Friday, September 30, 2011


Feel the Force

Of late I have enjoyed the slew of action films coming out from Bollywood, especially the cop ones thanks to Salman Khan's highly successful Dabangg that had energized the genre and allowed the likes of Abhishek Bachchan, Ajay Devgn and now John Abraham to follow suit in playing no nonsense tough cops who talk with their guns and fists and do not hesitate meeting fire with fire against their villains. Sure you will raise your eyebrows at the tactics and techniques used, but while some of the earlier films had a tinge of exaggeration in their action sequences, Force was all serious.

John Abraham stars as the hulking giant ACP Yash of the narcotics bureau who had spent the most parts of his life undercover and busting drug lords and their syndicates. We see how, without the baggage of close friends and family, he gets to do what he does best since there's pretty much nothing anyone can do to find an emotional sweet spot in which to exploit the inherent weakness of man when he has a loved one or family to look after. That status quo changes when he meets with Maya (Genelia D'Souza) with whom he starts off on the wrong foot with, but slowly but surely it took them an entire half of a film before the intermission to fall in love.

Which dragged out the first half as it tried extremely hard to balance the romantic moments, and that of the action ones with ACP Yash assembling his own crack team of buddies to go after the major drug lords in the city, before realizing that they were indirectly helping the meanest drug syndicate of them all, run by the maniacal Vishnu (Vidyut Jamwal) to re-enter the market and become the de-facto monopoly on illicit drug supplies since there's essentially no competition. And as a pre-emptive strike, Vishnu comes up with plans to rid Yash and his men with family and loved ones no longer being sacred and untouchable as he goes all out to get even.

Told largely in a flashback nature since the film opens with Yash being busted out of a window fighting for dear life before being rushed to hospital, Force came off as a mixed bag, while at times trying to be gritty and cold, but let down by a rather clunky delivery especially during emotional scenes which were implausible to have happened, especially the final scene involving Yash, Maya and Vishnu, with the audience made to wonder where Vishnu is and what he was doing while waiting for the lovers to say what they needed to say.

John Abraham with mean tattoo, shades and attitude was probably the only reason to watch Force, a remake of the Tamil movie Kaakha Kaakha directed by Nishikanth Kamath. Here his buffed body naturally becomes the talk of the town as there were many engineered scenes where he just had to take his top off, and the final battle was somewhat like a hats off to Salman Khan in any typical action role were valid reasons to become shirtless was almost always due to the villain. Genelia D'Souza role as Maya was basically to look good and provide justification why ACP Yash would choose to plunge headlong into a relationship when he was already married to his job, and their romance really took its own sweet time to simmer, and Vidyut Jamwal could only do so much given his limited screen time, only managing to reinforce he's such a badass every time he chooses to exercise punishment on the cops.

Force had lacked what its contemporaries in the genre had - plenty of fun, and a unique gimmick for a selling point. It had taken itself way too seriously, and with only its production rumour of John Abraham really marrying Genelia D'Souza on set no thanks to the actual rites being chanted and followed, may bring in the crowds and put bums on seats. A pretty bland effort overall, which is a pity since the tough cop genre had built up a strong momentum only for Force to actually deliver a whimper and derail that effort.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Apollo 18

Houston We Got Big Problems

Just when you thought the found footage science fiction and horror subgenre would finally run out of steam with every possible story being told, here comes another that's set in the final frontier of space, and I admit it's kinda clever for writers Cory Goodman and Brian Miller to utilize this device in a conspiracy theory type story that deals with why there are no longer any more missions to put man on the moon again, barring budget constraints, with no lack of volunteers and astronauts on payroll.

From the Blair Witch project involving discovered footage from a camera, there have been wannabes and variants, with some of the most notable being The Last Exorcism with a documentary crew following their subject for some investigative journalism, in the same way [REC] did it, and from Cloverfield's monster movie to the Paranormal Activity films which combine both the moving home camera with the static ones from CCTVs. After all from a movie making perspective most of these films are completed on a shoe-string budget and become profitable at the box office, and the challenge here is to create some original ideas to further milk this genre before they all truly run out and remakes are called into play.

Apollo 18 takes one of the cancelled missions of NASA and gives a controversial, conspiracy type spin to why the crew never made it to the Moon, by suggesting that the crew actually did so, but a massive cover up put a lid on what had transpired, with official records fabricated to hide the truth from the public. The premise is smart, but the delivery left much to be desired, despite superb production sets to recreate the look and feel of lunar landing and command modules both from the outside and within, those retro looking space suits, and the near zero gravity experience within the space crafts and during those moon walks.

One of the chief issues here is that we never really got to know the crew involved so as to provide that little bit of an emotional anchor to feel for them when things go wrong. Granted this is not Apollo 13 and neither was the bandwidth given for this to clock more than 90 minutes, but its runtime really felt excruciatingly slow given that most of the time, nothing significant happens, saving almost everything for last, and throwing the audience a couple of cheap scares every now and then. The most we get to know of the Apollo 18 crew was that they really liked their barbeque gatherings, and being called to finally get up there to the moon, in a mission sponsored by the Department of Defense, was a real honour, never mind if their project is more top secret and classified involving what they thought was installing cameras and sensors to detect Russian ICBM launches; cold war era, remember?

By staying true to that era and the plot that the footage is real and found, we get a lot of grainy, full screen presentation with plenty of static, quick cuts (edited by the filmmaker from the hours of raw material it was claimed) to highlight that sense of dread and urgency in staying alive when all else seemed to have abandoned them and the mission. The lack of stronger character development made it a little difficult to empathize with the characters when they face a brick wall in communications and with a mission threatening to go haywire, made worst when there is something else quite hostile in their midst, and contributing to a systemic failure of equipment and people. They become the inevitable fodder, though one is limited to only the crew rather than to have a mindless bloodbath just because it is possible.

Still, don't let this faux pas found footage film put you off from the glee of partaking in a conspiracy theory especially if space missions are up your alley, and meanwhile, let me look for my lunar rock and toss it out the window.

Attack the Block

Let's Roll Y'all

Written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Joe Cornish, Attack the Block is one slick alien invasion movie that is a one up against the Hollywood offerings of Skyline and Battle Los Angeles which relied pretty much on impressive special effects to carry the film and to awe its audiences, whereas this effort focused very much on its story which is kept simple, and having troubled delinquents as main protagonists puts it very much like an opposite peer of Super 8, with this bunch of kids here not from your suburban middle class, but from the working class who don't bat an eyelid when engaging in petty crime to sustain their attention span or for fun.

Led by de-facto leader of the bunch Moses (John Boyega), we see them rob Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse on her way home in the same tough neighbourhood, but an extra-terrestrial incident where what would seem like a meteorite came crashing down near them, leading to an all out chase and eventual parading of a dead alien like a trophy catch they had finished off. Before you know it a lot more of them aliens come descending to Earth, and all are converging toward the titular block in the most vile and violent way possible, with everyone else in the way being collateral.

Expect violence and gore, most of which will happen offscreen except for shots that need you to squirm at your seat to highlight the non-discriminatory nature in which the aliens take out all humans in the show. And design-wise they are very stealthy and probably will build a cult following as one of the better designed alien creatures, being decked in all black save for some ultra-violet blue glowing teeth that would probably be the first, and the last thing the characters see before biting the dust, and truly this design worked wonders in the film when suspense was required at any point. They don't get too powerful like most alien invasion movies go, where household appliances would work against them be it electricity, or the good old kitchen knife or the ubiquitous baseball bat, although speed and movement, hunting in packs, are the advantages the alien creatures draw upon.

It's an English film, so language is first and foremost something that will strike you, in the terms these street kids use, as well as the plenty of F-bombs and swear words being thrown around that will take a while to get used to, but nothing that will alienate you from the characters, from stoned punks (Nick Frost, seriously!) to weed growing gangsters. There's also always the British wit involved, and no doubt will bring about comedic moments without trying too hard at being funny for the sake of.

