Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SPEC - Heaven (劇場版 SPEC~天~ / Gekijyohan SPEC ~Ten)

Stand Off

I have to admit that the first time I saw this film, I couldn't last more than 20 minutes on it, partly because it was viewed from an aircraft's inflight entertainment system on a 10-inch monitor, and partly because what transpired didn't quite have anything to do with its synopsis. SPEC - Heaven draws heavily from its television series on which it is adapted from, continuing the story from that point as with how some other Japanese feature films have done, and comes with the requisite background that you should have already established from the series, spending no time in bringing you up to speed on the characters and their motivations, other than some very quick flashbacks.

The premise will intrigue just about anyone, since the prologue spent time in explaining the three secrets of the Fatima apparitions, and setting up the third one which is quite unexplained, for the story. However, this turned out to be a complete cop out, because nowhere in the film is this referenced again, until the end credits, through a series of still drawings. It's quite the pity though, because it would have been quite intriguing to watch what the filmmakers here could have spun from their imagination.

What we have instead is an investigations by the leading, bickering duo of Saya Toma (Erika Toda), a female detective with an incredibly high IQ, and her partner Takeru Sebumi (Ryo Kase), a career detective. For the uninitiated, they were introduced in a very quirky manner beginning with their building of toy models, before being given a case involving the mystery behind mummified bodies being found on board a luxury cruiser in the ocean. So the chase is afoot, it seems.

Only that it didn't turn out to be half as interesting or promising as you would think it could. A little digging into what this series is about, draws up quite the blank answer, not having watched any episodes from the drama. As far as what I can infer, "SPEC" seems to be a little bit like the X-Files, dealing with unknown criminals who bear certain special mutant-like abilities. And this required the stretching of a bit of imagination, because the investigative duo hardly have any special prowess, but yet were able to fend off really aggressive psychic, or physical attacks.

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, responsible for films such as the 20th Century Boys trilogy, and my favourite film Beck, seemed to take his fractured timeline a little too literally, bouncing the film back and forth in time which didn't come with much purpose other than to try and set up some suspense (which fizzled out) in letting on a finale, and how the film would progress to that point. And the finale was also perplexing, suggesting a continuation into a sequel, done in segments that made it seem the filmmakers were reluctant to call it quits at the end of this one. If anything, this was really like 20th Century Boys, starting off really brightly, but fizzled out toward the end.

Still, there were enough crowd pleasing moments interspersed throughout absurd situations, and mild comedy that ventured into slapstick territory. There were numerous illogical moments passing off as comedy, with big, fantastical action sequences showcasing the multitude of special effects, especially when characters exhibit unique abilities. One that stood out involved Madam Yang and Madam Yin (Yûko Asano) in her battle with Sebumi and Toma, with the enemy being the personification of fire and ice, and everything really got thrown into the fray, complete with an extremely gory moment, and bewildering moves that will make you wonder if SPEC - Heaven could throw up any larger surprises than the suitcase utilized here.

Supporting characters come and go, and there's a nagging suspicion due to the fact that they could have come with baggage from the series, and being suddenly introduced, had mixed things up too much, akin to being invited to a party, but not knowing any other people invited, who tend to stick to their own cliques. Still, judging by the response during the screening, fans will certainly lap this up as it continues from where they had last left off on television, but unfortunately for the rest of us, you need to possess plenty of patience in order to stick through to the end.

SPEC - Heaven opens exclusively at Filmgarde Cineplex.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Three Stooges

That's The Way We Roll

The Farrelly brothers Bobby and Peter finally, after a string of comedies from Dumb and Dumber to Hall Pass, have a crack at one of the holy grails of American comedy The Three Stooges, given the remake fever going around, and yes, this is probably the only way that The Three Stooges film would be made, with slapstick humour and plenty of extreme physical comedy that the trio is known for. Like one of the lines in the movie, this film is really dim of wit, but captures so effortlessly the classical moments that define the Stooges' legacy.

There's really little story here, which revolved around the Stooges - Larry (Sean Hayes), Curly (Will Sasso) and Moe (Chris Diamantopoulos) - being brought up at an orphanage run by nuns - Jane Lynch as Mother Superior, Larry David as Sister Mary-Mengele (yes you read that right, as comic fodder of course), and an unbelievably slim Jennifer Hudson as Sister Rosemary - only for the Stooges' dangerous shenanigans to be bleeding the orphanage, forcing it to close in about 30 days time. Unless of course, someone comes up with about 800 over thousand dollars to keep it going. So the trio sets off into the real world to try and make some money, encountering the evil Lydia (Sofia Vergara) who's hatching a plan to bump off her rich husband.

That's the gist of the storyline, together with the theme about family and togetherness that surprisingly worked very well, dealing with Moe's botched attempt at getting adopted at age 10, which was funny as hell, yet moving at the same time. But let's not kid ourselves, we're definitely not here to watch The Three Stooges go all melodramatic. We're here to witness them go on a comedic romp where danger is nothing but an understatement when these guys are put into any scenario. Nothing is sacred, and with the Farrelly's input, the usual toilet humour get their air time as well.

But seriously (erm...), nothing works better than Moe, Larry and Curly going up against one another in Looney Tunes style, complete with rubberized equipment and sound effects - The Farrelly's even got to warn everyone not to follow their antics, for fear that we get caught up in comedic euphoria and start mimicking what we see on screen. Mimicry is what the actors here did best, together with the top notch costuming department who made Hayes, Sasso and Diamantopoulous look exactly like their legendary counterparts who propelled The Three Stooges to become household names. And kudos too to the actors in being just like the Stooges I remembered, voicing their roles, engaging in physical, slapstick comedy and probably earning a new generation of fans while at it too.

It's not without some flaws, such as the very obvious use of dummies for the more extreme stunts, but I suppose that's all part of the charm in finally making this film a reality, where at one point in time was stuck in development hell with some big names attached to star. The filmmakers went with relative unknowns, and it worked wonders in allowing the characters of Larry, Curly and Moe to shine again, without being unnecessarily upstaged by the names of well known comedians. I've grown up watching the black and white episodes of The Three Stooges on television before I head out to school each morning, and the Farrelly's even adopted presenting this film in three episodes of about half hour each, which I felt was a nice touch.

If you're in to laugh yourself silly at the theatres, then this modern version of The Three Stooges is your pick!

Friday, July 27, 2012


It's Gonna Tickle

It's always amazing to learn how medical science has developed over the many decades with new discoveries, treatments and cures, and back in the late 19th Century, female hysteria was thought to be treatable in what is known as the pelvic massage. Which yes, in other words, masturbation, where in what this film had depicted, having a doctor perform the act on your behalf, with nothing sexual, but purely as a means of therapy which was hard on the fingers, and satisfaction measured by the achieving of an orgasm.

Written by Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer from an original story by Howard Gensler, Hysteria would like you to believe it's based on a true story, loosely of course, about how the vibrator actually came to fruition. In fact, it paints a more hilarious look at what came before that contraption actually became reality, and lo and behold, little do we know the humble beginnings of a technological marvel, like all things, stem from a problem with the manual method. Too much of a good thing, led to hand cramps in this case. What more when Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a handsome doctor with a penchant to help to sick, becomes a popular go-to healer to help hysterical women keep their condition under control. An ability he is sought for, until his hand becomes sore.

With the, erm, pleasures obtained outside of the home and as part of medical treatment, Mortimer's practice under the private clinic of Dr Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) enabled both men to push forth the boundaries for treating hysteria. What more, Robert Dalrymple is also on the lookout for a possible successor to his esteemed, elite and lucrative clinic, and has daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) as carrot should he find an heir apparent to whom he can also give away Emily's hand in marriage to. And rounding up the Dalrymples is Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Emily's sister who's the exact opposite in character.

Hysteria packed a lot into its narrative, from issues like the class divide, as well as a romance that has Mortimer being drawn to the two sisters for different reasons - one to up his social standing and is a natural progression to further his career ambitions, while the outspokenness of the other, in being able to hold an intelligent conversation, balanced with a heart of gold in wanting to help the less fortunate, and is not afraid to stand firm on her convictions. What more, a proposition to allow Mortimer to put his skills into real, practical use, may be too good to be true, and you can see the appeal here, in breaking with conventional norms and stepping out to do what you truly believe in.

So outside of what makes this film sexy, and comedic at the same time, is a strong underlying theme about the social condition of the era, with woman's rights being non existent, and on the cusp of a revolution with forward thinkers gaining their ground a step at a time, probably in some ways mirroring the liberation in sexuality as well, with the advent of a device that can be procured and used in private, compared to having visit the doctor's, which I have to admit provided plenty of laughs even though they are fairly tame in treatment.

