Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Celestial Movies Miyazaki Festival

This March, Celestial Movies (Starhub Channel 868) will be paying tribute to famous Japanese manga artist and film director Hayao Miyazaki, who has attained international acclaim as a maker of animated feature films through a career spanning nearly fifty years.

The schedule and selection of films are as follows, screened in the original Japanese language, with both English and Mandarin subtitles:

Date | Film
12/3 | Tombstone For Fireflies (再见萤火虫)
13/3 | My Neighbor Totoro (龙猫)
14/3 | Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (风之谷)
15/3 | Kiki's Delivery Service (魔女宅急便)
16/3 | Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea (崖上的波儿)
17/3 | Laputa: Castle In The Sky (天空之城)

and attached below is an exclusive transcript provided by Celestial Movies for readers to gain first-hand information to what goes in the mind of Miyazki behind some of the famous animated films that he has created.


Q: Why do you insist on using a pencil to draw your animated characters and backgrounds?
A: Computer graphics are very impressive, but I think animation needs the pencil, needs a man’s hands drawing.

Q: There is a total of 140 staff at the Ghibli studios, any of them tried to use computer graphics?
A: None of them was tempted by computer graphics. Those who don’t use pencils shouldn’t belong to our studio.

Q: How do you create women characters like Sosuke’s mother Lisa from Ponyo On The Cliff By The Sea?
A: I create women characters by observing the female staff in my studio. There are many samples around me because half of my staff are women. But they do not realize it is them in the film because I use their essence and not their physique or faces. Usually I’ll choose faces that are easier to draw.

Q: You are sensitive towards the female psyche and you are insightful towards children. You seem to understand their attitude towards fear and loss and their recognition of mortality. Do you know a bit of psychology?
A: I’ve never studied psychology. I get all this just by reading books in general, and by observing people – especially children. I love children. We have a Ghibli-created nursery school near my office. There is a garden whereby we let the children do things that the usual nursery schools would never let kids do. For example, we have a pond for them to fall into, rocks to trip them over. We make slopes to make them fall and there are even trees for them to climb onto!

Q: There is an important message in Ponyo on the Cliff By The Sea. You are bemoaning about the pollution of Japan’s natural resources. Are you angry with the many aspects of modern life?
A: I wish the world would change, for instance, the population of Tokyo should be 10 per cent of what it is now. If you go to the other cities they're very under populated. It's like everyone has gathered to make a living in Tokyo. This is a very big issue Japan has to solve. And also, I think Tokyo is going to sink under water soon. All those stupid high-rise buildings will sink and maybe all the traffic will be gone. Everything will be peaceful and quiet. As for the theme of garbage and pollution in Ponyo, it’s too boring just to put a message across about that. It’s better to volunteer yourself to pick up all the garbage than to complain about it. Actually, i go to the river situated near my house every morning, just to do some cleaning. It’s my pastime.

Q: What is your ambition for now?
A: I will continue to create films, but my ambition for now is to teach and raise a whole new generation of animators who still use a pencil to draw. I think I can only continue being a director,” he says, “but as a studio, we want to use new directors and younger directors because we’ll disappear if we keep relying on old people. Eighteen months ago, my first grandson, named Mao, was born. The first thing I said to him was: “Grab the pencil!”.

Q: Why did you refused to license your characters to be included in video games?
A: I don't like games. You're robbing the precious time of children to be children. They need to be in touch with the real world more.

Monday, February 27, 2012

John Carter in 3D

Tarzan of Mars

John Carter is about 100 years old. The creation of writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, he predates even Tarzan, another Burroughs' creation, and is set in the planet of Mars, or Barsoom in Burroughs-speak in what would feature an early planetary romance, complete with fantasy, swords and sorcery. At least that's what's on the plate in the series of books that helped inspire countless of other writers and other sci-fi fantasy stories both in print, and film. So in essence there isn't much that would surprise you in the original source material that featured Burrough's fictional self as well (played by Daryl Sabara), and Andrew Stanton's adaptation is fairly lacklustre from plot to action sequence, that a wave of familiarity will sweep your consciousness as you try to tune into the strange civilizations thrust upon you.

Predominantly based on the book "A Princess of Mars", the narrative adapted by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and even Michael Chabon failed to ignite that sense of swashbuckling adventure involving a Confederate veteran of the American Civil War, our titular hero John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who found himself inexplicably transported to Mars when out and about his second career of gold prospecting in Virginia. Throw in what you will from Dances with Wolves to Avatar involving being that proverbial fish out of water, and you get what the first hour is all about. Picked up by green skinned Martians with six limbs known as the Tharks, John is enslaved to fight for the Tharks given his super-human abilities scientifically blessed upon him due to Mar's lesser gravity, and soon rises to become one of their folk heroes, christened Dotar Sojat.

But that's not before getting himself tripped up in the civil war between the red skinned humanoid Martians from Helium and Zodanga, and falling in love with the scantily clad princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who's forced into marriage by her father to their enemies in order to see a truce. With their flying machines and intra-planetary chase, you'd wonder where George Lucas would have gotten his inspiration for the opening of A New Hope, or vice versa in how these characters got introduced. And when one gets embroiled in someone else's war, what more developing the hots for a princess who holds the key to one's return home, you know for a fact that trouble will come knocking in less time the planet orbits around the sun.

Andrew Stanton, whose previous films were the Pixar animated features Finding Nemo and Wall.E, may be inspired by fellow colleague Brad Bird's successful live action venture with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and embarked on his own franchise-potential with this live action effort. However, it's a whole new different ball game that Stanton got himself into, and will find that pacing is so key to a film, given the huge sag in the middle, unable to keep consistent pace to what had already been set up. Trust me, by then you wouldn't even begin to bother who's fighting who, who's right or wrong, and just what's going on, given a load of mumbo-jumbo just forced down your throat with very scant details provided (you'll be better off reading Burroughs' book instead). John Carter gets everywhere and couldn't decide many times whether to play it straight, or comical. It couldn't decide whether to focus on the drama, or become that special effects extravaganza, resulting in an effects film that didn't have anything to wow, and at best was derivative.

Worse of all, John Carter didn't have direction. Objectives were scattered - one minute he's dead set on wanting to go home, while the next got persuaded in less than convincing terms to stay and interfere with the inhabitants livelihood. Here the story goes all The Adjustment Bureau in having what could be their predecessor Watchmen type headed by Matai Shang played by Mark Strong (surely his contract must have stated he must be in all blockbuster franchise potential as the key villain; he's so overused that he's getting stereotypically boring already) being that almighty Deux Ex Machina ensuring Fate gets played out like it should. And to try and force in a little romantic interlude with a backstory from Earth, didn't make the story any more emotionally appealing.

The action sequences also couldn't have been any more less interesting. Sure, John Carter exhibits space age Tarzan capabilities without the need of a vine, and has the charisma to charm all native inhabitants to be king of the Mars jungle, but alas there's nothing that will put you at the edge of your seat. Perhaps it's that century old tale that got ripped by many others already, that the filmmakers fell into the been-there-done-that pit trap and failed to ignite the big screen with originality. From space battles to Prince of Persia type battles, this film could have benefited from more creativity, especially with an ensemble cast assembled with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Domic West, Bryan Cranston, and the list goes on.

What saved the movie instead was Edgar Rice Burroughs the writer and creator himself, given the literary device that he had used to tell the story. This device of having the novelized Burroughs possessing the manuscript passed onto him by John Carter, was the only saving grace of the film, giving it a thrilling finale that thankfully the filmmakers decided to keep, without which it will lack a crescendo and fall flat on its face. It's certainly primed for a franchise given the wealth of stories from the source material, but unless it promises a much better effort put in for subsequent films, John Carter will join the ranks of many literary fantasy translations for the big screens and fail to lift off.

And should you bother with the 3D? No, because post conversion 3D always feels like a short cut that never delivers, and John Carter boasts no scenes that will justify those glasses and extra bucks for a ticket.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close


It's now more than a decade since the fateful events of 11 September 2001, and there has already been a number of films that have been set around the day, with stories told being somewhat reflective about the country's emotional state and well being as told through the lens of various filmmakers. Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is perhaps the more matured and measured telling that incredibly encompassed a fair bit of everything extremely horrific involving the Twin Towers collapse without trivializing it, and punches above its weight with its heart-wrenching story.

Based upon the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film tells of how the loss of a father in quite inexplicable terms is dealt with by his wife and son. Tom Hanks stars in a small supporting role as Thomas Schell, a jeweller who shares a solid connection with his son Oskar (Thomas Horn), who suffers from what would be an unproven case of mild Asperger's Syndrome (or so mentioned in passing by Thomas himself), a boy who's really smart with an unbelievable memory for details, but can fly off the handle when being unable to adequately handle his emotions. The happy family situation with mom Linda (Sandra Bullock) and grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) would be shattered, with the bulk of the story dealing with how Oskar assumes a key belonging to dad that's accidentally found in the house, would probably hold a final message meant for him.

