Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hangover Part II

Back for More

So I wasn't really that impressed with the sleeper hit comedy of 2009 in Todd Phillips' The Hangover, and my verdict for Part II is, well, quite the same because... drumroll, it IS the same, with the return of familiar characters getting embroiled in the same good ol' shenanigans to draw out laughter at the absurdity of it all, crafted using the same formula which already drew in an incredible opening weekend at the box office. As the saying goes, if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

And scribes Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong did just that, sticking to what worked in the first film, and transplanting the formula over to a new country, that of Thailand and more specifically, Bangkok taking over Las Vegas as this installment's sin city. Which isn't a surprise given Bangkok's rather colourful and seedier side of night life that the filmmakers had a field day to go over, ranging from open drug dealers to go go bar owners, right down to the sex workers whom we all know are well, not quite who they seem. One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble indeed.

The wolf pack of the first film returns, with the dentist Stu (Ed Helms) having moved on and now in a new relationship with Lauren (Jamie Chung) and are getting married in a Thai resort. Knowing just how well the previous bachelor party went, Stu is adamant for only a safe weekend brunch, but that wouldn't be a lot of fun, would it? To get there, we need to spend close to 20 minutes with the usual suspects of Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) finally convincing Stu to involve them all at his wedding overseas, and what would be a safe campfire, single drink only event involving Stu's future young brother in law Teddy (Mason Lee, son of filmmaker Ang Lee, ok?) turning out to be nothing but a bad deja vu.

The trailer had set it all up already, with the all too familiar waking up routine, replacing Stu's broken tooth with a bad ass tattoo ala Mike Tyson's, Alan getting bald, Phil well, going almost shirtless to show off his torso, and the new kid on the block Teddy being all but absent, which sends the troupe into a frenzy since Alan is the favourite son of Stu's soon to be father-in-law. Instead of a tiger, we get Crystal the (in)famous monkey which had made its name in another blockbuster franchise joining in to well, provide fellatio jokes, and would probably irk animal activists with its constant smoking of cigarettes, whether or not faked (director Todd Phillips was quite adamant that the cigarettes were not lit, and the smoke was digitally added).

So formula means having the group figuring out where their last few hours had gone, having no inkling of their mad party antics which we do get to see glimpses of when they traverse across the city trying to retrace their steps and locate clues as to where Teddy might be. So we get a slew of cliches and stereotypes from characters to situational set ups, each trying really hard to make the audience laugh, with the clock ticking toward an impending wedding to happen that they must return to, intact. It may seem that all the characters here were going through the motions of groundhog day, so much so that this outing seemed a little short on surprises, with everyone being relatively muted when compared to the crazier first installment.

For instance, Zach Galifiankis being the revelation of the first Hangover, has his Alan character being a little bit stale, the man-child that you've grown to hate. Ken Jeong as Mr Chow as usual was the livewire, but alas he was absent for the whole midsection before coming back into the scene. He's the other actor that made The Hangover work with his rapid fire, thickly accented English, vulgar behaviour and lines, and his second outing could have been better if not for a comparatively more self-aware performance that didn't really go for broke.

Will there be a Hangover Part III? From the looks of the box office opening numbers, I don't see how the studio can pass up the opportunity. My only wish is for the formula not to be repeated for another time, because then it would be really cheap and too coincidental for the same old shenanigans to be happening to the same old folks within too close a period of time. My suggestion would be to chug a few beers beforehand with a few like minded pals who go to the movies only for crass comedies, and the alcohol and company would help to boost the enjoyment factor of The Hangover Part II.

Otherwise, you'll have to sit through everything before the end credits roll with what would arguably be the best bits of the film - that all revealing photo montage that spelt out exactly what the wolf pack had been up to, making you envious at the hard partying ways they got themselves into and itching or even inspired to be part of something similar rather than having to sit through the characters' agonizing return to reality.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Twittamentary (Beta Screening)

Despite having a Twitter account that is months old, frankly I've only been actively learning and using how to use it for a few weeks only, all in preparation not to be left out when Twittamentary, a documentary film by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Siok Siok, finally gets released sometime later this year, so as not to feel left out in one aspect of social media. Shallow, I know, but technology is advancing so rapidly, that making a film about it also seemed like a daunting task.

Months in the making since 2009, with the filmmakers carefully honing and crafting the documentary in its final stages from feedback obtained from beta screenings, I was finally fortunate enough to get myself into one packed screening this evening, having missed one in Singapore held earlier in February this year. It's quite the experience having to hole up with fellow cinephiles and twit geeks who actively participated in the screening through tweets via the #twittamentary hashtag, with a separate screen put up for live, side conversations and comments as the film moved along. So talk about a happy distraction!

As the film is not final, with color grading works and audio yet to be completed, this will not be a review proper, but just some broad strokes to whet the appetites of those who have not seen it, and probably won't until it gets formally released, through which distribution channel - theatrical, festival circuits, online perhaps? - yet to be decided at this stage of production. But whichever the case is, I suppose having the audience interact with one another (and the people featured in the film, for tweeter uses, using their respective Twitter address that pops up on screen), is a totally different ball game altogether, that perhaps a traditional theatrical format may just rob it of that total immersive experience.

Director Tan Siok Siok embarked on a road trip from the US East Coast to the West, and in doing so, set out to capture what Twitter is and what Twitter means, to various groups of people actively using this social medium. There are skeptics of course, as well as celebrities who became so thanks to Twitter. And what made this documentary unique, is the way it is fashioned from the ground up, in a very grassroots feel, almost as if led by an invisible Twitter hand to guide the filmmaker up various forks in the road and making options and choices at hand. Tan was getting assistance from Twitters on where to go and who to go to during production, which resulted in a rich Twitter eco-sphere being encapsulated in this film through very short snippets and segments much akin to the 140 character limit set, with the documentary narrative still evolving as we speak - tonight's screening also had a poll of sorts for a particular, separate segment to be included, or not.

A look at the "cast" list here may ring some bells to some of the regular Twitter users especially if you're following some of them, with porn star Mika Tan just about setting the screening wall on fire when she came on screen (after being "followed" for nine months by the director as revealed during a Q&A session after today's beta screening), and true to form, she had retweeted and commented on some of the tweets posted on #twittamentary, as will others in due course I believe.

So while David Fincher was at the helm of an award winning narrative Facebook film, here comes one on Twitter in true open collaborative style that hopefully will feature at a screen near you soon (and cross your fingers it comes with that level of interactivity as I experienced today), or as the film's website had it, web beta screening had also taken place when the 1000 follower mark got surpassed. So keep your eyes peeled through following the film's development (more details on its screening page), and I'm anticipating the finished product so that I can watch the film proper, and put aside my mobile phone (used to Tweet) for just that little while!


Related Links
- Official Movie Website
- Twitter Page
- Facebook Page

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World

Fishy Ancestor

My triple IMAX slam ended with Sea Rex: Journey to a Prehistoric World in 2D (instead of 3D, since the Science Centre Omni Theatre doesn't come with 3D projection), and to my surprise, this happens to be the most popular amongst all the films currently showing at the venue. I suppose one just can't get enough of monsters and creatures of all shapes and sizes, and we have Jurassic Park to thank for that boost in dino-interest amongst parents who have watched that film, and their young to whom they must have introduced it to as well.

Directed by Ronan Chapalain and Pascal Vuong, Sex Rex treks back to the prehistoric ages where dinosaurs roamed the earth in the various pre and post Jurassic eras, where the narrative follows a certain student Julie (Chloe Hollings) who meets the spirit of famed paleontologist Georges Cuvier (Richard Rider), and the question of course is why she didn't freak out when this happens in the very silent hours and areas of the aquarium-museum she was in. In any case they strike up a conversation, with Cuvier being the educator for her, and us the audience, into understanding a little bit more of the creatures that once ruled Earth before the coming of the homo-sapiens.

Granted there were enough snazzy computer graphics that serve to visually appeal to the young and old alike at succinctly explaining evolution of the prehistoric eras, and through the recreation of what would be poor cousin renditions of the various creatures, but what ultimately make this a failure in my books, is in trying to play it like a straight documentary, when it certainly isn't. I'm fine with having actors portray characters from the past, but to try and seamlessly mix documentary like, educational content with fictional people given statuses from academia and not clarifying that these are indeed characters and not people, I felt that the line had been crossed, especially if this film has any inkling of objectives to be serving as a platform for research and exploration for the young. And to add to it, the actors were really bad and made this film pass off as quite cheap.

