bring presented (isn't it always the case), and had both lead actors to thank for in providing their charismatic on screen presence, especially Seng Tat in his portrayal as the man with a lack of self-confidence, and Chui Mui as the lass with the sass, in a tale that deals with the systematic destruction of a relationship, highlighting how busy urban landscapes give rise to loneliness of self.

Blue Roof
Security guard Albert (Chew Kin Wah) is probably the expected norm of the profession, who sleeps on the job when nobody is watching, and frankly is just around just to be around, reactive rather than proactive, having to be told what to do, with his limp and lack of situational awareness being of no use in a security situation. Still, he is employed in a building apartment complex, and whiles the time away collecting pictures from newspaper clippings about road accidents. and frequents the rooftop, contemplating leaping off to probably end what seems to be a life heading nowhere. Quite the pessimistic film in showcasing how routine life can be when we're resigned to and limited by circumstances to break out of a vicious circle.

Love for Dogs
We revisit a fishing village again, and follow the life of a drifter suffering from severe constipation trying to carve a living out of peddling medicinal white tiger paw, and hard at his attempts to try and repair a sour relationship with his mother. In another story arc, Lili is a soft toy peddler who pretends to be mute to elicit compassion and sympathy from customers at a hawker centre, living with her aunt who tries to matchmake her off. Down and out characters seem to be the forte in Woo's shorts in this collection, and deals with the pained absence of family and those without a support structure as they go about their lives. WIth dialogue that unintentionally tickles the funny bone, the highlight here is of course the irony of street peddlers who know eac other's ruse and not buying from each other also because it doesn't make sense to do so.

If you are interested to view these short films, you will be glad to know they are available on DVD and can be purchased here from Da Huang Pictures.

[SFS Talkies] Woman On Fire Looks For Water (遗情)

Parting Shot

I'm sure many of us around the region will know the kind of buzz that Malaysian independent cinema had created around the world, and Woo Ming Jin is yet another promise of great films to come. A Focus on Malaysian Cinema had intended to spotlight two of his films in today's session, but unfortunately due to another film festival wanting to secure the Singapore Premiere, The Tiger Factory can only be seen in April, so there.

But back to Woo Ming Jin's third feature Woman on Fire Looks For Water, what I thought to be a romantic tale once you get past the idyllic, picturesque cinematography capturing the beautiful chaos of a quaint fishing village in Malaysia, so much so that for the first few minutes, one can be forgiven if one thinks this film is a documentary, sans voiceovers or any form of commentary, allowing the striking images to bury deep into your thoughts. For those unacquainted with the sights and sounds commonly seen in a fishing village, then this will be its selling point, as you see how everyone goes about their daily economic chores along various stretches of the supply chain with the kind of routine and precision that makes it all seem rather mundane.

At its core is a romantic tale about the dilemma of choice, where simply put, Frog Boy becomes Cockle Boy which puts his relationship with Fish Girl under stress when See-Hum Girl enters the picture to complicate the matters of the heart. We're introduced to Ah Fei (Ernest Chong), who earns a living catching and selling frogs, and we learn is in a long term relationship of sorts with Lily (Foo Fei Ling), who works in a fish farm. Clearly the guy is infatuated with her, but Lily would only consider to further their relationship only if he has some economic might, to the tune of an arbitrary RM50,000. An opportunity comes for regular income when Ah Fei works for a cockle harvesting outfit run by a rich businessman, who is adamant that he dates his daughter (played by Jerrica Lai who made famous the Rafflesia Pong role in Yeo Joon Han's Sell Out!) so here comes the dilemma.

What makes the story a lot more poignant, is the subplot of Ah Fei's fisherman father, who is nearing the end of his days, and reminisces about the woman he let go many years ago with great regret, before deciding to take some action now before it's too late. It rings of a sense of deja-vu happening all over again with the next generation, since his son is also now caught with choosing either to follow his heart, or his head, where would you choose to marry the one you love, or for that greater economic and material comfort, be quite the cad and go after someone else proposing a stronger value proposition? And the two girls cannot be more contrasting as well, one being wistful yet annoyingly whiny when a challenge is being presented (who set the RM50K condition?) and the other being quite the seasoned hunter with steely determination with the wrong that she commits.

Ah choices, and to some when presented with one, tend to drag it out for as long as possible to avoid the pain of choosing. Such is the pace of the film, as it moves with meditation with the characters, interspersed with the sights seldom seen. With the bales of fresh deep sea fish and various other seafood on display, you can imagine the kind of strong smells available, tricked by the sense of sight of seldom seen images from a two-dimensional screen. Be warned though, those who are squeamish about things, as there are scenes here that will make you gawk - I know I certainly did when a pair of scissors decapitates the head off a frog with so much ease! I was OK with the fish being descaled, cut up and guts being thrown aside as part and parcel of that salted/dried fish process, but the frog, now that really made me sit up!

Filled with contemplative characters who seldom speak too much, a camera that gazes longingly at the idyllic life and landscapes on display, possessing some educational value through seldom seen behind the scenes in an industry, and that requisite finale open to interpretation, Woman on Fire Looks For Water becomes the gem that stands out, and shows the abundance of film talent that is available right across the Causeway. Recommended stuff, and if you'd like to see this on the big screen, take note of another screening in April at the Singapore Art Musuem where the Southeast Asian Film Festival will take place.

Friday, February 25, 2011

[SG Films @ Library] Invisible Children

Rebels With a Cause

Multimedia visual artist Brian Gothong Tan's first narrative feature length film, Invisible Children made its world premiere in Bangkok way back in 2008, and in Singapore I had missed its premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival, then again during its limited run at Sinema and on television. I've got the SG Films @ Library programme to thank for in having this featured in its lineup, since subsequent screenings to an audience is touch and go, and like most locally made indie films, DVDs will be hard to come by. Tan is no stranger of course to cinephiles here, having lensed Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham's film Pleasure Factory, set in the seedier, red light district of squeaky clean Singapore.

In the fold of Zhao Wei Films, it is never a stretch to imagine that Tan's maiden feature would be set in, and exploring the darker undercurrents of Singapore society. As he admitted Invisible Children was inspired by Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys, and could probably be imagined as a quasi-sequel of sorts to Khoo's work, with a myriad of interconnected characters peppering three main narrative threads. Like his peers, this new exciting generation of filmmakers such as Ho Tzu-Nyen and Boo Junfeng don't shy away from the inclusion of socio-political commentary in their works, as seen from their films HERE and Sandcastle respectively.