So begins a road trip of sorts to hunt down where and what lock the key would actually open, and along the way, like in Karan Johar's My Name is Khan starring Shah Rukh Khan as a man stricken with a similar disease, would meet with various people in his journeys, and the impact his mercurial trip would have on the lives of others, and vice versa, especially since he had struck up a friendship with the mysterious tenant (Max von Sydow) living in his grandmother's home, an elderly gentleman who does not speak a word, and whose identity you would probably have guessed when he appears. And you can count on the number of quirky persons that Oskar encounters in addition to those moved by his account why he's doing what he's doing, some expanded with a proper narrative, while others montaged together, or mentioned only in passing.

What made this film work is the excellent performance by Thomas Horn who plays the protagonist Oskar, whose shoulders the entire film sits on. If he was unbelievable in his portrayal, the story wouldn't work, period, and the young actor held his own against the veteran co-stars without being overawed. His Oskar will grow on you as you sympathize with his hurt, which will be amplified as the story moved along given the many secrets and revelations to be made in due course. There were many scenes that called for an dramatic outburst, which Thomas handled really well without the need to go overboard or over melodramatic. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock together made it all vividly believable as a small family unit, although both had really bit roles to play, with Tom Hanks being heard more than being seen through some really harrowing voice messages, and Sandra Bullock being really key to that pivotal closure that tells of any mom's immense love for her child, which got questioned and challenged, that turned out to be one of my favourites scenes amongst many in the movie.

But of course Max von Sydow is getting all the attention here with his Oscar nomination for a non-speaking role, since his character doesn't speak for no particular reason and relies on a notepad, if not only to showcase how talented the actor is in being able to emote with a critical communications medium of speech being taken away from him, which he excelled. Before watching his performance I would have thought Christopher Plummer may have already bagged the award, but after doing so I'm not really all that sure now, and it could likely be down to the wire.

With a rousing yet moving score by Alexandre Desplat, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close deals with Oskar's guilt and his inability to recognize that emotion, nor being able to handle it with an emotional maturity, after all, he's only a kid despite having a relatively high IQ, has to struggle with his EQ and a condition. What worked wonders is how the film managed to reach out through its characters to those affected by the worst day of their lives as Oskar labelled it, and come to terms with things that happen seemingly in random fashion that offers little closure, of the symbolism of burying an empty box.

Some may feel cheated by the lack of a big reveal after the trouble and efforts gone through, but I thought that reflected what life sometimes dishes out to us, that there is almost always a lack of distinct answers, and even if not then there will always be shades of grey rather than distinct black and white. It's the little stories and moments in the film that contributed to its overall emotional weight, before the final arc involving mom that really sealed the deal, and opened up the tear ducts. The film may have gotten polarized responses like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but in my books it's one powerful drama that hit all the necessary sweet spots. Highly recommended!

Hugo in 3D

You'll Do Great

With 11 Academy Award nominations under its belt, common sense prevailed with the local distributors in pushing for a release to tie in with the anticipated Oscar hype, rather than to hedge its bets in March should the film with the most nominations this year go back empty handed. But regardless of the nods and awards it probably may garner, this Martin Scorsese film is one of his best, if not possible amongst his most personal films, where he has the opportunity to pay tribute to one of French cinema's earliest visionaries Georges Méliès, as well as to touch upon a topic that close to his heart, that of film preservation.

Hugo, based upon the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, is Scorsese's first 3D effort, and a proper one at that I may add, with many filmmakers or production companies choosing the cop out way of making a 3D film through post-production conversion. If you want to do something you have got to do it right, and Scorsese's film is blessed with countless of scenes that provide that depth of field, exploiting its 3D tool well as how it is supposed to be, rather than providing cheap toward-the-screen gimmicks to distract. And it's pretty amazing too in meta sort of way with Scorsese's use of the 3D tool, since Hugo contains a major plot about the story of Georges Méliès, who is recognized as one of the innovators of effects on film in his days.

Biographies aren't something new to Scorsese having done a number of films based on real people, but Hugo had wrapped a fictional narrative that's fit for the family, with broad based entertainment value and themes that make it appealing to a general audience across all ages, and best of all, being able to be a film about film history, introducing a great cinema master to the man on the street, perhaps sparking renewed interest amongst a generation that may not have heard of him, but likely to have been exposed or remember what would be one of the most enduring, iconic images seen at one point or another with the man on the moon being poked in the eye by a rocket, from his film A Trip to the Moon.

In all honesty I wasn't too impressed by Hugo Cabret's story, about the titular boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Parisian train station of Gare Montparnasse, winding the clocks around the premises and spending his time evading the station inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is on a warpath looking for misbehaving orphans. Hugo himself is made one with the demise of his dad (Jude Law in a small support role) who had left him under the care of drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) and leaving behind an automation. Believing the automation contains a secret message left behind by dad, Hugo goes about scouring the station for knick knacks, trinkets and gears to get it going again, and often does so by stealing items off Georges Méliès the toymaker who has a small shop in the station.

That forms the gist of Hugo's initial interaction with Georges, and the story revolves around his friendship with Méliès goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), where together they find themselves embarking on an adventure involving various people such as those in the station like the florist Lisette (Emily Mortimer) whom the station inspector has the hots for, the dog loving cafe owner Emile (Frances de la Tour) and the newspaper seller Frick (Richard Griffiths) as well as those who would point them toward the discovery of film and its early years, such as bookstore owner Labisse (Christopher Lee), and film historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). Chloe Moretz pairs up very nicely opposite Asa Butterfield who made a very endearing Hugo, with Sacha Baron Cohen nicely ditching his downright outrageously (and sometimes offensive) comical style for something a lot more family friendly, even as Hugo's prime nemesis.

While the acting here are all top notch with the cast being so incredibly comfortable in their roles no matter how big or small, I thought Ben Kingsley provided a masterclass for everyone in his role as the real character in history Georges Méliès, along with Helen McCrory who plays his wife Jeanne and is in almost all of Méliès' films. And of course digital effects make them look a lot younger when the story flashes back to their heydays, which was the last half hour that made Hugo an absolute winner as we deep dived into the early years of cinema, and French cinema at that too, about their life and times, and celebration even, together with a poignant reminder that many films are lost over the years if not for deliberate efforts to scour, source, and save prints that have been unceremoniously lost through the ravages of time.

There are countless of references in the film that would demand you make a repeat viewing (and that Blu Ray 3D disc is getting so very much enticing to buy), with plot elements and devices screaming out for your attention, and admittedly there are many more I know I have missed. From obvious ones such as a featured train at the climax reminiscent of the Lumiere Brother's film as well as a real life derailment at the Gare Montparnasse station, to the design of the automation that makes a shout out to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, perhaps you can reference this link here as preliminary research, before heading out to watch the movie, or to watch out for them when you view the film again.

It's a tough fight going into the Oscars this weekend, especially for those who have money put down for that office bet. Two of the strongest contenders in my opinion, Hugo and The Artist, contain that nostalgic look back at cinema's past, with the filmmakers paying homage to eras, personalities and systems that have been long gone, at a time when it was brimming with innovation and artistry. Martin Scorsese has once again shown that he's amongst the top of the game, and Hugo will be one of his iconic stamps in his decades long filmmaking career. Definitely highly recommended fare for everyone itching for an intelligent, heart-warming and entertaining adventure ride.

The Grey


Liam Neeson is the go to man these days, especially if it involves a stoic one man army you'd want on your side of the camp to go up against any adversary. Pierre Morel's Taken established Neeson as one man you would not want to cross, and Unknown continues to a lesser degree that he can really break some bones, and with some serious brains to match that level of brawn as well. Having conquered the human species, it's about time someone cast Neeson to tear through the animal world, and Joe Carnahan does just that with The Grey, putting him in Alaska with a bunch of blue-collared workers constantly threatened by wild wolves.

Hired by a company to protect its employees out in the Alaskan wild from wolves by shooting to kill using his sniper rifle, Ottway (Liam Neeson) contemplates ending his own life given the loss of his wife (Anne Openshaw), since being alone in the cold and the wild probably played tricks on one's mind given the depressive environment with the lack of warmth, and a rowdy bunch of workers he's bounded to protect. But it's soon his turn to be rotated out together with a plane load of fellow colleagues, if not for an electrical storm to somewhat take the whole plane down, and they crash land into the wild. With a survivor count of seven, they soon discover that being alive and kicking may not necessarily be a good thing, for they are surrounded by a wolf pack all ready to prove who's the boss in the wilderness.