Besides the usual hunter versus prey set action pieces that see aliens chasing after the kids for reasons that will be revealed in due course, what worked here in the story is the very subtly put, and well delivered, morality tale about responsibility, and standing up to fix one's screw up, which is something nice as a reminder for all ages and all walks of life since there are always those who cower and not want to be held accountable for their actions, or lack thereof. Filmed with a sense of urgency to reflect the state of flight of the kids, and stylistically as well - the money shot involving the audacious and bold plan Moses comes up with for execution - Attack the Block is not your usual run of the mill alien invasion flick, but brings something more to the table to put it well above the average genre movie. Recommended!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

1911 (辛亥革命 / Xin Hai Ge Ming)

The Return of the Doctor

Being billed as Jackie Chan's centennial film - well it depends on who's counting since listed it as the number 109, but seriously, who's counting? - it was a shrewd career choice to have made it an epic in both scale and story, an extremely well made piece of historical drama filled with political intrigue and a fine cast fleshing out their period roles, and to coincide it with the centennial year of the historical milestone it is based on as well, being the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that ultimately overthrew the Chinese Qing dynasty and ended more than 2000 years of Imperial rule in China. It could have been Rush Hour 4 or Police Story 6, but Jackie Chan had got grander ideas, so good for him.

With the aforementioned centennial celebrations of sorts, there are countless of films being released based on historical characters and incidents in the run up, with big budgeted, and undoubtedly easily labelled as propaganda films like The Founding of a Republic and its sequel The Founding of a Party boasting big name stars in its line up to draw record audiences. The latest yet to hit the big screen here, but soon enough unless the incessant playing of the trailers start to put people off, would be the story of Qiu Jin who was an anti-Qing revolutionary, in a film titled The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake directed by Herman Yau, and it is Qiu Jin who interesting enough, actually opens this film, which may make those unfamiliar with her character scratch their heads for a little while.

In a gist 1911 chronicles the fight by the Tong Meng Hui led by Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) and his band of brothers to start a revolution against the corrupt Qing government who have so far been making plenty of concessions to foreign powers since the Opium War, with the country decaying morally and economically, the poor leading really miserable lives. If you're been watching Chinese cinema set around the era, you'd be fairly familiar with the strife and struggles of the Chinese people in and around that period, and this film centers itself around the failed attempts, and successful forays in leading an armed and bloody revolution to eject the corrupt leaders from their throne of power in Beijing.

Sharing director duties with Zhang Li, Jackie Chan despite being his 100th film which you may think the limelight should fall on him, somehow successfully dissolves into his General Huang Xing role, and didn't mind playing second fiddle to both Winston Chao's Sun Yat-sen and the life-changing events that unfolded in 1911. In many scenes you'll forget about Chan being Chan in his charismatic presence, even toning down his usual repertoire of stunts and moves that he's so well known for in his films, to ground himself very much in reality given it's an historical epic, providing only a glimpse of his old self in just a single scene no doubt to trademark this as a Jackie Chan flick. It's an admirable effort of restraint here, and once again allows Chan to showcase his serious side and acting chops since his successful Little Big Soldier.

The narrative also unfolded fairly evenly, with the first third of it unfolding in an interesting use of time and space rather than what you would think would be the usual chronological unravelling of events. I guess it goes to show the coming of age and maturing of contemporary Chinese mainstream cinema in adopting more creative techniques to their art and craft, and this dedication to accuracy and details show. With classy visual effects and beautiful art direction, the entire film became like a walk through time and history, with stuff you read about in the history books being brought alive. The film tried to cover as much ground as possible, and realistically read like a fast-forwarded synopsis of given key milestones being played out on screen, and the rest breezed through in the use of many inter-titles to fill in the gaps between scenes, which you may need a magnifying glass to read.

And where would the fun be if not for its ensemble cast, some inevitably only get limited air time, such as Ye Shao Qun, Jaycee Chan and Dennis To in very blink and you miss moments. Sun Chun playing Yuan Shikai almost steals the show with his portrayal as the power-hungry general who is biding his time with his allegiance, holding the Qing court ransom with his demands, and stalling his actions for the rebels, providing that level of political intrigue as a shaky alliance based on promises and the integrity of men come into play. Joan Chen also excelled in her role as the Empress Dowager (to think that many years back she was the Queen in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor) and was a delight to watch how ineffective the entire dynasty rule had become behind the closed doors of the Forbidden City, while the other female actress in Li Bingbing as the wife of Huang Xing came off as far too lightweight in her nursing role. Winson Chao continues in his typecast role as Sun Yat-sen, portraying him in umpteenth film projects, though at no point you'll doubt his charismatic air and gravitas brought into the role.

1911 challenges Chinese filmmakers to dig deep into their history to tell stories based on its own contemporary, formative years. Even Singapore is finally getting into the act with its own 1965 film project, and I suppose any film industry worth its grain in salt would have these films lined up under its filmography that allows for a critical and artistic look at troubled times before, the ideals held then, and the struggles many took to bring us to where we are today. It may not be Jackie Chan's flashiest role or film, but definitely one of his classiest and dignified one yet. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Change-Up

Would You Change For This?

The premise is nothing new amd there are countless of films, plays and essentially stories out there that deals with a very common fantasy of having to be put literally into someone else's shoes by taking over the body, and living out his or her life in one whacked mistaken identity episode. One of my earliest films of the genre is Like Father Like Son starring Kirk Cameron, and parent-child body swap has become one of the more popular tools used to preach and revolve around uptight parents needing to loosen up, and children to understand that it's basically not easy to bring them up.

Stories where peers swap bodies, usually through a magical, fantasy sequence that got invoked without our principals knowing, until it's too late. The formula doesn't change in The Change-Up, which means if you've seen one too many films of this nature, you just about know what's in the works, where two people very opposites in nature get to undergo drastic physical change, and having to live each other's lives until they figure out a way to break the spell. In the meantime, they each learn the other's qualities which is sorely lacking in their lives, capping it all off with greater understanding of their peers, leading to stronger friendships and bonds. I haven't come across one where the story and characters ended in sheer disaster though.

The Change-Up offers a more adult premise since it's a swap between peers. Dave played by Jason Bateman is the quintessential all round nice guy with a great family, car and career to boot, being just inches away from being made partner at a law firm. His best friend Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is of course the opposite, the single guy with zero responsibilities, emotional baggage coming courtesy of an estranged father, and living the swinging single life through plenty of bed exercises with various lasses, with the only job he's being able to possibly hold down involves the light porn industry. They meet one fine day, drink too much, exchange war stories and basically wished that they could have the other's life, and voila with the aid of urine, they swap bodies the next morning.

Yes you read that right. Urine was one of the catalyst for the magic to happen. In fact, what made this work, despite its rather cliche plot development that you can see coming from miles away, was the very politically incorrect tone, complete with silly slapstick that worked - I cannot get enough each time Dave's toddlers enter the scene, contributing toilet humour and some really crazy antics even though they're computerized, such as one constantly banging his head against the crib - and plenty of F-bombs that will make the prudish amongst us cry blue murder.

With opposites come stories that find that balance between comedy and drama, with each character embarking upon life changing experiences being in another's body provides, such as Mitch discovering the joys of being a family man and having proper goals in life, and Dave finally being able to take stock of his life and just chill to do the things he enjoys. It's like a constant reminder throughout the film for us to decide which camp we belong to, and to tell us that the grass on the other side may be greener after all. And being someone else on the outside also allowed one to discover new things previously unknown just because we sometimes do not get honest feedback from friends and family who prefer the status quo.

Jason Bateman seems to have found a calling in making adult comedies, such as Horrible Bosses and now this, playing characters who seem the most normal on the outside, but probably the most neurotic of the lot on the inside, with pent up frustration coming from the lack of guts to do what is desired. Ryan Reynolds ditches his superhero persona to play the everyday Joe who cannot hold down a permanent job (not that he wants to anyway), the man-child who swears too much and has zero responsibility toward everything. And I mean, everything, so much so he's a one man disaster show, breaking the mold that such characters can't be blessed with good looks.

What also worked, which was crucial to the plot, is how smartly it debunks the usual tactics used in other stories and films where one can get to wake up another human, likely a loved on, on the predicament by asking questions. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's story kept it incredibly neutral and even logical as well, as one sits back to enjoy something that's fun yet able to transcend its peers that have been in similar territories and drawing from the same laughter pool, with a brilliant scene that negates all efforts to identify one's true self to a loved one that almost always happen in other films.

With Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde serving as eye candies to balance the level of testosterone in the film, The Change-Up was quite the pleasant surprise especially if one took a look at the premises and synopsis and thought that you'd have it all figured out. This one still have a lot more to offer up its sleeves and delivered an all round entertaining package.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Conspirator

In Mourning

Hollywood's been churning out a fair bit of political and historical dramas, and The Conspirator is one that will delight history buffs, with the debut film by The American Film Company that is set out to make films based on America's past with dedicated accuracy. Directed by Robert Redford, this film boasts a star studded cast with the likes of James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long and Tom Wilkinson amongst others that revolves around the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the aftermath trial of the conspirators involved. The titular character refers to Robin Wright's Mary Surratt, a woman whose boarding house was used by her son and his friends who turn out to be involved in the plot, and gets put on trial for something she may or may not have committed or be privy to.

It's a close examination into civil liberties and how the legal system, at least in the US, has progressed from an unfair trial that was allowed to proceed given the extraordinary circumstances and the environment that's at the beginnings of nation building and national reconciliation, about how absolute power can corrupt absolutely, and for those who have not seen one, how a kangaroo court can be in action. Prejudices and dead set mindsets become the order of the day to battle against, and it's up to even Mary Surratt's lawyer, played by McAvoy, to battle those of his own, before he can continue with this assigned case and convince others though the presentation of facts, and through the puncturing of holes in the accounts of other so called witnesses.

It's thought provoking and engaging at the same time, with beautiful art direction transporting you back into the early years of America's history. For those expecting an intense courtroom drama you'll not be left disappointed, but do taper your expectations since this is presented and fought in a military court (even though it involves a civilian) and being innately one-sided don't get too overly worked up. It points out the merits of being on trial by a jury of your peers and also the pitfalls on how such a system may allow for the guilty to be free, if convinced and manipulated so convincingly.

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


Singapore International Film Festival 2011

You would have read by now all the articles in the mainstream and social media about the technical problems that have plagued this year's edition of the festival, ranging from botched screenings, cancellations, and new problems this year include the blatant disregard and disrespect to paying filmgoers by screening screeners which came complete with watermarks, and in low-resolution blown up for the big screen. The usual bug bears of inaccurate film timings, lack of quality control in its published material (though it was full-coloured), the lack of proper and prompt communications through its website and other official channels, still plague the festival, made more interesting with a self-fulfilling prophecy of a hack job trailer that seem to suggest plenty of problems from behind the scenes.

What topped it all off is the poor response reported in the press for all and sundry with the usual tai-chi skills of certain festival programmers. Sure it isn't easy running a major film festival where 1001 things can go wrong, but having more time this year with the postponement from the usual April period, and seeing that lessons from previous editions weren't learnt - sure a new makeshift, last minute team got assembled - just frustrates and betrays its supporters.

On the positive side, the twitter feed was great, at least complaints can be fired off from where you're seated in the cinema hall when things go wrong, instead of getting out of the hall squeezing past legs to get to someone at the festival desk who may just be an unmotivated volunteer who doesn't give a hoot. The twitter feed was monitored constantly by someone who can make decisions, so that was nice, even though problems that crop up can be beyond an immediate solution.

If SIFF aspires to be a great festival that we can all be proud of, it seriously needs a lot of soul searching during this lull, and dedicated staff members to make things happen. Here's wishing a better job done next year. It will be a quarter century so it's either make, or be remembered as a festival that continues in its decline in both quality and delivery. Good luck!

Clash (Bay Rong)
Echoing Love (World Premiere)
Eclipses (World Premiere)
Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2 - O Inimigo Agora É Outro)
The Forbidden Door
Ignore All Detour Signs (World Premiere)
I Have Loved (World Premiere)
Life in a Day
Lights Out (Simon Werner a Disparu...)
The Outsiders
The Reef
Revenge of the Electric Car
The Selling (International Premiere)
Salvation Boulevard
Sing the Blues (World Premiere)
Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak (Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire)

Q&A / Introduction Sessions
Echoing Love
Ignore All Detour Signs
I Have Loved
Lights Out (Simon Werner a Disparu...)
The Outsiders
The Selling
Sing the Blues

Sunday, September 25, 2011

[SIFF11] The Outsiders Q&A

Producer-writer-director-editor Madhav Mathur and sound editor / musician Siddesh Mukundan were present for the post-screening Q&A of their film The Outsiders, moderated by Xiang Yun of SIFF. Here's what they have to say about their film:

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF11] The Outsiders

Anxiety Woes

Parked under Singapore Panorama are also films that are shot here by filmmakers based here, and The Outsiders is something quite apt for a filmmaker to share his experiences and that of others being here for the long haul but having to put up with some of the unpleasantness from xenophobia to having unfair tirades made against them. For locals, this would be an interesting perspective of having a mirror put up in front of us and you'd know if you've been guilty of one or more of the issues being brought up, but unless this film goes beyond its single screening at Sinema, it will hardly make a dent, judging by the walk outs and the vast majority that left immediately after the show ended instead of staying for the Q&A - perhaps they wanted to beat the F1 traffic on the highways leading home.

Whichever the case is, Madhav Mathur continues to wear multiple hats in his indie production, being the producer, cinematographer, writer, director and editor, dropping acting which he had already done in his debut feature The Insomniac. With The Outsiders he had crafted an ensemble cast of characters to tackle various issues faced in different strata of society, from the foreign construction worker who had to leave home and come here, engaged in physically strenuous and dangerous tasks that few locals would probably want to undertake, to those in the upper middle income group of having to live it up, swanky condo apartments with great views where a chill out almost always involves alcohol of some sorts, to even the locals who feel disfranchised by the system.

If there's change reflected in our society this year, it's how vocal some of us have become in voicing these concerns. These become material for this film to be made since it comes with a ready premise, and experience drawn upon by the filmmaker to craft what would be a commentary about the system here. Madhav Mathur couldn't have put it in a better way through the use of metaphors in a scene with a character talking about home bred rabbits being introduced to the wild ones, where the wild ones, indeed hungrier and more hard striving as someone had famously said, do some real damage to the home bred rabbits, who had also to contend with the carrots and sticks the experimenters subject them to. If a foreigner can tell it as it is since it's so obvious already from the outside, need we say more especially from within about the detrimental effects of the sudden influx of foreigners?

It's an ambitious film with the filmmaker scripting a number of characters to tackle, involving a pair of foreign construction workers who begin the film after a short Fake News Reporter segment, to talk about love in the city, where one tapers the wistful expectation of a hopeful other who's actively seeking the affections of anyone from the opposite sex. There's a gay couple whose life is put under strain when one of them loses his job and is aspiring to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer, an elderly man with an episode of getting accosted by a pesky misguided community building volunteer, a Russian exchange student who's here but finding difficulties in settling down, made worse when communications with her homeland is cut, and a Chinese father who's obviously heading toward a communications breakdown with his daughter, almost always coming across to her as a paternal nag that she can't get rid of.

While the filmmakers had ideas, translating it for the big screen needed some work. For starters, ADR sound was not up to scratch, at times getting dialogue out of sync with mouth movement - OK I am anal about such things - and with more resources perhaps they could have gone with sync sound. While Indian films, or at least those that I've watched, almost always have dialogues scripted by another party who has responsibility to ensure either the best lines get scripted, or they sound as natural as can be. Sadly it's neither here, with many characters having to deliver their lines as if they're memorizing them for the stage, with poor, rather rote delivery of lines rather than naturally speaking a language with emotion and feeling, but that perhaps boiled down to inexperienced actors. Real people don't talk like the characters do here.

Still, The Outsiders have its obvious moments which I believe nobody in a cosmopolitan society will quibble about, as the global village becomes real and competition for almost everything in all aspects of life remain keen. However, the characters here talk a lot but do nothing concrete about it, which sort of highlights the pitfalls for real world scenarios that we're in for trouble if we take too long to, as the Chinese saying goes, talk about soldiers on paper, instead of getting out there and actually doing something. This will be that lesson learnt.


Hot Pursuit

Jason Statham is my go to guy when I'm in need for an action movie fix, and he's quite the versatile bloke where filmmakers can put him in a support role or to marquee their film, having what it takes to be playing either the hero or the villain. I'm waiting to see if one day he'll venture out of his comfort zone into where many action stars have gone into - comedy - though I'm perfectly OK if he sticks to what he does best. In Blitz, Statham plays Detective Sergeant Tom Brant, a tough (what else?) cop with a track record for brute force and violence during the course of his duty, and sometimes outside of it, and as an introduction to his tough as nails character we see him break a bunch of carjacking thugs, only for the opening credits to end with him and his police precinct being under the scrutiny of the public no thanks to attention seeking journalistic sensationalism.