The story may play out in expectant terms, but the ensemble cast is the appeal as well. Hugh Darcy may not be a big name in this part of the world, but surely his turn as the doctor here will win him some admirers. Maggie Gyllenhaal didn't have a role that can accentuate her already sterling filmography, but with her character becomes the live-wire of the movie, catalyzing plenty of ideas that we already are familiar with, but are quite abhorred in that era. Jonathan Pryce plays the overbearing patriarch with aplomb, while Rupert Everett has a small role as the eccentric tycoon Edmund St. John-Smuthe who has engineering responsibilities and credited with the creation of a device that had a different use, only for Mortimer Granville to chance upon an opportunity when used in a separate way.

Labelled as one of the best selling adult toys, the vibrator has come a long way from the images and stills of those designed in the early stage, so stay tuned during the end credits for that educational session of how designs evolved from humble beginnings, together with some of the kinkiest descriptions to market the product. Definitely highly recommended, and may just creep into my shortlist as one of the best this year!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Master and Apprentices

I never am quite the foodie, and never cared too much about Michelin Guide rated restaurants around the world. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi has made me think twice, that in my lifetime I just might afford that 30000 Yen meal prepared by one of the best, if not THE best sushi master around, and his team comprising of his eldest son and apprentices who relentlessly work at perfecting and continuously improving upon their skills and gastronomical offering in the humble looking food blessed with delicious flavours. And there's not much of a secret to their success, other than using nothing but the finest and freshest of ingredients, backed by an uncompromising philosophy of hard work and consistency.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is like a biographical film, and more. It chronicles the humble beginnings of chef Jiro Ono, recognized as a national treasure in Japan for his bringing of honor to Japanese cuisine, and peers into his professional work ethics that defines a perfectionist. And these lessons learnt apply to more than just sushi preparation and presentation, but are sound lessons not only about wanting to do well, but to excel in what one does. It boils down to pride in one's work, and reminds of how one should be chasing excellence and not success, since the latter is something that will automatically follow once the former is achieved.

And success is something that Jiro's Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo has garnered with its Michelin Guide Three Stars rating, but the chef is hardly stopping at being satisfied with that. There are plenty of interview segments that has the master providing anecdotes that nullifies the usually stern looking demeanour he has when wanting to do the best for his diners. With only ten seats in his shop, it's little wonder about the attention that's being paid to the idiosyncrasies of each diner, with little unsaid touches that make the experience unique and unforgettable, though some may say it's kinda stressful to be eating there.

But make no mistake, the experience is something one should be looking at, and David Gelb's film is like a walking menu of some of the best on offer at the restaurant. The cinematography here is simply astounding and beautiful, adding a dimension to the individual, intricately prepared sushi pieces up close, that you can almost smell and taste what it may have smelled and tasted like. And that's not all, with Gelb being very conscious at painting a very romantic, rhythmic pace for the restaurant interior, and the chefs and apprentices in slow motion was pure poetry, akin to the need to slow down when dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro in order to savour the food, and to take in the experience completely. Watching the film on an empty stomach, is like playing with fire and seeking to be gastronomically tempted. Like the sushi on display, this film is kept simple in presentation, yet powerful in its narrative, stuffed with juicy episodes and anecdotes, yet minimalist in covering its key components in under 90 minutes.

To balance what would be talking heads, Gelb's documentary ventures out to catch glimpses of Jiro Ono outside of the restaurant in his rare days off, with celebration and recognition of those who had made him successful. The almost still shot of his entire team flanking him, brought nothing less than the majestic, clockwork effort everyone chips in, with screen time also devoted to key suppliers (and reason enough to venture into the auctions at the famed Tsukiji Fish Market), whom Jiro has to trust to make decisions on purchasing, pricing, stocking and delivering nothing but the best, from the fish, right down to the rice. Experts in their own field, you cannot help but to feel a sense of professional politeness amongst their interaction, and think it's a Japanese thing, but it's true that one should not forget those who had helped in any way in one's ascension to success. Yet another lesson learnt with some subtlety.

The best though, came out of the blue. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is really an exercise into continuity, and the leaving behind of a legacy with the hopes in an Asian context that one's descendants continue with the good work and goodwill already established, to see something so painstakingly created, and sustained, having a life of its own. Gelb's film dedicates a good portion of the film to Jiro Ono's two sons, one who's running the branch at Roppongi Hills (and a Michelin Guide Two Stars, no less), and the elder one at the Ginza outlet, according to tradition, who will inherit the main venue when the inevitable happens. Talk about pressure, and the long shadow that would be cast for one to try and get out of. And there's a surprise installed that provided something of a sucker punch, that affirms Sukiyabashi Jiro, is under fine hands indeed.

It takes more than a decade to learn the ropes, and many more years of hard work and dedication, which to Jiro Ono is a never ending journey of improvement, to become a sushi master, and Gelb's film masterfully captures key aspects of this profession of dedication, with lessons in life never sounding preachy at any point. With good food and well placed humour, Jiro Dreams of Sushi more than deserves a five star film rating, and is definitely one of the best I've seen this year. Now to put some money aside so that the next trip to Tokyo can bring me either to the Roppongi or Ginza outlets.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

The Map to the Kingdom

Mention Wes Anderson, and you'd just about know what to expect from this auteur in his films. There are the little quirks that come with almost each of his characters, set against some of the most absurd elements or scenes, but what jumps out at you for the instant recognition of an Anderson movie, is its technical aspect, with his trademarks peppered all over. The facial close ups, the linear tracking shots, the colours, the slow motion. All which Moonrise Kingdom also possess, along with a cast list reuniting him with familiar faces such as the now reclusive Bill Murray.

Its casting makes it almost like a no brainer for the opening night at the Cannes Film Festival, with the likes of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Frances McDormand and Harvey Keitel being headlines, and an ensemble that others can only drool at. Undoubtedly they will be key draws for audiences to this film, even if they are not familiar with Anderson's filmmaking or narrative style. I suspect however, with this more accessible story, he may just win over some fans to go look at his filmography.

Set in the 1960s, the tale centers around two kids who made a pact a year ago to run away together, and the execution of that plan now. And in their adventures, they remind us of a time when we were children with little cares that bog down adults in their world, living in our own little imaginary tangent, while the adults begin to go about their frantic search to bring us back to reality. And in a Wes Anderson movie, this comes with comedy, and striking visuals that bring scenes to life, designed in picturesque fashion that you can just freeze frame any scene, and admire the artistry.

And for a film about kids, debutants Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman now propel themselves into recognition for a job well done, effectively taking us on their characters' adventures about first love, rebellion, and are just a charm to watch in their shenanigans for the screen. While one can recognize a Wes Anderson film just because, it is his discovery and casting of these two that makes Moonrise Kingdom such an engaging watch. Highly recommended!

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


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Four (四大名捕 / Si Da Ming Pu)


I suppose most folks will associate The Four with TVB's 2008 television series with Raymond Lam in the lead role as Heartless, who in this big screen version undergoes a change in gender. Not something unusual, with many films out there taking liberties in casting, from Japan's Space Battleship Yamato to Hollywood's Battlestar Galactica. Based on the martial arts novel by Wen Rui'an entitled The Four Constables, The Four is the genre film that sees a current resurgence in popularity given Tsui Hark's acclaimed Detective Dee paving the way for fantasy based epics complete with CG (sometimes overdone), and an ensemble cast to draw the crowds in.

First, to get one of the major negative points out of the way. Whoever directed and had a hand at editing the very first big action sequence, deserves to get his or her head checked, and then shot at. The major misconception adopted was that fast-paced editing, with every shot lasting mere milliseconds, and flitting amongst countless of characters, even for a flash of the eye, does not get interpreted as fast paced. What this only achieves, is to irritate the audience, since everything's a blur, and nobody can see anything with everything whizzing by, and the camera work not helping. Perhaps it's to capture the adrenaline rush of the moment, but seriously, it just demonstrates amateur skills at play to mask poorly shot martial arts, or just plain incompetence on the filmmakers' part.