Joe Carnahan, responsible for action oriented films like Smokin' Aces and The A-Team, reunites with one of his leading men in the latter film and took things down a couple of notches with this effort, with The Grey playing out more like a disaster film, where the survivors must huddle together over their differences in character that provide constant friction, made worst when morale is low, and danger and death looms over the horizon. From the get go the filmmakers captured the effects of death well, and the aftermath of how such effects have on others who survive, especially playing up on the guilt complex. One of the most heartbreaking scenes early on involve having to deal with a dying man - what one would have to do and say, in order to provide for a less painful, fearful departure. Or the rituals that harks back to our baseline humanity of treating the departed with respect, even if there are those who may choose not to in the name of primal survival.

As with almost all contemporary Liam Neeson starring films, he plays yet another man with something of a plan, stepping up to lead a bunch of rag tags to make it out alive in the harsh environment that threaten to devour them in a blanket of icy snow. He becomes like a one man McGuyver as noted by a compatriot, who knows just about everything they need to know about their common enemies - the landscape as well as the wolves constantly nipping at their party. It's almost like a battle of wills, rather than an all out actioner, with survivors staring death down in the eyes, and constantly moving and using their wits to get through unpredictable weather conditions, playing it all out like a psychological game instead.

Containing many harrowing scenes playing upon incidents that could happen to anyone, with hypotheticals of how would one fare if caught in a similar situation between a rock and a hard place, The Grey accomplished a lot more by showing a lot less, frequently employing cut aways or fade outs to provide deliberate gaps, that would happen in real life as well, such as black outs, or time taken to doze off, before awakening to new realities that demand immediate action even when in a daze. The amazingly haunting musical score by Marc Steitenfeld also provides the film with another mesmerizing dimension that plays on the unknown fate that the party will face, and will keep you at the edge of your seat when accompanying some death-defying moments.

What made The Grey stand out is not its action sequences, where episodes have been almost revealed in its trailer to the final detail, but for the more dramatic moments involving the interaction of the survivors and their group dynamics. At times lapsing into caricatures, such as the coward, the stoic supporter, the loud mouthed, and the de-facto leader who has to step up rather reluctantly, lead and make a stand, the narrative dedicates ample time to provide a lot more layers to the characters, allowing you to get chummy with and empathize with their predicament, rooting for everyone to survive their ordeal even as the odds began to stack against their favour, and allowing you to feel a little tingle in your heart for those who would fall.

Probably Joe Carnahan's least flashy film to date, being more meditative than a wham-bang action flick from start to end, don't leave the cinema hall just yet when the end credits roll, otherwise you will short change yourself of the film's actual finale. Recommended stuff, and more so if you're a fan of Neeson's recent take on kick-butting characters.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Man on a Ledge

There He Goes

Sam Worthington returns to the big screen in a film that you will do yourself favours the lesser you know about it. Even the trailers would have hinted at the genre this film firmly finds itself in. Playing an ex-con who finds himself wanting to leave as he enters the world - Innocent - it's full of gripping, edge (pardon the pun) of your seat stuff as the narrative unravels to reveal what would be one of the movements over the last year - that of the oppression of the poor by the rich and the authorities, and discrimination in the workplace.

For the former, Worthington's Nick Cassidy cuts a figure that the press (personified by Kyra Sedgwick) would like to play up as a desperate man looking toward desperate measures in an attempt to seek attention to his own plight. Just what this plight would be, is best kept under wraps, but you get the drift here, where countless of extras roam the streets below, all eager and rooting for our protagonist to perhaps do the unthinkable and send a message. And the villain (Ed Harris in a token role) is a CEO rich beyond his lifetime, coupled with how those with money almost always make strange bedfellows with those that wield authority. For the latter issue, there's Elizabeth Banks playing a police negotiator with her own skeletons in her closet made worst by discriminating male colleagues all eager to see her crash and burn her career, and frankly don't give her much respect despite protocols that demand the contrary.

With an ensemble cast including Worthington, Banks, Sedgwick, Edward Burns (himself an established filmmaker who sorta sleep walked through his role here) and Anthony Mackie, it was quite the surprise that Jamie Bell (voice of Mr Tintin himself) and Genesis Rodriguez stole the show as the bickering couple set out to play an important role in the entire proceedings, thanks to having comical lines and feeding off each other's energy and flaunting chemistry together. But when it's time to get serious and all puffed with action, Worthington steps up his act and brings this film to a climatic finale worthy and akin to leaping off for that adrenaline rush.

You can read my review of Man on a Ledge at by clicking on the logo below.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Runway Beat (ランウェイ☆ビート / Ranwei Bîto)


Teen dramas are a dime a dozen, but you can trust the Japanese to whip up a storyline that's unique and niched for a select audience, and allowing a fan base to grow from there. I cannot say I belong to the demographic or niche community for Runway Beat since it touches upon the aspect of teen fashion, but in true teen drama sensibilities has enough packed in its narrative to sustain interest in the characters' objective to succeed in their goal.

The film begins with May (Nanami Sakuraba) looking back post-graduation at the time when she and her friends were high schoolers, as she narrates through how their lives were changed with the introduction of a new student Biito "Beat" Mizorogi to their class. And the narrative inadvertently shifted to Beat as the central character after the false start; after all his name did find its way to the title, and the young scion of a fashion designer seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps if only to carve a name for himself now at a tender age. May as she turned out was quite the bland character, a pretty lass no less, but somehow the story, based upon a mobile phone novel by Maha Harada, seemed to lack focus in providing her with a stronger character as what I would have thought was befitting for a female lead.

Instead, that fell onto the shoulders of Miki (Mirei Kiritani), the teen fashion model who belongs to the same class as our protagonists, with diva attitude to boot in a class where she's worshipped by plenty of admirers, including the obligatory class ruffian Gouda (Masaki Kaji). In deciding what to do for the school's annual festival, it was so decided that the class put up a fashion runway show since they have a real life model in their ranks, but are unable to convince her to do so given their poorly designed clothes. In comes new kid on the block Beat to save the day, and launch the class' proposal, which was made to seem a lot more important given the impetus of the school to close at the end of the academic year. Rounding up the class' main core group of five are May's best friend Anna (Imalu) who moonlights in a club as a DJ, and the geek of the class Satoru (Kei Tanaka) whom Beat provides a transformation from zero to an alpha oozing confidence.

Such is because clothes maketh a man, and in Beat's designs they are to bring out the inner self confidence of the wearer. I am no fashionista, and to my naked eye Beat's designs seemed to center around tartans, and skirts, even for men, no doubt influenced heavily by the Scots. He becomes a sensation in the design world, at times making you wonder how his dad Hayato (Seiichi Tanabe) might have felt the heat, knowing that his estranged son has what it takes to probably beat (pardon the pun) him in his own game when the time is right to exact some revenge for his walking out of the family years ago.

Director Kentaro Otani may seem like an old hand at directing youth films set against a niched backdrop, such as his Nana films which explored the relationship of two namesakes in the world of rock. There aren't no real surprises being thrown up as the story sort of moves in auto-pilot, with little sub plots thrown in that came out of the formula book, such as the introduction of a minor character who has to battle a life threatening illness, to inject some melodrama into the film to balance the constantly high, confidence inducing Beat, and the philosophy he preaches through his hard work. Then there's always room for that puppy love romance to creep in, although in this case the subject got relegated to the back seat as everyone busied themselves with an objective of more urgency and importance. And with a classroom full of students, not everyone managed to get their field day, with background characters firmly being caricatures whom we don't get to see much of, except perhaps their five seconds of fame during the finale.

As with most Japanese films involving an ensemble cast with shared goals, a good chunk of the final act always get dedicated to showcase just that. Somehow the inherent setback for a film like this, is the nature of the goal. For sports films, there's the nail-biting race to the finish, or with a musical performance, there's the huge musical number we'd come to expect as a crescendo. For a fashion film, it boiled down to the requisite runway show, but in line with none of the characters (or cast) being professional models, it's a little bit of an anti-climax, although you have to admit the brilliance behind the idea because this after all is a film about confidence building and there's nothing more nerve wrecking to conquer than to step out there and being judged by peers, or to play to one's strengths in contribution toward a common objective. The rawness of being non professional models helped, although the clothes stuck to the safe and secure rather than the flamboyant and outrageous.

Those interested in Japanese teen fashion will find Runway Beat screaming at you for the many clothes and designs that one may want to adopt. Runway Beat brings to mind yet another recent Japanese film known as Paradise Kiss, but the story here is firmly set amongst a younger crowd, with only one designer providing some level of consistency versus Kiss which had almost everyone a flamboyant creator in his or her own right. Still, it's Japanese culture and influence we're talking about, and there's surely no shortage of fans and those willing to be inspired through fashion.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mr and Mrs Gambler (烂赌夫斗烂赌妻 / Lan Du Fu Dou Lan Du Qi)

Huat Ah!

