Thursday, May 31, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

The Fairest of Them All In My Books

From time to time Hollywood will have this one big idea that everyone wants a piece of the pie of. From asteroids to fairy tale remakes, this year sees two completely different takes on the classical Snow White story, with Mirror Mirror firing the first salvo under director Tarsem's powerful but kitschy imagery and Julia Roberts hamming it up as the one-liner spouting evil Queen, and Snow White and the Huntsman under director Rupert Sanders offering a more grounded, grittier version of the girl blessed to be the fairest of them all.

Really, do we need more than two hours to tell the story of Snow White once upon a time? Unless one is deprived of fairy tales when growing up, the story is probably amongst the most well known, and Disney's version would have permeated the subconscious of many, and everyone has their preferred interpretation. Unfortunately both movies take on extremes in their approach, when I felt a middle ground will probably provide for a more even narrative for the modern audience. With Mirror Mirror, Tarsem loaded it up with plenty of nice looking visuals, and you can label his Lily Collins as cute, coming complete with a singing voice put to good use at the end of the film. Julia Roberts on the other hand fell short and was woeful as the Queen whose second career as a stand up comedian tanked hard.

Here, it became the opposite, with the wicked witch being a more compelling watch than Snow White. Charlize Theron, as the icy Queen whose magical prowess depended on the number of beautiful maidens she sucks the life out of, simply mesmerizes, and makes it all the more believable that a King in bereavement would be enchanted to take her as a Queen and become Snow White's stepmother, only to spell his downfall. The story by Evan Daugherty gave her character of Queen Ravenna plenty of back story, from her origins and reasons to be hell bent on chewing up kingdoms, in what would be soul devouring hate begetting hate. She hisses and gets her body all twisted, hell bent on completing the final piece of advice given by the mirror on the wall to devour the heart of Snow White in her quest for immortality. Even her bad apple ploy was more ingenious as compared to the half-baked one designed by Mirror Mirror's Queen.

Kristen Stewart doesn't look at all like Snow White, and I suppose being better known as Bella from Twilight just made her snow pale skin here reminiscent of the other more (in)famous character she plays. There's no nice looking costumes and dresses for Snow White, and the acting range here by Stewart is limited. To portray Snow White as some kind of warrior queen, on Stewart's lithe shoulders, was a bit of a stretch as well. She doesn't have the charismatic presence of, nor the innocence of traditional Snow White, since her version harbours desire for revenge and to retake her kingdom, having escaped from the clutches of Ravenna, and having the reluctant titular Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) assist her in getting past scenario after scenario, village after village, to one of her father's loyal servant Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan) and his son and one time playmate William (Sam Claflin) serving as romantic fodder with a hint of a love triangle bubbling underneath. Action sequences involving the Huntsman were pretty much standard, with no surprises thrown up, with a secret hope that he would be wielding a hammer at some point.

It is this flight from the dark that played out with its handbrake on, tedious in execution with the same run-fight-hide routine taking place so frequently you'd wonder just how long it is to finally complete her journey in one direction, then having to take the reverse direction all the way back again to Queen Ravenna. Given it's no Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Dwarves themselves got pretty much sidelined for the most parts save for two specially designed action sequences, and in many ways distanced the bond formed between Snow White and the Dwarves. What more, this version had the likes of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones et al who play these characters, so a little camera trickery got employed to shrink them to the right perspective. And I really wonder why the big names for the roles that turned out to be less than 5 minutes for each actor, and are more grouchy without personality as seen by those portrayed in Mirror Mirror.

And as if having a Snow White that's no longer that damsel in distress but possessing a steely willpower isn't enough, this version also made her very much like a Christ figure, in a strange amalgamation of having swords and sorcery mixed with Biblical references, including having the Lord's Prayer being recited. One cannot deny, given plot developments, how the writers found opportunity to include death and resurrection efforts, and from the latter, fast-tracking the faith amongst the downtrodden to follow her into battle against the devil as personified by the evil Queen. But listening to what's supposed to be a rousing anthem to rise up against oppression, it actually fell very flat and uninspiring to say the least.

Sure the fairest of them all can command plenty of animals and fairies into a loving frenzy in a strange, trippy scene. but I reckon a better Snow White film would see Charlize Theron's Queen pitted against Lily Collins' Snow White. Now that I would pay money to watch another round of story revolving around the same themes and narrative structure.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Killer Wolf / Howling (하울링 / Hawooling)

Don't Get In My Way

Flying below the radar this summer season here between Hollywood tentpole releases is Korean cop thriller The Killer Wolf or Howling, whose rather cheesy title betrays the storytelling quality associated with a genre that the Koreans have become rather expects at delivering. What more, there's one of my favourite Korean actors Song Kang Ho in the lead role, playing what else but a cop who's not exactly squeaky clean, frustrated for being passed on for a promotion he so desires. And add to that, he, and his homicide department, are quite the sexist lot, giving rookie female detective Eun Young (Lee Na Young) one of the worst welcome anyone can provide for new colleagues.

The team gets busy with what could have been a straightforward open and shut case of suicide involving self-immolation, but soon the clues start to pile and point to homicide, and then with more bodies turning up with fatal wounds seemingly caused by a wolf going for the jugular, before investigations reveal a loose link between all the victims, and a drug and underaged prostitution ring. Based on the novel by Asa Nogami, The Killer Wolf has plenty of red herrings thrown around, typical of any detective stories to keep you engaged, interested, and hooking you in to contribute your own thoughts about what's true, what's not and who's guilty, but in essence this investigative development turned out to be rather secondary.

Written and directed by Yu Ha, whose last film was 2008's A Frozen Flower, The Killer Wolf is very much about the leading characters, and both Song Kang Ho and Lee Na Young excelled in their partnership as unlikely cop comrades who have to transcend their personal prejudices and baggage in order to work together toward their respective goals. For Sang-Gil (Song), he needs a big case all by himself to provide just cause for a promotion, and in Eun Young's case, something to justify her transfer from the traffic police department and to make it as a homicide detective. Emotional baggage comes in the form of Sang-Gil's delinquent son, and in Eun Young's broken marriage no thanks to her late nights as a cop, but these are as fleeting as introduction goes in an attempt to provide a little more depth to the cops.

What made this a compelling watch isn't really how the duo went about their investigations, but like what's been seen in other Korean crime thrillers, how sometimes cops can effectively be inept, hampered by their lack of coordination and cooperation amongst themselves, and strangely enough, the sexism here is very much pronounced. Eun Young gets verbally abused countless of times, and what took the cake was that tight slap delivered by a fellow colleague, to which her response was to stand in silence. And all that stemming from listening to her partner and not calling their investigations in for backup purposes for personal and professional selfish reasons.

But what doesn't break you only makes you stronger, and the narrative for the most parts deals with Eun Young's determination to make it in her career and posting of choice despite having many first time jitters, and her dogged (pardon the pun) nature puts her very much in the driver's seat as far as investigations into the killings go. Song Kang Ho would fade off into the background from the mid way point, but Lee Na Young more than makes up for his absence with strong charismatic screen presence, who balanced her demure demeanour (some may even claim that it's submissive to her male colleagues) with some action sequences when called upon to become more physical.

The suggestion of a wolf-dog hybrid is also intriguing for tossing up plenty of questions, creating an entire arc and characters involving motivation to do what got done, together with bringing on plenty of sleaze factors amongst the guilty. Some may cry foul over how convenient this actually was in coming up with scenes and characters to link everything together, but as already highlighted, the story's really secondary to the strength of characters on display, and has the director keeping every development on a very tight leash, paced well and delivered where it mattered most. Recommended!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dark Shadows

Addams Family Not

Director Tim Burton, actor Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman reunite for their umpteenth collaboration on film, and like all their previous works together, there's always a touch of the strange, the quirky and a whole lot of dark themes all rolled into one. Based upon the 1960s television soap opera series, it's not exactly The Addams Family here, but one will see some shades of similarities in this big screen adaptation, with a more serious romantic love triangle here taking centerstage.

It's the story of how Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the scion of the Collins family who had crossed from Liverpool to the New World in the 18th Century, and through their fishing business amassed fame, fortune and being responsible to create a new city revolving around it. But Barnabas' romantic indiscretion with their supposed maid Angelique (Eva Green), a witch in hiding in his household, ran his promising future to the ground, cursed to live out the rest of his life as a vampire, see his one true love Josette (Bella Heathcote) commit suicide in front of his eyes, and having to witness the demise of his parents as well. And to make matters worse, Angelique turned the townfolks against him, locking him up in a box and buried six feet under.