Thankfully, that was the only badly done fighting scene, with subsequent ones picking up in design, pace, and editing to provide a decent semblance of who's battling whom. The Four has a shaky start, but it improves from there, so between the two directors in Gordon Chan and Janet Chun, the latter having cut her teeth in comedies such as All's Well Ends Well 2011 and The Jade and the Pearl, one can only wonder who had more say. The story in this big screen installment deals with the proliferation of counterfeit coins, culminating in what many would have seen in trailers as a zombie-pocalypse, but what it truly is, was to take its time in the introduction of the titular characters, and then some, complete with politicking amongst factions, and individuals caught up in a web of deceit.

Essentially, it's a tale of two investigative functions, the Department Six Constabulary, and the Divine Constabulary, with the former now infiltrated by a shadowy group of six female inspectors, led by the ambitious Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan), and the latter being that group with elite powers as granted by, and answering directly to the Emperor himself. Led by the evergreen Anthony Wong as Zhuge Zheng Wo, he is like the chaperon always on the lookout for gifted individuals with special prowess, whom he bands together under his investigations banner. Yes that's right, think of it like Professor X's School for Gifted Youngsters, with similarities in this version being quite like taking a leaf out of familiar Marvel heroes.

Which isn't really a bad point, given that this shares similar ambitions in wanting to tell a quality story, filled with intriguing, powerful characters who bicker more than they cooperate. It's a successful fusion of martial arts and special effects without going overboard with the latter, making this somewhat like a movie with oriental medieval mutants on display, out to help rid society of ills and those with evil intentions. And story aside, with its twists, turns and really extended fashion in going from point A to B, it's the characters that stand out, and make it fun to watch.

Liu Yifei headlines the quartet as Emotionless, a girl paralyzed from the waist down, but blessed with psychic abilities, a familiar looking wheelchair and having a penchant for hidden darts as deadly projectiles. Her movie outings of late has been period films from White Vengeance to The Forbidden Kingdom, but her character has to stay pretty serious looking for the most parts, despite romantic interest shown from Deng Chao's Cold Blood. A cross between the Incredible Hulk and Wolverine for being brought up by wolves, he finds an attraction toward Emotionless, and these two serve up, as best as they can, as the central emotional anchor for this film, which didn't play off too well.

Ronald Cheng, on the other hand and to great surprise, nails it as the comical loafer type as Life Snatcher, a new recruit whose fighting abilities resemble more like Storm Warrior's Cloud with focus on lower body limb attacks, contrasted against Collin Chou's Iron Hand, who is the team's blacksmith, and has ample opportunity to show off his bronzed abs. Their roles are pretty one-dimensional here, especially Chou's, and it's quite a long wait before these two get a chance to flex their muscles against enemy forces, forging a rivalry / partnership ala Gimli and Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, given their contrasting abilities.

Wu Xiubo also deserves mention as the chief villain here known as The God of Wealth, a conniving schemer who has no qualms at disposing allies once they serve no further purpose, and while he may not be the greatest martial arts villains out there, he's certainly one of the most memorable. The score by Henry Lai also stands out, especially its banjo sounding main theme that hints of an upcoming big fight each time it airs, though the film sometimes lapses into unnecessary posing for the sake of, atop watch towers, or lingering in bath waters to witness six female warriors letting their armour down.

As already reported, this film is now the first part of a trilogy, and that the sequels have already begun shooting. So far so good, as the story picked up as it went on, with the requisite finale with everything and everyone coming together for that last hurrah big battle, with enough twists and double crossings that lead the door wide open for follow up films. Hopefully by then, all the titular Four constables will be given screen time to build up characterization, and we should be in for quite a ride in this Chinese fantasy franchise!

The Four opens in cinemas from Thursday.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

[BR] Star Trek: Evolutions (2009)

I suppose it will take me quite some time to plough through each of the Blu Ray disc for the movies of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it's a no brainer to want to go through this bonus disc first, having seen all the films in their cinematic glory when they were released. I found the extras here a little bit wanting, because there could be so much more packed into this high definition disc, although what it truly was, was a capture of Star Trek: The Experience exhibition for posterity.

These were the individual chapters and sections in this bonus disc:

The Evolution of the Enterprise (14:23). Introduced by Leonard Nimoy, this short featurette charts the development of the famed Enterprise ships, from the one piloted in the Enterprise television series, right down to its last incarnation in Nemesis. No blueprints or the likes, except for clips taken from the various films in their different timelines, and highlights to some critical changes to the overall design.

Villains of Star Trek (14:04) and I Love The Star Trek Movies (4:34) has interviews with Nicholas Meyer, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci talking about their favourite villains of the franchise from adventures led by Captain James T. Kirk and Jean-Lic Picard, as well as reasons enough why they love the respective films they mentioned. Comes complete with clips from the movies, but again, nothing that no Trekkie had already not seen.

Farewell to Star Trek: The Experience (28:06) proves to be the highlight of this entire bonus disc. I spent 8 days in Las Vegas in the year 2005, and by chance learnt that this exhibition was still ongoing at the Las Vegas Hilton. Needless to say I just had to go and see this for myself, and as it turned out, it became the most memorable highlight of that entire Vegas vacation. I will always remember my jaw dropping reaction when "transported" then "teleported" onto the "Enterprise", and lo and behold when the door opened, I was standing right there on the bridge of the Enterprise. The exact replica that is. Movie magic has never been this real, until now.

This feature features plenty of behind the scenes look into what went on in the preparation for each show, and contains plenty of interviews with the cast and crew in making this an unforgettable exhibition for anyone, fans or non-fans, who decided to go where no man has gone before. I would never have known those faces behind the makeup, and the fanatical fans who make countless of trips to this exhibition like a pilgrimage, until this feature showed who they really were, and the emotional goodbyes being said and paid to what had provided countless of entertainment hours to millions of people around the world.

And to relive those moments, and what was memorable about the entire Star Trek: The Experience, was the capture of the live-action moments in Klingon Encounter (3:29) and Borg Invasion 4D (5:12), albeit without the videos being made and played for these journeys.

The disc rounds up with Charting The Final Frontier, which shows the entire Star Trek universe map complete with the paths taken by the respective Enterprise ships and her crew throughout their 10 feature film adventures, told in video form (lasting 1:26, 1:12, 1:05, 0:40, 1:00, 0:48, 1:15, 0:51, 0:46 and 0:44) when you select each film title indicated on the map. Nothing fancy here, but it still worked to give some perspective in relative light year distances.

The Blu Ray disc from Paramount Home Entertainment is found as part of the Star Trek The Next Generation Motion Picture Collection consisting of 4 discs, one each for the feature film starring the next generation crew led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart, and the last being Star Trek: Evolutions, the bonus disc. Subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and audio for this disc is in English Dolby Digital 2.0.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stricken (Komt Een Vrouw Bij De Dokter)

Care Giving

It's a film made in 2009, but what it tried to address as a sub plot was miles better than what Love Cuts did through an entire film, with a better cast, direction, and of course, budget. Stricken is a Dutch film directed by Reinout Oerlmans, based on a novel by Raymond van de Kulndert, that deals with romance, sickness and mortality all rolled into one, firm in its focus on the principle characters whom you'd probably see shades of someone in your circle, and is about life's journey that everyone will have to go through.

When we're young, the world is our oyster and the sky's the limit. There's this feeling of invincibility that nothing can touch us, and that we're infallible. That is until Fate almost always know how to throw a curve ball at us, so that we and others around us will get to learn some lessons, eat humble pie, and start to seriously look at what we're doing with our lives. Stijn (Barry Atsma) is a high flying advertising executive who meets an equally career minded superwoman in Carmen (Carice van Houten) with whom he falls instantly in love with. They soon get married after a whirlwind romance, and life's looking pretty good with their venturing out on their own, and becoming their own boss. Until Carmen gets a lump in her breast that's deemed malignant.

For the first third of the film, told in chapters, it recounts what countless of breast cancer patients had already gone through, and as such turns in to be quite instructive, with a peek into how the Dutch medical system handles the chemotherapy, radiation treatment and the option of amputation. The shock in its discovery, denial, acceptance, and to live life with a condition, is what van Houten, a wonderful actress, aces in her role of Carmen, now a wife and mother to a toddler, trying to live a life of normalcy while battling the dreaded disease. Support comes from her husband in accompanying her to the doctor's, chauffeuring her around and such. But there's a problem that she's well aware of - his infidelity, and in what would be mentioned in fairly crude terms, he's a boob man, and so lies the insecurities and fear of not being a complete woman to prevent her husband from straying.