Like him or loathe him, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Jing is prolific in his output of films, that in his heydays had made some classics in the form of countless of comedies to chase the blues away, and just about produced a lot of other crass mass entertainers as well. Who would have thought that Wong was responsible for God of Gamblers starring Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau and Joey Wong, which had spun countless of copycat productions from the serious to the insanely comedic, some of which got made by Wong Jing himself too. You cannot deny that the filmmaker has gambling in his DNA, and over the years just had to scratch that itch and make a movie related to it time and again.

And so we have Mr and Mrs Gambler, a surprising comedy not about how opposites attract, but this union being ordained by Lady Luck herself in having two lovers meet as enemies first, before having their intense similarities pull them toward each other much against the laws of nature. Chapman To plays Shu Qi, a man given a woman sounding name by his folks, who has an incurable habit as a serial gambler, so much so that even when having sex (that was unceremoniously snipped by the local censors) he has to refer to his horse racing manual for intense pleasure. Fiona Sit plays Flora, an equally compulsive gambler who crosses Shu Qi's path when she cuts into his cab and caused him heavy losses when he was unable to place his winning bets on time. They meet in Macau, and after being locked up by loan sharks, fall in love, although mostly to satisfy their respective ulterior motives since they are after all, analyzers of odds.

As with any Wong Jing film, comedy takes centerstage no matter how irrelevant and outrageous the situations conjured may be. The mo-lei-tau jokes work best when they come from the blind side and are totally taken out of context. springing up with the jokes hitting their intended mark. The story and narrative is really lightweight where we see how the Mr and Mrs come together, and the various encounters that come to threaten their marriage especially since their combination of the Luck factor meant they become a lot more successful as a married couple together - Shu Qi becomes an acclaimed, award winning actor while Flora enjoys and sustains a successful gambling streak without much effort - than they were singletons apart.

There are plenty to laugh about in the movie given the many comedic moments providing the bandwidth for mirth, and one of the running gags in the film involves the character spoof of Wang Jing Wei, an obvious play and dig at Wong Kar-Wai, the anti-thesis and opposite of Wong Jing, with his sunshades and incessant cigarette smoke, work ethics and directing philosophy making it all unmistakably obvious as nasty jibes at the acclaimed director. But I enjoyed the scenes tremendously (I admit to the guilty pleasure here), even if Wong's The Grandmasters continue in getting its trailer spoofed ad nausem by many Hong Kong comedies just because and despite of having the film still being stuck in post production limbo, with rumours that it will finally bow in Cannes later this year.

Chapman To and Fiona Sit may not necessarily be A-listers in today's Hong Kong cinema, but when played to their strengths they have tremendous screen presence and are able to aptly carry the film on their shoulders. Comedy seems to be their forte and their comic timing didn't disappoint, and being really game at playing out tons of self-depreciative jokes or to survive on the relentless insults dished out by the other party. And it's not easy given Wong Jing's usual arsenal of jokes that tap from body parts and reach new levels of low with their crassness. But the writer-director this time had a soft spot put into his character creations, and seem to be rather pro-family with the blip in family relations tackled by the need to keep the family unit together and keep the child oblivious to the couple's degrading relationship (but in true Wong Jing fashion he won't pass up an opportunity for laughs here, and I thought there were some very pointed comments made at foreign workers).

It's always hit and miss for any typical Wong Jing film of recent years, and thankfully Mr and Mrs Gambler falls in the realm of a hit. Again one will drool at how much more fun this will be if allowed to be screened in Cantonese. Recommended to anyone seeking out a comedic film to chase those work blues away.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

[DVD] Adrift in Tokyo (転々 / Tenten) (2007)

Let's Start Walking

I've been to Tokyo a number of times for the international film festival, and what I enjoy doing in any city, is to take a series of long walks to check out and soak in the local sights and sounds. Walking tours, that can be done individually or as a group, are a lot of fun, and practically quite easy since there are a number of available guides with maps online for free to download and recommended pit stops to make, so getting lost isn't really an option already. That same sense of spirit of adventure, and fun in not knowing what to expect, is epitomized in director Miki Satoshi's film Adrift in Tokyo.

Based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita, Adrift in Tokyo tells the story of two men, the impoverished law student Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) who is owing loan sharks nearly 1 million Yen, and finding himself attacked in his humble abode one day by debt collector Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), who makes him a proposition to accompany him on a walking trip across Tokyo. Maybe it's for companionship and to battle loneliness in the trip, but what's certain are two things, that Fumiya will be rewarded with a cool 1 million Yen in hard cash, and the other being Fukuhara turning himself in at the police station at the end of their trip for killing his wife (Sanae Miyata).

Really with nothing left to lose, Fumiya obliges, and the two set off on a road trip of sorts on foot, encountering a series of quirky encounters with equally quirky characters along the way, and embarking on a series of mini adventures that bring them to places of their personal interest, and of those that bring back certain memories that the two men now share with each other, from their old homes, to places that Fukuhara frequents with his wife during better times. There's poignant drama, subtle comedy and earnest contemplation all rolled into one package, and fans of Miki Satoshi cannot ask for more. Personal favourites from their interaction include the Lacoste story which really had me laughing out loud, and the co-workers (played by Eri Fuse, Ryo Iwamatsu and Yutaka Matsushige) of Fukuhara's wife who always seem to be distracted when it comes to checking on her with her absence from work, that brought about plenty of comic irony.

The true gem of the tale came from the final third of the film, where we've already grown very fond of the new bond forged between the two men, that another two characters got introduced to complete the entire picture. Fukuhara's fake wife from a wedding stint years back, Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi), and her niece Fufumi (Yurio Yoshita) brought about what would be a moment of fantasy turned into reality for everyone, with missing jigsaws in their respective lives made complete with the presence of one another, that you realize the inherent reason behind Fukuhara's initial proposal. Fumiya, the unluckiest guy in the tale with everything from toothpaste and persimmons finding their way to splatter on him, would discover that this point in time would probably be that father-son and family relationship and ties he had never enjoyed in his life, now compensated by and experienced through the presence of a surrogate, makeshift family, that made this a little bit like a fairy tale primed for a happily ever after finale.

Surely the strength of the film stemmed from its story, containing plenty of modern day references questioning things we take at face value without asking Why, and of the beautiful, natural chemistry shared between indie darling Joe Odagiri and Tomokazu Miura, making us wish that the journey their characters embark upon will stretch a little bit longer even if their destination inches a lot closer. It's almost akin to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset films where we learn more about their characters through their dialogues and interaction, except that this stretched out over a longer period of time, and doesn't singularly deal with the romantic notion of love, but of family.

And when you bask in the aftermath of this touching tale that will bring on plenty of unsaid emotions as it reaches its crescendo, don't miss the coda at the end of the closing credits. Highly recommended!

The DVD from Third Window Films presents Adrift in Tokyo in an anamorphic widescreen format with its original Japanese language track in 5.1 surround sound. Subtitles are available in English, and scene selection is broken down to 20 chapters.

One of the key Special Features included is the Making Of (70:45), one of the longest out there which is subtitled in English and presented in the letterbox format. Given its length it plays out more like a production diary of sorts that follows the production team in an almost chronological order to take a sneak peek at the behind the scenes process. Other special features include the Trailer (1:56, letterbox format), and a series of Third Window Trailers which are presented in the anamorphic widescreen format, for movies like Underwater Love (1:12), Villain (1:25), Sawako Decides, (1:50) Cold Fish (1:58), Confessions (1:41), and Confessions of a Dog (2:55).

Rounding up the extras is the Weblink Section that contains the URL to Third Window Films and its Youtube Channel.

The DVD is scheduled for a release on 27 Feb 2012, and if you're a fan of Miki Satoshi, Third Window Films will also be releasing on the same day a limited edition collection containing the director's 3 best films of: Adrift in Tokyo, Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, and Instant Swamp. And for those based in the UK, both Miki Satoshi and actress Eri Fuse will be in London for Hyper Japan (25 and 26 Feb) and the East Winds Film Festival.

You can pre-order the DVDs now directly from the Third Window Films Amazon Page.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

This Means War

Like a Boss

This Means War is probably one of the most deliberately misunderstood film in McG's filmography, probably perhaps he's fallen out of favour with many, like in M Night Shyamalan's case, where everything they touch gets slammed for any reason. This film may seem like it's a ripe piece of romantic comedy, but it celebrates Bromance quit unabashedly in spy versus spy fashion, and is more of a trip down the brotherly love avenue than one about two best friends trying their utmost in getting the girl of their dreams while sabotaging the other's chances, as the trailer will have you hoodwinked.

Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, two actors who are seeing their stock go up in Tinseltown recently, star as FDR and Tuck, two CIA operatives based in Los Angeles who are the best in the business (as always). They work well together in country and overseas, they track each other's movements, they cover each other's backs, in essence they know what the other stands for, and just how to provide support. For instance when Tuck decides to go meet up with a girl he knew from the internet, FDR is just around the corner in case his buddy meets up with a psycho and needs to bail. That's what best friends are for.

