Tuesday, January 31, 2012



Just when you thought there's no more innovative films coming out of the well milked Found Footage formula, here comes Max Landis and Josh Trank's film Chronicle to demolish all genre lethargy and inertia to move away from its comfort zone of horror flicks, and introduce in very successful terms the Superhero genre, while actively taking narrative pains to eradicate the shaky-cam, which to date has almost been a staple so long as a character starts to wield a camera to document a series of events from his or her solo perspective.

Chronicle provided a good reason to have steadicam, and to expand upon its solo universe to have viewpoints from a multitude of sources, making this somewhat like an Assembled Footage film, with content scoured and drawn from a series of different devices, be it mobile phones, or newsreels, in addition to a video camera that the protagonists have to lug along. We follow the adventures of a trio of characters, each distinct in maturity level to hammer home certain plot plots and character development, when they chance upon a crater leading down a tunnel into something strange, mysterious and endowing our characters with the powers of telekinesis.

Which just about allows them to do almost everything they wish in their minds, starting modestly with the slow experimentation of their abilities, before growing in strength and skill to do a lot more, including the ability to take flight. And the filmmakers superbly handled the spirit of superhero lore by adapting from very common, yet deeply discussed themes and plots involving the nurture of such powers, and how they actually can change the unsuspecting wielder, whether they would allow power to corrupt them, or to use them for a greater calling. And it's no surprise how it developed the way it does, since most of us would harbour equally similar desires, or bewilderment at the onset during the discovery and exploration of such abilities, that all these contribute to a very believable story that plays on our secret fantasies, and consequences of some of our would be actions as well.

Technically, this film boasts plenty of well blended special effects with a solid narrative that it's quite remarkable everything got put together and paced perfectly for 83 minutes, which is compact yet long enough for such a genre film, deliberately keeping some things unanswered and the doors open to follow on films, and leaving you wanting much more, a lot more. Highly recommended and this is to date, one of the best its genre has on offer, which hopefully will convince some of the genre detractors.

You can read my review of Chronicle at movieXclusive.com by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

[DVD] Sisters (1973)

I Need Me Pills

Brian De Palma's career to date is quite topsy-turvy, creating classics and commercial successes one moment, before tossing in a dud or two, then coming back right up again in subsequent films. Two of my favourite films in his filmography include Mission: Impossible, which I thought was the slickest and most sophisticated in the franchise until Ghost Protocol rolled along, and The Untouchables, one of the best Al Capone/Elliot Ness films that ooze class that never found repeated to date in other Capone films. And I have to admit that the annual 50% Criterion Collection sales at Barnes and Noble prompted me to pick up one of his earlier works, the psychological thriller Sisters starring Margot Kidder.

Kidder would be better known to most people as Lois Lane in all the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and it's quite refreshing to see her in a film that's out of that go-getting Lois Lane persona. In sisters she plays one half of a separated Siamese Twin, a model and aspiring actress called Danielle Breton, whom we see taking her blouse off in a Candid Camera inspired game show called Peeping Tom, where contestants have to guess just how the unsuspecting victim Phillip Woode (the late Lisle Wilson) would react. Bringing both the victim and the actress together on stage in the programme, they hook up, and spend the night together in her apartment after fending off what would be introduced as her ex husband Emil (William Finley), whom Brian De Palma brilliantly set up quite obviously when panning through to the Peeping Tom crowd.

Up until this point one would have thought this would go the horror route, since Siamese Twins have always been the subject of fascination of filmmakers. And Brian De Palma's story may have suggested that something's not quite right with Danielle, having to pop pills to sooth some pain before running out of more pills, and that deliberate revealing shot of a huge scar on the thigh of Danielle to hint at a separation that may not have gone down too well, with an unseen visit made by her sister Dominique. But De Palma plays on our imagination, and ups the ante to turn this into quite the Hitchcockian like film, inspired by the likes of Psycho and Rear Window to name but a few in a tense filled, violent sequence early in the film that combined fear and gore - repeated stabbings with a huge knife, groin attacks and a plunge into the mouth before splitting it - which looked quite tame by today's standards (this was made in the early 70s) with its amateur delivery and fake blood galore.

This gets seen by a reporter neighbour in the next block, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who sees the potential in a huge story should she uncover and unravel the murder, given the cynicism by the police when she made the report, and their warrant-less search of Breton's house turning up naught. It is from this point that the real theme of Voyeurism starts to rear its head, with how we'd have this tendency to want to peer into other people's lives and making some deal out of it, baseless or otherwise, just like how the film began with the Peeping Tom game show. And there are countless of other scenes from hereon that dealt with this theme, of people from the outside always looking in, right up to the final act that takes place in psychiatric clinic, where Grace has her questions answered in the most surreal like fashion, no thanks to a dream like sequence.

It may be baffling since this dream sequence tosses up the narrative where things are never quite definitive, offering what could be one version of Danielle's origin in a frightfully covered flashback involving freakshows and the likes, containing deep hypnotism and efforts to link Grace and Danielle together through the brainwash of the former. It's suspenseful yes, with the last half hour being the creepiest moments in the entire film, but contains an unresolved plot thread that was left in very open ended terms right up to the last frame, which brings to mind a little bit of the injustice as felt in The Lovely Bones. Only the opening credits with the extreme close up of a small fetus rivaled the final moments of the film in terms of making one's hair stand, with the introduction setting up the stage of what's to come even if the story had drifted off a little when introducing the main characters.

But like most De Palma films, what it lacked in the story, it more than makes up for it in brilliance of its technical details. There's the use of the split screen, amongst the director's earliest in doing so, again tells of impeccable clockwork timing especially when characters in one crosses over to the other and here we're dealing with real time challenges involving lifts and a race against time to rid a room of tell tale blood stains. And who can forget that the soundtrack and music played such an instrumental role in elevating this film to, as mentioned, Hitchcockian heights, since the composer Bernard Herrmann did the same for classics such as Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest, amongst others.

As with most films one views that's a blast from the past, many things occur in the story that could never have happened in today's context, given technology advancements such as mobile phones and the video camera, which will sort of eliminate the constraints the characters face when needing to contact each other, or to cough up with documentary evidence to back up and justify one's accusation. Cumbersome hand signals and creative use of the land lines help to bridge communications except when geography gets in the way, but while these challenges can be overcome, much larger innate ones like the slight racism amongst smaller characters here would requite a monumental effort.

In any case Sisters was Brian De Palma's earlier feature film works, and being the technical person he is, his subsequent films will boast larger technical challenges such as Snake Eyes' long opening tracking shot, and more complex mysteries like that covered in the narrative of The Black Dahlia. Sisters showcases De Palma's more humble beginnings and shows how far he has come.

The Code 1 DVD by Criterion Collection presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen format which was a little grainy at times, with monaural audio. Scene selection is available over 18 Chapters, and subtitles are in English with close caption.

Most of the extras here are text based, with the chapter "what the devil hath joined together..." made up of The Making of Sisters; An interview with Director Brian De Palma which is conducted by Richard Rubinstein originally published in Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973, and the article that had inspired Brian De Palma to make the film stored under the chapter of Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet which talks about Masha and Dasha, a pair of Russian Siamese Twins in the 8 April 1966 issue of Life magazine.

There's also the Original 1973 press book containing some 42 pages of extracts and excerpts from ads, as well as a whopping more than 330 black and white and photo stills from Behind-the-scenes and publicity photos, before like most of the early Criterion discs, having a Color Bars presentation included for colour calibration.

The DVD insert includes an essay written by Bruce Kawin, Professor of English and Film Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as an anecdote filled article written by Brian De Palma himself in a 1973 Village Voice that details his working with renowned composer Bernard Hermann.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Love Hong Kong 2012 (2012我愛HK喜上加囍 / 2012 Ngo Ngoi HK Hei Seong Gaa Hei)

Spreading the Love

One of the final film offerings this year for the Lunar New Year, I Love Hong Kong 2012 blinked first and got relegated out of the lucrative holiday long weekend, and that may dent its already slim hopes of a respectible box office returns since almost everyone here knows that the comical flavour of a Hong Kong film will almost all be lost due to the Mandarin dubbing. But those expecting plenty of nonsensical mo-lei-tau humour may be surprised that this version has a little bit more narrative structure to its formulaic plot, that like its All's Well Ends Well rival, ends with resolution for the star-studded couples in question, and a moralistic lesson thrown in that family matters at the end.

The story centers around the romantic and kinship trials and tribulation of the Kwok family, headed by Kwok Jing (Stanley Fung), the patriarch who has been in the weather broadcasting news reporting service for decades, unable to break into anchoring a news program for his company. A blooper during the covering of a typhoon led to his son Kwok Fu Seng (6 Wing), his cameraman, being voluntarily let go as the scapegoat, as we learn that from his rival at work Ms Shen (Shaw Yin Yin) that the company has been recently acquired by William So's Roberto, an egoistical maniac conglomerate king who has four Thai transvestites as bodyguards.