Fast forward some 200 years later, and the Collins family's fortunes had seen better days, with the family now made up of matriarch and distant relative of Barnabas, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), womanizing Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), David's psychiatrist Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) who craves youth and drink, and housekeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). And we join Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote again) as the new governess to the children, who shares an uncanny resemblance with Josette, which means Barnabas, broken out of his confines by construction workers, get to pursue true love all over again. But not before Angelique gets wind of her infatuation's break out, and returns to cause trouble for Barnabas and the Collins all over again, until she gets what she wants.

There's some good natured humour ranging from the usual slapstick, to that of a fish being caught out of water since Barnabas speaks in a style already extinct, and has plenty to catch up with in the modern 70s world of free love and technology. There's no glitter in this vampire, and it's old school throughout with his fear of sunlight, which means his wheelings and dealings to get the Collins back on track in the fishing business have to be conducted in shadow, as well as to curtail his need for human blood to keep alive. But that's about all that's great about the film, which is unfortunate.

Could it be that Tim Burton is running out of steam with the rehashing of the usual dark themes in his films, that enough is enough? It's not to say Dark Shadows is a bad film, but this collaboration with the usual suspects looked a bit tired. Elfman's score is uninspiring and somewhat subdued behind the soundtrack (featuring Alice Cooper too, no less), and the direction very much looking alike with a host of other Burton films. Too many characters in this film, some with last minute surprises, resulted in a lack of focus on many supporting cast, where even Michelle Pfeiffer got little else to do here except to agree on a pact with Barnabas, and having mother-daughter issues. Jackie Earle Haley was also wasted, as was Jonny Lee Miller and Helena Bonham Carter, all having little to contribute to the plot.

So we're left with Johnny Depp and Eva Green to carry the film, and their scenes together were wickedly interesting, but also repetitive in their rivalry. Bella Heathcote plays the go-between character, but while the point of view shifted to her when we enter the shift in timeline, that very much shifted out of focus once Barnabas entered the picture, and their supposed true romance wasn't a tad believable. Which is a pity since that would have formed an emotional crux to anchor the film upon, rather than to be wowed with the CG visuals but turning everything else empty without much heart.

Dark Shadows didn't have a clear direction on where it wanted its narrative to head toward. It could have been a dark comedy, or a heavy tragic romance, or both even, but what turned out felt lacklustre and in some ways going through the motion. With the Burton-Depp-Elfman axis in the past, one would have come to expect more, and unfortunately this collaboration was steps backward.

The Hedgehog (Le Hérisson)

Young Filmmaker

Toward the end, there was something said that struck a chord, and made this film resonate deeply within me. Referring to death, the protagonist, an eleven year old girl Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) said that you lose those who love you and those whom you love. It's a little bit of a no brainer, but the context and manner when it was uttered broke down stoic walls that I've been putting up of late, and really made the inside of me weep alongside the sadness that permeated through the last act of the film.

The Hedgehog turned out to be pretty much a tale about the hopelessness of life, and it didn't do itself any favours when the one half of the main protagonists spend her time mulling about her planned suicide and being obsessed with death, with Hi-8 camera in tow to record the final days of her life, and those around her. At such a young age, one just wonders about the pity and the waste that someone so young have had enough, and fail to see the potential of so much that can possibly lie ahead in life.

But I digress. The environment Paloma gets brought up in, is steeped in class types amongst the luxury flats she lives in, with the usual reminder of being non judgemental in having form preconceived notions about someone just based superficially on one's exterior. Or one's job. Here, a reclusive building concierge called Renee (Josiane Balasko), matronly and frankly not too friendly from the onset, is that mockingbird, until we slowly learn just how learned she is. It reminded me of a scene in Sepet where the protagonist Orked got surprised that her boyfriend and his best friend, both ruffians, could be quite culturally steeped in poetry and music. As humans, this is probably one of the most innate traits we have to work out of our system.

Based on the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, the film turns all heartwarming when a Japanese man Kakuro Ozu (Toho Igawa) arrives to stay at one of the units, and from there comes some positivity into what had so far been doom and gloom with the narrative focused on Paloma's incessant desire to end her life, and that of Renee's charade of hiding her true talent from behind a very gruff exterior. And what more when the narrative moves into the promise of a new romance between Kakuro and Renee, and having things starting to look optimistic, but I suppose Barbery and director Mona Achache had other plans.

Nothing will really prepare you when death finally comes to a loved one, and this film solemnly captures tragedy without over-dramatizing elements of something everyone has to go through, and perhaps the lesson is best learnt from the recurring motif of the goldfish.



It's easy to dismiss ATM as an implausible thriller going by the premise and the trailer, where a trio finds themselves stuck in an ATM booth, and a stranger demonstrating himself to be a murderous psycho stalking them on the wintry outside. Questions automatically pop in regarding why three can't overpower one, or why it's more effective stalking from the outside than barging in with available vehicles, and then there's escape opportunities and a mini flood to contend with. How can any of this sustain a feature length film?

Writer Chris Sparling and Director David Brooks naturally had a lot more up their sleeves. For starters, the opening credits will show how meticulous this unsaid and largely unseen assailant actually is, preparing his ambush and game play with the use of maps and diagrams, which will reward at the end of the film, and even beyond should a sequel of sorts get made. Potential gets drawn up, and it can pretty much go on like the Saw franchise given the last 10 minutes of the film and its closing credits, with different characters, scenarios and a connected plot crafted by different filmmakers chiming in with their own ideas to expand the existing universes here.

But while waiting for that potential to be unleashed at the end, one has to contend with a rather cliche and rote storyline, revolving around three financial type characters, which in today's context I suppose we'd say they'd deserve it for the level of obnoxiousness and cluelessness two of the three had demonstrated in their brief introductions. David (Brian Geraghty) lost most of his client's retirement funds no thanks to his lack of ability in a bear market, while best pal/colleague Corey (Josh Peck) continuously shows he's a class A douche bag. At a company function, David gets a final chance to hit on resigning colleague Emily (Alice Eve) and gets an opportunity in sending her back, but not without Corey in tow and request to stop by an ATM to obtain money for a pizza supper.

And then the madness begins, with The Man (hooded at all times save for his eyes) playing psychological mind games with the trio, who have so far conveniently left their warmer clothes, communication devices and parked their car a distance away from the ATM booth rather than to drive up right beside it. With every human help that enters the picture, they get quickly taken out, confirming The Man's status as a killer, and sending the trio into a frenzy, desperate to get out of the situation by bartering for their lives, running when there's opportunity, and not budging not an option when utilities get cut. You'll laugh at their stupidity at times, especially when the tough gets going and clearly these three are nowhere near as tough as they could be, with strength in numbers not being exploited, nor having carefully thinking through all the options available.

The acting's not much to shout about as well, with each character playing caricatures. While Brian Geraghty and Alice Eve aced their parts in being very shy people finding themselves attracted to each other, the latter went further to become the de facto damsel in distress. The motivations here are non-existent, suffice to know that The Man takes pleasure in outwitting his prey almost all of the time, adding to their stress and their battle against extreme cold. It's quite a roller coaster ride, suspenseful one moment, and anti-climatic the next, with some ingenious turn of events being the exception rather than the norm.

The simple plot perhaps left many questions left unanswered, for others who may find it interesting to pick up where it left off, and contribute to the mythos of a new unnamed, faceless serial killer who thrive under scores of technical planning.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Raid: Redemption


I've updated my earlier review of The Raid to take away the subtitle Redemption, since that version, seen in Batam, Indonesia, was the Indonesian cut which has distinct differences with the "US, uncut version" (as touted by the distributors) shown here. But true enough, the earlier foray across borders stemmed from fear that that the movie would not be able to be released uncut for its level of violence, but lo and behold, it survived unscathed, and got released at a rating a notch lower than the expected R21, validating that the censors here have a higher level of tolerance toward vividly portrayed violence, versus advanced techniques of love making.

The action sequences are still top notch the second time round, granted that any surprises for first time viewers would already have been expected, but this time round allowing the repeat viewer to home in on specifics and portions that were high octane, preparing for any anticipated smackdowns so that they can be visually savoured again. And of course the version here comes English subtitled, which naturally helped loads in the formation of a story outside of the basic cops-trapped-in-mob-building understanding and sole focus on the action when watched without subtitles. And this provided deeper understanding to scenes that rightly flew by without subtitles, those that dealt with relationships, threats and a lead onto the sequel as well, allowing one to enjoy the story a lot more than I could have known about the first time.