Being muzzled by his chief to keep a low profile in the meantime, you know you can't put a good man down when eventually a serial cop killer is on the loose, and the force has to unleash their best officer for the job, teaming up with new transfer Detective Porter Nash (Paddy Considine) who himself has a little bit of a baggage brought with him to this new part of the city. Blitz soon becomes your atypical buddy cop movie, only with a darker theme and environment. The narrative by Nathan Parker based upon the novel by Ken Bruen surprisingly sprawls just beyond this cat and mouse hunt, involving fellow cop Elizabeth Falls (Zawe Ashton) who has returned from undercover duties and rehabilitation to kick her drug habit no thanks to the occupational hazard, a juvenile she's trying to protect and a budding romantic subplot between her and fellow cop (Luke Evans), as well as that of a police informant and his decision to make money with his intelligence rather than to offer them for free to the cops, which in a way ties it down back to Tom Brant and his treatment of people around him.

As such the film also tackles other themes such as the role the press plays especially when you have unethical reporters and their publications making compromises in order to gain exclusive scoops. With wrong intentions, villains can be made heroes especially when it involves something that can sell stories and papers, and heroes can be made villains when the one wielding the pen happened to be rubbed the wrong way. Then there's the usual friendship and camaraderie inherent in most buddy cop pictures, and how pride is one of the largest sins that can play a big part in influencing the way we behave, which is interesting since the villain has such a huge ego, it makes it a lot more satisfying, or lack thereof, when the cops cannot pursue any further due to the lack of evidence - which Law Abiding Citizen already mentioned how everything boils down to what you can prove in a court of law.

The villain Blitz, as he calls himself, may not be an instant cult classic to be put into the cinematic rogues gallery, but Aidan Gillen does enough to make you love to hate him, as he goes about his twisted one man crusade to fatally wound policemen in seemingly random fashion. Aidan Gillen plays him over the top, taunting and toying with his would be captors, snapping because of a bruised ego which Statham's detective engages in what would be one of the highlights in the interrogation room. Those looking for Statham to kick some serious rear, like myself, will be a tad disappointed that he doesn't have many scenes to flex those muscles and do just that. Paddy Considine turned out to be a surprise package of the leading trio thanks to time devoted to his character's backstory which provided for a more multi-faceted persona able to sustain a mild running jokes, at his expense of course.

On one hand the ensemble cast provides director Elliot Lester with an opportunity to tell a larger story, but in a certain way this meant cutting down the focus on the central plot involving the trio of Tom Brant, Porter Nash and Barry Weiss aka The Blitz, which could have been made more intense if not for only a handful of scenes that they get put together, with almost no differentiation between Tom Brant and Porter Nash as their friendship converges and make them pretty much one and the same type. The finale may not sit down well with some since it's miles away from being politically correct, and there will be those who take offense at how it suggests police brutality remains a glamorous option if the system breaks down and does not work, leaving those seeking justice to succumb to a perversion of something they are obligated to uphold.

But in the context of this film, it sure gave a satisfying feeling to end it all.

[SIFF11] Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak (Help! My Girlfriend Is A Vampire)


Has James Lee sold out? Well known for being a regular with almost each of his feature films being programmed into respective editions of the Singapore International Film Festival, from what would be independent art house films in the formative years, this has given way to more commercialized fare in the horror genre, which is undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most lucrative genres in this region. But while his earlier big studio effort Histeria was a mixed bag of fun in my books, Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak, or Help My Girlfriend is a Vampire, is firmly plenty of fun and camp that is a throwback to the good old days of the 80s Hong Kong horror-comedy genre.

Which is to say that filmmakers don't make films like these any more from once upon a time, and they are sorely missed, enough for James Lee to script and direct this effort, retaining the essence and flavour of the genre, while working it into one of Malay culture's most popular ghoul which already has a number of cinematic incarnations, providing not one but three of them roaming the town this is set in, which explores familiar issues such as why ghouls and humans cannot co-exist together, and for obvious reasons, fall in love as well. Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak is a romantic package rolled into horror-comedy, and is more effective in its romance and comedy aspects, and pretty much less so in its horror since it's not set out to scare, but to make an audience laugh.

But that's not to say its horror treatment is shoddy. Far from it, going by the superb make up efforts to transform beautiful lasses into horrible looking vampires with disfigured look, huge mouths and even larger teeth decked out in flowing robes and frizzy hair, with powers of flight thanks to hardworking wire crews to make it rather seamless in take off, flight and landing. While the fight scenes are too over the top with obvious wire work on display, somehow they elicit more cheers and laughter rather than the groans of something executed without care, being a firm and deliberate flick with B-grade intentions.

Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak somehow reminded me of the film Esprit D'Amour from the 80s, where the requisite dramatis personae for such genre films had the good natured and timid nerd, the beautiful ghost whom he falls in love with, well meaning friends who either support or discourage inhuman relationships, the "villains" out to destroy a beautiful relationship out of jealousy and fear, and the bumbling priest who lives to exorcise any spirits no matter which kampung or town they pop up in.

Here we have the nerdy protagonist Bob (Zahiril Adzim) who gets this recurring nightmare of proposing to his girlfriend who turns into a Pontianak, only for his girlfriend to dump him unceremoniously for a hunky brute. Together with his best friend Pian (Sufian Mohamed), they move into another part of town to start their lives anew, only to be conned into buying a haunted flat with foreign nationals (ok, this joke here will definitely ring a bell with Singaporeans) as neighbours, and just as they are about to call it quits at their new abode, they meet beautiful sisters Maya (Sazzy Falak) and Liyana (Liyana Jasmay) who change their minds about relocating to somewhere else. But little do they know the secret that their neighbours are actually vampires, of the nice kind that is, already living with some resistance to sink their teeth into any humans they meet.

Cue the romance between Bob and Maya, the former's lecherous boss and underling (played to perfection by Rashidi Ishak and Yus Waisar) who are all hot air and no substance in a creative ad agency, and with the bumbling bomoh Aaron Slam Bach (Harun Salim Bachik) coming into play, everything gets set up for fun and laughter that worked all round, without the feeling of being contrived - where the only contrived scenes involved the need to introduce some rockers and musicians into the narrative. When it's funny it gets really rip-roaring, with almost everyone save those playing the ghouls themselves all delivering punchlines with perfect timing - Datuk Jalaludin Hassan's bit role as the agency CEO just cracks me up. And in films like these that must give you reason to want to root for an impossible love match to stay together, therein comes the lessons learnt from ghoul to human in encouraging Bob to have courage and stand up for himself and his team of marginalized workers.

This film is not perfect especially with its rushed and rough ending involving battles between the forces of good and evil, and its convenient and expected crowd pleasing finale, but as a horror-comedy this one played to its strengths and brought back nice memories of the genre that once was, when growing up. Definitely recommended material.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

[SIFF11] Ignore All Detour Signs Q&A

Singapore's first feature length music documentary played to a sell out crowd at Sinema Old School, and the post screening Q&A had directors Helmi Ali and Razin Ramzi in attendance to talk more about their film, as well as the actual band members of I Am David Sparkle - Amran Khamis, Djohan Johari, Farizwan Fajari and Zahir Sanosi - in attendance to share more about their experiences and what we the audience never got to see on screen. Moderated by Inez Lim who you do not get to see here since I decided to get the filmmakers and musicians all in the same frame.

Here's the entire Q&A, and for those who cannot make it for today's screening, the encore screening will be held at Sinema Old School on 14 October at 2030hrs, with tickets at S$10. Mark it down on your calendar!

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[SIFF11] Ignore All Detour Signs (World Premiere)

Music Magic Makers

For those of you, who like me, have never heard of the Singapore post-rock band I Am David Sparkle despite them being around for a decade already, this is your chance to make amends other than to hang our heads in embarrassment and shame. This is one of those moments where I kick myself for not getting to hear their sounds early enough, but it's better late than never, thanks to this documentary film showcased at the Singapore Panorama section of this year's Singapore Interntional Film Festival, a film that was two years in the making since it charted the rock band's challenges when it got invited to play at South by Southwest in 2009.