From the get go, we see a montage of shots showcasing Singapore's public housing, and the hint of dirty linen post washing and displayed for the public eye, and a slew of signages and campaigns that Singapore is known for, reminding one of the laws of the land that made this a fine city. Strangely enough, and I can almost guarantee that these posters were meticulously sourced for to be featured, where the words highlighting proud achievements would only be betrayed by the less than positive expressions from the faces being featured on them. The stage has been set, that we are rigid, by-the-book conformists.


The stories in the film boast a level of maturity in striking that balance between art house sensibilities, the messages it wanted to put across, and at the same time, there to entertain an audience without being too verbose about its intent. The different stories present the varying approaches people in our society generally take under an authoritative figure, and broadly in three categories, do we swallow our pride and dutifully follow instructions without question, or do we conform yet being snide and sarcastic since that's all we can and are resigned to do, or do we snap and rebel? And the autocratic style is prevalent throughout, such as the army officer meting out corporal punishment that gets exponentially increased on a whim, the teacher taking a biased side and marching a schoolgirl to the principal's, the way an environment officer insists and barges into a private apartment, and the unforgiving manner a boss tells off his staff on a repeated mistake.

Tan juggles all the characters here with ease through the various threads, one dealing with schoolchildren (Kimberly Chia and Kyle Chan) who run from their abusive mom (Karen Tan) after a violent tussle, a timid and shy man (Lim Poh Huat) with what I thought was mild OCD and his budding romantic relationship with an SPG air stewardess (Isabella Chiam) from Merlion Air whom he rescues from a drug induced near suicide, and what would seem like a combo thread involving an army officer (Chee Chuan Yang) and his ill-disciplined soldier (Leon Lim), and the former's fiance (Cindy Teo) and her demanding boss (Jonathan Lim). I liked this thread best, as it shows how the workplace sounds a death knell in a modern couple's relationship in Singapore, especially with work that never seem to end with a slave-driver at the heml, and the boss-staff relationship that had karmic consequences - with the officer confining his soldier for the weekend, the boss too keeps the officer's girlfriend from what could possibly be a romantic evening out.

The power of suggestion is keenly felt throughout the film, especially when authority gets challenged (this is Singapore circa 2008 after all), or when there's a whiff of what could be homoerotic undertones, where one gets enticed by the carefreeness that some can live their lives, over the very structured with rigidity that one had chose and finding it hard to break free from. And you wonder how the different threads mirror the stages in life we go through in Singapore, where being young meant a sense of fearlessness in challenging the status quo, and before you know it, we become somewhat subservient with the kinds of checks, schemes and policies put in place, and dare not risk rocking the boat in order to ensure that rice bowl is kept intact.

Kuah Simi?!

Technically this film doesn't betray the fact that the director is a first-time feature film director, though he does come with a pedigree of experience from various artistic installations and short films under his belt. His visual style rings through in certain scenes, especially those involving the great outdoors, and I suppose having a good cinematographer (Sharon Loh, who also lensed Sandcastle) helps loads. For those in the know, there are plenty of film and art community personalities that got roped in for various supporting roles here, with the likes of Alfian Sa'at, Tan Bee Thiam, Jeremy Sing, Jonathan Lim, Audi Khalid, and of course, the "extra-ordinaire" Lim Poh Huat himself.

I wasn't expecting much from the film, but went away throughly impressed and convinced that Invisible Children ranks amongst one of the best local films of the last decade. It has a degree of sass to make its own statements heard and felt, maintained accessibility despite its artistic inclinations, blessed with that levelheaded wisdom that many will want to emulate. Highly recommended, and if you have a chance to watch this, you better do!


Director Brian Gothong Tan was in attendance to conduct a Q&A session with the audience, moderated by Singapore Film Society's David Lee. Brian does get very candid, and shares plenty of behind the scenes production issues. You can view the entire Q&A session in the clips that follow:

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2


From Jan – March 2011, library@esplanade, in partnership with the Singapore Film Society, will be hosting a showcase of local films – SG Films@library. The screenings will take place every 2nd and 4th Friday evening of the month.

Admission is FREE!

To find out more, check out this Facebook Page.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gnomeo & Juliet

Wherefore Art Thou?

The lite-version for kids, part of the fun here is the identification of the actual Romeo and Juliet references from names used right down to the incidents based upon William Shakespeare's most romantic tragedy, because it is quite ingenious of the entire team of scriptwriters (the many cooks here not spoiling the broth, thankfully) to have taken key elements and painting quite a different, uplifting film if you will, since this is after all something for the young ones to appreciate.

Taking place between garden gnomes of adjacent gardens of bickering neighbours, the Reds (Capulets) and the Blues (Montagues) have this long standing fued that will make the romance of their children Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) quite impossible, if not for the lovers to meet in secret. Expect plenty of comedy scattered throughout, which surprisingly is more adult, so accompanying the minors will not make this one boring affair. The A-list voices will also be top draw, although animation may look a little stiff since it's modelled to perfection the porcelain clay that the gnomes are possibly made out of.

Elton John's music got touted out loud throught the film's marketing machinery, but frankly they don't really stand out unlike a musical since they were mostly used in the background, nor were inventively utilized such as those in the mold of Across the Universe which had plenty of The Beatles' tunes gelled together seamlessly into the narrative.

You can read my review of Gnomeo & Juliet at by clicking on the logo below.


When Hainan Meets Teochew... in Hong Kong


More specifically, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival that is, which runs from 20th March to 5th April, with the film making its international premiere after its successful limited commercial run in Singapore. For those attending the festival, keep a lookout for the film as it will be screened under the Global Vision section, devoted to new works from around the world.

For industry players, the film will also be screened at the Hong Kong FILMART from 21 to 24 March, held in conjunction with the HKIFF. And as previously mentioned, When Hainan Meets Teochew will also be going to Tokyo to open the Asian Queer Film Festival in May 2011.