What she doesn't know is of the extent of his infidelity, which is only privy to Stijn's best friends who cover his tracks for him, and us the audience. Again it makes you wonder what marriage vows are for and if they're worth any weight in gold, and what truly hammers it home is that while one can provide physical support by being around when needed, or even to the point of scooting off whenever opportunity presents itself, what would really matter in any closed one's time of need, is emotional availability. And this is sometihng that can be sensed whether you are conscious of it or otherwise. Sensed by the person suffering, and adding a bit of unnecessary stress and worry. Anyone who had provided care and been a primary care giver before, will know the hardships associated with being there for someone, and sometimes battling the need for a little time off.

Which in Stijn's case, that time off from the wife meant having to go get laid, beginning a more serious affair with painter Roos (Anna Drijver) whom he meets at the club in an annual festival, finally mustering the courage not to accept a friendly smile, but demanding something more. It's easy to condemn Stijn as a character since we can all cast rocks at his adulterous behaviour, but I guess for cinematic reasons Drijver could be here just for eye candy reasons. What I felt was this being a personification of anything that's to distract us from doing what's necessary, since anything out of routine, together with gratification obtained, would surely beat the dreadedness in caring for the sick.

Stricken catches itself and gets its act together for the emotional, final half hour, after plenty of dalliances between the different love affairs, and for Stijn to finally wake up through a round-about fashion. While van Houten may be the bigger name on the marquee thanks to films like Black Book and Valkyrie that were released here, Barry Atsma held his own opposite van Houten, and we feel the pain felt by both characters as they manuever around the disease which start to wreck havoc in their lives. And this is truly an experience nobody would like to go through, with questions, insecurities and escapism rolled out against a spectrum of emotions accurately captured and portrayed by the actors, with an ending that will surprise, though not uncommon depending on the laws of the land.

Rated R21 here for the countless of nudity scenes from van Houten, Drijver and countless of other faceless females that Stijn can't seem to get enough of, and one bloody harrowing scene where a female clubber dances, strips, and then proceeds to rip her breast off in one sweeping motion. Bound to give anyone some nightmares for its degree of gore.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: The IMAX Experience


I suppose there are a number of us out there who would have watched Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight all over again, in anticipation of what Nolan had already declared would be his final outing in the Gotham City of his creation for the film universe, to bring it all full circle. And what an exhilarating ride, all 164 minutes of it from beginning to end, that makes it his longest film to date, bowing out in epic grandeur. The Dark Knight Rises may well be the best Batman feature film to date, and probably the best one out of comic pop culture, making the Marvel Universe's attempts look a bit childish, but that's another argument for another article.

Fanboys, you can rest assure that whatever clips you've seen, doesn't even scratch a third of the film, with a lot more in store and kept firmly under wraps. And the Nolan brothers together with David Goyer continued to tap upon the established Batman mythos for their final installment just as they did with the earlier two films, mix all of them up and provide for a real world treatment. You can probably rattle off influences and iconic elements from storylines such as Knightfall, Vengeance of Bane, No Man's Land, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Officer Down, and a key story arc involving Alfred, with things like The Lazarus Pit given new perspective as would other more fantastical elements in the comics that wouldn't be plausible in Nolan's established Bat universe. These stories provide a little bit of background, and helps in quickly providing context without the film having to dwell too much on them, without alienating non-comic book fans/readers who would do themselves a favour to read them after watching the film, since interest would be piqued.

In essence, the film begins 8 years from where we last left off, with the Dent Act passed to put most of Gotham's dangerous criminals behind bars at Blackgate (yet another comic book reference there). Clearly the Dark Knight is no longer needed, but without purpose, Bruce Wayne becomes a recluse, until Bane's arrival which spells the need for the Dark Knight to rise again. That's about all anyone can say without spoiling anything, but suffice to say the story is one that's expansive, utilizing key characters whom we've grown to love from the earlier movies, and finding room to accommodate a lot more, with Nolan favourites like Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt given supporting roles that are far, far from being decorative, one to continue the boardroom politicking and maneuvers seen in the first film, and the other to provide Gotham's Finest with a little bit more to do, which under Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon's watch, has turned into quite the responsive force to be reckoned with. And Gary Oldman too had to call upon his acting chops especially when the story arc links this back to The Dark Knight and having to shoulder the major lie the triumvirate had broken down into.

There are plenty of elements that made this film work, so I suppose we can tick them off one by one. For starters, the continuation on the focus of Bruce Wayne's story, which has made it all tick. This version of Bruce Wayne and Alfred become the familiar characters we're accustomed with since 2005, and the film invests heavily on the emotional bonding between the two, which deals back to the theme about fear that rears its ugly head again, and how a father figure cannot stand idly by to watch the one he brought up recklessly charge into battle after a long hiatus, and hoping for a life of normalcy with the mantle of the bat given up. Michael Caine may have a shorter screen time than before, but no less powerful.

When Sam Raimi had to put the popular and powerful Venom into Spider-man 3 pretty much against his wishes, we all knew how that turned out to be, effectively killing off the franchise until the decision to reboot it. There may be some similar fears with the introduction of a fairly contemporary villain in Bane, but the story gave him more purpose and meaning, and Tom Hardy was excellent par none in this role as the compete villain - with plenty of brawn, merciless, masterful, and with a plan any terrorist would be proud of. If the Scarecrow meant to induce fear, and the Joker to create chaos, Bane is carnage incarnate. Tom Hardy, even being the requisite mask, is fearful, and while the designs of his plan may dwarf the Joker's in complexity, it sure rivaled his in terms of delivery, and execution. Anyone in his path gets shoved aside with deadly consequences, and anyone alive is only because there is of further use. No hesitation, and no compromise. What more, you'd never see Batman get physically pummeled that severely by an enemy before, until now, with many fisticuffs showing just who is the master of hand to hand combat.

And Nolan continues with the introduction of a lot more villains big and small, behind a mask or otherwise, in his Bat films than anyone would credit him for, especially when having those whose lines are blurred, or corrupt to the core and hiding behind social status and fortune. This in turn provides for another arc that boils underneath the main narrative, where the rich and powerful continue to enjoy their successes at the expense of the have-nots, and the Occupy Movement in a way being a very real parallel to the proceedings on screen. While the mobsters were clearly at the top of the food chain in the earlier Nolan films, this one shifted focus to politicians and the elite community, with their fair share of scandals and corporate greed.

No Mistletoe

While Bane was to the point, Selina Kyle played by Anne Hathaway, is both sensual and a force to be reckoned with herself, being like how she's best portrayed, on the fence. There's a bit of Frank Miller's Year One in this one given the presence of Juno Temple's Holly, and the back to basics as a jewel thief, compared to the mousy secretary in Tim Burton's Batman Returns with Michelle Pfeiffer defining the role, and the garbage that was Halle Berry's. Anne Hathaway nailed this one with what would be a truly memorable outing, and as if a homage of sorts to Burton's second Batman film, that the repartee between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle at a party became one of the highlights here, as does her thievery and combat ability. She may lack her whip, but more than makes up for it with her steel stiletto heels, and the very sensual and sleekly designed feline moves that you'd wonder how they got delivered while wrapped under that skin tight suit.

Christian Bale dons the batsuit for the third time, more than any of his film predecessors, and continues the good work established in the first two films. Bruce Wayne gets stripped to the core, and put into a position which is fairly unfamiliar to him as the story goes along, where he has to push himself to the limits - which is in very hurried terms of 3 screen months - and a development that some may find fault with for its pacing, and attempts to tie it back in with the first film that the Wayne Legacy is more than what it defines Gotham City to be, touching in almost all avenues of the city, and Bruce Wayne's "ownership". Bale continues to command presence as the tragic hero who has to dig deep within, and is now forced to find allies, thus breathing life in many of the supporting characters in utilizing their various skill sets, rather than to go at it alone. And when he puts on that Batsuit for his first appearance in the film, goosebumps are set to rise, as we get just as excited as the Gothamites in welcoming his return.

This time round though the introduction of his toys is a little bit subtler, where you may miss what would be a small try out if you'd blink, before that same technology gets to play a much bigger role as the story progresses. And the big toy would be The Bat, of course, adorning the trailers and clips released so far, although the film would give you a closer look at it especially from underneath with that huge rotor, and being highly maneuverable. I didn't really quite fancy the Batpod from The Dark Knight, but The Dark Knight Rises made me change my mind about it, being used frequently and demonstrating why it's probably the de facto road vehicle of choice. The Batmobile is pretty much gone now, although the camo-designed ones we see Bane using, makes all Bat vehicle types grace the screen altogether in a single film.