Kwok's brother (Mak Cheung-Ching) is a good for nothing loafer who free loads in his home, and his children's all have personal relationship issues to deal with. There's the return of Teresa Mo as Kwok Mei Mei, a successful lawyer married to a less than successful husband Yao Ming (Eric Tsang) who essentially serves as the butler for the entire household, with the couple having to struggle with childlessness, a busty foster daughter from China, as well as the keeping up of appearances in high society circles. Denise Ho stars as Kwok Jing Jing, a tomboy supermarket manager whose beau is the effeminate top selling salesman (Bosco Wong) in the same supermarket she works in, who may have to fasttrack their path to marriage when she discovers she got knocked up. And son Fu Seng who on his last day of work falls in love with Roberto's latest squeeze Vivian (Vivian Zhang), and conjures up plenty of tricks to try and woo her.

Not all the jokes hit their mark though, and in many ways having too many screenwriters (I counted around 10) meant a potential to be a messy affair, though I suspect that some had contributed only to certain segments since the comical moments were quite compartmentalized. So we have slapstick reserved for Teresa Mo and Eric Tsang to deliver, with the best being their bedroom ritual involving cosplaying as superheroes, and jokes about sexuality centered around Denise Ho and Bosco Wong's characters since they're opposites that work, like When Hainan Meets Teochew in certain ways. The more mo-lei-tau moments were left to the 6 Wing and Vivian Zhang segment, with the guys buddying up to assist Fu Seng in his quest for their personal ulterior motives, before Fu Seng has to go for it on his own when the rest have more pressing matters on their own fronts to attend to.

You would have thought the screenwriters of rival films All's Well Ends Well and I Love Hong Kong might have compared notes to decide upon providing a structure framework to craft their stories in, because compared to the previous installments, those were more laissez-faire and had almost everything including the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. This time round with a little bit more discipline the trade off was less comical moments or spoofs - only the one for You Are The Apple of My Eye had prominence, and at times may sound a little bit preachy with its moral message about a family that sticks together to emerge stronger at the end even if the world should end.

For a Lunar New Year film, there's this underlying, less than auspicious treatment with a narrative fixation about the end of the world, clearly playing on the much talked about end of the world Mayan prophecy. For those who want to go to the cinemas during this period to laugh out loud at a light hearted comedy, this may prove to be counter-productive even if the subject matter was treated lightly, with various weather anomalies being experienced, which will be explained in due course naturally to keep things still celebratory. And it was also a curious affair to have Auld Lang Syne for a Chinese New Year film in the final scene where all the stars from Shaw's television stable come out to break the fourth wall for the Lunar New Year greetings that didn't happen, choosing instead to do a choppily edited song and dance sequence that you'd have to struggle to identify your favourite television personality - the one in the trailer shows more, so that tells you something.

But this film served as a welcome return for the likes of Teresa Mo and William So who have been away from the big screen for the longest time, with the former still showing her class of good comic timing is not lost, while the latter playing it really hard as the unlikeable conglomerate executive. If you're fans of either of them then this film is for you.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Hulking Down the Path of Fire!

I guess it's not just Hollywood dipping into its rich archives for story ideas to be remade for the modern day audience. Bollywood's Dharma Productions' cult classic of a revenge thriller Agneepath, starring Amitabh Bachchan back in 1990, now gets produced by Karan Johar, son of Yash Johar who produced the original, so there's a real Generation 2 connection here in creating this update of the highest production values, pulling out all the stops in its desire to equal or triumph over the original on many fronts, and succeeding in doing so.

It's a tale that's timeless with themes that resonate, touching on family and violence, crime and vengeance, that in my opinion is of the scale as operatic as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Directed and co-written by Karan Malhotra, the film takes its time to develop the lead character of Vijay Deenanath Chauhan (Hrithik Roshan) that makes us ally to his cause of revenge, even if it means having to support him in a life of crime to rise up amongst the ranks, to gain power in whatever means possible to be of an equal to his mortal enemy Kancha (Sanjay Dutt), while at the same time battling his softer emotions that deal with love and acceptance from a mother (Zarina Wahab) hell bent against her son's chosen path to destruction.

And what makes Vijay so mad stems from the framing and public persecution of his dad Master Deenanath Chauhan (Chetan Pandit), a well respected school teacher and community leader in the village of Mandwa where landlords exploit the poor, who got enticed by Kancha's promise of leasing their land to built factories and create jobs. That he did, but only after enslaving the villagers through his brand of violence and control, and cultivating cocaine on their land to become a drug baron. But before the impending execution of his plan, Kancha has to get rid of naysayers like Master, turning him against the simpleton villages and subsequently hanging him mercilessly from a Banyan tree with public support baying for blood.

This triggers something in Vijay (as a child played by Arish Bhiwandiwala, who did a great job) who had to endure being helpless against the mob mentality, having to bear witness to an atrocious injustice, before taking flight with his mother to Mumbai, where his sister Shiksha (Kanika Tiwari) was born. Now staying alive with only one sole objective in mind, Vijay chances upon Mumbai's underworld led by Rauf Lala the drug lord and woman trafficker (Rishi Kapoor in an excellent support role) and plots to align with the bad hats to gain a reputation before getting back at Kancha. Doing so meant estranging himself from his mother and sister, in a way protecting them as well from his deliberate life of crime, making Kaali Gawde (Priyanka Chopra) perhaps his only childhood friend and lover to know him better than anyone else, although almost always goading that they get married.

What made Agneepath stand out amongst the usual triad and gangster crime flicks, is the path Vijay decided to undertake in his path of vengeance. Choosing to meet violence with violence, and to build an army of his own based on generosity amongst his adopted community of the poor and curiously predominantly female, Vijay schemes at different sides to ensure he's top dog, even if it means stepping on his "father"'s toes in Rauf Lala, and exploring avenues where he can usurp the underworld throne. And the balance of power also involves the cops led by Commissioner Gaitonde (Om Puri) with whom Vijay also strikes a testy relationship with, making Vijay a character with really grey intentions never being black or white and keeping his adversaries on their toes whether he's there to cover their back, or to spring a surprise by playing the opposite side. Talk about keeping your friends close, and enemies closer.

Hrithik Roshan did a fantastic job as the vengeful Vijay, with steely eyes that shoot pure hatred, balancing many negative emotions with more heartfelt ones especially in a scene where he bore his soul to Kaali revealing his yearning for his mother's love and acceptance after spending some 15 years apart in order to seed the opportunities of his planned revenge. Sanjay Dutt looked like he had loads of fun portraying the character of pure evil, a bald man who cannot stand the look of himself in a mirror, exacting control over his crafted empire built on the blood of Mandwa through guns, hired help, and Katrina Kaif as an item girl for the song Chikni Chameli. Priyanka Chopra as the love interest, teaming with Hrithik Roshan since Krrish (in films that I've watched), unfortunately had only a bit role to play here that showcased her broad acting range, being the livewire through her song and dance numbers that in fact made Katrina Kaif's much talked about item number look a little bit pale in comparison.

But besides the casting, the production values were of the highest quality and reminded me why I'm almost always thrilled to watch an Indian film epic anytime. The vibrant colours, customs and culture on display from religious processions to celebration of festivals or moments through song and dance, are elements that make an Indian film unique, and to not have all these ingredients coming together and gelling up well just meant that something's sorely missed. Plus the melodrama that finds a sweet spot in the narrative to become the emotional anchor for characters to allow you to feel, and in this case, empathize with their respective plight, blessed with irony and poetic justice when the time calls for it.

Agneepath befits its path of fire title with its bloody brutality, never gratuitous but necessary to bring out the senselessness, and the eye-for-an-eye treatment that Vijay Dinanath Chauhan is going after. Cinematography was gorgeous especially with Malhotra's many raining scenes as metaphors to try and quench the fiery moods and environments all round in Mumbai and Mandwa to no avail. As a remake, this version of Agneepath soars for its ability to stand on its own two feet and retaining an original flavour of its own, with minor quibbles such as what would be a rush toward its inevitable finale that brought everything to a tearful full circle. It seems like Agneepath has the bandwidth to become a classic of its own, and has indeed fired the first, early salvo in 2012 as being one of the best this year has on offer. A definite recommendation!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

One For The Money

Classical Loggerheads

The trailer would remind you of the forgettable The Bounty Hunter starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston with the former being the titular character whose target happens to be his ex-wife, having them bicker and run from various misadventures together. Reverse the roles in order to have a female bounty hunter going after an ex-boyfriend, and the stage is set for more of the same, no? Not quite. One for the Money has a lot more going for it, predominantly being a film written by and made by females for its intended audience, and being an engaging flick chick that wonderfully encapsulates a whodunnit.