And given that experience, it would have tanked all shreds of credibility this film had in trying to recreate behavioral patterns, as well as look and feel of the creatures, since it had taken a lot of liberties and creative license in crafting of the film, that any traces of truth in trying to convince that could be how the creatures behaved. are now taken with a huge pinch of salt. As such, a documentary this isn't, and as a fictional tale, this one passes off as a mediocre effort, made worse when it didn't even try to milk the IMAX capability it got presented in.


Once Myopic, Now I See

The latest attraction at the Science Centre Omni Theatre, Hubble is presented sans the 3D version since the venue can only project 2D IMAX films. A friend who attended the special preview at Shaw Lido IMAX had mentioned that Hubble 3D was one of the trailers shown as an up and coming feature, but I remain a skeptic because I can't imagine a commercial cinema operator wanting to showcase a 40 minute documentary, when it probably can make a lot more showing the latest blockbusters in the format. I will be glad to stand corrected, but it remains to be seen.

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit some 21 years ago to much fanfare, and even more fuss made over it when it was discovered it had myopia (OK, in case you really think I meant that, it had faulty mirrors). So more space programmes were launched to have its telescopic sight fixed through the application of contact lens equivalents, and since then we've been treated to some of the most astounding pictures captured of our galaxy and beyond. This film chronicles the final servicing mission undertaken by the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2009, and in fact is quite lightweight in treatment and narrative.

There isn't much of a background on what and how Hubble was designed and conceived - you're left to your own devices to get chummy with the telescope. The bulk of the documentary focuses on the crew of the Atlantis and their mission at hand, from ground training at NASA, to the blast off from the launchpad, with quick glimpses of their life aboard the shuttle, before a rather detailed look at their space walk and repair at hand, with the narration, by Leonardo DiCaprio, focused on the danger of having their suits ripped by sharp, pointy objects as part of their work.

The other focus of Hubble the film is on the images captured by it, which gives space and astronomy idiots like myself a quick and slight introduction to stars, systems, nebulas and the peek inside those astonishing vastness of space invisible to the naked eye. With infra-red lenses too we get to see past space clouds that mask hidden gems beneath, and truly that's something that made this documentary stand out a little.

Still, I would have preferred if it had a more holistic approach to Hubble, but for what it is, presented on an IMAX format, it's still quite something to behold. Recommended!

Legends of Flight

Big Engine

While Shaw's Lido is getting all the attention for its IMAX hall, one shouldn't forget another similar evolution happening to the West of our island where the Science Centre is, with its Omnimax theatre also retrofitted with a new seamless dome, meaning no more lines in between segments of the screen as experienced previously, and the result is simply great.

The title Legends of Flight is a little peculiar, given the use of the word Legends you'll probably under the impression that this has got something to do with the history of flight, and the milestones achieved through various recognizable aircrafts which leave their stamp of quality in air travel. Unfortunately that is not the case, and as this turned out it would be more appropriately named Boeing's Dreamliner 787, because essentially this is just about that, from conception of the idea right down to manufacture and test flights made, no doubt on the big screen which brings forth the sheer scale of such a project, and of the aircraft itself.

At least one got to peek inside Boeing's manufacturing facility, which is one of the largest building structures in the world having to roll off wide bodied aircraft from an assembly line, but as a trade off we have got to sit through some very strange recreation of board room drama where designers and engineers get to pretend once again what happened during the early years of their dreaming of a new, larger, and more efficient plane. It's also quite something to see how man's inspiration for flight, the bird, got to be studied a little more thoroughly to understand the mechanics of flight, and to adopt what little knowledge is gleaned to be incorporated into the design, as much as the Dreamliner goes.

To exploit the IMAX presentation, we get to at least see an airshow, as well as the flight of the Airbus A380, the largest commercial liner currently in operation. There's also the Harrier fighter jet that got showcased, but as mentioned, for its title, the number of aircraft on display was surprisingly woeful, if not for the technical details and behind the scenes look at the 787 conception. Some snazzy graphics and visual effects were utilized to spruce up the thin narrative that also had a side track to examine various propulsion units in striped down detail, but I have expected more from the film.

Friday, May 27, 2011

[DVD] Old Places (老地方 / Lao Di Fang) (2010)

One of the best local documentaries of last year where directors Royston Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng brought us all on a nostalgic trip down Singapore's forgotten landscapes and environments that once stood, but some no longer. The telecast on television was so popular that there was a repeat, plus some one-off screenings now and then, but here's a reason why there's no excuse for missing all the screenings thus far.

The DVD has already been released by Objectifs Films. But take note that there are only 1000 copies produced, so if you are keen to get your hands on one and check out what the buzz is all about, you can head on down to Kinokuniya, Books Actually, or Objectifs where the DVDs are on sale.

My review of Old Places can be found here.

The Region Free DVD (PAL Format) is unfortunately presented in letterbox format, where I thought an anamorphic widescreen one should do the visuals a lot more justice. Still, the transfer is pristine, and at least it's not a 4:3 transfer since it was made with television broadcast in mind. For those looking for DVD extras like commentaries and the likes, I'm afraid this is but a barebones edition - for one I would have loved to hear the filmmakers talk about their behind the scenes work, but for that you may have to make do with this.

The menus is kept simple with a small preview window showcasing clips from the chapter selected. You can either click on the Play All function to watch the film in its entirety, or click on the chapter (6 in total) you wish to watch, which will bring up its clips into the preview window, and then clicking on the chapter again will make that jump to the respective point. These 6 chapters are logically split to follow that of the television broadcast where a pause is necessary for commercials, and I thought it was quite a cumbersome process with the double clicks required to access the chapter; would have preferred like a conventional DVD menu design would have with 6 preview windows for each chapter, if that was indeed necessary since it's likely anyone watching this will want to do so in its entirety.

Film is in English and a mix of other languages, with English subtitles available for the non-English segments.

Packaging is done in very old school style sans keepcase, with the DVD disc and 9 thick cardboard postcards - when attached together spell out "老地方/Old Places" against a backdrop of selected stills from the film - wrapped inside a cardboard envelope, with the very iconic Singapore Post mailbox adorning its cover, like what you see in the picture right at the top of this post.

There is a sequel in the works, and for those of you with ideas, do drop the filmmakers a message at the Old Places Facebook Group!

Related Links
- Facebook Group
- My review of the film
- DVD Launch at Kinokuniya

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

Po and the Furious Five

Who would have expected Kung Fu Panda to become a surprising, heartwarming summer hit back in 2008, where I thought it had captured the very essence of a typical martial arts film, and distilled it into an animated piece appealing both to kids and adults alike. The big risk involved is of course coming up with the inevitable follow up film given the profits that it had raked in, that won't be an insult to its fans, and yet maintaining that same level of appeal the original had. Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeded.

Although it certainly did seem that passing the reins over to rookie director Jennifer Yuh was bewildering, but Yuh turned out to be perfect in guiding the sequel and the beloved characters in yet another adventure, with bigger set action pieces, touching dramatic moments, and retaining plenty of humour from the get go. Credit of course must go to writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger in coming up with a natural progression of the story of Po (Jack Black), and filling it with a lot more elements from classic martial arts film formulas such as a jail break involving skilled pugilists in captivity, a pagoda, getting beat down, recovery and recuperation, and the learning of a new, ultimate skill. To think that the worries came from the scribes being responsible for the snooze-fest Monsters Vs Aliens, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Kung Fu Panda 2 brings back the A-list voices of Black as Po the Panda, now very much comfortable in his celebrity role of the prophesied Dragon Warrior, and the Furious Five consisting of Angelina Jolie as the no-nonsense, hard hitting Tigress, Seth Rogen as the wisecracking Mantis, David Cross as Crane, Lucy Liu as Viper and the underused Jackie Chan as Monkey, recognizable animals used in distinctive martial arts boxing styles. Also returning are Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu and James Hong as Mr Ping, while joining the fray are Gary Oldman as the chief villain Lord Shen the vain peacock, Michelle Yeoh as The Soothsayer, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc, Dennis Haysbert as Master Oxen and Victor Garber as Master Thundering Rhino, the latter three forming some formidable masters of kung fu whose city they're protecting falls under siege.

The story continues to loosely adopt from historical developments in China, with the premise being set during the time when gunpowder was discovered and fireworks created, but with the more sinister use of the material also for the creation of weapons such as the cannon, threatening the extinction of martial arts with its formidable firepower. Lord Shen becomes fanatical in plundering metal from the land with the ambition to rule all of China, but for his Soothsayer to predict his downfall to come from something black and white, hence his dogged massacre of pandas with his wolf pack goons, before setting his sights on and signaling his diabolical intent on some legendary martial arts masters.