And not only is the technology put on screen fictionally impressive, the technical aspects behind the scenes also worked wonders, chalking up serious mileage in having more than an hour's worth of footage shot on the IMAX format. Wally Pfister's cinematography continues to impress with that staying consistent to the gritty look and feel developed for all the Bat films to date, before his departure into a film director's role for his next project. Hans Zimmer also probably developed the best score for Nolan's Bat films, and I dare say without which this film would be less stellar, with the score playing a huge role in adding plenty of character and emotion to the film, lifting it up with excitement during the many set action pieces, with recognizable themes assigned to major players, heightening dangers, and providing a boost to the many feelings in this one heck of an action-adventure.

With how things developed at the end, and what I felt was initial horror of sorts with Batman out in broad daylight, secret identity being porous and all, this film ended in what would be the best way possible - with possibilities, and a twinkle of an eye, Inception style with a did it, or did it not. Twists, turns, surprises and sleight of hand, making it a clear favourite as one of the best this year. Do yourself a favour and watch it in the IMAX format, just as it was intended.

Because you have just got to believe in Christopher Nolan, and the kind of films he has so far delivered. Take a bow, bat-crew, for a trilogy that has now set the bar for any comic book film, and especially any other follow Batman movie, reboot or otherwise, to live up to.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Help The Selling

On 17 September 2011, The Selling made its international premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival, and has been travelling around the world's festival circuit, picking up acclaim and awards that are testament to the quality of this independent production.

Now the filmmakers need your help, to reach out to a wider audience. On their Kickstarter campaign page, Producer-Writer-Actor Gabriel Diani and producer-actress Etta Devine are seeking funds for a limited theatrical release and distribution expenses for The Selling, which is currently slated for Digital/VOD platforms on August 21 and DVD on October 23.

If you'd like to learn more, you can click on the following links:

- Learn more about their Kickstarter campaign
- The Selling Official Movie Website
- Q&A Session during the Singapore International Film Festival
- My Review

Monday, July 16, 2012

Red Lights

Got The Truth

Red Lights belong to one of those rare films I had known little about, and it delivered way past expectations, especially so when I thought I had it all figured out, only to be sucker punched by the final 10 minutes of the story. Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés who had made one of my favourite films in 2010 in Buried, where he had shown the world how to make a one-scene-one-actor feature film entirely gripping, here he once again demonsrates his ability to craft a strong narrative film that is a little bit reminiscent of the old X-Files television series, dabbling with both sides of the argument for, and against, the paranormal and psychic ability.

And what better way to do so than to have a wonderful ensemble flesh his characters to life, with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy playing a pair of mentor-protege physicist professors who are out to bust the chops of fake psychics who prey on the weak willed, utilizing their knowledge of science to pull wool over the eyes of many, and to make money in the process. Their Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley respectively are constantly challenged by the naysayers, and this film in a way played out like a theory-in-waiting to be rigourously tested out by hypotheses and various proofs and disproofs in the search of the truth.

In the other corner of their professional, expert advice which law enforcement also taps on, is the none too bright but better funded colleague of theirs, played by Toby Jones, and the main antagonist and challenge of the film, with Robert De Niro playing the father of all psychics, a blind man who has demonstrated tremendous, inexplicable abilities before disappearing when accused of being involved in the death of his harshest critic, only to resurface again for reasons unknown.

What made this film thoroughly engaging, are the arguments and various proofs presented to make or destroy the case of certain phenomena used by conmen in their modus operandi to have one believe in their abilities. However, one must note though that this is but a story, so don't go looking for the absolute truth in the film, since issues, just like how they are used by the various characters, are bent to present fact the way a point is to be brought across. It parallels real life where we often highlight points in our favour, and gloss over anything that doesn't quite agree with what we wish to express.

Still, it's edge-of-your-seat material, despite its dabbling with the unknown, or attempts to rationalize the paranormal, with an ending that brought everything to a full circle nicely, and one of the most satisfying in recent months. So much so I'm inclined to say it's highly recommended, and one of my favourite films of the year. I'm stoked to get my hands on the DVD once it's available.

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


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Motorway (車手 / Che Sau)

Taking Five

For the consummate speed car racer, what better way to drive at high velocity and challenging other speedsters while at it, than to be sanctioned for flooring the gas pedal and not get a speeding ticket at the end. I suppose it's a dream calling if one gets to go over to the side of the law as a traffic cop, put in a special unit given souped up, nondescript and unmarked cars, in efforts to take on other speeding road users by surprise. I know I would sign up immediately.

Shawn Yue goes back to being a racer from his Initial D days, playing Chan Cheung, an impetuous rookie in the traffic police's "Invisible Squad" team. His ride is an Audi A4, going after other souped up cars and their owners careening down the roads of Hong Kong. He's like a bulldog, always determined to get his mark even if they drive more powerful cars, and in his off hours, put in more time to spruce up his own private ride, to go after those that got away in what would be a slight vigilantism effort.

But racer in the night and cop in the day Chan does have his flaws and meets his match in driver Jiang Xin (Guo Xiaodong), who can be described as being in a similar mold to the driver in Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, being the crime partner of Huang Zhong (Sam Lee), but having no interest in the latter's schemes other than to be the designated driver to get them out of tight situations. He has a penchant to rev things up into a smokescreen, and then maneuvering through what would be an extreme drift technique to rotate the car while almost stationery. A hard trick to master, that gets every pursuing car into a frenzy, coupled with having no qualms at bumper-car-ing any vehicle to shake them off as well.

The highlight of the film is naturally the car chases, which varies from busy narrow streets to the winding routes up and down a mountain trail. They are all beautifully shot and the chases will keep you on the edge of your seat, with deft-defying moves that you'd never thought possible to be executed with a moving vehicle, from slight nudges to full on battles using the car as a weapon of choice. Your adrenaline will be kept pumping each time the stunts shift into high gear, keeping the shots tight and often putting you in the driver's, or co-driver's seat for that first person perspective.

And it's not all loud crashes that pepper the soundscape, but with wonderful music by Alex Gopher and Xavier Jamaux providing rather soothing car tunes to accompany quieter moments, before going for the more punchy, aggressive notes when the narrative gets on its mark to roll in another major action sequence. What made this Soi Cheang film engaging besides the action, are the characters put into the fray. A Milkyway co-production, we get the usual suspects in Lam Kar Tung and Josie Ho playing police head honchos who are almost always a few steps behind the main antagonist, with this, pardon the pun, being clearly a Shawn Yue vehicle, and the evergreen Anthony Wong being Yue's partner in the police force. Barbie Hsu becomes the blip on the radar though with a needless role that's decorative at best, to keep Motorway from being too testosterone laden.

It may be laughable, but the way the story by Joey O'Bryan and Szeto Kam-Yuen had conjured may be a little bit reverent to the Star Wars saga, with the final arc being quite reminiscent of a would be rebel receiving very brief, though effective, training from a more experienced hire, and finally showing his weight in gold. This is Hong Kong's answer to the sleek and cool Drive, and the result is something just as sexy in the crime genre, with brooding hero, and plenty of horsepower hidden under its hood. Highly recommended, and going into my shortlist as one of this year's best! Pretty certain I'll be picking up the DVD to watch this in its original Cantonese language track.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Painted Skin: The Resurrection (画皮2 / Hua Pi 2)

My Heart For Your Skin

Gordon Chan's Painted Skin back in 2008 had Singapore's Raintree Pictures as a production partner, with China born actor Qi Yuwu in one of his many overseas film forays, but the follow up film is a purely all-China affair, showing off what the Chinese film companies can do in terms of storytelling and effects, In all honesty, I prefer Painted Skin II over its predecessor precisely because it took its time to tell a proper story, contrary to the treatment of many mainstream China made films in the similar genre that had overemphasized less than stellar CG effects and sacrificed story along the way.

This is not a sequel, nor is it a prequel to the 2008 film, despite having to share the same title both in English and Mandarin. Most of the primary cast returned, and played totally new characters, where you can speak of this as if it's a spiritual companion to the first film, challenging the same cast in having to portray different characters in what would structurally almost be the same film, except with new themes and characters thrown into the mix, complete with breathtaking landscapes that only Western China could offer.

In this story, the power trio of Zhou Xun, Vicky Zhao and Chen Kun return. Zhou Xun reprises the role where she's the temptress foxy spirit Xiao Wei and the primary antagonist of sorts in this story, ripping out the hearts of man to devour and maintain her mortal looks. Being cursed and needing to fend off her icy prison, she got rescued by Zhao Wei's Princess, a royalty with an incredibly strong heart and a partially masked face, pining for the love of Chen Kun's General, who's at the frontiers to ward off the kingdom's enemies, which also serves as a refuge to hide his true feelings for the woman he believes he cannot deserve after being indirectly responsible for the mishap which led to her disfigurement.