The action still reigned supreme despite the fact that it was no less violent - a neck slice was shown continuous without the skipping of frames - but unfortunately less bloody - I remembered crimson red plasma splattered around in the first version, but somewhat subdued in this release, coloured to look a lot more dull. I was also looking forward to the new soundtrack done by Mike Shinoda, but that was a little too underwhelming for the film with patches of silence, only for two clear moments where the music propped up moments when drama and action intersected. I dare say the Indonesian composers won on this aspect instead.

You can read my review of The Raid here, and for fans who can't wait for its sequel Berandal, you can have a sneak peek at this clip here, made before The Raid got released.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What To Expect When You're Expecting

Work It!

Cameron Diaz has larger and more pronounced biceps than I do. That's the first thing I actually noticed in this film when her character got introduced as a weight loss celebrity host taking part in one of the many celebrity dance off reality shows, with rumours of her character Jules' on-off relationship with her dance partner Evan (Matthew Morrison) being amongst the talk of the town. It's an interesting way actually to introduce the rest of the characters, or caricatures even, in this film, made up of distinct story arcs involving a total of five different couples, and their journey to parenthood.

Written by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, based upon a pregnancy guide written by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, What To Expect When You're Expecting turned out to be less instructional, but very much narrative, which is a pity since its title alone may have suggested some valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the fortunes, or misfortunes, as experienced by the characters, that we can at least pick up some tips on what I would think to be a period of topsy turvy, emotionally and physically charged time for any couple to go through before being able to welcome their bundle of joy. And I suppose depending on everyone's character traits, these nine months would either be a pleasure, or torture.

There's Jules and Evan who find that their fame and celebrity status could perhaps be a hindrance in a time where they should be making critical decisions together, Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) who cannot conceive and are taking some steps to adopt a child from Ethiopia despite her losing a job that provides for a steady income and his fear of not being ready to accept a stranger into his life, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) the trophy wife of veteran race car driver Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) who seem unfazed and all too excited by the upcoming addition to their family, Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) and Gary (Ben Falcone) who finally managed to get Wendy onto the road of pregnancy but with Gary having father issues, almost always overshadowed by his more flamboyant dad Ramsey, and finally, Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and her one night stand with Marco (Chace Crawford), in here to provide for a narrative thread on having a child out of wedlock.

Director Kirk Jones seemed adamant in wanting to cover plenty of spectrum in his film about the series of milestones, cheers and tears that couples go through during the trimesters, but somewhat opted to compartmentalize the ensemble cast largely into their own arcs, rarely crossing over into another storyline other than to make little background appearances that don't contribute to anything meaningful. Of course the exception to this rule belonged to the characters of Ramsey, Skyler, Wendy and Gary given that they're all related by blood or by law. Despite many films of late that are made up of ensemble cast, this one felt like it had assembled a cool team only for them to play within their own little sandbox, which is a pity. Moreover, most characters become caricatures once you find out their game plan, and from then on everything collapsed into predictability.

The content didn't find moments to move anyone, and what's worse were the jokes that didn't really take off. Most of them came from Rebel Wilson's employee at The Breast Choice boutique owned by Wendy, with her character of Janice being somewhat dim-witted and saying just about the most random of things just to try and elicit laughter. Then there's the Dude Group headed by Chris Rock's Vic, made up of friends who have become dads, where they can hang out together with their kids and fellow peers in order to bitch about their entire experience as new dads, and to induct new would be dads into their group, sharing what little of their experience in fatherhood. Funny at times, Rock seemed a little bit restrained, and the jokes here never really took off.

Ultimately, the themes important in the film revolve around family ties that matter. Not all story arcs got equal treatment, where Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford's involvement seemed too fleeting and more suited to a typical romantic comedy about boy meets girl rather than boy and girl becomes dad and mom, also due to the course that their story arc took. You'll feel the long run time as scenes continue to drag and glancing at your watch will become a habit. Perhaps if this was trimmed a little, not be bloated for the sake of (perhaps to mirror the changes felt), and actually have some educational value, would it have become a better film. Other than to inspire one to work on those biceps and abs to resemble those carried off beautifully by Diaz.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Being Flynn

From Father To Son

Based on the memoirs of poet Nick Flynn entitled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Being Flynn works thanks to the performances put in by Robert De Niro and Paul Dano, playing the father and son Jonathan and Nick Flynn, estranged for many years no thanks to Jonathan's life of a con artist catching up with him, communicating with his son through letters for the most parts of his life, never meeting up. Growing up alone with his mom (Julianne Moore), one might think this is yet another dysfunctional family story, but Nick has a lot more to tell, baring his soul to recount the painful absence and hard fought reaching out to the only close relative he's got, and this journey is one that reminds us on blood being thicker than water, or alcohol for that matter here.

Under the direction of Paul Weisz, whose filmography included vulgar flicks like American Pie and Little Fockers, which of course also starred De Niro, it was great that this film gets more closely aligned with his other narratively powerful films like About a Boy and In Good Company. While the book by Nick Flynn had a whole host of styles adopted in its various chapters, Weisz tried to capture the same essence in adopting different points of views in this film, as well as to lightly touch it with some comedy. But what it had set its sights on, is to bring out the pain of having to not grow up with a dad present and to be brought up by a single mom, and the struggles one has to experience as an aimless drifter until something clicked, and one puts the foot down to embark on a determined change of lifestyle.

There were elements that I enjoyed in this film, one of which is the parallels drawn between the father and son's lives, both seemingly getting from bad to worse with nary a roof over their heads, and the dependence on substance abuse as a vice, be it the bottle or drugs, in the hope that these will help alleviate the severe discomfort brought on by not being able to have ambitions developed and met. Like father, like son, each of them dreams of making it big one day as a successful writer, but like the chip off the old block, this potential rarely got realized when their lives continue to be at the doldrums.

It provides an inspiration to those of us who deem it impossible to pursue our dreams for a variety of reasons, and while it delivers that awkward feeling of having to reconnect with someone related to by blood, especially if that's a mom or a dad, it pushes anyone caught in similar dilemmas into the same direction of reconciliation, for bygones to be bygones, and that there's nothing more powerful than having to rediscover relations that once was, or even never had begun. Weisz adopted a rather fractured narrative, that tells of the present day with Nick and Jonathan's crossing of paths when the latter gets kicked out of his apartment, and having to live on and off in the homeless shelter his son volunteers in, and interspersed that with Nick's memories of the days being brought up by mom through a series of flashbacks, seen through a relatively innocent prism of a young boy growing up in harsh times.

Subplots came and went without much fanfare, such as Nick's on-off romantic relationship with Denise (Olivia Thirlby), a co-worker at the shelter, and we don't really get to know the other co-workers with any depth other than they each come with issues but are volunteering time at the shelter. But there are moments that sneak in, to make you pause and take stock about whether similar situations with the homeless do exist in our own country, and wonder just what is being done, by others as well as ourselves, in contributing to make some change for the better, whether donation in terms of time, or in kind. And not to mention how bullies often target those without support that will make one seethe at the senseless violence dished out.

Robert De Niro continues to prove to be a dramatic tour de force in putting up another fine performance as the cranky, and what I thought to be proud, man who thinks rather highly of his non-existent talent, and subtly shows how Jonathan is actually very proud of the son he should have made contact with many years ago. Paul Dano may have perfected playing laid back characters, but perhaps having to act opposite a veteran such as De Niro forced him to up his game as well, resulting in a natural chemistry between the two that carried the film from start to end. Recommended, with an eclectic soundtrack serving as a bonus.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Men in Black III

So Can I Have My Old Partner Back Now?

It was 1997 when Men in Black first burst onto the big screen featuring a successful pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as unlikely partners in the protection of Earth against the scum of the universe, with action, special effects and generous doses of comedy rolled into one. Directed by Barry Sonnenfield, they returned five years later for a sequel, and chances for a third film got hovered around for the longest time, finally taking up to a decade before it materialized, taking advantage of the needless 3D format to deliver the latest installment of the popular series.

And it's still a lot of fun with the return of Agent Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) in a new adventure set around the break out of the villainous alien Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) from a lunar maximum prison to take revenge on Kay for the severing of an arm and its imprisonment, not to mention also wiping out its compatriots and protecting the Earth from annihilation. Yes, Kay is credited for plenty of work done back in his heydays of the 60s, and we're about to find out a lot more about his deadpan character, which is almost always the punching bag for Jay, who makes it his mission to reverse what Boris had set out to do, which is to travel back in time and taking out Kay.