It's pretty amazing how this under 90 minute film also managed to squeeze in plenty of pathos in the form of Po having to unlock his repressed memory of being necessarily abandoned by his parents following a pattern ala Moses with the pandas being threatened with forced extinction, which provides tons of baby panda to milk some scheming, crafty moments to tug at your heartstrings, and you can hear that audible gasps of "oh so cute"s from female members of the audiences. Well done, if the studio decides to make money from merchandising. Narratively it's pretty predictable following the generic essence of typical kung fu film classics, what with the learning of inner peace and new skills involved that resembled very much like Taichi-quan, but what mattered of course is the delivery that hit expectations, and not buckle under that same weight brought over from a successful first film. Watch out too for the suggested romantic angle, which was adequately hinted at, but leaving any further development for subsequent films should they happen.

Then of course there's the spectacular fight sequences, especially when Po and the Fearsome Five combine to protect the innocent masses against hordes of enemies that come with the requisite comedy, from slapstick to lyrical, like poetry in motion when they showcase their respective, distinctive moves. Big action set pieces are well designed, and I give my thumbs up to how the villain is modelled after the peacock, which in itself brings about the theme of vanity that almost all villains possess, but in the context of kung fu, it's extremely smart to design Lord Shen to move and utilize his own innate weaponry, that of sneaky darts and fans - a weapon that in Chinese martial arts film, is the weapon of choice of the "wei jun zi" - the "fake gentleman" (sorry if my interpretation sucks, but you get my drift).

No qualms about this installment, I would put it in my highly recommended list as a sequel that didn't forget about the spirit of the original, and if the filmmakers can continue to capture exactly what makes martial arts movies tick and distill it like it did for the first two films, I dare say we're in for a mighty strong franchise that will appeal to kids, and every kung fu film fan out there who will probably go nuts at how well this animated series managed to get the formula right.


For those who continue to enjoy movie marathons, GV has a Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 marathon this Saturday at GV Tampines where you can get to watch both films back to back, that comes with free flow of popcorn and drinks. Click here for more details.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Midnight FM (Simya-ui FM / 심야의 FM)

A Listening Ear

The momentum for Korean Thrillers is picking up slowly but surely, with recent films like The Chaser and The Man From Nowhere getting critical acclaim and scoring at their home box office with their very edgy treatment and storytelling, putting the audience at the edge of their seats with aplomb. The next such film to hit the screens here is Midnight FM, and director Kim Sang-Man had proved that this film belongs to the same echelons as the films mentioned, where a celebrity DJ has to deal with a violent, psychotic stalker.

Soo-Ae of Once in a Summer fame plays Ko Sun-Young, a highly popular DJ whose shift in the graveyard hours is coming to an end soon. On her final day, she finds herself being blackmailed by an unknown person who had gained an upper hand at being inside her home and holding her loved one hostage, before demonstrating that he's a huge deranged fan of hers, posing questions based on her show's past to play a sick game where every wrong answer would mean that something violent and gruesome got to be inflicted on the hostages.

In some ways this film seemed to have two separate phases, with the first phase taking place in very confined spaces, such as the DJ's booth and console, and that of Sun-Young's house where you have children and her teenage sister having to hide from a home invader. It's almost like David Fincher's Panic Room with a cat and mouse game of hide and seek gets played out in a swanky apartment, which makes for some nice touches of suspense and thrills, given the claustrophobic space in which to play a deadly quiz. It's like a ping pong game of desperately trying to gain and regain the upper hand from each side, knowing that with that comes bargaining power.

Then there's the utilization of space, as the narrative takes place outside of the confined spaces, shaking you out of your comfort zone just as you thought everything will shuttle back and forth between the locations, and becoming a full fledged action film complete with car chases to boot. A number of support characters got introduced here, from bland, ineffective cops to fellow co-workers now into the scheme of things to assist Sun-Young, although their presence do not distract you from the main players, offering only slight support to fulfill their one role function before disappearing into the background again. More obnoxious characters enter the scene such as various levels of bureaucracy at the radio station to come disrupt proceedings since Sun-Yong had veered really off course in her programme, which adds another layer of complexity for Sun-Young to battle against.

Soo-Ae cuts a confident figure on the top of her game as Sun-Young, before the threat turned her into quite the nervous wreck hell bent on rescuing her daughter at any expense. Like a chameleon, Soo-Ae handles both sides to her character with skill, making you root for her along the way even though she mercilessly rejects the advances and help of yet another stalker who decides to stake out at her office since it's after all, her final day there. As the antagonist, Yoo Ji-Tae is the man you'd love to hate, personifying pure evil in his dasterdly plan that comes with layers and enough Plan Bs to keep him off the law enforcement radar and long arm of the law. His Han Dong-Su is the ultimate stalker complete with shrine and audio recordings at his hideout, and Ji-Tae's creepy portrayal makes the character someone not to be messed with for his penchant for violence. A nice little backstory to link up seemingly disparate events to debunk the myth of randomness was a nice touch, but could be done without.

With the bulk of the film taking place within two hours of Sun-Young's final shift at work, Midnight FM is by and large one of the better thrillers out there this year, being intense and edgy from the time the antagonist enters the picture to begin his deadly game. Kim Sang-Man crafted a film that is paced expertly, knowing when to speed things up with high octane action, and slowing things down yet keeping a pulse on the frenzied state of mind of its characters, making this film way above average thrillers and is well worth experiencing on the big screen. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

AVANT Premiere! 6 Thesis Films From The Puttnam School of Film

This evening marked industry premiere screening of six BA(Hons) Thesis Films from The Puttnam School of Film, LASALLE, featuring Wild Dogs, Strings, The Red Veil, Window of Dreams, Hentak Kaki and Blue Tide《暖潮》 made by its Class of 2011 graduates. Into its second batch of graduates already, I suppose anyone mildly interested in sniffing out new creative talent amongst the local film community should seriously look at the output from the schools, because each of these six films do not betray the notion that they're done by film students, rather, they're made by up and coming filmmakers who have honed their craftsmanship in multi-disciplines, as each of the graduates possess both a major and a minor in their course of study, and are heavily involved in the production of each of the shorts screened today in different capacities, and shouldering responsibilities.

We've probably reached a stage now where one cannot get away with an amateurish production and effort, since what we do see are extremely well made shorts with a keen sense of storytelling, and indeed the bar has been set much higher with each passing batch. All of these of course bodes very well in deepening our talent pool, and hopefully we will get to see more vibrant local films in time to come real soon.

Running Time: 15 minutes
Producer: Luo Min
Director/ Editor: Saravanan Sam
Director of Photography: Sven Stefanovic
Sound Recordist: Anwar Wu
Assistant Director: Sampada Harkara

Featuring documentaries for the first time the School's showcase, this documentary epitomizes the mantra of No Music No Life of busker David "Ringo" Regu, a man missing his front teeth, but still possessing a mean streak of a spirit in picking up his guitar, and busking along underpasses, pubs and coffeeshops even, to eke out a living on the streets.

From Oasis' Wonderwall to Mandarin songs, we learn more of the man who had made a conscious decision to live the life he is leading and the reconciliation of that choice with friends and family, in classic talking heads styled monologues, as well as some fleeting incidents highlighting the different attitudes toward busking in Singapore, primarily that of tourists versus locals, though I do think (and I may be wrong) that some aspects of it could have been staged, since locals are usually camera shy (what more making a documentary, we will run far far away).

Some nice cinematography opened the film, carried through by the strength of Ringo's personality.

Running Time: 13 minutes
Producer: Nooraini Shah Sikkander
Director/ Co- Writer: Surianti Sulaiman
Director of Photography: Najihah Abdul Rahim
Editor/ Audio Post: Anwar Wu
Screenwriter: Sim Li Jia

Continuing with the theme centered around music, this narrative feature tells of a boy whose individuality doesn't gel well with his school's band, much to the irritation of his music teacher. He finds solace and friendship with the school's cleaner, who engages the young lad to help in composing and finishing a song as a gift for his wife.

This encik becomes the real teacher who imparts life skills and knowledge to the student, but this short is unfortunately marred by acting that was a little off, and the irony of having the Uncle speak his lines with little emotion, when he's supposed to deliver a heartfelt speech about feelings, a key ingredient in communication through music. Thankfully one gets treated to a fusion of sounds as a finale that came a little out of the blue.

Running Time: 11 minutes
Writer: Sampada Harkara
Producer: Tarini Singh
Director/ Editor: Chua Seng Yew
Director of Photography: Alyza Adinegoro
Sound Recordist: Saravanan S.