Most of the screen time and plot development went to these three, and the camera just gorgeously captures them all in their romantic dalliances, especially when Xiao Wei becomes the de facto spanner in both the Princess and the General's love life no thanks to a little mesmerizing black magic that's cast to help Xiao Wei in her cause to obtain the Princess' heart, and become human. Sure it's a merry-go-round manner, but we learn certain rules of the game, where a transformation can only take place should a heart be willingly given up, as opposed to forcefully obtained by the demon. And in fact this issue is central and broached more than once in the film.

It revolves around the themes of unrequited love, sacrifice, and the long held belief that we are attracted to beautiful, flawless things, even if it's something a superficial as a woman's looks. The characters go back and forth in dealing with their emotions, and thankfully this served as sufficient back story to their individual characters, allowing a multi-faceted dimension to them, which of course worked wonders for its running time of over two hours. This in addition to the wonderful deliberate visuals that director Wuershan had given this film that the first one didn't possess.

Zhou Xun plays it cool this time round as the scheming Xiao Wei who would discover that being human isn't all that easy given that she has had powers easily taken for granted. Zhao Wei continues in her roles as warrior princesses from Red Cliff and Mulan, and plays to perfection the role of a woman willing to give up anything to be with the man she truly likes. And with two strong female leads playing opposite him, Chen Kun could well be regarded as the current Mr Popular with real acting ability, given license to brood most of the time as the conflicted General who isn't too aware that his eyes were stamped and cursed, leading him away from, and providing him reason enough to stray. The performances of these three together can go on forever.

Granted though with the increase in time dedicated for a special effects showcase, and an unwavering focus on characters, what had to give was the martial arts and fight scenes, which pale in scenes if compared to the first film. The martial arts practitioners were clearly reduced, and the antagonists in the form of the Wolf clan's Shaman (Kris Philips) and Queen (Chen Tingjia) didn't quite provide any real threat save for their sheer numbers of faceless army goons they bring to the fray. Their objective though brings the story full circle, with Mini Yang and Feng Shao-Feng's characters as Xiao Wei's bird companion, and a bumbling demon-slayer respectively, were in just to add to star power and for minor comic relief, being in tangent sub-plots that serve little to the main story.

Still, Painted Skin: The Resurrection actually revived some hopes that the Chinese film industry is capable of coming up with visually attractive, action-adventures that tap on the Liao Zhai sources, if elements in the film were well balanced with an adequate story, backed by solid cast members. And having some really sensual scenes in the film didn't hurt it at all given enough of them to highlight the man-demon transformation which was almost extreme Face-Off like, but in a sexier fashion. Recommended!

Chernobyl Diaries

Room With a View

The name Oren Peli would probably be horror pedigree enough in recent years to make fans sit up and flock to his latest offering Chernobyl Diaries. After all, it would be interesting to see how the original director, and screenwriter for the Paranormal Activity franchise of films, would fare outside of the found footage comfort zone in dealing with yet another horror movie. With first time feature filmmaker Bradley Parker at the helm of the film, it's rather functional and riddled with cliches, but still managed to keep the suspense going at times, with the intriguing premise helping in making you wonder just what would be the final reveal, if any, given the formula for the genre.

Some may deem the film insensitive to those with links to the real Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and while at first glance it may be somewhat exploitative, it has little to do with the disaster itself, borrowing only its name and incident on the skimpiest of surface, before launching into its own story which comprises of a number of mutated wild animals, from fish to dogs and even a grizzly thrown in for good measure. Some frustration would be felt when the filmmakers deem it necessary to keep things under wraps in darkness, which may seem like a cop out of sorts, or to work within the confines of a limited budget.

Chernobyl Diaries deals with the theme of survival of the fittest. It does take a while to introduce you to the rote characters consisting of three pairs of couples - Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the former's brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and their mutual friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal). Together, they get on an extreme tour led by an ex-military type Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), in an in-and-out few hours adventure into the abandoned town of Prypiat, where workers of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and their families were once living in. Against all warning signs such as having been turned away at the checkpoint by guards, they go against all logic to venture into the exclusion zone through a loophole, and armed with a Geiger counter, begin to explore the dead town.

The recreation of the deserted landscapes in Hungary and Serbia is top notch, lending a creepy feel to the entire setting, as well as planting very obvious and ominous signs throughout their visit, waiting for a series of trouble to begin, such as a conveniently banged up tour van, and early death and injuries that these tourist have to deal with, lending you the notion that it is Final Destination type inevitable when things really have to descent into chaos in the dark. But while the characters turn out to be really caricatures in disguise, here's the real kicker when things start to shift into higher gear. It's a lesson pretty reflective of survival, that the weakest gets picked off first, and that when instinct kicks in, it's almost always better that someone else become sacrifice for the good of the rest. Rationalizing one's actions also become more pronounced, as if the sacrificed has to repay a debt, and the rest soothing their conscience through the goodwill of seeking help. From nowhere.

Cinematography is a mixed bag though, since this is clearly not found footage, but the camera finds it extremely hard to stay rooted and grounded in order to provide for a more documentary like feel. It's strictly narrative, and I for one would have appreciated a steadier hand in tracking the adventures of these tourists looking for cheap thrills that turned out more than they bargained for. Like its peers in the same genre, there's plenty of running involved, where the roads all lead to Rome, leaving the audience to appreciate where the characters are exactly headed in the final hour even if they're clueless themselves, since we'd likely be a few steps ahead, being primed in to all the blatant clues.

For those who like their gore factor up close and in the clear, Chernobyl Diaries plays it very coy, providing peeks only, cutting away very quickly to avoid being rated too harshly in order to reach out to a wider audience. But alas it's a story that's done to death, only to be put in a new setting, with obvious loopholes in the final few minutes that may be unforgivable. And that's not forgetting who's actually writing these "diaries".


Treats for the Soul

Richard Linklater reunites with his School of Rock star Jack Black, and provided the latter with what would probably be his best film role to date, without the need to go over the top in comedy, but having to rely on his dramatic acting, and great singing voice. Yes you read that right. Jack Black isn't always the comedian on film, and has a couple of more serious roles under his belt which usually are quite understated. Then there's his singing voice, put to good use here singing soulful renditions of hymns given the nature of the job role of his titular character.

What would transpire in the film would be larger than life instead, but in truth it's based on a real incident, about the circumstances behind a cold blooded murder that would be seen almost like a bade joke. No offence meant to the victim's relatives of course, as Bernie takes on what would be a docu-drama style, interviewing real people on their memory about the incident and their feelings toward Bernie Tiede, where in a small town community of Carthage, Texas, everyone presumably knows everyone else in consummate terms, truth, rumour or both.

Interspersed with these engaging talking head moments and interviews, are the fictional re-enactments of these scenes, or played out with drama or comedy just to make the presentation fresh despite having a documentary-like feel. And you have to salute Linklater's ability to extract plenty of honest emotions especially when talking about people the interviewees dislike, and to do so on camera. I would have rooted for more because these moments in the film made it what it is, and is akin to neighbourhood gossipy moments where one listens in to hear the latest on what goes on, only that we cannot add our two cents worth since it's not interactive.

Jack Black's Bernie is a character with good intentions. Trained as a mortician, and then becoming assistant funeral director, we learn a lot about his background given the focus on his early days in the profession. Linklater went for the morbid jugular with having Bernie dress up a corpse as an introduction to what he does, through an instructional session given to students, providing plenty of insights on the process that I didn't know about. He's good natured, from what we see and hear, until something within him snapped when he got a wee bit too friendly with town grouch Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) who coincidentally is one of the richest widows around.

The film doesn't go all out to paint Bernie as a gold digger, but I suppose he lived long enough to see himself become the villain, especially so when Marjorie's reach becomes all encompassing and stifling, monitoring every move Bernie makes, coupled with unreasonable demands that makes PMS handling look like a walk in the park. Shirley MacLaine plays this role to perfection, so much so that you'll grow to hate her, and maybe it's Linklater's intent to make the viewer sympathize and throw in support at Bernie's corner. MacLaine nails the irritating nature of the character, complete with passive-aggressive behaviour that makes claws on chalkboard more tolerable, and to watch her acting cute, just sends shivers.