It's MIB meets Back to the Future with its time travelling element back to the 60s, armed with only limited knowledge of his partner's whereabouts, no thanks to information being classified over and above Jay's pay grade, despite 14 years of dedicated service. The story by Ethan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio proved to be a winner, steering clear of having too many cooks with potential of spoiling the broth, making that time travel bit pretty much a trip down nostalgic lane, filled with incidents and prominent characters from history, such as Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) and the Apollo 11 crew, and the tongue in cheek treatment with aliens being very much leaping from typical 60s television and films.

This makes up more than its share of laughs and inside jokes that continue in the same spirit from the earlier films, even poking fun at the racial divide of the time, which provided a fair challenge for Jay as he meets up with the younger Kay (Josh Brolin) who has to be convinced that his new found friend is his partner from the future, and have to work together to rein in the 1969 version of Boris the Animal. Tommy Lee Jones made way for Josh Brolin to own the character of Jay, and in truth Brolin does a remarkable job of closely mimicking Jones, aptly adding a lot more to the back story of the legendary MIB who has his fair share of one liners, but being a little bit less stern than Jay had grown accustomed to.

Characterization also got pushed to the forefront with a deeper exploration into each of Jay and Kay's characters, backgrounds and their friendship, and this helped the film tremendously, instead of being a mediocre effort relying solely on the actors charisma and washing everything down in CG glory. There are still some surprises from the effects kept under wraps from the trailers, so that's a good thing, and I suppose much of the graphics work went into recreating 60s USA, as well as earlier, more cumbersome versions of tools of the trade that MIB uses back then. Alien designs also got a spruce up, looking far more menacing, and disgusting even, with Boris the Animal possessing and using deadly force that I'm rather surprised at for a PG rated film.

Will Smith shows that he hasn't lost his edge and still has what it takes, even after being absent from the big screen for some 4 years now (Seven Pounds and Hancock were his last outing in 2008), and still comes off as a natural, and likable as Agent Jay, with a lot more polish as an MIB veteran as compared to when he got first recruited. Tommy Lee Jones got only a supporting role this time round, with Josh Brolin left responsible to carry the role of the younger K for the most parts of the film. The Smith-Brolin pairing was also a winner, though likely to be one off only for this movie, but you can guess how any sequel made after this could go - either to continue with Smith-Jones in the current timeline, or having Brolin helm his own, partnering another Agent in adventures set in the past. And joining the cast in prominent, though limited roles, include the likes of Emma Thompson as Agent O, taking over as the new MIB Chief with the passing of Zed, Alice Eve playing the younger O, and both Michael Stuhlbarg and Mike Colter adding depth to the MIB mythos.

Still, with every time travel movie, there are paradoxes that have to be consciously ignored for everything to work. While some aspects work in having being explained away, others necessary and crucial to the plot become glaringly obvious, especially in the finale where it showed some shades of similarity from A Chinese Odyssey. But all is forgiven for something canonical to be added to the adventures of the MIB, providing audiences with new appreciation for the leading MIBs Jay and Kay, rather than to rely on louder and bigger explosions for the sake of keeping up with the summer Joneses. MIB3 is a clear winner, and worthy of what the previous two films had already set up. Highly recommended!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ghost on Air (灵听 / Ling Ting)

Scary Reflection

With the relative box office success of various local horror/horror-comedies last year, the bandwagon has now been created, and looking at the slate of upcoming local or local co-productions over the horizon, we'd better be fearful of sub-par productions that will find it opportune to sneak into releases and laugh their way to the bank. After all, audiences here will lap up just about any horror related genre, and horror seems to be in a class of its own immune to word of mouth warnings, since if you don't find anything that will make you jump at your seat, it's likely you can get to laugh at the weak attempts.

But Ghost Talk doesn't even give you the latter opportunity. The first signs of trouble, at least in my books, is the run time. Don't get me wrong that all films with short run times are suspect, and that I pay holy tribute to films that span hours. With a limited run time, things happen doubly fast - quick cuts to jump scares, repeatedly, or doubly slow if the idea is flimsy and scenes drag out just because they can - a shadowy figure appearing along a dark hallway, creeping toward the screen, and you'd have to look at your watch to wonder what's taking it so long. No, with a short run time of 70 odd minutes, you don't get much of a story, and ultimately for a horror film to work, story still proves to be king, never mind some illogical moments along the way.

The formula almost always has the spooked getting into an investigations of sorts to determine the unfinished business of the spook. By now, horror film aficionados can rattle off a list of why ghouls return to haunt certain people, and now all, before finally being defeated, addressed and put to rest. I put the blame squarely on poor pieces like 23:59, which showed how a film with a truncated run time, little plot, and illogical (even in horror fantasy terms) or even lazy development of scenes and characters, but making enough dough to proclaim it a success at the box office. It worked no thanks to audiences rewarding it where it matters, and now, we get the kind of films we deserve.

Writer-director Cheng Ding An made his first feature film based on the Singapore football heydays of the 70s, and no effort got spared in trying to recreate the atmosphere of those glory days, meticulously, as best as budget would provide, crafting the sets, costumes, and going all out to look for look-alike folks, never mind if they aren't professional actors nor can kick a football to save their lives, and re-enacting from television scenes of how the football in iconic matches actually played out. The National Stadium got utilized and training got underway to whip them all into shape, and fusing it with so much nationalistic fervour that Kallang Roar is now a National Education staple. It had challenges that any typical first time feature film would possess, but what it had that cannot be ignored was its stout heart and sincerity.

The film was far from a resounding box office success, and I suppose this may have provoked the writer-director to embark on a genre that would provide better returns to its investors. The premise is not bad at all, playing upon our fears yet fascination in listening to horror stories, and collaborating with a real life DJ to craft a story around the central character of a DJ no less, who gets relegated into the graveyard shift no thanks to a moment of pub indiscretion that damaged his idol reputation, and as an idea for a radio show, decides to read off his dead ex-girlfriend's unpublished novel. As luck would have it, his ex's stories seem to be rooted in some form of reality that she had experienced while renting a room at a shop selling funeral paraphernalia, and it's not before long that he too faces down with the ghouls that had once haunted his partner.

Alas, what works on paper may not translate to film, and what we got was pretty much a lot of unnecessary plot distractions, hampered by weak acting. It's about time filmmakers here have to think about properly developing a story, and having scenes that make sense when transiting to and from the next or previous. It's also about time that they cast real, professional actors, or at least anyone who can act decently, because solo expressions carried throughout a film does not a good actor make. What goes on in Ghost Talk is pretty haphazardly put together, with the film guilty at launching into lengthy build ups to find a moment to unleash scary mayhem, again dipping into the usual 101 bag of tricks.

With a plot that didn't work much, the actors all have their work cut out for them, and more often than not they turn out to be weak caricatures. Dennis Chew may have nailed it as the cross dresser with his extremely famous Aunty Lucy get up, so much so that Aunty Lucy can command appearances in feature films on her own, sans makeup. Dennis' Ping Xiao just cannot flesh out his troubled DJ character, relying on one note acting that makes Keanu Reeves look like Oscar award winning material in every film he had played in. Worst are his co-stars in Samuel Chong and Eunice Olsen in playing Ping Xiao's boss and rival respectively who together may have an unspoken fling, and adding to Olsen's beauty queen and NMP titles, she has also now earned the flower vase in a feature film title to add into her resume. With Ping Xiao's ex Jia Yi (Gan Mei Yan, also a real life DJ) being crucial to the plot, you'd wonder if DJs should stick to their day jobs and leave acting to actors instead.

The only positives in the film are its technical production values, with its rich sound-scape standing out from the crowd, but with anything good going, it got abused and abused bad. You cannot deny Dennis Chew has a voice meant for the airwaves, and it shows up in the film especially when he launches into his lonesome, eerie shift duties and delivering stories that will send up some chills through the sound of his voice alone. Ghost On Air may have worked a lot better as a radio programme rather than a feature film, containing that mix mash of ideas from traditional spooky films to something more hip in recent years such as found footage from CCTV and record videos, but ultimately relegated itself through weak execution and a story that didn't live up to the potential spelt out in its premise.