Katherine Heigl seems to be on a successful roll on celluloid, and is in her element here in this romantic action adventure comedy as lead character Stephanie Plum, a rookie bounty hunter drawn to the profession only because she's desperate for a job to pay off impending bills. An ex-lingerie model, we follow her transition from girly girl to a somewhat tough cookie ready to hold her own in her cousin's business, where an added incentive is to hunt down and bring in her ex-boyfriend Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara), a cop wanted for the gunning down an unarmed felon.

Yes one would expect the usual laughs coming from her inexperience in a new field, her constantly being outwitted by slier opponents in the big bad town of Trenton, New Jersey, and having that pitch perfect sexual charisma with her mark since they share a common romantic history before in their youths. But to my surprise One for the Money has a little bit more depth in its story than I would have imagined, playing out like a mystery with a crime at hand to solve, with Stephanie stumbling her way from fact to fact, interacting with various interesting caricatures who don't bore, and plays out exactly like an 80s private detective film of old in spirit.

Written by Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray and Liz Brixius off the well received novel of the same name by Janet Evanovich, this probably accounts for a lot of female-centric focus on elements in the storyline, as well as director Julie Anne Robinson's ability to center this very much like a chick flick, wrapped around an old fashioned whodunnit. I mean, only in a story with an attractive female protagonist would you have other females in the story either old, or matronly, and having not one but two hunks - Morelli and fellow alpha-male bounty hunter Ranger (Daniel Sunjata) - involved at the crossroads of her life. Plenty of characterization goes into the lead character of Stephanie Plum, and Heigl brings a certain sass to the role, with little street smarts that cover for her lack of experience in the field.

Granted the mystery doesn't quite play out with that kind of tension and suspense as one would expect from a true blur genre film, but it does enough with its slight touch and managed to keep interest afloat. While there are 18 novels to date in the series of Stephanie Plum's adventures in bounty hunting, with each novel title starting with a number / numerically related, reality is that any subsequent film will have to rely on how much this makes at the box office. My bet is that it'll likely be something quite modest with a potential of 17 more films made only if Heigl wants to be stereotyped (if not already) or typecast. Still, One for the Money sits above average on the entertainment scale, and can be recommended fare if you'd give it a chance.

[DVD] Throw Down (柔道龙虎榜 / Yau Doh Lung Fu Bong) (2004)

Grand Slam

Mention Johnnie To, and imagery of ultra cool triad members and handsomely crafted stand offs and shoot-em-ups come to mind, in addition to stories that are allegories to the social situation in Hong Kong, with multi-faceted characters peppering the landscape. He's been around the Hong Kong industry for years, and of late has been amongst a handful of filmmakers credited for sustaining the industry, and to think that he too had dabbled with the comedy and romance genres in addition to his much acclaimed crime thrillers.

Throw Down from 2004 is slightly different, retaining the technical qualities his films are known to exhibit, but having a storyline with themes that are more personal, and in essence a shout out to anyone found struggling with whichever aspects of life at a point in time. There are no guns nor weapons galore, nor are there cops and clear cut villains who are baying for blood. While it's about Judo, don't come to expect a fight-a-minute film because this is not that movie, with action sequences kept to a bare minimum, though it does boast a scene which I thought was pandemonium done poetically with wonderful choreography that looked like a Judo free for all tournament is in progress, set within the confines of a crammed pub premises that spilt over to the sidewalk and roads outside.

Amongst the various Asian martial arts, I never really come to understand the spirit of Judo, and thus was my least favourite of them all, until this film. Almost every martial art would have found a representative film to promote the art or the sport version, and I haven't seen one that focused on Judo until Throw Down came along, and the metaphor couldn't be more pronounced. In essence it may seem like a series of throws to get your opponent off balance and gaining an upper hand, but it's truer of its spirit and intent. the message of dusting oneself off the ground when one gets defeated, to get up on one's feet and try again. It is this spirit of perseverance and encouragement that is very much alive through the protagonists in the film, a spirit that To explores in this movie.

Written by Yau Nai-Hoi, Au Kin-Yee and Yip Tin-Shing, Throw Down follows the story of Sze-To (Louis Koo), a one time Judo champion who decided to abruptly call it quits, and now manages a karaoke pub and lounge, spending his time wasted in drink and gambling, void of the zest of life. Nobody knows the real reason behind this sudden change, and it is we the audience who will journey with him down the trodden path of redemption. I think this film also marks Aaron Kwok's rare acting tutelage under Johnnie To as he plays the youngster Tony, a Judo enthusiast who seeks out Sze-To for a genuine challenge, and decided to stick around when he doesn't get the quality of challenge he's looking for. And Cherrie Ying rounds up the protagonist trio as Mona, a cannot-make-it singer wannabe from Taiwan who tries hard to make it to the entertainment scene, ending up at Sze-To's pub looking for a job.

Each character is vastly different and encapsulates the different approaches toward this journey we call life. In Sze-To we see someone zapped of zeal and spirit, giving up on what he does best and going through the motions, nary wanting to lift a finger to help his one time master Cheng (Lo Hoi Pang) to continue his legacy and fight in an upcoming tournament, much less helping anyone else. In Tony comes optimism, forward looking and almost always seizing the moment, be it the bouncer at the door, or a formidable opponent he knows of, just to spar for the sake of sparring to improve himself, broken arm notwithstanding - where he even designs his own one-arm wrestle. And in Mona's case, one who simply never gives up even with the realization of a void of talent, determined to want to breakthrough no matter what, and seeking out her own opportunities to do so wherever it make take her, home or abroad.

Perhaps this film had remained Johnnie To's underrated best in terms of very focused characters each who will emerge quite differently by the time the final act rolls by, given the active metaphor of Judo sparring throughout the narrative, of being thrown down hard onto the ground, yet finding strength from within to pick oneself up again. And To doesn't feel the need to be verbose about everything, preferring to let the long takes, with minimal dialogue, allowing the music, and the basic mood and feel of each scene to tell the story, where even a key plot element has to be figured out that provides the answer why Sze-To acts the way he does, and his reason for quitting while at his prime, providing a sort of a mystery for the audience to unravel themselves.

And the technical strengths of this film is very Milkyway, gorgeously photographed by Cheung Siu Keung in both the interior shots and the outdoor ones that romanticizes the streets of Kowloon, with plenty of light and shadow play being very pronounced in the film, highlighting the state of mind each character find themselves in at any particular point in time. The Judo spars and fights are vividly designed to be real, sans wirework and mats, coupled with an engagingly punchy soundtrack that consistently accentuates the mood of the entire film. A superb support cast like one third of The Grasshoppers Calvin So as an outright homage by Johnnie To to Akira Kurosawa, Eddie Cheung as a ruffian who talks to himself under his breath spewing insults, and Tony Leung Kar-Fai as a mean dojo owner with a menacing single Judo technique, make this journey a classic one to undertake, and definitely one of Johnnie To's best works in his filmography that deserves to be widely seen. Highly recommended!

The Region Free DVD by Panorama Distributions autoplays with the trailer for A-1 Headline, presenting the film proper in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio options available in Cantonese Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1, or Cantonese DTS-ES, or Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are available in English, Traditional and Simplified Mandarin and Scene Selection is over 12 Chapters.

The Bonus features on the DVD are presented in a letterbox format and are subtitled, beginning with an Exclusive Director Interview (40:00) with Johnnie To, split into the various discussion topics with a play all function: The Judo Spirit, 70's Characterization, Lighting, Action vs Non-action, Long Take, Acting, Actors, Supporting Actors, The Four Scenes, Kurosawa, Sanshiro Sugata, Shoe, Values, Box-Office, Film Festival, where Johnnie To provides plenty of insights into his filmmaking philosophy, his influences, and the ideas behind Throw Down, right down to the mechanics of his working with various acting talent here, as well as production technicalities.

The Making-of Documentary (10:55) is standard fare behind the scenes look at how the action sequences got designed and made, predominantly focusing on them, besides talking to cast and crew members about their characters and thoughts about the movie. The Photo Gallery contains 20 stills that autoplays in slide show format that lasts 1:18. A Teaser (1:21) and a Theatrical Trailer (2:03) gets packaged together with a whopping 11 TV Spots that is designed for characters, cast and various montage shots, lasting anywhere from 0:31 to 0:45. And the bonus material rounds up with On Judo, which is text based in Mandarin and English about the martial arts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

[Short] Quinkin (2011)


To catch it, you need it
If you need it, you can't catch it

The riddle here forms the centerpiece of writer-director Michael Wannenmacher's short film Quinkin, set in a post-apocalyptic future where two hunters, Vox (Brett Swain) and Paul (Wannenmacher himself) trek across vast, barren landscapes in search of the titular Quinkin, a shadowy creature from the Aboriginal Dreamtime. From the get go we know who amongst the two calls the shots, with Vox being very much the bullying leader and navigator, leaving most of the grunt work for Paul. This delicate balance of power is what becomes explored in this 15 minute, compact film.