Ignore All Detour Signs, directed by Helmi Ali and Razin Ramzi and what would be Singapore's first feature length music documentary, is probably one of the most apt titles one can think of when the film is about sticking to one's course and cause even, not to be distracted by short cuts, cry over spilt milk or rue and regret missed opportunities. It's about seizing the moment that you're given, and making the very best with whatever's at your disposal, rather than playing the blame game, or just rollling over and play dead instead of coming out fighting for an opportunity. This film is all that, and more, especially appealing to anyone involved in any way with any independents arts scene, with the constant, identifiable issues revolving around funding.

Getting invited to South By Southwest is the least of the band's problems, but getting there is since they're not rock stars (just yet), but four long time friends who have gotten together to make music magic. The documentary chronicles the 40 odd days in the run up to their departure and stint at SXSW, which were faced with the usual challenge of fund raising, seeking grants, and being blind sided unfortunately with what could turn out to be a cruel spanner thrown at their plans, something that could threaten the very existence of the team since it hits the raw nerves and attacks the soul of camaraderie at point blank range.

Clocking in at slightly under an hour, Ignore All Detour Signs moves an incredibly breezy pace with a sepia tinged look since it's a blast from the past, and it doesn't bore or go the conventional documentary look with the usual talking heads from band members or supporters, instead since it's a documentary about the band with a mission to undertake, the filmmakers put you into the film watching like a fly on the wall, and best of all allowed ample time for the band's music to take over. Granted we have the obligatory introduction to the band members and their managers, but it's the strong personalities of the members themselves that made this an engaging watch, especially when the quartet of Amran Khamis, Djohan Johari, Farizwan Fajari and Zahir Sanosi come alive through their gigs.

I liked what I saw and I love the music even more, so much so that I'm a fan convert immediately after the end credits rolled. And thankfully Helmi Ali and Razin Ramzi finally allowed for one uninterrupted celebration of their music. It's a film about one of the hottest bands in the local music scene, but more so a film that had evolved to become the soapbox for countless of other up and coming musicians in highlighting the lack of funding and more importantly, support, as they go about pursuing their passion and dreams, something which we have direct influence over if we are to turn up in droves to lend our attendance and support, to the good acts of course, which will in turn translate to better exposure and the raising of their profile. After all, if folks from overseas are willing to give our local talent a chance, why shouldn't we in the first place?

Forget Pearl Jam Twenty if you're on this part of the world, and give it up for Ignore All Detour Signs with I Am David Sparkle. For those who cannot make it to the full house screening tonight, fans and non-fans alike who are keen to check out this documentary, the band and their music, you'll be glad to know that an encore screening has already been scheduled for 14 Oct 2011 2030hrs at Sinema. I'd say support local films, support local music, and do both when you turn up for this screening. Don't be surprised if I make another trek up Mount Sophia for this again. Highly recommended, and dare I say it shortlists itself into my top films of this year.

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[SIFF11] Eclipses Q&A

Director Daniel Hui was in attendance today for the screening of his debut feature film Eclipses, and conducted a post-screening Q&A session with the audience as moderated by film producer Juan Foo. Here is how the proceedings went:

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[SIFF11] Eclipses (World Premiere)

A Tribute

Eclipses came off as the work of a young filmmaker having a lot of issues to get off his chest, and throwing them all into a heady mix of a first feature film that comprises fictional narratives, documentary segments, and clunky art house moments that either had the intentional to parody or self-indulge they turn out to be very cruel jokes played on the audience. To the next Singapore filmmaker who has no better idea than to put a camera on people who smoke, stare into blank space, and engage in faux pas contemplation, I have this to say to you - Snap out of it. Now.

You can probably hear the collective groan of "Not Again?" when the film opens with just that, with a couple lighting up, smoking, staring into something oblivion, the camera never moving, and with the actress saying something inane which will be repeated later by the other actor, all with the obligatory newsreel programme barely audible but playing in the background. It's about time our local filmmakers grow up, and grow up fast. Acting is not about staring, smoking and looking bored in more than a handful of scenes in this film, which form the worst lot of disparate scenes being hobbled together to form a feature film, if only to clock runtime. And in an attempt to become art, two men smoked imaginary cigarettes, with stoned pretense, even tripping up lines to reinforce their state of silent high, flubbing lines where one meant experiencing his house catching fire, but really in a trippy zone when mentioning fire catching fire instead. It's one thing trying to be and act cool, indifferent and the like, but another if done artificially. The only folks that will be happy here will be tobacco companies since this is a 101 instructional video on the joys of smoking, and product placement will be most welcome at this juncture.

That aside, Eclipses still has its redeeming factors, albeit a few and coming from its documentary segments instead, with the camera roaming to all parts of this island to capture landscapes and people at work, be it construction workers on a sidewalk, canteen operators and cleaners going about their daily chores, domestic workers cleaning and housewives cooking or imparting their knowledge on culinary skills. With domestic and foreign workers, you can feel for the filmmaker's desire to tell it as it is (and if memory serves me right he had dabbled on similar themes in an earlier short film) be it working conditions or unfair challenges they face, and share their hopes and dreams which revolve around the basics of survival, balancing what's bleak with that of hope, and showing their lighter sides in elevating spirits through the many songs of different cultures which got showcased, with the protagonists singing what I would suppose are their favourite songs toward the camera and to us the audience, songs that they know to keep their spirits up - the melody and the lyrics all point to that.

Anxieties of financial futures, even amongst those not amongst the have nots, got a jarring inclusion as well. Financial advice was provided free to everyone and I'm sure we all learnt a lot more about the Rule of 72, reflecting the mindsets most of us adopt due to our risk averseness, and being relatively clueless about managing our monies, thinking that our state controlled compulsory savings would be sufficient in the long run. This stopped short from giving sure-fire tips since they don't exist anyway, but was left hanging, and went away as fast as it got introduced. If only the English here could be spruced up, or come with subtitles like the other non-English segments.

Strengths of the film's independent segments worked a lot more for the film than collectively being put together, and with the film being paid a tribute to the filmmaker's grandfather, his segment and the stories that revolve around it, were inevitably and thankfully the strongest, especially when he launches into a monologue, as do most other characters when their turn came to talk to the camera and audience direct. And it brings to mind one of the themes about family that is evident in the film, where we see a woman (Vel Ng) going about helping her family business in the school canteen, learning the ropes from her folks, and listening in, voyeur style, to two middle aged woman talk about theirs in almost gossip-like fashion. The segments which stuck out like a sore thumb involves those aforementioned smoker dudes, and what I thought was patiently interesting was an almost real-time MRT journey from Simei to Pasir Ris which trailed off midway to its intended destination.

Shot on 16mm which is a rarity in local film these days, the film is technically competent (as with almost, if not all films presented by 13 Little Pictures) with the filmmaker indulging in plenty of tight close ups so much so you can see every wrinkle or pore on the actor's face. Alas it was not projected as such but digitally in the now infamous Lido Hall 2, the bane venue of many botched SIFF screenings.

The director had warned before the screening started that it was not going to be an easy film to sit through, but I almost always thought this was something of a cop out or reflecting a lack of confidence to tell an audience before one's screening. Sure there were walk outs by those who felt enough was enough, but the vast majority sat in our places to take in whatever else that got thrown our way. There were segments that worked, segments that moved especially those which were honest, such as the very heartfelt monologue by the filmmaker's grandfather talking about his grandson, and those that were flat out artificial that should have been thrown out together with the other two odd plus hours that ended up on the cutting room floor.

[SIFF11] Clash (Bay Rong)

Strutting Our Stuff

I suppose one of the best ways to plunge into the cinema of another country, is for action junkies like myself to see what they have to offer for the genre. I haven't seen a Vietnamese film before Clash, so it's anyone's guess how it would have turned out, though there were plenty of positive reviews for other Vietnamese action flicks such as The Rebel, which also starred leading man Johnny Nguyen, a veteran in his part of the world, who also served as the writer of this film. It shouldn't be that bad, right?

For the most parts, the film was mighty entertaining, telling the story of a female mercenary code named Phoenix (the stunningly beautiful Thanh Van Ngo) who had assembled a rag-tag group of peers to go on missions, one of whom happens to be Johnny Nguyen's Quan with whom she shares a relationship with. Her objective through these dangerous missions is to ultimately save her daughter from the clutches of her evil employer. So much for mother's love, since Phoenix was a one time prostitute who got taken off the streets to do her employer's dirty work, complete with a quick montage of her training.