You can read my review here, and if you still haven't seen the film, you can do so now - the final local screening will be tomorrow 25th Feb 2011, 7pm at Sinema Old School - get your tickets rightaway!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Finding Mr. Destiny (김종욱 찾기 / Kim Jong-Ok Chatgi)

At Your Service

I'm pretty sure many will have fond memories of our first love, since it's the time we experience falling head over heels over someone, which can be intoxicating, frightening, and for some, a period of time when all things seemed beautiful. For those who have moved on since then, there will be times when you wondered just how that person is faring currently, although technology these days means you can do a Facebook stalk! Or you can hire a search consultant like what Gong Yoo's Han Gi-Joon did for a niche market through the opening of a one man proprietorship capitalizing on his innate meticulous research skills.

Finding Mr. Destiny is a tale of two stories that transcend time and space even, like a cosmic fantasy that throws in everything under the sun. It's a little bit bloated with its many perfunctory subplots and supporting characters, many of whom could be done without if only to dilute the film from its main leads. In the first story, we see how Im Soo-Jung's Seo Ji-Woo falls in love with almost a stranger 10 years ago while on her solo trip to India, but being quite the naive lady, decide to tempt fate and leave her new found soulmate, deciding that if it was destiny then they would meet again some time, some day, and probably be together for good.

Tough luck lady, welcome to the real world, which is where the other narrative arc unfolds with Han Gi-Joon entering the picture as the down and out travel employee who had to strike it out on his own after walking out on his Winter Sonata impersonation gig. His first customer happens to be the reluctant Ji-Woo, dragged by her dad (Cheong Ho-Jin) so that she could finally track down, and satisfy her curiosity about her first love, before she can proceed in life to marry a promising air force pilot (who sadly, is very much a side show character). So begins a road trip of sorts to find an elusive figure from the past, where the interaction between client and customer take on comedic proportions, bearing in mind with romances like this one, it's always opposites attracting and leading to the inevitable.

But here is where the film falters a little. Director Jang Yu-Jung peppers the film with too many minor characters who don't serve the narrative any advantage other than to add to the runtime for their singular motives. There's Ji-Woo's sister Ji-Hye (Lee Chung-Ah) whose relationship with her doctor fiance is very much contrasted against that of Ji-Woo's, and Ryu Seung-Soo as Gi-Joon's brother-in-law, a pulp fiction writer who shares the same home office which brings about some mutual benefits. Being this bloated meant taking a very long time to establish the characters and get the ball rolling, so patience is a virtue for the first half hour as the narrative spins and does a bit of spot running.

What works best in the film is that of the chemistry shared between the two leads, which of course is requisite for any romantic film to work. Im Soo-Jung, probably best known here for her role opposite Rain in I'm a Cyborg But That's OK, lends her bee stung lips (sorry, it's that distracting) as a tomboyish woman who pines after that one fling in India a decade ago. Her character's basically a very likeable girl next door type, who gets to va-va-voom the stage through an engineered scene that decks her out in full, made up glory for a musical number - yes you read that right - a musical number, much like a Bollywood film, in Burlesque-ish terms.

While already attractive as the plain Jane, the exaggerated thick make up accentuated her features, though I'd still prefer that more natural look. But if you think her character's just a pretty face, think again. Writer Lee Kyung-Ui actually packed quite the character study in Ji-Woo, unravelled of course by the "people searcher" Gi-Joon as he peels away the exact nature of Ji-Woo's underlying character, which aligns very close to those who enjoy being on a constant high, of being fearful and someone who knows when to quit while at that feeling of elation, yet detrimental to what I would suggest as a long term sanity check.

The character of Han Gi-Joon is no pushover too, played to mild mannered perfection by Gong Yoo. His neat freak nature is a complete contrast to the messy Ji-Woo, and he nails reaction after reaction, and scene after scene as he turns on the charms not at her, but to the audience with his subtle, well meaning antics. His anal ways naturally bring on plenty of laughs, though degenerates into soppy romantic lead pining for a relationship that he had not much of a courage to pursue. Fans of Gong Yoo will inevitably be drawn to this little quirky role that he tackles with aplomb, interesting until the final act.

As with most Korean films that I find these days, it's relatively bloated with everything thrown in for that hopeful, all round entertainment. Finding Mr. Destiny had more ups than its drawbacks, and while expected, I had enjoyed that little coda at the end that just reminds us of the vastness of our known universe, and the fact that Fate could have been playing us all along without us knowing much. There's a real Mr. Destiny here for Ji-Woo, and it's up to you to find out just exactly who, and how.

Finding Mr. Destiny opens in cinemas 24th Feb 2011.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

[DVD] Jasper (2010)

Shooting from Far

It's one of those times when a request comes in for an indie film review and I don't know what I'm in for, but Jasper thankfully came in above expectation as far as quality independent film goes, and despite it being the first that I've watched from the multi-hyphenated performer Nathan Hill, his Jasper is pure entertainment, being sharp and comedic to take you through possibly the final adventure of Jasper Clay the private investigator.

Produced, written, directed and starring Nathan Hill in the title role, experience has taught me that having one single guy helm that many aspects of an independent production will spell trouble, especially when one isn't adept at doing it all themselves, but thankfully Hill has proven me wrong. He had crafted what may seem like a typical, suave private investigator with Jasper Clay, but alas this guy has more troubles than he can solve, often finding himself one step back from the plot, and often getting into situations that are both hilarious, sexy and deadly all at the same time. Such, is the appeal of the hero, who doesn't pack a punch, but a paunch instead (which never fails to get highlighted!)

On the brink of retirement, he gets pulled back to the business with one final case with Courtney (Sandy Greenwood) employing his services to seek out her missing toddler son, and before you know it, she drops her clothes, some bad guys come barging in just as Jasper thinks he's gonna get lucky, and this for some karmic reason, gets repeated in almost every situation he gets into as he gets hot then cold on both her trail, and that of her son's. He's quite the ladies man, and for the viewer, this is something I'm definitely not complaining about.

Which in a way how the narrative worked reminded me of the computer game known as Leisure Suit Larry from a long time ago, although of course in this story the protagonist doesn't begin with getting laid the objective in mind, it's just that everything falls in his path, and the ladies finding him irresistibly sexy that begs the comedy to come. As a private eye Jasper does get quite clueless as to his situational awareness, getting beaten and blindsided far more times than one would be comfortable with. And this works in a way, preventing the creation of a super detective impervious to pain and failings, making him a little bit more human.