[SFS Talkies] Let The Wind Carry Me - The Fleeting Moments of Mark Lee (乘著光影旅行-李屏宾的摄影人生)


There are biographical films made about influential filmmakers and more often than not they happen to be focused on directors. One of the world's most renowned cinematographers, Mark Lee Ping-Bin, is the subject of this documentary which in itself is rare for its examination into the craftsmanship behind lensing a film, and of its celebrated practitioner that we'll get to know more about through an intimate portrait painted by the directors Kwan Pung-Leung and Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, who take on the conventional route initially with a walk down memory lane during the early apprenticeship days of Taiwan cinema, before packing in a wallop of a surprise with a very human, and down to earth look at the life of Mark Lee.

Mark Lee cuts a gruff figure with his stature, which comes with that bearded look and bellowing voice (which director Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, in attendance today, had mentioned in real life he doesn't sound that baritone) that may intimidate some. But through the course of the documentary, you'd come to know a lot more about the cinematographer, his dedication and professionalism to his craft that made him one of the most sought after both East and West, and his extremely down to earth, personable nature, being unselfish in imparting his knowledge to the next generation.

And this documentary shows two broad facets of his life, that of his body of work, in which being on set with Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsaio-Hsien, with plenty of soundbites from the director, provided us a glimpse behind the scenes of a few movies that got highlighted, and one gets easily mesmerized by the seductive moving images tht has become the staple of any film lensed by the cinematographer, better known for his frequent collaboration with the likes of Hou, and Wong Kar-wai. Standard documentary coverage includes the many interviews with film stars, and directors with whom Mark had worked with, to show the different sides of the man when he's on, and off set.

But what struck me the most here is the man's very honest assessment of himself, his work and his life, where he readily admits, and we see, the struggles he has to put up to try and achieve some semblance of a work life balance, where work will bring him to different parts of the world depending on the film project, and home being in LA with his wife (absent from this documentary due to her very private nature, and a schedule that didn't work out, as revealed by director Chiang Hsiu-Chiung), and aged mother in Taiwan, which basicaly means his heart is straddled between opposite sides of the planet.

While we learn more of his approach to his craft, his philosophy behind his method and techniques, and to listen in on peers who have much positive things to say about the professional, what's even more admirable is his filial piety toward his mom. While his mom probably couldn't appreciate the intricacies of her son's craft, you cannot help but to notice the sense of pride, as a mom, when many in the industry, from audiences to peers, recognize the great work that he had done for his professional, both at home and abroad, honed from more than 50 films being lensed by the cinematographer, ranging from action films in the early days like Wing Chun and Tiger Cage 2, to the more recent works from around the world such as In The Mood for Love, Three Times, Air Doll, Secret, Claustrophobia and The Sun Also Rises, most of which are in my personal favourites list.

Let the Wind Carry Me is more than the celebration of Mark Lee's achievements, that look behind the scenes, and the requisite talking heads interviews. It peers deep down into the man,just like any other, who share common concerns and worries, over work, friends and family. And that gripping emotional finale really made my hair stand on ends for minutes, only to let out a sigh of relief when things didn't turn out as expected. That I have to credit the filmmakers for achieving, together with compelling me to watch Hou's Flowers of Shanghai as soon as possible. Highly recommended!

In the meantime, Mark Lee Ping-Bin, cheers to you!

P.S. for those who had missed the screening today, you may be glad to know the DVD of the film is already out in the stores, overseas that is. There's a slight different between the Hong Kong and Taiwan version with the latter having a few minutes snipped off due to exclusion of an intervier. Just so you know.


One of the two directors of Let the Wind Carry Me, Ms Chiang Hsiu-Chiung, was present to engage the audience in a post screening discussion, moderated by David Lee of SFS. Session is in Mandarin and captured in its entirety, split into four parts, where she shared valuable insights into the making of the film, the interviews with the many filmmakers as well as how the interview with Mrs Mark Lee didn't manage to materialize for the documentary.

Part 1 of 4

Part 2 of 4

Part 3 of 4

Part 4 of 4

My Girlfriend Can See Ghosts / Chilling Romance / Eerie Romance / Spellbound (오싹한 연애 / O-ssak-han Yeon-ae)

I See Something

What would happen if the little boy in The Sixth Sense, who has this gift of seeing and ultimately interacting with ghosts, was to grow up? It's probably something that Son Ye Jin's character of Yeo-Ri would have experienced, being left alone and ostracized by many because of this ability that will spook just about anyone. It's little wonder why this Korean beauty was made to look doom, gloom and glum in the first half of the film, being as miserable as can be because she has no friends, and family has shun her, preferring to live a life of safety thousands of miles away.

Written and directed by Hwang In-Ho, who was responsible for one of my favourite films then in Two Faces of My Girlfriend, his latest film takes the romantic comedy genre and fuses it with a very effective horror element, though at times making it seem like watching a film with two separate, schizophrenic identities rolled into one. It's a good thing that both parts are equally strong, with the romantic comedy element being very much dripped in saccharine sweetness, and the horror element dipping into the bag of tricks with the usual jump cuts to scare, coupled with realistic, scary makeup and costumes that will make you flinch in your seat and turn your gaze away from the screen.

The strength of the film is in its story, throwing us into the deep end with magician Jo-Goo (Lee Min-Ki) being mesmerized by a strangely glum looking lass Yeo-Ri, having her demeanour inspire a hugely successful horror box illusion perfected to bring in the dough. Recruiting her for his magic company, the troupe never really got any opportunity to get her to join in their post-work drinking session, only because she harbours a secret that she intends to keep under wraps, one that involves periodic visits by spirits from the netherworld seeking her help in their unfinished business, and a prolonged spooking by a mysterious long haired ghoul whose identity intertwines closely with Yeo-Ri's tragic past, intricately linked with her supernatural ability.

In-Ho creates likeable leading characters in both Jo-Goo and Yeo-Ri as the inevitable lovebirds who have to overcome obstacles placed in their path toward a relationship. After all, the main ghoul at play is adamant in making Yeo-Ri's life as miserable as possible. You'll soon find yourself rooting for the two to get together, and In-Ho's story provides spectrum for the usual boy-meets-girl and the follow up scenarios to happen. The romanticism here extends also toward Yeo-Ri's seeking of help from pals over the phone as they serve as her only friends who do keep their arms length for a period. And who better to play Yeo-Ri than the Son Ye-Jin, sharing great chemistry opposite Lee Min-Ki as they battle the crazy odds thrown at their characters.

And as mentioned, this film is pretty much strong in its horror aspects, while relying on the usual jump cuts, loud sound scapes, creepy atmosphere and make up. In-Ho managed to come up with a strong storyline related to the hauntings experienced by the characters, and managed to keep audiences in suspense before all gets revealed in due course. Perhaps the end credits, which contained a sustained scene involving the primary ghoul, felt a little bit out of place for its slapstick nature. But if you can deal with minor inconsistencies involving who can see which ghoul, and are looking for a film that's apt as a date movie, then you may be bold enough to give this a go.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Road

Got License?

I guess I have to point out something positive about the growing numbers of foreigners in our land, in that the numbers will justify cinema from their home country to be viable for big screen outings here. I get my fair share of the latest blockbuster movies from India given that it's one of the major cultural make up in Singapore already, then there's the Thai, Korean and Japanese flicks that not only cater to foreigners residing here, but to its legion of fans from time to time. And with films from ASEAN from The Raid to The Collector gaining prominence everywhere, it's only time to add Philippine Cinema to the list.

It's true that indie or arthouse films from the Philippines do make it to film festivals here, but for the mass market audience, The Road is perhaps one of the earliest to hit commercial cinemas here in a long while, as far as my memory serves. And what better way than for a horror film to try and open up the doors, one that features an ensemble cast of stars with idol looks to spark an interest, besides providing Filipinos here with something from home. But as with most horror films around the region, it's usually touch and go basis, and The Road, boasted for getting itself a US distribution, it's somewhat of a roller coaster ride with its fair share of creepy moments, ultimately done in via a runtime that artificially sustained a thin plot.

Written and directed by Yam Laranas, The Road is actually made up of three story arcs each set in a different time line separated by a decade each, and linking them is the titular road along which something strange and macabre even that had happened in a dilapidated house found along it, together with an abandoned car. The opening shot, pardon the pun, set the stage for an epic mystery to be unravelled, with the stage set for a hot shot cop Luis (TJ Trinidad), decorated with a medal for his string of successful case closures, to prove himself in the series of events that follow.