It's most unfortunate that one of the things that stood out when The Red Veil is being introduced happened to be a misspelling of "Commission" as "Commision", which will in all likelihood be overlooked as the film is bookend by pulsating, trance inducing drum beats as part of a very colourful wedding procession. It is the story of Netra (Devi Vijayan), a young Indian woman who through the course of the film, split into two separate and intertwining narrative threads, reminisces about a past she would desperately like to forget.

Roped to help in dolling up Mandira (Sonya Nair) who is constantly asking her a slew of questions in relation to the upbeat environment, we slowly discover Netra's yearning for a life she can never have nor hope to lead, with wonderful cinematography contrasting the vibrancy of festivities that surround the premise with the darkness that envelopes Netra's past. Strong visual language at play here to convey the emotional tussle felt by Netra, and extremely well acted by both female leads in their respective roles, especially Devi Vijayan whose shoulders the movie primarily sits on.

Running Time: 15 minutes
Director/ Producer/ Writer/ Editor - Nooraini Shah Sikkander
Co-Writer & Camera Assistant- Najihah Rahim
Director Of Photography- Fazrin Affendi
Sound Recordist - Alicia Lim
Assistant Sound Recordist - James Khoo
Post Sound - Alyza Kurnia Adinegoro
Production Manager - Mohammed Ibrahim Sulaiman
Gaffer- Anirudh
Production Assistant - Surianti Sulaiman, Mohammed Arshard
Publicity - Nelvi Suwandi
Music Composers - Lim Yi Benjamin

In recent weeks the topic of Foreign Talent, loosely used to group foreign workers (though normally white collared workers) came under intense scrutiny about how easy it is for those in power to throw the workers PR and work permit approvals, so much so that their numbers in our midst get boosted by the hundreds of thousands in so short a span in time, that our public infrastructure just cannot keep up, much to everyone's frustrations.

But when you strip apart statistics and grouped numbers, you'll find very human stories amongst the chaff and the noise, and it will make you think about how some do indeed fall through the cracks in a system that's deemed extremely generous. Mohammed Kassim is one of such persons, being unable to obtain PR status for the last 6 years, and is still continuing because he lauds Singapore's education system as being one of the best out there to provide his children a fighting chance in society. He dreams, like every parent, that his children will be successful, hence his persistence in trying to relocate here, to no avail.

A documentary that begin with a black and white fade to colour while shot from a moving train, this film details the tough road that Kassim undertakes from being covered with debts to the inconvenience of having to shuttle between countries, putting a strain within his family unit. Again the technical aspects of this film is extremely sound, but what stood out was the filmmaker's crafting from its subject some engaging content that looks at the micro level issues faced by those less fortunate willing to do all it takes to better their livelihood.

Running Time: 11 minutes
Writer/ Director: James Khoo
Producer: Tarini Singh
Director of Photography: Saravanan S.
Sound Recordist: Anwar Wu
Editor: Alicia Lim
Assistant Director: Sampada Harkara

There has to be an army story thrown in somewhere, and this was it. My personal favourite of the lot, and judging by the enthusiastic response when the end credits rolled, probably that of most in the audience as well, Hentak Kaki is the Malay term that is used to explain how one cannot progress any further in one's life, or career, and in the context of the film and character 2nd Warrant Officer Lee Teck Hong (Michael Chua), a severe injury meant his combat days are over, being reassigned by the military to become a counsellor at the Detention Barracks.

For a man of action, heavily medalled and proud to don the uniform of a the elite Guardsmen, this meant a condemnation of sorts in his tour of duty, as he carries out his new assignment with much frustration, especially since under his charge is Staff Sergeant Raj, held in the barracks for AWOL, and is a familiar figure in having shared a military past together.

There are many sweet spots that this film had hit. Firstly, the Singlish dialogue and the many army mannerisms and terminology that got thrown around. Editing was fantastic especially when required to cut between the characters as they argue in rapid fire exchanges in what would be my favourite scene in the film for its realism in utilizing army speak. But what takes the cake would be Michael Chua's performance, which again emphasizes just how important it is to have the right cast and lead, which will automatically be the battle half won since it makes it easy for an audience to identify and feel for the character. The chemistry he shared with P. Muruganandan was essentially key to making this short film work its magic.

It's wickedly funny yet poignant, speaking out to those of us who are afraid to step out of our comfort zone, and ended everything with quite a bang, finishing off strongly.

Running Time: 19 minutes
Producer/ Director: Luo Min
Director of Photography: Anirudh Ashok
Sound Recordist: James Khoo
Editor: Alyza Adinegoro
Screenwriter/ Co-Producer: Alicia Lim
Art Director: Yeo Ke Liang

This non-linear film is a mood piece that deals with the vanishing of what would be love, giving way to thoughts of betrayal and bewilderment, because two days prior to their wedding, Ly-Anne (Wendy Tan) gets arrested, leaving the groom-to-be, Victor (Wi Tze Kun) in the lurch as his dreams of a married life had the brakes suddenly put on. You know what to expect when a short film becomes a Mandarin (and a thickly accented one at that) atmospheric film trying to capture the look and feel of a typical art-house offering from Hong Kong or Taiwan, and what took the shine off this is the proclamation toward the end that this was "based on a true story", when there wasn't much of a tight narrative story to begin with, with a preference to keep things relatively vague, with slightly repetitive shots.


Those interested in catching the films above, as well as three additional films from the Diploma in Film graduates, can do so between 27 May and 9 June at Noon and 7pm daily at the LASALLE College of the Arts. Admission is free, and details can be found here.


Click on the image above to bring it up to full size.

In essence, the previews are for films that will be opening soon in local theatres. But if you can't wait for them and want to partake in some of the ScreenSingapore activities, this is something that is open to the public.

There are some three screenings each night from 5 to 11 June, with some afternoon screenings, but mostly from 7pm onwards, with 11 Jun being some Midnight Madness styled horror film programming with Tell Tale, Blood Creek and The New Daughter.

Tickets should go on sale from 26 May at the various cinema chains. See you at the movies!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Detective 2 (B+ Jing Taam / B+侦探)

Open Your Eyes

There's no Me Panda opening here, so out goes the original treatment of the story of Aaron Kwok's stumbling detective Tam we got ourselves acquainted with in C+ Detective which involved some supernatural elements right up Oxide Pang's alley, and in comes something that's more serious in tone and treatment with an upgrade of sorts to a B+, although the narrative was found to be wanting, with key elements from the first film that made it successful doing a disappearing act, much to the detriment of fan-converts.

A celebrity now amongst the police and private investigative circles picking up from where we left off, Tam and his cop buddy Chak (the evergreen Liu Kai Chi) find themselves embroiled in yet another serial murder spree involving seemingly unrelated victims and indecipherable motives. They are as random as can be, which forms the main crux of the pursuit of justice for both Chak, staring down a possible promotion even though he's now working under the much despised Inspector Lo (Patrick Tam), and for Tam, another shot at cementing his reputation. Expect the usual red herrings thrown up in any investigative thriller, and there you have it, except that this time round Tam doesn't have any push from the supernatural as invisible assistants.

Which is one of the key ingredients that shouldn't have been totally removed, because it made deduction and rationalizing of clues a lot more interesting than having Tam sit on a park bench and, well, talking to himself. It makes for a better visual spectacle where Oxide Pang could have milked moments to make you jump at your seat, otherwise it was rather morose when Tam needed to go into deep thought. But that's not to say Kwok did a bad job. In fact, he continues to showcase his acting and dramatic chops here, and while I was never a fan of his to begin with, he has earned my new found respect as a serious actor who's constantly improving.

And his chemistry with Liu Kai Chi is what buddy cop movies are made of, sharing this impeccable bond on screen that made their exploits believable, and moving in some ways even, as the killer, for reasons only known to writers Oxide and Thomas Pang to decide on revealing his identity just before the midway mark, pushes both men to the boundary, and perhaps I shall say on one hand permanently decided on how any follow up movie can progress from here, and on the other provided some much needed emotional sucker punch as the sympathizing moments for the killer just didn't cut it as much as the filmmakers had tried. In fact that came out a little hokey and quite unbelievable, that the intent involving the lesser of two evils could have pushed someone over the edge completely.