And the myriad of characters don't come any more varied than those created by Hill, although there were times when scenes get dragged for far longer than welcome, such as the scene in a boxing ring which just went on, if not to have an extended fight sequence that didn't have much significance save for a recurring character in the final act. The plot actually doesn't reveal itself until the final moments, being kept under wraps as you wonder why Jasper would be so dogged in his pursuit for a client when he well, hasn't gotten into a contract, nor paid upfront a certain percentage for his services. Action is pretty rare, and the scene with the two motorcycles would have been something if not for the anti-climatic end to it, as Jasper's packing a licensed (he makes it a point more than once) pistol that to the many of the goons here fail to realize or rid him of, and probably in the spirit of non-fatalities, didn't find him that big a threat to permanently take out from the equation.

Still, Jasper the film as far as an independent production goes, probably fueled by Red Bull's product placement, is as entertaining as it can get without any pretense of being anything more. It ends with a cliffhanger, though it's anyone's guess if Nathan Hill has a ready sequel up his sleeves.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

True Grit

Girl With The Big Gun

The Coen brothers are back, and one wonders if there's a genre that the duo would fail to tackle and deliver. Their filmography's pretty amazing and their style full of wit, but a straight laced, good 'ol Western? And a remake at that which starred one of Western cinema's most iconic hero John Wayne? That's true grit, alright.

But lo and behold, Ethan and Joel Coen did it again, with their sheer quality shining through the adaptation of Charles Portis novel without batting an eyelid, and never far away from the idiosyncrasies that make a film an identifiable Coen product. Granted I have a love-hate relationship with their films, but this film truly ranks amongst one of the greatest in its genre, with characters, cinematography, action, dialogue, heck the whole shebang that puts it right up there, with sheer entertainment balancing artistry.

The crux of the story is that of revenge, where young 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks out the renegade criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who had mercilessly killed her father, and fled to the Indian territories. She can't do it alone, and thus enlists the help of the one eyed US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to assist her to bringing him to justice, if not for Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to get in her way in their joint efforts to bring in the criminal. Expect powerful drama balanced with true blue Western shoot 'em up action, with excellent dialogue though a bit of a stretch since most of the macho cowboys mumble their way through.

I am perplexed why Hailee Steinfeld only garnered a supporting actress nomination in the upcoming Oscars. From the onset her character carries the film from the beginning right through to the end, and I suppose if not for her rookie debut and her age, she'd rank up there and was quite the revelation in this film, carrying the film on her shoulders as the girl seeking out eye for an eye revenge. She portrays her character with plenty of heart, and showed how skilled a negotiator Mattie Ross can be, getting her way and not being pushed around town through her doggedness and cunningness, weaving her way around and literally having the two big burly men clearly wrapped around her finger. She's probably True Grit personified in all intents through the many scenes we see her in, even staring death squarely in the eye.

Then of course there's Jeff Bridges, chewing up the role made famous by John Wayne, though with the eye patch strung across a different eye to probably make a statement that the Rooster Cogburn here is his own man. A man with questionable morals as seen in his opening scene in the courtrooms (well, that Coen touch of hearing him through the water closet doesn't really count!), he stands by the law as exacted by him, and forms a reluctant partnership with LaBoeuf, becoming a contrast of sorts. Cogburn becomes a mercenary as he plies his services under Mattie Ross's payroll, whereas LaBoeuf has been in pursuit of their mark for a long time under the auspices of the law. And of course Cogburn prefers the bottle for solace, while LaBoeuf through Damon's portrayal brings about a by the book persona. Their competitiveness and rivalry makes their road trip very much palatable, if you're already not enamored by the wonderful scenery and cinematography.

The immense wit and comedy was also something not quite unexpected in a Coen film, but to see them fused so effortlessly in a Western without it becoming a parody or slapstick comedy, is what made this film stand out and shine. The cast get expanded to include Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper toward the last half hour when things get upped a notch when good guys meet the bad ones finally, but by then everything is just going uphill, and you'll be in for quite the ride. Don't let the thick accents prevent you from checking out what's probably one of the most straightforward, and accessible Coen Brothers film, and one of that the Western genre will be proud to include in its fold. Definitely highly recommended!

Rabbit Hole

Snapping Out

Based upon the 2007 play by David Lindsay-Abaire who also provided the screenplay for this translation to the big screen, Rabbit Hole is a one of a kind powerful dramatic piece that owes it to both Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart to play the central characters of Becca and Howie as the married couple coming to grips with the death of their young son. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, this snapshot of the couple's life is an examination of how people deal with immense grief, and thankfully isn't plodding on melodrama, but reliant on strong scenes that bring out both the best and worst of human emotions without going overboard.

There are many ways in which we deal with grief. Some get addicted to therapy sessions, being able to wallow out in self pity to others or to a counselor, finding it difficult to give up an avenue in which there's a ready listening ear. Others may find crutches in addictive material such as hitting the bottle, the smoking of drugs to bring on a high, or perhaps even through sex. New hobbies could be picked up, or how about a thorough spring-cleaning to get rid of most stuff that remind you of happier times that once were. There are countless of methods involved, and Rabbit Hole succinctly runs through each without you even knowing, in an unobtrusive manner in its narrative, which is why this film worked wonders.

But not all is doom and gloom in its compact narrative, as ultimately it's how we find the courage to let go and move on in life, where a singular, no doubt tragic, shouldn't be that one road block in our leading of our lives. There were moments of unintentional comedy that plays on ambiguity and perception during the part where Aaron Eckhart's Howie hosts a prospective family to whom to sell a house to, and that was as effectively movie yet comical in a bleak manner, ramming home the point that he's perhaps the more sentimental of the couple in finding it difficult to let go.

Not willing to be outshone by Aaron Eckhart, Nicole Kidman also puts on an Oscar winning perfomance as the housewife who had given up her high flying career, and becomes almost like a recluse in not wanting to mix too much with neighbours and friends lest they bring up her deceased kid inadvertently. There's a mix of emotions that Kidman displays brilliantly through the many subplots her character got involved in, from that with her sister's pregnancy out of wedlock no thanks to her musician boyfriend, and that of stalking her son's killer (Miles Teller), the latter of which subtly begins a healing process that's undoubtedly painful, before finding solace in the difficulties of enacting forgiveness.