That's as far as the story goes, with enough twists and turns and double crossings to keep the audience engaged in pretty much a flimsy plot, designed only to keep our characters floating from fight sequence to fight sequence, which is truly the draw of the film, influenced in many ways by Hollywood and Hong Kong action cinema from yesterdays. I have to admit even if there were shades of other films in this, at least this effort had made it through to production with an international crew assisting to spruce up production values, where in Singapore we're still lacking in playing catch up.

Killer moves got designed for Phoenix such as her thigh wraparound the enemy's neck or upper body before giving it a final fatal twist, but to get there, the fight choreography for most of the characters can get a little bit dull and repetitive. Everything will start off with the firing of auto or semi automatic weapons, and when the finite rounds get expended, everyone will turn into Jackie Chan - come to think of it most of Jackie's earlier action films were similarly designed - and relies on the punches and kicks to dispatch opponents. And it does get repetitive as mentioned with the usual punch-punch-kick combo moves that one's enemies could predict with every extended fight.

But thanks to some of the Mixed Martial Arts sequence, Clash at least attempted some variation, and without the use of wires and CG, the fights all look authentic and as our anti-heroes pit their skills against others they get into a battle with. However the finale was a bit of a cop out, which I suspect could have been influenced by test audiences to give it a more positive spin perhaps, since a plot element of a chunky inventory appears magically when in the first place it called for a more tragic and emotional convergence which had to give way.

Still, Clash offers quite a lot especially for action junkies wishing to keep tabs on what's on offer in our neighbour's cinema, and from what I have seen here with its charismatic leads who are not only good lookers but are able to handle their battles with aplomb, we may be in for more treats if more films improve upon what's available now, and could become major contenders for action films that can draw a worldwide audience. Would have been a perfect screening if not for the botched audio at The Arts House.

Friday, September 23, 2011

[SIFF11] Lights Out (Simon Werner a Disparu...) Q&A

Writer-director Fabrice Gobert and lead actress Ana Girardot were in attendance today for the screening of Lights Out (Simon Werner a Disparu...) and conducted a post-screening Q&A session with the audience. Here's the session as it had happened, and is relatively spoiler free:

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[SIFF11] Lights Out (Simon Werner a Disparu...)


Who Killed Simon Werner? becomes the underlying premise of a film that may set expectations of a gripping whodunnit in the same flavour and delivery as Rian Johnson's Brick, but alas this film by debut writer-director Fabrice Gobert is anything but your standard mystery to solve, set in a Parisian suburb school where the schoolmates of Simon get prime time in what would be a social commentary of sorts on the dynamics of youths in the 90s,

Its English title Lights Out bears not much of a meaning to the film, as what Gobert had revealed during the Q&A session that followed, and its French title which directly translates to Simon Werner has Disappeared, may have been a more powerful one even though it may be a little bit chunky, because that's how the story is set up from the start, with a discovery of a body during a teen party, before it flashes back to some 10 days before the finding. And it does so in a total of four times, each time taking on the perspective of different characters all revolving around a similar timeline and spatial distance, from football lad Jeremie (Jules Pelissier), to the school flower Alice Cartier (Ana Girardot) who had just broken up with Simon, to Rabier and finally Simon himself.

It brings us back to the time of playground politics back in school, where cliques form and students hanging out normally talk a lot of trash. Gobert's story and dialogue is top notch in this aspect, keeping it all very real and perhaps this was also made more believable through the use of very raw and new actors who act with abandon without a care in the world, just as their characters in the prime of their lives would have adopted. They talk bad about others, make fun of those deemed of a different league, have this constant fixation about girls and sex, and just about having little respect for any authority.

Each separate narrative thread provides perspective from a particular character's viewpoint, at times debunking some of the long held beliefs or baseless rumours that spring up in the earlier threads, iron our inconsistencies or reinforces certain facts that the audience can use to piece the puzzle together, as more and more students disappear one after another, building upon the mystery and perhaps our perception that there's a serial killer or kidnapper on the loose, and someone could be directly involved! Gobert keeps the viewer active in paying attention to little clues and things said, as we work things out in real time, like a police investigations drama where we're deep into the scheme of things and have the advantage of linearly reconstructing evidence, how everything would fit together, waiting for that pat on the back if we were to get it right.

To say any more will be to spoil the story for any intended viewer. This film is essential viewing even if the ending may be a little bit of a letdown without the usual build up and crescendo that its genre peers almost always like to slip into. Lights Out completes its cycle in a rather matter-of-fact fashion, very much in line with how mainstream papers' delivery of grisly news is compared to tabloid sensationalism which some will have to admit is what makes things interesting, at the expense of others. Ulitmately it's a story about perception and how things that we perceive rightly or wrongly, can so easily be treated as facts without rigourous verification, and reminds us of the usual mantra of not counting chickens before they hatch and not to judge anyone based on appearances alone which is always deceiving.

And yes the awesome soundtrack by Sonic Youth will be reason enough to watch this in the first place, this being a tremendous first time effort in terms of narrative complexity, message and technical delivery.

[SIFF11] The Reef


With the introduction of Jaws, you'd just about know that shark films will probably never go out of date, though with each shark film put out there will be that constant challenge to try and reinvent and go one up against what had gone before. From using animatronics to being computer generated, the Great White has never been more menacing up close, and with news from time to time highlighting incidents when the predator comes close to shores and its razor sharp pearly whites tearing up unfortunate souls, it's stuff of what horror-films are made of.

Written and directed by Andrew Traucki, this Australian film is one of the better ones to have come out in recent years, although it does take a while to get into the scheme of things. Like any film of similar nature (pardon the pun), it goes the distance in trying to establish its shark fodder characters, usually bronzed sculpted folks with model like bodies, since they spend considerable time out in the open. Supposedly based on a true incident, its premise is an amalgamation of Open Water and Adrift with Jaws, or other Jaws inspired shark attack films, that involves a group of five who are out at sea to enjoy a round of snorkeling, only for their boat en route back to suffer a deep gash on its bottom no thanks to the titular reef.

So the reef provides them a lot of grief, since they're stuck out at sea, with no plane, ships or civilization in sight. Worse, the waters they are in is shark infested, so to get out of their predicament they have to either stay put and hope for the best before they dehydrate, or make a swim for it to the nearest coast which is miles away, meaning if one hasn't been exercising, it's as good as knocking on death's door. The naughty Great White here is one playful chap who plays with his food very much like foreplay before going in for the kill, and it is here that this film excels in its gory factor, although much is left to your mind and imagination than to show you upfront other than red waters.

Andrew Traucki successfully puts you into the thick of the action, as if you're one of the party members fighting for dear life. Close up framing is used for the most parts to keep everything claustrophobic and tight even though the vast waters provide that sense of space to nowhere. The predator of the film also springs out of nowhere often enough to make you jump, and this gets balanced with moments where the director holds your anticipation quite expertly, before showing you glimpses of the inevitable when the shark goes after our human sitting ducks, who aren't armed, nor know what to do to try and repel an attack. The only inexplicable task anyone does, is to put on a pair of goggles to try and see where the attack would be from, but that's it.

Don't expect too much from this film since it plays on the shark attack thriller genre with much aplomb, with a little bit of time set aside for the usual bickering humans undergo when put under stressful situations. There's a 3D film called Shark Night coming out soon, so let's see if the recent technological fad can add an extra dimension to this genre of movies.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


New American Hero

Could we be staring at Hollywood's next action hero in Taylor Lautner, having the young, buffed adult being the marquee of a loud action film, with never ending efforts to highlight as much as possible that he can hold his own when it comes to the rough and tumble, the camera rarely shying away for a placeholder stuntman? From spending lots of time sans his shirt in the Twilight movies, Taylor Lautner now keeps most of it on anyway save for the obligatory scene that has to be snuck in, to allow the young princeling to step into the shoes of illustrious beefcakes of the past who now only have roles in The Expendables franchise.