Shot in Thailand, you can imagine why Oxide Pang continues to revisit his hometown because of the richness in character that the country, and Bangkok in particular, bring to the visuals, through the many dimly lit alleys and corners, and cluttering of space that makes the film look extremely claustrophobic and uncomfortable, the sort of environment that our detective thrives in. Technically this film is remarkably beautiful for its dark visuals and twisted tale, and no fault here in the craftsmanship of the filmmakers, made up of a Thai crew including those involved in post production, to bring about that sense of dreadfulness that befall our hero at every turn. The gory and creepiness factor got brought over from the first film with that signature framing and cutting away from the most violent and horrific of scenes, and that provided some level of consistency brought from the first film if not to keep you glued to the screen.

But ultimately this film seemed to wear on as it plodded to the inevitable finale, which was an unsatisfying conclusion since Oxide Pang destroyed what was essentially the saving grace of the film featuring the friendship between two firm friends established from C+ Detective, and instead chosen to open doors to a cliffhanger that leads onto the next film, if it does indeed gets made. If it was an intended trilogy, and a promotion at that of Tam to A+ finally coming of age and maturity in his handling of cases, then it is most unfortunate that B+ Detective fell prey to the middle movie syndrome in not being able to keep up with expectations set by its predecessor.

A+ for atmosphere, technicalities and acting, but a firm D in its storyline that seemed hobnobbed together in a desperation for closure.

Saturday, May 21, 2011



With each year I look forward to a film that will hit all the right spots and unequivocally propel itself firmly to my best of the year list based on excellence on many fronts. It doesn't have to be something high brow, or cost millions to make. It just had to move, to entertain, to tell a good story with competent technical qualities and a superb cast, and while 2011 to date had many close calls, none comes close to BECK by director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who also was responsible for yet another manga adaptation to the silver screen with 20th Century Boys, except that BECK is so much better.

Perhaps I'm a sucker for zero to hero type stories, or stories about the underdogs banding together to create magic as a rag tag team in their chosen field of specialization, filled with the usual, easily identifiable ups and downs stemmed from very basic human emotions ranging from envy to fear, or finding one's spirits in the doldrums before inspiration and encouragement spur the players onto the next peak. Sure there are many rote elements and qualities in the narrative that you'd probably find them familiar in essence, but it is the execution, delivery and chemistry amongst the cast that you cannot deny giving this film a leg up amongst those in similar genres.

There's comedy, there's drama, and then there's rock music in a heady mix you may think it's a Masala film with all ingredients put into a melting pot and coming off deliciously entertaining. It's a story about the coming together of five individuals who share the common love for rock, and for the fictional band Dying Breed, before circumstances led them to form their own band, to create their brand of music to move the world. It's the tale about the struggle of an indie band in the cutthroat world of the music industry, where rules aren't always fair to begin with, and often experiencing being muscled out from the bigger players who live to engineer sounds like hotshot producer Ran (Shido Nakamura) responsible for rival band Belle Ame, versus those that play and create from the bottom of their hearts.

From the tale of the individual character perspective, it's about Koyuki (Takeru Sato, almost over-utilizing his bug eyes when blindsided), an oft bullied schoolboy who finds himself learning to play the guitar under the guidance of a master (Takanori Takeyama) before teaming up with fellow schoolmate Saku (Aoi Nakamura), where both find themselves propelled into the more adult world of performing under the auspices of a real band in real gigs, rising from obscurity in school to having their own groupies, and having fellow band members protect them from incessant bullies at school. For Ryusuke (Hiro Mizushima) it's about forging a name for himself, coming from USA to Japan to do just that, breaking away from his ex-band due to his attitude and animosity, setting up some real competition. Chiba (Kenta Kiritani) the loud mouthed rapper who provides most of the comic relief as the impetuous frontman who knows a thing or two about rousing a crowd, and Taira (Osamu Mukai) the bassist modelled after Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, completes the band BECK.

Most of the subplots take us through the emotional roller coaster of the various characters, especially that of Ryusuke, Chiba and Koyuki as they deal with demons from the past, envy and worry, and romance respectively, the latter having a relationship with Ryusuke's filmmaker sister Maho (Shiori Kutsuna), who is also being pursued by rival band Belle Ame frontman, the actor turned singer Yoshito (Yuta Furukawa). While all the cast members forming BECK share some incredible chemistry as a tight outfit, these three characters and the cast playing them stand out especially, with screen time dedicated to their struggles. I would have preferred a little more insights to possibly the most mature band member in Taira, while Saku has a very fleeting romantic angle coming from an ardent BECK supporter Hiromi (Sari Kurauchi).

For its almost 2.5 hours runtime toward the ultimate goal and closure for the usual genre strategy of having to perform on the biggest stage possible, we journey with the band toward the Greatful Sound Festival which is the fictional version of the real Fuji Rock Festival, and the punchy pacing allowed for a lot of plot devices and elements getting squeezed effectively into the film, such as the dark history of Ryusuke's guitar Lucille that comes with six bullet holes in its body, jamming sessions with Blues legends, and even guitar picks become objects used to emote through music. You'll also find yourself rooting for BECK throughout, celebrating their inching toward success, and crying when pressure builds and cracks starting to appear and threatening band longevity.

But of course, what is a film about a band, if there's no rocking music to stomp your foot to? BECK provides this by the bucketloads, although of course three signature tunes of the titular band stood out, especially since we bear witness to their creation and practice sessions, primed for that all important make or break performance. There's the rock tune Evolution with Chiba in his prime, but making way quite surprisingly to Koyuki who is responsible for the slower English numbers, and here's where some may be disappointed.

We're made to believe that Koyuki, while he can't understand nor converse in English, can actually belt out English songs with plenty of heart even though he knows those lyrics by rote. And his innate ability is to move mountains and part oceans each time he opens his mouth to sing. Now this being a Japanese film, and I suppose it's quite clear that the actor Takeru Sato may not be able to confidently emote and cause audiences to break down as per those on screen, Yukihiko Tsutsumi came up with deliberately muting his voice. This may not go down well with some audiences, but I thought it was a rather creative way to allow one's imagination to run wild into how Koyuki does actually sound like when singing, and how awesome his voice would probably be judging from the supporters, and fellow band members' reactions. It also played out almost like a running joke, leaving you literally begging to hear some singing voice, so I have absolutely no qualms about that.

The last film involving Japanese rock music to form a premise was Fish Story, also an excellent film that was one of my favourites in 2010. BECK belongs to the same charming vein that makes this a highly recommended film , and in my books one of the most entertaining film so far in 2011 for rock fans and non-fans alike. Clearly a favourite in my books, and a contender as one of the best. Don't miss this, and see if you can spot Naoto Takenaka rapping too, albeit for a very short cameo!

BECK in Action!

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

We Got Shortened

Poor Brandon Routh. After snagging the iconic role as the Man of Steel, it's a little bit unfortunate that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns fell short of the studio's expectations, and he no longer plays a part in any future installments, starting with Zack Snyder's reboot. No matter, after all with that build and chiselled good looks, one can waltz into another superhero franchise, isn't it?

Unfortunately, Dylan Dog is an Americanized version of the Italian horror graphic novel character, and as far as adaptations of comics from another culture goes, this one hits the mark in expectations, where the source material got extremely dumbed down, its unique selling points dissolved into mediocrity and bastardized. Save for the trademarked coat and red shirt, director Kevin Munroe's vision of this character became somewhat of a generic monster hunter type of film, though a plus point would be its treatment and narrative style in full detective noir, with Routh's Dylan Dog being reluctantly pulled from retirement by his client Elizabeth (Anita Briem) to investigate the death of her father, as well as that of his assistant Marcus (Sam Huntington).

This investigative trip of course introduces the audience unfamiliar with the Dylan Dog mythos that the undead, from vampires to werewolves to zombies, all have hidden human identities and walk the Earth quite undetected, with a truce in place to keep the peace and Dylan being the only trusted human for the monsters to go to when someone crosses the line or breaks the peace. There's a little backstory here on Dylan's origins and the reasons behind his forced retirement, but nothing truly to wow or build upon any depth to the character, which is potential that's wasted in giving Dylan more meat in background, becoming instead just another human detective on his rounds.

The thrill factor of course is the make up and effects in having the monsters look their nasty part, although they aren't something that hasn't been seen before on screen. Action sequences are ho-hum, with the nagging feeling that the story by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer can't quite decide how to empower Dylan, making him become as powerful as Routh's previous comic book outing in at least the indestructibility factor, while equipped with some funky weapons that we should see more of. And the trailer while pretty tacky, actually summed up the entire plot, having reveal too much and letting out that the filmmakers aren't quite confident with their end product, and the marketers a little bit clueless on how to sell this film, hence its verbosity.