What also made the film powerful is how restraint it is in telling its story, without finding the urge to want to put everything verbatim on screen. You're keep on a tight leash as to what exactly happened to Howie and Becca's son, and the manner of the reveal shows again the brilliance of David Lindsay Albaire's story, and John Cameron Mitchell's direction that prefers to let your mind do all the imagination it does. Expectations and anticipation is also kept high as you're kept wondering just how Howie and Becca's marriage will turn out, whether it can weather the impending storm they get themselves into when certain situations threaten to blow up, especially when we witness each side starting to keep little secrets from each other - catalysts for a doom in relationships if you will - with warning lights flashing that these will lead to unnecessary strain that we do see it happening.

I also enjoyed the key discussions on parallel universes, playing with the possibility that there are infinite numbers of us out there living parallel lives which could be something similar or vastly different from the path we've undertaken. It's a play of the mind with the many what if scenarios that we encounter, and wonder how it could actually play off should a different decision be taken, ones that will spiral differently, and perhaps bring a smile to our face knowing that there must be one specific path with lady luck and positive decisions making it ideal, one that exists somewhere out there, but it's just unfortunate not on the path we're currently in.

While it's all quite doom and gloom witnessing how a couple go through and deal with their pain, there's this sliver of hope always finding its way, and the real deal here is the type of positive encouragement to cry, and a way out of depression through a sliver of a hopeful future presented. Recommended!

127 Hours


I think the reports and those who claim to have fainted when watching this is probably highly exaggerated. Sure it's graphic, but nothing not already seen in a typical torture porn film. Danny Boyle doesn't exploit this inevitable moment through lingering shots or in your face techniques, but does enough to bring forth the sheer horror and pain of the entire 127 hours ordeal that culminates with a none too pretty or neat self amputation of a limb, taking care of addressing and cutting through skin, meat, bone and tendon.

Based on the memoirs of Aron Ralston's true life experience of literally being stuck between a rock and a hard place (which of course makes for a catchy book title), while I haven't read that book, Danny Boyle has weaved an incredibly fast paced picture from the get go, introducing us to Aron the weekend adventurer, who takes to the canyons for biking, climbing and exploration, played to pitch perfection by James Franco in the leading role. Quite the ladies man as well with his boyish charms and manly antics, if only to find himself never lingering at one spot, always on the go, not to allow anything to stand in his way of what could be the best weekend of his life. That is until disaster struck.

When we begin from Zero hour, you can't help but feel that it's probably going to be the same with another solo, constricted space situation captured on film like Buried, which had Ryan Reynolds in a one man show buried in a box underground, and fighting for his life against his terrorist captors whom you don't see. With the camera constantly pulling to the surface of the earth just to quantify the significance of being alone and the worrying point of having nobody to contact, the narrative here doesn't get all claustrophobic on us, because Boyle made it a point for the film to be a little expansive, with various reminiscence on Aron's part, and out of body fantasy and imaginary sequences of being somewhere else other than where Aron currently is.

And while that feeling of being confined is nothing new, it does make you appreciate and realize that such moments aren't far fetched, because with so many idle hours parked in between figuring out and planning how to get out, we do that idle daydream even when we're busy, so what more when we have time on our hands, with literally nowhere else to go? There's a fine balance reached where we see how Aron splits time between keeping and planning to extend his lifespan when he realizes the really deep problem he's rooted in, and that of taking time off to think about the larger picture.

Which James Franco doesn't disappoint, especially when he's chronicling what could be his final hours on earth in his camcorder. He flits from being the really energetic young adult that we get introduced to, and the growingly desperate man, before basking in exuberance at the new lease of life given to him. If anyone thinks Franco is but a pretty face without substance, perhaps 127 Hours will change your mind about the actor, probably best known in his support role in Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy. It's almost like a one man show for about an hour of the film, so much of the weight of the film lies on Franco being able to convince us of the mixed emotions Aron goes through in different periods of the day and those hours, which he does.

Danny Boyle continues to assert why he's one of the most versatile directors of today tackling a variety of genres, never running out of ideas to translate his vision in various films, always straddling between telling emotional stories that resonate even if the premise and set up screams commercial. A.R. Rahman, the Mozart of Madras continues in his second in as many collaboration with Boyle, providing original music that rocks from the start and defines the film, just like how his Chaiyya Chaiyya (though it was already used for Dil Se) did for Spike Lee's Inside Man.

If there are messages to gain from the film, it is to always prepare for the unexpected, pack right and gather enough resources for the what ifs in life, and not to be a bastard in relationships, keeping an arm's length away from loved ones and/or taking them for granted. There could be a time where we find ourselves regretting for not doing some things while we can, so I guess it's up to us if we want to live life a day at a time while it's the last, or to idle it all away thinking we're invincible and infallible. Highly recommended film befitting of a nomination, but whether it could win with such illustrious company this year, will be a bit of a stretch.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Patiala House

New House Addition

While I deem Akshay Kumar as one of the most hardworking of the Bollywood stars in recent years, he didn't have much luck with most of his feature releases from last year, with heavy expectations in Action Replayy and Tees Maar Khan, the latter which I enjoyed, that didn't fare too well at the box office. While he's adept at playing comical roles or as the action hero, he throws all that away in Patiala House, playing a meek character who's under the thumb of an overbearing dad, the patriarch of an Indian family living in the Southall district in London, England.

The film deals with the issue of racism, or being prejudiced against, and I suppose the Indian community would likely feel the effects of this, as racism has always reared its ugly head around the world, the most recent I can recall against the community was in Australia. In this film we go back in time to establish the circumstances of how Akshay Kumar's Parghat Singh Kahlon aka Gattu became the man he is, whose father Gurtej Kahlon (Rishi Kapoor) and his generation had suffered from racism in their community, and take it upon themselves to strike back in all manners. Gurtej becomes a successful activist in championing their rights, and in doing so grew in stature and influence, but unfortunately as society progressed, he got stuck in the same old mindset, and failed to keep up.

Worse, he imposes his iron will on his children, dictating the types of jobs they could do, and the people they can interact with. For Gattu, it seemed that he got the shortest end of the stick, where his world class cricket skills got clipped just because his father is dead set against his joining the English national team, and thus condemning his son from exploiting his full potential. Gattu becomes the ordinary provision shopkeeper, rather than the luminous sportsperson he was destined to be.