Abduction is a misnomer for the title, as nobody gets abducted in the film save for Karen, played by Lily Collins, who becomes fodder actually, collateral and disposable as she screams her way through disbelief of being caught up in a web of intrigue far beyond her upscaled life of comfort. Her neighbour is Nathan (Lautner), the risky neighbourhood hunk with a suspect attitude and emotional baggage so much so that he has schedule visits to see a psychiatrist (Sigourney Weaver) in spite of having some of the best folks as parents (Jason Isaacs and Maria Bello), having a dad who condones violence in the name of self defense.

For director John Singleton, things are kept extremely simple and in PG territory (compared to his Four Brothers) as Nathan gets to question his identity, where his birthright is something more than meets the eye, having some Eastern European badass after him as a bargaining chip, making his life a living held as a fugitive as he and token girlfriend Karen run from point to point trying to stay above their confused state of minds, and figuring out in double quick time just what they needed to do to stay alive. Trust no one becomes the mantra as they struggle to stay one step ahead of dodgy people from all angles, as they inevitably fall in love and were one minute step away from statutory raping each other, at far as their characters go if measured by the law in this part of the world.

Expectedly, the story by Shawn Christensen has loopholes galore that just begs for your attention. For instance, it was a smart idea to arrange a meet up with villains (led by Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame) in a public location, and a stadium no less with metal detectors and scanners at the point of entry, just in case your enemy decides to pack a gun to finish you off when bargaining for your life. But lo and behold, a metallic revolver got smuggled in the venue in the first place. It's either Nathan has very powerful friends, or can conjure weapons out of sheer will. Then there's the constant, convenient help from best pal Gilly (Denzel Whitaker), whom you think the villains, always boasting about their network and intelligence capabilities, would have already done something to neutralize Gilly since they're bugging the entire world, but no, these details get let slip.

Shoddy storytelling may be forgiven for an action film you may say, so long as the action set pieces are bang for the buck. Unfortunately I was hoping that Taylor Lautner gets as much opportunity in this aspect as possible, since in Twilight his computer generated wolfman moment always stole the limelight (besides his rock hard abs). Alas the filmmakers played it safe for fear of wrecking that Vampire Vs Wolf franchise, and I thought the trailer made the action a lot more thrilling than the actual product. The finale was one of the most anti-climatic seen where the hero flees and gets outside help that got dropped into his lap in a bid to hurriedly wrap things up. So much for being the alpha male.

Lautner does his best to act, but all he can muster and master is the scowl, which I blame Twilight for sustaining this as a bad habit to kick if he has intent to expand his range of emotions. His abs when they come on screen steals his limelight. Lily Collins also does her best pouty impression and adds a little bit of unseen spunk opposite Lautner, and why Mario Bello, Jason Isaacs, Alfred Molina and Sigourney Weaver are in this, is anyone's guess besides needing spare change to pay the bills.

It's not going to be a classic, but thanks to Lautner fans firmly set within Team Jacob this film could perhaps have a long shot at becoming a fanatical cult favourite for his fans who obsess with needing to see him in every conceivable film that he makes outside of the Twilight franchise where he obviously plays second fiddle in the love triangle. At least here he gets to ride toward the sunset with celebratory limp.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

[SIFF11] Life in a Day

Bird's Eye View

YouTube, LG, Tony and Ridley Scott of Scott Free Productions, Kevin MacDonald taking up directing responsibilities, and some 4500 submissions filtered down to just 90 minutes worth of footage. That's what Life in a Day is about, where anyone from around the world can submit a film shot on 24 July 2010 and be counted toward what would be this feature film that's just what its title says - Life in a Day - and the end result is something so simple in collaborative concept, but so packing such a powerful punch.

From time to time you'll wonder just about how many stories are out there at any given time, with millions of people each having something to say, and experience to share, that a snapshot at any time of everyone's collective existential moment will take us more than a lifetime to go through it, if we can capture it all in linear fashion and sieve through it like a video on fast forward. That's how Life in a Day felt, although we're spared a largely impossible task, having things whittled down to just one day, and submitted through technology to the producers of the film who will then have the task of distilling the aesthetically beautiful, meaningful shots into a coherent narrative.

Beginning from the wee hours of the morning and ending literally at 2359hrs, we see how people from around the world think up of similar ideas in their submissions, capturing moments which become timestamps of the day such as meals and routine rituals that find common ground wherever we are in the world. Landscapes also become very popular choices of capture, from dawns and dusks peeking through clouds, each different yet being the same the same source, to midnight electrical charges striking across the night time sky.

It's a mixed bag rolled up together from disparate sources put together in rhythmic, poetic terms, engaging and of course keeping your eye out for something that could have come from your own shores. It showcases diversity, yet have undertones of similarity in aspects of our lives, highlighting differences in geography yet sharing a constant range of emotions evoked and experienced. It's the human condition on display with all things almost beautiful, balanced with moments of poignancy and the mundane told through creative angles.

From the lot given you'll definitely have your favourite - mine involves one very early on in the film with a Japanese father and young son waking up in the day, shot through fish-eyed lens - or favourites, and I'm really curious if all 4500 shorts have been uploaded somewhere on the Youtube channel for everyone to freely access and take a look at the raw footage ourselves. Recommended!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pearl Jam Twenty

I have to admit I'm not what you will call a fanatical worshipper of Pearl Jam's music enough to compel me to watch what would be THE documentary this season with a single session, simultaneous screening around the world where PJ fans will likely already have made a beeline for. Instead, I'm a bigger fan of writer-director Cameron Crowe than the subject matter of his documentary (ok, so this sounds a little bit blasphemous), given that it's been years since we last saw a Cameron Crowe film hit the theatres, although that wait will soon be over by the end of this year with the release of We Bought a Zoo.

Pearl Jam 20 chronicles the beginnings of the band back in the year 1989 where Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard came together after the demise of their band Mother Love Bone, and like all successful bands that came before it, was subjected to recruiting and changing of members until the perfect chemistry was achieved, culminating with frontman Eddie Vedder, with his distinct growling voice, joining the band, and together put alternative grunge music on the radar of music everywhere. Sure there were many others in the same vein since the 90s was the era where this sound had taken the world by storm, with what would possibly be the largest rivals to Nirvana before Kurt Cobain's passing.

You can probably read a lot more details on the band from its Wikipage, and Cameron Crowe's film digs through large treasure troves of archival footage from television newsreels to more independent, off the cuff capture of the band's early years, that we get to witness the second earliest band performance ever and plenty of other home made videos that expectedly get pixelated for the big screen. Crowe's background as a music journalist being a tremendous factor in the crafting of this film, where in lesser hands would have been relegated to the standard talking heads interviews, and to stuff the film with chock full of music videos and live performances from the band's tours around the world.

Instead, Crowe provides the narration, and shares interesting nuggets of information through what would be a largely chronological format without overwhelmingly bombarding the audience with too much information. Being on close terms with all the band members and collaborators also allowed for unfettered access to more intimate and honest interview answers, with the utilizing of milestones in the band's career to timestamp the feature, including their courtroom lawsuit with Ticketmaster. But with everything crammed into two hours, expect some areas of focus to be skimmed through as Crowe paced his documentary at breakneck speed to cover as much ground as possible, mixing it up quite a bit with comedy, pathos, and allowing the many visuals both moving and static to breathe and tell a story since they are after all, worth more than thousands of words.

It's about the capture of a phase of growing up, where looking around I see folks around my age group (or older) who had grown with the band in the 90s when we were in our teens where music played a large part in our lives, as we shift through the sands of time with the identification of many songs from the band's discography, where I didn't even realize that Daughter was supposed to be called Brother intially, and listening to Vedder actually sing it that way during a practice on the tour bus, is reason enough amongst others why fans just have to watch this, and perhaps reminisce the times where they had seen their idols perform on stage during one of the many concert tours done worldwide at the peak of their popularity.

And that is if a theatrical release gets secured soon, which I suspect would be the case given the sold out, one off screening. Watch for it!

Monday, September 19, 2011

[SIFF11] Sing the Blues Q&A

Moderated by Xiang Yun of SIFF, today's Q&A session was more of a sharing session for director Kenny Ong (seated right of video) as he talks about the behind the scenes, production process in very animated fashion, joined by collaborators Jason Tay (seated middle) who was the Director of Photography, and Lai Weijie (seated left), who was the co-screenwriter. A couple of questions from the floor got snuck in between the discussion, and here's the session as it had happened:

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF11] Sing the Blues (World Premiere)


So far the Singapore feature films screened at this year's Singapore International Film Festival have featured local filmmakers spreading their wings to countries abroad, making their debut features in places such as Siem Reap and in Sing the Blues' case, Kyoto, Japan, with the additional challenge of working with cast and crew members speaking in an entirely different language.