While Brandon Routh has a limited acting range, his physique actually suited him fine here and basically that was all that mattered, since you aren't going to remember much about his rather bland performance. Perhaps it's also because Sam Huntington, his co-star from Superman Returns as well as he played Jimmy Olsen then, scored much of the flak in this film being the very whiny assistant, whose wisecracks and constant shouting get onto your nerves, and you wonder when his character could shut up if at all for five minutes. The Marcus character doesn't exist in the books simply because of a potential copyright tussle if what was deemed as a Grucho Marx lookalike got interpreted, but this modern replacement was as unfunny as he was unnecessary in a lot of ways.

Don't expect this monster squad outing to be too cerebral. It's filled with corny one liners involving various body parts, and in essence is a poor man's cousin to Men in Black, replacing aliens in our midst with that of monsters roaming around. If only it had stuck more faithfully to its source (and also not unceremoniously snipped), then it could have been something quite unique.

[SFS Talkies] Taipei 24H (台北异想)

There's Always Time For Love

Today's SFS Talkies was shrouded in mystery besides an NC16 rating for a Taiwanese film as a clue, and as it turned out it was the omnibus of short stories forming Taipei 24H, revolving around 8 stories of about 11 minutes each directed by different directors both up and coming and established, with the gimmick that their stories are each set in different hours over a 24 hour period. Like any collection of short stories, be prepared for a kaleidoscope of stories trying to encapsulate the amplified, dramatic life in the capital of Taiwan, with the usual subjective hits and misses.

Beginning with a comedy, Share the Morning by Cheng Fen-fen captures the frenzy of the people when caught up in something, each offering very opinionated views on how to tackle a problem, which is a cat stuck in a tree. You have a bit time actress, a man who responds to her call for assistance who's also nursing a crush on the married woman, cheerleaders, school going children, a lout and the list goes on, as each gather around from time to time to cheer and jeer, and offer unwarranted comments with bite, sarcasm and laughter for the audience.

Love forms the crux of the next three shorts. In Just a Little Run by Niu Chang-zer, it began with two woman cursing and swearing at each other, with accusations wrought by one that the other had stolen her boyfriend. We witness this bitchy argument through the eyes of a young girl, executing a plan to escape from her life with a fellow male classmate, and sparks fly at least for one party in their accidental roundtrip bus ride. The ending is rather weak though, with a verbose confession set against two drunk women in embrace, probably going to show how fleeting animosity can be over women involved with the same guy.

Summer Heat by Debbie Hsu is probably the sexiest of the lot, with an office lady and a man she meets in a restaurant going up hot and heavy with each other in a love hotel room, only for a series of inexplicable hotel staff and incidents to come disrupt their lunchtime tryst. I liked Save the Lover a lot, directed by Cheng Hsian-tse, dealing with a rather cool premise where a ruffian told to tail his boss' woman finds himself entrapped by the sassy lass, while contemplating his own broken relationship and trying to fend off a blackmail that doesn't bode well when his boss and his posse comes visiting. Probably the most adventurous of the lot in allowing the tilt of the camera be weaved into the narrative, and to see the famous Taipei 101 building from a different perspective.

Father and daughter relationships take up two stories. The first, Smoke by Lee Chi-yuam, is one almost devoid of spoken dialogue in traditional art house fare that relies heavily on the acting strength of its principle cast to carry the story of an estranged relationship, while Owl Service by An Je-yi is set in the twilight hours on board a night bus where the bus driver dad picks up and forces his runaway daughter to board his detail, in a sort of moving imprisonment where their resentment for each other gets an opportunity to be worked on. Sandwiched in between the two stories is the most experimental of the lot, with DJ Chen Ying-jung's Dream Walker telling the tale of a man being tailed by a kid in (what I thought was a mushroom) costume, and weaves in and out of imaginary dreamscapes and doors that open up to different environments, ala The Adjustment Bureau, sans hat. The ending packs a hilarious punch through the involvement of sign language.

The final short will probably be the one that's most notable to film fans, where Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng reverses the usual roles they play with the latter now being the director, and casting his mentor Tsai in a starring role with Remembrance, a homage short to pay their respects to Luo Man-fei, a famous Taiwanese dancer. It's hugely melancholic and relies on the reputation of the two directors to perhaps draw in the crowds to give Taipei 24H a chance wherever it's screened.

That said, Taipei 24H can actually stand on its own as it serves the purpose of a collaborative film loosely strung together through the gimmicky use of time, and becomes the showcase of Taiwanese filmmakers to demonstrate how diverse their cinema can be in one sitting.

Friday, May 20, 2011

In a Better World (Hævnen)

What Are You Staring At?

Winner of this year's Golden Globes and the Oscars for Best Foreign/Language Film, the Danish film In a Better World, or Revenge in its native language, helmed by director Susanne Bier shows the powerful stuff that drama is made of, in crafting an engaging, sensitive and even dangerous tale that revolves around two families across two continents that deals with what I would deem as our threshold, tolerance and approach to the notion of being bullied and having the tables turned, to varying consequences.

There's Clause (Ulrich Thomsen) and his son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) who just moved from London to a small Danish town, where the son blames the father for giving up the good fight against his mom's fight against cancer, and so forges an extremely testy relationship between the two since one fails to forgive the other, and the other trying too hard to seek it. In school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), a boy constantly bullied by the older boys just because, whose doctor parents Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are estranged because of the suggestion of the former's infidelity, and are on the brink of a divorce. The other major subplot and spatial treatment deals with Anton's time in an African village tending to the poor and the sick, which you'd know from volunteer groups out there who have doctors in their fold performing similar pro-bono services in under dangerous natural and man made circumstances.

As mentioned, the film focuses on something that rears its ugly head from time to time, with bullying happening not only within a school sandbox, but out there in society as well. And the ways we stand up to bullying got captured quite clearly here, as demonstrated by the different characters and their attitudes in handling such situations. For instance, Christian adopts the devil may care approach, for the young lad that he is, preferring to meet fire with fire, and dish out even worst than he received. Constantly scowling, William Nielsen does a good job portraying this angry boy whose daring gets more elaborate culminating in a tense moment which came quite expected in a way though saved by strong performances all round.

While his partner in crime and fellow peer Elias finds himself caught up in a dilemma and tussle whether to rat on his friend who had actually helped to keep the bullies at bay, perhaps it is how Ander Thomas Jensen's story that links Elias' father into the thick of things that made it richly layered. For all his compassion in helping to heal the poor in Africa, Anton follows a vastly different policy in the face of adversity. Perhaps you can point it to the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors have to adhere to, given his moral battle with his conscience when his skills are sought out by a vicious local warlord much to the worries and disbelief of the local population who has a growing respect for the good work performed for the community.

Anton is a fascinating character created, and Mikael Persbrandt shows his charisma in chewing up the scenes each time he appears, from the opening frame to the last. In a foreign land he's almost worshipped as a hero, but back home he's ridiculed and even abused by a stranger with whom he had no fight against, and his non-confrontational nature may seem unreal even, preferring never to stoop as low as his abuser, and hopefully imparting the correct values to his children. But as we see from the wrap up of the African subplot, Anton can in fact turn the tables if he chooses to, and I suppose it's really to pick one's fight, for those that truly matter (maybe even for the greater good, with intent a little bit suspect) rather than one for personal pride.

Director Susanne Bier just knows how to pace and package scenes that make you think, yet offering a lot of heart that they don't seem too overly engineered or manipulative. Through the tales of the different character arcs we see how true the avenues are in our very human response to those that give us flak for nothing or when we deem a certain injustice committed unto ourselves or others, either we talk our way out, fight back, or walk away with heads held high, the latter which is probably one of the hardest thing to do given bruised egos. It's also not too surprising that the perpetrators of this emotional downward spiral seem not to come from the women in the story like Anton's wife Marianne, who was almost like a flower vase if not for two superb scenes in the final act that lifted her role into one of necessity in contrast to how disappointed yet angry a mother can be, that Christian will never feel because of his own mother's absence.

A compelling dramatic piece with excellent characters and relationships, brought vividly to life by the cast of youth holding their own against the veterans, that makes this a must watch, and one of the best films of the year. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides on IMAX 3D

I Think the Fountain Is That Way

I thought this film would never have happened, since the first three films wrapped themselves up pretty nicely as a trilogy, but I suppose studios never say no to profits there for the taking, especially if the point man in Johnny Depp is game to don his eyeliner and pirates garb one more time, and possible more films lined up since the final scenes and the coda after the end credits blatantly teases and flirts with its audience and fan base.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) is back to charm one and all with this swagger and wit, and this time sans his Black Pearl as he goes on a mission, or at least it's one of those self fulfilling rumours, that he's assembling a crew to set sail on a quest to locate the proverbial Fountain of Youth. As with what's characteristic of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, there are always more than one party interested in either joining in or serving as competition, and here we have an English royalty keen on recruiting Jack amongst their ranks to led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now an English privateer, the Spanish Inquisition team who are narratively the weakest of the lot save for one pivotal scene, and a true blue pirates outfit led by the villanous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) aboard his Queen Anne's Revenge ship, with his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) as his first mate and one time ex-fling of Jack's tasked with luring the latter out and joining their quest rather reluctantly.