Tuck meets consumer product test company CEO Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) whose trash talking friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) created an online profile for her in a dating site that Tuck used. They meet, they like each other, but for the sake of plot convenience has Lauren bump into the persistent FDR, where at first they never had any chance of hooking up if not for Lauren to save some face when her ex boyfriend and his fiance come walking down the street. So begins the chase that you see in the trailer where the two men show off to each other the girl they are interested in wooing, except that the context was a little misplaced, with FDR at that point being but a little bit obnoxious about his pursuit of Lauren.

Written by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg from a story by the former and Marcus Gautesen, this is one of those narratives that you can whip up in 5 minutes on a computer program that automatically churns out screenplay with the input of certain keywords. Everything falls into place in very formulaic fashion from beginning right to the end, leaving little room for surprises or suspense. All the good gags can be found in the trailer, so don't hold your breath for something else to come up for laughs. It's entertainment boiled down to the lowest common denominator, so if you're in for something that's harmless and mindless, this will be it.

Don't expect anyone to lose out too, given that this has its intent to be a mass appeal crowd pleaser and knows better than to insult either fan base. Moreover, it's likely the agent representatives of the two male stars would have negotiated screen time, and who triumphs over whom, and with "Versus" type films amongst two equals, it's all mapped out eventually such that everyone wins in the end - this is no spoiler, but a given. There's a deliberation in keeping a character under wraps from the any preview, but once this character appears, you'd have guess how it's all going to pan out, from who's ending up with whom and how everything got resolved.

Still, there are the rare plus points. Technically there's a scene set up that weaved in and around Lauren's home while the two would be suitors independently infiltrates the place to set up a mother-load of bugging devices unknown to each other's presence, and you have to give credit for its meticulous planning and logistical set up for that one continuous tracking shot. The other point somehow boils down a little bit closer to home with the abuses civil servants find themselves getting into and caught. Both FDR and Tuck utilize national resources from million dollar drones to countless of colleague man hours simply to keep up with the shenanigans of the other camp, under the guise of surveying a potential person of interest, pardon the pun. If I were Director CIA, I'd have them all fired. While this is only a movie and shouldn't be taken seriously, I suppose who knows what goes on behind closed doors since there's no one watching the watchmen, and abuses like these can be exploited without anyone the wiser.

Resse Witherspoon still doesn't convince me that she has romantic lead qualities to make two hunks fall so hard for her, while Chris Pine and Tom Hardy looked more comfortable playing their roles opposite each other than with Witherspoon, making the bromance very much more interesting that the double date romance it was supposed to be. Throw in the rote thrash talking character whose vulgar dialogues serve only to bring in cheap laughs, and it's no wonder why many will roll their eyes at McG, wondering if that's really necessary. Til Schweiger got terribly wasted as the token villain with no personality, no threat and no purpose, only as fodder for our heroes to brush aside with ease.

That said, this is ultimately a film targeted at the Valentine's Day weekend crowd, so make love, not war. A lightweight date film that's perpetually stuck at first gear.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Love (爱 / Ai)

An Absolute Charm

This year's Valentine's Day has come and gone, but arguably the best film for the season was saved for last, making its premiere this week. Taiwanese films are on a roll these days, with greater awareness brought about by the success of You Are The Apple of My Eye that made more people sit up and take notice of its stories, but I thought that the filmmakers had upped their game with superb storytelling and technique these days that it's just hard to ignore film offerings that come our way.

Love belongs to that genre of romantic films that boasts of a stellar ensemble cast playing characters within their respective six (and likely a less) degrees of separation, with their carefully crafted ties all laid out to complicate matters yet provide interesting, individual perspectives. Doze Niu helms this effort and also plays one of the roles as a rich entertainment industry tycoon Lu whose relationship with Zoe Fang (Shu Qi) is heading for the rocks. Zoe lives a life leaching off rich men, but deep down desires that degree of independence if only she can find the courage to break out of her comfort zone. From these two characters the branches extend to Lu's daughter Ni (Amber Kuo) who finds out that her filmmaker wannabe boyfriend Kai (Eddie Pang) had impregnated her best friend Yijia (Ivy Chen), the latter whose brother Kuan (Ethan Juan) turns out to be sharing an innocent relationship with Zoe at the rooftop of his home where she can hang out and just be herself. Zoe's ex Mark (Mark Chao) who is also Lu's friend (yeah, the character of Zoe flits from one rich man to another) travels to find his roots in Beijing and sets off on the wrong foot with real estate agent Xiao Ye (Vicky Zhao), a single mom who links through an implied dotted line back to one of the mentioned characters,

That about lays out the skeleton of relationships that this story by Doze, Tseng Li-Ting and Qian Wang develops upon, covering a whole wide spectrum on its titular emotion put under the spotlight, but not without the usual ups and downs, of hurt and of satisfaction, of regrets and that whimsical feeling that everything will turn out just fine despite the odds. I suppose love, or being in love, with force some of the most positive feelings out of you, while those that fall out of favour, will naturally find life quite miserable, with the constant probing, lying, and the doing of dispicable things amongst the desperate. And it's not just romantic love on display here, but that between siblings, best friends, parent and child too, providing that holistic view of the emotion that at times get quite incomprehensible to grasp, with some relationships being complicated, or even so simple that you'd start to worry.

Technically, this film grabs you by the collar from the get go, with a remarkable and unforgettable continuous tracking shot for the entire opening credits where we get introduced to key characters as they get choreographed to get into one another's way. It's a logistical nightmare (although I do suspect that some editing cheats were being employed), but it came off its blocks really nicely to introduce us to its bevy of stars and teasing their respective fans of their idol's guaranteed appearance in the film. Director of Photography Lee Ping Bin is also one of the best in the business, capturing the stars at their best angles and making them look absolutely gorgeous.

But that aside, Love has its sprawling story to thank, being simple enough to follow despite its concurrent multiple narratives that weave in and out of each other, keeping pace and tempo at pitch perfectness and gelling everything into one complete, satisfying package. There's plenty of drama and comedy that spring up at unsuspecting moments to keep things light and moving along, and is done so naturally that they don't seem too forced, nor trying too hard, nor artificial. And the cast of veterans such as Doze himself, Vicky Zhao and Shu Qi were balanced by the relative newcomers who hold their own against their more experienced co-stars, never making some of their pair ups a sore discussion point, despite their obvious age gaps.

There were plenty of lovely moments in the film that regularly punctuates the narrative throughout, and some of my personal favourites involve the Ethan Juan-Shu Qi story arc, and that caustic interaction that's all too familiar amongst parents who bicker on the outside, but deep down inside containing some steadfast emotions built upon bedrock. One of the best romantic films to be released in recent years, Love truly epitomizes its namesake containing stories that are strong in its individual arcs as well as the sum of its parts, blessed with a powerhouse of who's who from both sides of the Chinese straits in delivering credible performances all round, bringing to life some of the best written characters for what's usually a fluffy film meant for a typical date outing. This film shows how quality can be injected into usually throwaway romantic comedies, but Love is definitely for keeps, and is highly recommended. Don't miss it!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Iron Lady

There Can Be Only One

If compared with a host of personality biographies put on film in recent years, The Iron Lady is probably one of the most unflattering of them all, having been made when the subject is still alive, though not in the pink of health, and having the condition of her dementia being portrayed on screen. But of course you can salute the filmmakers for their courage to portray the lows in the life of its protagonist as well as to celebrate her highs, but one wonders about the hurry to make into a film, the life and times of Britain's longest serving Prime Minister, and its first female one at that.

Perhaps there are challenges now faced in today's society that make people yearn for a time where leaders had guts to make tough decisions, and to see them through, having the gall to suffer no fools and as the film portrayed, literally pulled the country out of its problems by the scruff of its neck. It was the time of doing and not just talking, and a time of economic boom after a period of gloom. I grew up in the 80s in the time of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, and on the other side of the world powers had Gorbachev flying the Soviet flag in a period of cold war. I still remember I was in Malaysia on holiday when the news of Thatcher being kicked out filtered through, and was glued to the television to learn how she got ousted from power by members of her own Conservative Party.

The film opens with a very aged Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) buying milk from the neighbourhood grocer, with nobody batting an eyelid at who she once was at the height of her power. As we learn this caused a security frenzy around the house where she's kept under close care during her twilight years, with daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) soon present for a visit. We also learn that she's suffering from slight dementia, and hallucinates her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), interacting with him as if he's still by her side, to the bewilderment of others present in the room - but I must highlight here that this plot device served its intended purpose in carrying the narrative through, and through deft crafting on screen as well as editing, made it look like clockwork. The early dinner scene where she was asked of an opinion post Islamabad hotel bombing, was simply priceless to demonstrate she still had a keen mind and strong opinion, though the narrative also suggested speaking from experience rather than about the now.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd who also teamed up with Streep in the hit musical Mamma Mia!, the narrative here seemed to focus a lot more on Thatcher's present time rather than to provide that more conventional plotting that charts her rise to power as a politician. Influenced by her grocer father when young, we catch only glimpses of her attending his fiery speeches at townhalls, and soon developed a desire to follow in his footsteps in take affirmative action rather than to sit back and do nothing. It is this drive that defines her, so much so that everything else, including family, didn't really matter, especially when she aspires to get into the highest office in the land, if only to wake the others up. But she did, and if this was supposed to take its toil on her personal life and family relationships, it wasn't really well told or dwelled upon.