Clocking in at just under an hour, Sing the Blues adapts from a real life incident where a manhunt got put in place to look for a teen suspected of killing a foreigner, with the filmmakers adding their own spin to create a what-if story where they fictionalize just what could have happened in the years where he went about undetected, how his life would have been while on the run. And the film opens with just that, where we see Yuki (Torii Kotaro) on board a train entering Kyoto, trying to leave behind what would be an incredible emotional baggage, struggling to try and carve a new life.

And things don't happen to be easy, as he encounters various characters, each who will impact his life, or vice versa, in different ways. There's the gangsters whom he meets who mug him of his wallet, a busking duo consisting of a man who cannot sing and a blind drummer, a girl who works at the ramen shop with whom a telling relationship got off to a promising start though we know is doomed for the secrets he's hiding, and as a day job, decided to work in a cafe where he has to cross dress and fulfill the fantasies of customers, much to his own disgust even.

Talk about these all happening under an hour of runtime, with Kenji (Kido Masao) the policeman with dogged determination who had worked on the manhunt for the last few years, and with his gut feel telling him his colleagues in the force are barking up the wrong tree and chasing in the direction of Fukuoka, decided to make a detour and head toward Kyoto instead, where he connects with a local police force veteran to try and search and apprehend someone whom they have never seen before.

The supporting characters become brief encounters and therefore there's a lack of deeper characterization since a lot more time got devoted to following Yuki as he goes about his mundane business of smoking and eating, looking quite lost and clueless as he plots his next course of action. There were attempts however to give each supporting character additional scenes to further explain their lives, but these came off as nothing more than filler scenes that were not crucial to the main plot other than to sprawl the narrative to provide an audience a bang for their buck.

Sing the Blues picks up in its last act which was tension filled, with nicely choreographed action to go with it, for a film of its scale. But if only the rest of the film was as tightly paced and I felt could have done without some support characters since their back stories and motivation didn't get fleshed out properly, and shouldn't have gone for scenes which were used to play up some misplaced horror elements from its premise that were more relevant should the genre here be horror. Still it's a great effort put in as far as debut feature filmmaking goes.

Red Dog

Pride of Town

Today's GV surprise screening wasn't what I had expected, and I mean that in a good way. At first I thought it was going to be one of those rom-coms slated for screening later this month or year, but what got put out was way, way better than expected, even though it started a little slow and bewildering (unlike most other surprise screenings where one can guess what it will be), Red Dog was more than worth the price of the discounted ticket, an Australian film set in the 70s Western Australia in a small mining town based upon a folklore that surpasses almost every conventional dog related cinematic tale put out especially by Hollywood in recent years.

A trucker (Luke Ford) drives into town and pit stops at a bar, only to find a couple of burly men pining a dog down, with the sheriff about to pull the trigger, but for the trucker's intervention to put off their plan. Slowly but surely for any stranger riding into a new land, the townsfolk soon grow in numbers, as everyone started to pour in to the bar to seemingly pay tribute to the dog, christened Red Dog by everyone, with the narrative unveiling itself in episodic flashback nature with characters taking turns to tell their version and stories of how the dog impacted their lives and the lives of the mining town, and how the town got changed through their canine friend. These stories span a spectrum of emotions, and can be a simple, short scene, or an extended one especially when involving the principal characters of the film

Directed by Kriv Stenders, the film has its fair share of quirky characters and comedic situations, being funny without really trying too hard, go over the top or feeling too contrived. Everything felt as natural as can be, with excellent pacing to allow Red Dog to slowly grow on you. The tried, tested and tired route Hollywood typically takes is to load plenty of saccharine sweet, cutesy moments to deliberate tug at your heartstrings, which is why this Australian film is that fantastic breath of fresh air as it busts genre conventions, yet possessing enough pathos to lift the film into its emotional plateau, pulling you into the rowdy though genuinely sincere lifestyle the miners lead.

As for star power, Josh Lucas stars as the wanderer turned bus driver John who becomes the one and only de-facto owner of Red Dog as they form a loyal master-dog relationship, with Rachael Taylor (of Transformers fame) playing Nancy his love interest whom he met while serving the community, and she getting into a tussle with Red Dog on his bus. Their romance will form the crux which the story will revolve around briefly, although there are other stories which I enjoyed such as how Red Dog got into assisting an Italian miner Vanno (Arthur Angel) go after a nurse (Keisha Castle-Hughes), and a heart-wrenching moment involving the themes of loyalty and longing.

With an awesome soundtrack and beautifully filmed outback landscapes that captures the conditions of the mining town in very picturesque language, you'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll be moved by the time the movie pulls into its final reel. Now all that remains is for this film to find a proper theatrical release so that it can be watched, experienced and loved by a wider audience that it truly deserves. There may be famous dogs like Lassie in the US and Hachiko in Japan, so do add one to that list with Red Dog from Australia. Definitely in my highly recommended list as it goes into my books with the potential of being one of the best seen in this year, leaving its genre peers clearly in its wake.

Red Dog is slated for a 6 October release in Singapore, watch for it!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

[SIFF11] I Have Loved Q&A

Although the main cast did not manage to turn up for the Q&A, the writing-directing-producing partners of Elizabeth Wijaya and Lai Weijie did. Here's the entire Q&A session as it happened this evening post-screening:

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF11] I Have Loved (World Premiere)

In The Mood For...

If memory serves me right, the films produced by 13 Little Pictures have so far made their World Premieres in festival overseas, so there's something different and special this year to have not one but two of their films make their worldwide debut at the Singapore International Film Festival, both directed by first time feature filmmakers. I Have Loved marks the feature film debut of Elizabeth Wijaya and Lai Weijie sharing writing, directing and producing responsibilities, weaving a tale about loss and memory shot entirely in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

There are many aspects here all primed to make this a crowd pleaser, from the exotic locations available in Cambodia to be put on film, and of course what would be filmmaker Glen Goei's starring role in film that's a treat, since you would have seen him in a stage performance before, but besides making cameo appearances in his own films, filmgoers haven't seen him flex his acting muscles on film before, at least I haven't. But somehow the story, that may be deceptively simple about a woman going through a rather depressive period to battle her sense of loss, and to deal with flitting memories of a city in which happier times were spent in, didn't really quite gel when it got deliberately fragmented into a non-linear presentation in an attempt to transcend time and space, and leaves more questions than answers that makes it simple to be waved away as just tough luck and harsh realities.

Granted that any narrative dealing with memory will allow for repetition, a theme that recurs explicitly, and random access into timelines that have past, but somehow this was done at the expense of crafting characters that an audience will care for. Instead we have a woman whom we find tough to connect to since she doesn't really engage, and Eryn Tett playing her with marked aloofness half the time when opposite Thai actor Amarin Cholvibul as an acquaintance she meets, whose mannerisms and characteristics are in obvious stark contrast to Harold's, didn't really cut it when she's supposed to mourn about loss. Scenes opposite Glen's Harold, a writer who's almost always decked out impeccably, were woefully short, as I felt the best scenes in the film are when these two performers grace the screen.

Lingering shots in which the camera doesn't move is fast becoming the choice de rigueur, and cinematography is undoubtedly superb thanks to the many picturesque capture of landscapes both urban and rural that makes it difficult not to be distracted from the characters, allowing one's gaze to focus on the background instead. Watching this film and not having been to the Angkor temples nor Cambodia herself before just strengthens the resolve to get there, and if more in the audience share the same sentiments then perhaps the Cambodia Film Commission would be pleased with the effort brought about by this film to boost tourism numbers.

Without a doubt it's a tough film to sit through, one that will challenge and keep you constantly working to piece together scenes and fragments of memories belonging to different characters who take turns to narrate, or sing even. You'll try to feel for the film and its characters, but unfortunately I came up against an emotional void. Interestingly the filmmakers did mention during the post screening Q&A session of a more conventional, linear version that they had originally conceived before allowing their editor free rein to craft the film which resulted in this cut. I would love to see the original directors' cut should it exist one day, and see how different it could have evoked emotions on the characters that perhaps we would have really cared for.
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