But everyone has ulterior motives, and in true Jack Sparrow fashion, the character relationships all play out like the reality game show Survivor as in previous films, where deals are cut, some allegiances are strongly forged while others being temporarily serving mutual self-interests of the moment. Part of the fun is to witness how Sparrow navigates through sticky situations and almost always come up tops, with the nagging suspicion that Fate smiles on his side consistently, seemingly having no plan at all when he embarks on various mini quests in gathering artifacts all geared toward the primary mission, from the capture of mermaids (and they're of the nasty in attitude variety) to chalices all part of a strange ritual required to get to the secret fountain everyone is craving for.

Joining the fray this time round are old hands such as Geoffrey Rush in bringing a lot more to the Barbossa character, and Gibbs (Kevin McNally) as Jack Sparrow's loyal and trusty first mate. Penelope Cruz becomes one of two token female characters here, although her real life pregnancy created some complications during the shoot, and the credits had to thank her sister Monica Cruz for standing in for the long shots so that there wouldn't be a need to hide that bulge in the tummy - it's quite obvious which scenes these were as her character's hat had to be tipped downwards. You can also tell that the presence of Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as a priest and mermaid respectively were to counterbalance the loss of Orlando Bloom's Will Turner and Keira Knightley's Elizabbeth Swann as the film's requisite lovebirds, which developed too fast too soon, and left it hanging, possibly to be explored in greater detail in subsequent films.

As an action adventure, the action sequences if compared to the previous installments, have all been toned down, and are the same old routine often seen in other action adventures. Do we need another escape on a chariot, or yet another big brawled sword fight sans blood (this is a Disney film after all) with nary a vulgar word spoken as they are cut off at the right moment? Too many one on one swordfights amongst various characters also made this quite repetitive to sit through, and I'd secretly enjoyed more of the dramatic wheelings and dealings more than the action in this film, despite the middle portion sagging under its own talkie weight.

Gore Verbinski had given up the director's chair to allow for new blood to take over the helm and steer the franchise into a new direction, so enter Rob Marshall, whom I'd say has the unenviable task of continuing a very well loved, and profitable series of films. While the direction may be new and the storyline necessary to be branching off from where it left off, somehow On Stranger Tides failed to recreate the entire adventurous spirit that the original trilogy possessed. Perhaps it's the cutting down on funding that made the action sequences quite dull, also having to shoot those scenes in 2D before undergoing 3D conversion to keep costs down.

Sure the storyline is an adventure film for fans to follow up on the exploits of Jack Sparrow, but it sure felt more of the same with that air of familiarity not broken. Should another film be made, let's hope it has some of the swashbuckling cavalier feel to it rather than just another exercise of routine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Under the Sea and Why IMAX 3D

Deep Sea Monster

Thanks to my friend I got to watch a special screening at Shaw Theatres' latest 20 million dollars renovated flagship, Lido, now equipped with Singapore's only IMAX hall. And the result is A+, which I have raved about at the bottom. But first, the review proper.

Under the Sea is a documentary that brings us to the depths of the oceans to be introduced to the various sea creatures that we hardly see, unless you're an avid diver and being knowledgeable enough to know your undersea flora and fauna. To the uninitiated and non-divers like myself, this is one thrill ride that reminds us we're not alone in this world, and there are countless other species living in 70% of our world that we hardly ever see.

Narrated by Jim Carrey, yes, that Jim Carrey, the visuals are spectacular, showcasing the vibrancy of colours underwater, and very strange fishes and creatures both predator and prey, stretching from the waters of Papua New Guinea to Australia's Gold Coast. I've lost count on the number of species on display, but for fans of the ocean you will get to see them in their natural habitat engaging in various activities from camouflaging, mating to pure survival in keeping themselves fed. Given the presentation in IMAX it's really in your face stuff, especially when it boils down to snapping at its own food chain, and what I really felt uncomfortable with, were the wriggly, venomous sea snakes swimming toward the screen. Yikes!

Perhaps the primary weak point in the film is Jim Carrey's narration, as his voice was somehow drowned out by the soundtrack and ambient underwater sounds. Granted he's no James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman whose voices inherently have a certain booming, commanding gravitas, Carrey's came across as somewhat smart-alecky at some points, though of course fingers can be pointed to the writer of his lines, and as they say, don't shoot the messenger.

Then there's not much of a weaving narrative attempted to tell a story here, other than to launch you into the visuals direct and describing what's going on, and if it's something a lot more educational you're expecting, then you'll be a tad disappointed. It skims the surface of the various species introduced, and of course the legwork of research and investigations into more detail lie with you the audience in digging up more information after the screening, and that is if you're bothered to.

One can almost feel that this slightly under an hour film served its purpose as a presentation preview for audiences to the new IMAX 3D format, and would have certainly piqued the interest of many to make this presentation format the format of choice in films slated in its lineup, starting with this summer's blockbusters.


I think Singapore can accommodate more IMAX halls, with some renovations involved of course, because of the unparalleled quality and audience experience to be felt, and all the more very suited for big budgeted summer spectacles. There are cities overseas that can boast more than 1 IMAX equipped cinema, and with Singapore having one of the highest cinema attendances in the world, shouldn't this make commercial sense with a carefully worked out ROI?

Forget about premium and luxury class halls where the only kick you'll get is from having a butler serve you food and drinks as you struggle to eat in the dark and getting distracted as you take your eyes off screen to make sure the food gets into your mouth. Or having a swanky lounge to relax in prior to the start of a movie, to watch trailers that can be found online anyway.

We're talking about an immersive, wrap around experience that envelopes your senses totally. 14,000 12,000 Watts of digital sound, and a pristine digital projection that puts you into the film, I'd swear even the talkers in the cinema will shut up and be in awe at what the cinema experience now brings. Why pay premium for a luxury class (every major cinema chain has their own branding for such a hall) when the audience pays a little less for an IMAX 3D film that offers what they're there to experience - movie entertainment on a big screen with a good sound system, to paraphrase one of the local advertisements on anti-piracy efforts.

Premium halls are small halls with small screens. The one at Lido is huge, but of course arguably by no means the largest in country, but large enough to feel the difference in what a classy, quality projection and mega-watt sound system can bring to the table. Even the IMAX 3D glasses are extremely lightweight, and with large lenses that doesn't stifle your face like how a rigid pair of goggles do, as it fits onto your face snugly, even if you're bespectacled, like me.

If I have a choice with a steady stream of funds available, every film that is screening at Lido IMAX, you will see me there. This hall sets the stage for the rest to catch up, and catch up they must. GV MAX and Cathay Grand The Grand Cathay can't hold a candle to the mighty Lido IMAX, and no, I'm not being paid to say that - watch a movie there, and you'll feel that gulf in class and complete end-user experience, that you'll become a convert too, at the drop of a hat.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Something's Creeping Up!

Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have burst into our filmic consciousness having being responsible for Saw that launched an enduring franchise, created a new anti-hero and spawned a frenzy in the torture porn subgenre. Horror films are their forte though Wan did branch off for a remake of Death Wish with Death Sentence, before re-teaming with Whannell behind the camera to come up with Insidious, one of the best jump in your seat horror offering in quite some time.

It's easy to pass this off as another quick hack out to earn an easy buck at the box office. For instance, the poster has this creepy child, and creepy children have been staple in films such as Orphan, Joshua, the remake of The Omen, and countless others in recent years. The opening credits scene is incredibly cheesy and cheap looking, but it gets better, trust me. Then there's the story about a haunted house, a requisite in many, many horror films, but that's only the tip of the iceberg, as Wan and Whannell intended to lull you in with complacency built up from one's horror film experience, before shoving the motherload of scares right down your throat.

Even the building of the premise may make you roll your eyes at the expectation that this may be just another Paranormal Activity, since it tells of the Lambert family, with parents Josn and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne respectively) and their three children Dalton (Ty Simpkins playing Wilson's kid again, collaborating before in Todd Field's Little Children), Foster (Andrew Astor) and another toddler in arms who bawl at the slightest of disturbances in the house. And there are plenty, with the usual moving and slamming doors, a very receptive baby monitor and documentary styled camera movements that reminisces that of Paranormal Activity 2, sans voyeuristic eyes from CCTV and found footage.