On one hand the film tackles how battles are fought against inequality, and on the other take it into a micro environment with the dealing and living with an overbearing father, the patriarch of his extended family where no one dare cross him, though it doesn't mean that rebellious streaks fail to exist as undertones in the family members, especially Gattu's generation. Akshay Kumar ditches his comedic roles, and opts for a very serious, dramatic persona in his portrayal of Gattu, who now has the chance to realize his past dream when he an unexpected door of opportunity opens.

This of course also opens the film up a little to deal with the many comedic moments from the respective family members, pinning their hopes on Gattu to become that beacon of rebellion and to serve his country, crossing the line that their father has set. Thus is the weight on Gattu's shoulders, that he has to prove his worth to the rest of the world, and perhaps so their father will finally listen and realize that his children have more to contribute rather than being held back through prejudiced thoughts and views. Their cooking up of various, sometimes stretched, methods to prevent their father from learning of Gattu's joining the national cricket team brings forth plenty of laughs, as we know how difficult it is to control information in this connected age, and more so when you have hundreds of family, relatives and friends all on the cusp of revealing their sense of pride.

There's also Anuska Sharma in her first role outside her three picture deal with Yash Raj Films, and while her scenes are limited to being the mastermind and requisite girlfriend who inspires the hero, she inevitably brings about some sunshine in what I thought was her first comedic role. Check out her opening scene if you have doubts about that proclamation, but I suppose in a film with plenty of female co-stars as opposed to being THE item girl in a Hindi film, she does enough and not go overboard with her character's antics.

For cricket fans, there are ample scenes here that will appeal to you, though for the cricket idiot like myself, I can only take each bat, throw, catch at face value, try as I may in comprehending the rules of the game. But this is not just a cricket film, but has a powerful drama I'm sure many caught up in similar situations of having parents who don't quite comprehend the whats and the whys of your personal quests, could come to identify. It's been a relative slow start on the Hindi movie front this year, so I'm hoping the momentum builds up from this offering.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Mechanic

To the Garage!

Jason Statham has taken on a variety of action roles in his career, equally adept at playing good character roles, evil ones, or anti-heroes. With a vast on screen profession ranging from being The Transporter to one of The Expendables, involved in a Death Race, or working on The Bank Job, and even The Italian Job too, he now becomes The Mechanic. No, not one who works in a garage, but an underground slang for a professional hitman, and like many of his characters, he's the best of the best at what he does.

His modus operandi is to be as meticulous as possible, preferring to stage his kills as accidents that his victims would have seemed to experience, working for an unnamed company who pays good, and has a clientele engaging it to bump off anyone from traffickers to bogus religious preachers. A remake of the 1972 of the same name starring Charles Bronson, this updated one directed by Simon West and written by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino (who also scripted the original) relies heavily on conveniences for the primary character to work.

Don't mind me saying, but what I thought was obviously missing here is the element of suspense. Even if you've not been exposed to the original, you are able to keep pace, and go steps ahead even, with how the story progresses, with Statham's Arthur Bishop instructed by his corporation to bump off long time handler Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), which of course presents itself as some moral and emotional dilemma, coupled with tremendous guilt that Bishop has to bear. A chance for redemption comes in the form of Harry's son Steve (Ben Foster), who gets taken in by Bishop and trained in the ways of his world, where every man has a price on his head, and only with meticulous planning in crafting a hit comes the opportunity to benefit.

To an audience, you'll be waiting for when Steve would find out who had actually bumped off his dad, and leave him in the state that he is. Ben Foster excels here in the drama as a man reckless to get into fights, and approaching danger like a mouse to open cheese, diving headlong and not heeding instructions, just so to get a high from beating up and getting beaten up. Becoming almost like a liability, the development here is that he becomes almost like the professional he's trained to be, and is the consummate Robin type of sidekick to Bishop's Batman, responsible for screw ups that allow the action sequences to be spiced up.

Action wise, this film is a mixed bag. Jason Statham's Bishop prefers being low key, so you don't get to see much of Statham getting all physical, and even when he does, it's a pity that Simon West has an issue with framing and filming it properly. Sure he's fast, but filming it into a blur doesn't help. Things improve with the bigger action sequences and thankfully the final big bang piece when they go up against Dean (Tony Goldwyn) and his posse, though short as they were, and so conveniently planned out that our anti-heroes don't even break into a sweat, only of course to highlight the key message in the film that victory favours the prepared.

While emoting just isn't Statham's forte, he still struts around in coolness, and the only interesting thing about Bishop is his dilemma in wanting to redeem the wrong he had done against an old friend, and the playing of fire with accepting and training Steve McKenna as his own. Like how master-protege relationships turn when it sours, this one wasn't really that much of an impact, and provided what I thought was the mother of all laughs in the film. There are always how far fetched a scenario can be, and this one bordered on the unintentionally comical, just you know, to want to wrap things up in a hurry. This mechanic at best delivers only a mediocre service.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

National Museum Cinematheque Presents In His Time: The Films of Edward Yang

The Cinematheque at The National Museum is surely cranking up its screening calendar with a series of retrospectives of film masters such as Michelangelo Antonioni (29 September 1912 – 30 July 2007), Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993) and Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992), with each series boasting remastered prints, full body of works from the filmmakers' filmography, as well as panel discussion sessions all geared toward that all encompassing experience for the cinephile to discover, or rediscover various masterpieces.

This showcase will now present The Films of Edward Yang (November 6, 1947 – June 29, 2007), one of Taiwan's leading filmmakers in its New Wave, probably best known for his film Yi Yi (2000) which got him the Best Director Award at Cannes.

It's a complete retrospective that will offer an insight into his life through roundtable sessions with his former collaborators, friends and academics. and you can find the full details of the screening over at this link, which contains a profile of specially invited guests, film titles, screening details, and a list of the free admission programmes.

Here's a quick summary:

In His Time: The Films of Edward Yang
A Programme of the National Museum Cinémathèque
Day/Date: Wednesday, 2 March – Sunday, 13 March 2011
Time: Various screening times
Venue: Gallery Theatre, Basement, National Museum of Singapore 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897
Tickets: $8 per person, $6.40 (concession), [excluding SISTIC fee]
MRT Station: City Hall/Dhoby Ghaut
Contact: 6332 3659 / 6332 5642

See you there!