While Matthew McConaugney probably overdid his Southern Drawl as the district attorney keen to nail Bernie and get to the truth, his hamming it up served as one of the highlights of the film, as do the real talking heads interviews conducted to give us all a little bit of a reality check of a very skewed modern day Robin Hood of sorts. Recommended for its unique perspective and presentation, and for those who are interested to see the original article that inspired the movie, you can read it here.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Platonic Woes

When I read the synopsis I got an inkling feeling and dreaded if it were to end like a high profile local television drama series many years back, where a Hong Kong actor played a central role and had to romance two of the biggest female stars we had back then. It was a cop out of course, given their respective popularity and fans, that nobody would want to have their hearts broken at the end. This meant an open ended finale after episodes of beating about the bush, and unfortunately, Cocktail somehow seemed to be concocted on the same formula.

It isn't the first time Saif Ali Khan got paired up with the much younger Deepika Padukone in a love story, given his production house Illuminati Films had put them together in Love Aaj Kal, where he had to romance Padukone and Giselli Monteiro playing vastly different characters in two different timelines. Cocktail may seem to have adopted the same formula for the second time round, since Love Aj Kal had garnered relative success, so why not repeat it one more time, though now the characters all exist in the same, modern era, where one has to tussle between traditional values, and the sexier, open relationship offering that one can find someone else to agree to.

Saif Ali Khan once again turns on his act-cute demeanour. He can be all serious as seen in his last three films Kurbaan, Aarakshan, and Agent Vinod, but is in another dimension when he plays a character who has to balance suave, drama and a sense of humour. His Gautam comes across as a bazooka, constantly firing with little accuracy in his very blatant courtship rituals, that earns him the label of a flirt. In all honesty I prefer his serious roles a lot more when he has to ham it up, so you can guess it was sheer torture to see him dumbing it down, and trying his best to romance two different women when he falls for one, and then the other, sequentially. But I have to admit I was in stitches when he provided his rendition of Sheila Ki Jawani in a scene that almost modelled after Dostana's with mother (Dimple D=Kapadia) dropping in unexpected to catch her son in the most compromising of situations.

And Dimple Kapadia provided the narrative catalyst after the first half hour languished at doing its best to introduce all the characters. The two women in the story are your classical opposites, one a partying, carefree soul, while the other a more conservative, naive girl who found herself caught in a marriage sham, and became homeless in London. Deepika Padukone was given a choice to play either role, and she picked the former just so as to dabble in a role she hasn't tackled before. She did vamp it up in an item for Dum Maaro Dum, but that was nothing more than to show off her sensual, gyrating moves on the dance floor which got repeated a lot more times here as the perennial clubber whom everyone knows on first name basis.

Her Veronica is that poor little rich girl, who holds no relationship with her parents other than with their bank account, and flits from night to night in the different arms of random men she picks up in the clubs and bars. One particular scene which I thought was brilliantly done, was to bring out this distinction and to highlight her loneliness against a typical busy night, that her relationships account for nothing since they're superficial, and served as a wake up call as to what should be more valued in her life. Gautam's mother also served as inspiration for the girl who prances around the home without pants (a chance to show off a lot of leg, really), as her yearning for motherly love pushes her in the direction and provides incentive in trying to become someone whom she isn't really cut out to be.

While Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone are old hands now in Bollywood and can play their roles with their eyes closed, attention therefore turned to newcomer Diana Penty, who plays Meera, finding herself from Delhi to London, and in a series of coincidences, becomes Veronica's housemate and best friend, and then rival in love when her initial dislike for Veronica's boyfriend Gautam turned into something else when they all had to play pretend to throw Gautam's mom off their tracks for a few days in a Cape Town holiday. The biggest transformation in character here, it provided Diana Penty with enough bandwidth to showcase her acting chops, from demure to being proactive, from frail to confident, taking charge of her own affairs, and even devising schemes to fend off stalking attempts. If she does make it big, then cocktail will have bragging rights for first having discovered her, and providing her a chance with the most challenging role of the lot.

There's no lack of urban and exotic locales balanced for the characters in this romance to develop in, and naturally the best scenes involved the song montages where they get to frolic under new environments, which sets the stage for the foundations of friendship first, which will later get undermined when emotions start to get stronger and get the better of some of them. With the usual assumptions and lack of awareness, things get to boil over and the story by Imtiaz and Sajid Ali seem to languish under its own weight of beating about the bush, followed by desperate attempts to throw almost every conceivable scenario at the story and characters so that neither will get to lose face, and fighting really hard, and long, to reach a win-win situation.

Ultimately there isn't much in the narrative to move you, or to sway you to the plight of the characters, since it is they who got into a fix themselves, not being strong to try and play out a no strings attached relationship. It sinks to deep melodrama into the last act, and by the you couldn't really care too much about the trio and interest to see it out - who will Gautam eventually end up with - will start to wane. If it had kept its narrative crisp, and had director Homi Adajania focused more deeper emotions, this might have become an instant classic. Thank goodness for Boman Irani to punctuate the film with humour each time he gets to come on, playing Gautam's uncle who also shares a rather Casanova history.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Threat of Extinction

It's been a decade since the release of the very first Ice Age, and thankfully this installment of the franchise managed to stay afloat by keeping things simple, even though it still kept within its constraints of setting in the prehistoric era, and still having to bounce around the usual theme of family. Competitors like Shrek did its franchise in by doing too much too soon in delivering lacklustre gags and spoofs of pop culture that can only get you so far, and Madagascar showed how it went from strength to strength, so unless Ice Age comes up with something new, I don't really suppose it can survive beyond this, although I am more than glad to be proven wrong.

As with the teaser scenes released months back, Continental Drift opens with Scrat being directly responsible for the splitting up of the Earth's land mass into what would be the layout of today, no thanks to his continued pursuit of the acorn. And like the earlier installments, he's mostly left to do his own thing with minimal interaction with the rest of the crew, undoubtedly being one of the top draws of Ice Age. We reunite with the motley crew of Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), Diego the Sabre-tooth Tiger (Denis Leary), who find themselves split from their main herd when the continents split apart, and have to find their way to get back from the high seas to dry land.

That forms the crux of the main narrative, with the trio joined by Sid's grandmother (Wanda Sykes), whose presence again harks back to the theme of family, and lending themselves to be the central punching bag for gags. In finding their way back, they encounter the main antagonists of animal pirates led by a prehistoric monkey who calls itself Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage) and deputized by a white sabre-tooth tiger Shira (Jennifer Lopez), who are adamant in having Manny and gang join their crew to loot and plunder from more lands. The introduction of a pirate crew as voiced by the likes of Nick Frost, Aziz Ansari and Alain Chabat provide for an expanded cast and characters that Ice Age 4 is of no lack of, including bit roles for Seann William Scott and Patrick Stewart.

Ice Age is clearly aimed at the younger demographics from Madagascar, and its simplicity reflects this rather clearly. Language is kept fairly simple, and almost all instances of action are kept firmly in PG, with the largest threat posed by Captain Gutt's razor sharp nails. The storyline doesn't toss up any surprises, since you'll come to expect how the story would develop, with wafer thin subplots such as the friendship gone sour between Manny and Ellie's daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) and best pal Louis the molehog (Josh Gad) due to the former's supposed love interest, and her need to belong to her same mammoth kind, and a possible romance between Diego and Shira, which I suspect will be further developed should another follow up film be made. Queen Latifah got a reduced role here, moving aside for Peaches to step up as her character's daughter.

As usual, the animation here is first class, and despite not having watched this in the 3D format, one can guess the moments where the format gets exploited in certain scenes, with extreme closeups, and opportunity in the form of various weapons being wielded and utilized by the pirate crew. Certain scenes do make themselves quite blatant in having characters and behaviour happening directly and up close on screen, while the hasty introduction of even smaller furry creatures probably had merchandising in mind. The pirate crew does deserve special mention for how varied they all are and caricatured for story efficiency, and they do warrant perhaps a short film or direct to video adventure of their own.