In fact the story by Abi Morgan just barely scratched the surface throughout Thatcher's very colourful career, and it was such a pity that no more time got devoted to provide some keen insights on those milestones and highlights. There's a fixation with wanting to show off aging makeup effects (and they were well done), but you'd feel for the rued opportunity in shedding a lot more light on Thatcher, with her multi-faceted character being summarized and montaged quite unceremoniously in the interest of time, thereby making light of situations such as the many strikes and protests from various quarters that would pepper her administration, the assassination attempt on her at a hotel, and of course the Falklands War and the heady 80s. There were also very short glimpses at her wit and sharpness in Parliament, although one could have wished there were more of such a showcase.

Through the help of makeup, prosthetics and costuming, Meryl Streep becomes Margaret Thatcher convincingly, and put up a commendable performance as the titular Iron Lady in getting things done her way, to the point of almost being a dictator of sorts within her own Cabinet, unwilling to listen to advice and never mincing her words when rebutting or commenting others, to the point that they may feel insulted. This comes at the height of her being PM, and also sowed the seeds of discord between herself and both her supporters and detractors. Every other cast member really didn't quite matter in a way each time Streep appears on screen and mesmerizes with her close mimicry of an historical figure. If only the lightweight narrative dropped its focus on the present for the past, and had a lot more depth and substance to keep up with her.

With Oscar season around the corner, it's quite the tough fight in the Best Actress category with Streep putting her best foot forward with this film, Glenn Close being nominated for her gender bender role, and Michelle Williams as another real life personality Marilyn Monroe turning heads as well. With no disrespect to the others, I feel these three have pulled ahead of the competition, although selecting the best amongst them is a very tough choice to make. May the best lady win, and in the meantime, despite its narrative flaws, Streep's performance alone is worth the price of an admission ticket.

3rd Singapore Short Film Awards (SSFA) 2012

The Substation and Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking are proud to announce the nominees for the 3rd Singapore Short Film Awards (SSFA), which received an outstanding 113 entries this year. 20 of the films have been nominated across 10 categories.

The SSFA, now in its third year, is an independent effort by two major Singapore film contributors – The Substation and Objectifs, and strives to showcase the best from the short filmmaking scene in Singapore, from first time filmmakers to veteran professionals, as evident in the nominees.

All film entries and nominees will be screened at The Substation Theatre from 5 to 11 March 2012. The full schedule is available here (pdf file). Admission is by donation. No advanced booking of tickets is necessary. All are welcome.

The Awards will be held on 10 March 2012 and is by invitation only. Filmmaker Kelvin Tong will honour the event as Guest-of-Honour.

And the nominees are:

Best Director
Godaizer – Hillary Yeo
Hentak Kaki – James Khoo
Bliss – Liang Xuan
The Hole – Tan Shijie
Lighthouse – Anthony Chen

Best Animation
A Cloudy Conundrum
Burger Burger
Tales of the Chugawagas

Best Fiction
Thin Air
The Hole

Best Documentary
Peace Be Upon You
Wild Dogs

Best Editing
Wild Dogs – Saravanan Sambasivam
Bliss – Liang Xuan
Existence – Jeanette Lim, Audrey Woon, Yap Jun Hua, Wallace Woon
Sanzaru – Nurul Ain Muslan
Sisters – Chen Junbin

Best Sound
Bliss – Jones Roma (Audio post, scoring and ending song ‘Mind Theater’)
Burger Burger – Huang Shicong, Gavin Tan Jun Jie
Sanzaru – Josephine Ng (Sound Editor), Calvin Phua, Jean Goh, Roy Ng Wee Kiat (Music)
The Hole – Fabrizio Paterlini (Music), Marc Wiltshire (Sound Recordist)

Best Art Direction
Godaizer – Hilary Yeo
Love in Every Genre – Kartini Saat
Mandy’s 8 Theories of Sleep – Roseane Kalavathi
Sanzaru – Ng Mun, Haslina Ismail

Best Cinematography
Bliss – Liang Xuan
Cut Adrift – Erwin Chua
Existence –Yap Jun Hua, Wallace Woon
Lighthouse – Benoit Soler
The Hole –Nathaniel Carton

Best Performance
First Breath After Coma – Marc Gabriel Loh (Fie)
Love in Every Genre – Yazid Jalil (Yazid)
Sisters – Molly Jan (Auntie)
Hentak Kaki – Michael Chua (Teck)
Bliss – Yobel Nathaniel (Nixon / Nick)

Best Script
Godaizer – Hillary Yeo
Sisters – Michael Tay
Hentak Kaki – James Khoo
Bliss – Sondy Crawfurd
The Hole – Tan Shijie
Lighthouse – Anthony Chen

Honorary Award
For outstanding contribution to the film community through short films
Lesley Ho

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3D

Here's Pissing All Over You Dweebs

Any chance of a revival would take a certain number of years for this stinker to settle and be forgotten before a proper reboot can be conducted. And it's always a pity when you see some innovative names attached to this project being exposed for being suspected hacks, that they need their future projects to be ten times more successful to put this behind them.

Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, or collectively better known as Neveldine/Taylor who were responsible for the crazy yet fun Crank movies, took over the helm of Ghost Rider from Mark Steven Johnson, yet failed to meet that 2007 film standards in terms of storytelling. Granted they seemed to have a lot of fun with the material in setting up what they thought were interesting camera angles and shots, but ultimately their lack of respect for and familiarity of the source material is telling, with the way the character, and the story got treated. David S. Goyer, responsible for the story and screenplay with additional inputs by Scott M. Gimple and Seth Hoffman, seemed adamant to earn this film the title of being the stinker film of the year, and amongst the worst of the lot of comic book superhero films out there. Which is a real pity.

The story is nothing more than generic involving yet another demonic child that Ghost Rider is made a proposition to protect so that he can earn a reversal of his cursed fortune. That would be quite a challenge if not for all the villains here to be so weak, my grandmother could have pulverized them all with her handy brolly. Making the hero all too powerful and invincible, only demonstrated the filmmaker's intent to dabble with the loads of special effects in the film to see what's the best way to make throwaway characters disappear on screen in the quickest of time, and bearing this fetish for wanting Nicolas Cage to behave like Jim Carrey's poor cousin.

It's one thing making a bad film, but it's another when a bad film is made to humiliate the ticket paying audience. Branding it as part of the Marvel Knights imprint for more mature audiences turn out to be the biggest joke here for the very juvenile way everything for treated here, which comes as a surprised since 2012 is expected to be a watershed year for comic book films, only to have Ghost Rider piss on the parade like the moment that you see in the trailer (with a still reproduced here) that got repeated in the film proper. Twice. Some films are so bad that they're fun to watch, but this one is so bad it actually hurts and insults your intelligence. Do yourselves a favour and skip it.

You can read my review of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Albert Nobbs

I Can't See Through the Makeup

Oscar buzz means Albert Nobbs gets a closer look with its leading lady Glenn Close in the title role, and Janet McTeer getting herself nominated for a supporting actress award as well. And interesting enough, both play gender bender roles in a film set in the posh hotel in period Ireland, with an introduction that starkly laid out the social class divide of the time, and the norms and expectations that exist between the haves, and the have nots. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (whose last film was Mother and Child), Albert Nobbs boasts a stellar cast including the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson and even Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a very bit role of an aristocrat, and it is their fine performance all round that lifted the narrative that is steeped on the notion of secrets.

This film will definitely appeal to the niche LGBT crowd, given the subject matter where Albert Nobbs is Albert only to allow a woman, brutally violated in the past, to come out into society and earn an independent living all by herself. She cannot be who she is, and has to be someone whom she is not, but even then comes struggles of finding attractiveness in someone of the same gender, that of a fellow colleague cum chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) whose flirty nature finds the attention not of a rich man to whisk her off her feet and into a palace of riches, but by Aaron Johnson's Joe the handyman who knocks her up and complicates her employment status in the later act.

The narrative by Istvan Szabo's story is based upon George Moore's short story and adapted into a screenplay with Glenn Close's involvement, and is a story that's deeply weaved around the different relationships amongst the characters. There's the friendship forged between Albert and McTeer's painter character Hubert Page, who got engaged by the hotel for a job and had to put up together with Albert in his room, and for deeply buried secrets to be revealed, one which in a way inspires Albert to be less inhibited when inadvertently seeking out someone with whom he can possibly spend the rest of his life with given his inching toward his goal to become a shopkeeper.