Wannenmacher knows a thing or two about building suspense, which he does expertly in not falling into cliches, feeding onto the audience's apprehension and anticipation of what exactly is a Quinkin and how it actually looks like, since glimpses of it extend out of existing shadows cast by various objects, and the director gives you just enough before holding back for a future exposition. Then again the Quinkin isn't the main plot point here, unlike the shifts in the balance of power when the two men chanced upon a fallen comrade, where his notebook got pinched and a series of riddles got played, until the one above becomes the stumbling block, and obsession, for Vox.

The film then draws you in when you inevitably participate in the guessing as well, when the two men have to go about their chores to build traps in time before dusk approaches, and we see how for once Vox begin to lose his cool and his edge when his fixation to solve the riddle escalates the already tensed, bickering relationship between both men, into something a lot more deadly when fisticuffs, and weapons come into the picture. The shift in the balance of power has begun, culminating in what would be a tension filled finale that shows more of someone than meets the eye.

As with quality short films, nary a frame nor a scene is wasted in the delivery of a tightly crafted story, with solid production values in costuming, sets and art direction that makes the apocalyptic future a credible one even on a shoestring budget. The two actors share an incredible, raw chemistry that made their master-servant relationship believable, and brought to life Wannenmacher's story completely centered on the two characters. If you still haven't figured out the solution to the riddle posed at the top then perhaps it is time to give Quinkin a look!

Related Links
- Before Dawn FilmsWebsite
- Quinkin Website with Trailer

Monday, January 23, 2012

[DVD] Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)


Based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peer Elkind, Alex Gibney's documentary charts the stratospheric rise and meteoric fall of Enron, an energy, commodities and services company based in Texas that was the darling of Wall Street in the buildup to Y2K, before tanking itself at the turn of the new millennium through greed and fraud, most notably taking down its auditors Arthur Andersen, one of the largest auditing firms at the time, with it. As a young man at the time looking for a job, Arthur Andersen was one of the companies many in my cohort had aspired to join, and some did, until the now infamous shredding of documents incident brought the giant down to its knees, and a sorry and rude awakening that no company was infallible.

It's as if we never learn from history, with the latest Wall Street woes still boiling essentially down to white collar crooks being creative with the books, and innovative in their design of instruments set to confuse, yet hyping themselves up to be money making tools that can never fail. These signposts - guaranteed returns, guaranteed protection of principle, and all round too good to be true feeling, are ingredients to failure that we would all likely not consider, preferring to look at the brighter side of things and turn a blind eye to, and in this fashion be susceptible to manipulation and lies. Films like Margin Call and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are fine films that fictionalizes the basic greedy human condition, until the time when shit hits the fan that everything comes crumbling down.

Alex Gibney's documentary takes a more academic approach in showcasing the important points that stem from deregulation of the energy market, and the charismatic approach that its founders went to sell the promises of the company, and essentially making money from nothing - but options and promises of something of a future value to come. The obsession with numbers, showing how profitable the company was quarter after quarter, which is as amazing as it is nearly impossible without concrete, substantial, tangible goods and services, highlights how obsession toward money and pure capitalism combined with the succumbing to want to win at all costs, lead to temptation for committing fraud. To repeat lies continuously and with conviction makes it look as if it's the truth, pulling wool over many people's eyes, with everyone wanting to jump on the money making bandwagon, and treating naysayers as idiots who just don't get it. And with billions to be made at so short a time, who wouldn't want to get on it?

The film concentrates on the three top honchos of Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow as key players who are undoubtedly smart, but applying their smarts in the wrong fashion of wanting to create the corporation of the world where everything else was beneath them, and collectively building that tower of untouchability and incredible profits as they pied piper everyone on Wall Street about their potential. Better yet, their ability to make money out of everything, such as bandwidth, electricity and the likes. The film introduces their work ethics or the lack thereof, and while on hindsight it's easy to see where the obvious danger signs are, I'm pretty certain one will find it easier to be suckered into what they were selling, if they had any tangibles to sell it to begin with, other than a soaring stock price and an entire flimsy system built on mark to market accounting.

Skeptics are put down ruthlessly, and the largest irony here is Enron's slogan being "Ask Why?", but nobody dared to do so when scrutinizing their books or questioning how Enron managed to be the new economic miracle it seemingly was, getting caught up in the euphoria of money, money and more money. Lessons learnt came from the incorrect corporate culture where celebration was at hand when profits come from the less fortunate - there is no zero sum game - and what may be applicable here even, that having private companies run public infrastructure and utilities, and the power to determine prices and service quality, is essentially asking for trouble, with California's power outage problems, despite having more than enough capacity, brought down no thanks to unscrupulous wheelings and dealings from within Enron to both cause the problem with restricting supplies, skyrocketing demand and price, and profiteering from it in the markets. There's nothing illegal here given the workings within the confines of a deregulated framework, but highly unethical given the ability to profit in such a fashion - listening to the tapes of the transactions, will boil your blood.

The film summarizes the countless, countless of scandalous dealings and even containing inside footage where you can see the perpetuation of blatant lies and profiteering from insider training of sorts, and manipulation of a big bully against its detractors and obscenely rewarding the top echelons with hundreds of millions. You have to tip your hat at the gall of the unholy trinity of Lay-Skilling-Fastow as they seduce everyone with their promises built on empty lies, where regulators, banks and what you would deem as the checks and balances inherent in the financial system would be bypassed so easily and failed when they should have mattered, highlighting how fallible everything is when having money stare straight at one's face, ripe for the taking without accountability.

It's a horror story that's effectively told in succinct terms summarizing the spectrum of fraud, though one that has to be learnt from and to have one's eyes propped open to the tactics of conmen and schemes that continuously evolve with time. What was lacking was the first hand talking heads interview with the unholy trinity, instead we get interviews with a lot of other, related characters who are involved either as employees or external parties, enough to build the persona of the chief culprits involved. For now this story becomes a classical business and fraud case study, but if true, smartest guys anywhere were to put their heads together to think up of a scheme to fleece everyone, no thanks to our inherent greed system, we won't be seeing the last of an Enron equivalent anytime soon. If you want to know more about Enron, this is the documentary that you should go to first. Highly recommended!

The Region 1 DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment autoplays with Trailers (4:56) in the letterbox format for The World's Fastest Indian, One Last Thing..., and an HDNet advertisement. The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with audio available in its original English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Subtitles are available in English close caption and Spanish, with Scene Selection available over 15 chapters.

There are tons of Bonus Material included in the release of this DVD presented in the letterbox format. There's the Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Alex Gibney that is chock full of information both about the making of the film, and to give it additional content and insights as he covers a lot more stuff that couldn't be covered in the film proper, otherwise this will turn into a mini-series instead. Extremely informative as Gibney covers the spectrum on both the content and filmmaking angles.

Deleted Scenes (19:30) comes with a Play All option, for The Silverpeak Incident dealing with more details about the California power crisis, Car Salesman talks to one who details how the Enron traders would drop by to pick up their luxury cars, Ken Lay's Indictment provides a behind the scenes look at the media circus outside the Houston Federal Courthouse, as well as Ken Lay's address, and Gray Davis and the California Crisis dwells a little bit more about the Californian governor's tussle with Enron.

We Should All Ask Why?: Making The Enron Film (13:55) has director Alex Gibney talk us through his filmmaking process and the breaks he had when making the film, with clips from the film rather than any behind the scenes moments, with some repetition on content that's already covered in the documentary proper. He continues to provide an update on Where Are They Now (2:44) at the time of the DVD release, for the top executives of Ken Lay (who is now controversially dead), Jeffrey Skilling, Andy Fastow and Liu Pai who probably got the best deal amongst all for walking away very early. A Conversation with Bethany McLean (7:35) and A Conversation with Peter Elkind (5:05) are talking head pieces with the writers of the book, although containing nothing already heard in one way or another in the film itself.

HDNet's Higher Definition: Highlights from The Enron Show (12:11) is hosted by Robert Wilonsky, critic from the Dallas Observer who conducted separate interviews with the authors of the book Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, while Firesign Theatre: The Fall of Enron (3:17) is a behind the scenes look at the comedy skit broadcast recorded by Firesign Theatre, and more comedy of sorts come from Alex Gibney Reads Enron Skits (4:28), one of which you would have seen in the film, and you really don't know if you should laugh or cry at the blatantness and irony of the jokes.

There are 18 political cartoons included in A Gallery of Enron Cartoons, while Fortune Magazine Articles contains the text reproduction of three articles which are "Is Enron Overpriced" that was featured prominently in the film, "Enron Banks Dodge a Bullet" and "Partners in Crime". Updates on the Web & Enron Book is just a page containing links for the latest information and updates, the book on which the film is based upon and its soundtrack. Rounding up the Bonus Material is a series of Trailers (7:26) for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bubble, The War Within and League of Ordinary Gentlemen, with a Play All option.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Collabfeature Group Presents: The Owner

The CollabFeature project involves filmmakers from over 25 countries, collaborating over the internet to create a series of multi-director films. The first in a series of films, The Owner was filmed by 25 filmmakers on 5 continents, following the adventures of an old backpack that is passed from character to character around the world. As the journey progresses, we learn details about the mysterious man to whom the bag belongs.