In the first arc, three friends go out for an illegal joyride, making a detour into The Road to avoid a police roadblock, and in what would be a case of bad luck, encounter ghouls that seem to be stuck in groundhog day fashion, repetitive hauntings of the trio. Things don't really happen with much logic here, and the strength of friendship amongst the trio got rather telling when it becomes every man (and woman) for him/herself. So much for solidarity when the shit hits the fan. This arc was more teenage drama before the effects and make up crew shifted gears and made it their own toward the end.

The second arc tried to become a mini outing along the torture porn genre, but unfortunately with the more violent offering in practically every film in the genre, this arc turned out to be rather tame, with a man inexplicably hammering his victims, two sisters, away without remorse or reason, making it a battle for survival against complete madness. It's also responsible for some interest to wane, as the story here proved to be one of the weakest, and overstayed its welcome through a series of scenes that dragged out quite unnecessarily. We know who's alive and who's not from the earlier arc, and the narrative really took its time to get there.

But thankfully, the redeeming factor came from the third act. While it didn't offer anything we don't know about nor new in the narrative sense with similar themes being explored before in other films, and tosses up some more questions than answers, it is the actors here delivering better performances from the rest, and a story that's set against a dysfunctional family, that showed of Laranas' strength in storytelling. The narrative got creepier as it went along, with practical effects enhancing moments within that will make your hair genuinely stand on ends. By now you'd realize that Laranas rarely dips into the oft used box of the same old techniques used to scare audiences with quick jump cuts and edits, preferring to let the camera take its time in revealing presence that's spot on in creating both suspense, and eerie atmosphere.

The Road plays on the gimmick of having a horror film told from three expanded story arcs with common characters linking them all together, and in essence scores in its effort. However, horror film fans with a penchant for the same old boo scare tactics dished out by filmmakers may find this a little bit sterile. and not offering that adrenaline rush each time a scare comes on. For those who wish to explore what horror and their films mean to friends from the region.

The Road opens in cinemas on 24 May 2012.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

It Is Not Yet The End

There are only a handful of films featuring senior citizen characters that I enjoy, the top of the list being Cocoon, if only because these films usually have an extremely moving story about love, life and inevitably will touch on death, and better yet, has an ensemble cast of veteran actors well worth their weight in gold. Based on the novel titled These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel contains the same ingredients, and watching the cast here playing characters going about seeking a new life, is therapeutic, moving and tugging at your heartstrings.

It took a while for director John Madden to get everything up to speed, compartmentalizing all the characters here in their individual arcs and introducing each of their emotional baggage. There's Evelyn (Judi Dench) whose husband had recently passed away and leaving behind huge debts, Graham (Tom Wilkinson) the court judge who walked out of his profession with unfinished personal business abandoned in India during his growing up years, Muriel (Maggie Smith) a retired housekeeper no longer required by her household seeking cheaper surgical procedures in India, Madge (Celia Imrie) a gold digger looking for a wealthy husband, a counterpart of sorts in Norman (Ronald Pickup) looking for one night stands with any woman, and finally the couple Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Jean (Penelope Wilton) who lost their retirement savings when invested into their daughter's failed internet startup.

All of them got enticed by the plan to retire in India, which in many ways given the exchange rate, even some of us have been told to outsource our retirement to countries with a lower cost of living. So they pack up and leave, meet each other in planes and airports, before finding their way to the city of Jaipur where they stayed in the titular hotel, a property that had seen better days, now run by the proprietor's son Sonny (Dev Patel) who is adamant in bringing the hotel back to its glory days. But for now it's time for his new visitors to get acquainted with living together under the same run down conditions, and experiencing the new sights and sounds that Jaipur has to offer, for them and for us the audience.

Madden and of course Moggach's story is the quintessential ode to a romanticized India as a destination, where there is immense beauty from the chaos, and lessons to be learnt from its citizen. The country and the city present opportunities for anyone to learn more about oneself, and it is here in this new environment that the stories - feel good, moving, tragic and the likes, all get set to reveal themselves, and with an ensemble there are many tales to be told, with Evelyn finding new purpose imparting knowledge in a call center, Graham finding it an uphill task to track someone he once knew, Madge and Norman forming a bond of sorts in their common quest to look for potential pick ups in the same societal places, Muriel learning to overcome her racial prejudices, and the cracks between Douglas and Jean begin to rear their ugly heads, with the former finding himself drawn toward Evelyn and the latter toward Graham. It's extremely multi-dimensional in the development of these characters, and we grow to like even the most negative of the lot since the characters become real and never for once felt contrived, sharing similar anxieties, fears, optimism and hope.

As these relationships and friendships develop, we also have Dev Patel's Sonny romancing a call centre employee Sunaina (Tena Desae), much to the objection of Sonny's mother who is determined that he marries someone else that is arranged, rather than to go on a love marriage. It's the typical clash of the expectations between the older and current generation that one would already have seen in various Bollywood films, rehashing certain themes that are staple in those films. And through Sonny and the other characters, themes like living the dream, staying fearless despite failure, to understand and empathise with others, and not to judge any book by its cover, come to encompass the narrative, making the movie one that has pretty good messages delivered under the auspices of a feel good film.

If given an opportunity, I too would like to embark on that soul searching trip to India, and seek out similar experiences staying in an equivalent of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[DVD] Merantau (2009)

Bona Fide Action Hero

As The Raid: Redemption opens here in cinemas tomorrow, I thought it was probably ripe to take a trip down memory lane with writer-director Gareth Evans' earlier Indonesian action film with his crew and cast members whom he had also collaborated with in Merantau. If you haven't seen The Raid, you may want to get the DVD of Merantau to get a flavour of what to expect from a more combative side of Silat, and to be convinced of Iko Uwais' charisma to become the next big action star from this part of the world.

If you have watched The Raid and have come off impressed, then all the more you should watch this film as it showcases what I thought would be the filmmaking team's potential to do something more (which they did with The Raid), where you can see some shades of The Raid in the way Iko Uwais' Yuda fights his way through into a high rise building (this film covers more ground with its various outdoor locations), and the patterns of carefully and clearly crafted fight choreography that will probably become signature of the Merantau team in films to come.

Not that I'm complaining, because it has no time for gimmicky edits to mask shortcomings in fights, preferring that the audience get to see and feel every punch, kick and throw. It's hard hitting action by going for the jugular, and not having quick edits ruin the flow, or having shots that are too close that you can't see squat.

You can read my review of Merantau here.

Until the special/collector's edition gets released some time soon, I had to continue my fix for some serious ass kicking with this Indonesian Region Free DVD of Merantau by Jive Collection, which presents the feature film in an anamorphic widescreen format, with audio in its original Indonesian language track in either Dolby 5.1 or Stereo. Unfortunately, this edition doesn't come with English subtitles, but Bahasa Indonesia only, but if you, like me, isn't too perturbed by it and don't mind double dipping (the special/collector's edition will contain English subtitles), then you can relive the many Silat martial arts action and stunt sequences sans the need to understand the spoken word. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters.

The Special Features in this DVD centers around the making of the film. Included is the Production Blog that contains a wealth of information. Writer-director Gareth Evans speaks in English, so there's no need for subtitles to understand what he's saying, and through the clips here, you can tell he's very assured in knowing the kind of shots and sequences that he wants in his film. A pity though that there is no Play All option available, so you'd have to click on each individual sub-section one by one, each with an Iko Uwais introduction to Silat.

- The Beginning (5:03): There are plenty of rehearsal footage and those on pre-production work, from storyboarding to interviews with writer-director Gareth Evans, producer Ario Sagantoro and star Iko Uwais.

- The Choreography (5:05): It doesn't take too long to look at the many fight design, choreography and rehearsals again, with the stunt team and Silat martial arts practitioners having a hand at putting Silat on film, with Gareth providing inputs on which sequences would look good on film. A collaborative effort here between director and martial artists in bringing out the best for the big screen.

- The Test (5:49): A look at test shots, makeup effects and the selection of on location sets.

- The Cast and Press Conference (5:17): In two parts, with the first being interviews with the other cast members such as Sisca Jessica, and the two other Caucasian dudes Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson, who has Shaolin background, and a quick look at the press conference called to introduce the film some six months before its premiere.

- The 56 Takes (5:04): A one take steadicam shot of the entire fight at the nightclub is responsible for that number of takes to get everything right.

- Bekasi (5:08): How the finale at the container docks got filmed, with a near miss accident involving Iko, as well as the rainy weather wrecking havoc on the location. Some 3 weeks were spent here to get everything right, since it's one massive action sequence from start to finish involving plenty of extras, as well as the climatic good versus evil battle between Yuda, Ratger and Luc. Perhaps that's why The Raid was predominantly shot indoors to get away from all the trouble the weather puts on a production schedule!