Preceeded by a Simpsons short entitled The Longest Daycare, do make sure you turn up early for that, as I was a bit more entertained with what Maggie Simpson had done as the sole, primary protagonist in this short film, than everything Ice Age 4 had thrown up. This is not to say that Ice Age 4 is a bad film, on the contrary it makes for a great family outing to the movies with its entertainment value, but unless it comes up with a stronger storyline should the franchise desires to be continued, it will soon run out of steam rehashing the same old themes, and be threatened with cinematic extinction despite growing in cast numbers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Singapore Launch of Dim Sum Warriors (点心侠 / Dian Xin Xia)

In 2000, they launched what would become Singapore's premier satirical website TalkingCock.com, which spawned a short film eAhLong.com, and grew into TalkingCock the Movie. Then in what would seem like an about-turn from comedy to serious drama, Singapore Dreaming, a moving film that most Singaporeans can identify with, was released in 2006 to critical acclaim, travelling the festival circuits and picking up awards from San Sebastian to Tokyo.

Now the creative team of Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen is back with their latest project, Dim Sum Warriors (点心侠 / Dian Xin Xia), inspired from their becoming first time parents to their affectionately labelled Yakuza Baby (courtesy of Takeshi Miike's Crows: Episode 0), to focus their energies and create something that would appeal to kids, and also become a learning tool for both the English and Chinese languages.

It's an electronic comic book currently designed as an iPad app, about a bunch of kung-fu Chinese snacks (dim sum). Not owning an iPad myself, the launch today provided a first hand trial of the app, and it's pretty nifty, with the ease-of-use tools of the iPad being really intuitive to navigate through the comic book, complete with text and audio in both languages, which comes selectable, and switchable. If your Chinese is not quite up to scratch, like mine, Hanyu Pinyin is also available, and the text in the Chinese language are translated and vetted twice to ensure accuracy since this has potential to serve as a learning tool. How's that for meticulousness?

Dim Sum Warriors is currently available in the App Store, and the first two issues are FREE. You can find out more information from the website http://www.dimsumwarriors.com, and go Like Dim Sum Warriors on Facebook. Those on twitter can follow them here.

Yen Yen and Colin also shared another electronic comic book series still in the works, but I guess that's something for another time. iPhone and Android platforms are also on the way, and for those who prefer the old-school method of thumbing through a book, there will be the traditional print medium on the horizon as well so that you can still follow the adventures of the Warriors without feeling left out.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

[In Flight] Running Out of Time (暗戰 / Am Zin) (1999)

No Time

This is truly a blast from the past, given one of the widest range of films from one of the best inflight entertainment systems in the world, that I had to choose something like Running Out of Time from 1999. But then again, it isn't everyday that Andy Lau plays a negative role, and sharing screen time with Lau Ching Wan, coupled with the fact that this is a Milkyway production and one of Johnnie To's earlier crime capers, even before classics such as The Mission and PTU.

Running Out of Time is really edge of your seat material, as the story by Yau Nai-Hoi (who went on to write more Milkyway crime thrillers, and also directed his own with Eye in the Sky), Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon kept the pacing tight, and the rationale of why Andy Lau's Cheung is doing what he's doing firmly under wraps. It's classic cat and mouse game that Cheung decides to play once he's given an ultimatum in life, dying from a disease and given weeks to live, that he sets his plan in motion, and ear marks Inspector Ho (Lau Ching Wan), an ex special forces turned negotiator, as the conduit he would go exploit as part of that plan. And given Ho's stellar track record, with plenty of unorthodox means utilized, he's up for the challenge of his career when he knows that Cheung almost always remain one step ahead of him with contingency plans ready for execution.

It's the bonds of brotherhood formed between the two man on opposite sides of the law that makes Running Out of Time an engaging watch, and more so when you have two of Hong Kong's finest actors of their generation together in a film playing off each other, complementary and never adversary in their delivery. Lau rarely plays a negative role, so fans should lap up his character here as the man with the plan, a charmer with a little romantic subplot on the side opposite Yoyo Mung, who plays a woman he meets on the bus, and who becomes his alibi of sorts, useful during police road blocks. While that romance may seem like an after-thought and never amounted to much, it did provide for a facet of the character emotionally in the finale, and this is the sort of characters that are developed aplenty in a typical Milkyway Production subsequently.

Lau Ching Wan on the other hand had a field day with the usual eccentricities that he fleshes in his role, being a well respected cop amongst his peers, except for some superiors with whom he almost makes a mickey out of each time there's opportunity. As mentioned, what made the story typical by now in today's terms, would be the friendship forged between his character and his enemy, with respect developed by the direct consequence of being defeated on multiple fronts and episodes, and the potential of firm friendship had the men both be on the same side. If the slickness of the characters amount to something, together with the sleight of hand executed so wonderfully, then credit also has to go to both Andy Lau and Lau Ching Wan for their charisma and epitome of coolness on the big screen.

Johnnie To regular Lam Suet makes an appearance here with Waise Lee playing a villain, cementing Running Out of Time as an early forerunner to the potential that the director would come to enjoy with his subsequent, more sophisticated crime thrillers, known for their tight storylines, electic pacing and fine characters. Recommended, as this ages like fine wine.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Heritage + The Observatory

Join the filmmakers of Obs: A Documentation, which is currently seeking production assistance through crowdfunding, at

- Saturday, 21st July, 2 – 3pm, Marine Parade Library
- Saturday, 28th July, 4 - 5pm, library@esplanade

to hear them talk about The Observatory's place in the history of Singapore music, and why the filmmakers are making a documentary about it. Specifically this casual chat session will cover The Observatory's past bands, including Humpback Oak, Heritage, and Throb, which are significant since they relate to Singapore rock music in the early 70s and late 90s.

See you there! And you can find out more about the crowdfunding process and effort by clicking on the banner below:

Another Temporary Hiatus

By the time you read this, I'll be on board that double deck enroute to the Fragrant Harbour. Not for any film event or cinema (but well, who knows I may not resist the urge to watch any Hong Kong movie currently screening), but just to take a short break from work and all. Will be back next week!

And in the meantime, in case you haven't realized, the Japanese Film Festival is now on, and you can click on the banner below to find out more about the films slated in the next few days, with a mix of classics and contemporary choices across genres:

Sunday, July 01, 2012

[Japanese Film Festival 2012] Fukushima: Memories of the Lost Landscape

Ground Zero

This documentary by Yojyu Matsubayashi made its premiere in this year's Hong Kong Film Festival amongst a number of films that deals with the triple disasters of an earthquake, tsunami and the risk of a nuclear fallout all rolled into the month of March 2011, and film, as a medium, becomes a key form in which images of the harrowing damages caused by the disasters, got transmitted worldwide in almost real time with the hundreds of clips and news reels made available. I missed this film in Hong Kong, and am mighty glad that the Japanese Film Festival had programmed it into its lineup.

Matsubayashi crafted his documentary in the first person perspective, beginning with his experience of the earthquake in Tokyo, before deciding to make that trip to the northeast, as close to ground zero as possible where the Fukushima nuclear plant reactor 1 is threatening to go off, with the imposition of evacuation zones radiating 20-30km outwards. He joins the Tanakas who were helping those who were forced to evacuate their homes, and becomes a volunteer of sorts with his camera in tow, capturing stark images during which was only 3 weeks after the deadly tsunami swept inwards.

There are enough moments here in the film that will touch, such as an elderly husband and wife couple whom they encounter who haven't evacuated by virtue of their relative immobility, and the comical, playful nature of the husband who shares his penchant for sake. It is this little episode that demonstrates the wider social attitudes of the Japanese that I'm sure many around the world would admire, and seek to emulate. That stoic ability to stare at the face of an aftermath of a disaster, and of loss both material and personal, is something that sticks, and really gives real meaning to making lemonades out of the lemons that life dishes out once in a while. There's hardly any dramatic complaints or wallowing in self pity, but plenty of resilience on display, and that defiant, never giving up attitude that defined a people united in getting through this ordeal.

And picking up the pieces is never easy, especially when through Matsubayashi's lenses, one gets to witness the scale and magnitude of damage down across a landscape that was once bustling with life. Standard interview segments with survivors and evacuees form the bulk of the documentary as he follows and chronicles their lives over a period of some weeks, and we learn a lot more through the listening of anecdotes. What made it all the more harrowing was the filmmaker's venture into the exclusion zone to provide an almost first hand encounter of how the landscaped looked like within, with a constant threat always enveloping the filmmaker as he journeys closer.

It somewhat fizzled toward the end with the lack of a strong finish, but I guess that's reflective and mirroring how recovery usually is, that it doesn't come with a magic silver bullet to solve all ills, but gradually, over time, that pieces get picked up, never forgotten, but perhaps being laid to rest as communities and lives get rebuilt. There are other documentaries about similar subject matter from different viewpoints given the scale of impact, but perhaps one can start with this one, before branching off to others, such as the other film that's also shown during this year's festival. Recommended!
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