The story, written collaboratively over the internet, brings together a variety of cultures, languages, and film styles into a singular narrative plot. On May 25th 2012, the filmmakers, most of whom have never met met, will host same-night screenings in theaters in their own cities.

You can find out more details about CollabFeature here where a second feature known as The Trainstation Project is primed to be made, and more about the film The Owner here.

Related Link
TWITTER: http://www.twitter.com/CollabFeature
FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/CollabFeature
FILM WEBSITE: http://who-is-the-owner.com

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dance Dance Dragon (龙众舞 / Long Zhong Wu)

Scene Stealer

It's still in the early days, but while Hong Kong has its rivalry set up during the Lunar New Year period with Raymond Wong versus Eric Tsang in pitting their All's Well Ends Well with the I Love Hong Kong series respectively, in Singapore all signs point to a similar rivalry with Jack Neo's J-Team going up against Raintree/Boku to corner the local box office this lucrative season thanks to the extended holidays. And Kelvin Tong takes a back seat this time round from his box office champion of 2011 It's a Great Great World, to follow in the footsteps of other production houses in allowing their proteges an opportunity to helm a feature of their own. Taking on producing and co-writing responsibilities with Marcus Chin, the baton got passed to Kat Goh, with Dance Dance Dragon marking her feature film debut.

"Long Zhong Wu" is the auspicious, phonetically similar term of "having everything" in Hokkien, and fits the theme in this auspicious period to welcome the arrival of the new Zodiac to rule over the next 12 months. The trailer plays on this term and touts out loud that it has every conceivable genre under the sun included in the movie. Granted that "He Sui Pian", or films designed for family friendly mass entertainment during this period, may be excused for its wafer thin plotting, and tendency to stuff as many stars as possible into the film, you can sense the weight of expectations coming from this Raintree/Boku production from living up to its standards set from last year, but alas it had too much of everything running for Kat Goh to handle adequately, resulting in a very scattered focus, where certain aspects inevitably shone while others ultimately got sacrificed, and some scenes included in quite bewildering, unnecessary fashion if not to pad the film to feature film length.

Given it's a dragon year, the animal which is most revered in the Zodiac, you can bet your last dollar that everything's going to be dragon-related in any way they can. And this movie goes along the same line as well, obviously blessing itself with the word "Dragon" in both its Chinese and English title, with the story revolving around a lion/dragon dance troupe of the same name, as well as a baby that's born under the star sign who's so desperately wanted by all quarters, one that's given by the gods - children dressed in white and organized in very corporate like fashion. But if it's blessings that's requested by the film, it certainly needed a lot to gloss over its many flaws, He Sui Pian blind-eye notwithstanding.

The veteran Malaysian actress Lai Ming, already a very familiar face in the local movie industry, plays Mother Loong (#345 dragon reference), the matriarch of "Long Zhong Wu" the troupe who had failed to live up to the family's ancestors expectations of producing a male dragon-zodiac heir to continue their family bloodline and business. All she could muster is Lucy (Dennis Chew in his Auntie Lucy drag getup) as the oldest of three children, followed by twins in the tomboyish Ah Bee (Kym Ng) and Ah Long (Melvin Sia) the latter who unfortunately was delivered when the clock ticked into the Year of the Snake some 36 years ago. So the pressure is on with Mother Loong wishing for a baby dragon heir to appease her ancestors to befall her children, but Auntie Lucy is only interested in ballroom dancing, Ah Bee is all rough and tumble, and Ah Long is facing marital problems so he has returned from Kuala Lumpur.

The laughs come when a baby mysteriously appears at Long Zhong Wu, with everyone taking in to the little one, and frankly some of the best, heart-tugging scenes involve this little one with the filmmakers just nailing it in casting Baby Nigel in the role, making it believable why everyone takes to him, as well as the villains in the movie who felt that his presence mean a threat to their wish to takeover the Long Zhong Wu troupe. Headlining the villains are Bryan Wong as the relative Uncle Teck, who in full over-the-top fashion I felt was ridiculous funny with his lisping lines, and son Ah Beng (Benjamin Heng, a Kelvin Tong film veteran) whose rival lion dance troupe seeks deliberate trouble with Ah Long given the latter's rusty skills. Then there are the employed bumbling thieves played by Mark Chin and John Cheng who have some of the best lines in the movie, with natural chemistry and repertoire that make their on-screen partnership work for a number of local movie outings already.

Being a Boku film, you can sense Kat Goh digging into its past films for some inspiration, and one cannot shake away the references such as Eating Air's faux pas Kung-fu inspired moves that make an updated appearance here during the Lion/Dragon dance fights between Ah Beng and Ah Long, which could have been more energetic and extended rather than to be given the extremely tight shot treatment you suspect is to cover up their lack of training and realism. And the food references and scenes as well that this film like others in the filmography almost always taking their time to highlight and showcase, that your stomach will growl if you haven't had anything to eat prior to the movie, brought to you by Adrian Pang's very random character who got tasked to whip up a reunion dinner meal for Long Zhong Wu and its invited guests.

Kyn Ng and Adrian Pang once again continues from where they left off in Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping in playing a romantic couple here, but not without the initial bickering starting from her saving his skin from loan sharks, and the very, as mentioned, random treatment in which she brings him back to the troupe. The film continues to play up on their stereotypes unlike their first film outing, with one continuing in her tomboyish persona and the other the natural comedian, that while they may look good on screen together, I guess the time has come to get them out of their comfort zones. And speaking of comfort zones, Auntie Lucy should be retired, with her constant head shake being a distracting annoyance, so much so that her entire story arc including that unrequited love for an Indian man called Mahendran (also played by Chew) could have been written out altogether. I'm not sure how matronly women in the audience will take to the constant ribbing of their age and demeanour by the young and more beautiful (ok, this was relative in the film).

But this being the welcome of the new Lunar Year, I would still endorse Dance Dance Dragon as a fail-safe family film sans grotesque violence, nudity and sex, with wholesome ingredients and themes suited for everyone. It has clean production values with elements to entertain from slapstick to drama, but I suspect it won't hit the nostalgic heights of It's a Great Great World so soon. Thankfully though the film was miles better than the trailers made it out to be. Here's hoping that Raintree/Boku can come up with a stronger offering after this blip for next season's He Sui Pian. Huat ah!

The Descendants

Walking Together

Newly minted Best Picture (Drama) at this year's Golden Globes, along with George Clooney being awarded the Best Actor (Drama) award, The Descendants is Alexander Payne's latest film since Sideways, based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Dealing with the central character of Matt King (Clooney) as the trustee of his extended family's trust of thousands of acres of untouched land on the island of Kaua'i, Hawaii, Clooney puts in a commanding performance that deals with one man's plight on many fronts, from his children, his wife, his relatives and having to make tough decisions that will affect the lives of his kindred.

As with Payne's films, the challenges that stand in the protagonist's way are what make the film highly engaging, and Clooney drops his film star demeanour to play the everyday man who faces issues that aren't too far fetched, discovering that his now comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been cheating on him, and trying to reconnect with estranged daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) since he's a dad who's seldom at home and seen. And as if matters of the family cannot get anymore complicated, here comes the extended family of cousins and just about everyone related to the King real estate who have to decide, ultimately by Matt himself, how to best sell off their inherited land in order to maximize their profits, with a deadline to boot.

With the multiple narrative threads dealing at a microscopic emotional level - trying hard to come to terms with a cheating spouse where you know you've drawn the shortest possible end of the stick given the state of the other half, and having a teenage daughter who doesn't quite understand you, they provide that grounding to make it easy to identify with Matt King the man who's really quite down on his luck on family matters. The plot threads expand to his near obsession to want to discover with whom his wife has been cheating with, and to bear the brunt of an incessantly sarcastic father-in-law who doesn't take her daughter's comatose state all too kindly.

But it's not all doom, gloom and filled with negative emotions here, as the film does have its fair share of lighter moments courtesy of characters like Alexandra's insensitive loud mouthed friend Sid (Nick Krause) who comes along for the road trip of sorts, though almost always punctuated with that tinge of inevitable sadness in the air. Moments of poetic justice also makes you want to whoop for joy, although you tend to weigh in on these moments and make you think - would you want to maximize benefits for those in your family, or for selfish reasons choose not to remotely reward someone who had done you a great wrong. Such is the tussle and wrangle Matt has to deal with, and makes The Descendants one really topsy-turvy emotional ride, which on one hand one wants to appear magnanimous, while on the other having to suppress the urge to just punch out.

And Clooney deserves his award for making Matt King so believable, junking his glamourous self for something far more affable at first, before the problems start to pile, each with a deadline of its own, and wondering when he would crack under undue pressure, emotionally and physically. Sharing perfect daughter-father relationship chemistry with Clooney is Shailene Woodley who in my opinion is an up and coming young actress to look out for, showcasing a wide range of emotions here, and a scene which I thought brought out her best when her character got broken the news of her mom's condition.