Which brings us to the core love triangle of the story involving Albert's love for Helen, who in turn is in a relationship with the roguish Joe. This provides some form of a contrast between the usual heterosexual romance between Joe and Helen, and that of the same sex one between Albert and Helen, though I would have thought the latter came across more like a sisterly bond being created especially since beneath Helen's tough, happy go lucky exterior comes a certain vulnerability that can be exploited. Albert, being Albert for so long, assumes the very protective role of a guardian of sorts, and with Helen we see shades of inhibitions being stripped away as he discovers some inner happiness which had eluded him for some time.

Glenn Close may be getting a lot of accolades for her performance, and it's true she disappears into her role straddling between that of a woman and a man whom she spends a lot more time under the guise, complete with deep voice, but I thought this naturalness was somewhat a given since Close had been playing this role on stage years before. Mia Wasikowska continues in her hot streak playing diverse roles in her career so far, although I felt this one was probably the least challenging of the lot. But the one who stole the show was Janet McTeer's gruff portrayal of Hubert, stealing the show from under everyone's nose even with her limited screen time, and will probably put up quite the fight come awards season.

Besides fine acting, Albert Nobbs also has excellent production values that every self-respecting period film will focus on having in order to recreate and bring to life the littlest of details to transport any audience back to the late 19th century. You may have to suspend disbelief if you suppose the two ladies in men's disguise should have easily been found out, but like how the characters keep things under wraps, it's exploration of various relationships that is the film's kept under very poignant drama.

Singapore Short Films at Cathay Cineplexes

From December 2011 to March 2012 the Singapore Film Comission (SFC) is proud to bring Singapore short films to Cathay Cineplexes. These six heart-warming stories centered on human relationships are made by Singapore’s talented independent filmmakers. They have been presented at various festivals around the world, such as the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Singapore Short Film festival. Each film shall precede a main feature during its run under Cathay Cineplexes’ premier label, The Picturehouse Selection. Read more about the screenings here!

Release Dates

22 Dec 2011 – BEAM by Lawrence Ong, followed by THE ARTIST by Michel Hazanavicius

05 Jan 2012 – SONS by Royston Tan, followed by SARAH’S KEY by Gilles Paquet-Brenner

26 Jan 2012 – AH MA by Anthony Chen, followed by THE MONK by Dominik Moll

16 Feb 2012 – THIEVES aka CURIAN by Eysham Ali, followed by ALBERT NOBBS by Rodrigo Garcia

08 Mar 2012 – SINK by Kirsten Tan, followed by A SEPARATION by Asghar Farhadi

29 Mar 2012 – MASALA MAMA by Michael Kam, followed by The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar and Antoine Delesvaux

Do provide your comments on this initiative by participating in this short survey! The survey by SFC will take less than a minute but will go a long way in the understanding and supporting of the Singapore film industry.

Thank you for supporting local films!

Monday, February 13, 2012


Let's Play Statistics!

I'm not much of a baseball fan but a football fan, an armchair one at that, but one can appreciate the sports management function especially if one has dabbled in fantasy football/baseball/any other ball game with simulation games out there that one can partake in building a dream team to go up against the computer, or other like-minded players around the world. And key to that entertainment is to see how statistics get to play such an important game function, especially when one picks a club of lower stature to manage, with finances almost always being a constraint, and with a team of 25 to fill, one has to prioritize, strategize, and frankly play it smart in order to steer clear of the owner's wrath when results churned out aren't favourable.

And that means negotiating with pesky agents, setting deals, watching that bottom-line, setting the player's training agenda, determine what positions they play in, in-game substitutions, tactics, the works. And sometimes you're looking for a few key statistics to get an average player in to shore up something weak about the team, and they do wonders. But no this is not Football Manager the game, but Moneyball the movie.

A biographical sports management film based upon the book by Michael Lewis titled "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game", it really is about trying to play catch up with the big boys, who have a lot more resources that bring in a certain benchmarked level of success, while those with modest budgets have to struggle and be thankful for just being given the opportunity to play in the same league. It's about the story of Oakland Athletics' 2002 season under general manager Billy Beane (who still manages the team up until today) who had chosen to use the unorthodox method of utilizing sabermetrics developed by Assistant General Manager Peter Brand (Jonah Hill in a rare, non comedic role) to analyze various statistics to determine which players to draft into the team, and how best to deploy them.

Even if baseball is not your game, fret not as you'll not get alienated by the surprisingly little use of jargon here; a basic knowledge will do you just fine, as this story is more about the human condition, and the challenge of human judgement versus mathematical statistics applied in a season long sport in order to bring out the best of available resources, and hopefully not only to translate that into trophies, but to revolutionize the way the game is to be played given a disparity of resources.

Sort of like saying how the 99% can get back and even the playing field when up against that elite 1%. Highly recommended, with an absolutely strong performance by Brad Pitt in a long while.

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


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wedding Diary (结婚那件事 / Jie Huen Na Jian Shi)

Ah Niu Vs Tender Grass

Besides film distribution, one of the newest kid on the block, Clover Films, is into film production as well, and rarely do you have a local company do both. In recent years it had made a number of co-productions with various companies from across the Causeway, with a regional cast to boot too. Other than Romancing in Thin Air, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and Love (Ai) which will be released next week, its The Wedding Diary joins a crowded Valentine's Day lineup of films on offer for dates (after postponing from its initial Nov 2011 release). Reuniting with Malaysian singer Ah Niu, whose debut feature film Ice Kacang Puppy Love was released by Clover Films a few years back, The Wedding Diary turned out to be a rather delightful, light-hearted romp that deals with what everyone in this region would have experienced one way or another,the logistical nightmare of a Chinese wedding.

For the Chinese, the traditions and customs (that you can get a glimpse of in the film) of what would be a significant milestone in life, somehow got pared down to very plain economic terms given our increased cost of living in recent times. The anecdotes here may be nothing you've not already heard before, but got compiled and summarized in comic, kitschy terms through the use of animation, as we witness Ah Niu's nerdy protagonist Wei Jie getting married to the gorgeous Zhi Xin (Elanne Kwong). Instead of enjoying his moment, he bears a worrisome face, constantly reminiscing just how he got himself into this economic fix, and worried about the bill to pay at the end of the day, made worst by the crashing of a grand crystal chandelier.

The first half of the film was the delightful part, with loads of self-deprecating comedy that suited Ah Niu's laid back, Mr Average tonal delivery really well. Wei Jie recounts the faithful days of his courtship of Zhi Xin starting from their chance meeting, only to realize the slew of problems to come when she's the only daughter of a famously filthy rich real estate agent called Colin Chong (Zhu Houren) and wife (Kara Hui), parents of his lady love who had deceived them that she was pregnant in order to force their hand into allowing her to marry the honest looking Wei Jie.

There's a saying in Mandarin about bamboo or wooden doors that should be facing each other, and that couldn't be more pronounced here, as the scriptwriters took to the field in contrasting and comparing not only the family backgrounds of Wei Jie and Zhi Xin, but took a broad side swipe with the Malaysia and Singapore relations since both parties come from either side of the Causeway. There could be some subtext hidden though not fully exploited for maximum impact, preferring to keep things rather cordial and family friendly. As it turns out, Wei Jie is the son of a fisherman widower in Penang (played by Marcus Chin in one of his best roles yet), and the stage is set for some serious wedding negotiations and post wedding bickering, almost always falling back toward their backgrounds when either side seems to be losing the argument at hand.

I suppose many can empathize with the protagonist, wanting to rely on his own two feet rather than to think of his matrimony as the highway to riches. You know that the plot is lost when a desired simple wedding had to give way to a 100 table wedding banquet in Singapore that Wei Jie has to pay for, and this provides the catalyst to the series of troubles that Wei Jie finds himself getting into and sets him off the wrong foot when he begins to lie to his wife, at times through the no good advice brought about by best friend (Shaun Chen) from trying their luck at the casino, to running away with a bag full of money – this episode proved to be one of the zaniest moments in the film with the involvement of John Cheng parodizing his often played gangster/loan shark role in movies.

The second half seemed to pack a lot more subplots to beef up the drama in the narrative, expanding upon the couple's parents and their love lives, one obviously done as a clear product placement to its watch sponsor. So instead of having just 1 romantic relationship in the film, this one had a total of 3, with Colin Chong and wife having this constant cold war in private, and that of a fisherman harbouring a long held secret behind the ladies watch he always has on his wrist. If anything, this half emphasizes on just what true love is all about, and provides a reflective view for the lead characters in their days-old union, to decide upon which direction they would prefer to have their relationship go toward.