- Bukit Tingga (6:04): The scenes shot on location in Sumatera that bookended the film.

- Streets and Alleyways (6:04): This is pretty self-explanatory, looking at the making of scenes set at the alleyways that pepper the movie, culminating on the stunt involving a motorcyclist being brought down from his bike via a slinged towel. Gareth also has a knack for sharing the toys and equipment used to acheive the shots required and seen in the final film.

- Studios and Recruitment Centre (5:48): Studios got used for interior shots, as well as taking a look at Yayan Ruhian's first Silat battle that got shot in and around the Recruitment Centre.

- Rumah Susun (4:28), which is the long chase and fight sequence that culminates in the money shot of the rooftop chase.

And if the details in the production blog isn't enough, there's the standard Behind the Scene (18:15) making of featurette containing snippets from the final film, behind the scenes, and interviews with various cast and crew members. There's little not already seen and learnt from the production blog, save for the interview portions.

Rounding up the extras on this DVD edition is the Bonus Features section that's more of a trailer section containing the trailers for Merantau (5:11), Pintu Terlarang (1:55) and 3 Doa 3 Cinta (1:54), and packaged into the DVD jewel case is a full color booklet (in Bahasa Indonesia) and a bookmark.

Watch Twittamentary!

You can watch the film in the embedded player above from 21 May 2012, through a crowdsourcing distribution model using a social movie distribution tool, Distrify.

Twittamentary will donate 100% of the share of revenues in the first month to 3 charities: Invisible People (Advocacy for Homeless), RAINN (Woman's Rights, Stop Sexual Abuse) and Shelter Exchange (Animal Rights). We will also donate 30% of profits to charity after the first month.

You can also access and read my review of Twittamentary here.

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

Monday, May 14, 2012

Third Contact - A London-set, Micro-budget Thriller

In 2010, Simon Horrocks assembled a group of actors and friends, bought a second-hand HD camcorder and started filming. Over the following year, they shot Third Contact, fitting around peoples’ day jobs, as and when locations became available. Equipment was borrowed or acquired from DIY stores. Sound was recorded by two friends, neither of whom had previous experience. Many of the roles were played by non-actors. In one scene, office staff were played by work colleagues on a short break meaning Horrocks had just 15 minutes to shoot the scene before they went back to their jobs.

But made a feature film they did, with Simon Horrocks himself wearing multiple hats in writing, directing, producing, operating the camera, editing, and dabbled with the sound design and co-writing the music. I'm always impressed by filmmakers who do not allow contraints to shackle their imaginations, but instead work around them through creative solutions carefully molded into the final film. You can check out the synopsis of the film below, and sneak a peek at the trailer after that.

Therapist David Wright struggles to overcome the pain of losing two people – hauntingly beautiful ex-wife, Teresa, and Rene, a long-term patient who recently took his own life. Goaded by depressed physicist, Karl, to snapping point, David contemplates his own self-destruction. But the troubled therapist finds new purpose when he meets Erika Maurer, the sister of Rene, who has come to set things in order and perhaps find some redemption of her own.

When David discovers a link between Rene and another patient, Helen – both had written a list of four dated memories – he rushes across town only to find an strange woman in Helen’s apartment and, in the morning, Helen’s body.

As Erika attempts to bring closure to her brother's death, she becomes haunted by a disturbing presence – a ringing phone and a shadowy stalker. Meanwhile, David becomes increasingly determined to discover who or what is behind the deaths of his two patients.

Every clue leads nowhere until he discovers a series of digits burned into the bottom of Rene’s urn; a code which promises to lead David to a mysterious figure at the head of a shady organization who believe death is just the beginning…

Related Links
- Facebook Page

Sunday, May 13, 2012

[DVD] Crime or Punishment?!? (Tsumi Toka Batsu Toka / 罪とか罰とか) (2009)

Chief For The Day

It may be a bewildering start to the film, but writer-director Keralino Sandorovich has plenty up his sleeve in weaving together an absurdist comedy that may not seem much at first, but once you've decided to surrender some patience in the build up, will find plenty of reasons to smile about what's essentially a snapshot of seemingly unrelated events that converge in the most casual of manners, mirroring how some things in life seem to take on new meaning when looking back at hindsight.

The synopsis may seem to dwell on the story of Riko Narumi's newly minted gravure idol known as Ayame Enjoji, whose debut photo spread in a magazine turned out to be upside down. Visibly upset. her moment of fury ended up with the accidental stealing of a magazine from a convenience store, and ending up in a police station. As one of the police's PR schemes, she sees herself becoming the police chief over a twenty four hour period, which is supposedly a puppet role, if only for the cops to take her seriously!

But this, like the segment of the play the film was inspired by, served to only be a small part of the entire web like narrative, which is played for the most parts in non-linear fashion, introducing a myriad of characters, and their respective back stories. There's Ayame and her schoolmate Momo (Sakura Ando) who's also now a more famous gravure star, despite being the nerdier of the two, a trio of robbers who hit on a convenience store that served as an outlet through which a number of characters shop from, a murder taking place in an apartment adjacent to the robbers lair, a salaryman who opens the film and finds himself witness to the identity of the murderer, Ayame's ex-boyfriend who has a secret to hide and is an officer in the police force, and the list goes on.

Fish Story was perhaps the last Japanese film I had experienced that had seemingly unrelated plotlines coming together with fervour to paint sprawling, inter-connected stories revolving around the world created by the director, with plenty of plot elements, sub plot arcs and characters to whom you had to pay attention to in order to see how intricately everything got weaved together, and credit goes to Sandorovich to come up with this creative nightmare that converges and resolves everything in its finale. And to add to that is that touch of black comedy that made it come off at times like a dark tale of morality. If a rich narrative is your cup of tea, then Crime and Punishment?!? certainly had enough on its plate to keep you busy in trying to piece things together in chronological fashion.

Riko Narumi, the teenager who was in Jun Ichikawa's How to Become Myself, plays Ayame to perfection, charting the tale of a character bogged by low self-esteem, who had to eventually step up into what's expected of her, and to finally know how to make lemonades when life dishes out lemons to her every step of the way. She aced moments that called for vulnerability and emotional instability, and looked confident when finally finding some inner strength and belief. Scenes opposite Kento Nagayama as her ex and Inuko Inuyama as her suffering manager were also some of the best in the film, given the chemistry between the cast.

Crime and Punishment?!? may be built on plenty of conveniences amongst characters, relationships and situations, but sometimes things happen for a reason or are designed to occur in a certain fashion, with fact being stranger than fiction becoming like a given. Recommended!

The DVD by Third Window Films presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio in its original Japanese language. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters, with subtitles in English only and also made available in the Special Features, consisting of:

Making Of (44:32) which is the standard behind the scenes look at the making of the film, done in chronological order of what was shot on which day. Interviews are done with almost all the cast members, including minor ones, with plenty of rehearsal shots and various activities on set over the 27 days of filming.

Stage Show (6:39) sees director Keralino Sandorovich introducing actresses Riko Narumii and Inuko Inuyama to the original stage production on which Crime and Punishment?!? was loosely based upon a small portion of that stage play.

And a slate of Trailers from this film's (1:49), to other films released by Third Window such as Adrift in Tokyo (1:56), Underwater Love (1:13), Villain (1:26), Sawako Decides (1:51), cold Fish (1:58) and Confessions (1:42). A set of Weblinks is available for access if the disc is played on a computer.

The DVD is available for pre-order/order from Monday 14 May 2012 and you can do so here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Claycat's THE RAID

Too cute not to watch! Contains no spoilers as it steers clear of any critical plot development, but contains equal amounts of bloody mayhem.

The Raid: Redemption opens in cinemas here from 17th May 2012. UNCUT!

You can read my review of The Raid here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

[DVD] Petaling Street Warriors (大英雄•小男人 / Da Ying Xiong Xiao Nan Ren) (2011)


Some may disagree with me, but I thought this was one film amongst many made across the Causeway that has decent production values to boast about, with acting talent from both sides of the Causeway and is an action comedy genre that successfully emulated the formula used by Hong Kong in the 80s. It's unabashedly commercial and for the mass market, but it goes to show how far ahead our neighbours already are, while we continue to milk horror/comedy films with a slate that's expected this year, not that there's a lack of options already available in Malaysia with their many ghost movies.

You can read my review of Petaling Street Warriors here.