Alexander Payne crafts a meaningful, dramatic film that questions whether we should let the truth be always told, or to allow whatever the version it is in to pass, and to seek to forgive others even when we're wronged. And he deftly handles once again a protagonist who is put in a dilemma with monumental tasks to tackle, although you know they'd somehow converge together toward the end given the web of relationships that exists. Primed to be a firm contender for Best Picture come Oscar season soon, I'm quite certain this is a winner in its own way and doesn't need a golden statue to reaffirm that. Highly recommended!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Viral Factor (逆戰 / Ni Zhan)

Chill Bro

One of Hong Kong's rising film directors, Dante Lam has gained prominence over the last few years for his lavishly produced, hard hitting cop action thrillers underlined by thick melodrama between the main characters. His latest film The Viral Factor is obvious in having Lam's signature plastered all over, that this could be Dante's spiritual interpretation of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow with brothers on opposite sides of the law having to put aside their obvious differences to work together against a common enemy and goal.

The story bore some shades of intention from Woo's Mission: Impossible 2, where a virus got created to hold the world ransom at the breakout of an epidemic. In The Viral Factor, this comes in the form of weaponizing a variant of the smallpox virus, where a corrupt pharmaceutical company had employed thugs to obtain one of the last remnants of the virus, and to fund both its viral nature, and to come up with the medicine and the vaccine, thereby earning itself billions in profits, and adulation from the world for its cures. Talk about being both the devil and angel at the same time, and making tons of money from it.

With Dante Lam and Ng Wai Lun sharing screenplay responsibilities from a Candy Leung story, The Viral Factor soon has this premise put on the back-burner as it focused instead on the brotherly bonds or the lack thereof between international cop Jon Wan Fei (Jay Chou), introduced through his dream of getting yanked out of trouble by an invisible hand, and that of perennial robber Wan Yang (Nicholas Tse), a consistently wanted man in Malaysia who commits the largest of crime, and with the backing of corrupt cops, almost always finds a way out of either the court house or the jail. With the Beijing based cop learning from his Mother (Elaine Jin) about her wanting to seek forgiveness from his dad (Liu Kai-chi) and brother for walking out on them, Jon makes the trip to Malaysia to track them down, despite nursing a "bullet-in-the-head" injury that decided to rear its ugly head only during flights (for product placement purposes), or when it's plot convenient.

And it is in Kuala Lumpur that the film spends significant time in, with Jon finally reconciling with his dad, his brother amidst under testy situations since both come from different sides of the law, and getting themselves in the way of the villains led by Andy On in full typecast, who are all after a scientist Rachel (Lin Peng) who has the skillset to weaponize the virus, and Wan Yang's daughter who gets captured as collateral. The two brothers have little time to get to know each other since a number of tasks get put in their way that requires plenty of shoot-em-ups to complete, but given this is a Dante Lam film, he'll craft enough emotional scenes in between for the building of camaraderie, and one of the better dramatic moments come when both brothers have to hide at an abandoned construction site and open themselves up, one who's brought up in Malaysia thus very fluent in Cantonese (thankfully and curiously the censors here allowed this to be in full and without dubbing), and the other conversing in Mandarin only. Some may find this a little bit unbelievable, but trust me I'd just appreciate that Nicholas Tse wasn't dubbed over.

I would liken Dante Lam to Hollywood's Michael Bay for his penchant of blowing things up, and almost always featuring some of the latest toys in weaponry for their characters to gear up and use. From the get go in Jay Chou's scene in Jordan where his extradition of a doctor and his family goes awry no thanks to an ambush, it's full on military mode and precision as he tackles this sequence, and every other action sequence later, with craft to rival the best of the West. No doubt some scenes may be overly long and indulgent just to showcase what Lam can do, repetitive even, but amongst his filmography The Viral Factor demonstrates just how Lam has continued to improve upon his action delivery. And what makes him stand out is the insistence to focus on the human emotion, so that his characters don't pass off as one dimensional and having an emotional void.

And if I may digress, The Viral Factor serves up to be a little more of an enviable look at how it can be made in Malaysia, but certainly not Singapore. Not since Jackie Chan's Supercop can I remember the scale and spectacle of a non Malaysian production, and an A-list film at that, being shot on her shores that feature helicopter chases, foot pursuits, massive shootouts within the confines of cars stuck in jams, featuring plenty of gunfire and huge explosions (some with the help of CG of course). For all that Singapore desires in overseas productions coming to shoot here, we can only boast the likes of Hindi superhero film Krrish, and to a lesser extent De Dana Dan, which was a comedy mostly set within the four walls of the Pan Pacific Hotel. For that high octane action sequences filmed outdoors, perhaps Gordon Chan's 2000 A.D. starring Aaron Kwok can be counted, as can Wong Jing's The Last Blood starring Alan Tam, Eric Tsang and Andy Lau. These were pre-Y2K, where we still have and perhaps have improved upon the infrastructure, but perhaps we're bound by even more bureaucracy, and I suspect that incessant obsession even to vet through scripts, and frankly, thinking too much.

For instance, while we have the sets, skyline and pretty much a lot of available hardware, the heartware could be missing, which I suspect after The Last Blood, I haven't seen a film shot here that features a corrupt cop. The Viral Factor has corrupt and inept cops galore, which in the story is taken as a given though the authorities frankly have no qualms about it since it's after all, a fictional film. Can I hover a handful of helicopters overhead to shoot one of the set action pieces? Probably the permits to fill in will stack up to be as thick as a telephone directory, with worries that the constant buzz and whir in our city will scare away investors. Can I shoot something in the MRT stations and trains? Well, I suppose the constant breakdowns make it an unattractive option. And the list went on as I daydreamed how interesting it would be to get an up to date crime action flick shot here, done by local filmmakers, or having international productions come here (Point Break 2, anyone?)

Jay Chou has come out to proclaim that this would be his final action film, but to that I'd say never say never. He's more of a singer than actor, although I have to admit he does have screen charisma and have progressed quite nicely from his rather wooden outing in Curse of the Golden Flower. Nicholas Tse on the other hand shows why he's top dog now, with that ability to balance the more dramatic moments and holding his own during the action sequences. His acting has developed from when he first started out, relying on his "idol" looks and poser attitude then, to grow into a bona fide actor now, with some of his best work done under the watch of Dante Lam.

It's a surprise to have lined this up for the Lunar New Year since this is a period for comedies and family friendly entertainment, but if you're in the mood for some action, The Viral Factor lives up to expectation despite minor plot quibbles and loopholes and underlines Dante Lam's ambition and capability to helm large action spectacles, with the promise of more to come.

Thursday, January 19, 2012



You have got to salute the marketing folks for giving Steven Soderbergh's Haywire such a high octane sounding synopsis that promises plenty of action given a plot that treads on the usual betrayal of an alpha-character who comes back to seek revenge against the handlers. The film isn't anything like what its synopsis had promised, being silent for the most parts and having little spoken segments, relying on plenty of mood and music generated, which reminded me of Drive, but without the coolness and chic since it's very much grounded in reality with no frills and no flamboyance.

And by that I mean no exaggeration in its fight action sequences, where sound effects usually get amplified and for some cinema, elevated to becoming a key component to camouflage the lack of hard hitting impact, which in real life hardly ever happens anyway unless someone possesses some out of this world bionics, or ability to whistle one's punches when punching through to another body. The fight choreography by JJ Perry and team is so vividly real that the choreography itself is invisible, where exponents rely on just about everything within grasp to be used as an advantageous weapon and use just about every component of one's body to gain tactical advantage, which is why MMA works. Everyone seems to hit very hard in very convincing fashion onto the other and go for the jugular, and never fail to make you wince when the fighters begin their no holds barred battles that can happen just about anywhere, anytime.

Which is why for the longest time I was waiting for yet another MMA film to show itself after Wilson Yip's Flashpoint, given the potential of the martial arts for more cinematic screen time, and who would have thought that it would come from Soderbergh instead, not exactly when known for tackling the pure out and out action genre in his filmography. But there's always a first time, and why not before the director decides to retire from filmmaking to dabble in painting. Curiously it's how the director had decided to treat the entire material, not just allowing the fights to take centrestage, but to weave a tale of curious jet setting espionage around it, dealing with shady characters with even shadier intents, and assemble a wealth of acting talent and action knuckle-men in its testosterone filled ensemble cast - check this out: Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas etc - at his disposal to deliver on all fronts.