The Kids Are Not All Right

I think enough is enough. Last I checked, does MDA actually have within its authority to dictate how many prints can a film open in cinemas here? Shouldn't this be purely a business decision by distributors and cinema operators on a simple profit maximization theorem? And thank goodness this film has critical acclaim and some big time award nominations under its belt, since my guess is its postponement was to see if it had a push from the Globes and Oscar.

I think the list of movie related gaffes coming out of here is just pure embarrassing. From Austin Powers having to Shiok rather than Fuck Shag, a decision which ridiculed us and made us a laughing stock so much so that Austin Powers got his mojo back, to now this, I fear when I next travel overseas to festivals that people I meet will associate these laughable issues with me, thinking I'm from a land of such prudes, or are of the opinion that my government is actually into the film exhibition business to decide upon such matters, when they have the economy, affordable housing, and population issues to keep them busy. Not to mention an election too.

I mean, if I find Van Gogh offensive, do I protest at the banning of all Van Gogh exhibitions in Singapore? Of course not silly, that doesn't make sense. What do I do? I vote with my wallet and not pay to enter any exhibition or venue. At all. I steer clear. But that doesn't mean I impose my will on others who enjoy his artwork, and are willing to pay to enter an exhibition showcasing his works. The powers that be fail to understand this, that as consumers, we vote with our wallet. If we dislike something, don't buy/eat/drink/consume it, period. But that doesn't mean having the right to deprive others the right to do so, if they so choose to. Basic laws of economics state that if there's no demand, there's no supply, and if the vast majority of people (as you claim) object to these films, then there will be no market for it, which means distributors, as profit making enterprises, will decide whether it's viable to bring certain genres in, or not, or decide to do something charitable for a niche.

It's classic Caveat Emptor really for anyone buying a ticket to know what the rating is beforehand. If you're offended by bloody gore, Read the advisory (we can't be held responsible if our society fails to comprehend advisories) which will clearly state the Rating, and a brief justification of what the buyer is in for. I certainly look stupid, and clearly my ignorant fault, if I buy a ticket for Hostel, rated R21, thinking it's a family comedy about living overseas in cramped quarters while on hoiiday, only to piss in my pants at the gratuitously violent torture scenes. Can I sue the cinema operator, the distributor, or MDA (heaven forbid!) for not warning me? Can I make noise about why such films are shown in the cinemas and MDA not banning it?

With a series of such missteps, I always opined that our city state is more tolerant on violent matters than on sexual ones. Take for instance the Saw Movies (and this is but the tip of the iceberg of examples). Bloody gory entertainment, legion of fans, R21 uncut as well. Do we have a sudden turn of events where our murder rates go spiraling, and our boys in blue having to engage in a cat and mouse game with hundreds of serial killers with moral issues on the loose, all inspired by what they've seen on film? Get real. And the thing is, the same will probably apply here, that we won't see an increase in the number of lesbians in our country, but at the rate we import foreigners, it's anyone's guess how many will slip through our stringent border checks.

On one hand we have ambitious plans for ScreenSingapore, and I wonder what our event ambassadors have to say about this, if they'll tell us to stuff our event up our rears if we impose the same draconian regulations on them (failing which it means we're practicing double standards, tsk).

Draw the line on snuff, or pornography, or because of some Act we have here, party political films too. But let's leave commercial decisions to commercial companies, and not nanny too much - you do know that the Internet bypasses your nanny lock do you? - that it stifles. It's already hot and humid in sunny Singapore, so please give us all some space to breathe.

P.S. I suppose this also means the creation of a new rating in Singapore which will henceforth be known as R21-1 (Restricted, 21 Years and Above Only, 1 Print)

Sorry Love, Big Bro's Frowning

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter's Bone


It's quite uncanny that director Debra Granik's feature films to date all have to do with drugs, dysfunctional families and a strong woman as the protagonist who has to make lemonades out of the lemons given out by Life. A dark horse in the upcoming Oscars competing on four major fronts, this film had already won The Grand Jury Prize ad the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at last year's Sundance Film Festivals, amongst others, and clearly its release here only now is positioned to gain from the publicity of its Oscar nominations.

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone is extremely bleak, in its subject matter, themes and the kind of characters in the story. It deals with misery, uncertainty and poverty, all stemming from an irresponsible father who makes meth, suddenly disappears, and in the meantime has put up his house and land as personal bond. If he absconds, this will mean his family will have to stay in the streets. The family's no better off too, with Jennifer Lawrence's Ree caught in the centre of this storm, being the sole provider to the family now made up of a mentally ill mom, and two younger siblings yet to fend for themselves.

Not only is the wintry landscape a dampener on moods and feelings, having the kind of relatives that Ree has, is something of a major downer as well. Through the most parts in the first half of Winter's Bone, it's about Ree's quest to find her father, to try and appeal to his good sense not to skip his bond and to attend his court hearing. To do so means to hit the road and check if he's at any relatives' house, and my, if any of you think your relatives are nightmares from hell, you haven't seen nothing yet. There's absolutely little love demonstrated by these folks to Ree's plight, and while small doses of compassion get dished out, it's more of an aftermath of something nasty to have taken place.

Debra Granik deliberately moves this at snail's pace, preferring to test your endurance as we sit through with Ree trying to figure out her next move, as she hits the brick wall ever so often. You feel that secrets are being kept from her on her father's whereabouts, yet fearful for that bit of truth to reveal itself, especially when it seems that there's a hint of an elaborate, staged cover up amongst the many relatives that she encounters, each preferring to stay mum, except for the frightening uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) who provided the first jolt on screen after too many minutes of moroseness.

But the gem in this film is undoubtedly Jennifer Lawrence, who shows her acting mettle with the role of the determined Ree, balancing nerves of steel in knowing what she wants and desires, and balancing that out with pragmatism in what's good for the family first. At the same time, she has this teenage vulnerability since she's still a minor (and hence the fleeting broach of the subject of her joining the military solely for the money), and an incredible reveal toward the end that will just hammer in multiple, heartfelt emotions that reflect the irony of being hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. I suppose this film will open doors that she's a credible actress in her own right, and her role as Mystique in the upcoming summer blockbuster X-Men: First Class will provide that required wide exposure.