You won't be faulted if you had suspicions that this film took a leaf from Paranormal Activity and combined it with your classic haunted house spooks, but here's where Whannell, who also starred in this film as a paranormal geek alongside Angus Sampson, upped the ante despite having to have the family move house, and came up with a tale that's best kept under wraps to retain the surprises that come along the way, although some may find fault with his rather geeky and detailed explanation through the medium Elise (Lin Shaye), engaged by Josh's mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) that links up with Josh's own repressed past.

But as far as scaring the audience goes, Insidious scores top marks. Wan has a knack for designing his scary pieces with aplomb to jump scare even the most jaded of horror film goers, and the best part is, you're primed to expect something to happen, and they do, without too many time wasting red herrings. Wan gives what an audience will expect, and does so without pulling his punches, so much so that it's somewhat of a thrill ride as we journey with the characters to make sense of what's happening. The beauty comes from the simplicity of the ghoul design, cliched some may be even, and one red faced demon that looked very much like Darth Maul. But they did their job in old school like fashion, complete with a very in your face, scratchy soundtrack that did half the job since this film would not have worked without Joseph Bishara's violin-centric score.

Costing only 1.5 million dollars to make and grossing over 50 million to date, Insidious just goes to show how profitable horror films can be, where there's no need for fancy graphical effects, but reliance on simple practical ones to send chills up your spine. If it's a good scare in the cinemas you're after, then Insidious serves that up by the bucketloads without insulting your intelligence. Stay right through to the end credits for one final hurrah. Highly recommended!

Monday, May 16, 2011

ScreenSingapore Updates

It's been quiet for the longest time on what to expect from the lineup in the inaugural ScreenSingapore sidebars and main events in early June this year, and today comes the multiple whammies to stamp the organizers' serious intent in staging one of the glitziest film events in the Lion City that will appeal to both the industry professionals, as well as you and me the average Joe on the street.

As widely touted, the World, International or Asia-Pacific Premieres will see red carpet galas and preview screenings of films such as:

From the Pan-Chinese film industry, The Devil Inside Me gets the honour as the film presentation on Opening Night at GV Vivocity, a thriller by director Zhang Qi and starring Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Kelly Lin. Previews of films such as The Mural (the sequel to 2008's Painted Skin) and Speed Angel will bring in attendance the likes of directors Gordon Chan and Jingle Ma, producer Abe Kwong Man-Wai, and the cast of Yan Ni, Colin Chou, Liu Yan, Zheng Shuang, Xie Nan, Bao Bei-Er, and Tang Wei to the red carpet.

We will also see the World Premiere of Treasure Inn (財神客棧), with director Wong Jing (yes!), actor Nick Cheung, Huang Yi and Liu Yang walk the red carpet, as will director Julien Leclercq and actress Melanie Bernier who will be here to present the French film The Assault in its International Premiere, featuring the French GIGN (Counterstrikers, celebrate!) in action.

There's even room for Bollywood fans like myself, with the much awaited Salman Khan film Ready (रेडी) marking its World Premiere too, with actress Asin in town to grace the red carpet, and Shah Rukh Khan previewing his much awaited Ra.One, arguably touted as the most expensive Bollywood film to date.

Japan Night will see two International Premieres, Paradise Kiss starring Keiko Kitagawa and Osamu Mukai, with actress Aya Omasa in attendance to present the film, and May'n, no stranger to Singapore given her performances since the inception of the Anime Festival Asia and the fairly recent May'n Unite!! Asia Tour 2011, sees her return to the Lion City to present her latest 3D concert documentary film May'n the Movie - Phonic Nation.

Singapore will be represented through two films made overseas - Where the Road Meets the Sun by director Yong Mun Chee who will be in attendance with his cast of Fernando Noriega, Laura Ramsey and Luke Brandon Field, and Jesus Henry Christ by writer-director Dennis Lee, who will be joined by his Singapore producer Sukee Chew and actor Jason Spevack in attendance.

And what is an event without some Hollywood films thrown into the mix, with Mr Popper's Penguins and Super 8 making their bow, and Tom Hanks will be in town to present the Asia-Pacific premiere of Larry Crowne as ScreenSingapore's Closing Film at Lido Cineplex.

If you think that's all, well we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg. A number of concurrent film events will run throughout the festival period of 5 to 12 June, such as Asian Short Film Awards@ScreenSingapore (5 Jun) with Oliver Stone heading the jury, a trade industry Expo (7–9 Jun), 3D Production Forum (6 Jun), Film Finance Forum (7 Jun), WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) Masterclass@ScreenSingapore (8 Jun), and an In Conversation Series with leaders of the motion picture industry, and filmmakers such as Shekhar Kapur and Kelvin Tong.

There will be closed door, invitations only previews to film exhibitors of films from Disney, Fox, Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros, but for the rest of us, fret not, as ScreenSingapore does offer public screenings at major cineplexes during the event period showcasing films such as James Ivory's The City of Your Final Destination, A Beautiful Life (不再讓你孤單), Brighton Rock, The New Daughter, Korean film Haunters (초능력자), amongst others like Blood Creek which piques my interest being directed by Joel Schumacher and starring the new Superman Henry Cavill.

What's more, the China Film Festival will also run in parallel to ScreenSingapore.

There's no lack of film choices this coming month of June, so keep your eyes peeled over at the Official ScreenSingapore Website or its Facebook page for more details as they are released.

You can check out the original press release over here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Making Do

Biutiful is a beautiful film. Beutifully aching, beautifully bleak and beautifully crafted by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, bringing his signature styles as seen in 21 Grams and Babel, weaving a rich tapestry of a father's love for his children into a powerful narrative of survival and that painful succession, of responsibility and guilt careening toward the inevitable finale with the rush against time before one succumbs to the illness that fate had dealt.

In essence this is almost a one man show and Javier Bardem is in absolutely fine form as Uxbal, a man stricken with cancer and knows his time is up. But that only compounds his problems as he has two young children to take care and fend for, given that his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder and is cheating behind his back with his brother, is none quite fit to raise the two kids on her own. Without regular work - moonlighting as a medium of sorts and mostly earning his keeps from the underworld through trade involving illegal workers, he treads the fine line of survival in mixing with the black hats as well as those on the side of the law who prefer to have their palms greased.

If you have followed Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's filmography and career thus far with four features including this one under his belt, you'd come to appreciate his preference in taking time to tell a story, and weaving in no less than three distinct narrative threads here that converge somewhat toward the end, dealing with the lives of a down and out, dysfunctional Spanish family, that of a Chinese businessman and his gay lover whose business acumen is quite suspect, and of a Senegalese family with close ties to Uxbal, whose breadwinner fail to heed Uxbal's advice to stay off the drug trade. These three pronged stories provide for an exploration of a spectrum of emotions

Besides Bardem's excellent performance which snagged him the Palme d'Or for Best Actor in Cannes last year, both Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella also owned the film as the children of Uxbal, being very natural in front of the camera to endear their characters to the audience, making it easily understandable why a father would fight tooth and nail and meticulously plan for the day that he would no longer be around, that there are good people around to assist in raising his kids, that there would be some money available to be expensed for livelihood.

While the film sprawls in its narrative, it's the little touches that hammer home the poignancy and emotions. I could have sworn that it was a sound gaffe when father and daughter embrace in a moment of extreme affection and the sound of hearts pounding came through because the wireless mikes underneath their garments come into close contact with their bodies, but letting it remain in the film allowed for that very deeply felt feelings to ring right through, allowing us to hear those heart beats that made it all seem so keenly felt, and moving.

Then there are the opening scenes involving two hands and a ring, and one involving Uxbal and a mysterious man in a snow filled landscape talking over a dead owl, and these only made sense to those patient and brings the entire film full circle. Even the scene with Uxbal in a room of coffins also brought home the point of melancholy of the dearly departed, which dealt with spirituality in a deft fashion. It is precisely these moments that Inarritu's film becomes the gem that it is, making you feel for each and every one of the characters involved and the options available and chosen, that you clamour for reprieve even for just a little while, such as the making do and contentment around the dinner table with what little they have.

Despite its grim and bleak outlook, the sensitive treatment by the filmmakers and cast makes Biutiful an engrossing, wicked even, view in witnessing a man's spiral into despair, and the touching moments that come when the inevitable is just at the horizon. Highly recommended!
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