Before you go Gina Carano who? in terms of the lead actress on whose broad shoulders the weight of this film got carried upon, it's good background to know that she's a one time #3 in Unified Women's MMA Rankings, thus making her the genuine deal required of an action heroine, sorely missed in Hollywood these days, especially those who possess real skills and not poser ones that any camera can turn one into. While Haywire is not her debut feature film role, it doesn't mean that Carano already possesses that varied range of acting emotions, but reserves her range for her battling abilities instead, from hammering away at key anatomical parts, to gripping one's head in vice-like thighs, and so on. My personal favourite of her fight sequences happen to be that with Michael Fassbender, which began so suddenly, threw just about everything into it, and ended on a brutal yet anti-climatic note which deliberately stripped away all romanticism associated with on screen violence.

Somehow, watching this film is like watching a Bruce Lee film (who arguably is one of the first MMA proponents), where regardless of the plot we know who to align our emotions to, and are sitting on the edge of our seats just waiting for the scheme of things to pass so that our hero(ine) can begin to kick ass. There isn't much talk here by the leading character as she devotes herself to carrying out her mission and overcoming obstacles put in her way, and Soderbergh fashions the pace and mood of the film almost like a typical 80s B-action movie if not for its European trot from Barcelona to Dublin predominantly told in a series of flashbacks. MMA embodies plenty of fight utilizing just about every body part available to inflict damage, with its fair share of throws and grappling, and when done well like what Haywire features, can simply be engaging on the big screen.

Unfortunately the plot pales in comparison to its action and treatment, and you'll be holding your breath for the next big action sequence to come on screen in between the double crossing and scheming committed by men in power. It shouldn't have to be this way if Lem Dobbs' story managed to provide a proper emotional centre for its central lead, which would have made her less of a one-dimensional character. Still, it's action that had piqued one's interest to come see this, and thankfully that aspect didn't disappoint, save for the long waits in between to endure before you get rewarded for your patience.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island in IMAX 3D

Look, You're Not Indiana Jones!

Journey to the Center of the Earth was one of the earliest 3D movies in this recent revival of what would already be the very tired 3D gimmick that has been invading our theatres, especially when films take the easy way out to convert to 3D during post production just to milk a few more bucks out of a weary audience. And this weariness now extends to this sequel with only cast member Josh Hutcherson returning as Sean Anderson, in a follow up story that's loosely set in yet another Jules Verne novel called The Mysterious Island.

But the premise also incorporates other novels such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Jonathan Swift's Gilliver's Travels and Verne's own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with the former two being a bit of a riddle that Dwayne Johnson's tough guy Hank Parsons, the beefcake needed to fill the void left by Brendan Fraser who played Sean's dad uncle (as I stand duly corrected by an eagle-eyed reader, though it didn't really matter given the presence of an adult, any adult, to supervise the kids here), solves like a no-brainer, with his character's vast intellect of convenience to almost always managing to assemble things and clues together for whatever predicament he finds himself in. Not too sure how fast a flood will submerge an island? Just ask Hank. Need to jumpstart an ancient submersible? Well, just ask Hank too, and he'll probably do a live demonstration while at it.

Yes, The Rock becomes superman here, well muscled so much so that mating rituals involve jiggling those pectoral muscles. As foster father to Sean, he tries hard enough to fill those shoes left behind by a dad who had taken off (easy way to write off a character from the past and saving him for potential installments), and thought that bringing Sean to an adventure of a lifetime of the latter's choosing may well be the antidote for the teen to open up and accept him. They meet up with tour guide Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) who together with her chopper flying dad Gabato (Luis Guzman), they head of to the coordinates that Sean and Hank possess of the location of Mysterious Island, and soon finds themselves stranded, and chancing upon Sean's long lost grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine), an adventurer who has been residing on the island for the longest time.

So begins an extremely quick and summarized tour of an island that is paradise, except for its ecology turned upside down where large and small animals in our part of the world, become complete opposites there, where elephants fit the palm of your hands, and monitor lizards, centipedes and other creepy crawlies becoming dinosaur like in proportion. After discovering just about every lost world fable and associating them with elements in this story, it's soon decided that the island will eventually submerge in a few days then reduced to hours, if the motley crew does not then decide to abandon island and look for a way out and back to the real world. Cue the all important montage sequences of traversing on top of mountains and the like, with generously short pit stops to admire unnatural landscapes such as a volcano that spews gold.

As an action adventure movie for children, this film served its purpose well, despite flaws that only accompanying adults will find distracting. There's the quintessential chase on foot by enormous beasts, taking to the skies riding on gigantic, friendly bees while being tailed by predator birds, and diving deep into the ocean to do battle with electric eels the size of sea serpents. These may sound like a lot of fun, but somehow director Brad Peyton, whose filmography other than a series of short films is Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, his inexperience in crafting energetic, edge of your seat material (at least like those in the original film which were really effective) was found to be wanting. For all the writers available to craft the story and screenplay, Journey 2 is surprisingly lacking in character development - save for some really lightweight foster father-son bonding - and packs in plenty of plot conveniences that demands you to accept everything on screen that happens at face value, albeit at times resolved quite randomly as well.

In some ways this may prove to be effective for the young ones without the need to grasp complex plotlines, but to the adults you'll just have to make do with being distracted by Vanessa Hudgen's outfit in the show with that really low cut tank top. Michael Caine plays his grandfatherly figure for the umpteenth time, while Luis Guzman is just there to contribute comedy. Dwayne Johnson as the lead in a family friendly film tones down his tough guy persona and flashes those pearly whites all too often, while showcasing that he has an incredible singing voice that will probably delight fans that he can one day star in a musical should age catch up on him and he finds himself no longer welcomed in a future Expandables movie.

The 3D effects weren't really worth the hike in price, and pales in comparison to the earlier installment which had effectively utilized the gimmick to add an extra dimension (pardon the pun) to its set action sequences. Watching it on an IMAX screen provided that little bit of scale and spectacle, however you'd know that the landscapes are all make belief, with the action-adventure portion let down by the lack of inventiveness for the characters to throw themselves in. The spirit of adventure and the excitement found in the first film, were sorely lost in this installment decide having bigger names attached to the cast.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

All's Well Ends Well 2012 (八星抱喜 / Baat Seng Bou Hei)

That's The Way We Like It

If you're consistently holed up in a cinema, you'll still know it's Lunar New Year just around the corner when the lineup of releases include a Jack Neo film, an action blockbuster, and from Hong Kong, yet another film from the All's Well Ends Well series, which is into its number 7th show and extremely dedicated to its own formula of screen success. Except for the first which has its place amongst some of the best in Hong Kong, the sequels are nothing much to shout about, entertaining masses of families out during this period of merrymaking and visiting, that it has to cater for the lowest common denominator.

All's Well Ends Well 2012 is that unlikely surprise that was better than expected, although still plagued by the usual shortcomings where one shouldn't be looking toward any great storyline or characters, being light in plot so that it serves its purpose as a Lunar New Year period film that allows you to laugh along. This time round it brings Donnie Yen back for another outing, and unites him with series veteran Raymond Wong, Sandra Ng and even Louis Koo who is into his third contribution to this never-say-die series. In fact this is one of those films that doesn't demand a whole lot of story to be made, is rooted firmly toward the romantic comedy genre, and comes with an expected ending where all couples will have their differences resolved, before breaking the fourth wall at the epilogue to wish the audience a prosperous new year.

Feminists may find issue with the film from the get go, because its premise talks about how women will always need a man in their lives to take care of some of the more technical aspects that they may encounter, from changing of the light bulb to fending off threats in whatever form. And because of this innate need, a website called Baoxi.com gets created, which becomes the throwaway tool piece that every character in the film relies upon to get themselves acquainted with members of the opposite sex - where the woman puts up an ad for help that she thinks only a man can offer, and the man responding to those ads in order to do something worthwhile with their lives. The reward is of course friendship, and a non-obligatory, non-compulsory hug. That's what the website preaches, and the 8 personalities who got hooked to the site, become the 4 distinct short stories found in this installment.

Louis Koo stars as Kin the construction worker who's filled with supreme confidence, and doesn't shy away from speaking less than perfect English, being consistently looked up upon by fellow peers. He offers his help as a nude model to Kelly Lin's Julie Sun the photographer who's building a series of works for an exhibition, whose mentor urges her to flirt with her subject in order to gain more powerful, meaningful images. While Kelly Lin may look a little bit wooden in her delivery, Louis Koo steals this short, and in fact the entire film, with his average joe temperament whose infatuation becomes the better of him. And yes of course his deliberate, less than stellar command of the English language is something that provided plenty of laughter.

Donnie Yen puts on a ridiculous wig (as do many male characters in this film) to star as Carl Tam, a small time musician with a penchant for singing Sam Hui songs, who was part of a disbanded group known as Moment, seeking his next big career break. While his stewardess girlfriend goes on duty, he offers his services on Baoxi.com to Sandra Ng's Chelsia, who's also a one time famous half of a pop duo until she unceremoniously quit the scene from an embarrassing fall on stage during a performance. Wanting to impress her mentor (Maria Cordero), she gets Carl to pose as her rich boyfriend only for the ruse to be exposed, and gatecrashes Carl's life, only for the latter to try and lift her spirits, and together, find an opportunity to make music and a comeback to an industry that has already forgotten them. Donnie Yen tries hard, at times too hard to be young at heart and a rocker inside, although he does possess some nifty dance moves that will wow. It is instead the veteran comedian Sandra Ng who stole the show here, and her 80s performance in a Karaoke-ish music video, serves as one of the rare highlights of the entire film.