It doesn't spell out everything, and you'd have to piece it all together since words said are few, and certainly in manners most nasty. It's emotionally draining and taxing given the many negative traits and emotions, and has one extended family with characters that you do not want to cross for whatever reason. A film you'll probably want to sit through nevertheless so that you have a much better picture of the Oscar contenders in order to have that good chance of winning the office betting pool.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Am Number Four

The New Jedi

With the teenage fantasy film franchise about to face a dearth once Harry Potter finally goes one on one with Voldemort, and when the Twilight lovers get to live together as undead beings, something has to be done to fill the void. There were a number of pretenders, so many that even I'm lazy to name but a few recent efforts such as Percy Jackson or Cirque du Freak even. What's amazing with this production effort is that only one book has been released thus far, with one of two planned sequels hitting the shelves only in August this year. So how it all pans out in the novels by Jobie Hughes and James Frey is anyone's guess, but as a film, it contains all the trappings for its intended teenage target audience.

And that means plenty of eye candy characters, out of this world powers, with buddy relationships and romantic ones forged. The film doesn't waste time jumping straight into where the action is in Kenya, where we witness the quick death of Number Three (Greg Townley) and his guardian, and we soon learn that their deaths have to follow a strict sequential order, so if you miss the deaths of Numbers One and Two, hit the trailer because it's there, and not contained in the film. No point regurgitating what's already done, right?

I Am Number Four is just that, an introductory tale to a hopeful franchise to be blessed with some longevity. And with most origin films, this one spent considerable time in establishing the ground rules for discovery of powers, the relationships between characters, all primed for action sequences in between long drawn narratives building up toward that inevitable big bang conclusion which contained everything but the kitchen sink. all nicely choreographed with loads of CG enhancement in a bayhem manner that will make producer Michael Bay so proud with the decimation of a school and its sprawling football pitch.

Simply put, it's like an extended version of Superman, but only for a race called the Loriens having sent nine of their offspring to Earth in order to escape total extermination by another alien race known as the Mogadorians. As they grow up incognito, they find out they have superhuman powers, yet have to be protected and lying in waiting for their true calling like sitting ducks. Being tracked and hunted down one by one by their space enemies is no fun, and Number Four (Alex Pettyfer), also known as John Smith, decide to hold some ground much to the disappointment of guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant, who was a Hitman once so he knows what he's talking about), since it's not that hard to find him with his penchant of not knowing how to lie low, developing a hunger for earthly education and getting into the periodic scuffles in high school no thanks to attention showered on and being showered upon by his junior and budding photographer Sarah (Dianna Agron).

It's then no surprise that with the parallels to Superman, the screenplay got written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who between them have clocked countless of Smallville episodes, joined by Marti Noxon in adapting the book for the screen, taking certain expected liberties when translating material from one medium to another. Somehow they didn't manage to keep the narrative tight in the beginning, deciding to sprawl it to introduce plenty of bit characters, though for important ones like the sidekick Sam (Callan McAuliffe), little time got devoted to telling his back story properly, as it was deemed more effective in trying to do so in a rather haphazard, impromptu manner.

Like the Twilight films, this one had its fair share of moments in the beginning deeply entrenched into whipping up a boring romance, and to those who prefer the action as promised in the trailer, we'll be looking toward our watches to pass time. Director D.J. Caruso is certainly no stranger with stories that have teenage protagonists in the fight of their lives against something larger than they can imagine, with his most recent collaborations with Shia LeBeouf being case in point in Disturbia and Eagle Eye, and with strong alpha-female type characters to boot too supporting by the side, here with Teresa Palmer doing an about turn from her damsel in distress type of role in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, to being one ass-kicking alien in Number Six, obviously having reached her power puberty before Number Four.

The villains don't really pose much of a threat besides looking and behaving mean, and it's a little bewildering why a race without powers and who uses space aged guns and winged creatures can defeat a race with magical guardians, maybe perhaps through sheer overpowering with numbers. I'm not about to read the book to find out though, nor was it explained about the very sticky sequential order that has to be stuck to. The special effects were top notch however, with the final act turning into a big Star Wars battle with blue and red lasers flying all over the place, and Number Six stealing the show with her more developed powers which include something ripped off from Nightcrawler in X-Men 2, and what I thought was the money shot together with Number Four as they fend off one final big bang. Truly impressive stuff there.

Primed for a follow up film, whether it does get made is the question. I had expected a more compact origin told in one sitting to get it out of the way, but it soon became a slow plod bogged down by uninspired caricatures, with too much left out in the open, and generic gun totting villains who are obviously no match for the powers the heroes possess, making it pretty much a one sided fight. Could have been better, or that I belonged to the wrong demographic target to begin with.


If you tell me the rules to play by, I probably would. What I dislike are shifting goalposts, or rules that were non-existent to begin with. Furthermore, informing me through a proxy is very much... impolite. I have an email address here if you'd bother to look. It's spelt C, for Contact.

If you'd like to open up a screening to selected public through a contest via one of the many channels made available, and if you didn't tell anyone at all - contest organizers nor contest winners - about your rules not to say a single word about your film (which was mediocre and lacklustre by the way), then it's your screw up, not mine. After all, you're more interested with bag checks and more concerned with someone pirating the film from a puny camera. The only advantage of course is no bloody phone ringing midway, or lightsabres popping up in a darkened hall. 80 pairs were supposedly given away to bloggers, so I'd like to see how you fight that fire.

My sentiments on review embargoes are pretty much summarized here, written by someone whose points I agree wholeheartedly with. Read that if you haven't.

So if you had popped by here to read about I Am Number Four, my apologies if I decide to play nice for the first and only time. Check back again 18 Feb 2011 at the stroke of midnight. If you cannot wait, you can take a look at another review here, from someone I don't know who had watched the film under similar contest circumstances. So why not embargo that (and don't go all double standards on me) Mr Distributor? You got a generous 2.5/5. I would have given it 2/5. Oh and if you speak German, set Pluto or Goofy or Bolt to bark up this site too (or are your German counterparts not heeding your HQ instruction?)

Update 16 Feb 2011 0700hrs GMT+8 - There's clearly double standards here which I hate. Total Film has a review up, and so does Picktainment and Cinemas Info. Should I not see those taken down in the next 12 hours, mine will go up.
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