Director Adrian Teh's film has this light hearted feel to what I thought was the irony behind any couple's supposedly happiest day of their lives, brought about by societal pressures in wanting to keep up with the Joneses, and in truth really is a union of not just a couple, but of strangers on both sides of the family who usually call the shots, made worst if they come with acidic tongues in the guise of being well-meant. Both Ah Niu and Elanne Kwong, although an industry veteran but with only bit film roles to her name, shine in their respective roles to make this a funny yet surprisingly poignant film for the Valentine's season. Recommended!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Old Ginger

What a blast. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who did the acclaimed horror film Let the Right One In, followed up that effort with yet another adaptation of a novel, this time written by the famed John le Carre, who himself was a real life British intelligence operative who left the service to become a full time writer. His name may not ring a bell at first, but he's responsible for countless of stories that involve spy vs spy, and in the last decade had his stories The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, amongst others, made into movies. His main protagonist of George Smiley is to him like how probably Jack Ryan is to Tom Clancy, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first in what would be known as the Karla Trilogy, and I'm hoping the rest could be made as well, if this is indicative of how the rest can be.

I have to admit that the film moves at meditative pace, quite unlike most spy films which tend to focus on either the intrigue behind the politicking, or the action sequences. This is like an anti-thesis to the Bond films, where the figures that lurk in the shadows, stay in the shadows, rather than to blow their cover at each possible opportune. The narrative moves forward and backward very freely, and it's up to your own devices to piece things together in chronological order. But Alfredson does this without alienating or frustrating the viewer, and in fact putting scenes in their place so that they make sense, and provide you with a little bit of fun and work to figure out the complex web of relations and accounts that already exists, putting you in the driver's seat just as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) gets tasked to try and figure out the identity of a mole in the top levels of the British intelligence service.

Assembling a small crack team that he could trust, the crux of the story is like an investigative drama, where suspects and witnesses get paid an imposing visit by the unsmiling (contrary to his last namesake) Smiley whom you know brings about a certain gravitas in his presence, compelling one to cooperate rather than to go against. Gary Oldman, when his character George Smiley is on to you, there's no escape and even without firing a shot his deep stare and monotonous voice hardly betrays any emotion, and will make anyone piss in their pants out of unfounded fear. In many instances one will find it perplexing why he goes about in his investigations in a certain peculiar way, and only when it's revealed much later on that it all made sense, tying in with the way the scenes got presented together, sometimes without very clear answers, relying on your ability to put 1 and 1 together.

To say anything more will be to betray the necessity of the viewer to pay really close attention to every word said, and every scene being played out. There are plenty of thick dialogue in the film that calls for your utmost attention, with failure being to miss out on pertinent clues in this cat and mouse hunt, played out when one has to operate from the outside to probe into an office one held before, to look for clues and evidence without alerting the proverbial snake until the time is right. And playing probable snakes are a myriad of characters, with some of the best ensemble casting that any film will find envious of, such as Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Oldman himself, amongst others.

With the spate of public officials being caught with their pants down in various scandals here in Singapore, this film couldn't be more apt when one thinks about the kind of probes that get sanctioned in order to weed out the rot right at the top, such as the appointment of a commission of inquiry to go in with authority, and with a grave mission at hand to seek accountability. In essence that's what Smiley had to deal with, being tasked out of retirement to do just that and get down to the bottom of things, with what I thought was actually a brilliant masterstroke by the mole to do things in a certain personal way that will cast doubts into the mind of its possible, powerful adversary, thinking multiple steps ahead in deliberately measured chess game. And the fact is that the story is also quite close to real life, being le Carre's novelized account of his own experiences of the 50s and 60s scandal that revealed the Cambridge Five traitors within Britain.

In most real life spy versus spy cases, there's always a distinct lack of pomp or to keep things under wraps for fear of having one's cover blown apart, or jeopardizing the prospects of other agents. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also subscribes to this mantra that shuns big movement and action, but in its place comes the real treasure of the intricate work done to uncover leaks and spies with tools of utmost secrecy, and diplomacy to a certain extent where deals get cut and made. It's old school spy 101, but has more than enough fuel in its tank to warrant repeat viewings just to catch all the subtleness and complexities. Highly recommended as the thinking man's spy thriller!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Billionaire / Top Secret (วัยรุ่นพันล้าน / Wai Roon Pan Lan)

Tout to Success!

It's an open secret I admire the slate of films put out by Thai production house GMM Tai Hub, or GTH as it's also known, from its horror films to its recent efforts to be more complete through the tackling of other film genres, with a degree of success I must say, with Suckseed being one of my favourite films of the year 2011. Pachara Chirathivat, who had a breakthrough role in Suckseed, continues his streak with GTH's biographical film Top Secret / The Billionaire, playing Top Ittipat, the teen businessman whose company Tao Kae Noi's product, the seaweed snack, proved to be such a hit, it made him one of the world's youngest billionaire. All thanks to the humble snack done right.

Films that chart the rise and/or fall of real businesses also pique my interest, such as David Fincher's take on Facebook with The Social Network, and my recently reviewed film on Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or fictional ones such as films like Wall Street, or Margin Call. While we may marvel at Top's success at bringing something quite insignificant, and making it a top seller, the story behind his product and company has enough juice to power a feature film. Obviously dramatized, it still made for an engaging watch as we chart his path to eventual success through the school of really hard knocks, which provided natural themes such as determination and perseverance that hold so through in his really remarkable journey.

As a student, Top doesn't have much success, preferring to spend his time playing online games, and finding it a lucrative offline business when hard to come by artifacts that his avatar possessed can be traded for real cash. Seduced by the quick buck, his semester performance becomes indirectly proportional to the cash he makes as a online game artifact trader, so much so that he succumbs to the false sense of invincibility, thinking that such an activity is sustainable in the long run. Despite his parent's best intentions to keep him at school, he constantly rebels against them through his financial independence the creation of more businesses, even relenting to do something dispicable as stealing an amulet from his dad to fuel his obsession. Things aren't as rosy at home, and soon Top discovers that his family is in a debt of millions, hence resolving to pull through this ordeal and to make it his personal mission to clear his family debt.

But for all his street smarts and demonstration of keen business acumen, what Top doesn't possess is luck, and being a greenhorn in the business world, gets swindled and bullied at every available opportunity that others glaringly exploit. It's painful, but I suppose what doesn't kill you, or bankrupt you, only makes you stronger, and more experienced to see the next neon Danger sign a lot quicker. Following Top's adventures in the business arena made it look like How to Do Business 101, with examples in tow so that any aspiring businessman in the audience could learn from and avoid similar pitfalls in the real world. But what director Songyos Sugmakanan steered clear of is to make this film a boastful one, after all in real life success has already been achieved, and the film rightfully centered around, and more interestingly so too, the struggles of one teenage boy and his fledging company.

It's not all work and no play in the film, where it's easy to be all serious and grim. Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit ensured that there were enough lightly comical moments in the story through Top's early days as a wannabe seller of DVD players, to a Kao Lak (Water Chestnut) pushcart hawker - well actually his partner in crime (played by Somboonsuk Niyomsiri who was greatly endearing in a rather paternal role) did most of the work while Top supervises - and how he develops his business skills mostly by chance, or from blatantly asking and learning the ropes from others, to observing how other successful businesses operate. What I liked about the story as a tale of never giving up, is how easy one lose hope when the going gets tough and rough, with the filmmakers quite constantly having Top communicate with his parents who either ask him about his schoolwork (which he had abandoned for work), or to give everything up and join them in China.

Pachara Chirathivat's charisma is what carried the film through, and if he's not already hot property after Suckseed, this film, clearly his vehicle, should seal the deal quickly and cement him as one of the rising Thai movie stars to watch. With his windswept hair, he's a natural either when goofing about, or being earnestly serious in wanting to do things the way he's visioned to, as we see the stubborn, determined businessman slowly emerge from within.

Perhaps the only weak spot is the romantic subplot that Top has with Lin (Walanlak Kumsuwan), inevitably having to be put into the film because it's her introduction to the seaweed that provided him the catalyst of an idea to go for broke with the product, dabbling in a little bit of research and development, and pouring all the last drop of resources he has into production and marketing. Lin's presence provided the teenage businessman with another need to sacrifice something a lot closer to the heart, but somehow the romance itself wasn't strong to begin with, so the hurt here didn't make much of an emotional impact than it had set out to try and achieve.

With great all round production values and themes that are easily identifiable and applicable across various life scenarios, I know it's early in the year, but this film writes itself into the shortlist of being one of the best so far for its inspirational message. Highly recommended!


And the first thing I did after coming out of the movie, is to hit the nearest 7-11 and hunt down a packet of Tao Kae Noi made seaweed snack. I enjoy the occassional seaweed snack but never really paid much attention to the brand. Now I will, and what could possibly be my first conscious crack at a Tao Kae Noi product:

And the verdict: it's really yummy, with a considerable portion packed into an average sized package. And like the characters in the film, I too found myself licking my fingers.
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