The Region 3 DVD by Innoform Media presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio in its original Mandarin/Dialect track in Dolby Digital Stereo. The other language option is a dubbed one in Malay, since the film is a Malaysian production with a predominantly Malaysian cast and crew. Subtitles are available in English, Chinese and Malay and available in the Special Features as well. Scene selection is available over 12 chapters.

The Special Features consist of a standard Making Of (21:06) that has plenty of behind the scenes look at its recreation of the famed Petaling Street of the old early 20th Century, as well as interviews with the cast about their characters, and a focus on the wired kungfu scenes as choreographed by Hong Kong's Ma Yuk-Sing. Other features included in the DVD are the Trailer (2:08) and a Photo Gallery with 30 stills.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Come with Me If You Want to Live

Safe lived up to its namesake for an action thriller, playing it safe with Jason Statham in a lead role of a character that he can probably sleepwalk through. Written and directed by Boaz Yakin, Safe has all the ingredients that will fit right into any Europa Corp mould, and in some ways, even as a hardcore Statham fan, I found his character of Luke Wright being a little too generic, and showcasing little of what we already know of what Statham can deliver.

The opening of the film will disorientate, even with the best of intentions to mirror and parallel its two primary characters of Wright, and the little Chinese girl Mei (Catherine Chan), whose superb mathematical intellect and photographic memory got sought after by gangsters with operations both in China and USA. Blackmailed with her mom's safety, Mei reluctantly lends her talent to the Chinese mob in New York, becoming the quintessential book-keeper without the books, storing every fact and running figure in her brain. As a reward, she is given the task of memorizing a series of boring numbers that points to a mystery of a combination, which forms the crux of the film given everyone's after her, from the cops, the Chinese mob, the Russian mafia to shady politicians. She runs.

Wright on the other hand, is that superhero that Jason Statham plays with aplomb from his days of The Transporter, already having some experience in protecting Chinese lasses. His backstory's like a phone directory that Yakin slowly unravels, that tells of more behind this one time cop with special skills, tying it with guilt complex and desperation in seeking redemption through underground fight rings, only for his one time fight back to kill off an opponent to whom he was supposed to throw a fight to. The Russian mob gets angry, and carries out their vow to make him the loneliest man on Earth. He runs.

But running can only bring you so far, and the time comes when the narrative puts these two runners together. Wright senses something amiss when he chances upon Mei for the first time, and becomes her de-facto protector, finding an opportunity to take some proactive action against all the stakeholders together in one fall swoop. In fact, this scheming, interspersed with rather rote action sequences from car chases, gun play and fist fights, makes Safe a little more interesting than your average action thriller. Yakin sets up the components where distinct interests of each faction becomes commodity that's traded with corrupt cops within NYPD, and to see each of them taken down by Wright using his brains, is more satisfying than those taken out by brawn.

Credit though to the story for not lingering around monologues longer than it should, with deliverance given without remorse, and in very standard bad-guys-get-their-just-desserts fashion without too much fuss. Sometimes too efficiently that Statham, for all his martial arts ability, doesn't quite get anything to do to flex his muscles. There are only a handful of scenes where he does get to punch up some goons, but the climax, set up to expect some serious brawling, turned out to be the most anti-climatic finale fights ever put on screen, though it knocked some logic into its rather illogical set up. Still, for Statham fans, his charismatic presence alone will make you root for his down and out character as he becomes the Transporter, sans flashy car, one more time, with human baggage in tow to protect.

The highlight in Safe though belongs to James Hong as the primary Chinese villain Han Jiao, the godfather of all rackets in Chinatown. Genre fans would recognize him instantly from his Lao Ban days in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, and it's good to see that despite going without heavy makeup seen in the mentioned film, he's still very much sprightly and has this villanous charisma going for him, even with limited screen time, split between him and his enforcer type, played by Reggie Lee. I for one would have loved if James Hong had some shared screen time with Jason Statham, and a mano a mano of sorts would probably elevate this film to cult status.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

My Pa, My Real Life Hero

My Pa and I, Hard Rock Cafe, Ueno, Tokyo, Japan, October 2009

Dear Friends,

Thank you all for your kind words, presence and emotional support to me and my family during a time of bereavement. It is with a heavy heart that I write this, hopeful that it will help me heal and find strength in the good memories I have had with my Pa, and to find comfort that there are family and friends always there to lift us up when our spirits are at their lowest levels. I am thankful and in gratitude.

For those who had attended the first wake service, you would know that I was honestly unprepared for a eulogy, yet I cannot allow the silence to become deafening, and had stood up to say something. I hope my Pa will forgive me for rambling incoherently that night. I had one prepared for the day of the funeral, which is reproduced here, so that I can constantly remind myself of the good times I had with my Pa, since I forsee the future me lapse back to the same old routine (which I hope to change, and I will).

And I also wish for those who read this to know about the horrid disease called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) which my dad was finally diagnosed with in May 2010 after a series of tests. He had been exhibiting some signs and symptoms for a couple of months, if not years, that were examined in isolation, from shaking hands, to the lack of balance at times, and frequent visits to the toilet, before these individual signs were put together, to lead to the MSA diagnosis by a neurologist. No one nor their families should be put through combating this wicked condition which deteriorates a healthy man to being bedridden, and to find his physical strength slowly sapped away and lose the functionality of his muscles, not being able to swallow or speak, cruelly robbing him of nutrition and communication.

Treasure your loved ones my friends, tell them you love them, give them your hugs, and I cannot stress enough to always spend plenty of quality time together. Never leave behind any regret when you can make the change now.


In the last few months my Pa always have the habit of giving me a salute and say thanks when we catch up every morning before I head off for work, when I would also arm wrestle with him to test his strength, and let him win of course. He would struggle to lift his hand to his brow, which turned out to only be a salute when he didn't have the ability to speak, but I knew what he had meant. His action spoke louder than words, and each time I would return the salute like in military fashion, and I hoped that he knew I was instead thanking him for bringing me and my sister up, and taking care of everyone in the family.

When I was young, I didn't have the luxury of growing up seeing my Papa everyday. He was at work, as a marine radio officer sailing the high seas, and each time he comes back, are times where we would eagerly await his arrival at the airport. It is a perilous job, but one in which he excelled in, and would definitely come back to shore with tales of adventures from onboard the ship. To a kid, he was my hero, and not to forget the countless of goodies brought back from chocolates to toys, and even when away, kept constantly in touch through letters, postcards from far flung reaches of the world, and my favourite amongst the stash, my comic books.

Our education was always top priority in his agenda, making it known that he would see me and vivianne through to our university and funds would always be available. This despite being retrenched from a job that was inevitably made redundant through advances in technology, from which on he had dabbled in real estate, insurance, and even before the Integrated Resorts became a reality, he had work experience working in a jackpot room at the American Club. He didn't fuss about the long hours, or the irregular shifts, but instead fusses about how Vivianne and I would always get home cooked food ready on the table when we got home from school. In case you do not know, my Papa is a really excellent cook, culinary skills that I somehow regret not being able to fully pick up, but his portions, in which my family can attest to, somehow figures on the large sizes, because he loves to eat!

Nuts and chocolates are his favourite, and together we can sometimes polish off packets of nuts and bars of chocolates in no time. He taught me chess, how to tie a tie, ride a bike, and ensured that I built up a vocabulary of the English language through the learning of 10 new words everyday without fail, in which he would conduct a test. To a boy growing up, it was a chore then, where he would also constantly correct our grammar and tenses, but something I am extremely grateful for, when I look back in time and appreciate his hard stance on language skills, and turning us into voracious readers through his many outings to the bookshops and libararies in which he would do research for hours - of what? Into the stock market.

He loves to invest, and investing in the stock market was a large part of his life, with a keen eye to spot good counters and examine them with an analytical mind. Of course he had taught me how trading works like a sifu, but just as he had taught me how to gamble in games like mahjong, they always come with constant warnings for fear that I would get swindled or cheated, that it's in the natural order of things that the big fish always eat up the smaller ones. This advice, I adhere to even up to this present day, because his advices to me throughout my life, have always been nothing but strong pillars of references and knowledge, based out of unconditional love for mine, and my family's well being, with genuine concern that I lead a fruitful, meaningful and happy life.

And I won't forget your instructions to me, that when you would leave one day, I have to step up, take over and look after the family, especially my Ma. This I promise you Pa, that I Will definitely do. I love you Papa, and will sorely miss you everyday, until we meet again.
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