Chapman To plays Hugo, the greatest romantic novelist never before seen or identified, because his publisher believes his image as a wonderful romantic lover will be shattered when readers come to know of his ugly looks. Personally I felt that there's a slight cheekiness here where his entire look and feel seemed a lot like famous Hong Kong director Peter Chan. That aside, he's tasked by the orphanage director to make blind dancer Charmaine (Lynn Xiong) to experience briefly what true love is, and does so with plenty of creativity since she's blind and can't see what shenanigans he's up to, relying on her other senses (and for the audience a series of light touches in visual effects) to be bathed in the fantastical world that he uses his words, and cheap effects, to craft. A really rote story that deals with one's unwillingness to accept the flaws of another while being flawed oneself, Chapman To has got to get brownie points for his Peter Chan-ish mimicry, whether intentional or otherwise.

And an All's Well Ends Well movie is never complete without one of its mastermind actors Raymond Wong in a role, and he stars as a professor facing estranged ties with his daughter Carmen (Karena Ng of Magic to Win in which he also co-starred in). He goes to Baoxi.com to hone is fatherly loving skills for rich kid Cecilia (Yang Mi) who has to get married quickly to any of her selected 3 beaus so as to claim the massive inheritance left behind by her deceased real dad. Raymond Wong found opportunity to wear his Qing dynasty robes once again in a small scene in recognition of his Happy Ghost days, in what would be the weakest of the stories featured, especially since it went nowhere outside of its creation of three tests to weed out the last man standing amongst the 3 potential suitors that you'd know from the start who will emerge the victor.

Directors Chan Hing Ka and Janet Chun may have something for weird hairdos, having almost all their male leads sport hairstyles that will draw instant laughter the minute the actors appear on screen. They should have stayed focused on their directing craft, having their inexperience still showing in having segments put together in rather choppy fashion, with the stories hardly intertwining one another and the characters hardly ever interacting save a minor scene in the final third of the movie. Most scenes turn out to be episodic with each featured couple tackling something, with the narrative thankfully working for most of them, and toning down the many mo-lei-tau opportunities. Having the many veteran actors here severely hamming it up in over the top roles may also serve as a draw since they are really breaking out of their comfort zone. Especially Donnie Yen after his highly successful Ip Man series where he has to now play really comical roles that relies heavily on his non-existant comic timing.

Perhaps this time around the filmmakers are a little bit more sensitive to the stories, and tried to unify the different elements of love under that of a loving embrace, where tasks and deeds are done through assistance that come with little or no strings attached, and rewards are in the form on an act of affection. It may be the directors have high hopes that the world would be a better place with a little bit more care and concern shown in our everyday lives, and what better way to spread this message than through a film meant for festive cheer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jack and Jill

Bad Romance

I am an Adam Sandler fan, meaning I laugh at his movies, and his jokes. So a double does of Sandler starring as both titular characters that required him to be in drag as one of them, would be a field day right? Unfortunately it wasn't so, as there wasn't much of a point in doing so except to earn that street cred since peers would have done something similar already, or there's no other co-star willing to hope on board given the less than stellar returns at the box office his films have been pulling in lately.

So yes, the toilet humour still managed to find a place in the narrative, which didn't have much of a point anywhere except to demonstrate how Jill gets to gatecrash her twin brother Jack's Thanksgiving, and make life quite miserable with her boorish ways. At times the jokes were quite demeaning rather than self-deprecative, and many fell flat since they reek of the familiar. It tried to massage some feel good message about family and blood ties being thicker than water in this film, but ultimately everything was rather flimsy, with scenes looking like mini-skits hastily pasted together into a choppy flow.

The biggest question mark for Jack and Jill is Al Pacino's participation. He may have thought to himself that since Robert De Niro managed to carve a second career in the comedy genre that he may want to dabble and experiment with it himself, but instead of choosing a role carefully, Pacino starred as himself and dove right into the deep end of the pool, albeit playing an exaggerated film version of himself, but it was tremendous damage done to his screen persona. He is clearly out of place and knows next to nothing about comic timing and delivery, and it was a horror show on display. I wept when I saw the scene where Pacino promotes Dunkicino for Dunkin Donuts, and wept some more when he develops a persistent hard on for Jill. Seriously, Mr Pacino, what were you thinking?

You can read my review of Jack and Jill at movieXclusive.com by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Great Magician (大魔術師 / Daai Mo Seut Si)

Now You See Me

The anniversary of the Chinese 1911 Revolution being just behind us doesn't mean that period films of that era have come to a full stop. Writer-director Derek Yee throws in his hat to conjure a thriller with magic at the forefront, following in the footsteps of films such as The Prestige, The Illusionist and Death Defying Acts, which weaved mystery, romance and in this case political intrigue at a time when China was dominated by warlords, with foreign powers ala Imperial Japan at bay eager to gain a foothold in the Middle Kingdom through veiled diplomacy involving arms trading with selected warlords.

Teaming with co-writers Chun Tin Nam and Lau Ho Leung who between them have written some of the largest Chinese blockbusters from Painted Skin to Bodyguards and Assassins, The Great Magician centres around a scholar turned magician trained in Europe, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) returning to China to score multiple goals, having to rescue his mentor Liu Wanyao (Paul Chun)and reclaim the affections of his one time fiancee Yin (Zhou Xun), both of whom are now under the clutches of the warlord Bully Lei (Lau Ching Wan) and his evil bootlicking minion Kunshan (Wu Gang). Allying with revolutionaries hell bent on capturing Bully Lei, Chang Hsien anchors the magic show at a newly acquired theatre, and the troupe patiently waits for their bait to bite, with an elaborate kidnapping scheme in place to barter and demand terms for the return of a major player in town.

But things hardly ever go according to plan, and here's where The Great Magician shines when both Tony Leung and Lau Ching Wan get to grace the screen together (god knows when was the last time), with their characters trading barbs, suspicion and turning from would be adversaries to unsuspecting friends especially when the topic of true love comes up, with the generalissimo seeking the magician's help to turn on the charms in order to woo his "7th wife ". There's comedy, romance and plenty of magical tricks on display here when the stories shifts downgear to allow Lau Ching-wan to work his acting chops, from going over the top in his ridiculously decorated army uniform and playing the fool as the ruthless warlord in what would be a very sly attempt at downplaying his threat to his other 7 warlord allies (made up of cameos like Vincent Kok and Tsui Hark), to being the puppy dog desperate to win the heart of Yin.

In fact his story arc is the more entertaining of the lot, especially since Tony Leung's character got bogged down by politicking with his comrades whether to take down Bully Lei or otherwise, compromised by Chang Hsien's growing admiration for a man who is definitely more than meets the eye. This constant guessing of intentions from all sides involving all the major multi-faceted characters, require steep attention to keep track of who's with whom, with Survivor-isque styled plotting, double-crossing and double meanings in words spoken all keeping the intrigue to the final moments of the story, with both the macro socio-political level involving different political factions from the Japanese, Manchus and current warlords, and the micro personal-romantic level in the love triangle centering around Yin, while casting doubts as to who of the two suitors would be best for her, with each showing their relative shades of grey.

Eventually this focus led to subplots being unceremoniously dumped, such as the much talked about 7 magical wonders that were not properly developed and copped out at the end with a relatively lengthy through effectively preachy moment in a talk about superstition and ambition. And one thing about the magic in a film - there's almost always that degree of CG thrown in that would leave even believers skeptic about how the illusions got pulled off, although Tony Leung did have enough charm and charisma to make a believable Chang Hsien with enough tricks up his sleeve for street magic, or elaborate illusions done on stage with the painting manipulation trick being one of my favourites through which Derek Yee effectively told the background of all the lead characters in one fall swoop of a plot device.

The Great Magician is made up of moments that seemed more of an all boys club, with both Lau Ching Wan and Tony Leung owning the best bits of the film through their characters. Zhou Xun's Yin had far too little to do other than to gatecrash as the object of both their affections, with an acrobatic introduction that wowed and the rest of her scenes belonging more to supporting cast levels. She's capable of a lot more if only the story had an equally expanded and important role for her to play, other than to be held captive and unwilling to leave until the whereabouts of her father is known, and accounted for as safe.

Derek Yee helmed a film that had all the ingredients to be great, with an effective setup, wonderful performances all round, plenty of twists and turns, but alas that took longer than expected to develop and rubbed some shine off its prestige, not forgetting a little bit of a rip off from a comical trick already seen in The A-Team. Still, the casting alone should guarantee a stellar response to it, and it's recommended for its Let The Bullets Fly-ish lite-version feel to its plotting.
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